Category Archives: Theological Studies

Paul and the Slave Girl: Racism and the Great Gospel Narrative

My article, Paul and the Slave Girl: Racism and the Great Gospel Narrative (posted earlier this week, and up for about a mere hour) was picked up by Mere Orthodoxy. Please take a look.

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The Transcendental Argument and The Gospel

One of the strongest arguments for the existence of God is the transcendental argument. I’ve covered elsewhere (see links below), but this all-encompassing argument claims that to deny the existence of the Christian God is to uncut the very meaningfulness of the most important everyday realities we take for granted.

This is all bold and exciting stuff, but so often it can seem distant from the central truths of the Christian faith. It can feel like a far cry from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But is this true?

I suggest that once we move past that initial sentiment, and reflect among what’s being taught in the transcendental argument, we’ll see that a proper handling of the argument actually creates a bridge, not a hindrance, to the gospel.

So let’s reevaluate the claims of the transcendental argument and see what it tells us about God and man.

What the argument tells us about God. The argument clearly communicates God as the one with whom we have to do. God is there, and he is not silent. In knowing anything about the world we, in fact, know the one true and living God.

Furthermore, we learn…

  • only God accounts for the causation of the universe. This means he has the power to accomplish all that he wants to.
  • God is the very standard of good and righteous behavior mean that he is not passive in evaluating our behavior (whether expressed in thought, word, or deed), and stands against our unrighteousness.
  • God’s existence accounts for rationality and the laws of thought. This means that in our moments of intellectual clarity we reflect God, and when we reason against him we are turning his good gift against him.

What the argument tells us about humanity. But the argument goes further. Not only does it tell about who God is, but it tells us who we are.

  • Man receives God’s revelation of himself through the things God has made.
  • Man suppresses that revelation of God because of his hostility toward God
  • Those who search (in vain) for alternate groundings for the laws of thought are not running toward rationality and logic, but running in the exact opposite direction.

And so if the argument is sound, it pulls back the curtain and reveals what is really going on. God, the true God, is revealed everywhere, in and through every created thing, to every human being. The unbeliever is ultimately not a Christian because they lack information, or require superior rational arguments. They have a deep-seated hostility toward the true God.

This is why the transcendental argument is an incredibly powerful tool in the apologist’s toolbox. It is a multifaceted argument, one that not only argues for the existence of God, but reveals man’s sin, and naturally leads to a biblical solution to the problem: the gospel.

Whereas the revealation of God in the created order is sufficient only to condemn us for our sin, the gospel reveals that the final Judge is also gracious and merciful. The gospel reveals the character of God as generous and forgiving, something the philosopher will search for in vain in their “first principles.” The gospel reveals that God can grant the power to overcome humanity’s rebellion and by the Spirit give him the ability to think God’s thoughts after him.

For more, see

Inerrancy and the Danger of Forced Harmonization

A doctrine I’ve repeatedly defended is that of biblical inerrancy. This doctrine affirms 2 things: First, that when all the facts are taken into consideration, and when the Bible is correctly interpreted, it neither 2) contradicts other known facts, or contradicts itself.  Here I’d like t briefly discuss the second part of that definition- The Bible never contradicts itself. I’d like us to think through how we apply this conviction to tough cases.

For some time now the outspoken atheist, and Christian apostate, Dan Baker has issued his Easter Challenge. As he plainly state it, the challenges is as follows,

The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.

A number of introductory remarks are needed in responding to Mr. Barker’s Easter Challenge. Several of these thoughts are regarding what logically constitutes a contradiction between the multiple resurrection accounts, while others touch on historical and literary concerns.  My goal here is not to provide a detailed harmonization (others have provided that), but address the larger idea of forced harmonizations. Parameters must be acknowledged for any responsible Christian response to challenges like Barker’s.

Literary Considerations

As a single example of what Barker wants resolved, he asks:

What time did the women visit the tomb?

  • Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1)
  • Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV)
  • Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV)
  • John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)

It is clear that Mr. Barker’s challenge is intended to demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and irreconcilable. Such convolution, though not directly stated but certainly implied, is a strong argument against the historicity of the event itself. If the primary eyewitnesses cannot get their facts straight and do not produce a cohesive narrative the skeptic has ample reason to reject the central claim they are making.

Difficulties arise when certain assumptions (made by those untrained in biblical interpretation, historical reconstruction, and logic) are imposed upon the texts of the Bible.

Harmonization may not be possible. First, it may very well be the case that textual reconstruction is impossible. But this is not necessarily because of any failure of the biblical authors to presents the facts “as they really were,” but rather because we fail as interpreters to do just to the unique emphases of each Gospel as a literary whole. Each Gospel approaches the story of Jesus from a distinct angle, and we therefore should not automatically expect them to line up neatly like so many Lego blocks. Matthew constructs his Gospel with the aim of demonstrating Jesus as the long-promised messianic king, while John seeks to identify Jesus as the God of Israel come in the flesh. Each Gospel has its own goal and orders, including and excluding material based on the overall point they are seeking to make. We should not muffle these voices in the violent literary attempt to cram them into our preconceived procrustean bed. This is an inherent danger that potentially awaits anyone who seeks to harmonize the resurrection accounts (including those who affirm biblical inerrancy).

Beware the monster. Second, The Gospels were not written with the intent that they would be carved up, abstracted from their original focus, and spliced together like a literary Frankenstein’s Monster. So we ask, what exactly does Mr. Barker have in mind when he writes, “The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted” (emphasis his).  If two Gospels says there was one angel at the empty tomb, and another says there was one, how should both these details be represented in the text, “There was/were one/two angels”?  Does this kind of bare representation (without harmonization) encourage the uninitiated to claim, “See, there is a clear contradiction!” It would seem so.

Gaps and blanks. Last, following the lead of biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, we must make the distinction between literary gaps and blanks. “A gap is an intentional omission whereas a blank is an inconsequential omission” (see his An Old Testament Theology) Much of the information we would need to produce a successful harmonization is “blanked” because it was not reckoned to be essential to the narrative presented by the Gospel authors. In no way does this rule out the historicity of the accounts. It merely reminds us not to impose the foreign criteria of modern historiography on these ancient texts.

Logical Considerations

This last example raises another difficulty for Mr. Barker’s Challenge. If his goal in having people wrestle with this experiment in literary harmonization is to palpably demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and contradictory, an important question must be raised: What exactly is a contradiction?

A contradiction occurs whenever we affirm two logically irreconcilable concepts at the same time and in the same sense (A and not-A). Many objections to harmonization (and the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy behind it) are working off of a faulty and imprecise definition of contradiction.

Important for our purposes are the following interpretive points:

  • Differences of perspective do not necessarily imply contradiction.
  • Difficulties in the textual harmonization of multiple similar accounts (especially due to literary, linguistic, historical, or archeological ignorance) does not necessarily imply a contradiction
  • Difficulties in harmonization do not logically mean or imply that the event to which they refer took place

To return to our earlier example of the angelic appearances at the empty tomb, we follow the lead of Norman Geisler:

Matthew does not say there was only one angel. John says there were two, and wherever there are two there is always one; it never fails! The critic has to add the word “only” to Matthew’s account in order to make it contradictory. But in this case, the problem is not with what the Bible actually says, but with what the critic adds to it. (Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992)

Matthew probably focuses on the one who spoke and “said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid’ “ (Matt. 28:5). John referred to how many angels they saw; “and she saw two angels” (John 20:12).3

As Geisler notes, the needed element to produce genuine contradiction must be provided by a hostile interpreted and does not come from the texts themselves.

Conclusion

This has been a brief crash course in thinking through some of the issue at handle when working through harmonization. The challenges to inspiration and inerrancy present us with the temptation to force harmonization to vindicate the Bible. We must work toward possible harmonization when possible, and admit ignorance and the need for further study when necessary. The best resources I can recommend for further study in this subject are Poythress’ Inerrancy and Worldview, and Inerrancy and the Gospels.

For more, see:

Losing Paul: What Happens If We Deny The Apostle’s Authority?

What would happen if we removed Paul and his influence from the New Testament? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since I was asked to help respond to a person who denied Paul’s apostolic authority. The more I reflected on what would be lost if Paul were removed, the more it appears that the loss of Paul from the canon creates an unstoppable domino effect.

So, how should we respond to a person who seemingly wants to affirm Scripture, but denies Paul’s apostolic authority?

First Things First. The important thing to remember is that your view is not on trial. You hold to the historical and consistent witness of Christians for 2,000 years in affirming Paul’s apostolic authority. The burden of proof is on the person who denies this uniformly affirmed Christian position. Questions should be asked. On what ground does he deny Paul’s authority? It cannot be on the authority of the Bible. Second Corinthians was written defending that very thing! Those who have called Paul’s apostolic authority into question throughout church history have usually been heretics.

The Price of Paul. According to the New Testament, Peter affirms Paul’s apostolic authority when he acknowledged that like the Prophets Moses and Isaiah, Paul’s writing is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Peter writes:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

And of course, there is the repeated testimony to Paul’s calling and conversation in Acts written by Luke (see Acts 9, 22, and 26). Likewise, half the book of Acts is dedicated to demonstrating that Paul was faithful to Christ’s calling on his life.

Rejecting Paul’s apostolic authority also has seriously damaging consequences for how we understand all of the New Testament. Here how that line of thinking goes: If Paul has no God-given apostolic authority, then he was not truly called by Jesus himself on the Road to Damascus. If Paul was not truly called by Jesus himself on the Road to Damascus, then the author of Acts (Luke) made up those accounts and therefore cannot be trusted. If Luke cannot be trusted, then the Gospel by his name cannot be trusted. If we lose Luke’s Gospel, we lose ¼ of the historical testimony to earthly life of Christ, as well as many details about the facts of Jesus birth.

A shockwave runs through the New Testament simply by calling into Paul’s authority into question. All distinctive teachings of Paul (teaching that are unique to Paul’s writings and not found in other Gospels or epistles) are lost.

But there’s more…

As we noted above, Peter endorsed Paul. This would mean that Peter was either mistaken or deceived, calling his authority into question. But we must remember that Peter is regularly acknowledged as the source behind Mark’s Gospel, which is usually recognized as the original Gospel and the Gospel which the apostle Matthew expanded upon. This means if Paul loses all credibility…

  • Luke loses all credibility
  • Peter loses all credibility
  • Mark loses all credibility
  • Matthew loses all credibility.

With further, and more detailed, argumentation I believe I could push this further, but in this conservative estimate the loss of Paul would reduce our New Testament from 27 books to a mere 8 (John, Hebrews, James, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, Jude, and Revelation).

That’s a lot to sacrifice.

 

Unpacking Common Grace

A major doctrine for Christians looking to understand the world in which they live is the doctrine of common grace. This doctrine is firmly embedded in the Reformed tradition, but ultimate is found in the pages of Scripture itself. To unpack this doctrine we’ll look at it from several angles. First, I’d like to define what the doctrine is. Second, I’ll briefly provide biblical support for this doctrine. Third, I will cite some helpful clarifications on the doctrine. And last, we want to share some thought s on a controversy over the doctrine of common grace.

Defining common grace. Dutch Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof defines God’s common grace as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit” (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine). Likewise, Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til (one of the founding faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary) said  common grace is God’s “favor to sinners by which they are kept from working out to the full the principle of sin within them and thereby are enabled to show some measure of involuntary respect and appreciation for the law of God that speaks to them even through their own constitution, as well as through the facts of the world outside” (see his An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 55)

This is exactly what the great Reformer John Calvin affirmed when he warned:

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole foundation of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I 2.2.15)

Last, the well respect scholar of the Post-Reformation Era, Richard Muller, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, under the entry gratia communis, “common grace” wrote,

a nonsaving, universal grace according to which God in his goodness bestows his favor upon all creation in the general blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good.  Thus, rain falls on the just and the unjust, and all men have the law engraved on their hearts.  Gratia communis is therefore contrasted by the Reformed with particular or special grace.

Biblical Support. Sin has infected our every faculty. Nevertheless, God is gracious and has restrained it from doing its worst (Gen. 20:6). God also displays lovingkindness to both believers and non-believers in the unfolding of history (Matt. 5:45, Acts 14:16-17). God does use unbelievers to make true pronouncements (Num. 23:18-24, cf. Gen. 49: 9), even when speaking God’s truth was not their intention (Jn 11:47-51, Acts 5:34-39). Whether on the lips of faithful friend or fiercest foe, Calvin notes that truth should be acknowledged as coming from the Spirit of God, who is the “sole foundation of truth.”

Clarifications. Some clarifications are in order. R. C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries, writes in his book, Everyone’s a Theologian, makes a very helpful distinction between common grace and special grace.

Another important distinction is between common grace and special grace. Special grace involves the redemption that God gives to the saved. By contrast, common grace is called “common” because it is virtually universal. It is the grace that God gives to all people indiscriminately. Common grace is the mercy and kindness that God extends to the human race. The Bible says that God in His providence sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5: 45), and this is an example of common grace. There may be two farmers in the same town, one devout and committed to the things of God, and the other as pagan as he can possibly be. Both need the rain for their crops, and God in His goodness waters the earth, so both profit from the showers. Neither farmer deserves the rain to nurture his crops, but God’s rain falls upon both, not just the devout man.

God’s common grace extends far beyond rain. People who are not in fellowship with God enjoy many favors from Him. Changes in the human standard of living over time— quality of life, improved health, and better safety— trace the progress of God’s grace through history. Of course, not everyone enjoys an equal standard of living, and certainly the basic standard of living in America is much greater than that in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, even in those areas, life expectancy and quality of life tend to be significantly better than in centuries past. Life has become easier.

Many simply attribute these improvements to science or education, but we must also factor in the influence of the Christian church over the past two thousand years. Orphanages were begun by the Christian community, as were hospitals and schools. Christians even drove the development of science in many ways. Believers have taken seriously their God-given responsibility to be good stewards of the planet. If we chart the history of the influence of the church on many different spheres, we see that, contrary to those who decry the impact of religion on the world, the general quality of life on earth has been vastly improved by the influence of Christianity.

Final thoughts. Finally, some thoughts on the controversy. I know that the Protestant Reformed Church has a long history of rejecting the doctrine (stemming from Reformed theologian Herman Hoeksema), but it must be noted that even at the mere numerical level, they are in the vast minority of Reformed denominations and institutions. I fear that there is a biblically unwarranted move from acknowledging that God elects some for salvation (and leaves the reprobate to their just punishment), to believing that God has no good will towards the reprobate. In one sense, that would seem to make sense in a logical sequence. How, it could be asked, could God love those who he has eternally decreed he would allow to suffer the punishment for their sin? But here we must not go beyond Scripture itself which says, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145.9). Likewise, Jesus directly addresses this when he tells us to love our enemies:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

Christ’s point was that when we love our enemies we are acting like God. Now it could be said, yes, but Christians are enemies of God before their conversion (Rom. 5:10), and that’s certainly true. But Jesus explicitly speaking of both the righteous and the unrighteous. We must not be afraid to speak the way the Bible speaks, and the Bible speak of God’s love even for unbelievers. Of course, it is not the unconditional love which God bestows on his elect children, but it is genuine love.

Depravity and Moral Decisions

It’s been forever since I’ve posted something so I thought I’d share an email response I recently thought.

The question was about the compatibility between the Reformed doctrine of total depravity and man’s ability to make moral decisions. As the question came to me, it was stated as follows:

[Granted the doctrine of total depravity, in which man is utterly incapable of positively responding to God] , why is he able to make moral decisions in almost every or any other area in life without God’s intervention?

Why without any part of the divine initiative and monergistic regeneration, man can and for the most part make as many moral decisions needed to live a decent life in the best sense of the word? Is it that only in the case where Jesus Christ and his way of life are concerned that is man helpless, powerless, and clueless to the point that only a direct interference by the Holy Spirit can awakened him to the truth…?

And so, here’s my response….

Thank you for your question. I believe it’s helpful in that is drives us to making some important theological distinctions that clarify that is meant by the Reformed doctrine of total depravity or total inability.

The Reformed position does not deny that fallen and unregenerate people do in fact make everyday moral decisions. But first a word of clarification. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “moral decisions.” In one sense, we always make moral decisions.” Bad moral decisions are still decisions, and thus, even choosing to rebel against God and embracing sin is a moral decision. So, in this first sense, the Reformed position doesn’t deny that obvious point.

But you probably mean “moral decisions” in the sense of “morally good decision.” If this is the way in which you mean “moral decisions” I think it’s important to affirm that the unbeliever’s problem is personal and spiritual. To address this from the second point to the first, it is spiritual in the sense that it is most fundamentally about spiritual things. What this means is further clarified by the first point, the unbeliever’s hostility to God is personal. It is an enmity against God specifically. As Romans 1 teaches, unbelievers “suppress” what they know of God (v. 18). Likewise, in 1:18 Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Therefore the problem in choosing for the unbelievers is not in general, but instead it is specifically a rejection of the God who created and rules over them. Calvin himself acknowledged that unbelievers made positive contributions to society, love their familiars, communities etc. This is called “civil righteousness.” Reformed theologians have usually defined this under the term common grace, which is the Holy Spirit’s restraining power in the hearts of unbelievers so they are not as bad as they would be if they were consistent with their sinful rebellion against God.

So the great Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (see his Summary of Christian Doctrine) provides us with two definitions of common grace. First, he defines it as “those general operations of the Holy Spirit whereby He, without renewing the heart, exercises such a moral influence on man that sin is restrained, order is maintained in social life, and civil righteousness is promoted.” Furthermore, he adds, that common grace includes “those general blessings which God imparts to all men without any distinction as He sees fit.”

And so the closer the issue drives an unbeliever to consider God, the more his rebellion will show itself. The further the issue appears to “bring God in the picture” the less that hostility will be made evident.

I hope this helps!

On Inerrancy and the Biblical Use of Secondary Sources

In writing their inspired messages, several biblical authors saw fit to mention or cite books that would lend support to their historical claims. In the book of Ezra, over one-third of its contents are actually quotes from official legal documents. The question is raised, “if uninspired material is quoted in a supposedly infallible book, how does this effect the biblical understanding of inerrancy?”

On the surface it would seem that quoting flawed, or at least fallible, sources would cast a shadow of doubt on the truth of the Bible. Let’s explore what these citations or references do not imply. First, in quoting these sources the biblical writers and/or editors did not imply that books like The Prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and The Annotations on the Books of the Kings were separate vehicles of inspired revelation. When Jude makes reference to the Book of Enoch and The Bodily Assumption of Moses he is not telling us that we should find these books and include them into the canon of Scripture. Acknowledging that uninspired books that contain truth do in fact exist does not imply that we lack a complete canon and should therefore seek out these ‘revelations.’

Second, when we see a note directing our attention to a Book of Records of Nathan the Prophet it does not necessarily mean the inspired Writers agreed with everything in that uninspired source. The Book of Enoch contains several things that a biblically informed Christian would reject. But, as noted earlier, this does not stop an author from accepting a particular truth in a document. Paul, in Acts 17, made reference to the Greek philosopher Epimenides when he acknowledged that in God we “live and move, and have our being”, and that “we are His offspring”. Yet as we examine the actual work he cited, Epimenides was not referring to YHWH, the God of Israel, but of Zeus, the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon. Does this mean that Paul condoned pagan idol worship? No, of course not. Paul was simply confirming to the men of Athens that in our supreme Creator we owe all of our existence, though they substituted this Creator with Zeus.

Lastly, and typing together our first two points, when quoting outside sources the Prophets and Apostles claimed neither that those books where an authoritative rule of faith, nor were they infallible. Historical documents were cited simply to corroborate the truthfulness of what an inspired writer claimed. All these references were perfect, infallible uses of imperfect, fallible documents.

Yet, with these few notes having been made, we must now look to what actually was implied by the biblical Writers when they quoted from uninspired documents. First, if we are to define inerrancy by saying that the Bible is correct in all that it affirms, we must confess that these quotations taken from other sources are indeed correct, and reliable in conveying the reality which they dealt with. The entire concept of biblical inerrancy, when properly understood, is the natural, logical conclusion to the doctrine of biblical inspiration. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • God is truth, and cannot tell any falsehood. (John 3:33, 17:3, 1 Jn. 5:20)
  • All Scripture is inspired by God[1], and is the very source in which we find God speaking to us. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
  • Therefore, all Scripture is without error in everything it affirms, and correct in all it documents. (Ps.19:7, Isa. 65:16)

It is with this presupposition that we come to the texts in question.

Another point we must realize is that the writers of these particular texts knew that the resources they cited would hold quite a bit of weight with their readers. For example, when Ezra quotes at length from the letters of King Darius and King Artaxerxes he knew that the authority lent to his writing by official royal decrees would confirm his writings. Therefore, anyone contesting the authenticity of his writing could confirm them within the annals of royal decrees.

And lastly, it is worthy of mention that we must always keep in mind that the concept of biblical inerrancy does not imply that the canon was written in a vacuum. When authors such as Ezra or the writers of such books as 1 & 2 Kings and Chronicles were addressing the pressing issues of their day, they were not exempt from gathering source data much like we today do.

The chief difference between their research and our own is that God superintended their writings of biblical authors in such a way, through inspiration, that their citations and references were completely free from error and misguidance.

[1] The literal rendering of the Greek text is “God-breathed”, theopneustos. For more see my What is Biblical Inerrancy? A Six-Part Series

Jesus’ Blood May Not be Precious for the Reasons You Think

On 9/16/15 I tweeted the following:

This came out of a discussion I had with a friend in which we reflected on a popular misunderstanding of Christ’s blood. As the tweet hit my Facebook account it engendered a bit of discussion, which was both expected and welcome. There are several reasons I think it’s wise to avoid affirming anything like magical properties in the blood of Jesus. There biblical reasons, linguistic reasons, and theological reasons.

Biblical reasons. I think we would agree that the death of Christ, and how it “works” in atoning for our sin, is patterned after the OT sacrificial system commanded by God. The quickest way to talk about this is to jump to Lev. 16, the Day of Atonement. There, starting in v. 11 we read, “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself.” And again, from verses 15-19 we reading the longer explanation:

Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

I believe the point here, the point the priests would have understood, is this: The shedding of blood, apart from the actual death of the animal would not atone for sin. Applying the blood, sprinkling the blood, etc. was all to symbolically demonstrate that death had taken place. This is because of the sacrificial principle of substitution. The animal was killed in place of the worshipper who offered it, in their place. The worshipper deserves death, but through the sacrificial system God graciously provided a way in which fellowship with him could be maintained and the worshipper themselves not be destroyed.  If the blood was offered by wounding (but not killing) the animal, there would be no atonement. So the blood is by no means meaningless. The blood is proof of death.

Applying this to of Christ we find the same principle at play. If Jesus was merely wounded and shed tons of blood but didn’t die, then he would not be fulfilling the role of an OT sacrifice, and therefore atonement would not be complete.

Linguistic reasons. But I think there are linguistic reasons to support the first point I just made. I would say that speaking of the atonement in terms of the “blood” is what is called a metonymy. It’s a technical literary term for a concept we’re all familiar with, and the Bible itself employs. A metonymy is a figure of speech that

consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part, as “scepter” for “sovereignty,” or “the bottle” for “strong drink,” or “count heads (or noses)” for “count people.”

Further examples of this can be found in Isa. 22:22, 29:1 Matt. 16:19, and Luke 16:29. So speaking of the precious “blood” of Christ is the way the biblical writers refers to the sacrifice-onto-death of Jesus.  Of course, it’s a perfectly legitimate way of speaking, and I wouldn’t dare “censor” the Bible’s way of speaking.

Another really good example of this principle is found in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sins shall die.” Obviously, the verse isn’t saying that if a soul (as opposed or distinct from a body) sins, only the soul will die. Here Ezekiel is using a metonymy, “soul” (a part of what makes up a person) is used to refer to the whole person. So the meaning is “The person who sins will die.”

Like I said, it’s a fairly common concept, and this should give you an idea of how I would read passages such as  Lev. 17:11 Ps. 72:14 John 6:53-54 Rev. 12:11.

Theological reasons. The last reason I said what I did basically takes the last two points and draws some theological conclusions. The problem is that if we say that Christ’s blood, the actual physical hemoglobin, had healing or spiritual power we are functional docetists,

Docetism is a subdivision of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the material world was bad, and the immaterial (“spiritual”) world was superior. In contrast, the Bible tells us when God created the physical world he repeatedly called it “good.” The docetists applied this principle to the incarnation and therefore denied that Jesus Christ (who is good) took on a real, material, fully human body (which, in their minds, would be bad). The Greek term dokéo means “to seem,” as in Jesus only seemed to possess a material body. And so while there aren’t many explicit docetists in the church today, many are functional docetists because of what they believe about Christ’s humanity.

Jesus’ body was fully human, and humans (even perfectly sinless humans) do not possess magic or supernatural blood. His blood was the blood of a normal human being. And so just as real, normal humans do not have special properties to their hemoglobin, neither did Jesus. In terms of its physical nature, his blood was no different than the blood of any other ancient Mediterranean Jewish male. That’s not to take away from the glory of the incarnation. Rather I say that to robustly affirm the incarnation. Jesus became a real human, not a superhuman.

I should probably also clarify something I said that would be misunderstood. I wrote, “There’s nothing ontologically special about Jesus’ blood.” The key word for me in writing that was “ontologically.” In technical terms people are confusing ethics with ontology (being or nature). The worth of Christ’s sacrifice was because he was morally perfect (“without spot or wrinkle”), not because of any physical characteristics of his humanity (such as his blood). If there were, he wouldn’t be truly human, and therefore an unfit substitute for fallen and sinful humans. I believe this is a category confusion, and one that endangers a robust biblical Christology.

The Bible is very clear that our fallenness is a moral/ethical problem (rebellion to our Creator), and not an ontological/metaphysical problem (some about our created nature/being). Therefore the solution to the problem is moral as well, not ontological (it’s Christ’s obedience that is valued, not his hemoglobin).

The “blood” of Jesus– as in the value, power, and efficacy of his death– is of infinite value.

The Crucified King: Kingdom-Through-Cross

In his wonderful book The Crucified King, Jeremy Treat sees the theme of kingdom-through-the-cross reoccurring  throughout the Bible. For example he sees the theme show up in the book of Isaiah. He highlights of themes of suffering and victory throughout the prophetic book (while acknowledging the appropriate distinctions in emphasis in chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66). The depiction of royal figure of the first half of Isaiah is expanding and nuanced by the suffering figure of the latter half of the book. This figure establishes God’s kingdom reign by means of his atoning death.  When we bring together these twin themes in Isaiah we should see them as mutually reinforcing, not at odds. The kingdom of God is presented both in new creation (emphasizing the cosmic), and as new exodus (emphasizing liberation from enslavement).  Isa 52:13–53:12, according to Treat, serves as a vivid demonstration of how this is accomplished.

The paradoxical nature of the servant-king’s suffering and exaltation is at the heart of his glorious accomplishment. He who was “lifted up”…and exalted. (Isaiah 52:13) is the very one who “has born… our griefs” (53:4) and “bore… the sin of many” (53:12). In English, one simply misses the wordplay, but the irony could not be any greater. The one who is “lifted up” in exaltation is the one who has “lifted up” our sins onto himself in order that we may be reconciled to God and share in his victory. Although exaltation and humiliation seem to be extreme opposites, the servant is exalted through humiliation and victorious through suffering. Re-placing the song of the Suffering Servant in its canonical context provides a kingdom framework for the sin-bearing, sorrow-carrying, punishment-averting, guilt-offering, place-taking, atoning death of the servant-king. The significance could not be more crucial: the servant-king brings about a kingdom of servants through his atoning and victorious suffering (86).

But Mark’s Gospel, Treat argues, is also developed along these lines. As chapter 3 begins, Treat contrasts his understanding of the kingdom and cross relation in Mark with the following six positions: Kingdom despite the cross (Jesus’ life and resurrection, not death, bring the kingdom), cross despite kingdom (Jesus’ death is what really matters), kingdom and then cross (Jesus’ kingdom mission cut short by death), cross and then kingdom (Jesus’ death as precursor to the kingdom), kingdom qualifies Cross (theology of glory corrects theology of suffering), and cross qualifies kingdom (theology of suffering corrects theology of glory, 87-88). To this Treats responds, “I propose that the proper relationship is defined as ‘kingdom by ‘way’ of the cross”” (88).  He then outlines Mark’s Gospel as follows (89-110),

  • The kingdom in the shadow of the cross (1:1-8:26)
  • The kingdom redefined by the cross (8:27-10:52)
  • The kingdom established by the cross (11:1-16:8)

Treat contends that the cross is “the means of the Messiah’s mission to establish the kingdom” (75), and that “the messianic mission culminates at Golgotha, where the crucified king establishes his kingdom by way of the cross” (110). In his crucifixion, the messianic king is exalted, and through his suffering is victorious  (86).

Lastly, at least for our purposes, he also the theme popping up in the book of Revelation:

These passages from Revelation enlighten the relationship between the kingdom of Christ and the blood of his cross in three ways. First, Christ atoning work on the cross results in the people of God being made a kingdom (Rev. 1:5B-6). Second, the Lion-like victory was achieved through a Lamb-like means (5:5–6). By the blood of Christ, people of all nations have been ransomed from sin and made to be kings and priests (5:9–10) in the pattern and fulfillment of the Exodus (Exod. 19:6). Third, the establishment of Gods kingdom entails the defeat of Satan by Christ and his followers (Rev.12:10–11). In what is primarily a legal battle, Christ, by shedding his blood, paid the penalty for sin and therefore defeated Satan by disarming him of his accusatory force. Though the final defeat is yet to come, Christians continue to conquer Satan, exposing his deception but witnessing to Christs obedient life and a true efficacy of his death (126-127) 

Treat’s point here is that Kingdom and cross presuppose one another and work in tandem. The proper view, the author persuasively argues, is exaltation in humiliation within a broader progression of exaltation through humiliation (156). As in Marks Gospel, the cross is where the messianic king rules. It is the scepter by which he exercises his dominion and defeats the enemy of the people of God. 

Labor, Identity, and the Gospel of Justification by Faith Alone

The gospel of justification by faith alone teaches us that we don’t have to prove our worth, value, or dignity to God and man based upon our productivity and accomplishments. Jesus lived a perfect life, one free from meaningless distractions and sloth, in order to pay the price for our petty laziness. Jesus’ work was singularly devoted to God and his kingdom, and yet he was crucified so our workaholism and other idolatries could be destroyed at their root. But he was raised to new life and lives today so his work record would be our work record.

When we believe in Jesus, his merit is our merit; therefore our identity isn’t determined by our work.

What does this mean for the way we should think about work? What practical effect does it have for the 9 to 5 grind? In the words of the apostle Paul, it means that whatever we do, we should work at it with all our heart, as if we were working for the Lord, not for human bosses or to gain accolades (cf. Colossians 3:23). If the gospel of grace really gets down into our bones it can’t fail to affect our work. That means that our work—whether we have our names on our office doors or on nametags—will be for the glory of God, for the betterment of the organizations we work for, and in service to those made in his image (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31).

Unlike so many voices we hear in our culture, we are free to strive for excellence without the pressure to prove ourselves. We will no longer regard our work like a master that must be served. And when we fail, and we will fail, we won’t be crushed—since we understand that by faith in Jesus we have passed the cosmic performance review.

Will We See God?

Have you ever wondered whether, in the final state of all things, we will see the 3 persons of the godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)? I’ve been asked this several times and thought to write-up a few thoughts on this question.  In order to best respond to that question, an important biblical clarification is needed to be put in place.

The Bible teaches that when all is said and done—when Christ returns, the dead are raised, the unrighteous are judged, and those who trusted in Jesus alone are given glorified bodies—we will reign over the “new heavens and earth” In Rev. 21:1-3, the Apostle John recorded his vision of the future as follows:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

So we will inhabited a renewed earth, a place in which all sin has been removed, and the curse has been lifted. We will have glorified physical bodies, patterned after the glorified physical body of the risen Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 15).

This means that we will see in a very similar way to the way we see now. So, the question to ask is this: What can we see now? The answer is simple and straightforward, we can see physical objects, objects extended in space. So, how does this apply to our question? My conviction is that we will indeed see God, but we will see God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6). Only the second person of the Trinity (the Son) took on a human nature, and therefore is physically extended in space. Jesus Christ is now forever the God-man, fully God in his divine nature, and fully and perfectly human in respect to his human nature. This will not change in the new heavens and earth.

God the Father and the Holy Spirit are spirit and therefore do not have flesh and bones (see Luke 24:39, the word translated “ghost” in the KJV is the same Greek word translated “spirit” elsewhere, pneuma). As Scripture says, in his divine nature, no one can see God (John 1:18). We will not “see” the Father or the Spirit because, in the most literal sense, there is nothing to “see.” The being of God, though very real, active, and powerful, is not something to be seen. To apply the category of sight to a spirit is a confusion similar to asking how much a thought weighs. Weight does not apply to thoughts. I take it you understand my point.

But, lest we get the wrong impression from what I’ve said above, let me reassure you of this. The presence of Jesus will overwhelm us. The presence of the Father and Spirit will be so great that there will be no feeling of lack. We will forever rejoice in his presence all around us forever, and forever, and forever.

  • For another response to this question, see here.

31 Reasons For the Incarnation

Using biblical language, Joel R. Beeke and William Boekestein present 31 biblical reasons for the incarnation. Here is their list.

  1. To do the will of the father
  2. To save sinners
  3. To bring light to a dark world
  4. To be made like his people
  5. To bear witness to the truth
  6. To destroy the devil and his works
  7. To give eternal life
  8. To receive worship
  9. To bring you great joy
  10. To demonstrate true humility
  11. To preach the gospel
  12. To bring judgment
  13. To give his life a ransom for many
  14. To fulfill the law and prophets
  15. To reveal God’s love for sinners
  16. To call sinners to repentance
  17. To die
  18. To seek and save the lost
  19. To serve
  20. To bring peace
  21. To bring a sword
  22. To bind up the broken hearts
  23. To give us a spirit of adoption
  24. To make us partakers of the divine nature
  25. To reign as king
  26. To restore human nature to holiness
  27. To be a merciful and faithful high priest
  28. To be the second and greater Adam
  29. To satisfy our deepest thirst
  30. To be loved by God’s children
  31. To reveal God’s glory

Each chapter of their small works takes up a biblical explanation of each point. It is a wonderful read, whether or not it’s the Christmas season.

See Joel R. Beeke and William Boekestein, Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).

The Five Points of Christology

At Christmastime we celebrate the great gift from God: His word become flesh. When we speak this way we are talking about the incarnation (the in-flesh-ment of God). In order to better facilitate understanding,  I have summarized the doctrines of the incarnation and the hypostatic union (the teaching that Jesus is both full divine and fully and perfectly human) in terms of the acronym JESUS .

  1. John’s Prologue: Before his birth in Bethlehem, the man, Jesus of Nazareth, eternally existed as the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity – equal with God the Father in both power and glory. John 1:1-14
  2. Emptied: In the incarnation, the divine Word took on/assumed/added a human nature to his own divine nature without ceasing to be God. Phil. 2:5-7
  3. Somatic: The human nature taken on by the Son is fully human (subject to all natural human frailties such as fatigue, hunger, thirst, and ignorance), yet without the inward temptation, inclination, or desire to sin.
  4. Unified: Jesus Christ—the eternal Word incarnate—is a single, unified person mysteriously possessing two natures (both fully human and fully divine) in such a fashion that neither is compromised (whether through confusion, mixture, or separation).
  5. Savior: This union of natures is absolutely essential for the reconciliation between God and man, and for the consummation of God’s purposes for creation. The human nature of Jesus is essential for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom purposes through humanity, while the divine nature is essential because the radical and pervasive effects of sin upon creation made it impossible that any mere human could successfully overturn them.

The Significance of Christ’s Lordship

What are some implications of the Lord of Jesus Christ? Here Thomas R.Schreiner summarizes the work of another NT scholar, David Capes. I’ve itemized the list for easier viewing.

David Capes rightly summarizes the significance of Jesus’ lordship in six statements.

  • First, Jesus Christ was the object of devotion in creedal statements (Rom 1:3-4; 10:9-10).
  • Second, believers prayed for Christ’s return (1 Cor 16:22) and identified themselves “as those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2).
  • Third, hymns focusing on the person and work of Christ were composed (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20).
  • Fourth, during worship early Christians gathered in Jesus’ name (1 Cor 5:4).
  • Fifth, new believers were baptized in Jesus’ name (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27).
  • Sixth, early Christians celebrated a meal honoring Jesus, called the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20).

Capes is correct, then, in concluding that Jesus’ lordship involved worship and that this necessarily implies that Paul and early Christians thought of Jesus “in the way that one thinks of God.” And yet God the Father is still distinct from Jesus, and Paul retains his belief in monotheism (1 Cor 8:6). Apparently, Paul did not believe honoring and worshiping Jesus as God compromised his monotheistic belief, but neither did he collapse God and Jesus together into a kind of modalism.”

—Thomas R. Schreiner. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 168

Jesus: The Wisdom and Power of God for Salvation

Jesus is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). In fact, according to the Apostle Paul, in Jesus are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). But how does this fact benefit us?

Jesus’ Life. Jesus is the fullest and final embodiment of one who “fears the Lord.” Christ’s thoughts, words, and actions were God-saturated. In his life is an example for his people. But unlike God’s sons Adam (Lk.3: 38), Israel (Ex. 4:22-23), David (Ps. 89:27), Solomon, (2 Sam. 7:14), and other Israelite kings (Ps. 2:12), Jesus is the perfectly obedient Son of God . He never sinned, and therefore is a substitute for the disobedience of the people of God.

Jesus-Matthew2 Jesus’ Death. There are two ways to live: According to the wisdom of God, or according to man’s wisdom. Each side views the other path as foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1). The path of wisdom leads to ultimate security and blessedness. The path of foolishness only ultimately leads to destruction (Prov. 14:12). As our substitute and champion, Jesus perfectly followed the path of righteousness, but suffered the fate of the foolish, so we fools could enjoy the rewards of righteousness (1 Cor. 5:21).

 Jesus’ sending of the Spirit. Wisdom is the internalization of God’s Law and Word to the degree that we know what to do in the circumstances that Scripture does not address directly. Wisdom is the empowerment of the spirit of the Law. This is only possible through the Spirit of the Law. What we need is the power of the Holy Spirit to have the mind of Christ (Rom. 8:3).