Saturday, July 27, 2019

What did Abraham believe?

I was listening to a sermon yesterday (from several years ago), where the preacher was talking about justification. He talked about Romans 4 and Abraham, and made the claim that Abraham believed, looking forward to the death of Christ.

I don't think that's true. It is true that Abraham looked forward to Christ, rejoicing to see His day (John 8:56); but neither Romans 4, nor Genesis 15 refer to that. I think there's a real problem if you go down that path, and it's worth spending some time thinking about.

Genesis 15:6 is the one place in Scripture we actually see someone justified, so it's natural that Romans 4 would look back to it. The whole subject of Romans 4 is justification, argued from the Old Testament – of course it references Abraham's justification by faith.

But the fact is that Romans 4:1–5 makes the argument that Abraham was justified when he believed God. The point appears to be whom Abraham believed, not what he believed:

for what does the scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3)

Romans 4:16–22 does go on to give a description of what Abraham believed:

[Abraham] against hope believed in hope to his becoming father of many nations, according to that which was spoken (Romans 4:18)
So Romans 4 credits Abraham with believing God about the promise that he would be the father of many nations. And the passage goes on to enumerate the barriers to his faith: he (Abraham) was too old to have children, and his wife had never been able to conceive (Romans 4:19). But despite what he knew to be true, he believed God.

Again, let's acknowledge that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ's day (John 8:56). There's no doubt that Abraham looked forward to Christ. But the simple truth is that Romans 4 doesn't mention this. It doesn't even hint at it. For that matter, neither does Genesis 15. The entire conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 15 (Genesis 15:4–12) is about Abraham's childlessness and his uncertainty about possessing the land God gave him. The fact is, Romans 4 quotes Genesis 15 (not Genesis 12 nor Genesis 17 nor Genesis 22) when it discusses Abraham's justification by faith. The crux of the argument is whom – not what – Abraham believed.

James quotes Genesis 15:6 too (James 2:21–23). James says when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22:9–12), that "the scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God" (James 2:23). That verse was very popular several years ago, when "Lordship Salvation" was popular. I objected then, that Romans 4:1–5 quotes Genesis 15, not Genesis 22. Indeed, it seems to me that James 2 makes it quite clear that Genesis 15 must precede Genesis 22, because James says that Genesis 22 "fulfills" Genesis 15.

Similarly, the promises to Abraham's seed are in Genesis 22:15–18. Now that might not seem significant, but it is Genesis 22:18 that Acts 3:25 and Galatians 3:16 quote. I don't doubt that Abraham had a revelation of Jesus Christ, but the New Testament quotes Genesis 22 to prove it. So my contention is, making Romans 4:1–5 about a faith in Jesus Christ's future [to Abraham] death for his sins is exactly the same error as "Lordship Salvation" – it's putting Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 together, when Scripture plainly doesn't. Indeed, one author claims that Genesis 22 comes as late as 40 years after Genesis 15.

So no, I don't believe that Abraham believed about Christ per se in the account in Romans 4:1–5. It isn't supported by the immediate context (Romans 4:13–22), nor by the context in Genesis 15:1–9. It doesn't align with James 2:21–23, nor with Galatians 3:16. On the contrary, Romans 4:13–22 explicitly tells us that Abraham believed God that he would have a physical heir. The point is not what Abraham believed, but whom.

Before we go on, let's reiterate that God justifies men and women who believe Him (Romans 4:5). He justifies them on the basis of the work of Christ (Romans 3:21–26). I am definitely not claiming that there is righteousness for us except in Christ Jesus, and only because He died for us.

Scripture tells us about the "everlasting gospel" in Revelation 14:6–7: "Fear God and give him glory". And this is so very important. If we say God only justifies those who understand and believe that Christ died for them, then we really deny the gospel. God isn't waiting for people to understand justification before He justifies. On the contrary, God merely wants men and women to believe Him. I am completely convinced that all who fear God and give Him glory are justified in His sight, regardless of how well they know and understand that Christ has died for them. Certainly it's only because of the work of Christ that God justifies, but an understanding of that work is not a barrier to God's justifying the one who believes Him.

And this comes back to my continued ranting about people equating "saved" with "justified" or "born again." They're not the same thing, and scripture doesn't ever treat them like synonyms. But when we treat them like they're the same, then we're forced to make some outlandish assumptions about Scripture. So in Acts 19:1–7, we find the disciples of John in Ephesus. Paul asks them, "Did ye receive [the] Holy Spirit when ye had believed?" (Acts 19:2). They respond that they don't know what he's talking about. But notice, Paul explicitly says they had believed. Were they justified? Of course they were! God justifies the one who believes (Romans 4:5). But they hadn't received the Holy Spirit: they weren't Christ's (Romans 8:9). They knew John's gospel, they had believed it, but they hadn't believed on Christ. The Holy Spirit seals faith in Christ (John 7:39). God justifies those who believe Him, but the Holy Spirit seals faith in Christ, not faith in God.

Remember, the children of Israel were redeemed when they headed out after the Passover, but they weren't saved until they saw the bodies of the Egyptians on the shore (Exodus 14:30).

Believing God justifies, but it's faith in Christ that brings us into salvation. Salvation isn't righteousness in God's sight: salvation is the possession of men and women in Christ. Justification is Romans 4, salvation is Romans 8.

If we go back to John's disciples in Ephesus, we realize that they certainly weren't saved, but they were justified. And Paul doesn't treat them like pagans. But if we confuse salvation with justification, then we have to put everyone we meet into one of two categories: either they're saved or they're lost. But scripture just doesn't support that idea. There may be many people we meet who have believed God (and are thus justified), but who are ignorant or confused then it comes to the work of Christ. We shouldn't treat them like pagans, we should treat them like Paul treated John's disciples.

Now, I don't believe that anyone God has justified can reject Christ. Or, to put it another way, someone who denies Christ certainly hasn't believed God. I'm not suggesting that God justifies the one who outright rejects Christ. But I am saying that there are many people who have been justified, but aren't yet saved. There are many who believe God, but haven't [yet] believed Christ.

On the other hand, when we fall into the trap of lumping salvation and justification together, we end up with churches full of people who are content to be justified from their sins, but who don't ever make it to Romans 8. If we feel we have to put people into one of two buckets ("Saved" or "Lost"), then we end up calling someone "saved" who is merely justified.

And that, I think, is precisely where evangelicals have gone so badly off track.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Truly Lost

I was listening to a sermon this last weekend about Christian living. It was an odd experience to me: virtually everything the man said was true, but he left out two points that are oh-so-important.

He spoke about the temptation in the Garden, and illustrated James 1:14–17 from Genesis 3. He pointed out that we all have desires, and it's not wrong to have desires, but the first step in the temptation in the Garden was questioning God's motives: the serpent came to Eve with the suggestion that God was holding some good thing back from her. And he talked about how doubting God's motives led to her attempting to find satisfaction from disobeying God. And that led to sin and guilt and shame and death.

I'm painting in broad strokes here: his description of Genesis 3:6ff was actually quite good. But he seemed to miss a very important point when he drew an application to us: unlike Eve (and Adam), we are fallen. Adam and Eve started out innocent. We are not innocent: each of us has indwelling sin. Romans 5:19 tells us that one man's disobedience made everyone a sinner. That's not to say that we are all guilty of Adam's sin, but it is to say that I am a sinner because of Adam's sin.

So regardless of how free Adam's will (or Eve's will) was in the Garden, we really don't have free will now. I don't mean we don't make choices, I mean our will isn't really free. We are inclined to sin: not merely predisposed to sin, but Adam's sin has made us all slaves to sin.

The only freedom from sin is in death (Romans 6:7). Christ has died for my sins according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:10); that deals with my guilt. I have died with Christ (Romans 6:1–7); that deals with my sinfulness (Romans 6:11). God has made me free from the rule of sin by identifying me with Christ in death (Romans 6:4).

It seems to me that legalism is characterized by not really believing that we are lost. If we are guilty, but not lost, we might see law (the Law of Moses, or some other law) as a path to practical righteousness, because we think we could actually keep it. But Romans 8:3 speaks directly to this idea: law (and here isn't specifically the Law of God) isn't effective, because it is weakened by flesh. I don't take that to mean that flesh in some way changes the Law, but that flesh simply can't keep it. That's borne out a few verses later: the fleshly mind is enmity with God because it isn't subect to the Law of God and cannot be (Romans 8:7). It's not simply that the carnal mind isn't subject to the Law – it's that the carnal mind cannot be subject to the Law of God.

And so we hear really good advice from well-meaning men and women who urge us to obey God. But the problem isn't that the advice isn't good, the problem is that we find ourselves entirely powerless to take it. The harder we try to obey God, the more we realize we simply can't do it.

Romans 5:9 through 8:39 lays out for us the Christian life. It starts with justification from guilt: because Christ has died for my sins, God is able to justly justify me (Romans 3:26). The one who doesn't work, but believes God is justified from all his or her sins (Romans 4:5). Regardless of what terrible things he or she has done, God freely forgives the person who believes Him (Acts 13:38–39).

Having been forgiven all our sins, we now face the question of what our life should look like. And we set out to obey God, but find ourselves incapable of doing so. The solution to this problem starts in Romans 6:1–11. There we find that Christ has died not only as our Sacrifice, but also as our Representative. God sees us as dead with Him, and it's our believing God that makes us free.

Notice it's exactly the same principle in Romans 4:5 as Romans 6:6–11. In both cases, the question is, "Do you believe God?" Do we believe God when He says that Christ has died for our sins? Do we believe God when He says that we have died with Christ? Believing God is the key to forgiveness of sins as well as freedom from the power of sin.

Romans 6 deals with two questions:

  1. shall we continue in sin? (Romans 6:1–14)
  2. shall we sin? (Romans 6:15–23)
Notice these aren't the same question: the first question addresses lifestyle, the second addresses what we might call dabbling. It's really asking whether we should "just this once" enjoy sin.

The answer to the first question is, "we have died to sin, how should we live in it?" And notice here it's not sins, but sin. It's really talking about the principle of sin that lives in our mortal bodies (cf. Romans 8:10–11).

The answer to the second question is, "you become the slave of the one you obey." Don't let's fool ourselves: if we start dabbling in sin, we've taken the first step to being a slave to sin.

There is a lot of debate about Romans 7. It doesn't sound like it should come between Romans 6 and Romans 8: it's almost like a step backwards to go from Romans 6 to Romans 7. The answer is that chapter 7 parallels chapter 6. In Romans 6, we're freed by death from sin; in Romans 7 we're freed by death from law.

Almost everything I've read on Romans 7 has been unsatisfactory. It seems to me whatever position you take on it, you're going to have some problems. But if we step away from the theological aspects of the chapter and look at it practically, it becomes a lot simpler.

Romans 7 brings us back to the question of legalism. What is the effect of the Law in our lives? We find, perhaps to our surprise, that the effect of law is to bring death to us (Romans 7:8–14). We tend to think that adding law (our own rules, or even God's) to our lives will have a purifying effect, but the testimony of scripture is that it brings death.

The two key verses are Romans 7:5–6. There is a contrast between "when we were in the flesh" in v. 5 and "but now we are delivered" in v. 6. So Romans 7:5 is summarizing Romans 7:7–24, while Romans 7:6 describes Romans 7:25–8:17.

Consider Philippians 3:9–10, where we learn that being "in Christ" means having no righteousness of my own. This is exactly opposite to what Romans 7:7–24 describes: it's someone trying to accomplish righteous before God, and he finds all he manages to do is sin worse.

The key in Romans 7 is giving up on ourselves. And to our surprise, when we give up on ourselves, we find the Holy Spirit ready to guide our steps (Romans 8:1–4). And so we come to this amazing section about "walking in the spirit."

So going back to this sermon I heard... there were two fundamental truths of the New Testament that were missing. First, our life has ended with Christ. We must accept this as true before we can be fruitful for God (Romans 7:4). There is no fruit for God unless we are dead with Christ.

Second, we must be empowered by the Spirit of God. My efforts to live righteously for God are pretty much summed up as, "when we were in the flesh." It's when we accept we have no righteousness of our own that we are really "in Christ" (Philippians 3:9–10).

Again, we're thinking in practical terms here. No doubt God sees us as "in Christ" regardless of how we act. But our experience won't reflect that as long as we're trying to generate righteousness for God.

But in the end, we're not rational creatures. Everything the man said about temptation was true, but I really don't think it will change anything. Our problem is moral, not rational. We need to be delivered through the cross of Christ in order to live righteously before God.