Trust in the Lord, the Promises of God Incarnate (A Sermon on Isaiah 28–35)

Seed of the Woman 1024x1024With Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas Carols upon us, the holiday season is now here. And with the holidays comes the making of many lists.

Santa has his list. And I am sure many readers of this blog have theirs. Whether it is a list of things to get done for Christmas or a list of this to wrap up before the new year comes, lists are a part of life. And lists can be all sorts of things.

They can be harmful, if your list is filled with grudges. Or, they can be helpful, if they help you remember all that your need to do. And they can even be misunderstood, if they are intercepted and read out of context.

Recently, my daughter found a list of family names with corresponding items under each. Still learning how to read, she thought it was surely a list of Christmas presents. But actually, when examined, this list contained all the school work to be done before Christmas. Such are the ways of lists. They can help, but they can also mislead.

In fact, lists can have negative consequences when we read the Bible. If you haven’t noticed, Scripture is not written in list form. Oh, it has lists. The first eleven chapters of Genesis contain two of them; they are called genealogies. Likewise, throughout the Bible, you can find lists of names, places, treasures, and laws. In short, the Bible is not against lists; it’s just that, on the whole, the Bible is not a list.

Resultantly, when we grind the Bible into list form, as many sermon-makers are quick to do, we run the risk of missing its message. Even more, when we turn the Bible into lists, we often miss the Messiah!

That said, there are times when it is helpful to put the truths of Scripture in list form. Systematic theologies do that, as do many sermons. And though I think the listicle sermon often misses the shape of the text, there are times for it. And this Sunday was one of them.

After riding an airboat through Isaiah 1–12 and a helicopter over Isaiah 13–27, I offered a sermon with four encouraging truths from Isaiah 28–35. Without abandoning the literary structure of the text, I focused on the applications that came from these eight chapter. To find those applications of the gospel, you can listen to the sermon here. You can also find the literary structure of Isaiah 28-35 here.

So far, preaching Isaiah 1–35 has been a challenge, but it has been a happy challenge, as it has forced us to see how the whole book fits together and leads us to Christ. Truly, Isaiah is glorious book, so let’s keeping reading it. And as you do, I pray these sermons may help you as you read.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Salvation and Judgment From Zion to Zambia: An International Comedy (A Sermon on Isaiah 13–27)

Seed of the Woman 1024x1024

Salvation and Judgment From Zion to Zambia:
An International Comedy (Sermon Audio for Isaiah 13–27)

Sermon Handout: Isaiah 13-27 PDF Slides

Has the Bible ever made you mad? Have you ever stopped reading the Bible because you couldn’t understand it? Are there parts of the Bible that you have avoided because they are too difficult to comprehend? To each of these questions, I can offer an affirmative response, with illustrations to prove it.

For instance, a number of years ago Isaiah 13–27 was one of those places. Or rather, it was somewhere in Isaiah 13-19. Reading those chapters, with their endless judgments against ancient foreign powers, I got frustrated and put the Bible away. Looking for a word of encouragement, the endless oracles made no sense.  After all, what do Philistines and Moabites have to do with me? As it turns out, there are lots of ways that God’s judgment on these nations applies today (see Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but it took some time to see it.

Fast forward two decades from the time I closed the book on Isaiah 13–19, and I can say that these chapters are some of the most exhilarating in the Bible. But such exhilaration requires learning how to read them on their own terms. And on Sunday, that’s what I attempted to do as I preached Isaiah 13–27.

Based on literary clues in the text, we find that Isaiah 13–27 is a single unit, broken into three main sections, maybe four (13-19 / 20 / 21-23 + 24-27). Accordingly, to hear the message of this section (1 of 7 in the book), requires listening to the whole thing. Just as understanding The Count of Monte Cristo requires reading beyond the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès, so too these chapters must be read from beginning to end—-just as the whole book of Isaiah must be read to understand its good news.

Indeed, while stretching for the preacher and the listener, I attempted on Sunday to show how this whole section hangs together and offers an international comedy. Moving from the bad news of God’s judgment on wicked nations to the good news of salvation offered to a remnant from all nations, I showed how these 15 chapters work together to bring us hope for a glorious future.

If you are interested in hearing how this all goes, I would encourage you to begin with last week’s sermon on Isaiah 1–12 here. (Don’t miss the Isaiah 1-12_Handout). And then with another set of Isaiah 13-27 notes in hand, you can listen to this week’s sermon on Isaiah 13–27 here. All told, it is my hope to preach Isaiah in 7 sermons. So stay tuned for an ongoing overview of this glorious book.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

 Pressing Deeper into Isaiah 1–12: Seven Chiasms in Seven Sections

julia-kadel-YmULswIbc3I-unsplashIn so many ways, the book of Isaiah is like a set of Russian Stacking Dolls. You know, the ones pictured above that share the same shape but not the same size. Similarly, the book of Isaiah is composed of countless chiastic structures that fit within one another. Already, we have something of this in the way that the chiastic structure of Isaiah 1–12 anticipates the whole book.

Adding to this first post, I am going to focus in this post on the first twelve chapters themselves. And what we find in each section is a chiastic structure, which reveals the main point of each section. Again, what follows depends heavily on the exegetical work of David Dorsey (The Literary Structure of the Old Testament). In outline form, I will give a summary of each section, combined with a textual outline that is adapted is from Dorsey’s book (pp. 218–19). After putting forward this outline, I will draw our three interpretive conclusions that help us understand Isaiah and marvel at Isaiah’s God.

N.B. The following outlines should be understood as incomplete and written in pencil. In other words, you can find other plausible and helpful outlines from scholars like J. Alec Motyer. Exegetical outlines are always subordinate to the text of Scripture itself. But they are helpful, especially in larger books, because they help provide a grid for reading. To that end, I offer these seven chiastic structures. Continue reading

The Dramatic Arc of Isaiah 1–12: How Seeing Literary Structure Unveils the Glory of God

landscape photo of the view of city with rainbow above

“This is an unusual and fascinating book.”

One might think this commendation describes the Bible, or at least the book of Revelation. But in fact, these words come from Richard Averbeck’s endorsement of David Dorsey’s book about the Bible, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker, 1999). Indeed, his full endorsement reads as follows,

This is an unusual and fascinating book. It is the first comprehensive treatment of the inherent structure of the Old Testament books and its significance for understanding their meaning and message. Expositors will find it of inestimable value for looking at the books in a way that is true to the literary nature of the Old Testament itself and the theological significance of that structure. (From the back cover)

Dorsey’s book is unlike any other book I have read. For in 39 chapters—surely that was on purpose—he introduces his method (ch. 1–5), outlines every book in the Old Testament (ch. 6–38), and offers some final reflections (ch. 39). In all, his book provides students of Scripture with a comprehensive reading plan for seeing the literary structures of every book in the Old Testament. With careful attention to literary details, his book, though it came out in the year of Y2K fears, is not flight of fancy into Bible coding. Rather, it offers a well-argued case for reading Scripture on its own terms.

For readers of this blog, you know how much value this approach to Scripture. Following the persuasive argument of David Helm, I believe every inspired text has an inspired structure. Accordingly, the faithful reader (or preacher) must discern the “inherent structure” in the text, in order to uncover the meaning of the original author.

I have often shared the literary structures I have seen in the Scripture. And in our church, this care for literary structure is the starting place with our teachers. (For those with ears to hear, you know this is a shameless plug for Simeon Trust). Surely, getting the structure is not the end of our study, but it is a necessary step. Good exposition depends on rightly dividing the word of God, and discerning the biblical structures helps the disciple cut with and not against the grain of Scripture.

To that end, as I preach through Isaiah over the next few weeks, I will share some of Dorsey’s work. In doing so, I hope it will help those who are following our Advent Reading of Isaiah. And more, I hope it will persuade you to begin looking for these structures in Scripture. So, without any more prolegomena, let me offer an outline of Isaiah 1–12, which in turn prepares us for the whole book of Isaiah. Continue reading

The Story of Isaiah’s Immanuel: An Advent Reading Plan

pink pencil on open bible page and pink

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Or at least, the stores are beginning to roll out their Christmas wares. Merchants and suppliers are setting their sights on the holidays, and starting next week, we will too.

On Sunday, November 13, our church will begin a six week series on the book of Isaiah. You know, the one that is 66 chapters long and contains some of the most memorable verses in the Bible.

Isaiah 6:1–3. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

Isaiah 7:14.  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:6–7. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

If you are familiar with Isaiah, I suspect you are most familiar with parts and portions, famous passages and key persons—Uzziah dying (ch. 6), Hezekiah ailing (ch. 38), and the Suffering Servant saving (ch. 53). Until a few years ago, this is how I read Isaiah too. I knew the key theological passages and the Christmas verses. But I did not know the book of Isaiah or its overall message.

Accordingly, I didn’t understand why Isaiah has four birth narratives in Isaiah 7, 8, 9, 11 or  more than a dozen chapters dedicated to judging the nations (Isaiah 13–27). Moreover, I was aware of four servant songs in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, 53 which point to Christ (Acts 8), but I didn’t see how the four Spirit songs of Isaiah 60–62 also anticipated the Holy Spirit. Long story short, I had read Isaiah for years, but only in the last couple did the message begin to come together.

Seeing the message of Isaiah has been a glorious joy, as it tells the story of salvation and judgment, where God redeems a people immersed in sin, so that he can forever dwell with his redeemed on his holy mountain. That’s a simplified version of Isaiah’s message, and for the next six weeks, that’s what we are going to consider. Continue reading

Why the Lord’s Supper Requires Baptism: A Typological Approach

religious artwork

Who can take the Lord’s Supper is a question of no little dispute among those who call themselves Baptist (yes, this is a Baptist blogpost). In my estimation, the best answer to the question of baptism and Lord’s Supper goes something like this:

Those who have undergone believer’s baptism (the initiation rite of the new covenant) are permitted to eat at the Lord’s Supper (the continuing rite of the new covenant).

In what follows, I will offer a biblical typology to explain why baptism should precede Lord’s Supper. Rising from the Old Testament, these symbols of the new covenant do not arise de novo from Jesus or apostles. Rather, as we appreciate the Old Testament pattern of water-crossing that leads to feasting in God’s presence, we will see why baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper.

In short, OT “baptisms” are types of the NT baptisms and the Passover is the chief type of the Lord’s Supper. To understand baptism and the Lord’s Supper requires understanding the symbolism of these OT events. But also, because these OT “water crossings” are paired with a meals in God’s presence (e.g., Passover), we see that baptism and Lord’s Supper should also be paired together. This is the basic argument and we will consider it below in four steps, giving primary attention to the way baptism and the Lord’s Supper are informed by the book of Joshua. Continue reading

Why Baptists Do Not Count Infant Baptisms: A Friendly Response to Joe Rigney

vishal-banik-JdMihDkP-vc-unsplashWhen it comes to pastors and theologians who stand strong on the Word, strong against the world, and strong in their wise dealings with complex issues, few compare to Joe Rigney. When it comes to contemporary theologians, therefore, I consider his writing some of the best.

When I visited Minneapolis a number of years ago, I had an enjoyable lunch with him and a few other faculty at Bethlehem College and Seminary. And when he took the reins to lead that school I rejoiced. I am thankful for Joe Rigney and will continue to read his works and point people to his writing.

Yet, for that very reason, when he writes something that not only stands against my theological convictions, but something that confuses some of the sheep in my congregation, it is necessary to reply. In what follows, I will offer a three-point engagement with Joe’s recent piece, “Do Infant Baptisms Count? Reconsidering Open Membership.” To be clear, I am not responding point by point to Joe Rigney, but offering three substantial arguments for rejecting open membership.

While Joe spells his Baptist identity with a lower case B, and I spell mine with a capital B, the point of difference between us is more than grammar. The issues raised by his article range from the local to universal church, from the nature of the new covenant to the membership of new covenant church, and how churches differing on baptism should relate to one another.

These are important matters which have spawned books, pamphlets, and shorter articles. In what follows I won’t offer a comprehensive reply to Joe’s arguments, but I will offer a substantial one. Again, I write this as a friend and admirer of Joe and his labors. But as a pastor and a seminary professor of a school that seeks to affirm the confessionalism of Presbyterians and Baptists, without muddying the waters between them, I offer this rejoinder. Continue reading

“The Court of the Sheep”: A Temple Reading of John 10

herd of sheep on grassland

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.
— John 10:1 —

In John 16:25, Jesus says to his disciples, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech [paroimia]. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech [paroimia] but will tell you plainly about the Father.” In that context, Jesus was speaking of his going away and the resulting sorrow his disciples would experience (John 16:16–24). In this exchange, Jesus’s disciples did not understand what he was saying (v. 18), and so verse 25 is a pivot in the conversation.

Starting here, Jesus begins to explain what his going away means—soon he is going to leave the world and return to the Father. It is unlikely, in that moment, that the disciples understood how this departure (his exodus) would take place (by means of a cross, resurrection, and ascension), but they say in v. 29, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech.”

Importantly, this word for “figure of speech” is used only one other time in John’s Gospel. In John 10:6, John narrates and says, “This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Structurally, John 10:1–21 works very similarly to John 16:16–33. Jesus says something figuratively, i.e., in a figure of speech, which his audience does not understand (compare John 10:6 and John 16:18). Then, after acknowledging the confusion, Jesus speaks again more plainly. In John 16, the focus is on Jesus’s coming departure. In John 10, the focus is similar, as Jesus describes the way he will lead his sheep out of something.

But what is that something?

In John 10:3, Jesus speaks of an unidentified shepherd, “To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” In these five verses, the place from which the sheep are led out is the “sheepfold.” As verse 1–2 indicate, the thief enters the sheepfold falsely (v. 1), but the true shepherd enters the sheepfold by means of the door (v. 2). This is the contrast that Jesus sets up in figure of speech, and it is repeated in verse 4–5, when he explains how sheep follow the true shepherd (v. 4) but not the stranger (v. 5). As John notes, this figure of speech is lost on Jesus audience. Continue reading

Is Racial Justice Essential to the Gospel?

Gospel,+Race,+&+the+Church

Earlier this month I joined Nicholas Piotrowski, Charles Ware, and Gus Pritchard for an event in Indianapolis called “Gospel, Race, and the Church.” Through six short messages and six panel discussions, plus a Q & A we worked through many subjects related to contemporary discussions on race and justice in the church. While this subject is fraught with landmines, the overall tenor of the event was positive, biblical, and prayerfully helpful.

To encourage candidness, the audios were not made public, so I can’t link to those. But what follows is one of my two messages. Lord willing, I can add the other next week.

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“Racial justice is essential to the gospel.”

Have you heard that statement before? Or what about this one, “The gospel must include justification and doing justice.” Or maybe you’ve had the question: “What does the gospel have to do with race and racism?”

In the last few years, there have been many ways the gospel, social justice, and race have been combined, and in this post, I want to talk about that triangle—the gospel, justice, and race.

As I will argue in a second article (out next week), I believe sinful partiality, hostility, and discrimination are better described in terms of ethnicity than race. As Acts 17:26 makes clear, humanity comes from one man (hence one human race) and is composed of many different nations (ethnicities).

For now, however, I will sidestep the question of race versus ethnicity. And I will answer the question: “Is racial justice a gospel essential or a gospel entailment?” I will first highlight the way some have enlarged the message of the gospel by making (racial) justice essential to the gospel message. Then I will try to outline what the gospel says and does not say, does and does not do. Biblical precision is needed in our discussions today and hopefully I can offer a few straight lines in what follows.

Three Voices Who Enlarge the Gospel 

A Golden-Ruled Gospel

For starters, Scott Sauls, a pastor in Nashville, has included the great commandment (“Love your neighbor”) in his definition of gospel in a panel discussion about racism and the gospel. He says, “Last time I checked, love your neighbor is part of the gospel.”

Perhaps this is just sloppy, or maybe this is how Sauls actually thinks of the gospel—adding the Golden Rule to the good news of saving grace. Whatever the case, the result is the same. The content of the gospel is confused and the power of the gospel to forgive sinners and set them on a path to loving their neighbor is missed.

In short, the essential message of the gospel is confused with an essential entailment. And sadly, this confuses both good news and the good works that flow from believing the good news.

A Cosmic Redemption Gospel

Anthony Bradley is another voice who enlarges the gospel. For those unfamiliar with Bradley, he has authored many books and serves as a professor at King’s College in New York City. In a 2019 Fathom Magazine article, Bradley contrasts “Great Commission Christianity” (GCC) with “Cosmic Redemption Christianity” (CRC).

Critiquing GCC as reductionistic and historically complicit with slavery, Bradley argues for CRC which widens God’s purposes of salvation. Citing Tim Keller, Bradley defines the gospel like this:

It is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Then he goes further, speaking about the kingdom of God which is “the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ over the entire cosmos. Redemption, then, is God’s work to restore the whole of creation to himself.”

This statement of life in the kingdom of God is good, as far as it goes. But in adding man’s agency to “God’s work of restoring the cosmos” it goes too far. Why? Because it tasks new creatures in Christ with the duty of liberating creation from the stranglehold of the devil. To be sure, the scope of redemption is cosmic, but Bradley’s definition of the gospel changes the finished work of Christ on the cross to the ongoing work of God in the cosmos.

Certainly, God is at work in cosmos, and the gospel is bringing about a new creation, but this cosmic restoration is an effect or entailment of the gospel, not its primary essence. The content of the gospel is directed towards persons estranged from God and the redemption offered in the gospel is equally person-specific. Thereafter, God’s new creatures in Christ will do all kinds of good works, but this remains an effect or entailment of the gospel, not its core message.

Justification and Doing Justice

Finally, Eric Mason is Philadelphia pastor who, in the name of justice, enlarges the message of the gospel to include doing justice. This may appear to secure greater ethical results, but at what expense? Let’s consider.

In Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, Mason devotes a chapter to defining what the gospel is and what it isn’t. And importantly, he makes “doing justice” a core component of the gospel. He writes,

Justification is a huge greenhouse of truth that extends beyond ‘being declared righteous’! Justified isn’t merely a position, but a practice! Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us by faith leads to our being made right with God as well as our making things right on earth. (45)

Don’t miss the enormity of this point. The Protestant Reformation fought for justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But here, citing Anglican theologian, Fleming Rutledge, who in turn cites German NT Scholar, Ernst Kaïsemann, Mason redefines justification as an attribute of God and an action of God and man (46).

Recognizing the impact of what he is saying, he defends himself from those who would accuse him of preaching a different gospel (44). He says, “The way we are taught about these aspects of the gospel deeply affects our understanding and the way we process justice. When we have a reductionist understanding of justification, we fail to see the holistic picture of the gospel” (46).

For Mason, this holistic gospel is one that combines justification and doing justice. But is Mason right? Is doing justice part and parcel of the gospel of the kingdom? Consider two responses.

Reigning in the Gospel of King Jesus

First, there is an irony in the fact that Mason cites two white theological liberals, Fleming Routledge and Ernest Kaïsemann. (Bradley also sources Tim Keller). I make this awkward observation to say, that in making their points, Mason and Bradley are not making the black argument, so much as they are making an ideological argument—and one that fits nicely with the social gospel. Sauls too adds a “social dynamic” to his definition of the gospel.

That is to say, when the church’s mission includes making the world a better, more just place, the social gospel is not far away. This is not to frivolously label all champions of justice as advocates of the social gospel, nor do I expect anyone who is preaching a gospel-plus-justice message to agree with me.

That said, I would maintain that whenever the church and its leaders prioritize overturning systems of injustice, the social gospel is waiting in the wings. For those who discount that take, I would encourage you to read Christopher Evans, The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History.

For now, we should simply remember that anyone who speaks for the black church, the white church, the Asian church, or the Hispanic church, cannot speak for the whole. Within every tradition there are different theological beliefs. And this is where we need to focus our conversation—chiefly, on the content of the ideas being debated more than the color of debaters.

Now let me walk that back a bit, and make my second point. If Sauls, Mason, or Bradley did cite a black voice, they would do well to consider Charles Octavius Boothe. Boothe was the founding pastor of Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

In 1890, at the height of Jim Crow, Boothe wrote a short treatise on theology called Plain Theology for Plain People. And what is remarkably absent from his book is anything that approximates the social justice championed today.

Instead, when Boothe speaks of justice, he describes the character of God and God’s judgment on sinners. In other words, Boothe’s doctrine of justice and justification is chiefly vertical, not horizontal. Though enmeshed in the world of Jim Crow, Boothe’s explanation of the gospel and the mission of the church approximates Bradley’s Great Commission Christianity, which Bradley associates with the white church.

Moreover, when he speaks of justification, Boothe speaks of it entirely in terms of what God has done to save sinners by grace. For instance, he lists a number of Pauline passages on justification and concludes, “it appears that justification is the act of God.” To which he explains in full (70):

The ground of justification is found in the work, the whole work, of the Son of God, whom God ‘gave that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” What a ground the Father hath given us for the fullest belief in Christ! What reason for devout thankfulness the redeemed have! What a motive to induce them to live, not unto themselves, but unto him who has brought to them a salvation so helpful and so glorious!

Hallejulah! That is the biblical gospel.

But notice, he distinguishes the work of the Son from our works. He says that the finished work of Christ is the motive to doing good works. In other words, the gospel has entailments. Doing justice is a necessary entailment of the gospel. It is necessary, yes! But it is a necessary entailment—meaning that biblical ethics follow a Spirit-empowered reception of the gospel.

In fact, we can learn from Booth himself. Living in a world of ethnic partiality, hostility, and discrimination, Boothe did much to fight injustice and promote the well-being of blacks in the South. That said, doing justice was not an essential part of the gospel message, for Boothe, it was the work of those who had been justified. And that distinction is what is lost on many today.

In order to champion good works, many pastors—with various hues of melanin—are making justice an essential part of the gospel message. But the effect of this inclusion is to undercut the power of the gospel. Why? Because such an addition—as well intentioned as it may be—changes the message of the gospel, thereby challenging the power of the gospel.

And that’s the problem. If the gospel is a message of justification and doing justice, it ceases to be good news and it becomes instead a chimera of grace and law—which is always a deadly combination. So, with these concerns outlined, let me offer five truths that are essential for keeping the gospel straight.

Keeping the Gospel Straight

1. The Gospel is an indicative, not an imperative.

To say it differently: the gospel is good news, not good advice (Michael Horton). It is the declaration “It is finished,” not the command to go and do likewise.

Many people have made this point, but recently I came across it in Thaddeus Williams’ book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. On this point, he says,

The difference between an indicative and an imperative is no small matter for grammar nerds. The good news upon which eternity depends hangs in the balance. . . . A gospel with additional requirements [e.g., feed the hungry, end sex trafficking, oppose injustice] is not good news. For those who know themselves well, if the gospel is not about Christ’s finished saving work alone but about any commandment we must keep, then the good news turns out to be very bad news. If my salvation is 99 percent God’s doing and 1 percent my own doing, I would find a way, in my fallenness and stupidity, to mess up that 1 percent and be damned. (112–13)

This is the problem with the gospel plus justice paradigm. It turns the finished work (the indicative) into the already and not yet work of justification and do justice (the imperative). Yes, the Bible clearly teaches the kingdom is already and not yet. It clearly teaches a biblical way of doing justice and loving our neighbor, but to load these into the gospel is to lose the gospel of grace.

2. The Gospel is fixed, not fluid.

This means that there is a certain content to the gospel which does not have room for more or less. For instance, the gospel is defined in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul defines the gospel as the death of Christ for sins and the resurrection of Christ on the third day. Moreover, both of these are defined by the Old Testament (i.e., “according to the Scriptures”), and the blessings of Christ’s death and the resurrection must be received by faith, lest someone perish for their own sins.

Similarly, Romans 1:1–7 defines the gospel, as does the rest of Romans 1–11. And after Paul spends 11 chapters explaining how sinners can be justified by grace through faith, only then does he turn around and say: “I appeal to you brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices.”

In short, there is a gospel logic in Paul’s letters that teaches us that doing the law (i.e., the third use of the law) follows believing in Christ who fulfilled the law for us. Here’s an important distinction: Just because something is biblical, or important for Christian living, does not give us permission to add it to the message of the gospel. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is the eternal plan of God to redeems sinners in all ages, in all places, and from all conditions of sin by the finished work of Christ.

To make the gospel the solution to every problem, therefore, may blind us to see how the gospel tells us what the problem is. In a word the problem is sin! Moreover, because the gospel defines the problem, it also offers the solution to that problem, and only that problem. Christ died and rose again to justify elect individuals who will repent and believe when God calls them to himself in the gospel. Only after that calling can individuals and the groups they form (i.e., churches) begin to justice with the righteousness God requires.

By contrast, to add justice to justification will only result in a loss of both! So remember, the gospel is fixed, not fluid.

3. The gospel justifies individuals, it does not promise universal justice.

To double down on who benefits from the gospel, it is important to remember how person-specific the message of the gospel is. While the gospel must be carried to the ends of the earth and preached to all peoples, it is not a message that addresses nations as nations, groups as groups, or political clans as clans. No, the gospel confronts sinners in their individual sin, and calls sinners—one-by-one—out from the nations (see Rev. 5:9–10).

In other words, just as John’s Gospel is filled with individuals coming to faith in Christ (see Richard Bauckham, “Individualism,” in Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology),  so the gospel that raises people from the dead is a message that confronts the individual. When individuals are justified by grace this will create households of faith who exist on all parts of the earth. But this does not mean the object of the gospel are groups, the gospel addresses individuals.

Even more, when nations who hear the gospel experience wide-ranging regeneration—what we might call a revival—those nations will be impacted. In the Early church, the proliferation of the gospel in Africa had a marvelous impact on the church. The ecumenical councils, the early creeds, the rise of libraries and colleges, all of these rose in Africa—a fact often missed when thinking about the character of “African Theology” (see Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind).

Later, in the Reformation, the European church experienced wide spread revival. And the world, especially in America, continued to experience the blessings and benefits of the Reformation. Still, the gospel that reformed Africa and Europe and produced all kinds of good works was a gospel that impacted individuals. Only secondarily did it change families, communities, cultures, and nations. This is how the gospel works. And we should labor to see the gospel change individuals and then we should equally labor to see Christians fulfill their vocational callings to do good works in all realms of life.

Where confusion sets in today, is when those who desire immediate justice can easily become impatient with God’s ways. As a result the gospel can be distorted, in order to see widespread and visible change. When that happens, we should ask: Is this how the gospel really spreads? What does the Bible report? Such an answer is larger than I can provide here, but as I can tell we find a singular report in Scripture: The gospel justifies individuals, it does not promise universal justice.

4. The gospel creates individuals who do good works.

Without denying the place for good works, and affirming the possibility of Christians impacting culture, we must remember how good works are borne. First, we learn from passages like James 2 that faith devoid of works is not genuine faith. Conversely, there are good works that can counterfeit faith. Therefore, in order to maintain the gospel, we must not just content ourselves with behavioral change—personal or systemic. We should trust in God’s power to change individuals and that when individuals are changed and equipped with the whole counsel of God’s Word, their lives will bring about charity, justice, mercy, and righteousness.

In the same vein, God creates people in Christ who will do good works (Eph. 2:10). These good works include loving neighbor, ending injustice, feeding the poor, and making good policies. But lest we neuter the power of the gospel to change individuals, we cannot include doing justice as an essential part of the life-giving, sin-removing gospel. These things are fruits of the gospel, not the gospel itself—a point that brings us to our last.

5. Biblical justice is an entailment of the gospel

To say that justice—in all of its forms—is an entailment of the gospel means that justice is carried forward by men and women who have justified by grace through faith and who have been given grace to do good works.

It is correct to question the faith of someone, as Charles Octavius Boothe did, if their love of neighbor is missing or if ethnic hostility is present. Nevertheless, the ongoing sinfulness of a Christian or the inconsistency of a Christian church should not lead us to change the gospel in order to make it more powerful or more pervasive. Rather, we should simply evaluate all things by the Word of God.

And when it comes to racial justice, we should do all we can to stand against racism, biblically defined. But calls for racial justice should not confuse something that is biblically important with something that is absolutely essential to the gospel message. Something can be biblical and important, even if it is not part of the gospel message.

Making this distinction, which says that racial justice is not essential to the message of the gospel, but is an essential entailment of the gospel, is critical for maintaining the gospel and the health of the church. Truly, if we are going to enjoy and maintain the fellowship of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we must get this right. Because getting this right will go along way to aiding conversations about this matter.

And so, we should continue to build our arguments from the clear teaching of Scripture, in order that we can rightly discern the difference between the essentials of the gospel and essential entailments of the gospel. That may sound like a small difference, but in these contentions days that difference makes all the difference in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo Credit: Indianapolis Theological Seminary

Election and Evangelism: What God Has Joined Together Let Not Man Separate

brown rock formation on sea shore

On Sunday, our church considered one of many passages in John where the Beloved Disciple unites God’s sovereignty in salvation with the responsibility of man to repent and believe. With perfect, Spirit-inspired balance, John records the way God gave a particular people to the Son (i.e., the elect) and how these people will come to faith, as God calls all men and women to repent and believe. Indeed, what God has joined together—his sovereignty and man’s faith—cannot be torn apart without doing damage to the doctrine of election and the duty of evangelism.

For those familiar with the debates surrounding the doctrine of salvation, one of the longstanding charges against the doctrines of grace (Calvinism, if you prefer) is that the doctrine of election undermines evangelism and missions. Sadly, there have been some who have defended the doctrine of election without possessing an equal passion for the lost (i.e., Hyper-Calvinists, which means more than Calvinists with zeal). But biblically, election is one of the greatest motivations for evangelism.

This is evident in John’s Gospel and throughout the rest of the New Testament. And in what follows I want to highlight the connection between evangelism and election. In particular, I will show seven places, starting with John 6, where election is found in the same context as evangelism. Rather than hindering the gospel ministry, these passages teaches that the doctrine of election always spurs on missions and evangelism. Continue reading