This website represents an effort to bring together members of the body of Christ in fellowship around His word and seeking the guidance of His Spirit to abide in Jesus. Our discussions will usually center around Scriptures I am preaching from on Sunday mornings at Berean Baptist Church, but will also involve other areas of theology and current events as they relate to God’s Word. My prayer is that it will be a forum for edification and equipping of the saints for ministry. Soli Deo Gloria!
This Sunday at Berean, we are discussing the article in our Confession of Faith regarding the process of discipleship and spiritual growth as a mission of the church. This doctrine is frequently referred to as sanctification, or the process of becoming more like Jesus in our thoughts, attitudes, words and actions. We will be examining Paul’s thoughts in Galatians 5 and 6 in the morning service and Romans 7 in the evening service (see sidebar for the assignment). One important aspect of our discussion, especially in the evening service, is considering Paul’s use of the word “flesh” (“sarx” in Greek) in Galatians 5:24 where he says that those who belong to Christ Jesus have “crucified the flesh with it’s passions and desires”. At least that’s how the literal translations (including the ESV) have it. The NIV renders that same word as “sinful nature”. By doing so, the NIV has done an interpretive task for us by removing the difficulty of understanding what Paul means when he uses that term “flesh”. The translator’s motivation stems from seeking to avoid a misunderstanding of Paul in which matter is seen as evil and spirit is seen as good. Such a perspective would clearly be unbiblical (matter and spirit are neither inherently good or evil). To evaluate the validity of their chosen rendering (“sinful nature”) it is helpful to see how Paul uses the term in the rest of Galatians. In looking at Paul’s use of the word “sarx” and it’s derivatives in Galatians we find that he uses it a total of 18 times. In chapters 1-4 he uses it 8 times and the NIV translates it variably as as “any man” (1:16), “no one” (2:16), “the body” (2:20), “human effort” (3:3), “illness” (here the NIV does not actually translate the word as the Greek has “fleshly/bodily” illness 4:13, 14), “ordinary way” (referring to birth 4:23, 29). Paul uses the term 10 times in chapters 5-6. The first 8 times (5:13, 16, 17 [2x], 19, 24; 6:8 [2x]) the NIV renders it “sinful nature” and then the final two occurrences (6:12, 13) are rendered “outwardly”. In many of these cases, there does need to be some smoothing out, since English does not use the word flesh the way ancient peoples did. However, what the NIV does in chapters 5-6 is to take something that until then has indicated a physical, external and morally neutral reality and taken it to refer to a spiritual, internal and morally evil reality. This represents more than a smoothing out and suggests that Paul means something very different by this word in chapters 5-6 than he did in chapters 1-4. Reading Galatians in its entirety we see that circumcision as a requirement for salvation comes firmly into view. This makes it likely that the use of flesh is not accidental but a direct reference to the heresy perpetrated by those we call Judaizers who insisted that obedience to the Old covenant was essential to living under the New covenant. For that reason I take flesh in chapters 5-6 to mean something like “mere human effort or strength” as the NIV rendered it in 3:3. If you lay that sort of meaning over the rest of the uses of flesh in the book and put it in the context of the book as a whole, I think you develop a better picture of what Paul means by the word than the term “sinful nature” supplies. Romans 7, which we will consider in the evening service, is a more developed look at this concept of what our present relation to sin and spiritual growth is. The key question we will consider is whether the experience described by Paul in that chapter is that of a believer or of a non-believer. If it is that of a non-believer it is obviously Paul’s experience before coming to Christ rather than his experience at the time of writing. You will note (if you compare translations) that “flesh” and “sinful nature” are present in this text as well, and just as critical for understanding his meaning. In turn, what Paul says in these two passages and how we understand them, dramatically impacts how we view our own process of spiritual growth and fight against sin in our lives. I look forward to a great discussion this Sunday.
If you have been paying attention for the last few months at Berean, you know that one of my passions is the local church, and that was true long before it was my chosen profession. This Sunday we will, very briefly, be considering some basic notions regarding the church from 1 Corinthians 12 (see the weekly Scripture reading in the sidebar). Below, you will find some (not so brief) thoughts regarding the church’s three-fold purpose taken from a series of three posts I wrote on the subject a few years ago. I am convinced that just as certain doctrines have dominated particular periods of church history (the Trinity in the 4th century and justification in the 16th, for example), what we believe about the church will define the early 21st century. May the following thoughts contribute to our conversations in continuing to discover God’s truth regarding our lives together.
Purpose #1: Fellowship
Dictionary.com has as its first definition of the word “church”, “a building for public Christian worship”, and its second is, “public worship of god or a religious service in such a building”. Only in its third definition does it come close to what any good theologian would give as a definition of church, saying “the whole body of Christian believers”. And yet it is interesting to me that the first two definitions that the dictionary gives are a closer approximation of the way many Christians use the term. We “go to church”, or admire a “beautiful church” such as Notre Dame, or say that “the church is on Main Street”. And yet we all (hopefully) understand that this is not what the authors of Scripture had in mind when they used the term, so why bring up what is surely just an issue of words? Because it has occurred to me that there is a deeper reason why we use the word the way that we do.
In the film “The Invention of Lying” in which the main character invents religion via a series of lies, he tells people that there is a “man in the sky who controls everything” and who determines where you go when you die. Later in the film, a building which the dictionary would call a “church” is shown, and the sign outside, instead of reading “1st Methodist Church” or “St. Luke’s Episcopalian”, reads “A Quiet Place to Think About the Man in the Sky”. This points to a key reason why we think of church as a building or activity. We have reduced it to only one of its three purposes, that is, the purpose of worship (the other two are fellowship and evangelism by the way). As a consequence, we no longer see a need for all of those other people sitting around us in “church”. They’re just in the way of us getting the help we need “thinking about the man in the sky”, which we get from the people on the platform. This is what is meant by the phrase “consumer Christianity”. The people at church matter as much to me as the people in line with me at Wal-Mart or Taco Bell. We come to a “church” to receive a service that will help us individually in our “personal relationship with God”. If we do think about “serving in our church” we think of it in terms of what happens on the platform or in terms of taking care of those other peoples’ kids. In other words, in helping them “think about the man in the sky” by removing their kids and providing nice, appropriate music, and compelling graphics to accompany the sermon. This is why commitment to a local church is not taken seriously very often. We are looking for the best service and so are loyal “customers” only so long as the service continues to meet our needs. If we find a “better deal”, we switch loyalties and move on.
This approach misses a huge piece (indeed the primary piece) of why the church was instituted. It was in order that we might be together with one another. Yes, we worship God (and we should do that together as a church body), but we should do that anyway and not only when we’re “at church”. Even the term “worship service ” is misleading, as it implies that that is the primary/only activity taking place during that time. Yet Paul, on one of the rare occasions where he mentioned singing at all in a “church” context, said that his readers were to be “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16, cf. Ephesians 5:19). Our singing is first to one another as instruction, from which flows our thankfulness to our Father. So often, though, we think of singing in church as being directed only to God and are actually encouraged to ignore the people around us lest they distract us from that. We can sing to God whenever and wherever, but we can only sing to each other when we are together.
Ironically, it turns out, the things we cannot do when we’re alone are the things we do the least when we are together, and that is to talk to one another, pray with one another, encourage and exhort and teach one another, and take care of one another. To do this, it seems, would require being together more than once a week for 75 minutes, and in a context where there were less than 200 people (all of whom are facing the same direction). My impression of church services in the 1st century (and it must be said that the New Testament is strangely quiet on the subject of “worship services” and liturgy) is much more that of a large family dinner than the stage productions that characterize our age. Please understand that this is not a criticism of our services. I love and benefit from them regularly and want to keep them. It’s just that I think we’ve confused them with, and allowed them to replace “church”. Consider the following:
- In 1 Corinthians 14 you find many believers “prophesying” in the church service (not just the pastor).
- In 1 Corinthians 11, the Lord’s Supper seems to be celebrated weekly and was a real meal, which partly served to alleviate the hunger of the poorer brethren.
- In Jude this is called a “love feast”, at which teaching also took place, since false teachers are said to be a blemish on them.
- In Acts, the believers are frequently found together praying in one place instead of listening to one person pray in their stead.
- Also in Acts, table fellowship among believers is frequently seen as they “broke bread from house to house”.
As I say, I am not suggesting we scrap what we do on Sundays, or even drastically change it. What I am suggesting is that we stop calling it “church” as it is only one aspect of what “the church” is supposed to do. As a final thought, consider Acts 2:42, which many churches take as an outline of their ministry activities. It lists four activities of the early church 1)the apostle’s doctrine, 2)the fellowship, 3)the breaking of bread (for them table fellowship and the Lord’s supper were virtually identical I think, so this term can mean both activities), and 4)prayer. It says the believers were “devoted” to these things. The question then is, if church is reduced to being defined as 75 minutes every Sunday, then it’s no wonder that we find that we can only be devoted to one of those things (the apostle’s doctrine/worship). ”Church” is so much more than that.
Purpose #2: Evangelism
Whereas the purpose of fellowship addresses the relationship of believers with one another, evangelism addresses the relationship of believers with those outside the church. At its root the term means to proclaim good news, being a transliteration of the Greek word “euangelizo”. Thus, according to Mark Dever in his book “What is a Healthy Church?”, evangelism ultimately consists of speaking the words of the gospel. Part of what has happened in the church in the past two or three centuries is that we have come to a place where we seem to believe that simply speaking the words of the gospel fulfills our obligations related to the purpose of evangelism. In a previous post I addressed the elegant simplicity of the Greatest Commandment “Love God and love others”. I believe that the purposes of the church are to mirror this commandment. Worship fulfills the first half of the command, while fellowship (loving believers) and evangelism (loving outsiders) fulfill the second half. It is interesting to me that we have placed an emphasis in our love for outsiders on communicating truth to them, when Scripture places the primacy on demonstrable, active love. John 13:35 specifically indicates that the outsider will know a Christian by their love, and 1 John 3:14-18 emphasizes that love must be visible, tangible and active. Jesus in Matthew 5:16 equates shining our light with doing good works before men (presumably non-believers) and the early church in Acts seems to have been quite successful at exhibiting this kind of love with that kind of effect on those outside (see Acts 2:46-47, 4:21, 5:13). Part of what happens when our definition of church is as a place or an institution is that we reduce our interactions with outsiders to appeals to “pray a prayer”, or even to simply “invite our friends to church”. Not much thought is given to what we are inviting them to, and this is where our purpose of fellowship needs to be addressed. If we are inviting them to an event and a place then we begin to see people as statistics, and to see growth solely in terms of numbers. If, however, we invite them into a community, then we cannot help but relate to them individually, and to see growth as an organic phenomenon (much closer to the Biblical idea). The fact that we operate much more in the former mindset explains the prevalence of “evangelistic” bumper stickers, signs and other gimmicks that are supposed to make it easy to “share our faith”. Our goal is to get them to come to us, when the Great Commission tells us to go to them. This is not a matter of geography, but of mindset. It is the mind of Christ that prompted Him to leave heaven and live among us. The parables Jesus tells of the kingdom in Matthew 13 (the mustard tree in which the birds of the air nest, yeast in dough, wheat among tares and the net with all kinds of fish) emphasize its diffuse nature. The point is that the kingdom (for now embodied in the Church) is “out there” in and among the world rather than separated from it. This is the idea of being in, but not of, the world. We must be distinct without being isolated. Our practices, however, give the impression that our buildings are sacred ground (it’s “the house of God” after all) and most of our “ministries” take place on those premises. This brings up an interesting idea regarding our definition of ministry, which I will take up at length in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that ministry is the call of every believer (not just paid professionals) and simply means service (and not a worship service). It s my contention that to serve someone is to meet them where they are by listening to what they are telling us that they need rather than assuming we know what they need.
Now do not misunderstand me, evangelism is the speaking of words, so I am not proposing a vague humanitarianism or philanthropy indistinct from secular charity organizations. What I am saying is that our evangelistic efforts cannot consist only of preaching the gospel. Peter gives us a hint at a fuller vision of evangelism when he says in 1 Peter 3:15 that we are to be ready when people ask us why we have hope. This indicates that something has happened beforehand to make the person curious about us. It is my contention that the best evangelism is never done outside of a context of relationship. This makes evangelism personal, rather than institutional. It fulfills completely the command to love our neighbors by showing that we care about them and then speaking the truth when asked. Could it be that (as Dallas Willard has suggested in “The Divine Conspiracy”) this is what Jesus is referring to when He says not to cast our pearls before swine? We usually think the problem is with the swine who are too dim-witted not to recognize that the pearls are valuable. In reality it is the person who thinks swine will be entranced by pearls, instead of giving them what they need. The result is that they turn and trample us, and who can blame them? Jesus then instructs us in the power of the request, suggesting that instead of throwing the truth at people, it might be nice if we asked their permission to be given the right to speak to them. Evangelism is not an event to which we invite the outsider, it is an opportunity we are given after we have lived among the outsider in an authentically loving way.
Purpose #3: Worship
I was once asked by a young man whom I was discipling, if it was irreverent that he had uttered a prayer of confession to God while eating a burrito (as he described it, literally mid-bite). We discussed this for a few minutes and I concluded by assuring him that there is never an inappropriate time or place to approach God. As amusing as this scenario may strike some of us, I think it speaks to the heart of why the church is as weak as we see it today. The root of it is that we have been complicit in moving the church to the margins of life. Note that this is distinct from being moved out of a dominant position in society where the “movers and shakers” are lined up on our side as was the case in “Christendom” for 1700 years, but which realistically is no longer the case. I feel that when Christianity is moved to the fringes, it is because it is living out its most powerful witness. Jesus promised that to the extent that we were faithful to Him and obeyed His word, the world (by which I take Him to mean “the powers that be” rather than every human not aligned with Jesus’ agenda) would hate us and persecute us. I’m afraid that currently the powers that be do not hate us so much as they ignore us and consider us irrelevant, such that when we do gain notice, we are not derided so much as we are simply dismissed.
What does any of this have to do with worship? Everything. In our minds, we have so equated worship with singing (and perhaps other religious rituals) that we have relegated it to an auxiliary status in our lives that happens primarily on Sunday mornings, or when we are by ourselves listening to our Christian music CDs. Even as heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we still have a notion that we need a sacred time and a sacred place where professionals can make worship happen. This is totally contrary to Scripture where we are enjoined to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, this being our spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1) and that whether we eat, or drink to do all things to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Part of this has to do with our relegation of worship to a purely emotional phenomenon. By this I mean emotion divorced from the mind or the will. To be sure, I love when God’s Spirit pricks my heart through a song and my spirit responds in ways that cause a lump to rise in my throat and my chest to become tight and (yes, this happens) tears to fall down my face. When this happens, however, I do not mark it as “real” worship or as the beginning of worship. Rather it is the culmination of what my mind and will have been engaged in before the song started and before I even walked in the building. I certainly am not suggesting that I have worship mastered or that I obey Romans 12:1 perfectly. May I never be guilty of such arrogance! I do, however, make a conscious effort to link my experience of lifting praise to God in song on Sundays with my experience of Him and obedience to Him throughout the other events and activities of my life. This prevents me from critiquing a worship service based on the quality of music or choice of songs. The only problems with a worship service are those that arise because my heart is not in an attitude of worship, which is not the fault of the professionals on stage, but mine. My emotion in worship does not come because it is manufactured or massaged out of me by others, but instead is sourced within myself as I reflect on my walk with God. This is why it is possible to have an emotional experience in a worship service and still have failed to worship because the emotion is all there is, there is no “offering of our bodies as living sacrifices”. Too often we ask whether we were pleased by the music of those on stage rather than asking whether God was pleased with the music of those in the congregation (and His standards of finding pleasure in such things is surely different than ours).
If we were to restore a biblical idea of worship as lifestyle (the biblical word is “walk”, indicating consistent direction of life), we would find that there would be no area of our lives that would not be impacted by the fact that we are Christ-followers. At that point the “powers that be” would no longer be able to ignore us, because we would have taken ourselves out of the sanctuary and into the world with our worship. If done genuinely (not busting out a guitar and singing in the middle of the workday in your office for instance), it would be at once attractive to many and offensive to others instead of being ignored by virtually everyone outside the church (and let’s face it, plenty of people inside the church are ignoring our “worship” as well). Ironically, this would probably result in our being moved even further from the dominant centers of society, but only because we were living out a provocatively powerful vision of what life as God’s people looks like. They might not like it, they might be scared of it, they might be drawn to it, but they could not ignore it. Indeed, we become like what we worship, and so if we worship the God of the universe we will be conformed to His image (Romans 12:2) and no one could ever simply write us off. In the end it must be worship that we are about. It is worship that should unite our fellowship and motivate our evangelism. Praise YAHWEH you His saints, praise Him in the highest heaven! Amen!
That phrase comes from my theology professor who explained the “economic trinity” (an understanding of the distinctions of the persons in the Godhead based on what role they play in various divine activities) in salvation by saying “The Father thought it, the Son bought it and the Spirit wrought it.” This is an absolutely critical understanding of the biblical teaching of redemption. The work of Christ makes redemption possible, the work of the Spirit makes it actual in someone’s life. We talked last week about how salvation is a multifaceted and integrated process that changes someone from being a “sinner” into a “saint” destined to turn from walking in trespasses and sins to walking in guid works prepared by God. This is due to the fact that in Christ we are God’s workmanship, his masterpiece. This week we will see how this is accomplished by the work of the Spirit in our lives. So many people regard the work of the Spirit as either frightening or confusing, something that prompts fights and disagreements among believers, and something that is either given too much attention or not enough. The church has not generally been helpful at clarifying the situation much. I think this is partly because we have tended to equate the work of the Spirit with the gifts that the Spirit gives to believers, as though that were the extent of his work. Scripture says far more about the other works of the Spirit then it does about spiritual gifts (about which it says relatively little). Indeed, our passage for Sunday (John 13-17, see Scripture assignment for this week in the margin) says nothing about the gifts of the Spirit and yet is considered one of the most important and concentrated teachings about the Holy Spirit in all of Scripture. As you prepare for Sunday, consider what role you believe the Spirit to have in your life and how you see him operating on a regular basis. Then come ready to hear what Jesus told his disciples as he was leaving about this vital element in the Trinity’s redemptive strategy.
Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation. It comes from the Greek word “soter”, which means savior. This is appropriate, since, as we discussed last week, our salvation is firmly rooted not in a process, but in a person and his work on our behalf. In the 2nd century Christians used the symbol of a fish to symbolize their commitment to their savior, Jesus, and used the Greek word for fish (“Icthus”) as an acronym for their most basic beliefs about him. ”I” = Iesus (Jesus) “C” = Chirstos (Christ/Messiah) “Th” = Theou (of God) “U” = Uios (the Son) “S” = Soter (Savior). This emphasis on Jesus’ role as Savior reflects the Old Testament approach to Yahweh as a redeeming God seen in passages like Isaiah 44:21-45:25. This passage features the recurring use of salvation terminology, especially the title “redeemer”, used repeatedly of God. This redeeming action of Yahweh is tied to his absolute sovereignty over his universe that he created. From large-scale historical movements (the rise of Persia conquering and replacing Babylon as the superpower of the Ancient Near East) to minute and intimate human decisions (the birth and naming of Cyrus), Yahweh perfectly directs events towards his purpose of delivering a people for his glory. This echoes the tone of the book of Ephesians, which we will be looking at this Sunday. Our focus will be on how the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross (which was the foundation of Yahweh’s redemption) can be appropriated to our benefit. As I have said many times, Scripture says that those who have trusted in Christ have been saved, are being saved and will be saved. Salvation is a process which many theologians express in what is called the “Ordo Salutis” (Order of Salvation):
Pre-temporal aspect of salvation
Changes within the person at the moment of salvation
Baptism with the Holy Spirit
Changes in status of the person at the moment of salvation
Union with Christ
Ongoing aspects of salvation until death
Final completion of salvation at resurrection
In our evening service we will discuss the aspect of salvation referred to as election, which has been a contentious one in church history with people either following the Reformed/Calvinist perspective or the Arminian/Wesleyan perspective. Contrary to what many people have suggested, these are not equivalent systems. That is to say, one of them must be right and the other wrong, since they are saying opposite things. At the same time, it is not my view that a difference on this issue should formally separate believers in fellowship and is certainly not a matter of orthodoxy vs. heresy (as say, one’s view of the Trinity is). The differences between the two views is often summarized using the “TULIP” acronym of the Reformed system, although these “5 points” were a response to the 17th century challenge to Reformed theology in Holland brought by Jakob Arminius. Here they are:
Reformed System Arminian System
Total Depravity/Inability to respond to God Prevenient Grace removed every human’s inability
Unconditional Election Election based on God’s foreknowledge of a person’s response of faith
Limited Atonement intended for the elect Unlimited Atonement intended for the whole world
Irresistible Grace Grace can be resisted
Perseverance of the elect Possibility of the loss of salvation
When talking about election, I believe Scripture says 8 things clearly enough that to deny them is not appropriate. These statements can seem contradictory and the two systems above are each trying to explain the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom/responsibility.
1. God wills all to be saved (I Tim. 2:1-6; II Pet. 3:9, Ez. 33:11)
2. God extends the gospel command to all men (Acts 17:30, Rev. 22:17)
3. Men are responsible to respond to the command (Matt. 23:37, Jn. 5:40)
4. God does choose some to be saved (Matt. 22:14, John 15:16, 19, Acts 9:15, 13:48, Rom. 8:28-30, 11:7-8, I Cor. 1:26-31, Eph. 1:4-5, 11, Col. 3:12, I Thess. 1:4-5, II Tim. 2:10, Tit. 1:1, I Pet. 1:1, 2:9, 5:13, II Jn. 1, 13, Rev. 13:7-8, 17:8, 14)
5. God does pass over others to be condemned (Matt. 11:25-26, Rom. 9:17-22, I Pet. 2:8, Jude 4)
6. God’s election is linked to His foreknowledge (Jn. 6:64, Rom. 8:29, I Pet. 1:1-2)
7. God’s election is linked to His sovereign grace (Rom. 9:10-16, 11:5-6, Eph. 1:6, II Tim. 1:9)
8. God’s election serves to further His glory (Rom. 9:23, Eph. 1:12, I Thess. 1:2, II Thess. 2:13)
Given those eight statements, the question is not whether God chooses who will be saved or not, but why He chooses whom He does? The question is also not whether or not we make a choice to be saved, but rather why we make the choice we do. The two systems are offering different answers to those questions without denying any of the 8 statements made above. As we turn to Ephesians 2:1-10 this Sunday morning and then discuss the doctrine of election in the evening, it will become clear that however we explain the mysterious interaction of divine sovereignty and human choice, no one can ever claim any credit for their salvation. Indeed, Isaiah, Paul and the early church recognized, our salvation is 100% the work of our redeemer, our “soter”, our savior, Yahweh and his messiah Jesus. All glory be unto the God who saves!
This Sunday we will be considering the central element of Christian doctrine, which is our teaching about the person and work of Jesus. If we get Jesus wrong, we do not have a savior capable of rescuing us from our sin. If we get some element of Jesus wrong, we will wander into error in some other area of doctrine as a result. We cannot pay too close attention then to what we believe about Jesus of Nazareth. The early church understood this and of the 7 ecumenical councils that hammered out fundamental statements of the faith, at least two were focused on this question. Nicea in AD 325 gave us the creed that lays the groundwork for Trinitarian thinking, which we considered 3 weeks ago. Chalcedon in AD 451 gave us what has been called the “box” that defines the necessary elements of the person of Jesus. The creed states the following:
“We then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.”
The box then, has four sides: 1) Jesus is God, meaning that everything that is an essential aspect of being God is true of Jesus; 2) Jesus is human, meaning that everything that is an essential aspect of being human is true of Jesus; 3) Jesus has two distinct natures, a divine and a human, such that He is a “God-man” with each nature being unchanged by being united in His person; 4) Jesus is only one person, not two persons each with a separate nature. Take away one of the sides (open the box in other words) and you have an insufficient Jesus. This identity of Jesus is critical to appreciating his qualifications to perform the work of salvation on our behalf. There is too much material here for us to cover in a single message and so on Sunday morning we will be focusing on the work of Christ as explained in Romans 5. As background, below I have gone over some of the biblical teaching on the person of Christ that is summarized in the Chalcedonian Creed.
Scriptures that teach Jesus’ divinity:
1) Direct declarations or clear statements (there are more of these than you might think: Is. 7:14, 9:6, Jn. 1:1, 14, 5:18, 10:30, 20:28, Acts 20:28, Rom. 9:5, Phil. 2:6, Titus 2:13, Heb. 1:8, II Pet. 1:1, I Jn. 5:20).
2) Divine Titles and Names: Yahweh/LORD (Is. 40:3/Matt. 3:3, Ps. 110:1/Matt. 22:44, Ps. 102:25- 27/Heb. 1:10-12), Shepherd (Ps. 23:1, Jn. 10:11), Bridegroom (Is. 62:5, Matt. 25:1-13), Judge (Joel 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:1)
3) Divine Essence, shares the nature of the Father (Phil. 2:6, Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3)
4) Divine Attributes: Aseity (Jn. 5:26), Eternality (Prov. 8, Is. 9:6, Mic. 5:2, Jn. 1:1-3, 18 8:58, 17:5, 24, I Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:16-17, Heb. 1:1), Immortality (Jn. 2:19-22, 10:17-18, Heb. 7:16, I Tim. 6:16), Immutability (Heb. 13:8), Omnipotence (Is. 9:6, Matt. 28:18, Rev. 1:8, also his nature miracles), Omnipresence (Matt. 18:20, 28:20, Eph. 1:23, Col. 3:11), Omniscience (Jn. 16:30, 21:17)
5) Divine Works: Creation (Jn. 1:3, Col. 1:16, Heb. 1:2), Providence (Col. 1:17, Heb. 1:3), Forgives sins (Mk. 2:5-10)
6) Receives Worship (Mt. 2:11, 14:33, 21:15-16, 28:9, 17, Jn. 9:38, Heb. 1:6, Rev. 5:4-14, cf. Acts 10:25, 14:14-15, Rev. 19:10, 22:8-9)
With all of that being said, it must now be born in mind that Jesus is also fully human, and that being human brings with it limitations that do not seem consistent with being divine. This is what is meant when we say that Jesus cloaked His divinity and did not avail Himself of all of those benefits during His ministry on earth. In this way He experienced the following things in the same way that we do:
Being born (Gal. 4:4), He grew (Lk. 2:40, 52), He hungered (Matt. 4:2), He thirsted (Jn. 19:28), He tired (Jn. 4:6), He died (Jn. 19:32-35), He resurrected (Lk. 24:39) He possessed limited knowledge (Matt. 24:36), He was astonished (Mk. 6:6, Lk. 7:9), troubled (Jn. 12:27, 13:21), sorrowed (Jn. 11:35), expressed great emotion (Matt. 23, Heb. 5:7), and grew in wisdom and maturity (Lk. 2:40, Heb. 5:8-9).
According to the creed, in one very important respect, He was not like us, however, and that is with regard to sin. Jesus was morally perfect (Heb. 9:14). This means that there was never a temptation that even for a millisecond seemed attractive to Him. And yet He was genuinely tempted (Matt. 4, Heb. 2:10, 17-18; 4:15; 1 Jn. 2:15). Yet because the root of His personality is the divine nature and because whatever one of Jesus’ natures does, the whole person does, He could never have sinned because God cannot sin, and yet the temptations were real. The reality of an attack does not depend on its chances of success. A mosquito cannot succeed in penetrating a tank’s armor, but that does not mean it cannot try. This explains the relative ease with which Jesus dismissively deals with Satan’s temptations in the wilderness.
So since Jesus is the perfect God-man, He can pay the price for our sins. Because He is God, He can offer an infinite sacrifice. As a sinless man, His sacrifice can be accepted in exchange for other humans. He must have both natures, but it must be one person on that cross such that we can say that God experienced death on the cross in order to effect our salvation. It is this work of Christ that we will be considering in our message on Sunday and indeed there is nothing more significant we could choose to talk about.
On my shelf I have a book written in the 17th century by a Puritan author named Ralph Venning entitled “The Sinfulness of Sin”. In one of the opening sections, as part of a catalogue of the ways in which sin is sinful, brother Venning describes it under the heading of “Contrariety to God” in the following way:
“…sinners are called by the name of enemies to God (Romans 5:8 with 10; Colossians 1:21); but the carnal mind or sin is called enmity itself (Romans 8:7). Accordingly, it and its acts are expressed by names of enmity and acts of hostility, such as, walking contrary to God (Leviticus 26:21), rebelling against God (Isaiah 1:2), rising up against him as an enemy (Micah 2:8), striving and contending with God (Isaiah 45:9), and despising God (Numbers 11:20). It makes men haters of God (Romans 1:30), resisters of God (Acts 7:51), fighters against God (Acts 5:39 and 23:9), even blasphemers of God, and in short very atheists, who say there is no God (Psalm 14:1). It goes about to ungod God, and is by some of the ancients called Deicidium, God-murder or God-killing.“
In reading the above selection, one is instantly made aware of the fact that, for better or worse, the modern church does not regard sin as seriously as it once did. It is rare to hear a prolonged discussion of what makes sin bad and of how bad it is. We are more often assured that our sin is much more like a sickness we have succumbed to than a fault for which we can be blamed. Scripture makes no such allowance though. We are, as the bible-thumping revivalist preachers used to say “guilty as sin”, quite literally.
On Sunday we will be looking at our doctrine of humans and sin, which will take us to the very heights of God’s original intention in creation, to the depths of depravity into which we have now plunged it as we examine Genesis 2-3. While brother Venning’s volume and its perspective from 400 or os years ago strikes us as both severe and quaint, it is sobering to realize that it is very much in line with Scripture. We tend to categorize Scripture primarily in terms of bad deeds, words, attitudes and thoughts that disrupt our neighbor’s well-being. Venning makes it clear that even the most civil and well-mannered person is in the grips of debilitating sin, since at root he or she hates God and all that he stands for and longs to be independent of him. Everything our culture tells us speaks that submission is to be equated with weakness and subservience and produces misery and evil. Scripture paints a very different picture, however. It insists that it is precisely in submitting ourselves to our creator that we find the significance and joy and life that we long for.
This weekend we celebrate the 4th of July, our Independence Day. Now, I, as much as the next red-blooded American am grateful for the socio-political system created by our Revolution and the rights that it has secured and that are given by God. In the subsequent 238 years, however, it has spawned a culture that is increasingly autonomous and fragmented. I think this weekend it might be worth composing a Declaration of Dependence, acknowledging our need for our Sovereign to rule over us, repenting of our treason and rebellion, and accepting his offer of amnesty to once again become citizens of his kingdom.
In the film “Rudy”, a priest who is counseling the title character tells him that in all his years of study and ministry he has become certain of only two things “There is a God, and I am not him.” As we continue our study of foundational Christian teachings this week, we will turn our attention to the very nature of God. At root in the Christian tradition is a unique conception of God as one in being and yet a plurality of persons. This way of existing is utterly foreign to our experience. It defies analogy and every attempt to illustrate it not only falls short of accurately explaining it, but actually communicates heresy. This Trinitarian formula, itself a mystery, touches on the mysterious tension in Christian doctrine that exists between what theologians call God’s transcendence and his immanence. By transcendence we mean that he is above and beyond and outside of any sort of created reality or categories. He is not bound by time or space. He is wholly “other” to us. This is of course reflected in the very nature of his existence in a tri-unity which has no parallel in the created order. By immanence we mean that he is intimately near to, and involved in, the created order. He cares deeply and implicates himself personally into the lives of his creatures at the most detailed level. This is necessitated by the fact that God is a community within his Trintarian existence. All other religious systems tilt decidedly towards one or the other of those poles. In radical monotheism (such as in Islam), God’s otherness is emphasized and he is someone to dread more than to love. Most other false religions tend towards pantheistic polytheism (Hinduism and New Age spirituality) and emphasize God’s nearness such that any sense of holiness or sovereignty are eroded. Christianity, as in so many other categories of theology, insists on maintaining a delicate and mysterious balance between these two extremes. While utter transcendence might cause us to think of God as distant and irrelevant and utter immanence might tempt us to think of him as ordinary and tame, the Christian vision compels us with a God who is larger than we can conceive and who cares deeply how we respond to him.
Our text on Sunday will be John 1:1-18 and I would encourage you to read it several times before then, even though it is probably a familiar passage to you. The text is a cornerstone of trinitarian belief, but it is so much more than that. It is a beautiful revelation of the very intimate interactions of the persons of the Godhead and how they spill over into our lives through the person of Jesus. This is why I think the priest’s statement, while not the only thing we can be certain of, should certainly be the foundational thing we should be certain of. This is what Scripture calls “the fear of YAHWEH”. We must, at gut-level, be living moment by moment in the awesome reality of God’s existence, convinced that no effort to contain or domesticate him will succeed, and responding not by running from him, but running to him in the amazement that he desires us to be his children. To God alone be the glory!
This Sunday we will begin a summer-long sermon series around the topic of Christian Doctrine entitled “We Believe…”. We will be using the new Statement of Faith that Berean Baptist Church adopted in April as our outline. As we begin, I think it will be helpful to lay out four of my central values in approaching the topic of doctrine generally as a foundation for the conversation.
1) Biblically-based: It is my contention that the study of theology is just like any other discipline of academic study in one very important respect: there is a field from which to collect data upon which conclusions can be based. In science, for instance, it is the natural world. In history, it is primary source documents from the past. In Christian theology, it is the Bible. Thus, this should not be seen as doing something different than studying the Bible. It is rather an attempt to synthesize all of what Scripture says on any given topic into a coherent system. Our most basic doctrine, the Trinity, is a prime example of this. You only come to an understanding that God exists in a Triune form from reading many Scriptures together. There is no one verse that explicitly articulates the doctrine. Thus, in order to have sound theology one must have solid bible knowledge. Furthermore, sound theology will also prevent one from twisting a single passage’s meaning by removing it from the unified context of the rest of Scripture. This is why we are beginning our series by examining the second article of our statement of faith since it deals with Scripture. It is in Scripture that we find God’s perfect revelation of Himself. The only source more perfect is Christ Himself, which brings me to my second value.
2) Christ-centered: It is my contention that every doctrine of Christianity is rooted in an understanding of who Christ is. If we get Christ right, than all other doctrines fall into place. If we get Christ wrong, than our doctrine, like a rifle tilted even half a degree, will end up wide of the mark. It is for this reason that historically the church has most vigorously defended its statements about Christ and why those are the doctrines most aggressively attacked by heretics and liberal theologies. It is interesting to note that the attacks did not start with a defective view of Scripture (bibliology). Rather they devalued Scripture because of it’s portrayal of a Christ that they felt was alien to the “Jesus of History”. Harnack, a noted liberal theologian, referred to Christianity as a “kernel” bound up in a “husk”, much of which was derived from the New Testament (and especially the Epistles). This makes sense, because Jesus claimed that the Old Testament spoke about Him and we would not have a New Testament without Him. Our whole approach to and confidence in the Scriptures rests on our faith in Christ. In the same way, our view of Christ affects our doctrine of God (theology proper), necessitating a Trinitarian doctrine and implicating Christ in the eternal decree encompassing creation, the fall, redemption and the coming consummation. The doctrine of Christ’s incarnation radically affects our doctrine of man (anthropology) as we see both the value God gives human beings as well as a perfect man “in the flesh” as an example and challenge to us. In the same way, His atonement informs our view of sin (hamartiology) and salvation (soteriology), and with a defective Christ we have a defective atonement such that our sin is not so bad and His death is not really that important and His resurrection might not have happened at all, or needed to for that matter. The Spirit (pneumatology) which indwells us, and empowers us to overcome our “flesh” is understood to have been sent by Him and to mediate His presence with us while He is seated at the right hand of the majesty in heaven interceding for us with the Father. Our understanding of the church (ecclesiology) is undergirded with the idea that it is, in a very real way, His body, His flock, His family, His building of which He is the chief cornerstone and not merely a positive human social institution. Finally, our view of the future and the end (eschatology, a much maligned and overlooked doctrine these days, I’m afraid) is understood solely in terms of the hope we have in Christ’s real and personal return to consummate all things. If at any point we have a deficient view of Christ and His work, every other area of doctrine suffers. This brings me to my third value:
3) Maturing: It is my contention that while it does not take a great deal of theological content to be saved by Christ (although the thief on the cross, for all his simplicity of faith, was a better theologian than many evangelicals), remaining a simpleton theologically will not produce a growing faith but a stagnant, atrophied faith. Conversely, if we apply ourselves to the doctrines of the faith we will find ourselves more robustly confident of the God we serve and bolder in our service to Him. Peter tells us therefore to “add” to our faith, knowledge and a host of other virtues so that we will not be useless as believers (2 Peter 1:1-11). The author of Hebrews admonished his immature audience who should have been teachers to leave the elementary things of the faith and press on to maturity (Heb. 5:11-6:4). Finally, Paul in the Pastoral Epistles (1, 2 Timothy, Titus), writing as he anticipates finishing his race, seemed to place a primary emphasis on doctrine being taught and passed on if the church were to not only survive but thrive. The 3 short letters use the family of Greek words related to teaching of doctrine (“didasko”) 27 times in 242 verses, a frequency far greater than any other NT books and accounting for 10% of the overall use of the words in the NT. We would do well to heed this example and admonition to apply ourselves to this study as Paul encouraged Timothy that “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.” (1 Timothy 4:6). We cannot be committed to what we do not know. This brings me to my final value for doctrine.
4) Unifying: I find the most common objection to the detailed, in-depth study of doctrine to be a fear that it will divide rather than unify the body. That can hardly be the case though, because if doctrine matures us (and we’ve seen that it does) than it must produce unity, because a believer that is mature will also love well. It is also true though that as we study theology in detail we come to opinions that differ from those of other believers. So how to resolve the apparent contradiction? The secret lies in not only developing views on doctrines such that our own faith is strengthened and more well-defined so we can serve God as He has called us to in increasing confidence, but also to identify which doctrines are ones we need to encourage others to hold and to what degree. Someone once gave me a three-fold classification for doctrines to help with this. 1) An essential doctrine is one that is necessary in order to be considered a professing Christian as opposed to a heretic. Here would belong such things as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by grace through faith. These are what unite us. 2) A sustaining doctrine is one that while not necessary in order to be saved, is necessary in order to grow and mature in your faith. Here I would put such things as the sovereignty of God, the inerrancy of Scripture and the physical resurrection of the just and the unjust. These things are core to Christianity and yet one can doubt their truthfulness without immediate eternal peril. 3) Tertiary or Non-essential doctrines are those things that differentiate one believer or denomination from another but should not be causes for utterly breaking fellowship or co-laboring in ministry. Here are things such as one’s understanding of creation as six days or six “ages”, the use of tongues and other sign gifts, how one reconciles God’s sovereignty and human free will (Calvinism/Arminianism), forms of church government and all of the myriad options when it comes to end-times beliefs. If we learn to practice “Unity in essential things, diversity in other things, and charity in all things” we will find that doctrine really will unify us for the cause of Christ’s kingdom.
John Piper, in his book “Let The Nations Be Glad!” describes two varying approaches to how Christians use prayer. One is as an intercom in a mansion used to summon creature comforts from the butler. The other is as a radio on the field of battle used to call in air support. His contention is that the latter is reflective of the biblical view and this Sunday in both our AM and PM services we will look to Scripture to see what the early church’s view and practice of prayer was. In the AM service we will examine one of the few quoted prayers (and certainly the longest) in the book. In the evening service, we will be looking at Paul’s two prayers in Ephesians 1 and 3 and his instructions on prayer in chapter 6. As we do that, it occurs to me that the same disciples who pray in Acts 4:23-31 (our text for the morning) once asked Jesus to teach them to pray. One approach to examining their prayer in Acts then, might be to see if it lines up with the instructions Jesus gave them when he responded to their request for instruction in this area. The incident comes from Luke 11:2-4 and is commonly referred to as the Lord’s Prayer but should more appropriately be called the Disciples’ Prayer. It consists of 5 separate petitions of God. They are essentially the same requests as are found in Matthew’s version of the prayer, given on a different occasion in Jesus’ ministry (the Sermon on the Mount) in Matthew 6:9-13, although a couple of phrases are added in Matthew’s version.
The first request is “Father, hallowed be your name”. This request seeks that God’s name, by which we mean His identity, character, attributes, work and authority would be revered and thought of as sacred. The best description I have heard of this request (and I forget now to whom I owe this phrase) is that God’s name would be made much of in the world. In other words, we are asking God to glorify Himself. It is instructive that this is how we are to begin our prayers. It prevents us from making prayer about us, but rather subordinating our needs and desires to the larger purposes of God.
The second request flows quite naturally from the first then. It reads “Your kingdom come” and Matthew follows it with the parallel line of “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” which is just another way of saying the same thing. We are asking that God’s rule, reign and authority would be established effectively in such a way that everyone would submit to HIs will. Of course this includes us, so we are really asking that God would bring about our own gospel obedience with a view to others being brought along as well. This is of course the way that God is glorified (request #1) so we see that the requests are building on each other.
Request #3 (“Give us each day our daily bread) is now put in proper perspective as our dependence on God for our daily bread affirms our status as finite creatures who owe their very existence to God. In this way it is demonstrated why God’s name should be glorified and His will obeyed absolutely by humans. It further becomes clear that asking God to supply our physical needs is not an end in itself but rather a means to sustain our lives such that we might live out the desires expressed in the first two requests. It also indicates that prayer is to be at least a daily occurrence for us. An Israelite audience would have hearkened back to their ancestors’ wilderness wanderings and the daily manna that Yahweh provided them as a demonstration of their need for His own presence more than any physical thing. This is why the request for physical nourishment precedes those for spiritual needs as the one reminds us of the other.
The last two requests are mirror images of each other, one seeking forgiveness of sins and the other asking for assistance in avoiding sins in the first place. The request for forgiveness is unique in that it is the only one which is conditioned. We are told to pray this provided we have forgiven others. The reason for this is simple. If we are ambassadors of Christ’s kingdom, our role is to extend an offer of amnesty (forgiveness) to rebels and traitors to the king. If we fail to extend this sort of forgiveness, we deny that we need the same ourselves and have therefore not received it. Understanding that until Jesus comes back, this window is open for rebellious humanity, if we fail to forgive, we elevate ourselves into Christ’s place and take his role of judge upon ourselves before the time has come. It is this act of making ourselves out to be God that makes us unable to receive forgiveness since it reflects a heart attitude of trusting oneself and not God. The final request is a plea to our shepherd to keep us away from temptation. Since he certainly does not lead us there Himself, this is a plea for His discipline when we wander away from the fold, asking Him to pursue us.
This is how the disciples were taught to pray. Look at our passage in Acts and see if they learned their lesson well. As a final note, the significance of the conditional statement in request #4 is that the other requests are guaranteed to be answered. An important principle of prayer in Scripture is to pray for things God has promised and purposed to do. That is the surest way for our prayers to be answered. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Sunday!
We are nearing the end of our series in Acts, asking the question “What If…” regarding the church’s character, mission and make-up as exemplified by the first believers in Acts. We have seen that the basis of the church is rooted in the successful Messianic ministry of Jesus Christ, whose resurrection vindicated His death, inaugurating the New Covenant and whose ascension made possible the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, who empowers the church to accomplish its mission. We have seen that the church is built by its members living radically others-focused lives towards those who are members within it, but also to those outside it regardless of their background, creating a new transcendent identity as a family of those who have surrendered to Jesus as Lord. In the next two weeks, we will turn our attention to the two things that batter and buttress the church: persecution and prayer.
Persecution in Scripture is seen as the inevitable outcome of being a member of God’s people living in a world that is in outright rebellion against Him. At no time have God’s people been immune to hostility as they live out their covenant identity faithfully. This is a hard truth to swallow, but one that we find dominating the pages of the book of Acts. In the book there are no fewer than 20 discrete instances of persecution* which Luke narrates. This does not include the 1/4 of the book (Chapters 21-28) that details Paul’s arrest, two-year imprisonment in Caesarea, numerous legal trials during that time and his shipwrecked voyage to Rome where the book ends abruptly with him under house arrest awaiting a trial before Caesar. Clearly, we must wrestle with this theme and what it means for us in a 21st century American context.
So this week we will look at Acts 5:17-42 as but one example of faithful followers of Jesus being persecuted for His sake. As we do, I would encourage you to read the passage in advance (and maybe the others listed below). Try to identify what prompts the persecution, what the motives of the persecutors are, what the persecution consists of and how the believers respond. Beyond all of that, however, as we should do whenever we look at Scripture, try to determine what God is doing in these events. Share any thoughts or insights you glean from this in the comments section here. I was surprised by some of the things I discovered and look forward to what you will see that I may have missed. I look forward to learning from God’s word with you this week!
*4:1-22; 5:17-42; 6:9-8:1a; 8:1b; 8:3; 9:1-2; 9:23-25; 12:1-2; 12:3-19; 13:45, 50; 14:5-6; 14:19-22; 16:19-40; 17:5-9; 17:13; 18:6; 18:12-17; 19:9; 19:23-41; 20:3