Friday, April 26, 2013


Caleb's comment the other day brings up the question of salvation. I've talked about this before, but I think it's a point that bears repeating. So let's repeat it.

There is a tendency (certainly in North America) for Christians to use them term "saved" as a synonym for conversion. That is, when someone believes on the Lord Jesus, they say they "got saved".  This causes some confusion, because Scripture doesn't generally use the word "saved" that way.  In my short experience, I've learned that it's best to use the language of Scripture--- I'm not very good at it, but I find it clears up a lot of problems simply to use the language Scripture uses.

So let's examine what Scripture says about salvation.

We'll start in Romans 5, because it's probably the clearest passage on salvation:
9 Much rather therefore, having been now justified in the power of his blood, we shall be saved by him from wrath.
 10 For if, being enemies, we have been reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much rather, having been reconciled, we shall be saved in the power of his life.
 11 And not only that, but we are making our boast in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom now we have received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:9--11, JND)
Verse 9 says we "have been justified", and as a result we "shall be saved".  Verse 10 says we "have been reconciled", and we "shall be saved".  So we see that there is a difference between justification and salvation: justification is the start of the path, salvation is the end. The Christian life starts with reconciliation and ends with salvation.

In fact, the book of Romans never speaks about salvation in the past tense, in Romans salvation is always future, with no exceptions.  We might go so far as to say that in Romans, the Christian life is the period between justification and salvation. In fact, the Apostle makes the remarkable statement:
This also, knowing the time, that it is already time that *we* should be aroused out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. (Romans 13:11, JND)
Paul, an Apostle, wasn't saved yet. He was still looking forward to a salvation, which was growing closer.

So certainly in the context of Romans, the believer is both justified and reconciled, but he isn't yet saved. If we limit our discussion to Romans, it's incorrect ever to refer to a believer as "saved" until he or she is perfected with Christ.

We might notice that Ephesians views the Christian as saved already:
 8 For ye are saved by grace, through faith; and this not of yourselves; it is God’s gift:
 9 not on the principle of works, that no one might boast. (Ephesians 2:8 & 9, JND)
So there is a sense where a believer is already saved. But Ephesians isn't using the word "saved" as a synonym for conversion either. We notice the passage that says we have been saved by grace begins with the remarkable statements (vv. 4--7) that we have been quickened with Christ, raised with Him, and seated with Him "in the heavenlies". So although Ephesians puts the believer as already saved, it doesn't use the term "saved" to mean merely that a believer has eternal life, but that the believer has gotten to the end of the path: the believer who is "saved" is raised with Christ, ascended into Heaven with Him, and is sitting with Him in Heaven.

In fact, whatever tense is used, Scripture always (with no exceptions that I can find) uses the term "saved" to mean much more than justification. We're not saved just because we have eternal life, nor because we've been justified from our sins, nor because our sins have been forgiven. We're saved when God's work in us is seen as complete.

Salvation isn't the forgiveness of sins, it's not eternal life, it's not justification, it's not redemption, it's not reconciliation. Salvation is the end result of God's work in us: it's what God is working towards. 1 Peter 1:9 uses an amazing expression:
receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls (JND)
Salvation is the end of our faith. It's what we're looking forward to.

Notice Titus uses it the same way:
 5 not on the principle of works which have been done in righteousness which *we* had done, but according to his own mercy he saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5, JND)
There are two parts to salvation, according to Titus. The first is regeneration, the second is renewal. Regeneration is Romans 3--8, renewal is Romans 12--15. Again, it's the complete package: not merely that we have been forgiven of sins, but salvation includes God's work in us.

Whenever we mention this fact, there's someone who responds with: "Salvation is in all three tenses in Scripture." That's a true statement, but the people who have quoted it to me seem to miss its implications. It seems we like to come up with these short little one-liners to shield our consciences from the truth. I'm not trying to point any fingers here: I do it too! But let's try and see past the pat answer to what the Scripture actually teaches.

First, it's wrong to think of salvation merely as a synonym for redemption, justification, new birth, or eternal life. Salvation is always presented as a the complete package: salvation is coming into the fullness of what God has for me. Where Scripture says we "have been saved", it's looking to God's eternal purpose in me. Ephesians isn't saying I've been saved because I've been born again: Ephesians says I "have been saved" because God sees me as already there. Eventually, I'll see that He's right. Eventually I'll see it too. Then I'll agree with Him that I've been saved.

Second, there are some "problem" passages that aren't problems at all, if we get rid of our wrong ideas of salvation. Let's take an example: Are we saved by baptism? Yes, yes we are. Scripture teaches it plainly:
 16 He that believes and is baptised shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned. (Mark 16:16, JND)
18 ¶ for Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God; being put to death in flesh, but made alive in the Spirit,
 19 in which also going he preached to the spirits which are in prison,
 20 heretofore disobedient, when the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah while the ark was preparing, into which few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water:
 21 ¶ which figure also now saves you, even baptism, not a putting away of the filth of flesh, but the demand as before God of a good conscience, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:18--21, JND)
Scripture plainly and unequivocally teaches that we are saved by baptism.  It's amusing to hear people try and explain away these passages. We ought simply bow to Scripture. We are saved by baptism, but we're not redeemed by baptism, or justified by baptism, or born again by baptism, or regenerated by baptism. Salvation is the end of our path, and one step on that path is baptism. Baptism isn't about having life in Christ: baptism is about severing my ties with this wicked world. And salvation's intimately tied up with that.

The plain fact is that we're always best off bowing to Scripture.  We do no one any favours when we start using the language of Scripture in a way it doesn't. Scripture doesn't use the term "saved" in the way we tend use it.

I understand we need to be careful not to make a man (or a woman) a transgressor for a word. It's not Christ-like for us to go around splitting hairs. So most of the time, I just ignore it when someone uses the term "saved" when they really mean "justified" or "regenerated".  It's not worth stumbling someone over a word.

But I admit I question my judgment when people make clearly anti-Scriptural statements like "baptism doesn't save". That's just plain wrong: Scripture clearly teaches it does.

And it's not just the "problem" verses: when we're not careful to understand what we say before we say it, we miss out on what Scripture is actually teaching. Ephesians 2:8--9 isn't just saying we have forgiveness of sins by grace through faith, it's saying the whole package is by grace through faith. God doesn't justify us by grace through faith and then wait for us to work out the rest ourselves: He saves us by grace through faith. It's the whole Christian life, from justification to the end. All of it is by grace through faith. When we finally see what God sees: when we're finally seated in the Heavenlies and we see what God has seen all along; then we'll see that all of it was purely God's grace through faith.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How much is enough?

We had some special meetings at the meeting hall this last weekend, and there were quite a few people there.  We ended the weekend with a final "Q&A" session, where people were encouraged to ask questions. My buddy Caleb facilitated it: he didn't necessarily answer every question, his job was more to chair the meeting and ensure there was a clear order.

The first question was, "If all we have to do to be justified is believe, how much do we have to believe?" This is a non-trivial question, and it carries an enormous weight. From an abstract theological perspective, it's a question of some interest. From the perspective of a person who is desperate to know that his sins are forgiven, it's a whole different question. I took a stab at answering it, but I thought it would be worthwhile to answer that question here.

The most careful discussion of justification by faith in Scripture is found in Romans 4. There is an answer for us in the first five verses:
 1 What shall we say then that Abraham our father according to flesh has found?
 2 For if Abraham has been justified on the principle of works, he has whereof to boast: but not before God;
 3 for what does the scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
 4 Now to him that works the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but of debt:
 5 but to him who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. (Romans 4:1--5, JND)
It's interesting to note that the whole of the Apostle's argument on justification in Romans is based on the Old Testament. That's because justification by faith alone (Romans 5:1) is Old Testament truth. The Old Testament saints were justified when they believed God, and so are we.

The principle of Scripture is "two witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). And so the Apostle takes two Old Testament witnesses to the truth of justification by faith: Abraham and David. The true genius of taking these witnesses is only understood when we see them in relation to the Law. Abraham was before the Mosaic Law (Galatians 3:15--18), David was under the Law. Both were justified by faith. And so we see that the Law does not annul the principle on which God justifies: both those under Law and those not under Law are justified by faith.

In the spirit of "two witnesses", let's just establish the principle of justification by faith. Romans 4:5 and 5:1 are unequivocal statements that justification comes from faith alone: in fact, faith in contrast to works. Acts 13:38 & 39 is another witness:
38 Be it known unto you, therefore, brethren, that through this man remission of sins is preached to you,
 39 and from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses, in him every one that believes is justified. (JND)
But this is still Paul preaching, so let's find another witness. How about the Lord Jesus?
 24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment, but is passed out of death into life. (John 5:24, JND)
Or the Apostle John?
 31 but these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in his name. (John 20:31, JND)
 The truth of Scripture, from start to finish, is the God justifies the one who believes. There is nothing to do, only Someone to believe.

But the question was, "How much do I need to believe?"

There is a simple answer, and some not-so-simple answers. Let's start with the simple: Romans 4:1--5 establishes justification by faith on the history of Abraham, specifically on Genesis 15. The verse it quotes (v. 3) is Genesis 15:6
6 And he believed Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. (JND)
If we examine the verse in it's context, we find that God promised Abraham a son. Abraham believed Him, and so God counted that faith as righteousness. As far as I can tell, that's all Abraham believed. He didn't have a very thorough theology, he sure didn't have a creed or a confession. Romans 4 comments on his belief:
 17 (according as it is written, I have made thee father of many nations,) before the God whom he believed, who quickens the dead, and calls the things which be not as being;
 18 who against hope believed in hope to his becoming father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be:
 19 and not being weak in faith, he considered not his own body already become dead, being about a hundred years old, and the deadening of Sarah’s womb,
 20 and hesitated not at the promise of God through unbelief; but found strength in faith, giving glory to God;
 21 and being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do;
 22 wherefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:17--22, JND)
Abraham didn't believe in a complicated theology: he believed God when God told him he'd have a son. He believed God despite what he could see. He knew he was too old for children, he knew his wife was too old for children, but he believed God when it didn't make sense.

As an aside, I've heard people try and put a Gospel message into Genesis 15. Like, they think God somehow showed Abraham that Christ would die for him. But that's not what Genesis 15 says, and it's not what Romans 4 says. God promised Abraham a son, and Abraham believed him. That's as far as Scripture goes.

So let's ask the question: how much do you have to believe? Abraham believed a lot less than the Gospel, but God justified him. Let's be clear: the issue is not what you believe, but Whom you believe. When you believe God, He counts it as righteousness.

Now, it's clear that an outright rejection of what God says isn't faith. If someone presents the truth of Scripture and you scoff at it, you're not believing. That seems obvious.

But the good news for the troubled soul is, "God doesn't want you to believe enough, He wants you to believe Him."

See (and this is the not-so-simple answer), this is the question of someone who's turning faith into a work.  Scripture presents faith as the opposite of works: "to him who does not work, but believes" (Romans 4:5). Believing is the opposite of work.

If you're worried that you don't believe enough, then you're viewing belief as a work. You're taking the attitude of, "Just tell me what to do and I'll get right on it." But that's not faith, it's doing. There's nothing to do, only Someone to believe.

Here's the thing: faith in and of itself has no worth. It's not like faith is the one good thing we can present to God. God's not impressed by your faith: not by its size nor its intensity. The value of faith lies in its object. God is looking for faith in Himself, not faith as some abstract quantity. So there's no sense where you can believe enough,  God is looking at what you have faith in. Abraham said, "If Jehovah said it, it must be true." That's all God is looking for.

The fact is that Scripture unequivocally teaches the God justifies the one who does not work, but believes. There is no condition added to it. There's no requirement for tears or contrition or penance or penitence. There's simply taking God at His word. Saving faith is, "God said it, so it must be true."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ezekiel 8

I gave a talk on Ezekiel 8 the other day. It didn't come out at all like I had thought: I had a lot of trouble expressing what I was thinking. So I thought I'd give it another try here.

The book of Ezekiel starts with Ezekiel standing on the banks of the Chebar, in Babylon. There he sees a vision of the glory of the Lord. He sees what looks like a man made of burning brass on a throne, with four "living creatures" under the throne, and four "wheels within wheels" with the living creatures. He describes this vision in some detail in the first two chapters. Ezekiel sees this same vision three more times, or four times in total. He sees it again seven days later "in the valley" in chapter 3, then in Jerusalem in chapters 8--11. Finally, he sees the same vision in chapter 43.

These four appearances of the glory of the Lord form a simple outline of the book. Each appearance of this vision is followed by specific messages. We might think of these as "sections" of the book:

  1. chapters 1--3:31 Following the vision on the banks of the Chebar (vv. 1:1--3:15), the Lord speaks to Ezekiel and gives him the rules of the watchman (vv. 3:16--3:21). That is, He tells Ezekiel his duty as a prophet. This section closes at v. 3:21, after essentially only one message from God.
  2. chapters 3:22--7 The second section begins with the Lord revealing Himself "in the valley" (vv. 3:22--3:27). Ezekiel notes (v. 23) that this is the same vision he saw on the banks of the Chebar. Ezekiel's vision is followed by messages specifically for Jerusalem and her inhabitants (ch. 4--7). The key verse in this section is v. 5:5, "this is Jerusalem". All the messages God gives Ezekiel in this section are about Jerusalem and the surrounding area.
  3. chapters 8--39 The third section begins with the same vision Ezekiel saw "in the valley" (v. 8:4) and "by the river Chebar" (v. 10:20). The Lord takes Ezekiel "in the visions of God" to Jerusalem (v. 8:3). I assume this means he wasn't looking at the literal Jerusalem, but a spiritual vision of it. The vision that begins in v. 8:2 continues through chapter 11. Following the vision in ch. 8--11, the Lord gives Ezekiel several messages. Unlike the previous section, these messages address not only Jerusalem, but the captives in Babylon, and the nations as well. This section is the largest in the book.
  4. chapters 40--48 The fourth and final section is millenial: it starts with the Millenial temple and describes the nation and its worship under the Son (cf. Psalm 2). Ezekiel sees a vision "like the vision that I saw by the river Chebar" (v. 43:3). It's in this section that he sees the glory of God return from the mountains in the east back into the Temple.
There is a clear moral symmetry between the vision in ch. 11 and that in ch. 43. In chapter 11, he sees the glory of the Lord leave them Temple and head east into the mountains. In chapter 43 he sees it come back from the mountains through the east gate and into the Temple.

Ezekiel is characterized by conversations between the Lord and his prophet. Unlike Isaiah (largely composed of the messages the Lord has for His people) or even Jeremiah, Ezekiel is mainly the Lord telling Ezekiel what to tell the people. It doesn't really record that he actually passed the messages on. It's not a book about the prophet speaking to the people, it's a book about the Lord speaking to the prophet.

The characteristic title of Ezekiel is "son of man". He's one of two men called that in the Old Testament: the other is Daniel. This gives us a hint of where we'd look to see Christ in this book. Isaiah and Daniel describe the One who is coming: Ezekiel doesn't. In Ezekiel, the prophet himself stands in the place of the coming Son of Man. In type, Ezekiel is a book where the Father talks to the Son.

This brings us to chapter 8. Chapter 8 comes a little more than a year after the vision in Chebar (cf. v. 1:1--2; v. 8:1). Ezekiel is brought by the Lord into Jerusalem "in the visions of God" (v. 8:3). The story starts outside the Temple, by the gate (vv. 8:3--6). There is an image in the gate of the Temple, which Ezekiel describes as "the image of jealousy" (v. 8:3). Next the Lord has him dig a hole through the Temple wall, and he finds a chamber full of men burning incense to idols (vv. 8:7--13). Then the Lord brings him into the court of the temple, where women are wailing for Tammuz (vv. 8:14--15). Finally, the Lord takes him into the inner court, where 25 men are worshipping the sun, with their backs to the altar (vv. 8:16--18).

The first thing we notice in this sequence is the transitions between the visions. After the first three visions, the Lord asks Ezekiel if he sees what he people are doing, and He says Ezekiel will see something even worse (vv. 8:6, 13, 15). So we understand that these visions are actually a progression. It's not just that there are four different idolatrous practices going on, but each is worse than the one before. We also notice that the trend is inward from the Temple gate toward the sanctuary.

I'm not sure what the "image of jealousy" is (v. 3), but it seems to be an idol. That is, there was an idol in the entrance to the Temple. If we remember our Sunday School lessons, we recall that at least two kings of Judah set up idols in the Temple itself: Ahaz built an altar modelled after the idolatrous altar he saw in Damascus, and put it into the Temple, moving the brazen altar out of the way to make room for it (2 Kings 16:10--16). Manasseh also set up his idols in the Temple (2 Kings 21:1--9). No doubt there are others: these two spring to mind.

There's an enormous difference between going to bow down to an idol in its temple, and bringing the idol into the house of God. But that's exactly what these two kings did.

There are four steps from the "image of jealousy" in the gate to the sun-worshippers inside the Temple:

  • the image of jealousy
  • burning incense in the room of idols
  • wailing for Tammuz
  • worshipping the sun
These four steps form a sort of progression: inward into the Temple, as we mentioned earlier; but also a progression of the heart. First, there is an image in the gate (v. 3). No one is worshipping the image: it's just there. We might think of this as passive idolatry. Second, we have active worship on the part of Jaazaniah and the seventy elders of Israel (v. 7). Then we have emotional idolatry, the women wailing for Tammuz (v. 14). Finally, we have complete obeisance in the twenty-five men bowing with their backs to the altar (v. 16).

It's interesting there are four steps here. They remind us of the four downward steps in Romans 1:21--32 and those in Proverbs 30:11--14.

But the main point is the progression not only towards to the center of the Temple, but in the hearts of the idolaters. And we notice again that this is all in the Temple: in the center of the worship God Himself established. We might remember the last verse of 1 John: "Children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). There is a danger--- a very real danger--- of dabbling in idolatry, especially in the house of God. God doesn't have an house anymore, "The God who has made the world and all things which are in it, *he*, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands" (Acts 17:24). But the Scripture tells us that God has chosen the Church as "a habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22). So there is a parallel, isn't there? The Israelites brought idolatry into God's habitation, and it offended Him. We ought not do the same. We need to be careful that we aren't dabbling in idolatry.

There's another thread in this story: it's the thread of God looking for a man He can confide in. The whole book of Ezekiel is characterized by the idea the God is baring His heart to the prophet, but it's particularly brought out here in chapter 8. At every step, the Lord asks Ezekiel, "Do you see what they're doing?" There's a sense where God is looking for someone to take His side against His people.

It's significant that the prophet who is so intimate with God's heart should be the prophet most particularly called "son of man". Really, God has found exactly one Man to whom He could completely pour out His heart. The Son of Man walked on this earth, and He saw exactly what grieved God. And there were conversations between the Father and the Son about it, although we only read one explicitly (John 17) and catch other small glimpses (John 5, etc.). The Lord Jesus, while eternally God, was here as the Man that God was looking for. He was the Man that God could take completely into His confidence.

And it's a sobering thought that He was the one Man who actually understood exactly how evil this world is. I will never know just how bad my sin is, because I'll never be required to pay its price. The Lord Jesus knows exactly how bad my sin is, because He suffered for it.

Can we imagine what it must have been like for the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father to walk down here in this wicked world? The Pharisees said, "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2), which indicates just how seared their consciences were. Yes, this Man did eat with sinners: and had He eaten with the Pharisees, He wouldn't have been in any better company. He was the Son of God, He had come down from Heaven. To imagine there's any significant difference between different degrees of fallen men in comparison with Him is sheer foolishness.

And once again, we remember the God has found the Man He was looking for. Indeed, He had to provide the Man He was looking for, because there's no other man, woman, or child that is good enough. And now that God has found Him, He's not looking for another. He has found what He wanted, and He is content in Him. We ought to be content in Him too.

Well, that's more or less what I ought to have said the other day. What I actually did was go on long digressions through the histories of Ahaz and Manasseh, as well as a diversion through the identity of Tammuz. It was frankly a bit of a mess. Hopefully I'll be a little more to the point next time.