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

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

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

Dr. Spencer: And Wayne Grudem says much the same thing in his Systematic Theology. He writes that God’s “providential actions are the outworking of the eternal decrees that he made long ago.”[2] When we first started discussing God’s providence we noted, in Session 89, that it is purposeful. He governs his creation for the purpose of bringing about the end he decreed from before the beginning. In Isaiah 46:9-10 God tells us, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”[3]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: What example is that?

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

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

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that we are going through the six loci of classical reformed theology. A locus is a central point or focus of something, so the six loci are the six main headings under which we can organize all of systematic theology. Those six loci are: 1) Theology proper, which means the study of God; 2) Anthropology, which means the study of man; 3) Christology, which means the study of Jesus Christ the Redeemer; 4) Soteriology, which means the study of salvation; in other words, how sinful men can be saved; 5) Ecclesiology, which means the study of the church; and 6) Eschatology, which means the study of last things; in other words, of the final eternal state of everything. So, I assume we are going to move on then to examine biblical anthropology next time?

Dr. Spencer: That is the plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine 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: Before we begin our regular session this week, we want to take a moment to let our listeners know about an exciting upcoming series. Dr. Spencer, you’re going to be doing an interview with Prof. Henry Schaefer III. Can you tell us a bit about him?

Dr. Spencer: I’d love to. Prof. Schaefer is one of the world’s most highly regarded chemists. He is currently the Director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. It has been reported that he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize five times.[1]

Marc Roby: That’s impressive.

Dr. Spencer: It is. He has also published over 1,600 scientific papers. There have been scientific conferences held specifically in honor of his work and even a book published in honor of his work. [2]

Marc Roby: I’m no scientist, but 1,600 papers sounds like an awful lot.

Dr. Spencer: It is a huge number. He got his PhD from Stanford in 1969, so that is an average of more than 32 papers a year from then until now, which is a number that simply blows my mind. And these are not fluffy papers, they are mostly published in the best journals in his field and are clearly important papers since he is one of the most highly cited scientists in the world.

Marc Roby: When you say “highly cited”, you are referring to the number of times other researchers cite his work as a reference, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. He has over 67,000 citations to his papers, which puts him in very elite company indeed.

Marc Roby: And yet, Prof. Schaefer is a Bible-believing Christian.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. And he has given talks on his faith hundreds, if not thousands, of times around the world. He will be here in giving a talk on the UC Davis campus on October 3rd and he has graciously consented to letting me interview him for this podcast while he is here.

Marc Roby: Well, I certainly look forward to hearing that interview. But now, let’s get back to our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. We finished with God’s omniscience last time, are we ready to move on to another attribute?

Dr. Spencer: Not quite. I want to take a few minutes to go over some of the implications of God’s omniscience and people’s reactions to this doctrine. I think these are important because this is an attribute that is frequently denied by professing Christians, in practice if not in word.

Marc Roby: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that even Christians who have accepted the biblical teaching that God is omniscient sometimes act in ways that are inconsistent with that belief. For example, we all sin. But every single time we sin we are denying the lordship of Christ and are acting as if God will not know about our sin or that he can’t or won’t do anything about it.

Marc Roby: In other words, we don’t fear God. We are neglecting not only his omniscience, but his omnipotence and holiness as well.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. But we definitely should fear God. Even when our sin is just in our mind, God knows. In Luke 5 we read an account of Jesus healing a paralytic. But the first thing he did was tell the man his sins were forgiven. As a result, some of the people present were thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God can forgive sins. But, in Verse 22 we are told that “Jesus knew what they were thinking”. Psalm 139:2 also tells us that God knows our thoughts.

Marc Roby: Now that is frightening!

Dr. Spencer: Yes it is. We have no privacy from God. He knows every thought, word and deed. He knows our emotions, how we feel about things and so on. This is a clear teaching of Scripture. And that’s why the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”[3]

Marc Roby: And it certainly doesn’t make any sense to say that we should make our thoughts obedient to Christ if he doesn’t know what they are.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right, that wouldn’t make any sense at all. Hebrews 4:13 tells us that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” And, in Revelation 2 we read Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira, in which he chastises them for tolerating an immoral woman, whom he calls Jezebel.

Marc Roby: People today might not recognize how bad it was to be called Jezebel. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be to call someone Hitler. Jezebel was the extremely wicked wife of King Ahab in the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, so we get the message quickly that Christ considered this woman to be evil. Based on some of the Greek manuscripts we have, she may even have been the wife of the Pastor of the church in Thyatira. [4] But, whoever she was, she led people in the church into sin, most likely by teaching, as many do now, that because we are saved by grace it doesn’t matter if we sin. But listen to Christ’s condemnation of this idea. We read in Revelation 2:23 that Jesus said to the church, “I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.”

Marc Roby: That is not the Jesus that most modern churches like to preach about; one who will repay people according to their deeds.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t at all. But it is the true Christ as revealed to us in the Word of God. He searches hearts and minds and will repay each according to their deeds. Even those who are truly saved are subject to God’s severe discipline. If you are born again you cannot lose your salvation, but you certainly can bring great trouble to yourself, your family and your church if you sin.

On the one hand that is obvious. If I commit some serious sin and end up in jail or something, that obviously brings shame and real hardship to my family and my church. But, in addition, Paul told the church in Corinth that they were experiencing serious problems because they were not repenting of and forsaking their sins before taking communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 he wrote that “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

Marc Roby: And “fallen asleep” is an obvious euphemism for dying.

Dr. Spencer: It is, yes. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul had told the church that God would test every person’s life work by fire. This passage is most directly addressed to church leaders, but the general principle is consistent with what is said throughout the Bible for all believers. In Verses 13 to 15 we read that “fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” Now there is comfort in that verse of course, it does say that “he himself will be saved”, but there is also great pain involved for him and others associated with him as is indicated by saying he will be saved “only as one escaping through the flames.”

Marc Roby: That certainly doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to go to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But, and this is extremely important, we want to be sure and make it clear that the pain we suffer for our sins does not in any way atone for our sins; only Jesus Christ can do that. But God does discipline his children. Now, if we are smart, we will take the warning and live holy lives. And now let me make clear how this ties back into our topic of God’s omniscience.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: We won’t suffer only for sins that are obvious and seen by others. As we read a minute ago in Hebrews 4:13, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This includes our thoughts. Remember that Christ said, in Matthew 5:28, that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We can conclude that even our lustful glances and thoughts, which no human being can discern, make God angry and subject us to the possibility of discipline.

Marc Roby: That is a very sobering realization.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, this realization should bring serious sobriety to our lives. Not all sickness is directly attributable to our own sin, so you don’t want to assume that just because someone is sick it is a direct result of personal sin. But we should also not neglect that possibility. Most professing Christians today seem to completely ignore the possibility that they could be sick or experiencing some trial because of their sin. But, if the doctor tells you that you have cancer, or you lose your job, or whatever, a serious period of self-reflection and repentance is certainly appropriate.

Marc Roby: Yes, I agree. How else do Christians act in ways that practically deny God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: We practically deny his omniscience along with his omnipotence and his goodness, whenever we allow ourselves to be anxious.

Marc Roby: Anxiety is obviously a very common thing, even among Christians.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. In fact, I suspect that every single one of us has allowed ourselves to be anxious at some point. But in Philippians 4:6 we are told, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In the Greek Paul used the imperative mood for the verb, so this is a command to not be anxious, not a suggestion. And we are given great reason to not be anxious in 1 Peter 5:7 where we are told, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.”

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort.

Dr. Spencer: And it is even greater comfort when you remember that God does in fact know everything! There are no problems of mine that go unnoticed by God. And there is no problem of mine that he cannot solve. God’s omniscience is not only frightening, it is also very comforting when you couple it with his fatherly love.

Marc Roby: But, of course, we must be Christians for that to be comforting.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. God’s omniscience should be terrifying to anyone who does not know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I think that is why there is so much animosity in the world directed at Jesus Christ and his followers. People know that God exists, even if they call themselves atheists, and in their heart of hearts they know they will be judged. As a result, a lot of anger wells up inside. I always find it very revealing when you encounter a very active or angry atheist.

Marc Roby: What do you mean?

Dr. Spencer: Think about it. Have you ever heard of a society of people who spend a lot of time trying to disprove the existence of Santa Clause?

Marc Roby: No, I haven’t, and I don’t expect to either.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s precisely my point. If someone is truly convinced in the core of their being that God cannot exist, there is no reason for that person to expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to disprove his existence and to discredit the Bible. And there is no cause for anger. He might feel sorry for people who believe that God exists, but unless one happens to be a close relative or friend I can’t imagine that would motivate him to spend a lot of time and energy on the topic. So, whenever I see a really active atheist, and there are many atheist clubs on college campuses and elsewhere, I think it reveals a person who knows that God does exist and is angry at the prospect of being judged.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting thought. It reminds me of the line from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Do you want to say anything more about God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, just one more quick point. In J.I. Packer’s little book Concise Theology, he makes the following statement: “God’s knowledge is linked with his sovereignty: he knows each thing, both in itself and in relation to all other things, because he created it, sustains it, and now makes it function every moment according to his plan for it.”[5] And he then cites Ephesians 1:11 in support, which says that in Christ, “we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”. Packer then goes on to say that “The idea that God could know, and foreknow, everything without controlling everything seems not only unscriptural but nonsensical.”

Marc Roby: That states very clearly the point we made in Session 65 that God cannot know everything that will ever happen unless he has the ability to control everything that will happen.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, Packer makes that point quite forcefully I think. And Ephesians 1:11 is very clear; everything has been “predestined according to the plan” of God.

Marc Roby: And we again see the simplicity of God as well. His attributes of divine sovereignty and omniscience are linked.

Dr. Spencer: And his omnipotence comes into play as well. Planning is one thing, but he must also be able to execute his plan. And with that, I think we are done with God’s omniscience and it’s time to move on to the next attribute.

Marc Roby: Okay. Assuming that we are going to continue following the treatment in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, that means the next attribute would be God’s wisdom, correct?

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Grudem defines this attribute in the following way: “God’s wisdom means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals.”[6] Wisdom and knowledge are closely related, but different. It is possible for a person to have vast knowledge but not be very wise in putting that knowledge to use, and it is also possible for someone who is relatively ignorant to, nonetheless, be wise. Grudem’s definition is similar to that given by others as well; they all contain the idea of some end purpose being achieved, and the purpose and the means both being the best possible.

Marc Roby: And God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory as we discussed way back in Session 2.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And his wisdom guarantees, as I noted then, that the manifestation of his glory is the best possible purpose for creation. Nothing in creation can compare with the glory of God, but creation itself can display the glory of God. So, there is no other purpose that would be as great.

God’s power, holiness, justice and mercy, to name just a few of his attributes, are all displayed by creation. And when I say creation here I am not just talking about the physical universe, but also God’s plan for the history of the universe and, more particularly, his plan for the history of mankind.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a wonderful statement of our purpose, and it is completely biblical. In Isaiah 60:21 God tells us about the future glory of his people and says, “Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.” In the ESV and other translations, instead of saying “for the display of my splendor”, it says “that I might be glorified”. There are many other places in the Bible where we are told that God’s ultimate purpose is the manifestation of his own glory.

Marc Roby: Probably the most well-known verse is 1 Corinthians 10:31, which says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Dr. Spencer: That is probably the best-known verse, and we quoted it in Session 2. But there are many others as well. For example, in Ezekiel 36 God tells his people about what he is going to do and, in Verse 22 we read, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name”.

Marc Roby: We have also pointed out before that it isn’t just human beings that are made for God’s glory, even the inanimate creation is created for that purpose. Psalm 19 famously begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God”.

And I think this is a good place to stop for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

[1] According to Wikipedia: see Jeffery L. Sheler and Joannie M. Schrof. 1991. “The Creation” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1991, pp. 56-64. See inset quoting Schaefer and citing him as “quantum chemist and five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize,” p. 62.

[2] E.g., In May 2010, the University of California at Berkeley hosted a large international conference in Professor Schaefer’s honor, the title of the conference being “Molecular Quantum Mechanics: From Methylene to DNA and Beyond.”  Simultaneous with the Berkeley conference was published the book Selected Papers of Henry F. Schaefer III, Edited by R. J. Bartlett, T. D. Crawford, M. Head-Gordon, and C. D. Sherrill.  In May 2014 the Peking University Graduate School sponsored a large conference in honor of Professor Schaefer in Shenzhen, China.

[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] J. Beeke, Revelation, Reformation Heritage Books, 2016, pp 117-118

[5] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Pub., 1993, pp 31-32

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 193

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s attribute of omniscience, or perfect knowledge of all things. We were examining Wayne Grudem’s statement of this attribute, which is that “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.”[1]  Dr. Spencer, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: We discussed what it means for God to know “in one simple and eternal act” last time. We also considered the fact that God fully knows himself last time.

Marc Roby: Which led to an interesting discussion of the meaning of infinity.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, we did stray off topic a bit.

Marc Roby: But it was an interesting and useful diversion. It is completely amazing to try and grasp the nature of God. But, getting back to Grudem’s statement about God’s knowledge, he also says that God knows “all things actual and possible”. We’ve talked about God’s knowledge of possibilities before as well. I remember in Session 59 talking about when King David asked God if the people in the town of Keilah would hand him over to Saul. When God told him that they would, David left the town to avoid that fate.

Dr. Spencer: We also gave other evidence there for God knowing all things that might happen. That was a part of our discussion of God’s eternity, which again illustrates that God’s attributes are all tied together. Grudem notes that God’s knowledge of all possible events can be deduced from the fact that he knows himself fully. He writes that “If God fully knows himself, he knows everything he is able to do, which includes all things that are possible.”[2]

Marc Roby: Do you want to say anything more about God’s omniscience?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. I first want to note two objections to this doctrine that are mentioned by Grudem. First, some people object to saying that God knows all things when they read verses in the Bible like Isaiah 43:25, where God says, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” [3] But that is a silly objection because this verse does not mean that God literally forgets my sins. To say that he doesn’t remember them is a figure of speech. It is impossible for God to truly forget anything. The real meaning there is captured by David’s statement in Psalm 32:2 where he says that “Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him”, that’s what it means when it says God remembers my sins no more.

Marc Roby: You said you had two objections to discuss, what is the other?

Dr. Spencer: Some people object to the idea that God is omniscient because they think his omniscience is incompatible with human free will. They reason that if I have real free will, then God can’t possibly know my decisions before I make them. But there are two fatal flaws with that reasoning. First, to say that my decisions cannot be free if God knows them in advance is illogical. God knows me perfectly and he knows exactly what I will do in any situation, so he certainly can know what I will decide prior to my making the decision, unless, of course, someone wants to try and defend the idea that their decisions are completely random.

Marc Roby: I don’t want to defend that position, it doesn’t sound very logical or flattering.

Dr. Spencer: That’s because it isn’t very flattering. And I would also contend that even supposedly random events are not random to God anyway, but let’s leave that discussion for another day. This argument against God’s omniscience essentially assumes I have a completely free will and can decide to do anything. But as we noted in Session 15, no one acts in a way that opposes their own nature unless they are forced to. So, our nature is one constraint placed on our decisions and there are other constraints as well, for example, our knowledge, experience, physical limitations and so on. In fact, even God is not totally free, he is constrained by his nature too. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that it is impossible for God to lie. So, these people want more freedom for man than God himself has!

We will talk more about the proper understanding of human free will in a later session, but for now what I’ve said is sufficient to demonstrate that God’s omniscience does not violate our free will.

Marc Roby: I look forward to discussing human free will, that is going to be very interesting. But you said there are two fatal flaws with the idea that God’s omniscience is incompatible with human free will. What is the second fatal flaw?

Dr. Spencer: The second flaw is that their argument doesn’t account for the fact that God does not experience time the same way we do. He experiences everything that has ever happened or ever will happen immediately as we discussed in Sessions 58 and 59. And, if that is true, then there really is no “future” to God in the sense of its being unknown as it is for us. And the fact that God experiences the past, present and future all with equal clarity is a necessary consequence of his immutability as we discussed in Session 58. If God learns new things as time goes on, then his knowledge is changing and he is not immutable in the same sense that we have used that term.

Marc Roby: Well, I’m sure that some will object and say that he is immutable in his being, but not necessarily in his knowledge.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that some would object and say that. But the only important question is whether or not such a view is biblical. The Bible is, as always, our ultimate authority. We don’t want to go back over God’s immutability all over again, but how can God’s promises about the future be certain if he doesn’t know the future? And how can God be said to be perfect if there are things he doesn’t yet know? We noted in Session 56 that God’s immutability is a logical consequence of his perfection.

Marc Roby: When you think this through you really see how all of God’s attributes are linked.

Dr. Spencer: You absolutely do. The simplicity of God is such an important concept, which is why we keep mentioning it. You can’t think about any of God’s attributes in isolation from the others or you are bound to go astray in your understanding of God.

Marc Roby: And of course, the Bible is well aware that we struggle with understanding God. It has a number of examples of even very devout believers struggling with understanding God and his actions. With Job being one of the prominent examples.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. Job struggled to understand why God would allow him to suffer as he did when he knew he was not guilty of some horrible sin. And God never answered Job’s questions. He simply showed up and gave Job a deeper understanding of who God is. And when Job was confronted with God’s perfections; his knowledge, power, wisdom and goodness, he shut his mouth. He didn’t have his questions answered, but he realized that he didn’t need to.

Marc Roby: Seeing God in some sense answers a lot of questions.

Dr. Spencer: It does. We read about God appearing to Job in Chapter 38 of the book of Job. We are told in the first two verses, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?’”

Marc Roby: That pretty well describes the situation anytime we speak to God. We have words without knowledge.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. Compared to God we are abysmally ignorant. God makes this point clearly. In Verses 3 and 4 we read that God went on to say, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.” God goes on at some length making clear that compared with God Job knows nothing and has no power whatever. And we read Job’s response in Job 40:4-5, he replied, “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more.”

Marc Roby: When God speaks it is wise for us to shut our mouths and simply listen.

Dr. Spencer: And God speaks in the Bible. So, when the Bible clearly teaches that God knows the future as well as the past, the wise response for us it to believe that and go on from there.

Marc Roby: I think that deals with the objections to God’s omniscience. What else would you like to say about this topic?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that God himself tells us that knowledge of the future is a test to determine whether or not someone is truly God. In Isaiah 41:21-23 we read, “‘Present your case,’ says the LORD. ‘Set forth your arguments,’ says Jacob’s King. ‘Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods.’” God is telling us here that if someone is truly a god, he should be able to tell us the future.

Marc Roby: There are people today, usually called open theists, who will say that God can predict the future in some ways, but they still deny that he can know the decisions of human beings in advance.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and John Frame does a very good job of destroying their arguments in his book The Doctrine of God. He lists four ways in which open theists believe God can predict the future:[4] 1) He can say what he intends to do, 2) he can speak in very general terms, 3) he can say what consequences will follow a given state of affairs, and 4) he can say what will happen if a given set of conditions are met.

Frame then goes on to give numerous examples from the Bible that do not fit into any of these four categories. Now we must admit some mystery here and be careful with our language so that we don’t misrepresent the Bible. We don’t know exactly how God is able to know in advance what human beings will do. He is certainly able to predict what we will do because of his perfect comprehensive knowledge of us and all of our circumstances as I noted earlier. But the Bible indicates that God does more than just passively predict human behavior.

Marc Roby: Can you provide some examples of that?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. One of the classic stories has to do with the patriarch Joseph. Most of our listeners probably know the story. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him because he was the favorite of his father Jacob, and because of some of the things had said and done. In any event, they sold him as a slave to some travelers, who then took him down into Egypt and sold him as a slave there. He ended up being unjustly imprisoned, but then he was able to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and was raised up to be the second most powerful person in Egypt. Years later there was a famine in the land and Joseph’s brothers had to come to Egypt for food and they discovered Joseph was ruling there.

Marc Roby: A most unpleasant surprise I might add.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it was unpleasant for them. And I’m leaving out tons of interesting details to get to the point I want to make right now. In Genesis 50:20 we read that Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” This statement makes it clear that God’s intent was for Joseph to be taken to Egypt and to become the ruler under Pharaoh. And it also makes it clear that Joseph’s brothers had their own intent, and it was not the same as God’s. We aren’t told exactly how all of this was done, but we see in this verse both divine sovereignty of many events that certainly include the free decisions of human beings, and the fact that humans are still responsible for their own decisions.

Marc Roby: That certainly shows that God didn’t just predict what would happen, he planned it.

Dr. Spencer: And he can’t carry out plans like that if he can’t in some way control the free decisions of people. But I want to be clear that when I say “control” I am not implying that God forces people to do something against their will.

Marc Roby: We know for certain that God planned all of this because he told Abraham hundreds of years before that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt, which happened as a result of this whole episode with Joseph and his brothers.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. In Genesis 15:13-14 we read that God told Abraham, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” And all of that happened, including the episode we just related about Joseph.

Marc Roby: Are there any other examples you want to present?

Dr. Spencer: Let me just mention a couple. We’ve seen before that God predicted the actions of the Persian king Cyrus more than 100 years before he was born. In Isaiah 45:13 God says, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the LORD Almighty.” That prophecy clearly requires that God can cause this man to be born, to be named Cyrus, to grow up and become the king of Persia, to conquer Babylon, and then to set the Israelites free and send them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. Notice that this isn’t just God knowing what will happen and telling it to his people before hand, he says that he “will raise up Cyrus” and that he “will make all his ways straight”. And in Isaiah 44:28 God had said of Cyrus that “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please”.

Marc Roby: That does make it clear that God wasn’t just saying what he knew would happen, it was accomplishing his purposes. What other example did you want to present?

Dr. Spencer: Judas Iscariot.

Marc Roby: You mean the disciple that betrayed Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. When the apostle Peter gave his sermon to the Jews on the day of Pentecost, he told them, in Acts 2:23, that Jesus “was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge”. So, it was God’s purpose that was being accomplished when Judas betrayed Christ. And, in Acts 4 we read about the believers praying after Peter and John were released from prison. In Verses 27 and 28 we read that they said, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Marc Roby: That’s pretty explicit. God “decided beforehand” what should happen. That certainly requires that he have the ability to control what happened.

Dr. Spencer: I think it does require that, yes. And so, we have presented some examples that show that God doesn’t just know what human beings will decide, he can somehow cause certain decisions when he chooses to.

Marc Roby: I assume we will discuss that idea more when we talk about human free will in a later session.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we will. But I want to wrap up this discussion of God’s omniscience with one more example. In Psalm 139:16 King David is speaking to God and says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Which is a very clear statement that God didn’t just know what would happen to David before he was born, he ordained his days. This verse is the only place in the NIV where the Hebrew word used here is translated as “ordained”.[5] It is most commonly translated as “formed” and it can also mean “planned” or “made”. The idea clearly goes well beyond God’s simply having foreknowledge of David’s life, God planned, or made, or formed David’s life before he was born. And that is true of all of us. The Westminster Confession of Faith properly summarizes the biblical teaching when it says in Paragraph 1 of Chapter 3 that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Marc Roby: I’m sure we will have to spend more time with that wonderful statement later, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 190

[2] Ibid, pg. 191

[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] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 488

[5]Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Zondervan, 1990, pg. 1476

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s spirituality, which is the first of his communicable attributes we are considering. We have shown that spirits are self-conscious, intelligent, moral, volitional, personal beings. And we have noted that although God created angels, which are pure spirits, God’s spirituality is qualitatively different than theirs. We have also discussed the fact that we have a spirit in addition to our body and that our spirit is the essential part of us and will continue to exist even when our body is dead. Dr. Spencer, what else do you want to say about spirits and God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: I want to wrap up the discussion by making a couple of brief comments. First, let me read Grudem’s statement defining this attribute of God. He wrote that “God’s spirituality means that God exists as a being that is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence.”[1]

Marc Roby: That seems to be a reasonably complete summary of much of what we have said.

Dr. Spencer: It is. He makes four points. First, God is not made out of matter. As we have noted, Jesus’ statement in John 4:24 that “God is spirit” [2] tells us that God’s essence is entirely different than the stuff this physical universe is made of. Second, he says that God “has no parts or dimensions”, which is a result of the fact that he is present everywhere in the totality of his being as we noted in discussing his omnipresence. When the Bible tells us that God is everywhere, as in Psalm 139 for example, it makes no sense to think of just some part of him being there. To use anthropomorphic language, it isn’t as though there is a hand here, an arm there and an eyeball somewhere else.

Marc Roby: That is a rather gruesome picture and clearly would not do justice to the biblical passages we looked at.

Dr. Spencer: No, it wouldn’t. The third thing that Grudem says is that we cannot perceive God by our bodily senses. Which is true, but we must also remember that he is able to make his presence manifest to our senses when he chooses to, and he can do so in different forms. With the Israelites in the desert after the exodus from Egypt he showed himself as a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night as we read in Exodus 13:21, which says “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” But then there are also times when God shows up in the form of an angel or of a human being. In Genesis 18:1-2 for example, we read that “The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.”

Marc Roby: What amazing condescension that was on God’s part, to come in a human form and speak with Abraham.

Dr. Spencer: It is hard to imagine. What must Abraham have been thinking during that conversation? But, getting back to Grudem’s statement about God’s spirituality. The fourth and final thing he says is that God’s spirituality “is more excellent than any other kind of existence”.

Marc Roby: That phrase should win an award for understatement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should. As we noted, God’s spirit is eternal, omnipresent and so on. In other words, all of the incommunicable attributes describe his essence. It is far beyond anything we can imagine. But there is one more important thing to say about God’s spirituality.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: That we can have fellowship with him. God made us in his image, which is a mysterious statement, but certainly includes the fact that we have spirits and can have fellowship with God as a result.

Marc Roby: And that is our greatest joy and the source of our hope. Are we done talking about God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are.

Marc Roby: Alright. What attribute are we going to look at next?

Dr. Spencer: We’re going to continue following the presentation in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology book, which means the next attribute I want to consider is God’s invisibility.

Marc Roby: Isn’t that really the primary aspect of God’s spirituality?

Dr. Spencer: I would say so, but there are a couple of things to say about this that will be useful. First, Grudem writes that “God’s invisibility means that God’s total essence, all of his spiritual being, will never be able to be seen by us, yet God still shows himself to us through visible, created things.”[3]

Marc Roby: Like the theophanies we have already discussed.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. But independent of the fact that God has shown himself in some way through these theophanies, the Bible is clear that no one has ever seen God. In fact, with our standard five senses it is evident that would be impossible since he is spirit and we can’t see spirits unless they make themselves visible, in which case we are obviously seeing only what they choose to have us see. In John 1:18 we are told 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 an amazing statement that we have looked at before. First, it tells us clearly that no one has ever seen God. But then, even more amazingly, it speaks of Jesus Christ and tells us three things about him. First, he is “God the One and Only”, second, he is “at the Father’s side”, and third, he “has made him known”, meaning he has made the Father known.

Marc Roby: That is incredible. But it is also what the writer of Hebrews tells us. In Hebrews 1:3 we are told that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. We have spoken about these verses before in the context of examining the biblical evidence for the deity of Christ, so I don’t want to spend more time on them now. But I do want to mention what is often called the beatific vision.

Marc Roby: And the word beatific means to make happy or blessed.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right.

Marc Roby: I assume this is the second thing you said you wanted to point out from Grudem?

Dr. Spencer: You’re right again. The beatific vision refers to the fact that when we die we shall see God “face to face” as we are told in 1 Corinthians 13:12, which says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Marc Roby: That promise is enough to blow your mind.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. When it says we shall see “face to face” it isn’t implying that God has a literal face of course, but it is using a common expression for being in intimate fellowship.

Marc Roby: Although Jesus Christ does have a human face.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. And we will see him in the flesh. But we will also somehow see God the Father. We have this wonderful promise given to us in 1 John Chapter 3. The first two verses say, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 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.”

Marc Roby: I love that passage. What we will be has not yet been made known. We have the most incredible surprise possible awaiting us in heaven!

Dr. Spencer: It will be the greatest surprise ever. And the reason I read both verses is that it makes it clear that John is talking about God the Father. It started off saying “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us”, so when it says in Verse 2 that “we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” the antecedent is the Father. Many, if not most, people assume that it is speaking about Jesus Christ and his second coming, but I think John Murray is correct in saying that it is referring to the Father. Murray wrote that “It is of the Father that John is speaking in this context, and so it is likeness to the Father he has in view. Seeing the Father as he is does not refer to physical sight, but to the fulness and clearness of the knowledge of the Father that will follow upon understanding undimmed by sin, and the revelation of the full splendor of the Father’s glory.”[4]

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

Dr. Spencer: Yes, with great joy and anticipation. The Bible explicitly tells us that we can have great joy even though we don’t see God with our physical eyes. 1 Peter 1:8 and 9 tell us that “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Marc Roby: That is truly a great comfort. Do you have anything more to say about God’s invisibility?

Dr. Spencer: No, that was all I wanted to cover. So, I think we are ready to move on to God’s knowledge.

Marc Roby: And a brief statement about God’s knowledge would simply be that he knows everything.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why this attribute is also called God’s omniscience. The word omniscient means to know everything. But I think we can profit from looking at the topic in more depth. Let me begin by reading Grudem’s statement about this attribute. He says that “God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act.”[5]

Marc Roby: The word “simple” is obviously not being used in its normal way in that statement.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. It is being used in the same way we did when we spoke of God’s simplicity. It means not broken into parts. God knows all things immediately, and I mean immediately both in the spatial and temporal sense. He doesn’t have to scratch his head and try to dredge up some memory, nor does he have to go out and investigate. Grudem notes that “If he should wish to tell us the number of grains of sand on the seashore or the number of stars in the sky, he would not have to count them all quickly like some kind of giant computer, nor would he have to call the number to mind because it was something he had not thought about for a time.”

Marc Roby: That example makes me think of Luke 12:7, where Jesus tells us that “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” It’s impossible for us to understand that kind of comprehensive and perfect knowledge of absolutely everything.

Dr. Spencer: It is absolutely impossible for us to understand. And notice that Grudem said it was “one simple and eternal act.” Not only does God not have to think about it or try and remember, but he also never learns anything. He already knows everything that ever will or could happen. And notice that saying God can’t learn anything new and that his knowing is not a process that uses different parts of his being – like eyes and ears – is really a restatement of his incommunicable attributes of simplicity and immutability. So, it is in fact a good illustration of God’s simplicity! We can’t think about any of his attributes without thinking about others too. For example, his knowledge is a simple and immutable knowledge.

Marc Roby: The Bible does tell us some astounding things about God’s knowledge. John states it quite boldly in 1 John 3:20 where we read that “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”

Dr. Spencer: That is an amazing statement, and it is not the only place where the Bible makes such a claim. Psalm 147:5 says, “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.”  And when Jesus asked Peter the third time if he loved him, Peter responded, in John 21:17, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Marc Roby: It can be terrifying to think that God knows absolutely everything about us, even our thoughts as we read in Psalm 139:2.

Dr. Spencer: That is terrifying, and we must think about that. We are told in Hebrews 4:13 that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” But we will deal with the implications of and reactions to God’s omniscience later.

Marc Roby: Alright, getting back to Grudem’s statement then, it’s also amazing to think about the first thing he said; namely, that “God fully knows himself”. It almost seems impossible for anyone to fully know themselves. You would think that you need to be greater than someone to fully understand that person.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, it seems that way. But God is infinite and we really can’t grasp the meaning of infinity. In fact, there are some very interesting paradoxes having to do with infinity. For example, there is Hilbert’s hotel. Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which are occupied. Now suppose that an infinite number of new guests show up and want rooms. Can the hotel accommodate them?

Marc Roby: Do I have to answer that question?

Dr. Spencer: No, I’ll answer it for you. The answer is, surprisingly, yes! The full, but infinite, hotel can accommodate an infinite number of new guests. All you have to do is move everyone to a different room. For example, have everyone move to a room whose number is twice the number of the room the person is in now. So, the person in room 1 moves to room 2, the person in room 2 moves to room 4, the person in room 3 moves to room 6 and so on. When you are done with all of these moves, all of the odd rooms are empty. And, since there are an infinite number of odd rooms, you can accommodate the infinite number of new guests who want rooms.

Marc Roby: I think my head is starting to hurt.

Dr. Spencer: Sorry about that. But I’ve been a bit loose here since there are different kinds of infinities and to keep things simple I wasn’t specifying which type I was talking about. But the point I am trying to make is simply that infinity is a very difficult concept and an actual infinity cannot exist in our physical universe, it leads to logical contradictions like Hilbert’s hotel.

Marc Roby: And it also leads to headaches.

Dr. Spencer: I can certainly see that it does. But, everything that is revealed to us about God teaches us that he is, in some sense, infinite. Eternity is infinitely long. God’s knowledge is without limit, which means infinite, and so on. I’m again using the word loosely, but my point is that we should not expect to be able to understand God. We’ve said that before, this is just the latest manifestation of the fact.

Let me remind our listeners of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s answer to Question 4, “What is God?” The answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” That is a short listing of attributes and it does not explicitly include God’s knowledge, but it is there implicitly. Wisdom is the ability to make right decisions, but to be infinitely wise God must also be infinite in knowledge, otherwise he might make an unwise choice out of ignorance, which is unthinkable and unbiblical.

Marc Roby: I think this is a good place to stop for today, we can pick up this topic again next time. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d appreciate hearing from you.

 

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 187-188

[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] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 188

[4] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. 2, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 310

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 190

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we gave a number of examples for how to properly use the context of a verse, including its historical context. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: We could go on giving many more examples about the use of context, but I want to keep moving forward. So, I’d like to take a look at a few key ideas that we need to keep in mind as we study the Bible.

Marc Roby: What ideas are these?

Dr. Spencer: The first one is that Jesus Christ is the focal point of the entire Bible. The Old Testament looks forward to Jesus Christ and the New Testament tells us about his birth, life, death, resurrection and then also tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead as we are told in Acts 10:42, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 2 Timothy 4:1. At that time the world as we know it will be destroyed and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. From that time on everyone will either live eternally in heaven or in hell.

Also, Jesus himself told us that the Old Testament testified about him. After his resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and we are told in Luke 24:44 that “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’”[1]

Marc Roby: And by listing Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus was referring to the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible, which is our Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. In other words, he was saying that the entire Old Testament speaks about him. In addition, the New Testament is entirely about Jesus Christ and his church. So, whenever we read the Bible, any part of the Bible, we need to ask ourselves, “What is this saying about Jesus Christ?”

Marc Roby: In other words, there is a Christological focus to the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In their excellent book A Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones demonstrate that the Puritans considered a Christological focus to be a major principle of biblical interpretation. They quote the famous Puritan John Owen, who wrote that “the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built”.[2] We must keep this Christological focus in mind as we read the Bible or we will not get a complete understanding of what God is teaching us in each section.

Marc Roby: How, in a practical sense, does our being aware of this Christological focus affect our Bible study?

Dr. Spencer: It affects our Bible study very deeply. When we say that the entire Old Testament points forward to Christ what we mean is that God controlled every event of human history during that time to reveal exactly what he wanted people to know. Not only is Jesus Christ the focus of the Bible, he is also the focus of all history. History is linear and God has a purpose in creation. The Bible is telling us real history, but that history is not a sequence of random events controlled by the whims of men. It isn’t that God let things run on their own and then sent a prophet to speak once in a while. No, everything unfolded according to God’s eternal plan, he providentially rules all of history.

Marc Roby: That probably sounds a bit fatalistic to some of our listeners. Do you mean that God determines every detail, or just the general scope or grand plan of history?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God has sovereign control over every detail. But, if you think about it for a minute, how could he possibly control the grand scheme if he didn’t have control over every detail? Remember the old proverb that for the want of a nail the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; for the want of a horse the battle was lost; and for the loss of the battle the war was lost? The reality is that if God is not able to control every detail, he could never guarantee anything with absolute certainty.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that some of our listeners might be objecting at this point. After all, we live in a world with physical laws and people at least appear to have some kind of free will – an ability to make real decisions. How on earth then can God control everything without doing away with free will and physical laws?

Dr. Spencer: We would be getting too far off topic to discuss that at length right now but let me make two quick comments. First, with regard to the inanimate creation, God does use the fixed laws that he put in place most of the time, but he is free to overrule them at any time. I don’t think he does that very often at all, but he can. He also has the ability to perfectly predict exactly how everything is guided by those laws.

Marc Roby: Alright, you said you wanted to make two comments, what is the other one?

Dr. Spencer: The second one deals with living things, most specifically with human beings. Suffice it to say for now that there is no logical contradiction in saying that I make real decisions for which I can be justly held accountable and that, at the same time, God has foreordained exactly what will happen. God understands me perfectly and knows exactly what I will do in each and every situation, so he doesn’t need to force me to do anything.

Let me use a very unflattering analogy, but one that I think at least illustrates that there is no logical contradiction between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I used to have a dog that loved to chase a tennis ball. If I grabbed a tennis ball I could lead that dog all over the place without ever having to lay a hand on him. He was doing exactly what he wanted to do at that moment, and yet I was getting him to do exactly what I wanted him to do. There is no contradiction in saying that my dog was doing exactly what he wanted to do and that I was controlling the situation. You don’t want to take this analogy very far at all of course, we are not puppets, and God never leads us into sin, although he does allow us to be tempted, but it at least shows that there is no necessary logical contradiction.

Suffice it to say that God is infinitely more knowledgeable, wise, and capable than we are, and he is able to ordain exactly what will happen without, in general, overriding the free will of any creature, although he has the right and ability to do that when he chooses.

Marc Roby: That example is unflattering – I happen to remember that dog you refer to! But, I think it does give at least a hint of an answer, and I can see that pursuing that subject right now would get us way off track.

Dr. Spencer: It definitely would. But I would like to quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith because it contains a brilliant, yet succinct statement that deals with this topic. In Chapter III, on God’s eternal decree, Paragraph 1 the confession says that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

Marc Roby: That is a great statement, although it certainly includes some very deep topics for further discussion.

Dr. Spencer: Further discussion at a different time. For now, I want to get back to hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: Very well, you were discussing how our being aware of the Christological focus of the Bible affects our study.

Dr. Spencer: And I made the point that God is completely in control of all history, so the events described in the Old Testament all fit into his eternal plan. He knew that he was going to send Jesus Christ into the world, to be born in the small Jewish town of Bethlehem to a virgin who was pledged to be married to a carpenter named Joseph. He knew everything about the life, death and resurrection of Christ and how he was going to use that to redeem a people for himself.

And in addition to revealing progressively more and more over time about this coming Messiah, he deliberately brought about certain events in the history of his people to serve as illustrations and precursors pointing to these later events.

Marc Roby: And we are told about many of these in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. For example, we are told in the book of Hebrews that the entire Old Testament sacrificial system was pointing forward to Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sins. In Hebrews 10 the writer speaks about the Old Testament ceremonial law and says it was only a shadow of the true sacrifice, which is Christ. He points out that the sacrifices were repeated over and over again precisely because they were not effective; they did not truly cleanse people from their sins. He writes in Verse 4 that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” And then, in Verse 10 he writes that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Marc Roby: The writer of Hebrews also tells us that Jesus is our permanent high priest.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. In the Old Testament times, the high priest was the religious leader of the Jewish people. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses and he would go into the holy of holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, to make atonement for the people. In Hebrews 7:23-26 we are told that “there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”

Marc Roby: And, unlike the high priests in the Old Testament, Jesus is also the sacrifice of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In John 1:29 we are told that “John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” He was referring to the fact that the lamb was the most common sacrificial animal in the Jewish sacrificial system. In particular, it was a lamb that was to be sacrificed the night before God destroyed all the firstborn of Egypt. The blood from this lamb was then to be sprinkled on the door frames of the Jewish homes and God would pass over those homes when he destroyed all of the firstborn in the land. This is the origin of the Jewish Passover celebration.

We are told in a number of places in the New Testament that Jesus is the final sacrifice of atonement. For example, in Romans 3:25 we are told that “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” Then, in Hebrews 10 we this final efficacious sacrifice of Jesus Christ contrasted with the continual sacrifices of the Old Testament. In Verses 11-12, 14 we read, “Day after day every priest [this is talking about the Old Testament priests] stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [which is speaking about Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. … because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Marc Roby: That is a glorious promise for those who have placed their trust in Christ. And it is very clear how much the Old Testament presents us with a pattern for things that are revealed in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do. The word we use to describe this typology. The Old Testament events, objects and people who in some way point to New Testament realities are called types, and the realities that they point to are called the antitypes. So, for example, the Old Testament lamb is a type of Christ in his role as our sacrifice, and the Old Testament high priest is a type of Christ in his role as our permanent high priest.

We must be careful here however. Typology must be distinguished from allegorizing.  Allegorizing can be dangerous as we have noted before and can lead people into all sorts of fanciful interpretations.

Marc Roby: What would you say is the key difference?

Dr. Spencer: The key difference is that in typology we are not adding anything to the meaning of the text.[3] Mickelsen, in his book Interpreting the Bible, does a good job of explaining what typology is. He writes that “In typology the interpreter finds a correspondence in one or more respects between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament and a person, event, or thing closer to or contemporaneous with a New Testament writer. It is this correspondence that determines the meaning in the Old Testament narrative that is stressed by a later speaker or writer. The correspondence is present because God controls history, and this control of God over history is axiomatic with the New Testament writers. It is God who causes earlier individuals, groups, experiences, institutions, etc., to embody characteristics which later he will cause to reappear.”[4]

Mickelsen also goes on to contrast typology with allegorizing. He then quotes K.J. Woolcombe, writing that “Typology as a method of exegesis is ‘the search for linkages between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas allegorism is the search for secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meanings of a narrative.”

Marc Roby: So, the basic difference is between noticing certain similarities that are there as opposed to reading a bunch of hidden meaning into a passage.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And you can’t miss most of the clear typology in the Bible. The Jewish people were in slavery to the Egyptians for example, and were led out of that bondage, through Passover and the Exodus, into the Promised Land.  And Christians are led out of their bondage to sin, through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, into new life in Christ. The Israelites in the Promised Land still had to contend with enemies who were there and had to trust in God’s promises to deliver them. And Christians still have to deal with indwelling sin and enemies in this world, trusting in God’s promises that we will ultimately be victorious. There is much more than we have covered, but I think that gives the basic idea. And this kind of typology is often used in recognizing the many ways in which the Old Testament speaks of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: But there are also many direct prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

Dr. Spencer: There certainly are, and we went over a few of them in Session 20 when we were discussing external evidence that corroborates the Bible.

Marc Roby: Have we finished with what you want to say about the Bible’s Christological focus and typology?

Dr. Spencer: We have for now.

Marc Roby: Alright, you mentioned at the beginning that you wanted to look at a few key ideas, so what is the next one?

Dr. Spencer: The next idea is that of covenants. The Bible talks a great deal about covenants and by looking for them and thinking carefully about them we can significantly enhance our understanding of God’s word.

Marc Roby: And a covenant is simply an agreement between two parties.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but it is not necessarily an agreement between equals and it isn’t necessarily voluntary on both sides either. The Bible talks about a number of covenants; for example, God made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth by a flood, and the rainbow is the sign God gave us to remind us of that covenant. He also made a covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many nations. And he made a covenant with the people on Mt. Sinai, with Moses as their representative. There are others, but there are two major covenants that I want to discuss, usually called the Covenant of works and the Covenant of grace.

Marc Roby: I think we had better hold off discussing those until next time, because we are out of time for today. I’d like to encourage our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

 

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

[2] Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 31

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 252

[4] Ibid, pg. 237

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