Theology

Jesus’ Church Is Here To Stay

Jesus’ Church Is Here To Stay

The most famous and influential creed in the history of the Christian faith, the Nicene Creed, contains a line that modern Christians sometimes misunderstand: “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The word “catholic” can be a source of confusion for those who think it is referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but actually the word simply means “universal.” This points to the important theological concept of the “universal church.”

THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL

The term commonly used for the church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia. Jesus is the first to use the word ekklesia in the New Testament (Matt. 16:18), but it is used in various ways with various meanings. As theologian Louis Berkhof explainsekklesia can have the following meanings:

John Calvin explains the last two definitions in his treatment of the visible and invisible church. The “visible church” describes the Christianity that can be measured and counted externally:

The whole body . . . scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it.

However, Calvin recognized that not all who profess to be Christians and outwardly take part in church practices are truly united to Christ. Only God, who knows the hearts of all people, knows the exact membership of the invisible church:

The Church as it really is before God—the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world.

BELONGING TO THE LORD

The English word “church” come from the Greek kuriake, which means “belonging to the Lord,” emphasizing that the true church is the people who belong to the Lord. This is simply another way of expressing the biblical truth that the church throughout the world is Christ’s “body” (1 Cor. 12). As Christians, we are not simply individuals; we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

JESUS BUILDS HIS CHURCH

The concept of the universal church is important for Christians to grasp as we trust Christ and look to the future. Movements will rise and fall, and individual churches will come and go, but God’s people—the church universal—will never be destroyed. Why? Because Jesus builds his church, and Jesus will not fail.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” These are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in response to Peter’s powerful declaration that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Beginning with “and I tell you” gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of him being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task is to build his church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first person pronouns: “I will build my church.”

WEAKNESS AND FRAILTY

Jesus’ promise to build his church should give us hope and certainty that God’s purposes for his church will ultimately succeed, but it should not make us arrogant about our own abilities. God loves to use the weak and frail people of the world to shame the strong and powerful (1 Cor. 1:27–29). By paradoxically exalting the low and helpless, God shows that heis the strong and powerful one whose purposes cannot fail. This means that Jesus’ church will be built up not with outward, human strength, but rather in weakness and frailty dependent on the power of God’s Spirit to advance his kingdom and bring glory to Jesus.

Jesus’ very personal promise to build his church also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved—“the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church Jesus is building.

The gates of hell convey the idea of the organized authority of the kingdom of darkness in a calculated, organized strategy again Jesus, his gospel, his kingdom, and his church. The demonic forces engaged in conflict with Jesus before he built his church, and they will continue to attack his church.

JESUS WILL NOT FAIL

This theme of cosmic conflict in Matthew 16:18 sets the existence of the church within the context of the ultimate conflict in Scripture, running from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 20. The conflict in Genesis 3:15 is a divinely inaugurated hostility, which is a promise of conflict and redemption, but also victory. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, the work of God in the building of the church is set in a conflict that will be won by God in the end (Rev. 20). As Edmund Clowney writes,

This fallen, broken world is now Christ’s world. It is the theatre of his redemption (1 Cor. 4:9; Rev. 5), the place of his mission, over which he has total authority for the accomplishment of his saving work (Matt. 13:38; 28:18–20; John 8:12; 17:15–18). The rule of Christ will bring this present world to the glory of the world to come (1 Cor. 15:22–26; Rom. 8:19–20; Acts 3:20–21; Rev. 21:1). He will come again in glory to judge the nations and form a new universe (Matt. 24:14; Acts 1:11; Rom. 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:7–10; 2 Pet. 3:10).

God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”), but he doesn’t stop there as he builds his church. The church is his, and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy.

Jesus is the great church builder, and he will not fail.

Love-Making

Love-Making

Everyone agrees that love is a good thing. Love is often a very feel-good topic. But if we look at Scripture, we find something disturbing: love is actually a big problem for us humans.

Our Problem with Love

The Bible tells us that God doesn’t just want us to love each other—he actually requires that we love each other:

  • “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Rom. 13:9)
  • “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:14)
  • “. . . Love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34)
  • “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . . [You] must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:44, 48)
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37–40)

As we read through these verses, it should become apparent that every one of us has failed and does fail to love as God intends and commands us to, with all our hearts.

Jesus has some bad news regarding what naturally comes out of the human heart: evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, false testimony, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly (Matt. 15:17–20; Mark 7:20–22). He concludes, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:23). In Galatians 5:17–21, Paul follows Jesus’ lead and tells us that inherent within us are works of the flesh like “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”

After Paul makes his list of sinful desires, he follows it with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit is not inherent in us but worked into us by the Holy Spirit. The natural human heart produces one kind of desires, and the Spirit produces another kind by giving us a new heart. And they are opposed to one another. Thorn bushes do not produce oranges. Weeds do not produce apples. And the human heart does not naturally produce the fruit of the Spirit.

Love is our problem. Moreover, the command to love doesn’t generate in us the ability to fulfill it. We can be told over and over that we ought to love, but being told to do so doesn’t make it possible for us to accomplish it. The command to love actually condemns us, because we all fail.

Freed from Condemnation

God provides the answer for our love problem in Jesus Christ. Through faith we trust in Christ, and we experience grace, reconciliation with God, and forgiveness of sins. Romans 5:1–2 says, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” Through faith in Christ’s finished work, we are freed from condemnation for our failure to love.

But it gets even better.

Freed to Love

We have been freed to love. When God makes us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), he produces in us new passions and desires so love and good works are actually possible (Phil. 2:13).

God has loved us in a way that has given us life. The atoning death of Jesus provides the means by which we enter a relationship in which love is received and expressed. With that as the context of the commands to love, the commands are viewed not as the “ought” of compulsion but the “transformation” of internal constraint. To those who encountered the source of love, the commandment to love can be read with hope and joy, because love is not alien to our experience.

We have been given an overabundance of love.

1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” God’s love for us produces love in us: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s gracious, generous love toward us changes our hearts and makes us able to love.

Abundance of Love

The more we bask in God’s affection, the more the reality of God’s acceptance of us seeps into our hearts, the more we might love others as ourselves. This seems to be the logic behind Jesus’ statement: love one another as God has loved you. We have been given an overabundance—a surplus—of love. And out of that love, we can love others out of the overflow of God’s affection for us. God’s love is a love-making love.

Jesus Was Not The First Christian: Machen On The Person of Christ

Jesus Was Not The First Christian: Machen On The Person of Christ

This is the fifth installment in our seven-part seriesbased on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work,Christianity and Liberalism (1923). This post covers Chapter 5, which shows how theological liberalism diverges from Christianity in its concept of the person and work of Jesus.

WHICH JESUS?

Jesus Christ is the central figure of the Christian faith. According to J. Gresham Machen, modern naturalistic liberalismmanufactures a different Christ than that of the Bible and the orthodox Christian tradition. The Christian view of Jesus and the modern liberal view of Jesus use many of the same terms, but those terms are attached to very different meanings. Discerning the meaning of terms is critical, Machen argues, because liberals “resort constantly to a double use of language.” The question is not “Do you believe in Jesus?” but “Which Jesus do you believe in?”

The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded himself, as the Savior whom men could trust. (p. 85)

JESUS WAS NO MERE MODEL

The Jesus of liberalism is not the savior of the world, to be worshiped as God, but the great religious teacher and ethical example for humanity. Modern liberalism offered a Jesus who was the great example, guide, teacher, and model whom men and women should imitate. Machen writes, “The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus . . . [and] tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God.” For liberalism, Jesus becomes the first Christian, who set the example for us to follow.

But this is not enough. Jesus was not merely a heroic human model to be followed, but God as a man, the Savior of sinful humanity.

Liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity; Christianity regards him as a supernatural Person. (p. 82)

HE’S THE MESSIAH, NOT AN EXAMPLE

The New Testament reveals that Jesus is God in the flesh, the one we trust in to become Christians. Jesus claimed to be much more than what liberalism portrays. He claimed to be the Messiah, the judge of all people, and the sinless Son of God who found all others to be sinful and called them to repentance. The message of the New Testament is not to call sinful humanity to be like Jesus, but to proclaim that Jesus died on behalf of sinners to declare us righteous. As Machen rightly points out, the earliest Christians identified with Jesus “not because he was their example in their ridding themselves of sin, but because their method of ridding themselves of sin was by means of him.”

A DESPERATELY LOW VIEW OF GOD

The Jesus of liberalism was not God, just “the fairest flower of humanity,” writes Machen (p. 82). Liberals argue that Jesus was divine just like the rest of humanity is divine, but in a greater degree. Because liberalism balked at miracles and supernaturalism, in the quest for a historical Jesus they eliminated much of the supernatural from what Jesus said and did as written in the Gospels, constructing a nice and non-supernatural Jesus palatable to the modern scientific mind. Modern liberals, he writes, “say that Jesus is God not because they think high of Jesus, but because they think desperately low of God.”

A SUPERNATURAL SAVIOR

Machen demonstrates how this is a distortion of New Testament Christianity and a different Jesus and Christianity altogether. Paul, in his epistles, speaks of Jesus in worshipful adoration along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Paul throughout his letters treats Jesus as “no mere man, but a supernatural Person, and indeed a Person who was God” (p. 83).

Jesus’ friends and apostles believed the same thing. Paul’s portrayal of Jesus was never argued against, but assumed. The Gospels also witness to the fact that Jesus and the Father are not only unified in mission, but unified with one another in a mysterious union. Contrary to liberalism, the New Testament affirms both the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, and that he was a supernatural person unlike any other human. Christianity claims that the supernatural, personal God of all creation miraculously intervened in his creation and lovingly sent his Son to redeem sinful people from the curse of sin and death.

The Jesus of the New Testament has at least one advantage over the Jesus of modern reconstruction—he is real. He is not a manufactured figure suitable as a point of support for ethical maxims, but a genuine Person whom a man can love. Men have loved him throughout all the Christian centuries. And the strange thing is that despite all the efforts to remove him from the pages of history, there are those who love him still. (p. 116)

Next up, we’ll look at the difference between liberalism’s human-centered salvation and Christianity’s supernatural work of God to rescue us from slavery. 

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.

Scripture Is True: Machen On The Bible

Scripture Is True: Machen On The Bible

This is the fourth installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. This post covers Chapter 4, which contrasts the view of Scripture in Christianity and liberalism.

DO YOU CONSIDER THE CROSS CRUCIAL?

The Christian view of the Bible is that it is the revelation of God that shows how unholy, sinful people are brought into relationship with a holy God. The New Testament recounts the historical events and the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; the Old Testament foreshadows and predicts it. This unique, earth-shattering event is what makes Christianity Christian. But, as J. Gresham Machen argues, this unique historical basis of Christianity is rejected by modern naturalistic liberalism.

Liberalism is suspiciously critical of the past. Instead, it tries to create a salvation independent of history, such that it can be captured in present human experience alone.

Christian salvation is not a human religious experience disconnected from the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The truthfulness of Christianity is not confirmed by a person’s experience of this event. As Machen puts it:

Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. . . . All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. (p. 60)

DO YOU BELIEVE THE BIBLE?

The authority of the Bible is questioned by modern liberalism, which views the truthfulness of the Scriptures as unimportant and ridicules the plenary inspiration of Scripture. According to liberalism, the Bible contains as much (or more) error as any other book, and the idea that the Holy Spirit would enable the authors of the Bible to write Scripture is seen as foolishness.

Liberalism caricatures the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration as though it meant that the Holy Spirit dictated to the writers of Scripture and they just robotically scribbled. Machen corrects this caricature: each writer wrote as an individual, gathering information as any writer would and writing in a unique, individual style. The Holy Spirit didn’t turn them into a kind of mechanical Bible printing press, but directed them as they wrote and kept them from error.

Machen draws a distinction between 1) those Christians who believe that the Bible does contain error but is right in its overall message and who have trusted Jesus as their atoning sacrifice for sin, and 2) those within liberalism who have denied outright the central message of the Bible and supernatural act of God in human history.

It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men. (p. 67)

IS JESUS THE AUTHORITY IN YOUR LIFE?

What is important to the modern liberal is not the authority of the Bible, but the authority of Jesus. They claim that Jesus would disagree with antiquated views of the Old Testament and the fiery rhetoric of Paul. Machen points out the problem with this view: in the search for the “historical Jesus,” biblical criticism gets to pick and choose the parts of Jesus’ life and sayings that accord with the critic’s preconceived naturalistic notions.

The authority for a theological liberal does not reside in Jesus and God’s revelation through Scripture, but in individual experience, which Machen describes above as “the shifting emotions of sinful men.” Their authority is themselves or their experience—not Christ or Scripture.

Unlike liberalism, Christianity lives under the authority of the Word of God, an authority that does not enslave us, but frees us to have true knowledge of God and his world.

Next up, we look at the modernist liberal version of Jesus and how it differs from the real Jesus.

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.

We Are Not God: Machen On Humanity

We Are Not God: Machen On Humanity

This is the third installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. He argues that liberalism is actually a completely separate religion from Christianity, and shows how the two differed on doctrine, God and humanity, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church. 

This post covers Chapter 3, which explains how liberalism diverges from Christianity in its view of God and humanity.

Christianity and theological liberalism disagree radically in their understanding of the knowledge of God and of humanity. Christian liberalism asserts a kind of knowledge of God that is rooted in the human feeling of the presence of God, while Christianity asserts that human feeling depends upon the prior knowledge of God.

Jesus Is Personal

Liberal religion sees Jesus as the highest example of a person who exhibited constant God-consciousness and had a truly practical knowledge of the divine. But Jesus claimed to be in an intimate personal relationship with his Father, the living God—not just conscious of a sense of deity within all of us. Jesus believed in a personal God, and there is no true Christianity apart from, as Machen writes, “the belief in the real existence of a personal God.”

Certainly it does make the greatest possible difference what we think about God; the knowledge of God is the very basis of religion. (p. 55)

Liberal religion struggles with the reality of a personal God, but talks a lot about “the universal fatherhood of God.” The Bible does teach that, as Creator, God is in a sense the Father of all. But the main message of the Bible is that God is only in a personal relationship as Father with those whom he has redeemed from sin.

God the Father, Not Jesus the Father

Though liberalism appeals to Jesus as the source of the doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God, this doctrine is not ever found in Jesus’ teachings. In fact one particular passage reveals that Jesus believed God cared for all, but that he was not Father to all (Matt. 5:44–45). The good news that Jesus gave to a world full of sinful enemies of God was that those who trust him could then be called sons of God and relate to God as Abba Father.

The problems with theological liberalism go even further. It removes the Creator-creature distinction and the reality of a transcendent God. In liberalism, there is no major distinction between God and humanity. Instead of a distinction, there is a pantheistic idea of the entire world and humanity as one with God.

Essential Goodness vs. Sinful Nature

In addition, liberalism does not hold to the doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity and has retreated to a pagan understanding of humankind as essentially good. Machen explains, “Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.”

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. (pp. 65–66)

This Is a Greater Humanism

This is the amazing message of Christianity: we are deeply broken, but God’s grace is deeper still and he has rescued us from our sinful brokenness through faith in the person and work of Jesus. Because of the grace of God, we can own up to our sin, be completely forgiven, be declared righteous, and live in freedom and joy. This is a greater humanism than what paganism offers, as it is “founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.”

Liberalism offers a Jesus that inherently good people should consider imitating, while Christianity proclaims the perfectly righteous Christ, who died in the place of sinful people worthy of condemnation and declares them righteous.

Next up, we’ll see how Machen explained how Christianity and liberalism have completely different approaches to the Bible.

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.

The Ultimate Theophany

The Ultimate Theophany

The topic of theophanies is often neglected in biblical and theological studies, though it is very important.

Theophanies are instances of divine self-revelation in which God manifests himself to humans. The word “theophany,” which means “appearance of God,” comes from the Greek roots theo [God] and phaino [to appear]. While theophanies occur in different forms in Scripture, the content of a theophany is always the same: theophanies consistently show God graciously revealing himself and his covenantal promises to his people.

TYPES OF THEOPHANIES

MOSAIC THEOPHANIES

No figure in Scripture had as many encounters with God through theophanies as Moses. God appeared to Moses in the fire of a burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6), causing Moses to hide his face. At Mt. Sinai, Moses went up to the mountaintop to worship God. He saw God at a distance and was invited into God’s presence, remaining there for 40 days. Later, Moses met “face to face” with God (Exod. 33:11; cf.Num. 14:14Deut. 34:10). This expression hints at the intimate nature of theophanies. Even though Moses experienced a special and intimate relationship with God, he did not experience full revelation. Moses asked God to reveal his full glory to him, but God refused, telling Moses that no one could see God’s face and live (Exod. 33:20). So God passed by Moses, allowing him to see his back (Exod. 33:21–23).

JUDGMENT THEOPHANIES

Many scholars consider Genesis 3:8 to be the first theophany in Scripture. Adam and Eve heard the Lord walking in the garden and hid themselves from his presence. Gordon-Conwell professor Jeffrey Niehaus translates the phrase “cool of the day” as “in the wind of the storm,” based on a rare use of a specific Hebrew word. God often appeared in a threatening form when he was coming to bring judgment. After Adam and Eve sinned, God’s presence was dreadful, declaring judgment for their wrongdoing. Similarly, God revealed himself as a warrior before the Israelites overtook Jericho (Josh. 5:13–15). As Tremper Longman writes, a judgment theophany, “though always threatening, brings both curse and fear to God’s enemies and blessing and comfort to God’s people (Nah. 1:1–9).”

COVENANT THEOPHANIES

God’s appearances to individuals in the Old Testament were frequently connected to his covenantal dealings with them. Specifically, God revealed himself in theophanies to provide assurance that he would maintain his end of the covenant (Gen. 26:2428:12–1335:1948:3). For example, after Abraham arrived at Canaan, God appeared to him, promising that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the land (Gen. 12:7) in accordance with God’s covenant promises. God appeared to Abraham in human form before Isaac’s birth, assuring Abraham and Sarah that they would conceive a child in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Additionally, God manifested himself in human form to wrestle Jacob in order to get him to embrace his covenant blessing (Gen. 32:24). By the end of the narration, Jacob is certain that he had met God “face to face” (Gen. 32:30).

THE ULTIMATE THEOPHANY

God’s self-revelation culminates in the incarnation of Jesus, making him the ultimate theophany. Those who saw the face of Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9), experiencing a much more profound theophany than Moses did. Moses asked to see God’s glory, and those who lived with Jesus received what Moses had asked for (John 1:18). Carl Henry writes in God, Revelation and Authority:

The New Testament channels all interest in the theophanies of God into the divine manifestation in Jesus Christ; the Old Testament (Septuagint) term for theophanic appearances is, in fact, used of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ (ōphthē,1 Cor. 15:5–8).

“Theophanies point to God’s gracious condescension to our weakness.”

Jesus is also the ultimate “judgment theophany.” He declares judgment on those who reject him (John 3:18) yet provides comfort and blessing for those who would come to him and receive the mercy of God. Jesus brings judgment by revealing the high demands of God’s righteousness (Matt. 5:48) and the depths our desperate condition under sin. His substitutionary death reveals the weight of the curse, which could only be lifted through the death of the Son of God: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). This is the ultimate judgment theophany, one that leads to hope and salvation.

Again, Jesus is the ultimate “covenant theophany.” Jesus, as God, ushered in the final covenant in “in his blood” (Matt 26:28), the new covenant. In Jesus, God himself looked into the eyes of his disciples and promised to be true to his word. Jesus reveals the ultimate, eternal covenant (Heb. 13:20) between God and his people.

WHY DO THEOPHANIES MATTER?

1. GOD IS WITH US

Theophanies remind us of the famous words of Francis Schaeffer: “He is there and he is not silent.” God has not and will not leave his people to suffer in isolation. He will “descend far beneath his loftiness,” as John Calvin said, and reassure us that he will do as he promised. “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 24:7) summarizes the covenant promise that runs all through the Bible, and theophanies point to this comforting reality.

2. GOD IS HOLY, AWESOME, AND MAJESTIC

Theophanies should humble us. Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). All the various pictures of Yahweh in the Old Testament highlight this truth. Theophanies, according to Walter Elwell and Barry Beitzel, “conveyed a sense of the awesome majesty and power of God who is to be approached only with reverence and humility according to divinely prescribed procedures.” Ultimately, God’s holiness is most clearly seen in his wrath against sin, revealed and satisfied at the cross of Jesus.

3. GOD CONDESCENDS TO US

Theophanies point to God’s gracious condescension to our weakness. Theophanies are visual—they give tangible and physical proof of God. In a sense, they are God “writing it in the sky” for us. Though God wants us to trust him even when we can’t see him (”Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,”John 20:29), theophanies offer a glimpse into the heart of our God who graciously condescends to help and comfort those who join Thomas in unbelief.

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century changed Christianity forever. Roused to action by the corruption and abuses they saw in the Roman Catholic church of the time, visionary pastors and leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of the Protestant denominations that exist today.

The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church of their day had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity, especially in regard to what it was teaching about salvation—how people can be forgiven of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive eternal life with God. The Reformation sought to re-orient Christianity on the original message of Jesus and the early church.

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.

The Five Solas are:

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Let’s have a brief look at each of these five statements.

SOLA SCRIPTURA

The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible gives us everything we need for our theology.

Every word of the 66 books of the Bible is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us to understand and obey Scripture.

When rightly interpreted, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and his role as God and Savior. Additionally, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

SOLA FIDE AND SOLA GRATIA 

We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are not saved by our merits or declared righteous by our good works. God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, and despite our sin.

As humans, we inherited (from our ancestor Adam) a nature that is enslaved to sin. Because of our nature, we are naturally enemies of God and lovers of evil. We need to be made alive (regenerated) so that we can even have faith in Christ. God graciously chooses to give us new hearts so that we trust in Christ and are saved through faith alone.

God graciously preserves us and keeps us. When we are faithless toward him, he is still faithful.

We can only stand before God by his grace as he mercifully attributes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and attributes to him the consequences of our sins. Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness is counted as ours, and our records of sin and failure were counted to Jesus when he died on the cross.

Sola fide and sola gratia express the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

SOLUS CHRISTUS

God has given the ultimate revelation of himself to us by sending Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.

Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Because God is holy and all humans are sinful and sinners, we need a Savior who mediates between us and God. Neither religious rituals nor good works mediate between us and God. There is no other name by which a person can be saved other than the name of Jesus. Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and his sacrificial death alone can atone for sin.

 

SOLI DEO GLORIA

Glory belongs to God alone. God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving the lives of people—though that is a wonderful by product. God is not a means to an end—he is the means and the end.

The goal of all of life is to give glory to God alone: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As The Westminster Catechism says, the chief purpose of human life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

This was originally posted at Christianity.com

The Father of Fathers

The Father of Fathers

As we approach Father’s Day in places like the U.S. and the U.K., it is worth stepping back and considering the original father, God the Father, “from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).

Most people are quite familiar with the concept of God as Father. The modernist theological liberalism of the last few centuries popularized the concept of the “universal fatherhood of God” along with the “brotherhood of man.” However, if we look at Scripture we might be surprised at what we find about the fatherhood of God.

THE FATHER OF ISRAEL

God is rarely referred to as Father in the Old Testament. When he is, it is usually in the sense that he is the Father of the nation of Israel (e.g., Deut. 32:6), a term that primarily conveys a sense of authority. As the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament explains (p. 8),

In the Israelite family, the father has almost unlimited authority. He is master of the house; the children are taught to honor and fear him (Mal. 1:6). He controls the other members of the family as a potter controls his clay (Isa. 64:7). Yet “he is not an isolated despot, but the centre from which strength and will emanate through the whole of the sphere which belongs to him and to which he belongs. . . . To the Israelite the name of father always spells authority.”

God is also compared to a father to explain some of the characteristic ways he acts toward his people, such as his compassion, his discipline, and his care for the weak and powerless:

  • “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” (Ps. 103:13)
  • “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:12)
  • “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Ps. 68:5)

However, in the Old Testament God is not usually referred to as the father of individual people, and Jews did not address him as “Father.” That is why when Jesus arrived, the intimacy with which he addressed God was so striking.

THE FATHER OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST

Jesus’ frequent references to God as “Father” were unheard of in his context, and dramatic. “Father” was his favorite way of addressing God. We see Jesus using this word for God 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels and over 100 times in the Gospel of John, in stark comparison to the 15 times the term is used for God in the whole Old Testament.

The specific word Jesus used was Abba, the Aramaic word “Father.” It’s a word that small children could use when they addressed their fathers, though older children and adults used it as well (so it should be translated “Father,” not “Daddy”). Addressing God as Abba conveys a level of intimacy with God that had not been claimed by anyone before Jesus: only a natural-born child would use this form of address. Jesus’ use of Abba was striking enough that several times the biblical writers include the original Aramaic along with the translated Greek word pater, “Father.”

“Jesus dared to address God simply and intimately as ‘Abba.’”

Jesus’ relationship to God as Father is unique. To Jesus, unlike anyone else, God is “my Father.” Yet he taught his disciples (and us) to address God as “our Father” (Matt. 6:9). This is because through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, we are adopted by God into his family. God becomes our loving Father because we are united with Jesus Christ and receive the same family privileges and blessings that Jesus has as the faithful Son.

Because of our adoption into the family of God, we now have complete access to our Father. Hebrews 4:14–16 states:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We share intimacy with the Father through our incorporation into Christ, and by the Holy Spirit indwelling us. Because of our relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit we can come to God in prayer and dependence at any time. His arms are always open to us.

WE ARE ADOPTED

Paul writes in Romans: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoptions as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” The imagery of adoption means that believers are not naturally children of God, but become children of God because of Christ. And Jesus dared to address God simply and intimately as “Abba.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest and crucifixion, he prayed, “Abba, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” “Abba” is also the word he uses in the Lord’s Prayer to show us two things: our intimate relationship to God as his children, and security with God based on his promises to us.

“Abba” indicates warmth as well as confidence to call on God as a father who is able and ready to help. As Martin Luther preached, the little word “Abba” surpasses all eloquence and combats the cruel teaching that we should feel uncertain concerning our status with God. Abba summarizes the message on every page of Scripture: that God is merciful, loving, and patient, and that he is faithful and true, and that he keeps his promises. All the promises of God were fulfilled in the gift of his only Son, so that “whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

BIBLICAL FATHERHOOD

Human fatherhood is modeled on the fatherhood of God. As Paul writes, “every fatherhood in heaven and on earth” is named after God the Father (Eph. 3:15). What are some of the characteristics of a father described in Scripture?

  • Gentleness and compassion: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13).
  • Wisdom and instruction: “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching” (Prov. 4:1–2).
  • Discipline: “For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:12).
  • Love: “Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’” (John 14:23). “For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27). “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
  • Exhortation and Encouragement: “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:10–12).
  • Protection: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9).
  • Provision: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7–11)

Being a father is a high calling, a way to image our loving heavenly Father who loves and cares for his children better than any earthly father can hope to. Those of us who are fathers should feel the gravity of this calling. When we fail to love as our heavenly Father does, let’s keep repenting and trusting in Jesus, who has adopted us into the family of God the Father. Even when we are faithless, he remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13) . . . just like a good father.

How ‘Love God And Others’ Is A Backward Gospel

How ‘Love God And Others’ Is A Backward Gospel

Sometimes you hear people say that the gospel message is “Love God, love others.” It sounds nice, but it’s all backward. “Love God and love others” is not a summary of the gospel—it’s a summary of the law.

God revealed his ethical requirements to his people in the Old Testament law, which contains over 600 commands. These are summed up in the Ten Commandments, which God revealed through Moses to his people after the Exodus from Egypt. They are found in Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21:

1.    Do not have any other gods.

2.   Do not make for yourself idols.

3.   Do not take the name of the Lord in vain.

4.   Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5.    Honor your father and mother.

6.   Do not kill.

7.   Do not commit adultery.

8.   Do not steal.

9.   Do not bear false witness.

10.    Do not covet.

The first four commands (or the “first tablet” of the Law) are about how we are to relate to God. The next six (the “second tablet”) are about how we are to act toward each other. Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments in this way in Matthew 22:37–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself[Lev. 19:18]. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

As Paul Zahl writes,

The law is a true thing, an accurate summary or description of what it means to be happy and fulfilled, especially in relation to one’s neighbors. If we were able and willing to follow it, the law would be the answer to humanity’s problems. . . . The Bible declares the law to be good and right (1 Tim. 1:8; Rom. 3:31; Rom. 7:12–16) but then with one great persuasive insight deprives the law of any lasting capacity to do us any good (Rom. 7:24–25).

WE ARE UNABLE TO FULFILL THE LAW

God’s law is good. The problem is us: our sinful hearts don’t love God or others as we should. Even worse, the law only points out the problems with us; it doesn’t and can’t generate within us the ability to obey.

The law condemns us; it points out our failure. When we hear “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” we rightly despair of being able to fulfill what is required of us. Because of our sin, God’s standard of perfect love is our problem.

JESUS LOVED PERFECTLY, SO WE CAN LOVE TOO

But God also provided the solution. Jesus obeyed perfectly and completely on our behalf, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead to conquer sin and death.

Through Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, God fulfilled the law’s requirements on us, conquered the power of sin that held us in slavery by its accusations, and gave us new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back.

Jesus’ work has freed us from the curse of not obeying the law to love God and others perfectly. We are free to acknowledge our failure, because Christ, who loved perfectly, is our righteousness.

But God doesn’t just leave us to our failure—he gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Christ. God’s Spirit gives us new hearts through regeneration, and God himself enables us to start fulfilling the law through love.

LOVE IS THE FRUIT

Love for God and others is the fruit of the miracle of regeneration and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. The Holy Spirit begins empowering us to want to love, giving us the ability to love, and causing us to know the love of God.

This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back. As Philippians 2:13 teaches us, it is God who works in us to will and do his good pleasure, which is summarized in the law.

As God produces love for him and others in our hearts, we get to join him in his mission of announcing reconciliation to the world. God works in our hearts to cause us to delight in what he delights in. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because God has loved us so well in Christ, we are freed to love him and love others.