Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 7: Saved to the Uttermost

We've finally come to the close of this series. The final topic to be covered is, of course, another issue many Christians have strong feelings about. I am no exception. As we dive into it, we must remember what has been covered so far. We have talked about the nature of God's ultimate sovereignty over his entire creation, specifically in placing his covenant love on a particular people. We talked about scripture's teaching on the Christian's election, predestination, calling, justification, sanctification, and glorification.

It is the final two in this list that we only briefly touched on. I would now like to zero in on them and expand on what I believe scripture has to say about the nature of God's saving work and how he brings his children to glory. Because of the weight of this final topic, this final post will likely be the longest.

The question that so many Christians ask is whether or not someone can place their faith in Christ in a truly saving way, and yet fail to maintain that faith until the day of their death. Can the salvation that God grants to his people be cast aside and the Christian be lost? How are we to come to this conclusion after seeing the eternal plan of God described in scripture? After seeing the sovereignty of God in bringing people to repentance, are we to believe he lays down this power and allows the Christian to suddenly have the ability to sabotage their destiny?

Some defend the idea of a Christian falling away to destruction by pointing out the necessity of perseverance. For example,

"And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Mark 13:13).

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).

"Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).

These kinds of passages are very common throughout the New Testament.

Another way in which this idea is defended is by pointing to what are often called "warning passages." The most well known of these can be found in the book of Hebrews. We will spend some time looking closely at these.

"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt" (Hebrews 6:4-6).

"For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?" (10:26-29)

For many, these passages could not be clearer in their description of Christians who have hopelessly fallen away. However, there are a few very big problems with interpreting these passages in this way.
First, these passages describe not only the eventually damning consequence of this kind of apostasy, but they speak of the absolute impossibility of restoration (6:6). How are we to understand this in light of Paul's words when he speaks of Christians caught in sin saying, "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness" (Galatians 6:1). It seems that in Paul's thinking, restoration should always follow the sin of a believer.

This is one clue that the author of Hebrews is speaking of something far more profound and terrible than sinning in the midst of the Christian walk. There is something about this kind of fall that forces us to look at it differently.

What we must realize is that the book of Hebrews was written to a specific people for a specific purpose. The chapters leading up to these warning passages show that the book was written to Hebrews who had finally heard the gospel and were confronted with whether they should remain in the church, or return to the sacrificial system. Was Christ truly a replacement? Was he superior in all the ways the author of Hebrews insisted he was? It is likely the case that this book was written to a mixed church. A church made up of those who had truly come to share in Christ as well as some who had distanced themselves from the old sacrificial system due to the truth they had heard, but had not fully embraced Christ.

Therefore, the "sin" the author refers to is the rejection of the gospel itself. It is an embrace of the system of animal sacrifice that God has brought his people out of and has replaced with its ultimate fulfillment, that fulfillment being Christ. That is why it is impossible to restore such a person who goes on "sinning" willingly in this way. Christ, the only means of restoration, is the one they have rejected with their sin. That is why the author says, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (10:26). The unforgivable sin is to reject the only sacrifice with the power to forgive.

Two questions remain. First, isn't the author saying that this has happened to Christians (6:4-5)? Second, Doesn't he write that they who commit this sin have been sanctified (10:29)? Can such language be applied to anyone other than Christians?

Looking at the rest of the New Testament, as well as the book of Hebrews, I must answer with a resounding yes!

Consider for a moment one of Christ's descriptions of those who will be rejected by him in the last day,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:21-23).

Look at the characteristics of these people Christ tells us about. They prophecy, they cast out demons, they do many mighty works. They do all these things in the name of Christ. This tells us a great deal. It could easily be said that these people have, in the words of the author of Hebrews, "tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit" (6:4). Apparently they have tasted of the "powers of the age to come" (6:5).

Not only could these descriptions be given to them, but they did all these things in the name of Christ. Therefore, we could say that they, in the words of the author of Hebrews, received a "knowledge of the truth" (10:26), or have been "enlightened" (6:4). We could assume that, in light of this knowledge of Christ, they have confessed him as the replacement to the old sacrificial system. Yet in spite of this knowledge, in spite of this spiritual power, in spite of this confession of Christ, in spite of this measure of repentance, Christ tells them "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23).

He doesn't say, "I saved you, but you eventually sinned your way out of my gift." He didn't say, "You had a really great start, but I guess your saving faith just wasn't saving enough." He declares their "Christian" life to be false from the very start. In the minds of the New Testament authors, there can be a faith, a measure of works, a measure of spiritual power, and even a certain kind of repentance that, at it's core, is false. It is a faith that embraces something other than Christ. Therefore, when it is exposed, there is no restoring the person who holds it. The root of their problem is a rejection of Christ, the only true restorer.

The second question is not as difficult to answer. Doesn't the author say that the people who have fallen away were "sanctified" by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:29)? Isn't this term only applicable to Christians? In actual fact, the pronoun "he" when the author writes "...trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified" the grammar of the original Greek could just as easily be talking about "the Son of God" as it could talking about the one trampling Christ's blood underfoot. We often forget that, during the last supper, Jesus prayed for his disciples saying "And for their sake I consecrate [or sanctify] myself that they also may be sanctified in truth" (John 17:19).

Once we see these warning passages in this light, the rest of the book of Hebrews begins to make sense. It now makes sense that the author would, in a much earlier chapter, ground these passages by saying, "For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end" (Hebrews 3:14). He does not say that we will come to share in Christ if we hold onto our confidence. He makes this perseverance an evidence of our truly sharing in Christ. Would this not make the failure to persevere the evidence of a false faith in Christ?
We can now make sense of the story of Peter when Christ predicted his three denials. In Luke's account, Jesus says,

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31).

We often look to this story to glory in Christ's ability to predict our sin. However, we neglect the fact that Christ is able to predict restoration as well. How was he able to do this? He was able because he had prayed for Peter. The father answers the prayers of his son. The author of Hebrews exults over this truth by writing, "he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). God not only draws us to him and gives us a believing heart, as we covered in previous posts, but when we draw near to him, he intercedes in a way that saves us to the uttermost.

What does it mean to be saved to the uttermost? Some argue that Christ will save to the uttermost, but we must be willing to let him. However, doesn't this assume that God would never allow his saving work to touch our sinful wills? Wasn't it made abundantly clear throughout the Old Testament that, when left to their sinful will, the people of God would reject their Lord again and again? Was this not the reason for the new covenant that God described by saying, "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (Ezekial 36:26-27).

If our sinful will, which flows from our sinful heart, is the foundation of our problem, then why would we say that God will save us from everything but our will? It seems that in saying we can lose our salvation, we are actually saying that Christ will save his people from everything but their sin. We insist on such things even after reading words like, "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). If it would be so simple for us to disconnect ourselves from our savior, then there is no difference between the old covenant and the new. We are just as enslaved to our sins as any other people that has come before us.

The gospel promises us far more than that. For example, Jude concludes his short letter, where he exhorts the church to persevere by saying, "Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy..." (Jude 24).

It is not that we are to ignore the many passages that require us to persevere. It is not that we are to run from the holiness that God requires, but we are to see them as promises to the people of God that describe the mighty work that he himself is bringing about. This is what it means to be under grace rather than law. God gave the church the exhortations and writings of the Apostles because it was through their teaching that grace was and is given to the church. In the words of John Piper, "Eternal security is a community project." We are to exhort and warn one another of the great need for holiness, but we must realize that these words we speak are God's means of bringing about the sanctifying work that he promised to unfailingly complete.

Sanctification is progressive, and we are not to be discouraged and fear the judgment of God when we see remaining sin in our lives. By his grace, we press on and know that he is working in his own way. Just as he has a purpose for delaying the judgment of the devil himself, the eradication of our personal sin is subject to the timing of God. That is why, in the words of Martin Luther, all of the Christian life is one of repentance. We are to hate our sin, we are to fight for holiness, and we are to give God glory for every step of progress we make.

We must keep this in mind because even though good works and holiness are a necessary fruit and evidence of our salvation, the ground of our justification will always be the cross of Christ and the righteous life he lived on our behalf. Our good works will never become the basis on which we are judged by our father.

The question should never be, "can a Christian lose their salvation?" The question must always be, "Can Jesus Christ lose a Christian?" Of course, the answer is no. The grace of salvation goes as deep as our sin requires it to. It goes down to our very will. He causes us to be a people that cling to our savior to the very end.
We have been saved from the penalty of sin.

We are being saved from the power of sin.

We will one day be saved, without fail, from the very presence of sin.

Glory to God.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 6: Born to Believe

John 3 has to be one of the most popular chapters in all of the Bible. Almost any Christian you run into can quote verse 16. Most people are familiar with the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus where Jesus insisted that a person "must be born again" (v. 7) to see the kingdom of God. It is said that George Whitfield, one of the greatest evangelists of the Great Awakening, preached from John 3 over three thousand times, insisting that his hearers must be born again. It is reported that when he was asked why he preached so forcefully and continually that man must be born again he replied, "because, you must be born again!"

Because the term "born again" is now so common in Christian circles, many of us have no idea what it truly means. For many, it simply means that at one point we "decided" to follow God. We think it means we walked down an aisle or signed a card. Such simplistic definitions rob the very term of the supernatural meaning contained in the term itself. The very idea of being born a second time, in any sense, is absolutely beyond human comprehension.

The concept of the new birth appears several times in scripture and is said in a couple of different ways, though generally referring to the same idea. It is spoken of as being "born again" (John 3:7), or "born of God" (John 1:13). In many gospel presentations over many years in recent history, the concept of "deciding to be born again" has become very popular. Usually a simple gospel presentation is made and then the listeners are told that if they come to the front of the room and pray a prayer, it will result in their being "born again."

However, I would argue that the supernatural reality of what this term means is greatly distorted by this kind of human system. That is not to say that God does not use alter calls to save people or that there is no place for them. However, I believe there is a far more biblical way of speaking of how someone actually comes to be born again.
To get an idea of what I'm talking about, it is important that we look at the Apostle John's first letter. In chapter 5, he speaks of the new birth by saying, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" (1 John 5:1). What could be more simple than this statement? Doesn't this verse justify all those gospel invitations we were just talking about? Before you allow this verse to move into the background of your mind once again, I want to point something out that many Christians are unaware of. In the original Greek language (as well as in this translation), the "belief" being referred to in the verse is a present reality. Being "born of God" is referred to as an already completed reality. What difference does this make? It makes all the difference in the world! The way that this sentence is structured makes faith the result of the new birth.

Some argue with this point and say that the grammar could still be understood in an ambiguous way. While many of us may be tempted to latch onto a more ambiguous view of this verse in defense of our traditions, this is not the only place in the letter where John wrote in these terms. In actual fact, this wording is very common throughout the letter. For example, with a very similar grammatical structure, John writes of the believer saying, "he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). A bit later, he writes, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God." (1 John 4:7). Even later he writes, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world" (1 John 5:4).

Should we actually argue from these passages that, before being born again, we must first bring ourselves to a point where we cannot go on sinning? Are we to believe that in order to be born again we must first love the brethren? Are we to believe that in order to be born of God we must first overcome the world? Don't so many passages teach that our good works, overcoming of sin, loving the brethren, and conquering the world are an evidence of being born of God? (Ephesians 2:8-10).

When we take all of these passages into account, we realize that the message of John's first letter is to tell of the many evidences of who is and is not our brother or sister in Christ. The evidence of the new birth includes good works, a love for the people of God, a conquering of sin, and the faith that brings those good things about.

You will not find a single place in scripture where faith is said to be the means of being born again. Certainly, you will see many places that say faith results in salvation. However, we know from the New Testament that salvation has a past, present, and future reality to it. We have been justified (Romans 5:1), we are being sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and we will be saved from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). Therefore, there are many reasons to say that we are saved as a result of faith. But the new birth is always referred to as the grounding element of salvation that results in all others. The faith that justifies us comes as a result of the work of God.

In the first chapter of the gospel of John, after it is said that those who receive Christ will be given the right to become children of God (perhaps referring to our awaited adoption [Romans 8:23]), he says that we were born "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). It is not our will that brings about the new birth, it is the new birth that makes us willing.
Once this truth is embraced, many scriptures begin to jump off the page that show how faith finds it's ultimate source in God. It is a gift from him. Just to name a few,

"One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message" (Acts 16:14).

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

"For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Romans 12:3).

"Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 6:23).

"For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29).

"And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:24-25).

Some respond to such texts by saying something like, "yes, God gives faith, but we must respond and exercise that faith." I've come to find this a rather silly thing to say given the fact that we never speak of faith this way in any other context. Whenever we hear someone spoken of as a person who "has great faith," we always assume that it means they are a person who "exercises great faith." For God to give us faith means he is creating one who exercises faith.

Scripture clearly tells us that we are to work out our salvation, this of course including the exercise of faith, but Paul digs underneath such language and grounds it in God's sovereign work by saying, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13). If the willingness to believe comes from God as well as the resulting work, there is nothing for us to boast in but our great Father in heaven. There is no passivity in the true Christian life. But every aspect of our activity, including our faith, is to be thrown back at the feet of the one who gave it to us.

The new birth is no more in our control than our first birth. Like a helpless infant, we are utterly in the hands of the God who washes us from our sin. The first cry that comes out of our mouths as spiritual newborns is called "faith." Like someone who has been resuscitated after drowning, we are now free to breathe and yet will do nothing other than breathe. Just as we were slaves to our sin, we are now slaves to God. Yet, this slavery is the greatest freedom we will ever know. Our new nature cannot help but believe in the Christ whose image it is being conformed to.
This is why so many have come to call this "irresistible grace." It is not because human beings cannot resist the truth of God in their fallen state, but because our resistance will always be subject to the timing of God. At any time God chooses to work, he can remove a heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

Now can you see how this must impact our gospel presentation? We are to call people to repent. We are to present the truth. We are to tell of how justification comes through faith alone. But we must never tell someone how to be born again. We must preach the gospel and believe that it is the power of God behind our preaching that will grant new hearts and bring about the greatest miracle imaginable when we say the words of Jesus "you must be born again!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 5: For his Bride

Any solid Christian you talk to is willing to glory in one of the most foundational truths of the gospel. "Jesus died for our sins." Jesus took on himself the wrath of God so that all who put their faith in him will be saved. However, this raises a series of questions that many do not think of. Although, perhaps you the reader have thought of some if you have been following the posts that have led up to this one. I strongly recommend you do so, particularly because this post and the last are meant to be read together.

Often when Christians hear the clear texts of scripture that express the "choosing," "electing," or "predestining" nature of God, they immediately object with verses that seem to communicate a universal desire for salvation on God's part. This is good and right since we must always judge scripture with scripture. Just to name a few,

"The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

"First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

While I will touch on these texts, and a few others, I want to first express that we should find it concerning if we find ourselves jumping to a text that seems to communicate what we like when we are confronted with a text that seems to say something we are uncomfortable with. This can easily result, not in finding the harmony of scripture, but in trumping one text with another without letting either speak within its context. Our goal is not to find out which text is true and which is false, but to see how the authors intended them to be received so that they can stand together and all be true.

In order to understand the Apostles when they speak of Christ's death being for all people, we must understand the concerns that they were addressing in the writing of both the gospels and the letters to their various churches. One of the controversies that arose was the nature of the way the gospel should be presented to Jews as opposed to Gentiles. Peter usually would minister to Jews, whereas Paul eventually became an evangelist to the Gentiles. Jesus was the first to talk about this when he gave the great commission and told his disciples to preach the gospel in every nation.

When describing the accomplishment of this task, the Apostles eventually began using language to describe the task that, if we look closely at it, does not necessarily make sense at face value. For example, at the start of his letter to the Romans, Paul encourages the church saying, "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world" (Romans 1:8). Then, only a few verses later, he speaks of his plans to continue preaching the gospel saying, "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish" (Romans 1:14).

Curious. Why would Paul say that the faith of the early church is proclaimed in all the world, but then turn around and say that he is yet under obligation to preach? Why would he say this if we know both from scripture and history that the gospel had not in fact reached every nation yet?

A similar issue arises when we compare different sections of John's writings. Why would John speak of Christ's death by saying, "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). Yet in the middle of the crucifixion narrative, John's gospel speaks in parallel terms, but with more limited language when he summarizes Caiaphas's accidental prophecy saying, "He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (John 11:51-52).

Again, this is strange. In John's first letter, he says that Christ's propitiating death is not limited to his readers, but is for the world, yet in his gospel account, he says that Christ's death is not limited to Israel, but is for God's children scattered around the world.

Focusing in on these passages from John specifically, perhaps we have an insight in front of us as to how this universal language functioned in the minds of the biblical writers. This becomes even clearer as we consider what the word "propitiation" means. Propitiation refers to a sacrifice that satisfies God's just wrath toward sin. This raises a question. Are we to believe that God's wrath is satisfied for every single individual in the world in light of all that scripture teaches? John does not seem to be merely saying that Christ is a "potential" propitiation, but that this is an accomplished reality.

The universality of this propitiation cannot be defined so simplistically if we take into consideration only a few short statements from Paul. In Romans he writes, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18). And in Ephesians he writes of the sins of the world and says, "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience" (Ephesians 5:6). How can Paul speak about wrath that is yet to be satisfied after John seems to say propitiation is a universal reality?

This tension begins to make sense if we acknowledge the patterns of speech that were common among the Apostles. When they spoke of the death of Christ being for "all," they generally were speaking about the fact that Christ said the gospel was a message that would extend far beyond the people of Israel. As John wrote of Jesus in Revelation, "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9). Therefore, terms like "all" and "world" are likely speaking of the fact that God's people would consist of all people without racial distinction, but not all without individual exception. This brings true consistency between those texts that speak of God's "electing" and "predestining" nature while maintaining the worldwide effects of the cross of Christ.
Don't misunderstand, this does not mean that Christ's death was limited in it's value, such that it could ever run out of forgiving power after a certain number of people came to faith, but it is clear in many texts that Christ's death was specific in its intention and unstoppable in accomplishing its purpose in building the church. When we acknowledge this, we begin to see new power in those texts that speak about Christ's intention to infallibly save his bride. This is why many theologians summarize this doctrine by saying Christ's death was "sufficient" for all, but "efficacious" for the elect. For example,

"Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:25). Or,

"This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:24).

In these passages we see a much more specific choice of words that communicate the more personal and specific nature of the atonement.

To make Christ's death simplistically universal may seem to add to the glory of the gospel, but it removes the personal nature of Christ's choosing for himself a bride that he came to earth to ransom for himself. To deny this would be like asking a man to say he loves his wife, but in a way no different than he loves every woman on earth. This is not the nature of covenant relationship. This is not consistent with those clear biblical teachings that God is a God who elects and predestines.
When we begin to see the clarity of this truth, we can see what Peter means when he says God is "...patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish" (2 Peter 3:9). This is a promise to the bride of Christ. It then makes sense that Peter began another of his letters by saying, "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles" (1 Peter 1:1).

When we come to understand this truth, we can then make sense of Paul's words in 1 Timothy 2. We can read his words to offer prayers for "all people" of all levels of authority (vv. 1-2), and know that when he says God desires "all people" (v. 4) to be saved, that God has a people among every group. This gospel is not limited to one class or one race. We then see that this must be his meaning when we continue on and see that the "all" God desires to save is the same "all" that Christ ransomed (v. 6). Christ ransomed a people that is both specific and yet international. Because of this, we don't need to be confused when, in the following letter, Paul couples this teaching with the assertion, "I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory" (2 Timothy 2:10).

When we understand this truth, we can read John 3 and see that Christ's death will cover anyone who's faith is in Christ (v. 16), yet we can acknowledge that it is the spirit that brings about that faith... and the spirit blows where he wishes (v. 8).

This truth may be new for many readers, but I believe it profoundly impacts the way we present the gospel. We have not been granted access to whose names are in the book of life (Revelation 20:12), therefore we can preach the gospel to all... the gospel that says Christ will be a perfect savior to anyone who repents and places faith in him. Yet we can remain humble and know that it is the spirit of God in our preaching that brings about salvation. This is a salvation planned before the foundation of the world.

If your faith is in Christ, you can know Christ died for you. Christ was truly your substitute. He did not substitute himself for a nameless and faceless group that might or might not find salvation. He purchased a bride for himself that he would unfailingly bring to glory.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 4: Chosen

When covering topics like the ones in this series, the starting point is very important. Each point in each blog post is meant to flow from the last. So again, if you have not read the posts leading up to this one, I suggest you do, so that you are not taken off guard by the material that will be covered.

Strap in, this will likely be the most lengthy post in the series.

What have we covered so far? First, we have talked about the nature of the God who has called all things into existence and therefore has decreed all that comes to pass. It is in this context that we talked about how humanity has fallen into sin in such a way that we are held accountable for our sins, yet none of God's purposes are thwarted. God's ultimate purpose is to bring about a demonstration of his grace. Therefore, the dark backdrop of sin that exists in the world will ultimately serve to show the light of that grace.

The question now remains, how has God chosen to show his grace? To answer this, we have to understand just how the biblical writers used the term “grace.” One of the most prevalent examples in the Bible of someone who gloried in the grace of God was the Apostle Paul. We will mainly be focusing on his writing.

After one of the most thorough explanations of how the gospel functions in the life of the believer in Romans 1-7, Paul begins exulting in how God has accomplished his plan of salvation in the midst of chapter 8. After giving a crystal clear picture of our hope in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, Paul gives a snapshot of our future hope by digging even deeper into God's eternal plan. He writes,

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).

What are the five elements of our salvation that Paul brings out in this passage? Foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. I hope to briefly touch on each of these.

What could Paul be saying when he writes that the people of God were foreknown by God? We will likely spend the most time on this word. Some speculate and say that God foreknew that we would do great things for God. Some say that God foreknew our faith in Christ. Some say God foreknew our good choices. Yet, is this true to the wording that Paul uses?

The text does not say that God foreknew choices, faith, or works (though he certainly did). It says that God foreknew people. What does scripture mean when it says that God knows or foreknows an individual or a group of individuals? The concept of foreknowledge appears one other time in Romans when Paul writes of God's people in the Old Testament saying, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2). This verse of course refers to Israel. In the midst of a strong rebuke of his people in the Old Testament, God uses similar language saying, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). What is God saying when he uses words like this?

This language is not uncommon in the Old Testament. In fact, God's dealings with his people began this way. When speaking of Abraham, God said,

For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19).

What is hidden by this translation is the Hebrew word behind “chosen.” In the original language, God says that he “knew” Abraham, that he may command his children. That is not to say that the translation is bad, but what it does show is the close connection in the original language between the concept of “choosing” and the concept of “knowing.” This is clear even in human relationships throughout scripture. At times, it is even applied to the most intimate aspects of the marriage relationship like when Adam “knew” his wife. It can communicate such things as “love,” “choice,” “relationship,” and “intimacy.”

This should shock us. In spite of the evil that existed and still exists among all peoples of the world, God chose a people no more righteous, numerous, or faithful than any other, and he decided to set his covenant love on them. Therefore, since this is likely the concept that was in the Jewish mind of Paul, a good interpretation of the word “foreknew” might be something like, “to lovingly choose beforehand.” Another word Paul uses for this concept is the word “elect.” He uses it only a few verses later when he says, “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).

What this word shows is that God's love for his covenant people preceded any work or choice on their part. God foreknew what he himself would do and bring about, not what we would accomplish. Paul emphasizes this point even more strongly when he moves to the next point saying, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (v. 29). While God certainly “foreknew” all that would take place in our lives, he did not predestine or elect us on the basis of it, but in order to bring it about!

The concept of predestination is far more clear. The meaning is right on the surface of the word. When God predestines, he destines something to occur long before it happens. In this verse, Paul tells us that God determined to conform us to Christ before it ever came to be. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that God not only predestined us to be conformed to Christ, but to be adopted into Christ, all of this before creation itself,

even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5)

On the basis of this predestination, Paul tells us that God calls his people. What kind of call is Paul speaking of? This is obviously a call far more specific and powerful than a mere gospel presentation because, according to this verse, all who are called, are then justified. This is a call that creates the faith by which God's people are justified.

This is likely what many theologians describe an an effectual call as opposed to a general call. It is made even clearer in 1 Corinthians when Paul writes and includes, in a single passage, both the concept of the gospel presentation as well as the call of God that accomplishes the salvation preached,

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

It is the call of God that turns the foolishness of the gospel into wisdom and power.

Then, on the basis of this justification, Paul speaks of God glorifying his people. Strangely, he does so in the past tense. What has yet to be accomplished, when those who are in Christ enter the presence of the Lord, is a settled fact in the mind of Paul. The work that God began in election and predestination, he will finish with glorification. The group being spoken of from foreknowledge to glorification does not change at any point in Paul's thinking. No believer is left behind. No one drops out. God's purpose is sure.

This of course raises many questions. Questions that will be tackled in later posts. But to touch on one, if salvation is all of grace, if God brings about salvation from beginning to end, and if his plan is settled and sure, what are we to do with the fact that so many are not in Christ? Is it right for God to be a “choosing” or “electing” God?

Paul was not ignorant of this question. In fact, he tackled it in the very next chapter. In Romans 9 he speaks of God working in this way from the beginning of his dealings with Israel. Not all Israel truly had relationship with God. Paul reminds us that before they were born, Esau was destined to serve Jacob. While they were both fallen in Adam, God still chose to unconditionally place his love on Jacob, a man who turned out to be as deceptive as his brother was weak. Paul summarizes this point quoting God's words, “As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'” (Romans 9:13).

Paul then anticipates our objection by pointing to even more of the Old Testament saying,

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:14-18).

This runs so contrary to what so many of us have been taught. So many questions and doubts and other biblical texts immediately jump into our minds as we read it. Yet this must have been the case in Paul's day too, because he continues to answer objections saying,

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19-24)

From before the creation of the world, God chose a people for himself from among Jews and Gentiles for whom he would show his mercy and grace. He chose to do so by revealing it against the backdrop of his just wrath toward those whom he has passed over and allowed to remain in their hardened state. He did not need to inject a foreign evil into their hearts that they did not already possess. He simply had to command all to repent (Acts 17:30). Those that he leaves in rebellion will always grow harder. Those that he chooses to give a new heart will always bow in repentance.

Again. I'm sure that question after question has now been raised. While I wish to allow Paul's answers to stand for themselves, there are a few other questions. For example, what are we to do with verses that seem to communicate God's universal desire for salvation, or where does evangelism and prayer fit in?

I hope to tackle these questions in the coming posts, but I hope that, when all is said and done, I've given more hope and reason to glory in God's grace than I've given reason to fear. We are not to become introspective and wonder if God has chosen us. We are to look to Christ and place our faith in him. If we have faith, then we can be sure that God has given us that faith, a gift given to those he has chosen before the foundation of the world. And if it is a gift from him, it is a perfect one. A gift that will bring us to glory. These things are in scripture for a reason. They are there to help us worship and serve God for who he truly is and to give him glory for all he has done and is doing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 3: Depraved

In my last post, I painted what I understand to be the biblical picture of God's rulership over all of his creation. There is no event that can fall outside of his sovereign plan. All events in time must eventually serve to glorify him. It is difficult to escape this picture, and I suggest you review that last post before moving on to this one.

In spite of what scripture says about God's absolute sovereignty, we cannot avoid the innumerable scriptures that speak of God's absolute displeasure with evil—evil that exists in a world in which God called all things into existence. In the last post we talked about God's absolute goodness and sovereignty. In this post we tackle humanity's absolute fallenness.

While we cannot deny what so many scriptures clearly show—that God decrees all that will take place, we can also be sure that the evil that exists in this universe did not flow from God's nature. There are things that God ordained that he himself would do, but there are also things that God decreed he would permit.

The scriptures are clear about what God thinks of sin. From the very start, God said that it would bring death. Yet this did not stop our father Adam from giving in and taking the forbidden fruit. How on earth could a human heart, one that had no sin nature, produce a desire that would bring it to sin?

Some say free will is the ultimate explanation. Yes, Adam and Eve were certainly free to follow their desires. Yet this does not answer the unanswerable question of where these sinful desires flowed from. Simplistically asserting that a sinless heart could, by nature, produce sin, would rob Christians who still struggle with sin of their future hope. If God must leave his creatures to their hearts' every whim in order to call them free, then he cannot promise his children a future hope of sinlessness.

While Adam and Eve were responsible for their sin, saying so does not give us insight into just how a heart exchanges its goodness for the lie of idolatry. The exchange was real. God did not cause it. Yet he could have prevented it if he chose to do so. He has promised to do so when we are ultimately purified in eternity. None of our desires will be evil when we live in his presence. Yet, this absolute slavery to righteousness will not make our relationship to God false. It will be the most freeing slavery of all.

I do not raise this question in order to answer it, but I do so in order to allow the fall to remain as profoundly mysterious as it is tragic. However it happened, Adam and Eve rebelled against God. They were not victims. They were perpetrators of the worst kind. So great was their sin, that all of humanity from that point forward has been engulfed in the guilt of our first parents. In the words of Paul,

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

The sin that Adam brought into the world is now the reality each of us live in every day. While Adam somehow produced an evil desire from the heart that God declared good (Genesis 1:31), scripture does not describe the sinful nature that resulted from the fall as having that same capability. Sin cannot produce righteousness.

On the contrary, Christ looked at the hearts of men and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).

Paul was no different in his teaching when he wrote about those who did not know Christ in contrast to those who do, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8).

Rather than simply saying that the sinful human being does not obey God, Paul says he or she cannot.

Someone may object and say, “how can God hold us accountable for disobeying if we cannot obey? Yet Paul is not speaking of a mere “physical” inability. This is the distinction that Jonathan Edwards called “natural inability” vs. “moral inability.”

If, for example, a man was required to lift a mountain over his head with a single finger and was then condemned if he could not, it would be an injustice. The man is naturally unable.

However, if you were asked to kill one of your closest loved ones and refused because you could not find it within yourself, it would not be an inability of the same sort. It would be what has been called a “moral inability.” This is the inability that keeps a sinner from bowing their knee to God. The heart enslaved to sin has no inclination to love the things of God. Where there is no inclination, there is no ability. It is a true inability, yet it is an inability that does not remove responsibility.
Some of us may object by saying that any inability removes responsibility. However, if we are to embrace scripture as that which is God-breathed, we must embrace the fact that Paul was speaking the truth when he used the word “cannot.” Jesus was speaking the truth when he called us “slaves.”

Paul certainly did not avoid coupling this inability with our responsibility when he painted our sin in the darkest colors by quoting the Old Testament at length saying,

“'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.' 'Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.'
'The venom of asps is under their lips.' 'Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.' 'Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.' 'There is no fear of God before their eyes'” (Romans 3:10-18).

It is against this hopelessly dark backdrop of human evil that the writers of scripture allowed the light of the gospel to shine. No amount of human depravity could stop the eternal plan of God. God, from eternity past, has desired to display every aspect of his nature. It is through the darkness that he will show the light of his glory. It is this darkness that will make room for God's just wrath. This will make known the riches of his grace to those who are in Christ.

At no point could any event cause God, the source of time and space itself, to take in knowledge of what he must do next. No human choice could ever cause him to be a “reactor.” God is the writer of the story we call history.

God is not subject to the ink in his pen... no matter how black it may be. The blackness under God's feet is dependent on him for its very existence. It would cease to be if he did not still have a good purpose for it.

God is the only hope for slaves of sin. We cannot free ourselves, and we are responsible for our inability. A stony heart cannot change itself because it must desire to do so. Since it is the organ that produces all evil desires, it will forever desire its own hardness. It must be transplanted by the great physician.

We will examine the means of this sovereign salvation in the following posts.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Implosion

Yet again, I must put the next post in my series on hold. There are simply too many thoughts rattling around in my head. What was going to be a tweet turned into a rather lengthy train of though, which turned into what will hopefully be a brief post.

I know I'm not the only one who senses it, but something's boiling under the surface of the "Christian" circles of social media. There have been multiple events recently that have caused lengthy and often heated comment threads. With the death of Robin Williams, there's been an absolute explosion of controversy over a blog post written by a popular blogger. I personally found the post very helpful and life-giving. I've seen Christians post it on Facebook. At the same time, I've seen some Christians viciously attack it.

On another note, a popular Christian musician has opened up about some opinions that many would find heretical. Again, there has been an explosion of blogging and Facebook posts about it. I admit, I put together some thoughts on the issue myself.

However, in this post, I don't care all that much about defending where I came down on those issues, as much as I want to talk about the fact that those issues, as well as several others, are causing what seems to me to be an incredibly visceral exchange of ideas in a very concentrated amount of time among a lot of different people. Most of this happening within Christian circles.

What are we to make of this?

I've already seen some people pick up on this development and I've already seen a variety of reactions. Some respond with what you might call an "epistemological cynicism" (epistemology being the field of study that looks at how we come to gain knowledge). I have long seen that there are Christians who react to any form of Christian conflict with humor and indifference. Rather than engage in the content of the debate, they mock the concept of debate itself. "If it causes tension, it's not worth my time" seems to be the attitude. If there is disagreement, the issue probably can't be settled or fully understood.

At the same time, I see some who aren't so much cynical as they are fearful. They jump into a mode that asks why everyone can't just get along. "Where's the love?" seems to be the foundational question. "If there is tension, there will inevitably be division and hatred" seems to be the belief.

Another response I see is just that, hatred. There are some who explode and write incredibly cruel and vicious things as soon as they see someone who diverges from their point of view.

Again, what are we to make of this?

In my personal opinion, I think this tension is long overdue. I'm not what you might call an optimist when it comes to the intellectual state of the church today. For a long time, the critical minds of Christians have remained at rest. During that time, the surrounding culture has moved further and further from God. This, as a result, has not stayed out of the church.

As a result, when a cluster of stories comes along that forces us to look deeply into ourselves and pressures us to open our mouths and express an opinion, we end up surprising ourselves or others with what we say. This results in all of the reactions just mentioned. Fear. Cynicism. Anger. Even hatred.

All the while, God is in the midst, sharpening his people. He is exposing passivity, provoking righteous anger, cleansing away unrighteous hatred, revealing heresy, promoting love, exposing false Christians, comforting the afflicted, tearing down the boastful, and ultimately, revealing his glory more clearly.

At times, we feel like Christian unity is on the brink of destruction. However, even though I can be pessimistic as a result of the human frailty in the church, I rest confidently in God's promise to build his church. For those of us who truly belong to Christ, God is bigger than our disagreements. This should not cause us to ignore our differences, but to bring them to the light. We can argue and wrestle and sharpen each other like iron, and in the end, Christ will use it to unite us even further.

For those of you who feel fear, know that God is building his church.

For those of you who feel anger, perhaps it is time you did.

For those of you who feel hatred, ask God to reveal his love to you like never before.

For those of you that are cynical, know that truth matters and it can be known.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Gungor Controversy

Well, I wasn't sure I should comment on this little controversy, especially since I'm just getting a blog series underway. However, it seems that some thoughts might be in order. I cannot personally say that I am a fan of Gungor. That's not to say I have had any negative feelings about him in the past. I just haven't listened to his music. I honestly am not sure I'd even heard of him before this conflict started. However, after I took a look at an article written by Relevant Magazine (RM) on this issue, I thought some more commentary might be helpful to some who might be confused about the issues that Gungor recently expressed his opinions about. After all, my field of study is theology, not Christian music culture.

What first bothered me about the RM article was that the author combined two different issues that need to be separated while discussing the nature of the Genesis account. The first issue is, how are we to understand the nature of the six day creation account? The second is, how are we to understand the historicity of Adam and Eve? What Gungor seems to most explicitly call into question is the historicity of Adam and Eve as well as a historical flood.

What the author of the RM article points out, in defense of Gungor, is that certain early church fathers and certain conservative leaders today tend to call into question a completely literal six day creation account. He mentions that Augustine did not hold to a literal six days, an assertion that is far too simplistic given the the progressive nature of Agustine's theology. The author also includes Tim Keller as a modern church leader who calls into question the literal nature of the six days of creation. This should not be surprising to Christians who know a bit about theological writings today. There have long been different understandings of the six days of creation. Even one of my heroes, John Piper, holds a view that could be surprising to some.

The problem is, the different views of the age of the earth do not necessarily change these individuals' views on the literal existence of Adam and Eve, nor should they. In fact, The author gives no evidence that Augustine or Tim Keller, or his other examples, call into question the historicity of Adam and Eve... the reason likely being that they did not. When it comes to this second question concerning Adam and Eve, the author of the article is much less specific and simply names a popular seminary with varied opinions among faculty.

Why do I split up these two theological questions? Well, much of the RM article is dedicated to saying that the nature of Adam and Eve in history is a secondary issue. While, at some level, I agree with this, I believe it neglects the reality that all theological topics connect with each other in one way or another. The nature of Adam and Eve has a stunning connection to the gospel itself. What do I mean by this?

In Romans 5, Paul makes a very important argument concerning the nature of our relationship to Christ. A portion of the chapter reads,

"Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification" (Romans 5:12-16)

What we see in this passage is that apparently, in Paul's mind, the nature of Adam's sin parallels the nature of Christ's righteousness. Because God set up the world in such a way that a single man, the father of humanity, could pass on his guilt (resulting in death) to all of those connected to him, in the same way, Christ could pass his righteousness on to all those connected to him by faith. Paul's argument in this chapter is clear and consistent. Jesus is the second Adam. Does this doctrine not require that both Adam and Christ be historical persons? If Adam and Eve's fall is merely symbolic of universal sin (sin not originating in anything but each individual person), then how could God justly work in such a way that righteousness could pass from Christ to us? Isn't the doctrine of Christ's righteousness being counted as ours, just as Adam's guilt was counted as ours, essential to the gospel?

As I said, some argue that we should read the account of the fall symbolically or poetically. This is certainly true of many types of writing in the Old Testament. However, does Gungor put forward any arguments or evidences that Adam and Eve or the flood should be read in this way? It would seem the answer is no. On the contrary, he simply asserts his inability to read these stories literally. In spite of my education in a seminary that included many who would agree with Gungor, I have yet to be given compelling evidence that the original Hebrews, or Paul, or Jesus himself, would have embraced these portions of the Old Testament this way. While I have seen some decent argumentation for different interpretations of the six days of the universe's formation, the creation of Adam and Eve, particularly in Genesis 2, seems much less flexible. Adam and Eve are even included in genealogical lines.

This causes me to suspect that Gungor did not come to his conclusion through historical or biblical study, but because of the pressure that comes from living in a culture that scoffs at exulting biblical trustworthiness. While Gungor seems to affirm a belief in the "God breathed" nature of the Bible, should he not embrace it in the sense that it was intended to be received?

Now, we must be careful. Does a person like Gungor, who claims that he has true faith in Christ, actually have a false faith because his understanding of Paul's teaching seems to be flawed? We certainly would be taking a great risk in asserting something so dogmatic. In the same spirit as the RM article, I can point out that the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis held to a similar position. It would be difficult to banish Lewis from Christianity in our minds given his exhalation of Christ and his death in our place throughout his writings.

However, I will assert that Gungor's theology (and C.S. Lewis' for that matter) is grossly inconsistent. I believe Gungor should be strongly challenged to reconsider his beliefs, in spite of the fact that he currently says he finds it impossible. Right handling of the word of God honors God, and if one generation plays with doctrines that touch so closely to the gospel itself, we can rest assured that the next generation will be much more bold to take the next step, a step that would much more likely be damning. The game of trying to split doctrine into essentials and non-essentials can be very dangerous, since the category of "essentials" gets smaller with every generation.

So, for those who wish to utterly condemn Gungor, I tentatively suggest, along with Relevant Magazine, that you leave it to God to judge Gungor's heart. At the same time, for those of you who think it is utterly wrong for him to lose concert opportunities or that it is wrong for churches to shield themselves from his influence, I would say to you that truth is important. Many of these churches are doing what they think is best for the good of the souls under their care. Theology truly does matter.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 2: Whatsoever Comes to Pass

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will...” (Ephesians 1:11).

We as Christians often have an incredible tendency to try to get God off the hook. We see the scriptures make incredible claims about his involvement in the world and we feel compelled to soften their impact. We read a passage where God challenges Job and boasts of his sovereignty over creation saying,

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth? Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass?”(Job 38:22-27).

And after we read this passage, we turn around and say that God has merely set up a world where natural disasters and tragedies are out of his hands. This of course causes us to gloss over the end of Job where the inspired narrater summarizes the story by saying,

Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11)

Whether the word evil should be translated “evil” or “disaster,” there is no doubt that God's plans brought Job through deeply evil circumstances—circumstances that included the sinful actions of murderous men who robbed him of his family—all under the malicious inspiration of satan himself.

Such deeply provocative language concerning God's activity in all events is littered throughout scripture. For a long time, I myself ignored it and would always point out that God clearly forbid sinful actions and would express his desire to give life. How then could I turn around and affirm these texts that clearly communicated God was not only working in spite of evil circumstances, but in and through them?

What was I to do with the fact that God spoke to Assyria, a sinful nation that attacked God's people, and called them “the rod of my anger” and described them saying, “the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, 
to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets” (Isaiah 10:5-6)?

Yet, at the same time, God turned around and condemned this rod of his anger saying, “But he does not so intend, 
and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few” (Isaiah 10:7). In the very next verse after God speaks of his sovereignty over the sinful actions of a nation, he condemns that nation for their sinful hearts, and promises judgment for their evil motives—motives without which God's judgment would not have been accomplished.

What was I to do with the story of Joseph where his brothers, who were overcome with sinful jealousy, threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery? Yet, when all this evil played itself out in Joseph's life, he said to his brothers after saving their lives as the ruler of Egypt “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

Joseph holds his brothers accountable for their sin, and yet acknowledges that their sin did not provoke a plan B on God's part. Their sinful behavior was the very means that God used to bring about his original plan of salvation. To the same extent that Joseph's brothers intended him to be sold into slavery, God intended it as well—yet with completely different motives.

These passages made it clear to me that in every event in the lives of God's people, there are always multiple motives at work. There is the motive of satan in every calamity to cause us to curse God's name. In the same event, God is infallibly working to conform us to Christ. In every time of blessing, satan is working to make us idolators—a people who love the gift rather than the giver. In the same event, God is showing his generous heart and making us worshipers of him as the giver of all good things. In the words of Job, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10).

At no time in scripture does satan take a step without God's say so. At no time in scripture is God taken off guard or forced to reconsider his plans. In the words of John Calvin, there are times when God “lisps” for our benefit. He has chosen, in his sovereignty, to reveal himself in an interactive way. He chose to respond to Moses' intercession for sinful Israel with mercy—intercession God had certainly purposed to occur. He chose to respond to Abraham's willingness to offer Isaac—a faith God had certainly already known Abraham had. No interaction causes God to change his purpose in working all things to the praise of his glorious grace—a purpose and plan decreed before the foundation of the world.

While many of us may feel a certain resistance to such a high view of God's sovereign control, I submit to you that it is this sovereignty that makes God the kind of savior that could ordain the very gospel itself.

Hundreds of years before Christ, God spoke through Isaiah concerning the coming of his Son saying, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt” (Isaiah 53:10).

Peter echos this idea when he recounts the glory of Christ crucified saying, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

God not only worked around or in spite of the sinful actions of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel, but their evil in murdering the sinless son of God was the very tool in God's hands without which the most glorious salvation would not be available to us.

We are sinners. Satan is a liar. God is good. God is sovereign. God is working.

Sin itself, when it entered the world, did not provoke a contingency plan in God's eternal decree. In the words of Paul, God's eternal plan was to bring about the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:3-6). Grace, which is a response to sin, is the apex of God's glory in the mind of Paul. For God to reveal every aspect of his glory, sin must be a part of the plan.

It is the profoundest of mysteries to wonder how God could remain sinless and yet bring such a perfect plan into existence. Yet, out of love for the glory of God, I now embrace this mystery and attribute no evil to the nature of God.

It is these truths that led me to gladly embrace the words that I would have so easily scoffed at only a few years ago:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (The Westminster Confession of Faith)

I am sinful.

Satan is a liar.

God is good.

God is sovereign.

God is working.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Theological Journey: Pt. 1

As many of you who have known me for a long time may be aware, my theological convictions have shifted drastically over the past several years when it comes to how I view the nature of God and salvation.

For those of you who don't know, I was primarily raised in Pentecostal/Charismatic Christian culture. It was in this environment that I was brought to a saving knowledge of Christ, was convicted of sin, and came to true faith and repentance. I'll always be grateful for this.

This upbringing obviously continued into my college education. I first studied for ministry at Elim Bible Institute, a foundationally Charismatic school and, as a result, I continued (and still continue) to hold to the continuation of the Holy Spirit's supernatural work in the church today, whether it be through prophetic ministry, or through miraculous healings, signs, and wonders.

That being said, by the time I finished my undergraduate work, I had been forced to ask some very difficult questions about the nature of God's saving work among his people. When I finally transferred to Nyack to finish my degree, I ended up associating with a group of friends who held to opinions very different from mine. While some of them disbelieved in many of the Holy Spirit's continued manifestations today, their doubt did not cause me to see any biblical grounds to question my convictions in these areas.

At the same time, they did challenge some areas of my thinking that had remained largely untouched for most of my life. While my foundational beliefs did not change by the time I finished Nyack, some rather difficult questions had been seared into my mind such that they would inevitably be revisited. Some of these questions were very deep and eventually forced me to re-evaluate the way I looked at scripture. These questions included such issues as:

While we hold that the Holy Spirit grants supernatural gifts to the church, what are we to make of his work in our salvation?

How far does He go in the changing of our hearts in order that we would believe in him?

What was it that caused me to come to a saving faith in Christ if I am by nature a sinner? What causes any sinner to repent if we are described as slaves of sin by Jesus?

While most Christian believe that the gracious work of the spirit is needed to bring about repentance, what is it that makes the difference between people who humble themselves before God and those who stiffen their necks?

Are those who respond to grace supposed to see themselves as more “spiritually receptive”? Did they somehow manage to muster in themselves a more sufficient level of “humility” or “penitence”?

This of course lead to questions of God's sovereign choice in salvation.

What are we to make of those verses that talk about God “electing” or “choosing” people to be his children?

What about that word “predestined” that the Apostle Paul liked to throw around?

Leaving God's sovereignty over salvation aside, what are we to think about God's sovereignty over all of creation?
How are we to think of God when tragedy strikes?

Does he simply allow the world to take its course?

Does God have any kind of intentionality behind evil events?

If we try to distance God from evil events, do we have any right to thank Him when we are spared from them?

A few years ago I wrote some blog posts that touched on a few of these issues. I wrote them when I was still sorting out exactly where I stood. While I am certainly growing in my theological understanding all the time, I can definitely say that I have put my flag in the ground on most of these issues.

While I used to think that scripture was silent, or at least vague, on many of these issues, today I have come to discover that scripture in fact makes strong assertions concerning the nature of the spirit's work in salvation. It seems to me that Paul did in fact have a meaning in mind when he used those “scary” words I mentioned like “elect” and “predestine.” I believe it was a meaning he intended us to understand.

Not only do I believe I have discovered that God actually cares that we think about these issues, I believe that having a conviction about them deeply impacts the way we view all of reality, the most important aspect of which is our salvation.

These discoveries impacted me so deeply that they caused me to step into a different church tradition than I had been raised in. While I love the Charismatic work of the spirit today, I felt the need to find a network of churches that coupled this distinctive with a more intentional elevation of the Word of God. A place where the doctrinal truths that illuminate the nature of our sovereign God would be put forward in a consistent way.

In this series of posts, I'd like to shed some more decisive light on just what I believe the Bible says about these issues and give you a clearer picture of just what I believe happened to me... or more accurately, what I believe God did to me.