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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. More specifically, we are discussing the ordo salutis, or order of salvation. We are in the midst of discussing conversion, or repentance and faith. We have finished discussing repentance and have noted that true repentance and faith always occur together, they are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, we are ready to move on to discuss faith. So, Dr. Spencer, how would you like to begin?

Dr. Spencer: By noting that faith is absolutely central to Christianity. Christianity is not a social club or a self-help program. The focus of biblical Christianity is the salvation of sinners. In other words, it is God’s plan for how hell-bound rebels can be turned into heaven-bound children of God. In Ephesians 2:8 the apostle Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”.[1]

Marc Roby: That is a very well-known verse and the most amazing gift anyone could ever imagine.

Dr. Spencer: And the verse is well known for good reason. It is extremely important. First of all, it establishes that faith is the instrumental cause of our salvation; we are saved through faith. And, secondly, it establishes that we are saved by grace. In other words, it is not something we have earned. We don’t deserve it. As Paul says, it is the gift of God.

Marc Roby: Now, what do you mean when you say that faith is the instrumental cause of our salvation?

Dr. Spencer: The idea of delineating the different causes of an event goes back to Aristotle. He spoke about four causes; the material, formal, final and efficient causes of an event.[2] If we think about some statue, maybe the Lincoln memorial for example, the material cause of the statue is the stone from which it is made. The formal cause is the plan the artist followed – in this case the likeness of President Lincoln. The final cause is the ultimate purpose for which the statue is made, in this example the purpose is to honor and remember President Lincoln. And the efficient cause is the artist himself, he is the one who turned the stone into the statue according to the plan. Now Thomas Aquinas also spoke about the instrumental cause, which in the case of our statue would be the chisels and other tools used by the artist to shape the stone.[3]

But getting back to faith, it is a tool, if you will, for accomplishing a purpose.

Marc Roby: And that purpose is the salvation of sinners as you noted earlier.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Man has a very serious fundamental problem. We are sinners, deserving of damnation, and there is absolutely nothing we can ever do in our own strength to pay for our sins and earn salvation. If we had to solve this problem on our own, it would be hopeless. We will all stand before the sovereign God in judgment someday, and he knows our every thought, word and deed. He is absolutely just and perfect and he knows all of the countless ways in which each one of us has violated his holy law. If we are judged on our own merits, we will all spend eternity in hell.

Marc Roby: But, praise God, he sovereignly chose to save a people for himself. And, as you read earlier from Ephesians 2:8, salvation is a gift given to his people by grace, through faith. Which then begs the question, what does it mean to be saved through faith? How is it the instrumental cause?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the beginning of the biblical answer is given to us in John 3:16; “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love is the ultimate cause, and he has determined that this salvation comes through faith in his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, the unique God-man.

Marc Roby: OK. That speaks about those who believe in Christ being saved, and about God’s love being the original motivation, but it doesn’t really explain how faith is the instrument. What is it that faith accomplishes?

Dr. Spencer: Faith unites us to Jesus Christ. God’s plan of salvation in a nutshell is this: Jesus Christ is the second person of the holy Trinity become man. It was man who sinned and stands guilty before God, so in God’s plan of redemption it had to be man who paid the penalty. But no mere man is capable of paying our penalty, so God became man in Jesus Christ. Christ then lived a perfect, sinless life of obedience, completely fulfilling God’s law, and then willfully gave himself as an atoning sacrifice on the cross to pay for the sins of his people.

Marc Roby: No matter how often you hear or read about God’s plan of redemption it never ceases to be amazing. The love of God is simply beyond our ability to fully comprehend or even describe.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it is. But to finish the basic plan of salvation, Christ paid the penalty for his people, but each individual person needs to be united to Christ in order for his payment to be placed into their account. It is faith that unites us to Christ. We are all born sinners and are represented by our first father, Adam. As we discussed in Session 106, when Adam sinned, it was as a representative for all of his posterity. So long as he remains our representative, we are damned.

But Jesus Christ is called the second Adam[4]. If we place our faith in him, he becomes our representative. Paul wrote about this in Romans 5:16-17 where we read, “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Marc Roby: We see that word gift again. Only this time, the Scripture says that we are given a gift of righteousness.

Dr. Spencer: Because that is what we need in order to be saved! We are guilty sinners. We need our sins to be paid for, but that alone won’t save us. We need to be righteous in order to come into God’s presence. And, as I have said, we can’t do righteous works to earn this for ourselves. Paul wrote in Romans 3:20-21, that “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”

Marc Roby: And when Paul refers to “the Law and the Prophets”, he means the Old Testament, which were the only Scriptures available to the earliest Christians.

Dr. Spencer: He does mean the Old Testament, yes. No one is able to perfectly keep the law, and so, as Paul says, by looking at our behavior in light of God’s law we become conscious of our sin. But the Old Testament also tells us about God’s promised Messiah, who is Jesus Christ. The righteousness from God that Paul refers to is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the only person to ever perfectly keep the law. And Paul then goes on, in Verses 22-24, to say, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

This is glorious! We obtain the righteousness from God through faith. In other words, by believing in the one whom God has sent as a propitiation for our sins, we are united to him by that faith. We are no longer counted as in Adam, but we are now in Christ. There are no exceptions; we are all sinners and the only possible way to be justified is to be justified freely by God’s grace, through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: We again see that it is by God’s grace, just as we read in Ephesian 2:8, and we see that it is free, which is the same as saying it is a gift. But we also see a new term here; Paul says that we are “justified” through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: And we will talk about justification in more detail in a later podcast, but we have given a brief definition before. In Session 152 we said that justification “is a legal declaration wherein God declares a sinner to be righteous in his sight”. As I said, we need righteousness to be saved, which means both that our past sins must somehow be blotted out and that we actually come to possess a positive righteousness that comes from perfect obedience. This is what Christ did to redeem us. He took our sins upon himself, paid the penalty for us, and then gave us his perfect righteousness in return.

Marc Roby: That is glorious exchange. Praise God! We have noted before that it is called the double transaction, or double imputation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, praise God indeed. We’ve quoted 2 Corinthians 5:21 a number of times because it is the very best single verse in the Bible to show this double transaction. It says, “God made him”, which is speaking about Jesus Christ, “who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” When it says that we might become the righteousness of God “in him” it means in union with him. In other words, by having him as our representative before God, rather than Adam.

Marc Roby: And that union is the result of our placing our faith in the person and redeeming work of Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And that is why faith is so important. Without it, no one will ever be saved. But we must be careful to have a biblical definition of faith. The meaning of faith is the issue that divided the church at the time of the reformation and it still divides the church today. Not just protestants from Roman Catholics, but true protestant churches from false ones also. There are many churches today who call themselves protestant, or evangelical, or New Testament, or whatever, who either deny this doctrine by not believing in the true, historical, substitutionary physical death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ, or by perverting the meaning of true faith.

Marc Roby: For example, by saying that faith does not include repentance as we have already discussed.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is, perhaps, the most common way of perverting the biblical gospel today. True, saving faith necessarily implies that you accept God’s just judgment that you are a sinner deserving eternal wrath and that you can do nothing to save yourself. Therefore, you repent of all your sins, turn away from them, and in simple faith accept God’s gracious offer of salvation as a gift. No one is able to do this unless he is born again first. This is true, penitent faith. It is well expressed in the glorious old hymn Rock of Ages.

Marc Roby: Yes, let me read the second and third verses of that hymn. We read, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfil thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears for ever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die.”[5]

Dr. Spencer: That is beautiful, and completely biblical. Nothing I can ever do is able to atone for my sin. Only Christ can do that. Therefore, I repent of all my works, which are all tainted by sin, and I cling by faith to Jesus Christ, the Fountain who is able to wash me of my sins and clothe me in his righteousness. This why John Murray speaks about true saving faith as a “penitent faith” and true godly repentance as a “believing repentance”.[6]

Marc Roby: I like those expressions; they are simple, but accurate, and they express the very important point on which we have also spent quite a bit of time.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. And Murray expounded on this idea when he wrote, “Repentance reminds us that if the faith we profess is a faith that allows us to walk in the ways of this present evil world, in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, in the fellowship of the works of darkness, then our faith is but mockery and deception. True faith is suffused with penitence. And just as faith is not only a momentary act but an abiding attitude of trust and confidence directed to the Saviour, so repentance results in constant contrition. The broken spirit and the contrite heart are abiding marks of the believing soul.”[7]

Marc Roby: That is very good. And speaking about a broken spirit and a contrite heart does not describe much of what passes for Christianity today.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why it is so important to have a biblical understanding of the word faith. We are saved by faith alone. That is a true, biblical statement. But, as Murray said, if our faith allows us to walk “in the fellowship of the works of darkness”, it is a “mockery and deception”. Such faith is not biblical, saving faith. It will lead us straight to hell. And when he speaks of the works of darkness, that kind of language is laughed at in most modern churches, but it is very descriptive. Darkness is the absence of light. And God’s Word “is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” we are told in Psalm 119:105.

Marc Roby: Certainly when you judge things by God’s Word, our society is filled with moral darkness; sexual immorality, drunkenness, drugs, covetousness, selfishness and disregard for God’s Word and his ways are rampant.

Dr. Spencer: They certainly are. And is rare to visit a modern church and find any real reverence for God. You often feel more like you’ve walked into a coffee shop where everyone is simply gathering to have a cup of coffee, maybe a donut, and a pleasant conversation with a friend.

Marc Roby: With a little bit of uplifting music and a couple of good stories thrown in for good measure.

Dr. Spencer: Unfortunately, that’s true. But that is not real worship. God has some very harsh words for what people sometimes think of as worship. In Amos 5:21-24 God told his people, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” And the righteousness God speaks of here must, of course, be according to his Word, not our fancies.

Marc Roby: That is a severe warning. And you can see how the definition of faith is very important. A truly penitent faith, as Murray called it, will approach God with reverence and awe, you could say, biblically, with fear and trembling.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12 that we are to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling”. And that is completely consistent with Paul also telling us in Romans 8:15 that “you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” “Abba” is an Aramaic word that could perhaps be rendered “daddy”. It is an intimate term. But this is not inconsistent with a reverential fear and trembling. We need to have a penitent faith, not a presumptuous faith. Faith is not simply a human decision to “accept” Jesus. As we’ve said, true saving faith is impossible unless a person is born again.

Marc Roby: The stakes are certainly very high. I’m sure the people who came to Christ on the day of judgement crying “Lord, Lord” in Matthew 7:21 would have said that they had faith in Christ.

Dr. Spencer: I’m quite sure they would have said that. But they were not born again and we read Christ’s terrifying answer in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

Marc Roby: Now, that makes if very clear how important it is to have a proper, biblical, penitent faith. And I look forward to hearing more about real, saving faith, but it will have to wait for next time. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we’ll do our best to answer 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] The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Vol. II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, pg.156

[3] Ibid, pg. 159

[4] See 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 and Romans 5:12-21

[5] Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition, Great Commission Publications, 1990, #499

[6] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 113

[7] Ibid, pg. 116

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Today, we are resuming our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. In our last theology session, which was Session 144, we presented the order of salvation, or ordo salutis, as given by John Murray. He lists the elements in the following order: effectual call, regeneration, repentance and faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. We then started to examine the effectual call, by which God’s elect are brought into his kingdom.

Today I want to say a few more things about the effectual call and use them as a segue into our discussion of regeneration. We noted in Session 144 that the effectual call and regeneration are intimately linked and that in the past some theologians have treated them as being synonymous, or have thought of regeneration as a part of the effectual call.

And, while we want to be as precise in our theology as we can be, I don’t think there is any benefit in getting too hung up on the exact terminology that is used. We just want to be careful to define what we mean by the terms we use and, more importantly, to present the clear biblical teaching on the subject.

I personally have a hard time seeing how you can fully separate effectual calling and regeneration since the power that makes the call effectual is God’s power to regenerate us. In fact, in Session 144 I deliberately avoided talking about a difference between what the Westminster Shorter Catechism said and what John Murray said.

One of the questions we looked at from the Catechism was Question 31, and the answer given there is, “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he does persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” Notice that the answer began by saying that “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit”.

Whereas, in the following discussion we presented biblical support for Murray’s view that “God the Father [] is the specific agent in the effectual call”.[1] For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:9 we read, “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”[2] That verse clearly distinguishes God from his Son, meaning that, as is often the case in the New Testament, God refers to the Father. And then the verse explicitly says that it is the Father who calls his people into fellowship.

And so we have a difference in the sense that the Catechism says the effectual call is a work of the Holy Spirit, while Murray says that the Father is the specific agent in calling his people. We presented Murray’s view because it agrees with the Bible, as the verses we examined bear out. Wayne Grudem also agrees with this view and provides further scriptural support in his Systematic Theology.[3] One reason I think it is important to be clear that the Father calls us is to oppose the unbiblical idea that the Father is a distant, angry God who doesn’t want to save anyone but somehow gets convinced by the pleadings of his Son, who is thought of as being more merciful and loving. Which is, unfortunately, a trap into which some of modern evangelicalism falls. And that’s why this issue is important. We must always remember that there is only one God, who exists in three persons, and that God is unchangeable. The common idea that God is somehow different in the Old and New Testaments is completely unbiblical.

But we must also remember that God is triune and the different persons of the godhead are clearly presented to us in the Bible as having different roles in salvation. We honor God and worship him correctly when we believe, pray and worship with these biblical distinctions properly kept in mind. So, that leaves us with the question of how to resolve this difference between the Catechism and Murray and Grudem.

Let me make two important points before we deal with this difference though. First, it isn’t absolutely necessary for us to resolve the difference. Neither the Catechism nor Murray nor Grudem are inspired; only the Bible is the inspired Word of God. So if theologians disagree with each other our duty is simply to determine who is correctly interpreting the Bible. We don’t need to find a way to reconcile them. And then, secondly, this is far from an essential issue in the faith.

But, with that said, in my mind I resolve the issue by realizing that the call is made effectual by regeneration, which is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. And so both Murray and the Catechism are right, they are just using slightly different definitions of the phrase effectual calling.

The fact that regeneration, or new birth, is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit is seen explicitly in Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus. We read in John 3:5-6, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” According to this statement by Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit that gives new birth, in other words, that regenerates believers.

Therefore, the biblical answer, which is the one that matters, is that the Father is the specific agent in calling, as Murray said, and the Holy Spirit is the primary agent in regeneration, which we will see later Murray also says. Therefore, when Murray criticizes the Catechism for not saying the Father is the agent in the effectual call, he has a point, although I think a minor one.[4] The Catechism does not separate the effectual call from regeneration as Murray and most modern theologians do. And, I should add, that the Bible itself never uses the phrase “effectual call”, it simply speaks about a call.

As we noted in Session 144, some theologians have considered regeneration to be a part of the effectual call, or have considered the two to be essentially synonymous. And that is the case with the Westminster standards, by which I mean the Westminster Confession, the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism all together. The Confession doesn’t have a separate chapter on regeneration, that topic is covered by the chapter on the effectual call.[5]

I would say the biblical testimony supports the idea that the Father is the specific agent in the call, and the Holy Spirit is the primary, but not sole, agent in regeneration, which is what makes the call effectual. I should mention that the Father is also presented as being active in regeneration, but I will hold off on saying more about that until later, the primary agent is clearly the Holy Spirit.

We always want to be careful to not go too far and make distinctions that are not made in the Bible itself. The bottom line is that the same sermon can be given to two people and for one of them it is only the general call and does not lead to salvation, while for the other it is accompanied by the Spirit’s regenerating work and leads to conversion and salvation. In that case we could say that it was the effectual call. The difference is found in whether or not God works in the heart of the person who hears the gospel.

We need to remember what Paul said. He wrote to the church in Corinth about preaching the Word of God in Troas and said that through his preaching God was spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. Then, in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 he wrote, “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.”

These statements by Paul make clear what the difference is between the general call and the effectual call. It is the power of God that makes the call efficacious in some and not in others.

We also need to realize that God’s effectual call cannot be ignored. As the name “effectual” clearly states, we cannot refuse this call. Just as no one can accept God’s offer of salvation unless he causes the person to be born again, so also no one whom God has chosen to save can possibly reject this call. Jesus himself said, as we read in John 6:44, that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

We have spoken about this verse several times before and pointed out that the Greek word translated as “draws” is ἑλκύω (helkuō), which could also be rendered as drag. In fact, the same word is used in Acts 16:9 where we read that Paul and Silas were dragged into the marketplace, and it is used in Acts 21:30 where we read about Paul being dragged from the temple, and again in John 21:11 where we read that Peter dragged a fishing net ashore. Therefore, John 6:44 argues persuasively that when God draws people, he does so in such a way that their response is certain.

And the way that he does that is through new birth, or regeneration. When we are born again, our nature is changed. In that new nature we are enabled to see the wretchedness of our sin and the loveliness of Christ. We are able to appreciate the graciousness of God’s offer of salvation and, as a result, we freely make the choice to repent and believe. So, it would not be biblical to say that God forces us to repent and believe, we do that willingly. But he does change our nature in such a way that it absolutely guarantees we will freely respond to his call with repentance and faith. That is why the call is effectual.

We could say that God does not force us to do something we don’t want to do, but he does change us in such a way that we want to do what he wants us to do. Or we could say that he does not force us, which by definition implies doing something against our will, but rather, he changes our fundamental nature so that our will is different and we willingly do what he desires.

In Romans 4:17 Paul wrote about Abraham and said, “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” God takes sinners, who are dead in their transgressions and sins as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1 and makes them alive in Jesus Christ. He calls things that are not as though they are. He gives us new hearts as we read in Ezekiel 36:26. We’ve gone over this before so I don’t want to repeat too much, but the point is that we must, as Jesus told Nicodemus in John Chapter 3 Verses 3 and 5, be born again in order to be saved. And more to the point in our present discussion, once we have been born again, we are absolutely certain to respond favorably to God’s call to repent and believe.

And this call is a command, not just an offer. In Acts 17:30 we read that “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” And John wrote, in 1 John 3:23 that this is God’s command, “to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” But, in our natural state we cannot obey God’s commands to repent and believe. Paul wrote in Romans 8:7 that “the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.”

Nevertheless, the effectual call comes with power and is guaranteed to enable us to obey by repenting and believing. And this is God’s purpose as we read in Romans 8:28-30. In Verse 28 we are told, “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.” And then Verses 29-30 go on to tell us what that purpose is. We read, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

What a glorious and gracious purpose! God’s purpose is nothing less than the complete salvation of his people. He has predestined a certain group of people from eternity past to be called, justified and glorified in his sight.

And to be glorified, as we will see in a later session, means that we will be made perfectly sinless and will be given an imperishable body fit for living in heaven with God and each other for all eternity.

The effectual call also has specific content. While God can certainly work in people’s lives in many different ways to draw them to Christ, at some point the gospel must be presented to them and the normal way for that to happen is for another human being to present it.

Paul tells us this explicitly in Romans 10:13-14, where we read that “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

There is specific information that must be known for a person to be saved. Wayne Grudem does a good job of discussing this fact and he lists three elements that must be present in the gospel call: first, an explanation of the facts concerning salvation, second, an invitation to personally respond to these facts in repentance and faith, and third, God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life.[6]

With regard to the facts concerning salvation, Grudem first says that all people have sinned. And Paul tells us this clearly in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Second, we must tell people that the penalty we owe because of our sin is eternal death. Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death”, and in Matthew 25:46 Christ told us that the unsaved “will go away to eternal punishment”. These two points together comprise the bad news that we are all sinners deserving God’s wrath.

The third point Grudem mentions is the good news that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. In Romans 5:8 Paul wrote that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is absolutely incomprehensible love, especially when you consider that Christ died for people who were his enemies.

And then, after presenting these basic facts, Grudem’s second element is obviously necessary. We must call on people to personally repent of their sins and place their trust in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice. And his third element must also be there; we must tell people of God’s promise that if they will repent and believe they will be saved from eternal hell and will instead go to heaven based on the merits of Christ.

I can’t imagine a better promise than that. And with that, we are out of time for today. So, let me remind you that you can email your questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And we will do our best to answer you.

[1] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 89

[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] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 692

[4] He does not explicitly criticize it in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, but he does on pg. 165 of his Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977

[5] Note: The effectual call and regeneration are separate topics in in Murray’s book Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Later in his career however, he changed his mind about whether or not the topic of the call should be defined in any way by the response it elicits from the believer. See his Chapters on The Call and Regeneration in Vol. Two of his Collected Writings, especially footnote 2 on pg. 167. On page 172 of his Collected Writings, in the chapter on regeneration, which represents his older view, he wrote, “God’s call is an efficacious summons and therefore carries with it, carries as it were in its bosom, the grace that ensures the requisite response on the part of the subject.” It is unclear to me exactly how this grace is related to regeneration itself, they do not appear to be synonymous. So, perhaps, it is this grace that in Murray’s view makes the call efficacious and yet distinguished from regeneration itself? I’m not sure.

[6] Grudem, op. cit., pp 694-695

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine Christology. Last week we discussed the fact that Jesus Christ is our example and we are to imitate his life of perfect obedience to God. Dr. Spencer, what would you like to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to finish our study of Christology and transition into a study of soteriology.

Marc Roby: Which is the doctrine of salvation.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Last time we discussed Jesus Christ as our example, which is a completely biblical idea. For example, Paul commands us in Ephesians 5:1-2 to “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [1]

Marc Roby: And when you say that Paul commands us, it is because the verbs used in the original Greek are, in fact, in the imperative mood. He is commanding us to imitate God and to live a life of love as Christ did.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And in the Greek the second of those commands actually says to walk in love as Christ did, which I think is a more vibrant and active way of putting it.

Marc Roby: Yes, I agree.

Dr. Spencer: But, even though this idea of imitating Jesus Christ is biblical, it can be a dangerous concept if it is absolutized. In other words, if we reduce Christianity to nothing more than the modern-day bracelet with the initials WWJD, standing for “What Would Jesus Do?,” we completely miss the true gospel message. This is an example of the fact that you don’t have to say anything that is unbiblical to preach a heretical brand of Christianity. All you have to do is leave out certain parts of God’s Word.

Marc Roby: Yes, like sin, wrath and hell.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s right. People don’t like hearing about sin, or wrath, or hell, but they are essential to the true gospel. Many professing Christians today think of Jesus Christ as nothing more than an example. But that ignores his greatest work, which is that of being our atoning sacrifice.

Marc Roby: You noted last time that it was not appropriate for us to emulate Christ in everything he did. And, in the case of his sacrifice, we can say something even stronger. It is not possible for us to emulate that work, at least not in the ultimate sense.

Dr. Spencer: That is completely true. We may be called to die for the gospel, but the death of any mere human being cannot atone for the sin of anyone. We can’t take care of our own sin problem, let alone the sin problem of anyone else. Whereas, we are told in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” What is impossible with man is possible with God.

Marc Roby: And, as we labored to show in Sessions 114 and 115, Christ is the unique God-man, the only one capable of being an efficacious sacrifice.

Dr. Spencer: Which is a critically important point. But getting back to the modern view of Jesus as nothing more than a good example, such a view completely eviscerates Christianity of all serious meaning, and any so-called gospel based on this minimization of Jesus is not good news, it is terrible news, because it leaves people unsaved.

Marc Roby: In other words, it leaves them subject to God’s eternal wrath in hell.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the terrible truth. We are told in Matthew 1:21 that an angle told Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” But we need to understand what that means. We are told in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death”, and we read in Hebrews 9:27 that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”. We are all sinners. We have all rebelled against God. In the language of the Bible, we are all under a curse because of our sinful rebellion. And Jesus himself said in Matthew 25:46 that the cursed “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And, as Paul wrote in Romans 3:10, “There is no one righteous, not even one”. It would, therefore, seem as though eternal life is unattainable for human beings, since only the righteous receive eternal life.

Dr. Spencer: That would be a logical conclusion, but once again, what is impossible with man is possible with God. We must first acknowledge however, the bad news. We are all sinners. We all begin life cursed. No one is righteous in himself. We begin life destined for eternal hell. But, praise God, the story doesn’t end there. In Romans 3:21-22 Paul wrote, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” And that is the gospel in a nutshell.

No one is righteous in himself. So no one will receive eternal life if he is judged on his own merits. But there is a righteousness from God that is available to us. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ. He is not just our example. He is our Savior. He is our Lord. He is our God.

Marc Roby: And if someone preaches a so-called gospel that does away with sin, wrath and eternal hell, he is preaching a false gospel.

Dr. Spencer: And he is preaching a false Jesus. Because he is preaching a Jesus who is nothing more than a good example. There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ. We are told in Acts 4:12 that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” And in John 3:18 we read that “Whoever believes in [Jesus Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Marc Roby: You often hear something to the effect that Jesus came down to show us what true love and sacrifice look like. God is all about love and the whole Christian life and gospel are summarized by love.

Dr. Spencer: Which is in one sense true of course. And that is what makes the lie all the more dangerous. We are, in fact, told in 1 John 4:8 and 16 that “God is love”. And we also read in Matthew 22:37-40 that Jesus Christ himself told us, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” But we create a completely heretical view of Christianity when we divorce these statements from the rest of Scripture and impose our own definition of “love” on them.

Marc Roby: As always we should use Scripture to interpret Scripture, which is the first rule of hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly right. God is love. But he is also holy and just. He is too pure to look on evil. He is angry with sin and he must punish it. That is why Jesus had to come and die a terrible death on the cross, and endure the wrath of the Father for our sins. I read 1 John 4:10 a few minutes ago, which gives us the biblical definition of love. It says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Love is not what we define it to be. It is not that we loved God. God’s love required that the second person of the Holy Trinity become incarnate, live a perfect life of obedience, and then take our sins upon himself, be nailed to the cross, bear the wrath of God on our behalf and die. That is love. It must be defined in light of God’s hatred of sin and the need for sin to be punished. Love is self-sacrifice for the benefit of another.

Marc Roby: And it is all the more amazing when you consider who Jesus died for. It was not for people who loved him, or were noble and worthy in some way, it was for his enemies. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:10, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

Dr. Spencer: That is an amazing truth to consider. Perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16, which says that “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.” The verse is so familiar that I think we often fail to be astounded by what it says. God gave his one and only Son! In other words, Jesus bore God’s wrath and died so that we might have eternal life. That fact alone tells us all we need to know about how horrible our sin is. It required the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to take away our curse. God hates sin. The same God who is love also hates sin. We can never forget that.

Marc Roby: And a so-called gospel that only speaks about God’s love, while not necessarily saying anything unbiblical, can be completely heretical by not saying all that must be said. It makes me think of Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders. We read in Acts 20:26-27 that Paul said, “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.”  The clear implication is that he would have been guilty of the blood of others if he had not proclaimed the whole will of God.

Dr. Spencer: That is a clear implication. And a bit later in his address to these elders, we read in Verses 29-30 that he said, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” This is what we see happening today in many churches. They are so interested in church growth, in having large numbers, that they water down the gospel to do away with the offense of the gospel. But, in the process, they also do away with the power of the gospel to save.

Marc Roby: In fact, if you never present the bad news that there really is an eternal hell and that by nature we all deserve to go there, you have to wonder what it is that we need to be saved from.

Dr. Spencer: That is precisely the problem. You end up with a social gospel. All it can “save” me from is feeling bad about myself. It can make me feel good about myself, it can encourage me to be kind to other people and to help feed the poor and so on, but it can’t save me from the guilt and power of sin.

J. Gresham Machen was a great 20th-century theologian who left Princeton Seminary when it got taken over by liberalism and he founded Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in order to continue to proclaim biblical truth. He wrote a marvelous book called Christianity & Liberalism, which even though it was first published in 1923, is extremely relevant today. In that book he wrote the following: “Liberalism finds salvation (so far as it is willing to speak at all of ‘salvation’) in man; Christianity finds it in an act of God.”[2]

Marc Roby: Yes, that’s a great statement. My salvation requires an act of God. If I could be saved by doing my best to follow the example of Jesus Christ, then I would, in the end, be responsible for saving myself.

Dr. Spencer: And that would be impossible according to God’s infallible Word. Machen went on to say that “According to Christian belief, Jesus is our Saviour, not by virtue of what He said, not even by virtue of what He was, but by what He did. He is our Saviour, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross.”[3]

Marc Roby: He paid the penalty that I owed and could never pay. Praise God!

Dr. Spencer: Machen explains in this book why we need more than just a good example. He wrote that “an example of self-sacrifice is useless to those who are under both the guilt and thralldom of sin; … an exhibition of the love of God is a mere display unless there was some underlying reason for the sacrifice.”[4]

Marc Roby: And, of course, the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice is God’s just wrath toward sinners and the fact that we can’t ever pay the penalty we owe. Once God chose to save anyone, he had to solve our sin problem. Which he did through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: And that is precisely what many professing Christians today find offensive. The very idea that God is wrathful toward mankind and that his wrath needs to be appeased is offensive to the natural man. Therefore, he makes up a religion that does away with that offense. He may still call it Christianity, but it is an empty shell completely devoid of truth and power.

Machen wrote, “So modern liberalism, placing Jesus alongside other benefactors of mankind, is perfectly inoffensive in the modern world. All men speak well of it. It is entirely inoffensive. But it is also entirely futile. The offence of the Cross is done away, but so is the glory and the power.”[5]

Marc Roby: That’s a great quote. There is power in the true gospel. I’m reminded of what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:16. He said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”

Dr. Spencer: And when Paul used the double negative – saying he is not ashamed of the gospel – he was using a literary device called a litotes to emphasize that he was proud of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Machen wrote that “Jesus was not for Paul merely an example for faith; He was primarily the object of faith.”[6]

Marc Roby: As he is for all true Christians. We place our absolute trust in him when we make the declaration that Jesus is Lord.

Dr. Spencer: And whenever anyone makes that profession truly, he or she is also giving up all pretense to autonomy. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, in the context Paul was speaking about sexual immorality, but the application of the principle is much broader than that. If we have been really born again, we belong to God, we were bought at a price, the precious blood of Jesus Christ. We have no right to think or act in any way we want. We are to walk in obedience to God’s Word.

Dr. Spencer: And no one can do that in his own power. We must be born again to repent and believe and we must be born again and filled with God’s Holy Spirit to be enabled to walk in obedience. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:5-8, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

Marc Roby: And the only way out of that terrible position of hostility toward God is to be born again.

Dr. Spencer: And that will be the topic of our next series of podcasts; soteriology, the biblical doctrine of salvation. But we are finished, at least for the time being, with what I want to say about Christology.

Marc Roby: Well I look forward to getting into the glorious topic of soteriology next time. But before we sign off, I want to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d be pleased 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] J. Greshem Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, New Edition, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009, pg. 99

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, pg. 101

[5] Ibid, pp 104-105

[6] Ibid, pg. 70

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s incommunicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, we ran out of time in our last session while discussing God’s attribute of omnipresence. What else do you want to say about that attribute?

Dr. Spencer: We noted last time that God can be present to bless or to punish, but we should also mention that he is present to sustain. In fact, this particular function is specifically ascribed to Jesus Christ. Most famously in Hebrews 1:3, where we read that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” [1] This passage in Hebrews 1 also provides tremendous evidence for the deity of Christ as we have noted before.

Marc Roby: It certainly does. It would be illogical in the extreme to think that Jesus Christ could be a part of creation and yet simultaneously be the one who sustains, or upholds, all of creation.

Dr. Spencer: It would indeed be a serious logical problem. But getting back to discussing God’s omnipresence, we also read about Christ being the one who is present to sustain in Colossians 1:17. It says there that Christ, “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Marc Roby: Alright, we have established that God is present everywhere in creation to sustain it, and that he may be present either to bless or to punish. What else do you want to say?

Dr. Spencer: I want to point out that when the Bible speaks of God’s presence, it is almost always talking about his presence to bless. Therefore, when you read in the Bible that God will be present in some situation, you should assume it means to bless unless there is a compelling reason to conclude otherwise. For example, in the verses we cited last time that say God will never leave us nor forsake us, the clear intent is that he will be present to bless us. Also, in John 14:23 Jesus tells us, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” This is, again, clearly speaking about God being present to bless.

The opposite is also true, when the Bible speaks about God being absent, it really means that he is not present to bless, but rather to judge. That is why, as you noted last time, Hell is sometimes described as being a place where God is absent.

Marc Roby: But, as you pointed out, in the case of hell, God is not absent at all, rather he is present to pour out his wrath.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is the terrifying truth. But the Bible itself speaks about God being distant as a way of expressing the idea that he is not present to bless. For example, look at Isaiah 59:2, which is a well-known verse, it says that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”

Marc Roby: It is, of course, not possible for God to not hear us. He not only knows what we say, he knows it before we say it as we are told in Psalm 139. He knows our every thought. But to say that he has hidden his face and will not hear sounds like someone getting angry and turning his back to you.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is exactly the picture that is being presented. The Bible often uses anthropomorphic language to explain God’s actions to us. When it tells us that he will not hear us, it means that he will not respond favorably to our requests. And we see the same kind of language in Proverbs 15:29 where we read that “The LORD is far from the wicked but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” This does not mean that God is literally far away from any part of his creation, but it is figurative language to refer to God not being present to hear and bless.

Marc Roby: And it immediately makes you think of the opposite promise that’s given to believers. Perhaps most famously in Romans 8:35-39, where the apostle Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” And then he goes on to say that he is “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a glorious promise that all true Christians should rejoice in and keep in mind to strengthen us to do God’s will.

And with that I think we are done discussing God’s omnipresence and, even more, we are done examining God’s incommunicable attributes. Although, before we move on, I’d like to read the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism because it is an excellent summary statement about the nature of God. In fact, I highly recommend memorizing this answer. 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.” You can spend a long time meditating on that statement.

Marc Roby: I agree, it is a wonderful statement.

Dr. Spencer: And it begins by saying that God is a spirit, which is the first communicable attribute I want to discuss. But before we start that, we should also notice that the catechism answer next says that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. These refer to the incommunicable attributes we have been discussing. The fact that God is infinite is tied to his omnipresence and his eternity; remember that God’s eternity can be called his infinity with respect to time and his omnipresence can be called his infinity with respect to space. Then also remember that the fact he is unchangeable, or immutable, implies his eternity. These attributes all work together and we must guard against thinking of them separately.

Marc Roby: We mentioned what theologians call God’s simplicity in Session 49, which means that God’s attributes are not separable in any way.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good thing for us to constantly keep in mind as we go through God’s attributes. They all work together. We break them out and examine them individually to help ourselves try and grasp the totality of God’s being to whatever extent we are able, but God is not made up of different parts as we are.

Marc Roby: And, once again, we find ourselves not able to comprehend fully even that which God has chosen to reveal to us about himself! I assume that we are now ready to move on to look at God’s communicable attributes?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we are. And I want to begin by reminding our listeners that while these categories are not absolute or perfect, the basic idea is that God’s communicable attributes are ones which we share to some degree. Therefore, they will also naturally lead into a discussion of biblical anthropology; in other words, what the Bible teaches us about ourselves.

Marc Roby: I look forward to that. And you said you want to begin by examining God’s spirituality first?

Dr. Spencer: I do want to begin with that. We are continuing to follow the order used in Grudem’s Systematic Theology.[2]

Marc Roby: And we just noted a moment ago that God’s spirituality is the first thing said about him in the answer to Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. It begins by asserting that God is a spirit. And this attribute is considered communicable because we also have spirits, although our spirits are confined in space in some way, which is not true of God. And our spirits did not exist prior to God’s creating this universe, so there is a clear difference between God’s spirit and our spirits.

Marc Roby: That is certainly a huge difference.

Dr. Spencer: It is an extremely important difference. As always, we must remember that God is the Creator and we are creatures. Nevertheless, getting back to our having a spirit, it is clear that there is more to a human being than just this physical body. In fact, way back in Session 1, where I gave my top four reasons why I think it is intellectually untenable to be an atheist, the fourth reason I gave was that it is impossible to explain volitional creatures like you and me and all of our listeners if you consider the material universe to be all that exists. Atoms in motion according to the laws of physics cannot explain any creature that makes real decisions. Therefore, something beyond our physical body is needed to explain us, and the Bible calls that something else our spirit.

Marc Roby: But the clear contrast is that God does not have a physical body as we do, he is pure spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. Jesus told his disciples, in John 4:24, that “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” That first statement, that “God is spirit” is very important. Louis Berkhof notes that it is the closest thing in the Bible to a definition of God.[3] And the Greek construction is interesting as well. The Greek language has no indefinite article, so the difference between saying “God is a spirit” and “God is spirit” is indicated in a different way than it is in English. I think it will be worthwhile to take a moment to discuss the grammar, and hopefully some of our listeners will find it interesting, but if not, at least the conclusion will be useful and the discussion will be short.

Marc Roby: We don’t want to trigger any terrible memories of high-school English class.

Dr. Spencer: I can’t imagine why anyone should have terrible memories of English class!

Marc Roby: Nor can I, but not everyone is as enamored with language as we are.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But if those who aren’t interested will put up with this for just a minute, we will arrive at a useful, interesting and important result. First, let’s examine the English. Consider the sentence “God is spirit”. The subject of this sentence is God, the word “is” is the 3rd-person, singular, present tense form of the verb “be”, and the word “spirit” is the predicate, meaning it is the part of the sentence that tells us something about the subject. A sentence like this, where we equate the subject with the predicate, is called an equative sentence. For example, if I say that “Knowledge is power”, that is also an equative sentence.

Now, in English, the difference between saying “God is spirit” and “God is a spirit” is in the predicate. When we include the indefinite article in the predicate and say “God is a spirit”, the sentence means that there is a class of objects called spirits and God belongs to that class, he is one of them. When the article is not present and we say “God is spirit”, it means that God is spirit in a deeper sense, it isn’t just that he is one of a class of objects, it is his essential nature.

Marc Roby: And how is that distinction indicated in the Greek?

Dr. Spencer:  It is indicated by the structure of the sentence. In the case of the first clause in John 4:24 there isn’t any explicit verb, it is implied. If we were to stupidly render the Greek word-for-word into English, the clause says “spirit the God”, which clearly makes no sense in English. In the Greek however, the verb “be” is implied and the article in front of God tells us that God is the subject of the sentence. The question then becomes whether it should be rendered “God is a spirit” or “God is spirit”.

I should state right up front that there is no theological problem with saying that “God is a spirit”. In fact, that is how the King James Version translates that clause and the American Standard Version follows. That is not however, the best translation. There has been a great deal learned about New Testament Greek in the past 100 years and current scholarship would say that the right way to translate that clause is “God is spirit.” Daniel Wallace, in his book Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, says that the Greek noun for spirit in this clause “is qualitative – stressing the nature or essence of God”.[4] And he gives a detailed explanation of why the best translation is “God is spirit” in case some of our listeners are interested in looking at that.

Marc Roby: This is similar to the question of how to translate the last clause in John 1:1, which we talked about translating in Sessions 51 and 52. But that verse, which says “the Word was God”, does explicitly include the verb.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, the two verses have a similar construction in the Greek. Leon Morris agrees with the meaning we are giving to John 4:24, he writes that “Jesus is not saying, ‘God is one spirit among many’. Rather His meaning is, ‘God’s essential nature is spirit’. The indefinite article is no more required than it is in the similar statements, ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5), and ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8).”[5] Berkhof also agrees with this analysis of the Greek and says that “This is at least a statement purporting to tell us in a single word what God is. The Lord does not merely say that God is a spirit, but that He is spirit.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is a somewhat subtle, but significant difference. I also remember that in Session 55 you quoted from the 19th-century theologian William Shedd, who commented on the meaning of John 4:24.

Dr. Spencer: You have a good memory! I did quote from Shedd. He wrote that the “omission of the article, implies that God is spirit in the highest sense. He is not a spirit, but spirit itself, absolutely.”[7]

Marc Roby: But the Bible doesn’t define for us precisely what is meant by spirit, does it?

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t. But it doesn’t define for us precisely what the nature of our physical universe is either, and we still haven’t figured it out ourselves, so I doubt we could understand God’s explanation.

Marc Roby: Which may be why he doesn’t give us one.

Dr. Spencer: That is a definite possibility. But returning to the idea of what is meant by the word spirit, it is helpful to note that both the Hebrew and Greek words that are rendered in our English Bibles as “spirit” also mean wind or breath. But we don’t want to conclude that spirit is referring to some power, we must remember that it is God’s essence. The whole issue is complicated by the fact that the third person of the Trinity is called the Holy Spirit, which you might think could imply that the other two persons are not spirit, although that would be wrong. God is spirit, not just one person in the Trinity, but God in his essence. Although it is also true that the eternal Son became incarnate and exists in union with the man Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And with regard to knowing exactly what spirit actually is, as you noted about our physical universe, we probably couldn’t understand God’s explanation if he gave us one.

Dr. Spencer: I think that is a very safe bet. Especially given the fact that spirit, whatever it is, is not something that is restricted to existing in the same spatial dimensions in which we exist. Which implies that there is no way we can make any measurements or do any kind of direct experiments to study the nature of spirit.

Marc Roby: Although that doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything about it.

Dr. Spencer: No, it doesn’t mean that at all. That would be a completely erroneous conclusion. God has revealed a number of things about the nature of spirit to us.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to getting into that next time, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

 

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

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

[3]Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1938 (This can be purchased as a combination of his Systematic Theology and Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology in one text from Eerdmans, 1996), pg. 65

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics, Zondervan, 1996, pg. 270

[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, part of the The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce Gen. Ed., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, pg. 271

[6] Berkhof, op. cit., pg. 65

[7] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888, pg. 151

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

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

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

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

Marc Roby: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, pg. 383

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

[6] Ibid, pg. 376

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