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Archive for February, 2015


During the sanctification debate that arose last year I read many articles and posts, as well as interacted with a number of people on the subject. There was plenty of heat, and some light. A problem quickly became evident to me.

I’ve long held that the more ardently you argue you position the more likely you are to become more extreme, and say extreme things. You tend to treat one doctrine at the expense of other doctrines. A similar debate, years ago, was the Lordship Salvation question among Dispensational teachers like MacArthur, Hodges and Ryrie. One of them unwisely postulated the “unbelieving believer” in advocating a “once saved always saved” viewpoint (this is NOT the same as the Perseverance/Preservation of the Saints).

In the midst of the sanctification debate among Reformed people I heard/read things like: God doesn’t love you more or less based on your obedience or lack thereof; that a Christian can’t please God, and similar statements.

When we champion on doctrine over another (in this case justification over all others) we flatten the teaching of Scripture, remove biblical tensions and end up having to ignore particular texts or pull a Thomas Jefferson and remove them.

Here ares some texts we have to reckon with:

17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. John 10

Wait! The Father loves the Son perfectly from all eternity. How, then, can Jesus say the Father loves Him because of His death and resurrection?

21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. … 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. John 14

This is similar, but refers to Christians. We only love Him because He first loved us. But if we love Him, we’ll obey Him and He will love us. What? Doesn’t He already love us?

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12

Note the context, the love of the Father for His adopted sons. He disciplines us. Wouldn’t discipline imply He is less than pleased with our conduct, while loving us? Doesn’t this passage teach that God wants us to grow in personal righteousness and works to accomplish this in our lives? Are we to think that God’s responses to us are binary? Either love or hate, and not a love that can be also be angry with the beloved due to disobedience? Are we to think that justification trumps all, or can we have greater nuance that doesn’t deny justification but argues for a more dynamic relationship with God?

10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.  Ephesians 5

18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. Philippians 4

10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. Colossians 1

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 1 Thessalonians 4

See also 1 Timothy 2:3; 1 Timothy 5:4; Hebrews 13:16, 21.

Are we to think that Paul lied and that God wasn’t pleased with that sacrifice or we can’t walk in a way that increasingly pleases God?

During the antinomian controversies of earlier centuries, the Puritans wrestled with these texts and issues. We would be unwise to ignore them. In his book Antinomianism (ebook), Mark Jones pays attention and helps us to recapture a way to understand God’s love for His people that is both steadfast and dynamic. This also helps us to remember and honor the reality of both imputed (justification) and imparted (sanctification) righteousness.

Before I go further let me affirm a statement Steve Brown made at the 1991 Ligonier Conference. My obedience or disobedience cannot add to or subtract from my salvation. I am not more or less justified on the basis of my obedience or disobedience.

The love we experience, and receive, in election and justification was called by Puritans like Samuel Rutherford the love of benevolence. Like all God’s love for creatures, this love is voluntary (He doesn’t have to love them in this way).

“According to this outward, voluntary love, there is a threefold distinction: (1) God’s universal love for all things, (2) God’s love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and (3) God’s special love for his people.” Mark Jones, pp. 83.

He notes that this 3rd is called the love of benevolence. It does not arise out of any good in us, but out of God’s own nature and counsel. It is unconditional, and the root of unconditional election and all the benefits of salvation that flow out of that unconditional election. There are no degrees to this love, and it is enjoyed to its fullest by all God’s people. We are completely justified, positionally holy and pleasing to the Father as a result of this love.

But there is another love they argued for in light of the texts we have above. That is the love of complacency, “God’s love of delight or friendship, whereby he rewards his people according to their holiness.” (pp. 84). This is not in place of His unconditional love, but seen in addition to it. God’s people experience both.

If God is our Father and we are His sons we can think of this like an earthly father and son. I love my sons, who were both adopted, unconditionally and conditionally. They will never stop being my sons, and I will love them and want the best for them no matter what they do. This is precisely why their sin breaks my heart. They are not my sons by degree. Neither is more my son than the other. But at times I delight in one more than the other, or delight in one son more at some times than others. When they are persisting in rebellion I am not pleased with them. I still love them! Because of this love I discipline them. When they are obedient I delight in them.

This is what Rutherford and Charnock, and therefore Jones, is trying to get at.

“God’s benevolent love is logically prior to his complacent love. It could hardly be otherwise, because God’s love of benevolence is the fountain of election and all blessings the elect receive. The love of complacency delights in the good that is in his elect- but that good is only there because of his benevolent love.” Mark Jones (pp. 85)

This threefold distinction is similar to the discussion of the degrees of sin. We can affirm one aspect of the truth over and at the expense of the others. The wages of sin is death, yet we see in the OT that some sins were punished more severely than others, for good reason. All sin is rebellion, but some are a greater attack on the image of God in others (murder, sexual sin) while others involve property rights. If we think all sin is equal then there should be no difference in our response between stealing a candy bar and brutally murdering a person. We have to honor the Scriptures in both cases, love and sin. This means making proper distinctions.

“The threefold distinction in God’s love for his people means that justice can be done not only to texts that speak of God’s election of his people (Eph. 1:4-5) and his justifying acts (Rom. 4:5), but also to texts that speak of love in the context of ongoing communion with God and Christ (John 12:21-23; John 15:10; Jude 21). … The twofold love of benevolence and complacency is only possible in Christ and our threefold union with the Mediator.” Mark Jones (pp. 86)

It is right to emphasis the love of benevolence. We rightly tell people that God’s love is unconditional. We don’t want them to live in an ungodly fear, and uncertainty with regard to their status before God. I need to often remind my children I love them, even when I’m not delighting in them (in other words, when I’m angry with them). But the person who treats their children in the same way with no regard to their behavior will raise a psychopath. God is bringing us to a healthy maturity in Christ, not one that thinks nothing of our behavior. Growing in Christian maturity (sanctification and discipleship) is similar to maturing as a person. We need to experience both kinds of love, as well as understand them to properly interpret our experience.

This reflects even the Father’s love for the Son. We referenced John 10 above, and how the Father loves the Son because of His atoning death for the flock. Thomas Goodwin references John 15:10 to understand this. The Son was to remain in the Father’s love by obeying the Father’s command or charge (Jn. 14:18). The Father promises the sheep to the Son on the condition of His death on their behalf.

“Again, this love has to do with the ad extra will of God with respect to the God-man in his role as Mediator. God delights in his Son, not only necessarily, because he is his Son, but also voluntarily, because Christ obeys the Father perfectly and this brings delight to the Father.” Mark Jones (pp. 88)

In other words, we see this as we see this passage in Luke. Jesus’ favor with God was not static, but growing.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Luke 2

Our theology, however true it is, should not be imposed on Scripture to flatten it out, but arise from Scripture to honor its tensions. The recent sanctification debates, in my opinion, have revealed how some teachers flatten the teaching of Scripture with a justification-centered interpretative method which results in a form of antinomianism whether they realize it not.

“I’ve never met an antinomian who called himself an antinomian.” R.C. Sproul (Lectures on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Sanctification, part 2)

A healthy theology which helps us engage in healthy discipleship is one that holds our particular doctrines in a biblical tension, and which makes proper biblical distinctions. In the sanctification debate there are two ditches we can fall into, one on either side. The gospel (not the reductionistic version that emphasized only justification) keeps us from falling into the ditch on either side of the road. Unconditionally loved by the Father and declared righteous because of Christ’s righteousness, we seek to obey and please the Father our of filial love and experience the Father’s joy and delight as we grow in Christ likeness, or His loving discipline as we cling to our sin.

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In my devotional reading these days I’m in Deuteronomy. Since all Scripture is useful to admonish, correct and train the righteous person to live uprightly (2 Timothy 3) we can learn lessons here about obedience.

Let me say that all of this must be understood in light of being a justified person, one who has experienced the redemption from sin just as Israel experienced redemption from slavery. This should not be seen as an attempt to gain life. The blessing of obedience for Israel was not eternal life, but remaining in the land. Gross apostasy would result in exile. For us it results in excommunication. Gross apostasy reveals a heart that was not transformed by grace.

While we are talking about obedience to the law, let us not think (as many erroneously claim about any such discussion) that we are sanctified BY the law. Just as the law has no power to justify (Rom. 6-7), it has no power to sanctify. The Law is the sign showing us what a sanctified life looks like. The power of sanctification is the Spirit who works in us to apply the work of Christ for us. Read the following in light of that or you will grossly misunderstand what I say.

Deuteronomy is the giving of the law to the generation that was going to enter the land. The last of the adult “rebels” who left Egypt has died for their unbelief and refusal to enter the land out of fear. Moses lays out God’s commands for them before he dies, unable to enter the land for his own unrighteous anger earlier.

And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. (5:1)

This is the process of discipleship which we must follow for ourselves and teach to those under our spiritual care. There is a progression here that we must keep in mind.

Hear => Learn => Do

We cannot do unless we first learn and we cannot learn unless we first hear. The end or goal is to grow in obedience to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. If you think that is an OT thing, recall the Great Commission includes “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.” That command is not limited to faith and repentance. Love is vague and Paul reminds us that the Law actually shows us the dimensions of loving God and others (Rom. 12). A desire to obey God rooted in faith, love and gratitude is NOT legalism.

To achieve this final goal, we need to recall the lessor goals or intermediate goals. Hear it! Read the Scriptures and listen to the Word preached and taught. There is no other way to hear.

Don’t “just” listen, but learn. Seek to understand the meaning of the law, what it does and doesn’t require or prohibit. Begin to store it in your heart (and memory) so you have a practical use of it. The Law is not for our times of ease, but the times of temptation. That is when we need God’s moral guidance. There will probably not be a Bible in the back seat of the car when needed, or the corporate boardroom or wherever you find yourself under temptation and in need of God’s moral guidance. You have to learn it.

Then of course apply it, by faith. Work it out knowing that God is at work in you to will and work according to His good purpose. You are not alone. When you struggle, cry out for help.

“Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments.” (5:29)

“that you may fear the LORD your God … by keeping all his statues and his commandments…” (6:2)

There is another ingredient to the obedient life. A healthy fear or reverence for God. At the moment they expressed such a heart, a sincere desire to obey God in all things. Such mountain top experiences don’t last. We obey what we fear (either positively or negatively) most. Obedience is a heart issue, as I recently reminded my children. They didn’t listen to their mother because they didn’t respect her as they ought. They ignore her far too often. They tend to fear missing out on some thing they think better than obedience. We do that too. Or we fear other people, and the list could go one for some time. We are to fear God above all. The measure of that fear appears to be obedience. Reverence isn’t just about showing up on Sunday to sing songs and pray. Reverence is about wanting to please Him all week long: worship thru service.

“And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, …” (6:24)

Moses returns to the question of obedience, and therefore fear. But see what He adds. God’s laws, and our obedience, are for our good. Sin is self-destructive, and often destroys others including the ones we love. Sin destroys relationships. Obedience only destroys relationships when others don’t delight in righteousness. It often takes a great deal of faith to believe this. God doesn’t give me moral guidance to destroy me but to protect me and do good to me. The Law, as Paul said, is good and holy. The problem is always me, or my sinful nature.

We can’t make others fear God. But we can pray God to grant them this fear, and this knowledge that God intends all this for our good. We should walk the path of obedience and talk to others about it. We should also talk about how to return to the path when we wander from it (which we will do). I’m not talking about perfection, but progressive sanctification. While we do not arrive in this life, we make progress as the Spirit teaches us to say “no” to ungodly desires (Titus 2) and “yes” to godly ones. The good purpose God works in you to will and work is faith in Christ, and a faith accompanied by faithfulness or obedience.

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Our women’s ministry is called WOW- Women of the Word, indicating our desires for them to be women in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly. So when Crossway sent me a copy of Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin (ebook), I was a little intrigued.

Last year I brought our men through Bible Study so they would learn how to study and teach the Bible. WOW is much shorter, and seeks to address things from a woman’s perspective (lots of illustrations I wouldn’t understand) while also offering some warnings against “feminizing” it. She does want them to remember it was written to both men and women.

Overall I thought it was a good book to help women dig deeper into the Scriptures. She was quite clear, succinct (I could learn from this) and interesting (probably more so if I were a woman and was familiar with things like rhumba tights). Her study plan is really about depth and she makes some wise warnings about how this all takes time. Her goal is for women to use this method in their personal study or when studying a book of the Bible as a group.

She starts with what she calls a series of “turn arounds” or ways in which she was reading things wrong and needing to begin reading them. She also realized that the Bible is primarily about God (and secondarily about us), the mind matters because it transforms the heart. These are two important things to know or you will make the Bible into a self-help book meant to make you feel good. This is the ever-present danger of therapeutic moral deism.

“But our insecurities, fears, and doubts can never be banished by knowledge of who we are. They can only be banished by the knowledge of ‘I am.'”

Her second chapter is “The Case for Biblical Literacy”. She wants women to develop a working knowledge of the whole Bible, how it all fits together, instead of a patchwork understanding (similar to one developed by children’s SS lessons and a steady diet of topical preaching).

“Sound Bible study transforms the heart by training the mind and it places God at the center of the story. But sound Bible stud does more than that- it leaves the student with a better understanding of the Bible than she had when we started. Stated another way, sound Bible study increases Bible literacy.”

She lays out a few bad methods. In the Xanax approach, you are looking to take away bad feelings, and look for just the right passage. It makes the Bible about you instead of to you. There is the Pinball approach in which you bounce around like a pinball without any thought to the context and purpose (and therefore the meaning) of a text. There is the Magic 8 Ball approach where we simply look for what to do in a crisis rather than learning who we are to be in Christ. The Holy Spirit transforms us.

Bible literacy, she rightly argues, keeps us from falling into error. If we know the whole of Scripture we can notice if someone is abusing a part of Scripture. We will also be better prepared to answer the charges of our critics. Bible literacy is not developed overnight. It takes time to read for both breadth (devotionally) and depth (study). It takes reading the whole Bible repeatedly to see patterns, references and allusions to other passages. It takes years, and in our microwave society most people don’t want to invest that kind of time unless they grasp how important it is. Perhaps I’m weird, but no one told me to do this. I just did it.

Her plan or method is to study with the 5 P’s: Purpose, Perspective, Patience, Process and Prayer. Much of what she lays out is what a pastor regularly does in sermon preparation minus the crafting of said sermon.

Purpose is important. It is about understanding the purpose of the Scriptures AND the purpose of that particular portion of Scripture. As a whole the Bible is about redemption, a redemption story. Particular passages are stories of redemption within the story of redemption. They progressively reveal God’s greatness and the greatness of His plan. We begin to look for how each text fits into the whole text instead of viewing it as an isolated, independent text.

Perspective is asking questions of the text to understand its purpose which will help you understand its meaning in due time. This is the process of understanding the historical and cultural context of the particular book. We want to see it, as best we can, as the original audience did instead of just putting our 21st century American presuppositions and experience on the text. We did much of this in English class as we studied literature. Who wrote it? When? Why? To whom was it written? What genre or style?

Patience remembers that digging deep takes time and effort. It is applying the concept of delayed gratification to Bible study. We remember that our efforts have a cumulative effect. We will have to be patient with ourselves. We will fail. We will find reasons to not study on a particular day. We will discover we have grossly misunderstood texts. We will have to be patient with the process, refusing to take short cuts. There will be patience with our circumstances which may present hindrances to study. There will be plenty of reasons for patience.

“Could it be that feeling lost is one way God humbles us when we come to his Word, knowing that in due time he will exalt our understanding?”

Process is the main portion of the larger plan. This is the nitty-gritty. She wants women to own the text through lots of hard work. Owning it means understanding its original meaning, attempting to interpret it and then make application from it. She wants you to read it repeatedly so you notice the flow of the argument or story (depending on the genre). She wants you to break out the colored pencils/pens (on a copy of the text) to note verb tenses (yes, they matter), subjects and all that grammar jazz. Yes, she wants you to outline the passage and put notes in the margin of that copy of the text. She wants you to compare different translations and see why they differ (when they do). She wants you to crack open a dictionary to understand words that are used that you don’t commonly use. Yes, this is hard work and not always exciting but if we want to understand a text’s original meaning (what it says) it is necessary work.

We then move to interpretation or what the text means. She wants you to hold off on the commentaries until you develop your own interpretation. I’ve seen others say the same thing. Generally that is a good idea. But sometimes you do struggle with “what it says”. Commentaries aren’t just interpretations, but also help us get what it says because sometimes the text is hard to discern, or parts of it. It is important to read 2-3 commentaries so you don’t fall into a cult of personality (“well, Bultmann says” repeated ad nauseum). There is more hard work here: looking at cross references, paraphrasing and just plain thinking. Yes, sometimes you just sit there and think (also known as meditating on the Word of God).

Once you know what it says, and what it means you can ask how it applies. What am I to believe about God? What am I to believe about myself? What does God call me to do in dependence upon Him? This takes thinking about the text, myself and my circumstances.

Prayer is a short chapter. The point is we are to pray all through the process, knowing that we need the Spirit’s help to illuminate the Scriptures so we can understand the Word, ourselves and our circumstances (yes, I’m adding a little Frame to her thoughts).

She then has a chapter in which she demonstrates her process using James 1. This way you can see it in action and have a better idea of what she has been talking about. The book concludes with some encouragement for teachers in how to bring the fruit of this into a group setting, and then a call to seek God. The purpose of all this is to know God, not just gather information.

This is a good introduction. I would quibble with some of the books she recommends because of the theological commitments and method of interpretation used which I think distorts the Scriptures. Yes, I’m talking Dispensationalism. I’m not saying she is a dispensationalist particularly since focusing on the whole story is more of a covenantal perspective of Scripture (which focuses on the unity of Scripture). Just one of those weird things that passes through my mind.

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