Common Interpretive Pitfalls

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by John MacArthur

Every paratrooper knows precisely where he is supposed to land, but no paratrooper will jump without also knowing the surrounding territory. To do otherwise can leave one disoriented and lost, which can have disastrous consequences. In the same way, to randomly parachute into Bible passages, trying to glean spiritual gems devoid of context, can lead to wasted time and stunted spiritual growth.

Regular Bible reading according to a strategic plan is the right foundation for successful Bible study. And the principles of accurate interpretation will take that Bible study to the next level of spiritual blessing and benefit.

Reading God’s Word answers the question: What does the Bible say? But interpreting it answers the question: What does the Bible mean by what it says? Proper Bible interpretation is a critical element of successful Bible study. The reader does not have license to decide what it means. He has to learn what it means.

Paul’s pastoral counsel to his protégé Timothy was clear: “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). He told Timothy to read the text, explain the text (doctrine), and apply the text (exhortation). You don’t read it and jump right into application. You read it, then explain it, and then apply it. That’s what “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) is all about. Otherwise, misinterpretation is the likely result, and misinterpretation is the mother of all kinds of mania.

The Mania of Misinterpretation

Misinterpretation causes all sorts of problems, ranging from ridiculous errors to dangerous heresies. “The Daniel Plan” is a popular Christian weight-loss plan based on the prophet Daniel’s decision to eat only vegetables and water (Daniel 1:12). But this new “Bible-based” weight-loss program completely ignores the fact that Daniel’s diet was meant to display God’s supernatural sustenance in spite of inadequate dietary intake. Worse still, the laughable punchline to the whole story is that Daniel actually gained weight by following “The Daniel Plan” (Daniel 1:15)!

Prosperity preachers teach that John’s warm greeting to “prosper and be in good health” (3 John 2) expresses God’s universal desire for Christians to always be healthy and wealthy. Such “theology” makes a mockery of the hardships, poverty, and untimely deaths suffered by the apostles and those who succeeded them (cf. Hebrews 11:35–38).

Some factions of Mormonism believe that since the patriarchs practiced polygamy, so must we. One group even decided to refuse anesthetic for women in labor since the Old Testament teaches that pain in childbirth is a part of the curse. Jehovah’s Witnesses often refuse blood transfusions due to a faulty understanding of commands to abstain from blood (Acts 15:28­–29).

Those misinterpretations cover the spectrum from the ludicrous to the hazardous to the damnable. But they all are the natural extension of a failure to understand what the Bible is really saying, and the context in which it was written. They are misinterpretations that can be easily dealt with by avoiding three major interpretive errors.

Don’t Make a Point at the Price of Proper Interpretation

In other words, don’t make the Bible say what you want it to say. Don’t follow the example of the minister who preached that women shouldn’t have hair pinned on top of their head. His text was “top knot come down” fromMatthew 24:17 (NKJV) where it says, “Let him who is on the housetop not come down.” That’s obviously notwhat that passage is teaching!

Another fatal path is to be like the preacher who says, I’ve already got a sermon; I just have to find a verse for it. He starts with a preconceived idea and then gathers some verses to support it—a case of the tail wagging the dog. True biblical sermons don’t drive the biblical text, they are driven by the biblical text. I know if I try to manufacture a sermon, I wind up forcing Scripture to fit my ideas. But when I try to comprehend a passage, the message flows out of that understanding.

Using God’s Word to illustrate a personal idea actually undermines biblical authority. Start with the text, find its true meaning, and then get out of the way and let Scripture speak for itself.

Avoid Superficial Interpretation

Second, as you study the Bible, be careful not to buy into the modern mantras of “to me, this verse means …” or, “What does this verse mean to you?” Instead, learn what it actually says.

Unfortunately, a lot of Bible studies are nothing but a pooling of ignorance—a lot of people sitting around and sharing what they don’t know about a verse. I am all for Bible studies, but somebody has to study to find out what the text really means so they can lead the others into understanding, and then they can discuss the application. Paul instructed Timothy to put in the hard labor of rightly handling God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15).

Don’t Spiritualize

Third, don’t spiritualize the straightforward meaning of a Bible verse. The first sermon I ever preached was a horrible sermon. My text was “An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone” (Matthew 28:2). My sermon was “Rolling Away Stones in Your Life.” I talked about the stone of doubt, the stone of fear, and the stone of anger. That is not what that verse is talking about; it’s talking about a real stone. I made it into a terrific allegory at the expense of its plain meaning. On another occasion I heard a sermon on “they cast four anchors…and wished for the day” (Acts 27:29 KJV); the anchor of hope, the anchor of faith, and so on. Those Acts 27 anchors were not anchors of anything but metal.

I call that “Little Bo Peep” preaching, because you don’t need the Bible for those kinds of sermons. Someone can get up and say, “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep”—all over the world people are lost. “And can’t tell where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home”—so they will come home after all. Then you tell a tear-jerking story about some sinners who came home “wagging their tails behind them.” It’s so easy to do, and a lot of people do that with the Old Testament. Don’t spiritualize the Bible; study it to gain the right meaning.

Context Is Key

Avoiding those three errors—conforming the text to your own predetermined agenda, superficial interpretation, and inventing spiritual metaphors out of passages that speak plainly—will create a far safer environment from which to study Scripture. But avoiding error is only one half of the interpretive equation. There are also principles of true interpretation that must be embraced.

Most interpretive challenges can be resolved through studying the passage within its wider context. “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33) and He does not have a problem explaining Himself. The problem is usually with us—whether it be a personal objection to what Scripture says, a cultural gap between us and the text’s original setting, a refusal to obey, or a lack of broader biblical knowledge. Whatever the case, skills in Bible interpretation can be acquired and applied. And I’ll explain how in the days ahead.

Calvin on Why God Raised Up Luther to Reform the Church

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Tomorrow is Reformation Day.

Here is John Calvin, writing in 1543 (26 years after Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg Door), explaining why the Reformation needed to happen:

At the time when divine truth lay buried under this vast and dense cloud of darkness;

when religion was sullied by so many impious superstitions;

when by horrid blasphemies the worship of God was corrupted, and his glory laid prostrate;

when by a multitude of perverse opinions, the benefit of redemption was frustrated, and men, intoxicated with a fatal confidence in works, sought salvation anywhere rather than in Christ;

when the administration of the sacraments was partly maimed and torn asunder, partly adulterated by the admixture of numerous fictions, and partly profaned by traffickings for gain;

when the government of the church had degenerated into mere confusion and devastation; when those who sat in the seat of pastors first did most vital injury to the church by the dissoluteness of their lives, and, secondly, exercised a cruel and most noxious tyranny over souls, by every kind of error, leading men like sheep to the slaughter;

then Luther arose, and after him others, who with united counsels sought out means and methods by which religion might be purged from all these defilements, the doctrine of godliness restored to its integrity, and the church raised out of its calamitous into somewhat of a tolerable condition.

The same course we are still pursuing in the present day.

—John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.”

(HT: Justin Taylor)

What’s wrong with the common question, “How was church today?”

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From an interview with Michael Horton about his latest book, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World:

Belonging to the body of Christ, being exposed regularly to the means of grace and to the communion of saints, is radically life-changing. But that process can’t usually be measured in days, weeks, and months. We have to simply believe God’s promise. It’s easy to burn out when we expect every public service or daily time with the Lord to be earth-shattering. And just when it becomes ordinary, we back off because we don’t want it to become “routine.” But that’s just the point: it’s good to have routines that we stick to regardless of the fireworks. Again, I think of analogies: “How was your marriage today?” “How was your workout?” Most of the time, it’s “fine.” You can’t have revolutions every day or there wouldn’t be steady growth. Pastors, too, can burn out when every “worship experience” has to be phenomenal. All of this frenetic activity is, ironically, weakening sanctification, keeping our roots shallow, and making us dependent on “super apostles”—the ministers and their gifts instead of Christ’s gift-giving through his ministry.

You can read the entire interview here.

Christology: twelve grammatical rules

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Ben Myers:

[Here I try] to draw together some of the key points in a list of simple “grammatical rules” for talking about Jesus Christ. Each is a negation followed by an affirmation:

1. Not to speak of Christ in any way that sidelines his human experience.Jesus Christ is truly human.

2. Not to speak of Jesus in any way that sidelines the divine depth beneath his human experience. Jesus Christ is truly God.

3. Not to divide Christ’s divinity and humanity, or to give the impression that he sometimes functions as God and sometimes as a human. Jesus Christ is divine and human in one person.

4. Not to give the impression that Christ’s divinity is fully contained within his humanity, or that his divinity is limited by his human experience. The human nature of Jesus is assumed by the person of the eternal Word.
5. Not to divide redemption from creation, or to give the impression that Christ invades a world that is alien to him. Human beings were created after the pattern of the same eternal Image that has become incarnate in Jesus.
6. Not to divide Christ’s person and work, or to give the impression that Christ is merely the instrument by which God achieves salvation. Salvation is a person: Jesus Christ.
7. Not to divide Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, or to give the impression that he achieves salvation at just one moment of his career. The total life-journey of Jesus Christ – from his birth, to his ministry of teaching and healing, to his death and resurrection – is the saving event.
8. Not to speak of Christ’s death as a mere preliminary stage on the way to resurrection. Jesus Christ is the Priest whose death abolishes the power of sin and death. He is the humble God.
9. Not to speak of Christ’s resurrection as a mere reversal of his death.Jesus Christ is the King whose resurrection exalts and glorifies human nature. He is the deified human.
10. Not to speak of Christ in any way that implies that he is absent, or to give the impression that the church’s task is to make Christ present. Jesus Christ is the Prophet who reveals himself. He is present always and everywhere as the divine-human light of the world.

11. Not to divide Christ from Israel’s history, or to give the impression that the New Testament abolishes the Old. As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ is the surpassing fulfilment of Israel’s messianic hopes.

12. Not to speak of Christ as if he were relevant only to some people in some cultures and circumstances. Jesus Christ is present to all people, in all times and places, as their divine-human Prophet, Priest and King. The church trusts and proclaims, but never possesses, this Messiah.

There is a blessed God at the core of the glorious gospel

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God’s eternal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a thing of infinite blessedness and perfection. There is a blessed God at the core of the glorious gospel.

God in himself is perfect, and perfectly happy. Being perfect, he cannot essentially improve. He can make happiness and blessedness available to his creatures because he always already has it.

This vision of a God with no unmet needs is a glimpse of the depths of the living God and the fund out of which he spends himself so freely in the economy of salvation.

— Fred Sanders The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 94

(HT: Of First Importance)

One Anthem

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Tony Reinke:

This may be my favourite quote from the pen of Hannah More (1745–1833), the poet, reformer, and abolitionist, as published in The Works of Hannah More (New York; Harper & Bros., 1846), 1:434:

What a triumph for the humble Christian to be assured, that ‘the high and lofty One which inhabiteth eternity,’ condescends at the same time to dwell in the heart of the contrite — in his heart! To know that God is the God of his life, to know that he is even invited to take the Lord for his God. To close with God’s offers, to accept his invitations, to receive God as his portion, must surely be more pleasing to our heavenly Father, than separating our happiness from his glory.

To disconnect our interests from his goodness, is at once to detract from his perfections, and to obscure the brightness of our own hopes. The declarations of inspired writers are confirmed by the authority of the heavenly hosts. They proclaim that the glory of God and the happiness of his creatures, so far from interfering, are connected with each other. We know but of one anthem composed and sung by angels, and this most harmoniously combines ‘the glory of God in the highest with peace on earth and good will to men.’ …

This God is our God — God, even our own God, shall bless us. How delightful the appropriation! To glorify him as being in himself consummate excellence, and to love him from the feeling that this excellence is directed to our felicity! Here modesty would be ingratitude; disinterestedness rebellion.

This is a beautiful description of what we now call Christian Hedonism.

It’s revelation

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“‘But wait a minute,’ says somebody.  ‘Are you saying that the passage of the years makes no difference?  Are you asking me to believe that I have got to go back nearly two thousand years, and that the truth is what these men taught then?’ . . .

Yes, I am, and this is why.  There can be no development in this truth, and there has not been, because this is not truth that man works out for himself, but is truth which God reveals.  Not one of the apostles was a discoverer of truth.  The mighty apostle Paul never discovered the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. . . . It is a revelation; it is something that is given by God, something that has been revealed by him supremely in the person of his only-begotten Son.”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Love So Amazing: Expositions of Colossians 1 (Grand Rapids, 1995), pages 63-64.

(HT: Ray Ortlund)

Keller, Carson and Piper on the rising generation of church leaders

Matt Smethurst:

What most encourages Tim Keller, John Piper, and Don Carson as they interact with the rising generation of church leaders?

“There are so many younger men and women who love the Bible and are deeply committed to being followers of what it says—as opposed to jellyfish in the current of the culture,” Piper observes. “Such an allegiance to Scripture starts yielding commitments that I get excited about.” The sovereign grace of God and racial justice are just two examples that energize his heart.

Carson likewise notes a “remarkable attitude that wants to be taught and mentored in the Bible, in historic Christian confessionalism, and in how to minister.” This humility and eagerness, he says, is thrilling to see.

And while plenty of young leaders desire to be either “only attractive” or “only offensive,” Keller adds, he also sees many who are striving to embody the biblical tension of gospel ministry in which we are “both offensive and attractive” to our neighbors (1 Pet. 2:11–12).

Watch the full eight-minute video to hear these three leaders discuss unprecedented multiethnic growth, racial justice, Calebite spirits, and more. Then register to see them address various topics in plenary sessions and workshops at our 2015 National Conference, April 13 to 15, in Orlando. Early registration ends next week! So grab a group and sign up together to get the lowest rates.

 

Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ

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By God’s grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, believers are assured of “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1:3).

  • We are justified; that is, we receive here and now advance declaration by God of the verdict of his court on the day of judgment, that we are included among those whom we will declare righteous on account of our faith in Jesus and his obedience unto death.
  • We are saved; that is, we are delivered from the wrath to come, rescued from the anger of God against all wickedness and rebellion.
  • We are reconciled; that is, the enmity between us and God has been removed, because God himself bore our sins in the person of his own Son on the cross.
  • We are forgiven; that is, God chooses to “carry” (the Hebrew word usually translated “forgive”) our sins, rather than repay them to us, because they have been “carried” by Jesus on the cross. They will never be held against us.
  • We are redeemed; that is, God has achieved our liberation from all the bondage of sin, as he rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, through the sacrificial blood of Christ.
  • We are adopted; that is, God includes us among his children, or more specifically, treats us as firstborn sons (whether male or female), and thus as his heirs, sharing in the inheritance that belongs to Christ.
  • We are made alive; that is, from the death of sin we are given new life, the resurrection life of Christ himself.
  • We have the Spirit; that is, the promise that God made to Israel, that would bring about their renewal and “resurrection” and obedience (as, e.g., in Ezek. 37), is now poured out in us, bearing the fruit of transformed lives.

– Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People193.

 (HT: Trevin Wax)

Fear Not, Little Flock

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Eric Raymond:

I am thoroughly enjoying Michael Horton’s new book Ordinary. I hope to review it soon, but will doubtless be quoting from it for months.

Here is a sample:

I think that if Jesus were to return today, he might tell us to stop taking ourselves so seriously. “will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18, italics added). The gates of hell are no small matter, at least for us. We’re quite anxious. We have to do something about this (this being whatever we’re shocked by at present). America is in moral free-fall. The media are persecuting us. Churches seem to be losing their way. Radical Islam is on the march–not to mention the perfect storm of AIDS, famine, and war that has taken millions of lives in Africa. Every time we turn on the news, our compassion or anger is aroused–to the point that we become numb to it. And people in the pews are numb to it, especially when the church places still more burdens on their shoulders.

This burden of extraordinary impact weighs heavily, first, on the shoulders of pastors. But here is the good news: it is not your ministry, church, or people. You do not have to create and protect a personal legacy, but simply to distribute and guard Christ’s legacy entrusted to his apostles. You don’t have to bind Satan and storm the gates of hell. Christ has already done this. We’re just sweeping in being him to unlock the prison doors. You don’t have to live the gospel, be the gospel, do the gospel, and lead the troops to redeem culture and reconcile the world to God. We are not building a kingdom that can be convulsed with violence like other realms, but we are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28, italics added).

The disciples surely had reason to worry about the world’s opposition. It was a little flock, and their King did not allow them to carry weapons. However, Jesus simply said to them and says now to us, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32) – Michael Horton, Ordinary, p. 119-120

He has anchored himself to us by the message of the Cross

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We ought never to set present communion with Christ, as so many are doing, in opposition to the gospel; we ought never to say that we are interested in what Christ does for us now, but are not so much interested in what He did long ago. Do you know what soon happens when men talk that way? They soon lose all contact with the real Christ; their religion would really remain essentially the same if Jesus never lived.

That danger should be avoided by the Christian man with all his might and main. God has given us an anchor for our souls; He has anchored himself to us by the message of the Cross. Let us never cast that anchor off; let us never weaken our connection with the events upon which our faith is based.

Such dependence upon the past will never prevent us from having present communion with Christ. Unlike the communion of the mystics it will be communion not with the imaginings of our own hearts, but with the real Saviour Jesus Christ. The gospel of redemption through the Cross and resurrection of Christ is not a barrier between us and Christ, but it is the blessed tie by which He has bound us for ever to Him.

— J. Gresham Machen What Is Faith? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 153-54

(HT: Of First Importance)

Debtors to the Triune God

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Octavius Winslow:

“Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.” Romans 8:12

THAT around a subject so momentous as this no obscurity might gather, tending to misguide the judgment, the apostle most distinctly and emphatically affirms, that the flesh has no valid claim whatever upon the believer; and that, consequently, he is under no obligation to yield compliance with its feigned exactions. We are debtors, but the flesh in not our creditor. What are its demands with which it is incumbent upon us to comply? Do we owe anything to sin, the parent of all our woe? Nothing. To Satan, who plotted our temptation, and accomplished our downfall? Nothing. To the world—ensnaring, deceitful, and ruinous? Nothing. No; to these, the auxiliaries of allies of the flesh, we owe nothing but the deepest hatred and the most determined opposition.

Debtors to the Father

And yet the saints of God are “debtors.” To whom? What debtors are they to the Father, for His electing love, for the covenant of grace, for His unspeakable gift, for having blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus! We but imperfectly estimate the debt of love, gratitude, and service which we owe to Him whose mind the Eternal Son came to reveal, whose will He came to do, and whose heart He came to unveil. It was the Father who sent the Son. With Him originated the wondrous expedient of our redemption. He it was who laid all our sins on Jesus. It was His sword of Justice that smote the Shepherd, while His hand of love and protection was laid upon the little ones. We have too much supposed that the Atonement of Jesus was intended to inspire the mercy, rather than to propitiate the justice of God; to awaken in His heart a love that did not previously exist. Thus we have overlooked the source from where originated our salvation, and have lost sight of the truth, that the mediation of Jesus was not the cause, but rather the effect, of God’s love to man. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and gave His Son to be a propitiation for our sins.” Oh, for the spirit to understand, and for grace to feel, and for love to exemplify, our deep obligation to God for the everlasting love that gave us His Son!

Debtors to the Son

Equal debtors are we to the Son. He was the active agent in our redemption. He it was who undertook and accomplished all that our salvation required. He left no path untrodden, no portion of the curse unborne, no sin unatoned, no part of the law uncancelled—nothing for us in the matter of our salvation to do, but simply to believe and be saved. Oh, to raise the eye to Him—strong in faith, beaming with love, moist with contrition, and exclaim, “You have borne my sin, endured my curse, extinguished my hell, secured my heaven. Your Spirit was wounded for me; Your heart bled for me; Your body was bruise for me; for me Your soul was stricken—for me, a sinner, the chief of sinners. I am Your debtor—a debtor to Your dying love, to Your eternal, discriminating mercy. Surely an eternity of love, of service, and of praise, can never repay You what I owe You, You blessed Jesus.” Oh, how deep the obligation we are under to Christ!

Debtors to the Holy Spirit

And not less indebted are we to the Holy Spirit. What do we not owe Him of love and obedience, who awoke the first thrill of life in our soul; who showed to us our guilt, and sealed to us our pardon? What do we not owe Him for leading us to Christ; for dwelling in our hearts; for His healing, sanctifying, comforting, and restoring grace; for His influence, which no ingratitude has quenched; for His patience, which no backsliding has exhausted; for His love, which no sin has annihilated? Yes, we are the Spirit’s lasting debtors. We owe Him the intellect He has renewed, the heart He has sanctified, the body He inhabits, every breath of life He has inspired, and every pulse of love He has awakened. Thus are all real believers debtors to the Triune God—debtors to the Father’s everlasting love, to the Son’s redeeming grace, and to the Spirit’s quickening mercy. To the flesh we owe nothing but uncompromising hatred; to Jehovah we owe undivided and supreme affection.

(HT: Tim Brister)

Christ is Everything

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When you put your trust in Christ, the overpowering attraction of the world is broken. You are a corpse to the world, and the world is a corpse to you. Or to put it positively, you are a ‘new creation’ (Galatians 6:15). The old you is dead. A new you is alive — the you of faith in Christ. And what marks this faith is that it treasures Christ above everything in the world. The power of the world to woo your love away is dead.

Being dead to the world means that every legitimate pleasure in the world becomes a blood-bought evidence of Christ’s love and an occasion of boasting in the cross. When our hearts run back along the beam of blessing to the source in the cross, then the worldliness of the blessing is dead, and Christ crucified is everything.

— John Piper Fifty Reason Why Jesus Came to Die (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 85

(HT: Of First Importance)

Your church: where Jesus calms the storm

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Ray Ortlund:

“How wonderful it is to come every Sunday into a liberating church!  All week long we swim in an ocean of judgment and negative scrutiny.  We constantly have to comply with the demands of a touchy world, and we never measure up. . . .

Then on Sunday we walk into a new kind of community where we discover an environment of grace in Christ alone.  It is so refreshing.  Sinners like us can breathe again!  It’s as if God simply changes everyone’s topic of conversation from what’s wrong with us, which is plenty, to what’s right with Christ, which is endless.  He replaces our negativity, finger-pointing, and self-attack with the good news of his grace for the undeserving.  Who couldn’t come alive in a community which inhales that heavenly atmosphere?

Here is where every one of us can happily take our stand right now: ‘The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).  Our self-focus was crucified with Christ.  The need to conceal failure and display false superiority no longer lives.  Christ is enough to complete every one of us, without adding anything of ourselves.

As we humbly keep in step with the truth of this gospel, people will find a new kind of community in our churches where sinners and sufferers can thrive.”

Ray Ortlund, The Gospel: How The Church Portrays The Beauty of Christ (Wheaton, 2014), pages 90-91.

Jesus Doesn’t Fail: An Interview on Definite Atonement

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David Mathis, Desiring God:

It is, by far, the most contested of the Five Points. And confusion over the term makes it all the trickier.

“Limited Atonement” is the middle letter in TULIP, but as author and pastor Douglas Wilson explains, that name might give the wrong impression.

“The problem with ‘limited atonement’ is that it makes everybody think ‘tiny atonement.’” And, of course, no good Christian wants to cast the cross-work of Christ as diminutive.

The better term, says Wilson, with a growing number of voices, is “Definite Atonement.” Same doctrine, better name. This way of putting it emphasizes the extent of Jesus’s accomplishment, rather than its restriction.

He Died for His People

Definite atonement teaches that Jesus died to fully secure the salvation of his people, not just make the offer. Its anchors in the biblical text include, among others,

  • John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep
  • Ephesians 5:25: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
  • Revelation 5:9: The worshipers in heaven sing to Jesus, “Worthy are you . . . for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation
  • Mark 10:45: “the Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many
  • John 11:52: Jesus died “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad”

Jesus died not only to make a bonafide offer of salvation to all people indefinitely, but to actually secure the salvation of a definite group: his sheep, his bride, his people, the many, the children.

The Calvinist Centerpiece

In the story of the church, this particular expression of the doctrine emerged at the Synod of Dort in the early seventeenth century. Following the death of an influential teacher named Jacob Arminius — who had disagreed with several key points of the prevailing theology of the day — his followers published five specific objections to Calvinist teaching in 1610. The Synod, then, responding in 1619, re-articulated the five doctrines, which have come down to us in English in the floral acrostic.

“Definite atonement is the centerpiece,” says Wilson. The three middle points — unconditional election, definite atonement, and irresistible grace — demonstrate how the persons of the Godhead work together inseparably in our salvation: the Father elects, the Son atones, and the Spirit gives life. It is all one seamless garment. The Son dies for those whom the Father has chosen, and the Spirit regenerates those for whom the Son has died.

To compare the doctrine of definite atonement with the contrasting view of the Arminians, Lorraine Boettner observes, “For the Calvinist, it is like a narrow bridge that goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian, it is like a great wide bridge that goes only half-way across.” The question is not whether the atonement is limited in some sense, but how.

Yes, It Matters

Most significant, perhaps, is Wilson’s claim, “Penal substitution necessitates definite atonement.” To believe that Jesus truly substituted himself as the penalty for our sin implies some definite group for which he died, not just a potential group of individuals to be named later. One’s view on the definiteness of the atonement then is not far removed from the depth and surety of one’s understanding of the Christian gospel and its joys.

Whether you’re a young Millennial or an old post-millennial like Wilson, we think you’ll benefit from this new episode of Theology Refresh, which aims to help you tell the gospel, in public and in private, with precision and power. And it will challenge you not to be a “whispering Calvinist,” who carefully hides the Scriptural truths most offensive and confounding to our modern milieu, but to speak openly and honestly what the Bible teaches.

To access this 13-minute episode, subscribe to Theology Refresh in iTunes, download or listen at the resource page, or watch below.

How Does the Holy Spirit Actually Produce Change in Us?

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A rich and wise answer from Abraham Kuyper:

Dwelling in the elect, the Spirit does not slumber, nor does He keep an eternal Sabbath, in idleness shutting Himself up in their hearts; but as divine Worker He seeks from within to fill their individual persons, pouring the stream of His divine brightness through every space.

But we should not imagine that every believer is instantly filled and permeated. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit finds him filled with all manner of evil and treachery. . . . His method of procedure is not with divine power to force a man as though he were a stock or block, but by the power of love and compassion so to influence and energize the impulses of the feeble will that it feels the effect, is inclined, and finally consents to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. . . .

This operation is different in each person. In one it proceeds with marvelous rapidity; in another, progress is exceedingly slow, being checked by serious reaction which in some rare cases is overcome only with the last breath. There are scarcely two men in whom this gracious operation is completely the same.

It may not be denied that the Holy Spirit often meets serious opposition on the part of the saint. . . . And the Holy Spirit bears all this resistance with infinite pity, and overcomes it and casts it out with eternal mercy.

Who that is not a stranger to his own heart does not remember how many years it took before he would yield a certain point of resistance; how he always avoided facing it; restlessly opposed it, at last thought to end the matter by arranging for a sort of modus vivendi between himself and the Holy Spirit? But the Holy Spirit did not cease, gave him no rest; again and again that familiar knock was heard, the calling in his heart of that familiar voice. And after years of resistance he could not but yield in the end.

–Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit (trans. Henri De Vries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 529–30

(HT: Dane Ortlund)

Singing To One Another

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Tony Reinke:

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . . . Eph.5:18-19

David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge: 1999), 122, 125:

Drunkenness is a practice that incapacitates people for responsible use of time in line with ‘the will of the Lord’ (5.17). Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, by contrast, enables a ‘sober intoxication’ which attunes the whole self — body, heart and mind — to a life attentive to others and to God. It is a practice of the self as physical as drinking — and as habit-forming. One of the main habits formed is that of alertness. . . .

It is striking that there is encouragement to the members to practice ‘addressing one another’ in song. This is part of facing each other in the community. One way of understanding it is that one sings a song to another who does not sing. But it can also and more naturally be taken to be about one of the obvious features of psalms and hymns: a large proportion of them do not speak to God directly but address other people or oneself ‘Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard’ (Ps. 66.8); ‘O come, let us sing to the Lord’ (Ps. 95.1); ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is Within me, bless his holy name!’ (Ps. 103.1).

For a community of worship, this coming together before God in song is the fullest facing of all, explicitly acknowledging the reality of which they are all part, and adding their energies to enhance it. The specific contribution of music to this building up of community in worship includes its encouragement of alertness to others, immediate responsiveness to changes in tone, tune and rhythm, and sharing in the confidence that can come from joint singing. Singing together embodies joint responsibility in which each singer waits on the others, is attentive with the intention of serving the common harmony.

God Wants Us To Want

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Darryl Dash:

I used to think that God was happy with our grudging obedience. Do the right thing, grit your teeth, and everything is good with God. I’ve been increasingly learning that God doesn’t want us to do the right thing so much as he wants us to want to do the right thing. Big difference.

Two examples:

Peter writes to elders in churches that are experiencing some suffering. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,” he writes, “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). There’s a world of difference between elders who serve because they have to, and elders who serve because they want to. God, Peter says, desires the latter. God wants elders who want to serve him, even under the pressure of suffering.

Paul writes to the Corinthians to ask for money for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. He doesn’t tell them to dig deep until it hurts. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). There it is again, something to avoid: compulsion. God wants our willingness, our eagerness, and our cheerfulness.

C.S. Lewis was insightful when he wrote:

A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc) can do the journey on their own.

The perfect man or woman acts not out of duty, but of delight. We’re all in process, but this is God’s desire for us.

God wants to change us not at the level of our obedience, but at the level of our affections. God wants us to want.

The Will of God Expressed in Christ

St Cyprian of Carthage

 

Now the will of God is what Christ both did and taught:

  • Humility in conversation
  • steadfastness in faith
  • modesty in words
  • justice in deeds
  • mercifulness in works
  • discipline in morals
  • to be unable to do a wrong
    and to be able to bear a wrong when done
  • to keep peace with the brethren
  • to love God with all one’s heart
  • to love Him because He is a Father
  • to fear Him because He is God
  • to prefer nothing whatever to Christ
    because He did not prefer anything to us
  • to adhere inseparably to His love
  • to stand by His cross bravely and faithfully
  • when there is any challenge on behalf of His name and honor
    to exhibit in our speech a consistent confession
  • in torture, that confidence with which we do battle
  • in death, that patience whereby we are crowned.

This is the desire to be fellow-heirs with Christ.

This is to do the commandment of God.

This is to fulfill the will of the Father.

- Cyprian, The Treatises of Cyprian: On the Lord’s Prayer, 15 [Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5], adapted

(HT: Trevin Wax)

We must get to the cross, and dwell there

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Every plant must have both soil and root. Without both of these there can be no life, no growth, no fruit. The root is ‘peace with God’; the soil in which that root strikes itself, and out of which it draws the vital sap, is the free love of God in Christ. ‘Rooted in love’ is the apostle’s description of a holy man.

The secret of a believer’s holy walk is his continual recurrence to the blood of the Surety, and his daily intercourse with a crucified and risen Lord. All divine life, and all the precious fruits of it, pardon, peace, and holiness, spring from the cross. All fancied sanctification which does not arise wholly from the blood of the cross is nothing better than Pharisaism.

If we would be holy, we must get to the cross, and dwell there; else, notwithstanding all our labour, diligence, fasting, praying and good works, we shall be yet void of real sanctification, destitute of those humble, gracious tempers which accompany a clear view of the cross.

— Horatius Bonar God’s Way of Holiness

(HT: Of First Importance)