2 Thessalonians and Hell: Separation From or Wrath Coming Forth From God?

Is Hell eternal seperation from God or the experience of wrath pouring forth from God for an eternity? Those who argue for the former often appeal to 2 Thessalonians 1:9. In a paper I recently posted on academia.edu, I argue that the best reading of the Greek preposition apo (“away from”) in this verse is “[coming forth] from,” that is, it indicates the point from which something moves away from.  Having argued this, I then expound briefly why the doctrine of Hell as the Thessalonians and the rest of the Bible expounds it matters.

You can download or read it here.

A Primer on the Facets of the Human Responsibility Debate

The purpose of the this post is to give an overview and an introduction to the many ways Christians have answered the many questions around which the Calvinism-Arminianism debate revolve. I have attempted to lay out the central questions and give the historical and contemporary responses in language as close as possible to that of those who hold these beliefs. My hope is to show that the questions asked legitimately arise out of Scripture, to show that these positions are–while being mutually exclusive–not necessarily polarities, and to provide a better understanding of how the different positions have answered these questions.

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1. Human Inability – Human Ability

    • What does this mean?

      • The inability/ability of man to perform righteous acts and come to God for salvation.
    • What question is being asked?

      • Is man able to come to God on his own initiative?
      • Can a man perform righteous acts?
      • Can a man work to gain his own righteousness?
    • Why is the question being asked?

      • These questions are asked because Scripture at times seems to require good works (eg. Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Exodus 19-35, James 3, Philippians 2:12, Hebrews 3:14, Hebrews 4:11), at others it speaks of the inability of men to earn God’s favor, that we need faith to receive a foreign righteousness (eg. Romans 3:21-4:25, Galatians 31:-5:15, Romans 11:5-6, Romans 9:30-10:21). Scripture would seem to teach that to be justified (and have our salvation finished in glorification) we must respond to the free offer of the Gospel (eg. Romans. 3:21-4:25, 10:11-13; Galatians 3:1-9; Acts 16:30-31; etc.). Scripture also would seem to teach that man is completely enslaved to sin and unable to do anything righteous (eg. Jeremiah 17:9, John 6:33-47 [esp. 44], Romans 6, Romans 8:1-11, Ephesians 2:1-10, Psalm 51:5, Romans 5, Romans 1:16-3:20).
    • What are the answers given?

      • Pelagianism

        • Pelagianism was a view that emerged in the 5th century. The view attributed to Pelagius is that humans do not require God’s grace, do not require Christ’s righteousness or the Holy Spirit intervention in regeneration, to be saved; they can come before God on the basis of their own hard earned merit. Grace is very helpful, but not absolutely needed. The view attributed to Pelagius rejects an understanding of inherited sin or of depravity, we are not guilty in Adam nor are we born inclined towards unrighteousness.[1] Pelagianism represents the farthest position when it comes to human ability for it affirms that humans have an unhindered ability (outside of external negative influences) to be righteous and come to God.
      • Semi-Pelagianism

        • Semi-Pelagianism is a view that emerged after the Pelagian-Augustinian controversy, it remains today as a very prominent view in the North American church.[2] Semi-Pelagians acknowledge our need for God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness in salvation. They, at least functionally, hold the view that man was not totally inclined towards evil and could take the initiative to come to God for grace to be saved. In Semi-Pelagianism man takes initiative and comes to God for grace through which their salvation is then completed. Our will is weak so we cannot save ourselves, we cannot earn a positive state of righteousness before God, but our wills are strong enough to come to Him for salvation.[3]
      • Arminianism

        • Arminianism is a view that emerged with Jacobus Arminius during the Reformation. It became a centre of controversy at the Synod of Dort when Arminius’ disciples presented the five articles of the Remonstrance in opposition to five points of doctrine they disagreed with in the theology of the majority of the Reformed Church. It was the position held by prominent preacher John Wesley and today has a strong following within evangelicalism.[4] While there is a broad spectrum of views within the overarching banner of Arminianism, for the most part Arminians affirm a strong doctrine of human depravity.[5] Arminians believe that mankind inherited guilt from Adam and that everyone is born with a strong inclination towards sin. Man is unable to earn any righteousness or favor in the eyes of God on the basis of his works and cannot come to God for salvation on his own initiative. This is the state of man before God’s intervention. For an Arminian, God in his grace has intervened in the lives of all men and women[6] giving them prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is a work of the Spirit that comes before salvation; we either work with prevenient grace, and are saved, or we resist it, and are lost. According to one prominent Arminian writer; “[prevenient grace] is what makes Arminian synergism “evangelical”.”[7] In this position all men are unable, but God takes initiative and makes everyone able to make the decisive choice whether to work with grace and be saved or to reject it and drown in the mire of their iniquity.
      • Calvinism

        • Calvinism is the name we today give to a position that has gone by many names.[8] In the 5th century it was expounded and defended to some extent by Augustine. In the Reformation it was the view held by the Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, and many other reforming groups. With Arminianism, Calvinism says that man is totally depraved. On his own a man is unable to perform any work of righteousness or even desire to come to God; he is dead in his iniquities, enslaved to sin, knowing God he has rejected him to pursue unrighteousness and there is no fear of the LORD in his eyes. Calvinism believes that a mild injection of grace to which we could work with or reject is not what men need to be saved; they need a completely new heart. Calvinism says that for a man to be able to come to God, God must first reach in and rip out his heart of stone, replacing it with a new heart of flesh from which a man now desires God and will willingly come to him. A helping hand is not enough; we need to be resurrected from our deadness in sin.

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2. Unconditional Election – Conditional Election

    • What does this mean?

      • Scriptures uses the word ‘elect/election’ (gk. ἐκλεκτός/ἐκλογή – eklektos/eklogē) at various places throughout Scripture[9] conditional and unconditional are two mutually exclusive positions on how one is chosen by God to be His elect. Unconditional Election says that God chooses those who are his elect people based on nothing inside themselves, but solely on the good graces of His sovereign mercy; the elect are chosen in spite of their wretchedness, not because of any act or worthiness. Conditional Election says that God’s election is based on something seen in us, or through a lens by which we are seen. There are various views on what this condition is; for some it is our faith, God—foreseeing our act of putting faith in Him (whether this be actual or potential)—elects those whom he has seen chose Him. Others see the condition of our election as being our union with Christ; God has elected a corporate body of his people, we are elect because through our faith we are united with Christ and are part of the corporate body of God’s elect people.
    • What question is being asked?

      • What does Scripture mean when it refers to “the elect?”
      • How is one part of the elect?
      • What does it mean for God to “foreknow” someone?
      • What does it mean to be chosen “in Christ?”
      • What does it mean to be “predestined?”
    • Why is the question being asked?

      • The questions are asked because this is the language Scripture uses.[10]
    • What are the answers given?

      • Calvinism:

        • Calvinism is the proponent of Unconditional election. The Calvinist says that God’s elect people are those whom God has chosen in eternity past to be destined for salvation. God’s choice was made in light of human sin and involved Him showing mercy on some who only deserved his wrath.[11] God’s election was in spite of our sinfulness and not based on any foreseen action on our part nor on any intrinsic value differentiating the elect from those who are not elected. He chose the weak things of the world, those without status or wisdom, those who were His enemies, so that He may be true to His sovereignty and righteousness in showing mercy to whomever He wills to show mercy and to render any thought of human boasting impossible.
      • Arminianism:

        • Based on God’s foreknowledge:

          1. Foreknowledge: This position sees God’s elect as those whom God has seen would chose to put faith in Him in response to His prevenient grace, God then ratifies this foreseen choice by declaring this individual to be elect.[12] From this position election is less of an active choosing and more an act of recognition.
          2. Middle knowledge:[13] This position, championed today under the banner of Molinism, says that God foresees what potential human beings would do in specific circumstances; the elect are those whom God sees will respond in a potential circumstance to the offer of the Gospel. God creates a world in which the maximum number of people will freely respond to his free offer of salvation and this potential faith seen through God’s middle knowledge becomes actual faith.[14]
        • Corporate Election:

          • Corporate election is not necessarily divorced from the first position on foreknowledge, for many Arminians in history have understood Rom. 8:28 to be referring to the above idea of foreknowledge, but have understood Eph. 1 to be speaking about God electing a corporate body of people who are in Christ. From the perspective of Corporate election God elects not individuals but a corporate body which is Christ’s Church, His elect bride. The elect individuals are elect via their participation in Christ’s Body through faith.[15]

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3. Monergism in Regeneration – Synergism in Regeneration

    • What does this mean?

      • Regeneration is the new birth; it is the Holy Spirit’s work of reaching down and taking out the sinful and hardened heart of stone and replacing it with the heart of flesh. It is being born again, born form above, without which none can see the kingdom of God. Monergism says that regeneration is solely a work of God; God regenerates us without our input, without our consenting action. In Monergism the Spirit’s work of regeneration happens before[16] conversion. Synergism sees regeneration as a work primarily of God, but with some sort of human input. In evangelical Synergism, such as Arminianism, this input is human faith, in response to which God gives regeneration.
    • What question is being asked?

      • How can a fallen and depraved human being come to faith in Jesus Christ?
      • If we hate God, how can we ever accept His free offer of salvation?
      • What does it mean to be born again?
      • What does Scripture mean when it says that only those whom the Father draws can come to Jesus?
      • Does regeneration come before or after an expression of faith?
    • Why is the question being asked?

      • These questions are being asked because Scripture would seem to teach that to even see the kingdom of God we need to be born again (John 3), that to come to Jesus we need to be drawn (John 6), that all men—whether that be all men particularly or without distinction—are drawn to Jesus in one sense or another (John 12:32), that we must be have become born again to love God (1 John 4:7-8), that we are in some way lost in depravity (Rom. 6, 8:1-11, John 6:44, Jer. 17:9). Scripture speaks of a new birth; we need to ask “what is its nature?” People see the evidence and wrestle with whether regeneration is before or after faith.[17]
    • What are the answers given?

      • Calvinism

        • Calvinism, for the most part, believes that regeneration comes before faith and is completely monergistic. While we were enemies of God, while we were drowning in the sea of our iniquity, while we hated Him and lived for ourselves, God reached down and changed the hearts of His elect people so that they would now desire Him. God’s drawing is the teaching promised under the New Covenant, it His regenerating work without which no one can see God’s kingdom.
      • Arminianism

        • Arminianism believes that regeneration comes after faith and is, in a very mild sense, synergistic. Regeneration is completely a work of God, we can do nothing to regenerate ourselves, but God only regenerates us when we cooperate with His prevenient grace and accept the free offer of the Gospel. While the work itself is God’s, it is conditioned on our expression of faith. After we express faith God reaches done and gives us a new heart by which we can be faithful to His new covenant with us.

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4. Particular Intention of the Atonement – General Intention of the Atonement

  1. What does this mean?

    • For God to have a particular intention in the Atonement means that when He sent Christ to die, He sent Him for a specific group of people above others (sometimes, at the exclusion of others). For Him to have had a general intention means that He sent Christ to die for all people in the same way.
    • What question is being asked?

      • What does it mean for Christ to have died for “all”? Is this all without distinction (all peoples) or all men collectively?
      • How is it that Christ died to sanctify a bride for Himself?
      • When Christ died, did He purchase for us the forgiveness of our sins only, or much more? If more, what else?
      • What does it mean for Christ to have died for the World?
      • Did God send Christ to save a people for Himself, or was God able to lovingly choose a people for Himself because Christ died?
      • Did Christ bear the full guilt of all human beings on the Cross? If so, how can God still try some for those sins already paid for?
      • What does it mean for Christ’s atoning work to make the free offer of the Gospel available for all?
      • How closely tied is Christ’s atoning work to His priestly office in the New Covenant?
    • Why is the question being asked?

      • The questions are being asked because there is a genuine Scriptural tension between what seems to be universal language (eg. Isaiah 53:6-12; John 1:29; 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Tim. 2:6; 4:10; Heb. 2:9; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:1-12; 4:14) and what seems to be quite particular language (eg. Isaiah 53:6-12; Matt. 1:21; John 10:10, 11, cf. 26-27; 11:50-52; 15:13; 17:9; Acts 20:28; Rom. 8:32-34; Eph. 5:23-27; Rev. 5:9). On top of this there are themes of the New Covenant and the priesthood of Christ relating to His atoning work that run strongly throughout the NT and the OT.
    • What are the answers given?

      • Calvinism:

        • The Neo-Reformed position:[18]

          • What I am calling the Neo-Reformed position is what I have been reading about more and more in contemporary Calvinist works on the atonement. This position holds that there is a definite distinction in God’s intent with the atonement. God intended Jesus to come and die to ransom a people for Himself, He died specifically purchasing the New Covenant, forgiveness of sins, faith, and sanctification for His bride so that in eschatological glory she may be presented to Him in all her glory.[19] In this position there is also a sense in which Christ died for unbelievers, Christ died making the free offer of the Gospel available to all.[20] This position says that the particular and general language in Scripture is too clear to deny either side.[21]
        • The Reformed Position (Dort):

          • This position says that Christ died only for the elect and in no sense for the reprobate (those not elected). His death bore the sins of His people and bought their reconciliation, purchasing for them the benefits of the new covenant as well as the gifts of faith and salvation.[22]
        • Sublapsarianism/Amyraldism/4 Point Calvinism:

          • These are all names for positions that reject particular redemption (also called limited atonement) and maintain an Arminian general redemption (unlimited atonement) idea within a Calvinistic framework. These positions are not exactly the same, but the common thread is that they reject particular redemption and accept general.
      • Arminianism:

        • General/Unlimited atonement:

          • General Redemption sees God sending Jesus to die for all men in the same way; His death is provisional in the sense that its efficacy is contingent upon the human response of faith in salvation.[23]

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5. God’s Sovereignty – Human Autonomy

    • What does this mean?

      • One side of the measure is the absolute sovereignty of God, where He is the primary cause of all things and His will happens apart from any free (in any sense) input of man; man’s decisions are meaningless and God does not work through means, we are not responsible for our actions. On the other end of the scale is human autonomy; God does not interfere at all in the lives of His creatures, He wound up creation and let it run its course. In between these extremes are the various evangelical positions.
    • What question is being asked?

      • How does God’s sovereign control of the universe interact with human freedom?
      • Is God active in the world, or did he wind it up and let it run?
      • Are humans free?
      • Do we make choices for which we are held responsible?
      • How active is God in raising up leaders, allowing/causing disaster, etc.?
    • Why is the question being asked?

      • Throughout the ages different secular philosophies have clashed with the Biblical view of God and resulted in various distorted pictures of His relationship to the world, there is also considerable talk in Scripture of God’s sovereignty and active working in His creation (eg. Eph. 1:11, Romans 8:28, Prov. 16:33) as well as human responsibility and meaningful human choices.
    • What are the answers given?

      • Fatalism:

        • Fatalism says that God is absolutely in control of all things and our actions and choices in this life are meaningless. We have no responsibility and no matter what we do, it is what we were fated to do. We become puppets in creation. Some extreme sects of Islam hold this extreme view of their god.
      • Calvinism:

        • Calvinism says that Scripture affirms God’s sovereign hand in all events in history and all that all things are rendered certain in God’s plan. When a leader comes to power, he is there because God has placed him there. God is sovereign over the created order, the sphere of human life, seemingly chance events, and politics. Calvinism says that Scripture also affirms that humans are responsible for the choices they make; we make meaningful choices, God uses us to work out His plan for creation, God uses means to do a lot of His work (though not all) in creation. Calvinists say that this is a tension we must live with for Scripture teaches both things very strongly. God can be in complete control, and His creation can also make un-coerced—willing—choices for which they are held accountable. The stress in this position is on God’s sovereign control of the universe.[24]
      • Arminianism:

        • The Arminian, for the most part,[25] believes that God is completely sovereign, but for the sake of giving His creation complete freedom He has willing held back His sovereignty in many ways.[26] One Arminian, A.W. Tozer, describes God’s sovereignty with this illustration; it is a like a cruise ship departing from New York to England, while the destination is secure and unchanging (determined) what those who are on the ship do is up to them.[27]
      • Deism:

        • Deism is the enlightenment view that God created the world and then left it to itself. He created all things and no longer interferes; all that happens is a result of natural forces and free human choices. This is the opposite extreme of Fatalism.

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6. Determinism – Responsibility

    • What does this mean?

      • This departs from the realm of Theology to that of Philosophy and the question of free will. For something to be determined is to have its end fixed, for the outcome to be guaranteed, rendered certain. For something to be fixed in place and unchanging. Responsibility is human culpability for actions taken; are we held responsible for the actions we take, or are we merely puppets who cannot be held responsible for choices which we were force to make (the extreme of Fatalism)?
    • What question is being asked?

      • How much influence can be exerted upon someone before they are no longer responsible for their actions?
      • How does Scripture define free will?
      • Can one be free if he cannot choose otherwise than he did?
    • Why is the question being asked?

      • These questions are being asked, I believe, as our experience and presuppositions come in contact with Scripture and we wrestle to ascertain what is the Biblical understanding of freedom, what it says as to in what circumstances are we held responsible for our actions.
    • What are the answers given?

      • Incompatibilism:

        • Incompatibilism is the idea of free will most often held by Arminians. It says that human freedom is not compatible with God’s determinism. For my choice to be free I have to be able to choose choice “A” or choice “not-A”. Practically this means that the end result cannot be fixed in place beforehand, for if it is determined that I will choose “A” then I could not ever do otherwise. Some would say that this is incompatible with divine foreknowledge, hence the emergence of Molinism and Open Theism to reconcile human freedom and God’s knowledge, but Aquinas showed—hundreds of years ago—that this is not necessarily the case.[28]
      • Compatibilism:

        • Compatibilism says that determination and responsibility are compatible. This is the traditional Calvinist/Augustinian position. A compatibilist suggests that free will[29]—according to first Scripture, and then reason & experience—is best defined as doing what we most desire to do without external coercion or without being forced. They suggest that there is no inherent conflict between God’s determination of all things, rendering all things certain and all outcomes fixed in accordance with His secret will, and human responsibility for their actions. Often how these too are reconciled is left in mystery; we must accept that Scripture teaches both and dwell in this antinomy (an apparent contradiction, where both seemingly contradictory statements are true).[30] Others defend this view philosophically.[31]

1 See Allison 342, and then 343-350. Cf. 184 in Demarest, Grudem 499, Elwell375, Hodge 711

2 R.C. Sproul, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church, by R.C. Sproul,” Bible Researcher, last modified June 2001, accessed May 22, 2013, http://www.bible-researcher.com/sproul1.html.

3 F. Loops, “Semi-Pelagianism,” ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1908), 349.; Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Chritianity. A.D. 311-600, Revised., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), sec. 146, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1.html.; Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1984), 1000.; Cf. with Canon 5 of the Canons of Orange. “The Canons of Orange,” accessed May 18, 2013, http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/canons_of_orange.html. Gregg R Allison and Wayne A Grudem, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: a Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 349–350.; Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer, eds., New Dictionary of Theology, The Master reference collection (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 636.

4 www.evangelicalarminians.org

5 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2006), 33; F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: a Theology of Salvation (Nashville, Tenn: Randall House, 2011), 1–34.

6 Some would say that prevenient grace comes through hearing the Gospel, so this is a generalization. But this is the strongest Arminian position outside of Molinism, which affirms the Arminian view of conditional election but does not require a doctrine of prevenient grace.

7Olson, Arminian Theology, 36.

8 Calvinism gone by many names, some prefer; the Doctrines of Grace, Reformed Soteriology, Augustinianism. Calvinism here does not refer to the entire system of Reformed ecclesiology or theology, but to the five doctrines at the center of the Arminian-Calvinist debate.

9Eg. Rom. 8:33; Luke 18:7; Mark. 13:20, 22; Matt 24:22, 24, 31.

10 Eg. Eph. 1; Rom.8:28-39, 11:2, 8:33; Luke 18:7; Mark. 13:20, 22; Matt 24:22, 24, 31

11There is another position under the banner of “Calvinism” known as supralapsarianism: this rather arcane position sees God electing and then ordaining the fall so that those He chose to damn would be damned. This position was made popular by the reformation scholastics and is not the mainstream position.

12Olson, Arminian Theology, 19, 35, 190.

13Middle knowledge refers to God’s counterfactual knowledge, his knowledge of possible futures and possible circumstances.

14 The best populariser and defender of Molinism today would have to be William Lane Craig, but various other philosophers and theologians have worked to help this position gain momentum. Another supporter seems to be Millard J Erickson and L. Arnold Hustad, Introducing Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 126–127. (Erickson appears to be quite inconsistent at times, often espousing a high view of God’s sovereignty and providence as found within Calvinist texts, but here affirming conditional election based on middle knowledge).

15Olson, Arminian Theology, 184–185.

16This is “before” in the terms of logical priority.

17Again, “before” and “after” do not necessarily have to refer to temporal priority.

18 The distinction between what I am calling the Neo-Reformed position and the Reformed position may be artificial, it may be based more on limited historical accounts than an actual distinction. Some modern accounts seem to attribute to the traditional view the same features as what I am calling the neo-reformed position, Packer—writing of the traditional reformed position—writes of the free offer of the gospel coming from Christ’s work of the cross and being offered to all people, seeming to imply that in this limited sense Jesus died for all. J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: a Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993). I am driven to make this distinction by what is left out of the traditional formulation at Dort and how Owen attributes even the most universal texts on Christ’s sacrifice to the elect (John 3:16). John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 209; Allison and Grudem, Historical Theology, 405.

19 See Five Points by John Piper, available as a free pdf download from Desiringgod.org. Also see D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000), 77.

20 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology : an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994), 598, 601.

21 For more on this position see Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ; Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 73–79; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 594–603; Peter John Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: a Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 679–683; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Vol. 2 546; Packer, Concise Theology: a Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Also see part 5 of John Pipers conference on TULIP from a few years ago and Five Points.

22 See Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ; Allison and Grudem, Historical Theology, 450; R. C Sproul, What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2012), 167; Michael Scott Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 92–97.

23 Olson, Arminian Theology, 221–225; Forlines, Classical Arminianism, 233–235, 189–195. Also see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 757; Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 671; Horton, For Calvinism, 91.

24 The best book on this I have read is probably; J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, IVP classics (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2008). Another useful read is; Arthur Walkington Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Seaside, Ore.: Watchmaker Pub., 2011). Cf. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 315–354.; Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 15–25, 122–144.

25 There is a broad school of thought under the heading Arminianism, so this is a generalization.

26 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York, NY: HarperCollins Pulishers, 1978), 108–113; Forlines, Classical Arminianism, 79–83; Olson, Arminian Theology, 132.

27 Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 109.

28 Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God, Contemporary evangelical perspectives (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1983), 65–66. For another answer, this time from a Molinist perspective, to the question of foreknowledge and causation see this article by William Lane Craig on Newcomb’s Paradox and backtracking counterfactuals. William Lane Craig, “Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb’s Paradox | Reasonable Faith,” ReasonableFaith.org, accessed May 29, 2013, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/divine-foreknowledge-and-newcombs-paradox.

29 An overarching definition encompassing both definitions might be; The ability to make un-coerced choices for which we can reasonably be held responsible. The issue here is over the philosophical definition, what a Platonist my call the universal of freedom; what is the objective standard by which a choice is judged to be free and for which we can be held responsible. It is not merely semantics, but a debate over what is the nature of the created universe and even God’s freedom.

30 Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Luther also rights on the compatibility of sovereignty and human responsibility, but he chooses to throw out the term “free will”; Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, ed. J. I Packer and O. R Johnston (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 2003).

31 Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2012).

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Allison, Gregg R, and Wayne A Grudem. Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine: a Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.

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Carson, D. A. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000.
Craig, William Lane. “Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb’s Paradox | Reasonable Faith.” ReasonableFaith.org. Accessed May 29, 2013. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/divine-foreknowledge-and-newcombs-paradox.
Edwards, Jonathan. Freedom of the Will. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 2012.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker reference library. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1984.
Erickson, Millard J, and L. Arnold Hustad. Introducing Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001.
Ferguson, Sinclair B., David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer, eds. New Dictionary of Theology. The Master reference collection. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
Forlines, F. Leroy. Classical Arminianism: a Theology of Salvation. Nashville, Tenn: Randall House, 2011.
Gentry, Peter John, and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom through Covenant: a Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology : an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994.
Loops, F. “Semi-Pelagianism.” Edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1908.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Edited by J. I Packer and O. R Johnston. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 2003.
Nash, Ronald H. The Concept of God. Contemporary evangelical perspectives. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1983.
Olson, Roger E. Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2006.
Owen, John. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007.
Packer, J. I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. IVP classics. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Pink, Arthur Walkington. The Sovereignty of God. Seaside, Ore.: Watchmaker Pub., 2011.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Chritianity. A.D. 311-600. Revised. Vol. 3. 8 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d. Accessed May 1, 2012. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc1.html.
Sproul, R.C. “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church, by R.C. Sproul.” Bible Researcher. Last modified June 2001. Accessed May 22, 2013. http://www.bible-researcher.com/sproul1.html.
Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Pulishers, 1978.

A Review of The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson

Of the books I have read over the last 3 or 4 years there are only  a few I can distinctly look at as having caused a major shift in the way I viewed God and the Bible, one of these few is D.A. Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. In Evangelicalism today the idea of God’s love has more often than not picked up many of its cues from secular thinking, from philosophy, and from other religions over the Scriptures that we hold as our primary functional authority. The slow erosion of the Scriptural view of God to be replaced by an eviscerated morally therapeutic god, one who is solely love, has been seen most clearly in different historical brands of liberalism,[1] but has also made its way into the thinking of many today who would call themselves evangelicals.[2] A result of this has been the taking for granted of what it means for God to love and be love (1 John 4:16), it has been taken to be an easy doctrine with which we do not need to wrestle. Against these tendencies to simplify and liberalize God’s love, against the tendency to make the God of Scripture into a god who is our therapeutic comforter looking out solely for our good as the highest end of his being, Carson delivers a short but profound examination of what Scripture has to say about the love of God. His contention is that far from being a simple and easy doctrine unravelled merely by word studies, the love of God in Scripture is complex and multi-faceted; it needs to be examined Scripturally and the Scriptural synthesis needs to be held up against the therapeutic view Christian culture has often adopted. Carson’s book is a compilation of four lectures originally delivered to Dallas Theological Seminary that centre on the theme of God’s love and skim the surface of this profound Scriptural doctrine (7). Because the chapters of his book are taken from lectures they retain a rather informal nature that makes for easy readying, especially in comparison to some of his more wordy and academic books such as Exegetical Fallacies.

 

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is divided into four chapters, each being derived from one of four original lectures that Carson delivered. In the first chapter, On Distorting the Love of God, Carson looks at why in fact this doctrine is a difficult one. Among the five reasons he discusses Carson identifies our cultures openness to a loving God as a source of much difficulty (9). Our culture is much more open to a God of love, like that of some New Age thinking and sci-fi culture (10-11), than a fuller picture of a God who is loving and just, merciful and wrathful.  Because of this openness it is easy and tempting to downplay the more controversial and counterculture aspects of God’s character and instead present God solely as an omnibenevolent grandfather, it is easier for the culture to see God as a friend than as a king (12). The difficulties of our cultural response to the notion of a loving God is not the only issue that Carson surveys, he also suggests that within the camp of Christianity we have to wrestle with the love of God in light of the pain and suffering we experience in this world (15). A key part of this chapter is Carson’s discussion on the 5-fold discussion Scripture gives to God’s love. Whereas when we think of God’s love we often consider it one-dimensionally, Carson identifies at least 5 ways that Scripture speaks of God’s love. These different ways are interconnected but cannot be collapsed into one; we cannot take one of them and make it the grid by which we relativize all other Scriptural discussions of God’s love (21).

The first of these is that love which the Father has for the Son (16). This particular love is one with which Carson will spend considerable time in the follow chapter, it is the intra-Trinitarian love that sets the Christian conception of monotheism apart from all other monotheistic religions (16).

The second of these loves is one which Scripture, in describing it, “veers away from using the word love” (16). Though God is not said to love in this way explicitly, Carson identifies it as a strong theme throughout Scripture (16-17).  Scripture speaks of God’s providential care over all His creation, a loving care in which He benevolently provides for and takes care of even the smallest of His creation (17, Matt. 6).

The third way Scripture speaks of God’s love is for His “salvific stance toward his fallen world” (17, emphasis in original). In this regard Carson appeals to the oft repeated John 3:16 (17).  Despite frequent attempts by some of the reformed tradition to suggest that κοσμος (kosmos, world) here means “the elect,” Carson rejects this understanding and as an alternative suggests that κοσμος here is used in the same way it used throughout John’s books. World here has in its sight the badness of the fallen world; “In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God” (17, emphasis in original). The emphasis in this passage is not on the largeness of this world but instead on its darkness; because of this emphasis there is no way that God’s love here can be “collapsed into his love for the elect” (17).

The fourth way in which Scripture speaks of God’s love is probably the most controversial and offensive to our cultural sensibilities. In a culture where the idea of an omnibenevolent god, one who is obligated to love all men, abounds, it is offensive to suggest that God loves some more than He loves others. Carson suggests that a prominent biblical category for God’s love is His “particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect” (18, emphasis in original). To show that this is truly a biblical category Carson appeals to Scriptures which refer to God’s specific and unmerited love towards His chosen nation of Israel, a love over and above that shown to any other nation (Deut. 7:7-8, cf. 4:37; 10:14-15). Carson also appeals to the apparent discrimination in God’s love as seen in Mal. 1:2-3 (referenced in Rom. 9:13). The last example Carson gives of this love is Ephesians 5 where, in comparing the God given husband and wife roles with Christ’s relationship to His Church, Christ is said to have given up His life specifically to sanctify for Himself the Church whom He loved (5:25). Carson examines this category of God’s love in the fourth and final chapter of his book.

The final way that Carson gives in which Scripture refers to God’s love is His love that is “said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way—conditioned, that is, on obedience” (19). We must be careful to differentiate this love from the unconditional nature of God’s love in other contexts, but with that provision Carson shows that this aspect of God’s love is a distinct category. In Jude 21 the author gives an exhortation to “Keep yourselves in God’s love”, intimating that this is a love of God that one who experiences it has the ability to not keep himself or herself in (19). This love would also appear to be seen in other Scriptures, spanning both the New and Old Covenants, such as John 15:9-10, Ex. 20:6, and Ps. 103:8 (19-20).

The last part of this first chapter Carson makes a few preliminary observations on these different ways Scripture speaks of God’s love and how we treat them. He notes that we must be careful not to compound them into one (21), for example while it is safe to say that God loves everyone in the same way when speaking of the second category, we cannot say the same for God’s love in the fourth category (24).

 

After introducing the different ways Scripture speaks of love in the first chapter, Carson goes on, in the second, to delve further into the depths of what God’s love actually means. In the second chapter he takes aim at the intra-Trinitarian love that characterizes the Fathers relationship with the Son. What follows in this chapter is an examination of various texts describing the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, Carson draws together various themes to show how there has always been a functional subordination in the Trinitarian relationship and how this enlightens what it means for God to be love (John 4:16)(38-39). In this chapter Carson helpfully recreates an argument he made in his book Exegetical Fallacies, showing in a much easier to read fashion how the αγαπη/αγαπαω (agapē/agapaō) word group does not have the theological weight it has often been attributed, how there is a diachronic explanation for how this word came to be used so frequently in the Septuagint and in the Greek New Testament (25-30, see 51-53 in Exegetical Fallacies 1996).

In the third chapter Carson moves from the inward focused love of God’s intra-Trinitarian love to God’s love for people, this chapter mainly focuses on God’s love for people in relation to God’s sovereignty. In doing this Carson gives an outstanding overview of compatibilism (49-54) and provides a solid discussion of the immutability of God. Carson suggests that the Aristotelian idea of an unmoved mover, imported into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, does not adequately deal with the biblical testimony as to God’s love (48-49). According to Carson we cannot suggest that every reference to an emotion in Scripture is merely an anthropopathism (59) but we must affirm that God truly does feel in some sense (58-61). What Carson suggests is a rightly bounded understanding of impassibility; God’s love is not like ours in that He is not subject to uncontrolled passions and emotional fits, but instead His “passions” are tied into all of His attributes. His emotions “cannot be divorced form [His] knowledge, [His] power, [His] will” (60). Carson writes that “we will successfully guard against the evils that impassibility combats if we recognize that God’s “passions,” unlike ours, do not flare up out of control” (60).

The last chapter of Carson’s book deals with God’s love in relation to His wrath. Moving on from his discussion of love in relation to impassibility, Carson discuss how God’s love is not “an implacable, blind rage”; it is an emotion, but it is, like His love, an emotion intertwined with all of God’s attributes (69). Carson shows that there is nothing in the nature of God’s wrath or love that excludes Him form expressing both towards the same individual at the same (69). In this chapter Carson also touches on God’s love for His elect people and the issue of particular redemption, most often—unfortunately—called limited atonement. Here he addresses the issue of how the understanding of God’s love presented in the book affects the way we who God sent His Son to die for and what exactly that looks like. Carson finally concludes with a discussion of how God’s love relates to His people, how understanding God’s love in this way affects the way we express love towards one another.

 

In the introduction to this review I mentioned that this book has been one of the few I can remember as having a distinct impact in my growth as I have strived to better understand God and His word over the last few years. There came  a time in my studies where I came to see what Scripture seemed to be saying about God’s election of some to salvation and how this was deeply intertwined with His love. This understanding ran head on into the understanding of God’s love I had inherited from the evangelical culture I grew up in. I could not see how the distinct love God had for His elect people could be reconciled with the picture of an omnibenevolent deity who loved all people absolutely equally with the same salvific love. As I wrestled through these issues I found myself balancing on a precipice; where I was before was safety in the picture of the universal grandfather loving everyone equally, at the bottom of the cliff was the hyper-Calvinistic idea that God only loved His elect people and had no love for anyone else. Seeing what I had seen in Scripture I could not have remained ignorantly in my previous understanding of God’s love, but I was not ready to go to the other extreme I saw as the only other option. Thankfully one of my teachers recommended to me Carson’s book and I was delighted to discover in it a picture of God’s love that allowed me to affirm what I saw in Scripture as to God’s love for all men and women while also affirming the equally clear teaching of God’s particular love for His elect people. I am thankful for this little book and the insights Carson has to share in it; I highly recommend it as an outstanding introduction for anyone who is wrestling with what God’s love truly is according to Scripture.

This book gets a rating of 5/5


[1] Though other brands have gone the route of impassibility and stripped God completely of any form of emotion.

[2] A very recent example of this is the emergence of pop-universalism with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, but there are examples of this on less extreme levels.

The Facade of Confidence; How Self-Confidence Destroys Our Identity

One thing our culture is great at these days in encouraging self-confidence. We are told from childhood that we can do anything we put our minds towards, we are often presented with this picture of children being born innocent and being corrupted by time—in the Christian culture the corruption of our children is often pinned on the perverting influence of our culture. Walking into even a Christian bookstore we see shelves full of books on ridding ourselves of negative mindsets, of acquiring good self-esteem so that we can achieve the abundance we are said to be entitled to. I recently watched a spoken word on YouTube from a Christian guy ranting about the awesome man/woman inside of each of us that we need to unleash. The last 200 years have been filled with utopian visions of the goodness of mankind and how if we work together we can achieve boundless prosperity and happiness. Until I came to Bible College there were times when I actually thought it was a good idea to follow my heart.

It is so easy in a culture of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-you-name-it, to get the idea that we deserve things like God’s love or mercy. It is easy to get into the mindset that we can go places with our lives, attain righteousness, or—at the very least—deserve the love of God on our own.

When we attempt to understand our identity in Christ and God’s relationship to us from this foundation we find ourselves all over the place; our view of God, of ourselves, and of our sin are dangerously skewed and we find ourselves reading Scripture through the damaging lenses of these harmful presuppositions.  As I have wrestled through different passages of Scripture over the last 3 years and have attempted to see my identity not in what I am or what I do but in my relation to Christ I have constantly run into the foundation I had laid before of how deserving or worthwhile I was. What I have come to see, courtesy of insights from various authors (such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, etc.), is that without looking back to where I was before the Spirit renovated my heart, without tearing down the idols and illusions of self-confidence, I would never get to a healthy place of seeing myself as God sees me. I came to the conclusion that as long as I clung to my ideals of self-confidence I would find myself floundering in my own depravity and inability as I attempted to do things by my own strength, will, and ability. What I needed to do was get a healthy biblical position of who I was apart from Christ.

What I needed to do was strip aside my cultural presuppositions and get a healthy dose of reality; I needed to examine myself apart from Christ and see myself as the truly wretched hellion I am without His grace. From this perspective of stripped down and worthless, my state before God changed me, I could THEN, and only then, look at my identity in Christ; it is from here that I could truly grasp the profundity of God’s love for me.

I set it up as a I was, I am, I am becoming contrast, starting with who I was before Christ—who am I apart from His Spirit, the darkness is that is still hiding in the recesses of my heart awaiting final destruction in the resurrection and glorification. Who was I?

– I was a child of the devil[i]
– I was of this dark and writhing cesspool of a world[ii]
– I was a sinner from birth[iii]
– I was in Adam, under sin[iv]
– I had no righteousness[v]
– I was dead in my trespasses[vi]
– I hated and blasphemed God[vii]
– I was an enemy of God[viii]
– I faced His wrath[ix]
– I knew God existed, but abandoned him in pursuit of my selfish desires[x]
– I was an idolater
– I was a murder[xi]
– I was an adulterer[xii]
– I was a liar
– my heart was and is deceitful above all else[xiii]
– I was a slave to sin[xiv]
– My mind was set on the things of the flesh[xv]
– I was and am (in myself, apart from Christ’s righteousness imputed to me) unworthy of anything but the fiery wrath of God poured out against my own unrighteousness.
– I was a man of unclean lips with dirty hands
– I was covetous and deceitful
– I was untrustworthy

I still struggle with much of this, for we are all caught in the already/not-yet tension of Christ’s kingdom;[xvi] but this is no longer my identity.

 

When I examine my abilities and moral capacities I realize that apart from God and His work I am unworthy of love, I am unworthy of mercy, I am unable to do anything meaningful in this life. But then came Jesus! While I was still a destitute sinner, an enemy of God telling Him to leave me alone and offer His grace to someone else, and while I did my own thing, He burst in and changed everything. He sent His only Son—God Himself, the third person of the Holy trinity—to die in my place.[xvii] He sent His Son to bear His own wrath so that I may be reconciled to God and enjoy Him forever.[xviii] He so loved His Church, of which He has made me a part, that He came to sanctify her for Himself as a bride to spend eternity with Him, her creator.[xix] He loved me so much that He reached down and took my wretched heart of stone that hated Him with all its might and replaced it with a heart of flesh that I might be drawn to Him and be raised up on the last day.[xx] He foreknew me in my wretched state and chose to show mercy on me, a sinner;[xxi] despite my lowly position, despite my nothingness, despite my lack of anything positive to earn His love,[xxii] He set His loving affections upon me in eternity past and He predestined me to be conformed to the image of His son.[xxiii] Because I have been loved and changed, because His work in me is certain, I can have the trust that all things will be worked by Him together for my good[xxiv]—that is, for my sanctification and eventual glorification.[xxv] Because of Him and His work I get to enjoy Him in this life, because of Him and His work I get to enjoy an eternity with Him for He is the end of the Gospel.[xxvi] Because Christ died I know I have forgiveness of my sins, because He rose again I have the guarantee that the work was finished and surety of my eventual resurrection to glorious life eternal with the Father Son and Spirit.[xxvii] Throughout Scripture I see that my identity is in Christ;

-In Christ I am free from condemnation through my faith[xxviii]
-Through Christ I am adopted as a son[xxix]
-in Christ I am a co-heir, awaiting my inheritance[xxx]
-in Christ I have peace with God[xxxi]
-in Christ I have access to the Father[xxxii]
-in Christ I am a new creation, the old is gone but the new is here[xxxiii]
-in Christ I have a foreign righteousness not my own[xxxiv]
-in Christ I am a part of the new covenant community of his people
-in Christ I am being sanctified  by the work of the Spirit[xxxv]
-in Christ I have security for that final day.[xxxvi]

The beauty of all this is that I didn’t deserve it. Nothing in God’s character necessitated that He save me.[xxxvii] He did not have to show mercy, He did not have to love me salvifically, He would have been well within His character to pour out the white hot wrath of His righteous indignation upon my head for an eternity stripped of all providential blessings that even this fallen world has in store for His creation.[xxxviii] Nothing in me necessitated He save me, in fact it was in spite of anything I could do that He saved me: He was faithful to His good and faithful character by upholding the highest end in this universe by glorifying His Holy name in sovereignly dispensing His mercy solely on the good graces of His mercy.[xxxix]

 

When I take account of what the Bible says to who I am outside of Christ I am forced to come to a healthy understand of how wretched I am, of the worm I am in the presence of God’s holiness. I am forced to see how marvellously profound the love of God is for me in that I am who I am today standing in the place I am. Like a space shuttle jettisons its fuel pod and extra boosters to breach the bounds of earth’s atmosphere, I am forced to jettison the facade of self-confidence, I am forced to realize my utter incompetence and come before God in every endeavour I am to undertake. I am forced to see how all my ability and intelligence is for naught unless His Holy Spirit is illuminating His word and sustaining the gifts He has given me. I am forced to give Him glory for every good grade, every success, I have ever had and ever will have. I am forced to give up any thought that I could do it and completely surrender every ounce of self-dependence. I am forced to fall on my knees ever moment of the day to go to my source for all things.

As the illusion of my self-confidence is stripped away and I am laid bare my Father in heaven wraps His arms around me and covers my nakedness with His love and mercy, He clothes me in His Son’s righteousness to cover my disgusting flesh and I am left with a greater confidence then I could ever have had before.

In life or death I will rejoice because whether I fail or succeed, trip or run, my Father’s love was never dependent upon my success and therefore will never be lost.[xl] No force of darkness, spiritual being, earthly kingdom, mighty man, fit of depression, abyss of despair, ocean of pain, heart wrenching loss, or act of violence can ever remove me from the love of God.[xli] When trials come I know that I can rejoice for it is not my ability that will get me through but God’s gracious power at work in my faith ensuring that I will endure all the darkness that this world has to throw at me.[xlii]

In light of this I will set my sights on my maker, look towards the inheritance He has set aside for me, turn away from the things of this world, set my eyes on the kingdom above and work out my faith with fear and trembling—knowing all along that it is Him working in me so that I am able to work and to will.[xliii] I will run the race set before me with endurance knowing that He will get me through all hardship and that every hardship will only produce more endurance,[xliv] I will strive to be conformed to the image of my God setting my sights on the eternal rest that awaits and running until my abilities are spent knowing that when I hit the wall it won’t be my strength that gets me through but His Spirit, the seal of my inheritance, who will ensure that the work He started in me is completed when I am glorified.[xlv]

Praise be unto that glorious savior, praise be unto that mighty God,
Praise be unto the one who gave His only Son to drink of the full force of His wrath in my place,
Praise be to the one who holds the entire universe together by the power of His word and willed for the nails holding his arms and feet in place to exist even as He surrendered his last breath declaring “it is finished” that I might have life,
Praise be to Him who created and sustains all things by the word of His power.
Who can plumb the depths of His majestic wisdom?
Who can know the depths of the wisdom of the sovereign king of kings,
The king who would give His life to make a wretch like me His treasure.

Soli deo gloria.


[i] 1 John 3:10

[ii] as John likes to use term “world” with which all who are not of God are identified

[iii] Psalm 51:5, 58:3

[iv] Romans 5

[v] Romans 1:18-32, 3:10-18, Romans 8:5-8

[vi] Ephesians 2:1

[vii] Romans 1:18-32, 3:18, James 4:4, Romans 8:5-8

[viii] Romans 5:10, James 4:4, Romans 8:5-8

[ix] Romans 1:16-3:20, John 3:36

[x] Romans 1:18-32

[xi] Matthew 5:21-22

[xii] Matthew 5:27-28

[xiii] Jer. 17:9

[xiv] Romans 6

[xv] Romans 8:5-8

[xvi] Meaning that with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ the coming kingdom which the Jews were expecting has come in part, and we see the fruits of this in the New Covenant relationship we have with God, but its fullness is still coming with Christ’s return. We are caught in a tension as we still are in this world and still struggle with our sinful desires, we still face temptation and succumb to it, but at the same time we are not citizens of this world but of God’s kingdom and have His spirit dwelling in us working through us and sanctifying  us.

[xvii] John 3:16, Romans 5:10, Romans 5:6, 1 Corinthians 15:3, 1 Pet. 3:18, etc.

[xviii] Romans  5:1, 1 John 4:9, 1 John 4:10, 1 John 4:14, Gal. 4:5-6, Col. 1:22, 2 Cor. 5:18

[xix] Ephesians 5:2, 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7.

[xx] John 6:37-45, cf. Isaiah 54:13, Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28, 11:17-20; 1 Corinthians 2:12-14, 1 John 4:7.

[xxi] Romans 8:29

[xxii] 1 Corinthians 1:22-31

[xxiii] Romans 8:29, Eph. 1:3-6

[xxiv] Romans 8:28-30

[xxv] Romans 8:29-30

[xxvi] John 17:3

[xxvii] 1 Corinthians 15

[xxviii] Romans 8:1

[xxix] Ephesians 1:5

[xxx] Romans 8:17, Titus 3:7, 1 Peter 3:7

[xxxi] Romans 3:20-31, Romans 4:4-5, Romans 5:1

[xxxii] Hebrews 7-8, esp. 8:11, Hebrews 4:14-16

[xxxiii] 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

[xxxiv] Romans 4:4-5, Romans 1:16-17, Galatians 2:21

[xxxv] 1 Thessalonians 3:1-7, Philippians 2:12-13, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14, Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 1:2, Romans 6:19-23.

[xxxvi] Romans 8:28-39, 1 Peter 1:1-7, Hebrews 3:14, Hebrews 6:1-20, John 6:37-44, John 10:25-30, Eph. 1:13-14, 4:30.

[xxxvii] Romans 9:14-16

[xxxviii] Romans 9:18, Romans 9:22, Matthew 5:45, Matthew 6:25-34

[xxxix] 1 Corinthians 1:22-31, Romans 5:6-8, Romans 9:6-23, Eph. 1:1-23.

[xl] Romans 8: 31-39

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] 1 Peter 1:1-7

[xliii] Philippians 2:12-13

[xliv] Romans 5:3-5, Hebrews 12:1-2

[xlv] Hebrews 4:11, Eph. 1:13-14, Romans 8:28-30, Philippians 1:6

Hebrews 8 – In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.

A sermon on Hebrews 8 and the superiority of the New Covenant over the old covenant. Because of the differences between the church context where I preached this and the public setting of the internet, some clarification:

The reason the Old Covenant is faulted and obsolete is not because God made a mistake, but because He created it to point to the ultimate fulfillment of His plan for redemption in the Cross of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant ushered in by His blood. (I tried to make this clear in the sermon).

Also, because of contemporary exclusivism/inclusivism debates, I must make the disclaimer that I am not anti-Semitic; I believe that God will call effectively an entire generation of ethnic Israel to salvation before He comes back, but I believe that Scripture teaches that adherence to Old Testament rituals apart from the faith in Jesus Christ will not bring salvation (and they never could, salvation was always through faith Gal. 3, Romans 4). Salvation for Jewish people will now, as with the Gentiles, only come through faith in Jesus Christ.

A written transcript can be found here.

Hebrews 8 – In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.

This sermon was preached to small congregation in white rock BC, Canada on the 18th of August 2013.

Introduction

Good morning church! In Tom’s absence I have the privilege of bringing you this morning’s sermon, though unfortunately it may be a little bit less lively than Philip’s last week; I won’t be doing any singing…but I guess that is probably something you are grateful for.

Over the summer Tom and I have been preaching through the book of Hebrews; when I preached the first sermon on this series in the middle of July I discussed how the entire book of Hebrews revolves around the biblical idea of a covenant. Over the last weeks we have seen various contrasts between the Old covenant instituted at Sinai and the New Covenant made in Christ’s blood shed on the Cross. Throughout the book of Hebrews the author writes of Christ’s superiority over all created things and institutions, he does this to encourage the Hebrews, to whom he is writing, to stay faithful to the New Covenant revelation they have received, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to not fall back into the rituals of the Old Covenantal Judaism.

Today we are looking at Chapter 8 of the book of Hebrews. In this chapter the author of Hebrews looks straight at the New Covenant made in Christ and its superiority over the Old. Because we are going to be talking about Biblical covenants today it will be useful to look at exactly what a covenant is.

The idea of a Covenant is found throughout Scripture and is foundational to the way God relates to man, unfortunately this idea is not talked about much so most people don’t have a solid idea of what a covenant is. Often we think of a contract.

A contract is pretty common in North American culture today; anytime we get a loan, rent a house, etc. we enter into contracts. With a contract of these kinds we agree to give something in return for something else, it is a legal agreement usually governing the exchange of goods or services. Because I am in school and don’t make much money I have had to enter into loan contracts with the Government so I can pay for my schooling. When I sign a contract for a loan I say that in return for receiving a said amount of money I will pay it back plus interest to make it worth the other parties while. A contract is based on an expected benefit for both parties: I receive money I need at the moment and in return for meeting this momentary need the party lending the money receives more in return than what they gave. For loans with the government, like student loans, the government does not get much back in the form of interest but receives the social and economic benefits of having an educated population.

Unfortunately, this is sometimes the way our relationship with God has been represented. We get something from God, salvation, in return for giving Him something, our service and love. This is not what the Bible has in mind when it speaks of a covenant. A covenant is not a contract: whereas with a contract the foundation is expected benefit and mutual gain, the foundation of a covenant is relationship. We have nothing to give God that He does not have, there is no benefit He could gain from entering into a contract with us: instead God’s covenant with man is the work of the almighty Creator of the universe reaching out to His undeserving creation in love and mercy expressing the very core of His nature. God first made a covenant with Creation, making mankind in His image to represent Him on earth and rule creation, they were called to obedience and given the command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the fall God’s covenants with man slowly unveiled His plan for redeeming mankind from the effects of sin and its consequences, namely the righteous wrath of God toward mankind. This plan of redemption climaxed in the coming of Jesus Christ to die for the sins of fallen men and women and institute the New Covenant that God had promised He would make throughout the Old Testament. In Biblical covenants it is not an agreement between two equal parties for mutual benefit, but the extending of a relationship from a stronger party to the weaker solely on the initiative of the greater.

It is with this idea of a covenant, a relationship made between two parties characterized by both faithfulness and love initiated by God, which we will look at Hebrews 8. Turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Hebrews, chapter 8. You can find it after Philemon but before James. In Hebrews 8 we read;

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. 3For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.5They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” 6But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7For if that first covenant had been faultless there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For he finds fault with them when he says; “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, When I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel with the house of Judah, 9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. 10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be there God and they shall be my people. 11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” 13In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

(The heart of the Jewish religious community and of God’s relationship with mankind is His covenants. The promises that God gave to Israel where foundational to their religion and identity. In this Passage the author of Hebrews takes aim at these promises, He tells the Jewish Christian to whom he is writing that Jesus has a better ministry because He is the mediator of a better covenant, based on better promises!)
 

Body

A Better Covenant Built on Better Promises:

 

In chapter 7, which Tom preached on a few weeks ago, the author of Hebrews establishes the priesthood of Christ according to the order of Melchizedek. He is a high priest forever in the heavenly places who has sat down at the right hand of the Father. The ministry of Christ, His high priesthood, is the main point that the author has been trying to make in the few previous chapters. As a priest in the order of Melchizedek Jesus both fulfills Old Testament prophecy and is able to be priest in spite of the Old Covenant stipulations of the Levitical priesthood. The eternal priesthood of Christ sets the foundation for the argument the author is going to make from chapter 8 to chapter 10; the superiority of Christ’s ministry and His once for all sacrifice. Before the author discusses the sacrifice Jesus made he discusses the superiority of His ministry on the basis of the covenant which He mediates.

In verse 6 the author writes “But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” The priestly ministry of the Levitical priesthood and the ministry of Christ are based upon the covenants which they mediate. The role of the priests in the covenant is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God on behalf of those who are part of the covenant they administer, the other part of their ministry is intercession, to stand before God on behalf of the covenant people. Because of the intrinsic relationship between priestly ministry and the covenant for which it is performed, a better covenant would naturally lead to the conclusion of a better ministry. To show that in fact the New Covenant which Christ has ushered in by His blood shed on the Cross is superior to the Old Covenant made at Sinai, the author of Hebrews appeals to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the New Covenant made in Jeremiah 31. Writing at a time when God’s people where unfaithful to the Covenant God had made with them, when they were failing to uphold their side of the covenant to be God’s loyal people, Jeremiah speaks of a time when God would make a new covenant with His people, a covenant that would be different and superior to the covenant that God had already made with Israel. Jeremiah writes;

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, When I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel with the house of Judah, 9not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. 10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be there God and they shall be my people. 11And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.”

The author of Hebrews points out that if the original covenant with Israel had been faultless there would be no reason for God to make a new covenant with Judah and Israel, and—as we can gather from other prophecies about the New Covenant—with the Gentiles. In verse 7 and 8 we read: “7For if that first covenant had been faultless there would have been no occasion to look for a second. 8For he finds fault with them when he says….” The failure both of the people in keeping the covenant and fault in the covenant required a New Covenant to be established. This is argument that the author is making: the whole concept of a “NEW” covenant means that the old was faulted and with the coming of the New Covenant, within which the Hebrews found themselves by the work of Christ and through their faith, the Old Covenant was rendered obsolete; it no longer function, relationship with God, His blessing, and salvation could no longer be attained through even faithful adherence to the Old Covenant stipulations. In describing the New Covenant Jeremiah gives the promises that will characterize this new covenantal relationship between God and His people.

One issue with the old covenant, as the author of Hebrews mentions in v. 8, is that the people were unable to keep the covenant; in the new Covenant God promises that the recipients of this covenant will be enabled to keep the covenant by God Himself.

The first of the New Covenant Promises that God gives through Jeremiah’s prophecy is the giving of a new heart, a heart with God’s law written upon it; “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (10). This promise is paralleled by promises in Ezekiel and Isaiah where God says that He will take away the heart of stone from His people and give them a heart of flesh, and that all those in this New Covenant will be taught by Him. Without God’s work in the hearts of men no one would be able to come to Him or be obedient to Him, God here is promising that He will give His people a new heart with His law written upon it so that they will be able to be obedient to Him; obedience would not come from their own ability, for—as was seen with Israel during the Old Covenant—man was unable to keep up their side of God’s covenant; so that we could be in relationship with Him God promised that in the New Covenant He would enable His people to keep His statutes and walk according to His ways. God, while remaining faithful to His covenant promises, promised to enable His people to be faithful and loyal to their covenant obligations, namely obedience.

The next promise God gives, found in verse 11, is that; “they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God promised through Jeremiah that the whole nature of the community of people under His covenant would change. Every person in this covenant would be in a personal relationship with God; this means that all people under the covenant would be those with true faith in God and all of them would have a relationship where they knew God individually, through their personal experience of Him.

The last promise given is found at the end of verse 11, God speaks through Jeremiah;

“For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” The conjunction “for” at the beginning of this part of the verse indicates that this is the grounds for the previous promises. The reason that all New Covenant members would know God personally and have communion with Him is because He in His mercy eradicate their sins and remember them no more. No longer would sin cause a divide between God and man, but through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross the sins of the all who believe would be utterly wiped away never to be remembered again.

(These three promises quoted by the author of Hebrews are profound truths of God’s relationship with His people since the coming of Jesus Christ, these are promises that came to pass under the New Covenant—of which all believers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are members. If the author of Hebrews was quoting these promises to show the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old and therefore the Superiority of Christ’s ministry; what would this have meant to the Hebrews who originally read this letter?)
 

A New Covenant And A New Community:

 

As we have seen in the last 7 chapters of the Book of Hebrews the author is writing to Jewish Christians to warn them that if they walk away from their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism they will no longer be Christians, having compared various aspects of the New Covenant with the Old Covenant here in Heb. 8 the author looks at the heart of the covenants and the promises associate with each. The Jewish audience would have been well schooled in the Old Testament and would have been familiar with both its original promises and the promises given in the Old Testament about the New Covenant.

These promises that the author of Hebrews quotes present a massive transformation of the community of Covenant members as it was found in Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant membership into the covenant was based on descent from Abraham, because of this the Jews circumcised their male children as a symbol of their entrance into the covenant Israel had with God. It was a covenant between God and all of Israel. Because this original covenant was based on genetic heritage and not a personal expression of faith many who were part of Israel where not in fact of Israel, as Paul puts it in Romans 9. There were many in the nation of Israel who were faithful to God and His covenant with them, but there was also many who were unfaithful and who did not know God. In the New Covenant this would change. Instead of a membership based on physical descent, a mixed community of those who had faith in God and those who did not, all those in the New Covenant would be enabled by God to be faithful to the Covenant and each and every one of them, from the least of them to the greatest of them, would have a relationship with Him. This was profound shift in the nature of the Covenant community.

Another huge difference that allowed this shift to happen was that each and every member of the New Covenant would have their sins removed and these sins would never again be remembered by God. This would mean that members of this New Covenant would not have to regularly give sacrifices for their sins because all their sins would be removed, and no longer would the members of the New Covenant have to go through earthly mediators to have access to God but through Jesus Christ, their high priest, they would forever have access to the very throne room of God and have the personal relationship with God that characterized the lives of the Old testament prophets like Jeremiah.

Because the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant the Hebrews would have understood that only through the New Covenant means could one be saved, the Old was now obsolete and no longer functioned as an active means of relationship with God. To go back to the Old Covenant, as they were in danger of doing, would be to give up on all God’s promises; for all of God’s promises would be fulfilled in the New Covenant through Christ and no longer would function through the now obsolete Old Covenant.

(This would have been a very good reason for Hebrews to persevere in their Christian faith, and it would have helped them see how much better the Covenant they were now part of was. Membership into this New Covenant was by faith, the amazing truth of this is that through our faith we now are part of this new covenant relationship with God.)
 

In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant.

(Like the Jews to whom the author of Hebrews was writing, we to have through faith entered into the New Covenant mediated by Christ Jesus our LORD; as members of this New Covenant we have inherited all of its glorious promises)
 

New Covenant Life Built On New Covenant Promises:

 

In Christ we have received the better promises of the New Covenant, and that is tremendous thing for these promises have a profound impact on how we understand our relationship to God. As members of the New Covenant Community, all of us who have come to Jesus Christ in faith have new hearts wrought by the Holy Spirit with His laws written on them enabling us to grow in obedience to Him and be faithful to His covenant, we have access to the very presence of God coming before Him in the name of Jesus Christ with our needs and desires and are able to experience a relationship with Him where we can say that we truly know Him, and because of our faith we have been forgiven of all of our sins and stand in the presence of God without fear of His wrath.

The first promise which is found in the New Covenant is that members of this covenant have God’s law written upon their hearts and minds, and cf. Ezekiel, we understand that this comes about through the giving of a new heart. We can pursue obedience to God in our relationship with Him knowing that while we cannot be faithful by our own strength we have been given new hearts whereby we will desire more and more to be like God and through His strength will be able to become obedient to His commands. As members of the New Covenant with God we are called to be holy as He is holy [1 Pet. 1:14-16] and because of the promise found in this Hebrews 8:8 we can know that God has worked on our hearts so that we can pursue, however imperfectly, this end.

The second promise given by Jeremiah and quoted by the author of Hebrews is that every member of the New Covenant will know God; because of Jesus work as our High Priest, the mediator of this New Covenant, we can approach God with boldness knowing that we are covered by the blood of Christ and we can bring our needs before Him and present the desires of heart to Him. “To know God is to recognize Him, trust Him, and obey Him.” This is something that is made possible by the new heart that He has given us, because we have a new heart with have a personal knowledge of God and are able to be like Him acting out His will as revealed in Scripture in the world.

The last promise given in Hebrews 8 is that our iniquities would be removed and our sins would be remembered no more. Because of Christ’s high priestly work and the sacrifice He gave on the cross we can know that our sins have once and for all been removed; we can have confidence that when we come before God we will receive His love and mercy and not His wrath because Christ has taken away are sins and by His work we have been declared righteous in the sight of God.  Because our sins are remembered no more we come before God even after we have sinned and seek His forgiveness for a restored relationship.

(These promises received through Christ as members of the New Covenant are foundations of what it means to be a Christian, something shared by all those who have faith in Jesus Christ; all Christians have been given new hearts with God’s law written on them, meaning that even though struggles with sin still come upon us we will desire and be enabled to pursue obedience to Him; all Christians know God individually and can come before Him in prayer without the need of an earthly mediator; and lastly all Christians have had their sins forgiven, never to be remembered again by God.)
 

Conclusion:

In Luke 22:20 Luke recounts the Passover supper and the institution of Communion by Jesus. Jesus tells His disciples that “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood”. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the first part of His duty as our High Priest, His death on the Cross, while foremost bearing the wrath of God and bearing the punishment we deserved for our sins, enacted a New Covenant between God and man. Instead of repeated sacrifices for daily sins and repeated failures on the part of God’s people in upholding their side of His covenant with them, instead of a few out of the entire nation of Israel knowing God; now all those who are members of the New Covenant, all those who have believed in Jesus Christ for their salvation and trust Him as the LORD of their life, have received new hearts where they will desire righteousness and are enabled to pursue faithfulness to God, we all know God and have a relationship of personal experience with Him, and we have all received the forgiveness of our sins, standing boldly before God by the intercession and sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whose blood shed on the cross once and for all purchased the forgiveness of sins and the New Covenant relationship with God. It is to this New Covenant reality which we experience that the Old Testament and the Old Covenant point towards, and it is this New Covenant reality which the author of Hebrews presents as a reason why the Hebrews should persevere in their faith. Every time you partake of the Lord’s Supper remember first and foremost His blood shed on the Cross for the forgiveness of sins, but also His blood shed ushering in a New Covenant whereby all Christians experience a profound relationship with God that only a few under the Old Covenant experienced.