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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, that is, repentance and faith. Dr. Spencer, we have established that true, saving faith has content, but we don’t want to come up with a formal list of essential doctrines. The real issue is one of trust. We have said that a born-again person trusts the truthfulness of the revelation he has received, which may be a more or less detailed presentation of the gospel. So, how would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at what our Lord said after the Last Supper and before he was arrested. In Chapter 13 of John we read about Judas leaving the supper to go and betray Christ and then, after Judas left, Christ told the remaining disciples, as we read in John 13:33, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.”[1]

Marc Roby: And Peter then quite reasonably asked where Jesus was going.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he did, and we read in Verse 36 that Christ said, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”

Marc Roby: To which Peter famously replied, in Verse 37, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Dr. Spencer: Peter was trusting in himself at this point. He thought he could remain faithful in his own strength. But Christ was about to teach him a very important lesson, one which we all need to learn, and that is to not to trust in our own strength.

Marc Roby: And that was a painful lesson.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it was very painful. But I’m quite sure that Peter never forgot it! Jesus answered him, in Verse 38, “Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” And we know that Peter did, in fact, disown Jesus, but then after his resurrection Jesus graciously reinstated him. And that leads us to the verse I want to begin with today. In the very next verse, Jesus said to them all, in John 14:1, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”

Marc Roby: It was a mild, loving rebuke to Peter for trusting in himself.

Dr. Spencer: It was, yes. Jesus was making the very important point that we cannot ultimately trust in anyone or anything in this life. They will all fail us. God is the only one in whom we can ultimately place our trust and not be disappointed.

Marc Roby: As it says on the US dollar bill, “In God we trust”.

Dr. Spencer: And it’s not just on the dollar bill, it is on all US currency and is the official motto of the United States of America, although a lot of people don’t know that today.

Marc Roby: Yes, I’m sure many don’t know that. But getting back to John 14:1, I know that in both the King James Version and the English Standard Version of the Bible John 14:1 says that Jesus told them, believe in God, believe also in me, rather than trust in God, trust also in me.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The Greek verb being translated in both places in that verse is πιστεύω (pisteuō), and I think the NIV translation is better here, especially given modern ideas about belief. In Vine’s Expository Dictionary we are told that this verb means “‘to believe,’ also ‘to be persuaded of,’ and hence, ‘to place confidence in, to trust’”.[2] In addition, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says the word means “to trust” or “to rely on”.[3] And Walter Bauer’s Lexicon says it means to “believe (in)” and then goes on to say it is “trust of religious belief in a special sense, as faith in the Divinity that lays special emphasis on trust in his power and his nearness to help, in addition to being convinced that he exists and that his revelations or disclosures are true. In our literature God and Christ are objects of this faith.”[4]

I think these definitions all make it clear that the key idea behind biblical, saving faith is one of trust. And it is important to note that it isn’t a blind trust, it is trust based on knowledge. We trust because we are convinced that God is true and his Word is true. Therefore, we trust in the gospel message of salvation.

Marc Roby: Well, it certainly wouldn’t make sense to place your trust in something you didn’t think is true.

Dr. Spencer: No, that wouldn’t make sense at all. And Christ goes on in this passage to give his disciples great comfort by telling them, in John 14:2-3, that “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

This is the greatest promise you can possibly imagine, but it also implicitly provides the reason why we can trust Jesus. He first tells us that “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.” And then, secondly, he says he is going there, to his Father’s house, in other words to heaven, to prepare a place for us. And, finally, and most gloriously, he says he will come back to get us and take us to be with him in heaven.

Marc Roby: That is wonderful.

Dr. Spencer: It is the most wonderful thing that can be promised, but as I said it also implicitly gives us the reason that we can trust in Jesus. He is able to go to heaven on his own! He is able to prepare a place for us. And he is then able to bring us there to join him! This is incredible. No one but the perfect, eternal, God-man, Jesus Christ, is able to do this for us. We must trust in him alone.

Marc Roby: And as we said last time, true saving faith is, essentially, trust.

Dr. Spencer: It is. The theologian John Murray wrote that “faith is trust. Trust presupposes an object. An object evokes trust when there is an antecedent judgment of the mind that the object is trustworthy.”[5] Now, an “antecedent judgment of the mind” simply means a judgment made before we place our trust in the object.

Marc Roby: And, as we have said, the object of true, saving faith is Jesus Christ. And he is absolutely trustworthy.

Dr. Spencer: Which was the point he was making to his disciples. They knew him. They had travelled with him. They had seen him perform miracles – feeding thousands, healing the sick, walking on water, raising the dead – and so they had an intimate personal knowledge of him and knew that he was, in fact, trustworthy. This is, as Murray said, a judgment of the mind.

Marc Roby: People often think of faith as being divorced from judgments of the mind.

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. Faith is often thought of as being anti-intellectual. But true, saving faith is not that way at all. We may or may not go through a conscious process of careful reasoning, but no one will trust in someone or something in a meaningful way without being convinced that the object of their faith is, in fact, trustworthy. And this requires that we use our minds. The Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote that “biblical faith is not blind. It does not require a leap in the dark or the sacrifice of our intellect. Biblical faith is reasonable because it rests on the greatest possible reason-the infinite, personal God and his word.”[6]

Marc Roby: I certainly can’t think of anyone or anything in creation that is worthy of complete trust.

Dr. Spencer: Well, there can’t be anyone or anything outside of the triune God who is ultimately worthy of complete trust because absolutely everything and everyone outside of God himself is a created being, and is completely dependent on God every moment of every day. No one can oppose God and succeed. Therefore, God will always accomplish all that he intends to accomplish.

So, when Jesus said that he is going to heaven to prepare a place for his people and that he will then come back and get us, we can be absolutely certain that it will happen.

Marc Roby: In other words, true, saving faith is not just a pie-in-the-sky hope. It is based on real knowledge about who God is and what he has done in history, which then gives us confidence in his promises.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. John Murray wrote that “Faith is trust, and trust induced or compelled by evidence. It is forced consent.”[7]

Marc Roby: Now that’s an interesting statement; forced consent. In what sense is our faith forced?

Dr. Spencer: It’s forced by the evidence. Unbelievers are suppressing the truth that they know as we are told in Romans 1:18. God has provided everyone with sufficient evidence. This suppression is not necessarily a conscious thing. It is embedded deep in our sinful nature. It begins with the most fundamental presupposition of our worldview. The unbeliever starts with the presupposition that the God of the Bible does not exist.

Marc Roby: And we are told in both Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 that it is “The fool” who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

Dr. Spencer: But that does not mean that he may not make up a God of his own, the Bible is full of examples of all kinds of idolatry. But it does mean that the fool says there is no real, true and living God, in other words, the God of the Bible does not exist.

But, when God causes someone to be born again, that fundamental presupposition at the core of his worldview is changed. He now believes that God exists and accepts the testimony God has given about himself in the Bible. It is a fundamental and radical transformation, and although the transformation is instantaneous, its effects are not all instantaneous.

Marc Roby: Now, when you say that the effects aren’t instantaneous, you mean, I assume, that born-again people can still have doubts and not be certain about everything in God’s Word and that their behavior is not immediately transformed entirely.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. The more you have been indoctrinated in anti-God thinking, the longer it will usually take for you to come to terms with this radical new worldview. But, as Murray said, the consent is, in a sense, forced. It isn’t forced in the sense that God pushes on you and makes you cry “uncle.” It is forced in the sense that you see the truth and, whether you like it at first or not, you are forced by your own new born-again nature to accept it as true. Quoting from John Murray yet again, “We believe not what we could wish were true but what we are convinced is true.”[8]

Marc Roby: That is so clearly the case. If I believed what I wish were true, I would believe I have no sin, no sickness, no death, no trouble, the list could go on and on.

Dr. Spencer: And we can all agree with that, and add other items to the wish list. I would be the most intelligent, most talented, best looking, and most wealthy man alive. But such is not the case. And the reason that born-again people are forced to agree with God’s Word is simply that it is obviously true. We may like it if someone comes and tells us that we are perfect, or that we will never be sick again or never get old and die, we may want to believe such things, but we all know they aren’t true.

Marc Roby: And the Bible certainly makes no such statements.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. The Bible tells us what is true, whether we want to hear or not and completely independent of whether we like it or not. But getting back to the idea that our consent to the truth of the Bible is forced, it is forced by the truth. If we have been born again, then when we are confronted with the truth we respond properly. And the response is not just mental agreement with the facts. Trust is more than that. Louis Berkhof puts it well in his Systematic Theology, he wrote that trust “is the crowning element of faith. Faith is not merely a matter of the intellect, nor of the intellect and the emotions combined; it is also a matter of the will, determining the direction of the soul”.[9]

Marc Roby: In other words, as the well-know song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” We determine not just to believe, but to think and to live in the way God commands. In other words, to follow Jesus.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And doing that always involves constant change. As I said a few minutes ago, the transformation is instantaneous and radical, but the effects are not all instantaneous. The change is radical because we are instantly given a new heart and we see the truth. And because of the change in our fundamental presupposition, as we discussed earlier, we see everything differently, so, as time goes on we see more and more in ourselves that does not conform to the Word of God. We must continue to work all of our lives at putting our sin to death and walking in greater and greater obedience to God.

Marc Roby: And that process is called progressive sanctification.

Dr. Spencer: It is. And we will discuss that more later, but for now I want to point out that when we come to true faith we don’t just trust in Jesus Christ, we trust also in the Bible. Berkhof also wrote that “Naturally one who accepts Christ by a true faith, will also be ready and willing to accept God’s testimony as a whole.”[10]

Marc Roby: That makes good sense since the Bible is exactly where we learn of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: And it is where we learn how we are to change. The Bible is a mirror that shows us our own faults, and then it is also an instruction manual to show us how we should live.

If we say that we trust in Jesus, but we don’t really believe the Bible and if we never have it confront us with our sin and show us our need for change, then our confession is false, plain and simple. In the Great Commission, when Jesus spoke to his disciples before ascending into heaven, he said, as we read in Matthew 28:19-20, that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” And where do we find Jesus’ commands?

Marc Roby: In the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We must turn to the Word of God to see how to live a life that is pleasing to God. And true, saving faith, a faith that trusts in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, is also an obedient faith; true believers seek to be conformed to the image of Christ.

Marc Roby: To say that we want to be conformed to the image of Christ is certainly biblical. Paul wrote in Romans 8:29 that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

Dr. Spencer: We have spoken about the need for obedience many times. We don’t earn our salvation by our obedience, but a true faith that will save us is always a penitent, obedient faith. We see that we are sinners and need to change, which is why we don’t trust in ourselves, in other words why our faith is a penitent faith. And we hate our sins and want to be done with them and we want to live in the way that pleases our Father in heaven. We want to be like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whom we love, worship and seek to emulate, which is why our faith is an obedient faith.

God originally created man in his image and the fall horribly defaced that image. But, if we are alive in Christ, God is working to restore that image by transforming us to be like Christ.

Marc Roby: Well, this looks like a good place to end for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their 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] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 61 (in NT part)

[3] G. Friedrich, Friedrich, Gerhard (Trans. By G. Bromley), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, Eerdmans, 1964-1976, Vol. VI, pg. 177

[4] 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. 661 (see definition 2β)

[5] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 237

[6] P.G. Mathew, Faith of Our Fathers, sermon text available at https://gracevalley.org/sermon/faith-of-our-fathers/

[7] Murray, op. cit., pg. 238

[8] Ibid, pg. 240

[9] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 505

[10] 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, which is repentance and faith. Dr. Spencer, in our session last week we emphasized the fact that true, saving faith has content. The object of saving faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ. How would you like to proceed today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: Yes. He was born again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: That is a glorious thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: OK, let’s do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: OK, that is rather shocking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: I would have to say no one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, pp 156-157

[6] Ibid, pg. 155

[7] Ibid, pg. 159

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

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

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

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

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

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

[14] Ibid, pg. 504

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: I heartily agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: In other words, faith has content.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, pp 109-110

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid, Paragraph 1448

[9] Ibid, Paragraph 1471

[10] Ibid, Paragraph 1424

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Marc Roby: 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 the order of salvation. Dr. Spencer, last week we were discussing repentance and we ended by noting that real repentance is not just being sorry for the consequences of our sin, it is being grieved for having offended God. And real repentance always produces a changed life.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a necessary result because true repentance involves seeing how awful our sin is. In other words, we hate it. And if you hate something, you can’t help but turn away from it. That is why when Paul told King Agrippa about his conversion, we read in Acts 26:19-20 that he said, “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.”[1]

Marc Roby: And the deeds he is referring to here are clearly those of forsaking sin and walking in obedience.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they are. Forsaking our sin and walking in holiness are not necessary for us to be justified. We are saved by faith alone. But true faith is always accompanied by repentance, and as Paul said, the deeds prove that the repentance was real, and therefore they also prove that the faith is real. As we read in James 2:26, “faith without deeds is dead.” And a dead faith won’t save anyone. As I said near the end of our session last week, true repentance and faith are inextricably linked, you cannot have one without the other.

Marc Roby: And I said I was looking forward to your making the complete biblical case to support that contention. So now, here’s your opportunity!

Dr. Spencer: And in defending the statement that true repentance and faith always go together, I’m going to make use of the presentation in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.[2] He makes the important point that we are not advocating some kind of works righteousness as is often argued by those who oppose this view. The Bible is clear that, as I said a moment ago, we are justified by faith alone. And when I say that faith and repentance always go together, I’m not saying that you must have proven them by your deeds before you are justified. Repentance and faith occur in the heart and if they genuine, the person is justified immediately. The change that occurs as a result, namely forsaking sin and walking in holiness, comes after the person is justified and simply proves that the repentance and faith were real.

Marc Roby: Okay, that point is duly noted. But it does not address the question of showing that repentance and faith necessarily go together.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. Let me demonstrate the truth of that statement by first making a logical argument and then backing it up with Scripture.

Marc Roby: Okay, what is the logical argument?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we must ask what it means to believe in Christ. It means to trust him for your salvation. But then we obviously have to ask, what is it we are being saved from?

Marc Roby: And the biblical answer is that are saved from the eternal wrath of God.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And we deserve God’s wrath because of our sin against him! To believe in Christ makes no sense if you don’t first see that you have a need. And that need is caused by our sin and rebellion. It is logically impossible to think that you are going to believe in Christ to save you from sin if you don’t think that sin is worthy of punishment. And if you do think your sin is worthy of punishment, it means that you see it is wrong. In other words, you will repent of it. The two simply go together and cannot be separated.

Marc Roby: I see your point. If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior the Bible claims him to be, then you must also believe what the Bible says about why you need to be saved. One of the ways the Bible tells us why we need to be saved is by telling us why Jesus came. When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he was planning to call off the marriage. But we read in Matthew 1:21 that an angel appeared to him and told him that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Dr. Spencer: And so we see how repentance and faith are tied together. Saving faith is believing that Jesus Christ has paid the penalty for my sins and that they will be forgiven based on my being united to him by faith. But it makes no sense to think that I will trust in Jesus to save me from my sins if I don’t agree that my sins are something I need to be saved from.

Grudem puts it this way: “Repentance, like faith, is an intellectual understanding (that sin is wrong), an emotional approval of the teachings of Scripture regarding sin (a sorrow for sin and a hatred of it), and a personal decision to turn from it (a renouncing of sin and a decision of the will to forsake it and lead a life of obedience to Christ instead).”[3]

Marc Roby: That argument makes good sense. Now what biblical support do you want to give for it? And before you begin I want to remind you that you ended last time by teasing us by quoting 1 John 3:9, which says that “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.”

Dr. Spencer: And that verse illustrates the point very clearly. If someone has been born again, he has been changed, he is a new creation, born of God. That change causes him to both turn away from his sin in repentance, and turn to God in saving faith. When John wrote that such a person cannot go on sinning, he was referring to habitual sin. He wasn’t denying that believers still sin, he was making the point that sin isn’t what characterizes our lives.

Marc Roby: Alright, that’s clear. What other biblical support do you have?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s go back to the Old Testament to begin. The idea was clearly present there that a person must repent of his sin in order to receive forgiveness. For example, in the prayer of dedication for the temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon prayed, in 2 Chronicles 6:36-39, “When [your people] sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, … and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul … then from heaven, … forgive your people, who have sinned against you.” Notice that the people must repent and turn back to God with all their heart and soul, which is faith; it is believing that God can and will forgive according to his promise.

Marc Roby: And we know that God responded favorably to Solomon’s prayer, because in his response we read in 2 Chronicles 7:14 that great, comforting line, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a glorious promise from God. But it is predicated on true repentance, which as he says will include turning from our wicked ways. It is easy to say we are sorry, but true repentance isn’t just feeling sorry, it is seeing that our sin is really wrong, we must hate our sin. And that will always lead to a turning away from it. And faith is also evident here because God said they must humble themselves, pray, and seek his face. But the connection is made even more explicit in the New Testament.

Marc Roby: What verses do you want to look at from there?

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s look at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We read in Mark 1:14-15 that after John the Baptist was put in prison, “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

Marc Roby: That’s explicit. Jesus said “repent and believe”.

Dr. Spencer: We also see the connection on the day of Pentecost, which was the beginning of the public ministry of the apostles after Christ’s resurrection. When Peter preached to the crowd we are told that many of them were cut to the heart and cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” In other words, “What must we do to be saved?” And Peter responded, as we read in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Now, this statement obviously doesn’t explicitly mention faith, but it does implicitly. When Peter told them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, he was telling them to profess their faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. And so he did, in essence, tell them to repent and believe.

Marc Roby: That also makes me think of what Paul said in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders. We read in Acts 20:21 that he proclaimed, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a good summary of the gospel. And it clearly lists both repentance and faith.

Marc Roby: But we must also admit that the New Testament often tells people to believe in order to be saved without mentioning repentance. For example, when the Philippian jailer cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” We read in Acts 16:31 that Paul and Silas responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. There are a number of places where repentance is not specifically mentioned. But that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t required for salvation, it simply means that both elements are not named in every case. There are also places where only repentance is mentioned, and that does not imply that one can be saved without faith. For example, we read in Luke 13:3 that Jesus himself declared to the crowd, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Now Jesus did not mean to imply that they could be saved by just being sorry for their sins. Faith is assumed in this statement or Jesus would be contradicting what he said in Mark 1:15, which we looked a minute ago.

Marc Roby: And it is impossible for Jesus to contradict himself.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. The connection between true repentance and faith is also implicit in all of the biblical teaching about the need for believers to turn from their sins and walk in obedience. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the topic of sanctification, but we must remember that repentance and faith, or to use just one word, conversion, is the response of the individual to God’s work of regeneration. We argued in Session 151 that regeneration brings about a radical change. We are given new hearts. We have a new mind, will and affections. We are, as the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, new creations. He also speaks about our having died with Christ in Romans 6:8, and our having died to sin in Romans 6:2. And he says in Colossians 3:3 that “you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

This language all speaks of a decisive break with our old nature. Repentance is part of that break. We hate the sinful life we used to live and we want to live a life pleasing to Christ, in whom we have placed our faith. The two things go together, you simply cannot have one without the other.

Marc Roby: When you talk about hating our sin, we do have to acknowledge that we all still sin daily. And the Bible mentions the pleasures of sin in Hebrews 11:25. How can we say that we hate something that we still do and that is at least some times still pleasurable?

Dr. Spencer: That’s a reasonable question, but I think we all know the answer if we are honest with ourselves. We have all given in to the temptation to say or do something that we later regretted, even though it may have brought us momentary pleasure at the time. Our regret was based on a realization that the momentary pleasure or gratification we received was improper and could not justify the action.

For example, we have all responded to some situation in our life by saying something mean to somebody. That may have given us momentary satisfaction, by getting back at the person a little for whatever problem we had endured, but on further reflection we realized either that the person we were mean to wasn’t responsible for our problem, or that whatever they did was unintentional, or that what we said was far more damaging and serious than the slight we received.

Marc Roby: I’m afraid I have to admit that is true.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, we can all remember other things we have done. Maybe we stole a candy bar when we were a child or something along those lines. We may have received some momentary thrill, but when we looked back on it we saw how wrong it was and hated the fact that we had done such a thing.

And although most of us have never committed the physical act of adultery we can certainly understand how someone could receive momentary pleasure, but later hate the fact that they had done something so destructive to the trust involved in their marriage and so cruel to their spouse.

Marc Roby: I agree that we can all understand that, even if we have never experienced it ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: And I’m sure we can all come up with more examples, but the point is clear. It is entirely within the realm of normal human experience to regret, and even to hate, some things that we have done and even occasionally continue to do. We do them because at that moment we desire them, but then when we think it through more later we realize they were wrong. And this is true even for non-Christians. But there are two very significant differences between the regret a non-Christian feels and the regret a Christian feels.

Marc Roby: What are those differences?

Dr. Spencer: The first difference is that a non-Christian does not decide what is wrong or right based on the Word of God, but a Christian must. So, for example, a non-Christian might not think that getting drunk is wrong, so long as you don’t drive.

Marc Roby: Well, the adds tell us that we need to drink responsibly!

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Have a designated driver and then it’s OK to be drunk. But that is not what the Bible says. Getting drunk is a sin. And so a Christian will have real guilt and pain if he allows himself to drink enough to be drunk. His standard is the Word of God, not his own ideas.

Marc Roby: And what is the second difference?

Dr. Spencer: That a Christian is grieved not just because he feels he let himself down, or his family down, but most importantly because he offended almighty God. True repentance is only possible when the person has faith in the God of the Bible. He knows that he has sinned against his Creator and Redeemer. He has offended his heavenly Father. And that brings great pain and true godly sorrow and repentance. A true Christian longs for the day when he will be without sin, when his every desire will conform to the perfect law of God.

Marc Roby: I know that I look forward to such a day. It is impossible to imagine what it will be like to never have any internal struggle between what I want to do and what I should do.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. There won’t even be any need for the word “should” in heaven because what we should do will be exactly what we do! It is a marvelous thought.

Marc Roby: I think we have established that true repentance is always accompanied by saving faith. Do have anything more that you would like to add before we move on?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We’ve been speaking about conversion, which is repentance and faith viewed as a single act. The word conversion is a good word for this. To convert something means to change it in some fundamental way. The process of becoming a true Christian, a child of God, who is on the way to heaven, is not just a matter of making a decision. It requires real change. As we have noted, God must first do the glorious work of causing us to be born again and then we must repent of our sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. This process necessarily produces radical change in our life. We are a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.

Marc Roby: Well, this looks like a good 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 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] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 713-717

[3] Ibid, pg. 713

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Spencer: We are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: What do you think it refers to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Spencer: That does solidify the connection. We can also look at what Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Notice that we are to cleanse our wives by “washing with water through the word”. This is clearly speaking about moral, not physical, cleansing, and it again uses this metaphor of water, but it connects it with the Word of God. The Word of God is this cleansing “water”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Spencer: Not yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Ibid, pg. 98

[13] Ibid, pg. 99

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

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

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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 today because we are both still obeying the stay-at-home order issued as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We are also still taking a break from our continuing series on systematic theology.

In our session last week we discussed how to make your calling and election sure since being born again is a prerequisite to thinking biblically. All of our thinking is done within the context of our worldview and at the core of everyone’s worldview we find either faith in the God of the Bible, or a rejection of God. As we read in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”[1]

But those who have been born again have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. In speaking about the difference between regenerate and unregenerate people, Paul wrote in Romans 8:9, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” And, in 1 Corinthians 6:19 Paul wrote, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” But to avoid drawing improper conclusions from the fact that the Holy Spirit dwells in believers, we must balance this teaching by the fact that the Holy Spirit is also the primary author of the Bible as we read in 2 Peter 1:21, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Now, since God is unchangeable and cannot lie, the Holy Spirit will never lead you to believe anything that contradicts his written Word. He gave us the objective revelation of his Word to guide us. And so, to think biblically requires first, that we be born again, and second that we train ourselves in God’s Word, which is why Paul told Timothy, as we read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” And then, being led by the Spirit and knowing God’s Word, we must also strive daily to put our sin to death and to walk in the truth. We must deny ourselves. All three synoptic gospels record an important statement of Jesus. He said, as we read in Matthew 16:24, that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

To take up a cross was a clear reference to being crucified, since the condemned criminal was required to carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion. And Paul also wrote, in Romans 6:6-7, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” We are also told in Colossians 3:5 to “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” And we are told in Galatians 5:24 that “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”

This is hard language. No one can live the Christian life if he has not been born again. Jesus said, in Luke 14:26, that “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

Brothers and sisters, our flesh rebels at this part of the gospel message, but it is a clear teaching of the Bible. Our purpose in life is to live for God’s glory and to do the work he has assigned. His purpose for us is to make us holy, not to give us the most pleasant life possible here on earth. As Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” If we have been born again, our sins are covered by the blood of Christ. We have been forgiven because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and paid the penalty we owed. We are his blood-bought people and we cannot live for ourselves.

And so, biblical thinking requires that we born again, that we train ourselves in the Word of God, and that we crucify our old nature and live for God, not ourselves. The only question we need to ask in every situation in life is, “What does God want me to do in this situation?” And the answer must be based on the Word of God, not our subjective feelings. And, if our thinking is based on the Word of God, it will always take into account the Creator/creature distinction. In other words, we will realize that God is the Creator. His promises are true. His threats are true. He cannot change. And he is not limited by our lack of power.

And now we are ready to look at some examples of proper biblical thinking. I first want to examine Abraham, the father of all believers as we are told in Romans 4:11-12. Because of his uniquely important role in the history of redemption, God gave him a test that is the hardest test any human being outside of our Lord Jesus has ever been given, and Abraham passed the test with flying colors because his thinking was biblical.

Hopefully, you remember the story. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. We read in Genesis 15:5 that God told Abraham, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them … So shall your offspring be.” Then Abraham and his wife Sarah waited so long that they despaired of God’s promise being fulfilled and sinned. Sarah gave her handmade Hagar to Abraham to have a child for her, as was the custom of the time. Hagar bore Abraham Ishmael. But this was not the child through him God’s promise was to be fulfilled and so years later the pre-incarnate Christ came to Abraham to announce that Sarah would bear him a son. We read about this in Genesis 18 and, at the time, Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 89 years old, so when Sarah heard the Lord say that she would bear a son, she laughed. We read in Genesis 18:14 that the Lord then said to them, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

And this is exactly what happened. So, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90, Isaac was born. The name Isaac very appropriately means “he laughs”. God then makes it clear to Abraham that the promise he had been given would be fulfilled through Isaac.[2] And this leads to the incredibly difficult test that God gave Abraham. In Genesis 22:1-2 we read, “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.’”

I remember struggling with this a great deal the first time I read it as a young Christian. I had a young son myself at the time and I couldn’t imagine God giving Abraham such a command. But we have to remember two things: first, Abraham was a unique person in the history of redemption and this unique test was necessary to fulfil God’s plan and as a symbol of what God would do for his people; and second, and most important, God knew that he was not going to require Abraham to go through with this command.

But Abraham didn’t know that, and yet he responded with immediate obedience. We are told the he got up early the next morning and headed out for the mountain. It was a three-day journey, so Abraham had time to think on the way. When they arrived at the mountain, we are told in Genesis 22:5 that Abraham told the servants who had accompanied him and Isaac on the trip, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

This shows that Abraham had been thinking as they traveled and had come to the conclusion that God was going to solve this problem somehow. Notice that he told the servants “we will come back to you.” Oh what a glorious plural pronoun! We will come back. Isaac was not to be permanently destroyed. God had told Abraham that it was through Isaac that his promise would be fulfilled, and Abraham knew that God cannot lie. And yet, if Abraham sacrificed Isaac, how could the promise be fulfilled through him? Abraham realized that God had created all things, and so it was entirely possible that even if Isaac were burned up, God could raise him from the dead.

To finish the story, Abraham builds an altar, ties Isaac up, places him on the altar, and raised the knife getting ready to kill him. But before he brings the knife down, God stops him. God then also provides a ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac.

And we aren’t left to simply deduce for ourselves that Abraham reasoned this way. We are told in Hebrews 11:17-19 that “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” Friends, this is biblical thinking. Our problems may look insurmountable when we only consider our own resources, but when we take God into consideration, the whole picture changes.

And this event provides a glorious example of God’s love for his people. James Boice wrote that “this incident is also a pageant of how much more God would do as an expression of His love for fallen men and women. Abraham was only asked to sacrifice his son; he did not actually have to do it.”[3] But God did sacrifice his Son to pay for the sins of his chosen people. As we read in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” And so, by using proper biblical thinking, Abraham became the father of all who believe. He saw God do mighty things and was greatly strengthened in his faith. In fact, James Boice and others believe that God gave Abraham a great vision of how he would ultimately bring about the redemption of his people by offering his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice on the exact same mountain, and then raising him from the dead.[4] We will have more to say about this in a few minutes, but for now let me move on to another example of biblical thinking.

Consider the patriarch Joseph. His brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery. He was carried down to Egypt and enslaved there. There he was falsely accused of molesting his master’s wife and was put into prison. But then, God miraculously moved to not only secure his release from prison, but to cause Joseph to rise to be second in command in all Egypt. Later, when there was a severe famine, Joseph’s brothers had to come to Egypt to buy food for their families. What a shock when they found out that Joseph was the one from whom they had to buy food! And then the entire family moved to Egypt and lived under Joseph’s protection. Years later, when Joseph’s father, Jacob, died, his brothers were worried that he would exact revenge on them. But Joseph was able to think biblically about the situation. He knew that God is sovereign over everything and he realized that God had sent him ahead to Egypt in order to save his family during this great famine. And so we see him tell his brothers, in Genesis 50:19-21, “‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

By thinking biblically, Joseph avoided feeling sorry for himself, he had success in extremely difficult circumstances, and he was prevented from sinning by getting revenge against his brothers.

Now let’s take a short look at the apostle Paul.  When he was imprisoned in Caesarea and was giving his defense before King Agrippa, we are told in Acts 26:8 that he said, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” What a marvelous example of biblical thinking this is! And it provides the perfect answer to use anytime anyone claims that believing in miracles is irrational. The real question simply is, do you believe in God? And, of course, I mean the God of the Bible. The God who created all things, The God who sustains all things. If you believe in this God, then why on earth is it at all incredible to believe that he can raise the dead? Or do any other miracle? He created everything! Surely, if he chooses to, he can change creation as well. It would, in fact, be completely irrational to believe that a God capable of creating this universe would not also be able to perform miracles, which, after all, as Wayne Grudem says are simply a “less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and bears witness to himself.”[5] And so we find that once you accept as true the first four words of the Bible, “In the beginning God …”, you should be able to believe everything else the Bible says. I could give other examples from the Bible, but let me tell you a far more recent example of biblical thinking.

In 1912 John Harper was 39-year-old Scottish preacher coming to America with his six-year-old daughter. His wife had died shortly after the girl’s birth. They were travelling on the Titanic. When the ship hit the ice berg and it was obvious it was going to sink, Harper is reported to have given his daughter to one of the deckhands with instructions to get her into a lifeboat. And he then turned to help others. He is reported to have shouted, “Let the women, children, and the unsaved into the lifeboats!” And he gave his own life preserver to another man. Survivors of the tragedy tell of his speaking to people in the water after the ship sank urging them to trust in Christ. There is even a report that one man was saved. Harper called out to him, “Are you saved?” And when the man replied, “no”, Harper quoted Acts 16:31, which says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved”.[6] And, by God’s grace, this man believed and was saved, both eternally, and from drowning.

Imagine being able to respond to a disaster like that with such an attitude. Harper obviously thought biblically as a matter of habit, so that even in the midst of a crisis his thinking was correct. He reasoned that he was saved and would go to heaven, but there were others around him who needed time. Perhaps God would save them! And he spoke about the only thing truly important as he was dying. What else matters when the people around you have only have a short time to live? I have no doubt this man had a glorious welcome in heaven that very day.

And let me close with the greatest possible example of biblical thinking, that of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to be made into his image and we are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ we are told in 2 Corinthians 10:5, so how did Christ think? Let’s look at the most important example possible, which is also the one to which the example we examined from Abraham points; namely, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. But he did not use his divinity to somehow make it easy for him to obey the father in his humanity. This is clear from his answering the temptation of the devil in the desert. He would not give in to the temptation to use his divine power to turn the stones into bread even though he had been fasting for 40 days. And so we see Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion, deeply troubled at the prospects of what was about to happen. He took Peter, James and John, his inner circle, and left the others to go pray. We read in Matthew 26:39, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” The cup he was speaking of was the cup of God’s wrath as we read in Revelation 16:19 and elsewhere. People often focus on the physical pain of the flogging and crucifixion, which were incredibly horrible. But the worst thing facing Jesus was not the physical pain, it was the spiritual pain of taking our sins upon himself and bearing the wrath of God that we deserve. We can’t even imagine that pain. When Jesus took all of the sins of all of his people upon himself, he became an object of wrath. So, why did he say, “Yet not as I will, but as you will”?

He said that because he thought biblically. Jesus began his high priestly prayer in John 17:1 by saying, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” Jesus knew that the purpose of life is to glorify God and he was completely obedient to that purpose, which demonstrates biblical thinking. He knew the true purpose of human life. And so he also prayed, as we read in John 17:4, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” And then, later in the prayer, we read in John 17:24 that he said, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” Jesus was motivated by love for the Father and for his chosen people. We are told in Hebrews 12:2, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Friends, Jesus knew that there would be great joy in accomplishing all that the Father had ordained. Biblical thinking requires that we humble ourselves before the almighty God and seek to know and do his will, not ours. We must believe that our greatest joy and satisfaction will come through obedience.

And we must know the Word of God to know God’s will, but then the Word of God will also give us strength to endure whatever trials God has ordained for us. We know that Jesus himself was meditating on God’s Word while he was on the cross because he quoted from Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I pray that all of us will learn through this current pandemic to trust in God and to think biblically. May we seek to bring him glory and to complete the work he has given us to do. Then we will be able to join with the apostle Paul and say, as he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

May God bless you all, and remember that you can send your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

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

[2] Gen 21:12

[3] James Boice, Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Zondervan, 1982, Vol. 2, pg. 222

[4] Ibid, pp 229-231

[5] Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, p. 355

[6] See the book The Titanic’s Last Hero, by Moody Adams

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