Wednesday, October 23, 2002

On Travel

I am on travel -- blogging will be impossible until Friday. Hope to have something for you then.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The New Perspective

This is an introduction and the first of a series of planned posts on the "New Perspective". The posts will not come one day at a time, as this is a complicated subject.

My Position

I’ll state my position ahead of time, so there are no misunderstanding. I disagree with the New Perspective. I will try to write fairly, but my bias will always be there, lurking just beneath the surface, and sometimes out in the open.

In all my posts I try to simplify what is often presented as complex. Sometimes I am guilty of oversimplification, and that is a danger here. However, I remain convinced that nothing in the Bible is so complex that an ordinary person cannot understand it. I believe this applies to the topic of justification (which is what this debate is ultimately about). A doctrine on justification, which is clearly of great interest to any believer, should (and I readily admit this is but a gut-feeling) be easy to state and easy to support with scriptural references.

New Perspective on What?

The first question is, what is it that there is a "new perspective" on? That should be an easy question, but nothing in this debate comes easy.

In fact, this topic goes by at least three "New Perspective" titles:
  1. A New Perspective on New Testament era Judaism
  2. A New Perspective on Justification
  3. A New Perspective on Paul

The first title is the most accurate, the second the most provocative, and the third the most common. There is a very new view on the practices of first century (technically, Second Temple) Jews. This has resulted in a change in perspective on justification for some Reformed Christians. However, it is only a new perspective on justification for the Reformed; it terms of overall Christianity it is actually an old perspective. In the same sense, it is a new perspective on Paul, in that his teachings are viewed differently than historically they have been by Reformed Christians.

The bottom line in all of this, and what I see is an inescapable conclusion of the New Perspective, is that Luther was wrong in his view on justification. If the NPers are correct, then his view of justification, which has been the cornerstone of Reformed theology, was flawed. As we will see, the argument is that Luther (and many who followed) was a victim of a misunderstanding about the practices of the first century Jews. More precisely, it is alleged that he was mistaken in his interpretation of what Paul taught about those practices.

The Nature of the Debate

The debate on the New Perspective is an embarrassment to the entire community. There are old perspective (OP) proponents accusing new perspective (NP) types of heresy. Some on the NP side accuse the OPers of worshipping creeds, sloganism, general nonintellectual thinking, and worshiping dead heroes (although one could argue that in a like-manner they worship live heroes). It is really very ugly, and to be honest many involved in the debate, on both sides, could benefit from a good swift kick to the butt.

Also, those on the NP side differ in many of their views. A tendency on the OP side is to attack the most outrageous claims of anyone purporting to be a NPer, in an attempt to impugn the whole group. Likewise the NPers often focus on the heresy charges as evidence that the OPers are incapable of a reasoned argument. The bottom line is that it is far easier to find an uncivil debate about the debate, rather than a cogent discussion of the points. Real debate has been obfuscated by ad hominem attacks. I will ignore some of the more radical views of some NPers, and just look at the differences with those NPers who are otherwise considered mainstream by the majority of the community.

Faith and Works

This age-old tension between faith and works is central to this discussion. The Reformed position has always been that works are not meritorious in terms of one’s justification (Eph. 2:8-9). Yet there is no small amount of New Testament scripture that talks about us being judged, good or bad, for our works (2 Cor. 5:10). The answer to these passages has always been, for the Reformed Christian, that works are evidentiary. They are related to sanctification and not justification, which is purely forensic, i.e., a legal declaration that, in and of itself, does not change one's nature.

The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (Sola Fide) in many ways hinges on two veins of scripture:
  1. Scripture that teaches we are justified by faith in Christ (which is a gift).
  2. Scripture that teaches it is faith alone, by eliminating the possibility that works are involved.
It is the later point that is, in effect, being questioned.

First Century Judaism

Much of the "alone" part of Sola Fide stems from Paul's writings about first century Jews. They are rebuked for believing in a works-based salvation. In refuting the efficacy of works, Paul leaves us with faith alone as the basis for our justification (Rom. 3:27-28, Rom. 4:2, Gal. 2:16).

This rests, to a large extent, on the certainty that Paul was in fact accusing the Jews of practicing a works-based salvation. If Paul's criticism of the Jews was actually about something else, then those teachings cannot really be applied, at least in a straightforward manner, to supply the "sola" to Sola Fide.

And that is bad news. Because as our Catholic friends like to point out, the only place in the Bible where we actually find the phrase "faith alone" is James 2:24, where at first glance James appears to be repudiating the beloved doctrine.

At the heart of the NP movement is the view that Paul was not criticizing Jews for their works-based view of salvation, but for their boasting in their special status before God. This in turn is based on a study of non-biblical documents about Second Temple (~515 B.C. to 70 A.D.) Judaism. It is claimed, as I understand it, that these documents show that the Second Temple Jews believed that their right-standing before God was a gift of mercy, but they maintained their place in the covenant by persevering in faith, and in works.

I have read some who say that this (or something close to it) is what the historic writings contain. I have also read some who say this represents selective extractions from the documents. I am at a disadvantage because I have neither the time nor skills necessary to perform my own analysis.

Some liberal scholars (some of which call themselves NPers) claim this demonstrates that the Bible is not inerrant. According to this argument, Paul misrepresented the Jews (which, considering his life before conversion, is more than a little absurd). Conservative NPers do not question biblical inerrancy; rather they question Luther’s interpretation of sacred scripture.

Do not underestimate the importance of the question of the Second Temple Jews. The NP view says that the classic (call it Lutheran if you like) take on New Testament era Judaism is incorrect. Yet the classic Reformed view on justification is supported, to a large extent, by an reading of scripture that requires the interpretation that those Jews practiced a meritorious-works religion. There is a lot at stake here. If the NPers are right and Luther is wrong, then indeed we must reformulate our view of justification.

Once again, the chain of logic is this:
  1. Paul was not critiquing Jews for believing a merit-based doctrine on justification.
  2. That, at best, weakens the use of the relevant scriptures in supplying the sola to Sola Fide.
  3. That, in turn, weakens Sola Fide.

What I Want is not Relevant

I don't want Sola Fide to be weakened. I consider it to be what makes the Good News good. However, that is irrelevant—the only thing that matters is what the scriptures teach. It is interesting to me that it is Jesus, not Paul, who nicely frames this debate:
9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 "The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' 13 "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14 "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14, NASB)
The question is not who was justified, Jesus makes that clear. The question before us, because of its relevance in understanding the Pauline epistles, is: Was it the Pharisee, who clearly believed in salvation by works, or the Publican, pleading for grace, who was representative of 1st century Judaism?

I cannot read Hebrew or Greek so I am at the mercy of others who can. One thing that I am certain of: If, in scripture, Paul was not criticizing Jews for their merit-based salvation then either the translators thoroughly bungled the job or the Bible is very poorly written, for I think great violence must be done, at least to all the English translations of which I am familiar, to conclude otherwise.

What do the NPers say about works?

It is actually very hard to pin them down and to get clear answers that are not overly encumbered by ill-defined covenantal terminology. What they say is very similar to the Catholic position, or to what they claim was the Jewish position. Namely that we are justified by faith, and that faith produces good works, so the works are an outcome of mercy-- so far so good. However, the works not purely "evidentiary", they are in some sense real, and your covenantal standing depends on the works. But what does that mean? If I am out of the covenant have I lost my salvation, similar to having a mortal sin on my concience? If so then I need the works to persevere. That is certainly not faith-alone. If losing my covenantal standing does not mean I lost my salvation, then what have I lost? It must be something other than my salvation. If it is merely temporal or even eternal rewards (but not my salvation) then there is nothing new here, and the NPers have been hoisted with their own petard, because they still affirm Sola Fide while at the same time undermining its scriptural support.

My Criticism of the NPers

I do not have harsh criticism of the NPers. My main complaint is that they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to claim Reformed theology, at least in terms of Luther’s view on justification, has gotten it wrong, but they still want to be Reformed. But in my opinion, Reformed Theology has Sola Fide as understood by Luther (and as found in scripture), as its cornerstone; it is much more central to what it means to be Reformed than the more abstract covenantal theology. Maybe Reformed Theology is wrong, but the point is that what the NPers are teaching is not Reformed. Give up the label. Why do you cling to it so dearly?

They also insist they do not weaken Sola Fide but that they have a new understanding of it. Some deny (in what seems to me to be an honest concession) the related doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Some argue for "phases" of justification, of which the initial (but no longer once-and-for-all) forensic justification plays its part, as do subsequent justifications-by-works leading up to the final judgment. Works, say other NPers, are (these amazing feats that are) only "in a sense" evidentiary, yet they are by no means meritorious. But how can that be?

If Sola Fide is not what we thought, then the new view of it either strengthens or weakens it. But it really cannot be strengthened, nor do they claim it is, so it must be weakened.

Much more to come.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Evangelicals and Catholics Together

Chris Burgwald of Varitas has an interesting beginning to a review of an article by Jacob Michael on the Catholic Apologetics International (CAI) site about the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) meetings. These meetings consisted of Catholic and Evangelical luminaries and resulted in at least two documents.

The first document arising from these meetings, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, came out in 1994. For purposes of brevity I will refer to this document as ECT I.

On the evangelical side, signatories (drawn from both participants and endorsers) of ECT I include Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, Os Guinness, Mark Noll, and others.

On the Catholic side, I am uncertain which of the signatories are "luminaries", but it includes Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla, S.J. Archiocese of San Francisco and Fr. Matthew Lamb of Boston College. (Better to see the list of names at the end of the ECT I document to understand whether the Catholic names I list are in fact representative of the signatories.)

In the introduction of ECT I, it is stated that neither side is acting as an official representative of their community. This goes without saying for the Evangelicals; there is no ecclesiastical/legal basis for any Protestant, no matter how respected and universally acclaimed, to speak in an official status for the evangelical community. For the Catholics, the statement means that ECT proceeded without any official endorsement from the Vatican. It is my understanding that the ECT documents have received at least tacit approval from Rome, but I am not totally certain of this information.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the meetings, as I understand it, was to forge ways in which Evangelicals and Catholics could unite to fight the culture wars, jointly tackling issues such as abortion, pornography, secularism, and other moral crises. Another purpose was to alleviate, by fostering mutual respect and trust, violent and deadly confrontations between Evangelicals and Catholics occurring with alarming frequency in certain parts of the world such as South America.

For whatever reason, ECT I goes far beyond a joint statement on the culture wars and mutual trust. Perhaps the writers were carried away in their zeal to write a mission statement that pleased everyone. Perhaps they actually believed they could make a significant contribution toward tempering a 500 year old schism.

What they ended up with, at best, was guarded ambiguity, a kind of multiculturalistic politically correct document that at times reads like college freshman diversity-sensitivity training. For example, consider this Frankensteinian pronouncement from ECT I:

It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the Gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the Gospel. There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or "sheep stealing." We condemn the practice of recruiting people from another community for purposes of denominational or institutional aggrandizement. At the same time, our commitment to full religious freedom compels us to defend the legal freedom to proselytize even as we call upon Christians to refrain from such activity.

This is utterly devoid of meaning. It says there should be no sheep stealing for the purposes of "denominational or institutional aggrandizement". This is textbook doublespeak. It is meant to please the Catholics, who don't like sheep stealing, while providing a loophole for the Evangelicals, who can always claim their motives are much purer than denominational or institutional aggrandizement. Similarly, it then asks Christians to refrain from an activity that it simultaneously describes as a legal freedom.

I don't know what the mainstream Catholic response was to ECT I, or for that matter the mainstream Evangelical response, but my small corner of the Reformed Protestant world was stunned.

In the section of ECT I dealing with a joint affirmation, we read: We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.

For many Reformed Protestants, this statement is so imprecise, it is like John Paulos' clever Innumeracy example: "McDonalds has sold more than 1 hamburger". It is true enough, but expresses nothing substantive. The orthodox Reformed position of justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone is not precluded by the joint affirmation, but is certainly not implied by it. Indeed, it is so substantively different that the joint affirmation on justification "feels" to some (myself included) to be more of a capitulation than anything else.

This is compounded by the list, appearing later in ECT I, of our acknowledged differences:
Among points of difference in doctrine, worship, practice, and piety that are frequently thought to divide us are these:
  • The church as an integral part of the Gospel or the church as a communal consequence of the Gospel.
  • The church as visible communion or invisible fellowship of true believers.
  • The sole authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church.
  • The "soul freedom" of the individual Christian or the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the community.
  • The church as local congregation or universal communion.
  • Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers.
  • Sacraments and ordinances as symbols of grace or means of grace.
  • The Lord's Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal.
  • Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints.
  • Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration.

First, more of the guarded ambiguity: [these differences] are frequently thought to divide us rather than a more definitive and realistic we are divided by.

Worse yet, there is no mention of Justification by Faith Alone. Not only was the primary cause of the Reformation missing from the joint affirmation on Justification, it didn’t even make the top ten list of differences "thought" to divide us.

How can this be? Unless the Catholic Church has altered her position on Sola Fide (she has not), then the only interpretation a reasonable person could make is that the Protestants, due to the conspicuous absence of the word alone, had retreated from the position of the Reformers.

Of course many Protestants have done exactly that. However many of us still affirm the same view of sola fide held by the Reformers, for the same reason: it is biblical.

One cannot easily argue with the stated goals of ECT. It may be entirely possible, proper, and beneficial that Catholics and Protestants work together to fight the abomination of abortion. Such alliances should, however, steer clear of joint theological affirmations beyond, at most, the historic creeds.

Friday, October 18, 2002

God is unjust. God is unfair.

I belatedly ran across this post from my friend Kevin Holtsberry of multiple-blog fame, in this particular instance writing for the Theology Department. Kevin was commenting on this post of mine, in which I looked at 1 Tim 2:4 as a "problem" for the Calvinistic view of predestination.

Kevin wrote:
I am not going to get into a big theological discussion of TULIP, predestination, etc. I do want to say that I feel that predestination runs contrary to one clear cut idea, in my mind at least, God's justice.

One of the key characteristics of God is that he is just. One of the aspects of justice is treating like situations equally. This characteristic leads me away from predestination.
and a bit later:
If God offers redemption only to the elect then those few chosen people are being treated differently from the rest of mankind. This is not justice. If all are fallen and all need redemption then all must be offered the same rescue, the same opportunity to reconcile with God.

Kevin, I politely submit you are confusing justice with fairness.

To receive justice is (according to Aristotle), to receive one's due.

Fairness, on the other hand, generally means that all are treated equally.

Regardless, God sometimes acts in an unjust manner. God sometimes acts in an unfair manner.

What are we due? We all are born in rebellion to a Holy God. If we get what we are due, we all go to hell. That would be justice. It would also be fair.

There are two ways to be unjust. One is to punish someone who does not deserve it. That is injustice. God never sends a person to hell that doesn’t deserve it. God never practices injustice.

The other way to be unjust is to reward someone who doesn't deserve it. That is mercy or grace. God is merciful, otherwise nobody would be saved, which we all, not just Calvinists, agree requires grace.

So never pray for God's justice. You don’t want it. Pray for His mercy.

As for fairness, the Biblical evidence is overwhelming that God does not treat people equally. Jacob He loved, Esau He hated, before they were born and had done anything good or bad.

Paul, on the Damascus road, got what every Christian dreams of: A Damascus Road Experience (what a coincidence). God revealed Himself to Paul in a way that He has not revealed Himself to me. If I had Paul's experience, I would certainly have no annoying vestigial doubts. Quite unfair.

Kevin argues against predestination because "All must be offered the same rescue." If there is no predestination, and we must accept the offer of the gospel in order to be saved, does anyone really believe that equates to fairness? Surely millions die without ever hearing about Jesus. Is it fair that they are lost? Or if God saves them because they never had a chance, is that fair? Surely in the Arminian view it is acknowledged that your environment, family, and health all play a part in whether you will accept. Are wealthy people more or less likely to accept? Children of believers or unbelievers? Educated or uneducated? Western or Third World? If any of these can have an effect on your deciding to choose to accept the gospel, then it is not fair, since many if not most of these factors are out your control.

If it really is harder for a rich man to get to heaven, how unfair to be born rich.

Choose to believe or not believe in predestination because either it is taught in scripture or it isn't. Don’t decide on the basis of "fairness". First of all, God is not fair. He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. Secondly, the alternative to predestination is also unfair.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Not Today

One of those big presentation-type days. Duty calls-- will blog tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Preservation, Not Perseverance

Lately I have been looking at "problem" passages for doctrines I believe. Today the doctrine in question is Perseverance of the Saints. This is the belief that once a person is saved, he cannot lose his salvation. Simply put: eternal life means eternal life.

For longtime readers: The first part of this post borrows heavily (with some changes) from another post I did entitled Can I Lose My Salvation. The second part, where I discuss the Catholic perspective and address the "problem" passage, is completely new.

Perseverance of the Saints is implicitly required by the doctrine of Unconditional Election (predestination). After all, it would not make much sense to speak of an elect chosen from the foundation of time if they could lose their salvation.

The logic is straightforward: eternal life is, well, eternal. You cannot have eternal life for just a few years. Once you have it, as promised by God for a saving faith, you cannot lose it, otherwise it wasn’t really eternal and God has been made a liar. Eternal life goes hand-in-hand with salvation; you cannot have one without the other. Ergo, salvation is once-and-for-all as well.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:26, NASB)

"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24, NASB)

This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. (1 John 2:25, NASB)

If you are a believer, you already possess eternal life; it is a promise, not a carrot used to keep you in line. That way of thinking leads to salvation by works.

Fortunately we do no have to rely on the implicit need for perseverance; scripture is quite explicit about it.
"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of hand. "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. "I and the Father are one." (John 10: 27-30, NASB)

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6, NASB)

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." (Rom. 8:31-36, NASB)
Christ will have all those whom have been effectually called. None will stray and be lost forever. We worship an awesome God.

And as if if that weren’t enough, We are also sealed by the Holy Spirit:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, NASB)

Preservation, not Perseverance

TULIP is one of the worst retrofitted acrostics of all time. At a minimum, the 'T' (Total Depravity) and especially 'L' (Limited Atonement) are inaccurate names for the doctrines they represent. The 'P' in TULIP is even more unforgivable, because there is already a 'P' word that is a much better choice: Preservation of the Saints. This sends the correct message that it is by God’s grace and faithfulness to His promise, and not our works, that our salvation is preserved. Perseverance implies the opposite, that man through his own righteousness can hold on to something he didn’t deserve in the first place.

Yeah but what about…

We all know about some guy who appeared to have been a genuine believer, then all of a sudden he quit coming to church. Later we learn that he became a transgendered devil-worshipping biker enviro-nazi NEA-supporter and was promptly elected to the California State Assembly (where he was often identified as a "moderate"). What to say to say about such a creature without being arrested for a hate crime? Well, the only possibilities are the two obvious ones: Either he never really was saved or he is still saved and will, in time, cease his backsliding and return to the fold.

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.(1 John 2:19, NASB)

Roman Catholic Position

Roman Catholicism absolutely denies the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. Catholics can fall from a state of grace by committing a mortal sin. They have lost their salvation, and must be restored through the sacrament of penance. The Council of Trent has this to say about Perseverance:

Similarly with regard to the gift of perseverance, of which it is written: He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved, which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands, that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God's help. For God, unless men themselves fail in His grace, as he has begun a good work, so will he perfect it, working to will and to accomplish. Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labors, in watchings, in alms, deeds, in prayer, in fastings and chastity. (boldface added)
In my opinion, this pays lip service to some of the scripture supporting perseverance while inserting caveats that sound like mild warnings but actually completely destroy the doctrine. What does it mean to place one's "firmest hope in God" while at the same time men may "fail in His grace"? In reality, there is no hope placed in God, in this view all hope is then resting not on God’s grace but man’s ability. So God, having begun a good work, will certainly complete it (Phil. 1:6), unless, according to Trent, He doesn’t.

To be sure, the Trent analysis also confuses the related but distinct doctrines of Assurance and Perseverance by referring to the fear-and-trembling from Phillipians 2:12, which deals with attaining the former, not the latter.

Of course Trent was anathema drunk, so we also read later in the Council's report:
Canon 16. If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema.
It is hard to enumerate the number of ways I stand anathematized by the Council of Trent.

The Hebrews Problem

The most problematic passage comes from Hebrews:
4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Heb. 6:4-6, NASB)
I approach this utterly convinced in the doctrine of Perseverance (Preservation) of the Saints, so that I am not going to entertain the possibility that this is a refutation. Instead, I want to see if this can be reconciled.

Let us first deal with "those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit". Without doing extreme violence to the text, this must refer to believers, i.e., those already saved. It cannot refer, as some well-meaning apologists would have it, to non-believers attending church and playing as Christians, for they have not yet repented and so cannot "renew" what they never did.

Now what does "fallen away" mean, except to lose one's salvation? It cannot mean garden-variety sinning, otherwise the passage would be teaching a new bad-news gospel: that only perfection can maintain a person in a state of grace.

A simple but accurate paraphrase of the passage is: If believers lose their salvation, then it is impossible for them to repent and be restored, because that would require another crucifixion.

We need to understand the possible ways of using an if-then argument. One is straightforward: If A is true, then B is also true. If that is what is being used here, then the message is simply what it says: if you are a believer, be careful not to lose your salvation, because you cannot get it back. This goes far beyond a refutation of Perseverance of the Saints. Catholics and some non-Reformed Protestants believe you can lose your salvation, but both believe you can be restored.

Another way to use if-then arguments is reductio ad absurdum. In this method, we accept an incorrect premise and show how it reaches an absurd conclusion, thus denying the premise.

A clear example is found in 1 Corinthians:
and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (1 Cor. 15:17)
If the resurrection did not happen, then our faith is worthless. But the resurrection did happen. Our faith has infinite value, amen.

I believe the passage in Hebrews is used in this manner. If believer can lose his salvation, then it would require a second crucifixion. But a believer cannot lose his salvation. A second resurrection is unnecessary, amen.

If you stop and think about what it means to lose you salvation, I think this conclusion becomes obvious. To lose our salvation means the we commit sins that have not been paid for by Christ’s Atonement. That is why we would then require a second crucifixion. But Christ's sacrifice paid for all our sins, past present and future (they were all "future" sins when He paid for them).
For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. (Rom. 6:10, NASB)
If we can lose our salvation, it means we can commit a sin that either God did not anticipate, calling into question his Sovereignty, or a sin that Christ didn't pay for, casting doubts on His Atonement, and indirectly, on Christ's deity. And all the scripture that tells of Christ's finished work is a lie.

Far from refuting the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, this passage of Hebrews, read properly, is actually one of its strongest affirmations. It teaches: How absurd to think that a saved person could lose his salvation. Christ died for all the sins of the elect, once and for all; His perfect work is finished.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Blog Absence

Blogging should resume tomorrow. Thanks to readers Henry and Chris who alerted me about Mozilla problems. I hope Henry's suggested fix works!

Friday, October 11, 2002

No Blog

Taking some time off for a camping trip. No blogs until next week. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 10, 2002

1 Timothy 2:4

Yesterday I was criticized for bringing a presupposition (in favor of sola fide) to my post arguing that the epistle of James is harmonious with that doctrine. The point about my presupposition is of course true, but as to whether it is a valid criticism I have my doubts. I believe in sola fide because I think, taking scripture as a whole, it is overwhelmingly and clearly taught. So I think it perfectly acceptable to look at verses (i.e., James 2:24) that, prima facie, are in opposition and to ask if there is another way to understand them that is credible and restores a consistent (presupposed) viewpoint. If that can be done, as it can be with James, then one has strengthened the presupposition.

I say that as a preemptive strike, because today I am bringing my strong persuasion of the doctrine of unconditional election (predestination) to a discussion of a "problem" verse for that viewpoint. The verse is 1 Timothy 2:4, but since I will want to discuss it in context here are the first four verses of 1 Timothy 2:
1 First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men,
2 for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.
3 This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,
4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
In isolation, verse 4 appears to be in violent opposition to the doctrine of predestination. Of course, "in isolation" is a dangerous way to argue, especially against predestination, because if it is rhetorically acceptable to use verses purely in isolation, then in a tit-for-tat between Calvinists and Arminians, the deck is stacked in favor of the Calvinists. For example, we can counter 1 Tim. 2:4 with the words of Jesus:
"For many are called, but few are chosen." (Mat. 22:14, NASB)
This more than "trumps" 1 Tim. 2:4, given the accepted-by-most hermeneutic that what is implied is subordinate to what is explicit. 1 Tim 2:4 states that God desires all men to be saved, from which it is inferred that He gives opportunity to all men. Matthew 22:14 states explicitly that few are chosen.

However, this is not the way to reason scripture. Since I believe in predestination, for my own comfort I want to reconcile 1 Tim. 2:4 to that view. If you believe Paul is teaching the Arminian viewpoint, then you can take delight in the most straightforward interpretation of this verse, but you have your work cut out for you with a great deal of other scripture.

God’s Preceptive Will

When we talk about God’s desires, we are referring not to His sovereign will, but to His preceptive will. This involve things that God will not do Himself, but that He desires of man, such as to obey His commandments. Man can and does disobey. This does not thwart His will or violate His sovereignty. He has not decreed that we obey, but He does desire our obedience. We can see this in another, similar Calvinistic "snare"
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Pet. 3:9, NKJV)
God does not decree that nobody should perish. (He could, but he doesn't. Why? I don't know.) He does decree that some should not perish (the elect). Apparently, according to this verse, He desires that all should repent. But alas, we don’t.

Perhaps 1 Tim. 2:4 is explained similarly: it is talking about Gods desire that all be saved, knowing full well that all men are not going to be saved, in fact no man is saved apart from God choosing him. God does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, yet for His mysterious pleasure he does not save everyone.

All men?

Another way to look at 1 Tim. 2:4 is that all men does not refer to all mankind. Some argue that it refers to the elect, but that, in my view, does too much violence to that passage. Although it is manifest that God desires the elect to be saved, it seems both overly redundant and out of context to make that point at this place in scripture.

So we look at context. It would appear to be remarkably similar to our present national crisis, where we are being asked to pray for world leaders. Here Paul instructs Timothy to teach the Ephesians to pray for those who are oppressing Christians: ...on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority… If Paul, at this place, wanted to solicit prayer for all men generically (all mankind), why did he go on to specify "kings and all who are in authority"? Is it not reasonable that he is exhorting prayer specifically for those in power (who were oppressing Christianity)?

So the "all men" phrase beginning at the end of verse 1 might easily be interpreted, to include the context, as "all men, [including those that oppress you:] kings and all who are in authority".

This meaning for "all men" would then carry over into verse 4. In this light, one can view 1 Tim. 2:4 as teaching that we pray for all men, because God's elect includes all types of men, from all nations, with all manner of depravities. Perhaps even Saddam Hussein.


If the first time I opened scripture I turned to 1 Tim. 2:4 I would have been immediately persuaded of the Arminian position. Over time (I would like to think), the dissonance with the bulk of scripture would have converted me to the Reformed view. So, as I admitted, I am looking to find a way to reconcile 1 Tim. 2:4 with predestination.

In closing I note that interpreting this verse at face value with the inference that God gives opportunity for all to be saved carries with it a host of attendant problems. If God desires all men to be saved then it must mean He desires at least one thing even more: that man's free will is never violated by an regenerating act of divine will. And if that is the case, then unregenerate man cannot be as corrupt as scripture teaches, for in the depraved state it describes, man cannot choose God. And if man can choose God, in spite of scripture teaching otherwise, we are left with the nagging question of why some choose while others don't, especially if we desire, as also clearly taught, to avoid a works-based salvation.

Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Sola Fide

The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone (sola fide) is often attacked on two fronts. The first is the fact that the phrase never appears in scripture, except in the epistle of James, in which it appears to be refuted, which is the second and more difficult front of the attack.

The Missing Alone

When Paul talks about justification, primarily in the book of Romans, he never states explicitly that justification is by faith alone. However, what is not explicit is nevertheless abundantly clear.

When we say justification is by faith alone, it is understood that the faith itself is by grace. So grace is not excluded, obviously, from the restriction: faith alone.

That leaves only one other thing that could possibly contribute to justification: keeping the law, or works. Thus we have three possibilities:
  1. Justification is by works alone.

  2. Justification is by faith and works.

  3. Justification is by faith alone, sola fide.
The first option is rightly rejected by all Christians. The debate is really between the second and third choices.

So if Paul wants to teach sola fide he has two possible basic strategies at his disposal: He could affirm it explicitly, or he could eliminate option 2, justification by faith and works, so that only sola fide remains as a possibility.

That is exactly what Paul does. He eliminates works as a contributing factor. If works do not contribute to justification, then the only thing left is faith, and faith alone.
26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom. 3: 36-28, NIV)

If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. (Rom. 4:2)

know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16, NASB)
In light of these passages (and the book of Romans as a whole) one sees how weak the argument is that Paul does not teach sola fide simply because he never names the doctrine that he so clearly espouses.

The James Problem

The often quoted apparent refutation of sola fide:
21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:21:24, NIV)
Here is the dilemma in a nutshell:
  1. Paul teaches that justification is by faith alone.

  2. Paul teaches that Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4:2). So does Moses (Gen. 15:6).

  3. James seemingly denies sola fide, especially in James 2:24.

  4. James teaches that Abraham was considered righteous for offering Isaac (James 2:21).
It appears that James contradicts Paul. What shall we then say? Bad James, bad! May it never be!

As an aside, this problem is always posed as a "James" problem for the sola fide crowd. It is equally (if indeed it were an actual dilemma) a "Paul" problem for those who deny justification by faith alone.

There are really only three possibilities.
  1. James is wrong.

  2. Paul is wrong.

  3. James and Paul are talking about different things.
Clearly the first two options are not open for consideration. Although Catholics and Protestants disagree on the sufficiency of scripture, both agree on its inerrancy. The only real possibility is that Paul and James are using justification differently. This is the only solution that preserves the integrity and harmony of scripture.

In discussing this, it is vital to remember the context in which Paul and James speak of justification. Paul is laying out a treatise of the forensic view of justification, forensic because we are declared "legally" righteous before God by claiming Christ's perfect righteousness as our own. Paul is always discussing the theological ground for justification, which is faith and faith alone.

James' epistle is a much more practical, down-to-earth, in-your-face exhortation. James is addressing a dead orthodoxy and its cousin, antinomianism. James, unlike Paul, is not teaching first principle apologetics on the theological ground of justification, but its practical and inevitable manifestation.

This is most clear in the conflicting discussions of father Abraham. Paul refers to Gen. 15:6, where Abraham is made (credited) with righteousness because he believed. James refers to an event much later, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac.

The fact that Paul and James refer to Abraham's justification as occurring at different times, and as the result of different events, either worsens the dilemma or, as I believe, is additional evidence that Paul and James are talking about different things.

Note further what James wrote: Abraham was considered righteous (NIV) for offering Isaac. Considered by whom? God does not consider, God knows a man’s state. God knew Abraham was righteous because He made him (credited him) righteous earlier in his life. Abraham’s obedience made his justification manifest to himself, to Isaac, and most importantly to all of us. That is what James meant. For further evidence (and not dependent on the use of considered in the NIV) we note that James clearly views it as a display of righteousness (or justification), not the actual act of being justified, by also referring, in James 2:23, to Abraham’s ground for justification: faith.

In this view, James' teaching is clearly understood and in no way in conflict with Paul’s teaching of sola fide. James is telling us that if there is no fruit (works), then we are not justified, because justification (though by faith alone) always bears fruit. Both Paul and Jesus agree, teaching that, for example, a good tree is known by its good fruit (Matt. 12:33). God already knows which tree is good. Man does not know, except by the fruit, which then glorifies God.

It is possible that James was addressing a form of antinomianism that arose as a perverted application of Paul’s teaching (which in no wise impugns it, Pauls teaching that is). This would make it an early church version of the present day Lordship Salvation controversy. James is not arguing against Paul, but rather against those who believe that it is possible to be a carnal Christian.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Components of a Saving Faith

What exactly constitutes a saving faith? It is of particular interest to those of us who affirm Justification by Faith Alone.

This is a subject of much debate. Generally, however, it is accepted that there are three major components of a saving faith.


Notitia refers to the fact that we have the correct knowledge or content. Today people often claim that sincerity in one’s faith is the most important aspect. Sincerity may be important, but it is not all important. What you believe has to be right. You may sincerely believe in reincarnation, but that is not part of a saving faith, but rather part of a damning faith. Being sincerely wrong is no virtue.

It does not mean you need a comprehensive knowledge (if so, we all would be lost), but there is some (undefined) minimum set of correct beliefs you must hold, such as the fact the God exists.


Assensus means that you not only have the notitia (content) but you also give intellectual assent to the content. This is a non-volitional agreement; you cannot will yourself or make a decision to believe. There may be a process by which you can ultimately reach a point where you can honestly affirm a proposition, either through education or divine intervention, but you cannot simply tell yourself I will believe.

James famously refers to demons in his epistle:
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (James 2:19, NASB)
The demons have both notitia (correct content) and assensus (intellectual assent), but their faith was/is not a saving faith. It lacks the third component fiducia. (Although even if they had it, it is not clear they would be saved. Nowhere is it mentioned that there exists a redemptive plan for fallen angels.)


This is the complex “of the heart” faith, as opposed to the cerebral notitia and assensus. This relates to our conviction and passion. This is our conscience. This is the part of faith that goes beyond knowing that the bible teaches us not to steal, and acknowledging that stealing is a sin, to being convicted by the Holy Spirit that stealing is wrong.

With fiducia, we not only know the content of the gospel and believe it to be true, we also believe it to be good. This is clearly, in its entirety, a gift of God. Before regeneration, we are dead in sin and cannot seek or please God. After the gift of faith, we are radically violated. We now (imperfectly) seek God. Our biblical knowledge is buttressed by conviction that God is good, and the things of God are greatly to be desired.

Monday, October 07, 2002


As described here, this post is part of my notes for my Sunday School.

The lesson can be viewed here.

Much of the material was adapted from R. C. Sproul's Chosen by God and from previous posts on this site.

Friday, October 04, 2002

Body of Death

14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.
16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.
17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.
22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,
23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
In this passage, Paul discusses the conflict raging between regenerated man’s two natures: the flesh and the spirit. In verse 19 he famously tells us that what he wants to do he doesn't, and what he does do he hates. In verse 20 he tells us that it is not the (incomplete) new man who sins, but the old body still struggling within. In verse 23, he again emphasizes the struggle of the spirit, which desires to obey the law, with carnal sinful nature still holding great power over our bodies.

But the most gruesome imagery is found in verse 24, where Paul asks Who will set me free from the body of this death? This is a reference to the ancient practice of chaining the body of a murder victim to the murderer. The criminal was physically linked to the decaying corpse. The mind reels at such a punishment. Paul tells us that our old sinful nature is like a putrefying corpse that we have to drag around.

But at least we do know the answer to his question.
and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; (Col. 2:11)

Thursday, October 03, 2002

The Accuser

Satan as The Accuser is puzzling in many ways. His has limited but undeniable access to God’s throne, at least prior to his defeat by Christ crucified. This is not easy to fathom in our limited view of the relationship between God and Satan.

The most famous account of Satan, face-to-face with God and accusing one of His elect, is from Job 1:6-11.

A similar scene unfolds in one of the visions of the prophet Zechariah.
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.
2 The LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?"
3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel.
4 He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, "Remove the filthy garments from him." Again he said to him, "See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes."
5 Then I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the LORD was standing by.
6 And the angel of the LORD admonished Joshua, saying,
7 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here. (Zech. 3:1-7, NASB)
The high priest Joshua is not Moses’ successor; he is the priest of Ezra 5:2 who returned with the exiles. As a representative of the Jews, he stands in God’s court accused by Satan.

Apparently we enter the scene after Satan’s accusations have been made, just in time to hear the Lord’s rebuke. The "brand plucked" is a reference to the nation rescued from Babylon.

The is quite a bit of theology in this short passage. Joshua’s filthy garments represent his own, or maybe the entire nation’s "righteousness" (Isaiah 64:6). As such, he is not presentable to holy God. Joshua’s garments are removed, his sins are forgiven, and he is clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27). Only then is Joshua is acceptable to the Lord.

It is worth noting that in the entire cleansing process, Joshua contributed nothing but his own iniquities. No credit was afforded him because of any righteous deed or act of his free-will. It was all of grace-- all a free gift of God.

This pattern is played out over and over again. We are dead in sin. Satan accuses us before God. Because of Christ’s work, we are cleansed with His righteousness, and by it are made acceptable. And like Joshua, we are still admonished to glorify God by obeying His command, with the promise of great reward.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Baptism for the Dead

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? (1 Cor. 15:29)
This obscure passage has been used for much mischief, because of its use in support of the idea that baptism is salvific.

Using this isolated verse in that manner is wrong in many regards. First of all, it violates the most fundamental hermeneutic, namely that obscure scripture must be interpreted in light of abundantly clear scripture. And the clear message throughout the New Testament is that baptism does not save; only a personal true faith in Jesus Christ saves. For the dead, it is too late. If they were not believers, they are lost forever. If they were believers, then they were saved, like the repentant thief, without being baptized. (Yes, if they were believers, then they should have been baptized and would have wanted to be baptized if they understood it and had the opportunity.)

Some think Paul was commenting on the incongruity of a Corinthian practice of holding a baptism on behalf of the dead, while at the same time denying bodily resurrection. In this view, Paul is pointing out the obvious inconsistency between the practice and the denial.

I tend to disagree with this view, because Paul does not actually appear to condemn the practice. If the Corinthians were actually holding baptisms on behalf of the dead, I think Paul would have gone beyond pointing out how it was merely inconsistent with other errors in their theology.

If baptisms for the physically dead were actually happening, then, some would say, the fact that Paul does not condemn it implies that the practice was acceptable and meaningful. After all, only the Corinthian denial of the resurrection seems to be an issue. Paul’s lack of condemnation is viewed as favorable circumstantial evidence for salvific baptism.

I think Paul does not condemn it because it wasn’t happening. I think Paul is simply stating that is there is no resurrection (especially Christ’s), then all baptism is utterly pointless (and that the dead are the unregenerate). This is the main point of the entire chapter:
13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Cor 15:13-14, NIV)

If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (1 Cor 15:32, NIV)
It is absolutely a mistake to start with a chapter whose theme is reality of the resurrection, extract a difficult verse to hold as definitive for an altogether different issue, and from it form a new gospel, a gospel that conflicts with the rest of the New Testament.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002


I wish I knew more about Melchizedek.

He appears only briefly, in Genesis, just after Abram (Abraham) has rescued Lot:
18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. 19And he blessed him and said:

"Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand."

And he gave him a tithe of all. (Gen. 14:18-20, NKJV)
Of course, the fact that Abram tithed to Melchizedek is crucial, it signifies that he was a priest of God.

The next place we read about him is Psalm 110, a Messianic prophesy:
The LORD has sworn
And will not relent,
"You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek." (Psalm 110:4, NKJV)
Melchizedek is not mentioned again until the book of Hebrews, where he is mentioned nine times in chapters 5 through 7. The gist of the Hebrew references is that Christ is a High Priest, but not as a "son of Levi" but of the order of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is offered as Jesus' right and justification to be proclaimed a priest, since He did not have the proper tribal bloodlines according to the law of Moses.

Doesn’t this all seem very mysterious, a true imponderable? Who was Melchizedek? Who were his descendants? Who were his ancestors? Was he a Christophany (Old Testament appearance of Christ)?

Those who favor the Christophany view point to a passage in Hebrews:

2to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated "king of righteousness," and then also king of Salem, meaning "king of peace," 3 without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. (Hebrews 7:2-3, NKJV)
which is indeed suggestive but not without other interpretations such as a statement of lack of knowledge of Melchizedek's family tree, or perhaps it is a reference that the priesthood of Melchizedek that is eternal.

I don’t have a clue. The priest Melchizedek is a true enigma.