A Simple Introduction to Textual Criticism (John 5:3-4)

The careful reader of Scripture will likely at some point ask, “Why is there no verse 4 in chapter 5 of John’s Gospel?” If not this specific question, then one like it. There are numerous places one might turn for textual variations among English translations (both old and new). This brief article will not address the matter exhaustively, but it will provide an introductory explanation and basic defense of the affirmation of biblical reliability and fidelity.

First, let’s take a look at the particular passage in view, John 5:3-4.

King James Version

“3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

New American Standard Bible

“3 In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] (Notice: brackets are included by NASB translators)”

English Standard Version

“3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. (Notice: verses 3b and 4 are simply missing from this translation)”

Second, let’s consider why many translators include verses 3b and 4.

The reason why some English translations include the verses is that the text is included in the majority of later manuscripts.[1] Manuscripts are the multitude of copies of the original biblical text, dated at various points throughout human history. While we have no original documents of the biblical text, the vast number of manuscripts (i.e. copies of originals and copies of copies) gives us a great deal of confidence regarding the content of the originals. Because most manuscripts available to translators during the time of their translation do include verses 3b and 4, several groups of translators have believed it prudent to include the verses in their translation.

One translation that includes the disputed verses is the King James Version (KJV), also known as the Authorized Version (AV), which was originally published in 1611 and revised for spelling and vocabulary in 1769 by Dr. Benjamin Blayney. The KJV is based on many sources, including the Septuagint [LXX], the Latin Vulgate, Textus Receptus (TR), Erasmus’ Greek NT, many available manuscripts, and William Tyndale’s translation work. In fact, Tyndale’s translation accounts for 84% of the New Testament and more than 75% of the Old Testament.[2]

Another translation containing verse 3b and 4 is the American Standard Version (ASV), which is grounded in the KJV and originally published in 1901. It was updated in the form of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), published in 1952 and 1989 respectively. However, both later translations omitted the disputed text.

The most recent translation to keep the curious verses is the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which was grounded in the ASV and KJV, originally published in 1960, and most recently updated in 1995. The clear demarcation of brackets around these verses (as noted above), and other included-but-dubious texts, make this translation a good combination of historical gratitude and biblical fidelity.

These translations and others, which include verses 3b and 4, are not unfaithful for doing so. These translations are not deceptive, nor are they lacking in integrity. These translations, like all faithful ones, seek to bring the original text of infallible and inerrant Scripture to the contemporary reader through the use of fallible and imperfect translations. Such an effort is commendable and greatly appreciated.

However, the reality is that translations do require perennial critical review and appropriate responses to the findings. The Committee of translators of the NRSV (which excludes verses 3b and 4) explained the situation well in their preface.

“This preface is… to explain, as briefly as possible, the origin and character of our work… To summarize in a single sentence: the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is an authorized revision of the Revised Standard Version, published in 1952, which was a revision of the American Standard Version, published in 1901, which, in turn, embodied earlier revisions of the King James Version, published in 1611… With good reason [the KJV] has been termed ‘the noblest monument of English prose…’ We owe to it an incalculable debt. Yet the KJV has serious defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of biblical studies and the discovery of many biblical manuscripts more ancient than those on which the KJV was based made it apparent that these defects were so many as to call for revision.”[3]

The message is clear: we continually discover more manuscripts, encounter earlier manuscripts, and advance in our efforts and methods in the field of biblical studies. This necessarily will lead to the criticism of past work in the field of translation, as well as other fields.

The translators of the original King James Version of the Bible believed that this kind of criticism was what they were doing, and they expected that such criticism would continue after them. They wrote in their own preface:

Let us… bless God… to have the translations of the Bible maturely considered and examined. For by this means it cometh to pass, that whatsoever is sound already… the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if anything be [uncertain], or [added], or not-so-agreeable to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place… [There is] no cause, therefore, why the word translated should be denied, or forbidden, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. [For nothing is] perfect under the sun… [except that which the] Apostles… men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, [wrote from] their hand…”[4]

From the view presented above, it was inevitable that their own work would eventually become the object of scrutiny and must eventually be ‘rubbed,’ ‘polished,’ and even ‘corrected.’

Third, let’s consider why many translators exclude verses 3b and 4.

Because of discoveries and advances in the field of Bible documentation and translation, translators have come to realize that the earliest manuscripts do not include the disputed text (v3b-4). It is more likely that text would be added rather than subtracted from the biblical manuscripts during transcription; therefore, many translators concluded that the later manuscripts must be the result of a scribal addition (maybe multiple scribes).

The New International Version (NIV) was originally published in 1973 (based on best available Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic manuscripts at the time), and it was updated in 1978 and 1984. The 2011 NIV update is a notable departure from the NIV translation tradition, but these exclude verses 3b and 4 and feature translation notes explaining the omission.[5]

The English Standard Version (ESV) is grounded in the RSV and KJV translation traditions and is based on Masoretic text and the best available Greek texts (the Greek New Testament 5th Ed. and the NA28). It was originally published in 2001, and it too excludes the brief passage (v3b-4).

Both the NIV and the ESV include translation notes, which explain that the missing text is found in some translations. However, the NET Bible, published in 1996 and updated in 2005, provides extensive textual-critical notes throughout. This translation is unique among others for its open and candid attempt to furnish the reader with ample rationale behind textual and translation decisions. The NET Bible excludes verses 3b and 4, for the reasons cited above.

With these translation committees disagreeing on such an important matter (Is this text canonical or not?), what is a person to do? Any thinking person can see that this has big implications for the rest of Scripture and the general trustworthiness of the Bible.

Fourth, and last, let’s consider four features of a thoughtful response.

First, I think it is wise to take a deep breath… and acknowledge that God never promised anyone an inerrant translation of His word. Christians have overwhelmingly affirmed (and successfully defended) the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, but only in its original form. Christians have just as regularly been willing to embrace the unique difficulties created by transmission and translation over the centuries.

Second, faithful Christians need not release their grasp on a strong affirmation of biblical inerrancy.[6] Acknowledging errors or variants in a copy or a translation does in no way undermine the potency and purity of the original. We may simultaneously recognize the need for constant criticism of translations and manuscript evidence and boldly affirm the historic doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Third, for this particular passage (John 5:3b-4), I believe we can and should acknowledge it as a scribal addition and not canonical Scripture. The earliest manuscripts we possess do not contain verses 3b-4; this portion includes vocabulary and syntax which does not match John’s writing generally; and several of the manuscripts that do include verses 3b-4 place an asterisk or obelisk to mark the portion as a scribal addition. Therefore, I believe it is unauthentic, and rightly excluded. For a much more thorough (and scholarly) address of this subject, see Gordon D. Fee’s essay “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4[7]

Fourth, we must consider our selection of Bible translation wisely and knowingly. I do not think that any of the translations cited in this article are bad ones. In fact, I believe each one has value beyond that of any other book known to mankind. However, we ought not blindly hold a view of any translation that the translators themselves did not hold. Nor should we place our trust in any notion of an inerrant translation.

Do research on which translation best brings the original text of Scripture to your mind and heart. Ask your pastor which translations he prefers and why. Don’t throw away a translation you like, but be aware of its own unique flaws, so that it will not surprise or offend you when someone else points them out.

There are attacks launched from many vantage points against Christianity today. Even from within American Evangelical churches, you may hear the Scriptures undermined. In such a cultural climate, Christians cannot afford to credulously parrot tired slogans and call it evangelism or fidelity. Christ has called His followers to much more than that, and His word is worthy of more than that.

For our own sake, for the sake of those who do not now love and trust Christ, for the sake of the next generation, for the sake of God’s glory… let us seek to wisely affirm the power and purity of God’s holy word. Let us make bold claims from sure and solid ground. And let us find incredible confidence in the trustworthy promise of God: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33).


[1] “The majority of later MSS [abbreviation for ‘manuscripts’] (C3 Θ Ψ 078 f1, 13 𝔐) add the following to 5:3: ‘waiting for the moving of the water. 5:4 For an angel of the Lord went down and stirred up the water at certain times. Whoever first stepped in after the stirring of the water was healed from whatever disease which he suffered.’ Other MSS include only v. 3b (Ac D 33 lat) or v. 4 (A L it). Few textual scholars today would accept the authenticity of any portion of vv. 3b–4, for they are not found in the earliest and best witnesses (𝔓66, 75 א B C* T pc co), they include un-Johannine vocabulary and syntax, several of the MSS that include the verses mark them as spurious [or unauthentic] (with an asterisk or obelisk), and because there is a great amount of textual diversity among the witnesses that do include the verses. The present translation follows NA27 [Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 27th Edition] in omitting the verse number, a procedure also followed by a number of other modern translations.” Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.

[2] Lawson, Steven. The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (A Long Line of Godly Men Profiles) (Kindle Locations 1848-1849). Reformation Trust Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Translator’s Preface of the King James Version: http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1996_2/KJVPref.pdf

[5] For more on the NIV, see this article: https://marcminter.com/2016/03/15/is-the-niv-bible-good-or-bad/

[6] I recommend the following resources on the subject of biblical inerrancy: “Scripture Alone” by James White; “The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration” by Basil Manly; “The Scripture Cannot Be Broken” edited by John MacArthur; and “Inerrancy” edited by Norman Geisler

[7] Fee “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4” (PDF): https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/inauthenticity_fee.pdf

Should Protestants Still Protest?

This year marks the 500th anniversary since that fateful day when Martin Luther nailed a document, intended to initiate a collegiate theological discussion, to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Germany. Unintentionally (it seems), Luther struck the match that ignited a powder keg.

Germany, Switzerland, England, Scottland, and several other lands experienced an upheaval of the established religious system of the day (Roman Catholicism); and there were many and various contributors. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and many others played their respective and overlapping parts in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Today, many are asking if the Protestant Reformation is over, and others seem to think it was a vastly overblown misunderstanding to begin with. Should Protestants still protest? Are Protestants who do still protest revealing themselves as merely irreconcilable curmudgeons?

I think it is quite helpful to answer questions like these by first understanding the disagreement. One can hardly seek to reconcile two parties without knowing what has divided them thus far. So, let’s go back to the place where the disagreement was codified.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many people believed that some reformation within Christendom was necessary. When the Reformation became undeniable, both Roman Catholics and Protestants still agreed that change was needed, but each side differed considerably on what that reform should look like. The Roman Catholic Church officially responded to their protesting brethren through the forum of a Church Council.

The Council of Trent gathered in Trento and Bologna, Italy, over 18 years (1545-1563). Sometimes infrequent and sometimes intensive, these meetings included discussion and debate on many topics of Roman Catholic theology. Bishops and theologians considered dogma, doctrine, and tradition regarding authority, sacraments, purgatory, indulgences, and much more. Finally, the Council of Trent published its decrees (statements of affirmation) and canons (statements of judgment) in 1564, and these were confirmed by Pope Pius IV.

Specifically addressing some Protestant theological assertions, the Council of Trent clearly presented an opposing position. While there are certainly still many things about which Roman Catholics and Protestants agree (God as Trinity, Jesus as Savior, and grace as necessary), there is a stark contrast on vital matters.

Few questions are as important as, “How is a sinner justified before God?” Rome answered the question by saying (among other things) that the sinner must participate in his/her justification by sacraments and other good works.

The Council of Trent states that baptism is the ‘instrumental cause,’ or the means by which justification is obtained.

“The instrumental cause [of justification] is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which justification never befell any man…”

The Council of Trent states that justification can and should be increased through the efforts of obedience on the part of the sinner.

“Having, therefore, been thus justified… they [those who are justified], through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in the justice received through the grace of Christ, and are still more justified…”

The Council of Trent states that faith alone cannot and will not justify any sinner.

“No one ought to flatter himself upon faith alone, deeming that by faith alone he is made an heir, and will obtain the inheritance [the inheritance of salvation or eternal life in Christ Jesus].”

The Council of Trent not only clarified the Roman Catholic teaching on important matters, it also unequivocally named what is at stake. The strong denials below include the phrase, “let him be anathema,” which is a superlative condemnation of anyone who disagrees with the statement. With intentional language, the Roman Catholic Church condemned all protesters.

The following are some of the Roman Catholic canons on the subject of justification.

Canon 11: If any one shall say, that men are justified by the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ… or even that the grace, by which we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

Canon 12: If any one shall say, that justifying faith is naught else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or that it is this confidence alone by which we are justified; let him be anathema.

Canon 24: If any one shall say, that the justice received is not preserved, and also increased in the sight of God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

The message could not be clearer: believing that justification comes by way of Christ’s righteousness and not by any work or effort on the part of the sinner is a justification condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who believes in justification by faith alone in Christ alone is thus condemned or “anathematized.”

In two major Protestant catechisms, the question of justification is asked and answered. The Westminster Shorter catechism (following the Westminster Confession of 1647) and the Baptist catechism (following the Second London Confession of 1689) both provide an identicle answer (dependent upon translation).

“What is justification?”

“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

With the same precision and clarity as the Roman Catholics, Protestants articulated their own understanding of justification, and one cannot miss the antithesis. What Rome said was condemnable, Protestants wholeheartedly affirm. What Rome stated as doctrine, Protestants denied outright.

The only question we are left with now is, Should Protestants still protest?

Well, does Rome still affirm the decrees and canons published from the Council of Trent?

Yes, the current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, affirms, and cites the Council of Trent throughout (including the section on Justification, pg. 535-537). Furthermore, reversing the official condemnation of “justification by faith alone in Christ alone” would require a new and clear council statement (Vatican I and Vatican II (subsequent councils) reaffirmed the Council of Trent).

Do Evangelical Protestants still affirm the doctrine of justification as articulated in the two catechisms cited above?

Yes, the Westminster Confession is still the authoritative doctrinal body of teaching (under the authority of Scripture) for Presbyterians. Yes, though Baptists are generally a less creedal bunch, this denomination is marked by a fierce affirmation of justification by personal faith alone – apart from any good work – in Christ alone.

So, Should Protestants still protest?

What else can any thinking person expect from a Protestant? The Roman Catholic who seeks to reconcile with Protestants either denies or betrays his/her own ignorance of Rome’s doctrine and dogma. The Protestant who seeks to reconcile with Rome is by definition no longer a Protestant – since he/she has stopped protesting.

Protestants must not only protest, but Protestants must know what and why we are protesting. The very Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and this is no time to capitulate.


*If you enjoyed this article, then you will probably also like others in this category, “Reformation Heroes.”


Identifying Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

Mark, like the other Gospel writers, is very interested in conveying much about the identity of Jesus Christ. This is clear in his opening statement, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). While Mark is keen on his reader knowing Jesus’ true identity, he is also frank about Jesus’ disciples’ inability to understand accordingly. Only after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead did His disciples understand who Jesus really was and is.

Mark presents Jesus as a unique person from the beginning. Jesus is the “Son of God” (1:1), the “Holy One of God” (1:24), the “Lord of the Sabbath” (2:28), and more. Jesus is seen proclaiming the gospel of God (1:15), rebuking and silencing demonic spirits (1:21-28), commanding the stormy sea (4:35-41), and bringing a dead girl back to life (5:35-42).

All of this is designed to answer the question Mark tell us Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter rightly confessed, “You are the Christ,” and this is the same confession Mark desires his reader to make. Just as the Roman centurion proclaimed, after the death of Jesus upon the cross, Mark’s purpose is to demonstrate that Jesus was and is the Son of God (15:39; cf. 1:1).

While Mark is adamant about Jesus’ identity, he is also blatantly honest about Jesus’ disciples’ lack of understanding on this vital point. Mark repeatedly exposes the disciples as confused and ignorant.

When Jesus rebuked the storm, demonstrating His divine power and authority, the disciples feared and said, “Who is this?” (4:41). Just after Jesus miraculously fed more than 5,000 people with divine bread, Jesus walked upon the water and met His disciples in their boat on the sea of Galilee. Again they are described as fearful, and they are also said to lack understanding since “their hearts were hardened” (6:52). These are just two examples, but Mark does not paint Jesus’ disciples in any positive light on the matter of Jesus’ identity.

The fact is, apart from Peter’s famous confession (8:29), the only ones in Mark’s Gospel who perceive Jesus as the Son of God are the demons (1:24, 5:7), one of the Roman soldiers who watched Jesus die (15:39), and possibly the Greek/Syrophoenician woman who begged for ‘crumbs‘ from the Master’s table (7:28).

Nothing is more important than the identity and activity of Jesus Christ. Mark wants his reader to see Jesus for who He is and to believe or trust in Jesus. It seems that the reason Mark presented the disciples in such dramatic ignorance and confusion may have been to draw his reader’s attention to the absurdity of doing as they did.

It may be that Mark is artfully and skillfully saying, “See how bumbling and slow to understand these disciples were! Isn’t it obvious who Jesus is?! Don’t be like those disciples… Look! Understand! Believe! This is the Son of God!”

May God open our eyes to see, and may we trust ourselves to Jesus – the Son of God and Savior of sinners.

21 things about ‘the Word’ in 18 verses

The Gospel of John is thick with theological statements and concepts. John says much about Jesus, about God, about humanity, about belief or trust, and about sin. Some of the most potent and pregnant verses of the entire Bible are known as John’s prologue – the first 18 verses of his Gospel.

‘The Word’ is John’s unique way of referring to God the Son, and John introduces his reader to this focal point of his Gospel with amazing profundity. Here are 21 things John conveys about ‘the Word’ in just 18 verses (and the astute reader will find even more).

  1. The Word was ‘already existing’ in the beginning (v1, 2).
  2. The Word is distinct (in some sense) from ‘God’ (v1, 2).
  3. The Word is (in some other sense) ‘God’ (v1).
  4. The Word is the creator of all things (v3).
  5. The Word is the author of life (v4).
  6. The Word is the one through whom illumination/light/knowledge/wisdom comes (v4).
  7. The Word is unconquerable in illumination/light/knowledge/wisdom (v5).
  8. The Word is attested by God through the witness of others (v6).
  9. God intends for people to believe the Word (v7).
  10. The Word came into the world (v9).
  11. The Word is sovereign over the world, but the Word is also foreign to the world (v10).
  12. The Word was rejected by the very things He had made (v11).
  13. There were some who did receive the Word, and these He made children of God (v12).
  14. The Word is glorious, full of grace and truth (v14).
  15. The Word added humanity to His pre-existent nature and tabernacled among men (v14).
  16. The Word was perceived as glorious by John and others (v14).
  17. The Word is greater than John the Baptist because He existed before him, even though The Word came along after him (v15).
  18. The Word dispensed grace from His fullness (v16).
  19. The Word is Jesus Christ (v17).
  20. The Word brought a new covenant, distinct from the one that came through Moses (v17).
  21. The Word is the apex of God’s revelation of Himself (v18).

May we give ear to John’s witness and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and have life in His name (Jn. 20:31).

Is the End really near?

The Gospel of Matthew has provided much content for various sides in the theological debate among Christians who disagree about how to best answer this question. However, there are some big themes in Matthew that are clear to any observant reader and worth our time.

One big Theme in Matthew’s Gospel: The end of the Ages has dawned in Christ.

As had been prophesied for so long before, the offspring (Gen. 3:15) and Immanuel (Is. 7:14) had come in the form of the Christ-child (Matt. 1:23). This same one is the ‘child,’ the ‘son’ upon whose shoulders the governorship of God will rest forevermore (Is. 9:6-7). Indeed, Jesus Christ was and is this one, and Matthew intended to make that clear from the very beginning of his Gospel.

Additionally, Matthew quotes Jesus as having answered the direct question about His own fulfillment of prophetic projections. Matthew tells us that John the Baptist inquired of Jesus through sending some of his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3).

Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:4-6).

Jesus’ response is only veiled to our 21st-century eyes, but this is a direct reference to the eschatological (end or last things) language of Isaiah 35. Jesus is effectively saying that He indeed is the one who would bring about the end of the ages, and He is doing it right then.

Finally, after Jesus was resurrected, He commissioned His disciples in between a declaration and a promise (Matt. 28:18-20). The declaration Jesus made was concerning His own authority and lordship over all; Jesus is King and eternal ruler (v18). The promise Jesus made was to be with His disciples through to the ‘end of the age’ (v20).

This promise is the culmination of the eschatological dawning of the end of the ages. Christ has been inaugurated as King, and the end has dawned. We now await the final fulfillment of judgment and recreation.


A second big Theme in Matthew’s Gospel: The people of God are redefined by/in Christ.

Jesus embodies Old Testament Israel in Matthew’s Gospel, and His life has several parallels to God’s historical people. Jesus flees Herod’s wrath by going to Egypt, but returns from there as the Hebrews of old had done (Matt.13-15). And like them, Jesus passes through water (at His baptism) and is claimed by God as “Son” (Matt. 3:13-17).

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus retells and explains the ten commandments (Matt. 5:1-7:27). Like Moses had done, Jesus delivers the law of God from atop a mountain. Also, Jesus chooses and sends twelve disciples as His representatives (Matt. 10:5-15). This is certainly reminiscent of Jacob’s (Israel’s) twelve sons who carry on his legacy.

Just as Jesus embodies the Israel of the Old Testament, Matthew also emphasizes the necessity of entering the kingdom/family of God’s people by faith and not by ethnic lineage. This is clear in Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28), the parable of the vineyard laborers (Matt. 20:1-16), and the parable of the wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14).

At the wedding feast, we can see this clearly presented. Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son…” (v2). The story continues with many invitations going out by way of servants’ requests, but those who were invited ignored, mistreated, and even killed the king’s servants. Then the enraged king destroyed those murderous ones, that had been invited, and instead gathered guests from wherever people might be found.

Jesus spoke this parable to the chief priests and the Pharisees (21:45); therefore, we may gather that the message it pointed at them. One can easily see how their rejection of God’s invitation through prophets, and now even Jesus Christ Himself, is going to end badly for them. The people of God, according to Matthew, are those who trust the King – love God (22:36).

Like the first theme, we may also see some culmination in the Great Commission here (Matt. 28:18-20). Christ is King, and He commissions His people to bring others into the kingdom through baptism and obedience to His commands, rather than by ethnic procreation.

These themes are just two of the major ones we find in Scripture generally and in Matthew’s Gospel especially. The regular and repeated reading of Scripture will yield marvelous insights, and the reader will never be disappointed.

May God encourage our embrace of His Word and His promises. Here is where true hope can be found – even as the end draws near.

What is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit?

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

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

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

Baptism in the Holy Spirit

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

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

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

Some Objections Considered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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



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

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


Does the Bible really approve of Polygamy?

Throughout this year, I have been preaching through the book of Genesis with my congregation. Last Sunday we arrived at Genesis chapter 16, where polygamy is mentioned for the second time in the Bible. Earlier in the Bible (and in human history), we read about a man named “Lamech” who had two wives (Gen. 4:19-24). The context of Genesis 4, however, is easily perceived as negative. That is: “Lamech was a bad man; and this bad man did multiple bad things, including the taking of more than one wife.”

Genesis 16 records polygamy in the household of an essential character in the Biblical storyline (even a “good guy”), Abraham.  This is often a topic that becomes quite problematic for many Christians who want to be consistent in their adherence to and affirmation of the Bible.

Since the Bible tells us that polygamy was practiced by some of the most important leaders of the Judeo-Christian Faith, how can any Bible-believing Christian argue for monogamous marriage today?

Well, here are seven points of consideration that will help us gain a better perspective and help us have a good answer to the big question:

  1. The Bible consistently affirms Monogamous Marriage
    • The Bible clearly institutes and defends monogamous marriage defined as a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:21-25).
    • Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 2:21-25) is undoubtedly the first wedding ceremony, and God divinely institutes and defines marriage at that point.
    • Both Jesus (Matt. 19) and Paul (1 Cor. 7) refer back to Genesis 2 in reference to defining and regulating marriage.
    • When the Bible speaks positively about marriage (particularly in any imperative or didactic way) it consistently affirms monogamous, lifelong, male-female relationships.
  2. Abram and Sarai are clearly depicted as disobeying God in Genesis 16
    • Ancient pagan and common customs at the time of Abram and Sarai did allow for (at times even obligate) a polygamous method of procreation.
    • Hammurabi’s Code, a reference to “brides” and “slaves” in a Nuzi text, and an Old Assyrian marriage contract all confirm that what we see in Genesis 16 was common in that period.
    • However, the addition of Hagar to the marital relationship between Abram and Sarai is clearly undesirable from the perspective of the text.
    • It is precisely on the matter of polygamy that Abram and Sarai are taking God’s promise into their own hands and proving themselves to be disobedient.
  3. Abram’s union to Hagar (Gen. 16:3) is a mockery of the original marriage ceremony (Gen. 2:21-25).
    • “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took (grasped, seized) Hagar” and “gave (give, hand down) her to Abram”
      • God formed a woman and “brought (bring, lead in) her to the man [Adam]”
    • Hagar is never once a volitional person in this exchange, but simply an object to be used by others
      • Adam’s wife is raised to an equal status with the apex of God’s creation, when Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”
    • Hagar is called Abram’s “wife” (iššā), but only in a utilitarian sense; there is no mention of anything more than procreative intent here.
      • When God give Adam his wife, he celebrates in poetic song and gives her a new name.
  4. The voice of God in the passage rejects Hagar’s status of “wife” (iššā).
    • The “angel of the Lord” (mysteriously speaking with divine authority) refers to Hagar as “servant of Sarai” (v8)
    • Of course, this is an argument from silence, but it does demonstrate that God knows Hagar’s status and omits any affirmation of her as Abram’s wife.
  5. God commands Hagar to return to Sarai, not Abram.
    • The “angel of the Lord” commands Hagar to “return” and “submit” to Sarai, not Abram (v9).
    • This is more compelling, as it affirms Hagar’s relationship to Sarai as her proper abode, rather than Hagar’s recent polygamous marriage to Abram.
    • Properly, Hagar would have been under Abram’s provision as his wife, but this command provides compelling evidence that God did not approve of such a union.
  6. Genesis 16 is all about family dysfunction, not marital bliss among alternate models of marriage.
    • The capstone of Genesis 16 is the last 2 verses, which clearly articulate a disjuncture in familial progression (Genesis 16:15-16).
    • These lines might as well read, “Ishmael was Hagar’s son by Abram, but Ishmael was not Abram’s son of promise because he was borne out of a disobedient relationship.”
  7. The Bible simply never approves of polygamy.
    • The entire Old Testament records several instances of polygamy and the use of concubines, but it never speaks of such things in an affirmative light (Gen. 4:23-24; 26:34; 1 Sam. 13; 1 Kings 11:1-3).

Let us note with all honesty and humility that the Bible does address issues that sometimes make us uncomfortable. Surely, I would have been so happy to learn that the line of Biblical characters were righteous beacons among a dark world, but this is not the picture we get. The Bible tells an honest story of a believable human history, and the people we meet are just as rebellious and sin-ridden as the people we know today. But, this is exactly the point of the Bible!

The Bible is not a religious book that tells good people how to be better. It does not tell bad people how to be good. No! The Bible tells bad people how the gracious God averted His justice by pouring out His wrath on a substitute. The Bible tells broken people how their Creator God has the ability and the intention of making them new and whole and satisfied in Him. The Bible tells hopeless people how God intends to give them an eternal dwelling with Him forever, and His plan has been a long time coming.

Let me know if this article has been a help to you. May God bless the efforts and time invested here.

After the Fall, Is Human Will Free or Fettered?

Introduction & Thesis Statement

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

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

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

Part One: Past and Present Answers

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

Human Freedom and Culpability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phillips adds to this kind of argument by saying,

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Command and Human Ability

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: A Biblical and Theological Answer

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

Biblical Argumentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theological Argumentation & Objections Answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]Phillips, 27

[2]Flowers, “Beliefs”

[3]Menzies, 87-88

[4]Flowers, “Philosophical Ponderings”

[5]Edwards, 33

[6]Horton, 431

[7]Phillips, 27

[8]Grudem, 498

[9]Erasmus, 39

[10]Erasmus, 27

[11]Luther, 63-64

[12]Carson, 2401

[13]Sproul, 128-129

[14]Phillips, 28

Justification: Not Only for Theologians

How are rebellious, disobedient humans able to avoid the wrath of the God they have so consistently defied throughout their lives? Now that is a good question! Throughout history, Christians have phrased the question like this: How is a sinner justified before God? Justification is a theological and biblical word, but it is also very practical and universal in its applications.

Justification is the doctrine upon which every Christian relies. It is the only way that sinners may live in the presence of the holy God; they must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and free from the stain of sin. Quoting the Westminster Confession, Hodge relays the doctrine of justification as follows:

“The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”[1]

Justification is at the core of describing how God’s plan of redemption is effective for the salvation sinners. The word itself conjures up legal connotations, such as crime, law, judge, penalty and judicial declaration. There are numerous works, including the several used as resources in this article, which beautifully and profoundly extract the keenest observations from the biblical doctrine of Justification. The purpose of this work is to concisely communicate the wonderful work of Christ, both positive and negative, in justifying sinners by providing righteousness, expiation, and propitiation.

The Apostle Paul expressively speaks of the Gospel in Romans 3:21-26 when he says,

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This phrase is a commonly memorized verse for anyone who has attempted to learn the Romans Road in order to evangelize. The purpose of reciting this text is to point out the reality of universal guilt. Every human sins. The implication is that sin is not only a horizontal offense, but vertical too. Human sin is against self, others and the Creator who made and governs humanity. Those who sin are guilty before God and under the penalty of sin, namely death.

Elsewhere in the same portion of Scripture, the stark pronouncement is declared, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death here refers, not only in the physical sense of human mortality, but also to the idea that God will distribute His ultimate judgment of wrath on all who have rebelled in sin against His righteousness. God has established the law, all humans have disobeyed it and the perfectly just Judge is obligated to deliver justice. This bleak situation is the common bond of all people. Sin yields death and judgment, everyone has sinned, and God’s righteousness demands that all sinners endure the due penalty.

In an essay on justification, the purpose of preliminarily establishing the sinner’s guilt and God’s immanent wrath is two-fold. First, the gospel is good news because of the converse situation in which the unregenerate person presently finds him or herself. Hodge explains that justification rests “on the principle that God is immutably just, i. e;, that his moral excellence, in the case of sin, demands punishment.”[2]

Secondly, the redeeming work of Christ is a wonder without comparison because of the overwhelming holiness and justice of God.  Sinners may not realize and some may even choose not to acknowledge that they are hanging over a perilous pit of destruction.  God’s holy justice and consuming wrath is pointed at them every moment and God holds it back each second for reasons only known to Him. Dr. Sproul notes, “The Greek word Paul uses for ‘wrath’ is orgai. [Ro 3:18] The English word that derives from orgai is orgy… God’s anger is one of passion with paroxysms of rage and fury.”[3]

God’s wrath toward sinners is no jovial or moderate thing. The gratitude felt by any sinner’s escape of such fury is beyond expression.

What reason would any sinner have for embracing a hopeful attitude, believing some escape may be found? The message of good news concerning the person and work of Christ appears all the more stunning in front of this abominable backdrop. We who believe (i.e. trust in Christ) are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation” (Ro 6:24-25a).  Jesus has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners and suffered on behalf of all those who would trust in Him.

The suffering life and excruciating death of Jesus Christ would be note worthy if only for the sake of uniqueness, especially in light of His deity. However, the biblical description of purpose behind such a work is that of representation.  Jesus is the representative of sinners before the bar of God’s judgment.  He is the one who absorbs the full wrath of God, which all sinners deserve.

Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is the work of expiation and propitiation. Expiation, according to Sproul, carries the idea that Christ “removes our sin from us and takes it away.” So then one aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that He removes the sin of sinners; He makes sinners clean. Sproul describes expiation is a horizontal work, washing human sinners, and propitiation is a vertical work, “satisfying the justice of God for us.”[4] God’s justice demands that sinners endure the due penalty for sin, namely His unbridled wrath. God is no just judge if He merely pardons the sinner and withholds punishment. Justice must be delivered, because God is the one and only perfect Judge.

Therefore, the work of Christ includes enduring the wrath of God as a representative for sinners. Grudem explains that Christ’s passive obedience can be observed in several ways.[5] Jesus’ obedience was not passive in that He was inactive or unengaged during such a time, but passive in the sense that He was obedient to endure suffering that was inflicted upon Him. Christ’s suffering included the human suffering of mortal life, the physical pain of death by crucifixion, the psychological pain of bearing the sin of all those who would be recipients of His atoning work, the emotional pain of being abandoned by His friends, the unknown pain of mysterious abandonment by His Father, and finally the unimaginable pain of bearing the full wrath of God. Jesus was obedient in a life and death of suffering like no other human has ever or will ever endure.

This is one-half of the work, which Christ has accomplished, that elicits the expression that Paul makes of God, “He [is] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). This aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work on behalf of sinners may be considered the negative aspect. Negative, not because it is bad, quite the contrary; His work is incredibly good as He subtracts sin (expiation) from the sinner and places it on His own shoulders in order to bear the punishment thereof (propitiation).

The negative aspect of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners (the subtraction of sin from the sinner and the atonement of such before God) is astonishing even if unaccompanied, yet it alone does not fulfill the necessary conditions of God’s requirements imposed on corrupt humanity. One must be righteous in order to receive approval from the holy King of the universe and to enjoy restful communion with Him. Expiation and propitiation are tantamount to the taking away of the sinner’s debasement, but without a life of perfect obedience the sinner is still not righteous or worthy of the approval of the King.

As established above, in the passage cited, all humanity has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of perfection. The completed work of Christ is both the subtraction of sinful debauchery and the filthy stain of its vestige, as well as the addition of the perfect righteousness achieved in the life of obedience that Jesus lived as the incarnate God-man. Dr. Sproul comments, “Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but also had to live for our righteousness. If Jesus had only died for our sins, His sacrifice would have removed all of our guilt, but that would have left us merely sinless in the sight of God, not righteous.”[6] Calvin explains, “from the moment when [Jesus] assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”[7] Jesus was not only the representative of sinners in His sacrificial death; He was also their delegate in His impeccable life.

The Apostle Paul, elsewhere in the book of Romans, explains that Christ was the second “Adam” (Rom 5). The first Adam, Paul says, disobeyed as the representative of humanity and God’s declaration of guilt on the entire human race was the result. However, Christ is the second Adam who lives an obedient life before God and as a result the “many” are “made righteous” in the sight of God. It only takes a light consideration of the contrast here to begin to marvel at the incredible distinction between the two “Adams.” The first Adam was directly created by God and placed in a marvelous garden, which he was to enjoy along with his naked wife (Gen 1, 2). The ground and plant life thereon produced vegetation for food effortlessly. For some amount of time, there was absolutely no sin and Adam had immanent communion with God. On top of all this, there was only one rule to follow and even that was a negative rule rather than a positive one, Do not rather than You must Do. Avoiding this one error meant blessed, sinless communion with God in perfect contentment forever.

However, Jesus, the second Adam, had much different circumstances.  In fact, the pinnacle of Christ’s obedient life was His time of fasting in the desert (Matt 4). Jesus had been fasting for forty days and was now in solitude in the desert when He experienced His temptation from the devil. This was no lush garden and He had no full belly. Jesus was seemingly all alone. Incredibly, His response was obedience rather than rebellion, even in obviously desolate conditions. The second Adam was a human representative, like the first, but His representation was one of perfect righteousness. Sinners, then, may rely on Jesus’ righteous obedience, as they understand their own lack thereof.

Salvation is wholly a work of the Lord. God supplies all we need and satisfies all of His demands in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God declares sinners righteous and provides the means by which He may declare them so. During the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther’s day, the defining call was the phrase “Justification by faith alone,” sola fide.

Sproul says this phrase is “merely shorthand for ‘justification by the righteousness of Christ alone.’ His merit, and only his merit, is sufficient to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. It is precisely this merit that is given to us by faith. Christ is our righteousness. God clothes his filthy creatures with the coat of Christ’s righteousness.”[8]

This imagery of clothing is helpful for a more accurate understanding of the concept.  The sullied sinner who receives the blessed joy of eternal reward in the presence of God almighty does so, not based upon his or her renewed fervor to live well, but because he or she has been covered by the foreign righteousness of Another. Christ’s righteousness is alien to the sinner, but imputed (assigned or accredited) to him or her by God because of the work of Christ.

Every sinner who has been regenerated (born again, John 3:3) by the Holy Spirit rests all his or her confidence in escaping God’s judgment on the completed work of Christ. Unlike most other religions and philosophies, Christianity is a worldview based on the inability of humanity to fix anything and a total reliance on God to reconcile whom He will to Himself. God demonstrates His own graciousness in granting sinners the gift of redemption, which can only be found in Christ Jesus. It is not hard to notice the legal notions in J. I. Packer’s comments on the matter when he says,

“Whenever God fulfills his covenant commitment by acting to save his people, it is a gesture of ‘righteousness,’ that is, justice. When God justifies sinners through faith in Christ, he does so on the basis of justice done, that is, the punishment of our sins in the person of Christ our substitute; thus the form taken by his justifying mercy shows him to be utterly and totally just (Rom. 3:25-26), and our justification itself is shown to be judicially justified.”[9]

In summary, the whole of humanity is guilty before a righteous Judge. This Judge is like no other. He is omniscient and omnipotent. Added to these ominous capabilities is His attribute of aseity; that is, He is self-existent and will never cease to be. This dreadful combination to sinners means certain and unending punishment for their rebellion. There is no way of escape in them and no hope that the Judge will simply forget or become careless concerning their malfeasance. Holiness and righteousness is the requirement, but sinners are covered in the stinking filth of the opposite. In this miry and hopeless state, God does something most unexpected; He pronounces His declaration of righteousness upon sinners who are not. He does so without the slightest impugning of His own righteousness and this seems all the more conflicting. One may wonder, How can this be?

Indeed, it is a wonder. God declares the sinner righteous in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This is possible only because Christ is the provision of God for expiation, propitiation, and righteousness. The Apostle Paul describes God as the “Just” and the “Justifier.” God commands humans, “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Only because of the completed negative and positive work of Christ’s obedience can God and the sinner be thus.

[1] Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic theology : 481–482. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sproul, R. C. Romans. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009: 38.

[4] Ibid: 103.

[5] Grudem, Wayne A., and Jeff Purswell. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999: 251.

[6] Sproul, R. C. The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012: 71.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.

[8] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005: 67.

[9] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Has God Really Spoken?

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 beneficial and compelling. 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 that Manly presents here are beneficial for any context, but it seems especially so in the context of contemporary American culture. Christianity is about propositional truths concerning real historical events, from which we derive indicatives and imperatives regarding the most important issues of human existence. This should keep Christians from attempting to minimize the Christian Faith to something of lesser substance or a 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 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 greatest importance.

If the Bible is simply one good book among many, then it may still be of significant 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 should 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 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 it is in distinct senses that God is author and men are authors, nor is this a denial of any essential participant, for these are 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.

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.”[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 Christian need only believe what God has said, just as he should believe that God has said it. This is the only way that a sinner may enjoy a right relationship with God. Humans have had difficulty trusting God at His word since the question was first asked, “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1).
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] Ibid. (Kindle Location 27)

[3] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 124-126)

[4] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 138-139)

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