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: The Person of Christ

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University regarding the Divine/Human Aspect of Jesus Christ.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I found information under the heading Biblical Perspective—Jesus Christ: Both God and Man to be a great springboard for this discussion. Indeed, one of the great mysteries in Christianity involves discerning how the two natures of Jesus (divine and human) relate to each. In fact, Paul tells us in Philippians 2:6-7, “[W]ho, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (RSV). Reading further, we also see that Jesus (while in human form) humbled Himself and became obedient to the will of the Father even unto death on the cross. To me, it seems counter to Christian doctrine to argue, as Arianism does, that Jesus was begotten by God the Father at a point in time as a being distinct from the Father and, consequently, subservient to the Father. Further, Arianism states that Jesus was the first creation of God. Interestingly, the heresy of Jehovah’s Witnesses would support this belief. In fact, it is for this very reason Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate the birth of Christ. JWs are essentially rationalists who reject the Doctrine of the Trinity and, accordingly, much of the teachings and miracles of Jesus Christ.

Arianism bases its belief, at least to some degree, on Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” Accordingly, I will begin with this biblical verse. Quoting from a transliteration of the Greek, Colossians 1:15-16 says, “In whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of (our) sins; who is an image of the God—invisible, firstborn of all creation, because in him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities; all things through him and for him have been created; and he is before all things and all things in him consisted.” [1] My interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is considered the “firstborn” because of His divine actions regarding creation itself. It refers to Jesus as the cause of creation. It does not refer to the creation of Jesus. Matthew Henry provides a helpful interpretation. Regarding Jesus, Henry states, “He was born or begotten before all the creation, before any creature was made; which is the Scripture way of representing eternity, and by the eternity of God is represented to us” [emphasis mine]. [2] Henry continues by explaining that all fulness dwells in Jesus; a fulness of merit and righteousness, of strength and grace for us. This seems to fly in the face of Arianism’s claim that God created the Son at some point in time.

To help support my opposition to Arianism, please consider the commentary of Finis J. Dake. The Greek word prototokos, translated “firstborn” and “first begotten” is used of Jesus to mean the firstborn child of Mary (Mt. 1:25). [3] To me, this refers to the firstborn in God’s family as it relates to God born into humanity and not to deity. Acts 13:23 says, “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised” (NIV). Acts 13:33 says, “He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” It would appear this refers to God sending Jesus to earth (as God incarnate) which set in motion the plan through which all of mankind can become adopted sons and daughters. The Nicene Creed would seem to muddy the waters regarding this critical doctrinal question with the wording: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; begotten from the Father; only-begotten—that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God.” However, the Creed specifically states, “Begotten not made; being of one substance with the Father.” [4] In fact, homoousion to patri refers to the Father and the Son being “of similar substance” or “of like being,” and does not indicate that God the Father created God the Son.

D. J. Treier, in his treatise “Jesus Christ,” notes the biblical history of Jesus’s earthly ministry and inauguration of a “new humanity.” This is the very essence of the “good news.” Concerning whether Jesus was “begotten” of the Father, it is important to note that Jesus has always been, and He was with God and “was God” at the creation. Perhaps it is best to consider the remark “today I have begotten thee” to be the beginning of the Christology of Christ; the start of His earthly mission. Treier notes, “The Bible’s Christological foundation begins with the ‘incarnational narrative.’” [5]

We must also remember that Jesus said He existed before Abraham (John 8:58). Also, He claimed that He and His Father are one (John 10:30), that He is equal with the Father (John 5:17-18), and that He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit were present (together as separate beings) at the moment of creation (Genesis 1; John 1:1-3). And we must not forget that Jesus (the man) was born in the flesh through Mary as conceived by the Father. This is the only manner in which we can rightly state that Jesus was born of the Father; however, it is the incarnate (physical) birth of Jesus we’re speaking of in this instance and not His creation as God the Son. Moreover, God has always existed as a three-in-one being, consisting of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Consider the word “trinity” (tri-unity or three-in-oneness): meaning three and unity. I heard it expressed this way a few years ago: not one-plus-one-plus-one equals three, but one-times-one-times-one equals one.

Footnotes

1. Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 791

2. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1164.

3. Finis J. Dake, The Dake Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville: Dake Publishing, 2008), 389.

4. Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed. (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 11.

5. D.J. Treier, “Jesus Christ,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 442.

 


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: The Basics of Christian 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.

How does the foundation of Scripture as the primary source for theology help to prioritize and structure the relationships between the various sub-disciplines of Christian theology? How might these all contribute to the unity of Christian theology, or is there one approach that might contribute most to its unity?

Friedrich Schleiermacher identifies three unique and equally important substrates of systematic theology: Historical Theology, Philosophical Theology, and Practical Theology. These must be interconnected relative to every mode or operation of the Christian faith itself for there to be a true “unity of faith.” This is the very beginning of the “community of believers.” Of course, foundation is key to everything.

Consider the parable of the wise and the foolish builder in Matthew 7:24-27. Jesus was nearing the end of His Sermon on the Mount. He had spoken just minutes before regarding fasting and prayer, storing treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and allowing God to provide for our needs without worry. He said if someone hears His words and puts them into practice, that person is like the wise man who builds on a foundation of rock. Such a foundation can withstand stormy weather. The man who hears His words, however, and does not heed them is like the foolish man who builds his house on a foundation of sand. Such a dwelling cannot withstand the storms.

For Christianity in general, that foundation must be the Word of God for it to have a positive, systematic impact on the body of believers. Indeed, such a comprehensive and systematic study is not necessary for the individual, nor for a small study group or congregation; rather, it is for the church at large—the entirety of the “faith.” Only then can it promote universal and coherent application. Christian Theology, specifically, is the collective embodiment of those branches of scientific knowledge and those rules of art required for consistent church government. Faith alone (sola fida) does not need an apparatus for the individual or the family unit. Faith in such an intimate setting is an individual matter. Relative to a systematic theological undertaking of the Christian faith, it must ultimately be laid solidly upon the foundation of Scripture alone (sola scriptura). There is, of course, However, no foundational building block for Philosophical and Practical Theology without a clear continuum of the idea of Christianity.

Historical Theology calls for sifting through and supplementing what others have determined in past teachings of the church. Christianity can never be a solely empirical or intellectual undertaking (simply collecting data). It should, however, involve viewing en masse (in its historical context) all teaching and comparing same ultimately to other churches of the faith. If “history” is missing from systematic theology, it is devoid of “corporate will” (which is determined over time and within the church at large). In this regard, unity is lost. Troeltsch asks whether history merely renders judgment of probability (based on what has happened before). Moreover, is it merely the application of analogy to a specific time? We know analogy brings many problems with it, even when applied to things that happen before our very eyes. Much can depend on our worldview, and can be further compromised by bias, deception, dislocation, formation of myth, misinterpretation, preconception, imposture, factiousness, and so on. Barth says dogmatics can help with this, but it is only appropriate for the “listening” church. In other words, for those who are already believers and are able to “hear” the Word of God and compare Scripture to what is being espoused. He adds that dogmatics provides the mechanism by which human reflection and action (and their fallibility) can be subjected to another reflection and action—that of God’s. God Himself speaks for Himself! He has spoken in the past, He speaks to us now, and He will speak to us in the future. Dogmatics is essentially a kind of “call to order” for the community of believers. It is the means by which unity can be established. Barth thinks of it as a call to the teaching church itself to hear—that is, to hear Christ. Dogmatics must never form doctrine. Instead, it is a tool for weighing the words of the teaching church against the Word of God.

Dogmatics is a reminder that over and above the content of all human speech and its possibility, what is said has plainly been said already, and will be said again, and only consistent with the Word of God. Subject matter should therefore be grounded in the Spirit and not in human intellect or interpretation. In other words, the church teaches, not the person. This is a great tool for checking consistency. Historical Theology is quite significant for analysis due to historical criticism and comparison. Biblical criticism itself is rooted in analyzing the ways by which all the rest of church history has been handed down to us. As Barth noted, there has always been the risk of “equivocal” proclamation when the Word of God comes from the mouths of various theologians and ministers, but the goal must be unequivocally pure doctrine! It all must be said in accordance with (and therefore be comprised solely of) the Word of God. It is advisable, also, to be wary that personal intellectual capacity, history, or life’s situations must never color the truth of the Scriptures. The church essentially makes (or owes) a promise that no matter the circumstances or the person, the Word of God will be presented in pure doctrine and not with some illusory or mistaken element to it.

I believe all three approaches (Historical, Philosophical, and Practical) must be applied to systematic Christian Theology in order to determine a “solidarity” relative to doctrine, without which the church may fall into legalism and become a battleground for competing dogmas.

On Monday I started my second class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University. This class is the first of three courses in Systematic Theology. Please join me Monday, October 21, 2019 as I discuss the lesson from the first week of Systematic Theology I.

References

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, 1/2. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 1956.  

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Brief Outline of the Study of Theology, translated by William Farrer, (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: T. & T. Clark; Hamilton, Adams, & Co.; J. Robertson), 1850.

Troeltsch, E. “Historical and Dogmatic Method in Theology,” in Religion in History (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress), 1991.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Effective Study of Scripture

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.

AS WE FOCUS ON the lessons covered to date in my initial theology class, we become familiar with how to understand faith as an object onto itself and its place in today’s world. Trevor Hart (1995) calls this type of study faith thinking. Theology is typically undertaken as part of a higher education, whether on the undergraduate, master’s or doctoral level; however, the activity known as “Christian Theology” must become (at least to some degree) an inevitable consequence of life as a thinking Christian. Why do we believe what we believe? How do we think about what we’re thinking about? What weight do we give it in our everyday Christian life?

Admittedly, I am behind in a few lessons from my first theology class. I was hit with an illness that put me behind in week three, and this had an unexpected domino effect. Not to worry. We are going to spend the next few days getting caught up. This will allow me to focus on the first lesson of my second theology class: Systematic Theology, Part 1 by Monday, October 14th.

In the third week of my initial class Major Approaches to Theology we discussed how to effectively read Scripture.

Certainly, reading is a two-way street regardless of its subject matter. When we read Scripture, we interact with information of paramount importance, on multiple levels, each having the potential to change how we see ourselves, our fellow man, and the material world. When reading the Bible, we are embroiled in a written medium that is alive. The New Atheists of today, such as Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), are adamant about one thing: religion poisons everything. In his seminal book God is Not Great he wrote, “God did not make us; we made God.” In attempting to discredit the Bible, Hitchens used the tactic of lumping it in with the Qur’an, Homer’s Iliad, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the red herring of “apocryphal” verses “canon,” and many other inter-related, if not unrelated, textual concerns.

Mesmerized by its reverence, power, emotion, history, and Almighty God, it is only natural for man to hold competing opinions on how best to respond to Scripture We are rightly overcome by a wide range of emotions when reading the Bible: conviction, elation, guilt, fear, boredom, hope, love and the like. Because Scripture is universally applicable, we don’t always know on an individual level how to categorize what we’re reading, let alone how to apply it to our situation. What is worth our immediate attention? What can wait until tomorrow? This is why systematic theology and the “community of believers” are critical to reading, understanding, and applying God’s Word.

Regarding Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who penned such books as Church Dogmatics, Faith Thinking, and The Humanity of God, referred to Mark D.J. Smith’s quote, “The guiding principle of this strategy is Barth’s conviction that the Bible ought to be treated as testimony to God’s self-revelation in history.” Karl Barth believed Scripture must be regarded as God’s own words and nothing less. I recently read an attribute given to Barth. It says that, other than John Calvin, Barth is possibly the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. Barth gave credence to a quote from N.T. Wright: “The tide of literary theory has at last reached the point on the beach where the theologians have been playing, and, having filled their sandcastle moats with water, is now almost in danger of forcing them to retreat, unless they dig deeper and build more strongly.”

Thankfully, grace is a key ingredient in any discussion regarding matters of the Word of God. Barth believed faith to be “awe in presence of the divine incognito.” Further, he understood full-well that faith (the faith each believer holds in his or her heart) cannot hold a candle to the amazing quality of love bestowed upon us through the written Word of God. Scripture is a living thing, yet it is at the same time both amazingly knowable and incomprehensible. Whenever an author writes a book explaining mercy or grace—and when those topics are the essence of the book itself—the writer risks having the subject matter missed entirely. Thankfully, as Christians, we know the “language” of the Bible in our hearts. We see its virtue and we know of its healing properties. Of course, this creates a great atmosphere for systematic theology and honest, open communication among the community of believers in order to best understand and apply the  accuracy and full meaning of Scripture. Barth equates Scripture with God speaking, as did Augustine. For both men, Scripture is in fact Scripture.

Of course, Scripture is not “just another holy book” or a canonical history of the Christian church. Nor, as Christopher Hitchens would claim, a book that can even remotely be categorized with the Qur’an or Homer’s Iliad! It is not merely a volume to be taken down from the shelf and studied. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (RSV). The Interlinear Greek transliteration says the Bible “[is] living… and operative and sharper beyond every sword two-mouthed and passing through as far as division of soul and of spirit, of joints both and of marrow and able to judge of thoughts and intentions of a heart.” (Excuse the cumbersome wording, but it is a literal rendition of the original Greek text.)

The writer of Hebrews adds, “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (4:13, NIV). Eugene Peterson boldly says, “God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what” (4:12-13, MSG). It seems Barth had a rather “controversial” interpretation of Scripture. Although he approached the Bible with an orientation of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), many of his detractors tried to place him in one of the many –ism camps of his time: Platonism, Kantianism, intellectualism, biblicism, pessimism, universalism, or even modernism. Barth had one focus. The authority of the Word of God.

In the interest if keeping the momentum flowing, I intend to present a synopsis of my studies from weeks four and five of my first theology class in the next day or two. Thanks for stopping by. I encourage any comments, questions, or feedback.

Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

The standard definition of a loophole is an ambiguity or inadequacy in a system, such as a law or a set of rules, which can be used to circumvent or otherwise avoid the purpose, implied or explicitly stated, of the system. It is basically a small mistake which allows people to do something that would otherwise be illegal. Generally, the cause of a loophole is a divergence between the text of the law (how it is written) and the meaning of the law (its intended effect).

Loophole Graphics

PHARISEES AND THEIR THEOLOGICAL LOOPHOLES

Pharisee Pointing

It’s no secret that the Pharisees of Jesus’ days were typically angry over infractions of the Sabaath. This was a huge issue between them and the Lord. Interestingly, the Pharisees created a loophole that allowed them to break their own rules regarding the Sabbath whenever convenient. According to Rabbinic teaching, a Jew could take no more than 3,000 steps on the Sabbath, nor carry more weight than half a dried fig. To circumvent this law, the Rabbis designed a small wearable tent. The tent had poles that rested upon their shoulders, lifting it from the ground. A chair was fastened to their rump Accordingly, they were not technically carrying anything. They would walk 3,000 steps, sit on the stool, then stand and walk 3,000 more steps, repeating the process over and over until they arrived at their intended destination. They declared the tent to be their home each time they sat down. Their “theology” gave them a loophole for travel and manual labor on the Sabbath if they found it necessary. Technically, they were in the clear. That’s what loopholes do for us—permit us to be “technically” right while breaking the rules.

CHRISTIANS AND THEIR LOOPHOLES

When Christians look for loopholes, they change Scripture to fit their circumstances. A believer with this mindset is not concerned with what Scripture dictates; rather, they are concerned about making Scripture say what they need it to say. Individuals who are Christian “in name only” look for loopholes. True followers of Christ don’t look for an out. Unfortunately, many believers today claim certain doctrines, proscriptions, or edicts in Scripture for “back in ancient times” rather than the modern church. This is basically a form of “progressive” Christianity, which flies in the face of God’s unchanging Word. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (NIV). Ecclesiastes 3:14 says, “I know that whatever God does, It shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, And nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him” (NKJV).

PAUL

The Apostle Paul 001

Romans 7:19-21 says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (NIV). It is important to note that Paul was not speaking about a non-believer, nor was he describing a carnal Christian. He was talking about a victorious disciple still at risk for sinful behavior. Admittedly, Paul is not speaking of the practice of sin by a believer—willfully sinning despite knowing the consequences.

Paul was leading a crucified life, putting on the righteousness of Christ (see verse 25). He delighted in the Law of God in the inward man (see verse 22). That means he was gratified by love, goodness, righteousness, and mercy. The part of his mind that was focused on serving God no longer practiced sin. His thoughts were on Jesus. He told the Christians at Corinth, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

There were several aspects of Paul’s life where he had not yet received light. In such instances, he was taken captive by the law of sin in his flesh, causing him to do things he hated (see verse 23). Someone who is willfully committing sin is not doing what he hates. His mind approves of it. When desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin. We actually consent to the desire in our mind and sin is born. James 1:14-15 says, “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (NIV). Such Christians are serving the law of sin with his or her mind.

THE LOOPHOLES OF ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR

Addicts frequently use denial, rationalization, and loopholes to hide or downplay their abuse of drugs or alcohol. Heavy or chronic alcohol use leads to psychological and physical dependence and possible addiction. The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Psychiatric Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) says substance abuse related disorders encompass separate classes of drugs: alcohol; caffeine; cannabis; hallucinogens; inhalants; opioids; sedatives; hypnotics; and stimulants. 

Here are four common loopholes used by alcoholics and addicts:

  1. I’ve already ruined everything. Addicts try to avoid or not acknowledge the consequences of their actions—at least until these consequences are severely compounded. Whether it’s losing a job, legal trouble, homelessness, dysfunction in the household, or all of the above, addiction progressively destroys lives. Although hitting “rock bottom” causes some to seek treatment, others justify continued addiction because they focus on the perceived irreparable damage they’ve caused. 
  2. I don’t deserve a happy, healthy life. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, roughly half of all individuals diagnosed with a mental health disorder are also affected by substance abuse. Although this is a co-occurring diagnosis (often referred to in 12-step parlance as “double trouble”), it is not a loophole for addiction. Admittedly, feeling undeserving of a happy, healthy life due to mental health symptoms can be a trap. This often leads to drinking or drugging to self-medicate for chronic anxiety or depression. Accordingly, a loophole is created for continued use. 
  3. Now I can finally handle it. This justification is a loophole for relapse, as well as active addiction. When someone feels that their life is now more manageable—perhaps, due to a period of sobriety or fixing certain problems while in active addiction—they may justify drinking or taking drugs again or continuing to use. Unfortunately, the progressive nature of addiction quickly disproves this rationale. This loophole often rears its ugly head following inpatient treatment at a rehab. The individual feels he or she is “armed with” enough information to finally use safely.
  4. For me, it’s just normal life. For some, addiction is a solitary issue. For others, however, addiction may be shared with friends, family members, or partners. These individuals tend to justify their actions because they feel their behavior is part of the fabric of a relationship or social agenda. Even if someone believes their own addiction may be a problem, they can justify their dependency by referring to getting drunk or high as part of the “norms” of social life. 

MY FAVORITE LOOPHOLE

Unfortunately, I have often looked at certain habitual sins in the light of Paul’s own struggle, saying to myself, If the apostle Paul failed to resist the flesh and do what’s right, then how can I ever hope to do so? I am sure you see the hypocrisy of this conclusion. Basically, I have allowed this part of Paul’s teaching to serve as an excuse for what amounts to the “practice” of sin. Worse, the type of habitual sin that has been prevalent in my life involved deception, lying, and stealing narcotic painkillers from family members.

THE ADDICTED CHRISTIAN

Morgan Lee edited and published a provocative article in Christianity Today, called “Why a Drug Addict Wrote a Christianity Today Cover Story.” The article was written by Timothy King, a Christian who contracted very painful acute necrotizing pancreatitis. He was discharged on IV medication and given opiates for pain. Eventually, King’s doctor realized King’s reliance on narcotic painkillers was impeding his ability to eat and to recover from pancreatitis. Despite being a believer, King had become addicted to opiates.

Here is an excerpt from King’s article:

I use the term addicted. There are some medical professionals who use the word dependent because I didn’t go out and engage in behaviors typically associated with addiction. I chose to use the word addicted because it accurately describes my situation. It is a term I hope other people feel less stigma about in the future to describe their own situation. When we give the right name to something that is going on in our life, it kills its power over us. Naming something is incredibly important. Opioid addict is now tied to my name. I’ve had to think through that, but once again I have had a great community of support to encourage me about this story.

Whether deserved or not, believers struggling with an addiction are often shamed by the church rather than being provided an atmosphere for healing. Believers and non-believers alike are dying every day because of drug overdose. This should be cause for concern and a great opportunity for the church to be the church (the Body of Christ). After all, Christians are called to be a loving community of grace and healing. The church should not choose to see active addiction as a moral issue, ignoring the physical and psychological elements of the disorder. This only serves to ignore or sidestep this crisis, evidenced by believers (and some church leaders) who choose to sit on the sidelines, judging and ostracizing those who are suffering.

THE MINDSET OF A DISCIPLE

Paul answers his own question regarding his—indeed, our—struggle with sin that dwells within us. In Romans 7:25, Paul writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (NASB). Before Jesus overcame the power of sin and darkness, leaving us with an example to follow, it was impossible to completely overcome all sin in the flesh. But Jesus sent the Holy Spirit Who can show us our sin (convict us) and teach us the way through it. Like Paul, when we repent and begin to serve God, we have a new mindset—it is no longer our conscious, daily choice to serve sin. What comes from our flesh is not necessarily done willfully.

When we are in Christ Jesus and choose to serve God with our mind and our spirit, there is no condemnation if we absentmindedly do the things we hate (see Romans 8:1). We aren’t condemned for being tempted (thoughts or feelings that entice us to sin), nor for actions we do which haven’t passed our conscious mind first, allowing us to make a conscious choice. But in order to accomplish this, we need to walk in the Spirit, which means acting according to the light that we receive. This comes only from allowing that light to illuminate our habitual sins. We will then be able to recognize the desires of the flesh—the body of sin that is to be crucified daily through Christ. How do we accomplish this? We count ourselves dead to sin. We can then be disciples of Jesus, denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23-24).

Disciple is another word for a follower of Christ; one who is learning to be like his Master. originally meant pupil or apprentice. Too many Christians believe they became disciples of Jesus when they accepted His death, burial, and resurrection for forgiveness of their sins. We were certainly dead in our trespasses. Thankfully, we are forgiven through Christ. He made us alive together with Him (see Colossians 2:13). However, forgiveness of sin is not discipleship. Once we have received atonement for our sins and are reconciled with God through the crucifixion of Christ, we come to the beginning of a new us. We are now instructed to start following Jesus. Emulating the examples He provided to us during His life and ministry.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, closing the loopholes of active addiction may be imperative before seeking treatment. In reality, we can rebuild our lives. But this involves realizing that addiction is progressively destructive. Further, it is important to believe we deserved to be happy and healthy, and that active addiction is not a normal, fulfilling human existence. Jesus said, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10, NKJV). Eugene Peterson translates this verse as follows: “A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (MSG). Living life in bondage to addiction is certainly not an abundant life.  

Second Corinthians 5:17 talks about new life in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (NIV). When we recognize that old things have passed away, we stand a better chance of living life without resorting to loopholes. Frankly, making decisions based upon loopholes is the hallmark of an unrepentant carnal Christian. When we are truly “in Christ,” we are a new creation. Old things have passed away. This is the “abundant” life we read about in John 10:10. We cannot hope to have an abundant and glorious new life in Christ if we excuse our occasion to sin as something not even the apostle Paul could avoid.