Does God speak?

My thesis:

God has revealed Himself commandingly and sufficiently in the written canonical word (i.e. the Bible).

It is commonplace today for Christians to accept that God speaks in ways outside of His written and authoritative Word (the sixty-six canonical books found in the Protestant Christian Bible). While all Christians recognize that God has spoken in ways outside of His written Word, particularly during the time before human authors completed the canonical books of the Bible, many Christians still expect this kind of special and personal revelation today.

Christians who expect, or at least accept, modern-day prophetic revelation from God are often called continuationists. In only rare cases do continuationists claim that these modern-day prophecies are divinely authoritative (equal to the authority of Holy Scripture), but the prophetic visions and/or dreams are also said to be in the category of revelation from God. I will attempt to provide examples of this kind of acceptance and expectation by citing some professing Christians on the matter, and I will also try to present the thinking that undergirds this nebulous position by sketching the logical assumptions at its foundation.

Ultimately, I will seek to demonstrate the logical and Scriptural problems associated with the continuationist position, and I shall argue for an outright rejection of it. In the end, I hope to concisely show that any expectation for receiving divine visions or experiencing revelatory dreams is at least awkward and at worst dangerous.

Setting the Scene

Since the Charismatic[1]movement began in the early 1900s (not becoming mainstream until the 1950s and 1960s), Christians have generally become increasingly open to the idea that God is still speaking to His people today in ways other than biblical revelation. I am the lead pastor of a First Baptist Church located in an unincorporated rural Texas town, and even among this conservative-minded Southern Baptist congregation you will find many who are quite accepting of the idea that God speaks today through visions, dreams, and other forms of special prophecy.

As far as I know, none of my congregants would affirm that any modern-day prophecies should be added to the canon of Scripture, and I am thankful for their hesitation. However, I am also confused by the apparent inconsistency in pairing these two affirmations. As I recently presented the difficulty to some of my congregants, I am utterly unable to understand how someone can receive a “word from God” that is not the “Word of God.” Yet, there are some who feel perfectly at ease with this dichotomy.

Visions of Today

Wayne Grudem, in his standard-setting systematic theological work, defines prophecy as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.”[2]This essay is primarily interested in the purported experiences of dreams and visions as God’s special revelation to twentieth and twenty-first-century people. However, such dreams and visions fall into the category of prophecy since they are intended to perform as God’s special revealing mechanism to humanity – even if only one human in particular.

Grudem also groups visions under the umbrella of prophecy when he explains how Agabus’s prophecy concerning the arrest of the Apostle Paul might be best explained as an errant articulation of a divine vision.[3]Therefore, I believe it is helpful to consider the argument for modern-day prophecies as contributing to the overall support for the expectation of modern-day visions and dreams from God. Let us now consider the argument for experiencing prophecy today and the expression of prophetic practice by those who live with a contemporary expectation of dreams and/or visions.

Post-Apostolic Prophecy

If one is going to advocate for present-day prophets, those who experience divine revelation through dreams and/or visions, he or she will need to begin by demonstrating some biblical basis for them. Dr. Harwood, presenting his own contemporary openness to revelatory dreams and visions, cited several biblical examples of these prophetic experiences. Among the Apostolic examples, Harwood says “Jesus appeared to Saul (later Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)… Later, God directed Paul’s ministry through a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9)… God spoke to Peter through a vision of animals lowered on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23).” Just as Harwood mentioned elsewhere in his article, these are only some of the many biblical examples of such things.[4]These examples do not prove that one should expect twenty-first-century prophets, but they do present prophetic dreams and visions as having been a method used by God to communicate with people at some time in history – namely those whose spiritual office was that of Apostle and/or prophet.

Citing a few Bible passages (such as 1 Thess. 5:19-21 and 1 Cor. 14:29-38) that speak of prophets and/or prophesying, Grudem argues that this New Testament activity is practiced consistently by simply telling something God spontaneously brought to mind.[5]In these passages we also find some instruction concerning prophets and prophecies, as they existed and operated in the context of the New Testament local church. It is from this platform that the leap is made into the present day. If there were ordinary prophets who prophesied through the medium of visions and/or dreams in the New Testament, then it is at least possible that there would be some expectation to experience the same today. However, there is still one more loose string that must be tied before this massive leap can be safely attempted.

When Old Testament prophets prophesied, their words were authoritative and binding – the imposing and dependable Word of God. Yet, as we have already established, very few (none that I know of) advocates of modern-day prophecy desire to present it as equal in authority with canonized Scripture. Harwood affirms “the need to judge any supposed vision or dream against the truths already revealed in the Bible.”[6]

Billy Graham’s staff also encourages the use of “godly counsel” and the Scriptures when filtering a contemporary prophetic vision or dream. Gudem, too, distances himself from any claim that all prophets and prophecies carry the same authority as Scripture. In fact, after attempting to demonstrate from Scripture some reasons to accept that some prophetic visions have less than binding authority, Grudem says, “prophecies in the church today should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority.”[7]Grudem quoted Donald Gee, representing the Assemblies of God, in order to assist in clearing up the difficulty created by this two-tiered significance for prophecy. Gee said:

[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal “messages” of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…. The Bible gives a place for such direction from the Holy Spirit…. But it must be kept in proportion. An examination of the Scriptures will show us that as a matter of fact the early Christians did not continually receive such voices from heaven. In most cases they made their decisions by the use of what we often call “sanctified common-sense” and lived quite normal lives. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned arise when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for “messages” through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries…. The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.[8]

While the heart of such a desire for propriety is commendable, the subjectivity of this position presents an extremely open-ended experience for Christians in the present day. In short, it is like calling gluttons to address their insatiable desire for food by using common sense consumption principles and by keeping proper perspective through an awareness of the problems overeating has caused for others. If gluttons were capable of benefitting from these simple measures, then they would not now be gluttons! So too, those who expect ‘messages’ of special revelation from the Holy Spirit are in no way dissuaded from expecting more by a subtle call to an arbitrary sense of propriety.

Furthermore, error is much more likely to enter through the subjective experiences of humanity than through the study and application of Scripture. Experience has always been pitted against God’s revealed truth, and the Bible is full of examples of humans trusting their own experiential understanding rather than trusting and submitting to God’s Word. As the next section will show, people will inevitably prefer the subjective and effortless (personal prophetic revelation) to the objective and challenging (the diligent study of God’s Word).

Dreamers Dream

The staff of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association claims that God speaks “primarily” through His Word, but “God may communicate through dreams or visions even today.” Of course, a caveat comes quickly behind such a statement, “but we need to carefully check any such guidance we receive with Scripture and godly counsel to be sure it is from the Lord.”[9]Billy Graham is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and these statements from his staff are indicative of the common view among the Southern Baptist congregants that I have encountered over the last decade and across the United States.

While it can be somewhat difficult to acquire a scholarly work on the matter of contemporary visions and dreams, a more open view can be illustrated in the words of a distinctively charismatic writer. Goodwyn, a Christian Broadcasting Network producer, said, “[My] personal experience has confirmed” the notion that “dreams are the perfect way to hear from God.” She went on to say, “Through biblical study, I have found that God intends to speak to each of [His] followers in this manner.” Then Goodwyn quoted the oft-cited text for charismatics when they address this topic, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28; cf Acts 2:17). She does warn, though, “It’s important to understand that not all dreams are God-given.” Indeed, she asserts, “Dreams can also be from Satan.”[10]

These two examples concerning the expectation and nature of prophetic dreams and visions are not the same in every way, but they both provide some basis for further examination of the reasoning behind the continuationists position. I believe the following conclusion statements can be drawn from these two distinct sources above. (1) God does communicate with humans today through visions and dreams, and apart from His Word; (2) Not all visions or dreams are from God; (3) Dreams and/or visions are a personal message directly from God; (4) Subjectively, personal direct messages from God are preferable to ancient indirect ones.

First, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn affirm that visions and dreams, as special revelation from God, are for Christians today. I shall address this further below, but this is an open and direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. If Christians should expect visions and dreams as a kind of supplemental revelation from God today, then the canon of Scripture is (by logical necessity) insufficient for the Christian to be completely equipped for all that God would do in and through him or her.

Second, both Graham’s staff and Goodwyn also affirm that Christians can receive misleading (at best) and nefarious (at worst) visions and dreams. While Graham’s staff does not explicitly attribute erroneous visions and dreams to Satan, as Goodwyn does, they still leave room for massive delusion. Moreover, if visions and dreams are to be weighed against the full counsel of God’s Holy Word, then what real practical use is the vision or dream? If such things are intended as a fast track to knowing God’s will or God’s truth, then pouring over the Scriptures for clarity and validation nullifies the speed and ease of the supposed route.

Third, the last two suppositions, which I believe may also be inferred from an honest assessment of the declarations cited from Graham’s staff and Goodwyn, are both linked to personal subjectivity and preference. Any Christian would jump at the opportunity to receive personal divine revelation in this mortal life. Such a thing excites my interest as I consider it, even as I do not believe it is plausible. The sheer pleasure of a personal message from God, regardless of its content, is enough to keep a Christian consumed and pursuing the experience for quite some time. While personal divine revelation is an exciting notion, it is even more desirable when compared with the indirect and ancient revelation that one will find on the pages of Scripture. While I have heard no continuationist argue for pursuing visions or dreams over seeking God’s revelation of Himself in His Word, it does seem inevitable that Christians would eagerly look for the former over the latter.

If Christians adopt the position that prophetic visions and dreams are to be expected from God in the modern day, then a powerful fog of disillusionment may be blown upon Christians everywhere. How will these modern-day prophets be kept in check? Who will tell us what is the Word of God and what is not? If prophets can be wrong about some things, how can we trust anything that they say? If prophecy through visions and dreams is for today, then why is there such an inconsistency between the authority of biblical prophets and those we should expect in our present day? How can something be a ‘word fromGod’ and not the ‘Word ofGod?’ All of these questions and more create a whirlwind of uncertainty, but possibly the greatest usurpation of this charismatic confidence in present-day dreams and visions is that such a confidence presents a thinly-veiled (even if naively unintentional) attack on the sufficiency of Scripture.

The Sufficiency and Authority of God’s Word

Scriptures itself is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and even the continuationists (at least the ones cited above) acknowledge that Christians should turn to the Bible to either affirm or deny the validity of a dream or vision. I believe it would be logical and wise, then, to look to the Scriptures in order to affirm or deny the validity of expecting such dreams or visions in the first place.  After all, if the dream or vision that contradicts Scripture should be jettisoned, then the expectation of dreams and visions may also be pitched overboard if the concept is understood to be divergent from the testimony of Scripture. Let us investigate some aspects of two distinct passages (for the sake of brevity we may only consider two), and then judge whether it is wise to expect any personal contemporary messages from God via dreams and/or visions.

The Apostle Peter wrote to encourage Christians who seem to have been in need of a strong and comforting reminder of the trustworthiness and faithfulness of God. Peter wrote, “[We] have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19). Peter was referring here to the text of Scripture that was “confirmed” by God in real human history – namely in the person and work of Christ. It seems that Peter was particularly referring to the Old Testament in this passage, but Peter also includes the writing of the Apostle Paul in the category of “Scriptures” just two chapters later in the same letter (2 Peter 3:15-16).

Blum writes, “In view of the Christological fulfillment and the Father’s confirmation of the Old Testament Scriptures, Christians are to study and pay careful attention to the Word of God. It will provide light in the midst of murky darkness for the Christian until the return of Christ…”[11]

This admonition to “pay careful attention to the Word of God” comes in contrast to Peter’s own vision and hearing of personal divine revelation. Just before Peter speaks of the “prophetic word more fully confirmed,” he recalls the pinnacle of his own personal experience with the incarnate Christ. Peter saw Jesus transfigured in glory before him and heard the voice of God from heaven (2 Peter 1:16-18), and yet Peter tells his readers to pay attention to the “prophetic word” (or written Scripture) that is better in some sense.

The sense in which the written Word of God is, in some sense, better than the incarnate Word of God is not within the scope of this brief essay. However, it is spectacularly important that we do note here what Peter has chosen to emphasize. Peter calls his readers to pay attention to the Word of God, which he deems to be better in some sense than the transfigured incarnate Christ and voice from God in heaven! This is no small matter, and we are foolish to skip over the significance of such an exhortation.

Another oft-cited passage regarding the value and function of Scripture is found in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters to his young disciple, Timothy. Paul said, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There are two things that I hope to point out in this passage that will weigh in on our discussion.

First, Scripture is unambiguously affirmed as being “breathed out by God” (theopneustos). Because the Bible is the very words of God as breathed out by Him, then such a reality has massive implications on matters of authority, trustworthiness, and so on. The doctrine of inerrancy, for example, is largely undergirded by the fact that God Himself is true and trustworthy. R.C. Sproul says, “If the Bible is the Word of God, and if God is a God of truth, then the Bible must be inerrant – not merely in some of its parts, as some modern theologians are saying, but totally, as the church for the most part has said down through the ages of its history.”[12]

The reason for bringing up authority, inerrancy, and the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture in a discussion about modern-day prophecy, which may or may not be authoritative or inerrant, is to point out an uncomfortable dichotomy. Mathison, in his book on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, argues against the Roman Catholic interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16-17, and his argument has import for this different discussion here. Mathison says, “Any word from God is by definition God-breathed whether communicated in writing or orally.”[13]This statement from Mathison gets to the point and should cause tremendous discomfort for anyone who affirms the possibility of someone receiving a dream or vision from God that is meant to be revelatory without necessarily being inerrant or authoritative.

God only reveals the truth, and the truth He reveals is always authoritative!

The second emphatic concept that I would like to point out in the passage from 2 Timothy is that the Scripture itself affirms that it is sufficient in all that a Christian needs in order to be “complete.” The idea presented in this passage is that the Christian who receives and absorbs the biblical text is fully equipped to be and do all that God would have him or her to be and to do. Because Scripture is God’s revealed Word to humanity, and because God is no fool and no deceiver, then all Christians must expect that God has revealed Himself sufficiently in His Word. To look elsewhere for further revelation or clearer revelation or more personal revelation is to cast a disparaging look upon Scripture, which is God’s only inerrant and trustworthy revelation to humanity today.

In my view, there are many well-meaning Christians that speak of dreams or visions (even promptings or intuitions) as vehicles through which Christians may receive divine revelation today. Regardless of their motivation, it seems flat against the teaching of Scripture to regard these notions as helpful or beneficial. At best, one’s openness or expectation for personal revelation through dreams or visions is out of step with God’s revelation in the Bible. At worst, any acceptance or anticipation for such things draws attention away from God’s true revelation and towards foolish error. May God give all Christians an unquenchable thirst for His Word, and may He forgive us for ever searching for Him elsewhere.

 

 

[1]Charismatics are a subcategory of evangelical Christians who emphasize the miraculous and fantastical work of God’s Holy Spirit. A particular distinguishing mark of Charismatics is the expectation of miracles, like those experienced by the early Church, especially the practice of ‘speaking in tongues.’

[2]Grudem, 1050

[3]See Grudem’s explanation of Acts 21:10-11, 1052

[4]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below.

[5]Grudem, 1054

[6]See Harwood’s full article, Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams, as cited in the bibliography below

[7]Grudem, 1055

[8]Grudem, 1041

[9]See full article at the website listed beside “Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?

[10]See full article at the website listed beside Goodwyn, “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.”

[11]Geisler, 48

[12]Sproul, 121

[13]Mathison, 166

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Does God Reveal Things through Dreams and Visions?” 2004. Billygraham.Org. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. June 1. http://billygraham.org/answer/does-god-reveal-things-through-dreams-and-visions/.

Geisler, Norman L., ed. 1980. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House.

Goodwyn, Hannah. 2015. “Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored.” Dreams And Visions: God Uncensored. Christian Broadcasting Network. Accessed October 1. http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/biblestudyandtheology/perspectives/goodwyn_dreams.aspx.

Grudem, Wayne A. 2000. Systematic Theology: an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Harwood, Adam. 2015. “Does God Speak Today Through Visions And Dreams.” SBC Today. SBC Today. January 7. http://sbctoday.com/does-god-speak-today-through-visions-and-dreams/.

Mathison, Keith A. 2001. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.

Sproul, R. C. 2005. Scripture Alone: the Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub.

White, James. 2012. Scripture Alone. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

The Inspiration of Scripture

It would not be an overstatement to say that God’s revealed word has been a source of controversy from nearly the beginning of time. The serpent of old asked Eve, “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1), and that question has been an incessant refrain ever since.

One of the central topics of the conversation, especially during the last 150 years, is inspiration. What do we mean when we say that God inspired the Bible? How has God inspired the texts we understand to have been written by various authors over the course of about 1,500 years?

There are many more questions that arise in this kind of conversation, but it is helpful to begin by asking, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Of course, even this question will require some explanation, but here is a constructive starting point.

Basil Manly has written a fantastic work on exactly this topic (The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration), and I found it to be extremely productive. Surprisingly, it was also food for my soul.

Manly sets the stage by helpfully arranging the stuff of Christianity. He writes,

“Christianity is the Religion of the Book. It is not an external organization, nor a system of ceremonies, nor a philosophy, nor a vague inquiry and aspiration, nor a human invention for man’s own convenience or advantage. It is a definite system divinely given, consisting primarily of Facts, occurring both on earth and in heaven; Doctrines in connection with those facts; Commands growing out of both these; and Promises based upon them.”[1]

The ideas Manly presents here are beneficial for any context, but it seems especially so in the context of contemporary American culture. Remembering that Christianity is about propositional truths concerning real historical events, from which we derive indicatives and imperatives regarding the most important issues of human existence, should keep Christians from attempting to minimize the Christian Faith. But many still try to make it something of lesser substance or merely subjective experience.

There may be greater or lesser doctrines, and there are definitely experiences accompanying the Christian life, but the Bible is essential and foundational. And, critical to our inquiry here, it is highly interested in informing its reader that God has spoken.

Because Christianity is so dependent upon the Bible, the nature of this particular book is of great importance.

If the Bible is simply one good book among many, then it may still be of great value. While it may come as a surprise to some, there could still be a Gospel for sinners – we may still know of the person and work of Jesus Christ – even if God did not inspire the Bible. However, there are some serious problems that would arise if one were to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of God or inspired by God.

Explaining the deficiencies of an uninspired Bible, Manly says, “It would furnish no infallible standard of truth.” Truth may still be known with an uninspired Bible, but we would have no objective standard or rule as our guide.

He goes on to say, “it would present no authoritative rule for obedience, and no ground for confident and everlasting hope.” One may still have hope, and one may still find the ‘tips’ or ‘principles’ in the Bible helpful, but there would be a lesser confidence in any promises it contained and it would have no solemn authority that any sinner must obey.

Lastly, he says, “it would offer no suitable means for testing and cultivating the docile spirit, for drawing man’s soul trustfully and lovingly upward to its Heavenly Father.”[2]

Manly touches on the nature of Scripture well here when he conveys the reality that it is precisely because the Bible is the word of God that it cultivates submission in the heart of a sinner and draws him or her near with love and trust.

Manly’s defense of Verbal Plenary Inspiration is excellent throughout this text. He articulates the doctrine well, and affirms both divine and human authorship. Both authors are vital to this doctrine. Manly writes,

“The Word is not of man, as to its source; nor depending on man, as to its authority. It is by and through man as its medium; yet not simply as the channel along which it runs, like water through a lifeless pipe, but through and by man as the agent voluntarily active and intelligent in its communication.”[3]

As with other doctrines, such as providence and the hypostatic union of Christ, there is a paradox here that requires adherents to maintain a tension without a contradiction. Manly argues for a view of inspiration that neither obliterates the human participants nor lessens the divine authority. God is the decisive source and author of the Scriptures, and intentional contributors wrote the Scriptures according to their own education, experiences, and understanding. Indeed, both of these truths are simultaneously affirmed from the Scriptures themselves.

This is neither a contradiction, for God is the author in a distinct sense and men are also authors in another distinct sense, nor is this a denial of any essential participant, for these are both the words of men and the words of God. One is not required to leave his rationality behind when he affirms this doctrine, but he is required to believe something that is ultimately a mystery to him. The mechanics are not explained in such a way so as to be understood easily by humans, but this does not necessarily mean that there is a problem with anything other than human cognitive ability.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration has been the assertion of Christians for millennia, though not necessarily under this title, but a recent question has caused the conversation to take a speculative turn.

After hearing this doctrine articulated and defended, one may still ask the question, “But how has God done this?” This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”

This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”[4]

God does not tell us how He inspired the biblical writers; He simply told us that He did.

Manly’s text masterfully and passionately defends the doctrine of inspiration. God has spoken, and He has made Himself known through human agency. The individual Christian need only believe what God has said, just as the Christian should believe that God has said it. This is the only way that a sinner may enjoy the right relationship with God that once was experienced by humanity when the question was first asked, “Did God actually say…”

May God help us to answer with confidence, “Yes, as a matter of fact, He did.”

 

 

[1] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 6-9). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Location 27). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[3] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 124-126). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Manly, Basil (2013-10-04). The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration (Kindle Locations 138-139). Titus Books. Kindle Edition.

Introducing​ Inductive Bible Study

Anyone who reads their Bible knows that it can sometimes be difficult to know how to get from “I think I understand what I am reading…” to “I know what God wants me change about how I live/believe because of what I have just read.”

Many people have found the Inductive Bible Study method as a very helpful way to bridge that gap. This method is not new, and it is not complex. In fact, is a simple way for even the least knowledgable student to get the most out of his or her study of the Bible.

The inductive method follows a progression from observing what is in the text all the way through to implementing the application of the text. Each student may vary the structure slightly, but my own is outlined as follows:

  1. Observation
  2. Interpretation
  3. Generalization
  4. Application
  5. Implementation

The following is a basic outline that anyone can follow to study a passage of Scripture. Please feel free to copy this content and practice the method regularly.

Begin by selecting a passage of Scripture, usually at least a paragraph but not more than a chapter. Read your selection 5-10 times all the way through (I would say that reading it out loud is best). Then, with your Bible open, thoughtfully answer the following questions in the order which they are listed.

May God bless your efforts and the study of His word!

 


 

I. OBSERVATION: WHAT DOES IT SAY?

  • Setting Questions
  • Note: Some of these questions can be answered by reading the first chapter of the book where your passage is found. Some of these will best be answered by consulting the book introduction of a Study Bible or basic commentary.

    • Who is the author or speaker?
    • Why was this book written? What was the occasion of the book?
    • What historic events surround this book? What was happening in the world at the time this was written?
    • Where was it written? Who were the original recipients? What do we know about them?
  • Context Questions
    • What literary form is being employed in this passage?
    • What is the overall message of this book, and how does this passage fit into that message?
    • What precedes this passage? What follows? How does this passage fit the immediate context?
  • Structural Questions
    • Are there any repeated words? Repeated phrases?
    • Does the author make any comparisons? Draw any conclusions?
    • Does the author raise any questions? Provide any answers?
    • Does the author point out any cause and effect relationships?
    • Is there any progression to the passage? In time? Actions? Geography?
    • Does the passage have a climax?
    • Does the author use any figures of speech?
    • Is there a pivotal statement or word?
    • What linking words are used? What ideas do they link?
    • What verbs are used to describe the action in the passage? What is significant about these verbs?
  • Structural Model
  • Note: Outlining the structure of your passage may be one of the most frustrating aspects of this method. However, most of the frustration arises from the student’s expectations. There is not just one way to outline the passage, so don’t beat yourself up because you don’t feel that you have perfectly outlined the text. The goal is to simply outline the logical flow of thought, which you see from the text itself. For an example of this, see my own Inductive Study of Romans 8:28-31.

 

 

 

II. INTERPRETATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Note: This section will require careful thought and diligent study. Your approach to interpretation will dramatically affect what you get out of it. Take time to cross reference, think critically, and strive to let the text speak for itself (rather than merely impose onto the text what you already thought before you began your study). The marvelous joy of Bible study is that interpretation will get easier and become more vivid with practice. Dig in, and keep at it!

  • Continuity of the Message
    • In general, what does the Bible as a whole teach on the subject addressed in this passage?
    • Is this passage clear on this subject? Is there another passage that more directly addresses this subject? Are there other passages by this author that address this subject? What do they teach?
    • Is this passage intended to teach a truth or simply record an event?
  • Context of the Material
    • As you review your observations of the context of the passage, how do those observations help interpret this passage? What conclusions can you draw from the passage that are informed by its context?
  • Customary Meaning
    • In a paragraph or two summarize the teaching of the passage giving the passage it most natural, normal meaning.
    • What issues, questions, terms, or teachings in this passage are difficult to understand? Read commentaries to help with these and then summarize your findings.

 

III. GENERALIZATION: WHAT IS THE BIG IDEA?

Note: This section is designed as a place to bring all of your observations and interpretations together in summary form. Take time to be familiar with all that you have done so far, and this section will be much more fuitful.

  • Subject: What is the author talking about?
  • Complement: What is the author saying about what he is talking about?
  • Generalization: In a sentence, what is the exegetical idea (big idea)?

 

IV. APPLICATION: WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? (2 TIM. 3:16-17)

Note: Application can be specific to an individual, but I am calling that kind of application “implementation” in the section below. This section is designed as a more thoughtful generalization of the broad application from what we have learned so far. It is helpful to think about the application especially of the big ideas noted above.

  • Teaching: Is there a teaching to here to be learned or followed?
  • Rebuke: Does this passage communicate a rebuke to be heard and heeded?
  • Correction: Is there a correction to be noted?
  • Training: In what way does this passage train us to be righteous?

 

V. IMPLEMENTATION: WHAT MUST I CHANGE?

Note: Here is where the rubber really meets the road. What specific things is God calling you do change about your beliefs, words, and/or deeds from the basis of what you have learned from the passage? Prayerfully consider and seek to implement the changes God is calling for and working towards in you.

  • What must I change about my beliefs?
  • What must I change about my speech?
  • What must I change about my actions?

 

I’d be glad to hear about your use of this method. If this has been a help to you, please comment about it below.

Also, share this with others who will benefit from its use.

An Inductive Study of Romans 8:28-39

Romans 8:28–39

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I. OBSERVATION: WHAT DOES IT SAY?

  • Setting Questions
    • Who is the author or speaker?
      • Paul, the Apostle. Evangelist and church planter extraordinary (1:1)
    • Why was this book written? What was the occasion of the book?
      • The purpose of this letter to the saints in Rome seems to be manifold. Paul was finished with his eastern missionary efforts, and he intended on moving westward, where Christ was not yet known (15:17-23). Paul wanted the Roman Christians to materially support his efforts (15:24), but to do that they would need to know him and know that the message he preached was indeed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This seems to be the reason for Paul’s phrase “my Gospel” (2:16 and 15:25) and the reason for such a masterfully theological communication (1:16).
      • Additional emphasis was given to the union of Jew and Gentile believers, and this seems to have been necessary for at least a couple of reasons. Gentiles appear to have been the more numerous group in the Roman church (hence the admonition against pride in 11:13-24) and the Jewish believers were disillusioned by the widespread rejection of the Gospel by their Jewish compatriots (11:1-10). Paul, therefore, placed great stress upon union in Christ and belonging to one another (15:1-13).
    • What historic events surround this book? What was happening in the world at the time this was written?
      • It is hard to overstate the political and military influence or Rome during that time in the world. The church in Rome did not enjoy the same worldly influence, but it did have a great influence upon the spread and growth of the Gospel.  Jews (including Jewish believers) were expelled from Rome by Claudius in 49 AD, who unwitting caused a missional surge in other lands. However, the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome had an already well established reputation for fidelity to Christ (1:8), and the predominately Gentile church left in Rome during the time of this letter seems to have continued the trajectory.
      • In short, the Gospel was spreading, congregations were budding, and the Christians in Rome were well-placed for further missionary efforts and support.
    • Where was it written? Who were the original recipients? What do we know about them?
      • Paul was on his missionary journey, and it seems he was a resident of Corinth at the time of writing this letter. Paul mentions a few names of known Corinthian believers (Phoebe in 16:1-2; and Gaius and Erastus in 16:23), and this indicates Paul’s likely location.
      • The original recipients of the letter were the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. As mentioned above, the Jews were exiled from Rome about 4-8 years before this letter was written, so the remaining congregation was mostly Gentile. The centuries-old division between Jew and Gentile was broken down by Christ, but the residue of disunion was still apparent. And yet, the Roman church does not seem to have the same level of segmentation and factions as other congregations (1 Cor. 11:18).
      • The saints in Rome appear to be quite healthy (1:8), even to the degree that Paul would anticipate mutual encouragement during his upcoming visit with them (1:12).
  • Context Questions
    • What literary form is being employed in this passage?
      • Romans is a letter from the Apostle Paul to the saints in Rome (1:1, 7). The epistolary form was common in the first-century Greco-Roman world, and the New Testament provides a number of examples of this same form (even many from the same author).
    • What is the overall message of this book, and how does this passage fit into that message?
      • The message is emphatically and highly technically the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Gospel is simple and profound, and here Paul dives to the depths of its profundity. There are many results of believing the Gospel, but one major effect is hope. The passage I have selected (8:28-39) is an extensive basis for and call to hope in the life of the Christian.
    • What precedes this passage? What follows? How does this passage fit the immediate context?
      • The preceding context is an enumeration of some of the promises included in the Gospel, namely adoption into God’s family (8:14-17), union with Christ (8:17), God’s immanent presence by His Spirit and His aid to the believer (8:26-27), resurrection and renewal of all things (8:19-23), and the final hope of glory (8:18, 24-25, 29-30).
      • The following context is a defense of assurance despite the apparent failure of some to enjoy the benefits of the Gospel promises. Many Jews rejected the Gospel and became excluded from the promises (9:1-3), but God’s promises are still steadfast and trustworthy (9:6-7). God is free to do what He will with His creation, and He has adopted a people according to His purposes and not according to ethnicity or pedigree (9:8, 18, 22-24).
  • Structural Questions
    • Are there any repeated words? Repeated phrases?
      • Words:
        • God (28, 31, 33, 34, 39)
        • Son/Christ (29, 32, 34, 35, 39)
        • Love (28, 35, 37, 39)
        • Separate (35, 39)
        • Predestined (29, 30)
        • Justify (30, 33)
      • Phrases:
        • Love of God/Christ (35, 37, 39)
        • He/God with decisive action
          • God works according to His purpose (28)
          • God predestined conformation of some to Christ (29)
          • God predestined, called, justified, and glorified (30)
          • God gave His Son (32)
          • God justifies (33)
          • God loved “us” (37)
        • He/Christ with purposeful action
          • Christ died (34)
          • Christ intercedes (34)
    • Does the author make any comparisons? Draw any conclusions?
      • There is a comparison (more a contrast) between the sufferings of this present life and the glory of the life to come.
      • This life is full of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and swords. Furthermore, there is opposition from angels, rulers, powers, and creation generally.
      • The life to come is glorious, brotherly union with Christ, full of all blessings from God, victory over all those sufferings of this life, and loving relationship with God through Christ.
      • The distinct conclusion is certainty that nothing will be able to separate those God loves from His love.
    • Does the author raise any questions? Provide any answers?
      • Questions:
        1. What shall we say?
        2. Will God not give all that He has promised?
        3. Who shall charge the elect of God?
        4. Who will condemn the elect of God?
        5. Who shall separate the elect of God from the love of God/Christ?
      • Answers:
        1. We should rejoice that God is for us!
        2. Of course, God will deliver fully! He has already given His Son!
        3. No one can charge the elect of God; God justifies them!
        4. No one can condemn the elect of God; Christ died in their place and intercedes for them at the right hand of God even now!
        5. Nothing… nothing at all can separate the elect of God from His love in/through Christ Jesus.
    • Does the author point out any cause and effect relationships?
      • The causes and effects are presented in the answers above.
        • God gave His Son; therefore, we may know that God will give all He has promised.
        • God justifies His elect; therefore, no one can charge them with guilt.
        • The implication of all of this is incredibly certain hope.
    • Is there any progression to the passage? In time? Actions? Geography?
      • This passage is didactic, rather than narrative, so it does not progress in time, action, or geography. However, it does progress in logical thought.
        1. God works good, defined as conformation to the image of Christ and ultimate glorification, in the lives of all those He has eternally loved.
        2. God brings this about in the lives of sinners by calling and justifying them in real time.
        3. If a sinner understands himself/herself to be justified by God, through the work of Christ, then he/she can expect all of God’s promises in the Gospel to appear in due time.
        4. Since God has decisively loved all those He has justified, and since all those who are justified enjoy the eternal mediatorial work of Christ, then there is every reason for a sure hope.
    • Does the passage have a climax?
      • In my view, the climax is found in verse 37, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
      • An expanded way of saying this could be, “No, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, which makes us share in His glory. Even in the height of earthly misery, facing mortal demise, we are enjoying complete victory through our Savior who eternally and purposefully loves us!”
    • Does the author use any figures of speech?
      • “Separate us from God’s/Christ’s love”
        • This figure of speech metaphorically speaks of love in geographical or tangible terms. Obviously, love is transcendent, but the metaphor helps to convey the idea that God’s/Christ’s love is both given and received. The question the passage seeks to answer is, “If God’s/Christ’s love is ever given, can it ever be withdrawn?” Of course, the answer is an emphatic “NO!”
    • Is there a pivotal statement or word?
      • The passage begins with the declarative concept of God’s work in the life of the Christian to bring about the desired end. The remaining portion is given to arguing for certainty regarding God’s promised destination. In the explanatory portion, the decisive turning point is found in verse 37. One might even place the full weight of the pivot on the single word, “No…”
    • What linking words are used? What ideas do they link?
      • The linking words in this passage are “and” and “for.”
        • “And” links the ‘what’ in verses 28-29 to the ‘how’ in verse 30.
          • What: God works in all things to bring about the ultimate good for all those He eternally loves, namely to shape them into the image of Christ.
          • How: God predestines those He eternally loves, He effectively calls them into new life, He once-and-for-all justifies them before His bar of justice, and He brings them full circle into sharing in Christ’s glory.
        • “For” links the climax statement and pivotal word in verse 37 with the emphatic comfort and hope statement in verses 38-39
          • Climax and pivot: No, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Even in the height of earthly misery, facing mortal demise, we are enjoying complete victory through our Savior who eternally and purposefully loves us!
          • Comfort and hope: Not death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things future, or anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
    • What verbs are used to describe action in the passage? What is significant about these verbs?
      • These verbs are significant because they focus on what God/Christ does and did in the full work of salvation. This salvation is from the Lord!
        • God acts with decisive action
          • God works according to His purpose (28)
          • God predestined conformation of some to Christ (29)
          • God predestined, called, justified, and glorified (30)
          • God gave His Son (32)
          • God justifies (33)
          • God loved “us” (37)
        • Christ acts with purposeful action
          • Christ died (34)
          • Christ intercedes (34)
  • Structural Model

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,

for those who are called according to his purpose.

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,

in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

30 And those whom he predestined he also called,

and those whom he called he also justified,

and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,

how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?

It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn?

Christ Jesus is the one who died—

more than that, who was raised—

who is at the right hand of God,

who indeed is interceding for us.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

II. INTERPRETATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

  • Continuity of the Message – The Law of Non-Contradiction
    • In general, what does the Bible as a whole teach on the subject addressed in this passage?
      • This passage explicitly teaches us that salvation is entirely a work of God. This is in perfect harmony with the rest of Scripture, but some people might see a possible contradiction in this clear teaching and the reality that the Bible elsewhere calls for sinners to do something. If sinners (one might say) must respond to the Gospel call, then it is the response to the Gospel call that distinguishes the saved from the unsaved.
      • However, this passage doesn’t mention a response to the Gospel at all. One could possibly stretch “those who love God” (v28) to fit this description, but the entirety of the message here is that God does everything.
      • It has been said that this passage is a view of salvation from above. While there is an “on the ground” view of salvation (which we might understand as the universal call to hear, believe, and repent), this view from above is quite different. From this view, we can see God sovereignly at work to bring about the ends which He has purposed from the beginning. This, of course, is the grand narrative of Scripture.
    • Is this passage clear on this subject? Is there another passage that more directly addresses this subject? Are there other passages by this author that address this subject? What do they teach?
      • I believe this passage is quite clear on the subject of God’s predestining purposes, His sovereign work in human history, and the great confidence the sinner may enjoy because of God’s intentional love. However, there are many other passages one might cite in order to further demonstrate this idea.
      • One passage is Ephesians 2:1-10. In this passage, we are given a picture of the hopelessness of all mankind and the necessity of divine intervention (v1-3). We are also able to see God as the divine initiator and the sufficient Savior of all those He grants the gift of faith (v4-9). Lastly, we may understand that God has done all this to show His glory (v7) and to bring saved sinners into a life of holiness and union with Christ (v10).
    • Is this passage intended to teach a truth or simply record an event?
      • This passage intends to teach truth. It is a lofty truth with immediately practical applications. The urgent call to the reader is to humility, hope, and gratitude.
  • Context of the Material
    • As you review your observations of the context of the passage, how do those observations help interpret this passage? What conclusions can you draw about the passage that are informed by the context?
      • My observations help me to see that this passage is talking about the salvation of sinners, particularly how God brings about salvation in the life of each sinner. While western, American, evangelical Christians view salvation as a personal and individualistic experience, this passage (and many others like it) remind us that sinners are brought into God’s story and not the other way around.
      • We may conclude that God is an intentional creator and savior.
      • We may also conclude that God’s love is a decisive and steadfast love.
      • We may also conclude that God’s actions in human history, especially in the person and work of Christ, are part of His over-arching plan for the renewal of all things in eternal glory.
      • We may also, therefore, conclude that our participation in this great salvation is not haphazard or precarious. Furthermore, our experiences in this life, as difficult as they may be, are moving us closer to our final end of glory and victory with the One who has eternally loved us.
  • Customary Meaning
    • In a paragraph or two summarize the teaching of the passage giving the passage it most natural, normal meaning.
      • God works good, defined as conformation to the image of Christ and ultimate glorification, in the lives of all those He has eternally loved. God brings this about in the lives of sinners by calling and justifying them in real time, through the person and work of Christ.
      • If a sinner understands himself/herself to be justified by God, through the work of Christ, then he/she can expect all of God’s promises in the Gospel to appear in due time. Since God has decisively loved all those He has justified, and since all those who are justified enjoy the eternal mediatorial work of Christ, then there is every reason for a sure hope.
    • What issues, questions, terms, or teachings in this passage are difficult to understand? Read commentaries to help with these and then summarize your findings.
      • I was quite familiar with this passage before I began this assignment, and the difficulties in this passage are not difficult because of their lack of clarity. What people find difficult about this passage is its bitter flavor in the mouth of a prideful sinner. I know, because that’s how it tasted to me when I first began to chew on its rich flavor. By God’s grace, over time I have come to cherish this passage and the truth it conveys.

III. GENERALIZATION: WHAT IS THE BIG IDEA?

  • Subject: What is the author talking about?
    • Salvation, hope, and assurance.
  • Complement: What is the author saying about what he is talking about?
    • Salvation is from God, because of His decisive love, and this should provide profound assurance in the heart of the sinner.
  • Generalization: In a sentence, what is the exegetical idea (big idea)?
    • God sovereignly works in all things toward the good end of conforming all those He has eternally loved to the image of Christ.

IV. APPLICATION: WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE? (2 TIM. 3:16-17)

  • Teaching: Is there a teaching to here to be learned or followed?
    • We are taught that God is loving; He is sovereign; He is active; and He is faithful.
    • We are also taught that saved sinners are objects of God’s loving intention, His formative discipline, His gracious redeeming, and His glorious renewal.
  • Rebuke: Does this passage communicate a rebuke to be heard and heeded?
    • We are rebuked for any pride or selfish conceit.
  • Correction: Is there a correction to be noted?
    • There are many, but here are some corrections:
    • Worldly comforts are not God’s aim for His beloved children.
    • Victory may not be enjoyed by Christians in this mortal life.
    • None of God’s blessings or affections are disjoined from Christ.
    • God’s love did not begin because of anything in the sinner.
    • God’s love does not continue because of anything in the sinner.
    • Nothing in all of life is outside of God’s sovereignty.
    • All the experiences of this life are purposeful to shape beloved sinners into glorious children of God.
  • Training: In what way does this passage train us to be righteous?
    • We know that righteousness is the goal towards which God is moving us, and we know that this is for our good, therefore, we are fools to resist or neglect this goal in our personal efforts.

V. IMPLEMENTATION: WHAT MUST I CHANGE?

  • I must change my view of God: He is bigger and grander than I ever imagined Him to be.
  • I must change my view of myself: I am unworthy, but beloved of God, justified by Christ, and on my way to eternal glory.
  • I must change my view of this mortal life: I exist to glorify God, and He is forming me into the image of Christ. All of life is meant to bring about this transformation, and it is my privilege to join my Savior in this effort.
  • I must change my view of hope: This world can never be the home to which I am bound. No political, social, economic, or physical solution will conform me to the image of Christ or renew this fallen world. My victory, and that of all who will be ultimately victorious, is through Christ alone. God loves me, and I love Him, and I shall be with Him in glory.

The Gospel in a Muslim Culture

Contextualization has become a buzzword in Christian mission discussions for some time now.  There are proponents who extol the value of building bridges for people groups unfamiliar with biblical concepts and terminology, and there are others who accuse ‘contextualizers’ of syncretism[1].

Referring to terms like contextualization and syncretism, one author commented,

“As commonly used, [these terms] function on the boundary line between heresy and orthodoxy, with a strong suspicion that syncretists have crossed the line into heresy while contextualists have enabled people to experience new creativity and depth in their faith” (emphasis added).[2]

Many have understood this as a reality and have thus attempted to distinguish where the “boundary line” should be drawn.  Drawing this line has proven a difficult task indeed.

Defining our primary term of interest, one author wrote,

Contextualization is ‘taking the unchanging truth of the gospel and making it understandable in a given context.’”[3]

This essay has adopted this definition for its usefulness and clarity.  If one understands contextualization in these terms, then one can hardly accuse such of syncretism.  After all, making the Gospel understandable is the goal of any person engaged in evangelism.

The muddying of today’s contextualization water seems to have come from a particular interest in applying this principle to Muslim or Islamic people groups.  In such a context, one may rightly understand that the “goal is not to make Scripture as Islamic as possible; rather, it is to communicate the unchanging truth in a particular Islamic context so it makes sense.”[4]  Again, this seems fairly straight forward thinking for the purpose of evangelism.

In addition to the social and religious context that is the makeup of the Islamic or Muslim worldview, one question that arises is the use of non-Christian sacred texts in evangelism.  Miles explains the use of these texts in relationship with the Bible or Scripture in the following terms.

“The search for truth must begin with Scripture, must be submitted to scripture, and must honor the one to whom Scripture points.  Where non-Christian sacred texts corroborate the truth of Scripture they may be used apologetically or evangelistically.”[5]

From this view, any perceived sacred text may be used (to one degree or another) as it aligns with the biblical truth, but only as a secondary and complimentary source at best.  Representing a different view, Dutch says, “The gospel is… initially perceived as harmonious with – and to some extent supported by – Islamic scripture.”[6]  In this view, the Islamic sacred text is in some way ‘harmonious’ with the Gospel itself.

Miles, however, goes on to say, “Any non-biblical sacred text that is quoted should be ‘lifted out of its original setting and clearly reoriented within a new Christocentric setting.’”[7]  Non-biblical texts do not present themselves as “disoriented truths about the Almighty,” but they intentionally claim an entire worldview.  Therefore, contrary to the claims of Dutch, the Gospel may not be perceived as harmonious with the Islamic text; rather, the Gospel would stand in stark contrast to the whole of the Islamic text.

Another concern for those engaging Muslims for the sake of the Gospel is that of cultural and religious identification.  Some Christians have gone as far as calling themselves Muslims in order to gain acceptance by the Muslim community, but Leffel points out,

“identifying one’s self as a Muslim in only the cultural sense or in a radically reinterpreted religious sense is grossly misleading.”

He also reminds us, “Evangelicals have long deplored the semantic mysticism of liberal theologians as they import deceptive meanings to biblical terms that are utterly foreign to their context.”[8]  It does not seem honest or beneficial for Christians to attempt such a covert operation in the name of evangelism.

However, labeling Christians who evangelize Muslims does not seem to be nearly as difficult as categorizing Muslims who have converted to faith in Christ.  Dutch rightly notes,

“We should remember that the term ‘Christian’ does not come as a God-ordained label for followers of Jesus.  The name arose as a local – and probably derisive – name for Jesus disciples in Antioch (Acts 11:26).”[9]

In addition, the term “Christian” has been perceived through faulty lenses in the Muslim culture for a very long time.  It simply does not carry an accurate meaning in the mind of a Muslim.

However, it is not only the label “Christian” that seems to bother some of those attempting to evangelize Muslims.  There is also an allergy for many of the biblical distinctives and an aversion to separating from many or all Islamic religious routines and structures.  Just how much does a Muslim have to look like a Christian in order to be considered a follower of Christ?

In order to measure the progression from the look and feel of Western Christianity to what has been called Muslim-background believers, a spectrum or scale was devised known as the “C-scale.”

The C-scale begins with C1, described as “a church foreign to the community in both culture and language,” and ends with C6, described as “secret believers, may or may not be active members in the religious life of the Muslim community.”[10]

This scale is helpful in organizing the categories of Muslims who have been evangelized based on their various responses to the Gospel.  Of particular interest is the significance of a Muslim’s new identification with Jesus or Isa (the Arabic name for ‘Jesus’), and the significance of his remaining identification with Islam.

In an attempt to extract the C-scale from its primary focus (namely ‘how Muslim can a former-Muslim remain while he professes to have a new identity in Isa or Jesus Christ’), Mark Williams provides a loose analogy in the form of “Christian Music.”  Measuring his selections and placing them along the C-scale, he names hymns as C1 level “Christian Music” and changes only the instrumentality for the C2 category (still singing hymns, but using a wider variety of instruments).

For the C3 level he names “Maranatha Music” (a very eclectic and modern style of music with much less content) and for C4 he lists a wide-ranging musical style that fits under the heading of “Contemporary Christian Music.”  This style is even less substantial in content than the aforementioned hymns.  Lastly, Williams recognizes that the “music [listed under the headings of C5 and C6] might not even be considered Christian by any of the [other] four ‘C’ types;” then he proceeds to list the band “Evanescence” as an analogous the C5 level of “Christian Music” and the singer “Lenny Kravitz” as an example of C6.[11]

Unless one is personally involved with either Lenny Kravitz or any of those associated with the band Evanescence, one cannot know their personal worldview or theological positions, but I think it safe to say that none of the music put out by Evanescence or Lenny Kravitz has any distinctly Christian themes whatever.  In fact, it seems hard to imagine someone referring to either of these as “Christian” music or “Christian” artists with any real sincerity.

If Williams’ analogy is accurate, then there is no reason whatever to consider C5 and C6 as remaining under the umbrella of Christianity at all, and there should be serious reservations about what is included as such under the C4 heading.

Much of the debate over contextualization seems to stem from some disagreement about identity and obstacles that may hinder a person or group from finding their identity in Christ. 

While there is certainly value in removing obstacles, and such a goal is worthy of further conversation, it should not be overlooked or quickly dismissed that the Gospel message itself is an obstacle.  The Apostle Paul says that the Gospel of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In other words, it is a barrier to the Jews and foolishness (another kind of obstruction) to everyone else.

While evangelism demands that we present the Gospel in understandable terms, the Gospel itself – when contextually understood – will still remain intolerable to some.

It seems that the chief goal of evangelism should not be to make the Gospel more palatable but to make it understandable

If one understands the Gospel, then he may find it wonderful or offensive, but we may not adjust the call to abandon all else for the sake of Christ simply because it is an offensive call.

 

Reference List

Dutch, Bernard. “Should Muslims Become “Christians”?” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17, no. 1 (Spring 2000).

Heideman, E. S. “Syncretism, Contextualization, Orthodoxy, and Heresy.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 25, no. 1 (1997): 37-49. WorldCat.

Leffel, Jim. “Contextualization: Building Bridges to the Muslim Community.” Xenos Online Journal. Accessed June 20, 2014. http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/OnlineJournal/issue1/contextu.htm.

Miles, Todd L. A God of Many Understandings? : The Gospel and a Theology of Religions. Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2010. WorldCat.

Oksnevad, Roy. “Contextualization in the Islamic Context.” Lausanne World Pulse, April 2007, 16-19.

Williams, M. S. “Revisiting the C1-C6 Spectrum in Muslim Contextualization.” Missiology: An International Review Missiology: An International Review 39, no. 3 (2011): 335-51. Accessed June 20, 2014. WorldCat.

 

 

[1] Syncretism carries the idea of mixing Christianity with non-Christian ideas without regard for the purity of the Christian Faith.

[2] Heideman

[3] Oksnevad

[4] Oksnevad

[5] Miles

[6] Dutch

[7] Miles

[8] Leffel

[9] Dutch

[10] Williams

[11] Williams

Not ‘Sinaholics;’ Sin-Slaves

In an article I posted about a year ago (After the Fall, Is the Human Will Free or Fettered?), I presented a positive argument and explanation for my view of human volition after the fall of Genesis 3. In my research, I found Dr. Leighton Flowers to be a good example of an opposing perspective on the will of man, so I quoted him a few times in peripheral sections of my text. His quotes were used as a brief articulation of a philosophical concept called Libertarian Free Will.

Dr. Flowers has recently discovered my essay and written an extensive rebuttal of it. I will let the reader decide if my argument stands against his critique. I believe that any honest evaluation of Dr. Flowers’ article and my own essay will reveal that Dr. Flowers has failed to interact with the substance of my essay, much less successfully counter it.

Furthermore, Dr. Flowers merely gave disapproval of my view and offered no positive argument from the Scriptures for his own view. It is one thing to cite a verse here and there, and use these as pretexts for a presupposed theological critique. It is quite another to walk through a didactic passage of Scripture to demonstrate biblical harmony with your own theological system.

That said, I wanted to take just a moment to address what I believe to be Dr. Flowers’ fundamental error. I do not presume that I will change Dr. Flowers’ mind on this matter (though one can certainly hope), but I sincerely pray that this may serve as an opportunity for consideration among those who might follow his ministry.

Dr. Flowers repeatedly affirmed his belief that fallen humanity is enslaved to sin. The biblical concept of sin-slavery is well attested in the Scriptures and easily understood from a passage like Romans 6:16-22. There the Apostle Paul explains sin-slavery and gives the reader hope for belonging to a new and better Master.

However, I shall return to the passage I used in my theological essay to address Dr. Flowers’ error. I cited and explained Ephesians 2:1-3. The Apostle Paul is here addressing Christians, but he confronts them about their former (fallen, unregenerate, sin-slave) volitional status. Rather than using the metaphor of slavery, Paul here speaks of spiritual death, but both metaphors refer to the same sin-slave status (simply compare Rom. 6:16-22 and Eph. 2:1-3). He wrote,

“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 verses 2-3, there are at least two ways in which the Apostle Paul explains the form and substance of spiritual death (v1). Paul describes spiritual death as (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 the sin-enslaved 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.

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.

This, in my view, is Dr. Flowers’ error. He simply does not understand or does not allow for the biblical concept of willful slavery to sin.

Dr. Flowers said, “There is nothing about being in slavery that makes one incapable of recognizing their chains and accepting God’s help to be freed when it’s offered.”

But what if the slave does not want to accept God’s help? This would necessarily make the slave incapable of freedom; not because it is not an option, but because he does not want it.

Dr. Flowers said, “Marc [has] simply conflated the concept of bondage to sin (addiction) with a moral incapacity to humble oneself and confess that enslaved condition so as to receive the help that is being offered (responsibility).”

Hasn’t Dr. Flowers omitted the reality that prideful rebellion is an expression of sin? Can the arrogant narcissist humble himself? Not without contradicting the label! An arrogant sinful rebel is by definition incapable of humbling himself, precisely because he is in bondage to the sin of pride, which will not allow him to grab hold of God’s offering of help.

Dr. Flowers said, “Slavery to sin IS NOT EQUAL to the moral inability to confess our enslavement in response to God’s loving provision and powerful Holy Spirit inspired appeals for reconciliation.”

Here again, in my view, Dr. Flowers has not understood or is flatly denying the fact that sin-slavery is a willful bondage. Confession and reconciliation are the results of godly repentance and faith, but such things are utterly repugnant to the unregenerate sin-slave.

This is why the sin-slave is in desperate need of a powerful and effective Savior! I needed God to give me more than an offering of help; I needed Him to give me spiritual life, new affections, and the desire to know and love Him. This is exactly what God does for unworthy sin-slaves, and I am grateful for amazing grace.

 

Dr. Flowers is the Director of Apologetics and Youth Evangelism for Texas Baptists and the purveyor of the website Soteriology 101. His ministry actively opposes a large swath of Southern Baptists, advocating a view of the doctrine of salvation (Traditionalism) that is hardly traditional Southern Baptist soteriology (see Tom Nettles’ explanation HERE or my own article HERE).

I am the pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana Texas. I have no official apologetic ministry, and little time to engage in this kind of exchange. I will gladly refer the interested reader to other ministries and resources for further inquiry.

We Need Sanctifying Churches!

If the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, then sanctification may be the doctrine which adorns her with beauty or leaves her standing naked and shameful.

The Church of Jesus Christ (all those who truly love and trust Christ) is His bride, adorned with His own righteousness and set apart for His intimate affection and care.  This truth is the comfort of all who understand themselves to be included in the household of God.  Yet, Christ does not merely call the prostituting adulterous bride to wear new labels (such as justified and sanctified), He also calls her to live accordingly (Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 2:12).

Living in light of her new status, the Church of Jesus Christ is declared to be holy, and Christ is making her holy by the washing of His word “so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor” (Eph 5:25-27).  This loving reconciliation and renewal is challenged by the fact that the visible Church (the multitude of professing Christians) is made up of believers who are still desirous of sin.

Herein lies the difficulty of understanding just how the visible Church may be clothed with righteousness as she stands justified before the watching world:

A visible Church, full of sinful-but-sanctified believers, arrayed in magnificence and clothed in righteousness for all the world to see, is exactly what God has intended the Church do be.

Before diving too deeply into the doctrine of sanctification, it may prove beneficial to establish the foundation for the believer’s justification.  Horatius Bonar, speaking of Christ’s righteousness with eloquence, wrote,

“In another’s righteousness we [Christians] stand; and by another’s righteousness are we justified.”  This truth, he went on to say, makes plain that “all accusations against us, founded upon our right unrighteousness, [may be] answered by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot… as well as shields us from wrath.”[1]

Justification happens in an instant.  It is the doing of God Himself when the sinner is made alive in Christ Jesus and counted good, holy, and righteous in God’s sight (Eph 2:4-9; Titus 3:7; Rom 5:9).  Furthermore, sanctification is also an instantaneous declaration and positional reality for all who are in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:11).

Sinclair Ferguson, writing on those doctrines that undergird the Christian life, says,

“it would be a distortion to present the New Testament teaching on sanctification only as a long, hard struggle for victory over sin as though few Christians ever lived the life of faith with any degree of success.”[2]

He goes on to point out that some New Testament passages can be understood only if sanctification is perceived to be a past experience (Acts 20:32; 1 Cor 6:11; 1 Pet 1:2).  In addition, the Christian union with Christ includes a significant change in relation to sin, particularly that the Christian is now ‘dead to’ or released from the power of sin (Col 2:20-3:14; Gal 2:20; Rom 6:1-14).

In the confessional statement known as the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, sanctification is one of many doctrinal subjects addressed.  The confession clearly conveys an understanding of sanctification as both a past and present work.

“They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally (Acts 20:32; Rom. 6:5,6), through the same virtue, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them (John 17:17; Eph. 3:16-19; 1 Thess. 5:21-23); the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed (Rom. 6:14), and the several lusts of it are more and more weakened and mortified (Gal. 5:24), and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces (Col. 1:11), to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:14).”[3]

There is a real sense in which the mortal, un-glorified Christian – as sinful as he may remain – is now sanctified and positionally holy before God.  The Christian is aroused to love for God by virtue of having been born again, and he does now love righteousness and hate sin (1 Tim 6:11).  Bonar says,

“The free, boundless love of God, pouring itself into us, expands and elevates our whole being; and we serve Him, not in order to win His favour, but because we have already won it in simply believing His record concerning His Son. If the root is holy, so are the branches. We have become connected with the holy root, and by the necessity of this connection are made holy too.”[4]

While it is true that the earthly Christian is holy, declared to be so and empowered to live as such by God Himself, the mortal Christian remains practically sinful and inclined towards sin.  He may find himself in despair when he considers how sinful he still is in spite of what he reads about his position before God as articulated in Scripture.

If I am still as sinful as I am,” he may think to himself, “how can it be true that I am holy and just in the sight of God?”

Bonar goes on to explain how vital it is that one understands the difference between working (doing good works and living righteously) and believing (trusting in the finished work of Christ for justification).  He says one must not confound or confuse the two because doing so would “destroy them both.”[5]

Therefore, justification and sanctification are fixed realities for all those in Christ Jesus by virtue of Christ’s justifying and sanctifying person and work.  However, there is also a sense in which the believer is being sanctified by God and also contributing to such a work through the diligent use of the means of grace, which God has made available to the converted soul (2 Tim 2:22).

The London Confession of 1689, in paragraph two and three of the section on Sanctification, describes the reality that sanctification has taken place, and yet there is remaining much imperfection in the believer while in this mortal life.  Furthermore, the believer most certainly finds himself in a constant struggle – the “flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal 5:17; 1 Pet 2:11).

In this war, the believer is assured that he will overcome (Rom. 6:14), but he may experience periods when the remaining corruption may seem to prevail (Rom. 7:23).[6]  Martin Luther noted, early in his magisterial work on the depravity of fallen humanity,

“The world and it’s god (2 Cor 4:4) cannot and will not hear the word of the true God: and the true God cannot and will not keep silence. While, therefore, these two Gods are at war with each other, what can there be else in the whole world, but tumult?”[7]

If this is what we universally find (namely tumult and war) when the true God clashes with “the god of this world,” then we should expect to find the same hostile conflict in the microcosm of the human heart when these two opponents meet.  However, the Christian may take great comfort to know that God has not left the task of sanctification in the mortal’s hands alone.  God has called the Christian to diligently pursue righteousness and good works (Matt 6:33), and God has promised that He is working within to bring about both the willing and the doing of those same things (Eph 2:10).

The London Confession is again helpful to explain:

“Their ability to do good works is not all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ (John 15:4,5); and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them and to will and to do of his good pleasure (2 Cor. 3:5; Phil. 2:13); yet they are not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit, but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them (Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:11,12; Isa. 64:7).”[8]

The doing of good works by every believer is commanded and enabled by God (Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24; Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12; Eph 2:10).  Not only thus, but Scripture informs us that good works will provide some evidence of genuine faith and discipleship (James 2:14-26; Jn 8:31).  Good works, or righteous living, do not produce justification or sanctification, but it is clear that good works necessarily and always follow such things.

Kevin DeYoung describes the relationship, borrowing from biblical imagery, in botanic terms.

“It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23).  And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.”[9]

With more elegant style and language, Bonar explains the enabling power of God in the life of the believer by saying, “The life of the justified is a decided one.”  It is fixed and focused.  “The justifying cross has come between him and all evil things.”  The Christian has a new light in his eye.  “Even if at any time he feels as if he could return to that country from which he set out, the cross stands in front and arrests his backward step.”

The Gospel itself compels the Christian onward toward the celestial city with holiness as his aim.  “There is henceforth to be no mistake about him. His heart is no longer divided, and his eye no longer roams. He has taken up his cross, and he is following the Lamb.”[10]  With such a view of the Christian life and focus, one might imagine that there should be no sinful expressions from the thoughts, words, or deeds of any Christian.  But alas, we do find much in the way of sinful expressions in the life of every Christian we meet – including the one we meet daily in the mirror.

The explanation for such an experience in the Christian life is not exactly clear.  The Scriptures tell us that God extends varying levels of grace to individual believers (Eph 4:7; 1 Cor 12:11; Phil 2:13), but we would want to be careful not to blame God for the sinful expression of any sinner.  The Holy Spirit works in varying degrees within individual believers (Heb 2:4; 1 Cor 12:6), but again we would want to avoid accusing God the Spirit of any negligence on His part in the sanctifying work. Individual believers play an important role in how far and how fast they progress in sanctification throughout their mortal lives (Heb 10:24; 3:13; Titus 3:8), but here too we are wise to refrain from ascribing any credit to the believer for his or her progress because it is only by God’s enabling Spirit that they are sanctified.

All three of these are true, so then there must be some combination of these factors that explain the varying degrees of speed and efficiency that mark the sanctification process in different Christians.  It is clear that there will be progress in the work of sanctification in the life of every believer, and God has promised to complete the process which He has begun (Phil 1:6).

It appears that God has not only promised to work within Christians to bring about the mutually desired end of complete sanctification, but he has also instituted local communities through which Christians are to engage in diligent efforts towards sanctification together.

Here, we shall turn our attention from the personalized sanctification of the individual to the communal sanctifying properties of the local church.

The London Confession says,

“[T]he Lord Jesus Christ calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20).”[11]

Therefore, these societies or communities of faith are designed for mutual improvement, building up, or sanctification (Eph 2:19-20).  Paragraph 12 of that same confession, in the section on The Church, goes on to explain that there are privileges, censures, and authoritative instruments that the Christian may enjoy in the life of a Gospel-centered community.

Rather than these communities being an end in themselves or even a rule unto themselves, they are local and communal expressions of mutual submission to the Christ who reigns over all.  Andrew Purvis expounds this view by saying,

“The ministry of the church is, by the Holy Spirit, a sharing in God’s ministry to and for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ.  The task at hand, then, is to focus on the profound interrelationship that must obtain between… those truths and realities about God that the church brings to expression through Christian doctrine… and pastoral care.”[12]

Pastoral care, the shepherding of God’s sheep and caring for Christ’s bride, is the task of “sharing in God’s ministry to and for” Christians.  The church is meant to be a local expression of “truths and realities about God,” which we find clearly revealed in the Scriptures and understand as Christian doctrine.

In less lofty terms, but just as potent, Mark Dever says that a local church is “a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, godliness, and grace.”[13]  The London Confession also has this view of a local church and its membership.

“The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2); and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel (Acts 2:41,42, 5:13,14; 2 Cor. 9:13).”[14]

Church membership, then, is a collective affirmation that Christians in local proximity to one another are attempting to live out in practical ways the reality of their positional possession – holiness. 

They are saints by calling, and they are seeking to live in obedience to Christ by “giving themselves” to one another in mutual submission and love.

While any reasonable understanding of what a church is and what a church does (as described here) would assume that this must be done in community with other believers, it is helpful to allow a dissenting voice to speak in order to demonstrate greater clarity.  In her book, How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, Kelly Bean takes aim at average local church experiences over the last generation or so.  She rightly points out that many local churches are active but not very effective. Whether she measures effectiveness in biblical terms or not is questionable at best, but her assessment may still be true when measured in biblical terms.

Her solution is to opt out of church attendance or involvement altogether, something she calls non-going.  She sees some problems that arise with such a lone ranger mentality, and she suggests, “A collective narrative is important for all.”[15]  The collective narrative she is looking for is exactly what is provided by the Gospel message and the mutually stimulated sanctification that occurs in Gospel-centered communities, through the proclamation of biblical truth and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  Yet, this is not something she seems to believe may be found in any communal expression of local Christians.

Bean seems to be unaware that she is describing the creation of a church, albeit an ‘alternative’ one, when she admits, “In many ways, the art of non-going and facilitating alternative Christian communities that offer the support we might need, is still in the works.”[16]  Reinventing Christian communities to offer ‘non-goers’ support so that they may maintain their non-going status sounds about like offering a fish an aquarium so that he may refer to himself as “a fish out of water.”

It is simply inconceivable that a Christian would find sanctification to be something that he or she should pursue outside of a community of believers.  Dever says,

“While our individual walks are crucial, we are impoverished in our personal pursuit of God if we do not avail ourselves of the help that is available through mutually edifying relationships in our covenant Church family” (Heb 10:24-25).[17]

Christians are, therefore, beneficiaries of the communal and covenantal relationship that is only available in a local church.  The local church is, then, both exclusive and active in this participatory endeavor of mutual sanctification and humble submission to Christ.

The exclusivity of a local church comes in the form of membership admission.  It may go without saying (but it never should) that local church membership is for Christians only (Eph 2:19-20).  There is no sense in which an unregenerate man or woman should seek communion among regenerate men and women.

Since regenerate people are diligently pursuing practical righteousness in themselves and in one another, the unregenerate person can have no genuine unity with them.  The very thought of hating his own sin and loving a Lord greater than himself is repugnant to the unregenerate man (Rom 8:5-8).

With this in mind, many local churches have put into place a kind of membership interview for potential church members.  These interviews, in one form or another, involve relationship building and include probing questions in order to discover Gospel clarity and some evidence of the new birth (Jn 3:3; 1 Pet 1:23).  Jonathan Leeman notes what standards he might put into practice in a membership interview when he says,

“Look for the ones who are poor in spirit; who mourn their sin; who aren’t entitled, always insisting on their way, but are meek; who are sick to death of sin and all it’s nonsense and so hunger and thirst for righteousness like it is water.  When you find people like that, make sure they know who Jesus is. Make sure Jesus is the one who fills their impoverished spirit, who has forgiven their sins, who receives their life and worship, and whose righteousness they depend upon and pursuit. When you find such people, tell them to join!”[18]

The exclusive membership of a local church is vital to the active mutual sanctification of its members because only those who have been sanctified by Christ will have any desire to pursue sanctification any further.  The church is to be the nourishing and chastising community that all Christians need in order to grow in sanctification. Mark Dever writes,

“Each local church has a responsibility to judge the life and teaching of its leaders and members, particularly when either compromises the churches witness to the Gospel (Acts 17; 1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 3; 2 Pet 3).”[19]

While judgment and discipline seem to be allergens in contemporary local churches, to avoid such things is to prevent the implementation of the clear and explicit design for the very institution itself.

Liberty, personal and individual freedom, seems to be the untouchable possession of the day.  However, rebellious sinfulness has often been masquerading as Christian liberty.  The London Confession explains:

“They who upon pretense of Christian liberty do practice any sin, or cherish any sinful lust, as they do thereby pervert the main design of the grace of the gospel to their own destruction (Rom. 6:1,2), so they wholly destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our lives (Gal. 5:13; 2 Pet. 2:18, 21).”[20]

Christian liberty is the deliverance from Christian enemies (namely sin and death) so that we might serve the Lord without fear, and so that we might walk in holiness and righteousness before Christ our Sovereign.

Therefore, local church communities are charged with holding one another accountable to the truth of the Gospel and rebuking one another when these clear truths are neglected, denied, or rejected.  In his book on healthy church membership, Thabiti Anyabwile explains,

“Formative discipline refers to how Scripture shapes and molds the Christian as he or she imbibes its teaching and is trained to live for God.”  He goes on to explain another form of discipline, which he calls “corrective.”  He writes, “No one lives in entire life without the need of discipline, whether positive or corrective. So the healthy church member embraces discipline as one means of grace in the Christian life.”[21]

Rather than lamenting accountability, the genuine believer embraces it with gladness because he knows the sinful inclinations of his heart and desires to live in opposition to them.

Fallen humanity is so utterly sinful that unregenerate man is enslaved to sin (Jn 8:34).  This is no longer true of the believer, for the Christian has been set free from bondage to sin and walks in this new freedom (Rom 6:6-7).  Yet, the sinful desires that remain can be detrimental to a believer’s sanctification if left unchecked.

In dealing with what he calls “deadly serious symptoms” of a “lust” or strong sinful desire, John Owen calls for “extraordinary remedies” to combat them.  He explains that the sinner or those around him may notice these symptoms, such as habitual sin or the sinning heart pleading “to be thought in a good state.”  Owen says, “When a lust has remained a long time in the heart, corrupting, festering, and poisoning, it brings the soul into a woeful condition.”[22]

He further writes, “A person who seeks peace on any account and is content to live away from the love of God in this life, so long as it does not mean a final separation, shows that his love for sin exceeds his love for God.”

Owen laments this disposition in the heart of a believing sinner, and he asks, “What is to be expected from such a heart?”[23]  Because this may be an acceptable posture from the perspective of some Christians for a time, it is imperative that others in their community of faith wake them from their sinful slumber and stir their hearts towards right desires as well as godly truth.

Not only should rebellious sinfulness be admonished in the life of the church member for his own sake, it should also be censured for the sake of the entire body.  Martin Bucer writes,

“One mangy sheep soon infects the whole flock. That is why the Lord also commanded so earnestly that evil and wicked people should be removed and driven out from the people of God” (Duet 13, 17).[24]

Bucer notices that the ‘mangy sheep’ may not be a sheep at all; in fact, it may be that the rebellious sinner is a ‘goat’ (Matt 25:32-33), or the problem may be so bad that he rightly be called a ‘wolf’ (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:29).  No matter the condition of the mangy sheep, the flock is at risk, and this is reason enough to act.

The particular action may vary, depending upon the response of the sinning member as he is engaged by other members and/or by his pastor, according to the prescription found in Matthew 18; but should the mangy sheep remain content with his mange, Bucer explains the necessity of his exclusion from the flock.  Bucer writes,

“[I]t is also necessary in order to guard the healthy sheep and feed them in the right way for the carers of souls to exercise the greatest earnestness for the good of the congregation to exclude and keep away from it all those who refuse to listen to the church when they are warned in its name to repent, amend their ways and seek what is good, but instead wish to persist in there disorderly lives, and do not want to do good according to their calling and conduct themselves in obedience to the holy gospel and lead a Christian life, but fall into serious sins and lusts and refuse to repent, or become rebellious and start up gangs and sects.”[25]

Now Bucer goes on to say that the Christian community should prayerfully plead with the excluded sinner, that he would repent from his sin and turn once again to embrace Christ as Lord and Master.  If the sinner should find repentance and confess his error, then he may be restored; “otherwise,” Bucer says, “we are to have nothing to do with them, and they are to be shown with Christian severity how greatly we condemn and abhor their ungodliness.”[26]

While this abhorrence for ungodliness may be too much for some to stomach, no amount of temporal discomfort can compare with the eternal torment that one may suffer under the wrathful hand of God if one has presumed upon the grace of God (Rom 2:24; Heb 2:3-4).

No doubt, this kind of seriousness about sin and about sanctification would be a shock to the system of many local churches.  Pastors and members alike may have a strong distaste for such intentional pursuit of holiness and righteousness.

The pastor who insists on elevating the sanctity of the flock for which he has been named the under-shepherd may realize that his genuine care for sheep has earned him their bitterness and hatred.  The church member who challenges his or her leadership to this kind of care and oversight may discover that there is no genuine care for souls in the heart of his or her leaders.

Dever, noting the difficulty of living in Gospel-centered and sanctifying community this way, reminds his reader, “Don’t give up! Don’t give in to doubt or disillusionment or fear of man! Take a longer view. God’s purposes for all of human history revolve around the local church as the visible, corporate manifestation of His Son, Jesus Christ![27]  This is a lofty task indeed, and God is at work among us.

The message is clear.  All those whom God has justified He has also sanctified, and He continually sanctifies them by the power of His Spirit.  Additionally, God has instituted the Church as the Spirit-empowered community of faith in which sinning Christians may walk in progressively greater degrees of freedom from their sin.

Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the mortal Christian life.  The believer who tends towards self-righteousness may be humbled; the Christian who tends towards despair may be encouraged; the convert who struggles to break free from remaining inclinations towards sin may be restrained by accountability; the unregenerate pretender may be lovingly exposed and evangelized appropriately; the malevolent wolf may be discovered and expelled; and all of this may and should take place in the average daily life of the local church.

Bucer wrote, “Now, it is not possible for the word and doctrine of God to teach and command anything which is not possible, helpful, good and beneficial.”[28]  Did we ever believe otherwise?  May God grant us grace to love Him and grace to serve Him well!

 

 

Bibliography

Anyabwile, Thabiti M. What Is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

Bonar, Horatius. The Everlasting Righteousness, Or, How Shall Man Be Just with God? 1st ed. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993.

Bucer, Martin, and David F. Wright. Concerning the True Care of Souls. Translated by Peter Beale. Edinburgh: Carlisle, PA, 2009.

Dever, Mark, and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005.

Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989.

Leeman, Jonathan. Church Membership How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

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

Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

Purves, Andrew. Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

“The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.1689.com/confession.html.

[1] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 179

[2] Ferguson, The Christian Life, 124

[3] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Sanctification, paragraph 1

[4] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 182-183

[5] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 175

[6] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Sanctification, paragraph 2 and 3

[7] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 25

[8] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Good works, paragraph 3

[9] DeYoung, The Mission of the Church, 227

[10] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 202

[11] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 5

[12] Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 4

[13] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 110

[14] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 6

[15] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[16] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[17] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 111

[18] Leeman, Church Membership, 88

[19] Dever, What is a Healthy Church, 106

[20] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, Christian liberty and conscience, paragraph 3

[21] Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member, 76

[22] Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 54-55

[23] Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 57

[24] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 183

[25] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 184

[26] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 185

[27] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 72

[28] Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, 184