Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Gospel and "I Will" Messages

The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, died on the cross and made an atonement that completely satisfies the justice of God for sinners who repent and believe in Christ to save them from their sins through that atonement. The ramifications of the gospel are many and whole systematic theologies have been written which explore and expound those ramifications.

The central thought in salvation is that it is salvation from sin. This does not mean merely that we are forgiven of our sins, though that is true. More fundamentally, it means we are saved from our sins and sinfulness. We are sinners at heart, which is to say we are born sinners so that as we grow from infancy to childhood to adulthood we sin continually. Our natural inclination is not to seek God and obey him. It is the opposite - to rebel against him and despise his holy commandments. (Romans 3:10-18; Psalms 14 & 53)

An aspect of our sinful state is that not only do we not do good, but we are utterly unable to do good. Much is said (pro and con) about the total depravity of man, but little about the total inability.
"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." Romans 8:7, 8.
It is not a lack of proper motivation, good counsel, intellectual insight, or sheer will that the sinner does not do good. It is because he is incapable of doing good. He has no motivation, insight or will to do good. All such counsel to do what is good is foolishness and looked upon as strange (1 Peter 4:4).

Granted, even the worst of sinners do things that are outwardly commendable (Hitler had a heart for children), and that is because the law of God is written on the heart convicting and excusing men (Romans 2:14, 15). But the unbelieving sinner’s doing the commendable thing does not come out of an attitude like David’s:

“Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You,”
“Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight,”
“I said, 'LORD, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.'" (Psalms 119:11; 51:4; 41:4 respectively).
David kept God’s law because he loved God and his commandments (Psalm 119:97; see also I John 5:3), and he grieved when he disobeyed them. The unbelieving sinner does the “right thing” out of an innate (God-given) sense of right and wrong, which he agrees with, but not out of a love for God and his holy will.

The gospel, the good news of salvation from our sins and sinfulness, should be at the core of all preaching, not only to the unbeliever, but also to the believer. The repentant sinner begins in humility by renouncing anything he can do or offer God, and turning to Christ by faith for everything he needs: forgiveness, justification, sanctification. The mature believer must do the same. He has no power in and of himself by which he follows and serves Christ. He had no innate ability to do that when he first came to Christ for salvation, and he has none after. Constantly aware of his tendency toward sin, the believer must always look to the cross and Christ for grace to persevere and overcome his sin.

Recently I listened, with my son, to some messages delivered by a local youth pastor to a group of young people in his congregation. The series of messages were advertised as the “I Will” messages. The overwhelming emphasis was that the hearer must choose to follow and serve Christ. An occasional reference to repentance, the sin nature, and sin itself was made, but it was mentioned in passing, as though it were of secondary importance. Now, I hope that the mention of these in such a peripheral way does not mean that the youth pastor thinks of them as secondary. I doubt very much that he thinks that way. But the point is that regardless of his personal estimation of those things, or even more broadly, the official doctrinal position of the local church he serves in, the 'I Will' messages do not lay a proper emphasis on our sin and sinfulness.

The youth were constantly pressed to make a choice to follow Christ because God gave (offered) them that choice. In fact, they were told that they should be glad that God gave them that choice, the implication being (I suspect) that God does not make us choose one way or the other; he has given us the free will to choose and will not force his will upon us. We are not automatons.

If the messages were based on a free will theology (the choice to believe or serve is completely in the hands of the sinner and saint), I can see why the references to sin, sinfulness, and repentance were on the periphery. If the choice is ultimately contingent on our innate ability to choose, then why not emphasize it? If in spite of our sinful hearts we have the power to choose to follow and serve, then that is what our message must focus on.

But that is not the gospel way. The gospel way is to point sinner and saint alike to Christ in his death and resurrection. Christ suffered the penalty of sin and rose in power over it. The condemned sinner is led to Christ and the cross to be saved and turned from his sins. The believer is led to Christ to acknowledge humbly that without the work of God in his heart (won by the victory of Christ over sin through the cross and resurrection), there is no serving, no choosing.
"We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them," Ephesians 2:10.
By sanctification, purchased for us through the cross, and imparted to us by the risen Saviour through his Spirit, do we humbly obey the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a mustering of our natural ability to chose to serve. We have no such ability. We are sinners at heart and must always look to the grace of God in Christ and his cross to overcome our rebellious will.

This was the way of Paul who predicated the imperative on the indicative. When he urged, beseeched, or commanded obedience, he did so always looking back to the finished work of the cross and resurrection as our deliverance from our sin.

Paul exhorts the Romans to yield their bodily members as instruments of righteousness [imperative] (Romans 6:12, 13) because they are in union with Christ who was raised in newness of life; as sin no longer had dominion over Christ, neither did it any longer have dominion over them, they are no longer slaves to it, they have been freed from the power of sin through their union with Christ in his death and resurrection [indicative] (Romans 6:2-11, 14):

He urged the Philippians to work out their salvation [imperative] because it was God who was at work in them both to will and do his good pleasure [indicative]. This work of God in them was predicated on God's exaltation of the Saviour by resurrection, ascension, and session at his right hand with the ultimate effect of his universal lordship acknowledged by all (every knee shall bow), (Philippians 2:9-13).

He beseeched the Ephesians to walk worthy of their calling [imperative] (Ephesians 4:1) because God’s Spirit strengthens his people in the inner man, and God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think because of the power (i.e., the power of his Spirit) that works in us, the same power he worked when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand [indicative] (Ephesians1:19, 20; 3:20).

Left to ourselves, we Christians would go astray and leave our God. Unless he works in us by his Spirit to be strengthened to resist and overcome the sinfulness of our hearts, we would leave him. For that reason, we must always look to Christ and his work (death and resurrection) to defeat our sin - its penalty, power, and someday its presence.

To the degree that a message or sermon ignores our sinfulness (even as Christians) and the need to rely upon the Spirit of God for the power to follow Christ, to that degree the message is based on a false gospel. The false gospel is this, that spiritual blessing and the ability to serve Christ comes through the power of our choice and not the power of the cross of Christ and his Spirit. To press upon one to choose to follow Christ on the basis that he has the innate ability to choose and serve Christ, is pressing that one to perform a self-generated work whose goal is to obtain a sanctification that can only be produced by a God-generated work, through the Spirit, who strengthens us to keep us from going astray.

Our message to our youth and adults should not be to declare brazenly, 'I will chose to serve,' but to humble ourselves like David who sang:

Direct my steps by your word! Do not let any sin dominate me!
(Psalm 119:133)

Create for me a pure heart, O God! Renew a resolute spirit within me!
Do not reject me! Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me!
Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance! Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!
Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways, and sinners will turn to you.
(Psalm 51:10-13)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thomas Talbott's Universalist View of the Meaning of Christ Victorious

Thomas Talbott, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Willamette University (Salem, Oregon), is a ‘Christian Universalist’ who writes:

“Universalists believe that the same God who commands us to love our enemies loves his own enemies as well. But God does not love sin or death or anything that separates us from him, and Paul also referred to these enemies [1 Cor 15:25-28]. So here we must distinguish carefully between the sense in which such personified evils as Sin and Death and various cosmic forces are enemies and the sense in which real people under the power of such evils are enemies. Christ destroys enemies of the first kind (non-persons) by obliterating them, that is, by eliminating them from creation entirely. When he does destroy sin and death and various cosmic forces, he likewise destroys enemies of the second kind (sinful persons) in the only way possible short of annihilating them: by redeeming them while they are yet enemies. For only enemies of the second kind (persons) are possible objects of God’s redemptive love.” (page 27, Christ Victorious, an essay in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, edited by Robin A. Parry and Christian H. Partridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).
A ‘Christian Universalist’ believes that salvation is through faith in Christ as does the evangelical; but the universalist contends that all men without exception will believe, either in this life, or postmortem, after a time of suffering in hell where they will eventually come to repentance and faith. In this way, according to Talbott, Christ is truly victorious, for there will no longer be anyone who remains a sinner in hell.

The assumption is that if a sinner remains forever in his sin (in hell), then that sinner, an enemy of God, remains undestroyed. But Talbott insists this cannot be, for Paul declares that Christ will put all enemies under his feet, and that the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:25, 26). Therefore the sinner, who is an enemy of God, must either be annihilated or redeemed. Either the individual is destroyed (annihilation) or the dispostion of the individual is destroyed (transformtion from sinner to saint – redemption).

This position is untenable for the following reasons:

(1) God’s final victory over all his enemies does not require or even imply that all sinners will repent.

1 Cor 15:24, 25 defines the victory of God as the putting to an end of all authority and power by placing it under Christ’s feet. What is the nature of the authority and power that is conquered by Christ? The references to enemies and enemy (‘For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet’ and ‘the last enemy that will be destroyed is death’) in the immediate context can leave no question that the authority and power in mind is characterized by rebellious opposition. Christ will reign until all such rebellion is subjugated. A change of heart on the part of the enemy is not requisite for final and absolute victory (authority) over that enemy. Victory is the confinement of the enemy and the dismantling of his sphere of operation so that he no longer is free or able to rebel. Indeed, the punishment of the enemy for his rebellion during his confinement is not out of order.

A universalist might object that the rebellion continues in the heart, even during the confinement and punishment. Unless the rebellion is eradicated from the heart, namely, unless the sinner in hell repents and believes and thereby transforms, the rebellion continues. Christ is not victorious, there is still an enemy to be defeated.

But this notion is not supported by the scriptures. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, when speaking of the Second Advent, assures us that Christ will take vengeance upon his and our enemies, punishing them and banishing them from his presence, an extreme form of confinement:

...since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe...
The word ‘everlasting’ (aionion) may be literally translated age-like, and there is much ado over this word among universalists. No wonder. If it is translated eternal, everlasting, unending, their doctrine of universalism is doomed forever.

Some universalists would translate the word age-long as

"Any space of time whether longer or shorter, past, present or future, to be determined by the persons or things spoken of, and the scope of the subjects; the life or age of man. Aiónios, a definite and long period of time, that is, a long enduring, but still definite period of time," cited by Rev. John Wesley Hanson in his study of the words aion and aionios in 1875.

But let us assume that aionion has retained a fundamental meaning of age-like or age-long in the New Testament and the inherent meaning is of a duration whose extent is determined by the person or things spoken of. This does not at all favor the universalist. The Second Advent is the pivotal event that separates this age and the age to come. From the perspective of Christ’s second coming everything that precedes is the present evil age, and everything that follows is the age to come. From the vantage point of the Second Advent and its teleological significance, when one looks forward into the age to come, he sees only an age that is endless. Indeed, the experiences of that age will be manifold, but one thing is certain - those experiences will coincide with the endlessness of the age itself. Unless the universalist is willing to place a limit on the duration of that post-Advent age to come, how can he deny that age-like life and age-like destruction, whose nature is contoured by the never-ending duration of that Age par excellence, can be anything less than everlasting.

Granted, there are places in the New Testament where the future is referred to in terms of ages (plural), and one might be tempted to construe that, even in the age to come, there is a division of ages.

For example:

But God who is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his kindness toward us who believe, Eph 2:4-7 (but Paul, in the same letter, refers to the exaltation of Christ and his authority over all as not only taking place in this age, but also, in the age to come (singular), Eph 1:20, 21)

Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever (lit. unto the ages), Heb 13:8.
For me, it is appropriate to think that the intended use of the plural in such texts is for emphasis or intensity. Regardless, from the perspective of the central event of Christ’s Second Coming, there is the making of two ages, and only two, by the consumation of the present evil age (which is how we may understand our text with regard to the words, ‘then the end’), and the commencement of the age to come. Again, the attributes of age-like life and age-like destruction must be defined in terms of the everlasting, endless character of that coming age (thus, Matt 25:41, 46).

(2) Talbott's interpretation of three stages in the resurrection is eisegesis rather than exegesis (i.e, reading into rather than taking out the meaning).

Talbott assumes that the destruction of the last enemy, death, necessarily requires that the death of the sinner in hell must be brought to an end by one of two ways, annihilation or resurrection. In support of this, Talbott contends that resurrection comes in three stages: Christ the firstfruits, those who are Christ’s at his coming, those who repent and believe afterward (in hell). In terms of our 1 Cor 15 text, this third stage is elicited from the words ‘then (comes) the end...’

15:22-24 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end...
Talbott prefers to translate the words ‘then the end’ as ‘then the remainder’ (ibid., page 26), which, if that were a viable interpretation, would seemingly refer to those who are not resurrected at the time of Christ’s second coming, but later, after a long time in hell. However, Talbott is willing not to press that point seeing that few commentators would agree with the translation.

Whether he presses such a translation or not, Talbott insists that in 1 Cor 15:22-24, there is the image of a procession taking place in three stages.

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits [stage 1], afterward those who are Christ's at His coming [stage 2]. Then comes the end [stage 3], when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.
But we object, for the imagery does not bear that out at all. The imagery is Old Testament wherein there are two stages– the early harvesting of the firstfruits (Feast of Harvest), then the later ingathering at the end of the year (Feast of Ingathering):

Exodus 23:14-16 Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread...and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field.
Interestingly, in 2 Thess 2:1, coincidental with the Second Advent, Paul writes of our gathering together to him (hemon episunagoges ep auton). The picture is of gathering in such a way as to bring the objects so close they may be thought of as 'upon' or 'crowding' the one who gathers.

The Greek in 1 Cor 15:23, 24 does indeed, specify a three part order using the words epeita...eita (translated afterward...then, as in Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end...) The epeita...eita construction is used for enumeration and loosely means first this; after that, this; then this. So Paul does have in mind three events that follow in a certain order: Christ’s resurrection; after that, the resurrection of those at his coming; then the end.

The question is, are all three events referring to the same theme – resurrection. The first two clearly do. Resurrection is the making alive of men, and the subjects involved in the first two events are identifiable human beings, Christ on the one hand, and those at his coming on the other. But the third event, the End, does not contain the notion of making alive. Rather, the event of the End is the point in time when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father, when he puts an end to (rebellious) rule, authority, and power. It is an event of deliverance on the one hand, and of destroying and subjugating on the other. The resurrection of persons, so cleary delineated in the first two events, is missing in the third event, for the resurrection harvest is over. With the final ingathering at the Second Advent, the End has come. It is the closing of the present evil age when those resurrected in glory (see 15:43) are delivered to the Father, and those who are not Christ’s (and therefore not raised in glory) are destroyed, bringing their rebellious rule to an end. The timing of that third event is confirmed by other texts (such as the 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 passage cited above) to be coterminous with the Second Advent.

In this 1 Cor 15 text, there is no tension in Paul’s thought of a truly total victory by Christ over all his enemies which does not at the same time require their ultimate salvation. It is the victory of the conquering King who rescues his people from his and their enemies whom he destroys by banishing them from his presence and glory (2 Thess 1:9).

Talbott cannot even raise the objection: If the last enemy to be destroyed is death, how can there be an eternal banishment from God, the essence of death itself? If hell were to continue forever, has not God failed to destroy death? But that is not what the apostle has in mind when he speaks of death as the last enemy to be destroyed. When Paul elucidates in the latter verses of 1 Cor 15 the nature of the resurrection (wherein he answers the question What kind of body is a resurrected body? 15:35), he is thinking of the resurrection referred to in the second event (‘afterward those who are Christ's at His coming’). There is nothing in the passage that would indicate that Paul has any other resurrection in mind. And as such, the destruction of the final enemy of death is precisely the resurrection of the saints at the Second Advent, for Paul writes (15:54, 55),

So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?"
One final note. Talbott and universalists like him rely heavily on the translation of ‘all’ in 1 Cor 15:22 and Rom 5:18 (these texts appear to be the loci classici of their position) to mean ‘all without exception,’ such that as on the one hand all without exception have died in Adam, so on the other, all without exception will be made alive in Christ. They insist that the grammatical parallelism leads to no other conclusion. But if our understanding of the 1 Cor 15 text is correct, that those who participate in the resurrection harvest are only those at Christ’s coming, then Paul, without explanation or apology has used the word ‘all’ differently in a parallel grammatical construction. The point is that such parallelism does not always demand an identity of scope on both sides. Context determines the scope. In some cases the context may extend beyond the immediate text and into the theology of the writer as propounded elsewhere in the New Testament.


Monday, September 13, 2010

The Transformation Is Inevitable

Ephesians 5:1-8

1 Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.
2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.
3 But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints;
4 neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
5 For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
7 Therefore do not be partakers with them.
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light...

Paul exhorts his Ephesian readers to imitate God. The exhortation may strike one as preposterous; after all how can we, sinners by nature, finite in every aspect of our being, imitate the infinitely Holy One? But Paul is not alone in making such a demand. Peter, in a similar vein, charges his readers, "as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, "Be holy, for I am holy," 1 Peter 1:15, 16. In both Paul and Peter, the exhortation is accompanied by the image of children. Paul elicits the picture of a dear child imitating his Father; Peter speaks of 'obedient children.' Children of God love their Father and as such want to be like Him. They want to please Him. For one who is a child, loved by his Father, and devoted to his Father, nothing is more satisfying than to be like the Father.

Both Paul and Peter are specific as to what it means to be an imitator of God, to be holy just as He is holy. For Peter, it is not to conform to one's former lusts. Peter is simply saying, "don't behave the way you used to, before you became children of God."

Paul lays it out in starkly contrasting and explicit examples: Fornication, filthiness, covetousness, foolish talking, coarse jesting on the one hand, and the fruit of the Spirit on the other. This contrast was introduced by Paul in the fourth chapter. There, after having explained in Chapter 2 how the Ephesian believer - once dead in tresspasses and sins in which he walked according to the course of this world, in whose nature there was no difference from that of the son of disobedience - a dead sinner was made alive in Christ. Something radical happened, a transition from death to life, and Paul unabashedly expected there to be a difference in such a one who was made alive. The liar is now to speak the truth. The thief is no longer to steal but labor that he might have something to give to him who has need. Anger is to be short-lived and no longer an occasion for sin or an opportunity for the devil to work his evil purposes. The mouth is guarded such that nothing corrupt proceeds from it, but rather that which is good and helpful to the listener. All bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, evil speaking, and malice is to be cast off. Instead, the way of the one who has been made alive is marked by kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.

God does a work in the believer that changes him, from sinner to saint, death to life. This is radical, so radical that one in whom God has done the work cannot help but behave in a particular manner - in godliness and holiness. This does not mean sinless perfection or anything that comes close to it. Rather than a life of ease, there is a profound struggle that permeates everything. Paul bears witness to the war that goes on in the heart and life of the believer (Gal 5:17; Eph 6:10-18; I Cor 9:24-27, II Cor 3:16-18). But there is an inevitable difference between what came before and what follows.

This struggle to be holy is itself a part of the difference. For the unbeliever, still dead in his sins, whose understanding is darkened, alienated from the life of God because of ignorance and blindness, who is so far gone that he is past feeling and gives himself over to lewdness to work all uncleanness with greediness (Eph 4:18, 19) - such a one knows of no struggle to be holy.

Holiness, its pursuit, the struggle for it, is not optional, but mandatory. In some sense, it comes easy because it is inevitable - the one who has been made alive cannot help himself, for his deepest desire is to be holy. He fights to be holy; he grieves over his sin hourly; his life is characterized by continual repentance. His conscience is struck, his heart is pierced over his sin. The bane of his iniquities drives him continually to God for forgiveness and restoration, that he might have that grace to live on and fight another hour. He rejoices in anticipation of that day when in glory, he sins no more.

The one who claims to be a Christian but is not walking as one, has deluded himself. To him Paul says, "Let no one deceive you, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience."

Are you struggling to be holy? If so, that is a good sign. Perservere. Take heart. There is a day coming in which the struggle will be over. For now, fight.

Is there no struggle. Take heed, and examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith. We are despicable sinners, helpless to change, and yet in Christ, there is everything we need. We bring nothing to him. We cannot offer a submissive heart for we have no such thing. We need a broken, contrite heart, and only Christ can do that. In Him there is not only forgiveness, but sanctification. Christ alone changes us because he alone makes us alive.

Do you sense the wickedness of your heart and the inability to change? Come to Christ, who became for us wisdom from God - righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. There is no transformation except through Christ. He saves us from our sins and sinfulness. We offer him nothing - not our hearts, our wills, or our minds for they are altogether corrupt. We can only receive from him - his righteousness (imputed to us), his sanctification (transforming us into a godly, holy people), his redemption (the forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from his deserving wrath). Receive the grace of God in Christ and be transformed from sinner to saint. Turn to him for cleansing from your sin, a renewed heart, and a stedfast, persevering spirit in his holy ways. Take his yoke for it is easy, his burden is light, and you will discover his commandments are no longer grievous but joyous, more precious than silver, more to be sought after than gold.