Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Isaiah 55:9 - What does it Mean?

Recently, a visitor to this blog asked about the theme verse displayed in the blog header:

Isaiah 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.

The questioner specifically asked what I think this verse means.

Disclaimer and Clarification

Before answering this question, I should note that it matters very little what I think this verse means. God's Word is, at the most basic level, a communication of what He thinks. The verse does, after all, address the subject of His "thoughts." The meaning given by the Holy Spirit to Isaiah 55:9 is much more significant, and vastly more important, than anything I think. And, as He, the Spirit of Revelation, has given us the mind of Christ, we can know with a great degree of certainty what the verse actually, and objectively, signifies.

Too often, theological reflection has been downgraded to the level of opinion and conjecture. The speculations of favored theologians and scholars are discussed, and then someone's feelings about their mesmerizing extra-Biblical theories are recorded with grand intellectual flourishes. This futile endeavor leaves us wise in our own eyes and pathetically self-satisfied. However, when we approach the sacred text of the Bible, we are not dealing with human philosophy. We are not working with a man-made construction. We are considering the word of the prophets "more fully confirmed," to which we will do well to "pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place . . . knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (II Peter 1:19-21, ESV). This is the WORD OF GOD, and it renders our worldly and man-centered thinking totally bankrupt. It reveals our depravity, shatters our self-conceit, demolishes our pride. It is God's MESSAGE, hidden from the wise and lofty, and powerfully manifested to the simple-hearted -- for those with ears to hear.

So, I'd like to begin by redirecting the question. Rather than discussing what I think this verse means, I will instead attempt to answer, at least in part (yet accurately), the following questions:

  • What meaning has the Holy Spirit poured into Isaiah 55:9? 
  • What meaning will He help us to draw out by careful study?
May God guide us in the study of His Truth.

Contexts and Outline

Now that we have begun to think of the verse in its wide context as a part of the inerrant and infallible, God-breathed text of Scripture, we may begin to narrow in further and view it in a variety of additional contexts:
  • Bible Context: Old Testament - the verse appears several hundred years prior to the birth of the incarnate Christ, the establishment of the New Covenant and the inception of the Church.
  • Genre Context: Prophecy - the verse is the utterance of a prophet, speaking for God in the "first person" voice. It fulfills a dual prophetic role of calling God's covenant people to repentance and foretelling the glories of God's future Kingdom.
  • Book/Historical Context: Isaiah - the verse appears within the prophecies of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who prophesied over a period exceeding 50 years, during which Israel was characterized by corruption, apostasy and political turmoil. In Isaiah's lifetime, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed, and he saw multiple threats rise against the Southern kingdom of Judah while dwelling in its capital city of Jerusalem. 
  • Book Section Context: Isaiah 40-66 - the verse appears in a section characterized by prophecies of hope and restoration.
  • Chapter Context: Isaiah 55 - the verse appears in the center of a chapter which may be outlined as follows:
  1. Call to Draw Near to God (55:1-3)
    • Invitation to the Thirsty
    • Invitation to the Impoverished
    • Contrast of False and True Satisfaction
    • A New Covenant Promised
      • Made by God
      • Faithfulness and Mercy
      • Everlasting
  2. Declaration of Israel's Role (55:4-5)
    • As Witness
    • As Leader and Commander
    • As Caller 
    • As God's Glorified People
    • Target Audience: The Gentiles! (The "People" and "a Nation" not known)
  3. Instructions for Those Seeking God (55:6-7)
    • Seek the LORD
    • Call on Him
    • Forsake your own Ways and Thoughts
    • Return to the LORD
    • Results: Compassion and Abundant Pardon
  4. Description of God's Thoughts and Ways (55:8-9)
    • Not Your Thoughts
    • Not Your Ways
    • Higher than Your Thoughts and Ways
      • As the Heavens are Above the Earth
  5. Illustration of God's Thoughts and Ways (55:10-11)
    • God's Word is Given as Rain and Snow from Heaven
    • God's Word Infallibly Produces its Intended Effect on the Earth
      • Water
      • Sprout
      • Seed
      • Bread
  6. Promise of Israel's Future Hope (55:12-13)
    • Joy
    • Peace
    • Nature Celebrating
    • A Name for the Lord
    • An Everlasting Sign


Summary of the Passage

We may conclude, from the above discussion of contexts and the outline of the passage, that the broad theme of the chapter is Israel's restoration and the call of the Gentiles. The passage makes clear that Israel is to be used as God's witness so that the Gentiles may partake in the blessings of David, the New Covenant of God's mercy and truth, the compassion and the forgiveness of God.

This divine purpose, though mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, would have been foreign to the thinking of most ancient Hebrews. In fact, it was even shocking to the early New Testament church, as demonstrated by Peter's initial hesitation and later surprise when preaching to the household of Cornelius, in seeing the Spirit poured out on the Gentiles. Paul's unique, unexpected, and God-initiated mission to preach the Gospel of grace to the nations also illustrates this chapter's message with some clarity.

The consistent theme in the passage is this: God calls sinners to Himself and will receive them with overflowing mercy, whether they are ethnically Jewish or Gentile.

The Lord forthrightly explains the reason that underlies this astonishing mercy: His thoughts and His ways, which are categorically opposite to ours, and radically exalted above ours, tend toward displays of extravagant mercy.

Exegetical Considerations

When God speaks of His "thoughts" in this passage, He uses the Hebrew term machashabah, which refers to counsel, plan or purpose (sometimes carrying the connotation of "invention"). When He speaks of His "ways," He uses the Hebrew word derek, which is a path or a road (figuratively, a course of life or one's moral character -- what we might call a "lifestyle" or a "walk of life" in today's vernacular). God is therefore describing something much deeper and more significant than a mere passing thought or intellectual pursuit. He is describing His very WILL, and His PERSONAL HABITS. And when He speaks of these things, thus revealing HIMSELF, He declares vehemently that His ways are not ours! In doing so, He uses the absolute negation (Heb. lo). Additionally, in verses 8 and 9, the repetition of the words "thoughts" (4 times) and "ways" (4 times) emphatically magnifies the message: "I am not like you! I am different! I am infinitely higher!" And yet, by forsaking his own ways and thoughts, and seeking after the Lord, even the unrighteous person (in point of fact, only the unrighteous person) can discover and enjoy these higher ways and thoughts.

The Meaning of Isaiah 55:9

The ancient Hebrew mind could perhaps think of no greater distance and no greater difference than that existing between heaven and earth. In this verse, the prophet shows us that God in His wise and holy counsels is far above us. His eternal plans do not originate within our familiar sphere, but enter it from without and from above. They are beyond our reach. They transcend us! His actions, characteristics, counsels and purposes are thus apt to surprise us when they break through. Yet they are ultimately intended to nourish us, to initiate growth, to produce fruitfulness in us, and to feed others. That is what mercy does. When the revelation of His ways is received within, it satisfies our need and give us life. It furnishes peace and instills joy. It gives us something to give.

Isaiah 55:9 teaches us that God's thinking is incomparable and incomprehensible, yet penetrating and available. It shows us the fine balance of a mysterious, and yet perspicuous, Word from our gracious Creator -- a Word sent to restore His fallen creation by the strange working of an unearthly power. And that power is called mercy.

May you, dear reader, be flooded with His grace today!


Saturday, May 17, 2014

My First Visit to a Primitive Baptist Church

On vacation in the Smoky Mountains this week, we visited the old Primitive Baptist church in Cades Cove. After I delivered an impromptu call to worship, my daughter and I took the opportunity to sing a few hymns. A couple actually came into the church and started filming us!

Years ago, the Primitive Baptist church in Cades Cove split when some members became involved in missions, and we're thus disfellowshipped. Sad but true, folks.


Saturday, May 03, 2014

Until You've Been There, There's Not Much Point in Going Anywhere Else

"Now, I've written books on the cross, you know that. And people say, 'well, that's just a favorite theme, the cross.' Well, I pray it will be, because Paul said, 'God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross.' So I'm in pretty good company, you see. But it's not that I have a thing about the cross. It is that I know that until you've been there, there's not much point in going anywhere else. Though when you go there and you know the transformation, you know what he's done . . . If you major on that cross, if the Holy Spirit gives you an understanding there, all the rest of the truth comes to you." 
(Geoffrey C. Bingham, from a sermon entitled The meaning of Pentecost)






Monday, April 14, 2014

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bashing Beelzebub?

I recently found this great recording from Tony Hayling:



Given some of the recent controversies and discussions regarding certain aberrations of the broader "Charismatic Movement," this seems to be a good, timely word. Highly edifying.


Saturday, February 01, 2014

PUPPETS: Another Epic Calvinist-Arminian "Debate"

Having a little "chat" with some Arminian brothers over here:
http://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/muppet-calvinism

I do not know how I get myself into these tangles. Well, maybe I do know how, and should instead wonder "why?" Admittedly, it was hard to resist commenting on the graphic that was posted as a discussion starter:

Lovely Caricature, eh?

Whatever the case, the discussion may be helpful for those who want to understand how the Bible affirms human freedom in compatibility with a robust, meticulous and exhaustive divine sovereignty. The question on the table is: "Does Calvinistic theology make man into a mere puppet?"

A proper understanding of Calvinistic theology (the non-hyper variety), divine sovereignty, human responsibility and Biblical compatibilism (which is not necessarily equivalent to the many forms of philosophical compatibilism) will lead to a decisive "NO" on this question. However, some who argue against Calvinism delight in throwing up the old canard of "Your theology makes us into puppets!"

I would like to take a moment to roundly scold those vocal Calvinist apologists who haven't sufficiently nuanced their compatibilism, and would seem to lend support to the charge. While I am at it, I'll also scold those Arminians who know what Calvinistic theology teaches and refuse to admit that their puppet analogy is a ridiculous caricature.

Then again, who in this world even cares if some obscure Calvinist scolds them?

II Samuel 7:18 Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

What Do You Mean When You Say "PARADOX"?

I use "paradox" to describe situations where the Truth can rightly be stated in apparently contradictory terms. For example:

P1 Jesus is fully human
P2 Jesus is fully divine

If used to describe anyone else, these statements would be contradictory and at least one of them would be untrue. In the case of God's Son, they are both 100% true. Scripture teaches them clearly, and does not tell us exactly how they relate or coexist. How can we fathom it? The lack of information allows the two true statements to form a paradox that has a mystery behind it. The paradox is only possible because of the mystery. If the mystery were revealed, the paradox would no longer appear contradictory. And yet the mystery and the paradox do not in any way obscure the Truth revealed by God in Scripture, which happens to be the only correct conclusion: namely, that Jesus Christ is the unique God-Man, thus the One Mediator, and Lord of All.

In my studies of the Word, I find a similar situation regarding exhaustive divine sovereignty and the measure of genuine freedom/responsibility that we are given as human beings. I find the same kind of paradox with regard to the divine and human origins of the Bible, the Three-in-One concept of the Trinity, and the sanctification of believers, among other core theological tenets which lie at the very heart of the historic Christian faith and the Gospel.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Myths About Calvinism: There Are No Real Choices

The following article was written by Stephen Altrogge, and posted on his site, THE BLAZING CENTER.


Myths About Calvinism: There Are No Real Choices
By Stephen Altrogge 
Click here to see the original post at Stephen's site.

________________________________________________
Alright, I confess: I’m a Calvinist. Do you still like me? Will you still invite me over for you Super Bowl party? Will you still be my Facebook friend? Can we still do piano duets (I don’t play the piano, but if I did I would want to play duets)? I sure hope so.
But what exactly does it mean to be a Calvinist? There is a lot of confusion and misinformation and downright misrepresentation when it comes to Calvinism. Depending on who you talk to, a Calvinist is someone who:
1) Believes God hates everyone (see Westboro Baptist Church).
2) Believes God has chosen people to be saved, and no matter what a person does, nothing can change that choice.
3) Is grumpy, sour, and always making sure everyone else is obeying the rules.
4) Doesn’t believe in evangelism because God has already chosen people to be saved.
Over the next several posts I want to address several common myths regarding Calvinism, and explain how I, a Calvinist, respond to those myths.
The first, and probably most prevalent myth regarding Calvinism, has to do with free will and choices. The argument goes something like this: If God has predestined people to be saved then people don’t have a free will, and our choices for or against God are not real choices. 
I get this argument, I really do. In some ways, it’s the logical extension of the doctrine of predestination. If God does the choosing, that must mean we don’t do any real choosing. Am I right? After all, who can resist the will of the Almighty God?
Slight problem though: the Bible makes it crystal clear that God predestines people for salvation AND that every person is responsible to choose Jesus Christ. This is a paradox for which the Bible make no apologies, and a paradox which every true Calvinist gladly embraces.
Ephesians 1:4-6 says:
In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
I don’t know how much clearer you can get when it comes to the doctrine of election. If I am a Christian it is because God predestined me, before the ages began, to be adopted as a son. He did not predestine me because of anything good or bad I would do. He predestined me according to the purpose of his will. This fills me with gratefulness.
These kinds of words run throughout the entirety of Scripture. Romans 8:29-30 says:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This passage forms an unbreakable chain. Before the foundation of the world God, foreknew those whom he would be predestine for salvation. Those whom he predestines are always called, those whom he calls are always justified, and those whom he justifies are always ultimately glorified. This is completely God’s doing. He gets all the credit and all the glory. From beginning to end, God does the saving. Scripture couldn’t be more clear on this subject.
But Scripture also makes it clear that every man and woman is responsible before God to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Luke 5:31-32 Jesus said to the Pharisees:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
In Acts 2, after preaching to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, Peter called his listeners to repentance:
Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
True Calvinism embraces the unconditional election of God. The Bible makes no apologies for the fact that God elects specific men and women to be saved apart from any conditions within them. God is God, and he is free to do whatever he pleases. The clay cannot say to the Potter, “Why have you made me this way?”
True Calvinism also embraces the real need for repentance. This is not some sort of tricky word game God is playing. Every man and woman is commanded to turn from their sins and choose God. The choices we make for God or against God are real choices, and we will really be held accountable for those choices.
How do God’s sovereign, electing purposes, and man’s free will work together? I’m not sure. The Bible doesn’t spell it out in detail. It gives us some hints as to how they work together, but it doesn’t ever clearly answer the question. As a Calvinist, I fully embrace God’s sovereign perogative to choose whomever he pleases. I also fully embrace every person’s responsibility to repent. I find the following quotes from Charles Spurgeon helpful in this matter:
I believe that God will save his own elect. And I also believe that if I do not preach the gospel, the blood of men will be laid at my door.
I am quite certain that God has an elect people, for he tells me so in his word. And I am equally certain that everyone who comes to Christ shall be saved, for that also is his own declaration in the Scriptures. When people ask me how I reconcile these two truths, I usually say that there is no need to reconcile them, for they have never yet quarreled with one another.
The true Calvinist believes that election and free salvation do not quarrel with one another.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Limited Atonement

You may be aware that a new book on the doctrine of "Limited Atonement" has just been released. You may also know that Calvinists, historically, have taken a variety of positions on the subject. With that in mind, I would like to interact with a few statements made recently on the Gospel Coalition blog (and by the way, just to be clear, I would generally consider myself to be a strong supporter and advocate of TGC and its work). Nevertheless, here are the statements to which I will respond:
Many Amyraldians or "4-point Calvinists," while espousing a particular election (by the Father) and a particular application (by the Spirit), hold to a universal atonement (by the Son). What's problematic about emphasizing particularity at the stage of application but not at the stage of atonement?The Amyraldian view of the atonement leads to disharmony or dissonance in the triune God: the Father elects some, the Son dies for all, but the Spirit only draws some (those whom the Father elected). The same problem attends semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism. Hypothetical universalists seek to get around the problem by positing "two levels" in the atonement: a universal intent and a particular intent (see, for example, Curt Daniel and Norman Douty). According to this scheme, the Trinity is united at each level of intent. However, this position lacks scriptural support despite attempts based on a certain (and, we believe, superficial) reading of 1 Timothy 4:10
Hypothetical universalism also leads to a confusion within the will of the Son. How can Christ on the cross, in his one act of propitiation, will both to die for the non-elect and not to die for them? This distorts orthodox Christology. Christ is presented in the Bible as King, Shepherd, Bridegroom, Head, Master, Firstborn, Cosmic Savior, and Last Adam. This is who the incarnate Son is, and therefore when he dies for sinners he cannot fail to be for them who he is. The person and work of Christ cannot be separated. In short, both trinitarianism and union with Christ point toward a definite intent in the atonement, as both ensure its efficacy. (Source: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/12/05/did-jesus-die-to-save-everyone/)
I am not an Amyraldian or "4-Pointer," and probably not a "hypothetical universalist," as those terms are usually defined among today's Calvinists. I do not deny that the intent of the atonement was to save a particular people. I do, however, deny that this was the sole intent, and I also deny that the atonement's extent has to be measured by its intent. My theology is Classic/Moderate Calvinism, as opposed to "High Calvinism." Classic/Moderate Calvinism is a prestigious tradition that is often castigated and misrepresented (or perhaps simply misunderstood) by High Calvinists.

It is from this perspective that I will respond to a few of the statements made above, beginning with this one:
The Amyraldian view of the atonement leads to disharmony or dissonance in the triune God: the Father elects some, the Son dies for all, but the Spirit only draws some (those whom the Father elected).
This problem is not relevant to Classic/Moderate Calvinists, as I will now demonstrate. In fact, our position exposes a significant inconsistency in the High Calvinist view. This is how they often frame the discussion:

1. Election is particular
2. Atonement is particular
3. Calling is particular

In other words: "God's work is particular, so why confuse things by generalizing just the atonement?"

On the other hand, this is how we frame it:

1. Election is particular in scope, but this does not limit God's general love and common grace which are extended toward all humanity
2. Atonement is particular in intent, but this does not limit the universal sufficiency of the atonement as potentially salvific for all of humanity
3. Calling is particular, but this does not limit the general call of the Gospel as God's command for all people everywhere to repent and believe.

Most High Calvinists will agree with our views on 1 and 3, but for some reason cannot accept the correlating balance on 2. This is actually in inconsistency on their part, not ours.

In other words, we say: "God's work is general and particular, so why deny the general aspect of just the atonement?" In fact, we might even go a step further, and offer a much more reasonable and Biblical solution, by viewing the General Love of God, Common Grace and the General Call of the Gospel as grounded in and made possible by the general/universal aspects of the atonement. The Cross IS God's Word of love and grace to all mankind. The Cross IS God's call of repentance to all of the world's people. The Cross IS God's extended hand of forgiveness to all humanity. And our Gospel is THE WORD OF THE CROSS.
Hypothetical universalists seek to get around the problem by positing "two levels" in the atonement: a universal intent and a particular intent (see, for example, Curt Daniel and Norman Douty).
A bigger problem is faced by the High Calvinist, as I have shown above. Additionally, I would suggest that few people understand Calvinism as well as Curt Daniel. My High Calvinist friends would be well advised to listen to him.
According to this scheme, the Trinity is united at each level of intent. However, this position lacks scriptural support despite attempts based on a certain (and, we believe, superficial) reading of 1 Timothy 4:10
Despite this dismissive comment, 1 Timothy 4:10 presents a strong exegetical case for the atonement's unlimited extent and limited intent, if not a dual intent. Furthermore, in the Classic/Moderate approach the Three Persons of the Trinity are certainly united in expressing a general love, a general atonement and a general call toward all humanity, while also working to achieve a specific end for a particular people in each of those activities. Why don't High Calvinists level the same criticism against General Love, Common Grace and the Free Offer of the Gospel (as Hyper Calvinists do)? Again, it is clear that the High Calvinist scheme is inconsistent by overlooking the fact that General Love stands alongside Unconditional Election, and the Free Offer stands alongside the Effectual Call. The next statement demonstrates this oversight well:
Hypothetical universalism also leads to a confusion within the will of the Son. How can Christ on the cross, in his one act of propitiation, will both to die for the non-elect and not to die for them? This distorts orthodox Christology.
This is quite a stretch, and, I might add, a little bit uncharitable. The phrase, "died for," is far too ambiguous to become the basis for judging a person's Christology as "distorted" or less than orthodox. Why can't Christ "die for" all of humanity in one sense, and "die for" a particular people in another sense? Furthermore, is the Father's will confused when He elects some but extends love and grace to all? Is the Holy Spirit's will confused when He tells us to proclaim Good News to everyone but inwardly draws only His chosen ones?

Following the logic of the statement quoted above, the Father cannot love those He did not elect, and the Spirit cannot send the Gospel to those He will not convert, without somehow being "confused." In our view, neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit are ever confused; they each work in both general and particular ways, being in precise harmony with themselves and with One Another.

As a Calvinist and a Bible believer, it makes the most reasonable sense to embrace the universal extent of the atonement while not denying its particular intent. Whatever you call it, the result will be truly CONSISTENT CALVINISM.



Monday, November 18, 2013

Arranged Marriages

I asked my daughter: "Should we have arranged marriages, or should we be allowed to marry someone we love?" 

She thought for a moment, and then shouted: "FALSE DICHOTOMY!"

"Very good." I said. After all, a marriage could be arranged between a man and woman who already love each other (perhaps some marriages are arranged this way unwittingly), or a marriage can be arranged between a man and woman who will grow to love each other. Real love and arranged marriage are not mutually exclusive (I am not saying we should practice this, by the way).


Next I said, "Now, imagine that I am both omnisicient and omnipotent. Could I pre-arrange a marriage for you with someone you love?"

"Of course you could, if you were God!" She said. After thinking it through for another moment or two, her face lit up and she exclaimed, "Hey, wait a minute . . . ALL MARRIAGES ARE ARRANGED!"

I smiled.

She had expressed a brilliant, simple, and thoroughly Biblical thought. Every marriage, including the most loving marriage on earth, is an arranged marriage. And most every marriage can be a genuinely loving one.

So, how is it that my 12-year-old daughter understands compatibilism so much better than the Arminian apologists I meet online? Why can't they see through the false dichotomy of "foreordained" and "free"? They tell me it is a "contradiction" (and much worse). I wonder, do they think God is too limited in His power, or wisdom, or freedom, or knowledge, or ability, or love, to accomplish such a wonderful thing?


Friday, November 08, 2013

Cessationism, Continuationism, and the Charismata

Last night I listened to a well presented debate between Dr. Michael Brown (charismatic) and Dr. Sam Waldron (cessationist) as they addressed the issue of charismatic gifts. It was helpful that both men presented primarily Scriptural arguments. Here it is:


On reflection it struck me that Dr. Waldron's argument against ongoing spiritual gifts would be equivalent to saying that authentic writing about the Christian faith can no longer occur because the actual writing of Scripture has ceased. Authentic preaching can no longer occur because the authoritative preaching of the first Apostles has ceased. Authentic missionary work can no longer occur because Apostolic authority was not conferred on individuals after the first century. Dr. Waldron does not hold to these conclusions, but on what basis? His argument for cessation of spiritual gifts could be equally applied to the three issues mentioned above. If there can be writing, preaching and missionary work beyond the passing of the Apostles, why can't there be a form of spiritual gifting that continues without them? We have the written Canon by which all writing and preaching and missionary calling can be judged as genuine or spurious. Why shouldn't the canonized Apostolic authority of the Bible be sufficient to guide us in the proper use of spiritual gifts? In an ironic way, cessationism becomes an argument against the sufficiency of Scripture! Isn't Scripture sufficient for the proper management of the spiritual gifts?

We are not talking about people having the ability to heal or prophesy at will; we are talking about godly, Spirit-empowered, doctrinally sound Gospel preachers who walk by the Spirit and submit themselves to His holy leading while regularly engaging in particular spiritual gifts when and as He enables them for the spreading of the Word of Christ. Why won't more cessationist apologists address this kind of continuationism? Is their argument so weak that it needs the shock effect of obviously false charismatic abuses and heresies in order to stand? 

In comparing the Biblical merits of Dr. Waldron's arguments as opposed to Dr. Brown's, I have to conclude that the answer is "yes." Gratefully, Dr. Waldron did not resort to that kind of sensationalism in presenting his cessationist arguments.

With all of that said, I should add that the only safe way to be "charismatic" is to be firmly grounded in a Reformed understanding of the sovereignty of God, the Great Gift Giver, and in sound Biblical doctrine. Then again, that is the only safe way to do anything.

I should also add that I would much prefer a Biblically sound, Gospel-centered cessationist to an off-balance and unstable charismatic clown of the type that is so often showcased in today's "charismatic" circles (you've probably seen them on TV and YouTube). Interestingly enough, many of my Pentecostal friends would agree with the statement I have just made.

Feel free to share your thoughts, dear friends.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Particular and General: A Key Tension in Reformed Soteriology

Reformed soteriology is humble and grand enough to tolerate significant tensions. One evidence of this is its ability to view the overarching, eternal purpose of God in both general and particular ways. In doing so, it maintains a clear line of division between the generalities we can know and the particulars known to God alone. It views the particulars abstractly, as categories without content. For example, we know abstractly that God has sovereignly elected some (i.e., the "elect" as a category); but we do not know concretely who they are (i.e., the content of the "elect" category). At the very same time, Reformed soteriology views the generalities concretely, as partially categorized content (for example, we know the general truth that God loves and desires to save every living person, without exception). The Biblical Calvinist does not apply election in an unwarranted way; he does not use this truth to invalidate God's general love for the non-elect and His general desire to save all sinners. Election is specific to a subset of humanity, but God's love and saving desire are all-humanity-wide. God is love.

Let's imagine for a moment that we are speaking with two unbelievers. God knows that one of them is elect and is going to be brought to repentance, and He also knows that one of them will die in the stubbornness of his heart. For our part, we don't know which one of them is elect, or if both of them are elect, or if neither of them is elect. We don't know if either of them will repent and be saved. Even if they both appear to repent and believe, we won't know for certain that their conversions were genuine until we meet them in heaven. On earth, we can't know with absolute certainty that they are truly saved and will persevere to the end. Those are particulars that belong to God's own purpose and wisdom. 

What we can know for certain and by faith is this: God has a purpose for both of them. Both are created in God's image and are loved by Him. Both are enemies of God. Both, in their current state, would gladly choose an eternity in hell over intimate fellowship with their Creator. Both are sinners who need saving grace. God would be pleased greatly by the salvation of both, and He will also be pleased to display His justice if they remain His enemies and perish. If they repent, they will be saved. From the standpoint of generalities--from our human standpoint--both unbelievers are identical. In our eyes, both are potentially elect. But from God's standpoint--in His own omniscient knowledge of the particulars--they are very different. One is elect and will be brought to faith, and the other is destined for damnation. Even if we knew for certain that one of them was elect, we wouldn't have any way of knowing with any certitude which one it is. So unconditional election is a solid and certain truth, but it is equally a mystery.
So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills. (Romans 9:18) 

High Tension Wires:
Very Powerful!
We can approach these two unregenerate souls with the sure knowledge that God elects, but not that God elected either of them in particular. We can approach them in the certain understanding that God will bring justice directly upon some human beings, but not in the sure knowledge that either of these sinners will have to personally bear the wrath he justly deserves. We can know that both of them are currently under the wrath of God, already condemned for their unbelief--yet neither of them has perished yet, so we can be hopeful about both of them. We know that both will perish if they do not repent. We know that Jesus bore the wrath of God, and we know that if either of these unsaved persons repents he will no longer be under God's wrath. He will pass from death to life and will be created anew in Christ. We look at these two people and see potentials, not particulars. We see conditions, not determinations. We see a process partly finished, but up to the point of our visible horizon neither one is differentiated from the other. In God's mind they may be different, but in our minds they cannot be. It is enough for us to know that God knows.

What happens when you remove
the tension from one side?
The great error of the hyper Calvinist is to attempt in his own mind a coalescence of the generalities and the particulars, so that they become one in his mind. He tries to know things he cannot know, and is forced to rely on his own senses to determine who is and is not elect. He seeks to preach God's love to the elect only, to communicate God's saving desire to the elect only, to preach the Gospel to the elect only. He tries to be as efficacious in his efforts as God is in His ordination of all things. Thus, the hyper Calvinist simultaneously exalts his own perceptions while oversimplifying the complexities of God's dispositions. He limits everything to the unknowable particulars, which he concretizes, having no room in his thinking for the generalities or the undefined abstractions. The inherent arrogance of this approach should be obvious. The lopsidedness is striking.


This understanding will help us to take a Biblically balanced view of many topics, among them the extent of atonement. We can posit particular redemption from the standpoint of divine particularity. God knows whom He saves by the atonement. Once we have said this much, what need is there to limit the sufficiency or the potentially salvific nature of Christ's work? The fact that God will not apply the redeeming power of the blood of Christ to all people is no reason to believe it does not essentially contain that power. From the standpoint of generality, we can make no assumptions. So, in considering the elect abstractly, we can say "Christ died especially, efficiently, particularly for them." In looking concretely at the masses of lost humanity, we must say, "Christ died for the whole world." We can tell a lost sinner, "Christ died for you," and this will be true in many senses whether the person we are speaking with is specifically elect or not.


The best Calvinist thinkers and scholars of the past have embraced key tensions and important distinctions between the general and the particular. Those who have been most Biblically grounded have warned us to remain purposely ignorant of those things which God has not seen fit to reveal, and to hold solid and steadfast in embracing all that He has made known in His awe-inspiring wisdom.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Isaiah 53:6 - The Substitute for Sinners

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned--every one--to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.


In verse 4, He carried our sorrows and griefs. In verse 5, He bore the punishment due for our sins. Now in verse 6, He carries our very sin itself, as if He Himself had been the sinner. In the astounding reality of substitutionary atonement, Christ actually and literally took our place on the cross. He truly suffered the just and fierce wrath of God in our stead.


The Image of the Sinner: a Sheep

"sheep" = Heb. צאן tso'n - small cattle, sheep, sheep and goats, flock

Sheep are ignorant and don't know what's good for them. They are irrational and misguided creatures. They wander about in any direction, aimless, easily endangered and vulnerable. Even in our seemingly "innocent" meanderings and missteps, we are SINNING AGAINST GOD.

The Trajectory of Sin: Straying

"gone astray" = Heb. תעה ta`ah - to err, wander, go astray, stagger

For a stray sheep, the world is filled with hazards and dangers. That sheep is a defenseless and helpless thing with no means of protecting itself. The only hope for a lost sheep is that the shepherd pursues him and finds him before calamity strikes.

Psalm 119:176 "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments."

The Nature of Sin: Turning Away

"turned" = Heb. פנה panah - to turn

Sin is the opposite of repentance. It is turning from God. Repentance is turning to Him. 

What could be more insulting than to turn away the face, eyes, and ears from the one who is addressing us? What could be more dishonoring than to walk away in a different direction when we have been rightly commanded by legitimate authority? Perhaps a direct attack or assault would be considered more antagonistic; however, we turn away when we know we cannot win in a straightforward battle, and when we realize that we are facing One much greater in strength and we simply do not want to comply.

On the other hand, we turn to those we know are ready to help us. We turn to the authority we acknowledge and accept. We turn to the master we find to be good and wise and excellent.

It is His kindness that leads us to repentance.

Which way are you turning?


The Essence of Sin: Self-Centeredness

"his own way" = Heb. דרך derek - way, road, distance, journey, manner

The straying sheep follows his own path. He doesn't trust the Shepherd and won't walk in His paths. In going his own way, the sinner ironically goes down the well-worn path taken by every other sinner since Adam and Eve. It is "his own way" as opposed to God's way, yet it is the same old way of all sinful humanity. Sin is oddly unoriginal.


The Corrupting Nature of Sin: Iniquity

"Iniquity" = Heb. עון `avon - perverseness

As sinners, we are deeply and inherently corrupted. This is why we must be born again; it is why we must be disciplined by the rod of our Father-Shepherd, and die to self, and later shed this corrupt flesh to be clothed with a new body. Our very planet and universe have been corrupted through sin, and they must be replaced with a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness shall dwell. Sinners can be redeemed from their perversity or they can remain corrupt and perish with all that is corrupt. This is where "our own way" leads us. But God's way is to save the straying sheep whose pitiful bleats are born of faith.


The Extent of Sin: "All We" and "Every One"

We have strayed as a group, and we have strayed individually. All Israel strayed. All mankind strayed. Every person has strayed. You have strayed and I have strayed. Sin is a universal trait of mankind, a very "common" thing.


The Saving Power of Substitution: Our Iniquity was Laid on Him

"Laid on Him" = Heb. פגע paga` - to encounter, meet, reach

Christ bore our iniquities. The sinless Savior carried sin. The animals that were sacrified in the Levitical sin offerings were symbolic substitutes who painted the picture of Christ carrying away the sins of the people. They typified our Lord, who would bear all the iniquity that ever was.


The verse highlights the fact that Christ shared our human nature. He and we, together, are compared to "sheep." We strayed like sheep, while he was sacrificed as a lamb in our place. He died like a sheep for those who are like sheep. Although the animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant could never suffice as actual substitutes for humans, and were merely symbolic, Christ became the perfect and real man who was given to die in the place of sinful man. He became the spotless lamb who died in the place of straying sheep.

Thanks be to God, we straying and perverse fools can be brought to repentance and carried home!


Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Modest Proposal for Fixing America

I don't comment much on politics here, and that is by design. However, America's political system is so out of order and beyond stupid that I am now compelled to speak out. Regular programming will resume following this short announcement (unless the ongoing political situation prompts me to speak out again).


A MODEST PROPOSAL FOR FIXING AMERICA

1. Amend the Constitution to create five new political parties and require a minimum of five fully viable parties at all times. (The most liberal of these parties should be the "Blue Dogs"). 
2. Require all political candidates to have proven leadership experience in a role that brings direct benefit to society, having demonstrated a firm commitment to the Constitution, moral responsibility and accountability, and fiscal responsibility and accountability. Require a minimum percentage of politicians to be normal, non-wealthy Americans. Allow only a small percentage of politicians to be lawyers and attorneys. 
3. Immediately hold referendum elections under the five party system for all major political offices.  
4. Term limits. Ten years in politics and then you're done. 
5. Remove all Democrats and Republicans from office, disband the two parties and make it illegal for them to ever form again. Make the terms "Democrat" and "Republican" more odious than the worst profanity. 
6. Make it illegal for anyone who has ever held an official role in either of these parties to ever be involved in politics in any sense. (We might consider generously allowing them to remain in America on the condition that they donate all of their wealth to charity, get regular jobs, and act like normal citizens going forward).