I’m an Overcomer

Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:5)

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I BELIEVE EACH OF US, regardless of our temperament, personality type, coping skills (or lack thereof), cultural background, upbringing, worldview, race, or nationality, come to a specific point in our lives when we decide everything is going to change. We’re done lying—covering up our hidden agenda, weaknesses, failures, bad habits, addictions, mistreatment of those we claim to love, or, maybe for some reading this, our criminal actions, aggression, hatred, manipulation, projecting blame, escaping consequences, and dwelling on our sin-ridden past. No one truly likes admitting complete defeat. But we cannot hold on to a false reality about who we are because of the terrible things we’ve done—we can’t say, “It is too horrible and painful to face.” This is not an option if we truly want to get unstuck.

Many of us decide on more than one occasion that this is the moment we are willing to admit every hidden crutch, falsehood, regression, fall from grace, relapse, slip, or harmful action. An addictions counselor told me years ago why we lie. It’s simple, really: To hide the truth about some feeling we’re having or something we’ve done. I faced a judge several years ago after yet another relapse that ended in criminal behavior and made the following statement: The definition of character is how we behave when we think no one is watching. I could tell by the look on the judge’s face that he was impressed. Unfortunately, I likely said this to avoid jail time and receive probation. I don’t mean this is not a truism for me, or something I don’t want to live by; it was not necessarily true when I said it in court. Not surprisingly, there was yet another relapse and a court appearance down the road.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with whether I ever meant anything I’ve said to family, my two ex-wives, friends, employers, judges, even God. How many times did I say what needed to be presented on the surface without meaning it inside my heart? Were there times when I said it and meant it at the time, only to slip months or years later? Probably, but those times were fewer than I care to admit. Of course, failing to confess this internal struggle and the masquerade I was putting on only served to put an ace wrap on my sprained soul. I continued to believe in something just because I said it out loud without looking within to see if it were true.

I just came off of a horrible weekend this Sunday. It started with extreme physical pain, which is pretty much chronic for me anymore. Severe low back pain due to a collapsed disc, bad neck pain and stiffness (same reason, unfortunately), headaches, severe arthritic pain in my right wrist and thumb, and unrelenting fibromyalgia. No, I am not looking for sympathy. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain every day. Nor am I trying to blame my bad choices on pain. I need to stay away from opiates, but it’s not easy. I get incredibly discouraged. My underlying mental illness (Bipolar Disorder, in remission; Depression, Anxiety) has caused added problems. This is what treatment professionals refer to as “double-trouble.” Co-occuring addiction and mental illness, coupled with chronic pain, makes it more likely I will decide to relapse and get high, especially on a narcotic painkiller.

Whenever I have a bad weekend like this one, I also tend to sink into a sad, self-pitying state of mind. If I stew in my “crap” long enough, I start yelling at God. I’ve been known to say to God, “Either cure me or kill me!” Interestingly, I don’t really want to die. I want to live. But here’s the rub: I want to live under my terms, which is happy, peppy, pain-free, a wive I am truly bonded to, plenty of friends, complete acceptance, total forgiveness, and a great job. Oh, and a car, which I have not been able to afford for over a year. I don’t want to feel stressed, unhappy, unloved, lonely, or “damaged.” I want the past to be gone from my memory. On really bad days, I want my past to completely disappear. I want social media and background checks to reveal nothing sordid from my past. I have wondered how to go about getting a new birth certificate, social security number, and a passport, and just go somewhere new and start completely over. (Thankfully, it’s been a number of years since I contemplated that nonsense!) Besides, there are no mulligans in life are there?

How Do We Overcome?

I finally watched the Christian film Overcomer. I don’t think I’ve cried as much during any movie I’ve watched. I have a number of favorite faith-based movies, including the God’s Not Dead trilogy, Breakthrough, Courageous, Fireproof, 90 Minutes in Heaven, War Room, and The Passion of the Christ. Each of these movies have meant a great deal to me. I usually end up watching a film just at the right moment in my life, and invariably take something away I can use. I always end up feeling guilty for how I’ve been living my life. I feel “damaged,” or “less than.” Not until Overcomer did a film hit on this very nerve and set in motion a complete acceptance of who I was, how I unfortunately behave at times, and who I am in God’s eyes. In a nutshell, this movie told my story, only with different names and circumstances.

Several characters in the film were struggling to varying depths with their walk with God and their individual commitment. When a blind man in a hospital bed asked the main character visiting patients, “Who are you John?” John answered, “I’m a basketball coach.” The bedridden patient asked who John would be if his basketball team was taken from him. He said he was a history teacher, a sort-of cross-country coach (you have to see the movie to get that reference), a husband, etc. The man then asked John, “No, John, I mean who are you? Who would you be if all that was stripped away?” John said, “Well, I am a Christian.” This intrigued the man in the bed. He said, “If you’re a Christian, John, why was that the last thing you listed?” He told John, “You are whoever you put at the top of your list.” John asked if the man was saying John was a bad Christian. Of course, that was for John to answer for himself. Thankfully, he was able to address the question and began to put God first.

No one likes to hear this, but we simply cannot “overcome” under our own power. Most people take offense at this. I did! But no matter what we’re doing and not doing according to our Christian walk, we’re not able to handle everything that comes along. We cannot overcome our sin nature. Addicts and alcoholics cannot stop using on their own. Sexual predators often re-offend years later. Christian men and women have fallen into the sinful practice of watching pornography. Jimmy Swaggart got caught having sex with prostitutes. Many people, including Christians, gossip incessantly. Many judge others. For me, this was a way to take the focus off my glaring defects of character and my habitual sin. It is simply not possible to stop sinning just because we believe in “a god,” or the God of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus Christ . We can become “saved” and see Christ as our Messiah, but fail to make Him LORD of our lives. We can go to church every week yet continue sinning. This is what the Bible considers “practicing” sin. The initial step to overcoming is to honestly and willingly admitting to Christ that we are broken. If we don’t, there is virtually no chance of defeating the bondage over us. How can we ask for help if we cannot admit there is something broken and in need of fixing?

The Battle Begins in Our Mind

Paul wrote, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, NRSV). The Greek word commonly translated “overcome” in Scripture carries no surprising meaning. It simply means “to win a victory,” or “to stand victorious over an enemy.” To overcome in the biblical sense means to live in the victory that Jesus Christ purchased for us through His atoning death. It means victory over our old nature and winning under our new nature. We cannot make the mistake that “salvation” means “overcoming.” It does not. Salvation does involve being set free, but salvation is the vehicle for our deliverance; the means through which we can become victorious; the power needed to defeat the enemy. The word most frequently used for “salvation” in the New Testament is Greek, sôtêria, meaning “deliverance.”

Overcoming, by definition, involves warfare. The battlefield for this warfare is, as Joyce Meyer notes, our mind. In her seminal book Battlefield of the Mind, Meyer explains the importance of thought. She writes, “The mind is the leader or forerunner of all actions. Romans 8:5 makes it clear: For those who are according to the flesh and are controlled by its unholy desires set their minds on and pursue those things which gratify the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit and are controlled by the desires of the Spirit set their minds on and seek those things which gratify the Holy Spirit.”[1] 

Our actions are a direct result of our thoughts. How important is this tenet? Consider the following axiom:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Paul smartly describes this battle we face: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Satan begins each attack by bombarding our minds with a twisted false reality—nagging thoughts, suspicions, doubts, fears, and character assassination. This attack starts as a trickle. Satan knows us better than we’d like, and he knows where the chinks are in our armor. As this attack enters into overdrive, the devil causes “strongholds.” Second Corinthians 10:3-5 says, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Matthew Henry writes, “The work of the ministry is a spiritual warfare with spiritual enemies, and for spiritual purposes. Outward force is not the method of the gospel, but strong persuasions, by the power of truth and the meekness of wisdom.”[2] Some may argue that this passage specifically refers to the mission of effectively spreading the gospel. Consider, however, that as believers our theology must be a living one. Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” Believers learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully in the drama of redemption. Intellectual apprehension of the gospel alone, without the appropriation of heart and hand—what we believe in our heart and what we do as a result of that belief—leads only to hypocrisy. This is what is meant by needing to get God out of our heads and into our hearts. Otherwise, our theological studies amount to nothing more than accumulation of “data.”

Truly, our theology must quicken the conscience and soften the heart, or it will surely harden them as we learn only a fraction of the truth or, worse, learn what we need in order to find loopholes and manipulate the gospel. (Read my post Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?) In subtle ways, we begin to confuse ourselves with God. We think our words, our understanding, our convictions, our conclusions, perfectly reflect the Word of God. This can eventually lead to a trip down the rabbit hole of self-will run riot. If we are compromising our Christian walk, and dare take a close, honest inventory, we just might see signs of a corrupted theology, marked with fits of anger, prideful debate, jealousy, division, and strife. Our witness becomes far less than what it must be in order for us to display Jesus. This is bad for us, for those we confuse or push away, and bad for Jesus. It develops subtly into hypocrisy. Genuine theology, inversely, contains marks of grace, humility, truth, gentleness, unity, peace, patience, and love (see Gal. 5:22-26). This comes only from putting Christ before us. Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less often.

No matter the depth and quality of our walk with Christ, we have moments where we fall short. One minute we’re walking in the Spirit, basking in joy and peace, and the next we’re ambushed by some inner thought, a difficult situation, or the hurtful remarks of someone in our lives. Paul clearly expressed this critical difficulty. He said, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).

It is very important to catch these moments of negative ruminations as quickly as possible. If we fail at this, we miss the opportunity to recognize what should only be a fleeting thought, not the establishing of a stronghold. I learned a term in my undergraduate course in psychology that I try to use regularly. It is called metacognition: thinking about what we’re thinking about! Because the prime battlefield is in our mind, this concept dovetails with being vigilant. First Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” We are waged in a war with our enemy, Satan, who is a liar and the father of them. He works subtly at first, then ramps up his attack. If we fail to “kick him out of our mind,” he will establish powerful strongholds. He is in no hurry. He’ll hang around, chipping away bit by bit, until he has convinced us of our “hopeless” situation. Worse, he may eventually get us to doubt our salvation.

Our “defense,” similar to football, soccer, or basketball, must be to see the “ball coming,” then reach out and swat it done before it lands in our mind. We cannot let the devil score. The Bible provides many weapons for our defense. Most importantly is hiding the Word of God in our hearts so that we might not sin. This is not memorizing Scriptures for the sake of “knowing them.” That is not a proper strategy for defense. It refers to knowing in our hearts what the Bible says about who we are in Christ, and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. The very next defense is to properly “suit up.” We need to put on the whole armor of God (see Ephesians 6:11-18). Many believers have heard this verse a thousand times. Few know what the “entire” armor entails. Worse, many Christians think we put it on to do battle—during each skirmish with Satan—then take it off. Funny how the imagination works; we consider “armor” to be heavy or restricting, so we take it off. We must “wear” this armor during our time in this world.

Praise and prayer are also effective for battle. Praise defeats Satan fairly quickly, and it tends to brighten our outlook and mood. Whenever we choose praise, which helps create in us a sense of gratitude no matter the situation, it’s as though we took off dirty, scratched, dark glasses and put on a clear pair. Prayer, of course, is the primary means of talking to God. We need to acknowledge our predicament (vigilance) and ask God to grant us courage, discernment, and wisdom. Further, if we practice continuous and diligent prayer, we spend time daily in the Father’s presence building a relationship; we find ourselves thanking Jesus for the horrific death he experienced as our proxy, and we start regularly tapping into the power in the Name of Jesus.

Let me close with this key Scripture from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).

I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on overcoming troubles and temptations in the Christian faith.  Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Henry, M., Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), p. 1129.

[2] Meyer, J., Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind (Fenton, MO: Time Warner, 1995), p. 11.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: “Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect.”

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Calling upon your reading (particularly Grudem and Elwell) and utilizing good exegetical practice, provide your interpretation of Matthew 5:48. Here are your guiding questions: How do you understand “being perfect” in terms of the Christian life? How does sanctification contribute to perfection, per your understanding of both ideas?

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

The meaning of “be perfect” is a critical concept for the Christian church, causing many believers to stumble, worried they will never be perfect to any degree, let alone as the Father is perfect. Wayne Grudem identifies the “perfection” of God as one of His communicable attributes. He writes, “Some passages say that God is “perfect” or “complete.”[1] Jesus explicitly tells us we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Grudem explains that we imitate God’s blessedness when we find delight and happiness in all that is pleasing to God—indeed, when we seek to show His blessedness, love, and grace.

The Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) is like the Hebrew word tāmîm—the latter of which refers to “soundness” regarding sacrificial animals or uprightness and a thorough commitment to the LORD. The Greek word can be interpreted as “mature” or “full-grown.” Paul puts it this way: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (NRSV). He relates the same concept in Ephesians 4:13, wherein he states, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Paul uses the Greek word teleios in each instance cited above.

Nowhere in Scripture are we told to be “perfect” for the sake of perfection itself. Some variations on the term include “blameless,” but I think this is a matter of proper orientation of the heart regarding being like Christ. The writer of Hebrews said the believers should have been teaching and discipling others, yet many were still in need of someone to teach them the first principles—they were still on “milk” when they should have been digesting the “meat” of the gospel. Further, milk is for children, whereas meat is for adults (see Hebrews 5:12-14). Jesus was speaking to a crowd of believers and His disciples in Matthew 5. He spoke of the importance of meekness, peacemaking, mercy, being humble (poor in spirit), self-denying. Part of His sermon included a rundown of the Law, indicating He had not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. He also addressed the importance of forgiveness. Further to the topic at hand, Jesus was saying the Law is not about strict adherence (letter-only); rather, it is about working toward fulfilling the law of love, which is an internal orientation. The perfection He spoke of was about growing in grace to the point where love was the prevailing drive of one’s behavior.

The very example of the Father’s love is shown in Matthew 5:45: “[S]o that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  God is no respecter of persons. The LORD wanted His disciples to understand that they (indeed, all of us) are to show this “perfect” love the Father shows all of creation. We can only accomplish this by becoming “holy and mature” sons of the Father—sharers of His Spirit and partakers in His impartial and perfect love for all. This is the key to learning how we can love even those who persecute us.

Matthew Henry says, “It is the duty of Christians to desire, and aim at, and press towards perfection in grace and holiness.”[2] We can only hope to achieve this degree of “perfection” by studying the heart (the character) of our Heavenly Father and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to perform the will of the Father. To interpret Matthew 5:48 as a literal yardstick of perfection is to miss the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Peter clearly explains this: “[B]ut as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). When we accept Jesus Christ as our LORD and Savior, we start down the path of salvation that includes election, redemption, and sanctification. Of course, sanctification involves growing in likeness to Christ. We have been justified, which is essentially a legal standing before the Father.

It is through our cooperation that we grow more like our LORD each day. This is sanctification, which is specific to our internal condition. As we grow (from milk to meat), we walk more consistently as Christ walked. We develop the spiritual “muscles” we need to resist temptation on a consistent basis (we stop “practicing” sin); we experience an “enlargement” of our hearts, allowing more room for empathy, love, compassion. We begin to show others the character of the Father and the unconditional love of the Son. This is something we will not be “perfect” at while still bound to our earthly bodies. Through sanctification, we tend to increase our ability to be perfect in Christ as we seek to follow His example with each passing day.

I received a strong response from one classmate who did not agree with my concept of what “perfection” means in Matthew 5:48, or throughout Scripture for that matter.

He wrote the following: 

In response to your statement that “nowhere in Scripture are we told to be ‘perfect’ (Steven Barto 2020), I disagree. My disagreement is based on the fact that we are clearly exhorted to perfection in Matthew (5:48) in every version of the Bible that is accepted by Colorado Christian University for use in our courses. For example, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ESV). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NIV). “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NASB). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NRSV). “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (NLT). Thus, the fact that we have been told to be ‘perfect’ in Scripture could not be clearer. I do, however, sincerely appreciate the roundabout way you circumnavigated such an absolute statement when having relatively discussed the likeness of a Greek and Hebrew term referring to ‘soundness’ wherefore the perfecting maturation process results in measuring up to the fullness of Christ (Barto 2020) among other interesting yet avoidant equivocations.

Because I do not want to accidentally appear to be cutting down anything you have said, which I believe are all worthy of undivided consideration, I must return to the original point concerning the command ‘to be perfect’ regardless of how it is sliced. It is what it is whether we like it or not. Although we can strive to be perfect in everything we do, at least whatever perfection there might be rests in the effort and thought that ultimately seems to count. For example, certain individuals may expect us to wrap Christmas presents perfectly but no matter how hard some of us might try, there are obvious flaws for which we will pay dearly. Now, I am not suggesting that we all go to hell for having missed the mark, but only an unreasonable person would fail to appreciate our best effort to have wrapped a present, perfectly.

I responded with the following commentary:

Please be assured I did not mean the command to be perfect is not in the Bible. That would be a ludicrous claim to say the least. I may have used an ambiguous statement. I meant the Bible does not instruct us to actually be perfect in the same way Christ or the Father are perfect. I am still anchoring my opinion on the Greek or Hebrew word. How can we ignore original meaning? Context? Historical ramifications in the church at the time the phrase (indeed, the word “perfect”) was used? Exegesis demands a careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text (or a specific word or phrase). This is the proper means by which we can ascertain the sense of the text, grappling with the reasons for or against understanding it. Of course, exegetes must learn to love asking questions, so ours is actually a positive discourse on the matter of perfection.

Hopefully, exegesis leads to understanding the world of or within the word or text and the world behind the same. Some exegetes try to understand the world in front of the text: the world or concept the text “creates.” That sounds a bit like a slippery slope to me. Of course, I don’t merely want to understand the historical or literary meaning, but I want to engage it spiritually and experientially. The understanding of these critical words, phrases, or texts often have a deep impact on our lives as Christians. I agree, by the way, that allegorical reading of a portion of Scripture can yield meanings that are at times labled “spiritual or figurative” rather than literal. This, too, can be tricky. We don’t want to limit our study to our own (individual) interpretation. This is quite possibly the root-cause of “relativism.” This is precisely why systematic theological study among the community of believers is critical to maintaining consistent, solid doctrine. Accordingly, I truly enjoy these types of discussions.

I must conclude with a word about “translations.” We are at a distinct disadvantage in that there are at least 50 versions of the Holy Bible, and over 150,000 variations in manuscripts. I wholly support the canon of 66 books. I do, however, believe some versions are based on “fewer” and less accurate original manuscripts. For example, The King James Version is considered unacceptable for exegetical study, as is the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, and the Authorized Version. These versions worked with fewer (and less reliable) biblical manuscripts. Many older (and better) manuscripts have been discovered post-1611. Some of the best versions for exegetical study include the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, and the New American Standard Bible. As you know, CCU approves the NRSV and NIV. Translations like The Message are not good for exegetical study as these are personal conceptual paraphrases of Scripture. I use The Message for devotional reading only. I have a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, which are considered to be “excellent” for in-depth exegetical work.

I completely agree with your analogy regarding a perfectly wrapped Christmas gift. Indeed, I think this is what I have been trying to express: That we must strive to do everything perfect—as perfectly as we can—because our Father who is in heaven is perfect. Also, it is only through the key steps of salvation (election, regeneration, and conversion) that we are able to at least begin our march toward perfection. Paul said we won’t get it perfect. Frankly, “perfection” for the sake of perfection itself is not required, and thankfully so. That would truly reduce obtaining salvation to performing “perfectly good works.” Christ came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. He told us how to approach the great command from God, which is two-tiered. We are to love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I think we are probably on the same page on this issue. My concern over how the church today understands and (more importantly) experiences the concept of “perfection” is critical to holding on to believers (especially our youth as they enter the world of secular academia with all the competing ideas of “absolute truth,” “morality,” and relativism); further, it is crucial for how we interact with the fallen world who sees themselves as “okay” and not “perfect,” and who think Christians are locked in an ancient world of pleasing “some invisible god” in the heavens. I also think part of my approach to this idea of perfection is rooted in social upbringing, mental illness (now in remission), loss of friends to suicide who just couldn’t “get it perfect,” and the pressures I put on myself in recovery to get it right the first time and never, ever mess up again. That was not my recovery experience. It took decades.

***

I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on “perfection” in the Christian faith.  Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 218.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 866.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Personhood of the Holy Spirit

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Grounding your articulation on Grudem’s multiple chapters on the Holy Spirit, but adding scriptural support, as well as information from other sources (e.g., McGrath, Elwell), make a strong case for the personhood of God the Holy Spirit. By “personhood,” it is meant defining the Spirit as more than just a force, ghost, cloud, or some other type of substance; define Him as a person.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

As Grudem demonstrates by the three assigned chapters, there is much to consider relative to the personhood and the functions of the Holy Spirit. Further, Grudem does a fine job of revealing the many areas where denominations and believers tend to disagree. This is especially true regarding cessation of prophesy and other charismatic gifts or “signs.” I have become friends with an online lay minister from New Jersey who holds firm to the cessation school of thought. This came up during a recent conversation with him regarding speaking in tongues. What a great springboard for exploring the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

Grudem explicitly states, “The work of the Holy Spirit is to manifest the active presence of God in the world, and especially in the church.” [1] Turning to the doctrine of God in three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), we understand that each is fully God and that there is only one God. Grudem refers to the Godhead as “an indication of the plurality of persons in God himself.” [2] Scripture provides numerous examples of God as three persons in one. John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). The Spirit of God was present at the time of Creation (Gen. 1:1). The Father and the Son are God, as the Holy Spirit is also God. No one is subordinate to the other, nor did one come “out of” the other.

Grudem notes that the Holy Spirit is essentially the primary manifestation of the Trinity under the New Covenant. It’s worth mentioning that much of the work of the Holy Spirit is akin to the earthly ministry of Christ, and of the various offices within the church under the OT and the NT. The Holy Spirit is unique in that He gives power to the church, but He also ministers to the body through discernment, interpretation, imparting of wisdom, conviction, direction, and unification—calling the church together for fellowship. However, it is perhaps because of these “leadings” that many see the Holy Spirit as a force or enigma. Looking closely, we see several indicators of His personhood. He has the characteristics of a person; He acts like a person; He is treated as a person throughout church history; and, He is the third person of the Godhead. A mere “spirit” does not have a personality, yet we clearly see the Holy Spirit does possess a personality.

Regarding the Holy Spirit as a person, we can confidently trust the accuracy of Scripture. Paul said the Holy Spirit has the capacity to think (1 Cor. 2:10). Romans 8:11 identifies the Holy Spirit as “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead.” According to the transliteration of this verse, the word “he” is expounded upon as meaning “the Spirit of the one having raised from the dead Christ Jesus.” [3] G.A. Cole notes that the personhood of the Holy Spirit is grounded in canonical Scriptures and expounded upon in early creeds. He admits that words can be tricky. For example, the Hebrew word rûah can be translated as “spirit” or “Spirit.” However, Cole says the ancient Hebrew language did not use capital letters as we’re used to seeing in English. [4]

In Psalm 51, David utilizes self-examination regarding the depths of his guilt, and discusses inward renewal in verses 10 through 13. This is arguably not referring to “self” renewal. In verse 10, he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (NRSV). Kidner indicates the words heart and spirit refer to the impact of the “springs of life” (Pro. 4:23). [5] David is referring to his own spirit being renewed by the Spirit of God. Importantly, Romans 8:26-27 says the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness; because we often do not know how to pray (or what to pray for), the Holy Spirit prays for us. As Cole notes, only individuals can pray—disembodied enigmas cannot. Isaiah said it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Isa. 63:10). The Spirit of God spoke to the disciples at various times (Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:2). The Holy Spirit feels love (Rom. 15:3) and can impart grace (Heb. 10:29). Peter noted in Acts 5:3 that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit. You cannot lie to a disembodied enigma, but you can lie to a person. Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of disobeying the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)—impersonal entities cannot issue commands.

First Corinthians 12:1-11 tells us that spiritual gifts are endowed by the Holy Spirit, and that He acts in accordance with His will (12:11). He is the searcher of men’s hearts and minds; He is the power behind creation and regeneration. His works indicate possessing intelligence, will, knowledge, self-determination, and the general aspects of personhood. Amazingly, Paul said the Holy Spirit searches all things, even the mind of God (1 Cor. 2:10). This certainly points to the quality of omniscience. Athanasius of Alexandria speaks quite succinctly that one cannot separate the Son from the Father, or the Spirit from either the Son or the Father. [6] Further, he suggests that if two persons of the Godhead are persons, then the Holy Spirit cannot be a non-person. This would be completely alien and incompatible to the rest of the Godhead. Athanasius adds, “That which is from God could not be from something that does not exist.” [7]

I also think the idea that the Holy Spirit is a person aids in addressing the arguments of cessation theorists who believe spiritual gifts, the offices of prophet and apostle, and miracles (especially, but not limited to, healing, resurrection of the dead, and manipulation of the empirical world to further the will of God) are no longer in operation. Given the doctrinal position that God works through the Holy Spirit, it is not theologically or logically possible for the Holy Spirit to cease operating in the world and in the community of believers. Given that He is an equal part of the Godhead with the Father and the Son, who are eternal and cannot change, then neither can the Holy Spirit change. On a very simple but profound tenet, if the Father and the Son are persons, than so too must the Holy Spirit be a person. Accordingly, I strongly believe in the personhood of the Holy Spirit.

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I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 634.

[2] Grudem, 227.

[3] Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 626.

[4] G.A. Cole, “Holy Spirit,” contained in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 395.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: Kidner Classical Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 210.

[6] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On The Holy Spirit and the Trinity,” contained in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed., edited by Alister E. McGrath (Chichester, West Essex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 166.

[7] 166.

More on Scientism

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Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

Dan Egeler writes in the Forward to J.P. Moreland’s book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, “As the ideas that constitute scientism have become more pervasive in our culture, the Western world has turned increasingly secular and the centers of culture (the universities, the media and entertainment industry, the Supreme Court) have come increasingly to regard religion as a private superstition. It is no surprise, then, that when our children go to college, more and more of them are just giving up on Christianity.” It is no secret that much of the scientific community believes it is at odds with religion. In fact, scientists see themselves as the voice of reason. It is their intention—for the most part—to stem the tide of all this “irrational belief” in a divine creator or eternal being.

It can be argued that we might have been fooled into this pointless yin/yang fight between science (the physical) and metaphysical (the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter). How can someone believe in God and science at the same time? Science sees itself as the “great revealer” of reality, down to the very mathematical calculations about matter and energy. Belief in God is considered to be “old fashioned” or “backward,” if not outright elitist. Consider the words of Physics Nobel Prize winner Stephen Weinberg:

The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilization” [1] (italics mine).

If science and God do not mix, why were over 60% of Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2000 Christians? The history of modern science has many great Christian pioneers—Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday. Ben Shapiro wrote, “Jerusalem and Athens built science. The twin ideals of Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law reasoning built human rights. They built prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty. Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose.” [2] Shapiro warns that atomistic individualism has a tendency to drift toward the self-justifying oppression of others. To me, atomistic means individualistic; society is comprised of a collection of self-interested and seemingly self-sufficient individuals swirling around one another like atoms. Christianity teaches us about society, neighborliness, love, mutual respect, fellowship, charity. It tells us no one is an island.

Science or Philosophy?

If I told you that the hard sciences alone have all intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality, and that everything else—especially theology, philosophy and ethics—is based upon private notions, blind faith, or culture, what would you say? More importantly, would you think such a conclusion is “scientific?” Better yet, is it a “provable” conclusion? This is the basic tenet of scientism. It is not science, but a worldview. Specifically, it’s a theory of epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies what knowledge is and how we obtain it). Not only does scientism not provide a “scientific view,” it is actually a school of philosophy. Scientism is so pervasive today that it distorts reality and pollutes the field of science.

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This worldview believes religions cannot be proven intellectually. They come from within the individual (a private belief) and are typically handed down from our parents as part of our culture. I have no problem with the second part of that statement. Indeed, many beliefs are passed down through generations. This does not mean those beliefs are untrue. To say they are, especially in a biology class in public schools, is to manipulate religious conviction. Why is is appropriate for high school science teachers to promote the theory of evolution as though it were a “proven fact,” while at the same time leaving intelligent design out of the story of life? To do so is to stack the deck.

Moreover, the theory of evolution is rooted solely in “historical” science— using knowledge that is already currently known to tell the story of what happened in the past. Scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments or empirical observations based on those predictions. Scientists then test hypotheses by conducting experiments or studies. Some proponents of naturalism and evolution claim Christian apologists are stretching the concept that historical science is not verifiable; that it is not proper “science” relative to events occurring eons ago. In fact, it is said that creationists fail to appreciate the history of science and science itself.

Historical science is a term used to describe sciences in which data is provided primarily from past events and for which there is usually no direct experimental data. That sounds straightforward to me. Admittedly, however, science does deal with past phenomena, particularly in historical sciences such as cosmology, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and archeology. Arguably, there are experimental sciences and historical sciences. By their very definition, they use different methodologies. Naturalists and evolutionists believe both branches of science can properly track causality. This is where I lose faith in their explanation. If historical science can track causality regarding events alleged to have taken place during as varied a time as tens-of-thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, or millions of years ago, I’d like an explanation. How can we trust in scientific “theory” that cannot be verified?

The scientific method has five basic steps, plus plus one feedback step:

  1. Make an observation.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation.
  4. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
  5. Test the prediction.
  6. Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

Recognizing that we all approach the world with presuppositions, biases, misconceptions, and (at times) faulty data, it is critical to admit that these conditions shape the way we see and interpret the empirical world. In this regard, historical science cannot be considered on equal footing with operational science. Because no one was there to witness the past—with the exception of God—we must interpret scientific claims regarding origin on a set of starting assumptions. Creationists and evolutionists have the same evidence; they just interpret it within a different framework or worldview. Evolution denies the role of God (as intelligent designer) and creation accepts His eyewitness account (related in the Bible) as the foundation for arriving at a correct understanding of the universe. Admittedly, this is based on an act of faith. Scientism and evolution, however, are also based on faith. They are philosophical viewpoints in the same manner as theism and intelligent design. Some, in fact, regard science as their religion.

J.P. Moreland on Scientism

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J.P. Moreland cites an example in Scientism and Secularism regarding the policy of public schools in the State of California in 1989, “Science Framework,” which offered guidance to teachers about how to address students who expressed reservations about the theory of biological macroevolution:

“At time some students may insist that certain conclusions of science cannot be true because of certain religious or philosophical beliefs they hold… It is appropriate for the teacher to express in this regard, ‘I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt among scientists in their field, and it is my responsibility to teach it because it is part of our common intellectual heritage'” (italics mine)[3].

The above “policy statement” is actually a picture of knowledge it assumes to be true: knowledge about what is real can only be determined  by hard science, and empirical knowledge derived from hard science is the only knowledge deserving of the backing of public institutions. Science uses terms like “conclusions,” “evidence,” “no reasonable doubt,” and “intellectual heritage” to elevate itself as the only method for understanding reality. Scientism denigrates terms like “beliefs,” “faith,” and “personal reservations” as non-empirical and inappropriate, unfounded opinions. Indeed, this is not a level playing field!

It is critical to realize that scientism is a philosophy or belief system and not science. It is not proof beyond reasonable doubt. Scientism is not the identification of something as scientific or unscientific but the belief that “scientific” is far more valuable than “non-scientific” or worse, that “non-scientific” has negligible value. Moreover, this conclusion is making a huge assumption: there is no scientific proof of intelligent design or a supreme being. To decide this to be true is to close one’s mind to any possibility that science can prove metaphysical claims. Granted, whenever science establishes a prior metaphysical or ephemeral claim as fact, it moves from the category of metaphysical to the physical or scientific category. Unfortunately, the New Atheists label those who believe in God as irrational, deluded, backward, or closed-minded. And they feel justified in doing so because they believe there are no truths that can be known apart from appropriately certified scientific claims. First, that is not uncategorically true. Second, it dogmatically decides no such evidence will ever be found.

The Damage Done

Battle Between Science and Christianity

Because scientism is virtually everywhere in our postmodern pluralist society, it is considered to be “normal” if not essential. Increasingly, Christians are considered to be out of touch with reality. Stuck in the past. Scientism wants everyone to agree that religion is a byproduct of fear, doubt, and the quest for meaning, and that science has moved mankind further along the continuum of information. The only “stuff” that matters today is data. Scientism puts Christian claims on the outside looking in—beyond what people generally consider reasonable and rational. Accordingly, one of the disturbing side-effects of scientism is making the ridicule of Christianity more common and acceptable. It states that any belief in an invisible God or an intelligent designer is not just untrue, but unworthy of any rational consideration.

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The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century was founded on testing and rejecting authoritarian claims of truth. Whether Scripture, tradition, or Aristotle, authority must not stand in the face of logic and evidence. We see proof of this with the story of Galileo, who trusted the truths of mathematics and personal observation despite the fact that his conclusions contradicted the doctrine of the church or the authority of the ancients. Indeed, our universe is heliocentric (earth and the other planets revolve around the sun) not geocentric. Earth is not the center of the universe. Over the centuries, the scientific method led to better comprehension of nature and life. Technology transformed our world beyond the scope of mere fantasy.

Unfortunately, science has been erroneously identified as an “authority” we tend to bow to without question. Research necessarily leads to provisional conclusions, yet these conclusions are typically taught (if not worshiped) as the only definitive basis for the physical world. Science enjoys a prestige that often obscures how tentative its claims are in reality. This has led to professional advancement, political advantage, and ideological “certainty” which is intrinsically bound to the acceptance of new ideas or alleged truths. Countless individuals suspend any doubt or skepticism simply because science has “proven” something. This is a dangerous conclusion that is based on the worldview of scientism.

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More critically, science has encroached improperly on the world of human thought, philosophy, religion, and truth. Scientists have decided to apply the physical sciences to the behavior and motivations of people, their social and cultural practices, and their theological beliefs. They insist that everything in the universe (the physical and the metaphysical) can be understood through the precepts of natural laws; able to be predicted and analyzed by Newtonian physics. Carl Sagan famously said, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Frankly, this viewpoint is both illogical and based solely on conjecture. It is a personal belief and a scientific fact.

Critical issues concerning human behavior and motivation cannot be scientifically defined. We are decidedly different from animals or other natural phenomena. We have a mind, consciousness, self-awareness and self-determination, and (most importantly) the freedom to choose how we will act. None of these attributes has been explained solely through science. Psychology and sociology are considered “soft” sciences for this very reason. Give a man a situation and he will decide for himself in that situation how to react to it. In fact, most of our problems today are caused not so much by the situation itself as they are based on how we respond to that situation. Response has power to create a pseudoreality. We “see” things through the eyes of gender, race, culture, nature/nurture, personality, religion, and political viewpoint.

Carl Sagan Photo

Consider how these variables impact science. Sagan said, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” Of course, he believed this was an accurate statement. It was his intention to impose this conclusion of everyone. Moreover, a statement such as this has no basis in scientific fact, theory, or empirical evidence. It is Sagan’s feeble attempt to see inside the soul of man. The very fact that this was his worldview meant he was not likely to “see” any evidence to the contrary. This is precisely what makes scientism dangerous and damaging.

Worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs. It shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions. Unfortunately, it is built in part on our preconceptions, presuppositions, biases, prejudices, and culture. James Sire said our propositions are actually deeply-rooted commitments of the heart. Quoting Naugle, Sire states, “Theory and practice are a product of the will, not the intellect; of the heart, not the head.” [4] Entwistle provides an important insight into worldview, stating, “What we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” [5] 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Since time began, man has been bothered by metaphysical questions to which there seem to be no simple answers. Ravi Zacharias (a leading Christian apologist) says there are four great questions regarding life: (1) What is the origin of life?; (2) What is the meaning of life?; (3) Where does morality come from?; and (4) What is our ultimate destiny after death? From a philosophical and theological viewpoint, there are no universal responses to these questions. Scientice would like us to believe there are. Science believes it hold the only answer to the first two questions; they relegate the last two answers to philosophy or theology. It’s obvious that worldviews are as divergent as mankind itself. What makes this issue more complex is that worldviews are not limited to matters of culture or science, nor do they reside solely in the intellect. Rather, they are typically of the heart, not the head. A person’s worldview serves as the foundation or infrastructure for their values, which determine their behavior. Accordingly, it is crucial that Christianity labors to establish the ontological (underlying) truth of all things. This can only be accomplished by first grasping the meanings contained in the Scriptures, and then defending the very reason for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

I will admit, the same thing can be said about religion or faith. Theology is not science, but it is not anti-science. That’s the great lie evolutionists and most biologists tell everyone: Religion cannot be proven; faith is a private, subjective belief in something unseen; science clearly establishes the basis for all reality—indeed, all truth. Hold on a sec! That last one is not science; it is scientism. We’ve established that scientism is not science, but a worldview. It is a philosophical opinion about science that is not based on logic or evidence. Further, I agree that my belief in Almighty God (theism) and the life, teachings, ministry and atoning death of Jesus (Christianity) is at least to some degree based on faith.

Faith is not at issue. Mankind is not just a cluster of “meat” or “carbon-based” individuals wandering through the universe—material conglomerations of matter changing with every moment. We are individuals with responsibilities, morals, beliefs, and the ability to reason and question. What’s at issue is scientism’s claim that science is the only source of truth and reality, which is a philosophical claim and not an empirical scientific fact. Period. Moreover, to deny reason would be to end all human interaction, destroy our politics and sociology, and tear down what it means to be human at the root. It would be to decide one of two things: either the four great questions of Ravi Zacharias are not relevant to life itself or, perhaps worse, that science is the only vehicle by which we can definitively answer these questions.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). Faith has always been the hallmark of Christianity. The “principle” tenet of Christianity is planted in the heart of the believer through the Holy Spirit. Faith, in this manner, is a firm persuasion and expectation that everything the Bible says about God and Christ is true. Moreover, the believer has decided to trust that Scripture provides a true and accurate account of the origin of all things.

Is it just me, or does Darwinism make the same “faith” claim, but does so as if it were an ontological, underlying, clearly-proven fact?

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I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Stephen Wineberg, New Science, Issue No. 2578, November 18, 2006.

[2] Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), p. xxiv-xxv.

[3] J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), p. 28.

[4] James Sire, Naming the elephant: Worldview as a concept, 2nd ed (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2015), p. 35.

[5] Davide Entwistle, Integrative approaches to psychology and Christianity, 3rd ed (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2015), p. 93.

Isaiah 53: The Gospel According to God

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen? Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this? (Isaiah 53:1, MSG)

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

THE STORY OF SALVATION begins with a prophesy. One of the most profound predictions concerning Jesus is spelled out in the book of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, Isaiah means “The Lord is salvation.” Could this mighty prophet, or his book, be more appropriately titled? Isaiah 53 is essentially the gospel according to God, or “the fifth gospel.” Charles Spurgeon said, “You have the whole gospel here.” John MacArthur wrote, “Taking all the Old Testament’s messianic prophesies collectively, the side-by-side themes of suffering and glory were understandably mysterious prior to the crucifixion of Christ.” [1]  Despite this prediction, even after Jesus was resurrected His disciples missed the divine truth of which the Old Testament prophets spoke.

Several of the disciples were walking and discussing what it might mean that Jesus was not in his tomb. They failed to recognize Christ when He approached them. Jesus asked what they were talking about, and the men said, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days” (Luke 24:18, RSV). When Jesus asked, “What things? the men responded, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:19-21). Jesus replied, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (24:25-26).

Isaiah’s predictions concerning Christ are captivating, full of colorful description, and rich in theological meaning. Isaiah 53 contains a capsule of the basic tenets of the gospel—the sin and depravity of mankind; divine grace, justification, and atonement; wholeness and healing. Isaiah was more than a prophet; he is clearly one of the earliest evangelists we know, who succinctly reported on the coming Messiah, providing a rich explanation of the scope of the redemptive works of Christ. Isaiah provides a degree of accuracy that would normally be attributed to having been an eyewitness. To deny the precision of Isaiah’s predictions is to decide he was not given the role of a prophet.

Matthew Henry said, “No where in all the Old Testament is it so plainly and fully prophesied, that Christ ought to suffer, and then to enter into his glory, as in [the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah].” [2] In addition to coming from humble beginnings, the lowly condition Jesus submitted to (and His appearance in the world) did not match with what the Jewish religious leaders expected of their Messiah. They were anticipating a conquering political king, coming in all pomp and ceremony. They believed Christ would once again sit on the throne of David and rule all nations. By contrast, the life of Jesus was common and full of sorrow.

Eugene Peterson provides a great description of the humble beginnings of Jesus. “The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling, a scrubby plant in a parched field. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look” (Isaiah 53:2, MSG). The word plant in this instance refers to a “tender” twig. Isaiah 53:1a asks, “Who hath believed our report?” The Hebrew word âman is a primitive root meaning “to build upon or support; to foster; to render (or be) firm or faithful.” This speaks of a complete assurance in something. Metaphorically, the word conveys a sense of faithfulness and trustworthiness. Frankly, there is no other means by which man can be saved except to believe that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy.

The Sanhedrin was unable to recognize Jesus as the Christ. Opinion on the streets during the time of Jesus’ ministry was that nothing good could ever come out of Nazareth (John 1:46). This man, Jesus, was the mere son of a carpenter. A laborer. Not a king. Clearly, Jesus could not have come from the Father. There were many petty rivalries between villages during the life of Jesus, but the comment in John 1:46 speaks directly to a basic rejection of Jesus as the anointed one. In the Old Testament, Moses wrote, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed” (Deut. 18:15). Moses was the greatest prophet of ancient Israel who had received a call from God on his life to lead God’s people out of bondage and speak the very words of God. The Hebrew word for prophet (nâbîy) describes someone who is raised up by God and, accordingly, could only proclaim that which the LORD gave him to say. We was incapable of contradicting the Law or speak from his own mind. What a prophet declared had to come true, or he was a false prophet.

The Sufferings of Christ

MacArthur writes, “No text in the entire Old Testament is more momentous than Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It is a prophesy that begins and ends with the voice of Yahwey himself.” [3] God is speaking of a singular person, whom He identifies as “the righteous one, my servant” (53:11). God is speaking of the “anointed one of Israel,” the Messiah. God mentions this in Isaiah 42:1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” McArthur calls the passage of Scripture in Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 “crystal-clear prophesy about the ministry, death, resurrection and coronation of the Messiah, written more than seven centuries before he came.” [4] It is what McArthur calls the gospel according to God.

To further establish that Jesus will not come as a conquering king, God said, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (42:2-3). We read in Zechariah that God said, “Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men of good omen: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch” (Zech 3:8). God clearly stated the reason for the advent of Jesus: “…I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day” (3:9b). This refers to the day on which Jesus would die to atone for the guilt of sin.

The speaker in Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 is God—by His knowledge—announcing the future glory of the Servant. Frankly, it is impossible for a Christian who grasps the story of salvation to read this section and not immediately think of its fulfillment in Christ hundreds of years later. Isaiah did not name the Servant, nor did he call this individual “the Messiah.” Isaiah’s intention was to compare abject humility and suffering with subsequent triumph and glory. He also drew attention to the contrast between the attitudes which would be shown toward the Servant before and after his glorification. Ultimately, the Servant would be accorded the highest majesty. His sufferings would give way to glory, which would cause kings and rulers of the time to be dumbfounded. This is crucial to understanding the Servant’s mission, for it was customary during the early centuries to scorn or despise those who were suffering. The Jews saw this as a sign that the individual had fallen out of grace.

Isaiah clearly explained that the Servant’s sufferings were not because of his own grievous sins, as everyone would have concluded, but were suffered exclusively and completely on the behalf of others—for my people (53:8). Isaiah wrote, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (53:10) (italics mine). The very nature of illness changes in verse 7. It is worth noting that Isaiah’s intent was not to portray the Servant as a patient and resigned sick man, merely stoical in his suffering; rather, he was someone who quite deliberately chose not to defend himself from false accusations, condemnation, and execution. He silently accepted his role in providing redemption for others by suffering and dying as a proxy for those who were truly guilty.

I find it fascinating that the Book of Isaiah is divided into two sections: the first containing thirty-nine chapters and the second twenty-seven chapters. The Bible is also divided into two distinct sections: the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. The second division of Isaiah begins exactly where the New Testament begins and where it ends. It opens with the ministry of John the Baptist (Isa. 40:3-5). It concludes with the new heavens and the new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). Ultimately, as Isaiah wrote, “From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the LORD” (66:23). Most believers relate easily to Isaiah 53, but are not familiar with the extent to which this prophet of the Old Testament foreshadowed the Father’s plan for salvation and the redemptive works of Christ. Isaiah categorized his explanations in a pattern that mirrors the Bible and its division between the the Old and the New Covenants. 

The Relevant Passage Intact

Most Christians understand that biblical scribes and scholars added the delineation of chapters and verses to the Bible in order to make it easier to perform systematic theological and exegetical study. This format is also more convenient for sharing relevant portions of Scripture, and when reading, teaching, or studying the Bible. The following represents how Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 would have appeared as originally penned:

Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him–his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men—so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (RSV).

Other OT Prophesies About Jesus

Of course, Isaiah 53 is not the only prophesy concerning Jesus in the Old Testament. Some biblical scholars refer to Genesis 3:15 as the “first gospel” as it predicted the arrival of the one who would crush the seed of the serpent, indicating he would be the “Seed of the woman (Gal. 4:4) who will destroy Satan (1 John 3:8). Jesus is referred to in Acts 3:22-23 as the one whom Moses spoke of: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.” Daniel writes about Jesus as follows: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).

Moses told us that Jesus would be from the line of David (Gen. 12:1-3; Gal. 3:16). Isaiah predicted that Jesus would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14). Micah said Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). Jeremiah forewarned of a great mourning following Herod’s order for the murders of male children within the vicinity of Christ’s birth (Jer. 31:15).  Psalm 69:8-9 says, “I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons. For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.” Kidner writes, “[David’s] prayer enlarges its circle of vision outwards [verse 6] and upwards [verse 7]. The fact that both halves of verse 9 were to find fulfillment in Christ (John 2:17; Rom. 15:3) puts the matter into so new a context that the Christian reader finds it difficult to enter fully into David’s bewilderment.” [5] Kinder says the “weakness of God” now makes sense, for it is redemptive. Also, “to suffer dishonor for the name” (see Acts 5:41) is, despite its cost, a compliment. It speaks of Christ’s willingness to become “less than” and die a physical death in a human body in order to reconcile man to the Father through the Son.

McArthur hopes that through his book (see footnote 1 below) he has shown how the unshakable persistence of human guilt and the impossibly high cost of redemption are truths that have been built into the Old Testament. Indeed, in my theological studies at Colorado Christian University, I have been able to identify many examples of the foreshadowing of Christ and the need for blood to be shed in order to purchase redemption. When Adam and Eve sinned, requiring covering for their “nakedness” (sinfulness?), God killed an animal and formed clothing from the hide. Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish as a result of his refusal to travel to Nineveh as ordered by God. I’m not going to Nineveh! He spent three days and three nights in the belly of the fish (Jonah 1:17). He was regurgitated on the shore as a clear parallel to the resurrection of Jesus after three days.

Jesus referenced the prophesy of Isaiah when He said to the disciples, “For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment” (Luke 22:37). Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12 is quoted six more times by the New Testament writers: Romans 15:21 (quoting 52:15); John 12:38 and Romans 10:16 (quoting 53:1); Matthew 8:17 (quoting 53:4); Acts 8:32-33 (quoting 53:7-8); and 1 Peter 2:22 (quoting 53:9). This should not come as a surprise. Isaiah gives us a succinct summation of the things to come concerning the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In fact, every aspect of God’s plan to redeem man rests, to one degree or another, on the rock, the cornerstone, the foundation—Ephesians 2:20 calls Jesus the “chief cornerstone” on which the gospel is built. It should come as a blessing to the church that God’s Word cross-references itself over thousands of years, thereby predicting and confirming many wonderful events and establishing a firm foundation for the redemptive work of Christ.

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I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] John McArthur, The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), p. 12.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), p. 682.

[3] McArthur, p. 21.

[4] McArthur, p. 24.

[5] Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72, Kidner Classic Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p.265.

 

Why Can’t I Follow My Heart?

“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45, RSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

LATELY, I HAVE BEEN obsessed with whether I have a heart for God. It is a critical question for all of us. Unbelievably, there are many Christians in the church today who don’t question their heart. An assumption is made: “I go to church. I believe in God. I trust in Jesus Christ. I’m saved so I’m good.” There is a huge danger to having this illogical thought. Whenever we assume anything when it comes to our salvation or our theology, we risk loosing our way. It’s as if we’ve decided to “think” of ourselves as “Christian,” and then walked out the door to go about our lives.

This thought started pestering me in 2009 when my sponsor in a 12-step program told me, “You need to get God out of your head and into your heart.” I was puzzled. It made absolutely no sense. But I’m “saved,” I thought. How can God not be in my heart? When I became a young Christian at thirteen, I was told that Jesus had “come into my heart.” So if He did this, then He must still be there, right? I was later told by my then-current pastor in 2011, “I don’t think you have a heart for God.” Whoa, what? Rather than see a pattern, I became defensive. I was so mortified that I cannot remember the rest of the conversation. It’s as if I decided on the spot that my pastor was wrong. He wasn’t!

What it Means

What does it mean to have God in our hearts? It is important that we know and understand this if we hope to grow in Christ. First, to grow in Him involves allowing Him in us; but this means to allow Him to become greater while we become less. Yeah, I know; that sounds ridiculous, right? Why would we think less of ourselves? It is a matter of humility. Something I have never come to naturally. I am one of those who, for whatever the reason, has to build myself up. Make myself worth something. In doing so, I have led a life of duplicity. Lacking the power to overcome, and the “armor” with which to protect myself, I chose to lie about my feelings of inadequacy. I hid my failures. I permitted life-limiting habits to rule over me. The moment I did that, I chose to live the life of a hypocrite. 

If we’re going to live according to a Christian worldview, we must decide to surrender all of our heart and let God have access to every room in our “house.” This should be an exciting proposition because something greater is coming. It presents us with the opportunity to “clean” our house. Jesus warns us, however, that if we clean house (ask Jesus to come into our heart), but let the rooms remain empty, we are putting ourselves at great risk. Matthew wrote in his Gospel that Jesus said, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matt. 12:28-29). Jesus then adds, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation” (Matt. 12:43-45).

Can you imagine someone choosing a life of failure on purpose? Does that make any sense at all? What could possibly be at the root of deciding, time after time, to fail? To make choices that risk your life, your health, or your career? That destroys marriages and breaks the hearts of everyone in your family? That costs you countless tens-of-thousands of dollars in lost income and other financial losses? That shuts you off from the very God you claim to love and worship? Why would a “Christian” who is born-again and has invited God into his heart willfully disobey the God he loves? Why choose to be cut off from the Sunlight of the Spirit, going it alone? Why would a theist, especially a Bible-believing Christian, risk (or maybe unconsciously choose) to spend eternity in Hell? The answer to these questions is both complex and simple. Complex because we make it so; simple because the Word of God is clear about why. These were difficult questions to ask myself, but I could no longer put off asking them.

Where Your Treasure Is

I am sure most Christians have heard Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” One reason I rejected the comments of my sponsor and my pastor is because I did not think about this verse for one second. I responded intellectually and pridefully, taking “offense” rather than advice. A huge part of my reaction had to do with a complete lack of humility. I was clueless how prideful I was being. Humility, after all, does not mean thinking less of ourselves; it means thinking of ourselves less often. Throw in a pinch of IQ and an ounce of denial, stir in two-parts manipulation and one-part of shifting blame, and you’ve got a recipe for the most sour peach pie you’ve ever tasted. Metaphor aside, it’s a plan for ultimate failure and self-destruction. My self-destruction came in the form of addiction.

One of my most favorite biblical study tools is Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Regarding the section of Matthew 6:19-24, He says, “Worldy-mindedness is a common and fatal symptom of hypocrisy, for by no sin can Satan have a surer and faster hold of the soul, under the cloak of a profession of religion.” [1] If we confess Christ with our mouths, yet take no action to assure we are walking as He has called us to walk, we become the very hypocrites He warned about. Our soul chooses what it will look upon as the “best thing,” and then go after that thing with our whole heart! This “object” of our heart will most likely have intense pleasure, and, perhaps, offer us some reward we find most appealing above all else. It becomes the very thing we’re living for. Perhaps more accurately, it is something we’ve become dependent upon to live. This is what Christ refers to as a “master.” Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). Trust me, when it comes to serving a master that delivers great fleshly rewards, we will not even realize we are enslaved!

Matthew 6:20-21 discusses the “treasures in heaven,” indicating they are forever exempt from decay and theft. Luke tells us, “For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:23). This is what Matthew is discussing in chapter six. Whatever is of good and eternal significance comes out of what we do here on earth. Doing righteous deeds, suffering for Christ’s sake (which includes denying ourselves and taking up the cross), dealing truthfully and faithfully with one another, forgiving one another, being kind, willing to share—all of these things have the promise of reward. These become the treasures stored in heaven. Conversely, consistent unrighteous, disobedient behavior stores up much judgment and wrath. For the unbeliever, it ultimately leads to damnation. For the believer, Paul says, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor. 6:9-10).

When we fail to see the basic biblical truth of Matthew 6:22-23, as I did for decades, we see life with “bad eyes,” walking in darkness. These verses tell us such darkness is all the more disastrous and defeating because we fail to recognize it for what it is. This has metaphorical implications; the “eye” can be considered equal to the “heart.” Psalm 119:10-11 says, “With my whole heart I seek thee; let me not wander from thy commandments! I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Here we see the tremendous benefits of Scripture. Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. When we hide Him in our heart, we hide that which He embodies, including the commandments of God the Father. Doing this allows us to watch our feet; the path we’re on. Christ becomes the Light by which we walk.

The psalmist says in Psalm 119:9-16 that we are to pray and meditate on God’s Word. When we do this, we are able to participate in the judgment and discernment of God. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Matthew 6:24 is saying the results of our choices are being stored in Heaven for the day we stand before Christ. We have to ask ourselves if we are storing up treasures in Heaven. That depends on our actions, which are directly influenced by where we decide to set our eyes. How we see the world, ourselves and others, and what we choose to do. It’s really that simple.

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39). When church leaders challenged Jesus, asking “Are we also blind?” He said, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (9:41). In other words, knowing the truth, they chose to ignore it and decide for themselves what was true. This is what Jesus referred to when He said we cannot serve God and mammon (John 6:24). This is a rather strange phrase. In the Greek, mamona, which is a literal translation of the same word in Aramaic, can refer to virtually anything of value: “wealth,” “property.” The root in both Aramaic and Hebrew (mn) means that in which one has placed their confidence or reliance. Both of these are compared—God and “other than God”—not as employers but slave owners. In other words, either God is served or “other than God” is served.

A Hard Lesson to Learn

We now see clearly the vital importance of Matthew 12:22-30. When we’re under Satan’s power and led captive by sin, we are blind to the things of God. Divided loyalty does not merely lead to a partial commitment to discipleship; it is an indication of deeply-rooted commitment to idolatry. Admittedly, this has been a very hard lesson for me. It made no sense during my active addiction that I was actually choosing to serve “other than God.” In this instance, my “god” or “idol” was alcohol, oxycodone, cannabis, cocaine, benzodiazepines. Because we “see” out of the abundance of the heart, my life of active addiction amounted to a continual walk in darkness, even while attending church, reading Scripture, teaching Bible study at two county prisons, sharing at 12-step meetings—sadly, even during much of the early years of this blog. Pride and fear has kept me from admitting this those of you who follow my blog, or anyone else. Walking in darkness also caused me to mistake the path I was on. This is precisely why my sponsor and my former pastor were absolutely correct. I did not have God in my heart. More tragically, my siblings were correct when they said I was being a hypocrite. I could be nothing less at that time, for I was putting on the appearance of being a Christian while walking in denial and disobedience.

What I was failing to see is that when we meet Christ, at a time predestined by God Himself, we will be held accountable to Him (from the day of our salvation) for every word and deed. Take a second and read that last sentence again. Yeah, I know! So let’s get this straight. Becoming “born-again” is not a get-out-of-judgment-free card. I have grown in Christ considerably over the past five or six months. Still, it was not until God put this lesson on my heart this morning that I was able to get to this moment, right now, when I saw a glimpse of what it’s going to feel like staring at His scars, remembering what the last twelve hours of His life were like, having to give an answer for every sad, dirty, low-down, manipulative, deceitful act I’ve done from the moment of my salvation, when I was given the power to dwell in the Holy Spirit and grow in the righteousness of Christ, until the day I draw my last breath. And there is nothing I can do to escape it.

So Now What?

First, anyone in this position must realize that when we finally decide to stop, drop, and roll, putting out the fire that is consuming us, we need to repent and turn over to Christ everything we’ve done. But that’s not the end of it. I have come to see the importance of “letting it go” (allowing the past be the past) and forgiving myself as I have been forgiven. If we fail to do this critical step, we will never be able to consistently see ourselves as a new creation. We will not be capable of seeing ourselves as God the Father sees us: clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Of course, the true “180” must come first or any degree to which we “shine” in Jesus will be dulled by sin and guilt. It is impossible to change if we live in shame. We’ll talk to ourselves with condemnation, forgetting there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1).

After settling the matter in our hearts that we are regenerated in Christ, we must then pray and meditate on God’s Word, learning everything we can about who we’ve become. It is crucial to remember a fairly universal warning: Satan will not let go willingly. The finest example we have regarding resisting temptation is presented to us in Matthew 4:1-11. Satan appeared to Christ in the dessert and essentially attacked His “Sonship.” This is quite accurate to what Satan tries to throw in our faces, but he is far more subtle and crafty with us. He challenged Jesus by saying, If you truly are the Son of God then change stone to bread; throw yourself down from the top of the temple and let the angels save you; renounce God and the universe is yours. Does this not sound a lot like what happens in our lives once we accept Christ and confess we are the sons and daughters of God?

There is only one way to defeat these challenges, which is exactly what Christ did. He knew the Scriptures because He had them hidden in His heart. Yes, He was part man and part God, likely giving Him a greater moral infrastructure than we have; however, He defeated temptation by saying what the Scriptures say. Then, standing firmly on the Word of God, He told Satan who He truly was and shouted, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written, serve the Lord your God, and serve Him only” (Matthew 4:10). Decide for yourself who you believe you are, seek proof in the Scriptures, turn from your old path, and walk toward the Light of the World. The only way to change our sinful behavior is to see the path we’re on with open eyes and decide to go in an entirely new direction.

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 I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 868.

 

Hope

The flesh is a beggar,
Who comes as a thief;
His need is the one
That matters
Regardless the cost.

His damage
Cannot be calculated
For it is greater
Than the sum of
Each individual cost.

What human weapon
Can stand against wiles so great?
They defy survival;
Desire and instinct
Run wild, distorted, distracted.

Look up, my child,
Not down; nor within,
For no inverted view
Can lead to truth or
Freedom.

Your tears burn hot
On your cheek, an
Endless reminder of
Loss and heartache,
Refusing to let go.

Every failure, lived
Again and again,
Burdens your heart and
Slows your pulse to
A crawl.

Your song is out of
Tune, maleficent,
Sad and defeating,
And the choir
Is silent.

Worship seems to have
Run its course,
Leaving you spent on
The shore of a million
Pieces of broken dreams.

Darkness has stolen
Your light, but
Only for a season;
His light has crested
The horizon.

Lift your head, child,
And open your eyes; tell your
Ears to hear; command
Your vision to clear, and
Bask in the light of hope.

©Steven Barto