Friday, August 28, 2020

"If we confess our sins"

I've had a long and tempestuous relationship with 1 John 1:9. It's a verse we teach to the children quite early:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (NASB)
We're right to do so! It has been an anchor for generations of Christians who have found they just don't measure up.

But there's another side to it. Let me illustrate with a story:

When I was a teen, I was in a Bible class. The teacher asked, "Which sins did Christ die for?"

Someone replied, "The sins we confess".

The teacher asked, "So if you die while sinning, do you then go to hell? After all, that would be a sin Christ didn't die for."

That was a watershed moment in my life.

It didn't occur to me immediately, but I eventually realized that I (along with many others, apparently) had come to believe that confession of sins was somehow meritorious. I'd never have said I earned forgiveness by confession, but I effectively believed it. Perhaps I'd have said that confession makes me forgiveable or something... but I did definitely believe that confession was a sort of a work I did to gain forgiveness.

Eventually I came to see that God forgives because of the blood of Christ, not because I have confessed. I came to understand that God forgives my sins whether I confess them or not. I don't see any other way to understand Romans 4:5–8.

So what's the point of 1 John 1:9? I am convinced the point of 1 John 1:9 is really assurance of forgiveness. It's not telling us how to gain God's forgiveness, but it's telling us how to be assured of it. When we have sinned, and that sin seems too big, and it seems to obscure God's face, and it seems to cut us off from God, we can look at 1 John 1:9 and be sure that God has forgiven it.

Friday, August 21, 2020

My Lord, the King

I was listening to someone speaking about the relationship between Christ and the church. He said that Christ isn't king over the church: the church is His bride, not His subject. I didn't spit out my coffee when he said that, but I wanted to. 

I understand where that idea comes from. Perhaps the most important distinction between believers on this side of the Cross and the Old Testament saints is union with Christ.  David and Abraham were both justified freely by faith (Romans 4:1–10). But not a verse of Scripture even hints that either of them had died with Christ, was buried with Him, or was risen with Him. All of these things are true of us today (Colossians 3:1–5). Of course this is all individual.

There is something new that God has done now, corporately, compared to the Old Testament. There is the assembly, the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23), the habitation of God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19–22). Scripture tells us the assembly is not only the Body of Christ, but also the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:24–33). And it's entirely Scriptural to emphasize the intimacy of this relationship. Ephesians 5 does exactly that.

But there's a danger here: so many who want to emphasize the intimacy of the relationship between Christ and His bride, fall into the opposite error. The idea that "the church is His bride, not His subject" is just plain foolish. It doesn't have to be one or the other: it's both.  

Scripture tells us quite plainly that the wife of the king isn't exempt from his authority. Yes, the assembly has a distinct and intimate relationship with Christ, but I can't find a single example in Scripture where the king's wife isn't one of his subjects.

Let's consider the case of David and Bathsheba (1 Kings 1:11-31). What does she call David? She calls him "my lord King David" (1 Kings 1:31). She calls him "my lord the king" (1 Kings 1:21, 27).  She calls him "my lord" (1 Kings 1:17). Some people seem to have decided it's appropriate to use this last title for Christ, but not the others. Is there any reason the bride of Christ shouldn't address Him as "my Lord, the King?"

Let's consider the case of Esther. She refers to her husband as "the king" (Esther 5:1-4), and "O king" (Esther 7:1–4). 

It seems to me like this is an example of folks allowing their theology to push them past what Scripture actually teaches. Both in Israel (David and Bathsheba) and in the nations (Ahasuerus and Esther), Scripture presents the queen as addressing the king as "king". 

So we should be really careful about condemning someone for calling Christ the King. Let's not make someone a transgressor for a word, especially when the Scripture seems to support it.



Friday, August 14, 2020

The Synagogue

Sometime in the past couple years, I was struck by the fact that both the Lord and Paul appear to have regularly attended the Synagogue. Luke 4:16 tells us it was the Lord's custom to attend the synagogue. Acts 18:4 tells us Paul visited the synagogue every sabbath in Corinth.

What struck me is, the synagogue isn't in the Law of Moses. It was an invention of post-captivity Judaism; we generally credit Ezra with inventing the tradition of the synagogue (Nehemiah 8:1–12). In fact, the first sabbath day commandment – given before the children of Israel reached Sinai – commands against leaving your home (Exodus 16:29).  But the Lord respected the synagogue tradition, and appears to have attended faithfully.

I've spent a lot of time with folks who take very seriously any and all commands in the New Testament about the church and its order. We don't always agree on what that means – for example, "open" assemblies generally have elders, while "exclusive" assemblies take a "not for today" position on elders –, but it's not taken lightly. There is a tendency among some groups almost to attempt to reset the ecclesiastical clock and go back to Acts 2, like the last two millennia can just be ignored. And while I personally hold views along the lines of J. N. Darby and William Kelly, I see no less conviction on the part of others who might hold slightly different views.

So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that the Lord went to the synagogue. And He didn't apparently go there to accuse them of following a man-made tradition, He didn't go there and tell them that there's no mention of the synagogue in the Law, He didn't go there to remind them that they were to worship only in the place where God had put His name (Deuteronomy 12:1–14). He went there and read the scriptures.

And that made me question a whole lot of things.

Now's a good time to remind ourselves that the Lord did, indeed, call out the Pharisees for things they had added to Scripture (Matthew 15:1–9). We should remind ourselves that He went back to "the beginning" when it was a question of divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:1–9). So the Lord didn't just act like adding to the Word of God was OK. But we can't honestly say He followed a regulative principle either.

Now, it's true that the Lord is eternally God. It's true that He has every right to do whatever He likes, because He is God. But that doesn't appear to be what's going on here. The fact is that the Lord submitted to the Scriptures, treating them like they were the written record of God's words. But here's a case where He accepted the traditions of Judaism, apparently without any qualms at all.

I don't doubt that the Lord's life as a man on earth was entirely characterized by a moment-by-moment obedience to the Father (Isaiah 50:4; John 5:16–20).  I don't doubt that He was led by the Spirit of God every single step He took (Luke 4:1, etc.). There's no doubt in my mind that the Lord wasn't just doing what He felt like doing at the time.

But at the end of the day, here's a case where He accepted the traditions Judaism without making a point of reminding everyone that they weren't (in this case) strictly obeying the Law. He wasn't calling everyone to follow the "Old Testament pattern."

And the Apostles seemed to have a similar attitude. I've spend many years contemplating Acts 15, but without getting too side-tracked, I'll just say that when a dispute about the Law arose, the Apostles weren't shy about making a decision. Was it a godly decision? Apparently it was (Acts 15:28).

So I've been making a conscious effort not to get too hung up on a regulative principle. I've spent many years doing exactly that. I'm not saying "anything goes," not at all. I haven't forgotten that the Lord accused the Pharisees of allowing the traditions of the fathers to make the Word of God of none effect (Mark 7:9–14). But I'm also realizing that the Lord was led by the Spirit of God to participate in things that fail the to meet the standards of a strict regulative principle. And I'm not going to claim to be better than Him.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Sacrifice for sins

1 Corinthians 15:1–8 tells us "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures". 

We understand that Christ fulfilled each of the sacrifices in the Mosaic Law when He died for us. He was at the same time a burnt offering for our acceptance (Leviticus 1:2–3), a trespass offering for our guilt (Leviticus 5:1–6), and a sin offering for our sin (Leviticus 4:2–3). And those are just three of the offerings! He was the one single sacrifice to which each of the Old Testament sacrifices looked forward.

It's not the Christ died several times, but that in His one single offering, God saw every one of those prescribed in the Old Testament.

The value of the offerings to the Old Testament saints was a forward look to Christ. The value of those offerings to the New Testament saints is a clearer picture of what God saw in that once-for-all sacrifice.

I've heard many people say that the Levitical offerings are laid out from God's point of view, but we tend to see them in reverse. We tend to see the trespass offering first, because we are troubled by our sins. Then we move onto the sin offering, as we come to understand not merely that we have sinned, but that we are sinners. We might eventually come to appreciate the peace offering as making a place for us to sit in fellowship with God. Then we begin to understand the meal offering and see that value of the One who gave Himself for us. Finally we grasp that we are accepted by God, because of Christ, our burnt offering. That's probably a little simplistic, but there's more than a grain of truth in it. I'm not sure any lesson is ever learned only once, and it seems to me like we go through these progressions over and over, perhaps moving a little deeper each time.

I was struck a few years ago by the realization that the New Testament uses remarkably consistent language to describe Christ's offering His body and His blood for us. 1 Peter 2:24 tells us that Christ bore our sins in His body. Colossians 1:20 tells us He made peace through the blood of His cross. While those are certainly summed up in a single sacrifice, they're not at all the same thing. And they're illustrated in some detail in the Leviticus 16.

Leviticus 16:7–10 gives us a summary of two goats on the Day of Atonement. One goat is offered as a sin offering, the other is sent away into the wilderness. Both goats make atonement, but they do so in  different ways.

The goat offered for a sin offering is slaughtered, and his blood is taken "inside the veil" and sprinkled on the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:15–19). That goat's blood, we are told, makes atonement for the sanctuary (Leviticus 16:16), and for the tabernacle and the altar (Leviticus 16:20).

The goat who is sent away alive is taken, and all the sins of Israel are confessed over his head, then he is led into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20–22). That goat, too, makes atonement (Leviticus 16:10).

Both goats make atonement, but they do it differently. The one goat makes atonement with his blood, propitiating God. The other goat, by bearing away the sins of the people.

One of my favorite papers by J. N. Darby draws the distinction between those two aspects of atonement. It's one of his shortest papers, and well worth the read:  "Propitation and Substitution" (Collected Writings, Vol. 29, pp. 286–288).

We need both of these sides of atonement. If God is propitiated, but we still bear our sins, then we're still guilty before Him. If, on the other hand, our sins are borne away, but God is not propitiated, then we find ourselves not guilty, but still estranged. We need to have our sins borne away, and God on our side.

In the New Testament, we find the language of propitiation is connected with the blood of Christ, while the language of substitution is connected with His body. He made peace with the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20). He bore our sins in His own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). So it's not a stretch to say the goat for a sin offering prefigures the blood of Christ, while the scapegoat prefigures His body.

This touches on the burial of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1–6). Having borne our sins in His body, He was buried. We've discussed before how "buried" in Scripture is all about hiding from view. The last time God saw our sins, they were buried out of His sight. He doesn't see them now.

Propitiation is a little harder to wrap our minds around. Substitution is particular, both in the Old Testament and the New. Aaron was to confess the sins of Israel over the head of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21). The Lord bore our sins (notice the plural) in His own body. Those are referring to specific sins. But there is no confession when the goat for a sin offering is slaughtered, nor when his blood is taken and sprinkled behind the veil. It's universal, as opposed to particular.

The idea is really that Christ's sacrifice has made God able to righteously act in love toward fallen men and women. Romans 3:25–26 tells us that the death of Christ allowed God to justly justify sinners. Notice it is the blood of Christ that Romans specifically references. It's worth meditating on Romans 3:25–26. Those verses give us a glimpse at God in a way we normally don't think of Him.

We see some connection with what theologians call "common grace." Common grace is the idea that God acts in grace in this life, quite apart from eternal salvation. God might well bless those who do not believe, even if those blessings are only temporal, limited to this life. Matthew 5:45 tells us that God causes the rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just. That blessing is surely limited to this life, but it's still a blessing that comes from God, and is a tangible form of His grace.  Paul's words to the men of Lystra are overflowing with this idea. He declares to them
God, who made the heaven, and the earth, and the sea, and all things in them; who in the past generations suffered all the nations to go in their own ways, though indeed he did not leave himself without witness, doing good, and giving to you from heaven rain and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:14–18).
The blood of Christ, offered to God, forms the basis of God's righteously acting in grace to fallen men and women.

One last thought: J. N. Darby applies the distinction between propitiation and substitution to the Calvinist/Arminian controversy. His diagnosis is that their disagreement on the Atonement is because they each see only one part of it:

If we look at the difference of Arminian and Calvinistic preaching, we shall see the bearing of this at once. The Arminians take up Christ's dying for all, and generally they connect the bearing of sins with it; and all is confusion as to the efficacy and effectualness of Christ's bearing our sins, for they deny any special work for His people. They say, If God loved all, He cannot love some particularly; and an uncertain salvation is the result, and man often exalted. Thus the scapegoat is practically set aside.

The Calvinist holds Christ's bearing the sins of His people, so that they are effectually saved; but he sees nothing else. He will say, If Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it, there can be no real love for anything else. Thus he denies Christ's dying for all, and the distinctive character of propitiation, and the blood on the mercy-seat. He sees nothing but substitution.

"Propitiation and Substitution," Collected Writings, Vol. 29,  pp. 287–288