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The Advent Logos

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.

11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,

13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jn. 1:1–14

Introduction

John’s account of Jesus coming into the world is very different from the other gospels. Matthew and Mark and Luke (the synoptic gospels) tell the story of Mary and Joseph, and of the angels and the shepherds, and of Herod and the wise men, and of course of Jesus born in Bethlehem.

That’s not John’s story. John starts with the eternal Son of God.

John makes very clear that the Son of God is God. Some people who don’t read the Bible very much say that the Bible nowhere claims Jesus is God. That’s obviously false. John writes that the Son of God is God, and that Jesus is the Son of God.

He goes on to teach that Jesus is the Creator. Again, some people have the idea that God the Father created everything by the Holy Spirit and that the Son just sat around and watched. That is also false. God the Son is just as much the creator of the universe is God the Father and of the Spirit. Nothing that the Father created was created without the Son.

The logos

Today I want to focus our attention on the important language that John uses. He states that the Son of God is the “word.” “Word” is a translation of the Greek word logos. That was a very important word in the Greek language. The logos is the word.

In downtown Santa Cruz we have a bookstore called Logos. That’s an appropriate name for a bookstore, since logos is rightly translated “word,” and books are full of words.

But logos often had a deeper meaning to the Greeks.

Many of the Greeks believed that behind our physical world is another world, an invisible world that is the true world. The most famous person who believed this was Plato.

They believed that our present world was chaotic, anarchic, without meaning. But behind this physical world is the true world, which they called the world of the Forms or the Ideas. This was the correct world that our world (without meaning) should be made to conform to. The task of smart people was to work to change our physical world into the pattern set forth in the ideal world.

This is where the logos comes in. The logos for the Greeks wasn’t just the word; it was universal reason; it was an organizing principle of all the world. It made order out of chaos. It was the rational principle in man that allows all of us to think and communicate and make sense and understand each other. In all this chaos and anarchy surrounding us, the logos, the principle of unity and reason, holds everything together.

John turns this idea on its head. When John says that the eternal Son of God is the word, he means that Jesus is the logos. He’s making an amazing — and comforting — point to the ancient world. They thought that the logos was a principle that was just a part of the universe. John is saying that the logos isn’t a principle, but a Person. He’s teaching that if you want to understand the universe, you have to know Jesus Christ!

The logos as the light

Now you can understand why John talks so much about Jesus being the light (vv. 4–10). The Greeks knew the world was full of darkness. They looked around them. They saw the evil in the world. That’s why the were wars and famines and diseases and death and sadness and tragedy. But they didn’t understand why this darkness was here. They just thought it was a part of the natural order of things. John knew that the darkness was because of sin. And the Son of God came to get rid of the darkness, that is, to get rid of the sin.

Did you see that John says the Son illuminates everybody who comes into the world (vv. 4, 9–10)? This is very important.

The question we Christians sometimes hear is, “What about all the people who haven’t heard about Jesus the Christ? How can God hold them responsible and judge them?” John gives the answer: they may not know Jesus’ name, but they do know the light. They know the truth of God and his goodness (see Rom. 1). Yet, though they see the light, they reject the light and choose to stay in darkness (vv. 10–11). Even the Jews, God’s own chosen people, decided to stay in their sinful darkness. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we’ll only receive the light, receive Jesus the Messiah, we’ll become the sons of God. God will bring us out of the darkness and into his family.

So, everybody who has been born knows the light. They can choose light or darkness. I’d they choose darkness, they stand under God’s judgment. The great news is that this isn’t the way it has to be. If they’ll only act on the light they see, God will get the gospel of Jesus Christ to them. If they receive him, they’ll walk in the light.

This light is the logos, and I want to concentrate more fully on it this Advent season, because if we don’t understand it, we won’t grasp one of the main reasons Jesus came into the world.

Two Kinds of Christians

A helpful way to explain this is to talk about Genesis 1–2 Christians and Genesis 3 Christians. (That’s the language of Anthony Bradley.) His point is that Genesis 1–2 Christians see man’s great calling as bringing glory to God by worshiping him and serving him bringing everything under his authority for his glory. Their calling is chiefly about the present world. We might call the Genesis 1–2 Christians the worship Christians.

Genesis 3 Christians see the tragedy of human sin and the glory of the gospel. They see our great calling as getting people saved and ready for heaven. Their calling is mostly about the future world. We might call the Genesis 3 Christians the evangelism Christians.

Now the fact is that both of these views are correct, and both are necessary. It’s a both/and and not an either/or. We must be worship Christians, and we must be evangelism Christians.

What does this have to do with Advent? Plenty. We read in Matthew and Mark and Luke about Jesus coming into the world to save his people from their sins. This is Genesis 3 Christianity.

But we read a different angle, a different perspective, in John 1. This is why we have more than one biblical gospel account. In John 1 we see both Genesis 3 Christianity and Genesis 1–2 Christianity. Jesus is Savior of the world, but he’s also the light of the world, the logos of the world, the interpreter of the world.

You see, our problem isn’t just that sin exposes us to God’s judgment. Sin doesn’t just pollute our morals. Sin also blinds our eyes to why we’re here in this world. Sin confuses us about why we’re here. You see this in plenty of movies, especially sc-if movies. Sinful humanity wants to explore outer space because they have no clue on this earth why we’re here. So they go trolling in outer space to find meaning.

And so because man turns away from the logos, turns away from the light, turns away from Jesus, he stumbles in darkness. History is littered with man’s stumbling in darkness.

The cost of turning away from the logos

The West turned away from the logos and now is awash in abortion and sexual immorality and unwed pregnancies and divorces and broken (“blended”) families and pornography and socialism and euthanasia and sexual abuse and materialism and commercialism and greed and exploitation of women and thieving Wall Street bankers and thieving Main Street borrowers and sex-slave trading and racism and on and on.

Hitler exterminated 6 million European Jews.

The Marxists exterminated entire generations in Russia and China and Cambodia.

Islamic nations turned away from the logos and ended up degrading women and dehumanizing men and knowing nothing of God’s grace in their society, only of law.

Closer to home, among people around us, we can observe what turning away from the logos, the light, has accomplished. Look at those unbelievers around us.

They live for the weekend. They have no biblical understanding of work as being God’s blessing, good in itself. They thus grumble most of the week. Work is a prison.

They look at sex as merely recreational rather than as re-creational. They see children as an impediment to their personal gratification. They therefore miss the joy of personal sacrifice for others.

They have faith in man and no faith in God and thus have no true assurance or security. So they turn to drugs and alcohol to mask their anxiety.

Women resent men and hate men and try to replace men and then lose the wonder and joy of the complementarity of sex — of man and woman loving and enjoying and sacrificing for and needing one another.

Men objectify and debase and abuse women and turn them into playthings and never know a woman’s love and loyalty and care as one of the greatest gifts that God intended for man.

Children grow up to resent “the older generation” and rebel and cut themselves off from the wisdom of their parents and grandparents and others with experience.

Older folks dismiss younger folks and don’t care for them or listen to them and to their views and their needs and, in acting this way, they cut the cord to preserving intergenerational experience and wisdom.

In turning to darkness, they don’t know their God-established place in the world.

Turning away from the logos, the light, is a perilous choice with lethal consequences. I don’t need to prove that to you — those tragic consequences surrounding us prove it to you.

The Genesis 3-only evangelicals

We evangelicals often haven’t helped ourselves. We’ve often been Genesis 3-only Christians. We’ve divided life into the sacred and secular. We’ve given God our hearts on Sunday and given the world our minds on Monday through Saturday. We don’t think though what it means to follow Jesus the Christ in education and in voting and in economics and in entertainment and in medicine and in health care and in science and in technology. So we live two-layered lives. The upper story of heaven is the layer to access on Sunday mornings. But then we live in the lower story of the world the rest of the week. We see the light on Sunday, but we’re willing to stumble in the darkness away from church.

And so we live by worldly standards when we decide about vacations and artificial insemination and credit card debt and social media and business ethics and biological evolution and dating and dancing and body modification and investments. These are things we assume the Bible doesn’t say anything about. But actually, it says a lot about such things, at least in basic principle. And to live in the light means to live in all the light, not just the Sunday morning light.

Jesus didn’t come 2000 years ago to be the Sunday morning light. He came to be the light of the world, all the world, all the time. He came to be the light as far as the darkness is found, and since the darkness is everywhere, the light must be everywhere.

Conclusion

The message of John 1 isn’t just that Jesus saves the world from hell and damnation. He also saves the world from its utter, dark meaninglessness. He saves from stumbling in darkness, not knowing why we’re here. He saves us from living our lives on a mad quest for “finding our purpose in life.”

He saves us not just to go to heaven, but to worship him, and to work so that all creation worships him. He saves us to work so that all of life brings tribute to the Triune God and that all creation glorifies him.

John 1 teaches us that Jesus isn’t just the Savior of the world. He’s also the meaning of the world.

That, too, is our Advent message.

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Leftist Mockery of the Poor

In his profound essay “A Taste for Danger,” Theodore Dalrymple comments on his growing disgust for middle- and upper-class younglings who delight to dress in the rags of poverty to show their “solidarity with the poor” as well as, not coincidentally, posturing as a self-referential moral rebuke to “the privileged.” Dalrymple observes that the vast majority of the truly poor in history have felt burden and shame in their lot and wished to do all they could to escape it. For privileged, usually white, young adults to ape their forbears’ poverty is cruelly to mock and scorn the poor. But, apparently, mockery of the shamed and downtrodden is a small price to pay for the satisfaction that feelings of moral superiority — particularly to one’s parents — can inspire.

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Virtue Demands Liberty (or, No, Putin Isn’t “One of Us”)

Putin_Christian_2-300x231Pat Buchanan is asking whether Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is “one of us.” “Us” denotes “paleo-conservatives,” which denotes, well, nobody’s entirely sure, but is a single iteration of a conservatism whose most notable distinctive as it relates to Putin is its

… reaction against what was taking place in American culture itself in the 1980s and ’90s … increasing secularism, hedonism, and carnal and material self-indulgence of the dominant culture but also its shallowness and artificiality, its proclivity to being manipulated by media and political elites, its passivity in the face of more and more usurpation of social and civic functions by big government, big business, and big media…

Buchanan invokes as proof Putin’s recent public denunciations of the “decadent [W]est,” particularly his opposition to “America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.” What biblical Christian would disagree that that list is evil?

To bolster his case, Buchanan writes: “Putin says his mother had him secretly baptized as a baby and professes to be a Christian.” This is all well and good, but we might pause to consider why the former head of the dreaded KGB in the most militantly secular regime in world history rediscovers his covert Christian heritage just now, when the most convenient war to wage against his dreaded perennial enemy the West is a cultural (= spiritual) crusade that will resonate with his largely Eastern Orthodox countrymen. Nothing like playing the religion card to score political points at home.

Buchanan even queries whether Putin’s recent assault on the “values” of the West is analogous to Ronald Reagan’s famed description of the old Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” Apparently, turnabout is fair play, with Putin now occupying Reagan’s role as Defender of Old Christendom and Obama playing, playing … Lenin? Stalin? in propping up the decadent evil empire that’s become the United States.

This would all be very amusing were not Pat and his comrades (I couldn’t resist) so serious in enrolling Putin in the(ir) conservative club. Putin’s opposition to homosexual marriage and porn and abortion and promiscuity and other cultural sins of our, to use Pat’s words, “pagan and wildly progressive” America may be laudable, but it’s drowned out by the evils Pat somehow doesn’t get around to mentioning, evils at stark variance with every major tenet of conservatism of any stripe, evils Putin routinely relishes.

Know Your Conservatism

Modern conservatism is the heir of classical liberalism, which grew out of the conflicts spawned by the Protestant Reformation and which championed free markets, divided government, checks and balances, bills of rights, and constitutional limitations on consolidated power. Classical liberalism and its heir, modern conservatism, are all about individual social and political liberty, in many ways the political correlate of the Reformation with its stress on individual liberty before God’s face. These bedrock conservative tenets for some reason do not enter Pat’s calculation — just as they find almost no place in Putin’s Russia, or his worldview.

Conservatism isn’t just about collective virtue, vital though it is (a lesson that hedonistic libertarians that also like to be known as conservatives should learn). Conservatism, too, is about the dignity of the individual created in God’s image. It’s about tight reins on political power that if not restrained will quickly degenerate (and has quickly degenerated) into arbitrariness, coercion, vindictiveness, torture and murder. Conservatism is about the liberty (within law) to go about one’s life in a quiet and peaceable way (1 Tim. 2:2). It’s about religious liberty and free speech and a free press and an independent judiciary and standing up to state interference in religion, in the economy, in the press, in public speech and in everything except what assaults life, liberty and property.

Conservatism, in other words, is about all of those virtues that Putin has routinely trampled under foot in Mother Russia.

Conservatism isn’t just a collection of Christian social virtues, like respect for preborn life, protection of the family, and stress on sexual purity — vital though they are. It’s also a way of living in social and political liberty that allows those values to flourish. Liberty is itself a virtue no less virtuous than the virtues Pat is (rightly) complaining our Western culture is frittering away.

The cure to that tragic loss is not an autocratic, centralized, political imposition of Christian virtues — the sort of imposition many American colonists and U. S. Founders fled Europe to escape. Rather, it is the recovery of the entire panoply of Christian virtues — including the socio-political liberty that Putin grinds under his once-Marxist heel.

Putin isn’t the solution to the West’s decadence. His liberty-crushing, anti-conservative despotism is part of the problem.

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Christmas as a Christian Holy Day: And Why Secularists Have Successfully Attacked It

But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.

Galatians 4:4-5

What is the origin of the Christmas holiday (Holy Day)?  Jesus’ birthday is obviously not observed in the Bible, so when did this observation start, and why?

The quirky church father Origen objected to celebrating our Lord’s birthday on the grounds that in the Bible, only pagans celebrated birthdays. In fact, the primitive church saw no need to celebrate our Lord’s Advent in that it was the resurrection, not the birth, of Christ that was central.  (This is no less true today.)  For the earliest Christians, Easter was every Sunday, not just an annual celebration, and it trumped the Advent in significance.

It was not until the theological dispute over the precise relationship between the humanity and divinity of Jesus came into full force during the fourth century that the church began to celebrate Epiphany, a precursor to Christmas, on January 6.  The issue was never the exact day to celebrate, and the Christians never supposed that they could ascertain the actual day of the Lord’s birth. Rather, they were driven by theological considerations. If Jesus were truly human, and not only divine, the fact of his birth within the flow of human history was of great significance.

The early “Christmas” celebration by the church was momentous.  The patristic church situated in what is today Israel would, at the Feast of Epiphany, assemble for what was by all accounts an elaborate celebration.  The saints would march joyously through Bethlehem on the night of January 5-6 and at dawn sing hymns in honor of Jesus.  They would soon approach Jerusalem and the Church of the Resurrection, whose interior was festooned with thousands of candles.

From the very beginning, light — lots of light — was associated with this Holy Day of Advent.  Jesus was described in the Gospel of John as the Light of the World, and this Light came to earth to dispel the darkness and depravity of humanity.

But how did the date get moved from January 6 to December 25? During the reign of Constantine, December 25 was the date of the worship of the sun, and this first (quasi-) Christian emperor deliberately united this worship with what we today term Christmas.  In addition, in the primitive church, Epiphany was linked to baptism, but over time, this link was discovered to harbor heretical implications.  The heresy of “adoptionism” held that Jesus the man did not become God until He was “adopted” by the Father with the descent of the Holy Spirit at His baptism.  As the church clarified its opposition to this heresy, it needed to separate the celebration of Advent from that of baptism.   But why, specifically, choose December 25?

This was the date in Roman Mithraism of the winter solstice: huge bonfires were lit to assist the sun in its climb above the horizon.  The early church countered this pagan festival with Christmas, the festival of the True Light, Jesus Christ.  Constantine was a syncretist, and his union of Christmas with the winder solstice is a leading example of that syncretistic impulse.  Meanwhile, the Christians, while retaining practices associated with the pagan festival, did not see Christmas as a pagan festival but instead conceived of it as a competing Holy Day.

Christian Advent and Redemptive History

Christ’s Advent, today celebrated at Christmas, is not the summit of the Christian Faith.  Rather, it is a vital step in toward that summit, which in reality is the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Jesus.  For Paul in particular, the great, divinely inspired theologian of the work of Jesus Christ, the monumental turning point of history is not the Christian incarnation but our Lord’s death and resurrection.  Jesus was born to die — and rise again (1 Tim. 1:15).  As we noted in the previous chapter, Jesus’ incarnation would have meant nothing had He never died and risen from the dead in great victory.

Sectors of the church (like the East) that situate the incarnation as central tend to see man’s problem not so much as the guilt of sin but as the corruption of sin.  The Fall incurred no guilt due to sin against the law of God (as is affirmed in the West) but rather the diminution of God’s life within man — man lost some of his humanity in the Garden of Eden and thereby suffered corruption.  Salvation is the reversal of corruption and the reinvigoration of the divine life in man.  Man’s problem is not so much that he is guilty but that he is corrupt(ed).  In the incarnation, God provides a way for man to regain his lost status of sharing in the divine life.

This view of the incarnation misses almost entirely the meaning of the Cross.  It is not clear in this view, in fact, why the Cross is necessary at all.   It is sometimes asserted that the Cross beat down the “frightful cosmic reality of [man’s] death,” but it is not evident why Christ’s death is necessary to accomplish this.  Could He not have vanquished the power of death by His life, without having to die?  And if not, why not?

However, if Jesus’ death carried the penalty of man’s sin, we can well understand why He had to die.  His death was substitutionary.  He suffered in man’s place, so that man could avoid that suffering and awful death and eternal separation from God (1 Pet. 3:18).

This is why we must always see the incarnation as part of redemptive history; it is redemptive-historical.  The great turning point of history is Messiah’s death and resurrection, by which in the former he suffered the wrath of the Father in dying for man’s sins, and in the latter overcame the stranglehold of sin by the relentless power of the Holy Spirit.  Sinners can be saved only because Jesus died and rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12-19).

Why the Secularists Have Been Successful

Today’s secular attacks on the Christmas season (the ACLU’s legal challenges to manger scenes on “public” property, and so on) would have been less successful had the church of the last century been more vigilant in linking Jesus’ death and resurrection with His incarnation.  The problem here is not chiefly the myth and commercialization into which the season has fallen: Santa Claus and debt spending.   No, the root problem is that for decades now, Christmas for the church has been all about the Babe Jesus in His incarnational humiliation and peace on earth and the human charity that such tender scenes engender.  Not for a moment should we diminish those scenes, but if we propagate them apart from their redemptive-historical context, we present to the church — and the world — an emasculated, dilute Christian Faith, and it’s hard to detect any deep, weighty rationale for the incarnation.  We overcome this soft-core Christmas celebration if we stress that the Faith — and the incarnation — is at its very root redemptive-historical.

The Faith is never truly preached apart from the scandal (offense) of the Cross (Gal. 5:11).  In philosophically sophisticated sectors of the ancient world, the idea that God could come to earth as a human was silly (these ancients were deeply dualistic); but to our world, what is scandalous is that man is guilty before God because of his sin, not that God could become man.  So, to moderns, the Babe in the manger is a reminder that God loves all of us as a babe loves his parents, and the quiet pastoral scenes as well as the musical, angelic scenes surrounding today’s celebration reinforce a God of peace and hope and reconciliation — not much else.

He is indeed a God of peace and hope and reconciliation, but these blessings are possible for man only because of the death of Jesus to pay for man’s sin and His resurrection to triumph over them definitively (Rom. 5:10).  The incarnation as such does not save.  It saves in that it subordinated the Son of God to humanity, a subordination apart from which He could never die and rise again in redeeming man from sin.

And as long as the church severs the celebration of Christmas from the death and resurrection of Jesus in an effort to avoid offense at this tender season, it will be a fit target for secularists, for when emptied of its redemptive-historical character, it is not clear why we should celebrate Christmas at all.  Most Christians will not fight urgently for public displays of Christmas when it is removed from the core of their salvation secured by Jesus on the Cross and from the empty tomb.

This Christmas season let us boldly celebrate Jesus, the Son of God, Who came into the world to save sinners by His atoning death and victorious resurrection.

Let’s refuse to tone down the scandal.  Let’s refuse to surrender Christmas to those who would strip away its redemptive-historical character.

____

In arriving at these conclusions, I’ve greatly benefitted over the years by the works of Oscar Cullmann, Richard Gaffin, Herman Ridderbos, and Geerhardus Vos.

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Righteousness: Imputed and Imparted

1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.

2 And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?”

3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.

4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.

6 And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua,

7 “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.

8 Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch.

9 For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day.

10 In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”

Zechariah 3

Introduction

This is one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. This year I slowly read through the OT prophets. When I came to this chapter I just knew I had to preach about it at Advent.

It’s a appropriate Advent message. Verse 8 refers to the Branch, God’s servant who was to come. That is Jesus (see Is. 11:1). But I want to preach about the story surrounding the mention of the Branch. I can’t imagine a more suitable message for Advent than the truths we learn from this heartwarming vision.

The prophet and prophecy

Zechariah prophesied at a time when God, little by little, was returning Israel to the land of Canaan, after her captivity for her sin. This was the general era of Ezra and Nehemiah. The temple was being rebuilt. It was an exciting time. It was a hard time. There were many enemies of the Jews. There was still a lot of sin among the Jews.

God gave Zechariah several visions for his people. This one in chapter 3 is a vision of Joshua before God’s throne. Joshua was an actual historical figure. He was a high priest at the time, in the line of Aaron. (This obviously isn’t the same Joshua who followed Moses leading Israel. That was much earlier.)

I’m sure that the prophet Zechariah knew Joshua. Maybe the high priest was his friend. Both were no doubt excited that God was releasing the Jews and getting them back to their Promised Land, the land of their fathers.

But in the vision, God showed Zechariah something about Joshua that he never knew. He saw the high priest in a light he’d never recognized before. This seemed to stun Zechariah during his vision.

It’s imperative that we understand that Joshua stands for the whole nation of Israel (see vv. 9–19). Joshua was the representative for the entire nation. So, God wasn’t just addressing to Joshua. He was also dealing with all of his covenant people.

And that means he’s speaking to us, the church. The church of Jesus Christ is the seed of Abraham, God’s covenant people. All Jews and Gentiles who trust in Jesus are Abraham’s seed and heirs of God’s OT promises (Gal. 3:29).

This is why this vision is so pertinent to us.

Two Kinds of Righteousness

Zechariah sees heaven as a courtroom. Satan is there as the prosecuting attorney. He’s accusing Joshua before God, the great Judge.

Satan loves to accuse. In the NT John even calls him “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10). What a hypocrite Satan is! He tempts us to sin, and then when we do sin, he accuses us before God and heaps guilt and shame on us. He even accuses the godly, like Job. Satan is the universe’s biggest hypocrite and phony.

This vision reminds us that we’re in a most serous battle with Satan. I read the words of the great Reformer John Calvin this week in his commentary on this passage:

We wonder why so many enemies daily rage against us, and why the whole world burn against us with such implacable hatred; and also why so many intrigues arise, and so many assaults are made, which have not been excited through provocation on our part: but the reason why we wonder is this, — because we bear not in mind that we are fighting with the devil, the head and prince of the whole world. For were it a fixed principle in our minds, that all the ungodly are influenced by the devil, there would then be nothing new in the fact, that all unitedly rage against us. How so? Because they are moved by the same spirit, and their father is a murderer, even from the beginning. (John 8: 44.)

Satan is our very real enemy. We shouldn’t be surprised when the grant enemy of our souls tries to cut us down without mercy. This is what he did with Joshua the high priest.

Joshua is standing before God in a filthy robe. The term “filthy” translates the Hebrew word that means “excrement.” That’s not a pleasant picture. You can imagine how this sordid appearance must have shaken Zechariah. Jehovah required the priests to wear clean garments (Ex. 28:2). To see God’s high priest in such excrement-stained clothes no doubt disturbed the prophet. The pre-exilic high priests wore splendorous clothes in honor of Jehovah and their high office. What a pitiful figure Joshua must have cut as Zechariah saw him.

Our sin, God’s holiness

Those dirty clothes in the vision signified sin and guilt before God — not just that of the high priest, but of all the Jews, whom Joshua represented. The entire nation, as it were, stood before God in filthy, excrement-stained clothes, and Satan was at the right hand, rabidly accusing these sinners before God.

Satan may be the universe’s worst hypocrite, but he knows that God is holy, and that he demands holiness of his creatures. I wish more church members today knew what Satan knows about God. We rarely hear about the holiness of God today, because people want to live unholy lives and expect God as the great cosmic teddy bear to ignore their sin.

This isn’t the God of the Bible. We are not as holy as we think we are, and God is holier than we think he is. God is holy, and too often we are not.

Note, therefore, that when God answered, he didn’t rebuke Satan for lying (although Satan is a liar and the father of lies, Jn. 8:44). God knew how sinful his people were. He didn’t dispute that fact with Satan.

No. He rebuked Satan on entirely different grounds. He said, “How dare you accuse my chosen people! These are my people, I’m their God, their guardian, their protector, their Savior.”

Election

Remember this: Our salvation is based in God’s election. God chose us to salvation. We stand righteous in God’s sight because God chose us to stand righteous — this was true of the Jews, and it’s equally true of us.

I pity the dear saints who don’t understand election. Election assures us beyond any doubt whatsoever that salvation is God’s work, not ours. In fact, no biblical fact better proves that salvation is God’s work. God declares us his righteous people as a result of his electing grace. How does he do this? We get a clue in verse 4:

And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”

Imputed Righteousness

That’s one of the most powerful pictures in the Bible of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (“imputed” means counted.) Our sin is so bad that we can’t just be reformed. We have to get somebody else’s righteousness. We have to get an entirely new life.

When Jesus died on the across, he bore the penalty for our sins. He suffered God’s wrath that we, by all rights, should have suffered. Our sins became his. And, alternatively, when we trust in Jesus Christ, all of his righteousness becomes ours. Nobody ever put it better than Paul:

For our sake he [the Father], made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)

This is the Great Transfer of our salvation. All of our sins were placed on Jesus. And all of his righteousness was placed on us. Now we stand clean and pure and sinless in the Lord’s court. The Bible’s picture of that imputed righteousness is a clean robe. For instance, we read about the church in Revelation:

“… Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (Rev. 19:7-8)

God elects hIs people, and he clothes them with the righteousness of his Son. The angel told Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).

He saves us, first, by crediting Jesus’ righteousness to our account. He rips off the old, excremental robes and puts on the fresh, clean white robes of his Son’s righteousness.

Imparted Righteousness

God saves us in a second way. Look at verses 6–7 again:

And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.

It’s not enough to enjoy imputed righteousness. Jesus didn’t die only to make us holy in God’s court. He also died to make us holy in God’s world. God gave Joshua a new robe of judicial righteousness. Then he expected him, by the Spirit’s power, to live a holy life. “You now have a white robe. Act as a white-robed person, because you are one.” This is imparted or implanted righteousness, and it’s no less important than imputed righteousness.

God changes our standing in his court, from guilty to innocent. And he changes our life in this world from sinful to holy.

Two Kinds of Error

I’d like to conclude with a warning and exhortation. Don Broesamle and I won’t be around forever. We’re not getting any younger (especially Don). We feel a keen burden to transmit the truth to a younger generation.

Humanism

I want you to know the great temptations and errors you’re likely to face increasingly in the future. The first is humanism. Humanism makes man the measure of everything. It’s a very old perversion. It either denies God (like atheism), or pushes God out of man’s world (like Kant). The humanist view of salvation is man-centered. Man is saved (in the modern humanist world) by psychology or psychotherapy or drugs or the politicians or federal programs like the Affordable Care Act. The power of God recedes into the background, and the power of man comes to occupy the foreground. God is very distant, and man is very present.

In the churches, humanism comes in the form of liberalism. Salvation is by “being nice.” Keeping the Golden Rule. Not judging anyone for anything (except Bible-believers, of course). Being kind to animals and lettuce. Being “one” with the cosmic earth forces. There’s no place for the biblical Gospel in liberalism. That Gospel is that salvation is in Jesus alone, in his atoning death on the Cross and bodily resurrection. Liberals hate the biblical Gospel because (1) it shows how sinful man is; (2) it teaches that man can’t save himself; and (3) it points everyone to Jesus and no one and nothing else.

Beware of humanism — and it’s religious face: liberalism.

Antinomianism

There’s a second error. It’s antinomianism. This means lawlessness. Church people say that salvation is by grace, so we’d better not stress obedience too much. We might lead people to think they’re saved by works.

But Paul and Jesus and Peter and John and Moses and Zechariah didn’t seem to have that problem. They know that we’re not saved by works, but that we are saved to works (Eph. 2:8–10). That’s what salvation by grace means.

Today we hear a great deal about the “grace revival.” Who could oppose that? We need to hear more, not less, about God’s matchless grace. But a real problem is the impoverished view of grace we have. It’s a grace that gets us God’s forgiveness but not transformation. It’s a grace that leaves us enslaved to Satan’s dominion. But Paul teaches that in the Cross and resurrection we’re liberated from the power of sin (Rom. 6). What a paltry, pitiful view of grace that’s impotent to give us the victory over sin! What a watered-down gospel this is! A gospel that doesn’t transform us isn’t the biblical gospel.

Thank God, the same One who gives us Jesus’ imputed righteousness also and equally gives us Jesus’ imparted righteousness. The same one who gives us the white robe makes us live as a white-robed follower of Jesus.

We can rejoice this Advent season that God has taken away our filthy robe of sin and replaced it with the spotless robe of Jesus’ righteousness. God has rebuked our Accuser, because we are God’s elect people, who stand in his Son’s holiness by union with him.

But we an also rejoice that God has implanted in us the righteousness of Jesus. He’s changing us from unholy to holy people. Even the hardships that we encounter, God uses to make us holy before him. God is making what’s inside that robe to conform to what’s outside: white and pure as his people.

Select Bibliography

Pusey, E. B. The Minor Prophets, A Commentary: Micah to Malachi. In Barnes’ Notes. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005, 2:353—359.

Calvin, John. Commentaries on Zechariah and Malachi. In Calvin’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993, 15:80—101.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible (OSNOVA Publications, n.d., Kindle edition), comments at Zechariah 3.

Shepherd, Norman. The Way of Righteousness: Justification Beginning with James. LaGrange, California: Kerygma, 2009.

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Born of Woman


“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Galatians 4:4-5

I draw our attention to that phrase, “born of woman.” It’s an appropriate Scripture. This is the second Advent Sunday. Moreover, Cornerstone Bible Church loves children. And just this week a new child entered God’s good world and our church.

Paul in this epistle is teaching a vital truth: we are justified, or made righteous before God, by faith in Jesus Christ, not by keeping the law. Paul isn’t attacking the law. “[T]he law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). But the law wasn’t created to justify us before God. It’s like using a chainsaw to repair a flat tire. Nothing wrong with a chainsaw; it just wasn’t designed to fix a flat tire. In the same way, the law is God’s gift to man, but not his gift to justify sinners.

In verse 4 Paul is telling the Galatians how God designed to bring sinners into his family. Jesus was born to obey the law, in order to redeem everybody who was held captive by the law. The law is good, but when we break God’s law, it holds us captive to God’s justice.

God is a righteous God, and he must punish law-breaking. God made Jesus “under the law” to fulfill the law’s righteousness. Jesus then died on the Cross to suffer God’s righteous punishment as a substitute for us. In this way, we can be justified by trusting what Jesus Christ has done done for us and not what we can do. This is why we can (and must) be justified by faith, and not by keeping the law. If we could be justified by the law, Jesus wouldn’t be necessary. The Galatians were being seduced away from this vital truth. And Paul was correcting them.

A big part of this salvation plan is the full humanity of Jesus. This means Jesus isn’t just fully God. He’s also fully man. This isn’t a minor point. If Jesus wasn’t totally man, he couldn’t suffer the penalty for sin in the cross in our place. His death wouldn’t have been real, and if his death wasn’t real, we can’t be saved. This is why denying the full humanity of Jesus is a false doctrine.

That false doctrine began very early in the church. John warns, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 Jn. 7). Pay close attention: those who deny Jesus came in the flesh are deceives and antichrists.

What better way to teach that Jesus came in the flesh than to use that expression “born of woman”? We know that babies came from a union of man and woman and are developed inside the mother’s body. Jesus didn’t have a human father, but he did have a fully human mother (Mary). This fact assured he was fully human.

The baby comes out of the mother’s body and, if healthy, has all the physical characteristics of a human. We marvel at the newborn baby’s tiny feet and fingers and ears. We marvel at how quickly they grow. We’re marveling at their humanity, being made in God’s image.

Jesus, too, was born of woman. He was entirely human, though without sin. Only a man totally human could die and save us.

Implications of the Incarnation

I’m going briefly to touch on two important implications of Jesus’ being born of a woman, of his being totally human, that we dare not miss this Advent season.

The goodness of creation

First, Jesus’ total humanity highlights the goodness of creation. We know that God created the universe and pronounced it “good” (Gen. 1:31). Man sinned, and God cursed the ground for man’s sake (Gen. 3:17), but that didn’t make creation inherently bad. God’s created world is good.

We really need to ponder the implications of God’s good world.

The creation isn’t man’s problem. Sin is man’s problem. Wealth isn’t sinful. Filets aren’t sinful. Sex isn’t sinful. Alcohol isn’t sinful. Man is sinful.

If we think that sin inheres in creation, we’ll never get to the root of sin. That root is man’s evil heart. We’ll always be blaming something in creation: Demon alcohol. Or a woman’s beautiful body. Or tobacco. Or music. Or earthly possessions. But they aren’t the problem. Man’s sin is the problem. Creation is never the problem.

God gave us the world to enjoy. It’s a good world. It reveals God to us. It’s the world Jesus was born into — Jesus with a human body and brain and emotions and kidneys and a pancreas. All of creation is God’s good gift to man, and man should glorify God in all of these good gifts.

Jesus’ Advent in Bethlehem 2000 years ago stands as an eternal testimony to the great fact that God’s creation is good.

The sympathy of Jesus

Second, and finally, “being born of woman” reveals the sympathy our Lord has for us his people. We read in Hebrews 2:14-18 some of the most comforting words in all the Bible:

Since therefore the children [Christians] share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Let’s think about this. God created man so that the Father and Son and Spirit could share their own glorious communion (Jn. 17). God wanted more people to get in on the great fellowship that God shares.

But when sin entered the world, God couldn’t share that fellowship until he did two things. First, he had to redeem man to get him back into fellowship. Second, he had to fellowship with man in a world that was still under sin’s curse.

That’s what Jesus does. He came into our sin-scarred world. He become part of it (without sinning). He lived in the world we live in. So, he knows our grief and our loneliness and our weakness. He knows what it feels like to suffer persecution and poverty and pressures and slander and pain and weariness. He suffered all these so that God could commune with us as we are, not as we’ll be one day in a sinless eternity.

We need help in this sinful world. Big help. We can’t make it through this world on our own. We were never meant to. Jesus was made like us so that he could come to our aid:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:15—16)

God pleads with us to plead with Jesus when we’re suffering from temptation and trials. I don’t care if it’s cancer or job loss or emotional weakness or financial pressures or unkindness by friends or family hardships: Jesus knows by experience — not simply abstractly, at a distance — what this is like, and he sympathizes and he longs for us to ask him to come to our aid. He lived and died in our world just so that he could aid us just when we need that aid.

When our ladies are enduring hardships peculiar to womanhood (like childbirth), we elders always ask women to pray for them. Why? We men can sympathize at a distance but only another woman who has endured this hardship can deeply empathize in prayer.

Similarly, Jesus empathizes with our pain and weakness and tribulations. He came into the world, “born of woman,” not just to die for our sins but to be a “merciful and faithful high priest.” He has mercy on us. He knows we’re weak. He’s here to be our advocate, to help us.

Therefore, how foolish we are not to take advantage of his help. We’re like the diabetic that carries insulin but refuses to use it during a diabetic spike. Jesus longs for us to rely on him when we’re failing and weakening.

Conclusion

These are two significant implications of Jesus’ being “born of woman.”

Let’s ponder them — and act on them — this Advent season.

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On Giving Due Credit

plagiarism_theftPlagiarism is defined as a writer’s assimilating another’s words or ideas and depicting them as his own. Plagiarism is a form of theft, and in both academic and journalistic settings it is often rightly grounds for expulsion. Depredation of another’s ideas, and not merely his words, constitutes plagiarism. If one learns an idea from another, he may not exhibit it as his own.

Many writers (and speakers) who would never commit the offense of plagiarism seem quite oblivious to, and are willing to, commit the related offense of intellectual ingratitude—an unwillingness to give credit to whom it is due. They do not so much intentionally pilfer the words and ideas of others as they simply write (and speak) as though what they communicate is generally original. They have at their disposal instruments for acknowledging the influence on their thinking, but they fail (or refuse) to employ them.

In academic writing, footnotes are an acceptable instrument of acknowledgement. Unfortunately, footnotes have fallen on hard times, even in academia (Gertrude Himmelfarb laments “Where have all the footnotes gone?”[1]). We can expect that a postmodern ambience, in which even tacky, fifth-rate teenage writers are respected as “creators of reality,” will be restive toward the painstaking task of footnoting. But careful scholarship is less about sheer brilliance than precise documentation. Geniuses are not assumed to have become scholars until they learn how accurately to acknowledge their sources. Structure is no less important than content.

Most communication is not academic or journalistic, however, and those rules of acknowledgement do not apply. However, even in informal articles like this one, writers should not give the impression that their ideas are original when, in fact, they are not. For some reason, it appears as though many writers (and speakers) assume that their audience will think less of them if they acknowledge their lack of originality, the sources on whom they depend. These writers (and speakers) can delude the unwary, but they embarrass themselves in the eyes of their more well-read readers. I know of several (Christian) writers who consistently employ the ideas of others while rarely giving them due credit. I even encounter “borrowed,” but unacknowledged, turns of phrase. This offense is not merely a literary miscue; it reflects a character defect.

Why do writers (and speakers) commit this offense? I am not certain, but I will speculate.

Some writers (and speakers) covet a reputation for originality. This desire is not merely base; it is embarrassingly naive. There is nothing new under the sun. All of us have gotten our main ideas from somebody else, going all the way back to Adam, who was surely created by God with “innate ideas.” God alone is original, and we should be (gratefully acknowledging) imitators. I know of a minister and writer who over the years has discovered several theological insights long known by his forbearers, but capitalizes on every discovery as though it were a breathtaking theological insight. Because it is new to him, it is new. Perhaps he believes that his readers and those under his care will lose respect for him if he simply acknowledges his debt to the past. Actually, the more astute among his audience would respect him if he simply acknowledged the influences on his thought. To admit that we are unoriginal is simply to acknowledge that we are creatures. There is nothing demeaning about that.

A more noble (though no less erroneous) reason for refusal to grant due credit is, I suspect, the desire to avoid implicitly condoning objectionable sources. Ministers, for example, might be reluctant to acknowledge their reliance on the dazzling insight of an otherwise deviant theologian for fear that their church members may read the writings of this theologian and adopt his deviant views. This reasoning seems not to account for the fact that (with rare exception, like pornography) there are no unsafe writers, only undiscerning readers. Christians should be taught to read discerningly. Even if they are not, however, the seemingly pastoral reasoning that avoids acknowledgement of sources on the grounds that such acknowledgement may misdirect the saint, fails on another count. In the final analysis, there are no entirely “safe” writers (including Sandlin). All writers suffer from blind spots, and if our criterion for acknowledgment is a writer’s avoidance of all error, we would acknowledge nothing but the Bible. Let us just frankly admit that severely mistaken — even heretical — writers can benefit us. I have been influenced and helped by writers as diverse as Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin and Bernard, Whitfield and Wesley, Kuyper and Tozer, Van Til and Barth, Henry and Bloesch, Sowell and Berlin, Nisbet and MacArthur, Frame and Pinnock, and Ryrie and Rushdoony. I do not have the luxury of learning only from writers that I deem (at the moment) “safe.” It has been said (and I would give due credit if I knew who first said it) that the difference between what we are like today and what we will be five years from now will be determined, humanly speaking, by the books we read and the people we meet. One reason we should be willing to read “unsafe” books is that our current assessment of what constitutes “safe” may not be entirely accurate. Only by encountering new ideas may we test our current opinions (and prejudices). We need not be afraid of exposing those under our care to a wide variety of views, as long as we also ground those folks in the reality of the Person of Jesus Christ and the truth of His Word.

Whatever the reason for neglect of acknowledging the influences on our thinking, it is wrong. We should give credit—including intellectual credit—where credit is due.

By the way, I got  the idea for this article from a shrewd review of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “In re Allan Bloom: A Respectful Dissent,: by George Anastatlo, in The Great Ideas Today 1988 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica).

1. Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?”, On Looking into the Abyss (new York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), ch. 6.

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Two Kinds of Sinners

two builders 4Humanity Split in Two

The great division within humanity is not sexual, economic, racial, or social — but religious.  The great divide is captured by expressions like the City of God versus the City of Man (Augustine), covenant-keepers versus covenant-breakers (Cornelius Van Til), and by more explicitly Biblical terms like saved versus unsaved (Ac. 16:30) and Christians versus non-Christians (Ac. 11:26).  Another way of expressing this distinction is to refer to repentant sinners versus unrepentant sinners.  This final designation has the benefit of highlighting the reality of universal human sinfulness while implying the ethical benefits of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work — notably, his creating a new and holy people by the Spirit’s power (Rom. 6:1–12; 8:9–14).  Repentant sinners are still sinners, but, being recipients of God’s grace consistently working in their lives, they have become a different kind of sinner.  They may be sinners, but they are not sinners in the way they once were.

A striking example of these two kinds of sinners is found in the initial segment of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk.  This book consists of alternating monologues between God and the prophet.  In 1:1–5, Habakkuk (like many other Biblical prophets) decries the violence, injustice and otherwise depravity of his fellow Jews.  Keenly aware of God’s covenant threats in texts like Deuteronomy 28, he grieves at God’s apparent diffidence over the depravity of his people.  God had plucked Israel from the depraved, pagan nations of the earth and graciously lifted them up on eagles’ wings to be a unique, righteous people to him (Ex. 19:4–6).  But in Habakkuk’s time, righteous they were not; they were tragically unrighteous.  And Habakkuk was as incensed by their unrighteousness as he was with God’s seeming indifference at his people’s moral apostasy.

The Evangelical Quandary of Grace

The prophet’s attitude might be thought to introduce a quandary among today’s evangelicals.  Heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we rightly stress God’s grace, but that very stress sometimes leads to moral paralysis, the very opposite of how Habakkuk responded to rampant sin so many centuries ago.  Today’s paradigm goes something like this: we observe obvious sin and abject depravity in both the church and the culture — let us take as an example the mainstreamed sadomasochism of Lady Gaga, who revels in musical rape fantasies and violence against women — but we recoil from the loud denunciation of this evil with which Habakkuk might have been quite comfortable, on the grounds that we, too, like Lady Gaga, are sinners.  If we are saved by grace and not works — and we emphatically are (Tit. 3:5) — the only reason we are different from Lady Gaga is God’s favor displayed and accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This means that no Christian can boast that he is morally superior to another (Rom. 3:27–28).  God is the one who creates the difference between the forgiven and the unforgiven (Eph. 2:1–10).  At the very root, we might think, we are really no better than Lady Gaga.  Yet it is not entirely clear that Habakkuk could have so aggressively decried Israel’s sin had he thought in precisely this way.  Our modern evangelical way of approaching moral evil in the church and world was not Habakkuk’s way.

Another quandary emerges almost immediately. “There is none righteous, no, not one,” writes Paul (Rom. 3:10, summarizing Psalm 14), yet the Bible clearly and plainly depicts certain believers as righteous, and it commends this righteousness.  The Psalms are replete with mention and descriptions of “the righteous man” (try chapters 1, 11, 34, 37, and 58 — for starters).  Likewise, Jesus spoke of righteous individuals (Mt. 10:41; 13:17, 43; 25:46).  So did Paul himself (Rom. 2:6–11; 6:18; 14:7; Eph. 4:24). The world may be full of sinners (Lady Gaga in the lead), but there are righteous individuals in God’s sight.

Imputed Righteousness versus Imparted Righteousness

 A typical evangelical way out of this quandary — one creditably calculated to highlight the grace of God and prevent any boasting of one’s righteousness — is to say that this righteousness is the “positional” or judicial righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed (or credited) to the believing sinner.  The Bible most assuredly teaches this kind of righteousness.  Both Jesus (Lk. 18:9–14) and, in particular, Paul (Rom. 4:11–24) refer to this imputed righteousness as the basis on which we are accepted before a holy God.  We are not accepted before God on the strength of our own righteousness but on the strength of Jesus’ righteousness.  His righteous standing accomplished by his death and resurrection becomes ours by faith alone, not by works.

Yet in many cases, the definition of the righteousness of individuals depicted as righteous in the Bible cannot be this positional or judicial righteousness: they are actually, existentially righteous (see Lk. 1:5–6; Jas. 5:16; 2 Pet. 2:8). They live righteous lives. They love God. They obey his Word. They hate sin (including their own sin [Ps. 51; Is. 6:5]). They are sinners, but they wish to please God in all that they do.  They do enjoy imputed righteousness, but they also are the recipients of imparted righteousness: God has imparted to them the Holy Spirit’s power and (gradually) works into them his righteousness (Rom. 8:1–17).  They are righteous, both judicially and experientially, by faith.

These are the relatively rather than the absolutely righteous (only God is absolutely righteous), but the Bible does not hesitate to depict these repentant sinners as righteous — conforming to God’s holy will.  They are commended for this righteousness and held up as favorable examples.

This distinction discloses more fully the reality of the two kinds of sinners: the repentant and the unrepentant.  The Bible calls repentant sinners “the righteous” (and similar terms).  It labels unrepentant sinners “the unrighteous” (and similar terms).  There is a huge gulf separating these two groups, and that gulf cannot be bridged by simply lumping all of them together as sinners.  The gulf is so absolute that in the Final Judgment it will eternally isolate all of humanity in one of two places: heaven or hell (Mt. 25:31­­–46).  Of course, all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).  There is no righteous man on earth that does not sin (Ec. 7:20).  If we say that we are without sin, we are liars (1 Jn. 1:10).  But there has been a dramatic change in repentant sinners that has led and will lead increasingly to righteous living.  In fact, John sees this righteousness as a criterion of authentic belief (1 Jn. 3:6, 5:18) — if we live lives dominated by unrighteousness, our Christian profession rings hollow.  The right-living people are saved and the wrong-living people are lost.  It is remarkable that some Christians, worried that God’s grace will be polluted if they stress the necessity of righteousness, refuse to affirm what the Bible so plainly teaches: that the righteous will end up in heaven and the unrighteous will end up in hell (Mt. 13:41–43; 25:31–46; Jn. 5:29; Rom. 2:6–9; Heb. 10:32–39; Rev. 21:7, 8, 24–27).

For this reason, when Habakkuk decried his fellow Jews’ depravity and apostasy, God did not respond, “But Habakkuk, you, too, are a sinner; you are really no better than these other Jews, who love violence and injustice and hate my law.  You were saved by my sovereign grace and have no warrant to set yourself up to criticize their sin.  Revel in my grace, Habakkuk, for there but for my grace go you!”  God did not say this, nor (to my knowledge) does God ever reply this way when the righteous (repentant sinners) criticize or condemn the unrighteous (unrepentant sinners).  In short, God affirms (implicitly or explicitly) the assessment that his righteous people level at the unrighteous.  These sinners occupy two entirely different classes.

Righteousness and Grace

This view seems to conflict with texts like Matthew 9:13, where Jesus declares, in response to the Pharisees’ chiding him for eating with tax collectors and sinners, “But go and learn what [this] means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”  By righteous in this passage and some others, however, Jesus obviously does not mean righteous in the legitimate sense.  Jesus did not assess the Pharisees as righteous in God’s eyes (Mt. 23)!  The Pharisees did, though, consider themselves righteous (Lk. 18:9), and Jesus made the point that the Gospel is only for people who recognize their own spiritual poverty (Mt. 5:3). The Pharisees were the epitome of self-righteousness, but self-righteousness, ironically, is one of the most grievous sins.  Righteousness and self-righteousness are antithetical. The self-righteous actually are saying that they do not need God; the self-righteous are unrighteous.  They can, in their eyes, make it quite on their own.  It is difficult to imagine a greater affront to the goodness of a gracious, sovereign God (Rom. 1:21–22; 2:1–4).  A prerequisite for salvation, however, is the recognition of our own sin and utter unworthiness in God’s sight.

For this reason, Christians delight in the grace of God displayed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Apart from that grace, we have no righteousness, and we are dead in our sins and stand under God’s judgment (Eph. 2:1­–3).  Believers, consequently, are righteous by grace alone, but they are righteous, not just judicially but also experientially, and to downplay or obscure this righteousness is to downplay or obscure the very working of God in our lives and to mitigate God’s glory in the world.  God wants the world to see our good (righteous) works (Mt. 5:13–16), and to hide our righteous works in the attempt to highlight God’s grace obscures the glory — and grace — of God.  This point is vital: grace is never at war with righteousness, only with self-righteousness.

Are Christians Better Than Everybody Else?

Christians sometimes exhort, with well-intentioned humility: “We should not act as though we are better than everyone else in the world.  After all, we are saved by grace.”  Yet, if we are not better than unbelievers, what is salvation by grace all about?  Not, surely, only eternal bliss, blessed though it will be.  It would be a tragedy indeed if heaven were populated by unrepentant, depraved sinners.  This would be hell, not heaven (Rev. 21:8).  Heaven is reserved for those who have been saved by grace through faith in the blood and resurrection of Jesus and who, therefore, have been cleansed of sin and live as obedient, persevering sons and daughters (Rom. 2:6–7; Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:7).

The goal of God’s grace is a right-living (= righteous) people. Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. . . ” (Tit. 2:11–12, emphasis supplied).  The goal of God’s grace is not Christians who so marvel at that grace that they fear righteousness.  Grace necessitates — and produces — righteousness.

Today amid the din of religious apostasy and cultural depravity, a misguided piety may foster the attitude: “I am saved by the blood of Jesus and totally by grace.  I do not see any moral difference between me and unrepentant sinners.  After all, it is only grace that separates me from Lady Gaga.”

But that “only” modifying God’s grace in our salvation is a massive “only.”  It is a grace that transforms a rebel into an obedient child and situates him on the path of righteousness.  He loves what God loves and hates what God hates. He perseveres in righteousness by the Spirit’s power to press the Lordship of Jesus everywhere he can.  He knows that all he is and does in the way of righteousness is God’s gift working for him (imputed righteousness) and in him (imparted righteousness).  He rejoices in God’s grace that redeemed him not just from the penalty of sin but also, now, in this life, from the pleasure and power of sin and one day, in eternity, from the very presence of sin (A. W. Pink).

God anointed Jesus because he loved righteousness and hated lawlessness (Heb. 1:9).  So should we.

Eternal life is not a reward for good behavior, but neither is grace an excuse for moral paralysis.

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A Letter on Separation

BJU300x200Dear —-,

The Bible certainly teaches both separation from the world (“personal separation,” for example, 1 Jn. 2:15-17) and from false teachers (“ecclesiastical separation,” 2 Jn.), but not as these classifications are often understood by fundamentalists.

For one thing, the Bible requires we avoid sin, but not humanly devised taboos. Only God gets to define sin.

So, separation from the world isn’t identical to avoiding alcohol and Columbian cigars and movie theaters and Texas hold ’em and Lamborghini convertibles. At least, the Bible doesn’t say so, and the Bible alone is our standard. It’s more than ironic that some of the same people who rail against (for example) alcohol are quite tolerant of fornication. This is Phariseeism with a vengeance (Mk. 7)

On the matter of ecclesiastical separation, we need to recall that the Bible warns again and again of false teaching (in almost every book of the Bible except perhaps Ruth and Philemon), but it’s interesting that in all of Paul’s (and John’s, Rev. 2-3) letters to the erring churches, not once did he exhort the faithful to leave the church, even when the church was in danger of losing the Gospel, as in Galatians. Rather, he exhorted the godly to expel the unrepentant. His form of separation seemed to be formal exclusion: what we term excommunication. Of course, he warned about unequal yokes with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14f.), but he’s talking about Christians frequenting pagan temples, not the church of Jesus Christ. A church can apostatize and lose the light of the Lord’s presence (John warns the churches of Revelation), but God’s the one who removes the light, not man.

I appreciate the zeal of many separatist fundamentalists for the truth, but their separatism needs to be governed by the Bible, not by personal whims and “standards” and their celebrity preachers.

I hope this helps.

Much respect, in Him,

Dr. P. Andrew Sandlin

President

Center for Cultural Leadership

831-420-7230

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Only God Gets to Define Sin

phariseesThere are issues that exercise us in this life for which we wish there were extensive Biblical revelation, but we must be careful not to invent it when it’s not there.  The silences of the Bible are as awesome as the statements.  In fact, if God didn’t include revelation about some topic, we might conclude that He didn’t want us to have ironclad certainty about it, and these silences may annoy those of us who covet certainty at all costs.  This is true about issues like baptism and space travel and music standards.  And it is really becomes thorny on matters of ethics — right and wrong.  What about activities that we dislike but which the Bible does not mention, let alone prohibit, like smoking cigarettes or getting tattoos or listening to the Rolling Stones?  We can always flee to the “good and necessary” clause of the Westminster Confession of Faith, yet we should recall that many conclusions are good, but not necessary, and others are necessary, but not good.  What about ethics in matters beyond Scripture?

We could always invoke natural revelation.  This is what Hitler did in arguing for the superiority of the German race — nature itself teaches us that the Aryan race is God’s chosen.  Natural revelation easily becomes a wax nose.  The godly person can derive ethics from natural revelation, but most people are not godly; and in any case, that revelation doesn’t provide the specific answers we so desperately want.

How do we know what is right and wrong with certainty?

If we really affirm Biblical authority, and give it more than lip service, we might follow an operative dictum is that whatever the Bible does not forbid, God permits.  This is a theoretical way of saying that only God can define sin (1 Jn. 3:4). When somebody charges that to advocate birth control or smoking tobacco or charging interest is ipso facto sin, he has replaced God’s law with man’s law. This is a mark of Pharisees (Mk. 7:1-16). Only God is entitled to define sin.

It’s true that there may be many good reasons not to practice birth control, smoke cigars, charge interest, grow huckleberries, listen to the Beatles, drink single-malt scotch, dance at weddings, drive a convertible, send your daughter to Ivy League colleges, sport Afros, invest in mutual funds, play slots in Las Vegas, watch R-rated movies, learn to whittle, or wear linen sport coats-— but none of those reasons have any inherent bearing on sin. If you cannot practice these things in good conscience, then don’t practice them (Rom. 14:23). Just don’t criticize Christians who do practice them.

The reason this issue is important, in fact, has nothing to do with cigar smoking and interest charging and U2 albums, and everything to do with the functional authority and integrity of the Bible. God has laid out what He requires. Beyond what He requires, He grants freedom: we term this “Christian Liberty.” We could use a revival of it today. Bible-toters and -quoters who forbid what the Bible does not address dilute the authority of the Bible, a serious matter indeed.

The Bible (of course) does not address all issues, and we have civil and ecclesiastical and parental authorities that (when necessary, but only when necessary) fill in the legislative lacuna: citizens may not jay walk, members must attend church at 11:00 a.m. and not 3 in the afternoon, and people may not try alcohol publicly until they are 21.

But these, let it always be understood, are men’s permissible laws, not God’s prescriptive laws.

We have enough sin around today (homosexuality, slander, abortion, love-lessness, schism, drunkenness, covenant-breaking, unbelief, worry, statism) that we need not add to the list birth control, smoking, and full-bodied merlots.

The bottom line is: Only God gets to define sin.  We may not impinge on His sovereignty.

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The Advent Gospel for Christian Children

A chapel message delivered to St. Abraham’s Classical Christian School, December 2, 2013

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”

Malachi 4:2

You are Christians. This means you’re disciples of Jesus Christ. You have been baptized. God’s brand is on you. This means you’re trusting in Jesus Christ and him alone (at least, you’d better be). Jesus saves us. We can’t save ourselves.

This brings us to Advent. Advent isn’t the same thing as Christmas. Christmas is the day (Dec. 25) on which we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. But Advent is the entire season during which we celebrate Jesus’ coming into the world as a baby in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. So, Christmas is one day. But Advent is several weeks.

But why celebrate Advent at all? Why should you celebrate Advent?

Let me tell you why. But you won’t understand why until you understand how to look at the world as a Christian. You’re not too young to understand how to think as a Christian. In fact, you must start thinking as a Christian right now.

First, you must understand creation. God created the universe in six days. He created the earth and sun and moon and stars and planets. He created the oceans and dry land. He created vegetation: trees and plants and grasses. He created all animals — fish, birds and beasts. Last of all he created man and woman, Adam, and Eve, and he placed them in a lovely garden. He made them in his own image. This means that they model him. We as humans can talk to God. We can reason like God (never as good as he can, of course). We know right from wrong. We are moral creatures. We were made sinless. We were made to share fellowship with the Father, Son and Spirit forever. In fact, this is why God created man and woman: to share the fellowship of the Trinity.

But, second, man and woman sinned. This is called the Fall. They ate the fruit that God had forbidden. They sinned. What is sin? Sin is breaking God’s law. God gave man his law so man could be happy. God knows what makes us happy — since he created us, he knows! His law, his ways, make us happy. But Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, Satan, who lied to them. He led them to rebel against God. They broke God’s law, and his heart. Their sin broke fellowship with God. That’s what man’s sin does: we rebel, we lie, we cheat, we say cruel things to the people that love us, we disobey our parents and teachers, we think about evil things, we are lazy, we try to get revenge on people that hurt us, we don’t care about prayer and God’s word. This is sin.

This sin brought down God’s judgment on Adam and Eve. Sin always brings judgement. Sin is so bad that God must punish it. God punished Adam and Eve in various ways.

We were born as sinners too, just like Adam and Eve became sinners. We, too, are born under God’s judgment. This is why people die and go to hell — they are sinners.

Sin is a poison. Maybe you’ve known of someone who was poisoned. They often must go to the hospital. If the poison isn’t gotten out of their body, they might die. Poison destroys life.

Sin the poison that destroys eternal life. It breaks our fellowship with God. It makes us think evil, cruel thoughts. It makes us hurt each other, lie to each other, cheat each other, make fun of each other. It makes us mistreat animals. Sin is terrible. It’s the poison in God’s good world. If this were the end of the story, our story would have a very sad ending.

Sin is also darkness. Have you ever stumbled and fallen in a dark room? Sin causes us to stumble and fall and do terrible things. Because of the darkness of our hearts, we can’t even see how bad we really are. We think we’re fine, but we’re not. Sin is poison, and sin is darkness.

But that’s not the end of the story. The third fact we need to know is redemption. God didn’t leave Adam and Eve and all of us in our sin. He set a plan in motion to heal us from the poison, to get rid our our hearts of darkness. That plan is Jesus Christ. God sent his Son to earth to live a life without sin. But he mostly sent Jesus to die on the Cross in our place and to rise from the dead to gain victory over sin. You see, since God must punish sin, he had to punish someone. Instead of punishing us sinners, he sent his own Son to earth to punish him in our place. Can you imagine how much God the Father loved us to send his own Son to die for us?

The Bible (in Malachi) teaches that Jesus was to come as the sun to shine in our sinful darkness and to heal us from our sin. He gets rid of the darkness, and he heals us.

When we put all of our trust in Jesus, and not in ourselves, God saves us. He heals us. He shines his light in our hearts. We are saved by faith. This means that we don’t trust ourselves. We put our trust in Jesus Christ. When we do that, our lives will never be the same. We’ll still have to fight sin, but we’ll fight it as healed people. We’ll still be near the darkness, but now we’ll be walking in the light.

This is what we celebrate at Advent: creation (God made everything), fall (man sinned), and redemption (Jesus healed man’s poison and got rid of man’s darkness).

This Advent season, let’s remember that God in Jesus has called us to walk as healed people, to walk in the light. To pray to our Lord who loves us. To read his word, the Bible. To obey our parents and teachers. To help one another. To be faithful to his church. To tell other people the gospel, the good news we already know.

Advent is all about celebrating Jesus coming into the world to get rid of the poison and the darkness. Whenever we look around at the poison and darkness, we can still be happy. We know that God is using Jesus Christ to heal the poison and get rid of the darkness.

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