Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Good Life: Augustine says we must love the very best the most.

Image: Nicholas Wilton

By Daniel H. Williams @

In Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky subjects the promises of the European Enlightenment to a withering critique. Among other "lies," he ridicules the notion that complete personal freedom leads not to wicked actions because of self-centeredness, but to a realization that it is in one's best interests to act righteously: "If only one's eyes were opened to his real, normal interests, he would at once cease doing vile things and would immediately become good and honorable, because being enlightened … he would indeed see his personal advantage in goodness."

As human history has repeatedly shown, however, letting humanity choose whatever works to its own advantage results in the primacy of self-interest and personal gain. Unless someone is obliged as well as enabled to see what is good, he will not freely choose it, because it will not immediately seem to be in his self interest.

Within the heart of Christian ethics, there lies the task of answering important questions about what the Christian should value the most, accept as the highest good, and cling to in love.

Paul said it best in Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

You wouldn't think this would be too hard, and many thinkers have said as much. For Epictetus, a Greek contemporary of Paul, human nature contained "a distinct portion of the essence of God." He reminded readers not to be "ignorant of your noble birth." Cicero wrote on this theme a century earlier, when he argued that there is a "spark" of deity in the human soul, enabling us to ascend eventually to ultimate goodness. These ancients sound like Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who held that human beings have a fundamental orientation toward goodness, truth, and love, and that at soul's bottom there exists an orientation toward God. From this point of view, people merely have to be reminded of the good, and they will seek it.

But if this were the case, why would believers have to be told by Jesus "to hunger and thirst after righteousness"? Or to grant mercy and forgiveness to an offender? Or to strive to be "pure in heart"? Though we are made in the image of God, we do not have a fundamental orientation toward good. We are preeminently self-oriented. We want our own good, our own kind of justice, our own version of love and loving. Paul recognized this, which is why he echoed Isaiah: "There is no one righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12).

A fundamental part of Christian growth depends on teaching believers not only to do good, but also to distinguish between various goods, and to seek the highest good among them. How should we value temporal goods like family, music, politics, literature, art, and sports? On the one hand, we know the joy they can bring us. On the other hand, they often seem like distractions from spiritual life.

In our culture, it is difficult to show that the exercise of personal freedom as the greatest good does not result in a person's best interests. A fundamental part of Christian growth depends on teaching believers how to make the distinction between continuing to build a kingdom of the self and seeking what is good, pure, and true from the Creator's perspective—and then pursuing it. This is the quest Christians today call "Christian living." In an ocean of "how-to" resources—books and cds for women, men, teens, and married couples on every conceivable area of human behavior—we are given personal and witty tips on acquiring a positive image, solving family issues, living a holy life, and meeting the moral challenges of our day.

While self-help Christian living literature can help us, both Paul's assessment of human nature and our own experience suggest that we need to think more deeply about these issues. Few have thought more deeply than Augustine about how the human person may relate rightly to the objects of human love—temporal goods, oneself, one's neighbor, and God. While Augustine is often thought of as a philosopher and theologian, he was a pastor for most of his life. Matters that dealt with sustaining faith, practicing Christian virtues, and teaching the truth were especially important to him, just as they are for believers today.

First things first

In the course of his religious journey to Christianity, Augustine recognized that no object or physical thing can be good or bad in itself. Rather, he acknowledged two things: (1) that it is our will that takes good things and makes them bad by our absorption with them and thus our perversion of them, and (2) the relation of our affections to the sensible world can only be determined by having a proper relation to all physical things in light of their Creator.

Augustine taught that if anything exists, it exists because it was given existence (and is sustained) by God. He wrote a book completely devoted to the issue, On the Nature of the Good. In it, he says: "Every nature is good, and every good thing is from God. Therefore, all nature is from God."

He elaborates: "All life, potency, health, memory, virtue, intelligence, tranquility, abundance, light, sweetness, measure, beauty, peace—all these things whether great or small … come from the Lord." What makes things good is their right use in the scheme in which God has placed them. Whoever makes a bad use of good things does not make them bad, but merely abuses good things. Augustine would say that we sin when we place anything or anyone in the wrong order of goods—that is, if the cleanliness of our home is more important than housing needy children, or if we follow the dictates of our career over the covenant of marriage. Regarding things as more important than they are is what leads to obsessiveness, possessivenesss, or oppressiveness.

Augustine builds on this perspective in his book On Christian Teaching. He makes a distinction between things that are to be enjoyed and things that are to be used. To enjoy something is to love it and gain happiness from it simply for what it is. To use something means to employ it to obtain the thing you love or gain happiness from. The chief distinction between the two is that "to enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake"; everything else is a means to what we should hold fast to or love. In poetic form, Augustine expresses this distinction in his Confessions:

What is the object of my love? I asked the earth, and it said, "It is not I." … I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that move about, and they responded, "We are not your God; look beyond us." … I asked heaven, sun, moon, and stars, and they said, "Nor are we the God whom you seek." Then tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him. And with a great voice they cried out, "He made us."

We understand, therefore, that the only thing to be enjoyed, or loved for its own sake, is what is unchangeable and eternal: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the most important of all good "things." To love anything else for its own sake, including one's self, is to confuse the creation with the Creator. It is an abuse to center your deepest affection on anything God has made as if it were God. In doing so, we will never find the fulfillment we seek from that part of creation. We will always expect more from it—no matter how good or noble or innocent—than it can ever deliver, because things are signs that are supposed to lead us to God. Thus, we must not confuse any aspect of the world—which is itself a sign—with the one who gave the sign and meant for the sign to fulfill itself by pointing us to the true Fulfiller.

At the foundation of right Christian living, as Augustine would have it, is how we order the things we love. We tend to naturally love ourselves, along with others or things that bring us happiness or fulfillment. These are all good things—unless they prevent us from recognizing and loving the Source of these things. We may become so obsessed with human love or our own desires that we ignore the one who gives value and order to the use of human love and desires. However, as soon as we "love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul" we discover that we must also love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is the double commandment that Christ gave his disciples. Only after we approach God with our highest love and affection will we be able to put what we love in proper order, starting first with our neighbor. Listen to Augustine directly:

So you should not love yourself on your own account but on account of the one (God) who is the most proper object of your love. Another person should not be angry if you love him, too, on account of God. For the divinely established rule (regula) of love says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," but first love God "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." … So a person who loves his neighbor properly should, in concert with him, aim to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind.

In other words, to love one's neighbor rightly—the basis of all ethical behavior—we must first love God, and then "refer" all our other loves to God. This is the ethical pinnacle for Augustine. We will always rightly love our neighbors (which could mean anyone) and treat them justly when we love them in God and for God's sake. The same principle holds true for our use of any material thing.

Ultimately, the critical question to living out the good, the true, and the beautiful is: What does it mean to love rightly? Augustine learned that any ideology or philosophy was ultimately inadequate for a spiritual ascent to God, where the answers to such questions lie. Rather, the act of love on which Christ had staked all of human ethics should be the focus of a lifelong engagement. The Cross and its implications challenge the great lie that Dostoevsky warned us about: that "man needs one thing only—independent desire, wherever that desire may lead him. But the devil only knows that desire. …"

The 'double-love' rule

In truth, the result of Augustinian love of God and neighbor requires a form of self-denial, in continuity with Jesus' hard sayings. This self-denial argues that we can only have the good by not grasping anything or anyone through domination, manipulation, or unlimited acquisition. Instead, the rule of "double-love"—love of God and neighbor—brings restraint, humility, respect, and trust. To follow this ethic produces a just and pure-minded person, because he has, as Augustine put it, ordered his loves.

This person will most value the higher things (such as the virtues of faith, hope, and love) over the lower things (such as bodily pleasures, ambition, and acquisitions), because his greatest affection is for the eternal and changeless Creator, who is the Highest Love.

Augustine's insights don't tell us how to solve the specific dilemmas we face. His teaching tells us that the tension we feel is healthy. It means we don't want lesser things to replace the greater thing. When our loves are properly ordered, all other relationships and objects of our desire will have their rightful place for what they are, as opposed to what we want to make them. This ordering will, in turn, provide us with the inner fulfillment that we seek, evidenced by the acuity of a purified vision and a greater comprehension of our place within the order of creation. In other words, our love for God and our neighbor will prevent us from being manipulated by less important things.

The great question that philosophers have asked since Socrates—"What is the good life?"—is the exact question Augustine raised for his listeners at the end of a sermon. His answer was no less philosophical than theological: "To love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and to love your brother and your sister as yourself."

Daniel H. Williams is professor of religion at Baylor University and the author of Evangelicals and Tradition (Baker Academic).

Healing From Abortion Through Jesus Christ

Here’s a YouTube video telling the powerful story of how one young woman who experienced abortion found forgiveness, healing and a passionate ministry—all through the Great Physician!

About This Video
Michelle thought her abortion would be a simple, in-and-out procedure. As a teen, she was not prepared for the devasting effects.

There was a botched twin abortion in Italy where the baby with Downs Syndrome was supposed to be aborted. But the doctor botched the abortion and murdered the healthy baby, as if in some cruel twist of fate their actions turned around and slapped them right back in the face. Will people ever learn not to fool with what God created, even if it is not "perfect" in our own eyes?

Abortion of WRONG TWIN - Healthy baby aborted - downs syndrome baby survives.,,215681 3,00.html!

The rejection of biblical authority is a moral issue


Commenting on WCF 1:iv:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God
R. C. Sproul notes that:
The confession asserts that the Bible's authority is so strong, so supreme, that it imposes on us a moral obligation to believe it. If we do not believe it, we have sinned. It is not so much an intellectual as a moral issue.
Throughout Church history, the supreme attack of the world, the flesh, and the devil against godliness has been an attack on the authority of God's Word. Fierce assaults on the authority of Scripture, which came out of the Enlightenment, made their way into the universities and seminaries. They also came from within the Church, in the name of biblical criticism or higher criticism.
At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Abraham Kuyper...observed that biblical criticism had become biblical vandalism. Once, when I was in the old city of Athens, I observed people spray-painting graffiti on two-thousand-year-old ruins. "Is nothing sacred today?" I thought. No treasure has been more subject to malicious attack than Scripture itself.
R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: Vol. 1 The Triune God, p. 12-13

The "Social Gospel" Summarised


Here is a helpful summary by Sean Michael Lucas (who blogs here) in his book On Being Presbyterian:

...three progressive intellectual trends became prominent at the PCUS seminaries. The first, and most important, was the "Social Gospel." The phrase described the effort to relate biblical principles to social needs and challenges raised by the industrialization and urbanization of the early twentieth century.

But the Social Gospel came to represent a major shift in the way important theological categories were used. In short, the Social Gospel represented a movement away from individual to corporate categories for theology. Sin was defined in social and systemic terms--the oppressive social structures that kept people from achieving their potential. Salvation, likewise, was the removal of those structures in order to maximize human potentialities and make a more just world.

Also distinctive about the Social Gospel movement was a genuine embrace of the historical Jesus and his teaching as the norm for social action; "What would Jesus do?" was the question that Social Gospel promoters...desired Christians to ask themselves. In particular, the question was what Jesus would do in order to realize the kingdom of God as an earthly reality, bringing social harmony in its wake.

All natural and political processes that brought God's kingdom to closer fulfillment were seen as the work of God's Spirit.

Sean Michael Lucas, On Being Presbyterian: Our beliefs, practices, and stories, p. 227-8

Christian Curiosity

by J.D. Coleman @

While returning from a book sale a few days ago, a few friends and I were discussing the happenings of the morning. One of my friends pointed out how many Christians we knew or recognized at the book sale. Granted, in Greenville, South Carolina, we have a much higher concentration of Bible-believing Christians than is typical, but still it was interesting that atcoleman_pull.gif the book sale, the proportions were much higher than you would find in any other public venue at any other time.

I raised the question, “Do you think there is a connection between Christianity and general interest in knowledge?” Another friend quickly voiced an objection. In his experience, Christians tend to isolate themselves from general knowledge in order to protect the faith. As the discussion continued, we realized that individual personality and cultural factors play a major role in the equation. We also had to specify what we meant by “knowledge.”

In this case, we are talking about what might be called “higher knowledge”: the purest and best of what may be known from the world around us. That is what we’ll refer to as “knowledge” in the following paragraphs. But the question remains: If all other outside factors could be set aside, would we find a basic causal relationship between Christianity and a desire for this kind of knowledge? Is there an overlap between a Christian mind and a curious mind?

Romans 1:20 states, “For the unseen things of him from the creation of the world, being understood, [are] clearly seen in the things created, both his eternal power and divine nature” (my personal translation). This passage leads us to an important realization. Since God created everything, everything reflects His character. The natural world first comes to mind (Ps. 19:1), but God’s hand is evident also in humanity and in His culture. Though often marred by sin, man’s creativity and expression reflect his Creator. Logical thought especially corresponds with a God who reveals Himself through organized ideas in the Bible. If God, then, is the source of all knowledge and if all knowledge reflects His character, it follows that Christians should naturally have a desire to pursue that knowledge.

As the source of all knowledge is God, so the end of all knowledge is God’s glory. Indeed, the Bible reveals that all things were created for the purpose of giving God glory (Rev. 4:11, Eph. 1:12, 1 Cor. 10:31, and others). We give God glory in two ways. We glorify Him privately by lifting Him up in our own hearts in response to our knowledge of Him. We glorify Him publicly by exalting Him and proclaiming His truth to other people. We accomplish the latter both by our words and by our actions—our lives. It is in our daily interactions with people that we have our most significant opportunities to glorify God.

In order to do so, though, we must have a common basis of understanding with those people. We must understand people—their culture and their way of thinking—in order to effectively communicate with them. We all know how awkward it is to try to talk to someone with whom we have little in common. If we are going to be effective in our testimony, then, we must broaden our minds. A broad interest in knowledge gives a common ground, a starting point, for ministering to people. So Christians pursue knowledge in order to serve and to glorify God more effectively.

Perhaps the real difference between the Christian and non-Christian mind has to do with a view of knowledge. Knowledge apart from God is vanity, as Solomon discovered (Eccl. 1:17-18). In a sense, he had a curious mind—he wanted to explore pleasures and experiences, but his desire for learning was out of focus. Christians have been freed from the darkness and futility of their minds (Eph. 4:17), and as we saw ealier, Christians have a purpose for learning: to know God and to glorify Him. As a result, Christians seek higher and purer forms of knowledge (Phil. 1:10, 4:8), and they understand it in true perspective.

The atheist Aldous Huxley once said bluntly, “An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex.” Christians have discovered something infinitely more valuable than the pursuit of temporary pleasures, fleshly experiences, or vain knowledge. In other words, Christians should be a great deal less distracted by worthless pursuits than non-Christians are. Instead of constantly seeking pleasure and cheap entertainment, it seems that Christians would tend to enjoy more worthwhile pursuits, such as quality reading. Christians pursue knowledge because they are no longer trapped in shallow, meaningless concerns.

At any rate, it seems obvious to me that fundamentally Christians should be more interested in learning. But our initial question was not whether they should but whether they are especially interested in knowledge. As I researched, my fears to the contrary began to grow when I discovered how relatively few voices are supporting Christian learning. In fact, the same groups who claim the strongest loyalty to the Scriptures are often the most antagonistic to broader thinking and learning. What is even more tragic is the testimony we too often have to the unsaved, expressed here by one of many similar blog posts I ran across: “Christians don’t read, they don’t think, they don’t discuss; they refuse to think. I can’t deal with that.” Christianity will appear to be foolishness to those who don’t believe (1 Cor. 1:18), and that blogger is really the one guilty of narrow-minded, unthinking generalization. But unfortunately it is too often true that Bible-believing Christians are afraid of thinking and learning, of having a “sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). My brethren, this ought not so to be!

Some well-meaning saint will be apt to object, “Knowledge should be avoided because it fosters pride.” My response is that any such knowledge is a pretense—a mere show of knowledge. A truly Christian desire for knowledge will have exactly the opposite effect. As we have seen, knowledge is rooted in God’s character and directed toward His glory. The farther up the mountain of knowledge one climbs, the greater the vistas he sees of the character of God. And the more a Christian knows, the more he knows he doesn’t know. If a so-called Christian intellectual fills his mind in order to debate or to exalt himself by appearing intelligent, he has missed the point. True knowledge is not self-directed but God-directed.

Having a desire for knowledge doesn’t mean that we should spend our lives in the classroom, either. Higher education can be helpful, but sometimes knowledge is most useful when it’s “de-academized.” Emerging from a seminary with a Ph.D. could result in a great deal of theoretical knowledge without a clue concerning the application of that knowledge. But I’m neither endorsing nor debasing higher education. I’m simply saying that a Christian should have a curious mind and a broad interest in knowledge.

So read a good book. Watch a quality movie and don’t turn your mind off as you are entertained. Walk through the woods and watch God’s creation. Explore different cultures and ways of thinking. Develop your Christian mind into a curious mind.

coleman07.jpgJ.D. Coleman is a graduate assistant at Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) who is working on an M.A. in Bible. Previously, he received a B.A. in Bible also from BJU. After graduate work, he hopes to work with a church in the Northwest.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Philippian Attitude Adjustment

It's easy to feel upbeat about life when things are going your way. Opportunities at work + social standing + love at home = a positive attitude. Then you get extra credit because an optimistic outlook breeds further success: professionally, socially, and personally.

But what about when life gets hard? When work is stifling? When your popularity drops? When home means tension or loneliness? Just about the last thing in the world you want to hear is: "You need an attitude adjustment." Yet, in truth, you probably do. But how? How can you change the way you perceive your life, or even the way you feel about it?

We find answers to this question in the New Testament letter from Paul to the Philippians. If anybody had the right to a bad attitude, surely it was Paul. Years of faithful ministry brought much personal suffering. He was writing to the Christians in Philippi from a prison somewhere in the Roman Empire (scholars aren't sure exactly where). The charge against Paul? Telling good news about Jesus. The possible penalty for his crime? Death. I can imagine that if I were in Paul's sandals, I'd be feeling down about life, and even about God. Self-absorbed pity would be my prison cellmate.

But, strange as it seems, Philippians abounds with joy, and not just joy, but a consistently buoyant and visionary perspective on life. How is this possible? Is Paul genetically wired to look on the bright side? Hardly. Rather his positive attitude rests on the bedrock of his relationship with the living God.

This article begins a multipart series on a Philippian attitude adjustment. From Paul's little letter, we'll learn how to see our lives through the lens of confident faith, even when things are tough. We'll let Paul teach us how to have a genuinely positive attitude, not by pretending or denying, but by letting God permeate our thoughts and feelings.

Philippians kicks off with one essential component of a good attitude . . . grateful remembrance:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. (1:3-5)

Paul doesn't become mired in his moment of hardship. Rather, he remembers how the Philippians have been "sharing in the gospel." Koinonia, the Greek word translated as "sharing," can be used both for intimate friendship and a business partnership. Here it refers to the Philippian participation in Paul's ministry, as well as their mutual affection. Paul's recollection of how God has helped the Philippians to be his colleagues fills him with joyful gratitude. He doesn't feel alone because his Philippian partners have been with him since day one.

A genuinely affirmative attitude doesn't start with us. Rather, it begins with God and his grace. Grateful remembrance points our minds in God's direction, lifting us out of the fog of self-absorption. It broadens our perspective. It strengthens our confidence in God's faithfulness. And it enables us to rejoice, even when life is hard.

If you haven't done so yet today, why not take a few minutes to reflect on God's goodness to you? Whether you're exalting with enthusiasm or feeling like you're locked up in some prison, remember what God has done, and be sure to say "Thank You." That's the beginning of a new way of thinking, feeling, and being. It's the start of a Philippian attitude adjustment.

Concerns for a Generation of Christians


Justin Taylor: One of the things I’m most concerned about is our lack of understanding biblical doctrine and then how to apply it and communicate it in a winsome and humble manner. We can talk about our “passion for God’s glory,” but do we know how to explain why the Trinity is essential even though that word doesn’t show up in the Bible? Do we know how to explain that God isn’t made up of three parts, that he isn’t a person who wears three hats, that he’s not three Gods? Do we know how to define justification? To explain the relationship of faith and works—how we are saved by faith alone, but yet if we don’t have obedience we won’t go to heaven? Do we know how to explain that Christ is one person, not two people—and that he has two natures, not one? Does Jesus still have a body—is he still human? We may know that the Bible is without error, but can we explain why this must be the case, and how to explain apparent discrepancies?

In other words, I think we’ve got the purpose of life right (to glorify God and enjoy him forever). But I’m not so sure we’ve yet let the truth flow down from the top of this glorious pyramid. Without a foundation it cannot stand. As a generation of younger believers we not only need to sing and teach and rejoice in God’s ultimate purpose, but also to do the same with the “whole counsel of God.”

Along with biblically informed doctrine, we need to do a better job of learning how to express it. That, of course, is the purpose behind “humble orthodoxy.” And in order to achieve that, we need to first commune with God. Few have said it better than my theological hero John Owen:

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us,—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men. (Works, I, pp. lxiii-lxiv [my emphasis])

Eric Simmons: My concern is that my generation of believers may be looking in the wrong places for direction and guidance in the pursuit of God. When I couple the desire for all these great and noble things with our generation’s biblical ignorance, my concern is heightened, because if we are not turning to God’s thoughts on these subjects for guidance, then what are we turning to? Are we turning to novelty? Are we turning to teachers who have causes and who love to inspire others to join the cause? Are we arrogantly reacting to our parents’ generation and what they said Christianity is supposed to look like? In other words we know what we don’t want our Christianity to look like, but we don’t know what it should look like. Being reactionary can be dangerous, and that is typically what well-meaning passionate people tend to do. They can build something new based on reaction and not deep thought.

For me, I see this as huge potential for our generation. If we can match our desire for authenticity with a passion for God’s revealed truth, then I think our generation is going to build strong churches that reveal the gospel like none this country and this world have ever seen. It’s an exciting time to live in and it’s the reason why we are so dedicated to spreading humble orthodoxy.

Thabiti Anyabwile: In some quarters, I am concerned about how some Christians view the local church itself. It seems to me that views of the church can run from "the church is irrelevant" to "let's experiment wildly." Both of these viewpoints, and many in between, fail either to take seriously the centrality of the local church for living the Christian life or the sufficiency of Scripture in defining life inside the church. There is a tendency, I think, to take liberties where Christ has not given them (where he has spoken clearly), loosening the commands of Christ and extending the permissions of the Lord. Here's a case where novelty is dangerous. We ought not to be bound by tradition for tradition's sake, and we ought to enjoy every liberty Christ gives (of which there are many), but we also need to be careful to observe all that He has taught us. And one thing that is hard to miss in the New Testament is the centrality of the local church for living a vibrant, healthy, and fruitful Christian life.

Joseph Stigora: I have a concern about an indecisiveness or a non-committal tendency. You can say, "Let's have a party at my place tomorrow night" and get the enthusiastic response I mentioned before. But when you call to ask someone to bring some Doritos (or your choice of non-hydrogenated oil snack food) ... they're not sure if they are coming, they might go to a movie with their cousin, some friends are going rock climbing ... they are keeping their options open ... but if they do come, they'll bring Doritos. That same attitude can leak into the church. They are excited to be there, love the music, authentically express themselves and are affected by truth ... but they are not sure they can serve on the communion team because their friends all go out for lunch after the service and they don't want to miss that ... they're not sure they want to be a member yet ... they want to take some time before they commit...

Obviously, this doesn't represent everyone. But I have noticed that my own indecisiveness is often just selfishness that wants to keep my options open in case something more attractive pops up in my schedule. I am seeking grace to repent and fight. We would do well to examine it as a tendency in our own lives and ask ourselves about why we do it ... and then passionately seek to change for the glory of God.

God’s Absolute Sovereignty

By John MacArthur @

God's Absolute SovereigntyNo doctrine is more despised by the natural mind than the truth that God is absolutely sovereign. Human pride loathes the suggestion that God orders everything, controls everything, rules over everything. The carnal mind, burning with enmity against God, abhors the biblical teaching that nothing comes to pass except according to His eternal decrees. Most of all, the flesh hates the notion that salvation is entirely God’s work. If God chose who would be saved, and if His choice was settled before the foundation of the world, then believers deserve no credit for their salvation.

But that is, after all, precisely what Scripture teaches. Even faith is God’s gracious gift to His elect. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). “Nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). Therefore no one who is saved has anything to boast about (cf Eph. 2:8, 9). “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).

The doctrine of divine election is explicitly taught throughout Scripture. For example, in the New Testament epistles alone, we learn that all believers are “chosen of God” (Titus 1:1). We were “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11, emphasis added). “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world . . . He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (vv. 4, 5). We “are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son . . . and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom. 8:28–30).

When Peter wrote that we are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Peter 1:1, 2), he was not using the word “foreknowledge” to mean that God was aware beforehand who would believe and therefore chose them because of their foreseen faith. Rather, Peter meant that God determined before time began to know and love and save them; and He chose them without regard to anything good or bad they might do. We’ll return to this point again, but for now, note that those verses explicitly state that God’s sovereign choice is made “according to the kind intention of His will” and “according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will”—that is, not for any reason external to Himself. Certainly He did not choose certain sinners to be saved because of something praiseworthy in them, or because He foresaw that they would choose Him. He chose them solely because it pleased Him to do so. God declares “the end from the beginning . . . saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa. 46:10). He is not subject to others’ decisions. His purposes for choosing some and rejecting others are hidden in the secret counsels of His own will.

Moreover, everything that exists in the universe exists because God allowed it, decreed it, and called it into existence. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6). He “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (1 Cor. 8:6).

What about sin? God is not the author of sin, but He certainly allowed it; it is integral to His eternal decree. God has a purpose for allowing it. He cannot be blamed for evil or tainted by its existence (1 Sam. 2:2: “There is no one holy like the Lord”). But He certainly wasn’t caught off-guard or standing helpless to stop it when sin entered the universe. We do not know His purposes for allowing sin. If nothing else, He permitted it in order to destroy evil forever. And God sometimes uses evil to accomplish good (Gen. 45:7, 8; 50:20; Rom. 8:28). How can these things be? Scripture does not answer all the questions for us. But we know from His Word that God is utterly sovereign, He is perfectly holy, and He is absolutely just.

Admittedly, those truths are hard for the human mind to embrace, but Scripture is unequivocal. God controls all things, right down to choosing who will be saved. Paul states the doctrine in inescapable terms in the ninth chapter of Romans, by showing that God chose Jacob and rejected his twin brother Esau “though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls” (v. 11). A few verses later, Paul adds this: “He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (vv. 15, 16).

Paul anticipated the argument against divine sovereignty: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” (v. 19). In other words, doesn’t God’s sovereignty cancel out human responsibility? But rather than offering a philosophical answer or a deep metaphysical argument, Paul simply reprimanded the skeptic: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?” (vv. 20, 21).

Scripture affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must accept both sides of the truth, though we may not understand how they correspond to one another. People are responsible for what they do with the gospel—or with whatever light they have (Rom. 2:19, 20), so that punishment is just if they reject the light. And those who reject do so voluntarily. Jesus lamented, “You are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:40). He told unbelievers, “Unless you believe that I am [God], you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). In John chapter 6, our Lord combined both divine sovereignty and human responsibility when He said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (v. 37); “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life” (v. 40); “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (v. 44); “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (v. 47); and, “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (v. 65). How both of those two realities can be true simultaneously cannot be understood by the human mind—only by God.

Above all, we must not conclude that God is unjust because He chooses to bestow grace on some but not to everyone. God is never to be measured by what seems fair to human judgment. Are we so foolish as to assume that we who are fallen, sinful creatures have a higher standard of what is right than an unfallen and infinitely, eternally holy God? What kind of pride is that? In Psalm 50:21 God says, “You thought that I was just like you.” But God is not like us, nor can He be held to human standards. “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isa. 55:8, 9).

We step out of bounds when we conclude that anything God does isn’t fair. In Romans 11:33 the apostle writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?” (Rom. 11:33, 34).

(Today’s post was adapted from John’s book Ashamed of the Gospel published by Crossway Books.)

A Roundtable Discussion on Forgiveness

Derek Thomas interviewsDerek Thomas Ligon Duncan and Justin Taylor

Derek: We frequently hear today references to unconditional love: “God loves unconditionally,” and so on. What do you think about this idea of unconditionality?

Ligon: Derek, I think, first of all that Don Carson has done a good job of addressing this in his little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, because the statement that God loves unconditionally is sometimes thrown around, fairly loosely, with the best of intentions, highlighting an important aspect of the truth about God’s love to us, that is, God does not wait for us to better ourselves to the point that we are deserving of his love. If we had to condition God’s love in that way, he would never love any of us. I think that is what some people are graspingly trying to say.

But the statement taken by itself that God loves unconditionally is unconditionally incorrect. So the problem is all human love comes with certain conditions. Think of a marriage contract, there are conditions that must be fulfilled by both partners. And if those conditions are not fulfilled in some cases, it constitutes a legitimate ground of the dissolution of the relationship. And so there are conditions attached to the profession of marital love. I think when we carry that back to the issue of God’s love, there are better ways of expressing the fact that God’s love is not evoked by any inherent deserving in us, but which is, in fact, self-generated and expressed without reference to our worthiness, our qualifications, our deserving, our loveliness, acting on or conditioning that love. And, consequently, when we are called upon as Christians to love unconditionally, that confusion sometimes comes along with it.

And so I think there are better ways, again, of talking about how we are to love. If you were sitting down with a parent who was constantly undermining his child’s confidence by a refusal to compliment and a propensity to always criticize, it would be very tempting to give that parent a lecture in unconditional love. But I think it would actually be more helpful to say that you are not asking the parent to abandon discernment or even standards of judgment, but to be mindful of the importance of building up this child positively, while at the same time being appropriately informative in areas where the child needs to improve. And so the whole category of unconditional love sometimes lends itself to this general evangelical malaise which believes that any oughts or obligations or standards in Christianity is the hallmark of horrible legalism that needs to be expunged from our Christian experience. So, I think for all those reasons it has been unfortunate how the language of unconditional love has been used, both in regard to God and in regard to Christians. If that is clear as mud, tell me.

Justin: The best thing I’ve read on this issue is David Powlison’s essay, “God’s Love: Better Than Unconditional” (found in his book, Seeing with New Eyes). Powlison explains the true things associated with the concept of “unconditional love”: (1) conditional love is a bad thing; (2) God’s love is patient; (3) true love is God’s gift, and (4) God receives you just as you are. But he also points out that (1) there are more biblical, vivid ways to capture these truths; (2) unmerited grace is not strictly unconditional; (3) God’s grace is intended to change people; and (4) unconditional love carries cultural baggage. In its place, Powlison advocates “contraconditional love.”

If you receive blanket acceptance, you need no repentance. You just accept it. It fills you without humbling you. It relaxes you without upsetting you about yourself—or thrilling you about Christ. It lets you relax without reckoning with the anguish of Jesus on the cross. It is easy and undemanding. It does not insist on, or work at, changing you. It deceives you about both God and yourself.

We can do better. God does not just accept me just as I am; he loves me despite how I am. He loves me just as Jesus is; he loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.

This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it contraconditional” love. God has blessed us because his Son fulfilled the condition I could never achieve. Contrary to what I deserve, he loves me. And now I begin to change, not to earn love, but because I’ve already received it.

Derek: There is a connection between that question and a narrower questions and that is the relationship between conditionality and forgiveness. There are two texts. One is Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,” with the conditionality of repentance present in that case. Then in Matthew 6:14, 15, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” What sort of response do you have to the idea that forgiveness must be unconditional?

Ligon: This is a question that many Christians have never thought through. I think that Christians who have themselves harbored unjustified bitternesses and have been unforgiving in places and in ways that they should have been forgiving, often when they are confronted with and gripped by the radical teaching of Christ on forgiveness, out of sorrow for their own sin, read Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in such a way that they understand it to mean that forgiveness is an automatic obligation in every circumstance, irrespective of the repentance of the other party. And, again, I think that that is a mistake. I believe that forgiveness always has in view reconciliation, and reconciliation is always two-sided. So if there is not a repentance corresponding to a forgiveness, then very often there is an impossibility of reconciliation. I think that whatever we think about forgiveness, forgiveness is a component to what is a larger picture, and the larger picture is reconciliation. And reconciliation is necessarily two-sided. Consequently, I think it is important for us to talk about both forgiveness and readiness to forgive. There may be circumstances where a reconciliation is impossible, but a readiness to reconcile can still be present with a believer. Consequently, I would want to make that distinction when I was counseling a believer who was in a circumstance where there was not a present possibility of reconciliation of the relationship. Instead of telling them that they need to forgive or they will become bitter, I think I would rather say that you need to be ready to forgive and not to be captured by your bitterness.

I think you and I have had a conversation before where counsel had been given to a Christian that if he didn’t forgive “such and such,” then he would become bitter. Meanwhile, there was no repentance on the part of the other party. And, yet, the believer was being counseled, “you must forgive or you will become bitter.” And I think the point that you made in that context was, (1) forgiveness is not just something that we do for therapeutic benefit, and (2) there are cases in which to call upon forgiveness when there is no repentance on the other party is to denigrate the seriousness of the offense which has been committed and to ask a believer to take lightly that reality of sin. And, so, I think it is more helpful in that case to talk about a readiness to forgive in case of repentance rather than to talk about an unconditional forgiveness.

Justin: In the best cases, I believe the attraction to the notion of “unconditional forgiveness” is built upon a desire to obey verses like: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger . . . be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31) or “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15). The problem is that “unconditional freedom from bitterness” is equated with “unconditional, automatic forgiveness.” In other words, many lack the conceptual category for someone who loves his enemies; puts away his bitterness, wrath, and anger; puts on Christ and the fruit of the Spirit—and yet at the same time withholds judicial forgiveness in the absence of the required repentance, all the while yearning for biblical repentance.

Dr. Duncan says it well: we must always be ready to forgive and reconcile. But there is a serious danger that insisting on automatic, unconditional forgiveness will inadvertently cheapen a costly act.

Derek: How much forgetting is involved in forgiving? And is that what God actually does?

Ligon: Well, obviously, because God is unchangeable and omniscient, there is sense in which he doesn’t ever forget anything. When we speak of forgetting, colloquially, I think we are talking about that circumstance in which a person has a really hard time getting over an issue. They have done their best to try and forgive and be reconciled, but there is something that is sticking in their craw.

Now, from the divine standpoint, I think it is important for a believer, for instance, to understand that though God knows everything that the believer has ever done, yet God’s forgiveness is without reservation. There is not something sticking in God’s craw with regard to his forgiveness of the believer, because of the completeness of the satisfaction of Jesus Christ. It’s not because the sins that the believer has committed are inconsequential. They are not inconsequential; they are very consequential. But it is the fullness of the price and the merit which Christ has paid and performed on our part and God’s acceptance of it in our stead that makes his forgiveness as without reservation. So when you come to passages in the Bible where the Scripture writers talk about God casting our sins behind his back and remembering them no more, it is not that God had a sudden slip of amnesia - it is that he has put out of heart and mind anything that could be an obstacle to right relationship between him and the forgiven sinner.

Now, I think it is exceedingly hard for believers to forget in numerous circumstances. You have, no doubt, counseled believers whose children have been abused and who have courageously and Christianly forgiven in the case of the repentance on the part of the person who has committed the act. But at one level, it is their duty to continue to be vigilant about those facts. I am thinking about a case right now where a relative of a congregational member sexually abused a congregational member’s daughter. It would be inappropriate for them to forget that fact and to put their child back into a circumstance where that could happen again, even if a genuine forgiveness has been extended in the case of repentance on the part of the offending party. I would not want Christians to think that they were guilty of some grievous sin if there was a recollection that they found very difficult to be able to expunge from their minds. I think the importance is, and I think you have put it strikingly before when we have talked about this, that in the case of the most atrocious crime, when repentance is proffered, then the Christian has an obligation to be forthcoming with forgiveness and whatever wrestlings we go through to expunge from our minds the effects of the offense, the important thing for us to do is to be ready to reconcile, to be ready to forgive when that moment of repentance comes.

Justin: When thinking about “divine forgetfulness,” I find it helpful to think about its converse: “divine remembrance.” We see the concept, for example, in Genesis, where God “remembers” Noah and the animals in the ark (8:1), and then puts the bow in the sky in order to “remember” his everlasting covenant (9:15-16). The language, of course, is anthropomorphic, conveying God’s judicial, covenantal care and commitment. God does not literally “remember” his people and his promise in the way that we suddenly remember that we have an appointment today! The same is true with the “forgetting” involved in God’s forgiving. It is not that he literally is unable or unwilling to bring our sins to mind—but rather that in his sovereign goodness and grace he does not use them to condemn us.

If we expect absolute and literal “forgetting” to be a part of human forgiveness, then we are unnecessarily setting ourselves up for failure. But we must teach and model judicial, covenantal forgiveness in response to repentance—we must forgive, as we have been forgiven.

Derek: We’re obviously talking about big sins requiring specific acts of forgiveness, but there is a culture in the church generally I think where certain Christians take offense at almost everything and, therefore, create another culture where a cycle of offense and forgiveness becomes almost a neurosis.

Ligon: One response is that the Bible makes it very clear in the issue of relationships there are at least two ways that we are to proceed. One of these we should proceed with far more often than the other, and that is the biblical category of allowing love to cover a multitude of sins. The other is the process - and even the official process - of forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus talks about both in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 18.

But the whole process of both private and corporate church discipline and mutual accountability is one way in which reconciliation is affected in the church. But, especially, the public aspect of that and the formal official aspect of that ought to be rare compared to the private process of reconciliation. And then, both the public and private process of reconciliation ought to be rare in comparison to the times that the believer allows love to cover a multitude of sins. So that there doesn’t have to be a process of cataclysmic confrontation and excruciating reconciliation on every minor thing that comes along in the Christian life. If Jesus had confronted the disciples that way, the Gospels would read like, “Peter, stop that.” “John, you are wrong. Be reconciled.” They would just be filled with constant challenges on Jesus’ part. But Jesus is a kind and forbearing father in the faith, was patient and allowed love to cover a multitude of sins. So that certainly ought to obtain in our own Christian experience.

When we see a person who is constantly and easily offended, we also recognize there immediately a person for whom the grace of the gospel has not come home adequately.

Justin: The sin of “victimology” is an epidemic both in the wider culture and in the church. And I think you’re both right to connect this to the attraction to—and demand of—easy forgiveness.

In his book, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, Gregory Jones has a chapter on what he calls “therapeutic forgiveness.” I think he’s spot on when he writes, “Though forgiveness should be at the heart both of Christian theology and the practices of Christian community and life, it has largely been co-opted by the therapeutic grammar of modern Western life” (p. 47).

Now at the risk of appearing to pick on people, here’s an illuminating exchange between Brian McLaren and an Emergent guy who was offended that McLaren once said that those who talk about the “postmodern church” are being “ridiculous.” To my mind, this is a good example of being easily offended and demanding repeated apologies:

Q: I found your piece uncharacteristic. You are normally careful not to use inflammatory language, but you called talk about the “postmodern church” ridiculous. Wasn’t that kind of harsh?
A. I regret using that word. I’m sorry for offending or hurting people.

Q: You put people like me in a really tough situation. On our website, we refer to ourselves as a postmodern church, so now we have been judged by you as ridiculous.
A: Again, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure you have good reasons for using that terminology on your website, and I don’t criticize you at all.

Q: I thought you were all about the postmodern church. Why would you say there aren’t any?
A: I guess I was having a bad day. I think everyone can relate to having a bad day.

Q: Is that your only excuse? What was giving you a bad day?

And later in the interview:

Q: That’s exactly what was discouraging. Here I am, trying, doing my best, and you call what I’m doing ridiculous.
A: I’m so sorry. That’s not what I intended.

Q: You should be more careful.
A: Yes, I should. But I think you’ll agree, as I said in the article or whatever it was: having postmodern churches isn’t the point.

Derek: What are some of the consequences in the case of someone who offers repentance and seeks forgiveness, but that forgiveness isn’t given? What are the consequences for both sides, but especially for the one who doesn’t give forgiveness?

Ligon: Well, let’s assume that we are talking about a professing believer who is for whatever reason reluctant to and refusing to offer forgiveness. Jesus’ words are terrifying that if you do not forgive, neither will the Father forgive your trespasses. Obviously what Jesus is saying there is not that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon and conditioned by our forgiveness of others and in some way that we earn or condition our salvation and his mercy to us. What I do think he is saying is that those who have received gospel forgiveness are invariably and universally affected by that in their conduct towards others. So that having received mercy, they are merciful. Hence, if that situation was forever unresolved, it would be an indication of a heart unchanged by grace.

Now, you and I both know plenty of Christians who have wrestled a long time with those kinds of things. I would want to be very patient, especially in catastrophic circumstances with a believer wrestling to forgive. But is a real part of the gospel working out in the Christian life.

Justin: I would lead the one refusing forgiveness to Matt. 18:21-35 where Jesus gives the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Note that God expresses his “anger” at the unforgiving servant, calling him “wicked.” Jesus is warning that divine punishment awaits those who have received forgiveness but refuse to grant it to others. Jesus’ words here could hardly be more seriously or sobering, and those who have been truly forgiven will tremble at the consequences.

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

. . . 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

You also asked about the flip side: what are the consequences for the repentant person who is not granted forgiveness? Few things are more painful than turning from sin only to find reconciliation rebuffed. Those who find themselves in such a position should exercise prayer patience, offer gentle encouragement for the offended party to practice biblical reconciliation. Church discipline may be appropriate at some point. Do note, however, Paul’s qualifier in Rom. 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). And in 2 Cor. 13:11, he says that we are to “aim for restoration”—but doesn’t promise that it will always happen.

Derek: What about a husband who commits adultery and asks his wife to forgive him and she does. But can she still sue him for divorce?

Ligon: I think that situation is parallel to other situations where a person violates law and there is a just penalty that the law has established for that particular crime. And the act of repentance, or the giving of repentance or the offering of repentance, there may be some cases in which that repentance mitigates the legal consequences, but there may be other situations in which that repentance does not in any way mitigate the legal consequences. And so, I could see a husband saying to an unfaithful or a wife saying to an unfaithful husband, “I will not bear this against you,” but still terminating the relationship in certain circumstances. I could also see other circumstances in which there would be reconciliation effected by the forgiveness that is offered. I have with much joy seen that happen on many occasions. But, again, you are going back to the situation of a child abuse. There may be a genuine repentance on a part of a person and there may be a genuine forgiveness on the part of the parent towards a person who has committed sexual abuse against a child and yet there may be legal ramifications and consequences in which that parent is called upon to give testimony in a court of law. I don’t think that is a contradiction of their forgiveness.

Derek: To those Christians who find granting forgiveness difficult, when genuine repentance has been offered and forgiveness asked and they find the granting of the forgiveness difficult, what counsel do you give them?

Ligon: I think Alexander White would counsel us to look hard at our own hearts and our own sin and to study how much the Lord has had to forgive in us and how much the Lord continues to have to forgive in us. And then to turn our eyes to the Savior and study how much he was ready to overlook in his disciples and how much he was ready to forgive his disciples. And then to look at our Savior’s costs and see how far he was ready to go in order to affect, not only our forgiveness, but our reconciliation with God. And then to ask how pleasing it must be to our Heavenly Father when we walk in the way of our Savior in extending gospel forgiveness to others and bearing the cost to some extent, ourselves. As always happens in all forms of forgiveness, but in some it is more tangible and visible than others.

I think you have to meditate on those four things a lot, especially if there is a heart that feels easily offended and has a hard time letting go of those offenses. I think those four things have to be meditated upon.

Q & A Friday :: Do you have to evangelize to be a missionary?

From Erik Raymond @

I am finding more and more that there are lots of people out there that want to “serve God” but not by taking the gospel to people. They think they are serving God as missionaries if they are only fulfilling people’s physical needs such as fresh water, jobs, medical help, etc. How do you talk to such people and what do you say?

This is definitely a good question to consider. There are numerous professing Christians that do good things (as is mentioned above) without promoting the gospel. The question pinpoints missionary work. This is traditionally understood to mean the mobilization of Christian workers to go to a region, oftentimes far away, in order to bring the gospel to folks. Oftentimes physical needs are met alongside of spiritual needs. (I just want to note in passing that missionary work is not limited to those who board a plan and land on another continent. Missionary work is gospel-centered Christian work that aims to bring the gospel to all peoples. This work could be going across the street or across the sea.)

I remember back in the days when I worked at Mutual of Omaha, there was this guy who was overly nice and extra involved in doing community stuff with the company. He was always about doing ‘good’. I had intended on evangelizing this guy. My initial impulse was that the guy was a Mormon. As I talked with him and found out that he was a Christian I was shocked. I remember asking him why he didn’t let people know that the reason for his service was to magnify God. I came away scratching my head. Most people in that office attributed his good deeds to morality not Christianity.

This guy was a Christian missionary to a Fortune 500 company and he was doing the same type of thing that is described in the question; meeting needs without promoting Christ’s gospel.

The most important thing to remember here is that you are not being a faithful missionary if you are not on point with the mission. The clear mandate by Jesus is that all his followers become missionaries to wherever God takes them (at home or abroad). We cannot fulfill the responsibility of the Great Commission without bringing the gospel. It simply does not make sense to claim to be a Christian missionary while not having the chief goal of bringing the gospel to people. To abdicate this prime responsibility in favor of other (albeit legitimate) needs reduces missionary work to humanitarian work, which I believe falls a bit short of what Jesus commands in Matthew 28:

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Furthermore, if the goal of missionary work is the glory of God and the conversion of unbelievers then we cannot fail to pack the gospel, which is the exclusive means of bringing conversion. It is not by providing medical care or building houses that people are converted but by the preaching of the word of Christ (Rom. 10.13-17). So if we fail to preach the gospel then we are not very good missionaries and we’d have to call into question the level of commitment that we really have to these people when we hide the only means of life-giving, peace-obtaining, hell-removing grace.

Does this mean that Christians should not do things like meet physical needs? Of course not, we are called to love our neighbor. This may chiefly be done by the proclamation of the gospel but it is not exclusively done in evangelism. Many times the physical and social hardships that are experienced by folks become great avenues to express Christian love and compassion. These avenues may open up great doors for the gospel. So it is paramount then to make sure that we are on point with the priorities and mission of Jesus when we as followers of Jesus go into the world.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jeremy Camp Exclusive "The Ten Commandments" song: I Am Willing

Jesus’ Life Outside the Bible

Gaius Cornelius TacitusBy Nathan Busenitz @

Today’s article is a continuation of our series on why we can trust the reliability of the New Testament gospels. Today we will consider an eighth reason the biblical account of Jesus’ life can be trusted.

Eighth, the main points of Jesus’ life as presented in the NT gospels accord with other non-biblical sources.

It should come as no surprise that the major events of Jesus’ life would be noted by more than just the writers of the New Testament. As Paul told Festus, speaking of King Agrippa, “The king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). The early Christians were to be witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8); hence the message about Jesus quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire.

We would expect, of course, the testimony of the early church fathers and the Christian catacombs to reflect what is taught by the New Testament gospels. And that is indeed the case. Ignatius (c. 35–107), as just one example among many, wrote of “the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate, being truly and certainly accomplished by Jesus Christ.”[1] Time and again, Ignatius affirmed the basic tenets of the New Testament gospels. For instance, in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, he wrote:

I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.[2]

Of note is the fact that a great number of early Christians were so convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel accounts, that they gave their lives as martyrs as a result. (Ignatius himself died as a martyr.) It is impossible to imagine they would have done so for something they knew was a fable. “The disciples’ [and by extension the early Christians’] willingness to suffer and die for their beliefs indicates that they certainly regarded those beliefs as true. . . . Liars make poor martyrs.”[3]

Second, we would expect to find details about Jesus in Jewish literature, since the Jews were eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and death (cf. Luke 24:18). Peter underscored the Jews’ familiarity with Jesus in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22–23). If such momentous events actually occurred, as are found in the gospel accounts, it would follow that the Jews made mention of such things.

And they did. Jewish sources such as Josephus (37–100), the Mishna, and the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) indicate that the Jews were familiar with Jesus, His miracles, His death, and the claims regarding both His virgin birth and His resurrection. While they did not respond to these things in faith, they also never responded in a way that questioned the historicity of Jesus. Rather, their testimony only adds credibility to the reliability of the New Testament accounts. In the words of Princeton scholar Peter Schäfer, “The rabbinic sources (again, particularly the Bavli) do not refer to some vague ideas about Jesus and Christianity but they reveal knowledge—more often than not a precise knowledge—of the New Testament.”[4] In other words, the depiction of Jesus in rabbinic literature (although negative in its opinion about Jesus) accords with the picture of Jesus presented in the biblical gospels.

Ancient Roman sources, too, confirm the historical validity of the main points of Jesus’ life. Thallus (first century), Celsus (second century), Lucian of Samosata (115–200), Porphyry of Tyre (b. A.D. 233), Suetonius (c. 70–130), Pliny the Younger (c. 63–113), and others provide secular Roman testimony to the fact that Jesus really lived. The details they share about Jesus, though sometimes sparse, coincide with the New Testament gospel accounts. As New Testament scholar Gary Habermas observes, “We should realize that it is quite extraordinary that we could provide a broad outline of most of the major facts of Jesus life from ‘secular’ history alone. Such is surely significant.”[5]

As one example, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55–120) wrote about the fact that Jesus was a real historical figure and that He was put to death under Pontius Pilate. In referring to “the persons commonly called Christians,” Tacitus recounts that “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.”[6] This, of course, corresponds to the accounts given by the New Testament writers (cf. Matt. 27:2; Mark 15:15; Luke 3:1; John 18:29).

For the sake of space, we will not belabor this point much longer. However, the fact is that when we include both the biblical and non-biblical sources, “what we have concerning Jesus actually is impressive. . . . In all, at least forty-two authors, nine of them secular, mention Jesus within 150 years of his death.”[7] Moreover, the ancient non-biblical sources affirm the major tenets of Jesus’ life as told in the New Testament gospels. In the words of historian Edwin Yamauchi:

Even if we did not have the New Testament of Christian writings, we would be able to conclude from such non-Christian writings as Josephus, the Talmud, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger that: (1) Jesus was a Jewish teacher; (2) many people believed that he performed healings and exorcisms; (3) he was rejected by the Jewish leaders; (4) he was crucified under Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius; (5) despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed that he was still alive, spread beyond Palestine so that there were multitudes of them in Rome by A.D. 64; (6) all kinds of people from the cities and countryside—men and women, slave and free—worshipped him as God by the beginning of the second century.[8]

Thus, the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is collaborated by a veritable cloud of non-biblical witnesses.

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[1] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, chapter 11 (shorter recension). We would follow the opinion of William R. Schoedel, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3:384-385, who contends that the shorter (middle) recension of Ignatius most accurately reflects his original letters.

[2] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 1. Shorter recension.

[3] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 59.

[4] Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 2007), 122.

[5] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1996), 224.

[6] Annals XV, 44; cited from Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 120-21.

[7] Habermas and Licona, 127.

[8] Edwin Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 221.

What about Those Other Gospels?

Bernini's Saint Thomas and Saint AndrewBy Nathan Busenitz

This is the next installment in our series on why we can trust the New Testament gospel accounts. Today we consider a ninth reason in our list of ten.

Ninth, the biblical gospels are clearly superior to other supposed gospels.

It sometimes surprises, or even frightens, contemporary Christians to learn that there are other “gospels” outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But they need not be afraid. “The apocryphal gospels, even the earliest and soberest among them, can hardly be compared with the canonical gospels. The former are all patently secondary and legendary and obviously slanted.”[1] Of these extra-biblical traditions about Jesus, “only a tiny proportion have even a slight claim to being genuine. The vast majority of the material is quite worthless as a historical source for knowledge of Jesus, and their real value lies more in highlighting the quality of information preserved in the canonical gospels themselves.”[2]

It is possible, of course, that we might find some factual accounts about Jesus outside of the biblical gospels. The gospels do not claim to be exhaustive biographies of the life of Jesus. In fact, John closes his gospel by stating: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What the gospels do claim, however, is that the information they provide is both accurate and sufficient, so that when you read them “you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

It is also important to recognize that the New Testament continually warns against the reality of false teachers—those who would distort the truth for their own gain. In their letters, the apostles warned their readers about the danger of certain heresies, including lies that might affect their understanding of Jesus and His redemptive work (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:13–14 Gal. 1:6–10; Col. 2:4; 1 Tim. 4:7; 1 John 4:1–3; 2 Peter 1:16; Jude 3–4).

Among these heresies, gnosticism was a growing concern. “The name gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge,’ and stresses the character of this heresy. Gnosticism was a philosophical system built upon Greek philosophy that stressed matter was evil but spirit was good.”[3] The gnostics believed that matter was evil, which caused them to reinterpret and distort the incarnation of Christ. If matter is evil but Christ is good, the gnostics reasoned, then He could not have possessed a physical body. To solve this problem the gnostics invented two possible explanations: “one view was that because matter was evil, Jesus could not have actually come in human form; He only appeared in human form and only appeared to suffer. The other view suggested that the divine Logos came upon the human Jesus [at His baptism] and departed prior to the crucifixion.”[4]

In either case, the gnostic view of Jesus was completely incompatible with that taught by the apostles (cf. Titus 3:9; 1 Tim. 4:3). In the words of the apostle John, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2–3). Paul likewise warned Timothy to “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ [gnosis]” (1 Tim. 6:20).

The gnostic gospels, along with other grossly imaginative accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, were rightly rejected by the early Christians.

The emergence of documents with strange fairy-tale-like stories about Jesus and skewed theological ideas in works such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and indeed the Gospel of Truth (which in fact is not a gospel in the sense of Gospel genre but more of a theological treatise) bear witness to the necessity in the church for authoritative Gospels to combat the growth of deviant views and fanciful legends concerning Jesus. To peruse these noncanonical documents and reflect on the stories about Jesus preserved in them and other early documents gives the reader the immediate sense of the genuine reserve and feeling of authenticity that is present in the canonical presentations concerning Jesus.[5]

Following the warning of the apostles, the early church rejected these gospels. They were either so fanciful or so theologically skewed (by gnosticism or the like) that their historical authenticity was clearly lacking. In some cases, such as the Gospel of Thomas, they are little more than a collection of sayings, and therefore not really “gospels” at all.

By contrast, the four New Testament Gospels all contain orderly accounts of the birth, life, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They also point to the glorious “good news” of redemption in Jesus Christ, and are therefore “gospels” in the truest sense of the word.[6]

The New Testament gospels are clearly superior—both in terms of being straightforward accounts of Jesus’ life, and also by being theologically consistent with what the apostles taught in the rest of the New Testament. This again affirms the trustworthiness of the NT gospels, and helps explain why the early Christians, from the earliest points of church history, were able to distinguish between the true gospels and the counterfeits.

* * * * *


[1] Edwin Yamauchi, cited in Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 311.

[2] J. W. Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2000), 227.

[3] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 415.

[4] Ibid., 416.

[5] G. L. Borchert, John 1-11 NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 33.

[6] Ron Rhodes, “Crash Goes the Da Vinci Code,” Online Source.