This week the Gospel Coalition’s annual meeting features a panel discussion with panelists who reject the Gospel. On the face of things this seems to be out of step with TGC’s founding principles, which exalt commitment to the Gospel as the singularly non-negotiable feature of belonging to the TGC “alliance.” To be a TGC “ally,” one must be a “born-again Christian with whom I can go a long way down the road.”
But as Bethany Jenkins notes in her apology for the TGC’s decision to include panelists who are hostile to the Gospel, there exists a cause broader than the Gospel in which an unbeliever may serve as a “co-belligerent,” or “a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position, but takes the right position on a single issue.” And because of this isolated virtue, “I can join with him without any danger as long as I realize that he is not an ally and all we’re talking about is a single issue.”
Jenkins evinces sympathy for her position by noting that as “individual Christians” we labor with co-belligerents all the time “in our work outside the church and home”—the common/civil sphere, or the realm of “common grace.” And, irrespective of whether one agrees with her in using the term “common grace,” we must agree with the substance of her observation. As fellow image-bearers, believers and unbelievers must work together in our pursuit of God’s revealed mission for collective humanity: the dominion mandate. And when rogue humans or groups of humans rebel against God’s natural/civil structures (attacking the sanctity of human life, denying human dignity/solidarity, corrupting marriage/family, distorting justice, etc.), we as collective humanity must do what we can to suppress this rebellion. The substance of our “alliance” in such cases is not the Gospel, but the imago dei. And I would argue with the greatest of energy that as individual believers, we must be the very best humans, citizens, and neighbors that we possibly can be, irrespective of whether we live among fellow-Christians or pagans. I cannot be more earnest in this statement.
Jenkins makes a colossal leap, however, when she argues from individual co-belligerence to ecclesiastical co-belligerence: “The church, too, can work with co-belligerents who are committed—knowingly or not—to certain kingdom purposes.” Even though we “radically disagree,” she continues, we can work together “against a common enemy,” which she identifies as those who seek to thwart of “the common good and human flourishing.” And it is the destruction of this enemy that divulges the heart of the newest evangelical experiment. The Gospel exists not merely to establish regenerate communities alien to and paradoxical with our fallen world, but to domesticate fallen culture and establish “eschatological signposts ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ of the coming kingdom.” And to that end it may and must court co-belligerents from unbelieving culture.
This is precisely the same path that the new evangelicalism took last century. Its ecclesiastical mission included the Gospel, certainly, but its goal was the realization of a particular vision of the kingdom that could accommodate social action and cultivate the cultural/societal goodwill enjoyed by the modernist (and by-and-large postmillennial) church of even earlier vintage. And I think it is reasonable to wonder whether what we have today is really a gospel coalition, or whether instead it is a coalition utilizing the Gospel as one of several measures in the service of realized eschatology.
If you notice the header of this blog, you will see a tab marked “Journal,” which if selected will take you to the web page for our seminary journal. Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal began in 1996 and is published annually in the fall of the year. At the web page you will find the table of contents for all the back issues as well as free pdfs for all articles prior to 2013.
Here are links to a few of the articles from 2004–2006 that you may find of interest:
It might seem as though traditional Christians are the only people who are being challenged by the sexual revolution occurring in the West. But other religious traditions are being forced to address this shift as well. A recent article highlights the experience of three Mormons who “discover” they are transgender but want to remain in the LDS church.
Traditionally the LDS church has opposed a transgender position—excommunicating those who choose to have sex reassignment surgery and arguing that gender is eternal. However, the LDS church is now having to deal with the growing emphasis and acceptance of transgender in the broader culture.
The Mormon church will be forced to address this matter because of the emphasis they place on marriage and families. The Mormon church teaches that people can have eternal families—if they are married in the temple—and then have their children sealed to them for eternity. Also, faithful Mormons can continue to progress after death in the celestial kingdom and eventually attain godhood. Once they attain godhood, they can then have spiritual children that will populate their own planet (just like they believe Heavenly Father did—he was once a man who progressed to godhood and populated earth with his spirit children). So Mormons will need to consider whether or not transgender people can get eternally married and continue to work towards this goal.
But the Mormon church may not have the tools at its disposal to maintain their traditional position. Two aspects of Mormon belief are utilized by these transgender Mormons mentioned in the article to support their belief that they can be transgender and remain Mormon. The first is the emphasis on personal experience and ongoing revelation. Mormons often point to a “burning” they experience as they read the Book of Mormon that lets them know it is true. Utilizing the same test of spiritual experience Grace Moore discovered that Heavenly Father approved of “his” being a boy even though “his” body was female:
That night, Grace Moore knelt in prayer, asking God, “Am I your son?” He says he got a powerful spiritual affirmation that he was, indeed, a boy and that “it was going to be OK.”
Another key Mormon doctrine is the pre-existence of human souls. Mormons teach that each person was a spirit child in heaven who was then sent to earth to inhabit a body and “progress.” But Sara Jade Woodhouse thinks it is possible for one of these eternal souls to end up in the wrong body:
Sara Jade Woodhouse believes the LDS family proclamation is correct: Gender is eternal. It’s just that nature sometimes matches the bodies incorrectly, she says.
“Since nature may surprise us and not follow that formula—we know that some people are born with ambiguous genitalia or with both—it is absolutely possible for a perfect feminine soul to end up in a male body and vice versa.”
How will Mormons respond to the pressure that this sexual revolution is bringing against them? Twice in the past the church has responded to cultural pressure by receiving new revelation from God that wiped out previous revelation. When Utah was trying to attain statehood in 1890, the LDS leaders discovered that God no longer sanctioned polygamy. The LDS church also received revelation in 1978 that those of African descent were no longer to be denied entry to priesthood and to the temple. When you recognize the history of the Mormon church receiving new revelation from their god, Heavenly Father, in order to survive within a given culture, it should not be surprising to find the LDS church announcing in the not too distant future a new commandment/revelation that accommodates the LGBTQ community.
A couple of weeks back Bob Jones University made the news by apologizing for statements made a generation ago suggesting that homosexuals should be subjected, like they were during the Mosaic economy, to capital punishment. This mea culpa was a welcome one insofar as the offending statement was insensitive, vindictive, even hateful. But among the tweets and chatter that ensued, it was surprising to see how many bloggers (critics and defenders of BJU alike) made no apparent differentiation between the words spoken in 1980 and the words written in the 15th century BC. Moses is apparently guilty of hate speech, too!
This is a troubling sentiment, I think, and one that seriously erodes Old Testament credibility and authority. Surely as inerrantists we must conclude that Moses was right to write what he did! It is in view of this fact that I ask today, What should we do with Moses and his copious assignment of capital punishment for seemingly trivial crimes (or in some cases, perhaps, for no crime at all)? Shall we defend him? Blush for him? Distance ourselves from him by denouncing the Law as inherently evil and, too our great relief, dead and gone?
It is true that the Mosaic Law has been set aside, and its temporal sanctions suspended in Christ. And with the dissolution of the Jewish kingdom, there is no longer a theocratic representative living on earth with the authority to enforce God’s expectations in the civil sphere. Still, we must surely also say, “The Law was holy, and its commandment holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12ff). Further, we must affirm that the God who established that Law is immutably pure in his ethic. So how should we deal today with actions that Moses regarded as capital offenses?
As I see it, there are four categories of capital offense detailed in the Law of Moses, and each requires its own nuanced response. Note the following:
- Offenses violating the sanctity of human life. Moses requires that “first-degree” murder be punished by the forfeiture of life (Exod 21:12, 14; also Lev 24:17, 21), with special emphasis on those who sacrificed their children to the gods (Lev 20:1–5). Negligence resulting in death could also be a capital crime (Exod 21:28–29), especially in the case of unborn children (Exod 21:22–25), though this was not true in every case (Exod 21:13). Perjury in capital cases was also a capital offense (Deut 19:16–19), ostensibly because it might result in the unjust loss of life. The fact that God persistently commands human governments to guard human life with capital force, not only in the Mosaic economy but beyond (Gen 9:6), seems to leave no room for debate—God expects collective mankind, being ever in his image, to exercise due process and execute murderers.
In modern society some oppose capital punishment uniformly, even in the case of murder, but this is not a universal sentiment. Indeed, of all the categories of capital punishment found in the Mosaic Law, this category receives the smallest amount of cultural resistance.
- Offenses savaging the humanity, purity, and dignity of “innocents.” Included in this category are offenses such as unequivocal, non-consenting, sexual assault (Deut 22:25–27) and kidnaping for the purpose of human trafficking (Exod 21:16). Since the command to execute criminals of this type is restricted to the Mosaic economy, I do not find capital punishment a mandate in the modern era; still, the fact that God found such crimes ethically worthy of death in one era seems to suggest that modern governments that conclude similarly are well within their rights to do so.
As with the previous category, many non-Christians are of a similar mind in this matter (after all, it was not Christians that made “Taken” a blockbuster movie).
- Offenses of a religious nature. As a theocratic state, there was no separation of church/state, God/Caesar, or saeculum/sacrum in the Mosaic economy. As a result, the selfsame Israelite system prosecuted both civil and religious This is why, during this window of history, God required capital punishment for the crimes of sorcery (Exod 22:18; Lev 20:27; Deut 13:5), blasphemy (Lev 24:14, 16, 23), false prophecy (Deut 18:20), and egregious Sabbath violations (Exod 31:14; 35:2).
I have already tipped my hand in revealing that I believe this category of capital punishment to be restricted to the unique circumstances of the Jewish theocracy. By contrast, NT revelation sharply distinguishes the jurisdiction of church and state: the state has no jurisdiction in the church and as such should not prosecute religious crimes; and the church, while free to exclude someone from its membership, it has no power to take away his life. And to the degree that religious organizations (Christian, Muslim, or otherwise) transgress (or have transgressed) this distinction, I believe they are wrong.
- Offenses against divinely instituted civil institutions. These offenses represent the most broadly disputed category of capital crimes in the OT, and have three distinct sub-categories: (a) crimes against divinely prescribed authority within the institution of the family (Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9), (b) persistent refusal to submit to divinely instituted civil authorities in otherwise non-capital crimes (Deut 17:12), and (c) a range of offenses against the divine institution of marriage, including adultery (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22), bestiality (Exod 22:19; Lev 20:15–16), homosexuality (Lev 20:13), special instances of fornication (Deut 22:23–24), special instances of incest (Lev 20:11–21), special instances of prostitution (Lev 21:9), and lying about one’s virginity (Deut 22:13–21).
It is these “crimes” that earn the greatest attention among Bible-haters. None of these offenses seem capitally egregious, it is argued, and many of them offend no one at all—they’re mutually consensual! How can these be capital crimes? The answer is simple: Our Creator God found these activities to be of such an egregious nature as to threaten the viability of his creative design for humanity. And, as is his prerogative, he assigned them capital import. And since he is the Creator and we are creatures, we really have no recourse but to acknowledge his right to do so.
Now I would hasten to add that the capital response to such activities was apparently not immediate in every case. Mercy was often granted (see Lev 18:29 within its context), with capital force apparently reserved for repeated offenses coupled with recalcitrance or violence. Further, as was the case with the offenses in category 2 (above), the mandate to punish such activities capitally ceases after the Mosaic economy. Still, it seems hazardous to say that what God declared to be capitally odious and deleterious to the human race in 1400 BC must now be regarded as ethically benign, much less respectable.
There is no doubt that the Mosaic Law offers challenges to the contemporary church that are exceedingly complex, and the above should not be regarded as the final word on the topic. However, whatever answers emerge to the tensions at hand, we surely cannot give in to the contemporary opinion that Moses (and by extension, Yahweh) was once a moral monster perpetrating a primitive and reckless law code from which our enlightened modern society has escaped. Perhaps its is fair to say (using contemporary legal language) that Christ has ushered in an age in which “mandatory minimum sentencing” has been withdrawn with respect to many of these offenses perpetrated against God. However, since God is absolutely immutable in his ethical character, moral culpability for sins against God and his created order has by no means relaxed with the coming of Christ.
Someone who is going to be giving a talk soon on apologetics asked me to offer a couple of principles I think would help people to do apologetics responsibly. I thought I’d share my response here.
Properly Present Your Opponent’s Position
No one enjoys being misrepresented, especially in an argument. Whether you are being accused of believing something that you reject, your words are being twisted to mean something you never said, or you are being linked to positions with which you have nothing in common, it is frustrating to be forced to defend yourself against ungrounded assertions.
Though we may despise it when we are on the receiving end, we can easily slip into these flawed attacks ourselves. One of the most common ways Christians do this is to assume all adherents of a religion believe the same things. But just like in Christianity, there are a multitude of sects for most religions, and even in those sects some individuals don’t believe what the official teaching is. (In Christianity, we note this as a difference between official teaching and the beliefs of the “person in the pew.”)
So when we do apologetics with a person from a different religion, we should avoid telling them what they believe. It may be valid to point out what the religion itself teaches (or perhaps what the traditional view of the religion purports—not some obscure teaching), but we should not accuse every follower of that religion of holding that view.
Deal with the Big Issues
Related to the previous point, it is also frustrating to interact with someone who tries to mask the weakness of their argument by piling up a host of minor issues. For example, I had a conversation with an atheist where the arguments against Christianity moved from the accusation that the account of Adam and Eve was false because it was actually Adam and Lillith (a figure from Jewish mythology developed around 300 years after Christ), to the claim that the Bible teaches reincarnation because the Jews asked John the Baptist if he was Elijah, to the charge that Christian preachers are just trying to get money from people. If you have experienced these kinds of conversations, you know how discouraging it can be that you never get to address the real issues.
But again, Christians can do the same thing. There is little value in arguing with a Muslim as to whether or not Muhammad was literate (NOTE: Many claim he was illiterate, so the production of the Qur’an must be a miracle). What matters is whether or not what Muhammad taught was true—whether it accords with what God has revealed in the Bible. So do not spend your time on peripheral matters in order to score cheap points. Properly understand and present the heart of the other person’s position and demonstrate why it is false.
The Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal has been produced annually by DBTS since 1996. The 2014 edition (vol. 19) was recently published:
- “‘The Chief Exercise of Faith': John Calvin and the Practice of Prayer” by John Aloisi
- “Spirit-Filling in Ephesians 5:18″ by William W. Combs
- A Tale of Two Kingdoms: The Struggle for the Spirituality of the Church and the Genius of
the Dispensational System” by Mark A. Snoeberger
- “Being Jesus, Missio Dei, and Kingdom Work: An Analysis, Critique, and Proposal for Modern
Approaches to Holistic Ministry” by Benjamin G. Edwards
- “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective: A Review Article” by Matthew A. Postiff
- “Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority
of the New Testament Books: A Review Article” by Jon Pratt
- Book Reviews
Information on subscriptions and back issues can be found here or just click the “Journal” tab at the top of this page.
Next year will be our 40th year of helping local churches prepare men for gospel ministry. God has been very kind to DBTS through these four decades of ministry. DBTS grads are serving all over the United States and advancing the gospel around the world. There are a lot of changes happening in the world of ministerial training, but we’re convinced that a local church based seminary that focuses on a 2 Timothy 2:2 model for perpetuating gospel ministry has been and will continue to be the best way to equip men.
We are pleased to announce that Brian Trainer is coming to serve as the new Dean of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. Brian has served as the Chairman of the Bible Department at Maranatha Baptist University for the past 9 years. In addition to his work at MBU, he has served as the executive pastor for Lakewood Baptist Church, a thriving church plant in Delafield, Wisconsin. Brian brings to DBTS a robust commitment to our distinctives, great leadership and administrative gifts, and an excellent track record of investing in the lives of future pastors and missionaries. Brian’s extensive experience in pastoral work and educational administration have prepared him well for this new ministry opportunity. We are looking forward to having Brian, along with his wife Sherry, assume his new role as Dean of the seminary beginning on June 1st.
Our current Academic Dean, Dr. William Combs, is retiring at the end of the present seminary year. Dr. Combs has served as Professor of New Testament since the fall of 1983. He has also served in the administration of the seminary throughout these years, first as Registrar, then as Academic Dean. Dr. Combs has been the editor of the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal since its inception and also is responsible for the seminary blog. God brought Dr. Combs to DBTS at a pivotal moment in the history of the seminary and his service here has been instrumental in building our academic programs. We are grateful for his service and thankful for the impact that he has had on DBTS students for over 30 years.
We are extremely grateful for the heritage we have here at DBTS, and we are also eager to see how the Lord will continue to work through this ministry to equip men for faithful service pastoring and planting churches, both in the States and around the globe. Please pray for us as we seek to honor God in all we do!
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Patrick (c. 389–c. 461). In response to that post, someone asked several questions about Patrick including whether or not he was Catholic. I offered a brief reply, and a colleague suggested that many people might have similar concerns about the church fathers in general and that it might be helpful to address the subject in a separate post.
Here’s the bulk of my original reply about Patrick:
Concerning “salvation by grace alone through faith alone,” one would be hard pressed to find that kind of language used prior to the Reformation. In fact, although I believe the NT teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, one can’t actually find that phrase in the Bible, and it probably can’t be found in any of the early church fathers either. So if we’re just looking for those words, we won’t find them in Patrick. On the other hand, he doesn’t say anything that is inconsistent with the idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
“Are we certain Patrick wasn’t Catholic?” It all depends on what one means by the word “Catholic.” Patrick definitely wasn’t Roman Catholic in the modern sense of the term. In his Confession, Patrick never mentions Rome or the pope. He describes his grandfather as a priest without any sense of that being inappropriate. And he appeals to the Scriptures (about two dozen times) as authoritative, but he never points to tradition as a basis of religious authority. The kind of Christianity which Patrick saw established in Ireland was not Roman Catholic in any meaningful sense.
Admittedly, Patrick wasn’t a Baptist nor any other kind of Protestant, but then no one was in the fifth century. Based on what he left behind, Patrick seems to have preached a Christianity which was biblically-based, distinct from Rome, and as far as we can tell “evangelical” (in the broad, anachronistic sense of the term).
Catholic sources have labeled Patrick a saint, but they’ve also labeled Peter, Paul, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and most other early church fathers saints as well. For the most part, Catholic sources are not a reliable guide to determining how “Roman Catholic” a particular individual was (cf. Peter as the first pope).
Much of what I said about Patrick is applicable to the church fathers in general. If you’ve had questions about how biblical or perhaps how Roman Catholic the church fathers may have been, here are three reading suggestions that may help.
First, read the introduction to Bryan Litfin’s book Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Brazos, 2007). The entire book is worth reading, but the first thirty pages or so are particularly helpful in this regard. In these pages Litfin addresses a number of misconceptions which evangelicals tend to have concerning the church fathers. The first two misconceptions he addresses are the twin ideas that “the church fathers were not biblical” (20) and that “the church fathers were Roman Catholics” (22). Instead of repeating that material here, I’m going to just recommend that you read that section of the book. If you don’t have access to a hard copy of the book, you should be able to read the relevant pages online using Amazon’s “look inside” feature (If you’re not in the habit of using that feature, go here, then click on the book’s cover and scroll down to the relevant pages.).
Second, read the first chapter of Michael Haykin’s book Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011). This chapter explains why evangelicals living in the twenty-first century should bother reading books written by Christians almost a thousand years ago. Among other things, Haykin mentions how some of our Protestant forebears found the fathers helpful, how the church fathers can help us understand the present, and how the fathers can help us understand the NT. Again in this case, most of the chapter can be read on Amazon using the “look inside” feature. But as with Litfin’s book, this one is worth owning, so if your book budget allows, you should really considering picking up the book.
Third and most importantly, read the church fathers themselves. While books about the church fathers can be very helpful, nothing can take the place of actually reading (i.e., listening to) the people you want to understand. You could read all about chocolate, but if you’ve never tasted chocolate, you still won’t really understand what chocolate is like or why some people consider Breyer’s chocolate ice cream one of the major food groups (If chocolate isn’t your thing, fill in an appropriate flavor.). In much the same way, you should probably spend more time reading the church fathers than simply reading about them. Listening to the fathers is the only way to really understand them. Here’s a roughly chronological list of where to begin reading the fathers:
The Apostolic Fathers in English, ed. Michael Holmes
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Life and Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader, ed. Steven McKinion
Eusebius, The Church History
Basil, On the Holy Spirit
Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius
Augustine, City of God
Another week of blogs, another contribution to the relentless stream of warnings to all Christians everywhere never to let music preference be a factor in deciding where to go to church, and above all never, ever to leave a church for this reason. This unremitting theme has apparently now climaxed with the observation that music preference is perched at the very top of the list of bad reasons to leave a church. The millennials have spoken, and music has no meaning. (Amazing, isn’t it? Instead of the simple and irenic strategy of requiring unison recitations, God expects us to adorn these recitations with something totally meaningless and potentially contentious. Weird.) Don’t argue, just accept it.
OK, cynicism aside, I’ll admit that there is an argument to be made here, but let me insert a critical adjective: Autonomous musical preference is a bad reason to leave a church, just like autonomous preferences about preaching, ordinances, church discipline, church mission, etc., are bad reasons for joining/leaving a church. I.e., it is a bad reason to leave/join a church because:
- I prefer short, funny, and happy sermons that don’t require me to lug around a Bible and never make me feel guilty.
- I prefer churches that let me get in, get out, and get on with my life.
- I prefer sprinkling infants to baptizing believers because it’s less messy and does more.
- I prefer taking communion as a meal with a few Christian friends rather than with the whole church because I dislike crowds generally, and I specifically dislike quite a few jerks in that specific crowd.
- I prefer letting the elders take care of all matters of discipline, order, and government because I don’t like conflict and don’t want to be bothered with it.
- I prefer a church that focuses on social concerns because it makes me feel better, and I don’t have to be a Gospel salesman.
- I prefer only the kinds of music that make me feel nostaligic. Or excited. Or happy. Or aesthetically fulfilled. Or whatever.
These are preferences that are sourced strictly in personal autonomy, and these preferences are selfish, misguided, and wicked. But not all preferences are autonomous and selfish. Some of them are principled and biblically demonstrable. Some churches are better at doing what the Bible says they should do, and we should prefer them. And while I am a huge advocate of persevering in one’s own church—even when it stumbles badly—because believers are duty-bound to fulfill their covenant responsibilities to their fellow-churchmembers, there are good reasons to leave one body and join another. For instance, it is appropriate to transfer membership because:
- one prefers careful expositions of Scripture that patiently reprove, rebuke, and exhort—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
- one prefers churches that demand mutual participation of its members in the life of the body—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
- one prefers baptizing believers—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
- one prefers taking communion with the whole gathered church, and only after addressing interpersonal conflict within that body—because that’s what the Bible teaches.
- one prefers to participate in church discipline, not because he enjoys it, but because he believes that the Bible teaches that he must do so, and because it is ultimately in the best interest of the church.
- one prefers to offer his time and money to God’s church primarily in pursuit of the mission of making disciples and building churches where we can mutually teach and encourage one another—because that’s what the Bible teaches is the primary mission of the church.
- one prefers a music ministry that includes psalms, involves mainly congregational singing, and employs songs that not only praise and worship God, but also teach and admonish one another with true and faithful words—because that’s what the Bible teaches. Or if one prefers musical fare that can reasonably sustain and cultivate the range of sentiments reflected in the biblical music of both testaments: praise, exultation, reverence, assurance, contemplative reflection on both history and theology, and especially the spirit of lament and penitence that dominate the musical selections found in the biblical record.
Of course, there will always be occasions in which believers, after careful study, disagree about what the Scriptures teach on several of these issues, or disagree mightily on the best ways to fulfill these revealed functions of the gathered church. In some cases (and perhaps more often than is supposed) the disagreements are small enough to tolerate. But at times churches who err in these matters leave the church’s work incomplete and its worshipers spiritually starved, bruised, dismayed, and discouraged—even angry at the despite they believe has been done to the person and cause of Christ.
In many cases it is quite possible for all involved to amicably and eagerly call each other brothers in Christ. But they eventually will come to worship separately, and should worship separately. And it is not (necessarily) because one party or the other has “made the worship experience about himself and not the God being worshiped.”
A common tactic used in discussions about God and His actions is to claim that the other person is limiting God. It comes up in questions about creation (“I don’t limit God to just six days for creation like you do. I think He could use evolutionary processes and take billions of years”), about the sufficiency of Scripture (“I don’t limit God to speaking in the Bible like you do. I think He still speaks to people today”), and about the way of salvation (“I don’t limit God to saving people through faith in Jesus Christ like you do. I think He can save people who never hear about Jesus.”) This tactic may intimidate a person. After all, who wants to limit God, or “put Him in a box”? We would never want to impose our restrictions on God. Surely a more open-minded and broad approach to these issues gives more honor to God and His ability, right?
There are at least two problems with the accusation that the person who holds these beliefs is limiting God. The first problem is that the person claiming not to limit God is in actuality limiting Him. Let me illustrate with the issue of the ways of salvation. In theory, there are two options in this scenario: (A) God will save only one way, e.g., those who come to Him through faith in Jesus Christ or (B) God will save through multiple ways. Someone who holds position B is accusing someone who holds position A of limiting God, but person B is also limiting God. If someone says that God saves people through multiple ways, they have eliminated option A, the option of only saving people through Jesus Christ. They have limited God to choosing option B. They have effectively said that God cannot choose one way of saving people—He must choose multiple ways. In other words, someone who says that God saves in multiple ways has “limited God” to saving in multiple ways, while someone who says that God only saves in one way has “limited God” to saving in one way.
The same is true for the other scenarios. So if both people could be accused of “limiting” God, how can we determine which “limitation” gives more honor to God and His ability? That leads to the second problem. The position that will bring the most honor to God is the position that He claims for Himself. If we argue against what He has said, then we really dishonor Him.
Suppose my wife and I come to visit you and notice a picture on your wall that we like. We ask where it came from, and you say, “I bought it recently.” My wife believes you and says you have good taste, but I say “I don’t want to limit you to only buying this picture. I think you actually took that picture and made the frame yourself because you are a talented person.” Who is actually honoring you? I may seem to be honoring you because I’m arguing that you did something more impressive (at least to me) but my wife is actually honoring you more because she believes what you said. I’m actually dishonoring you by failing to believe what you said.
God has spoken to us through the Bible, and He has told us how He does certain things. For example, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). If I say, “Jesus, I think you actually save people in many different ways because you are a loving and gracious person,” I may appear to be honoring Him. But in reality, I dishonor Him because I fail to believe what He says.
In essence, it’s not a matter of whether or not I “limit” God, but whether or not He has “limited” Himself and revealed that in His Word, the Bible. And if I really want to honor Him and His ability, then I need to study what He has said in the Bible and believe it (even if it doesn’t match up with what I think.)
Although St. Patrick’s Day appears on our calendars each year, most modern celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day have little to do with the person behind the holiday. Next week many people will wear a little extra green, some will celebrate their Irish heritage, and more than a few will drink a pint or two in honor of St. Patrick. But my guess is that relatively few who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day know much about Patrick himself, and in fact, some of what is commonly “known” about Patrick is actually mistaken.
E. A. Thompson begins his classic study of Patrick by telling of a time when he asked six British university professors about the nationality of Patrick. All six replied that he was “Irish, of course.” Such answers led Thompson to believe that his book on Patrick was sorely needed.
The truth is that Patrick was not Irish. In fact, his first trip to the Emerald Isle was not of his own choosing for he went there as a slave. Patrick (c. 389–c. 461) was actually born to British parents. At the age of 16, he (along with many others) was kidnapped by Irish invaders and forced into slavery. Concerning his captivity he later wrote, “We deserved this, because we had gone far away from God, and did not keep his commandments” (1). As a captive in Ireland, Patrick worked as a shepherd. He had been raised in an upper class home that was nominally Christian, but living as a slave in Ireland, he began to reflect on truths he had learned as a child and was apparently converted. As he put it, “It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance” (2). After about six years Patrick was able to escape and make his way back home to Britain. We know virtually nothing about the years immediately following his return to Britain, but eventually Patrick determined to return to Ireland to spread the gospel among the Irish people. And apparently, his work met with great success. In his Confession, Patrick tells of thousands of brothers and sisters whom he baptized (14). He never returned to his homeland, but rather died among the Irish people he loved. In time, Patrick has become known as the apostle to Ireland and one of that country’s patron saints. And although the story about Patrick using a three-leaf clover to teach the Irish about the Trinity is probably a fable, he was instrumental in spreading Nicene Trinitarianism in a land that had largely degenerated from ancient Christianity into tri-theistic idolatry.
Today, St. Patrick’s Day is little more than a celebration of Irish culture—complete with shamrocks, leprechauns, and silly songs. But behind the holiday known as St. Patrick’s Day stands a man who was willing to bring the message of Christianity to the land of his former captors, and that is something worth celebrating.
Key Sources on Patrick:
Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography
R. P. C. Hanson, Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career
Michael Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers (ch. 7 – “Saving the Irish: The Mission of Patrick”)
Thomas O’Loughlin, Saint Patrick: The Man and His Works
E. A. Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick?
*This post is a slightly revised version of an article originally published on March 12, 2013.
If you notice the header of this blog, you will see a tab marked “Journal,” which if selected will take you to the web page for our seminary journal. Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal began in 1996 and is published annually in the fall of the year. At the web page you will find the table of contents for all the back issues as well as free pdfs for all articles prior to 2013.
Here are links to a few of the articles from 2001–2003 that you may find of interest:
I confess I don’t keep up very well with the evangelical left and its culture-lapping delight in all things morally degenerate. So I’m rather late getting into the discussion of Perry Noble and his ignoble attempt to catch Mark Driscoll’s mantle before it reaches the ground. Way back in December of last year, Noble preached a sermon on the 10 Commandments (except that in his sermon they weren’t commandments, but promises), which he has since distilled into blog entry (you can safely go here; unlike his sermons, his blog is rated “G”).
In Noble’s recasting of the Decalogue we find that the 3rd command becomes “You can trust in a name that is above every name,” paving the way for profanity-laced rhetoric that is divinely sanctioned (actually God gave Noble’s sermon directly to him, so he really didn’t need corroboration, but I guess it helps). Other reinterpretations include the 1st command—“You do not have to live in constant disappointment anymore”; the 4th command—“You can rest”; the 5th command—“Your family does not have to fall apart”; the 6th command—“You do not have to live in a constant state of anger because you will be motivated by love and not hate”; the 8th command: “I will provide”; and so forth.
Noble’s words of assurance and delight relieve the itching ears of a great many fans parishioners each week (27,158 pairs of ears to be exact, with 2,946 freshly baptized sets in 2012 alone), vaulting his church to #1 among Southern Baptist Churches last year. And despite the concern of some of his fellow-SBC brethren, Noble doesn’t really need to offer a genuine mea culpa, because, as he informs us in the opening salvo of his January 9th “apology,” “I did this sermon on the Ten Commandments once and everyone loved it… :-)”
And therein lies the problem. Noble is preaching sermons that offer no tether to Scripture and Christian theology, but only a new 21st century version of “wise and persuasive words” that shock and delight his hearers (1 Cor 2:1ff). Such is the bane of Christianity today. And speaking of Christianity Today (the magazine) we find the final word going to those who approve of such garbage. Writing an op. ed. piece on the controversy, Mark Woods writes,
The mindset [of Noble’s critics] puts adherence to a theological purity and doctrinal correctness defined by a particular sub-tribe of evangelical Protestants before anything else. But here’s the thing: that’s not what I want from a sermon. I want someone with flair and imagination, someone who’ll take risks and go off-piste. I want someone who’ll speak without notes and enter into an emotional and dramatic relationship with the congregation. I don’t mind if they aren’t “right” about something. I have a Bible, I can read it myself. Because I don’t believe that preaching and Bible teaching are the same thing.
Indeed, you can have what you want. But if there is any Scripture that can rightly be turned to address this situation, I would suggest reading Matthew 18:9, replacing the word eye with ear.
I grew up with a semi-Calvinistic understanding of salvation. I knew that people were dead in sins and that dead people don’t do anything. But I did not understand much of how salvation actually worked.
When I first heard someone teach on the effectual call (also poorly described as irresistible grace) I balked at it. It didn’t seem to match up with my conception of salvation and my experience of life. When the gospel was preached, it seemed that the Spirit was working generally in people’s hearts, and they either responded to that work or rejected it. But that was all that was happening.
While in graduate school, I took a class on Romans. When studying through Romans 8—specifically verses 28–30—I became convinced that the effectual call was a biblical teaching.
After dealing primarily with justification in chapters 1–4 of Romans, Paul moves on to discuss the hope of the believer in chapters 5-8. He assures the believers in Rome that they no longer have to face God’s wrath. However, they will still face difficulty in this life. In the familiar teaching in 8:28, Paul assures them that God is working in all the tribulations that they face (and every other part of their life) for their good. He is working His purpose out in their lives.
But how can the Roman Christians know that God is working things out for their good? To assure them, Paul gives a list of five verbs showing the certainty of their salvation in verses 29–30. (NOTE: It is important to keep in mind that Paul is not providing a full teaching of soteriology here but is offering teaching to support his argument that God is working out His purpose in the lives of believers.)
The first verb in the chain is “foreknow.” This is probably the most controversial verb in the passage. The basic and most common meaning deals with prescience—knowledge of the future. If that is the meaning here, Paul would simply be stating that God knows people beforehand. Since it is obvious that God knows people beforehand (every person ever born), those who argue that the word only means prescience typically state that there is something specific about the believer that God knows. Often they supply an object such as “God knew who would repent” or “God knew who would believe.” God’s election then is based on His previous knowledge of who would choose Him. This understanding has some difficulties. The objects of God’s knowledge are the persons themselves, not something about them (i.e., not “what He did foreknow about the person” but “whom He did foreknow.”) This view also contradicts Pauline thinking. God’s choosing of believers is not based on their actions (their decision to repent and believe), but on God’s mercy and grace (e.g., Rom 9:11–16.)
Although the most common meaning of “foreknow” in Greek literature speaks of prescience, it is more often used in the New Testament to indicate a previous relationship or choice (Rom 11:2; 1 Pet 1:20; Acts 2:23; 1 Pet 1:2). This follows the Old Testament usage of “know,” which was more influential in Paul’s thinking than Greek usage. The term speaks of a special affection or selection (Ps 1:6; 144:3; Hos 13:5; Amos 3:2). Paul does not say that God foreknows everyone in this passage, but only believers. He obviously does know every person beforehand, but He only enters into a relationship and sets His love upon believers (cf. Matt 7:23).
The second verb of the chain is “predestined.” Paul places more emphasis on this verb than any of the others. He temporarily leaves the list of verbs to discuss predestination at more length. After God has set his affection on His people, He then determines their end. The end of believers is conformity to Christ’s image. Ultimately this is speaking of the final redemption, when the believer is given a new body like Christ’s. However, that does not preclude a reference to the present life. God is even now working in believers to make them more like His Son. He uses the trials that they face to help them grow in conformity to Christ.
Paul resumes his chain of verbs with “called” in verse 30. This is the point when God’s eternal choice becomes a historical reality. This call is not the universal call of the gospel offered to all men—the only kind of call I used to consider. Rather, it is an effectual call that guarantees salvation. Why? Because all of those called are also justified. Paul’s point in providing these verbs is to show that every individual believer goes all the way to glorification. If someone can be called but reject that call (and thus not be justified), Paul’s argument falls flat. Thus, there is a call from God that will certainly issue in justification. In other words, there is a call that is effective in bringing people to salvation. (That does not mean that man has no responsibility. Again, Paul is not giving a complete teaching on salvation. Rather he is showing the surety of God’s accomplishing His purpose.)
As was already mentioned, the ones “called” are next “justified.” Paul dealt with this topic at length earlier in the epistle. In salvation God declares the sinner to be just because of the righteousness of Christ. He now regards the believer as righteous.
In the final link of the chain, the believer is “glorified.” It is intriguing that Paul views this as already complete, although elsewhere it is clear that glorification is a future act. The certainty of this glorification is so great that Paul can state it as if it were already done. This fits well in his argument: if God’s purpose will surely be accomplished—including his purpose in calling—glorification is as good as done.
In our last post we appealed to John 17 to show that a properly ordered witness for Christ must avoid the two poles of (1) being both in the world and of the world, hoping the gospel will advance wordlessly through personal intimacy alone (Christ of culture) and (2) being neither in the world nor of the world, hoping the gospel will advance through remote belligerence alone (Christ against culture).
If the reader is familiar with H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, he will recognize two of Niebuhr’s five approaches, adapted here for my purposes. Niebuhr actually proposes three intermediate approaches, but I will select just one for further consideration: Christ and culture in paradox. (Note: I am using these categories somewhat differently than Niebuhr does, but I think they are helpful enough to be repurposed.)
In the paradox model, the Christian lives in two realms—as a citizen of the present, earthly/civic realm, and as a prospective citizen of heaven. In both these realms, Christ rules the believer’s activities, but in very different ways. In the earthly/civic realm, Christ rules indirectly through the dominion mandate by which everyman may, by submitting to God’s sovereign lordship over Creation, effectively rule over all that God has made as his vice-regents on earth. We do so by cultivating common/moral virtue, the sciences (Gen 1:28–31), and civic structures (Gen 9:6); by stewarding divinely granted “property” (whether material/physical, intellectual/ideological, ethical, etc.); and by obeying the second great commandment of loving neighbor as self (Matt 22:39). Specifically, this takes the form of being the very best possible citizens, workers, spouses, parents, students, and neighbors in the natural realm and under divinely imposed natural law. This is the duty of every person, and we should encourage/expect every person around us (regenerate and unregenerate alike), being fellow-image-bearers, to aspire to these selfsame goals. This is the duty of all image-bearers.
The believer’s goal in living this way is not only or even primarily to woo people into the second or heavenly/ecclesiastical realm (where Christ rules through shepherds in covenanted communities bound by the regulating principles of a comprehensive and inspired canon). Both Paul and Peter, however, suggest that by living in this way, even “without words,” we will routinely encounter opportunities for the Gospel (Titus 2:1–10; 1 Pet 3:1; etc.)—and we should be ever looking for these. By setting Christ apart as Lord we will invariably stimulate people to ask us the reason for the hope that lies within (1 Pet 3:15). And the Christian Gospel is our answer, delivered from the standpoint of a clear conscience and in a context of mutual respect earned by “good behavior” (v. 16).
So if a believer should find himself working, say, in a public school setting, the approach would not be unregulated Gospel declaration (which will get one fired) or withdrawal to engage in remote denunciations of that “wicked and irremediable public school system” (the Christ against culture approach). Nor should the believer simply seek to “blend in” with the sterile, non-theistic worldview that usually prevails in this setting—and, frankly, in almost every civic setting (the Christ of culture approach). Instead, the believer should view himself as an agent of common grace, moral virtue, and neighborliness, humbly and proactively being the best citizen, steward, worker, and ethical mentor that he possibly can be with God as his witness. The believer need not continually announce his faith, but neither will he be able to conceal it; indeed, in very short order, he will be asked to offer a reason for why he is the way that he is. And the Gospel will have its day.
As circumstances allow, this approach can also countenance a more assertive face—after all, if unbelievers can ask believers reasons for the hope that lies within, the believer can freely inquire about the reasons for the unbeliever’s hopelessness too! And by doing this, we can gently push open doors to the hopeful introduction of the Christian Gospel.
In either case, though, a paradox/antithesis will emerge. It must emerge. Believers and unbelievers all live in the very same world, but they have radically different worldviews that cannot long remain a secret. And it is the Christian’s role to deliberately enter this common world determined not to “become like the fool” (Prov 26:4), but instead to invite and answer the fool’s inquiries (Prov 26:5) with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15) so as to introduce them to God.
I work in an almost exclusively Christian environment. With the exception of a few brief encounters with folks delivering packages, reading the gas meter, and such, my whole workday is spent with believers. I’m not the best person, I admit, to speak of sharing Christ in the workplace. Recent changes in my family’s situations, however, have left me thinking very hard about the topic, and I feel enormous pressure to offer them timely advice before their fresh opportunities deteriorate (as they so often do) into situations where opportunities for the Gospel have been effectively crushed.
In my experience, there are two major poles to avoid when answering this question. The first I’ll call the Christian Conquest approach. In this approach everyone around me is the enemy of Christ, and my sole purpose is do battle with them until they submit to Christ. To this end, I wear my Christianity on my sleeve: I post Bible verses all over my cubicle wall, hand out tracts liberally, tell everyone around me and especially under me that they must be born again, and start evangelistic conversations in any place and at any time. If a friendly group of co-workers asks me to come to the office party and share a few beers, I say, “No way! I don’t drink and unless I absolutely have to, I avoid anybody who drinks because I’m a CHRISTIAN! Don’t ask me to hang out with you until you repent and join me at church.”
There’s a tiny part of me that admires a person like this, because he is willing to endure ridicule and social ostracism in order to make Christ known. And at the end of the day, so long as the Gospel is proclaimed, God sometimes uses this approach to save people. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best approach. Here’s why:
- It’s unethical. If you’re being paid to make widgets and you decide to stop making widgets in order to share the gospel on company time, you are stealing from your employer, and that’s wrong. Just because the success of the Gospel is the Church’s highest mission does not mean that evangelism automatically trumps all of the believer’s other responsibilities (Titus 2:9).
- It’s ineffective. Of course, just because something is ineffective does not make it wrong, but some things are ineffective because they are demonstrably wrong. And being a bad worker, and obnoxious person, or a hater crushes legitimate opportunities for the gospel (see, e.g., Matt 5:16; Titus 2:1–10; 1 Pet 3:1, 13–17). If your whole office regards you as snobbish and obnoxious, you are not being a good witness, no matter how many Bible verses are pasted on your wall (electronic wall or cubicle wall, it makes no difference).
- It’s contrary to the essence of the Gospel. “Friendship with the world is enmity with God,” of course (1 John 2:15–17), and this must be remembered, but somehow that truth must be harmonized with the requirement to be the “friend of sinners” and even to “eat with them” (Matt 9:10ff; 11:19; etc.). Whatever our relationship to unbelievers is to be, it most emphatically is not hostility! We hate their corrupt garb, yes, but all the while we must show mercy (Jude 23).
- It’s sometimes even illegal. If you are being paid to do civic services or provide civic instruction in the civic arena, and you decide to offer religious services/instruction instead, you just might be fired. And if you do, it won’t be because you’re suffering for Jesus; it will be because you didn’t do your job. More on this in my next post.
- This goes to a deeper philosophical issue: this approach doesn’t have a good handle on what it means to live in God’s two “kingdoms.” Some things we do in life as members of human society, as image-bearers living out the dominion mandate; other things we do as members of local Christian societies, as ambassadors living out the Great Commission. And while these spheres don’t conflict, neither can we conflate them.
The second pole I’ll call the Christian Synthesis approach. Everyone around me is a victim of sin, and my goal is to relate with them until I start to rub off on them. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to share Christ, but that’s pretty awkward and off-putting, so I’ll be slow and subtle about it—so slow and so subtle that somehow it never happens. If a friendly group of co-workers asks me to come to the office party and share a few beers, I’ll go, but avoid getting tipsy by using some sort of lame medical excuse (or maybe I’ll blame the overbearing wife—that will get a good laugh and make me look relevant). If the topic of religion happens to come up, I’ll take them to an event at a relational, relevant church and hope the preacher gives a friendly, low-key Gospel message so I don’t have to do it. Realistically, though, it’s quite possible that religion will never come up in conversation—I might age out without anybody even knowing that I’m a Christian. Oh well, I tried.
The strength of this approach is that it takes seriously the expectations that Christians be the “friend of sinners” and even to “eat with them.” But there’s no antithesis—nothing at all that “sets Christ apart as Lord” or compels unbelievers to “ask the reason for the hope that I have” (1 Pet 3:15). It exemplifies Carson’s complaint that “to the degree that…Christianity has assimilated itself to the dominant ethos, reasons for anyone joining it are harder to come by” (Christ & Culture Revisited, 118) and suggests to thoughtful minds that there is no difference at all between unbelievers and believers save that believers are sinners saved by grace—an oft-repeated but savage lie. Instead it is a kind of “relational evangelism” that has never progresses past the “relationship.” And without a propositional Gospel, no matter how relational, it isn’t evangelism.
It seems to me that all believers are drawn to one of these two poles, and while my descriptions may be extreme, we all trend one way or the other. Some of us see the Christian’s role as standing against world. Some of us see the Christian’s role as being a part of the world. The truth is somewhere in between: Christ wants us—in fact he prays for us—to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15–16), a very delicate balance that can sometimes prove elusive. We’ll look at what this might look like in part 2 of this post.
The DBTS 2015 summer school schedule is now available. Each class meets Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 noon for two weeks (no classes on Monday). There are three sessions of summer school: May 19-29, June 2-12, and June 16-26. Here are the classes:
- May 19–29 — Haggai & Malachi: English Bible
- June 2–12 — Evangelical Theology
- June 16–26 — 2 Thessalonians: Greek Exegesis
For additional information please contact the seminary at (800) 866-0111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Valentine’s Day is this weekend (in case you have not been out of your house in weeks and missed all of the promotional reminders to show your love by spending money).
In honor of this one day of love each year, I’d like to consider what love really is. A variety of different movies, television shows, novels, and songs discuss the question of true love (a.k.a. twue wuv). We are told that true love is powerful, it overcomes obstacles, it must never be thwarted, and a whole host of other platitudes. But what makes love true love? What is the essence of love?
The apostle John discusses love extensively, especially in his first epistle. 1 John 4:10 is particularly helpful at understanding the essence of love, because here John tells us “in this is love.” Thus, John is helping us to know what is at the heart of love.
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:1).
This verse highlights at least four characteristics of true love.
True love is supernatural. John begins, as he often does, by offering a negative example to explain his point. True love is not defined by our love for God. Our love for God may be genuine, but it is also natural. God is the most lovely being, so the failure to love God is strange–the only reason we would not love God is if our desires are out of order due to sin.
True love is not understood by our love for God but by God’s love for us. The problem is that we tend to think we are likeable people. Why wouldn’t God love us? But that’s because we forget who God is and what we are. God is infinitely holy, while we are wicked sinners. While God is lovely, we are rebellious enemies of God. God showed his kindness in creating us and giving us life, and we responded by spitting in his face and openly violating His good will. That’s what makes true love so amazing–God loved people as unlovely as us!
This kind of love—the kind of love that isn’t only offered to those who love us or attract us—does not happen on its own. That’s why John can say that the one who truly loves has been born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7). True love is shown in the church when people who would normally have nothing to do with each other love each other.
True love is active. God did not simply feel love in His heart or express it in words. He demonstrated it in action. He sent His Son. He proved His love for us by moving toward us.
We place a lot of emphasis on expressing love through our words. The one who loves deepest is able to express that love through lofty rhetoric (e.g., the speech at the end of a Rom-Com where a person confesses his/her undying love). We can’t get enough of creative proposals and wedding ceremonies. But true love is not found in a card, speech, or show. It’s found in the day-to-day, mundane choices and actions of the loving person.
True love is sacrificial. The way John states God’s action it almost seems simple—God sent His Son. But John’s readers would have understood how significant that action actually was. Jesus, the most glorious being who possessed this glory from all eternity humbled Himself by becoming human. But as great as His sacrifice of becoming human was, He went even further and sacrificed His very life for us. There is no greater love than giving your life—and God did this for His enemies!
We want to think of ourselves as loving people, but as soon as a relationship becomes inconvenient we are not sure we want to stay in it. We love often because of what the person gives us. At most we want an equal exchange, where we get as much as we give. But true love is willing to lose in the exchange. It gives without expecting to receive.
True love is redemptive. Jesus sacrifice was a propitiation for our sins. It satisfied God’s wrath against us as sinners by paying the penalty we deserved. God’s love did not lead Him to simply affirm us as who we were—sinners. It led him to work for our transformation from sinners to saints.
This may be the area where our culture is most confused about love. We think true love means never judging. But true love doesn’t only accept people as they are. True love cares for people where they are while also wanting to see them become better than what they currently are. And the greatest way to love is to urge people to find redemption in Jesus Christ.
A few months ago Bill Combs and I released a pair of blog posts that raised ire among some of our readers relative to the debate concerning divine sovereignty and human freedom. One of the barriers to fruitful dialogue that emerged in the ensuing discussion was one of definition—a failure to define historical positions in ways mutually acceptable to all participants in the debate. This failure has the potential to lead first to equivocation, then misrepresentation, followed by ad hominem attack, and even charges of heresy. This is unfortunate.
The following is a faithful attempt not (1) to debate the question or (2) to attach labels to people who don’t like to be labeled. Rather, it is an attempt to faithfully describe six key positions using historical descriptions (though not necessarily labels) that proponents of each position (whether historical or modern) can embrace:
- A Pelagian is one who believes that man needs no assistance to come to God. By his own unaided power any man can avoid the pitfalls that ensnared Adam and generate all the faith and action necessary to follow Christ’s superior example and so be accepted by God. This belief was condemned as heresy at the 15th Council of Carthage in A.D. 418. This position is rare among evangelicals, and the label should not be assigned lightly.
- A Semi-Pelagian is one who believes that every man, though weakened by the Fall, yet retains the ability, based on the power of choice granted him in the imago dei, to make a divinely unaided and a priori contribution of faith leading to his own justification. Any divine grace offered thereafter is truly grace, but grace of an a posteriori nature. This belief was condemned as heresy at the Second Council of Orange in A.D. 529.
NOTE: The term semi-Pelagian is unknown in antiquity, first appearing formally as a pejorative label for the 16th-century teachings of Luis de Molina, or what is sometimes known as Molinism—teachings that generally (though not perfectly) resemble the ancient position condemned at Orange. Some have suggested that the label Massilianism (a term that reflects the geographic center of the more ancient position) is more accurate, but it has not caught on. The result is a real historical position with definite modern representatives, but one with no label other than a pejorative that modern proponents of the position do not accept. This is a conundrum with no clear resolution; still, any suggestion that the historical position is imaginary because of the absence of a mutually agreeable label is unacceptable. The historical position described above does exist today, irrespective of the elusiveness of a label. The term should not be used, however (as it often is), in a historically inaccurate way to discredit those who hold to the Arminian position.
- An Arminian is one who believes that man, though rendered totally depraved by the Fall, receives from God the non-efficacious power of alternative choice via prevenient grace either (1) at birth or (2) through the hearing of the Gospel. Thus aided by God, any man may, without compulsion, either reject or embrace Christ. If a man chooses to embrace Christ, this faith event triggers additional divine graces (the anachronistic grace of election based on God’s prior knowledge of the faith event, and the subsequent graces of justification and sanctification).
NOTE: Arminianism has never uniformly taught that the believer may lose his salvation. Instead, the question remains an open one, both historically (see the words of Arminius himself and the Five Articles of the Remonstrance) and also today (see the doctrinal standards of the modern-day Society for Evangelical Arminians and the representative words of Roger Olson, arguably the foremost Arminian of our day). All this goes to suggest that the question of eternal security should not be treated as a defining issue for the position here described. To do so without qualification is to introduce a red herring.
- A Moderate Calvinist is one who believes that all men are rendered totally depraved by the Fall, but that God, in accordance with his pre-temporal and unconditional electing decree, issues efficacious grace to his elect alone so that they may then exercise faith unto a regeneration and justification that can never be forfeited.
- A Full or Historic Calvinist is one who believes that all men are rendered totally depraved by the Fall, but that God, in accordance with his pre-temporal and unconditional electing decree, efficaciously regenerates his elect, creating “new creatures” who gladly exercise faith unto a justification that can never be forfeited.
NOTE: Calvinism has never uniformly taught a definite or “limited” atonement. The question remains an open one that has long been the topic of intramural debate among Calvinists (see, e.g., the historical canons of Dordt and this recent contribution to the debate). Again, all this goes to suggest that the extent of the atonement should not be treated as a defining issue in describing the Calvinist position.
- A Hyper-Calvinist is one that holds to the immediately preceding position, but teaches additionally that (1) believers have no responsibility to indiscriminately call the lost to repent and believe in Christ for salvation and/or that (2) unbelievers have no duty to repent and believe in Christ for salvation.
NOTE: Few believers ascribe to the label hyper-Calvinist; like the label semi-Pelagian, it is uniformly pejorative. However, it is a historical position with modern proponents: the position cannot be rendered imaginary due to the elusiveness of a label. The term should not be used, however (as it often is), in a historically inaccurate way to discredit those who hold to the Calvinist position.
Conclusion: The question whether a modern position may be logically crafted so as to present a viable via media or whether elements of these historical positions may be so combined as to offer a viable hybrid position will be graciously left open today. What is hoped, however, is that the historical parameters of the debate have been faithfully delineated.
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, seeing that since antiquity it has always pleased you to extend your grace toward your people, as perverse and rebellious as they were; and that you have never ceased to exhort them to repentance, but have always taken them by your hand through your prophets; grant us also your grace today, that your same Word may resound in our ears; and, if at first we should not profit from your holy teaching as we ought; nonetheless, do not reject us; but by your Spirit subdue and so reign over our minds and affections, that being truly humbled and brought low, we give you the glory that your majesty is due; so that being clothed by your love and fatherly favor, we may submit ourselves totally to you, while at the same time embracing that goodness which you have provided and offered us in our Lord Jesus; that we might never doubt again that you alone are our Father, until that day that we rejoice in your heavenly promise, which has been acquired for us by the blood of your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen” (John Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, 48).