Monday, September 25, 2023

Intentional sin

For as long as I can remember, I've heard that there's no sacrifice in the Mosaic Law for intentional sins. I'm sure that's not a true statement, because Leviticus 6:1–7 outlines the trespass offering.  The trespass offering is prescribed for when someone defrauds his neighbor or swears falsely. These are undoubtedly intentional sins. 

Notice the difference in the descriptions of the the sin offering outlined in Leviticus 5:1ff and the trespass offering in Leviticus 6:1–7. The sin offering is for sins committed in ignorance, while the trespass offering is for sins committed knowingly. So yes, the Mosaic Law does have an offering for intentional sins.

Nevertheless, the Law does tell us that there is no offering for sins committed "with a high hand" (Numbers 15:30–31). So the question is, how do we reconcile Numbers 15:30–31 with Leviticus 6:1–7? If we take any intentional sin to be sins committed "with a high hand," then we have a real problem. But it seems to me we are to understand sin committed "with a high hand" to refer to a specific type or category of intentional sin. In other words, not every intentional sin is committed "with a high hand."

When Paul addressed the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14ff), he told them that there is forgiveness for those who believe in the Lord Jesus "from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses" (Acts 13:39). That's an astonishing claim, and it would have been even more astonishing to the people listening to him than it is to us today. But it's nothing more than a succinct statement of the doctrine of justification by faith (faith alone in Christ alone) taught in Romans 4:1–8. There we read that the one who believes is a "man to whom [the] Lord shall not at all reckon sin" (Romans 4:8, quoting Psalm 32:2). 

And we should probably pause here (as we should pause so many times in Romans) and ask, do we really believe that? Do we really believe what Romans 4:1–8 teaches? I'm sure I often fall short of believing those words, even though I'm convinced they are God's own words. Our actions reveal what we truly believe, and my actions betray my own heart every time I look for some sort of penance, some sort of payment for sins that I commit. Every time I act like it's incumbent on me to make atonement for my own sins, it reveals that I really don't believe that God has already justified me freely from all sins.

Here's a question: have you ever confessed the same sin to God more than once? I know I have, and it revealed my own heart: it revealed I didn't really believe He forgave me the first time. 

But if we go back to Romans 8:1–8 or Acts 13:38–39 or Colossians 2:13–15, then we have to say that believing God means believing in absolute, final, unlimited forgiveness. It means that thinking we've sinned too much this time is unbelief. It's calling God a liar. It's thinking that our standards are higher than His. It's flattering ourselves that what Christ could not accomplish in dying for us, we can accomplish with some tears, some remorse, and maybe some ritual.

In a word, it's sin.

So let's take some time to bask in the completeness of the forgiveness that is ours at Christ's expense. There is no sin that God hasn't already forgiven those who believe on His name. Yes, even sins committed "with a high hand." 

Getting back to the question of the Mosaic Law, it seems to me the Law reveals two terrible things about us in those passages. First, if we're honest, we have to admit we've all sinned "with a high hand." None of us can say that every sin we've committed has been committed inadvertently. And if we're really honest, not one of us can say we haven't sinned deliberately, defiantly, and daringly. We've all sinned with a high hand.

But to me the far more troubling lesson is the lesson of the sin offering: we've all sinned inadvertently, perhaps even unknowingly. The law of the sin offering teaches us that we can be guilty without even knowing it, because we are sinners by nature. We can incur guilt without any effort at all, even without realizing we've done it. It's not merely that we sin, but that we are sinners. That's the real lesson of the sin offering. 

And the more deeply we realize it, the more deeply we learn to appreciate Romans 4:1–8.


Sunday, September 3, 2023


I've taken some flak in Bible readings for this, but I think it's worth making a small point that could be helpful. We'll start in Exodus 14:27–31, and observe – as we have several times already – that Israel was saved when they saw the Egyptians dead on the shore. This passage gives us a clear idea what salvation is: it's not merely escaping slavery in Egypt, it's not even escaping the judgment on Egypt, it's seeing the enemy defeated and lifeless on the shore.

So there is a subjective sense to salvation: it's not just that the Egyptian army was dead and lifeless on the shore, it's that Israel saw them there. The Egyptians lying dead on the shore is a fact: it's objectively true. But salvation isn't only objective truth, it's also subjective acceptance of that truth.

And we all know this on some level: the Gospel is laid out in 1 Corinthians 15:1–8, four propositions about the Lord Jesus: His death, His burial, His resurrection, His appearing to witnesses. That's the Gospel. But it doesn't do me any good unless I believe it (note 1 Corinthians 15:1–2 opens with this claim). We could point to numerous other verses: John 3:16, Romans 4:5, Ephesians 2:8–9. These all tell us that we come into the good of the Gospel by believing God.

I would argue that all spiritual progress, from justification by faith alone in Christ alone to the highest spiritual height, is a result of accepting what God has said. God says that Christ has died for my sins, but I only really come into the good of that when I accept that it's true.

Romans 6:1–14 is a good example of this. There's a real problem (Romans 6:1–2), there is a solution resting on God's declaration (Romans 6:3–7), and we come into the good of it as we accept (count on) it being true (Romans 6:11) and then there are practical exhortations flowing from that (Romans 6:12–14).

And I recognize I'm repeating myself here, but it's worth repeating: we can't skip those steps. I've read a whole lot of commentary on Romans 6. I've listened to a whole lot of sermons on Romans 6. But so much of it turns into drivel, and it's because most of it tries to skip to a favorite verse. It doesn't work that way! We can't skip the explanation of God's view of things in vv. 3–7 and try to get to the "reckoning" part in v. 11. We can't skip straight to the "practical" part in vv. 12ff. No, we need to work through it. We need to hear God's view of things, really immerse ourselves in it, and then align our mindset with that (which is all "reckoning" is) before we can live it out.

Now, we can point out that really, we have died with Christ whether we reckon it to be true or not. That's really the teaching of vv. 3–7.  But someone who feels trapped in sin is looking for something more: skipping from vv. 3–7 to vv. 12ff isn't going to help that person. That person needs v. 11.

And here's where I've gotten into trouble in Bible readings: it's not enough to go from "this is what God sees" to "this is how you should live" without the pause of "reckoning." Not only in Romans 6, but in every single passage. We need that pause of "reckoning" in Colossians 3:1–5, in Philippians 3:9–11, in Ephesians 4:1ff. We need it in all those passages. Because "here's what God sees" doesn't help us in practical terms until we see it too.

That's the lesson from Exodus 14:27–31,  a big part of salvation is seeing what God sees. It takes a change of mind, an accepting that what God says is true, even if we think we know better. We need to "see" the truth that's presented to us before it does us any good.

And so when we come to Philippians 3:9ff, we see being "in Christ" as an aspirational thing ("that I may be found in Him"). It's not that I'm not a man in Christ, but it's that we don't get the practical good of that unless our thinking is aligned with God's. No, I cannot make myself a man in Christ. Yes, God sees me as a man in Christ regardless. But if I want to come into the practical benefits of being a man in Christ, I have to be aligned with what God sees. And in Philippians 3:9ff, being a man in Christ means having no righteousness of my own. Until I accept that I have no righteousness of my own, I may be a man in Christ as far as God is concerned, but I'm struggling against it.

So sometimes I speak about our position in Christ in aspirational terms. That's not because I don't believe it's true, but because I'm trying to emphasize that we won't get the good of it until we come to believe, accept, and "see" that what God says is true. It's when I stop struggling against it that I come into the good of it. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The least you could do

It's not uncommon to hear preachers say something like, "Christ died for you, the least you could do is to live for Him." It's worth noting that the epistles make no such claim. In fact, they seem to say the opposite. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:7–12 as an example, or Galatians 2:20.   "[I]t is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20, LSB). It's worth spending some time meditating on this.

Deuteronomy 29:4 makes the startling statement that God had not given Israel eyes, ears, and a heart to perceive what He was doing for them in the wilderness. What they needed was not more evidence of God's goodness to them (Deuteronomy 29:2–6), but Divine intervention and transformation so that they would understand what they had seen.

This theme is developed more fully in the prophets (Jeremiah17:9; Ezekiel 36:25–27), in the gospels (John 3:3ff; John 15:4ff), and in the epistles (Romans 7:4–6; Romans 8:1–8; Galatians 6:15). The testimony of the whole of Scripture, from the Pentatuech through the epistles, is that man cannot please God without a fundamental transformation that he is unable to achieve himself. It is only God's intervention that can make man capable of pleasing God.

Romans 5:12ff centers on this simple truth: man is not simply guilty, he is lost. Our problem is not merely that we are guilty before God (the focus of Romans 1–3), but that we are by nature opposed to Him. The problem is not only that we have sinned, but that we are sinners. And it might surprise us to realize we were sinners before we ever sinned (Romans 5:19). We are like the scorpion that stung the frog, "because that's what scorpions do." We sin because we are sinners, not the other way around.

At the root of the exhortation, "Christ died for you, the least you can do is live for Him," is the hidden assumption that we are not lost, merely guilty. Our guilt means we need forgiveness and atonement, but once that has been accomplished, we are capable of trying again – and getting it right this time! We have a clean slate. It rests on a denial that fallen man is truly lost.

The clean slate approach has already been tried and been found wanting. Exodus 31 – 34 detail the initial giving of the Law at Sinai, the failure of Israel to keep it, God's grace in sparing the bulk of the nation, and then His giving the Law again. 2 Corinthians 3:7–16 alludes to Exodus 34, especially Exodus 34:29ff. The verdict is that the Law, delivered for the second time, is the "ministry of death" and the "ministry of condemnation."

For many years, I took "the ministry of death" in 2 Corinthians 3:7–10 to refer to the giving of the Law in Exodus 32:19ff. But we know for certain that's not correct: the veiling of Moses wasn't a feature of Exodus 32, but of Exodus 34. So what 2 Corinthians 3 calls "the ministry of death" (2 Corinthians 3:7) and "the ministry of condemnation" (2 Corinthians 3:9) is explicitly not the first giving of the Law, but the second: it's law after forgiveness.

I've quoted this passage by JND before, but it's worth quoting again:

[T]he people, though spared by grace, were put back under law; and this was the ministration of death and condemnation of which the apostle speaks. For, in fact, if atonement be not made, grace only makes transgression worse, at any rate in the revelation of God; even in partial glory, with law it must be condemnation to a sinner. Law after grace, in a word, is what the apostle teaches us is condemnation; law after atonement is worse than absurd. It is putting away the sin, and then putting under it, or making the law of no authority and no effect. But vague grace - sparing, and then law, is the state of multitudes of souls; and that is what the apostle tells us is death and condemnation in its nature, and indeed the veil is soon over the reflection of grace to the soul (that is, the perception that exists of grace is soon lost).
– J. N. Darby, "Show me now thy way", Collected Writings, Volume 19, p. 181

Notice how the exhortation, "Christ has died for you, the least you can do is live for Him" parallels the giving of the Law in Exodus 34. Putting responsibility for obedience on those who have been forgiven – because they have been forgiven – is not the Gospel. It's the "ministry of death."  This is what Luther might call "mixing Law and Gospel."

We might note, too, that obedience predicated on completed redemption isn't Gospel at all: it's pure Law. Consider Exodus 20:1–2. The Mosaic Law was predicated on a completed redemption from slavery in Egypt. God wasn't promising them He would deliver them from Egypt if only they would obey: He reminded them that He had already delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and thus He had a right to demand obedience. This is identical in principle to what is so commonly taught as "gospel" today.

The principle of grace – grace as opposed to law – is that God gives freely, demanding nothing in return. This is not the principle of Exodus 34, which put forgiven men and women back under law. This is something entirely different.

And so we ask the same question Paul asks in Romans 6:1, "so shall we just continue in sin then?" And like every question in Romans, this one tests whether we've been paying attention. If the Gospel taught in Romans 1–5 demands obedience, then that question would never be there. The question is there, because if we truly hear the Gospel taught in Romans 1–5, we'll be wondering whether we should just continue in sin. If more sin means more grace (cf. Romans 5:20–21), then doesn't that mean we can increase grace by continuing in sin?  If we don't see the question in Romans 6:1 as the logical one to ask, then we've been adding something to the Gospel of Romans 1–5. 

W. H. Griffith Thomas points out:

Before considering the Apostle's treatment of this question it is essential to observe that the very fact of such a question being possible shows with unmistakable clearness the true meaning of the Apostle's Doctrine of Justification (St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 165)


And don't let's misquote Romans 6:1. It doesn't say, "can we continue in sin?" the answer to that is a resounding "Yes!" Praise God, if we continue in sin, then grace will abound. That's not the question.

The question is, "shall we continue in sin?"  That's a different question, and it has a different answer.

No one who says, "Christ has died for you, the least you can do is live for Him" will ever be asked, "shall we continue in sin?" That person is on entirely different ground than Paul was. That question is the logical follow-up to Paul's Gospel. If no one's asking us that question, then we're preaching a different Gospel than Paul was. (Alan Gamble pointed this out brilliantly in a sermon I can no longer find online.)

And what's Paul's response to that question? Does he say, "may it never be! Christ has died for you, the least you can do is live for Him!" No, he does not. He responds, "may it never be! How shall we, who are dead to sin, live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:2). It's not that we should cease sinning out of gratitude. It's that we should cease sinning because we have died to sin.

God's remedy for guilt is that Christ died for us. Dying in our place, He paid the penalty we owed.

God's remedy for our lost-ness – for our entire inability to please God – is that we have died with Christ.

Notice how Romans 6:1–6 makes a mockery of the notion that "the least you could do is live for Him." God doesn't want our life! We were so lost that His remedy is to put us to death. Our life – the life that we inherited from Adam – was a life incapable of pleasing God (Romans 8:1–8, especially vv. 7–8). In and of ourselves, we cannot please God


I cannot stress enough that obedience based on gratitude for accomplished redemption isn't Gospel, but Law. It is exactly the opening statement of Exodus 20. We are no more capable of keeping the Law after forgiveness than before it. Our problem isn't that we lack gratitude (although we do), but that we lack power. This is what Romans 6–8 addresses.

The scriptural remedy for our lost-ness involves three things. First, we are freely justified from all guilt through faith in Christ (Acts 13:39, Romans 4:1–8). God wants nothing from us to make amends for our guilt: we are utterly helpless in the face of the crushing debt we owe, and any attempts to make payment for it mock God's righteousness. God forgives us because – and only because – Christ has died for us. There is no other remedy for our guilt before God. "[T]he one who does not work, but believes upon Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Romans 4:5, LSB). There is no other remedy that God acknowledges.

Second, we are delivered from the power of sin over us by our death with Christ. This is Romans 6:1–14, it's God's answer to the question, "so should we just continue in sin?" The answer is that God has already intervened for us, in the death of Christ, so that we are invited to see ourselves as God sees us. As far as God is concerned, when Christ died, I died. When Christ was buried, I was buried. When Christ rose again, I rose again. When Christ ascended, I ascended. I am a man "in Christ," and my life is tied up with His. Darby points out that Romans only addresses the first two: in Romans we have died with Christ and been buried with Him, but we haven't yet been raised with Him (cf. Romans 6:5). In Colossians, we have died with Him, been buried with Him, and been raised with Him (Colossians 3:1–4). But in Colossians, we still haven't ascended with Him. In Ephesians, though, we have gone all the way with Him, and are seated in the heavenlies with Him (Ephesians 2:4–6).

There is human responsibility in Romans 6. The first command in the book of Romans is in Romans 6:11, "consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (LSB). So there is something we need to do: we need to consider ourselves to be dead to sin. This isn't some sort of psychological technique, it's not wish fulfillment or "manifesting" or whatever other pop psychology pseudo-spiritual nonsense you might hear about. This is accepting by faith that God sees us as having died with Christ, and accepting His invitation to see ourselves the same way. This is our acquiescence to God's statement that we died with Christ. This is us saying, "whatever my opinion may be, God's opinion is the one that counts."

Third, we are empowered by the Spirit of God to "walk in the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16ff, Romans 8:1–17). Notice the parallels between Paul's ministry in Galatians and Romans, and John's in John 15:1–11. The language is different, the descriptions are the same. What John calls "abiding in Christ" is what Paul calls "walking in the Spirit." 

Now, it's important to note that conflict isn't over yet. In fact, conflict hasn't really started. When the children of Israel left Egypt, they were delivered from Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea without any fight at all: it was entirely God's fight, and they were simply told to "stand still" and watch (Exodus 14:13–14). In fact, Scripture only says they were "saved" when they had seen the dead bodies of the Egyptians on the shore (Exodus 14:30–31). In a similar way, we are invited to look at ourselves dead with Christ (Romans 6:5–11). But once they had gotten through the Red Sea, they had to engage in conflict with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8ff).

As an aside, one of the worst things so many preachers do today is invite us to conflict with the Egyptians. We aren't called to put sin to death, but to consider ourselves to have died to it (Romans 6:5–11). The Israelites weren't told to fight with Pharaoh, but to watch his destruction. They were called to fight with Amalek. In exactly the same way, there is conflict for us too, but we don't get to that conflict until we have learned to "stand still and see the salvation of the Lord."


Scripture doesn't teach, "live this way out of gratitude," but "live what you are in Christ." We are called into a new creation: we are new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17), that is our motivation. Just like we used to sin because we were sinners, now we should live righteously because we are in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 4:1ff, Romans 12:1ff).

But notice this isn't something that God calls lost men and women to do! This is something we are called to do only after we have seen ourselves as dead and buried with Christ. We can't skip Romans 6 on the way to Romans 12. We can't skip Ephesians 2 on the way to Ephesians 4. It just doesn't work that way. It's worse than foolishness.

So with all that said (and it was a lot), here are just some of the problems with "Christ has died for you, the least you can do is live for Him."

First, it assumes that God wants my life. He does not, what He wants is the "life of Jesus" in our mortal bodies (2 Corinthians 4:7–12). What good is the life of a fallen man or woman to God? What value is a lost sinner to Him? Forgiven or not, the life of a lost sinner is of no spiritual value at all. It's the life of one who has died with Christ, has been buried with Him, has been raised with Him, and is looking for Christ to come back for him – that's the life that pleases God. It's not until we can say, "Christ, who is our life" (Colossians 3:4) that we have a life God can use.

Second, it supposes an independent life. The Lord Jesus said, "apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). The entire discussion in John 15:1–11 centers on the self-evident fact that a branch on its own is useless. We don't produce fruit for God on our own: we produce fruit for God as the True Vine bears fruit through us. Forgiven, but lost, men and women are no more capable of pleasing God than unforgiven men and women. As new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17), we are capable of pleasing God, but...

The single hardest thing for us to learn is that the rules are different in the New Creation. In New Creation, life is from God Himself, we don't have it on our own (cf. John 6:26ff). Adam had some measure of life independent from God. The life of the New Creation in Christ isn't like that (1 John 5:11–14). No, the life of the New Creation is life that is hidden in Christ. We don't look to live autonomously. This isn't a life where we can go off and work hard to produce something and bring it back to God, as Cain did. It's a life where every breath, every step, every action has to be taken as an outflow of the life of God Himself in Christ Jesus.


Third, it assumes we can achieve righteousness. This is probably the most lingering aspect of carnal religion. Just like cockroaches seem to survive no matter what we try to do to rid ourselves of them, we cling to the carnal concept of producing righteousness for God until the bitter end. We need to stamp that out: we need to beat it mercilessly until it lies lifeless at our feet, and then we need to beat it some more.

The righteousness men and women can produce are of no value to God (Job 22:3, Isaiah 64:6).

A man in Christ Jesus has no righteousness of his own. This the plain statement of Philippians 3:8–11. Righteousness of our own is necessarily on the principle of law (Philippians 3:9), and that's a principle that can only condemn us (Romans 4:15). Law cannot produce righteousness, but that's all we have when we try to have righteousness of our own.

In God's view, we are men and women in Christ Jesus. But to come into the practical good of that, we need to embrace Philippians 3:8–11. If we are in Christ Jesus, we have no righteousness of our own. We are no more capable of producing righteousness now than we were then. We must give this up!

It's hard to imagine a more stark contrast than the one between "Christ died for me, the least I can do is to live for Him" and "that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God upon faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead."

I'm sure there are many other issues that could be mentioned. I'm sure the comments will fill with other excellent points. But to me, these three are the reasons I reject the notion that, "Christ died for you, the least you can do is live for Him."









Monday, August 21, 2023

Cornelius and Kelly

I've been listening to some talks on "The Dangers of Calvinism" that are more entertaining than helpful. It's not that there aren't real dangers in Calvinism, but these particular talks are more unhinged rants than careful analysis. And it's frankly sad I have to say that, because the speaker does bring up some good points, but his carelessness throughout makes it all too easy to ignore them.

At any rate, at some point in these talks, the speaker uses the story of Cornelius as a counter-argument to the idea of Total Depravity. According to this speaker, Cornelius was an unregenerate man who feared God, and Heaven took notice of his piety(!).

At the root of his misapprehension is the idea that "salvation," "regeneration," and "conversion" are all synonyms. They are not.

William Kelly can explain this better than I, so I'll stop my own commentary here and quote his.

From Introductory Lectures on the Acts:

It is a fallacy then to suppose that Cornelius had no better than merely natural religion. He was assuredly, before Peter went, a converted man. To regard him as unawakened at that time is to mistake a great deal of the teaching of the chapter. Not that one would deny that a mighty work was then wrought in Cornelius. We must not limit, as ignorant people do, the operation of the Holy Spirit to the new birth. No man in his natural state could pray, nor serve God acceptably, as Cornelius did. One must be born again; but, like many others who had really been quickened in those days (and it may be even now, I presume), a soul might be born again, and yet far from resting in peace on redemption, far indeed from a sense of deliverance from all questions as to his soul. There is this difference, no doubt, between such cases now and that of Cornelius then, — that, before the mission of Peter, it would have been presumptuous for a Gentile to have pretended to salvation; now it is the fruit of unbelief for a believer to question it. A soul that now looks to Jesus ought to rest without question on redemption; but we must remember that at this time Jesus was not yet publicly preached to the Gentiles — not yet freely and fully proclaimed according to the riches of grace. Therefore, the more godly Cornelius was, the less would he dare to put forth his hand for the blessing before the Lord told him to stretch it out. He did what, I have no doubt, was the right thing. He was truly in earnest before God. As we are told here — and the Spirit delights to give such an account — "he was a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway."

Such was the man to whom God was about to send the gospel by Peter. Thus we must carefully remember that the gospel brings more than conversion to God. It is the message of life, but it is also the means of peace. Before the gospel was preached to every creature, a new nature was communicated to many a soul; but till then there was not and could not be peace. The two things are both brought us in the gospel — life brought to light, and the peace preached that was made by the blood of the cross. At the same time scripture shows there might be and often was an interval after the gospel did go forth. So from experience we know there is many a man that you cannot doubt to be truly looking to the Lord, yet far from resting in the peace of God. Cornelius, I apprehend, was just in this case. He would no more have perished, had it pleased God to have taken him away in this state, than any Old Testament saint, whether Jew or Gentile. No believer could be so ignorant of God and His ways of old as to imagine there ought to be any doubt about those who nevertheless were full of anxieties and troubles, and through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

And also from Kelly, from An Exposition of the Acts of the ApostlesChapter 11:

Again, let us remark how clearly this discourse of Peter distinguishes new birth from salvation. Cornelius was assuredly born of God before Peter visited him at Caesarea. Nevertheless Peter was to speak to him words whereby he should be saved. It is a gross mistake to suppose that the salvation which he now found is not far beyond new birth. Present salvation is the first foundation privilege of the gospel. To be born again was always true from Abel downwards. But those who are merely born again do not enter Christian ground until they have received at least the first and most needful blessing, to which the accomplishment of Christ's work entitles all who believe...

The remarkable care with which God introduced the new standing-point [of salvation] to the Gentiles makes this confusion inexcusable. Now, while faith never was without suited mercy from God, it is one of the most marked signs of unbelief to ignore the peculiar privilege which God is now giving, and to go back to that mode or means which may have been at a former time. Here, as has been already and often pointed out, the Evangelicals are as dark as the Sacramentarians. For, if the latter party attach exorbitant efficacy to the mere sign of the blessing, the former are as ignorant of what is signified. Both agree in making the initiatory institution of the gospel to be the sign of life or the new birth; whereas it is really of the remission or washing away of sins (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16), and of death with Christ (Rom. 6:2-3; Col. 2:12), i.e., of salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Cornelius learnt from the apostle that for a Gentile it was no question any longer of God's uncovenanted mercy. He himself, already born of God and acquainted with the Messiah come for the deliverance of His ancient people by faith, had now to learn of salvation's door open to the Gentile believer as truly as to the Jewish. It is not promise, as hitherto even to an Israelite, it is the work accomplished, and soul-salvation henceforth given to all believers without distinction. As the seal of it, the Holy Ghost was manifestly imparted as on the day of Pentecost.

It's worth taking a look at From New Birth to New Creation by R. A. Huebner, (especially pages 16–17) as well.

We can group Lydia (Acts 16:14ff) and John's disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1ff) in with Cornelius. These people were worshiping the one true God before they heard the Gospel. They weren't pagans, they were in the same position as Old Testament saints. For them the Gospel wasn't a call from death to life, but a call into the new order that God has begun with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Well, I promised that I would limit my own commentary and just use Kelly's, so I'll stop here.




Friday, August 4, 2023

Righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees

Sometime in the last couple years I visited a Baptist church. The pastor began his talk by saying they were going through a series on the Beatitudes. I thought, "of course you are!"   I spent a lot of time in a Baptist church growing up: I'm not sure they believe anything outside the Gospel of Matthew is truly inspired.

I was reading through Matthew's gospel, and I was struck by a contrast I'm not sure I ever noticed before.

The Lord's words in the sermon on the mount are austere, "unless your righteousness surpass [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of the heavens" (Matthew 5:20). That's not a promising start for someone like me, and it's probably not a promising start for you either. In fact, the whole section is daunting: compare yourself to almost anything in Matthew 5 through 7, and you'll find you come up short.

But there is another thread, and it comes out in Matthew 21:31, "Verily I say unto you that the tax-gatherers and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you."

So we have this contrast: there is a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, but it's a righteousness that tax-collectors and harlots can have.

This contrast is probably brought out the most vividly in Luke's gospel (Luke 18:10–14). There we have a Pharisee and a tax-collector contrasted. The Pharisee commends himself to God based on his righteousness (Luke 18:11–12), the tax-collector begs God for His mercy (Luke 18:13). What's the conclusion? God justifies the tax-collector (Luke 18:14).

And so we conclude (as the epistle to the Romans does), that the righteousness that God counts apart from our works (Romans 4:5, Philippians 3:9) is a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now, we have to guard against the idea that the tax-collector in Luke 18:10–14 earned righteousness by his penitence. There is no merit in our repentance. But there is something there that the Pharisee was missing: the tax-collector saw himself the same way God saw him. 

It's fair to say that "God be merciful to me a sinner" is one prayer God will never fail to answer. It's the one request He will always grant. God doesn't deny the one who begs for His mercy, but He turns away the one who is righteous in his own eyes.

In my experience, Matthew 5–7 is used to urge Christians to live more selflessly. And it's not terribly uncommon to hear preachers give dire warnings based on Matthew 6:15 or Matthew 7:21–23 or another similar passage. It seems to me that some people think the point of the Lord's words was to urge us to out-Pharisee the Pharisees, like the take-home message is that the Pharisees just weren't trying hard enough.

Another reaction is to attempt to use the Lord's words to soften God's response to sin. It's tempting to look at passages like Matthew 21:31 and conclude that really, if tax-collectors and harlots get into the kingdom before the Pharisees, then God must not really mind at all if we live like tax-collectors and harlots. That's a difficult argument to make in light of the Lord's actual words: His condemnation of lust, for example (Matthew 5:27–29), seems to put a quick end to it.

I don't doubt that the Lord was addressing a specific group of people in a specific time and place. It behooves us to keep context in mind when we read scripture. He wasn't addressing us today, He was addressing Jewish people in Israel 2000-ish years ago. At the same time, we find in our own hearts the same shortcomings He pointed out in theirs.

In a sense, the Lord's earthly ministry was the last chance for fallen men and women to show themselves capable of repentance. Had they accepted the Lord for who He is and bowed to Him, they would have proven themselves to be something less than utterly lost. Instead, they took the Man God had raised up, hung Him on a tree, and left Him to die (Acts 5:30). That is the greatest sin anyone has ever committed: the worst thing our race has ever done. And we don't want to lie to ourselves and say we'd have done any different.

So there's a sense where the Lord's earthly ministry was a downward path to the lowest point in human history: the murder of the Son of God.

But God being who He is, He took the worst thing we have ever done, and He made it our salvation. So here we are, the Son of God has died for our sins, He has been buried, and He has risen from the dead. All we can do is say, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!"

And we know He will.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Worth it

Several years ago I was invited to a party at the home of a co-worker. At the end of it, he looked at me and said, "I'm glad you came."  That was a very kind thing to say, the fact that I remember it after ten years attests to that.

Isaiah 53:11 is a sort of an "I'm glad you're here" verse. It's amazing to think that God looks on the results of Christ's atonement for us and is satisfied. Scripture is clear that God's opinion of us isn't very good, but it's also clear that His love for us is measureless. Here we are, lost and ruined sinners, and the eternal and holy God loves us.

He did terrible things to save us. And when He looks at us, He thinks those terrible things were worth it.

Friday, June 23, 2023

we need both

We talked before about justification (by faith alone in Christ alone) and new birth. We are justified in God's sight – declared righteous by Him – when we do not work, but believe (Romans 4:5). We have life through His (Christ's) name when we believe (John 20:31). Both are true, but they aren't the same.

There's a temptation when we talk about this sort of thing to err in one of two directions: either we confound two distinct things and blur them together in our minds, or we put them in opposition to one another, and try to force ourselves to choose between them. The proper path is to recognize that we need both, but to understand at the same time that they're not the same thing.

So we understand that being justified in God's sight – being declared righteous by Him – is our guarantee against damnation. God cannot condemn the one He has already declared is righteous. So there's a sense where our eternal destiny is determined by whether we work, or whether we simply believe without works.

At exactly the same time, we understand that we need not only God's judicial acquittal (so that we cannot be condemned in His sight), but we need to be changed. We have an ontological need as well as  forensic need. It's not merely that we need to be acquitted, we need to be changed too. We recognize that we aren't what we need to be, and we recognize too that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50). We need an entirely new life to see it (John 3:3).

It's important that we don't confuse what Scripture says about these two things.  We can search the Scriptures all we like, but we cannot find a single test in Scripture to tell whether we have been justified in God's sight. We can find Scriptural support for the idea that new life in Christ has produces results (1 John 3:9, 14, 24), but I cannot find a "test" of whether we are justified by Him. 

As far as I can tell, whenever someone says, "God be merciful to me a sinner," God does exactly that. That self-confessed sinner goes home justified (Luke 18:13–14). This is the foundation of our assurance before Him. We can be confident before God, because we know that He is the God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). We are confident that He has heard and He has acted when we say, "God have compassion on me, the sinner." We have nothing to fear when we have told Him the truth and stopped calling Him a liar.

But at the same time, we check ourselves against what He says about the life He has given us. Are we living that life? Is that something we have received, but are content to leave in the package, so to speak?  We are called not merely to have eternal life, but to "lay hold" on it (1 Timothy 6:12). 

And this brings us to an entirely different view of the Christian path. On the one hand, we must be content to call out, "God be merciful to me a sinner" and be confident that He has done exactly that. On the other, we recognize that eternal life requires feeding, as all life does. No living thing, except God Himself, can just go on without feeding. The eternal life we receive from God requires feeding too, which is really what John 6:35–58 is all about. We need not only to have eaten (John 6:53), but also to eat (John 6:56). There is, indeed a one-time eating, but there is also an ongoing feeding. We need both.

Again – we can't stress this enough – being righteous in God's sight has nothing to do with how well live after that. Having once been declared righteous, God no longer counts any sins against us (Romans 4:6–8). That's true regardless how we live from that point on.

Walking in newness of life isn't a result of fear of judicial retribution. We don't walk in newness of life because we're making atonement for our sins, nor because we're trying to acquire merit to buy our place in Heaven. Walking in newness of life is a result of Christ in us. We yearn to walk newly (I really don't think that's a correct use of the word) because He has worked something new in us (Philippians 2:13). And this isn't merely a "New Testament truth," it's taught in the Old Testament too: fallen men and women need a new heart (Deuteronomy 29:1–4).

So my exhortation to us – and I really do mean "us" here, I need to hear this as much as anyone does – is, don't let's lose sight of either truth. On the one hand, we are justified in God's sight without works when we believe Him. At exactly the same time, God works in us to produce something new: and it starts with His giving us new life. We can't work our way into new life, it's impossible to earn eternal life. But the eternal life He has given us freely grows and develops and matures into something very different than what we are by nature as Adam's children.

We need to hold on to both these truths.