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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. We have discussed his preserving and governing of his creation to bring about his purposes. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to examine today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to take a brief look at miracles. They belong in a discussion about God’s providence because they are related to it as John Frame points out. He wrote that “God’s ‘extraordinary’ actions are called miracles, and his ‘ordinary’ actions are called providence – although … those are relative terms.”[1]

Marc Roby: Miracles can be a controversial topic among Christians today.

Dr. Spencer: And that’s part of why I want to address it. It is an unnecessarily controversial topic. My purpose is to cause us all to think through our views on this topic biblically. We all, as modern people living in a western culture, tend to have serious prejudices with regard to the topic. So, the first thing we need to do is to define what a miracle is. And the minute we start to do that carefully we will begin to see the problem caused by our prejudices.

Marc Roby: Well, if I open my Webster’s dictionary, I find the following definition for a miracle: it is “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a pretty common sort of definition, and we can immediately see that there is a problem from a biblical perspective because it talks about an event “manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” But, as we have been laboring to show in the past few sessions, God sustains and governs all of his creation, all of the time, to achieve his purposes, and this certainly includes all human affairs. From a proper biblical perspective, God intervenes in every event in this world, not just extremely rare events.

Marc Roby: I see your point, but it also seems reasonable to say that some events would manifest God’s action more cleary than others would, and the definition does speak of “an extraordinary event”, so we could assume that they had such events in mind.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, and I’m not saying this is a terrible definition, but it implicitly implies that God very rarely, if ever, intervenes in his creation. Even as Christians our worldviews are affected by the culture around us and we need to be careful to take note of that effect and to consciously cast off the influence when it is contrary to the Bible. If we think that there any events over which God is not in control, then our thinking is, to that extent, unbiblical. Remember Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” [3]

John Frame does an excellent job discussing the subject of miracles in his book The Doctrine of God, and he mentions the “hermeneutical circle”[4].

Marc Roby: I don’t recall us talking about that when we discussed hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: Well, that’s because we didn’t use that terminology. But the idea is very simple. If we want to develop a proper understanding of something, in this case miracles, we first try to clearly state what we think is true and then we look through the Bible to see whether or not what we have said is consistent with the whole teaching of the Bible. If it isn’t, we revise our statement and then go back through the Bible again. By repeatedly applying this procedure, which is the hermeneutical circle, we should come closer and closer to a proper biblical understanding.

Marc Roby: That’s a reasonable approach. So, how does he apply that to defining a miracle?

Dr. Spencer: He first points out that biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have words that correspond directly to our English word miracle. And, further, there are passages that clearly speak about miracles without using any of the nouns used in the Bible to describe miracles. Therefore, a word study is not a very good way to look for a biblical definition.

As just one quick example, let’s examine a passage that you might think is a clear-cut example of Jesus speaking about miracles. In John 14:11 we read that Jesus told the people, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” But, in the Greek, what Jesus said could more literally be translated as it is in the English Standard Version (ESV), which says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”

Marc Roby: And the Greek word Jesus used there, which the ESV has translated as works, that Greek word is ἔργον (ergon), from which we get our word ergonomic, which is the science of making things so that people can work efficiently and safely. So Jesus may not even have been referring exclusively to miracles.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And the other Greek words translated in our NIV Bibles as miracle are words whose root meanings are power (δύναμις), sign (σημεῖον), or wonder (τέρας). Certainly, miracles in the Bible are used as signs to point to God’s power and to authenticate his prophets, his Messiah, and his apostles.

But, as I said, Frame argues that a word study isn’t a great place to start. Instead, he proposes a definition and then examines several popular modifications or improvements that might be suggested. His initial proposal for a biblical definition is that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.”[5]

Marc Roby: That sounds reasonable. What modifications to this definition does he go on to consider?

Dr. Spencer: The first is the common idea that a miracle is, to quote the philosopher David Hume, “a violation of the laws of nature.” Frame first points out that there is a problem with using the word “violation” here. God created this universe and, as Creator, he has authority to do with it what he pleases. It is, therefore, impossible for him to violate the very laws that he himself established. If he created them, he certainly has authority to suspend, alter or do away with them as he pleases. But, even if you choose a different word, the idea that a miracle must somehow be an exception to natural law is a common idea.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is certainly one of the common ways you hear people speak about miracles, if they speak about them at all.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but Frame rejects this modification to the definition for four reasons. First, the Bible itself never indicates that this is what constitutes a miracle.

Marc Roby: That would seem to be sufficient reason to reject the idea all by itself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should be. The second reason he gives for rejecting this modification to the definition is that there are no natural laws that operate independently of God. He writes that “The idea of a mechanism between God and creation that administers the universe in the absence of divine intervention is a deistic, rather than a biblical, model.”[6] When he says this, he is certainly not denying the existence of natural laws that we can discover and put to use in all sorts of ways. Science, as we have noted before, is enabled by the fact that God upholds the laws he has created, but the key idea here is that God upholds those laws. They are not independent of him.

Marc Roby: We spoke last time about the Bible’s clear teaching that God is in control of the rain.

Dr. Spencer: And Frame uses the same example, but there are obviously many more. Now his third reason for rejecting this idea is that no one knows all of the physical laws God has established perfectly and, therefore, no could identify for certain what is, or is not, a miracle.

Marc Roby: And if we couldn’t clearly identify an event as a miracle, that would prohibit it from being a useful sign, which the Bible itself tells us is one purpose of miracles as we saw a few moments ago from John 14:11.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, if we can’t identify when something is a miracle, it can’t function as a sign at all. In fact, I think this reason is again, by itself, a compelling reason to not add that restriction to the definition. Just suppose, for example, that we someday discover how to control gravity and we can make something akin to the hoverboard in the Back to the Future movies. Would that in any way negate the impact that Jesus’ walking on the water had on his disciples?

Marc Roby: I don’t think so.

Dr. Spencer: And neither do I. We can do things now that would almost certainly have been considered miraculous by virtually anyone at the time of Christ. Just consider jet airplanes, cell phones, and GPS systems as a few examples.

Marc Roby: It is impossible to imagine how someone of that time would have reacted, but I’m quite sure that you’re right in saying that most would have called them miraculous.

Dr. Spencer: The idea is fertile ground for science fiction novels and movies, but clearly something does not have to suspend the normal laws of our universe to be a useful sign. Now getting back to the topic at hand, Frame’s fourth reason for rejecting this addition is also compelling. It is that the Bible itself gives us examples of events that have clear “natural” explanations but are, nonetheless, miraculous in any meaningful sense of that term.

Marc Roby: Such as?

Dr. Spencer: Such as the parting of the Red Sea. In Exodus 14:21 we read, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.” There is no suspension of natural law in having a strong east wind, but it is certainly miraculous that it came exactly when Moses stretched out his hand.

Marc Roby: And it may very well have also required a suspension of the normal laws of physics for it to heap up the water on both sides of a path the way it did.

Dr. Spencer: That may be true, the strong east wind may not have been a sufficient cause. But there is at least some possibility that given a very specific geographic situation it was. So, I think Frame’s four reasons are more than adequate for rejecting this modification to the definition of a miracle, we should not in any way reference natural laws in our definition.

Marc Roby: What other possible modifications does Frame consider?

Dr. Spencer: He rejects the suggestion made by some that a miracle involves the immediate activity of God. And the word immediate here is not being used in the temporal sense, in other words it does not mean activity that occurs right away. Rather, it refers to activity that is not mediated by some secondary agent.

Marc Roby: That again is a very common idea about what constitutes a miracle.

Dr. Spencer: It is, but I think Frame’s reasons for rejecting it are sound. He points out that the Bible itself doesn’t distinguish between events in which God acts immediately or mediately. It is fairly obvious, as he notes, that the original creation out of nothing must have been an immediate act of God. After all, who or what could have mediated when nothing but God existed? He also posits, and I would certainly agree, that regeneration, or new birth, must be an immediate work of God. But what other events can we say that about with any degree of certainty?

Marc Roby: Well, I would say the virginal conception of Jesus, but I wouldn’t want to try and give an exhaustive list such events.

Dr. Spencer: Nor would I. Therefore, Frame points out two problems here. First, he writes, “If miracles are immediate acts of God, how could anybody ever identify an event as a miracle?”[7] And secondly, as we have been discussing for several weeks, God upholds all of creation, so in a sense, absolutely nothing occurs without his immediate action, at least in the sense of upholding the creation. As Paul said in Acts 17:28, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is, again, a compelling argument. Does Frame consider any other additions to the definition?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he considers one more. It is that a miracle must somehow be used to attest to the authenticity of a prophet of God.

Marc Roby: That idea is certainly present in Scripture. I think of the story about Jesus telling a paralytic that his sins were forgiven. Some of the people in the crowd starting thinking to themselves that Jesus was committing blasphemy because only God has authority to forgive sins, and then we read in Matthew 9:5-6 that Jesus said to them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’” So, Jesus himself used that miracle to attest to his authority.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, and Frame notes that this idea is biblical, but the problem is that not every miracle in the Bible has that purpose, so it shouldn’t be part of the definition of a miracle. Frame notes, for example, that the flood at the time of Noah was intended for judgment, not as a validation of Noah as a prophet.

Marc Roby: Very well, so what is Frame’s final conclusion?

Dr. Spencer: First recall that his preliminary definition was that “miracles are unusual events caused by God’s power, so extraordinary that we would usually consider them impossible.” And he rejected any of the additions that would normally be proposed. Therefore, there is a close link between miracles and providence, which is why we are considering miracles now. God rules as the sovereign Lord of the universe in both the miraculous and the ordinary. But Frame thinks, and I certainly agree, that it is still useful to distinguish between the two. Therefore, he slightly amends his preliminary definition to explicitly mention God’s relationship to creation as the covenant Lord and concludes by saying that “Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s covenant lordship.”[8]

Marc Roby: That strikes me as a perfectly reasonable and biblical definition to work with.

Dr. Spencer: And I again agree. But Frame then addresses an issue that is controversial in the modern church. And that is the question of whether or not miracles occur today.

Marc Roby: There are many modern Christians who would say that miracles ended with the end of the apostolic age.

Dr. Spencer: Many do say that. And before we go any further, I want to be clear that this is not in any way an essential of the faith. Born-again believers can disagree on this issue. But, with that said, let’s very briefly consider the question.

And let me begin by saying that there are a couple of non-negotiable items. One of them is that the canon of Scripture is closed. Whatever we may believe concerning God’s revealing things to individual Christians, there is no new revelation on a par with Scripture. It alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian.

Marc Roby: And so, for example, the Roman Catholic idea that the traditions of the church are on the same level as Scripture is wrong.

Dr. Spencer: And so are the Mormons when they claim that God gave new revelation to Joseph Smith. The entire Old Testament pointed forward in a myriad of ways to the coming Messiah, who was promised to Adam and Eve in the garden immediately after the fall.[9] The New Testament tells us about the coming of this Messiah, what he taught personally and through his apostles, and it also tells us about the early history of the church. After that, God’s infallible revelation to man ended.

Marc Roby: And so, at a bare minimum, any guidance anyone thinks he receives from the Holy Spirit must be consistent with the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. We are told in 1 John 4:1 that we are to test the spirits.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. The Holy Spirit is the unchangeable God. If someone thinks that God has revealed something to him that contradicts God’s word given to us in the Bible, he is wrong.

The other non-negotiable item is that no one is given authority to perform miracles at will. There are many charlatans out there who will pretend that they can heal you of your diseases or provide some desired benefit on demand. But that is a lie.

Marc Roby: Alright, I agree with those two non-negotiable items. What then do you want to say about miracles occurring now?

Dr. Spencer: I think that God is clearly capable of doing miracles at any time, that there is no clear teaching in the Bible to indicate that he stopped performing miracles at the end of the apostolic age. There is also a lot of very credible evidence for God performing miracles of healing and so on in our day and age. For one thing, I would say that every time a person is born again, that is a miracle.

Marc Roby: And praise God for that miracle.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. Without it, no one would be saved. But, in addition, God still provides for the needs of his church. And those needs did not end with the death of the last apostle. God calls us to approach his throne of grace with confidence. We are to pray for our needs and the needs of others. And prayer works. Including, sometimes, miraculous healing or miraculous provisions.

God is not a vending machine and we don’t have the power to cause him to do whatever we want, his answer to a prayer for healing may be “no”, as it was, for example, for the apostle Paul.[10] But God does still perform miracles for his people, although I agree with Frame that they are rare today. We are told that we shouldn’t look for them as confirmation of our faith because we have a sufficient basis for our faith without them. But they occur even today. We have a mighty God.

Marc Roby: I think that is a wonderful note to end on for today, so let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

[1] Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 275

[2] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Comp., 1979

[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] Frame, op. cit., pg. 245

[5] Ibid, pp 245-246

[6] Ibid, pg. 250

[7] Ibid, pg. 253

[8] Ibid, pg. 258

[9] See Genesis 3:15

[10] See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, last time we made the point that it is both illogical and unbiblical to think that God can control major things if he doesn’t control the details of life. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I would like to look at some Scriptures to strengthen and extend the scope of our argument that God providentially rules his universe.

Marc Roby: Very well, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: There are many passages that tell us that God is in control of every aspect of our lives. Louis Berkhof gives a nice representative, but certainly not exhaustive, list in his Systematic Theology.[1] He gives eleven categories to illustrate God’s providential control. His first category is sort of an umbrella that actually covers all of the others too, because he first points out that the Bible clearly teaches God’s providential control over the universe at large, by which he means the physical creation and all of human history. To back up this claim he first cites Psalm 103:19, which says, “The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” [2]

Marc Roby: That verse implicitly makes an important point. When we think of God’s providence, we need to think of him ruling over his creation. He has a throne in heaven and a kingdom. And, as Psalm 19:1 tells us, all of creation declares his glory.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that’s an important point. God is not an impersonal force, he is a person, the King of the universe. Berkhof also cites Ephesians 1:11, which says, “In him”, referring to Jesus Christ, “we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.

Marc Roby: And since this verse is speaking about God’s plan of salvation, it is clear that when it says “everything” it is speaking about human history, both collectively and individually.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. This verse speaks about human history, so it’s clear that Berkhof isn’t just thinking about the inanimate creation. That’s why I said this first category is a sort of umbrella. But, now let’s move on to Berkhof’s second category, which is God’s providential control over the physical world. He cites Psalm 104:14, which says that God “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth”. He also cites Job 37, where Job’s friend Elihu is speaking about God and says, for example, in Verses 11-13, “He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. At his direction they swirl around over the face of the whole earth to do whatever he commands them. He brings the clouds to punish men, or to water his earth and show his love.”

Marc Roby: And that verse again illustrates that God’s providence is personal and has a purpose to achieve. I would also cite Job Chapter 38 to show God’s control of the physical world, where God himself peppers Job with a number of rhetorical questions regarding his creation and control of the world.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great chapter. And I would add that this in no way implies that there aren’t physical laws that govern our universe. God uses secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. There is a very interesting reference to the physical laws of our universe in the book of Jeremiah.

Marc Roby: It might be good to point out that Jeremiah prophesied to the people of Jerusalem before, during and after the Babylonians captured the city and took most of the prominent Jewish people away into captivity in Babylon between 605 and 587 BC.

Dr. Spencer: That does set the stage for his comment. As part of his prophecies, God told Jeremiah to encourage the people by telling them that their captivity was not the end of God’s work on their behalf. God was still in control and would, ultimately, restore the kingdom of Israel and bring the promised Messiah.

So, in Jeremiah 33:25 we read, “This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.’”

Marc Roby: That verse uses a very interesting literary device. Instead of using a simple “if A then B” sentence structure, God uses an “if not A then not B” structure. But then he emphasizes the certainty of B by giving an A that the listener knows without any doubt to be true. When God says “If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth”, he assumes that the listener will immediately recognize that he has, in fact, established his covenant with the day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth and therefore, when he says “then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David”, the implication is clear; God will not reject the descendants of Jacob and David.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very interesting literary device. And it also serves to emphasize God’s providential control of creation via the secondary agent of fixed laws, because the statement assumes that it is obvious to all that there are fixed laws of heaven and earth.

This is the reason science works. God rules his universe in an orderly way. The law of gravity, for example, is the same now as it was 200 years ago, and we have every reason to believe that it will be the same 200 years from now. Therefore, we can perform experiments, make observations, put forth hypotheses about the nature of gravity and then confirm or deny and refine those hypotheses by further experiments. And that is how we have come to understand so much of the physical world. This verse gives us a good biblical basis for doing science.

Marc Roby: Of course, it does not logically follow that God himself is incapable of violating those fixed laws if and when he so chooses.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not. But, the vast majority of the time, they are fixed. And we have no power to alter them. Berkhof’s third category notes that God’s providence extends over all animals, which he calls the “brute creation”. He cites Matthew 6:26, where Jesus tells us to, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Marc Roby: We could again point out that there are secondary agents involved here. Plants have to grow and the animals themselves have to go and find the plants and eat them. It isn’t that God comes down and puts the food into their mouths.

Dr. Spencer: It is important to constantly take note of God’s use of secondary agents. There are very few things that God has done or continues to do by his own immediate action. In his fourth category, Berkhof notes God’s providence over nations, citing, for example, Job 12:23, where we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.”

Marc Roby: Another great example would be Cyrus, King of Persia. God told his people about this king and what he would do more than 100 years before Cyrus was born. For example, in Isaiah 45:13 we read, “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free”.

Dr. Spencer: Cyrus is an impressive example of God’s providential control over the nations of this world. Berkhof’s fifth category is God’s providence over man’s birth and lot in life and he cites Psalm 139:16 where we read that “your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Marc Roby: And I would add Jeremiah 1:5 to this list, where God tells the prophet, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is another great example, and it isn’t just the prophet Jeremiah that God knew before he was conceived. We read in Ephesians 2:10 that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has prepared work for each one of us in advance, and he can only do that if he has control over the details of our lives.

For his sixth category, Berkhof notes God’s providence over the successes and failures of men and he cites Luke 1:52, where we are told that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

Marc Roby: I would, again, want to add a verse to the list. We read concerning Joseph’s time in an Egyptian prison in Genesis 39:23 that “The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did.”

Dr. Spencer: And in Proverbs 21:31 we read that “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the LORD.” There are many other verses we could cite as well, but it is clear that the Bible teaches us that all success comes from the Lord.

Berkhof’s seventh category is that God is sovereign over apparently accidental or unimportant events and he cites Proverbs 16:33 and Matthew 10:30, both of which we looked at in our previous session when we made the point that there are no chance events.

His eighth category is God’s providence in the protection of the righteous. The most important verse he cites there is Romans 8:28, which says, “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.”

Marc Roby: That is a familiar and very comforting verse for Christians. It isn’t that all things are, in and of themselves, good, but that they all work together for good. But only for those who love God and have been called according to his purpose.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is an extremely comforting verse. God takes care of his children. And Berkhof’s ninth category is God’s providence in supplying the wants of God’s people. Now I must point out that he is using the word “want” in an old-fashioned sense here. He is really speaking of those things which we need. And to support this, he cites Philippians 4:19, where the apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi that “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, one of the most famous verses in the Bible is Psalm 23:1, which says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Which is, again, speaking about things we need, not all of our earthly desires.

Dr. Spencer: We also read in Psalm 84:11, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.”

Marc Roby: And, amazingly, it isn’t just his chosen people that God cares about, Jesus himself commanded us in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is incredible. Berkhof’s tenth category is God’s providence in answering prayer. And to illustrate that point I would cite one Old Testament verse and one New Testament verse.

Marc Roby: I’m going to guess that the Old Testament verse is 2 Chronicles 7:14, where God tells Solomon, “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 exactly the verse I had in mind. And in the New Testament, I would cite Matthew 21:22, where Jesus tells us that “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” And then finally, Berkhof’s eleventh category is God’s providence in the exposure and punishment of the wicked.

Marc Roby: I’m surprised Berkhof doesn’t also mention God’s providence in the full and complete salvation of his chosen people.

Dr. Spencer: I am as well, so let’s take the liberty of adding that ourselves. In Matthew 25:31-46 we read about the final destiny of all people. Jesus tells us in Verses 31-32 that “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And then, in Verse 46 we read that those who have not trusted in Christ, “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And that verse shows us the end toward which God’s providential control of this world is headed. There are only two possible eternal destinations, heaven or hell. We must see our need for a Savior, repent of our sins, and trust completely in Jesus Christ to be saved.

Dr. Spencer: That is the most important decision any human being makes, what will they say to God’s glorious offer? The secular view of history is that it is not controlled by anyone and it has no ultimate purpose. We are just animals that live out our lives and then disappear from the scene. But that is not the truth, and God has given all of us more than enough information to know that it isn’t truth.

Marc Roby: Which is why even people who don’t claim any faith in God speak of people who die as being “in a better place” and things like that. They know the person still exists in some way.

Dr. Spencer: And that is also why people fear death so much. They know in their heart that they will be judged. And so, the biblical view of history takes into account the fact that history is linear. It had a beginning, it has an appointed end, and it has a purpose. In his book Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Boice notes that “There is probably no point at which the Christian doctrine of God comes more into conflict with contemporary world views than in the matter of God’s providence.”[3] And he goes on to point out three things about the Christian view of providence. First, it is personal and moral.[4] It is not like the secular view of fate or chance. There is a personal God who rules his creation and deals with us as moral creatures who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Yes, and even for our thoughts.

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, we’re told in Hebrews 4:12 that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” And God’s word is a reflection of his character. It isn’t just that his word judges in some abstract way, God himself will judge our thoughts and attitudes in a very concrete way on that day.

Marc Roby: Which is obvious given the fact, for example, that Jesus told us in Matthew 5:28, “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In other words, we will be judged as having broken the commandment to not commit adultery.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. In addition to saying that providence is personal and moral, Boice makes two more points about the Christian view of providence. He says, secondly, that providence is specific. By which he means that God deals specifically with individual people in our different individual situations.

Marc Roby: Which goes along with providence being personal. What is the third point that Boice makes?

Dr. Spencer: That God’s providence has a purpose, it is directed toward a specific end.

Marc Roby: Which is why you said that history is linear.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And now that we’ve given an outline of the biblical data regarding God’s providence, and made some general comments about the nature and purpose of his providence, I think we are ready to dive in a bit deeper and look at the doctrine systematically.

Marc Roby: But, we are out of time for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to respond to them.

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 168

[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] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 176

[4] Ibid, pg. 180

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

Dr. Spencer, at the end of our previous session you made a shift that I didn’t notice at the time. We had been talking about moral laws and the idea that if God doesn’t exist, might, in a human sense, does make right. You then said that “at the end of the day truth really does depend on power because it depends on authority.” So, you switched from talking about what is right, to talking about what is true. Can you explain that shift?

Dr. Spencer: I did make a jump there in order to get to the conclusion before we ran out of time and, in hindsight, the jump was too large. So, let’s go back and fill in the blanks so to speak to make it clear how I got to that conclusion.

Marc Roby: OK, please do.

Dr. Spencer: We had finished briefly discussing different theories of truth and had then pointed out that our worldview has a pervasive influence on what we believe to be true. It is therefore, extremely important that our worldview be correct. But, our worldview is not something most of us consciously develop or even think about, so you had asked for an example of how we can test whether or not our own worldview is true.

Marc Roby: Yes, I recall that.

Dr. Spencer: And I responded by saying that we can test whether some of the fundamental tenets of our worldview are true or not. Our worldview comprises a set of beliefs about the world we live in, things we believe to be true. And those beliefs can be examined by realizing that we can draw conclusions based on them, in other words things that should be true if the underlying beliefs are true, and then we can check those conclusions to see if they’re right. And I gave the example that if an atheistic worldview is correct, then there can be no absolute morality.

Marc Roby: And I think we established that conclusion reasonably well.

Dr. Spencer: I do too, although I may want to come back to that topic later. But, getting back to our example, if an atheist believes in absolute morality, and in my experience most do, even if they won’t say so, his worldview is inconsistent. I argued that absolute morality only exists because God has the authority and power to establish and enforce moral law. But I skipped over making the connection that God’s authority and power do not end with his being able to establish the moral law. In fact, he has the authority and power to determine everything that exists in this universe and is absolute sovereign over everything that happens in the universe, so that whatever he thinks is true, is necessarily true.

Marc Roby: And that is what is meant by saying that truth is, ultimately, a person, it is God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. Of course, truth is also a property of a statement, but ultimately, a statement is true if it corresponds to what God thinks is true. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, defines God’s attribute of truthfulness this way: “God’s truthfulness means that he is the true God, and that all his knowledge and words are both true and the final standard of truth.”[1]

Marc Roby: Grudem uses the word “true” in two different ways in that definition, doesn’t he? To say that God is “the true God” is a different usage of the word than to say that his words are true.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. John Frame, in his book The Doctrine of God, discusses three different meanings of the word truth as it is used in the Bible.[2] And all three meanings are important because God is truth in all three senses of the term. The first of these three meanings is called the metaphysical.

Marc Roby: Metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental causes and nature of things.

Dr. Spencer: Mm-Hmm. In talking about the truth as being a person last time, we quoted what is perhaps the most famous verse in this regard, John 14:6, in which Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” [3] Jesus was using the word truth in its metaphysical sense there. We sometimes use the word that way in our normal speech as well. For example, you might hear someone be described as a true outdoorsman. Which means that the person corresponds to the ideal picture of what an outdoorsman should be.

Marc Roby: Of course, my picture of an ideal outdoorsman might be different than yours.

Dr. Spencer: That is certainly possible. And that brings up an interesting point relating to the truthfulness of God. In John 17:3, the great high priestly prayer of Jesus, he is praying to his Father in heaven and says, “this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” When Jesus says the Father is “the only true God” he is using the term in its metaphysical sense, but we have to deal with the same question you raised; whose idea of the true God must the Father conform to in order to be the true God? Many people throughout history have rejected the true God because the God of the Bible doesn’t fit their personal idea of what God should be like. For example, many reject God because in their view he shouldn’t allow any suffering in this world.

Marc Roby: In fact, many people at the time of Jesus rejected him because they were looking for a political Messiah who would deliver them from their bondage to the Romans.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s true. In fact, Jesus spoke about the fact that people rejected him for not living up to their expectations for the Messiah. In Luke 7:31-35 he says, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.”’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Jesus was making the point that the people who rejected John for being too ascetic and Jesus for not upholding the Jewish traditions of the time were just like children who were upset with others who wouldn’t join in one game by dancing, or in another one by crying. But, we don’t get to choose the game! God is sovereign, not us.

Marc Roby: And, as Jesus said, “wisdom is proved right by all her children.”

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. And what he meant was that the fruit produced by the ministry of John the Baptist, which was serious repentance, and the fruit produced by Jesus’ own ministry, which was salvation for sinners, would prove them to be true. And so, when people today refuse to accept the God of the Bible because the God they want would never allow suffering into this world, or would never send people to hell, they are being just like the Jews of Jesus’ day. Therefore, we must again ask, in the high priestly prayer of John 17, when Jesus said that the Father is “the only true God”, whose idea of the true God must the Father conform to in order to be the true God?

Marc Roby: Well, I would assume that, since Jesus is the one praying, it would be his idea of the true God that he has in mind.

Dr. Spencer: And I would agree with you. But Grudem points out an interesting and unavoidable circularity here. He says, correctly, “that it is God himself who has the only perfect idea of what the true God should be like. And he himself is the true God because in his being and character he perfectly conforms to his own idea of what the true God should be. In addition, he has implanted in our minds a reflection of his own idea of what the true God must be, and this enables us to recognize him as God.”[4]

Marc Roby: And, I might add, he has also revealed to us in his Word what it means to be the true God. I am thinking, for example, of places like Isaiah 41:22-23, where God mocks the idols of the people saying, “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a good passage. According to God, a true God should be able to tell us what the future holds.

In addition, the Bible tells us that a true God should also be the one who created all things. Over and over again in the Old Testament God reminds his people that he is the one who created the heavens and the earth. For example, in Isaiah 45:18 we read, “For this is what the LORD says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— he says: ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other.’”

Marc Roby: There is only one Creator, and he alone is the true and living God.

Dr. Spencer: And, as Grudem pointed out, God “implanted in our minds a reflection of his own idea of what the true God must be, and this enables us to recognize him as God.” So, when God points out that he alone is the Creator, the Lord of history, the Savior of his people, and the Judge of all, it resonates with our inner sense of what it means to be God and, if we have been born again, we recognize it as true.

So, when we read that God is the true God, the metaphysical use of the term truth here means that we recognize God, as he reveals himself to us in his Word, to correspond in his fundamental nature, to what it means to be God. But we also see that he is the one who defines what it means to be God, so we need to jettison any unbiblical notions of God from our thinking. There is no external standard to which God must conform. He is the standard.

Marc Roby: I think we all need to meditate for a while on God’s description of what the true God should be and his revelation of himself as that true God.

Dr. Spencer: These ideas definitely warrant some careful thought. And let me add one more quick point related to the metaphysical meaning of truth. In John 1:17 the apostle says that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

John Murray makes an important point about this verse in his book Principles of Conduct. He wrote that “We should bear in mind that ‘the true’ in the usage of John is not so much the true in contrast with the false, or the real in contrast with the fictitious. It is the absolute as contrasted with the relative, the ultimate as contrasted with the derived, the eternal as contrasted with the temporal, the permanent as contrasted with the temporary, the complete in contrast with the partial, the substantial in contrast with the shadowy. … What John is contrasting here is the partial, incomplete character of the Mosaic dispensation with the completeness and fulness of the revelation of grace and truth in Jesus Christ.”[5]

Marc Roby: That statement gives us even more to meditate on. In the meantime, you said that Frame lists three meanings of the word truth as it is used in the Bible. What is the second meaning?

Dr. Spencer: The second is epistemological, or propositional truth, which is, as Frame points out, “a property of language, rather than reality.”[6] In other words, if I say that I was born in California, the proposition is either true or false. That is the predominant sense in which we were using the term in our last session when we discussed theories of truth. A statement is true if it corresponds to reality as far as that can be determined, and if it is also consistent with all other statements we know to be true.

Marc Roby: And God is also truth in this propositional sense. For example, we are told in Hebrews 6:18 that “it is impossible for God to lie”.

Dr. Spencer: We also read in 1 Samuel 15:29 that “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind”. That is why Grudem’s definition says, “all his knowledge and words are” true. And this is the point I was making last time. Since God is the Creator and the sovereign Lord of history, he controls this universe both in terms of its underlying nature and in terms of what happens to it over time. Therefore, whatever God thinks is true, is necessarily true as we have said. Grudem says, “since God knows all things infinitely well, we can say that the standard of true knowledge is conformity to God’s knowledge. If we think the same thing God thinks about anything in the universe, we are thinking truthfully about it.”[7]

Marc Roby: In other words, God is not only true, he is the standard of truth. Grudem’s definition also says that God’s knowledge and words are “the final standard of truth.”

Dr. Spencer: And Grudem explains that statement further. He says that “God’s words are not simply true in the sense that they conform to some standard of truthfulness outside of God. Rather, they are truth itself; they are the final standard and definition of truth.”

Marc Roby: We talked about ultimate standards of truth way back in Session 4 and you pointed out that there really are only two possibilities; either human reason or divine revelation.

Dr. Spencer: Those are the only two options. But we also pointed out that even though human reason is not the ultimate standard of truth for a Christian, it is necessary. It is a gift from God and without it we can’t understand his revelation to us. But, we must use our reason in a subservient role. It cannot stand in judgment over God’s revelation, it must be used to understand that revelation correctly.

Marc Roby: And that applies to general revelation as well as to the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. We must be careful to never let human reason be the ultimate standard for truth, even when we are doing science. Francis Bacon, often considered the father of empirical science, is famous for his statement about God’s two books; the book of nature and the book of the Bible. But, as Christians, we must place the Bible above nature because it is God’s infallible word to us. We can use our understanding of nature to help understand the Bible correctly, but we can never let what we think we know from nature overrule the Bible. So, for example, the idea that all life emerged from non-life by some natural process is unacceptable because it clearly contradicts the Bible. Of course, as I pointed out in Session 1, I don’t think that idea has much scientific merit either, it is the result of an atheistic worldview.

Marc Roby: Which again points out the importance of our worldview. But, let me bring us back to our topic of God’s truthfulness. You said that Frame discussed three biblical meanings of the word truth and we’ve covered two of them, the metaphysical and the propositional meanings. What then is the third?

Dr. Spencer: The third meaning is the ethical. The three meanings are, of course, all related. Frame says that “Metaphysical truth is genuineness; epistemological truth faithfully represents what is genuine; ethical truth is faithfulness in all areas of life.”[8]

So, with regard to metaphysical truth we quoted John 17:3, which called God the Father “the only true God”, and which speaks of his being the genuine article, to use a colloquial expression. Then with regard to epistemological, or propositional, truth you quoted Hebrews 6:18, which says that “it is impossible for God to lie” and that tells us that God faithfully represents what is genuine. Then, finally, ethical truth, as Frame says, is “faithfulness in all areas of life.”

Marc Roby: And ethics refers to the moral rules that govern our behavior.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. And God is ethical truth in at least two ways. First, Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate and, as we are told in John 1:18, makes the Father known to us, walked in perfect obedience to God’s commands. He himself declared in John 8:29 that he always did what pleased the Father. And, secondly, God is ethical truth in the sense that he alone has authority to tell us what is right and what is sin. In other words, he alone has authority to give us the moral rules that govern our behavior. Without God’s authority to do that, we are left with moral relativism and morality must be defined by human reason and is, therefore, changeable.

Marc Roby: Yes, I liked what you said in our previous session; that if someone is a logically consistent atheist, he must agree with the premise that might makes right.

Dr. Spencer: I did say that, yes. And I was deliberately being provocative. I certainly did not mean, for example, that any individual who has sufficient might to take something from another is morally right to do so. But, as I noted, if there is no God, we have a serious problem trying to defend any set of laws as being inherently right.

For example, in 1830 it was legal in some states in this country to own a slave. But now it is illegal everywhere in this country. Was there a change in some underlying law of morality? No, there was a Civil War and the 13th Amendment to our Constitution was passed. Now I certainly hope, and expect, that our listeners will all agree slavery as it existed in this country prior to the 13th Amendment was morally wrong. But there is a very serious question that we should all ask ourselves; namely, “On what basis can we make the statement that slavery is wrong?” What makes us right and the people who were in favor of it in 1830 wrong?

Marc Roby: That is a question most people would find unsettling to even ask.

Dr. Spencer: I realize that, but it is an important question. We all tend to think that we are morally superior to people we disagree with. And, if we are part of a group that has the power at the moment, we may even feel somewhat smugly justified in feeling that way. But the question stands. Other than the fact that the majority view is in our favor and the north was able to win the Civil War, what makes us right and the people in favor of slavery in 1830 wrong?

Marc Roby: Yes, I see your point, although I’m sure it will make a lot of people uncomfortable.

Dr. Spencer: It does make us uncomfortable. When we find ourselves objecting to the statement that “might makes right”, and even self-proclaimed atheists typically do so, we are implicitly saying that there is some higher authority or standard for right conduct. But where does that standard come from?

Marc Roby: Obviously I would say it comes from God.

Dr. Spencer: Of course. And I would agree. But if someone claims to not believe in God, how can they answer the question?

Marc Roby: I don’t think they can. And we are out of time, so I think we will need to finish this discussion next time. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org; we’d love to hear from you.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 195

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

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

[4] Grudem, op.cit., pg. 195

[5] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pg. 123

[6] Frame, op. cit., pg. 477

[7] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 195

[8] Frame, op. cit., pg. 478

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the biblical case for the deity of Jesus Christ and we ended last time by starting to look at the passage in Philippians 2:5-11, which says this, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore 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.” [1]

We pointed out last session that the first part of the passage tells us plainly that Jesus Christ is God. Dr. Spencer, the next line has caused trouble for some; it begins by saying that Jesus “made himself nothing”. What does that mean?

Dr. Spencer: The question of what it means for Jesus to have “made himself nothing”, or as the ESV and some other translations put it, to have “emptied himself”, has caused trouble for some since the mid 1800’s. But it should not be a problem since the sentence itself goes on to tell us what is meant by the phrase; it tells us that Jesus took “the very nature of a servant” and was “made in human likeness.” In other words, it means that he humbled himself and took on human nature. He did not somehow stop being God, nor did he give up any of the attributes that are essential to God’s being.

Marc Roby: I like what the Westminster Shorter Catechism says on this point. Question 27 asks, “Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?” And the answer is this; “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very succinct and yet complete description of what is meant by Christ’s humiliation. But getting back specifically to what it meant for Christ to have “made himself nothing”, the right meaning is stated by Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology book. He says that “The emptying includes change of role and status, not essential attributes or nature.”[2] But let’s not lose sight of the main point we were making; the verse states in unequivocal language that Jesus Christ already existed prior to his incarnation and that he is fully God. But, it also says more. Before we go on though, I want to point out again that James Boice uses this passage from Philippians 2 in his book Foundations of the Christian Faith to argue for the divinity of Christ and I am summarizing his arguments here.[3]

Marc Roby: What else does Boice say about that passage?

Dr. Spencer: He wrote that “having described how Jesus laid aside his former glory in order to become a man and die for us, Paul goes on to show how he received that glory back, noting that he is now to be confessed as Lord”.

Marc Roby: Before you go on I want to discuss that statement. You said a moment ago that God did not give up any of the attributes that are essential to God’s being when he became incarnate, but Boice says here that he laid aside his former glory. Now, isn’t God’s glory one of his attributes? Can you explain why it is not one that is essential to God’s being?

Dr. Spencer: Whether glory is or is not an attribute depends on how you define it.[4] The word glory has a wide range of meanings. Grudem points out that it often means simply honor or excellent reputation and that “In this sense, the glory of God is not exactly an attribute of his being but rather describes the superlative honor that should be given to God by everything in the universe”.[5]

And what Boice said is perfectly biblical. In John 17:5 Jesus is praying and requests of the Father, “glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” When Jesus said that he “had” this glory, which is past tense, it is clear that he didn’t possess it at the time he made this statement. So, this verse makes it clear that Jesus laid aside his glory, meaning the honor due to him as God, when he became incarnate. That honor is something that is due to him as God, but is not an essential attribute of his being. So, what I said is accurate, Jesus Christ did not cease to be God when he became incarnate, nor did he surrender any of the attributes that are essential to God’s being.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think that explains it well enough, so let’s get back to Boice’s argument. He says that Jesus received his glory back, meaning when he ascended into heaven after his resurrection, and that he is to be confessed as Lord.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And here is the really important point. When Paul wrote that God “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” he is obviously alluding to Isaiah 45:23 where we read that Jehovah God declared, “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.”

Marc Roby: Paul’s allusion to that verse is indeed obvious.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is. And Boice points out what is perhaps the most amazing fact about this passage.

Marc Roby: What’s that?

Dr. Spencer: It is that Paul was not to making an argument for the deity of Christ! Paul’s major point in the passage is that we should be humble and he uses Jesus Christ as the supreme example of that humility. In the course of making that argument, he simply assumes, as it were, the deity of Christ. Now you have to think about that fact for a moment for it to have its full impact.

If I want to make an argument to prove some point, I am not going to introduce something else that needs to be proven first if I can possibly avoid doing so. I’m going to make my argument using information that is already known and agreed to by my listeners.

Marc Roby: Therefore the implication is that Paul assumed the recipients of his letter already believed that Jesus Christ is fully God.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the point. Paul himself had founded the church in Philippi. In fact, one of its early members was the famous Philippian jailer who had cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” In any event, Paul had stayed in contact with this church and undoubtedly had made sure that they had good teaching. Therefore, he knew that they were fully aware of this fundamental Christian doctrine; that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Holy Trinity.

Marc Roby: You’re right; once you think that through it is a very impressive bit of evidence.

Dr. Spencer: Boice quotes an English commentator, Bishop Handley Moule on this point, and I think he does an excellent job of driving home the implication of the argument. He wrote, “We have here a chain of assertions about our Lord Jesus Christ, made within some thirty years of his death at Jerusalem; made in the open day of public Christian intercourse, and made (every reader must feel this) not in the least manner of controversy, of assertion against difficulties and denials, but in the tone of a settled, common, and most living certainty. These assertions give us on the one hand the fullest possible assurance that he is man, man in nature, in circumstances and experience, and particularly in the sphere of relation to God the Father. But they also assure us, in precisely the same tone, and in a way which is equally vital to the arguments in hand, that he is as genuinely divine as he is genuinely human.”[6]

Marc Roby: What a great summary of the importance of this passage. And this passage also reminds me of another one that speaks about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. The writer of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 8 and then applies it to Christ and says, in Verse 9 of Chapter 2, “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Dr. Spencer: That does make the same point clearly. Theologians talk about the humiliation of Christ. And by that they are referring not just to his being tried, mocked, spit upon, flogged and crucified, but they are referring to the fact that he became man.

Marc Roby: That doesn’t exactly flatter us human beings.

Dr. Spencer: It isn’t meant to flatter us. But it is accurate. It would be infinitely less of a humiliation for me to become an ant than it was for the Creator and Lord of the universe to become man.

Marc Roby: We again see the need for us to properly grasp the Creator/creature distinction.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do. But let’s get back to the point of proving that Jesus Christ is God.

Marc Roby: Very well, what do you want to look at next?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s look at Chapter 12 of John’s gospel. We read there about the unbelief of the Jewish people with regard to Christ. John tells us that in spite of all the miracles he performed among them, they would not believe and he says, in Verses 39 and 40, “they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.’” Now, this is a quote from Chapter 6 of Isaiah, which is where we read of Isaiah’s amazing vision of God on his throne in heaven.

Marc Roby: Which I might add is, perhaps, the greatest vision of God given to anyone in all of history.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, it is. And let me quote a lengthy passage from Boice because he summarizes what this means very well. He wrote, “To people living today, particularly Christians, the reference may seem natural, for we are used to theological statements giving full deity to Christ. But that was hardly natural for John, a monotheistic Jew, or for his contemporaries. For a Jew of John’s time God was almost inaccessible in his transcendence. He was the holy One of Israel. He dwelt in glory unapproachable. None actually saw him. And when on some unusual occasion some remarkably privileged person, such as Moses or Isaiah, had received a vision of God in his glory, it was not believed even then to be an actual vision of God as he is in himself but rather only an image or reflection of him. Yet such a vision filled one with awe and wonder.

“What Isaiah saw was the closest thing in all Jewish writings or tradition to an actual ‘portrait’ of the living and holy God. Yet that vision with all its breathtaking splendor John applies to Jesus. Without questioning, it would seem, John takes the most exalted vision of God in the Old Testament and says that it was a portrait of a carpenter from Nazareth who was about to be crucified – so great is John’s opinion of him.”[7]

Marc Roby: It is hard for us to grasp just how radical that view was at that time.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly is, but Boice does a good job of explaining the importance. John was clearly convinced by all that he had seen, heard and experienced that Jesus Christ was God. So, anyone who believes the Bible to be true must join with John in recognizing this fact. To do otherwise is to deny the veracity of the New Testament and the apostle whom Jesus loved.

Marc Roby: I agree. What other evidence do you want to adduce in support of this view?

Dr. Spencer: Another important point that often goes unnoticed by modern readers is the way Jesus referred to God the Father. As we have noted, the Jews considered God’s name to be so holy that it should not even be spoken. And they considered, as Boice pointed out in the passage I just read, God to be so transcendent that he was inaccessible to human beings. No first century Jew would ever have thought of referring to God as his personal father, and yet, that is the way Jesus most commonly referred to him.

Marc Roby: That is a fascinating observation, and I agree that most modern readers gloss right over that point because we are used to people referring to God as their Father.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, and Jesus even went further. In John 10 we read about a very interesting exchange between Jesus and some Jews in an area near the temple in Jerusalem. They asked him to tell them plainly if he was the Christ, the promised Savior of the Jews. Jesus responded by saying that he had already told them because his miracles spoke for him. And he then said to them, in John 10:26, “you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”

Marc Roby: That was not a very politically correct response.

Dr. Spencer: Thankfully, they didn’t have our modern idea of political correctness. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because Jesus simply spoke the truth. We need to remember that the Jews at this time were expecting a political Messiah who would deliver the Jewish people from Roman rule and establish a new Jewish state. They were not thinking about eternal salvation. For Jesus to say that he is the promised Messiah, but they, as Jews, were not his sheep, was a shocking a statement. They thought that all Jews were God’s chosen people and would be saved – again in the political sense – by the Messiah.

Marc Roby: Jesus often had to contend with this false understanding of what the Messiah would do.

Dr. Spencer: Yes he did, that wrong understanding frequently caused problems. And Jesus went on in what he said to them. We read in John 10:27-30 that he said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Marc Roby: And we read in Verses 31-33 that the people picked up stones to try and stone Jesus for blasphemy, so they certainly understood that he was claiming to be God.

Dr. Spencer: They certainly did understand. How can you not understand what he meant? He calls God his Father, not in some abstract sense, but in a very personal sense, implying the closest of all relationships. And then he makes a completely explicit claim; “I and the Father are one.” The only way someone can fail to understand what he is saying is if they refuse to accept that the one true and living God might exist in more than one person.

Marc Roby: We discussed way back in Session 2 that this word “person” can be a problem for people in this regard.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly can be, but we shouldn’t get hung up on that. We are made in God’s image, but he is the original, the archetype, we are made in his image and therefore share some of his qualities, but we are not exactly like him. He is tri-personal, we are not.

Marc Roby: And it shouldn’t be at all surprising, as we have pointed out before, that God is greater and more complex in a sense than we are.

Dr. Spencer: Not only should that not be surprising, it is what we should expect. No matter how great and beautiful a human creation is, say a statue, or a painting, or a piece of music, or whatever, it is certainly not as complex, deep and beautiful as the person who created it. In the same way, we as creatures are not as complex and deep as our Creator.

Marc Roby: We are out of time today and this looks like a good place to stop. I would like to once again 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] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 550

[3] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pp 268-270

[4] E.g., see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 593 and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 220

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 220

[6] Boice, op. cit., pp 269-270

[7] Ibid, pp 272-273

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Marc Roby: We resume our study of biblical theology today by continuing to examine why we should believe that the Bible is the Word of God and should therefore submit to its authority.

Dr. Spencer, we have been addressing the Bible’s testimony about itself, and last time we discussed the fact that a central issue in this regard is authority. God has ultimate authority and, therefore, his Word has ultimate authority. We ended by noting that Jesus himself spoke with authority and not only affirmed the Ten Commandments, but gave us a deeper understanding of them. What else do we need to say about this topic?

Dr. Spencer: I think the main point is that the Bible speaks with authority and we need to take its claim seriously; it is God speaking. Jesus Christ himself spoke clearly about the authority of the Old Testament as we discussed in Session 4. We noted then, for example, that in John 10:35 Jesus said that, “the Scripture cannot be broken”. [1] But, there are many other verses we could cite. For example, in Luke 22:37 Jesus said that “what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

His point was that the Old Testament was a completely reliable witness to future events, and more specifically, that it had in many places and in many details prophesied his coming and what would happen to him in some detail. When Jesus spoke with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, we are told, in Luke 24:27, that, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” The main topic of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ. The Old Testament tell us about sin, and about God’s plan to deal with sin. There is a progressive revelation of God’s eternal plan of salvation in the Bible.

Marc Roby: And that revelation begins in Genesis 3, right after the fall, doesn’t it?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. In Genesis 3:15 we have what it is sometimes called the protoevangelium, meaning the first or original version of the gospel message. Most people have heard the story, but before I tell it I want to emphasize that this story is factual, not mythological.

After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve hid from God. But, when God called to them and they confessed their sin, he then pronounced the curse that would fall on them and their posterity as a result of their sin. That curse was death, both spiritual death and physical death here, and eternal hell hereafter. Adam and Eve immediately lost communion with God, which is the result of spiritual death, and they immediately started to age and move inexorably toward their physical death as well. And, finally, and worst of all, they, and all their natural descendants became subject to eternal punishment in hell.

But, God also pronounced a curse on Satan, who had appeared as a serpent. And, that curse included the gospel, which means, “Good news.” In verse 15 God said to Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” This statement that the offspring of Eve would crush Satan’s head is a reference to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which he would defeat Satan totally by freeing his people from their bondage to sin and Satan. So, when God pronounced his curse on man, he gave them the gospel of salvation at the same time. There was hope.

Marc Roby: And, as you said, there is a progressive revelation throughout the Old Testament.

Dr. Spencer: There most definitely is. This isn’t the time to go into it in detail because we want to stay focused on what the Bible claims about itself, but I think this deserves mention now, and it provides an important piece of evidence for the truthfulness of the Bible’s claims. What needs to be mentioned at this point is that this progressive revelation throughout the Old Testament includes dozens of detailed prophecies about the Messiah, or Savior.

Messiah is a Hebrew word, which means anointed one. And, while a person can be anointed for various different offices, such as a priest or a king, the Old Testament also speaks of the Messiah, who is God’s anointed savior of the world. For example, we read about him in Psalm 2, where we read, in verses 1 and 2, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.” The “Anointed One” in this verse is Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good for some of our listeners to explain who “the LORD” is in that verse. I think most have heard Jesus called “the Lord Jesus Christ”, so there may be some who are confused when we hear the LORD being spoken of one person and “his Anointed One” being spoken of another person.

Dr. Spencer: The word LORD in this passage, which is in all capital letters in our English Bibles, is the Hebrew tetragrammaton, which simple means four letters. Biblical Hebrew writing did not use vowels, so we aren’t sure how to pronounce the word, but it is usually rendered as either Jehovah, or Yahweh. In any event, it is the name by which God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. It comes from the Hebrew verb “to be”, and so we can translate it, if spoken by God, as “I Am”, or if spoken about him, as “He is”. In either case, the point is clear. God is the only one who can say “I am” in an absolute sense. He is eternal and unconditional. We, on the other hand, like all creatures, have not existed eternally, nor do we exist independently. We will cover the nature of God in later sessions, but the Bible reveals to us that God is triune; meaning that he exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, but it is absolutely not a contradiction, and it is a clear teaching of Scripture as we will see later on.

Marc Roby: Alright, so you were speaking about the Messiah, or God’s Anointed One, who is referred to in Psalm 2.

Dr. Spencer: Right. And my point was simply that the Greek word for anointed is Χριστός (Xristos), which is transliterated into English as Christ. So, when we speak of Jesus Christ, we are speaking about Jesus, the Anointed One, or, in other words, the Messiah. All of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, the son born to a young virgin named Mary, who was engaged to be married to the carpenter Joseph. And the Old Testament revelation includes more than just a lot of details about his birth, life, death and resurrection, it also includes a tremendous amount of information about the justice of God and how the death of Jesus can serve as an atonement to pay for the sins of his people. This is, again, not the time for us to get into that in detail, but I want to clearly make the point that the Old and the New Testaments are part of one revelation. They are not two separate revelations. It is all the revelation of God, telling us who we are, where we came from, what our problem is, and how God has solved that problem.

And, in speaking about the detailed prophecies that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, I’ve always thought that they are truly amazing evidence for the fact that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired Word. How else could you explain the detailed fulfillment of these prophecies about Christ? Only God can accurately tell us about the future. And we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that these prophecies were truly written long before the time of Christ. No reasonable argument can be made, as it used to be, that someone cooked the books to make it look that way.

Marc Roby: Certainly, predicting the future requires authority!

Dr. Spencer: Yes. And thank you for bringing us back to our topic of authority. Only God has the power and authority to bring about what he intends, and so only God has the ability to accurately tell us about the future.

Marc Roby: I notice that you didn’t say God can accurately predict the future!

Dr. Spencer: You’re quite right, and that was – as you surmised, deliberate. To predict the future would imply that God can look ahead and see what will happen, which is certainly true. But the Bible goes much further and tells us that God has ordained what will happen. But we’ll leave that for a future session and get back to this issue of authority.

We have been making the case that the Bible claims authority, and have extended that case to show that Jesus himself claimed authority. In fact, one of the most wonderful examples of this is the story of Jesus healing a paralytic. The story is told to us Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5. There is a paralytic who has four wonderful friends. These friends have heard about Jesus and have seen him perform miracles, so they want their friend to be healed. They carry him to the village of Capernaum, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is teaching and healing. But, there is such a crowd gathered that they can’t get near Jesus. So, they go up onto the roof of the house Jesus is in and they make a hole in the roof and lower their friend on his mat so that he is in front of Jesus. Just imagine how everyone’s attention would be riveted on this man! This was certainly a pretty bold maneuver. And what did Jesus say to the man? We are told, in Luke 5:20 that Jesus said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

Marc Roby: I’m going to hazard a guess that this was not the response he and his friends were looking for!

Dr. Spencer: I think your guess is a good one. Jesus often surprised people, but always with a purpose. And we quickly find out what the purpose was in this case; it was to reveal his authority, that he is God. We read in the very next verse that, “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, ‘Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” And, of course, that was precisely the point. Then, in verses 22-25 we read, “Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, ‘Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk”? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…’ He said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.”

Marc Roby: I would say that Jesus made his point pretty clearly.

Dr. Spencer: And I would agree with you. Jesus is God. He knew what they were thinking and, far more importantly, he has authority to forgive sins. So, the Bible has authority because it is the Word of God, and Jesus has authority because he himself is God. And Jesus gave authority to his apostles to preach the gospel and to rule the church.

Marc Roby: OK, now you’re treading on thin ice with many modern Christians again. They don’t like the idea of the church having any real authority. What would you say to them?

Dr. Spencer: I would turn to the Word of God, as always. After Jesus’ resurrection he gave his disciples what is called the Great Commission. We read in Matthew 28:18-20, that “Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’” And he goes on to say “Therefore 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.’”

Notice that Jesus didn’t make suggestions, he commanded. And the church is to teach people to obey these commands. And the church is clearly given authority by God to do so. For example, we are given a command in Hebrews 13:7, which says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” This clearly establishes that this section in Hebrews 13 is speaking about leaders in the church. Then, in verse 17 we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” We are to obey our church leaders and submit to their authority. But, notice that they are men who must give an account. And it is God to whom they will have to give an account. So, they should lead for the benefit of those who are under them. And that is why the writer says it would “of no advantage” to us if we don’t obey.

Marc Roby: And, of course, it isn’t just church authority that we should obey. In Romans 13:1-2 Paul wrote that, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Dr. Spencer: And we need to remember that he wrote this while living under the very wicked rule of the Roman Empire! As that passage notes, there is “no authority except that which God has established.” God has given us clear lines of authority. A husband has authority over his wife, a father and mother have authority over their children. Church leaders have authority over the members of their church. And civil leaders have authority over their citizens.

Marc Roby: Since this idea of authority is so alien to our society, I think it would be good to remind everyone of one thing you said earlier; biblical authority should always be exercised for the benefit of those who are under you.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Our culture has a problem with authority, but authority is necessary, and it is good if it isn’t abused. Someone has to have the final say. Think about a company for example. If you get all the managers together to make some decision and they cannot come to a consensus, someone has to have the authority to make the final decision. And, if the company is operating properly, the others will all get behind that decision and do everything they can to make it work.

I think we are near the end of our time, so I’d like to read a passage from the book I mentioned last time, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The book is called Authority, and on page 60 he has a wonderful summary about the progressive revelation we have discussed in the Old Testament, and the gifting given to the apostles and others for writing the New Testament. He says,

“Here is God’s revelation of Himself, given in parts and portions in the Old Testament with an increasing clarity and with a culminating finality, coming eventually ‘in the fulness of the times’ to the perfect, absolute, final revelation in God the Son. He in turn enlightens and reveals His will and teaching to these apostles, endows them with a unique authority, fills them with the needed ability and power, and gives them the teaching that is essential to the well-being of the Church and God’s people. We can build only upon this one, unique authority.”

Marc Roby: That is a wonderful summary to end our discussion of the Bible’s teaching about itself.

[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.™.

 

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