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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Dr. Spencer, last time we discussed the doctrine of total depravity, which says that every aspect of our being is affected by sin. And, as a result, man is not able to repent and believe in Christ until and unless God regenerates him, that is, causes him to be born again. At the end of the session, I asked the question that many people have raised; namely, “If man is utterly incapable of obeying God’s command to repent and believe, how then can it be fair for God to condemn an unbeliever for not doing so?” How would you answer that question?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let me begin by giving God’s answer to the question, and then we can discuss it further. Paul deals with this question in Chapter 9 of the book of Romans. He begins by citing Old Testament passages that present the doctrine of election; in other words, that God sovereignly and unconditionally chooses whom to save.

Marc Roby: Now, by calling this election unconditional, you mean that it is not based on anything man does.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. This doctrine is represented by the letter ‘U’ in the acrostic TULIP. But, getting back to our passage, in Romans 9:18 Paul draws a conclusion from these Old Testament verses and writes, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” [1]

And then, in Verse 19, he anticipates essentially the same question you asked in response to this conclusion, he says, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” And finally, in Verse 20 we read his answer, which is really God’s answer since Paul wrote as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit. And we read, “who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?”’”

Marc Roby: I must say that God’s answer would seem to argue in favor of not discussing this further. He asserts his sovereignty and basically says we are not in a position to ask the question.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, John Murray describes this answer as being an “appeal to the reverential silence which the majesty of God demands of us.”[2] We don’t want to probe beyond our proper limits. There is mystery in the doctrine of election that goes beyond what we are able to understand, and we need to be careful or we can get into territory that man should avoid all together, or risk being impudent.

Marc Roby: Yes, we certainly want to avoid that. We should have proper respect and reverence for God at all times and keep the Creator/creature distinction in mind.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. And yet, there is more that we can properly and biblically say about this question. And it is a question that is deeply troubling to many, which is why the apostle Paul anticipates it, and then he himself goes on to say a little more. But we must pay careful attention to the fact that God is putting us in our place first. He is reminding us that we have no business questioning his goodness.

Marc Roby: And that reminds me of Job.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, it certainly does. In his excellent commentary on the book of Romans, P.G. Mathew noted that “Job had many questions for God. But when God questioned him. Job closed his mouth.”[3] And in Job 42:3-6 we read that Job replied to God, “You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

Marc Roby: That is the only response possible if we truly see God and ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: And we must not miss the point of Paul’s rhetorical question in Romans 9:20, “who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” We have no right to question God about how he governs his creation. If he chooses to give us an explanation, that is entirely by grace. He doesn’t owe us an answer. But God did graciously give us some more information about his purposes in election. Just as God dealt with Job’s questions by questioning him, so Paul responds to this question about God’s fairness by asking questions in return. We just dealt with the first of them, “who are you, O man?”, which points out that we have no right to talk back to God. And the second was also in Verse 20, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”

Marc Roby: And the answer is, again, “No! The creature shall not say to the Creator, “Why did you make me like this?” In context, that question clearly has an accusatory tone. It is saying, in essence, that God should have made me some other way.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. Paul is pointing out how inappropriate it is for us to question God and he means to humble and silence us. And he goes on, in Verse 21, to ask, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”

Marc Roby: The same metaphor about a potter and the clay is used in the Old Testament as well. In Isaiah 45:9 we read, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the same idea. These three questions were meant to put us in our place. Let me quote from P.G. Mathew’s commentary again. He wrote, “Mind your place! You are down here; God is up there. God is all-transcendent. God is our Creator; we are his creatures, and we must never forget the Creator/creature distinction. We exist and consist in him. So think correctly. Pride goes before a fall. God is not our equal. No man has a right to bring God to trial. But God has every right to bring us to trial and cast us into hell.”[4]

Marc Roby: Nothing could be more obvious than the fact that God is not our equal. So, it is only reasonable that we keep that fact in mind at all times.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that fact causes us to face reality. We have no business questioning the fairness of God. But, in a very real sense, anyone who goes to hell chooses to go to hell.

Marc Roby: Now how can you say that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we noted in Session 104 that eternal death, or hell, includes eternal separation from the blessings, or presence, of God. But let me quote from P.G. Mathew again. He says, “Listen to the arguments of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards: ‘I. That if God should for ever cast you off, it would be agreeable to your treatment of him. … II. If you should forever be cast off by God, it would be agreeable to your treatment of Jesus Christ. … III. If God should for ever cast you off and destroy you, it would be agreeable to your treatment of others. … IV. If God should eternally cast you off, it would be agreeable to your own behavior towards yourself.”[5] And Mathew adds a fifth point, “If God should eternally cast you off, it would be agreeable to your treatment of the Holy Spirit.”

Marc Roby: That is very good. If people reject the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, they should not be surprised when God rejects them.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in fact, that is what their actions show they really want. And we never treat others the way we should either, which shows our contempt for God since they are also made in his image. And when he speaks about our treatment of ourselves, he is reminding us that we don’t have the right to abuse our own bodies by using drugs, or over eating, or sexual immorality or any of a number of ways in which people do so. We don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to God; he made us.

Marc Roby: That’s an excellent point.

Dr. Spencer: And the bottom line is that we are all sinful, rebellious creatures. God does not treat anyone unjustly; he treats every individual with either perfect justice or mercy.

Marc Roby: And we should not want to be treated with justice if we have any inkling at all of the many ways in which we have violated God’s just laws and offended his holy character.

Dr. Spencer: No, any rational person will desire mercy. But now, with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the final question Paul asks in Romans 9. In Verses 22-24 he wrote, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”

Marc Roby: That is a very difficult passage. Not difficult to understand, but difficult for people to accept.

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right about that. Paul tells us that God has prepared some people for destruction for the purpose of manifesting his power and wrath and also to make the riches of his glory manifest to the objects of his mercy, in other words, to those whom he chose to save.

We have said a number of times that the Bible clearly teaches that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. And that includes showing his holiness and justice as well as his mercy and love. People may not like that, but it is the truth.

Marc Roby: But, of course, an unbeliever is not going to accept that answer.

Dr. Spencer: No, I’m quite sure they won’t. I know I didn’t. This question of God’s fairness was very disturbing to me before God graciously granted me a new heart. And, as we discussed last time, that is what new birth is. It is God granting an individual a new heart. Or you could say a new spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

But whatever terminology you use, the point is that God changes our fundamental nature, which affects every aspect of our being. He regenerates us. He gives us a new mind, a new will, a new set of affections. We are not made perfect, but we are changed in the very core of our being. And that change is just as pervasive as the depravity it begins to destroy.

Marc Roby: Why do you say that it “begins” to destroy our depravity?

Dr. Spencer: Well, in his infinite wisdom, God has chosen to conform his people to the image of Christ through a process. The process begins with new birth, which issues forth in repentance and faith, which then result in justification.

But repentance and faith are not the only fruit that come from new birth. It also manifests itself in every aspect of our behavior. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” And yet, the change is not complete, we are not yet perfect.

Marc Roby: Yes, that fact is abundantly obvious when we look at ourselves and others.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is obvious, yes. If we have been born again and have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation, then we are justified in God’s sight, and yet we are still sinners as well. Theologians have a Latin phrase they use for this condition.

Marc Roby: Well of course they do, they’re almost as bad as medical doctors in liking Latin.

Dr. Spencer: I suppose that’s true. In any event, Martin Luther stated that believers are simul justus et peccator, which means simultaneously just and sinner.[6] We are justified in God’s sight by our union with Christ as we discussed last session. And yet, we are still sinners. When God regenerates a person, he changes every aspect of the person’s being. The effects of regeneration are just as pervasive as the sinful nature. But, just as our sinful nature did not make us as bad as we could possibly be, so regeneration does not make us as good as we can possibly be, it does not perfect us. It does not remove sin completely. It simply begins the process. We are simultaneously just and sinner.

Marc Roby: Which expresses the idea that a Christian is a mixture. We have a desire and an ability to obey God, but we still have sin residing in us as well. And there is a war going on between our old and new natures.

Dr. Spencer: And that is exactly what the Bible teaches us. Let’s take a brief look at one passage that deals with this fact. In Colossians 3:5-10 Paul commands us, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

Marc Roby: That passage has an interesting mix of statements in the past tense, like “you have taken off your old self”, and commands in the present tense, like “Put to death … whatever belongs to your earthly nature”.

Dr. Spencer: And that is why it is a great illustration of the inner conflict that exists in every true believer. If we have been born again, there is a very real and pervasive change that has occurred. John Murray calls this change, which is produced in our nature by regeneration, definitive sanctification.[7]

Marc Roby: Which is what the Bible is referring to when it speaks in the past tense about believers having been sanctified. For example, in 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul told the believers in Corinth, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Dr. Spencer: Exactly, it is also what is being referred to in the passage we are looking at in Colossians when it says that we “used to walk in these ways” and that we “have taken off [our] old self”. But, in addition to this definitive sanctification, there is also progressive sanctification, which is indicated, for example, by the command to “Put to death … whatever belongs to your earthly nature”. We still have work to do.

When we are born again there is a dramatic and pervasive change in our nature, but it isn’t complete. God has ordained that we struggle against sin, walking in faith, until he calls us home. At that time he will perfect our spirits as we are told in Hebrews 12:23.

Marc Roby: Now that is something to look forward to!

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. But let’s get back to the point you made that an unbeliever is not going to accept the answer given in Romans 9. I have a couple of things to say about that. First, whether or not an unbeliever will accept the truth has no bearing on whether it is the truth. Remember, an unbeliever also won’t accept the most basic truth that God exists and has revealed himself in his Word.

Marc Roby: What is the second thing you wanted to say about it?

Dr. Spencer: That there is no reason to really get into this question with an unbeliever unless he or she brings it up. While it is true that an unbeliever is totally depraved, dead in trespasses and sins, and cannot repent and believe unless God first regenerates him. It is equally true, as Paul wrote in Romans 10:9, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This is what we should be saying to unbelievers. Share the gospel. Answer their questions to the best of your ability. Pray for their salvation. But don’t worry about how to reconcile God’s sovereign election with their personal liberty. That question doesn’t affect what they must do to be saved. Never once in the New Testament do we see someone asking “What must I do to be saved?” and then being told to be born again. They are told to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: I think that is good advice for evangelism. And I personally find God’s sovereign election to be a very comforting doctrine. I must do my job to evangelize, but no one is going to perish because I didn’t do my job well enough. If God has chosen someone for salvation, then they are going to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, that is a great encouragement. It is our business to live for God’s glory and to share his glorious gospel. It is God’s business to save sinners.

Marc Roby: And with that I think we are out of time for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’ll answer as best we can.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997, Vol. II, pg. 31

[3] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 62

[4] Ibid, pg. 65

[5] Ibid, pp 66-67

[6] R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, Baker Books, 1995, pg. 102

[7] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, Chap. 21

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Dr. Spencer, you said in a previous session that there are three main components to the doctrine of sin: its cause, its nature, and its definition. We have finished discussing the cause and definition, but you said you wanted to return to examine the nature of sin. What more did you want to say?

Dr. Spencer: I want to talk more about the reformed doctrine of total depravity. We already noted that to say man is totally depraved does not mean he is as bad as he can possibly be. It simply means that there is no part of his being that is unaffected by sin. So, I noted that the doctrine might more properly be called pervasive depravity, but the term total depravity is so common and has such a long history that we’re not going to get away from it.

Marc Roby: And it also goes along with the well-known acrostic TULIP, which is meant to represent reformed theology in a nutshell. The ‘T’ in TULIP stands for total depravity.

Dr. Spencer: And now that you’ve brought up TULIP you need to say what the other letters stand for as well.

Marc Roby: All right, the ‘U’ stands for unconditional election; the ‘L’ stands for limited atonement; the ‘I’ stands for irresistible grace; and the ‘P’ stands for perseverance of the saints.

Dr. Spencer: And, God willing, we will get to all of those doctrines at the proper time. I should also point out that as with total depravity, one can argue that better terms exist for some of the other doctrines as well. But, far more importantly, these five doctrines do not fully define reformed theology. For example, they don’t mention the Creator/creature distinction, which is central to reformed theology.

Marc Roby: Yes, in fact, they came about in direct response to the challenge brought by a group of Dutch theologians, called the Remonstrants, in 1610. These theologians were followers of Jacobus Arminius, who died in 1609, and they summarized their disagreements with reformed doctrine in five points. These five points of contention were formally answered by the Canons of Dort and it is those five points that are summarized by that acronym TULIP.

Dr. Spencer: And all five of these points logically fit together, beginning with the T standing for total depravity. As I said, this means that there is no aspect of our being that is unaffected by sin. Our thinking, our emotions, our will, they are all affected. But the most important aspect with regard to our salvation is our will.

Marc Roby: Now, why do you say that?

Dr. Spencer: Because the fundamental issue that has caused, and continues to cause, divisions in the church is the issue of how we can be saved. The disagreement is about what, if anything, man contributes to his justification. And we need to be careful now to be precise with our language. By justification we are referring to God’s verdict concerning man. In Psalm 130:3 the psalmist asks the rhetorical question, “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” [1]

Marc Roby: And the obvious answer is, no one. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 3:9-12, “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is our great problem. Because we inherit a sinful nature from our parents, we all sin. We are all rebellious. No one seeks God on his own. We are all guilty sinners. Any human being who stands before God to be judged on his own merits is doomed to be declared guilty. Paul summarizes this in Verse 20 of Romans 3, where we read, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

But, praise God, Paul goes on in the very next verse, Verse 21, to tell us, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”

Marc Roby: What a glorious verse that is! There is a righteousness from God, that is not based on our keeping his law, which has been made known to us and to which the Law and the Prophets, meaning the Old Testament, testifies.

Dr. Spencer: That verse gives us hope. We are guaranteed to be declared guilty if are judged based on our own law keeping. We are not righteous. But there is another righteousness available to us, a righteousness from God, which is not based on our keeping the law.

Marc Roby: The obvious question then becomes, “How do I obtain this righteousness from God?”

Dr. Spencer: That is the obvious question. And, as Paul wrote, the Old Testament testifies to this righteousness. We will see far more later when we discuss salvation in detail that the Old Testament documents a progressive revelation of the truth that God provides a substitute to pay the penalty for us and to provide us with this righteousness from God. For now, it will suffice to provide a very brief summary, which begins by noting that the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament was meant to point God’s people to their need for a substitute.

Marc Roby: And, in the New Testament, that ultimate substitute is revealed to be Jesus Christ, who is called the Lamb of God.

Dr. Spencer: And the righteousness from God that Paul spoke of is, in fact, the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself. God requires perfection for us to come into his presence, and none of us is perfect. Jesus told us, in Matthew 5:48, to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Marc Roby: Needing to be perfectly righteous is, to say the least, a serious problem for us.

Dr. Spencer: It is an insurmountable problem for us. But, as Jesus told us in Matthew 19:26, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” And our problem has two components to it. First, we need to have our sins paid for. We are guilty sinners and our guilt must be taken care of. And then, secondly, we need a positive righteousness to be able to come into God’s presence.

And God solves both of these problems in Jesus Christ. He is the perfect sacrifice, who pays for our sins; in other words, takes away our guilt. And then he is also the only perfectly righteous person who has ever lived and if he is our representative before God, we are counted righteous in him.

Marc Roby: In Session 106 we discussed the fact that Adam acted as the representative of the human race. We share in the guilt of his sin, and our being born with a sinful nature is part of our sharing in the punishment for his sin. But as you pointed out then, God’s using a representative is a great blessing because being represented by Jesus Christ is the only way anyone can be saved.

Dr. Spencer: There is no other way of salvation. And the fact that Christ took our sins upon himself and then gave us his righteousness is called the double transaction or double imputation by theologians. We spoke about this back in Session 73 when we examined the goodness of God. The classic verse to explain it is 2 Corinthians 5:21 where we read that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Marc Roby: Or, as Paul wrote in Romans 5:19, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s wonderful, isn’t it? I don’t think we can ever meditate too much on all that God has done for us. But God is holy and just, the supreme Judge of the universe, and as such he cannot simply wink at our sin. It must be paid for. Paul also wrote in Romans 3:25-26 that “God presented him [referring to Jesus Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, … so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” In God’s great wisdom his plan preserves his nature as the perfectly just Judge of all and yet also allows him to display his infinite mercy in declaring guilty sinners to be just because we are united to Christ by faith.

Marc Roby: And John Murray correctly called our union with Christ “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: It is the central truth of salvation. Salvation is in Christ, which is an expression we see 89 times in the New Testament. For example, in Romans 6:11 Paul wrote, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” And in Romans 8:1 he wrote, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. But we are in danger of straying too far off topic again.

Marc Roby: And when we got into this topic of representation, we were starting to answer the question of how it is a man can obtain the righteousness from God that Paul speaks about in Romans 3:21.

Dr. Spencer: And the answer is that we must be united to Jesus Christ by faith. And with that answer in hand, we can now go back to our discussion of total depravity and see why I said that the fact our will is sinful is our most serious problem with regard to our salvation.

We must be united to Jesus Christ by faith in order to be saved, but because our will is sinful, we have no desire to believe in Jesus Christ and, therefore, will not believe. In fact, in speaking about us prior to our conversion, Paul wrote in Colossians 1:21, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.”

Marc Roby: And an enemy of God has no desire to repent and place his trust in Jesus Christ, which is what it means to believe in him.

Dr. Spencer: That is the crux of the matter. The doctrine of total depravity, which is completely biblical, says that we will never choose to repent and believe in Jesus Christ of our own free will. We have a free will, no one is forcing us to do or think the things we do, but as we have discussed before, our will chooses that which we most desire at any given point in time. And being God’s enemies, we will never choose God.

Marc Roby: Which is why Jesus told us in John 6:44 that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Dr. Spencer: And as I noted way back in Session 15, the Greek verb used for draw in that verse is ἑλκύω (helkuo), which means to drag, it is not speaking about some kind of gentle persuasion. It is the same word used in Acts 16:9 where we read that Paul and Silas were dragged into the marketplace, and in Acts 21:30 where we read about Paul being dragged from the temple, and again in John 21:11 where we read that Peter dragged a fishing net ashore. I don’t mean to imply that God forces us to believe against our will, he does not. But he must change our hearts first so that we desire to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: And, of course, Paul makes the same point by saying, as he does in Ephesians 2:1, that we were dead in our transgressions and sins before coming to faith.

Dr. Spencer: And, as we discussed in Session 104, by saying that we were dead Paul clearly does not mean that we had ceased to exist, or even that we had ceased to live in this world. He means that we were separated from God and his blessings. We were his enemies and incapable of responding to him in faith.

He uses this same imagery in Colossians 2:13 where he tells us, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.”

Marc Roby: Jesus himself used this same metaphor. He said, in John 5:24, that “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is clearly speaking about spiritual death and spiritual life. If the person had truly been dead in the sense that word is usually used, he could not have heard Jesus’ words. And, if he had remained spiritually dead, he would not have believed. But, the person who has been born again hears and believes and has, therefore crossed over from death to life. Dead men do not believe.

Marc Roby: And it isn’t just Jesus and the apostle Paul who use this language. The apostle John wrote, in 1 John 3:14 that “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.”

Dr. Spencer: And to reinforce the idea that spiritually dead men cannot do anything to save themselves, listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:6-8, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

So, the person who has not yet been born again is hostile to God, he not only doesn’t submit to God’s law, but he cannot submit to God’s law. It is an impossibility. And he cannot please God.

Marc Roby: And yet we read in Acts 17:30 that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” Therefore, it logically follows from Romans 8 that a sinner cannot repent because he cannot submit to God’s law, which means he cannot obey God’s command.

Dr. Spencer: And also take note of what the apostle John wrote in 1 John 3:21-23; “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

Now, going back to the passage in Romans 8 again, if an unbeliever is incapable of obeying God and is incapable of pleasing him, he is also incapable of obeying the command to believe in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Yes, that it is very clear. And, in fact, we are told in Hebrews 11:6 that “without faith it is impossible to please God”. Therefore, the Bible is clear that an unbeliever can do nothing to please or obey God. Faith must come first.

Dr. Spencer: And it follows necessarily that saving faith is not something an unbeliever can exercise on his own initiative. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And in Verse 5 he went on to say, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Now, dead people don’t choose to be born. Dead people do nothing. The teaching of the New Testament is clear on this subject. We must be born again first, then we can repent and believe in Jesus Christ. That is why Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: Therefore, the biblical view is that man is born dead in transgressions and sins and cannot save himself. He cannot do anything that pleases God because every aspect of his being is tainted by sin, which again is the reformed doctrine of total depravity. God must do a work in us before we can repent and believe in him, and that work is called being born again, or being regenerated.

Dr. Spencer: And that is also what the Old Testament tells us also. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 God is speaking and says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” God must cleanse us, give us new hearts, and move us or we will continue in our stubborn, sinful ways. We must be born again, which is a work that God alone can do. Only then will we repent and believe. And our faith will unite us to Christ so that our guilt is taken away and we are given his perfect, unimpeachable righteousness.

Marc Roby: There is an obvious question raised by this doctrine of total depravity. If man is utterly incapable of obeying God’s command to repent and believe, how then can it be fair for God to condemn an unbeliever for not doing so?

Dr. Spencer: That is the central question that has caused so much division in the church. But I’m going to have to put off answering it until next time because we are out of time.

Marc Roby: Alright, you were saved by the bell. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we enjoy hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 170

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. In our last session we noted that God determines what is and is not sin. He is the ultimate authority. But we also noted that he commands us to obey all legitimate delegated authorities so long as they do not tell us to sin or overstep the bounds of their delegated authority.

Now, Dr. Spencer, you mentioned last time that the laws and rules of different countries, states, churches and families can change, and yet still be proper. What about God’s laws? Do they ever change?

Dr. Spencer: Well, they have changed, so the answer is yes. The clearest example of that is the ceremonial laws given to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. They were, for example, commanded to perform a number of different animal sacrifices, but all of those sacrifices and ceremonial laws were abrogated when Christ came.

In Hebrews 7:11-12 we are told that “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” [1]

Marc Roby: And for those listeners who may not know, the Levitical priesthood was responsible for performing the sacrifices and other aspects of the ceremonial law in the Old Testament and the priest who is in the order of Melchizedek refers to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And in the book of Hebrews we are told that the purpose of the Old Testament ceremonial laws was to point toward the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Once he came, the animal sacrifices served no further purpose. As a result, they are not only not required anymore, but it would be sinful to offer an animal sacrifice now. But, and this is a critically important point, in changing those laws, God did not change.

Marc Roby: I suspect some of our listeners may have a hard time understanding how you can say that God didn’t change when he changed his laws.

Dr. Spencer: Let me give an earthly example. When my children were young, they had to go to bed at a certain time. But when they got older, that rule changed. By the time they graduated from high school it was pretty much up to them what time they went to bed. I didn’t change over those years – at least not in reference to this rule – but they certainly did. When they were young the rule served to teach them authority and to teach them the need for a disciplined life. And, of course, young children need more sleep as well. But, by the time they were graduating from high school, they understood the tradeoffs. They knew that if they stayed up late studying it would reach a point of diminishing returns and they would be more tired in the morning, so they had to decide for themselves when to stop.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting example since the apostle Paul also uses the analogy of a child growing up and coming out from under the rule of a guardian in Galatians 3 and 4.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s an important point. We discussed that passage very briefly in Session 91. And I still don’t want to go into it in detail because it isn’t of critical importance to anthropology. But what is critically important, is that God has not changed. He does not change. He did change some of the laws given to his people as our circumstances changed, most notably with the first coming of Jesus Christ, but the laws that are based on his nature, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, will never change. So, for example, it will always be wrong to commit murder, or adultery or to lie or steal.

Marc Roby: Now, what about homosexuality? That is a very divisive topic today, even among many professing Christians.

Dr. Spencer: And I think the answer to that question is absolutely clear. In Leviticus 18:22 God commands, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” This doesn’t have anything to do with the ceremonial law, or with the laws of a particular government, this is a statement about morality. God says that homosexuality is detestable to him. It is completely wrong to think that God has changed his view in any way on this topic.

Marc Roby: I know that there are professing Christians who will say that command is a part of the Old Testament and that if you say we have to obey that, you must also want us to obey laws like Deuteronomy 21:21, which says that a stubborn and rebellious son should be stoned to death.

Dr. Spencer: I’ve heard comments like that, and to be honest they are just ridiculous. First of all, in Deuteronomy 21 Moses was speaking to the people to remind them of the laws of God and prepare them for the difficult task of crossing the Jordon and conquering the promised land. This particular command dealt with a son who had a long-standing pattern of rebellious behavior – he is clearly an adult and is described as a profligate and a drunkard. So, we first have to realize this isn’t speaking about a little disobedience. This is speaking about a young man who is habitually disobedient and unrepentant, a disgrace to his family and a burden to his community. Such behavior is still deplorable and is clearly serious sin.

God hated this behavior then and he hates it now, he has not changed. The punishment was appropriate at that time, in those extreme circumstances and in that theocratic society. Such behavior could simply not be tolerated. But there is nothing in the Bible that would indicate the punishment specified is part of a perpetually applicable legal standard. So, the prescribed punishment changed, but God did not change, nor did he change his mind about what is sin.

Marc Roby: And, at the risk of straying further off topic, it is worth noting that this is not the only instance where the punishment for a crime has changed.

Dr. Spencer: No, it definitely is not. In the Old Testament, the punishment for adultery is death. But in Matthew 5:32 Christ changed that law. He said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” John Murray pointed out that this verse implicitly reduced the penalty for adultery, it is no longer to be punished by death, although it does make divorce an allowable option for the offended spouse.[2]

Marc Roby: That also clearly illustrates the authority of Jesus Christ! But getting back to the topic of homosexuality, the New Testament is just as clear that this behavior is sinful.

Dr. Spencer: It absolutely is. In Chapter One of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul tells us that everyone really knows that God exists. He has made himself known through creation so that people are without excuse, but people suppress this truth. And he then tells us in Verse 24, that because of this, “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.”

And he goes on, in Verses 26-27, to say that “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is pretty clear. And Paul also condemns homosexuality elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 he wrote that “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Dr. Spencer: And in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 we read that “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine”. And I have quoted from the ESV because it is a more literal translation of the passage.

Marc Roby: Yes, and that is, again, quite clear. But I know that there are some pastors and theologians who try to defend the idea that it is acceptable to be a Christian and a homosexual at the same time. How would you respond to them?

Dr. Spencer: I wouldn’t. There really is no rational way that a person can believe the Bible to be the infallible word of God and still believe that homosexuality is not a sin. I’ve read some of the arguments and they are so bad that you don’t have to be a theologian to see that they blatantly distort or dismiss the word of God.

If any of our listeners are unsure about the biblical stance on this issue, I would challenge them to first decide whether or not they think the Bible is truly the infallible word of God. If they don’t believe that, then none of my arguments would carry weight anyway, and I would seriously challenge them to make their calling and election sure. If they do believe the Bible to be the infallible word of God, then they should read the passages we’ve just quoted and pray for the Holy Spirit to guide their thinking. It is not a difficult issue, although I understand it can be an emotional issue if it involves someone you love, or if you yourself struggle with same-sex attraction yourself.

Marc Roby: What would you say to any listeners for whom this is a personal issue?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that if it is serious struggle, you should get counsel from a godly Bible-believing church. Don’t try to find one that says it is OK – you can easily find such a place, but it is neither godly nor Bible-believing, and it can’t help you. And then pray for the Holy Spirit to give you the power to conquer this sin. Reject the nonsense that is put forward by the proponents of the LGBTQ agenda.

Marc Roby: Such as?

Dr. Spencer: Such as the idea that homosexuality is not a choice. The idea that homosexual behavior is entirely determined by genetics is patently absurd. The same groups say that your gender identity is not set by your genetics, but then on the other hand they try to say that homosexuals are simply made that way. Those ideas are not only contradictory, they are both nonsense.

If being homosexual was entirely determined by genetics, then there wouldn’t be any examples of people who were able to leave homosexuality and enter into normal heterosexual lifestyles. But there are many such examples. I think there is some similarity here to alcoholism.

Marc Roby: That doesn’t seem obvious at first thought, what similarity are you referring to?

Dr. Spencer: Well, it is often stated that there is a genetic predisposition for people to become alcoholics. Now I don’t know if that is true, but let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that it is. It would not logically follow that being an alcoholic is a good thing. I can’t imagine anyone saying to an alcoholic, “Don’t worry about it, that’s just how God made you, so go ahead and drink yourself to death.”

Marc Roby: I can’t imagine anyone saying that either.

Dr. Spencer: So, my point is that even if there is some genetic predisposition to a certain behavior, that in no way means that behavior is healthy or good. And, as I noted before, it is completely unreasonable to believe that sexual behavior, or alcoholism for that matter, is entirely determined by genetics.

Marc Roby: The LGBTQ community has rather successfully been able to claim this is a civil rights issue, similar to granting blacks the right to vote, or to sit anywhere on a city bus.

Dr. Spencer: That is very unfortunate and we should oppose that notion at every possible turn. Back in 2008, when California was getting ready to vote on Proposition 208, which banned same-sex marriage, I remember a black pastor from Southern California speaking about the idea that homosexuality was the same kind of civil rights issue that blacks faced in the south in the 1950’s. His comment was wonderful. He simply said, “I have a number of former homosexuals in my congregation, I don’t have a single former black person.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that statement makes an important point very clearly.

Dr. Spencer: I think it is very important for Christians to take a stand on this issue, but I also don’t want to make it out to be more important than it really is. Homosexuality isn’t the worst possible sin; it is just one sin among many. In fact, without a doubt, heterosexual sin is far more common. So, as Christians we don’t single out homosexual sin for special condemnation.

I think the only reason homosexuality has become such a hot-button issue is that there is a small segment of our society pushing very hard to normalize this behavior. We have gay pride days, gay pride month and so on. If we had adultery pride days, or thieves pride days, those sins would be talked about more too.

Marc Roby: And, of course, many people, including many professing Christians, support this push.

Dr. Spencer: I think there are a number of reasons why they support it, so it worth taking a few minutes to discuss this in the hopes that we can call a Christian brother or sister back to obedience to the word of God.

The first reason some people support this agenda is that they have believed the lies about homosexuality being genetically determined. But as we’ve noted, those really don’t make sense. And I think a second major reason people support it, if only passively, is simple fear of being attacked. The LGBTQ community has become so rabid in their attacks that to oppose them publicly is to open yourself to really vicious opposition. We saw that in California after Proposition 8 passed. If you are any kind of a public personality, they will accuse you of being filled with hate, of being stupid and ignorant and will shout you down at every opportunity. And if you run a business, they will do everything in their power to shut you down.

Marc Roby: We have certainly seen that in the recent case of Jack Phillips[3] and many others.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we have. Christians are no longer treated as citizens deserving of equal protection under the law in this country, which is astounding. A homosexual who runs a print shop can refuse to print flyers for a church function that he disagrees with, but a Christian print shop, florist or baker cannot refuse to do special work for an event he disagrees with. That is an amazing and very troubling turn of events in this country.

Marc Roby: And the judgments against these people usually include some kind of so-called “sensitivity training”.

Dr. Spencer: And that trend is truly amazing and disturbing to me. We aren’t sending people away to prison camps for years, but this is, nonetheless, a very mild form of a re-education camp. It is a government-sponsored attempt to force us to think the same way. To force a particular ideology on all people. That is downright Orwellian and about as un-American as anything I can think of, and yet we see it happening all over.

But, getting back to homosexuality, I don’t want to spend more time on it. Far from being a sign of hate or homophobia, the truth is that telling any sinner, whether homosexual or otherwise, about the forgiveness available in Jesus Christ is the most loving thing you can do for him or her.

Marc Roby: And that forgiveness requires that the person be told their behavior is a violation of God’s law and the he or she must repent of it, forsake it, and then trust in Christ for salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That is the only hope for anyone. God provides grace to his children to overcome their sins.

The real issue, no matter what sin we talk about, is rebellion. People rebel against the God-given norms of conduct. That is the real issue and homosexuality is just one manifestation of that rebellion. At its core, all sin is prideful rebellion against God. He created us and he has told us how we should live. That includes the functional roles assigned to men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, citizens and the state and so on.

Marc Roby: Very well, are we done then with defining sin?

Dr. Spencer: We are, and so we are ready to get back to talking about total depravity again, which I put off last time.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to that, but it will have to wait until next time. For now, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we’ll do our best to answer.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pg.119

[3] For a brief synopsis, see The Ongoing Persecution of a Christian Baker, By the editors of the Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2019 (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/06/masterpiece-cakeshops-jack-phillips-persecution/)

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Last time we started to discuss sin, which is the most important aspect of human nature since the fall. We noted that there are three main components to the doctrine of sin: its cause, its nature and its definition. We then noted that even though the original creation was entirely good, Satan sinned and then successfully tempted Adam and Eve to sin as well. And we then stated the biblical doctrine of original sin; which is that Adam’s sin caused him to have a sinful nature, and that everyone who is descended from him by the ordinary means of reproduction inherits this sinful nature.

Dr. Spencer, it is often argued that it is unfair of God to allow Adam’s sin to affect anyone other than Adam himself. How would you respond to that charge?

Dr. Spencer: Well, there are a number of things that can be said in response to that charge. James Boice correctly claims in his Foundations of the Christian Faith, that “the fact that Adam was made a representative of the race is proof of God’s grace.”[1]

Marc Roby: Now, how is that fact proof of God’s grace?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first of all, Boice points out that Adam knew he was representing all of his descendants. And, as any father or mother knows, we are far more careful when the welfare of our children is at stake than we are if it is only our own welfare that is at stake. Boice says, “what could be better calculated to bring forth an exalted sense of responsibility and obedience in Adam than the knowledge that what he would do in regard to God’s commandment would affect untold billions of his descendants.”[2]

Marc Roby: That’s a good point, although I don’t know that Adam was thinking about “untold billions of his descendants.” It seems far more likely that he would think about his own children. And even they weren’t born yet.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, but Boice’s point is still good. And it has also been pointed out by others that God had placed Adam in a perfect place, the Garden of Eden, and had bountifully provided for his every need. In other words, the circumstances under which Adam was called to obey were the best possible circumstances, those which were most conducive to his actually obeying. In addition, no great effort was required for him to obey since the command given to him was very simple and clear, he only had to refrain from eating the fruit of one tree. Everything else was available to him. This again illustrates God’s grace.

Marc Roby: The circumstances were certainly arranged to make it as easy as possible for Adam to obey, which makes his rebellion all that much more terrible.

Dr. Spencer: And I think we can reasonably conclude, based on the character of God, that Adam was the best possible representative we could have had. We shouldn’t think that we would have done any better.

Marc Roby: I know I wouldn’t want to make that claim.

Dr. Spencer: Nor would I, to do so would be to call God a liar since he says that his ways are perfect, which must include his choice for our representative. And Boice points out another important aspect relating to Adam’s representative role. He says that “the representative nature of Adam’s sin is an example of God’s grace toward us, for it is on the basis of that representation that God is able to save us.”[3] And he then quotes from Romans 5:19 where Paul wrote that “just as through the disobedience of the one man [which, of course, refers to Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [which refers to Jesus Christ] the many will be made righteous.” [4]

Marc Roby: That verse alone makes it pretty clear that God’s relating to us through the mediation of a representative is, ultimately, very gracious. If it weren’t for representation, there could be no salvation. If someone thinks it is unfair to be represented by Adam, then to be logically consistent, that person should also not want to be represented by Jesus Christ. But there is no salvation possible outside of Christ.

Dr. Spencer: And there is a lot more that could be said, but this is not properly part of the topic of anthropology, so I will defer further discussion along those lines to a later session. For now, let me just say one more thing about the cause of sin. Because Adam represented us, we share in his guilt and punishment. Part of that punishment consists in our being born with a sinful nature. The fact that Adam’s sinful nature is passed on to all of his natural descendants explains the universal nature of sin. We all sin because we are, by nature, sinners.

Marc Roby: I have never met the person who is an exception to that rule.

Dr. Spencer: Nor have I, nor will either of us ever meet that person in this life because there are no exceptions among Adam’s natural descendants. We are all sinners.

We do have a free will, meaning that we make real choices for which we can be justly held accountable. But as we discussed in Session 84, our will chooses according to our desires. And because we have a sinful nature, our desires are sinful. We may do things, and many people often do, that are in accordance with God’s law and are, therefore, good. But unregenerate men never do anything from a heart that desires to obey and please God, so even their outwardly good deeds are sinful because, as we’re told in Proverbs 16:2, “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD.”

Marc Roby: The idea that we all inherited a sinful nature from Adam is not something that many people will readily accept.

Dr. Spencer: I am well aware of that. But we are examining what the Bible teaches, which is truth, not what man will readily accept. And that completes what I wanted to say for now about the cause of sin.

Marc Roby: I do have one question on this topic that some of our listeners may be wondering about though.

Dr. Spencer: What question is that?

Marc Roby: How is the sinful nature transmitted from parents to children? Since sin has to do with moral choices, it is clearly caused by our spirit, not our physical body. But where does our spirit come from? In Zechariah 12:1 we read, “This is the word of the LORD concerning Israel. The LORD, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of man within him”. But, if God gives each new person his or her spirit, and the spirit is sinful, doesn’t that make God the author of sin?

Dr. Spencer: Well, this question is interesting, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time on it since the Bible does not give us enough information to form a firm answer. I would agree with your statement that if God creates each new spirit that seems problematic since our spirits are sinful. But, Wayne Grudem, for example, disagrees. He says that “there does not seem to be any real theological difficulty in saying that God gives each child a human soul that has tendencies to sin that are similar to the tendencies found in the parents.”[5] Now I disagree with his logic, but I would not want to be dogmatic on the point.

In one sense of course God is the one who makes us. Not just our spirits, but our bodies as well. In Psalm 139:13 the psalmist is speaking to God and says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I think this is speaking about the whole person, not just the spirit. But we all know how babies are made. In one sense God can be said to do it, but he uses a human mother and father as secondary agents.

Marc Roby: And so, Zechariah 12:1 doesn’t necessarily imply that the spirit is somehow different from the body in that regard.

Dr. Spencer: I certainly don’t see any reason to draw that conclusion. But with regard to the larger question, there have been great theologians on both sides of the debate. Some, like Calvin favored the idea that God created each spirit individually. That view is called creationism. Others, like Luther and Jonathan Edwards, favored the view that we inherit our spirit from our parents, which is called traducianism. And, while I think that traducianism is the most likely answer, I would never be dogmatic about this at all.

Marc Roby: Very well, let’s not spend any more time on it then.

Dr. Spencer: Alright. Then let me continue with our outline of the doctrine of sin. The second component I mentioned is the nature of sin. And the biblical view is that man is totally depraved.

Marc Roby: And that terminology is, of course, easily misunderstood.

Dr. Spencer: Not only easily, but frequently misunderstood. So, let’s be clear about what we mean and what we don’t mean. To say that man is totally depraved does not mean that he is as bad as he can possibly be. Rather, total depravity means that there is no part of man that is unaffected by sin. Every part of our being is corrupted, so perhaps a better term would be pervasive depravity. But we are stuck with the existing term because it has been in use for so long that we really can’t avoid it. The really important point is that we not think we have some faculty, whether it be our reason, our will or anything else, that is unaffected by sin. But I want to put off further discussion of total depravity until we have given our definition of sin.

Marc Roby: Which is the third component of the doctrine that you mentioned, so please go ahead.

Dr. Spencer: Let me start by quoting the answer to Question 14 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It says, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

That answer mentions two kinds of sin. First, it said sin is “any want of conformity unto” the law of God. This is often called a sin of omission – simply meaning that we didn’t do something we were obligated to do. Second, it mentions “transgression of” the law of God, which is often called a sin of commission – in other words, we do something that we are forbidden to do. In both cases, this definition makes it clear that it is the law of God that establishes what is and is not sin.

Marc Roby: And all sin can be seen, at its core, as being rebellion against God’s rule.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. At the end of the day, every sin, no matter how small, is a way of saying to God that you are independent and do not need to come under his rule.

Marc Roby: Very well. What about the laws that men make?

Dr. Spencer: We should almost always obey them. The laws of God are, of course, more important and trump the laws made by men, but so long as the laws made by God’s delegated authorities are proper, it would be sin to violate them.

Paul tells us in Romans 13:1-2 that “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Marc Roby: When you say those laws must be “proper”, do you mean they must be fully consistent with the Word of God? Or do you just mean that they must not directly contradict the word of God by commanding us to sin?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let me first say that we absolutely must not obey any law of men that commands us to sin. In Acts Chapter Five we read about the apostles being arrested for preaching the gospel. They were put in jail overnight to await their appearing before the Jewish ruling council of elders, called the Sanhedrin. But, during the night, an angel of the Lord set them free and commanded them to go to the temple courts and preach the gospel. So, at daybreak, the apostles obeyed.

Marc Roby: Which, of course, didn’t sit well with the Sanhedrin.

Dr. Spencer: No, it didn’t sit well at all. The apostles were again arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. In Acts 5:28 we are told that the high priest said to them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Marc Roby: And, by this reference to “this man’s blood” they were, of course, referring to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. In any event, we read the apostles’ response in Acts 5:29, they said, “We must obey God rather than men!” This is a very simple concept, but potentially with very serious implications. We have spoken at length about God’s delegated authorities in the state, church and home in Sessions 28-33. God expects us to respectfully obey all legitimate authorities. But if they tell us to sin, they are no longer exercising legitimate authority because God has not given any delegated authority the right to sin or to command others to sin. And it is also possible for them to overstep the bounds of their delegated authority, in which case we have the right, but certainly no obligation, to disobey. Now, obviously, refusing to obey authority, even if you do it respectfully, can be costly.

Marc Roby: It certainly can. If, for example, we think about a German soldier in World War II being commanded to help in one of the extermination camps, it is easy to see that failure to obey that order would most likely cost him his life.

Dr. Spencer: That is clearly a very extreme and unusual example, but nonetheless true. If you were ordered to kill innocent people that would be an order you would have to refuse even if it cost you your life. But there are much less-extreme examples that come up far more frequently and, I might add, also pose far more difficult questions.

Marc Roby: Can you give some examples?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Consider being a medical doctor in our current society. Suppose you have a patient come in for an examination and you find that he has a medical problem directly caused by homosexual behavior. If you are a Christian doctor, you might feel obliged to explain to the man that his medical problem is caused by his sinful behavior and that the best thing for him to do is to stop that behavior. But that would get you in a lot of trouble with most medical groups and might even cost you your job if you did it repeatedly.

Marc Roby: Yes, that could definitely be a very complex situation.

Dr. Spencer: And here is where I would have to say that each individual Christian has to decide for him or herself. As far as I can see, it would not be a clear sin to just treat the person and say nothing. Or, perhaps, you could just explain how the particular behavior caused the problem and suggest that he change his behavior without making any statements about it being sin.

Marc Roby: Yes, doctors certainly tell people, for example, that they would be better off if they stopped smoking, or lost weight, or got more exercise.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do that all the time. But those behaviors aren’t as politically charged in our society and unless the doctor came across as insufferably condescending or judgmental it’s hard to imagine such advice causing any trouble. In any event, I think each Christian has to make decisions about these difficult questions on his own. They can, and should, get counsel, if possible, from their elders to help them make a decision that honors God.

Marc Roby: And that brings us right back to the idea that it is God to whom we are ultimately accountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is the most important point. God is the one who defines sin, not man. He has delegated to the state, the church and the family the authority to make other laws and rules as necessary to regulate the orderly functioning of the state, church and home, and Christians are obligated to obey those man-made laws almost always. And those laws can change. Different countries, states, churches and homes have different laws and rules, but they can still all be proper and binding on Christians.

Marc Roby: And such delegated authority, unless abused, is beneficial to mankind in general and to God’s church in particular.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, it certainly is. Christians would not be free to worship, live their lives for God’s glory and tell others about Christ if they lived in the midst of anarchy. The orderly operation of the state, church and home are absolutely necessary.

Marc Roby: And if we go back to the apostles again, who lived under Roman rule, we have an example of Christians living under a government that was, at times, very hostile to them.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, extremely hostile at times. And yet, in Romans 13:5 Paul said that “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” and, in Verse 7, he specifically told us to pay taxes, which were extremely unpopular at the time, Israel was under foreign rule.

Marc Roby: I think taxes are unpopular anytime, anywhere! And we could note that Paul was in agreement with Jesus on that point. Jesus also famously told the people to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” in Matthew 12:21.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. We are to keep the order straight. God is the supreme ruler. But we must obey all delegated authorities unless doing so requires us to disobey God. If we disobey an earthly authority, the worst thing that can happen to us that we can be killed. But Jesus told us, in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Marc Roby: Well, we are out of time, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we’ll respond as best we can.

 

[1] James Boice, , Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 206

[2] Ibid, pp 206-207

[3] Ibid, pg. 207

[4] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[5] Wayne Gudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 485

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