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.

Isaiah 53: The Gospel According to God

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

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sufferings of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

The Relevant Passage Intact

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

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

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

Other OT Prophesies About Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

[3] McArthur, p. 21.

[4] McArthur, p. 24.

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

 

Why Can’t I Follow My Heart?

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

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

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

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

What it Means

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

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

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

Where Your Treasure Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hard Lesson to Learn

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

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

So Now What?

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

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

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

***

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

Footnotes

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

 

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Salvation

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

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Based on what we read in Grudem’s Systematic Theology and what Scripture says about the topics discussed in Chapter 31 (on salvation), and any other source(s), we were told to identify as specifically as we could where God is responsible (i.e., what God is doing) and where humans are responsible (i.e., what humans are doing) in the following aspects of salvation: election, regeneration, and conversion.

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, RSV).

I found this week’s discussion prompt to be very engaging. Perhaps the most wonderous aspect of the life and death of Jesus on the cross is this thing called “salvation.” As I noted in last week’s discussion, salvation is a rather complex concept. At its simplest definition, it is “deliverance, especially of humanity, from sin’s power and effects.” [1] From a biblical perspective, its root-meaning encompasses “width,” “spaciousness,” “freedom from constraint,” and “deliverance.” The Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is considered “salvation.”

Relative to NT references, salvation (sȏtēria) also indicates deliverance or preservation, with hints of wholeness, soundness, and health. It is clear that much of God’s grace is ongoing and touches on many areas of daily existence, from restraint over runaway evil to inspiring and life-saving creativity; from governmental and other institutions in human society to numerous examples of love and kindness; from the selfless actions of our emergency first-responders to the soldiers who stand between us and our mortal enemies. It is the endless and unmerited grace of God that fuels each of these interventions and benevolent actions. To me, this is definitive proof that He wishes all to prosper and to come to forgiveness.

Grudem says, “Grace restrains sin but does not change anyone’s foundational disposition to sin, nor does it in any significant manner purify fallen human nature or negate the consequences of sin.” [2] So why does God pour out His common grace on undeserving sinners? Perhaps He is demonstrating at least an approximation of the grace that is available through true repentance, wishing that no one should suffer eternal death and damnation. His patient sufferance of our obstinate disobedience serves to give all mankind the opportunity to repent. God wishes to demonstrate His goodness and mercy through the many blessings He bestows to the undeserving. David recognized the compassion God has shown over all He has made. Grudem believes God’s forbearance of judgment testifies to the fact that, clearly, He takes no pleasure in doling out punishment. Ezekiel 33:11: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (italics added).

God wishes man to comprehend His justice. Paul notes that those who consistently resist God’s call to salvation are simply storing up more wrath for themselves, noting that on the day of judgment “every mouth will be stopped” (Rom. 2:5). No one will be able to rightly claim that God has been unfair. Instead, we must recognize the many blessings in the world as evidence of God’s power and wisdom—a continual expression of His abundant grace.

Relative to the order and operation of “salvation,” we are asked this week to look at election, regeneration, and conversion. Specifically, what is God’s responsibility (His “doing”) and what is man’s responsibility (his “function”) in each of these elements of salvation? Of course, I have already delineated some of this above. God is the author and finisher of our salvation. It is His plan (which He ordained before the foundation of the universe) that puts the element of salvation in motion. He fashioned a perfect plan for redemption and provided the incredibly efficacious means for underwriting that plan: the death of His Son Jesus. He remained faithful to that plan and provided opportunities through many institutions for man to recognize the degree of His grace and His love for mankind. Further, His plan and the underlying graciousness that fuels it remained constant. Not once did He change His mind and decide mankind was worthless and without purpose despite the pervasiveness of evil manifested throughout creation. His instructions were simple and concrete. He elected those whom He would save, and He set forth the method for salvation at great cost to Himself—the death of His only begotten Son.

It is at this point that the responsibility changes hands. Man becomes answerable to God relative to the plan of salvation. J.I. Packer describes regeneration (i.e., “new birth”) as an inner recreation of fallen human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. This new birth necessarily involves renewal effective enough to change a person’s disposition from sin and lawlessness to one of obedience, trust, and love. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, when there is a repentance (a “turning away from”) past rebelliousness, unbelief, and abject disobedience. Regeneration in its simplest definition is when someone moves from the state of being dead in trespasses and sins to being made alive in Christ unto righteousness. God, being rich in mercy and possessing great love for us, makes us “alive” together with Christ, to the extent that He shows us the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).

Of course, we have a part in this. There is a decisiveness in our putting on this “new birth.” Assuming we have admitted to our lost state, we must now choose renewal of our spirit. This involves our coming to understand that we’re buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:4-6). J.I. Packer notes the perfect tense of the verb genan, meaning both “to beget” and “to bear,” which allows us to see our part in responding to God’s saving revelation in Christ. [3]

We can now look at the aspect of conversion and our role in how it works in our lives as new Christians. Admittedly, I once held the opinion that I was “converted” by the Holy Spirit the moment I accepted Christ as my “personal Lord and Savior.” Grudem is clear about what conversion truly entails, stating it is “our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation” (italics added). [4] It involves a spiritual “turn” toward Christ. There is considerable emphasis placed on us relative to conversion. Our will is involved. In other words, it is not simply a “zapping” of our spirit by the Holy Spirit following recitation of a prayer. Conversion is the point at which we consciously repent from our sinful ways. It is here that we make a “180” and walk away from sin as part of our regeneration. This regeneration is made possible through God’s election. All of which, doctrinally, stems from God’s plan for redemption which He ordained before the foundation of the universe.

Specific to conversion, it is critical to realize none of this is based upon simply knowing about it. Grudem states, “Personal saving faith, in the way Scripture understands it, involves more than mere knowledge.” [5] We can know “facts” about God and His Son, but this is simply data. Conversion must be based upon knowing God, not knowing about Him. It entails trusting Jesus as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. D.G.Bloesch notes that in evangelical theology, conversion has two elements: it is both divine and human, involving incursion of divine grace and a conscious decision to change our behavior. [6] In fact, Bloesch says we are active in conversion (we become willing) while passive in regeneration. Remember, regeneration is an inner recreation of our fallen human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason we do not merely latch on to salvation; rather, we decide for salvation once our eyes have been opened by God’s grace. Lastly, of course, true conversion includes making Christ Lord over our life.

[1] R.E.O. White, “Salvation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 768.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 663.

[3] J.I.Packer, “Regeneration,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 734-35.

[4] Wayne Grudem, 709.

[5] Wayne Grudem, 709.

[6] D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology ((Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 212-13.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Works of Christ

The following is a summary of my most recent lesson in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University concerning the “Work” of Jesus.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Grudem joins most Evangelicals in affirming that the penal substitutionary theory is the primary theory and most important way to understand Jesus’ atoning work. But after sampling other biblical images and biblically based theories, pick one image or theory other than penal substitutionary and “defend” it as your new favorite: What is the full scope communicated via this image or theory? Why is it especially meaningful to you?

The lesson this week gives us much to consider regarding the “work” of Jesus Christ, i.e., His sacrifice on the cross. I’m sure most of us realize the importance of “threes” in the work of Christ. First, it is a three-day event. Jesus was taken into custody sometime around midnight (Thursday into Friday) and brought before the Sanhedrin and Roman officials for a series of “trials.” He was crucified on Friday and, after defeating death, He rose from the dead on the third day. Looking at the “work” of Christ in greater detail, “three” shows up several more times. There are three “stages” to the event itself: (1) death; (2) burial; (3) resurrection. Further, each of these stages addresses separate issues regarding atonement. In the first stage, Jesus shed His innocent blood, which correlates with the axiom “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” In the second stage, Jesus suffered actual (physical) death. This stage satisfied our moral debt. The third stage allowed our “sentence” to be served by proxy.

K.M. Kapic provides a wonderful explanation of the work of Christ on the cross. “Taken together, the images on this colorful canvas can help us see the full portrait of atonement: in Christ, God saves us as our mediator, sacrifice, redeemer, justifier, substitute, king, victor, and healer.” [1] Arguably, a key component of the work of Jesus on the cross is His taking our punishment (penal substitutionary). For this week’s discussion, I wish to focus on 1 Peter 2:24. Jesus bore our sins. However, I believe it is only because of His death and resurrection that we have been given the means through which we can “die” to sin—resist its dominion over our lives, especially the “practice” of habitual sin—and live unto righteousness in Christ. Kapic does not believe Christ paid a “ransom” to Satan. I concur. Mankind was enslaved to “sin,” not to the devil. Release from the domination of sin carried a price tag: the death of Jesus Christ.

We see in Christ’s earthly ministry many examples of His beginning to “reverse sin’s curse,” especially regarding how to stand up to temptation, the critical importance of love, submitting to the will of the Father, self-sacrifice (even unto death), and restoration. These activities point to what righteousness should look like. Human sin is in stark contrast to righteousness. Not only does sin seek its own appeasement, it causes a “failure to ‘render unto God his due honor.’” [2] God cannot overlook man’s abject disloyalty. However, I digress. Let’s stay on the matter of Jesus providing the means by which we can resist sin and seek righteousness.

Grudem defines atonement as “The work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.” [3] Although this is slightly vague on its surface, I agree. But I must add that the term “salvation” is very comprehensive and includes deliverance from sin’s power and effects. The Hebrew language indicates some synonymous terms for salvation: freedom from constraint; deliverance from bondage or slavery; preservation from danger. From a New Testament point of view, Christ’s atonement provided release from habit and vice, a growing emancipation from all evil, increasing spiritual perfection (maturity), liberty, and peace. R.E.O. White says Jesus did not die to “win back God’s favor” for us. We had it all along. Rather, the work of the cross enabled us to move from a life of rebellion to a childlike willingness to trust and obey. [4]

I see a vital application of this aspect of the work of Christ to my life. I was subjected to severe “corporal” punishment growing up, which only served to make me fearful and angry. I was not empowered to handle anger, express love, or socialize with others, which led to rebelliousness, sin, addiction, self-centeredness, and a lack of social consciousness. While in active addiction, I fed my sin nature and ignored God’s initial call on my life. My coping mechanisms included those typically associated with addiction: denial, rationalization, blame, escape through physical pleasure. I lacked respect for authority.

Although I tried to stop drinking and getting high numerous times, this was not possible until I began to see how far out of balance my overt behavior was to the Christian worldview I claimed (pretended?) to have. I had to stop seeing myself as the “failure” my father constantly alluded to and, instead, see who I am in Christ because of His work on the cross. This allowed me to love myself and my neighbor. Eventually, I was also able to forgive and begin to love my enemies; what I call my “worst critics.” Not surprisingly, the result was an increasing alignment of my will with God’s will, which led to recovery from addiction. No human power (including mine) could ever break me free from the bondage of sin and addiction. I am convinced that without the all-encompassing benefits of “salvation” we cannot stand up to sin and put on the righteousness of Christ. The work of Christ on the cross allowed me to be forgiven and escape just punishment for my sins; however, it also provided my emancipation from the bondage of sin.


Footnotes

[1] K.M. Kapic, “Atonement,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 97.

[2] Ibid, 97.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 568.

[4] R.E.O. White, “Salvation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 769.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Calvin vs. Arminius

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

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

For the purposes of this exercise, and not necessarily as a reflection of what you really believe, assume the stance of either an Arminian or a Calvinist. From the point of view of your chosen perspective, present and develop two ideas: (1) the one which is most convincing to you about the Calvinist or Arminian perspective and (2) the one with which you struggle the most regarding that perspective.

Concerning the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, we must remember these schools of thought address two distinct issues: (1) free will and ability to choose one’s actions; and (2) election, or God’s choice, as to whom He saves. Calvinism and Arminianism both support the idea of the total depravity of man, to include an inability to choose how to behave. We cannot be saved by the Law. Rather, the Law merely informs us of our inability to “behave” ourselves into righteousness. Arminianism supports universal redemption (general atonement) and conditional election, whereas Calvinism believes in limited (definite) atonement and unconditional election. Calvin is best noted, of course, for adherence to “predestination.” After the Fall, man stood condemned before God. God chose and called “some” who would be saved.

Arminians believe God’s election depends on man’s free will because it is based on His foreknowledge. God does, in fact, see all time at the same time as noted by Grudem. [1] The apostle Peter said we are “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2, RSV). 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 first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Arminians are clear that individuals must accept God’s calling to be saved. It is not a matter of being predestined or chosen “ahead of time.” It is interesting to note, however, that this doctrine (universal salvation) is not necessarily supported by Scripture. Since Jesus died for all, Arminians argue that all will be saved. First Corinthians 6:9-11 says the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God; further, only those who are washed (sanctified, justified) by the blood of Jesus will be saved.

Taking the position of Calvinism, I would have to believe the “call” of God on our lives is resistible—we can reject Jesus or accept Him. However, once we accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the internal leading of the Holy Spirit is all-powerful, achieving God’s purpose in our lives and giving us a measure of grace to be able to choose. We can stand on the belief that God works out everything for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). We’re made “spiritually alive” with a new ability to see God’s plan for our redemption and the place of Jesus in that plan. This call is so wonderful and appealing that it becomes impossible to say no to God. This is not a violation of our free will because we didn’t really have it in the first place; our will was corrupted by original sin. Martin Luther believed even the most excellent of men—endowed with the Law, righteousness, wisdom, and all virtues—is nonetheless ungodly and unrighteous. Due to the innate nature of sin, man cannot consistently choose to act righteously, if at all. [2]

Paul gave the example that many Jews were without faith who were most wise, most religious, and most upright. He said they had a “zeal” for God yet were transgressors of the Law. He wrote in Romans 3:9-10 that the Jew was no better than the Gentile; both are under the power of sin. No one is righteous on their own. This fits well with Paul’s remark that we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities; rulers of the darkness of this world (Eph. 6:12). Because we all are Adam, we need salvation. Adam’s offense comes to us not by imitation, nor necessarily by anything we do (although we do sin, sometimes habitually); rather, we receive our sin nature by birth. Luther believed original sin “does not allow ‘free-will’ any power at all except to sin and incur condemnation.” [3] Therefore, he rejected the notion of free will. He believed this conclusion is well supported by Scripture, especially in the writings of John and Paul.

Grudem quotes Peter, who called Jesus, “a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Pet. 2:8, emphasis added). Peter says in verse 10, “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Grudem says in a footnote related to verse 8, “The ‘destining’ in this verse is best taken to refer to both the stumbling and the disobedience. It is incorrect to say that God only destined the fact that those who disobey would stumble.” [4] Grudem notes that Calvin gives some room for man’s “free” acts and choices. Calvin admitted, however, that this statement is a bit confusing, causing him to avoid using it. Instead, man has “this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion.” [5]

For me, this idea of “will” can mean only one thing: man acts wickedly by deciding to reject the Light of Christ and remain in darkness. He is compelled by his sin nature to act the only way he can—in an ungodly and unrighteous manner. Admittedly, some men choose to act justly or “God-like” at times, but no man is capable of decidedly obeying the Law and acting righteously in a consistent manner. He is not compelled or tempted to do so by God. James said, “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:13-14, NIV, emphasis added).

Grudem notes that God has made us responsible for our actions, reminding us that our actions have real and eternal consequences. He notes that Adam blamed Eve for his own disobedience, saying, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Scripture, as Grudem notes, never blames God for sin. Regardless, He accomplishes all things (no matter their impetus) according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). In the case of Job, God pulled back and allowed Satan to attack Job in any manner He chose (including wiping out his livestock, killing his wife and children), but He would not allow the devil to kill Job. This type of issue gives me pause. It is easy, at least in my human intellectual capacity, to think God willed (therefore, caused) evil on Job’s animals and his family. Innocent people died for God’s point to be made. However, when I consider the horror and evil inflicted upon Jesus during the last twelve hours of His life (what we consider the “passion”), and when I play it out to the end, seeing that mankind could only be redeemed through the shedding of the blood of Jesus, I have an easier time understanding what is meant by God using whatever happens to accomplish His will.

Grudem says, “In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on human experience and intuition, not on specific texts of Scripture.” [6] Note that Grudem uses the term “ordained by God,” and does not say God performed the evil act itself. This speaks of the means through which He achieves His intended result. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). We’re made in such a way, however, that God ordains all we do. The Calvinist would endorse the theory that God does not sin but brings about His will through secondary causes, including the immorality of others. We should accept that whatever God ordains is within His purview and His authority.

Calvin distinguishes between “necessity” and “compulsion.” He notes that unbelievers necessarily sin. Scripture supports this, as does Martin Luther. There is, however, no “Godly compulsion” to sin. There is simply God’s ability to use whatever happens to further His will and promote His glory. What I find most difficult to grasp regarding Calvinism is the idea that God “predetermined” who will be saved and who will not. Perhaps this is a gross misinterpretation of “predeterminism.” The concept that, before the foundation of the world, God predestined a plan of redemption is about the plan and not a prior decision who He will accept and who He will reject. In addition, because God sees the past, the present, and the future all at once, He already knows who will be saved. The responsibility still remains with each individual to either accept or reject the sacrificial death of Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

Bibliography

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will, trans. By James I. Packer(Old Tappan, NJ:       Fleming H. Revell Co.), 1957.

 


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 168.

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), p. 275.

[3] Ibid, p. 298.

[4] Grudem, p. 327.

[5] P. 330.

[6] P. 343.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Basic Tools of Doing Systematic Theology

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

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.

 

 

Jesus Said, “It is Finished.”

“After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished he said [in order to fulfill the scripture], ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:28-30, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

TYPICALLY, WHEN WE HAVE completed a “project” or task, we say, “It is finished!” That which we set out to do has been completed. We followed the written instructions (hopefully to the letter); we sought advice when needed, and most likely adhered to it. We stood back, realizing there was nothing else to be done. Our project was completed.

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“It is finished” is perhaps one of the most quoted verses in the Bible. I know atheists, agnostics, philosophy professors, car mechanics, surgeons, gardeners, school teachers, retail sales clerks, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and humanists who are familiar with the verse. They know Who said it, when it was said, and some even know where to find the verse in Scripture. Yet very few know what it means—especially its scope. Perhaps more sadly, there are those who know what it means, and grasp its comprehensive meaning, yet fail to live out the truth of its significance.

Pontius Pilate

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At the beginning of John 19, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the fifth prefect (governor) of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius. It is important to understand that Pilate was not well liked by the Jews. This is likely because he hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and had coins bearing pagan religious symbols minted. Pilate essentially helped create a “cult of personality” of the emperor. The Jews had strong objections to Pilate’s customs, especially executing men accused of crimes without the benefit of a trial or to face the charges lodged against them.

The First Century historian Josephus called Pilate a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case. He provoked both Jews and Samaritans to riot. Josephus tells us that “in order to abolish Jewish laws,” and with the intent of diminishing privileges Jews had hitherto enjoyed, Pilate ordered his troops to encamp in Jerusalem and sent them into the city with images of the emperor attached to their ensigns. This practice violated the Torah’s prohibition of graven images and desecrated the Temple by the presence of pagan cult objects on the Temple hill.

The New Testament suggests that Pilate had a weak, vacillating personality. Could he have at least postponed the death of Christ if he stood his ground, making an official proclamation of “innocent?” Pilate weakly capitulated even though he found no fault in Jesus. He said to the mob, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him (John 19:4, NRSV). Pilate’s wife sent him word of a revelation she had about Jesus, urging Pilate to “…have nothing do do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Matthew 27:19, NRSV). Pilate again appealed to the crowd, arguing that he could find no fault in Jesus. The Jews answered, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7). In any event, Pilate was but a cog in God’s plan for the redemption of mankind.

This frightened Pilate to the point that he returned to his court room and asked Jesus, where he was from (v. 8), but Jesus would not answer. Pilate then said, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you” (v. 10). Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (v. 11). Pilate finally capitulated. He brought Jesus before the crowd and said, “Here is your King! Shall I crucify [Him]? The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then Pilate handed Christ over to the mob to be executed (v. 14-16).

Let’s take a moment to review the etymology of the word crucifixion. Its origin rests solely with the Latin phrase crux, meaning a tree or any wooden structure used to execute criminals. In the Greek, the most common term is stauroo (σταυρόω), meaning “to crucify.” It occurs 43 times in the New Testament. The word excruciating—a word often used to express the most severe pain possible based on the “pain scale” we’ve all heard when asked by a doctor or nurse to rate our pain on a scale of 0 to 10—also has Latin roots. It is based on the term crux, and includes the term cruciāre, which means torment or torture. Some synonyms for excruciating include unbearable, insufferable, unendurable, agonizing, and racking.

The trial of Jesus violated traditional, official Jewish & Roman jurisprudence for capital crimes, procedures, & protocol, ending with an unlawful sentence & subsequent execution by crucifixion.

The Crucifixion

After His arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane under cover of darkness, Jesus endured six separate trials or hearings (three by the Sanhedrin and three by the Romans). In response to the mob’s insistence, Pilate released Jesus to them to be murdered for claiming to be “King” of the Jews. He underwent scourging, mocking, and horrendous beatings.

Dr. C. Truman Davis, a Christian medical doctor who is affiliated with CBN, felt compelled to apply his medical knowledge to the physical effects crucifixion had on the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Fair warning: This is an account of most horrific acts against  our Savior. I was brought to tears several times while recounting them here. Dr. Davis’s description brings to mind the major motion picture The Passion of the Christ.

The physical passion of Jesus actually began in the Garden of Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of His unimaginable sufferings, the one of greatest physiological interest is when He sweat droplets of blood. It is interesting that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible states, “…other ancient authorities insert add 44, And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44). Modern skeptics have tried to discredit this account under the mistaken impression that this is simply not medically possible. However, medical literature has documented the rare phenomenon hematidrosis, or “bloody sweat.” You can read about this condition at Medical News Today. Under great emotional stress—such as the kind Jesus suffered—tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, causing blood to mix with sweat. This can cause pronounced weakness and possible shock.

Preparations for the scourging of Jesus were carried out when He was stripped naked and His hands were tied to a post above His head. It is doubtful the Romans followed the Jewish law of limiting a whipping to no more than forty lashes. The Roman legionnaire stepped toward Jesus with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand—a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each. The heavy whip was brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’s shoulders, back, and legs. At first, the thongs cut Jesus’s skin only. But as the blows continued, the thongs cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and ultimately a spurting of arterial blood from vessels in the underlying muscles. The initial blows produced large, deep bruises which were broken open by each subsequent blow. Finally the skin began to hang from Jesus’s back in long ribbons. The trauma left the affected areas unrecognizable. When the centurion determined Jesus was near death, the beating was stopped. Jesus was untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, soaked in His own blood.

The Roman soldiers are not done yet. They saw an opportunity for mockery. Because Jesus was accused of claiming to be King of the Jews, the soldiers threw a robe across His shoulders and placed a “stick” in His hand to represent a scepter. Still, a “king” needs a crown. Flexible branches covered with long thorns (commonly used in bundles for firewood) were plaited into the shape of a crown and it was pressed into Jesus’s scalp. There was a lot of blood loss due to the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body. After mocking Him and striking Him across the face, the soldiers took the stick from His hand and struck Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally, exhausted from their sadistic beating, the robe was torn from His back; having adhered to the clots of blood and serum in Jesus’s open wounds, this caused Him great pain. In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans returned His garments. The heavy patibulum of the cross was tied across His shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution detail of Roman soldiers began its slow journey to a hill near Jerusalem called gulgulta in Latin, meaning “place of the skull,” seemingly because of its skull-like shape.

In spite of His best efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, was too much for Jesus. He was, after all, in a human body. He stumbled and fell. The rough wood of the beam gouged into His lacerated skin and muscles across His shoulders. He tried to rise, but his body had been pushed beyond its endurance. A centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selected an onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus followed, still bleeding and sweating and in a state of shock—a 650-yard journey from the fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed.

Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild painkiller. He refused to drink it. Simon was ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus was violently thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire found the depression at the front of the wrist( between the radius and ulna). He drove a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. He did the same to the other wrist. The patibulum was lifted in place at the top. A plaque reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” was nailed above Jesus’s head. Jesus’s left foot was pressed backward against His right foot. With with both feet extended, toes down, a nail was driven through the arch of each foot, leaving the knees moderately flexed. Jesus is now crucified. As He slowly sagged down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating pain shot along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain—the nails in His wrists were putting pressure on the medial nerves.

As Jesus pushed Himself upward to avoid stretching torment, He placed His full weight on the nail that had been driven through His feet. This caused tremendous pain. His arms fatigued, causing great waves of cramps to sweep over His muscles, causing spasms. Eventually, His muscles were so severely cramped that He could no longer push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, His pectoral and intercostal muscles became paralyzed. He was no longer able to exhale. Carbon dioxide built up in His lungs, coursing through His bloodstream.

Jesus experienced hours of horrific pain, cycles of joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, and burning pain where tissue was torn from His lacerated back as He moved up and down attempting to breath. He began to experience a terrible crushing discomfort deep inside His chest as the pericardium slowly filled with serum, compressing His heart.  It was almost over. The loss of tissue fluids had reached a critical level; His compressed heart was struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into His muscles. His tortured lungs were making a frantic effort to gasp gulps of air. His tissues were severely dehydrated, sending pain signals to His brain.

Jesus’s body was now extremely ravaged. He could feel the chill of death creeping through His body. This realization brought Him to express, “It is finished.” His mission of atonement had been accomplished. He could finally allow His body to die. With one last surge of strength, he once again pressed His torn feet against the nail, straightened His legs, took a deep breath, and said, “Father! Into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

“It is Finished.”

Found only in the Gospel of John, the Greek word translated “it is finished” is tetelestai, an accounting term that means “paid in full.” When Jesus uttered those words, He declared the debt owed to His Father due to man’s sin wiped away. He died to pay our debt. Certainly, the full meaning of Jesus’s life and ministry had to culminate in His crucifixion. Through His resurrection, that ministry continues to this day. Paul astutely said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14, RSV).

It’s been said that just before He died Jesus looked back over His life’s work, and, knowing that His mission was accomplished, summoned Death. He departed His body and went to be with the Father. There is something in Jesus’s dying declaration that has a much deeper meaning than the utterance of a man on his death bed indicating he has come to the end of his journey. Jesus’s dying remark indicates there are no loose ends left, no unfinished tasks dropped from His hands to be taken up and carried on by others. His life is a rounded whole, with everything accomplished that had been endeavored, and everything done that had been commanded. Jesus laid the foundation of salvation by the laying down of His life.

Henry (1997) writes,

“It is finished; that is, the counsels of the Father concerning [Jesus’s] sufferings were now fulfilled. It is finished; all the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, which pointed at the sufferings of the Messiah, were accomplished. It is finished; the ceremonial law is abolished; the substance is now come, and all the shadows are done away. It is finished; an end is made of transgression by bringing in an everlasting righteousness. His sufferings were now finished, both those of his soul, and those of his body. It is finished; the work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed. His life was not taken from him by force, but freely given up” (p. 1014-1015).

Matthew 19:28: “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill Scripture), ‘I thirst'” (RSV). There is an interesting interpretation that when Jesus said those words He was speaking of a “spiritual” thirst—a need to return to His Father. This sits well with the synoptic gospels: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me'” (Matthew 27:46, RSV). This verse in Matthew refers to Psalm 22:1:”My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Kidner (1971) calls this “The Psalm of the Cross.” No Christian  can read Psalm 22:1 without being vividly confronted with the crucifixion. It is not only a matter of prophecy fulfilled, but of the sufferer’s abject humility—there is no plea for vengeance, as Jesus certainly would not have intended. Kidner notes, “The Gelineau translation entitles it “The suffering servant wins the deliverance of the nations.” In fact, A. Bentzen ( 1955) points out, “it is not a description of illness, but of an execution” (p. 94, n. 40).

You may recall Jesus’s cry to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39, RSV). I believe Jesus was not asking God to “pardon” Him or take away the need for His death. Rather, I believe Jesus foresaw the wrath of God that the Father would justly and rightly pour out upon mankind for their sins. Jesus asked if it were possible that this cup of wrath might pass from Him. That He might not have to “drink” from it. Nevertheless, He was willing to bear the load of His sufferings (to the fullest extent required by the Father) in order that you and I could escape the bitter, dark, lonely, horrific consequences of our sin. Matthew 26:42 says, “Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.'” Jesus was willing to suffer complete and utter abandonment of the Father in order that we might walk with the Father for eternity clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

How Does This Apply to Us?

The last words of Jesus have a deep and eternal meaning. I have no doubt that Jesus knew what His last words needed to be and He knew the power those final words would have for generations still to come. He had great purpose in them, which still breathe such life and meaning for our lives today. Jesus became the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sin. The word in this verse, finished, means “paid in full.” The uniqueness of the wording is in the verb tense: it indicates both a point in time when it was initially accomplished and that it would continue to be complete or finished. This is what Christ came to do. This is the Good News. He came to firmly establish God’s plan for redemption that had been ordained before the foundation of the world. We read in 1 Peter 1:3 that by Jesus’s great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Verse 9 says, “As the outcome of your faith, you obtain the salvation of your souls” (RSV).

Peter tells us to gird up our minds, be sober, set our hope fully upon the grace that is coming to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ. We are to turn from our childish ways, no longer conforming to the passions of our former ignorance. Rather, we are to be holy as Christ is holy! He adds, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake… You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:18-20, 23, RSV).

In closing, I can only hope that you have felt in your heart the unbelievable sacrifice Jesus bore for you and for me; that you can spend even a moment imagining how horrific and excruciating His death was, and that He went through it in total obedience to the Father, lifted up on the wings of His glorious and unfathomable love for you and me. And perhaps, if even for a moment, the next time you step outside of the way of Jesus you will feel so severely convicted that you will stop in your tracks and thank Him for the power He has given us all to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. Further, I hope you are as changed through reading this post as I have been while writing it.

As a faithful brother in Christ loves to say, “Change me LORD, never to be the same again!”

References

Bentzen, Aage. King and Messiah. Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 1955.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 1997.

Kidner, Derek. Kidner Classic Commentaries: Psalms 1-72. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971

 

Repent, Believe, Follow

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.

Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.

Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.

Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.

Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”

Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?

In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.

These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus Way

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.

In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!

This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.

More Than Mere Consumers

It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.

Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.

Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.

The End of Me

“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.

This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “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. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”

Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.

Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.

True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).

Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.

References

Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.

Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records

God’s Grace Teaching Us

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-12, NIV).

Man Kneeling

The doctrine of grace is an amazing concept. Grace, of course, means “goodwill,” “loving-kindness,” or “favor.” I love the commentary that grace is God’s “unmerited favor.” This explains not only the helpless, hopeless, sinful condition of mankind and its need for ransom or redemption; it highlights God’s undying, incomprehensible unconditional love. Grace cannot be purchased. It is a free gift of God—albeit not free in the simplest use of the word. It cost God the life of His only begotten Son. It cost Jesus indescribable, excruciating pain, unfathomable emotional distress, rejection, persecution, torture, and death. Taking mankind’s sin on at the time of crucifixion cost Jesus to be cut off by God. At that instant, Jesus became the sin of the world. God had to turn His face away. Jesus, feeling the abandonment of the Father, cried out, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46, NIV).

GOD’S GRACE OFFERS US SALVATION AND JUSTIFICATION

Christian scholars and writers have long considered the connection between grace and justification. “…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24, NIV). Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (NIV). It amounts to a full pardon of our sins to the point where God remembers our offenses no more. Hebrews 8:12 says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (NIV). Psalm 103:11-12 tells us, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV). We’re at a loss to comprehend this degree of grace. There is no human equivalent. We lack the capacity for this level of forgiveness and love.

Romans 5:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (NIV). Verse 2 clearly states that we have access by faith into this grace. Paul explains in Ephesians 1:5-6 (speaking to non-Jews), that we all have been granted sonship through Jesus Christ “…in accordance with his pleasure and will” (NIV). In the original Greek, the word for “granted sonship” is charitoo, which means “highly favored.” The Greek wording can also signify “the favor of God.”

God’s grace is woven throughout Paul’s writings. Hiebert (1979) writes, “Paul could not think of Christian truth and conduct apart from God’s grace” (vol. 11, p. 439). Guthrie (1990), wrote, “The expression, the grace of God, may fairly be said to be the key word of Paul’s theology…. He cannot think of Christian salvation apart from the grace of God…” (p. 198) [Italics added].

GOD’S GRACE [ALSO] TEACHES US

The grace of God not only saves the souls of all who believe in his Son; it also works in believers’ lives to teach and instruct them. God’s grace, working through His Word, instructs and shapes our thinking and living. God says that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. It is the will of God that we turn away from all that is worldly and spiritually compromising. He wants us to walk in godliness, imitating Christ in all we do. God works this into our hearts by His grace.

God’s grace first saves and then trains His people
for godliness and good deeds.

We can actually grow strong in grace. 2 Timothy 2:1 says, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is Christ Jesus” (NIV). God’s grace can help, teach, and empower us. The grace that restores our relationship with God through Jesus is theologically referred to as special grace. This is when God opens the eyes of a sinner and illuminates the truth about himself to that person. It is special in many ways, but the word special refers to its lack of common use by everyone. Saving grace is not experienced by the whole world but only by Christians. Common grace is God’s grace that every human experiences. It does not refer to our restored relationship with God, but rather to the gifts God gives both to the saved and the unsaved—to His church and to the world. Special grace affects us spiritually and common grace affects us physically and materially. All things are from God. No human deserves anything from God. Accordingly, all good things we have are by God’s grace. When God restores our relationship with Him through faith in his Son, this is by special grace. When He gives us all we need, this is by His common grace. But in short, all good things, spiritually and physically, are given to us by grace.

God’s grace helps by empowering us to serve Him. In other words, grace is also the power and ability of God working through us. This is paramount to growing and succeeding as a Christian. Without God’s divine power and ability operating through us, we will never make it to the tops of mountains that He is calling us to climb for Him. We will never be able to reach the goals, the aspirations, and the finish lines that God has in store for us unless we have the power of His Holy Spirit working in us and through us. Too many Christians are trying to reach their goals and aspirations operating out of their own power and strength. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made great in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (NIV).

The word “instructing” means, “child-training.” It includes teaching, but also, correcting and disciplining. It is a process that begins at salvation and continues until we stand before the Lord. Note that grace does not mean, “hang loose and live as sloppily as you please.” Paul succinctly stated, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (NIV).

Grace trains, disciplines, and instructs us in godly living. When we experience God’s unmerited favor in Jesus Christ, it motivates us to want to please Him in everything we do. So we open God’s Word. As we read, we begin to realize that there is much in our lives that displeases the Lord, who gave Himself on the cross to save us from His judgment. We are to begin walking on the path that Jesus described as denying ourselves daily, taking up our crosses, and following Him (see Luke 9:23). Grace trains us to live righteously. This refers to a life of integrity and uprightness in our dealings with others. It means conforming to God’s standards of conduct, as revealed in the commandments of His Word.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Most of us don’t really understand the full power and scope of grace. Yes, we know we’re “saved by grace.” That’s easy. Well, maybe simpler. We don’t even begin to understand the real power it can release in our lives. The Bible gives us many examples of the power of grace available to the early Church in Jerusalem. That same power is available to anyone who’s ever sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Thank God, that means you and I qualify! Whenever we’re beleaguered by Satan, we need to follow the example of the early Christians.

Christianity teaches that what we deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God.

Remember, God’s grace is free and it is unmerited.

References

Guthrie, D. (1990). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Pastoral Epistles, revised ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.

Hiebert, D. (1979). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.