God and the Naughty Assyrians

maze_choicesIn his book entitled Chosen by God, R.C. Sproul spent a lot of time explaining why human freedom and God’s freedom are both true, and yet aren’t paradoxical. He wrote “God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose. His freedom restricts mine; my freedom does not restrict his.”1

This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which is really part of the doctrine of providence. I discussed this briefly in an article entitled, “A Guy Named Sihon.” The Scriptures show us people do what they want, but God works in and through our own innate, sinful desires to infallibly accomplish His will. Many times, we aren’t even aware God is using us!

He even uses unbelievers for His own ends, and they’re blissfully ignorant. People sin. People do wicked things. God doesn’t merely permit this activity; He directs and channels it. I don’t intend to present a philosophical case for this position. But, I will discuss a passage that shows us this clearly and unmistakably.

Israel and the Assyrians

God send Isaiah to the Israelites, even though they wouldn’t listen. God intended Him to be a prophet whose message hardened and repelled the people (Isa 6); just like Jesus (Mk 4:10-12; Jn 12:39-41). And, that’s what happened.

King Ahaz ignored Isaiah, who told him the Assyrians would destroy the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel (Isa 8:5-10). God warned Isaiah that He, their covenant God, would be a “stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the Israelites (Isa 8:14). Nevertheless, one day Yahweh would raise up a mighty ruler, descended from David, who would rule over the whole world (Isa 9:1-7).

However, as is his way, Isaiah turned the tables suddenly from this cheery future and unleased on his people. Soon, he warned, God would destroy the unbelievers among the Israelites; “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly,” (Isa 9:17). And still, they won’t repent! With every rebuke, they dig their heads further into the sand. “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still,” (Isa 9:17).

But, what of the Assyrians? What does this have to do the concept of compatibilism? Everything. Listen to what God says:

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury! (Isa 10:5).

The Assyrians are the instrument God intends to use to punish His people. Their staff executes His will and dispenses His fury. They act, but God is really the actor. They’re merely an intermediary to execute His will.

But, if that’s true, then why does God have Isaiah pronounce a woe upon them? Is it their fault? Why is it their fault? Are the Assyrians helpless puppets; pawns bent to do Yahweh’s will against their own better judgment?

Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (Isa 10:6).

To God, the northern kingdom is “godless.” That’s rather harsh! They’re the people of His wrath, and God commands the Assyrians to “take spoil and seize plunder.” He wants them to trample the Israelites into the mud, like so much gutter trash.

You could get the idea the Assyrians are helpless to resist God’s command. Like soldiers following orders, how can they refuse Yahweh? Does God assign culpability and intent to the Assyrian’s actions? Does He absolve them of moral responsibility for the actions they’re undertaking at His command? This is the question, and the answer is profound. See what God says …

But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few (Isa 10:7).

God commands, but the Assyrians are clueless. They don’t know God, and they don’t know what He wants them to do. What they do know is their own innate desire to destroy and conquer other nations. The Assyrians want to do this, and God is simply channeling and using their own sins to accomplish His holy will. The Assyrians don’t intend to do God’s will, and in their hearts they don’t think they are. But … they are! This is compatibilism.

for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?” (Isa 10:8-11).

This is pride and arrogance. The Assyrians believe in their commanders, and they’re confident because of past military victories. What is Jerusalem? What is Samaria? They’re nothing. They’re nobodies. They’re pushovers. Again, they don’t know they’re being used. They do what they want. But, God does what He wants, too.

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes (Isa 10:12).

God does assign moral responsibility to human actors – even when He’s channeling, directing and using that evil for His own holy purpose. What have the Assyrians done? Why are they arrogant? Isaiah tells us:

For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped,” (Isa 10:13-14).

They attribute their success to their own strength and cunning. Here is the philosophical paradox that confounds so many of us – people freely act, God directs and channels these wicked actions for His own ends, and still holds people responsible for those actions. It’s difficult to grasp. But, there it is.

Isaiah concludes:

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isa 10:15).

We’re the creations. God is the Creator. We can’t ever forget that relationship. The Assyrians did. Some Christians do, too.

Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down (Isa 10:16-19).

And, that’s the eventual end of the Assyrians. God won’t totally destroy them, but He will end their empire. He’ll use the Babylonians to do it. But, in the end, the Babylonians’ turn will come, too. “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them …” (Isa 13:17).

This doesn’t solve the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty, of course. But, it does further explain it. Berkhof wrote, “The divine concursus energizes man and determines him efficaciously to the specific act, but it is man who gives the act its formal quality, and who is therefore responsible for its sinful character. Neither one of these solutions can be said to give entire satisfaction, so that the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”2

True, but we must not play the “mystery card” too soon, like some Christians do. We all do what we want. But, God works in and through our own sinful acts to accomplish what He wants. We’re often not aware of it. Judas certainly wasn’t. Neither were the Assyrians.

I’m glad we serve the one true God, who is in total control of this world, and our lives.

Notes

1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986), 43.

2 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 175.

 

Augustus Strong on the Existence of God

strongAugustus Strong has a good discussion on the existence of God. The last edition of his systematic theology text came out in 1917, so you’d think his material is a bit dated.

Kind of.

Strong doesn’t pin his discussion on the doctrine of Scripture, which may be a problem for some Christians. In other words, he doesn’t say (1) the Bible says God exists, (2) therefore God exists, and (3) we know this is true because the Bible says so.

To be sure, presuppositional, Reformed apologists argue convincingly and well that this isn’t necessarily a circular argument. After all, one has to start somewhere. You can read John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God for more on this. But, Strong doesn’t start there. He says everyone intuitively knows God exists, there are various “proofs” one can examine which, compounded together, form a cumulative case for God’s existence, and the Scriptures tell us who this God actually is:

It is to be remembered, however, that the loss of love to God has greatly obscured even this rational intuition, so that the revelation of nature and the Scriptures is needed to awaken, confirm and enlarge it, and the special work of the Spirit of Christ to make it the knowledge of friendship and communion (pg. 67).

This makes good sense. Here, I’ll briefly explain Strong’s case.

First truths

We all know God exists:

Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning. Chronologically, only reflection upon the phenomena of nature and of mind occasions its rise in consciousness (pg. 52).

God’s existence is the foundation of  all true knowledge; “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7). This means that, in order to really understand the creation He created and the laws that govern its existence, we need to acknowledge who made it.

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
    and the clouds drop down the dew (Prov 3:19-20).

He’s the reason we see a world that’s designed, why we’re hard-wired with an innate sense of morality, justice and fairness. There’s no foundation for logic and reasoning unless we presuppose a Creator who defines and shapes the very ideas of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong;” who defines “logical” and “illogical.”

But, are people usually introspective enough to think about this? No, they aren’t. That’s why Strong said this idea only rises in the conscience upon reflection. But, make no mistake, the very idea of “God” is a necessary “first truth;” something humans intuitively assume in order to make sense of the world. Strong explains:

A first truth is a knowledge which, though developed upon occasion of observation and reflection, is not derived from observation and reflection,—a knowledge on the contrary which has such logical priority that it must be assumed or supposed, in order to make any observation or reflection possible (pg. 54).

Something qualifies as a “first truth,” Strong says, if it’s (1) universally believed, (2) logically necessary for practical, everyday life and (3) presupposed by the mind. This sounds a bit heavy, but it’s actually pretty simple. If, on a practical basis, everyone assumes something is true in their day to day actions, and such an assumption is logically necessary for normal life, then it’s a “first truth.”

Now, someone might not be consciously aware of her presuppositions, but that’s irrelevant. A baby isn’t consciously aware of the maxim “oxygen is necessary for life,” but it surely depends on it and tries to get it!

Why God’s existence is a first truth

God is real, and cultures throughout history worship a deity of some sort. People know they’re dependent on a Being higher than themselves. Fact.

Even the fetich-worshiper, who calls the stone or the tree a god, shows that he has already the idea of a God. We must not measure the ideas of the heathen by their capacity for expression, any more than we should judge the child’s belief in the existence of his father by his success in drawing the father’s picture (pg. 56).

Even if people claim they don’t have or worship a “higher power,” the way they live their lives shows this isn’t correct.

This agreement among individuals and nations so widely separated in time and place can be most satisfactorily explained by supposing that it has its ground, not in accidental circumstances, but in the nature of man as man (pg. 57).

So far, so good. But why are people’s ideas about God so different?

The diverse and imperfectly developed ideas of the supreme Being which prevail among men are best accounted for as misinterpretations and perversions of an intuitive conviction common to all (pg. 57).

In troubled times, people instinctively reach for something high than themselves. That is, we’re hard-wired to worship God:

In times of sudden shock and danger, this rational intuition becomes a presentative intuition,—men become more conscious of God’s existence than of the existence of their fellow-men and they instinctively cry to God for help (pg. 58).

Have you ever considered why some people are driven to hate God so much? Why are entire organizations consumed with a pathological hatred of Christianity, Jesus and the God of Scripture (e.g. the Freedom from Religion Foundation)? I heard one apologist observe, “I don’t believe in unicorns. But, I’m not driven to write a book entitled, The Unicorn Delusion!” This is a reference to the atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

Why, indeed! In fact, Strong argues, we implicitly acknowledge God exists in everything we do:

The validity of the simplest mental acts, such as sense-perception, self-consciousness, and memory, depends upon the assumption that a God exists who has so constituted our minds that they give us knowledge of things as they are (pg. 59).

This is an early version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God, an approach often employed by Reformed apologists. The late Greg Bahnsen wrote:

The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything (Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith [KL 1021-1022]).

This means that, if the unbeliever wants to be consistent and defend and establish what grounds he has for believing and understanding anything, without borrowing from the Christian worldview, he couldn’t do it.

The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility (Bahnsen, Always Ready, KL 1025 – 1026).

Why do you think it’s wrong to beat up old ladies? Why is it wrong to cheat on your husband? To kidnap little children? Are these social constructions that just so happen to be universal in every culture and society? Or, is there something deeper, here? If you don’t have God and His word, what is your logical foundation and basis for understanding anything?

[W]e can believe in the universal authority of right, only by assuming that there exists a God of righteousness who reveals his will both in the individual conscience and in the moral universe at large (pg. 61).

That’s what modern presuppositionalist apologetics presses home, and it’s what Strong was getting at here, too. It’s why he wrote this:

The more complex processes of the mind, such as induction and deduction, can be relied on only by presupposing a thinking Deity who has made the various parts of the universe and the various aspects of truth to correspond to each other and to the investigating faculties of man (pg. 60).

The very idea of “logic” presupposes order, rationality, and a unifying Being who gives shape and structure to these concepts. Where do “laws of logic” come from? Why can I read a theological text written by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and it “makes sense” to me – even though he lived about 900 years ago, in a different culture, with a different language?

In assuming that there is a universe, that the universe is a rational whole, a system of thought-relations, we assume the existence of an absolute Thinker, of whose thought the universe is an expression (pg. 60).

Proof?

Strong doesn’t believe you can “prove” God exists, in an absolute sense.

We cannot prove that God is; but we can show that, in order to the existence of any knowledge, thought, reason, conscience, in man, man must assume that God is (61).

Instead, God is a revealed reality. All the “arguments” and “proofs” in the world won’t get you anywhere; a cold intellectualism is not saving faith:

The arguments for the divine existence, valuable as they are for purposes to be shown hereafter, are not sufficient by themselves to warrant our conviction that there exists an infinite and absolute Being. It will appear upon examination that the a priori argument is capable of proving only an abstract and ideal proposition, but can never conduct us to the existence of a real Being (pg. 66).

Strong continues:

Knowledge of a person is turned into personal knowledge by actual communication or revelation. First, comes the intuitive knowledge of God possessed by all men—the assumption that there exists a Reason, Power, Perfection, Personality, that makes correct thinking and acting possible. Secondly, comes the knowledge of God’s being and attributes which nature and Scripture furnish. Thirdly, comes the personal and presentative knowledge derived from actual reconciliation and intercourse with God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit (pg. 68).

Indeed, the Bible never attempts to “prove” God’s existence at all; the authors presupposed Him and wrote according to that worldview. “The preacher may confidently follow the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly declare it, as the Scripture does,” (pg. 68).

Finis

With that, Strong finishes his discussion. He moves immediately to a discussion of four classical “proofs” of God’s existence, and stresses these arguments form a cumulative case that should direct the thinking man to Christ and the Scriptures.

Is Strong’s section on “the existence of God” worth reading, today? Not really, but that’s not Strong’s fault. The world has moved on, and our Western context is quite different today. The arguments have had to become more rigorous, as the attacks have become sharper.

His discussion about why God’s existence is a first truth is particularly weak. But, Strong lived in a different time. Theological revisionism was largely happening in the seminaries and, to some extent, in the pulpits. It hadn’t happened in the pews to great extent, yet.  Strong assumes a theistic worldview in his comments, and today’s future pastors need something more rigorous. They need a defense against the “new atheist” tactics. Again, this isn’t Strong’s fault – it’s just a different time, now.

The issue of “does God really exist” is really more about epistemology and worldview, than anything else. If this is something you want to read more about, you should start with these three books:

  • Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Doug Groothuis. This is the best most comprehensive one-volume book on apologetics a thinking Christian can get. It’ll make you more grounded in your faith at an intellectual level.
  • Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen. A classic and essential book on apologetics by a renowned Reformed scholar.
  • The Ultimate Proof for Creation by Jason Lisle. A wonderful, deep book on apologetics from a presuppositional perspective. Perhaps a bit more accessible than Bahnsen.

Strong’s discussion on God’s existence was good in 1917. It’s not bad today, but there’s better discussions out there.

Baptismal Chaos!

Many Christians (and some Baptists) don’t realize that Baptists have a completely different view on baptism than most other Christians. What are the differences? I’ll tell you. We believe baptism is only for believers. This means we don’t baptize babies or other children who are too young to understand and obey the command to repent and believe the Gospel. We believe baptism is by immersion, because, well … that’s what the word “baptize” means! The Scripture also shows us Jesus coming up out of the Jordan River (Mk 1:10), which means He originally went out into the river, which wouldn’t be necessary if he was sprinkled. The early churches understood baptism was by immersion, because they wrote and told us so, and that’s why ancient churches have been found with baptisteries! There are other reasons, too. We also don’t believe baptism does anything to the person. Instead, we believe Scripture teaches baptism is an outward picture of a spiritual reality that’s already happened. You don’t become a Christian by being baptized. You’re baptized to show that you already are a Christian. I say all that (and, to be sure, there’s a lot more to be said!) so you have a context to understand why I’m going to criticize this (below). It’s a short excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer, which is a product of the English Reformation, in the mid-16th century. The first edition was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, a faithful believer and Archbishop of Canterbury who was later killed for his faith. The Church of England has largely folded like a paper doll on the moral and ethical issues of the day, at least at the higher bureaucratic levels. Its cousin in the USA, the Episcopal Church, is not really a Christian organization any longer (there are local exceptions). But, the official doctrine of the Church of England is thoroughly conservative. Though some quarters of the Church of England has largely given up following or caring about its doctrine, on paper, at least, they have a conservative, Bible-believing theology. The 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer says the following about baptism. There are a few things that are so good here. But, there’s also a lot that’s so bad. See what you can spot:
Dear Lord, forasmuch as all men are conceived and borne in sin
Too true. Good.
and that no man borne in sin can enter into the kingdom of God (except he be regenerate, and born again of water and the holy ghost),
Why is this mentioned in the context of baptism? Well, because of John 3:5, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” (Jn 3:5). As early as the mid-2nd century, Christians began misinterpreting this verse to be referring to a synergy of baptism + Holy Spirit. No. Both references (water + Spirit) are referring to the Holy Spirit. See, for example, the numerous passages about the New Covenant that refer to the Spirit as a water that cleanses the recipients from sin and unrighteousness (Ezek 36:24-29). Mark tells us that John the Baptist understood these references to be a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would cleanse Israelites from all their sins (Mk 1:4, 8). The Apostle Paul adopted these water metaphors, and spoke about how Christians are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,” (Titus 3:5-6). Again, note the water metaphor.  But, you see, many Christian denominations still believe baptism “does something” to the recipient. This is what the Book of Common Prayer assumes. This is terribly wrong. Wrong every which way you slice it. It’s what the Church of England still teaches. Consider what their doctrine says about baptism:
BAPTISM is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Nope. But, we return to the excerpt we were discussing previously:
I beseech you to call upon God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bountiful mercy he will grant to the children that thing, which by nature they cannot have, that is to say, they may be baptized with the Holy Ghost and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made lively members of the same.

These are instructions for the priest to utter during the baptismal ceremony for babies being brought for baptism. The priest is supposed to call upon those present to ask God to grant forgiveness of sins and spiritual life to the baby as she is baptized.

No. No. No. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who aren’t Baptists. They’re just so terribly wrong about this whole matter. The Book of Acts doesn’t show unbelievers being baptized. Never. The Book of Common Prayer is a beautiful piece of literature, and it’s shaped much of Christian liturgy in the English-speaking world. But, it’s wrong here. What you think about the church matters. Being a Baptist matters. Ciao.

A Guy Named Sihon

mazeChristians can get tangled up when they consider the knotty conundrums of God’s divine sovereignty and man’s free will. How do these things go together? Well, we’re not quite sure, because our perspective is a bit limited. But, both are true.[1]

God is in charge. He does what He wants, and everything He does flows from His character, which means it’s all holy, righteous and good, and nothing can happen without His permission and consent. People do make their own decisions and do what they want to do, and are rightly held accountable for them.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with the concept of compatibilism, which simply means that God uses means (like you and I) to do what He wants, and works in and through our own innate desires to accomplish His will. We see this in Scripture over and over again, if we look for it:

  • Why did Satan torture Job? Well, because Satan wanted to do it. But, Satan could only act because God gave him permission (Job 1:6-12). In fact, Job’s author bluntly stated Yahweh had brought all this upon Job (Job 42:11). That is, Satan was only the secondary agent.
  • Why was Jesus killed? Because the apostate Israelite leaders wanted Him dead, and they pressured a weak Roman governor into ordering the execution. But, Luke tells us Jesus was “delivered up by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” (Acts 2:23).
  • Why did the Babylonians destroy the Kingdom of Judah? Well, because they wanted to! But, over and above even their own conscious understanding, God was directing and channeling their wickedness for His own purposes (see Habakkuk 1-2). God said He was raising up the Chaldeans, not the other way around (Hab 1:6). He did this work, not them (Hab 1:5).
  • Why do false teachers come? Moses says God sent them; “for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” (Deut 13:3). Yet, God still decrees that a false teacher dies “because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God,” (Deut 13:5). These false teachers did what they wanted to do, but over and above their own consciousness God had sent them to test and sift the people. Yet, they were still held morally personally responsible for their actions.

Many examples of compatibilism are not didactic; they’re often stated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Consider what Moses wrote about an Amorite King, Sihon. Why wouldn’t Sihon let the Israelites pass through his land?

Well, Moses tells us why. The Lord had “hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate,” (Deut 2:30). God made it so Sihon wouldn’t listen. Why did God do this? Well, Moses wrote that God did this so “that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day,” (Deut 2:30). God made Sihon not listen, because God wanted the Israelites to destroy him. Simple.

Consider the covenant blessings and cursings; how could God carry them out if compatibilism wasn’t true?

  • How could He scatter them among the nations (Deut 28:64)? The historical books tell us God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to do this, and they certainly weren’t conscious agents!
  • How could Yahweh bring some of them back to Israel as slaves (Deut 28:68; see also 28:32) without employing unwitting, intermediate agents?
  • How else could the Lord “cause you to be defeated before your enemies?” (Deut 28:25)? The Israelites surely fought as best they could, but God gave their enemies the victory.
  • Who will bring men to oppress and rob the Israelites continually (Deut 28:29)? Are these robbers remorseless robots; droids programmed by God to plunder the Israelites against their will? Hardly!
  • Why will engaged young ladies be ravished by evil men (Deut 28:30)? Dare we assume those who commit these crimes aren’t also morally responsible for their wicked actions? Dare we lurch into the opposite ditch and assume God sat in heaven above as a helpless bystander?
  • How can God bring a foreign nation to oppress and destroy them (Deut 28:33-34, 36-37)?

I could go on. If you just read the Old Testament, you’ll see this doctrine of compatibilism all over its pages. It’s there in a matter of fact way. It’s everywhere. As John Calvin remarked:[2]

If we look at the administration of human affairs with the eye of sense, we will have no doubt that, so far, they are placed at man’s disposal; but if we lend an ear to the many passages of Scripture which proclaim that even in these matters the minds of men are ruled by God, they will compel us to place human choice in subordination to his special influence.

I agree. Look at what else Calvin says:

Who gave the Israelites such favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, that they lent them all their most valuable commodities? (Exod. 11:3.) They never would have been so inclined of their own accord. Their inclinations, therefore, were more overruled by God than regulated by themselves. And surely, had not Jacob been persuaded that God inspires men with divers affections as seemeth to him good, he would not have said of his son Joseph, (whom he thought to be some heathen Egyptian,) “God Almighty give you mercy before the man,” (Gen. 43:14.)

In like manner, the whole Church confesses that when the Lord was pleased to pity his people, he made them also to be pitied of all them that carried them captives, (Ps. 106:46.) In like manner, when his anger was kindled against Saul, so that he prepared himself for battle, the cause is stated to have been, that a spirit from God fell upon him, (1 Sam. 11:6.)

Who dissuaded Absalom from adopting the counsel of Ahithophel, which was wont to be regarded as an oracle? (2 Sam. 17:14.) Who disposed Rehoboam to adopt the counsel of the young men? (1 Kings 12:10.) Who caused the approach of the Israelites to strike terror into nations formerly distinguished for valour? Even the harlot Rahab recognised the hand of the Lord. Who, on the other hand, filled the hearts of the Israelites with fear and dread, (Lev. 26:36,) but He who threatened in the Law that he would give them a “trembling heart?” (Deut. 28:65.)

This concept of compatibilism looks like this:[3]

compatibalism

God works over and above our own personal will to accomplish what He wants. As the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.”[4] You make free choices. I make free choices. We all make free choices. Yet, above our own consciousness, our holy and righteous God is working all things according to the counsel of His own will. As Solomon said, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will,” (Prov 21:1).

Our God is sovereign. Our God is in control. Our God can even channel His enemies’ thoughts, intentions, wills and desires for His own holy purposes. “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble,” (Prov 16:4). This ought to comfort everyone who confesses the name of Christ. It means you aren’t a pawn in a world spinning out of control, on its own. It means things do happen for a reason, even if you don’t understand them. It means you’re an adopted child of a God who made, controls and upholds creation itself. The 1618 Belgic Confession says it best:[5]

We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.

Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.

We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.

This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.

In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.

Amen to all that.

Notes

[1] I you want to read a great book on this topic, you should pick up a copy of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, by J.I. Packer. I reviewed the book here.

[2] The following excerpts are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), 2.4.6.

[3] I adapted this graphic from Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 261.

[4] 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 5.3.

[5]  1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13.

Who is the Word?

john 1
Excerpt from John 1 from manuscript GA 01 (courtesy of CSNTM.org)

The Gospel of John is important. And, in a piece of writing noted for its Christology, the prologue (John 1:1-18) is rightly considered to be a masterpiece. Because it’s so important, it’s attracted any number of critics and false teachers who desperately try to explain why it doesn’t actually say … what it actually says.

An ordinary Christian can go batty pondering all the controversies inherent in this passage. Was John 1:1 (“and the Word was God”) translated correctly? Have Christians been influenced by pagan, Greek philosophy to interpret “the Word” as the co-equal, co-eternal Son of God? These are good questions, and lots of good theologians and bible teachers have lots of good answers for them. But, setting these issues aside for a time, if you take a step back and just consider the content as a literary unit the message is very clear.

Who is the Word?

At1 the very beginning, when the creation happened, the Word was there (Jn 1:1a). So, whoever this Word is, He’s eternal. He’s prior to creation. More than that, the Word is with God (Jn 1:1b). God is before creation, and so is the Word. They’re together. They share the same space; they’re with one another. Even better yet, the Word actually is God (Jn 1:1c).

But, how can this be? How can the Word actually be God? John is saying the Word is somehow distinct from God and there at the beginning with God. Yet, the Word is God, too. What does this mean? It shows us that God and the Word are both eternal, they both stand outside of creation, and they both share the same nature. They’re one, and yet they’re distinct, too.

And, God made everything through the Word (Jn 1:3). The language conveys personal agency, and the Word is the living, active and personal agent who made creation on God’s behalf. “Without Him was not anything made that was made,” (Jn 1:3). Why is that? It’s because “in him was life” (Jn 1:4); that is, the Word contains life and is the source of life and creation. This life is the light which shines the way for men to come to faith; to escape from the figurative darkness of sin and wickedness (Jn 1:4b-5).

The Apostle John then briefly explained the Baptist’s ministry. God sent him to tell people about the Word (note the distinction again). John proclaimed the Word was the light for all men “that all might believe through him,” (Jn 1:7). John himself wasn’t the light, “but came to bear witness about the light,” (Jn 1:8).

The irony, of course, is that the very Creator of creation came into the world, “yet the world did not know him,” (Jn 1:10). He came to His own people, and they rejected Him (Jn 1:11). Notice that it isn’t God who came to His people; it was the Word. Of course, the Word shares the same nature as God so He can properly be said to be God. But, in this prologue, the Word and God are distinguished from one another. John will go on to speak of the Father in contrast to the Son later in the book. For now, however, it’s enough to know John is painting a deliberate contrast between God and the Word.

It’s true people rejected the Word. But, that’s not the end of the story. It all doesn’t end in tragedy and darkness. After all, “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (Jn 1:5). In fact, the Apostle hastens to add, to everyone who did receive the Word (that is, who believed in His name; in effect, who He was as the incarnate God-Man), the Word did something very special. He gave these people the right or privilege to become God’s children (Jn 1:12). The Word didn’t give people the power to become His children; He made them God’s children.

People aren’t born into God’s family; they have to be adopted by God. John explains God’s children don’t come to Him by blood relation, or by the sexual desires of a man or woman who produce a child, or even the desires of the husband himself. People don’t become God’s children by physical descent, or by the will of any of his parents. How, then? They’re born from God’s will.

Again, notice the delineation of roles:

  • God wills people to become His children
  • This will is actuated when they receive the Word by believing on His name; that is, in who He is as the incarnate GodMan.

This is beautiful, and the Apostle tells us how it all came about. The Word “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14). This is the incarnation, where the Word added a human nature to His divine nature.2 God (i.e. the Father) didn’t become flesh and come here; the Word did. John and the other apostles are eyewitnesses who saw the Word’s glory! What kind of glory was it? It was the glory of the unique, one and only Son who comes from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). In other words, it was the same as the Father’s glory.

Notice that John more precisely defines “God” here as “the Father.” It was His glory that descended on Sinai (Ex 19:16-19), that filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38) and Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 8:1-11). It was also His glory that left that same temple during the exile (Ezek 8-10), and hasn’t returned since. The Word’s glory is just like that.

This Word is the one who John the Baptist preached about. He told everyone the Word would come on the scene after him, but outranks him. Why does the Word outrank John, a true prophet from God? Because the Word came before John (Jn 1:15). This makes sense, because the Word created Creation according to the Father’s will and only walks the earth because He “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14).

The Word’s glory, which John and the others saw and marveled at, is full of grace and truth. Why does John say this? Because from His grace all believers continue to receive grace upon grace; that is, an unending low of graces while pile atop one another (Jn 1:16). What’s so marvelous about this cascade of grace upon grace? Well, the Apostle says, the law came from Moses, but grace and truth came from Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17). Here John stops being coy and explicitly identifies Jesus as the Word.

This is the New Covenant; the new and better way that Jesus inaugurated with His life, death, burial and resurrection. The law of Moses did bring grace and forgiveness to the believer but that atonement wasn’t final and permanent; it was on layaway. The law of Moses did point to the truth of Christ but it didn’t contain that truth; it was a marker along the way. John was obliquely referring to the new and better covenant, which all believers show and tell the world about as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in local churches.

Nobody has ever seen God. But, the only God who is at the Father’s side has made Him known (Jn 1:18). Once again, John draws a distinction between Father and Son, and identifies Jesus as God once more. Moses is the penultimate Israelite, but he couldn’t see God. Jesus sits at the Father’s side, and He’s come here to make Him known to us. Moses served his purpose, and even he knew someone else would come from God (Deut 18:15f). That someone is Jesus, the Word who was there before the beginning, who can fully reveal God to sinful men.

The Word is God the Son Incarnate

John’s prologue isn’t hard to understand. But, too many people make it hard (which isn’t at all the same thing) when they refuse to read it as a literary unit, or have a theological agenda, or waste sermons explaining the joys of Colwell’s Rule in John 1:1. The prologue is about Christ, and it tells us He is distinct from the Father, and co-equal and co-eternal with Him. It’s a synopsis of Christ’s identity and ministry. It’s the Apostle’s dustjacket summary of the incarnation:

The Word existed before Creation. The Word made Creation. The Word was with God before Creation, and He’s also God, too. God made everything through the Word, who contains and embodies life itself and acts as a light for all men. That light shined in the darkness, and Satan still hasn’t overcome it.

God sent John the Baptist to tell everyone about the Word, but the world rejected the Word anyway. But, for those few who did receive the Word, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become God’s children. To do all this, the Word took on flesh, dwelt among us, and eyewitnesses saw His glory. His glory was like that of the only Son’s, identical to the Father’s, full of grace and truth. And, the Word pours out grace upon grace to His people; to those who received Him. Moses brought the law, but Jesus brought the new and better covenant characterized by grace and truth.

Nobody has ever seen God, but Jesus (the only God) who sits at the Father’s side has made Him known to all who have ears to hear. He’s better than Moses. He’s Moses’ successor. And, to all who receive Him He gives the privilege to become a child of God, according to God’s will.

Notes

1 The preposition here (Ἐν ἀρχῇ) is temporal, and the sense is “at the beginning;” that is, at the point in time at which creation began.

2 “Accordingly, while the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible, so that as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus,’ might from one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable. Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours,” (Leo the Great, “The Tome of St. Leo,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Henry R. Percival (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 14:255.

 

Book Review – Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

packer2J.I Packer’s little book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is a great resource. His aim is to show that divine sovereignty and personal responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel are not mutually exclusive. He explained, “The supposition seems to be that you cannot evangelize effectively unless you are prepared to pretend while you are doing it that the doctrine of sovereignty is not true. I shall try to make it evident that this is nonsense,” (10).

This book is only four chapters long, but it’s probably the best resource you can give a Christian who wants to know more about this topic. Many readers know Packer has a thoroughly Reformed soteriology, and this is clear throughout the book. However, he takes a very irenic tone and isn’t interested in flying a particular theological standard. This approach makes this an excellent gift to Christians of all theological flavors.

Chapter One – Divine Sovereignty

He begins by discussing divine sovereignty. If you’re a Christian, Packer says, you believe God is completely sovereign, no matter what soteriological camp you belong to. You know God is sovereign, because you pray. Simple. You’re acknowledging you’re helpless, and God alone can help and comfort you. “The very act that a Christian prays is thus proof positive that he believes in the Lordship of His God,” (12).

Every Christian also knows God is sovereign in salvation. No believer would ever credit himself with his own salvation. “Thus, in the way that you think of your conversion and give thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge the sovereignty of divine grace,” (13). And, every Christian also prays for the salvation of others. This is yet another acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty (14-15).

So, why the perennial disagreement over God’s sovereignty? Packer explains that “all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it,” (16).

What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic …

They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblically and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it. The desire to oversimplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute,” (16-17).

Chapter Two – Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

These two truths appear to be contradictory, but they aren’t. We’ll never figure out a way to untangle this knot, so we ought to “[a]ccept it for what it is, and learn to live with it,” (21). Both are true, and they complement each other. “The Creator has told us that He is both a sovereign Lord and a righteous Judge, and that should be enough for us. Why do we hesitate to take His word for it? Can we not trust what He says?” (24).

This is hard to do, and Packer explains some pitfalls we must avoid:

  1. Don’t be exclusively concerned with human responsibility (25-29). “Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument. We must not at any stage forget that,” (27). An overemphasis on human responsibility will produce a pragmatic approach that doesn’t honor God. “The spirit of self-reliance is a blight on evangelism,” (29).
  2. Don’t obsess over divine sovereignty (29-35). Packer warmly and graciously explains why some people feel this way. He paints a scenario of a Christian who has only recently come to accept the truth of Reformed soteriology and is zealous for God’s glory. This phenomenon is also known as “cage-stage Calvinism,” a term that came about long after Packer wrote his book! He explained, “They are tempted, therefore, to suspect all enterprise in evangelism, whether organized or on the personal level, as if there were something essentially and inescapably man-exalting about it. They are haunted by the fear of running ahead of God, and feel that there is nothing more urgent than to guard against the possibility of doing this,” (33).

The goal, Packer says, is to make it “our business to believe both these doctrines with all our might, and to keep both constantly before us for the guidance and government of our lives,” (35).

This is probably the most helpful section of the book. Packer’s writing is warm, grandfatherly (even though he was a young man when he penned it, in 1961), and thoroughly biblical. The text is punctuated with extended quotations (not just citations) which emphasize both human responsibility and divine responsibility. His point against allowing systems to drive our interpretation is welcome and right. Any Christian will profit immensely from reading this chapter.

Chapter Three – Evangelism

Evangelism is preaching the Gospel. It has nothing to do with the response; that’s God’s business. “Anyone who faithfully delivers that message, under whatever circumstances, in a large meeting, in a small meeting, from a pulpit, or in a private conversation, is evangelizing,” (41). The Apostle Paul saw himself as a commissioned representative for Christ (42-46) and as such his goal was to teach the truth about Christ; “the news of the incarnation, the atonement, and the kingdom – the cradle, the cross, and the crown – of the Son of God,” (47).

Packer focuses like a laser on the teaching aspect. The Good News doesn’t exist in a vacuum, without a context:

To teach the gospel is his first responsibility: to reduce it to its simplest essentials, to analyze it point by point, to fix its meaning by positive and negative definition, to show how each part of the message links up with the rest – and to go on explaining it till he is quite sure that his listeners have grasped it (48).

The ultimate goal is to covert the hearers to Jesus (49-53).

But, what exactly is the evangelistic message? Packer does an excellent job, and I encourage every Christian to read this section. I don’t have space to do it justice, so I’ll present his answer in outline form (57-:

  1. God
  2. Sin
  3. Conviction of sin is (a) an awareness of a wrong relationship with God, (b) a sense of guilt for particular wrongs done in the sight of God and (c) a sense of personal corruption and perversity before God
  4. Christ; with the person and work of the Savior presented together
  5. A summons to faith and repentance

Packer explains that we evangelize to glorify God and because we love our neighbors (73-82). He takes pains to point out that personal evangelism grows naturally out of friendships:

The right to talk intimately to another person about the Lord Jesus Christ has to be earned, and you earn it by convincing him that you are his friend, and really care about him.

And therefore the indiscriminate buttonholing, the intrusive barging in to the privacy of other people’s souls, the thickskinned insistence on expounding the things of God to reluctant strangers who are longing to get away – these modes of behavior, in which strong and loquacious personalities have sometimes indulged in the name of personal evangelism, should be written off as a travesty of personal evangelism (81).

Packer has an outstanding section on what methods are legitimate in evangelism (81-92). He makes many practical applications, and every pastor would benefit from considering what he says.

The principle is that the best method of evangelism is the one which serves the gospel most completely. It is the one which bears the clearest witness to the divine origin of the message, and the lifeand-death character of the issues which it raises. It is the one which makes possible the most full and thorough explanation of the good news of Christ and His cross, and the most exacting and searching application of it. It is the one which most effectively engages the minds of those to whom witness is borne, and makes them most vividly aware that the gospel is God’s word, addressed personally to them in their own situation (90-91).

Chapter 4 – Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism

How does God’s sovereignty impact our duty to evangelize? Packer answers (92-126):

  • It doesn’t affect the necessity of evangelism
  • It doesn’t affect the urgency for evangelism
  • It doesn’t affect the genuineness of the gospel invitation, or the truthfulness of the gospel promises
  • It doesn’t affect the sinner’s personal responsibility to the gospel
  • It’s our only hope for success in evangelism. God’s sovereignty ought to make us bold, patient and prayerful

Packer’s book is a breath of fresh air; a gentle, Reformed fireside chat from a man who has some important things to say. He writes plainly, simply and clearly. He aims at ordinary Christians, and anyone can read this book and profit from it. This isn’t a partisan work; it’s an irenic plea for a God-honoring understanding of evangelism. In the modern conservative evangelical world, Norman Geisler1 and James White2 stand at opposite soteriological poles and are often seen as the champions of their respective systems. Packer is also Reformed, but he’s not interested in system or labels. It makes his book better.

Notes

1 Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010).

2 James White, The Potter’s Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal To Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free, revised ed. (Calvary Press, 2011).

 

Getting Baptism Wrong

augustineIt’s astonishing to me how quickly Christian churches lost the meaning of believer’s baptism in the first centuries after Christ returned to heaven. The early church quickly adopted a baptismal regeneration view of the ordinance; a view that is completely at odds with the New Testament documents.

Perhaps the largest culprit for this misinterpretation is a wrong-headed understanding of Jesus’ words from John 3:5, in which Jesus explains the meaning of the new and spiritual birth to Nicodemus. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

For several reasons, this is best understood as a double-metaphor, with water and Spirit both referring to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in salvation (cf. Ezek 36; Mk 1:8). However, anyone who has spent time reading the early apostolic and post-apostolic literature knows very well how this passage (and others) were interpreted to teach a spiritual regeneration view of the ordinance of baptism.

Indeed, Christian literature from the mid-2nd century demonstrates that some believers thought there was no forgiveness for sins committed after baptism.[1] Again, this isn’t a concept taught anywhere in the New Testament. By the mid-4th century, the process for adult baptism had become quite elaborate and superstitious.[2]

I’ve started reading Augustine’s Confessions, which is one of those books every seminary graduate comes across, knows he should read, but usually doesn’t. Well, I decided I’d better.

Here are some remarks Augustine made about baptism. It gives us a representative glimpse into what Christians in North Africa thought about the ordinance in the mid-4th century. It also shows us how far they’d slipped from any semblance of a New Testament doctrine of baptism:[3]

Even as a boy I had heard of eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God condescending to our pride, and I was signed with the sign of the cross, and was seasoned with His salt even from the womb of my mother, who greatly trusted in Thee.

Thou sawest, O Lord, how at one time, while yet a boy, being suddenly seized with pains in the stomach, and being at the point of death—Thou sawest, O my God, for even then Thou wast my keeper, with what emotion of mind and with what faith I solicited from the piety of my mother, and of Thy Church, the mother of us all, the baptism of Thy Christ, my Lord and my God.

On which, the mother of my flesh being much troubled,—since she, with a heart pure in Thy faith, travailed in birth more lovingly for my eternal salvation,—would, had I not quickly recovered, have without delay provided for my initiation and washing by Thy life-giving sacraments, confessing Thee, O Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins.

So my cleansing was deferred, as if I must needs, should I live, be further polluted; because, indeed, the guilt contracted by sin would, after baptism, be greater and more perilous.

A few remarks:

  1. Augustine was not a believer at this time
  2. He refers to the church (that is, Christ’s church in a corporate sense) as “the mother of us all.” I believe Cyprian coined this terminology during the Novatian controversy, about 100 years before.
  3. Augustine considers baptism to be “life-giving,” and in some way efficacious to wash away sins. Given the context of his time, he believed in baptismal regeneration. He refers to baptism as “my cleansing.”
  4. His mother deferred Augustine’s baptism, because she didn’t want him to contract sins after baptism if he ended up living after all. This ties back to the false ideas that (a) baptism actually removed sins, and (b) that it only removed sins prior to baptism, and not afterwards.

The New Testament knows nothing of any of this. It’s more important than ever for Christians to hold fast to the inspired word of God. Creeds, confessions, books and theologians are good and helpful guides; very helpful, actually. But, the only infallible source of faith and practice is the Bible.

Always be willing to conform your theological tradition to the Scriptures. We’re all prisoners of our own context and times, even if we don’t realize it. You’ve been molded and shaped by your own unique circumstances, culture and theological tradition. That’s a good thing. But, it can also be an echo-chamber.

Always go to the sources. Always go to the Bible.

Notes

1 See, for example, “Shepherd of Hermes 2.4.3,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; trans. F. Crombie (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:22.

2 For an excellent summary of the baptismal rites at the time of Augustine’s baptism from a series of contemporary sources, see David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:342-347.

3 This excerpt is from Augustine of Hippo, “The Confessions of St. Augustin” 1.1.17, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Pilkington (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 1:50.