Monday, March 30, 2020

Who belongs to Jesus? – Romans 8:9-11

Several years ago, when Rick Perry was governor of Texas, he made the statement that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell.  This created the predictable firestorm of condemnation.  An article in the Dallas Morning News responded by setting Gandhi as a benchmark for testing theologies of hell.  The assumption behind the article and its message was that anyone who lived as good as Gandhi (who didn’t believe in Jesus in the way in which Gov. Perry was speaking) must as a matter of course go to heaven.  

There are a host of unspoken assumptions behind that article, but these are assumptions that most people in our culture share, and so the argument is compelling for many in our society.  But that makes it all the more important to examine these kinds of hidden assumptions.  They are assumptions about the nature of God, the nature of sin, and the nature of salvation, just to mention a few.  Though they won’t say it, the view behind this argument of this article is one of a God who is incredibly small and his holiness non-existent, so that sin is not really such a big deal after all.  Therefore, if you are a “good” person, you will inevitably gain entrance into heaven.  And at the end of the day, they are just peddling a modern gospel of salvation by works.  

But what does it mean to be good enough?  Most people in our culture would probably answer that question by saying that if you aren’t as bad as Hitler, you will probably be okay.  That sets the bar pretty low.  Is that right?  How can our culture answer that question, especially when it has rejected any kind of absolutes?

Here’s another problem: if it is true that we are saved by being good enough, doesn’t that mean that those who make it are superior to those who don’t?  Doesn’t that give a reason for people to look down their noses at those who are not as good as themselves (whatever that means, and it will probably differ from person to person and year to year)?  I bring this up because this is often the objection that people make against Christianity, that it makes people self-righteous.  I don’t doubt there are self-righteous Christians.  But there is an important difference: Christianity does not give us a ground to be self-righteous, whereas the gospel of our culture does.

Why?  If you have been listening to the argument of the apostle in this epistle, the only way anyone is saved is not because they are good enough, but because Christ was good enough for them.  No one is saved because they were able to pay the moral debt they owe because of sin, but because Jesus paid the debt for them.  The gospel of Christ is that we are saved by grace from first to last.  Grace, as you know, is favor freely bestowed.  Salvation comes to us by grace, and in no other way.  God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), not the godly.  He welcomes the rejects of society and rejects the welcomed of society.  He receives the repentant sinner, no matter how great the sin is, and rejects the self-righteous Pharisee who cannot see past his own accomplishments to the bottomless need he has for salvation from the wrath of God.

No Christian, if they are listening to the gospel they profess to believe, can look down their noses at anyone.  That is because they cannot credit their salvation to anything they have done or accomplished.  Their place in heaven is not determined by their goodness but solely by the grace of God alone.  Christianity, of all the voices crying to be heard in the modern marketplace of ideas, is the only idea that truly gives a place for tolerance and loving your neighbor as yourself, no matter who that neighbor is.

I say all this because I think it’s important for us to see that what the culture is offering us is a mess of pottage that will not in the end give us what we are looking for.  It cannot give us a God to admire, for its god is too small (or nonexistent).  It cannot give us a salvation that will save, for it cannot define what it means to be saved.  And it cannot give us grace, for the modern gospel is a gospel of works and self-accomplishment.  

We therefore need to hear again what the gospel of Christ has to say.  Now it is true that people are revolted by this idea that people who do not believe in Christ go to hell.  Okay, but the modern gospel also has its categories of “those who are in” and “those who are out,” even if it cannot precisely define those categories.  What puts someone in the “in crowd” is, again, a person’s own accomplishments.  You are “in” because you are better than those who are “out.”  But Christianity does not go down that route.  Rather, it defines those who are in, not on the basis of our works, but on the basis of grace, not on the basis of our goodness, but on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ.  And whereas the modern gospel is fuzzy in its determination of the boundary between the “ins” and the “outs,” the gospel makes this very clear.  There is something to be said for that.

What does the Bible say?  What does it say is the boundary between the saved and the unsaved?

Note that the apostle Paul tells us in verse 9 that some people do not belong to Christ: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”  Now that would be a superfluous statement if everyone is saved in the end.  In any case, given what the apostle has been saying about those in the flesh in the previous verses, it is clear that there are many who are yet “in the flesh.”  And that means they are not “in the Spirit;” for you cannot be in both at the same time.  That being the case, there are people who therefore do not belong to Christ.

What difference does that make?  It makes every difference, for it is only in union with Christ that we are saved.  It is “in Christ Jesus” that we are freed from condemnation (8:1).  The Spirit of life sets us free “in Christ Jesus” from the law of sin and death (8:2).  Every spiritual blessing that brings us to heaven is in Christ (Eph. 1:3).  And as our Lord himself put it, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).  Or as he put it to the Pharisees of his day, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24).  The apostle John affirms: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.  Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.  And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:10-12).

It is therefore of utmost importance to know whether or not I belong to Jesus Christ.  Here, in our text, the apostle gives us four ways by which we can distinguish whether or not we belong to Jesus.

Those who belong to Jesus Christ are not in the flesh (9).

Remember that to be “in the flesh” does not in this context mean to give in temporarily to some sinful impulse, like anger or lust.  In the context of Romans 8, it means to be under the sway and control of the flesh.  By flesh the Bible means unregenerate nature.  “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (7-8).  This is a mind that is set on the flesh.

Moreover, this is not just referring to drug addicts and harlots, but to self-righteous ascetics as well.  As verse 7 puts it, the key to understanding who are in the flesh is to ask to whom their hostility is primarily directed?  The problem is not just hostility to our neighbor; more fundamentally, the problem is our hostility towards God.  

Now that hostility can come out in different ways.  There are of course the angry atheists.  But there are also those who are the passive aggressive rebels against God, those who, though they do not loudly rail against God, yet live for themselves rather than for God.  God has little, if anything, to do with their life.  They may even believe in God, but their life proclaims them to be practical atheists.  Such people are just as hostile to God.  The question we need to ask ourselves is, who do we serve, who do we live for?

The point is that evil can dwell in the heart, even when those around us cannot see it.  I read once of an elderly gentleman who gunned down his neighbor for simply tearing down a fence – people who knew him never suspected he would have done such a thing.  But you can be guaranteed that the anger which led to the murder didn’t just erupt out of nowhere.  It arose from a heart in opposition to the ways of God.

So if being in the flesh means to be hostile to God, then being in the Spirit is at least determined by the fact that their allegiance is to God, even if it is not perfect.  The confession of those who are in the Spirit is the same as that of the apostle Paul: “God to whom I belong and whom I worship [or, serve]” (Acts 27:23).  And that brings us to our next point.

Those who belong to Jesus Christ are in the Spirit (9).

That is, they are under the sway and influence of the Spirit.  But what does this mean?  Let me suggest three things.

First, it means they are being led to put to death the deeds of the body (13, 14).  It means we are crucifying the sin that is in our lives.  It means that we are at war with the sin that is within.  It means that we are not okay with the evil desires that cling to us.  It means, on the other hand, that we are given new desires and new affections to love other things, to love God above all.  It means we are given new strength with which to carry out this war with sin successfully.

There is a qualitative difference between someone who is in the Spirit and someone who isn’t.  If someone claims to be born again and yet there is no difference in their life, you have to wonder about the reality of their claim.  

Another way to put this is that it means they keep in step with the Spirit.  Paul tells the Galatians that “if we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).  I take to “live by the Spirit” to mean the same thing as being “in the Spirit.”  But this inevitably flows over into our walk and the way we live.  That’s way Paul means by keeping in step with the Spirit.  It means that we produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24), crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires.

Do you remember what Paul said to the Ephesians?  He said that they were not to “get drunk with win, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (18).  Now that is only possible for those who are already “in the Spirit.”  You cannot be filled with the Spirit if you are not in the Spirit.  But on the other hand, those who are never filled with the Spirit have little basis for a claim that they are in the Spirit.  And what are the evidences of this?  Paul goes on: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with you heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (19-20).  Those who are in the Spirit are those who are able to be filled with the Spirit.  And the fruit of this is running away from debauchery and instead embracing worship and thanksgiving and service to others.

Second, it means they are being guided by the Spirit to embrace truth and reject error.  The Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” contrasted with the “spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6).  It is important that we do not confuse being led by the Spirit with a fuzzy feeling or even a “religious” experience.  For the Spirit guides us through the words of the apostles: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them [the antichrists], for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.  They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.  We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:4-6).  To know God is to know the Spirit of truth; to know the Spirit of truth is to listen to the words of the apostles.  To reject their words is to reject God.  You cannot be led by the Spirit if the authority over your life is what feels best to you at the time.

It is instructive to note both the similarity and difference between Eph. 5:18-21 and Col. 3:3:16-17.  In the former text, the apostle tells the saints to be filled with the Spirit and the evidence of this is worship and thanksgiving. In the latter text, the apostle tells the saints to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” and the evidence of this is worship and thanksgiving.  I take that to mean that the way we are filled with the Spirit is by letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly.  The Spirit leads us by guiding us into all truth (cf. Jn. 16:13).

Third, it means that they are given the nature of a child in God’s family.  Paul will go on to say more about this in verses 15-17 of Romans 8.  It means we no longer abhor the presence of God but long for it; it means we approach God’s throne as the throne of our Father who loves us.  It also means that we love the children of God.  The point here is that this is the work of the Spirit.  He gives us the name of a child of God in adoption and he gives us the nature of a child of God in regeneration.

Those who belong to Jesus Christ are indwelt by the Spirit (9)

It might seem like I am repeating what I just said, but there is a difference.  We are not only in the Spirit, but the Spirit is in us.  The text itself makes this distinction: “you are . . . in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  What does this mean?  I think it means that we are changed from within; we are not simply told to change from without (like the 10 Commandments).  God himself is changing us.  

Now what does it mean for the Holy Spirit to dwell in us?  The word used here is the Greek word oikeo, which means to live in a house.  This in turn invoke the ideas of nearness, familiarity, and influence.  

Nearness.  The fact that the Holy Spirit dwells in us not only means that he is near us, but that Christ himself is near, for the Holy Spirit mediates Christ’s presence (Jn. 14:17-18).  Note the names changes: Spirit – Spirit of God – Spirit of Christ – Christ (Rom. 8:9, 10).  We shouldn’t interpret that in a Sabellian or modalistic fashion, which thinks of God as revealing himself not as three different persons but as three different modes.  The Holy Spirit is indeed distinct from Christ.  He is the one who raised Christ from the dead (11).  And he is distinct from the Father for he is the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (11).  However, the point is that the Spirit mediates the power of the risen Christ in all who belong to him.  Note how Paul prays for the Ephesians: “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17).  He is indeed near to us through the Spirit.

Familiarity.  Not the kind of familiarity that leads to indifference, but the kind of familiarity that leads to communion and fellowship.  Christianity is not just a philosophy, it is not just a religion; more fundamentally, it is a relationship.  Through the Holy Spirit, Christ comes to indwell us, so that we can have fellowship with him.  He communicates to us the love of the Father and we tell him of our love for him.  He does not hold us at arm’s length, but rather he embraces us with love and affection.

Influence.  This influence can go both ways: we can grieve the Spirit through sin (Eph. 4:29), and the Spirit can change and empower and fill us as we yield in obedience to God’s will for us.  But even though it goes both ways, we must never make the mistake of thinking that the Holy Spirit’s work in us is ultimately dependent upon the fragility of our own weak wills.  No, he who began a good work in us will complete it at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).  He is working in us to bring us into conformity to Christ.  He is molding us into Christ-likeness.  Are we weak?  Yes, but “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26).

Those who belong to Jesus Christ will one day be physically raised from the dead in newness of life (10-11).

We are like unbelievers in a couple of ways: first, we will all die – note the reference to our “mortal bodies” in verse 11 – and second, we will all be raised from the dead.  The Bible teaches a general resurrection, a resurrection of the just and the unjust: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29).

However, there is this difference: those who belong to Christ will be raised differently from those who do not belong to Christ.  For, as our Lord puts it, there are two types of resurrection: a resurrection of life and a resurrection of condemnation.  Those who belong to Christ will be raised to newness of life.

The reason for this, given to us in the text, is two-fold: first, because the Spirit is life, and second, because of the righteousness of Christ.  Thus, “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (10).  This righteousness is almost certainly the righteousness of Christ, for it is in him that we have the Spirit of life.  

The reason why we can know that God will do this, the logic behind this, is given in verse 11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”  The Spirit raised Christ from the dead.  That same Spirit now indwells those who belong to Jesus.  And because of their connection to Jesus, the Spirit will certainly raise them from the dead in newness of life.  

This is very much the same idea that lies behind Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:19, 20: “[know] what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ, when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” 

And so we see that it matters who belongs to Christ.  Only those who are in him, who are indwelt by his Spirit, will be raised to newness of life.  So the obvious question is: Do you belong to Christ?  This is infinitely more important than whether or not you will dodge the Corona virus.  The Corona virus can at most kill the body.  God can destroy both body and soul in hell (Mt. 10:28).  The only way to escape the coming wrath is to find refuge in Christ.  And the only way you do that is not by making yourself better but by entrusting yourself to him, by believing on him, and embracing him as your Lord and Savior.  If you have not done so, may you do so this very hour.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Necessity of the Spirit’s Work: Romans 8:5-8

What is wrong with mankind?  That there is something wrong, there is no doubt.  Just witness all the wars, the injustice, the hate, the immorality.  But why?

The Biblical answer is not just that we do bad things because we are not properly educated, or that we do bad things because we saw someone else do them.  The problem with us is that by nature we are bad.  Jesus himself distinguished on multiple occasions between a tree and the fruit: a good tree produces good fruit and a corrupt tree produces bad fruit.  The tree determines the fruit.  In the same way, the heart determines the thoughts we think, the affections we have, the words we say, and the deeds we do.  In other words, the problem is not just that we sin, the problem is that we are sinners.  Another way to say this is that we are by nature sinful: we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3).

However, this Biblical truth has been disputed throughout history.  A lot of theologians have been embarrassed by the doctrine that human nature is inherently sinful.  They want to say that we are sinful because we sin, not that we sin because we are sinful.  To argue for the latter position, they say, is to remove all human responsibility.  

Nevertheless, this is what the Bible teaches.  It is the reason why God’s holy law cannot sanctify.  If we were indeed neutral in our nature, then it would not follow that God’s law would produce sin as a reaction against it by unredeemed people.  But this is what the apostle Paul has uniformly taught in this epistle, culminating in his mighty argument in chapter 7.  God’s law is impotent to change us, not because it is somehow deficient, but because we are somehow deficient.  

That is why we need more than just education to be saved.  We need redemption.  We need a person and a power from outside of us to come and save us and change us.  

The gospel is not a gospel about the power of man.  It is not about what we do to change ourselves.  Rather, it is a gospel about the power of God (Rom. 1:16).  It is about what God has done to save us and change us.  It is about what God has done to justify us and sanctify us.  This has been the burden of the apostle’s argument up to this point.  And as we’ve pointed out, in this chapter, the apostle is in some sense summarizing as well as developing upon the doctrines of chapters 1-7, and then showing how all these truths contribute to the security of the believer.  Thus, we are reminded that our justification is something that depends not upon us, but upon our union with Christ (8:1).  And we are reminded that our sanctification depends not on us but on the work of Christ for us and in us.  That is the point of verses 2-8.  

Now last time, we argued that the apostle is showing us that life in the Spirit is possible only through the work of Christ.  The Spirit does not somehow operate independently of the Son of God; rather, he is the Spirit of Christ (8:9), applying the work of Christ to the hearts of his people.  This is the basis of all our sanctification.  We are not only justified by union with Christ, we are also sanctified by union with Christ.

However, it might be argued that though the work of the Spirit in us is helpful, yet it is not necessary.  That is, some might argue that yes, the Spirit is there to help us out to make the right choices, and so on, but the Spirit is not absolutely necessary because every human being has the capacity, apart from the work of the Spirit, to obey God and do his will.  This, by the way, is really what has come to be identified with the teaching of the British monk Pelagius, who was rightly condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431.  One theologian states that “it was assuredly the chief intention of Pelagius to deprive Christians of their indolent reliance upon grace.”[1]

Paul was not a Pelagian. 

You can see that in the argument he makes in these verses.  How does he develop his argument?  He does so in the following steps:[2]

1.       Jesus died so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us (4a).

2.       The law is fulfilled when we walk a certain way, namely, by the Spirit and not by the flesh (4b).

3.       But we can only walk this way when we have a certain mindset: the mind of the Spirit (5).

4.       This mindset is produced by the Spirit who gives us life and peace (6).

5.       The reason why this is necessary is given in verses 7 and 8: because “flesh” – what we are by nature – is hostile to and cannot please God.

In other words, Paul argues from the effect back to the ultimate cause: we fulfill with law because we walk according to the Spirit, and we walk according to the Spirit because we have the mind of the Spirit, and we have the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit has given us spiritual life and peace.  And this is not just extra help along the way if we need it: it is absolutely necessary, and the reason why it is absolutely necessary is because we are by nature in the flesh, which means that we are by nature bent in towards ourselves and opposed to God.

It is important to note, that even though the apostle does not use the words “sinful nature” here, this is exactly what he is talking about in the phrases “set their minds on” used in verses 5, 6, and 7, and “in the flesh” versus being “in the Spirit.”  Thomas Schreiner, commenting on this text, writes that the Greek words behind these phrases “signify the direction of the will in human beings.  The terms cannot be confined to the mind alone but refer to the whole existence of a person . . . . Rom. 8:5-7 constitutes not an exhortation but a description of the mind-set of those of the flesh and those of the Spirit.”[3]  To talk about the “mind-set” of a person is to describe their nature in this context.

This means that Paul is not talking here about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit that believers experience.  Rather, he is talking about two different states or conditions in which we exist as humans.  You are either in the flesh or in the Spirt.  According to the apostle here, you cannot be in both.  As he will say in verse 9, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  And according to Paul, the reason why we need the Spirit is because the flesh is hostile to God, and as long as we are in the flesh, we will never walk according to the Spirit or fulfill the law.  Being comes before doing.  Our nature has to be changed in order for our lives to be changed.

Therefore, the doctrine which is taught by these verses is this: the work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary and essential to produce the type of life Paul is describing here.  God is not pleased with any work which comes from the flesh, which is what we are apart from the Spirit.  We need the Spirit of God to do his good work in us if we are to do anything truly pleasing to God (and that would include faith, see Heb. 11:6).

Another way to put this is that the Christian life is supernatural, not only in its beginning but also in it continuance.  One of the things that bothers me about modern Christianity is that most of it seems to depend more upon technique than it does the work of God (which I think can be more or less attributed in the evangelical church in the US to the unholy labors of Charles Finney).  If that is true about our churches and our own spiritual walk, then I wonder just how authentic they really are.  For according to Paul, the only way a true believer can explain why they are walking the way they are walking is because the Spirit of God has given them the power necessary to do so.

So how should we respond to this?  Let me give you three ways this doctrine helps us respecting our obligation to the lost, to the church, and then to ourselves.  I’m going to focus primarily on this first point, but there are some implications regarding the second and third items that we should be careful not to miss.

What this doctrine teaches us respecting our obligation to the lost.

Well, it teaches us that our efforts to bring anyone to Jesus are entirely futile unless God goes before us.  For the gospel confronts men and women, first and foremost, with the authority of God, with their need for redemption, and to see this they need to see the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God, and they are not going to see this unless their heart is changed.  Or, to put it in the language of verse 2, they need to be delivered from the law of sin and death – but the Holy Spirit is the only one who can do that.  As I noted above, the Bible makes it very clear that the Christian life is supernatural in its origin and in its maintenance.  It is spiritual (4-8); anything less than this is not Christianity.  

This is why the Bible makes it very clear that God is ultimately the one behind any real conversion (cf. 1 Cor. 3:7).  This is the reason why we read things like, “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21).  Or, in reference to the conversion of Lydia: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was being said by Paul” (Acts 16:14).  Or, with respect to the confession of Peter, who confessed his faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 16:16-17).  

It is how Paul describes the conversion of the Corinthians: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to earthly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:26-31).

It is why Jesus said this about those who rejected him: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). 

Now the lesson to draw from this is not that we don’t need to do anything for the conversion of the lost.  After all, it was in the context of the men of Cyprus and Cyrene preaching Jesus to the Hellenists that God’s hand moved people to faith.  It was in the context of Paul preaching the gospel to Lydia that God opened her heart to the gospel.  The Bible does not teach that God works independently of the preaching of the gospel, but through it.  So we don’t take this doctrine and sit on our hands and close our mouths to the lost.  Rather, we are to be like Paul, who had a great burden for the salvation of the lost (Rom. 9:1-3; 10:1).  We are to evangelize the lost, we are to bring good news to those who have it not.

The lesson, rather, is this: our responsibility to the lost does not consist in us getting people saved, but rather in faithfully presenting the gospel to them.  I can’t save anyone.  Neither can you.  Only God does that.  But God does that through the gospel.  We are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20-21).  The ambassador’s responsibility lies in faithfully communicating the message of the one who sent him or her.  In the same way, saving people is not our burden to bear.  Rather, our responsibility lies in giving the gospel to people so that God can use it to bring them to Christ.  Whether or not anyone responds appropriately is not our responsibility.  Bringing the gospel to them is.

It’s like what God told Ezekiel.  The watchman’s job is to warn people.  If he has warned them, he is off the hook, so to speak.  Whether or not the people respond to the watchmen’s warning is on them, not on the watchman.

This ought to also encourage us, because ultimately, saving faith is not the product of clever emotional manipulation on my part.  Nor is it the product of my eloquence.  The power of the gospel does not lie in us, nor is it limited by our limitations.  Thank God!  We can rejoice as we sow the seed, knowing that if God has prepared a heart, it will produce good fruit.  God’s word will not return to him void.  We should speak and live the truth to the lost in the confidence that God will use his truth to bring his elect to faith (cf. Acts 13:48; 18:9-10).

Now another wrong response to this is to argue that since salvation is of the Lord, therefore, the lost have no obligation to repent and believe.  But we know that is not true.  The gospel confronts all men with the imperative to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30; 20:21).  Our natural hostility against God that makes God’s work in us necessary does not let us off the hook or diminish our responsibility.  It does, however, make us absolutely dependent upon God.  Again, that does not mean I just wait around and wait to be “changed” or for a certain “feeling.”  Rather, it means that if you are outside of Christ, and you hear the gospel summoning you to repent of your sins and believe on Christ, you do so immediately, but you do so in absolute reliance upon the God who saves you in Jesus Christ.  

Let me come back to the believer before we move to the next point.  Why is it that we are not the witnesses that we are supposed to be?  Speaking from personal experience, unfortunately, I think the following reasons are to blame:

First, could it be because we fear man more than God?  I must confess that I have too often valued the opinion of my fellow man over the blessing of God.  It is shameful.  May God help all of us to be willing to be his faithful messengers, even when it makes us unpopular.  It is better to obey God than to obey men.

I think another reason is that we do not seek first the kingdom of God in our daily lives – it’s not on our mind and in our hearts as it ought to be, and we therefore miss opportunities as a result.  Let’s make God’s kingdom the priority of our lives.  Ultimately, God did not put you on this earth to make money or to be famous or to have fun.  He put you on this earth to glorify him, and one of the ways we do that is by faithfully proclaiming his truth to others.

What this doctrine teaches us respecting our obligation to the church.

Now it might seem strange to think that this doctrine has anything to say about our obligation to the church.  And, strictly speaking, it doesn’t.  But it does say that for us to live the kind of life God is calling us to live, we absolutely need the Spirit of God.  And an implication of this is that even as believers, we are in absolute reliance upon the Spirit’s work.  It’s not like we need the Spirit to come to Christ and then we can take it from there.  As the apostle will go on to show, we need the Spirit in every aspect of our walk (cf. 13-14): “all who are led [being led] by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  

And that means that we need to appropriate the means through which the Spirit works.  One of those means is the Word of God.  Another means is prayer.  But another very important means is the church of Christ.

Isn’t this what 1 Cor. 12 is all about?  It is all about the body of Christ, the church, and how we all need each other’s gifts, and how none of us can exist on our own.  But who is it that gifts the members of the body?  Is it not the Spirit?  “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophesy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:4-11).  Therefore, the implication here is that we need the body of Christ, but that means that we need the Spirit of God who empowers the body of Christ to function as it should.

As believers, we need each other, because it is through other believers that the Spirit works.  The NT does not teach a Lone Ranger Christianity.  Sheep dwell in flocks, they don’t dwell alone; wolves do that.  Let us therefore not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:24-25).

What this doctrine teaches us respecting our obligation to ourselves.

Let me skip ahead just a bit.  In verse 13, Paul tells us how the work of the Spirit should be operative in every believer’s life: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  

If it is by the Spirit of God that fulfill God’s law, then it makes perfect sense that it is by the Spirit that we put to death those things that are contrary to God’s law, which Paul here calls the “deeds of the body.”  Again, we are entirely dependent upon the Spirit’s work every step of the way.  Far from leading to spiritual indolence, however, this ought to enliven us in the battle against sin.

What if a believer wants to give up because they feel that the battle against sin is just too difficult? Well, then, this doctrine reminds us that we are not waging war against sin in the power of our own resources, but in the power of the Spirit.  Are we going to accuse him of insufficiency?  May it never be!  No, my friend, greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.  Keep killing sin, knowing that the grace of God is more than sufficient to overcome any spiritual obstacle or get victory over any powerful lust.

Let this doctrine therefore encourage us in our daily walk, for it reminds us that we are not alone.  Let it spur us to spiritual activity, for we are not doing this in reliance upon our limited resources.  And finally, let it give us a realization of how wonderful the Christian life really is, for it is a life in the Spirit, lived in dependence upon him and through him who is the Spirit of Christ.

[1] Quoted in “10 Things You Should Know About Pelagius and Pelagianism,” by Sam Storms. [accessed 3/21/20]
[2] I am indebted to John Piper’s exposition of these verses for these insights.
[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans [BECNT], (Baker, 1998), p. 411.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

How God’s Sovereignty should inform our response to pandemics

To say that God’s sovereignty should inform our responses to pandemics, I am of course assuming that our understanding of God’s sovereignty is a Biblical understanding.  What does the Bible say about the sovereignty of God?  It says the following things.

It says, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isa. 46:8-10).  Here we are told that God knows the end from the beginning; in fact, he declares it.  He tells out human history from the first to the last.  The very least that these verses tell us is that God knows the future infallibly.  Nothing takes God by surprise.  Nothing!  

Now that is something.  If God knows the future, then he can prepare his people for it.  But the verse actually says more than that.  It says that regardless of what the future holds, Gods’ counsel will stand.  He will accomplish his purpose.  So it is more than that God knows the future.  This verse says something much more powerful.  It says that nothing in this future that God knows will undermine or deter him from his purpose and plan.  In other words, the future is not some entity independent of God.  Now I think that the reason for this is that God’s plan is all-encompassing.  Things happen not by chance or happenstance, but because God has from eternity intended them to happen just the way they happen.

A pagan king said something very similar: “I Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34-35).  What Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful monarch in his day, came to see, is that there is nothing on this earth that can thwart God’s will.  Now of course people can say to God, “What have you done?”  But no one can say this to God with the ability to stop him from putting his plan into execution: no one can stay his hand.  As the psalmist put it, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

Or, as the apostle put it to the Ephesians, God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).  The word, “works” means “to produce, to bring into effect.”  What does God bring into effect?  Paul says, “all things.”  I take that to mean, “all that comes to pass.”  God brings all things into effect, and he does so according to the counsel of his own will, according to his plan.

What happens in our space-time universe is simply the working out of God’s perfect eternal plan, a plan that is wise, good, and holy.

Now, we must put this into Biblical perspective, lest we go astray.  Though the Bible makes it clear that God is sovereign over all things, it is important that we add the caveat that he does not relate to everything in the same way.  He does not relate to sin in the same way that he relates to righteousness.  God does not bring about sin directly, for he is not the author of sin.  He does not, as James puts it, tempt anyone to evil, or can he be tempted himself (Jam. 1:13).  However, God does allow evil to happen, and he does so on purpose, not because he loves evil, but because he wills to bring greater good from certain instances of evil.  For example, the crucifixion, or the persecution of Job, or the selling of Joseph into slavery.

And this also means that when the evil that God has allowed comes to pass, God hates it, and loathes it and regrets it.  Thus all the passages in Scripture that talk about God regretting something.  It doesn’t imply that something took God by surprise or that God is no longer immutable, but rather that even though God has planned for a particular evil to take place, even though he has purposely allowed it, that doesn’t mean he likes it, and when it does come to pass according to God’s plan, he cannot but recoil at it and detest it as it is in itself.  

We must also say that God’s sovereignty doesn’t take away human freedom and responsibility.  In other words, we must take a compatibilist view of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  We must not draw back from a full-throttled Biblical view of God’s sovereignty over all things.  But neither must we deny the fact that our choices are significant.  We are not puppets on a string.  God’s all-encompassing plan does not make us robots.  He is able to effect his plan in such a way that our freedom is not impaired or taken away.  When we read Scripture, it is very clear that our choices are significant and that we are going to be held responsible for our thoughts, words, and actions.  The Final Judgment is all the proof we need for that.  Though I cannot explain exactly how God is able to do this, yet it is clear that Scripture teaches both realities. 

For this reason, it is right to say things like, “If Elijah hadn’t prayed, it would not have rained.”  That is true.  If you cannot say that, then you have probably slipped into fatalism.  Fatalism says that it doesn’t matter what we do, God’s will must be done no matter what we say or do.  But to be Biblical, we must affirm both that it does matter what we do, and we must affirm that God has foreordained all that comes to pass.  They are both true, and being both true, we must not fall into the fallacy that it doesn’t matter what we do.

Let me give you a Biblical illustration of how these things interact.  Do you remember the story of Paul and the shipwreck in Acts 27?  Do you remember the promise that God made to Paul that no one would be lost?  And Paul believed God; this was a promise from God, something he could take to the bank: “So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:25).  However, later in the story, after they had finally discovered land and had dropped anchor to wait for the day, the sailors made an excuse to leave the boat and escape for their lives.  This would have endangered everyone else, for the sailors were the experts at sea; the others weren’t.  When Paul saw what was happening, he told the centurion, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (31).  Now someone might say that Paul was contradicting himself.  How could he say that their safety depended on the sailors, when he had earlier said that God had already guaranteed their safety?  Because Paul wasn’t an Arminian or Hyper-Calvinist!  He understood that God’s sovereignty didn’t take away the responsibility of the sailors.  At the same time he had complete confidence that God’s will was going to be done.  That is the balance we have to learn to strike in our lives.

So all that to say the following things.  1. God is in control over the course of human history.  Nothing in human history can undo God’s good plan, including pandemics.  2.  God’s sovereignty extends over all that he has created.  That includes viruses.  3.  God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that we become fatalists, with a que será, será attitude, but that we exercise our responsibility in reliance upon God’s sovereign hand.  So when faced with a pandemic, we don’t do nothing; we do what we can in reliance upon the God who is sovereign over all things.

One of the best texts that shows us how this should look in our lives is found in James 4:13-17, which I will quote in full: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.  So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

This text very clearly teaches the believer to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”  There is not a more comprehensive statement than that.  It implies very strongly that nothing happens apart from the will of God and we are to live in light of that reality.  Note again that James is not a fatalist.  See the last verse! God’s comprehensive sovereignty is not something to make you lazy and careless.  It is a truth to live by.  It is to recognize that God is in control, and do to what I can do knowing that God is working in me and around me, infallibly accomplishing his good purpose.

Now then, how do we apply this to the matter at hand, to the fact that the Coronavirus is now considered a global pandemic?  

It means that we do not give in to anxiety, but trust in the Lord who is in ultimate control.

The main point of the preceding discussion is that God’s sovereignty is the reason why we should not worry.  As R. C. Sproul once put it, there isn’t a maverick molecule in the universe.  If there was, we would have a reason to worry.  But if God is in control, then there is no need to worry, because God is wise and good and holy – indeed, he is perfectly so.

In the introduction, I quoted Ps. 115:3, which reminds us that God does whatever he pleases.  What is the application of that reality?  It is this: “O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.  O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD!  He is their help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD!  He is their help and their shield” (9-11).  Knowing God is in control is the reason we can hope and trust in the Lord and be confident that he will be our help when we are weak and our shield when we are exposed to danger.  The cure for anxiety is not to look to yourself and your own resources, it is to look to the Lord. 

This is why the apostle Paul instructs us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests . . . known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).  Why is it that we need not be anxious about anything?  Is it not because God is over everything?

On the other hand, when we give in to anxiety, what are we doing?  We have convinced ourselves that something can happen to me which will be so bad that it will not be worth it to endure it.  It means that we don’t think God can or will protect us.  But this is wrong on both counts: God can and he will protect his people.  This is why Paul will say to the Romans that God works all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).  Of course that doesn’t mean we will be shielded from every woe, but it does mean that whatever we endure, God will bring good from it.  It does mean that when we go through the fire and flood, God will be with us.  We are more than conquerors through him who loves us.  

I know that some people will come back and say that the best antidote to worry and anxiety is preparedness.  To some extent that is true.  I often tell my students that the number one reason behind test anxiety is simply a lack of preparedness for the exam.  But the fact of the matter is that no matter what we are facing, and especially something as elusive and dangerous as a virus, we can never truly prepare enough.  The fact of the matter is that no matter how well you prepare, you are still at risk of getting sick.  Or, no matter how much you stock up, there is always the chance that you missed something, or that you didn’t stockpile enough of something for the length of time this will go on.  You cannot control the future.  So for that reason, there isn’t any logical reason to stop worrying because there will always be uncertainty related to our preparations for unforeseen outcomes.  But here’s the deal: God knows the future and God controls the future.  If our trust is in God, then there is no real need to worry at all.  Trusting in the sovereign God is the only real way to effectually combat worry and anxiety.

So when people tell you that the death rate is 10 times greater than the seasonal flu, we don’t fret because a virus, as bad as it is, is no worse than Satan and can no more harm us than Satan could Job without God’s permission.  Let the worse come on, for God is over all.  

It is in times like this that the Christian is given a unique opportunity to witness.  What often opens the door to life-changing gospel conversations are trials the believer goes through with faith and courage.  The fact of the matter is that on an intellectual level, the unbeliever will always be able to come up with reasons not to believe in Christ.  The difference is most often seen in the way our faith affects our lives.  This is what I think our Lord was getting at when he told his disciples in Luke 21:13, as he was preparing them for the fires of future persecution, “This will be your opportunity to bear witness.”  He wasn’t saying that they were to only bear witness during times of persecution, but that persecution provided them with a unique opportunity to show the world just how powerful the gospel is.  And I think that is true of trials in general.  Let us show the world that our faith in God is not just lip-service, but that he is worthy of their faith and trust.

It means that we do not give in to despair, but act in faith upon the God who is sovereign.

A wrong response is to say, “Well, God is sovereign so it doesn’t matter what I do.  It doesn’t matter whether I expose myself or others to the virus.  It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do.  God’s will is going to be done, no matter what I do.”  What we’ve said above is that this is not a Biblical view of God’s sovereignty.  We must never say, “It doesn’t matter what I do,” because in fact it does matter.  I remember a story of an old circuit rider in the West, who was known to believe that God has predestined all that comes to pass.  Another person, when he saw that the preacher carried a revolver, accosted him with the question, “But if you believe that God predestines all things, then why do you carry a gun?”  To which the preacher responded something to this effect, “Because it might just be that God foreordained that I shoot a villain!”

So what that means is that we prepare the best we can when confronted with circumstances like this virus.  Doing nothing in the name of God’s sovereignty is like running out in front of a moving vehicle and then saying that if God doesn’t want you to die, the car will miss you.  When a virus is coming toward our community at full throttle, you don’t run out in front of it.  You try to avoid it.  And that means limiting your exposure to it through hygiene, and if necessary, through social distancing.

But it also means that we don’t act out of panic.  Lots of people are responding to the pandemic, and doing things to minimize their risk of exposure, and stocking up on things.  But they are doing it in a way that shows that they are in a panic, and that they have no real faith in anyone or anything beyond their own resources.  Or some look to the government for help as if the government were God.  This is not the right response, for it is antithetical to faith in our good and powerful Father. 

Do you remember good King Asa?  He is a breath of fresh air in a time of great apostacy.  He was a righteous king, who at times showed remarkable trust in the Lord.  When an army of a million men came to attack him, Asa trusted in the Lord and God delivered him.  He showed less faith towards the end of his life, however.  At the very end of his life, we are told that he was diseased in his feet.  Here is how he reacted to that: “In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe.  Yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from the physicians” (2 Chron. 16:12).  Now the point of this perspective is not to say that it was wrong for Asa to seek help from doctors.  The point is that in seeking help from doctors, Asa neglected to seek the LORD for healing.  He didn’t act in faith upon God.  He acted as if he were an atheist, as if the only help he could get was from physicians.  This is a warning.  It shows us how we are not to respond to things like this virus.  Is it wrong to abide by the directions of doctors and the CDC or the WHO?  No, of course not.  But it is wrong to do so as if their word was the only word.  God also has something to say, and that is to trust in him.  It is wrong to do so as if there was no God.  Even in obeying the instructions of physicians, we need to do so in a way that is consistent with faith in a loving God.  

A way to sum up our response is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We can do this because we can trust in God to protect us as we serve others.  Now it is true that sometimes in this context that might mean avoiding your neighbor!  But it might also sometimes mean being willing to expose yourself to help those who are in need.  This requires wisdom, of course, so that we don’t needlessly or foolishly expose ourselves and our families to this virus.  But love sometimes means that we forgo our own safety for the benefit of others.

A quote from Martin Luther that’s been making the rounds is helpful here.  In his treatise, “On whether one may flee from a deadly plague,” he wrote, “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent [a pestilence] . . . I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.  Then I shall . . . administer medicine, and take it.  I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others . . . If people in a city were to show themselves bold in faith when a neighbor’s need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, and if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate.  But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, and if some are so foolish as to not take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.”  This is the kind of balance that we need to strike here.  We need to be both bold in faith when need demands and cautious when no emergency exists.

So my friends, trust in the Lord.  Don’t let panic rule you.  Show the world that our God can be trusted.  Act, but act in faith upon the sovereign God who works all things for the good of those who trust in him.  This just might be your opportunity for witness.

How to be blessed by the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1-4)

I have heard it said that if you were to poll the average Christian on which book of the Bible they most want to study, the answer would be ...