In which I propose to change a millennia of church tradition in 1500 words

Just yesterday, I preached about the New Covenant. Some church traditions celebrate Covenant Thursday on the day before Good Friday, which would be 09 April this year. I chose to hold our celebration before Palm Sunday, to kick off the Easter season. This way, before the Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter services … we remind ourselves what’s so special about the New Covenant.

If you come from a dispensational tradition, the New Covenant may not be important in your church tradition. It wasn’t a focus in my own seminary training. Instead, Dr. Larry Oats organized his systematic theology lectures around the dispensations. This is fine; Maranatha Seminary is a dispensationalist school. I personally think the biblical covenants are a surer foundation to form a framework for understanding God’s plan.

I decided to tackle the subject in two parts; (1) the roadmap that leads us to the New Covenant, then (2) what’s “new” about this new covenant. This sermon was one of the harder one’s I’ve ever prepared. It’s a sermon based on systematic theology, not a passage. Even worse, it’s a really big area of systematic theology. Perhaps worse still, I’m a very mild dispensationalist who believes in Old Covenant regeneration[1] and that the church is a full participant in the New Covenant, so many dispensationalist resources are of little use to me in this area.  

This brings me to the point of this little article. I believe the names of the biblical covenants are very bad. Useless. They communicate nothing. We should drop them. We should change them. These covenant names are largely theological conventions; not inspired. We don’t have to stick with them. Instead of labeling the covenants by the immediate recipient, we should label them according to their purpose.

Let me explain. I’ll briefly discuss the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New covenants in turn.

The covenant of preservation (Noahic)

God didn’t make a covenant with Noah. He said, “I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you,” (Gen 9:9). In fact, the covenant was with all living creatures on the earth (Gen 9:9-10). So, if we want to label covenants by immediate recipient, we should call it the “covenant with the world.”

But, even this isn’t good enough.

In this covenant, God promised to preserve the world and His creatures intact. He promised to withhold judgment, even though after the flood He acknowledged “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” (Gen 8:21-22; 9:9-11). This covenant is the basis for common grace and the reason why a people even existed for Jesus to save.[2]

God started over knowing it would end badly (cf. Gen 9-10), and promised to withhold similar judgment indefinitely so His grace and judgment would be known for all time. He did it so Jesus could come one day and save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21).

I suggest we can communicate better with our congregations if we call this the “covenant of preservation.”

The covenant with His people (Abrahamic)

After promising to preserve the world, God then promised to save it through a very special people – the Jewish people. Along with the first, this covenant is the fountainhead for all of God’s promises.

It’s true that God did establish a covenant with Abraham. But, it isn’t really about Abraham. The covenant marks out the Jewish people as His special people. They’re the vehicle that brings forth the Messiah, who will bless all the nations of the earth with His gospel (Gen 12:3). The Jewish people are the ones who will evangelize the world during the Millennium (Zech 8:20-23). This covenant is the basis for Mary’s hope (Lk 1:55), for Zechariah’s hope (Lk 1:72-75), and for God’s grace even as He foretold the failure of the next covenant (Lev 26:42).

This covenant is with Abraham, but it’s not about Abraham. It’s about choosing a special people to be the conduit for divine blessings upon the whole world. This is why we have a Jewish Messiah.

It should be called “the covenant with His people.”

The covenant of holy living (Mosaic)

After choosing His people, God tells them how to live holy lives while they wait for the promises to Abraham to come true. Like an airplane orbiting, waiting for permission to land, God’s people were in a holding pattern waiting for Jesus to come. So, God tells them how to live holy lives while they’re waiting.

This is a conditional covenant; “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant,” (Ex 19:5). Like an arrangement with a troubled teenage son, it established rules and boundaries. Breaking the laws, in and of themselves, did not get you kicked out of the family but disciplined within it.

This covenant taught people about themselves – they were sinful. It taught people about God – that He is holy and righteous and punishes sin. The ceremonial lawswere object lessons to teach us about Christ. The civil laws were general principles of righteousness applied to a specific context. The moral law was a mirror to show us our true nature, a general restraint on sin, and a vehicle for nudging His people towards greater holiness.

This covenant taught God’s people how to live and love Him while they waited for the promises of the previous covenant to come true. Their failure is ours, because we’d do no better. It tells us we’re not good people. It tells us that, even given divine promises with evidence, we still won’t obey. It tells us we need a permanent solution to our criminal nature. We need a divine intervention in our lives to make this happen.

Jesus is the one who came to do this.

Labeling it “the Mosaic covenant” tells Christians nothing. It ought to be called “the covenant of holy living.”

The covenant of the king (Davidic)

While they waited for God’s covenant promises to be fulfilled, God gave His people a king to rule over them. He established a dynastic line through a boy named David. He said a man from this line would rule over His people and be His royal representative on earth.

God promised David He’d subdue all his enemies (1 Chr 17:9-10), but this never happened.  But, Jesus (the “Son of David;” Mt 1:1) will do it (Ps 2, 110). He said He’d establish this dynasty through David (1 Chr 17:10), and this dynasty would last forever (1 Chr 17:11-12). But, the throne sits vacant. Jesus will fill it.

God said this king would be like a son to Him, and He’d be like a father to the king. There would be a familial closeness. Again, David’s throne is vacant and David committed many sins. His descendants were worse. Jesus is the “son of David” (Mt 1:1) who will fulfill this prophesy. Jesus isn’t God’s literal son; the “Father” and “Son” language expresses a closeness of relationship, not physical derivation.

This covenant isn’t about David. It’s about the promise of a good, perfect, eternal king descended from David who will be God’s perfect representative on earth for all eternity. That person is Jesus.

To call this the “Davidic covenant” is misleading. It’s really the “covenant of the king.”

Mile markers on the road to Jesus

In my sermon, I expressed these covenants as four, individual mile markers leading the Bible reader to Jesus of Nazareth. The fifth mile marker is Jesus.

  • preservation: it didn’t solve the sin problem, but instead God preserved the world so He could solve it through His Son
  • His people: God chose the Jewish people to be the vehicle for this new and permanent solution. Jesus is the descendant from Abraham who will bless people from all over the world, make it happen, and form a new family.  
  • holy living: God told His people how to hold the fort, love Him, live holy lives, and maintain relationship with Him through the priests and the sacrificial system until the new solution arrives. They failed; that’s why Jesus came to fulfill the terms of that covenant by being perfect for His people.
  • king: God chose a dynasty to represent Him, love Him, and lead people to do the same. Jesus is that king.

This all leads to Jesus, who enacts a new and better covenant based on better promises (Heb 8:6). These “better promises” are summed up with one word; peace! In the New Covenant, Jesus (1) gives His people a new and better relationship with Him, (2) has a pure covenant membership, and (3) permanently blots out their sins.[3]

For these reasons, while the “new covenant” term is biblical language, perhaps it’s best to call it “the covenant of perfect peace.”

I believe these name changes communicate better. They focus on the covenant’s purpose, rather than the immediate recipient. In this way, the new names mean something. They teach the reader. They tell a story.

The old names … not so much.

Here is the sermon. Note: I made a terrible mistake by moving the camera four feet from it’s normal spot and lost about 75% of the lighting. I moved it back now. Sorry for the poor lighting:


[1] But, then again, so did Rolland McCune (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. [Detroit: DBTS, 2006-2009], 2: 267-280). Heh, heh …

[2] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 442-443.

[3] I am generally following F.F. Bruce here, while re-phrasing the first two points: “This new relationship would involve three things in particular: (a) the implanting of God’s law in their hearts; (b) the knowledge of God as a matter of personal experience; (c) the blotting out of their sins,” (Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed.,in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990; Kindle ed.], KL 2170 – 2171).

Prophecy, Tongues and 1 Corinthians 14

This is a short exposition of 1 Corinthians 14. It’s based on notes I prepared for our adult bible study class. It doesn’t interact with the scholarly commentaries, and nobody will mistake it for a crushing blow that will lay Wayne Grudem low. Still, I believe it’s a faithful and accurate way to understand this difficult chapter. Perhaps some people will find it useful. 

Tongues are useless without an interpreter (1 Cor 14:1-5).

Paul wants Christians to cultivate love in their congregation (1 Cor 13), and to especially desire the ability to prophecy. I understand this to refer to direct revelation from God, in the Old Testament sense. Some believe it refers to general teaching or preaching. This view is possible, but I disagree.

I understand “tongues” to refer to intelligible, human language. I think this agrees with the evidence from Acts 2 and makes the best sense in this chapter. Paul doesn’t exactly denigrate tongues, but he remarks over and over that this gift has limited use in a church setting. Tongues is a gift for evangelism.

The one who speaks in a foreign language during a church meeting isn’t actually speaking to the congregation, but to God – because nobody but God understands what he’s saying (1 Cor 14:2)! Instead, he’s uttering mysteries by the Holy Spirit, who gives this miraculous gift. However, the person who speaks prophecy directly from God can be understood. He can encourage and build up the congregation. The man who speaks a foreign language can’t do any of that; nobody understands him (1 Cor 14:3). Instead, he builds and encourages himself. The man who prophesies builds up the congregation (1 Cor 14:4). This is why the gift of prophecy is better for the church than tongues, unless someone is available to interpret (1 Cor 14:5).

Build up the church, not yourself (1 Cor 14:6-12)

Paul asks an obvious question; how can you understand someone who speaks a foreign language unless an interpreter is present (1 Cor 14:6)!? You can’t, of course.

If a flute doesn’t sound a clear note, nobody can understand or appreciate it. If a bugle isn’t clear, nobody can obey the call. Likewise, if a foreign language isn’t interpreted, nobody will even know what’s being said! It’s like you’re speaking into the air (1 Cor 14:7-9).

There are lots of languages in the world, and they all mean something (1 Cor 14:10). But, if you don’t understand the language, the audience and the speaker will be foreigners to one another (1 Cor 14:11). So, Christians should focus on gifts that will actually build up the congregation (1 Cor 14:12). The gift of tongues won’t do that.

How to use the gift of languages (1 Cor 14:13-19)

This is why the person who has the gift of speaking in a foreign language should pray that he has the ability to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). This implies that some people could speak foreign languages, but didn’t even understand what they were saying! In this case, I assume the Christian is somehow a passive vehicle for communicating via the Spirit. This is strange, because Acts 2 suggests the Christians understood what they were saying to the Pentecost pilgrims. Whatever the situation was, Paul suggests they not be content with being passive actors.

Our minds must be engaged in worship (1 Cor 14:14-15). If you pray or speak in a foreign language, and you yourself don’t even understand what you’re saying, how can this build up anybody (1 Cor 14:16-17)? This is why Paul would rather instruct believers than speak 10,000 words in a foreign language that doesn’t do any good for anybody (1 Cor 14:19).

What tongues (“languages”) are for (1 Cor 14:20-25)

Paul suggests the Corinthians be mature as they think about this (1 Cor 14:20). Isaiah 28:11 suggests that, one day, Gentiles will come with strange languages and teach the Israelites about Yahweh (1 Cor 14:21). Paul takes this ironic situation and applies it to his own context – the gift to speak foreign languages isn’t for believers, but for unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). Prophecy, on the other hand, is for believers (1 Cor 14:22).

This is why, if an outsider wanders into your assembly and sees everybody speaking foreign languages to one another, he’ll think you’re all insane (1 Cor 14:23)! But, if someone enters and hears prophecy direct from the Lord, he is convicted, he’s called to account, and he’ll worship God and confess that He’s present in the church (1 Cor 14:24-25). This is because prophecy can be understood by anybody, but tongues is for evangelism (cp. Acts 2).

Orderly worship (1 Cor 14:26-32)

So, prophecy and foreign language gifts should be done decently, in order, without chaos. Everything should be for edification (1 Cor 14:26).

If someone has the gift of languages, then have no more than two or three speak in turn, and someone must be there to interpret (1 Cor 14:27). If there isn’t an interpreter, nobody should speak (1 Cor 14:28).

For prophecy, let two or three speak and have others weigh what they say (1 Cor 14:29). If one person receives a revelation from God during the meeting, others should give way to let him speak (1 Cor 14:30). The prophets should speak one by one, so everyone in the congregation can be encouraged (1 Cor 14:31). The prophets are subject to one another, to critique and “check” one another (1 Cor 14:32).

Women and prophecy (1 Cor 14:33-36)

1 Cor 14:33-36: As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

This is the most difficult part of Paul’s letter. I believe Paul means that wives should keep silent (1 Cor 14:34) in the context of critiquing and “checking” their husbands, who have just uttered prophesies.[1] Paul can’t be saying women can’t ever speak in a public gathering, for several reasons:

  1. it would imply women are somehow structurally inferior; contra Gal 3:28
  2. it contradicts 1 Cor 11:5, which says women did regular prophesy in church services
  3. it would contradict Joel’s prophesy (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:18)
  4. it contradicts the prominent servant roles of Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-3), Priscilla (Acts 18:2; Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19); Mary (Rom 16:6), Junia (Rom 16:7), Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Rom 16:12), Phoebe the deacon (Rom 16:1-2), Nympha who hosted a house church (Col 4:15)

The language of submission and shame suggest this is likely a case of women who are critiquing their husband’s prophesies during a church meeting. Indeed, Paul has just finished explaining how to handle prophecy during a church meeting, including critique or questioning afterwards. There is probably a local context to this controversy that we’ll never know. The data of other women performing prominent servant roles in various New Testament churches (see above) means this is likely a local command, for a local context, for a very specific situation.

I assume Corinth had a particular problem with some wives criticizing, critiquing or otherwise embarrassing their husbands during public church meetings. The overriding principle is that husbands and wives should not embarrass one another in public (cp. Eph 5:21ff). If the wife has concerns about her husband’s prophecy, she must ask at home – where there is no danger of embarrassment or shame.[2] In other words, rather than embarrass your husband in public, just ask in the car on the way home!

The reference “as the law also says” (1 Cor 14:34) is a general reference to the Old Covenant, likely to Gen 3:16 and the perpetual battle between the sexes in a marriage relationship in a post-fall context.

Wrapping up (1 Cor 14:36-40)

Paul concludes with some sharp, rhetorical arrows. The word of God didn’t just come to the church in Corinth, did it (1 Cor 14:36-37)!? Any true Christian should acknowledge Paul’s authority to speak on Yahweh’s behalf (1 Cor 14:37). If someone doesn’t acknowledge Paul’s authority, he shouldn’t be considered a Christian (1 Cor 14:38). Ask God for the ability to utter prophesies. Don’t forbid foreign languages in the church; just make sure everything is done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:39-40).


[1] I am following (1) David Garland, 1 Corinthians, in BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 664-673 and (2) Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 510-515.

[2] “Paul disallows speech in the assembly that would suggest that a wife is being insubordinate toward her husband, whether it is an interruption or a challenge to a prophetic utterance. The delicate relationship between husband and wife is imperiled by the wife’s public questioning, correcting, or challenging,” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 671).

Likewise, Kistemaker observes, “[t]he Corinthian women at worship are not told to be silent in respect to praying, prophesying, and singing psalms and hymns. They are, however, forbidden to speak when the prophesies of their husbands are discussed,” (1 Corinthians, 513).

Could Christ Have Sinned?

We do a theology class for our congregation twice per month. We meet in the evenings for 90 minutes and discuss a few questions from the assigned reading. We use Grudem’s systematic theology. I’d prefer Erickson, but Grudem’s format is more user-friendly. This coming week, we’re discussing this question:

  • Do YOU think it is possible for Jesus to ever sin? If it isn’t possible, then how can Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-10 be true?

These are my preliminary reflections as I prepare for the class. They are not fully formed, but they point where I’m headed. To answer this question coherently, you need to competently pull together several strands of orthodox Christology. In short, this is a tough question.

First things first

We must understand two things up-front:

  1. Jesus never sinned
  2. Father, Son and Spirit decided that the incarnate Messiah would be a perfect representative man, so it is certain that He would not sin

But, if Jesus didn’t sin, can He really understand us? And if Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then isn’t the incarnation a farce?

Definitions

  1. Sin: an unholy thought (Ex 20:17; Mt 5:27-30) or action (“lawlessness,” 1 Jn 3:4).
  2. Temptation: an enticement, push or nudge to sin.1
  3. Nature: the constellation of attributes and capacities that give shape to a person; including will, mind, emotion, volition.2
  4. Person: the owner, possessor or master of a nature – the active subject of a nature. It’s the vehicle that owns and actuates a nature. 3

Two nature Christology

Jesus has eternally existed as a divine person with a divine nature. In the incarnation, Jesus added a human nature to His divine nature. So, He now eternally exists as one divine person with two natures; divine and human.

But, Jesus’ temptations aren’t like ours because His human nature is not like ours. Adam and Eve broke the mold, and our natures reflect this brokenness. However, Jesus’ human nature is like Adam and Eve’s original nature – morally neutral. This means temptation strikes us differently than it did Jesus; we’re tempted from within and Jesus was tempted from without.

This means Jesus exercised more strength and fortitude, as our representative, to withstand the temptation. A champion weightlifter understands the crushing weight of the barbell more than the man who can’t lift anything.4 So, Jesus understands temptation better than we do, because he triumphed over it while we succumb to it.

Because Jesus had a real human nature, like the original Adam and Eve, this seems to mean Jesus’ human nature is theoretically able to sin because Adam and Eve were able to sin, too. Also, Adam and Jesus are two parallel representatives for humanity, so one would expect a correspondence between their capacities.

Thankfully, we don’t have to puzzle this out on our own. Very smart Christians have already done this.

Chalcedon

The Council of Chalcedon is the high-water mark for Christology.5 Here is what it says, with some comments:

Christ must “be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably …” This means the natures can never be confused or changed; as if they can be melded together or mistaken for each other. Also, Jesus’ divine and human natures can’t be disconnected from one another. In other words, they’re locked together but not mixed.

The Creed goes on, and explains, “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved …” This means each nature remains what it is and each nature retains its constellation of attributes. Thus, the divine nature is truly divine, and the human nature is truly human (like Adam’s and Eve’s).

These two natures are “concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son …” So, in some unfathomable way, each nature concurs together in the God-Man.

The Calcedonian Creeds tells us several things:

  1. while the natures are not mixed, and they each retain their separate attributes,
  2. they still work in lock-step together, in some way,6 and you can’t downplay the role of either nature,
  3. therefore, to assume one nature has a controlling hold on another (as impeccability advocates often suggest) seems to go beyond Chalcedon7

The precise mechanics of this union of natures in Jesus must remain a mystery; to go any further is dangerous speculation. We can also toss in some other caveats:

  1. If Jesus is truly human, then He has a human will proper to His human nature.8 He has to make a meaningful and intelligent choice, as a man, to obey God the Father as our representative. To suggest otherwise is to impugn His humanity.
  2. However, natures cannot act. Only a person can act. This brings us back round to the metaphysical conundrum that Jesus the divine person acts; even if it’s in accordance with one nature and not the other. The Son is the acting subject of both His divine and human natures.

Scripture

Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us Jesus can sympathize9 with and understand10 our weaknesses. He can only do this because He was tempted in all points just like we are – but without sin.11 These words mean something. If the temptation does not mirror Adam and Eve’s, it’s difficult to see Jesus as a parallel representative.

Because of (οὖν) Jesus’ shared experience of suffering, the Scripture calls us to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (Heb 4:16). This suggests Jesus must really have been tempted to sin the same way as the original Adam and Eve.

In Hebrews 5:7-10, we read that, “in the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” The best example of this is Gethsemane, where Jesus genuinely wanted to be freed from what was to come – but He resolved to do His Father’s will, anyway. Jesus the divine person expressed a purely human volition through His human nature. Like on many other occasions, Jesus seems to have “walled off” or compartmentalized His divine nature at this point.

We read that “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered,” (Heb 5:8). Jesus learned experiential obedience to God by suffering and triumphing over sin. As a man, Jesus learned things. “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,” (Heb 5:19). Jesus’ suffering without sinning is what “completed” Him as our representative. In Hebrews 2:10, the Bible says it’s the suffering that was the means (διὰ) of this “completeness,” realized most fully in His unjust execution.

The problem

Here’s the conundrum:

  1. to suggest Jesus, as the God-Man, is unable to sin seems to denigrate His true humanity. This position seems to make the incarnation a farce – a foregone conclusion. It implies Jesus never felt the true force of the temptations. This position is known as impeccability.
  2. but, to suggest Jesus could sin seems to denigrate His deity. This position is known as peccability.

So, what to do? The solution seems to be a qualified form of peccability, as follows:12

  1. Jesus was genuinely tempted to sin,
  2. not like us, but like the original Adam and Eve (morally neutral),
  3. so, it was theoretically possible for Him to sin,
  4. but He chose not to sin

Why this solution?

To suggest otherwise seems to denigrate His humanity and make the divine nature override the human one – contra the Chalcedonian creed, which says “the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person …”

R.L. Dabney even calls the hypostatic union “an absolute shield to the lower nature, against error.”13 The human nature is somehow captive to the divine. This also seems to violate dyothelitism. Shedd argues that Jesus as a person (with both natures) could not have sinned, the divine nature controls the human.14 This is the same error as Dabney’s; it seems to absorb the humanity into the divine.15 How, then, are Jesus’ temptations not all a farce?

Charles Hodge remarked, “If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with his people.”16

Anselm draws a distinction between temptation and will; the temptation may be there, but the will is not – so both options are true, in a way!17 Grudem acknowledges we can’t really understand how the two natures relate in the God-Man, but affirms Jesus as a man didn’t rely on His divinity as a backstop;18 contra Dabney and Shedd. But, he observed:19

if we are asking if it was actually possible for Jesus to have sinned, it seems that we must conclude that it was not possible. The union of his human and divine natures in one person prevented it.

This seems to violate Chalcedon. But, he concludes, rightly: “His divine nature could not be tempted with evil, but his human nature could be tempted and was clearly tempted. How these two natures united in one person in facing temptations, Scripture does not clearly explain to us.”20

This is wise advice. This is where Scripture stops. Chalcedon is the high-water mark; everything else is just tinkering. The Third Council of Constantinople fleshed some of this out a bit:21

each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race.

But, we really can’t say precisely how the two natures communicate together. Stephen Wellum has noted, “[s]ome kind of asymmetrical relationship between the Son’s living, speaking, and acting in and through his natures must be postulated, which is probably one of the most difficult areas for us to conceive.”22

Millard Erickson explains that “while he could have sinned, it was certain that he would not. There were genuine struggles and temptations, but the outcome was always certain.”23 This is perhaps the best answer, and it touches on yet another area of genuine mystery – a compatibilist concept of God’s sovereignty:

  1. Father, Son and Spirit decreed that Jesus would be the sinless representative,
  2. so, it was certain the incarnate Christ would not sin
  3. yet Jesus, acting in accordance with his true unspoiled humanity with His human will, theoretically could have sinned
  4. even though, according to the decree, it is certain he would not sin

This is the same conundrum we have as we consider whether Judas was a truly willing agent when he betrayed the Savior (Mk 14:21). Compatibalism assigns moral responsibility to the human agent, even as it upholds God’s decree. This helps us understand how Jesus theoretically could sin, and yet could not sin.

Wrapping up

I return to the questions I posed at the beginning:

  1. If Jesus didn’t sin, can He really understand us? He theoretically could have sinned, but He didn’t, so He does understand and can sympathize with our struggles.
  2. If Jesus couldn’t have sinned, then isn’t the incarnation a farce? But, He theoretically could have sinned, so it isn’t a farce.

I pray these imperfect reflections help you think through this important question!

Notes

1 This is a variation of a definition given by Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 524.

2 See especially the discussion by Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff.  

3 Ibid.  

4 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994; ePub 2015), 539.

5 One of the best short discussions on the Christological controversies is by Robert Reymond, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 583-622. See especially 608-622.  

6 The Third Council of Constantinople explained it well; “we say that he has two natures shining forth in his one subsistence in which he demonstrated the miracles and the sufferings throughout his entire providential dwelling here, not in appearance but in truth, the differences of the natures being made known in one and the same subsistence in that each nature wills and performs the things that are proper to it in a communion with the other; then in accord with this reasoning we hold that two natural wills and principles of action meet in correspondence for the salvation of the human race,” (Norman P. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. [Washington D.C., GUP, 1990], 1:129-130).

You cannot go further than this, perhaps the best expression of Chalcedon as applied to the will of each nature that mankind will ever formulate.

7 Even the Third Council of Constantinople, at it condemned the monothelite issue, seemed to hint at points beyond Chalcedon when it said “the two natural wills not in opposition, as the impious heretics said, far from it, but his human will following, and not resisting or struggling, rather and in fact subject to his divine and all powerful will,” (Ibid, 1:128). Yet, the Council then clarified this by a quotation of Jn 6:38, and suggested Jesus’ human nature always sought to do the will of the divine. The incident at Gethsemane certainly suggests a resistance and struggle (contra the Council, above), but nonetheless a successful submission to God’s will.

I am uncomfortable with the depths the Council went to as it suggested the human nature obeys the divine; this smacks of Nestorianism or a radical disjunction of the natures. The Oneness Pentecostals actually sound remarkably like this! This formulation seems to go too far into mystery.

8 This is dyothelitism; see the Third Council of Constantinople.  

9 Friberg defines the word here as “a disposition to help because of fellow feeling,” (25330 συμπαθέω).

10 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “sympathy” as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another,” (sv. 3a).

11 Most commentators understand χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας as I interpreted it, above. These include Peter T. O’Brien (The Letter to the Hebrews, in PNTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010; Kindle ed.], KL 3681) and F.F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Hebrews, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990; Kindle ed.], KL 1392-1405) and William L. Lane (Hebrews 1-8, in WBC, vol. 47a [Dallas: Word, 1991], 114). Some commentators, such as Homer Kent (Hebrews, 92), believe the phrase refers to the manner of the testing; that is, Jesus was tempted like we are except in the manner of a sinful inclination or pull from within. This is theologically correct, but it isn’t the point the writer is making. Kent is incorrect.

12 For a good counter-argument for impeccability, see especially Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 520-526. He seems to generally follow Shedd.

13 R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (St. Louis: Presbyterian Publishing, 1878; reprint; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1996), 471.

14 “When these two natures are united in one theanthropic person, as they are in the incarnation, the divine determines and controls the human, not the human the divine,” (W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. [reprint; Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003], 660).

15 “Consequently, Christ while having a peccable human nature in his constitution, was an impeccable person. Impeccability characterizes the God-man as a totality, while peccability is a property of his humanity,” (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 661).

16  Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2011], 2:457.

17 “We can therefore say of Christ that he could tell a lie, if this statement is recognized to contain the implication, ‘If it were his will’. And since he could not lie unwillingly and it could not be his will to tell a lie, it can equally be stated that he was incapable of lying. It follows that thus he both could, and could not, tell a lie,” (Why God Became Man, in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works [Oxford: OUP, 1998; Kindle ed.], Book 2.10).

18 Grudem, Systematic, 539. “Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by his divine power, but on the strength of his human nature alone.”

19 Ibid, 539.  

20 Ibid.

21 Norman P. Tanner (ed.), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols. [Washington D.C., GUP, 1990], 1:129-130).

22 Wellum, God the Son Incarnate,  441.  

23 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2013; ePub), 657.  

Evangelism at the Library

This past Saturday, our church did a public evangelism event at our local library. The West Coast is deservedly considered one of the more leftist areas in the United States. The Governor of Washington State recently ended an unsuccessful presidential run in which his platform consisted of climate change alarmism. Paper straws are mandated in Seattle. The homelessness crisis in urban centers along the I-5 corridor grows ever worse. Marijuana is legal. The sexual revolution is in full swing.

Olympia, WA (the state capitol) is one of the more secular areas in a very secular region. It’s a small city; not much more than 50,000 people. Together with Lacey and Tumwater, it forms a modest metro area.

My experience is that, in the Midwest, your church can grow (albeit slowly) if you (1) preach faithfully, (2) do a children’s event like VBS in the Summer, and (3) maybe a few other odds and ends. I also found that many people think they’re Christians already because they’re Americans.

Olympia is different. Really different.

I never saw urban ministry modeled in a healthy way. I come from the KJVO-flavor of Baptist fundamentalism, where “run and gun evangelism” was the order of the day. I’ve had to fiddle around and figure some things out for myself. I don’t have much figured out, but one thing I have figured is that churches need to be winsomely aggressive with evangelism in this culture.

So, that’s where the library event comes in. A few years ago, I saw a flyer in the library for some kind of “intro to Buddhist chanting” class. I thought to myself, “why don’t Christians do this kind of thing in the public square!?” I looked up the public meeting room policy, and anyone can reserve and use the rooms free of charge. You just can’t sell anything. Fair enough.

But, I’ve been busy. It hasn’t been the right time. Blah, blah. We brought on board second elder, and he’s been here for about seven months. The time had come.

So, we did it.

The format we used was pretty simple:

  • A 25-minute overview of the Christian faith and message.
  • A one-hour live question and answer from the audience.

We advertised heavily on FaceBook, and gave invite cards for church folks to pass out to friends and family. Newspaper advertising is dead, and it’s too expensive. With FaceBook marketing, you can tailor your ads to the gender, age, area and interest of your target demographic. It’s outstanding. For our next event, we plan to continue FaceBook ads but fool around with Pandora and Spotify ads, and perhaps YouTube, too.

We titled the event, “What is Christianity Really About?” We wanted people with real questions to come hear the Gospel outside a church building, in a neutral place. We also wanted to give people a chance to ask questions.

We tried to partner with the Bible Presbyterians across the street. The pastor there, who is also the President of the local Bible Presbyterian seminary, is a cautious guy. A good guy. He hedged his bets and attended the event, but declined to be part of the Q&A panel or have his church promote it. I think he wanted to see if we were theological wimps. If we were the William L. Craig, Mike Licona “mere Christianity” type, then he wouldn’t be interested in partnering. I think he was happy with what he saw, and we hope to partner with them at our next event in April or May.

So, what did we do?

For the “overview” section, I wanted to do more than a “1-2-3, pray after me!” presentation. I wanted to present the broad sweep of the Christian story, and attack the secular worldview I assume most of the audience had. My talk had six parts:

  1. Misunderstandings. I quickly rattled off some common misconceptions about Christianity, and explained that the Christian message is really about reconciliation. We’re not good people. We’re bad people who need to be rescued. I also explained we’re doing this public event outside the church building because this message is so important.
  2. Worldviews and scripts. I briefly explained what a worldview is, and suggested we’re all handed “scripts” about how to think and live our lives. We edit these scripts throughout our lives.
  3. Big questions of life. I suggested that not all “scripts” are true; some of them are wrong. I challenged the audience to consider whether their “scripts” for their lives made sense. I asked them to think about how they answered the so-called “big questions” of life.
  4. The Christian script. I presented the Gospel with the framework of “creation + fall + promise + redemption + restoration.” I explained how the Christian faith answered each of these “big questions” with this framework. I was able to explain the Gospel fully and completely.
  5. What’s your script? I then suggested that a secular, materialist script could not answer the “big questions” of life. I presented the implications of this worldview, and challenged people to consider whether they actually lived in light of these depressing implications. I worked in the teleological and moral arguments for the existence of God along the way.
  6. Evangelistic invitation. I then urged the audience to believe the Christian message, because it made sense of who they are and of our world. It answers questions their worldview cannot. I referenced Augustine’s City of God, and his contention that moral degeneracy destroyed the Roman Empire, and his plea for the Romans to choose Christ. I asked people there to do the same.

The overview went to 28 minutes. I was hoping for something like 20-25 minutes; preferably closer to 20. Next time, I’ll cut out some unnecessary material at the beginning and the end. But, all told, it was good enough. I’d give the presentation a B+ for content.

The live Q&A was outstanding. Our church has two pastors. We took turns fielding questions, and helping one another out. I haven’t had so much fun for a very long time. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get any questions about homosexuality or transgenderism. I suspect people were too polite to ask. Among these present, a few interactions stand out:

  • A young Jewish woman and her friend were there. She asked about the problem of evil in Genesis, along with some other questions. I was able to discuss compatibilism, and only used examples from the Tanakh that highlight this dilemma. I suggested she read Isaiah 53 and ponder whether Jesus is the promised Messiah. I also encouraged her to get Michael Brown’s five-volume set Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, even if she only wants to figure out how to argue with Christians!
  • One man asked about the Old Covenant law and its relationship to the New Covenant. The other pastor handled that one, and I followed up by directing him to the appropriate section in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
  • Another man, who appeared to be from the Middle East, asked what core beliefs a person must have in order to be a Christian. He also seemed to believe Christianity was a performance-based religion (i.e. you become a Christian by performing certain rituals), and I did my best to correct that. I directed him to read Romans and James.
  • Another man asked if he had to believe in the Trinity in order to be a Christian.
  • One lady, clearly a Christian, asked about how to deal with bitterness in her life in light of what Christ has done.

I’m not aware of another church doing something this aggressive in our area. There might be one; I just don’t know about it. Many churches seem to do evangelism by doing service projects. They want to let people know they’re nice. That’s good. I’m convicted that we ought to do more. Everyone else is pushing their narrative in the public square – even the Buddhists! The Christians ought to do the same. This event is one small way to do that.

All told, it was a great time. We should have advertised more. We packed the place with church folks so it didn’t look quite so dead. We had seven visitors, but they didn’t realize they were the only ones! We’ll do a few things differently next time. But, it was a great success. As we partner with other churches and pool resources, we’ll attract more people for our next event. I can’t wait!

Your church can do something like this. We aren’t a large church. By that, I mean we’re well under 100 in attendance on Sunday morning. We didn’t do PowerPoints. We just showed up and talked. We had tracts and other literature available. This was a minimalist event. It’s easy to do.

The audio for our event is below. The overview presentation goes to 28:00; the rest is the Q&A. My voice is the one you hear at the beginning; the other pastor doesn’t chime in until he opens the Q&A session after 28:00.

Peer Pressure and Darwin

Douglas Axe is a molecular biologist, and the author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. Early in his book, he explains that Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories didn’t catch on right away. But, all of a sudden, they did!

Why?

What would cause such a sudden reversal of scientific opinion? Did a new scientific discovery appear in the late 1860s or early 1870s—potent enough to convince the skeptics that Darwin was right after all? Clearly not, as Darwin surely would have cited such a decisive finding. But if science itself wasn’t the cause of the change, then what was?

Whether he intended to or not, Darwin reveals here that peer pressure is a part of science, happening behind the scenes as the various scientific interests compete against one another for influence. If it’s a plain historical fact that the experts didn’t side with Darwin in the early 1860s, then why would he have been “much censured” by his peers for saying so?

It’s as though his colleagues wanted all mention of opposition expunged from the record now that this opposition had faded. Darwin resisted the pressure applied to him on that occasion, but what if others, perhaps under even greater pressure, were less able to resist?

Might the earlier inability of some scientists to express their support of Darwin’s theory—the silence and ambiguity of expression Darwin referred to—have been the result of peer pressure too? And if so, then might the sudden change in Darwin’s favor have been more like a change of power than a change of minds—a sudden reversal of the stream’s flow?

Douglas Axe, Undeniable (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2016; Kindle ed.), pg. 5.

A Sad Story

This week, USA Today reported about a small church in Pennsylvania that has imploded because its leaders decided to hire a pastor they knew was a convicted sex offender … and they kept this bit of information from the congregation. It’s difficult to express how foolish, destructive and unwise this decision was.

Here’s a bit from the article:

On a Sunday morning in late 2017, Oakwood Baptist Church pastor Donald Foose stood before a congregation that had been blindsided by the sudden departure of their previous head pastor.

Foose offered no answers to their lingering questions. Instead, his voice booming through the sparse sanctuary, he preached about the destructive power of gossip.

“The tongue is a fire,” Foose declared, reading from the Letter of James. He held up a piece of paper with his own name and the name of the church on it. With his other hand, he struck a match – and lit the paper ablaze.

“Look what that little fire did,” he said once the sheet had burned. “It destroyed me. It destroyed the church. It destroyed the unity of the church. And I’m amazed that I didn’t catch the place on fire.”

Within six months that sermon would seem like an attempt to smother questions leading straight to Foose’s disturbing past. The details emerged regardless.

In 2000, Foose was convicted and jailed for molesting an underage relative. He resigned from his role as principal of a Christian school, and Pennsylvania’s Department of Education stripped him of his teaching license, deeming him “a danger to the health, safety and welfare of students.” Under state law, Foose can’t even drive a school bus, and were he convicted after 2012 he would have been required by law to register as a sex offender.

But Foose still became a pastor at Oakwood, then superintendent of the Oakwood Baptist Day School. Church leaders who were aware of his past concealed it from the congregation.

The truth – exposed in 2018 after a husband and wife at the church discovered Foose’s record – fractured the tightknit, devout community of roughly 100 members. Pastors resigned, attendance fell, friendships dissolved and faith was tested. In interviews with more than a dozen current and former congregants, a portrait emerged of church leaders compounding Foose’s betrayal by twisting scripture and exploiting the concept of forgiveness to stifle questions about how the situation had been handled.

Foose resigned from Oakwood in May 2018. Soon after, the beloved pastor who had left Oakwood months before, Bob Conrad, acknowledged in a five-page letter to his former church that he and other leaders had known Foose could not pass a background check. Foose claimed to have been falsely accused, Conrad wrote, and church leaders took him at his word, failing to prevent him from having access to children even as school employees complained about his overly familiar behavior with the students.

“I pray,” Conrad wrote, “that you will find it in your hearts to forgive me for my lack in leadership and judgment.”

Read the rest of the article.

St. Augustine the Prophet

In one particular section from City of God (2:19-20), St. Augustine issues a savage takedown on Roman society and culture that could literally be written about the West in 2020:

Here, then, is this Roman republic, “which has changed little by little from the fair and virtuous city it was, and has become utterly wicked and dissolute.” It is not I who am the first to say this, but their own authors, from whom we learned it for a fee, and who wrote it long before the coming of Christ.

Augustine laments the moral chaos of the Roman world in the late 4th century. It’s a tale of virtue gone sour; of encroaching degeneracy that poisoned an empire – much like the One Ring infected the creature Gollum little by little.

You see how, before the coming of Christ, and after the destruction of Carthage, “the primitive manners, instead of undergoing insensible alteration, as hitherto they had done, were swept away as by a torrent; and how depraved by luxury and avarice the youth were.”

It was the youth who bothered Augustine.

Let them now, on their part, read to us any laws given by their gods to the Roman people, and directed against luxury and avarice. And would that they had only been silent on the subjects of chastity and modesty, and had not demanded from the people indecent and shameful practices, to which they lent a pernicious patronage by their so-called divinity. Let them read our commandments in the Prophets, Gospels, Acts of the Apostles or Epistles; let them peruse the large number of precepts against avarice and luxury which are everywhere read to the congregations that meet for this purpose, and which strike the ear, not with the uncertain sound of a philosophical discussion, but with the thunder of God’s own oracle pealing from the clouds.

There is great divide between these two worldviews. One trumpets and pleasure at any cost. The other offers moral guardrails as a revelation from the one true God.

And yet they do not impute to their gods the luxury and avarice, the cruel and dissolute manners, that had rendered the republic utterly wicked and corrupt, even before the coming of Christ; but whatever affliction their pride and effeminacy have exposed them to in these latter days, they furiously impute to our religion.

If the kings of the earth and all their subjects, if all princes and judges of the earth, if young men and maidens, old and young, every age, and both sexes; if they whom the Baptist addressed, the publicans and the soldiers, were all together to hearken to and observe the precepts of the Christian religion regarding a just and virtuous life, then should the republic adorn the whole earth with its own felicity, and attain in life everlasting to the pinnacle of kingly glory.

But because this man listens and that man scoffs, and most are enamored of the blandishments of vice rather than the wholesome severity of virtue, the people of Christ, whatever be their condition—whether they be kings, princes, judges, soldiers, or provincials, rich or poor, bond or free, male or female—are enjoined to endure this earthly republic, wicked and dissolute as it is, that so they may by this endurance win for themselves an eminent place in that most holy and august assembly of angels and republic of heaven, in which the will of God is the law.

He continues, and the parallels to the West in 2020 are stronger than ever here:

But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious.

Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us?

This is our concern:

that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes.

Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride.

Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure.

Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden.

Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects.

Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear.

Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person.

If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him.

Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use.

Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate.

Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.

Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind.

What sane man would compare a republic such as this, I will not say to the Roman empire, but to the palace of Sardanapalus, the ancient king who was so abandoned to pleasures, that he caused it to be inscribed on his tomb, that now that he was dead, he possessed only those things which he had swallowed and consumed by his appetites while alive?

If these men had such a king as this, who, while self-indulgent, should lay no severe restraint on them, they would more enthusiastically consecrate to him a temple and a flamen than the ancient Romans did to Romulus.

History really does repeat itself. We see the West rotting from within, like an apple gone bad, and we see our own culture in Augustine’s lament.