Why Divine Sovereignty Secures Human Responsibility: A Theological Reading of Exodus

clayIt is often argued that God’s absolute sovereignty disables or demotivates human responsibility. But I contend it is just the opposite: a biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty secures and strengthens human responsibility. In fact, the more we see how God’s sovereign actions work in human history, the more reason we have to trust God and move out in faith.

Much confusion exists between fatalism and biblical predestination. In the former, the world is mechanistic and impersonal, God will do what he is going to do, end of story; in the latter, God in his love is at work to bring all things together for his glory and his people’s good. To be sure, God is going to do what he wants (see Psalm 115:3; 135:6), but this is good news, not bad.

When understood according to God’s Word, God’s meticulous and exhaustive sovereignty is not a reason for despair or distrust. Rather, as we will see from Exodus, God’s predestined and pre-communicated control of events is the very foundation needed to walk in humble obedience to God and his commands.

Promise and Fulfillment in Exodus Evidences the Sovereignty of God

All of Scripture follows the pattern of promise and fulfillment. Since the Fall, God has made one promise after another. He has bound these promises in covenants. And he has bound himself to fulfilling his covenanted word (see Hebrews 6:13–20). We see this is large ways, as the protoevangelion in Genesis 3:15 directs all of redemptive history until all the subsequent promises of redemptive history are fulfilled in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 1:20). And we see this in smaller ways, like God’s promise to Sarai that this time next year she will have a son (see Genesis 18). From Luke’s perspective, all that was ever promised by God has been fulfilled in Christ (Acts 13:32–33). Hence, human faithfulness is undergirded by God’s faithfulness, which is to say human responsibility stands upon the sure, sovereign word of God.

In Exodus, a book that introduces the way God brings salvation to his people,  we can see how God’s promises are fulfilled, and how his sovereignty is more than helpful for human responsibility—it is necessary. More than five times, we find in Exodus Moses making the connection that what God said he would do, he has done. And thus, his people are meant to find confidence in Yahweh because of this, which in turn leads to greater trust and obedience. Let me mention each promise-fulfillment in Exodus, draw a couple points of application along the way, and show why God’s absolute sovereignty is good news for our faithful obedience to him. Continue reading

Understanding the Spiritual Gifts: A Few Translation Notes on 1 Corinthians 12:1–11

focusFirst Corinthians 12:1–11 is a glorious passage but also intensely debated. As I prepared to preach this passage on Sunday, I found that it is more than the theology that is challenging in these verses; it is also the translation of the text.

What follows are a few notes on what Paul is saying in these verses that help hone in on who he is speaking to and what God is doing. As we will consider this passage again next week, I will try to put up a few more translation notes as we consider this challening passage.

1. The ‘Spiritual Ones’ (v. 1)

The ESV, NASB, NIV, NRSV) all translate πνευματικῶν as “spiritual gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12:1 and 14:1. Others (e.g., CSB), however, have recognized the ambiguity of Paul’s language. While 1 Corinthians 12–14 pertains to spiritual gifts (χάρισμα = 12:4, 9, 28, 30, 31), there is good reason for rendering πνευματικῶν as “spiritual things” or “spiritual persons.” Let’s see why. Continue reading

‘Power’ in Paul’s Letters: How Apostolic Miracles Magnify the Gospel Message

powerWhat does Paul think of power? How does he define it? When he speaks of “the working of miracles” (1 Corinthians 12:10), does he have modern charismatic signs in mind or something else? When Paul speaks of power, what is he talking about?

These are just a few questions we need to ask when we consider the word dunamis in Paul’s letters. And fortunatley, it is not too difficult to find what Paul thinks about this word, for he uses it often. However, if we come with preconceived ideas about “power evangelism” or “charismatic gifts” we might be less able to see what he originally meant. So lets consider what he says.

Power in Romans: The Gospel Defines Paul’s Understanding of Power

In Romans Paul begins with the gospel. Romans 1:1–7 defines Paul’s apostleship in terms of the gospel and Romans 1–-11 give us the fullest explanation of the gospel in Scripture. First, in Romans 1:4 Paul speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit to raise Christ from the dead, a reality that will shape Paul’s understanding of the gospel (and its effects) through all his letters. Then second, he defines the gospel as a matter of power in Romans 1:16–17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For Paul the gospel is the way in which God’s power brings salvation to sinners. The power of God raises the dead to life, beginning with Christ, and does the unthinkable: it declares the guilty “innocent” and the dead “alive.” Because righteousness and life are related in Paul’s thinking (see e.g., Romans 5:18–19), it is not surprising that justification requires the very power that raised Jesus from the dead. Continue reading

Augustine on the Trinity: Jesus Christ ‘In the Form of God’ and ‘In the Form of a Servant’

trinityYou heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.
— John 14:28 —

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
— Philippians 2:6–7 —

In his excellent treatise on the trinity, De TrinitateAugustine of Hippo masterfully explains the various ways in which Scripture speaks of Jesus—sometimes in the form of God, sometimes in the form of a servant. In the following quote, he reflects on the way in which John 14:28  and Philippians 2:6, at first glance, appear to make the Son look less than the Father—a doctrinal heresy known as subordinationism.

In his explanation, Augustine reminds us all that Scripture when speaking about the God-man Jesus Christ will of necessity sometimes speak of him as lesser than he is. This is not to deny his status as co-equal (of one essence) with the Father. It is to recognize the limitations of finite language, and to help disciples of Christ to worship God in all of his triune glory and grace.

I encourage you to read the following quotation slowly—it comes from Book 1, section 14 of De Trinitate. Ponder it. Look up the verses (in italicizes). Read it again. And marvel at the God who is three in one, the God who became man when the Son of God took on the form of a servant. Continue reading

Learning to See the Beauty of a Gospel-Centered Church

churchThis Sunday we start up a new cycle of membership classes at our church, what we call Discover OBC. And in our first part we look at the Gospel and the Church. I love teaching about these two subjects, because they are at the core of Christianity. The gospel is the message which brings hope to a sinful world; the church is the community created by that gospel and commissioned to protect and proclaim that gospel so that the whole world might hear of King Jesus.

I love the gospel and the church, and I can’t wait to teach about them Sunday. But it wasn’t always that way.

How Do You See the Church?

Admittedly, for me, I was slow to understand and appreciate the importance and beauty of the local church. In high school and college, I came to faith, began sharing the gospel, and learning how the Word of God impacted all of life. In this time, church was important, but only as an extension of my individual Christianity.

For me church was an a la carte affair. I was committed to worshiping on Sunday, but not to any particular church. As long as I heard the Bible somewhere, that was enough. I was committed to evangelism and discipleship, but I did not see them as necessarily connected to the local church. As long as the gospel was going forward, surely that was enough. Right? What did the local church matter?

Well, near the end of college I “sensed the need” to join a church. I didn’t have any biblical reasons for the desire; it was just something I felt. (N.B. I am glad for this decision, but I don’t think it is the way the Bible teaches us to make decisions). After five years of walking with Jesus, I moved across the country to join a Bible-teaching, elder-led local church. And “attach” is probably the right term, because I still conceived of the church as the place individuals attach themselves to one another, more than a covenant community created by Jesus and bound by his Spirit.

As I look back, I realize how much I conceived of the church and Christianity in radically individualistic ways. I had come to believe the gospel, but the operating system of my life was still the expressive individualism I inherited from my culture. Not surprisingly, this is how I approached church. Even after joining the church, I still approached church this way. It wasn’t until I began to study the Scriptures on the matter, that I began to see that the Bible was and is at odds with the individualistic Christianity that I first adopted.

Four Metaphors for the Church

Most helpful to me in understanding what the Bible says about church were the many metaphors Scripture gives to us about the church. For instance, 1 Timothy 3:15 says we are God’s household; 1 Corinthians 12 calls us the body of Christ; Ephesians 5 likens us to Christ’s bride; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19 describes us as God’s temple; Ephesians 2:19–22 says the same thing; and 1 Peter 2:5, 9 adds that each of us are living stones in that temple. I have written about these things before and will cover them in our new members class, but today I want to suggest four others word-pictures that might help you and I think about what church is and isn’t.

  • First, the church is a family home not a spiritual hotel. That is, the church is not an amenity-filled temporary residence; it is meant to be a long-term, family-filled gathering place where we do life together. While our culture teaches us to be consumers, a church based on God’s Word teaches us to be brothers and sisters.
  • Second, the church is a military outpost, not an earthly resort. While there is a place for retreat and rest, the church is a royal embassy engaged in spiritual warfare. Therefore, we come to church not just to escape, but to be equipped and to work together to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to a hostile world.
  • Third, the church is a heavenly practice, not an earthly pit-stop. On a long journey, rest is needed. But if we treat church as merely the rest on our journey, we miss that church is actually the goal, not the pit stop we take on the way to something else. More accurately, gathering to worship and fellowship is the way we practice our everlasting life. It is not given to merely assist us in earthly labors; it is meant to subvert earthly labors as it teaches us to store up treasures in heaven. In this vein, God may be calling you to use your gifts to build up the body of Christ, imperfect as it is, rather than using your GPS to find the service that best meets all our needs. But to embrace that we must remember the church is not yet perfect.
  • Fourth, the local church is a temporary shadow, not the full and final substance. How often do we complain (if only in our hearts) that church is not like we want it? In truth, this is how it will always be. Until all of God’s people, from all ages and all places, are gathered around the throne room, we will experience the thorns and thistles of this age—even in the church. Therefore, it may help to remember that our local assemblies are but grace-filled shadows of God’s ultimate goal—a new creation filled with resurrected saints.

Indeed, these kinds of word-pictures have helped me think more clearly about the biblical picture of the church. Based on the metaphors of Scripture, they have enlarged my heart for the church—in all of its grace and grit. A gospel-centered church is truly a beautiful creation. I pray these images will help you see its beauty and mission as well.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Evidence of Design: Lexical and Thematic Unity in Genesis 3–4

chiasm_textGod’s Word is inspired by God, but it is also written by men. And in many cases, these men show incredible literary skill in penning God’s Word. One thinks of Psalm 119’s acrostic praise of God’s Word or Jonah’s detailed use of chiastic structures as examples of authors employing literary devices to shape and structure their God-given, God-inspired words.

The same is true in Genesis 3–4. In a section that is often whisk-away as myth or relativized as poetry, we find that the historical details of Cain and Abel are written with incredible attention to literary style (i.e., history in poetic form). The number of words, the narrative parallels between the first family (ch. 4) and the first sin (ch. 3), and the repetition of expression are just a few ways Moses employs poetics structures to stress the main points of this historical narrative.

In a day when bold and italics were not available and space was limited, these structures evidence the main point of his writing. Moreover, they capture the way in which human authorship is “fully human” (i.e., marked by conventions of human speech). Divine inspiration does not cancel out man’s humanity in his writing. Rather, it improves his acuity, frees his will, and empowers his words. This is what Peter means when he says “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

Genesis 3–4 as a Test Case

Considering this, we look at Genesis 3–4 as an example of this literary design, where Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote with incredible attention to detail—hence allowing us to interpret with great detail. What follows are some of the observations Gordon Wenham has made to show the lexical and structural detail of Genesis 3–4. Continue reading

Why I Teach at Indianapolis Theological Seminary

its
 This blog originally appeared on the ITS Blog, “Life is Short and Eternity is Worth It.”

 “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel,
not where Christ has already been named,
lest I build on someone else’s foundation.”
— Romans 15:20 —

I teach theology because I love our triune God, I love the gospel, I love the Word of God, and I love helping others rightly understand how doctrine centers on Christ and impacts every area of life. More recently, I’ve been thinking about why I teach theology at Indianapolis Theological Seminary—a school that has over the last three years developed from a dream into a reality.

For the last four years, I have taught adjunctly at various Bible colleges and seminaries, but ITS has received the bulk of my attention. And though my home is now in Virginia, and my pastoral labors are 100% committed to Occoquan Bible Church, here are the four reasons why I teach and serve on the board at Indianapolis Theological Seminary.

May God be pleased to establish this school as he sees fit for the glory of his name and the strengthening of his church, in Indianapolis and beyond.

Continue reading

Eternal Security and Common Grace: Two Doctrinal Lessons from Acts 27

boatWhen Paul was taken to Rome, Luke describes the harrowing sea journey to Italy in Acts 27. Embarking on a ship from Adramyttium, a seaport in Asia Minor (v. 2), Paul crossed the Mediterranean. From Myra (v. 5), Paul and his guard found passage on a ship of 276 men, complete with many other soldiers (v. 31) and prisoners (v. 42). While Paul doubted the safety of the journey, based on the time of year (vv. 9–10), the centurion and the majority of the crew decided to head out (vv. 11–12).

This perilous journey sets up the dramatic events at sea, the near drowning of the passengers, and the eventual sinking of the ship. Verse 13 begins with gentle breezes as the ship sets sail, but all turns stormy in verses 14. Verses 14–20 recount the evasive actions taken by the crew (e.g., turning the ship out of the wind, lowering the gear, jettisoning cargo), and verses 21–26 introduces Paul’s “I told you so” coupled with gracious promise from the Lord.

21 Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. 22 Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, 24 and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ 25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. 26 But we must run aground on some island.”

In these words, we find two doctrinal lessons—the first, an illustration of eternal security as Paul later tells the passengers they must remain on the boat to receive “salvation.” In Acts 27, salvation (defined as the preservation of life) is secured by means. Thus, it serves as handy illustration of how God provides eternal security through God-provided means. Or as Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday explain in their book The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance, “Acts 27 illustrates well the fact that exhortations and warnings are a signficant means by which God moves humans to act so that his promises to them will be fulfilled” (212). This is the first illustration, well covered Schreiner and Caneday (pp. 209–212).

The second doctrinal lesson pertains to God’s common grace and the variety of ways grace is conveyed to unbelievers through the lives of Christians. I will consider this below. Continue reading

The Covenantal Cast of the Biblical Canon

otThe covenantal character of Scripture challenges the idea of the Bible as a textbook. ‘For the Christian conception of God the Bible is our only textbook. In its pages we have the self-revelation of God.’ Without doubt, the Bible teaches us about God. It has a key didactic function: if we are to respond to God in the area of truth, we need to be instructed in the truth. But we also need to do justice to its covenantal nature, its function of finding us and holding us for God through its promises. The promissory nature of Scripture means that it gives us information about the plans and purposes of God. The Bible is God’s many-sided provision for his covenant people.[1]
– Peter Jensen –

In his book The Structure of Biblical Authority, Meredith G. Kline makes the case a canon is not a product of the church, but the product of God’s people in an ancient Near Eastern context. In other words, the biblical canon (i.e., what books are included as authorized Scripture) did not come after the Apostles, or for that matter, after the Old Testament Prophets. Rather, from the beginning, the canon has been a “closed” covenant document between God and his people.

In the first chapter of The Structure of Biblical Authority, Kline shows how ANE covenants had “canons.”

To sum up thus far, canonical document [sic] was the customary instrument of international covenant administration in the world in which the Bible was produced. . . . While it has been acknowledged [by critical scholars] that the Israelites at a relatively early time recognized certain written laws as divine revelation, the meaning of this for the history of the canon concept in Israel has been obfuscated. (37, 39)

He argues that a better understanding of “covenant” will correct our doctrine of canon:

The origin of the Old Testament canon coincided with the founding of the kingdom of Israel by covenant at Sinai. The very treaty that formally established the Israelite theocracy was itself the beginning and the nucleus of the total covenantal cluster of writings which constitutes the Old Testament canon. (43)

From this covenantal origin, the canon grew as the covenants of God with his people developed over time.

“Our conclusion in a word, then, is that canon is inherent in covenant, covenant of the kind attested in ancient international relations and the Mosaic covenants of the Bible. Hence it is to this covenant structure that theology should turn for its perspective and model in order to articulate its doctrine of canon in terms historically concrete and authentic” (43–44).

According to Kline, God’s people have always had a canon to document their covenant with God. In truth, this canon was not codified until Sinai, when Moses wrote down God’s Words (after God himself etched his law in stone). But from the beginning, God’s people had a clear and sufficient word that established his covenant rule. From this beginning, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the Bible is and has always been cast in the mold of covenant. Continue reading

An Ecclesiology of Churches: Why the Universal Church Is Best Regarded as a Myriad of Local Churches

 

lights To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus,
called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
– 1 Corinthians 1:2 –

When someone says, “I’m a part of the universal church,” what do they mean? Do they mean they are a Christian and by implication they must be a member of the world-wide communion of saints? In our day of individual expression and come-as-you-are spirituality, I think this is what many mean. But it’s not just those who try to do Christianity on their own that may feel a pull towards the universal church sans the local church. There are plenty of well-read, Bible students who have also found fellowship and community outside a local assembly.

But if that is so, where do universal church-ers, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Leeman, celebrate communion? Under whose authority are they? And does such spiritual oversight need to come from a church? Is there any connection between the church they attend on Sunday and the elect of God from all nations? If not, why go to a local church at all? But if there is a relationship between the local church and universal church, what is it?

How Do I Get to the Universal Church?

I ask these questions because I suspect many Christians have not given lengthy thought to the relationship between the church or churches they attend on any given Sunday (i.e., a local church) and the elect of God who will one day gather around the throne of Christ (i.e., the universal church). After all, when was the last time you heard a sermon on the differences and distinctives of the local and universal church? Continue reading