Saturday, September 17, 2016


A discussion developed on the comments on "Setting Aside" this week about the doctrine of election. I'd like to make some comments that apply to that thread, but I think they'll fit better in this format than on a comment thread.

I listened to a message on "Divine Sovereign Individual Election", and I'm going to steal the phrase. Let's quote the first sentence: "Scripture teaches divine sovereign individual election." It has taken me many years to accept, but I am convinced it's true. Let me give you the short summary of what changed my mind:

A few years ago I was sitting in a Bible Reading discussing Romans 9. It was a terribly uncomfortable meeting, because I was trying my best to ignore the central thrust of the passage: God sovereignly chooses. That was the beginning of a long road for me: I realized what I wanted it to say wasn't at all what it actually said.

Another step came when I was listening to a message where the author quoted Matthew 11:21–26. The speaker wasn't talking about election at all, but I suddenly realized the implication of vv. 21 and 23 – God knew exactly what it would take to make Sodom, Tyre, and Sidon repent, and He chose not to do it. There are some other stunning implications of this passage, but that was what I noticed at the time.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is the story of everyone who perishes. If we believe God is omnipotent, then we have to conclude that God could save everyone, but chooses not to. That's not to say I came to believe in the doctrine of Reprobation, but I reluctantly concluded that God frequently chooses not to save.

The final step came when I was listening to a message by William McCrae on "Scripture's Greatest Theodicy" on Romans 9:1–13. I was driving to work when I got to the 30 minute mark and he quoted Donald Grey Barnhouse as saying, "Nothing provokes the flesh like the doctrine of election." In a rare moment of honesty, I asked whether my problems with Romans 9 were not really that I didn't understand what it was saying. Perhaps I understood perfectly what it was saying and just didn't want to believe it.

So let's consider what Scripture says. "Calvinism" is no better than "Arminianism" in the sense that they're both "-isms". The challenge isn't to choose the right "-ism", but to hear what Scripture actually says.

The most succinct statement is probably Romans 8:29–30. What do these verses say?

  1. whom he has foreknown, he has also predestinated [to be] conformed to the image of his Son (v. 29)
  2. whom he has predestinated, these also he has called (v. 30)
  3. whom he has called, these also he has justified (v. 30)
  4. whom he has justified, these also he has glorified (v. 30)

whom he has foreknown, he has also predestinated [to be] conformed to the image of his Son. We notice first that the end result isn't salvation per se, but conformity to Christ. Justification is a necessary step in the process, but it's not the end goal. The end goal is to make us like Christ. And that rests on predestination, on God sovereignly choosing to make it so.

There are many who teach predestination rests on God's knowing who would eventually believe – God looked to see who would choose Him, and chose them first. I believed that for many years, but it doesn't really stand up to the test of Scripture. First, we notice the verse says whom He foreknew, not what He foreknew. The idea here isn't that God foreknew something about us, but that He foreknew us personally.

Scripture uses the word "know" to indicate relationship in both the Old and New Testaments. This is how we understand Matthew 7:23 ("I never knew you"), Galatians 4:9 ("but now, knowing God, but rather being known by God"), Amos 3:2 ("You only have I known of all the families of the earth"), and Hosea 13:4–5 ("I knew thee in the wilderness"). We don't think Amos 3:2 indicates God was ignorant of the nations around Israel, or that the Lord Jesus will claim to be ignorant of the workers of iniquity in Matthew 7:23. We don't think God became aware of the Galatians when they believed. We understand God's knowing to indicate relationship.

whom he has predestinated, these also he has called. This is ties in closely with the next statement: we certainly see a "general call" in Scripture, but this is talking about something different. This is the call to the predestinated.

whom he has called, these also he has justified. The people God called are exactly the same people He justified. They are equivalent sets. There is not one person He called but didn't justify, there is not on person He justified and didn't call.

whom he has justified, these also he has glorified. This obviously hasn't actually happened yet (Romans 8:23). It will, though, and Scripture states it in the past tense because it's that certain.

Why do people who sincerely love God and respect His word not believe in election? It's a reasonable question; it might not have a clear answer.

One reason is that we just don't want to accept it. I once heard someone say this in message on the dangers of "Calvinism":

I'm going to have to change my whole preaching style if I accept Calvinism, and I don't want to do that. Now maybe I'm wrong but I don't want to do that...
This isn't the language of someone bowing to Scripture. I've met this preacher, there's no question in my mind that he loves God. But at least in this one area, he's dead wrong. He's wrong even if his statements on "Calvinism" are correct, because he's openly admitted it all comes from his own self will, his own unwillingness to change.

I've talked about this before ("Why hast Thou made me thus?"), Romans 9:19–20 deals with the objection of a man who sees election as unjust, and it condemns the objector on the ground that we have no right to judge God.

And this takes us back to "Setting Aside". We don't want to admit that God has tried Adam's race and found it wanting. If we accept what Scripture says about election, we've taken a huge step towards the acknowledgment that there's nothing in me for God. That's something the flesh will never admit.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I'm re-reading Francis Schaeffer's excellent True Spirituality. I love this book for several reasons, one is that it's not written by "brethren". Not that I'm a hater on "brethren" or anything, but it demonstrates that what we talk about as far as the Christian life isn't some fanatical "brethren" view.

One of the best things in this book is Schaeffer's dealing with the issue of trying to serve God in our own strength. His illustration is excellent. He talks about how the angel told Mary she would be the virgin mother of Christ. She had three options, according to Schaeffer (p. 52):

  1. She could have said, "no way, leave my body alone"
  2. She could have said, "I'll get right on that!" and attempted to become a virgin mother
  3. She could have said, "I'm on board! I trust God to do it."
Of course the first option would mean having no part in the blessing she was promised. The second would end in failure (it was entirely out of her power to become a virgin mother). What she actually said was, “Be it unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She expressed at once her inability to do it and her desire to be used of God. This is what Schaeffer calls "active passivity".

Sometimes I sound like I'm urging passivity when it comes to Christian living: you can't please God, only Christ can please God in you. I need to be careful about that: like Schaeffer says, it's an active passivity. We do have a part to play in the Christian life, and it's not purely passive. Certainly there is a godly desire involved, to be used of God to glorify Christ.

There are some other excellent things in this book, but I think this is the most helpful.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Setting aside

R. A. Huebner says

There is a fact to be observed with attention in the book of Genesis the special blessing is not given to the firstborn son. This setting begins with Cain and is seen in every case where there is sufficient information given so that this phenomenon in Genesis may be observed. We should see in this a foreshadow that God’s purpose is to set aside the firstborn. (God’s Sovereignty and Glory in the Election and Salvation of Lost Men, p. 31, downloaded 2016-09-05)
Galatians 4:21–24 supports his view that there is an allegorical truth here.

1 Corinthians 15:42–49 give two descriptions of Christ in contrast to Adam: there is the "last Adam" (v. 45) and the "second man" (v. 47). The "last Adam" carries the idea that Christ is the end of Adam's race, the "second man" carries the idea that Christ is the start of something new.

We see the same pattern in Matthew 27:15–23. Pilate presents Barabbas and Jesus in that order. Of course the crowd chose the first man over the second Man.

Their choice of the first over the second carries on the pattern from Genesis. When Joseph saw that Israel's right hand was on Ephraim's head, it was "evil in his eyes" (Genesis 48:17). Joseph wanted his older son to get the older son's blessing (quite naturally!). Jacob chose the second over the first (v. 20)

When God told Abraham that He would give him a second son (Genesis 17:15–21), Abraham's response was "Oh that Ishmael would live before You" (v. 18). This is remarkable: God is telling Abraham that He would provide the "son of promise" (Galatians 4:28), but Abraham wants the "son according to flesh" (Galatians 4:23) to please God. God certainly promised to bless Ishmael, but He insisted it was Isaac with whom He would establish a permanent covenant (vv. 20–21).

Let's pause and say that it was good and right for Abraham to long for Ishmael to please God. And we don't want to downplay the blessing of God on Ishmael. But we want to see the truth of Galatians 4 here: these things have an allegorical sense, and the Spirit of God is teaching us something in this story.

By the time we come to Genesis 22:2, we have God referring to Isaac as Abraham's "only son". God is no longer acknowledging the first man, only the second.

I fall into the trap of Abraham again and again, as I suspect most of us do. I long to see the "first man" walk with God. What I fail to see is that God is no longer acknowledging that man: He only acknowledges the "second Man." I, like Abraham, have to see that God is now dealing with the son of promise, not the son of flesh.

If you look at Facebook, or listen to so much so-called Christian ministry, you'll see people say things like, "we have two natures within us, the one we feed is the one that grows." I suppose there's a grain of truth there, but it's not at all what Scripture actually teaches. Scripture teaches that in God's sight, there is only the second Man. When we start down the path of thinking we have a choice between "two natures", we leave the teaching of Scripture behind. We aren't to choose between two natures, we are to consider ourselves to have died (Romans 6:11), and to be entirely new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). Of course I'm not denying that we have "the flesh" in us, but we are to consider that as a dead thing (Galatians 5:24). To think of ourselves as some sort of umpire between two warring sides is to give a place to "the flesh" that Scripture doesn't give it. J. N. Darby wrote,

Other differences have disappeared: there remains but the old man, which we only acknowledge as dead, and the new man. [emphasis added] (J. N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, Volume 5, last checked 2016-09-05)

So this is a challenge to me: don't fall into the trap of Genesis 17:18. Don't think the "first man" will walk before God. He won't. Don't think God will acknowledge anyone except the "second Man". God has found in Christ what He was looking for, and He's stopped looking. My only place before God is "in Christ", which means I've given up on myself (Philippians 3:9), and – by extension – on Adam's race.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Galatians is not 1 Corinthians

Several months ago I was sitting in a Bible reading on Galatians 5 when I was struck by the realization that we were discussing Galatians 5:19–21 as though it were in 1 Corinthians. There were serious moral issues in Corinth, including incest (1 Corinthians 5:1), and the Corinthians were actually proud of it (v. 2).

But that wasn't the problem in Galatia. In Galatia, the problem was that the Christians had adopted the Mosaic Law as necessary for the Christian life. There wasn't any outright moral evil in the Galatian assemblies. So why does Galatians warn about the works of the flesh?

I think it's because Paul is warning about the end of the path the Galatians were on. They were trying to live out the Christian life in the energy and the power of the flesh, and the epistle is warning them where that would end. Certainly their motives were good, but they were walking after the flesh, and it would end up badly.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


There are many sermons I've listened to several times. That sometimes means I've found one that's helpful, sometimes it means I've found one that's appalling.

There's one that was recorded about ten years ago, where the speaker said the first command in Romans is in Romans 12:1. When I first heard that, I was surprised. By my count, there are five commands in Romans 6. That means Romans 12:1 is at best the sixth command in Romans.

Ten years ago, I was amused by the speaker's statement, and assumed it was just oversight that led him to make it. But thinking back on it now, it seems more likely it's a result of really missing the point.

People like to read Paul's epistles starting in the middle. How many sermons have we heard on Ephesians 4–6, compared to the number we've heard on Ephesians 1–3? Or how many times have we heard people talking about Colossians 3:5 ff., compared to Colossians 1:1–3:4? The fact is that these epistles are written as a single argument: Colossians 3:5 depends on Colossians 1:1–3:4. Ephesians 4 depends on chapters 1–3. Similarly, Romans 12 builds on chapters 1–11. It assumes we've learned the lessons of the first eleven chapters before we start on the twelfth.

So let's consider the five commands in Romans 6:

  1. So also *ye*, reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11)
  2. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to obey its lusts. (Romans 6:12)
  3. Neither yield your members instruments of unrighteousness to sin (Romans 6:13)
  4. yield yourselves to God as alive from among [the] dead, and your members instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13)
  5. yield your members in bondage to righteousness unto holiness (Romans 6:19)

So also *ye*, reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11) This is probably the most import step in the Christian life: to think of ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. It's interesting how people react to this verse. I remember talking to people about being dead with Christ (Galatians 2:19) who would respond, "Well that's true positionally", as though that meant it's not actually true. Regardless of whether it's true "positionally" or "judicially" (or by any other "-ally"), we have the plain and explicit command to consider it to be true. If we add caveats to it, we're not obeying the first command of Romans.

When Scripture tells us to "reckon" something as true, it's not saying we should explain it away. It's not saying we should try to convince ourselves it's true, or spend hours trying to make ourselves believe it's true. It means this is God's assessment, and we should accept what He has said.

Scripture commands us to think of ourselves this way: we are dead to sin and alive to God. We don't always feel like it's true, we often don't really think it's true. But Scripture tells us we are to think of ourselves in those terms. That's supposed to be my self-image: I am dead to sin and alive to God.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to obey its lusts. (Romans 6:12) The second command in Romans follows closely on the first, with our favorite word "therefore". So we understand we can't actually obey the second until we obey the first. It's because we consider ourselves to be dead to sin that we can not let sin reign in our mortal bodies. We can't experience Romans 6:12 until we obey Romans 6:11.

Notice the battle ground here is our mortal bodies. We haven't risen up to the level of Ephesians 6:12 yet. This isn't a struggle with spiritual wickedness in heavenly places. We're to deny sin the place of rule because we realize we are dead to it. I used to be a man under sin, now I am a man dead to sin and alive to God. That sort of man doesn't need to have sin reigning in his mortal body (see Romans 8:11–13).

Neither yield your members instruments of unrighteousness to sin (Romans 6:13) This one's subtly different from the previous. It's not now talking about sin reigning, but about allowing it to use our "members". I take this to be referring to our physical bodies (see Romans 7:23). This is less about our being ruled by sin, and more about our dabbling in various sins. We aren't to use our mortal bodies to do what sin wants (see Ephesians 2:3).

We understand that there is this thing we call "indwelling sin": a principle of sin living in my mortal body (Romans 7:17, 23; Romans 8:3, 10). Someday Christ will come to change my mortal body to be like His, and I'll be free from its presence (Romans 8:23, Philippians 3:20–21). Until then, there is sin living in this body. But Romans 6:12 tells me it's not my ruler, and Romans 6:13 says I shouldn't use this mortal body on its behalf.

Yield yourselves to God as alive from among [the] dead, and your members instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13) What's the solution? it's to yield ourselves and our members (physical bodies) to God. Notice the phrase "as alive from among the dead". Once again, the entire argument is based on the first command.

Sometimes we hear a preacher say that we need to yield ourselves to God, which is really only half the truth. We need to yield ourselves to God as those alive from the dead. If we haven't come to the place where we recognize we have died with Christ, then we can't yield ourselves to God. At least, not in the way He wants.

Yield your members in bondage to righteousness unto holiness (Romans 6:19). Again, we have the command to yield. This time it's yielding our members to righteousness. We found earlier that we aren't to yield those members to sin, now we find we are to yield them to righteousness. I suppose it's unnecessary to point out this is based on our death with Christ: when we were alive to sin, we were its slaves. We were freed from that by death, and now we're alive to God. So now, just like we used to yield our members to sin, we yield them to righteousness.

So those are the first five commands in Romans. I suppose some might think I've lumped some together (for example, #4 might really be two commands), so maybe those are the first six commands in Romans. Either way, there are several commands in Romans before chapter 12.

In Romans, man is guilty and lost: man's guilt is the subject of the first four chapters, man's lostness is the subject of the next four. It's essential to address both those problems before it's possible to live the Christian life. Our guilt is addressed in Romans 4:5 – God justifies (acquits) the one who does not work but believes. Romans 6:4 deals with our lostness – we were slaves to sin, but now that we've died with Christ we're free.

Any attempt to live the Christian life (yes, even attempts to live obey Romans 12:1–2) without first accepting these two truths is futile.

And please believe me when I say it's a constant struggle for me to get my hands around this. I'm not writing as one who has arrived, but as one who's plodding very slowly along the path.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Newness of Life

When God brought the children of Israel out from Egypt, He had Moses lead them to Sinai where He established a covenant with them (Jeremiah 31:31–32). That covenant was based on accomplished redemption (Exodus 20:1–2). God, having redeemed His people from slavery, told them exactly how to live to please Him. It was a dismal failure: the people of Israel weren't capable of keeping the Law any more than we are (Romans 8:3–7). Of course God knew that all along: He didn't give them the Law to see if they could keep it, but to demonstrate they couldn't. And so Romans sums up the entire history of the Law in this statement: "by law [is] knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20).

Today Christians find themselves in a similar position to the Israelites of that day. God has redeemed us from the house of bondage, and we naturally ask the question, "how can I walk to please God, since He has freely redeemed me?" Scripture answers that question very clearly: "they that are in flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:8).

Sadly, there is a glut of so-called Christian ministry that ignores the answer Scripture gives, and tries to tell how Adam's children can walk to please God. But our experience eventually confirms what God has already said: Adam's children are incapable of pleasing God. If only we were content to pause there and ask what Scripture has to say about us, we might save ourselves a whole lot of trouble; but of course we don't – we decide what we really need is to try harder, so we redouble our efforts. And so we get ourselves into a vicious cycle, where we try harder to please God, but the harder we try the less we accomplish.

But if we were to listen to what Scripture actually says, we might get a glimpse of something surprising. The fact is that Adam's children cannot please God. It's not that they aren't trying hard enough, it's that there is no such thing as "hard enough". God isn't interested in what Adam's children can do: He's already put Adam's race to the test and found it's not good enough.

Why is it so hard to accept that? It's hard because we can't quite make ourselves believe what Scripture says, "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell" (Romans 7:18). If only we could get our hands around this! There's nothing good in me, and I need to give up on the idea that there's something – anything – I can do for God! God doesn't want anything I can do: it's all worthless to Him. We need to be like Paul, content "to be found in him, not having my righteousness, which [would be] on the principle of law, but that which is by faith of Christ, the righteousness which [is] of God through faith" (Philippians 3:9). The Christian life is entirely summed up in this one principle: God is not interested in anything from me, He only wants Christ to be everything to me.

Adam's nature is like the fruitless fig tree in Luke 13:6–9. Not only fruitless, but actually making the ground useless. The very presence of that fruitless tree is taking up space that a fruitful tree could be using.

So the New Testament offers us a solution: if we want to be useful to God, we need to accept that we have died with Christ. We need to accept what God has said, that we're so devoid of good that He has put us to death. It's our death with Christ that makes it possible for God to use us (Romans 6:4, 7:4; Colossians 3:1–4). I know that I've said this many, many times: it's not that we have to "die to self", it's that we have to accept that we have died with Christ (Romans 6:11). It's accepting what God has said: there's nothing here for Him to work with. As long as we don't accept that, we're doomed to nurture a tree that's fruitless and cannot bear fruit. We're lavishing our care and attention on what God has already said is good for nothing.

Why do I keep talking about this? Because what I have seen over the last four decades with Christians is a stubborn unwillingness to accept what the New Testament teaches. What I have seen (and continue to see) is admonitions to please God in the energy of flesh. It cannot be done, but we simply don't accept that: we'd rather call God a liar than give up on ourselves. As Huebner pointed out, we're saying, "man is lost, but not that lost".

The Lord Jesus told Nicodemus that it would take a whole new life for a man to see God's Kingdom (John 3:1–8). The life of Adam isn't enough to get us into the kingdom, it takes life from the Spirit of God. And He pointed out Nicodemus should have known this from the Old Testament scriptures (John 3:10). He told the disciples that there is only one way to be fruitful: to abide in Him (John 15:4–5). Paul tells us what that means: to be "in Christ" is to have no righteousness of our own (Philippians 3:9). Until we have entirely given up on ourselves – on our abilities and our talents and our gifts and our potential – we cannot please God.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Just when I thought JND couldn't get any cooler, it turns out he wasn't a cessationist. From Notes and Jottings, pp 28 - 29:

People have forgotten that the Holy Ghost is come. All recognition of Him is so utterly gone. To my mind, the very principle of "the clergy" involves that; and if you look at 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, you will find you have now to watch that you do not mistake a demon for the Holy Ghost. (p 28)

The doctrine of Irvingism was that the Holy Ghost had come back again. But the Lord said, "that he may abide with you for ever." None of their apostles ever got the gifts. Gifts of healing I think nothing of, because if we had the faith, they would be seen now. I have seen them at Plymouth. (p 29)