Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

On the Government's Role in Establishing Justice for Its Citizens

A Facebook friend of mine, whom I respect and agree with on a wide variety of issues, recently posted the following comment about his position concerning the role of government:

"I'm one that puts the role of government solely in retributive justice." 

Here's my response, as I've thought through this issue. I believe that my views reflect principles concerning the differing roles government, church, and family: principles found both in Scripture and right reason. (If I thought my views did not reflect such principles, I would change them.) I hope that this may be helpful to others as well.

"I would say that the role of government includes both retribution [that is, punishing those who violate the rights of others] and regulation [placing boundaries on certain activities, when those activities lead to societal harm: for example, ordinances determining waste disposal to make sure the entire population's water source is not polluted]. "I do believe that there is a such thing as redistributive justice as well: for example, it would be unjust if a parent did not take from his own resources to provide for his child or if a church did not give charity to truly needy members (and even outsiders, if we are blessed with abundance). However, I would agree with you that the role of government is NOT meant to be involved with the redistribution of wealth (except, I would say, in the limited and local sense that if someone has wronged another citizen or broken a just regulation, then that person could have a judgment issued against them in order to right the wrong)."

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Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Government: Not a Direct Provider of Goods to the Citizenry but a Regulator for the Public Good

Some people accuse Dr. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission [ERLC] of the Southern Baptist Convention, of being a Leftist. Those people are wrong. Leftists do not post videos on YouTube against Socialism:



I greatly appreciated this video from Dr. Moore. It is a clear word needed for today. I shared it on social media, and I'd encourage anyone reading this to do so as well.

I do want to more closely examine one statement from the video. I'm not necessarily in disagreement with this statement either. However, I do think it needs some clear thinking.

Dr. Moore mentions:
Everybody [except for ultra-libertarian, Ayn Rand-types] would agree that the government should do something to provide for people who cannot provide for themselves; the disagreements come in with how big that should be, how intrusive that should be, or how generous that should be, depending on the way that you view it.
I agree that "the government should do something to provide for people who cannot provide for themselves." However, I do NOT think that the question (rightly understood) is "how big that should be". Rather, the issue to be considered should be: HOW should the government "provide for people who cannot provide for themselves," or rather what should the government provide in order to make sure that such people have a just opportunity to receive provision?

In thinking about government's involvement in providing for people who cannot provide for themselves, it is important to think through the proper role for government. What is the purpose of government, and what should government be doing? Summarizing the biblical data on this issue, David A. Noebel writes:
Government was established by God to manifest and preserve His justice on earth. This is government's central purpose; as such, the state should concentrate on enforcing justice and avoid meddling in other institutions' business. Generally speaking, the church was ordained to manifest God's grace on the earth, and the family to manifest God's community and creativity (including procreativity). The government, then, as the institution of justice, should prohibit, prevent, prosecute, and punish injustice. The church, as the institution of grace, should preach the gospel and be the chief vehicle of charitable aid to the needy. And families should have chief responsibility for bearing, raising, and educating children, and for creating, possessing, and disposing of property.

Each of these institutions is limited by its own definition and by the other two. Because government is an institution of justice, not of grace or community or creativity, it should not interfere with freedom of religion, attempt to dispense grace through tax-funded handouts, control family size, interfere in raising children (including education), or control the economy and the disposition of property.
If Noebel's analysis is correct, then government is "the institution of justice" and "should prohibit, prevent, prosecute, and punish injustice." In general, I believe Noebel is correct in that the government should not interfere in seeking to "control the economy and the disposition of property." However, I do think that in order to prevent unjust oppression, making sure that people who cannot provide for themselves have a just opportunity to receive provision, the government should be understood as having a REGULATORY role.

Consider the following instructions from the Mosaic Law:
When you reap the harvest in your field, and you forget a sheaf in the field, do not go back to get it. It is to be left for the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you knock down the fruit from your olive tree, do not go over the branches again. What remains will be for the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left. What remains will be for the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
Notice what these laws do NOT do. These laws do NOT involve the government taking anything from the people. They do NOT involve the government itself giving goods to the citizenry. In short, these laws do NOT make the government directly responsible for redistributing wealth.

But also notice what these laws DO. These laws DO put a check on greed. As these are LAWS, the people would have been REQUIRED to obey them. If people were found to be breaking the laws, they would have been brought before the judges, who are mentioned in other passages. (I assume, based on other passages, that they would be required to pay restitution for having broken the law.)  In short, these laws do NOT lead to an entirely "hands off" approach to how the government should treat the wealth of individuals/families/businesses; instead, these laws (along with others) have the effect of making the government provisionally responsible for making sure that individuals/families/businesses exercise their distinct responsibilities, leading to a situation in which people who cannot provide for themselves would have a just opportunity to receive provision.

The civil laws in Deuteronomy were given to Israel as part of the Old Covenant. With the conclusion of the Old Covenant, these laws are no longer directly applicable to any nation today. However, the laws are just and inspired. Principles in these laws are consistent with what should be discerned through natural revelation (that is, they are applicable even outside of the believing community), and believers should certainly seek to glean principles from these laws to inform our view of what government IS and what it should DO whenever possible.

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Subsistence/Subsistences: Toward an Understanding of Some Difficult Language in the 1689 Confession

"The 1689 Confession was the confessional statement of the church or association of every one of the 293 delegates who gathered in Augusta, Georgia, to organize the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845... The Abstract of Principles [which is a doctrinal standard] of two SBC seminaries is self-conscientiously an abstract or summary of this confession" [source: Founders Ministries]. The 1689 Confession is important to study due to this historical influence on the SBC [the largest Protestant denomination in the United States] as well as its continued influence in Reformed Baptist churches and associations.

Chapter 1 of the 1689 Confession focuses on Holy Scripture, because the Bible is "the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience." Chapter 2 focuses on "God and the Holy Trinity." The first statement about God declares: "The Lord our God is but one only living and true God, whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection." Later, the beginning of the third paragraph of Chapter 2 declares, "In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided."

It is interesting to see how these statements about God are different from statements made in the Westminster Confession (1646). In many places, the language of the 1689 Confession is identical to what is stated in the Westminster Confession, since the Baptists desired to show that they were of one mind with their Presbyterian brothers and sisters in key matters of faith. However, the beginning of Chapter 2 in the Westminster Confession ("Of God and the Holy Trinity") uses different language concerning God: "There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection." The beginning of the third paragraph of the Westminster Confession's Chapter 2 declares, "In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity."

This change in language raises some questions. A couple are:

1. Why is "subsistences" used in the 1689 Confession rather than retaining the term "persons" from the Westminster Confession?
2. Why does the 1689 Confession use the term "subsistence" in one way in the first paragraph of Chapter 2 and the term "subsistences" in another way in the third paragraph of the same chapter?

I believe that both of these questions can be answered, in part, by a recognition of the influence from the puritan, William Ames (1576-1633). In examining the origins of the 1689 Confession, Dr. James Renihan (the president of IRBS Theological Seminary) notes that the framers of the 1689 Confession "relied very heavily" on Ames' The Marrow of Theology. On the subject "What is God made up of? What is the being of God?" Ames wrote:

1. This subsistence, or manner of being of God is his one essence so far as it has personal properties.
2. The essence is common to the three subsistences. As far as essence is concerned, therefore, the single subsistence is are rightly said to exist of themselves.
3. Nothing is attributed to the essence which cannot be attributed to each subsistence in the matter of essence.
4. But was is attributed partly to each subsistence in the matter of subsistence cannot be attributed to the essence
5. The subsistences are distinguished from the essence, because the mode of subsistence, though consolidated with the essence, are distinguished from it considered by itself.
6. They are distinguished from each other as things connected by certain relative properties, so that one cannot be another, although they are the same nature. Neither can one be said to be first or last, except in order of beginning and manner of subsistence.
7. These relative properties are, as it were, individual forces in one essence, spiritually and perfectly alive. Hence the subsistences are rightly called persons.
13. The relative property of the Son is to be begotten, that is, so to proceed from the Father as to be a participant of the same essence and perfectly carry on the Father’s nature. Hence is second in order. Hebrews 1:3, the brightness of His glory in the character of His person.
14. The property of the Holy Spirit is to be breathed, to be sent forth and to proceed from the Father and the Son John 15:26, He whom I will send forth you from the Father, that Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father: Romans 8:9, the Spirit of Christ; Galatians 4:6, the Spirit of the Son.

The framers of the 1689 Confession seem to have followed Ames in both his use of subsistence and in the slightly different way that Ames used "subsistence" in one place vs. "subsistences" in the near context. Ames first defined "subsistence" as "manner of being." The stress is first on God's being, which is just "his one essence." In that sense, the "subsistence" must be understood as one, as God's being/essence is one.  Ames goes on to focus on God's "manner of being... so far as it has personal properties." In that sense, we can speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit as "three subsistences" or three 'manners of being,' distinguished by "certain relative properties."

So, taking Ames' definition of "subsistence" as "manner of being," we could understand the 1689 Confessions "subsistence" as follows:

"The Lord our God is but one only living and true God, whose [manner of being] is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection... In this divine and infinite Being there are three [manners of being], the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided."

Ames' language was careful, and the reader who pays close attention to it would not be left with the impression that the use of subsistence(s) indicates God as impersonal force(s), nor does the use of subsistence(s) lead to modalism. The relative/personal properties are real and indicative of an eternal relationship within God. Ames pointed out: "the subsistences are rightly called persons." As Samuel Renihan notes, John Owen, whose writings were another major influence on the framers of the 1689 Confession, also used the term "subsistences" as interchangeable with "Persons."

Why, then, did the 1689 Confession use the term "subsistence(s)," when  the Westminster Confession did not use this terminology?

1. Again: the framers of the 1689 Confession were influenced by the theological work of William Ames, and his use of this terminology.
2. The term "subsistence" [defined by Ames, as I've noted,  as "manner of being"] is more clearly related to "being/essence" than "Person" is, and it is therefore a useful technical-theological category.
3. The term "subsistence" is useful in that it does not run the risk of people confusing characteristics of divine persons with what we know about human persons.

[Only point 1 above is from my own research, as a specific application of Dr. James Renihan's insight that the framers of the 1689 Confession were indebted to Ames; points 2-3 are from summaries from Samuel Renihan's article, linked above.]

This exploration of historical theology is important because Christians should follow the example of the framers of the 1689 Confession, drawing upon the theological insights of others, while carefully considering how the language we use can best help us think about the God we love.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Should Christians Avoid Using the Term "Social Justice"?

Several people whom I respect argue against Christians embracing the term "social justice." They maintain that:

1. Justice is a term that should need no adjective.
2. In the case that we need to distinguish justice from distorted concepts of justice, the best adjective to use would be "biblical;" we do not need to speak of "social justice," but rather "biblical justice."
3. The use of the term "social justice" to promote the agenda of progressive theologians, liberation theologians, social gospel advocates, etc., so shades the perception of that term that, even if it might have had some value at one time, it is useless now.

As a conservative/classical/confessional Christian, I can appreciate the persuasive force of the above line of reasoning. HOWEVER: I do think that the term "social justice" (or something like it) may indeed be useful in systematically examining the teaching of Scripture. Consider Leviticus 19, for example: there are many instructive statements about justice in that chapter; some of them (like Lev 19:15) deal with justice in the courtroom, while others (like Lev 19:33-34) deal with the principles of justice permeating society at large. I do think that the term "social justice" may still be useful in speaking about this second application of justice.

Aside from seeing a distinction in Scripture concerning realms in which justice is applied, here are two other reasons that I think Christians might want to (discerningly) use the term "social justice":


1. Some clearly orthodox/biblical theologians have used the term "social justice" in a proper, positive manner. I had some older professors at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who, in explaining the call of the Old Testament prophets for justice to be exercised throughout society, would use the term "social justice." Those professors would use this category in a biblically justified way (as I explained above) even while they spoke strongly against the Social Gospel Movement or progressive theology. I am concerned that, if part of our reaction against those who would use the term "social justice" while distorting the biblical concept of justice includes making conservative Christians allergic to the term "social justice" altogether, we may make people unnecessarily suspicious of well-meaning Bible teachers who are using "social justice" in a different way than how progressive theologians use the term. On the other hand, if the term "social justice" becomes entirely the property of progressive theologians, then they will seem to be able to find support for their agenda from some professors who would really (upon a closer reading) oppose their ideas.

2. I don't like to let theological deviants have a monopoly ANY terms that should be used for good. Think of the terms "fundamentalist" or "evangelical." "Fundamentalists" should refer to those who hold to the fundamentals of the faith, especially against those who would claim that these fundamentals are unimportant to Christianity; even though some graceless, legalistic groups have used the term "fundamentalist" of themselves so that we might need to distinguish what we mean by the term, I do think that conservative/classical/confessional Christians should not abandon the term altogether. "Evangelical" should refer to those holding to "evangel" (that is, the gospel), especially against those who would distort the gospel or deny certain necessary doctrines; even though some groups have utilized the term "evangelical" while becoming utterly pragmatic or theologically vacuous, so that we may need to distinguish what we mean by the term, I do think that conservative/classical/confessional Christians should not abandon the term altogether.

Similar observations could be made for the terms "orthodox" or "Catholic." For all too many the term "orthodox," rather than signifying "right doctrine," is identified with the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Many Christians within sound, biblical congregations shrink back from reciting the historic creeds of the Church because they hear the term "Catholic...church" in those creeds and think it means "non-Protestant church" rather than "the one Church throughout the world."

I don't want legalistic fundamentalist denominations to have a monopoly on the term "fundamentalism," painting generous, grace-focused Christians as unconcerned for doctrine and holiness; rather, I want all Christians to be fundamentalists in the right sense of the term. I don't want Roman Catholics to have a monopoly on the term "Catholic," painting those zealous for the doctrine of justification and the authority of Scripture as mere schismatics; rather, I want all Christians to understand that they are part of the Catholic church in the right sense of the term. I also don't want progressive theologians to have a monopoly on the term "social justice," painting conservative theologians as unconcerned with in/justice throughout society; rather, I want all Christians to be zealous for social justice in the right sense of the term.

We must pray and strive for justice throughout society, because it is against the backdrop of justice that the good news of God's mercy in Christ can be most clearly proclaimed.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

Some Leviticus 19 Thoughts on Justice in the Courtroom and in Society


When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9-10).

In these verses, the law does NOT provide for the poor through having the government tax landowners and re-distribute their wealth. HOWEVER, the law does regulate private industry in a way to limit greed and supply for the poor.

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15). In this verse, there are two errors of injustice to be avoided in court: deferring to the great AND being partial to the poor. We cannot make up for injustice against one economic/social group by perpetrating injustice against another. Rather, true justice displays impartiality in regard to social/economic status.

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). These verses do not directly speak to immigration policies in current nation-states. HOWEVER, they certainly speak to the attitude that people should display toward immigrants who are living among us. If we love immigrants (especially those whom we encounter in our daily lives) any less than we love people from our own ‘group,’ then we are engaging in sinful injustice.

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Ethnic Qualifications for Church Officers?

A.D. Robles is a vlogger and former pastor in Vermont, who is known for voicing concerns over the Social Justice Movement. In a video from a couple of months ago (I think), he mentioned the idea of a kind of "affirmative action" in church searches: that a congregation might seek out a person of a particular ethnicity or give preference to a person of a particular ethnicity in choosing a pastor/elder. Robles spoke strongly against this, declaring that such consideration is adding to the biblical qualifications for elder, undermining the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.

When I first saw the video, I thought that Robles was making a compelling point. I certainly desire to be fully committed to the sufficiency of Scripture. At a previous church (many years ago), I was on a pastor search committee, and I've seen how God-dishonoring the process of selecting a pastor can be once we stray from the biblical model for choosing leadership.

However, on further consideration, I think that I disagree with Robles. Ethnicity (or cultural considerations that go beyond the bare requirements for church officers as found in Scripture) might sometimes be a factor that a congregation would be wise to consider in choosing someone for a particular church office/role. Scriptural examples that lead to this conclusion may be seen in the Jerusalem church's appointment of the original seven deacons and in Paul's choice (and circumcision) of Timothy versus his later choice (and refusal to circumcise) regarding Titus.

In Acts 6, the Jerusalem church appointed seven men to serve the congregation so that the apostles could remain focused on prayer and ministering the Word. The occasion of choosing these men was that the widows among the Hellenistic Jews [Jews from a Greek cultural background] were being neglected in the distribution of food to the poor. As most commentators note, the names of the seven men who were chosen (listed in Acts 6:5-7) indicate that they themselves were Hellenistic Jews. Given the likely dynamics of the Jerusalem church, it is hard to believe that the ethnic identity of the seven was merely a coincidence. Instead, it seems like the congregation thought it wise, due to the particular circumstances, to choose Hellenistic Jews in particular.

In Acts 16, as Paul was about take Timothy on a missionary journey, he circumcised Timothy. On this missionary trip, Paul was emphasizing Timothy's Jewish background (through Timothy's mother), rather than his Greek background (through Timothy's father). Paul was apparently motivated to do this due to his missionary strategy at the time, in which he was often visiting synagogues (or other Jewish places of worship, as in Acts 16:13). Later, when Paul's ministry was being conducted more among the Gentiles, he had Titus (a Greek man) with him, and Titus was not compelled to be circumcised (see: Galatians 2:2-3).

Now, nobody would say that being a Hellenistic Jew is a qualification for being a deacon. Obviously, a person's Jewish or Greek status (or any other ethnic status) does not in general qualify or disqualify that person from being a missionary. However, it does seem like the New Testament offers examples of wisely taking ethnicity into account in specific ministry contexts. If this is correct then, in a particular situation, a congregation MIGHT decide it wise to take ethnicity into account in choosing a pastor WITHOUT necessarily violating the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.

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Monday, March 04, 2019

Knowing God's Will For Your Life: Finding God's Will Through the Discipline of Spiritual Discernment

[In 2011 at Kosmosdale Baptist Church, I led my Sunday school class in studying through Tim Challies' The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. In studying to teach that class, I made an outline of each chapter. The following blogpost is expanded from the outline I made for Chapter 6. Some of the thoughts below are paraphrased quotes from Challies. I certainly recommend reading his entire book.]

The Question Raised

When asking the question, “What is God’s will for my life?” the Christian must consider two ways in which we—as time-bound, dependent creatures—experience God’s will. We experience God’s will according to both His will of decree and His will of command. Distinguishing between these two aspects of God’s will is crucial.

God's Will of Decree

God’s will of decree is, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, His determination by which He has “foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” for His own glory. As God has said, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isa 46:11b). God’s will of decree is sometimes called God’s secret will, as stated in Deuteronomy 29:29a, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God.” Except for prophecies found in Scripture, God has not—and will not—reveal specific details of what He will bring about in the future. Except for certain events discussed in Scripture, God has not—and will not—give an infallible interpretation of why He allowed specific events to take place in the past. We look to Scripture and see enough about God’s will of decree that we know He is in control and will bring His creation to a perfect end. Otherwise, God’s will of decree is—in a real sense—none of our business.

God's Will of Command

On the other hand, every person should have a keen interest in the specifics concerning God’s will of command. God’s will of command is defined by what God has told us to do in the Bible, and what He has written on our conscience, in order to direct us in how we should live for His glory. God gives us specific, over-arching commands concerning how to live in accordance with His will. These commands include: be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:17-18); be sanctified (1 Thess 4:3a); be thankful (1 Thess 5:18). God’s will of command is sometimes called God’s revealed will, as—unlike His secret will of decree—God has made the details concerning His will of command abundantly clear.

Living in God's Will of Command

As we seek to follow God’s revealed will, several principles come to light.
1. Where God’s commands are explicit, we must obey immediately, joyfully, and without question.
2. In general, where the Bible contains no explicit command, God gives us freedom and responsibility to choose what we will do, with prayer and reliance upon scriptural principles. In acting upon scriptural principles, we recognize that God gives us wisdom and discernment to choose what we will do.
3. When we have chosen what is moral and wise, as defined by commands and principles of Scripture, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.

The Secret Things Belong to the LORD Our God

As we seek to understand and obey God’s will, we must realize that understanding and obedience will require dedicated effort: we must be diligent in seeking to know and apply God’s revealed will. On the other hand, understanding and obedience do NOT require discovering God’s secret will of decree in advance of making decisions. When we must make a choice, and there is no direct scriptural command that clearly dictates which option we should choose, then understanding and obedience require acting in a way that is consistent with general principles God’s revealed will. In this, we must NOT pray for a glimpse into God’s secret will; instead, we must pray for wisdom (Jas 1:5).

Foundations for Discerning God's Will

In writing about discerning God's will, Tim Challies recommends viewing discernment of God's will according to the following "stages". It is important to note, when considering these "stages":
1. This process presupposes that the person who seeks to know God's will is a believer, who has been given a new heart (Eze 36:26); it is only through being born again that a faithful person can honestly pray to God, "Your will be done" (Matt 6:10);
2. This process presupposes that the person who seeks to know God's will is regularly studying Scripture, therefore becoming well-acquainted with God's revealed will;
3. This process is not a a strict step-by-step sequence, as these "stages" often take place simultaneously.

Stages for Understanding and Obeying God's Will:

1. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2);
2. Apply truths from Scripture to situations and decisions you encounter in life, by:
a. Obeying God's commands;
b. Seeking to act according to biblical principles;
3. Renew your emotions so that you love what God loves and hate what God hates.

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Saturday, March 02, 2019

Knowing God's Will For Your Life: Being Filled With the Spirit

[The following was originally posted on 5/9/12.]

What is God's will for my life? I believe that God's will can be summed up in one statement: God wants me to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I believe that this is the teaching of Ephesians 5:17-18. The filling of the Holy Spirit is indicative of God's active, indwelling presence in my life: granting me spiritual gifts, growing spiritual fruit within me, and bringing me into blessed fellowship with Him.

Quenching the Spirit

I can fail (and often do fail) to be filled by the Holy Spirit as I "quench" the Holy Spirit in my life (1 Thess 5:19). This 'quenching' occurs through engaging in sins: either sins of commission or sins of omission. Sins of commission can occur through the instrumentality of a foreign substance (Eph 5:17-18 mentions "wine") or through my own flesh (1 Thess 4:3 mentions "sexual immorality;" cf. 1 Cor 6:18). In either case, in committing sins of commission, I am giving myself over to the control of something other than the Holy Spirit. The chief sin of omission is the failure to prayerfully study God's Word.

Filled With the Word

Being filled with the Holy Spirit is directly tied to being filled with God's Word. This is seen in the close parallel between Ephesians 5:17-33 and Colossians 3:15-25. (Notice that whereas Eph 5:18 says, "be filled with the Spirit," Col 3:16 says, in the same basic position of the argument being presented, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.") Holy Scripturethe Word of God, presenting the message of Christis the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Faith comes (initially) by hearing the Word of God (Rom 10:17). Faith grows through being nourished on the Word of God (Matt 4:4; 1 Pet 2:2). Faith is the instrument by which disciples take hold of Christ and receive all spiritual blessings found in Him.

Prayer, Wisdom, and the Word in Action

My study of God's Word must be prayerful, because I am commanded to "let the Word of Christ dwell within you richly in all wisdom" (Col 3:16), and because the way to obtain wisdom is through asking God (Jas 1:5). Wisdom is needed so that I may put God's Word into action in how I deal with others, as outlined in Ephesians 5:17-33 and Colossians 3:15-25.

Thankfulness and Evangelism

If I am filled with the Holy Spirit—if I am thus pursuing God's will for my life—it will be evident in my attitude and actions. Correct attitude and correct actions will primarily be characterized by thankfulness and evangelism. I will have an attitude of thankfulness toward God in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:18-19). My actions—in addition to being characterized by the love, submission, and justice described in Ephesians 5:17-33 and Colossians 3:15-25—will also be characterized by active evangelism. In performing God's will for my life, I must be active in evangelism because it is God's will that all be saved (1 Tim 2:3-4) and the Lord is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet 2:9).

Conclusion

God's will for my life is that I be filled with the Holy Spirit. The chief ways to be filled with the Holy Spirit are by simultaneously: abstaining from sin, prayerfully studying God's Word (seeking to put what I find in His Word into practice in my life), having an attitude of thankfulness to God in all circumstances, and engaging in evangelism.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Knowing God's Will For Your Life: Lessons from 1 Thessalonians

[The following was originally posted on 3/11/14.]

What is God's will for my life?

If you believe in God, then I am certain that you have asked this question in your heart, at least occasionally, if not daily.

I have good news for you, dear reader. God Himself has spoken to me. He has given me an inerrant, infallible word concerning His will for your life (and mine).

This is what God told me:

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.

and

in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

You may be tempted to be disappointed with these words, found in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:18. You may think: 'what I want to know is the specifics of my circumstances, where I will go and what I will do/should do in the future.' But God is not in the business of fortune-telling. The Apostle Paul, through whom this letter came to the Thessalonians, himself did not know his own future. For example: he desired to see the Thessalonians, but he was not sure he would get the opportunity to do so. On other occasions he wanted to travel east, to minister the gospel in Asia, and he intended to do so, but he was prevented from going there. God does not reveal our personal future paths to us in this life. He withholds this information in order to increase our faith and dependence on Him.

Background for 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:18

Paul's basic reason for writing 1 Thessalonians was simply to encourage the church, letting them know that he greatly desires to see them and that he constantly prays for them. The Thessalonians were doing many things right: they were active in evangelism (1 Thess 1:8), and they were active in giving to the poor (1 Thess 4:10).

Paul was concerned that the Thessalonians, while engaged in noble activities, may neglect basic matters of sanctification. For this reason, Paul ended 1 Thessalonians with an unusually long (relative to the shortness of the book) section of exhortation, beginning in 1 Thessalonians 4:1, in which the actual word "exhort" occurs.

Connection Between the Thessalonians and Us

The pagan culture in which the Thessalonians dwelt was not so different from the culture in which we live today, especially in the following way: the culture is/was rife with sexual immorality. The Apostle Paul (himself a single man), under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was keenly aware of the powerful pull of sexual sin. The Thessalonians lived in a culture in which orgiastic feasts and temple prostitutes were the norm. We live in a culture in which certain kinds of sexual immorality are even more all-pervasive. Television and computers make all forms of sexual images instantly available. Even movies that are not considered pornographic may sometimes contain nudity. Modesty is virtually an unknown term in current American culture. For these reasons and others, you and I must be vigilant so that we do not leave ourselves open to temptation. We must flee sexual immorality in all forms. We must pray for wisdom that we would guard the sexual aspect of our lives in order that all areas of our lives will manifest the holiness and glory of God. Love for God and love for others must compel us to properly confine and channel all of our sexual energies to the marriage bed, that our union with our spouses (or future spouses, for those yet unmarried) would be sweet, joyous, and undefiled.

Sanctification is expressed negatively in mortification. Specifically, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 highlights the fact that God's will for our lives is that we put to death lustful passions by abstaining from sexual immorality. Sanctification is also expressed positively in vivification. Specifically, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 highlights strengthening our spiritual life by gratitude, as we engage in constant thankfulness.

The command concerning thankfulness comes in a section of 1 Thessalonians in which the Apostle had been giving an exhortation concerning life within the church. While patiently ministering to people with problems (and problematic people), the Thessalonian Christians might have been tempted to become disappointed, bitter, and complaining.

We live in a culture in which complaining is all-pervasive. Obviously, there are situations in which criticism is legitimate or even necessary. Yet even in those situations, there is often occasion for thanksgiving due to God's common grace. A bitter attitude is always inappropriate. You and I must be vigilant concerning our thoughts and speech in order to make sure that we are not fostering a complaining spirit, but that we are instead looking for opportunities to express thankfulness to God and others.

God's Will for Unbelievers

1 Thessalonians was written to Christians in Thessalonica. The words from 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:18 to the Thessalonian Christians are directly applicable to Christians today. But for those who are outside of Christ, there is a more basic answer to the question: what is God's will for my life?

If you are not a Christian, then God's will is that you become one by turning from your sins and trusting in Christ. Jesus lived the perfect life that we have not: He never committed any sins of commission (He never broke God's law through wrong actions such as sexual immorality); He never committed any sins of omission (He never failed to do what He ought through inaction such as a lack of thankfulness). Jesus died on the Cross, paying the penalty for the sins—sins both of commission and omission—that we have committed. Jesus rose from the grave, conquering sin, death, and Hell. Jesus now lives, offering forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust in Him. Trust in Him and live for Him today.

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Monday, February 25, 2019

The Apostle Paul as a Pharisee and a Christian's Use of Labels

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.’” (Acts 23:6)

A Christian student of Scripture would not be surprised to read that Paul had been a Pharisee before he came to trust in Jesus (see Acts 26:5; Phil 3:5). However, if someone had not considered Acts 23:6 before, it might be striking to read of the Apostle Paul, on trial before the Sanhedrin, still declaring, “I am a Pharisee” (using the present tense). That Paul, as a Christian leader, would continue to refer to himself a Pharisee (at least on this occasion) may surprise a Christian reader, as we are so used to seeing the Pharisees as villains in the Gospel accounts. Indeed Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, had previously recorded Jesus pronouncing woes [prophetic judgments of God’s wrath] upon the Pharisees as hypocrites (Luke 11:42-44; cf. Matt 23:13-36). So why would the Apostle Paul identify himself as a Pharisee?

Wise as a Serpent, Innocent as a Dove

First, we must observe that there is no hint in the text that the Apostle Paul was sinning in identifying himself as a Pharisee. Rather, it seems that this is an instance where he was putting into effect Jesus’ instruction to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16; notice that, in the context of this verse, Jesus was specifically referring to a trial setting). Paul was, obviously, as wise as a serpent, because he was able to understand the situation and get those who were persecuting him to begin contending against each other instead. However, we should also see Paul, on this occasion, as also being innocent as a dove. Paul was not lying when he declared, “I am a Pharisee.”

What made a Pharisee a Pharisee? Given the attitudes and actions of most Pharisees in the Gospel accounts, the term “Pharisee” is now understandably associated with hypocrisy and legalism. However, in terms of formal, stated beliefs, Acts 23:8 informs us that Pharisees were those who believed angels and spirits, and who hoped in the resurrection (extra-biblical sources inform us that the Pharisees also accepted the entire Hebrew Bible, whereas the Sadducees held that only the Pentateuch was authoritative). Paul’s agreement with these crucial points of doctrine (points of doctrine that were directly relevant to his testimony before the Sanhedrin), in contrast with the Sadducees’ skepticism, is what allowed him to identify with the Pharisees in good conscience.

Some Applications from Paul’s Identifying as a Pharisee

Paul, as a Christian, was able (in good conscience) to identify as a Pharisee when the situation called for it. We, as Christians, should not necessarily disavow all other labels; rather, we may be in certain situations where specific theological labels (other than merely "Christian") are useful. To give one example: in the religious context of the Sanhedrin, Paul believed that the Pharisees (at least formally) held to doctrines that were in line with the Bible; therefore, he called himself a Pharisee. Likewise, in a theological debate, if we are convinced that the Doctrines of Grace, commonly called Calvinism, are in line with the Bible, we should not be ashamed to use the label “Calvinist,” if it seems to be a clarifying term in a specific setting.

Another application for Paul using the term “Pharisee” may be seen in the American political landscape. In His earthly ministry, Jesus rebuked both Pharisees and Sadducees for their attitudes and actions. Yet, doctrinally speaking, the two groups were not equally far from the truth. In their official defining beliefs, the Pharisees were right and the Sadducees were wrong. Paul could say “I am a Pharisee;” he could NOT say “I am a Sadducee.” Likewise in America, there are two major groups in terms of social-political philosophy: the conservatives and the progressives. The conscientious Christian, seeking to keep in step with the Spirit, will certainly have occasion to rebuke both conservatives and progressives for their attitudes and actions. However, conservative and progressive social-political philosophies are not equally far from the truth. In their official, defining beliefs, conservatives hold to objective truth as revealed by the Creator, with truth and justice needing to be conserved; progressives hold to relative truth as discovered by people, saying that society needs to progressively attain into greater and greater truth and justice. The conservatives are basically right and the progressives are basically wrong. The faithful Christian, seeking to stand on the revelation of God, can say “I am a conservative;” he CANNOT say (with any degree of consistency) “I am a progressive.”

Warning Against Pride in Labels

But note the following illegitimate use of labels:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or, ‘I follow Apollos,’ or, ‘I follow Cephas,’ or, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:11-13).

Paul wrote the words above to a church in which Christians had become obsessed with taking pride in labels and group affiliations.

When the occasion called for it, Paul could declare “I am a Pharisee.” However, Paul did not take pride in being a Pharisee, as he wrote, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world had been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). And in another place, after mentioning his background as a Pharisee, Paul wrote, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss for the sake on knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, the by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:7-11).

Though (at least on occasion) Paul took on a label and identified himself with a group that was enthusiastic about the idea of the resurrection, this was NOT what motivated Paul. Rather, Paul was motivated by personal knowledge of the resurrected Jesus, with hope of actually joining Christ in the resurrection. Likewise, though we may employ the term “evangelical” if it makes sense in a given religious discussion, it should not be the label, but the gospel itself that motivates us. Though we may employ the term “Calvinist” if it makes sense in a given theological debate, it should not be the label, but grace itself that motivates us. Though we may employ the term “conservative” if it makes sense in a given political debate, it should not be the label, but commitment to objective truth that motivates us. Though we may be thankful that we can employ the term “American,” freedom should not just be a slogan, we should seek true spiritual freedom and use our nationally-recognized freedoms of speech, press, assembly, etc., to proclaim the freedom available in Christ.

In conclusion, labels can be good. They should be employed wisely. They must not be considered as ultimate.

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