Your Mission . . .

It’s always good to know what you’re doing. Have you ever worked for somebody who had no idea what he was doing? Was it fun? No, I didn’t think so.

I’ve been in these situations before. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You’re horrified at what’s coming, but you’re too amazed to look away. Like a spectator at a grisly accident scene, you can’t not look. . .

What is your mission, as a Christian? What is the collect mission of your congregation? If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you won’t accomplish much. If your church doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be doing, then it won’t accomplish much, either.

  • What’s your individual identity? To use a horrible, contemporary term, how should a Christian “self-identify?”
  • If you’re a Christian, why did God save you from yourself and give you eternal life?
  • What implications does this have for your congregation and its mission?

Thankfully, the Bible tells us what a congregation ought to be doing. It also tells you what you need to be doing. And if you’re a Christian, unlike Ethan Hunt, you have no choice but to accept this mission . . .

This past Sunday, we wrapped up our discussion on this passage (1 Peter 2:4-10) with the last two verses (vv.9-10). The audio is below. The teaching notes for the passage are here. All audio and teaching notes for the 1 & 2 Peter series so far are here. Feel free to contact me with any questions, or to comment below.

1 pet 2 (9-10)

Ehud is . . . Jason Bourne

bourneThe people are downtrodden and oppressed. An evil, pagan king rules over them with an iron fist. Year by year, he demands tribute from his vassals. The people cry out, desperate for somebody to rescue them. There was only one man for the job. A man so cunning, he makes Ethan Hunt look like a child. A man so dangerous, he makes 007 look like a pitiful kitten. A man so deadly, nobody can stop him. That man is . . . Ehud, the original Jason Bourne.

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

But when the people of Israel cried to the LORD, the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab.

And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he girded it on his right thigh under his clothes. And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people that carried the tribute.

But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.”

And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence.

And Ehud came to him, as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.”

And he arose from his seat. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly; and the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber upon him, and locked them.

When he had gone, the servants came; and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” And they waited till they were utterly at a loss; but when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them; and there lay their lord dead on the floor.

Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Se-irah. When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. And he said to them, “Follow after me; for the LORD has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed not a man to pass over. And they killed at that time about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped.

So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

Judges 3:12-30

 

 

Sunday Buffet – August 13, 2017

Sunday Buffet – August 13, 2017

Every Sunday evening, I shall offer up some interesting links, thoughts (who knows, some of them may even be original) or anecdotes which I’ve found throughout the week.

Unclean: Leviticus and Total Depravity

The Book of Leviticus is a closed book to many Christians. That’s too bad, because without it you’ll never understand the Book of Hebrews, why Christ had to die, or how His death fulfilled the sacrificial system.

In this short article, Steve Lawson explains what “uncleanness” is and why it matters:

The word unclean is used more than one hundred times in Leviticus 11–15. It is an apt description of the condition of the people; they were morally unclean because of their failure to obey God’s commands.

Good Commentary on Luke

Commentaries usually aren’t written for normal Christians. But, some try to connect to average people. Many of these are called “devotional commentaries,” and they’re often shallow and unhelpful.

This one is different. It isn’t a devotional commentary, and normal people can find it helpful.

It dates from 1951. It was written by a scholar in the Dutch Reformed Church, in South Africa, named Norval Geldenhuys. It is thorough, understandable, pastoral, and is easy enough for a normal person to read and be encouraged. Geldenhuys laid it out passage by passage, so it is very easy to follow.

If you want to read the Gospel of Luke passage by passage, and consult Geldenhuys’ commentary as you go along, you’ll be blessed. Because the book is nearly 70 years old, you can buy it for a few pitiful dollars at Amazon.

You won’t be disappointed.

The Value of Biblical Exposition in Evangelism

If you preach the Bible, verse by verse, and just explain what it says, people will repent, believe and become Christians. Yes, it’s true.

Imagine that.

I Don’t Understand Christians Watching “Game of Thrones”

Nor do I. Christians are priests for God. They’re supposed to represent God to the world, and to always keep far away from worldly lusts which are battling against their souls (1 Peter 2:9-11). So, why would a Christian watch a show which is infamous for it’s sex scenes?

The author of this article wrote:

I’m always amazed that a number of people I respect–smart people, serious Christians, good conservative thinkers–are obviously watching (and loving) the series. True, I haven’t seen it. Not an episode. Not a scene. I hardly know anything about the show. I know many people consider it absolutely riveting–full of compelling characters, an engrossing story, and excellent acting, writing, and aesthetics. But isn’t it also full of sex? Like lots and lots of incredibly graphic sex?

Keeping the Faith: Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

Charles Spurgeon was a famous preacher from England, who was active in the last half of the 19th century. Many Christians have heard of him, and perhaps even have some of his books.

This article recounts his last great battle against theological liberalism in the Baptist Union in Britain:

As Christians, we are called to share our faith, but we are also called to keep it. Like the Apostle Paul, every believer should aspire to the epitaph, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Perhaps no one in Baptist history better kept the faith than the illustrious Charles Spurgeon—especially as seen through the prism of the Downgrade Controversy.

Man Escapes High-Pressure Altar Call Through Ventilation Duct

Every Christian has been there. Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Of course I was scared—who wouldn’t be?—but I knew it was my only chance at freedom,” Overton said later of his harrowing attempt at escape.

And, finally, I leave you with this profound observation. . .

vader

 

Following the Leader

follow leaderYou household slaves:

Always submit yourselves to [your] masters in a very respectful way; not only to the good and kind, but also to those who are cruel. Because God is pleased if, because a man is mindful of Him, he endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.

Here’s why I say this – how is it to your credit if, when you slaves are committing sin and being roughly treated, you endure it? Instead, this is favor with God: if, when you’re doing right and suffering, you endure it – this is why you slaves were called to salvation!

You see, even Christ suffered for you slaves to leave behind an example for you, so you’d follow in His footsteps. He didn’t break God’s laws, and no lies were found in His mouth. Although He was viciously insulted, He didn’t insult [them] back. Even though He suffered, He never threatened to make them suffer in return. Instead, Christ kept entrusting [Himself] to the One who judges right.

He Himself carried our sins in His body to the cross, so that we believers would first be freed from the power of these sins, and then live for righteousness. By His wounding you were healed. What I mean is that, like sheep, you were wandering away, but now you’ve been returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

  • 1 Peter 2:18-25 (my translation)

The Tale of the Two Husbands

contrastOnce upon a time, in a far away land, there lived two doting husbands; Peter and George. From the outside, they were similar in every possible way. Peter was a successful businessman in the city, and George an executive at a large bank. Both were still younger men, around 40 years of age. Both had been married about 15 years. Both had two children. Each was blissfully unaware of the other’s existence.

They lived and worked in the same city, commuted to the same suburb, and, quite unwittingly, frequented the same café every Tuesday morning (at nine sharp). They moved in the same circles, in overlapping orbits, but their lives never touched . . . until yesterday.

On that day, after a particularly hard day at the office, Peter and George each found their way to a upscale florist in the city. It was an expensive place, with scandalous prices. Peter and George didn’t care – they were on a mission. Flowers and chocolates were the order of the day, and a quick trip home to the wife. Fences needed to be mended, sores patched up, an armistice signed.

You see, Peter and George had each treated their wives in a beastly fashion lately, and it was time to make amends. Battles had been fought, blood had been shed; unforgivable things had been spoken. Now, both men were prepared to surrender, and flowers and chocolates were the first tentative steps towards a cease-fire.

Home they went, fighting the same traffic, the same commuters, even (ironically) each other at one point. Finally, they arrived home, steeled themselves for marital combat, and plunged into the arena, ready to set things right so peace could reign in their households once more . . .

What happened, you ask?

Peter’s wife forgave him for his sins. George’s wife smacked him across the face, flung his dinner at him, stuffed the flowers in the toilet, and raced away to her mother’s house for the night, bringing the children with her.

Why the different reactions?

  1. Peter was genuinely sorry for his sins. He told his wife he was sorry, and outlined what, exactly, he was going to do to fix things – starting now. He didn’t just talk; he acted. He proved his sincerity by his actions, and together, they built their marriage stronger and forged ahead.
  2. George wasn’t sorry. The flowers and chocolates (hazelnut chocolate, of course) were a bribe, a holding action. He didn’t want to change at all. But, he figured he could buy some time and (why not?, he figured wickedly), some “affection” with this peace offering. It didn’t work, of course. His wife saw through him; he’d pulled this trick one too many times. George sat alone, in the dark, and thought pitiful thoughts while his wife sobbed at her mother’s.

Why the parable?

This parable illustrates two completely different approaches to a relationship with God; one Christian and the other pagan.

  1. Peter is the man who truly loves God. He admits when he does wrong (i.e. “confesses his sins”). When he says he’s sorry, he means it. Not only that, he proves his sincerity by concrete action (i.e. “repents”). He serves God because he loves Him, and when he makes mistakes (which are often), he is genuinely sorry.
  2. George is the man who doesn’t love God. He claims he’s sorry, but he lies. He doesn’t mean it, because nothing ever changes. He’s an empty suit, a man who lies out of habit. He’s never sorry. He’s just anxious to bribe his way out of trouble with false promises and false assurances.

Any wife can tell the difference between these two men. And, to extend the analogy of the parable, God can tell the difference between them, too.

The divide here is about motivation.

  1. Why do we serve God?
  2. What is our aim, our motivation, the self-conscious outcome we’re looking for?
  3. Do we seek cheap favor with God by bribery, or do we seek to serve Him because we love Him?

There is a chasm between these two positions.

What difference does it make?

It makes all the difference in the world. It certainly made a difference between Peter and George, didn’t it? Some confessing Protestants seek to blur these lines, as if they’re irrelevant. One of those people is Matthew Bates.

I’ve mentioned Bates several times in the past few weeks, because I’m reading his new book Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Bates has a PhD from a Roman Catholic institution, and teaches at a Roman Catholic school. In his book, he’s deliberately trying to build a bridge that Protestants and Catholics can cross together. He’s wrong.

Consider the Tale of the Two Husbands, and the motivation Peter and George had for their actions. They had the same outward actions, but completely different goals and objectives. Now, consider what Bates wrote:[1]

As nearly all Christians agree, perseverance in allegiance is required. If the union were to be severed by an unrepentant cessation of pistis (allegiance to Jesus as Messiah-king), then the continuing presence of the union-securing and fruit-producing Spirit would be decisively ruptured; the born-again person would experience spiritual death. That individual would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.

Christian traditions disagree about whether or not such a severance is possible. Reformed and some Lutheran Christians prefer to speak of the impossibility of rupture (“eternal security”).

Meanwhile, Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant traditions believe that it is possible for an individual to enter decisively into saving union but then to depart through an unrepentant turning away.

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

Bates says something true, and something terribly wrong:

  1. Obedience is a necessary result of saving faith. You can’t have faith in Christ, then deliberately not obey Him. Actions prove where your heart is. It did for Peter, and it did for George, too.
  2. But, Bates claims that, if a person stops being loyal to Jesus and stops being obedient to His word, then that person “would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.”

Bates advocates a scheme where the person obeys Christ in order to retain eternal life. No matter which way you “nuance” this, you have works salvation. I don’t believe you can argue otherwise.

Typically, Reformed Protestants have argued that loving obedience is a natural result of union with Christ. That is, because our hearts, minds, and souls have been changed, because we have a new nature, and because we now honestly seek to please God, we’ll naturally desire to obey His word. So, in that sense, “good works” are not meritorious for salvation; they’re just the fruit of it.

Elsewhere in his book, Bates rejected this view. I don’t want to go into his reasons here. However, I do want to argue that it does matter which position you take on “good works.” I’ll quote him again:

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

I disagree. This is about self-conscious motivation. When the Christian does what the Bible says, what is his reason for doing it? What outcome does he expect from his “good work?” What result does he expect to achieve by it?

The Protestant (i.e. the Christian) understands salvation is a present, permanent reality, and his “good works” are merely the inevitable and grateful response of the believer to God’s grace. He loves God, and wants to serve Him.

The Roman Catholic, however, sees God’s initial grace in salvation as a gift given to the Christian, which enables him to then merit for himself eternal life:[2]

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life . . .

The Protestant says a Christian simply will persevere in faith and good works until the end, because he loves God and wants to serve Him. The Roman Catholic (and, apparently, Matthew Bates) says the Christian must persevere in order to attain eternal life.

This is not a minor point of doctrine. It’s the difference between Jesus’ Gospel and “another Gospel” (cf. Gal 1). It’s a difference in self-conscious motivation. It’s the difference between Peter and George – and we all know how that turned out . . .

Notes

[1] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 190-191.  

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), Article 2010.

The King from the Far Country

lkIs Jesus’ kingdom here, now? It is exclusively future? Has He already been crowned as King, and is He patiently waiting to exercise His authority? If only there were a clear passage we could turn to which would shed some definitive light on this subject . . .

Actually, there is one. Jesus knew His own disciples were confused on this point (and we would be, too), so He gave us all a parable to set the record straight. That parable is in Luke 19:11-27.

Background

Jesus has been headed to Jerusalem for a while now (Lk 9:51). He’s taken a wandering, meandering route through any number of towns and villages along the way, preaching the Gospel and proclaiming His coming Kingdom. Now, on the eve of the great event which all salvation history has been pointing towards, Christ prepares His disciples for what is coming; “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished!” (Lk 18:31).

The last days of Jesus’ journey are filled with irony.

  1. The proud Pharisee boasts of his own “righteousness,” while the tax collector is too ashamed to even glance up at the heavens. “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Lk 18:13).
  2. Disciples stop parents from bring their children to see the Messiah, while Jesus rebukes them; “for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” (Lk 18:16).
  3. A wealthy Jewish man, well-versed in the Tanakh, seeks eternal life through works-righteousness and refuses to forsake his riches (his true god) and follow the Messiah (Lk 18:18-23), while a blind beggar recognizes Jesus as the Son of David, the promised Messiah, and professes faith (Lk 18:35-43).
  4. Next, Luke gives us the account of Zacchaeus, the repentant chief tax collector who believes in Jesus as Messiah, and proves his sincerity by offering to reimburse those he wronged by 400%; far above the 120% required by the Mosaic Law (Lev 6:1-7). Of course, as Jesus dines with this reviled man, those outside snicker at his choice of companions (Lk 19:7). Surely, a real rabbi, a pious rabbi, wouldn’t associate with such cretins.

The Parable of the King from the Far Country

This brings us to this wonderful parable. Why did Jesus tell it? There’s no need to wonder; Luke tells us why:

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately (Luke 19:11)

Jesus told the parable to set the record straight. Yes, indeed, He was near to Jerusalem. No, unfortunately, He wasn’t going to institute His promised kingdom now. Everything in this parable centers on this simple point. We read on:

He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Trade with these till I come,’ (Luke 19:12-13).

This nobleman is headed far, far away to “receive a kingdom.” Now, a kingdom is a political entity that exists in a physical location. The idea is not that the nobleman is going to take possession of an actual kingdom, stuff it into his backpack, and catch a 737 back home. Instead, the nobleman is going off to receive kingly power; to be crowned and appointed as king. Then, he’ll return to establish his rule by the authority he’s been given.

While he’s away, he calls 10 slaves, gives them money, and orders them to invest and “trade with these till I come.” The nobleman expects the slaves to use these funds wisely, and to give an account of their activity when he returns as king.

Fair enough. But, all is not well . . .

But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us,’ (Luke 19:14).

His citizens don’t want him to be king. They hate the guy. They hate him so much they send a messenger hurrying after him, bearing a simple request. “We hate you. We don’t want you to be our king. Don’t come back.” If he never returned, it’d be fine with them.

When he returned, having received the kingdom, he commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading.

The first came before him, saying, “Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more.” And he said to him, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.”

And the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” And he said to him, “And you are to be over five cities,” (Luke 19:15-19).

The nobleman has received the kingdom (i.e. kingly power). He’s been crowned and appointed as King in the far country, and has returned to his dominion to exercise that power. There is a gap between (1) when he is crowned as king, and (2) when he exercises those powers.[1] For example, James I of Scotland was appointed as king of the English throne on March 24, 1603. However, he wasn’t coronated in London to exercise that authority and fulfill that role until July 25, 1603 – a four-month gap. Was James still King of England during that period? Of course; he just hadn’t arrived to assume the responsibilities quite yet. Thus it is for our nobleman.

It’s clear the nobleman rewarded his slaves based on what they earned for him while he was abroad. Each slave received an outrageously lavish reward; governance over ten cities here, five cities there. The rewards are for faithfulness in discharging the task he’d left for them.

Then another came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.”

He said to him, “I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?” (Luke 19:20-23).

This other fellow, however, is another story. He fears the king. Doesn’t like the guy. He did nothing with the money; he wrapped it in a convenient napkin and hid it away. Why? The man retreated behind the bulwarks of pity, and claimed he was too terrified to act. Because he feared the king so much, he was paralyzed with indecision. If he invested the money, he risked losing it and incurring the king’s wrath. If he did nothing, he’d still incur the king’s wrath. Like a deer transfixed at the approaching headlights of a semi-truck, this man did nothing.

The nobleman is not pleased. If this man were really afraid of him, then he’d at least have done something with the money – why not put it into the bank? Hadn’t he proven his generosity to the other two slaves? No, this excuse (“I was afraid!”) is a smokescreen, a cloak for something else. The man was simply derelict in his duties, and his justification was pitiful and idiotic.

And he said to those who stood by, “Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.”

And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”

“I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” (Luke 19:24-26).

Enraged, the king demands the one pound be taken from the unfaithful slave and given to the one who’d earned ten. Astonished, some of the slaves protest. “But, that guy already has ten pounds!” Undaunted, the king explains that his faithful subjects will be rewarded, and the unfaithful will be left with no rewards and no special honor.

But, what about the great mass of citizens who told him to not come back?

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me (Luke 19:27).

They die. In fact, the king commands his slaves to kill the rebels in his presence, as he watches.

Conclusion

Jesus is the nobleman. He’s returned to heaven, that far and distant country. There, He’s been appointed as King and crowned with glory and honor. In the meantime, He’s left us, His slaves, here to “trade” with the commodity He’s given us until He returns to assume the throne. That commodity is the Gospel. Jesus’ own citizens, the Jewish people, hated Him and told Him flat-out they didn’t want Him to return. In fact, they killed the Lord of glory.

And yet, He arose a victor from the dark domain, and He’ll return one day and live forever with His saints to reign. When He returns, He’ll examine what each of His slaves did for Him. Were they faithful to trade the Gospel? Or, like the disobedient slave, did they hide their treasure in a napkin and do nothing with it?

And, what of all those who rejected Him and coming reign – Jew or Gentile? They’ll die. They’ll die, not because Jesus rejected them, but because they rejected Him.

Jesus has been crowned as King. He is King, right now. We’re all His citizens, whether we like it or not. He demands loyalty and allegiance from us, and that message is in the Gospel. His isn’t a kingdom of tyranny and despair, but of freedom from ourselves, liberation from Satan, and life everlasting as slaves for our Holy God. As we wait for Him to return from that far country and assume His throne, may we think and live as a kingdom of holy priests who love our Savior.

Notes

[1] “The parable makes a significant distinction between receiving the kingdom and the later reckoning that is a product of its authoritative exercise. Kingdom reception precedes a later period where it is fully administered,” (Bock, Luke 9:51 – 24:53, in BECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], 1535).

On Pre-packaged Doctrine

packagedEvery Christian has a personal systematic theology. I know, “systematic theology” sounds like a mouthful. But, it’s really very simple.

If you’re a Christian, you have certain beliefs about certain Christian doctrines. These beliefs have been shaped by your congregation, your denomination, your pastor(s), and your own personal bible reading and study. If asked, you’ll probably be able to sum up your understanding of these various doctrines with a statement or two.

In other words, you have a systematic understanding of particular Christian doctrines. This understanding is based on a whole host of bible passages. When you explain your summary of a doctrine, you’re synthesizing and summarizing everything you know into a comprehensive statement.

The danger, of course, is that “systematic theology” is a summary. It cannot take into account every caveat, every anomaly and every exception. It’s a view of the forest from the helicopter, not the jeep.

Enter Matthew Bates

Matthew Bates is a scholar with an interesting background. He came from a fundamentalist, Baptist, King James Only background and eventually earned a PhD in New Testament from Notre Dame (a Roman Catholic institution). He now teaches at Quincy University, a Catholic liberal arts college. He recently wrote a provocative book entitled Salvation by Allegiance Alone. His aim, he confessed, was ambitious:

In this book I want to demonstrate that our contemporary Christian culture often comes prepackaged with functional ideas and operative definitions of belief, faith, works, salvation, heaven, and the gospel that in various ways truncate and distort the full message of the good news about Jesus the Messiah that is proclaimed in the Bible.[1]

Let me give you a hint – it’s always frightening when a scholar writes about how he wants to nuance our understanding of salvation. I’m also aware some “normal” people from my church read my pitiful blog (hello, silly you!😊), and it may be “dangerous” to “expose” people to Bates’ musings.

Meh.

We can either live in old, sealed Tupperware containers our entire Christian lives, or we can talk about “justification” and the meaning of “faith.” I vote to choose the latter, and donate the former to Goodwill . . .

On the dangers of systemization

I suppose it really isn’t dangerous to systematize theology, but it can be misleading. Summarizing things sometimes leaves them flat, sterile, and robs them of some nuances they otherwise had. In his book, Bates proposes our understanding of salvation is often too pre-packaged, too neat, and far more tidy than the Bible actually presents it. Read for yourself:[2]

Although undeniably systematizing the true order of salvation is a worthy goal, biblical scholars, myself included, generally remain wary of such systems. For even when such systems employ biblical terms as conceptual categories or organizational rubrics, they tend to foist alien concerns onto the biblical text rather than allowing the biblical narrative to supply the framework, and this leads to skewed emphases.

For instance, a common category in the order is “election.” This is a biblical term (eklektos and cognates), and it is indeed sometimes used in the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament to emphasize God’s sovereignty in choosing specific individuals and groups for various purposes. But as it is mobilized by systematicians, the tendency is to treat it as a special “salvation” category pertaining to God’s eternal (or slightly later) decree to save or damn certain individuals, when in fact the word means merely “choosing” and frequently doesn’t have eternal salvation or condemnation in view at all, especially not with regard to the individual.

My intention is not to suggest that systematics is unnecessary or unhelpful in clarifying Scripture through philosophical inquiry; my point is rather that the biblical story has not always been correctly aimed for systematic inquiry.

I get this, and agree with it. Summarizing things flattens them and makes them seem much neater than they really are. For example:

  • My church’s doctrinal statement says election to salvation is individual, personal and specific. God deliberately chooses who He wants to save, down to the individual. Got it. I generally agree with this. But . . .
  • Peter didn’t talk much about election to salvation in an individual sense. He referred to it in corporate terms (1 Pet 1:1-5; 2:4-10).
  • In the Old Testament, Israel’s election as God’s people is corporate. In his first letter, Peter says Christians are also God’s corporate people, being made part of His spiritual temple (1 Peter 2:4-10).

So, would it be better to understand election to salvation as corporate, not individual? Of course, corporate groups are made up of individuals – no kidding! But, does the Bible present election as an individual or corporate concept? Were the Biblical authors concerned with the neat systematic categories we use today? Bates suggests they weren’t. This is something to think about.

Bates continues:[3]

To illustrate the problem, consider the definition of election given by noted systematician Louis Berkhof: ‘that eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation.’

This definition is surely constructed in conversation with the biblical data, but it is certainly not a definition that any first-century follower of Jesus could or would have supplied. When election is reified as a distinct theological category in such a manner, it is then made to fit into an overarching scheme of additional reified categories that are likewise slightly artificial (calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification).

In this manner a whole system is created that is considerably distant from any system that a first-century follower of Jesus could have held. This is a problem because the thought structures native to our biblical texts should inform subsequent systematization in a more holistic way.

Well said. I immediately think of the dispensationalist understanding of end-times chronology. As years go by, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the premillennial, dispensationalist understanding is missing the mark. The system doesn’t quite jell. Consider this:

  • Paul has an elaborate eschatology. When people think of end-times texts, they often run to Paul. There’s a lot there. 1 Thessalonians 4-5; 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 11. Good stuff.
  • But, Peter has a very simple eschatology. We’re here. We must persevere. Jesus will return and deliver us (Acts 3:19-21, 10:42; 1 Pet 1:7-9, 2:12). Amen.

Systematicians seek to harmonize Peter and Paul, and dispensationalists often downplay Peter’s simple eschatology in favor of Paul’s elaborate scheme. Perhaps it’s the other way around? Was Jesus really a dispensationalist? In some areas the system seems too packaged, too neat, and far too complicated to accept wholeheartedly.

Bates went on, and wrote about the temptation to force texts to fit pre-packaged theological systems:[4]

Moreover, since salvation has been discussed in the church throughout its lengthy history, certain systematic ways of analyzing “order of salvation” and accompanying schools of thought have come to dominate the conversational landscape.

These systems are often put forward not only as competitors but as the only possible options— as if one must choose between the Catholic, Reformed (Calvinist), Arminian, Barthian, or existential system wholesale, and one cannot select parts of one and parts of another. This lock-stock-and-barrel approach is flawed, however, for it is doubtful that the scriptural evidence conforms to any of these systems entirely.

Question the assumptions

Christians should always question the assumptions they’ve been handed. Don’t blindly accept a packaged theological grid you’ve been given. Take it, read your Bible, and test it.

Systemization isn’t bad. In fact, if we really believe the Bible is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end,” then we should expect these books to agree with one another.[5]

But . . . there are some dangers to systemization:[6]

  1. It can superimpose a grand theme onto the text that might not really be there at all.
  2. It can run roughshod over passages and ignore their original and historical context.
  3. It can ignore the history of a particular doctrine throughout church history (hint – if it’s a new doctrine, it’s probably heretical).
  4. It can resist any attempts to improve or altar the system (hint – yes, dispensationalists, I’m talking to you . . .).
  5. The “system” can become a pre-packed product, handed down from one generation to the next with little constructive thought.

So, here is your takeaway:

  1. Appreciate and treasure the packaged doctrinal system you’ve inherited from your parents, your church and your pastor(s). It’s probably a good system. The Christian faith has guardrails, and the major facets of your theological system will protect you from heresy and error.
  2. But, like all systems, it can probably use some refining. Take the system, take your Bible, and test and refine the system throughout your life.
  3. Question the assumptions. Think hard. Don’t be afraid to explore new ideas and thoughts with the leaders in your church.

Learning about God is exciting stuff. It never ends. Bates says we’ve accepted a pre-packed way to understand salvation that is at odds with the Bible. Is he right? Probably not. But, it’s worth thinking about.

Notes

[1] Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 2-3.

[2] Bates, Salvation Alone, 169.

[3] Bates, Salvation Alone, 170.

[4] Bates, Allegiance Alone, 170.

[5] Millard Erickson wrote, “Rather than having simply the theology of Paul, Luke or John on a particular doctrine, we must attempt to coalesce their various emphases into a coherent whole . . . The whole Bible must be taken into account when we interpret Scripture. The Old Testament and New Testament are to be approached with the expectation that a unity between the two exists,” (Christian Theology, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998], 73).

[6] Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology, combined ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 1:24.