Category Archives: Theology

The Rational Irrationalist

This following is an attempt to flesh out my thoughts on what I’ve been learning about rationalism and irrationalism, via my “Christian Apologetics” course at Reformed Theological Seminary, taught by Professor John Frame. Comments? Thoughts?

Some non-believers practice what might be called “rationalistic irrationalism”. Many embrace rationalism, as it purports to allow human beings to figure out life and forge a worldview through the power of human reason, yet without necessarily referencing God. But deep down the non-believer cannot escape knowledge of God through creation (Romans 1:19-20) and thus all recognize His claim upon them. But in disobedience, and to avoid this claim, the unbeliever becomes irrational– though he/she knows God is there, he/she refuses to acknowledge reality and instead lives as if God is not there. This produces huge inconsistency in their worldview and approach to life. The non-believer, made in the image of a rational God who created an orderly, complex, beautiful, meaningful universe, is by design compelled to seek after meaning, order, purpose, beauty, ethics & morality. But in suppressing knowledge of the truth about God, they remove the One by whom all these things they seek after are even possible. Thus they are forced to borrow from the Christian framework even as they attempt– apart from the true God– to build worldviews that give meaning to life and provide routes to happiness. But this will not work, because the truths derived from the Christian framework only are viable with God at its center, and not in a system in which the true God has been replaced by false gods taken from creation.  This approach leads ultimately not to real happiness, meaning or fruitfulness, but rather to all sorts of evil practices that are but masquerades of true life.

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Filed under Reformed Apologetics

Theological Debates on Facebook- Are They Profitable?

I’d like to ask a question—can profitable discussion on a theological issue actually happen on Facebook?

I had an experience recently where someone took offense because they felt I was commenting too much on their theologically oriented wall post.  But the determination of “too much” was based on his purely subjective notion of how much commenting on his post was appropriate.  Now I’ll admit — after he posted a critique of a theological “meme” (i.e., statement) I was quite dogged in asking him to provide the reasoning behind his several assertions about it.   He declined to do so, which of course, is his prerogative.  On the other hand, it was also my prerogative to continue to comment and engage with others in the discussion, which is what I did.  But this seemed to disturb him.

I chose to comment on this particular post because it touched on God’s sovereignty, a theological issue I think extremely important and practical for believers. In declining to respond to my request for explanation of his argument, one reason he gave is that Facebook is not a conducive forum (for intelligent debate).

Well,  in one sense he may be right.  The Facebook feed comes at you with many random streams of data.  Perhaps for many of us the experience of being in FB is like watching TV while flipping through channels– one is just looking for passive, mindless entertainment.  Yet we can choose to focus our attention, can’t we, even while in Facebook?

Now it’s true Facebook discussions can be utterly worthless and a waste of time when the participants simply talk past one another.  We see this all the time.  But, especially among Christians talking theology, I don’t see why civil, gracious, intelligent, even fruitful discussion may not occur, if we actually take time to hear one another out and respectfully present our arguments.   Of course, because Christians are sinful human beings, discussion may devolve from noble passion to fleshly, ignoble heat.  Yet as long as folks refrain from personal attacks, imputation of bad motives, and maintain focus on the issues at hand,  giving each other some grace, I think discussions can stay on track.  We may even learn from them.

I have been involved in debates both good and bad.  In bad ones (and for me these seem to occur more often on Facebook) folks seem impatient with the process of discussion/argument itself– thus they neglect thoughtful responses and are very reactive (I’ve been guilty of this myself, as I’m sure many of us have).   Also it seems some want to state their opinion just as a soundbite (perhaps related to the ephemeral nature of Facebook?), but are not  prepared (nor seemingly interested) to defend their view/opinion against possible objections.

I’ve also participated in more interesting and productive online theological “debates” (over at the Theologica forum, for example).  I believe the difference between good and bad theological discussions relates in part to whether participants are confident enough in their own position to open the floor to debate and allow various sides to present their respective cases.  Sure, maybe 9 times out of 10, such debates end with folks remaining firmly convinced of the truth of their own original position, but at least those participating and/or “listening in” can examine the reasoning and arguments of all the positions and form their own conclusions.  In this way, I think such dialogue may be beneficial. Also, when one has to defend one’s position, it challenges you to think more deeply on it, if only to be able to articulate the reasons for one’s stand and to answer objections.  This can surely sharpen one’s thinking.  Debate isn’t necessarily bad (as some tend to think); if handled well, it can be educational, even edifying.  Though not necessarily easy, I think fruitful theological debate is do-able.  It’s a shame we don’t often achieve it.

Going back to my recent experience, again I own up to the fact that I was very insistent on continuing the discussion even after the originator of the post said he did not want to engage further with me.  I was so eager to make a persuasive case that Gods’ sovereignty is a crucial, foundational and practical truth in the believer’s life, one that can help us even as we try to make sense of all the bad and evil things that happen in a fallen world.   So I pressed on in the discussion, with the thought I would interact with others who were also commenting.  Was continuing like this a breach of commenting etiquette?  I don’t know.  But I would also ask, if one is not interested in the give and take required for a theological dialogue to be productive and/or educational, then why initiate a discussion in a public forum?

Thoughts?

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Filed under Controversy, Theology, Web & Tech

Is Christ’s Death Sufficient to Pay for Sins? A Conversation Continued

A couple of days back, in a post titled Discriminating, Unfathomable, Precious Grace, I shared a theological conversation I have been having with someone from the Internet regarding hell, the Cross of Christ, and the nature of God’s grace.  Below, the conversation continues, since my friend wasn’t satisfied with the answers I have given him.  He writes,

Thanks for trying to answer, but you don’t see the logical inconsistency in your answer?

The penalty for sin is by definition paid by those who don’t repent – after all, those who repent have their penalty pardoned. So if Jesus was pardoned, he paid the penalty equivalent to those who repent, which is no penalty at all.

That means that Jesus didn’t pay the full penalty for sin that is and will be paid by sinners. In other words, he didn’t pay the price for sin, because if he did, he would still be in hell.

Corcoran, I will respond to what you wrote, point-by-point:

The penalty for sin is by definition paid by those who don’t repent

Do you mean by this that people who don’t have their sins atoned for by Christ must pay the penalty for their sins themselves?  If that’s what you mean, I agree.

… after all, those who repent have their penalty pardoned.

Yes, their penalty is pardoned through repentance, but only if by “repent” you mean that they place their trust and faith in what Jesus did for them at the Cross.  The repentance God requires is perfect obedience to His law, but no one except Jesus Christ ever achieved this. Repentance that saves is repentance that receives Jesus’ perfect record as one’s own, by faith.

So if Jesus was pardoned, he paid the penalty equivalent to those who repent, which is no penalty at all.

To say Jesus was “pardoned” is incorrect.   The Cross is the opposite of pardon— Jesus was punished there, for the sins of others, so that they might be pardoned through Him.  He achieved a pardon for sinners by paying their penalty. Contrary to what you seem to be saying, Jesus paid a penalty that was required because mere human repentance is imperfect and would never satisfy the demands of a perfectly righteous, holy God against sin and sinners.

That means that Jesus didn’t pay the full penalty for sin that is and will be paid by sinners. In other words, he didn’t pay the price for sin, because if he did, he would still be in hell.

No, the Bible teaches that He indeed pays the full penalty of sin for sinners who by faith appropriate what He did for them, but sinners who spurn and despise that salvation obviously won’t get the benefits of it, instead they will be punished by God for their disobedience.

Again the full price for all the sins of the elect (thereby giving the sinner eternal heaven in place of the eternal hell he deserved) was paid at the cross, for God chose to invest the action of Jesus Christ on the Cross with eternal authority, scope and power.  Therefore Jess does not need to “still be in hell”– I’m not even sure He went to hell at all in the sense you’re saying.  Certainly Scripture teaches that Jesus overcame the power of death and hell on behalf of many sinners, but whether He did this by actually going to hell is a matter of debate. If He did go to hell as part of this process, it was obviously for a few days only and Jesus did not have to remain there since He successfully accomplished the salvation of the sinners whom the Father gave Him and for whom He laid down His life.

You may find the above “logic” unsatisfying, but I think it’s what Scripture teaches.

Jesus pays the penalty for those who cannot repent in a satisfactory and complete way, because they are too sinful (Romans 3: 20, 23, 28; 4:13-14) to keep the law.  If anyone could have been justified with God by keeping the Law, there would have been no need for Jesus to sacrifice Himself on the Cross.  There is only one way for one’s sins to be paid for fully -to place one’s trust/faith in what Jesus did, seeing His death as something done for one’s personal sins. According to Scripture, not everyone will believe in this way, and those who do not will be condemned for not believing in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18). That condemnation is hell, where sinners will have to face the wrath of God apart from the covering or forgiveness of sins offered through Jesus Christ.

It’s my aim not to win the argument here but to give God glory because He is the One who purposed to use the death of Christ to save many, and I think it is dangerous and irresponsible to deny Jesus’ urgent warnings about the hell to come.  I hope then that you and everyone who reads these comments will be persuaded, if you do not already believe, to trust in Christ Jesus’ death alone as the death that saves sinners, since as Scripture testifies whosoever believes in Him will be saved from the wrath to come, and will receive eternal life.

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Filed under Grace, The Cross, Theology

The Word of God and The Faith

What is the Bible– the Word of God or the word of men? If it’s God’s word then what it says has timeless relevance and application. Moreover God who wrote it through men intended it to speak to future generations, including our own. Did He not anticipate the fantastic number of cultural changes that would happen throughout the centuries? Peter describes the Word as prophecy that comes from God through men.  And Paul could write that there was “a faith” we need to know, pass on and defend. Obviously he thought that the content of the Christian faith– its essential message– could be defined and understood, both in his day and into the future.

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:16-21 ESV)

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 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:3-5 ESV).

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1 ESV)

They must hold the mystery of the faith with ma clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:9 ESV)

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (Colossians 2:6-7 ESV)

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you (1 Timothy 6:20-21 ESV)

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Filed under The Word of God, Theology

Discriminating, Unfathomable, Precious Grace

So, as I seem to be doing often (maybe too much) these days, I was posting comments on a blog article and have ended up in a sort of debate with various folks about the nature of hell, among other things. Now I figure if I am going to spend my precious time thinking about these issues and writing long comments on someone else’s blog, I must as well turn them into a blog post right here on Reforming Christianity. Someone named Corcoran posted the following question:

If the penalty for sin is eternal torment, and Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, why is he not in eternal torment at this moment?

I responded,

It was God’s plan to make Christ Jesus the source of eternal salvation for His children, the One who would perfectly and completely bear all His people’s sins at the Cross. Christ took upon Himself the full wrath of God. Accordingly, He paid the eternal penalty for the sins of His people at the cross and accomplished what He set out to do– the eternal salvation of His people. This free gift of salvation is to be received by faith alone, because we can do nothing to merit or earn it. He suffered once for all (all of His followers, and once for all time), in accordance with God’s plan. Thus according to Scripture, it is not needed for Christ to continue to suffer for sins since He has already done so.

See, among many other passages: Hebrews 5:9, 9: 11-28, Romans 5:1, 8-9, John 10:14-18.

In between this exchange was someone else interjected their comments saying I wasn’t giving a very good answer. I responded to them too but they were not too happy with that answer either. I guess he’ll need to give his own answer then. But to get back to this particular conversation, here is Corcoran’s response to me:

So all isn’t everyone – we wouldn’t be wanting “indiscriminate” grace. But isn’t indiscriminate part of the whole definition of grace? Because if grace isn’t indiscriminate, it has to be earned. But you say it isn’t earned. That means that God is indiscriminately graceful only to people he chooses. Of course that means that if people do not receive grace, it isn’t their fault and punishing them is indiscriminate.

But that’s another topic. To get back to my point, you say the answer to my question is unfathomable, but only “god-man” could accomplish it. But how can you be so sure about the god-man part if in fact the question is beyond human ability to grasp? It has to be one or the other. Either it is unfathomable or you know the answer.

And finally my reply to him, which makes up the remainder of this blog post. What do you think of my answer?

Corcoran,

It is not what I want that is important. It is what Scripture declares that is relevant and needs to be understood properly. I know the dictionary definition of grace as well as anyone but I’m more interested in what Scripture says about how God Has demonstrated His grace. Scripture shows that a loving God nevertheless chooses some but not others to be recipients of His saving grace.

In John 10, did not Jesus say He lays His life down for His sheep?(John 10:7) This is discriminating isn’t it? It does not say He lays down his life for all, but only for His sheep, and Jesus defines His sheep as those whom He knows and who know His voice and follow Him (John 10:3-4). So we can conclude: all are not His sheep; only those whom Jesus knows and who follow His voice are His sheep (i.e., His people)

Similarly, Jesus distinguishes between those who believe, and those who don’t believe. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)… And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65). According to Jesus’ teaching here in John 6 and elsewhere in the gospels, do all believe? Will all receive God’s offer of grace through Jesus Christ? Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.(Matthew 7:13-14) So many did not believe in Jesus then, many do not and will not believe today.

Yet Jesus explains unbelief in John 6 by saying it is only those to whom it has been granted by the Father that come to Jesus; that the Father must draw people to Jesus. In John 8 He says something similar, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:47). Jesus explains the source of belief in someone in terms of God’s action in or upon that person, describing those who hear and believe His words as those who are “of God”. But people are not naturally of God. Scripture states of all believers before they came to Christ: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Paul says that all were by nature children of wrath, following after Satan, dead in sins and walking in disobedience. Yet the grace of God comes to such people, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.(Ephesians 2:4-9)”

Here again we see the thought that it is God who must act upon sinners by His grace—yet that He does not do this for all people is patently clear in Scripture and from observation.

Going back to Jesus’ analogy of “sheep”, Jesus elsewhere says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left (Matthew 25:31-33). This apparently describes a time of judgment in which Jesus separates His sheep from goats. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”(Matthew 25:41-46). Now is this passage teaching that it’s only those who do good works who will be saved? This passage does point to good works as evidence that one will be saved by Jesus at the judgment. But as Jesus says elsewhere, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:21). The Bible teaches that good works are produced in us by God. We may not boast before God, but only humbly point to His grace upon and in us. Yes, grace is not something we can earn, yet as I have shown from Scripture, God’s love and grace are discriminating.

You wrote, “Of course that means that if people do not receive grace, it isn’t their fault and punishing them is indiscriminate”. I give you Paul’s answer, “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?(Romans 9:19-24).”

So we have Scripture telling us that God must act in us so that we can hear His voice and bear good fruits and come to Him and live for Him, and says that if this doesn’t happen we will not come to Him and we will be condemned for our sins. I find Scripture saying that we have a moral responsibility to obey the God who created us, and at the same time I see Scripture describing us-apart from God– as without hope and by nature sons of wrath. These truths and many others are, according to Scriptural testimony, are “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”(Romans 11:33-35). We can know what God has revealed, for example, He revealed Himself as the God-Man. This is altogether different than being able to explain or fully understand His ways.

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Filed under Grace, Hell, Theology

Surprised by the Gullibility of the Charismatic

I just finished re-reading an article, Should Type-R Charismatics Get a Free Pass? that Phil Johnson posted a few years  ago at Pyromaniacs, a stylish blog that consistently (and sometimes with sarcasm and great humor) offers sharp biblical critique of charismaticism.  A few days ago, I posted here at Reforming Christianity my own brief reflection on charismaticism, titled The Subjectivity of Charismaticism.  Responding to a commenter on that article,  I asked:

Could it not be that the underlying principle that God speaks today via unverifiable personal revelations is faulty and leads into many errors?

Mr. Johnson’s excellent article ably tackles this question, asserting that:

The belief that extrabiblical revelation is normative does indeed “regularly and systematically breed willful gullibility, not discernment.

He demonstrates this by pointing out that even the most theologically, biblically sound charismatics (“Type R”, i.e., Reformed charismatics, such as Wayne Grudem or blogger Adrian Warnock), seem unwilling to connect the excesses and errors of the movement with its underlying principles.  Jack Deere’s book, “Surprised by the Power of the Spirit” extolled Paul Cain, a man once regarded by many as a highly gifted prophet and miracle-worker.   The book features an enthusiastic endorsement by Wayne Grudem, and in the book Deere credits Paul Cain as having changed the course of his life.  But as Phil Johnson’s article points out, Paul Cain’s track record of accuracy in prophetic announcements was abysmal, and Cain’s ministry would later be discredited, as he confessed long-standing alcoholism and homosexuality.  Johnson even tells about the time he, Lance Quinn and John MacArthur met with Jack Deere and Paul Cain (at Deere’s request). Cain appeared to be drunk!  Even with this knowledge about Paul Cain coming to light, brought to the attention of Mr. Grudem by Phil Johnson, Grudem stood by his endorsement of Jack Deere’s book.

I have observed among charismatics precisely this lack of discernment that Phil Johnson is talking about.  Despite the fact that charismatics like Paul Cain or Todd Bentley are demonstrably ridiculous and utterly unbiblical in their practices, the more responsible, biblically oriented in the movement typically are loath to acknowledge or admit the errors. Instead they rationalize them, arguing that we ought not to “throw out the baby with the bath water”.  In other  words, don’t dismiss all charismatic gifts because of the excesses and mishandling by the few.  This principle is true enough, but as Johnson points out, saner, more biblical charismatics actually represent a “fairly small minority of the worldwide charismatic community.”  Most of the movement is characterized by the excessive and the unbiblical!

A few years ago I wrote quite a bit about Todd Bentley on my previous blog, Jordan’s View, in an article titled Sickness, Healing and the Christian, Pt 1(Dangerous Deceptions). For a brief period in 2008 Bentley was a rising star in charismatic circles, the central figure in the so-called Lakeland, Florida “revival” that was being broadcast internationally, night after night, on the network GodTV.  Bentley was described as highly anointed, personally holy, a man deeply gifted in miracles and the prophetic.  It turns out that during the time of the revival meetings Bentley had been dealing with serious marital problems; these would eventually lead to his suddenly dropping out of the revival. A short time therafter all of the marital issues surfaced; Bentley divorced his first wife, and married someone from his ministry team.  Bentley’s marital problems were known to many who were endorsing him, yet Bentley was allowed to carry on. Even after his divorce and a brief period of being marginalized, it seems many in the charismatic community have welcomed him back with open arms, and he has been rushed back into public ministry. So what am I saying here? It’s not that one can’t be in ministry and have sin in one’s life. In that case, no one would qualify for ministry. But Bentley was one for whom it was claimed that his closeness with God and his personal holiness was the source of the supernatural powers flowing through him and his ministry. So it does tremendous damage to the credibility of Christianity and to the honor of Christ when someone is claiming to heal and speak in the power of God, yet is carrying on in this way.

Today I looked up Adrian Warnock’s coverage of Todd Bentley, recalling that at the time he’d posted many articles on his blog on Bentley.  Despite the fact that Warnock thoroughly covered the Todd Bentley story from beginning to inglorious end, I couldn’t find any posts in which Mr. Warnock himself took Bentley to task for his failure to live up to biblical standards in ministry, or in private.  Unfortunately, this lack of calling out such shenanigans and condemning them is all too typical.

Now I really do sympathize with the charismatic desire to see great miracles happening in our day. Who would’nt like to see healings, and revival sparked by the Spirit?  Yet we must not allow the desire for such things to cloud our judgment and remove our discernment.  If the sinful, unbiblical antics of a Paul Cain or Todd Bentley can escape the severe disapprobation and condemnation they deserve, it demonstrates that biblical discernment has entirely gone out the window among most charismatics, even among those who ought to know and do better.

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Filed under Charismaticism, Discernment, Theology

The Ultimate “Why”

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:1; cf. Luke 11:13).

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:18; cf Luke 18:19)

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Romans 3:9-12, ESV)

Many labor under the delusion that man is basically good, and that it is environmental factors such as poverty, an abusive home or other bad influences, that turn people toward evil.  For this reason, many reason that to be acceptable to God (if indeed He truly exists and there will be a time of reckoning wherein this God will judge all things) one simply must be found at the positive end of the scale, when a lifetime of good deeds are weighed against bad.  Surely on this basis God will accept us and we’ll make it into heaven, for our good deeds must count for more than our bad deeds, and comparatively speaking, we are not as bad as some others!  Perhaps we think to ourselves, “I love my kids, don’t cheat on my wife or girlfriend, pay my taxes, do a little volunteer work, and I’d gladly give up my seat on the bus (if an old lady happened by); plus, I’m not a serial killer!”  Are these all good things?  Of course.  Everyone knows right and wrong.  No one need go to church to live a moral life.  There are fine, decent, upstanding men and women, both in and out of the church, who live their lives doing right by their neighbor and being kind and loving to their families.

Why then does Scripture teach us (see passages above) that no one is good, and moreover, that we are all evil!  This is exactly what Jesus Christ, the one whom Christians believe was God-in-the-flesh, affirmed.  Why does it say “no one is seeking for God?”  Why does it put unbelievers in the category of disobedient, followers of Satan, destined for wrath due to innate wickedness?  This doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t sit well. One protests, “Hey, don’t call me evil. I’m a good, decent guy.  I know I’m certainly not perfect, but I’m far, far from evil!”  By human and worldly standards, one may very well be an outstanding citizen.  But God’s standard of righteousness derives from who He is, a holy God in whom there is no sin, no moral imperfection, no blemish of character.  Now we have never encountered a sinless person, and if we saw one probably wouldn’t know what to make of them.  Such a person would be strange and foreign.  Yet there was One who walked among us who was without sin.  He is the same One who said we are all evil.  But why does He say this?  He says it simply because it is the truth about us humans: we’re sinners by nature, and sin has corrupted us to the very depths of our being.  In reformed teaching this is known as the doctrine of “total depravity”.  This doctrine doesn’t signify that any of us are as evil as we might be (after all, most of us are not serial killers).  It means though that every part of human nature has been entirely corrupted by the effects of sin– our thought life, our emotions, even our bodies (which will someday die– due to the curse of sin).  It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  And Jesus Christ has come to undo this terrible fall– as it’s written, He “takes away the sin of the world”(John 1:29).  By His death on the Cross, Jesus destroyed the power of death, power the devil had over us (Heb 2:14).  Does this sound like science fiction?  Perhaps.  But as the saying goes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

When we think about someone such as James Holmes, the suspect accused of opening fire on people in a crowded Colorado movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 58 others, we naturally ask, why did he do it?  The specific impetus for this particular man’s actions are likely quite complex.  The science of human behavior may someday be advanced enough to be able to explain, or even predict, the actions of such a person, in terms of a number of contributing variables.  But this still would not give us the answer we’re really looking for, the ultimate “why”.  Why does evil exist?  Why did an all-powerful and good God create a universe in which evil is an everyday occurrence?  Does the Bible give us a fully satisfying answer to these questions?

The Bible does give us at least the beginning of answer to these important questions. In Genesis the Bible story of the creation of the world relates how evil came to be a part of this present world.  Evil is the result of a bad human choice, one that was made under the influence of an evil, fallen angel.  So particular evils happen since then because a principle of evil exists in this fallen world we are born into.  If sin had never entered the world, there would be no death; there would be no evil acts.  But sin did come into the world; and apparently, a good God allowed this to happen.  Since God is not only good but holy, wise, all-powerful and loving, it seems He uses sin and all its evil fallout, while abhoring it and intending to someday completely rid the world of it.  His aim is to accomplish a redemptive purpose that perhaps could not have been accomplished otherwise, one that brings about the most good and blessing for mankind while bringing the most glory to Himself.  And though we too have fallen under the influence of sin, a mighty Savior has come to break its power, if we have faith to believe and put our trust in Him.

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Beware of “Spiritual Formation”

Yesterday I posted a spontaneous reflection describing how I find that the “noise” of this world can keep us continually distracted, in such a way that we lose ability to focus our thoughts on things of eternal importance.  We may get so wrapped up in the worries, cares and “busy-ness” of this world that we neglect to give attention to God, and draw strength from Him.

Today I would like to point you to a helpful article series by Gary Gilley that critically examines a trend in many evangelical Christian circles today towards spiritual practices (or disciplines) often included under the banner “spiritual formation.”   The practices include such things as contemplative prayer and lectio divina (sacred reading).  While it’s certainly true that we need discipline in the Christian life, many (not all) in the “spiritual formation” movement advocate practices that are more mystical than they are biblical.  I therefore commend Dr. Gilley’s article series as an aid to helping discern right and wrong spiritual practices in accordance with Scripture.  It is so important that we remain biblical as we walk with God.  We must not burden ourselves or others to pursue spiritual disciplines not authorized by Scripture.   And I want to clarify that the primary intention of my article yesterday was to say that getting alone with God in a quiet place is a good practice, one modeled by Christ Himself. Yet Scripture does not lay this practice down as a commandment we must obey.

Dr. Gilley is a long-time pastor who writes from a reformed perspective. I have been reading his helpful articles and reviews for some time now.  The series of articles I mention above is as follows:

Solitude and Silence
Sacred Reading (Lectio Divina)
Contemplative Prayer
Spiritual Formation

 

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The Subjectivity of Charismaticism

I have been commenting over at Parchment and Pen on a post titled, Surprised by the Deficiency of the Spirit by Lisa Robinson.  I decided to turn my comments there into a post here:

To know the right answers to the most critical questions of life, such as, how does one inherit eternal life, Jesus consistently directed people to Scripture (e.g., Luke 10:25-28). He characterized Scripture as the highest authority, and His own ministry as being, not a contradiction to the Law and Prophets, but a fulfillment of them:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18 ESV).

Paul concurred with our Lord’s view on Scripture, testifying that

“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 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV).

The Spirit of course speaks through the Scriptures, being the Author of them. Can and does He prompt people towards certain thoughts and actions apart from direct interaction with Scripture? Yes, but I would argue such promptings are always in accord with the Word of Scripture.

Are we supposed to be directed specifically by God’s “voice” in every decision and choice we make, as many in charismatic circles claim? I don’t think the Bible teaches this. In fact we read in James 4 (cont.),

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (James 4:13-17, ESV).

James speaking by the Spirit tells us human beings don’t know the future (and cannot know, since we are but “mists”) . Yet so many supposed “words” given in many Christian circles today deal with precisely this– what we cannot know, not being God. If we claim to know, James says we’re boastful sinners. Moreover, as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, in Scripture we already have all the information we need  to live a life pleasing to God.

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)”.

Reading James, it seems to me then that the hunger for secret, unrevealed knowledge is evil and leads believers into dangerous territory. Open the door to “subjectivity” and all manner of deception follows, as evidenced by the rampant error that characterizes so much of Christendom today, as it follows in the charismatic way.

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Eternal Hope Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Conclusion

Mishandling Scriptural texts, Bell’s view on hell in “Love Wins” is distorted, revealing weak views of God’s holiness and man’s depravity, which in turn impact his understanding of the work of the Cross.  As we have already mentioned, Bell denies clear biblical evidence that God is wrathful towards sin, because for him such wrath is incompatible with an understanding of God’s character as essentially “love”.  Yet in Scripture we find God’s various attributes co-exist peacefully, and that there is no implied contradiction between a God of love and a God who hates sin.  In fact, the wrath of God is an attribute just as perfect and integral to God’s character as His love, and one whose contemplation serves importance purposes in sanctification. As theologian Arthur Pink writes,

A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness. Because God is holy, He hates all sin; and because He hates all sin, His anger burns against the sinner (Psa 7:11)… The wrath of God is a perfection of the Divine character upon which we need to frequently meditate. First, that our hearts may be duly impressed by God’s detestation of sin. We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness. Second, to beget a true fear in our souls for God: “Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28,29). We cannot serve Him “acceptably” unless there is due “reverence” for His awful Majesty and “godly fear” of His righteous anger, and these are best promoted by frequently calling to mind that “our God is a consuming fire.” Third, to draw out our souls in fervent praise for having delivered us from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).[1]

God’s holiness compels Him to hate and actively oppose all sin, but this passionate hatred of sin is also fueled by His love, for it clearly sees the destructive force of sin in the lives of people and of creation.  Bell’s portrait of the Christian life in “Love Wins” often speaks of how human sins hurt people and holds mankind back from realizing its “God-given goodness and humanity,” but he hardly mentions sin in relation to its deep offense against a holy God.  It is a very man-centered perspective that misses the major emphasis Scripture puts on sin as man’s major problem.  Bell’s view of the cross is similarly man-centered, subjective and psychologically oriented.  In one place he writes,

We read in Hebrews 9 that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In the ancient world, people regularly sacrificed animals—bulls, goats, sheep, birds. You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you’d done and you were very grateful for the rain and crops and children and any other gifts you could think of that the gods had given you…  That’s how it worked. Offer something, show that you’re serious, make amends, find favor, and then hope that was enough to get what you needed. So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea… The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary—no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered. That’s how the writer of Hebrews explains what happened when Jesus died on the cross.[2]

Here is the reason why Bell can dismiss the Old Testament sacrificial system as something barbaric– he thinks it is something the Jews picked up from surrounding pagan cultures!  Bell betrays lack of understanding of the depth of man’s sin behind this God-instituted practice, as well as stunning lack of comprehension that the sacrificial system was not a pagan, human invention, but something God Himself instituted.  The Jewish sacrificial system was not on a par with “appeasing gods” as Bell seems to think, but a system God established because of the deadly serious nature of sin, which must be atoned for by blood (Lev 17:11).   When Jesus by His one-time sacrifice brought to an end the sacrificial system under the old covenant (Hebrews 9), Bell doesn’t seem to recognize that His act was not the dismantling of a pagan practice, but bringing the system to the fulfillment of its purpose.  Jesus’ sacrifice is the better and perfect sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean the old pattern He was replacing was unnecessary and wrongheaded.  His interpretation also indicates a seemingly low view of Scripture’s inspiration, for it is clear from both Leviticus and Hebrews that the pattern of animal sacrifices was God’s idea.  And this from a man reputed to have begun his pastoral ministry preaching through Leviticus?  Kevin DeYoung’s book review offers good thoughts on Bell’s conception of sin:

It would be unfair to say Bell doesn’t believe in sin. He clearly does. But his vice lists are telling: war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace (36–37). In another place, he says that in heaven God will say “no” to oil spills, sexual assault on women, political leaders silencing by oppression, and people being stepped on by greedy institutions and corporations (37-38). These are real problems and throughout the book Bell mentions many real, heinous sins. But … What’s missing is not only a full-orbed view of sins, but a deeper understanding of sin itself. In Bell’s telling of the story, there is no sense of the vertical dimension of our evil.  Yes, Bell admits several times that we can resist or reject God’s love. But there’s never any discussion of the way we’ve offended God, no suggestion that ultimately all our failings are a failure to worship God as we should. God is not simply disappointed with our choices or angry for the way we judge others. He is angry at the way we judge him. He cannot stand to look upon our uncleanness. His nostrils flare at iniquity. He hates our ingratitude, our impurity, our God complexes, our self-centeredness, our disobedience, our despising of his holy law. Only when we see God’s eye-covering holiness will we grasp the magnitude of our traitorous rebellion, and only then will we marvel at the incomprehensible love that purchased our deliverance on the cross.[3]

From the start Bell’s book suggests that Scripture is hopelessly unclear on the nature of salvation, in that it supposedly describes numerous different mechanisms by which one might be saved.  But this again seems merely clever strategy on Bell’s part.  If he can persuade the reader to believe that the process of salvation, the nature of the afterlife or details of how one gets into heaven and avoids hell are all murky and impossible to determine, then he can present his speculative theories under less scrutiny. But of course Scripture is not unclear about how one can be saved, for the one who has ears to hear.  Bell ignores such passages as Romans 10: 8-17, which presents clear instruction on how one is saved.

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.[4]

Bell asks about this passage, “what if the missionary gets a flat tire?” implying that for God to place the fate of people’s souls in the hands of human preachers puts eternal destinies on shaky footing.  But the answer is that God uses human means to accomplish His ends, but isn’t absolutely dependent on them.  Again, it seems Bell raises such questions as part of a strategy of shaking the reader’s confidence that there are definite answers.  In this way, Bell can propose that there isn’t just one way to salvation, but many, which perhaps to his way of thinking gives one better odds of being saved.

Conclusion
What do we lose if we replace the traditional message of the gospel that includes the teaching of an eternal, conscious, punishment in hell with a friendlier, more inclusive message like Rob Bell’s?  Would it not be easier, as Bell suggests, to enthusiastically share the good news knowing that such a terrible and scary doctrine was not part of the package?  Perhaps we might feel less unpleasant preaching a gospel message stripped of hellfire, but we would also hopefully feel convicted, for we would be preaching a lie.  In Rob Bell’s bloodless story, God has saved us from what, exactly?  Bad choices?  But choices don’t really matter that much in his system– won’t we have endless opportunities to re-think them and say “yes” to God?

If Bell is right, why is Christ so urgently pleading with us to heed His warnings, that we might escape the dreadful hell He paints with images terrible and true?  No, my friends, eternal hell belongs to the gospel, for the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news set against the backdrop of very bad news—that our sins have separated us from a holy God and condemned us to wrath and hell.  God in His wisdom has given us this solemn message, and it is not for us to refashion or compromise.

The teaching of hell highlights the black and white nature of the gospel message— Christ is not one option among many; He is rather “the way, and the truth and the life”, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6) for “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Hell underscores the urgency of the decision to be made—we all stand on the edge of a dangerous abyss, not knowing if we will be given another day to make this momentous choice. The prospect of hell wakes us up out of our stupor, challenging us to act now.  “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).”  Finally, hell reminds us what God in His great and glorious mercy rescues us from, though we were once His enemies.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you have enjoyed this series.  Below, under “further reading” I’ve listed resources for further study on these topics.

 

[1] Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, first edition printing 1930 (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993), 36.

[2] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc, 2011), 123.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review.

[4] Romans 10: 8-17 (English Standard Version).

WORKS CITED IN THIS SERIES

Bauckham, Richard. “Universalism: A Historical Survey.” Themelios. 4.2 (1978, September 1).

Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Kindle edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc., 2011.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 793.

DeYoung, Kevin “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review

Keller, Timothy, R. Albert Mohler Jr., J. I. Packer, and Robert Yarbrough. Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? Edited by W. Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Pink, Arthur W. The Attributes of God. First edition printing 1930. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993.

Walvoord, John F., William V. Crockett, Zachary J. Hayes, and Charles H. Pinnock. Four Views on Hell. Edited by Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Wittmer, Michael E. Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. Kindle edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011.

Zondervan Academic, “Four Views on Hell: An Interview with William Crockett,” Koinonia (blog), accessed March 1, 2011, http://www.koinoniablog.net/2011/03/interview-crockett.html.


Further reading

Books on Hell and Responses to Love Wins:

Four Views on Hell by William Crockett (Author), Stanley N. Gundry (Series Editor), John F. Walvoord (Contributor), Zachary J. Hayes (Contributor), Clark H. Pinnock (Contributor)

Is Hell Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven Contributors: Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Jr. J.I. Packer, Robert W. Yarborough. Editors: Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson

Hell, Rob Bell, and What Happens When People Die by Bobby Conway

Book reviews of Love Wins:

Bell’s Hell- Review of Love Wins by Michael Horton (PDF)
God is Still Holy & What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True by Kevin DeYoung (PDF)
If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Love Wins by Rob Bell by Paul B Coulter
Love Wins – Universalism’s New Champion by Gary Gilley
A Review and Commentary on Rob Bell’s Book by Jay Zinn

General Articles on Hell

The Rationale of Hell By John H. Gerstner
The following 9 articles included in a PDF:
The Greatest Loss by J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)
What Is Hell? by Edward Donnelly
Eternal Torment for the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
The Resurrection of Damnation by Samuel Davies (1723-1761)
The Torments of Loss by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
The Torments of Soul by Edward Payson (1783-1827)
The Torments of Sense by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
Exhortation to Escape Hell by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Christ Has the Keys of Hell and of Death by Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
The Christian Doctrine of Hell:
Hell, by R.C. Sproul. A brief introduction to the doctrine from Sproul’s book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith.
Eternal Punishment, by Arthur Pink. A non-technical explanation of the traditional doctrine and its biblical basis, with responses to arguments commonly raised against it by Universalists and Annihilationists.

Misc. articles on hell

Sermons
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards
The Eternity of Hell’s Torments, by Jonathan Edwards

Scholarly Articles
Future Punishment, by Charles Hodge
Hell, by Stewart D.F. Salmond
A Kinder, Gentler Theology of Hell? by Larry D. Pettegrew
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One, by Alan W. Gomes
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part Two, by Alan W. Gomes

Inclusivism
Series on Inclusivism
The “Very Pernicious and Detestable” Doctrine of Inclusivism Robert L. Reymond
Lisa Miller Interviews Rob Bell
Monergism articles on Inclusivism

The Arrogance of Inclusivism
Inclusivism: Is God Really Fair?
What is Inclusivism and Why Does It Matter?
What About Those Who Haven’t Heard?

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