Personal Reflections: the Lamb of God

Yesterday I preached from the Gospel of John. The passage included John the Baptist’s profound statement about Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). There is much to ponder and say about such a statement, but here are just a few personal reflections from a pastor on a Monday morning.

First, I desperately need a substitutionary lamb. When I think about the holiness of God (how impeccably pure, morally honorable, and perfectly uncontaminated He is), I am immediately thrown into a deep awareness of my own sin.

I am impure, dishonorable, and utterly contaminated. Not a day of my life has come and gone without numerous expressions of various sin. If God comes near to me, then I have nothing to expect but my own demise. I desperately need a substitutionary lamb.

Second, I am amazed at God’s wisdom in supplying a Lamb. What a display of justice and grace, of integrity and mercy! When my worldly mind conceives of grace, it cannot help but imagine an obstacle to true justice; when I think of justice, I picture the guilty one receiving his due penalty.

But God delivers true justice and dispenses gracious grace simultaneously! God proves Himself perfectly just, for He punishes every sin exactly as His justice demands; and God demonstrates His incomparable grace by setting the guilty sinner free. God is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in the Lamb He has provided.

Third, I plead for greater faithfulness in my own thoughts, words, and deeds. As the old hymn says, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be…” My thoughts of Christ (who gave Himself graciously for me – this One who is my substitutionary Lamb) are almost too much for my heart and mind to bear.

Why would Christ do what He did for me? For me?! There is nothing in me worth such a gift! On my best day, I am completely deficient in personal goodness. I am horribly guilt-ridden, I am a deeply flawed follower, and I am humiliated by my own negligence.

These realities plague my soul, not because I hope to earn a better standing before God… No! I have no illusions that I could ever overcome such things. Instead, I am appalled that these things can still be said of me even though I have been given the marvelous gift of grace!

Oh, God, may Your Spirit renew my mind and change the affections of my heart!

May the thoughts of my mind, the words of my mouth, and the deeds of my hands be pleasing to You. And may Your substitutionary Lamb grow ever more beautiful to me.

Why did Southern Baptists say “No” to the Confederate Flag?

Haven’t you heard?! The Southern Baptist Convention recently approved a “sensitivity” resolution regarding the Confederate battle flag. The SBC representatives at this year’s convention voted to approve a resolution to call Southern Baptists to “discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag.” This has caused no small stir among many Southern Baptists, and it is certainly indicative of a larger issue.

If you have not read the full statement of Resolution 7, then please do so here (it is not long, and the details are important). It will also be very helpful to hear Dr. Merritt offer his thoughts (click here) on the matter, which he voiced at the convention in the form of a motion to amend the SBC resolution, in order to make the statement even stronger against displaying the Confederate battle flag.

I am a Texan, which means my proclivity for Southern pride is even stronger than many Southerners. Texans tend to be notoriously proud of their state and heritage, and I do share in that Texas pride in many ways. Additionally, I have spent some time looking into American history, including the complex issues related to the Civil War and the division of the country. No doubt, there is much to learn from history, and the lack of interest or time in studying history is certainly detrimental to our culture today. However, I would like to invite the reader to consider the possibility that the Confederate battle flag issue among Southern Baptists is not about history or heritage at all.

In order to understand the resolution presented and approved at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, one must have a good grasp of the reasoning behind it. Then, and only then, can one make an informed and rational decision about whether or not the resolution is a good thing or a bad thing. There are many Southern Baptists on both sides of this debate, but we each have the responsibility to understand what we are actually arguing for or against.

Insight into the thinking that motivated this resolution comes from its most important statement, which appears as the last sentence. It says:

“[We] urge fellow Christians to exercise sensitivity so that nothing brings division or hinders the unity of the Body of Christ to be a bold witness to the transforming power of Jesus” (emphasis added).

There it is! Why did Southern Baptists say “No” to the Confederate flag? It is because Southern Baptists are ready and willing to say “No” to anything that unduly “brings division or hinders the unity of the Body of Christ to be a bold witness” to the Gospel of Christ. Now, one may argue that the Confederate flag does no such thing, but that is the motivation for asking Southern Baptists to put the Confederate flag away.

The questions the reader must ask are these (at least):  Does the Confederate flag bring division among the body of Christ, particularly the multiracial body of Christ in America?  Does the Confederate flag hinder a bold witness to the Gospel, particularly the witness to the Gospel among non-Southern Americans and especially African-Americans?

Of course, there are many other issues at hand here, but I believe that simplicity (when it is possible) is always most helpful. Southern Baptists voted to approve a resolution that does belittle the Confederate battle flag. This resolution asks proud patriots to lay aside their symbolic celebration of something, which they believe to be noble and worthy of respect. This resolution calls Southern Americans to abstain from any display of a particular symbol of their heritage, history, and honor. And the reader will have to decide if such a request is warranted and appropriate.

I am interested to read your comments, particularly your answers to the two key questions I have listed.

 

T4G Reflections: John Piper

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Together for the Gospel 2016. I have also enjoyed reflecting upon some of the messages I heard over those three days, and I have posted some brief articles on a number of them (see my “T4G Reflections” articles).

John Piper spoke about the bondage of the human will in sin and the perfect freedom the Gospel provides. Below is a recap and my own considerations concerning the speaker and the topic.

I have a sort of love/hate connection to John Piper. Much of what I hear or read from him is inspiring, challenging, and solid. Piper is truly a man who has been gripped and gifted by God. On the other hand, some of what I hear and read from Piper is frustrating, confusing, and seemingly incongruent with the afore mentioned good stuff.

One cannot overestimate John Piper’s influence upon the “Reformed Resurgence” we are experiencing in American Christianity today, but I have actually had a limited exposure to John Piper over the years. Still, there is much to be thankful for and much to celebrate about John Piper, his ministry, and his contribution to Christ’s Church in our day. Piper’s address at T4G 2016 was on a subject that played to his strengths, and for that I am supremely grateful. When Piper is strong, he is uniquely gifted and powerful.

Piper’s talk on the bondage of the will of fallen man was powerful indeed. He began by pointing out five pictures of bondage in Scripture, and he explained each one from at least one passage.

First, Piper mentioned the bondage of “Legal guilt and Divine condemnation” (Rom. 3:9-10; Jn. 3:36). This is the condemnation that comes from Adam to all his posterity; God places legal guilt upon all in Adam.

Second, Piper pointed out the bondage of “Love of Darkness and Self-Glorification” (Jn. 3:19-20, 5:43-44). Humanity, he explained, is in bondage to his own affections for that which binds him/her. The chains remain because the sinner loves them and takes pride in them.

Third, Piper spoke of the bondage of “the Hatred for the Supremacy of God” (Rom. 8:6-8). Not only does the sinner fancy himself as god, he hates the notion of any other beside him. The venom of a sinner only increases when God almighty asserts His throne over that of the fallen man.

Fourth, Piper pointed out the bondage of “Spiritual Death” (Eph. 2:1-3). This bondage might be said to be the summation of the first three, but the distinction is worthy of note. This state of death, in which sinners now live, is the direct result of Adam’s sin. God promised that this would be the consequence of disobedience in the Garden, and Adam disobeyed anyway. This spiritual death is the classification under which we find such damnable things as divine condemnation, love for darkness, consuming pride, and hatred for the supremacy of God.

Fifth and finally, Piper spoke of the bondage of “Blindness to the Glory of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 4:4). Each of these taken by themselves are tragic beyond words, but this one is truly heart-rending. Not only is the sinner in bondage to so many things that will utterly destroy him by self-inflicted torments; here we see that he is utterly blind to the one and only hope that he might have for reprieve, joy, peace, freedom, and life. Even the beauty of Christ is veiled to the sinner who remains in bondage under sin.

And yet, as Piper went on to explain, the Gospel of Christ looses each of these binding chords with supernatural power and effectiveness.

Christ bore our sins and guilt upon the cross (1 Pet. 2:24; Is. 53:6)! God gives sinners the gift of repentance (2 Tim. 5:22-26), and His Spirit empowers the sinner to declare “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3)! God makes dead sinners alive (Eph. 2:4-8); and He shines the light of the glory of Christ into the sinner’s heart (2 Cor. 4:6)!

With the Apostle Paul, we may proclaim with utter joy and heart-felt wonder:

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36).”

Oh God, May I Never!

The Valley of Vision is a collection of old prayers that exemplify intentionality, passion, and a Bible-focus in prayer. The language can seem foreign to modern readers since it resembles a loftier tongue of days gone by. And yet, the content of these prayers is of such high quality that modern Christians will no doubt benefit from such examples.

Here is how I prayed, in my own words, the prayer entitled “The ‘Nevers’ of the Gospel.”

O Lord, May I never fail to come to the knowledge of the truth.

May I never rest in a system of doctrine, even if I believe it is biblical and right, that does not bring me salvation, or extend my trust in You, or teach me to deny sin and worldly lusts, or help me to live a self-controlled life of goodness and godliness.

May I never rely on my own convictions and resolutions, but make me confident in You and in Your might.

May I never cease to find Your grace sufficient for me in all my trials, conflicts, and obligations.

May I never forget to correct my foolish thinking about You when spiritual distresses and outward troubles would try to change my proper perspective.

May I never fail to seek refuge in Christ, who is full of grace and truth, the friend who loves at all times, the God-man who knows what my mortal infirmities feel like, and the Savior who can do exceedingly more for me than I may think or know.

May I never confine my Christianity to only those extraordinary occasions, but make me to acknowledge You in all my ways – especially in the ordinary times of life.

May I never limit my devotion to You by only trusting and obeying when times are good, but make me to value and revere you all of my days.

May I never be godly only on Sundays or only in a church building, but make me a godly disciple on every day, at my job and in my home.

May I never make godliness only an outward facade or merely a habit, but make me to love righteousness and to pursue You as a way of life.

Oh Lord, please do good to me as I seek to know and love You through reading Your Word, communing with You in prayer, and singing Your praises.

Finally, my Redeemer and King, let me at last enter into that city You have prepared for all those who love and trust You – that heavenly home where Your glory is supreme and the Lamb reigns forevermore.

Exciting Christianity

Today, rekindle the flame of excitement that burns in your heart because of your inclusion in the family of God.

The walk today began as it normally would…  I was adjusting my ear-buds and setting the volume for my podcast, fidgeting with the GPS and stopwatch app on my iPhone, and pulling my prancing German shepherd close to my side in order to avoid the passing cars.  A few minutes into the walk, however, I knew that it would be different than before.

For months, my dog and I have traversed the all-but-empty neighborhood streets, and we have even walked through the vacant parking lot of a nearby elementary school.  However, this morning the streets were teaming with cars, the school parking lot was bustling with teachers and administrators directing children and traffic, and there were at least 5 families taking advantage of photo opportunities in their front yard.

The first day of the new school year is a big day for many people.  Educators, parents, and students alike anticipate the day with feelings of excitement and trepidation.  Why?  At least one reason is that this day is a marker, a threshold in one’s development.  Today marks the beginning of a new level of learning, another year of consistent investment in the lives of others, a fresh chance to be better and achieve more than the previous year.

Embarking on a new journey, or passing signposts along the way, evokes feelings of accomplishment and adventure.

It has been said, though, that excitement diminishes over time.  Just a month or two from now parents will not be pausing for photos of their children in the front yard.  Instead, they will be hurrying their children out the door with frazzled angst so that they will be no more than 15 minutes late to school.  The decline of excitement can be equally applicable in the lives of Christians.

Recall the excitement you experienced upon understanding the love of God that was demonstrated for you in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Do you remember what it felt like to know for the very first time that the Creator of the universe was deeply interested in the eternal destination of your soul?  What emotion, what conviction, what joy came over your heart and mind when you first understood the incredible sacrifice of Christ (His life, His suffering, His death, and His victory over the grave) as having been done on your behalf?

Then, as time went on, it is possible that your initial excitement grew colder.  Maybe you have even come to view the incredible grace of God as something that you now deserve.  “Sure, you once needed unreserved love from God in order to be accepted by Him… But now, you bring so many great things to the relationship, don’t you?”

Does the message of salvation only apply to us at a single point in our lives?  Is this exciting Gospel only meant to stimulate us for a moment?

“NO!” is the short answer to such questions.

You and I need the Gospel today just as much as any other day!  It is just as exhilarating today, as any other, that God would demonstrate such marvelous love towards sinners like us!  This message does not merely avoid becoming timeworn and dull; it is all the more wonderful to ears that have come to understand the meaning of the message more fully than they once did.

Oh, Christian… remind yourself of your sinful posture towards your Maker, remind yourself of God’s justice and the salvation found in Christ alone!  Renew your thoughts of humble gratitude for God’s grace and mercy pictured in your own redemption.  Today, rekindle the flame of excitement that burns in your heart because of your inclusion in the family of God.

This fiery joy is that which motivates us to lives of worship, love, service and commitment.

Do you notice a lack in your worshipful intensity?  Do you see a puddle of love where there should be an ocean?  Do you avoid serving others?  Do you quickly draw back from commitment to the eternal task?

Remember the God who saved, is saving now, and will save your soul!  Remember the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the message of His person, His word and His work!

Today, may my mind and yours be overwhelmed by the goodness and mercy of the God of grace.  May our hearts spill over with intense love for God and neighbor because of the love with which God first loved us.

After the Fall, Is Human Will Free or Fettered?

Introduction & Thesis Statement

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

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

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

Part One: Past and Present Answers

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

Human Freedom and Culpability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phillips adds to this kind of argument by saying,

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Command and Human Ability

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: A Biblical and Theological Answer

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

Biblical Argumentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theological Argumentation & Objections Answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1]Phillips, 27

[2]Flowers, “Beliefs”

[3]Menzies, 87-88

[4]Flowers, “Philosophical Ponderings”

[5]Edwards, 33

[6]Horton, 431

[7]Phillips, 27

[8]Grudem, 498

[9]Erasmus, 39

[10]Erasmus, 27

[11]Luther, 63-64

[12]Carson, 2401

[13]Sproul, 128-129

[14]Phillips, 28

T4G Reflections: David Platt – Martyrdom & Mission

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Together for the Gospel 2016. I have also enjoyed reflecting upon some of the messages I heard over those three days, and I have posted some brief articles on a number of them (see my “T4G Reflections” articles).

In a general session address, David Platt spoke about martyrdom and the lessons we can learn from some Protestant Reformation era martyrs about mission. Below is a recap and my own considerations concerning the speaker and the topic.

As I mentioned in another “T4G Reflections” post, I do enjoy the ministry and focus of David Platt. His intense approach suites him well to address the topic of Martyrdom and Mission. While Platt has not experienced martyrdom (I thank God that he is still alive as I write these words), it seems that his Christ-exalting commitment and intensity is just the right recipe for him to exhibit the kind of faithfulness that remains – even unto death. I pray that he is able to avoid such an end, but more conscientiously I pray that Platt will remain faithful.

In a way that only David Platt can, he asked two questions, one for Protestant Reformation martyrs and another for us today.

First, “Why were they willing to die?”

Men like John Rogers and Rolland Taylor went to their death reciting the 51st Psalm. While there might be many other ways to assess their motivated resolve to maintain their commitment to Reformation beliefs, such a specific and recurring recitation is and was fascinating. Platt suggested that this similar performance for many of the martyrs is indicative of their frame of mind, both prior to and during their own executions. From this passage, Platt surmised that these men and women believed at least three things that motivated their willingness to die for what they believed.

One, they believed their depravity deserved damnation. This, at first, seemed an odd place to begin. However, it quickly became apparent that this was exactly the right place to begin. For such a beginning would afford these martyrs the proper perspective as they faced such dreadful opposition. One is very often disappointed and frustrated by adverse circumstances, but these men and women were able to face them with steeled conviction and transcendent contentment because they knew that anything less than eternal hell was gracious on the part of God.

Two, they believed their salvation was found solely in God’s mercy, and separate from their merit. This may also be a less than immediately recognizable motivation for death-defying resolve, but here we may see the humble unwillingness for these martyrs to take any glory for themselves. Not only would they refuse to raise their own merits to God as justification for themselves, but they even refused to acknowledge any contribution among others who may demand such an admission. God alone is worthy of glory, and Christ alone saves guilty sinners apart from any effort or work they have done.

Three, they believed that love like this was worth losing their lives to proclaim. Platt was adamant to remind us that a silent message is no message at all. These martyrs could have avoided their untimely demise by simply believing truth and keeping quiet about it. None of them died for simply believing that salvation is exclusively through Christ and apart from any merit of their own. They died because they proclaimed this Gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. This lesson is certainly a potent one for us today.

Second, Platt asked, “How shall we live?”

Again, he listed three principles we might implement, based on the convictions of those who have gone before us. One, Platt argued for prioritizing theological precision among God’s people. He pointed out that several of those Reformers who were martyred went to their death over a disagreement with the doctrine of transubstantiation (the teaching that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, though there is no observable change to the elements). Such theological precision is hardly common among many church leaders today, and rare indeed among the laity. While secondary and tertiary doctrines may be handled with grace, charity, and some liberty; no doctrine of Scripture is unimportant.

Two, Platt argued for the mobilization of God’s people for sacrificial mission among all people groups. Because faith alone in Christ alone is the exclusive Gospel that saves, then it is imperative that Christians proclaim that good news to all peoples everywhere. Platt (in his characteristic exasperation) lamented, “When will ‘unengaged people groups’ be an intolerable category for us?” To this I say, Oh, God help us! God forgive us for tolerating such a thing, and God help us to remedy this unbearable reality.

Three, Platt challenged us all to live, lead, and long for the day when “reformation” will be “consummation.” The Church must continually reform, regularly going back to the Scriptures for recalibration, but one day it will not be so. Church leaders, and Christians everywhere, may and should live in such a way that this posture is made visible. We are truly looking for a better country, with those listed in Hebrews 11. Pastors ought to be those who lead on this front by exemplary lives in pursuit of Christ and the spread of His Kingdom – through the Gospel. Finally, all Christians can demonstrate a longing for that day when our faith shall be sight. To this I say, Come quickly Lord Jesus!