Theological Triage: A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

Theological Triage is a phrase coined by Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The phrase joins two concepts: one, diagnosing a medical emergency, and the other, the field of theology. Theological Triage is the art of categorizing theological questions or topics in such a way so as to give priority to some doctrines over others.

In short, all doctrine is important because it is God’s truth articulated, but not all doctrine is equally important.

Some doctrines are essential to the Christian faith, some are essential to doing life together among a local church family, and some are not worth dividing over at all. Furthermore, some doctrines are worth dying for, but not all doctrines should kill or divide us.

I would like to offer 4 categories or “levels” for us to use in our Theological Triage, and my hope is that we will be able to discuss theology without either leaving our convictions or our friendships behind.

First-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians. Some First-Level doctrines are the Triunity of God (Is God one or three or both?), the true divinity and true humanity of Christ (How do we understand Christ as the unique God-man?), the substitutionary atonement of Christ upon the cross (How did Christ substitute Himself under God’s penalty for sinners?), and the exclusivity of Christ as Savior (Is there any way for someone to be saved apart from personal trust in Jesus Christ?). Many of these First-Level doctrines are contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicaean Creed.

These First-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like cooperative evangelistic efforts (Will we participate in an “evangelistic” event with this other group or church? Will we endorse/recommend a parachurch ministry? Will we be associated with a person, group, or activity?). These doctrines also include or exclude certain guest preachers (Will we welcome this or that guest preacher on a Sunday? Will this or that preacher be affirmed as an officiant of a wedding or funeral service in our church building?).

Again, these First-Level doctrines divide Christians from non-Christians… These are the doctrines for which Christians must be willing to die.

Second-Level Doctrines

These doctrines divide one local church from another. Some Second-Level doctrines include the authority of Scripture (Are the Scriptures the final court of arbitration when we have a difference of opinion?), believer’s baptism (What does baptism mean and who should be baptized?), church membership (What does membership mean and how is membership to be practiced?), and the Lord’s Supper (What does the Lord’s Supper mean and who should participate?).

These Second-Level doctrines build a fence for us around things like our local church pastors (Whose pastoral leadership will you follow?), our local church membership (What church will you join? And, who will you welcome into your church membership?), and our church planting partnerships (Will we offer our local church support for a denomination, or association, or particular church planting effort?).

Again, these Second-Level doctrines divide one local church from another… These are the doctrines over which Christians may join or leave a church.

Third-Level Doctrines

These doctrines vary among Christians (especially in their application) without necessarily dividing Christians or local churches. Some Third-Level doctrines include the details of our eschatology (When will Jesus return? What is the millennium? Who is the anti-Christ?), the intermediate state of the soul (What exactly is existence like between death and final resurrection?), and eternal rewards and punishments (Will there be any difference in the degree to which Christians are rewarded in glory and the lost are punished in judgment?).

These Third-Level doctrines do not have to build any fences or divide any Christian brotherhood, but they may provide areas of fruitful discussion and sanctifying application for Christians in fellowship together. If Christian brothers and sisters are willing and able to discuss these Third-Level doctrines in a loving and patient manner, then these discussions may produce spiritual growth and provide a marvelous occasion for exercising biblical exegesis, faithful living, and humble wisdom.

Again, these doctrines vary among Christians… and I (for one) welcome the kind of spiritual growth and sharpening that careful theological dialogue produces among Christian brothers and sisters. I also pray that Christians will become better able to benefit from dialogues over Third-Level doctrines and the applications thereof.

Fourth-Level Doctrines

These things have no clear imperative from Scripture; they are matters of Christian conscience. These matters are sometimes called “adiaphora,” which literally means “indifferent things” or spiritually neutral things. These Fourth-Level doctrines are the wise, biblically principled grounds from which we make decisions about where to go to school, what job we should take, what party we should attend, what coffee we should drink, or how long we should let our hair grow.

These Fourth-Level doctrines must not build fences, otherwise, we will be attempting to bind the consciences of fellow Christians on matters in which God has left freedom. In fact, dogmatic Fourth-Level doctrines are the very definition of legalism. We ought to give one another grace and charity where God gives us liberty.

I am convinced that we must learn the sensible art of theological triage.

A Call to Thoughtful Christianity

For the sake of our personal spiritual development and for the sake of our church families, we must learn to distinguish those things (those doctrines) that are essential from the non-essential. We must distinguish those vitally important doctrines from the essential ones and the lesser important ones.

For the sake of the gospel, Christians must be able to know the basis of their distinct relationships with other Christians generally, with fellow church members specifically, and with their non-Christian neighbors in the world around them.

Furthermore, we should remember that intellectual and spiritual growth is a process, and where we are now is not where we may always be. By God’s grace, we shall all grow in time.

Justification: Not Only for Theologians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Ibid: 103.

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

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

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

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

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

Has God Really Spoken?

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

One of the central topics of the conversation, especially during the last 150 years, is inspiration. What do we mean when we say that God inspired the Bible? How has God inspired the texts we understand to have been written by various authors over the course of about 1,500 years? There are many more questions that arise in this kind of conversation, but it is helpful to begin by asking, “Is the Bible the Word of God?”

Of course even this question will require some explanation, but here is a constructive starting point. Basil Manly has written a fantastic work on exactly this topic (The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration), and I found it to be extremely beneficial and compelling. Surprisingly, it was also food for my soul.

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

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

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

There may be greater or lesser doctrines, and there are definitely experiences accompanying the Christian life, but the Bible is essential and foundational, and it is highly interested in informing its reader that God has spoken. Because Christianity is so dependent upon the Bible, the nature of this particular book is of greatest importance.

If the Bible is simply one good book among many, then it may still be of significant value. While it may come as a surprise to some, there could still be a Gospel for sinners – we may still know of the person and work of Jesus Christ – even if God did not inspire the Bible. However, there are some serious problems that would arise if one were to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of God or inspired by God. Explaining the deficiencies of an uninspired Bible, Manly says, “It would furnish no infallible standard of truth.” Truth may still be known with an uninspired Bible, but we would have no objective standard or rule as our guide.
He goes on to say, “it would present no authoritative rule for obedience, and no ground for confident and everlasting hope.” One may still have hope, and one may still find the ‘tips’ or ‘principles’ in the Bible helpful, but there would be a lesser confidence in any promises it contained and it would have no solemn authority that any sinner should obey. Lastly, he says, “it would offer no suitable means for testing and cultivating the docile spirit, for drawing man’s soul trustfully and lovingly upward to its Heavenly Father.”[2] Manly touches on the nature of Scripture well here when he conveys the reality that it is precisely because the Bible is the word of God that it cultivates submission in the heart of a sinner and draws him near with love and trust.

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

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

As with other doctrines, such as providence and the hypostatic union of Christ, there is a paradox here that requires adherents to maintain a tension without a contradiction. Manly argues for a view of inspiration that neither obliterates the human participants nor lessens the divine authority. God is the decisive source and author of the Scriptures, and intentional contributors wrote the Scriptures according to their own education, experiences, and understanding. Indeed, both of these truths are simultaneously affirmed from the Scriptures themselves. This is neither a contradiction, for it is in distinct senses that God is author and men are authors, nor is this a denial of any essential participant, for these are the words of men and the words of God. One is not required to leave his rationality behind when he affirms this doctrine, but he is required to believe something that is ultimately a mystery to him.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration has been the assertion of Christians for millennia, though not necessarily under this title, but a recent question has caused the conversation to take a speculative turn. After hearing this doctrine articulated and defended, one may still ask the question, “But how has God done this?” This question gets to the heart of many liberal and speculative arguments against Verbal Plenary Inspiration, and it may be the source of intellectual frustration for some sincere Christians. But Manly reminds us well of what we must know and remember when he says, “If we undertake to go beyond, and to explain how this was accomplished, we leave what has been made known to us for the barren and uncertain fields of conjecture.”[4] God does not tell us how He inspired the biblical writers; He simply told us that He did.

Manly’s text masterfully and passionately defends the doctrine of inspiration. God has spoken, and He has made Himself known through human agency. The Christian need only believe what God has said, just as he should believe that God has said it. This is the only way that a sinner may enjoy a right relationship with God. Humans have had difficulty trusting God at His word since the question was first asked, “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1).
May God help us to answer with confidence, “Yes… As a matter of fact, He did.”

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

[2] Ibid. (Kindle Location 27)

[3] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 124-126)

[4] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 138-139)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Galatia Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Galatia Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dating the Epistle to the Galatians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Tucker, Galatians and Ephesians.

[8] Luther, Galatians 1:2b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to be ‘Lost’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Grudem.  439-440.

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Genesis 5:1-2

[5] Grudem.  443-444.

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

[7] Hodge.  192.

[8] Hodge.  192

[9] Romans 3:12

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

[11] Augustine.  2.

[12] John 3:1-8

[13] Thayer.  Strong’s number 313

Jesus, Prayer & Evangelism

Prayer is essential in the life of every Christian.  Most churchgoers would fully acknowledge this as a reality, but some may be embarrassed to answer any questions regarding the frequency, intentionality, or purpose of their own prayers.  Likewise, most churchgoers would accept some responsibility for evangelism generally.  However, personal evangelism and the clear requirement of every Christian to participate would cause a bit of discomfort to say the least.  Prayer and evangelism should mark the lives of every Christian, and no less than Jesus Himself has commanded His followers thus.

Regarding prayer, Luke tells us that Jesus said people ought to “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  Jesus Himself provides examples of prayer.  “[H]e would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16), He “went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28b), and there was a time when “all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12).  People brought children “to him [Jesus] that he might lay his hands on them and pray” (Matt. 19:13), and Jesus prayed when He healed people from sickness and death (Jn. 11:41-42).

The most beneficial passage in the Scriptures concerning prayer is found in the sixth chapter of Matthew in the form of what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew records Jesus’ helpful statement just before this exemplary prayer, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father” (Matt. 6:6).  We can observe at least a few things from this single phrase.  First, Jesus assumes that Christians will pray.  He says ‘when you pray’ as though there is no question that one will indeed participate in prayerful expressions towards God.  As has already been mentioned, prayer is essential to the life of every Christian.

Second, Jesus expresses the intentionality of prayer as being relationally vertical rather than horizontal.  He says, ‘go into your room and shut the door.’  This does not seem to be a statement about methodology, as though Jesus were saying that one should not pray outside or even inside with any doors open.  Instead, it seems to be a statement about the intentions of the human praying.  We are to pray not in order to be heard by others around us, but in order that we may be fixed on the God of heaven.  Our prayerful relationship is meant to engage us primarily with God.  Third, prayer is an intimate connection with an imminent counselor and omnipotent provider.  Jesus refers to God not only as His Father, but ‘your Father.’  This immediacy of relationship and accessibility of such a powerful refuge is no small thing to consider.

Regarding evangelism, Jesus commissions all who would follow Him to “make disciples” of all people groups everywhere (Matt. 28:19).  While some may attempt to distinguish the group described by terms like believer and disciple, I find no reason at all in Scripture to do so.  In fact, the two appear to be synonymous when referring to one’s relationship to Christ (Acts 9:26; Jn. 8:31).  Therefore, the commission given by Christ to all His followers at least includes evangelism.  Discipleship may refer to much more than conversion, but no one would rationally argue that it refers to less.

Evangelism, then, is the privilege and obligation of all Christians everywhere.  Yet, there is a very real sense in which the conversion of sinners from death to life is something that no Christian can produce.  Indeed, only God can create life where there is none and bring faith into the hearts of those who are bent on disbelief and rebellion (Eph. 2:1-10).  At this, an astute person may ask, “What role does a Christian play in evangelism?”  Well, the Apostle Paul makes a helpful assessment in his first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).  He states clearly that evangelism is about ‘planting’ and ‘watering’ ‘seed,’ but God is the one who causes life, growth and salvation.  The analogy of seeds and sowing is not new, and Jesus explained an analogy very much like Paul’s in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.  The ‘seed,’ Jesus says, is the ‘word of God.’

This subject deserves more time and reference than it is given here, but the word of God may refer to every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, a specific prophecy concerning an immediate event or person, or some compilation of words attributed to God.  The word of God is certainly inclusive of all God’s words, but most particularly it refers in Biblical terms to the Gospel (Acts 11:1) and to Christ as the embodiment of that message (Jn. 1:1-4).  So, then, Christians participate in evangelism by proclaiming and defending (planting and watering) the message of the Gospel (seed).  Christ followers may tell others of the good news, and rely upon God to give the growth; that is they rely upon the Spirit of God to transform the soul of sinners (Jn. 3:3).  This then is where evangelism and prayer intersect, and again Christ affords both instruction and example.

Because God alone makes sinners alive with eternal life, and because Christians have immediate and intimate means of communication with the God of salvation, it is then vitally important that Christians express their reliance upon God through prayer.  Jesus prayed just this way when He prayed, “I do not ask for these only [that is His accumulated followers during His earthly ministry], but also for those who will believe in me through their word [that is all subsequent believers], that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn. 17:20-21).  Jesus clearly associates this belief in His being sent from the Father with trusting Him as Savior or Messiah (Jn. 5:38-40).  Jesus asks the Father to bring unity of belief in the truth of Christ’s person and work to all those that the Father gives the Son (Jn. 17:24).

In summary, Christ teaches us to pray that God save sinners and He emboldens Christians to participate in the work of planting, watering and harvesting the growth only God can bring (Luke 10:2).  Prayer and evangelism go hand in hand.  As Christians tell the story of salvation, it behooves them also to pray that God performs the regenerating work that only He can.