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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the attributes of God. We have been discussing God’s immutability, which means that he does not change. Are we done with that topic Dr. Spencer?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. It is such an important issue in the modern church that I want to really drive home the point that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the very same God, he has not changed.

Marc Roby: Very well, what else do you want to say to support this view?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that there has never been a time when anyone was saved by keeping the law. Salvation has always been by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Immediately after the fall God promised a redeemer. And the only way of salvation in the Old Testament times was by faith in that promised redeemer just as it is today.

Marc Roby: When you say that God promised a redeemer immediately after the fall, you are of course referring to Genesis 3:15, sometimes called the protoevangelium, which tells us that when God pronounced his curse on Satan he said to him, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what I was referring to. Jesus Christ is the offspring of the woman and he figuratively crushed Satan’s head when he died on the cross to pay the penalty owed by all of his chosen followers. And no one was saved in the time before Jesus Christ except by believing in this promised Messiah. And yet, God established both an elaborate system of sacrifices, which pointed forward to Christ and ended when he came, as well as the moral law, which is summarized by the Ten Commandments. So, in order to fully understand that God has not changed, we need to ask what role the law played in the Old Testament, and then we will see that it functions in exactly the same way today.

Marc Roby: What role then did the law play in Old Testament times?

Dr. Spencer: The law played three roles in the Old Testament, just as it does today. John Calvin wrote about the threefold use of the law in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.[2] The first use of the law is that it shows us where we fall short of meeting God’s standard of righteousness. That standard has not changed since Old Testament times and there is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that indicates that God has relaxed his standard in any way. In fact, we are told in Hebrews 12:14 that we must, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

Marc Roby: I’m also reminded of Paul’s introduction to his first letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 he wrote, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (emphasis added).

Dr. Spencer: Paul also wrote in Ephesians 1:4 that God “chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” And Peter wrote, in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” And Peter was quoting from Leviticus 11:44 where God said to his people, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” This demonstrates the continuity of God’s requirement that his people must be holy.

Marc Roby: I think it is important to add that being holy requires obedience.

Dr. Spencer: It absolutely does. Our obedience doesn’t earn anything from God, salvation is by grace, but we can’t allow ourselves to think that the requirement to be holy is only referring to our being united with Christ and clothed with his perfect righteousness. If we have been born again, it will be evident in our lives. We must have obedient lives or our claim to be a Christian is false.

As it says in Hebrews 5:8-9, Christ “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. So, Christ’s obedience in suffering made him the perfect sacrifice required and as a result he is the source of eternal salvation “for all who obey him”. It doesn’t say that he is the source of eternal salvation for those who call themselves Christians.

If some of our listeners don’t like this idea of obedience being necessary, I encourage them to look up the word obey in a concordance and look at the New Testament verses that use the word. There are quite a few that speak about the need for Christians to obey. For example, anyone who is interested should at a bare minimum look at John 14:15 and 15:10, Acts 5:32, Hebrews 13:17 and 1 John 2:3, but there are many, many more.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think that is enough to establish that God’s standard for us in both the Old and New Testament times is that we be holy, which means that we obey God’s commands. And, of course, it is obvious to any reasonable person that none of us are holy. So, you said that the first use of the law is to show us that very fact.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Calvin wrote that our being convicted by the law of God “is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity.”[3] He also wrote that “the Law is a kind of mirror. As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.” In other words, we must conclude from the fact that we don’t measure up to God’s standard that we have a serious problem, which should drive us to cry out “What must I do to be saved?”

Marc Roby: That is the rational response. What is the second use of the law as elucidated by Calvin?

Dr. Spencer: The second use is to restrain moral evil in this world. Calvin wrote that “The second office of the Law is, by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”[4] The fact that there are serious punishments threatened for disobeying God’s law is a strong incentive for people to not break that law. This is the function of the law that Paul wrote about in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, where he said that “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers”.

This is why properly functioning civil governments should have laws that mirror God’s laws. Not all people will respond to God’s threats – although they are far more consequential and serious than anything man can do to us. And because not all people will respond to God’s threats, our civil governments have the responsibility of imposing sanctions on those who violate God’s laws. That is the basis of any proper legal system.

Marc Roby: That idea is not very popular today.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t, because people have an unbiblical worldview. That worldview ignores what the Bible teaches us about human nature. This false worldview says that man is basically good. The idea is that people only steal because they need something. And people only do terrible things to other people because somewhere along the line someone did something terrible to them.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly come across that view as well. But all of human history, and any honest evaluation of our own hearts, argues quite strongly against it.

Dr. Spencer: The facts argue very strongly against that view. The human heart harbors tremendous evil. Fortunately, most people keep it under wraps most of the time, and I don’t think that we are all capable of the same depths of evil and depravity, but to deny the existence of real evil in human beings is to put your head in the sand and ignore the obvious. And to think that people only do bad things because bad things have happened to them ignores the obvious problem of how did all these bad things get started? And why are they many people who do terrible things who have never had any terrible thing done to them?

Marc Roby: That is a good question.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. I remember just a few years ago there was a young man in our town, who hadn’t had anything terribly unusual happen to him, but he brutally murdered an elderly couple in their bed with a knife just because he wanted to know what it felt like to kill people. Now that depth of depravity and wickedness is, admittedly and thankfully, quite rare. But, any theory of human behavior has to take that sort of thing into account because it is not so exceptionally rare that it can be explained away as some extreme aberration. And when you include actions like rape, assault and robbery, which while certainly less wicked are, nonetheless, still wicked, you have a serious problem defending the idea that people are basically good at heart.

Marc Roby: OK. We’ve established two uses of the law: first, to show us that we ourselves do not meet God’s standard and need a Savior, and second, to moderate evil in society. What is the law’s third use?

Dr. Spencer: The third use that Calvin listed, which he called “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end”[5], only applies to believers and was to show God’s people how we can please him. Every child who loves his parents wants to know what he can do to please them. And every true child of God will want to live a life that is pleasing to God. But, no one can do that if we aren’t told what pleases God. The law serves that purpose, and every single person who has been born again will lead a changed life; a life that is characterized by obedience to God’s law.

Marc Roby: But, we must be clear that we are not saying that our obedience earns salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. Our obedience is never perfect in this life, and God’s standard is perfection. Therefore, it is fundamentally impossible for us to earn our salvation. Nevertheless, a born-again person has a new heart and desires to please God and will strive for holiness. We must be different than the rest of the world or we are not truly God’s people.

Marc Roby: And that has not changed since Old Testament times.

Dr. Spencer: No, it hasn’t changed at all. And we can now see that these three uses of the law are the same today as they were at the time of Moses, or King David, or any other Old Testament saint. As we noted in Session 57 there are three things that have changed since the Old Testament: First, we have much greater revelation than even Moses had; Second, the promised Messiah has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so the ceremonial law has been done away with because its only purpose was to point to the coming Redeemer; And, third, we no longer live under the same civil government.

So there have been changes, and they are significant. But God has not changed. His standard of holiness has not changed, and the way of salvation has not changed. The Old Testament is still relevant today, but we have to be intelligent in applying it. We no longer stone adulterers for example because that was part of the civil law in effect at that time. But adultery is still a terrible sin and a properly functioning government will have some kind of penalty in place for people who commit that sin.

Marc Roby: But we as individuals do not have authority to punish anyone for their sins, even if the civil government fails to.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God has only given that power to the state, not to individuals or to the church. As we’ve said, unless we are commanded to sin, we should obey the civil authorities. The church, of course, still has the power of the keys and must exercise authority in disciplining people who sin and refuse to repent.

Marc Roby: Are we done with discussing God’s immutability now?

Dr. Spencer: We are.

Marc Roby: What’s next then?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s eternity. I want to discuss it next because it is related to God’s immutability. Wayne Grudem defines God’s eternity as meaning that “God has no beginning, end, or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.”[6]

Marc Roby: Now that’s a difficult definition to wrap your mind around completely.

Dr. Spencer: It is, especially for our listeners who aren’t following allowing in the written transcript. But, I think it will become clearer as I explain how it is related to God’s immutability.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: If God is immutable as we have claimed, then it follows that his knowledge does not increase or decrease from one moment to the next. In other words, as Grudem said, he has no “succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly”. This is a very difficult thing for us to grasp because we experience only the present vividly. We experience the past less vividly and the further we go back in time the worse our memory becomes in general.

Marc Roby: Although we all have particularly memorable events or experiences that we remember better than others.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do. But the point is that God sees all times equally well. It is as if everything were the present to him. There isn’t some particular moment in time that God sees or experiences more clearly or vividly than others. If that were not the case, he would not be immutable. Grudem notes that when Jesus said, in John 8:58, that “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!” He used the present tense verb in referring to his existence prior to the time of Abraham, which in Greek indicates something that continues to be true.[7] Therefore, Jesus’ statement suggests that every moment in our history is, essentially, the present to God.

Marc Roby: That is extremely hard for us to understand.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, it is impossible for us to grasp fully. But it is a necessary conclusion based on God’s revelation to us in the Bible. Many of the Scriptures that we cited when we discussed God’s self-existence, or aseity, are also applicable here. For example, the fact that God existed prior to this universe, which is clearly taught in Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1, is evidence that he is not subject to the succession of events that occur in this universe, which is what we think of as defining the passage of time.

Marc Roby: The fact that God can predict the future also requires that he does not experience time as we do.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And God uses that fact to mock idols. For example, in Isaiah 41:22-23 God says to his people, “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.”

Marc Roby: And this contrasts with God himself. He tells us, in Isaiah 46:9-10, to, “Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”

Dr. Spencer: I think this is the hardest thing for us to grasp, that what we think of as future is equally vivid in God’s sight as our present. And yet, as Grudem’s definition says, “God sees events in time and acts in time.” Which means that he understands how we perceive time as a succession of events. He knows that we can’t see the future and he is able to interact with us in time.

Marc Roby: I think a good part of the reason why we can’t understand God’s knowing the future is that the future seems to us to not yet be determined. It depends on exactly what we and billions of other people and animals do, which seems to us to be fundamentally unknowable until it happens.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. God’s eternity and immutability are difficult to reconcile with man’s free will or the free actions of animals. But, I want to leave that topic for later. For now, let me cite one other verse that is very interesting to examine. In 2 Peter 3:8 the apostle wrote that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” The second part of this statement, that “a thousand years are like a day” is the same point made in Verse 4 of Psalm 90, which says that “a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by”. In other words, God doesn’t have trouble remembering things from a thousand years ago, they are just like yesterday. And this is, of course, a figurative way of saying that he knows all of the past perfectly.

But, the first part of Peter’s statement, that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years” is new and very interesting. Let me quote from Grudem here. He notes that “since ‘a thousand years’ is a figurative expression for ‘as long a time as we can imagine,’ or ‘all history,’ we can say from this verse that any one day seems to God to be present to his consciousness forever.”[8] In other words, every moment of human history is like the immediate present to God.

Marc Roby: It is clear from these verses that God does not experience time as we do.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is clear but it is also impossible for us to grasp completely.

Marc Roby: It certainly is, and I think we need to end here for today. But I look forward to continuing this discussion next time. I would like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate 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 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, 2.7.6

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 2.7.10

[5] Ibid, 2.7.12

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 168

[7] Ibid, pg. 169

[8] Grudem, pg. 170

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the attributes of God. Last time we ended discussing the aseity of God, which is his self-existence. We noted that he does not need man in any way, which is a profoundly humbling thought. Dr. Spencer, what else do we want to say about God’s aseity?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin by looking at the Scriptural basis for this idea. Last time we talked about the name by which God revealed himself to Moses, which is “I Am”. Remember that in Exodus 3:14 we read, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’” [1] And we noted that only God can say “I Am” in an absolute sense. I can say that “I am”, but, sooner or later, I will die and I will not “be” in my present state any longer. And there was a time when I did not exist at all. In other words, I am dependent; whereas, God is completely independent.

Marc Roby: What other Scriptural support do you want to cite for this attribute?

Dr. Spencer: One of the best verses is John 5:26, where Jesus says that “as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” We do not have life in ourselves. As I just noted, my life had a beginning and it will have an end, which can come at any time. Even though we believe that all human beings will, in fact, live forever, either in hell or in heaven, our living is still contingent, totally dependent on God. God, on the other hand, “has life in himself”, which speaks of his self-existence.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the apostle Paul’s statement to the Athenians. In Acts 17:24-25 we read that Paul said, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

Dr. Spencer: That is an obvious result of the fact that God is the only one who has life in himself. All other life is derived from him. As Paul put it, “he himself gives all men life and breath”. Another good passage is Psalm 102:25-27, which says, “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” God existed before creation and will never perish; in fact, it is impossible for him to not exist.

We can also look at Psalm 90:2, where we read, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” From everlasting to everlasting is a clear reference to eternity past and eternity future.

Marc Roby: Of course, to speak of past and future is to cater to a limitation known to us as creatures, but not to God. In Verse 4 of that Psalm we read, “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” Which, as you noted before, in Session 8, is a hint at the fact that God does not experience time in the same that way we do.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. And Isaiah 40:28 says, in part, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” God is everlasting – in other words, without end. He exists necessarily. Finally, in Revelation 4:10 we are told that “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever.” To say that God lives “for ever and ever” is again a clear reference to his having no beginning or end. He is self-existent.

Marc Roby: That really is impossible for us to grasp.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. We are bound to our existence and dependence and can’t really conceive of what it means to be self-existent and independent. In fact, theologians have struggled throughout history with the idea of the knowability of God. In other words, what can we truly know about God. It has often been noted that we are finite creatures and that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. But, while we certainly cannot have a comprehensive knowledge of God, it is important to maintain that we can have a true knowledge of God.

Marc Roby: But that knowledge must be based on his revelation to us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it must. In fact, the fact that God told his name to Moses points out that we only know about God because we exist in relation to him, he has chosen to reveal himself. And, in terms of that relationship, he is our covenant Lord. We cannot properly conceive of God outside of his lordship, or rule, over our lives. We dare not think of him as just the Creator, or some cosmic force, or as the universal policeman, or anything else. He is Lord.

Marc Roby: I think this is the main reason people get so offended at real Christianity.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. People don’t get so offended if you talk about some force, or nebulous god who makes no claim to lordship. But true Christianity is different. John Frame wrote the following: “Although the opinion makers tell us that there are ‘many paths to God,’ they exclude the Christian path because it claims to be exclusive. The interesting fact is that both those who idolize secularity and those who promote alternative spiritualities agree in rejecting the God of Scripture. Only he is of sufficient weight for them to recognize as their enemy. … Our message to the world must emphasize that God is real, and that he will not be trifled with. He is the almighty, majestic Lord of heaven and earth, and he demands our most passionate love and obedience.”[2]

Marc Roby: Frame does a good job of emphasizing the lordship of God. He also wrote that “The first thing, and in one sense the only thing, we need to know about God is that he is Lord.”[3] And he notes how often God says in his Word that he did something so that one group or another “will know that I am the Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: In fact, I did a quick search on my computer and that exact phrase “will know that I am the Lord” occurs 63 times in the 1984 NIV translation. And I’m sure there are other more-or-less equivalent sayings as well. It is a common theme in the Bible. We will come back to that topic of lordship more later.

Marc Roby: Very well, for now though let’s get back to our discussion of God’s aseity. You noted that even though we cannot know God completely, we can, nonetheless, have true knowledge about him.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We only know what God chooses to reveal to us. But the knowledge that we obtain from his revelation is true knowledge as far as it goes. And we can clearly know from the passages we’ve adduced that God is self-existent and independent of his creation.

Marc Roby: The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a wonderful summary of this point. In Paragraph 2 of Chapter 2, which is on God and the Holy Trinity, we read the following; “God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleases.”[4]

Dr. Spencer: That is a great summary, and it is also a good place to end our discussion of God’s aseity.

Marc Roby: What attribute would you like to discuss next?

Dr. Spencer: I want to discuss God’s triune nature.

Marc Roby: In other words, the fact that he exists in three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. I think that this aspect of God’s nature is even harder for us to grasp than his aseity, but both of them highlight the radical difference between God as the independent Creator and us as dependent creatures made in his image. God’s Trinity is sometimes not considered an attribute, because God’s attributes are meant to describe God’s nature and all of them apply to all three persons of the Trinity. Therefore, it is most often dealt with separately and you will often see it referred to as the doctrine of the Trinity.

Marc Roby: This doctrine has caused many problems in the history of the church and even today you have Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, who call themselves Christians, but who deny this doctrine.

Dr. Spencer: The reason it has caused so many problems is that it is a very difficult doctrine to understand. But it is also a clear teaching of the Bible as we will show. It is not possible to be a true Christian and deny the Trinity.

Marc Roby: Of course, the word itself, the Trinity, doesn’t occur in the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But the term is one we use to explain the clear teaching of the Bible. Part of the reason the truth of the triune nature of God has been a problem is that it differs from the understanding of the Jews at the time of Jesus, so people sometimes think that it is a new teaching that contradicts the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: Which, of course, is not true.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t true at all. What is true is that the Old Testament teaching is not as explicit as that in the New Testament, but the idea of the Trinity is definitely there as we will show.

Marc Roby: Many people reject this doctrine because they claim it is a logical contradiction or, at the very least, incomprehensible. How would you answer them?

Dr. Spencer: The answer has two parts. First of all, the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely not a logical contradiction. If I said that God is one person and that God is three persons at the same time, that would be a contradiction. But the doctrine of the Trinity says that there is one God, who exists in three persons.

The second part of the answer is that I agree the doctrine is incomprehensible, if by that you mean that we cannot fully comprehend it. But that in no way militates against the doctrine being true. Our physical universe is incomprehensible too if we are talking about a complete understanding. In fact, we don’t even know what mass and energy are. In high-school science you learn that energy is the ability to do work and is a property of matter. So, for example, if I throw a baseball, that object possesses kinetic energy, which would allow it to do the work of breaking your living room window.

Marc Roby: I wouldn’t be very happy if you did that.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure you wouldn’t. But you, and a whole lot of other people, would be even more unhappy if I somehow converted even a tiny amount of the mass in that baseball directly into energy. Einstein’s famous formula, E = mC2, tells us that mass and energy are in some sense the same thing. And even a tiny amount of mass possesses an incredible amount of energy, that is the basis of atomic weapons and atomic power. I don’t want to go into a bunch of physics, but my point is simply this. We don’t know what mass and energy really are at the most fundamental level. In fact, the best current understanding is that everything in our universe is a wave of some kind, there really aren’t any particles in the sense we usually think of them.

Marc Roby: That is all very confusing to most people.

Dr. Spencer: And that is precisely my point.

Marc Roby: You wanted to confuse people?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. For a good purpose. My point is an argument from the lesser to the greater. If the creation itself is, at the most fundamental level, incomprehensible to us, wouldn’t you expect the Creator to be even more incomprehensible? Why would anyone think that you or I, or any other finite creature, should be able to comprehend God? So, while we should not accept anything that is a real logical contradiction, we should not expect God’s nature to be something familiar to us from creation itself or to be something we can fully understand. We shouldn’t limit the nature of God because of our limited mental capabilities.

Marc Roby: That sounds reasonable. So, what biblical support do you want to look at for the doctrine of the Trinity?

Dr. Spencer: I want to start with the Old Testament since, as I said, people sometimes erroneously think that the Trinity contradicts the Old Testament view of God.

Marc Roby: Okay, what Old Testament passages do you want to look at?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin in Genesis 1. In the first two verses we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” And, we are immediately confronted with a question. Who is this “Spirit of God” that is hovering over the waters? I understand that we sometimes also talk about the spirit of a man, and by that phrase we would often mean the central core of his being and personality, or something like that. But you wouldn’t say that the spirit of a man was hovering somewhere. That usage sounds like you are talking about a distinct person.

Marc Roby: That is interesting, but not exactly conclusive. What other evidence do we have?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s move down to Verse 26 of Genesis 1, where we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness …’”. It is interesting that God refers to himself in the plural here. He says, “Let us”, not I will, or Let me, or anything like that. Now some have said that this is a “plural of majesty”. And they support this idea by pointing out, for example, that Alexander the Great and others referred to themselves in the plural. But, Wayne Grudem points out in his Systematic Theology that there is no other example in ancient Hebrew writing of this kind of use of the plural, so this is a conjecture with absolutely nothing to support it.[5]

Marc Roby: That also isn’t the only place in the Old Testament where God refers to himself in the plural. Grudem mentions Genesis 3:22, 11:7 and Isaiah 6:8.[6]

Dr. Spencer: He also points out that there are passages in the Old Testament where more than one person is called God or Lord in the same statement. For example, in Psalm 110:1, which was written by King David, we read, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” This is a very interesting statement. David was the absolute monarch at the time, so the only one he would call Lord is God. And yet, he says , The LORD says to my Lord”, which implies two distinct persons, both of whom David refers to as God. Also, who could say to God “Sit at my right hand” but someone else who is also God?[7]

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting argument. And that passage was used by Jesus to stump the theologians of his day too.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it was. In Matthew 22:41-46 we read about Jesus questioning some of the religious leaders of his day. They had just been grilling him with what they thought were very difficult questions, in the hope of tricking him into some kind of error. And, after answering all of their questions, Jesus turned the tables a bit and asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They correctly replied, “The son of David.” Jesus then asks them a question about this psalm. He says, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”

Marc Roby: And we know that that question stumped them, because we read that “No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. They didn’t want to admit that there was a plurality of persons in the godhead, but there is not other way to understand that verse, so they stayed silent. Grudem points out that the Jewish theologians today still have no answer to this question.[8]

Marc Roby: This is a very interesting conversation, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners to send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d appreciate 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 M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pp 2-3

[3] Ibid, pg. 21

[4] Minor updating of the English.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 227

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pg. 228

[8] Ibid, pg. 228

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[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: Well, Dr. Spencer, I’m excited about today’s session because we are ready to begin studying systematic theology proper.

Dr. Spencer: I’m excited as well. We’ve gone nearly a year now and have covered a lot of material as background and motivation. We first talked about why people should be interested in what the Word of God says and gave a summary of the Bible’s teaching. We then noted that the Bible claims to be the infallible Word of God and spent quite a bit of time on extra-biblical evidence that corroborates the Bible’s claim. We also discussed the nature of true saving faith to make it clear that our faith does not depend on the extra-biblical evidence. We then moved on to discuss the doctrine of the Word of God. We did that because even though it is true that God reveals himself in nature, that revelation is not sufficient for a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And so God graciously gave us special revelation in his Word.

Dr. Spencer: And we showed that the Word of God is sufficient, necessary, authoritative and clear in its teaching. It is sufficient and necessary for salvation. It is our ultimate and absolute authority in life, and the basic message is clear to anyone who takes the time to explore what it says. We also went on to discuss delegated authority in the home, state and church. And, most recently, we covered the infallibility of the Bible and the science of hermeneutics, which allows us to interpret it correctly.

Marc Roby: We also gave a couple of examples of really bad theology, which is common in the world today, as evidence for why it is so important for us to read the Word with great care.

Dr. Spencer: The time we’re living in makes me think of what the prophet Amos said. In Amos 8:11 God told his people that “The days are coming, … when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” [1]

In our day we are swimming in a sea of heretical views of Christianity – so it isn’t like dying of thirst because of having no water at all, but of having no fresh water! It’s more like dying of thirst while surrounded by salt water! We need to know what the Word of God really says so that we can have the pure, fresh water of the Word of God to assuage our thirst for truth.

Marc Roby: That’s a good metaphor. So, now that we are ready to dive into systematic theology, where do you want to begin?

Dr. Spencer: We are going to follow, somewhat loosely at times, a well-established outline in reformed theology. It covers what are called the six loci of theology. A locus is a central point or focus of something, so the six loci are the six main headings under which we can organize all of systematic theology. Those six loci are: 1) Theology proper, which means the study of God; 2) Anthropology, which means the study of man; 3) Christology, which means the study of Jesus Christ the Redeemer; 4) Soteriology, which means the study of salvation; in other words, how sinful men can be saved; 5) Ecclesiology, which means the study of the church; and 6) Eschatology, which means the study of last things; in other words, of the final eternal state of everything.

Marc Roby: I might add that some theologians would add the doctrine of Scripture, which we have already covered, as another locus, rather than as background.

Dr. Spencer: I’m not surprised that you would mention that since one of your favorites, John Frame, is an example of a theologian who would do so.[2] If we include the doctrine of the Word of God as a locus, then it would be first and we would have seven loci. In that case, we could say that we are done with the first of the seven loci and are moving on to the second.

Marc Roby: This outline also roughly conforms to that followed by John Calvin in his monumental work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. His work is divided into four books, with Book 1 being on the knowledge of God the Creator, Book 2 being on the knowledge of God the Redeemer, Book 3 being on the mode of obtaining the grace of Christ, and Book 4 being on the Holy Catholic Church. Now, the word “Catholic” here simply means universal and does not imply any connection to the Roman Catholic Church.

Dr. Spencer: And in his Institutes, Calvin includes a discussion of the Scriptures in Book 1. We can also look at the Westminster Confession of Faith and note that it begins with the Word of God. We’ve said before, but it bears repeating in this day of self-professed Christians ignoring the Bible, that the Bible is the only place we have an objective revelation of Jesus Christ. It makes no sense therefore, to call myself a Christian and not take the Bible very seriously.

But, getting back to our outline of systematic theology, it also conforms, again loosely, to that followed in a number of systematic theology books. For those listeners who are interested in references to use as we go through this material, I recommend James Boice’s book Foundations of the Christian Faith as a good readable introduction.[3] For a more in-depth treatment I recommend Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology[4] and also Charles Hodge’s 3-volume Systematic Theology, which is even available online as a pdf for free.[5] A good but extremely concise treatment can also be found in J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology.[6]

Marc Roby: Those are all good references. And perhaps we should also mention that for those of our listeners who are well read and want to dive into something more challenging, there are good translations of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion available as well.[7]

Dr. Spencer: In fact, you can also find a pdf copy of the Institutes online for free.[8] The detailed references for all these things are given in the transcript of this session as always. All of our podcasts and their associated transcripts can be found on our website at whatdoesthewordsay.org. And I would also like to mention, since many people don’t listen to the end of our podcasts, that we have a free gift available to any of our listeners. If you go to our webpage, whatdoesthewordsay.org, you can request a free copy of Good News for All People, a short presentation of the gospel written by our founding pastor, Rev. P.G. Matthew. It is, in my opinion, the finest short presentation of the gospel available.

Marc Roby: I agree with that view. And I would point out that if someone is a mature Christian and doesn’t think he or she needs the book, they could get a free copy and give it to a friend. So, at long last, are we ready to start with Theology proper?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we finally are. This topic often starts by discussing the knowability of God through general and special revelation. But we’ve already covered those topics, so we are going to jump right in and start to examine the attributes of God.

Marc Roby: And by attributes you mean different aspects of God’s being.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Theologians have come up with different ways of categorizing God’s attributes, but I like the common approach of breaking them into two categories; his incommunicable attributes, meaning those that he does not share with his creatures, and his communicable attributes, which are those that we, in some measure, share.

Marc Roby: Of course, as Grudem points out in his book,[9] these categories are not absolute.

Dr. Spencer: No they’re not absolute, but they are useful because we have to always be aware of the infinite gulf between God as the Creator and ourselves as creatures.

Marc Roby: We also have to guard against God being thought of as just a collection of different attributes.

Dr. Spencer: We absolutely have to guard against that. In dealing with that subject, theologians talk about the simplicity of God.

Marc Roby: I don’t think most people think of God as simple, but that isn’t what is meant here, is it?

Dr. Spencer: No, it is not what’s meant here. When theologians talk about the simplicity of God they are using the word to mean that God is not composed of parts. Some theologians would prefer to use the term unity, rather than simplicity, to avoid the confusion;[10] but the word unity doesn’t have quite the same idea.

Marc Roby: What is the essential idea?

Dr. Spencer: The central idea of saying that God is simple is that he isn’t made up of parts and he can’t in any way be separated. Of course God is not a physical being as we are, so we aren’t talking about God being made up of arms and legs and so on. But even though we have a hard time imagining what a pure spirit is, we must guard against thinking of God as disconnected parts.

For example, consider one of modern pseudo-Christianity’s favorite verses, which gives us one attribute of God; 1 John 4:16 says, in part, “God is love.” And that is without any doubt true. But God is also just and holy and therefore his simplicity tells us that his love is a just love, and a holy love. And his justice is a loving and holy justice, and so on. It helps us to think of God’s attributes separately, but we must always remember that God is all of them, all the time and that they all interact all the time. There is no conflict or separation in God. That is what is meant by the simplicity of God.

Marc Roby: John Frame puts it this way, “Each [of God’s attributes] is essential to him, and therefore his essence includes all of them. God cannot be God without his goodness, his wisdom, and his eternity. In other words, he is necessarily good, wise, and eternal. None of his attributes can be removed from him, and no new attribute can be added to him. Therefore, none of his attributes exists without the others.”[11]

Dr. Spencer: I like that explanation a lot.

Marc Roby: Alright, which of God’s attributes would you like to examine first?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin with his aseity.

Marc Roby: Let me define that word for those listeners who are not familiar with it. Aseity means to exist in and of yourself; in other words, to exist independently, without a cause.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And it is the attribute that is highlighted by the name of God. In Exodus 3 we read the story of Moses being confronted by God. Remember that Moses was born in Egypt at a time when the Jewish people had been commanded to throw all male babies into the Nile because the Egyptians were concerned that the Israelites were becoming too numerous as we read in Exodus Chapter 1. Moses’ mother however, put him in a basket and left him floating in the Nile, where he was discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. He was raised in Pharaoh’s household but knew about his Jewish identity. At one point he murdered an Egyptian for beating a Jewish slave and he had to flee to a foreign country. And it is in that foreign country where God appeared to him in a burning bush.

Marc Roby: And God famously told Moses that he was sending him to Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from their bondage to the Egyptians.

Dr. Spencer: To which Moses replied, as we read in Exodus 3:13, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

Marc Roby: I’m always amazed at the audacity of Moses to ask God for his name.

Dr. Spencer: It is even more amazing that God actually revealed his name! In Verse 14 we read that “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’” We need to understand that names had much greater significance to the ancient Jewish people than they do to us today. And the name God gives to Moses is very significant. As Boice points out in his book, “It is a descriptive name, pointing to all that God is in himself. In particular, it shows him to be the One who is entirely self-existent, self-sufficient and eternal. … these attributes more than any others set God apart from his creation and reveal him as being what he is in himself.”[12]

Marc Roby: I remember you noting that the Creator/creature distinction is central to the message of the Bible way back in Session 2, when we first outlined what the Bible teaches. You were commenting on Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Dr. Spencer: The Creator/creature distinction is absolutely critical. We cannot understand the Bible in any meaningful way without knowing that we are merely dependent creatures. I very much like the way Matthew Henry put it, and Boice quotes him on the same page as the comments I quoted above. Henry wrote that “the greatest and best man in the world must say, By the grace of God I am what I am; but God says absolutely – and it is more than any creature, man or angel, can say – I am that I am.”[13]

It is impossible for us to grasp the full import of this name. God exists necessarily, independently, eternally. His existence is necessary because, as I noted in Session 1, something, or someone, must be eternal. If there ever was a time when absolutely nothing existed, then nothing would exist now. Nothing comes out of nothing. He also exists independently. God doesn’t need us, or anyone or anything else. He is entirely self-sufficient. The fact that God exists necessarily also implies that he has existed eternally; his existence had no beginning and it will have no end.

Marc Roby: I agree with you that we cannot fully grasp this point. But it does put the lie to a common view in modern churches that God created men in order to have fellowship.

Dr. Spencer: That view is profoundly unbiblical, at least in the way it is understood by many. We do have fellowship with God, that is true. In fact, the greatest thing about heaven is that we will see him as he is and have perfect fellowship with him. But we must never let ourselves think that God was moping around in his loneliness prior to creating us. There was perfect fellowship within the three persons of the godhead. God does not need his creation in any way. He created simply because he chose to out of his own good pleasure, not because he had some need. We read in Ephesians 1:11 that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.

He doesn’t need our worship, he doesn’t need our help in saving others, he doesn’t need us to govern the rest of creation. He doesn’t need us in any way. We are to live for his glory, but we cannot add to his glory. The best we can possibly do is to reflect his glory to the rest of creation.

Marc Roby: Boice gives a quote from A.W. Tozer, which makes the same point, and which I really like. Tozer said that “Were all human beings suddenly to become blind, still the sun would shine by day and the stars by night, for these owe nothing to the millions who benefit from their light. So, were every man on earth to become atheist, it could not affect God in any way. He is what he is in himself without regard to any other. To believe in him adds nothing to his perfections; to doubt him takes nothing away.”[14]

Dr. Spencer: That is a fabulous quote to end on, so I think we are done for today. I’d like to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate 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 M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 3

[3] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, available online as a pdf from http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Systematic%20Theology%20-%20C%20Hodge%20Vol%201.pdf

[6] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Pub., 1993

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008

[8] See the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf?url=

[9] Grudem, op. cit., pp 156-157

[10] E.g., Ibid, pg. 177

[11] Frame, op. cit., pg. 226

[12] Boice, op. cit., pg. 102

[13] Ibid, quoting from Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, 1991, Vol. 1, pg. 225

[14] Ibid, pg. 104

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