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!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

When Sinners Say "I Do" - Notes on the Sovereign Grace Marriage Conference

I spent this past Friday evening and half of Saturday with my lovely wife at the Sovereign Grace Ministries Marriage Conference. It was absolutely great!

The event was hosted by Metro Life Church in Orlando, Florida. We enjoyed getting out of the comparatively frigid atmosphere of Jacksonville for a couple of days. For you northerners, this means we went from daytime temperatures in the 60's to daytime temperatures in the 70's. Allow me to gently remind those of you who scraped ice off of your car or sidewalk this morning that jealousy is a sin. (I guess I shouldn't rub it in).

The conference speaker was Dave Harvey, a Sovereign Grace Ministries leader who is particularly well read in theology and a gifted teacher. A few years back, Dave wrote a helpful book called When Sinners Say "I Do."

What follows is a brief (in fact, far too brief) outline of the three sessions . . .

Text: I Timothy 1:12-17
". . . It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy . . ."

Yes, that's correct, the conference opened on Friday night with a discussion of . . . sin. Not communication, "needs," or love. Not the favorite attention-getting shock topic of Emergents: sex. Nope, it was all about sin - specifically, MY SIN. Not my spouse's sin, but mine. Ouch.

Based on Paul's confession that he was - in the present tense - the FOREMOST of sinners, we were exhorted that one must always guard against seeing himself (or herself) primarily as a person sinned against in a marriage relationship. Instead, one must begin with and remain in the foundational knowledge that he (or she) is a sinner who has transgressed against God in a deeper way than any human being could ever sin against another human being. I must therefore approach my wife's worst sin knowing that we both have already been forgiven for a much greater debt. It was also noted that the discovery of indwelling sin is not an end in itself, but a necessary springboard to Christ, and grace, and the cross. In other words, the bad news about our sin is just the beginning of the Good News.

Text: Luke 6:27-36
"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. . . . Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. . . . love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."

This session focused on mercy as God's response to sinners. Being married to a sinner requires one to imitate God's mercy, and being a sinner makes one a recipient of mercy with a mandate to pass it on. A key emphasis was placed on the need to deal patiently with a spouse's non-sinful weaknesses. Whether it be forgetfulness, physical disability, lack of a particular skill, or some other frailty, mercy must be applied continuously. I was deeply convicted about the lack of mercy in some aspects of my relationship with my wife - a tough but very helpful revelation. For me, this session was a very clear call to repentance, and an answer to some specific prayers I've been praying.

Text: Titus 2:11-15
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed . . ."

One of the key points in this session was that the discovery of indwelling sin and the call to Christian growth are always preceded and followed by affirmations of the Gospel. Note that verse 12 (instructing us to deny ungodliness . . . and to live sensibly, etc.) is sandwiched in between verse 11 (the grace of God has appeared) and verse 14 (Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us). It was noted that this is one important way to maintain a cross-centered focus while dealing with the very real difficulties of sin and struggle in marriage. Confronting sin apart from the patience and kindness inspired by the Gospel is not the way of grace. The way of grace involves patient instruction.

This session featured quotes from J.I. Packer, John Stott, R.C. Sproul, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.C. Ryle, Donald Guthrie, and this zinger from Cornelius Plantinga:

"Human sin is stubborn, but not half as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way."

To say I was encouraged would be a colossal understatement. I was devastated afresh by the Gospel. Blessedly devastated, in a way that invigorates and motivates toward godliness. There's a paradox in that.

I thank God for my patient wife, for the cross-centered Gospel focus of Sovereign Grace Ministries, for the wisdom of Dave Harvey, for the opportunity to attend the conference, and most especially for the love of Christ that shines in the Gospel of His grace! The Gospel is what's needed most when a sinner like me says "I Do."

Click here for a free download of Dave Harvey's message, "God's Mercy and My Marriage."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Moderate Calvinism Explained

Jack Brooks is the Pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in Georgetown, Kentucky, which happens to be about an hour south of where I used to live, in the rolling hills of the Bluegrass State. Although I've never met him, I enjoy Jack's thoughtful blog articles, which occasionally hit on hot button issues. One of his recent posts offers a near perfect explanation of what it means to be a "moderate" Calvinist. Or, as Steve Costley puts it,  to be an advocate of  Controversial Calvinism.

Moderate Calvinism strives for the Biblical balance in all things. It does not seek a mid-point between Arminianism and Calvinism (I doubt there is such a thing), but a balance of all the key components in Reformed soteriology. In terminology, moderate Calvinists range from total rejection of limited atonement (sometimes called "4-point Calvinism") to full acceptance of limited atonement with the addition of other balancing factors. Well-known Calvinists who reject limited atonement would include Bruce Ware and Randy Alcorn (a historical representative would be Donald Grey Barnhouse).

In my study, most  Calvinists (including quite a few high Calvinists) take a position somewhere between the view that strictly limits every benefit of the atonement to the elect and an outright denial of limited atonement. There are lots of ways to articulate a middle position on the extent of the atonement, and this seems to be the course followed by most Reformed thinkers, whether they are classified as moderate or high, 4-point or 5-point,  4.25, 4.5, 4.75, or whatever. There can be a lot of needless hair splitting, mislabeling and debating about this, but I respect any position that is orthodox, sincerely held, and thoroughly grounded in Scripture. Folks who are just toeing the party line and repeating the philosophical conclusions logically demanded by their systematic theology aren't adding anything to the discussion, as far as I'm concerned.

I find that moderate Calvinists whose church polity requires allegiance to all 5 points (e.g., Presbyterians) tend to qualify "limited atonement" as being both limited and unlimited, but in different senses. The classic formulation is "sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect only." I observe that moderate Calvinists whose church polity does not require allegiance to all 5 points tend to call themselves 4-point Calvinists and reject limited atonement altogether (at least in their terminology). There are, of course, many exceptions, but the point is this: approaches to the atonement that are very nearly the same can be called 4-point or 5-point Calvinism interchangeably - depending on the context.

John Piper describes the moderate position well when he says this:

We do not deny that all men are the intended beneficiaries of the cross in some sense. 1 Timothy 4:10 says that Christ is "the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe." What we deny is that all men are intended as the beneficiaries of the death of Christ in the same way. All of God's mercy toward unbelievers—from the rising sun (Matthew 5:45) to the worldwide preaching of the gospel (John 3:16)—is made possible because of the cross. (SOURCE)

Jack Brooks describes it in a slightly different way, but with his characteristic candor and wisdom, here:

CLICK HERE for the article


I was recently asked why I described myself as a moderate Calvinist. The "moderate" part reflects the fact that I understand the Scripture to teach that, in some sense, Christ died for everyone without exception. Christ provided the possibility of redemption for everyone, and an actual redemption is applied only to the elect -- those who are given the gift of faith. The logic problems that my five-point Calvinist brethren immediately raise don't sway me, since the only concern I choose to have is over what specific verses actually say in the original languages -- not how many logic syllogisms my view might seem to contradict, or how one escapes "double jeopardy", and so on. Those philosophical objections don't matter to the question, "what does this verse mean?" because, in the end, they are philosophical objections, not exegetical questions. Only exegetical principles matter when one is asking the question, "What does this verse mean?" The question, "How can I reconcile this with these other ideas over here" is a secondary, or even a tertiary, concern. Not a primary concern. Limited atonement does not survive consistent, thorough-going exegetical analysis. It's our job to iron out any wrinkles that the exegesis might create in the over-all fabric of our systematic theology.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The BEST Senior Pastor EVER!

No, I'm not waxing hyperbolic here. And no, I'm not trying to insult the pastor of your church (I hope you are part of a good church with a Bible teaching man of integrity leading it). And no, I'm not talking about the pastor of my church. Although I love and respect my pastor immensely, and although I think he's one of the best pastors in America, I don't think he's the BEST Senior Pastor EVER. That claim belongs exclusively to the Senior Pastor of Paradox Bible Church in Seattle, Washington.

Paradox Bible Church is a new church that is being planted in the very hard soil of Seattle, Washington. Seattle is one of the least "churched" cities in America. The church is just starting to get organized, and planning to launch public services in September. But they're already becoming active in the community in significant ways to prepare the soil. The planting pastor was previously on staff at a large Baptist church, and felt called to plant a new church in a needy community. Having been involved in a church plant in the almost impenetrable soil of rural New England, I have a ton of respect for anyone who does this sort of thing. It's tough work that demands continual sacrifice.

The church seems to be off to a good start, doctrinally sound and very properly focused on practical outreach to needy people. I stumbled across the church quite by accident, and God seemed to impress my heart to follow and pray for the work.  Of course, any church sporting the name "Paradox" catches my attention. I admit though, given the name and the prevailing misuse of the paradox concept, I was expecting some sort of emergent liberal mush -  but I was pleasantly surprised and found something solid and promising instead. Still, how can I possibly say this church has the BEST Senior Pastor EVER? They aren't even holding Sunday services yet.

Here's what the church website says about its Senior Pastor:

Every church has a Senior Pastor.  A leader who leads the mission and vision of the church.  At Paradox, that leader is Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22Colossians 1:18), the senior leader (Hebrews 5:7-10), and the highest authority (Matthew 28:18Hebrews 1:3-7). The church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2Ephesians 5:25Revelation 19:7-10Ephesians 5:29-30Colossians 1:24).
Practically, this means as a church we submit to Jesus’ leadership and authority in all matters.  It is Jesus who ultimately starts new churches and closes other churches’ doors (Revelation 2:5).  We are not building a church, Jesus is, and we are trying to obediently follow His leadership.
We submit to Jesus’ leadership through study and obedience to the Scriptures which God wrote through the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21).  Jesus is our leader, we worship, we emulate, we follow Jesus.  (Click here to see this on the Paradox Bible Church website)
Now that is a unique approach! Lest anyone should think this is mere postmodern label switching, let's have a look at the one and only passage in the New Testament that contains the rough equivalent of the term, "Senior Pastor."

I Peter  5:1-4 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

Chief Shepherd = ARCHIPOIMEN - formed from two Greek words, ARCHE (beginning, origin, leader, principality, first in a series) and POIMEN (herdsman, shepherd, pastor). 

Even the more updated term "Lead Pastor" would seem to be more appropriately assigned to Christ than a mere man. So I commend Paradox Bible Church for using Christ-centered creativity to move us closer to the Bible's teaching.

I'm not suggesting every church needs to change the traditional titles the way Paradox Bible Church has, but my impression is that they have followed the more Biblical course. The rest of us ought to follow their example, at least in spirit. Jesus Christ can be your Senior Pastor, too! By the way, they call their earthly pastor the "Lead Planter."

Please take a moment to pray that God will bless this new church by granting them favor with the community and enabling them to bring souls to Christ through the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel. 

Update: A reader has informed me that this church may be following the lead of Seattle's most famous pastor, Mark Driscoll. Apparently, Driscoll has long maintained that Christ is the Senior Pastor of his church. If Christ is the Senior Pastor of multiple churches (and I believe He IS the Chief Shepherd of every true church), perhaps we should call him a Bishop as well? Indeed, He is everything good, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Ultimate Proof that the Bible Isn't True

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

This is LOVE!

Almost 9 years ago, my beautiful wife and I found ourselves at a terrible impasse in our relationship and we separated for two and a half years. I won't go into why this happened, other than to say that I was primarily at fault in the issues that led to our separation. This isn't the time or the place to go into the details of that ordeal - but I can say that without trying to I simultaneously discovered my immense need for God's mercy, the incredible power of grace, and the unyielding strength of the marriage bond. It's what God has joined together.

While this situation was not ideal (and I don't recommend that anyone try it), it was used in God's sovereign plan to produce some wonderful and needed effects in me. Today, I stand committed to my wife and family in a way that even shocks me sometimes.

It is difficult to describe the way my faithful Father, in utter and underserved kindness, stood by me during that time. But what happened inside of me was nothing short of a revelation of divine love -- covenant love. This love was described poetically in the words of Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 31:3 The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness." (Heb. HESED, mercy)

I was far away, but He appeared to me. The distance seemed infinite, but the cords of His mercy were long enough to reach me - and their pull was irresistible. I was dealing with something much more powerful than I knew: GOD'S ETERNAL LOVE.

One of the things God used to sustain me and draw me during those turbulent days was the music of Canadian singer/songwriter Steve Bell. To this day, some of Steve's songs reduce me to a soggy pile of cardboard whenever I hear them. This is a video of one such song, with scenes from the Visual Bible as an introduction.  

NOTICE OF DISCLAIMER: Although I love Steve's music, there's admittedly a deep theological difference between us. I don't endorse his more liberal/emergent/liberation-theology leanings. However, I'm not out to be his critic - I'm a grateful and concerned fan of his gifts.  I've found that God commonly uses people whose theology I find unacceptable to accomplish His purposes, and He does so without asking for my permission or approval beforehand. Prerogatives of Deity.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Calvin on Isaiah 53:1

Calvin's comments on Isaiah 53:1 are instructive in several ways. In them we find hints of Calvin's belief in the free offer of the Gospel and the supra-logical, mysterious nature of the message of Christ (which, according to Calvin, "exceeds all human capacities"). These play alongside unsurprising affirmations of divine election and the necessity of an effectual call. Here's Calvin on Isaiah 53:1 . . .

Here the Prophet pauses, as it were, in the middle of his discourse; for, having formerly said that the name of Christ would be everywhere proclaimed, and would be revealed to unknown nations, and yet would have so mean an aspect that it might appear as if these things were fabulous, he breaks off his discourse, and exclaims that "Nobody will believe those things." At the same time, he describes his grief, that men are so unbelieving as to reject their salvation.

Thus, it is a holy complaint made by one who wished that Christ should be known by all, and who, notwithstanding of this, sees that there are few who believe the Gospel, and therefore groans and cries out, "Who hath believed our report?" Let us therefore groan and complain along with the Prophet, and let us be distressed with grief when we see that our labor is unprofitable, and let us complain before God; for godly ministers must be deeply affected, if they wish to perform their work faithfully. Isaiah declares that there will be few that submit to the Gospel of Christ; for, when he exclaims, "Who will believe the preaching?" he means that of those who hear the Gospel scarcely a hundredth person will be a believer.

Nor does he merely speak of himself alone, but like one who represents all teachers. Although therefore God gives many ministers, few will hold by their doctrine; and what then will happen when there are no ministers? Do we wonder that the greatest blindness reigns there? If cultivated ground is unfruitful, what shall we look for from a soil that is uncultivated and barren? And yet it does not detract anything from the Gospel of Christ, that there are few disciples who receive it; nor does the small number of believers lessen its authority or obscure its infinite glory; but, on the contrary, the loftiness of the mystery is a reason why it scarcely obtains credit in the world. It is reckoned to be folly, because it exceeds all human capacities.

To whom (literally, on whom) is the arm of Jehovah revealed? In this second clause he points out the reason why the number of believers will be so small. It is, because no man can come to God but by an extraordinary revelation of the Spirit. To suppose that by the word "Arm" Christ is meant, is, in my opinion, a mistake. It assigns the cause why there are so few that believe; and that is, that they cannot attain it by the sagacity of their own understanding. This is a remarkable passage, and is quoted by John and Paul for that purpose. . . . Both of them declare that there will be no reason to wonder, if that which was long ago foretold shall happen; and they do so for the purpose of removing offense which might have arisen from the revolt of that nation, which ought to have acknowledged Christ, but obstinately resisted him.

Isaiah does not include merely the men of his own time, but all posterity to the end of the world; for, so long as the reign of Christ shall endure, this must be fulfilled; and therefore believers ought to be fortified by this passage against such a scandal. These words refute the ignorance of those who think that faith is in the power of every person, because preaching is common to all. Though it is sufficiently evident that all are called to salvation, yet the Prophet expressly states that the external voice is of no avail, if it be not accompanied by a special gift of the Spirit. And whence proceeds the difference, but from the secret election of God, the cause of which is hidden in himself?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Isaiah 53:1 - The Arm of the Lord

. . . and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

The "arm of the Lord" indicates God's decisive and powerful action, effecting the salvation of His people or bringing judgment upon His enemies. It is decidedly God's own action, accomplished entirely by Himself and not through a creature as His instrument. Consider these examples from the book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 30:30 And the LORD will cause His voice of authority to be heard, and the descending of His arm to be seen in fierce anger, and in the flame of a consuming fire In cloudburst, downpour and hailstones.
Isaiah 40:10-11 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him. Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, in His arm He will gather the lambs and carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.
Isaiah 48:14 Assemble, all of you, and listen! Who among them has declared these things? The LORD loves him; he will carry out His good pleasure on Babylon, and His arm will be against the Chaldeans.
Isaiah 51:5 My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth, and My arms will judge the peoples; The coastlands will wait for Me, and for My arm they will wait expectantly.
Isaiah 51:9 Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake as in the days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not You who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?
Isaiah 52:10 The LORD has bared His holy arm In the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God.
Isaiah 59:16 And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede; Then His own arm brought salvation to Him, and His righteousness upheld Him.
Isaiah 63:5 I looked, and there was no one to help, and I was astonished and there was no one to uphold; so My own arm brought salvation to Me, and My wrath upheld Me.
The question, "to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" would seem to have two possible meanings: either a saving work, or a work of judgment. Since the cross is both, it is difficult to ascertain which meaning is most intended by the prophet. Adding to this complication is the fact that "to whom" could properly be translated "upon whom." Further, "revealed" could refer to the uncovering of the arm (i.e., "rolling up the sleeves") in preparation for a decisive act of judgment, or it could refer to a saving revelation of Who or what the "arm" is. The Hebrew text seems to leave some options open. However, in this verse two seemingly opposite truths can be seen and known with certainty:

1. The cross reveals God's fierce arm of judgment against unbelief and sin.
2. The cross reveals Gods mighty arm of salvation for sinners who believe.

The greatest revelation of God's saving strength is found in the cross, and the most terrifying revelation of His awesome wrath is found in the cross. Judgment and mercy are potently and paradoxically displayed here. Let us never lose sight of TWO equally weighty messages declared in picturesque form by the cross: first, that GOD HATES AND JUDGES ALL SIN; second, that GOD LOVES AND SAVES SINNERS WHO TRUSTINGLY TURN TO HIM ON THE BASIS OF CHRIST'S SUFFERING IN THEIR PLACE.

The cross unveils both hell and heaven, sin and salvation, judgment and mercy, truth and grace, love and hatred, despair and joy, abject hopelessness and unconquerable optimism . . . all brought together in one place, in one historic event, as one finite bit of time folded inextricably into the eternal and timeless moment, one apparently contingent and changeable human circumstance united with the supra-chronological and eternally settled divine purpose, linking the soul of One Man to the entire human race, drawing spiritual poison into Himself and transferring life-giving Spirit back across the divide, demonstrating spiritual death in physical death, displaying spiritual life in physical resurrection, and through incalculable sacrifice purchasing everything that would ever be needed for dirty wretches to be brought into the favor of a pure and righteous Father.

The Gospel is God showing forth His mighty strength, saving His chosen ones, making known His great power through apparent weakness. It is the power of mercy to love the unlovely. It is power of grace to overcome sin. It is power of God's Spirit to effect repentance and draw faith from human hearts as water was drawn from the rock in the desert. It is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.