Monday, September 26, 2011

Stop Trying to Justify God

Our culture sees no need for the gospel - indeed, it seems more and more so-called evangelicals see no need for it, either - because we want the wrong person to be justified.  What I mean is this: we are so consumed with the "problem" of evil and suffering, and the injustice of it all, that we have missed the greatest problem of all, our own sin.  We spend our days either condemning or denying God on account of "injustices" that we no longer see our own condemnation and the infinitely heinous injustice we have perpetrated against God in our sin.  We think God needs to be justified.  We have forgotten that we are the ones who need to be justified.

Further, God does not need to justify his ways to us.  Why does he allow so much suffering?  Why did he allow sin to come into the world in the first place?  Of course, many will say that God must be either unloving or not sovereign.  God's own word tells a different story, of course, that leaves us with perplexing questions: how can such a good and holy and omnipotent God rule over so much chaos and criminality?  God's word denies that he is unloving or unholy or unable.  He could have kept the world in sinless perfection if he had wanted to.  But he does not tell all the whys or hows.  And he does not have to.  Because he is God, and you are not.

But whereas God does not have to answer to you or me, we have to answer to him.  And the fact is, we are traitors.  We owe God everything, and we have taken his good gifts and turned them into idols.  We have not been thankful.  We have not been good.  Our minds and thoughts and affections have been very much anti-God.  Why should he have to answer to us?  We must answer to him.  And we are sinners, naked before the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

God does not need to be justified.  You do.  How will you appear before God?  With arguments and accusations?  I dare say, all your accusations will appear criminal in themselves when you are finally confronted with the holiness of God.  Until we drop our frivolous case against God and realize that we already stand justly condemned in the court of the Sovereign of the universe, we will never truly understand or appreciate the gospel.

The gospel says this: it is the good news that God has come into the world, not to be justified, but to justify.  He has come to make sinners right with himself.  And the way he has done that is through his own Son, Jesus Christ, who took our sin on himself and paid the debt in our place.  When a sinner places their faith in the Son, God's word says that they are justified.  And that is what every single human being on earth needs right now.

Stop trying to get God to justify himself, and face the reality that you need to be justified by God.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How does justification relate to faith and obedience? Romans 4:9-12 Part 2


If faith precedes justification, where does obedience fit in?  We do know that obedience to God has nothing to do with our justification because in verse 5, we are told that God justifies the ungodly.  But does that mean then that justified persons can live in sin for the rest of their lives?  No.  And the reason why is because obedience inevitably follows from a justified man.
            This is Paul’s point in verses 11-12.  He continues: “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith which he had when he was uncircumcised, in order that he might be the father of all who believe, though they are uncircumcised, and [that he might be] the father of the circumcision, who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had when he was uncircumcised.”
            Circumcision was important to the Jew, because this is what marked him off as a member of God’s covenant people.  But more than this, to the Jew circumcision was the gateway of obedience to the law (cf. Gal. 5:3).  When Abraham received the rite of circumcision in Genesis 17, we are told that he did “as God had said unto him” (v. 23, KJV).  He obeyed God.  The rite of circumcision then stood for a life of obedience to God’s law.
            But Paul points out that circumcision was only a sign and a seal of Abraham’s faith.  In other words, his obedience to God, which was signified by his performing the rite of circumcision, did not create or maintain a right standing with God but rather served as an evidence of it (since it was a sign) and a visible confirmation and authentication of it (since it was a seal).
            The same is true of any act of obedience.  Obedience to God does not put a person in a right standing with God; rather, it serves as a visible sign or evidence that such a person is already in a right standing with God.
            In fact, you cannot even obey God in a way that pleases him until you are justified.  For every act of conformity to God’s standards by a man who is not right with God is tainted by his guilt.  It is like a man who is millions of dollars in debt paying for a bill of groceries.  Paying for the groceries does not erase the debt.  Even so, obedience to godly standards does not take away the huge debt we have already acquired.  And it must be taken away if we are to be pleasing to God.
            Also, an act of obedience before justification cannot be pleasing to God because it does not proceed from faith.  “All that is not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).  “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb 11:6).  God is not impressed with good deeds when they are done in a spirit of self-dependence or when they are performed without respect to the authority of God over the life.  Also, a person without faith is a person without a changed nature.  Even though they may have many good works outwardly, they still are not changed on the inside.  Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they are whitewashed sepulchers.  Though a criminal may obey the laws of the state most of the time, that does not make him any less a criminal.  Like the prophet Isaiah put it, such “righteousness” is only “filthy rags” before God (Isa. 64:6, KJV). 

Does James contradict Paul?

Incidentally, this is the whole point of James 2.  There has been a good deal of debate through the centuries over whether or not James contradicted Paul.  For Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith apart from works, and James says that Abraham was justified by works.  At first this does seem like a hopeless contradiction.  It caused Martin Luther to call James an “epistle of straw”!  But when we take a closer look, we discover that the messages of James and Paul do not conflict but complement.
            How do we know this?  We know this because both apostles are dealing with different problems.  Paul is battling legalism that seeks a righteousness divorced from God’s grace.  James, on the other hand, is battling a sort of antinomianism that seeks a faith divorced from God’s law.  Paul assumes that the faith that is justified is true faith (and he goes on to describe it in that last verses of chapter 4), but James assumes the possibility of a false faith.
            This false faith was a kind of faith that paraded before men with good words but no good works to back it up.  It consisted entirely in pious phrases (Jam. 2:15-17).  So what James wants is some external confirmation that the faith is real (“do you see?” Jam. 2:22).  And that confirmation he finds in good works: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works’” (Jam. 2:18).  So, when James says that we are justified by works, he means that works are the evidence that we are truly justified, or that the faith that justifies is real.
            I think the key to the whole passage is found in the word “fulfilled” in verse 23.  Verses 22-23 read: “Do you see that faith cooperated with his works and by works faith was made complete?  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness’ and he was called a friend of God.”  Note how James quotes Genesis 15:6, just like Paul.  But he is linking it to Genesis 22 (Jam. 2:21), which is the record of Abraham’s obedience in offering up Isaac his son.  James’ point is that Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22 “fulfilled” the statement made about his justification by faith in Genesis 15:6.
            What does James mean by “fulfill”?  Most of the time in Scripture, it refers to an event or events that mark the occurrence of a prophesy.  But it does not always mean this, nor is it even its basic meaning.  Douglass Moo explains:

The word [“fulfill” - pleroo] means, basically, ‘to fill’ or ‘fill up’ and can be used of fishing nets (Mt. 13:48) and houses (Jn. 12:3).  More typically in the New Testament, it is used to designate the ‘filling up’ or ‘culmination’ of the Old Testament through the advent of Jesus.  This can take the form of a ‘fulfillment’ of a prophesy, the bringing out of the ultimate significance of a historical event (Mt. 2:15) or the climatic interpretation and application of the Old Testament law (Mt. 5:17).  There is no need, then, to think that James views Genesis 15:6 as a prophesy that was ‘fulfilled’ later in Abraham’s career.  What he is suggesting, rather, is that this verse found its ultimate significance and meaning in Abraham’s life of obedience.  When Abraham ‘put faith in’ the Lord, God gave him, then and there, the status of a right relationship with him: before he had done good works, before he was circumcised. . . .   But the faith of Abraham and God’s verdict of acquittal were ‘filled up’, given their ultimate significance, when Abraham ‘perfected’ his faith with works. . . .”[1]

In other words, when James says that Abraham was justified by works, he means that his righteous status, acquired by faith, was “fulfilled” – given ultimate significance – by his works.  What James calls a “fulfillment” Paul calls a “sign.”  They are saying much the same thing.  Faith without works is dead because it is not real.  A person with such a “faith” is not justified at all.  There is no ultimate difference in meaning between the apostles at all.  They are saying the same thing in different contexts with different words.


God could have required perfect obedience on our part for us to be saved.  He would have been perfectly just to have done that.  Instead he sent his Son Jesus Christ to be perfect for us.  As a result, the ultimatum of the gospel is not a call to an impossible task but a call to Jesus and his work.  This is a blessing beyond description.  My friend, the order of faith, justification, obedience is not trivial.  Your salvation depends on it.  May God give us the grace to get it straight in our own minds and lives, so that we trust in Christ first, and obey God from a right standing and not in order to get a right standing before God.

[1] Douglass Moo, James TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 113.  I do think, however, that the idea of a prophesy is not altogether out of line in James’ use of the word “fulfilled.”  Every time a person truly trusts in Christ, there is a Scriptural prophesy upon them so to speak, that such a person will perform good works.  When good works are forthcoming, the prophesy is “fulfilled” and the claim to justification vindicated.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How does justification relate to faith and obedience? Romans 4:9-12 Part 1

It can be shown that in Romans 4:1-8, Paul speaks of our justification in terms of the imputation of righteousness, through the phrase “faith counted for righteousness.”  In the verses under consideration, what Paul says is this: Abraham was justified many years before he was circumcised.  Therefore, circumcision has nothing whatever to do with justification.  And further, because one’s standing with God does not depend on circumcision, the blessing that David mentions is open to both Jews and non-Jews.
            That is the general scene before us.  However, we must not glaze over these words so quickly, because there are important lessons to be learned from them.  This is because in these verses are some plain lessons as to how justification relates both to faith and to obedience.  I am going to argue from these verses that Paul’s reasoning only makes sense if faith precedes justification and obedience follows justification.  That is, we believe in order to be justified and we obey because we already are justified. 


How does Paul address this matter?  Let us notice what he says: “Does this blessing [the blessing of verses 6-8] then come upon the circumcised or upon the uncircumcised also?  For we say, ‘Faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness.’  How was it then imputed?  When he was circumcised or uncircumcised?  Not when he was circumcised but when he was uncircumcised” (4:9-10).[1]  Now this is very important.  Paul makes a big point about when Abraham was justified.  He tells us that he was not justified when or after he was circumcised, but before he was circumcised.  Paul is of course referring again to his key text of Genesis 15:6 – coming in the narrative before Genesis 17 which is the account of God giving Abraham the rite of circumcision.  Obviously then, circumcision had little to do with a right standing before God since Abraham himself had it at least 12 years before he was ever circumcised.
But notice also that Paul does not merely say that Abraham was justified before Genesis 17, but fixes the time of it: namely, when he was uncircumcised.  I think this is very important for the following reason.  Due mainly, I think, to the influence of John Gill, some Baptists hold to a position known as eternal justification.  What Gill said, and what they say, is this: Because there is an eternal union of the elect with Christ, the elect have been justified from eternity.  For Gill and his followers therefore, justification by faith has nothing to do with the actual justification of the elect (since they were already justified from eternity); rather, it simply refers to their reception by faith of the assurance of justification.  It’s already theirs, and has been, from eternity; they just do not realize this until God grants them faith.  This position was enshrined in Gill’s Body of Divinity in his chapter on the eternal union of the elect with Christ.[2]
Now I think there are probably two main reasons why Gill and his followers took that position.  First, being avid opponents of Arminianism, they wanted to avoid any hint of human involvement with the work of redemption.  And to them, evidently, there was a danger of slipping into a synergistic-helping-out-God sort of salvation if you put faith as a condition for justification.  And second, I think they took their position because of logical commitments to other truths, especially the doctrine of the eternal union of the elect with Christ.  They reasoned that if there is indeed such a union – and there does seem to be if you take verses like Ephesians 1:3-4 seriously – then all that God is for us in Christ is ours from eternity.  And that – they say – would mean positional standing as sons and daughters of God and as recipients of divine righteousness are ours also from eternity.
That is fine reasoning, indeed, and there is only one problem with it: it is not Biblical.

Soundings from History

            Nor is it necessarily the historic Baptist view.  I think that needs to be said because some Baptists (albeit a definite minority) have the idea that Gill represents the sole historic Baptist stance on this matter.  He does not.  Though eternal justification has a long history among Baptists, it has never served as the exclusive (or even majority) position of Baptist orthodoxy.  Let me demonstrate that for you by a few quotations from the seventeenth century.
            First, there are the writings of Benjamin Keach, who was a famous Calvinistic Baptist pastor in London, England, during the seventeenth century.  In fact, Keach pastored the same church in which later on Gill himself would exercise his influential ministry.  In 1698, Keach published a treatise on justification entitled A Medium Betwixt Two Extremes.  In this he makes it clear that he sees the Scriptures as teaching that the elect are actually justified when they believe and not before.  He says on pages 20, 21: “All before they are in Christ are under condemnation, because the Holy Ghost frequently ascribes our actual or personal justification to faith; and can’t we read these Scriptures without offense?  Or do any think they understand this point better than Paul, or the other apostles? . . . [At this point, Keach quotes Rom. 5:1; 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:24; Acts 13:39; Jn. 3:36.]  Brethren, where is it said in the Scripture that any person was justified that believed not, or whilst an unbeliever, or before he believed?”  Good question.  A few pages later, he makes this point: “Tho Christ was . . . justified, and we virtually in him, when he arose from the dead, and he received for us an actual discharge as our Surety, yet the Elect do not receive any actual discharge, or are not in their own persons acquitted or pronounced justified and righteous persons, until they have actual Union with Christ [and for Keach, “union with  Christ” was established through faith, as he makes perfectly clear in other places in the same document]; and such as call this a contradiction, do but betray their own ignorance” (page 29).[3]
            Of course, the classic statement of Baptist faith during the seventeenth century was the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, modeled after the Savoy Declaration and Westminster Confession.  In chapter 11, we are told, “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”  A few paragraphs down, they distinguish between the eternal decree to justify, and the actual justification of the elect: “God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did in the fullness of time die for their sins, and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified personally until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them.”  These statements – especially in light of the Puritan background of the confession – make it abundantly clear that at least most early Calvinistic Baptist pastors regarded faith as the instrument of actual justification.  There is no eternal justification in the Gillite sense in the confession.
            This does not settle the matter, because the basis of belief should not be what some Baptists may or may not have believed three or four hundred years ago.  What matters is what Scripture says.  But it is important for some to realize that we are not establishing anything new here.

Soundings from Scripture

            What then, does the Bible say?  Well, we begin with our text.  Paul, speaking of the justification of Abraham, says that this happened when he was yet uncircumcised.  Now Paul could clearly have made an even stronger case if eternal justification were indeed the case.  He could have said that circumcision makes no difference because God’s chosen people – including Abraham – are justified before they are even born, in eternity.  The fact he does not use such an argument (nor does he ever do so) probably means that the apostle did not consider it a valid one.  Paul says instead that Abraham was counted righteous, received the blessing, and was justified through faith.

Justification or Assurance?

            But is Paul speaking about actual justification?  Could he not be talking about how Abraham obtained the assurance of the blessing?  I think not, for the following reasons.
            First, Paul is not writing about how we obtain the assurance of justification because he frames the whole discussion in terms of Abraham’s position before God.  Notice those words “before God” in verse 1-2: “What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather according to the flesh has found?  For if Abraham were justified by works, he has a reason to boast, but not before God” (italics added).  In other words, the apostle is not concerned with Abraham’s conscience, but with Abraham’s standing before God.  If we were to use the language of those who espouse eternal justification, we might say that Paul is unconcerned with justification in the court of the conscience, and completely concerned with justification in the court of God.  So, in verses 9, ff Paul tells us how Abraham actually got right with God.
            In fact, when the apostle Paul expounds on the theme of faith and righteousness in chapter 3, he does the same thing; he discusses justification by faith within the context of the divine tribunal, not in the context of the human conscience, which would be expected if the eternal justification position was the Biblical one.  Romans 3:19, 20 make this unmistakably clear: “Now we know that whatever the law says it does so to those under law, in order that every mouth may be stopped and all the world become guilty before God.  Because by the works of the law no one will be justified, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  This then sets the stage for and is followed by the declaration that all who believe will be justified (3:21-31).  Clearly the apostle’s main concern is not how uneasy consciences just unburdened, but how sinners get reconciled to God.  What kind of effect justification by faith has on the conscience is only of secondary interest to Paul; the truth in the balance that the apostle is laboring to establish is how men might get right with God.  This, he says, does not come through works-righteousness but through Christ’s righteousness apprehended through faith.  This is not to say that believing does not bring tremendous relief to guilty consciences; it does.  But this is a product of real reconciliation and justification received by faith, and without this foundation, the gospel merely becomes a panacea for the psychologically ill.
            The apostle also strikes this note elsewhere.  In Galatians he argues, “But that by the law no one is justified before God is obvious, since ‘The righteous by faith shall live’”(3:11).  Note how Paul denies that anyone is justified by the law, or works, before God.  And then as the Scriptural basis for such an assertion, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4 which connects righteousness and faith.  The irresistible conclusion of this connection is that for Paul we are not actually justified before God by our works but by faith.
            Second, Paul is not speaking merely of experimental justification because the Scripture makes it abundantly clear that before a person has faith he or she is under the wrath of God.  “The one who believes in him is not condemned; but the one who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn 3:18).  “The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who rejects the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (Jn 3:36).  “Among whom we also all walked once in the lust of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Eph 2:3).  This last verse is especially important because here Paul is explicitly referring to believers before they were converted.  To them he says, “You were under the wrath of God.”  Now, some may argue that because Paul does not actually say “of God” to describe whose wrath it is, he does not mean divine wrath but human wrath.  Thus, he would be describing unconverted people as wrathful people (cf. Tit 3:3).  But this is extremely unlikely, given the only other use of “wrath” (orge, Gk) in the letter to the Ephesians: “Let no one lead you astray with vain words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph 5:6).  Here Paul again links the two ideas of children of disobedience (cf. Eph 2:2) and the wrath of God.  The similarity of the verses makes it evident that in Ephesians 2:3, Paul is referring to divine wrath, not human anger.
            If this is true, however, then eternal justification cannot be true.  Since justification removes wrath (cf. Rom 1:16-18), the presence of wrath indicates the absence of a righteous status.  Scripture makes it clear that before a person believes, they are under the wrath of God, and therefore in need of actual justification, not just the realization that they are already justified.
            Third, there are two other texts that seem to make it very clear that faith precedes justification.  Romans 8:29-30 is a classic passage that links the beginning of the plan of salvation to its ultimate consummation in glory: “Because whom he [God] foreknew, he also predestined that they should share the likeness of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.  And whom he predestined, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”  The argument that these are not in their right order can hardly be the case.  Paul is showing the unbreakable link that exists in the salvation of the elect, beginning with God’s eternal decree in the past and extending to glorification in the future.  He is clearly interested in showing that not one element in the timeline of the believer’s salvation can be removed, thus jeopardizing his or her salvation; that each event necessarily secures the next.  The fact that this is a sort of timeline is indicated by the bookends of the events that Paul mentions, predestination and glorification; predestination coming first and glorification coming last – just as they do in the actual timeline of each believer’s salvation.  It would therefore seem extremely odd that Paul would intentionally or unintentionally misplace justification and calling in this timeline of salvific events.   Most likely – and this is the plain reading of the text – justification too occupies the place in the sequence in which it actually occurs.  That means that it comes after calling, which takes place during the life of the believer, not in the eternal distant past.  And Paul makes it plain elsewhere that calling involves faith in the gospel (cf. 2 Thess 2:13-14).  So calling produces faith, at which moment the believer is justified.  Just as Paul says in Romans 3-4.
            The second text that cannot be reconciled with the eternal justification scheme is Galatians 2:16.  It reads: “Having known that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ[4], even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, for by works of the law no person shall be justified.”  This verse clearly relates the order as faith, then justification.  For Paul says, “we believed . . . in order that we might be justified.”  In the eternal justification scheme, you don’t believe to be justified.  You believe because you are justified.  Did Paul use the wrong prepositions?  The question answers itself, unless, of course, you are a liberal theologian.
            However, some might respond by saying that again Paul is here speaking of experimental justification – how you become conscious that you are justified.  They would agree that this is by faith.  You believe in order that you might know you are justified.
            But that is not what Paul said.  He did not say, “We believed that we might know we were already justified.”  He said, “We believed that we might be justified.”  He simply says that by faith we are justified.  As John Murray has aptly pointed out, justification does not consist in that which is reflected in the consciousness; justification is the divine act of acquittal and acceptance, and it is precisely this which Paul says is by faith.[5]
            To take this verse as a reference to assurance of justification is to completely ignore the context.  Paul was not fighting heretics who argued that you receive the assurance of salvation by works.  He was fighting heretics who argued that you are actually saved and justified by the works of the law.  This is so obvious it is needless to point out the many, many passages throughout the letter.  This verse itself points to that.  What does Paul mean when he says, “by works of the law no person shall be justified”?  He means that no one will be actually justified by works.  Therefore, as the phrase “believed that we might be justified” is clearly parallel, it means that a person is actually justified when he or she believes.
            For these reasons, I believe that when the apostle Paul says that Abraham was justified when he was uncircumcised, it means that he was actually justified when he believed in the promises of God, not that he came to know he was actually justified when he believed.

Problem: Abraham had faith before Genesis 15:6!

            However, someone might dispute this conclusion for another reason.  It might be claimed that there is a problem in saying that Abraham was actually justified when he believed, because Paul’s argument is based on Genesis 15:6 which records an incident in the life of Abraham long after he initially answered the call of God to leave Ur and strike out in faith on the promises of God.  Hebrews 11 makes is very clear that Abraham had genuine faith all the way back in Genesis 12: “It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when he was called to go to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out not knowing where he was going” (v.8).  This took place years before God reconfirmed the promises in Genesis 15.  The problem then is this: how could Genesis 15:6 mean that Abraham was justified by faith then, when he already had faith, according to Hebrews 11?  Wouldn’t he have been justified before if it were true that a person is actually justified when they believe?
            It is important to underline the fact that Genesis 15:6 does not say that Abraham came to realize that he was a justified man at that point.  I also think Calvin was right when he pointed that Genesis 15:6 does not say that Abraham was justified right at that moment.  It just says that Abraham believed God and his faith was counted for righteousness.  Abraham was indeed justified at the very first moment of faith, but Moses waited until this example of a signal instance of the patriarch’s faith to note that this was the way Abraham was justified throughout his entire life. 
There might also have been another reason why Moses might have wanted to wait until this juncture in the narrative to say this.  Perhaps Calvin says it most clearly, so I will let him speak:

Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God; after he had left his country a voluntary exile, rendering himself a remarkable example of patience and of continence; after he had entirely dedicated himself to sanctity and after he had, by exercising himself in the spiritual and external service of God, aspired to a life almost angelical. It therefore follows, that even to the end of life, we are led towards the eternal kingdom of God by the righteousness of faith. On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone; but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works. But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years, in one uniform course, did not prevent him from fleeing to faith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness; where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram, we certainly gather, that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith, in any such way, that one should perfect what the other has begun; but that holy men are only justified by faith, as long as they live in the world.[6]

In other words, Moses waited until this point to emphasize that at no time in his life was Abraham justified by works.  It was by faith throughout.

Why is this important?

            These are the reasons why I believe that faith precedes justification.  Now, why is this all so important? 
            I think it is important because it does not honor God to go beyond Scripture.  I genuinely believe that Gill and his followers had and have a desire to magnify the grace of God in salvation by eliminating faith as a condition of justification.  And Gill certainly was not an antinomian, and many passages might be produced to show that he taught that all the elect without exception would come to faith in Christ and live a life of holiness in this world.  He simply wanted to make salvation as monergistic as possible.  But a noble aim is not necessarily a right aim.  For you do not magnify the grace of God in justification by short-circuiting what the Bible says about it.  Let us beware lest we overstep our bounds and go where God has forbidden.  I do not know of a single verse in the entire Bible that says that the elect are justified in eternity before they believe.  I know of many verses that plainly say that we are justified by faith.  It is better to stick with the plain meaning of Scripture than to opt for slick and fancy interpretations in the name of the grace of God.  Let God take care of his own grace.  He will magnify it.  We only need to be faithful to what God has written.
            Secondly, I think it is important because it affects how you preach the gospel.  I know of a lot of preachers who don’t know how to preach the gospel to the lost because to them the elect are already justified.  So they end of restricting themselves to calling “sensible sinners” to have faith that they might know they are justified, instead of calling men to faith in Christ that they might be justified.  In the first case, sinners are being called to the assurance of salvation; in the latter, sinners are being called to salvation (justification) itself.  And when you look into the book of Acts, you will notice that this latter way was precisely the way the apostles preached: they preached that men might believe and thus be forgiven and justified (Act 3:19; 13:38-39).

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are my own translation.
[2] John Gill, Body of Divinity (London, 1839; reprint, Atlanta, Turner Lassetter, 1950), 203-209.
[3] Of another early Calvinistic Baptist, Hansard Knollys, Barry Howson writes, “Moreover, Knollys did not teach eternal justification, a view characteristic of Hyper-Calvinism.  When Knollys deals with the subject of the sinner’s conversion in his 1681 tract The World that now is, and the world that is to Come, he plainly states that the sinner is justified, adopted, and sanctified when God works faith in his heart.”  The British Particular Baptists 1638-1910, Vol. 1, Michael A. G. Haykin, ed. (Springfield: Particular Baptist Press, 1998), 56-57.
[4] Literally, it is “faith of Jesus Christ,” since “Jesus Christ” is in the genitive case in the Greek.  However, it is best to translate this as “faith in Jesus Christ” since this is most likely an objective use of the genitive.  This is brought out in the phrase eis Christon Iesoun episteusamen – “we have believed in Christ Jesus,” which cannot be translated to mean the faithfulness of Jesus, or to refer to the faith that Jesus has.  It very clearly refers to faith that terminates on Jesus as its object.
[5] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 129.
[6] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, Vol. 1, tr. by John King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996 [reprint]), 408.  Italics added.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Thoughts on Music in the Church

Last Sunday, some men in our church sat down to discuss Wayne Grudem's chapter on worship in his Systematic Theology.  Though Grudem hardly even mentions music, and does not discuss at all any of the contemporary issues dealing with music that are facing the church, it is not surprising that the conversation gravitated towards that very issue in our discussion.

I have been having some thoughts of my own recently on this issue, quite apart even from this before-mentioned conversation.  My conclusions will probably be considered radical by everyone, no matter what church they belong to.  I believe that the church of today needs to clean the instruments and musical productions out of the house and needs to go back to a much simpler worship style - preferably acapella.
But I have not come to this conclusion because I think that using musical instruments are wrong in and of themselves.  More to the point, I do not believe that the New Testament forbids the use of musical instruments in worship.  So why do I want to throw the piano off the bus while admitting its legitimacy?  Let me explain.

First, the New Testament does not forbid the use of musical instruments in the church.  Those who argue to the contrary cannot point to a single New Testament passage to support their view.  Ephesians 5:19 does not, though it is often quoted as if it did.  It simply says that we are to sing from the heart - it says nothing about musical accompaniment.  (Actually, since Paul mentions the singing of "psalms" and the original meaning of "psalm" was a song with musical accompaniment, it would seem to argue in the opposite direction so that we cannot argue against musical accompaniment from this verse.  But of course, by Paul's day, "psalm" had come to embrace a more general meaning that no longer not necessitated the original narrow meaning of musical accompaniment, so it is also simply inconclusive to argue for musical accompaniment in the church from this verse.)  In the final analysis, theirs is an argument from silence.  The hermeneutic seems to be this: if the New Testament does not mention it, or is silent about it, we should not do it.  But the odd thing about this "silent hermeneutic" is that the New Testament is itself silent about the "silent hermeneutic" and so it is a self-defeating interpretative instrument.

Stranger still, is that so many who argue for acapellla only as Biblically normative often end up resorting to the Old Testament to make their case.  What is so strange about this is that they have to get around all the OT passages that command God's people to worship him with musical instruments!  The passages that I have often heard quoted in discussions with reference to music in the church are Amos 5:23; 6:4-6.  In these passages God reprimands the Israelites for their use of musical instruments.  But in each case, a careful study of the context makes it clear that God is not saying that the musical instruments were bad in and of themselves, but rather that God's people were misusing them; specifically, they should have been repenting instead of singing.  Not that singing with instruments was wrong, even in the temple - it was just not the right thing to do at that time, given their obvious rebellion against God.  They should have been crying instead of crooning.  Some have, on the basis of Amos 6:5, tried to argue that the instruments which King David introduced into the church were against the will of God, but this is obviously false as 2 Chron. 29:25 quickly shows.

A better argument has been this: instruments belonged to the old covenant worship and passed away with the advent of the new covenant and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  I say this is a better argument, for it is at least based on a sound Biblical principle - that there is a certain difference between the old and new covenants.  However, even this is questionable.  What passed away with the inauguration of the new covenant were those things that were shadows of the reality that Christ represents.  However, I simply do not see how musical instruments fit into that category.  Actually, I don't think there were any musical instruments prescribed in the Law other than the trumpet, and it was only used as an alarm.  Musical instruments were introduced after the old covenant was inaugurated (during the reign of King David, it seems), and so did not necessarily go down with the ship, when the old covenant passed away.

The New Testament simply does not say whether it is right or wrong to use musical instruments, or even what "worship style" to use.  But given the fact that musical instruments were used by God's people before the coming of Christ, and the fact that they are used in heaven after his coming (consider the book of Revelation), and the fact that the use of musical instruments does not violate a single principle plainly given to use in the didactic literature in the New Testament, I conclude that their use is legitimate and that it should be left to the decision of each local body as to what worship style should be used.

However - I think that, given our times, we should be very wary as to their use.  My personal opinion is that many churches have given up on the Holy Spirit and have substituted their worship teams and musical productions in his place.  I feel much like Martyn Lloyd-Jones did when he came to Aberavon in Wales - the church there had a stage and Lloyd-Jones told them to get rid of it.  When asked what they should do with it, he said they could use it for fire-wood!  We need to get rid of the stages and get down on our knees.  I wonder how many people rely on musical accompaniment to "worship" - whereas I doubt if true worship depends on the skill of the pianist.  Ask yourself this - if your musicians left tomorrow, how long would your church last?

I believe that we need - myself most of all - we need to get desperate for God's Spirit.  And to get there, perhaps we need to fast from musical instruments, and plead with God to send his presence in such a real way that people are not drawn to our assemblies because of our music, but because God is there.

Let me issue a final word of warning.  I'm not saying that getting rid of the choir is going to solve all the church's problems.  I know plenty of dead churches that have very simple worship services.  The result is that not only does their singing stink, their worship service as a whole is icy and dead.  In the final analysis, we can make a god out of anything, even out of a "simple" service.  We need God more than simplicity, but if simplicity helps to accentuate our desperateness, by all means - bring it on.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Tragedy of the Church

I heard a heart-breaking story on Sunday of a man who did not know Christ.  A pastor (from Texas, I think) was recently leaving a conference in Chicago and hailed a cab.  The cab driver wanted to know what the conference was about.  The pastor explained, and this led to the man telling the pastor (in a thick accent) that he practiced voodoo, and that he worshiped and feared the devil.  Given such a marvelous opportunity to share Christ, the pastor did.  The response from the cab driver was astounding: he said he had never heard of this Christ, and where could he learn more?  He had never heard of Christ!    Of course, the pastor knew of several good churches in Chicago, and encouraged him to attend.  However, the cab driver said that he was afraid to go to a church, because he didn't have a lot of money, no nice clothes, and was afraid that he would be rejected by the church-goers.  The pastor still encouraged him to go, said that it didn't matter what he wore, and that he wouldn't be rejected, hoping that he was telling this guy the truth.

Initially, when I heard this story, I was transfixed on the tragedy that here was a man in the USA (though obviously transplanted) who had never even heard of Jesus Christ.  Not just that he had wrong ideas about him - he had never heard of Christ at all!  But the more I think about this story, I think the real tragedy lies elsewhere.  The tragedy is that though the man knew nothing of Christ, he seemed to know a lot about the church.  Of the reputation of Christ, he knew nothing - but of the reputation of the church, he thought he knew much.  And it was keeping him from going.

I just wonder how much of this is the church's fault.  What kind of image are we projecting to the world with our fancy buildings and signs and acres of parking lot and expensive cars and nice clothes, and slick marketing techniques?  That we are just another Macy's?  What kind of image are we projecting by our attitudes, our actions, and our words?  That we are better than others?  Obviously - at least for this man - the image projected by the church is Christless, and gave the man the idea that church was all about image.

We should be concerned about the reputation of the church, but only in so far as it exalts the reputation of Christ.  I'm afraid this is often not happening, at least here in America; this story is at least one illustration of this.  May the church's reputation honor Jesus in ways that would draw others to him through us, instead of making people think that church is just another club for the well-to-do.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Theology Over Hot Dogs? The Importance of the Church.

Though I may be wrong, I think few Christians would deny that the Church is important.  However, when you ask some people what they think the Church is, it becomes clear that what they think the Church is, and what God says the Church is, are two different things.  Here are a couple of misconceptions:

Some people think that Church is just showing up at a place once a week and watching something take place.  They may participate in some of the singing, and they probably will yawn through the short sermon, but for the most part Church has become for many people a spectator sport, especially with the advent of music teams, worship performances, etc.  Church for them is an event that one attends, much as one attends a baseball or football game.  This is so far removed, of course, from what one sees by reading the New Testament; however, it has become a part of the culture of modern Western-Christianity, and many people who profess to be genuine believers simply take this outlook for granted.

On the other hand, some people think that Church is just getting together with other believers, in any context.  This is closer to the truth, but is still far from the Biblical reality.  They emphasize fellowship, which is important, but they stop far short of what the Bible describes as Christian fellowship.  They balk at the notion of a “service,” and will ascribe such a thing to legalism and formalism.  For such people, a Church service is no good; they would rather go to the park and talk theology over hot dogs.  Fellowship among Christians is truly in short supply, and ironically our technological society has begun replacing Biblical fellowship with media.  So the voice of such people need to be heard – but not without caveat!  The New Testament Church is much bigger than talking theology over hot dogs.

What then, is the Church?  Let me give a functional definition.  When one looks into the New Testament, one sees that the Church is the community of God’s called-out people (ekklesia) who worship together (Eph 5:19,20), pray together (1 Tim. 2), disciple one another (Rom 15:14), submit to spiritual leaders together (Heb 13:7,17), hear and respond together in faith to Spirit-filled preaching (2 Tim 4:1-5), who hold one another accountable (Gal 6:1-5) and who share with each other (1 Tim 6:17).  All these things can be illustrated by definite examples in the book of Acts.  And this is not a complete list.  All the “one-anothers” of the New Testament go here as well.  And it becomes immediately clear that limiting the Church to an event, or restricting to theology over hot dogs is far, far from all that God has for us in the Church.

And I must emphasize the importance of the gathering of the people of God here.  God does special things when God’s people gather to pray, to sing, and to hear God’s word preached.  In the New Testament, we rarely read of great things happening through private prayer – though this is important! – but we read of buildings shaking when God’s people pray together (Acts 4:23-37).  

Media now allows us to watch or hear sermons over the internet, and this is a great blessing, and we should use it.  But we should never, never let media replace corporate worship.  Why?  Because God didn’t ordain the internet, he ordained the Church.  And so I can expect God to do special things in the Church, especially through the preached word in the gathering of God’s people, that I can’t expect elsewhere – not even John Piper on YouTube.  In his biography on Lloyd-Jones, Ian Murray narrates a story about a witch who came to one of Lloyd-Jones’ services when he was in Wales.  She came on a whim it seems. but as she entered into the church building, she said that she felt a power, not a dirty power which she knew through witchcraft, but a clean, holy, wonderful power.  And it changed her.  God was working in the gathering of his people!

Don’t miss the great blessing of the Church.  Theology over hot dogs just won’t cut it.

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...