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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. In our previous session we discussed dichotomy, which is the biblical view that man is composed of two elements: a body and a soul. And we noted that the essential attributes of the spirit or soul include the ability to reason, to make moral decisions, and to have a free will. Dr. Spencer, what more do you want to say about dichotomy?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that the Bible presents both the soul and spirit as being capable of sin, which is a problem for some, but not all, who believe in trichotomy.

Marc Roby: Why is that a problem for them?

Dr. Spencer: Let me quote from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology text, which we have been loosely following on this topic. He wrote that the trichotomist “generally thinks of the ‘spirit’ as purer than the soul, and, when renewed, as free from sin and responsive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”[1]

But, whether or not a trichotomist is disturbed by the idea of the spirit being sinful, the fact that both the soul and the spirit are represented as sinful in the Bible is again evidence that the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Can you give some examples?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. In 1 Peter 1:22 we read, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart”. This verse says “having purified your souls”, which clearly implies that the souls were not pure, in other words were sinful, prior to these people being born again. I should note that I have quoted the English Standard Version (ESV) here, rather than our usual New International Version (NIV), since the ESV translates the Greek more literally. In this particular verse the NIV says “yourselves” rather than “your souls”. We’ll come back to this point later.

Marc Roby: And, although it is off topic, we should probably also point out that when Peter says they have purified their souls, he certainly does not mean they are sinlessly perfect.

Dr. Spencer: No, he doesn’t mean that at all. But, to go on with the illustration that soul and spirit are used interchangeably, in 2 Corinthians 7:1 we read, “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” [2] This verse clearly states that sin has contaminated our body and spirit, rather than saying our body and soul.

Marc Roby: Another verse immediately comes to my mind, in Hebrews 12:23 we read about “the spirits of righteous men made perfect”, which clearly implies that their spirits were not perfect before. In other words, their spirits were sinful.

Dr. Spencer: And that is speaking about the spirits of believers being perfected at death, so it also clear that our spirits are never perfect in this life.

And I think that is sufficient to establish that the Bible speaks of both the soul and the spirit as being capable of sin, and it never distinguishes between the two in that regard, but rather, uses the terms synonymously.

Marc Roby: Well, those verses alone would also seem to conclusively show that any trichotomist who thinks the spirit is without sin needs to reconsider that idea.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, but as we’ll see when we cover trichotomy, some trichotomists certainly agree that the spirit is sinful. So now I’d like to move on to Grudem’s last argument in favor of dichotomy.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: That everything the soul is said to do in the Bible is also ascribed to the spirit, and everything the spirit is said to do is also ascribed to the soul. To illustrate this point, I’m going to look at the three attributes that we said are essential for the soul or spirit: reason, conscience, and will.

Marc Roby: OK, what about our reason?

Dr. Spencer: In Proverbs 2:10 we read that “knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” Clearly, if knowledge is pleasant to the soul, then the soul must be capable of reason. It can’t just be a faculty that deals with morality or desire. But then, in Mark 2:8 we are told that “Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking”, which clearly ascribes rational thought to his spirit. Also, in Job 32:8 we read that “it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that gives him understanding.” Which clearly says that our spirit is the source of our understanding, or, we could say, reasoning ability.

Marc Roby: And by referring to the “breath of the Almighty”, it alludes back to Genesis 2:7 where we read that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Dr. Spencer: And it also equates that breath with our spirit. So now let’s turn to the second aspect of our spirits; our conscience, or we could be somewhat more general and speak of our moral nature, our sense of right and wrong. In 2 Peter 2:8 we are told about Lot, who was living in the wicked town of Sodom, and Peter tells us, “that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard”, which clearly speaks of his soul as the seat of his moral nature. But, in Matthew 5:3 Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When Jesus refers to the poor in spirit, he isn’t speaking about those who have poor reasoning abilities or a lack of will, he is speaking about them recognizing their sin and need for salvation. So this is speaking again about their moral nature, but now ascribes it to the spirit. Similarly, we are told about John the Baptist in Luke 1:80 that “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.” I think this strength of spirit is again speaking about his moral nature and his ability to understand the things of God.

Marc Roby: Certainly being morally upright goes along with understanding the things of God. And that leaves us with the third essential attribute of our spirits, the will, or we could say our affections or desires.

Dr. Spencer: In Job 33:19-20 we read that “a man may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in his bones, so that his very being finds food repulsive and his soul loathes the choicest meal.” Which places his desire, or in this case his lack of desire, his loathing, in his soul. But then, in 2 Samuel 13:39 we read about King David and are told that “the spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom”. So his desire, in this case his longing to see his son, is ascribed to his spirit, not his soul.

Marc Roby: Very well, do you want to say anything else about dichotomy?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, just one more thing. Let’s look at the example of worship. Both our spirits and our souls are said to worship. In Mary’s song of praise to God, called the Magnificat, she began by saying, in Luke 1:46-47, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. To rejoice in God or glorify God are both aspects of worship and the synonymous parallelism in this verse indicates that soul and spirit are used interchangeably; in other words, our soul can be said to worship God, and our spirit can be said to worship God; there is no difference.

Marc Roby: That is an interesting point. Are we ready to examine trichotomy now?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. Let me begin by explaining a bit more about trichotomy. First, of course, the fundamental belief is that man is made up of three distinct elements; body, soul and spirit. According to Charles Hodge, the most common view in trichotomy is that the body is the material part of man; the soul is the principle of animal life; and the spirit is the principle of our rational and immortal life.[3] He goes on to say the spirit, which is peculiar to man, includes reason, will, and conscience. While the soul, which we have in common with animals, includes understanding, feeling and sense perception.

Marc Roby: I’m not sure how you can differentiate between reason, which Hodge says belongs to the spirit, and understanding, which he says belongs to the soul.

Dr. Spencer: I don’t see how to do that either, and I should point out that Hodge himself believed that the proper biblical view is dichotomy, he was simply explaining what trichotomists typically believe. But I think this simultaneously shows one of the things many people find attractive about trichotomy, myself included, and also one of its severe weaknesses.

Marc Roby: OK, you’ve now piqued my interest. What are you referring to?

Dr. Spencer: The attractive feature is the idea that there is some similarity, beyond the purely physical, between man and the higher animals. It seems clear that higher animals, like dogs, cats, horses and so on, have personalities, some reasoning abilities and that we can have a form of relationship with them as a result. They are clearly self-aware and have some kind of rudimentary feelings and understanding.

Marc Roby: Alright, I see how that can be an attractive component of trichotomy. How is it also a weakness?

Dr. Spencer: Because it is so hard, if not impossible, to define the threshold. As you pointed out about the words Hodge used; how do you differentiate between reason and understanding? How do you carefully draw a line between the kind of mental processes that the higher animals are capable of and those that human beings are capable of? We are learning more all the time about what animals can do, and some of it is quite surprising.

Therefore, I think it is simply trying to draw too fine a line to divide the functions of soul and spirit. We must acknowledge that some animals are capable of a rudimentary form of reasoning, that they are self-aware and that they make decisions. And yet, there is a clear difference between even the highest animals and man. We are the only creatures made in God’s image.

Marc Roby: And we can’t get inside the head of a horse or a dog to find out exactly what they think or feel. We have to deduce that from their actions.

Dr. Spencer: That is very important. People can draw all sorts of conclusions about what they think is going on in the minds of animals, but the bottom line is that we really don’t know. On the other hand, the Bible is clear that only man is made in God’s image, and he is given dominion over the creatures. That makes the difference very clear and very large. But we can certainly admit that some animals have far more capable brains and, as a result, they have personalities and we have an ability to have a relationship with them. I just don’t want to go so far as to say that they have a soul and then try and distinguish that from the spirit.

As we’ve seen, the words soul and spirit are used pretty much interchangeably in the Bible. In addition, they are both sometimes used as a synecdoche as well.

Marc Roby: Now that statement requires a definition. A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to refer to the whole.

Dr. Spencer: And so, as an example, when we read in Psalm 130:6 that “My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning”.  The word soul is being used as a synecdoche. Clearly the whole man must be waiting. And yet, to say that “my soul waits” does have added meaning as well. It seems to imply that there is a deep spiritual need involved in the waiting. You wouldn’t be likely to say that “my soul waits for the bus I take to work every morning.”

Marc Roby: No, I can’t imagine anyone saying that. And, of course, this figurative usage does complicate any attempt to precisely define the words soul and spirit. They, along with heart, are frequently used in the Bible, and elsewhere, to refer to strong feelings or deep-seated needs and they often have at least some sense of being used as a synecdoche. We see expressions like, “my heart is troubled” or someone ,“being troubled in spirit”. Clearly the whole person is affected by the trouble, but at the same time these expressions imply a deep inner trouble.

Dr. Spencer: And, as you noted, that does make it more difficult to precisely define these terms. And given the arguments we’ve made about the words soul and spirit being used more-or-less interchangeably and the evidence that man is composed of only two parts, I conclude that the biblical view of man is dichotomous. But now I would like to present some of the case often made in favor of trichotomy.

Marc Roby: Very well, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: I’m again going to loosely follow the treatment in Grudem here[4], so any listeners interested in examining this topic in more depth can look there. One of the verses often used in defense of trichotomy is 1 Thessalonians 5:23, which says, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Marc Roby: Well, that verse certainly mentions spirit, soul and body as three distinct things.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. And we must admit that it is consistent with trichotomy. But the question is, does it demand, or even teach, a trichotomist view? I think the answer is clearly “no”.

I would say that Paul is simply giving an extended list for emphasis without necessarily implying that these are distinct elements. As a similar example, consider Mark 12:30, where Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Are we to interpret this to mean that heart, soul, mind and strength are all distinct elements of man? Virtually everyone would admit that our soul includes our ability to reason, but isn’t that what mind refers to as well? We really don’t want to get overly literal in interpreting statements like this. We should accept them at face value as being the kind of things people say all the time for emphasis.

So, for example, if I tell you that some baseball player is the life and soul of his team, you shouldn’t spend too much time trying to figure out how I distinguish between life and soul. We all know what I mean.

Marc Roby: Yes, I think that point is clear. What other verses are used to defend trichotomy?

Dr. Spencer: A similar verse is Hebrews 4:12, which says 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.”

Marc Roby: Again, a simple reading might indicate that the soul and spirit must be different if they can be divided one from another.

Dr. Spencer: But the verse does not say that they can be divided from one another. Look at the other part of the verse; joints and marrow. A sword cannot separate a joint from the marrow, which is inside our bones.

I think Grudem has the right interpretation here, he wrote that “The author is not saying that the Word of God can divide ‘soul from spirit,’ but he is using a number of terms (soul, spirit, joints, marrow, thoughts and intentions of the heart) that speak of the deep inward parts of our being that are not hidden from the penetrating power of the Word of God.”[5]

Marc Roby: Yes, that makes good sense. And this is a fascinating discussion, which I look forward to completing. But we are out of time for today.

Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to respond.

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg 475

[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] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 47

[4] Grudem, op. cit., pp 477-481

[5] Ibid, pg. 479

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. Dr. Spencer, last time we were discussing the question, “Why did God make man?” I think it would be good to give a brief summary of how we answered that question to set the stage for our discussion today.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, please do.

Marc Roby: Alright. We first presented the biblical answer to the question, which is that God made us for his own glory. And we then noted that we glorify God by obeying him, as Christ himself said in John 17:4. We also discussed the fact that as Christians we can have great joy even in times of suffering and that the Bible commands us to test ourselves to see if we are truly saved. Finally, we started to examine the first letter written by the apostle John to see how we are to test ourselves.

Dr. Spencer: And I quoted from the Rev. P.G. Mathew’s commentary on First John, which says that John provides “three biblical tests of authentic Christianity: the doctrinal test, the moral test, and the social test.”[1] We then dealt with the first of these, the doctrinal test.

Marc Roby: Although we didn’t give an exhaustive test of essential doctrine.

Dr. Spencer: Nor did the apostle John. He just gave some examples of the most important doctrines, like the full deity and humanity of Christ and the sinfulness of man.

Marc Roby: And, at the end of the session, you also mentioned Christ’s atoning death on the cross and his bodily resurrection as essential doctrines.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I did. In 1 John 2:2 we read that Christ, “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”[2]

Marc Roby: We probably need to point out that this verse does not lend any support to the heretical idea that all people will be saved.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t support the idea of universal salvation at all. You have to read the verse carefully and interpret it in light of the clear teaching of all of Scripture.

Marc Roby: Which is the first rule of hermeneutics; that we must use Scripture itself to understand Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And for interested listeners, we covered hermeneutics, which is the science of interpretation, back in Sessions 39 through 48.

Marc Roby: I think it would also be good to point out that there is a topical index available, as well as a scripture index and an index of all references used in these podcasts. So our listeners can find where we have discussed different topics or verses in the Bible. These indexes are all available on our website at whatdoesthewordsay.org.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good reminder. And now, betting back to 1 John 2:2, notice exactly what John says in the verse. He first says that Christ, “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins”, which is addressed to the original recipients of this letter. He was assuming that they were Christians, although I’m certain he was aware that non-Christians would read his letter too, so you don’t want to make too much of that point. He just didn’t want to take the time in this spot to spell out exactly who was included in the statement.

Marc Roby: Yes, our writing and speech would be pretty cumbersome if we always explained every possible exception or precisely defined every general statement.

Dr. Spencer: It would be very tiresome indeed. In any event, he then goes on to say that not only did Christ provide the atoning sacrifice for the recipients of this letter, but also, “for the sins of the whole world.”

When you see the contrast he is making you realize it isn’t at all necessary to assume that he means every single person in the world without exception. The statement makes perfectly good sense if all he had in mind were all believers everywhere, in contrast to the smaller group of believers to whom he was writing. And when you look at the rest of the Bible, it is abundantly obvious that not everyone will be saved.

Marc Roby: There is no doubt about that fact when you look at the whole Bible. For example, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells us he will separate the people into two groups and in Verse 41 we read, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a terrifying verse, and it certainly shows that not everyone will be saved. I’ll cite just one more example to solidify this point. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus told us, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Marc Roby: That’s another sobering verse. So the first test to know whether or not we are saved is doctrinal. If we don’t agree with the clear teachings of the Bible, we have no basis for believing we are saved.

Dr. Spencer: And in order to agree with the Bible, we must obviously know what it says. Therefore, being biblically illiterate is not an option for a true Christian.

Marc Roby: And I would say that anyone who has been born again will have a desire to read the word of God.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, but let’s move on with examining John’s letter. The second kind of test John gives is moral. For example, in 1 John 2:3 we are told, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

I don’t know how John could have made this any clearer. The modern idea that we can have Jesus as Savior without having him as Lord; in other words, that I can be saved without any obedience, is completely contrary to the teaching of the apostle in these verses.

Marc Roby: And he was very politically incorrect in how he stated it. He says that anyone who claims to know Jesus Christ, by which he obviously means to know him as Savior, but does not obey him, he’s a liar. In other words, he is not saved.

Dr. Spencer: It goes against the grain in our culture, but our testimony about ourselves is of no value on the day of judgment. Our self-esteem and our self-evaluation will not matter. All that will matter is what Jesus says about us. If he says, “This one is mine, I died for his sins”, then we will be saved. If he says, “depart from me, I never knew you”, then we will be eternally dammed. There is no way to soft-pedal the true gospel. We do not earn our salvation nor do we, or could we, pay for it in any way. But, at the same time, the basic confession of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord, which implies that I am his bond slave. In other words, my salvation costs everything I am and have.

Marc Roby: And, as we noted in Session 95, Jesus provides the example for us to follow. We are to be conformed to his image. And John explicitly uses this as one of his moral tests. He wrote, in 1 John 2:5-6, “But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”

Dr. Spencer: I love the biblical imagery of walking. It is far more descriptive than to say we should live like Jesus did. It implies effort and motion, taking one step after another. And the apostle Paul uses the same imagery. For example, in Ephesians 2:1-2 he wrote, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live”. In the Greek it actually says “in which then you walked”.  The Greek word is περιπατέω (peripateō), which is the origin of our word peripatetic.

Marc Roby: And Paul uses the same word again in Ephesians 2:10. Let me quote it from the English Standard Version since it gives a more literal rendering of the Greek. It says that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Dr. Spencer: And there we have the moral test in a nutshell. Paul agrees completely with John as we would expect since they were both inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is the true author of the entire Bible. We are to walk in the ways God has foreordained for us, being obedient to his revealed will. We are to walk as Jesus walked when he was on this earth.

Marc Roby: And he said, in John 8:29, that “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

Dr. Spencer: And we understand that we will not do that perfectly, but we must not use that as an excuse. We should be striving to do the will of God. I want to give a stern warning to our listeners. If you think you are a Christian, but that does not affect how you walk day by day in every area of life, then you must seriously question whether or not you have truly been born again. Read through the New Testament and note how many times it speaks of the necessity for us to live an obedient life.

Marc Roby: Yes, and how many times we are warned to test ourselves and to be sure about it.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right.

Marc Roby: But we still have one more type of test to examine; the social test.

Dr. Spencer: And we see the social test, for example, in 1 John 1:7, where we read, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another”, which ties the moral and social tests together, and again makes use of the walking metaphor for life. If we walk, or live, as Jesus did, then we will also have fellowship with each other. That is the social test.

Marc Roby: And in 1 John 2:9-10 we read, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, this is, again, a common teaching throughout the New Testament. If we have been born again, we love other people. Other Christians first, but even our enemies. Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” We are to love our enemies enough to do good for them, to share the gospel with them and pray for their salvation. And we are to love our brothers and sisters in Christ and have fellowship with them.

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ told us the same thing. During the Last Supper Jesus said to his disciples, as we read in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, if I had to give a one-word answer to the question, “How is a Christian to live?” I would have to say “love”. But the answer is only correct when you apply a biblical definition of the word love. Jesus himself said, in Matthew 22:37-40, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Marc Roby: And he also tells us in John 14:15 what it means to love God, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

Dr. Spencer: And to love our neighbor as ourselves is summed up in the moral and social tests given by John. But, and this is a critically important qualification, we spoke earlier of the necessity for a Christian to be biblically literate and to agree with what the Bible teaches. This point is never more important that when you say that a Christian should love others.

I see yard signs all around our town that say love, but the clear message of these signs is that it doesn’t matter how a person lives. The message is that same-sex couples or transgender couples or whatever are all equally right. That is absolutely not the teaching of the Bible. I’m not saying that we should treat such people disrespectfully or attack them, but we dare not pretend that God approves of their conduct or that it doesn’t matter, that is not loving them. It matters eternally because they are rebelling against Almighty God.

Marc Roby: I’m sure we’ll spend more time on human sexuality later in our discussion of biblical anthropology, but do you have more to say about the social test?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. This is a point on which many modern churches fail miserably. I remember years ago a young woman in our church was away at law school and attended a different church while she was there. That church had a series of teachings on hospitality, but even after several weeks of such teaching no one even bothered to introduce themselves to her, find out about her, or ask her over to lunch. They sat next to her in the pew and then got up and went on about their own lives. That is not true Christian fellowship. We must care about other human beings. There are no Lone-Ranger Christians, but there also should not be Christians who only have their set group of friends and never reach out to anyone else.

Marc Roby: And we have to admit that we all have that tendency. But the bottom line is that love must be other oriented; it must look outward.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it must. It is often said that there are three marks that characterize a true church. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession deals with these marks. It says, “The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults.”[3] But our pastor, the Rev. P.G. Mathew has proposed there should be a fourth mark, and I think that’s completely biblical, and that fourth mark is community life.[4]

Marc Roby: We read about the earliest days of the church in Acts 2:42 where it says that “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Dr. Spencer: It’s interesting to note that fellowship was listed second after only the apostle’s teaching. We need each other to live the Christian life. We need accountability, we need encouragement and sometimes we need physical help. And it isn’t just that I need help from others, I need to use my gifts and resources to help others as well. It isn’t healthy to live a self-focused life.

Marc Roby: And this admonition to love one another or serve one another is common in the New Testament. Paul wrote in Romans 12:10, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” And then again, in Romans 13:8 he wrote, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.”

Dr. Spencer: And Peter said much the same thing. We read in 1 Peter 1:22, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.”

Marc Roby: And in John’s first letter, which we’ve been examining, we read the phrase “love one another” five times. In 1 John 3:11 we read, “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” And then in Chapter 3 Verse 23 we read, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

Dr. Spencer: And in 1 John 4:7 we are told, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” Which again tells us that this is a good test of our salvation. If we love the way the Bible commands us to love, we have been born of God and we know God.

So, to recap what we have said, the purpose of life from our perspective is to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and to serve him all of life. If we do that, we will have eternal joy in his presence.

And the Bible commands us to test our faith and see if it is genuine. John’s first letter gives us three tests of authentic Christianity: the doctrinal test, the moral test and the social test.

Marc Roby: And we certainly hope that all of our listeners will pass these tests or cry out to God for mercy if they don’t. And with that, we are out of time for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

 

[1] P.G. Mathew, The Normal Church Life, OM Books, 2006, pg. 4

[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] E.g., see https://reformed.org/documents/index.html

[4] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 341

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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 God’s communicable attributes. Today we are going to look at God’s will. Dr. Spencer, this is an extremely difficult and important topic. How would you like to start?

Dr. Spencer: I want to start by defining what we mean by the will.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a good thing to do. And perhaps we could start off with a dictionary definition of the noun “will”. If I look in my Webster’s dictionary, probably the definition most appropriate to this discussion is that the will is the act of choosing or determining.[1]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a fairly good short definition. Charles Hodge defines the will as the power, or faculty, of self-determination.[2] In other words, it is the ability to make decisions about what to do.

Marc Roby: Of course, we don’t always have the power to carry out what we decide to do.

Dr. Spencer: No, we don’t. And that’s a critical difference between us and God. Whatever God ultimately decides to do will, in fact, be done. We read in Proverbs 19:21 that “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” [3] And, in Isaiah 55:10-11 God tells us, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” God’s will, expressed through his powerful word, is always efficacious.

Marc Roby: And we are again confronted by the Creator/creature distinction.

Dr. Spencer: That we are. And Hodge goes on to say that “The will is not only an essential attribute of our spiritual being, but it is the necessary condition of our personality. Without the power of rational self-determination we should be as much a mere force as electricity, or magnetism, or the principle of vegetable life. It is, therefore, to degrade God below the sphere of being which we ourselves occupy, as rational creatures, to deny to Him the power of self-determination; of acting or not acting, according to his own good pleasure.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s an important point. God reveals himself to be a personal God, not an impersonal force as is sometimes imagined.

Dr. Spencer: And because God’s will is efficacious as we noted a minute ago, John Frame says that “a simple but accurate definition” is that “God’s will is anything he wants to happen.” Or that “God’s will is what pleases him.”

Marc Roby: Saying both that God’s will is what pleases him and that it is efficacious immediately raises a theological problem. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” So, if God’s will is efficacious, and he wants everyone to come to repentance, it would seem reasonable to conclude that everyone will, ultimately, be saved. But the Bible clearly teaches that not everyone is saved. How do you handle that problem?

Dr. Spencer: Well, we have to be more careful in defining and talking about the will. When we use the word “will” we mean different things at different times. Now this discussion will take a while, but we’ll get back to God’s will later. Let me give a human example to explain what I mean.

Marc Roby: Okay, please do.

Dr. Spencer: Suppose it’s a really cold, rainy miserable Saturday in January here in California and I’m watching a golf tournament on TV that is being played in Hawaii, where it is at that time sunny and beautiful. I might be prompted to say something like, “Boy, I wish I was there instead of here.” Now the question I want to ask is whether that expression is a true statement of my desires.

Marc Roby: It would certainly be understandable if it were.

Dr. Spencer: And in one sense it might genuinely be my desire. It would, in fact, be more pleasant to be there at that particular moment. But then you have to back up and think about it a bit. I have the financial wherewithal to travel to Hawaii and the poor weather was most likely predicted in advance. Therefore, if being in Hawaii on that Saturday was really and truly what I desired most, I could have been there. We can conclude, therefore, that my statement of desire, while genuine, was not the final judgment I made on the matter. When all of the factors were taken into account my greatest desire was to be right where I was.

Marc Roby: I see your point.

Dr. Spencer: The great theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote that “It is that motive, which, as it stands in the view of the mind, is the strongest, that determines the Will.[5] To put it more colloquially, his thesis, which he defends quite convincingly, is that we do exactly that which we most want to do at any given moment, but limited, of course, to those things which we are able to do.

Marc Roby: I think most people would balk at the idea that they always do what they most want to do. There are many examples of things we do that we would rarely say are what we most want to do at the moment. Like go to work in the morning, or do physical exercise, or refrain from eating a second piece of cake and so on.

Dr. Spencer: I had exactly that sort of objection when I first heard this idea as well, but the objection doesn’t stand up under careful scrutiny. Let’s examine the examples you gave. We have all experienced waking up in the morning, looking at the clock and just wishing that the day would go away. The last thing we want to do is get up and go to work, or school if we’re younger. We don’t need to go into all the reasons why we might feel that way on any given day, I’m pretty sure that all of our listeners can relate to the sentiment.

Marc Roby: I certainly know that I can. And I could give you a good list of reasons if you like.

Dr. Spencer: Well, let’s save those for another discussion. But given that we sometimes feel that way, and recognizing that we occasionally do give in to those sinful inclinations and stay home, why do we usually get up and go to work or school anyway? The answer is that when we consider all of our available options, getting up and going to school or work is actually what we most want to do!

For example, consider work. I know that if I don’t get up and go to work, I’m going to have to give some explanation to my boss. And if that happens very often, I’m going to lose my job. If I lose my job, I can’t pay my rent, can’t buy my groceries and so on. If I have a family, there are others who will be affected as well. So, when I consider all of these factors, the thing I actually want to do most is get up and go to work.

Marc Roby: Unfortunately, I see your point. Perhaps a simple way to put it is to use the common expression “all things being equal”. In other words, all things being equal, I would rather not get up and go into work, but all things are not equal. There are unpleasant consequences that would result from not going to work.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good way to put. It is virtually never true that all other things will work out the same independent of my decisions. Decisions have consequences, and those consequences are considered as part of the process our minds go through in deciding what we most want to do at the moment. I suppose you could say that is a mild form of coercion, but whether you think about it that way or not, it is reality. Even if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to work, there would still be constraints. If I wanted to eat something, I’d have to get up and go get it. Or, even in some future world with super capable robot servants, I would at least have to tell the robot what it is I want it to bring me.

Marc Roby: I think I might like that future world.

Dr. Spencer: There are times when we all would. But let’s look at the second thing you listed that people do, but usually don’t say they enjoy, getting physical exercise. There are again consequences for neglecting the task. And let’s link it with the third thing you mentioned, refraining from eating a second piece of cake. If we just eat all that we want to eat and don’t get any exercise, we all know what the result will be. We will get more and more overweight and over time will develop a number of health problems related to our inactivity and weight and these things will make our lives less enjoyable. Now, it’s obvious from looking at people that different individuals choose different levels of physical fitness, so not everyone decides on the same balance between momentary pleasure and long-term health.

Marc Roby: And there are huge variations in people’s natural metabolisms and body types that contribute to the differences as well.

Dr. Spencer: That’s all true. But Edwards’ point is valid. All things considered, we do that which we most want to do at any given moment.

Marc Roby: Now, of course, most of our decisions are not carefully thought out, so we can’t really say we sit down and think all of this through every time we decide whether or not to eat a second piece of cake.

Dr. Spencer: Of course not, we are all creatures of habit. But if we are adults we hopefully think about our behavior and work to change bad habits, so even snap decisions are really the result of our underlying priorities and thought. It’s also true that we don’t always consider all of the consequences of our actions as carefully as we should, which can bring us trouble. But, ultimately, all of these things are free choices we make and my only point is that when we say we are doing something we don’t want to do, that isn’t really completely true. Unless we are being physically forced, we are, in fact, doing what we most want to do. It’s just that our decision is being influenced by other factors so that our choice is not always the one that maximizes our immediate pleasure. So, when I say these are free choices, I mean that they are free only in the sense that no one is physically forcing us. No decisions are free in the sense of having absolutely no consequences or causes.

Marc Roby: We’ve gotten pretty far away from the theological problem we were addressing. How does all of this tie back in to understanding how God’s will can be efficacious, and that he can want everyone to come to repentance, and yet not have everyone actually come to repentance?

Dr. Spencer: What we’ve been talking about with human beings applies directly. God reveals himself to us in terms that we can understand. Therefore, just as I can truthfully say that I would like to have a large chocolate milkshake along with my lunch most every day, and yet I freely choose not to, in the same way God can honestly say that he wants everyone to come to repentance and yet not cause that to actually come about. God saying that he wants everyone to come to repentance is called his will of disposition;[6] in other words, it tells us something about the inner desires of God.

Marc Roby: We also read in Ezekiel 18:23 that God told the prophet to say to the people, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God would, in a sense, be pleased if everyone was saved. But in another sense, he would not because there are consequences that would follow from that decision, which make another course of action more desirable. As I just illustrated by the fact that I don’t drink chocolate milkshakes with lunch very often, we don’t always follow some of our inner desires, and neither does God, because all other things are not equal. What God actually does is called his decretive will[7] because whatever God decrees should happen, does happen.

Marc Roby: Now, in the case of you having the milkshake for lunch every day the undesirable result would be your putting on a bunch of weight you don’t want to carry. But what would the undesirable result be if all people came to repentance? And I should note that this would surely include, as true repentance always does, saving faith and would therefore mean that everyone would go to heaven. How could that be bad?

Dr. Spencer: In and of itself, having everyone go to heaven is not bad; in fact, it would be very good, which is why God says that he wants that. But, if he brought every single person to repentance, then he would not justly judge anyone. It must be, as much as we may not like the fact, that the world we actually live in is the one that best fulfills God’s primary purpose of making his own multifaceted glory manifest.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s ultimate purpose in creating this universe is better served by not having every single person come to repentance and faith, even though, in one sense, such a result would be pleasing to him.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Sin must be punished. And God chose to mercifully save some by punishing his Son in our place, but others he treats with perfect justice, which demands their eternal punishment.

Marc Roby: That begs a question though; why not simply create a universe with no sin in the first place? Then there wouldn’t be any need for the just punishment of anyone.

Dr. Spencer: That is a question that people have pondered for many years and even true Christians will give different answers. The most common answer by far in our day is that in order to create beings that are not mere puppets God had to endow us with what is called libertarian free will, which means that our decisions must not be directly caused by anything, even our own character. John Frame puts it this way; “This position assumes that there is a part of human nature that we might call the will, which is independent of every other aspect of our being, and which can, therefore, make a decision contrary to every motivation.”[8]

Marc Roby: That view sounds illogical to me. If we don’t make decisions on the basis of our own nature, our likes and dislikes, combined with other motives, then how on earth would we make any decision?

Dr. Spencer: I agree that it is illogical. And we will talk about this much more when we get to discussing biblical anthropology, in other words, the Bible’s view of man. But to stay on topic with God’s will I don’t want to go into deeper right now other than to point out that this would ascribe to man more freedom than God himself has! We will talk at length next time about the fact that God is constrained by his own nature; for example, he cannot lie. In other words, even God does not have libertarian free will. And yet, this view is common among those who believe that it is within every man’s power to choose whether or not to accept God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Of course, that view must surely be wrong because it is in opposition to the biblical doctrines of God’s decretive will and predestination.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is, and we will get to a deeper discussion of those doctrines in later podcasts. But for now, I want to stay on the topic of God’s will, and we have talked a lot about man’s will only to enable us to define some terms and develop an understanding based on the realm that we are more familiar with.

In any event, the idea that in order to be fully human men must have a libertarian free will is contradicted by the fact that we will not be able to sin in heaven, which Frame correctly calls “the consummate state of human existence”[9]. The existence of heaven proves that God can create a place where sin is impossible and the fact that heaven is held out to us as the ultimate and best possible place, the very home of God, proves that human nature will be at its highest and best form in heaven. Therefore, libertarian free will is clearly not necessary.

Marc Roby: We’re almost out of time, so let me summarize what we’ve discussed so far. We have seen that God’s will, like our own, takes into account the consequences of a given action, so that it can simultaneously be true that he would honestly like to see all people be saved, and yet for other reasons he does not, in fact, save all people. We have also seen that the idea that God didn’t create a sinless universe because he had to allow human beings libertarian free will in order to prevent our being mere puppets, is not an acceptable explanation because we will not be able to sin when we get to heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good summary. But you could also phrase the last part differently; we will not have the freedom to sin when we get to heaven.

Marc Roby: I think we’ll have to come to that statement next time and I look forward to that conversation. And, as always, we invite our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will respond.

 

[1] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2002, pg. 2617, definition 3a.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. I, pp 402-403, the definition I am giving here is what he says is generally used “In our day” (he wrote in the late 19th century) and what he says is the definition actually used in practice (“in the prosecution of the subject”) by theologians.

[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] Hodge, op. cit., Vol. I, pg. 403

[5] J. Edwards, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will, which is supposed to be essential to moral agency, virtue and vice, reward and punishment, praise and blame, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Hendrickson Publishers, 2005, Vol. I. pg. 5

[6] e.g., see R.C. Sproul, Can I Know God’s Will?, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010, pg. 20 (available for free in pdf form from https://www.wtsbooks.com/common/pdf_links/9781567691795.pdf)

[7] e.g., see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 531

[8] Ibid, pg. 138

[9] Ibid, pg. 141

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, last time we discussed God’s love, which can be viewed as an aspect of his goodness. What are we going to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s holiness.

Marc Roby: And the root meaning of that term has to do with separation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. According to the great Hebrew scholar and Old Testament theologian E.J. Young, the root word “is generally taken in the sense ‘to separate, cut off.’”[1] And God is separate from his creation in two different senses. First and foremost of course is the awesome fact that he is the Creator and everything and everyone else are mere creatures.

Marc Roby: Which is why we have emphasized the Creator/creature distinction a number of times in these podcasts.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And that is the dominant sense in which the word holy is used in the Bible with respect to God. But there is also an ethical sense because God is entirely separate from sin. The prophet Habakkuk exclaimed to God, in Habakkuk 1:13, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” [2]

Marc Roby: That is a big problem for sinful creatures like us.

Dr. Spencer: That is not only a problem, it is the problem of the human race. It is the problem that, in one sense, defines our existence in this life. We live in a world corrupted by sin and inhabited by sinners, the effects are pervasive. In fact, the Bible makes clear that since the fall, the sole purpose of human existence, from our perspective, is to deal with this problem. Coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and thereby taking care of our sin problem, is the one thing needful as Jesus told Mary.

Marc Roby: You’re using the King James wording when you say “the one thing needful”, but you are, of course, referring to the time when Jesus came to the house of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, all of whom Jesus loved.

Martha was preparing a meal for them and was distracted by all of the preparations that needed to be made, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha then complained about this and Jesus replied, as we read in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, of course, the situation I am referring to, and I like the King James wording –only one thing is needful.

We must take note that there was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, in fact, it was a good thing. But even things that are good and necessary in this life are of no importance in comparison with coming to know Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. And this topic is particularly appropriate at this time of year. In our previous session we discussed the love of God, which was an appropriate message for our last podcast before Christmas because God’s sending his own Son to pay for our sins is the greatest possible expression of love. But today’s message is no less fitting for the first podcast after Christmas because when we are confronted with the holiness of God, our own sinfulness and need for a Savior is immediately and obviously apparent.

Marc Roby: You said last time that people must receive the bad news that we are sinners and cannot save ourselves before they can receive the good news of the gospel, that there is Salvation possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we must. And considering the holiness of God brings us face-to-face with the bad news. There is a classic passage I would like to examine today as we begin to look at this extremely important topic.

Marc Roby: What passage is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is Isaiah 6:1-7.

Marc Roby: That is an amazing passage, where the prophet tells us about receiving his call from God.

Dr. Spencer: And in that passage we see the most glorious and awesome vision of God given to anyone in the entire Bible. It begins, in Verse 1, with Isaiah telling us, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”

Marc Roby: A little history will probably help our listeners. Uzziah, who is also known as Azariah, was the king of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 792 to 740 B.C. He started out as a godly king, and served for a very long time – 52 years. But late in life he became proud and God punished him with leprosy. His reign however was a time of great prosperity for the nation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, much like the times we are living in now, which should serve as a warning to us. In any event, P.G. Mathew notes the importance of this history in his commentary on Isaiah. He wrote that “Despite Uzziah’s unfaithfulness late in life, he had been an able administrator and military leader, and the people had looked to him for protection. Now his very long reign had ended and the people did not know what to do. It was in this context that God was saying, ‘Don’t worry, Isaiah, the King is not dead.’ So Isaiah says, ‘I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted’.”[3]

Marc Roby: It is always the greatest possible source of comfort for Christians in troubling times to know that God is seated on his throne and is absolutely sovereign over everything and everyone in the universe.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, that is our greatest comfort. But Isaiah was given this comfort to an extreme degree by being given this vision of the heavenly throne room. Now in 1 Timothy 6:15-16 God is described as, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” Therefore, E.J. Young points out that “It is not the essence of God which Isaiah sees, for, inasmuch as God is spiritual and invisible, that essence cannot be seen by the physical eye of the creature. At the same time it was a true seeing; a manifestation of the glory of God in human form, adapted to the capabilities of the finite creature, which the prophet beheld!”[4] And Young goes on to note that “He sees God as sovereign in human form, and this appearance we learn from John was an appearance of Christ.”[5]

Marc Roby: Of course, he is referring to John 12:41, which we read just a little while ago in our daily readings[6], where John gives a quote from Isaiah Chapter 6 and then says, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the verse he was referring to. Isaiah saw a pre-incarnate vision of Christ. But let’s read a little more of the revelation given to Isaiah. Let me read Verses 1-4. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Marc Roby: Just the thought of being given a vision like that gives you the chills. The word awesome is overused in this day and age, but it is completely appropriate here. I can’t think of anything that would inspire more awe than this.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. Awe means a strong feeling of fear, respect and wonder, and this vision would certainly inspire all of those things to the highest degree possible.

Marc Roby: And the prophet had exactly that reaction. In Verse 5 we read about Isaiah’s reaction. He cried out “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Dr. Spencer: I again like the King James wording better here, it translates the first part of Isaiah’s response as “Woe is me! for I am undone”. Somehow the word “undone” is more powerful.

Marc Roby: That is a powerful word. Being undone does not sound like a pleasant experience.

Dr. Spencer: It isn’t a pleasant experience at all. But we must ask, “Why did Isaiah say he was undone?” R.C. Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God provides an interesting perspective on this passage.[7] He points out that to be undone is a very descriptive term; it means to come apart at the seams, to disintegrate. It is the very opposite of being integrated, or coming together. Now we don’t say that an individual is integrated; we say that he has integrity, but it is the same root. It means to be together; or, in casual speech, to have it all together. So to be undone is to realize that you do not have integrity, you do not have it all together. And who could say anything else in the presence of a holy God? When we compare ourselves with each other we may be able to say that someone is a person of integrity, or that he or she has their act together. But when we compare any of us to God, that illusion disappears.

Marc Roby: It certainly does. God is perfect in every conceivable way and, more to the point, he is, as we have emphasized, our Creator.

Dr. Spencer: And not only is he the Creator of all, but he is also the Judge of all. And this judge does not need a prosecuting attorney, or any witnesses to be called, or any evidence to be presented because he knows everything perfectly. And no defense is possible. Whatever charges he brings against us are guaranteed to be absolutely true. That should be terrifying. Think about a courtroom here on earth. Even that can be an intimidating place.

Marc Roby: Yes, I’m sure it can be. I’ve never been a defendant in a case, but even serving on a jury gives you an idea. The judge is separated from the attorneys, jury, lawyers and audience. He sits up higher, he wears a robe, you all rise when he enters the court, and so on. There is serious decorum demanded.

Dr. Spencer: And not only demanded, but enforced by officers with guns and a judge with authority to throw you into jail for contempt of court. That is scary, and it is meant to be because they are dealing with very serious issues. But the throne room of God is infinitely more important and impressive and the issues dealt with are infinitely more important because they deal with the eternal destinies of people.

Marc Roby: Which, quite literally, does make it infinitely more important.

Dr. Spencer: And we must also think about the standard being used by this perfect judge. We are told in Hebrews 12:14 that we are to, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” In this verse holiness is obviously being used in the moral sense. We cannot become God. We will always be creatures and so cannot be separate in that sense. But God does demand that we be holy in the moral sense. As we saw earlier, the prophet Habakkuk properly said to God, in Habakkuk 1:13, that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”  Because God is holy, we must also be holy or we will not see him, which means we will not go to heaven when we die.

Marc Roby: And the only alternative is hell.

Dr. Spencer: That is the only alternative. And every single human being alive will face judgment. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Marc Roby: God’s holiness, combined with his power and perfect knowledge, are extremely bad news for anyone who faces him standing on their own.

Dr. Spencer: They are the worst possible news. Anyone who stands before God on his or her own will be sent to eternal hell. But, praise God, there is a way of escape. Going back to the revelation God gave to Isaiah, we read in the next two verses, Isaiah 6:6-7, that “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’”

Marc Roby: Having a hot coal touched to your lips would be extremely painful, but nonetheless, it is wonderful news. Our sins can be atoned for.

Dr. Spencer: They can, but not by our effort. Only God is able to do that. And he has done it through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We just celebrated his birth last week, which is the pivotal point in human history, and in a few months we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter, which speak about the culmination of his work of redemption.

Marc Roby: And just in case some of our listeners do not know about Good Friday and Easter, we should point out that Good Friday is the day we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate his resurrection from the dead.

Dr. Spencer: And praise God for Christ and his atoning sacrifice. I quoted from Hebrews 9:27 a minute ago, but let me read all of that verse this time, along with the next. Hebrews 9:27-28 tell us that “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Marc Roby: And that is the glorious hope of all Christians.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. And we should be extremely thankful that God’s attribute of holiness is communicable, because we are not holy, and yet as we read a couple of minutes ago, Hebrews 12:14 tells us that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Therefore, the Christian’s ultimate hope is that God will perfect us in Christ and we will, ultimately, be perfectly holy in his presence.

Marc Roby: And, of course, our holiness is not the basis of our salvation – that is the perfect righteousness of Christ alone. We don’t become holy in this life and then earn heaven by our holiness. Rather, having already been justified by faith, we are made holy by God through a process which begins when we are born again and acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and it isn’t completed until after we die.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We will talk about that process in some detail in a later podcast, but for now let me just summarize it. All people are sinners in need of a Savior. But, praise God, he has chosen to save certain people. And those whom he has chosen to save he effectually calls, which means that he causes them to be born again, and they then respond in repentance and faith. And God then works in them to change them throughout this life. When we die, our souls are perfected and brought into the presence of God as we read in Hebrews 12:23. Then, when Christ returns, we receive our perfected resurrection bodies as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, and we then begin our eternal state perfected and living in God’s presence forever.

During this life, however, this process of sanctification involves suffering, which none of us like, but it is for a good purpose. In Hebrews 12:10 we are told that “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Marc Roby: Now that is a glorious thought, to share in God’s holiness. Which then makes us fit to be in heaven with him.

Dr. Spencer: That is God’s glorious plan of salvation. The whole purpose of creation and human history is for God to redeem a people for himself. When that has been accomplished, this universe will end and God will create a new heaven and a new earth.

Marc Roby: We read about that in 2 Peter Chapter 3, which tells us, in Verse 13, that “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: And because it is the home of righteousness, or we could say holiness, it is only those who share in God’s attribute of holiness who will be there. And the only way, as sinful human beings we can do that, is to be united to Jesus Christ by faith.

Marc Roby: I assume we have more to say about the holiness of God, but this looks like a good place to end for today. I want to remind our listeners that they can email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to respond.

 

[1] E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, W.B. Eerdmans Pub., Vol. 3, 1972, pg. 242 (fn 19)

[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] P.G. Mathew, Isaiah: God Comforts His People, Grace and Glory Ministries, 2018, pp 49-50

[4] Young, op. cit., pg. 235

[5] Ibid, pg. 237

[6] Our church’s daily reading schedule is available from the home page of our website: https://gracevalley.org/

[7] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, Living Books, 1985, pp 42-44

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

Dr. Spencer, we saw the goodness of God in providing us with Jesus Christ as our Redeemer in our previous session. What more do you want to say about God’s goodness?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s mercy, grace and patience. These three things are sometimes presented as separate attributes and sometimes as aspects of God’s goodness, which is how Wayne Grudem does it in his Systematic Theology, and I want to follow that plan as well.

Marc Roby: God’s mercy, grace and patience are a wonderful topic. And it makes me think of God’s response when Moses asked to see his glory. In Exodus 33:19 God said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a great passage. And the fact that God will have mercy on whom he chooses, which certainly implies that he doesn’t show mercy to everyone, clues us in to the important fact that mercy, grace and patience are not something we, as God’s creatures, deserve. They are all examples of God treating us in a way that we don’t deserve. They are closely related aspects of God’s goodness, and notice that God first said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you”.

Marc Roby: How does Grudem define these terms?

Dr. Spencer: Grudem says that “God’s mercy means God’s goodness toward those in misery and distress. God’s grace means God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. [and] God’s patience means God’s goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time.” [2]

If we look at the definition he gives for God’s grace, that it is “God’s goodness toward those who deserve only punishment”, we see that God’s mercy and patience are both gracious acts of God as well. After all, if God’s mercy is his goodness shown to those in misery and distress, we have to ask, “Why are they in misery and distress?”

Marc Roby: And the answer is that they are in misery and distress because of sin. Sin is the cause of all misery and distress in this life.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And then we must ask, “Whose fault is it that men sin, is that God’s fault or man’s fault?”

Marc Roby: And the answer to that would be that it is man’s fault. It certainly isn’t God’s fault.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right again. So, if misery is our fault, and God’s mercy is his showing goodness to us in our misery, it is certainly a gracious act. We deserve punishment for our sin, but God helps us in our resulting misery instead.

Marc Roby: I see your point. God’s mercy is certainly gracious.

Dr. Spencer: And so is his patience. Using Grudem’s definition, God’s patience is his “goodness in withholding of punishment toward those who sin over a period of time.” But clearly, sinning deserves punishment and so it is gracious of God to be patient. God himself emphasized his gracious nature in his self-disclosure to Moses. In the verse from Exodus 33 that you read a couple of minutes ago God emphasized his gracious nature and he went on to do so even more. He told Moses to chisel out a couple of stone tablets and come up on Mt. Sinai to meet with him.

Marc Roby: We should point out for those who don’t remember the history that these stone tablets were the ones on which God wrote the Ten Commandments. They were needed to replace the original ones that had been given to Moses, which he had thrown down and smashed in anger at the sin of the people, who were worshipping a golden calf.

Dr. Spencer: And the fact that God was willing to give the law again, after the terrible sins of his people, is a great demonstration of his mercy and grace. A.W. Pink took note of this fact and wrote that “The particular character in which Jehovah was about to reveal Himself to Moses is best perceived by noting the place and circumstances of this gracious manifestation of Himself. It was upon Sinai, in connection with the giving of the Law.”[3] God’s law is a revelation of God’s character and a guide for his people. The fact that he would do this after their horrible apostasy is an amazing demonstration of his mercy, grace and patience.

Marc Roby: He would certainly have been justified in simply destroying them all.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he would have been fully justified. But let’s move on with what happened. Moses chiseled out the tablets and went up on Mt. Sinai to meet with God. And in the next Chapter, Exodus 34, we read of God’s fulfilling his promise to show Moses his goodness. In Verses 5 and 6 we read, “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness”. Now we’ll get to the rest of what God said in a moment, but for now let’s take a look at this opening statement. It begins with God saying “The LORD, the LORD”. And the word LORD there is in all capital letters in our English Bibles.

Marc Roby: Which means that the Hebrew word is the tetragrammaton, the holy covenant name of God. Usually represented in English as Jehovah, or Yahweh.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. We discussed this name in Session 6. It comes from the Hebrew word that means “to be” and if spoken by God could be translated as “I Am”. This name emphasizes God’s self-existence – he is the only one who can say “I Am”. All other beings are dependent on him. But it is also the covenant name by which God revealed himself to Moses, so it speaks of his being the covenant Lord of his people. In any event, after repeating this covenant name twice for emphasis, the first thing God says about himself is that he is “the compassionate and gracious God”, or at least that is how our NIV renders it.  Other translations use the word mercy instead of compassion. For example, the ESV says “a God merciful and gracious”. According to Vine’s expository dictionary, the root Hebrew verb means “to have compassion, be merciful, [or] pity.”[4]

Marc Roby: That’s very interesting. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the response he got, as we saw earlier, was this, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you” (Ex 33:19), and then in that revelation God says that he is merciful and gracious. It certainly looks as though the Bible would agree that mercy and grace are aspects of God’s goodness.

Dr. Spencer: I think it would. And the very next thing God said was that he is “slow to anger”, which is another way of saying patient. So it would be reasonable to conclude that the biblical teaching is that mercy, grace and patience are aspects of God’s goodness. Then Verse 6 ends by saying that God is “abounding in love and faithfulness”. The Hebrew word translated as love here is hesed, which is a very important word in the Old Testament. It refers primarily to God’s covenant love for his people. According to Vine’s it can be translated at various times as “loving-kindness; steadfast love; grace; mercy; faithfulness; goodness; [and] devotion”.[5]

The overall message is quite clear. When God showed his goodness to Moses, he showed him his gracious, merciful, patient, faithful and devoted love. God then finishes the sentence by saying “maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” And the “thousands” here is probably thousands of generations, as in Exodus 20:6. The emphasis is again on God’s faithfulness. And then the sentence ends by mentioning the extremely important fact that God is forgiving.

Marc Roby: What a wonderful self-revelation by God.

Dr. Spencer: It is very wonderful. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also read the rest of the verse. Verse 7 goes on with another sentence. God says about himself, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

Marc Roby: I’m afraid that most people would not consider that good.

Dr. Spencer: I’m pretty sure that you’re right about that. But we have to remember that God defines what is good, not us. And we also need to be careful to understand what is meant by God punishing. It could be that the punishing here primarily refers to God’s punishment of unrepentant sinners, which is what John Calvin thought.[6] That would certainly be good because it would comport with God’s justice. Or, it could be that this includes God’s punishing his people, in which case it is referring to his disciplining us in love, for our good, as a father disciplines his children, as we read in Hebrews 12:10, which says, “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Marc Roby: You also mentioned that in Session 75, that suffering can produce good fruit in this life.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it can. It keeps us humble, it causes us to look to God and pray, it makes us more capable of comforting others, it drives out sin, it helps us to fix our eyes on Jesus and our heavenly home, and that is just a partial list of its benefits. A life of uninterrupted pleasure is not the best life. God loves us too much, and is too good, to allow that for his children.

Marc Roby: It’s interesting to note that these verses from Exodus 34 are quoted in part at least seven times in the Old Testament.[7] For example, in Psalm 103:8 it says, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” And, in Joel 2:13, the prophet says, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, these verses are quoted that many times because God’s goodness is so important. But we must also remember the warning that “he does not leave the guilty unpunished”. I think the primary reason that is mentioned here, including the fact that our children and grandchildren will reap the bitter fruit of our sins, is to prevent us from presuming upon God’s love. Far too many professing Christians today seem to think that personal holiness is an old-fashioned Puritan idea and is not important at all. But the Bible is very clear, as we are told in Hebrews 12:14, that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” And it is absolutely impossible, given all that the Bible teaches on this subject, to interpret that as referring solely to the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Marc Roby: We must remember the simplicity of God again. We can’t think of any of his attributes in isolation. Therefore, his goodness to us, in terms of his mercy, grace, patience and forgiveness, must be considered in the light of his holiness and justice.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they absolutely must be. The great Puritan John Owen wrote that “There is no imagination wherewith man is besotted more foolish, none so pernicious, as this, that persons not purified, not sanctified, not made holy, in this life, should afterwards be taken into that state of blessedness which consists in the enjoyment of God.”[8] And Joel Beeke and Mark Jones wrote that “If God is so concerned about holiness, and we have such need of it, then, dear friends, you will not feel at home in a holy heaven if you did not strive for holiness on earth.”[9]

Marc Roby: Those are serious warnings.

Dr. Spencer: They are very serious, but they are also necessary. Many modern Christians seem to think that they can be totally absorbed with this world, completely in love with its pleasures, and completely indifferent to the promises and demands of the Bible, and yet be saved. But the apostle John tells us, in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Now John is not telling us that we are not allowed to enjoy the legitimate pleasures that God gives us in this life, that is not at all his point. But if earthly pleasure is what you treasure most, if there is no desire in your heart to be free from sin, to please God in this life and to see God face to face, you are not born again.

Marc Roby: That is, again, a very serious warning.

Dr. Spencer: And I think the seriousness of our sin problem is part of why we are told in Exodus 34:7 that God “punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” However you interpret that verse, it is certainly a fact that my sin affects my children, grandchildren and so on.

If a man is a drunk, that definitely affects his family. If a man commits a crime and goes to jail, that definitely affects his family. And even if you take something much less drastic and look at a man who is lazy and uninvolved in raising his children and managing his home, that affects his family. This is an indisputable fact. And it should cause us all to be far more careful with how live our lives. Our sin affects those we love.

Marc Roby: And we should appreciate God’s goodness. His calling us up to holy living is really nothing more than calling us up to do what is best for ourselves and those whom we love.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And when we fail, and we all do in many ways, we can come to God in repentance and faith, and he is merciful, gracious and patient in his dealing with us. We must not presume upon his mercy, but it is still a great comfort. Our God is good.

Marc Roby: Are we done now with God’s goodness?

Dr. Spencer: Well, there is one more aspect of God’s goodness that we have yet to look at, and that is God’s love. This is also sometimes treated as a separate attribute, as Grudem does, but it doesn’t really matter whether we consider it as a separate attribute or not, in either case we need to spend some time looking at it.

It is interesting to notice that the Westminster Shorter Catechism mentions God’s goodness, but not his love, in its definition of God. Question 4 asks, “What is God?” And the answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” I haven’t looked into this, but I assume that the Westminster divines were including love under the rubric of God’s goodness.

Marc Roby: Alright, how do you want to proceed with examining God’s love?

Dr. Spencer: Well, first of all, I need to say that I can’t imaging a more appropriate topic for this time of year. The greatest expression of God’s love by far is his sending his own eternal Son to become incarnate and to be an atoning sacrifice to redeem his chosen people. Grudem defines God’s attribute of love this way; “God’s love means that God eternally gives of himself to others.”

Marc Roby: And God has given more than we can imagine. One of the most famous verses in the Bible of course is John 3:16, where we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Dr. Spencer: That is an amazing statement. And people often forget that it begins with the word “for”, which implies it has something to do with explaining the verses that comes before it. In this case, Christ had been telling Nicodemus that a person has to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven. He concluded, in Verses 14 and 15, by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So, John 3:16 is explaining why everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Marc Roby: And that is a wonderful message for Christmas, which is good, because we are out of time for today and we can look at that next time, which is our last session before Christmas. Let me remind our listeners that they can send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we will do our best to respond.

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

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp 200-201

[3] A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, Moody Press, 1981, pg. 350

[4] Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, 1996, pg. 43

[5] Ibid, pg. 142

[6] Calvin, John, The Four Last Books of Moses, In the Form of a Harmony, in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. III, Baker Books, 2009, pg. 387

[7] See also Nu 14:18, Ne 9:17, Ps 86:15, 145:8 and Jonah 4:2

[8] quoted in Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 528

[9] Ibid, pg. 535

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

We examined the fall of Satan last time, and we know that after his fall Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin. But we didn’t have time to answer the question of how Adam’s sin affects the rest of us. I know that this is a question that has been controversial throughout the ages but, Dr. Spencer, what does the Bible say about it?

Dr. Spencer: The Bible is clear that Adam was acting as our representative, what theologians call our federal head. We briefly mentioned this in Session 45 when we were discussing hermeneutics, the science of how to interpret the Bible. And we noted at that time that God uses a kind of representative government for his creatures. While he treats every individual with absolute justice or rich mercy, it is still true that he sees all human beings as being in one of two camps. We are all either in Adam, or in Christ. They are the two federal heads and we are all represented by one or the other.

Marc Roby: As I remember, you quoted Romans 5 in support of this view.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I did. But we only took a brief look at a couple of verses. In answering this important question today, I’d like to take a longer look at Romans 5:12-21. In examining this passage I’m going to draw heavily on P.G. Mathew’s book on Romans. He points out that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that Roman 5:12-21 is the key to understanding the whole book of Romans, but then Rev. Mathew states that “I would say this section is the key to interpreting all Scripture and all human history. If we want to know why people are bad and do bad things, or why a sinner cannot save himself, we should read this passage. If we want to understand why human salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, we should read this passage. If we want to comprehend the doctrine of union with Christ and be fully assured of our ultimate salvation, we must read this passage.”[1]

Marc Roby: Those are bold claims about the importance of this passage. I’m looking forward to getting into it.

Dr. Spencer: They are bold claims, but they are also true. The core of the gospel message is presented in this passage and it is often rejected by people because, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” [2] And, in 1 Corinthians 2:14 we are told that “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.”

Marc Roby: And therefore, this passage in Romans is particularly important for anyone who considers himself a Christian. If we cannot accept this teaching about God’s way of salvation, we need to cry out to God for his Holy Spirit to grant us understanding and salvation.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. This passage is that important. And it fits in with a discussion of God’s attribute of goodness because I can’t think of anything that illustrates God’s goodness more than the gospel of salvation by grace.

Marc Roby: Nor can I.

Dr. Spencer: The passage begins, in Verse 12, by saying, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—”. The first thing we need to look at is the word “Therefore”.

Marc Roby: Which, of course, refers to what Paul had said prior to this verse.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And, certainly, in part it refers back to Verse 10, where we read, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” This verse clearly states man’s problem, “we were God’s enemies”.

Marc Roby: And it is never a good thing to have the eternal, omnipotent Creator of all things as your enemy.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. You’re bound to lose. And Paul goes on to argue that we were God’s enemies precisely because we were still in Adam; in other words, he was still our representative. But, in Verse 10 he tells us that we were reconciled to God through the death of Jesus Christ and that, having been reconciled, we will be saved. So, the word “therefore” at the beginning of Verse 12 is pointing back to this reconciliation and salvation that we have in Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: Alright, let me read the verse again with that thought in mind. It says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—”.

Dr. Spencer: And notice that this verse does not express a complete thought, it leaves you expecting something, expecting it to go on. And yet the next verse, Verse 13, starts a new sentence. In other words, Paul leaves his thought half finished. And this is indicated in some Bibles by ending Verse 12 with a dash or a colon. Also, in some Bibles Verse 13 begins with a parenthesis, indicating that it is the start of a parenthetical section that continues through Verse 17. Paul is doing what we all do often, he starts a thought and then realizes that he needs to explain it more fully before continuing. So, let’s look at the thought. He said, “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”.

Marc Roby: That is a statement loaded with meaning.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why Paul realized it needed to be fleshed out. The statement makes three points. First, sin entered the world through one man. Second, death is the result of sin. And, third, all die because all sinned in Adam. Let’s deal with the second point first.

Marc Roby: And that second point is that death is the result of sin.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, but it is specifically the sin of Adam as we’ll get to in a minute. The apostle says that death came “through” sin. He says the same thing somewhat differently in Romans 6:23, where we read that “the wages of sin is death”. In other words, death is not natural. It is the punishment God promised Adam and Eve for sinning as we read in Genesis 2:17. And so, in Verses 13 and 14, Paul explains this further.

Marc Roby: Let me read those verses before you go on. Romans 5:13-14 say, “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”

Dr. Spencer: And notice Paul’s logic here. He points out that sin is not taken into account when there is no law. He doesn’t say that people didn’t sin during this period of time, because they most certainly did; in fact, he says “sin was in the world.” But he says that sin isn’t taken into account. Nevertheless, he points out that the people who lived between the time of Adam and Moses and “did not sin by breaking a command”, still died. This proves that these people died for Adam’s sin. He makes that explicit in Verse 15 where he says that “many died by the trespass of the one man”. In fact, he repeats this point several times so that we can’t get it wrong. He also says in Verse 16 that “judgment followed one sin” and in Verse 17 he says that “by the trespass of the one man” death reigned.

Marc Roby: I can hear many of our listeners just bristling at the thought that people would die because of someone else’s sin.

Dr. Spencer: I understand the objection. But let me put off dealing with it for a few minutes, there is a very good answer to it. We can summarize Paul’s argument as follows: sin entered the world through Adam and all people since the time of Adam are subject to death as a result of his sin. So far this doesn’t sound good for us, but then Paul ends Verse 14 by saying that Adam “was a pattern of the one to come.” And he goes on to explain that in Verse 15.

Marc Roby: Which says, “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”

Dr. Spencer: And here is the gospel message! Adam was a pattern of the one to come, which is speaking of Christ, but there is a drastic difference, because we are condemned if we are in Adam, but eternally saved if we are in Christ. He was a pattern only in the sense that he was our head before and Christ is our head now.

Paul starts off Verse 15 by saying that “the gift is not like the trespass”. Salvation is a free gift. Paul also tells us that in Ephesians 2:8-9, where we read, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, grace is unmerited favor. Or, we could even say, it is showing favor to those who deserve condemnation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And Paul then explains further. He goes on in Romans 5:15 to say, “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” As I noted earlier, this verse makes it even more explicit that many died because of the sin of the one man, which refers to Adam. But the gift, which we are told came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflows to many.

Marc Roby: Praise God for his rich mercy.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, praise God indeed. And Paul goes on, in Verse 16, to say that “Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.” Here he again makes it clear that death, which is the just judgment for sin, followed “one sin”, which was the sin of Adam. But the gift, which followed many trespasses, or sins, brought justification. As he said in Verse 10, we are reconciled to God.

Marc Roby: And in Verse 10 it had said that “we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son”.

Dr. Spencer: Which, of course, refers to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Then, in Verse 17, Paul says, “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” We again see the emphasis on the “one man” through whom death reigned, which is Adam, and the “one man” through whom righteousness and life reign, who is Christ. This passage clearly shows that the theological idea of Adam and Christ as the two federal heads is completely biblical.

Marc Roby: And it again speaks of God’s grace and gift. Salvation is clearly not by works.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that point is abundantly clear in this passage. And we have now finished the parenthetical comments that began in Verse 13, so Verse 18 finishes the thought that Paul started in Verse 12. Let me read both verses. Verse 12 says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—” and then Verse 18 says, “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.”

Marc Roby: And I must praise God again. And I must point out that we have to be careful with this verse, when it says that this one act of righteousness, which is referring to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, “brings life for all men”, it is not telling us that every single human being will be saved.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. It means that all who are saved by the grace of God are saved as a result of this one act of righteousness. In fact, Paul phrases it differently in the very next verse. Verse 19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” We have to interpret these verses in a way that is consistent with all of Scripture.

Marc Roby: The first principle of hermeneutics as you taught in Sessions 39 through 48.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is the most important principle of hermeneutics. And when you apply it here it is obvious the statements about death coming to all men and the many being made sinners both refer to every single human being who has descended from Adam and Eve in the natural way. Whereas, the statements about bringing life to all men and the many being made righteous do not refer to every single human being, but only to those who are born again and justified by faith in Christ.

Marc Roby: Now the last two verses, 20 and 21, then say “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: We don’t have time today to deal with what is meant by saying that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more”, but notice again that sin reigned in death – in other words, death is the penalty for sin, but specifically for the sin of Adam. And then also note that grace reigns through righteousness and brings eternal life through Jesus Christ. Saying “through Jesus Christ” means that eternal life comes to those people, and only those people, who are united to Christ by true saving faith. We are all conceived with Adam as our federal head and we are, therefore, subject to death. But, praise God, if we place our trust in Jesus Christ, we are united to him by faith and receive eternal life. In Romans 8:1 Paul wrote that “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.

Marc Roby: What a glorious promise that is. But I’m not going to let you forget the question you put off earlier. You said that you have a good answer for those who think it is unfair for them to be born subject to the penalty of death because of the sin of Adam.

Dr. Spencer: There is a great answer to that question. First, let me point out that God is perfect and all he does is perfect, so he chose the perfect representative for the human race. None of us would have done any better than Adam did. And so, if what you want is fairness, and you interpret that to mean that you should be judged on your own merits, you need to realize that we would all have fallen and would go to hell for our own sins if we were put in the same situation as Adam. God’s representative government is the only way anyone can be saved! It is only because we can be united to Christ as our federal head that salvation is possible. If you have a problem with being represented by Adam, then logically, you should also have a problem with being represented by Christ.

Marc Roby: Yes, I see your point. We like the one, but not the other.

Dr. Spencer: And, of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what we like. What matters is what is true. And God’s Word makes it clear, as we have just seen, that this is how he has chosen to deal with his creation. And who are we to complain?

Marc Roby: Well, we certainly shouldn’t, but unfortunately people often do.

Dr. Spencer: It is unfortunate, but it is also because we are sinners. Not only do we inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin, we also inherit his sinful nature. When Adam and Eve sinned, it produced a real change in their natures. We aren’t told exactly how that works, but it is clear that it did. They used to have perfect fellowship with God, but right after the fall we see them hiding from God.

Marc Roby: Sin always produces fear and animosity.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. And the sinful nature that is displayed by their fear and animosity is handed down to us. We aren’t told exactly how that occurs, but however it happens, the results are clear. Every single human being who has descended from Adam and Eve by the ordinary means of procreation is, conceived in sin, born in sin, and practices sin. As David put it in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” And because we are sinners by nature, we sin.

Marc Roby: Which is abundantly obvious in the world all around us. And I think you have answered the question of how Adam’s sin affects us. Since he was our representative, we share in his guilt and all of the bitter fruit of his sin.

Dr. Spencer: The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it well. Question 16 asks, “Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?” and the answer is given, “The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” But, praise God, in his great love and according to his attribute of goodness, he provided us with a Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And with that, I think we are out of time for today. 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] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 302

[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.™.

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attribute of goodness. Dr. Spencer, last session was a theodicy, which is a defense of the goodness and omnipotence of God given the fact that evil exists. But there is a related question we did not discuss that I suspect a number of our listeners may be wondering about, which is this, “How did evil first enter into creation?” In Genesis 1:31 we read that when God finished his work of creating, there was no evil present because, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Well, not only was all that God created very good, but this is also a very good question. It is also one of the hardest questions you could ask. The Bible doesn’t tell us a great deal about the origin of sin, but as we consider the topic we must carefully guard against a couple of very serious errors, as Wayne Grudem points out in his Systematic Theology.[2]

Marc Roby: What errors are those?

Dr. Spencer: The first one is the error of blaming God for sin. Deuteronomy 32:4 tells us, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” And in James 1:13 we are told that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone”. In light of these Scriptures, and many others, it would be absolute blasphemy to think that God is the author of sin.

Marc Roby: Yes, I agree, which is why the presence of sin is so puzzling. What is the second error we need to guard against?

Dr. Spencer: It is to think that God was not able to prevent sin. In other words, to think there is some equally powerful evil force at work in creation.

Marc Roby: Sort of the like the dark side of “the force” in the Star Wars movies.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it would be sort of like that if it existed, which of course it does not. God is absolutely sovereign over all creation, which includes Satan and his demons and everything else, and God is completely good.

As we discussed last time, God allowed sin to enter into his creation because it allowed him to more fully demonstrate his multifaceted glory. But the key word in that sentence is “allowed”. God was not the creator of sin, but he is absolutely sovereign over sin. He could have prevented it and he is able to prevent every single instance of sin that has ever occurred or ever will occur.

Marc Roby: That is a difficult notion to accept given some of the truly evil things that have been done throughout history. It is frightening to think, for example, that God allowed the Holocaust.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely, which is why we have to think very carefully and biblically or we will get into trouble. If God were not absolutely sovereign over everything that happens in this universe, we could never trust that he would be able to make his promises come true. In addition, his promises would then be lies and he would be a liar. These are absolutely unthinkable heresies. The only answer I can give, which comes from the Bible as we discussed last time, is that God allowed sin into creation for his own greater glory. But that does not mean that he is responsible for it, or that he approves of it in any way, or that he cannot control it.

Marc Roby: Which is, again, why something like the Holocaust is so hard to reconcile with God’s goodness.

Dr. Spencer: It is. But, as we labored to show last time, you need to realize that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory and that there is an eternal reality that awaits all people and all angels. In that eternity there will be no injustice. Everyone will be treated either with perfect justice, or perfect mercy. In light of this eternal reality, a Christian’s troubles here are easy to deal with – even the most severe troubles we can imagine. Which is why the apostle Paul wrote, in 2 Corinthians 4:17, that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

Marc Roby: That’s an amazing verse on two accounts. First, that Paul could call our troubles “light and momentary” given some of the terrible troubles he himself experienced. And secondly, it is amazing to consider what our eternal glory will be like if it far outweighs any possible trouble in this life.

Dr. Spencer: It is hard to imagine, but it is true. We again have to reckon with the fact that eternity is infinitely longer than this life. Let me give an analogy to help us grasp this truth.

Marc Roby: Yes, please do.

Dr. Spencer: Think of someone who gets cancer when he is 10 years old and he is told by the doctor that he will certainly die within a year if it isn’t treated. But if he undergoes radiation and chemo-therapy for six months it can most likely be cured.

Marc Roby: That is a very unpleasant thing to consider, especially in somebody so young.

Dr. Spencer: I chose that age deliberately, as you’ll see. Now let’s further suppose that this young boy goes through the treatments. That will be an extremely miserable six months. But let’s further assume that the treatments are successful and he goes on to live a healthy life and die at the ripe old age of 95. That is 85 years past the date when he was told he had cancer, and 84½ of those years were healthy and happy. The six months of misery amounts to less than 0.6% of those 85 years. I think we would all agree that it was worth it in the end.

Marc Roby: Yes, I have to agree with that statement.

Dr. Spencer: OK, so now think about eternity. Even if God calls me to be one of those who suffer for Christ in this life, it doesn’t matter if I suffer for 1 year or 100 years, it is literally zero percent of the time I will spend in heaven.

Marc Roby: I see your point. And, of course, suffering can also produce beneficial results in this life.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it can. I think we have all experienced or heard about a situation where some painful trial produced a good harvest in terms of either leading someone to saving faith, or driving someone away from some besetting sin, or in just making them a better person. God also frequently uses troubles to cause his people to stop trusting in themselves and this world and to look to him in humility and prayer.

In Romans 5 Paul says that we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God and then adds, in Verses 3 through 5, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Marc Roby: That verse also fits with Romans 8:28, which says, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: It fits with that verse very well. And I can personally testify that I am a better person for having gone through the pain of needing and then having two hip replacements. For example, I am more thankful, less proud and more compassionate toward others.

And our greatest joy in heaven will be contemplating the glory of God, so if our misery in this life helps in any way to make that glory manifest, either directly because we suffer for the name of Christ or just by making us better people, and therefore better witnesses for Christ, just imagine the eternal joy we will receive from knowing that.

Marc Roby: I have to admit that makes it easier to see how sufferings could be considered inconsequential by Paul. Although they may still be terrible to endure in this life.

Dr. Spencer: They can be terrible, and God knows that. All suffering, ultimately, is the result of sin. And God is not pleased that sin exists. In fact, in Ezekiel 33:11 we read that God commanded the prophet, “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” This verse, and others, tell us clearly that God does not take pleasure in the fact that sin must be punished. But because he is infinitely holy and just, it must still be punished. God cannot act contrary to his own perfect nature. So, I’m going to borrow a phrase from John Murray and say that allowing sin was a “consequent absolute necessity” for God.[3]

Marc Roby: I think that phrase from Murray needs some explanation.

Dr. Spencer: What I mean is that allowing sin into his creation, while certainly not something that in itself brings any pleasure to God, was absolutely necessary as a consequence of his having decided to create anything. Because God is perfect, his creation is perfect. And that means that the purpose for that creation is the best possible purpose, which we have noted is the manifestation of his glory. And the full manifestation of his glory must include his holiness and just wrath in addition to his love and mercy. Now I’m drawing a deduction at this point, rather than stating something that Scripture tells us clearly, so I could be wrong. But if sin did not have to exist to accomplish God’s perfect purpose, I don’t believe he would have allowed it since sin, in itself, something that God hates.

Marc Roby: I am going to meditate on that thought for a while.

Dr. Spencer: And I hope our listeners do as well. The more we think about God and what he has done and his revelation to us in his Word, the more we see how our own views have to change. That is why Paul commanded us in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Paul isn’t suggesting that we are able to “test” God’s will in terms of passing judgment on it, that would imply that we are greater than God, which is patently absurd. But he means that to the extent our thinking is transformed we will be able to “test and approve” because we will have come into conformity with God’s perfect will.

Marc Roby: And, of course, being conformed to the likeness of Christ, who is God, is the purpose for which we were predestined, called, justified and will be glorified as Paul wrote in Romans 8:29-30. And that conformity will certainly include our thinking.

Dr. Spencer: And our understanding of what is good, since God is the ultimate standard for what is good.

Marc Roby: I can see you’re trying to get us back on our topic, which isn’t a bad idea. But my question about the origin of sin still stands. You’ve argued, and I think successfully, that we need to avoid the ditches on both sides of the road; that is, the ditch on one side of thinking that God created sin and the ditch on the other side of thinking that he’s not able to prevent it. But you haven’t yet addressed how it came into this world, which was originally declared to be “very good”.

Dr. Spencer: Well, as I said at the outset, that is an extremely difficult question, and God has not chosen to reveal much of the answer. God has told us that the original creation was very good, as you just noted, so we know that there wasn’t any sin present in the beginning. God has also told us about Satan coming and tempting Eve, and through her Adam, to get them to sin. We can conclude from that passage that Satan himself had already become sinful. So, there was a fall of Satan and his demons that occurred before the fall of man. Grudem has a good discussion of this in his Systematic Theology.[4] And there are also some passages in Scripture that speak about Satan’s fall.

Marc Roby: The first one I think of is 2 Peter 2:4, where we are told that “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment”.

Dr. Spencer: Another New Testament reference is Jude 6, which says, “the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.”

These two verses tell us clearly that there were angels who sinned and that God judged them. The fact that they are in dungeons, or darkness and chains, does not mean that they have no influence on this world, but rather that God has absolute control over them.

Marc Roby: And a good example of that is seen in Job 1:6-12, where we read of Satan receiving permission from God to test Job.

Dr. Spencer: And in Luke 22:31 Jesus told the apostle Peter that Satan had asked to sift him as wheat. But in the next verse, Luke 22:32, we have that wonderful statement of Jesus “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Marc Roby: I can only imagine that after Peter had denied Christ three times and then Christ was crucified this statement must have provided great comfort, although I’m sure Peter didn’t understand at that time exactly what Christ meant. In fact, Peter must have felt like his faith had failed.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But the wonderful thing is that Christ didn’t say “And if you turn back, strengthen your brothers.” He said “when you turn back”. Christ’s prayers are always effectual, and that should provide great comfort to all Christians because in his great high priestly prayer we read, in John 17:15, that Christ prayed to the Father about his people and said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”

Marc Roby: That is very comforting indeed.

Dr. Spencer: And that statement, along with Satan having to ask permission to sift Peter and the story of Job, show that God allows Satan and the other fallen angels to operate in this world for a time. In fact, in Ephesians 2:2 Satan is called “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” So, we know that Satan and some other angels fell and are under God’s judgment, that they are allowed to oppose God’s people in this world for a time, but they are completely under God’s authority.

Marc Roby: Which is good news, because Jesus told us, in John 8:44, that Satan was “a murderer from the beginning” and he is “the father of lies” and the New Testament consistently portrays him as the mortal enemy of God’s church. But what about the fall of Satan himself?

Dr. Spencer: There are at least two passages in the Old Testament that many good theologians think refer to Satan’s fall. One is in Isaiah 14, where the prophet is speaking about the King of Babylon, and the other is in Ezekiel 28 where the prophet is speaking about the King of Tyre. In both cases the descriptions of the kings go beyond what could reasonably be said about any human king, so many theologians think that the prophets were weaving together descriptions of the human kings with the fall of Satan from heaven. This weaving together of human and heavenly events that are related in some way is not uncommon, as Wayne Grudem points out.[5]

In any event, these passages, if they do apply to Satan as many think they do, tell us that he became proud and wanted to take his place on the throne of heaven.

Marc Roby: Yes, in other words, he failed to humble himself and take account of the Creator/creature distinction, which we have pointed out numerous times is central to a proper understanding of who we are.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And he used the same temptation that caused him to fall to snare Adam and Eve. Notice what he said to Eve. After contradicting God and saying that she would not surely die if she ate the forbidden fruit, he then said, in Genesis 3:5, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Marc Roby: It’s ironic that he should tell them, “you will be like God” since Adam and Eve had been created in God’s image. So, in one sense, they already were like God, and their listening to Satan actually resulted in that image being terribly distorted.

Dr. Spencer: It is ironic. But it is also clear that Satan was implying they would be like God in some deeper sense than just being made in his image. He may not have been implying that they would become gods themselves, but it was something close to that. Also, as we noted earlier, our final destiny as God’s children is to be conformed to the image of Christ.

John Murray made an interesting observation in this regard. In writing about the sanctification of believers, he wrote that “likeness to God is the ultimate pattern of sanctification. The reason why God himself is the pattern should be obvious: man is made in the image of God and nothing less than the image of God can define the restoration which redemption contemplates. … [but] it must not be thought that likeness to God is absolute. There is a sense in which to aspire after likeness to God is the epitome of iniquity.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is very interesting. So we know that Satan fell from his exalted place because of pride. He rejected the fundamental Creator/creature distinction that we must always keep in mind. I think that provides a reasonable answer to the question I posed at the beginning, but it also raises another one, which we will have to wait for next time to deal with because we are out of time for today.

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.

 

[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. 492

[3] Murray uses this phrase in to speak of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 12).

[4] Grudem, op. cit., pp 412-414

[5] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 413 (he cites Ps 45 as an example)

[6] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, Vol. 2, pg. 306

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

Dr. Spencer, at the end of our last session, you said that we need a proper biblical perspective to understand how a completely good and omnipotent God can allow evil into his creation. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to spend more time on the topic of evil and its relation to the goodness of God because it is an extremely important and difficult topic.

I noted last time that many people in history have argued that the existence of sin and suffering prove that God must either not be good, or not able to prevent evil, in other words, not be omnipotent. I also pointed out that that argument is wrong because it assumes the unbiblical, that is to say, incorrect, idea that the purpose of creation is, or should be, to maximize our pleasure in this life.

Marc Roby: Perhaps we should mention that a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence given the fact that evil exists, that’s called a theodicy.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I think it’s good for people to know that term. And that is exactly what I want to do today. I want to explain, or justify, how it is possible for evil to exist in a universe ruled by an all-powerful, or omnipotent, and all-good, or omnibenevolent, God.

Marc Roby: You noted last time that a proper biblical perspective requires us to recognize that God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory and that we also need to recognize that there is an eternal destiny for human beings. In other words, this life is not all there is.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right, this life is definitely not all there is and we’ll deal with that more in a minute. But first, let me say a little more about the first of those two points, God’s purpose.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: We spoke in both Sessions 2 and 67 about God’s purpose in creation, but it would be good to give just a couple of Scriptures at this time to support the claim that his purpose is the manifestation of his own glory.

Marc Roby: I agree, what Scriptures would you like to cite?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin with the prophet Isaiah. God spoke through the prophet about his redeemed people, meaning the church, and in Isaiah 43:6-7 we read that God said, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” [1] There are many other verses as well that tell us God’s purpose in creation and redemption is the manifestation of his glory. But to give just one more example, Psalm 19 famously begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)

Marc Roby: I think it is also helpful to remember one other thing you said before, that there is no better purpose for creation than the manifestation of the glory of God. He chose the best possible purpose.

Now, returning to the second point, that this life is not all there is, it’s also pretty easy to come up with Scriptures that support the idea that human beings have an eternal destiny.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, the first one that pops into my mind is the 25th chapter of Matthew.

Marc Roby: Where Christ describes the final judgment.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And after separating the sheep from the goats and telling the goats that they must depart from him, he ends, in Verse 46, by saying, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” And the same exact Greek word for eternal is used in both places in that verse, which makes it clear that it is exegetically impossible to believe in eternal heaven and deny the existence of eternal hell.

So, getting back to your statement that this life is not all there is, we can go further and say that that is, in fact, a gross understatement. When compared with eternity, this life is, quite literally, nothing. There really is only one important question to answer in life, and that is, “Where am I going when I die?” The Bible tells us that there are only two possible places. I will either go to eternal hell and suffer for my sins, or eternal heaven and live in bliss forever in the presence of the perfect God.

Marc Roby: Of course, not everyone is going to agree that those are the only two destinies.

Dr. Spencer: I’m well aware of that, but those are the only two destinies described in the Bible, which is the infallible Word of God, so I’m confident that that is the truth. And I would point out that even people who say they believe that we simply cease to exist when we die frequently speak and act in ways that make it clear they know it isn’t true.

Marc Roby: Yes, especially when someone close to them dies.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely, that is the most common time. You will often hear them say something like, “Aunt Mary will be very pleased to see you graduate” or whatever. But, of course, if Aunt Mary is dead, and if people simply cease to exist, then Aunt Mary can’t possibly know that someone is graduating, let alone be pleased by it.

Marc Roby: I’ve certainly heard people say many things that would indicate they know there is some mode of existence beyond the grave.

Dr. Spencer: And not only do they know that, but they also know there will be a judgment. That is one of the major reasons people fear death. They know they will be judged, and they aren’t confident it will go well for them in that judgment.

Marc Roby: Although most people flatter themselves and think they aren’t really all that bad. They might admit that they deserve a mild rebuke for some things they have said or done, but they don’t believe they have done anything deserving of real wrath.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. And there are two reasons most people think they will get a passing grade. First, they grade themselves on a curve, in other words, they compare themselves to other people. But God doesn’t grade on a curve. Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Marc Roby: That is definitely not grading on a curve. What is the second reason people think they will get a passing grade?

Dr. Spencer: It’s because they only consider external sins, not sins of the heart. So, since most people have never murdered, or raped or committed grand theft or anything like that, they assume that they are relatively good. And, of course, they may actually be good in a relative sense. But there are two problems with that view.

Marc Roby: What problems are those?

Dr. Spencer: First, as I mentioned, they are ignoring the heart. We are told in 1 Samuel 16:7 that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” And in Hebrews 4:12 we read 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.”

Marc Roby: That’s a problem for us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is a serious problem. And Jesus illustrated just how serious that problem is when he told the people in Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Now many men can truthfully say that they have never committed the physical act of adultery, but how many can say that they have never once looked at a woman lustfully?

Marc Roby: I’d rather not answer that question.

Dr. Spencer: I think you just did. And, of course, adultery isn’t the only sin for which this applies. We are also told that unholy anger is committing murder in the heart and so on. When you apply the true standard, even most law-abiding people do not do very well.

Marc Roby: Alright. You said that there are two problems with the view that we really aren’t all that bad; what is the second one?

Dr. Spencer: The second problem is even more serious. It is that we misjudge sin itself. The worst sin of all isn’t something I do to other people, it is my attitude toward God. If I don’t consciously give him thanks for life and material blessings, and if I don’t live to please him, I am insulting the living God, my Creator. Even if I murder someone, the worst sin involved is not what I did to that person. The worst sin involved is that in murdering the person I rejected God’s law and his authority to command me to not murder. And, even worse, if I live as though I am independent and he doesn’t exist, that is a huge insult to God. Rejecting the sovereign Creator and Lord of all is a very serious offense, it is an offence that deserves God’s wrath.

Marc Roby: That makes perfectly good sense. In fact, the Bible tells us that anything not done in obedience to God and for his glory is sin.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we are famously told, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” And the Greek verb in that sentence is in the imperative mood, so it is a command. And in John 14:15 Jesus told us that “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” We can conclude therefore, that any disobedience is a lack of love for God, which is most certainly a sin because Jesus told us in Matthew 22:37-38 that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Therefore, anything that is not done in conscious obedience to God and for his glory, is sin.

Marc Roby: That is a very convicting, but true, statement. But we were justifying God’s goodness given the presence of evil. How does this all tie back into that topic?

Dr. Spencer: It ties back in in at least two ways. First, because there is an eternal destiny awaiting every human being, we can’t judge what is good in any meaningful ultimate sense by looking at what happens just in this short life. And secondly, if we recognize that the worst sin is not murder, or any thing like that, but rather is rejecting the sovereign God who made us, then we will understand that we all deserve punishment. And if we then receive what we deserve, that is certainly just and we must agree that is good. And when we consider those to whom God has granted repentance and saving faith, we see that they receive mercy, rather than justice, and spend eternity in heaven. And certainly we must agree that is also good.

Marc Roby: I think everyone would agree that bringing people to heaven is good. I’m not sure many people are willing to accept that hell is good, although the fact that guilty sinners deserve God’s wrath certainly argues that it is. But I suspect that many people would ask why God can’t simply show mercy and forgive. After all, God commands us to be merciful and to forgive others.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great question, and we dealt with it in Session 24. I pointed out then that God cannot forgive sin without the penalty being paid because he is the judge of the universe. If I steal from someone who happens to be a judge, he can forgive me on a personal level. But, if the case comes before his court and I am found guilty of the crime, as judge he cannot simply say that he forgives me. Justice demands that I be punished and he must abide by the laws of the state and sentence me appropriately. As Judge of the universe, God must do what is just and right, and the just and right penalty for sinning against God is death—eternal death.

Marc Roby: That helps. And it is also important to remember the fact you pointed out in Session 72, that people in hell do not repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but continue to hate him and rail against him in their hearts, which actually increases their guilt every day.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. When you put all of this together, you realize that hell is good. It is not pleasant, but it is just and fair and right. And so, in a deep sense of the term, it is good.

Marc Roby: But, at the same time, God does show mercy to some and save them. And that brings up another problem for many people. It seems unfair for God to choose some people to be saved while leaving others to suffer for their sins.

Dr. Spencer: That is a very common complaint. You’re speaking about the doctrine of divine election, and we dealt with that doctrine back in Session 15, but we must say a few words again here. The basic problem is that we think we want to be judged based on our own effort. That somehow sounds fair to us because in terms of dealings with other human beings that is, in general, fair. But, as I noted a minute ago, when we consider the true nature of sin, and we judge the heart and not just the external actions, we find that we all have a serious problem. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. So, if we think more carefully, we will recognize that we don’t really want to be judged fairly, or justly, we want mercy.

Marc Roby: And, of course, by definition mercy is not something we deserve, so God is not under obligation to show mercy to anyone.

Dr. Spencer: No, he isn’t. It would be completely just and fair for God to send all of us to hell. The huge surprise, the great mystery and amazing demonstration of God’s love and mercy is that he chose to save anyone at all. Especially when you consider the cost.

Marc Roby: Which was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And we find ourselves right back at John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And this is good in the most profound possible sense of the word, even though perishing in this verse refers to eternal hell. And notice that it is only those who believe who will not perish. In fact, just two verses later, in John 3:18, we read that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Refusing to believe in Jesus Christ is the most serious sin a person can commit it is, ultimately, the sin that sends you to hell. In 1 John 5 the apostle tells us about God’s testimony about Christ and he says in Verse10 that “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.

Marc Roby: Calling the perfectly holy and just Creator a liar is a terrible thing. And I think we have made a good case for the fact that the existence of hell is actually good, given the fact that evil does exist.

We got onto this topic because of the importance of having an eternal perspective in understanding the presence of evil. Can we go back now and tie it all together somehow? Why is it good that God allowed evil to enter his creation?

Dr. Spencer: Because it allowed a more complete manifestation of God’s multifaceted glory. Without allowing evil to enter creation God would not have been able to demonstrate his just wrath against evil, nor would he have been able to demonstrate his astounding merciful love in redeeming some people. I don’t think we can understand it fully, but you have to consider the finished product so to speak. Years ago I read something very profound that is relevant to this topic in, of all places, a devotional my wife and I were reading with our children when they were young.

Marc Roby: What was that?

Dr. Spencer: The author used the analogy of a cake to illustrate 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.”

Now I don’t remember the story in detail, but it went something like this; a child had asked the mother about something that wasn’t good, and questioned whether God was good for allowing such a thing. The mother’s response in the story was great. She asked the child, “Do you like chocolate cake?” And, like most children, the child responded, “Of course.” And then the mother said, “Well, do you like to eat flour?” And he said, “No.” Then the mother asked if he liked to eat baking powder, and he said no. Then she asked if he liked to eat salt, and he said no. Then she asked if he liked raw egg and he said no. But she then told him that all of those things were used in making chocolate cake.

Marc Roby: That is a great illustration. The ingredients may not be good in and of themselves, but the final result is good.

Dr. Spencer: And so it is with God’s works. We do not know enough or have a wide enough perspective to properly judge his works. We know that evil exists and we know that evil is not good in itself. In fact, it is the opposite of good. But we know that God is not the author of evil and God is good. In fact, he is the standard of good. He is absolutely, perfectly and immutably good. And he is omnipotent. Therefore, we can conclude that the presence of evil was necessary for the accomplishing of God’s perfect eternal plan for creation, which is good.

Marc Roby: And I think that is a good place to end for today – pun intended. I want to remind our listeners that they can email any questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to answer.

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

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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.

Before we begin I’d like to let our listeners know that we have added a new feature to the website for this podcast. At the top of the transcript for every session, including all previous sessions, is a link to a pdf file for the session. You are free to download, save and share these files with others. In addition, if you go to the Archive link at the top of the home page for whatdoesthewordsay.org, you will also find links to pdf versions of three indexes. An index of references, an index of topics, and an index of Scriptures. These are updated with each new podcast. And now, let’s get back to our topic.

Dr. Spencer, we finished last time by noting that God is truth in all three of the meanings of that term; that is, metaphysical, propositional and ethical. What do you want to look at today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to discuss the topic of ethical truth a little more. Remember that ethics refers to the set of moral rules that govern how we live. In my experience, most people seem to agree with the idea that morality is absolute. They may say that morality can be different in different cultures, but then they will strongly denounce and even work to change practices they disagree with, even practices in other countries with completely different cultures.

So, for example, I doubt that very many women in the United States would have said that it was just a matter of culture and not a problem when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and prevented women from working, attending school, or being in public places without a male family member.

Marc Roby: I’m quite sure you are right about that. Women, and most men as well, would agree that such rules are a violation of basic human rights.

Dr. Spencer: I think they would. So, independent of the politically correct postmodern notion that truth and morality are social constructs and vary from culture to culture, we see that most people prove by their actions that they firmly believe in moral absolutes. This is especially true when you discuss hot-button issues like abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and so on.

The problem, as I demonstrated by talking about slavery last time and Hitler in the session before that, is that without God, there is no absolute authority anyone can point to as a basis for these moral absolutes. Therefore, if atheism were true, morality would be determined solely by the group with the power to enact and enforce the laws in a given time and place and we would have no basis for saying that the laws put in place by the Taliban were wrong.

Marc Roby: And, even within one culture, laws change over time.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, they do. Is that because what is moral changes over time? I think most people would say it does not. But, when you and I were young, it was illegal to be a practicing homosexual in this country, it was illegal to get an abortion, and it was out of the question for same-sex couples to get married. And yet, a large percentage of our population, including some who call themselves Christians, now approve of such practices and they are legal. In fact, if you disagree with these practices, the so-called progressives will call you hateful and send you to sensitivity training to try and correct your socially aberrant views.

Marc Roby: It is really difficult to believe how much has changed since the 1950’s.

Dr. Spencer: It is unbelievable how much they have changed. But, independent of what any of our listeners may think about such changes, I challenge them, as I did when we talked about slavery, to explain – without reference to God – on what logical basis someone could say that we are right now and the people were wrong 60 years ago? Or that the people were right 60 years ago and we are wrong now?

Marc Roby: I don’t think that’s possible without reference to God.

Dr. Spencer: And that is my point. Without God, it isn’t possible. In fact man, because he is a creature, has no authority to decide for himself what is right or wrong. God alone has the authority to tell us what is sin and what is pleasing to him, and he has done that in the Bible. And, not only has God clearly told us what behavior he approves, he has clearly warned us of the penalty for disobedience. The moral laws are no different than any other laws in the sense that there is a penalty to be paid for violating them.

Marc Roby: But, there is a huge difference between God’s enforcement of his laws and the state’s enforcement of our civil laws.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there is. In fact, there are at least three major differences I can think of.

Marc Roby: What are those?

Dr. Spencer: The first is that God does not always enforce his laws immediately, or even in this life. For his own purposes he sometimes allows people to do wicked things without being justly punished in this life. Of course the state also fails to punish people sometimes, but only because the state is incapable of perfectly enforcing its laws.

But, even though God may choose to not enforce his laws immediately, the second major difference I see is that God does, ultimately, enforce his laws absolutely perfectly. He has perfect knowledge of everything and everyone, including our thoughts and motives and he is absolutely sovereign, so no violation of his law will ever go unpunished. Every single sin ever committed will receive the punishment that justice demands. Either we will be punished for our sins or, if we have accepted God’s gracious offer of forgiveness based on the atoning sacrifice of Christ, Jesus will have borne the penalty for our sins on the cross.

Marc Roby: Which is absolutely amazing grace. What is the third difference you see in God’s enforcement of his laws versus the state’s enforcement of its laws?

Dr. Spencer: God’s penalty for disobedience is far more severe than the greatest penalty man can mete out. People don’t like the doctrine of hell, but it is a clear teaching of the Bible. If you are a Christian, you really have no option but to believe that hell exists. You don’t have to take my word for it, read your Bible. Jesus Christ himself spoke of eternal hell more than anyone else. You have to do exegetical backflips, or simply not believe God’s Word, to not believe in eternal hell.

Marc Roby: But, of course, different sins will not all receive the same punishment.

Dr. Spencer: No, they won’t. The Bible indicates that there are different levels of punishment in hell. But no matter the level of punishment, hell is a terrible place, and it is eternal, with no hope of escape.

Marc Roby: Which is, of course, one of the main reasons many people reject the doctrine; it seems completely unfair to punish people eternally.

Dr. Spencer: Well, I don’t personally like the doctrine either. But God didn’t ask me, and he isn’t going to, and, more to the point, what I think doesn’t matter. I am a sinner and don’t fully grasp God’s holiness and the depth of sin. What does matter is that we grasp the fact that even the smallest sin you can imagine is motivated by a rebellious heart, and that rebellion is against the infinite, almighty, all holy, perfectly just Creator, so it deserves eternal punishment. Not only that, but people in hell do not repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Without his saving grace they cannot do so. Therefore, they continue to hate him and rail against him in their hearts, which increases their guilt every day.

Marc Roby: Hell is an unpleasant topic to say the least, but I think we have said enough about God being the one who has authority to establish moral law, that he will, ultimately, judge everyone, and that we will all either receive mercy based on the merit of Jesus Christ, or be eternally punished for our sin.

So, we have now established that God is truth in all three biblical senses of the term: he is metaphysical truth because he is the genuine God, he is epistemological, or propositional, truth because all that he says is perfectly true, and he is ethical truth because he establishes and enforces the moral law. What else do you want to say about God’s truthfulness?

Dr. Spencer: It is important to point out that God’s moral law is not arbitrary. It is based on God’s own character, it is a reflection of his perfect character. And we are made in God’s image and are made for fellowship with him. So, obeying God’s moral law is what is best for us. A Christian should delight in God’s moral law, even if it goes against what the person has believed all of his or her life prior to becoming a Christian. Romans 12:2 commands us, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [1]

Marc Roby: And our minds are renewed by meditating on God’s Word and submitting to it as our ultimate authority.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. Our minds are very important. Christianity is not all about feeling. Feelings are there of course, and they are important. But our emotions are not to rule us in any way. Our minds – which really means our spirits – are to rule us, and our minds are to be submitted fully to the Word of God. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 the apostle Paul tell us, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Therefore, it doesn’t matter what I think about homosexuality for example, nor does it matter what society says. God says it is sin. And unrepentant sinners will go to hell. Therefore, the only loving thing for me to do with a homosexual is to tell that person of God’s law and of the consequences for violating that law, and then to tell him or her that Jesus Christ has provided a way to be saved.

Marc Roby: But, that salvation requires true biblical repentance.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it does, and true biblical repentance requires forsaking our sin and walking in holiness. It does not, praise God, require perfection or none of us would be saved. But when we sin, we must repent and ask for forgiveness and, as Paul said in Acts 26:20, prove our repentance by our deeds.

Marc Roby: And praise God that he has made salvation possible. Do you want to say anything else about God’s truthfulness?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, I have a three more short points make. First, in examining God’s truthfulness, we again see God’s simplicity.

Marc Roby: We should remind our listeners that by God’s simplicity we mean the fact that his attributes cannot be thought of separately, they all work together.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. And with regard to God’s truthfulness, we have argued that he is truth in the propositional sense precisely because he has the power necessary to make what he thinks is true actually be true. And, even more than that, when you look at the different possible meanings of the word true, you see that God’s truthfulness also includes his perfect knowledge in knowing what it means to be the only true God, his faithfulness in always keeping his word, his unchangeableness in not changing his word, his moral perfection in establishing and enforcing the moral law and so on.

Marc Roby: It is clear that his attributes all work together. And it makes me remember Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which we have mentioned before. The answer to that question says, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” But, you said you had three more points to make, what is the second?

Dr. Spencer: The second point I want to make is that God’s truthfulness was what Satan challenged when he first tempted Eve. We read about this in Genesis Chapter 3. The serpent came to Eve and asked, in Verse 1, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Of course, that is not what God had said. God had said that they could eat of any tree in the garden with the sole exception of one tree. But, as James Boice points out in his commentary on Genesis, Satan’s question was meant “to suggest that God is not benevolent and that His word cannot be trusted.”[2]

Marc Roby: Now, we must say that Eve didn’t completely accept Satan’s suggestion. She answered, in Verses 2 and 3, that “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, you’re right, she didn’t accept Satan’s lie completely, but notice that his lie had already borne some fruit; she added to God’s word by saying “you must not touch it”. God had not said that. He had said that the day you eat of it you will die, not that you will die if you touch it. In any event, Satan then goes on to directly contradict God. He says, in Verse 4, “You will not surely die”. And then he gives his false explanation for God’s prohibition. He says, in Verse 5, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” John Murray explains that at this point, Satan “accuses God of deliberate falsehood and deception. God has perpetrated a lie, he avers, because he is jealous of his own selfish and exclusive possession of the knowledge of good and evil!”[3]

Marc Roby: And, sadly, Eve believed Satan. We read in the first part of Verse 6 that “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the sad truth. Paul writes about this in 1 Timothy 2:14. He wrote that “Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” But Adam is a different story. He was not deceived, his sin was far worse for at least two reasons. First, it was worse because he was the one put in charge by God and he was the representative for the human race. Greater responsibility always implies greater culpability. And secondly, he sinned out of pure rebellion against God as James Boice notes.[4] This is why Scripture always lays the blame for the fall on Adam, not on Eve. In Romans 5:12 we read that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” and Verse 14 clearly tells us that one man is Adam.

Marc Roby: Paul also tells us this in 1 Corinthians 15:22 where he says that “in Adam all die”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. But, let’s get back to the point I wanted to make about God’s truthfulness, which is simply this; it is an absolutely essential aspect of the being of God. If God were not truthful, then having his infallible word would be of no real value. How would we be able to tell which parts where true and which were lies? And his threats and promises would have no value either, how would we know that they were true? Now, it must be said that God’s other attributes are essential too. For example, if he were not omnipotent we couldn’t be sure that he had the power to keep his threats and promises. But his truthfulness somehow seems to more directly impinge on his holiness, justice, goodness and so on.

That is why Satan didn’t question God’s power to bring death, nor did he question God’s knowledge about the tree, instead he directly questioned God’s truthfulness. A God who is not truthful is no god, he is a devil.

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ himself said to the Jews, as we read in John 8:44, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Dr. Spencer: And, a little earlier in the same discourse he had said that “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Marc Roby: I see your point. Truth is an essential characteristic of the true and living God and is essential for salvation. Lies destroy, truth saves.

Dr. Spencer: We see that even in more mundane matters. If you go to see the doctor and he determines that you have cancer, that isn’t something you want to hear. But if he lies and says you’re fine, you’ll die. If he tells you the truth, then perhaps it can be treated and you may live.

Marc Roby: Very well. You said you had three points to make, what is the third?

Dr. Spencer: It is that because truth is so important, and lies are the “native language” of the devil, we, as Christians must be zealous to know and speak truth. John Murray, in his Principles of Conduct, wrote, “This is why all untruth or falsehood is wrong; it is a contradiction of that which God is.”[5]

Marc Roby: Being truthful is not a common characteristic in this day and age.

Dr. Spencer: No, it isn’t. But a Christian must be. That does not mean that we have to tell everyone all of the truth all of the time of course, but when we do say something, we must seek to convey truth.

Marc Roby: I notice you didn’t simply say that when we do say something it must be true, you said we must seek to convey truth. I assume you have a reason for the more complex statement?

Dr. Spencer: I do. You can tell something that is completely true with the intent of leading people to believe something that isn’t true. But, when you do that, you are lying. The classical biblical example is Abraham telling people that Sarah was his sister. That statement was true, but he said it to make them think that she wasn’t his wife. In other words, it is the best possible kind of lie! If you’re caught, you can always say that what you said was true, even though your purpose was to deceive.

Marc Roby: Alright. Are we done discussing God’s truthfulness?

Dr. Spencer: I think so.

Marc Roby: Then let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We are out of time for today.

 

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

[2] James M. Boice, Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Zondervan, 1982, Vol. I, pg. 134

[3] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pg. 126

[4] Boice, op. cit., pg. 136

[5] Murray, op. cit., pg. 125

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