Saturday, November 22, 2014

Grace Alone

Grace alone.
The words sola gratia mean that human beings have no claim upon God. That is, God owes us nothing except just punishment for our many and very willful sins. Therefore, if he does save sinners, which he does in the case of some but not all, it is only because it pleases him to do it. Indeed, apart from this grace and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that flows from it, no one would be saved, since in our lost condition, human beings are not capable of winning, seeking out, or even cooperating with God’s grace. By insisting on ‘grace alone’ the Reformers were denying that human methods, techniques, or strategies in themselves could ever bring anyone to faith. It is grace alone expressed through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ, releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from death to spiritual life.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Dispensationalism confesses: God is in “exile” by Joel McDurmon

A friend posted to me yesterday a quotation from a leading dispensational author describing the “kingdom of heaven.” His view of the present reign of Christ is actually quite startling. He writes,

The third phase may be referred to as the interim kingdom, the kingdom that resulted because of Israel’s rejection of her King. The King returned to heaven and His kingdom on earth now exists only in a mystery form. Christ is Lord of the earth in the sense of His being its Creator and its ultimate Ruler; but He does not presently exercise His full divine will over the earth. He is, so to speak, in a voluntary exile in heaven until it is time for Him to return again.

First of all, there is no surprise here, except perhaps that the writer was abnormally aware and candid of the implications of his views. This is classic dispensationalism, perhaps just with the curtains pulled back more than normal. What is called the “third phase” or “interim” kingdom here is nothing less than the classic dispensational “church age” in which the real kingdom program is put on hold until Jesus returns to knock heads, literally.

Second, however, candor can be a damaging thing to theological positions. The more some people try to elaborate, the more problems their position creates. In this case, the author ends up exposing the classic dispensational “church age” as a time in which God has all but checked out—a classic “absentee landlord.” This is the Holy One on hiatus, Christ on sabbatical, God on paid leave.

The statement above may include lip-service to Christ as Lord, but the qualifiers pretty much take it away. This is not a Ruler under whose feet all things have been subjected. This is not a Ruler who has all power in heaven and on earth. This is a King-in-name-only. As such, any view of the Kingdom—“interim” or whatever—from this perspective will only be just as limited, or even incoherent. Witness: the author’s claim that the kingdom presently exists only “in a mystery form.”

This “mystery” view of the kingdom seems to me to be at odds with Scripture. Paul says that while the kingdom had been kept a mystery up until his days, the mystery is now revealed to everyone:

Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:8–9; Cf. Col. 1:26–27; 2:2; 4:3).

Our author goes so far as to say his Absentee God is literally in self-imposed “exile.” It’s bad enough that the amillennialists have doubled-down on the “exile” motif to describe the nature of Christians in this world. Now the premil dispys have gone and made God Himself an Exile. Perhaps it could be argued in defense that this is only a temporary self-imposed exile. But even this has serious implications.

Thus, third, consider what this view does to the doctrine of God, particularly His sovereignty and providence. The author states that during this present “interim” non-kingdom exile, Christ “does not presently exercise His full divine will over the earth.” This is a Christ who is no more interested or involved in history than the God of the deists.

Worse, this view really impinges upon the rest of what Scripture teaches about Divine Providence. When Christ had resurrected, He announced His receipt of total power in heaven and over all the earth (Matt. 28:18–20). He then gave us the Great Commission in light of that fact. When He ascended, he was not vacating the premises, His power, His will, His rule, His authority, or anything else in any way. He remained the same Divine Creator and Omnipotent Ruler as described, for example, in the London Baptist Confession (or its parent, the Westminster Confession of Faith):

God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom, upholds, directs, disposes and governs all creatures and things, from the greatest to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for which they were created (5.1).

That’s the Scriptural doctrine: whether Christ is physically present or not, He rules in His full will such that nothing falls outside of it. As the Confessions go on to say, the scope of this divine rule is absolute and total, extending to everything: “there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without His providence. . . .”

From the perspective of such robust Reformed theology, the teaching of some dispensationalists becomes quite untenable. I mean, I can just hear a Reformed Baptist like John MacArthur groan in frustration that a fellow dispensationalist would let his eschatological presuppositions tweak his doctrine of God so violently, can’t you?

Except, this is from John MacArthur. Friends, witness what happens when eschatology drives your theology. It is not a pretty sight. Even generally solid teachers can end up making absurd theological statements when pursuing bad eschatology to its logical conclusions.

In this case, you end up in something like a deism, or Manichaeism regarding the doctrines of God and providence. Yet it’s classic dispensationalism down the line: Christ has no kingdom here on earth, only in the private hearts of His believers. There can be no outward expression of that kingdom until Christ physically returns.

But what of His power and authority in the meantime? What of Christ presently reigning at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and currently “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3)? Is this “voluntary exile in heaven”? And what of Christ’s promise to be with us always throughout the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20)? What encouragement is it for the task of discipling the nations if He has taken His “all power in heaven and in earth” into voluntary exile in heaven? What His promise some kind of joke?
I prefer to acknowledge that Christ is reigning just as He claimed, and that we are seated and reigning with Him, just as Paul taught (Eph. 2:5–7). And while evil still exists in this earth, rest assured that Christ has already triumphed over it, and exercises full control over every detail of history according to His will. We live in faith knowing that He will manifest His kingdom as He wills, and that He will perform all His will, not leaving that heavenly throne until the last enemy is destroyed.

Folks, it is a long, uphill climb from our perspective, but that’s no reason to give up half-way, or to claim that Christ has abandoned the world and left it to the devil. It is indeed true that God’s inscrutable will is a mystery to us as we look forward, but the fact of His kingdom is no mystery. It is here, and it is here to stay.

Scripture alone vs. Scripture by ourselves

Scripture alone vs. Scripture by ourselves

Canadian Lutheran Mathew Block discusses the study that shows how common ancient heresies are among American evangelicals.  He blames a confusion over the meaning of “sola Scriptura,”  which does NOT mean that we can interpret the Bible anyway we want.  “Scripture alone” does not mean the same as “Scripture by ourselves.”

These heresies are finding a resurgence because too many Protestants misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Too many Christians mistake “Scripture alone” as if it were a license for them to read the Bible alone—to read it apart from other people. You know the idea: “All I need is me and my Bible.” But that’s not what it means. It means that Scripture is alone authoritative, not that your personal (“alone”) interpretation of Scripture is authoritative.

While Scripture itself is clear on matters of salvation, it nevertheless can be (and often is) misinterpreted by sinful people. Jesus Himself faced this danger when the devil suggested to him misinterpretations of the Word of God (Matthew 4:5-6). We fool ourselves if we think we are somehow exempt from this danger. Christ, of course, did not fall for the devil’s suggested misreading. Unsurprisingly, the Word of God made Flesh knows the written Word of God better than does Satan. But we on the other hand can and do fall into such error—be it error suggested by our own sinful minds, the errant teachings of others, or, indeed, by the devil himself.

Personal piety and a desire for truth are not guarantees that we always read Scripture aright. Consequently, we must rely upon our brothers and sisters in the faith to correct and rebuke us when we err, demonstrating our errors by Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this reliance on brothers and sisters refers not merely to those Christians who happen to be alive at the same time as us. Instead, it refers to the whole Christian Church, throughout time. We rely on those who have gone before us. They too get a say in the matter. As G. K. Chesterton has wonderfully put it, this sort of tradition is a “democracy of the dead.”

Of course, doctrine is not itself a matter of democracy per se; we don’t (or at least ought not) vote for dogma in the Church. Dogma is a matter of truth, not popular opinion. But Chesterton’s words remind us that it is arrogant to ignore the teachings of our forefathers in the faith. They faced many of the same theological questions we do today, and their answers have stood the test of time.

Regrettably, too many churches—and this criticism applies not just to Evangelicals—operate as if the history of the Church were unimportant. Our individualistic society no doubts feeds into this “just the Bible and me” mentality. But Scripture was not given for the benefit of you or me alone. Instead, it was given for the benefit of the Church, throughout history and throughout the world. Consequently, we ought to read Scripture together as a Church. The Church as a body has centuries of experience of reading the Word, of immersing itself in the language of God. We should take it seriously, therefore, when it suggests our own individual readings of Scripture are straying from the mark.

We don’t follow the theological pronouncements of the Church merely because such and such a person says we should. Bishops and councils, after all, can err (remember the Robber’s Council?). But certain pronouncements—like the theological statements of the Ecumenical Councils—have long been recognized by the Church at large as true and faithful understandings of Scripture. They have codified important Scriptural truths—on the Nature of Christ, for example, and on the Personhood of the Holy Spirit—and so we refer to them as authoritative. That’s how the Nicene Creed came to be. These pronouncements do not invent new dogma not found in the Scriptures; instead, they clearly and carefully reproduce the teachings of Scripture. Consequently, they rightly norm our interpretation of the Scriptures. It’s Tradition in service to Scripture, not Tradition on the same level as Scripture.

This is a more accurate understanding of the Reformation understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition (and, indeed, explains why Lutherans can consider the Lutheran Symbols authoritative). We cannot simply reject the history of the Church. True, where Tradition is appealed to as a source of new dogma, we are right to resist it. But when Tradition codifies and clearly re-presents the teachings of Scripture, it is to be accepted as a norming influence on our individual reading of Scripture.

Philipp Melanchthon explains the Lutheran position well: “Let the highest authority be that of the Word which was divinely taught,” he explains. “Thereafter that church which agrees with that Word is to be considered authoritative.” And again: “Let us hear the church when it teaches and admonishes,” he writes, “but one must not believe because of the authority of the church. For the church does not lay down articles of faith; it only teaches and admonishes. We must believe on account of the Word of God when, admonished by the church, we understand that this meaning is truly and without sophistry taught in the Word of God.”

Christianity Today’s report suggests that some Protestants have forgotten this right relationship between Scripture and Tradition. We are right to trust in Scripture alone; but it is foolhardy to read Scripture by ourselves.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Heartbeat of Reformed Theology

What Is the Heartbeat of Reformed Theology? --by Jason Helopoulos

What is the heartbeat of Reformed Theology? Some would point to the Doctrines of Grace (Five Points of Calvinism) and others to the Solas of the Reformation. Still others may be inclined to assert that it is the sovereignty of God or union with Christ. All of these are good answers, but if I was pressed to articulate the one thing that drives Reformed Theology, I would reply that it is the glory of God as revealed in the Scriptures:
  • We emphasize reliance upon the Scriptures because observing the rule He has given for faith and practice ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the sovereignty of God because a theology rooted in His supremacy ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the distinction between Creator and creature because a right understanding of His “otherness” ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the sinfulness of man because recognizing His unfathomable grace ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the inability of man in salvation because accentuating His mercy ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize predestination and election because distinguishing He is a God who freely chooses ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize prayer because faithful dependence ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the preached Word because listening to His voice ascribes glory God.
  • We emphasize the sacraments because participating in these gifts to the church ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize holiness in the Christian life because being conformed to the likeness of Christ ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize daily quiet times because seeking Him in private worship ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize worship in our homes, because centering our homes upon Christ ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize Lord’s Day corporate worship, because gathering with the bride of Christ ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize preaching Christ from all the Scriptures because maintaining the centrality of Christ ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize providence because trusting in Him for all things ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize missions because spreading His fame throughout all the earth ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize theological rigor because worshipping God with all our mind, heart, and soul ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the covenants because treasuring God’s faithfulness ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the pilgrimage of the Christian life because seeking Christ above beauty ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize that the treasure of heaven is Christ because observing there is nothing better ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize conversion because calling men, women, and children to faith in Christ ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize common grace because recognizing that all good things come from above ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize the local church, because as the appointed bride of the Son ascribes glory to God.
  • We emphasize union with Christ in salvation because seeing every aspect of our salvation in relation to Christ (as the Scriptures do) ascribes glory to God.
What is the heartbeat of Reformed Theology? I wouldn’t feel the need to argue with someone who would suggest it is the Doctrines of Grace, union with Christ, or even the Solas of the Reformation. Yet, I think it is more accurate to say that Reformed theology is a system of doctrine that seeks to rightly articulate the teaching of the Scriptures for the glory of God. It is His glory that is our heartbeat, propels us to action, and the reward that we seek after.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

3 Ways Not to Use Greek in Bible Study

3 Ways Not to Use Greek in Bible Study –by Justin Dillehay
Bible students love to talk about "the original Greek." Preachers, too. Some preachers seem to want to work Greek into their sermons as often as they can.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know something about the language that God gave us for the New Testament. But there are also dangers involved, since most Christians either don't know Greek at all, or (which is almost the same thing) know only enough to look up individual Greek words. Just imagine how badly a foreign speaker could butcher English if all he could do was look up individual English words.
The path is littered with what D. A. Carson has called "exegetical fallacies" (a book I was assigned three times in school). This brief article is my effort to condense a couple of Carson's lessons, in order to help us learn how not to use Greek in Bible study.   

1. Usage Trumps Etymology: Avoiding the Root Fallacy
When I was a homeschooling high schooler, I took a course on etymology. Etymology deals with the "roots" of words—where a word originally came from way back in the foggy mists of time. It's a valuable area to study, and nothing I'm about to say in this article is meant to suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, a problem arises when people mistakenly think that a word's etymology tells them "what it really means."

We can see the fallacy of this notion clearly in our native English language. For example, the word nice comes from the Latin root nescius, meaning "ignorant." But no one but a fool would respond to your calling them "nice" by saying, "Oh, I see what you really mean! You're saying I'm ignorant! You and your veiled Latin insults!"

No one does this in their native language, but many Christians do this very thing when studying the Bible. They look up Greek words in their Strong's Concordance, find the original Greek root, and conclude that they have found the word's "real" meaning. This is what Carson calls the "root fallacy."

Don't get me wrong: roots and etymology are good. They can sometimes give you an interesting back story on why a particular word came to be used to describe a particular thing. They can even help you win the national spelling bee. But they don't tell you the "real meaning" of a word, because a word's meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage. The question is not, "Where did this word originate?" but, "What did the writer/speaker mean by it?"

If you proposed to your girlfriend and she said, "No," but you could somehow prove that "No" came from a Greek word meaning "Yes," it still wouldn't do you any good. “No” means what your girlfriend (and everyone else) means by it, not what it might have meant 1,000 years ago in an ancestor language. The reason no one today would take "nice" to mean "ignorant" is that no one today uses it that way. If you want to know what a word means today, you must find out how it's used today. That's what an up-to-date dictionary will tell you. For Bible students, it's also what a good lexicon will tell you. One of the best tools for the Bible student to have right now is William Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament WordsThis volume also contains a helpful piece called "How to Do Word Studies," which will warn you against some of the same pitfalls that I am telling you about.   

2. Scholars Are Necessary: Avoiding the Cult of the Amateur 
When it comes to Bible study, many Christians seem to think that knowing Greek is like a magic bullet that will unlock all the secrets of biblical meaning. I once thought this, and then I began studying Greek. The main thing I learned in the first couple of weeks of class was that most of what I thought I knew about Greek was malarky. Turns out that agape and philos aren't really different kinds of love after all, and the gospel isn't really the "dynamite" of God. In many ways, Greek is much more mundane than I had thought. It resolves some questions but also creates others.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from studying Greek. In fact, I would encourage as many Christians to learn it as can. But the reality is that most believers don't have the time or the ability. The good news, however, is that God never intended all (or even most) of his people to have to learn Greek in order to understand his Word. There is a happy division of labor. God is merciful—some people become experts in Greek and Hebrew so the rest of us don't have to.

As Robert Plummer recently observed, "Never before in the history of Christianity has there been less need for word studies than today. With the multiplicity of many excellent English Bible translations, readers of the Bible have the fruit of scholars' painstaking research." And as 19th-century Baptist theologian John Dagg put it:
Translations, though made with uninspired human skill, are sufficient for those who have not access to the inspired original. Unlearned men will not be held accountable for a degree of light beyond what is granted to them; and the benevolence of God in making revelation has not endowed all with the gift of interpreting tongues. . . . God has seen it wiser and better to leave the members of Christ to feel the necessity of mutual sympathy and dependence, than to bestow every gift on every individual. He has bestowed the knowledge necessary for the translation of his word on a sufficient number of faithful men to answer the purpose of his benevolence. And the least accurate of the translations with which the common people are favored is full of divine truth and able to make wise to salvation.

If Dagg is right, and I think he is, then the impulse that says, "I don't want to be dependent on scholars" may be a latent form of pride. It may be the hand saying to the foot, "I have no need of you." I'm not trying to turn translators into an infallible high priestly class. I'm simply saying that unless God expects us all to become language scholars, then he must have willed a division of labor. It won't do to replace the cult of the expert with the cult of the amateur. We depend on scholars whether we like it or not.

Pride will chafe at this reality, and paranoia will invent conspiracy theories. But until we become omniscient, omnipotent, and omnicompetent, nothing will change it.

3. Context Is King: Avoiding the Overload Fallacy
Humility will see this fact as welcome news and will be relieved at God's way of dividing the labor. The sad truth is that many Christians spend too much time looking up Greek words and coming to misguided conclusions because they don't really understand how the language works (they often know just enough to be dangerous). But for those who think they can't understand the Bible at all unless they can read Greek, the good news is that nine times out of ten you will gain a better understanding of what a word means simply by reading it in its context.

Here's what I mean by "reading it in its context": don't just zero in on one word. Read the entire sentence. Then read the entire paragraph. As a teacher once noted in a Sunday school class at my church, "Words shouldn't be read with blinders on." Most words don't have a "literal meaning" at all—rather, they have a range of possible meanings (the technical term is "semantic range"). That's why a dictionary usually lists several possible options. Only when a word is used in context does the precise meaning becomes clear.
The better you know a language, the less time you will spend zeroing in on individual words. Consider this sentence: "Cinderella danced at the ball." The average American can read this sentence and understand it immediately. No fluent English speaker who knows the story of Cinderella is going to see the word ball and think, Hmm. I wonder what ball means. I better look it up. But imagine if a misguided non-English speaker were studying this sentence the way many people study the Bible. He might look up the word ball and think, Ah! Look at this! This word ball is rich in meaning! It can mean all sorts of things! A round object; a non-strike in baseball; a dance. Boy, this sentence is so much richer when you can read it in the original English!

But of course, as native speakers, we can immediately see the folly of this method. Yes, the word ball can mean all those things, but in this sentence it only means one of them. Which means that the other possible meanings are irrelevant at this point. Reading every possible meaning into a particular use of a word is sometimes called the "overload fallacy."

Context usually narrows the possible meanings to one (an exception would be those wonderful things called "puns"). For example, if you want to know what John means by the word sin in 1 John 3:4, instead of zeroing in on the word sin and doing a word study of hamartia and trying to find out what hamarita "really" means based on its root, read the entire sentence: "Sin is lawlessness." Then read the surrounding context: "Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin."

I'm not saying that Greek word studies are bad, or totally unnecessary (after all, we are not native Greek speakers). But unless you do them properly, they'll simply give you the illusion of knowing something when you really don't. Most of the time you'll do better to simply compare a number of solid translations like the NASB, ESV, NIV, and NLT. After all, the people who translated these Bible versions understand Greek far better than you or I ever will. So don't throw away their expertise. And as you read, pay attention to the context. An ounce of good contextual analysis is worth a pound of poorly done Greek word studies.

So take your English Bibles and read carefully. When you do word studies, avoid the root fallacy, take advantage of scholars' expertise, and remember that context is king. In short, read, reread, and reread again. It's not as flashy a study method, and it probably won't make you feel (or look) as smart, but it'll give you much more accurate results.