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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: Yes. He was born again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: That is a glorious thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: OK, let’s do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: OK, that is rather shocking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: I would have to say no one.

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

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

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

Marc Roby: And that is great place to end for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

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

[2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 475

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

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, pp 156-157

[6] Ibid, pg. 155

[7] Ibid, pg. 159

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Ibid, pg. 504

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid, Paragraph 1448

[9] Ibid, Paragraph 1471

[10] Ibid, Paragraph 1424

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. We are in the midst of discussing conversion, or repentance and faith. We have finished discussing repentance and have noted that true repentance and faith always occur together, they are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, we are ready to move on to discuss faith. So, Dr. Spencer, how would you like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: By noting that faith is absolutely central to Christianity. Christianity is not a social club or a self-help program. The focus of biblical Christianity is the salvation of sinners. In other words, it is God’s plan for how hell-bound rebels can be turned into heaven-bound children of God. In Ephesians 2:8 the apostle Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”.[1]

Marc Roby: That is a very well-known verse and the most amazing gift anyone could ever imagine.

Dr. Spencer: And the verse is well known for good reason. It is extremely important. First of all, it establishes that faith is the instrumental cause of our salvation; we are saved through faith. And, secondly, it establishes that we are saved by grace. In other words, it is not something we have earned. We don’t deserve it. As Paul says, it is the gift of God.

Marc Roby: Now, what do you mean when you say that faith is the instrumental cause of our salvation?

Dr. Spencer: The idea of delineating the different causes of an event goes back to Aristotle. He spoke about four causes; the material, formal, final and efficient causes of an event.[2] If we think about some statue, maybe the Lincoln memorial for example, the material cause of the statue is the stone from which it is made. The formal cause is the plan the artist followed – in this case the likeness of President Lincoln. The final cause is the ultimate purpose for which the statue is made, in this example the purpose is to honor and remember President Lincoln. And the efficient cause is the artist himself, he is the one who turned the stone into the statue according to the plan. Now Thomas Aquinas also spoke about the instrumental cause, which in the case of our statue would be the chisels and other tools used by the artist to shape the stone.[3]

But getting back to faith, it is a tool, if you will, for accomplishing a purpose.

Marc Roby: And that purpose is the salvation of sinners as you noted earlier.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Man has a very serious fundamental problem. We are sinners, deserving of damnation, and there is absolutely nothing we can ever do in our own strength to pay for our sins and earn salvation. If we had to solve this problem on our own, it would be hopeless. We will all stand before the sovereign God in judgment someday, and he knows our every thought, word and deed. He is absolutely just and perfect and he knows all of the countless ways in which each one of us has violated his holy law. If we are judged on our own merits, we will all spend eternity in hell.

Marc Roby: But, praise God, he sovereignly chose to save a people for himself. And, as you read earlier from Ephesians 2:8, salvation is a gift given to his people by grace, through faith. Which then begs the question, what does it mean to be saved through faith? How is it the instrumental cause?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the beginning of the biblical answer is given to us in 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.” God’s love is the ultimate cause, and he has determined that this salvation comes through faith in his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, the unique God-man.

Marc Roby: OK. That speaks about those who believe in Christ being saved, and about God’s love being the original motivation, but it doesn’t really explain how faith is the instrument. What is it that faith accomplishes?

Dr. Spencer: Faith unites us to Jesus Christ. God’s plan of salvation in a nutshell is this: Jesus Christ is the second person of the holy Trinity become man. It was man who sinned and stands guilty before God, so in God’s plan of redemption it had to be man who paid the penalty. But no mere man is capable of paying our penalty, so God became man in Jesus Christ. Christ then lived a perfect, sinless life of obedience, completely fulfilling God’s law, and then willfully gave himself as an atoning sacrifice on the cross to pay for the sins of his people.

Marc Roby: No matter how often you hear or read about God’s plan of redemption it never ceases to be amazing. The love of God is simply beyond our ability to fully comprehend or even describe.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. But to finish the basic plan of salvation, Christ paid the penalty for his people, but each individual person needs to be united to Christ in order for his payment to be placed into their account. It is faith that unites us to Christ. We are all born sinners and are represented by our first father, Adam. As we discussed in Session 106, when Adam sinned, it was as a representative for all of his posterity. So long as he remains our representative, we are damned.

But Jesus Christ is called the second Adam[4]. If we place our faith in him, he becomes our representative. Paul wrote about this in Romans 5:16-17 where we read, “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Marc Roby: We see that word gift again. Only this time, the Scripture says that we are given a gift of righteousness.

Dr. Spencer: Because that is what we need in order to be saved! We are guilty sinners. We need our sins to be paid for, but that alone won’t save us. We need to be righteous in order to come into God’s presence. And, as I have said, we can’t do righteous works to earn this for ourselves. Paul wrote in Romans 3:20-21, that “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”

Marc Roby: And when Paul refers to “the Law and the Prophets”, he means the Old Testament, which were the only Scriptures available to the earliest Christians.

Dr. Spencer: He does mean the Old Testament, yes. No one is able to perfectly keep the law, and so, as Paul says, by looking at our behavior in light of God’s law we become conscious of our sin. But the Old Testament also tells us about God’s promised Messiah, who is Jesus Christ. The righteousness from God that Paul refers to is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the only person to ever perfectly keep the law. And Paul then goes on, in Verses 22-24, to say, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

This is glorious! We obtain the righteousness from God through faith. In other words, by believing in the one whom God has sent as a propitiation for our sins, we are united to him by that faith. We are no longer counted as in Adam, but we are now in Christ. There are no exceptions; we are all sinners and the only possible way to be justified is to be justified freely by God’s grace, through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: We again see that it is by God’s grace, just as we read in Ephesian 2:8, and we see that it is free, which is the same as saying it is a gift. But we also see a new term here; Paul says that we are “justified” through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: And we will talk about justification in more detail in a later podcast, but we have given a brief definition before. In Session 152 we said that justification “is a legal declaration wherein God declares a sinner to be righteous in his sight”. As I said, we need righteousness to be saved, which means both that our past sins must somehow be blotted out and that we actually come to possess a positive righteousness that comes from perfect obedience. This is what Christ did to redeem us. He took our sins upon himself, paid the penalty for us, and then gave us his perfect righteousness in return.

Marc Roby: That is glorious exchange. Praise God! We have noted before that it is called the double transaction, or double imputation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, praise God indeed. We’ve quoted 2 Corinthians 5:21 a number of times because it is the very best single verse in the Bible to show this double transaction. It says, “God made him”, which is speaking about Jesus Christ, “who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” When it says that we might become the righteousness of God “in him” it means in union with him. In other words, by having him as our representative before God, rather than Adam.

Marc Roby: And that union is the result of our placing our faith in the person and redeeming work of Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And that is why faith is so important. Without it, no one will ever be saved. But we must be careful to have a biblical definition of faith. The meaning of faith is the issue that divided the church at the time of the reformation and it still divides the church today. Not just protestants from Roman Catholics, but true protestant churches from false ones also. There are many churches today who call themselves protestant, or evangelical, or New Testament, or whatever, who either deny this doctrine by not believing in the true, historical, substitutionary physical death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ, or by perverting the meaning of true faith.

Marc Roby: For example, by saying that faith does not include repentance as we have already discussed.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is, perhaps, the most common way of perverting the biblical gospel today. True, saving faith necessarily implies that you accept God’s just judgment that you are a sinner deserving eternal wrath and that you can do nothing to save yourself. Therefore, you repent of all your sins, turn away from them, and in simple faith accept God’s gracious offer of salvation as a gift. No one is able to do this unless he is born again first. This is true, penitent faith. It is well expressed in the glorious old hymn Rock of Ages.

Marc Roby: Yes, let me read the second and third verses of that hymn. We read, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfil thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears for ever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”[5]

Dr. Spencer: That is beautiful, and completely biblical. Nothing I can ever do is able to atone for my sin. Only Christ can do that. Therefore, I repent of all my works, which are all tainted by sin, and I cling by faith to Jesus Christ, the Fountain who is able to wash me of my sins and clothe me in his righteousness. This why John Murray speaks about true saving faith as a “penitent faith” and true godly repentance as a “believing repentance”.[6]

Marc Roby: I like those expressions; they are simple, but accurate, and they express the very important point on which we have also spent quite a bit of time.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. And Murray expounded on this idea when he wrote, “Repentance reminds us that if the faith we profess is a faith that allows us to walk in the ways of this present evil world, in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, in the fellowship of the works of darkness, then our faith is but mockery and deception. True faith is suffused with penitence. And just as faith is not only a momentary act but an abiding attitude of trust and confidence directed to the Saviour, so repentance results in constant contrition. The broken spirit and the contrite heart are abiding marks of the believing soul.”[7]

Marc Roby: That is very good. And speaking about a broken spirit and a contrite heart does not describe much of what passes for Christianity today.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why it is so important to have a biblical understanding of the word faith. We are saved by faith alone. That is a true, biblical statement. But, as Murray said, if our faith allows us to walk “in the fellowship of the works of darkness”, it is a “mockery and deception”. Such faith is not biblical, saving faith. It will lead us straight to hell. And when he speaks of the works of darkness, that kind of language is laughed at in most modern churches, but it is very descriptive. Darkness is the absence of light. And God’s Word “is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” we are told in Psalm 119:105.

Marc Roby: Certainly when you judge things by God’s Word, our society is filled with moral darkness; sexual immorality, drunkenness, drugs, covetousness, selfishness and disregard for God’s Word and his ways are rampant.

Dr. Spencer: They certainly are. And is rare to visit a modern church and find any real reverence for God. You often feel more like you’ve walked into a coffee shop where everyone is simply gathering to have a cup of coffee, maybe a donut, and a pleasant conversation with a friend.

Marc Roby: With a little bit of uplifting music and a couple of good stories thrown in for good measure.

Dr. Spencer: Unfortunately, that’s true. But that is not real worship. God has some very harsh words for what people sometimes think of as worship. In Amos 5:21-24 God told his people, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” And the righteousness God speaks of here must, of course, be according to his Word, not our fancies.

Marc Roby: That is a severe warning. And you can see how the definition of faith is very important. A truly penitent faith, as Murray called it, will approach God with reverence and awe, you could say, biblically, with fear and trembling.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12 that we are to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling”. And that is completely consistent with Paul also telling us in Romans 8:15 that “you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” “Abba” is an Aramaic word that could perhaps be rendered “daddy”. It is an intimate term. But this is not inconsistent with a reverential fear and trembling. We need to have a penitent faith, not a presumptuous faith. Faith is not simply a human decision to “accept” Jesus. As we’ve said, true saving faith is impossible unless a person is born again.

Marc Roby: The stakes are certainly very high. I’m sure the people who came to Christ on the day of judgement crying “Lord, Lord” in Matthew 7:21 would have said that they had faith in Christ.

Dr. Spencer: I’m quite sure they would have said that. But they were not born again and we read Christ’s terrifying answer in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

Marc Roby: Now, that makes if very clear how important it is to have a proper, biblical, penitent faith. And I look forward to hearing more about real, saving faith, but it will have to wait for next time. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to answer you.

[1] 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] The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Vol. II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, pg.156

[3] Ibid, pg. 159

[4] See 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 and Romans 5:12-21

[5] Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition, Great Commission Publications, 1990, #499

[6] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 113

[7] Ibid, pg. 116

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. In our session last week we were discussing regeneration, or new birth, and we made the points that it is a sovereign, monergistic, irresistible work of God. He causes us to realize that we are sinners in need of salvation and then enables us to respond to the gospel offer with repentance and faith. So, Dr. Spencer, how do you want to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I first want to say a little more about the idea we introduced at the end of our previous session; namely, that the Puritans referred to the Word of God as the instrumental cause of regeneration. We had discussed at length the fact that when Christ told Nicodemus you must be born of water and the Spirit, the water referred to purification, and the Word of God is used by the Spirit to bring purification. It teaches us that we are sinners in need of a Savior.

Marc Roby: And what else do you want to say about that now?

Dr. Spencer: Well, if you think about this for a few minutes you will realize that this view is inconsistent with the definition we have been using for regeneration. I noted before that we don’t want to get hung up on terminology, but we have been viewing regeneration, as many modern theologians do, as an instantaneous and immediate work of God in the heart of man, which makes him a new creation. John Murray clearly states how this definition is inconsistent with the Puritan view. He wrote, “If regeneration is an immediate act of creative power it cannot be said to be wrought through the instrumentality of the Word of God in the sense of the gospel.”[1] And this is because the Word of God is addressed to our minds, but if regeneration is an immediate work of God, our minds have nothing to do with it. It is something God does to us.

Marc Roby: How then does Murray explain the Scriptures we examined; for example, 1 Peter 1:23, which says, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” [2]

Dr. Spencer: The answer is actually quite simple. Murray points out that, “It must be that regeneration is used in two distinct senses in the New Testament: (1) in the restricted sense of recreative action on the part of God in which there is no intrusion in contribution of agency on our part; (2) in a more inclusive sense, that is to say, a sense broad enough to include the saving response and activity of our consciousness, a saving activity which is always through the Word of the truth of the gospel. In this sense it is virtually synonymous with the word conversion.”[3]

Marc Roby: And, of course, that term conversion refers to repentance and faith, which is the response of a born-again person to the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. I had mentioned in Session 149 that theologians used to think of the effectual call and regeneration as synonymous, or they thought of regeneration as part of the effectual call. When we speak about the Word of God being an instrumental cause, we are, I think speaking about what should more properly be termed the effectual call, rather than regeneration itself.

The important thing to realize here is that when you look at the Biblical data, things are sometimes combined. It is difficult to completely separate out at all times God’s calling, regeneration and our response in repentance and faith, or conversion. Nevertheless, it is absolutely essential to recognize the miraculous and gracious work that God must do to give us new hearts and enable us to respond to the gospel call. Without that monergistic, sovereign work of God, our response is guaranteed to be a rejection of God’s offer and a suppression of the truth.

Marc Roby: Yes, Paul makes this very clear in Romans Chapters 1 through 3.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he does. The bottom line is that the exact means by which God brings about our new birth is not explained to us and I suspect we wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway. It is not a metaphysical change, in other words, it is not a change to the nature of our being. The fall didn’t change the essence of man’s being, he is still a rational and moral creature made in the image of God.[4] Rather, sin brought about an ethical change; man became an enemy of God.

Marc Roby: And so, regeneration is also an ethical change, which is why the Bible speaks about God giving us a new heart.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. There is no physical measurement that you could make to determine whether or not someone has been born again. God’s ways are often inscrutable. But there is value in recognizing that, whatever terminology we use, God draws us to himself, which almost always involves both particular circumstances in our lives and our hearing the gospel, and then God also regenerates us, which enables us to respond positively to this gospel call in repentance and faith. The details of this process vary from person to person, but in every single case three elements are included: first, the presentation of the gospel message; second, God’s sovereign, monergistic work of regeneration; and third, the voluntary response of the person in repentance and faith.

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

Dr. Spencer: I want to emphasize what a radical change regeneration brings about. This is especially important today because so many churches have watered down what it means to be a Christian and are leading people on the broad way to hell by telling them that they are saved when they aren’t.

Marc Roby: We’ve read the frightening warning that Jesus Christ gives us in Matthew 7 before. In Verses 21 through 23 he said, “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. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Dr. Spencer: That is a terrifying warning, and it is meant to be. If you think about the situation from Satan’s perspective for moment …

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute, that doesn’t sound good. I don’t want to think like Satan does.

Dr. Spencer: True enough, but we need to understand our enemy in order to defeat him. In any event, if you think about this from Satan’s perspective, you realize that the place he would most like to see people is sitting in the pews of a church every Sunday morning, believing in their hearts that they are worshipping God and on their way to heaven, when in fact they are on the broad way that leads straight to hell.

Marc Roby: Yes, I see your point. That would make Satan’s job very easy. Thinking you are already saved is a great inoculation against hearing the gospel call.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. And Paul warned the church in Corinth about false preachers. They had infiltrated the church after Paul established it and in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 he writes about these false ministers. He says, “such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”

We have to realize that false teaching does not usually come in a form that makes it blatantly obvious. False preachers are very often smooth, they speak well, they smile, they appear to be kind and loving, they quote the Bible and have degrees and, as we read in the passage from Matthew 7, they may even appear to prophecy, to drive out demons and to perform miracles in the name of Jesus.

Marc Roby: And so how are people to recognize these false preachers?

Dr. Spencer: By knowing the Word of God and recognizing that these false teachers are perverting it. You learn how to detect counterfeit money, in part, by becoming intimately familiar with the genuine article and the same is true for false teaching about God. You must know the truth in order to recognize error.

And by far the most common perversion of the gospel in our day and age is a so-called seeker friendly easy believism.  It is a different gospel that says you can have Jesus Christ as your Savior without his being your Lord. It tells you that if you just admit you are sinner and pray a prayer you will be saved, and you don’t have to forsake your sins. You don’t have to do battle with your old nature. It says that obedience is optional. It says that you simply decide to accept Jesus. This is sometimes called decisional salvation.

But think about that carefully for a moment. If every person is able to simply decide whether or not to accept Jesus, then there is no internal change necessary and without radical internal change, no radical change in behavior is possible. There may be some self-generated moral reformation, but nothing radical. We will not be new creations. We will not be obedient. We will not be fundamentally any different than the world and we will be rejected by Christ.

Marc Roby: We must admit however, that we do have to make a decision in order to become a Christian.

Dr. Spencer: Well of course we do. But it is a decision which an unbeliever cannot make until and unless God has regenerated him. As Christ said in John 3:3 and 5, you must be born again to see or enter the kingdom of God. In Ephesians 2:1-5 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. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 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.”

Now, listen to that politically-incorrect language! We were all by nature objects of wrath, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature. We were dead in our transgressions and sins. But then, praise God, listen to the language of the true gospel message. God, because of his great love for us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead! No dead person ever decides to follow the true and living God, he must be made alive first.

Marc Roby: You were certainly right to call Paul’s language politically incorrect.

Dr. Spencer: It absolutely is, but it is the truth. And we need to see how radical regeneration is. Regenerate people have been given a new heart and a new Spirit as we read in Ezekiel 36:26, they have gone from being dead to being alive as we just saw in Ephesians 2, they have come from darkness to light Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:8, and they have been translated from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God as we can see from Ephesians 2:2 combined with Colossians 1:13, they are new creations Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17.

New birth is not a result of some decision that we make, it is something done to us by God and is the cause of a radical and pervasive change in our being, which is nothing less than a new creation. And then the first work of obedience done by that new creation is to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Dr. Spencer: I’m glad you included Verse 10 because many people leave it out. They like to hear that we are saved through faith and not by works because they think that means all they have to do is pray the sinner’s prayer. But Verse 10 makes it clear that that isn’t the case. We are God’s workmanship, in other words he has done a mighty work of transformation in all true Christians, and we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works! If we don’t have any good works, we are not God’s workmanship and we have not been born again. Our good works do not in any way earn our salvation, but if we don’t have any, then we have not been born again and any claim we make to being Christians is simply not true. We will be like the people in Matthew 7, saying “Lord, Lord” only to hear Jesus tell us to depart because he never knew us.

Marc Roby: Of course many liberal churches do help with feeding the poor and so on and they would point to those as good works.

Dr. Spencer: And those certainly can be good works. But they can also be done with wrong motives, arrogantly thinking that I am doing something wonderful and earning some reward from God, or simply being focused on being a “good person” and “making this world a better place” rather than living for the glory of God. Good works begin in the heart, by recognizing our need to put our sins to death and recognizing the Creator/creature distinction; we are just creatures, wholly dependent on God. Truly good works must be done for God’s glory, whether we are helping feed the poor or just doing our normal jobs.

Good works require complete submission to the will of God. That means living in accordance with his Word. And his Word says that we are to work six days a week, that we are to honor the Sabbath, that we are to be honest and hard working, that we should not be in debt, that sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman, that we shouldn’t get drunk and so on.

Marc Roby: To some that sounds like a lot of rules.

Dr. Spencer: Well, people often try to dismiss any mention of holy living as mere rule keeping, or even call it being legalistic. But they should read the sermon on the mount. It was Jesus Christ himself who said, in Matthew 5:20, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” And he went on to say, in Verse 22, that “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” And then, in Verse 28 he said that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And in Verse 32 we read that Jesus said, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” And he goes on and on.

You can view this as just a set of rules if you like, but Jesus is explaining the true meaning of the Ten Commandments, which are still applicable to Christians. They are a summary of God’s unchanging holy law and a transcript of his unchanging character. And we are told many times in the New Testament that if we love God we will obey his commands.

Marc Roby: That’s not a popular idea today.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s why it is so important for us to bring it up! Jesus said, in Luke 16:15, “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” We must abide by God’s standards, not the standards of this world. And God’s standards are very, very different than those of the world we live in.

New birth brings us into God’s kingdom and gives us an entirely new set of priorities. We are given an eternal perspective so that we are not looking for a reward in this life. In fact, we know that we will have serious troubles in this life.

Marc Roby: Jesus said, as we read in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And Paul wrote in Philippians 1:29, “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, talk about something that is unpopular! The true gospel promises us trouble in this life, but a great reward in the next. The health, wealth and prosperity movement, also called the Word of Faith movement, is a wicked sham. Jesus does care for all of his people and he does want what is best for them, but he wants what is truly best for them now and eternally, not what is most pleasurable in this short life. That is why the apostle Paul wrote, in Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” And, in 1 Peter 4:13 he told us to “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” He also wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:17, that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Marc Roby: Now that is not the message that the Word of Faith preachers deliver.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. They deliver a message of “hope” for pleasure in this life, but it is an empty, false hope even for this life and it is an eternal death sentence. Regenerate people want to know and do God’s will for his glory. And when you look to Christ you see the supreme example of what that can mean in this life. As he prayed the night before his crucifixion, we read in Matthew 26:39 that he said, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” And we know what the Father’s will was. It was for Jesus to drink the cup of God’s wrath to the full on the cross, bearing the penalty that we deserved, so that we might be saved.

And while none of us are called to suffer as Christ did, we do nonetheless have many trials and troubles in this life. We trust, as Jesus did, that there is a good purpose in them, that they will all redound to God’s greater glory and that they cannot be compared with the great glory and joy that will be ours throughout eternity if we persevere to the end of this life.

Marc Roby: And all true Christians look forward to that eternal glory.  Are we done with the topic of regeneration?

Dr. Spencer: We are for now, but I’d like to close with one more quote from Murray. He wrote, “If it were not the case that in regeneration we are passive, the subjects of an action of which God alone is the agent, there would be no gospel at all. For unless God by sovereign, operative grace had turned our enmity to love and our disbelief to faith we would never yield the response of faith and love.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a perfect place to end for today.  So, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would appreciate hearing from you.

[1] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 196

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

[3] Murray, op. cit., pg. 197

[4] E.g., see Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed, P&R Publishing, 2008, pg. 289

[5] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 100

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Today, we are resuming our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. In our last theology session, which was Session 144, we presented the order of salvation, or ordo salutis, as given by John Murray. He lists the elements in the following order: effectual call, regeneration, repentance and faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. We then started to examine the effectual call, by which God’s elect are brought into his kingdom.

Today I want to say a few more things about the effectual call and use them as a segue into our discussion of regeneration. We noted in Session 144 that the effectual call and regeneration are intimately linked and that in the past some theologians have treated them as being synonymous, or have thought of regeneration as a part of the effectual call.

And, while we want to be as precise in our theology as we can be, I don’t think there is any benefit in getting too hung up on the exact terminology that is used. We just want to be careful to define what we mean by the terms we use and, more importantly, to present the clear biblical teaching on the subject.

I personally have a hard time seeing how you can fully separate effectual calling and regeneration since the power that makes the call effectual is God’s power to regenerate us. In fact, in Session 144 I deliberately avoided talking about a difference between what the Westminster Shorter Catechism said and what John Murray said.

One of the questions we looked at from the Catechism was Question 31, and the answer given there is, “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” Notice that the answer began by saying that “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit”.

Whereas, in the following discussion we presented biblical support for Murray’s view that “God the Father [] is the specific agent in the effectual call”.[1] For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:9 we read, “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”[2] That verse clearly distinguishes God from his Son, meaning that, as is often the case in the New Testament, God refers to the Father. And then the verse explicitly says that it is the Father who calls his people into fellowship.

And so we have a difference in the sense that the Catechism says the effectual call is a work of the Holy Spirit, while Murray says that the Father is the specific agent in calling his people. We presented Murray’s view because it agrees with the Bible, as the verses we examined bear out. Wayne Grudem also agrees with this view and provides further scriptural support in his Systematic Theology.[3] One reason I think it is important to be clear that the Father calls us is to oppose the unbiblical idea that the Father is a distant, angry God who doesn’t want to save anyone but somehow gets convinced by the pleadings of his Son, who is thought of as being more merciful and loving. Which is, unfortunately, a trap into which some of modern evangelicalism falls. And that’s why this issue is important. We must always remember that there is only one God, who exists in three persons, and that God is unchangeable. The common idea that God is somehow different in the Old and New Testaments is completely unbiblical.

But we must also remember that God is triune and the different persons of the godhead are clearly presented to us in the Bible as having different roles in salvation. We honor God and worship him correctly when we believe, pray and worship with these biblical distinctions properly kept in mind. So, that leaves us with the question of how to resolve this difference between the Catechism and Murray and Grudem.

Let me make two important points before we deal with this difference though. First, it isn’t absolutely necessary for us to resolve the difference. Neither the Catechism nor Murray nor Grudem are inspired; only the Bible is the inspired Word of God. So if theologians disagree with each other our duty is simply to determine who is correctly interpreting the Bible. We don’t need to find a way to reconcile them. And then, secondly, this is far from an essential issue in the faith.

But, with that said, in my mind I resolve the issue by realizing that the call is made effectual by regeneration, which is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. And so both Murray and the Catechism are right, they are just using slightly different definitions of the phrase effectual calling.

The fact that regeneration, or new birth, is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit is seen explicitly in Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus. We read in John 3:5-6, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” According to this statement by Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit that gives new birth, in other words, that regenerates believers.

Therefore, the biblical answer, which is the one that matters, is that the Father is the specific agent in calling, as Murray said, and the Holy Spirit is the primary agent in regeneration, which we will see later Murray also says. Therefore, when Murray criticizes the Catechism for not saying the Father is the agent in the effectual call, he has a point, although I think a minor one.[4] The Catechism does not separate the effectual call from regeneration as Murray and most modern theologians do. And, I should add, that the Bible itself never uses the phrase “effectual call”, it simply speaks about a call.

As we noted in Session 144, some theologians have considered regeneration to be a part of the effectual call, or have considered the two to be essentially synonymous. And that is the case with the Westminster standards, by which I mean the Westminster Confession, the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism all together. The Confession doesn’t have a separate chapter on regeneration, that topic is covered by the chapter on the effectual call.[5]

I would say the biblical testimony supports the idea that the Father is the specific agent in the call, and the Holy Spirit is the primary, but not sole, agent in regeneration, which is what makes the call effectual. I should mention that the Father is also presented as being active in regeneration, but I will hold off on saying more about that until later, the primary agent is clearly the Holy Spirit.

We always want to be careful to not go too far and make distinctions that are not made in the Bible itself. The bottom line is that the same sermon can be given to two people and for one of them it is only the general call and does not lead to salvation, while for the other it is accompanied by the Spirit’s regenerating work and leads to conversion and salvation. In that case we could say that it was the effectual call. The difference is found in whether or not God works in the heart of the person who hears the gospel.

We need to remember what Paul said. He wrote to the church in Corinth about preaching the Word of God in Troas and said that through his preaching God was spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. Then, in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 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.”

These statements by Paul make clear what the difference is between the general call and the effectual call. It is the power of God that makes the call efficacious in some and not in others.

We also need to realize that God’s effectual call cannot be ignored. As the name “effectual” clearly states, we cannot refuse this call. Just as no one can accept God’s offer of salvation unless he causes the person to be born again, so also no one whom God has chosen to save can possibly reject this call. Jesus himself said, as we read in John 6:44, that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

We have spoken about this verse several times before and pointed out that the Greek word translated as “draws” is ἑλκύω (helkuō), which could also be rendered as drag. In fact, the same word is used in Acts 16:9 where we read that Paul and Silas were dragged into the marketplace, and it is used in Acts 21:30 where we read about Paul being dragged from the temple, and again in John 21:11 where we read that Peter dragged a fishing net ashore. Therefore, John 6:44 argues persuasively that when God draws people, he does so in such a way that their response is certain.

And the way that he does that is through new birth, or regeneration. When we are born again, our nature is changed. In that new nature we are enabled to see the wretchedness of our sin and the loveliness of Christ. We are able to appreciate the graciousness of God’s offer of salvation and, as a result, we freely make the choice to repent and believe. So, it would not be biblical to say that God forces us to repent and believe, we do that willingly. But he does change our nature in such a way that it absolutely guarantees we will freely respond to his call with repentance and faith. That is why the call is effectual.

We could say that God does not force us to do something we don’t want to do, but he does change us in such a way that we want to do what he wants us to do. Or we could say that he does not force us, which by definition implies doing something against our will, but rather, he changes our fundamental nature so that our will is different and we willingly do what he desires.

In Romans 4:17 Paul wrote about Abraham and said, “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” God takes sinners, who are dead in their transgressions and sins as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1 and makes them alive in Jesus Christ. He calls things that are not as though they are. He gives us new hearts as we read in Ezekiel 36:26. We’ve gone over this before so I don’t want to repeat too much, but the point is that we must, as Jesus told Nicodemus in John Chapter 3 Verses 3 and 5, be born again in order to be saved. And more to the point in our present discussion, once we have been born again, we are absolutely certain to respond favorably to God’s call to repent and believe.

And this call is a command, not just an offer. In Acts 17:30 we read that “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” And John wrote, in 1 John 3:23 that this is God’s command, “to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” But, in our natural state we cannot obey God’s commands to repent and believe. Paul wrote in Romans 8:7 that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.”

Nevertheless, the effectual call comes with power and is guaranteed to enable us to obey by repenting and believing. And this is God’s purpose as we read in Romans 8:28-30. In Verse 28 we are told, “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.” And then Verses 29-30 go on to tell us what that purpose is. We read, “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.”

What a glorious and gracious purpose! God’s purpose is nothing less than the complete salvation of his people. He has predestined a certain group of people from eternity past to be called, justified and glorified in his sight.

And to be glorified, as we will see in a later session, means that we will be made perfectly sinless and will be given an imperishable body fit for living in heaven with God and each other for all eternity.

The effectual call also has specific content. While God can certainly work in people’s lives in many different ways to draw them to Christ, at some point the gospel must be presented to them and the normal way for that to happen is for another human being to present it.

Paul tells us this explicitly in Romans 10:13-14, where we read that “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

There is specific information that must be known for a person to be saved. Wayne Grudem does a good job of discussing this fact and he lists three elements that must be present in the gospel call: first, an explanation of the facts concerning salvation, second, an invitation to personally respond to these facts in repentance and faith, and third, God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life.[6]

With regard to the facts concerning salvation, Grudem first says that all people have sinned. And Paul tells us this clearly in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Second, we must tell people that the penalty we owe because of our sin is eternal death. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death”, and in Matthew 25:46 Christ told us that the unsaved “will go away to eternal punishment”. These two points together comprise the bad news that we are all sinners deserving God’s wrath.

The third point Grudem mentions is the good news that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. In Romans 5:8 Paul wrote that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is absolutely incomprehensible love, especially when you consider that Christ died for people who were his enemies.

And then, after presenting these basic facts, Grudem’s second element is obviously necessary. We must call on people to personally repent of their sins and place their trust in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice. And his third element must also be there; we must tell people of God’s promise that if they will repent and believe they will be saved from eternal hell and will instead go to heaven based on the merits of Christ.

I can’t imagine a better promise than that. And with that, we are out of time for today. So, let me remind you that you can email your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we will do our best to answer you.

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 89

[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] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 692

[4] He does not explicitly criticize it in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, but he does on pg. 165 of his Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977

[5] Note: The effectual call and regeneration are separate topics in in Murray’s book Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Later in his career however, he changed his mind about whether or not the topic of the call should be defined in any way by the response it elicits from the believer. See his Chapters on The Call and Regeneration in Vol. Two of his Collected Writings, especially footnote 2 on pg. 167. On page 172 of his Collected Writings, in the chapter on regeneration, which represents his older view, he wrote, “God’s call is an efficacious summons and therefore carries with it, carries as it were in its bosom, the grace that ensures the requisite response on the part of the subject.” It is unclear to me exactly how this grace is related to regeneration itself, they do not appear to be synonymous. So, perhaps, it is this grace that in Murray’s view makes the call efficacious and yet distinguished from regeneration itself? I’m not sure.

[6] Grudem, op. cit., pp 694-695

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why the New Testament epistles always contain both indicatives and imperatives. The indicatives are there to instruct us about certain facts and the imperatives are there to command us how we are to live in the light of those facts. And we are given pastors and teachers to help us understand and apply the Word properly. We read in Ephesians 4:11-16 that it was Christ himself who, “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And remember that you can send your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

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

[2] In the Foreword to Nancy Pearcey’s book, Total Truth; Liberating Christianity form its Cultural Captivity, Crossway Books, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: That is the most terrifying thought imaginable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: And what are those?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: What difference is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s pretty obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. 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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