What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

All Bible-loving Christians must believe in something commonly referred to as baptism in the Holy Spirit,[1] but there are differences in various definitions and expectations of it. Charismatic Christians sometimes presume that non-Charismatic Christians do not believe in a Holy Spirit baptism, but this is not necessarily justified. I shall seek to explain the biblical meaning of baptism in the Holy Spirit, and I shall argue for the expected and universal experience of this baptism among Christians. I shall also consider and answer some common objections to my argument. Since this is not merely an academic essay, but a work of applied theology, I will begin with a little personal background.

As I was growing up, I experienced times of significant discomfort in church services. My strange feelings arose as a response to some odd sights and sounds. I remember my mother’s body bizarrely shaking, while she shrieked an incomprehensible and chaotic repetition. The image of a church leader spontaneously running across the stage or around the room is easily recalled in my mind. Various members of the congregation would each contribute to a cacophony of noises, which might be described as groaning, wailing, yelling and sometimes laughing. These were common among my childhood and teen experiences with Christianity.

Local churches who experience these kinds of things, and/or many similar experiences, are often called Charismatic. The term “charismata” means divine gifting or empowering, and the Christians who compose these Charismatic congregations affirm the present and ongoing expectation of a certain kind of divine gifts. A major expectation among Charismatic Christians is that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a distinct and subsequent event to Christian conversion. We will seek to understand what biblical relationship there is between Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion, so let us turn to the Scriptures.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit

Seven verses in the New Testament speak about someone being baptized in or by the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33 all record similar recitations of John the Baptizer’s words concerning Jesus and baptism in the Holy Spirit. John said, “I have baptized you with water; but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:8). Two more passages are found in the book of Acts. In Acts 1:5, Jesus reminds His followers about John’s prediction, and He tells them to expect to be baptized in the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” In Acts 11:16, Peter refers back to Jesus’ words in Acts 1:5, and he marvels at the reality that Gentiles have also received the same baptism as the Jewish believers did on the day of Pentecost (as recorded in Acts 2:1-4). All six of these passages refer to the occurrence of baptism, but – this is important – none of them explain what it is.

The seventh passage in the New Testament that mentions the baptism in the Holy Spirit is 1 Corinthians 12:13. The Apostle Paul says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (RSV). Here, the apostle Paul is talking about what makes all Christians part of the “one body,” namely union with Christ and with one another. He says that the defining moment, the transition from unbelief to belief, is that instant when the Christian is baptized by the Holy Spirit.

This transition is what Christians commonly refer to as conversion or (more theologically termed) regeneration. Allison says, “the conclusion to be drawn from these passages is that one of the aspects of God’s work of saving sinful human beings is Jesus Christ’s baptism of new converts with the Holy Spirit, by which they are incorporated into his body, the church” (Allison, 8). It seems clear from these biblical texts that Allison’s conclusion is accurate; baptism in the Holy Spirit occurs in the life of every Christian as a synchronized event with their conversion.

Some Objections Considered

Many who hold the Charismatic or Pentecostal position will object to such a conclusion, however. They claim that the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 is different from the other six, because the baptizing agent is different in this passage. One might argue that the Holy Spirit is the one doing the baptizing in 1 Corinthians, while Jesus is the one doing the baptizing in the other six verses. However, Grudem refers to this objection when he says,

“although the distinction seems to make sense from some English translations, it really cannot be supported by an examination of the Greek text, for there the expression is almost identical to the expressions we have seen in the other six versus” (Grudem, 1604).

Grudem also points out the translators’ possible goal of avoiding a confusing repetition in 1 Corinthians 12:13. For example, the ESV records, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” The baptism is in one Spirit and also into one body, but both of these together can elicit the question, “Is it a baptism in the Spirit, or into the body?” The only biblical answer is, “Yes… it is both.”

Another objection that is often cited is that of the subsequent occurrence of baptism in the Holy Spirit from the conversion of New Testament believers. There is a record of Christians who were baptized in the Holy Spirit after they believed the Gospel and trusted in Christ. On this basis, it is argued, the Holy Spirit baptism and Christian conversion are explicitly separate events. On the front end, this objection is quite warranted; but we must inevitably ask a big question about what is assumed in this objection: Are these chronologically delayed Holy Spirit baptisms normative or unique? First, let us look at the recorded events themselves.

Jewish believers, who were already Christians, gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. They believed in Christ as Lord and Savior, but they were not baptized in the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost, which was clearly after they had first believed (Acts 2:1-4). Furthermore, there are two other occurrences (later in Acts) where believers receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit after they have already believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Acts 8:14-17, we learn that Peter and John encountered some Samarian (half-Jew) Christians who had been “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (they had been water baptized as a sign of repentance and faith), but the Holy Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them” (Acts 8:16). After Peter and John “laid their hands on them,” the Samarian believers “received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).

A very similar description is given in Acts 19:1-7. However, in this case, we meet believers who are not even half-Jews; they are Ephesian Gentiles. Paul learns the same about these Christians as Peter and John learned about the Samarian ones. They had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, but they had not yet experienced the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Paul, like Peter and John, laid his hands upon these believers, and they “began speaking in tongues” as the “Holy Spirit came on them” (Acts 19:6).

A simple explanation can be offered for these delayed experiences, and I will use a three-premised syllogism to build it out.

First, Peter told his hearers that the baptism in the Holy Spirit, which occurred at Pentecost, was the fulfillment of the prophecy Joel wrote many years before. Through the prophet Joel, God promised to “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), as opposed to only sending the Holy Spirit to select individuals and for certain tasks throughout the Old Testament. Grudem says, “the day of Pentecost was the point of transition between the Old Covenant work and the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the New Covenant work in the ministry of the Holy Spirit” (Grudem, 1612). Pentecost, then, was that predicted outpouring, and it was a unique event in human history.

Second, the New Covenant in Christ Jesus brought the realization of that spiritual union that was promised, and it also brought about a highlighted ethnic expansion. The promise of God’s blessing was always for the offspring of Abraham and extending to the whole world (Gen. 12:1-3), but it was only after the coming of Christ this offspring blessing was emphasized as a spiritual lineage or heritage. The Apostle Paul says, for example, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal. 3:29). This was a fact in the Old Testament as well (Gen. 12:2-3), but its prominence is greater in New Testament.

Third, we see a progressive ethnic expansion of God baptizing believers in the Holy Spirit as a testimony of His blessing upon all peoples. Notice that all of the believers who were baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 were Jewish (Acts 2:1-4, cf. Acts 11:17-18). In Acts 8:14-17, Samarians (half-Jews) were baptized in the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10:1-48, we read of a God-fearing Gentile (an Italian centurion) and his family who received the Gospel, and “the Holy Spirit fell” upon them (Acts 10:44). Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, we read about Ephesian Gentiles who had believed the Gospel and experience water baptism, but when the Apostle Paul “laid hands on them” they too were baptized in the Holy Spirit. These demonstrate an intentional expansion, both on God’s working in human history and Luke’s record of these events.

Therefore, we are to understand that the application Peter made on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) is carried over to the subsequent experiences (Acts 8, 10, 19) of the same unique fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Peter tells us, I believe, that these occurrences are collectively that of which the prophet Joel spoke. God promised to pour out His Spirit upon all peoples, and that is exactly what He progressively did. Let me be clear; I do not merely tolerate these experiences of baptism in the Holy Spirit subsequent to Christian conversion during the time period of the early church. I celebrate these emphatic and unique baptisms in the Holy Spirit, for these are God’s own witness of His fulfilled promise of blessing to all peoples through Christ Jesus.

Conclusion

Far from believing that the baptism in the Holy Spirit has somehow stopped, I believe that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is essential to every Christian. The Holy Spirit baptism is not reserved for only a select few Christians or some elite spiritual group, but this baptism is the defining mark of every believer. God miraculously brings sinners into union with Christ by baptizing them in the Holy Spirit, and this life-giving event happens the very moment the Christian – every Christian – believes.

 

[1]I understand an interchangeable use of the terms “in” and “with,” as they relate to Holy Spirit baptism, so I use “in” throughout this essay. For a more thorough examination, see Grudem’s Systematic Theology, especially chapter 39.

 

Bibliography

Gregg R. Allison, “Baptism with and Filling of the Holy Spirit,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 16, no. 4 (Winter 2012).

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

 

After the Fall, Is Human Will Free or Fettered?

Introduction & Thesis Statement

Humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). As such, humans are volitional beings, but that volition (or will) has been affected by the entrance of sin into creation (Genesis 3:6). I shall attempt to demonstrate that the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. I will begin by explaining two major perspectives on this matter, both as they are articulated now and as they have been represented in the past. I will then present a biblical case for my own view, and I will also attempt to answer some anticipated objections to it.

Will” is often the word used to speak of that which governs the choices of humanity, and in this sense will and volition may be similar (if not interchangeable) terms. Human will, then, encompasses desire, preference, and disposition. That each human has a will is universally affirmed by all Christians, but there is much debate over the freedom or bondage of that will. Before the fall of mankind into sin, the will of man may be described as both free to sin (i.e. disobey God) and free to not sin (i.e. perfectly obey God). However, the question here is concerning the will of man after the fall of sin. In man’s post-fall condition, is his will free or fettered? Is man now capable of both wilful obedience and wilful disobedience, or is his will bound in some way to only one or the other?

Throughout Christian history theologians have generally given one answer or another to the question posed at the outset here. The great concerns motivating the liveliness on each side of this argument are (1) the culpability of humanity and (2) the character and nature of God. Christians of all stripes intend to glorify God by marveling at His goodness, justice, and moral perfection. Additionally, Christians seek to ensure that humanity alone is to blame for human sin and rebellion. Since the glory of God and the accountability of man is at stake, it is worth the investment of our time and effort to investigate thoroughly.

Part One: Past and Present Answers

One theologian said, “Man insists that his will is free, when in fact he is a slave to sin and the Devil.”[1] Another denies “that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will.”[2] The contrast could not be starker. One view claims an utter slavery and bondage of the will, and another view claims that there is no ‘incapacitation’ of the will. These contemporary theologians are not the only ones to have drawn such distinct lines, but they do present us with at least two clear answers to the question at hand: After the fall, is the human will free or fettered? One says, “Fettered!” and the other says, “Free!” Let us consider the arguments.

Human Freedom and Culpability

Human ability and freedom are directly tied to human obligation to submit to God’s authority. If God created man only to fail and then punished him for his failure, then it seems that some people will begin to question God’s character. And yet, we do find that both Scripture and experience present fallen man as having an inclination towards evil and sin. Therefore, it also appears unreasonable to claim that man’s will is unaffected by the original fall into sin. Furthermore, God’s sovereignty over whatsoever comes to pass would also seem to limit the freedom of man to act independent of God’s authority. Herein lies the apparent conflict between God’s freedom and man’s, which has a direct impact on perceived human responsibility.

A Christian Pentecostal theologian stated, “God, in providing for truly free moral decisions in the angels and human beings he created, had to allow for the possibility of failure in some of His creatures. Without that possibility there would not be genuine freedom…”[3] This captures the thrust of one side of this argument. Without the possibility of “failure” (i.e. disobedience to God’s commands), Menzies argued that “genuine freedom” simply would not exist. He seems to contend that if man is to be culpable for his response to God, then it is necessary that he be capable of responding either rightly or wrongly with equal impetus.

Another contemporary theologian, as well as a Baptist seminary professor and Baptist church pastor, argues in a similar direction. Flowers said,

“[If the] desires of the [human] agent are equally part of the environment that God causally determines, then the line between environment and agent becomes blurred if not completely lost. The human agent no longer can be seen as owning his own choices, for the desires determining those choices are in no significant sense independent of God’s decree.”[4]

The argument here is similar to the one above, but this one challenges something more. Flowers evokes the philosophical category of “causal determination” to describe the sovereignty of God over human freedom. In Flowers’ view, God’s ultimate governance of human desire would obliterate any responsibility on man’s part for such desires. Since, as Flowers claims, the choices of man would not be significantly independent from God’s “decree” (i.e. God’s sovereign purpose), then man could not be held responsible for those choices. If this reasoning is without substantial error, then this would indeed necessitate a freedom of man’s will that is uninfluenced by God’s antecedent foreordination – or anything else for that matter.

Jonathan Edwards is often regarded as the most brilliant American mind to date, and his own observations may help us with clarity on this aspect of the matter. Edwards described such libertarian freedom (as Flowers demanded above) when he said,

“[Liberty] consists in a self-determining power in the will, or a certain sovereignty the will has over itself, and its own acts, whereby it determines its own volitions; so as not to be dependent in its determinations on any cause without itself, nor determined by anything prior to its own acts.”[5]

Edwards went on to utterly reject and refute this kind of freedom, both philosophically and Scripturally. However, Edwards is not the only one to see libertarian freedom as problematic, and I shall address this matter in part two of this essay.

Michael Horton, representing a contrary position to Menzies and Flowers, appears to understand the desire to demonstrate a certain ability in man that justifies his culpability while also acknowledging an inability that restrains man in bondage. He wrote,

“[Human] beings have a natural ability to fulfill God’s commands, but lack the moral ability to love God and neighbor so as to fulfill those commands.  Human beings have all of the requisite faculties and abilities with which God endowed them in creation…  The problem is that the human will is in moral bondage to sin.”[6]

Phillips adds to this kind of argument by saying,

“It’s not that our choices aren’t real –  they are. But because of our total depravity, we lack the power to will after God… we are no more able to will after God than a blind man can see, a deaf man can hear, or a mute man can speak.”[7]

However, the brokenness of man’s will is a brokenness of desire and not of function. While impotence is well exemplified in the analogies Phillips provides, they may confuse the reader if they are pressed further. While a blind man may want to see without the ability, the corrupt sinner does not want godliness even though it may be genuinely offered to him.

We may conclude this section on the freedom and responsibility of man with a summary from Wayne Grudem. In his standard-setting systematic theology, he wrote,

“Certainly, those who are outside of Christ do still make voluntary choices – that is, they decide what they want to do, then they do it. In this sense there is still a kind of ‘freedom’ in the choices that people make. Yet because of their inability to do good and to escape from their fundamental rebellion against God and their fundamental preference for sin, unbelievers do not have freedom in the most important sense of freedom – that is, the freedom to do right, and to do what is pleasing to God.”[8]

Therefore, we may understand that fallen humans do have freedom of the will in the sense that they “still make voluntary choices,” based upon their desires. Thus, fallen humans are responsible for their choices. We may also understand that fallen humans are incapable of choosing to please God or obey His commands, not because God removes their functional ability, but because they do not want to be obedient. Thus, fallen humans are not free, as Grudem said, “in the most important sense of freedom.”

Divine Command and Human Ability

In my estimation, the quintessential arguers in this debate are two figures from the 16th century: Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch Humanist and Roman Catholic priest, and Martin Luther, the German monk who became a Magisterial Reformer. Both of these men were titanic intellects and they both contributed a tremendous amount to the advance of biblical Christianity, but they each opposed each other on the battle front that resulted in the Protestant Reformation.

Erasmus argued against Luther’s view in a diatribe concerning the free will of man. Erasmus said, “[It] is not at all true that those who trust in their own works are driven by the spirit of Satan and delivered to damnation.”[9] In his view, Erasmus would not allow humanity to be assigned to any kind of slavery to Satan, even in a fallen condition. For Erasmus, his view was required as a matter of propriety on God’s part. If man’s will be in bondage to Satan, Erasmus reasoned, then any command of God to make a choice toward freedom would be a ‘ridiculous’ one. Erasmus claimed, “It would be ridiculous to command one to make a choice, if he were incapable of turning in either direction.  That’s like saying to someone who stands at a crossroads, ‘choose either one,’ when only one is passable.”[10]

The argument here is noteworthy. What purpose could a command have if it could not possibly be obeyed? Luther replied to Erasmus on exactly this point. In his work, entitled Bondage of the Will, Luther reasoned that the command to do what could not be done may actually be understood as a gracious command if, as a result, one recognizes his inability and admits his helpless estate. Luther said,

“Would it, I pray, be ridiculous, if a man, having both his arms bound, and proudly contending or ignorantly presuming that he could do anything right or left, should be commanded to stretch forth his hand right and left, not that his captivity might be derided, but that he might be convinced of his false presumption of liberty and power, and might be brought to know his ignorance of his captivity and misery?”[11]

In Luther’s rebuttal we may understand at least one sense in which an impossible command might be useful. A bound man who arrogantly refuses to acknowledge his bondage may be served by such a command that forces him to behold his helpless and foolish estate. Therefore, God’s commands to sinners may not necessarily prove any ability on their part. God may command, “Be holy” (Lev. 11:44) or “Repent and believe” (Mark 1:15), but this in no way provides evidence that the sinful hearer has the ability to obey.

Part Two: A Biblical and Theological Answer

In part one of this essay, I have introduced the reader to opposing answers to our original question and the rational behind them. In the remaining section, I shall attempt to present and defend my own answer. After the fall, is the human will free or fettered? I believe the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. In short, the human will is fettered indeed.

Biblical Argumentation

In any discussion, it is beneficial and profitable to ask the question, “What does the Bible say about this?” The Bible does not address every subject alike, but it does speak quite extensively on the matter of human nature and will. Let us briefly look at two separate passages to see what the Word of God says regarding human will, volition, or desire among post-fall creation.

First, a single verse from the Old Testament. Immediately after God judged the world by way of a deluge, He promised to never bring a world-wide flood upon the earth again. Moses wrote, “[The] LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth…’” (Gen. 8:21). This verse is comforting, since we see much of God’s grace in it, but we will focus here on the divine assessment of human intentionality.

The NET Bible translates the phrase “intention of man’s heart” as “inclination of their minds.” Other translations, predictably, have something similar, but the idea presented is that of purpose, delight, and desire. This verse is specifically noting the condition of the post-fall human will, and the diagnosis is proclaimed by very mouth of God. What does God say about the will, purpose, delight, or desire of man’s heart? He says, it is “evil from his youth.” The will of man, God says, is broken, corrupt, and wicked.

Additionally, the diagnosis does not allow for such corruption to be blamed upon environment. Man’s will is “evil from his youth.” This is not to say that the will of man becomes evil at some point during his youth, rather this is a sweeping condemnation of the human will, which is corrupt from his infantile origins. In this same vein, the Psalmist proclaims, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Therefore, based on the expert testimony of God’s Word, we may understand that, after the fall of sin, man’s will is innately and radically corrupted by sin.

Second, let us turn to a concentrated passage from the New Testament. Writing to first-century Christians, the Apostle Paul drew attention to the grace, love, and mercy of God by placing the backdrop of human bondage and sinful corruption behind these things. Setting a truly dark canvas upon his easel, Paul said,

you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1–3).

In this miserable display, we may see some specific lines of distinction being made. Let us consider the particular ways in which the Apostle Paul has described the post-fall and unregenerate human condition. In verse one, he portrays human existence as “death.” In the editorial note on Ephesians 2:1, the NIV Zondervan Study Bible says, “Before God’s action, everybody who is born is spiritually dead and alienated from the God who is life and gives life.”[12] Paul is not intending to say that people are literal corpses (for they are still “walking” and “living”), but that they are spiritually dead. R.C. Sproul, commenting on this same idea, said, “The moral ability lost in original sin is therefore not the ability to be outwardly ‘moral,’ but the ability to incline oneself to the things of God. In this spiritual dimension we are morally dead” (emphasis added).[13]

In the two verses that follow Ephesians 2:1, Paul seems to elaborate on what it means, in his evaluation, to be spiritually dead. There are at least two ways in which he draws the form and substance of spiritual death: (1) following a worldly course and a powerful prince; and (2) living in fleshly passions and carrying out fleshly desires. Let us consider each of these aspects of spiritual death and how such things should shape our understanding of human will.

Following a worldly course and a powerful prince. A “worldly course” and a “powerful prince” are both examples of language not uncommon to the Bible or the Apostle Paul. In fact, Paul uses similar language in Galatians and Colossians. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote of their having been “enslaved to the elementary principles of this world” (Gal. 4:3). To the saints in Colossae, he wrote of their “deliverance from the domain of darkness” (Col. 1:13). The imagery is clear: devilish dominion enslaves all those who are spiritually dead, and these walk according to the dark course or path of their evil prince. This imagery may be unenjoyable to our eyes, but it is not difficult to observe or recognize. The picture is one of fettered bondage.

Living in fleshly passions and carrying out desires. These “passions” and “desires” are also frequently found in the biblical text. Paul says that Christians are to renounce “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12), and Peter says Christians are to resist conformity to the “passions” that accompany a “former ignorance” that characterizes unregenerate humanity (1 Peter 1:14). Jesus made a scathing remark against fallen humanity, summarizing all of this, when He said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). In each case, “passions” and “desires” refer to lustful cravings and preferences of the will. When such cravings and preferences are qualified by the term “fleshly,” it always conveys the idea of sinful passions and desires. Therefore, according to Scripture, fallen man is not in bondage unwillingly, but he gladly wears his chains and even pursues heavier and lengthier ones.

After Genesis 3, we see a consistent picture of fettered human will. Furthermore, no passage of Scripture can overturn the clear presentation of these cited above without serious contradiction. Thus, we must acknowledge that the Bible affirms a bondage of the human will.

Theological Argumentation & Objections Answered

Theology, in a broad sense, is the study of God and His truth. The Bible is God’s special revelation, and in it we learn much about the character and nature of God, the nature of man, the purpose of creation, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, the Bible does not come to us as a systematized book of propositional statements. Of course, the Bible makes many assertions, and one may observe a very thoughtful and beautiful arrangement of its content, but the Bible does not read like a systematic theology textbook. Therefore, it is beneficial and productive to think through theological concepts and the various biblical information that informs those concepts before landing solidly on any important question.

As I stated above, I believe the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. This is a theological statement, an affirmation that is either true or false. The affirmation may benefit from further qualification and/or more precision in order to prove true after criticism; but if it is false, then it should be rejected outright. One way to criticize a theological affirmation is to ask questions that the statement itself raises by necessity. For example: If fallen humanity is in bondage to sin, can humans do anything good? If fallen humanity is radically corrupted by sin, then why do some non-Christians appear to be very good people? If God creates humans after the fall in such bondage and corruption, how can He blame them for acting on their sinful desires? What about free will? These questions, and others, will urge the theologian to clarify and defend the affirmation.

The position I have articulated above, regarding the nature of fallen human will, is not new with or to me (others have held the position before me, and I have also held it for some time now). People have objected to this position throughout Church history, and I have personally heard and read many contemporary objections myself. Below, I will attempt to briefly address some of the more common protests.

An objection to my stated view of fallen human will is raised in relationship to general goodness. One might say, “I cannot believe that all fallen human’s have an enslaved and evil will because I know many non-Christians who are very good people.” Of course, this complaint is in dire need of precisely defining theology-packed phrases and terms.

Evil people can do good things! I think even Adolf Hitler took good care of his dogs and paid his bills on time. When I speak of the human will as “enslaved to sin” I mean to say that a sinful disposition is what motivates all that the human does. Sinful and unregenerate man may do good things, but he does them from a heart that is in direct rebellion against God, and therefore those things that would be good otherwise are self-promoting and self-glorifying; thus, they are cosmic treason and an assault on the King of glory. The deeds of a sinner may sometimes seem virtuous, but his heart is a cesspool of evil, and the outside is merely a veneer.

Another objection to my stated view of fallen human will is connected to human responsibility. One might say, “If God gives humans the desires they act upon, then how can God blame a human for acting badly?” This complaint, in my view, comes from a misunderstanding of human freedom.

As I briefly mentioned earlier in this essay, professor Flowers and others reject any notion of God’s sovereignty over human will as a matter of philosophical a priori. According to some, as this objection exemplifies, God’s sovereignty over human freedom is incompatible with true human freedom. Furthermore, those who hold the Incompatibilist view believe that human culpability is lost along with human freedom if God is truly sovereign over it.

The kind of human freedom demanded by incompatibilists is called Libertarian Freedom, which is choosing against all influences and causes in order that there be no determining reason for any particular choice. However, such freedom is simply foreign to the Bible. Neither God nor anything in all creation is described as having this sort of freedom. Rather, all volitional creatures act according to the nature of their desire or will, which necessitates determining reason and/or causes for what is chosen. Even a cursory read through the Bible will present one with a view to both God’s sovereignty and man’s culpability (Gen. 50:20; Isaiah 10:5-7; Acts 4:27-28). We do not have to explain how the two are compatible, but we dare not demand that the biblical text conform to our philosophical notions of human freedom simply because God’s claims are outside of our full comprehension.

A final objection I will address here is the most emotional and most common I hear. One will say, “I just cannot believe that God would condemn someone for not believing the Gospel if He never even gave them the chance to believe it!” This protest is often the most emotionally charged of all. These words often spring from the mouth of one who has themselves or a loved one in mind. In response, I would like to offer one clarifying observation, one rebuttal, and one encouragement.

First, a clarifying observation. We may not like the thought, but if we believe in an exclusive Savior, then we must acknowledge that God does indeed send some people to hell who have never had the chance to believe the Gospel. There are people in the world today who have been born in a land or in a community that has no access to the Gospel, and they will die before anyone has told them the good news about Jesus. As tragic as this is, the reality is that God is just and right for punishing their disobedience, and God is not obligated to give anyone grace.

Second, a rebuttal. The Bible does not say that God condemns good men for not being better, but that God condemns evil men for being evil. Moreover, the whole lot of humanity is utterly opposed to God, and hostile towards Him. Therefore, God never has to add disbelief to the human will or hinder anyone’s ability to become receptive. Phillips said it well when he said,

“Men’s bondage in sin results not from the lack of opportunity to do good and love God, but from the bondage of his heart that causes him to love evil and hate God…  despite the glorious opportunity afforded to man in the gospel of Jesus Christ, such is our total depravity that we are not able in and of ourselves to turn to God.”[14]

Third and finally, an encouragement. Even though sinful and unregenerate man is truly corrupt and utterly bound in his love for sin, the God of grace is able to drag him out of his miry pit and give him new love and new desires. Whether we like thinking of our inherited depravity or not, we may rejoice with eternal gratitude that God does grant a new will, new desires, and new life to those whom He loves. The Scripture says:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3–7).

In conclusion, I believe the will of fallen and unregenerate humanity has been radically corrupted by sin, it is in bondage to sin, and it is thereby morally unable to choose genuine good. And I believe that to deny this is to deny the Scriptures, to deny the overwhelming testimony of human history, and to deny God His due glory for saving sinners as wretched as these. I praise God for His saving grace and for His mercy upon sinners so corrupt that they even attempt to deny the extent of their own sinful wickedness.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carson, D. A., ed. NIV Zondervan Study Bible: New International Version.

Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of the Will. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996.

Erasmus, Desiderius, and Martin Luther. Discourse on Free Will. Edited by Ernst F. Winter. London: Continuum, 2005.

Flowers, Leighton. “Beliefs.” Soteriology101. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://soteriology101.com/.

Flowers, Leighton. “Philosophical Ponderings about Calvinism, Compatibilism and Free Will.” Forever Learning… October 12, 2012. Accessed May 1, 2016. http://leightonflowers.blogspot.com/2012/10/philosophical-ponderings-about.html.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Horton, Michael Scott. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Menzies, William W., and Stanley M. Horton. Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective. Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 1993.

Phillips, Richard D. What’s so Great about the Doctrines of Grace? Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2008.

Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.

 

[1]Phillips, 27

[2]Flowers, “Beliefs”

[3]Menzies, 87-88

[4]Flowers, “Philosophical Ponderings”

[5]Edwards, 33

[6]Horton, 431

[7]Phillips, 27

[8]Grudem, 498

[9]Erasmus, 39

[10]Erasmus, 27

[11]Luther, 63-64

[12]Carson, 2401

[13]Sproul, 128-129

[14]Phillips, 28

Luther & the “Five Solas” of the Reformation

Martin Luther was a giant of history… [He] was the pioneer Reformer, the one whom God first used to spark a transformation of Christianity in the Western world.”[1] These accurate and sobering words from Steven Lawson on Martin Luther properly begin the discussion of such a man. There is no doubt that the stage of human history had been perfectly arranged for the Protestant Reformation.

However, one is a fool not to recognize that Martin Luther was the man perfectly designed for the role of a Reformer. Luther’s weaknesses and strengths were played out for all to see; time and again he brings his audience to their feet in admiration for his courage to stand for and by the grace of God.

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, to Hans and Margeret Luder in Eisleben, Germany. Before his twenty-second birthday, Martin graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from the University of Erfurt. Well on his way to becoming a distinguished student and practitioner of law, this would only be the beginning of his higher education. Luther, however, changed his life plans from law to monasticism in haste during a thunderstorm; he swore to become a monk if he were spared from the dreadful storm. After this pivotal moment, he studied Bible at a monastery to earn his second BA, and later he received a doctorate in theology.

Luther said, “Who would have divined that I would receive a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s of Arts, then lay aside my brown student’s cap and leave it to others in order to become a monk… and despite all that I would get in the Pope’s hair…”[2]

Luther was deeply concerned about his sinfulness in light of God’s righteousness. He could not fathom any possible escape from God’s imminent judgment and punishment. Luther’s introspection drove him (and in turn many of his fellow Augustinian monks) to mental and spiritual anguish. Following the guidance of his superior (John Staupitz), Luther studied diligently to earn his doctorate and then began teaching courses on Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.

All of this was intended to bring Luther to a place of peace and understanding, and that it did. Luther came to understand the meaning of “alien” or “foreign” righteousness and began to herald at least one of the “five solas” of the Reformation – sola fide or Faith Alone.[3]

Justification by Faith alone is the fundamental Protestant doctrine and the central tenant of the Reformation. This sola is the chief column, which upholds the Christian Faith. Luther said that this doctrine was the article upon which the Church is standing or falling (articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae). It was during his preparation for teaching on the book of Romans when Luther came to understand how God could be both just and the justifier of sinners (Rom. 3:26).

Luther speaks of his experience by saying, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”[4]

This miraculous breakthrough in Luther’s mind and soul was to create a shockwave that would not end in this one man. The shockwave would travel throughout the geographical, social, political and religious structures of his own day and all those after. Seemingly, the first glimpse into what the future might be for Martin Luther comes in the form of ninety-five arguments against Papal indulgences. Luther could not have known the impact he would make by nailing that text to the wooden door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

None of the most astute theologians, sociologists, politicians, psychologists or historians could have possibly understood how great the impact of this event would be. It essentially marked the beginning of what we have come to know as the Protestant Reformation. The arguments contained in Luther’s 95 theses were symptoms of a viral incompatibility, and Luther could not have known how the technology of his day would be harnessed to spread these ideas so far and wide. Luther wrote to one publisher of his theses, “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.”[5]

Upon his conversion, Luther had no time for faux-piety or naive self-righteousness, neither did he intend to allow anyone to continue in his or her own illusions of grandeur based upon some notion of self-produced righteousness before God. Contrastingly, Luther’s pastoral care for all those over whom he expressed religious influence caused him to rail just as violently against the hopelessness produced by an honest investigation of one’s own inability to manufacture such labor-intensive righteousness.

His teachings and beliefs can be summed up in the five solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone, Sola fide or Faith Alone, Sola gratia or Grace Alone, Solus Christus or Christ Alone, and Soli Deo gloria or to the glory of God Alone. These are effectively the five battlegrounds upon which the war for the Reformation of the Christian Faith was fought, and the fight continues today.

The sufficiency of Christ, the justification of any sinner, the glory of God in salvation, the gracious grace dispensed through the sacrifice at the cross of Christ, and the supremacy of the Scriptures over any other revelation can be summed up in a portion of Luther’s sermon from the gospel of John chapter 1 and verse 29. He proclaimed, “Anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb [the Lamb of God]!” Luther goes on to explain that sin is “exterminated and deleted” at the cross.

Speaking as from the mouth of God, Luther says, “I see how the sin oppresses you. You would have to collapse under its heavy burden. But I shall relieve and rid you of the load – when the Law convicts you of, and condemns you for, your sin – and from sheer mercy I shall place the weight of your sin on this Lamb, which will bear them.”[6]

In this phrase from the lips of Luther, we can examine his beliefs and teachings concerning these “five solas.”

First, Sola Scriptura. Luther places supreme authority on the Scriptures as the word of God and here he finds truth to proclaim. His message of hope is not from traditional standard nor is it from cardinal decree, but from the text of God’s holy word. The importance of his source cannot be overstated, neither should we overlook the fact that he remains true to his source’s intent.

Far from being a topical preacher who rifles through the pages of holy writ for a pretext from which to spring toward his ‘relevant’ content, Luther digs deep into the actual text of Scripture and remains there. Even his application directly correlates to the passage. This, and because his understanding of the passage directly opposed accepted Church doctrines of the day, indicates that Luther understood the value of Scripture above all else. Sola Scriptura is not the idea that nothing else possesses value, but that nothing else besides God’s word enjoys the supreme place of authority.

Second, Sola fide. Luther presents the message of salvation as being available to only those who cast their own self-righteousness aside and place all their hope on this “Lamb.” No doubt, Luther would have immediately recognized the Old Testament reference to the Passover lamb that was sacrificed in order to spare the people from the judgment and wrath of God. He even refers to the connection between Christ and the sacrificial lamb that was killed on the Day of Atonement under the old covenant system.

His hearers would have understood; Luther was calling for total dependence upon and faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. There was no building, no earthly priest, no confessional chamber, no washing with water, and no monetary expense to which Luther would point any sinner for his reconciliation to God. Faith in the finished work of Christ was and is the sinner’s only right response, which is a gift of God.

Third, Sola Gratia. Luther explains that the sinner’s reception of such faith in the person and work of Christ, who has accomplished such a great salvation, is only provided because of God’s great and marvelous grace. Luther expresses the origins of saving grace by speaking as though God Himself has said, “from sheer mercy I shall.” Mercy and grace are not identical, but it could be said that they are fraternal twins. At their end is the same goal, namely favor and blessing.

Mercy is the withholding of harsh consequences due, and grace is the extending of favorable consequences undue. Both are the provocation of the one salvation, which God has provided. There is nothing in the sinner that places God in his debt. To God’s gracious grace alone (Sola gratia) can be attributed the redemption of any sinner, for justice and wrath is what every sinner is owed.

Fourth, Solus Christus. Christ Alone has been and is the ultimate Lamb of God, and He alone can take away sin.  Solus Christus carries the notion of the exclusivity of Christ and His work. There is salvation only through one man, namely the God-man Jesus Christ. He is the only hope for sinners, for He is the only Lamb God has provided. God is not obligated to make any way of escape for sinners, but indeed He has offered one.

God has not only offered this way of escape, but He has heralded the provision from the beginning (Genesis 3:15) and continually uncovered more of the beauty of the Redeemer throughout human history. The announcement of John the Baptist, to which Luther refers above, is the proclamation of the arrival of God’s Lamb. Old Testament saints trusted God for this day and this Lamb, and New Testament saints look back to God’s provision in Him. Thus, every saved sinner looks to the Lamb of God who alone takes away the sin of the world.

Finally, Soli Deo Gloria. Ultimately, every part of salvation is of the Lord, through the Lord, to the Lord, and for His glory.  It is natural man’s inclination to refuse to offer God the glory He deserves and to resist the knowledge of God, which has been displayed in creation and written on the hearts of men (Rom. 1:18-32). All humans, even Christians, are compelled by sinfulness to think much too well of their own worth, volition, and goodness.

Before a sinner is born again, he has no desire to honor God. After a sinner receives life and the gift of faith, his affections are changed and he longs to honor God but remains prone to withhold such glory from Him. Luther said in his arguments against Erasmus’ diatribe concerning the freedom of the will, “if ‘Free-Will’ were any thing, or could do any thing, it must have appeared and wrought something… But it availed nothing, it always wrought in the contrary direction.”[7] His point should be heavily contemplated.

Essentially, Luther made his case here against the freedom, neutrality, or goodness of human will by pointing out the reality that unregenerate humanity (natural and unconverted humanity) can have nothing good, godly, or holy ever attributed to it. The only possible way that humanity would be found good, godly, or holy is subsequent to and wholly dependent upon a miraculous work of God (Jn. 3:3-8; Eph. 2:1-4). Thus, God alone deserves glory for the salvation of any sinner.

The “five Solas” of Luther’s teachings and beliefs are the collective pillars, which uphold the biblical revelation of God’s plan of redemption and the execution of that plan. The person and work of Christ are the sinner’s only hope of escape from God’s wrath, and the only way that any sinner receives the benefit of this work is through the application of it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Effectively, the Father plans redemption, the Son fulfills all the requirements for redemption, and the Spirit applies the benefits of redemption to each and every sinner who consequently receives it.

It is this understanding of salvation (and especially regeneration) that gives God all glory. Therefore, Luther, as the other Reformers, sought to squash any idea that sinners contributed anything toward their own redemption. The sinner has but one hope, namely that God chooses to glorify Himself by delivering unmerited, unconditional, and effective grace.

The impact of Martin Luther in his own day is hard to accurately measure. He was hated by some, loved by others and unknown to many more. Those who loved him did so for various reasons. Some saw his rebellion from the established Roman Catholic Church as an opportunity to gain political and governmental power. Others wanted the opportunity to shirk the seemingly heavy hand of the Church, and Luther’s Reformation ideas were just the argument to present such a case. He is known as a magisterial agent of an incredible and miraculous Reformation that would continue for hundreds of years, even into our own day.

Luther is revered by many and, while he was certainly not perfect (admittedly a practical sinner), he understood the reality of positional righteousness through the plan of the Father, the person and work of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit for all who believe. For this, he is rightly held in the highest esteem.

 

Reference List

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York, NY: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2010.

“How Luther Went Viral. (Martin Luther).” The Economist (US) 401 (2011): 8764. Accessed April 9, 2014. Academic OneFile.

Lawson, Steven J. The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2013.

Lawson, Steven J. Pillars of Grace: A.D. 100-1564. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2010.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Nichols, Stephen J. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2002.

 

[1] Lawson, Pillars, 396

[2] Nichols, 24-25

[3] Nichols, 33

[4] Gonzalez, 25

[5] How Luther went viral.

[6] Lawson, Heroic, 76-77

[7] Luther, 41

Nicaea: the Characters, the Benefits, and the Oddity

The Council of Nicaea was both an odd and foundationally critical point in the life of Christianity. For nearly three centuries, Christians had been a despised and persecuted group among both Jews and Gentiles. Jews (those holding to the “traditions of their fathers” [Matt. 15:1-9]) hated Christians for the same reason they hated Jesus Christ Himself, namely for claiming deity for the God-man and ascribing the title of ‘Messiah’ to Jesus of Nazareth. Gentiles, particularly Romans, hated the Christians for their apparent exclusivity in religious beliefs. Romans had a pantheon of gods, but Christians would only acknowledge the singular and triune God of Christianity. In spite of this deep hatred and long-lasting persecution, the Roman emperor Constantine reversed these categories entirely. Before the battle that won him the status of co-emperor (The Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312A.D.), Constantine later claimed to have seen a vision of a ‘cross’ in the sky with the words “In this sign, conquer.” After he won his new title, Constantine – in agreement with his co-emperor from the east, Licinius – issued a decree legalizing Christianity throughout the empire. [1]

This was only the beginning of Constantine’s contributions to the Christian Faith, but the oddity of the first ecumenical or universal council was largely due to the mixing of the Church with the state. Constantine may or may not have been a genuine convert to Christianity, but he certainly had no biblical basis for officiating a theological debate among Church elders. Nevertheless, Constantine brought such theological debate to the most prestigious stage known to mankind – the emperor’s court. Christianity would be marked indefinitely by the political shift and, more importantly, the theological convictions of those men who gathered at the Council of Nicaea.

A large number (about 300) of bishops and presbyters gathered at Nicaea, and many were no doubt bearing the scars of persecution in their recent past, but the two most noteworthy and polarizing men were Athanasius and Arius. Arius (ca. 250 – ca. 336) was a “presbyter from Alexandria in Egypt on the North African coast.”[2] His Christology was representative of one side of the arguments to be heard at Nicaea. While his teaching survives only in scattered pieces and in references from the texts of his antagonists, Arius stated his view of God by saying, “We acknowledge one God, Who is along ingenerate, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign, alone judge of all, etc.”[3] In logical succession, Arius formulated a syllogism for his view of Christ. “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence; hence it is clear that there was when the Son was not.” Noll continues by saying, “English translation of this syllogism is difficult, for Arius was careful not to say, ‘there was a time when the Son was not,’ since Arius conceded that the Son had been begotten before time began.”[4]

Arius’ view was clearly a denial of the eternal deity of Jesus Christ, for if there was when Christ was not, then Christ was brought into being or created at some point. This was an extreme heterodox view among Church leaders, including those in Alexandria. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria was accused (by Arius) of being a Sabellian because of his view of the unity of God the Father and God the Son. Sabellians were a type of Monarchianist, which were called such for their high view of the unity of God. Sabellians (named after the third century Roman teacher, Sabellius) understood God, single in being and in person, to have merely operated in different modes throughout human history rather than actually having manifested Himself in distinct persons. The Sabellians have also been named as ‘modalists’ or (in our contemporary contexts) ‘oneness’ theologians. Alexander was not a Sabellian, but Arius seemed unwilling or unable to see a third option.

Also in the group of Monarchianists were those called ‘adoptionists’ for their belief that Jesus was particularly adopted by God and at some point infused with the fullness of deity. However, they denied that Jesus possessed such attributes intrinsically or eternally. Both of these Monarchianist sects (Sabellians and adoptionists) were out of line from the biblical revelation, and the Church would not embrace either of them.

Origen (ca. 185 – ca. 245) was another Alexandrian theologian who sought to articulate a biblically sound understanding of the revelation of God’s ontological unity and personal distinctions. Being a speculative philosopher, he “held that Jesus was ‘generated’ from the Father, but also that this generation was ‘eternal.’”[5] While Origen seems to have kept a strain on the paradoxical balance of generation and eternality, Arius appears to have tried to release the tension and declare a less puzzling statement of Christology – as well as Theology proper. It is important to note, as Hardy does:

“None of these positions was formally excluded by the Church’s ‘rule of faith’ as it existed in the third century, in various local forms of creeds taught to catechumens in preparation for their baptism in the threefold name. The Old Roman Symbol, known to us in later form as the Apostle’s Creed, in an excellent case in point. In the late second century converts at Rome were asked in the baptismal rite, ‘Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?’ and ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God…?’ By the end of the third century the second phrase probably read as we now know it, ‘his only Son our Lord,’ thus excluding any tendency to reduce Jesus to the rank of one among many. By general agreement the Church seems thus to have rejected the extreme positions that had been explored by some Christian teachers at Rome – modalism on the one hand, and the treatment of Jesus as a mere man on the other.”[6]

Before the Council of Nicaea, while there was indeed some glad and wide acceptance of simple affirmations about Christ – both His deity and humanity, there was no widely held clarifying statement of Christian doctrine that would provide both precision and elucidation; and this would be the platform upon which Arius would do battle with Athanasius.

Athanasius (ca. 296 – 373) was a young (about 50 years younger than Arius) assistant to the bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, and he would become the strong defender of biblical Christology for decades to come. Athanasius did not think of Arius’ arguments as mere philosophical inquiry and intellectual debate, instead he saw Arius’ position as a direct assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his treatise Of the Incarnation, Athanasius summarized the case he continued to make for the rest of his life: “If Christ were not truly God, then he could not bestow life upon the repentant and free them from sin and death.”[7] Athanasius’ Christology was (arguably before the Council of Nicaea, but certainly after it) the central theme of Alexandrian Christology, and his work On the Incarnation “is one of those great books which develop one great theme supremely.” Athanasius saw Christology as inseparable from Soteriology; as Hardy puts it, “[Christ’s] divinity makes his life mighty and his humanity makes it ours.”[8]

At the Council of Nicaea both Alexander and Athanasius saw fit to use precise language to articulate the biblical truth of God as revealed in one being and distinct persons. The Greek word they employed was homoousios – meaning literally “same substance.” Their point was that Jesus Christ was of the same substance as the Father, while maintaining distinction in personhood. The Nicene Creed includes the very language when it says, “…God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father… (emphasis added)”[9] Emperor Constantine admired the term, for whatever reason, and the position articulated by Alexander and Athanasius was embraced as orthodox Christian doctrine. Constantine ordered that all bishops sign the creedal statement or receive the punishment of excommunication. Arius, along with some of his staunch followers, was excommunicated for his refusal to sign the document. There were some, however, that acquiesced to the creed for the moment but later wanted to insert a single letter into the precise term (homoousios) that would shift its meaning from “same” to “similar” substance. These rebellious bishops notwithstanding, Christ’s Church had won the day and Athanasius had defended her well.

At any rate, this first ecumenical council was a massive pivot point for Church history, both in the area of theological disputes and in political involvement. “Nicaea bequeathed a dual legacy – of sharpened fidelity to the great and saving truths of revelation, and also of increasing intermingling of church and world.”[10] The Church had irrevocably swung from being totally separate from anything having to do with the state to being fully endorsed and intermingled with it. Noll says, “Nicaea was a turning point that set Christianity on a course that it has only begun to relinquish, and that only reluctantly, over the past two or three centuries. That course was the addition of concerns for worldly power to its birthright concern for the worship of God.”[11]

The Church of Jesus Christ is indeed commissioned by Christ Himself to be of great concern for the worship of the one true God and the diligent discipleship of as many sinners as will trust Him to save. This commission may or may not have anything to do with state involvement, but since the Council of Nicaea the governmental involvement in the Church and the Church’s involvement in the political government has been a mingled mess. In our own day, in the United States of America, there is hardly a bible study or fellowship gathering that does not confuse state affairs with Church affairs – as though the success of Christ’s Church is wholly dependent upon the success of a local or national political group.

Theologically speaking, Nicaea was a bulwark of orthodox Christian doctrine. While there had been regional and local debates with their resolutions for the purity and unity of the Christian Faith, Nicaea was a flag in the ground of the universal Faith of all Christians. In our day of endless denominational differences, often amounting to little in the way of actual theological dispute, it is refreshing to remember that there is one faith and one Lord for all true Christians. May God grant us such unity, articulated in both precision and clarity, in matters of essential doctrine.

Reference List

Hardy, Edward Rochie. Christology of the Later Fathers. Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954. doi:WorldCat database.

Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. doi:WorldCat database.

[1] Noll, 41-42

[2] Noll, 40

[3] Noll, 44

[4] Noll, 45

[5] Noll, 41

[6] Hardy, 16

[7] Noll, 47

[8] Hardy, 18

[9] Noll, 50

[10] Noll, 55

[11] Noll, 55

The Synoptic Problem

The so-called Synoptic Problem does not seem to be a problem at all, in the useful sense of the word.  It seems to me that a better title for this issue would be the Synoptic Production or the Synoptic Compilation.  Yet, the Synoptic Problem it remains, and Clements describes the matter by saying, “Even a quick reading of the four Gospels reveals that three of them (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are alike, especially when contrasted with John.“ He goes on to say that these similar three are called “synoptic” for the very reason that they share a common view of the life, ministry, sayings, works, death and resurrection of Christ.  “A more detailed comparison, however,” says Clements, “reveals a wide variety of differences as well as similarities… From a literary point of view, these facts raise difficult questions. How did the Gospels originate? Did their authors use each other’s work, and did they have other materials available to them?”[1]

The problem, then, is in the mind of the form, source and redaction critics.  This is not to say that the questions are not interesting or worthy of our time, but the questions themselves are not problems.  However, some of the answers provided by the critics who ask these questions are problematic indeed.

In 1771 G. E. Lessing posited an explanation as to the similarities found among the Synoptic Gospels.  He suggested that there was a single Hebrew or Aramaic gospel already in circulation, which the Synoptic Gospel authors used as a source for their own.[2]  Later on, J. G. Herder, and later still J. K. L. Gieseler, theorized that the body of this original source was not written but “a relatively fixed oral summary of the life of Christ.”[3]  Then a theologian by the name of F. Schleiermacher argued that Papias’s (an early Christian bishop Hierapolis, in the Phrygian part of the Roman province of Asia[4]) ‘logia’ (his collection of teachings and sayings of early Christian elders – possibly as many as two disciples) made reference to one of several progressively developing written fragments, small pieces of gospel tradition, that eventually were subsumed into the Synoptic Gospels.[5]

Finally, though chronologically the earliest postulated explanation of the similarities, there is also the theory of Interdependence.  This solution to the synoptic problem asserts that two of the gospel writers used one or more of the other Synoptic Gospels in their own composition.  Advocates of this view are not forced to deny the use of another source(s) now lost, and maintain, “only borrowing at the final literary level can explain the degree of similarity among the Synoptic Gospels.”[6]  This interdependent view of the compilation of the Synoptic Gospels is nearly universally accepted among present-day New Testament scholars.

With a view toward the interdependence of the Synoptic Gospels there are three significant arrangements suggested as a pattern for production.  The Augustinian Proposal gets its name from St. Augustine, the legendary North African theologian, who first maintained it.  This patter begins with Matthew, then Mark borrowed from Matthew, and finally Luke borrowed from both Mark and Matthew.  Not only did the early Church believe that Matthew had originally written his gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic (based on an obscure quote from Papias),[7] but until the nineteenth century the Augustinian Proposal “was the standard view of those who saw a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels.”[8]

TheTwo-GospelHypothesis is another view towards a pattern of development.  J. J. Griesbach held that Matthew was indeed written first, but that Luke was second and then Mark pulled much of his gospel from both Matthew and Luke.[9]  This accounted for the vast similarities and almost verbatim quotes between Mark and Matthew, and Mark and Luke.

In contrast to the Two-Gospel Hypothesis, TheTwo-SourceHypothesis flips this pattern on its head.  This developmental system sees Mark as the pioneer gospel writer while Matthew and Luke drew from his work and another text independently from one another to pen their own gospels.  This other conceivable text is known only as ‘Q’, and it is perhaps a lost collection of Jesus’ sayings.[10]  The Two-Source Hypothesis perceives the similarities between Matthew and Luke, which are not shared by Mark, to be that material received from the mysterious ‘Q.’ Referring back to the earlier question of some possible written and/or oral gospel tradition, it is entirely plausible that ‘Q’ may be defined as some very early combination of both written and oral stories about and sayings from Jesus.

There is not unanimity concerning the theories above, but many do hold the Two-Source Hypothesis.  The postulation of Mark being the first gospel written does seem appealing for several reasons.

First, Mark is shorter and more abrupt than Matthew and Luke.  Mark’s brevity can have any number of causes, and shorter does not necessarily mean earlier.  Yet, because Matthew and Luke both contain much of Mark, it seems hardly worth the time for Mark to write the gospel he did if he did so after the other two.  Quoting G. M. Styler, “Given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew was written; given Matthew, it is hard to see why Mark was needed.”[11]

Second, Matthew and Luke often agree with Mark when there are areas of similarity, but Matthew and Luke agree less frequently.  This makes sense best if we see Mark as the available text to each of the other two authors as they wrote independent from one another.[12]

Third, Mark’s gospel has more of an awkward style and a greater number of Aramaic expressions than do Matthew or Luke.  The reason that this is an argument for the earlier writing of Mark is that it would seem inconceivable that an author would take material from a smooth format and break it up.  Rather, the opposite is what an author would do, and this plausible authorial process fits better with a view from Mark to the others instead of Mark from the others.  Additionally, the Aramaic expressions in Mark are translated to the Greek culture or eliminated altogether in Matthew and Luke.  It simply does not make sense that Mark would pull an expression back from its translated context or insert it in the material already well written.  These three individually nudge one in the direction of accepting Mark’s earlier authorship than the other two Synoptic authors, but collectively they seem to unavoidably point to an earlier arrival of Mark.

I have already “tipped my hand,” as it were, in this last paragraph.  My position is that of the Two-Source Hypothesis.  It seem most plausible to me that Mark was written first, and that all three Synoptic Gospel authors were familiar with gospel traditions that were included in their works.  These gospel traditions were certainly oral, and many of them were likely contained in some written form (possibly ‘Q’) as well.[13]

There are no doubt questions that this hypothesis does not answer, and there are men smarter than me who hold another view.  However, ultimately the answers to these questions are that God superintended the development of these documents through His sovereignty and providence.

Divine inspiration of Scripture is not to be confused with automatic writing, dictation, or any other obliteration of human authorship.  In fact, the beauty of God’s word is that it comes through the means of such common instrumentality.  Historical developments, culture, personal research, education, life experiences, and a host of other influences came to bear on the gospel writers, but none of these stifled the divine revelation they conveyed as they themselves were being carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).

I agree wholeheartedly with Clements when he says, “Scholarly work on history and literature should therefore not be despised, since it often sheds light on the text. On the other hand, our confidence in the truth of Scripture does not rest on the ability of specialists to sort out literary problems, but on God’s power to fulfill His promises (Is. 55: 10,11; 2 Tim. 3: 16,17). “[14]


[1] Clements, Don K. New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament. Edited by R. C. Sproul. Narrows, VA: Metokos Press, 2006.

[2] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  89.

[3] Ibid.  90.

[4] Lovell, Graham Davis. “Papias on Mark and Matthew.” Papias on Mark and Matthew. May 25, 2012. http://newtestamenthistory.blogspot.com/2012/05/papias-on-mark-and-matthew.html.

[5] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  90-91.

[6] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  91.

[7] Ibid.  143.

[8] Ibid.  93.

[9] Ibid.  93.

[10] Ibid.  94.

[11] Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992.  96.

[12] Ibid.  97.

[13] Ibid.  101.

[14] Clements, Don K. New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament. Edited by R. C. Sproul. Narrows, VA: Metokos Press, 2006.

To whom was the Letter to the ‘Galatians’ written?

Recently, I taught a bible study course through the Galatian epistle and began the first lesson by discussing only the first three words of the text, “Paul, an Apostle…”[1] ‘Who is Paul?’ and ‘What is an Apostle?’ seemed to be two questions that needed to be asked and answered before we could move on to anything else. There is another pressing question, however, that has been asked at the outset of this same letter.

Just after his own introduction, the Apostle Paul addresses his letter’s recipients, “To the churches of Galatia… (ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Γαλατίας).”  Who were the Galatian Christians to whom the Apostle Paul wrote? This question may or may not have a similar bearing on interpretation and application to my previously recommended inquiries, but the question is an important one nonetheless. The perceived destination of this letter can have an impact on the interpretation of such a text, but an interest in a destination of the Galatian epistle certainly has a great deal to do with the dating of its authorship. Therefore, questions regarding the recipients and the destination of any biblical text are important for more than just critical scholars.

In the first century B.C. the province of Galatia, variable in size over the years, was under the rule of the Celtic king Amyntas. At its peak expanse, Galatia stretched from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and always covered the central land area that was home to many Celts, including three Celtic tribes – referenced later in the ‘North Galatia’ theory. Having been willed to Rome in 25 B.C. and modified at its frontiers, in the Apostle Paul’s day the province of Galatia still encompassed vast parts of Lycaonia, Pisidia, and Phrygia.[2] It is apparent that the term ‘Galatia’ certainly has the potential to be less than helpful in discovering the exact audience of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

According to scholars, there are only two conceivable destinations for this letter. One possibility is that the letter was written to “three Celtic tribes akin to the Gauls,” which Cole says were known as Galatians, “who had invaded and subsequently occupied Asia Minor in the third century before Christ.”[3] This is the theory that the Apostle Paul used the term Galatia in what is described by Fung as the “enthnogeographical sense,”[4] referring to the ethnic group located in the northern part of the province of Galatia. This is known as the ‘North Galatian’ theory.

The other plausible option is that the epistle was written to a broader group defined by Cole as the “radically mixed inhabitants of the Roman province of Galatia, and the name ‘Galatians’ was simply used as a handy common term to cover them all.”[5] This is the theory that the Apostle Paul used the term Galatia to denote an expansive Roman province, referring to the general composition of churches he had established across the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia. This is known as the ‘South Galatia’ theory. Common geographical and ethnic labels (especially those used by the Apostle Paul), the varying composition of the Roman province of Galatia, the chronology of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, and the correlation of many of the details of the Apostle Paul’s life experiences recorded in this letter as compared to other New Testament writings will all contribute to the discussion concerning which of these two theories best provides the most plausible destination.

North Galatia Theory

The ‘North Galatia’ theory maintains that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Celtic group of believers in Northern Galatia, the area of modern day Turkey. The ‘North Galatia’ theory was the position held by the early Church fathers, and was the dominant view of scholarship until the nineteenth century.[6] Tucker, an associate professor of New Testament at Moody Theological Seminary, said that there are more commentaries from the early Church fathers on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians than from than any other New Testament book.[7]

The endorsement of the patristics, however, is not a sure road to certainty on any New Testament matter; and Martin Luther did not seem to know of the theory when he wrote in the sixteenth century in his commentary on the epistle, “Paul had preached the Gospel throughout Galatia, founding many churches which after his departure were invaded by the false apostles.”[8] It appears that Luther understood Paul’s letter to have been destined for those churches about which he also read in Luke’s record of Paul’s journeys. He mentions no thought of unnamed churches in northern Galatia being the addressees of such an inspired communiqué.

At any rate, the Galatia of the early Church fathers’ day had already been significantly pruned from the expansive territory with the same name in the Apostle Paul’s lifetime. The Galatia that the patristics knew was virtually comprised only by the Celtic heartland, which is the home of three Celtic tribes – the claimed audience of the ‘North Galatia’ theory. This, it would seem, makes the position of the Church fathers a good assessment of their contemporary common viewpoint, but no real indicator as to the actual intended audience of the Apostle Paul.

J. B. Lightfoot, Fung declares, is the classical proponent of the ‘North Galatia’ argument, and James Moffatt as well as others joined him in the debate. This view remains widely held, “predominantly but not exclusively in Germany.”[9] The adherents to this view are not without warrant, and there are a number of reasons that one may find the ‘North Galatia’ theory appealing. In fact, Carson and Moo list as many as eight points of positive argument for the proposition. For the discussion here, several will surely suffice.

First, many ‘North Galatia’ proponents contend that the term Galatia carried the intended meaning of referring to the locale of the Gaul inhabitants of the north.  Their point is that the term was simply acceptable shorthand for the audience they claim as most likely. Next, it is argued that Phrygians would not have found the label of Galatians very appealing as a designative term to include them. It is said that both Phrygians and Lycaonians would have perceived the term as an insult to them because it would remind them of their Roman rule.[10] Cole says that some ‘North Galatia’ theorists claim that calling someone a “Galatian” at that time would have been the equivalent of calling them a “country bumpkin.”[11]

Then there is the example of Luke’s denotations of geographical locations in Acts 13 and 14. In both of these chapters Luke uses specific designations for certain cities in relation to their geography.  Antioch is called “Pisidian” (Acts 13:14), and Lystra and Derbe are referred to as “cities of Lycaonia” (Acts 14:6). These two citations are interesting when compared with Luke’s reference to “the region of Phrygia and Galatia” (Acts 16:6). The North Galatia theorist says, “we must understand him to mean geographic Phrygia and geographic Galatia – that is, North Galatia.”[12]

The Apostle Paul was a traveling evangelist if he was anything, and his missionary journeys are famous. While some would dismiss the ‘North Galatia’ theory on the grounds that the Apostle Paul simply could not have evangelized the area claimed by the theory, the arguments against such a possibility seem inconclusive. In fact, those who hold the ‘North Galatia’ view find tremendous evidence for a Pauline visit to north Galatia in the text of Acts 16 as it relates to the Apostle Paul’s physical disease (Galatians 4:13-14) and his resulting providential stay with the Galatians. It would be perfectly in keeping with what we know of the Apostle Paul to consider his interest in making the most of an opportunity provided him by God to proclaim the Gospel to the people of north Galatia. According to this view, the Galatian epistle is a follow up letter to Paul’s divinely orchestrated encounter with the northern Galatians.

Probably the most curious argument I found in favor of the ‘North Galatia’ theory was that of the potentially conflicting records concerning the Apostle Paul’s experience of opposition. The record we find in Acts of Paul’s missionary journeys includes one account after another of persecution and hardship concerning the response of the hearers and the reception of the Gospel. Yet, there is no mention of any opposition experienced by Paul in any Galatian city. It seems that a reasonable explanation for this confusion lack of persecution would be that the Apostle was writing not to several cities across the Roman province of Galatia, but to a particular people group – namely the Celtic tribes – in northern Galatia.

While the ‘North Galatia’ theory does have the benefit of longstanding adherence, and it poses some interesting arguments, this theory seems less than completely convincing. The reasons listed here are all, with the exception of the last one mentioned, provided with a retort and even dismissed as they are listed in most of the material investigated for this essay. The ‘North Galatia’ theory is accompanied by the postulation of a later date for the authorship of the letter as well, and this appears (at least to the present writer) to hurt rather than help its case. Far from providing a coherent chronology through the use of geographical sequence, the ‘North Galatia’ theory seems to ring its own death knell in its dating options.

South Galatia Theory

While the ‘South Galatia’ theory is fairly new, when compared with its antagonist, it has overtaken the place of majority scholarly adherence if at least in the English speaking world.[13] This transfer of dominance is due to many things, but it seems that one of the greatest evidences for the ‘South Galatia’ theory is the preponderance of familiarity that the New Testament has with the southern locale in the Roman province of Galatia. Carson muses, “We have information about people and places Paul knew and visited in the southern region, but none at all in the north (at best Acts 16:6 and 18:23 may indicate work in the north, but neither passage says that Paul founded churches there).” Carson concludes, “This is in striking contrast to his work in other areas.”[14] It is a noticeable dissimilarity indeed.

As mentioned earlier, Galatia was a large Roman province that included a much greater expanse than the Celtic tribal loci. In fact, the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe were all included in the southern region of Galatia. The significance of these cities and their general collective location lends great weight to the ‘South Galatia’ theory because they are all included in the list of recorded cities visited by the Apostle Paul, and the New Testament has great familiarity with them. Luke writes of these named cities as places where the Apostle Paul founded churches on his first missionary journey, which is documented in Acts 13:13 through Acts 14:28.[15]

In a telling statement, Carson quotes the ‘North Galatia’ theory’s spearhead, Lightfoot, who said, “It is strange that while we have more or less acquaintance with all the other important Churches of St. Paul’s founding, with Corinth and Ephesus, with Philippi and Thessalonica, not a single name of a person or place, scarcely be preserved in either the history or the epistle.”[16] With these words, Lightfoot acknowledges the inconceivability of his own theory in light of the total absence of any explicit Pauline visit, much less any record of the Apostle planting a local church among the northern Galatian Celts. This ground of the debate is so vital that it hardly needs stressing, and one might think there be no reason to continue the discussion in terms of uncertainty regarding the destination of the letter to the Galatians. Yet, there is more.

Fung suggests the ‘South Galatia’ theory is correct for at least three reasons, which he says are particularly cogent.

First, “what is known of the geographical situation at the time: none of the main roads in Asia Minor even passed through North Galatia, so that had Paul wanted to go to preach the gospel there he would not have set our from Lystra (cf. Acts 16:1, 6).”[17] This argument is from practical travel ability; Paul simply could not have gone the route postulated by those of the ‘North Galatia’ theory. If the Apostle Paul would have actually made the trek north to the Celtic tribes located there, he would have started at another beginning point. Yet, Lystra being the doubtful starting point of a trip north, the ‘North Galatia’ theory has no other textual springboard to which it may point.

Second, “Paul’s evangelistic strategy: it is obvious from Acts that Paul consistently concentrated his efforts on the main roads and centers of communication in the Roman Empire, and until the end of the third century South Galatia was more important than North Galatia and correspondingly more developed.”[18] Again, Fung appeals to all that we know to be true about the Apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8). Paul was repeatedly traveling to the cities and along the routes that would provide him the greatest numerical audience and farthest possible reach for his message. Southern Galatia’s cities simply enjoyed higher population numbers and greater influence that did those of Northern Galatia. Paul would most certainly have gone anywhere and preached to anyone, but he was a masterful tactical evangelist.

Third, “the silence of Acts regarding the establishment of churches in North Galatia: this silence, over against the author’s explicit mention of churches in South Galatia, would be extremely difficult to explain if the controversy reflected in Galatians had been a controversy with the churches in North Galatia.”[19] This is similar to the argument already encountered, but it is noteworthy to mention not only the general lack of evidence for any Pauline visit, but also the specific lack of evidence regarding a Pauline planted church in north Galatia. Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia is directed at a plurality of churches, and it is tremendously personal as well as relational.

The churches of North Galatia seem less likely to go unnoticed by the New Testament text than does a single church in northern Galatia. While it is possible, it is all the more unlikely that the audience is multiple unknown churches northern Galatia. Additionally, the experiences of the Apostle Paul among the churches of Galatia recounted in the letter that bears the name are personal and seemingly extended over time. Lastly, the churches of Galatia can hardly be thought to have gone completely unnamed while seemingly enjoying such broad knowledge and even guests from other places. These churches of Galatia knew (or at least knew of) Peter, James, John, Barnabas, and Titus (Galatians 2:1-9). They were even significant enough as to have received the same message as was carried by the “men from James or Jerusalem” (Galatians 2:12), namely that Christians were only true Christians if they lived according to Jewish laws and customs.

Dating the Epistle to the Galatians

One can hardly attempt an address of the potential destination of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians without recognizing that the date of its authorship has a direct correlation. One commentary says, “The question of the letter’s date is intertwined with the problem of its destination.”[20] The two questions are linked, and how one answers the question of one will affect the options he has in answering the other. The writer goes on to draw out the dating dilemma,

“When we follow the course of Paul’s first and second missionary journeys (Acts 13; 14; 15: 36-18: 22) we discover that this question has implications for the epistle’s date and for its relationship to Paul’s other letters. Paul visited Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe (all cities in south Galatia) on his first and second missionary journeys. If Paul wrote to southern Galatia, he probably wrote to those churches early in his career, shortly after the first missionary journey, or about the time of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; cf. Gal. 2: 11-14). The date most often given by those who hold this view is A.D. 49. If this is correct, Galatians may be Paul’s earliest epistle in existence today.”[21]

Indeed, this would prove to be incredibly noteworthy. If the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the churches of Galatia in or about 49 A.D., that would have a tremendous impact on the discussion concerning an early construction of Christian theology, early ecclesiastical interaction (see especially Galatians chapters 5 and 6), and an amazingly fast spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the time of His death, resurrection and ascension. Christians would have good reason to see the foundational structure of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) delivered specifically to the saints of Galatia very early on (Galatians 1:6). Not only would this put Paul in the midst of church planting about 15 years after the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ; it would move that date even further in the past. We would not expect that Paul means only a few weeks when he admits his astonishment at the seemingly speedy desertion of the Gospel by his letter’s recipients. It would be prudent to understand Paul’s church planting work and coherent Gospel presentations to have been prevalent and effective some significant amount of time before this epistle was written.

The same commentary already referenced goes on to explain the dating options for the opposing view of intentional destination.

“Many scholars think that Galatians was written to the ethnic Galatians in the north. If this view is correct, Paul probably wrote the letter after passing through “Galatia and Phrygia” (Acts 18: 23) on his third missionary Journey. Many who follow the “north Galatian theory” believe that Paul wrote the letter either during his two-year stay in Ephesus (Acts 19) or as he was traveling through Macedonia on his way to Greece at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 20: 1-6; cf. 2 Cor. 2: 13). If this is correct, Galatians was probably written in A.D. 54 or 55.”[22]

Rather than placing this letter between the Apostle’s first and second missionary journeys, the later proposed time of composition would date it near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. The two date options are not significantly different regarding the passing of time; 5 years is certainly not an extremely long time. However, the significance of the timely arrival of the material in the letter is diminished at this later date. Again, the dating of this letter may be weightier because of the possibility that it is the first and earliest of all New Testament texts. At any rate, the ‘North Galatia’ theory seems less likely on the scale of geography and the recorded church planting activity of the Apostle Paul. Therefore, the later dating may not have any feet on which to stand before it even attempts the act. However, there is also good reason to accept the earlier date on its own terms.

Carson lists four reasons that the earlier date is better supported. One, “In protesting that he had a divine commission and not one derived ‘from any human source’ (1:12), Paul lists his contacts with the Jerusalem apostles.”[23] These contacts include two visits to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-2), which seem to correspond to the visits recorded in Acts 9:26 and Acts 11:28-30. After he lists these encounters, he resolves “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie” (Galatians 1:20). This line of reasoning goes on then, “Paul’s list must be complete, else his argument would be vitiated (see 1:20).”[24] Therefore, he cannot have left out the Acts 15 visit, unless that visit had not yet occurred, and remain true to his word.

Two, “Paul does not mention the decree of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which would have been very suitable for his purpose. This suggests a visit [that is a visit to the letter’s recipients in Galatia] before the council.”[25] The suggestion of a visit before the council on the ground that Paul does not mention the decree of it alone is not sufficient, because Paul does not mention the decree in other of his writings that were authored demonstrably later. However, the point is notable nonetheless as it would have been significant to mention it and beneficial to his argument.

Carson’s third point is that “Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentiles (2:12) is more likely to have been before rather than after the council.”[26] While the Apostle to the Jews, Peter (Galatians 2:7-8), was certainly not a beacon of tact and propriety in some notable moments of New Testament history, it still does not make sense that he would make the statements that he does at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7-11) and then later act in such a contradictory way (Galatians 2:12). It would make more sense to understand Peter’s vacillation on table fellowship with Gentiles to have occurred prior to his bold and courageous statements in front of the most notable Jewish leaders of his own day.

Fourth and finally, Carson asserts, “The early date is not invalidated by Paul’s words ‘I first preached the gospel to you’ (4:13), which some suggest means ‘on the first of my two visits’ (NEB) and points to a date later than Paul’s second missionary journey.”[27] This point is a bit more academic than the previous three, but a great one to add at this juncture. Some would argue that Paul’s expression cited above indicates that he visited the Galatian churches more than once, and this is simply not the case with the southern Galatian churches who would have been the recipients of the letter according to the ‘South Galatia’ theory. However, Carson defends his statement with some linguistic instruction of his own.

“In classical Greek the expression means on the former of two occasions, but in Hellenistic Greek it signifies ‘formerly, in the past’ (as in John 6:62; 9:8; Heb. 4:6, etc.). In any case, Paul visited his South Galatian churches twice during his first expedition (see Acts 14:21), so that even if the Greek expression is taken to mean ‘on the first of my two visits,’ the second visit may have been the return swing on the first missionary journey (Acts 12:21-26), rather than something later.”[28]

Therefore, it is possible that Paul was writing to the same churches posited as the recipients in the ‘South Galatia’ theory. Moreover, the preponderance of evidence demonstrates that it is not only possible, but also incredibly likely that this was the case. It is the view of the present writer that the ‘North Galatia’ theory is not tenable, and the ‘South Galatia’ theory is reasonable.

Additionally, the earlier dating (circa 49 A.D.) of the letter makes it a fascinating study as the earliest New Testament document. This has huge implications for both textual criticism dialogues and apologetic exchanges. The interpretation of the Galatian epistle does not seem to be impacted by the implications of a northern or southern destination, and this also points to the significance in the early dating. The letter addresses universal truths concerning law, grace, gospel, faith, sin, true freedom, and God’s steadfast commitment to all those He chooses to call His own. These theological articulations at such an early point of Christianity’s chronology is very interesting to say the least.

Bibliography

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Clements, Don K., comp. New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament. Edited by R. C. Sproul. Narrows, VA: Metokos Press, 2006.

Cole, R. A. Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary. Edited by Leon Morris. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008.

Fung, Ronald Y. K. NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians. Edited by Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1988.

Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001.

Keller, Timothy J. Galatians for You. [Purcellville, VA]: Good Book Company, 2013.

Lightfoot, Joseph Barber. Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes and Dissertations. London: Macmillan and, 1890.

Luther, Martin. Commentary on Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1979.

Tucker, Brian J. “Galatians and Ephesians.” Galatians and Ephesians. http://www.slideboom.com/presentations/380085/Galatians-and-Ephesians.


[1] Galatians 1:1a.  All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 458.

[3] Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, 21.

[4] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[5] Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, 21.

[6] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[7] Tucker, Galatians and Ephesians.

[8] Luther, Galatians 1:2b

[9] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[10] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 460.

[11] Cole, Galatians: An Introduction and Commentary, 24.

[12] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 460.

[13] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 2.

[14] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 458.

[15] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 1.

[16] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 458.

[17] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 3.

[18] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 3.

[19] Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, 3.

[20] Clements, New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament.

[21] Clements, New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament.

[22] Clements, New Geneva Introduction to the New Testament.

[23] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[24] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[25] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[26] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[27] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

[28] Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 462.

What does it mean to be ‘Lost’?

What does it mean to be Lost?   Usually, in the context of Christianity, one is not speaking of location confusion when using the term lost. To say, “he is lost,” is to say something other than, “he does not know how to make his way from his home to the church building.” The term lost is commonly used in the salvific sense, or regarding a person’s present spiritual condition and eternal destination. Much like a traveler needs to know his or her locale, destination and route in order to make a successful journey, every spiritual pilgrim needs to know his or her spiritual whereabouts, objective and way in order to enjoy the benefits of spiritual triumph.

This question concerning ‘lostness’ may be one of the most important in order to have a better understanding of what it means to be ‘found’ or ‘saved’ in the spiritual sense (i.e. what it means to be a Christian). Essentially, this question is seeking to understand a major difference between those who are Christians and those who are not. There are real distinctions between those who are lost and those who are found, but it is vitally important to know what the actual distinctions are in order to have an appropriate posture towards those in each group.

In an answer to this main question, the following structure will be provided. First, we will attempt to understand the basic nature of humanity, and subsequently try to grasp the chief end or ultimate purpose of humanity. Next, we will delve into some of the effects of sin upon human nature and how they relate to human purpose. Then we will look at the significance of using the term lost to describe every human sinner apart from or without Christ. Last, we will continue our search of the Scriptures to discover how one who is lost may become found. After all, one’s ‘lostness’ or ‘foundness’ is not merely of temporal interest. These categories, and one’s placement underneath each heading, are of supreme significance both in this life and in the eons to come.

What is the nature of humanity?   There seems no better place to begin a study of human nature than at the beginning – the act of God’s creating work. At the creation of humanity, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”[1] This phrase, though, has been at the center of much confusing talk concerning the nature of humanity. From misconceptions about God to misappropriating the ‘likeness’ of God in man, many have taken this phrase and run in strange and unhelpful directions. There is much that one may learn from this phrase, and a closer and wider look at the Scriptures is always beneficial, but we may at least gather that ‘man’ or humanity is a special or unique creation among all else that God has made.

On an aside, I quite agree with Wayne Grudem (a systematic theologian) concerning usage of the term ‘man’ as a reference to the entire human race.[2] One must refrain from postulating the unsuitable use of the masculine term to entitle all humanity unless he or she is willing to oppose God’s own use of the term. It is plain from the context of the previous verse cited that God described His own creation of humanity with the use of the masculine term in reference to the totality of male and female human beings. The Scripture also says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (emphasis added).[3] There is no mistaking the interchangeable use of ‘them’ – both male and female – and ‘him’ or ‘man.’

Grudem adds that some may find objection still and claim that the use of word ‘man’ as a suitable expression of the concept ‘all humankind’ is merely a Hebrew language feature and not to be continued in our own day. However, such an argument is unconvincing when one reads the opening sentences of Genesis chapter 5 (just a few chapters after the previous citations). “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (emphasis added).[4] It appears therefore that God not only uses the term ‘man’ in reference to the entire human race, but God has chosen to label or ‘name’ humankind with the same masculine term. This is not to say that ‘man’ is the only satisfactory term, but it must at the very least be considered appropriate.

At any rate, the nature of man is directly tied to the creation of man. For God is not merely the organizer of molecules; He is the special and intentional designer of all that He has created, including humankind. In other words, if one wants to know what humankind really is, one would do well to ask the God who drew man into existence and brought humans into being.

Referring to the original passage cited above, man is the unique creation of God. Man was created in the ‘likeness’ of God, and this is no easily articulated semblance. Grudem says, “as we read the rest of Scripture, we realize that a full understanding of man’s likeness to God would require a full understanding of who God is in his being and in his actions and a full understanding of who man is and what he does.”[5] Alas, a full comprehensive knowledge of God and man is something that no sensible person can claim; therefore, an attempt to communicate completely what likeness man has or is of God will result in an inadequate sketch. Yet, there is great value in the sketch.

In every way that man is like God, man carries the divine likeness or bears the image of God. The image of God is the basis for essential human value and dignity. God’s image upon humankind is the reason that man is of pronounced value and the reason that man’s degradation is not only vexing but also immoral and wicked.

It may be said, then, the nature of man or the intended essence of every human is to be like Godto bear God’s image and reflect that image to all others.

What is the chief end of man?   This question is found at the opening of both the shorter and the longer Westminster Catechisms.[6] It is the starting place of any real and meaningful approach to understanding not only the nature of man, but also the supreme and universal purpose thereof. For what purpose has man – every man, woman and child – been created? Essentially, this is a ‘meaning of life’ question. Arguably, this is one of the weightiest questions of all time. Far from being unanswerable or even complicated, the Catechism answers the question with the clear and concise statement. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s it! This is no small or easy thing, but its simplicity is amazingly refreshing. Indeed, the purpose for which all things have been created is to bring glory to God and enjoy the benefits of His glory upon creation (Romans 11:36; Revelation 4:11).

Because of the common misunderstanding it is important to note – submission, loving obedience, and a generally selfless posture towards God are not tyrannical and malevolent requirements upon humanity from an uncaring deity. Quite the opposite is actually true. In fact, the greater obedience and loving submission that one experiences towards their Creator, the greater joy and fulfillment he or she experiences as well (Psalm 51:12).

It is a myth that a man must put away all of his good desires and any hope for genuine self-gratification and contentment in order to love God (Galatians 5:1).

If this chief end or highest purpose seems foreign to us, it is not for some lack of truth in the claim. Instead, there is great likelihood that the truth of it sounds bizarre because of our own sinful corruption. Our failure to arrive at our chief end, our inability to achieve our highest purpose, is a universal characteristic of the sinful human race. What may be even more sobering is the cause for such devilish disorientation.

What are the effects of sin upon human nature?   Because humankind was created in the likeness and image of God, and because man’s highest purpose and greatest joy is found in the glory of God and enjoyment of Him, then every human should be marked by a fervent and passionate pursuit of godliness and participation in genuine worship of the one true God. However, the least observant among us will note that this is not the case. In fact, the exact opposite characteristics are what we find to be most ubiquitous.

Sin is any lack of conformity to or transgression of God’s law – the clear revelation of God’s own character and nature. Therefore, sin is man being less than or other than he ought; and this is to his own detriment.

Many have suggested solutions to the problem of sin, this failure to live up to or fulfill humanity’s intended design. Secularly, most would recognize a general selfishness exhibited in barbarism that is measured by degree rather than occurrence in humankind. Lying, stealing, murder, adultery, covetousness, and an unwillingness to submit to virtually any authority are all sinful expressions with which humans have become acquainted – and even comfortable in most cases.

If one thinks this assessment too harsh, he or she ought to consider the spirit and not merely the letter of God’s law. For example, if one is thinks himself successful at avoiding any transgression of the law concerning adultery because he has not had intercourse with another man’s wife, he has done well as far as he believes the law to extend. However, when he is exposed to the spirit of the law or what underlies the concise imperative – namely that everyone is to make strong efforts to preserve both their own chastity as well as others, together in thought, word and deed – then he may realize that he is utterly blameworthy.

A wise person would know that only an individual unaware of the range and depth of God’s law, or one unwilling to acknowledge it, would even hesitate to admit he and all others are completely guilty before God and exceedingly sinful.

The general posture of sinfulness rather than godly pursuit, and the pervasiveness of such offensive insolence, begs the question – WHY? From whence has this total distortion of purpose and joy come? The corruption of human nature is an inheritance from our forefather – Adam, the first man. Charles Hodge describes the grave situation by saying, “the sin of Adam injured not himself only but also all descending from him by ordinary generation.”[7] Hodge goes on to say that there are three things that may be considered subsequent results of the first sin, which was committed by humanity’s first parents. These effects include the personal and universal guilt of all humankind, the corruption of every aspect of human nature derived from our ancient ancestor, and the inability of natural man to do anything of genuine spiritual good.[8] While these consequences are biblically sound and overwhelmingly applicable, it is not expedient to address these stated results in their entirety here. Therefore, the remainder of this section will focus upon the specific effects of sin upon human nature, especially those contributing to lostness, rather than defending the validity of these stated consequences.

If the citations above seem too far above the average person’s ability to grasp, then it might be helpful to simply describe how Adam’s sinful fall has impacted all humankind. The three consequences above may be explained in the following way. First, every human is counted by God as though they sinned just as Adam did from the time Adam sinned (Romans 5:12). This may seem unfair or unwarranted, but rest assured that all humans were represented well in Adam, and any guilt that he procured for other humans has been multiplied a thousand times over by the daily sin of those who may claim the lack of accurate representation. Second, every aspect of human nature – mind, body, will, etc. – has been negatively affected by the curse of God upon sin (Ephesians 2:3). This result begins to place our fingers on the pulse of lostness. Because of Adam’s sin, God cursed all creation and human nature has been marred and distorted so much so that man perceives the Object of his highest purpose and greatest joy as the most antagonistic rival to such things.

Third, man in his natural state is opposed to genuine spiritual good and godliness (Galatians 5:17-21). This truth is one of the bitterest pills to swallow, but it is also one of the simplest and most easily proven doctrines or principles of Scripture. We use the word good to describe all kinds of things. I have a good dog. I wear a good pair of shoes. I like a good cheesecake. However, we do not understand the term ‘good’ in these sentences to be expressing any moral worthiness or righteous disposition. There is no such thing as a morally worthy or righteous cheesecake (as awesome as some cheesecake might be). Good in the spiritual sense, in the sense about which God is concerned, is an attribute that no descendant of Adam can claim (Romans 3:10-18).  In fact, the Bible says it explicitly, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”[9]

The effects of sin upon the nature of humanity are farther-reaching and more deeply entrenched than any earthly human can know. The Scriptures speak of the wicked heart of man as being not only corrupt but also deceptively so (Jeremiah 17:9). In other words, no earthly man knows the depth of his own depravity because his best attempts to know his own wickedness are efforts from a mind and will that naturally and frequently deceive him.

This kind of man, a naturally sinful man – incapable of seeking his highest joy and unwilling to fulfill his greatest purpose – is lost indeed.

He knows not himself, he knows no authentic way to restore his own joy, and he is both unwilling and unable to lay down his upraised weapons against the only God who might bring him true peace, joy, stability, security, purpose, community, and freedom. God’s first words recorded after the initial sin of man were “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Truly, lost is a just description of one in such a hopeless condition.

What does the term lost indicate?   One may think it a bit odd to begin a discussion about lostness at creation, but setting the proper stage will hopefully prove worthwhile by this point in the investigation. A good and working knowledge of the intended purpose of humankind will be of benefit in understanding the overwhelming lostness that has come upon sinful humanity. The sinful natural man (every man, woman, and child descending from Adam) is lost in relation to himself, in relation to other humans, and most significantly he is lost in relation to his God.

The natural man, that man so catastrophically affected by his own sin and that of others, has lost himself.

He may try to know himself – who he truly is, or what fetches him real joy – but he cannot. When one person wants to know another, it is common to ask questions, which one perceives will reveal something about the true nature of the other. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “What do you like?” “What is your fondest memory?” How cruel it would be to merrily ask these questions of a man who was born into slavery. How much would one hope to learn from a man still trapped in the chains of captivity, if he poses the question “What do you do?” Will the slave disclose his true self in some answer that he might muster? What would his fondest memory be? Would this reveal any genuinely enjoyable experience or merely some temporary illusion of relief from his miserable reality?

Additionally, the natural man may ask himself a thousand questions and each one would be answered with some measure of deception. He often is unwilling to acknowledge his own bondage to sin or the incarceration of its consequences. His own desires deceive him, as he passionately chases all those things that inevitably harm him and steal his joy. Each time he thinks he has found himself, he learns ever so quickly that he was never truly found. He may be here or there, but he is always lost to himself.

The natural man is lost to everyone by whom he longs to be known.

People seek all kinds of relationships and so frequently fancy themselves to have found genuine community with another. Yet, where have they ever truly been known? When has the sinner ever been utterly exposed and without shame?[10] Even in the most intimate relationship of humanity – the committed marriage of one man and one woman – both males and females are disappointed in the lack of intimacy. Where one marriage relationship performs well in the area of physical experience, that same marriage may severely lack intellectual or emotional understanding. It is extremely common for males and females to perceive the greatest marital disunity in areas seemingly unrelated to each other, but every marriage suffers from the same root cause – neither sinner is fully known by the other and therefore neither can experience full rest and genuine community in the relationship.

What of the sinner’s friends? Which one knows him best, and knows everything about him? Does any friend know that his silence regarding serious matters is to the sinner’s detriment? Even a friend who knows the pain that sinful pursuit causes is unwilling or unable to engage the sinner on such ground. The friend does not know his sinful companion well enough to address him admirably and productively. What friend knows of the deepest struggles in the sinner’s heart and selflessly speaks wisdom to his sinful friend? Does he do this while receiving no benefit of his own and conveying no pretense in regards to his own struggles?

The natural man has no true friend. Not one of his dearest allies knows him fully and loves him unconditionally. He does not share complete and unreserved love with any of his peers. He has no hope of ever experiencing such loving relationship with full disclosure and cherished communion. He may be in this relationship or that group of friends, but he is always lost to others.

Most painfully of all, the natural man is lost in relationship to his God.

God is not merely the title or name that we have ascribed to some divine impersonal force that itself is guided by higher laws of so-called nature. No, God is that being which is the origin of all life, exceedingly great joy, sinless passion, righteous vigor, true goodness, pure beauty, genuine truth, unconditional love, caring benevolence, wise providence, and awesome sovereignty. For a man to lose his God is tantamount to the loss of himself and everything else. God is the one to whom he looks for guidance and affirmation; God is his foundation and stability; God is his hope and the object of his faith. Natural man has not only willingly lost his God, but he refuses to be known by the God of his longing.

The natural man will not have the only God capable of being his great joy. No, the natural man seeks to name his own god and create such an abomination in the image of his sinful desires. Sinful humanity will concoct a god whose aim is their sexual, material, or experiential pleasure. What indulgence is your craving today? There is a god made by human invention that will find its fulfillment in feeding that appetite. There is no rule except that of desire; the desire of the moment rules the natural man’s day.

It is not, however, that every natural man is easily observed as having such a curious and decadent idol as his god. On the contrary, the natural man is keenly able to deceive himself and others as to the true measure of his scandalous god. Many natural men bring their idolatrous god with them to a church building and think that this false god is the same as the Object of all other’s worship. Sinful men may even allow their imaginary god to acquire some distorted attribute of the one true God, but they will not humble themselves before the King of Glory and admit their lostness before Him. No, the natural man is convinced of his own sufficiency and does not think himself in need of an all-sufficient God. He may seek a god, an idol of his own creation, but he is always lost and away from his God who created him.

The natural man’s lostness is totally consuming.  He is lost to himself, he is lost in relationship to others, and he is lost in relation to his God. 

Augustine wrote of this lostness in the heart of a natural man when he said as to God, “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.”[11] Augustine articulates the matter of this discussion well. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but the natural man is eternally and completely lost, and he is hopelessly restless in his natural state.  Augustine gives room for hope, however, when he says, “until it repose in Thee.”  Where can this restful tranquility be found, and how may the lost natural man gain such peace?

How may one who is lost become found?   As already discussed, the natural man is not merely lost for lack of knowledge or natural experience; he is lost because he does not want to be found. When the first man sinned he did not seek refuge in the bosom of his Creator, nor did he find relief in any admission of guilt or honest community with his Lord. No, he hid from the One with whom he had previously experienced real love and intimacy (Genesis 3:8, 10). This fallen sinner denied his own guilt and deceived himself as to his true culpability (Genesis 3:12-13).

The Bible is clear; the natural man is hostile to the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14; Galatians 5:17). How then can any willfully lost sinner be found? In John 3:1-8 Jesus speaks in what may seem to be obscure terms, but He clarifies what must take place in order to produce such a conversion.

“Now there was a man … named Nicodemus… This man came to Jesus and said, ‘… We know that you are a teacher come from God …’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? …’ Jesus answered, ‘… That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’” (abbreviated).[12]

Jesus essentially answers the question asked earlier (How can the lost become found?) with the statement, “You must be born again.” The Bible uses other terms to speak of the experience of being “born again.” God uses the term regenerate through the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:6), the Apostle Paul uses the analogies of life from death (Ephesians 2:5) and divine re-creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the Apostle Peter uses the same verbiage as Jesus from John 3 (1 Peter 1:3, 23). The Greek word Peter uses in these two instances is ἀναγεννήσας (anagennēsas), which means to thoroughly change the mind of one, so that he lives a new life and one conformed to the will of God.[13] This is the change necessary in one who is lost – namely his passionate hostility towards all things godly and genuinely good is exchanged for a new love of God and desire to glorify and enjoy Him.

The hope for the lost and natural man is not that he is able to find himself, but that the God of the universe invades his unholy ground with life from above.

Luke chapter 15 is rich with the concept of lostness and foundness. Jesus tells three stories that all illustrate something lost being found. A shepherd lost and found a sheep (verses 3-7), a woman lost and found a coin (verses 8-10), and a father lost and found a son (verses 11-32). The wonder of these three analogies is that the object found in all three is not of great value. The shepherd who lost a single sheep had ninety-nine others and would not likely have experienced tremendous pain at the loss of only one. The woman who lost a single coin had nine others, which would have been of greater monetary value than many of her peers possessed. Her remaining possessions were significant enough to keep her from panic. The son lost was a burdensome and defiant son. The father who lost this kind of son would have been reasonably understood to experience some relief from the loss.

In all three stories, however, Jesus explains that the shepherd, the woman, and the father rejoice at the rewards of their seeking efforts. These stories are not about a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a lost son; they are about the effective pursuit of the finders. The point Jesus conveyed is related to the objection He confronted with these stories. He was being accused of ‘receiving’ sinners (Luke 15:2). The sinners were rightly perceived as less than worthy of the reception, but that is exactly the point! He receives, He seeks, He loves, He knows, and He finds the sinners who are lost.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s promise to find lost sinners.   The Gospel according to John (the 4th book of the New Testament) opens with a profound statement of Jesus’ nature and purpose. The author speaks of Jesus Christ as the union of God and man. God the Son was before all things and is Himself God (John 1:1-3); and this same God became a man, making Himself known in the person and work of Jesus Christ to sinful humanity (John 1:14, 18).

God’s truly unconditional love is demonstrated towards sinful humankind in His steadfast commitment to know and to find those who were once lost.  The Apostle Paul speaks of God’s loving before the foundation of the world those whom God would ordain to be the adopted and loved children of God through the person and work of Christ (Romans 8:29). The natural man becomes known by the God he would not have known, loved by the Father he did not love, and found by the Friend he refused to acknowledge he lost when he is born from above and made spiritually anew.

The natural man is truly lost and restless, but the effective God of salvation finds lost sinners and gives them the repose they refused to enjoy until they were truly found.

 

Bibliography

Augustine, A. The Confessions of Saint Augustine,. New York: Modern Library, 1949. Print.

Grudem, Wayne A. Making Sense of Series: One of Seven Parts from Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Print.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology / Volume 2: Anthropology. [Peabody, Mass.]: Hendrickson, 1999. Print.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Sproul, R. C. What Does It Mean to Be Born Again? Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2010. Print.

Thayer, Joseph Henry, Carl Ludwig Wilibald Grimm, and Christian Gottlob Wilke. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Coded with the Numbering System from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996. Print.

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: As Adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church : With Proof Texts. Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications Committee of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2007. Print.


[1] Genesis 1:26;  All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2] Grudem.  439-440.

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Genesis 5:1-2

[5] Grudem.  443-444.

[6] Westminster Catechisms are based on the Confession of Faith authored and labeled at the same Westminster assembly (1643-1652).

[7] Hodge.  192.

[8] Hodge.  192

[9] Romans 3:12

[10] Genesis 2:25 speaks of human nakedness without shame. This is not merely intended to tell the reader of the physical appearance of the first humans in the Garden of Eden before sin entered into creation. They were physically naked, but they were naked in every way. They were utterly exposed to one another and yet unashamed to be so. Each was fully known and completely loved by the other.

[11] Augustine.  2.

[12] John 3:1-8

[13] Thayer.  Strong’s number 313