Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Israel’s Refuge in (the) Tribulation

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“The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46:7,11)

Psalm 46 was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Although Luther cast his hymn from the perspective of the Church under assault by the Devil, Psalm 46 is written from the perspective of the believing Jewish remnant during the time of the Tribulation (i.e., Daniel’s 70th Week). It appears to have been composed in the days of King Hezekiah when an attack by the Assyrian army on Jerusalem was imminent (Isaiah 36-37), at which time the city was miraculously delivered by divine intervention (Isaiah 37:36-37). The message of the psalm is that the omnipotent and omnipresent God will be present with His people (Israel) during their time of greatest peril; He is their refuge and strength, so they need not fear.

A repeated refrain in the Psalm (vv. 7, 11) is that the “LORD” (i.e., the God whose personal name is Yahweh) commands the “host” of heaven, an army of innumerable angelic warriors, a single one of which delivered Jerusalem from the army of Assyria in the days of King Hezekiah by destroying 185,000 soldiers on one night (Isaiah 37:36). The LORD, while being the one true God over all of creation, is uniquely “the God of Jacob”, the sure “refuge” of Israel. The thought impressed upon Israel in this psalm is also impressed upon the Church, which is promised persecution throughout the Church Age (John 15:18-20; 16:33; Romans 8:35-39; 2 Timothy 3:12); namely, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

A new set of notes commenting on Psalm 46 has been added under the Biblical Studies menu.


Romans: The Gospel of God

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“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”  (Romans 1:16-17)

The importance of the Book of Romans cannot be overstated. Perhaps the oldest question recorded in the Bible, and the most important, was asked by Job, “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2); Romans gives a clear answer to that ancient question, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17, a quote from Habakkuk 2:4). The theme throughout Romans is the grace of God in general, with justification of the sinner by grace through faith emphasized in particular. In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the apostle presents a systematic and exhaustive treatment of the theology that undergirds the gospel of grace, which allows God to save believing sinners without compromising His own righteousness (Romans 3:26).

I began teaching a weekly class on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in September 2014.  The notes for this study are updated regularly.  You can find them under the Biblical Studies menu; check periodically to follow the study as it progresses.  God bless!


Kept by the Power of God

“. . . God . . . hath begotten us again . . . who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5)

The Bible reveals that a person is saved by the grace of God, through personal faith in Jesus Christ, entirely without any works on his part (Ephesians 2:8-9; John 20:31; Romans 4:5), and that the saved believer is given by God the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23; 1 John 5:13). This is part and parcel of the gospel itself. The teaching of the Bible on this issue is clear and unequivocal, against which no Christian would argue.

Argument arises among Christians, however, over the question of whether a genuine believer can ever lose his salvation, which (at least at a particular time) he actually possessed. Arminians answer this question, “Yes”. They argue that salvation is conditioned on personal faith, and that once a person ceases to believe he is no longer saved, nor is he in possession of eternal life, though at one time he may have been in actual possession of it [1]. In their view, a “believer” who commits heinous and/or habitual sin is one who has ceased believing and has, as a consequence, lost his salvation. Thus, in Arminian theology, the maintenance of a believer’s salvation is the responsibility of the believer.

Calvinists answer the question, “No”. They argue that the salvation of an individual is a sovereign work of God that is unconditional and immutable. God even supplies as a sovereign gift the personal faith upon which salvation would appear to be conditioned. In Calvinistic theology, there is no possibility of ever reversing God’s sovereign work that bestows upon an individual the entire package of personal faith, regeneration, salvation, and eternal life. In their view, since personal faith is part of an unconditional and immutable work of God on behalf of an elect person, a genuine believer will necessarily persevere in faith to the very end of his life. Any “believer” who commits heinous and/or habitual sin is one who was never actually in possession of salvation, even though at one time he may have professed personal faith and even appeared to manifest behaviors associated with salvation.

Both of these theological positions result in scenarios in which a genuine believer can never find rest, having an unshakeable confidence that he is saved and can never lose his salvation. The Arminian believes he can, through a lapse in faith or temptation into sin, lose his salvation and the eternal life he once possessed. The Calvinist believes that, in order to be assured he is one of God’s elect who has been sovereignly regenerated, saved, and granted eternal life, he must persevere in his faith and good works without significant lapse until death or the rapture [2]. In practice, neither Arminianism nor Calvinism afford a believer the confidence one finds revealed in the New Testament (John 10:27-29; 20:31; 1 John 5:13).

The New Testament answers the question, “No”. A genuine believer who has been born again and received from God the gift of eternal life can never lose his salvation. The reason for this conclusion, however, is different than that offered by Calvinism, and it undergirds the basis of a believer’s assurance, peace, and rest. The security of the believer in his salvation is a gracious and certain work of God. This is clearly seen in 1 Peter 1:3-5. The “who” of the relative clause in 1 Peter 1:5 hearkens back to the “us” in 1 Peter 3:3 (i.e., believers, recipients of the new birth). Believers are said to be “kept” (a present passive participle, ‘[are] continually being guarded’), that is preserved. The believer’s preservation is “by the power of God” (the efficient agency), “through faith” (the secondary cause), “unto salvation” (the result); for this reason it is sure, depending on the promised work of God alone. This is perhaps the strongest assertion of the eternal security of the believer in his salvation to be found in the New Testament.

Endnotes:

[1]  One does have to wonder how something described in the New Testament as eternal life could endure for only a finite, and perhaps very short, period of time.

[2]  Most Reformed theologians, of course, would not make a distinction between the rapture and the second coming of Christ.


Issues in Calvinism

“To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah 8:20)

The Five Points of Calvinism (i.e., TULIP) are a logically consistent soteriological system. Beginning from the first point, Total Depravity[1], the subsequent points of Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints seem to necessarily follow. It is this elegant and logical consistency that can be very intellectually satisfying, accounting for Calvinism’s power of attraction for many thinking believers. Logical consistency alone, however, is not the standard of truth. Rather, “[God’s] word is truth” (John 17:17), and it is against the absolute standard of “the law and the testimony” (Isaiah 8:20) that every claim must be measured.

The deviancy of Calvinism from the plumb line of Scripture begins with its understanding of Total Depravity. Scripture asserts that the unregenerate man is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Calvinists understand this assertion to mean that “the sinner is so spiritually bankrupt that he can do nothing pertaining to his salvation[2]; he cannot even respond to God by exercising the personal faith required for salvation (Acts 16:30-31) without first being sovereignly regenerated by God[3]. From Paul’s use of the word “dead” in Ephesians 2:1, Calvinists construct the metaphor of the unregenerate man as a corpse (R. C. Sproul) or a cadaver (John F. MacArthur); since a literal corpse would not be able to respond to God in any way, the unregenerate man cannot either. Many Calvinists prefer the term Total Inability over Total Depravity to better express this concept, but based on their own analogy of corpse/cadaver the most accurate expression would be utter inability.

Metaphors (by definition) are partial, incomplete representations of reality; they inevitably break down when pressed too far. The Calvinist’s metaphorical construct of a physical corpse for the unregenerate man goes too far. For example, a physical corpse, in addition to being unable to believe, is also unable to sin, and yet the unregenerate man has no impediment to such an activity whatsoever. Scripture clearly presents a picture in which all men are commanded by God to believe in order to be saved (e.g., Isaiah 45:22; Mark 1:15; Acts 16:30-31), along with the implication that it is possible for unregenerate men to do so (e.g., John 3:16; 6:40; 7:37; 20:31; Revelation 22:17). The Calvinistic construct of the unregenerate man’s abilities/inabilities clearly lies beyond the true picture one sees in Scripture. Thus, although the subsequent four points may logically follow from the first, they suffer from an unbiblical understanding of Total Depravity that proves fatal for the system as a whole.

For additional analyses of Calvinistic teaching compared to Scripture, see:

Is Faith the Gift of God?

Who and How Does the Father Draw?

Kept by the Power of God

Endnotes:

[1] “The view one takes concerning salvation will be determined, to a large extent, by the view one takes concerning sin and its effects on human nature. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first article dealt with in the Calvinistic system is the biblical doctrine of total inability or total depravity.” David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1963) 24.

[2] Steele and Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism, 25.

[3] An axiom of Calvinism is that regeneration precedes faith.


The Authority of the Bible

“The Bible is authoritative on everything of which it speaks.  Moreover, it speaks of everything.”

Cornelius Van Til


The Gospel vs. Doctrine

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel . . . by which also ye are saved . . . (unless ye have believed in vain) . . . how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures; and that He was seen . . . ”  (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)

Today, we hear many say ‘doctrine divides’, so let’s not emphasize ‘doctrine’.  “God is love, not doctrine”.  Let’s just preach “the gospel”, so that people get saved, and not over-emphasize doctrine.  But this is a false dichotomy.  It’s not the gospel vs. doctrine.  In point of fact, an immense amount of doctrine is included in “the gospel”.  Let’s unpack the text of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and get a glimpse of all that is involved in this ‘simple’ Bible passage that defines “the gospel”.

To begin with, the gospel is not a fable (cf. 2 Peter 1:16; a “fable” is a fictitious story invented to teach a moral lesson).  The gospel involves historical events.  Admittedly, it is the correct understanding/interpretation of those events that is critical, but that does not diminish the fact that the historicity of these events is necessary and indispensable.  They must be real events that really happened:  Christ died, He was buried, He rose again, He was seen in His resurrection body by many people.  That Christ was buried is evidence to substantiate that fact that He really died; that Christ was seen is evidence to substantiate the fact that He really rose again!  You do not include ‘evidences’ for a fable, only a real, historical event.  In fact, Paul says that if the resurrection of Christ did not really and literally happen, our faith is “vain” (i.e., it accomplishes nothing!; 1 Corinthians 15:14).  Since “the gospel” is based on an historical event, the Bible must be an infallible record of historical events, which demands that it be the inspired Word of God.  Thus, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is involved in “the gospel”.

All have sinned, and there is a penalty for our sin.  Furthermore, there is nothing we ourselves can do about it, which is why “Christ died for our sins”.  The penalty required for our sin is an infinite penalty, because we have sinned against God, Who is an infinite Being [1].  The only way a finite being (i.e., a creature) can pay an infinite penalty is for that penalty to be enforced over an infinite period of time (i.e., eternal judgment).  Thus, the doctrines of the nature of man and the nature of God are involved in “the gospel”.

The historical fact that “Christ died for our sins” has to actually accomplish something.  This is where the various theories of the atonement come into play.  Christ’s death on the cross was not just an expression of love, or an example for us to emulate.  1 John 2:2 makes clear that the death of Christ was a propitiation (i.e., substitutionary atonement) for the sins of the world.  Propitiation means a payment that satisfies the debt.  Thus, the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement is involved in “the gospel”.

Continuing on, the hypostatic union is necessary.  Christ must be a Man in order to die (God cannot die!).  Christ must also be a Man to redeem mankind (i.e., qualification of a Kinsman Redeemer; cf. Hebrews 2:14-16).  He must be a perfect, sinless Man to “die for our sins”, else He would have to die for His own sins.  However, if Christ is merely a Man, even a Perfect Man, for Him to pay the penalty for my sins, which involves an infinite penalty, He would have to suffer for an infinite period of time (forever); but in such a case, the penalty for my sins would never be paid (i.e., only in eternity), so it is no help.  For me to be saved, I need Christ to be able to pay for my sins in a finite period of time.  The only way for an infinite penalty to be paid in a finite period of time is for the One paying it to be infinite; an infinite Being can pay an infinite penalty in a finite period of time.  For Christ to be an infinite Being, He must be God.  Christ must be both a Perfect, sinless Man and God, at the same time.  A corollary to this is that the only way to produce a God-Man is by a supernatural, virgin-birth.  Thus, the doctrine of the nature of Christ (including the virgin-birth and the hypostatic union) is involved in “the gospel” (cf. 2 John 1:9).

Many professing Christians think the doctrine of the Trinity is irrelevant or unimportant.  Many are even embarrassed by it.  Admittedly, it is hard to understand, and it is even harder to explain to an unbeliever.  Without the Trinity, however, “the gospel” unravels.  On the cross, Christ (who is God) was paying the penalty for our sins.  To whom was He making this payment?  God.  So, God was suffering for human sin, and at the same time God was judging human sin.  Jesus cried, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”  If God is one Person, then He cannot be suffering for sin and judging sin at the same time.  For this reason (among others), there must be a plurality of Persons within the Godhead.  God the Son was suffering for human sin, and God the Father was judging human sin.  Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is involved in “the gospel”.

Finally, even some eschatological doctrine is relevant to “the gospel”.  The Bible teaches clearly that the resurrected Jesus Christ will come again to judge the world (2 Timothy 4:1).  Thus, a denial of the bodily return of Christ is a denial of coming judgment.  It is this coming judgment from which “the gospel” saves us.  Thus, even the doctrine of the return of Christ is involved in “the gospel”.

Doctrine is important.  The gospel cannot be separated from sound, Biblical doctrine.  Implicitly loaded into “the gospel” is an immense amount doctrine which, if denied, renders one’s faith vain.

Doctrines that are essential to “the gospel” have come to be called “the fundamentals”.  Historically, those who have sought to define and defend these fundamental doctrines have been known as ‘Fundamentalists’.  To compromise on a fundamental doctrine is to jeopardize “the gospel”, and to deny a fundamental doctrine is to deny “the gospel”.  Fundamentalists refuse to extend Christian fellowship with those who deny a fundamental doctrine on the basis that they do not share the same understanding of “the gospel” (i.e., they are not Christians).

As this article has demonstrated, fundamental doctrines include the inspiration of Scripture; the virgin-birth, true humanity and undiminished deity of the Lord Jesus Christ; the substitutionary atonement of Christ; the bodily resurrection of Christ; and the bodily return of Christ to judge the world.  These are not the only fundamental doctrines.  However, every attempt to exhaustively enumerate the fundamental doctrines has failed, and today no one believes such an exhaustive list can be compiled.  The reason for this is that our doctrinal understanding (i.e., clarification and articulation of doctrine) is constantly progressing, and it is doing so generally in response to new heresies that arise [2].  As new heresies continue to arise today, our doctrinal understanding/clarification continues to be refined . . .

Endnotes:

[1] As an illustration, consider the consequences if someone kills a mosquito, a dog, a baby—even we recognize there ought to be different penalties for these crimes.  What makes the difference?  The value of the person against which one commits the crime determines the just penalty.

[2] If you think of the historic creeds (e.g., Apostles, Nicean, Chalcedonian), they were continually revised and expanded with time in order to clarify points that were being challenged by heretics.


The Essence of Idolatry

In the opening three chapters of Romans, Paul reasons his way to the conclusion that, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Roman 3:23), thus rendering all men everywhere and at all times justly condemned before God—whether they have heard the gospel or not; this sets up the need for all men to hear and respond to the gospel (Romans 1:16).  Paul reaches his conclusion based on the witness of general revelation alone, which is and always has been available to all men (and which is consistently rejected by the natural man).  This witness of general revelation comes in two forms:  the creation (Romans 1) and human conscience (Romans 2).  Consider Paul’s argument relative to the witness of creation in Romans 1:18-25.

The Universal and Sufficient Witness of Creation

In Romans 1:18, God asserts that the “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” manifests itself as a “[suppression] of the truth in unrighteousness”.  Note that it is not the case that some men do not have access to the truth, but that all men suppress the truth that they have.  Furthermore, there is an agenda behind man’s suppression of truth; it is so that he can pursue “unrighteousness”.

In Romans 1:19, God asserts that He has supplied all men with a knowledge of Himself.  God has not relied on men seeking Him, as He knows none will (Romans 3:11); rather, on His own initiative, God “hath shown it unto them”.

Romans 1:20 indicates this universal knowledge of God comes “from the creation” (i.e., the natural world all around us).  Further, God asserts that this knowledge of Him is “clearly seen” and “understood”.  The ramifications of this assertion are awesome.  No one can legitimately claim they didn’t know or understand that their Creator God, to whom they are accountable, exists.  Certainly many make this claim, but this is a “suppression of the truth” which they possess in their heart of hearts.  It isn’t a matter of not knowing or understanding, but rather a case of “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge” (cf. Romans 1:28).  This leads to the conclusion of the universal and just condemnation of all men.

Paul’s conclusion is that from the witness of creation alone, all men “are without excuse”.  The Greek word apologia, rendered “excuse” in our English translation, means ‘a formal, reasoned, and logical defense’ (as in a legal, courtroom proceeding).  Thus, there is no acceptable defense that can be offered for man’s rejection of the knowledge of God from creation.  This alone renders all men under the just condemnation of God.  Whereas no one can be saved apart from hearing and believing the gospel (Romans 1:16-17), all can be justly condemned whether they have heard the gospel or not.  Put theologically, men can be condemned on the basis of general revelation (available to all), but men can only be saved on the basis of special revelation (available only to some).

Suppression of the Truth Necessarily Leads to Idolatry

Notice in Romans 1:21 how Paul’s reasoning proceeds from the preceding assertion (i.e., “they knew God” is now a presupposition from which he reasons).  It is not the case that men don’t know God, they definitely do.  Rather, the issue is that men who know God do not glorify or thank (i.e., acknowledge) Him.

It has often been observed that Scripture offers no formal proof for the existence of God, and the so-called philosophical proofs (i.e., the teleological, cosmological, ontological arguments) for the existence of God are not fruitful in leading men to believe in God (and even if they were valid, they only purport to prove the existence of ‘a god’, not the God of the Bible); it is not a matter of men lacking adequate information, but a suppression of the clear and sufficient information they have already.  This has serious implications relative to evangelism and apologetics (which can never really be de-coupled).  An evangelist/apologist ought never to accept an unbeliever’s demand for a proof for God’s existence before he will consider the claims of the Bible.  The evangelist/apologist ought to begin with the presupposition that the unbeliever already knows God exists, but has willfully suppressed that truth in unrighteousness.

Furthermore, suppression of the truth (i.e., rejection of God’s clear revelation) always and necessarily leads to idolatry, introduced here as “vain . . . imaginations”.  It is interesting that in the Greek text, the word translated “imaginations” comes from dialogismos, which connotes ‘reasoning with oneself’; it is not someone else that the unbeliever is trying to persuade that his unbelief is rational/logical, but above all it is himself that he is trying to persuade (i.e., he must rationalize his unbelief in his own mind).  Realizing this helps us understand the essence of idolatry.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God’s priority in communicating His standard for man is always on the prohibition of idolatry (cf. Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7; 1 John 5:21), even above immorality (per se).  The reason behind this is that idolatry always (logically) takes place first, with immorality inevitably following (cf. Romans 1:18-32).  Romans 1:18-20 indicates that God’s revelation of Himself in the creation (i.e., general revelation) is clearly seen by all men, everywhere.  The unbelieving mind must re-engineer its perception of reality in order to suppress the implications of this clear revelation, which is his personal accountability to his Creator.  This philosophical re-engineering of reality to suppress God’s clear revelation of Himself is the essence of idolatry [1].  Once the creature’s accountability to his Creator has been rationalized away in his own mind, he becomes free to engage in any form of immorality ‘with a clear conscience’ (so to speak).  This is why idolatry always comes first (even in our modern world), and this is why God’s prohibition of it always takes priority.  In a certain sense, it is idolatry that intellectually enables immorality.

But this is foolishness (Romans 1:22).  According to Scripture, the greatest possible folly is to deny the existence of the God of the Bible; “the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Ps14:1; 53:1).  Mark Twain, legendary for his skepticism toward Christianity and the Bible, offered the following definition:  “faith is believing in what you know isn’t true”.  By this he intended to imply that Christians know the Bible isn’t really true, but choose to believe it anyway; the Word of God asserts the opposite, that unbelievers know that their unbelief is foolishness, but pursue it anyway.

The unbeliever is compelled (being a rational creature since he has been created in the image of God) to rationalize his unbelief, and his construction of an alternate reality (Romans 1:23) to explain the basic questions of life is idolatry.  In ancient times, this rationalization manifested itself as belief in pagan deities [2]; in modern times, it tends to manifest itself as so-called scientific theories purporting to explain the origin of the universe and all life in it by purely naturalistic mechanisms [3].  Either way, once idolatry has rationalized away accountability to the God of the Bible, immorality emanating from “the lusts of their own hearts” quickly follows (Romans 1:24).

Finally, Romans 1:25 summarizes idolatry as the “[exchange of] the truth of God” (i.e., the revelation of God in the creation, in the human conscience, in Scripture, and in Christ) for “a lie”.  The particulars of the “lie” have changed down through history.  Today, they are most notably present in the wide-spread acceptance of the Big Bang cosmogony, evolution as the explanation of all life, and (as a result) secular humanism as the guiding ethic.  But whether the rationalization is a pantheon of pagan gods or the godless assertions of modern science, it’s idolatry none the less.

Endnotes:

[1] Even if man’s idolatry gives lip service to other ‘gods’, they are always gods made by men, fashioned after men’s likeness, acceptable to men, manageable by men (i.e., safe for sinners).

[2] No pagan belief system recognizes the Creator-creature distinction revealed in the Bible.  Pagan deities may be quantitatively superior to ordinary men (i.e., smarter, stronger, faster, etc.), but they are never qualitatively different than men (Cp., Numbers 23:19).

[3] Richard Dawkins, arguably today’s most prominent apologist for atheism, has confessed that, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”.


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