Posts Tagged 'theology'

Divine Determinism

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If we as Christians want to worship God “in spirit and in truth,” and if we want to fulfill the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to the lost, then we need to be thinking rightly about God. In other words, our theology needs to be correct. All people, Christians and non-believers, acquire their “theology” or their “philosophy of life” from someplace. For most of us, our worldview is shaped by our parents. How often have we heard, “My father was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat, and by golly, I’m a Democrat too!” Well, that’s often where our beliefs begin and end. Other people start off inheriting their beliefs from their parents, then off to college they go, where they are brainwashed by either their peers or more likely their professors. They went into college believing one thing and came out believing another.

Christians are the same. Which is fine, as long our parents or professors are filling our heads with true, Biblical ideas. This is, unfortunately, often not the case. It’s surprising how Biblically illiterate our parents, our Sunday School teachers, or even our pastors may be. The most influential Christian people in our lives are often sorely lacking in a fundamental knowledge of what the Bible teaches. They may know and teach a lot of “church doctrine,” but “church doctrine” is sometimes not the same as Biblical doctrines. That’s funny, since the church is supposedly in business to teach the Bible! But what happens so often is that instead of teaching what the Bible says, what gets taught in many churches is what the pastor thinks or what some theologian thought or what some denominational constitution or book of order teaches.

But if we want to think rightly about God, we need to know what the Bible teaches. It’s good to know what the great thinkers of Christianity thought, but it is essential to know what the Bible teaches. It’s good to know what John Calvin or John Wesley thought about theology, but what if they were wrong sometimes? The Bible, however, is never wrong. It is God’s revelation to man. And that’s why you need to know what really says.

How much of what we do and think is foreordained and rendered certain by God? According to one wing of the Christian church, everything is. They teach that absolutely everything down to the minutest detail of history and individual lives is ordered by God. Even evil thoughts and actions are ordained by God to further His will. This is called “Divine determinism,” and maybe you believe it. Maybe you don’t. C. Everett Coop believed it. In fact, he famously spoke on the topic, “God Killed My Son.” Dr. Koop’s son was killed in a tragic mountain climbing accident and Dr. Koop believed that God had foreordained his son’s death and that it was no accident. God quite literally “killed his son.” It gave Dr. Coop great peace to think this; knowing that his son’s death was not an accident and that there was some grand purpose behind it.

A lot of Christians believe this for the same reason. And if you don’t think too long about it, you may believe it too. It was a quick death. Dr. Koop’s son died immediately. He didn’t suffer. So you can see how appealing this aspect of Divine determinism is. It puts a purpose behind a horrible event.

But does God work that way? If He does, it’s hard to see a purpose behind a lingering, painful death by, say, cancer or some other disease. Is that Divine determinism at work, too? Some would say it is. God causes some people suffer terribly for reasons known only to Him. If you believe God orders the tiniest details of our lives, then that’s what you have to believe.

Ulrich Zwingly, John Calvin and Providence

Where did the idea of Divine determinism come from? A lot of scholars trace it back to Ulrich Zwingli’s and John Calvin’s ideas of “providence.” To put it simply, God’s providence is “God’s rule over and direction of all things in the universe. For if anything were guided by its own power or insight, just so far would the wisdom and power of our Deity be deficient.” Zwingly, who greatly influenced Calvin, flatly denied that any event in the world is “contingent, fortuitous or accidental.” His teaching was that God is the sole cause of absolutely everything that happens.

But where did this idea come from? A lot of it comes from philosophy Zwingly believed, but there are Bible verses that seem to indicate Ulrich Zwingly was on to something. Here is just a handful:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33 NIV)

For the Lord Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27 NIV)

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 NIV)

There are many more verses like these, but just these three seem to support Ulrich Zwingly’s teaching of God’s absolute providence. Later on, John Calvin continued in Zwingly’s footsteps, except while Zwingly’s theology was more philosophical, Calvin’s theology was grounded more in Scripture. His teaching was simple:

No wind ever arises or increases except by God’s express command.

Even Adam’s fall, Calvin thought, was foreordained by God. Calvin continued:

Since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to displace its force to the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience.

It seems pretty clear that Calvin believed that everything, even horrible, evil things done by the unsaved are rendered certain by God.

Other Calvinists

Jonathan Edwards, great revivalist preacher and philosopher, taught the idea of Divine determinism in the strongest way possible. As far as he was concerned, all things on earth, including sin and evil, follow a course laid out for them by God.

God, however, is forever untainted by the sin He Himself foreordains. Take Adam’s sin, for example. Adam sinned because his intentions were sinful. Even though God foreordained Adam’s sin, God cannot be held culpable in any way because God’s intentions in Adam’s sin were not at all evil. As Edwards wrote,

In willing evil God does not do evil.

It’s hard to get around the fact that Jonathan Edwards believed, in some fashion, that God is the author of sin.

If by “author of sin,” is meant that permitter, or not the hinderer of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say this, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I don’t deny that God is the author of sin.

For Edwards and most Calvinists, “God is the author” of sin means that while God certainly did not force Adam to sin, or anybody else for that matter, God does render man’s sinful actions sure and certain. Most, if not all, Calvinists – R.C. Sproul and John Piper included – hold this high Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty: everything down to the smallest particle of history – history in the grand scale and history in the individual – including every human being’s thoughts and actions, are foreordained by God and necessarily rendered certain by Him so that everything and everybody carries out God’s will.

Remember, though, God is in no way stained by the sin He foreordains even though the person committing the sin has no choice in the matter. As another famous Calvinist wrote:

God wills righteously those things which men do wickedly.

God does not force men to sin but men WILL sin because God will withdraw or withhold His influence to deter them. Therefore, this wing of the church says that everything, including sin, is ordained by God for His own glory.

Is that the right view?

While much of Calvinism is worthwhile, some Calvinist teaching just doesn’t make much sense, at least to a majority of Christians.  All orthodox Christians from all wings of the Church, affirm the absolute perfect goodness of God. From Calvinists to Arminians to everybody in between, we all agree that God is totally good. There is NO debate on that. There are dozens, or perhaps even hundreds of Bible verses that either directly or indirectly uphold the theology that God is good. Here are a few:

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17 NIV)

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16 NIV)

Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. (Psalm 73:1 NIV)

You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. (Psalm 119:68 NIV)

The list goes on and on. “God is good all the time,” as the song goes. But God is also sovereign. This is also a belief that all orthodox Christians believe. And herein lies the problem. Calvinists, while affirming God’s goodness, also scrupulously protect God’s sovereignty to the point of making it an “all-determining sovereignty,” which we call Divine determinism. But can an all-good God engage in the kind of shady manipulation Calvinism teaches?

Sovereignty

That God has a plan for His creation is not disputed. God does have a plan – a will – for all of us and when we speak of God’s sovereignty we are saying that, to put it simply, “God is in control.” Non-Calvinists, though, often speak of God’s permissive will. This, they say, explains the story of Joseph. Here is how Joseph, who probably wouldn’t consider himself a Calvinist, viewed the events of his up-and-down life:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. (Genesis 50:20 NIV)

If you don’t like that example, here is a New Testament verse that says the same thing in a general way:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

God foresaw and permitted sinful people, like Joseph’s brothers and Potifar’s wife, to do the sinful things they did because He is sovereign, and in His sovereignty He would take the sinful actions committed by those people and turn the results around so that He would be glorified. But – and here’s the departure from Divine determinism – God did not foreordain the sin or render the sin certain. He simply knew beforehand that sins would be committed and who would commit them and why. God’s foreknowledge is absolutely perfect because He knows what’s inside the heart of man:

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:10 NIV)

Because God knows what is in the hearts of all men, He knows their thoughts and intentions. He knows what they will do. God doesn’t have to foreordain their actions, He already knows what they are planning. He doesn’t have to manipulate sinners to guarantee what they will do. His foreknowledge is perfect in ever way.

Here is where your theology determines your view of God. If you believe in Divine determinism – or God’s sovereignty to the endth degree – then God is the author of all that is good but also the author of all that is bad. He doesn’t just allow sin, He causes it so that He will be glorified. In other words, God ordains evil (and everything else) to glorify Himself. Adam sinned, not because of a decisionAdam made, but because God set the first man up for a fall. This view of God will determine how you view sinners and even how you view things like evangelism. Sinners may be lost, but they are lost because that’s how God wants them to be, because in their lost condition they somehow glorify Him. Huh?

The alternate view of God’s sovereignty is a more “passive” view. Yes, God is involved in His creation, but He doesn’t trick, manipulate or coerce people into doing what He wants them to do. He could if He wanted to, but God limits Himself. He allows His creation freedom of will – including freedom to sin – knowing that even that can bring about His will. That freedom man has is a gift from God. You can also consider it a curse. In His sovereignty, God allows His perfect will to be stymied by the actions of man.  He lets this happen because He loves man and respects him.

God’s two wills

Instead of God being a cold, impersonal force that sneakily controls man, what if God really is personally involved in the lives of man to the point where He knows them so well nothing they dream of doing surprises Him? This view of God sees Him as having not one but two wills for His creation. God has a perfect will for His creation. This will is what God truly wants to happen. A good example of God’s perfect will is this:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

And yet we know NOT everyone will come to repentance. Most people won’t. God’s perfect will is one thing, but God also has a consequent will. This is His will based on the consequences of Adam’s fall and man’s subsequent rebellious nature. This will graciously allows man to choose not to repent. God doesn’t manipulate man into not choosing Him. He genuinely limits His influence, and in doing so man makes his own, free choice.

Does this view of God do damage to His omnipotence or His sovereignty? Not at all. God is sovereign by absolute right, but He willingly limits that sovereignty temporarily.

The god (Satan) of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4 NIV)

As I stated, this self-limited sovereignty is just temporary. God’s full sovereignty will become actuality in the future when “the god of this age” is defeated for good.

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28 NIV)

So, whose view of God is right? Is God sovereign, or does He operate in divine determinism? Consider this:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (John 14:9, 10a NIV)

So Jesus lived and acted as His Father would. He did nothing His Father didn’t want Him to do. Including this:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:3 NIV)

Jesus “could not” heal everybody in town because the people had no faith (a sin, by the way). As God, of course Jesus could have healed everybody, but He limited His awesome power because the people refused to believe. Is the power of God dependent on man? Not at all. But, we serve a God who makes covenants with man. God has willingly bound himself to man in a covenant relationship. If man rebels – if man refuses to exercise faith, for example – God’s hands are tied as far as that man is concerned.

We serve a God who is not a Calvinist. Nor is He an Arminian. Our God is a sovereign God, above any labels we try to velcro onto Him. David Bentley Hart wrote:

How radically the gospel is pervaded by a sense that the brokenness of the fallen world is the work of rebellious rational free will, which God permits to reign, and pervaded also by a sense that Christ comes genuinely to save creation, to conquer, to rescue, to defeat the power of evil in all things. This great narrative of fall and redemption is not a charade, not simply a dramaturgical lesson regarding God’s absolute prerogatives prepared for us from eternity, but a real consequence of the mystery of created freedom and the fullness of grace.

 

Trusting Your Theology

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Some things are just hard to explain and even harder to understand. Try understanding any – and I mean any – government form. Even worse than trying to understand the form itself is trying to grasp the reason why you have to fill the darn thing in the first place. Sometimes understanding assembly instructions for a piece of furniture requires a degree in engineering. And who can fathom recipes? “Fold in.” Who knows what that means? Or what about road signs? I’m sure I am the only driver in my neck of the woods who knows how a four-way (all-way) stop works.

Christian theology can be hard to understand, too. And hard to explain. Take, for example, the wonderful and well-known piece of theology no Christian can live without knowing: the hypostatic union. If you are a Christian, you know full well about the hypostatic union. You hear about it in church every Sunday. What, exactly, is the hypostatic union? It’s the doctrine that tells us Jesus Christ is One Person with two separate and distinct natures. All Christians know about the hypostatic union even if they don’t its name. We all know Jesus is “God in the flesh.” That He is both the Son of God and the Son of Man. Two natures. One Man. The hypostatic union. So, explain it to me. How is the hypostatic union possible? The answer most Christians would give is: “Nobody can explain the hypostatic union beyond a simple definition. It takes faith.”

Yes, faith. The last refuge for people who are too lazy to wrestle with Scripture; to try to understand and make sense of what they believe. Don’t misunderstand, we can’t all be theologians and Bible scholars. But how in the world can a Christian fulfill the Great Commission unless they know what they believe and know how to explain it?

Work hard so God can say to you, “Well done.” Be a good workman, one who does not need to be ashamed when God examines your work. Know what his Word says and means. (2 Timothy 2:15 TLB)

But as for you, speak up for the right living that goes along with true Christianity. (Titus 2:1 TLB)

There may well be mysteries or paradoxes in the Christian faith. There will be elements of our faith we may never fully understand until we see Jesus face-to-face.

Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, right now, and we can’t even imagine what it is going to be like later on. But we do know this, that when he comes we will be like him, as a result of seeing him as he really is. (1 John 3:2 TLB)

That’s a fact. But it isn’t an excuse. Let’s consider some basic, fundamental Christian theology you may believe but have difficulty explaining.

What is theology, exactly?

Our English word “theology” comes from two Greek words: theos, meaning “God,” and logos, meaning “word” or “expression” or “study of.” Before we can tell anybody about God, we need to think right things about God. Thinking rightly about God is as simple as knowing what the Bible has to say about Him because the Bible is God’s revelation to man about Himself.

Christians are funny people. We become experts in the things we are interested in. Movies, TV shows, Hollywood gossip, baseball, politics, you name it, we can talk about it. But the truth is, it really doesn’t matter what we think about those things. It matters greatly what we think about God.

Why is theology so important?

The answer to this question is one word; a name actually: Jesus. It’s His fault that theology is so important. Here’s why:

Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. The second most important is similar: ‘Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37 – 39 TLB)

Theology makes this possible. It feeds our minds, enabling our hearts and souls to fulfill the second greatest commandment. And it goes without saying that when we have a right understanding of God, we will understand ourselves.

Ignorance is never bliss

Some people think theology is only important for the pastor to know about. Others think theology is just too divisive – that it causes arguments and splits in churches. They think it would just be better for everyone concerned if we kept quiet about theology. But that’s wrongheaded thinking! Theology is what the Church of Jesus Christ is built on! Without theology – good theology – there would be no Church. Paul has an interesting way of describing people who don’t know theology: he calls them immature. And immature Christians are most certainly a danger to themselves and could be a danger to others!

Why is it that he gives us these special abilities to do certain things best? It is that God’s people will be equipped to do better work for him, building up the Church, the body of Christ, to a position of strength and maturity; until finally we all believe alike about our salvation and about our Savior, God’s Son, and all become full-grown in the Lord—yes, to the point of being filled full with Christ. Then we will no longer be like children, forever changing our minds about what we believe because someone has told us something different or has cleverly lied to us and made the lie sound like the truth. (Ephesians 4:12 – 14 TLB)

You just can’t trust a Christian who doesn’t know what he believes. And forget about the confused saint trying to witness to the lost! That really would be the blind leading the blind. Ignorant, confused Christians are the type of people who are up one day and down the next. They are the ones with enough faith to move a mountain on Monday, but by Wednesday they aren’t sure if God even exists. James has an interesting way of describing this kind of Christian:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5 – 8 NKJV)

Who needs it?

I guess the only person who doesn’t need to know some sound, basic theology is a double-minded man. But for the rest of us, we need to know some. Truth be told, everybody has a theology. Everybody, even the atheist, has beliefs about the nature of reality, morality, ethics, and so on. It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that not all theologies are good or correct. With so many different ideas floating around, some must be wrong.

The Christian has an obligation to know for certain that his theology is the right theology. In our secular, postmodern, PC culture, all theologies have merit, they say. One man’s belief is just as valid as the other’s, they say. But is that the case? Isn’t there an “ultimate theology” above all others? Every religion would say that their theology is the correct one. So how do we know ours is?

For the Christian, it all goes back to the Bible. Our theology is objective; it is not based on what we think or feel at the moment. Our beliefs are rooted in a Book centuries old; beliefs that have not changed since they were written down and have persisted in cultures and societies all over the world. Other “holy books” and teachings have come and gone; have changed to keep up with the times; have been modified, added to and edited to suit the culture and societal norms of the day. Only the Bible has remained unchanged; it’s truths influencing the world around it, not influenced by the world around it.

As Christians, we may be absolutely confident that our theology is the right theology because God has revealed Himself to His people in a meaningful way.

But we know about these things because God has sent his Spirit to tell us, and his Spirit searches out and shows us all of God’s deepest secrets. (1 Corinthians 2:10 TLB)

This is not an insignificant statement Paul is making here. Our faith is based on the objective realities that each one of us has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit helps us to understand the mind of God, and that we are created in the image of God, which means we have the ability to think and reason just like He does. We can actually tap into the mind of God through the power of the Holy Spirit within us. It is that same spirit that opens up our eyes to the teachings of the Scriptures.

But the man who isn’t a Christian can’t understand and can’t accept these thoughts from God, which the Holy Spirit teaches us. They sound foolish to him because only those who have the Holy Spirit within them can understand what the Holy Spirit means. Others just can’t take it in. But the spiritual man has insight into everything, and that bothers and baffles the man of the world, who can’t understand him at all. (1 Corinthians 2:14, 15 TLB)

Open my eyes to see wonderful things in your Word. (Psalm 119:18 TLB)

If these things are true, as Christians believe them to be, then it makes sense that our beliefs are the correct beliefs and that only Christians are teaching objective truths. Every human being gets their sense of right and wrong; their sense of morality and ethics, from some place or someone. Parents, teachers, peers, and even from within oneself come ideas that contribute to one’s theology. As worthy as those contributions may be, they aren’t always trustworthy or dependable because they are not objective but subjective. That is, ideas that come from the mind of another are subjective; they are subject to feelings, change, debate, modification, and so on. The ideas that come from the Bible, revealed to and illumined in the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit, are objective because they are the same for all believers, of all cultures and races, and for all time. So what is wrong in America is also wrong in Singapore. What is considered righteous behavior in New Guinea is righteous behavior in Great Britain. The theology of the Bible works for everybody, everywhere, every time.

Are we always right?

Given that Christians possess the ultimate truth and believe the correct theology, are we always right? I wish that were the case. Unfortunately, our temperaments, personalities and sinful natures get in the way sometimes. But just because from time to time a believer behaves in a way that demeans Biblical theology, that doesn’t mean what he believes is wrong. It means that he is flawed human being. Our theology may be perfect, but we are not. That’s why when we share our faith – our theology – with others, our focus needs to be on God, not on us. John. R.W. Stott wrote:

Evangelical Christianity is theological in its character, biblical in its substance, and fundamental in its emphasis.

We would do well to remember those words! When we are sharing our faith, it really isn’t our faith we are sharing, it’s theology given to us by God through His Holy Spirit and His Word. Sound, reliable, consistent theology that springs from those sources should embolden all believers and fill them with reassurance, hope, and confidence. Why? Because what they believe didn’t originate with any man, but with God.

Theology of Romans, Part 2

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Justification is a glorious blessing from God.  Last time, we looked at some of the blessings of justification.  This time, let’s look at the “nuts and bolts” of this piece of theology Romans.

1.  Who does God justify?

The answer to this question is truly amazing because it cuts against the grain of religious thinking.  Almost everybody—at least everybody who subscribes to “Hallmark theology”—naturally thinks that God wants good people in heaven and that the only way to get there is to do good things and live well-behaved, well-ordered lives.  Of course, that’s what unthinking, Biblically illiterate people always think:  their entrance through the pearly gates is guaranteed by their efforts.  But that is far, far from the truth.  As Christians, we don’t take our theology from Hallmark cards; we take our theology from the Bible, and here’s what the Bible says in answer to this question:

But didn’t [Abraham] earn his right to heaven by all the good things he did? No, for being saved is a gift; if a person could earn it by being good, then it wouldn’t be free—but it is! It is given to those who do not work for it. For God declares sinners to be good in his sight if they have faith in Christ to save them from God’s wrath.  (Romans 4:4, 5 TLB)

When we were utterly helpless, with no way of escape, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners who had no use for him.  (Romans 5:6  TLB)

In case these verses are misunderstood or misinterpreted, this one clinches the Biblical truth that the only people God saves are the UNGODLY:

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.  (Romans 5:8  TLB)

All of this means, of course, is that Hell will be full of good people.  The Bible makes it abundantly clear throughout, but especially here in Romans, that if you really want to be saved, you must come to the stark realization that you are UNGODLY.  You must without hesitation accept that fact and then—and ONLY then—will you become eligible for salvation.

This is a huge pill for religious people to swallow.  Religious people are those who rely on their “good deeds” to tip the scales in their favor.  Religion complicates what God sees as a very simple process.  To be saved takes, not a lifetime of hard work and effort, but a moment’s decision.

…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.  (Romans 10:9, 10  NKJV)

2.  How can God possibly justify someone who is guilty?

This is another question, like the last one, with an answer so profoundly surprising as to be almost unbelievable.  The answer to this question is also the answer to another one:  Why did Christ die?

It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.  (Romans 4:24, 25  NKJV)

The “it” of verse 24 is “righteousness.”  What Paul is talking about here is “imputed righteousness”; that is, a righteousness (Christ’s, as we learned last time) foreign to the one who now possesses it.  Christ died so that His perfect righteousness could be imputed—given—to the unrighteous and ungodly.

Jesus Christ was “delivered up” on account of OUR offenses—our sins and our lack of righteousness.  So, how can God justify someone who is guilty?  The real question these two verses raises is:  How can God punish the only One who was NEVER guilty?  Jesus Christ was punished in the sinner’s stead so that that sinner may be given Christ’s righteousness.  God is able to justify the guilty because atonement has already been made for them.

Now we rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God—all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done in dying for our sins—making us friends of God.   (Romans 5:11  TLB)

Christ’s work on the Cross secured first of all the sinner’s forgiveness, then his justification.  It is those who believe in Christ that are justified.

3.  Do man’s good works have anything to do with his justification?

Biblical justification is a theology that sounds almost too good to be true.  It flies in the face of religion, which tries to complicate it and it flies in the face those who believe in personal responsibility and accountability.  This is where faith comes in to play!  We can do NOTHING to justify ourselves in God’s sight.  We can do NOTHING to appear better than we really are.  We MUST rely solely on what Jesus did for us on the Cross.  Mote’s powerful lyrics come to mind:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

It’s hard for a lot of Christians to “wholly lean on Jesus’ name”!  They always think it takes something more; that they have to “do” something, which is why legalistic religions seem to thrive.

Now do you see it? No one can ever be made right in God’s sight by doing what the law commands. For the more we know of God’s laws, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying them; his laws serve only to make us see that we are sinners.  (Romans 3:20  TLB)

Now, it is true that if a person does the best he can he will be justified in the sight of other people, but not in the sight of God.

Don’t you remember that even our father Abraham was declared good because of what he did when he was willing to obey God, even if it meant offering his son Isaac to die on the altar?  (James 2:21  TLB)

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  (Romans 4:2  NKJV)

God sees no good works coming from a bad heart.  A person hoping their good works will get noticed by God and somehow tip the scales in their favor is simply proving their heart is still bad.

4.  How does God justify man?

Simply put, God justifies man judicially.  God, as the Judge of universe, makes a declaration in man’s favor.  In Romans 4, there are three words occur over and over again that clearly express the nature of God’s justification:  counted, reckoned, and imputed.  The righteousness of God is, therefore, counted, reckoned, and imputed to the believer.  God does it all.

But these three words, wonderful as they are to man, cut the other way as far as the Son of Man is concerned.  Our sins were counted, reckoned, and imputed to Christ as He hung on the Cross.  God did that, too.

But now God has shown us a different way to heaven—not by “being good enough” and trying to keep his laws, but by a new way (though not new, really, for the Scriptures told about it long ago). Now God says he will accept and acquit us—declare us “not guilty”—if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, by coming to Christ, no matter who we are or what we have been like.  (Romans 3:21, 22  TLB)

5.  Is justification achieved by simply believing?

As hard as it may be for you to grasp, the answer to this question is a resounding a YES!

But isn’t this unfair for God to let criminals go free, and say that they are innocent? No, for he does it on the basis of their trust in Jesus who took away their sins.  (Romans 3:26b  TLB)

It’s not just a belief in God, for even the demons believe in God!  It’s belief or trust in Jesus, specifically, what Jesus accomplished on the Cross.

The simplicity of it all!  Have you ever wondered why such a deep and profound doctrine is so simple?  It’s because of the love of God!  When God looks at this world of ours, what do you think He sees?   He faces a world of sinners, desperately lost and stuck in their rebellion and absolutely miserable in their sin.  There is not a thing man can do to help himself out of his lost, pathetic state.  It’s all up to God.  It was up to God to find a way to rescue man without He Himself getting tainted by man’s filth.

Can a man hold fire against his chest and not be burned?  Can he walk on hot coals and not blister his feet?  (Proverbs 6:27, 28  TLB)

Can God help a filthy sinner without getting dirty?  God says:  Absolutely I can!  God does it all for the believer HIS WAY.  Only the act of believing is left up to us.  By faith, we count on God’s Word being true.  By faith, we believe Jesus did exactly enough to save us; that there is nothing left for us to do, save believe.

Ecclesiology, Part 2

people are the church

Jesus Christ built His church on Himself.  He founded and He established it.  He gifted it with the Holy Spirit and gave His life for it.  The greatest gift ever given the church was Jesus Christ.

1.  Membership in the Church

In spite of what various denominations teach about this topic, the New Testament tells us how to become a member of the church:  faith in the Gospel and a deep-seated trust in Jesus Christ as Savior.

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”  (Acts 16:31  TNIV)

A characteristic – not a condition – of church membership is participation in water baptism, a dramatic and symbolic testimony to faith in Christ.

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. [10] For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.  (Romans 10:9, 10  TNIV)

In the earliest days of the church, all members were truly born again:

…And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.  (Acts 2:47  TNIV)

In those early days, becoming a member of the church was not like joining a club or an organization, but it was understood that becoming a member of the church was quite literally becoming part of the Body of Christ.

Over the years, though, catechizing took the place of conversion; water baptism took the place a born again experience.  As the Christian church became more and more popular, adherence to man-made confessions and doctrines took the place of faith in the Word of God.  The result of such a change is marked.  Instead of the church overflowing with true Christians, it’s now a “mixed multitude,” with true believers co-existing alongside nominal and in-name-only Christians.  This has been the state of the church for most of its existence:  possessing Christians in the midst of professing Christians.  According to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13, the state of the church is no surprise to Him.

It’s clear that the distinguishing characteristic between the invisible, universal Church and the visible, denominational church is the quality of its members.  Only true born again, regenerated people are members of the invisible, universal church.  Those who have their names written in the Book of Life in Heaven are members of the true church.  Those whose names are found only on a church roll, may be members of their local church, but that’s no guarantee that they are also members of the true Church.  This strange condition of the Church was taught by Jesus (Matthew 13) and understood by Paul:

Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”  In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for disposal of refuse.  Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.  (2 Timothy 2:19-21  TNIV)

2.  The work of the church

The work of the church is best stated by Paul in Ephesians:

(A)  Teaching and training its members.

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…  (Ephesians 4:11, 12  KJV)

Some people are under the mistaken impression the job of the church is to make converts.  In fact, the primary job of the church is to train up its members to go out and make converts.  There is nothing wrong with the occasional evangelistic service, but generally speaking, there should be a lot teaching and training going on in Christian churches.  This is what Jesus did:  He taught, discipled, and trained His followers to go out and make converts.  It was not His intention that His followers should to go out and drag back sinners to Him for conversion!

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…  (Matthew 28:19  TNIV)

(B)  Provide a means/place of worship.

The church ought to be a place a prayer, worship, and testimony.

(C)  A place of Christian fellowship.

People are social beings and they need social interaction and friendship with like-minded individuals.  A good church provides opportunities for its members to get together for camaraderie and good fellowship.  It is during those times believers encourage each other and build each other up in the faith.

(D)  To hold up a moral standard in the community.

As the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth,” the church should be setting the moral and ethical example for others to follow.   The church should teach people how to live, not just how to die.  The best witness a church member can have is to hold forth a Biblical worldview, and it’s up to the local church to instill in its members that sound worldview and to encourage them to live it.

3.  Ordinances of the church

Christianity is not a religion of ritual.  At its core, Christianity is all about the inside of a man, not the outside; it’s about man being able to approach God on the merits of Christ alone.  In spite of the fact that New Testament Christianity is not built around rituals, there are two ceremonies that are essential because they were divinely ordained:  water baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Because of their “sacred” character, some people like to refer to these ordinances are “sacraments,” meaning “sacred things.”  Ordinances, sacraments, or rituals, whatever you call them, there are very special ceremonies “ordained” by The Lord Jesus Himself.

A very simple way of looking at these two ordinances is to see water baptism as the “rite of entrance” into the Church, and it symbolizes the beginning of spiritual life.  The Lord’s Supper is the “rite of communion,” symbolizing continued spiritual life.  Water baptism portrays faith in Jesus Christ, the Lord’s Supper fellowship with Him.  Water baptism happens one time, the Lord’s supper often.

(A)  Baptism

With apologies to the practices of some denominations, since the word “baptize” means “to dip” or “to immerse,” the preferred mode of water baptism is immersion.

This leads us to the question of “sprinkling” or “pouring.”  Where did these practices come from?  All must admit that baptism in both Testaments (Jewish baptism in the Old, Christian in the New) involved totally immersing the candidate in water.  When the early church became more institutionalized and began to forsake the plain teachings of Christ and allowed man’s ideas to influence it, it also began to place an undue emphasis on rituals – like the pagan religions around it did –  and baptism began to be seen as essential in salvation.  In other words, if a person died without being baptized, the church (though not the Bible) taught his soul was in peril.  Given this, the church began the practice of baptizing the sick and dying before it was too late.  Naturally these candidates couldn’t be immersed in water, therefore sprinkling or pouring had to be done.  Eventually, it just became convenient to sprinkle and pour.

Is any of this really important?  Is the mode really important?  It is only to the extent of the candidate’s witness to the community, both the community of faith and the broader community.  Only total immersion conveys  in a dramatic fashion the believer’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  (Romans 6:1-4 NIV84)

How do we reconcile these two verses:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…  (Matthew 28:19 NIV84)

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  (Acts 2:38 NIV84)

What words should be used when one is baptized?   Most denominations use the “Trinitarian formula,” of Matthew 28:19.  But some churches, often called “Jesus Only” churches, baptize their candidates in the name of Jesus only.  Which is correct?  It should be noticed that the words Jesus spoke were the formula; He told His disciples precisely how to baptized converts.  Peter’s words in Acts do not constitute a formula.  They were spoken merely as a statement affirming that the candidate has placed their faith in Jesus alone.

As to who may be baptized, the Bible makes it clear that only those who have repented of their sins and put their full faith and trust in The Lord Jesus Christ may be baptized.  The early church had three simple practices surrounding water baptism:

(1)    a simple profession of faith, Acts 8:37
(2)    a simple prayer, Acts 22:16;
(3)    a simple vow of consecration, 1 Peter 3:21.

Water baptism in and of itself is not a means of grace; individuals are baptized in water not be be saved but because they are saved.

(B)  The Lord’s Supper

Also known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper is a wholly Christian rite, instituted by The Lord Jesus Christ on the eve of His crucifixion for the following purposes:

(1)    Commemoration.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  We commemorate many things:  birthdays, anniversaries, Independence Day, and so on.  Whenever a group of Christians gets together the celebrate The Lord’s Supper, they are remembering in a very special way the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, which freed them from their sins and secured them salvation.

While the life of Jesus was important, it saved no one.  It was His death that saved sinners and that’s why we remember it so.

(2)  Instruction.

When we celebrate Communion, we have an opportunity to learn anew two important parts the Gospel.  First, the Incarnation.  We remember the words of John:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14 NIV84)

And the words of Jesus Himself:

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.  (John 6:33 NIV84)

We also have an opportunity to think about the Atonement.  We think about the sacrifice of Jesus; His broken Body and His shed Blood; how He bore the punishment for our sin.

(3)  Inspiration.

The elements help us understand that by faith we may become partakers of Christ’s nature; that we are in communion with Him; and that we as we get closer and closer to Him, we become more and more like Him, reflecting His glory and character.

Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.  (2 Peter 1:4 NIV84)

(4)  Assurance.

The “new covenant” spoken of by Jesus during the Last Supper is a “blood covenant.”  The covenant has been accepted by God on the basis of His Son’s shed blood.  His blood is the guarantee that God will be gracious and merciful to all who come to Him in faith believing what Christ has done.  That is our part in the covenant:  simply believe.

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–  he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:25-26 NIV84)

(5)  Responsibility.

Celebrating The Lord’s Supper is a solemn thing, not to be done lightly, and only after sober reflection.  Consider the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:

A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.   (1 Corinthians 11:28-29 NIV84)

This of course does not mean that only those who are good enough or worthy enough should take Communion.  Really, none of us is worthy.  If we read all of 1 Corinthians 11, we see that Paul is not so much concerned with people but with the actions of people.  How we treat people and the attitudes we hold toward others determines whether or not we may take part in the Communion service.


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