Tag Archives: Theology

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”.


A Picture of Imminence

“Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord . . . for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh . . . behold [He] standeth before the door. (James 5:7-9).

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines imminent as “ready to take place; especially [as] hanging threateningly over one’s head”.  An imminent event is one that could occur at any moment; it is not, however, an event that is necessarily near, nor one that must occur soon.  In the New Testament, the coming of the Lord is an event that is portrayed as being imminent.  Such a portrayal has led to the recognition that the Rapture of the Church, in which the Lord comes in the clouds to gather believers to Himself and return to heaven (John 14:2-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), is to be distinguished from the 2nd Coming and must take place before the start of the Tribulation period (i.e., Daniel’s 70th Week, the seven-year period that immediately precedes the 2nd Coming).  The coming of the Lord to rapture the Church is an imminent event; the coming of the Lord to establish His millennial kingdom on earth is not.

Because the New Testament teaches that the coming of the Lord is imminent, the rapture must take place before the Tribulation begins.  The New Testament teaches that the day of the Lord’s coming cannot be predicted (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32) and may happen at any moment (Philippians 4:5; James 5:7-9); for this reason believers are exhorted to be ready and watching for it at all times (Matthew 24:44; Mark 13:33; Luke 12:40; 21:36; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 4:7; Revelation 22:20).  This is the precious doctrine of the imminent return of Christ.  Imminency does not mean that the return of the Lord will occur soon, but that it can occur at any time.  Even the Apostle Paul in the first century, when teaching on the rapture, always counted himself as one who would be included in it—he taught (and believed) it could occur during his own lifetime (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17).

For imminency to be true, there can be no event prophesied in Scripture that must occur before the coming of the Lord.  For this reason, when the New Testament speaks of the imminent coming of the Lord, it cannot have the 2nd Coming of Christ (which happens at the end of the 7-year Tribulation period) in mind.  We are at least seven years away from the 2nd Coming (Daniel 9:27), so there is no sense in which it can be imminent.  Thus, when the New Testament speaks of the imminent coming of the Lord, it must refer to the Lord’s coming to rapture the Church (John 14:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17); but the rapture is only imminent if it is to take place before the Tribulation begins.

The picture of the Lord’s coming used by James is that of the Lord standing at the door (James 5:9).  Such a word picture very effectively communicates an important aspect of the rapture; namely, that the event is imminent in the sense that no preceding event has to happen before the rapture can occur.  If I were standing at your door, I could knock on it at any time.  The fact that I am at your doorstep does not mean I will immediately knock on your door, or that I will knock on your door in the next seven seconds, or seven minutes, or seven hours, or seven years, or even during your lifetime, but I could and I might; there is nothing else that has to happen before the conditions are in place for me to knock on your door.  If you know I am on your doorstep, you must live in constant expectation that I might knock on your door at any moment.  Contrast this with your expectation if you (who live in America) knew/believed that I was presently on vacation in Australia.  There is no way I can immediately knock on your door, nor can I do so in the next seven seconds, or seven minutes, or seven hours.  A non-trivial series of events would have to happen first, which takes a finite amount of time, before I can be standing on your doorstep with the possibility of knocking.  This is how believers should understand the coming of the Lord to rapture the Church.  It is an event that is imminent, but not necessarily near.

Many Christians today believe the return of the Lord is drawing near.  Of course, there have been many times in the past when Christians believed the coming of the Lord (i.e., the 2nd Coming) was near, and they were wrong.  As we look back on those times, we realize that it was not correct to say that the Lord’s 2nd Coming was near, since the geopolitical conditions necessary to initiate the Tribulation were not in place.  Nevertheless, the coming of the Lord in the event of the rapture could have taken place at any of those times, since the pre-tribulational view of the rapture recognizes there to be an undefined period of time between the rapture and the start of the seven-year Tribulation period (during which time God could have rapidly moved things into place).

What we observe today is God moving things into place in a more gradual way.  As we see the geopolitical landscape developing precisely as the Bible speaks of the time of the Tribulation period, we have objective reasons to believe that the return of the Lord may indeed be drawing near.  But Daniel’s 70th Week has not yet begun (Daniel 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3), so the 2nd Coming of Christ cannot take place for at least seven years.  That being said, the conditions appear ripe for the Tribulation countdown to begin.  Knowing that the rapture of the Church will take place before the Tribulation begins, we also realize that the time of the rapture may be very near.  Regardless, the rapture of the Church has always been imminent!


Why the Law Cannot Save

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law… for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

Many Christians fall into the error of believing that the reason the Law cannot save is because no one can keep it perfectly.  Scripture asserts, however, that even if one kept the Law (i.e., any system of works) perfectly, it cannot justify a fallen creature before God.

All men since Adam are born (even conceived; cf. Psalm 51:5) under the condemnation of God.  This is because, in the Garden, all men sinned in Adam (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12).  Adam was not merely our representative or federal head, he was our seminal head (Cp., Hebrews 7:9-10); this is even true for Eve because of the way God took her from the “rib” of Adam (Genesis 2:21-23), which is why all men are condemned “in Adam”, not “in Eve”.  It is for this reason that it is impossible that fallen man could be justified by keeping the Law (Romans 3:20); even if he refrained from sin perfectly from the moment of his birth until the time of his death, he would still stand condemned before God for his participation in the primeval sin of Adam (Romans 5:18).  No system of works or law-keeping can ever erase this past event of history, in which all descendants of Adam participated, and for this reason salvation must be by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 1:6-9).

Consequently, any denial that the Fall was a real, historical event must be rejected as anti-Biblical.  Such a view is not merely error, but heresy—it strikes at the very heart of the Gospel of Grace.  By denying that the sin of Adam was a real, historical event in which all men participated, the basis of the universal need for a Savior is destroyed, and works-based righteousness (in contrast to salvation by grace) becomes a theoretical possibility.  BUT THIS SCRIPTURE CATEGORICALLY REJECTS (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20)!

Man’s need is for a new Head.  Just as “in Adam” all men are sinners and stand condemned before God, “in Christ” we can be seen by God as being just as righteous as He is (1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:19).  We are born “in Adam”; being placed “in Christ” as our new Head is accomplished by the new birth (John 3:7; 2 Corinthians 5:17), appropriated by faith in Christ (Romans 2:24-25).  Have you put your faith in Christ and been born again?  If not, you stand condemned in Adam, for “in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22).


The Rapture — A Necessary Inference

With the rise of Dispensationalism in the 19th century, the use of a literal (i.e., grammatical-historical) hermeneutic to interpret Scripture began to be employed in an increasingly consistent manner in all areas of Biblical revelation.  This new (or renewed) consistency in the use of a literal hermeneutic naturally led to new insights in many areas of theology.  As an example, a literal hermeneutic applied to prophetic passages in the New Testament led students of the Bible to conclude that the Rapture of the Church was a phase of the return of Christ that had to be distinguished from the 2nd Coming.  That is, the yet future return of Christ will actually be comprised of two distinct events separated in time:  1) the Rapture of the Church, in which Christ comes in the air to receive His Bride and take her back to heaven with Him (e.g., John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), and 2) the 2nd Coming, in which Christ comes from heaven with all His saints to establish His kingdom on this present earth and personally reign over it for a thousand years (e.g., Matthew 24:30; Revelation 19:11-16; 20:4-6).

From its inception the idea that the future return of Christ would be comprised of two phases received two principal criticisms.  First, that there was no place in the New Testament that explicitly taught that there remained two future “comings” of Christ, separated in time; thus, such an understanding was based on inference alone.  Second, that this understanding of the return of Christ was a “new” doctrine; since it had never before been taught or believed by Christians of previous generations (neither the Reformers, nor the Church Fathers before them), it was very unlikely to be true.  These two criticisms will each be briefly addressed.

Regarding the first criticism, it is obvious that nowhere in the New Testament is it explicitly asserted that there remain two future “comings” of Christ.  The understanding that there are to be two comings, a Rapture event that is distinct and separated in time from the 2nd Coming proper, is indeed an inference.  Nevertheless, it is a necessary inference!  A rapture event distinct from the 2nd Coming is a necessary inference from all the New Testament passages regarding the return of Christ, some of which reveal He will come for His saints in the air and return with them to heaven (Rapture), others that He will come with His saints from heaven to the earth (2nd Coming).  There must be two phases to this return, separated in time, since all that is said concerning it cannot be fulfilled in a single event.  This is entirely analogous to the Old Testament passages regarding the Coming of Christ.  Nowhere in the Old Testament does it say that there would be two Comings of Christ (Messiah).  However, revelation is given of Messiah suffering and dying for the nation (e.g., Psalm 22; Isaiah 53), along with revelation of Messiah setting up His kingdom on earth and reigning over it forever (e.g., Psalm 2; Daniel 2:44; Zechariah 14:9).  These two bodies of revelation could not be fulfilled in a single “Coming”, so from the Old Testament perspective it was a necessary inference that Messiah would come twice [1] (i.e., the 1st Coming and the 2nd Coming proper; since the Rapture exclusively pertains to the Church, it was a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament).

Regarding the second criticism, it is conceded that the notion of a Rapture that is distinct and separated in time from the 2nd Coming was a new understanding that emerged in the 19th century as a result of Dispensational Theology’s emphasis on the use of a literal hermeneutic in prophetic passages of the Bible.  The earlier/classical Dispensationalists, including Darby, Scofield, and Walvoord, were all honest in admitting that Dispensationalism’s doctrine of the Rapture was a new understanding of Scripture not held by the Reformers or Church Fathers [2].  While many today are expending great energy in an attempt to find quotations from early Christian writers that indicate they believed in a Rapture that was distinct from the 2nd Coming, there is no necessity to do so.  Even if a few such genuine quotations are found [3], it will only serve to highlight the truth that Dispensationalism’s doctrine of the Rapture was an extreme, minority view held by virtually no one prior to the modern era.  But this in no way negates the validity of the doctrine.  Remember, the vast majority of Jewish believers failed to properly infer that the Old Testament taught Messiah must come twice, including the disciples of the Lord Himself, for which He rebuked them rather harshly (cf. Luke 24:25-27)!

In summary, Dispensationalism’s doctrine of the Rapture as distinct and separated in time from the 2nd Coming is a necessary inference from Scripture.  The fact that it is an inference in no way relegates it to being a second-class doctrine, nor does it mean that we cannot have full assurance of its certainty.  Furthermore, the fact that this particular doctrinal truth has only been recognized rather late in this present age is not a valid argument against its veracity.  God’s truth has been available on the pages of Scripture from the very moment it was recorded, but as Dr. Hannah notes “it is apparent that doctrinal development has taken place over the centuries and will continue to do so” [4].  Brethren, let’s boldly proclaim the doctrine of the imminent return of our Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., the Rapture) as the blessed hope of the Church (Titus 2:13)!

Endnotes:

[1] Some ancient Jewish rabbis, struggling to reconcile these two bodies of revelation regarding Messiah, postulated that there would be two Messiahs, a Messiah “ben Joseph” who would come to die for the nation, and a Messiah “ben David” who would come to reign over the nation.  Obviously this was not correct, but it nevertheless demonstrates their recognition that not all the revelation given in the Old Testament regarding the Coming of Messiah could be fulfilled in a single event.

[2] Although it is generally conceded by virtually all Church historians that the Church was predominantly Premillennial in eschatology for its first three centuries (until Augustine).

[3] Most such quotations that are offered are of a rather vague character, open to various interpretations.

[4] John Hannah, Our Legacy:  The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 27.


Inerrancy and the Biblical Covenants

The denial of Biblical inerrancy is a heresy that has plagued the Church to an increasing degree for the past several centuries; indeed, it continues to be debated by contemporary theologians.  For the Bible-believing Christian, the logical argument for the inerrancy of Scripture is straightforward:  1) God is true, and it is impossible for Him to lie (Romans 3:4; Hebrews 6:18); 2) God “breathed out” the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16); therefore, 3) the Scriptures are true.  Moreover, the Lord Jesus declared that “[God’s] Word is truth” (John 17:17).  To assert that the Word of God is truth is infinitely more than to affirm it to be merely true.  That God’s Word is truth demands that it is not only true, but that it is the standard against which the veracity of every proposition is to be measured (Isaiah 8:20; Acts 17:11); how could Scripture be such a standard if it contains errors?   Scripture’s testimony to its own inerrancy is clear; so clear, in fact, that Harold Lindsell proclaimed in The Battle for the Bible that no one who denied Biblical inerrancy could properly be called an evangelical.

While such Scriptural arguments have no influence with unbelieving critics, Neo-orthodox and Liberal theologians who have desired to continue under the mantle of evangelicalism have felt the need to defend their denial of an inerrant Bible.  The Neo-orthodox defense has been to assert that the totality of the 66 books of the Bible is not the Word of God, but merely contains the Word of God.  Thus, any alleged error can be conveniently ascribed to a portion of the Bible that is not (in their reckoning) the Word of God; in this way the Neo-orthodox theologian can have at the same time an inerrant Word of God and a Bible that contains errors.  Difficulty arises immediately, however, in objectively determining what parts of the Bible are the Word of God.

The Liberal defense has much in common with that of Neo-orthodoxy, but there are differences in approach.  The Liberal who wishes to be considered an evangelical will generally affirm that the Bible is free of error when it addresses subjects related to the gospel and other purely “spiritual” matters, but he allows for errors in non-soteriological areas of Biblical revelation.  The commonality with the Neo-orthodox position is obvious in that both approaches result in a Bible that is inerrant in some places and errant in others.  Again, the problem is that no objective way of “rightly dividing the Word of truth” into its inerrant and errant divisions can be formulated.

There is a general consensus, however, among all who deny strict Biblical inerrancy, that the portions of both the Old and New Testaments that purport to document the historical record contain errors (perhaps an innumerable multitude of them!).  In spite of the painstaking historical and archeological research of men like Sir William Ramsey, which has demonstrated the accuracy and amazing precision of countless historical facts as recorded in Scripture, the naturalistic bias of the Liberal theologian convinces him that there are historical errors in the Bible.  After all, God used men to record these histories, and men are fallible, so it should not surprise anyone that these histories contain errors—so the thinking goes.  Somehow, the Liberal is not troubled by this particular concession on Biblical inerrancy.  Believing he can still trust God’s revelation regarding the gospel, he readily concedes the inerrancy of historical portions of the Bible.  Is there really any harm in such a seemingly insignificant compromise?  As long as a knowledge of the way of salvation is preserved, is Biblical history really that important?  To address such questions, one must consider God’s purpose in including history as part of the Bible.  Why has He done so?  The answer, in large measure, involves the Biblical covenants.

At the heart of Dispensational Theology is a right understanding of the Biblical covenants.  God has chosen to constrain His relationship with mankind, to a significant extent, through covenants into which He has entered voluntarily, which He has recorded in written form, and which He has preserved in the Bible; these covenants, in chronological order, are the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Land, Davidic and New covenants.  William F. Albright, dean of American archeologists during the 20th century, is well-known for his observation that the God of the Israelites is unique among all the ancient cultures, in that He entered into covenants with His people.  The Biblical covenants and their progressive outworking in time have profound implications for the veracity of the historical portions of the Bible.

Covenants in the Bible are nothing more than what are termed “contracts” today.  Contracts are implemented to govern relationships between the parties involved, as well as to provide a standard against which to measure the performance of each party relative to their commitments under the terms of the contract.  In Scripture, it is the Biblical covenants that govern God’s relationship with men.  God measures the actions of men relative to their obligations under the applicable covenant(s).  The Mosaic covenant, for example, placed the nation of Israel under the obligation of keeping a huge number of commands (613 by Jewish reckoning).  When Israel failed to keep the terms of the Mosaic covenant, God raised up prophets to indict the nation for breach of contract/covenant (Isaiah 1:2-4; Micah 6:1-2).  The God of Israel took the terms of that covenant seriously and literally.  Other covenants, such as the Abrahamic covenant and it’s associated sub-covenants (i.e., the Land, Davidic and New covenants), are unconditional covenants; while Israel is a party to these covenants with God, no obligations are imposed on the nation under the terms of these covenants.  Thus, one never finds prophets to Israel or Judah indicting the nation for failure to adhere to the terms of the unconditional covenants.

On the other hand, in these same covenants God voluntarily obligated Himself to keep a multitude of promises.  God promised to bless and prosper the nation of Israel in the Mosaic covenant, although His blessing was contingent upon their obedience under the terms of that covenant (Exodus19:5-8; Leviticus 26:3-39; Deuteronomy 28:1-68).  When the nation of Israel failed to honor its commitments under the Mosaic covenant, culminating in the rejection of the long-awaited Messiah as King (Deuteronomy 17:14-15; 18:15-19), God was no longer bound to honor His contingent commitments under this covenant.  Under the unconditional covenants, however, God remains obligated to keep all the promises He has made, irrespective of Israel’s behavior, since God entered into these covenants with no conditions whatever placed on the nation.

What has all this to do with the historical record included in Scripture?  The performance of both men and God under the obligations of the applicable Biblical covenant(s) play out in the course of history.  When God, through the ministry of His prophets, indicts the nation of Israel for its failure to keep the terms of the Mosaic covenant, He does so by calling their attention to the historical record (e.g., Hosea 4, 12-13); Israel’s failure under the covenant is contrasted with God’s faithfulness to His obligations under it, again with an appeal to the historical record (e.g., Deuteronomy 8:1-4).  Consider, however, not the conditional Mosaic covenant that has passed away (2 Corinthians 3:7), but the unconditional covenants that remain very much in effect to this day.  Although men (i.e., the nation of Israel) have no commitments to honor under them, God in the unconditional Biblical covenants has made many promises that He must keep.

The historical record included in the Scriptures is where inerrancy and the Biblical covenants intersect.  Just as God cites the historical record in evaluating men’s performance under the applicable covenant(s), so also men may measure the faithfulness of God with respect to the commitments He has made in these same covenants.  Therefore, the Scriptures must be inerrant, not only in the “spiritual” truths they reveal, but even in the historical record they preserve, for it is against the historical record of the Bible that one measures the performance of God relative to the Biblical covenants.  In the unconditional covenants, God promises to do specific things throughout the history of the world, and the Bible is the inerrant record of history that demonstrates His faithfulness (e.g., Psalm 89; 105).

If the Neo-orthodox and Liberal theologians are correct in their belief that the historical portions of the Bible contain errors, then we have no sure testimony to the faithfulness of God.  “God forbid:  yea, let God be true, but every man a liar” (Romans 3: 4).  Rather, God’s righteous character, demonstrated in history, is vindicated in His Word, which includes an inerrant record of history.  Of course, some of this “history” is recorded in advance, known as prophecy, but it’s historicity is just as sure.  Brethren, don’t compromise on the inerrancy of the Bible, not even in the so-called historical portions of Scripture, for God’s very character is at stake!


%d bloggers like this: