Is the NIV Bible good or bad?

My first Bible was the NIV

I began my Christian journey at 19 years old, and I was reading through “The Student Bible” New International Version (published in 1996 by Zondervan). It was given to me at some point during my teen years, but I never had any time for the Bible until I was miraculously converted in my college dorm room. One afternoon I noticed that I was just sitting on my bunk bed reading the Bible, and this had been a regular occurrence for several days. This was totally unusual for me, and so I began to notice other changes in my affections too. God saved me from my sin, from myself, and from His wrath.

I continued to read this “Student Bible” for some time, but someone gave me a burgundy, leather-bound New American Standard Bible (NASB) with my name engraved on the cover when I was in my early twenties, and my old paperback “Student Bible” was shelved. At the time, I did not know much about the various Bible translations, but I felt I had crossed a maturity threshold when my Bible was covered with leather and no longer had the word “Student” splashed across its face. Over the years, I have come to understand much more about translations and the intent behind each one. It has been more difficult to keep up with all of the more recent translations, but I try to keep my awareness at a reasonable level. As a pastor, church members will occasionally ask me a question about Bible translations, and I like to give them a quality answer as often as I can.

As I became more aware of the intentionality that drives each Bible translation, not to mention the various texts consulted by interpreters, I actually continued to like the New International Version (1984 NIV). Some translations seek to be more of a word-for-word translation, others seek to be a thought-for-thought translation of the original language, but the NIV aimed for a middle ground between the two. Some translation committees (the groups of scholars investing time and effort into translation) hold a higher view of Scripture than others, and this too has a dramatic effect upon their translation. The NIV (published in 1973 and revised in 1978 and 1984) sought to be “a contemporary English translation of the Bible.”[1] In this translation, the committee also remained conservative in their scholarship and maintained a high view of Scripture.

I believe that the 1984 NIV is a good translation of God’s Word. It is not my favorite for personal study, nor is it my first choice when reading Scripture publically, but I still like it. I have even recommended it to some readers at times. This is why the developments of the NIV over the last decade have been so disappointing.

New International Controversy

In 2005 there was a controversial translation published by Zondervan called “Today’s New International Version.” Among the scholars listed on the Committee on Bible Translation for this project were some noteworthy individuals (Gordon Fee and Douglas J. Moo). This particular translation was in line with the general philosophy of the NIV translation from the beginning, but it also made significant changes to gender-specific language, which earned this translation the moniker “the Gender-Neutral Bible.” While those who investigate the TNIV may view the debate from varying perspectives, it is clear that gender-inclusive language was intentionally an aim of the translators.

A Washington Post article depicts the controversy over translations with a reference to one of the less significant passages. Pointing to Mark 4:25, the article cites the 1984 version of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible where Jesus is quoted saying, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” The article goes on to say, “Today’s New International Version [2005 TNIV], changed that to: ‘Those who have will be given more; as for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’”[2] There seems to be little here for major concern. No violence appears to have been done to the meaning or intent of the text. But this is an example from a passage that blurs the translation’s design to pull away from the purposeful language of the biblical text.

The 1984 NIV translates Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The 2005 TNIV translates the same passage “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This too may seem less than offensive in the eyes of many, but there is great significance to the words God intended divinely-inspired authors to write. It is no small matter that both maleness and femaleness are distinctions under the original creation of “man.” There is much more to delve into here than a brief article will allow, but gender-neutral language leaves much theological import on the table.

In spite of the controversy (maybe precisely because of this gender-neutral language), the TNIV has sold well from the shelves of Christian bookstores. One might understand that widespread trust and acceptance is one of the major rubs of the controversy to begin with. Many people like and trust the NIV Bible, so it is not a surprise that many would also embrace the newer translation in the same vein. Those who advocate against the gender-inclusiveness of the TNIV seem to sound their alarms in the direction of deaf ears.

Even though the TNIV did sell fairly well, the Committee on Bible Translation sought to reattempt a better launch of an updated NIV. It may be difficult to show that the committee was motivated by the stinging reception that the TNIV got when it was published, but it would seem that the experience likely provided at least some provocation for the 2011 NIV translation. This latest translation has done away with 25% of the gender-inclusive language adjustments from the 2005 TNIV, but that means that 75% of those adjustments remain.

We are not free to do as we please

The serious question that one must consider is not, “Is there room to allow for more gender-inclusive language in the biblical text?” Instead, one should ask, “Should anyone feel at liberty to adjust the biblical text where it may better fit the cultural norms of the day?” No doubt, many will argue that the gender-neutrality of many passages is no significant adjustment. However, it may also be argued that it is precisely in the gender-specific language of the biblical text that we are able to see the only rationality that will undergird value and distinction for both males and females. There is much at stake here for the observant Christian, and there is good reason to avoid gender-neutrality. God has created “man” in His image, and He has created “man” male as well as female (Gen. 1:27). This truth is more profound than most understand, and it is exactly what our gender-confused culture needs to know.

Like the TNIV, the 2011 NIV has also sold very well in Christian bookstores. Most Christians do not seem to have much difficulty accepting this translation as one of quality, and many celebrate the gender-neutrality of the 2011 NIV. After releasing the 2011 NIV, the Zondervan Publishing House discontinued both the 1984 NIV and the 2005 TNIV. The New International Version of the Bible is now exclusively the 2011 NIV. Even my favorite online Bible study tool (biblehub.com) displays the 2011 NIV as simply “NIV.” For these reasons, I no longer use the NIV Bible.

I still like the 1984 NIV, and I would still encourage anyone who enjoys this translation to keep reading it. It saddens me to be forced into including the 1984 NIV with the 2011 NIV, but because of the confusion between the two (both are called NIV) this is what I must do.

Therefore, I cannot endorse the 2011 NIV, and thus I cannot endorse the NIV anymore.

 

The Southern Baptist Convention Statement on the NIV

It may also be helpful to note that the Southern Baptist Convention (that is the collective of Southern Baptist pastors and church representatives from all over the nation) has publically and adamantly denied an endorsement of both TNIV and 2011 NIV (See the SBC Resolutions below). I am not one to follow a crowd just for the sake of avoiding what usually accompanies a solitary stand, but I appreciate the significant effort regarding biblical fidelity of the SBC.

Over the years, the SBC has ebbed and flowed, as have the Southern Baptists who comprise the group. But, the SBC has earned Southern Baptists the identity of being a “people of the Book” for good reason. Southern Baptists are a people who are constantly going back to the Book (the Bible) to reaffirm adherence to it, and to submit to God’s Word rather than to cultural expectations. God’s holy Word is too important to capitulate to the socially acceptable language of the day. It is my strong conviction that the Bible should be readable and accessible to all people everywhere, but this does not mean that it should be made more palatable or inoffensive to all people everywhere.

 

SBC Resolutions

WHEREAS, Many Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople have trusted and used the 1984 New International Version (NIV) translation to the great benefit of the Kingdom; and

WHEREAS, Biblica and Zondervan Publishing House are publishing an updated version of the New International Version (NIV) which incorporates gender-neutral methods of translation; and

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists repeatedly have affirmed our commitment to the full inspiration and authority of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-16) and, in 1997, urged every Bible publisher and translation group to resist “gender-neutral” translation of Scripture; and

WHEREAS, This translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language; and

WHEREAS, Although it is possible for Bible scholars to disagree about translation methods or which English words best translate the original languages, the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards; and

WHEREAS, Seventy-five percent of the inaccurate gender language found in the TNIV is retained in the 2011 NIV; and

WHEREAS, The Southern Baptist Convention has passed a similar resolution concerning the TNIV in 2002; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 14-15, 2011 express profound disappointment with Biblica and Zondervan Publishing House for this inaccurate translation of God’s inspired Scripture; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we encourage pastors to make their congregations aware of the translation errors found in the 2011 NIV; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we respectfully request that LifeWay not make this inaccurate translation available for sale in their bookstores; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we cannot commend the 2011 NIV to Southern Baptists or the larger Christian community.[3]


[1] http://www.bible-researcher.com/niv.html

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/17/AR2011031703434.html

[3] http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1218

Do you have right relationship with God?

How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?

This question is of supreme importance, though it is not likely on the front of most people’s mind at the moment. There are numerous assumptions in such a question. Here are just some of them: (1) There is a God; (2) God is holy or morally pure; (3) humans are sinful or morally corrupt; (4) God is just; and (5) God is gracious. While many may not regularly consider this question, all people presume at least some of these assumptions. In fact, the Bible argues that all people everywhere are accountable to God precisely because all conscious people know the first four assumptions to be true (Romans 1:18-2:11).

Arguing for the statements here is not within to scope of this brief article, but if the first four assumptions are true, then the question above becomes exceedingly important. If God is pure and just, and humans are morally corrupt, then God must deliver proper justice for all immoral thoughts, words, and deeds. While this reality is unsettling, not everyone sees fit to answer the question the same.

Naturalistic & Humanistic Approach

Some argue for a Naturalistic perspective of the world, and these may deny one or more of the assumptions. “There is no God,” they might say. One Naturalist explained his perspective on the matter of ultimate reality by claiming that the purpose of life is to “stay alive.” If there is no transcendent reality, then I am inclined to agree with such sentiments. However, I find it not the least bit encouraging that all my best efforts to “stay alive” will be frustrated in the end. The life-to-death ratio remains 1-to-1; every living person dies at some point.

There are others who argue from a Humanistic view, and these may also deny at least one of the assumptions. They might claim, “Humans are inherently good, and self-actualization is the highest goal.” Each day is another opportunity to achieve a higher state of self-existence, and all humanity must do is choose the path of greater fulfillment and pleasure. This perspective, however, is simply in denial. Human history is a chronicle of corruption, scandal, and evil. There are bright lights in history to be sure, but by and large the map is covered with the blood and tears of men. One would be hard-pressed to argue for the inherent goodness of humanity in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A Justified Approach

Since these two worldviews do not seem to be adequate responses to the original question (How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?), let us now turn to a religious response. Most religious institutions would acknowledge at least a few of the assumptions listed above, but often we find either a denial of God’s justice or the addition of human goodness. It might be helpful to boil things down a bit and arrange religious jargon under a couple of simple headings.

In the end, there really are only two religious answers to the original question.

One, Justification by Works. Many religious people and/or institutions (church, synagogue, mosque, hall, philosophy, guru, etc.) may answer the question with a prescription. “You must do…” While the latter portion of this statement could go in multiple directions, from actions to thoughts and from places to postures, the beginning is always the same. If you want to enjoy right relationship with God (or others, or the universe, or simply with yourself), then you must do, say, and/or think according to a certain prescription. So, this type of thinking we might call “Justification by Works.”

The phrase “Justification by Works” helps us think in terms of what actually brings one into right relationship with God. How is a person “justified” or made worthy to enjoy the right relationship we are after? No matter how you phrase it, if your answer to the question includes something that must be accomplished in order to bring about the desired end, then it is “Justification by Works.” The biggest problem with Justification by Works is that it assumes a great deal more than is reasonable. It assumes that some kind of work (religious or otherwise) can somehow erase disobedience towards God. However, we do not think in such ways even in our own understanding of justice. Think about it: No criminal could think of getting away with murder simply because he promised to go to church; no thief would be relieved from penalty because she started acting with greater kindness; and no adulterer covers over his transgression by doing the dishes one night.

Even though we would not allow such thinking in our worldly experiences with justice, we often presume upon God’s justice in unthinkable ways. We might imagine that God will not punish our millions of sinful actions because we have attended church 10 times over the last 4 years. We might think that God will simply overlook our constant rebellion towards His commands because we got baptized during a church service. We may even think that God will not remember that we have utterly neglected to consider His standards for living just because we prayed several childish prayers at various times in our lives. This is foolish thinking, and we know it.

Justification by Works, then, seems to fall flat on its face when we really think about what we are believing. Therefore, it appears best to consider another option.

Two, Justification by Faith. Rather than a prescription (a list of things to do), the Bible reports a description of what has already been accomplished by another. Jesus (God the Son in human form) was born without moral corruption; He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s commands; and He was counted by God as the guilty sinner in His death. In other words, Jesus Christ was counted as though He was the one who was actually guilty of the disobedience of all those for whom He died. Then Jesus conquered death itself and demonstrated His power to justify sinners and bring them life.

In mortal life, Jesus lived perfectly obedient towards God. In death, Jesus took upon Himself the due penalty and fully exhausted God’s justice towards sinners. In resurrection, Jesus testified to His own power to bring Justification to all who trust in Him. Rather than Justification by Works, the Bible presents a Justification by Faith or Trust. The biblical option is best summarized (in my opinion) by question and answer number 60 of theHeidelberg Catechism.[1] Fortunately, the question in the catechism is nearly identical to the question we have posed here at the outset.

The question is asked,

“How are you brought into right relationship with God?”
And it is answered,
“Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; Even though my conscience accuses me, even though I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and I kept none of them. Even though I and am still inclined to all evil, God, only of sheer grace and without any addition of my works, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ!
God looks upon me as if I never had sin in me at all, nor committed any sin whatsoever!
Furthermore, God looks upon me as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me! All that I contribute towards my new standing before God is that I embrace such a marvelous benefit with a believing heart.”
May we embrace the benefit of right relationship with God by believing in the work of another. May we come to enjoy marvelous communion with our heavenly Father as we learn to trust all the more in the justifying person and work of Christ.

[1] See the full Heidelberg Catechism here: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/heidelberg-cat.html

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)

If Evil is, then God is not?

When the atheist raises a fist against the Creator of the universe, he does so with contempt against God because of the tremendous pain and suffering that humanity experiences while living under the sun.

The Christian Faith has had many antagonists over the centuries, but it seems that the boldest and noisiest adversaries of Christianity in recent decades have been those from an atheistic position. From this vantage point (though atheism is certainly no belvedere), some have postulated the finding of Christianity’s death knell. Feinberg describes the theistic conundrum by citing the philosopher David Hume.

“The problem of evil as traditionally understood in philosophical discussion and debate is stated succinctly in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he [God] able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he [God] both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[1]

Long before Hume, Epicurus (a third and fourth century BC Greek philosopher) articulated much the same analytical dilemma against theism. While this form of argumentation has been around for a very long time, it seems to have gained some traction in contemporary minds. Whether or not this is truly a problem for theists is the subject of this essay, but it is important to note at the outset that such a problem is really shorthand for multiple problems concerning at least three basic assumptions in the syllogisms represented above. Feinberg lists these suppositions as “(a) God is omnipotent (in some sense of “omnipotent”), (b) God is good in that he wills that there be no evil, in some sense of “evil,” and (c) evil, in the sense alluded to in (b), exists.”[2]

The problems of evil, then, are the difficulties one might face in defending a theistic position that holds to one or more of these suppositions. Each supposition may be dealt with individually, but the theist must construct a consistent view of the character and nature of God while acknowledging that “evil” is experienced in this world.

The problem of evil is important to address for several reasons, but it may be most interesting to humanity because of the universality of suffering and pain. It is quite reasonable to perceive that when a person rails against the being of God because of the experience of evil, they likely mean to use evil as a synonym for human suffering and pain.

It is hardly conceivable that an atheist would intend to argue that God does not exist because of the ills humanity has inflicted upon the mountainous Alps as they utilize climbing equipment to bash and injure the spectacular terrestrial protrusions or because of the painful astrophysical results of human interference with the lunar landscape. Even less we might expect an atheist to speak of the human offense to God’s character or His holiness when they continually rebel against His kind and good directives. No, when the atheist raises a fist against the Creator of the universe, he does so with contempt against God because of the tremendous pain and suffering that humanity experiences while living under the sun.

The atheist perceives these experiences to be unjust, unacceptable, and incongruent with the existence of any good and powerful God.

Atheists notwithstanding, many people struggle to understand their own experiences with incredible pain and suffering. The problem of evil is important to address for the sake of all those searching for some kind of prism through which to view their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering so that they might make sense of it. Many have sought to excuse God from the pain and suffering of humanity, some have tried to justify pain and suffering as a means to some greater end, and still others have decided that the best answer to the problem is that God simply must needs create a world in which evil runs rampant to some degree or another.


The “Free Will” advocate claims that the best way to defend the existence of a good and powerful God in spite of evil is to lay the blame for such evil upon the shoulders of free volitional creatures who have brought about the disparaging pain and suffering we now endure. This sounds enticing to many theists, and at first glance may provide the uncritical mind some sense of refuge from the atheistic assault.

However, it is conceivable that God could have created free volitional creatures without the possibility of sin, disobedience or evil. Indeed, this is the hope of all biblical Christians – namely that sinners saved by God’s grace will live in perfect freedom for all eternity without ever experiencing another moment of pain, suffering, sin or evil. Thus, the Free Will advocate falls short of adequately answering the challenge.

The consequentialist asserts that the temporal evils of pain and suffering are regrettable, but they are also part of the building blocks of a future and greater good. This sort of reasoning may dance dangerously close to the line, which distinguishes good from evil, calling those things that are evil the very things that are necessary to bring about final or ultimate good. This defense too may have an initial appeal, but it falls apart when pressed further and when contrasted with the biblical position.

What kind of good God must use evil to bring about good? Can evil ever be called good without serious injury to the term good? It seems quite unappealing to think of a good God who is confined to merely manipulating evil ingredients to bring about His good purposes.

The rationalist position is that of reason and God’s acting out of rationalistic compulsion. This seems the most arrogant position of all, positing that God must act according to sufficient reason (that is according to some humanly accessible rationale). According to this view, “human reason, apart from divine revelation, should be able to discover that reason and ascertain what God would choose.”[3] Under this rubric of thinking, God has created a world with the presence of pain and suffering because such a world is the best possible world that God might have created.

However, this position fails to measure up to the biblical standard as well. First, God’s volition and intelligence are both infinitely greater than the human capacity; and this is so even before the gnoetic effects of the fall of sinful humanity. Second, and yet again, the biblical Christian awaits exactly such a world as this position claims impossible. The hope of eternal glory is that God will reconcile fallen humanity to Himself in such a way that sinners will ultimately be glorified and free from evil, sin, pain and suffering.


There seems to be many insufficient answers to the problem of evil, and so too there may also be several productive ways to address it.

First, before any theist feels the burden of defending theism against an atheistic accusation concerning evil and the existence of God, he may ask the atheist, “What is evil?” The atheist must assume evil, which assumes good, which assumes God who calls things good, in order to accuse this same God he has just charged with non-existence.

Under the atheistic worldview, there is no such thing as moral good or moral evil. In fact, there is no reason to suppose the universe to be reasonable or coherent at all – especially in terms of morality. Therefore, the theist is not obligated to answer the atheist’s accusation.

Second, the question or problem of evil may be raised by someone who is not antagonistic to the theistic worldview, and in such an instance it seems good that a Christian would be prepared to answer with truth, and in a tone of compassion.

In my view, God has created a good world (Gen. 1:31), and human existence is better than non-existence. Additionally, God has intended to create un-glorified humans (at least initially) rather than glorified ones, and this is the reason (though not necessarily the purpose) for the possibility of pain and suffering (Gen. 2:17).

Un-glorified humans possess volitional freedom to the extent that they are capable of choosing rebellion or submission towards God. Having chosen the former in no way releases humanity from God’s sovereignty, though it does place humanity under the curse of God’s wrath (Gen. 3:24); and God’s sovereign rule over all that comes to pass in no way releases humanity from culpability for such rebellion. Blameworthy for all manner of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, humanity has fallen under the curse of God’s wrath and lives in a world full of pain and suffering (Eph. 2:1-3).

This pain and suffering that is now endured is not good, and it is never to be called good (Isaiah 5:20).

However, God has not left un-glorified humans without hope in the face of such evil; rather, God Himself has invaded human history in the person and work of Jesus Christ in order to suffer the greatest pain – the unbridled wrath of God – on behalf of fallen, un-glorified humanity.

This same God-man (Jesus Christ) has also conquered death and brought about final and ultimate victory over evil, pain, and suffering. The God of Christianity is a God of justice, righteousness, mercy, and grace. He has scandalously suffered as a human, and this provides not only hope for suffering sinners, but also a gracious and empathetic Savior.

Ultimately, my position is one of trust in the God who has revealed Himself through special revelation, recorded on the pages of Holy Scripture. I do not intend this as a cop out, rather a humble submission to what God has revealed about Himself and about humanity. God is both absolutely sovereign and perfectly good, and un-glorified humanity is radically sinful.

Within this tension lies another stark truth: good is always good and evil is always evil.

God does not build out good ends through the use of evil means. Instead, He providentially orchestrates all of creation for His glory and for the greatest joy of all those whom He loves. God’s good and sovereign providence and man’s sinful activity, which results in prolific pain and suffering, is a tension in the Scriptures that must not be lost. Carson addresses the matter by saying,

“[W]e will avoid implicitly denying one truth when we affirm another; we will grow in stability; above all, we will better know the God who has in his grace disclosed himself to rebels like us, taken up our guilt, participated in human suffering, and sovereignly ensured that we will not be tempted above what we are able to bear. In knowing him better we will learn to trust him; and in trusting him we will find rest.”[4]

In summary, the atheistic accusation, “If evil, then no God!” simply cannot fly; it does not even leave the ground. If there is no God, then the possibility of any moral good or moral evil is nil. Yet, there are those who find themselves suffering tremendously who seek some comfort in their time of pain. For them, the Bible offers a God who rules sovereignly, graciously, and lovingly.

Only the Bible provides the opportunity for sinful, suffering humans to learn of a merciful, suffering King; and it is this King who promises the hope of glory – the final and eternal freedom from evil, pain, and suffering – through His finished work of redemption.

 

Bibliography

Carson, D. A. How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990.

Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.

[1] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 179-182

[2] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 222-224

[3] Feinberg, Kindle Locations 736-737

[4] Carson, 214

Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

The “Jesus” of Mormonism

What do Mormons believe about Jesus Christ?

As is true of Christian churches, those parishioners of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may not be aware of or able to articulate every foundational belief of the institution. Like many naïve Christian church attendees, some Mormon temple members might be unable to state (and fewer are likely able to explain) the doctrinal stance of the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) Church pertaining to the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, a church’s statement of belief concerning Christ (biblically orthodox or not) is essential to understanding what the church believes about almost everything else.

So foundational is the biblical description of Jesus Christ that maintaining an inaccurate or lacking view of His person and work in the face of truth is destructive to the soul. In other words, belief or trust in the true Jesus of the bible ensures the salvation of one’s soul, but a belief or trust in someone with different or missing attributes accompanied by the same name leaves one condemned. Of particular importance is the acknowledgment of Christ’s full divinity and actual humanity. This unique and biblical description of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian belief and the message of the Gospel itself. God’s plan to redeem sinful humanity is only accomplished through the person and work of this singularly capable God-man – Jesus Christ.

Mormonism maintains a view of Christ that is extremely dangerous to those who are not deeply planted in the soil of biblical truth. One could read the statements about Christ on the official Mormon or LDS websites without noticing much in the way of distinguishing marks from Christianity. However, Mormons may use the same terms as Christians when they speak of Christ, but they have attempted to redefine His person and work – the terms have new definitions.

Brigham Young, a major Mormon Prophet who directly followed Joseph Smith, said, “He [Jesus] was the Son of our Heavenly Father, as we are the sons of our earthly fathers. […]Jesus is our elder brother spirit clothed upon with an earthly body begotten by the Father of our spirits.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 2, September 28, 1862 [emphasis mine]).

An Apostle of Mormonism stated, “We are brethren and sisters of Satan as well as of Jesus. It may be startling doctrine to many to say this; but Satan is our brother. Jesus is our brother. We are the children of God. God begot us in the spirit in the eternal worlds.” (Apostle George Q. Cannon, March 11th, 1894, Collected Discourses, compiled by Brian Stuy, vol. 4, p. 23 [emphasis mine]).

Not only do Mormons believe that Jesus was the literal offspring of Mary and a physical Heavenly Father, but it also claims that Jesus had many wives himself. “The grand reason of the burst of public sentiment in anathemas upon Christ and his disciples, causing his crucifixion, was evidently based on polygamy, […] a belief in the doctrine of a plurality of wives caused the persecution of Jesus and his followers. We might almost think they were ‘Mormons.'” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:345-346 [emphasis mine]).

In conclusion, there could be many other citations and a more detailed description of the Mormon Jesus as he contrasts the biblical Jesus Christ. The words of authoritative Mormon Apostles and Prophets state it clearly as they proclaim, “It is true that many of the Christian churches worship a different Jesus Christ than is worshipped by the Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (LDS Quorum of the Seventy member Bernard P. Brockbank, The Ensign, May 1977, p. 26 [emphasis mine]) In fact, Brigham Young makes it unambiguous when he says, “Brigham Young said that the “Christian God is the Mormon’s Devil…” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 5, page 331).

The Jesus of Christianity and of the bible is not the Jesus of Mormonism and, therefore, not the Jesus who saves.

The purpose of stating such a thing in dramatic contrast is not to personally ‘cast stones’ at those who willingly take upon themselves the label of “Mormon” or “LDS.”  Rather, my purpose is to present the real and present divergence of these two religious systems.  Christianity – the bible itself – offers salvation, the forgiveness of sins, through the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.  This gift is to be received by faith, apart from any work, effort or will of man.  Mormonism offers a version of salvation through one’s diligent effort and overwhelming obedience.  This system is like many others with respect to its “path towards salvation.”  According to the bible, the path is really no path at all – the path is a man, and only He can save sinners from God’s imminent wrath (John 14:6).

Luther & the “Five Solas” of the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reference List

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Lawson, Pillars, 396

[2] Nichols, 24-25

[3] Nichols, 33

[4] Gonzalez, 25

[5] How Luther went viral.

[6] Lawson, Heroic, 76-77

[7] Luther, 41

Nicaea: the Characters, the Benefits, and the Oddity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reference List

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

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

[1] Noll, 41-42

[2] Noll, 40

[3] Noll, 44

[4] Noll, 45

[5] Noll, 41

[6] Hardy, 16

[7] Noll, 47

[8] Hardy, 18

[9] Noll, 50

[10] Noll, 55

[11] Noll, 55

Strength to Strength in times of Suffering

In his devotional “Mornings and Evenings,” Charles Spurgeon wrote his own commentary on the passing of Christians from security and strength to further stability and power. This progression is contrary to much of our natural experience, and Spurgeon acknowledges the same. A runner, for instance, begins with full energy and ends with none; and the wrestler finishes his long match with much less vigor than he had at the start. But Christians are anchored and empowered by someone who is unnatural, and their advancement from strength to strength is observable as well as biblical.

The Bible speaks of a God who is not merely a passive all-observing eye. No, the biblical God is the creator and sustainer of every aspect of His creation; He is the ever-active, sovereign king of the universe (Acts 17:24-25).

This brings great comfort to the humble Christian. Spurgeon says, “Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace.”[1] This means that there is no amount of suffering, no tumultuous season of life, no seemingly unrewarded effort expended that is completely in vain. The Bible never calls evil by the name of good, but all things are by God’s design and for the ultimate good of His children (Rom. 8:28; Lam. 3:37-38).

Much more could be said on this biblical assertion of God’s sovereign work to bring about the sanctification of His children, but Christians may be observed as having lived out this surprising experience as well. While not all churchgoers exhibit this same development, the mark of mature Christianity is finding secure refuge in Christ.

Consider the believer who receives a terrible diagnosis from the doctor. She may recoil and feel distress just as much as anyone, but her soul is eventually steadied and the Commander of the storm calms the gales of her mind.

Think also of the young Christian couple that rushes their newborn to the emergency room only to learn that their child’s mortal life has ended much too soon. Their pain and anguish is beyond words, but the light of life somehow invades their dark night of the soul.

Christ is their portion, and He is enough.

Once, Christians were commonly noticed as experiencing joy in the face of their own sorrow. In our day of commonplace denial and distraction, it is not so normal to see anyone bear the load of suffering well. Yet, when the Christian does it is a bittersweet site indeed.

What a peculiar beauty it is to see the Christian rejoice in the Lord while they are enduring significant pain. Others may even become irrationally envious of the agony of these exemplary saints when that agony is born steadily by the grace of God.

Spurgeon is also quoted as having said, I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.

The counter-intuitive destination of a Christian’s suffering is safe in the arms of Christ. Isn’t it a wonder that Christians will often find themselves crawling out of Christ’s bosom and onto the floor of life until they encounter some strange pain or confusing fear? Upon such an encounter, they cry out for the embrace of the Father’s care and find Him worthy of their full trust and reliance.

Only in this light may we perceive suffering as a gift.

Oh, that you and I would know the strength of God’s abiding Spirit – with or without the common suffering of life under the curse of sin. May the Lord bless us with His caring allotment of energy and affliction, for His glory and for our greatest joy.

“[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2]

“God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.”[3]

Should a believer wait to have a “burden” before witnessing?

When is the right time to witness to someone?  What does a Christian need to know before witnessing or evangelizing?  Must a Christian wait to witness to someone until he or she is burdened or compelled by some inward sensation?  This question may be phrased in numerous ways and yet ask basically the same thing.  I think asking and answering three larger questions will help us answer these and others more definitively, as well as guide our understanding of evangelism or witnessing in general.

What is evangelism or witnessing? 

Essentially evangelism and witnessing are two ways of labeling the same activity.  Evangelism comes from the word evangel, which is a transliteration of the Greek word euangelion, meaning good message.  The message called good is that singularly wonderful message of how God promised and performed all that was necessary to save sinners in the person and work of Christ.  Therefore, evangelism is the activity of proclaiming or telling of that great message.

Witnessing carries the same idea.  To witness to someone is essentially to attest to those propositional statements, which make up the good message or Gospel.  So, evangelism is the telling of the Gospel (the good message of salvation through Christ), and witnessing is testifying to the trustworthiness of that message.

There is a common ambiguity in our day concerning both the Gospel message itself and what it means to convey that message.  There are those who would attempt to expand or condense the Gospel in order to enhance or improve it, but any adjustment to the Gospel is a violent attack upon it (Galatians 1:6-9).  Many are not satisfied to only adjust the message; they even seek to thwart the communication of any real substance.  Some would claim that the Gospel message may (and in many cases should) be delivered in action rather than speech.

Well-intentioned preachers and Christians attribute a saying to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”  This phrase is not a direct quote because there is no actual record of St. Francis ever saying or writing these words.  Yet, even if there were such record, the statement would remain utterly nonsensical.  While bringing a meal to an individual in need of nourishment may be an illustration of what implications the Gospel message has, it is an extremely poor substitute for the Gospel message itself.  A sinner with an empty belly, after eating a marvelous meal, remains still an enemy of God and destined for eternal destruction.

Only the verbal (audible or otherwise) communication of propositional statements concerning God, sin, Christ and His eternally saving work will suffice as a means by which God brings dead sinners to life in Christ and saves their souls (Romans 10:13-14).

What role do Christians play in evangelism or witnessing? 

Wrapped up in the desire to tell people about the Gospel is usually the Christian’s aspiration to see at least someone believe that message.  So, one would do well to understand how much a witness or evangelist can contribute to the conversion of another before they set their contributive goals.  If the evangelist’s goal is to save sinners, then he or she has set a goal unattainable by anyone but Christ.

The Apostle Paul says to those to whom he had been a witness, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).  He says that he had been the recipient of a message and he had also passed that message along to them.  The message he speaks of is that message concerning Christ and His work that was ‘according to the Scriptures.’  The Apostle Peter refers to the “good news” that was preached and received or believed (1 Peter 1:12, 25), thus resulting in “the salvation of souls” (1 Peter 1:9).

There are a number of passages that would lend themselves to this discussion, but in these two passages we may understand at least a couple of things.  One, the Gospel or good news is a message of a particular content that is to be transmitted by someone (or more than one) through the use of words.  Two, the believing or receiving of the message is distinct from the message itself and this is the delineating line between those who experience the salvation of which the Gospel speaks.

It is not an overstatement then to say that the best and most an evangelist can do is transmit the good message or Gospel.  There are far reaching and profound implications in this simple phrase, not the least of which is the idea that the highest goal of the evangelist is to transmit the message accurately – without addition or subtraction.  This short address of another issue will not give enough space to map out all or even most of the implications in the statement above.  Yet, the fact remains that the role of the witness is to transmit or communicate the message.

Successful communication of the Gospel, then, is nothing more and certainly not less than accurate communication of the content of that preeminent message.  In other words, whether one believes the message upon hearing it has nothing whatever to do with the role of the evangelist.

What is the ultimate purpose of evangelism or witnessing? 

If the purpose of witnessing to someone is not to try to convert them (as we established above, this is not the role of the evangelist), then what is the purpose?  The short answer is to glorify God.  One cannot read through the first 14 verses of Ephesians chapter one without surmising that what God has done in the salvation of sinners is for His glory and according to His will or good pleasure.

There is no doubt that some will perceive this goal as too rigid, lifeless, or uncompassionate, but this is the highest goal that anyone might have.  In fact, this is the chief goal of everything in life.  The Christian is privileged to participate in God’s work of glorifying Himself in the salvation of sinners.

Thanks be to God that He has given Christians any part to play at all!

So, evangelism is telling people of the message of Jesus Christ’s redeeming work, and the witness’s role is simply to transmit that message accurately and regularly.  The ultimate purpose of witnessing is to bring glory to God in an accurate proclamation of what He has done in revealing Himself through the Gospel.

Because these are true, it seems easy to answer the questions listed at the beginning.

Should a believer wait to have a “burden” before witnessing?  NO! 

Why would one need to wait for anything like that at all?

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