If you have spent any time in theological discussions on the Internet or elsewhere, you have probably noticed that people have a tendency to pit one verse in the Bible against another when defending their theological system of choice. They tend to focus great attention on those passages that support their view while talking around or glossing over other biblical texts.
I think the tendency to pit one verse against another has its origin in holding too exclusively to one theological system. People like to have something they feel is neatly tied up, something they feel answers all the questions and covers Scripture completely. Usually that takes the form of a doctrinal system of some kind, whether it’s Calvinism, Arminianism, or some other. Viewing their system as the pinnacle of truth and the perfect sum of theological knowledge provides comfort, because they can feel that their doctrinal search is over and they have finally tied up all those pesky loose ends.
That can provide a good deal of peace, but I think that more often than not, it’s a false peace. The problem is that any theological system is ultimately man-made. It is a fallible human attempt to understand Scripture thoroughly, and as with any man-made system, it has blind spots, i.e., it fails to address the entirety of Scripture. It’s like you or I trying to wrap our arms around one of the giant redwood trees in California: Inevitably, there will be parts of the tree that we can’t reach. It’s the finite trying to wrap its mental arms around the infinite. Consequently, it is unable to cover the sheer vastness and depth of revelation, and so it cannot deal adequately with those scripture passages that go against it.
For example, there is a tendency among some who hold to sola fide (faith alone) to dismiss texts that clearly speak of our responsibility to labor diligently for holiness. This is because sola fide does not handle those texts well; it has a hard time explaining them. Rather than admit that their system is flawed, what people will do is focus entirely on those passages that support their view (such as Romans 4 and Galatians 2:16) while ignoring, glossing over, or twisting the passages that go against their view (such as James 2).
It’s wiser to embrace both sides of a theological issue as mystery and paradox rather than be out of balance and embrace one side to the exclusion of the other.
I thought I’d share something that has been on my mind in recent months: whether we should save our money (store it up) or give it up for God’s kingdom, sharing it with the poor, etc. One passage that speaks strongly for this is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:19-21:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (NASB)
Like Jesus’ commands to take up our cross and follow Him, and to cut off our hand if it causes us to sin, this is a radical command and one that most–if not all–of us fall dreadfully short of. Admittedly, since I am single, it is easier for me to follow this command. Those who are married and have children would understandably feel the need to store up money as a contingency plan for future problems, such as job loss, financial reversal, etc. It’s only right to think of one’s family and to plan ahead for their welfare.
Even so, I wonder if even married couples with families are really sacrificing enough for the needy out of their treasure trove. I see lots of luxury around me every day: large, gas-guzzling SUVs with only one occupant (quite a common sight, actually); enormous homes; etc. But that’s really not for me to judge; it’s between them and God. The burning question for all of us, married and single alike, is this: After we spend our money on our bare necessities (“If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content”–1 Tim. 6:8), are we using the excess wisely and in accordance with what Christ commanded?
This video doesn’t go in-depth, but the Lutheran pastor in it does a great job explaining some important differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism. His explanations reminded me why I love Lutheranism. Enjoy.
You can find some great gems when reading the old church fathers. I came across this one while reading one of John Chrysostom’s homilies on Matthew. In it, he is talking about the parable of the sower and the seed and is warning us of the need to fight against all the different pitfalls described there: cares of this world, riches, carelessness about hearing the Word, etc.
“Hearing therefore these things, let us fortify ourselves on all sides, regarding His instructions, and striking our roots deep, and cleansing ourselves from all worldly things. But if we do the one, neglecting the other, we shall be nothing bettered; for though we perish not in one way, yet shall we in some other. For what signifies our not being ruined by riches, if we are [ruined] by indolence: or not [ruined] by indolence, if we are [ruined] by softness. For so the husbandman, whether this way or that way he lose his crop, equally bewails himself. Let us not then soothe ourselves upon our not perishing in all these ways, but let it be our grief, whichever way we are perishing.” (Homily XLIV on the Gospel of Matthew)
In other words: Don’t be satisfied when you have victory over one area of sin and weakness, but fight against all areas of sin.
No wonder Christ said, “Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41)
I noticed this when I read Genesis 3 in preparation for a discussion at church yesterday. I found it noteworthy that the serpent did not tell a complete lie to Eve. There was actually some truth in what he told her: “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (vv. 4b-5). The first part (that they wouldn’t die) was a lie, but the second part was actually true–the part about knowing good and evil. God Himself confirms this later on, in v. 22: “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil.”
It reminds me of used car salesmen. They’ll never tell you the things that are wrong with the car; they’ll tell you only the good things about it. Only afterward, when you drive the car off the lot and have it for a while, do you notice the problems: oil leak, engine trouble, etc.
The enemy will always mix truth with lies when he tempts us. He’ll attract us with the good things about sin–for example, that it will be fun and thrilling. And that is usually true; but he won’t tell us the negative consequences of that sin: hardness of heart, wounding our conscience, grieving the Holy Spirit, and more.
It’s not just Satan, either, that we have to watch out for. We can deceive ourselves, deliberately blocking out of our minds the negative consequences of the sin we’re contemplating and thinking only of the fleeting thrill it will give us.
We need to be like Job, who, even in the face of great loss and sorrow, which must have tempted him to curse God, “did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:22).
Bible verses from the New American Standard Bible
With Thanksgiving past and the Christmas season fast approaching, I remembered this old post of mine from about five years ago. I decided to repost it now (with some edits) because it is my firm conviction that its message should be read and heeded by Christians everywhere.
It cannot be denied that this time of year holds a special place in most people’s hearts. The tinsel, glitter, Christmas trees, gift wrap, exchange of presents, good food, and everything else that our culture has made the indispensable ingredients of the holiday fill our hearts with warm, positive feelings. What is striking, however, is the overemphasis that is placed on these aspects year after year.
As a Christian who understands and values the origins of the holiday, I have long felt an aversion to this overemphasis. Too much focus is placed on these cultural misinterpretations of this very important and meaningful holiday, while too little emphasis is placed on the One from whom the holiday derives its name. I know plenty of others have already lamented the way our culture celebrates Christmas: “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Keep Christ in Christmas” have practically become proverbs among Christians. I stand in a long line of people who have spoken out against these errors, so it would seem that my dissent would be just another disgruntled voice. This is not the case, though, because I believe that these past criticisms have overlooked the root of the problem: suppression of the truth.
The first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans goes into considerable detail about this. In it Paul describes the downward spiral of human depravity and the reasons for that downward spiral. He wrote:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:18–23, NASB)
Without the grace of God, when people are presented with clear evidence of God’s existence, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” Not only do they suppress that truth, but they then seek to replace it with a “truth” of their own making. In Romans 1, it is false gods, worshiping creation rather than the Creator.
Our culture’s way of celebrating Christmas is really just another way that fallen humanity suppresses the truth—in this case, the truth that Jesus Christ’s birth was to rid humanity of sin and reconcile a rebellious, fallen human race to a holy God. As Charles Wesley so well put it in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”
This final stanza is seldom heard, and given Paul’s description of humanity in Romans 1, it is easy to see why. Angels and shepherds are nice, but the idea that people are spiritually dead and in need of a Savior does not appeal to the world. Fallen humanity does not want to hear that it is helpless to save itself, that it is guilty of sin and headed for judgment, and that God mercifully provided a way out of this enormous mess. As a result, this crucial aspect of Christmas is not made clear during the holiday season. What is made clear, however, are precisely those things that have nothing to do with the incarnation of the Word for the salvation of mankind. As nice and quaint as Santa, reindeer, Christmas trees, ornaments, bright lights and all the other popular holiday paraphernalia are, don’t they actually suppress the truth of the holiday? Don’t they actually exchange the truth for a lie? If you don’t think they do, then why isn’t the real reason emphasized just as fervently as these other things? Why is there such a lack of emphasis on Jesus and why he came to earth? How many Christmas cards emphasize this not-so-pleasant reason for Christ’s advent—or even say the word Christmas for that matter? Many cards now avoid using that specific name and instead use deliberately vague expressions such as holiday or season. It is all too clear that Jesus Christ’s relevance to Christmas is suppressed in favor of things that are more palatable to the carnal man.
The definition of any word has essential attributes, without which it ceases to be an accurate definition, but the popular icons our culture has come to associate inseparably with Christmas are actually nonessential attributes. Would the omission of Santa Claus from the holiday eliminate the reason to celebrate it? What about Rudolph and the other reindeer? What about Christmas trees? You may think that these things are necessary to define Christmas, but the fact of the matter is that they are not.
Now I have to say that most of these things are not necessarily bad in and of themselves. Giving gifts is not intrinsically sinful, and neither are Christmas trees, ornaments and tinsel. But if we emphasize these things so much that they end up overshadowing the truth, then they become tools of suppressing the truth. What we value is made clear by what we emphasize; what we devalue is made clear by what we deemphasize. Do we push Christ into the background while leaving commercialism, materialism and the other nonessential holiday paraphernalia in the foreground?
It is long overdue for Christians to rethink our celebrations at this time of the year. If our celebration of Christmas is no different from that of the world, we need to ask ourselves: Are we helping the world in its suppression of the truth? Let’s celebrate Christmas the way God would have us do so: not by suppressing its underlying truths but by upholding them for the world to see.
The doctrine of Limited Atonement—the teaching that Christ died only for the elect—has been disputed in Christianity for a long time. Some call it Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption, but regardless of what it is called, the doctrine could have some serious implications for the gospel. To be specific, I have thought lately that if one took Limited Atonement to its logical, necessary conclusion, one would have a very weak gospel or no gospel at all—either for oneself or for others.
If you really believe that Christ died only for the elect, then when you share the gospel with someone, you cannot honestly say to that person, “Christ died for you.” In fact, you cannot even say that to yourself, since you cannot know with complete certainty that you’re one of the elect. After all, lots of people have shown great promise in the Christian life only to turn away from Christ later.
Thus, the most that honest adherents of Limited Atonement can say to themselves or others is this: “Jesus might have died for you, so believe in him, and you have a chance that you’ll be saved.” That, of course, is no gospel. What good news is it if the message promises only the possibility that Christ died for me and not rather the certainty that he did? The gospel is good news only when it assures me that Christ died for me personally. On the other hand, if I have no assurance that Christ died personally for me, then how could I personally trust in him for my salvation? There would always be doubt.
Therefore, if you believe in Limited Atonement and are consistent with that belief, it is highly doubtful that you have any good news to share with others, let alone with yourself.
The phrase personal relationship has become a very common buzzword in our culture, appearing in various venues, from the military to business to religion. Not surprisingly, it has also crept into Christianity, particularly evangelicalism.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with personal relationships. What is problematic, however, is when the concept is elevated too high.
One example of this is the popular evangelical emphasis—or, more specifically, the overemphasis—on having a personal relationship with God. It’s not the idea of a personal relationship per se that is troubling. The idea of having a relationship with God can be found throughout the pages of Scripture. God is very personal. He stoops to our level to reveal Himself to us in various ways: through both special and general revelation. His ultimate condescension to us was in Christ, who was the ultimate revelation of the Father: Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). In fact, as one radio talk show host once rightly commented, everyone has a personal relationship with God; the question is whether God is near to you in wrath or in friendship.
What concerns me is when the concept of personal relationship is emphasized so heavily to the exclusion of objective realities, like Scripture, doctrine and the sacraments. It’s not uncommon for those who are enthusiastic about having a personal relationship with God to also frown upon what they call “religion”: doctrine, liturgy, creeds, councils, and so on. For such people, it seems their personal experience is all that matters and is, in fact, their final authority for determining truth. It’s the elevation of the subject over the object, making one’s own subjective experience the measuring rod for determining what constitutes genuine religion. That is always dangerous.
At this time, I am reexamining these 5 points—in particular I have grave doubts about Limited Atonement—but even when I accepted them all without question, this kind of dogmatic statement never sat right with me. Nowhere in the New Testament (NT) is the TULIP ever equated to the gospel message. For example, in the accounts of gospel preaching that are recorded in the NT, the apostles never spent time explaining these doctrines of grace.
I can almost hear the objection that will immediately come from those who disagree: “You’re wrong! Paul explained Unconditional Election in great detail in Ephesians 1.” Yes, he did. There is just one problem with this objection, though: He explained these things to established churches, not to people on his missionary journeys to whom he first preached the gospel. There is a vast difference between these two activities. To preach the gospel to people who have never heard it is one thing; to provide pastoral counsel and instruction to those who are already Christians is quite another.
At one point I took an online course in systematic theology at a Reformed seminary. I distinctly recall Joel Beeke warning against interpreting the Scriptures to fit our system of theology. To illustrate this error, he recalled a time when a sermon was preached (either by him or someone he knew) on the basis of a biblical text, and afterward one of his listeners objected by saying something to this effect: “Too much free will in there.” The man who objected in this way was evaluating a statement about a biblical text on the basis of a theological system he held near and dear. In other words, he was subjecting the biblical text to a theological system, not the other way around.
Ever since hearing that, I have been mindful of avoiding that pitfall because it equates a man-made system with an indispensable message of the Bible, conflating the biblical text with the system. Any responsible Bible interpreter will think twice about doing such a thing.
Before anyone objects by saying that Calvinism is not man-made but is biblical, allow me to explain my meaning. I am not saying that all the doctrines are man-made but rather that the system is. Doctrine and system are not necessarily the same because the latter is a human attempt to interpret the former and consolidate it into a harmonious, consistent system of thought.
Now let’s look honestly at how Paul described the gospel:
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: 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 by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:1–8, NKJV)
It’s vital to note that Paul makes it a point to say that he actually received the gospel he describes. This means that the description that immediately follows has divine origin. It is the true, authoritative gospel, and even a quick reading of the apostle’s description shows clearly that it does not even hint at the TULIP. These facts alone should give anyone who claims that Calvinism is the gospel serious misgivings.
If that is not enough, though, those who make this outrageous claim should turn to the following important warning by the apostle Paul:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8–9, NKJV)
When someone says that the doctrines of grace are the gospel, but those doctrines of grace are not even hinted at in a biblical, apostolic description of the gospel, one has to wonder if those who proclaim such dogmatic things are in danger of being accursed.