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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. In our last session we introduced three views about the fundamental nature of man: monism, which means that man consists of just his physical body – this is a materialistic view of man; then dichotomy, which means that man has both a physical body and a spirit; and finally, trichotomy, which means that man has a body, soul and spirit, where the spirit and soul are considered to be separate entities. So, Dr. Spencer, how do you want to begin our examination of this topic today?

Dr. Spencer: Well, last time I noted that the fact that man is a volitional creature argues persuasively against monism and I said we wouldn’t consider that further. But I’ve reconsidered that and would like to at least briefly present a case to show that monism is also antithetical to biblical Christianity.

Marc Roby: Well, it would certainly seem to not agree with Genesis 2:7, where we read that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” [1] This verse at least strongly implies that there is an immaterial part to man.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And I think a rock-solid case can be made by pointing out that the Bible clearly teaches us that our spirits live on after our physical bodies die. For example, when Christ was crucified there were two thieves crucified with him. One of those thieves was saved even while he was hanging on the cross dying and in Luke 23:42-43 we read that he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” and Jesus graciously replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Marc Roby: What amazing grace. We should probably point out that the thief had demonstrated his repentance and faith when he rebuked the other thief. We read in Luke 23:40-41 that when the other thief continued to mock Christ, this thief, now saved by grace, said to him, “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.” So, he was saved the same way we all are, by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. And faith is always accompanied by repentance.

Dr. Spencer: That is the gospel in all of its glorious simplicity. But the point I wanted to make from this is that both Jesus and the thief were dying or, to be more precise, their physical bodies were dying, and yet Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise.” I think that is pretty clear evidence that our spirits live on after our physical bodies die.

Marc Roby: What Paul wrote to the church in Philippi also comes to mind. In Philippians 1:21-23 he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far”.

Dr. Spencer: That is also very clear evidence. Paul did not think that his physical death would be the end of him. There are a number of other verses we could cite, but I think that is enough. The clear teaching of the Bible is that our soul lives on after our body is destroyed. But there is still more that we can learn from these verses.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: We can learn something about the natures of our physical body and spirit. Jesus told the thief “you will be with me in paradise”. He didn’t just say that the thief’s spirit would be with him. And Paul thought that when he died, he would be with Jesus, not just his spirit. And it is very interesting that he said, “if I am to go on living in the body”. It clearly shows that the body is not the most important thing. It is a physical vessel for our spirit. If you think about that for a minute it seems clear that our spirits are what make us who we are, they are the seat of our intellect, emotions and personality. Our physical bodies are houses for our spirits. Our bodies cannot exist independently, but our spirits can.

Marc Roby: That is interesting. But we want to avoid going too far with that idea. The ancient Greeks thought that the body was evil and the spirit was good. They envisioned the body as sort of a prison for the spirit and thought that death freed the spirit from that prison.

Dr. Spencer: And we do want to avoid that extreme. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who is well-known to all junior-high math students because of the Pythagorean theorem, was one of the philosophers that taught that view. And not only did they consider the soul good, they considered it divine. This view came from a religion called Orphism, which also taught that our souls go through reincarnation until they are sufficiently purified to return to the divine realm.[2]

Marc Roby: That sounds suspiciously similar to Buddhism and Hinduism.

Dr. Spencer: It does sound very similar to them. But the Christian view, or we should say the biblical view, is that both the body and soul were created good. They have both been corrupted by sin, which is most obviously evident in our physical bodies by the facts that we all get sick and we age and die. But it is also evident in our souls, or spirits. It shows up in our corrupt thinking, especially about God and eternal realities, and it shows up in all of the sinful human emotions and thoughts which plague mankind; selfishness, greed, lust, deceitfulness, arrogance, hatred and so on.

Marc Roby: Sadly, I have to agree that the corruption of sin is all too evident.

Dr. Spencer: And you can’t separate us from our bodies without loss. Our bodies are vessels for our spirits, but they are still important. In fact, we want to be careful and not imply that you can separate our bodies from our souls without changing who we are to some degree. Clearly our emotions are affected by, and have an effect upon, our bodies. We see, hear, feel, taste and smell and these all have an effect upon our emotions.

Marc Roby: Yes, I see your point. It would seem impossible to take away our bodies without significantly impacting who we are.

Dr. Spencer: Our bodies are part of who we are as human beings. Which is why, when God redeems us, he redeems us body and soul. Paul wrote about this in his first letter to the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 we read, “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

Marc Roby: That is wonderful. And when Paul speaks about the body that is sown, he is using an agricultural metaphor and is comparing the burial of a body to sowing a crop.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And, as Paul says, that body is raised as a spiritual body. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time on this now, but let me just quickly say that by calling it a “spiritual body” Paul is not saying it is immaterial. Our final eternal state will be with our resurrected bodies and they will be physical bodies, although different from the ones we have now. The condition where our spirit lives without our body after death is a temporary condition.

Paul also wrote in Philippians 3:20-21 that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful destiny to look forward to. And I think we have reasonably established that monism is unbiblical and, therefore, unchristian. What do you want to say about dichotomy and trichotomy?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin by stating that a truly born-again Christian can believe in either dichotomy or trichotomy. This is not an essential doctrine. In fact, while I think that the proper biblical doctrine is dichotomy, I do have some sympathy for trichotomy. Although, in some sense I think we get into an issue of semantics as we will see and, in addition, we get into some things that we simply don’t fully understand and about which the Bible does not supply us with answers.

Marc Roby: And it is never wise to be dogmatic on any doctrine about which the Bible is not clear.

Dr. Spencer: No, that wouldn’t be wise at all. But with that caveat stated, I do think the biblical teaching is clearly that man is made up of two, and only two, parts. Our physical bodies and our immaterial spirit or soul. We see this dichotomy in many places in the Bible. For example, right after telling us that God will be our Father and we will be his sons and daughters, Paul concludes, in 2 Corinthians 7:1, by saying, “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” He only lists two elements here, body and spirit, and that is a common theme throughout the Bible.

Marc Roby: In fact, the words soul and spirit are often used interchangeably in the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they are. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem gives a couple of very good examples I’d like to share.[3] First, he notes that “in John 12:27, Jesus says, ‘Now is my soul troubled,’[4] whereas in a very similar context in the next chapter John says that Jesus was ‘troubled in spirit’ (John 13:21).”

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a good example. What is the second one you want to share?

Dr. Spencer: It comes from the virgin Mary’s song of praise to God, often called the Magnificat. We read in Luke 1:46-47 that she began by saying, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. Grudem points out that this is a clear example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism, wherein the same idea is repeated using different words. We discussed synonymous parallelism in Session 42 when we were going through hermeneutics. But it is a clear example to show that the words soul and spirit are used as synonyms.

Marc Roby: Yes, that whole song is a beautiful poem of praise and these first two verses do clearly show that the words soul and spirit are used as synonyms. It also makes me think of a similar Old Testament example. In Job 7:11 we read, “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” This verse also uses synonymous parallelism and again establishes that soul and spirit are used interchangeably.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem also points out a number of other ways in which the terms are used interchangeably. For example, when someone dies, we will sometimes read about their soul departing, but in other cases we read about the spirit leaving.

In Genesis 35 we read about the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel while she was giving birth to Benjamin. In Verse 18 we read, “And as her soul was departing (for she was dying)” (ESV). But in John 19:30 we read about Jesus’ death, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” So, Rachel’s death is described as her soul departing, but Jesus’ death is described by saying he gave up his spirit.

Marc Roby: I noticed that you quoted the English Standard Version for Genesis 35:18, rather the the 1984 NIV that we usually use.

Dr. Spencer: I did that because the NIV translated the phrase, “As she breathed her last”, rather than “as her soul was departing”. This is the only place in the Old Testament where the Hebrew word used there is translated that way. The translation accurately represents the meaning of course, but is not true to the original.

Marc Roby: And I prefer the sound of “as her soul was departing”.

Dr. Spencer: And so do I. The Hebrew word used there, nephesh, is used 757 times in the Old Testament.[5] The NIV translates it as life 129 times, as soul 105 times and then with an astonishing collection of words for the other 523 times, including 5 times using the word spirit and 16 times using the word heart.

I point all of this out because it illustrates that the words for soul and spirit have a broad range of meanings as we will discuss more later. But, in general, this word refers to the essence of life. It is, for example, the word used in Genesis 2:7, which we’ve looked at before. We read there, “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” When it says that “man became a living being”, the same Hebrew word, nephesh, is being translated as “being”. Both the King James and the American Standard versions, say “man became a living soul.”

Marc Roby: That does make it clear that this word is related to the essence of life. Which even in modern English is sometimes referred to as a man’s spirit, or soul, or heart.

Dr. Spencer: We do use those same words. But the main point Grudem makes here is that you never once see the Bible say that a person’s “soul and spirit departed”, or anything like that.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is pretty clear evidence that they are synonymous terms.

Dr. Spencer: And there’s a lot more. Grudem also points out man is sometimes referred to as “body and soul” and sometimes as “body and spirit”, when the clear intent of the passage is to represent the entirety of the man; in other words, both his material and immaterial parts.

So, for example, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus commands us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Clearly by referring to “soul and body”, Jesus means the whole person. And then, when the apostle Paul commanded the church in Corinth to excommunicate a man, we read in 1 Corinthians 5:5, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” I have again quoted from the ESV because it makes the contrast between the flesh, or we could say the body, and the spirit clear. That contrast is lost in the NIV, but is present in the original Greek.

Marc Roby: I think you’ve made a reasonably strong case for dichotomy being taught in the Bible. Is there more to say?

Dr. Spencer: There are a couple of more topics to consider before we move on to examine the biblical case made by those who believe in trichotomy. But before we move on to look at them, I want to remind our listeners what we mean by spirit or soul.

Last time I quoted the theologian Charles Hodge and I’d like to repeat a portion of the quote I read then. As I read this, I want our listeners to think of spirit or soul every time Hodge uses just the word spirit. In his Systematic Theology he wrote, “The essential attributes of a spirit are reason, conscience, and will. A spirit is a rational, moral, and therefore also, a free agent. In making man after his own image, therefore, God endowed him with those attributes which belong to his own nature as a spirit.”[6]

Marc Roby: He says that the spirit, or soul, is the seat of three things then: our ability to reason, our moral nature, and our free will.

Dr. Spencer: And these agree with an argument I made last time. Namely, that if you assume a materialist’s view of man, then we are just atoms in motion obeying the laws of physics, and you cannot explain volition, or free will. And you can take that argument further. Since you can’t explain volition, you really can’t explain reason in any meaningful sense of the term.

A purely materialistic view of man could certainly allow for some kind of very sophisticated reflex responses and even reflex responses that have been adapted over time, which could present fairly complex patterns of behavior. But you would never cross the threshold into having what most of us mean when we talk about reason. Adaptive machines can do many things, but they can’t really think in any meaningful sense of that term.

Marc Roby: I can imagine that it would be very difficult to precisely define the dividing line between the behavior that a very sophisticated adaptive system could exhibit and the behavior necessary to infer real intelligent reasoning.

Dr. Spencer: It would be very hard to do indeed. People have tried to define what is required to establish intelligent behavior, like the famous Turing test,[7] but I really don’t want to get into that now, so I will leave it deliberately vague.

Marc Roby: OK. You’ve mentioned free will and reasoning. By referring to our conscience Hodge also noted our moral nature. What about that?

Dr. Spencer: In order to be moral creatures, there must be some ultimate standard for morality by which we are to be judged. Otherwise, all we are really talking about is our own personal ideas of right and wrong, and no one person’s ideas are any more worthy than any other person’s ideas.

The only possible source for an absolute moral standard is God. So, if you have a purely materialistic view of man, which involves rejecting God, you also have lost any possibility for an objective moral standard. In that case, Hodge’s reference to our conscience would be meaningless. It could, at best, refer to our personal ideas of what is right or wrong.

Marc Roby: OK, so we’ve established that three essential attributes of a spirit or soul are an ability to reason, a conscience and free will.

I think this is a good place to end for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d 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] John Frame, The History of Western Philosophy and Theology, P&R Publishing, 2015, pg. 60

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 473-474

[4] Grudem quotes from the ESV here. The NIV uses the word heart instead of soul, but the original Greek has the word soul (ψυχή).

[5] The numbers given here come from: Edward Goodrick & John Kohlenberger, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan, 1990, pg. 1546

[6] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 97

[7] For a brief introduction, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology.

This podcast will be released on Thursday, April 18, 2019, which is the day before Good Friday and three days before Easter, which is, of course, the day that Christians celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ from the dead. Dr. Spencer, I understand you have a special message for Easter, how does that fit with our study of anthropology?

Dr. Spencer: I think it that it fits perfectly as you’ll see. In fact, I was tremendously encouraged as I sat down to prepare this session because I hadn’t planned the timing out in advance, but God obviously had, which is a great example of his providence.

In our last session, we answered the question, “Where do we come from?” And in today’s session I want to answer the question “Where are we going?” You could view these questions as bookends for the human life. But the second one, “Where are we going?”, is the far more important one from our perspective.

Marc Roby: Now, why do you say it is the far more important one?

Dr. Spencer: Because where I came from doesn’t change where I am now or what my life is like now. That doesn’t mean the answer to that question isn’t of great importance of course, it is. But the answer to the question of where I came from doesn’t change anything except, hopefully, my perspective on what is important. But the question of where I am going has eternal significance for me personally because we all have an eternal destiny, you, me and every one of our listeners included.

This life is short, but eternity is unimaginably long. So, where we are going is far more important to us personally than where we came from. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,”[1]

Marc Roby: I see your point. The question is of ultimate and eternal significance. And, I might add, once we have entered that eternal destiny, it cannot be changed.

In the parable Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham, who is in heaven, is speaking to the rich man, who is in hell, and we read in Luke 16:26 that Abraham tells him, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a very important point. As we noted last time, the first purpose of this life is to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. And that is what Jesus was speaking about when he said to Martha in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” The offer of salvation in Jesus Christ is made to us in this life, but when this life ends, the offer is no longer there, only the final judgment. So, as the apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” None of us knows for certain that we will be here next year, or next week, or even tomorrow. So the right time to repent, believe and be saved is now.

Marc Roby: And I think the connection to Easter is now obvious. We can only be saved because the Lord Jesus Christ “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” as Paul wrote in Romans 4:25.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is exactly right. And it is my prayer, and I know yours also, that every single person who hears this podcast will be saved. But, even for those who are already saved, there is another very important connection between Jesus Christ and the answer to our question of “Where are we going?”

Marc Roby: What connection are you referring to?

Dr. Spencer: That Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of what we are to be like. God does not save his people in their sins and leave them there. He saves us from our sins and leads us to holiness.

Marc Roby: You remind me of the statement in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where, in Chapter 1 Verse 4, we read that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: And in one sense we become holy and blameless in his sight the moment we place our trust in Jesus Christ. But the Bible is clear that there is also a lifelong process that all Christians must go through to become more holy in their thinking, feeling and conduct. This is the process of sanctification, which all true believers will experience.

Marc Roby: Although we should caution that not all believers will experience it to the same degree.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. For example, there were two thieves crucified with Christ and, initially, both of them heaped insults upon him as we read in Matthew 27:44. But eventually, one of them was granted salvation. Clearly, he didn’t have much time for the process of sanctification while he was hanging on the cross.

Marc Roby: Although he certainly had extreme suffering to focus his attention!

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And suffering is often used by God to help us focus on what is truly important. But sanctification has two aspects; definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification, which we’ll get into more later. Right now, I want to point out that there are also multiple steps to our salvation. When we come to true saving faith and trust in Christ, we are justified, which is God’s legal declaration that we are righteous in his sight because we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, to whom we have been united by faith.

Marc Roby: And justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone as the reformers taught. There is absolutely no part in it for our works.

Dr. Spencer: And it is an instantaneous one-time declaration of God. It cannot be revoked and it need not be repeated. But there is a second instantaneous, non-revocable non-repeatable aspect to salvation as well. The instant we are saved, we are changed. That is what John Murray called definitive sanctification.[2] This is what is being referred to when the biblical writers use the word sanctified in the past tense.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Marc Roby: That does clearly speak of a definitive change. You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.

Dr. Spencer: And this radical change in our being will immediately change our attitude, speech and behavior. The thief on the cross manifested this change in the short time he had available. He had been hurling insults at our Lord, but once God changed his heart, his behavior necessarily changed as well. We see in Luke 23:40-41 that he rebuked the other thief for continuing to insult Christ, 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.”

Marc Roby: That is a clear indication of a new heart.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is, and it was the result of definitive sanctification. But sanctification also has a progressive aspect to it. God continues to work in each one of us to put our sin to death and to walk in greater righteousness.

Marc Roby: When you say that I immediately think of Romans 8:29, where Paul wrote, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is exactly my point. We are to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, which is a process. And Jesus is the exemplar for a Christian. That is the connection between Easter and anthropology.

We are told in John 1:18 that “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Which is clearly speaking about Jesus Christ. He is “God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side” and he has “made him known” to us. We’re told in Hebrews 1:1-3 that “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”.

Marc Roby: That is an amazing thought. Jesus Christ has revealed the Father to us. We can’t see God with our physical eyes because he is Spirit. But those to whom Jesus appeared in the flesh have seen God as Jesus himself declared. In John 14:8 we read that the apostle Philip asked Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” And Christ replied, in Verse 9, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Dr. Spencer: That is hard to grasp. In being conformed to the likeness of Christ, we are being conformed to the likeness of God the Father. In 1 John 3:2 we read, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” And the theologian John Murray argues persuasively that when John wrote “we shall be like him”, he was speaking about the Father.[3]

Marc Roby: That is an amazing thought, that we will be like the Father.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, but Murray also gives us a necessary warning. He wrote that “it must not be thought that likeness to God is absolute. There is a sense in which to aspire after likeness to God is the epitome of iniquity.” [4]

Marc Roby: Yes, in fact, it was being like God with which Satan tempted Eve.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it was. And Murray points out that the “genius of the allegation … consisted in confusing the false and the true in reference to likeness to God.”[5] He then goes on to point out that as a result of this possible confusion, we need revelation from God to define what it properly means for us to be like him. He goes on to say that the law of God along with the example of Christ provide the pattern to which we are to be conformed. We must remember the Creator/creature distinction. God is the law giver, we are to be law keepers, which is what Jesus Christ in his humanity did.

Marc Roby: There you go again, speaking about obeying the law. We just said a few minutes ago that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and that our works play no role whatsoever in our justification. And now you’re bringing up keeping the law as a part of the pattern. I’m sure some of our listeners will object.

Dr. Spencer: Well, I hope that any who are objecting will hear me out and then look in their Bibles and pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to them, because our good works, while playing no role whatsoever in our justification, are absolutely essential to our salvation. If there are no good works, no obedience to God’s law, then there has been no regeneration, no definitive sanctification and, therefore no justification. In other words, without our good works as evidence, any claim to having saving faith is false.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of James Chapter 2, where the Lord’s brother wrote, in Verse 26, that “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the classic chapter to make this point. He begins that section, in James 2:14, by saying, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” And he then goes on to describe that “such faith”, meaning a faith without any good works, is a dead faith, a useless faith, and it cannot save anyone.

Christians must never forget that we are to be conformed to the likeness of Christ. And in John 8:29 Jesus said, “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” Remember that he is our exemplar. He always obeyed, and so should we. He also told us in John 14:15 that “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

Marc Roby: And Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Paul doesn’t say the new will come sometime in the future; he says it has come.

Dr. Spencer: Which refers to definitive sanctification. Christians are not perfect. We still have sin dwelling in us, but we have been changed and that change must be evident. People must see Christ in us. Not perfectly, but there must be change.

Paul wrote about himself in 1 Timothy 1:13 and said, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Notice the use of the past tense here, he was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. The clear implication is that he is no longer.

Marc Roby: Paul also expected radical change out of others. In Ephesians 4:28 he wrote that “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.”

Dr. Spencer: And not only Paul, but God expects such change in a believer. And he expects that change because he enables that change when he causes us to be born again. It is impossible for God to give someone a new heart and for that new heart to not manifest itself in a changed life.

We were made in the image of God. But sin horribly defaced that image and we became slaves to sin as Paul tells us. We read in Romans 6:17-18, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” Notice again the past tense. We used to be slaves to sin. And then also notice definitive sanctification, we wholeheartedly obeyed the teaching we received. And then note how God is restoring the image with which we were originally made, we have become slaves to righteousness. Not perfect, but real change.

Marc Roby: The Old Testament call to holiness hasn’t changed. In Leviticus 11:44 we read that God commanded Moses to tell the people, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” And we see the same command in the New Testament. In fact, Peter quotes from this verse in Leviticus. In 1 Peter 1:14-16 we read, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”

Dr. Spencer: Perfect holiness is required for entrance to heaven and that can only come from Jesus Christ. We will make it into heaven clothed in the righteousness of Christ. But we are also called to be holy ourselves. We will never achieve it perfectly in this life, but we must be moving in that direction and there must be a discernable change from what we were like before we were saved. We are new creations in Christ Jesus.

Jesus came to live a perfect life in perfect obedience to the law. He then gave himself as the only efficacious sacrifice to pay for our sins. And God raised him from the dead to show that everything Jesus said about himself was true, that God had accepted his payment, and that death had no power to hold him because he was sinless.

As we read in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And Jesus told us, in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Marc Roby: And in keeping with the fact that we are to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, he told his disciples, in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Dr. Spencer: And that command is impossible for us to fully keep. We cannot love as Christ loved us. But that is what we are called to try and do every day. And we are to love even our enemies and tell them about Jesus Christ. He died on the cross to pay for our sins. That is unimaginable love. And he was raised from the dead on the third day, the first Easter Sunday, just as he had foretold.

I hope that all of our listeners will meditate on this unfathomable love of God as they celebrate Easter. And I pray that any who do not yet know him as their personal Lord will repent, believe, and be saved.

And remember that you can email questions or comments to us at info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

Marc Roby: And with that I think we are done for today, so on behalf of Dr. Spencer and myself I’d like to wish all of our listeners a blessed Easter.

 

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

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

[3] Ibid, pg. 310

[4] Ibid, pg. 306

[5] Ibid

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Today we are going to look at God’s will. Dr. Spencer, this is an extremely difficult and important topic. How would you like to start?

Dr. Spencer: I want to start by defining what we mean by the will.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a good thing to do. And perhaps we could start off with a dictionary definition of the noun “will”. If I look in my Webster’s dictionary, probably the definition most appropriate to this discussion is that the will is the act of choosing or determining.[1]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a fairly good short definition. Charles Hodge defines the will as the power, or faculty, of self-determination.[2] In other words, it is the ability to make decisions about what to do.

Marc Roby: Of course, we don’t always have the power to carry out what we decide to do.

Dr. Spencer: No, we don’t. And that’s a critical difference between us and God. Whatever God ultimately decides to do will, in fact, be done. We read in Proverbs 19:21 that “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” [3] And, in Isaiah 55:10-11 God tells us, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” God’s will, expressed through his powerful word, is always efficacious.

Marc Roby: And we are again confronted by the Creator/creature distinction.

Dr. Spencer: That we are. And Hodge goes on to say that “The will is not only an essential attribute of our spiritual being, but it is the necessary condition of our personality. Without the power of rational self-determination we should be as much a mere force as electricity, or magnetism, or the principle of vegetable life. It is, therefore, to degrade God below the sphere of being which we ourselves occupy, as rational creatures, to deny to Him the power of self-determination; of acting or not acting, according to his own good pleasure.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s an important point. God reveals himself to be a personal God, not an impersonal force as is sometimes imagined.

Dr. Spencer: And because God’s will is efficacious as we noted a minute ago, John Frame says that “a simple but accurate definition” is that “God’s will is anything he wants to happen.” Or that “God’s will is what pleases him.”

Marc Roby: Saying both that God’s will is what pleases him and that it is efficacious immediately raises a theological problem. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” So, if God’s will is efficacious, and he wants everyone to come to repentance, it would seem reasonable to conclude that everyone will, ultimately, be saved. But the Bible clearly teaches that not everyone is saved. How do you handle that problem?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have to be more careful in defining and talking about the will. When we use the word “will” we mean different things at different times. Now this discussion will take a while, but we’ll get back to God’s will later. Let me give a human example to explain what I mean.

Marc Roby: Okay, please do.

Dr. Spencer: Suppose it’s a really cold, rainy miserable Saturday in January here in California and I’m watching a golf tournament on TV that is being played in Hawaii, where it is at that time sunny and beautiful. I might be prompted to say something like, “Boy, I wish I was there instead of here.” Now the question I want to ask is whether that expression is a true statement of my desires.

Marc Roby: It would certainly be understandable if it were.

Dr. Spencer: And in one sense it might genuinely be my desire. It would, in fact, be more pleasant to be there at that particular moment. But then you have to back up and think about it a bit. I have the financial wherewithal to travel to Hawaii and the poor weather was most likely predicted in advance. Therefore, if being in Hawaii on that Saturday was really and truly what I desired most, I could have been there. We can conclude, therefore, that my statement of desire, while genuine, was not the final judgment I made on the matter. When all of the factors were taken into account my greatest desire was to be right where I was.

Marc Roby: I see your point.

Dr. Spencer: The great theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote that “It is that motive, which, as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the Will.[5] To put it more colloquially, his thesis, which he defends quite convincingly, is that we do exactly that which we most want to do at any given moment, but limited, of course, to those things which we are able to do.

Marc Roby: I think most people would balk at the idea that they always do what they most want to do. There are many examples of things we do that we would rarely say are what we most want to do at the moment. Like go to work in the morning, or do physical exercise, or refrain from eating a second piece of cake and so on.

Dr. Spencer: I had exactly that sort of objection when I first heard this idea as well, but the objection doesn’t stand up under careful scrutiny. Let’s examine the examples you gave. We have all experienced waking up in the morning, looking at the clock and just wishing that the day would go away. The last thing we want to do is get up and go to work, or school if we’re younger. We don’t need to go into all the reasons why we might feel that way on any given day, I’m pretty sure that all of our listeners can relate to the sentiment.

Marc Roby: I certainly know that I can. And I could give you a good list of reasons if you like.

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s save those for another discussion. But given that we sometimes feel that way, and recognizing that we occasionally do give in to those sinful inclinations and stay home, why do we usually get up and go to work or school anyway? The answer is that when we consider all of our available options, getting up and going to school or work is actually what we most want to do!

For example, consider work. I know that if I don’t get up and go to work, I’m going to have to give some explanation to my boss. And if that happens very often, I’m going to lose my job. If I lose my job, I can’t pay my rent, can’t buy my groceries and so on. If I have a family, there are others who will be affected as well. So, when I consider all of these factors, the thing I actually want to do most is get up and go to work.

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, I see your point. Perhaps a simple way to put it is to use the common expression “all things being equal”. In other words, all things being equal, I would rather not get up and go into work, but all things are not equal. There are unpleasant consequences that would result from not going to work.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good way to put. It is virtually never true that all other things will work out the same independent of my decisions. Decisions have consequences, and those consequences are considered as part of the process our minds go through in deciding what we most want to do at the moment. I suppose you could say that is a mild form of coercion, but whether you think about it that way or not, it is reality. Even if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to work, there would still be constraints. If I wanted to eat something, I’d have to get up and go get it. Or, even in some future world with super capable robot servants, I would at least have to tell the robot what it is I want it to bring me.

Marc Roby: I think I might like that future world.

Dr. Spencer: There are times when we all would. But let’s look at the second thing you listed that people do, but usually don’t say they enjoy, getting physical exercise. There are again consequences for neglecting the task. And let’s link it with the third thing you mentioned, refraining from eating a second piece of cake. If we just eat all that we want to eat and don’t get any exercise, we all know what the result will be. We will get more and more overweight and over time will develop a number of health problems related to our inactivity and weight and these things will make our lives less enjoyable. Now, it’s obvious from looking at people that different individuals choose different levels of physical fitness, so not everyone decides on the same balance between momentary pleasure and long-term health.

Marc Roby: And there are huge variations in people’s natural metabolisms and body types that contribute to the differences as well.

Dr. Spencer: That’s all true. But Edwards’ point is valid. All things considered, we do that which we most want to do at any given moment.

Marc Roby: Now, of course, most of our decisions are not carefully thought out, so we can’t really say we sit down and think all of this through every time we decide whether or not to eat a second piece of cake.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not, we are all creatures of habit. But if we are adults we hopefully think about our behavior and work to change bad habits, so even snap decisions are really the result of our underlying priorities and thought. It’s also true that we don’t always consider all of the consequences of our actions as carefully as we should, which can bring us trouble. But, ultimately, all of these things are free choices we make and my only point is that when we say we are doing something we don’t want to do, that isn’t really completely true. Unless we are being physically forced, we are, in fact, doing what we most want to do. It’s just that our decision is being influenced by other factors so that our choice is not always the one that maximizes our immediate pleasure. So, when I say these are free choices, I mean that they are free only in the sense that no one is physically forcing us. No decisions are free in the sense of having absolutely no consequences or causes.

Marc Roby: We’ve gotten pretty far away from the theological problem we were addressing. How does all of this tie back in to understanding how God’s will can be efficacious, and that he can want everyone to come to repentance, and yet not have everyone actually come to repentance?

Dr. Spencer: What we’ve been talking about with human beings applies directly. God reveals himself to us in terms that we can understand. Therefore, just as I can truthfully say that I would like to have a large chocolate milkshake along with my lunch most every day, and yet I freely choose not to, in the same way God can honestly say that he wants everyone to come to repentance and yet not cause that to actually come about. God saying that he wants everyone to come to repentance is called his will of disposition;[6] in other words, it tells us something about the inner desires of God.

Marc Roby: We also read in Ezekiel 18:23 that God told the prophet to say to the people, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God would, in a sense, be pleased if everyone was saved. But in another sense, he would not because there are consequences that would follow from that decision, which make another course of action more desirable. As I just illustrated by the fact that I don’t drink chocolate milkshakes with lunch very often, we don’t always follow some of our inner desires, and neither does God, because all other things are not equal. What God actually does is called his decretive will[7] because whatever God decrees should happen, does happen.

Marc Roby: Now, in the case of you having the milkshake for lunch every day the undesirable result would be your putting on a bunch of weight you don’t want to carry. But what would the undesirable result be if all people came to repentance? And I should note that this would surely include, as true repentance always does, saving faith and would therefore mean that everyone would go to heaven. How could that be bad?

Dr. Spencer: In and of itself, having everyone go to heaven is not bad; in fact, it would be very good, which is why God says that he wants that. But, if he brought every single person to repentance, then he would not justly judge anyone. It must be, as much as we may not like the fact, that the world we actually live in is the one that best fulfills God’s primary purpose of making his own multifaceted glory manifest.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s ultimate purpose in creating this universe is better served by not having every single person come to repentance and faith, even though, in one sense, such a result would be pleasing to him.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Sin must be punished. And God chose to mercifully save some by punishing his Son in our place, but others he treats with perfect justice, which demands their eternal punishment.

Marc Roby: That begs a question though; why not simply create a universe with no sin in the first place? Then there wouldn’t be any need for the just punishment of anyone.

Dr. Spencer: That is a question that people have pondered for many years and even true Christians will give different answers. The most common answer by far in our day is that in order to create beings that are not mere puppets God had to endow us with what is called libertarian free will, which means that our decisions must not be directly caused by anything, even our own character. John Frame puts it this way; “This position assumes that there is a part of human nature that we might call the will, which is independent of every other aspect of our being, and which can, therefore, make a decision contrary to every motivation.”[8]

Marc Roby: That view sounds illogical to me. If we don’t make decisions on the basis of our own nature, our likes and dislikes, combined with other motives, then how on earth would we make any decision?

Dr. Spencer: I agree that it is illogical. And we will talk about this much more when we get to discussing biblical anthropology, in other words, the Bible’s view of man. But to stay on topic with God’s will I don’t want to go into deeper right now other than to point out that this would ascribe to man more freedom than God himself has! We will talk at length next time about the fact that God is constrained by his own nature; for example, he cannot lie. In other words, even God does not have libertarian free will. And yet, this view is common among those who believe that it is within every man’s power to choose whether or not to accept God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Of course, that view must surely be wrong because it is in opposition to the biblical doctrines of God’s decretive will and predestination.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is, and we will get to a deeper discussion of those doctrines in later podcasts. But for now, I want to stay on the topic of God’s will, and we have talked a lot about man’s will only to enable us to define some terms and develop an understanding based on the realm that we are more familiar with.

In any event, the idea that in order to be fully human men must have a libertarian free will is contradicted by the fact that we will not be able to sin in heaven, which Frame correctly calls “the consummate state of human existence”[9]. The existence of heaven proves that God can create a place where sin is impossible and the fact that heaven is held out to us as the ultimate and best possible place, the very home of God, proves that human nature will be at its highest and best form in heaven. Therefore, libertarian free will is clearly not necessary.

Marc Roby: We’re almost out of time, so let me summarize what we’ve discussed so far. We have seen that God’s will, like our own, takes into account the consequences of a given action, so that it can simultaneously be true that he would honestly like to see all people be saved, and yet for other reasons he does not, in fact, save all people. We have also seen that the idea that God didn’t create a sinless universe because he had to allow human beings libertarian free will in order to prevent our being mere puppets, is not an acceptable explanation because we will not be able to sin when we get to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good summary. But you could also phrase the last part differently; we will not have the freedom to sin when we get to heaven.

Marc Roby: I think we’ll have to come to that statement next time and I look forward to that conversation. And, as always, we invite our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will respond.

 

[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2002, pg. 2617, definition 3a.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. I, pp 402-403, the definition I am giving here is what he says is generally used “In our day” (he wrote in the late 19th century) and what he says is the definition actually used in practice (“in the prosecution of the subject”) by theologians.

[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] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. I, pg. 403

[5] J. Edwards, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, which is supposed to be essential to moral agency, virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Hendrickson Publishers, 2005, Vol. I. pg. 5

[6] e.g., see R.C. Sproul, Can I Know God’s Will?, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010, pg. 20 (available for free in pdf form from https://www.wtsbooks.com/common/pdf_links/9781567691795.pdf)

[7] e.g., see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 531

[8] Ibid, pg. 138

[9] Ibid, pg. 141

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, last time we discussed God’s love, which can be viewed as an aspect of his goodness. What are we going to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s holiness.

Marc Roby: And the root meaning of that term has to do with separation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. According to the great Hebrew scholar and Old Testament theologian E.J. Young, the root word “is generally taken in the sense ‘to separate, cut off.’”[1] And God is separate from his creation in two different senses. First and foremost of course is the awesome fact that he is the Creator and everything and everyone else are mere creatures.

Marc Roby: Which is why we have emphasized the Creator/creature distinction a number of times in these podcasts.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And that is the dominant sense in which the word holy is used in the Bible with respect to God. But there is also an ethical sense because God is entirely separate from sin. The prophet Habakkuk exclaimed to God, in Habakkuk 1:13, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” [2]

Marc Roby: That is a big problem for sinful creatures like us.

Dr. Spencer: That is not only a problem, it is the problem of the human race. It is the problem that, in one sense, defines our existence in this life. We live in a world corrupted by sin and inhabited by sinners, the effects are pervasive. In fact, the Bible makes clear that since the fall, the sole purpose of human existence, from our perspective, is to deal with this problem. Coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and thereby taking care of our sin problem, is the one thing needful as Jesus told Mary.

Marc Roby: You’re using the King James wording when you say “the one thing needful”, but you are, of course, referring to the time when Jesus came to the house of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, all of whom Jesus loved.

Martha was preparing a meal for them and was distracted by all of the preparations that needed to be made, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha then complained about this and Jesus replied, as we read in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, of course, the situation I am referring to, and I like the King James wording –only one thing is needful.

We must take note that there was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, in fact, it was a good thing. But even things that are good and necessary in this life are of no importance in comparison with coming to know Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. And this topic is particularly appropriate at this time of year. In our previous session we discussed the love of God, which was an appropriate message for our last podcast before Christmas because God’s sending his own Son to pay for our sins is the greatest possible expression of love. But today’s message is no less fitting for the first podcast after Christmas because when we are confronted with the holiness of God, our own sinfulness and need for a Savior is immediately and obviously apparent.

Marc Roby: You said last time that people must receive the bad news that we are sinners and cannot save ourselves before they can receive the good news of the gospel, that there is Salvation possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we must. And considering the holiness of God brings us face-to-face with the bad news. There is a classic passage I would like to examine today as we begin to look at this extremely important topic.

Marc Roby: What passage is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is Isaiah 6:1-7.

Marc Roby: That is an amazing passage, where the prophet tells us about receiving his call from God.

Dr. Spencer: And in that passage we see the most glorious and awesome vision of God given to anyone in the entire Bible. It begins, in Verse 1, with Isaiah telling us, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”

Marc Roby: A little history will probably help our listeners. Uzziah, who is also known as Azariah, was the king of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 792 to 740 B.C. He started out as a godly king, and served for a very long time – 52 years. But late in life he became proud and God punished him with leprosy. His reign however was a time of great prosperity for the nation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, much like the times we are living in now, which should serve as a warning to us. In any event, P.G. Mathew notes the importance of this history in his commentary on Isaiah. He wrote that “Despite Uzziah’s unfaithfulness late in life, he had been an able administrator and military leader, and the people had looked to him for protection. Now his very long reign had ended and the people did not know what to do. It was in this context that God was saying, ‘Don’t worry, Isaiah, the King is not dead.’ So Isaiah says, ‘I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted’.”[3]

Marc Roby: It is always the greatest possible source of comfort for Christians in troubling times to know that God is seated on his throne and is absolutely sovereign over everything and everyone in the universe.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, that is our greatest comfort. But Isaiah was given this comfort to an extreme degree by being given this vision of the heavenly throne room. Now in 1 Timothy 6:15-16 God is described as, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” Therefore, E.J. Young points out that “It is not the essence of God which Isaiah sees, for, inasmuch as God is spiritual and invisible, that essence cannot be seen by the physical eye of the creature. At the same time it was a true seeing; a manifestation of the glory of God in human form, adapted to the capabilities of the finite creature, which the prophet beheld!”[4] And Young goes on to note that “He sees God as sovereign in human form, and this appearance we learn from John was an appearance of Christ.”[5]

Marc Roby: Of course, he is referring to John 12:41, which we read just a little while ago in our daily readings[6], where John gives a quote from Isaiah Chapter 6 and then says, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the verse he was referring to. Isaiah saw a pre-incarnate vision of Christ. But let’s read a little more of the revelation given to Isaiah. Let me read Verses 1-4. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Marc Roby: Just the thought of being given a vision like that gives you the chills. The word awesome is overused in this day and age, but it is completely appropriate here. I can’t think of anything that would inspire more awe than this.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. Awe means a strong feeling of fear, respect and wonder, and this vision would certainly inspire all of those things to the highest degree possible.

Marc Roby: And the prophet had exactly that reaction. In Verse 5 we read about Isaiah’s reaction. He cried out “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Dr. Spencer: I again like the King James wording better here, it translates the first part of Isaiah’s response as “Woe is me! for I am undone”. Somehow the word “undone” is more powerful.

Marc Roby: That is a powerful word. Being undone does not sound like a pleasant experience.

Dr. Spencer: It isn’t a pleasant experience at all. But we must ask, “Why did Isaiah say he was undone?” R.C. Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God provides an interesting perspective on this passage.[7] He points out that to be undone is a very descriptive term; it means to come apart at the seams, to disintegrate. It is the very opposite of being integrated, or coming together. Now we don’t say that an individual is integrated; we say that he has integrity, but it is the same root. It means to be together; or, in casual speech, to have it all together. So to be undone is to realize that you do not have integrity, you do not have it all together. And who could say anything else in the presence of a holy God? When we compare ourselves with each other we may be able to say that someone is a person of integrity, or that he or she has their act together. But when we compare any of us to God, that illusion disappears.

Marc Roby: It certainly does. God is perfect in every conceivable way and, more to the point, he is, as we have emphasized, our Creator.

Dr. Spencer: And not only is he the Creator of all, but he is also the Judge of all. And this judge does not need a prosecuting attorney, or any witnesses to be called, or any evidence to be presented because he knows everything perfectly. And no defense is possible. Whatever charges he brings against us are guaranteed to be absolutely true. That should be terrifying. Think about a courtroom here on earth. Even that can be an intimidating place.

Marc Roby: Yes, I’m sure it can be. I’ve never been a defendant in a case, but even serving on a jury gives you an idea. The judge is separated from the attorneys, jury, lawyers and audience. He sits up higher, he wears a robe, you all rise when he enters the court, and so on. There is serious decorum demanded.

Dr. Spencer: And not only demanded, but enforced by officers with guns and a judge with authority to throw you into jail for contempt of court. That is scary, and it is meant to be because they are dealing with very serious issues. But the throne room of God is infinitely more important and impressive and the issues dealt with are infinitely more important because they deal with the eternal destinies of people.

Marc Roby: Which, quite literally, does make it infinitely more important.

Dr. Spencer: And we must also think about the standard being used by this perfect judge. We are told in Hebrews 12:14 that we are to, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” In this verse holiness is obviously being used in the moral sense. We cannot become God. We will always be creatures and so cannot be separate in that sense. But God does demand that we be holy in the moral sense. As we saw earlier, the prophet Habakkuk properly said to God, in Habakkuk 1:13, that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”  Because God is holy, we must also be holy or we will not see him, which means we will not go to heaven when we die.

Marc Roby: And the only alternative is hell.

Dr. Spencer: That is the only alternative. And every single human being alive will face judgment. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Marc Roby: God’s holiness, combined with his power and perfect knowledge, are extremely bad news for anyone who faces him standing on their own.

Dr. Spencer: They are the worst possible news. Anyone who stands before God on his or her own will be sent to eternal hell. But, praise God, there is a way of escape. Going back to the revelation God gave to Isaiah, we read in the next two verses, Isaiah 6:6-7, that “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’”

Marc Roby: Having a hot coal touched to your lips would be extremely painful, but nonetheless, it is wonderful news. Our sins can be atoned for.

Dr. Spencer: They can, but not by our effort. Only God is able to do that. And he has done it through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We just celebrated his birth last week, which is the pivotal point in human history, and in a few months we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter, which speak about the culmination of his work of redemption.

Marc Roby: And just in case some of our listeners do not know about Good Friday and Easter, we should point out that Good Friday is the day we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate his resurrection from the dead.

Dr. Spencer: And praise God for Christ and his atoning sacrifice. I quoted from Hebrews 9:27 a minute ago, but let me read all of that verse this time, along with the next. Hebrews 9:27-28 tell us that “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Marc Roby: And that is the glorious hope of all Christians.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. And we should be extremely thankful that God’s attribute of holiness is communicable, because we are not holy, and yet as we read a couple of minutes ago, Hebrews 12:14 tells us that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Therefore, the Christian’s ultimate hope is that God will perfect us in Christ and we will, ultimately, be perfectly holy in his presence.

Marc Roby: And, of course, our holiness is not the basis of our salvation – that is the perfect righteousness of Christ alone. We don’t become holy in this life and then earn heaven by our holiness. Rather, having already been justified by faith, we are made holy by God through a process which begins when we are born again and acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and it isn’t completed until after we die.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We will talk about that process in some detail in a later podcast, but for now let me just summarize it. All people are sinners in need of a Savior. But, praise God, he has chosen to save certain people. And those whom he has chosen to save he effectually calls, which means that he causes them to be born again, and they then respond in repentance and faith. And God then works in them to change them throughout this life. When we die, our souls are perfected and brought into the presence of God as we read in Hebrews 12:23. Then, when Christ returns, we receive our perfected resurrection bodies as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, and we then begin our eternal state perfected and living in God’s presence forever.

During this life, however, this process of sanctification involves suffering, which none of us like, but it is for a good purpose. In Hebrews 12:10 we are told that “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Marc Roby: Now that is a glorious thought, to share in God’s holiness. Which then makes us fit to be in heaven with him.

Dr. Spencer: That is God’s glorious plan of salvation. The whole purpose of creation and human history is for God to redeem a people for himself. When that has been accomplished, this universe will end and God will create a new heaven and a new earth.

Marc Roby: We read about that in 2 Peter Chapter 3, which tells us, in Verse 13, that “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: And because it is the home of righteousness, or we could say holiness, it is only those who share in God’s attribute of holiness who will be there. And the only way, as sinful human beings we can do that, is to be united to Jesus Christ by faith.

Marc Roby: I assume we have more to say about the holiness of God, but this looks like a good place to end for today. I want to remind our listeners that they can email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to respond.

 

[1] E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, W.B. Eerdmans Pub., Vol. 3, 1972, pg. 242 (fn 19)

[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] P.G. Mathew, Isaiah: God Comforts His People, Grace and Glory Ministries, 2018, pp 49-50

[4] Young, op. cit., pg. 235

[5] Ibid, pg. 237

[6] Our church’s daily reading schedule is available from the home page of our website: https://gracevalley.org/

[7] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, Living Books, 1985, pp 42-44

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today with a special Christmas message based on God’s communicable attribute of love, which we saw last time can be considered an aspect of his goodness.

But before we begin I want to let our listeners know that we also have a Christmas present to offer to you. If you go to our website, whatdoesthewordsay.org, you can request a free copy of the book Rediscovering the True Meaning of Christmas, by Rev. P.G. Mathew. It is filled with great encouragement and hope for the people of God. This book will be available for free from now until the end of the month.

Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by introducing the context for what may be the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we did start looking at that, and I pointed out that the first word in that verse is often ignored. That first word “for” tells us that this verse is providing some explanation for the verses that preceded it. In this case, Christ had been telling Nicodemus that a person has to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven and concluded, in Verses 14 and 15, by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So, John 3:16 is explaining these verses.

In his commentary on John’s gospel, Mark Johnston writes this about John 3:16, “Why did the sinless Son of God have to suffer in such a way? John supplies the answer, and his answer is more staggering even than the brutalities of the cross. In what must be the best known words of Scripture, John says, ‘For God so loved the world…’”.[2]

Marc Roby: That statement is, as he put it, staggering. But Verse 14 mentions Moses lifting up the snake in the desert, and I suspect many of our listeners may not know that bit of history.

Dr. Spencer: You’re probably right. Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, who was a religious leader in Jerusalem, so he knew that Nicodemus would be familiar with the history, but we should give the background for those of our listeners who don’t remember.

Marc Roby: Alright, well let me begin. Jesus’ mention of the snake in the desert refers back to events that took place during the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert after God had miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt. We read in Numbers 21:4-6 that “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’ Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”

Dr. Spencer: And we see, as always, that sin brings trouble. And their sin was great. God had delivered them from slavery, was providing food daily in the desert and had previously provided water miraculously, so they had no good reason to doubt that he could do so again. Nevertheless, they weren’t satisfied with God’s provisions and grumbled against God and his representative, Moses.

Marc Roby: I fear that we too often think we somehow deserve more and fail to appreciate God’s blessings as well.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure you’re right about that. But the people got one very important thing right; they properly understood that these snakes were sent by God as judgment against them for their sin. So, in Verse 7 we read, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”

And God was very gracious to them, although he didn’t simply take the snakes away. It is often the case that God does not take our troubles away, but he gives us grace to bear up under them and uses them to discipline, purify and strengthen us.

Marc Roby: The Bible often uses the metaphor of gold being refined by fire.

Dr. Spencer: And no one likes the fire of troubles, but even the secular world has an expression that admits the truth, there is no gain without pain.

Marc Roby: An unpopular truth.

Dr. Spencer: So it is. Numbers 21 goes on to tell us, in Verses 8-9 “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”

Marc Roby: That is a great display of God’s mercy to his people.

Dr. Spencer: It most definitely is. But we must recognize that there certainly wasn’t any magical power attached to the bronze snake itself, this was just God’s way of making the people realize that they had sinned and pointing them to the fact that they needed to look to him for forgiveness and healing.

Marc Roby: And yet, even though there wasn’t any power in the bronze snake itself, it is interesting to note that it later became a snare to the Israelites. Sometime in the late eighth century before Christ, during the reign of the godly King Hezekiah, we read in 2 Kings 18:4 that Hezekiah “removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

Dr. Spencer: It is a manifestation of man’s sinful nature that he seems to constantly be looking for a God that can be manipulated. We want some simple ceremony, or something we can do that is supposed to obligate God to bless us with a particular response. In other words, we want a vending machine god; you put in your 1-minute prayer, or you perform a particular religious ceremony and he is obligated to bless you in some way. But God will not be manipulated by us. He does offer unimaginable mercy and blessings, but we must be conscious of the Creator/creature distinction. God makes the rules, not us.

The original purpose of the bronze snake was to cause the people to see their sin and their need for God. The snake itself was only a symbol. And God was gracious in not simply removing the snakes from the people. Had he done that, it would have been much easier for the people to forget that God delivered them from this pain.

Marc Roby: We are all too quick to forget God’s mercies. It is also important to note that the snake was a type of Christ, meaning that it was a symbol that pointed to Christ in some way. We talked about typology like this in Session 44.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we did. And this is one of the clearest examples of typology in the Bible. Jesus himself tells us that this event in the desert pointed to his sacrifice on the cross in the verses we’ve been examining. Remember that John 3:14-15 say, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”. And then, immediately after those verses, we read John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And we now have the necessary background to understand that verse correctly.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do. This is the gospel message, the good news. This is the real reason for celebrating Christmas. The birth of Jesus Christ is an amazing event, but the reason God sent his eternal Son into the world to be born of a poor virgin in the backwater town of Bethlehem was so that he could live a sinless life and then willingly go to the cross, bearing the wrath of God and dying to pay for the sins of everyone who will believe in him. As Jesus himself said in contemplating his crucifixion, in John 12:27, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”

Marc Roby: That is incredible. Christ’s willingness to die, and to endure the wrath of God in our stead, that’s something I will never understand, but for which I am eternally grateful.

Dr. Spencer: Christ’s love is impossible to fathom. And John 3:16 gives us the reason that God gave his one and only Son, it was because he, meaning the Father, “so loved the world”. It was the love of the Father that necessitated Jesus humbling himself and becoming incarnate, and then giving his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Marc Roby: Modern people don’t like this idea of God requiring a sacrifice.

Dr. Spencer: No, they don’t. But God is just and holy and cannot simply forgive sin by winking at it. His eternally perfect justice requires that sin be paid for, and that requires a sacrifice. There is an important word in John 3:14 that it is easy to overlook. The verse says that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up”. That word must is critically important. It is the Greek word δεῖ (dei), and it means that it was necessary for this to be done. There was no other option. It was a divine necessity to satisfy God’s justice.

Marc Roby: Yes, Paul tells us about this divine necessity in Romans 3:25 and 26. He wrote that “God presented him [speaking of Christ,] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the best verse to demonstrate this necessity. In order to be just, in other words to fill the demands of his own eternally perfect justice, and yet to justify those who have faith in Jesus, which here refers to a legal judgment that they are ‘not guilty’, it was necessary that Jesus Christ be presented as a sacrifice of atonement. The Greek word translated here as “sacrifice of atonement” is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which means propitiation. As John Murray explains, “Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[3]

Marc Roby: People also don’t like the idea that God is justifiably displeased with us and wrathful toward us.

Dr. Spencer: No, they don’t. This is the bad news that we must acknowledge before we can receive the good news of the gospel. We are sinners and cannot save ourselves. God is justifiably angry with us and we are, therefore, subject to his wrath. When people reject this bad news, they unwittingly reject the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ along with it.

Marc Roby: Most people seem to think that God should simply forgive our sins without anyone being punished.

Dr. Spencer: That does seem to be the case. But P.G. Mathew explained the biblical idea of justification as presented in Romans 3, he wrote, “Justification is not amnesty, which is pardon without principle. It is not seeing bad people as good people. Justification is based on God’s justice demonstrated in the life and death of Christ. The wrath of God against elect sinners was poured out on God’s innocent Son, the spotless Lamb of God. Without the cross, the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and impossible.”[4]

Marc Roby: Of course, we don’t like to admit that we are wretched sinners.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a serious problem. Our society tells us from the cradle on up that people are all basically good at heart. But that is a lie, which even a quick glance at the morning newspaper will confirm. That lie leads to people thinking of Jesus as just a good moral teacher. Christmas then becomes a time to celebrate the birth of this good moral teacher who gave us an example of a humble life. But that is not what the Bible tells us. It is not the truth. The truth is, as Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and as he wrote in Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men”. And because of these facts, we need a sacrifice of atonement.

Marc Roby: And Jesus Christ is that sacrifice of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. But I think people sometimes view God the Father as this mean and angry God of wrath and then they picture Jesus as kind and gentle person and think that he comes along and cajoles the Father, perhaps even somewhat against the Father’s will, to not destroy his people. But that picture is completely and totally unbiblical. The Bible makes it clear that it is the love of the Father that is the ultimate cause of our salvation. It is the Father who gives his Son, so it is the Father that is referred to when John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world”.

Marc Roby: Now that is an amazing fact. That God would love rebellious sinners. And, of course, it is not just the Father, Jesus also loves us. In fact, he told us in John 15:13 that “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. And Romans 5:5 tells us that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” So we conclude from this verse and the unity of the godhead that the Holy Spirit also loves us. We also know that it is the particular work of the Holy Spirit to apply to us the redemption which God the Father planned and God the Son accomplished on the cross. All three persons of the godhead are involved in our salvation.

Marc Roby: Now, when we celebrate Christmas we properly focus on Jesus Christ as our Redeemer, but we also need to remember the triune nature of God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But let me go back to the verse you read from John 15 and put it in context. In Verses 12 through 14 Jesus tells us, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

I want us to note that we can’t think of Jesus Christ as a helpless baby in a manger, or just as a dying Savior on the cross. We need to remember that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe and he commands us to love each other as he has loved us.

Marc Roby: That’s an impossibly tall order.

Dr. Spencer: It is impossible for us in this life because we still have the vestiges of our sinful nature with us. But that is the standard to which we are to aspire. And notice that Christ said we are his friends if we do what he commands. Obedience is not optional. Our obedience does not earn our salvation in any way, but it is necessary to prove that we do, in fact, belong to Jesus.

Marc Roby: It’s a good thing that our obedience doesn’t earn our salvation, because our obedience is never perfect in this life.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why the great theologian Charles Hodge wrote that “As portrayed in Scripture, the inward life of the people of God to the end of their course in this world, is a repetition of conversion. It is a continued turning unto God; a constant renewal of confession, repentance, and faith; a dying unto sin, and living unto righteousness.”[5]

In other words, we don’t just confess and repent once, professing faith in Christ and then go on living the same old way. If we have been born again, we see our sin more and more clearly as time goes on and we see even more than before those things we need to repent of, and our need for faith, and we strive to put our sin to death and live righteous lives that please God.

Marc Roby: Just like the Israelites in the desert would see their need for God when they were bitten by a snake, and then they would then acknowledge that need by looking to the bronze snake on the pole.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. That look demonstrated their confession, repentance and faith in God to heal them. And notice that when God brings trouble into our lives it is a great mercy if it causes us to see our need for God more clearly.

Marc Roby: And then, if we turn to him in repentance and faith, he shows us even greater mercy by forgiving our sin.

Dr. Spencer: And he does all of that on the basis of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. God is loving and merciful, but he is also just and holy. Our sins must be paid for; either by us, or by Christ. Most people focus on giving and receiving gifts at Christmas, but the real meaning is that God has offered to us the greatest gift that can ever be given to anyone, the gift of salvation. But we must see our need for it. If we think that our good works, or even our faith, will save us, we are as lost as Nicodemus was before Christ explained to him that he, and we, must be born again.

We need to receive the bad news that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” as the prophet Jeremiah wrote in Jeremiah 17:9. If we acknowledge that fact, repent and turn to Jesus Christ, trust in him alone as our Savior and obey him as our Lord, then God, in his rich mercy, will adopt us as his sons and daughters and bring us into his glorious presence for all eternity. That is the Christmas gift that God offers to us. And it’s my prayer that God will grant that gift to everyone who listens to this message.

Marc Roby: I join with you in that prayer. And that concludes this week’s podcast. As always, we encourage our listeners to email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d 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] Mark Johnston, Let’s Study John, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003, pg. 50

[3] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 30

[4] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 130

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, Eerdmans, 1997, pg. 247

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Mr. Roby:  Today Dr. Spencer is here to share with us his background and his personal testimony.  Hello Dr. Spencer, it is good to have you here.

Dr. Spencer:  It’s good to be here.

Mr. Roby:  We’ve known each other a long time, and I’m looking forward to the series you’re going to be teaching us.  But first, I think it would be helpful for our listeners to learn more about you and your personal testimony. Let’s start at the beginning – what was your childhood like?

Dr. Spencer:  I would describe my childhood as being one where religion played no significant role whatsoever. I don’t remember ever going to church as a family, other than for a wedding, and there were never any meaningful discussions about God, the purpose of life, or anything like that. I would describe both of parents as generally honest and hardworking, and it was expected that you would work hard and be honest, but there was never any serious attention paid to eternal issues. No discussions about what happens when you die or anything like that. I don’t remember my parents making specific comments about religion, or about people who believed in God, but I definitely grew up with the idea that a Christian, or any other religious person, was about 50 cards shy of a full deck, or had been brainwashed as a child, or had been through some terrible experience and used religion as a crutch to help them out. I had all these stereotypes in my mind. I went to church once with a friend in college, but it was a charismatic church with people jumping up speaking in tongues and it scared me. Other than that, I don’t believe I ever attended a church service outside of a wedding or funeral until I met Patti.

Mr. Roby:  It’s pretty amazing what God has done for you. Not only are you at church every Sunday now, but you’re an elder and minister here at Grace Valley.

Dr. Spencer:  It is definitely amazing, and I suspect that people who knew me when I was young would be shocked to say the least. I myself am shocked. The first time I ever attended Grace Valley Christian Center, after my wife started attending, I was so angry after hearing Pastor Mathew preach that I had the proverbial smoke coming out of my ears. I was extremely offended and angry. I would have gotten up and walked out on the sermon if it were way not too socially awkward to do so. He spoke as though he were preaching absolute truth, not just his opinion, and that is what offended me so deeply.

Mr. Roby:  How did you go from being offended and angry then, to real saving faith?

Dr. Spencer:  Well, the fall of 1991 was a time of great change in my life.  I had just finished working 75-hours a week, pretty much 52-weeks a year for five years to build up my research program at UC, and my application for tenure was submitted, which I was fairly confident it would be approved. So, I was at a point where I was re-evaluating my priorities in life. Patti had been attending Grace Valley Christian Center for a while, and I really didn’t like that.  My motive for examining my faith had nothing to do with seeking after God, it was nothing quite so noble. I wanted to be able to tell my children why the things they were being taught at Grace Valley were wrong and to decide whether or not I would continue to allow them to attend; I didn’t want them being brainwashed.

Mr. Roby:  Brainwashed is a loaded term.  So, what did you do?

Dr. Spencer:  Well, I started to do a lot of reading and thinking, and there were a couple of people in the church that I spoke with. At that time, I would have described myself as an agnostic but, like all agnostics, I lived as a practical atheist. I ended up spending the next nine months or so reading and thinking about God, the Bible and the gospel. I would have told you at the time that I was searching for truth, but I was really trying to convince myself that my agnosticism was the truth. I now realize that calling myself an agnostic was an intellectual smokescreen to avoid discussing, or even thinking about, God.  Fortunately, God used this time to cause me to see the glaring problems with agnosticism and atheism. In fact, by the summer of 1992 I had come to a very uncomfortable place. I was convinced that God must exist, but I was absolutely not willing to accept that he was the God revealed in the Bible. I had all sorts of arguments for why that God was unacceptable to me.

Mr. Roby:  So, you knew there was a God, but you weren’t ready to submit yourself to God as he has revealed himself in the scriptures.

Dr. Spencer:  Yeah, I think that describes it well.  But then, I received a letter from the man who had married my wife and I and with whom we had become good friends. I had had a number of conversations about God with him over the years, but these had always just been of intellectual interest to me. But that August, in 1992, as I was in this very uncomfortable place, my wife and I had visited his family and he and I had another one of our long conversations. I then sent him a letter with some of my questions and his letter was in response to mine. Anyway, the day after it came, on September 10, 1992, I read the letter first thing in the morning and it troubled me deeply, although I didn’t really understand why. He didn’t answer any of my questions about God directly, but just said that he sensed they weren’t the real issue. He spoke about who Christ is and what he did and confronted me with the question “Who do you say that Jesus Christ is?”  I didn’t know what to do about those thoughts, and I had a busy day ahead of me, so I set them aside and went on with my day.

Mr. Roby:  And I understand you had a life-changing experience later on that day.

Dr. Spencer:  That’s definitely a true statement. That afternoon I was driving across the causeway into Sacramento to run an errand, it was a beautiful fall day and I was driving along listening to music, and all of a sudden I got very cold and felt pressure all over, almost like when I used to scuba dive, especially if you went down to a 100 feet or so. At the same time, I had all of the questions I had been dealing with about God boiling around in my mind and, although I didn’t see any visions, it was as though Christ were standing in the middle saying “Who do you say that I am?” I was crying and wondering what was going on; I honestly thought that maybe I was going crazy. I also thought that I might get in an accident, so I pulled myself together and went on with my errand. Then, on my way home an hour or two later, again on the causeway, the same thing happened again. Much to my own surprise I found myself saying out loud – I would say against my own will, “Jesus, I want you in my life.” And the minute I said that, the pressure and cold stopped, the thoughts boiling around in my mind stopped, and I stopped crying. Now I really had no idea what had happened. I honestly thought that maybe I had just lost my mind.

Mr. Roby:  That sounds kind of like a Paul on the road to Damascus kind of experience. Then what happened?

Dr. Spencer:  When I got home that evening, I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I wanted to talk to my wife about it and go over the letter with her.  But I had firmly resolved in my own mind I was not going to say anything about what had happened on the causeway, because we had discussed Christianity a number of times over the years and I would challenge her faith and play devil’s advocate with her, so I didn’t want to get her hopes up that I had become a Christian. I was quite confident that I would come to my senses in a day or two.  However, I did want to talk with her about the letter I had received.

But, we went up and had dinner with my mother in Woodland that night and when we got home it was hard to get all of the kids to bed. It was one of those nights when as soon as you thought you had them down, someone would pop up and want some water or something. By the time we got them all down she was falling asleep. So, when I said that I wanted to talk, she didn’t really want to, but I said we needed to, so she said “alright”, and I told that I had received this letter. She said, “yeah, I know, I saw the envelope.” And I said, “well, I want to read it to you.” So, she said “OK”, but was expecting me to launch into an attack on Christianity I’m sure. So, I started trying to read the letter to her and started crying so hard that I couldn’t read. And she said, “I can read it”, and I said, “no, no, I need to read it”, so I pulled myself together enough to read it. And then, when I finished it, in spite of having firmly deciding not to say anything at all to her about what had happened, I even went further and found myself saying “I think I became a Christian today.” It was like the words popped out of my mouth in opposition to my own will. And she was kind of sitting there, waiting for the other shoe to drop, thinking that that was just the start of one of my attacks or something, and so she didn’t receive that right away the way you might expect. But, to make a long story short, we ended up spending the whole night talking and praying; it was as if we had never known each other before and were on a first date or something.

Mr. Roby:  The change you’re describing makes me think of Revelation 21:5, where God says, “Behold, I’m making all things new.” That’s what really happened, isn’t it?

Dr. Spencer:  It really is. And I think one of the things in this story that I always return to in my own mind because it clearly indicates the difference between somebody who has and has not been born again; is a few days before this experience, I had been reading a passage in the New Testament. I don’t remember which passage, I wish I did, but I remember thinking “This makes absolutely no sense, no thinking person could believe this.” And, the morning after this experience, which was September 11th, I sat down and read that passage over again and even though I don’t remember the passage, I distinctly remember the feeling; I thought, this makes perfectly good sense. I couldn’t even figure out why it didn’t make sense before.  It was just a complete mystery to me as to how it didn’t make sense before. It’s kind of like when you’re doing research and you work on a problem and work on it and you can’t quite figure it out, it just doesn’t make sense, and then something finally clicks, and now you can’t even reconstruct in your mind what it was that was so hard to understand before.

Mr. Roby:  That’s certainly one proof of a changed heart. Was there anything else you can recall that was a dramatic, immediate change after coming to faith?

Dr. Spencer:  Oh, absolutely. I was your classic Type-A personality faculty member and I would wake up, oh 2 or 3 times a week, at 3 or 4 in the morning with my mind boiling around with all the things I had to do that day, and then the mind spinning would turn into the stomach knotting and I would be forced to get up and go into my office at home and start working on those things. And, I still wake up early fairly often, but not once in the 25 years since that day have I awakened in that same state of anxious agitation.

Mr. Roby:  Well, speaking of Type-A faculty mentalities, a lot of your resistance to Christianity came from a settled atheistic viewpoint that stemmed, in part, from your scientific background. Tell us a little bit, please, about your education and professional background.

Dr. Spencer:  Alright, when I was a kid, my father had his own company, called Electro-Magnetic Filter Company, he was an electrical engineer, and I worked for that company from the time I was 13 or 14 on in the summers full time, along with some other jobs, like working at a gas station when I was in high school. When I finished high school, I actually didn’t want to be an engineer because I didn’t want to be like my father, who was a workaholic, so I started college as a history major. After a couple years of college however, I was working as an electronics technician to help pay for school, and it dawned on me that having a degree in history wasn’t nearly as good for a career as having a degree in electrical engineering, and that I liked electrical engineering even more, so I switched my major to electrical engineering. And then I worked as a technician and a non-degreed electrical engineer while I finished my bachelor’s degree at San Jose State, and then I went to work full time as an engineer in industry. But, after a few years of that I realized that I wanted to understand more, and the place I was working had a lot of PhD’s working there, and I also saw that they were doing things that were more interesting than the work I was doing, so I decided to go back to graduate school. And I was fortunate enough, actually through a miraculous intervention of God, to get into Stanford University and to go on to get my PhD there. I did some consulting during that time as well and, when I finished, I interviewed both in industry and academia, but my original reason for being a history major was that I wanted to teach, so it occurred to me that maybe I would like teaching. In fact, I had taught at a junior-college-level tech school for a while when I finished my bachelor’s degree, which was actually where I met my wife. And so, anyway, I accepted the job at UC Davis and started as a professor there in 1986.

Mr. Roby:  You’ve mentioned the job of professor at UC Davis, what, exactly, does that job entail?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I was a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, which means that I taught courses, both undergraduate and graduate, and also did research and supervised graduate students. My particular specialty, in case anyone is actually interested, was analog circuit design, mostly for digital communication systems. At any rate, I took that job in 1986 and worked there for a number of years. For a five-year period I held an endowed professorship, and I also served as vice-chair of the department for three years. In any event, looking back, I can clearly see how God providentially guided me to this position at UC Davis and then, eventually, to Grace Valley Christian Center.

Mr. Roby:  Amen. Having been saved in 92, how did you become an elder then at Grace Valley?

Dr. Spencer: Well, that again is a long story of course, and I don’t remember the exact year or anything, but certainly my first five or six years there I was just a young Christian and had an insatiable appetite I would say to read the Word of God and study it and so forth. And then, somebody at the church recommended that we bring in a particular person as a speaker, in what ended up being the beginning of what we called our Faith and Reason series. This person was going to come in and speak about scientific evidence for the existence of God, which we thought would be a good outreach to the campus, and I was kind of the spearhead for bringing this person, and then the elders came to me, in fact Associate Pastor Rev. Buddingh’ came to me, and said that the elders had decided it would be a good thing if I would teach an adult Sunday School class to prepare people for this guy’s coming. And so, I ended up teaching an adult Sunday School class that was really kind of on science, to prepare people for the sorts of things he was going to talk about. And then I think it was about a year or two after that I was asked to teach something else, and Pastor thought that he saw some ability there, and so I ended up teaching adult Sunday School and then eventually became an elder, and then through a longer sequence of events again, ended up retiring early from the university in order to work at the church as a lay minister and an elder.

Mr. Roby:  It’s truly incredible to see how God has used the same scientific background that initially helped you to suppress the truth, to now help you declare that truth. Thank you for sharing your conversion story and background with us. And I’m certainly looking forward to our future sessions, where we’ll have an opportunity to hear from you on What the Word of God says.

Dr. Spencer: Thank you, I’m looking forward to it as well.

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