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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation and we are in the midst of discussing conversion, which is repentance and faith. Dr. Spencer, in our session last week we emphasized the fact that true, saving faith has content. The object of saving faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to go back to what we were discussing at the end last time. We had noted that we shouldn’t try to give an exact list of doctrines that must be believed in order to be a Christian. We said the real issue was one of trust. And we had mentioned that a child can have true, saving faith with a very limited understanding of doctrine.

Marc Roby: I remember all of that. What point do you want to make from it?

Dr. Spencer: Well, considering the faith of a child is a great way of recognizing why we don’t want to try and give an exact list of necessary doctrines. There are many doctrines of the faith that are very hard for adults to explain in any meaningful way – for example the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ – so we certainly can’t expect a young child to have a solid intellectual understanding of these things. What we do expect is that the child sees his need for a Savior, and that he trusts that Jesus Christ is that Savior, and that he believes what the Bible says, even though he can’t understand it all.

Marc Roby: Of course, no adult understands it all either.

Dr. Spencer: In a way that is precisely my point. We don’t necessarily look for a certain level of knowledge or intellectual understanding, what we look for is a receptive heart to the level of knowledge a person possesses about Christ.

So, for example, what level of knowledge did the thief on the cross have when he was saved?

Marc Roby: Well, I would have to say that no one knows the answer to that.

Dr. Spencer: And I would agree. But it is certainly possible and, in fact, likely, that he knew very little. He may have simply heard that Jesus was the Christ, the promised Messiah, and that he had performed some miracles. We know that at first this thief joined with the other thief in hurling insults at Christ because, for example, we are told in Mark 15:32 that “Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” [1] But then something happened to the one thief and he changed his tune completely.

Marc Roby: Yes. He was born again.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what happened. In God’s amazing eternal plan this thief had been chosen from all eternity to be saved. And here on the last day of his miserable life, hanging on a cross in great pain, he was given a new heart and new mind. And because of having been regenerated, he all of a sudden realized from what he had personally witnessed about Christ that the things he had heard were true. We don’t know, but we can imagine that it was when Christ prayed for those who were crucifying him. We read in Luke 23:34 that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Marc Roby: That would certainly be an amazing thing to hear Jesus say.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would. But, in any event, independent of exactly how God brought it about, this thief was able to see for the first time that his own sins deserved judgment from God and that his only hope was this Messiah hanging on the cross next to him.

Marc Roby: I can’t imagine what must have been going through his heart and mind. He had to have a lot of questions he would have liked to ask and a lot of things that he didn’t fully understand.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure he did. And all of us have questions as well, things we don’t understand. But with his new regenerate heart, he did understand that he needed salvation and he trusted in Christ to save him. We read in Luke 23:40-41 that when the other thief continued to insult Christ, this newly born-again thief rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in Verse 42 we read his plea for mercy and his confession of faith. He looked at Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Saying “remember me” was a plea for mercy, and speaking about Christi’s kingdom was a confession that Jesus Christ is, in fact, what the signs placed on his cross by Pilate said, the King of the Jews.

Marc Roby: And this thief had also proven his faith by the good work of rebuking the other thief.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, you’re right about that. God has work for every single one of his chosen people to do. This man didn’t have long, but he did the work he was assigned. And he has been with Christ in bliss for nearly 2,000 years.

Marc Roby: That is a glorious thought.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. But it also illustrates why we shouldn’t try to give a precise or exhaustive statement of what doctrines must be believed in order to be saved.

It is equally important, however, that we don’t jump into the other ditch and say that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere, or anything silly like that. This thief trusted in Christ and believed the information he did have. People who reject the gospel when it is presented to them are not born again, even if they call themselves Christians. We can still look for a credible confession of faith as we noted last week.

We are saved by faith alone, but not by just any faith someone might have. It must be faith in the true and living God and his plan of salvation revealed in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Can you give us an example of a faith that does not save?

Dr. Spencer: I can do better than to give an example of faith that doesn’t save. I can give an example of a completely useless faith, or to be more accurate, a so-called faith. In his book Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Boice gives a great example using the famous book by Norman Vincent Peale called The Power of Positive Thinking.[2]

Marc Roby: Well, I’ll have to confess that I’ve never read that book, although I have certainly heard about it many times.

Dr. Spencer: And I have to make the same confession, I’ve never read it either. Nevertheless, Boice points out that Peale ends the book by saying “so believe and live successfully.”[3] In Boice’s analysis of the book, he says the object of faith doesn’t really seem to matter to Peale. Faith itself is seen as some great powerful thing all in itself.

Marc Roby: Now, that is a strange view, but I have to admit I’ve heard a number of things over the years that sound very much like that.

Dr. Spencer: And so have I. And J. Gresham Machen also talked about this view in his book “What is Faith?”. He wrote that “The whole trouble is that faith is being considered merely as a beneficent quality of the soul without respect to the reality or unreality of its object; and the moment faith comes to be considered in that way, in that moment it is destroyed.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting statement. What does Machen mean by saying that faith is destroyed?

Dr. Spencer: When Machen says that faith is destroyed when it is thought to be beneficent independent of whether or not its object is real, I think he means that when faith is thought of this way, then real saving faith is not possible.

The young man we spoke about last week, who said he was a Christian even though he didn’t believe in the most basic tenets of the Christian faith, is a good example of a useless or vain faith, a faith that has been destroyed. People with such faith will find out in the most awful way imaginable how useless their faith is when they come face to face with Christ on the day of judgment and hear him say to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” as we read in Matthew 7:23.

Marc Roby: We could say that such faith is not just useless, it is, quite literally, damning. It sends you to eternal hell.

Dr. Spencer: That is the terrifying truth. Therefore, although we don’t want to come up with a formal statement of the minimal doctrinal knowledge required for true, saving faith, we nonetheless must stand firmly with Jesus and declare that real faith has content. It is the truth that will set us free, not a lie. True faith has an object. And, as we have seen, the object of real saving faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ. If he is not truly who he said he was and if he didn’t do what the Bible says he did, our faith is useless.

Marc Roby: Well, that makes me think of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:16-19 in defense of the doctrine of the resurrection. He said there, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Dr. Spencer: And indeed we are to be pitied more than all men if Jesus Christ is not our Savior and God’s promises about eternity are not true. As Paul said, such faith is futile, it serves no useful purpose. Believing in a lie is never a good thing, nor is mere wishful thinking. But, praise God, he is truth and his Word is true.

In Hebrews 11:1 we read that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” And we must ask the question, “What is it that we hope for?” And in the context of this verse the answer is clear; our hope is for the promises of God to be fulfilled. Just a few verses before this we read, in Hebrews 10:36, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, the preeminent promise of God to his people is eternal life. We read in John 6:40 that Jesus himself said, “my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Dr. Spencer: And what a glorious promise that is. When Jesus was speaking to Martha just before raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, we read in John 11:25-26 that he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Marc Roby: Those are difficult statements for people to understand.

Dr. Spencer: Well, they are impossible to understand if you have a materialist worldview. In fact, if you think this material universe is all that exists, the statements are completely nonsensical; how can you possibly live even though you die? How can you never die? These things are impossible in a purely materialist universe. You need a proper biblical worldview to understand them.

Unless Christ comes again first, we will all die someday. But death is not a cessation of existence, it is separation as we discussed in Session 104. When we physically die, our spirits will be separated from our bodies. But that is a temporary state. The Bible clearly teaches that at the end of history every person will be united again with his or her physical body, although the body will be different. It will be suited to our eternal state, whether that is heaven or hell.

Marc Roby: And we will all spend eternity in one of those two places.

Dr. Spencer: That is the truth as presented to us in the Bible. So, when Jesus said that “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies”, he simply meant that if we have saving faith in Christ, then when we die physically, our spirits will immediately go into the presence of God and we will then spend eternity with him. First in our spirits and then, later, in our resurrection bodies. And that is true life. That is eternal life. So, what Jesus said is completely true, we will live – in the fullest sense of that word – even though we die in the sense of having our spirit separated from this physical body.

Marc Roby: I can’t think of a more wonderful promise than that.

Dr. Spencer: Neither can I. But we must notice that the promise is conditional. Jesus said “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies”. When those who do not believe in Jesus Christ die, their spirits immediately go to hell. Then, when their bodies are united to their spirits at the end of the age, they will spend all of eternity in hell, in torment.

Marc Roby: And I can’t think of a more terrifying threat than that.

Dr. Spencer: Nor can I. But God’s threats are just as sure as his promises. And notice that the difference between the two groups of people, those headed for hell and those headed for heaven, is faith in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: OK. We have said that true saving faith has content, and I think it would be good for me to summarize the content we have gone over so far. First, we must know the bad news that we are headed for hell and can’t save ourselves. Second, we must understand that Jesus Christ came and died to pay for my sins. And third we must understand that God has promised us eternal life in Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s all true, although we need to again be clear to point out that even a child’s understanding of these things can be sufficient for salvation. Adults have a difficult enough time thinking about eternity, but for children that concept is completely beyond them. Nevertheless, they can understand very early on that they have done things wrong and deserve punishment, but that Jesus loves them and allowed himself to be punished in their place. They can also understand, to some degree at least, that there is a reward awaiting all those who faithfully serve Christ and punishment for those who reject him.

Marc Roby: All right. We understand that a child can be saved without an adult-level understanding. We have also seen that the thief was saved with minimal understanding, but what does that tell us about what a typical adult must believe in order to be saved?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I think the reason it is important to realize that a child’s understanding can be sufficient for salvation is that it helps us focus on the main element, which is trust. A child knows his father and mother for example. That doesn’t mean he knows all about them and what they have done, or are capable of doing, it means he knows them as people who love him and take care of him. And saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is similar. Berkhof wrote that “All true saving faith must contain at least a minimum of knowledge, not so much of the divine revelation in general as of the Mediator and His gracious operations.”[5]

Marc Roby: Perhaps we could say that it isn’t that we have to possess some minimum level of knowledge about Christ, but we must know him personally as our Savior and Lord.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a good way of putting it. An adult will, of course, have a greater understanding, but the underlying issue is the same; do you know Jesus? Do you see that you have a problem? Do you see that Jesus is able and willing to solve your problem? In other words, do you trust in Jesus Christ himself? And do you believe whatever level of revelation you have been given about this Christ, in other words, do you trust the Word of God to be true.

Marc Roby: Well, we have established that saving faith has content, in other words, information. But the important issue is not so much the extent of our knowledge, but rather it is our response to the knowledge we possess. If we respond by believing God’s Word and trusting in Christ, we will be saved.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a reasonable summary.

Marc Roby: And it is also a reasonable place to end for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to respond.

[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] J. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pp 409-410

[3] Ibid

[4] Machen, What is Faith?, The MacMillan Comp., 1925, pg. 174

[5] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 504

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Marc Roby: Well, Dr. Spencer, it is hard to believe, but we have completed three full years of podcasts and this session marks the beginning of our fourth year!

Dr. Spencer: That is hard to believe, but we have a great deal more to cover and I’m excited to get going, so let’s go ahead and begin our fourth year.

Marc Roby: OK, let’s do it.

We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation and we are in the midst of discussing conversion, or repentance and faith. In our session last week we noted that true, saving faith has three elements: first, there is specific content, the Latin word is notitia; second, there is mental assent to the truth of that content, the Latin word is assensus; third, we must trust in God’s way of salvation in order to be saved, which means we must trust in Jesus Christ, the Latin word is fiducia. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I want to look at the content of biblical faith, the information or notitia. It makes no sense to just say I have faith. Faith must have an object. We must believe in something or someone. With regard to salvation, we must have knowledge of the truth in order to be saved. In John 8:31-32 we read, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” [1]

Marc Roby: And many people would respond to that statement by repeating Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?”, which we read in John 18:38.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure many would respond that way. To some extent, Jesus answered the question in the verse I just read. He said “If you hold to my teaching,” so truth is found in the teaching of Jesus Christ, which is found in the Bible. This is the content of saving faith.

We discussed truth back in Sessions 68, 71 and 72 when we were examining the attributes of God and we saw that there are three different meanings for the word truth as it used in the Bible. John Frame discusses this in his book The Doctrine of God.[2] The first use of the word describes the nature of a person. So, for example, when we read in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 that Paul, Silas and Timothy had been told that the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God”, the clear implication is that there are also false gods, but the God of the Bible, the Creator of heaven and earth, is the only living and true God. In other words, the only authentic God, or you could perhaps say the only real God.

Marc Roby: Well, we use the word in much the same way when we say, for example, that someone is a true genius. We are saying that there are people who are called geniuses who aren’t, but the person that we are referring to is not like them, he is an authentic genius.

Dr. Spencer: And we also use it that way as an adverb; for example, if we say that some work of art is truly magnificent. We mean it is, in fact, magnificent, we weren’t using excessive flattery. The second use of the word true refers to a property of statements. If a statement is true, it means that it corresponds to reality. The third use of the word is with regard to morality.

Marc Roby: And we pointed out in those earlier sessions that, ultimately, truth is a person. Jesus Christ said, in John 14:6, that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Dr. Spencer: And that is certainly the case in Jesus’ statement that the truth will set us free. It is Jesus himself who has earned our salvation. All three senses of the word truth are important in this regard. Jesus is true God and true man in the sense of being both authentic, or genuine God and authentic, or genuine man. He is also completely truthful in everything he said as recorded in the Bible and, finally, he both has authority to tell us what is morally right and wrong and he is the only person to have lived a perfectly sinless life. So, as I said, we must have knowledge of the truth to be saved or, as Jesus himself put it, to be set free.

Marc Roby: And Jesus clearly meant to be set free from sin and death and eternal hell. So, we must know Christ in order to be saved. But, is there more that we must know? After all, there are many people who would claim a personal relationship with Christ but who don’t agree with the historic creeds of Christianity.

Dr. Spencer: There are, without a doubt, many such people. We must know Christ as he truly is, and the only place we find that information is in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Well, it would seem then that there is some minimal set of doctrines to which a person must agree to be a real Christian.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that it would seem so, but we must be very careful. The great 20th-century theologian J. Gresham Machen, in his book What is Faith? wrote the following: “How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian?”[3]

Marc Roby: And I am excited to hear how Machen answered the question.

Dr. Spencer: Well, you are about to be disappointed then, because he doesn’t answer the question. And, in fact, he goes further. He not only said that he has never answered the question, he wrote, “Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. … This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.”[4] But, he then goes on to say that churches need to be very careful in admitting members. They need to examine potential members to see whether or not they have a credible confession of faith and, he says, “To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church.”[5]

Marc Roby: That seems to me to be somewhat at odds with what he said about not being able to define a minimal set of doctrines.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that it is somewhat at odds, but I don’t think he contradicts himself. He is opposed to giving a formal statement of exactly what doctrines must be believed, but he is definitely in favor of being sure that someone has a reasonable understanding of the gospel.

He wants to avoid the problem of putting down in print the absolute minimum a person must know and believe in order to be saved because, as he says, “who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not?”[6] And, in addition, he points out that “Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with.”[7]

Marc Roby: Wanting to get along with the absolute minimum for a passing grade, so to speak, would be a bad sign in terms of the truthfulness of a person’s claim to faith.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. If someone really wanted to see how little they could get away with believing, it would be sure sign the person was not born again. Born again people love Christ and want to know as much about him and his work as possible. But I think Machen is wise to refrain from giving a formal list of the minimum content of true, saving faith. His emphasis is on examining the person’s doctrine and life. A credible confession must include a changed life and some sign of love for God.

Nevertheless, I do think we can list some things that would clearly need to be part of any minimal list of necessary doctrines, and I think there is good reason for doing so since people can call themselves Christians and mean something completely at odds with biblical Christianity. It would be dangerous to the health of a church to admit such people to membership.

Marc Roby: And dangerous for the people themselves too I would add. Can you give an example?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. The best example I’ve seen is one that James Boice gives in his book Foundations of the Christian Faith, which we have used before. Let me read something he wrote because it is downright shocking, and yet it is representative of much of what goes on in the name of Christianity today. Boice wrote that “A number of years ago in a rather extended discussion about religion a young man told me that he was a Christian. As our conversation developed I discovered that he did not believe that Jesus Christ was fully divine. He said that Jesus was God’s Son, but only in the sense that we are all God’s sons. He did not believe in the resurrection.  He did not believe that Jesus died for our sin or that the New Testament contains an accurate record of his life and ministry. He did not acknowledge Christ as Lord of his life. … nevertheless he believed deep in his heart that he was a Christian.”[8]

Marc Roby: OK, that is rather shocking.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. And although this may be an extreme case, in less extreme forms it is far more common than many of us would suppose. And I’m quite sure that Machen would agree that this young man was not a true Christian and should not be admitted as a member of a church. You simply cannot reject the true divinity and humanity of Christ, or the resurrection, or the Lordship of Christ and be a real Christian.

These issues were settled long before the reformation and are clearly stated, for example, in the Nicene Creed. So, while we agree that it would be unwise to try and publish an exhaustive list of so-called essential doctrines, we certainly can state some of them. And I think Machen’s reservations are valid. Someone can be brought to a true saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and yet have a very poor understanding of Christian doctrine.

Marc Roby: Well, certainly as one example, young children can have true saving faith without very detailed knowledge of doctrine.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. I like the treatment of the topic of faith in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. He defines saving faith in the following way: “Saving faith may be defined as a certain conviction, wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit, as to the truth of the gospel, and a hearty reliance (trust) on the promises of God in Christ.”[9]

Marc Roby: That definition gets around the issue of defining specific content nicely. He says that you must have a certain conviction of the truth of the gospel, but he doesn’t specify which details of the gospel message you must know and understand.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. A child may have saving faith that the gospel is true, and yet have an understanding of the gospel that would be considered extremely deficient in an adult. The primary issue really is one of trust. We trust in the truth of the gospel and we trust in the person and work of Christ.

In our session last week we said that true saving faith has three components, which are often given by their Latin names, notitia, assensus and fiducia, but can also be called information, assent and trust. This three-component view is the classic reformed view[10], but some theologians reduce it to two elements: knowledge and personal trust[11].

Marc Roby: And Berkhof’s definition certainly sounds like it has only two elements. He refers to a certain conviction of the truth of the gospel and then trust in the promises of God in Christ.

Dr. Spencer: I agree it sounds that way, although he goes on to give the familiar threefold division of reformed theology. But the two views are really the same at their core, because when theologians speak of true saving faith as consisting in just two elements, knowledge and personal trust, their idea of knowledge is information that we have agreed is true, in other words, to which we have given our assent. This is the view expressed by the Heidelberg Catechism for example in the answer to Question 21, which asks, “What is true faith?”

Marc Roby: And the answer given in the catechism is, “True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”[12]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great answer. And for our purposes right now the important points are that it refers to a “sure knowledge”, which is information and assent, and a “firm confidence”, which is trust.

Berkhof goes on to examine this knowledge further. He wrote that “The knowledge of faith consists in a positive recognition of the truth, in which man accepts as true whatsoever God says in His Word, and especially what He says respecting the deep depravity of man and the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”[13]

Marc Roby: In other words, we believe the bad news that we are sinners deserving of hell and cannot save ourselves and we acknowledge the truth of the good news that Jesus Christ came to save sinners.

Dr. Spencer: Those are the two necessary points yes. As we’ve said a number of times, no one will believe the good news if they have not first believed the bad news. Who will believe in a Savior if he doesn’t see that he needs to be saved?

Marc Roby: I would have to say no one.

Dr. Spencer: And I would agree. And Berkhof says more. He writes that “There must be certainty as to the reality of the object of faith; if there is not, faith is in vain.”[14]

Marc Roby: And, of course, the object of our faith is Jesus Christ. If we are not certain that he really existed and did the things the Bible says he did, and most notably, that he died on the cross for his people’s sins and then was raised from the dead, never to die again, well then our faith is in vain. In fact, we are told in Hebrews 11:6 that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Dr. Spencer: That verse makes it clear that faith has content, it lists two things we must believe. First, it says that we must believe that God exists. And the context obviously indicates that this means we accept the Bible’s teaching about who God is. For just a few verses earlier, in Verse 3, we read, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” And second, the verse says that we must believe God rewards those who earnestly seek him. This is speaking about God’s work of redemption and his promises to men, which again we only learn about in the Bible. So, faith has content, or we could say an object, and the object of biblical faith is the person and work of Christ as told to us in God’s Word.

Marc Roby: And that is great place to end for today, so let me 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 M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 475

[3] J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith?, The MacMillan Comp., 1925, pg. 155

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, pp 156-157

[6] Ibid, pg. 155

[7] Ibid, pg. 159

[8] J. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 409

[9] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 503

[10] E.g., see R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 71

[11] E.g., see Berkhof, op. cit., pg. 505

[12] G.I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism, P&R Publishing, 1993, pg. 36

[13] Berkhof, op. cit., pg.503

[14] Ibid, pg. 504

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation and we are in the midst of discussing conversion, or repentance and faith. In our session last week we discussed the protestant reformation and concluded by noting that the reformers declared that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: By noting that it is the word “alone” in the statement you just made that the Roman Catholic church objects to. R.C. Sproul wrote that “It is not an exaggeration to say that the eye of the Reformation tornado was this one little word.”[1]

The Roman Catholic church agrees that we are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. But if you say that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, then the Roman Catholic church declared at the Council of Trent in 1563 that you are eternally damned.[2] They would say that faith must be accompanied by certain works and, as we saw last time, the whole process must be mediated by the church.

Marc Roby: Which, of course, gives the church tremendous power.

Dr. Spencer: And such power often corrupts people, which I would say is certainly part of what happened with the Roman Catholic church, but that is a topic for a different day. In the last two sessions, we have seen that both the protestant reformation and many modern liberal errors are caused by not properly understanding the nature of true, biblical, saving faith.

In the case of the Roman Catholic church, they don’t understand that true faith, by itself, justifies us, so they add to what the Bible requires by including human works and the mediation of the church. In the case of modern liberal churches they subtract from what the Bible requires by teaching that a person can be saved by a faith that amounts to nothing more than intellectual assent to some basic facts. It is not a penitent faith that includes a turning away from sin. It is a faith that anyone has the power to lay hold of, you need not be born again first. And yet, we must remember that Jesus Christ himself told Nicodemus in John 3, Verses 3 and 5, that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” and “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”[3]

Marc Roby: And, I would hasten to add, that even the facts to which people are expected to give their assent are sometimes sorely lacking in biblical content.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. Mostly since the rise of so-called higher criticism in the 19th century, it has been very popular to deny the historicity of many of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Some will say that Jesus Christ was not really God, or that he didn’t really rise from the dead, or that he was not born of a virgin and so on. It is quite popular to deny virtually all of the miracles in the Bible and yet still call yourself a Christian.

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, I’m forced by the facts to agree that is true.

Dr. Spencer: J. Gresham Machen, the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote a marvelous book on this topic called Christianity & Liberalism, which I recommend to all of our listeners.[4]

I think the reason many people believe they have to reject miracles is that they have been convinced that if you are intelligent and sophisticated you can’t possibly believe they occur. The German liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann famously wrote that “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”[5]

Marc Roby: I think that probably sums up pretty well what many people think.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure it does. And, surprisingly, it even sums up how many self-professing Christians think. But I would say if one of our listeners agrees with that statement, I sincerely hope that he or she will think more carefully and reconsider. That view, which I am going to refer to as liberalism following Machen, is an egregious error for at least three reasons.

Marc Roby: That’s a strong statement. What is your first reason?

Dr. Spencer: The first reason is that there are things in this universe that simply cannot be explained with reference to just the material universe. I don’t mean that they can’t be explained right now, and that maybe we will be able to explain them in 100 years. I mean that they cannot be explained at all. We discussed some of these in Session 1, which any interested listener can go back and listen to or read in our archive at whatdoesthewordsay.org, but basically, I’m thinking about four things: First, this universe is not eternal. It had a beginning. But it makes no sense to believe that this universe popped into existence out of nothing with no cause whatsoever. That is a violation of basic logic.

Marc Roby: And, if I recall correctly, your second point is that living beings can’t be produced by natural processes operating on inanimate matter.

Dr. Spencer: That’s correct. You can’t mathematically say that there is zero chance, but the probability is so ridiculously low that no rational person should believe it. Again, interested listeners can go listen to or read Session 1. The third point I would give is the diversity of life. The idea that all of the vastly different life forms on this planet came about through the operation of random processes is simply irrational. You can go through the numbers and see that, again, no reasonable person should believe it. Finally, I would point out that volitional beings such as us …

Marc Roby: and by volitional you simply mean that we make real decisions …

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. In any event, volitional beings such as us cannot exist if this universe is simply matter in motion according to the laws of physics. Those laws are all either deterministic or random. There is no room for real volition. Any freedom of the will that you may think you have is pure illusion if the material universe is all that exists. Again, Session 1 contains more detail.

Marc Roby: OK. So the first reason you have for saying that liberalism is an egregious error is that there are characteristics of this universe that cannot be explained if this physical universe is all there is.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And the second reason I have for saying it is an egregious error is that if you call yourself a Christian, what on earth do you mean by that? The only place we learn about Christianity is the Bible. If the Bible is an unreliable book filled with myth and superstition, then why on earth would you believe anything it says? That makes no sense.

Marc Roby: I heartily agree.

Dr. Spencer: And not only that, but Christianity is all about what happens after we die. It is about how to go to heaven rather than hell. But if the material universe is all that exists, then heaven and hell are nonsense and there isn’t anything to be saved from. When you reduce Christianity to some sort of self-help program or social program focused on making life better in this world, you eviscerate it and calling it Christianity is just nonsense.

Marc Roby: That is definitely true. So what is your third reason for saying liberalism is wrong?

Dr. Spencer: Well, my third reason applies to those liberal professing Christians who at least believe that God exits and created this universe. This reason was stated by the apostle Paul almost 2,000 years ago. In defending himself before King Agrippa we are told in Acts 26:8 that Paul said, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”

Paul’s point is obvious. If you accept that there is, in fact, a God who created all things, then why on earth should you find it incredible that he raises the dead? Or does any other miracle for that matter? If he is capable of creating all things, wouldn’t it seem ridiculous to assume that he is incapable of doing things that violate the normal laws of physics, which he himself put in place? Raising someone from the dead should be easy compared to creating life in the first place. And the same argument applies to any miracle.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a powerful argument. We got into this discussion about the miracles in the Bible because you said, correctly, that it is popular at this time to deny the miracles in the Bible and still call yourself a Christian.

Dr. Spencer: And the point I want to make is that if your “faith” is like that, if you say you believe in Jesus Christ but you deny that he was born of a virgin or truly raised from the dead, then your faith is deficient and it will not save you. It is not biblical faith. There is content to faith and biblical faith must assent to the truth of the Bible.

Marc Roby: That makes good sense. We have now seen that faith can be deficient by subtraction – either not requiring repentance or not assenting to the truth of the Bible, and it can be deficient by addition – in other words, requiring something more, like works or the sacraments of a particular church.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Real, biblical faith, the faith that will save you when you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, has three components, often listed by their Latin terms: notitia, assensus and fiducia. Notitia simply means information. Faith must have an object. If you tell me that you have faith and end your sentence there, you haven’t told me anything meaningful. I would want to ask you, faith in what?

Marc Roby: In other words, faith has content.

Dr. Spencer: Yes; faith has to have an object. And biblical faith has content that comes from the Bible. You aren’t saved by receiving a high enough score on some theology exam, but at the same time if your faith is in something other than the biblical Jesus, it will not save you. The second Latin term, assensus, simply means assent, or agreement. In other words, you agree that the information, the notitia, is true. That is necessary for real saving faith, but it is not sufficient.

Marc Roby: D. James Kennedy famously illustrated what is lacking in “mental assent” faith. He would ask people, “Do you believe that this chair will hold you up?” And if they looked at it and said something like, “Well, yes. It looks like a solid chair.” He would then say, “But it isn’t holding you up now. You have mental assent to the fact that it can hold you up, but you haven’t really believed that fully until you place your trust in it and sit down.”[6]

Dr. Spencer: And that is the third element in true, saving faith. The Latin word fiducia means trust. It is the source of our English word fiduciary. We speak about the fact that someone, like a financial advisor, has a fiduciary responsibility to his clients. That means that the clients are placing trust in him and he is legally responsible to act in certain ways as a result.

Saving faith means that we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ. This necessarily requires that we renounce all trust in ourselves, which goes along with our having repented of our sins. We see our own unworthiness and, when we see that, it is unthinkable that we would trust in ourselves. We can look at Jesus, like the chair, and say that we agree he is trustworthy, but we must sit down. In other words, we must actively place our trust in him.

Marc Roby: And, of course, doing that requires simultaneously renouncing all trust in this world for our salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. On the one hand, we all trust other people and institutions every day for mundane things, we have no choice. But we dare not trust in anything in this world for our eternal salvation.

John Murray wrote that “Faith … is a whole-souled movement of self-commitment to Christ for salvation from sin and its consequences.”[7]

Marc Roby: I like that statement even though the English is a bit awkward. We must commit ourselves with our whole soul, in other words, with our whole being. We must not have any reservations or back-up plans.

Dr. Spencer: And Murray speaks about the warrant we have for faith, in other words, what grounds do we have for thinking that Christ will accept us or that he is able to save us?

Marc Roby: Those are obviously great questions. It wouldn’t make much sense to commit myself fully to Christ if he wouldn’t accept me or couldn’t save me. How does Murray deal with those questions?

Dr. Spencer: He first points out that the gospel offer is universal, the offer of the gospel is, he says, “full, free and unrestricted.”[8] This offer is also not something that started with the New Testament. God calls out in Isaiah 45:22, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.” And the same offer is given by Christ. We read in Matthew 11:28 that Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Marc Roby: That is a gracious offer indeed. And I love what Jesus said in John 6:37, “whoever comes to me”, he said, “I will never drive away.”

Dr. Spencer: The Bible is clear in teaching that anyone who humbles himself, repents of his sins, and turns to God seeking salvation will, in fact, be saved. We are told in Romans 10:13 that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” And so this universal offer of salvation gives us reasonable warrant to place our faith in Jesus Christ. And, in addition to that, the Bible makes it clear that Jesus Christ is fully able to save his people.

Marc Roby: In that context I immediately think of Hebrews 7:24-25, where we read, “because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

Dr. Spencer: Those are great verses to show that Christ is fully able to save his people. He has accomplished redemption. He took our sins upon himself on the cross and bore the wrath of God in our place. He died a substitutionary sacrificial death, was buried, and was raised from the dead for our justification. In 2 Corinthians 4:14 the apostle Paul told the church in Corinth that “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.”

Marc Roby: That is wonderful news. By his incarnation, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ did the work necessary to be the only Savior of mankind. And now, by sitting at the right hand of the Father and interceding for us he actually secures that salvation for all who believe in him.

Dr. Spencer: And Murray notes that “We entrust ourselves to him not because we believe we have been saved but as lost sinners in order that we may be saved.”[9]

Marc Roby: That is an important statement, and a great place to end for today. So, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to answer you.

 

[1] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 66

[2] The Council of Trent, The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), (see https://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent.html), the Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, CANON IX says, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”

[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] Machen, J. Gresham, Christianity & Liberalism, New Edition, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009

[5] R. Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, translated by Schubert M. Ogden, Fortress Press, 1984, pg. 4

[6] See D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion: Equipping Churches for Friendship, Evangelism, Discipleship, and Healthy Growth, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996, pg. 94

[7] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 107

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, pp 109-110

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation and we are in the midst of discussing conversion, or repentance and faith. In our session last week we discussed the fact that true saving faith is what John Murray calls a penitent faith. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to continue to examine how important it is to have a right understanding of what the Bible means when it says we are saved by faith. We saw last time that one common heresy today is to define faith down to nothing more than a decision to follow Jesus, and that decision doesn’t even require a person to repent of his or her sin or to produce any fruit in keeping with repentance. It is, in fact, choosing Christ and the world at the same time.

Marc Roby: And yet, we read in Matthew 6:24 that Jesus himself said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”[1]

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And money in that verse is, of course, just one example of a master, we must not value anything in this world more than Jesus. The apostle John wrote, in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” And we read in Matthew 10:37-38 that Jesus said, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Marc Roby: That is extremely challenging, we are not to love anyone or anything more than Christ, not even our own life.

Dr. Spencer: It is very challenging, and it makes it clear that when the Bible speaks about believing in Jesus Christ, it is a very serious matter. It necessarily includes giving up all hope in ourselves or anything in the world. Christ alone is able to save us. Everything else is worthless in comparison.

But the nature of true saving faith doesn’t just separate people and churches within the protestant world, it was also the cause of the greatest split ever seen in the church; the protestant reformation.

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, not all professing Christians are even aware of the reformation anymore, so it might be a good idea to just say that prior to the reformation in the 16th century, there was only one Christian church in western Europe, and that was the Roman Catholic church. The reformers, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, were people who split away from the Roman Catholic church because it had fallen into serious doctrinal error and refused to change.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And then, unfortunately, the reformers themselves had a number of smaller splits over less important matters and the net result is the proliferation of denominations that we have today: Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians and many, many more.

Marc Roby: While the reformation was a complicated and lengthy historical event, it is often thought of us beginning when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, although the seeds of the reformation had been planted in England by John Wycliffe and in the Kingdom of Bohemia, in what is now part of the Czech Republic, by Jan Hus about 150 years earlier. It’s also important to know that the reformation was really a return to biblical Christianity. No new revelation from God was involved in the reformation, it was, rather, a return to the Bible.

Marc Roby: And, as many people know, the main topic of the 95 theses was the Roman Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences, which are declarations by the Pope that supposedly release people from some or all of the time they would have to spend in purgatory.

Dr. Spencer: That’s also true. Before we go on, I think we have to give some background here for our listeners to be able to understand the issues.

The Roman Catholic church taught then, and still teaches, that when people die they can go to one of three places; heaven, purgatory, or hell.[2] They teach that when a person comes to faith and his sins are forgiven, which is called being in a state of grace, that does not mean that all of the consequences for those sins are removed. A forgiven person will ultimately go to heaven and spend eternity in bliss, but there are still temporal consequences for sins.[3] And if a person dies while not yet having undergone all of the temporal punishment due to him for his sin, he goes to purgatory to finish paying that penalty.

Marc Roby: Now, we should say that we certainly agree that there are temporal consequences for our sin. In Leviticus 26:40-42 God told his people through Moses, “But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers—their treachery against me and their hostility toward me, which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a sobering passage, which should cause us all to be more careful in how we live. But we must also be careful to make clear that when God referred to people paying for their sin, he was not speaking about atonement. The Bible is clear that no one outside of Christ can atone for his own sins or the sins of others. Instead, this is speaking about temporal discipline.

So, we agree with the Roman Catholic church in part, although we would say that the Bible teaches that when a believer dies, all such temporal discipline is over. Whereas, the Roman Catholic church teaches that when you die you may still have left over temporal punishment to go through. And, if that is the case, you don’t go directly to heaven, you go to purgatory as I said earlier. Only when you have finished with your temporal punishment are you released from purgatory and admitted to heaven.

Marc Roby: It is important to note that the Bible never once mentions or even implies the existence of purgatory, or anything like it.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. The doctrine of purgatory is unbiblical, but the background is important to understand the real issues of the reformation.

Marc Roby: OK, so an indulgence then was something that would release an individual from a certain amount of time in purgatory.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And the church still issues indulgences today, although Pope Pius V abolished the sale of indulgences in 1567.[4] But we’ve said enough about indulgences for the time being. Luther’s 95 theses were mostly about them on the surface, but indulgences were really a symptom, not the true problem. At the time Luther posted his theses, he was hoping to reform the church from within, not split it up, and he even assumed in the theses that the Pope would not approve if he knew how indulgences were being described by those who sold them.

Marc Roby: Which turned out not to be entirely true of course.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, his assumption was definitely not entirely true. The papacy at the time of Luther was exceedingly corrupt and needed the money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. The protestant reformation is a fascinating and useful topic to study, and we may take a look at it in detail at some future time. But for right now I want to stay focused on the importance of having a right understanding of what constitutes true, saving faith as presented in the Bible.

Marc Roby: OK. You said that indulgences were only a symptom, what was the real problem?

Dr. Spencer: Well, it was related to the indulgences because of the way they were being marketed, for lack of a better term.

Marc Roby: Given much of what went on, I think that is a perfectly appropriate term.

Dr. Spencer: Well, you’re right about that, it just sounds bad. In any event, indulgences were sold as a way for people to escape punishment, without requiring true repentance or change.

Marc Roby: Which sounds much like the modern view of faith without repentance or change.

Dr. Spencer: It was similar in practice, yes. But, to be fair, the official position of the Roman Catholic church, then as now, required repentance. A little more background is probably needed to understand the picture. In the Roman Catholic church, a person is saved by baptism and the other sacraments of the church[5]. One of these was, and is, the sacrament of penance[6]. According to the Roman Catholic church, there are two kinds of sins; venial and grave, or mortal.

Marc Roby: Which is, I hasten to point out, a distinction not made in the Bible. In James 2:10 we read, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is an important point. We are not suggesting, of course, that the physical act of adultery isn’t worse than having a lustful thought, or that murder isn’t worse than being improperly angry with someone, but nevertheless, there are no sins that are so small that God simply winks and ignores our committing them. Every violation of God’s law, no matter how small, is a demonstration of the fact that we are, at our core, rebellious sinners.

But, getting back to the idea of venial and mortal sins, venial sins do not destroy the grace received at baptism, but mortal sins do.[7] When a person commits a venial sin, he is still in a state of grace, although he still needs to repent of the sin. But, if a true Christian commits a mortal sin and then dies without having repented of it, the Roman Catholic doctrine says that he goes to hell. In other words, according the Roman Catholic church, true faith can be lost.

Marc Roby: Now, if that were true, Peter’s exhortation in 2 Peter 1:10 to make our calling and election sure would be very strange indeed. How could we ever be sure of our election if the possibility still existed for us to fall away from salvation by some future sin?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the answer, of course, is that we couldn’t be sure. The reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which we spoke about in Session 131, is the proper biblical view. But returning to the topic of sin, according to the Roman Catholic church, when someone has committed a mortal sin, he must avail himself of the sacrament of penance to be restored to the state of grace. And even after being restored to the state of grace there is temporal punishment for sin, which the penitent must go through either in this life or in purgatory. Now, there is also temporal punishment for venial sins. The Roman Catholic sacrament of penance at the time of the reformation and still today has three components: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.[8]

Marc Roby: So in order to have his temporal punishment reduced, a man must be truly contrite – in other words, he must truly feel sorry for having sinned, he must confess his sins, and he must perform some work of satisfaction.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s correct. And the Roman Catholic catechism carefully defines true contrition. It says, that contrition consists in “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again”.[9]

Marc Roby: That sounds very much like the way we have defined true, biblical repentance.

Dr. Spencer: It does sound a lot like it. We made the point last time that true, saving faith is always a penitent faith. So you can see that this issue of selling indulgences is connected with the nature of true faith; basically, it is a symptom of the fact that the Roman Catholic church teaches that a person is saved by the sacraments, through the action of the church and the works of the sinner, rather than through a vital, penitent, personal faith in Jesus Christ alone.

But, getting back to the sacrament of penance, the second component, confession, is clear enough, although we would again disagree with the Roman Catholic church by saying that there is no biblical requirement for a person to confess his sins to a priest. The third element, satisfaction, can take many forms, for example, saying certain prayers, or giving to the poor …

Marc Roby: Or, at the time of the reformation, purchasing an indulgence.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. An indulgence was one possible work of satisfaction. Although, as I noted earlier, the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567. But we have now gotten to the real issue. The way indulgences were being sold, there was no requirement for personal repentance.

And further, even if the indulgences had been marketed in accordance with the church’s doctrines, so that the person was instructed that there must be real contrition, the person’s faith was not, in and of itself, sufficient for salvation. He needed to do works of satisfaction and the church needed to accept his works and pronounce absolution.[10]

Marc Roby: Which simply means that the church declares that he has been forgiven.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. So there are works required now in addition to faith. And the church must be involved to mediate this whole process.

Marc Roby: Even though Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:5 that “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.

Dr. Spencer: And in spite of the fact that we read in Romans 10:9 “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” There is no mention of works of satisfaction being a condition upon which our salvation depends. And there is no need for a separate priesthood either. Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:5 that Christians, “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Marc Roby: Even though we repudiate the need for a special priesthood to mediate for us, we would certainly agree that a person who has been saved will have good works.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do agree with that. But those good works are the result of the fact that the person has been born again and is a new creation. They serve as proof that the conversion is real, but they are never seen as a condition which must be met in order for the person to be saved. There is all the difference in the world between these two positions.

We must be born again, not by being baptized or doing anything else that we or any priest can do, but by the sovereign, effectual work of Almighty God. If we have been born again, we are new creations and we will respond in repentance and faith. That faith unites us to Jesus Christ and, as a result of that union, our sins are put into his account and are seen as having been paid for by Christ on the cross. Simultaneously, his righteousness is put into our account and we are seen as perfectly righteous in God’s sight.

Marc Roby: And that is the glorious double transaction we have spoken of a number of times.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. So the core of biblical Christianity is that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone as the reformers declared. But in order to be sure that we are not deceived, that faith must conform to the biblical standard. It must be a true, penitent faith in the real, fully divine and fully human Jesus Christ presented to us in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Well, I think we are out of time for today, so we’ll have to continue this conversation next time. But before we sign off, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdo

[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] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part One, Section Two, Chapter Three, Article 12, Paragraph 1021 (e.g., see http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2K.HTM)

[3] Ibid, Part Two, Section Two, Chapter One, Article 1, Paragraph 1264

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica, (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/indulgence)

[5] Catholic Church, op. cit., Part Two, Section Two, Chapter One, Article 1, Paragraph 1215 tells us that baptism “signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God.’” The quote they give is from John 3:5 where Jesus is telling Nicodemus about new birth, or regeneration. Therefore, they are saying that baptism “actually brings about” regeneration. This unbiblical doctrine is often referred to as baptismal regeneration.

[6] Also called the sacrament of conversion, or repentance, or forgiveness, or reconciliation; see Ibid, Part Two, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 4, Paragraphs 1423 and 1424

[7] Ibid, Paragraph 1446 says that those who commit grave sin “have thus lost their baptismal grace”.

[8] Ibid, Paragraph 1448

[9] Ibid, Paragraph 1471

[10] Ibid, Paragraph 1424

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Marc Roby: Well then, we are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. We have been speaking about the first item in this order, the effectual call. Dr. Spencer, what else would you like to say about this call?

Dr. Spencer: I want to read a quote from John Murray. He wrote that “The sovereignty and efficacy of the call do not relax human responsibility but rather ground and confirm that responsibility. The magnitude of the grace enhances the obligation.”[1] In other words, those who think that the fact that God is sovereign in election, calling and regeneration somehow negates human responsibility are wrong. The reality is that the sheer magnitude of the grace involved in God’s having chosen, called and regenerated us increases our obligation to obey. And this obligation to obey does not end with our repentance and faith.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of Ephesians 4:1, where the apostle Paul wrote, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a very challenging statement. Who can be worthy of such a calling? This new life begins with repentance and faith, but the obedience is to continue throughout all of life and beyond.

Murray also points out that this calling is a high, holy and heavenly calling,[3] which is a biblical statement. Paul wrote in Philippians 3:14, “I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” I’ve quoted from the American Standard Version here because it uses the phrase “high calling”, which is also used in the King James Version that Murray was referring to. And we see that the calling is holy by looking at what Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:8-9, “But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life”. And, finally, we see that it is a heavenly calling in Hebrews 3:1, where we are told, “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.”

Marc Roby: Well, the fact that this is a high, holy and heavenly calling makes Paul’s admonition to live a life worthy of this calling even more challenging.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly does. No one can live the Christian life in his or her own strength. The Christian life is impossible to live unless you are empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in Romans 8:14 that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” And, as the Rev. P.G. Mathew points out in his commentary on Romans, the original Greek for this verse is better translated as, “For those who are being led by the Spirit of God, they and they alone are the sons of God.”[4]

Marc Roby: And praise God for the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Dr. Spencer: Praise God indeed. As I said, no one could possibly live the Christian life without the Spirit.

Marc Roby: And so, are we ready to move on to examine the next item on the order of salvation?

Dr. Spencer: We are.

Marc Roby: Very well. The next item in the order is regeneration.

Dr. Spencer: And because of the intimate connection between the effectual call and regeneration we have already mentioned regeneration a number of times while looking at the effectual call. In speaking of regeneration itself, Murray wrote that “God effects a change which is radical and all-pervasive, a change which cannot be explained in terms of any combination, permutation, or accumulation of human resources, a change which is nothing less than a new creation”.[5]

In a similar vein, the great Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock wrote that regeneration “is a universal change of the whole man. It is a new creature, not only a new power or new faculty. This … extends to every part … [It] is as large in renewing as sin was in defacing.”[6]

Marc Roby: And that immediately makes me think of 2 Corinthians 5:17, where Paul wrote that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Dr. Spencer: And that new creation starts with new birth, or regeneration. We are entirely passive in our new birth, just as we were in our physical birth. We play no determining role in our conception, gestation or birth. We are the passive object. And it is the same with God’s election, calling and new birth.

Marc Roby: I’m always amazed when someone misses the obvious importance of the metaphor Jesus used. In speaking about our need to be born again Jesus was quite clearly indicating that we play no active role.

Dr. Spencer: That clearly was his point. So I want to take a few minutes to look at the verses where Jesus tells us about the new birth. In John 3:3 and 5, Jesus says to Nicodemus, beginning with Verse 3, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And then in Verse 5 he said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” The question I want to address is, “What did Jesus mean when he said we must be “born of water and the Spirit”?

Marc Roby: Well, there is fairly widespread agreement that being born of the Spirit refers to new birth, which is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit as you said before.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But there have been differences of opinion about what is meant by being born of water. Some take that to refer to either natural human birth or baptism, but I think those views are almost certainly wrong.

Marc Roby: What do you think it refers to?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let me quote from John Murray again because I think his analysis of this verse is clear and correct. He wrote that “Jesus did not say baptism; he says water. … Now what religious idea would we expect to be conveyed to the mind of Nicodemus by the use of the word “water”? Of course, the idea associated with the religious use of water in that religious tradition and practice which provided the very context of Nicodemus’ life and profession. … the religiously symbolic meaning of water, pointed in one direction, and that direction is purification. All the relevant considerations would conspire to convey to Nicodemus that message.”[7]

Marc Roby: It makes good sense, and is exegetically sound, to say that if we want to understand what Jesus meant, we must take into account that he was speaking to a particular person and that person had a specific background and life experience. In the case of Nicodemus, we are told in John 3:1 that he was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council.

Dr. Spencer: And given that background, I think that Murray’s analysis is obviously correct. Nicodemus would never have thought of natural birth or Christian baptism, which hadn’t been instituted yet anyway. He would have thought of the Jewish ritual of purification. Wayne Grudem makes the same argument in his Systematic Theology.[8]

Marc Roby: We should probably provide a bit of background and point out that at the time of Jesus, the idea of bathing in water had great symbolic significance in terms of moral cleansing.[9] And this significance goes way back in the Old Testament.

We even see it directly linked with the Old Testament prophecy about being given a new heart. In Ezekiel 36:25-26 we read that God said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Dr. Spencer: That background is very relevant. There are a number of places in modern Israel, like Qumran and Masada, where you can still see the ancient pools used for ceremonial washings.[10] The mention of water would almost certainly have conveyed that meaning to Nicodemus. Murray then goes on to say that “The characteristic sin of the pharisees was self-complacency and self-righteousness. What they needed was to be convinced of their own pollution and the need of radical purification. It is this lesson that the expression ‘born of water’ would have conveyed most effectively.”[11]

Marc Roby: That is a strong argument. And it reminds me of what Paul wrote to Titus, where he also associated washing and new birth with each other. In Titus 3:4-5 we read, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”.

Dr. Spencer: That does solidify the connection. We can also look at what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:25-27, “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.” Notice that we are to cleanse our wives by “washing with water through the word”. This is clearly speaking about moral, not physical, cleansing, and it again uses this metaphor of water, but it connects it with the Word of God. The Word of God is this cleansing “water”.

Christ himself also linked the Word with cleansing. In John 15:3 we read that he told his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The Word of God shows us that we are sinners in need of a Savior. And it then reveals Jesus Christ to us as the only Savior. We need this information to be saved. The Word then shows us how we can live in a way that pleases God.

Marc Roby: The role of the Word of God in bringing about new birth is also explicitly mentioned by Peter. In 1 Peter 1:23 we read, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great verse. And I think that when you look at all that we have said, it is clear that when Jesus told Nicodemus that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit”, he was making the point that we need to be cleansed of our sins and the “water” that accomplishes that cleansing is the Word of God applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Murray wrote, “Regeneration must negate the past as well as reconstitute for the future. It must cleanse from sin as well as recreate in righteousness.”[12]

Marc Roby: Very well, what else would you like to say about regeneration?

Dr. Spencer: That it is a completely sovereign work of God, primarily God the Holy Spirit. Theologians say it is a monergistic work of God, simply meaning that God alone is active in it. After telling Nicodemus that he must be born again, Jesus went on to say, in John 3:8, that “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Marc Roby: I find it interesting that in the original Greek, the word translated in this verse as “wind” is πνεῦμα (pneuma), which is the same word translated as Spirit in the earlier verses.

Dr. Spencer: That is interesting, and I’m sure the double meaning was not lost on Nicodemus, but it is clear from the context that the translation here is correct. In any event, Murray points out the significance of this statement. He wrote, “The wind is not at our beck and call; neither is the regenerative operation of the Spirit. … the Spirit’s work is mysterious. [This] All points up the sovereignty, efficacy, and inscrutability of the Holy Spirit’s work in regeneration.”[13]

Marc Roby: But you mentioned in our last session that the Father is also involved in the work of regeneration.

Dr. Spencer: I did, and I said that based on the Scriptural evidence. For example, in Ephesians 2:4-5 we read that “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Now the sentence clearly speaks of God and Christ as two distinct persons, which tells us that God in this verse refers to God the Father as is common in the New Testament. So the verse says that God the Father made us alive when we were dead in transgressions, which is a clear reference to regeneration. Paul says almost exactly the same thing again in Colossians 2:13, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ.”

Marc Roby: Those are clear statements that the Father is involved.

Dr. Spencer: And Wayne Grudem uses them, along with others, to support his conclusion that “both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit bring about regeneration.”[14] Now I think it is still clear that the Holy Spirit is the primary agent in our regeneration, but these verses show that the Father is involved as well.

Marc Roby: What else would you like to say about regeneration?

Dr. Spencer: That the Word of God is used in bringing it about; as we have discussed, we must be born of water and the Spirit, and the cleansing water is the Word of God. You could, perhaps even should, consider this to be part of the effectual call, rather than regeneration proper, but it bears pointing out that the Puritans referred to the Word of God as the instrumental cause of regeneration, meaning that the Word is the instrument used to bring it about.[15] We see this, for example, in James 1:18, which says that the Father “chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” We also see this in 1 Peter 1:23, where we read, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” And finally, let me quote from the apostle Paul. He wrote, in Romans 10:17, that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”

Marc Roby: And that makes sense since the Word of God is where we learn of both our need for a Savior and God’s provision of a Savior in Jesus Christ. Regeneration is what makes us able to respond to the gospel offer with repentance and faith, but the response could not occur without knowing about our need and the offer.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, the Word of God is essential for salvation. We also need to remember that the gospel offer will not be refused by anyone who has been regenerated. We spoke about the doctrine of irresistible grace in Sessions 130 and 131, but it good to remember that when God changes our nature, our positive response to the gospel call is made certain.

We see this clearly in Romans Chapter 9. After Paul has explained God’s sovereign election of some people to be saved, he then anticipates an objection that will come from sinful men and writes, in Romans 9:19, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” This objection would make no sense if Paul were not teaching that God is absolutely sovereign over our salvation. But, as we have said before, he doesn’t force anyone to accept or reject the gospel. Unregenerate people will always, without exception, willingly reject the gospel and regenerate people will always, without exception, willingly accept the gospel.

Marc Roby: Are we finished with the topic of regeneration?

Dr. Spencer: Not yet.

Marc Roby: Well, we are, however, out of time for today, so we’ll have to finish this up next time. Therefore, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we’ll do our best to answer you.

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 92

[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] Murray, op. cit., pg. 91

[4] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2011, pg. 536

[5] Murray, op. cit., pg. 96

[6] Quoted in Beeke, Joel R. & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 474

[7] Murray, op. cit., pg. 97

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, see footnote 7 on pg. 702

[9] E.g., see The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (in five volumes), Zondervan, 1976, Vol. 4, pg. 957 entry on Purification, and pg. 958 in entry on Purity, 1b. Water

[10] Ibid, Vol. 1, pg. 490 in entry on Bath

[11] Murray, op. cit., pg. 97

[12] Ibid, pg. 98

[13] Ibid, pg. 99

[14] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 700

[15] Beeke & Jones, op. cit., pg. 473

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[Download PDF Transcript]

You’re listening to What Does the Word Say, a series of podcasts on biblical theology produced by Grace and Glory Media, and I’m Dr. Spencer. Our usual host Mr. Roby is not with me again today because we are both still obeying the stay-at-home order issued as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We are also continuing to take a short break from our series on systematic theology. This week I want to talk about how to think biblically.

It is important for Christians to think biblically at all times, but it is especially important in difficult times like these. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 the apostle Paul wrote, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”[1]

We are not free to think whatever we want to think. Jesus Christ is Lord of everything, including our thinking. It dishonors God and therefore displeases him when we think improperly. So, for example, if we think that the coronavirus pandemic is somehow outside of his control, we dishonor him. To think that way is to disparage his sovereignty and power.

Now someone may think that by believing God is not in control of this pandemic he is defending God from being charged with not being good or loving, but that is a completely unbiblical way to think. We discussed God’s providence in some detail in Sessions 88 through 93, but for now let me just note that if God is not in control of every detail of every single event in the universe, then we can’t trust any of his promises.

Also, the Bible clearly tells us that God is in control of everything, so to say otherwise is unbiblical. I won’t go back through all that we covered before, Session 89 provides a number of Scripture references in support of this statement, but let me just give three examples for today.

First, in Proverbs 16:33 we are told that “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Now casting a lot was the Old Testament equivalent of rolling the dice, so this proverb is explicitly telling us that God is in control even of things that people tend to think of as random events.

Second, in Psalm 139:16 King David was praying to God and said that “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” This shows us that God is also in control of our lives. In fact, we are told elsewhere that he knits us together in our mother’s wombs (Ps 139:13), he ordains when, where and to whom we are born (e.g., Ps 139:13, Is 45:13, Acts 17:26). He elects us unto salvation or passes us by and leaves us to be justly punished for our sins (e.g., Rom 9:13). He has ordained the exact moment and cause of our death (e.g., 1 Sam 28:19, Ps 139:16). And all of this was done before the creation of the world (e.g., Eph 1:4).

Third, in the New Testament we read, in Matthew 10:29, that Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Which makes it clear that even seemingly unimportant events in this world are under God’s control.

And we also can’t restrict God’s sovereignty by saying that he isn’t in control of disasters and sinful acts as well. With regard to so-called natural disasters, God has established the fixed laws of heaven and earth as we read in Jeremiah 33:25, which certainly include the physical laws governing weather, earthquakes and so on. But God is still in control of these things. For example, Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee by simply commanding the wind and the waves to be still as we read in Mark 4:39. And with regard to sin, God does not directly cause sin, but he is in complete control of it. If he so chooses, he can stop anyone from doing any particular sinful act. And yet, we must admit the obvious fact that there are very many natural disasters and wicked sinful things that happen in this world. So, it is clear that God allows them to happen, and he does so for a purpose. He is not capricious.

It is sometimes argued, although incorrectly, that the existence of evil in this world proves that God is either not completely good, or not completely sovereign. We answered that charge in Session 74 and so all I’m going to say now is that the statement is the result of a faulty assumption; namely, that God’s purpose is to make our lives here on earth as pleasant as possible, which simply is not true, that isn’t his purpose.

In order to think biblically, in other words correctly, about anything that happens in this life we must first have a biblical perspective on life, which includes understanding that God’s purpose is the manifestation of his own glory. The biblical perspective is also eternal. This life is short, but we are all made for an eternal existence, either in hell or in heaven. When you consider those two eternal realities, all of sudden you realize that the most important thing, in fact, we could say the only truly important thing in this life for everyone is determine to which of these two possible eternal homes you are headed.

All of human history is subservient to this ultimate purpose. God is creating a people for himself, which is variously called the church (e.g., 1 Tim 3:5), or the family of God (e.g., 1 Pet 4:17), or the bride of Christ (e.g., Eph 5:24-32), or God’s inheritance (e.g., 1 Sam 10:1), or God’s treasured possession (e.g., Ex 19:5). The one thing needful, as Christ said to Martha in Luke 10:42, is to make sure that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior, “for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” as we are told in Acts 4:12.

To think biblically means to view everything through the lens of Scripture. In other words, it is to have a biblical worldview. Phil Johnson, the late professor of law at the UC Berkeley Law School and author of a number of excellent books, wrote that “Understanding worldview is a bit like trying to see the lens of one’s own eye. We do not ordinarily see our own worldview, but we see everything else by looking through it. Put simply, our worldview is the window by which we view the world, and decide, often subconsciously, what is real and important, or unreal and unimportant.”[2]

The common idea that we can build our worldview from scratch by being entirely neutral observers of reality and then analyzing the data and determining what we think is right is completely false. There is no such thing as a neutral observer and everyone, the scientist no less than the artist, views everything through the lens of his own preexisting worldview. And he will work to incorporate everything he sees into this preexisting worldview.

Now, our worldview is a bit like an onion, it has layers to it. On the outer layers we have opinions that are things we think are probably true, but we are perfectly able and willing to change those views if we find them to be inconsistent with the world we observe. So there certainly is a sense in which we can correct and build our worldview. But as you peel off the layers and get deeper and deeper into your worldview, you get into things that you believe far more strongly. Views that it would be incredibly difficult to convince you to change. And when you get to the very core of your worldview, you come to your most dearly held personal commitments, and the most important of these by far is whether or not you believe the God of the Bible exists and whether or not you believe the Bible to be his infallible Word. Every single human being alive either believes these statements are true, or not true. There are no exceptions. To think that you haven’t decided yet, is to have decided in the negative.

And these two statements are really inseparable since the Bible is the only place we receive objective revelation of the true and living God and his way of salvation. Now, we can learn many things about God from the world around us and from our own nature, but that revelation doesn’t provide sufficient information to be saved and to properly love and serve God; it is only sufficient to leave us without excuse when we stand before God.

Paul wrote in Romans 1:18-20 that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” In other words, this revelation, which is called general revelation, is sufficient for obligating every single human being to seek to know the true and living God, but no one does so. Paul wrote in Romans 3:11 that “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”

So, all people in their natural state have a fundamental, core belief, or presupposition, that the God of the Bible does not exist and the Bible is not his infallible Word. In one sense everyone knows better but, as Paul wrote, they suppress this truth. And because of this fundamental presupposition at the core of his worldview, the unbeliever thinks differently than a born-again Christian will think. Paul wrote, in Romans 1:21, immediately after the verses I read a minute ago, that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” He also wrote, in Ephesians 4:17, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.” An unbeliever’s thinking is futile because it will never arrive at the right answer about God.

It isn’t that unbelievers can’t design cell phones and GPS systems, build cars and bridges and so on. They can do all of those things. But whenever it comes to thinking about God, they will get the wrong answer. And God is the only reality that truly matters in the end. Because where you spend eternity, whether in heaven or in hell, depends on your answer to one simple question, which Christ posed to his disciples in Matthew 16:15, “Who do you say I am?”

Unbelievers will give a range of answers to this question. Some may simply say that Jesus Christ is a fictional character and never really existed at all. Some will say that he is a real, historical figure, but that he was just a normal man who was put to death by the Romans in 1st-century Palestine and that was the end of him. His disciples then told people he had been raised from the dead and started what we call Christianity. Some unbelievers will concede that Christ was a great moral teacher, but nothing more.

Some unbelievers will even say that Jesus Christ is God and will call themselves Christians, but they have made up a different Jesus in their minds rather than believing in the Jesus who is revealed to us in his Word, the Bible. And this is nothing new. In his second letter to the church in Corinth Paul was rebuking them for not remaining true to the gospel and he wrote, in 2 Corinthians 11:4, “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.” But a different Jesus is of no use, in fact a different Jesus, a different gospel, will damn you. Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” That statement is terrifying. Jesus goes on to say that many will come to him this way and he will tell them to depart from him. In other words, he will send them to hell.

Only a true, born-again Christian will give the right answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”. A true believer will say that Jesus Christ is the second person of the eternal, almighty triune God, the Creator, Sustainer, Judge and Redeemer of all mankind. This eternal second person of the holy Trinity became incarnate when the Holy Spirit caused the virgin Mary to conceive. She then gave birth and Jesus grew up, lived a perfect sinless life, and willingly gave his life on the cross as the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of all those who put their faith in him.

This radical difference in worldviews between a believer and an unbeliever leads to a radical difference in thinking. But there are two important points to make about this difference. First, you cannot change your own worldview in this radical way. You must be born again. You must cry out for God to do a mighty work and give you a new heart and a new spirit so that you can repent and believe on Jesus Christ. As Jesus said in John Chapter 6, Verses 44 and 65, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” and “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

And the second important point, and what I want to spend the rest of our time on today, is that if you have been born again, you still need to work in order to develop proper biblical thinking. A born-again person has the right presupposition at the core of his worldview, and he has the Spirit to enable him to understand God’s Word and apply it, but he also still has his old sinful nature to fight against and he needs to study the Word seriously, put it into practice, mortify his sin and walk in holiness in order to grow in faith and knowledge. We can’t just assume that if we have been born again, or regenerated, we suddenly know how to properly live the Christian life.

That is why the New Testament epistles always contain both indicatives and imperatives. The indicatives are there to instruct us about certain facts and the imperatives are there to command us how we are to live in the light of those facts. And we are given pastors and teachers to help us understand and apply the Word properly. We read in Ephesians 4:11-16 that it was Christ himself who, “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. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Without proper teaching and study, you can be born again and yet remain an infant in Christ, being “tossed back and forth by the waves” of this life. Waves like the coronavirus pandemic. And you can be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching”, like the false preachers who will tell you that if you have enough faith God will certainly heal you and keep your finances from failing. Now, to be clear, the Bible says that God is able to heal you and keep your finances from failing, and it is proper for you to pray for that. But the Bible is equally clear that God does not promise to do so. He will do whatever is best for you and will give him the greatest glory.

For example, even the apostle Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to humble him. He prayed three times for God to remove it, in fact we are told he pleaded with God to remove it, and yet God said “No.” We read in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s answer was to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It would obviously be silly to say that Paul’s faith was not sufficient, so the false teachers who say things like this are wicked charlatans on their way to hell and they want to bring you along with them. Don’t listen to them! Read the Word of God. Study it. Know what it says. Be guided by pious and learned men. If you study the Word yourself and pray, you can tell the difference. Go to our website, whatdoesthewordsay.org, and request your free copy of Good News for All People by the Rev. P.G. Mathew. If you read it prayerfully and then continue to study the Word, you will find it is written by a pious and learned man and that it properly expounds the Word of God, which is able to save you and equip you for difficult times, which the Bible says we will all go through. Times like we are in right now.

In our session last week, I mentioned that we must all make our calling and election sure because if we are not God’s children, then his promises are not for us and we have no real hope. The way you make your calling and election sure is by prayerfully studying God’s Word and then examining your life in the light of the many tests given to us in that Word. I will speak more about that next week, but for today let me just say that if you have been born again, if the love of God is in you, then you can take great solace in his promises.

You may die from Covid-19, or your spouse may die from it, or you may lose your job and much of your savings, these are all possible even for God’s children. But you have eternal life and God has promised that he will never leave you nor forsake you. You can rejoice as I noted last week even as you go through these trials. In fact, let me close with one of God’s great promises to his children. In Philippians 4:6-7 God commands us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Brothers and sisters, what a glorious promise this is! The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, can be ours even as we go through trials. Do not be anxious. Go to God with thanksgiving and praise and, yes, even with your requests for worldly things. He may not grant all of your worldly requests, but he does promise to give you his peace. And he promises, in Roman 8:28, that in all things, even this pandemic, he works for the good of those who love him.

So, may God bless you with his peace. And I hope that you will join with me in praying that God will use this pandemic to draw many people to himself, that we would see a mighty revival.

And remember that you can send your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear 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] In the Foreword to Nancy Pearcey’s book, Total Truth; Liberating Christianity form its Cultural Captivity, Crossway Books, 2004

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. When we finished last week we were in the midst of discussing the glorious topic of the believer’s union with Christ, which John Murray called “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[1] Dr. Spencer, you had made the point that this union is spiritual, which indicates that the Holy Spirit is the bond and that this relationship is different from other unions. At the end of our time you mentioned that this union is also mystical. Now, what did you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we were again following the treatment in John Murray’s excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, and to explain what he meant by calling our union with Christ mystical he cited the wonderful doxology with which the apostle Paul finishes his letter to the church in Rome. We read this doxology in Romans 16:25-27, “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” [2]

Marc Roby: And so, when Murray calls our union with Christ mystical, he means that it is a mystery in the sense that Paul used that word in this passage.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And there are four points that Murray makes from the passage about this mystery. First, this mystery was, as Paul wrote, “hidden for long ages past”, which simply means that it was hidden from us as creatures. It was always in the mind of God of course. And the second point is that the mystery did not remain hidden, Paul goes on to say that it was “now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God”.

Marc Roby: In other words, we learn about Jesus Christ, his person and his redeeming work, through the Bible, which was written down by God’s command and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is what Paul meant. When he referred to “the prophetic writings”, he wasn’t just speaking about the Old Testament prophets. The phrase is a synecdoche for the entire Bible.

Marc Roby: And we should probably remind our listeners that a synecdoche is a figure of speech where a part of something is used to refer to the whole.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a good reminder. And this was the third thing that Murray noted from Paul’s doxology; namely, that the mystery was revealed in the Bible. It is available to everyone in every nation. It is not the sole possession of some special class of people and it is not discovered by a subjective process of meditation or private encounter with the risen Lord. It is objective and can be looked at and understood by all.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a very important point. And it certainly distinguishes this mystery from many other things that we might call mysterious.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is very different. And the revelation had to be objective because the fourth thing Murray points out is that the purpose of God’s revealing this mystery is, as Paul put it, “so that all nations might believe and obey” God. If the revelation were purely subjective, then we would all be able to say we were believing and obeying what had been revealed to us and no one would be able to contradict us.

Marc Roby: And that would eviscerate real Christianity. It would make it an entirely subjective and personal thing.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly would. But real Christianity is based on objective truth that is presented to us in the Bible. That doesn’t mean that people won’t distort that truth and falsely call themselves Christians, that happens all the time. But it does mean that we have an objective standard to which we can compare ourselves to see whether or not we are truly Christ’s disciples.

Marc Roby: And distorting God’s Word is a very dangerous thing to do. Peter spoke about this. In 2 Peter 3:16 he commented about the writings of the apostle Paul and said that “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.”

Dr. Spencer: Everyone who calls him or herself a Christian should pay careful attention to the implicit warning given in that verse. We have to be very careful with the Word of God. This is especially true in our day when there is an abundance of astoundingly bad theology being preached from many pulpits and presented in many books, podcasts, TV shows and so on.

If you think you are a Christian, you must read the Word of God carefully and test what you read or hear from others to see whether or not it is in agreement with God’s Word. The Bible must be our ultimate standard for truth. Non-biblical faith may make you feel better here and now, but it will not save you from eternal damnation.

Marc Roby: Jesus himself told us, in John 8:32, that “the truth will set you free.” And the Bible is the truth.

Dr. Spencer: And we all by nature prefer to be told things that are pleasant and agree with our old sinful nature. But if we have been born again and enjoy union with Christ, we will acknowledge in our hearts that the Bible is, in fact, the Word of God and we will desire to know and obey it even when it corrects us. I’m not saying that always happens without some degree of pain and struggle of course, but it will happen.

Marc Roby: Paul wrote in Romans 8:29 that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”. The fact that we must be conformed implies that we need to change.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does imply we need to change. And the Word of God is the primary means of our being conformed. We must be very careful to not be deceived. If someone comes to you and tells you what he thinks the Word of God means, you must look into the Word and see if he is right. Don’t just accept the word of man. If he truly is a man of God speaking the Word of God to you, he himself will exhort you to read that Word.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the comment made about the Bereans in the book of Acts. In Acts Chapter 17 we read about Paul and Silas presenting the gospel to the people in Thessalonica and Berea, two towns in what is now modern-day Greece. And in Acts 17:11 we read, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great verse. If more people would do that today many modern preachers would be without any followers. Anyone who tells you that God’s desire for you is to be rich and famous and always healthy is lying to you and all you have to do is read the Bible for yourself to see that clearly.

But, getting back to idea of union with Christ being a mystery that has been revealed, we see this elsewhere in the New Testament as well. For example, the apostle Paul tells us of his mission in Colossians 1:25-27, where he wrote that he had become a minister of the church, “by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Marc Roby: Now that is explicit, the mystery is Christ in us, which is also called the hope of glory. Praise God!

Dr. Spencer: Praise God indeed. Paul also mentions this mystery in his letter to the church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 5:31 we read the famous line, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” But then in Verse 32 Paul surprises us by saying, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”

Marc Roby: That entire passage in Ephesians 5 is wonderful, it compares the relationship of Christ and his church to that of a husband and wife.

Dr. Spencer: And we should notice that the union spoken of there is not just the union of Christ with individual believers, it is the union of Christ and his church. We, as believers, should never think of ourselves apart from the church. We are a part of something much greater than ourselves. It is only in learning to love others and function as a part of that whole that we can fulfil God’s commands and, therefore, his purpose for us.

Marc Roby: In fact, Christ told his disciples in John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Murray also points out that the union of a husband and wife is not the only similitude used to describe our union with Christ. The most amazing example is in John 17:21-23 where as part of his high priestly prayer Jesus prays for all believers, asking, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Marc Roby: That is truly amazing to consider. We are to be united to one another and to God in some sense in the same way that the Father and Son are united in the Trinity.

Dr. Spencer: It is completely amazing. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same essence. One God in three persons. But Murray is also careful to guard against reading too much into this similitude. He wrote that “Similitude here again does not mean identity. Union with Christ does not mean that we are incorporated into the life of the Godhead. That is one of the distortions to which this great truth has been subjected.”[3]

Marc Roby: Yes, that is an important warning. Mormons believe that we can become gods and a number of modern preachers teach the heretical “little god” doctrine that we are all gods, albeit with a little “g”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we briefly discussed the little god doctrine in Session 48 and I don’t want to waste time refuting it again here, it is patently stupid, contrary to all observable fact and blasphemous to boot. We always need to be careful to not go too far with any analogy or metaphor, whether it is used in the Bible or anywhere else.

But, getting back to our union with Christ, the Bible uses other analogies as well.

Marc Roby: One that immediately occurs to me is that of a building. In Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul wrote to gentile believers, telling them that Christ gives them the same access to the Father that Jewish people have. He wrote, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Dr. Spencer: That is another wonderful metaphor, although certainly less exalted than the godhead. We, as Christians, are like the stones in a temple, cemented together to become a dwelling for God’s Spirit, and Jesus Christ himself is the chief cornerstone.

Another metaphor that is used is that of a body. In Ephesians 4 Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ and says that pastors, teachers and others are given to the church to help us mature. In Verses 15-16 he writes, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Marc Roby: I love that metaphor, and Paul uses it more than once. The church is the body of Christ and he is the head. And we each have our part to play, we must each do our work to build each other up in love or the body doesn’t function properly.

Dr. Spencer: This whole biblical idea of the church completely destroys the idea of many modern people that religion is a purely private thing. It is not all about my personal relationship with God. I cannot have a personal relationship with God without also having a relationship with God’s church, his family. It is impossible. We are all parts of the body and we need each other.

Marc Roby: Paul wrote at length about the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians Chapter 12. For example, in Verse 21 he wrote that “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s very true. As our Pastor has said, the idea of an eye floating around by itself, disconnected from the rest of the body, is an abomination.

Marc Roby: Yes, not to mention more than a little grotesque.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is a gross image to say the least. We are to be united to Christ and to one another. But Murray notes that “Of all the kinds of union or unity that exist for creatures the union of believers with Christ is the highest.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s a challenging statement. We all need to ask ourselves if that is true of us.

Dr. Spencer: I heartily agree. And this opens up one more issue with regard to our union with Christ that must be explored.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is called a mystical union not only because it was a mystery that has been revealed, but also because it is mystical in the normal sense of that word, meaning a subjective experience.

Marc Roby: We often shy away from the subjective because it is so easily abused.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, but we need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater as the old saying goes. Murray wrote that “It is necessary for us to recognize that there is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith. Believers are called into the fellowship of Christ and fellowship means communion. The life of faith is one of living union and communion with the exalted and ever-present Redeemer. … There is no communion among men that is comparable to fellowship with Christ … The life of faith is the life of love, and the life of love is the life of fellowship, or mystic communion with him who ever lives to make intercession for his people and who can be touched with the felling of our infirmities.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful statement.

Dr. Spencer: And Murray concludes that section by saying that “communion with God is the crown and apex of true religion.”[6] But we must always be careful to guard against the dangers of subjectivism, which is why this mystical union is based on God’s revelation in the Bible. We do have real communion with Christ, but he has given us an objective revelation to circumscribe, or to put a fence around, our subjective experience. If we go outside of what the Bible teaches, our experience is not genuine. We always need to test the spirits. We read in 1 John 4:1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

Marc Roby: And we need the Bible to allow us to test the spirits. Do you have any last word on this topic?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the final point that Murray makes about our union with Christ we actually already mentioned last time when we looked at Romans 8:9-11, that point is that our union is with the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Marc Roby: That is incredible.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And let me finish this topic with one final quote from Murray. He wrote, “Here indeed is mysticism on the highest plane. It is not the mysticism of vague unintelligible feeling or rapture. It is the mysticism of communion with the one true and living God.”[7]

Marc Roby: That’s a wonderful conclusion. And now let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to answer you.

 

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

[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] Murray, op. cit., pg. 168

[4] Ibid, pg. 169

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pg. 170

[7] Ibid, pg. 172

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. We have been discussing the doctrine of limited atonement and in our last session we finished with the four specific categories in terms of which the Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ according to the theologian John Murray.[1] He lists the following: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption. So, Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have covered what is meant by atonement, which is far more comprehensive and glorious than many modern Christians realize. But we now have to deal with that troublesome word “limited”.

Marc Roby: And, of course, the only other options to a limited atonement would be either no atonement at all, or a universal atonement.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. We’ll ignore the logical possibility of no atonement because the whole of biblical Christianity deals with the fact that God saves his people and, therefore, has atoned for their sins. If God didn’t provide an atonement for our sins, then everyone, without exception, would be doomed to hell.

But we do need to deal with the other possibility. There are people, even some professing Christians, who believe that ultimately, everyone will be saved, which would require that the atonement be universal, rather than limited. But such a notion is completely unbiblical.

Marc Roby: Although, shockingly, even the current Pope believes in universal salvation.

Dr. Spencer: He certainly seems to. The Apostolic Exhortation he wrote soon after becoming Pope in 2013, called Evangelii Gaudium, which means the joy of the gospel, displays his universalism rather clearly by speaking of God’s love to all men without distinction and by saying that Jews and Muslims worship the same God as Christians. I’ve written a brief analysis of the Pope’s exhortation, which is available on the web. It’s useful to see how a humanist philosophy can cause a person to pervert the gospel. And the link is in a footnote to this podcast transcript.[2]

Marc Roby: And the Pope’s view is shocking because, as you noted, the idea of universal salvation is completely unbiblical. For example, we read in Matthew 7:13-14 that Jesus himself said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” [3]

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, Jesus is speaking in that passage about eternal destruction and eternal life. He makes that absolutely explicit in the 25th chapter of Matthew where he talks about the final judgment. We read in Verses 32-33, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

Marc Roby: And the sheep represent Jesus’ chosen people, for whom he is the Good Shepherd as he tells us in John 10:11.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And continuing with Matthew 25, in Verse 34 we read that Jesus said, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” But, to those on his left, the goats, we read in Verse 41 that he will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And he makes the eternal nature of both completely clear in Verse 46, where he says that those who are cursed “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Marc Roby: People don’t like the idea that anyone is cursed by God, but it is a clear teaching of Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, many people will deny it because they don’t like it, but we can’t let what we like and don’t like determine what we think is true. We need, instead, to change what we like and don’t like to conform to what God says is good and true.

We are all rebels who deserve to be cursed by God, but the amazing thing is that he chooses to save some. But he does not save everyone, and there are many more Scriptures that show the idea of universal salvation is completely unbiblical. For example, in Revelation 20:12 John wrote, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life.” And in Verse 15 he wrote that “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” He also tells us that the lake of fire is the second death, in other words, it is not just the physical death of this body, it is eternal death. It is hell. In Verse 10 of that Chapter he called it a lake of burning sulfur. He wrote, “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

Marc Roby: That is the most terrifying thought imaginable.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. We need to be serious about our salvation. And this question about how the atonement is limited is a very important question. We’ve dismissed the idea that Christ didn’t atone for the sins of anyone, and we’ve shown that the idea that Christ atoned for the sins of everyone is unbiblical, so now it’s time to look at the precise way in which Christ’s atonement is limited.

Marc Roby: And, although the phrase “limited atonement” is usually associated with Reformed, or Calvinistic, theology, the truth is that all true Christians believe that Christ’s atonement is limited in some way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, because all true Christians will admit that not everyone is saved. Therefore, either Christ’s atonement was not efficacious in saving everyone, or it was never meant to save everyone. But either way, it is limited.

Marc Roby: And, of course, when our Arminian brothers and sisters claim that Christ’s atonement made salvation possible for everyone, they are, in essence, admitting that it was not efficacious for everyone.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great point. John Murray makes the same point in his excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, which we have used a number of times. He wrote, “If some of those for whom atonement was made and redemption wrought perish eternally, then the atonement is not itself efficacious. It is this alternative that the proponents of universal atonement must face. They have a ‘limited’ atonement and limited in respect of that which impinges upon its essential character. We shall have none of it.”[4] We could put this another way; if the atonement has universal applicability, in other words, if Christ died for all men, then his death didn’t really save anyone, it only made salvation possible. Our response then becomes the deciding factor.

Marc Roby: But in Matthew 1:21 we are told that the angle of the Lord spoke to Mary’s husband, Joseph, and told him that “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The angel didn’t say that Jesus would make salvation possible.

Dr. Spencer: And this issue is so important that I want to take some time to look at it in reasonable detail. And before we do that, we need to make an important distinction. We need to recognize that there are two completely different kinds of debts that we can owe.

Marc Roby: And what are those?

Dr. Spencer: We can have what is called a pecuniary debt, or a judicial debt. The word pecuniary comes from the Latin word for cow, or money. A pecuniary debt is a financial debt. So, for example, if I purchase a car without paying the full amount up front, I incur a debt for a particular amount of money. Let’s say that I owe $10,000. Now if some generous person, such as my good friend Mr. Roby, chooses to go to the bank and pay the $10,000 I owe, my debt is paid in full and the bank has no right to expect any additional payment from me or anyone else.

Marc Roby: That would indeed be a very generous thing for me to do.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would. But my point is that the bank is not being generous or gracious in any way by accepting your payment on my behalf. They only have the right to be paid $10,000, it makes no difference who pays it and they have no right to expect any additional payment, the debt is paid in full. In fact, if I didn’t know that you had paid it in full and I sent in a payment of $1,000, the bank would be obliged to pay the $1,000 back to me.

Marc Roby: That’s all clear, but what about the other kind of debt, what you called a judicial debt?

Dr. Spencer: A judicial debt is forensic, meaning that it has to do with justice, and courts of law. If someone murders another person, for example, there is no exact payment in kind possible. Even if the offender is put to death, it doesn’t bring back the person who was murdered. In this case, we are really talking about punishment, not repayment.

Charles Hodge explained the difference this way, “In the case of crimes the matter is different. The demand is then upon the offender. He himself is amenable to justice. Substitution in human courts is out of the question. The essential point in matters of crime, is not the nature of the penalty, but who shall suffer.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is an important point, the essential thing is punishment. As you said, it isn’t a matter of repaying some financial obligation.

Dr. Spencer: Hodge also brings out another important difference between financial obligations and crimes.

Marc Roby: What difference is that?

Dr. Spencer: That the penalty cannot be paid by someone else. As Hodge said, “Substitution in human courts is out of the question.” If I commit a crime and am sentenced to a year in jail, you cannot serve the sentence on my behalf.

Marc Roby: Yes, that too is an important difference.

Dr. Spencer: And now let’s apply this to the topic of the atonement. When we speak about our sins being paid for, we are not talking about a pecuniary debt. There is no exact payment possible. If I offend God and violate his law in some way, there is no way for me to satisfy that debt with some kind of equivalent payment in kind. In fact, as we have noted before, since God is infinite in his person and glory, when I sin against him my debt is, in some sense, infinite.

Marc Roby: Which is an insurmountable problem for us as finite beings.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. But – and here is where God’s amazing grace, wisdom and love come into play – God does two things to solve this problem. First, he graciously accepts a substitute in my place, which is something a human court of law will not do. I am the one who deserves to be punished, but God allows my punishment to be taken by another.

Marc Roby: There is still a problem though, this substitute has to be capable of satisfying the infinite debt. And no mere creature can do that. We can spend eternity in hell and the debt is still not paid.

Dr. Spencer: And so, the second amazing thing God does is to provide an acceptable substitute, one who can pay an infinite penalty. In other words, he provides a substitute who’s sacrifice has infinite worth. Jesus Christ, the unique God-man is that substitute. We will see several times as we move on with our discussion why this distinction, namely that my sin leads to a judicial debt rather than a pecuniary debt, is so important in discussing the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

Marc Roby: Alright, so then we are ready to move on with discussing whether Christ’s work of atonement made salvation possible for everyone or if it was only for those who are actually saved.

Dr. Spencer: We are. And the first point to make is that because this is a judicial debt, not a pecuniary debt, and because Jesus Christ is infinite God as well as fully man, his death was of sufficient worth to pay for all the sins of every human being who has ever existed or ever will exist. Arminian and Reformed believers agree on this point. Therefore, the real question in dispute is not over the worth of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

Rather, the real question could be put this way, “For whom did Christ die?” Did he die to pay for the sins of all men? That is the position taken by Arminians, Lutherans, Dispensationalists and others, which I am calling the Arminian position for brevity. Or, did Christ die only for the elect? That is the Reformed and, I would say, biblical position.

Marc Roby: How do you want to approach resolving this question?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin by looking at some of the evidence usually adduced in favor of the Arminian position.

Marc Roby: Very well. I know that Arminians often cite 1 John 2:2 in support of their position. In that verse the apostle wrote that Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Dr. Spencer: That is one of their strongest pieces of support, but when you examine it carefully in context it really doesn’t directly argue for their position at all. This verse alone is perfectly agreeable with either position.

Marc Roby: Okay, can you explain how that is so?

Dr. Spencer: Certainly. First of all, phrases like “the whole world” can mean different things in different contexts. For example, in Luke 2:1 we read that “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” I’ve used the English Standard Version here because it renders the Greek more literally. The question is, obviously, what is meant by “all the world” in this verse. The 1984 NIV that we usually use renders the verse this way, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” The word Roman is not in the original Greek, but it is certainly an accurate translation nonetheless. It is obvious that Caesar Augustus did not issue a decree that a census should be taken in China for example. So, given the context, “all the world” means the entire Roman world.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s pretty obvious.

Dr. Spencer: And so, in the same way, we need to ask what the phrase “the whole world” means in 1 John 2:2. The verse says that Jesus Christ “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Notice that “the whole world” is contrasted with a smaller group, of which the apostle and his readers are members. He refers to “our sins”, so we need to know who this group he refers to with the word “our” is.

R.C. Sproul does a good job of looking at this verse in his book What is Reformed Theology? And he notes that the word “our” could possibly refer to Christians in contrast with non-Christians. And, if that were the case, then “the whole world” would refer to non-Christians and the verse would support the Arminian position.[6]

Marc Roby: What is the other option that Sproul mentions?

Dr. Spencer: That the word “our” could refer specifically to Jewish believers. Sproul writes that “One of the central questions of the church’s earliest formative period was this: Who is to be included in the New Covenant community?”[7] If you take the word “our” in this sense, then the phrase “the whole world” would simply refer to non-Jewish believers. There would be no reason to assume that it refers to unbelievers at all.

Marc Roby: That makes good sense, and certainly shows that this verse is consistent with either view and does not, by itself, point us one way or the other. I look forward to continuing this discussion, but we are out of time for today. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we will do our best to respond.

[1] J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 19

[2] Dr. Spencer has written a brief analysis of the Pope’s declaration, which is available here (https://gracevalley.org/teaching/pope-francis-an-analysis-of-his-apostolic-exhortation-evangelii-gaudium/).

[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] Murray. op. cit., pg. 64

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 470

[6] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 176

[7] Ibid

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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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