Only the Elect: An Exegetical Study

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

HOW CAN YOU KNOW if you are one of the “elect?” By simply trusting in Christ alone through faith alone for salvation. Regardless of whether faith leads to election, or election causes us to believe, what is sure is that our belief is evidence of our election. Clearly, the Gospel of John suggests anyone who believes in the atoning death of Jesus Christ is saved: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, ESV).

Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (see 1 Tim. 2:3-4).

Praise God, the breadth of His divine love is the whole world. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the ultimate atonement, we have been redeemed from the wages of our sinful lives.

Did God Limit Salvation to “A Chosen Few?”

Paul wrote, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29) (italics added). Paul also wrote, “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5) (italics added). Ephesians 1:3-14 provides a list of all spiritual blessings we have through Christ. We are chosen by the Father; redeemed by the Son; sealed by the Holy Spirit. Of critical importance in this study is “as he chose us in Him.”

But what does it mean to be firstborn among many brothers? Romans 8:29 says those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose were “foreknown” by Him, and consequently were “predestined” to be conformed to the image of Christ. As is often the case when studying Scripture, it will help us understand election by looking at Rom. 8:18-29, which is presented as one big paragraph in my ESV Study Bible. There is a global theme here: creation itself will be set free from the curse; the children of God will go from bondage to freedom; those who are “called” are those whom God knew would choose Him, consequently those who chose Him are predestined to be “in Christ” through faith. God’s “sons and daughters” are believers who have the rights of inheritance to all that God has in store for them. It is also a logical conclusion that if all mankind has been subjected to the consequences of the sin of our first parents (Adam and Eve), then all mankind is also eligible to receive the blessings of salvation through Jesus Christ (the Second Adam).

Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren (see Rom. 8:30). The firstborn of a mother is referred to in the Bible as one who “opens the womb” of his mother (see Exodus 13:2). Jesus was born from His virgin mother, and is referred in Scripture to the Firstborn, the Second Adam. He is the foundation for the lineage of believers who believe in Him and are “in the way of” Christ. Jesus is the “firstborn” because He is the One appointed by the Father to be in authority over all things (see Col. 1:13-23). Moreover, He is the One who is the cornerstone for God’s plan of redemption. He is also firstborn due to His relation to man and the universe as both He and His followers are related to God. We are told in Scripture that we are “adopted” by God as His own children (see Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5).

Paul expounds on several key elements of our salvation through Christ in Romans 8. We are delivered from sin and death through the activity of Christ’s atoning death. Part of being in Christ necessarily includes dying with Him so we can be freed from condemnation and spiritual death as a just punishment for sinful living. Jesus said He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (see Matt. 5:17). The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says, “Sin as a rebellious force against God was condemned in the flesh of Christ. God pronounced judgment on sin in the flesh of Christ in order that the requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who are not walking (living) in accordance with the flesh but in accordance with the Spirit” (1) (additional italics added).

We are still left with the question of “election,” which often leads to a conversation about free will versus predestination. Christians refer to “being saved,” which features a new relationship with God and others, renewing of the heart and mind, growing in faith and obedience, and more. Galan and others published a great reference guide on this issue. The authors wrote, “Before seeing two ways to answer [this] question, let’s focus on the points with which all Christians agree. Regarding God’s merciful work of salvation, Christians agree that: 1. Because of sin, all humans need God’s grace; 2. Salvation from sin and condemnation is an act of God; 3. Salvation is accomplished only by grace through faith in Christ; 4. Works, good works or works of the Law, cannot lead one to salvation” (2).

Depravity: Human sin affects every area of humanity in every person. It means that people continue to make choices, but every choice is tainted by the effects of sin.

Issue 1 discussed by Galan is free will and total inability. Calvinists and Arminians (not to be confused with Armenians) agree on the total inability or depravity of man—without the prior intervention of God’s grace, humans cannot come to Him on their own. The entirety of the human race is tainted by sin. Paul said, “As it is written: none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). We are dead in our transgressions and sin (see Eph. 2:1). The effects of sin are devastating. But God extended his grace to us all, enabling us to come to Him. Arminianism calls this measure of grace “prevenient grace.” In Latin, prevenient means “to come before.” The phrase a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia is rendered “a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ.” It signifies an “irresistible” grace that enables us to respond to God as unbelievers. Yet, we have the will to reject this call. We are granted the ability to believe, but we must choose to exercise faith in the act of believing.

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect, exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).

Issue 2 discussed by Galan is election. The Bible clearly tells us that God elects. God chose Israel from all the nations of the earth from which to bring forth a Savior (see Deut. 7:6-8). But God’s choice to save people is not based or conditioned on who they are. God, as King, chooses freely to save people in Christ. Paul wrote, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Galan further explains: “God’s election respects human free will because it is based on [God’s] foreknowledge. Because God knows how all choices will turn out, God foresees who will choose to follow his calling and who will reject it” (3). In other words, everyone who believes is elect. Some biblical scholars use the term corporate election, meaning God is electing a group of people made up of individuals who have chosen to follow Christ. He did predestine the church to be an elected people, leaving individuals to choose whether they become part of this group.

Klooster examines the views of John Calvin and Karl Barth in deciphering the concept of election. He writes, “…first… election is said to be conditional (based on divine foreknowledge of who will respond to the gospel in faith) and/or corporate (based on God’s choice of a people who will serve him), in which particular persons participate by faith… second, election is in Christ in such a way that it does not specify particular persons’ ultimate destiny. Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected human” (4). Klooster outlines six principles of election:

  • Election is a sovereign, eternal decree (see Eph. 1:11).
  • Election involves God’s gracious plan to rescue humanity (see Rom. 9:11; Eph. 1:7)
  • Election is “in Christ” (see Eph. 1:4-5, 11; Rom. 8:29)
  • Election involves both salvation and the means to that end (see 2 Thess. 2:13; Rom. 10:14-17)
  • Election is personal and specific, referring to “those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified” (see Rom. 8:29-30, Rom. 9)
  • Election’s ultimate goal is God’s glory and praise, “…in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory” (see Eph. 1:12) and “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (see Eph. 1:10; Matt. 13:27-30, 24:31; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:9)

Concluding Remarks

I once remarked that God sees all time at the same time. This is quite beyond human understanding. He also hears everyone at the same time. I am reminded of the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce has decided to see what it is like to be God. He hears literally hundreds of millions of voices all at once. God tells him this represents the prayers of mankind! To say God knew, before the foundation of the world, that man will fall from grace, and that He knew who would repent, is simply amazing. In accordance with His divine love, He predetermined a plan of salvation. He would send His Son, Jesus, to be the ultimate propitiation for the sins of all mankind; sins that had not even yet occurred! But He left the decision up to us whether to become one of the elect. What truly matters is that God created humanity, humanity sinned, and God has provided salvation through Jesus Christ.

References

(1) Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, editors, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1990, 1962), 1206.
(2) Benjamin Galan, et al., Free Will vs Predestination: Calvinism and Arminianism Explained (Peabody, MA: Rose Publishing), 2011.
(3) Ibid.
(4) F. H. Klooster, “Elect, Election,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 268.

Set Your Hearts

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE SPIRITUAL LIFE IS to be lived no matter the cost, as it is the means through which Christians participate in the Kingdom of God while still in the flesh. Redemption and sanctification rescued us from the bondage of sin and set us apart for divine service. Paul said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14, ESV). Jesus provided an exemplar for Christian living, telling the disciples, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26-28). In fact, life is supposed to be shared. We are called to step out in faith and put others first.

The power to live a successful Christian life is found only in Christ, but it requires effort on our part. We need to stand firm against the forces that pull us back to a carnal, fleshly, worldly life. Jesus related how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). It is not easy to live as Christ lived. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matt. 16:26). Accordingly, a spiritual life must be a disciplined life. In the eyes of the LORD, it is better to obey than to present sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). The word “obedient” comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” Spiritual discipline involves a concentrated effort to firmly establish an effective boundary between spirit and life. It is only through patiently waiting on God that we are able to hear His voice and understand His will for our lives.

D.A. Carson said, “People think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions” (1). Religion tends to be a word with negative connotations while spirituality has positive overtones. Typically, we wonder how much of ourselves we must give up to live a spiritual life. We ask ourselves if “being good” is an effective sign that we are living as Christ would have us live. We attend church services, participate in church groups, visit the sick, and volunteer to make burgers at the annual church picnic. Maybe we participate in neighborhood outreach efforts or support missions. Yet, we wonder how much of our natural self can remain without impacting our spiritual life. C.S. Lewis said, “Make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier” (2). The flesh battles the spirit, demanding satisfaction no matter the cost.

We come to Christ as new believers dragging our “self” with us to the cross. Lewis said, “Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call wrong” (3). He pulled no punches regarding battling sexual impropriety. He writes, “…a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (4). The Christian life is both hard and easy. Jesus asks us to “give all.” He says to take up our cross and follow him. Lewis said, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ” (4). As Christians, many of us neglect the mind and heart while we’re striving for a spiritual life. This is precisely what Christ advises us not to do. The average churchgoer objects to giving all, saying not everyone is called to pastor, or teach, or lead. Lewis was known to ask Christians, “How would you feel if Jesus came to you and spoke the words, Give me your all?I have stood at that crossroad many times, wondering how much all I have to give without giving all.

The grace of God, while free, is not cheap. Consider what Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of His life on earth in order that we might be justified before the Father. Our discipleship to Jesus costs nothing less than everything. Unfortunately, you would be hard pressed to find a sermon or teaching series on discipleship in the church today. To side step discipleship is to miss out on spiritual maturity. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:18-20). Unfortunately, the Body of Christ has been drifting away from this commission. If the church fails to disciple new believers, it is impossible for them to learn how to live as Christ lived. Willard said, “Though costly, discipleship once had a very clear, straightforward meaning… there is a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ” (5).

A Matter of the Heart

Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). Proverbs says, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:21,23). Not surprisingly, the best way we can defend our heart and set it on God is to guard our thoughts. Paul said, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-5). Solomon admonished, “Above all else, guard your heart.

Someone once said, “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9). We cannot hope to share the gospel, or to teach others about the ways of Christ, without first setting our hearts on Jesus. The kind of spiritual existence God asks of us cannot be weak, dull, rudderless, lifeless. It should cause an engagement of the heart. Paul notes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). Fervent means “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” If we are not fervent in our spiritual life, and if our will and inclination are not strongly and consistently applied to our affairs on a daily basis, we will wither and die on the branch. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). The Father does two things to ensure a maximum yield: (1) He removes unfruitful branches, and (2) He prunes the remaining branches. Unfruitful branches are gathered and burned in the fire. Fruit is an illustration for good results coming from the life of a believer.

As believers, our fruitfulness requires having our hearts engaged in Christ. Every true disciple of Christ must love the LORD above his or her father or mother, sister or brother, spouse or children; yes, even above his own life. Merely having knowledge of doctrine and theology without religious affection for God will avail us nothing but the acquisition of data. Augustine of Hippo said, “My inner self was a house divided against itself. Why does this strange phenomenon occur? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted” (6). Ours must always be a living theology. The believer is to be considered fidelis quaerens intellectum: a believer seeking understanding. Hart said, “Theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (7). Theology involves far more than the mind; it is more than collecting data. Hart said, “Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to some proposition or other—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding of that which matters most to it” (8).

Set your sights on His kingdom first.

Nouwen believes the spiritual life is not that which comes after or beyond our everyday existence. We must not pigeonhole spirituality. He said, “The spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now” (9). Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading or speculation” (10). Of course, such an orientation clears the path for setting our hearts on Jesus. Vanhoozer says Christians learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply and passionately in the drama of redemption, adding, “Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of the heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy” (11). Our spiritual life must begin with something firm to place our feet on (see Matt. 7:24-27). Without being grounded in Christ, we risk faltering at times of challenge or crisis. Moreover, we are ill-equipped for making a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope we have in the gospel.

God willingly created man and all that exists in the physical realm. Under the warmth of His creative action and care, our first parents were invited to walk in complete fellowship with God; to get to know Him and to love Him. This is worship at its most pure. But through an act of rebellion, which was fueled by a desire to know as God knows, exist as God exists, sin entered in and tore a hole in the soul. Man became broken. Kapic writes, “It would be a dangerous misunderstanding to assert that we can only worship God once we have understood all the important doctrines” (12). Further, we do not need to be like God, or be on even footing with Him, to have a relationship with Him. Despite rebellion in the past, we must mend fences with God and allow Him to fill the God-shaped hole in our soul. Growing in our knowledge of God changes our view of every aspect of our lives. Kapic said it’s not as though we lose sight of all except God; rather, we see everything in the light of God. This degree of humility and submission is required for living a truly spiritual life.

All of life’s preoccupations and “what ifs” tend to enslave us; distract us from the metaphysical and spiritual realms of life. Our minds become filled with anxious thoughts as we struggle to do it all, be it all, and plan for it all. Nouwen writes, “Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations” (13). It is as though we are always preparing for “eventualities,” such as career changes, serious illness, failed economy, domestic unrest, possible family conflicts, natural disasters, and the like. Anxiety can cause us to be fearful, suspicious, greedy, angry, defeated. In this sad state, we pay more attention to our physical surroundings, our aches and pains, our daily challenges, which prevents us from feeling real inner peace and freedom—the very shalom our LORD promised. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). When we are in a predisposed state of “what’s next” we fail to live in the moment. It is impossible to enjoy today if we spend the day regretting our past and worrying about our future. Existence certainly features periods of transition, but it is not productive to live our lives “in the corridor” on the way to somewhere else.

First Things First

Interestingly, Jesus does not address our worry-filled way of living by saying we should cut back on engaging with life’s affairs. Nor does He say we need to take a monastic sabbatical. Early Christian fundamentalism taught “coming out from among them” and safely existing within the walls of our churches. I believe the command “be ye separate” is not suggesting off-the-grid spiritual communal living. Nor does it mean stay away from all non-believers. We simply cannot reach those we despise and run from. Rather, Jesus wants us to change our center of gravity so that we seek Him first. This requires a change in focus. As noted in Scripture, we need a change of heart. Certainly, change in activities are often necessary as we grow in spiritual maturity and reach toward the goal of emulating Christ. Simply, this is a matter of setting our hearts on His kingdom first. Nouwen believes a heart set on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart set on living the spiritual life.

To set our hearts on the kingdom therefore means to make the life of the Spirit within and among us the center of all we think, say, or do.

Consider this. Jesus led a very busy life during the three years of His ministry—teaching, preaching, healing, expounding. He was so busy He had to “steal away” for alone time. Moreover, He did not lead the life of a zealot marching toward a self-imposed goal. He was concerned with one thing: putting the Father’s will and kingdom first. Remarkably, despite being God Himself in the flesh, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). The works Jesus did are the works the Father sent Him to do; the words Jesus spoke are the words the Father sent Him to speak. His was a ministry of obedience, sacrifice, and humble submission. Paul tells us, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom.5:18-19).

Concluding Remarks

Nouwen writes, “His Kingdom first. I hope that these words have received some new meaning. They call us to follow Jesus on his obedient way, to enter with him into the community established by the demanding love of the Father, and to live all of life from there” (14). The kingdom of the Father is now; not something to be achieved at a later date. It is the place where the Holy Spirit guides us, empowers us, instructs us, equips us, and renews us as we move through this world serving Him. As I mentioned above, a spiritual life without discipline is impossible. The practice of spiritual discipline allows us to exercise “silent prayer,” where we are content to sit quietly and wait on God. It is only through listening that we develop a life of obedience. It is critical that we establish a routine of solitude every day. The amount of time we spend pursuing “spiritual fitness” is less important than having the routine. Start with 10 minutes, 20 minutes; whatever you can set aside at this point. Remember, we are pursuing “spiritual fitness” much like an athlete seeks physical fitness. Increase the duration of each prayer session. Learn to exercise “silent prayer” where you wait quietly for God to speak to you. Simplicity and regularity are the best building blocks in finding your way to the Father. Create space for God in your life.

References

(1) D.A. Carson, “Spiritual Disciplines,” Knowing and Doing (Springfield, VA: C.S. Lewis Institute, Winter 2017). URL: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/6134
(2) C.S. Lewis, “Giving All to Christ,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), 8.
(3) Ibid., 7.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “Sexual Morality” in Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952), 95.
(5) Ibid., 9.
(6) Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 15.
(7) Augustine of Hippo, “Complete Surrender,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 55.
(8) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 1.
(9) Hart, Ibid., 3.
(10) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 7.
(11) Martin Luther, in “The Inseparability of Life and Theology, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 41.
(12) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
(13) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, Ibid., 24.
(14) Nouwen, Ibid., 9.
(15) Ibid., 21.

What Does Spiritual Progress Look Like?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S.,Psy., M.A. Theology

Change Requires Growth

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14, ESV).

NOT SURPRISINGLY GROWTH requires action. Acts 17:28 indicates we must be “in Christ” to mature as believers: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (ESV). Our growth as Christians is predicated upon knowing who we are in Christ; what His death, burial, and resurrection makes accessible to us. Having made a decision to accept Jesus as Messiah, we are to choose living in a manner that brings glory to God. No longer are we wandering the wilderness in search of meaning and purpose. We begin a new life, made possible through Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, we have been justified in the Father’s eyes. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Each of these components fall under the umbrella of “salvation.” It is here that we are able to adjust our sites and head in a completely different direction than when we were living in sin.

Holiness in the Old Testament is primarily in relation to God. “Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy” (Psa. 99:9). Divine sacredness and holiness is God’s essential nature. He is morally perfect, and His holiness is manifest in total purity. By purposeful association, God’s people are holy; not because of any virtue they possess but simply by God’s special calling. Notwithstanding the above, there was an increasingly strong emphasis on moral holiness under the Old Covenant. A central feature of the Day of Atonement was inward cleansing (see Lev. 16:30). Of course, there is no less emphasis on God’s holiness in the New Testament. Under the New Covenant, holiness moves from an outward (or “corporate”) quality to believers made holy inwardly. As Christians, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but we must strive to enter into true holiness (see Heb. 10:10). This is holiness as it pertains to transformation. Paul writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

This is what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Romans: “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. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16-17). Our progress must begin with redemption—without which we cannot be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Spiritual progress is intricately linked with sanctification. It is through sanctification that we become more like Christ, aligning ourselves with the will of the Father. God is able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in our Christian walk. The Hebrew word qdš and the Greek word hagias apply to any person, place, occasion, or object that has been “set apart” from common secular use to a divine purpose. Sanctification is the ongoing impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers (1).

Sanctification is not mere moral transformation (we cannot “behave” ourselves toward holiness). We are set on the path of sanctification through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. This is a sort of spiritual “athleticism,” which denotes aiming for fitness of service; i.e., being worthy of one’s call. Amazingly, sanctification sets the stage for positive consecration of our personality (2). (Personality refers to individual differences in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.) It is easy to confuse holiness and sanctification. However, holiness represents purity before God, as in our being clothed in the righteous of Christ. Through the atonement of Christ’s death, we are justified and set apart for service. But sanctification is much more than being made right in the eyes of the Father; it includes God being able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in Christ. What of this idea of “sinless perfection.” Paul discusses putting on the new self in the third chapter of Colossians, which is accomplished by setting our minds on things that are above and not on things of the earth (3:2). He writes, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5). Instead, as God’s chosen ones, we are to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. God does not require perfection from us, but He does expect us to strive for spiritual maturity.

A New Starting Point

Through sanctification, our character, affections, and behavior change as we put on the mind of Christ. Sanctification includes a change in our total personal ethics. Of course, this is an ongoing process. At the moment of conversion we surrender self-rule. In sanctification, we relinquish what I call the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. We are bound to fail, but we need not feel condemned. Paul addresses this issue: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1). The doctrine of justification by faith is an analytical explanation of God’s pardon. Justification establishes Christianity as a religion of grace and faith. It is helpful to remember that dying with Christ (redemption and justification) and living with Christ (sanctification) are both paramount to living according to the will of God.

We are to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness. Paul said we must strive for spiritual perfection “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 fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13-14). Although redemption is instantaneous, sanctification is an ongoing process. The more we strive to be like Christ, the easier it becomes to deny the flesh and instead walk in the Spirit. I have learned that as I mature in Christ my sins become more painful and obvious. The Holy Spirit convicts me regarding any ungodly behavior. Because sin starts as a thought, I also ask Him to help me think about what I am thinking about. (This is called metacognition in psychology.) Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2).

Peter writes, “…preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). Because our mind is the battlefield on which Satan wages war, it is important to be prepared for warfare. (see The Power of Spiritual Armor.) Sanctification is the first step. Hebrews 12:14 says we must strive for holiness. White says, “This is the most common understanding of sanctification, the growth in holiness that should follow conversion” (see Eph. 1:4) (3). Paul told the Thessalonians to be sanctified wholly—keeping spirit, soul, and body sound and blameless. Everything is to be sanctified (see 1 Tim. 4:4-5). White notes that sanctification is not a mere addendum to justification and redemption. Rather, he believes our forgiveness of sins has a moral force, creating in us the will to do good. Paul distinguished his “real” or spiritual self from his fleshly self in Romans 7. Henry writes, “Compared with the holy rule of conduct in the law of God, the apostle [Paul] found himself so very far short of perfection, that he seemed to be carnal” (4).

Progress Not Perfection

Clearly, our goal as Christians is striving to live a life that is beyond reproach. Remember, this does not imply living a sinless existence, which is impossible. Instead, we are to avoid the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. Habitual sin relates to a temptation we have chosen to hang on to, ostensibly because it brings us some degree of pleasure or escape. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us about brokenness, selflessness, charity, humility, peace, and righteousness (see Matt. 5). He reminds us that we are to be salt and light in the world. Jesus concluded his sermon with these words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). The beatitudes describe the Father’s attributes. Jesus instructs us to strive for a Christian life that mimics the character of God. The Amplified Bible says, “You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Paul instructs us to walk in a manner worthy of the life to which we have been called, doing so with all humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace, and mercy, bearing with one another. Spiritual maturity involves putting off “the old self” and putting on the new, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4). When we become Christians, we are not merely “remodeled” or added to. Instead, we are transformed. In other words, we don’t have two separate natures as Christians. We have one new nature—that of Christ our Lord. Our old self died on the cross with Christ, and through the resurrection we have become new. When the Father looks upon us, He no longer sees our multitude of sins. Instead, he sees the righteousness of Christ. Paul said, “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). We are to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4:24).

And Now What?

How do we accomplish the daunting task of putting on the mind of Christ? We need to realize that God is not expecting us to become Christ or to live perfectly. Rather, our lifestyle should point others to Christ. We must think differently about sin, about God, and about Jesus. Our orientation should be away from worldly and sinful lusts. As believers, we should not be attracted to evils of this world. John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). MacArthur writes, “To say that a person can come to Christ without making a break from the world is a lie. There must be a change of lifestyle” (5). We come to Jesus through repentance, but it is sanctification that allows us to serve Him. We are to be imitators of Christ (see Eph. 5:1). Conversion includes renewal of mind and heartfelt repentance. These elements are needed if we are to do a 180 and walk away from sin. It is dependent on grace, and involves the infusion of new life. Evangelical theologians describe two sides to conversion: the divine invitation and the human response. It is the means by which we are resurrected from spiritual death. Bloesch says, “It also includes the Spirit’s continuing work in purifying us of discord and [our stubborn refusal to comply], remolding us in Christ’s image” (6).

Spiritual maturity is an expected result of conversion. In fact, conversion begins our ascent to Christian perfection. We shall not remain the same person we once were, but shall become a new creation (se 1 Cor. 5:17). Our true relationship with God is made evident in our lifestyle and conduct. This is what is meant by having a heart for God; getting God out of our heads and into our hearts. Peter tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (1 Pet. 1:3-4). He followed up with an admonishment to “…put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:1-3).

Concluding Remarks

We are called upon to be mature believers in Christ. This is not possible without learning who we are in Him and walking accordingly. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Sanctification sets the stage for radical change, even to the core of our personality. We are set on the path of spiritual maturity. Although we cannot hope to be perfect while in our corruptible bodies, we are expected to strive for spiritual maturity. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the character of God in His sermon on the mount. Meekness, brokenness, humility, purity of heart, righteousness—these and other attributes are provided as a guide to becoming “perfect” as the Father is perfect. Paul instructs us to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness, which is critical to our spiritual maturity. We can never become Christ, but we are called to emulate His life and ministry. This is how we become salt and light to the world. It is how we strive for spiritual maturity.

References

(1) R.E.O. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 771.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1077.
(5) John MacArthur, The Truth About the Lordship of Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 77.
(6) D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ibid., 213.

History of the Christian Church: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Christian Ethics and the “Good Life.”

I am now only 9 credits from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies. I have enjoyed sharing with you what I have learned. I started Christian Ethics last week. The following is from my first discussion assignment. In the first class (Classical Methodologies of Ethics) is about Consequences.

Consequences. Every choice we make results in certain consequences, whether good or bad. As a Christian, I am concerned with the results of sin in God’s creation. Hosea said, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain salvation upon you. You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-ar’bel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children” (10:12-14, NRSV).

Four decades of active addiction led to unfortunate results, yet I continued to seek my own pleasure. Ultimately, I chose to get clean, putting God and others before my own needs. This was a hard undertaking, mainly because I was self-centered to the extreme. Today, I say yes to God rather than “secretly” pursuing my agenda. Each time we say yes to Him, He is pleased. The more we step into God’s will for us and say no to sin, the easier it gets. The sinful life is very tempting. Choosing good over evil improves our spiritual formation and serves as an example to others.

Critical thinking (as a Christian disciple) allows for self-evaluation, and typically leads to self-correcting decisions. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “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.” To grasp this tenet is to allow for integrity, humility, sound reason, fairmindedness, and courage (1). These signposts can help us attain “the good life.” Aristotle believed whenever we act we are aiming at some good. I would suggest that this sounds like “the ends justifies the means.” Specifically, while building our lives and our futures, we may rationalize our behavior as a “means” to achieving our goals.

As Christians, we learn about “goodness” from attending church, reading Scripture, and individual (not corporate) prayer. Given the many related terms (e.g., morals, values, principles), our ethics as Christians must be rooted in the good life of Jesus Christ. After all, much of our “source material” relative to ethics involve understanding God’s attributes and choosing to let His character guide our daily living.

I agree with Robin Lovin that some autonomy must be protected. Without free will to evaluate the ethics of a behavior or event, we become mere “automatons” of God. The important subject of this session is to determine what makes something right. As Western thought slowly disintegrated over the last century, the consequence has been moral relativism. Absolute truth has all but been rejected. The ontological sense of truth and morality is systematically ignored for the mantra What’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me.

Lovin provides four primary means for moral reflection: teleology (study of the “ends” or results); deontology (a top/down theory that actions are good or bad as determined by a clear and uniform set of rules); virtue theory (the focus is on determining and living life out of moral character); and contextualism (the belief that ethics reacts to an evolving world). Contextualism allows for the individual’s “context,” which is quite similar to moral relativism. A good life is not synonymous with “the good life.” Living a good life involves an ethically-informed life that seeks justice, virtue, and flourishing within the kingdom of God.

Footnotes

(1) Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 15.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Apologetics Interview

After some delay, I am able to share my final paper in “Apologetics” as part of my master’s in theological studies at Colorado Christian University. Instructions were to interview someone who was an atheist or skeptic regarding Christianity. I hope you will find this paper beneficial. I really enjoyed doing this assignment.

Introduction

The primary reason for Christians to engage in apologetics is to better prepare them for giving a defense for their faith, and to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15, NRSV). Koukl, author of Tactics, believes proper defense of the gospel begins with a game plan. Apologetics consists of three primary elements: defending the truth; defeating false ideas; and destroying speculation raised against God. And yet, this is not done through a frontal attack. Rather, the prudent plan is to proceed as God’s ambassador.[1]

Groothuis believes Christian apologists should offer answers for skeptics and non-believers based on rational arguments. The apologist’s method of arguing for Christianity will unavoidably be rooted—at least to some degree—in his or her personality and style of argument. Groothuis advised that apologists are often met with belligerent response. Such vehemence stems from atheists’ and skeptics’ belief that Christianity is indefensible. In addition, non-believers build their objections on a mantra that simply says, “…religion rests on blind faith and not reason for so long that many even within the church have actually come to believe it.”[2]

R. C. Sproul states that believers are to answer all inquiries—even the abusive ones—with gentleness and meakness. Indeed, this describes the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable that many Christians today believe they should not participate in trying to “prove” the veracity of the gospel. Sadly, they base this assumption on their conclusion that faith and proof are incompatible. Additionally, as Sproul notes, an apologist may present a response to a non-believer that proves the argument for Christianity, but “[I]n their bias they refuse to be persuaded.”[3]

The Interview

This writer was able to secure an interview with Dale, a skeptic at best. When he agreed, he remarked, “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but sure, why not?” At times he shared rather determined and caustic comments about God and Christianity.

Regarding belief about God or an ultimate reality, Dale said,

God is a crutch. He doesn’t exist. I can’t see him and he hasn’t answered my prayers. I cried out to him hundreds of times while I bounced from house to house in the system.[4] He didn’t answer my prayers to stop my mom from abusing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose. What kind of God is that?

Dale was asked how he views humanity in general. He did not mince words: “People suck! I hate people. I’d rather live deep in the woods somewhere.” Dale added, “I can’t relate to the “essence” of people you asked me about.” This writer explained, stating, “Essence is basically the core nature of a person.” Dale does not believe humans are made in God’s image. He believes the basic problem concerning mankind is rampant evil. He noted recent violence in America over racism, and said, “There have been lots of wars, and people taking what others have… there is way too much selfishness and me first.”

When asked about Jesus Christ, Dale responded,

You believe in Jesus, so that’s your higher power, like it says in the 12 Steps. My higher power is not a specific god. I get my power from the universe. I don’t believe God is looking down on me and judging me. If he is, well then it sucks to be me, I guess. I see no evidence of God or Jesus. In fact, the opposite. Guys in jail, or people struggling with addiction, buy into Christianity and go to Bible study in the prison to look good. They “find Jesus” while in jail.” Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.

Given Dale’s harsh remark about hypocrisy in the Christian church, it was important to address duplicity. Decidedly, hypocrisy is partially responsible for keeping people from attending church services. This writer shared with Dale his struggle with hypocrisy over the years. One’s personal life and character have a direct effect on efforts to share the gospel. He addressed Dale’s concern about evil in the world, quoting Grudem: “We must never blame God for the evil men do. Secondary causes, such as the actions of human beings, bring evil upon others.”[5] He told Dale it is impossible for mankind to have free will to literally choose anything at any given moment and not expect wrong or evil choices to be made.

Dale’s hope for eternity, salvation, or redemption is vapid. He said there is nothing for him to “hope about.” He denied the existence of heaven and hell. When pressed, he said his spirit will leave his body when he dies and become (or return to) the ultimate spirit in the universe. He stated, “To me, that’s god or a higher power.” He believes in an unnamed higher power, as demonstrated by the beauty and magnitude of the universe.

Dale’s concluding remarks:

I don’t think our morals came from “up there somewhere.” Maybe Heaven and Hell are right here. I always thought American Indians had a clear idea of the grand spirit. Other religions too. If God exists, then he must be in everything. But thinking about evil, how can we work that in with God? I told you flat out when we started, belief in God is a crutch. And God has an evil side. It bugs the crap out of me that he punishes everyone for the sake of a few. You can’t tell me all those who drowned in the flood were bad people. So why be God if you’re doing evil. A loving God? Come on man.

In closing, this writer said,

I lived a life of complete disobedience. My own motives and desires fueled me. I had to come first, even at the other person’s expense. I got into booze and drugs, ending up in prison. I kept struggling for four decades with no concept of compassion or trustworthiness. Yet, inside I believed in ultimate truth and salvation. I decided to hit my knees and ask Jesus to renew my relationship with him and to forgive my rebellion.

Dale’s final rebuttal:

When I think about religion, I think of 9/11 right away. Religious fanatics. So, I’m on the fence. One thing the Bible got right about man is his deceitfulness.

Analysis

As is often seen in 12-step programs, Dale has a rather vague idea of spirituality. He reiterated his belief in an ultimate power somewhere in the universe but cannot provide a concrete description or identity of that power. He believes this power has “always been.” He said mankind would “…not need Jesus to die for sin if God just outlawed evil. I can’t believe in a benevolent God in the face of terrorism, murder, cancer, wars, rape. Why can’t God stop evil?”

A key criterion underlining this writer’s approach to evangelism and apologetics can be summed up by Colson and Pearcey: “As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.”[6] There is a bit of Christianity’s social mandate.

Chandler believes the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was “…to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the earth.”[7] He believes salvation includes a real world reconciliation. He says, “For the reconciliation enacted by the cross to be cosmic, then, it must encompass more than just our individual relationship with God.”[8] In other words, Christians are reconciled “to reconcile.”

Christians are not simply “the recruited,” nor are they to merely be recruiting others. Certainly, the entirety of creation is out of sorts with the effects of sin. God expects Christians to participate individually and corporately in reversing the curse by setting things right. Christians are the eyes, ears, feet, and hands of the Body of Christ, and are commissioned to help bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Conclusion

Apologetics and personal evangelism are certainly intertwined, with personal testimony about faith in Jesus Christ being narrower than the broader discipline of apologetics. Regardless, it is not possible to genuinely engage in evangelism or apologetics while harboring an anti-Christian or hypocritical worldview. It is critical to ask one’s self, “How would I behave in the world if my outward actions matched what I claim to believe in my heart?” This question was a substantial factor in this writer’s change of orientation toward God and others. Once this has been established, the real work of evangelism and apologetics can begin. 

Footnotes

[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 19-20.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 8.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Dale was a ward of local child services for 7 years.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

[6] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), xii.

[7] Matthew Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.

[8] Ibid., 143.

Jesus and the Pharisees

The Pharisees were known for standing on the street corner in sack cloth and ashes crying aloud to God so all who pass them by thought of them as righteous and devout.

Old Theology Book Spines

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

THEN SAID JESUS to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries (1) broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men” (Matt. 23:1-7, NRSV).

What is a Pharisee?

Pharisee PointingThe root meaning of the word “Pharisee is related to the Hebrew word perisayya, which means “separated.” They held themselves to be separate from and above priests and clerics. The office of Pharisee flourished during the latter part of the Second Temple period (BC 515-AD 70), and occupied the chair of Moses in the synagogue. Unfortunately, the standard rabbinic traditions have been shaped by polemics.

The Pharisaic movement’s origin is shrouded in mystery. According to Josephus (Ant. 13.288-300), the Pharisees first became a significant force in Jewish affairs during the reign of Hyrcanus I.  Essentially, they were a society of scholars who believed in resurrection, and in following legalistic traditions. But they often enforced regulations  outside the scope of Scripture, preferring instead to apply “the traditions of their fathers.” They believed Mosaic Law and the Torah established authority for the interpretation of Jewish Laws, which they enforced with a heavy hand. They used the Torah to enforce their own theology. The result was a total of 613 commandments, or “rules,” governing every aspect of Jewish life—how to dress properly, dietary laws, practices governing Temple procedures, rules for blood sacrifice, and more. The Pharisees were strongly committed to daily observance of the Law. Further, they believed in spirits and angels, the resurrection, and the Messiah’s coming.

Jesus in the Eyes of the Pharisees

Pharisaic opposition to Jesus is recorded in all four Gospel accounts. In Mark’s eyes, Jesus’ main adversaries in Galilee were the scribes, but, according to Matthew, they were the Pharisees. Luke said, “…the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54). Many  reacted to Jesus with hostility, chiefly the scribes and Pharisees. Luke 20:20 says, “So [the Pharisees] watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.”

John tells us of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees took issue with Jesus telling the man, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” on the Sabbath. Jesus defended his actions to the Pharisees by saying, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). This remark infuriated the Pharisees even more. Jesus had intimated that He was the Son of God! “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” ( John 5:18).

Everywhere Jesus went, Jesus attracted huge crowds pressing in to listen to His every word and watch His every move. He was profoundly popular among the people. They loved Him. The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus insofar; they were far from popular given the heavy burdens they placed on the Jews. Jesus said His burden was light (see Matt. 11:28-30). The only thing the Jews felt from the Pharisees was judgment. Rather than lead the people, they looked only at their sins and faults. The Pharisees also hated Jesus because He exposed their hypocrisy. These church leaders had set a moral standard for the community that they did not necessarily adhere to, especially “to the letter.” These men sat in the highest places in the synagogue,  ornately dressed, expected nothing but honor and admiration.

The Pharisees feared Jesus, but would never admit it in public. Of main concern was the chance that Israel’s worship of Jesus as the Christ would bring the wrath of Yahweh down on their nation once again. They were quite concerned that authority over the Jews would be eliminated. Perhaps these new believers in Christ would ban together and revolt against the church. This would likely cause the Roman Empire to step in, using whatever means to bring the people back in line. Accordingly, the Pharisees plotted to arrest Jesus and remove Him from the community before He stirred up trouble.

The Pharisees in the Eyes of Jesus

Throughout His ministry, Jesus confronted the Pharisees in public, denouncing their hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, and oppressive ways. These “separate” men had been entrusted with the guardianship of the Torah, which was to be applied to everyday life. Instead, the Pharisees used the Torah to control and manipulate the people. Disregarding ethical considerations, and being devoid of mercy, they imposed an intolerable burden of legal observance upon the common people. Legal precepts invented by the Pharisees were proscribed to add excessive and oppressive laws and regulations to enslave the Jews. To this end, the Pharisees were always on alert for violations of even the simplest regulations.

The Woes of the Pharisees is a list of criticisms by Jesus against scribes and Pharisees recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Here is what Jesus said,

“Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you… you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others… you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places… you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it… you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers… you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Matt. 11:39-44, 46, 52).

Luke ends chapter twenty of his gospel with accusing the Pharisees of lying in wait to ensnare Jesus; they looked for statements made by Jesus that contradicted the Mosaic Law. Ironically, Jesus was sent to fulfill the Law, and He referred to Scripture in virtually every lesson He taught during His ministry. Jesus compared the Pharisees to tenants of a vineyard who wanted to kill the owner’s son in order to steal his inheritance (Matthew 21:38). Finally, knowing what the consequences would be, He declared that He was the Son of God. This was too much for the Pharisees to bear. How could this man be the Son of God, a man who broke their Sabbath laws and ate with sinners? To their minds it was inconceivable. “This is blasphemy!”

A shout out to Nicodemus who, although a Pharisee, earnestly sought out Christ during His earthly ministry, ultimately shared with Joseph of Arimathea the responsibility of burying Jesus’s body. (see John 3:1-21).

Jesus indeed had much to say about pretense of virtue by pious people, and how they wrongly condemn others for transgressing rules which they themselves did not follow. The message Jesus brought forth focused on faith in God and humility. He emphatically stated that religious rules and regulations cannot save man from the wages of sin. He taught that “rules” can be set aside to meet human need when necessary (Matt. 12:1-14). In essence, He said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). It has been said that the nearly-endless Jewish rules of conduct were extremely detailed. Rules about the Sabbath “…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many” (Tractate Hagiga: Synopsis of Subjects) (2).

Just after Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil [sic] them” (John 5:17), He added, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Matthew Henry writes, “No sinner partakes of Christ’s justifying righteousness till he repents of his evil deeds” (3). Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us by faith alone in Christ alone, is needed by every one that enters the kingdom of grace and glory.  Regeneration produces a thorough change in a man’s temper and conduct. Righteousness provides us with “right standing,” which wraps us in Christ and prepares us for sanctification and restoration.

Concluding Remarks

The Pharisees failed to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, the very foundation of our salvation. As a result, they could not accept the concept of putting on the righteousness of Jesus. Most Pharisees were likely “religious,” or even devout, in the Judaic beliefs. However, many were “in it” for power, recognition, privilege, and money. Jesus began attacking their hypocrisy at the start of His ministry, telling the Jewish people, “…observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). Given the disconnect between the Pharisees outward appearance and religious works and what was in their hearts, “Pharisee” took on a pejorative meaning that is synonymous with hypocrite.

These men of God were adamant that the spiritual life of the people should be centered in the Torah and the Synagogue. They claimed  authority over the Mosaic Law, and established an aristocracy of learning. Pharisaic influence was  went so far as to say that he who transgressed their words deserved death (Ber. 4a). There are some biblical scholars who believe the Pharisees saw their stronghold over Israel as one of protection; building a fence around the Law. Through this oppression that the foundation was laid for rabbinic law which piled statute upon statute until often the real purpose of the Law was lost.

When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, His authority outweighed any authority wielded by the Pharisees. Initially, the Pharisees assumed that the belief of some of the crowd was due to ignorance. But the attention lavished upon Jesus tended to increase the hatred and jealousy of the church leaders. These emotions were at the root of their plot to kill the Messiah. Remarkably, the Pharisees knew nothing of their role in creating the perfect, spotless Lamb who would be sacrificed to satisfy the debt of mankind.

 

 

 

(1) A small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law.

(2) One of the tractates comprising the Moed, one of six orders of the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions included in the Talmud.

(3) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Matthew Henry, 1997), 865.

 

 

Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020)

We have a right to believe whatever we want, but not everything we believe is right” (Ravi Zacharias).

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

Ravi_Zacharias_250_291

I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER THE first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak. Unfortunately, it was not “in person,” but that did not matter. His words were so captivating it was as if I were sitting in the front row. Learning of his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (“RZIM”), I hoped to one day interview for a position on staff. I was leaning toward a ministry of apologetics before I began listening to Ravi, but I was so impressed by the clarity and passion with which he “defended the faith” that I decided to move headlong into that mission.

I was first introduced to apologetics in an undergraduate class at Colorado Christian University (“CCU”) in 2018. It was called World Views. I have been studying philosophy, psychology, comparative religion, and Christian theology for a number of years, but CCU is preparing me for a purposeful examination of these fascinating and vital disciplines. I learned that “worldview” means the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions (1). James Sire issued a caveat: “A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (2).

I am totally convinced the Christian faith is the most coherent worldview around. Everyone, pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong? What happens to me when I die?—Ravi Zacharias.

Ravi suggested one role of apologetics is “seeing things God’s way.” The apologist must take what he or she has learned about the Christian faith (through a God’s eye view), then present it in a manner conducive to the intended audience. Paul said, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV). If there is an intellectual (theoretical) barrier, start there. If there is a sensory (aesthetic) barrier, start there.

When sharing the gospel, I find it useful to start where there is common ground: In the beginning. It is better to open your Bible to Genesis 1 than John 3:16. One’s understanding of God must be rooted in origin, sovereignty, immanence, and aseity (“from self”) before the concept of “God in the flesh” and the crucifixion of Christ can be grasped.

A Christian Worldview

Amy Orr-Ewing said, “By its very nature the the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook.” (3). Postmodernists reject any clear meaning of truth, citing discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. This pervasive worldview makes it hard to engage in evangelism and apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture. However, it is not necessary to understand and evaluate other worldviews in order to have a personal faith in the gospel.

According to data published by George Barna in 2002 “…just 9% of all born again adults and just 7% of Protestants possess a biblical worldview” (4). This study notes that only half of Protestant Pastors in America possess a biblical worldview. Ronald Nash defines biblical worldview as believing “…human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (5).

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man… If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”—C.S. Lewis

A biblical worldview rests solely on the revelation of God to His creation, which is activated by the Holy Spirit to those who adopt it. A theistic worldview and a biblical worldview are not synonymous. Here’s the difference: the biblical view begins where the basic acceptance of God leaves off, compelling the Christian to seek God (“Yahweh”) through His written Word, and apply to everyday life what Scripture teaches.

Ravi’s Profession

Ravi Zacharias was indifferent to “all things religious” early in his life, and as a result had no “good options” for his misery and existential angst. He was born in southern India and raised in Delhi. He played a variety of sports growing up, including cricket and tennis. He focused too intently on sports and began failing his courses, leading to complete shame and despair. He attempted suicide by ingesting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, but was found by someone who immediately sought medical attention. Lying in his hospital bed, he saw how empty his life was at seventeen years of age; essentially, he was at a loss regarding the purpose and meaning of his life. Someone brought a Bible to him and he began reading. He came upon John 14:19: “Because I live you will live also.” At that moment Ravi’s life became defined, and Jesus Christ transformed his life.

“You see, there is an intellectual side to life but also a side to life where deep needs are experienced. We falsely think that one side deals with truth and the other with fantasy. Both need the truth, and the elimination of one by the other is not the world in which God intends for us to live.”—Ravi Zacharias

Ravi’s biblical worldview was simple and elegant. He began with “what is truth?” His evangelism and apologetics were rooted in “helping the thinker believe and the believer think.” We tend to doubt what we cannot see. Ravi said, “Truth is generally measured in three ways: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and and experiential relevance” (see above video). Also, “Truth that is not under-girded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possessor of it repulsive.” Jesus plainly stated who He was with these critical remarks: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Ravi spoke many times on the impact of secularism and relativism in Western civilization, stating that the world’s religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance. Pluralism by design features a competing number of worldviews to choose from with no one viewpoint being dominant, let alone “correct.” Moral relativism completely discounts universal and ontological points of reference for right and wrong. Instead, morality is seen as contingent upon any number of variables: cultural, historical, situational. Of paramount importance is that none of these worldviews is able to solve the sin problem. Ravi said, “The points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic. Indeed, they are foundational” (6).

“The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world.”—Charles Malik

With Gratitude

I close my eyes and remember. I can hear a voice from my early teens, someone I’d come to admire: confident and moving. This voice was particularly compelling one a Sunday morning in 1972 when I got up from my seat in the pew and answered the call to come down front and accept Jesus Christ as my Messiah, my Lord and Master. I was thirteen. I can also remember sitting in my room on occasion listening to Billy Graham. Reverend Graham’s voice was compelling, bold. It rose above everyone in that auditorium, above every earthly concern. He asked the audience, “What’s wrong with the world?” 

There is only one other man of God who has moved me like Billy Graham has: That man is Ravi Zacharias. Ravi opened the door to a deeper walk with Jesus. To a compassionate “living” theology. He took on the many isms of this world, graciously explaining where they miss the mark. He compared the “secular gods” (pluralism, naturalism, secularism, and moral relativism) to Christianity: the Way,  the Truth, and the Life. Ravi’s distinctive voice and emphatic apologetic pierced my heart. He confirmed God’s call on my life—evangelism and apologetics. 

I could not be more grateful to Ravi Zacharias and Billy Graham, mighty men of God, who came into my life. Each of these men impacted me at major crossroads. I must thank the living God for men such as these.

Suggested Additional Reading

The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version)
Beyond Opinion: Living the Truth We Believe, Ravi Zacharias
The End of Reason, Ravi Zacharias
Jesus Among Secular Gods, Ravi Zacharias
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman L. Geisler & Frank Turek
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey
There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew
The Universe Next Door, James Sire

Footnotes

(1) Phillips, Brown, and Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008), 8.
(2) James Sire, The World Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),20.
(3) Amy Orr-Ewing, “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible,” in  Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 3.
(4) George Barna, “Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have a Biblical Worldview,” (Jan. 12, 2004), Barna Research. https://www.barna.com/research/only-half-of-protestant-pastors-have-a-biblical-worldview/
(5) Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 47.
(6) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2017), 6.

The Christian Worldview, Modern Culture, and Addiction

“The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us… And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.” —T.S. Eliot

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

Lift Up Your Hands

I’VE HEARD IT SAID that in days past Christianity had an influence on culture in America; today, however, culture is having an impact on Christianity. One of my mentors at church puts it this way: “There’s too much world in the church and not enough church in the world.” This symptom comes from the relegation of all things religious to the private world, and the banning of all public expression of one’s faith. Nancy Pearcey said, “Not only have we ‘lost the culture,’ but we continue losing even our own children. It’s a familiar but tragic story that devout young people, raised in Christian homes, head off to college and abandon their faith.” (1) How does this happen? Largely because we’re sending our children off to secular education without helping them develop a Christian worldview. They can’t keep what they don’t understand.

Trevor Hart believes Christian theology must be a matter of activity, not just a subject to be studied. Today,  the hallmark of intellectual inquiry in everyday living appeals exclusively to reason and empirically established evidence as the only building block for truth. He said, “This account of things, which is widely subscribed to within our culture, can be traced back some three and a half centuries to the origins of the so-called European Enlightenment.” (2) Hart said one particular manifestation of this factor is the chasm between public and private spheres. Certainly, this view has greatly contributed to Christianity’s ineffective influence in culture. The “public” sector Hart refers to is the realm of universally-owned or agreed knowledge. If something is “public” truth, then it must be something which everyone can know to be true—a truth available to observation or self-evident to human reasoning.

Public and Private Venues

Today, we’re told to the “private” realm belong all statements or propositions which (for whatever reason) do not permit public scrutiny. Hart wrote, “The private sphere is the sphere of values, matters of opinion and beliefs; anything, in fact, the truth or falsity of which cannot in principle be demonstrated on publicly agreed terms.” (3) This phenomenon leads to comments like That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to hold it; but unless you prove it to be true I am compelled to reject it. Admittedly, the deck is stacked against faith and religion and in favor of science and “proven fact.” Hart believes the “passport” for bringing faith into the public realm is “justification by reason.” Christian faith is generally considered by our society to belong to the category of unproven and unprovable. To speak of such private beliefs in public is simply not condoned. Although faith is the usual motivation for theology, those who advocate for investigation solely on empirical evidence believe faith must remain on the sidelines, giving way to the pursuit of truth based upon reason alone.

Hart believes absolutism is born of arrogance. I concur. Many individuals today shout down any explicit expression of faith in public. It is their conclusion that the truth of the Christian story is not, nor will it ever be, demonstrable. Of course, another element of this is the opinion that truth is never something absolute or universal, but always relative to a particular context—cultural, historical, linguistic, religious, or whatever. We call this conclusion moral relativism. Relativism refers to an ethical system in which right and wrong are not absolute and unchanging but relative to one’s culture (cultural relativism) or one’s own personal preferences (moral subjectivism). Of course we see both forms widely embraced in today’s society. These concepts are directly related to the multiculturalism and pluralism rampant in Western civilization.

Worldview with Earth

How we experience and define the world and our place in it is called our worldview. Wilhelm Dilthey said, “The basic role of a worldview is to present the relationship of the human mind to the riddle of the world and life.” (4) Worldviews vary greatly, but they typically share some common elements: the certainty of death; cruelty of the natural process; general transitoriness. Accordingly, a worldview begins as a cosmic concept and then, through a complex interrelation between us and our world, develops into a more sophisticated and detailed sense of who we are and what is the nature of that which surrounds us. Coupled with a growing sense of values, a highest order of our practical behavior (comprehensive plan of life, highest good, highest norms of action, and shaping of our personal life) takes hold of and defines our thought and experience.

We are speaking of a clash of worldviews. Will Durant said, “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.”

A Christian Perspective

Herman Dooyeweerd believes theoretical thought does not necessarily lie at the base of one’s worldview. More fundamental than any worldview delineated by religious faith is the orientation of one’s heart. Referring to Dooyeweerd, James Sire wrote, “All human endeavor stems not from worldview, but from the spiritual commitments of the heart.” (5) Sire believes there are only two basic commitments in Christianity, leading to two basic conditions of life: “man converted to God” and “man averted from God.” C.S. Lewis treated Christian ideas with clarity and creativity, painstakingly dissecting their importance and relation to overall philosophy and individual challenge. Lewis held the belief that we are all philosophers to some extent. It was his goal to reach philosophia perennis—ultimate and permanently true philosophy.

To this end, Lewis posited that a Christian worldview must be a hybrid of philosophy and theology. He thought this would be highly advantageous because both disciplines generate knowledge in their own distinctive ways. Philosophy employs reason, building on commonly available information, to decide the most fundamental queries about life and the world. Theology draws from Scripture, ecclesiastics, established doctrine, and the historical experiences of the community of believers to articulate knowledge about God in a systematic manner. Lewis believed the truths established by philosophy and theology were compatible. I see this as another application of “all truth is God’s truth.”

Christian apologist James Orr (1844-1913) set out to provide a complete, coherent, rationally defensible exposition of Christianity that would stand up to the intellectual and cultural challenges of his day.  Orr supported the belief that the Christian faith is a christocentric, self-authenticating system of biblical truth characterized by inner integrity, rational coherence, empirical verisimilitude, and existential power. Sire says, “Worldviews have their source deep in the constitution of human nature and involve both the intellect and the actions we perform” (italics mine). (6) Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” (7) We must live our theology, without which it is merely a collection of data.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) believed every worldview has a single conception from which the whole worldview flows. He supported the need for all thought to proceed from a single principle: what he called a fixed point of departure. Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) believed the religious or faith orientation of the heart was more fundamental than any worldview that can be delineated by ideas and propositions. He said, “Theory and practice are a product of the will, not the intellect; of the heart, not the head.” (8) Accordingly, he believed worldviews are pretheoretical commitments that are in direct contact not so much with the mind as the heart—involving experience; the living of life. Soren Kierkegaard said Christian conversion necessarily leads to the formation of a new “life-view.” Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2, NRSV) (italics mine).

Ronald Nash provides a very concise description of worldview: “In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life… [It] is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.” (9) I’d like to present a longer comment from Nash before addressing what I hope to be a unique look at a “negative” or “bad” worldview; one I held while in active addiction. Nash wrote:

A worldview may well be defined as one’s comprehensive framework of basic beliefs about things, but our talk (confessed beliefs or cognitive claims) is one thing, and our walk (operational beliefs) is another and even more important thing. A lived worldview defines one’s basic convictions; it defines what one is ready to live and die for.

Worldview of an Addict

Hung Over

Worldview is how a person views the world. A person’s worldview consists of the values and ideals—the fundamental belief system—that determine his attitudes, beliefs and, ultimately, his behavior. Typically, this includes his view of issues such as the nature of God, man, the meaning of life, nature, death, and right and wrong. It is not difficult to imagine how the worldview of an addict might be skewed away from what most people consider proper attitude, belief, and behavior. We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. This is, at least in part, the concept of nature versus nurture.

Here are the basic questions we must answer to determine our worldview, and my responses while in active addiction:

  • Is there a god and what is he like?  Maybe. I think so, but I’m not sure. Besides, who cares if there is? He doesn’t love me or want me. I might not be “God” but I want the job. I want to be in charge of me!
  • What is the nature and origin of the universe? Who knows? Who cares? I doubt something came from nothing, but I’m not interested in finding out.
  • What is the nature and origin of man? I don’t think I came from an ape, but I sure act like one! I’m smart, so I should be able to read about this issue and make up my own mind. Some day. Not today.
  • What happens to man after death? I think the Bible has it right. There is a place for the “good” people and the “bad” people. I’ve always been a piece of crap who cannot love or respect others. Instead, I deceive and manipulate them. There probably is a Hell and I’m headed there. My “sins” are too great. Jesus saved everyone but me! I cannot be redeemed so might as well “live it up,” taking what I want.
  • Where does knowledge come from? Good question! I have an IQ of 127 but it does me absolutely no good. My father said, “If you’re so smart, why are you so dumb?” My “smarts” came from me reading, learning, doing. I make my own rules and definitions.
  • What is the basis of ethics and morality? Ethics is whatever I say it is. Morality? No one is truly moral. It’s all “relative” to the person or circumstance. If cannibalism is okay, then I am free to do whatever I deem fit for the situation. It’s “dog eat dog.” It’s all about getting what you want at any cost. And I love the idea of paybacks!
  • What is the meaning of human history? Maybe Darwin was right! Life seems to be every man for himself. I need to adapt. Be a chameleon. Be whatever it takes to get what I want and need. Our entire history has been about survival of the fittest, even from a social perspective.

What It’s Like Now

God has given me a great gift. It starts with life itself. There are numerous situations which, by odds, should have ended in my death. I overdosed on an opiate one afternoon and needed emergency care. I do not remember the event—going unresponsive; the neighbor coming over to try reviving me; the ambulance ride to the trauma center; yelling horrible obscenities at my mother and begging to go home; pulling my IV out, blood everywhere; being transferred to my hospital room. I became aware of my surroundings the next morning when I woke up in a hospital bed. I’ve driven while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol countless times but never crashed, killed myself, killed others, or ended up in a wheelchair. I’ve been homeless. I’ve put myself in dangerous circumstances just to score drugs. I continued drinking a fifth of vodka a day despite ulcers, elevated liver enzymes, and pancreatitis. I’ve operated a vehicle at speeds in excess of 100 miles-per-hour. Being a “garbage head,” I snorted, swallowed, smoked, and huffed nearly anything that would “do the trick.”

I went from hating myself for 59 years to finally loving myself. Today, I have forgiven myself for the harmful and twisted way I lived for over 40 years, no longer regretting my past or pretending it never happened; instead, I see it now as an asset for helping others. I am motivated today to teach to others the lessons I had to learn the hard way. Loving myself has made it possible to love others. It has also shown me what true unconditional love looks like (1 Cor. 13). I have forgiven all those (whether real or imagined) who treated me badly, no longer using it as an excuse to behave badly. I understand original sin and fully comprehend the “struggle” Paul wrote about in Romans 7. I have forgiven others for their unforgiving attitude toward me, seeing me through their eyes.

I have finally come to accept my powerlessness over drugs and alcohol, as well as pornography, emotional eating, and spending money to “feel good.” Paul put powerlessness into perspective:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom. 7:15-20, 24-25).

I used to have a very chaotic and unsettled lifestyle. My “default mode” or my “center” was anxiety. I had no peace; no quite moments. I couldn’t sit still. My mind wandered every time I read a book, and I was prone to daydreaming during a movie. My nights were filled with restless worrying and insomnia. As my health and well being began to suffer, I was wracked with depression, anxiety, and chronic physical pain. My degenerative disc disease made it harder to stay away from opiates and cannabis. The great lie I told myself is that I used oxy and weed to escape pain and anxiety. I was not an addict. I needed drugs. I was so very wrong. Despite attending my first 12-step meeting in 2001, I am only sober from booze since 2008 and free of cannabis and opiates for ten months.

Yes, I am powerless. Over many things. But that’s okay. I don’t need to overcome anything by myself. John wrote, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4-5). I spent decades doing whatever I wanted. When circumstances got bad, I tried to fix things by myself. Quitting is actually easy for me; the hard part is staying quit! No worries. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13). And so can you. When we admit our faults, confess them to one another and to God, and take the next right step to move away from deliberate sin, we exponentially increase the odds we will keep on moving and growing.

Footnotes

(1) Nancy Pearsey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, LI: Crossway Publishing, 2005), 19.

(2) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995), 12.

(3) Hart, 13.

(4) Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, in Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History, (Detroit, IL: Wayne State University Press, 1988), 291.

(5) James Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 35.

(6) Sire, 33.

(7) Martin Luther, Operations in Psalmos, quoted by Kelly M. Kapic in A Little Book for New Theologians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 41.

(8) In Naugle, Worldview, 27.

(9) Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1922), 12.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Constantine and the Church

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

Engage the perennial question: Was Constantine good or bad for the church of Jesus Christ? In making your case, note (and cite from Gonzalez, and other sources, if you would like) the ways in which Constantine affected the church’s doctrine and practice. Answer these questions as parts of your overarching answer:

  • Which effects were good, and which were bad?
  • What have been the long-term results—good and bad— of those effective changes?

Just when I thought I was already having enough fun studying theology, we were given another fascinating assignment. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity began to move from persecution to dominance. In AD 392, the emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan worship—Christianity effectively became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine said, “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation… This I have seen in others as well as myself” (in Gonzalez, 2010, 131). At first blush, this statement rings like a true profession of faith in the One True God, but is it? We’re asked to consider whether Constantine was good or bad for Christianity. In part, this must include consideration of whether the above statement equates to public profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. It is interesting to note that Constantine did not refer to Christ as the only god. Accordingly, the veritas of Constantine’s confession has been the subject of many discussions. Some believed it was merely a shrewd political maneuver. Constantine referred to the Christian God as “the greatest god,” the summa deus (Stephenson, 2009,169), yet he adorned the city with pagan statues from around the empire. Ravi Zacharias (2007, 10) said some scholars believe Constantine wanted to assert control over his “chosen religion” to the benefit of his empire and so insisted on the convening of a group of men to determine the content of the Bible (Council of Nicaea, AD 325). However, this was not the purpose of the Council.

Gonzalez believes it is important to determine the impact Constantine’s conversion and rule had on the Church. He states, “The truth is probably that Constantine was a sincere believer in the power of Christ” (139). He failed to place himself under the instruction of church leaders, yet he felt authorized to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. Gonzalez said Constantine considered himself “bishop of bishops” (138). Christian leaders thought that although inclined to become a believer, Constantine was not “one of the faithful” (139). Constantine was a sincere man, but he held a meager grasp of the Christian faith. For example, he thought the Christian God and the god “Unconquered Sun” were compatible. In his mind, there was room for serving other gods. He frequently took part in numerous pagan ceremonies without a thought that he was betraying the Christian God. Regardless of whether his conversion was genuine, Constantine’s beliefs and practices had a definite impact on Christianity.

Bad Effects

Paganism was still considered the “official” religion of the empire. As head of the empire, Constantine took the title of Supreme Pontiff or High Priest of that belief system. Gonzalez notes, “[A]lmost to his dying day, Constantine continued functioning as the High Priest of paganism” (141). His influence caused a drop in catechism prior to baptism. Because the ancient gods were still a part of everyday life, Constantine’s desire to “serve two masters” perpetuated pagan worship in the empire. Gonzalez states despite having done much to the detriment of paganism, Constantine “became one of the pagan gods… the Eastern church considers him a saint, thus resulting in a saint who is also a pagan god” (141). Spiritual ambiguity caused persistent violence against pagans by Christians, resulting in their rejection of Christianity. Power and prestige among church leaders caused increased arrogance and corruption in the church. Gonzalez notes that Lucius “bought” his position as bishop of Alexandria—a practice eventually known as simony. Moreover, as bishops were permitted increasing judicial powers, bribery became an issue. Perhaps this was a secular foreshadowing of priests selling “indulgences” for sins in the Catholic Church.

The laity began to see conversion as less critical or dramatic. Syncretism and superstition were on the increase as a result of merging Christianity and paganism. Many believers were buried with both Christian and pagan artifacts and symbols. Constantine’s conversion led to imperial impact on Christian worship. Incense, which was initially used to venerate emperors, began to be used in Christian services. We can see the influence of this today in Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist, Orthodox Christian, and some Lutheran services. Ministers started wearing fancy or luxurious garments when officiating, and the church started calling ministers “priests” as in paganism. Kneeling seems to have originated with bowing before the emperor.

Ancient artifacts and bodies of martyrs were dug up, relocated, or venerated—perhaps a form of idolatry? As church membership grew exponentially, limitation on time and space led to many “new converts” not being baptized. Additionally, pre-baptismal instruction was shortened or eliminated. This is something the early church would have deemed unacceptable. Churches, worship services, and other aspects grew complex in contrast to a simpler and humbler time. An “official theology” developed, likely as a means for paying homage to Constantine for outlawing persecution of the faithful. Many believed Constantine was “chosen” by God to facilitate the merging of church and empire. This was something Christ vehemently discouraged (No doubt the congregations became inundated with “so-called” Christians. Gonzalez notes an exodus from “the imperial church” which many believed had become sinful and apostate.

Good Effects

The conversion of Constantine had several positive effects on the Christian church. Prior to this, Christians lived under the unpredictable threat of persecution. Stephenson notes that Constantine may not have been a Christian at this point (AD 312), but he began showing sympathy and concern for its followers (169). Accordingly, he forbade persecution of the Christian faith. Constantine also wanted to end factionalism within the community of Christian believers (Stephenson, 169). Under Constantine, Lactantius wrote an early apologetic titled On the Deaths of the Persecutors wherein he stated that monotheism was Rome’s “original religion, and the idea of many gods was introduced in error.” Monotheism was said to be superior to polytheism, and Christianity was expressed as the only means through which wisdom was attainable (Stephenson, 170). It is interesting to note the likely origin for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. Sol Invictus (the personification of the Sun) was worshiped as the “greatest god” that was acceptable to all (177). Initially, December 25 was the “Day of the Sun.” According to Stephenson, on December 25, 323 Constantine declared the date as the dies natalis of Christ and exempted all Christians from having to participate in the veneration of Sol (178).

Constantine used imperial edicts to establish privileges for churches and their leadership. For example, churches were allowed tax exempt status for properties and their ministers. Further, members and others were permitted the legal right to pass property on to the church. We see this practice in operation today, allowing some denominations to amass a vast amount of assets. According to Church and State, the Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest non-business entity in the world, with assets ranging from $10 billion to $15 billion and an operation budget of approximately $170 billion in the United States alone (Network for Church Monitoring, 2020). Of course, whenever accumulation of wealth become more important than seeking God’s kingdom and storing up treasures in heaven, such developments can be detrimental for Christianity

IN CONCLUSION, clearly Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is in question. First, although he made a public profession of faith, he did not undergo water baptism until on his deathbed in 337. Moreover, many of his attitudes and actions seemed to belie true dedication to Christ. He continued to participate in pagan ceremonies at times and functioned as its high priest. Constantine’s serving two masters caused the prolonging of pagan worship. Negative effects included ongoing violence against pagans by Christians, ecclesiastical and judicial corruption, early practices that mimic the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, syncretism, a lack of catechism teachings before water baptism, and at least a temporary diluting of Christianity. Constantine did, however, outlaw persecution of Christians, helped to cause a slow increase in observing monotheism over polytheism, and establishment of December 25 as Christmas Day.

I am impressed by the impact of Christian ecclesiastical history on grasping the many nuances of the Christian faith.

References

Church and State (London, England: Network for Church Monitoring), 2020.

Gonzalez, J.L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2010.

Stephenson, P. Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor (New York, NY: The Overlook Press), 2010.

Zacharias, R., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith we Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2007.