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!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Out and About

This weekend, Chris DeVidal and I visited a nearby Sovereign Grace church. Chris introduced me to one of his friends who attends the church, a man from the Netherlands who holds an earned doctorate in theology. When Chris told him I study Biblical paradoxes, the man smiled broadly and replied, "Veech vahns? Der are so many ahv dem."

That deserves a t-shirt.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 8 - David Harrell

This Paradox File features Dr. David Harrell of Calvary Bible Church in Joelton, Tennessee. Dr. Harrell has been a committed Biblical (nouthetic) counselor for over 20 years, and has taught Biblical Counseling courses at the Master's College. Here, he encourages us to hold fast to the time-tested paradoxes of Christ's teaching as an antidote to the Purpose Driven Life fad of recent years. He manages to deliver a rather provoking expository sermon while simultaneously critiquing the seeker sensitive fads and affirming the THEOparadox concept. It's just beautiful!

The message is entitled,
"The Power of a Paradox Driven Life."
Click here for the message on Sermon Audio

Here are some notes and quotes from the message . . .


"Certianly it's true that the character and the purposes of God are incomprehensible, and, frankly, only through the eyes of faith can we even get a glimpse of who He is . . . Indeed, there is an infinite chasm between man's minute understanding and God's omniscience . . . we quickly discover that His plan for glorifying Himself through salvation of sinful men is filled with paradoxes. His ways seem illogical to our way of thinking."

There is a very good overview of some key Scriptures and concepts that address Biblical paradox in this introductory section (especially the first 7 minutes of the message). He does a great job of showing just how paradoxical the Gospel message is. This is why he gets the shirt.

"These paradoxes of the Christian life stand in stark contrast to the superficial, watered down gospel that is popular today."

1. A cross comes before a crown

"We prefer happiness over holiness. We prefer recreation over re-creation, right? We don't want to be regenerated and born again, [and] become new creatures. We want to be happy and enjoy everything in the world, that's the idea. We want health and wealth, not forgiveness. We want purpose, not redemption. Well, Jesus said 'Get behind me, Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.'"

"Jesus is saying, again, 'My ways are not your ways. Your ways are selfish, mine are selfless. Your ways are short-sighted, mine are eternal.'"

2. We win by losing

"This is the opposite of the self-centered gospel of Neo-Evangelicalism that paints God with a smiley face running around trying to make us all happy. We must understand that Christ suffered the agony of the cross for our spiritual (not our physical) needs . . . When we come to faith in Christ, we are to come ... poor in spirit, utterly bankrupt, we have nothing to offer, we're crying out for this undeserved mercy and grace from the Lord. We come to Christ renouncing our old self." Whew!

"Beloved, we want to preach the Gospel clearly enough for unbelievers to reject it." AMEN!

"I stand before you this morning calling us back to the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. These are the divine principles that should drive our lives." Double AMEN!

In this section, Dr. Harrell explains the meaning of one of my favorite Greek words: agonizomai. That's also the name of my favorite blog, which is perfectly fitting.

3. Lasting joy comes through suffering.

"Each one of us, the Bible says, will stand before God and give an account. And make no mistake about it, the penetrating eyes of our holy and omniscient God will not be deceived. There'll be no place to hide, and your fate will not be determined by a jury of your peers, but by a holy and omniscient God, the Judge of the universe. And so I leave you with this question: will He see a life driven by selfish ambition and phony religion that loves cotton candy Christianity, or one driven by the glorious paradoxes of the Gospel of Christ?"

Dr. Harrell powerfully refutes the errors of the Purpose Driven Life and leads us right back to the Gospel according to Jesus Christ. I thank God for men like him.

DISCLAIMER: Although the topic is not mentioned in this sermon, Dr. Harrell is clearly pre-millennial/Pre-tribulational and strongly dispensational in his eschatology. I appreciate some aspects of dispensational theology, but reject it in general. However, I do not believe eschatology alone should divide Bible believing Christians. The Together for the Gospel conferences ( are an example of eschatologically diverse Reformed believers joining hands over the ESSENTIALS of Biblical teaching. In this spirit, I commend Dr. Harrell without reservation, but I don't necessarily endorse his eschatology. I also forgive him for having more hair than me.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

MUST READ ARTICLE: Why I am a Calvinist

Here's a link to a short but power-packed article from Kevin DeYoung, entitled "Why I am a Calvinist."

Here's an excerpt:

"The influence of Calvinism is growing because its God is transcendent and its theology is true. In a day when “be better” moralism passes for preaching, self-help banality passes for counseling, and “Jesus is my boyfriend” music passes for worship in some churches, more and more people are finding comfort in a God who is anything but comfortable. The paradox of Calvinism is that we feel better by feeling worse about ourselves, we do more for God by seeing how He’s done everything for us, and we give love away more freely when we discover that we have been saved by free grace."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Calvin on the Sinner-Saint Paradox

This note from Calvin serves as a powerful supplement to the current series on prayer:

Psalm 22:1 "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning."

"The first verse contains two remarkable sentences, which, although apparently contrary to each other, are yet ever entering into the minds of the godly together. When the Psalmist speaks of being forsaken and cast off by God, it seems to be the complaint of a man in despair; for can a man have a single spark of faith remaining in him, when he believes that there is no longer any succor for him in God? And yet, in calling God twice his own God, and depositing his groanings into his bosom, he makes a very distinct confession of his faith. With this inward conflict the godly must necessarily be exercised whenever God withdraws from them the tokens of his favor, so that, in whatever direction they turn their eyes, they see nothing but the darkness of night. I say, that the people of God, in wrestling with themselves, on the one hand discover the weakness of the flesh, and on the other give evidence of their faith. With respect to the reprobate, as they cherish in their hearts their distrust of God, their perplexity of mind overwhelms them, and thus totally incapacitates them for aspiring after the grace of God by faith. That David sustained the assaults of temptation, without being overwhelmed, or swallowed up by it, may be easily gathered from his words. He was greatly oppressed with sorrow, but notwithstanding this, he breaks forth into the language of assurance, My God! my God! which he could not have done without vigorously resisting the contrary apprehension that God had forsaken him. There is not one of the godly who does not daily experience in himself the same thing. According to the judgment of the flesh, he thinks he is cast off and forsaken by God, while yet he apprehends by faith the grace of God, which is hidden from the eye of sense and reason; and thus it comes to pass, that contrary affections are mingled and interwoven in the prayers of the faithful. Carnal sense and reason cannot but conceive of God as being either favorable or hostile, according to the present condition of things which is presented to their view. When, therefore, he suffers us to lie long in sorrow, and as it were to pine away under it, we must necessarily feel, according to the apprehension of the flesh, as if he had quite forgotten us. When such a perplexing thought takes entire possession of the mind of man, it overwhelms him in profound unbelief, and he neither seeks, nor any longer expects, to find a remedy. But if faith come to his aid against such a temptation, the same person who, judging from the outward appearance of things, regarded God as incensed against him, or as having abandoned him, beholds in the mirror of the promises the grace of God which is hidden and distant. Between these two contrary affections the faithful are agitated, and, as it were, fluctuate, when Satan, on the one hand, by exhibiting to their view the signs of the wrath of God, urges them on to despair, and endeavors entirely to overthrow their faith; while faith, on the other hand, by calling them back to the promises, teaches them to wait patiently and to trust in God, until he again show them his fatherly countenance."

~John Calvin, from Calvin's Commentary on Psalm 22:1

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Paradoxes of Prayer - Part 2

A Theological Paradox

The following question has been asked, in one way or another, over and over again:

"If all events are foreknown, decreed and predestined by God, why should I pray? What difference does it make?"

It's a nod in the direction of fatalism that seems to be the natural response of a sinful mind to the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty. Anyone who has seriously considered the doctrines of grace has probably been forced to face it. Yet the question itself has a stultifying effect upon our praying whenever we entertain it. In the following, I will endeavor to demonstrate the folly and illegitimacy of this question, without affording it the dignity of a direct answer.

First, a few questions . . .

Does faith make any difference?
Does the preaching of the Gospel make any difference?
Does obedience make any difference?
Does the sovereignty of God lessen the significance and power of any of these things?
Then why would prayer be any different?

They are all means by which God fulfills the purposes He has ordained. If we fail to participate, He is not to blame. Faith is required. The preaching of the Gospel is essential. Obedience is non-negotiable. Prayer is nothing more than the practical expression and extension of our reconciliation with God - a reconciliation which Christ purchased for us at the cost of His own life. A reconciliation in which we live and move and breathe each moment. Praying is valuable in every way. It is an evidence of grace. It is just as indispensable as faith, and the Gospel, and obedience.

We must hold these two unalterable Biblical facts in tension:
1. God is completely sovereign.
2. Prayer is powerful and effective.

Both are strongly stressed in Scripture, so let us be equally committed to both.

Biblically, prayer and sovereignty interact in at least two very direct ways:

First, God often accomplishes a planned action by decreeing that someone shall pray. The action is then performed in response to prayer, which increases faith, inspires thanks and magnifies His glory. Instead of wondering whether it works, or how it can be, let's BE that someone who prays, who connects with God, who walks with Him day by day, who enjoys His presence and delights in His will. Let's pray the prayers for which God has decreed answers.

Second, when we pray, we speak from finite time and space directly into the ear of the Eternal One who is authoritatively and effectively able to accomplish whatever we ask. Rather than hindering, this empowers and encourages prayer. So, let us pray with full confidence (in Him).

Thus the theological paradox of prayer is swept aside by the little phrase, "God uses means." The apparent contradiction is not so much solved as proven irrelevant. Once that is done, we are able to conclude that it is our privilege and blessed duty to participate in the means God has sovereignly chosen, graciously provided, and sacrificially purchased for our benefit.

Ephesians 3:20-21 "Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Calvin on the Omnipresence of Christ

More THEOparadox from Calvin:

Ephesians 4:10 "He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things."

"To fill often signifies to finish, and it might have that meaning here; for, by his ascension into heaven, Christ entered into the possession of the authority given to him by the Father, that he might rule and govern all things. But a more beautiful view, in my opinion, will be obtained by connecting two meanings which, though apparently contradictory, are perfectly consistent. When we hear of the ascension of Christ, it instantly strikes our minds that he is removed to a great distance from us; and so he actually is, with respect to his body and human presence. But Paul reminds us, that, while he is removed from us in bodily presence, he fills all things by the power of his Spirit. Wherever the right hand of God, which embraces heaven and earth, is displayed, Christ is spiritually present by his boundless power; although, as respects his body, the saying of Peter holds true, that

'the heaven must receive him until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.' (Ac 3:21)

By alluding to the seeming contradiction, the apostle has added not a little beauty to his language. He ascended; but it was that he, who was formerly bounded by a little space, might fill all things. But did he not fill them before? In his divine nature, I own, he did; but the power of his Spirit was not so exerted, nor his presence so manifested, as after he had entered into the possession of his kingdom."

~John Calvin, from Calvin's Commentary on Eph. 4:10

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 7 - John Calvin

In this passage, John Calvin points out a few interesting THEOparadoxes:

"Grace has always the appearance of contradiction. The foundation is faith. For faith is the pillar and possession upon which we are able to plant our feet. But what, in fact, do we possess? Not things that are present, but what is set far distant under our feet – nay more, what is beyond the comprehension of our spirit. Faith is therefore named the evidence of things not seen. But evidence means that things emerge into appearance, and is applicable only to what concerns our senses. In the realm of faith the two apparent opposites – evidence and things not seen – struggle with one another and are united. It is precisely the hidden things, inaccessible to sensible perception, that are displayed by the Spirit of God. He promises eternal life – to those who are dead. He speaks of the blessedness of resurrection – to those who are compassed about with corruption. He pronounces those in whom sin dwells – to be righteous. He calls those oppressed with ceaseless tribulation – blessed. He promises abundance of riches – to those abounding only in hunger and thirst. God cries out to us that He is coming quickly to our aid – and yet He seems deaf to every human cry for help. What, then, would be our fate, were we not powerful in hope, were we not hurrying through the darkness of the world along the road which is enlightened by the Spirit and by the Word of God?"

- John Calvin, as quoted in Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, pp. 19-20

HT: Arnold at Balance & Paradox

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Paradoxes of Prayer - Part 1


Luke 18:1 "Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart . . ."

Praying is so essential to the Christian life that our Lord repeatedly commanded, exemplified, and extolled it. The Christian who has made any effort at all in prayer has discovered some things:

1. He does not do enough of it.
2. It is hard to do.
3. His flesh is irreparably bent against it.
4. It is easily neglected.
5. It is often contorted into a lifeless parody of itself.
6. When it is done in the right way, and with the right motives, it is unfathomably effective, pleasurable, and beneficial.
7. Yet perfectionism is sure to destroy it every time.
We pray only when things are going well; or we pray only when things are going badly. We pray only about ourselves; or we pray only about circumstances. We pray very brief and unfocused prayers; or we pray exceptionally good prayers that succeed in impressing ourselves or others. We condemn ourselves for our lack of prayer; or we exalt ourselves for our self-discipline. We find prayer dry and joyless, and therefore give up; or we find it ecstatically enjoyable, and therefore follow our feelings into inconsistency. There are many pitfalls, but there is no room for giving up. Like so many things in the Christian life - that is, the realistic life - praying is hard. But it is good. In fact, it is very good.

This series will examine two types of paradox regarding prayer. First, we will consider a theological paradox that can be a gigantic hindrance. Second, we will look at some practical paradoxes designed to encourage us in our praying. The goal is to help you (and me) to find encouragement from God's Word that will greatly increase our effectiveness and joyfulness in the life of prayer.

Before going any further, allow me to admit honestly that I am no expert on this subject. I struggle here, perhaps more than most. But I am long in the fight, and God has taught me a thing or two by hard experience. Years ago, some of my closest friends were apalled to hear me declare, "God ruined my prayer life." They thought it was a terrible thing to say. And it was terrible. But it was nonetheless true. My prayer life needed to be ruined, just as an old, rickety, mold-filled, dilapidated shack needs to be torn down. God had better gifts to give than I would ever find in my merit-minded, self-righteous, self-focused and self-satisfied prayers. He brought me down to nothing and gave me a new start. Then, for the first time, I did not merely approach the Lord. I connected with Him.

This series is all about connecting with God, on His terms and in His divinely mandated way. I hope you don't need to have your prayer life ruined as I did. But if you do, so be it. The God who "makes all things new" can give you a new start.
PS - To illustrate just how counterintuitive the phrase, "God ruined my prayer life" is, search for the phrase (in quotes) on Google. You're already looking at the only page that will be listed. "God ruined my prayer" yields the same result. Controversial as the phrase may be, I tell you truthfully that God will jealously destroy anything and everything that stands between Himself and His beloved children. Even spiritual things. And that is the GOOD NEWS!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

PARADOX FILES, Vol. 6 - C.J. Mahaney

This time it's C.J. Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries who wins the T-shirt (actually, I gave him an "iron on" version). What follows is an excerpt from his extremely helpful little booklet entitled, Sovereign Grace and the Glorious Mystery of Election (Click here for a free PDF download of the book).

Like many others, C.J. offers a perfect example of the THEOparadox concept: God is great, we're not, God knows the secret things, we don't, so trust Him.

C.J. has had a major impact on me - not just theologically, but practically. He emphasizes a Gospel-centered life, serving others, receiving observations and criticisms from those around us, persistently fighting against indwelling sin, and exalting Christ above all. These happen to be the areas where I have needed the most help (based on the observations of those around me), so C.J.'s ministry was literally a God-send.

Here's the excerpt:


Out of Our Depth
Election, of course, is a doctrine issuing from the deep end of the theological pool. As soon as we encounter it, we must all acknowledge that we are in way over our heads. This is a place of mystery, a place that spawns a hundred questions, all of them variations on a single question: “How do I reconcile divine sovereignty with human responsibility?” On the topic of theological mystery, I find this quote from J. Rodman Williams most helpful:

“Because all Christian doctrines relate to God who is ultimately beyond our comprehension, there will inevitably be some element of mystery, or transcendence, that cannot be reduced to human understanding. Nonetheless, within these limits the theological effort must be carried on.”

Indeed, God has announced the following non-negotiable arrangement: “The secret things belong to the Lord and the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut 29:29). As one who loves secrets, my pride does not respond well to such a declaration. So, partly as an aid to my humility, God has allowed me to live near Washington, DC. Here, among the members of the church I am privileged to serve, are a number of people who must be rather secretive about the details of their government-related jobs. Sometimes, when talking with one or another of them, my pride and self-importance rises up, and I begin to crave a little insider access. Why don’t they share some cool stuff with me? Can’t they trust me? Can’t they make an exception for their pastor? To their credit, they never satisfy my prideful craving. Usually they don’t even admit they know any secrets. I can behave the same way with God. I implore him to explain some theological mystery, arrogantly assuming that my brain would not be microwaved by exposure to such divine illumination. But in his goodness, wisdom, and mercy, he doesn’t tell me any secrets, either.
How comfortable are you with the secret things of God?…with the difficult to understand?…the paradox?…the apparent contradiction? Are you at peace in the deep end of the pool?

In Scripture, God has asserted both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, without seeking to harmonize them completely. But they are certainly harmonized in his infinite wisdom, and that should be enough for us. John Calvin offers wise counsel on this matter:

The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended by considerable difficulty, is rendered very perplexed, and hence perilous, by human curiosity, which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths…Those secrets of his will which he has seen fit to manifest, are revealed in his Word—revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.…Let it, therefore, be our first principle that to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the Word of God, is no less infatuated than to walk where there is no path, or to seek light in darkness.…The best rule of sobriety is, not only in learning to follow wherever God leads, but also when he makes an end of teaching to cease wishing to be wise.

I believe that Christian maturity includes an increasing comfort with divine mystery and a growing trust in God, so that we can say with David, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me” (Ps 131:1). As one grows in Christ, there won’t be less mystery. But there ought to be more humility, that we may be more at rest in the presence of divine mystery. May it be great enough and marvelous enough for us to know that the doctrine of election is sound and reliable, representing the clear teaching of Scripture.