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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine biblical anthropology. In our last session we noted that God determines what is and is not sin. He is the ultimate authority. But we also noted that he commands us to obey all legitimate delegated authorities so long as they do not tell us to sin or overstep the bounds of their delegated authority.

Now, Dr. Spencer, you mentioned last time that the laws and rules of different countries, states, churches and families can change, and yet still be proper. What about God’s laws? Do they ever change?

Dr. Spencer: Well, they have changed, so the answer is yes. The clearest example of that is the ceremonial laws given to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. They were, for example, commanded to perform a number of different animal sacrifices, but all of those sacrifices and ceremonial laws were abrogated when Christ came.

In Hebrews 7:11-12 we are told that “If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law.” [1]

Marc Roby: And for those listeners who may not know, the Levitical priesthood was responsible for performing the sacrifices and other aspects of the ceremonial law in the Old Testament and the priest who is in the order of Melchizedek refers to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And in the book of Hebrews we are told that the purpose of the Old Testament ceremonial laws was to point toward the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Once he came, the animal sacrifices served no further purpose. As a result, they are not only not required anymore, but it would be sinful to offer an animal sacrifice now. But, and this is a critically important point, in changing those laws, God did not change.

Marc Roby: I suspect some of our listeners may have a hard time understanding how you can say that God didn’t change when he changed his laws.

Dr. Spencer: Let me give an earthly example. When my children were young, they had to go to bed at a certain time. But when they got older, that rule changed. By the time they graduated from high school it was pretty much up to them what time they went to bed. I didn’t change over those years – at least not in reference to this rule – but they certainly did. When they were young the rule served to teach them authority and to teach them the need for a disciplined life. And, of course, young children need more sleep as well. But, by the time they were graduating from high school, they understood the tradeoffs. They knew that if they stayed up late studying it would reach a point of diminishing returns and they would be more tired in the morning, so they had to decide for themselves when to stop.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting example since the apostle Paul also uses the analogy of a child growing up and coming out from under the rule of a guardian in Galatians 3 and 4.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s an important point. We discussed that passage very briefly in Session 91. And I still don’t want to go into it in detail because it isn’t of critical importance to anthropology. But what is critically important, is that God has not changed. He does not change. He did change some of the laws given to his people as our circumstances changed, most notably with the first coming of Jesus Christ, but the laws that are based on his nature, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, will never change. So, for example, it will always be wrong to commit murder, or adultery or to lie or steal.

Marc Roby: Now, what about homosexuality? That is a very divisive topic today, even among many professing Christians.

Dr. Spencer: And I think the answer to that question is absolutely clear. In Leviticus 18:22 God commands, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” This doesn’t have anything to do with the ceremonial law, or with the laws of a particular government, this is a statement about morality. God says that homosexuality is detestable to him. It is completely wrong to think that God has changed his view in any way on this topic.

Marc Roby: I know that there are professing Christians who will say that command is a part of the Old Testament and that if you say we have to obey that, you must also want us to obey laws like Deuteronomy 21:21, which says that a stubborn and rebellious son should be stoned to death.

Dr. Spencer: I’ve heard comments like that, and to be honest they are just ridiculous. First of all, in Deuteronomy 21 Moses was speaking to the people to remind them of the laws of God and prepare them for the difficult task of crossing the Jordon and conquering the promised land. This particular command dealt with a son who had a long-standing pattern of rebellious behavior – he is clearly an adult and is described as a profligate and a drunkard. So, we first have to realize this isn’t speaking about a little disobedience. This is speaking about a young man who is habitually disobedient and unrepentant, a disgrace to his family and a burden to his community. Such behavior is still deplorable and is clearly serious sin.

God hated this behavior then and he hates it now, he has not changed. The punishment was appropriate at that time, in those extreme circumstances and in that theocratic society. Such behavior could simply not be tolerated. But there is nothing in the Bible that would indicate the punishment specified is part of a perpetually applicable legal standard. So, the prescribed punishment changed, but God did not change, nor did he change his mind about what is sin.

Marc Roby: And, at the risk of straying further off topic, it is worth noting that this is not the only instance where the punishment for a crime has changed.

Dr. Spencer: No, it definitely is not. In the Old Testament, the punishment for adultery is death. But in Matthew 5:32 Christ changed that law. He said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” John Murray pointed out that this verse implicitly reduced the penalty for adultery, it is no longer to be punished by death, although it does make divorce an allowable option for the offended spouse.[2]

Marc Roby: That also clearly illustrates the authority of Jesus Christ! But getting back to the topic of homosexuality, the New Testament is just as clear that this behavior is sinful.

Dr. Spencer: It absolutely is. In Chapter One of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul tells us that everyone really knows that God exists. He has made himself known through creation so that people are without excuse, but people suppress this truth. And he then tells us in Verse 24, that because of this, “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.”

And he goes on, in Verses 26-27, to say that “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that is pretty clear. And Paul also condemns homosexuality elsewhere. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 he wrote that “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Dr. Spencer: And in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 we read that “the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine”. And I have quoted from the ESV because it is a more literal translation of the passage.

Marc Roby: Yes, and that is, again, quite clear. But I know that there are some pastors and theologians who try to defend the idea that it is acceptable to be a Christian and a homosexual at the same time. How would you respond to them?

Dr. Spencer: I wouldn’t. There really is no rational way that a person can believe the Bible to be the infallible word of God and still believe that homosexuality is not a sin. I’ve read some of the arguments and they are so bad that you don’t have to be a theologian to see that they blatantly distort or dismiss the word of God.

If any of our listeners are unsure about the biblical stance on this issue, I would challenge them to first decide whether or not they think the Bible is truly the infallible word of God. If they don’t believe that, then none of my arguments would carry weight anyway, and I would seriously challenge them to make their calling and election sure. If they do believe the Bible to be the infallible word of God, then they should read the passages we’ve just quoted and pray for the Holy Spirit to guide their thinking. It is not a difficult issue, although I understand it can be an emotional issue if it involves someone you love, or if you yourself struggle with same-sex attraction yourself.

Marc Roby: What would you say to any listeners for whom this is a personal issue?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that if it is serious struggle, you should get counsel from a godly Bible-believing church. Don’t try to find one that says it is OK – you can easily find such a place, but it is neither godly nor Bible-believing, and it can’t help you. And then pray for the Holy Spirit to give you the power to conquer this sin. Reject the nonsense that is put forward by the proponents of the LGBTQ agenda.

Marc Roby: Such as?

Dr. Spencer: Such as the idea that homosexuality is not a choice. The idea that homosexual behavior is entirely determined by genetics is patently absurd. The same groups say that your gender identity is not set by your genetics, but then on the other hand they try to say that homosexuals are simply made that way. Those ideas are not only contradictory, they are both nonsense.

If being homosexual was entirely determined by genetics, then there wouldn’t be any examples of people who were able to leave homosexuality and enter into normal heterosexual lifestyles. But there are many such examples. I think there is some similarity here to alcoholism.

Marc Roby: That doesn’t seem obvious at first thought, what similarity are you referring to?

Dr. Spencer: Well, it is often stated that there is a genetic predisposition for people to become alcoholics. Now I don’t know if that is true, but let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that it is. It would not logically follow that being an alcoholic is a good thing. I can’t imagine anyone saying to an alcoholic, “Don’t worry about it, that’s just how God made you, so go ahead and drink yourself to death.”

Marc Roby: I can’t imagine anyone saying that either.

Dr. Spencer: So, my point is that even if there is some genetic predisposition to a certain behavior, that in no way means that behavior is healthy or good. And, as I noted before, it is completely unreasonable to believe that sexual behavior, or alcoholism for that matter, is entirely determined by genetics.

Marc Roby: The LGBTQ community has rather successfully been able to claim this is a civil rights issue, similar to granting blacks the right to vote, or to sit anywhere on a city bus.

Dr. Spencer: That is very unfortunate and we should oppose that notion at every possible turn. Back in 2008, when California was getting ready to vote on Proposition 208, which banned same-sex marriage, I remember a black pastor from Southern California speaking about the idea that homosexuality was the same kind of civil rights issue that blacks faced in the south in the 1950’s. His comment was wonderful. He simply said, “I have a number of former homosexuals in my congregation, I don’t have a single former black person.”

Marc Roby: Yes, that statement makes an important point very clearly.

Dr. Spencer: I think it is very important for Christians to take a stand on this issue, but I also don’t want to make it out to be more important than it really is. Homosexuality isn’t the worst possible sin; it is just one sin among many. In fact, without a doubt, heterosexual sin is far more common. So, as Christians we don’t single out homosexual sin for special condemnation.

I think the only reason homosexuality has become such a hot-button issue is that there is a small segment of our society pushing very hard to normalize this behavior. We have gay pride days, gay pride month and so on. If we had adultery pride days, or thieves pride days, those sins would be talked about more too.

Marc Roby: And, of course, many people, including many professing Christians, support this push.

Dr. Spencer: I think there are a number of reasons why they support it, so it worth taking a few minutes to discuss this in the hopes that we can call a Christian brother or sister back to obedience to the word of God.

The first reason some people support this agenda is that they have believed the lies about homosexuality being genetically determined. But as we’ve noted, those really don’t make sense. And I think a second major reason people support it, if only passively, is simple fear of being attacked. The LGBTQ community has become so rabid in their attacks that to oppose them publicly is to open yourself to really vicious opposition. We saw that in California after Proposition 8 passed. If you are any kind of a public personality, they will accuse you of being filled with hate, of being stupid and ignorant and will shout you down at every opportunity. And if you run a business, they will do everything in their power to shut you down.

Marc Roby: We have certainly seen that in the recent case of Jack Phillips[3] and many others.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we have. Christians are no longer treated as citizens deserving of equal protection under the law in this country, which is astounding. A homosexual who runs a print shop can refuse to print flyers for a church function that he disagrees with, but a Christian print shop, florist or baker cannot refuse to do special work for an event he disagrees with. That is an amazing and very troubling turn of events in this country.

Marc Roby: And the judgments against these people usually include some kind of so-called “sensitivity training”.

Dr. Spencer: And that trend is truly amazing and disturbing to me. We aren’t sending people away to prison camps for years, but this is, nonetheless, a very mild form of a re-education camp. It is a government-sponsored attempt to force us to think the same way. To force a particular ideology on all people. That is downright Orwellian and about as un-American as anything I can think of, and yet we see it happening all over.

But, getting back to homosexuality, I don’t want to spend more time on it. Far from being a sign of hate or homophobia, the truth is that telling any sinner, whether homosexual or otherwise, about the forgiveness available in Jesus Christ is the most loving thing you can do for him or her.

Marc Roby: And that forgiveness requires that the person be told their behavior is a violation of God’s law and the he or she must repent of it, forsake it, and then trust in Christ for salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That is the only hope for anyone. God provides grace to his children to overcome their sins.

The real issue, no matter what sin we talk about, is rebellion. People rebel against the God-given norms of conduct. That is the real issue and homosexuality is just one manifestation of that rebellion. At its core, all sin is prideful rebellion against God. He created us and he has told us how we should live. That includes the functional roles assigned to men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, citizens and the state and so on.

Marc Roby: Very well, are we done then with defining sin?

Dr. Spencer: We are, and so we are ready to get back to talking about total depravity again, which I put off last time.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to that, but it will have to wait until next time. For now, let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, and we’ll do our best to answer.

 

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

[2] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pg.119

[3] For a brief synopsis, see The Ongoing Persecution of a Christian Baker, By the editors of the Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2019 (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/06/masterpiece-cakeshops-jack-phillips-persecution/)

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. The answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.” We finished examining God’s preservation of his creation last time and will discuss his government today. Dr. Spencer, how would like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: Let’s begin with a definition. Wayne Grudem makes the following statement about God’s government: “God has a purpose in all that he does in the world and he providentially governs or directs all things in order that they accomplish his purposes.”[1] In other words, God has a plan for creation and he controls all things in accordance with that plan.

We read in Ephesians 1:9-12 that God the Father, “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” [2]

Marc Roby: That is a magnificent passage that not only speaks about God’s plan, and that everything is done in conformity with the purpose of his will, but also that his purpose is the praise of his glory.

Dr. Spencer: That is why I quoted all the way through Verse 12, I wanted to show that God’s plan for creation has an ultimate purpose and, as we have discussed before, that purpose is the manifestation of his own glory. John Frame makes an interesting point in his book The Doctrine of God, he points out that our English word “govern” comes from a Latin word, which means “to steer a ship”.[3] To govern properly one has to have an objective in mind, a place or situation to which you want to lead.

Marc Roby: And, of course, many of the troubles in our day and age come about because of radically different views about the direction in which our government is leading the country.

Dr. Spencer: Well, you’re certainly right about that, and the same problem exists in many other countries as well. But when it comes to the ultimate goal of creation, there is no debate. God does not govern this universe in a democratic way. God rules as the absolute sovereign over all creation and there is no debate, compromise or negotiation allowed or possible.

Marc Roby: And we should praise God that there isn’t, since he alone is perfect and his plan is certainly better than anything men could come up with. But the fact that God rules with absolute power is something most human beings really don’t like.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, no one likes it unless God has graciously changed his heart. In our natural state we all think we could do a better job of ruling the universe, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. But only God is perfectly good and omniscient. He knows the best possible goal and the best possible means of attaining that goal. We just need to trust and obey as the children’s song says.

Marc Roby: Which sounds very simple, but is, in fact, very difficult at times. Especially when we experience the pain and suffering brought about by the presence of evil.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it can be hard. And the Bible deals with this very honestly. We see many places where people struggle to understand why God allows some things to happen. A very common theme is for people to wonder why God allows the wicked to prosper, rather than judging them immediately. For example, in Job21:7, we read Job asking, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” And in Chapter 24, Verse 1 he asks, “Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?”

Marc Roby: And we see similar questions being asked many times in the psalms. I think, for example, of Psalm 10, which begins with the psalmist crying out, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) And then goes on to describe the pride and success of the wicked.

Dr. Spencer: But it ends with the psalmist declaring that God does, in fact, see and know what is going on and will call the wicked to account. In Verse 16 the psalmist says, “The LORD is King for ever and ever; the nations will perish from his land.” The trouble from our perspective is, of course, that we don’t always see those who oppose God being punished and those who trust him being rewarded. We have to trust God’s promises and realize that this life is not all there is.

Marc Roby: In other words, we need to live by faith as we are told in Habakkuk 2:4, which is quoted several times in the New Testament.[4]

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what we need to do. When we are troubled, we need to preach a sermon to our own soul based on God’s past works and his promises. In Psalms 42 and 43 the psalmist preaches to his own soul three times, saying, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5-6, 11, 43:5) It is only when we take time to consider who God is, what he has done and what he has promised that we can calm the doubts and fears that all of us have at one time or another.

Marc Roby: King David wrote, in Psalm 62:1-2, “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.” David knew that God was the one in charge and that his only true hope and comfort were to be found in God and his perfect providence. The fact that God governs every detail of his creation should give us great encouragement as well.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it should. And thank you for bringing us back to our topic of God’s government. At the beginning of this session you read the answer to Question 11 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which states that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

We can combine that answer with the point we have made about God having a purpose for creation and we can say that God governs all of his creatures and all of their actions with holiness, wisdom and power to achieve his perfect purpose.

Marc Roby: Which, as you noted, is the manifestation of his glory. I can’t wait to get to heaven and live under that perfect government.

Dr. Spencer: Nor can I. No earthly government can even come close, although they are all under God’s government. The theologian Charles Hodge notes that “The idea that God would create this vast universe teeming with life in all its forms, and exercise no control over it, to secure it from destruction or from working out nothing but evil, is utterly inconsistent with the nature of God. And to suppose that anything is too great to be comprehended in his control, or anything so minute as to escape his notice; or that the infinitude of particulars can distract his attention, is to forget that God is infinite.”[5]

Marc Roby: He makes a great point. To believe that there is a God who created this universe and then simply backs off and watches to see what will happen is unreasonable. If there is a being powerful enough to create this universe, and who cares enough to do so, it is inconceivable that he wouldn’t care what happens in it or be able to control all details to bring about his desired end.

Dr. Spencer: And if someone can conceive of such a monstrous God, it is not the God who has revealed himself in the Bible, it is a figment of the imagination.

Marc Roby: Such a God would be a monstrosity. He would be like some earthy fathers who produce children but then abandon them.

Dr. Spencer: I’m glad that you mentioned fathers because that provides a perfect segue to what I want to look at next. God is our heavenly Father and he cares for his children. It necessarily follows that he will govern his creation to achieve his desired end. The Heidelberg Catechism does a great job of describing this. Question 27 asks “What do you mean by the providence of God?” and the answer is, “The almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven, earth, and all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, all things, come not by chance but be His fatherly hand.”[6]

Marc Roby: I like that answer a lot. God upholds, or preserves, his creation as we discussed last time and he also governs his creation as a perfect, loving father. Even the trials and difficulties of life are designed for the good of God’s children. We read in Romans 8:28, “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.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very important verse. We’ve used it a number of times, and I would strongly suggest that all Christians memorize it. We don’t always see how things will work together for our good, but we trust God that they will. He governs every detail of life. The Heidelberg Catechism answer mentions rain and drought as one example.

Now, our modern society ignores the fact that God is in control of these things. He uses secondary agents of course, so we can develop, for example, an understanding of the physical laws and processes that govern our weather and we can, within limits, predict the weather, but we can’t divorce the blessing of rain or the curse of drought from God’s overall control.

In Deuteronomy Chapter 28 God outlines the blessings he provides for obedience and the curses that come for disobedience. The chapter begins, in Verse 1, by saying, “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today”, and then he lists a number of blessings we will receive as a result. In Verse 12 we are told that one of the blessings is, “The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.”

Marc Roby: And, on the other hand, in Verse 15 we are told, “However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you”, and then in Verse 24 we again read about rain, it says one curse is that “The LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.”

Dr. Spencer: That is frightening, and it is meant to be. God will not long bless or even put up with the nation that continues to defy his law and blaspheme his name. Which is an aspect of his governing his creation.

Marc Roby: And, of course, God’s government extends far beyond the weather. The Catechism also mentions health and sickness, which immediately makes me think of the church in Corinth, where the apostle Paul warned them about their improper use of the Lord’s supper and told them, in 1 Corinthians 11:30, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great example. And falling asleep is, of course, a euphemism for death. Paul was telling them that God was judging them with weakness, sickness and death because they were not being careful in their worship.

Marc Roby: And this is in the New Testament! Many professing Christians seem to have the mistaken idea that God somehow mellowed out between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament God killed Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, with fire for their improper worship, and we see that he does the same thing in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. God does not change and his purpose does not change. We do live in a different administration, or you could say dispensation, of God’s kingdom now, but his requirement for holiness and propriety in worship is the same.

Marc Roby: I’d be careful with using that word dispensation.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. We certainly do not mean to lend any support to the view commonly called dispensationalism, which includes the idea that people are saved in different ways in the different dispensations; that idea is completely unbiblical. But there is a proper use of the term. God’s commands are not all of the same type. Some of them are based on God’s nature and cannot be changed. For example, the moral law as summarized in the Ten Commandments. It has always been wrong, and always will be wrong, to murder, commit adultery, steal and so on. But there are other commands of God, sometimes called positive commands, that are, in a sense, arbitrary.[7]

Marc Roby: Like not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. There is no reason to assume that there was anything inherently bad about that tree, the only reason it was wrong to eat of it was that God had commanded Adam not to. Or the dietary laws of the Old Testament, there is nothing inherently wrong about eating pork, or God wouldn’t allow it now. It was again only wrong in the Old Testament time because God had commanded his people not to do so. He has that right. But commands like that are not based on his nature and he is free to change them if he so chooses. We are clearly told in the New Testament that he has abrogated the dietary and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.

Marc Roby: All of those laws, especially the sacrificial system, served the purpose of pointing forward to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And in God’s government of his creation those laws were cancelled when Christ came. Paul compares this to a minor child coming of age in Galatians Chapters 3 and 4. Let me quote Galatians 3:24-26 from the English Standard Version of the Bible because it translates the passage more literally. It says, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”

Marc Roby: That’s a very interesting passage.

Dr. Spencer: It is, and we may spend some time on it later, but I want to stick to the topic of God’s government for the moment, so all I want to point out from this passage now is that even though God doesn’t change, his means of governing his creation can. This is no different than a parent treating a child differently as the child grows up. The parent hasn’t changed if the child’s bedtime is 8 PM when she is in 3rd grade and then 10 PM when she is in high school.

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a good point.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, we would expect there to be changes in the way God governs his creation in order to bring about his perfect plan. Adam and Eve had a very different relationship with God prior to the fall than they did after the fall. And God’s people have a very different relationship to him now than they did before Christ came. And our relationship will again be different when Christ comes again. But through it all, God does not change. He is governing all things so that they reach their appointed end. As Grudem said in the definition we read at the beginning, God “providentially governs or directs all things in order that they accomplish his purposes.”

Marc Roby: And his purposes are extremely gracious and beneficial for his people.

Dr. Spencer: They most certainly are. But we must remember that blessings come from obedience, and curses from disobedience, even in this dispensation. We are to use the means God has given us, such as our minds, labor and natural resources, to fulfil the commands he has given. But we should never use these means without reference to God’s decrees about how they should be used. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones in their book A Puritan Theology, tell us that “Stephen Charnock warned that pride uses means without seeking God, and presumption depends on God while neglecting the means God provides.”

Marc Roby: That’s a great quote. And 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] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 331

[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] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 276

[4] See Romans 1:17, 2 Corinthians 5:7, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38.

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. 1, pg. 583

[6] G.I. Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1993, pg. 48

[7] Joel Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 657

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by beginning to examine the providence of God. Dr. Spencer, how would you like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: I’d like to begin by examining the back of a one-dollar bill.

Marc Roby: Well, that’s an unusual way to begin.

Dr. Spencer: But there is an important point to make by doing so. If you look at the back of a United States dollar bill, you will notice an unfinished pyramid on the left side. The pyramid has the first thirteen layers finished, which represent the original thirteen states and the bottom layer has the date 1776 written on it in Roman numerals in honor of our Declaration of Independence. The fact that the pyramid is unfinished represents the potential for growth. If you look above the pyramid you will see an eye floating above it. This eye is called the eye of Providence and represents God. It is enclosed in a triangle, which is a symbol for the Trinity and it has rays of light emanating from it, which represent the glory of God. Finally, there are two mottos written in Latin. The one above the pyramid says Annuit cœptis, and means that Providence, or God, has approved our undertakings. In other words, it expresses the idea that God approved of the founding of this country. Our founding fathers were declaring independence from England, but not independence from God. The motto below the pyramid says Novus ordo seclorum, which means a “new order of the ages”. [1]

Marc Roby: I’m quite sure that very few Americans know this, even though they all use dollar bills regularly.

Dr. Spencer: I’m confident you’re right about people not knowing, I’m less confident that everyone actually uses paper money regularly. But the important point I want to make is that when our country was founded, the idea of God’s providence was common. Many of our most prominent founding fathers were not born-again Christians as is sometimes claimed, but most of them did believe in God and most also believed in the idea of providence.[2] One can certainly debate exactly what some of them meant by providence, but there was a common notion that events in this world were governed in some way by an intelligent, powerful and good God.

Marc Roby: And that view continued to be the norm for quite some time.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly did. If you look at letters to and from soldiers in the Civil War for example, they often speak about Providence. For example, one father of a soldier in the Confederate army wrote the following to his son when he first joined the army; “War is a tremendous scourge which Providence sometimes uses to chastise proud and wicked nations.”[3] And I should point out that the word Providence in that sentence is capitalized, it was being used as a name for God.

Marc Roby: That reminds me Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. He famously quoted Matthew 18:7, where Jesus tells us, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” [4] And then Lincoln said that “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove; and that He gives to both north and south this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”[5]

Dr. Spencer: That is a marvelous quote. It would be so wonderful to hear a modern president speak that way. Lincoln was acknowledging that God was in control of the Civil War and that it might very well be his judgment for the evil of slavery. In other words, he was aware of a Sovereign God who providentially rules and judges the affairs of men. And I should point out that at the end, when he said that “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”, he was quoting from Psalm 19:9 in the King James Version.

We could give many more examples, but my previous statement is true; it was the common view from the founding of this country up through most of the 19th century that events in this world were governed by an intelligent, powerful and benevolent God.

Marc Roby: Which is very different from the common modern view that the world is ruled by chance.

Dr. Spencer: And modern is not always right or better! Chance is a useful word, but we need to be careful how we use it and how we think about it. There is, in the final analysis, no such thing as a chance event. We are told in Proverbs 16:33 that “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, casting a lot was the Old Testament equivalent of rolling the dice or flipping a coin.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. God knows, and in fact controls, how the dice will roll or the coin will flip. There are no accidents or chance events in God’s universe. We need to be careful about our thinking and even about the expressions we use. They reflect and affect our thinking far more than we might realize. For example, if someone is in a bad car accident and walks away from it uninjured, we might be tempted to say they were very lucky, or very fortunate. But what is luck? And what is fortune?

Marc Roby: My Webster’s dictionary says that luck is “the things that happen to a person because of chance.” And it defines fortune as “something that happens by chance.”[6]

Dr. Spencer: Which, of course, begs the question, what is chance?

Marc Roby: Well, if we look in Webster’s again, we find that it says chance is “the way that events happen when they are not planned or controlled by people.”[7]

Dr. Spencer: I like that definition a lot. Notice that it is a negative definition, by which I mean it doesn’t really say what chance is, it says what chance is not. To say that something “happens by chance” means that it was not planned or controlled by people. It does not mean that it was not planned or controlled at all. In other words, you can’t give a positive definition of chance, you can’t really tell me what it is, because it is nothing. It is a word that expresses our ignorance about, or inability to control, the cause of something. If someone walks away from a bad car accident uninjured, the real reason is that God chose that outcome.

Marc Roby: And that brings us back to the providence of God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a good, biblical definition of providence in the answer to Question 11, which says that “God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.”

Marc Roby: I love that short definition. But I think a lot of modern Christians don’t believe that God controls any of the details of life, let alone all of them. They somehow think of God as only being interested in the big issues, not the details.

Dr. Spencer: That is, without doubt, the most common view today. But it is illogical and unbiblical. To see that it is illogical, you only need to realize that God cannot control or guarantee the big things if the little things, the details of life, are somehow outside of his control or notice. We cannot trust any of God’s promises if there is any detail of creation that is outside of his control. Let me illustrate that by an example.

Marc Roby: Okay, please do.

Dr. Spencer: On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all seven people on board. The cause of the catastrophe was a small rubber O-ring on the solid rocket booster that didn’t seal properly because of the cold temperature at launch time. This illustrates how a tiny detail can govern a major catastrophe. I could give many more examples, but I think everyone knows this to be true if they think about it for a few minutes.

Marc Roby: And yet, you often hear Christians say things that imply some details of life are simply too small for God to bother with. For example, they may say something like, “God is too busy with important matters to worry about whether I buy this car or that car.”

Dr. Spencer: You do hear that kind of view being expressed, but it is, again, profoundly wrong. In the case of which car we buy, there are all kinds of things that might matter. For example, can I afford both of them? Is one of them far more practical for my needs? If so, why do I want the other one? Is it because it strokes my ego?

Marc Roby: Are you suggesting that I shouldn’t by that new Ferrari I was looking at?

Dr. Spencer: We can talk about that later. But, seriously, I’m not saying we always have to buy the most economical thing that will meet our needs, I don’t believe that is true. But God cares about our motives and reasons for the decisions we make, not just the decisions themselves.

I like what Charles Hodge wrote in answer to this objection. He wrote that “The common objection to the doctrine of a universal providence, founded on the idea that it is incompatible with the dignity and majesty of the divine Being to suppose that He concerns himself about trifles, assumes that God is a limited being; that because we can attend to only one thing at a time, it must be so with God. The more exalted are our conceptions of the divine Being, the less shall we be troubled with difficulties of this kind.”[8]

Marc Roby: That gets right to the heart of the matter. If we have any understanding of the infinite wisdom, knowledge and power of God, we will realize that he is not limited like we are. He doesn’t need to neglect details in order to focus on the more important matters.

Dr. Spencer: No, he doesn’t. And, as I illustrated earlier, the details can be extremely important. It is simply illogical to think that God can, for example, bring about his plan of salvation if he can’t control the details. Look at the crucifixion of Christ as the most important example. God provided us with numerous prophecies in the Old Testament about this most important event in human history. It is utterly inconceivable that he could have brought it to pass in fulfillment of those prophecies if any of the details were outside of his control.

Marc Roby: Yes, that is obvious when you think about it. Major events depend on a myriad of small details. I think we’ve shown that this view is illogical, but you said it is also unbiblical. We already quoted Proverbs 16:33 about the lot that is cast being determined by God. What other Scriptures would you cite to back up your statement?

Dr. Spencer: The first one I would cite is from Exodus Chapter 21, where Moses is giving the people specific laws and regulations after having just told them the Ten Commandments in Chapter 20. As a part of these detailed laws God deals with the difference between killing a man deliberately or accidentally.

Marc Roby: Which is sometimes difficult to discern if there are no witnesses.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, it can be impossible to discern. And God allows for that fact in a way that illustrates his great wisdom. In Exodus 21:12-13 we read that “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate.”

Notice two things in this statement: First, if a man kills someone unintentionally, it is because God let it happen. There are no accidents, God is in control of every detail. That is the main thing I want to illustrate for now. But we can also take a very brief digression to point out God’s wisdom in dealing with this situation. And so, the second thing we note is that the man is to flee to a place that God will designate.

Marc Roby: Which we are told in Numbers 35 are certain cities, designated as cities of refuge.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. God provided places to which a person could flee to ensure that that person is given a fair trial, rather than being dealt with as a murderer without any due process. A specific example is given in Deuteronomy 19 of two men working in the forest cutting wood and the head of one man’s axe comes off and kills the other man. That man can flee to a city of refuge rather than being put to death as a murderer[9]. But, and here is were God’s wisdom is manifest; as you noted, if there are no witnesses, it can be very difficult to determine exactly what happened. There may be other evidence, but there will be cases where we simply can’t be sure if the man is guilty or not. So, in Numbers 35:25 the people were told that if the accused man is not found guilty, he shall not be put to death, but he also doesn’t go completely free, he must stay in the city of refuge until the death of the current high priest.

Marc Roby: In other words, there was punishment of a sort even if the man was found to not be guilty of murder.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And I think that is a marvelous display of God’s wisdom. It means it was not possible for a man to murder someone, make it look like an accident, and not be punished at all. But it also made sure that if the killing were accidental, the man was not treated as a murderer, but he would still receive some punishment so that people would be careful. We are responsible if someone else is injured or killed due to our negligence, even if we didn’t intend to harm that person.

Marc Roby: That does illustrate God’s wisdom. But, as you noted, for our purpose today, the main point was that there are no accidents. It only happened because God let it happen. What other evidence can you give to support the statement that it is unbiblical to think that there are any details outside of God’s control?

Dr. Spencer: In Matthew 10:29 we read that Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Now a sparrow falling to the ground is not exactly a major world event, but Jesus tells us it cannot happen apart from the will of God.

In addition, in the next verse, Matthew 10:30, Jesus goes on to say, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Now, this does not say that God determines the number of hairs, so one could argue it only illustrates his perfect and exhaustive knowledge, but it certainly illustrates that there is no detail too small for God to pay attention to.

Marc Roby: The number of hairs on our heads is about as trivial a detail as I can think of. But it depends on whose head you’re looking at, the number of hairs on some heads is far more trivial than others.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true, but let’s be kind. There are many other passages we could cite as well, but I think this is a good place to end for today. So, let me remind our listeners that we encourage them to email questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

Marc Roby: You took the words right out of my mouth. I look forward to continuing this discussion next time.

[1] E.g., see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Seal_of_the_United_States

[2] They have been called deists by many, but the most common view is that deists cannot believe in providence (e.g., on page 270 of his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem states the common view of the God of Deism as a watchmaker who makes and winds the clock and then steps back and lets it run). The World Union of Deists however says that some deists do believe in providence (see http://www.deism.com/deism_defined.htm). While this question may be interesting, I chose not to discuss it because it is of little value, it is really an issue of definitions. It is clear from their writings that many of our founding fathers believed in Providence, although it is unclear precisely what some of them meant by that term. Whatever they meant however, it is incompatible with their writings to equate it to the modern idea of chance or fate.

[3] J. William Jones, Christ in the Camp; The True Story of the Great Revival During the War Between the States, Sprinkle Publications, 1986, pg. 30

[4] 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.™.

[5] https://cdn.loc.gov/service/mss/mal/436/4361300/4361300.pdf (you can even view Lincoln’s handwritten original [see pages 6 & 8, the backs of the pages are also shown] here: https://www.loc.gov/resource/mal.4361300/?sp=8&r=-0.184,0.113,1.299,0.645,0)

[6] Merriam-Webster dictionary app for Android phone, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2019

[7] Ibid

[8] Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. 1, pg. 583

[9] Deut 19:5

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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 the fact that God is jealous. Dr. Spencer, most people think of jealousy as a negative trait and, therefore, not a trait that is befitting for God. How would you respond to them?

Dr. Spencer: I would point out that the word jealous, like most words, has a fairly wide range of meanings, and not all of them are negative even in our modern usage. I should, for example, be jealous to guard the exclusivity of my relationship with my wife.

Marc Roby: I’m sure she would agree with that statement.

Dr. Spencer: I am too. Our society seems to have lost the idea that being faithful to our commitments is important, and it has especially lost the notion that a marriage commitment is a sacred, life-long covenant commitment. In Malachi 2:16 we read, “‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD God of Israel” [1], and God expects husbands and wives to be faithful to their spouses in marriage. We see clearly how important this is by the fact that adultery in the Old Testament was a capital offense and in the New Testament it is grounds for divorce. John Frame defines the biblical concept of jealousy in the following way: “Jealousy (Heb. Qin’ah, Gk. zēlos) is a passionate zeal to guard the exclusiveness of a marriage relationship, leading to anger against an unfaithful spouse.”[2]

Marc Roby: I want to point out that you correctly called marriage a covenant commitment, which means that it is a formal and serious commitment, not something casual. And God frequently alludes to the human marriage relationship as an analogy to the relationship his people have with him.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he does. In fact, it is important to note God’s overall sovereignty and plan in this regard. Marriage is not a humanly contrived or instituted relationship. It was established by God and was intended from the very beginning to be part of his plan for creation. And, as we have discussed before, God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory[3], so marriage contributes to that. We have also mentioned before that marriage between a man and a woman, and the children resulting from that union, do a better job of reflecting the glory of our triune God than individual human beings can.[4]

Marc Roby: And the marriage relationship is also used by God to teach us many things. We learn more about our own inpatient, selfish sinful nature, and as we work to make our families function properly, we learn patience, what it means to truly love others sacrificially, the importance of authority and many other things as well.

Dr. Spencer: And I’m sure we could come up with other reasons for the marriage relationship being important, but to get back to our topic of God’s jealousy, it is not a negative thing at all. It is in fact, a very good thing. We should be zealous to guard something as precious as our exclusive relationship with our spouse.

Marc Roby: I think part of the problem with people considering jealousy to be a negative trait is that human beings often corrupt that trait. For example, they can be irrationally and sinfully suspicious of their spouse without cause.

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. And that is definitely not the kind of jealousy that God has. As with all of the communicable attributes we must be very careful to strip sinful human perversions of them from our thinking. I think it will be useful to quote again something I quoted in Session 42 when we were discussing the science of hermeneutics, or how to properly understand the Bible.

In his book Interpreting the Bible, A. Berkeley Mickelsen wrote that “Grief, anger, wrath, etc., are all genuine responses of God. The metaphorical element arises from the fact that human grief, anger, and wrath are a complex array of elements. Grief can involve self-pity; anger can be filled with an irrational obsession for revenge; wrath can be overlaid with a passion to return in kind. Yet these elements must be excluded from an accurate picture of God’s grief, anger, and wrath. God’s response is genuine; it is the human counterpart that is tainted by corrupt elements.”[5]

Marc Roby: And so, applying that thought to God’s jealousy, John Frame quotes from the Song of Solomon 8:6, which says, “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” And then Frame notes about this verse that “Here, fiery jealousy is part of love, the prerogative of love that is as strong as death. It is the proper attitude of a man toward his wife (cf. Prov. 6:34). It is entirely right for him to be zealous for her purity and for the exclusiveness of her love for him.”[6]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very good passage. Our society has greatly cheapened the institution of marriage, which is, I think, why so many people don’t even bother to get married today. But when marriage is given the respect and honor it should have, and people treat it with the seriousness they should, it is a truly beautiful and wonderful thing. In God’s plan marriage is the most intimate relationship two human beings can ever have. They should both come to it as virgins and the commitment they make to one another and to God is to be absolutely faithful to each other, forsaking all others, until death separates them.

Marc Roby: Not many people think about marriage that way anymore.

Dr. Spencer: And that is to their great loss. Real love is sacrificial and focused on the other person. It isn’t just a feeling, it is a firm commitment to do for someone else that which is best for that person. We only learn that to the fullest extent possible when we commit ourselves to working out whatever problems arise in a marriage. There cannot be any plan B. I can’t have in mind that I will stay married so long as we are both happy or so long as it makes me happy, or so long as I still “love” my wife.

Marc Roby: I think that anytime someone goes into a marriage with that kind of attitude, the probability of the marriage ending in divorce is about 100%.

Dr. Spencer: I completely agree. We’ve both been married to our wives for long enough to know that it isn’t always wonderful. I’m a sinner. And my wife is a sinner. And whenever two sinners live together there will be trouble.

Marc Roby: And our children are also sinners, which introduces even more trouble!

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But as I said a moment ago, real biblical love is not something you can fall in and out of, it is a firm commitment to do what is best for the other person. When we get married, we make a vow before God to love our spouse, and we are to keep our vows. It is, as we noted earlier, a covenant commitment. Being faithful is extremely important.

Marc Roby: And the extreme value and importance of marriage shows why being jealous, in the proper sense, is a good thing.

Dr. Spencer: That’s exactly right. As I said earlier, God is the sovereign creator and everything he does works together to accomplish his purpose of making his own glory manifest. So I am quite sure that when God established the institution of marriage, he had in mind that it would, in addition to many other things, teach us something about our covenant relationship to him and the importance of our being faithful in that relationship.

Marc Roby: And God compares idolatry to adultery. For example, Jeremiah Chapter 3 uses adultery as a metaphor for the Jewish people being unfaithful to God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a great chapter to make this point, so let’s take a moment to look at it.

Marc Roby: Let me begin by reminding our listeners of the history that they need to know to understand this chapter. Jeremiah prophesied in the late 7th-century B.C. Prior to this time the united Jewish kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon had been divided into two and the northern kingdom, here referred to as Israel, had already been destroyed and its people taken into captivity by the Assyrians in the late 8th-century B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah was all that remained and they were soon to be defeated and taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Jeremiah was one of the prophets God sent to warn his people of this coming disaster.

Dr. Spencer: And now, with that history in mind, let me read Jeremiah 3:6. It says, “During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, ‘Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there.’” The references to every high hill and every spreading tree refer to the pagan altars at which the Jewish people had been worshipping pagan idols.

Marc Roby: And God then refers to the destruction and captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel in Verse 8. Jeremiah tells us that the LORD said, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.”

Dr. Spencer: And that verse establishes the point I wanted to make perfectly. God compares sending his unfaithful people into captivity with divorce and he compares their unfaithfulness with adultery. God should be jealous of his covenant people. How wicked it was for them to forget all that he had done for them and to run off and worship false gods made of wood and stone.

Marc Roby: And God mocked these idols in the chapter just before this. We read in Jeremiah 2:27-28, “They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’ They have turned their backs to me and not their faces; yet when they are in trouble, they say, ‘Come and save us!’ Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you when you are in trouble! For you have as many gods as you have towns, O Judah.”

Dr. Spencer: Whenever any of God’s people trust in something other than God, the Creator and Lord of all creation, they and the things they trust in deserve to be mocked. God wants his people to be holy and blameless and able to worship and serve him properly, and that is absolutely impossible when they worship false gods.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that when you used the phrase “holy and blameless” you had Ephesians 5:25-27 in mind, where the apostle Paul commands us, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly what I had in mind. And those verses clearly indicate God’s jealousy. Remember that Frame said that God’s jealousy is “a passionate zeal to guard the exclusiveness of a marriage relationship”. And here in Ephesians 5 we see that. God uses the example of Christ as the husband and the church as his bride to explain to us how we should be concerned for the eternal welfare of our wives. Jealousy is an aspect of true love.

Marc Roby: And it is also related to wrath and judgment, because God will judge those who oppose his church and his people and he will pour out his wrath upon them. We read in Nahum 1:2 “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.”

Dr. Spencer: That is absolutely true. We read over and over again in the prophets about the coming judgment against God’s enemies. God is jealous for the glory and honor of his own name. We read in Isaiah 42:8 that God says, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.”

And God’s church, which is called the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27 and the bride of Christ in Revelation 19:7, is meant to bring him glory as well. Therefore, because God is very jealous to protect his own glory, he is also very jealous to protect the glory of his church.

Marc Roby: And that should be a great comfort to all members of God’s church. If the supreme Lord of the universe is jealous to protect our honor and glory, we are safe.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. And the Bible makes clear that God is jealous. We’ve already seen that in several verses, but there some others we have yet to share that are quite explicit about this being an important aspect of God’s being. For example, when God renewed his covenant with his people after their horrible apostasy in having Aaron create a golden calf to worship while Moses was still on Mount Sinai meeting with God, we read in Exodus 34:14 that God told the people, “Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

Marc Roby: And when God says his “name is Jealous” he is clearly saying that it is an essential part of his nature.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is exactly what he means.

Marc Roby: And that episode in Israel’s history is a remarkable example of God’s gracious love and man’s terrible sin. God had brought the people out of their slavery in Egypt by doing mighty miracles among the Egyptians, and had established his covenant with them. We read in Exodus 24:7 that Moses, “took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.’”

Dr. Spencer: And the Book of the Covenant included the Ten Commandments. The second commandment is given in Exodus 20:4-6 and it says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Marc Roby: And, amazingly, it was right after the people had said “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey”, that they had Aaron make the golden calf for them to worship. How unbelievably gracious it is that God would not destroy them for their almost immediate violation of the covenant.

Dr. Spencer: It is amazing that God would be that gracious and would renew the covenant rather than destroying them for violating it. But his doing that was a result of his own covenant faithfulness and for his own glory. In Exodus 15 we read what is called the Song of Moses, which he sung after God had destroyed Pharaoh’s army when it came after the Jewish slaves who had left Egypt. In that song, in Exodus 15:13, we read, “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.”  The words “unfailing love” translate the Hebrew word hesed. We mentioned this word in Session 77 as well, it primarily refers to God’s covenant love for his people.

God’s covenant love, which includes his jealousy, is the reason he did not destroy his people. He will bring to fruition his plan of salvation. No one can thwart this plan, not Satan or his demons, not the world, and not even the sins of God’s own people. He will discipline us and he will work within us to be transformed, and ultimately, he will perfect us, but in his jealous zeal he will not allow the people he has chosen for himself to be lost.

Marc Roby: What great comfort that provides to us. As Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, he was “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Dr. Spencer: And God will accomplish this for his own glory. He has chosen his people and he calls us his treasured possession. When the Israelites first arrived at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt, one of the first things God said to them through Moses was, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” We read that in Exodus 19:5.

Marc Roby: And we noted in Session 67 that God’s people are called his treasured possession six times in the Old Testament. What an amazing thing that is.

Dr. Spencer: It is an astounding thing. But I want to wrap up our discussion of God’s jealousy by tying together all the strands we’ve been discussing. God’s purpose in creation is the manifestation of his own glory. God is loving and faithful and he will have a loving and faithful covenant people to be with him in heaven and display his glory. He is zealous for his glory and will not allow his plans to fail or an enemy to succeed, and that zeal for the honor of his own name is his jealousy. It is a wonderful attribute of God.

Marc Roby: That’s a good summary and with that we are out of time for today. As always, we invite our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will 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] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 458

[3] See Sessions 2, 67 and 74.

[4] See Session 29.

[5] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 185

[6] Frame, op. cit.

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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 hermeneutics, the principles we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the major covenants of the Bible. Dr. Spencer, are we finished with the topic of covenants?

Dr. Spencer: Yes and no.

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

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

Marc Roby: Alright, what example is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: What’s that?

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

Marc Roby: Can you give an example?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: How would you describe that role?

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

Marc Roby: That Scripture should interpret Scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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