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!

Friday, January 30, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE - You Must Be Born Again, Part 2

In part one, we saw that the Lord considers our salvation humanly impossible, owing to the fact that our depravity leaves us almost completely oblivious to the Kingdom of God. As we read on in John chapter 3, He takes it even further . . .

John 3:4-7 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

There is something slightly humorous in this question from Nicodemus, but it is beyond all doubt the voice of unenlightened unbelief that is asking. He is incredulous. Notice the response from Jesus: "You MUST be born again, but you cannot do it. It is the work of the Spirit." And now the issue at stake is not just seeing the kingdom - it's entering the kingdom. Nicodemus had answered one impossibility with another, proving the very point Jesus is making. A prominent religious leader of Israel could not even comprehend the idea of a spiritual rebirth. Hadn't Jesus said, "You cannot see . . ." ?

Jesus analogizes spiritual birth with physical birth. In physical birth, we begin surrounded by water. We are protected and encased within the watery womb of our mothers. We did not place ourselves there. We were placed. We did not cause ourselves to grow and develop. We did not even will our way out of the womb and into the world. In the same way, our spiritual birth follows a time of being immersed in the Spirit of God, protected by His presence, receiving spiritual life from Him. He regenerates us, and enables us to receive Christ in faith. We are born of the Spirit, born with new eyes. Suddenly, though still immature and helpless, we SEE the kingdom. And we are IN the kingdom!

But Nicodemus doesn't get it, so the Lord draws another illustration:

John 3:8-11 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony.

In Greek, the word "wind" is exactly the same as the word "Spirit." The Greek term is PNEUMA - the word from which we derive "pneumatics" and "pneumonia." Notice that the wind "blows where it wishes." When Jesus says "we know and testify," He is probably referring to Himself and the Holy Spirit. With these words, Jesus places Himself in an entirely different category of understanding, revealing that He has personal and intimate knowledge of the Spirit's work, and that He speaks as an eyewitness of the Spirit's activities. He SEES things we do not see.

Jesus emphasizes the mysterious quality of the new birth. Not only are we unable to SEE God's Kingdom in our natural state, we DO NOT KNOW the details of how His Spirit moves to bring about the salvation of sinners. We may hear the wind, but we still cannot KNOW its course.

Jesus gives Nicodemus this impossible command, "You must be born again." The idea here is not that Nicodemus needs to cause his own spiritual birth. No, he simply needs to surrender to the Lord and ask for it. He needs to admit that he knows nothing, sees nothing, comes to God with nothing. He needs to stop trusting in himself and his ability to perceive, and believe what Jesus says to him. Jesus is not impressed by his amazement, or his intellect, or his religious credentials. He calls Nicodemus to faith - a faith that trusts God to do what is impossible for man to do himself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

IMPOSSIBLE - You Must Be Born Again, Part 1

This is the first post in a new series called "THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE: Rediscovering the Words of Jesus" In this series, we will examine commands of Jesus that are impossible for fallen man to obey, and impossible for man to accomplish apart from God's grace. Let's start things off with a look at the famous conversation that took place between Jesus and Nicodemus under the cover of darkness . . .

John 3:1-3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Notice how our Lord uses the language of impossibility. Cannot. He does not say it is very difficult, or that it will take a long time if you really try hard. He does not say, "You can do anything you set your mind to," or, "Just visualize the kingdom of God, and it will be yours." He does not even imply that because God commands something, we are able to do it. In fact, He states the opposite. He says we "cannot."

Cannot do what? The person who has not been born again cannot SEE something. See what? The kingdom of God. Someone could be standing right in the middle of it, surrounded by its greatness and majesty, but still he would not be able to SEE it - let alone enter into it. Why? He CANNOT.

Jesus is answering Nicodemus' assertion that "no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him." Jesus says, in essence, "You can see the signs well enough, but it will require a miracle of God for you to see His kingdom."

With this answer, Jesus points to the basic blindness of our fallen human nature. We are naturally blind to the things of God. We use our physical eyes all day long, looking at books, billboards, cars, trees, people, websites, nature, art, this blog. Some put their eyes up to microscopes and look at the tiny, hidden world of microorganisms. Others put their eyes up to telescopes and view the vastness of space with its quietly whirling fire-balls and stony, barren planets. We delight in our seeing, as we use our eyes to discover, to perceive, to examine, to scrutinize, to KNOW what is around us. Our eyes aid us in navigation, interpreting language, making judgments and even sinning. They are an entry way to our hearts. We use them like spiritual doors to take in the objects and images of worship that are most passionately cherished within. We are natural idolaters. Sometimes our eyes fill with tears as we witness the tragedies of a sin-saturated world. Sometimes they are wide with wonder as we watch someone perform an amazing stunt. But apart from the new birth, our eyes cannot perceive the kingdom of God. We're not just shortsighted, we're not merely in need of enlightenment, we're not even simply blind. We lack the faculties needed to see it. We have physical eyes, but no spiritual eyes.
Jesus uses His flaming eyes of judgment and compassion to look directly at us. He tells us the truth: "You cannot see the kingdom of God." With omniscient realism, He tells us what we can't do, but He offers us the ONE HOPE that enlivens the hearts of His chosen ones. He says the beautiful little word, "unless." Unless one is born again. Unless a second birth happens. Unless GOD intervenes for us.

We need something, but what we need is out of our reach. How does a person who can't even SEE cause himself to be born? Causing one's own birth is physically impossible the first time, and spiritually impossible the second time. Only the Sprit gives birth to spirit, and fallen man does not have the Spirit. Yet Jesus' earthly mission was intended to bring about a second birth in some of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam.

John 1:11-13 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

One cannot be born again by the will of the flesh, and one cannot be born again by the will of man. The point is emphatic. It is God alone Who can accomplish this.

Jesus calls us to the new birth, but it is a call which He alone can accomplish in us. Is this humbling? It's meant to be.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is Calvinism Irrational?

I posted the following in response to an article called "Why Calvinism is the Least Rational Option," that was posted on Truth Matters, and the ensuing debate which erupted in the comments on that site . . .

The issue here is not whether God is logical. God is the basis of all truth, logic, wisdom, etc. However, man is not utterly logical, and therefore we are incapable of fully comprehending some of the things God has revealed. God has clearly revealed both divine election and human responsibility, divine sovereignty and human choice. In God's mind, these do not contradict one another at all. But in our tiny, finite pea-brains there is no way to fully reconcile them. This does not accuse God of irrationality, it simply exalts God and humbles us. It forces us to admit that He is smarter than we are. Some . . . have gone too far in saying that because God is totally logical we can understand everything He says. It's an oversimplification of the issue that forgets just how fallen we are, and just how exalted God is. Historic Calvinism has generally bowed its best logic before God's higher wisdom and acknowledged a great deal of mystery. We should do the same.

I have to bow my best logic to Psalm 145:3 "Great is the LORD, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Does Anyone Deserve Grace?

I think you already know the answer to that question. However, I've recently been discussing this with some friends, mostly in response to the Blaise Pascal quote I included in this post a few days ago. In the midst of some very good and helpful statements, Pascal makes an odd remark: ". . . as so many make themselves unworthy of His mercy . . ." The way this is worded appears to be self-contradictory. If anyone is worthy of mercy, can mercy be called mercy? How does one become worthy of it? How does one make himself unworthy of it? I'm under the impression that ALL are and always will be unworthy of God's mercy, by virtue of sin (no pun intended).

There are several possible explanations for this. The most obvious one is that Pascal wrote in French, so our translation may be flawed. Or perhaps it was a simple mistake on Pascal's part, an oversight. My favorite explanation is what we might call a "reverse Calvinist" argument - "Many" actually means "all" in this context. Perhaps you have a better explanation. From my reading of Pascal's writings, I am assured that he does know quite well what mercy is, and how undeserving of it we are. He's clear on the subject in other places.

Tony Hayling has recently posted a superb article titled "Deserving Grace," which I recommend as an excellent treatment of the topic. I'm not sure what Pascal meant by his phrase, or if I agree with it, but I'm certain of Hayling's words and know they are spot on. Here's the link:

Deserving Grace (Click to view article)

As a convenience, Tony has even recorded the article in an embedded MP3 player. Now that's service!

You can also find some extended Pascal quotes, including the one we are discussing, at this link:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More from Pascal

"There is sufficient clearness to enlighten the elect, and sufficient obscurity to humble them. There is sufficient obscurity to blind the reprobate, and sufficient clearness to condemn them and make them inexcusable."

Blaise Pascal, Pensees #578


My son was supposed to have surgery tomorrow, but with the lump decreasing in size we have decided to wait. The doctors will want to proceed, but we are trusting God and praying for healing. It seems wise at this point, especially since the condition is not life threatening (and surgery could be). If the cyst remains and becomes infected again, we will take that as a sign that surgery is needed. But if it disappears, we will know Who is responsible. Either way, we are at peace.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pascal on God's Self-Revelation

This quote from Blaise Pascal nicely sums up a theme we've studied of late:

God has willed to redeem men, and to open salvation to those who seek it. But men render themselves so unworthy of it, that it is right that God should refuse to some, because of their obduracy, what He grants to others from a compassion which is not due to them. If He had willed to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, He could have done so by revealing Himself so manifestly to them that they could not have doubted of the truth of His essence; as it will appear at the last day, with such thunders and such a convulsion of nature, that the dead will rise again, and the blindest will see Him.

It is not in this manner that He has willed to appear in His advent of mercy, because, as so many make themselves unworthy of His mercy, He has willed to leave them in the loss of the good which they do not want. It was not then right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him. He has willed to make Himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.

Blaise Pascal, Pensees #430

I find I can read a paragraph from Pascal over and over, and each time I see something new in it. And to think, the Pensees (A French word meaning "thoughts, ponderings") were only his scribblings - scattered ideas that might have eventually been organized into a very different sort of book, had he lived longer. They were posthumously gathered and published, to the delight of many saints in subsequent generations.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Misapplied Mystery and "the god of our many understandings"

"My intention is not to invoke the name of Jesus, but to make this a prayer for Christians and non-Christians alike. Although I hold the Scripture to be the word of god, those Scriptures are holy to me and to Jews and Christians, but to many other faith traditions, they have their own sacred texts, and so rather than insert that and really exclude them from the prayer by doing so, I want this to be a prayer to the god of our many understandings and a prayer that all people of faith can join me in . . . let's face it, each one of us has a different understanding of god. No one of us can fully understand god or else god wouldn't be god."
-"Bishop" Gene Robinson, on his invitation to offer a prayer at the Obama Inaugural Event this Sunday (source: NPR News)

Wow, that last sentence was really great. As for the rest, what else could we expect from the first openly gay Episcopal bishop?

There are those who want to emphasize the mystery and hiddenness of God in order to deny the truth He has plainly revealed about Himself. We must be careful not to overstate either the hiddenness or the revealed-ness of God. God has made known certain things about Himself, leaving all people guilty and without excuse in their rejection of Him. Yet He has also hidden some things from those who do not believe, while unveiling them to His elect. And He has left some of His glory shrouded in a wonderful cloud of mystery, even to those who trust in Him with all of their hearts (this is where Robinson's last sentence would rightly be applied by someone who believes the Word of God). The very angels who stand in God's presence wonder at His ineffable greatness. But it is pure heresy to broadly and recklessly use the hiddenness of God to undermine the crystal clear revelation of His nature, will and acts found in nature and the Bible. The Truth constantly shouts at us through the things that have been created, undeniably proving that God is good, all-powerful, eternal and wise. With the added testimony of the Scriptures, we are faced not only with a plain account of God's essential being, but also a written statement of His eternal will - and a record of His dealings with man in history. But Robinson ignores all of this, instead using one little piece of truth in a vain attempt to sweep away volumes of revelation. This is a crime against Truth itself (or should I say Truth Himself?). It is a crime that God will judge, but it is also a judgment in itself.

The reality is, mankind's "many understandings" of God are the rotten fruit of rebelling against the one simple understanding that is as plain as the nose on our collective face. For those who seek Him, there is a further development of this simple truth, but for those who make themselves His enemies there can only be obscurity and confusion in the maze of man-centered ideas that is falsely called "wisdom."

I once heard a Biblical counselor tell someone, "Here is why you are confused: you have been told what God expects of you, and you don't want to do it. When you agree with God and begin to obey Him, your confusion will disappear." There is much true wisdom in this statement.

Robinson's thinking is sad. It is confused. It is heretical. It is nonsensical. And yet, "but for the grace of God . . ."

Let us pray.
NOTE: What is written above is an extremely loose paraphrase of Romans 1:18-25.
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen."

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Believer's Battle with Pride

Highly Recommended:

Tony Hayling recently posted one of the best articles I've ever read on the believer's battle with pride . . .

A Saint's/Sinner's Prayer (click to view article)

Contained here is a sublime paradox about the sins we commit before and after conversion, and the power of God's grace to remedy our most obnoxious failures. Tony demonstrates that we are practically MORE GUILTY of sin after conversion than before conversion - but we also receive MORE GRACE. In this way, God greatly humbles us, and He is greatly glorified through the display of His mercy. And all of this is used by God to create within us a hatred for sin and a hunger for holiness that only He can fulfill.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 3 - John Piper

John Piper gets a THEOparadox T-shirt.

The following is taken from a sermon on Romans 9, found at this link

In the sermon, Piper says...

My aim here this morning is not to analyze how this can be, but to urge us all to embrace the paradox of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. The sad thing is that some embrace the sovereignty of God over the human will and say: "It is wrong to portray God with his arms stretched out, inviting and calling." And others embrace the responsibility of man and say, "If God invites and calls and beckons, then he can't really be sovereign over man's will, and man really is ultimately self-determining and God is not really in control of all things."

Both of these are sad mistakes. It is sad, because one group rejects something deep and precious that God has revealed about himself for our strength and hope and joy and love - namely, his absolute sovereignty. Oh, how sweet it is when all around our soul gives way, and we need a reliable and firm rock in a world that sometimes seems utterly out of control and meaningless and cruel. Oh, how sweet at these times to know that God is not good and helpless, but good and sovereign. And the other group (who embrace the sovereignty of God) sometimes rejects something utterly crucial for understanding the justice of God in dealing with people, and they fail to see how we should plead with people and persuade people and invite people and woo people with tears, to Christ, and on behalf of Christ.

So my aim is not to explain the paradox but simply to underline it with three other examples (and there are many more), in the hope that God will cause your mind to submit to his word, whether you can explain it all or not.

In Matthew 11:25 Jesus says, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children." And then in verse 28, he says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He has hidden the truth from some, and he invites all.

In John 6:35 Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." And one verse later he says, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out." All are invited to Christ. And the Father gives some to Christ.

In Acts 13:38 Paul says to the synagogue in Antioch, "Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed." And in verse 48 Luke says, ". . . And as many as were appointed to eternal life believed." All are invited to believe and be forgiven. And as many as were appointed to life did believe.

I am not explaining it this morning. I am simply proclaiming it. This is what it means for God to be God. Man is not the final, ultimate sovereign over his own life. God is. God is the potter. We are the clay. But on the other hand, God "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). He holds out his hands all day long to Jews and the Gentiles of the Twin Cities. He calls, he beckons, he invites.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Psalm 32 - The Final Word

At last, we've reached the final post in the series on Repentance and Amazing Grace in Psalm 32. As a closing meditation, I'd like to offer the words of a song written by one my favorite singer/songwriters. This interpretation by Steve Bell captures the essence quite well:

Psalm 32
By Steve Bell

How blessed are those whose sins are fully forgiven
How blessed are those to whom Yahweh harbors no ill
To whom His Spirit is known

I said not a word
While my bones wasted away
From groaning all day and night
Your hand lay heavy upon me
My heart grew thirsty so I ...

Made myself known to You, I did not hide
My shameful soul, my darkest side
And You loved me, and held me
And you forgave my sin

That is why each one of Your faithful ones prays to You
In times of distress, though dark rivers overflow
You'll never loosen Your hold
For I know it's true
You are a refuge always for me
You guard me with hope
With songs of deliverance surrounding me, so I ...

Make myself known to You, I will not hide
My shameful soul, my darkest side
For You love me, and hold me
And You forgive my sin

Friday, January 02, 2009

More Background Material on Biblical Paradoxes

For those of you who are interested in the deeper stuff, I have added a fairly extensive article to the background material of the site. It can be accessed from the FAQ section of the sidebar, or by clicking on the link below. This article is an attempt to lay out some Biblical justifications for a theology that embraces paradox, mystery, and a Biblical sense of irony.

Biblical Foundations of THEOparadox

As always, hold my feet to the fire and let me know if you find anything that doesn't jive with Biblically orthodox, historic, Reformed Christianity. One of the great benefits of blogging is that we get to test our thinking and learn from others. Readers of this blog have proven themselves to be astute Biblical thinkers and have contributed many helpful insights. Iron sharpens iron.