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The Real Meaning of Matthew 18:20

When two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in their midst.

To be sure, these are words of reassurance. But don’t misapply Matthew 18:20. It isn’t a therapeutic passage for Christians who are depressed over a shrinking membership roster. Jesus isn’t talking about low attendance numbers or being forced to worship in a hotel room with your family when there isn’t a local church with which to worship.

In fact, these two or three were not gathered to worship. They were gathered to verify the repentance or impenitence of a Christian guilty of sin.

The context of Matthew 18:15-20 is church discipline. Jesus says, “If you choose to preserve the holiness of My church, I will be with you the whole time – no matter the pushback you receive.”

The real meaning is this: During the incredibly difficult time when Christians must deliver an impenitent member of the church to Satan, the church needs to find great comfort knowing that Jesus is there with them.

Look at what is going on in Matthew 18. A sin has been committed in the church (verse 15). The Christian who is guilty of that sin refuses to repent (verse 16). The whole church knows about this sin (verse 17). When the church agrees to sever its social relationship with the erring Christian, it does so with the authority of heaven (verse 18).

Then Jesus puts His own authority behind this decision in two (2) ways:

  1. Jesus invokes a Jewish courtroom principle from Deuteronomy 19:15-19 that says “two or three witnesses” must agree in order to bring a legally binding charge against someone. Jesus is putting this part of the Old Law back to work under the New Law. These “two or three” (probably the leaders – usually the elders – who actually make the decision for the whole church to remove someone from their fellowship) are now legally bound – or covenanted – to one another in the law of the Kingdom. Jesus is binding His church together with glue.
  2. Jesus guarantees that agreement with His own presence. “When you do this for My church, I’m there. You have My seal of approval. You represent Me, just as the temple once represented God’s authority and blessing.”

Make no mistake; it’s nice to know that when even just a handful of two or three Christians gather together to worship, Jesus is with them. Yet bear in mind, however, that Jesus is with two or three Christians in that sense just as much as He is with one Christian who may be forced to worship alone.

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus is giving courage to Christians who are terrified about formally recognizing the lost condition of a Christian who has chosen sin over Jesus. He is with you when you choose to protect the purity of the church. He is validating the leaders of the church as they protect the flock in much the same way that Paul said he would be with the Corinthians “in spirit” as they disciplined the man who was sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:3-5).

By implication, when we refuse to protect the purity of the Lord’s bride, we are refusing the very presence of Jesus in our midst.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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Stop Saying “All Things Happen for a Reason”

After a tragedy, sometimes a well-meaning person will comment, “All things happen for a reason.”

Is that so? If the person making this statement is operating from a Biblical world view, are they suggesting that God the direct cause behind all things that have happened?

If beneath this statement lies the implication that God is the reason something happened, then this statement is wrong. In fact, one of the worst things you can say to someone grieving the loss of property, health, or a loved one is, “All things happen for a reason.” Sometimes things just happen because they happen – not because God has a specific design behind a particular unfortunate event. There does not need to be an immediate divine cause behind every event.

For example, God was not the cause, nor was He pleased, when Islamist Syed Farook and his wife murdered 16 social workers at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015. Of course, that terrible event in no way thwarted God’s purpose (cf. Psa. 2:1-4), and perhaps there are mysterious ways God could have used that event for good (cf. Rom. 8:28). But God did not orchestrate that tragedy. God does not cause such wicked events.

But why did God not stop that mass shooting (or any mass shooting)? For the same reason God does not stop you from fudging the amount you owe on your taxes this year, texting on your phone while driving, or living a godless lifestyle; the same reason He does not stop you from cheating on your spouse or ignoring the needs of your neighbor. The freedom to make choices (often catastrophic choices) is an essential part of what it means to be human. Thomas B. Warren writes,

Once man has been created, it is not the case that God could either permit or prevent man’s sinning without so changing man’s nature that he would no longer be man.[1]

There is a school of thought in Christendom today called Calvinism, which gets this topic wrong. Many Calvinists cannot fathom the idea that God doesn’t directly cause all things to happen. On September 17th, 2001, six days after the September 11th terrorist attacks, John Piper boldly said that God “could” and “would” be behind these actions.[2] According to Piper, and all other staunch Calvinists, all things happen for a reason, and God is that reason. Piper reiterates, “That is what the Bible teaches. God ‘works all things after the counsel of His will’ (Eph. 1:11).”[3] What a chilling thought – that God is behind all tragedy!

This is a disastrous abuse of the context of Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:11. We should note that Paul did not say, “God directs all things, period” – but rather that God has entirely (“all things”) fulfilled His plan to redeem mankind and establish His church through Jesus His Son. The fact that Jesus redeemed us and established His church is the context of Ephesians 1 – not the divine orchestration of every individual event, wicked events included.

When a parent or sibling is grieving the loss of a child, sometimes a well-meaning friend will say something to the effect of, “God needed another angel in heaven.” This horrifying statement not only reflects deep Biblical ignorance (human beings do not go on to become angels, cf. Heb. 2:7), but it also leaves the terrifying impression that God is the direct cause of the child’s death. Thank God He doesn’t “need more angels.”

There are Biblical explanations as to why there is suffering (including the loss of property, health, and innocent life) in this world. Sometimes things happen just because they happen. God has given mankind freedom of choice, and sometimes bad choices are accompanied by tragic consequences – at times involving innocent people. Bear in mind, however, that God has a plan for people that is bigger than this temporal world. But the notion that God directly, individually ordains each and every instance of this world’s pain and suffering is not Biblical.

An excerpt from my newest book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

Purchase Here

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Sources
[1]Thomas B. Warren, God and Evil, p. 298.
[2] John Piper, “Why I Do Not Say, ‘God Did Not Cause the Calamity, but He Can Use It for Good.” DesiringGod.org.
[3] Ibid.

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A Tale of Two Gods: How Calvinism’s God & the Bible’s God are Two Very Different Gods

One very popular denominational preacher and writer, John Piper, is famous for saying that “all things” – even down to the subatomic level – “are ordained, guided, and governed” by God.[1] The idea that God determines everything can be traced back to Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century and is particularly popular among a branch of Protestantism known as Reformed theology.

Reformed theology, more commonly known as Calvinism[2] (we will use these words interchangeably), is a religious philosophy that follows the teachings of John Calvin and other Protestant theologians from the Reformation era. It is should be noted that Reformed theology, or Calvinism, is experiencing a resurgence in America today. So popular is Reformed theology that any Christian who reads relatively conservative denominational literature is well acquainted famous Calvinistic authors. Understandably, younger preachers thirsty for truth tend to be particularly fond of their writings because of their often passionate, yet conservative, approach to many Biblical issues. (And as a result, their Calvinistic influences sometimes unknowingly creep into the young preacher’s respective pulpit.)

The reason it is important to examine Calvinism as it relates to this study is because Reformed theology has traditionally emphasized God’s sovereignty and predestination over everything else. In fact, the idea of the sovereignty of God is the basis of Calvinism itself. Reformed theologians take great pride in the lofty ways in which they talk about God. Ben Warburton writes, “The one rock upon which Calvinism builds is that of the absolute and unlimited sovereignty of the eternal and self-existent Jehovah.”[3]

But herein lies the problem: The sovereign God of the Bible and the sovereign God of Calvinism are two very different Gods. Calvinists have redefined the meaning of the word sovereignty. To the Bible-believing Christian, sovereignty simply means God’s ability and right to rule the world (chapter 5 of You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God). However, to the devoted Calvinist, sovereignty means “divine determinism.” Divine determinism is the belief that God determines, causes, and orchestrates everything in history according to His preconceived plan, including sin and evil.

Calvinists erroneously believe that God is the reason for sin, since – according to Calvinism – “sovereignty” is somehow synonymous with “total control.” Thus, they create a false dichotomy,[4] claiming that if God is sovereign, He must orchestrate and control everything that ever happens – and if He does not control everything, He supposedly cannot be sovereign. Arthur Pink, a famous Calvinist, writes, “Only two alternatives are possible: God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His own Will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”[5] In the words of Jack Cottrell, Calvinists “equate sovereignty with causation, and say that the only way for God to be sovereign is if He is the sole, ultimate cause or originator of everything that takes place, including events in the natural world as well as human decisions.” Consequently, Cottrell continues, “there is no truly free will”[6] for mankind in the Calvinist worldview.

As a result, according to Calvinism, if someone commits a horrible atrocity, it is ultimately because God must have willed it to happen in the first place. Edwin Palmer, a well-known Calvinist, said it bluntly: God “has foreordained everything […] – even sin.”[7] How horrifying a thought. R.C. Sproul Jr., another leading Calvinist today, terrifyingly said, “God in some sense desired that man would fall into sin […] He created sin.”[8] Chilling, right?

Just as egregious is the Calvinistic idea that God subjectively causes individuals to have faith. To the Calvinist, the words “I have personal faith in Christ Jesus” have no real meaning because God is supposedly the cause of all things. To the Calvinist, you cannot choose to have faith; God must put it in you. According to the Synod of Dort,[9] God chooses who will believe in Him and who will not.[10] This, of course, makes the words of Jesus powerless: “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Why? Because you can’t “believe in Him” without God causing you to believe in Him! To call this cruel would be an understatement. It is like dangling crutches at the top of the stairs, saying to a paraplegic below, “Come and get them!”

Historically, Christians have distinguished between God’s sovereignty de jure and de facto. De jure is a Latin word which in this context refers to God’s right to rule; De facto is a Latin word which in this context refers to God’s meticulous control over all events. Ardent Calvinists see this distinction as a mere formality; they believe God is both sovereign de jure and de facto all the time. Yet, New Testament Christians have always acknowledged that God is always sovereign de jure and chooses to limit His sovereignty de facto. In other words, God has the ability to meticulously control everything, but in His wisdom and love for mankind, He has chosen not to determine everything yet.

We find the distinction between God’s sovereignty de jure and de facto when Christ taught His disciples to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). If God is already micro-managing every detail of history, why would anyone need to pray for God’s will to be done on earth? If God is sovereign de facto, it would already be done.

Any honest observer must acknowledge that the Bible is permeated with the implication that God has given men the choice to serve Him. We could fill this book with examples of God giving mankind the freedom of choice. How otherwise could God extend His kindness if people are unable to choose repentance (Rom. 2:4)? How otherwise can we be commanded to “grow in the grace” of the Lord Jesus Christ if are unable to choose to do so (2 Pet. 3:18)? Why would Joshua tell the Israelites to choose whom they would serve if they could not actually choose (Josh. 24:15)? How could God not “show partiality” if He individually chooses on whom to force faith (Acts 10:34)? How calloused is God if He “commands all men everywhere to repent” if they are unable to repent (Acts 17:30)?

The Bible does, in fact, teach that God is sovereign, but it certainly does not teach that God determines mankind’s decisions and preordains mankind’s actions. Let’s be very clear: You can be entirely dedicated to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty while simultaneously being absolutely sure of mankind’s free choice.

An excerpt from my upcoming book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

Coming August 2017

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Sources
[1] John Piper, “Confronting The Problem Of Evil,” DesiringGod.org

[2] Calvinism, also known as Reformed theology, is basically the body of religious teachings and traditions started by John Calvin (1509 – 1564 A.D.) and other Reformation-era theologians such as Ulrich Zwingli and Jonathan Edwards. Calvinism can be summarized in five false religious ideas: (1) Total Depravity (babies are born guilty of the sin of their parents), Unconditional Election (God arbitrarily chooses – independent of any known standard – who will be eternally saved and who will be eternally damned), Limited Atonement (Christ did not die for everyone), Irresistible Grace (you do not have a choice as to whether or not you will obey the gospel), Perseverance of the Saints (it is impossible for a Christian to rebel against God).
[3] Ben A. Warburton, Calvinism, p. 63
[4] A dichotomy (pronounced “die-kot-uh-mee”) is the division of two mutually exclusive things or ideas. Thus, a false dichotomy is the division of two things or ideas that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, it is a false dichotomy to say, “You either like bacon or sausage.” Why? Because real men like both bacon and sausage.
[5] Arthur Pink, The Sovereignty Of God, p. 14
[6] Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once For All, p. 81
[7] Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points Of Calvinism, p. 25, emp. added.
[8] R.C. Sproul Jr., Almighty Over All, p. 53
[9] The Synod of Dort was a very important meeting in denominational history ultimately deciding the future of Calvinism. It was held between the years 1618-1619 in the town of Dordrecht (“Dort”) in the Netherlands. The Synod of Dort was held to silence honest, Scriptural challenges to Calvinism, and at its conclusion, the traditional five points of Calvinism were formalized, namely: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.
[10] See Article XIV of The Articles Of The Canons of Dort (1619). “Faith is the gift of God; not in that it is offered to the will of man by God, but that the thing itself is conferred on him, inspired, infused into him. Not even that God only confers the power of believing, but from thence expects the consent, or the act of believing: but that He, who worketh both to will and to do, worketh in man both to will to believe, and to believe itself, […] and thus He worketh all things in all.” (Translated By Thomas Scott, p. 301).

 

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A Crash Course on God’s Providence

There’s some confusion about God’s providence. To be frank, I don’t quite understand it that well myself. That is not to say, however, that the Bible doesn’t lay out some parameters in our understanding of providence. However we understand God’s providence, we need to make sure it is in harmony with God’s Word. Consider the following principles regarding God’s providence.

First, God will never providentially operate in a way that is contrary to His nature or His Word.

God is holy (Lev. 19:2) and righteous (Psa. 145:17), and therefore will not providentially operate in a way that is inconsistent with His being. While God may manipulate nature and orchestrate events, He will never tempt people to do evil
(Jas. 1:13-14).

Second, God will never providentially operate in a way that violates man’s freedom of choice.

Contrary to the teachings of Calvin, Augustine, and Zwingli (all of whom taught that mankind is unable
to choose righteousness without being forced to do so by God), the Bible teaches that man is free to choose whether to obey or disobey God (cf. Josh. 24:15; Matt. 23:37; John 5:39-40; Rev. 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19; 22:17). Therefore, God will not force someone to choose to do right or wrong. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35) and will not nebulously ordain that some obey Him while coercing others to disobey Him. He can, however, override the outcome of someone’s evil decision and use it for good.

For example, God used the murderous intentions of Joseph’s brothers to deliver Israel (Gen. 50:19-20). God used the greedy slave owners who threw Paul and Silas in prison to bring the gospel to that region (1 Thess. 2:1-2). God orchestrated the cowardly, corrupt Pilate, the evil Jewish leaders, and the crooked Judas to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus, resulting in the gift of salvation to the whole world (Acts 5:30-31). God used the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 to cause a widespread dispersion of Christians into the world to further spread the gospel (Acts 8:1).

Third, God’s providence must be distinguished from God’s miracles.

God’s miracles (a) are observable and quantifiable, (b) supersede natural law, and (c) teach an underlying truth. God’s providence, on the other hand, does not fit into any of these categories. Miracles are observable and quantifiable in that they can be seen and distinguished from natural events, such as a resurrection from the dead (John 11:43-44), floating disembodied fingers writing on walls (Dan. 5:5), and a dozen baskets of leftover food (John 6:13). Such examples are all undeniably supernatural events. Miracles supersede natural law in that they cannot be explained by natural phenomena. Additionally, miracles teach an underlying truth in that they are designed to elicit
a faith response (e.g. Heb. 2:3-4). For instance, when Jesus healed a paralytic, He explained the reason why was so that we “may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10).

Consider an example of how God’s providence is different than God’s miracles. First, note that when Mary was still a virgin she
“was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-37) – a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa 7:14). Mary’s conception while still a virgin cannot be explained naturally, thus it
was a miracle. On the other hand, Hannah, of the Old Testament, was unable to conceive because her womb had been “closed” (1 Sam. 1:6). Yet she “prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (1 Sam. 1:10), promising the Lord that she would dedicate her son to His service if He would bless her with a son. God “remembered her,” and her husband “knew Hannah his wife,” and she “conceived and bore a son” (1 Sam. 1:19-20). Clearly, Hannah’s conception can be explained by natural phenomena, whereas Mary’s conception can only be a miracle.

Fourth, God’s providence is not usually easily discernable.

Without the Bible specifically telling us that God is at work in the world, we would not know anything about God’s providence. Even now, we may suspect that God is working providentially in our lives,
but we may not be able to prove it. Mordecai was unsure whether God was using Esther to save the lives of the Jews, so he remarked, “Who knows whether you have not come to
the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14). The apostle Paul, unsure whether God orchestrated his meeting with the runaway
slave Onesimus, said in his letter to Onesimus’ master, Philemon, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever” (Phile. 15). If an inspired apostle was reluctant to claim something was an act of providence, we should be just as reluctant today. We know that God is at work behind the scenes (cf. Rom. 8:28), but we are frequently unaware of how, or even if, He is operating in a given circumstance.

An excerpt from my newest book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

Get Your Copy Here

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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Jesus Died to End Abortion & Racism

My heart is heavy this week. I can’t rid my mind of the news of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this week, with more rumored to come in other places of the country, nor can I get over a recent report that Iceland is aborting virtually 100% of babies with Down syndrome.

I don’t always understand why God has not yet ended this cruel world. I suppose there is still at least one more soul He knows will obey the gospel before He closes the door to eternity (2 Pet. 3:9).

But be sure of this: the racism in Charlottesville and murder in Iceland are not separate unrelated stories. Both of them are blood matters – and in several ways.

Jesus gave His blood to fix and forgive the wickedness that is behind both baby murder and racism. He sacrificed Himself to save all human beings – all fellow image bearers of God (Gen. 1:26-27) – all descendants of Adam (Acts 17:26) – so God & humanity, black & white, mother & fetus could be reconciled.

We cannot overstate the seriousness of hatred that so often manifests itself behind racism and abortion. To declare that one human being (perhaps due to his or her skin color, health, age, intelligence, or wallet) is somehow of more value than another human being is a cosmic sin against the God of the universe.

Rid your soul of this hate. Racism and abortion will damn your soul for eternity and make you personally responsible for the blood of Jesus.

Practices that Rob Humanity of Value

Hate, by definition, is hostility toward a fellow human being. Thus, several common practices today demonstrate hatred to our fellow man.

Abortion

Abortion suggests that the value of human life is determined by convenience or quality of life. Our culture actually tells women who unintentionally become pregnant that abortion is actually a “loving” thing to do. How sick. They say that it spares a child of the misery of being born into a home where he/she is not wanted or into a life that might be difficult. Abortion causes us to believe that human beings are disposable like trash and can be destroyed without remorse, consequence, or punishment.

Euthanasia

This fancy word literally means “good death.” The Bible only speaks of those who “die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13) as having a “good death.” The term euthanasia, however, describes ending someone’s life in order to prevent pain and/or difficult circumstances. Each year, we hear another heartbreaking story of someone assisting another human commit suicide due to some impending illness or decreased quality of life. While these circumstances are difficult to bear, our efforts must be on easing the pain and suffering, not hastening death.

From the beginning, there have only been very limited circumstances under which man can end another person’s life. Genesis 9:6 declares, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Whether it be suicide or assisted suicide, man has no right to play God and decide for themselves when death should come simply on the basis of the quality of life.

Racism

Racism, fundamentally, is the disregard of human life. It leads us to believe that there are some people (conveniently those who happen to be like us) who are of greater value than others. With great shame, I regret the fact that many generations ago in my family there were slave-owners. To classify some human beings as creatures made in the image of God and others as nothing more than animals is a great, great sin.

Pornography

Abortion and euthanasia always follow in the wake of a culture that accepts pornography as a part of life. Pornography not only facilitates violating Jesus’ condemnation of lust (Matt. 5:27-30) and immodesty (1 Tim. 2:9), but it leads its viewers to see other human beings as nothing more than flesh and bones. When people begin looking at others as mere images for self-gratification, it is not a large leap to begin believing that life is of so little value that it can be abused and taken at will.

Conclusion

You cannot be a Christian while also diminishing the value of human life – in any way. Let us be convicted by the fact that God wants to save all men. Let us always have a clear, unanimous voice in declaring that all lives have value.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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When “Book, Chapter, Verse” Becomes A Bad Thing

Few Bible characters take as much of a beating from our pulpits today as the Pharisees. It seems everyone wants his turn in taking a swipe at them. To be labeled a modern-day “Pharisee” is considered one of the worst things you could be called. We almost can’t even utter the name “Pharisee” without scowling.

Jesus was pretty severe with them too, calling them “hypocrites” (Mark 7:6), “sons of the devil” (John 8:44), and “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). He pointed at them when raising the standard of righteousness for His followers: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

The Pharisees loved to debate the technicalities of the Law of Moses. They were so preoccupied with hair-splitting that they lost sight of the spirit behind the law. Thus, Jesus rebuked them:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt. 23:23)

Jesus did not discount the importance of observing the “minor” details (are any of God’s commandments small matters?). He did, however, criticize the Pharisees for forgetting the foundational principles upon which the law was built.

The Pharisees were commended for their meticulous keeping of the law and the prophets (Matt. 23:2-3, 23). Like them, we too must care about the details (Isa. 42:21; John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). However, while the Pharisees diligently studied the Scriptures and knew lots of facts (John 5:39), they “did not have the love of God within them” (John 5:42). They reduced the law of Moses, with its 613 commandments, to a cold, legal document with loopholes to be exploited.

They saw the absence of specific commands in Scripture as permission. “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to hate my brother; it only says I can’t kill him” (Matt. 5:21). “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to lust after a woman; it only says I can’t commit fornication with her” (Matt. 5:27). “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to divorce my spouse; it only says I have to do it through the proper legal channels” (Matt. 5:31). “The law says my oaths should be made in the name of God, therefore it must be okay to lie if I’m not under oath” (Matt. 5:33).

The Pharisees totally missed the point of God’s law.

Just like the Pharisees, many people today point to the absence of specific commands in the Bible as permission. “The Bible doesn’t say I have to go to every church service.” “The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin to gamble.” “The Bible doesn’t say how long my shorts have to be or how loose my jeans have to fit.” These are the words Pharisees utter. Such statements demonstrate a failure to see the foundational principles behind God’s law.

The Pharisees weren’t wrong for keeping the law. They were wrong for being hypocrites about it – claiming to be God’s people when their hearts were anything but (Matt. 15:8). How ugly it is when we pretend to care about keeping God’s law when we’re really just longing for license.

After listing several specific sins that will keep someone out of heaven, the apostle Paul concludes the list with the words, “and things like these” (Gal. 5:21). In other words, “You’re smart enough to know what kinds of things disappoint God, even if they aren’t directly stated in Scripture.” God doesn’t want us to limit our faith to “book, chapter, verse.” He wants us to go deeper.

Woe to Christians if we ever stop caring about the explicit and implicit commands of the Bible. We should demand “book, chapter, verse” preaching and continue trying to be “people of the Book.” But true people of the Book don’t always need “book, chapter, verse” to know what displeases God. The Bible doesn’t stop with a period at the end of the book of Revelation. It must go on to change us into holier, righteous people – people who obey God’s Spirit (not just His letter) because we love Him (1 Cor. 13:1-3; John 14:24).

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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When “Book, Chapter, Verse” Becomes A Bad Thing

Few Bible characters take as much of a beating from our pulpits today as the Pharisees. It seems everyone wants his turn in taking a swipe at them. To be labeled a modern-day “Pharisee” is considered one of the worst things you could be called. We almost can’t even utter the name “Pharisee” without scowling.

Jesus was pretty severe with them too, calling them “hypocrites” (Mark 7:6), “sons of the devil” (John 8:44), and “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). He pointed at them when raising the standard of righteousness for His followers: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

The Pharisees loved to debate the technicalities of the Law of Moses. They were so preoccupied with hair-splitting that they lost sight of the spirit behind the law. Thus, Jesus rebuked them:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt. 23:23)

Jesus did not discount the importance of observing the “minor” details (are any of God’s commandments small matters?). He did, however, criticize the Pharisees for forgetting the foundational principles upon which the law was built.

The Pharisees were commended for their meticulous keeping of the law and the prophets (Matt. 23:2-3, 23). Like them, we too must care about the details (Isa. 42:21; John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). However, while the Pharisees diligently studied the Scriptures and knew lots of facts (John 5:39), they “did not have the love of God within them” (John 5:42). They reduced the law of Moses, with its 613 commandments, to a cold, legal document with loopholes to be exploited.

They saw the absence of specific commands in Scripture as permission. “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to hate my brother; it only says I can’t kill him” (Matt. 5:21). “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to lust after a woman; it only says I can’t commit fornication with her” (Matt. 5:27). “The law doesn’t say it’s wrong to divorce my spouse; it only says I have to do it through the proper legal channels” (Matt. 5:31). “The law says my oaths should be made in the name of God, therefore it must be okay to lie if I’m not under oath” (Matt. 5:33).

The Pharisees totally missed the point of God’s law.

Just like the Pharisees, many people today point to the absence of specific commands in the Bible as permission. “The Bible doesn’t say I have to go to every church service.” “The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin to gamble.” “The Bible doesn’t say how long my shorts have to be or how loose my jeans have to fit.” These are the words Pharisees utter. Such statements demonstrate a failure to see the foundational principles behind God’s law.

The Pharisees weren’t wrong for keeping the law. They were wrong for being hypocrites about it – claiming to be God’s people when their hearts were anything but (Matt. 15:8).

After listing several specific sins that will keep someone out of heaven, the apostle Paul concludes the list with the words, “and things like these” (Gal. 5:21). In other words, “You’re smart enough to know what kinds of things disappoint God, even if they aren’t directly stated in Scripture.” God doesn’t want us to limit our faith to “book, chapter, verse.” He wants us to go deeper.

Woe to Christians if we ever stop caring about the explicit and implicit commands of the Bible. We should demand “book, chapter, verse” preaching and continue trying to be “people of the Book.” But true people of the Book don’t always need “book, chapter, verse” to know what displeases God. The Bible doesn’t stop with a period at the end of the book of Revelation. It must go on to change us into holier, righteous people – people who obey God’s Spirit (not just His letter) because we love Him (1 Cor. 13:1-3; John 14:24).

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Jesus Died to End Abortion & Racism

My heart is heavy this week. I can’t rid my mind of the news of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this week, with more rumored to come in other places of the country, nor can I get over a recent report that Iceland is aborting virtually 100% of babies with Down syndrome.

I don’t always understand why God has not yet ended this cruel world. I suppose there is still at least one more soul He knows will obey the gospel before He closes the door to eternity (2 Pet. 3:9).

But be sure of this: the racism in Charlottesville and murder in Iceland are not separate unrelated stories. Both of them are blood matters – and in several ways.

Jesus gave His blood to fix and forgive the wickedness that is behind both baby murder and racism. He sacrificed Himself to save all human beings – all fellow image bearers of God (Gen. 1:26-27) – all descendants of Adam (Acts 17:26) – so God & humanity, black & white, mother & fetus could be reconciled.

We cannot overstate the seriousness of hatred that so often manifests itself behind racism and abortion. To declare that one human being (perhaps due to his or her skin color, health, age, intelligence, or wallet) is somehow of more value than another human being is a cosmic sin against the God of the universe.

Rid your soul of this hate. Racism and abortion will damn your soul for eternity and make you personally responsible for the blood of Jesus.

Practices that Rob Humanity of Value

Hate, by definition, is hostility toward a fellow human being. Thus, several common practices today demonstrate hatred to our fellow man.

Abortion

Abortion suggests that the value of human life is determined by convenience or quality of life. Our culture actually tells women who unintentionally become pregnant that abortion is actually a “loving” thing to do. How sick. They say that it spares a child of the misery of being born into a home where he/she is not wanted or into a life that might be difficult. Abortion causes us to believe that human beings are disposable like trash and can be destroyed without remorse, consequence, or punishment.

Euthanasia

This fancy word literally means “good death.” The Bible only speaks of those who “die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13) as having a “good death.” The term euthanasia, however, describes ending someone’s life in order to prevent pain and/or difficult circumstances. Each year, we hear another heartbreaking story of someone assisting another human commit suicide due to some impending illness or decreased quality of life. While these circumstances are difficult to bear, our efforts must be on easing the pain and suffering, not hastening death.

From the beginning, there have only been very limited circumstances under which man can end another person’s life. Genesis 9:6 declares, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Whether it be suicide or assisted suicide, man has no right to play God and decide for themselves when death should come simply on the basis of the quality of life.

Racism

Racism, fundamentally, is the disregard of human life. It leads us to believe that there are some people (conveniently those who happen to be like us) who are of greater value than others. With great shame, I regret the fact that many generations ago in my family there were slave-owners. To classify some human beings as creatures made in the image of God and others as nothing more than animals is a great, great sin.

Pornography

Abortion and euthanasia always follow in the wake of a culture that accepts pornography as a part of life. Pornography not only facilitates violating Jesus’ condemnation of lust (Matt. 5:27-30) and immodesty (1 Tim. 2:9), but it leads its viewers to see other human beings as nothing more than flesh and bones. When people begin looking at others as mere images for self-gratification, it is not a large leap to begin believing that life is of so little value that it can be abused and taken at will.

Conclusion

You cannot be a Christian while also diminishing the value of human life – in any way. Let us be convicted by the fact that God wants to save all men. Let us always have a clear, unanimous voice in declaring that all lives have value.

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A Crash Course on God’s Providence

There’s some confusion about God’s providence. To be frank, I don’t quite understand it that well myself. That is not to say, however, that the Bible doesn’t lay out some parameters in our understanding of providence. However we understand God’s providence, we need to make sure it is in harmony with God’s Word. Consider the following principles regarding God’s providence.

First, God will never providentially operate in a way that is contrary to His nature or His Word.

God is holy (Lev. 19:2) and righteous (Psa. 145:17), and therefore will not providentially operate in a way that is inconsistent with His being. While God may manipulate nature and orchestrate events, He will never tempt people to do evil
(Jas. 1:13-14).

Second, God will never providentially operate in a way that violates man’s freedom of choice.

Contrary to the teachings of Calvin, Augustine, and Zwingli (all of whom taught that mankind is unable
to choose righteousness without being forced to do so by God), the Bible teaches that man is free to choose whether to obey or disobey God (cf. Josh. 24:15; Matt. 23:37; John 5:39-40; Rev. 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19; 22:17). Therefore, God will not force someone to choose to do right or wrong. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35) and will not nebulously ordain that some obey Him while coercing others to disobey Him. He can, however, override the outcome of someone’s evil decision and use it for good.

For example, God used the murderous intentions of Joseph’s brothers to deliver Israel (Gen. 50:19-20). God used the greedy slave owners who threw Paul and Silas in prison to bring the gospel to that region (1 Thess. 2:1-2). God orchestrated the cowardly, corrupt Pilate, the evil Jewish leaders, and the crooked Judas to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus, resulting in the gift of salvation to the whole world (Acts 5:30-31). God used the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 to cause a widespread dispersion of Christians into the world to further spread the gospel (Acts 8:1).

Third, God’s providence must be distinguished from God’s miracles.

God’s miracles (a) are observable and quantifiable, (b) supersede natural law, and (c) teach an underlying truth. God’s providence, on the other hand, does not fit into any of these categories. Miracles are observable and quantifiable in that they can be seen and distinguished from natural events, such as a resurrection from the dead (John 11:43-44), floating disembodied fingers writing on walls (Dan. 5:5), and a dozen baskets of leftover food (John 6:13). Such examples are all undeniably supernatural events. Miracles supersede natural law in that they cannot be explained by natural phenomena. Additionally, miracles teach an underlying truth in that they are designed to elicit
a faith response (e.g. Heb. 2:3-4). For instance, when Jesus healed a paralytic, He explained the reason why was so that we “may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10).

Consider an example of how God’s providence is different than God’s miracles. First, note that when Mary was still a virgin she
“was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-37) – a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa 7:14). Mary’s conception while still a virgin cannot be explained naturally, thus it
was a miracle. On the other hand, Hannah, of the Old Testament, was unable to conceive because her womb had been “closed” (1 Sam. 1:6). Yet she “prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly” (1 Sam. 1:10), promising the Lord that she would dedicate her son to His service if He would bless her with a son. God “remembered her,” and her husband “knew Hannah his wife,” and she “conceived and bore a son” (1 Sam. 1:19-20). Clearly, Hannah’s conception can be explained by natural phenomena, whereas Mary’s conception can only be a miracle.

Fourth, God’s providence is not usually easily discernable.

Without the Bible specifically telling us that God is at work in the world, we would not know anything about God’s providence. Even now, we may suspect that God is working providentially in our lives,
but we may not be able to prove it. Mordecai was unsure whether God was using Esther to save the lives of the Jews, so he remarked, “Who knows whether you have not come to
the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14). The apostle Paul, unsure whether God orchestrated his meeting with the runaway
slave Onesimus, said in his letter to Onesimus’ master, Philemon, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever” (Phile. 15). If an inspired apostle was reluctant to claim something was an act of providence, we should be just as reluctant today. We know that God is at work behind the scenes (cf. Rom. 8:28), but we are frequently unaware of how, or even if, He is operating in a given circumstance.

An excerpt from my newest book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

Get Your Copy Here

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A Tale of Two Gods: How Calvinism’s God & the Bible’s God are Two Very Different Gods

One very popular denominational preacher and writer, John Piper, is famous for saying that “all things” – even down to the subatomic level – “are ordained, guided, and governed” by God.[1] The idea that God determines everything can be traced back to Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century and is particularly popular among a branch of Protestantism known as Reformed theology.

Reformed theology, more commonly known as Calvinism[2] (we will use these words interchangeably), is a religious philosophy that follows the teachings of John Calvin and other Protestant theologians from the Reformation era. It is should be noted that Reformed theology, or Calvinism, is experiencing a resurgence in America today. So popular is Reformed theology that any Christian who reads relatively conservative denominational literature is well acquainted famous Calvinistic authors. Understandably, younger preachers thirsty for truth tend to be particularly fond of their writings because of their often passionate, yet conservative, approach to many Biblical issues. (And as a result, their Calvinistic influences sometimes unknowingly creep into the young preacher’s respective pulpit.)

The reason it is important to examine Calvinism as it relates to this study is because Reformed theology has traditionally emphasized God’s sovereignty and predestination over everything else. In fact, the idea of the sovereignty of God is the basis of Calvinism itself. Reformed theologians take great pride in the lofty ways in which they talk about God. Ben Warburton writes, “The one rock upon which Calvinism builds is that of the absolute and unlimited sovereignty of the eternal and self-existent Jehovah.”[3]

But herein lies the problem: The sovereign God of the Bible and the sovereign God of Calvinism are two very different Gods. Calvinists have redefined the meaning of the word sovereignty. To the Bible-believing Christian, sovereignty simply means God’s ability and right to rule the world (chapter 5 of You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God). However, to the devoted Calvinist, sovereignty means “divine determinism.” Divine determinism is the belief that God determines, causes, and orchestrates everything in history according to His preconceived plan, including sin and evil.

Calvinists erroneously believe that God is the reason for sin, since – according to Calvinism – “sovereignty” is somehow synonymous with “total control.” Thus, they create a false dichotomy,[4] claiming that if God is sovereign, He must orchestrate and control everything that ever happens – and if He does not control everything, He supposedly cannot be sovereign. Arthur Pink, a famous Calvinist, writes, “Only two alternatives are possible: God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His own Will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”[5] In the words of Jack Cottrell, Calvinists “equate sovereignty with causation, and say that the only way for God to be sovereign is if He is the sole, ultimate cause or originator of everything that takes place, including events in the natural world as well as human decisions.” Consequently, Cottrell continues, “there is no truly free will”[6] for mankind in the Calvinist worldview.

As a result, according to Calvinism, if someone commits a horrible atrocity, it is ultimately because God must have willed it to happen in the first place. Edwin Palmer, a well-known Calvinist, said it bluntly: God “has foreordained everything […] – even sin.”[7] How horrifying a thought. R.C. Sproul Jr., another leading Calvinist today, terrifyingly said, “God in some sense desired that man would fall into sin […] He created sin.”[8] Chilling, right?

Just as egregious is the Calvinistic idea that God subjectively causes individuals to have faith. To the Calvinist, the words “I have personal faith in Christ Jesus” have no real meaning because God is supposedly the cause of all things. To the Calvinist, you cannot choose to have faith; God must put it in you. According to the Synod of Dort,[9] God chooses who will believe in Him and who will not.[10] This, of course, makes the words of Jesus powerless: “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Why? Because you can’t “believe in Him” without God causing you to believe in Him! To call this cruel would be an understatement. It is like dangling crutches at the top of the stairs, saying to a paraplegic below, “Come and get them!”

Historically, Christians have distinguished between God’s sovereignty de jure and de facto. De jure is a Latin word which in this context refers to God’s right to rule; De facto is a Latin word which in this context refers to God’s meticulous control over all events. Ardent Calvinists see this distinction as a mere formality; they believe God is both sovereign de jure and de facto all the time. Yet, New Testament Christians have always acknowledged that God is always sovereign de jure and chooses to limit His sovereignty de facto. In other words, God has the ability to meticulously control everything, but in His wisdom and love for mankind, He has chosen not to determine everything yet.

We find the distinction between God’s sovereignty de jure and de facto when Christ taught His disciples to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). If God is already micro-managing every detail of history, why would anyone need to pray for God’s will to be done on earth? If God is sovereign de facto, it would already be done.

Any honest observer must acknowledge that the Bible is permeated with the implication that God has given men the choice to serve Him. We could fill this book with examples of God giving mankind the freedom of choice. How otherwise could God extend His kindness if people are unable to choose repentance (Rom. 2:4)? How otherwise can we be commanded to “grow in the grace” of the Lord Jesus Christ if are unable to choose to do so (2 Pet. 3:18)? Why would Joshua tell the Israelites to choose whom they would serve if they could not actually choose (Josh. 24:15)? How could God not “show partiality” if He individually chooses on whom to force faith (Acts 10:34)? How calloused is God if He “commands all men everywhere to repent” if they are unable to repent (Acts 17:30)?

The Bible does, in fact, teach that God is sovereign, but it certainly does not teach that God determines mankind’s decisions and preordains mankind’s actions. Let’s be very clear: You can be entirely dedicated to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty while simultaneously being absolutely sure of mankind’s free choice.

An excerpt from my upcoming book, You Are A Theologian: Thinking Right About God.

This is another volume in the You Are A Theologian book series. Thinking Right About God challenges readers to think more Biblically about God’s attributes, His triune nature, and His sovereignty. Like the first book in this series, it is ideal for a broad range of applications: personal study, small group discussions, and college/young adult/adult Bible class curriculum.

Coming August 2017

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Sources
[1] John Piper, “Confronting The Problem Of Evil,” DesiringGod.org

[2] Calvinism, also known as Reformed theology, is basically the body of religious teachings and traditions started by John Calvin (1509 – 1564 A.D.) and other Reformation-era theologians such as Ulrich Zwingli and Jonathan Edwards. Calvinism can be summarized in five false religious ideas: (1) Total Depravity (babies are born guilty of the sin of their parents), Unconditional Election (God arbitrarily chooses – independent of any known standard – who will be eternally saved and who will be eternally damned), Limited Atonement (Christ did not die for everyone), Irresistible Grace (you do not have a choice as to whether or not you will obey the gospel), Perseverance of the Saints (it is impossible for a Christian to rebel against God).
[3] Ben A. Warburton, Calvinism, p. 63
[4] A dichotomy (pronounced “die-kot-uh-mee”) is the division of two mutually exclusive things or ideas. Thus, a false dichotomy is the division of two things or ideas that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, it is a false dichotomy to say, “You either like bacon or sausage.” Why? Because real men like both bacon and sausage.
[5] Arthur Pink, The Sovereignty Of God, p. 14
[6] Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once For All, p. 81
[7] Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points Of Calvinism, p. 25, emp. added.
[8] R.C. Sproul Jr., Almighty Over All, p. 53
[9] The Synod of Dort was a very important meeting in denominational history ultimately deciding the future of Calvinism. It was held between the years 1618-1619 in the town of Dordrecht (“Dort”) in the Netherlands. The Synod of Dort was held to silence honest, Scriptural challenges to Calvinism, and at its conclusion, the traditional five points of Calvinism were formalized, namely: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.
[10] See Article XIV of The Articles Of The Canons of Dort (1619). “Faith is the gift of God; not in that it is offered to the will of man by God, but that the thing itself is conferred on him, inspired, infused into him. Not even that God only confers the power of believing, but from thence expects the consent, or the act of believing: but that He, who worketh both to will and to do, worketh in man both to will to believe, and to believe itself, […] and thus He worketh all things in all.” (Translated By Thomas Scott, p. 301).