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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. In our session last week we discussed the fact that we are saved by faith in Christ, not by our own good works. But our good works are still necessary because they serve as proof that we have, in fact, been born again, which is a necessary and sufficient condition for our repenting and believing and, therefore, being united to Christ and justified by God. Dr. Spencer, at the end of our last session you said you wanted to begin today by looking at Romans 6:1-7. Would you like me to read those verses to begin?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, please do.

Marc Roby: Very well. In Romans 6:1-7 we read, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 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.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Those verses are wonderful, and they make it absolutely clear that anyone who has been born again will live differently. Not perfectly, but there will be noticeable change for the better. Paul uses the symbolism of baptism to speak about this radical change in a person’s life. His assumption is that the person who has been baptized has, in fact, been born again and has, therefore, repented and placed his personal faith, or trust, in Jesus Christ alone. And then notice what he says. He wrote that “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Now we must ask ourselves, what does the apostle mean when he says that we died to sin?

Marc Roby: Well, we have argued before that the biblical view of death is not a cessation of existence, but rather a separation[2], so it would seem reasonable to assume that Paul means that we have, in some sense, been separated from our sins.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good way of putting it. In fact, in Psalm 103:12 we are told that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” And Paul goes on in this passage from Romans Six to explain further what he means. In Verse 5 he wrote that “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” This speaks about union with Christ both in his death and in his resurrection. Those events together represent a radical transformation in the life of Jesus; his human nature went from living, to dead, to resurrected. And a believer experiences a similar, radical transformation. When he is born again, responds in repentance and faith, or conversion, and is then justified by God, we can say that he has died to sin and been raised to new life in Christ.

Paul provides further explanation in the very next verse. Verse 6 says, “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”. The “old self” that Paul speaks about here is our old sinful nature and life prior to being born again. That life was crucified with Christ when we were united to him by faith.

Marc Roby: Paul also speaks of the old self in other places. For example, in Colossians 3:9-10 we are commanded, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

Dr. Spencer: Those are also good verses for showing the difference that regeneration makes. Paul speaks about our having taken off the old self; in other words, it is a completed action. But then he also says we have work to do, we are to put on the new self. And when he says that the new self is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator, that mirrors what he says in Romans 8:29, where 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.”

Marc Roby: We know from the Bible that man was originally created in the image of God, but sin defaced that image. We could say that new birth begins the process of restoring, or renewing that image.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly what it does. New birth initiates a process. It immediately produces a radical and decisive change, but not a complete change. We are still sinners and have more work to do. We need to put on our new self, we need to be renewed day by day. This is the process of sanctification that we will speak about in detail in later sessions, but it has a decisive beginning that represents a radical change in a person’s life. There is an old self and a new self, an old man and a new man, an old life and a new life, and they are radically different. The dividing line is regeneration, or new birth.

And then we need to notice what else Paul said in Verse 6. The verse says, “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”. That last phrase – that we should no longer be slaves to sin – speaks about our having been redeemed from sin.

Marc Roby: I remember that in our session last week you briefly mentioned this, but can you explain a bit more what is meant by saying that we are no longer slaves to sin?

Dr. Spencer: That is what the notion of redemption is all about. When Paul wrote that we died to sin, he meant that we no longer live in the realm in which we were slaves to sin. It isn’t that we now live perfect, sinless lives, but we are no longer slaves to sin; in other words, we are no longer ruled by sin. In Verses 11 and 12 of Romans Chapter Six Paul wrote, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” And later, in Verse 14, he says that sin shall no longer be our master.

Marc Roby: And sin is a terrible master. It leads to nothing but misery for us and for others.

Dr. Spencer: That is certainly true, sin is a horrible master, a tyrant of the worst sort. And in John 8:34 we read that Jesus himself said, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” And when Jesus refers to everyone who sins, the verb in the Greek is a present participle, which means it is a continuing action. He isn’t referring to sinning just once in a while, he is speaking about habitual sin as the normal pattern of life.

Marc Roby: Alright, so someone who sins habitually is a slave to sin. That makes me think of what Paul wrote in Romans 6:16, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, those verses make the point clearly. Now, of course, sin is impersonal, so saying we are slaves to sin as though sin itself were our master is a rhetorical device, the real master is the devil. And we’ll come back to that point later. But first, I want to make clear that Christians have the ability to say “no” to sin, which is a major burden of what Paul is teaching us in Romans Chapter Six. That is part of what it means to say that we have been redeemed. We have been purchased out of one condition and placed in a new condition. Theologians sometimes use a couple of Latin phrases to describe this difference. Prior to our conversion, we were non posse non peccare, which literally means that it was not possible to not sin. But, after our conversion, we are posse non peccare, meaning it is possible for us to not sin.

Marc Roby: Unbelievers, and even many professing Christians, have a hard time accepting the idea that an unbeliever is sinning all the time.

Dr. Spencer: I think people have a hard time with this idea because they have a wrong view of sin. For example, suppose an unbelieving man wakes up one morning and just doesn’t feel like going to work that day, he isn’t sick, he just doesn’t feel like going to work.

Marc Roby: We have all had that feeling.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure our listeners can all relate. But then suppose that he gets himself ready and goes to work anyway. He has done the right thing. It would have been sin to be lazy and stay home. But even though he made the better choice, he hasn’t avoided sinning altogether.

Marc Roby: Why not?

Dr. Spencer: Because of his motives. There are all sorts of motives we can imagine for doing the right thing here, some of them more noble than others. For example, perhaps he thought staying home would set a poor example for his children, or maybe he just considered the fact that it would cause him trouble at work and might, ultimately, lead to losing his job. But whatever his motives, they are focused on what is best for him and his family in this life. They are, at least to some extent, selfish and they are entirely worldly; meaning focused on this life alone. But there is one motive an unbeliever is guaranteed to never have. He will never be motivated by a desire to do what is right in God’s sight. His is not concerned with obeying God or bringing God glory by how he lives his life.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a good point and agrees completely with what is said in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 16, Paragraph 7. And it makes me think of the famous verse in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we sin whenever we fail to recognize that we are creatures, accountable to God. We are to live all of our lives with that humble recognition, and every decision, no matter how minor, is to be made with reference to God and his laws. We are to live for his glory. We are to please him, not ourselves. This is the comprehensive lordship of Christ.

Marc Roby: And the most basic confession of a Christian is that Jesus is Lord. 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.”

Dr. Spencer: And Jesus is the Lord of a Christian for two reasons. First, because he is the Creator  he is the Lord of everyone, whether they acknowledge that fact or not. And secondly, for a Christian, Jesus is Lord because he redeemed us by his atoning sacrifice. He purchased us with his blood. We belong to him both as creatures and as his blood-bought slaves.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that statement will rile some. You often hear that Christ died to set his people free. In fact, in Galatians 5:1 Paul tells us that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” So how can you say we are his slaves?

Dr. Spencer: Because that is what the Word of God tells us. The apostle Paul refers to himself many times as a slave of Christ. For example, he begins the book of Romans, in Chapter One, Verse One, by saying, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God”. Now the Greek word translated here as “servant”, is δοῦλος (doulos), which literally means bond slave. Paul uses the same expression elsewhere[3] and it is also used, for example, by James[4], Peter[5] and Jude[6]. It is somewhat paradoxical, but we have been set free from our slavery to sin in order to serve as slaves of God.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that concept will be hard for many to grasp.

Dr. Spencer: It is difficult for all of us to grasp I think, especially at first. But the greatest freedom a person could ever possibly have is the freedom to always do what is right and to do it for the right reasons. True freedom would be to be completely free from our selfish and sinful desires and from the sinful influences of the devil and the world and to be completely controlled by the only perfect law, which is God’s law. None of us achieve that freedom fully in this life, but the radical change brought about by regeneration makes us able, for the first time, to be free in principle even if we don’t always achieve it in practice.

Marc Roby: And so, if I may go back to the point about an unbeliever sinning all the time and summarize your argument, you are saying that even when an unbeliever does something that is in itself a good and right thing to do, the fact that he is not motivated by a desire to please and obey God, makes that action yet sinful. Even if his motives appear noble, he is still motivated by what appears to him to be right. And he is, in other words, sinning and acting autonomously.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a great way to put it. And because all people are made in the image of God, their own internal standard of right and wrong will often be right. But the autonomous thinking that is involved in following their own standard, rather than self-consciously desiring to follow God’s standard, makes their actions sinful. That is the autonomy that the devil was promoting when he tempted Eve by saying, in response to her statement that eating the forbidden fruit would lead to death, “You will not surely die, For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, the devil was lying as usual. What actually happened is that Adam and Eve became like the devil, rebellious sinners opposed to God.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why Jesus called sinners children of the devil.

One day Jesus was telling some people that they were not living as children of Abraham because they were not doing the things Abraham would do. The people responded that God is their only father and Jesus replied, as we read in John 8:42-44, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Marc Roby: That was harsh! Jesus told them their father was the devil. That doesn’t fit the modern view of Jesus as always smiling and being nice to people.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t fit that image at all because that image is unbiblical. When anyone sins, including a Christian, that person is being obedient to the devil. That is why I said that being a slave to sin really means that you are under the authority of the devil. People think they are being autonomous, but that is never the case. The devil lets you think you are autonomous, but when you set yourself up as the final authority, you are playing straight into his hands. When Christ redeems us, he sets us free from slavery to sin, which is really slavery to the devil; he is, as Jesus said, the father of all lies. And the greatest lie of all is that you can be like God. You can be autonomous. But no creature is ever autonomous, that is an illusion. Everyone obeys either God or the devil. Eve was not being autonomous when she ate the forbidden fruit, she was accepting Satan as her new lord and master. She weighed God’s words and Satan’s words and decided that Satan was right, so she obeyed him instead of God. That isn’t really autonomy, it is a shifting of allegiance.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting way to put it. And it reminds me of a verse you just briefly mentioned last time. You noted that Satan is called the ruler of the kingdom of the air in Ephesians 2:2, so let me read Ephesians 2:1-2, 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.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that makes it very clear, doesn’t it? When a person thinks he is acting autonomously by disobeying or completely disregarding God, it is really Satan who is at work in him. But Christ has redeemed us from this slavery. As Paul wrote at the end of the passage we have been considering from Romans Six, “anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”

James Boice wrote that “Redemption has two consequences. First, it means we are free. Paradoxical as it may sound, to be purchased by Jesus is to be set free – free from the guilt and tyranny of the law and from sin’s power. … Yet this is a special kind of freedom. It does not mean that we are set free to do anything we might wish, to sin with impunity or once again fall back into the bondage of rebellion and unfaithfulness. We are released to serve God. We are set free to will the good. We are delivered in order that we might obey and love Jesus.”[7] And Boice then goes on to quote 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, where 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? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

Marc Roby: And so the biblical view is that when we are freed from slavery to sin, or to the devil, we become slaves of Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That is the biblical view, yes. Christ is our redeemer and our Lord and we owe him perfect, unquestioning obedience. To be a slave of Christ is to be as free as it is possible for a human being to ever be. It is to be free to do what is right and good. We are told in Hebrews 9:15 that “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”

Marc Roby: That is glorious. And it raises an obvious question. To whom did Christ pay this ransom? A ransom is usually paid to the one who is holding someone captive.

Dr. Spencer: Well, the analogy breaks down a bit at this point because the ransom is paid to God. It is the price required to satisfy God’s justice. Remember that we are justified on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. He paid our debt and he gives us his righteousness. That is redemption.

Marc Roby: And that is also a good place to end for today. So, I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We enjoy hearing from you.

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

[2] See Sessions 102.1-3 and 104.2-3

[3] E.g., Titus 1:1

[4] James 1:1

[5] 2 Peter 1:1

[6] Jude 1

[7] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 330

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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 boils down to trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our eternal salvation. What would you like to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to continue the discussion we were having at the end of our session last week. We made two points at the end of that session. First, that true, saving faith is always a penitent and obedient faith, and second, that true saving faith includes trusting in God’s Word, in other words, in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Yes, I remember your argument. You said that when a person is born again, he is able to see his own sin and his unworthiness, which is why he no longer trusts in himself. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one”.[1] That is why true, saving faith is always a penitent faith.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And, in addition, since a born-again person sees that Jesus Christ is worthy of worship and is the only Savior and Lord, he wants to emulate and please Christ, so his faith will be an obedient faith. Jesus himself said, in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” The Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote that “Faith means that we move our center from ourselves to Jesus Christ. Faith declares Jesus Christ as Lord of our life. Faith in its essence is committing ourselves to Christ that we may be saved.”[2]

Few professing Christians today think much about the fundamental confession of a Christian, which is that Jesus is Lord.

Marc Roby: We read that confession in Romans 10:9, where Paul wrote, “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.”

Dr. Spencer: And to say that Jesus is Lord is a very powerful statement. We need to take it seriously and think about it. It is much easier to say that I believe in Jesus than it is to say that he is Lord. But, if my faith is true, saving faith, then Jesus is my Lord. And, if that is true, then as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” We belong to Jesus Christ. He owns us. We have no right to think, speak and act any way we want to. We are to obey him immediately, exactly and with joy in all things at all times. That is true faith.

Marc Roby: And we need to repent daily because no one does obey perfectly.

Dr. Spencer: We certainly don’t. But if we don’t even have the desire to do obey, and if we don’t feel the need to repent over our failure to do so, then any profession of faith that we make is a lie. As John wrote in 1 John 2:4, “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, to obey Jesus, we must know what it is that he commands.

Dr. Spencer: That’s obviously true. And we learn what Jesus commands in the Bible. John Murray wrote that “To speak of knowing God and the truth that he is apart from the word of revelation which is incorporated for us in the Scripture is for us men an abstraction which has no meaning or relevance. When we are of the truth and know the truth we discern in the inscripturated word of truth the living voice of him who is the truth and there is no tension between our acceptance of the living God as ‘the only true God’ and of his Word as the truth.”[3]

Marc Roby: And so we could say that to truly trust in Jesus Christ then, includes trusting in the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: We could say that, yes. In fact, theologians speak of saving faith as having two different elements, or senses; general faith, and special faith. Louis Berkhof speaks about both of these in his Systematic Theology. Now, as is often the case with theologians, he uses the Latin phrases (pg. 506) fides generalis, meaning general faith, and fides specialis, meaning special faith. He wrote that by general faith “is meant saving faith in the more general sense of the word. Its object is the whole divine revelation as contained in the Word of God.”[4]

Marc Roby: Which, as we noted in our last session, makes sense since it is only in the Word of God that we learn about Jesus Christ and his redeeming work. It would make no sense to say that I trust in Jesus Christ if I don’t trust the only infallible source I have for knowing Christ.

Dr. Spencer: I’m glad you added the word infallible to your statement. I’m sure you did that because we do also have a personal, subjective, knowledge of Christ. But because our subjective knowledge can be so easily wrong, it must always come under the authority of God’s Word. So, for example, if my subjective sense of Jesus tells me that he is so loving he would never send anyone to hell, I have a problem.

Marc Roby: Yes, because we read in Matthew 7:23 that Jesus himself said he will tell the wicked, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

Dr. Spencer: And, in the context of that statement, it is clear that it means he will send them to hell. He also said, in Matthew 25:46, that the wicked “will go away to eternal punishment”. So, our only infallible source of knowledge about Jesus is the Word of God as you said. And the Word of God, or the Bible, is, as I said a moment ago, also the only place where we find the commands of Jesus. I also like the definition that John Murray gives for faith in the general sense.

Marc Roby: What does he say?

Dr. Spencer: He wrote that “Fides Generalis is simply faith in the truth of the Christian religion. More specifically stated, it is faith of the truth revealed in the holy Scripture. More pointedly it is the faith that holy Scripture is the Word of God; it is our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority of Scripture as the Word of God.”[5]

Marc Roby: I like his saying it is our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority of God’s Word.

Dr. Spencer: So do I. Our salvation rests on the solid rock of God and his Word, not on our subjective ideas about God.

Marc Roby: Very well, so we have Berkhof’s and Murray’s definitions of faith in the general sense. What is the definition of faith in the special sense?

Dr. Spencer: Well, Berkhof wrote that special faith, “is saving faith in the more limited sense of the word. While true faith in the Bible as the Word of God is absolutely necessary, that is not yet the specific act of faith which justifies and therefore saves directly. … The object of special faith, then, is Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation through Him.”[6] He also wrote that “Strictly speaking, it is not the act of faith as such, but rather that which is received by faith, which justifies and therefore saves the sinner.”

Marc Roby: Now, that’s an interesting statement. I assume he means to guard against the wrong idea, which we discussed in an earlier session[7], that faith is somehow a valuable entity in and of itself, independent of its object.

Dr. Spencer: I think is exactly what he is guarding against. True, saving faith must have Jesus Christ as its object. As we read in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

Marc Roby: In addition to saying that it isn’t the act of faith that saves, Berkhof also wrote that it is that which is received by faith which justifies and therefore saves the sinner.

Dr. Spencer: And that is a very important distinction. We often say that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, or sometimes just that we are saved by faith alone. But if we are going to be extremely careful, it isn’t faith that saves, it is Jesus Christ who saves. And we receive Christ, or we could say are united to Christ by faith. Faith is the instrument though which God unites us to Christ.

Marc Roby: You’ve noted before that faith has been called the instrumental cause of our salvation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I said that in Session 154. I also like what John Murray wrote about this. He said that “Faith is not belief that we have been saved, nor belief that Christ has saved us, nor even belief that Christ died for us. It is necessary to appreciate the point of distinction. Faith is in its essence commitment to Christ that we may be saved.”[8]

Marc Roby: That is yet another way of saying that true faith includes trust. It is a commitment to Christ.

Dr. Spencer: It is another way of saying the same thing, yes. We have said that true, saving faith has three elements: knowledge, or information, mental assent and trust. Or, to use the Latin terms, notitia, assensus and fiducia. The fact that true, saving faith requires trust is critically important.

It is illuminating to realize that the Devil himself has the first two elements of real faith. He certainly knows the content of the Bible much better than any human being does, and he also knows it is true. So he has the notitia and assensus. But he will not place his trust in Jesus Christ because he hates Jesus Christ. It is a moral problem, not an intellectual one.

Marc Roby: Paul wrote in Colossians 1:21 that “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, people don’t like to hear that, and I know that before I was saved I would have objected vehemently and denied that I was an enemy of God, but the Bible is clear that we all were. Anyone who denies that the God of the Bible really exists is his enemy. And the problem really is a moral one. In our unregenerate state we hate the true and living God because he is absolutely just and holy, and he knows everything we have ever done or thought and he is infinitely powerful to deal with us. That is terrifying and engenders hatred.

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ himself said, in John 3:19-20, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, Jesus is the light. Murray also wrote, “If faith is an act of whole-souled trust, we must be frank enough to acknowledge that the person dead in trespasses and sins, whose mind is enmity against God and whose characteristic attitude is one of hateful distrust, is incapable of exercising faith.”[9] Satan will not submit to God in loving trust because he hates God.

Marc Roby: And sinners refuse to trust in God for the same reason. But, praise God, that he has chosen to grant some new hearts so that can love him and trust in him. What else do you want to say about saving faith?

Dr. Spencer: Because the issue of trust is so important, I want to read what Wayne Grudem has to say in his Systematic Theology. He defines saving faith as “trust in Jesus Christ as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life with God.” And he then goes on to say that “The definition emphasizes personal trust in Christ, not just belief in facts about Christ. Because saving faith in Scripture involves this personal trust, the word ‘trust’ is a better word to use in contemporary culture than the word ‘faith’ or ‘belief.’ The reason is that we can ‘believe’ something to be true with no personal commitment or dependence involved in it.”[10]

Marc Roby: Yes, I remember you making a similar point last time when you said the NIV translation of John 14:1, which uses the word ‘trust’, was better than some others, which use the word ‘believe’, because in our day and age the word faith often does not have this element of trust included.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. Grudem goes on to give some examples of how we use the words believe and faith today. Someone might, for example, say that they “believe” something to be true, and what they mean is that they aren’t sure it is true. If they were sure, they would say that they “know” it is true. But to say you “believe” something is true in our modern usage implies less than certainty. It is probable, but not certain in your mind.

On the other hand, the word “trust” is stronger. You don’t drive across a bridge without trust that it will hold you up.

Marc Roby: Yes, that makes good sense.

Dr. Spencer: And Grudem makes another point that I think is worth mentioning as well.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: He looks at the original Greek for the famous verse John 3:16. In our Bible the verse reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And it is a wonderful verse.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. But Grudem points out that when our translation says “that whoever believes in him shall not perish”, that isn’t a faithful representation of the original Greek. A more faithful translation sounds awkward in English. A literal translation would be to say that whoever believes into him shall not perish and Grudem notes that this has “the sense of trust or confidence that goes into and rests in Jesus as a person.”[11]

Marc Roby: That is a subtle, but important point. If I truly trust Jesus, I will entrust myself to him as my Savior and Lord for this life and the life to come.

Dr. Spencer: And with that, I think we are finished with what I want to say about true, saving faith at this time. Which also finishes the topic of conversion, which I hope our listeners remember is just repentance and faith together.

Marc Roby: And so the next topic in the order of salvation is justification, correct?

Dr. Spencer: It is. And justification is really the heart of the gospel.

Marc Roby: Alright. Well, it would seem unwise to begin a new topic today, so this looks like a good place to end. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we will do our best to respond.

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

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

[3] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pg. 129

[4] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 506

[5] J. Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 241

[6] Berkhon, op. cit., pg. 506

[7] See Session 158

[8] Murray, op. cit., pg. 259

[9] Ibid, pg. 261

[10] W. Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 710

[11] Ibid, pg. 711

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[Download PDF Transcript]

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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[Download PDF Transcript]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: And while Isaiah’s experience may be the most exalted view of God given to anyone in the Bible, he was not the only person who had the experience of coming face-to-face, so to speak, with the holy God. I am thinking of Job’s confrontation with God, where Job declared, in Job 40:4-5, “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid, pg. 126

[4] Ibid, pg. 128

[5] Ibid

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

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

[8] Ibid, pg. 390

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s omnipresence, which means that he is present everywhere. We ended last time by reading a few verses from Psalm 139, in which the psalmist poetically expresses God’s omnipresence by declaring to God, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”[1] So, Dr. Spencer, how do you want to proceed with this topic?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin by reminding everyone that we have to guard against thinking of God in terms of spatial dimensions at all. When we speak of God’s omnipresence, we aren’t saying that God is so huge that he won’t fit in this universe, what we are saying is that he cannot be described by spatial dimensions at all. God is a Spirit as we are told in John 4:24. And, as a Spirit, he is present everywhere in our universe in his totality all the time. We aren’t told exactly what spirits are, and we probably couldn’t understand it anyway, but they are not physical. They are not confined to the four dimensions of space and time that we experience, although they can certainly interact with us in space and time.

Marc Roby: God’s omnipresence is a concept that blows the mind, and Psalm 139 probably describes it as well as it can be expressed.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. Sometimes poetry can express a complicated idea better than simple prose. But, we are still to exercise our minds and to do the best we can to understand the nature of God as he has chosen to reveal it to us. It may help us gain a better understanding of God’s omnipresence to realize that it is related to his eternity and immutability, both of which we have already discussed.

Marc Roby: How so?

Dr. Spencer: We noted last time that God’s eternity can be called his infinity with respect to time and his omnipresence can be called his infinity with respect to space. And we noted in Session 58 that God’s immutability implies his eternity. One way to see that is to realize that we experience the passage of time precisely because we change. I have forgotten some things I used to know and I’ve learned some things I didn’t used to know. I don’t remember what happened in the past perfectly and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow and so on. If none of those changes and limitations were true, then we would cease to experience time the way we do now.

The English puritan theologian Stephen Charnock explains the connection between God’s eternity, his omnipresence and immutability well in his large volume called The Existence and Attributes of God. He writes, “As eternity is the perfection whereby he has neither beginning nor end, immutability is the perfection whereby he has neither increase nor diminution, so immensity or omnipresence is that whereby he has neither bounds nor limitation.” (English updated)[2]

Marc Roby: It is interesting that all three of these attributes are described negatively. Eternity is the lack of a beginning or end, immutability is the lack of change, and omnipresence is the lack of boundaries.

Dr. Spencer: That is interesting. When we are discussing God’s incommunicable attributes, we often have to use negative terms. It is easier to say what he is not than it is to say what he is because God is unique. We usually describe things in terms of other things, and when you have a being that is unique in his essence, you lose that ability to some extent. As God himself says in Isaiah 40:25, “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?”.

If a person is unique simply because he is the largest, or oldest, or smartest, or strongest or whatever, we can still describe him easily in terms of other people. Differences like that are only quantitative as we discussed last time. But God is unique in his essence, the difference is qualitative, not quantitative. And, as a result, we often end up using negative statements to describe his incommunicable attributes. When it comes to his communicable attributes, we can use positive statements and make comparisons, although we have to resort to superlative statements. So, for example, we have knowledge and God has knowledge, so there is a point of comparison. But God’s knowledge is exhaustive and perfect, and ours is not. The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge has an interesting discussion about this in dealing with how we classify the divine attributes.[3]

Marc Roby: That is useful in understanding the problem inherent in trying to describe God. I also noticed that Charnock referred to God’s “immensity or omnipresence”, which seems to indicate that he uses those two terms synonymously.

Dr. Spencer: They are often used as near synonyms. The difference between immensity and omnipresence is one of perspective and I think it will help us to read what Charles Hodge said about this. He wrote that God’s “immensity is the infinitude of his being, viewed as belonging to his nature from eternity. … His omnipresence is the infinitude of his being, viewed in relation to his creatures. He is equally present with all his creatures, at all times, and in all places.”[4]

Marc Roby: That is helpful. The idea that God is equally present with all his creatures at all times and places reminds me of what Moses said to the Israelites just before he died, which was also just before they were to cross over the Jordon to take possession of the Promised Land. He wanted to encourage them and in Deuteronomy 31:8 he said to the Israelites, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great encouragement for God’s people. And that same idea, that God will never leave nor forsake his people, is stated twice by Moses in Deuteronomy 31 and is then repeated by God in speaking to Joshua to strengthen him in Joshua 1:5. It is also used as a request by King Solomon in his prayer of dedication for the Temple in Jerusalem in 1 Kings 8:57 and is then quoted in the New Testament in Hebrews 13:5. But we must also remember that God is not only present to bless his people, he is also present to punish his enemies, which is terrifying.

Marc Roby: And yet, hell is often portrayed as being a place where the sinner is shut out from the presence of God.

Dr. Spencer: It is often described that way. But what is meant is that those in hell are shut out from God’s merciful and beneficent presence. He is present in hell, but he is present there to pour out his wrath on those who have rejected him. We are told in Hebrews 10:31 that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And the reason why it is terrible is stated in Hebrews 12:29, where we read that our “God is a consuming fire.” Revelation is even more terrifying. In Revelation we read several times about a lake of burning sulfur. Now this is a figurative description of course, not a literal one, but sulfur burns at over 800 degrees Fahrenheit, so the imagery is certainly terrifying.

Hell is an unpopular topic, but the Bible is very clear in its teaching about hell because God wants to warn us about the eternal consequences of rejecting him.

Marc Roby: Of course, most non-believers would deny that they have rejected God. They would claim that either he has never shown himself to them or that he doesn’t exist, or something like that.

Dr. Spencer: I’m quite sure that you’re right about that. But the Bible tells us the truth in Romans 1. In Verses 18-21 Paul writes that “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

This truth is extremely unpopular, but it is simple. The Bible is telling us that everyone knows in his or her heart that God exists, but people suppress that truth and because of that God gives them over to futile thinking and foolishness, particularly with regard to the things of God.

Marc Roby: And Psalm 14:1 tells us that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. To be a fool in the biblical sense does not mean that you aren’t intelligent in worldly matters, it means that you have denied the existence of God; your Creator, Sustainer, Judge and the only self-existent, necessarily-existent, completely independent being in existence. You can be a fool biblically and win a Nobel prize in physics.

That is why Paul goes on in Romans 2:5-8 to write, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.”

Marc Roby: A most terrifying thought. To experience the wrath and anger of God Almighty and to know that it will never end and there is no escape.

Dr. Spencer: It is absolutely terrifying. But I think it is important for us to discuss here because while God is present everywhere, he is not present everywhere to bless everyone. Stephen Charnock wrote that “there are several manifestations of his presence; he has a presence of glory in heaven, whereby he comforts the saints; [and] a presence of wrath in hell, whereby he torments the damned”.[5]

Marc Roby: And, as you noted earlier, he is a consuming fire.

Dr. Spencer: And he knows absolutely everything. So the people in hell will know that they are being justly punished. They will know that they did, in fact, reject God in this life. They chose to focus on earthly riches and pleasures rather than God. And, if they heard the gospel, they will have the added guilt of knowing that they rejected God’s offer of grace.

Marc Roby: We are told about that in 1 John 5:10, which says that “Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.”

Dr. Spencer: There is truth in the saying that the only people who go to hell are those who chose to go. But don’t misunderstand what that means. I’m not saying that anyone is given a simple choice between everlasting punishment and everlasting bliss with no other difference. If that were the case, I can’t imagine anyone choosing punishment.

But the choice is between standing on your own in the judgment, in other words, trusting in yourself, verses acknowledging that you are a wretched sinner deserving of wrath and acknowledging Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord, in which case you become a bond-slave to Christ. That is what it means for him to be Lord. He now has an absolute claim to your obedience in thought, word and action. So, although you cannot in any way earn your salvation, it is a free gift, it nonetheless costs you everything because receiving this gift makes you recognize that you are a dependent creature who is totally under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: We should point out that those who have not surrendered to Christ as bond slaves are not free, they are slaves of sin and Satan.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The choice is not between autonomy and the lordship of Christ. Autonomy is an illusion. Those who think they are autonomous are being deceived. Paul tells us in Romans 6:16, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” When we are outside of Christ we can only sin, so we are slaves of sin. But, don’t think that Satan has to force people to sin. We all start off with a sinful nature, so that is our natural proclivity. All Satan has to do is provide the opportunities and make suggestions, we quite naturally take care of the rest ourselves. The paradoxical truth is that it is only when we surrender to become slaves of Jesus Christ that we experience true freedom.

Marc Roby: And what a glorious freedom that is! But it seems that we have once again gotten off topic. We were discussing God’s omnipresence.

Dr. Spencer: I’m not sure that we have been off topic. It is important to make the point that no one will escape God’s presence, his omnipresence is not always a pleasant thing. He will either be your Savior and Lord and, therefore, your greatest joy, or he will be your worst nightmare. But no one can avoid him. He created all things, he sustains all things and he will judge all things.

Marc Roby: OK, so we have been on topic then. What Scriptures can you adduce to show that God is omnipresent?

Dr. Spencer: The classic verse is Jeremiah 23:24, which asks a couple of rhetorical questions. We read, “Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD.” The obvious answers to these rhetorical questions are that no one can hide from God, there are no “secret places” he cannot see, and yes, God “fills” heaven and earth in the sense that he is present everywhere.

Marc Roby: That makes me think of Ephesians 1:22-23, which ascribe this incommunicable attribute of omnipresence to Jesus Christ. Paul wrote that “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great statement, which also provides evidence for the deity of Christ. Another good passage is Acts 17:27-28 where we read that God “is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.” Which is again a poetic way of saying that God is everywhere. Also, in King Solomon’s prayer of dedication to the Temple in Jerusalem he asks and answers his own question about God; we read in 1 Kings 8:27, “will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

Marc Roby: That is a great verse. We need to remember that God is not some stone or wood idol. The temple in the Old Testament was not a place for God to dwell in the normal sense of that word, it was just a building. But its purpose was to remind the people of God and his law and to provide a place for them to come and worship him.

Dr. Spencer: Stephen Charnock makes an interesting comment on this verse, specifically about the statement that “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain” God. He writes that as God’s “power is not limited by the things he has made, but can create innumerable worlds, so can his essence be in innumerable spaces; for as he has power enough to make more worlds, so he has essence enough to fill them, and therefore cannot be confined to what he has already created.”[6]

Marc Roby: All very true, and impossible to grasp fully. And I think we are out of time for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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

[2] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Two Volumes in one, Baker Books, 1996, Vol. I, pg. 367

[3]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. I, pg. 375

[4] Ibid, pg. 383

[5] Charnock, op. cit., pg. 370

[6] Ibid, pg. 376

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