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.

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.

Why They Followed the Law (Pt. 1)

lawThe entire book of Galatians is consumed with the problem of what to do with the Old Covenant law. What does “following the law” have to do with personal salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?

A large party of Jewish Christians, most of them likely from Jerusalem and former Pharisees, believed you had to follow the Old Covenant law and repent and believe in Christ (Acts 15:1-5). Luke, in a very understated fashion, observes “Paul and Barnabas had no small discussion and debate with them.” The Apostle has little time for this kind of terrible error. He calls this teaching “a different Gospel,” (Gal 1:6). He speaks of the Galatians “deserting Him who called you,” (Gal 1:5). He said this is a perversion of the Gospel of Christ (Gal 1:7).

Did these Pharisees actually understand the message of the Old Covenant scriptures? Why did God’s people follow the law, anyway?

This series of short articles has one simple purpose – to explain what the real impetus was for following God’s law, both then and now. In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.

Some dispensationalists disagree. In any movement, there is a spectrum. A man might say, “I’m a Republican!” That’s fine and dandy, but what kind of Republican is he? That’s the real question, and we all know it – because there’s always a spectrum, isn’t there? It’s the same with theological systems. Some dispensationalists look at the Bible, and see a very, very sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. These folks are usually called “classical dispensationalists.”

Their position is still usually close to what C.I. Scofield wrote in his study bible, way back in 1909. In his study notes, Scofield explained the Mosaic law this way (note on Gen 12:1):

The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law (Exodus 19:8). Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage (Exodus 19:4) but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.

Lewis S. Chafer, the ground-breaking theologian and first President of Dallas Theological Seminary, agreed with Scofield. He built on Scofield’s study notes and eventually produced an 8-volume systematic theology text. It’s still used by many students today. I have a copy, and I’ll always treasure Chafer’s discussion of the doctrine of salvation. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject. In his text, Chafer echoed Scofield’s comments:

When the Law was proposed, the children of Israel deliberately forsook their position under the grace of God which had been their relationship to God until that day, and placed themselves under the Law.[1]

I disagree with this reading of Exodus 19:1-8, but I won’t get into the reasons here. It’s enough for you to understand that this presupposition, that Israel voluntarily exchanged God’s grace for a system of works righteousness under the Mosaic Law, is a core tenant of classical dispensationalism. They view the Mosaic Law completely different than other Christians do. This is why they’ll often paint the law as a system of works righteousness. Chafer continued:

They were called upon to face a concrete choice between the mercy of God which had followed them, and a new and hopeless covenant of works. They fell from grace. The experience of the nation is true of every individual who falls from grace at the present time. Every blessing from God that has ever been experienced came only from the loving mercy of God; yet with that same blasting self-trust, people turn to a dependence upon their works. It is far more reasonable and honoring to God to fall helpless into His everlasting arms, and to acknowledge that reliance is on His grace alone.[2]

Dispensationalism has gradually edged further to the center in the past 60 years. Most theologians don’t emphasize such a sharp discontinuity between covenants. In other words, don’t expect John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie to sound like this! But, make no mistake, this perspective is still alive and well in some seminary classrooms. It’s even more common in many churches with a dispensationalist framework, because its pastors were likely taught by Chafer’s students.

Be that as it may, many Christians are confused about why Israelites followed the law. I’ll repeat something I mentioned earlier in this article:

In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.

Classical dispensationalists would vehemently disagree. They’d likely believe Paul was arguing against the Old Covenant. They’d probably think Paul was describing what the Old Covenant taught. I wrote this series of short articles to combat this error, and to set the record straight. If we don’t get this point, we’ll never understand the Old Covenant, we’ll never understand the book of Galatians and we’ll never understand a good bit of the Gospels, either.

Why do people follow God’s law, both then and now? We do it because we love God, and we want to serve Him with our lives. It has always been that way, and it will always be that way.

Let’s look at what Jesus has to say … in the next article.

Notes

[1] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas, TX: DTS, 1948; reprint, 1976), 4:162.

[2] Ibid, 4:163.

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.