Why December 25th?

With this post we are fully into the advent season. The day many of us celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is fast approaching.  And yet, have you ever wondered why we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th?  Do we really know the exact day?  Perhaps even in the darker corners of your mind you may be thinking, “If we don’t know, and if the Bible doesn’t say anything about the early church honoring this event, should we even be celebrating Christmas?”

Historians present two possible theories as to why early Christendom celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25th: the Christianizing of the pagan festival of Saturnalia, or the linking of Christ’s death on the 14th day of Nisan to his conception on the same day, an exact number of years earlier.

The most loudly touted theory was that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. (1)

The trouble with this theory is that early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church.  It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. (2)

There are problems with this popular theory.  Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.  In the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E. (1)

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion.  The second theory proposes the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25 (1)

Of course, this dating assumes an exact 9-month gestation period, which we know can vary from 36 – 40 weeks for a healthy birth.  It also assumes Jesus lived a complete number of years (no fraction of a year) with the virgin conception on the same day as Jesus’ death.  Not impossible, but not probable, and certainly nothing in early historical writing that proves it.

So, in the final analysis, we really don’t know the day Jesus Christ was born.

But what of the Bible?  Surely the celebration of Jesus’ birth is mentioned as part of its accounting of the early church, in Acts or the epistles.

Actually, it’s not.

The celebration of Jesus’ birth is not specifically mentioned as something we should or must do.  Nor does the Bible specifically mention that it is something we are prohibited from doing.  So which is it?  Actually, there’s a third category: those things that we are permitted to do.

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor…. So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  1 Cor 10:23-24, 31-33 (ESV)

The key is our motivation.  Are we celebrating Christmas to build up ourselves?  Or to build up others and to glorify God?  Are you giving gifts to get some in return?  Or are you giving gifts to show the appreciation you have for others that God has placed in your life AND to point toward Jesus, the greatest gift God could ever bestow on His children?  Are you hosting a party to improve your standing among a group of people?  Or are you hosting an event to bless those around you, perhaps even those less fortunate, AND to point to Jesus, our Bread and Water of Life, a life that he gives in abundance?

So celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, as when most do, but with the right motivation.  Just because we don’t know the exact day of Jesus’ physical birth does not change the fact that he was born.  There’s plenty in the Old and New Testament that attest to this fact.  Not only this, we know He lived a sinless life, died, was buried, and rose again, not only to pay our sin debt, but to impart righteousness.  What a wonderful time of the year, in your giving and in your hospitality, to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ!

Merry Christmas!

(1) McGowan, Andrew (2014-08-12). How December 25 Became Christmas. Bible History Daily – Biblical Archaeology Society. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/  Accessed 17 December 2014

(2) A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.

Posted in Apologetics, Christian Living, History | Comments Off on Why December 25th?

Salvation and God’s Will

I sometimes wonder if God is pleased with the way things are going. With all that is happening in the world it seems like he must be quite frustrated. Things started off so well in the Garden of Eden but went downhill quickly. He started over with Noah but that didn’t work out. Next he called out a people to be his own but, again, things went awry. Finally, God offered up his Son to provide salvation for the world (John 3:16). Second Peter 3:9 says God did this because he does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance. God wants everyone to be saved, but, alas, as before, man’s pesky free will keeps frustrating God’s wishes. Fortunately some do agree to take God up on his offer of salvation. At least Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross wasn’t for nothing. There are some of us humble enough to admit that we are sinners in need of a savior. In the end, though, God’s will that everyone be saved is held hostage by man’s sovereign will. God can only do so much. He was required to give man free will concerning salvation (and everything else) so we would not just be puppets in his hand. If we were puppets our love for him would not be genuine. Also, since God is omniscient he knew there would be those who would accept his offer of salvation so he chose them to be his. Even though he wants everyone to be saved, he really only wants those who want him. So God’s will that everyone be saved is subject to man’s willingness to accept his offer of salvation.

Is this really the description of God’s will concerning salvation that we find in the Bible, especially 2 Peter 3:9? I submit the above description of God and salvation contains serious errors. What does 2 Peter 3:9 say about God’s will and salvation? In order to consider this we must briefly examine God’s will in general. God has one will but typically theologians distinguish between two aspects of God’s will, his will of decree (decretive or hidden will) and his will of precept or disposition (preceptive or revealed will). Deuteronomy 29:29 says,

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 ESV)

Here we see God’s will distinguished between the “secret things” (decretive will) and “the things that are revealed” (preceptive will). Note that God’s preceptive will flows from his decretive will since God decrees that he will give us his law (or precepts, what he desires or is pleasing to him). Thus, God has only one will. What God decrees (his decretive will) necessarily happens. As Job said,

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2 ESV)

Or as God says through Isaiah,

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isaiah 46:8-11 ESV)

Or as Balaam said to Balak,

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19 ESV)

After Nebuchadnezzar experienced God’s judgment he proclaimed,

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35 ESV)

The psalmist declared,

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3 ESV)

Paul told the Ephesians,

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11 ESV)

Clearly God will accomplish what he intends to accomplish (what he decrees). His decretive will is never thwarted. But what about God’s preceptive will? God gives us his law (what is pleasing to him) but we certainly fall very short of the law he has given us. This is why Romans 12:2 says we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that by testing we can discern God’s (preceptive) will, what is good, acceptable, and perfect. Other than what is revealed in Scripture, we cannot discern God’s decretive will since most of what God decrees falls under the “secret things” of Deuteronomy 29:29.

How do these two aspects of God’s will relate? Sam Storms puts it this way,

God’s decretive will refers to the secret, all-encompassing divine purpose according to which he foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. His preceptive will refers to the commands and prohibitions in Scripture. One must reckon with the fact that God may decree what he has forbidden. That is to say, his decretive will may have ordained that event x shall occur, whereas Scripture, God’s preceptive will, orders that event x should not occur.[1]

And John Frame says, “God does not intend to bring about everything he values, but he never fails to bring about what he intends.”[2]

For example, God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt. This was God’s command to Pharaoh, his preceptive will if you please. However, God decreed that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites leave. Consider Exodus 4:21-23.

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:21-23 ESV)

The Lord told Moses to go to Pharaoh, perform the miracles, and warn Pharaoh God would kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if Pharaoh did not let God’s firstborn, Israel, go. Even though God’s preceptive will for Pharaoh was that Pharaoh let Israel leave, God’s decretive will had determined that Pharaoh would not let Israel leave. The Lord said to Moses in Exodus 9:16 (which Paul quotes in Romans 9:17 to demonstrate God’s sovereignty in showing mercy and in hardening),

But for this purpose I have raised you (Pharaoh) up, to show you my power, so that my name (the Lord) may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16 ESV)

Peter gives the most dramatic example of God’s decretive will and preceptive will in his Pentecost sermon.

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23 ESV)

The Jews and the Romans violated God’s preceptive will, that is, they sinned by crucifying Jesus (and they were responsible for their sin). However, God decreed they would do this in order to accomplish his purposes. (See this post for a short discussion of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.)

How does all this relate to the claim in 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not desire (or will) that any should perish and that all should repent? Is this will referred to in 2 Peter 3:9 God’s decretive will or his preceptive will? It should come as no surprise that opinion is divided over this question. Which aspect of God’s will is applicable depends on the words any and all in the last part of the verse.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9 ESV)

If any and all refer to every single person then clearly the aspect of God’s will referred to by wishing (wanting – NIV, willing – KJV, NKJV) cannot be God’s decretive will. If God decreed that every single person be saved, every single person would be saved. The willing or wishing here must refer to God’s preceptive will. So, to put in John Frame’s terms, God values the salvation of everyone but does not intend the salvation of everyone. (Again, if God intended the salvation of everyone, everyone would be saved.) We see this in other places in Scripture.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 ESV)

Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV)

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23:37 ESV)

God takes pleasure in repentance and does not take pleasure in seeing an unrepentant person die. He desires repentance, and as Acts 17:30 says, he commands all people everywhere to repent (preceptive will). However, as 2 Timothy 2:25 says, God must grant repentance.

On the other hand, what if any and all are restricted by the context of the verse? That is, they do not refer to every single person. If that is the case, then wishing would refer to God’s decretive will. Typically, when someone refers to 2 Peter 3:9 they only quote the last part of the verse, the part about God not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance. No context is considered, but the context is critical. The chapter concerns the return of Jesus in judgment. People scoff at the idea of Jesus’s return since things are continuing on as they always have, but Peter reminds the scoffers that the same word that created everything will destroy everything. Then Peter says in verse 8 through 10,

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:8-10 ESV)

The Lord does not count time as we count time. What seems slow to us is purposeful delay for the Lord. The Lord is patient. But take notice that the Lord is patient toward you. There is a specific object of his patience. Who is this you with which the Lord is patient? Notice in verse 8 Peter is writing to the beloved. Also, note the larger context of the recipients of the letter.

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:1 ESV)

Peter is writing to those who belong to Jesus. So in verse 9 of chapter 3 when Peter says the Lord is patient toward you, he is saying the Lord is patient toward his people. When Peter continues on by saying “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” the context requires we understand he is speaking of God’s people, the elect. Thus, the sense is “not wishing that any (of you) should perish, but that all (of you) should reach repentance.” God is delaying the “day of the Lord” (verse 10) so all of his elect will be saved. This lines up exactly with what Jesus says in John’s Gospel concerning God’s plan and purpose for his people.

What does John’s Gospel say regarding God’s intention for his people? First, the Father wills (decrees) to give his people to the Son. In John 6:37 and John 17:6 we see the Father gives a people to Jesus, and John 6:37 says those people will (not might) come to him.

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:37 ESV)

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (John 17:6 ESV)

Second, the Father wills the Son die for his people.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11 ESV)

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:14-15 ESV)

Third, the Father wills the Son not lose a single one of his people and ultimately raise them from the dead.

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:38-39 ESV)

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44 ESV)

In John 10:16 Jesus says because he already has other sheep (the Gentiles) he must bring them as well.

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16 ESV)

Jesus does not say once he brings the sheep they will be his, but he must bring them because they are already his. So the Father has decreed the Son will redeem every single person the Father has chosen, keep every single person the Father has chosen, and glorify every single person the Father has chosen.

God’s purpose regarding his elect will be accomplished. Thus, in 2 Peter 3:9, the Lord is patient because it is his (decretive) will that every single one of his elect will not perish but come to repentance.

I believe God’s wishing in 2 Peter 3:9 is God’s decretive will but even if it is God’s preceptive will, the Bible does not allow the idea that God is waiting and hoping that some will be saved but he really has no control over who is saved. God has decreed the salvation of his elect and none will be lost. He is never frustrated.

[1] Sam Storms, Chosen for Life, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 131.

[2] John Frame as quoted in Sam Storms, “Chosen for Life,” in John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001), 113.

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Precise Righteousness

Have you ever noticed how often precision is required? For example, phone numbers in the United States consist of 10 digits. To call or text a particular person you must have those 10 digits, and you must have exactly 10 digits. Eleven will not work. Nine will not work. Also, not only must you have the correct 10 digits, you must enter them in the correct order. If you have ever developed a computer application you know the necessity for precision. Software “bugs” are due to lack of precision. When you fly in an airplane you want the pilot to land precisely on the runway. Landing close to the runway or too far down the runway just won’t do. Remember Asiana Airlines flight 214 that crashed in San Francisco in July of 2013? The airplane came in too low and the wheels struck the seawall. The pilot was not precise. We want the walls square in our home, and we want other drivers to stay in their lane. Precision is many times taken for granted until lack of attention to detail causes a problem or a tragedy.

Even though precision is often a necessity we love generalities. Precision holds us accountable, generalities do not. This is why we love a general, amorphous god. We can shape an undefined god into whatever we want it to be. Typically this god thinks and acts much like we think and act. The gods we make up are very different from the true and living God.

  1. A general benevolent deity does not claim to be unique and discredit all other so-called gods, but the true and living God does.

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22 ESV)

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. (Isaiah 46:8-9 ESV)

  1. A general benevolent deity does not claim holiness or perfection, but the true and living God does.

The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV)

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV)

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18 ESV)

  1. A general benevolent deity does not proclaim everyone evil and unrighteous, but the true and living God does.

None is righteous, no, not one. (Romans 3:10b ESV)

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23 ESV)

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. (Isaiah 64:6a ESV)

  1. A general benevolent deity holds no one accountable, but the true and living God does.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV)

So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12 ESV)

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12 ESV)

  1. A general benevolent deity does not offer only one way to come to him, but the true and living God does.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV)

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12 ESV)

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2:5 ESV)

The true and living God is unique, holy, righteous, and keeps account. He has every right to judge since he sets the standards, and these standards are precise. Generalities will not fly when we stand before the living God. Precision is required. There is no “well that’s good enough” with God. He sees and judges everything.

And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13 ESV)

No wonder we want a general, amorphous God that requires little to nothing of us. Who can be that precise? No one can. The good news is, though, for those who trust in Christ, he removes their imprecision and replaces it with his precise righteousness. In other words Jesus forgives all our trespasses and imputes his perfect righteousness to us. Therefore, when we stand before the true and living God, who does not deal in generalities, we can be assured that, through Christ, we have fulfilled his precise standards. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

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Be a Courageous Calvinist!

Let me begin by putting my cards on the table.  I…am a Calvinist.  Now, if you don’t know what that means, I encourage you to read the excellent and mercifully short book  Five Points by John Piper.  If you already know what a Calvinist is, and you also happen to call yourself a Calvinist, you may have noticed that it’s not always the most comfortable thing to acknowledge that fact.  You see, all too often when we are asked the question, “Are you a Calvinist?” the conversation ends up going something like this…

  • Random person:  “Are you a Calvinist?”
  • You:  “Yes, I am.”
  • Random person:  “Wow!  You actually believe that God is some monster who only chooses a few people to go to heaven and cruelly damns the rest of humanity to hell?!  What kind of person are you?!”
  • You (while the other person walks away from you in disgust):  “What?!  No!  That’s not it at all!  Give me just a second!  I can explain!”

Of course, this isn’t always how it goes.  I mean, every now and then we discover another Calvinist, right?  And so those conversations often sound something like this…

  • Random Calvinist:  “Hey…psst…Are you a Calvinist?”
  • You:  “Yes, I am.”
  • Random Calvinist:  “Shhhhhh!  Keep your voice down!  Someone could hear us!  But FYI, I am, too.”
  • You (now whispering so that no one hears you):  “Sweet!”

Let me just say that it is time to be done with the whispering!   The truth of God’s sovereign grace is nothing to be ashamed of!  Rather, it is supposed to be our only boast and our only source of hope!  So, if you have ever felt a little squeamish about calling yourself a Calvinist, today’s blog is for you!  Today I want to help you become a courageous Calvinist.  To do so, I simply want to remind you of those five glorious and biblical truths…

  1. Total Depravity— Total depravity means that because of the fall, every single person on the planet is sinful and unable to come to faith in Jesus apart from a special and effective work of God’s grace.  And there is absolutely nothing shameful about believing  this truth!  After all, the Bible so clearly teaches this in passages like John 6:44 and Romans 8:7-8.
  2. Unconditional Election—Unconditional election means that God has chosen to save certain people by his own grace apart from any merit or foreseen faith within them.  Again, there is nothing to be ashamed of here.  What could possibly be more beautiful and loving than grace being given to people who haven’t merited it in any way?  This too is clearly taught in passages like Ephesians 1:4-6 and Romans 9:10-16.
  3. Limited Atonement—Limited atonement means that Jesus’ sacrificial death was only for the elect.  In other words, Jesus’ blood did not pay the ransom for people who will eternally reject him.  Now, isn’t it this point that causes so many of us to get a little uncomfortable?  Yet, there is no need.  This truth ought to cause our souls to rejoice that God is not a cruel God who will punish sin twice.  You see, if Jesus’ blood was shed for those who never come to faith in him, and then those same people end up in hell, isn’t God punishing their sin twice?  Wouldn’t God have punished Jesus for their sin, and then also be punishing them in eternity for the very same sin?  This is why the truth of limited atonement is nothing to be ashamed of.  The fact that Jesus’ sacrificial death was only for God’s people proves to us that God is NOT a cruel, unjust God that will make people pay a debt that has already been paid.  So lets worship the Lord for this truth that we see in passages like John 10:11, John 10:25-27, and John 17:6-9.
  4. Irresistible Grace—Irresistible grace means that God’s grace will effectively bring all of his chosen people to faith.  He ensures that they will hear the gospel proclaimed and he gives them ears to hear and hearts to believe the gospel.  Again what is there to be ashamed of in this?  Are we to be ashamed that God is perfectly effective in saving all of his people?  Certainly not!  In fact, truths like this should cause our hearts to soar in worship as we read of them in passages like John 6:37 and John 10:14-16.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints—Perseverance of the saints means that God’s grace causes every single one of his chosen people to remain in the faith.  In other words, you can’t lose your salvation.  Now again I ask, how could this ever be something to be ashamed of?  Is there any truth more comforting than knowing that we are absolutely, one hundred percent safe in the hands of our savior?  We should be comforted and full of gratitude as we celebrate this truth taught in passages like Hebrews 3:14, Philippians 1:6, John 6:37-40, John 10:27-30, and Romans 8:35-39.

So if you’re a Calvinist, be not ashamed!  Be bold!  Stand firm in the sovereign grace that has saved you and will keep you eternally secure!  No need to be an obnoxious Calvinist      ( you all know who you are), but by all means, be a courageous Calvinist.

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Tattoo of the Heart

I just have to put it out there that I do not have any tattoos. Having lived through so many fads I know how something can seem so popular for a while and then in a few years you wonder what was the big deal. I do not know if tattoos are a fad. They are certainly nothing new, but when I was much younger I knew of no one with a tattoo. Now, however, tattoos are very common. Much of the time, when I see a tattoo, I tend to want to know what it is or what it says. What is so important to this person that they will display it on their body until they die? My purpose here is not to discuss or debate whether tattoos are biblical. (I am aware of tattoo debate based on Leviticus 19:28.) If that is not the purpose, then why bring up the topic of tattoos at all? Because God uses people different from me to humble me. None of us like to be humbled, but we know it needs to happen regularly. Lessons in humility can come at any time and in any place.

While I was sitting in the waiting room of an automobile dealership waiting for my vehicle service to be completed, a young man entered and sat down directly in my line of sight. I immediately noticed he had a tattoo on his upper left arm. It was just visible below his shirt sleeve. My first thought was “I bet this guy needs Jesus.” Did I think this because he had a tattoo? To my shame I must admit the tattoo probably played a significant role in that thought. Of course everyone in the waiting room needed Jesus, whether tattooed or not. The issue was this guy was different from me because he had a tattoo. I would never consider getting a tattoo. I know I’m not better than anyone else but my sinful flesh still occasionally passes judgment based on appearances (notwithstanding 1 Samuel 16:7). Fortunately, by God’s sanctifying grace, he has moved me past that in many areas. However, the process will not be complete until I see Jesus face to face. This was another step in that process.

I finally was able to make out the message of the tattoo. It said, “Psalm 25.” Simultaneously there was a sanctifying stab in my heart over my sin and a rejoicing in my heart for the grace God had shown this young man. Did the fact that he had Psalm 25 tattooed on his arm prove he loves Jesus? Of course it didn’t. If the tattoo had not been a Scripture reference would that have proved he was not a Christian? Again, the answer is no. However, I took out my iPad and read that psalm. Once I did, I knew it was highly unlikely an unbeliever would tattoo a reference to that psalm on their arm. So in this public place God privately humbled me. He reminded me again that I had no business getting into his business. Only he can judge the heart. Only he can regenerate a heart and tattoo his name there.

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.

Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!

Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great. Who is the man who fears the LORD? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land. The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant. My eyes are ever toward the LORD,  for he will pluck my feet out of the net.

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.

Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.

Psalm 25 (ESV)

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Abiding in the Vine

I am one of those who have always been in church. My parents took me to church as an infant; I grew up in church, and now that I am over a half century in age I am still in church. By God’s grace I was adopted by Christian parents, and God has given my family and me grace upon grace ever since. However, recognizing that I am who I am by God’s grace has been a bit of a challenge. I grew up with performance-based Christianity. I heard things like

  • Live a victorious Christian life
  • Be a sold (or souled) out Christian
  • Totally surrender (or yield) to Christ
  • Do your best for Jesus
  • Live for Jesus

And we have all seen signs in front of churches that promote our activity.

  • Jesus gave his all, are you giving your all?
  • When you have done all you can, God will do the rest

Every time (which was often) that I heard one of these I would think to myself, “Yes, I do need to live victoriously, be sold out, really surrender, do my best, and live for Jesus.” So my focus was on how to really live for Christ. What do I need to do differently, better, more? If I were living for Christ I would read my Bible more, pray more, and, of course, witness more. Living for Jesus meant being busy with “Jesus” stuff. You do good things for God and he’ll do good things for you.

The Bible, though, does not present a performance-based Christianity. It shows us that our focus should be on what Christ has done for us, not what we do for Christ. This is certainly not to say that what we do is unimportant. We just remember that what we do should flow from what Christ has done. In other words our activity should be gospel driven. Given this, my goal was to determine what the New Testament says about living for Jesus. What I found is that, particularly in the Pauline epistles, the focus is much more on living in Christ rather than living for Christ.

As a part of this I did a very unscientific survey of the New Testament. Using the computer I searched Romans through Revelation for the phrases “for Christ,” “for Jesus,” “for him,” “for the Lord,” and “for God.” I searched the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New International Version (NIV) in order to check both a word for word translation (ESV) and a dynamic equivalence translation (NIV). Excluding verses in which “for” did not mean “on behalf of” there were approximately 10 verses in each version that used these phrases. For example, from the ESV (emphasis added):

  • Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
  • For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles. (Ephesians 3:1)
  • For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Corinthians 4:5)
  • Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Romans 7:4)
  • and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15)
  • For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Philippians 1:29)
  • Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. (Colossians 3:23)

I also searched for the phrases “in Christ,” “in Jesus,” “in him,” “in the Lord,” and “in God.” These phrases yielded approximately 200 verses in each version of the Bible. Again, a few examples from the ESV (emphasis added):

  • So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1)
  • There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
  • Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus (Romans 16:3).
  • Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? (1 Corinthians 9:1)
  • In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:11-13)
  • For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
  • Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 4:1)
  • And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)

I was encouraged to find in places where I might expect to find the word “for” I found the word “in.” For example, in Romans 16:3 Paul calls Prisca and Aquila his fellow workers in Christ Jesus, not his fellow workers for Christ Jesus. Also, in Philippians 4:1 Paul says we should stand firm in the Lord, not stand firm for the Lord. Clearly, when we are in Christ we will work on behalf of Christ and stand firm for the Lord, but all that we are, have, and do, comes from the fact that we are in Christ Jesus, that is, we are united to him. Consider some of the benefits Paul gives of being in Christ.

  • Redemption (Romans 3:24)
  • Eternal life (Romans 6:23)
  • No condemnation (Romans 8:1)
  • Free from sin and death (Romans 8:2)
  • No separation from the love of God (Romans 8:39)
  • One body (Romans 12:5)
  • Grace (1 Corinthians 1:4)
  • A new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • Freedom (Galatians 2:4)
  • Sons of God (Galatians 3:26)
  • Spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3)
  • In the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6)
  • Good works (Ephesians 2:10)
  • Brought near (Ephesians 2:13)
  • Forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Encouragement (Philippians 2:1)
  • Humility (Philippians 2:5)
  • Peace (Philippians 4:6, 7)
  • Holy calling (2 Timothy 1:9)
  • Promises of God (2 Corinthians 1:20)
  • Righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21)
  • Chosen (Ephesians 1:4)
  • Inheritance (Ephesians 1:11)
  • Dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22)

Not just Paul, but Jesus also points out the need for being “in Christ.” In John 15:1-17 Jesus uses the picture of the vine and the branches to describe the union between himself and his people. This portion of Scripture is so helpful in reminding us of what it means to be in Christ. What does the branch do for the vine? Nothing! The branches are completely dependent on the vine, but the vine does not need any specific branch. Nothing flows from the branches to the vine. Over and over Jesus uses the term “abide” to describe a branch’s relationship to the vine. Abide has the idea of remaining stable or fixed in a state. Just as the branch abides in the vine we are to abide in Christ. How do we abide, though? Is that a work we need to accomplish? If we do not abide are we lost? The relationship of a branch to the vine shows that abiding cannot be a work. A branch abides in the vine because the branch receives life from the vine; however, because the branch receives life from the vine a result naturally occurs: the branch produces fruit. What we do to abide flows from the fact that we are abiding. Note that in verse 5 Jesus says that apart from him we can do nothing (including abide in him).

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5, ESV)

Jesus is not saying that apart from his help we can do nothing. He is saying that apart from being vitally united to him we can do nothing. That is, our doing flows from abiding. We do not work to abide. The branches that are receiving life from the vine produce fruit. Those branches that do not produce fruit show that no life is flowing from the vine. There is no true union. Abiding (union with Christ) brings joy and is the source of our love for each other. Jesus emphasizes in verse 16 that everything starts with him, is accomplished through him, and perseveres through him.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15:16, ESV)

Finally in verse 17 Jesus says, “These things I command you, so that you will love one another” (ESV). Notice that Jesus is not issuing a command. He is saying these things (verses 1 through 16) about abiding so that we will love each other. Jesus is telling us what produces love. Unfortunately, the NIV translates it as a command.

This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:17, NIV)

The NIV translation misses the point. (I recommend you also compare the New King James Version, New American Standard Version, and New Revised Standard Version translation of this verse.) Unlike in verse 12 where Jesus gives a command to love, in verse 17 Jesus is simply pointing out our love for each other flows from our union with him. Verse 17 is focused on our loving each other, but all of the Christian life is based on being united to Christ (abiding in Christ). Again, this is why Jesus said in verse 5 that apart from him we can do nothing. Also, this is why John in his letters emphasizes abiding. The one that is abiding (is truly in Christ)

  • Walks as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6)
  • Loves his brother (1 John 2:10)
  • Overcomes the evil one (1 John 2:14)
  • Has confidence when Jesus appears (1 John 2:28)
  • Does not continue to sin (1 John 3:6, 9)
  • Is obedient (1 John 3:24)
  • Has the Spirit (1 John 4:13)
  • Maintains sound doctrine (2 John 1:9)

Jesus wants us focused on the fact that we are in him. Our very life flows from him. My activity does not increase the flow of life but is evidence of life.

Remember Matthew 25:31-46. In that passage Jesus tells of his return and the judgment that will follow. He will separate the sheep from the goats placing the sheep (believers) on his right and the goats (unbelievers) on his left. Note what he says to those on his right and their response.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40, ESV)

The sheep did not keep a spiritual journal of their service for the King. As they lived their lives their actions flowed from their union with Jesus. Just as a branch naturally produces fruit because it is in the vine, these believers naturally (or supernaturally) produced fruit because they were in Christ. Contrast the sheep in Matthew 25 with the people Jesus describes in Matthew 7.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV)

Notice that these standing before Jesus list all the things they did for Jesus. This is the epitome of performance-based Christianity. They were keeping track of all the “good” things they had done. Jesus, however, says he never knew them. (By the way, this follows Jesus discussing a tree and its fruit in Matthew 7:15-20.)

The problem is we are tempted to complete in the flesh what was begun by the Spirit (Galatians 3:3). What a joy to know that because I am in Christ, he will bring to completion the good work that he has started (Philippians 1:6). My desire for him, my desire to know him better, and the good things I do are a result of being united to Jesus, and I am united to Jesus because he sovereignly grafted me into him (Romans 11). Jesus is not measuring my performance, he is producing it. As Michael Horton says,

It is not by following Christ’s example but by actually being inserted into Christ, clothed with Christ, united to Christ – as the Spirit creates faith through the gospel – that we are not only justified but sanctified as well.[1]

I know what many of you are thinking because I am thinking it myself, “If people are not constantly told to live for Jesus they will not be busy with kingdom activity.” It is true that one way God motivates us is through the encouragement (not guilt tripping) of others (Hebrews 10:24); however, the command to encourage one another in verse 24 follows the reminder of what Christ has done (Hebrews 10:19-23). By the work of the Word, the Spirit, and the body of Christ it is no longer what I have to do for Jesus, but what I must do for Jesus. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:9 (ESV), “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul’s abiding in the True Vine produced the fruit of preaching the gospel.

God will leave nothing left undone. Let us rejoice in our union with Christ continually reminding ourselves of what Christ accomplished. Even though there at times is struggle, because we are united to Christ, we have the power to walk in the good works he prepared beforehand for us (Ephesians 2:10).

[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 125.

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Courtship, Dating, or Something Else?

One of my guiltless pleasures is listening to The Reformed Pubcast and the silly but sometimes thoughtful hosts Les and Tanner on reformed theology, craft beer, and popular nerd culture.  A caller on one of their episodes a month or so ago asked about their thoughts on courtship and dating.  Les admitted to not having a philosophy about it, since his children are still fairly young.  I had recommended a book when this topic first surfaced on their Facebook page months ago, but now I see this is a good opportunity for a Postcard topic and perhaps a future Pubcast Facebook post.

One challenge with this topic is terms. Definitions and use vary widely regardless of how terms are defined in Webster’s, and particularly in Christian evangelical circles. I’ve seen “courtship” range from prearranged marriage, to parental guidance to older children as they seek to find their life mate while they are still in the home, to trusted adults providing accountability to the prospective couple.  I’ve seen “dating” range from “Christian” dating for adults that have left their childhood home, to older children that are still at home, described as a redeemed version of “Non-Christian” dating, something today that endorses violation of Scripture.

I have a personal disdain for the term “dating”, largely because of its history and what it’s become in popular American society and western society in general.  Dating is a relatively recent invention.  Chapter 2 of Dr Don Raunikar’s “Choosing God’s Best – Wisdom for Lifelong Romance” recounts the evolution of dating, which I’ve summarized here:

In today’s culture, dating usually describes a male/ female, one-on-one relationship that goes beyond a close friendship. In other words, dating is often a code word that means a couple is intimate both physically and emotionally. That hasn’t always been the case. “Dating” didn’t become a familiar part of the middle-class vocabulary until the mid-1910s. In 1914, Ladies’ Home Journal used the term several times but safely enclosed it in quotation marks with no explanation of its meaning.

Until the early 1900s, almost everything in America revolved around the home and family. Courtship then involved a “calling” system, which varied by region and social status. When a girl reached the proper age to receive male visitors, her mother or guardian invited young men to call.

From 1910 to 1945, as the nation became urban and industrial, people came crowding into the cities. “Calling” was not viewed as practical for young people whose families were forced to live in the cramped spaces of only one or two rooms. For the poor and the working class, parlors and a piano for entertaining were unavailable. Many young people fled the squalor and confinement of their urban homes for amusement elsewhere. A “good time” increasingly became identified with public places and commercial amusements rather than music and conversation in the girl’s parlor. Young women whose wages would not even cover the necessities of life became dependent on men’s “treats.” Keeping company in the family parlor was replaced by dining, dancing, and movies. Courtship went public, left the chaperones behind, and became “dating.”  From the mid-1920s until World War II, dating evolved into a system that sociologists described as “rating and dating.” To rate, you had to date. To date, you had to rate. It wasn’t about love, marriage, or families. It was about competition and popularity, where popularity was earned by how talents, looks, personality or importance in organizations translated into dates.

After World War II up until 1965, women outnumbered men in the United States for the first time in history. Statistically, there weren’t enough men, popular or otherwise, to go around. The dating system that had valued popularity above all was unsettled by women’s concerns about the new scarcity of men.  By 1950, “going steady” completely supplanted the rating/ dating system among American youth. It meant a guaranteed date and greater sexual intimacy.  Misguided sociologists told parents to help their children become datable by putting the children in situations that would allow them to begin dating. After all, they stressed , dating was preparation for the important business of selecting a mate. The strategy was that, ideally, each boy and girl should date and know twenty-five to fifty eligible marriage partners before making a final decision.  The dating system promoted sexual experimentation not only through the privacy it offered but also through the sense of obligation it fostered: The man paid for everything and the woman became indebted. The more money the man spent, the more physical involvement he felt he was owed.

Before the “Make Love, Not War” philosophies of the Vietnam War era, society expected individuals not to be sexually involved before marriage. Today, as most singles will attest, sexual involvement is an unwritten expectation on the first date. By age nineteen, 86 percent of unmarried males are having sexual intercourse. (1)

So what happened?  Don Raunikar quotes George Barna who explains the breakdown in sexual morality that occurred in the 1960s was the consequence of a more serious breakdown in thinking about truth:

The biblical view of truth posits that the ultimate authority in all matters of life, including family, is a matter of absolutes, not a matter of choices. Truth is not one of several alternatives one might or might not embrace according to one’s personal preference. For many years this thinking about truth was reflected in the moral standards considered generally acceptable throughout the country and in legislation proposed and enacted. But over time, a pluralistic view took over. It posited that the ultimate authority was self, mediated by society and its laws. Whereas religious beliefs may inform some of the family-based decisions people make, neither the Bible nor any other religious-based teaching is considered inerrant. (2)

The Bible is clear that the physical intimacy that singles desire and want to experience is reserved for a man and a woman in covenant marriage before God.  For specific references and additional content refer to the Marriage and Sexuality section of the RCF Statement of Faith http://www.reformationchristianfellowship.net/about-us/what-we-believe/.  So how does a couple either progress toward that end-state without sinning, or not get too emotionally or physically involved before knowing marriage is not in their future?

I think single Christians are looking for boundaries, and that’s a good thing.  Some want to know where it is so they can steer well clear of it, while others want to get as close as possible without crossing the line.  Regardless of the heart motivation, the fact that out of thousands of Christianity topics submitted to Mars Hill Church in Seattle, this one became the basis of a sermon message “Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions – Dating”:  “How does a Christian date righteously; and what are the physical, emotional, and mentally connecting boundaries a Christian must set while developing an intimate relationship prior to marriage?”

Together Song of Solomon 2:7 and a framework presented by Raunikar are helpful in understanding these boundaries.

“I adjure you o daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love, until it pleases.”

Simply put, don’t do the emotional or physical things that will lead to more emotional and physical intimacy that is before its time, in marriage.  Well, is that holding hands?  Or light kissing?  If it “awakens love” or is “before it’s time”, it might be.  That’s where Raunikar’s framework is helpful, providing some structure for a couple to establish a spiritual intimacy before emotional intimacy before physical intimacy, and when and how much one-on-one alone time comes into play.  I’ve included it here (they’re hard to read here, but click on each picture and you’ll see it in a separate windows that you can enlarge):

Courtship Phase 1 - 3Courtship Phase 4Courtship Phase 5 - 7

But, beware!  This framework is meant to be a guide, not law, and couples should regulate it based on Song of Solomon 2:7.

So, back to the original question: courtship or dating?  I suggest something new, without the baggage.  Perhaps we could call it “searching”, and “going on a search”, since that’s what singles are doing when not called to singleness, to find God’s life mate for them.  Here’s to “searching”… for God’s glory!


(1) Raunikar, Dr Don (2013-01-23). Choosing God’s Best: Wisdom for Lifelong Romance (p. 34-38). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

(2) Barna, The Future of the American Family, 33– 34.

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The Church and the Devil

Recently my wife and I were on a road trip to visit family. While traveling through the Deep South we passed a large sign by the side of the interstate that said, “Go to church or the devil will get you!” Several questions went through my mind, but the question I pondered was, “What is wrong with the message on this sign?”

I have no problem with an encouragement for people to go to church (as long as the church teaches the truth of God’s Word). The problem I have is with the motivation this sign had for going to church. According to this sign the devil will get me if I do not go to church. This brought to mind Flip Wilson. He was a comedian who had his own variety show in the 1970’s (I’m dating myself). One of his characters was Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now, and another character was Geraldine Jones. The latter character’s famous line was “The devil made me do it.” Every time he said that line as Geraldine (and he said it with quite the attitude) the audience would laugh. What this says to me now (not so much then) is Flip Wilson didn’t really take the devil or sin seriously. So is the threat that the devil will get you if you do not go to church a real motivation to go to church if you either do not think the devil is real or you think the devil can be ignored? The concept of God and the concept of evil in our society are both quite warped. Since God, if he exists, is so loving, the only people he sends to hell are really bad people like terrorists and murderers. The good outweighs the bad in everyone else, and that is what matters to God.

Several years ago a friend and I were talking with a lady and my friend made the comment, “Well, we are all sinners.” The person we were talking with was highly offended. “We are not sinners,” she objected. She explained that the bad consequences in our lives are the result of making bad choices. Well, why do we make bad choices? We make bad choices because we are sinners. The issue is evil is not simply some subjective experience but an objective reality, and the reality is, apart from Christ, the devil already has us. Consider these passages from 1 John.

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:8-10 ESV)

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:10 ESV)

John tells us that anyone who has a lifestyle of sin is of the devil and is a child of the devil, and, worse than that, the whole world is under the influence of the devil. I can hear the objection now, the same objection as that lady, “But I’m not a sinner!” We naturally think we are basically good. This is why we need to hear the truth of God’s Word. Through his Word God reveals to us our sinful condition. He reveals to us that we are under his condemnation and our works are evil.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:18-19 ESV)

He reveals to us that we are under his wrath.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36 ESV)

He reveals that we are not autonomous but that we do the will of our father, the devil.

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44 ESV)

That is all bad news. The good news is God sent his son Jesus to deliver those who are held captive by the devil and destroy the works of the devil.

Since therefore the children 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. (Hebrews 2:14-15 ESV)

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8b ESV)

So, by all means, go to church, but go to a church where you will hear that you are a sinner and belong to the devil, and where you will also hear that Jesus died to bring liberty to those held captive by the devil (Luke 4:16-21).


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Why no prayer in the garden John?

One of my favorite stories in any of the four Gospels is Luke’s account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. In it, the humanity of Jesus is beautifully on display. You see, even though Jesus made it clear that he had come down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of the Father (John 6:38); the fact that he had a human nature meant that, at times, doing the Father’s will would be incredibly difficult. We see this as he prays…

  • Luke 22:42—Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.

We see it even more as Luke tells us…

  • Luke 22:43-44—And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

In seeing this, we are reminded that…

  • Hebrews 4:15—…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.

What glorious truth this is! Knowing that we have such a great high priest truly causes us to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence! (Hebrews 4:25)

Yet, this week I am preparing to preach on, not Luke’s account of Gethsemane, but John’s. And John gives us NONE of these glorious details. In fact, he doesn’t even mention the fact that Jesus prayed! So the question that faced me is, “Why?” And as I began reading John’s account of the garden of Gethsemane, the answer became quite clear. You see, while the other Gospel writers focus on the humble humanity of Christ in the garden, John is in awe of Christ’s omnipotent deity on display in the garden.

As a large, intimidating, and well-armed group of Roman soldiers and Jewish officers approach the garden, the Lord Jesus rises to meet them. He takes control of the situation immediately by being the first to speak as he asks, “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4) Of course they respond that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. Then we see that Jesus’ seemingly ordinary response of “I am he” (John 18:5) has an extraordinary effect on those to whom he is speaking. John tells us that…

  • John 18:6When Jesus said to them, I am he, they drew back and fell to the ground.

So what happened here? Could it be that these men recognized that Jesus was using the divine title of “I am” and were so shocked that it caused them to fall back? Perhaps, but many of the men were Roman soldiers and it seems doubtful that they would be familiar with the various names and titles for God. Could it be that the Jewish officers among them heard this and were so awestruck upon hearing the divine title of “I am” that they fell back and in so doing caused the whole group to fall all over themselves? Perhaps, but when Jesus took the divine title of “I am” upon himself in John 8:58, the Jewish leaders weren’t awestruck; rather they immediately picked up rocks to stone him for blaspheming. So then, what is it then that caused these men to draw back and fall to the ground? I think John wants us to see that it was nothing less than the power of Christ’s deity that overwhelmed them. He wants us to be in awe that a mere word from the mouth of Jesus has the power to cause a host of men fall in an instant. He wants us to understand that Jesus was in no way overpowered by these men, but rather he, who could easily overpower them with a mere word, allowed himself to be taken so that Isaiah’s prophecy might be fulfilled…

  • Isaiah 53:7like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

So this then is why he omits the Lord’s prayer in the garden.  Because his his goal is simply to reveal Christ’s divine omnipotence that we would…

  • John 20:31—believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Sovereign Creator

Not long ago I was contemplating creation. I was not thinking about the age of the earth or the foolishness of evolution. Rather, I was thinking about God’s creation, from the vastness of the universe to the minutest particle that has been discovered. As Paul says in Romans 1:20, God’s eternal power and divine nature are plainly evident through all that God has made, and in Psalm 19:1 David says the heavens declare the glory of God. Creation is God’s general revelation of himself to humankind. He is shouting, “I am, and I am huge!”

General revelation is what God reveals to everyone through his creation. Special revelation is what God reveals in the Scriptures. What came to mind as I was considering creation was the question, “How does general revelation relate to special revelation?” Before someone sees God revealed in Scripture they see God revealed in creation (whether the person admits this or not as Paul says in Romans 1:18-23). It seems, though, when dealing with difficult passages of Scripture or difficult theological concepts we forget what God says about himself through creation.

For example, the Bible teaches that God is fully sovereign in salvation and man is fully responsible for his sin. But how can this be? Surely if God has ultimate control over who is and is not saved then we cannot be held accountable for our sin. What other conclusion is possible? This predicament is nothing new. When Paul presents God’s sovereignty in salvation in the ninth chapter of Romans he addresses this question.

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Romans 9:18-21 ESV)

God is sovereign in dispensing mercy, and God is sovereign in hardening a person in their sin. Therefore, the objection is we are not responsible for our sin. In response to this objection Paul does not offer a philosophical argument. He says nothing about free will. He does not expound on the love, justice, or holiness of God. Also, Paul does not say, “Now that’s a difficult question. It is a mystery that will be revealed in glory.” He simply points out the foolishness of a creature questioning the purposes and actions of its Creator. He reminds us that we are creatures under the control of the Creator, and that rubs us raw because in our minds we are autonomous and accountable to no one but ourselves. It is as if Paul is saying to those questioning God’s right to hold those he hardened accountable,

“Have you considered the eternal power and divine nature of God? Do you not think that the God who created all that is cannot figure out how to be sovereign in salvation and hold man accountable for his sin? You cannot even fathom the extent of creation so how can you even begin to fathom the extent of the Creator?”

So the next time you are wondering how God ordains all things, even sin and calamity (Isaiah 45:7), but is not the author of sin, or how God could use wicked nations and leaders to bring judgment on his people and then punish those nations for their wickedness, consider Jeremiah 32:17, “Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you,” then go outside and look up at the night sky.

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