The Scope and Purpose of Theology

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series We're All Theologians

We're All TheologiansTheology is a science. Many disagree vociferously and claim that there is a big gap between science and theology. Science, they say, is that which we learn through empirical inquiry and investigation, whereas theology springs from those inflamed by religious emotions. Historically, however, systematic theology has been understood to be a science.

THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE

The word science comes from the Latin word that means “knowledge.” Christians believe that through God’s divine revelation, we have real knowledge of God. Theology could not rightly be called a science if knowledge of God were impossible. The quest for knowledge is the essence of science. The science of biology is a quest to gain a knowledge of living things, the science of physics is an attempt to gain knowledge about physical things, and the science of theology is an attempt to gain a coherent, consistent knowledge of God.

All sciences use paradigms or models that change or shift over time. A paradigm shift is a significant change in the scientific theory of a given discipline. If you were to come across a high school physics textbook from the 1950s, you would see that some of the theories presented then have been demolished. No one takes them seriously because there have been significant shifts in the theories of physics in the years since then. The same thing happened when Newtonian physics replaced earlier theories of physics. Then Albert Einstein came along and created a new revolution, and we had to adjust our understanding of physics again. A paradigm shift occurs when a new theory replaces an old one.

That which usually provokes paradigm shifts in the natural sciences is the presence of anomalies. An anomaly is a detail or a minor point that does not fit into a particular theory; it is something for which the theory cannot account. If one attempts to fit ten thousand details into a coherent picture, much like working with a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and can make all the pieces fit except for one, most scientists consider that to be a good paradigm. The assembled structure that fits together in 9,999 ways will make sense of and account for almost every bit of data explored. However, if there are too many anomalies – if a significant amount of data cannot be tied into the structure – the theory falls apart.

When anomalies become too numerous or too weighty, the scientist is forced to go back to the drawing board, to challenge the assumptions of previous generations, and to construct a new model that will make sense of the new discoveries or pieces of information. That is one of the reasons why we see constant change and significant progress in the sciences.

When it comes to understanding the Bible, the approach is different. Theological scholars have been working with the same information for two thousand years, which is why a dramatic paradigm shift is unlikely. Of course, we do gain new nuggets of precise understanding, such as the nuance of a Greek or a Hebrew word that earlier generations of scholars did not have at their disposal. Yet most of the shifts in theology today are not driven by new discoveries from archaeology or from the study of ancient languages; they are most often driven by new philosophies that appear in the secular world and by attempts to achieve syntheses or integration between those modern philosophies and the ancient religion revealed in Scripture.

That is why I tend to be a conservative theologian. I doubt I will ever come up with an insight that has not already been worked over in great detail by greater minds than mine. In fact, when it comes to theology, I am not interested in novelty. If I were a physicist, I would try constantly to come up with new theories to satisfy nagging anomalies, but I consciously refrain from doing that when it comes to the science of theology.

Sadly, many are quite willing to pursue novelty. In academia, there is always pressure to come up with something new and creative. I recall a man who sought to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but was instead the mythological creation of members of a fertility cult while they were under the influence of psychoactive mushrooms. His thesis certainly was novel, but it was as absurd as it was new.

Of course, this fascination with novelty is not unique to our era. The Apostle Paul encountered it among the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). We do want progress in our knowledge and growth in our understanding, but we have to be careful not to be lured into the temptation to come up with something new just to be novel.

THE SOURCES OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY

The principal source for the systematic theologian is the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the primary source for all three theological disciplines: biblical theology, historical theology, and systematic theology. The task of biblical theology is to consider the data of Scripture as it unfolds over time, and this work serves as a source for the systematic theologian. A biblical scholar goes through the Scriptures and studies the progressive development of terms, concepts, and themes in both the Old and New Testament to see how they are used and understood over the course of the history of revelation.

A problem in seminaries today is a method of doing biblical theology called “atomism,” in which every “atom” of Scripture stands alone. One scholar might decide to limit himself to studying only Paul’s doctrine of salvation in Galatians, while another focuses exclusively on Paul’s teaching on salvation in Ephesians. The result is that each comes up with a different view of salvation – one from Galatians and another from Ephesians – but there is a failure to examine how the two views harmonize. The presupposition is that Paul was not inspired by God when he wrote Galatians and Ephesians, so there is no overarching unity, no coherence, to the Word of God. In recent years, it has been common to hear theologians claim that we find not only differences in theology between “early” Paul and “late” Paul, but also as many theologies in the Bible as there are authors. There is Peter’s theology, John’s theology, Paul’s theology, and Luke’s theology, and they do not fit together. That is a negative view of the coherence of Scripture, and it is the danger when one focuses only on a narrow piece of the Bible without at the same time considering the whole framework of the biblical revelation.

The second discipline, another source for systematic theology, is historical theology. Historical theologians look at how doctrine has developed in the life of the church historically, primarily at crisis points – when heresies emerged and the church responded. Theologians today become frustrated when so-called brand-new controversies arise in churches and seminaries, because the church has experienced each of these seemingly fresh theological disputes time and time again in the past. The church historically has met in councils to settle dis-putes, such as at the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). Studying those events is the function of historical theologians.

The third discipline is systematic theology. The systematician’s job is to look at the source of biblical data; the sources of the historical developments that come through controversies and church councils and their subsequent creeds and confessions; and the insights of the great minds with which the church has been blessed over the centuries. The New Testament tells us that God in his grace has given teachers to the church (Eph. 4:11-12). Not all teachers are as astute as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Jonathan Edwards. Such men do not have Apostolic authority, but the sheer magnitude of their research and the depth of their understanding profit the church in every age. Thomas Aquinas was called “the doctor angelicus,” or “the angelic doctor,” by the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics do not believe that Aquinas was infallible, but no Roman Catholic historian or theologian ignores his contributions.

The systematician studies not only the Bible and the creeds and the confessions of the church, but also the insights of the master teachers that God has given throughout history. The systematician looks at all the data – biblical, historical, and systematic – and brings it together.

THE VALUE OF THEOLOGY

The real question concerns the value of all such study. Many people believe that theological study holds little value. They say, “I don’t need theology; I just need to know Jesus.” Yet theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us – something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound. It is important to study and learn because God has taken great pains to reveal himself to his people. He gave us a book, one that is not meant to sit on a shelf pressing dried flowers, but to be read, searched, digested, studied, and chiefly to be understood.

An important text in the writings of the Apostle Paul is found in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). That text should put an end to claims that we do not need doctrine or that doctrine has no value. There is profit from a careful study of the Bible. Because the Bible is inspired by almighty God, it gives us a valuable and profitable asset, and that asset is doctrine.

The Bible is profitable also for reproof. The academic world devotes much energy to biblical criticism, sometimes called higher criticism, which is an analytical critique of Scripture. However the biblical criticism in which we ought to engage renders us the object rather than the subject of the criticism. In other words, the Bible criticizes us. When we come to the Word of God, the Word of God exposes our sin. The biblical doctrine of man includes us, as does the biblical doctrine of sin, and we are reproved for our sinfulness when we come to the text of Scripture. We may not listen to the criticism of our peers, but we are wise to heed the criticism of God as it comes to us in sacred Scripture.

Scripture is also profitable for correction from both false living and false belief. Not long ago, at the request of a friend, I read a New York Times best seller about how to become a medium and communicate with the dead. I got about halfway through the book and had to stop reading. There was so much spiritual filth in that book, so much falsehood, that those with even a simple understanding of the law of God in the Old Testament would have been able to detect the lies. Such is the profit of correction from false teaching and false living that we can gain from Scripture.

Finally, Scripture is profitable “for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to him. That is why we engage in theology.

The danger of the Sinner’s Prayer revealed

An Example of the Sinner’s Prayer:

Dear God, I know I’m a sinner.  I know my sin deserves to be punished.  I believe Christ died for me and rose from you grave.  I trust Jesus alone as my Savior.  Thank you for the forgiveness and everlasting life I now have.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

I can remember early in ministry looking for the Sinner’s prayer in Scripture, and when I couldn’t find it, I was shocked.  I can also remember being terrified early in my ministry that I would get the sinner’s prayer wrong whenever I attempted to point sinners to Christ with it; for, if I got it wrong, regardless if they prayed it or not, they would still be lost!  This mentality is wicked, for it adds to the gospel of Christ.  By believing that sinners cannot be saved without the Sinner’s Prayer (see above), we communicate that the Sinner’s Prayer is essential for salvation, even though the Bible knows no such reality.  In his dissertation on the subject, Paul Harrison Chitwood warns us of the Sinner’s Prayer:

This ethical consideration for evangelism applies to usage of the Sinner’s Prayer in much the same manner as the first.  When a prayer is the supreme goal of a witnessing encounter and based upon that prayer we determine our success or failure in leading lost souls to conversion, we run the risk of allowing that prayer to become a stumbling block.  On the one hand, we may as [Jim] Elliff charges, bring people to “believe in the efficacy of a prayer and not the efficacy of Christ’s work.”  When we do so, the prayer becomes a stumbling block to that person’s salvation, the chief stumbling block indeed.  On the other hand, we may communicate to people who have not prayed the prayer that they are lost and without praying the prayer they cannot be saved.  I refer back to the incident recounted by George Martin in which a pastor had a young boy repeat the prayer again to be certain he had done it correctly so the church family could, in good conscience, acknowledge the boy’s salvation.  We also recall Leonard’s comments, “At the slightest doubt, simply pray the prayer again and settle it.  Lots of people repudiated earlier events—childhood professions dimmed by age, aisle walking without understanding, praying the prayer without meaning it, or praying the wrong prayer.”  It may very well be that we have indeed “enthroned” the Sinner’s Prayer to the point that it has become a stumbling block instead of a stepping-stone as a method in evangelism (pg. 122-123).

When pastors, evangelists, church leaders, etc. make the Sinner’s Prayer necessary for salvation, they add to the gospel; and thus, make it twice as hard for someone to truly trust in Christ (It is no different than making baptism necessary for salvation).  In other words, in trying to simplify the gospel, we’ve actually added to it, possibly eliminating the gospel in the process; for, if your hearer(s) trust in the prayer instead of in Christ, they are doomed for hell while possessing [false] assurance of their salvation.

Return to the Bible friends!  Do not add to the gospel.

Calvinism is the only basis for evangelizing the lost

God’s sovereign election is the only basis by which any believer has confidence to evangelize the lost. We do not know who the elect are in this lifetime, but what we do know with certainty is that there are elect out there.

Has God ever revealed to us why we should evangelize the lost? Indeed he has. In Acts 18, Paul was opposed vehemently in his gospel mission. He was about to leave Corinth out of fear and discouragement, but God, in a vision at night, revealed to Paul a confident truth:

“And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9–11).

Notice that God did not say, “Paul, there is a possibility that some people might get saved if only they use their free will to cooperate with my grace.” Nor does God say, “According to my crystal ball, I foresee that there will be people who will be in the right place at the right time and the right disposition who will get saved.” Nor does God say, “There are a lot of people in this city, play the numbers game and you are bound to get some saved.” Instead, this is about God’s purposes, and his people. And this is precisely what gave Paul the confidence to stay in that city for a year and a half.

Why is it that most people do not play the lottery? (Forgive my carnal analogy for a moment). It’s because they have no guarantee that they will win. Suppose people had the guarantee that if they played the lottery every day for a year, they would eventually win the lottery on a given day. Everyone would play the lottery!

It is roughly the same phenomenon with Evangelism. Calvinists have the confidence that God’s elect are out there, and they know that if they consistently proclaim the gospel, God’s people, the elect, will hear his voice and become saved.

Arminians do not have this foundation or confidence since, in their theology, it is possible that at this point of time until the Lord comes back, there will not be another soul saved, since for them salvation is not decreed, but ultimately dependent on the enslaved human will.

Believer: Where do you want to find your confidence in evangelism? God’s sovereign grace, or the enslaved will of Man?

All of you and none of me! Praise God that you have ordained it to be!

Things you SHOULD DO and SHOULD NOT DO when preaching at a funeral

DO

1. Preach the gospel. Funerals force all in attendance to admit their mortality, including their eventual death and judgment.  Although we hide ourselves from death continually (do you see animals die, do you bury your own dead, etc.?), funerals force us to look mortality in the eye.  Whenever we admit that death is real, understanding that it’s “the wages of sin” is just one step further.  God is the one who has judged sin temporally through death; however, he has crucified his Son so that sinners will enjoy him forever through Christ.  Christ’s death propitiated God’s wrath toward sinners.  Sinners simply must repent, placing their trust in Christ alone for their salvation.  Hopefully this “face-to-face’ meeting with mortality will send your hearers running to the cross for salvation.

2. Accommodate.  Some of you may disagree with me on this; however, I will gladly read poems that speculate concerning eternity if the family of the deceased requests it.  I however will qualify what I’m about to read by saying, “The family has asked me to read this poem titled…”  Just because you read it does not mean that you necessarily approve of all the theology that it contains.  Although I will not read a heretical poem for anyone, I will gladly read a poem that I disagree with that is still in the realm of orthodoxy.

3. Preach the truth concerning heaven and hell.  There are more sermons on heaven than on hell in today’s pulpits.  As pastors however we should emphasize both places since the authors of Scripture emphasized both.  You should not allow this rare opportunity to pass you by to preach the result of trusting in Christ: heaven, and the result of rejecting him: hell.

4. Preach the gospel from the deceased’s perspective.  Something interesting that the Scriptures teach is that both heaven and hell are full of entities with a desire for evangelism.  Peter says that the heavenly angels desire to look into sharing the gospel (1 Pet. 1:12), and Jesus says that those in hell wish someone would share the gospel with their loved ones so that they wouldn’t have to come to such a place (Luke 16:27-31). Bring this reality up by saying, “If the deceased could be here today, he would tell you to place your trust in Jesus Christ; for he knows today more than ever that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one gets to the Father but by him (John 14:6).”

DO NOT

1. Correct theology beyond the gospel.  If the gospel does not hinge on the theology that is believed or being presented by someone else at the funeral, then you have no need to correct it at this time.  The gospel should be the emphasis, not 100% correct theology.  Basically, whatever is in the realm of orthodoxy should be tolerated.  Only come against what you know to be 100% false; and don’t be arrogant.  After all, you should not be as sure about eschatology as you are about the resurrection of Christ.

2. Speculate about the deceased’s location at this moment: heaven or hell.  Regardless how godly or ungodly a person was, we do not know 100% whether this person is in heaven or hell at this moment.  We must be careful to preach people into heaven or hell.  Instead, we must seek to be vague about what we do not know, and instead focus on the power of the gospel for those that believe.  Your sermon is not for the deceased (he’s not there); but, is rather for those present.  Emphasize the fact that all those who trust in Christ will be reconciled to God through Christ, absent from the body and present with the Lord until the day Christ returns, and their bodies are raised from the dead and join their spirits to rule and reign with Christ, forevermore exalting God.

Weekly Devotion 6/2/2013: The Insanity of Luther

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This entry is part 9 of 6 in the series Weekly Devotions

“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.’”

- Romans 1:16-17

Modern academia thrives on applying its theories to figures and events of the past, and no field makes this clearer than the field of psychology. Despite never having had one-on-one contact with the men and women of centuries gone by, many of those who work in psychology or who apply a psychological approach to the study of history or religion are unafraid to diagnose people who lived centuries ago with psychoses of various kinds.

Martin Luther is one figure whom modern scholars have often psychoanalyzed. Some thinkers have even labeled the great German Reformer as insane, which is actually not all that surprising given that Luther’s enemies regarded him as crazy even in his own day. To be fair to these modern thinkers, Luther’s commanding personality invites speculation about his mental state. He suffered anxiety for a great portion of his life, and he tended to be a hypochondriac. His over-the-top commentary is also well-known. For example, on one occasion, he described Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam’s defense of free will as dung served up on gold plates.

Yet secular academics have the most trouble wrapping their minds around the intense personal guilt that Luther felt during his early years. His fear of God’s wrath paralyzed him, and he constantly looked over his shoulder for the Lord to strike him. He froze during the consecration of the Communion elements during his first celebration of the Mass due to His awareness of His unworthiness before God. Moreover, he got on the nerves of his monastic supervisors, confessing every trivial sin he could think of and yet never finding his guilty conscience assuaged.

As those whose eyes have been opened to the Lord’s true character, we know why Luther struggled with such guilt. He understood God’s majestic holiness better than most, and this drove his fear of divine judgment. Secular thinkers must view Luther as crazy, for that is the only explanation that those who do not know the Creator’s holiness and the depth of their sin can fathom. Still, Luther did not live out his later life in despair. His guilt drove him to the Bible, where he discovered that we can be credited with the righteousness of Christ by faith alone and stand unafraid in the day of judgment (Rom. 1:16–17). In Christ, we need not fear our most holy Lord (chap. 4).

Coram Deo

Once we begin to understand something of the gravity of our sin and the purity of God’s character, it can be easy for our knowledge of our depravity to paralyze us. This need not be the case, for the good news of the gospel is that while we are sinners in and of ourselves, God fully receives us as righteous if we trust in His Son alone for salvation. In so doing, we enjoy peace with God the Father and have no reason to fear His eternal wrath.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 15:6
Psalm 130
Galatians 3:10–14
1 Peter 1:13–21

Courtesy of Ligonier Ministries

Weekly Devotion 5/5/2013: Isaiah Volunteers for Service

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This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Weekly Devotions

“I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me’” (v. 8).

- Isaiah 6:8–13

During the second half of the twentieth century, the rise of the evangelical megachurch was a big story in American religion. Of course, the mere existence of large churches was nothing new in Christian history; many ministers and churches have had a great impact numerically. So, there is nothing wrong with a large church in itself.

However, many of the evangelical megachurches during that period drove increased attendance by tailoring their worship services to unbelievers. Pastors preached sermons that often had more in common with self-help books than the gospel. Downplaying or ignoring the reality of sin altogether, many churches filled pews because there was little in their services to make unregenerate people feel legitimately uncomfortable.

No doubt, much of this approach to ministry was driven by good intentions. Nevertheless, it reflected a mindset that sees the eager reception of the church’s message by a large number of people as the measure of ministerial success. Yet before we are too hard on such churches and their efforts, let us remember that we are all tempted to evaluate our ministries similarly. The answer to this temptation is to pay attention to the prophets, who tell us that true success in the Lord’s eyes is faithfulness, not numbers.

This truth is particularly clear in today’s passage, which records how Isaiah volunteered to go to Judah and preach a message on behalf of the Lord. The prophet almost certainly did not expect to hear what God told him would be the outcome of his ministry. Instead of bringing vast numbers of Judahites to repentance, the Lord was sending Isaiah to preach so that the people’s hearts would be hardened even further (Isa. 6:8–10).

If our vision of God is not big enough, this truth will be hard for us to accept. In His sovereign purposes, the Lord has chosen to withhold His salvation from some people. One way He does this is by working through the preaching of His Word so that the reprobate choose to deny Him. This is not unjust—no sinner deserves God’s redemption (Rom. 9:1–29). While we preach the gospel and hope for all who hear it to respond in faith, the fact is that the Lord has ultimately ordained for some to reject it. When the gospel falls on deaf ears due to the offense of the gospel itself and not our offensive actions, let us not think that we are failing and change our methods. Rather, we must continue serving God faithfully no matter the outcome He brings (Matt. 24:45–51).

Coram Deo

Matthew Henry writes, “Even the word of God oftentimes proves a means of hardening sinners.” This is seen most clearly in the ministry of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God Himself, whose parables were given to harden the hearts of some and create faith in the hearts of others. Let us not be ashamed of the teaching of Scripture, for as it is accurately proclaimed, it always accomplishes God’s intent for it (Isa. 55:10–11), which is not always an individual’s salvation.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 7:1–13
Luke 19:11–27
2 Corinthians 3:12–16
Hebrews 11:32–40

Courtesy of Ligonier Ministries

A few misconceptions about Calvinism

Calvinism is a system of theology in Christianity that primarily pertains to biblical soteriology, anthropology (doctrine of man), and theology proper (the doctrine of God). It is well established as a part of historic Protestant orthodoxy that finds its theological roots in many of the developments of St. Augustine. It is named after John Calvin, a sixteenth century Protestant reformer, due to his responsibility in systematizing its thoughts. In essence Calvinism believes that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign and man is completely depraved. If man is to be saved, God must save him unconditionally. The only thing that man contributes to his salvation is sin. God, before the beginning of time, elected some people to salvation and not others. This election is based on God’s mysterious sovereign will, not anything in man.

After this terribly brief definition, I would like to cover some misconceptions concerning Calvinism by giving you a list of what Calvinism is not:

Calvinism is not a system of theology that denies God’s universal love.

While there are some Calvinists who do deny God’s universal love for all man, this is certainly not a necessary or a central tenet of Calvinism. Calvinists do, however, believe that God has a particular type of love for the elect (an “electing love”), but most also believe that God loves all people (John 3:16). It is a mystery to Calvinist as to why he does not elect everyone. (More on this here.)

Calvinism is not the belief that God does evil.

Because of Calvinism’s high view of God’s sovereignty, many mistakenly believe that Calvinists hold God responsible for sin and evil. This is not true. God is certainly the creator of evil (for if he wasn't, then who, or what, created evil?) and he does decree evil to happen (both moral and natural evil), however, he does so in such a way that he is not morally culpable for the evil.

As John Calvin put it:

“. . . the Lord had declared that “everything that he had made . . . was exceedingly good” [Gen. 1:31]. Whence, then comes this wickedness to man, that he should fall away from his God? Lest we should think it comes from creation, God had put His stamp of approval on what had come forth from himself. By his own evil intention, then, man corrupted the pure nature he had received from the Lord; and by his fall drew all his posterity with him into destruction. Accordingly, we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation in the corrupt nature of humanity-which is closer to us-rather than seek a hidden and utterly incomprehensible cause in God’s predestination. [Institutes, 3:23:8]”

Calvinism is not a belief in fatalism.

A fatalistic worldview is one in which all things are left to fate, chance, and a series of causes and effects that has no intelligent guide or ultimate cause. Calvinism believes that God (not fate) is in control, though Calvinists differ about how meticulous this control is.

Calvinism is not a denial of freedom.

Calvinists to do not believe that people are robots or puppets on strings. Calvinists believe in freedom and, properly defined, free will. While Calvinists believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, most are compatibalists, believing that he works in and with human freedom (limited though it may be). Calvinists believe in human responsibility at the same time as holding to a high view of God’s providential sovereignty. (More on this here.)

Calvinism is not a belief that God forces people to become Christians against their will.

Calvinists believe in what is called “irresistible grace.” This might not be the best name for it since it does not really communicate what is involved. Calvinists believe that people are dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), haters of God, with no ability to seek him in their natural state (Rom. 3:11; John 6:44; 1 Cor. 2:14). Since this is the case, God must first regenerate them so that they can have faith. Once regenerate, people do not need to be forced to accept God, but this is a natural reaction—a willing reaction—of one who has been born again and, for the first time, recognizes the beauty of God.

Calvinism is not a belief that you should only evangelize the elect.

No one knows who the elect are. I suppose that if there was a way to find out, both Calvinist and Arminians (the other primary option to Calvinism) would only evangelize the elect (since Arminians also believe only the elect will be saved even though they understand election differently). Since we don’t know, it is our duty to evangelize all people and nations. Some of the greatest evangelists in the history of Christianity, such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards, have held to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Calvinism is not a belief that God arbitrarily chooses people to be saved.

Calvinists believe that God elects some people to salvation and not others and that this election is not based on anything present or foreseen, righteous or unrighteous, in the individual, but upon his sovereign choice. But this does not mean that the choice is arbitrary, as if God is flipping a coin to see who is saved and who is not. Calvinists believe that God has his reasons, but they are in his mysterious, secret will.

Calvinism is not a system of thought that follows a man, John Calvin.

While Calvinists obviously respect John Calvin, they simply believe that he correctly understood and systematized some very important Apostolic teachings concerning election, man’s condition, and God’s sovereignty. However, much of this understanding did not originate with John Calvin, but can be seen in many throughout church history such as Aquinas, Anselm, and Augustine. Ultimately, Calvinists will argue, they follow rightly-interpreted Scripture.

Calvinism is not a system that has to ignore or reinterpret passages of Scripture concerning human responsibility.

Calvinists believe that all people are responsible to do what is right, even though, as fallen children of Adam, they lack ability to do what is right (in a transcendent sense; see below) without God’s regenerating grace. Therefore, God’s call and commands apply to all people and all people are responsible for their rejection and rebellion.

Calvinists do not believe that no one can do any good thing at all.

Calvinists believe in what is called “total depravity” (so do Arminians). However, total depravity does not mean that people cannot ever do anything good. Calvinists believe that unregenerate people can do many good things and sometimes even act better than Christians. But when it comes to people’s disposition toward God and their acknowledgment of him for their abilities, gifts, and future, they deny him and therefore taint all that they are and do. An unbeliever, for example, can love and care for their children just as a believer can. In and of itself this is a very good thing. However, in relation to God this finds no eternal or transcendent favor since they are at enmity with him, the Giver of all things. Therefore, it might be said, while all people can do good, only the regenerate can do transcendent good.

 

I am not a hyper-Calvinist!

Before the average believer today learns what Reformed theology (i.e., Calvinism) actually is, he first usually has to learn what it’s not. Often, detractors define Reformed theology not according to what it actually teaches, but according to where they think its logic naturally leads. Even more tragically, some hyper-Calvinists have followed the same course. Either way, “Calvinism” ends up being defined by extreme positions that it does not in fact hold as scriptural. The charges leveled against Reformed theology, of which hyper-Calvinism is actually guilty, received a definitive response at the international Synod of Dort (1618–1619), along with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms.

Is God the Author of Sin?

The God of Israel “is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4–5). In fact, James seems to have real people in mind when he cautions, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).

Scripture sets forth two guardrails here: On one hand, God “works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:15); on the other, God does not — in fact, cannot — do evil for which he is morally culpable. We catch a glimpse of these two guardrails at once in several passages, most notably in Genesis 45 and Acts 2. In the former, Joseph recognizes that while the intention of his brothers in selling him into slavery was evil, God meant it for good, so that many people could be saved during this famine (vv. 4–8). We read in the same breath in Acts 2:23 that “lawless men” are blamed for the crucifixion, and yet Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God….” The challenge is to affirm what Scripture teaches without venturing any further. We know from Scripture that both are true, but not how. Perhaps the most succinct statement of this point is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chap. 3.1): “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;” — there’s one guardrail — “yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established,” and with that, the second guardrail. The same point is made in the Belgic Confession of Faith (Article 13), adding that whatever God has left to His own secret judgment is not for us to probe any further.

I must confess though, that through the years my position has evolved on this issue. Much like John Frame, I see no reason why we cannot answer in the affirmative when asked if God is the author of sin. The English language does not require us to define author as the doer but merely as the creator. As long as we continue to affirm that God is not morally culpable for sin then we remain within the revelation and clear teaching if Scripture.

Is the Gospel for Everyone?

Isn’t it a bit of false advertising to say on one hand that God has already determined who will be saved and on the other hand to insist that the good news of the Gospel be sincerely and indiscriminately proclaimed to everyone?

But didn’t Christ die for the elect alone? The Canons of Dort pick up on a phrase that was often found in the medieval textbooks (“sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect only”) when it affirms that Christ’s death “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Second Head, Article 3). Therefore, we hold out to the world “the promise of the gospel … to all persons … without distinction ….” Although many do not embrace it, this “is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves” (Second Head, Articles 5–6).

Here once again we are faced with mystery — and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff in speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9). Both Arminians and hyper-Calvinists ignore crucial passages of Scripture, resolving the mystery in favor of the either-or: either election or the free offer of the Gospel.

Grace for Everybody?

Does God love everybody, or is His kindness simply a cloak for His wrath — fattening the wicked for the slaughter, as some hyper-Calvinists have argued?

Scripture is full of examples of God’s providential goodness, particularly in the Psalms: “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made ….You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:9, 16). Jesus calls upon his followers to pray for their enemies for just this reason: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44). Christians are supposed to imitate this divine attitude.

The doctrine we are talking about has come to be called “common grace,” in distinction from “saving grace.” Some have objected to this term (some even to the concept), insisting that there is nothing common about grace: there is only one kind of grace, which is sovereign, electing grace. However, it must be said that whatever kindness God shows to anyone for any reason after the fall, can only be regarded as gracious. Once again, we face two guardrails that we dare not transgress: God acts graciously to save the elect and also to sustain the non-elect and cause them to flourish in this mortal life. While it is among the sweetest consolations for believers, election is not the whole story of God’s dealing with this world.

When we, as Christians, affirm common grace, we take this world seriously in all of its sinfulness as well as in all of its goodness as created and sustained by God. We see Christ as the mediator of saving grace to the elect but also of God’s general blessings to a world that is under the curse. Thus, unbelievers can even enrich the lives of believers. John Calvin pleads against the fanaticism that would forbid all secular influence on Christians, concluding that when we disparage the truth, goodness, and beauty found among unbelievers, we are heaping contempt on the Holy Spirit himself who bestows such gifts of his common grace (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.15).

Is Calvinism a License to Sin?

The first thing we need to say, with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, is that if we are never accused of preaching antinomianism (that is, grace-as-license), we probably have not preached the Gospel correctly. After all, Paul anticipates the question, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” precisely because his own argument from Romans 3:9 to this point has pressed it: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (5:21). At the same time, some Reformed Christians, especially those liberated from legalistic backgrounds, seem to end Paul’s argument at v. 21, concluding, in effect, “God likes to forgive, I like to sin — the perfect relationship!”

The difference between being accused of antinomianism (literally, anti-law-ism) and being guilty as charged is whether we are willing to follow Paul on into chapter 6. There the apostle answers this charge by an announcement of what God has done! At first, this would seem to favor antinomians, since they place all of the emphasis on what God has done and reject, or at least downplay, the importance of imperatives. Yet in fact, what Paul announces is that God has accomplished not only our justification in Christ, but our baptism into Christ. His argument is basically this: being united to Christ necessarily brings justification and regeneration, which ushers in sanctification. He does not say that Christians should not, or must not, live in sin as the principle of their existence, but that they cannot — it is an impossibility. That they do continue to sin is evident enough, especially in chapter 7, but now they struggle against it.

The fathers at Dort recognized the charge that the Reformed doctrine “leads off the minds of men from all piety and religion; that it is an opiate administered by the flesh and the devil,” and leads inevitably to “libertinism” and “renders men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please” (Conclusion). Yet they would neither surrender the comfort of justification by Christ’s righteousness imputed nor of sanctification by Christ’s resurrection life imparted. Perfection of sanctification in this life is impossible, but just as impossible is a condition known today as the “carnal Christian.” One is either dead in Adam or alive in Christ. Again, some wish to resolve this mystery: either we can be free from all known sin, as John Wesley taught, or we can be in a state of spiritual death, as antinomianism teaches. However satisfying to our reason, such an easy resolution in either direction ignores the clear teaching of Scripture and robs us of the joy of such a full salvation.

So the two guardrails on this point emerge from the fog of legalism and antinomianism: justification and sanctification are not to be confused, but they are also not to be separated.
In addition to these other charges, Reformed theology is often regarded as “rationalistic” — that is, a system built on logic rather than on Scripture. However, I hope we have begun to see that the real rationalists are the extremists on either side of these debates. The wisdom of the Reformed confessions is that they refuse to speculate beyond Scripture and insist on proclaiming the whole counsel of God, not simply the passages that seem to reinforce one-sided emphases. It is not a question of where the logic should lead us but where the Scriptures do lead us. It might be easier to resolve the mystery in simple, either-or solutions, but such a course would certainly not be safer. So let us too strive to read all of the Scriptures together, keeping a sharp lookout for those guardrails!

(HT Ligonier Ministries)

The Mormon Gospel

It is difficult to pin-down LDS doctrine with references to LDS scriptures or quotes from LDS authority figures.  Because of “continuing revelation”, what was true before is not necessarily true now.

Thankfully, the LDS church has an official website, www.mormon.org, where a person can find accurate, consolidated, up-to-date, LDS doctrine (at least, that part which is okay for public viewing).

I went to the website in search of the current Mormon “gospel”, as published by the church, officially. Here is the given definition:

The Gospel: “The ‘good news’ of God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. At the center of His plan is the Atoning sacrifice of His son Jesus Christ, in whom alone salvation is possible. In its fulness, the gospel includes all of the commandments, principles, ordinances, and covenants whereby human beings can be forgiven of sin, overcome the world, and attain immortality and eternal life in the kingdom of God.”

Mormon salvation is not the same as Christian salvation. The website says LDS salvation is “deliverance from sin and death”, and that “…everyone will be given the gift of resurrection, the righteous and the wicked alike.”

So salvation is not what a faithful LDS hopes to achieve. Rather, the aim is “eternal life in the kingdom of God”, which, as you can see above, requires Joseph Smith’s restored “fulness of the gospel”.

Now, the fulness of the gospel includes all of the commandmentsprinciplesordinances, and covenants.  What are all of those? It took some digging around on the website, but I did find many of these requirements. The following is an overview of what I found, together with a brief description of each term, and some material I quoted because I thought it was interesting. Emphasis is mine.

Ready? Here we go…

The Commandments:

  1. “Obedience to God’s Commandments” — (you must obey the Ten Commandments)
  2. “Pray Often”
  3. “Study the Scriptures” — (you must study the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price).
  4. “Keep the Sabbath Day Holy”– (you must attend church and take the sacrament to renew your covenants and show “that you are willing to repent of your sins and mistakes”).
  5. “Baptism and Confirmation” — (you must repent of your sins, be baptized into and confirmed a member of the LDS church).
  6. “Follow the Prophet” — (you must “…have faith in God’s chosen prophet, gain conviction of his divine calling, and follow his teachings. You must prepare yourself so that when the prophets and apostles speak, the Holy Ghost can confirm the truths they teach and you can then determine to follow the counsel they give you.”  Sustaining new church leaders is also part of following the prophet).
  7. “Live the Law of Chastity” — (“You are to keep your thoughts clean and be modest in your dress, speech, and actions. You must avoid pornography… and treat the God-given procreative power and your body as sacred gifts. You are not to participate in abortions or homosexual or lesbian relations… those who are married to more than one person at a time may not be baptized.”)
  8. “Obey the Word of Wisdom” — (“In addition to emphasizing the benefits of proper eating and physical and spiritual health, God has spoken against the use of tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, harmful, habit-forming drugs.”)
  9. “Live the Law of Tithing” — (“A commandment from the Lord to pay one tenth of one’s annual increase or income for the building of His Church on the earth.” “Tithes and offerings are paid voluntarily and privately”).
  10. “Observe the Law of the Fast” — (you must skip two meals once per month and make a “fast offering”).
  11. “Obey and Honor the Law” — (you must obey “the laws of the country… to be good citizens, to participate in civil government and the political process, and to render community service as concerned citizens.”)
  12. “Endure to the End” — (“If you endure to the end of your life and stay true to your covenants, you will receive eternal life.”)

The Principles:

“… include faith in Jesus Christ, prayer, repentance*, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities”, Word of Wisdom, tithing, etc.

*(Repentance is defined as “the process of experiencing sincere regret or sorrow for wrongdoing, confessing one’s sin and asking for forgiveness, making restitution for any damage done, and committing not to repeat the sin”).

The Ordinances:

An ordinance is “a sacred rite or ceremony” such as baptism, confirmation, administering to the sick, baptism for the dead, marriage in the temple, endowments, sealings.  “Some ordinances, such as baptism, are essential forsalvation”.

The Covenants:

A covenant is “a binding and solemn agreement, contract, or promise between God and a person or group of persons upon which eternal blessings are based.”

In Baptism and Confirmation, you “covenant with God to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, to follow Him, andto keep His commandments. In return, He promises to forgive your sins and let you return to live with Him,provided you keep your covenants”.

Mormon.org did not give a full list of covenants.  Some that were not included are listed below.

During the endowment ceremony, you “solemnly covenant and promise before God, angels, and [the] witnesses at the altar that you will…”

  1. “…observe and keep the Law of the Lord and to hearken to the counsel of your husband as he hearkens unto the counsel of the Father.” (if female) or “…obey the Law of God and keep his commandments.” (if male). (“The Law of Obedience”).
  2. “…sacrifice all that you possess, even your own life if necessary, in sustaining and defending the Kingdom of God.” ( “The Law of Sacrifice”).
  3. “…avoid all lightmindedness, loud laughter, evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed, the taking of the name of God in vain, and every other unholy and impure practice.” (“The Law of the Gospel”).
  4. “…have no sexual relations except with your husband to whom you are legally and lawfully wedded.” (“The Law of Chastity”).
  5. “…consecrate yourselves, your time, talents and everything which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the Kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion.” (“The Law of Consecration”).

Latter-day “saint”, will you be able to live “the gospel” this year? Will you next year? How about your family, friends, loved-ones?

Remember, Jesus promises to forgive your sins and let you return to live with Him, “provided you keep your covenants”.

Please consider what I have pieced together for you, above. Will you ignore it? If so, why? Do you honestly think you are doing all of what is required of you, or do you think that you don’t really have to?

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

(HT Mormon Coffee)

Why believe that Jesus is the only way?

Many Christians today don’t have a firm grasp on what the Bible says about Jesus. Was He just a wise man? A prophet? Douglas Groothuis presents biblical evidence for Christ’s lordship.

Spiritually Incorrect

“I love Jesus,” exclaimed a woman in the audience, “but He never wanted anyone to worship Him!” As I looked at the group of about thirty people, I saw nods of agreement and heard rumblings of approval. Another member of the panel discussion that I was on said, “I find the way of Jesus helpful, but I can’t exclude anyone’s spirituality outside of Christianity.” Someone else in the audience declared that Jesus was only a prophet and that the Quran was more important than the New Testament.

These comments were offered during a panel discussion on “spirituality.” Two of the other panelists were from a theological seminary where Jesus is not acknowledged as Lord and the Bible is not respected as God’s written communication to humanity. Another panelist repeatedly said all religions teach that we are one with God. She said she accepted Jesus — but only as one way, not the only way.

Recent polls show that a disturbing percentage of Christians fail to understand what the Bible tells us about Jesus. According to a Barna poll from 2000, about one out of four born-again Christians believes that it doesn’t matter what faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons. Fifty-six percent of non-Christians agree. Many today water down the radical claims of Jesus — to say that “Jesus works for me” instead of “Jesus is Lord.”

My experience highlights the challenge facing those who claim that Jesus is the singular way to God and redemption. Spirituality is “in,” but Christianity is often “out.” Our culture openly addresses the nature and needs of the soul and how to be spiritually successful. Most Americans have a positive view of Jesus, however blurry it may be. They see Him as a sage, mystic, or a prophet. Yet when Christians affirm that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life,” and that no one can be reconciled to God apart from Him (John 14:6, NIV), many reject it.

Is there a strong biblical case for the supremacy of Jesus in a world of personalized spirituality? A careful look at the New Testament — the main document we have about Jesus’ life — answers this question for us. I will present some of the biblical evidence that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate and the only way to abundant and eternal life. As Christians seeking to think biblically, it is important to know and affirm what the Bible says about Jesus and the way to salvation — whether it’s politically correct or not.

Prophet, Priest and King

Jesus never suggested that He was another prophet or that He was merely one of many mystics who tapped into spiritual power and knowledge. When Jesus was involved in a dispute about the Sabbath, He exclaimed that He was “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:23-27). Genesis 2:3 teaches us that God created and instituted the Sabbath; it was not invented by any mere human. Jesus is, therefore, claiming to have divine authority over the Sabbath as God.

In another argument about the Sabbath, Jesus proclaimed, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” At this, the Jews tried even harder to kill Him because He was “making himself equal with God” (John 5:17-18). One should notice that Jesus did not oppose their conclusions.

Jesus ended another dispute by saying, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). Jesus was referring to the time that God declared Himself to Moses as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Hearing this, the Jews then tried to stone Jesus, because He was claiming to have existed as God before He was born. Jesus claimed to be God incarnate.

Although many claim that Jesus does not differ much from other religious leaders such as Buddha, Jesus’ claim to be God in the flesh singles Him out of the crowd. The Buddha claimed no such thing, nor did Muhammad or Confucius. But Jesus’ claims were not spoken in a vacuum. They were backed by His credentials. He fulfilled a host of prophecies given by the Hebrew prophets concerning His virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38), His divinity (Jeremiah 23:5-6; Isaiah 9:6; John 1:1), His atoning work on the cross (Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2:24-25) and His resurrection from the dead (Psalm 16:8-11; Acts 2:24-28).

Besides this, Jesus substantiated His divine claims with a perfectly righteous life, compassion for the downtrodden (which was often expressed through His many healing miracles, including raising the dead), His genius and authority as a teacher, and His unsurpassed insight into the human condition. It is no wonder that people worshipped Him.

After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciple Thomas, who had doubted the reports that His master was raised from the dead. When Thomas saw Jesus, he cried out, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Jesus accepted Thomas’ worship. The Book of Revelation tells us that a host of angels and saints are continually worshipping “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12-13; see also 7:17). No other religious leader in history is accorded this honor; none other deserves it.

Resurrection and the Life

To better understand why Jesus is the only way, we need to center on His death and resurrection. No founder or leader of any world religion claimed to die as a sacrifice for human sin in order to set us right with God. Nor is any other world religion based on the resurrection of its divine founder.

Jesus taught the Jewish teacher Nicodemus that God’s love was supremely expressed by sending His “one and only Son” so that whoever trusts in Him would not be lost but would experience everlasting life (John 3:16). Jesus is God’s only son, the once-for-all revelation of God among us (Matthew 1:23). He came not simply to display His deity in humanity, but to offer Himself as a sufficient sacrifice for our wrongdoing and separation from God. Jesus declared, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10) and “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Jesus announced to His disciples that He possessed “all authority in heaven and on earth,” and that they must “make disciples of all nations” by teaching them to obey His teachings (Matthew 28:18-20). This call to discipleship is rooted in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus in history. The origin and rapid growth of the Christian movement cannot be explained apart from this supernatural event.

The New Testament’s reports of the resurrection of Christ are written by eyewitnesses or those who carefully consulted them not long after the events occurred (2 Peter 1:16; Luke 1:1-4). Their truthfulness as historical documents stands up to careful testing. Confessing Christ as the risen Lord need not be and should not be a blind leap of faith in the dark. Indeed, Peter told his readers that they should “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

Jesus is not a hobby. He is Lord. Therefore, Peter preached that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In a world filled with many false views of Christ, we can rest in the truth of the gospel, “because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).