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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Gen 21:12

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

[4] Ibid, pp 229-231

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

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

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s will. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by looking at 1 Peter 1:18-20, and in verse 20 it says that Christ “was chosen before the creation of the world” [1]. You also pointed out that he was chosen for the purpose of becoming incarnate and giving his life as an atonement to save his people from their sins. And that all of this is part of God’s decretive will.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is part, God decrees everything that happens, even our sin. Listen to what the apostle Peter said to the crowd on the day of Pentecost. We read this in Acts 2:22-24, “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Marc Roby: And in Acts 4:28 we read that the believers were praying about the authorities crucifying Jesus Christ and they said, “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Dr. Spencer: God’s will is wonderful. He can work directly in this universe, as he did in creation and as he does in regeneration, but he normally uses secondary agents to accomplish his purposes. In this case, he used this horrible sin of crucifying the completely innocent God-man Jesus Christ to bring about the redemption of his people. It completely boggles the mind. God used what was the worst sin ever committed to bring about the greatest good ever achieved.

Marc Roby: And yet Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was still morally culpable for his sin. And so were the Jewish leaders who conspired against him and condemned him, and so was Pontius Pilate, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, who acceded to their demands; they were all morally culpable for their sins even though they were accomplishing God’s set purpose in doing so.

Dr. Spencer: They most certainly were morally responsible for their sins. No one forced them to sin, even though God had ordained from before the creation of the world that they would do so. The theological term used to describe the fact that God’s free will and our free will can work together to accomplish exactly what God has foreordained, or decreed, is called concurrence. It is a very important concept.

Marc Roby: And, of course, the crucifixion of Christ is not the only dramatic example of concurrence. The story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt gives us another great example.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. But in order to give that example, we need to remind our listeners of some of the facts relating to Joseph’s life.

Marc Roby: Alright, let me begin. Joseph was one of the twelve Patriarchs of the Jewish people. He was the favorite son of his father Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Joseph’s brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite, so they sold him to some Midianite slave traders who were heading down to Egypt and then told their father Jacob that he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph was later sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard.

Dr. Spencer: And we read about all of that in Genesis Chapter 37. But God was gracious to Joseph in Egypt and through a long process, which included his being unjustly imprisoned for years, he miraculously became second in command in Egypt as we read in Chapters 39-41 of Genesis. We also read that there was a severe famine in the land and Joseph was in charge of Pharaoh’s storehouses of grain.

Marc Roby: And in Chapter 42 of Genesis we are told that there was also famine in the land of Canaan, where Joseph’s brothers and father lived. And because they heard that there was grain in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their families. In doing so, they came before their brother Joseph.

Dr. Spencer: And there is a lot that we are leaving out in order to get to our main point. This is a marvelous story of God’s grace and sovereignty and I encourage our listeners to read it if they don’t know the story. But to move on, Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him because he now spoke, dressed and acted like an Egyptian, but he recognized them. I will again leave out a lot of wonderful and edifying material from Chapters 43 through 49 and just say that Joseph eventually revealed himself to his brothers and then his entire family, including his father Jacob, moved down to Egypt.

Marc Roby: And Jacob died in Egypt, which then left Joseph’s brothers worried. In Genesis 50:15 we read that “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?’”

Dr. Spencer: And we finally come to the verses we want to discuss today. In Genesis 50:19-21 we read, “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

Marc Roby: What a gracious response that was.

Dr. Spencer: It was incredibly gracious, but Joseph saw God’s purpose in all that had happened. I’m sure that as a human being he must have struggled with all of the trials he went through because of his brother’s hatred, and in the material we skipped over we do see him exacting a bit of revenge. But the main point here, just as we saw in Acts regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, is the concurrence between the free, sinful actions of human beings and God’s ultimate purpose and decrees.

Marc Roby: Now I suspect that that will sound very strange to many of our listeners. The idea that God would, in any way, concur with sinful acts.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that does sound strange to anyone who has not heard of this doctrine before. The word concur is often used to indicate agreement or approval, but it can also simply mean to act together toward some common goal, in which case it does not imply approval of the actions of the other person. And that is the sense in which we are using the word here.

God’s actions and the sinful actions of human beings can work together to bring about a result that God has decreed will happen, but there is no implication that God approves of the sinful actions.

Marc Roby: Louis Berkhof gives a good definition of concurrence in his systematic theology text. He writes that “Concurrence may be defined as the cooperation of the divine power with all subordinate powers, according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do.”[2]

Dr. Spencer: That is a great definition. We will have more to say about concurrence, which is part of the doctrine of God’s providence, when we finish with God’s attributes. But for now, let me just point out a couple of things. First, note that Berkhof talks about divine power and subordinate powers. God is in complete control of his creation. That does not mean that we are all puppets, but it does mean that we are completely subordinate. No one can thwart God’s plans. He brings about exactly what he has decreed will happen. When we sin, he uses our sin, together with other factors, to bring about his purposes.

Marc Roby: That’s an amazing thing to think about.

Dr. Spencer: It really is. But I also like the fact that Berkhof mentions the “pre-established laws” that are in operation. There are, for example, the laws of nature, which God himself established and upholds, but there are also laws, if you will, of human behavior. As we noted in Session 84 and will talk about more when we get to biblical anthropology, we do have free wills, but our wills are not absolutely free. We cannot violate our own nature. Which is perfectly logical and reasonable. It strikes me as exceedingly strange, to say the least, to think that I have the freedom to choose to do something that goes completely against all of my own inclinations and desires.

Marc Roby: That is indeed illogical. But, now that we have established that in order to accomplish his decretive will God works through secondary agents, including even the sinful actions of human beings, what else do you want to say about the will of God?

Dr. Spencer: Well, since we have been talking about human sin and its relation to God’s will, I want to stick with that general idea and talk about what is usually called God’s permissive will. I can’t find a good definition of this term in any of my theology texts because theologians seem to not use the term. But Christians use it reasonably often, so I think we should discuss it. I think that what people usually mean by God’s permissive will is that it encompasses all those things that God allows to happen even though they are not what he desires or commands to have happen.

Marc Roby: And these actions may include sin as well as things that are not, in themselves sin.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s right. And although I can’t find a theologian speaking about God’s permissive will, Berkhof does talk about the fact that God’s eternal decree, which is basically synonymous with what we have been calling God’s decretive will, is permissive with respect to human sin.

Marc Roby: Now, that’s an interesting statement, can you explain what he means by that?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I can. He wrote that when God decrees human sin, “It is a decree which renders the future sinful act absolutely certain, but in which God determines (a) not to hinder the sinful self-determination of the finite will; and (b) to regulate and control the result of this sinful self-determination.”[3]

Marc Roby: This sounds like concurrence again, mixed in with God’s sovereign control of all things, including human sin. Berkhof’s point seems to be that God permits sin, but it is never outside of his control and is used by him to accomplish his own purposes.

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

Marc Roby: When people speak of God’s permissive will, it is usually in some way contrasted with his perfect will.

Dr. Spencer: That contrast is what you typically hear.[4] And what is usually meant by God’s perfect will for us is almost synonymous with his revealed, or preceptive will. It is what God has commanded us to do, although it often goes beyond that. For example, someone might talk about it not being God’s perfect will for them to marry a particular individual, whereas Scripture, of course, does not command us to marry or not marry a specific individual. It only gives us the command that as Christians, we must marry another Christian.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly heard that kind of talk, and it does make a valid point. We can make decisions that are not necessarily sinful, they aren’t the wisest choice. God will not usually intervene in any direct way to stop his people from making bad decisions, or even from sinning, so we need to be careful to not conclude that just because he allows us to do something, that it is the best thing to do, or even to conclude that it isn’t sin.

Dr. Spencer: I agree that is the point usually being made when people talk about God’s permissive will versus his perfect will. And it is an important point. It should scare us to know that God will allow us to make bad decisions. And it should scare us even more when we read, for example, that God allowed King David to commit adultery and murder. We would prefer to read that David was prevented from doing so. But the reality is that, for his own perfect purposes, God allows his people to sin, sometimes grievously. And we cannot take any solace in the fact that he is sovereign even over our sins and will somehow use them to accomplish his good purposes. It would always, without exception, be better for us to not sin.

Marc Roby: I completely agree. We need to seek to be led by the Word of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, in order to avoid sin and even decisions that are not sinful, but that are also not the wisest choice.

Dr. Spencer: And we have a great promise from God about temptation to sin. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read that “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is a great promise. But it does not say that God will not allow us to be tempted. It only says that he will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear.

Dr. Spencer: And the painful truth is that we sometimes give in to temptation in spite of God keeping it limited to what we can bear. We need to be very careful to watch our life and doctrine closely as the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16. God will provide a way out of every temptation, but we must look for it and avail ourselves of it. If we don’t, we will suffer harm.

Marc Roby: Yes, and very often others will be harmed as well.

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. This is why Jesus taught in the Lord’s prayer to pray that God would deliver us from temptation. He also told us to pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10), which is obviously speaking about God’s preceptive will; in other words, we are praying that people, including ourselves, would obey God’s commands. It would make no sense for this to refer to God’s decretive will since whatever God decrees will, in fact, happen. Therefore, if this referred to God’s decretive will we would be praying that God would cause what is going to happen to happen.

Marc Roby: That certainly wouldn’t make any sense. But I doubt that many people are consciously aware that they are praying for their own obedience when they pray the Lord’s prayer. What else do you want to say about God’s will?

Dr. Spencer: I think it is important to distinguish between what theologians call God’s necessary and free wills.

Marc Roby: We have already pointed out that there are things that God cannot do, so his necessary will must refer to those things which he must do because he is God. Things like continuing to exist and always telling the truth.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what is meant, so in a sense we’ve covered God’s necessary will already. But the important point I want to make is that God also does many things freely, and it is particularly important for us to know that creation was God’s free decision. He did not need to create this universe for any reason. Nor did he need to redeem anyone after the fall.

Marc Roby: You do sometimes here Christians talk about God creating us for fellowship, which sounds a bit like he would be lonely without us.

Dr. Spencer: That is precisely the view I want to oppose. It is unbiblical. God is love as we are told in 1 John 4:16, and that is an essential attribute of God. It is part of his fundamental nature. It was true before he ever created this universe. There was absolutely perfect love and fellowship between the persons of the Trinity prior to the creation of this universe. God did not need to create. Wayne Grudem states it well in his systematic theology. He wrote that “It would be wrong for us ever to try to find a necessary cause for creation or redemption in the being of God himself, for that would rob God of his total independence. It would be to say that without us God could not truly be God. God’s decisions to create and to redeem were totally free decisions.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very important, and humbling, point. Is there anything else you wanted to say about God’s will?

Dr. Spencer: I want to go back to the Lord’s prayer and note again that in that prayer Christ taught us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth, which certainly includes in our own lives. If we have surrendered our lives to Christ, we must work hard to submit our will to his will. When Jesus was crying out to the Father from the Mount of Olives prior to his crucifixion, we read in Luke 22:42 that he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” That is the kind of complete submission to God that all of us should strive to achieve in our own lives.

I’ve heard that people used to add the letters D.V. to statements of their intentions for the future. For example, I might write that I will visit you in Oregon this summer, D.V. The letters D.V. stand for the Latin phrase deo volente, and mean God willing.

Marc Roby: Which comes, of course, from James 4:13-15, where we read, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

Dr. Spencer: I assume that is where it comes from, yes. And although I’m sure it can easily become a meaningless cliché used to try and sound godly, it is a good sentiment to have in mind at all times. As Christians, our job is to seek to know and do the will of God. As Jesus himself told us in John 13:17, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

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

 

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

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938, pg. 171

[3] Ibid, pg. 105

[4] It shows up, for example, in a popular old daily devotional called My Utmost for his Highest by Oswald Chambers, see the entry for December 16.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 213

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the major covenants of the Bible. Dr. Spencer, are we finished with the topic of covenants?

Dr. Spencer: Yes and no.

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute, that’s a lawyer’s answer, and you’re not even a lawyer.

Dr. Spencer: OK, you’re right. We are done with what I want to say about covenants themselves, but I want to use an example dealing with biblical covenants to get us into our next topic.

Marc Roby: Alright, what example is that?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at a passage in Galatians 4. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to churches in the Roman province of Galatia, which was roughly equivalent to the central and northeastern areas of modern-day Turkey. It is one of the more well-known of Paul’s letters because it played a prominent role in the reformation. Paul argues in the letter that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and not by our works, which is why the letter has sometimes been closely associated with Martin Luther. Although, I must hasten to add, that the letter still talks about the need for Christians to live differently. God’s grace will produce changed lives so, for example, Paul says in Galatians 5:24 that “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” [1]

Marc Roby: That’s pretty strong language, to say that we have crucified our sinful nature.

Dr. Spencer: It is strong language. Paul makes it clear that the fact we are saved by grace alone is not an excuse to go on living sinful lives. Nevertheless, the passage I want to look at today is in Chapter 4 of this letter. Paul is rebuking the Jewish Galatians who were telling people that they still needed to keep the Old Testament ceremonial law to be saved and, in Verses 21-26 we read, “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”

Marc Roby: That passage requires some knowledge of Old Testament history to make sense. So, let me remind our listeners that God had promised Abraham, in Genesis 15:5, that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. But then, when Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting old and had not yet had any children of their own, Sarah convinced Abraham, according to the custom of that time, to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar, whom Paul calls a slave.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And that arrangement did not please God. Abraham and Sarah were not operating on the basis of faith, instead they were trying to help God out in keeping his promise, as if he was somehow not able to keep it. He rebuked them and again told Abraham that he would have a son with Sarah, even though Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90.

Marc Roby: And, of course, that made them both laugh, and the child Sarah bore was named Isaac, which means “he laughs”.

Dr. Spencer: I’m confident that most of us would also laugh at the idea of people that age having a child, but as God says to Abraham about this in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” In any event, Abraham and Sarah did have the child, as you noted, and they then sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away. The Israelites are all descendants of Isaac, the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah, and so are called children of the promise in Galatians 4:28 and elsewhere.

Marc Roby: And then, later, the Sinaitic covenant is made with the Israelites, the children of the promise, after God brings them out of slavery to the Egyptians.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. And you must know all of that Old Testament history to be able to understand this passage in Galatians 4. Paul writes to those who want to keep the ceremonial law and, after reminding them briefly of this episode with Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, he says, “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves”. So, he is telling these Jews that when they are under the law, in the sense of looking to the law for their salvation, they are slaves. And, in fact, the analogy that he uses would have been extremely unflattering to a Jew because he compares them to the children of Hagar, who are the Arabs!

Paul then writes, “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” This is speaking about the fact that those who have trusted in Jesus Christ are no longer under the law, but under grace. They are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Marc Roby: That is all very interesting, and again shows the importance of knowing the Old Testament to be able to understand the New Testament. But, you mentioned that you wanted to use this discussion of covenants to introduce something else, what is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the idea of allegory. I have on several occasions noted that we want to avoid allegorizing Scripture because doing so can lead you wildly astray. It is often used to read into the text something that is completely foreign to the text. But, we can’t avoid allegory altogether because Paul uses the word in this passage. Verse 24 of this Chapter, which we read a couple of minutes ago, says in our translation that “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.” The Greek word translated as “figuratively” in our version is ἀλληγορέω, which means to speak allegorically[2] and is the source of our English word allegory.

Marc Roby: Of course Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he said that.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he was. And that is a very important point. We can’t go around willy-nilly allegorizing any portion of Scripture we want. That is an exceedingly dangerous and, in fact, downright dishonest thing to do when we come to conclusions that are contrary to the Word of God. The only way we can say that something in Scripture is meant to be taken as an allegory, is if Scripture itself gives us warrant to do so. In the book Interpreting the Bible by Mickelsen, which we have referred to before, he says the following: “Allegory, a very legitimate way of teaching truth, should not be confused with allegorizing, which takes a narrative that was not meant to teach truth by identification. [sic] By a point by point comparison, allegorizing makes the narrative convey ideas different from those intended by the original author.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a good way of describing the problem. But, in this case, it also begs the question of which author we are talking about. I mean, Paul is quoting from an Old Testament historical passage written by Moses, who most certainly did not think he was writing an allegory.

Dr. Spencer: You’re absolutely right about that. But, we must never forget that the Bible’s real author is God the Holy Spirit. Moses was telling us about real history, the events are not at in any way fictitious as is usually the case with allegories. But, since God is the absolutely sovereign ruler over history, the events can simultaneously be an allegory. That is different from works written by purely human authors. You have no right to take something I wrote and interpret it allegorically unless I indicated that was my intent in writing it. And you would most definitely have no basis for claiming a factual description of a historical event was an allegory for something else unless God himself indicated that to be true.

Marc Roby: Very well. But before we move on I think this passage raises another question. Paul refers to the covenant from Mt. Sinai, which is where Moses was given the Ten Commandments, often called the moral law. But you said that Paul was arguing against having to keep the ceremonial law to be saved. Why did you say that?

Dr. Spencer: I said that because that is clear from the letter itself. If you read the entire letter to the Galatians, Paul argues against the practice of requiring Gentiles who wanted to become Christians to be circumcised and to obey Jewish dietary restrictions and holy days. These are all part of the ceremonial law and were abrogated, along with the sacrificial system, by Jesus Christ as we are told in the book of Hebrews.

The moral law on the other hand, as summarized by the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, has never been abrogated. In fact, Jesus Christ explained its true meaning and showed us that the Ten commandments are much more comprehensive than most people think. For example, he explained, in Matthew 5:27-28, that the command to not commit adultery not only prohibits the actual physical act of adultery but even the lustful thoughts that can lead to the act.

Marc Roby: Alright, that’s clear. But what we said earlier bears repeating at this point though, our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, not by works. Not even by the works of obeying the moral law.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. As Christians, we obey the moral law out of love and thanksgiving and a true desire to please our Lord, not because we earn our salvation by doing so.

Marc Roby: Do you want to say anything more about allegories?

Dr. Spencer: No. But the example we just gave illustrates another point as well.

Marc Roby: What’s that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s that we should use the didactic portions of the Bible to interpret the narrative portions. To say something is didactic means that it is specifically designed to teach something. There are many parts of the Bible that present us with true history, beautiful poetry and wonderful imagery to help us worship God and to help us grasp his awesome power and sovereign rule over the universe, but it is dangerous to derive biblical doctrine from such passages because doing so requires significant interpretation of the meaning of the narrative.

Marc Roby: Can you give an example?

Dr. Spencer: The clearest example is probably the old debacle involving Galileo. He got in trouble for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. But where did people get the idea that the Bible teaches a geocentric view of the universe? They got that idea from narrative and poetic passages speaking about the sun rising and setting and traversing across the sky. But such passages are giving us accurate descriptions of different events in phenomenological language, which we have discussed before. There is no section of the Bible which is didactic in nature and which tells us that the sun revolves around the earth.

Marc Roby: The New Testament epistles would obviously be a major source of didactic material.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. The epistles were specifically written to explain proper faith and conduct, so they contain a great deal of didactic material. R.C. Sproul’s book Knowing Scripture has a complete section on that topic.[4]

Marc Roby: Speaking of doctrine leads me to an interesting question. The main doctrines of the Christian faith are explained in a number of different creeds and confessions, and most churches, including ours, subscribe to one or more of them. What role do these creeds and confessions play in helping us understand the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: They play a huge role. Just as it would be foolish to start studying physics on your own without bothering to find out what people before you have learned, so it would be foolish to study the Bible without the help of the many godly people who have gone before us, especially those who were trained in the biblical languages and eminent for their piety and wisdom.

I think many professing Christians today have never read through any of the classic creeds or confessions, and that is to their own shame and poverty. But, there is also a ditch on the other side of the road. There are a few churches who put so much emphasis on particular creeds or confessions that they become a substitute authority. And, of course, the Roman Catholic church places the traditions of the church in a position that is officially equal to Scripture, but in practice ends up overruling Scripture. We must retain the balance of the reformation on this point. The Bible alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian. It alone has the inherent authority to bind my conscience.

Marc Roby: And so we should always be checking what a creed or confession says against what the Bible teaches.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And it isn’t just creeds and confessions either. This opens up the idea of the role of systematic theology in the exegesis of any particular passage.

Marc Roby: How would you describe that role?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that systematic theology has a very important role to play in understanding any particular passage of Scripture. We have noted a number of times the first rule of hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: That Scripture should interpret Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: Right. And in applying that rule, we must have an understanding of what the whole of Scripture teaches us on a given topic. That is exactly the role of systematic theology. There is a very close symbiotic relationship here. Our exegesis of different passages in the Bible leads to our coming up with what we think is an accurate description of the Bible’s teaching on a given topic, in other words our exegesis directly drives our systematic theology.

But, at the same time, our systematic theology helps us with exegesis. We just need to be very careful to not let our systematic theology become the authority. If we find ourselves trying desperately to force a passage to say something that it doesn’t in order to avoid contradicting our systematic theology, we need to stop and re-consider our systematic theology in the light of that passage. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the prime example of that today. Their systematic theology denies the deity of Christ and that causes them to grossly distort a number of passages to try and fit that view.

Marc Roby: I think this discussion has made it clear that every Christian has an obligation to study systematic theology, at least at some level.

Dr. Spencer: I would completely agree with that statement. The Bible is so important in the life of a Christian. It is, as we have argued a number of time, our ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live. And that means that we have an obligation to study it carefully. And, as I hope our brief treatment of hermeneutics has made clear so far, carefully studying the Bible requires more than simply reading it.

Marc Roby: I might interject that it also cannot require anything less than reading the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: No, of course not. We must read the Bible regularly, systematically and in its entirety. And we must do so over and over, continuously throughout our lives. But we also then need to study systematic theology to have an overall framework to help us understand what we read. And we need to read commentaries and other things as well.

I also think it is very important to note that this should not be drudgery! Far from it. If I have been born again, I should have a real desire to understand the Word of God. It is the instruction manual for the Christian life. It is what God deemed necessary for me to have and it is the only objective revelation I have to guide me in knowing God better and pleasing him more. If I have no interest in really studying the Word of God, then I really need to ask myself if I’ve been born again.

Marc Roby: Well, we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

 

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

[2] A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer, 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented by F.W. Gingrich and F. Danker, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979, pg. 39

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 231

[4] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd Ed, InterVarsity Press, 2009, see Rule #3, pg. 76

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