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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, at the end of our session last week we dealt with the very difficult material in Romans Chapter 9, where Paul tells us quite clearly about God’s sovereign election of some to be saved and others not to be saved. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to say a little more about the presentation in Romans 9 and then defend the biblical view of God’s sovereign unconditional election against some of the most common objections. The doctrine of unconditional election says that God chooses whom he will save based on his own good pleasure and not any merit in us.

The last thing we looked at in Romans 9 was God’s response to man’s objection that it isn’t fair for God to judge him given that God is completely sovereign in deciding whom to save.

Marc Roby: And God’s answer, in essence, was to shut your mouth. As a mere creature you have no business questioning the Creator.

Dr. Spencer: That was the answer. And then Paul went on, in Romans 9:21-24 to say, “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? 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?”[1]

Marc Roby: Those verses are extremely difficult for people to accept. We spoke at length about them recently, in Session 109.

Dr. Spencer: And interested listeners can go to the archive and read or listen to that podcast. I don’t want to repeat it all here. But we noted there that an unbeliever will not accept the answer. He will continue to accuse God of being unfair. But a believer will accept God’s answer, even though it is still hard.

Marc Roby: Yes, it is very hard to understand. When we are born again, we are given a new worldview, which accepts God’s Word as our ultimate standard for truth even though God has not revealed a complete answer to the question of how to reconcile his sovereignty and our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: The tension between man’s freedom, or responsibility, and God’s sovereignty is one of the most difficult things for us to deal with. And I say “deal with” rather than “understand” because we can’t fully understand it. We can see that it is not a true contradiction, but we cannot fully resolve the tension.

In his commentary on Romans, the Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote that “The point of contention in Romans 9-11 is the conflict between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Paul never offers a logical solution to this tension, except when he concludes ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[2]

Marc Roby: And that says about all that we, as creatures, can say in regard to this issue. As we are told in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. We cannot fully explain how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom and responsibility. But we certainly can say a bit more about whether or not the Lutheran and Arminian position avoids this complication. Remember that Lutherans and Arminians claim that every human being has the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. They assume that by doing so, they protect God from the charge of being unfair by electing some to salvation while leaving others to pay for their sins in hell.

We have already shown that this is at odds with the biblical teaching, but we can say even more, because even if it were a possible interpretation of the biblical data, it doesn’t shield God from man’s charge of being unfair.

Marc Roby: Well, please explain why not.

Dr. Spencer: The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge said it well, so let me quote him. He wrote that “If it be right that God should permit an event to happen, it must be right that He should purpose to permit it, i.e., that He should decree its occurrence.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a very important point, and a great way of putting it. If we think we are somehow isolating God from a charge of being unfair for his eternal election by leaving it up to men, we still have to face the problem that according to the Lutheran and Arminian view God permits some people to refuse his offer and go to hell. The end result is the same, not everyone is saved. So, as Hodge says, if it is right for God to permit such an event, it must also be right if his purpose is to permit it, or we could say, if he foreordains it.

Dr. Spencer: And Hodge draws a very reasonable conclusion from this observation. We must remember that he refers to the reformed view of the decree of election as the “Augustinian system”, since it was also the teaching of St. Augustine. Hodge wrote that “The Augustinian system, therefore, is nothing but the assumption that God intended in eternity what He actually does in time.”[4]

Marc Roby: And that sounds eminently reasonable. The only logical alternative is that God is no longer sovereign over his creation, which would be a frightening thought.

Dr. Spencer: That would be a very frightening thought. We would not be able to trust any of God’s promises. And so, as you said, Hodge’s conclusion is completely reasonable. He goes on to write that all “anti-Augustinian systems”, which certainly includes Lutheran and Arminian theologies, “assume that God is bound to provide salvation for all; to give sufficient grace to all; and to leave the question of salvation and perdition to be determined by each man for himself. … The question is not which of these theories is the more agreeable, but which is true.”[5]

Marc Roby: That’s a critically important point. We should want to know the truth, even if that truth is in some way less agreeable to us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we certainly should. Especially when we take into account the fact that we are finite, sinful creatures, so what we think of as being agreeable certainly should not be the standard we use. But Hodge goes on to make a very good point about which view is true.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: He writes, “And to decide that question one method is to ascertain which accords best with providential facts. Does God in his providential dealings with men act on the principles of sovereignty, distributing his favours according to the good pleasure of his will; or on the principle of impartial justice, dealing with all men alike? This question admits of but one answer. … the fact is patent that the greatest inequalities do exist among men; that God deals far more favourably with some than with others; that He distributes his providential blessings, which include not only temporal good but also religious advantages and opportunities, as an absolute sovereign according to his own good pleasure”.[6]

Marc Roby: I’m afraid I have noticed that “the greatest inequalities do exist among men”, we certainly aren’t all equally capable in virtually any endeavor I can think of.

Dr. Spencer: No, we aren’t. And we need to recognize that God is the one who sovereignly decides what gifts to give to each person. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of gifts given to different people in the church and he writes, in Verse 11, that “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” And this isn’t just true of gifts we are given for the edification of God’s church. God is sovereign over all the affairs of men. When Paul was speaking to the people in Athens he declared, as we read in Acts 17:26, that from one man God “made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

Marc Roby: The Old Testament teaches us the very same thing. For example, in Job 12:23 we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.” And, in Psalm 139:16 King David declared to God that “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Dr. Spencer: It is a clear teaching of the Bible that God is sovereign over every detail of life. We don’t choose where, when or to whom we are born, and we don’t get to choose how tall we are, what color hair we have, what gifts we have and so on. And the flip side of that is that we have no basis for pride if we possess some particular gift, be it intellectual, musical, athletic or whatever, and we also have no rational basis for thinking that God has been unfair to us if our gifts aren’t as great as we would like. God doesn’t owe us anything. He never treats anyone unjustly.

Marc Roby: Do you think there is someone whose gifts are as great as he or she would like?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I doubt it. I certainly haven’t met the person. But let me finish this discussion by stating Hodge’s conclusion. He wrote, “It is therefore vain to adopt a theory which does not accord with these facts. It is vain for us to deny that God is a sovereign in the distribution of his favours if in his providence it is undeniable that He acts as a sovereign. Augustinianism accords with these facts of providence, and therefore must be true. It only assumes that God acts in the dispensation of his grace precisely as He acts in the distribution of his other favours; and all anti-Augustinian systems which are founded on the principle that this sovereignty of God is inconsistent with his justice and his parental relation to the children of men are in obvious conflict with the facts of his providence.”

Marc Roby: That is a very solid, logical argument. We should avoid having our theology be inconsistent with known facts.

Dr. Spencer: We should avoid holding any theory that contradicts known facts, whether we are talking about theology, physics, chemistry or whatever. But in every one of these fields there is a natural tendency to construct theories that are consistent with our own underlying assumptions. And if some of our assumptions are wrong, we are going to come up with wrong theories.

Marc Roby: And when we see that one of our theories doesn’t comport with the facts, it should cause us to go back and reconsider our assumptions.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. We should seek to gather together all of the available data and then find the theory that best explains all of it. That is no less true in theology than it is in physics and chemistry. But in doing this, we have to realize that we need some ultimate standard for determining truth and, as we have said many times, the ultimate standard of truth for a Christian is the Bible.

Hodge wrote, “If the office of the theologian, as is so generally admitted, be to take the facts of Scripture as the man of science does those of nature, and found upon them his doctrines, instead of deducing his doctrines from the principles or primary truths of his philosophy, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that the doctrine of Augustine is the doctrine of the Bible. According to that doctrine God is an absolute sovereign. He does what seems good in his sight. He sends the truth to one nation and not to another. He gives that truth saving power in one mind and not in another. It is of him, and not of us, that any man is in Christ Jesus, and is an heir of eternal life.”

Marc Roby: It is interesting that Hodge notes in that statement that God doesn’t send the truth to every nation. In other words, not every human being who has ever lived has heard the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: That statement is undeniably true. And it also argues against the standard Lutheran or Arminian position. No one can accept as true a gospel they have never heard, and it is obvious that not everyone in history has heard the gospel. So even if all people did have equal ability to respond in faith, not all have equal opportunity and you’re right back to the initial question about God’s fairness. We can’t let our own idea of fairness overrule what the Bible clearly teaches.

There is one final argument that Hodge makes against those who object to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Marc Roby: What argument is that?

Dr. Spencer: He points out that Paul would not have had to provide the answers he does in Chapter 9 of the book of Romans if the Lutheran and Arminian position were true. Hodge wrote, “What appearance of injustice could there have been had Paul taught that God elects those whom He foresees will repent and believe, and because of that foresight? It is only because he clearly asserts the sovereignty of God that the objections have any place.”[7]

Marc Roby: That’s a fantastic point. Paul’s asking and answering the question about fairness makes no sense if the Lutheran and Arminian understanding is correct.

Dr. Spencer: The bottom line is that we may think that fairness requires God to give all of us the same ability to accept or reject his gospel offer, but our thinking that does not make it so.

Marc Roby: And perhaps there are good reasons for not giving us all the same ability.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in fact, I would say that there are. We have shown before because of our total depravity, if God didn’t do anything, no one would choose to believe and we would all be condemned. Our natures are initially at enmity with God and cannot choose him.

But on the other hand, if God changes our nature so that we love him, which is what happens when we are born again, then we are guaranteed to choose him.

Marc Roby: And it seems like we are right back to the issue of free will, which we have discussed before.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the problem. The notion that our will is completely free from any constraint, even our own predispositions, is illogical. As we have discussed before, unless you want to think that your decisions are completely randomly, there must be some predisposition one way or the other for us to make any decision. So, in particular, the idea that we could be in some neutral state where we could freely choose either to accept or reject God is, I think, simply impossible. We are either against God, or for him. There can be no neutrality. And, in fact, I would argue that if someone was neutral, that would be sinful. How could you not love the perfect God? How could you be neutral toward your Creator?

Marc Roby: I see your point. And it appears as though we have finished discussing the doctrine of unconditional election. Is that true?

Dr. Spencer: For now, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well, then this looks like a good place to stop for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email 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] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2014, pp 62-63

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 336

[4] Ibid, pg. 337

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pp 337-338

[7] Ibid, pg. 352

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Last time we discussed miracles, which represent an extraordinary example of God’s governing his creation. Dr. Spencer, what would you like to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to briefly discuss God’s eternal decrees. We already examined God’s decretive will, which is simply whatever actually happens, in Sessions 84, 85 and 86. But I want to take some time to relate God’s decrees to his providence. In their book A Puritan Theology, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones note that “Providence is not the same as God’s predestination or eternal decree, but rather is the execution of that decree within the time and space of His creation.”[1]

Marc Roby: Perhaps we could summarize what we have said before by saying that God’s eternal decrees are, essentially, his overall plan for creation, while God’s providence is his preserving and governing his creation to bring that plan to fruition.

Dr. Spencer: And Wayne Grudem says much the same thing in his Systematic Theology. He writes that God’s “providential actions are the outworking of the eternal decrees that he made long ago.”[2] When we first started discussing God’s providence we noted, in Session 89, that it is purposeful. He governs his creation for the purpose of bringing about the end he decreed from before the beginning. In Isaiah 46:9-10 God tells us, “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.”[3]

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God …” and then it goes on to tell us his purposes for creation, to tell us about the fall and how we may be saved. And, along the way, it tells us about our proper role as God’s image bearers in creation and gives us numerous examples of his providential governing of his creation to instruct and encourage us.

Marc Roby: And it is very important to emphasize that while God has decreed all things from before the beginning, he also made man with a degree of free will. Our actions have real consequences for ourselves and for others and we make real decisions for which we will be justly held accountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is a critically important point. Many people throughout history have either wrongly rejected the doctrine of God’s eternal decrees because they think it eliminates man’s freedom, or they have wrongly concluded that how they live and what they do doesn’t matter. But the proper biblical understanding is that God has ordained both the end to be achieved and the means to achieve that end. And he has chosen to use us as secondary agents with a degree of freedom and responsibility to accomplish his purposes.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s eternal decrees and his providence do not negate human responsibility.

Dr. Spencer: Not at all. I think Wayne Grudem is right to deal with this subject in the chapter on God’s providence in his Systematic Theology.[4] God has ordained all things that happen, but he has also ordained the means to achieve those ends, and most importantly from our perspective, he has created us as moral creatures with a degree of free will who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Now, when you say that we have a “degree” of free will, you are emphasizing the fact that our freedom is constrained, right?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We talked about this in Session 84. We do not have absolute freedom in the sense of being able to make any and every decision. That is incompatible with making intelligent, as opposed to random, choices. My freedom is constrained by my nature because what I decide to do in any given situation depends on what I believe to be right or wrong and by what things I enjoy or don’t enjoy, or perceive to be worthwhile or not and so on.

Marc Roby: Which means, as we pointed out before, that since God knows us perfectly, he can predict exactly what we will do in any and every situation and can, therefore, ordain whatever comes to pass without negating our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, it means that what I do really does matter. Since God chooses to work through secondary agents, I may very well be his ordained means for bringing about a particular result. The fact that he ordained the result does not in any way detract from my free agency in producing it. Grudem gives a great biblical illustration that our choices matter even though God has ordained the outcome.

Marc Roby: What example is that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s Paul’s shipwreck while he is being taken to Rome. In Acts 27:24 Paul tells the men on the ship that God had revealed to him that they would all survive, but that the ship would be lost. Then, in Verse 30 we read that some of the sailors lowered a life boat and were preparing to abandon the ship. In response, Paul tells the centurion and soldiers in charge, in Verse 31, that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” As a result, the soldiers cut the ropes attached to the life boat and let it float away.

The relevant thing for our present purposes is that even though God had revealed to Paul that everyone would survive, he told the centurion that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Note the word “cannot” – it expresses an impossibility. The sailors had to stay with the ship or what God had revealed to Paul could not come true.

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting point.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem draws the right conclusion from it. He wrote, “Wisely, Paul knew that God’s providential oversight and even his clear prediction of what would happen still involved the use of ordinary human means to bring it about. He was even so bold to say that those means were necessary … We would do well to imitate his example, combining complete trust in God’s providence with a realization that the use of ordinary means is necessary for things to come out the way God has planned them to come out.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very clear example of the fact that what we do really does matter. And it isn’t just our actions that matter, our prayers do as well. In James 5:16 we are told that “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Dr. Spencer: Prayer is definitely one of the means that God has ordained to accomplish his purposes. It isn’t magic, but it definitely matters. God knows what we are going to pray before we do, so it isn’t that we are telling him something he doesn’t know, or making a request he isn’t already aware of, but it is still true that it is a means he has ordained.

Marc Roby: Of course there are other purposes for prayer as well. For example, it helps us to stay humble and to be consciously aware of our dependence on God.

Dr. Spencer: Sure, prayer does serve other purposes as well, and we can’t presume upon the answer, it may be “no”. But, nevertheless, prayer does have real efficacy in bringing about events. It is important to note however that we shouldn’t just pray if there are things we have it within our power to do to help a situation. Consider Joshua as an example.

Marc Roby: You mean the Joshua who succeeded Moses and led the Israelites into the Promised Land, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s the one. When the Israelites had first entered the Promised Land and were preparing to attack Jericho, God told them, as we read in Joshua 6:18-19, that after he caused the walls to come down and the people went up into the city, they must not[6] take any of the silver, gold, or articles of bronze and iron for themselves. These were to be considered sacred to the Lord and if anyone took any of them, they would make the Israelites liable to destruction.

Marc Roby: Which is exactly what happened. After conquering Jericho, the Israelites attempted to conquer Ai and were routed by the men of Ai.

Dr. Spencer: And because of that rout Joshua and the people were afraid and we’re told in Joshua 7:6-9 how he responded. He “tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?’”

Marc Roby: God’s response was probably not what Joshua was expecting.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that it wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He was pouring out his heart in prayer, but he wasn’t doing what he should be doing. God had told them that if they took some of the forbidden items the Israelites would become liable to destruction, so Joshua should have been investigating to see who had violated God’s prohibition. Even heartfelt prayer is never to be used as an alternative to action when we have the means at our disposal to do God’s will.

Marc Roby: And so we read, in Joshua 7:10-12, that “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies’”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, God was not pleased with Joshua’s prayer. He told him to gather the people and find out who had stolen some of the items, which they did. It turned out that a man by the name of Achan had stolen a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. Only after the Israelites obeyed God and destroyed Achan, his family and all he owned, did God bless them again.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that episode brought a greater fear of God to the people and made them far more careful to obey his commands.

Dr. Spencer: And, in keeping with our current topic, I’m also sure that Joshua learned that he needed to do those things that were in his power and in God’s will rather than just crying out to God for help. There is nothing wrong with prayer, and Joshua certainly could and should have prayed for God to give him wisdom and to show him why the Israelites were defeated, but it is false piety to expend great energy crying out to God when he has already told us what he wants us to do.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the quote you read at the end of Session 91 from A Puritan Theology, it said that “Stephen Charnock warned that pride uses means without seeking God, and presumption depends on God while neglecting the means God provides.”[7]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a great quote. We want to avoid both pride and presumption. We should seek God and pray, but we must also do the work he has given us to do using the means he has provided. Grudem points out three additional points of application for the doctrine of God’s providence.[8] He first notes that God’s providence should cause us to not be afraid, but to trust in God. If we have done what it is within our power to do, it is right for us to not worry about the outcome, but to leave it up to God.

Marc Roby: We have a great example of that in 2 Samuel 10:12 where the commander of King David’s armies faced a difficult situation and he said, “Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful example of this principle.

The second application Grudem makes from this doctrine is that we should be thankful for every good thing that happens to us. They are all under the control of our great sovereign Lord and King. In Psalm 103:2-5 we read, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Marc Roby: God is wonderful to his people. And I would add that even when bad things happen to us, we can give thanks to God for his promise in Romans 8:28 that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, good point. Grudem’s third point of application is that there is no such thing as luck or chance, a point we already made in Sessions 88 and 89. We can be confident that God is in charge, which means that all we have to focus on is walking in obedience and doing what he calls us to do. We can leave the results up to him.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. Are we done with discussing God’s providence?

Dr. Spencer: We are. And we are also finished with theology proper. We certainly may come back to it, but I think we’ve covered all we need to for now.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that we are going through the six loci of classical reformed 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. So, I assume we are going to move on then to examine biblical anthropology next time?

Dr. Spencer: That is the plan.

Marc Roby: Very good. Then I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d love to hear from you.

[1] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 163

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 332

[3] 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.™.

[4] Grudem, op. cit., See Section E. starting on pg. 333

[5] Grudem, op. cit. pg. 336

[6] The word “not” was left out of the original transcript by error. Corrected on 4/19/19

[7] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, op. cit., pg. 170

[8] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 337

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. We have discussed his preserving and governing of his creation to bring about his purposes. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to examine today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to take a brief look at miracles. They belong in a discussion about God’s providence because they are related to it as John Frame points out. He wrote that “God’s ‘extraordinary’ actions are called miracles, and his ‘ordinary’ actions are called providence – although … those are relative terms.”[1]

Marc Roby: Miracles can be a controversial topic among Christians today.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s part of why I want to address it. It is an unnecessarily controversial topic. My purpose is to cause us all to think through our views on this topic biblically. We all, as modern people living in a western culture, tend to have serious prejudices with regard to the topic. So, the first thing we need to do is to define what a miracle is. And the minute we start to do that carefully we will begin to see the problem caused by our prejudices.

Marc Roby: Well, if I open my Webster’s dictionary, I find the following definition for a miracle: it is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a pretty common sort of definition, and we can immediately see that there is a problem from a biblical perspective because it talks about an event “manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” But, as we have been laboring to show in the past few sessions, God sustains and governs all of his creation, all of the time, to achieve his purposes, and this certainly includes all human affairs. From a proper biblical perspective, God intervenes in every event in this world, not just extremely rare events.

Marc Roby: I see your point, but it also seems reasonable to say that some events would manifest God’s action more cleary than others would, and the definition does speak of “an extraordinary event”, so we could assume that they had such events in mind.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and I’m not saying this is a terrible definition, but it implicitly implies that God very rarely, if ever, intervenes in his creation. Even as Christians our worldviews are affected by the culture around us and we need to be careful to take note of that effect and to consciously cast off the influence when it is contrary to the Bible. If we think that there any events over which God is not in control, then our thinking is, to that extent, unbiblical. Remember Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” [3]

John Frame does an excellent job discussing the subject of miracles in his book The Doctrine of God, and he mentions the “hermeneutical circle”[4].

Marc Roby: I don’t recall us talking about that when we discussed hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: Well, that’s because we didn’t use that terminology. But the idea is very simple. If we want to develop a proper understanding of something, in this case miracles, we first try to clearly state what we think is true and then we look through the Bible to see whether or not what we have said is consistent with the whole teaching of the Bible. If it isn’t, we revise our statement and then go back through the Bible again. By repeatedly applying this procedure, which is the hermeneutical circle, we should come closer and closer to a proper biblical understanding.

Marc Roby: That’s a reasonable approach. So, how does he apply that to defining a miracle?

Dr. Spencer: He first points out that biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have words that correspond directly to our English word miracle. And, further, there are passages that clearly speak about miracles without using any of the nouns used in the Bible to describe miracles. Therefore, a word study is not a very good way to look for a biblical definition.

As just one quick example, let’s examine a passage that you might think is a clear-cut example of Jesus speaking about miracles. In John 14:11 we read that Jesus told the people, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” But, in the Greek, what Jesus said could more literally be translated as it is in the English Standard Version (ESV), which says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”

Marc Roby: And the Greek word Jesus used there, which the ESV has translated as works, that Greek word is ἔργον (ergon), from which we get our word ergonomic, which is the science of making things so that people can work efficiently and safely. So Jesus may not even have been referring exclusively to miracles.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And the other Greek words translated in our NIV Bibles as miracle are words whose root meanings are power (δύναμις), sign (σημεῖον), or wonder (τέρας). Certainly, miracles in the Bible are used as signs to point to God’s power and to authenticate his prophets, his Messiah, and his apostles.

But, as I said, Frame argues that a word study isn’t a great place to start. Instead, he proposes a definition and then examines several popular modifications or improvements that might be suggested. His initial proposal for a biblical definition is that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.”[5]

Marc Roby: That sounds reasonable. What modifications to this definition does he go on to consider?

Dr. Spencer: The first is the common idea that a miracle is, to quote the philosopher David Hume, “a violation of the laws of nature.” Frame first points out that there is a problem with using the word “violation” here. God created this universe and, as Creator, he has authority to do with it what he pleases. It is, therefore, impossible for him to violate the very laws that he himself established. If he created them, he certainly has authority to suspend, alter or do away with them as he pleases. But, even if you choose a different word, the idea that a miracle must somehow be an exception to natural law is a common idea.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is certainly one of the common ways you hear people speak about miracles, if they speak about them at all.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but Frame rejects this modification to the definition for four reasons. First, the Bible itself never indicates that this is what constitutes a miracle.

Marc Roby: That would seem to be sufficient reason to reject the idea all by itself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should be. The second reason he gives for rejecting this modification to the definition is that there are no natural laws that operate independently of God. He writes that “The idea of a mechanism between God and creation that administers the universe in the absence of divine intervention is a deistic, rather than a biblical, model.”[6] When he says this, he is certainly not denying the existence of natural laws that we can discover and put to use in all sorts of ways. Science, as we have noted before, is enabled by the fact that God upholds the laws he has created, but the key idea here is that God upholds those laws. They are not independent of him.

Marc Roby: We spoke last time about the Bible’s clear teaching that God is in control of the rain.

Dr. Spencer: And Frame uses the same example, but there are obviously many more. Now his third reason for rejecting this idea is that no one knows all of the physical laws God has established perfectly and, therefore, no could identify for certain what is, or is not, a miracle.

Marc Roby: And if we couldn’t clearly identify an event as a miracle, that would prohibit it from being a useful sign, which the Bible itself tells us is one purpose of miracles as we saw a few moments ago from John 14:11.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, if we can’t identify when something is a miracle, it can’t function as a sign at all. In fact, I think this reason is again, by itself, a compelling reason to not add that restriction to the definition. Just suppose, for example, that we someday discover how to control gravity and we can make something akin to the hoverboard in the Back to the Future movies. Would that in any way negate the impact that Jesus’ walking on the water had on his disciples?

Marc Roby: I don’t think so.

Dr. Spencer: And neither do I. We can do things now that would almost certainly have been considered miraculous by virtually anyone at the time of Christ. Just consider jet airplanes, cell phones, and GPS systems as a few examples.

Marc Roby: It is impossible to imagine how someone of that time would have reacted, but I’m quite sure that you’re right in saying that most would have called them miraculous.

Dr. Spencer: The idea is fertile ground for science fiction novels and movies, but clearly something does not have to suspend the normal laws of our universe to be a useful sign. Now getting back to the topic at hand, Frame’s fourth reason for rejecting this addition is also compelling. It is that the Bible itself gives us examples of events that have clear “natural” explanations but are, nonetheless, miraculous in any meaningful sense of that term.

Marc Roby: Such as?

Dr. Spencer: Such as the parting of the Red Sea. In Exodus 14:21 we read, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” There is no suspension of natural law in having a strong east wind, but it is certainly miraculous that it came exactly when Moses stretched out his hand.

Marc Roby: And it may very well have also required a suspension of the normal laws of physics for it to heap up the water on both sides of a path the way it did.

Dr. Spencer: That may be true, the strong east wind may not have been a sufficient cause. But there is at least some possibility that given a very specific geographic situation it was. So, I think Frame’s four reasons are more than adequate for rejecting this modification to the definition of a miracle, we should not in any way reference natural laws in our definition.

Marc Roby: What other possible modifications does Frame consider?

Dr. Spencer: He rejects the suggestion made by some that a miracle involves the immediate activity of God. And the word immediate here is not being used in the temporal sense, in other words it does not mean activity that occurs right away. Rather, it refers to activity that is not mediated by some secondary agent.

Marc Roby: That again is a very common idea about what constitutes a miracle.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but I think Frame’s reasons for rejecting it are sound. He points out that the Bible itself doesn’t distinguish between events in which God acts immediately or mediately. It is fairly obvious, as he notes, that the original creation out of nothing must have been an immediate act of God. After all, who or what could have mediated when nothing but God existed? He also posits, and I would certainly agree, that regeneration, or new birth, must be an immediate work of God. But what other events can we say that about with any degree of certainty?

Marc Roby: Well, I would say the virginal conception of Jesus, but I wouldn’t want to try and give an exhaustive list such events.

Dr. Spencer: Nor would I. Therefore, Frame points out two problems here. First, he writes, “If miracles are immediate acts of God, how could anybody ever identify an event as a miracle?”[7] And secondly, as we have been discussing for several weeks, God upholds all of creation, so in a sense, absolutely nothing occurs without his immediate action, at least in the sense of upholding the creation. As Paul said in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is, again, a compelling argument. Does Frame consider any other additions to the definition?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he considers one more. It is that a miracle must somehow be used to attest to the authenticity of a prophet of God.

Marc Roby: That idea is certainly present in Scripture. I think of the story about Jesus telling a paralytic that his sins were forgiven. Some of the people in the crowd starting thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God has authority to forgive sins, and then we read in Matthew 9:5-6 that Jesus said to them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’” So, Jesus himself used that miracle to attest to his authority.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, and Frame notes that this idea is biblical, but the problem is that not every miracle in the Bible has that purpose, so it shouldn’t be part of the definition of a miracle. Frame notes, for example, that the flood at the time of Noah was intended for judgment, not as a validation of Noah as a prophet.

Marc Roby: Very well, so what is Frame’s final conclusion?

Dr. Spencer: First recall that his preliminary definition was that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.” And he rejected any of the additions that would normally be proposed. Therefore, there is a close link between miracles and providence, which is why we are considering miracles now. God rules as the sovereign Lord of the universe in both the miraculous and the ordinary. But Frame thinks, and I certainly agree, that it is still useful to distinguish between the two. Therefore, he slightly amends his preliminary definition to explicitly mention God’s relationship to creation as the covenant Lord and concludes by saying that “Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s covenant lordship.”[8]

Marc Roby: That strikes me as a perfectly reasonable and biblical definition to work with.

Dr. Spencer: And I again agree. But Frame then addresses an issue that is controversial in the modern church. And that is the question of whether or not miracles occur today.

Marc Roby: There are many modern Christians who would say that miracles ended with the end of the apostolic age.

Dr. Spencer: Many do say that. And before we go any further, I want to be clear that this is not in any way an essential of the faith. Born-again believers can disagree on this issue. But, with that said, let’s very briefly consider the question.

And let me begin by saying that there are a couple of non-negotiable items. One of them is that the canon of Scripture is closed. Whatever we may believe concerning God’s revealing things to individual Christians, there is no new revelation on a par with Scripture. It alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian.

Marc Roby: And so, for example, the Roman Catholic idea that the traditions of the church are on the same level as Scripture is wrong.

Dr. Spencer: And so are the Mormons when they claim that God gave new revelation to Joseph Smith. The entire Old Testament pointed forward in a myriad of ways to the coming Messiah, who was promised to Adam and Eve in the garden immediately after the fall.[9] The New Testament tells us about the coming of this Messiah, what he taught personally and through his apostles, and it also tells us about the early history of the church. After that, God’s infallible revelation to man ended.

Marc Roby: And so, at a bare minimum, any guidance anyone thinks he receives from the Holy Spirit must be consistent with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. We are told in 1 John 4:1 that we are to test the spirits.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The Holy Spirit is the unchangeable God. If someone thinks that God has revealed something to him that contradicts God’s word given to us in the Bible, he is wrong.

The other non-negotiable item is that no one is given authority to perform miracles at will. There are many charlatans out there who will pretend that they can heal you of your diseases or provide some desired benefit on demand. But that is a lie.

Marc Roby: Alright, I agree with those two non-negotiable items. What then do you want to say about miracles occurring now?

Dr. Spencer: I think that God is clearly capable of doing miracles at any time, that there is no clear teaching in the Bible to indicate that he stopped performing miracles at the end of the apostolic age. There is also a lot of very credible evidence for God performing miracles of healing and so on in our day and age. For one thing, I would say that every time a person is born again, that is a miracle.

Marc Roby: And praise God for that miracle.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Without it, no one would be saved. But, in addition, God still provides for the needs of his church. And those needs did not end with the death of the last apostle. God calls us to approach his throne of grace with confidence. We are to pray for our needs and the needs of others. And prayer works. Including, sometimes, miraculous healing or miraculous provisions.

God is not a vending machine and we don’t have the power to cause him to do whatever we want, his answer to a prayer for healing may be “no”, as it was, for example, for the apostle Paul.[10] But God does still perform miracles for his people, although I agree with Frame that they are rare today. We are told that we shouldn’t look for them as confirmation of our faith because we have a sufficient basis for our faith without them. But they occur even today. We have a mighty God.

Marc Roby: I think that is a wonderful note to end on for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

[1] Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[2] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Comp., 1979

[3] 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.™.

[4] Frame, op. cit., pg. 245

[5] Ibid, pp 245-246

[6] Ibid, pg. 250

[7] Ibid, pg. 253

[8] Ibid, pg. 258

[9] See Genesis 3:15

[10] See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine delegated authority in the church. Dr. Spencer, we finished last time with the topic of church discipline and made the case that, while unpleasant, it is a necessary function of a true church and it is for the benefit of God’s people. But, you said we still need to discuss the limits and abuses of church authority. What do you want to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: I think it is very important to establish that authority in the church is not absolute. We already noted that is true of authority in the family and the state as well, but it is important to make this point clear. The Word of God is the only absolute authority for a Christian. We owe absolute unquestioning obedience to the Word of God, but we do not owe absolute unquestioning obedience to any delegated authority; not in the home, the state or the church. If any of these authorities tell us to sin, we must respectfully decline.

Marc Roby: And yet, we established last time that the elders in the church do have authority to interpret and apply the Word of God to the people who are under them, so how does this work in practice?

Dr. Spencer: In practice we must be very careful. The elders do have the responsibility and authority to interpret and apply the Word of God, but each Christian also has a personal responsibility to know what the Word of God says so that we won’t follow heretical teaching or commands. We are commanded by Hebrews 13:17 to obey our leaders in the church and submit to their authority, but that command is null and void if they tell us to sin, as we learn from Acts 5:29.

Marc Roby: Now, telling us to sin is a fairly obvious extreme case, but what if they command something that the Bible does not give them warrant to command?

Dr. Spencer: We are treading on thin ice here, and I want to proceed very very carefully. By far the biggest danger is to undermine proper church authority. There are many things that are not in the Bible that are, nevertheless, within the scope of the proper use of delegated authority.

Marc Roby: Can you give me an example?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. Let me start with a few trivial ones. Just as a father clearly has the authority to decide what time his children need to go to bed, similarly, church leaders have authority to set the times for church meetings. They also have authority to decide a myriad of other things relating to the day-to-day operation of the church, although none of these are mentioned in the Bible.

Marc Roby: What about more important matters?

Dr. Spencer: We must distinguish here between commands and counsel. People in a church may get counsel on any number of issues and should, in general, obey that counsel. But counsel is not a command and it is not necessarily a sin to disregard it. The distinction between counsel and command is very important because church discipline shouldn’t be brought against people who don’t follow counsel. But, counsel is also not usually directive in specifics, it more often takes the form of helping the person properly frame the issues that should be considered in order to make a wise decision that is consistent with biblical values and commands.

With that said however, I certainly can imagine situations where a leader could overstep his proper authority. For example, if a leader actually commanded a member of his congregation to marry a particular person, or purchase a particular car, or give a large sum of money to the church, I would say he has no biblical authority to issue such a command even though none of those actions is, in itself, sinful.

Marc Roby: How would you define what commands are outside of the authority of an elder?

Dr. Spencer: That is a difficult question to answer. It makes me think of the old line from a judge ruling on a pornography case, when he said, “It’s hard to define what pornography is, but you know it when you see it.” Perhaps one way to get at this would be to say the elder should be able to give you a good biblical rationale for his command; if he can’t do that, then his command is inappropriate even if what he said may be good counsel.

Marc Roby: It’s easy to see how this can get complicated.

Dr. Spencer: It can in theory, but I think it is not so difficult in practice. If an elder were to give you a command that seemed inappropriate, you should take it to the council of elders. I find it very hard to believe that a group of godly men will approve an obviously inappropriate command. This is why Christians need to be very careful to find and join a good church in the first place. Cults are generally obvious and you can avoid them by being in God’s Word, filled with His Spirit and prayerfully seeking to know and do his will.

If you are in a good church that truly has the Bible as its ultimate authority, then all problems – whether between individual members or between a member and elder – can be dealt with by following biblical procedures. The church is like a family. Authority is to be used for the good of those who are under that authority. And the authority is to be used in love and obeyed in love. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul presents us with a great metaphor for the church as the body of Christ.

Marc Roby: And we are all to function as a part of the body of Christ, not as completely independent individuals.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. That is a key issue. Just as a husband and wife should never think of themselves apart from their union, so members of a church should never think of themselves apart from their local body of believers. The modern church takes the issue of membership way too lightly.

Marc Roby: In fact, many modern churches don’t even have membership, they just have regular attendees.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and it is completely unbiblical and wrong. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul points out that a body needs eyes, ears, feet and hands. In Verse 27 he says “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” [1] And he talks about the different gifts God has given to people in the church. Earlier in that chapter he was making the point that all gifts come from the Spirit of God and, in Verse 7 he wrote that “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

The point is that we are to view ourselves as part of something greater, which is the body of Christ. Now the body of Christ has many different local congregations, but in each one the people are to view themselves as essential parts of that body and are to use their gifts, whatever they may be, for the common good. We need each other and we need to be involved in each other’s lives. In Verse 26 of that chapter Paul says that “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” We are not simply individuals who come together on Sunday to worship God. We are part of the body of Christ, working together to build each other up, to honor God and to be his witnesses here on earth. So, church membership is very important and should be taken very seriously.

Marc Roby: It is interesting to note that if we look at churches 150 years ago, most of them had membership covenants and the elders carefully examined people who wanted to become members.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And if you had to move from one place to another and it was too far away to keep attending the same church, your home church stayed in contact with you and exercised spiritual oversight until you found a new church and transferred your membership.

Marc Roby: And the new church would ask for a letter of transfer from your previous church indicating that you are a member in good standing.

Dr. Spencer: Yes they would. This all sounds very intrusive and over-the-top to most people today, especially people in the western world, even if they profess to be Christians. But the reality is that this kind of serious accountability is extremely beneficial. I need help to maintain a serious walk with God. I should be grateful for others taking enough interest in me to help me by confronting me if my life gets out of line in some way. That kind of help is simply a manifestation of love, not an abuse of authority.

Marc Roby: Similar to the love parents show for their children when they carefully monitor their activities, friends and so on.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We wouldn’t want to push that analogy too far obviously, since we are talking about adults. But the Bible makes it clear that we never outgrow our need for pastoral care and counseling. Accountability is not just good, but essential to proper Christian living.

Marc Roby: Perhaps a concrete example would be good.

Dr. Spencer: Alright. Suppose my elder knows that I don’t make a lot of money, so just paying my rent, putting food on the table and clothing my family takes most of what I earn. Which, by the way, is something my elder should know. And then he sees me driving a very expensive new car. If he loves me, he should be, quite reasonably, concerned. And it would be perfectly reasonable of him to ask how much the car cost and how I’m paying for it.

Now, if I’ve received an inheritance that he didn’t know about or something else had changed my financial situation, then perhaps he should let it drop. But, if I have put myself in debt and made an already difficult financial situation much worse, it would be appropriate for him to rebuke me and point out that the purchase was not at all wise stewardship of the resources God has given to me, nor was it wise leadership in my family, and the Bible says that we should not be in debt.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that suggestion is not going to sit well with most modern Christians.

Dr. Spencer: No it isn’t, because we live in a time and place where personal autonomy is prized above almost everything else. And I’m not suggesting that serious church discipline would be brought against me in such a situation, but it is true love to help me see that I made a selfish, unwise and ungodly decision that was not in the best interests of my family. My elder would definitely not be abusing his authority by speaking to me.

Marc Roby: Alright, we have established that spiritual oversight is a good thing, not an abuse of authority, and that churches, and their members, should take church membership seriously. What else needs to be said?

Dr. Spencer: I think we should repeat and emphasize something we briefly mentioned last time. The most common abuse of authority in the church, by far, is in not exercising any authority. It is the “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality that many churches have. This is done in the name of personal Christian freedom of course. But the reality is, that while it makes life much easier for the leaders of the church, that comes at the terrible expense of the people in the church, who are not given the help they need to walk in holiness with God.

In the example I gave a moment ago about an elder confronting me over purchasing a car I can’t afford, it would be an abuse of authority for him to not say something. It would be like a parent seeing their child doing something potentially dangerous and not caring enough to do something about it. We have laws that protect our children from that kind of negligence.

Marc Roby: And we should point out that real harm results when people don’t strive for personal holiness.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. Returning to our example again, if I am living in debt, I am not honoring and obeying God, so he is not going to bless me and my family. And that may manifest in different ways, but as one example, if a couple is in debt, that is frequently a source of serious friction. Such friction then causes problems in the marriage. And, even if there aren’t open fights between the husband and the wife, the children pick up on all the small signals of discord, so the children are adversely affected as well. If the church steps in and helps this couple deal with the problem, their entire family benefits. That isn’t abuse, that’s love.

Marc Roby: And, of course, there are also interpersonal problems not just in families, but also in the church at large, which can be between members, or an individual member and an elder, and these often lead to people leaving a church, or even, in extreme cases, to splits in a church.

Dr. Spencer: That is a common problem. If I get offended by someone in church, don’t deal with it, and let that problem fester and grow, I am harming the whole body. If I then leave the church because of this issue, rather than dealing with it biblically, I am sinning against that church and hurting every other member of that local body.

That is also why I need to be exceedingly careful if I think a delegated authority in the church has overstepped his bounds in some way. I can’t simply get up and walk out, I need to deal with the problem biblically. An analogy to marriage is appropriate. Our society says that you can dissolve a marriage for virtually any reason, usually stated as “irreconcilable differences”. But, if we are talking about born-again people, there are no irreconcilable differences; every problem can be dealt with in Christ, not only in a marriage, but in the church. If we all lived that way, we would do away with an awful lot of people moving from one church to another, and churches splitting, all of which is a disgrace to Jesus Christ our Lord.

Marc Roby: But, of course, there are rare situations where it would be appropriate to leave a church.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly are, but I wanted to go through the importance of personal commitment to the local church and to working out problems that arise biblically first. And I want to emphasize that situations where it would be appropriate to leave a church are extremely rare. So, in the first place a Christian has to be very serious about picking a church to join—it must be a church that displays the three marks of a proper church—the preaching of the word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the biblical exercise of discipline. The leadership of such a church will be committed to the Bible as the ultimate authority, and every problem that arises can be dealt with in a God-honoring way. Then, even if one elder should go bad in some way, the others will step in and take care of it.

But, with that said, let me give one concrete example of a so-called church that you should absolutely get away from. Some of our listeners may remember Jim Jones. He was the founder of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ in Indiana in 1955. At one point he is reported to have thrown his Bible on the floor and yelled at the people, “Too many people are looking at this instead of looking at me!”[2]

Let me tell you plainly, at that point, if not well before, the people should have gotten up and walked out; in fact, they should have run out. That was not a true church, it was a synagogue of Satan. And it did not end well, it ended with a mass murder and suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978.

Marc Roby: I suppose David Koresh would be another extreme example.

Dr. Spencer: Of course. He died, along with 79 others, at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas in 1993 when the buildings caught fire as the FBI was moving in on them. I don’t want to waste much time with his story, but his original name was not David Koresh. He had it legally changed in 1990.[3] He chose Koresh because that is the biblical name of King Cyrus, whom we mentioned in Session 20 was the only non-Jew ever said to be called “Yahweh’s anointed” in the Bible.[4] Suffice it to say that anytime someone has these kinds of delusions of grandeur and uses his position to glorify himself and obtain sexual favors as Koresh did, or any other kind of personal gain, that person is not a God-called minister of the gospel and you should run away.

Marc Roby: Jones and Koresh are both, as you noted, extreme examples. What about more common situations?

Dr. Spencer: Well, there are many churches out there that are false, and you should certainly leave if the church steadfastly refuses to preach and practice the true gospel. If, however, you belong to a church that does preach the Bible as the ultimate authority you should take your commitment very seriously. If you think there is a problem in the church, you need to deal with it biblically as we discussed earlier.

Marc Roby: OK, but what if the elders do not respond biblically?

Dr. Spencer: If you think the elders themselves are in some way violating Scripture, you have a duty to tell them and be very specific. If they disagree with you, you should listen to what they say very carefully and pray seriously about the issue, I would say with fasting – and remember that we all have deceitful hearts as we are told in Jeremiah 17:9.

If however, after serious prayer and consideration, you are certain that the church is simply unbiblical and unwilling to reform, then you would be duty-bound to leave. But, and I cannot possibly emphasize this point enough, you will be held accountable by God on the Day of Judgement for that decision. And if you leave without proper warrant, that is a sin against God and his church. So, you had better be absolutely certain that you are right. Churches certainly can and do go bad, there are examples of that, but it takes time, and it usually follows a change in leadership.

Marc Roby: Alright. So, as individual members of a church, all Christians are, ultimately, personally responsible before God. And, therefore, we have a responsibility to know the Word of God so that we can detect unbiblical teaching or practice.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. If you believe heresy, it is not going to help you on the last day to tell God that you were just believing what some so-called minister was telling you. You have God’s Word, so you have no excuse. But, this is an extremely serious issue. We are all prone to self-deception and self-justification, and we need to be exceedingly careful. You can’t leave a church because the elders didn’t agree to show some movie you thought would be good, or because the youth group doesn’t provide some opportunity you think your children should have, or because the pastor said something you thought was a bit too harsh from the pulpit, or any of a myriad of other reasons people convince themselves are serious issues.

Marc Roby: As you said, church membership is a little bit like marriage, you are making a serious commitment that you may not unilaterally break for just any reason.

Dr. Spencer: That’s absolutely right. God values unity in his church very highly. And he has given us his way of dealing with the problems that are guaranteed to come up. But, unity cannot be purchased at the expense of holiness, so the church must also exercise discipline, which we have noted is for the good of the members as well as the honor of Christ. As members of a church, we need to come under and support the church’s discipline. And, in the extremely rare situation where delegated authority is truly abused, we need to work hard to solve the problem biblically. Only if and when we are completely convinced that the church is operating unbiblically and is unwilling to change are we free to leave; and we will be held accountable by God for that decision, so we had better be very certain we are right.

Marc Roby: I think we have we are finished with this topic, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[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] See https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jim_Jones

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh

[4] Lisbeth S. Fried, Cyrus the Messiah, Bible Review 19:5, October 2003

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority in the church and, more specifically, with the unpleasant and difficult topic of church discipline. Dr. Spencer, we closed last time by mentioning the passage in Matthew 18:15-20. Let me read Verses 15-17 from that passage to begin our discussion. This entire passage is spoken by Christ. He said, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: There are a couple of very important principles that we learn from this passage. First, notice that my first response to a brother sinning against me is to talk to him by myself. There is no need to involve others if the issue is just between the two of us. If he responds favorably, repents and asks forgiveness, then the issue is over and there is no need to do anything more.

But, if he does not respond, I have no freedom to just drop the matter. I should now involve others, it isn’t stated, but elders would probably be the best choice here, and then I go see him again. If there is still no favorable response, then it is time to take the matter to the church. Now, that does not mean that I make some kind of public announcement or that I go around behind the person’s back telling everyone what he did. But, it does mean that the authority to adjudicate the matter is invested in the church as a whole. The elders however, are to function as representatives of the church as John Murray argues in Chapter 27 of Volume Two of his Collected Works, which is on The Government of the Church. He writes, “The church in this case need not be the whole congregation. According to the Old Testament pattern the whole congregation is represented as present and acting when the elders act on its behalf.”[2]

Marc Roby: Of course, having the elders deal with an issue also keeps matters confidential as far as possible, which goes along with the principle represented in the beginning of the passage, that I should deal with my brother by myself if possible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even if the elders have to get involved, it is usually best to keep sin as private as possible. But, to get back to the authority of the church, notice that at the end of this passage Christ said that if the person who has sinned “refuses to listen even to the church”, then you are to “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”; in other words, you are to put him out of fellowship with the church body.

Marc Roby: We have an example of that kind of authority being used in the Corinthian church.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul wrote to the congregation about a man who was committing serious sexual immorality and, in Verses 4 and 5 he told them, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (ESV)

Marc Roby: The destruction of the flesh does not sound pleasant.

Dr. Spencer: No, but the purpose of excommunication is very good indeed. It is “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” That is always the hope when church discipline is brought against someone. Our hope and prayer is not that the person will experience trouble, but that the trouble they experience will drive them to repentance and restoration.

Marc Roby: And, in this particular example, that is what happened, as we learn in 2 Corinthians.

Dr. Spencer: True, but we can’t know for sure that it will happen. And, whether it does or not, the church is called by God to exercise discipline. Which, returning to the topic at hand, is a clear manifestation of the authority delegated to the church. In our day and age people don’t think much of church discipline, but it is far more serious than the power of the sword wielded by the state.

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute. The state has the power, ultimately, to put somebody to death. And you’re saying that the church’s power is greater?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus said “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” When the church properly exercises the authority given to it, the judgments rendered by the church mirror those rendered in heaven. Let’s go back to Matthew 18 and read the rest of the passage. You read Verses 15-17 before, but in 18-20 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Jesus is clearly speaking here about judgments made by an assembly of Christians, and to say that they are gathered in his name and he is present implies that they are acting in accord with his Word. The issue of binding and loosing is very serious. John Murray explains that this passage in Matthew 18 must be connected with John 20:23, where the resurrected Christ told his disciples “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” With respect to this verse Murray wrote that “No exercise of the power of the keys, no act of binding and loosing in terms of Matt. 16:18, 19, could be more basic or representative than the remission or non-remission of sins.”[3]

Marc Roby: I think we need to explain that a little bit more. Murray is certainly not saying that the church can refuse forgiveness to someone.

Dr. Spencer: That depends. If the person has repented and asked for forgiveness, then of course we are commanded to forgive. But, if the church has confronted someone with terrible sin, as the church in Corinth did, and has properly exercised church discipline in excommunicating that person, then that person’s sins are not forgiven unless and until such time as the person is brought to real repentance. And if that does not happen, then that person will go to hell in the final judgment.

So, let me be completely clear that the elders in a given church absolutely do not have the power to send someone to hell, or to save someone. That power belongs to God alone. But, when the elders in the church properly exercise church discipline, they are implementing on earth the sentence already carried out in heaven. And that is a very serious matter indeed. In fact, the Greek construction in Matthew 18:18, rather than saying “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” as our NIV renders it, would more accurately be translated by saying “whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, the actions of the church are simply representative of what God has already done.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to mention an example or two. What kinds of things come up that require church discipline?

Dr. Spencer: Well, any true church is a mixture of people who are truly born again and people who are not. And even born-again people are still sinners, so just about everything you can think of shows up in the church. But, one of the most common things to occur is sexual sin, which is often mixed with other sins. Let me give a concrete example.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: This example is based on real experience, although I’m mixing details from a few different events so that no one person or situation can be identified. Our town, like many college towns, has some restaurants in town that have bars associated with them and they have in the past had trivia game nights. Now, if a group of young men and woman get together and go have some nachos, and maybe a glass of beer or wine and play trivia for an hour, that is certainly not a sin. But suppose that one of the young men starts to have a few more beers, and maybe something stronger, and ends up getting drunk and then even leaving the bar with different young women he meets there. Further suppose that one or more of his friends confronts him with this sin, but he tells them it’s no big deal, he isn’t really getting drunk and it isn’t any of their business what he does with the young women they have seen him with.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a serious problem. I suppose the friends would then need to bring this up with the elders.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what should happen. Most modern churches however, operate with a sort of unstated “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. They don’t want to know about this kind of behavior because then they might feel obligated to do something, and they don’t have the structure or the fortitude to deal with it properly. What ought to happen though, is that the elders should come to that young man – I’m assuming here that he is a member of the church – and tell him that his life is out of order and he needs to change. If he then refuses even when the leaders explain why his behavior is a disgrace to Christ and his church, he must be disciplined. Ultimately, by being excommunicated from the church.

Marc Roby: Which means, as Paul wrote, that he has been handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what it means. And, as we noted before, the hope is that he will find himself miserable and will be brought to repentance and be fully restored to fellowship and to walking with God. Just look at Psalm 51, where King David pours out his soul after being confronted by the prophet Nathan and convicted of his sin in committing adultery and murder. True godly repentance is a wonderful thing, and brings real restoration with God and with his people. Unfortunately, there are so many false churches in this day and age, that church discipline is often undermined. Going back to the example of the young man I just mentioned, if he can go down the street, start attending a different church and be welcomed with open arms, then the discipline is not as effective as it should be.

Marc Roby: In a situation like that it is nice to know that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted.

Dr. Spencer: I couldn’t agree more. If God wants to bring that young man to repentance, he will. But, there is still real harm that results. The young man may suffer more than would otherwise have been necessary, and other people’s lives may be adversely affected as well. When the church doesn’t function the way God has commanded it to function, there is a price to pay. Sin always has consequences.

Marc Roby: And there is always the temptation for church leaders to take the easy road.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly is. The proper use of authority takes hard work and it leads to unpleasant circumstances. For example, the parents of the young man in the example we just gave may become very unhappy with the church too, thinking that the discipline was too harsh in some way. So, now you have another problem to deal with. And these people may go and bad-mouth the church to others, causing even more harm. These things have a way of snowballing. And church leaders can avoid many of these headaches by simply not exercising any real authority or discipline.

Marc Roby: But, they will still have to give an answer to God.

Dr. Spencer: They cannot escape that. But, in the meantime, the church will suffer. When authority is not exercised, that is an abuse every bit as real as when someone misuses authority, and frankly, failure to exercise biblical authority is much more common. But, unfortunately, people don’t really see it that way, so the temptation to not exercise authority is very strong.

Marc Roby: And recently that temptation caught up with a well-known evangelical leader.

Dr. Spencer: I’m very sorry to have to say that it did. In our last podcast we quoted, approvingly, from John MacArthur’s commentary on Hebrews 13:17. He did a good job of explaining the delegated authority given to pastors in the church. He wrote that commentary in 1983. But, regrettably, some recent teaching of his on the subject is the exact opposite. On August 29, 2017, the publishing arm of his ministry, Grace to You, published a YouTube video[4] of him answering the question, “How much authority does a pastor have in the lives of his congregants?” His answer is extremely disappointing, and dangerous.

He answered, and I quote, “None. No authority. I have no authority in this church, personally. My experience doesn’t give me any authority. My knowledge doesn’t give me any authority. My education doesn’t give me any authority. I have no authority. My position doesn’t give me any authority. My title doesn’t give me any authority. That’s why I don’t like titles. Only the Word of God has authority.”

Marc Roby: Now, that is an amazing statement. He says the Word of God has authority, but he completely undercuts that authority by then contradicting what the Word says about the delegated authority of church leaders, such as himself.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. His answer is contradictory. If the Word of God has authority, then it has authority to say that he, as the senior pastor in his church, has authority. I also think it is sad that he is sending out this video precisely because he has a position of authority. So, paradoxically, he is making an authoritative statement that he has no authority.

But, I don’t want to make light of this in any way because it is a seriously dangerous teaching and it absolutely contradicts the Word of God and the bulk of John MacArthur’s own teaching on the Word of God. If this teaching is followed by people, it can bring great harm to God’s church by causing people to despise perfectly proper church discipline. I won’t speculate on why he has changed his tune, but this is an example of just how strong the temptation can be to compromise on the Word of God. And it shows how thankful people should be if they are in a church where their leaders stand firmly on the Word of God and use their authority properly.

Marc Roby: I think it is important to note that you did try to bring this issue up with MacArthur before we decided to say anything about it on the podcast.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I did. I wanted to follow the procedure we have seen from Matthew 18. So, I wrote a letter to John MacArthur, and sent it by registered mail with return receipt requested so that I would know for sure he got it and so that it might come to him with a flag indicating it was more important than just everyday correspondence.

Marc Roby: And did he respond to that letter?

Dr. Spencer: Not in any way. I also sent a letter to Phil Johnson, who is the executive director of Grace to You, and I sent a second letter to MacArthur himself. I have not received any response from either of them. It is interesting to note however, that if you go to the website for MacArthur’s church, under the headings “About/Distinctives/What we Teach/The Church”, you find the following statement: “We teach that these leaders lead or rule as servants of Christ (1 Timothy 5:17-22) and have His authority in directing the church. The congregation is to submit to their leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17).”[5] So, at least on paper his church still supports the authority of church leaders, even though he completely denounces that authority in his most recent public teaching.

Marc Roby: We can only hope that people will pay more attention to his statement that the Word of God has authority and will reject his statements that contradict the Word of God. Do you have anything more to say on this topic for now?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We noted in Session 30 that it should be extremely rare for a husband to overrule a wife, and the same thing can be said about church authority. Although any real Christian is corrected and challenged by the Word of God and their leaders on a regular basis, it should be extremely rare for the leaders of the church to have to bring a serious word of correction or rebuke. I would say that the majority of the time that leaders have to deal with serious problems in the church it is because the people aren’t truly born again. So, if you are a born-again Christian, you have a desire to know and do the will of God, and even though you may initially be bothered by something a leader says to you, when you go home and pray about it and look into it, you should find yourself in agreement. I’m assuming, of course, that the leader is properly interpreting and applying the Word of God.

Marc Roby: That leads nicely into a question I would like to ask you. We have argued that the authority of church leaders includes the authority to interpret and apply the Word of God, so what is the responsibility of an individual member of the church in that regard?

Dr. Spencer: We each have a very serious responsibility. We are to know the Word of God so that we can recognize when someone is teaching heresy. That is why all true God-called ministers of the gospel will tell their congregations, as our Pastor does, to read and study the Word of God seriously and to know it for themselves. And they will stick to those things that are clear in the Word when it comes to personal counsel.

Marc Roby: I have one more question I’d like to ask. Why is church discipline so important for the health of the church?

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very important question. We’ve already mentioned that discipline is always meant to be redemptive, that is to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. But, in addition, it protects God’s glory. The church is to represent God to the world and when the church has open sin in it, it is a disgrace to Christ our Lord, the head of the church. It also impacts the church’s witness. As just one example, when the divorce rate in the church is about the same as the rest of society, as is true in most evangelical churches today, what kind of witness is that? Why would anyone be interested in such a powerless Christianity as that? Also, when sin is not dealt with it tends to fester and grow and infect other members of the church. Sin is never stagnant.

Marc Roby: Well, are we finished with this topic?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. We need to discuss the limits and abuses of delegated authority in the church.

Marc Roby: Very well, but we’re out of time for today, so we’ll have to take this up in our next session. I’d like to remind our listeners to send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[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, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 339

[3] Ibid, pg 338

[4] Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X65vspiZLLA&feature=youtu.be

[5] https://www.gracechurch.org/about/distinctives/what-we-teach

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority in the church. Dr. Spencer, perhaps I should briefly summarize what we covered last time since we are continuing with the exact same topic?

Dr. Spencer: That would be a good idea.

Marc Roby: Alright. Last time we noted that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 commanded people in the church to avoid things that are not, in themselves, unlawful. But, they were doing that to avoid causing weaker brothers to stumble and sin, which is completely consistent with the biblical command to love our brothers as ourselves and, in fact, is explicitly commanded in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 8:9, which we read last time, and in Romans 14:20, where Paul says “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.” [1] And so, we established that elders have authority to interpret and apply the Word of God to the lives of the people who are in their congregations. We also noted that Paul told Timothy to stay in Ephesus and to command those over whom he had been appointed as an elder.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good summary. And let’s begin today by giving another example having to do with Timothy. Paul wrote to instruct Timothy about how to deal with rich people in the church, who have a tendency to be arrogant because of their wealth, and in 1 Timothy 6:18 he said, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”

Marc Roby: Certainly wealth can be a trap; people are more tempted to trust in themselves and this world when they have no material needs.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. But, for our present purposes, the important point is that Paul tells this appointed church leader Timothy to command people to do things, which pre-supposes that Timothy had the God-given authority to do so.

We could give more examples as well. Paul wrote to Titus, in Titus 2:15, that he should “encourage and rebuke with all authority.” And we must again point out that Titus was not an apostle.

And this isn’t just the apostle Paul’s idea either. Peter also wrote about the authority of elders and how it is to be properly used. In 1 Peter 5:1-4 he wrote “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

We see two things in this passage that are relevant to our present discussion. First, Peter was writing to elders who had been appointed in the churches as Paul had commanded Titus to do in Titus 1:5 and as we see in Acts14:23 was common practice in the New Testament church. God’s church is an orderly place and there is delegated authority for the good of the church. Second, an elder is a shepherd who is to lead those under his care.

Marc Roby: It’s hard to imagine how you are to shepherd if you have no authority.

Dr. Spencer: I would say it is impossible. God clearly delegates authority to elders to interpret and apply the Word of God to those who are under them. The leader is, of course, not to lord it over those under him and he is to be an example to them. But we must not limit him to just being an example and speaking in general terms from the pulpit. As the other verses we have looked at make clear, and we could cite many more as well, he has authority to speak directly into their lives individually.

Marc Roby: That goes against the tide of our times, which emphasizes being a “servant leader”.

Dr. Spencer: It goes against that tide because that tide is unbiblical. Now, of course, if the phrase “servant leader” were interpreted biblically, it would be fine. Christ said in Matthew 20:28 that he “did not come to be served, but to serve”, and yet he also told us in the great commission, in Matthew 28:19-20 that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” So, his serving did not preclude his commanding and expecting obedience. We are also told in Philippians 2:10-11 that “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So, Christ’s serving also did not preclude his being given all honor and glory. Therefore, if the phrase “servant leader” is interpreted biblically, it does not preclude authority and honor in any way.

Marc Roby: But, that is not what is usually meant by that phrase in the modern church.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. It is usually taken to mean that the leader has no authority whatsoever, which is unbiblical. The passage I read from 1 Peter 5 a couple of minutes ago did say that a shepherd should be “eager to serve”, and certainly in a sense a leader is a servant. He is serving the people under him by leading them for their good as God has called him to do. But that includes rebuking, correcting and training. These are the same purposes we see the Scripture itself serves in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, where Paul wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

We can also look at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church. In 1 Thessalonians 4:2 he wrote, “you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” That is a pretty clear and bold statement about delegated authority. And, after reminding them of some of the instructions he had given, he wrote, in Verse 8, that “he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ himself told us much the same thing in John 13:20, where he said, “I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” So, to receive a Word brought to you by a God-called minister of the gospel is to receive Jesus Christ himself, and the Father.

Dr. Spencer: We could continue to pile up example after example. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul wrote, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” We again see that there are leaders who are “over” the people and who “admonish” them.

Marc Roby: It’s pretty hard to escape the clear teaching of the New Testament that God rules his church through delegated authorities. And we haven’t yet cited the most obvious verse in the New Testament. In Hebrews 13:17 we are told to “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the classic verse on this subject. And, in context, this verse is clearly speaking about the authority of church leaders. I don’t know how the writer could have been any clearer than this. We are to submit to their authority, and we are to obey them. That should lay to rest any silly notions that the authority of church leaders consists in simply preaching the Word of God in a general way from the pulpit.

Marc Roby: It is also interesting how that passage concludes. It says that we should “Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very interesting, and important, conclusion. The writer puts it in a negative way, that if you don’t obey it will be “of no advantage to you.” But, we can restate that in a positive way and say that if we obey our church leaders it will be to our advantage! Remember that a leader is to use his authority for the good of those under him. If he is doing that properly, it logically follows that obedience will bring blessing.

Marc Roby: But that doesn’t always mean that I will initially be in agreement with the command.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. In fact, one can reasonably argue that if I obey a command I agree with, that isn’t really obedience, it is simply agreement. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with agreement, so long as we are agreeing with God’s will, but true obedience is displayed when I obey a command I do not, at least initially, feel like obeying.

Marc Roby: That’s a good point. And it certainly helps to remember that God will bless us if we obey.

Dr. Spencer: That does help a lot. As always, we are ultimately trusting in God. We are trusting that he can use fallible men to speak to us from his word. Of course, since Christians are continually being sanctified and changed more and more into the likeness of Christ, if we obey a proper command even though we may initially disagree with it, we will usually find that our own attitude is changed, perhaps gradually, but nonetheless changed so that we eventually are in agreement with the command.

Marc Roby: We just had a testimony in our church that provides a marvelous example of the blessing that comes from this obedience.

Dr. Spencer: Your right. There is a relatively young couple in our church who came to faith a few years ago and, shortly after coming to faith, realized that their financial situation was not right. They were in a significant amount of debt. So, they came to the elders and asked for counsel. We don’t need to go into all the details, but suffice it to say that some of the counsel was pretty difficult because their situation was severe. But, they embraced that counsel and have been greatly blessed. What appeared to be an impossible situation has been reversed, to God’s great glory and their great peace and freedom. And their elder also testified that their obedience made his life a joy – which is precisely what is supposed to happen as we just read from Hebrews 13:17.

Marc Roby: I think that John MacArthur did a good job of explaining the importance of that verse, Hebrews 13:17, in his commentary on the book of Hebrews. He wrote, “God mediates his earthly rule, secular and spiritual, through various men. Even pagan rulers who have no use for God are nevertheless used by Him … But, for believers, God’s most important rule is through Spirit-controlled men. Someday God will rule all the earth through His Son, the King of kings, but in the meanwhile He rules His church through godly men. Submission to these men, therefore, is submission to God.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That is a clear statement about God’s rule in his church. And MacArthur went on in that section to add that “The leaders of the church are called elders (presbyters) or overseers (bishops), the titles being interchangeable.  These mature men are ordered by the Spirit of God to rule over His church on earth until Christ returns.” [3] So, independent of the specific title given to the leaders in the church, they are called to rule.

And MacArthur usefully goes even further. He continues, “In many churches today, the congregation rules the leaders. This sort of government is foreign to the New Testament. Church leaders are not to be tyrants, because they do not rule for themselves but for God. But the command in unqualified: Obey your leaders, and submit to them. It is the right of such men, under God and in meekness and humility, to determine the direction of the church, to preside over it, to teach the word in it, to reprove, rebuke, and exhort (Titus 2:15). They are to ‘shepherd the flock of God …’. [and] Just as church leaders are to rule in love and humility, those under their leadership are to submit in love and humility.”[4]

Marc Roby: The idea that we should “submit in love and humility” is certainly foreign to most in the modern church.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And that is a shame because we forfeit some of the blessings that God has in store for us when we don’t come under his rule. The example I gave of the couple in our church getting out of significant debt is a clear example of the blessing that follows obedience.

Marc Roby: When we spoke about the authority of the state, we noted that the state was given the power of the sword to back it up, and when we spoke about family structure we noted that parents are given the power of the rod. What is the power given to the church?

Dr. Spencer: The most frightening of all powers, the keys to the kingdom.

Marc Roby: Which, I dare say, most modern churches would say refers only to the preaching of the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right about that. Now, we must agree that the preaching of the gospel is included. When we present the gospel, if someone responds in faith, he or she is saved and becomes a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. But, if he rejects the gospel, he remains in his sins and is outside the kingdom. So, the preaching of the gospel is certainly part of what is meant by the keys to the kingdom.

But, it is not all that is meant. There is also a need for discipline in the church. We don’t have time now to go into this in detail, but there are several passages that are important to take note of. In Matthew 18:15-20 we are given instructions for how to deal with professing Christians who sin against us, and the final step is for the church to get involved in adjudicating the case and, if necessary, putting someone out of fellowship.

Marc Roby: I think we are getting into a very important discussion, which we don’t have time to complete now, so perhaps this would be a good place to end for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[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 F. MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews, Moody Press, 1983, pg. 444

[3] Ibid, pg 445

[4] Ibid, pg 445

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to look at delegated authority. We have already examined delegated authority in the state and in the home. Dr. Spencer, is there anything else you want to say about those topics before we move on to discuss delegated authority in the church?

Dr. Spencer: There is. In looking over our last session I realized that there is a point I should have emphasized even more.

Marc Roby: What point is that?

Dr. Spencer: It has to do with the authority of a husband. The husband is clearly called to be the head of the family, and even though I noted that he is to rule for the good of those who are under him and must not be abusive in any way, I think I need to further emphasize how extremely rare it should be for a husband to overrule his wife. If a marriage is working properly, it should be possible to arrive at most, if not all, decisions jointly.  The Holy Spirit speaks to and through our wives and it is a dangerous thing to proceed on a course of action with which your wife does not agree. I’m not saying it will never happen, but it certainly should be extremely rare.

If a husband and wife find themselves disagreeing about the proper course of action, they should pray together about it, ask God to reveal his will to them, and then talk it over. If this is done and both of them are sincerely seeking to know God’s will, they will almost always be able to reach an agreement as to what that will is. And, in fact, unless there is some situation that absolutely requires action within a certain time frame, I would say that you should never do something if your wife disagrees. And, if you do need to act quickly for some reason, then the two of you should probably meet with the elders in your church to help determine God’s will.

Marc Roby: Can you give an example of the type of thing you are talking about?

Dr. Spencer: Sure. Suppose you and your wife have been discussing the possibility of buying a smaller home. Maybe your children have all grown and you want to downsize. So, the two of you go out and look at homes and you see one that you’re completely confident would be the right one to buy and you want to make an offer on it, but your wife doesn’t agree. You might be tempted to tell yourself that a decision has to be made quickly or someone else will get the house, but in fact, you should not move without your wife’s agreement. God may be speaking through her and it would be dangerous to overrule her. It may be true that you will lose that particular house, but there will be others. It’s not a situation that absolutely requires you to act, and so acting when your wife disagrees would not be wise or godly leadership.

Marc Roby: We must remember that God does speak through our wives.

Dr. Spencer: And he can speak through an unbelieving boss or acquaintance, or even through our children as well. We need to be listening for God all the time, and he has given us the Bible as the standard by which we are to test everything we hear. If our wife tells us to curse God and die, as Job’s wife did, then we should rebuke her rather than obeying her. But, there are things, like the example I just gave, where the Bible is silent. It says nothing about purchasing or not purchasing a particular house. Although it says much about the various motives you might have for wanting one house over another.

I should also point out that this goes the other way too. A wife should never act on something unless her husband is in agreement.

Marc Roby: OK. Are we ready to move on and discuss delegated authority in the church?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I think we are. And it is a very important topic. We live in a time and a culture in which authority in general is despised, as we’ve noted several times. And there is no sphere of activity in which it is more despised than the church. Most people see the need for the state to have some authority, and most people see the need for parents to have authority. And, even though the authority of a husband over a wife is not generally acknowledged, I would say that the authority of the church is acknowledged less often, even among professing Christians.

Marc Roby: I’m sorry to say that, based on what I have observed, I have to agree.

Dr. Spencer: It is common in modern churches to say that only the Word of God has authority and, thereby, to limit the authority of a pastor or elder to simply presenting the Word of God from the pulpit in a general way and then leaving it up to everyone in the congregation to apply it to their own lives. But, that is not what we see in the Bible, and it is not what is best for Christians. We have many examples in the New Testament, as well as the Old, where church leaders use their authority to give very specific counsel to people in the church.

Marc Roby: Do you have a particular example that you’d like to look at?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s look at the example in Acts 15.

Marc Roby: Alright. Let me set the stage for our discussion by reading Acts 15:1-2, which tell us about the issue that was dealt with. We read that “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: This idea that Gentile believers should first become converts to Judaism by being circumcised and obeying the ceremonial laws was common in the early church. The first thing we should notice in this passage is that the believers in Antioch recognized the authority of the apostles and elders. It is especially important to notice that it was not just the apostles. Elders in the church have authority too, and that continues to this day even though we no longer have any of the apostles with us.

When we go on and read the rest of the chapter we learn a great deal. The elders and apostles met together and each side was allowed to present its case in an open discussion to determine God’s will. Peter presented evidence based on the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Gentile believers in Caesarea, with whom he had shared the gospel, and Paul and Barnabas also shared about the signs and wonders that God had performed among the Gentiles through them.

Marc Roby: And then James, the Lord’s brother, spoke last.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. He appears to have been the head of the church in Jerusalem, even though he was not an apostle. In any event, he summarizes what has been said and points out that what Peter and Paul said is in agreement with the Scriptures. In other words, everything was being tested by the Word of God, which alone is our standard for truth.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to note that it was an Old Testament prophet that he quoted!

Dr. Spencer: That is important. As we have mentioned before, the Old Testament is still relevant to modern Christians. We see that fact clearly because it was quoted as the final authority in deciding issues in the New Testament church! They didn’t restrict themselves to quoting the words of Jesus. In Verse 19, as James announces his decision, he says “It is my judgment, therefore …”. The word “therefore” harkens back to what he has just quoted from the Old Testament. So, the point he is making is that since the argument presented by Peter, Paul and others is in agreement with the Bible, it is the right position, in other words, it is in accord with the will of God. But, the specifics of the final conclusion they reached are illustrative of a couple of important points.

Marc Roby: Let me read that conclusion now. In Acts 15:19-21 James says, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Dr. Spencer: The first important point that we can make about this conclusion is that the Jerusalem council had authority to consider the issue and determine how to properly apply the Word of God to the situation. This is a clear example of the authority of the church. Look at how the letter they wrote began. In Acts 15:28 we read that it began by saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:”. Note two things here. First, they had consulted the Word of God, so that they could say the counsel they were sending seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and second, they were sending requirements, not suggestions. The Greek word used actually means things that are necessary.

Marc Roby: And what you said earlier bears repeating; the council was not just composed of apostles. In fact, it was headed by James, who was not an apostle.

Dr. Spencer: Right, that point is very important because it shows that we are not just talking about authority that was given to the apostles and no one else. The second thing we learn from this proclamation is also very important, and somewhat surprising.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s first note that it is not at all surprising that they should tell the Gentile Christians to abstain from sexual immorality. That is, after all, everywhere and at all times, sin. But, what is very interesting is that they also decided to tell them to abstain from food polluted by idols, the meat of strangled animals and blood. None of these things are, in themselves, sins in the New Testament age.

Marc Roby: Can you explain that statement? Certainly, worshiping an idol is sin.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely is. But, at that time there was meat sold in the marketplace that had been sacrificed to some idol, but could be purchased by anyone. Just purchasing and eating the meat did not involve worshiping the idol in any way. Paul wrote about meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:8, where we read that “food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” But, he also goes on in the very next verse, Verse 9, to say, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” And he then goes on to explain that a weaker brother, who does not understand that an idol is nothing, may see a more mature Christian eating the meat and may himself eat some even though he thinks that doing so is, or may in some way be, idolatry. And so, this weaker brother is led into sin. So, in this particular case, the Jerusalem Council decided to command these Gentile Christians to not eat this meat because it would likely be a stumbling block to their Jewish brothers, who were still very sensitive to the Jewish ceremonial laws.

Marc Roby: But, the council did not have the writings of Paul to look at.

Dr. Spencer: No, they didn’t, those didn’t exist yet. But they were interpreting the same Old Testament teachings that Paul had available, and they knew the teachings of Christ as well. In Leviticus 19:18 God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And Christ told us that to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves are the two greatest commandments. Also, in Luke 17:1 Christ tells us that “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.” Putting these things together, we get the principle Paul gave us in 1 Corinthians 8:9 as we just read, “Be careful … that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Marc Roby: OK, what about the other two things listed, eating the meat of strangled animals and eating blood?

Dr. Spencer: Those are both things that are prohibited by the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, which was done away with when Christ fulfilled the law and gave himself as the final, perfect sacrifice. The entire Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial law pointed to the need for a sacrifice of atonement for our sins, and Christ was the final sacrifice. We are told in Hebrews Chapter 10 that the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were not ultimately efficacious, but were an “annual reminder of sins”. Then, in Hebrews 10:10 we are told that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: I’m reminded that Jesus Christ himself said from the cross that “it is finished.”

Dr. Spencer: And, praise God, it was finished. In Verse 14 of Hebrews 10 we are told that “by one sacrifice”, which is speaking of Jesus Christ, “he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” There is nothing left for us, or anyone else, to do to atone for our sins. But, we are, as the verse says, “being made holy”, so we are to live holy lives out of thanksgiving to God and because we want to. Anyone who has truly been born again has a desire to please God. If you have no desire to know and do the will of God, then you are not born again. But, even truly born-again people still have sin living in them and waging war against them, so we need each other and we need the church. And we need the church to have authority to speak into our lives.

The important thing to note about this example though, is that the answer the Jerusalem council gave included these commands, which we are told elsewhere in the New Testament are no longer things required of all believers. That clearly shows the authority possessed by the leaders of the church; they exercised their God-given authority to tell the believers how to apply a biblical principle to their specific situation.

But, we must be clear that they did not command anything that is contrary to the Word of God. Quite the opposite in fact, the principle they were upholding, that of not causing your brother to stumble, is a command of God and is an application of the principle to love your brother as yourself. So, the elders have clear authority to interpret that principle and apply it to this specific instance. The specific commands they gave in this letter having to do with food, meat, and blood are not binding on all Christians at all times; rather, these commands instructed the Gentile Christians of that time how to love their Jewish brothers in a specific context– one in which many newly converted Jewish believers still thought of the Jewish ceremonial laws as being binding on God’s people.

Marc Roby: This episode reminds me of what Paul wrote the church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 4:11-13 he wrote that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great passage. Pastors, teachers and elders are gifts God has given to us to help us understand and apply his Word. But we must be clear that they have authority to speak into our lives. In 1 Timothy 1:3 Paul told Timothy, “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer”. So, Timothy, who again was not an apostle, but was an appointed leader in the church, was told to “command” people. You see this word command often in Paul’s writings. In fact, he uses the word seven times in first Timothy alone.

Marc Roby: I look forward to continuing with this topic next time, but I think this is a good place to end for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[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.™.

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by looking at what the Bible says about delegated authority. Dr. Spencer, how do you to begin?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 28:18. He said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” [1] Now this is a very interesting statement when you consider that it is made by Jesus Christ, who is the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. In other words, he is God. Clearly all authority belonged to him, after all, he is the author of creation. So, we should ask why Jesus says that all authority has been given to him. Who can give to God? The answer is that God the Father gave all authority to the Son who, although he was eternally God, had become the unique God-man, our Redeemer. It was in this capacity as God-man that all authority was given to him. There is order within the godhead. While the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in essence, there is nonetheless an agreed upon order in their relations.

Marc Roby: What theologians call the economic Trinity.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And, of course, it has nothing to do with money. Nowadays the word economy is used almost exclusively in relation to money and the generation of goods and services, but it also used to refer to the management of affairs. That is why there used to be college degrees, for example, in Home Economics, which referred to managing the home. In the case of the economic Trinity, it refers to the roles taken by the three persons of the godhead in relation to creation.[2] We don’t want to dwell on this now, although we’ll get into it more in a later session, but theologians rightly distinguish between the ontological equality of the three persons of the godhead and their economic relations.

Marc Roby: I think it would be good to define a term that you just used. The word ontology refers to a branch of metaphysics dealing with the fundamental nature of things. So, by ontological equality, you mean that the three persons of the godhead are equal in their being, or substance.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what it means. And the economic Trinity refers to the fact that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit agreed in eternity past to take on different roles in relation to creation. So, while there is always cooperation among the persons of the godhead in every act, nonetheless, the Bible teaches that it is primarily the Father who planned our salvation, the Son who accomplished our salvation, and the Holy Spirit who applies salvation to individual believers. We will again get into this more in a later session, but it is important for our present discussion because it shows that having ordered relations does not necessarily imply any essential difference in being or honor. When Jesus says, for example, that “the Father is greater than I” in John 14:28, he is not in any way denying his own deity, he is speaking about his voluntarily assumed position of subordination in the plan of salvation.

Marc Roby: That is a difficult concept for someone who has been raised in our present egalitarian culture to understand. We are immersed in a culture that virtually despises any notion that one person can be called greater than another unless that person actually is greater in some sense.

Dr. Spencer: You’re absolutely right about that. And when we talk about authority, we specifically mean that someone is greater in the sense of being over me. In other words, that person has a right to expect obedience from me, at least in some limited sphere of activity.

Marc Roby: There you go with that word obedience again – you are not going to make us popular.

Dr. Spencer: Authority and obedience are not popular ideas in our culture, but they should be, because authority is given by God for the good of those who are under it. In some cases we can be forced to obey; for example, young children can be forced by their parents to obey, and police are given power by the state to force you to obey in some situations. But the proper position, as given to us by the Bible, is that we should voluntarily come under those in authority and should be thankful for it.

We should respect those who are over us, whether it be our parents, our boss, our pastor, a policeman or whoever. When I was young a boss or someone else in authority was sometimes called a “superior”.

Marc Roby: That word would be very politically incorrect to use now.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure it would be. People don’t like to accept any notion that a father, a mother, a boss, a policeman, or anyone else should be thought of as superior in some way. But we impoverish ourselves when we think this way. Authority is necessary and it is good. This is true within a family, within the church, and within the state, all three of the spheres of society that the Bible delineates. Someone may be my superior because they truly are superior to me in some way, such as a parent, teacher, or boss who may know a lot more than I do, but even if I know more than they do, or am naturally superior in some other way, they are still my superior if they have delegated authority over me in some situation. To say they are superior to me is not a value judgment, it is simply saying that they have a right to expect my obedience and I should respect and obey them. Without authority you have chaos.

Marc Roby: And I might argue that our society is in chaos even now.

Dr. Spencer: I would agree with you. And I think a large part of the problem is a complete lack of respect for authority. A lack of respect for the authority of both individuals and institutions. But I will resist the temptation to dive into that topic further for now because I want to go back to what the Word of God tells us, and it tells us that we must submit to all delegated authorities.

Marc Roby: You are, I suspect, referring to Romans 13:1, which says “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.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the classic verse with regard to the civil authorities, but let’s go on and read Verse 2 as well, because it makes a very important point. It says, “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

God is very clearly telling us that he has established all delegated authorities and that to disobey them is to disobey God and it will lead to judgment.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that many people will bristle at that statement. What about when the commands we are given are unreasonable?

Dr. Spencer: The Bible doesn’t tell me to obey only reasonable commands or to obey only reasonable rulers. Think about who the ruling authorities were when Paul wrote Romans. He probably wrote Romans around 57 AD, when Nero was the emperor of Rome. Now, admittedly, Nero was not as bad as he became later, but we are still talking about a wicked government, and yet, Paul says we must submit to its authority. There are, of course, limits. We see in many places in the Bible that if we are told to sin, we must refuse.

Marc Roby: I think it would be good to go through some examples. The one that comes to my mind immediately is Acts 4 where the apostles Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, to stop preaching in the name of Christ. In verses 19-20 they replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the first verse that comes to mind. But there are other examples as well. We can go all the way back to the Israelites time of bondage in Egypt. We are told in Exodus 1 that a new ruler came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph, who our listeners may remember had risen to be second in command under Pharaoh. In any event, this new ruler looked at the Jews and was worried that they were becoming too numerous, so he commanded that all Jewish baby boys should be killed. In Exodus 1:17 we are told that “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” We are also told that Moses’ parents did not obey this edict. There are a number of other biblical examples of refusing to obey a command to sin, including Daniel’s three companions refusing to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s image and the wise men not going back to Herod to tell him where the infant Jesus was. The excellent commentary on Romans by Pastor Mathew lists nine such examples.[3]

Marc Roby: Alright, we’ve established that a Christian is duty-bound to disobey if he or she is commanded to sin. But, is that the only circumstance in which we can or should disobey?

Dr. Spencer: In general, yes. We could also add, I suppose, that we may disobey when someone gives us a command but has no standing to do so. For example, if some stranger on the street demands to see my ID, I don’t think it would be at all wise to obey. But, if a police officer asks to see my ID, I should comply. At some point it gets pretty silly though looking for exceptions to the rule, so let’s not bother.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a good idea. So, the basic principle is that we should obey all proper delegated authorities unless they tell us to sin. But, earlier you said that authority is good. Do you want to say more about that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I want to say a great deal more about that. God gives authority to people for the good of those who are under their authority. Sticking to the civil authorities as a first example, let’s continue in Romans 13 and look at Verses 3 and 4, where Paul tells us that “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

We see three very important points in these two verses. First, we see that civil leaders, whether they are Christians or not, are God’s servants, which implies that they will have to give an account to him for how they do their jobs and that he can sovereignly overrule them at any time.

Marc Roby: I’m confident that very few civil authorities believe that.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure you’re right about that. But, whether they know it or not does not change the reality. The second important point we see in that passage is that civil authorities are to do good to those who do what is right. In other words, they are to rule for the benefit of those who are under their authority. And, thirdly, we see that the state is given the power of the sword, which can be taken in two ways. First, the state has the sword to defend its citizens from foreign powers who seek to harm them, and secondly, the state has the power of the sword to punish wrongdoers.

Note that this power to punish wrongdoers is part of how the state does good to those who do what is right. It’s for our benefit that we have laws that punish people who murder, rape, rob and so on. As Pastor Mathew put it in his commentary on Romans, “Government exists to ensure order and peace, not tyranny or anarchy.”[4]

Marc Roby: Order and peace are certainly good, and it is hard to imagine how you obtain them without the state having authority.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, I would say it is impossible to imagine maintaining them without authority. The simple fact is that we are all sinners. Because of that, we need locks on our doors, passwords on our accounts, laws, police, jails and so on. We can, of course, have legitimate and fruitful discussions about the best way to implement all of these things, but if the state has no authority, you would have anarchy. And that would not be conducive to a productive, safe or enjoyable life for anyone.

Marc Roby: Nor would it be conducive to our coming to know Jesus as Lord and Savior and to tell others about him.

Dr. Spencer: Which is certainly a good part of the reason God provides civil governments. But, authority is not limited to the civil government. As we noted earlier, there are three spheres of society, and the most fundamental of these is the family. So, there must be authority in a family as well. The classic passage about this is in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that you are talking about Ephesians 5:22-33, right?

Dr. Spencer: Right. This is a passage that is much despised outside and even inside the church today. Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

Marc Roby: I’m sure some of our listeners are again bristling. I’ve noticed the looks on the faces of guests in the audience when we read a portion of this passage during a wedding service at our church.

Dr. Spencer: I’ve seen the same looks. The idea that a husband would have any authority in the home is almost completely foreign to our society and sounds very chauvinistic, if not downright abusive.

Marc Roby: And yet, it is the man who is commanded to love his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”, which is a pretty high calling.

Dr. Spencer: You make a very important point. If authority is used in the way it is supposed to be used, it isn’t just not abusive, it is a great blessing to those who come under that authority. And the husband who does not discuss things with his wife and carefully take her thoughts and desires into account when making decisions is a fool and is not governing properly. And his decisions are always to be what he thinks best for the whole family, not just for himself.

Marc Roby: When people think that Bible-believing Christians want to keep their wives ignorant and dependent, I always think it is good for them to read Proverbs 31.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great passage to show the ideal Christian wife. Starting in Verse 10 that chapter says, in part, “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. … She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls. She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. … She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.” That is not the picture of a person who is subjugated and treated as some kind of slave.

Marc Roby: No, it isn’t. But I think we’ll need to continue to look at authority in the home next time, because we are just about out of time. I’d like to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[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. 683fn43

[3] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, pp 373-375

[4] Mathew, op. cit. pg. 375

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the characteristics of Scripture. We introduced the acrostic SNAC, which stands for sufficiency, necessity, authority and clarity. We have discussed the sufficiency, necessity and clarity of Scripture in previous sessions, so today we move on to examine the authority of Scripture. Dr. Spencer, where do you want to begin?

Dr. Spencer: As always, let’s begin with Bible itself. It clearly claims to be the authoritative Word of God. So, I like what Wayne Grudem says in his definition of the authority of Scripture. He says that “The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.”[1] Now we must be clear that he doesn’t mean that God personally spoke every word in the Bible, but only that he inspired the writers in such a way that what they wrote is completely true. When we read the Bible, we find many things said by many different people, and even by some things spoken by angels and Satan. And the Bible was written by a number of different people, who used their own words. The classic biblical statement about the nature of Scripture is found in 2 Timothy 3:16, where we are told that “All Scripture is God-breathed” [2], and in 2 Peter 1:21 we read that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Therefore, although we are not given a detailed account of how God accomplished this, we know that everything that has been written was in some way guided by him so that Paul could truthfully say it is God-breathed, and Grudem is right to say that to disbelieve or disobey the Bible, is to disbelieve or disobey God.

Marc Roby: And, of course, there are many places in the Old Testament where something is prefaced by the statement “God said”; so, at least some of Scripture is made up of words that God himself spoke.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. We discussed the Bible’s claim to authority in Session 4, and in that session I noted that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that the Old Testament uses sayings such as “God said” or “The Lord says” over 3,800 times.[3] Also, in the New Testament we have many quotations of things said by Jesus Christ, who is himself God. But, it is important to note that even those things that are clearly not said by God, have his authority. Everything we read in the Bible is authoritative, we shouldn’t make the mistake that many make of saying that it is only authoritative when it speaks about matters pertaining to salvation.

We must also be careful to point out however, that not everything you read in the Bible is good or true, because we have wicked statements of Satan and others recorded there as well. But, even when we are being told about a lie that Satan or some person spoke, the content of what they said is being truthfully relayed to us.

Marc Roby: Since you brought up Session 4, perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that the old podcasts and their transcripts can all be found on the website, whatdoesthewordsay.org.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good reminder. And I don’t want to go back and cover all that we said in that session, but we adduced a number of Scriptures to support the fact that the Bible itself, both the Old and New Testaments, presents itself, from beginning to end, as the very words of God.

Marc Roby: And the theological term used for that idea is the plenary inspiration of Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The word plenary simply means complete, or including every member. So, the plenary inspiration of Scripture means that every single word is inspired by God.

Marc Roby: But, we should be clear that when you say every word is inspired by God, you don’t mean the Bible was simply dictated by God.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. Although some parts of it were. For example, the letters written to the seven churches in Asia, as recorded in Revelation 2 and 3, all begin with Christ telling John to write what he says. So, these letters apparently were dictated. And, in a number of places in the Old Testament prophets God tells a prophet to go and tell someone that the Lord says something as you noted a couple of minutes ago. So, presumably, those passages were also essentially dictated. But, the vast majority of the Bible is written by human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Marc Roby: And you can tell that by their different styles and vocabularies.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, you can. And yet, the Holy Spirit “carried them” along as we saw earlier in such a way that what they wrote is exactly what God wanted them to write. And that is the main point. Since God is the Sovereign Lord of creation and history, and since he knows absolutely everything perfectly and exhaustively, and since he cannot lie or make a mistake, the Scriptures themselves must be infallible.

Marc Roby: Which also means, of course, that they are inerrant.

Dr. Spencer: It’s good that you mentioned that since inerrant is a term you often hear. And yes, given that they are infallible, which means that it is impossible for them to be wrong, it also true that they are without error. I usually prefer the stronger word infallible since it is at least logically possible for man to write things that are without error, but given that God is the author of the Bible, it is not possible for it to have any errors in it.

Marc Roby: Now, you’re of course speaking about the autographs, or in other words, the original manuscripts when you say that.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. But as we discussed in Session 7, given the science of textual criticism and the huge number of manuscripts we have available, we have a nearly certain copy of the original autographs. In addition, what small doubts remain do not affect any significant doctrine of Christianity in any way. So, while there may be small errors here and there in our copies, and there can certainly be errors in our translations as well, we have great confidence that what we have is a reliable record of the very words inspired by God. And, therefore, with minor and non-critical exceptions due to copyist errors, or translation errors, or printing errors, the Bibles that we have are infallible. And that is why the Bible has intrinsic authority, meaning that its authority is an essential trait because of its very nature.

Marc Roby: In other words, it isn’t authoritative because someone has declared it to be so.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Whether I think the Bible has authority or not makes no difference. It does have authority. Whether I think it is infallible or not doesn’t matter, it is infallible. The two ideas are inextricably woven together with the inherent infallibility and authority of God himself.

Marc Roby: Which is why we have said a number of times that the Bible must be a Christian’s ultimate authority.

Dr. Spencer: Mm-hmm. In the middle of Christ’s High Priestly prayer in John 17, he prays to the Father for his followers and says, in Verse 17, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” This is a very interesting statement and the English translation properly reflects what it says in the Greek. It does not say, “Your word is true”, it says “Your word is truth”, which is very different. As Wayne Grudem points out in his Systematic Theology,[4] had Jesus said “Your word is true”, it could be taken to mean that the Word of God has been compared with some external standard for truth and found to be in compliance with it. But, to say “Your word is truth” is a different statement. It implies that the Word of God itself, is the ultimate standard for what is true.

Marc Roby: And, of course, Jesus calls himself the truth in one of his famous “I Am” statements. In John 14:6 we read that he said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Dr. Spencer: Very true. And Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out that in Luke 24:44, during one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he told his disciples that “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”[5] In other words, he was saying that everything written about him in the entirety of the Old Testament must take place. In Session 4 we noted that in John 10:35, Jesus said that “the Scripture cannot be broken”, which is an even broader statement than he made in Luke 24. So, all of Scripture is the truth. All of it is infallible. It cannot be broken. Whatever it declares will happen will, in fact, happen. We just need to be sure that we are understanding it correctly.

Marc Roby: And that requires that we be born again. We’ve noted before that it says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 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.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that point deserves repetition. I think James Boice makes an interesting point in this regard in his book Foundations of the Christian Faith. He points out that the fact that the Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible and the one who enables us to properly understand the Bible gives us a great balance to help us avoid errors in interpretation. He wrote that “The combination of an objective, written revelation and its subjective interpretation to the individual by God’s Spirit is the key to the Christian doctrine of the knowledge of God. This combination keeps us from two errors. The first is the error of overspiritualizing revelation.”[6] He then explains what he means by this first error of “overspiritualizing revelation”. It occurs when someone says that God has spoken directly to them by his Spirit, but fails to check and see whether what they think the Holy Spirit is speaking is in agreement with the Bible, which is the written word of the Holy Spirit. We don’t deny that the Holy Spirit speaks to people in various ways and at various times, but he will never contradict what is stated in the written Word of God. The second error that we avoid by needing both the written word and the illumination of the Holy Spirit is what Boice calls “overintellectualizing God’s truth”, by which he essentially means people who study the Bible without ever being transformed by it. When you come across a Bible scholar who knows a great deal about God’s word, but fails to understand it properly, you know that he has not been born again.

Marc Roby: As Jesus said, you will know them by their fruit.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And the first fruit of regeneration is repentance and faith. But, without regeneration, you can study the Bible in the original languages for your entire life and you will never properly understand it.

Marc Roby: Alright. So, we have established, partly back in Session 4 and partly today, that the entire Bible is the authoritative, infallible Word of God. And that the authority and infallibility of the Bible go hand in hand. We have also noted that to disbelieve or disobey what the Bible says is to disbelieve or disobey God himself. And we have noted that a person must be born again to understand the Bible correctly and produce the fruit of repentance and faith. What else do you want to say about the authority of the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: I want to move on to discuss the delegated authority that God gives to people through his word.

Marc Roby: Very well. We discussed authority in Session 5 and noted there that it is something most modern people don’t like. So, what else do you want to say about it?

Dr. Spencer: Well, our modern egalitarian mindset is, in one limited sense, perfectly biblical. The Bible indicates that all human beings are made in the image of God and are precious in his sight. There is no inherent superiority in terms of worth of men over women, or of one race of people over another, or even of one individual person over another.

Marc Roby: Now, there are, of course, many undeniable differences in ability between different people, not all men and women are created equal in that regard.

Dr. Spencer: That is clearly true. And I have never met a person who denies that obvious fact. I dare say that no one would want to pay money to come watch me play basketball, or come hear me play guitar. When we spend our money on something like watching a sporting event or going to a concert or a play, we want to watch the best. And not very many people deny that there is a need for someone to have the authority to make decisions at a company, for example, either. And yet, for some reason people get very offended at the idea of authority in a family, or in the church.

Marc Roby: That is an interesting phenomenon. And yet, the Bible pretty clearly establishes authority in three different spheres; the family, the church and the state.

Dr. Spencer: Right, and the church and the state are, in a sense, an outgrowth of the family. In his book The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John Frame refers to all of these as “spheres of society” and points out while discussing the Fifth Commandment, which is to honor your father and mother, that “The family is the fundamental sphere from which all others are derived. This is true historically, developmentally, and logically.”[7] He then goes on to describe that, historically, Adam was the prophet, priest and king in his family. And, developmentally, parents of young children are “their authoritative source of teaching, discipline, employment, and religious leadership.” And, finally, he writes that, “logically speaking, rule in all spheres is similar to that of the family.”

Marc Roby: That is an interesting point, and I look forward to discussing these different spheres of authority, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to close by reminding our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 73

[2] 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.™.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Authority, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, pg. 50

[4] Grudem, op. cit., pg 83

[5] Lloyd-Jones, op. cit., pg. 46

[6] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 56

[7] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, P&R Publishing Company, 2008, pp 584-585

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the four characteristics of the Bible represented by the acrostic SNAC, which stands for sufficiency, necessity, authority and clarity. We’ve examined sufficiency and necessity in our last two sessions. So, Dr. Spencer, are we moving on to authority today?

Dr. Spencer: Not right away. I’m going to cover clarity first because authority is a longer topic and will lead into some other things.

Marc Roby: Alright. When we say that the Bible is clear. What do we mean?

Dr. Spencer: Perhaps we should start with what we don’t mean first. We do not mean that all of Scripture is easy to understand.

Marc Roby: I’m glad to hear that!

Dr. Spencer: So am I. And we are in good company, because in 2 Peter 3:16 the apostle comments on some of the writings of Paul and says, “He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” [1]

It’s important to take note of two things in Peter’s statement. First, he concedes that some of the things Paul was written, which are part of the Bible, are hard to understand. And secondly, he notes that people have distorted them, along with other Scriptures, which results in their own destruction.

Marc Roby: That certainly emphasizes how important it is for us to interpret the Scriptures properly. But, at first blush this verse also seems to argue against the clarity of Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. It does seem to, but only, as you put it, at first blush. That’s why I thought it would be best to address this point first. When we say that the Bible is clear, we do not mean that everything in it is easy, nor do we mean that you can read it like you might a novel or a newspaper and expect to understand it properly. We will get into proper methods of interpreting the Scriptures in a later session, but suffice it to say at this point that we must read the Bible carefully. Let me give an illustration.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: The main point I want to make is that when we are reading something that is challenging to understand, in any field, we can’t expect to read it once or twice and understand it fully. We need to do some more work.

For example, you can’t expect to understand the prophet Jeremiah if you don’t know at least a general outline of the history surrounding the writing of the book. You need to know when he was writing, to whom he was writing, and what was going on at the time.

Marc Roby: I always find it helpful to re-read the introduction to a prophetic book and go over the historical situation in my mind before I read it.

Dr. Spencer: I do the same thing. It’s important to take Bible reading seriously. You can read other things casually, but the Bible is the most important thing you will ever read. We need to study the Scriptures, not just read them. And that is true of every book in the Bible, not just Jeremiah. As you mature in your faith you will continue to learn more and more from commentaries, sermons and so on, so that you gain an understanding, for example, of some of the peculiarities of Hebrew writings and thought. You also become more and more familiar with the different people in the Bible so, for example, you will understand the impetuous nature of the apostle Peter. And you become more familiar with the historical situations and you know more about what happens before and after the section you’re currently reading. All of these details help you to pick up more and more each time you read through the Bible.

Marc Roby: I can certainly agree with that. I’ve been reading the Bible for over 40 years now and I learn more each time I go through it.

Dr. Spencer: I am confident that anyone who approaches the Word of God with a serious desire to know what God is saying will gain a deeper understanding every single time they read through it. We must remember that even though God used human authors, ultimately, the Bible was written by the Almighty, Sovereign Creator and Judge of the universe and it speaks about how to be saved from his eternal wrath. We need to keep that in mind as we read. It is way more serious than learning what you need to know to pass some test in college, or even to pass a medical board exam, or a CPA exam, or whatever. So, get some help. A good study Bible is a reasonable place to start, for example, in Session 23 I recommended the ESV Reformation Study Bible. I would also recommend that you follow a systematic plan to read through the whole Bible. And if you haven’t done it before, I would recommend reading all of the study notes. I also keep a timeline that I’ve made for myself handy that shows me the different kings of Israel and Judah, the different prophets, a few major events in world history and so on so that I can keep things straight in my mind as I read. I also fairly frequently refer to a good Bible Atlas, for example the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible[2] is pretty good. A good Bible dictionary is also valuable. Again, I have found the Zondervan dictionary to be very useful.[3] I also take notes every morning, which I think helps to organize my thoughts and to be sure that I have something to take away from the reading each day.

Marc Roby: Very well, you’ve made the point we can’t just read the Bible like our daily newspaper, we need to be serious about learning what it teaches and study the Word of God. I think it is now apparent that when we say the Bible is clear, we don’t mean it is easy to understand. So, what do we mean when we say it is clear?

Dr. Spencer: When we say that the Bible is clear, what we mean is that the basic message of the gospel, that which must be understood to be saved, can be understood by a child, or someone with very little education, or someone who isn’t very bright.

Marc Roby: When you say it can be understood by a child, surely you don’t mean a very young child?

Dr. Spencer: Clearly there is a limit to how young the child can be. I wouldn’t want to speculate on a specific age, but obviously a toddler who can only say a few words is not able to understand the gospel. But a normal 10-year old certainly can. I don’t know where to draw the line between those points, and I’m certain it varies a lot from person to person. But, the point is that you don’t need to be a very bright, well-educated adult to understand the gospel, the basic message isn’t that complicated.

Marc Roby: Speaking about young children raises an interesting and important question, which I’d like to address even at the risk of throwing us off topic for a minute or two. What happens to a very young child who dies? Is it possible for a that child to be saved?

Dr. Spencer: It is definitely possible for a very young child, or even an infant to be saved. We don’t want to limit God. It appears from Luke 1:41 & 44 for example that John the Baptist was regenerated in the womb. And when the son of David and Bathsheba died as an infant, David said, in 2 Samuel 12:23, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

But, we are talking about the normal situation, where a person has grown to be sufficiently mature to think about these things, in other words, people like our listeners. And, in that case, the basic gospel message is clear, which is why we are commanded to teach our children. In Deuteronomy 6:6-7, right after giving the people the Ten Commandments, Moses said to them “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Now, the Bible would not command us to teach them to our children if they were too complicated for a child to understand.

Marc Roby: And yet, even intelligent adults find the Bible’s plan of salvation incomprehensible if they are unbelievers.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We must never forget the point we made in Session 23, that no one can truly understand the Bible, by which I mean understand it unto salvation, unless that person has been born again. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The message of the cross is foolishness to the natural man because he has a moral problem, not an intellectual problem. He refuses to recognize the obvious truth that he is a sinful creature deserving of wrath and that God is the Creator of the universe and, therefore, has authority to tell us how we should live and to judge us for our failures.

Marc Roby: We noted before that in Romans 1 Paul actually says the unbeliever suppresses that truth.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The problem is not one of intellectual understanding. There are many very intelligent people, some of them pastors and seminary professors, who know a great deal about the Word of God, but don’t believe it.

Remember when Jesus was speaking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection? He somehow prevented them from recognizing him and was asking them about what had recently happened in Jerusalem – referring, of course, to his own death and resurrection. They told him what they knew, but it was obvious they didn’t understand or believe and he said to them, in Luke 24:25-26, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Notice that he didn’t say they were stupid, or ignorant of the facts, he said they were foolish – which is a moral judgment, not an intellectual one, and he said that they were “slow of heart”. In other words, the reason they didn’t understand was a moral failure, not an intellectual one.

Marc Roby: In Psalm 14:1 the we are told that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” I think there are many people who praise God that you don’t have to be an intellectual giant to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure there are, and I’m one of them. But, think about it for a minute. If you had to be a nobel laureate to be saved, then you would have a tendency to be proud. We could argue that point of course since whatever abilities and opportunities you have are gifts from God, not something you earned, but nevertheless, there would be something about you that helped to explain why you were saved, and that would lead to pride. So, God makes sure that that is not the case. In fact, he usually chooses people who are not particularly distinguished in the eyes of the world.

Paul tells us about this. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 we read, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”

Marc Roby: That is not a particularly flattering picture of believers.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. But, if all believers were brilliant and accomplished, we would tend to think we have something to be proud of. So, God takes that possibility away. Paul tells us that God chose the “foolish things of the world … the weak things … the lowly things … the despised things … and the things that are not … so that no one may boast before him.” Now we can all rejoice that there are brilliant and accomplished Christians – Paul said “not many of you”, he didn’t say “not any of you.” These exceptional individuals are a blessing to the church. But, the point is that we aren’t saved because of our merit in any way. We are saved by grace alone, our good works are not in any way shape or form the basis of our salvation. And the biblical message of salvation is clear. It is clear, but it will not be received unless, and until the person is born again.

Marc Roby: And, of course, even truly born-again people don’t always agree on every detail.

Dr. Spencer: That is certainly true, and the many schisms in church history and the many different denominations in the world bear clear testimony to that fact. Sadly, Christians are still sinners. And, in addition, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is born again. Those two facts guarantee that there will always be troubles and divisions in the church that should not be there. But, even granted those two facts, there remain certain things that are not essential to saving faith about which true Christians can disagree, and there are some things about which the Bible is completely silent.

Marc Roby: Can you give us some examples?

Dr. Spencer: Certainly. The Bible is silent about many details. For example, should we hold our worship services at 9 AM, or 10 AM, or should we have both a morning and an evening service? The Bible says nothing about that. In addition, the Bible is clear that we should not be drunk and should not be controlled by anything, but it is not clear that drinking an occasional beer or glass of wine, or smoking an occasional cigarette or cigar are sins, although some will say that they are. I think we must be mature enough to allow for differences on many issues.

Marc Roby: That sounds reasonable, and more important, biblical! Paul wrote in Romans 14:1 that we should not pass judgement about disputable matters. But, what about the role of pastors and teachers then? If the basic message of the Bible is clear and can be understood by every believer, what role do they have to play?

Dr. Spencer: They have a very important role to play. In Ephesians 4:11-14 the apostle Paul wrote that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” So, pastors and teachers are very important. All Christians have the privilege and responsibility to know what the Word of God requires of them, and the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture says that we can all understand the essential points. But, not everyone has the natural ability or time to become an expert theologian, so pastors and teachers still fill a very important role in God’s church. We will talk more about this issue in a later podcast when we get to the reformation idea of the right to private judgment, which argued against the Roman Catholic Church’s claim that only the priests could interpret the Bible. However, this idea of a right to private judgment has often been abused. If I think I’m free to interpret the Scriptures however I want to, then I am almost certainly headed for destruction.

Marc Roby: Very well, I look forward to discussing that issue in more depth at a later date. But this concludes our time for today, so I want to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

 

[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] Carl G. Rasmussen, Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, Revised Edition, Zondervan, 2010

[3] Either the New International Bible Dictionary, Zondervan, 1987; or for a much longer version, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (in five volumes), Zondervan, 1976

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