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

Dr. Spencer: We should begin by defining propitiation. Murray writes that “To propitiate means to ‘placate,’ ‘pacify,’ ‘appease,’ ‘conciliate.’ … Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[2]

Marc Roby: It is worth noting that you won’t find the word propitiation in the 1984 NIV Bible that we use as our primary source.

Dr. Spencer: No, you won’t. The translators shied away from using the term. You will find it, however, in four places in the New Testament of the English Standard Version.[3] Murray discusses the fact that this term has been troublesome for some. He wrote that “Perhaps no tenet respecting the atonement has been more violently criticized than this one.”[4] But he also notes that this criticism is mostly because the term is misunderstood. He wrote that “It has been charged that this doctrine represents the Son as winning over the incensed Father to clemency and love, a supposition wholly inconsistent with the fact that the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs.”[5]

Marc Roby: That view of the atonement would certainly be at odds with the Bible. The famous verse in John 3:16 tells us plainly that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” [6] And it is clear that “God” here refers to God the Father. It is he who loved the world enough to send his Son.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right. Murray wrote that “To say the least, this kind of criticism has failed to understand or appreciate some elementary and important distinctions. First of all, to love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. It is false to suppose that the doctrine of propitiation regards propitiation as that which causes or constrains the divine love.”[7] In other words, God can love us and still need to be propitiated. It is not the propitiation that brings about his love. He loves us, but because he is holy and just, our sins still require propitiation.

Marc Roby: As a poor analogy we could note that a good human father loves his children, and yet will still be properly angry with them and need to be appeased, or we could say propitiated, when they sin.

Dr. Spencer: That analogy is readily understandable and useful. Murray says that “The wrath of God is the inevitable reaction of the divine holiness against sin. Sin is the contradiction of the perfection of God and he cannot but recoil against that which is the contradiction of himself. … To deny propitiation is to undermine the nature of the atonement as the vicarious endurance of the penalty of sin. In a word, it is to deny substitutionary atonement.”[8]

Marc Roby: And that is how you very quickly end up with a deviant form of Christianity that views Jesus Christ as just being a good moral teacher and example, rather than the unique God-man who loved us enough to take our sins upon himself, bear the wrath of God, and die to save us.

Dr. Spencer: And such an aberrant form of Christianity is also a false Christianity that cannot save anyone, which is why this topic is so important. I understand the modern thought that it is somehow vulgar and unsophisticated for God to require a propitiatory sacrifice to atone for sins, but we simply must recognize how vulgar and offensive sin itself is. It isn’t just that we are not always as nice as we should be, or that we are sometimes a little selfish or anything like that. We must recognize that, at its core, sin is rebellion against God. It is a denial of the Creator/creature distinction. We are, in essence, saying that God has no right to tell us how to live.

Marc Roby: Yes, we see that clearly in the Genesis account of the fall of man. God had told Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die. They were allowed to eat from every other tree, they were only forbidden to eat from that one. But we read in Genesis 3:4-5 Satan came in the form of a serpent and said to Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Dr. Spencer: And when Eve allowed herself to consider that statement, which directly contradicted God, she was, in essence, rejecting her position as a creature and assuming that she had the right to decide who was telling the truth. It was a rejection of God’s authority and it implicitly accused him of lying to them and not treating them well, in other words, of denying them something good.

Marc Roby: It is not pleasant to think seriously about sin. The more you think about it, the worse it appears.

Dr. Spencer: And we never fully comprehend in this life how bad it really is. But let’s move on with discussing propitiation as being one of the categories the Bible uses to describe Christ’s atoning work.

Murray notes that in the Old Testament, the concept of propitiation is “expressed by a word which means to ‘cover.’”[9]

Marc Roby: And that makes perfect sense. If something is offensive, we can cover it up so that the offense is no longer visible.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. God is offended by sin. It needs to be covered. We noted last week that in the Old Testament period the high priest would go in to the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the cover of the ark. The ark contained the law of God, which the people had broken and which, therefore, testified against them. The symbolism was that when God, who appeared above the cover, looked down toward the ark, his view of the law would be blocked by the blood. In other words, the blood covered the tablets of the law, which testified against the people.

Marc Roby: One of the uses of the law identified by theologians is to drive us to Christ since it is evident that we have not, and indeed cannot, keep it.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And in the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in use at the time of Christ, called the Septuagint, the Greek word used for the atonement cover is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which can be translated as the place of propitiation.[10]

We see this word used in the New Testament. In Romans 3:25 the apostle Paul wrote that God presented Christ as a “sacrifice of atonement”, which is how the NIV translates the Greek word hilastērion. The ESV translation[11] is better and uses the word propitiation.

Marc Roby: I think that clearly establishes that propitiation is one of the categories in terms of which the Bible speaks of the atonement.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, but before we move on to the next category, I want to read one more short quote from Murray. He wrote that “the idea of propitiation is so woven into the fabric of the Old Testament ritual that it would be impossible to regard that ritual as the pattern of the sacrifice of Christ if propitiation did not occupy a similar place in the one great sacrifice once offered.”[12]

Marc Roby: That argument makes good sense. And now I assume we are ready to move on and examine the next category, which is reconciliation.

Dr. Spencer: You assume correctly. Murray writes that “Reconciliation presupposes disrupted relations between God and men. It implies enmity and alienation. This alienation is twofold, our alienation from God and God’s alienation from us.”[13] People often object to the idea that there is enmity, or hostility between us and God or God and us, but this is a completely biblical statement. In Colossians 1:21 Paul wrote, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” And in Romans 8:7 he wrote that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.”

Marc Roby: Those verses certainly make the case that sinners are hostile enemies of God.

Dr. Spencer: And there are others we could use as well, but I think those suffice. But in addition to looking at the attitude of sinners toward God, we also need to look at God’s attitude toward sinners. In Romans 2:6-8 we read that “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” If you reject the truth – that is you reject Jesus Christ and his gospel, you will experience God’s wrath and anger. In fact, by my count the word wrath is used 28 times in the 1984 NIV translation of the New Testament to refer specifically to the wrath of God that will be poured out on sinners.

Marc Roby: And, of course, there is also the difficult verse we have looked at before in Romans 9:13 where Paul quotes from the Old Testament prophet Malachi and tells us that God says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. I think the reason people have such a hard time dealing with the idea of God hating anyone is that they don’t realize that our hatred is almost always sinful, so you can’t think of God hating the way a human being hates. But there is a kind of hatred that is devoid of sin. Murray writes, “If we dissociate from the word ‘enmity’ as applied to God everything of the nature of malice and malignity, we may properly speak of this alienation on the part of God as his holy enmity toward us.”[14]

Marc Roby: That is a bit hard to do – to think of enmity without malice or malignity. But God does not wish to do harm to anyone just for the sake of doing harm. When he hates someone and subjects them to his wrath, it is because their sin is, as you noted earlier in a quote from Murray, “the contradiction of the perfection of God”.

Dr. Spencer: It is difficult to remove our sin from the idea of hatred and anger, but we must try. God’s anger, hatred and wrath are holy and perfectly justified.

And in making our point so far, we have only quoted from the New Testament because many people incorrectly think that God is not wrathful in the New Testament. But God has not changed. As Paul tells us in Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men”. The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. He is merciful to those whom he chooses to save, but he sends the rest to eternal hell, which is treating them justly for their sins. As Jesus himself tells us in John 3:18, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Marc Roby: And Christ’s atoning work reconciles those who trust in him to God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. Paul wrote about Christ in Colossians 1:19-20, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Now, when it says that was pleased “to reconcile to himself all things”, it doesn’t mean that everyone will be saved. Taken in context and interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture, it is obvious that it means all of those whom God has chosen to reconcile.

Marc Roby: There is a question though of whether we are speaking about God changing us to take away our enmity against him, or whether the reconciliation is referring to God’s enmity toward us being removed.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in the verses I just read from Colossians it may well be God changing us, but Murray notes that when you examine the Scriptures carefully, “It is not our enmity against God that comes to the forefront in the reconciliation but God’s alienation from us.”[15] He makes a lengthy argument to support this contention, but I’m only going to give part of it here because I think it is sufficient. Interested listeners can examine the original reference for more details. So, let’s take a look at two passages, beginning with Romans 5:8-11.

Marc Roby: Okay, well let me read those verses. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Dr. Spencer: Let me point out two of the things Murray notes about this passage. First, we were reconciled to God when we were God’s enemies. That makes no sense unless the word “reconciled” is referring to God’s attitude toward us. Secondly, we see that we have “received reconciliation.” In other words, it is a gift given to us. It is not something accomplished by us.

But the passage in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 is even more powerful in making Murray’s point.

Marc Roby: And in those verses Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Dr. Spencer: I will again summarize only a portion of Murray’s argument. Note that it is God who is working in this passage, not us. He has reconciled us to himself and he made Christ to be sin for us. Also note that the passage says God is “not counting men’s sins against them.” That is clearly speaking about his attitude toward us. And it speaks about what we have called the double imputation; namely, that God imputes our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us. Verse 21 says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The fact that this is speaking about imputation makes it clear that it is not speaking about a real change in our attitude.

Marc Roby: Although if we are born again, there certainly will be a change in our attitude.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, that’s very true, but Murray’s point is simply that the emphasis is placed on the removal of God’s enmity toward us, which flies in the face of much of the modern view about God being so nice and loving that he is never angry with anyone.

Marc Roby: Very well. We have now made the case that the atoning work of Christ is categorized as a sacrifice, a propitiation and a reconciliation. That leaves just the fourth category mentioned by Murray, that of redemption. But that will have to wait for next week because we are out of time for today. So I’ll take this opportunity to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will respond as soon as possible.

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

[2] Ibid, pg. 30

[3] Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10

[4] Murray, op. cit., pp 30-31

[5] Ibid, pg. 31

[6] 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.™.

[7] Murray, op. cit., pg. 31

[8] Ibid, pp 32-33

[9] Ibid, pg. 30

[10] W. Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented by F.W. Gingrich and F. Danker, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979, pg. 375

[11] i.e., the English Standard Version

[12] Murray, op. cit., pp 29-30

[13] Ibid, pg. 33

[14] Ibid, pg. 33

[15] Ibid, pg. 34

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, last time we finished discussing the doctrine of unconditional election, which says that God chooses whom he will save based on his own good pleasure and not any merit in us. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I would like to take some time to examine how we, as believers, should respond to the biblical doctrine of God’s unconditional election. We know how an unbeliever will respond; he will cry out that it isn’t fair. But as we’ve indicated, we all deserve God’s wrath. It would be perfectly fair for God to condemn us all. The amazing thing is that he chooses to save anyone. And so, the question remains, how should a believer respond to this doctrine?

Marc Roby: Well, it seems obvious that we should respond with great thanksgiving and praise!

Dr. Spencer: And, I would add, all the more so because God’s election is not conditioned on anything we have done or will do or, in fact, anything we can do. Once we realize that our new birth is a free gift from God, totally undeserved – in fact, given in spite of the fact we deserve condemnation – then we should be filled to overflowing with thanksgiving and praise.

Marc Roby: And that makes me think of the phrase in Ephesians where Paul speaks about the praise of God’s glorious grace. We read in Ephesians 1:4-6 that God chose us in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”[1]

Dr. Spencer: And Paul repeats the same idea just a few verses later. We read in Ephesians 1:11-12, “In him 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, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”

The ultimate purpose of creation is the manifestation of God’s glory and the saving of his people is a marvelous part of this work and a great contributor to that glory.

Marc Roby: And it is also an incomprehensibly great blessing for us who are saved!

Dr. Spencer: Well, that is certainly true. And the doctrine of unconditional election is also a great comfort to believers. In Romans 8:28-30 the apostle Paul wrote, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Marc Roby: That is comforting. Paul writes in the past tense even though our glorification is still in the future. He is letting us know that it is absolutely certain.

Dr. Spencer: And the first verse of this passage, Verse 28, where Paul wrote, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”, should provide tremendous comfort for all of God’s children.

Let me quote the theologian Wayne Grudem. He wrote the following about these verses; “If Paul looks into the distant past before the creation of the world, he sees that God foreknew and predestined his people to be conformed to the image of Christ. If he looks at the recent past he finds that God called and justified his people whom he had predestined. And if he then looks toward the future when Christ returns, he sees that God has determined to give perfect, glorified bodies to those who believe in Christ. From eternity to eternity God has acted with the good of his people in mind. But if God has always acted for our good and will in the future act for our good, Paul reasons, then will he not also in our present circumstances work every circumstance together for our good as well?”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful conclusion, and a great comfort. But the apostle Paul goes on in that chapter to say even more about the comfort this provides to us.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, he most certainly does. In fact, he begins right way by asking the question we are dealing with now, in Romans 8:31 we read, “What, then, shall we say in response to this?” In other words, given God’s amazing plan of salvation and the certainty we have that all whom he has predestined for salvation will be called, justified and ultimately glorified, how should we respond? And he begins his answer by asking a rhetorical question, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Marc Roby: And the obvious answer to that question is that no one can successfully oppose us. And then Paul goes on to draw another wonderful and comforting conclusion in Verse 32. He writes, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a great and logical deduction. In God’s unconditional election he chose us to be saved. But that salvation, while free to us, was unbelievably costly to God. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, had to become a man and die for us. And, as Paul correctly reasons, if God didn’t spare his own Son, we can be confident that he will give us everything we truly need for life and godliness. God never leaves work unfinished.

And so Paul goes on at the end of Romans 8 to ask some more rhetorical questions and to conclude that we who are in Christ are more than conquerors and that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Marc Roby: And we need that comfort given the trials and tribulations that come with this life in a fallen world.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. I don’t want to go off track too far from discussing soteriology, but it is obvious to anyone who looks at this life honestly that we have many troubles. God does not promise his children a trouble-free life. Quite the opposite. We read in John 16:33 that Jesus himself told us, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And that is why we who are in Christ are promised that we will overcome the world as well.

In his commentary on this passage at the end of Romans Chapter 8, the Rev. P.G. Mathew notes that Paul lists seventeen enemies that Christians face; hardship, persecution, famine, danger, death and so on. But, as Paul wrote in Romans 8:37, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Rev. Mathew notes that “Troubles make us trust only in Christ. We hope not in this world but in the world to come. Sufferings for Christ’s sake cause the things of this world to grow strangely dim. These sufferings focus our spiritual eyes on Jesus.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is great encouragement. As God’s children we know that even the troubles and pain we go through in this life have a good purpose.

Dr. Spencer: And it will all be used by God to redound to his greater glory. But there is one more thing I want to say about how we should respond to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Marc Roby: Alright, what is that?

Dr. Spencer: It should be a great encouragement to us to share our faith.

Marc Roby: You usually hear people say that this doctrine discourages evangelism. So I think you need to explain that comment.

Dr. Spencer: It’s actually quite simple. If everyone has the power to either accept or reject the gospel message, then I can easily be afraid that my evangelism will fail to bear fruit. And, not only that, but it may be that my inept presentation is the reason someone doesn’t put his faith in Christ. Just think about how terrible that would be to have to live with.

Marc Roby: I’d rather not. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s eternal damnation.

Dr. Spencer: Nor do I. But the doctrine of unconditional election gives me confidence to tell others about Christ. My witnessing absolutely matters, God has ordained the means as well as the end. But at the end of day, I can be absolutely confident that all those whom God has chosen will, in fact, come to true saving faith. We are the means, but any success we have is not based on our own efforts, it is based on God’s eternal election.

Marc Roby: I see your point. And it sounds like we are done discussing the Christian’s proper response to the doctrine of unconditional election. Before we move on, perhaps I should briefly summarize the points we’ve made so far with respect to soteriology.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a good idea, so please proceed.

Marc Roby: Very well. We have shown that man’s greatest need, in fact his only real need, is for salvation, because every human being will, after this short life, spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Secondly, we have shown that because all men are sinners and enemies of God, they will not and, indeed, cannot, accept his offer of salvation until and unless God causes them to be born again. Thirdly, we have shown that God sovereignly chooses whom he will save, not based on anything in them, or anything he foresees they will do, but solely based on his own free sovereign will.

Dr. Spencer: And if we go back to the acrostic TULIP, which to remind everyone stands for the biblical doctrines of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints, we have now covered the first two of these; Total depravity and Unconditional election. But rather than cover them in the order they appear in the acrostic, I now want to move on to examine Irresistible grace.

Marc Roby: Which we have briefly mentioned before. It is the doctrine that says that we cannot resist God’s saving grace. In other words, if he causes us to be born again, we will necessarily respond in repentance and faith.

Dr. Spencer: That is the doctrine. When Paul dealt with the objection to the biblical doctrine of unconditional election, he wrote in Romans 9:19, as we read last time, “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” The expected answer is, of course, that no one can resist God’s sovereign will. So, this verse expresses the idea of the irresistible nature of God’s efficacious call.

We also see irresistible grace in the verse we read earlier today, Romans 8:30, “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” It is clear that Paul is spelling out an unbreakable chain of events. If God has predestined us for salvation, he will call us. And if he calls us, we will be justified and glorified.

Marc Roby: And, of course, Paul is not listing every step in the process here. As I’m sure we will discuss in more detail later, justification, for example, is based on conversion, in other words on our having repented of our sins and placed our faith in Jesus Christ. And our repenting and believing can only occur if we have been born again, or regenerated. So it is evident from these verses that God’s call is effectual in bringing about our regeneration.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. Jesus gave us a great illustration of God’s effectual call when he called Lazarus forth from the tomb. Lazarus had been dead for several days and yet, when Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!” He came out of the tomb still wrapped in the grave clothes.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a great illustration.

Dr. Spencer: This doctrine of irresistible grace is not something new with the Protestant Reformation either. It goes all the way back to St. Augustine. Let me quote the 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge; “Augustine, holding as he did that man since the fall is in a state of spiritual death, utterly disabled and opposite to all good, taught that his restoration to spiritual life was an act of God’s almighty power; and being an act of omnipotence was instantaneous, immediate, and irresistible.”[3]

Marc Roby: That certainly makes sense. As we have said before, dead people don’t make themselves come alive.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, one of the arguments Hodge uses to support this doctrine, which is a very strong argument I might add, is that the metaphors used in the Scriptures are important. He wrote that “As the blind could not open their own eyes, or the deaf unstop their own ears, or the dead quicken themselves in their graves; as they could not prepare themselves for restoration, or cooperate in effecting it, so also with the blind, the deaf, and the dead in sin. The cure in both cases must be supernatural.”[4]

Marc Roby: And we see all of these metaphors in the Bible. For example, in John 12:37-40, the apostle speaks about the unbelief of some of the people and says, “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very common metaphor. In fact John is quoting from Isaiah 6:10 where God commands the prophet to “Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Marc Roby: It is a paradoxical truth that the same gospel message brings life to some and hardens others against it.

Dr. Spencer: And it is precisely because of sinful man’s depraved condition. I’m sure some of our listeners have heard the analogy that the same sunlight which softens wax also hardens clay. The different responses to the sun’s heat are caused by the inherent differences in the materials.

Paul speaks about this in his second letter to the Corinthian church. In 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 he speaks about the different responses people have to the gospel. And he wrote, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” Note that we are to God always the aroma of Christ. There is no ambiguity or difference in the message itself. But this one message is the smell of death to those who will not, and indeed cannot accept it because of their sinful natures. While to those who have been born again it is the fragrance of life.

Marc Roby: And Hodge also spoke about the metaphor of being dead. He said that the dead cannot “quicken themselves”, which is an old-fashioned way of saying bring themselves back to life. And we see the metaphor of death most famously in Ephesians 2:1 where Paul tells the Ephesian believers that “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins”, referring to their lives before they were regenerated.

Dr. Spencer: And he keeps the same metaphor going when he says in Verses 4-5, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Marc Roby: Well, I’m sure there is more to say about the doctrine of irresistible grace, but I think it will have to wait for our next session. Let me close by reminding our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our very best to answer.

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

[2] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2011, pg. 705

[3] C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, vol II, pg. 712

[4] Ibid, pg. 692

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

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

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

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

Dr. Spencer: That was the answer. And then Paul went on, in Romans 9:21-24 to say, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: Well, please explain why not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: What argument is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Spencer: For now, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well, then this looks like a good place to stop for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d appreciate hearing from you.

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

[2] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2014, pp 62-63

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

[4] Ibid, pg. 337

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pp 337-338

[7] Ibid, pg. 352

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology; that is, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, in our last session we emphasized the importance of salvation. Our greatest need is not for anything in this life, our greatest need is to be saved from eternal hell, which we all deserve because of our rebellion against God. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I first want to introduce some more precise terminology. The term salvation refers to the whole process by which we are saved from eternal hell and ushered into heaven in our glorified bodies on the Day of Judgment. But there are a number of steps involved in our salvation.

Marc Roby: And theologians often refer to those steps by the Latin phrase, ordo salutis, which simply means the order of salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and we will get to every item on that list, but I want to begin by focusing for a few minutes on one item in the middle of that list, which is justification.

Marc Roby: Which refers to God’s legal declaration that we are just, or righteous in his sight.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. We need to picture a heavenly courtroom. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”[1]

Marc Roby: And the verdict that is rendered in that courtroom seals our eternal destiny. We read in Matthew 25:46 that Jesus said the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Dr. Spencer: Which is why we made the point in our last session, as you reminded us in your opening comment, that our greatest need is to be saved from eternal hell. In other words, we need to be justified. Therefore, the first thing I want to do today is look at what it takes for us to be justified in God’s sight.

In order to be justified, we have two problems that must be solved and which we are utterly incapable of solving ourselves. First, the debt we owe because of our sins must be paid. God is the perfectly holy and just judge of the universe and sin must be punished.

Marc Roby: That is not a popular idea today. Many, if not most, people would prefer a God who simply forgives our sin. To require punishment sounds primitive to many people in this day and age.

Dr. Spencer: People may prefer such a god, but he doesn’t exist. As I said, God is just and must punish sin. And if that idea sounds primitive to some of our listeners, I would ask them to consider a question. Suppose that you have a young daughter and she is brutally raped and murdered. Would justice be satisfied if the man who did it simply said “I’m sorry”?

Marc Roby: Yes, I don’t think most people would say that saying sorry is sufficient to pay for such a horrible offense.

Dr. Spencer: And, more importantly, neither would God. Forgiveness is possible if there is true repentance, but justice still demands that the sin be punished and we all have an intuitive sense of the truth of that statement.

Marc Roby: I see your point. But you said we have two problems, what is the other one?

Dr. Spencer: Our second problem is that we need perfect righteousness. God cannot declare us to be just without perfect righteousness. I want to focus on this second need first.

Jesus commanded us in Matthew 5:48 to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, we don’t just need to be better than someone else in order to be justified, and we don’t just need to be in the top 10% of moral people, or anything like that. God’s standard is perfection.

Marc Roby: And, of course, many will object that it is unfair of God to have a standard that we can’t meet.

Dr. Spencer: Many will say that, but it isn’t unfair because it was possible for Adam to meet this standard in his original state. He was our representative before God as we discussed in Session 106. And we all, as his descendants, inherit both his guilt and his sinful nature, which is why we all, without exception, sin.

Marc Roby: The idea that we inherit Adam’s guilt and sinful nature is known as the doctrine of original sin, which we first mentioned in Session 105.

Dr. Spencer: And the wonderful news of the gospel, is that God did not leave us in that sorry condition. The central feature of the history of man is God’s working out his plan of salvation to take care of our sin problem. History is linear and has a predetermined end. When God has finished saving all those whom he is going to save, Christ will come again and, as we read in 2 Peter 3:10, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” And then, just a few verses later, in Verse 13, Peter tells us, “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful promise, and I look forward to that home of righteousness. We should point out though that this idea isn’t something new in the New Testament. God had already revealed his plan in the Old Testament. We read in Isaiah 65:17 that God said, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

Dr. Spencer: And God had also revealed through Isaiah that this glorious new creation will endure forever, along with eternal hell. We read in Isaiah 66:22-24, “‘As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,’ declares the LORD, ‘so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the LORD. ‘And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.’”

Marc Roby: This again makes clear the eternal importance of salvation. There are only two eternal destinies and all of us, as rebels against God, deserve to be in hell, where “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

Dr. Spencer: And God progressively revealed his solution to our sin problem throughout history. It began with the curse pronounced on Satan in the Garden. In Genesis 3:15 we read that God told Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is called the protoevangelium, meaning the first gospel. Jesus Christ figuratively crushed Satan’s head when he accomplished our redemption on the cross.

Dr. Spencer: And this protoevangelium was followed in time by God giving man a sacrificial system, which pointed to our need for a substitute to bear the wrath of God, which we deserve for our sins. It was also followed by the moral law, which, as we pointed out in Session 58, has three uses. First, because of our inability to keep it, it shows us our need for a Savior. Second, the punishments serve as a deterrent to sin. And, thirdly, the law serves as a model to show us how God wants us to live.

In addition, God gave many prophecies about the coming Messiah and the redemption he would accomplish for his people.

Marc Roby: And those prophecies are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: They are. It is also important to note that it is clear in the Old Testament that salvation comes from God, we don’t earn it. God tells us a number of times that he alone is our Savior. For example, we are told in Isaiah 45:21, “Declare what is to be, present it— let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.”

Marc Roby: It would be impossible to be clearer than that.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And, in addition, God tells us how he will save us. We read in Ezekiel 36:25-27 that God said, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful promise. And it also speaks to the radical nature of our depravity, which we discussed in Session 108 when we presented the biblical doctrine of Total Depravity. Because of our total depravity, we need nothing less than a new heart.

Dr. Spencer: And our heart refers to the core of our being. Our mind, will and affections. In other words, all that we are as human beings. We are not as bad as we could possibly be, but we are sinful in every aspect of our being. In Jeremiah 17:9 we are told, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Marc Roby: That doesn’t sound good. If our hearts are beyond cure, then it would appear that there isn’t any hope.

Dr. Spencer: And that is true humanly speaking, but what is impossible with man is possible with God as Jesus told us in Matthew 19:26.

The radical nature of the change is also clearly illustrated by the figure of speech used in the New Testament. In John 3:3 we read that Jesus told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” And then again, in John 3:5, we read that he added, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”

Marc Roby: Being born again, which is also called regeneration, obviously refers to a radical change. And it reminds me of what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, these are all very important verses, and we have covered most of them before, but it is important to once again remind ourselves of just how serious the problem is. It is especially important to understand our total depravity, that there is no part of our being that is unaffected by sin, or we will not properly understand the biblical doctrine of salvation.

In Ephesians 2:1-2 the apostle Paul wrote, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

The biblical view is that we were spiritually dead. We weren’t just sick, or in need of a little help to be better. We were dead.

Marc Roby: And Paul’s language is completely consistent with Christ’s statement that we need to be born again.

Dr. Spencer: It is, the Bible is consistent in all that it teaches. Prior to being regenerated by a mighty work of God, we were spiritually dead. We were still physically alive of course, but we were enemies of God. Paul also wrote in Romans 8:6-8 that “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

Marc Roby: Paul doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of unregenerate human beings. They are disobedient, hostile to God, unable to submit to his laws and controlled by their sinful nature.

Dr. Spencer: The great 20th-century theologian John Murray summarized the problem in the following way. “If this is man’s condition in sin, then there can be no pleasure in the will of God. Enmity against God must express itself in opposition to every manifestation of his holy will. How then can we expect that man will answer with delight the call to enter into God’s kingdom of glory and virtue? How can a man dead in trespasses and sins, and at enmity with God, answer a call to the fellowship of the Father and the Son? How can a mind darkened and depraved have any understanding or appreciation of the treasures of divine grace? How can his will incline to the overtures of God’s grace in the gospel?”[2]

Marc Roby: Yes, Murray makes a strong argument for the reformed view that we must be born again before we can repent and believe.

Dr. Spencer: And his argument is entirely biblical. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. We need nothing less than new birth. We need new hearts. And dead people don’t raise themselves to life. God must do the work first.

The biblical doctrine of justification flows inexorably from the biblical doctrine of total depravity. There is no part of our being that is unaffected by sin, and so it is impossible that we will ever choose to repent and believe in Jesus Christ if left on our own.

Marc Roby: And total depravity is represented by the first letter in the acrostic TULIP, which we have discussed before. It is often used to describe reformed theology.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And, just to remind those listeners who may not be familiar with this acrostic, in addition to the ‘T’ standing for total depravity, the ‘U’ stands for unconditional election, the ‘L’ stands for limited atonement, the ‘I’ stands for irresistible grace, and the ‘P’ stands for perseverance of the saints.

We have noted before that one can certainly argue that better terms exist for some of the doctrines. And, in addition, these five doctrines do not fully define reformed theology. For example, they don’t mention the Creator/creature distinction, which is central to reformed theology. But this acrostic is very important in discussing the biblical doctrine of justification, and the five points all hold together logically. As I said, we can’t properly understand the biblical doctrine of salvation if we don’t first understand that prior to being born again we were spiritually dead.

Marc Roby: And, therefore, morally incapable of saving ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In his excellent short summary of Reformed theology R.C. Sproul wrote that “If one embraces this aspect of the T in TULIP,” and the aspect he is referring to is our moral inability, then, “the rest of the acrostic follows by a resistless logic.”[3] And we will see that this is true as we dive into the biblical doctrine of justification.

Marc Roby: Which I very much look forward to doing, but we are out of time for today. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will be sure to respond.

 

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

[2] J. Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 169

[3] R.C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, Baker Books, 1997, pg. 128

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine Christology. In our last session we introduced what are called the offices of Christ. Namely, that he functions as a Prophet, Priest and King. And we then discussed his functioning as a prophet. Dr. Spencer, do you want to move on now to discuss Christ’s role as our Priest?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, but I think we will have to begin that discussion with a digression into why we need a priest.

Marc Roby: Well, in examining the Old Testament idea of a priest last week we noted that a priest is one who intercedes with God on behalf of the people. He is a mediator in other words. In the Old Testament this mediation was primarily accomplished through the sacrificial system established by God through Moses and it was the job of the Levitical priesthood.

Dr. Spencer: That’s all correct, but I think that as we get ready to focus on Jesus Christ as the ultimate high priest, we need to at least outline in more detail why a priest is needed and what he specifically accomplishes for us. Modern people, even many who call themselves Christians, are deeply offended at the idea of God requiring a sacrifice.

Marc Roby: Well, I have to admit that I have a difficult time with all of the blood in the Old Testament, and I’m very glad that I live at a time when we are not called to sacrifice animals on a regular basis.

Dr. Spencer: I share your city-boy’s aversion to blood! But it is critically important for us, and for all Christians, to understand why a sacrifice is necessary. In his excellent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied, the great theologian John Murray wrote that “sin evokes the holy displeasure or wrath of God. Vengeance is the reaction of the holiness of God to sin.”[1]

Marc Roby: Wrath and vengeance are not popular topics today.

Dr. Spencer: I don’t think they’ve ever have been popular topics.

Marc Roby: And most people, including those who identify as Christians, think of vengeance as a rather unseemly thing, certainly not something worthy of God.

Dr. Spencer: I think you’re right about that, and it is wrong for us to seek vengeance. But God declares in Deuteronomy 32:35 that “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.”[2]  And the word vengeance shows up 26 times in the 1984 NIV Bible that we are using. For example, in the same passage I just quoted from, which is called the Song of Moses, God declared to his people through Moses, in Deuteronomy 32:39-41, “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand. I lift my hand to heaven and declare: As surely as I live forever, when I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.”

Marc Roby: That is a terrifying passage.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is, but it is also the truth. The reality is that God is absolutely holy and he cannot allow his holy name to be profaned without taking action.

Marc Roby: Now we don’t often use the word profane anymore, so perhaps it would be good to define it. To profane something is to treat something that should be shown great respect or honor with great disrespect. It is to defile, or desecrate or degrade something that is holy.

Dr. Spencer: And that is what sin does. We are made in the image of God and are to be his representatives, ruling creation in his stead. Whenever we disregard his laws and sin, we profane his name. In Habakkuk 1:13 the prophet speaks to God and says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”

We must realize that every single sin we commit, no matter how minor, is an affront to the eternal, almighty, Creator of the universe. Every time we sin, we are, in essence, saying to God, “You have no authority to tell me what to do or not to do.” Every sin is nothing short of rebellion against the Lord of the universe, the One who gave us life and the one to whom we will all have to give an account.

Marc Roby: And the One who will either bring us into heaven or send us to hell for all eternity.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, exactly. Sin is serious. Our culture tends to minimize sin, but God does not. It must be dealt with. We all inherit a sinful nature from our parents and then practice sin every day of our lives. As a result, we have a serious problem. God’s anger is justly aroused.

Marc Roby: Which is never a good thing. When God is angry, painful things will happen.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And the greatest calamity that came upon the Jewish people prior to the time of Christ was when Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, captured Jerusalem and took many of the people into captivity in Babylon. This exile occurred in stages. One deportation was in 597 BC, and one of the people taken captive was a 27-year-old priest named Ezekiel.

Now had things been normal, he would have begun his priestly duties, serving in the temple in Jerusalem, when he turned 30. But, instead, God called him to be a prophet to the people in exile in Babylon. And the people didn’t like his message. They were anticipating a short exile and were expecting to be returned to Jerusalem because they didn’t think God would allow his temple, which was in Jerusalem, to be destroyed as we read in Jeremiah 7:4.

Marc Roby: And they were encouraged in that belief by false prophets. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah was still in Jerusalem at this time and he wrote to the exiles. We read in Jeremiah 29:4-9 that he said, in part, “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, … Increase in number there; do not decrease. … Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them’”.

Dr. Spencer: And, at the same time, God spoke to the exiles through Ezekiel as well. We read in Ezekiel 13:9-10 that God declared, “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. … Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace”. Which should serve as a great warning to all modern ministers who preach and act as though God will simply wink at sin. As if he is no longer holy and no longer angry at sin.

Marc Roby: Yes, we have made the point a number of times that God does not change.

Dr. Spencer: God can’t change. He is perfect. If he changed, then he would either have not been perfect before, or would not be perfect after the change. So what God spoke to the people during the Babylonian exile is still important.

In Ezekiel 22:26 we read that God declared about the city of Jerusalem, “Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.”

Marc Roby: And we are back to the idea then of sin profaning God, or profaning God’s name. It dishonors him.

Dr. Spencer: And as the perfect judge of the universe, he must deal with it. Sin is our problem. Because we are sinners in rebellion against a perfectly holy and just God we deserve hell.

Marc Roby: But the amazing truth of the gospel is that God chose to save some people from hell and bring them to heaven instead.

Dr. Spencer: And there is a very common misconception about how that salvation occurs. Many people, including some professing Christians, have the idea that God the Father is full of wrath, but Jesus came along, gave himself as a sacrifice and then pleads with the Father to have mercy on people for Jesus’ sake. John Murray puts it this way in speaking about the atonement, he says, “It has been charged that this doctrine represents the Son as winning over the incensed Father to clemency and love, a supposition wholly inconsistent with the fact that the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs.”[3]

Marc Roby: And when Murray says that “the love of God is the very fount from which the atonement springs”, he is speaking about the love of the triune God; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not just the love of the Son.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Look at one of the most famous verses in the Bible, John 3:16. It says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Now think about that verse for a minute. It is Jesus Christ who is speaking, and he is explaining God’s plan of salvation to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. So when he says “God so loved the world”, he is talking about God the Father. That’s obvious when you realize that this God “gave his one and only Son”. It has to be the Father that Jesus is speaking about. So it is God the Father so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save his people.

Marc Roby: And, of course, God is one, so it is inconceivable that there would be any difference between the attitude or will of the Father and the Son. It makes no sense to think that the Father could be full of wrath toward people and the Son wouldn’t. Or that the Son could love people and the Father not.

Dr. Spencer: That’s absolutely true. We read in Revelation 6:16 about the wrath of the Lamb, which is speaking of Jesus Christ. So we know that he is wrathful toward sin just as the Father is. And so, the quote I read from John Murray earlier is completely biblical and, therefore, true; namely, “sin evokes the holy displeasure or wrath of God. Vengeance is the reaction of the holiness of God to sin.” That is why we need a Savior. And James Boice says much the same thing in different words. He wrote that “the wrath of God … is actually the unyielding and terrifying opposition of the holy God to all that is opposed to holiness.”[4]

Marc Roby: As much as people may not like the idea of a wrathful God, it makes perfect sense that the perfectly holy Creator would be wrathful against those who oppose his glorious being and works. And this isn’t just an Old Testament idea. The apostle Paul clearly states in Romans 1:18 that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness”.

Dr. Spencer: And the word wrath is used 10 times in Paul’s letter to the Romans to speak of God’s just wrath toward sinners. Now, let me say that we will get into the topic of God’s plan of salvation in more detail later when we cover soteriology, which is the study of salvation. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to spend a few minutes on it here as we discuss Christology, because it has a huge impact on our understanding of Jesus Christ and his work. Jesus himself told us in Mark 10:45 that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In other words, he came to die.

Marc Roby: He is called Jesus because he saves his people from their sins as we are told in Matthew 1:21. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “Jehovah saves”.

Dr. Spencer: And in describing our salvation we may say that Christ has atoned for our sins, or we may say that he has provided satisfaction for our sins.[5], Murray points out that there are four categories in terms of which Scripture sets forth the atoning work of Christ: sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation and redemption. [6]

Marc Roby: I think we need to explain these four terms.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. But, as I noted a minute ago, I don’t want to get into them in great detail now, I just want to briefly present them so that we have a good understanding of what Jesus Christ came to do for his people.

The first category is that of sacrifice. And Murray explains that a sacrifice has reference to sin and guilt. He wrote that “Sin involves a certain liability, a liability arising from the holiness of God, on the one hand, and the gravity of sin as the contradiction of that holiness, on the other. The sacrifice was the divinely instituted provision whereby the sin might be covered and the liability to divine wrath and curse removed.”[7]

Marc Roby: Alright, what about propitiation? To propitiate means to appease someone’s anger and make them propitious, or favorably disposed, toward us.

Dr. Spencer: Well, Murray writes that “Propitiation presupposes the wrath of and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[8] Propitiation has to do with God’s attitude toward us, whereas sacrifice has to do with taking away or covering the cause of God’s displeasure in us.

Marc Roby: What about reconciliation? That also sounds close to propitiation. To be reconciled is to be restored to friendly relations.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, but in propitiation the focus is on removing God’s wrath, whereas in reconciliation the focus is on restoring right relations. In Romans 5:1 we read, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Marc Roby: And that leads us finally to redemption.

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, to redeem something is to buy it back. We can redeem something that we have given to a pawn shop as collateral for a loan for example. Or you can pay a ransom to redeem someone who has been kidnapped or taken to be a slave.

Marc Roby: And unbelievers are described in Romans Chapter 6 as being slaves to sin. We read in Verses 16-18, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very challenging passage. I don’t know any unbeliever who will admit to being a slave to sin. But the reality is that if you have not been born again, you cannot obey God’s law out of love for God. Therefore, everything you do is sin because the motive is wrong even if the action is, in itself, right. It is also challenging to Christians because it tells us clearly that are to be slaves to righteousness; in other words, we are to be obedient all the time.

Marc Roby: And none of us fulfill that requirement perfectly.

Dr. Spencer: No, we don’t. But that is what we are called to if we have been saved. Murray summarizes these four categories in the following way, he writes, “Just as sacrifice is directed to the need created by our guilt, propitiation to the need that arises from the wrath of God, and reconciliation to the need arising from our alienation from God, so redemption is directed to the bondage to which our sin has consigned us.”[9]

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a great summary. We are nearly out of time, is there anything else you’d like to say for today?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. I’d like to wrap-up this discussion of the nature of the atonement by reading one last quote from Murray. He wrote that “Thought and expression stagger in the presence of the spectacle that confronts us in the vicarious sin-bearing of the Lord of glory. Here we must realize that we are dealing with the mystery of godliness, and eternity will not reach the bottom of it nor exhaust its praise.”[10]

Marc Roby: It is staggering to consider what God has done for us. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit chose to love us. Jesus agreed to become incarnate and live a perfect life in our stead and then die on the cross to pay for our sins, and the Holy Spirit applies that redemption to each Christian individually by bringing about new birth. Praise God!

And with that, we are out of time for today. So, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d appreciate hearing from you.

 

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

[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] John Murray, op. cit., pg. 31

[4] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 315

[5] Hodge prefers the older word “satisfaction”, but newer theologies usually use the word “atonement”. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pp 469-470

[6] John Murray, op. cit., pg. 19

[7] Ibid, pg. 25

[8] Ibid, pg. 30

[9] Ibid, pg. 43

[10] Ibid, preface

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s will. Dr. Spencer, in our previous discussion, you made the point that God truly desires that all people be saved, and yet he does not in fact save everyone because to do so would not serve his ultimate purpose of making his own glory manifest as well as the universe we live in does. Doesn’t this leave you open to the charge of somehow limiting God’s options?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I’m not limiting God’s options, but his options are, in fact, limited. God is not free to do absolutely anything. We mentioned this briefly before when we were discussing God’s Sovereignty and man’s free will in Session 65. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that “it is impossible for God to lie”. [1] But there are many other things God cannot do.

Marc Roby: I think John Frame has a useful discussion on this topic in his book The Doctrine of God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he does. He lists six kinds of actions that God cannot perform.[2] First, he cannot perform logically contradictory actions.

Marc Roby: Like making a square circle.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Frame makes an important point in this regard. When we say that there are things God cannot do, this is not to say that there is a weakness in God. God cannot do things that are logically contradictory because, as Frame says, “The laws of logic are an aspect of his own character.”[3] We could reasonably call logic one of God’s attributes, although that is not normally done. It is not a weakness that God is unable to go against his own character.

Marc Roby: What else does Frame say that God cannot do?

Dr. Spencer: He cannot do anything immoral.

Marc Roby: And, certainly, no one could rationally consider that a weakness. It is, in fact, a great strength. As you noted a moment ago, he can’t lie. And James 1:13 tells us that “God cannot be tempted by evil”. What else does Frame say God cannot do?

Dr. Spencer: He cannot do things that are appropriate only for creatures, like celebrating a birthday. He can do these things in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, but not in his deity. But this inability is again an indication of his strength, not a weakness. He also cannot deny his own nature as God by, for example, ceasing to be God. God can’t commit suicide.

Marc Roby: Well, that seems pretty obvious, and certainly can’t be thought of as a weakness. What else?

Dr. Spencer: God can’t change his eternal plan. In a sense, to do so would be to deny his nature as the perfect, unchangeable God.

Marc Roby: Okay, I believe that is five things, but you said Frame listed six, so what is the last one?

Dr. Spencer: The last one is more interesting, although it sounds silly at first blush. It is the age-old question of whether or not God can make a stone so large that he can’t lift it.

Marc Roby: Okay, I’ll be honest and say that that does sound downright silly at first blush.

Dr. Spencer: Well, I’ll admit that I was surprised when I read in Frame’s book that philosophers have written about this question fairly recently. The problem of course, is supposed to be that if God can make such a stone, then he can’t lift it and is therefore not omnipotent. And, on the other hand, if he can’t make such a stone, then he again is not omnipotent. The question is an attempt to show that God’s being omnipotent is somehow a logical contradiction.

But I don’t think it presents a serious challenge to the idea of God’s omnipotence. We have already said that God’s omnipotence does not mean he can do anything, and we have already listed five kinds of things he can’t do. Frame suggests that this one fits into the category of God not being able to do things that are appropriate only for finite creatures. We, for example, are certainly capable of making things too heavy for us to lift without machines, just think of a bus or truck, or even an automobile.

Marc Roby: That is obviously true, but it is also true that we can’t create anything out of nothing, meaning no pre-existing matter, which is the kind of creating God has done.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, and Frame doesn’t address that point. He uses the human example simply to show that the question does not fit into the category of logically contradictory actions. I’m not going to spend any time to get into the fine points of logic that I assume must be involved in the philosophical discussions about this question. I would simply say that since God can create this universe out of nothing, and is also capable of destroying it in an instant, it is pretty clear to me that he can’t create a stone too heavy for him to lift. But that is not a sign of weakness, nor does it challenge his omnipotence. It is, rather, a sign of his unlimited power.

Marc Roby: I completely agree. It’s amazing the lengths people will go to sometimes to try and disprove the existence of God. They really don’t like the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, all holy and just God judging them at the end of their life.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But, as we’re told in Romans Chapter 1, they are suppressing the truth because in their heart of hearts they know that God exists.

Marc Roby: We got onto this topic of things that God cannot do because you were answering my challenge that you might have left yourself open to the charge of limiting God’s options when you argued that God didn’t create a universe without sin, even though such a universe would please him, because such a universe would not accomplish his main goal of making his own glory manifest as well as this one does.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Even God is limited by his own perfect, unchangeable, eternal, holy nature. He can’t die, he can’t lie and he can’t do anything that contradicts his own nature. We’ve argued before that he is perfect and all he does is perfect. We are told in Deuteronomy 32:4 that “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.”

Marc Roby: We also read in 2 Samuel 22:31 that “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless.”

Dr. Spencer: And, perhaps most famously, in Matthew 5:48 Jesus himself told us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There are other Scriptures we could cite as well, but it is clear that God is perfect and all he does is perfect. Therefore, when he chose to create this universe for the manifestation of his own glory, that was the best possible purpose for creation.

Marc Roby: We have made that argument before, in Session 75. And since we are talking about God’s will, there is one more verse I would like to cite about God’s perfection because it tells us specifically that his will is perfect. In Romans 12:2 we are commanded, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great verse for our present purposes. And the point I’m trying to make is that in accomplishing that purpose, even God is limited. Not by weakness, but by his perfections. Because all that he does is perfect, he was constrained to create the perfect universe to accomplish his perfect purpose, even if there were some things about that universe that he himself didn’t like.

Marc Roby: Now that’s a difficult concept to wrap your brain around.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But I think that it is a necessary conclusion based on what we are told in the Bible. So, let’s get back to the verse that started this whole discussion and state our conclusions.

Marc Roby: You mean 2 Peter 3:9 of course, where 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.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s the verse. And the problem we have been addressing is, if God wants everyone to come to repentance, then why don’t all people repent, trust in Christ, and be saved? And the answer is that this verse is speaking about God’s will of disposition as we saw last time. In other words, it is telling us something real and true about the nature of God, he does not take pleasure in the fact that people sin, refuse to repent and, as a result, go to hell. And yet, he is the one who sends people to hell. He does this because it is necessary to accomplish his overall purpose for creation.

Marc Roby: And, again, we struggle to grasp and accept this truth because it implies the necessity of evil and of eternal hell.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. But, as we have noted before, what I like doesn’t have any bearing on what is true. I don’t like the fact I’m growing old. I don’t like the fact that I get sick. There are all kinds of things I don’t like that are, nonetheless, true. The astounding thing is that we can conclude from 2 Peter 3:9 combined with the obvious fact that not everyone repents, that there are some things that God doesn’t like, but which are, nonetheless true.

Marc Roby: But, as you have been careful to point out, this is not because there is any weakness in God.

Dr. Spencer: No, it is definitely not because of weakness. There doesn’t need to be any weakness or imperfection in order to be constrained. God is constrained by his own nature, which includes his perfect mercy and love, but also his perfect justice and wrath. As human beings we understand the idea of being constrained by things outside of our control. And even in our case it is not always a sign of weakness or imperfection. I’ve spent most of my life as an engineer and engineers deal with constraints all the time. Some of those constraints are caused by our limitations, but others are not.

Marc Roby: It seems like the really important question would be then, which constraints are fundamental and therefore, insurmountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is an important question, and for us it isn’t always easy tell which is which. I’ve seen a number of technological advances in my lifetime that were at one time considered fundamentally impossible. So I’m not about to go out on a limb and say which specific constraints are fundamental and which are due to our own limitations, but it would appear, for example, that travelling faster than the speed of light is impossible. And, to be far more mundane, it is almost certainly impossible to build a comfortable, quiet car that uses water for fuel, goes 1,000 miles on a tank of water, and costs only a $1,000 to build.

Marc Roby: And the point we’ve been making is simply that even God is constrained in some ways, but not because of any weakness or imperfection in him. In fact, his constraints are the result of his perfections.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Theologians talk about God’s decretive will, which is those things which God has decreed will happen. And his decretive will is not the same as his will of disposition, which is those things that God would like, at least in some sense, to have happen. You could truthfully say that God decrees some things that he doesn’t like.

Marc Roby: John Frame says something very similar. He notes that “there are some good things that, by virtue of the nature of God’s plan, will never be realized.”[4] And that “God’s broad intentions for history may exclude the blessing of a world existing without any history of evil.”[5]

Dr. Spencer: Frame also gives an important warning. He notes that “God’s will is, of course, one; but since it is complex, some have distinguished different aspects of it – different ‘wills.’ We should be careful with this language, but it does make it easier for us to consider the complications of our topic.”[6]

Marc Roby: That’s a good warning. We always have to keep in mind God’s simplicity – that he is not made up of parts. We can talk about his will of disposition or his will of decree as a way to help us to understand, but we must not think there are different parts of God that are somehow in conflict with each other.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely true. God has one will and he has one overarching purpose for creation, which is the manifestation of his own glory. But there are also a number of other purposes that we could say are subordinate to his overarching purpose. Foremost among those subordinate purposes is his redeeming a people for himself.

Marc Roby: And these people comprise the church, the body and bride of Christ. They are those who have been chosen from before the creation of the world as we read in Ephesians 1:4, which says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And all of those whom God has chosen either have been or will be called, regenerated, sanctified and glorified. We read an abbreviated description of this process in Romans 8:30, which says that “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” To achieve this goal, God has given man his revelation, which tells us how we should live.

Marc Roby: And theologians refer to that as God’s revealed will.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Although Frame prefers to call it God’s preceptive will, which refers to his precepts, or commands. There are other names used as well, but I don’t want to get into all of them at this time. The main point here is that God has revealed to us what we are to do. And he doesn’t tell us everything we might like to know, but he has told us what we need to know.

Marc Roby: We see the difference between God’s decretive will and his revealed will clearly in Moses’ statement to the Israelites on the plains of Moab, to the east of the Jordon river, just before he died and Joshua led them into the Promised Land. He was going over the laws God had given them and in Deuteronomy 29:29 he told them, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: And “The secret things” refers to God’s decretive will, those things which he has foreordained should come to pass, which is also sometimes called his secret will. And notice that Moses says they “belong to the LORD our God”, meaning that we often don’t know them until they come to pass and, since they belong to God, we aren’t to pry into them. But then there are the “things revealed”, which “belong to us and to our children forever”. This is God’s revealed will, or his preceptive will, and Moses gives us the reason for God’s giving it to us; it is so that “we may follow all the words of this law.”

Marc Roby: And we should take a moment to point out that it is great mercy on God’s part that he has given us this revelation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we should all take time to meditate on God’s amazing goodness and mercy to us. But before we finish for today there is a major difference between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will that we should point out. Let me quote from John Frame again. He correctly states that “God’s decretive will cannot be successfully opposed; what God has decreed will certainly take place. It is possible, however, for creatures to disobey God’s preceptive will – and they often do so.”[7]

Marc Roby: But, praise God, he also decreed, from before the creation of the world, to send a Savior to redeem his people. We read about that in 1 Peter 1:18-20, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”

Dr. Spencer: That is wonderful. And it shows that God was not surprised by the fall. He planned all of creation and all of history before anything in this universe existed. He knew Satan would fall. He knew Adam would fall. He had it all planned. As you just read, Jesus Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world”. And what was he chosen to do? He was chosen to become incarnate, to be born to a virgin, to live a perfect sinless life and then to die a horrible death on the cross as a substitute for us. All of this was according to God’s decretive will.

Marc Roby: That’s astounding. And I look forward to continuing our discussion of God’s perfect will next time, but now it is time to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

 

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

[2] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pp518-521

[3] Ibid, pg. 518

[4] Ibid, pg. 530

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pg. 531

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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 the fact that God is jealous. Dr. Spencer, most people think of jealousy as a negative trait and, therefore, not a trait that is befitting for God. How would you respond to them?

Dr. Spencer: I would point out that the word jealous, like most words, has a fairly wide range of meanings, and not all of them are negative even in our modern usage. I should, for example, be jealous to guard the exclusivity of my relationship with my wife.

Marc Roby: I’m sure she would agree with that statement.

Dr. Spencer: I am too. Our society seems to have lost the idea that being faithful to our commitments is important, and it has especially lost the notion that a marriage commitment is a sacred, life-long covenant commitment. In Malachi 2:16 we read, “‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD God of Israel” [1], and God expects husbands and wives to be faithful to their spouses in marriage. We see clearly how important this is by the fact that adultery in the Old Testament was a capital offense and in the New Testament it is grounds for divorce. John Frame defines the biblical concept of jealousy in the following way: “Jealousy (Heb. Qin’ah, Gk. zēlos) is a passionate zeal to guard the exclusiveness of a marriage relationship, leading to anger against an unfaithful spouse.”[2]

Marc Roby: I want to point out that you correctly called marriage a covenant commitment, which means that it is a formal and serious commitment, not something casual. And God frequently alludes to the human marriage relationship as an analogy to the relationship his people have with him.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he does. In fact, it is important to note God’s overall sovereignty and plan in this regard. Marriage is not a humanly contrived or instituted relationship. It was established by God and was intended from the very beginning to be part of his plan for creation. And, as we have discussed before, God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory[3], so marriage contributes to that. We have also mentioned before that marriage between a man and a woman, and the children resulting from that union, do a better job of reflecting the glory of our triune God than individual human beings can.[4]

Marc Roby: And the marriage relationship is also used by God to teach us many things. We learn more about our own inpatient, selfish sinful nature, and as we work to make our families function properly, we learn patience, what it means to truly love others sacrificially, the importance of authority and many other things as well.

Dr. Spencer: And I’m sure we could come up with other reasons for the marriage relationship being important, but to get back to our topic of God’s jealousy, it is not a negative thing at all. It is in fact, a very good thing. We should be zealous to guard something as precious as our exclusive relationship with our spouse.

Marc Roby: I think part of the problem with people considering jealousy to be a negative trait is that human beings often corrupt that trait. For example, they can be irrationally and sinfully suspicious of their spouse without cause.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. And that is definitely not the kind of jealousy that God has. As with all of the communicable attributes we must be very careful to strip sinful human perversions of them from our thinking. I think it will be useful to quote again something I quoted in Session 42 when we were discussing the science of hermeneutics, or how to properly understand the Bible.

In his book Interpreting the Bible, A. Berkeley Mickelsen wrote that “Grief, anger, wrath, etc., are all genuine responses of God. The metaphorical element arises from the fact that human grief, anger, and wrath are a complex array of elements. Grief can involve self-pity; anger can be filled with an irrational obsession for revenge; wrath can be overlaid with a passion to return in kind. Yet these elements must be excluded from an accurate picture of God’s grief, anger, and wrath. God’s response is genuine; it is the human counterpart that is tainted by corrupt elements.”[5]

Marc Roby: And so, applying that thought to God’s jealousy, John Frame quotes from the Song of Solomon 8:6, which says, “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” And then Frame notes about this verse that “Here, fiery jealousy is part of love, the prerogative of love that is as strong as death. It is the proper attitude of a man toward his wife (cf. Prov. 6:34). It is entirely right for him to be zealous for her purity and for the exclusiveness of her love for him.”[6]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very good passage. Our society has greatly cheapened the institution of marriage, which is, I think, why so many people don’t even bother to get married today. But when marriage is given the respect and honor it should have, and people treat it with the seriousness they should, it is a truly beautiful and wonderful thing. In God’s plan marriage is the most intimate relationship two human beings can ever have. They should both come to it as virgins and the commitment they make to one another and to God is to be absolutely faithful to each other, forsaking all others, until death separates them.

Marc Roby: Not many people think about marriage that way anymore.

Dr. Spencer: And that is to their great loss. Real love is sacrificial and focused on the other person. It isn’t just a feeling, it is a firm commitment to do for someone else that which is best for that person. We only learn that to the fullest extent possible when we commit ourselves to working out whatever problems arise in a marriage. There cannot be any plan B. I can’t have in mind that I will stay married so long as we are both happy or so long as it makes me happy, or so long as I still “love” my wife.

Marc Roby: I think that anytime someone goes into a marriage with that kind of attitude, the probability of the marriage ending in divorce is about 100%.

Dr. Spencer: I completely agree. We’ve both been married to our wives for long enough to know that it isn’t always wonderful. I’m a sinner. And my wife is a sinner. And whenever two sinners live together there will be trouble.

Marc Roby: And our children are also sinners, which introduces even more trouble!

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But as I said a moment ago, real biblical love is not something you can fall in and out of, it is a firm commitment to do what is best for the other person. When we get married, we make a vow before God to love our spouse, and we are to keep our vows. It is, as we noted earlier, a covenant commitment. Being faithful is extremely important.

Marc Roby: And the extreme value and importance of marriage shows why being jealous, in the proper sense, is a good thing.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. As I said earlier, God is the sovereign creator and everything he does works together to accomplish his purpose of making his own glory manifest. So I am quite sure that when God established the institution of marriage, he had in mind that it would, in addition to many other things, teach us something about our covenant relationship to him and the importance of our being faithful in that relationship.

Marc Roby: And God compares idolatry to adultery. For example, Jeremiah Chapter 3 uses adultery as a metaphor for the Jewish people being unfaithful to God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great chapter to make this point, so let’s take a moment to look at it.

Marc Roby: Let me begin by reminding our listeners of the history that they need to know to understand this chapter. Jeremiah prophesied in the late 7th-century B.C. Prior to this time the united Jewish kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon had been divided into two and the northern kingdom, here referred to as Israel, had already been destroyed and its people taken into captivity by the Assyrians in the late 8th-century B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah was all that remained and they were soon to be defeated and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was one of the prophets God sent to warn his people of this coming disaster.

Dr. Spencer: And now, with that history in mind, let me read Jeremiah 3:6. It says, “During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, ‘Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there.’” The references to every high hill and every spreading tree refer to the pagan altars at which the Jewish people had been worshipping pagan idols.

Marc Roby: And God then refers to the destruction and captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel in Verse 8. Jeremiah tells us that the LORD said, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.”

Dr. Spencer: And that verse establishes the point I wanted to make perfectly. God compares sending his unfaithful people into captivity with divorce and he compares their unfaithfulness with adultery. God should be jealous of his covenant people. How wicked it was for them to forget all that he had done for them and to run off and worship false gods made of wood and stone.

Marc Roby: And God mocked these idols in the chapter just before this. We read in Jeremiah 2:27-28, “They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.”

Dr. Spencer: Whenever any of God’s people trust in something other than God, the Creator and Lord of all creation, they and the things they trust in deserve to be mocked. God wants his people to be holy and blameless and able to worship and serve him properly, and that is absolutely impossible when they worship false gods.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that when you used the phrase “holy and blameless” you had Ephesians 5:25-27 in mind, where the apostle Paul commands us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what I had in mind. And those verses clearly indicate God’s jealousy. Remember that Frame said that God’s jealousy is “a passionate zeal to guard the exclusiveness of a marriage relationship”. And here in Ephesians 5 we see that. God uses the example of Christ as the husband and the church as his bride to explain to us how we should be concerned for the eternal welfare of our wives. Jealousy is an aspect of true love.

Marc Roby: And it is also related to wrath and judgment, because God will judge those who oppose his church and his people and he will pour out his wrath upon them. We read in Nahum 1:2 “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.”

Dr. Spencer: That is absolutely true. We read over and over again in the prophets about the coming judgment against God’s enemies. God is jealous for the glory and honor of his own name. We read in Isaiah 42:8 that God says, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.”

And God’s church, which is called the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27 and the bride of Christ in Revelation 19:7, is meant to bring him glory as well. Therefore, because God is very jealous to protect his own glory, he is also very jealous to protect the glory of his church.

Marc Roby: And that should be a great comfort to all members of God’s church. If the supreme Lord of the universe is jealous to protect our honor and glory, we are safe.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. And the Bible makes clear that God is jealous. We’ve already seen that in several verses, but there some others we have yet to share that are quite explicit about this being an important aspect of God’s being. For example, when God renewed his covenant with his people after their horrible apostasy in having Aaron create a golden calf to worship while Moses was still on Mount Sinai meeting with God, we read in Exodus 34:14 that God told the people, “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

Marc Roby: And when God says his “name is Jealous” he is clearly saying that it is an essential part of his nature.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is exactly what he means.

Marc Roby: And that episode in Israel’s history is a remarkable example of God’s gracious love and man’s terrible sin. God had brought the people out of their slavery in Egypt by doing mighty miracles among the Egyptians, and had established his covenant with them. We read in Exodus 24:7 that Moses, “took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.’”

Dr. Spencer: And the Book of the Covenant included the Ten Commandments. The second commandment is given in Exodus 20:4-6 and it says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Marc Roby: And, amazingly, it was right after the people had said “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey”, that they had Aaron make the golden calf for them to worship. How unbelievably gracious it is that God would not destroy them for their almost immediate violation of the covenant.

Dr. Spencer: It is amazing that God would be that gracious and would renew the covenant rather than destroying them for violating it. But his doing that was a result of his own covenant faithfulness and for his own glory. In Exodus 15 we read what is called the Song of Moses, which he sung after God had destroyed Pharaoh’s army when it came after the Jewish slaves who had left Egypt. In that song, in Exodus 15:13, we read, “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.”  The words “unfailing love” translate the Hebrew word hesed. We mentioned this word in Session 77 as well, it primarily refers to God’s covenant love for his people.

God’s covenant love, which includes his jealousy, is the reason he did not destroy his people. He will bring to fruition his plan of salvation. No one can thwart this plan, not Satan or his demons, not the world, and not even the sins of God’s own people. He will discipline us and he will work within us to be transformed, and ultimately, he will perfect us, but in his jealous zeal he will not allow the people he has chosen for himself to be lost.

Marc Roby: What great comfort that provides to us. As Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, he was “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Dr. Spencer: And God will accomplish this for his own glory. He has chosen his people and he calls us his treasured possession. When the Israelites first arrived at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt, one of the first things God said to them through Moses was, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” We read that in Exodus 19:5.

Marc Roby: And we noted in Session 67 that God’s people are called his treasured possession six times in the Old Testament. What an amazing thing that is.

Dr. Spencer: It is an astounding thing. But I want to wrap up our discussion of God’s jealousy by tying together all the strands we’ve been discussing. God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. God is loving and faithful and he will have a loving and faithful covenant people to be with him in heaven and display his glory. He is zealous for his glory and will not allow his plans to fail or an enemy to succeed, and that zeal for the honor of his own name is his jealousy. It is a wonderful attribute of God.

Marc Roby: That’s a good summary and with that we are out of time for today. As always, we invite our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will respond.

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

[2] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 458

[3] See Sessions 2, 67 and 74.

[4] See Session 29.

[5] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 185

[6] Frame, op. cit.

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Marc Roby: Before we begin today, Dr. Spencer and I want to wish all of our listeners a blessed 2019. It is our prayer that God will draw you to himself and build you up in the most holy faith. We’d love to hear how God is using this podcast in your life and invite you to email your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

And now let’s resume our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of holiness. Last time we looked at God’s revelation to the prophet Isaiah. Dr. Spencer, how do you want to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to spend some more time on the revelation given to Isaiah, but with a different emphasis. Last time we focused on the impact God’s holiness has on us as sinful creatures.

Marc Roby: Which is that it should drive us to our knees in fear and trembling and cause us to cry out with the Philippian jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” [1] (Acts 16:30)

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the response we should have. But today I want to focus more on what this attribute tells us about the being of God.

Marc Roby: We already know that his holiness means he is separate from his creation, and that he is morally perfect.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, as we discussed in Session 71, God is the ultimate standard for what is morally right, just as he is the ultimate standard for what is true or what is good. There is however, more that we can learn about the being of God from his holiness. But before we get into that, it is important to note that this is the only attribute of God ever repeated three times in the Bible. Remember that in Isaiah 6:3 the seraphs were crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty”.

Marc Roby: And that repetition is for emphasis, right?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We do the same thing. For example, someone might describe a certain task as not just being difficult, but being very, very difficult. But here we have the word holy repeated three times, which is why you sometimes hear God referred to as the thrice holy God. It is a little bit like our printing something in bold italics and underlining it. We really want that thing to stand out. And so, God wants his attribute of holiness to stand out. The Bible never once refers to God as “love, love, love” or “wrath, wrath, wrath” or “mercy, mercy, mercy” for example. We need to be careful of course to not think that God’s holiness somehow diminishes the importance of his other attributes, but we clearly need to take it very seriously.

Marc Roby: One indication of the importance of holiness is that in 1 Corinthians 1:2 the apostle Paul describes those to whom he is writing as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy”.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. As we noted last time, Hebrews 12:14 tells us that “without holiness no one will see the Lord”. This is a common emphasis all through the Bible. God is holy and his people must be holy. And God is in the business of making us holy. In Ephesians 5:25-27 the apostle Paul commanded, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Marc Roby: There is a lot packed into those two verses.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there is. First, we see that Christ “gave himself up” to make the church holy, which speaks about his sacrificial death. Then, secondly, we read that he is cleansing his church “by the washing with water through the word”, which speaks about our being sanctified through reading and obeying the Bible, which is the word of God. And, thirdly, we see that Christ is going to present the church “to himself”. Interestingly, in John 10:29 and again in John 17:24 Christ refers to his people as being given to him by the Father. So both are true; God the Father gives us to the Son and God the Son purifies us to present us to himself. It is hard to grasp, but we are the Father’s gift to the Son.

Marc Roby: It is astounding grace that the Son would want such a gift!

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But it is a little easier to understand when you realize that he doesn’t want us just the way we are. He wants us the way we will be when he is done working in us. Jesus Christ will not be our Savior if he is not also our Lord. And as our Lord he is at work transforming us. In Romans 8:29 we read that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This being conformed to the likeness of Christ is the process of sanctification, which all true believers go through. We will talk about this more in our next session, but for now I want to focus on this idea that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Marc Roby: Which is not something many modern churches talk about.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right about that. There is a completely unbiblical idea that is very common in the modern church, which says that I can accept Jesus as my Savior without also having him as my Lord. But there are two fatal problems with that thinking. The first is that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe whether we acknowledge that fact or not.

Marc Roby: And even if we don’t choose to voluntarily acknowledge that fact in this life, we will when it comes time for judgment. Philippians 2:9-11 tell us that “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a scary thought; if you reject Christ now, on the day of judgment you will confess him as Lord and then go to hell. But getting back to our topic, the second fatal problem with the thinking that Jesus can be your Savior without being your Lord is that the Bible makes it absolutely clear he must be your Lord or you do not belong to him and he did not die for you. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus himself told us that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” We can call Jesus Lord, we may think he is our Savior, but on the day of judgment only those who have done the will of the Father enter the kingdom of heaven. In other words, only those who have obeyed.

Marc Roby: Jesus also said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the same idea. We could go on, but we made this point before and will get to it again in our next session, so for now let me just say that the biblical case is so strong that if one of our listeners is struggling with the idea that obedience is necessary, my best counsel is to take a week and sit down and read through the New Testament, making note of how may times and in how many ways it says that you must obey if you are God’s children.

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, our works play no part in earning salvation. But if we are not living a changed life, striving for obedience out of love for God, then we have not been changed. We are not born again, and we will not be in heaven.

Marc Roby: And that fact is intimately linked with the holiness of God since heaven is where God is in the fullest sense.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. James Boice, in his book Foundations of the Christian Faith, points out that the Bible “calls God holy more than anything else. Holy is the epithet most often affixed to his name. Also we read that God alone is holy.”[2] Now, in saying that God alone is holy he is referring to the first meaning we have discussed for the word holy; namely, that of separation from creation. And that is why I wanted to spend some more time on this attribute, I want to emphasize this dominant aspect.

Boice points out that people tend to think of holiness mostly in terms of morality and, therefore, as something that admits to degrees. One person can be a little more or less holy than someone else.

Marc Roby: When we do that, it is our natural, that is to say sinful, tendency to pick particular behaviors to focus on so that we come out on top.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what we tend to do. If someone has no trouble with putting on weight, there is a tendency for that person to be judgmental toward those who are overweight. If we have been blessed with good jobs and financial security, it is easy to look down on someone who has troubles with personal debt. And the list can go on and on. I am not diminishing the fact that gluttony and fiscal irresponsibility are sins, but I think you get my point. Our natural sinful tendency is to minimize our own sins and to be more judgmental toward the sins of others.

Marc Roby: And such thinking leads to thinking less of other people and more of yourself, which is the opposite of true Christian character.

Dr. Spencer: And when people think about holiness only in these terms, they also tend to think of God as just better than they are, but not completely different than they are. But the reality is that he is radically different – it isn’t just a matter of degree. Which is why Isaiah was undone when he saw God as we learned in our last session.

Marc Roby: And while Isaiah’s experience may be the most exalted view of God given to anyone in the Bible, he was not the only person who had the experience of coming face-to-face, so to speak, with the holy God. I am thinking of Job’s confrontation with God, where Job declared, in Job 40:4-5, “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.”

Dr. Spencer: That is another great example. Putting his hand over his mouth was a polite way of saying that he shut up. And in Job 42:5-6 he proclaimed “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

We must come to grips with what is truly meant by the holiness of God, and when we do, we too will be quiet and repent. Boice writes that “in its original and most fundamental sense, holy is not an ethical concept at all. Rather it means that which is of the very nature of God and which therefore distinguishes him from everything else. It is what sets God apart from his creation. It has to do with his transcendence.”[3]

Marc Roby: And to be transcendent means to go beyond normal limits or to be beyond comprehension, or to not be subject to the limitations of our physical universe.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, those ideas can all apply. Boice goes on to say that holiness “is the characteristic of God that sets him apart from his creation. In this, holiness has at least four elements.” And he then goes on to present the four elements, which he says are: first, majesty, second, will, third, wrath and fourth, righteousness. The fourth element, righteousness, refers to the moral aspect of holiness and we don’t need to spend more time on that now.

Marc Roby: And majesty is also fairly clear. It refers to having sovereign power and authority, great dignity or grandeur. But what does Boice mean by saying one element of God’s holiness is will?

Dr. Spencer: I would summarize this point by saying that he is referring to the fact that God has personality. He wants to avoid any cold notion of holiness as an abstract concept. We must remember that God is personal. He has his sovereign will and he acts in accordance with it. For example, as we saw a couple of minutes ago from Philippians 2:9-11, it is God’s will that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Marc Roby: Alright. What about wrath? I doubt that many of our listeners would have mentioned that as an aspect of God’s holiness.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that quite a few would have left that off of their list. But many others agree with Boice on this point. Wrath is, as Boice put it, “an essential part of God’s holiness”[4]. He also points out that we must guard against thinking of God’s wrath in human terms. It is not an emotional response to some personal affront. Boice writes that “It is, rather, that necessary and proper stance of the holy God to all that opposes him.”[5] R.C. Sproul wrote that “If there is no wrath in God, then there is no justice in God. If there is no justice in God, then there is no goodness in God. And if there is no goodness in God, then there is no God. A God without wrath is not God.”[6]

Marc Roby: That’s a very strong statement. But I see the logic. I think it could be rephrased by saying that in order to be just, God must punish sin, which means he must have wrath in the sense that Boice noted, namely that of being the “necessary and proper stance of the holy God to all that opposes him.”

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a fair restatement. And it agrees with what God tells us in his word. In Romans 3:25-27 we read in part that “God presented him [meaning Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, … so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” In other words, sin, which is opposition to God, must be punished for God to be just. Jesus Christ died on the cross as a substitute for his chosen people, which is called substitutionary atonement. He took the punishment that they deserved, which satisfies God’s wrath and allows God to declare those who are united to Christ by faith just, meaning that the penalty due them for their sin has been paid.

Marc Roby: I remember we mentioned these verses in Session 73 as a great example of God’s justice, love and wisdom all working together.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we did mention them then. And we could have mentioned God’s wrath as well, because his wrath is not only an aspect of his holiness, but it is also obviously intimately linked with his justice. Sin must be punished by a holy and just God because it is opposition to him and he is the sovereign Lord.

Marc Roby: You mentioned before that Jesus is Lord whether people acknowledge that fact or not.

Dr. Spencer: And the lordship of God is a fundamental aspect of who God is, although that statement doesn’t do his lordship justice, it is far more than just an aspect of who God is. As the Creator and Judge of the universe he has created, he can’t be anything other than the Lord of his creation. The theologian John Frame writes that “God’s lordship is grounded in his eternal nature, and therefore in his attributes.”[7]

Frame has an interesting discussion about God’s attributes in The Doctrine of God. He writes that “We should think about God’s attributes as servants, within the covenant relationship.”[8] I don’t want to go too far off track here, but his point is that as creatures we think about God in language and concepts that we can understand, but at the same time these are based on God’s revelation to us, so they tell us things about God that are true.

Marc Roby: And, to stay on track with our current discussion, God certainly does reveal himself as holy, in fact thrice holy as we have seen in Isaiah 6:3.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. And although God’s lordship can be related to a number of God’s essential attributes, I think it is natural for us to talk about it in the context of his holiness because God’s holiness speaks about his being completely set apart from his creation, and by definition lordship also speaks about being completely set apart, to be more specific, to be above, to be in control.

Marc Roby: It sounds as though we are getting ready to switch topics. Talking about God’s holiness in terms of his being separate from his creation has led us to the concept of his lordship.

Dr. Spencer: We are about ready to switch, but we’ll have just a bit more to say about holiness next time first.

Marc Roby: Alright, I look forward to that, but we’re out of time for today.

[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] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 125

[3] Ibid, pg. 126

[4] Ibid, pg. 128

[5] Ibid

[6]R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Layman’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, P&R Publishing Co., 2006, Vol. 2, pg. 283

[7]John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 388

[8] Ibid, pg. 390

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: An unpopular truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: That’s an impossibly tall order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: I join with you in that prayer. And that concludes this week’s podcast. As always, we encourage our listeners to email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

 

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

[2] Mark Johnston, Let’s Study John, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003, pg. 50

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

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

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

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of goodness.

Dr. Spencer, we saw the goodness of God in providing us with Jesus Christ as our Redeemer in our previous session. What more do you want to say about God’s goodness?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s mercy, grace and patience. These three things are sometimes presented as separate attributes and sometimes as aspects of God’s goodness, which is how Wayne Grudem does it in his Systematic Theology, and I want to follow that plan as well.

Marc Roby: God’s mercy, grace and patience are a wonderful topic. And it makes me think of God’s response when Moses asked to see his glory. In Exodus 33:19 God said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a great passage. And the fact that God will have mercy on whom he chooses, which certainly implies that he doesn’t show mercy to everyone, clues us in to the important fact that mercy, grace and patience are not something we, as God’s creatures, deserve. They are all examples of God treating us in a way that we don’t deserve. They are closely related aspects of God’s goodness, and notice that God first said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you”.

Marc Roby: How does Grudem define these terms?

Dr. Spencer: Grudem says that “God’s mercy means God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress. God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. [and] God’s patience means God’s goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time.” [2]

If we look at the definition he gives for God’s grace, that it is “God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment”, we see that God’s mercy and patience are both gracious acts of God as well. After all, if God’s mercy is his goodness shown to those in misery and distress, we have to ask, “Why are they in misery and distress?”

Marc Roby: And the answer is that they are in misery and distress because of sin. Sin is the cause of all misery and distress in this life.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And then we must ask, “Whose fault is it that men sin, is that God’s fault or man’s fault?”

Marc Roby: And the answer to that would be that it is man’s fault. It certainly isn’t God’s fault.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right again. So, if misery is our fault, and God’s mercy is his showing goodness to us in our misery, it is certainly a gracious act. We deserve punishment for our sin, but God helps us in our resulting misery instead.

Marc Roby: I see your point. God’s mercy is certainly gracious.

Dr. Spencer: And so is his patience. Using Grudem’s definition, God’s patience is his “goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time.” But clearly, sinning deserves punishment and so it is gracious of God to be patient. God himself emphasized his gracious nature in his self-disclosure to Moses. In the verse from Exodus 33 that you read a couple of minutes ago God emphasized his gracious nature and he went on to do so even more. He told Moses to chisel out a couple of stone tablets and come up on Mt. Sinai to meet with him.

Marc Roby: We should point out for those who don’t remember the history that these stone tablets were the ones on which God wrote the Ten Commandments. They were needed to replace the original ones that had been given to Moses, which he had thrown down and smashed in anger at the sin of the people, who were worshipping a golden calf.

Dr. Spencer: And the fact that God was willing to give the law again, after the terrible sins of his people, is a great demonstration of his mercy and grace. A.W. Pink took note of this fact and wrote that “The particular character in which Jehovah was about to reveal Himself to Moses is best perceived by noting the place and circumstances of this gracious manifestation of Himself. It was upon Sinai, in connection with the giving of the Law.”[3] God’s law is a revelation of God’s character and a guide for his people. The fact that he would do this after their horrible apostasy is an amazing demonstration of his mercy, grace and patience.

Marc Roby: He would certainly have been justified in simply destroying them all.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he would have been fully justified. But let’s move on with what happened. Moses chiseled out the tablets and went up on Mt. Sinai to meet with God. And in the next Chapter, Exodus 34, we read of God’s fulfilling his promise to show Moses his goodness. In Verses 5 and 6 we read, “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”. Now we’ll get to the rest of what God said in a moment, but for now let’s take a look at this opening statement. It begins with God saying “The LORD, the LORD”. And the word LORD there is in all capital letters in our English Bibles.

Marc Roby: Which means that the Hebrew word is the tetragrammaton, the holy covenant name of God. Usually represented in English as Jehovah, or Yahweh.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. We discussed this name in Session 6. It comes from the Hebrew word that means “to be” and if spoken by God could be translated as “I Am”. This name emphasizes God’s self-existence – he is the only one who can say “I Am”. All other beings are dependent on him. But it is also the covenant name by which God revealed himself to Moses, so it speaks of his being the covenant Lord of his people. In any event, after repeating this covenant name twice for emphasis, the first thing God says about himself is that he is “the compassionate and gracious God”, or at least that is how our NIV renders it.  Other translations use the word mercy instead of compassion. For example, the ESV says “a God merciful and gracious”. According to Vine’s expository dictionary, the root Hebrew verb means “to have compassion, be merciful, [or] pity.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s very interesting. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the response he got, as we saw earlier, was this, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you” (Ex 33:19), and then in that revelation God says that he is merciful and gracious. It certainly looks as though the Bible would agree that mercy and grace are aspects of God’s goodness.

Dr. Spencer: I think it would. And the very next thing God said was that he is “slow to anger”, which is another way of saying patient. So it would be reasonable to conclude that the biblical teaching is that mercy, grace and patience are aspects of God’s goodness. Then Verse 6 ends by saying that God is “abounding in love and faithfulness”. The Hebrew word translated as love here is hesed, which is a very important word in the Old Testament. It refers primarily to God’s covenant love for his people. According to Vine’s it can be translated at various times as “loving-kindness; steadfast love; grace; mercy; faithfulness; goodness; [and] devotion”.[5]

The overall message is quite clear. When God showed his goodness to Moses, he showed him his gracious, merciful, patient, faithful and devoted love. God then finishes the sentence by saying “maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” And the “thousands” here is probably thousands of generations, as in Exodus 20:6. The emphasis is again on God’s faithfulness. And then the sentence ends by mentioning the extremely important fact that God is forgiving.

Marc Roby: What a wonderful self-revelation by God.

Dr. Spencer: It is very wonderful. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also read the rest of the verse. Verse 7 goes on with another sentence. God says about himself, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

Marc Roby: I’m afraid that most people would not consider that good.

Dr. Spencer: I’m pretty sure that you’re right about that. But we have to remember that God defines what is good, not us. And we also need to be careful to understand what is meant by God punishing. It could be that the punishing here primarily refers to God’s punishment of unrepentant sinners, which is what John Calvin thought.[6] That would certainly be good because it would comport with God’s justice. Or, it could be that this includes God’s punishing his people, in which case it is referring to his disciplining us in love, for our good, as a father disciplines his children, as we read in Hebrews 12:10, which says, “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Marc Roby: You also mentioned that in Session 75, that suffering can produce good fruit in this life.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it can. It keeps us humble, it causes us to look to God and pray, it makes us more capable of comforting others, it drives out sin, it helps us to fix our eyes on Jesus and our heavenly home, and that is just a partial list of its benefits. A life of uninterrupted pleasure is not the best life. God loves us too much, and is too good, to allow that for his children.

Marc Roby: It’s interesting to note that these verses from Exodus 34 are quoted in part at least seven times in the Old Testament.[7] For example, in Psalm 103:8 it says, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” And, in Joel 2:13, the prophet says, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, these verses are quoted that many times because God’s goodness is so important. But we must also remember the warning that “he does not leave the guilty unpunished”. I think the primary reason that is mentioned here, including the fact that our children and grandchildren will reap the bitter fruit of our sins, is to prevent us from presuming upon God’s love. Far too many professing Christians today seem to think that personal holiness is an old-fashioned Puritan idea and is not important at all. But the Bible is very clear, as we are told in Hebrews 12:14, that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” And it is absolutely impossible, given all that the Bible teaches on this subject, to interpret that as referring solely to the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Marc Roby: We must remember the simplicity of God again. We can’t think of any of his attributes in isolation. Therefore, his goodness to us, in terms of his mercy, grace, patience and forgiveness, must be considered in the light of his holiness and justice.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they absolutely must be. The great Puritan John Owen wrote that “There is no imagination wherewith man is besotted more foolish, none so pernicious, as this, that persons not purified, not sanctified, not made holy, in this life, should afterwards be taken into that state of blessedness which consists in the enjoyment of God.”[8] And Joel Beeke and Mark Jones wrote that “If God is so concerned about holiness, and we have such need of it, then, dear friends, you will not feel at home in a holy heaven if you did not strive for holiness on earth.”[9]

Marc Roby: Those are serious warnings.

Dr. Spencer: They are very serious, but they are also necessary. Many modern Christians seem to think that they can be totally absorbed with this world, completely in love with its pleasures, and completely indifferent to the promises and demands of the Bible, and yet be saved. But the apostle John tells us, in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Now John is not telling us that we are not allowed to enjoy the legitimate pleasures that God gives us in this life, that is not at all his point. But if earthly pleasure is what you treasure most, if there is no desire in your heart to be free from sin, to please God in this life and to see God face to face, you are not born again.

Marc Roby: That is, again, a very serious warning.

Dr. Spencer: And I think the seriousness of our sin problem is part of why we are told in Exodus 34:7 that God “punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” However you interpret that verse, it is certainly a fact that my sin affects my children, grandchildren and so on.

If a man is a drunk, that definitely affects his family. If a man commits a crime and goes to jail, that definitely affects his family. And even if you take something much less drastic and look at a man who is lazy and uninvolved in raising his children and managing his home, that affects his family. This is an indisputable fact. And it should cause us all to be far more careful with how live our lives. Our sin affects those we love.

Marc Roby: And we should appreciate God’s goodness. His calling us up to holy living is really nothing more than calling us up to do what is best for ourselves and those whom we love.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And when we fail, and we all do in many ways, we can come to God in repentance and faith, and he is merciful, gracious and patient in his dealing with us. We must not presume upon his mercy, but it is still a great comfort. Our God is good.

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

Dr. Spencer: Well, there is one more aspect of God’s goodness that we have yet to look at, and that is God’s love. This is also sometimes treated as a separate attribute, as Grudem does, but it doesn’t really matter whether we consider it as a separate attribute or not, in either case we need to spend some time looking at it.

It is interesting to notice that the Westminster Shorter Catechism mentions God’s goodness, but not his love, in its definition of God. Question 4 asks, “What is God?” And the answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” I haven’t looked into this, but I assume that the Westminster divines were including love under the rubric of God’s goodness.

Marc Roby: Alright, how do you want to proceed with examining God’s love?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first of all, I need to say that I can’t imaging a more appropriate topic for this time of year. The greatest expression of God’s love by far is his sending his own eternal Son to become incarnate and to be an atoning sacrifice to redeem his chosen people. Grudem defines God’s attribute of love this way; “God’s love means that God eternally gives of himself to others.”

Marc Roby: And God has given more than we can imagine. One of the most famous verses in the Bible of course is John 3:16, where we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Dr. Spencer: That is an amazing statement. And people often forget that it begins with the word “for”, which implies it has something to do with explaining the verses that comes before it. In this case, Christ had been telling Nicodemus that a person has to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven. He concluded, in Verses 14 and 15, by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So, John 3:16 is explaining why everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Marc Roby: And that is a wonderful message for Christmas, which is good, because we are out of time for today and we can look at that next time, which is our last session before Christmas. Let me remind our listeners that they can send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will do our best to respond.

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

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 200-201

[3] A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, Moody Press, 1981, pg. 350

[4] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 43

[5] Ibid, pg. 142

[6] Calvin, John, The Four Last Books of Moses, In the Form of a Harmony, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. III, Baker Books, 2009, pg. 387

[7] See also Nu 14:18, Ne 9:17, Ps 86:15, 145:8 and Jonah 4:2

[8] quoted in Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 528

[9] Ibid, pg. 535

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