Why Is the Old Testament so Horrifically Violent?

This question isn’t new. Since I entered the realm of apologetics and theological studies in my late teens I have been confronted with it many times. Often the inquiry has been little more than an embittered accusation of cosmic barbarism. But recently, particularly as our church has gone through the book of Judges, the query – in multifarious forms – has been sincerely raised again and again: Why is the Old Testament so violent? It’s a legitimate question. Brutality emerges as early as Genesis 4 with the slaughter of Abel, and the theme continues through to the second chapter of Malachi. Covenants are sealed in blood, sacrifices involve butchery, and on repeat we see gory battles and the massacre of entire civilizations. The “Old Testament God” has been accused of brutish catachresis, and on the sidelines Christians all too conveniently (and often embarrassingly) try to excuse the behavior of God or misdirect minds from the content of Scripture. Are the myriad of accusations against the Sovereign valid? Well, certainly not all of them; but even if some of our confusion around the graphic gore of the OT is legitimized (be we Christian, skeptic, or scorner), we must acknowledge that we are questioning or accusing the Creator from the absolute framework and moral concept of goodness that only He could have established.

But even therein lies an issue for some. Are we left with a “do as I say, not as I do” God? Well, you may chuckle, but the answer to that is yea…kind of. He is infinite, after all, and we finite. He is self-centered, and rightfully so, while we are self-centered but sinfully so. He is not primarily an example to follow but a Judge and (to His children) a Father to be obeyed. So that answers two pressing issues: we must be extremely careful when leveling interrogation against God because He is (1) God (with all the convoluted glory that entails) and He is (2) the beginning and end of all absolute goodness and purity which we may attempt to use as an indictment against Him. So, with those realities established, and while bearing them in mind, we can endeavor to answer this enormous inquiry: Why the violence in the Old Testament? 

I think there are 5 answers to this question which I will briefly explain:

God employs warfare to show His people how to fight well. 

This reality is stated bluntly in Judges 3. God allowed Canaanites to remain in the land of promise “in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before.” What we see clearly in the Pentateuch, the Historical books, and the Prophets is that the art of combat was passed from one generation to another. There were always battles to be fought, and the people of God were commissioned to fight well to defend their people and represent their King. Even today, we learn how to fight, both literally and spiritually from what we find in the Scriptures.

God unleashes brutality as a consequence to sin.

When God looked upon the landscape of His creation, the word that flowed from His Divine mouth was “Good.” In beauty the Lord crafted the world; and sin catastrophically marred that beauty. Violence, aggression, and brutality are used and unleashed by God but the culprit behind these is sin itself. So much of the barbarism of the Old Testament is the outworking, the consequence, or the eradication of persistent wickedness.

God wields violence to protect and purify His people. 

This is a common motif in Scripture: violence and bloodshed are wielded by the Lord to protect His people from the compromise that would undoubtedly come from the invasion of foreign nations. Just as any loving father would act in aggression toward those who threatened the innocence of his children, so God – as the preeminent Father – responds in holy vengeance against those who would seek the ultimate destruction of His children.

God through bloodshed preserves the line of Christ. 

Again and again we see empires rise in the Old Testament seekingly to overthrow and annihilate the people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel are embarrassed, demoralized, enslaved, and tortured. Through patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings God brings deliverance to ultimately safeguard the line of Messiah. Had the people of Jehovah embraced pacifism they would have been obliterated long before the Savior entered the frame and brought justification to the world.

God uses barbarism to foreshadow the passion of Jesus. 

Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 speak with uncomfortable precision of the suffering Messiah. In the cross and resurrection of Christ we see the convergence of the holy war pattern established in the Old Testament. On the cross Jesus absorbed the furious condemnation of God, and in the resurrection He secured the final victory for the people of God.

Undoubtedly the questions swarming around the violent aggression of the Old Testament will persist, but as Christians we see glimpses of God’s purposes and glory emerging from the darkness to pierce the light.

Semper Reformanda

One Tremendous Draught of Love

“Then Simon Peter,having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?” (John 18:10-11)

This incident is reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke but only John names Peter and Malchus. Peter’s courage in the face of their enemies was surely great, but his ability to aim and his lack of understanding seem to be greater. Because John doesn’t tell us why Peter did this it is hard to know his motive. On the surface it does appear to very foolish to attack a band of Roman soldiers when there’s only one of you and a few hundred of them. But maybe Peter thought the others would join in as well in some kind of heroic last stand? Or maybe he thought Jesus would at that very moment call down the heavenly host to wipe out all of God’s enemies and restore the kingdom to Israel? Whatever he thought, Peter was sure convinced of it and took abrupt action. Thankfully, Jesus put an immediate stop to it, and as far as we know the rest of the soldiers would’ve been drawing their own swords and beginning their charge. But again, the words of Jesus have power. Power to stop the rageful reaction of Peter, power to stop any response the soldiers were thinking of doing, power that in reality probably saved Peter’s life in this moment.[1]

This is yet another of those instances where Peter behaves rashly, another instance where it is too easy to look down on or even laugh at Peter. But, don’t be too quick to do so, we’re much more like Peter than we think. Don’t we also, at times without much thought, find ourselves acting quickly and rashly? I’d say it is very common for us to zealously defend our beliefs or our behavior without much thought if God approves of it or not.[2]Peter’s example reminds us of the benefits of zeal but it also reminds us to keep our zeal caged by the clear commands of God in His Word so we don’t run over one another in our fervor for personal passions and preferences.

“Put the sword into its sheath…” Jesus says, “…shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?”

The cup of the Father is why Peter must sheath his sword. In the Old Testament the imagery of ‘the cup’ is often used to portray suffering or the wrath of God. Isaiah 51 calls it the ‘cup of staggering’ and the ‘bowl of wrath.’ Ezekiel 23 describes it as the ‘cup of horror and desolation.’ Revelation 14 and 16 say it is the ‘cup of God’s anger’ and the ‘cup of the fury of God’s wrath.’ Psalm 75:8 sums it up well when it says, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and He pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”

Earlier in a moment of disputing greatness Jesus had asked His disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). A bit earlier in the same garden Jesus cried out “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39) He asked Peter, “…shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given Me?”

The answer is yes, He must drink it.

If you’ve ever wondered what Jesus did on the cross, if you’ve ever been confused as to what actually occurred as Jesus hung there dying for sinners, and if you require clarity as to why Jesus died…see before us in v11 the wrathful reality of the cursed cup. The full force of hell and the full weight of our sin, Jesus lifted the cup of the Father’s fury, and as Charles Spurgeon said, “…in one tremendous draught of love, Jesus drank damnation dry.” Or as one old hymn puts it, “Death and the curse were in that cup, Oh Christ, twas full for Thee; but Thou hast drained the last dark dregs, tis empty now for me.”[3]

As we see our Savior enter a garden perhaps you remember another garden where it all began. Adam began life in a garden, Christ came at the end of his life to a garden. Adam faithlessly sinned in a garden, Christ faithfully began drinking His Father’s cup in a garden. Adam hid himself in garden, Christ did not shrink back but presented Himself in a garden. In Eden the sword was drawn barring the way back, in Gethsemane the sword was sheathed paving the way the long awaited redemption. The symbolism between the first Adam and the Second Adam is not accidental or incidental here. In Adam all were lost, Christ could say, “Of those whom you gave Me, none are lost.”[4]

We’ve seen the contrast of Judas’ depravity and Jesus’ divinity, and seen the contrast of Peter’s rage and Jesus’ righteousness. 

What should our response to this be? 

Every person who ever lives will one day drink from one of two cups. If you’re an unbeliever I’m truly glad you’re reading this so that you can hear this message. If you continue to reject this Christ and remain in unbelief, see in these soldiers what you’ll one day do before this very same Christ. Fall down to the ground in humility before the King of kings and Lord of lords. The result of rejecting Christ is to drink the cup of the Father’s fury for all eternity. Flee your sin, turn to Christ, and be saved! For those who have empty handed come to Christ in faith and found so great a salvation you also will drink a cup for all eternity. A cup of blessing described in Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

That Jesus would give Himself for us in this way, encourages us to give ourselves to Him in return.[5]May you do so, again and again.


[1]Grant R. Osborne, John. – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018) page 413.

[2]John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries – John (accessed via Accordance Bible Software) 2.8.19.

[3]R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1999) page 422.

[4]Richard D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2014) page 491.

[5]Ibid., page 498.

Who Is the Savior?

One of the most glorious truths we learn about God from the Old Testament is that he is the Savior. Not only is he the sovereign Creator (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 33:9-11) and righteous Judge of all the earth (Ps. 7:11; Ps. 50:6), but he is also the gracious Savior, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:-57; Ps. 68:20; 86:5-15). The Old Testament in its entirety is, in one sense, the history of God’s saving and redemptive acts.

In Isaiah, the Lord declares to his covenant people: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:1-3). This truth is then restated and affirmed in the most exclusive of terms: “I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior” (43:11; see also Isa. 45:21; Hos. 13:4).

However, centuries later, we come upon a band of lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night near Bethlehem, surrounded by the shining brilliance of the glory of the Lord, and hearing the angelic proclamation: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11; cf. 1:47). This child, born of the virgin Mary, was given the name Jesus, for he had come to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21-23). And this indeed is what he accomplished by his sinless life, his obedience unto death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. Jesus Christ is the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42; Acts 5:31; Phil. 3:20; 2 Tim. 1:10).

Are THere Two Saviors or One?

Is there a contradiction here? If there is no savior besides the Lord, and if salvation belongs to the Lord (Ps. 3:8), can there be another savior? The only way our answer can be “yes” is if this other savior is actually not another but God himself. And this indeed is the clear-yet-mysterious answer revealed to us in Scripture. The good news of great joy proclaimed to the shepherds that night long ago was that the Lord their God, the Holy One of Israel, their Savior, had come to dwell among them in the person of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Therefore, throughout the New Testament, it is not just God the Father but the Lord Jesus Christ—the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God— who is declared to be the Savior. And one of the clearest places we discover this doctrine is in Paul’s letter to Titus.

Our Great God and Savior

Compared to its length, the book of Titus refers to the truth of God as Savior more than any other book in the New Testament. Paul speaks of God the Father as being our Savior (Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4) as well as Jesus Christ, God the Son (Titus 1:4; 2:13; 3:6). These references to “our Savior” are found coupled together in each chapter, with God mentioned first each time and Jesus shortly after, and serve as a powerful testimony to the deity of Christ.[1]

But one verse in particular stands out above the rest. It is found in Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul declares that the one who has given himself for us to redeem us is none other than “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2:13). There are several features of this verse that are important to consider. First, grammatically, “Jesus Christ” is said to be in apposition to the preceding phrase. This means that it essentially serves as an alternate name for “our great God and Savior.”[2]
Second, the way this verse is laid out in the original language makes it clear that the terms “God and Savior” both refer to Jesus.[3] (A similar construction is found in 2 Peter 1:1: “…by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”)

Third, the adjective “great” is never used to describe God in the New Testament. God’s greatness was assumed, but to apply this term to Christ would be rather significant. Fourth, we know that Paul is clearly referring to Jesus by this phrase since it is the Son, not the Father, who will be revealed at the second coming (Matt. 16:27; 1 Tim. 6:14; 1 Thess. 4:15-16; 2 Thess. 2:8).

Finally, this future appearance of Jesus is described as “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior.” Jesus is the glory of God the Father (see also Luke 9:28-35; 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Heb. 1:3)! But in this letter, Paul also refers to the first coming of Jesus—his past appearance—by saying that the grace of God has appeared (Titus 2:11), and that the goodness and loving kindness of God has appeared (3:4). In other words, Jesus is the grace of God made manifest. He is the goodness and loving kindness personified. He is the glory of God incarnate.

So, who is the Savior? Is God the Savior or is Jesus the Savior? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Our Triune God is the Savior. The message of both the Old and New Testaments is that salvation belongs to our God. It is purposed by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and applied by the Spirit. As Fred Sanders writes, “Christian salvation comes from the Trinity, happens through the Trinity, and brings us home to the Trinity.”[4]

Why Does ANY OF This Matter?

This of eternal significance because, as Jesus himself taught, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). The Apostle John also makes this teaching abundantly clear in his epistles when he writes: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23; 2 John 9). To profess to worship the one true God, and yet deny the teaching of his only-begotten Son—as well as his apostles and prophets—that he indeed is God the Son, is to fail to worship God rightly.

If the Jesus you claim to believe in for salvation is not your “great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13), the eternal Word (John 1:1-3, 14, 18), “God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5), and the one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19; 2:9), then you are believing in a false Christ and are still in your sins. If your confession is not, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), you have not believed or obeyed the Son, and the wrath of God remains upon you (John 3:36). This is the truth that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other religious groups need to hear.

But the good news of great joy remains that salvation belongs to our Triune God, and he is mighty to save (Zeph. 3:17).

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-10).

 


[1] M. J. Harris, “Salvation,” ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 763. See the discussion in Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008) 173-185.

[2] Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 103-04.

[3] The notes from the NET Bible provide a helpful explanation: “The construction in Greek is known as the Granville Sharp rule, named after the English philanthropist-linguist who first clearly articulated the rule in 1798. Sharp pointed out that in the construction article-noun-καί-noun (where καί [kai] = “and”), when two nouns are singular, personal, and common (i.e., not proper names), they always had the same referent” (https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Titus+2).

[4] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 10.

The Finale of History

You may be as wishful as you’d like to be, but the matter of final judgment isn’t a matter of opinion. It will come, and it will bring history as we know it, to a close.

“Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).

Paul in his famous sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, concludes by saying, “The times of ignorance (v23) God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Paul’s sermon conclusion told us as much when he said God has given us assurance that He will judge the world in righteousness by a man He appointed. What’s the assurance we have and who is the man? The Man is Jesus Christ and the assurance is His resurrection from the dead. 

What will occur at the judgment?

Christ will Judge

Jesus speaks of His judgment as something the Father has given to Him. John 5:26-28, “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself. And He has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” For this reason Paul, when giving Timothy the charge to preach the Word in and out of season, speaks of Jesus as the “Judge of the living and the dead” in 2 Timothy 4:1. We shouldn’t also miss the implied meaning in Paul’s statement of the “judgment seat of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:10, that Christ is the One who judges.

All Mankind will be Judged

It will be a rude awakening for those who believe the judgment of God is only a metaphorical or a matter for the present moment, for all mankind will be judged. Hebrews 9:27 says “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” This judgment will be so thorough that we’ll have to give an account for every idle word we’ve ever spoken (Matt. 12:36). Luke 12:2-3 similarly shows us, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” It is a common belief that only the unbelievers will be judged at the final judgment, but Scripture tells us all mankind, believer and unbeliever alike, will be judged. Romans 2:6-10, “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.”

For the unbeliever, the wrath of God has already been poured out on them in various measures in life because they have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). They have lived foolishly, trusting in their own selves rather than in God and the gospel of His Son. So their end will be the total culmination of the wrath they received in part during their life. For the believer, there is no wrath and fury but instead no condemnation (Rom. 8:1) because they have lived wisely, trusting in God and in the gospel of His Son. So too, their end will be the total culmination of the grace they received in part during their life.

The Saints will Judge

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul lays out his argument about how to ought to deal kindly and graciously when we wrong one another. In v2-3 he makes an interesting statement when he says, “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” Here Paul uses the careful and considerate judgment we ought to use with one another with the judgment we will use in the final judgment. This does mean that believers will have some measure of judgment over the world where careful consideration must be employed. But I think it also speaks of our union with Christ. When He judges the world and all in it we will in part join with Him in that judgment and feel a sense of agreement and approval when it takes place. But its not only the world that we’ll join in judging, it’s angels too. Referring to our judging angels in 2 Peter 2:4 we find that God “…did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…” Jude agrees in v6 where he says angels, “…did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, He (God) has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” Why does God allow these things to take place on angels? Jude 5 gives us the answer when he says God destroys those who do not believe.

All of these things are good and profitable for us to consider because an awareness of what will take place at the final judgment moves us to live lives that are pleasing to God in the present.

The final judgment will be the finale of history, we must prepare accordingly.

A Far Nobler Aim: Newton on Grace in Debate

John Newton’s fame to most evangelicals’ centers around his testimony of transformation from participating in the slave trade to becoming a believer who would write the most popular Christian hymn of all time “Amazing Grace.”

While that hymn captures the essence of Newton’s biography and theology, there is much more to learn from the man. The Banner of Truth publishes a four-volume set of his works that I highly commend (https://banneroftruth.org/us/store/christian-living/works-john-newton/). Volume 1 contains many letters that Newton wrote with one entitled “On Controversy.” In this letter, one might think that John Newton lived in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs when it comes to discussing theology. Especially with the issue of social justice, social media does not resemble a place where grace is shown by brothers and sisters seeking to work through these issues. Newton’s letter is worth the read and can be viewed in its entirety here: https://founders.org/2017/07/08/on-controversy/.

Consider a few thoughts from Newton that captured my attention and caused me to examine my own heart.

In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now.

As Newton counsels this fellow minister who prepares to engage in theological debate, he tells him to remember to treat him as a brother in Christ. It should startle us as believers to consider how we speak to one another online when it comes to debating important issues. Would we speak to each other in such a manner if we were face-to-face? Do we show more grace to the pagan we work with or are related to by blood than one who is washed by the blood of the Lamb that we happen to disagree with? This is not encouragement to pursue a squishy love that never calls out errors. Rather, this is brotherly affection that should mark our engagements with those who are a part of the household of faith. The next time that you decide to discuss a point raised by a brother or sister you disagree with, remind yourself that this individual is one you will spend eternity with. Will that shape how you respond to them?

But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger.

Suppose you believe the person you are engaging with is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, should you not pity and mourn over the eternal doom of that person? Newton’s advice should be kept close to our hearts. Yes, we should call out false teachers, those who preach another gospel, and declare that their eternal fate is hell lest they repent. However, if we do this with a grin or glee in our hearts, there is repentance and examination that needs to take place in our lives. Anathematizing people on Facebook and Twitter happens frequently. Do we grasp the eternal weightiness that comes along with that view and are we praying for such ones to truly behold Christ if we think they know Him not?

Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.

Social media helped me connect with fellow Calvinists, Particular (Reformed Baptists), and like-minded brothers. This has been a great blessing and joy to me in my life and ministry. However, it grieves me to see that the hashtag #1689Twitter became synonymous with men on Twitter who were ungracious, uncaring, and overtly harsh in their interactions with others, specifically regarding issues surrounding social justice. While I think the hashtag was used in an unfair way to avoid critical discussions, it saddened me to see a noble confession expressing the doctrines of grace become connected with ungraciousness. Newton’s words are needed for everyone who claims to believe in the doctrines of grace. If I might be so bold, may the doctrines explained in TULIP not be lodged in our minds intellectually but be imprinted on our hearts experientially. No two words should be further apart: cantankerous and Calvinist. Those of us who hold strongly to the doctrines of grace should heed the instructions given to us by a champion of amazing grace.

If our zeal is embittered by expressions of anger, invective, or scorn, we may think we are doing service of the cause of truth, when in reality we shall only bring it into discredit.

Believers are called to have a passion and zeal for truth. There are times when a godly anger should be demonstrated by us when we see the gospel distorted and twisted. Yet, this cannot be a 24/7 phenomenon. In fact, though, it is easy for us to tell ourselves we are warriors for the truth when in fact our angry theological tirades are a pious cloak for selfishness and egotism. If we appoint ourselves as commentators on every single issue that arises in the world or evangelicalism, people begin to label us, sigh when they see our posts, and will remark, “There he/she goes again.” Content does matter when it comes to theology. Tone does as well.

What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?

Out of all that Newton says in this letter, perhaps this is the one that cuts the sharpest. Newton asks a pointed question: what advantage is there if you win the debate but dishonor God? In our theological discussions, do we ask ourselves if we are seeking to honor God or display our intellect? Are we seeking to prompt others to glorify God or to stand in awe of our debating skills? What kind of heart does the Lord delight in and accept? There dwells not room for a broken, contrite heart and an exalted, selfish heart. 

John Newton understood the need for addressing theological controversies. Yet, in his wisdom, he accurately noted that controversy should not be something we are always looking to get into. Sadly, the social justice debates are the latest example where a controversy is bemoaned while platforms are being built at the same time. Let the world watch how we engage one another amidst real differences and let them be amazed. How will they be amazed? By seeing that we do not handle our differences like cable TV. Instead, we come together around the Word of God, loving one another as members of Christ’s household, and seeking to honor the God who showed us amazing grace.

How can we, who have been shown such grace, not show it to each other?

A Summary of Doctrine

I was recently asked to write out a summary of what I believe. My immediate thought was something like “What? How in the world could I do that briefly? Is it even possible to do so?” Upon further thought I began to come around to the idea thinking it’d be a good exercise for me to state succinctly what I believe. After all if I cannot state it briefly do I really know it? Normally I’d encourage a more lengthy statement on each of the following paragraphs, but for me this proved to be an encouragement.

What follows is what I wrote out. Be sure to note, this is not the totality of what I believe, but it does form an adequate summary. May it encourage you and lead you to deeper study and stronger praise of the God we love.

1) Doctrine of God: it all starts here. If we move ahead too quickly we have no foundation. That God is, and that God is holy, holy, holy ought to be the foundation of all our theology. He is ever three and ever one – He has graciously revealed Himself in the book of creation and the grander book of Scripture – He is independent, being the sole Creator and source of all things – nothing comes to pass apart from His providence – He is incomprehensible yet knowable – He is immutable yet mobile – He is wrathful and jealous – He is merciful and gracious – and He alone is wise. This is our God.

2) Doctrine of Man: That the doctrine of man comes after the doctrine of God is appropriate, for man comes from and lives all his life before the face of God. In his original state man was made in the image of God, immortal and the highest creature in all of creation. In his fallen state man fell from our original condition into ruin, misery, and spiritual/physical death. Still in the image of God but now marred from sin, man is born under the judgment and wrath of God being creatures at enmity with God, who now live a life totally affected from our sin. In our redeemed state man is brought into peace with God and enjoys having the very peace of God, through Christ. Having been sinners who could do nothing but sin, being redeemed enables man to grow in holiness and communion with God, while we look forward to being with Him one day forever where sin will no longer be a reality.

3) Doctrine of Christ: being true God He became true Man, born of the virgin Mary, lived a perfect righteous life, suffered under Pontius Pilate, died on the cross bearing God’s wrath in our place as our substitute, laid in a tomb, rose three days later defeating the world – the flesh – and the devil, appeared to many, and ascended to heaven to rule and reign at the Father’s right hand, from which He’ll come again to judge the living and the dead, ushering in His kingdom in full. He is our true Prophet, our true Priest, and our true King.

4) Doctrine of the Spirit: Hovering over the waters of creation the Spirit of God brings the work of new creation by applying the work of Christ to the hearts of the elect. Delighted among the community of the Trinity, the Spirit reveals who God is through His inspired Scriptures, regenerating, enlightening and illuminating the elect, enabling them to repent and believe the gospel, He applies, sanctifies, nourishes, gifts, keeps, and ripens His fruit within God’s people.

5) Doctrine of Salvation: From before time began, God, has given some grace to all men and given all grace to some men. In an everlasting covenant, God has saved His elect. How? He predestined them, called them, regenerated them, granted them repentance and faith, justified them, adopted them, brought them into union with Him, is now sanctifying them, and will one glorify them. All of this is done through Christ and applied to the hearts of the elect by the Spirit. There are no dropouts in this golden chain found in Romans 8:29-30. This is also wondrously summarized in Eph. 1:3-14, where we see all three Persons in the Trinity active: the Father planning and choosing, the Son redeeming, and the Spirit applying and sealing. 

6) Doctrine of the Church: being the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel, the New Testament Church is the body, building, and bride of Christ. A people pursued and purchased by Christ’s blood that are to be zealous for good works. A people who are marked out in this world by their right worship, right preaching, right practice of the sacraments (Baptism dealing with entrance into the visible church and the Lord’s Supper dealing with ongoing covenant renewal), and right exercise of discipline. This people is led by called and qualified elders and deacons, and is now on mission in this world with the message of Christ the King; who not only rules over this world but will one day fully bring His kingdom into this world. The Church isn’t perfect but it is the dearest place on earth, the epicenter of God’s activity in this world, and a foretaste of heaven.

7) Doctrine of Last Things: One day, just as Christ ascended bodily to rule and reign He will return bodily to make all sad things untrue. There is no secret rapture of the Church, but only two advents: the first in His incarnation and the second in His consummation. His return will be the finale of this life, as all will stand bodily before the judgment seat of Christ, from which He will usher the Church into the eternal glory in the New Heavens and New Earth and cast the wicked into eternal torment in hell. On this day sin’s very presence will be removed forever and God will dwell with His people and be their God, and they as His people will be enthralled by His Holy-Holy-Holy presence forevermore.

The Jesusless Testimony

The title of this post is hard to type, let alone hear.

For a follower of Christ, having been born of the Spirit (John 3), having been given a new heart and new spirit—His Spirit—(Ezekiel 36), having been adopted as God’s son/daughter according to His gracious foreordination (Ephesians 1) through faith (Galatians 3), and having been secured by the faithfulness of an immutable God (2 Timothy 2), to share a testimony that is void of the One, namely Jesus Christ, who made this possible seems like an oxymoron and yet this has been my observation of late.

Even the above statement, full of bibliocentric, theological richness is neglectful of proclaiming the simplicity of the Gospel. Let’s begin with some basics…

What is a Testimony and What is Its Purpose?

The New Testament uses the word “testify” or “testimony” (or one of its derivations) thirty-five times (ESV). In everyone of those times the same Greek root, martus”, is used. It simply means “to confirm or attest to something on the basis of personal knowledge or belief, bear witness, be a witness.”[1] We would call the one who is testifying a “witness.”

So it should be no surprise to hear Jesus tell his disciples that they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my [martus]” (transliteration added).

Witnesses testify. Period.

But of what? Look at these examples of martus from the book of Acts:

Acts 10:42—Peter said, “And [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead.”

Acts 18:5—“…Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”

Acts 23:11—“…the Lord stood by [Paul] and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify also in Rome.”

Acts 28:23—“…From morning till evening [Paul] expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus…”

Jesus, his divine identity, his sinless perfection, his substitutionary, sacrificial, atoning death, his triumphant resurrection, and his promise to save from eternal death by giving eternal life to all who come to God through Him is the fundamental message of which we have been called to testify of as witnesses. Without this message there is no salvation from God’s wrath upon the sinner. This is the Good New of which we testify (Romans 10:17).

A Testimony of God’s Salvation through Jesus’ Life & Death

My desire, here, is to point out that one may testify of how terrible their life used to be (drugs, chaos, loneliness, hate, fear) before coming to church (as if these four walls are some sort of magical converter) and then testify about how wonderful their life is now (peace, contentment, joy, friends, freedom) and never share the Jesus who gave them life, righteousness, and peace with God.

What a tragedy it is to have a Jesusless Gospel and Jesusless Testimony because we can’t look past how Christ has changed our lives to see and share the real Treasure, Jesus himself!

Simplicity in Sharing a Jesus-filled Testimony

Mark Dever, in his book “The Deliberate Church”, simplifies the Gospel message into four easy-to-remember words that serves to prevent us from falling into simply sharing the benefits of our salvation and failing to share the Savior.

God—A holy creator and righteous judge who created us to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever

Man—A rebellious creature who rejected God and sinned against His holy character and law

Christ—Fully God, fully man, sent to die the death we deserved so God might both punish our sin in Christ and forgive it in us

Response—Repent & believe. Sinful man must turn from his sinful ways toward God and believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins already committed.[2]

Could it really be that simple; God-Man-Christ-Response? Do all the details of God’s gracious election, my sin-filled past, Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death & victorious resurrection, and what is now required of me and given to me in Christ when I repent and believe fit into this four-word reminder?

Yes. And notice: God is the beginning, Christ is the hero, and the glorious ending brings me back to God. My only contribution to my, now, wonderful victorious life was the sin that made it necessary. Thank you Jesus!

These four little words are ready to be unpacked in their entirety as you share the glories of Christ before a large audience or piece-by-piece as you, over a cup of coffee as the weeks and years pass by, point your listener(s) back to the Christ who saved you! Jesus is the not just the source of your salvation but he is also the subject of your salvation. As J.I. Packer so aptly and succinctly stated, “God saves sinners.” God is the instigator and that actor in our salvation. The only thing we bring is our sin. Jesus is, and must remain, the star of our story!

Christian-When you’re asked to share your testimony make sure that you do more, far more, than testify of how great your life is now; testify of how great your Savior is!

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 617). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Dever, Mark; Alexander, Paul (2005). The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, Il. Crossway.

Those Whom He Called He Also Sanctified

The call to holy living is made repeatedly throughout Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians. Though the church was already known for their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope (1 Thess. 1:3), Paul nevertheless reminds them that the will of God is their sanctification (4:3). They had already been charged to walk in a manner worthy of the God who had called them into his own kingdom and glory (2:12), yet Paul writes to remind them that they had not been called “for impurity, but in holiness” (4:7). In typical Pauline fashion, he then concludes his letter with specific exhortations to holiness (4:1-5:22).

The unmistakable impression we are given—not just in this particular letter but throughout all Scripture—is that Christians are responsible for their progress in sanctification. We must strive for holiness (Heb. 12:14). Only those who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13). But just before he finishes writing to this rather exemplary church, Paul includes a short prayer in verses 23-24 that seems to place the burden of sanctification elsewhere. Here, we discover the doctrine of the preservation of the saints: that those whom God calls and justifies, he also sanctifies.

May God Himself Sanctify You

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:23).

Paul is praying that God himself would sanctify his people, his chosen saints, his called-out church. He’s praying that God would keep the entirety of their being blameless till the coming of Christ. So, who is responsible for the work of sanctification? The believer or God? The called or the Caller? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Of course, we understand that in justification our works have no place at all; it is a monergistic work. We also know that in sanctification our works are necessary; it is a synergistic work. By the power of Spirit we must kill sin, put off the old man, cast off the works of darkness, and walk in the light.

However, as Paul prayer here implies, it is ultimately our triune God who empowers us to do these things. It is only by his grace that we are enabled to walk in holiness. Sanctification is the work of God within us that is worked out by us. Paul makes this abundantly clear elsewhere when he writes: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13; see also 1 Cor. 15:9-10). Until the day when the Lord Jesus Christ returns, we are to walk worthy of our calling in complete reliance upon the grace of God that is at work within us. This verse, then, is a powerful and necessary prayer to pray!

But Paul is not simply expressing a mere wish that God would lend a helping hand with their sanctification. No; he is praying with the utmost confidence.

The Caller Is Faithful

He who calls you is faithful (1 Thess. 5:24a).

Paul grounds his prayer in the faithfulness of God. But before we consider the implications of this truth, notice first that God is referred to as the one “who calls you.”  But what “call” is Paul referring to here? While Jesus does mention that “many are called, but few are chosen”(Matt. 22:14), the word ‘call’ means more than just a general invitation. John Murray writes: “The terms for calling, when used specifically with reference to salvation, are almost uniformly applied, not to the universal call of the gospel, but to the call that ushers men into a state of salvation and is therefore effectual.”[i] This call is the call of God into the fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9), into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9), and to eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12). It is the call of God that brings the dead to life and things into existence that do not exist (Rom. 4:17). It is the call we see in1 Timothy 1:9: “He saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”

In other words, this is the effectual call of God by which he summons his people, drawing them to himself in repentance and faith. J. I. Packer gives a helpful description of the effectual call:

“Original sin renders all human beings naturally dead (unresponsive) to God, but in effectual calling God quickens the dead. As the outward call of God to faith in Christ is communicated through the reading, preaching, and explaining of the contents of the Bible, the Holy Spirit enlightens and renews the heart of elect sinners so that they understand the gospel and embrace it as truth from God, and God in Christ becomes to them an object of desire and affection. Being now regenerate and able by the use of their freed will to choose God and the good, they turn away from their former pattern of living to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to start a new life with him.”[ii]

This call is a crucial element in God’s unbreakable chain of salvation, which brings us back to the ground of Paul’s prayer in the faithfulness of God for the Thessalonians’ sanctification.

He Will Surely Do It

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (1 Thess. 5:24).

Here is the hope, the assurance, the peace, and the security of the believer—the very power behind the perseverance of saints. The God who calls us to salvation is the ever-faithful, covenant-keeping, unchanging God. He is faithful not only to forgive us our sins but to sanctify us and keep us blameless until we are glorified at the second coming of Christ. Paul’s confidence here is also expressed in Philippians 1:6: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Perhaps the most powerful argument for the effectual call of God is found in Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Our faithful God simply cannot fail to bring his people to himself. The God who called us by his grace has not left our sanctification up to chance; those whom he called he also sanctified. In fact, when we repent and place our faith in Jesus for “salvation,” we are essentially trusting in Jesus for full, eschatological salvation; we are believing the promise of God that he will “sustain us to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8)!

Trophies of God’s Preserving Grace

This brief discussion of 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 is not intended to be an exhaustive defense of some Calvinistic doctrine; this is simply a restatement of a Pauline doctrine, which he first received from the risen Lord! Jesus himself declared: “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39); “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (10:28).  For Jesus to lose even one of those given to him by the Father to raise on the last day would mean a failure to accomplish the will of his Father.

Of course, this is a mysterious doctrine. That we are fully responsible for our sanctification, and that our sovereign God works irresistibly to that end as well, is plain in the Scriptures. But when the redeemed from every tribe, language, people, and nation are singing the song of the Lamb in his presence in the new creation, there will be no question as to who was ultimately responsible for their salvation. They will be an eternal testament to our loving and faithful God—a God who predestined, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified them—all “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6).


[i] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplish and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 91-92.

[ii] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Il; Tyndale House, 1993), 153.

My 2019 Resolution

Since most of you are thinking through goals for 2019, I’d like to share mine. It’s the same each year, but each year I try and pursue it from a different angle.

Since I have been a Christian my resolution every new year has been the same. You may say that I am boring to do so, but let me explain. As December ends and January roles around I find one desire growing in me:  to know God better this year than last. I want to be able to say in December, that I know God better now than I did the past January. I want to be closer to Him, I want to talk to Him more and in a more real way, I want to know His Word better, I want to feel Him more, I want to be more like Him, and most of all I want to love Him more than I did in the previous year.

This is all well and good, but how will all this be accomplished? I could make a bunch of resolutions to do it. For example I could make resolutions to read more, to pray more, to fast more, to rebuke more, to evangelize more, etc. Those are not bad resolutions, but they are all “fruit” issues. My resolution gets at the “root” issue, namely, what I treasure. You see, if I treasure the gospel more this year than last, all of those things I listed will happen. If I do not treasure the gospel more this year than last, those things will likely decrease. So instead of going at specific “fruit” issues, I want more heart work being done, more “root” issues.

Where do I get this in the Bible?  Titus 2:11-12, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age.

I will not be godly if I only concentrate on reading the Bible more. I will not be godly if I only make it my aim to share the gospel with every person I meet. I will not become more godly if I only try to “do” more things. The only way you and I will become more godly, is by reflecting on the gospel; because it is the gospel, as revealed in the Bible, which reveals the grace of God that has appeared. It is this grace that teaches us, or instructs us to live godly in this present age.

Titus 3 also shows this. In chapter 3 Paul gloriously describes the gospel in verses 3-7.  Then in verse 8 he says, “This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds.  These things are good and profitable for men.” When Paul says “these things” he means the gospel that he described in verses 3-7. What is it that causes believers to carefully engage in good deeds? What is it that is good and profitable for men? The gospel! When believers treasure the gospel, good deeds, Bible reading, and evangelism flows forth in abundance.

So my resolution this year is the same as last year and will most likely be the same as each new year comes that God wills to bring us. I want to treasure the gospel more, so that I grow more. When I grow more, I’ll know God more. When I know God more, I’ll love God more. When I love God more, I’ll be filled with infinite pleasure and delight. So really my desire this new year is for the increasing of my joy in Jesus, above all things, so that I would give glory to God by living in Him and for Him.

Will you join me this year in this glorious pursuit?

Stop Praying Safe Prayers

One thing that I’ve noticed about the Reformed crowd that I am a part of is that we often pray safe prayers. Sure, we pray. Sure, we implore God. Sure, we boldly approach the throne of grace in our time of need. But we often end (or begin) our prayers with phrases that let God “off the hook” or make His not answering easier for us to swallow. Phrases like, “If this is your will, please …” Or, “Please do so and so, but I recognize it may not be in your will to do so.” I don’t know if this is you or not, but I know it has been me in recent times. And the Lord has been using His Word to challenge me to stop praying safe prayers.

I was recently reading through the Gospels and came across statement after statement from Jesus that just didn’t quite square up with the safe prayers I was praying. 

  • Matthew 21:22 – “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 
  • Mark 11:24 — “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” 
  • Luke 11:9 — “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
  • John 14:13 – “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” 

And it isn’t just Jesus in the Gospels saying things like this. Later in the New Testament Epistles we see things like:

  • James 1:5-6 — “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”
  • 1 John 5:14 — “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”

Now to be fair, many of us have experienced the gross and outlandish misinterpretation and misapplication of these passages of Scripture, and so our default position is one of caution. We rightly caution that Jesus is not giving us a carte blanche to get whatever we want in life. We rightly caution that we are not to be presumptuous in our prayers, expecting that God is our magic genie in the bottle, there to fulfill our every wish. We rightly caution that it is not the measure of our faith that causes God to act, but His Sovereign will based on His eternal decree. All of these are good and healthy cautions, and ones that we must keep in the back of our minds and warn new believers of as they may be lured away by the false teachings of our day.

But brothers and sisters, even after all of these right cautions, let us not miss out on the incredible promise given to us by Jesus and the other writers of the New Testament, and the amazing privilege afforded to us to commune with and entreat the God of the universe in prayer. Let us not make the cautions our main focus. Those of us who rightly emphasize the meticulous sovereignty of God in all things must be careful not to downplay, or worse disregard, the words of Jesus concerning prayer. As one preacher put it, we are often guilty of putting the back-of-our-mind cautions (“God may not answer this prayer because it may not be His will”) at the forefront of our mind (“God I’m going to ask you to do this, but I know you probably won’t because it probably isn’t your will.”)

With the utmost focus on the sovereignty of God, and careful attention not to presume upon Him, let us be men and women who pray God-sized prayers. Let us implore Him to move and act in a way that only He can, in a way that is only explainable by the fact that the God of the universe has intervened and acted on our behalf. Let us model the bold prayer of John Knox: “Give me Scotland, or I die.” As Burk Parsons says of Knox’s prayer,

“Knox’s prayer was not an arrogant demand, but the passionate plea of a man willing to die for the sake of the pure preaching of the gospel and the salvation of his countrymen. Knox’s greatness lay in his humble dependence on our sovereign God to save His people, revive a nation, and reform His church. As is evident from his preaching and prayer, Knox believed neither in the power of his preaching nor in the power of his prayer, but in the power of the gospel and the power of God, who sovereignly ordains preaching and prayer as secondary means in the salvation of His people.”

As we prepare to enter into the New Year of 2019, what are the mountains in your life waiting to be moved, by God’s sovereign decree, through the means of your faith-filled prayer? What is your Scotland, for which you earnestly implore the Lord to the point that you would rather die than not see that prayer come to pass. 

We aren’t talking here about asking the Lord for health, wealth, and prosperity. We are talking about those things that we know, by virtue of His perfect, sufficient, and inerrant Word, are in accordance with His Will and bring Him honor and glory. We are talking about asking Him for wisdom in a decision that we need to make or in a situation we need to handle, wisdom that would result in our good and His glory. We are talking about asking Him to overcome the hardness of heart in the lives of your neighbors and to enable you to have an inroad to faithfully and boldly proclaim the Gospel in a winsome way. We are talking about imploring Him to work in your marriage to enable you to be a sacrificial husband or a loving, honoring wife, to the end that your marriage would be a beacon to the world of the beauty and truth of the Gospel.

As I ponder some things going on my own life, I am speaking to myself as much as, if not more, than anyone reading this. While this is by no means an exhaustive treatment on the topic of prayer, I want to challenge you, as I challenge myself, to enter into the New Year committed to praying God-sized, unsafe prayers — committed to stop saying safe prayers. May we be men and women who come before the throne of grace with bold faith and expectant hearts, asking God to do what only God can do, that He may receive all praise, honor, and glory.

The Holy Spirit’s Role in the Life of Christ and Christians

The ordinary often gives way to the sensational and if we’re not careful the ordinary is lost by being overlooked. Take for example the “ordinary” gifts of the Spirit. Who prays diligently for the gift of administration or helping (1 Corinthians 12:28)? Who “earnestly desires” (1 Cor. 12:31) the gifts of service, exhortation, generosity, and acts of mercy (Romans 12:6-8)?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you, personally, do not pray for and pursue these gifts but as a whole it has been my experience, both personally and professionally, that if a conversation arises concerning the gifts of the Spirit, tongues, prophecy, healing, and miracles take center stage. Perhaps, and I believe so, this is because they are far more sensation than the ordinary.

Take Luke 4:1-15, the temptation of Jesus, in this same mindset. What may be perceived as ordinary can give way to what may be seen as sensational if we’re not careful. In so doing, we may very well lose sight of one of the most empowering and important aspects of Jesus’ life that is applicable to our own in tremendous measure.

Let me explain:

Three, easily overlooked, ordinary words, describe the extraordinary, some might even say sensational, life of Jesus Christ: “…full…led…power…” (Luke 4:1 & 14; ESV). All three words describe the relationship that Jesus had with the Holy Spirit. Before we evaluate the sensational temptations of Jesus and His perfect victory over sin and Satan, we must understand these three components.

Full:

Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. This adjective describes the ongoing state of being in which Jesus lived His daily life. He did so, and was so, because He always lived in obedience to the Father. Notice the last place we see Jesus before Luke makes this statement (Luke 3:21-22) is identifying with sinful humanity in John’s baptism of repentance even though He had nothing to repent from or to. Why? Matthew tells us exactly why from Jesus own mouth, “…it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). No sin meant no need for repentance. No repentance meant no need for baptism…except that this was by the Father’s design that the Second Adam would identify with the First Adam, and all his offspring, that He might become a suitable sacrifice in their (my) stead.

Jesus lived His life full of the Spirit, living with the fulness of the Spirit, because He was always submitted to the will of the Father in active obedience.

Led:

Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. This verb is the grammatical demonstration of the Divine-Human participation in the carrying out God’s will from those who are full of the Spirit. Both Matthew & Mark give us this account/word in its passive form highlighting that Jesus was “thrust or compelled or driven” into the wilderness. Whereas Luke provides this verb in its active form implying voluntary cooperation “to bring, or to carry.”

I believe an accurate word picture could be describe this way: As the Spirit of God drove the Son of God, Jesus yielded voluntarily and cooperated fully. Being full of the Spirit, Jesus yielded voluntarily and cooperated fully to the Father’s will by Spirit’s leading.

Power:

Jesus lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Take note of the connection, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…and Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit…” (Luke 4:1, 14). A life full of the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, will result in living in the power of the Spirit. Where did this power come from? The Spirit. How did Jesus get this power? By a yielded, cooperative, temptation & sin-defeating life through overcoming temptation by the Spirit-inspired Word of God. Jesus wielded spiritual weapons for the spiritual battle (Eph. 6).

Jesus knew God’s Word, God’s plan, God’s Spirit, and never deviated from living for God’s glory.

Christian, we often desire the power of the Spirit. We long for the sensational and overlook the ordinary (especially the ordinary means of grace). A life not full of the Spirit will never be led by the Spirit and will never live in the power of the Spirit.

Perhaps, Satan’s temptation is not “the sensational” in this account. Perhaps, the defeat of Satan and his cunning deceit is the ordinary result of a life completely, and sensationally, surrendered to the Spirit of God. I believe it is. I know I’ve not yet come to live in this state of being, but praise God He’s brought me closer today than five years ago. And I believe five years from now I will be even closer still as the Vinedresser continues to prune me that I might bear more fruit.

I am confident of this: That He who began this good work in me will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). Oh Father, fill me your Spirit that I might follow His leading and live in His power, to the praise of your glory!

The Call & The Called

Throughout my life I remember certain calls. I remember the first time I answered our home phone as a young boy with a timid ‘Hello?’ I remember getting into trouble and having to call my mother from the principal’s office in 1stgrade. I remember God calling me into pastoral ministry in December 2003. I remember the many calls Holly and I exchanged our senior year of college. I remember the Easter Sunday my mother called me to tell me Grandpa had died. I remember the day the elders of SonRise called me to inform me that I’d been chosen to be the next pastor. All of these calls, some hard and some exuberant, mean much to me. I’m sure you could give a list of similar calls that have happened in your life that are meaningful to you as well. But of all the calls we could mention one call matters more than any other – the effectual call of God.

It’s at this point where we encounter a paradox.

Because of God’s predestining love, many people in the world are truly the ‘elect of God’ but still remain dead in sin and without hope. God has chosen them in Christ before the foundation of the world, yet they live as unbelievers, apart from Christ, still rejecting the gospel. How is it then that God brings these chosen ones, how is it that God brings His elect to a saving knowledge of the truth?

The answer according to Scripture is the effectual call.

Or we could say it another way: God’s sovereign election is not the end of the story, it’s merely the beginning. God will lead all of those He has elected in Christ to salvation through Christ and the first step in this process is the effectual call. This is why Paul says in Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called…’ So first comes the election of God then comes the call of God. And not just any call, but a call that we say is ‘effectual’ because the call itself creates what is not there: life from death, light from darkness, faith from unbelief, salvation from condemnation, and adoption from alienation.

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

In this passage three groups are present: Jews, Gentiles, and another group Paul refers to as ‘the called.’ Three groups with two very different responses to Christ. Jews demand signs/wonders and upon seeing/hearing of Jesus Christ they conclude Him to be a stumbling block. Greeks (who are Gentiles) were seen as more cultured people than the Jews so rather than seeking powerful signs they sought after wisdom and upon seeing/hearing of Jesus Christ they conclude Him to be folly. This response of unbelief does not surprise us because in the verses leading up to v22-24 we continually read that to the world the cross is foolishness (v18), that it pleased God the world through wisdom cannot find Him or know Him (v21a), but rather God saves those who believe a message which the world sees as foolishness (v21b).

Standing against the unbelief of Jews and Gentiles is the other group, ‘the called.’ We’re introduced to this group in v24 and when these people heard of Jesus Christ they did not think Him to be a stumbling block or folly, no, they held Him to be the very power and wisdom of God. A slow reflection of these three groups and their responses to the gospel prompts us to ask questions: what made the difference? How did the third group recognize Christ as God’s very wisdom and God’s very power while the Jews and Gentiles missed it? The Jews wanted their signs, the Gentiles wanted their wisdom, and ironically the very things that both of these groups were seeking are found together in Christ in the highest degree possible. He is the definition of the power of God…He is the definition of the wisdom of God. What made this last group embrace this and embrace the truth of the gospel while the others rejected it?

Answer: they were called of God.

We see this in the first few words of v24, ‘But to those who are called…’ That’s it. That’s the difference maker. ‘But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ This means the call of God is the very thing which removes our John 3:3 blinders. Anybody recall John 3:3? ‘Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you are born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.’’ Because of our sinful nature we cannot see the kingdom of God, we’re blind to the beauty of the gospel by birth, but those who are called, those whom God gives the new birth (that’s what ‘born again’ means) can see power and wisdom in the gospel! They don’t think of the gospel as a small thing that doesn’t have meaning for their life, they think it is life.

Do you? It was the call of God that made this third group in v24 see the truth of who Jesus really is while the rest of the world was blind to it. Thus, the call of God is an effectual call or is efficacious because it brings about the desired effect. The best evidence of true salvation is not having raised a hand or praying a prayer or signing a card or being baptized, attending church, or even serving that church to any capacity. The best evidence of true conversion is the presence of light, warmth, love, and joy in God found in the gospel of Christ saving sinners. This transforms a life, because once God effectually calls you to Himself, you will not remain the same.

Why the Reformation? Because of Misplaced Authority

The date was October 31, 1517. The man was the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. In one hand he held a copy of his 95 theses, a treatise he had written to address the various abuses present in the Catholic Church. In the other hand he held a mallet. He desired a conversation to occur about these abuses, he desired repentance, and ultimately longed for a return to the gospel. In an effort to get this conversation started he nailed his theses to the church door in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany.

What happened changed the world.

500 years later, here we are today. Does the reformation still matter? Do the writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers still apply today? Is there still a need to reform the Church? Are we as Protestants, still protesting? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes. Jonathan Leeman is right when he says there is truly a danger in idolizing the past, there is a greater danger in forgetting the past altogether. So in looking to the past to gain wisdom for today, why did the foundational principle of Sola Scriptura matter so greatly during then and why does it still matter today?

The issue at stake during the reformation was authority.

The Roman Catholic church believed final authority was not in the Scripture but elsewhere. The tradition of the church was believed to be a second source of revelation, and the Pope was viewed as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. Standing against this belief the Reformers believed the Bible to be the sole source of divine revelation, the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative rule for faith and practice. The reformers boldly proclaimed that when Scripture speaks, God speaks. And though Scripture is certainly to be interpreted by the Church, and though tradition is certainly helpful, the Church and its traditions only have authority insofar as they are in line with and underneath the authority the Word of God.

Why again did this matter? The Catholic church, the popes, the cardinals, and councils prohibited the Bible from being translated into the common language. Because the Scripture was kept it in Latin, and because they reserved interpretation only for themselves they were in effect saying this, “We’ll interpret the Bible for you, trust us.” And people did. For years and years people never read the Bible for themselves and simply trusted the Catholic church’s interpretation of Scripture and attended mass even though they couldn’t understand the Latin being used by the priests. Then a few scholars rose up from their own study of Scripture after seeing how wide the gulf really was between the church’s interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself. John Wycliffe saw this, translated the Bible into English and the Catholic church banned and burned his books. Some years later Jan Hus, a Czech theologian saw similar things, translated the Bible into Czech and was burned at the stake by the Catholic church. Then, in 1483 a little boy was born who would grow up and see the same things. This little boy was Martin Luther. What began as a call to reform the Catholic church in his 95 theses soon developed into a full scale fight against the Catholic church’s wild interpretations of Scripture, the pope’s immoral and luxurious living, and the pressing need to put the Scripture into the hands of the common man. Thus, with pen in hand Luther fought back. Writing hundred’s of books, letters, and treatises on the clear and plain meaning of Scripture…all while translating the Bible into German. For this they excommunicated Luther, labeled him a heretic, and put a price on his head.

Why did Luther do this? Why was he and so many others willing to die for the truth they saw in Scripture? Because the gospel of a long awaited Messiah revealed in the Word of God was hidden from sight, and they labored to reveal it. Pope after Pope had said it’s our own works that gets you into heaven or cast you to hell, yet the reformers saw standing forth in brilliant clarity the Christ, who was born of a virgin, who lived in perfect righteousness, who bore our curse on the cross, who rose and defeated death with His life, who ascended to reign over all things interceded for us. Gospel grace given by God to guilty sinners who then go free! They saw Christ in all of Scripture, and gave their all to preach Christ in all the world.

Now, why does the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) still matter today?

Though we’re no longer held captive by the Vatican, and though we say we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we do not go to Scripture to see how the Church should run, to see what kind of music we should sing, or to see what kind of preaching we need today, or to see what kind of lives we ought to live. Where do we look to find direction in all these things and more? We look to the world around us and employ modern cultural methods within the Church in an effort to grow the Church and remain relevant in the eyes of our culture. Bottom line?

We have placed authority in the wrong place, just like the medieval church. The brilliant clarity of Christ in the gospel saturated Scripture doesn’t seem to be enough for the Church today. Instead, we resort to culturally hip strategies seeking to tickle the eyes and ears of churchgoers because deep down we don’t think the God of Scripture cannot compete with the world, so we make our churches look like the world to win the world and what happens? We…lose…the gospel.

And so, as the Cambridge Declaration says, “the faithfulness of the reformers in the past contrasts sharply with the unfaithfulness of the Church in the present.”

Clearly, we need reformation still.

Where does reformation begin?

It begins with a return to Sacred Scripture.

Three Reasons to Preach Through the Bible

God gave us an entire Bible, and He intends for us to use all of it to help us grow. Below are three reasons why this truth changes how we preach.

  1. Preach the Whole Counsel of God

If you are like me, then your preaching tends to lean towards your favorite Biblical themes. For me it often ends up being the gospel message or God’s sovereignty in salvation. For you it could be eschatology or church membership or a million other things. Typically, we are bent to our preferred Biblical themes in preaching. If we just chose our favorite things to preach on, those few things would be all that our congregation hears. However, when we preach verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible, we are going to preach on things that we may never think to preach on our own. This is a healthier form of preaching because it allows the church to be exposed to the whole counsel of God rather than preaching only the portion that the preacher is inclined toward. God gave us an entire Bible, and He intends for us to use all of it to help us grow.  This makes for a more mature church body.

  1. Keep Scripture in Context

When you are preaching topically, it can be easier to take a verse out of context, even if it’s accidental. Preaching verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible will force you to study the context surrounding the passage. You will be doing an in-depth study of that particular passage. Since you are chronologically going through it and the context is there for everyone to see, it will be more difficult to err because of lack of study within context. Whereas, if you were to just grab a verse that seems to fit your topic and place it in your message, you may not be preaching it in the context that it was intended. Therefore, you are at risk of misrepresenting God’s Word. We don’t want to be guilty of that.

  1. Get the Full Story

The Bible was written as letters, songs, stories, etc. When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, I don’t think he intended them to read the first 2 verses and then read 2 verses from Exodus, and then one verse from Proverbs. When he wrote his letters, he intended them to be read as a whole unit, in context. Because the Bible was written in this form, I think it’s a good idea to preach through all that Paul intended his readers to hear. This will also help the hearer to remember last week’s sermon and put the pieces of Scripture together to flow as a unit. Preaching through books of the Bible helps this to take place.

Whether you’re preaching or hearing, may God bless you and may the whole counsel of His Word run swift into our hearts.

Elihu: Righteous Prophet or Arrogant Fool?

When one arrives at Job 32 they arrive at a particular difficulty. Why? Because in Job 32 we meet Elihu.

The speeches of Elihu perplex many theologians for many reasons. He seems to come out of nowhere in the text, and when he bursts onto the scene he really does burst. Four times in the first five verses of Job 32 we read that Elihu was burning with anger. Out of his burning anger he speaks to Job’s friends and to Job, but neither Job’s friends nor Job respond to him once he’s done, and more so, God never responds to his words or mentions him at all in the end of the book when He rebukes Job’s friends and restores Job. Because of all of these things most people are perplexed with what to do with him.

There are three commonly held views on him.

The first view, and probably the least likely to be accepted among Christians, is the view that the six chapters given to Elihu (32-37) are not original to the book of Job. Instead these chapters are a later addition to it that is something of a foreign intrusion into the text. There are largely two reasons given for this view. First, the Hebrew is different in these chapters. It doesn’t match with the rest of the book, thus it doesn’t belong with the rest of the book. Second, the reason Job, Job’s friends, and God don’t respond to Elihu after he’s done is because he wasn’t physically present with them when these events occurred. This is why we don’t see any response to him. As I said just a moment ago, this view isn’t commonly held within the Church, it is mostly found in nonbelieving commentators and textual critics. Therefore we can move onto the next view.

While the last view is the least likely to be accepted among Christians, the second view is probably the majority view among Christians. This majority view believes Elihu to be an arrogant young man who speaks hastily and harshly about things that he is largely unaware of. The reasons for this view are as follows. First, Elihu overestimates his own importance and does truly show himself to be an arrogant young man. Second, while anger isn’t a sin Elihu has sinfully given too much room to his anger and vents it in the direction of these men. Third, Elihu doesn’t contribute anything new to the ongoing conversation between Job and his friends but merely restates what has already been said after rebuking Job and his friends. Like Job’s miserable comforters Elihu also does say some true things but applies them wrongly and draws the wrong conclusions. Fourth, Elihu’s chapters do build suspense within the book of Job but only do so by delaying the judgment of God at the end. Fifth, the reason Elihu is ignored by everyone at the end of the book is because he does prove himself to be something of an irrelevant intruder into an already lengthy conversation. This view is probably the majority view within the Church. You’ll find it in most commentaries, the ESV Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Study Bible.

While the second view is the majority view among Christians, the third view is probably best described as the minority view among Christians. This minority view believes Elihu to a good character and even something of a preview of the very things God will say to Job and his friends at the end of the book. The reasons for this view are also many. First, Elihu finds both Job and his friends wanting in the debate. Second, after rebuking the friends Elihu focuses on Job’s words throughout the debate, quoting Job many times without accusing Job of living a wicked life like the friends have done. Rather he moves the conversation toward a proposal that suffering does indeed have a redemptive role. Third, because of these things Elihu’s words anticipate the stance God Himself will take in chapters 38-42. Some who hold this view, at this point, make the claim that Elihu was a prophet sent by God to prepare Job and his friends for God’s words stronger words about to come. Fourth, though not being the answer to Job’s problems, Elihu points in the right direction by functioning, in small measure, as the ‘arbiter’ or ‘mediator’ Job has been longing for. Fifth, this is the reason why no one responds to Elihu in the end, because he was a voice preparing the way for the greater voice to come. This view is the minority view within the Church. You’ll find it explained and embraced in the Reformation Study Bible, and given a ‘nod’ though not embraced in the ESV Study Bible. This is also the view held by Christopher Ash in his commentary on Job that we’ve been using a guide through our series in Job.

Taken these three views into account, we can easily reject the first view which believes Elihu and his speeches to be a foreign intrusion into the text of Job. As for the remaining two views we find believers lining up in both of them. Personally through studying this text I have come to believe the third view, that Elihu is a good character who prepares the way for God’s voice to come. But honesty would demand I also say that while I believe this third view is the best option I also believe I could be wrong about this.

So, I do not hold my view, and I would encourage you to not hold your view on Elihu with a closed fist, but with an open hand willing to adjust as the text demands of us. But for now think of Elihu like this.

So far in Job we come through 30 chapters of thick back and forth conversation about Job’s innocence, and whether or not Job has been right to say what he has about himself and about God. I think the author of Job knows what he has put together here in his work can easily exasperate the reader and is now giving us a bit of a break, or a change in tempo, with the wisdom hymn of chapter 28 and the speeches of Elihu in chapters 32-37.[1] And more so, that these chapters are present between Job’s final plea and Job’s meeting with God show us that Job might be in need of a bit of a break as well. Remember, God isn’t forced to reply to Job right away or quickly even though Job’s final plea in chapter 29-31 is intense. No, God acts in His own time and Elihu’s speeches reinforce this by causing Job to wait a bit longer for his inner angst to be resolved. Yes we have felt deeply for Job as we have watched him suffer and work through the hard realities and questions of why God does what He does. But we also, again and again, have had to almost gasp at Job’s audacity in accusing God of being a wrongdoer and unjust.[2]

Maybe, just maybe, some of what Elihu has to say will be the very things Job needs to hear in order to be prepared to meet God before the end in chapters 38-42.[3]

 

Citations:

[i]David Atkinson, The Message of Job – The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991) page 116-117.

[ii]Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014) page 329.

[iii]Atkinson., page 122.