Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What About Those Who Never Heard?

When Paul argues that all humans deserve the wrath of God (Romans 1 and 2), the question inevitably arises, "What about those who never heard? Those who never had a chance? Is it fair that they should be condemned, when they are just doing the best that they can with the light they have?"

Something sounds missing; like God has not been clear enough for universal condemnation. Doesn't history's wealth of religious diversity demonstrate humanity's sincere desire to honor God?  Can humans help it if they got it wrong? Doesn't religion show that at least humans are trying? And doesn't that very diversity testify that what God has revealed is insufficient to get everyone on the same page, much more to condemn everyone to eternal damnation?

The answer to this dilemma is in what Paul says humanity does with what little knowledge it has:
21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Don't miss this, because it is crucial to understanding God's justice and humanity's culpability.  God's self-revelation demonstrates that all people are without excuse--not by how much is revealed, but by how people respond to however much or little is revealed. The problem is not God; it is the people. No matter how much he reveals, depraved people have always responded the same way: they will refuse to honor him as God or give thanks to him.

Here are three cases in point, the first of which provides the allusive framework for the entire passage: 1) We know that even when God appeared in humanity's midst, and walked with them and talked with them in the cool of the day, and gave them all manner of good things to eat, they still chose to do what he forbade.  This is what foolish hearts and futile minds do. Can we honestly argue that humanity's foolishness has improved since Adam and Eve?  2) What if God were to peel back a massive body of water in front of our eyes?  Or make bread fall from heaven? Or appear in clouds of smoke and pillars of fire? Or boom his voice from a mountain top for all to hear?  Wouldn't people fall right into line upon experiencing these things? 3) What if God were to walk down main street and perform miracles--say, feed 5000 people at once, or walk on water, or raise people from the dead--people would not do all that is within their power to destroy him, would they?

 The problem is not how much or how little God has revealed of himself. The problem is how deep and wide is the unrighteousness that justly deserves God's wrath. This is how we know that an earnest idolater who has never heard the Gospel is still under the curse of God’s wrath.

This post is an edited excerpt from a recent sermon at Trinity Presbyterian Church, which you can watch in full here: 

Monday, March 13, 2017

"From Faith To Faith" Explained

The phrase ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν ("from faith to faith") in Romans 1:16-17 is a small interpretive mystery. The English Standard Version translates it as "from faith for faith" which is an inexplicable translation that does not add anything obvious to our understanding. More plainly, I believe the phrase foreshadows a prominent theme in the epistle that ties the book together--the theme that in spite of the Jews' special place in God's plan and their frequent misunderstandings of they Law with which they were entrusted, salvation has always been by faith, for them and for us.  It was by faith then in the Old Testament, and it is by faith now in the New. From faith to faith. Here is the paragraph in which the phrase is found:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (ESV)
Paul says he will preach the Gospel without shame to everyone in the Roman and Jewish worlds because it is the power of God for salvation to them all:  "To the Jew first, and also to the Greek."  The word Greek is simply another way of saying non-Jew: To the Jew first, and also to the non-Jew. To everyone.

A Jew, a Greek, and a Barbarian Walk into a Bar . . .

I do not have a punchline for this, but it does sound like a great setup. On first reading, this sounds like an order of priority, but I rather think it is an order of historical sequence. If it were an order of priority, we could infer that the Jews get first crack at the Gospel because they have some sort of priority over everyone else.  According to the order of priority theory, the Jew in that scenario is the first to whom Paul owes the Gospel as a matter of priority. They have been, after all, God's chosen people for millennia and still hold a special place in God's heart.

However, I do not believe Paul to be presenting an order of priority. Instead, I believe he is presenting an order of historical sequence. What is the difference between an order of priority and an order of historical sequence?

The historical sequence is a matter of then and now: first, during the Old Testament and mostly concerning the Jews, salvation was by faith. Second, in the New Testament and concerning Jews and gentiles, salvation is still by faith. There is no difference between the way of salvation then and now.

Paul makes this most clear in Romans 4 when he argues that Abraham was justified prior to his being circumcised, thus proving that Old Testament justification was by grace through faith and not by works: "Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness."

With this in mind, we can now explain that mysterious phrase in verse 17: ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν.

According to the ESV, the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel "from faith for faith," which I have already said is relatively meaningless in English. Stare at it all day and it still won't make any sense. The most straightforward and simplest way to translate the phrase is "from faith to faith."  

If Paul has indeed presented an order of sequence, and if he is saying that salvation was the same for the Jews then as it is for the gentiles now (which he is), then "from faith to faith" simply means that the righteousness of God was revealed by faith then and it is revealed by faith now.  So with this understanding we can paraphrase the two verses like this: 
I am not ashamed of the Gospel through which God exercises his power to save everyone who believes. It does not matter whether you are Jew or gentile, salvation has always been by faith. It was by faith in the Old Testament; it is by faith in the New Testament. Nothing else saved them then. Nothing else will save you now. From faith then to faith now. All are saved the exact same way--through faith.

And then, to certify this assertion by giving it the mark of the authority of Scripture, Paul quotes an Old Testament passage (Habakkuk 2:4) that clearly teaches that righteousness came by faith then:

As it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

My understanding of the phrase "from faith to faith" is very simple, matches the most straightforward translation of the Greek, and, as thematic foreshadowing, is reiterated throughout the book
: It does not matter who you are--Roman or Jew, Greek or barbarian, wise or foolish--Salvation only ever came to man from God one way. Everyone is saved the same way--through faith in the Gospel. From faith then to faith now. 

From faith to faith.

Friday, March 10, 2017

That Mysterious Third Will of God

The Wills of God

Theologians (especially in the Reformed tradition) have found it helpful to distinguish between the Decretive Will of God and the Preceptive Will of God. The decretive will refers to God’s having decreed, for his own glory by his sovereign power and according to his infinite wisdom, all that comes to pass. The preceptive will refers to God’s revealed commands to his human creation. The first describes what God has done, is doing, and will do; the second, what God wants us to do. The first is generally secret, which is why we also call it his Secret Will. The second is revealed; hence we also call it his Revealed Will. The first is absolute and inexorable--it cannot not happen. The second is disregarded every time one of his creatures chooses to disobey him.

Although the decretive will of God is generally hidden or secret, this does not mean that God has left us completely blind concerning his eternal purposes. We know the big picture and many of the smaller details. Certain mysteries have been made crystal clear by glorious glimpses into his Secret Will through Scripture.  For instance, we know the purpose of the incarnation and the crucifixion. We know that God planned all along to bring gentiles into his chosen family through adoption. These were clouded in the Old Testament through what Hebrews calls "shadows." The New Testament clearly reveals these shadows and mysteries. God has given us glimpses in Scripture of what everything will look like in the end according to his sovereign decree: He will destroy evil, punish sinners, and bring his family into eternal fellowship with him in the new heavens and earth. He has told us about the doctrine of election, even though he has not told us who, among all the lost around us, are the elect. The Secret Will is more or less revealed as God has seen fit to give us glimpses into his purposes.

That Mysterious Third Will

What does not exist in Scripture is a third, unnamed will, which I will now name the “Third Will.” The “Third Will” supposedly exists between the Revealed and Secret, barely perceivable only by those who are spiritually tuned in, like a whispering undertone within the consciousness--a still, small voice. It requires a high degree of mystical harmonization and threatens great penalties upon those who fail to accurately perceive or obey it--they are at risk of missing God’s will for their lives.

This spiritually destructive view of God's will runs rampant due to unchecked Arminian influences upon many evangelical churches. It presupposes some violable plan not otherwise revealed in Scripture that exists as some mix of the Secret and the Revealed. It is often described as “God’s best for you.” The process of learning it is sometimes called “discerning God’s will.” Young people in these traditions are taught from an early age that one of the most important things they can do in life is discern God’s will. As if teenagers didn't have a hard enough time with everything that is clearly revealed.

Belief in this "Third Will" leads many to unbiblical assertions and unnecessary anxiety. We have all seen it in action. You have seen it when someone has said something like, “I just knew God was telling me to do such-and-such” or “God told me everything was going to be alright” or "I have finally found what God wants me to do with my life!" You may even have fallen for it yourself!

In my younger years, my experience with this mystical "Third Will" led me to spend countless hours trying to “read the clouds” for God’s will--listening for that still, small voice and searching my heart for a sense of peace. I even measured my spirituality (and others’) by how attuned I was to God’s leading through the Holy Spirit. One of my greatest fears was doing something wrong and shutting off my mystical pipeline, leaving me blind in the dark. I imagined that God had a will about nearly anything and everything (which toothpaste, shirt, road, college, job, wife, etc.) Failure to discern and act upon this will would lead me down the wrong path and mess up God’s will for my life. At one point, I even fearfully broke off my engagement to my future wife (or did she break up with me?) because of some nebulous “lack of peace” that I presumed was integral to the process of “discerning God’s will.” Thankfully God rescued me from myself and we eventually got married.

Scripture simply does not support this idea of a “Third Will” that all Christians must discern and obey. Yes, it records that God directed people through miraculous, extra-biblical means; however it nowhere presents this as normative. Those who believe that God does have a mystic “Third Will” need to demonstrate 1) that it is clearly taught in Scripture 2) to whom it applies, 3) by what verifiable means it is discerned, and 4) to what decisions it applies and does not apply. That is a tall order which I believe cannot be accomplished through any clear teaching of Scripture.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Both to the White Collar and the Redneck

In Romans 1:14, Paul writes, "I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish."

Greek and barbarian were stereotypical labels. People who were cultured citizens of the Roman empire could be called Greeks; the rest were barbarians.

"Barbarian" was an onomatopoetic word, which means that it sounds like what it represents. They were called "barbarians" because their language sounded like gibberish (bar-bar-bar-bar). This would be like you or me labeling people Gobbledygookians because their speech sounded like gobbledygook.

So when Paul says that he has a gospel-debt to both Greeks and Barbarians, he means that he has a mission to all strata of society--both the high and the low, the cultured and the uncultured, the rich and the poor, the cool and the uncool, the urban and the rural, the wise and the foolish.

The white collar and the redneck.

Not many West Virginians are rednecks as the world thinks of rednecks. But we are frequently and prejudicially labeled that way. Most of us are in fact blue collar, and quite a few are white collar. But we have an unusual reputation for redneckedness, even if we are not really all that different from the rest of Appalachia. Many of us embrace that, because that reputation is the only thing that makes us different. You have to hang on to whatever you can when you have nothing. But our problems exist everywhere in this nation; they just seem to exist in greater concentrations here for some reason. Maybe that is what makes us different.

Regardless, I do not think it is a stretch to suggest that Paul includes us when he says in his own way that "he is obligated both to the white collar and the redneck."

Whether we are white collar, blue collar, or redneck, I see us fitting into Paul's spectrum of gospel-debt obligation. Which means that, in spite of "cool-and-cultured" ministry trends, he would not forget about the barbarians. If Paul were alive today, I think he would be praying that somehow, by God's will, he might at last succeed in coming to West Virginia.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What is Covenant Theology?

In Covenant Theology, the Covenant promises of God unite the entire storyline of the Bible.

God covenanted (made a binding contract) with his people through various representatives (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, etc.).  God promised to live together with his people in a kingdom-on-earth if they would keep the terms of the contract (the Law of God).  The essential parts of these kingdom promises were a people, and land, and a king.

The people of God did not and could not keep the terms of the contract, so God took the kingdom away.  The kings died, the people scattered, and the land was conquered.

Then God did something wonderful and gracious and merciful.  He made a New Covenant.

In the New Covenant, God kept the terms of the contract for his people through Jesus Christ.  Jesus kept the law on their behalf and took their punishment in their place.  

The unfolding story reveals that this New Covenant was God's plan all along, and the plan was bigger and better than anyone fully knew under the Old Covenant (although there were many mysterious hints along the way):
  1. The New Covenant Kingdom's people would come from every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout the entire world! 
  2. The New Covenant Kingdom's land would be the entire earth!
  3. The New Covenant Kingdom's king would be the Son of God, who would rule over and dwell with his people in the land for all eternity! Emmanuel!
The Old Covenant revealed humanity's unfaithfulness, and the New Covenant revealed God's faithfulness. Together they showcased God's perfections: his goodness, his justice, his mercy, his power, etc. Together they glorified God.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

No Creed but the Bible?

Reformed churches and denominations summarize the message of the Bible in statements of faith called Creeds or Confessions.  These creeds and confessions are usually very old, because what these churches and denominations believe is nothing new. They are repositories of what the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church for centuries. Reformed Churches value them for several reasons:
  1. Creeds and Confessions are used as tools to teach church members what God reveals in the Bible. 
  2. Creeds and Confessions bring unity to the Church by providing a standard for agreement and fellowship among churches and denominations.  Churches that agree with a certain Statement of Faith generally know that their beliefs are similar and compatible.  
  3. Creeds and Confessions protect the teaching of the church from the changing whims of culture and popular belief.  How many churches do you know that have given in to worldly pressure to change what they believe? 
"No Creed but the Bible"

"No creed but the Bible." You may have heard something like this before. Unfortunately, this statement fails to acknowledge that all Christians, churches, and denominations make statements of faith every time they summarize, teach, or preach anything about God.  Unless one is willing to preach using only the words of Scripture and nothing else (in other words, to simply read the Bible aloud), one cannot avoid creating informal statements of faith in every conversation about God.  Even most modern, "non-creedal" churches include in their constitutions some brief Statement of Faith.  They therefore have no grounds to argue against the use of more formal, lengthy, time-honored Statements of Faith.  "No Creed but the Bible" is just not possible. Whether written or unwritten, formal, or informal, all churches create Statements of Faith.  Why not use one that has providentially stood the test of time?

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Reformed creeds come in different shapes and sizes, but they tend to share many of the same ideas. Chief among them is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). In the mid-1600's dozens of godly scholars and preachers collaborated for years to accurately summarize the teaching of Scripture. Today, the WCF is chiefly used by the Presbyterians. But the Baptists have their own version of it, The London Baptist Confession of 1689. The Baptists used the WCF as a template for this confession, which reveals that the Baptists have a strong, Reformed heritage. Thankfully, many Baptist churches continue to affirm their beautiful and historic creed.

Monday, February 27, 2017

What is Calvinism?

The term Calvinism honors the contributions of John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote one of the most important theology books to come out of the Reformation, Institutes of the Christian Religion, which has impacted nearly every denomination of Christianity.  Calvinists believe that God has planned and guaranteed, for his own glory and before time began, all that will come to pass, including the salvation of all those who will believe in him.

Some object to the famous Five Points of Calvinism, sometimes known as the Doctrines of Grace. You can learn more about those who object to Calvinism here. Of course, Calvinism is much more than five points, but history has spotlighted these:
  1. Human beings are completely and entirely to blame for the sinful condition that separates them from God. This condition affects their entire being, so that they are totally unable to choose God by their own power. Since they are dead in their trespasses and sins, they cannot do anything to save themselves. 
  2. God chose people to save from this dead and helpless condition. He did not have to choose anyone--he could leave them to their sin and punishment--but he chose some anyway.  He did the choosing because they cannot. 
  3. God sent Jesus to die for those he chose, by which he covered all their sins. Christ did not die just to make salvation possible for everyone; he died to make it absolutely certain for those he chose. This means that no one for whom Christ died will ever go to hell.  The most controversial implication of this is that Christ did not die for everyone in the exact same way.  
  4. All those God chose will definitely come to Jesus. He will lose none of them. God will not let anyone he chose die in their trespasses and sins.  
  5. All those God chose will continue in their faith until the day they die.  They might have ups and downs, but in the end they will never fall away from their faith. Those who do were never truly saved in the first place.   
These five points are often remembered using letters that spell the word TULIP:  Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints.

Can you hear in these Five Points why they are sometimes referred to as the Doctrines of Grace?  If everyone deserves condemnation, and God doesn't have to save anyone, but he does anyway through the gift of Christ, what else would you call that but grace?