Bible Study

I’ve thought more about James 2 in relation to the Protestant/Catholic differences on justification, and I have come to the conclusion that the Protestant summary—that we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone—is the best interpretation of that passage. Consider:

1) James 2 says that works are necessary for faith to be genuine because a) faith works with works (2:22); b) as a result of works, faith is perfected (2:22); and c) faith without works is dead (James 2:26).

2) Thus, works are necessary—not in a saving sense, but only because without them faith is dead, being by itself. Now when we say that something is not by itself, what else do we mean than that something else accompanies it? Thus it is apparent that works are the necessary accompaniment (complement) of faith. Without them, whatever faith one claims to have is counterfeit. Think of a cheeseburger: Without cheese, it ends up being just a plain burger. The cheese doesn’t have a causative role, that is, it doesn’t make anything happen. It is necessary, though, only in this sense: Without it, the cheeseburger ceases to be a real cheeseburger. If someone were to serve you a plain burger and tell you it is a cheeseburger, all you would have to do to find out is lift the bun and see if cheese accompanies the burger, and then you would know for certain whether you have a cheeseburger. Similarly, works are necessary—not to bring about salvation, but rather because without them faith is not genuine, but when they are present the faith is shown to be genuine.

So James seems to be making two major points about works: 1) They accompany true faith, and 2) they show faith to be genuine. What must be noted, though, is that he never says that works have any saving efficacy or have a causative role in salvation.

Thus, works are not necessary in a saving sense, i.e., they don’t purchase salvation for us. For that matter, neither does faith. Christ alone is the purchaser of salvation, hence the Reformed teaching of sola fide.

So, referring again to the Protestant summary I have heard before, I would break it down as follows:

  • We are saved by faith alone (because only the blood of Christ purchases salvation, and our works have no saving efficacy)
  • but not by a faith that is alone (because works are the necessary accompaniment [complement] of faith)

Scripture makes it pretty clear that our assurance is based on the presence of spiritual fruit in our lives as well as a pattern of spiritual growth and increasing maturity:

For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. (Hebrews 6:7-9, ESV, emphasis added)

But what are these fruits? That also is made clear:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-11, ESV, emphasis added)

Unless I’m misinterpreting this passage, the text does two things, in general: 1) It commands us to make our calling and election sure (i.e., to seek assurance), and 2) it tells us how to go about obtaining that certainty. Since what Peter described here is a process, it seems clear that gaining such certainty is not instantaneous. It is acquired only after developing a pattern of increasing holiness, Christlikeness and maturity.

I cannot imagine that God would give anyone assurance of salvation who is stagnating in their Christian life, failing to grow or, even worse, taking steps backward. There is only one proper direction for the true Christian: forward into more and more Christlikeness. If that forward progression is not happening, we have good reason to doubt our salvation.

“I have no creed but Jesus.”
“I don’t hold to (insert theologian’s name here); I hold to the Bible.”

These are popular sentiments among many believers today. They do sound rather pious at first, don’t they? After all, what’s wrong with holding to the Bible alone for guidance and doctrine? As protestants, we claim it’s the divinely inspired and “God-breathed” word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). It is this very divine inspiration that gives it its authority above all other authorities. So what’s the problem?

Several.

For one, this sentiment ignores the Holy Spirit’s work in the church throughout history. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead His disciples “into all the truth” (John 16:13), and that is precisely what He has been doing in and for the Church all along now. From the time of the early church’s battles against heresy, down through the time of the Reformation and up to the present day, the Holy Spirit has been leading and guiding the Church to articulate vital doctrinal truths in order to defend her against dangerous teachings. If we were to ignore this historical theology, we would be dooming ourselves to repeat church history all over again. Like the early church, we would have to deal with a variety of heresies. How would we do that? We would handle it in the same way the early church did: by consulting Scripture in order to formulate the truth over against such heresies. But what sense does it make to ignore all that work that has already been done? Why reinvent the wheel?

To elaborate on this, although these doctrines have certainly come from the Bible, they are presented in the Bible in a seed format, as it were, and accordingly they need to be drawn out and set down thoroughly. This does not mean that the Bible is insufficient; what it does mean, though, is that God uses men in the church to labor in the word and teach and defend the truth.

The fact of the matter is that, though such statements are probably well-meant, those who hold them would have us believe that we don’t need gifted men to teach the Church and labor in the word and doctrine. What is worse, according to this view, we have never needed them. They would have us completely disregard Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Bavinck, and a host of other theologians who were used by the Holy Spirit to guide the Church.

Secondly, the sentiment reflects a warped view of sola scriptura, one that I doubt the Reformers ever had in mind. Sola Scriptura does not exclude the need for teachers in the church; otherwise, the passage about gifting in the church in Eph. 4:11–13 would be invalid and unnecessary. Sola Scriptura does not mean Bible-only, but rather that the Bible is the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice.

Thirdly, the sentiment is highly unrealistic because those who hold such an anti-theologian view have undoubtedly been shaped and influenced by theologians of one stripe or another. Nobody lives in a vacuum. Their own adherence to creedal formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, belies this fact.

It is God who gave pastors and teachers to the church. That fact alone requires that we take them seriously. Should we believe everything they teach without confirming it by Scripture? Absolutely not. Then again, we should not ignore them either. We do so at our own risk.

Jesus’ teaching about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit proves that not all will be saved:

Matthew 12:31-32 (NASB): “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Mark 3:28-29 (NASB): “Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Luke 12:10 (NASB): “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.”

In the passage in Mark, Jesus sharply contrasts pardonable sins with the unpardonable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The use of the Greek word “de,” meaning “but,” shows this contrast. Christ goes on to say that the one committing this sin is guilty of an “eternal sin.” The adjective aiwnios is used to modify the noun “sin.” The contrast would make no sense if aiwnios described the sin as merely “temporary,” for that would place it in the category of forgivable sins mentioned just before. In that case, though, we would end up with this nonsensical translation:

“Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit has forgiveness, but is guilty of a temporary sin.”

The Lord’s point here, which cannot be overlooked, is that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit belongs to a particular category of sin that is unpardonable. As such, it is an eternal sin.

The passage from Luke brings out the same contrast: Forgivable sins are diametrically opposed to the sin that will not be forgiven: “…but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.”

Again, if this sin were to be forgiven at some point in the future, then the contrast in the passage would be completely overturned, and we would end up with this nonsensical translation: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will be forgiven him.”

If they were all in the same category, how could there be a contrast?

This text clearly affirms that not all will be saved. It is an unpleasant truth, but its unpleasantness does not make it any less true.

The passage in Matthew is somewhat different but no less interesting. Again there is a clear contrast (using the Greek particle “de,” meaning “but”) between the types of sins that can be forgiven and the type of sin that cannot be forgiven, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. As in the Mark passage, if this sin could one day be forgiven, then the contrast between the two types of sins becomes meaningless.

What is even more illuminating, however, is that Christ goes on to say that this sin will not be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come.” This has significant impact upon other passages in Scripture that refer to a period of future punishment. If the sin is eternal—and again, the sharp contrast between this sin and pardonable sins shows that it is—then the “age to come,” to which Christ refers, cannot be a temporary one but must indicate an age without end.

We see the same use of the word “age” in another passage in Mark—chapter 10, verses 29–30:

“Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age (aiwni) to come, eternal (aiwnion) life.”

Note what the Lord says the reward will be in the age to come: eternal life. If there is eternal life in this future age, then the age itself must be without end. On the other hand, if that age to come is not without end but only temporary, then the life that is rewarded to these believers would also be temporary. That, however, contradicts the Lord’s statement in this passage.

As appealing as universalism is to many, it never entered the mind of God. Scripture clearly teaches that not all will be saved.

Universalism—the teaching that all will be saved and the denial of eternal, conscious punishment in hell—can certainly be appealing. After all, the concept of people suffering endless agony on account of their sins is not pleasant to consider. It is far more pleasant to imagine that God will save all people eventually regardless of what they have done in this life. At the end of the day, though, what will stand is the truth that the Holy Spirit inspired men to write in Scripture, and the truth is that there will indeed be a dreadful place where those who have rejected Christ their whole lives will suffer punishment without end.

One of the clearest proofs of eternal punishment is found in the words of Jesus Himself about Judas Iscariot: “The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24, NASB)

To say that it would have been good for Judas if he had not been born is a very strong statement. The “woe” that awaited Christ’s betrayer must have been so horrific as to make nonexistence a good thing. Thus, this statement militates against two popular ideas held by those who oppose the doctrine of eternal punishment: annihilation and future remedial punishment. Jesus’ words rule out the idea of annihilation because that is the very state of nonexistence that he says would have been good for Judas. His words negate the idea of future remedial punishment because having never been born could not be regarded as good compared to a remedial chastening that would eventually lead to eternal blessedness. Since Judas Iscariot’s fate cannot be annihilation or remedial punishment, it must be eternal punishment.

One way that universalists try to get around this is to point out that in the Greek the text actually reads, “…it would have been good for him if that man had not been born.” Universalists argue that Christ was using the pronoun “him” to refer back to himself, so that the meaning would read, “It would have been good for me (Jesus) if that man (Judas) had not been born.” According to this view, Christ meant that if Judas had never been born, He (Christ) would not have had to endure the anguish in Gethsemane and the subsequent agonies of the crucifixion.

The universalists are right in their point that the pronoun “him” is used. Here it is in the Greek, with the pronoun boldfaced:

ὁ μὲν υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ὑπάγει καθὼς γέγραπται περὶ αὐτοῦ οὐαὶ δὲ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐκείνῳ δι’ οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοται· καλὸν ἦν αὐτῷ εἰ οὐκ ἐγεννήθη ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖνος

A more literal rendering of the final sentence above would be:

good was for him if not was born that man
καλὸν ἦν αὐτῷ εἰ οὐκ ἐγεννήθη ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖνος

So the universalists are correct at least about that. The problem is that the pronoun, being masculine in gender and singular in number, could be referring to either Jesus or Judas. It is more likely, though, to be referring to Judas because the phrase “that man,” which also refers to the betrayer, occurs in the very same sentence.

There is something else in the text, however, that strongly points to the fact that the pronoun “him” refers to Judas. Let’s look at the text again:

“The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”

Jesus pronounced a woe upon “that man” (τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐκείνῳ, TWi ANTHRWPWi EKEINWi). Who was that man? Clearly it was Judas because of the prepositional phrase that immediately follows: “by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” The only person ever indicated in the Bible as betraying Christ was Judas, so there can be no question that he was the one who faced this woe.

That alone, however, is not enough. It still doesn’t tell us for sure whom the pronoun “him” refers to. But knowing that Christ made a point of pronouncing a woe upon Judas, we have to ask: Would it make sense for Christ to pronounce this woe upon Judas but then abruptly, in the next breath, start talking about what was good for Himself? Not really. Look at more of the passage:

20Now when evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the twelve disciples.
21As they were eating, He said, “Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me.”
22Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, “Surely not I, Lord?”
23And He answered, “He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me.
24“The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
25And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself.”

The subject of this passage is the betrayal that Christ was to face and its consequences for the betrayer. That is the point of the passage. What might have been good for Christ is not in view at all in this text. To claim this is to say that Christ shifted gears in the middle of his talk, first speaking of the woe that would come to Judas, then abruptly changing the subject to speak of what was good for Himself, and then just as abruptly switching back to speak of Judas. This goes against the logical flow of the text. First Christ states, “woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” and then immediately expands on that with these words: “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” For Christ to first speak of the woe awaiting Judas and then immediately change the subject to address what would be good for Himself would make no sense. Therefore, the idea that Christ was referring to himself is a forced interpretation.

Finally, the broader context of the Bible shows that it is highly unlikely that Christ would have considered Judas’ nonexistence to be good for Him. Jesus would have had to endure the cross no matter what. It was God’s will that this should happen. Thus, even if Judas had never been born, God would have definitely used some other means to bring Christ to the anguish and suffering of the cross. The agonies that Christ faced were inevitable, and he knew it well. He knew that the very reason for his coming into the world was to give up his life for sinful people: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28, NASB).

In light of this, Christ would not have said that He would have benefited by Judas’ nonexistence. It would be like a condemned criminal on his way to the electric chair, saying, “It would be good for me if that electric chair did not exist.” This would be a ridiculous statement because even if the governing authorities didn’t have the electric chair, they would carry out his death sentence in some other way. The man is doomed to die, and so he will die no matter what. So it was with Christ: Even if Judas had never been born— which could not have happened because it was part of God’s plan that he should betray Christ—God would have surely created some other sure means whereby Christ would have been betrayed. Christ’s mission of death for sin was inevitable.

The only sensible interpretation is that Judas’ nonexistence would have been good for Judas, and that because of the woe that Christ referred to earlier in the same sentence.

Some universalists object in another way, though, suggesting that the woe referred merely to Judas’ inner anguish due to guilt or fear of judgment. But no matter how intense such inner suffering might be, it could never make nonexistence good for him if he would be saved in the end, for in that case, even if he had to face the most horrible subjective anguish or future judgment before reaching salvation, he would still end up one day in eternal blessedness. Having never been born, however, would mean that he would miss out on this everlasting blessedness, eternal glory, unending fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and all the other myriad, indescribable joys of being in heaven forever. Therefore, in this view nonexistence could not have been good for him.

In addition, the grammar of the passage demands that the woe be interpreted as objective. The phrase, “but woe to that man” is “οὐαὶ δὲ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐκείνῳ.” The emphasized words in Greek are in English “the man,” and they are in the singular dative, indicating not what is inside the man but rather what will be to that man. It is a woe that will happen to him, not in him.

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. Continue reading

In my ongoing study of the Gospel of Mark with a friend, I came across the very interesting—and for some perplexing—account of Jesus’ causing the fruitless fig tree to wither. If we had attempted to interpret the passage on its own apart from the context, we would have been confused and would have misconstrued the text. Continue reading

Long ago St. Francis uttered some words that have unfortunately survived to this very day and constitute a popular quote among many Christians regarding evangelism: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” This statement—or the thinking behind it—has perhaps become as popular in evangelical church culture as the Great Commission itself. Continue reading