Who is God?

books2The Belgic Confession (1619) was written by a Belgian theologian named Guy de Bray, who was killed for his faith at the age of 45, in the year 1567. He was a student of John Calvin and Theodore Beza. This confession of faith is widely used by Reformed churches throughout the world.

We all believe with the heart, and confess with the mouth, that there is one only simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good.

Article 1, Belgic Confession

I am surprised he didn’t define God as triune. He discusses the Trinity later, of course (Article 8). But, I’m not sure why de Bray didn’t make sure he emphasized that God’s triunity is essential to who He is.

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.