As When Prophet Moses Raised

Let me encourage you to use your hymnal in your daily devotions. Along with the joyful songs of praise, the hymnal supplies a much-needed freshness when our prayer life has become stale. It’s full of themes worthy of our spiritual mediation.

One of the hymns I’ve recently pondered is Isaac Watts’ “As When the Prophet Moses Raised.” It’s a reflection on the words of Jesus in John 3:14-15. Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

In light of Christ’s precious words, Watts composed these:

“As when prophet Moses raised the brazen serpent high,
the wounded looked and straight were cured, the people ceased to die.
So from the Savior on the cross a healing virtue flows;
Who looks to him with lively faith is saved from endless woes.”

The Old Testament background is found in Numbers 21:4-9. During the wilderness wandering, the children of Israel complain against God and Moses. The Lord sends serpents as an act of judgment. Many are bitten and die. When the people confess their sin and beg Moses for his intercession, the Lord gives Moses a solution. He tells him to make a pole with a fiery serpent on top. Then God says, “Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” According to Jesus in John 3, this bronze serpent is a type of Christ. As Moses raised the serpent on the pole, so Jesus would be raised up on a cross. As everyone who looked to the serpent pole was healed, so everyone who looks to Jesus on the cross is saved.

The typology fixes our attention on Christ on the cross. This is where our faith looks. We turn away from ourselves and cast our eyes on Christ and his finished sacrifice. This is where “a healing virtue flows”; this is where we are “saved from endless woes.”
The “endless woes” to which Watts refers certainly include hell in the hereafter, but it also refers to the woes we experience as long as we remain in an unconverted state. Such woes include a defiled conscience, a burdened spirit, an enslaved will, and a life devoid of meaning.

The good news is that we are delivered simply by looking to Jesus! Can anything capture the free offer of grace better than to speak of faith as a mere looking? Looking is really doing nothing. It’s simply a matter of opening our eyes and seeing what is already there. It’s turning our attention to the virtue and merit of another. Can we not look? Is it really too much for us to cast our eyes on the One who shouldered the cross for us? All has been done! God has made the perfect provision for sin! We are only told to look and live.

Watts continues:

“For God gave up his Son to death, so gen’rous was his love,
That all the faithful might enjoy eternal life above.
Not to condemn the sons of men the Son of God appeared;
No weapons in his hand are seen, nor voice of terror heard:
He came to raise our fallen state, and our lost hopes restore;
Faith leads us to the mercy seat, and bids us fear no more.”

When we turn our eyes to Jesus, we see God’s generous love. We should never cease to be amazed when we hear those simple words: “God so loved us that he gave us his Son.” We deserve no good thing from God, but he gave us the best he had to give—his only begotten Son. But there’s more—keep looking to Jesus! What do we see? Jesus is not there to accuse or condemn but to lead us to the mercy seat and banish all our fears. The longer we look to Jesus, the more we see; the more we see, the more we enjoy. Let’s continue looking and drawing in the healing streams flowing from this precious fountain!

Can I Sing This Psalm?

Well-intended Christians sometimes object to psalm singing because they incorrectly assume  certain sections are out-of-place for new covenant believers. Generally, the troublesome Psalms are the ones calling for God’s judgment on the wicked (the so-called imprecatory psalms) and those expressing disgust—even hatred—for evil people. So here is the question: are these psalms appropriate for the followers of Jesus to sing?

In order to feel the weight of this objection we must consider some examples. Here are a few instances of the sweet psalmist of Israel calling for God’s judgment on the wicked:

“The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
-Psalm 11:5-6

“O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!” -Psalm 58:6

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
-Psalm 137:9

And here are a few examples of the psalmist expressing hatred for evildoers:

“Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.”
-Psalm 139:23-24

“I look at the faithless with disgust, because they do not keep your commands.”
-Psalm 119:158

We must confess that when we read these verses, they certainly do sound harsh. We sometimes cringe when these verses are read in corporate worship, don’t we? We may even feel a temptation to skip these lines.

Although these feelings are understandable, I believe they are deeply rooted in a common misconception that portions of the Psalms are inappropriate for Christian believers. I want to explain why Christians should sing these sections of the Psalter.

Let’s begin with the imprecatory psalms. Should Christians sing for God’s judgment to come on the wicked? Is it possible to have a righteous desire for God to intervene and bring evil men to justice? The answer is a resounding yes. There is no reason to believe that imprecatory prayers are out of place for new covenant believers.

To begin with, we find examples of imprecations in the New Testament. Paul pronounces a curse on false teachers in Galatians 1. At the end of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle exclaims, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 15:22). When Alexander the coppersmith opposed the ministry of the gospel, Paul said, “The Lord will repay him according to his deeds” (2 Timothy 4:14).

Perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of imprecations in heaven! In Revelation 6:9-10 we find martyred saints crying out for the Lord to judge the wicked and avenge their blood. Since these souls are certainly souls of “righteous men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), their prayers for vindication cannot be unacceptable in the eyes of God. If imprecations are appropriate for the saints in heaven, why should we demur that they have no place in the mouths of God’s exiles on earth?

Turning to the Psalms which contain expressions of hatred for the wicked, we need to say a little more. Admittedly, on the surface, it seems like the teaching of Jesus contradicts the attitude found in these sections. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
-Matthew 5:43-45

Some Christians would say, “There you go. That settles it. In the Old Testament believers hated their enemies, but now in the New Testament it is no longer appropriate.” Well, not so fast. We need to bear a few thoughts in mind.

First of all, when David speaks of hating those who hate God in Psalm 139:21, he isn’t speaking about personal vindictiveness. To read a tone of personal vindictiveness into these verses is entirely unwarranted. The entire psalm is a celebration of the Lord’s loving care, knowledge, and concern for David. Instead, David is speaking about his attitude toward the enemies of God. How should he regard them? He answers the question in verse 22: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” Essentially, David is saying to God, “O Lord, I love you so much that your enemies are my enemies.” But what about the word “hate”? In this context, the word “hate” is best taken as a moral disgust and repugnance for wicked people. It doesn’t mean that David is out to get the wicked or injure them in any way. He is simply asserting what is taught throughout the Bible, even the beginning of the book of Psalms:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers,
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.”
-Psalm 1:1-2

This helps us to understand what Jesus means in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Notice that Jesus is speaking about a different situation. He refers to the personal enemies of his disciples. These “enemies” may or may not be fellow believers. They are “your enemies” but not necessarily God’s enemies. Also, when Jesus explains what it means to “love” them, he speaks of blessing them and praying for them. This refers to practical action. We are supposed to love our enemies and treat them well, not take matters of vengeance into our own hands.

The reason we are supposed to do this is because the Lord loves his enemies. He sends the rain to fall on the good and bad, and he causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. We should take note of the fact that “love” here refers to the way we treat other people; this passage isn’t speaking about our inner disposition and delight for the people themselves.

Think about it this way. Would it be appropriate to say that God has the same inner disposition and delight in the good and bad, the just and the unjust? Absolutely not! God does not delight in iniquity. He is a righteous and holy God. So then, why should we think that Jesus is teaching us that we should have the same inner disposition and delight in the righteous and the wicked?

Psalm 139:21-22 speaks to the way a righteous man feels about the lifestyle of those who hate God and live in willful rebellion against his law. Psalm 119:158 contains the same truth. But Jesus isn’t speaking to that. He is teaching us how we should respond to those who oppose us. We must not respond tit for tat. As God’s Word tells us, we must overcome evil with good and leave vengeance in the Lord’s hands (Romans 12:19-21).

This recognition ties it all together. If we do good to our enemies and look to the Lord for vindication, then we may both sing the troublesome psalms and obey the commands of Jesus. One day the “wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16) will come, and those who trust in Jesus alone will receive the glorious fruit of salvation through judgment. The wicked will be cast into hell, but the righteous will shine like the stars of heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

Children in Church

One of the advantages of having your children with you during the worship service is that you will sing the same songs, pray the same prayers, and hear the same sermon preached. Sharing in this kind of worship is crucial to the inter-generational health of the church. There are many people who have written about the benefit of including children in worship. This article is not meant to rehearse those points. Instead, it is meant to discuss how you can ensure your child is able to participate in worship without distracting others from worship.

The first thing to note is that children must be taught to participate in worship at home. If you try to teach your children to worship God when you are at church, you will fail. Not only does your child quickly recognize that he has you in a hostage situation (that’s right, they think in those terms), you also will not be able to teach and direct them in the moment. What you will have is a recipe for a frustrated and maybe even exasperated parent. Just yesterday my youngest son who is 3 years old cried out when mom thought she had to be an emergency fill-in at the piano. That incident was a good reminder that we have more work to do with that little guy. But that training should not begin at church. Instead, train your children at home to prepare them to participate in corporate worship. Some suggestions:

Teach your children the songs of your church. It doesn’t matter if you are part of a church that sings contemporary songs, or one that has convictions of singing only psalms. Most of us will probably be somewhere in between. Wherever you are on the spectrum, make sure you are teaching your children the songs that are sung at your church. Pick the ones sung most often first and build a repertoire. If you are not a good singer, find the songs on YouTube or buy CDs with the songs on them. Children can learn songs quickly. Knowing the songs of the church will allow them to participate in the worship of the church.

Teach your children the prayers of your church. In the congregation I serve, we recite the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday. If your church has something similar, it is good for your children to know the Lord’s Prayer, or whatever else it may be. That means parents must teach them this prayer at home. It is true. They will probably be saying some words they do not completely understand. However, when your children are young complete comprehension is not the goal. Rather it is to teach them that they belong to the church. They must learn they are part of the body, and so they must see themselves participating in the body. Certainly that goal changes as they get older.

Teach your children to sit still without any external stimuli. Children are easily distracted in church. Some will hone their drawing skills. Others will be entertained with iPads. Parents are likely trying to achieve a measure of order through these devices. But there is a better way. As parents you must instill in your children the ability to listen. That means you must find opportunities at home to teach your children the skills they need to participate in worship.

For example, when you read the Bible together as a family, teach your children to sit still. That means no coloring or doodling, no iPad or iPhone to keep them quiet. Just sitting and listening. That is all. For the little ones do not make this time too long. Do so in short stints of 5 minutes or less. You may need to hold them on your lap. You may tell them that now is not the time to play but to listen. But you must require their compliance and accept nothing less than compliance. When your children are older you should be able to explain what you are trying to accomplish. That will give your children the skills to participate in worship. And then when your children hear something in the song or sermon or Bible reading and smile up at you knowingly, you smile at them, affirm them in their listening, and continue to lead them toward Christ at home.

By training giving your children the right knowledge and skills, you will give them opportunities to participate in the most important aspect of the life of the church: the worship of God. But to help your children see this benefit you must teach them at home first. And from the home they can be a welcome part of the life of the church.

Degrees of Sin and Punishment

The Bible teaches that there are degrees of sin and punishment. However, your average Christian tends to think, “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.” This is a common misconception about the nature of sin and judgment. If we examine God’s Word, however, we will gain a better understanding of our sin, God’s righteousness, and Christ’s love.

In the Old Testament, God’s Law makes it clear that some sins are more heinous than other offenses. For example, if a person sins knowingly against God, it is more offensive to God than if it was done unintentionally. The Law says, “You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:29-30). We should take note that if a person sins with a high hand, he has committed a greater offense, and he will receive greater punishment. This is because sinning with a high hand is more displeasing to the Lord because of the deliberate nature of the offense.

In the New Testament, Jesus explains that greater degrees of sin will be met with greater degrees of punishment. The Lord says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Matthew 11:21-22). Although Jesus had given them greater reason to repent by performing many miracles, they had not repented; therefore, their rebellion was greater because it was in the face of greater light. The same is true for the city of Capernaum: “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24). The phrases “more bearable” and “more tolerable” in connection with the final judgment reveal degrees of punishment. In God’s courtroom, the punishment will fit the crime.

In addition, Jesus teaches how God holds us accountable for what we know. If we sin against knowledge, then we will receive greater condemnation. “And the servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47-48).

None of this should be taken to mean that some sins are not serious. Every sin is a personal offense against a holy God. Every sin breaks God’s law (1 John 3:4) and invites God’s wrath (Romans 2:5). Even a single sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2)! “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). But if all sin is serious and there are degrees of sin and punishment, how do we strike the balance?

The Larger Catechism helps us to understand. How we need to be well-catechized in these days of theological confusion! On the one hand, the Catechism reads: “Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ” (Q. 152). On the other hand, the Catechism teaches us: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q. 150). So the Catechism reminds us that all sin deserves God’s judgment, but some sins are more evil in God’s sight than others. This is a much more balanced statement than the common platitude: “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.”

So why does it matter that we affirm degrees of sin and punishment? One reason is that it promotes the righteousness of God. Righteousness calls for the punishment to fit the crime. God will punish the wicked in proportion to their crime. Hell will not be a cosmic overreaction. Although all the wicked will end up in an eternal hell, Scripture indicates that it will be more severe for those who committed greater offenses against God. All those who suffer in hell will receive their justly deserved punishment. If we placed a sign over heaven, it would read, “Grace Unknown,” but if we made one for hell, it would read, “Wrath Deserved.”

This teaching also enhances our pursuit of personal holiness. There is a temptation to excuse some of our more serious sins because we know we have many sins in our lives. Foolishly, we might think, “What difference does one more sin make when I have so many?” After all, we all sin in word, thought, and deed on a daily basis (James 3:2, Larger Catechism 149)! But we must remember that our sins against knowledge are more heinous than our other unintentional sins. We dare not excuse greater offenses because we are always falling short in lesser areas! “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Let us declare war on all our sins! Great or small, we are called to put all our sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5)!

Understanding the degrees of sin and punishment should turn our eyes to the greatness of our Savior’s love. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all the sins of all his elect. Yes, he died for our unintentional sins, but he also bore God’s wrath for all the sins we committed with a high hand. What punishment he must have endured at our expense! We cannot even fathom the depths of his agony as he purchased us with the blood of the everlasting covenant! Although there are degrees of sin and punishment, there is no sin too great for God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, and the Spirit’s power. “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent” (Westminster Confession 15.4).

Is the Main Thing Still the Main Thing?

There are times when a good thing becomes so inflated in a person’s thinking that it actually knocks him off balance. I am afraid this very thing is taking place in the Presbyterian Church in America around the issue of racial reconciliation. It is good to consider whether there is on-going guilt for racial sin in our denomination, but I think this endeavor has become a controlling impulse, distracting the PCA from its primary mission: to be faithful to the Scriptures, true to the reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission. Before I go any further, let me grant a few points:

  1. There are cultural differences in the PCA. Even those, such as myself, attempting to operate as “color blind”, have to acknowledge diversity among the people of the PCA. We should also admit these differences benefit the church.
  2. Racism does exist in the church. I have seen it with my own eyes in the PCA. I would not characterize it as frequent, or common in my almost 10 years in the deep south, but it does exist. That reality should not be surprising. Sinners sin, even after they are regenerated by the Spirit. Any sin is to be repented of and addressed with discipline if needed.
  3. Scripture identifies the church as made up of people from all tongues, tribes, and nations. There is a “unity in diversity” in the church of Jesus Christ. There should be no dividing wall or favoritism based on any criteria. We are one people, the people of God.

However, granting these points does not permit the church to turn from what is central in Scripture. God’s message of redemption is not primarily concerned with man being reconciled to man. That can happen without any hint of regeneration. Instead, Christ assumed human flesh so he could reconcile all his people to God. But what is happening in the PCA is a change of focus, manifest in how certain passages of Scripture are interpreted.

The PCA’s Report on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation uses Ephesians 2:11-19 to prove racial reconciliation as a biblical idea. The point is not whether or not that concept is good. I think the vast majority of PCA members would say so. The question is whether Scripture is being used correctly. The report speaks of the dividing wall of hostility and the uniting of races of all color in God’s people (RRER 2409:8-23). In using this text for this purpose, the report changes the emphasis of that passage into something it is not. Paul is not focused on the reconciliation between races in Ephesians 2. That may be an implication that can be derived from what he is saying, but it is not his point. Rather he is speaking of man being reconciled to God. The “dividing wall of hostility” is not between two races, cultures or ethnicities, but God and man. This passage does not even speak of race, but uses covenantal terms to describe all the world: Jew and Gentile.

There are two groups into which God divides men. The first is the Jews who received special status as God’s people in the Old Testament. With the coming of Christ, the Gentiles, who are excluded in the OT are grafted into the olive tree (Rom. 11:17). Interestingly, the Gentiles make up all the other people of the world, with all the different colors of skin that God created. It is true these are all united to each other by faith, but that is not what Paul has in view. Ephesians 2 explains how the Gentiles as well as the Jews are reconciled to God, not to each other. They are saved because God himself tears down the “dividing wall of hostility” between them and himself. Man’s relationship with man is not in view.

The fact there are cultural differences in the PCA does not mean the ordinary means of grace are not sufficient to overcome them. The presence of the sin of racism does not justify an elevation of this sin beyond all the others committed in the church. The inclusion of all tribes, tongues and nations in the PCA should be expected, because God promises that it will happen. These statements are not meant to offend or minimize anyone’s experience when it comes to race. They are simply meant to restore a measure of balance which is currently lacking.

So what is an alternative way of moving forward?

  1. Pray that God would bless the ministry of the church, both to its members and the world (Phil. 4:4-6);
  2. Welcome all people into our churches without showing favoritism (James 2:8-9);
  3. Preach the word in season and out of season, administer the sacraments, and pray (Rom. 10:14-15);
  4. Disciple men and women in what it means to live thankful lives before the Lord. Reprove, rebuke, and exhort. Lead them to repent of the sins of which they are guilty (2 Tim. 4:2);
  5. When any man in the congregation proves himself qualified, and they are elected by the congregation as elders and deacons, submit to their leadership joyfully (Heb. 13:17);
  6. Serve the Lord together (Rom. 12:9-11).

It may seem overly simplistic, but that is my understanding of how God promises to gather all tribes, tongues and nations to himself. The church’s ministry should be pre-occupied with God’s reconciling work in our lives. The church is to be pre-occupied with worshiping the Lord. This focus is what the church must lead with. Always. Nothing should replace this emphasis. When something does, even when that something is good and right in its proper place, the church suffers in the end.

Racial Reconciliation and the Gospel

the Bible

The report of the Ad-Interim Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation has been made available here. It seems like some weeks have passed and there has not been much discussion on the report at all. So I want to try to offer some thoughts in the hope of beginning some public dialogue over the contents of the report as the PCA anticipates considering it at the 46th General Assembly in June.

The report opens with some affirmations and denials. In their denials the report makes a strong statement on the primacy of our identity in Christ, as well as the rejection of racism, Marxism, and Socialism. It is right to take this stand at the start of the report. To call racism a sin is certainly consistent with the 5th commandment where we are taught to give due honor to our peers. As the statistical findings of this report bear out, these opening affirmations and denials would be accepted by an overwhelming majority of PCA Teaching and Ruling Elders, and rightfully so.

After the preliminary statements are made, the report lays out the biblical and theological foundations for the conclusions of the report. These biblical and theological foundations are supplemented with confessional support. I appreciated the authors’ attempts to argue their position from Scripture and the Westminster Standards.

However, I want to suggest that, at the outset of this process, there is an unhealthy emphasis when it comes to the area of racial reconciliation in the PCA. The report cites the action of the 44th General Assembly which recommitted itself “to the gospel task of racial reconciliation.” It may seem like trifling to some, but I take great exception to calling racial reconciliation a “gospel task.”

The gospel is the good news. Not just good news that the weather will be nice tomorrow, or that a salary increase is on the way, or that your enemies will become your friends. It is the good news of salvation, the account of the redemption of man through the mercy of God. In eternity, God set in motion his plan for redemption in which he satisfied divine justice against sin through the substitutionary sacrifice of his perfect and sinless Son. It is the church’s great privilege to set this good news before themselves by way of reminder, and the world as a general call to repent and be saved. Showing man his need for salvation in Christ is a gospel task. Calling men and women to repentance from sin is a gospel task. However, racial reconciliation as a work on its own is not a gospel task. By calling racial reconciliation a gospel task, it has been elevated to the same level as the declaration of the gospel.

My main concern with this heightened designation of racial reconciliation, is that racial reconciliation sits outside the core of the gospel. You can be free from the specific sin of racism and still end up in hell. People who are unregenerate can work toward racial reconciliation and even accomplish a large degree of success. Two unbelievers might be able to reconcile hostility they had toward each other over race or ethnicity and yet not be any closer to the kingdom of heaven. Some of the most racially integrated cultures are also some of the most godless. Racial reconciliation is not the good news. Instead, it must be applied and understood in the context of the gospel task of the church, which is to declare redemption in Christ.

Words and labels matter. To maintain a proper balance when it comes to the topic under discussion, it is important to avoid category confusion. Racial reconciliation is not a gospel task, but a fruit that will be seen in the lives of true Christians. That is an important distinction to make. We must guard ourselves against elevating racial reconciliation to the same level as the message of salvation in Christ, and I am afraid that, however inadvertently, the report incorporates the kind of category confusion I have described above.

My concern with this committee and its report is not with the individual members. In my limited interaction with them they seem to be sincere, God-fearing men who desire to help build up the church of Christ. My problem is with the assignment in general and the content specifically. It is right to call the church to repent of sins, but it seems strange to me to give such prominence to one of the many sins present in the church.

More to follow…

Justice and Mercy

Amazing Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

The church, in some places, has truncated the presentation of the gospel. The gospel is the good news of God’s redemption of men. Paul defines it as “the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16). This “power of salvation” is often translated into, “God will forgive my sins because of Jesus.” That is part of the gospel message. However, it is important for the church to consider more fully what this “power of salvation” is.

The power of salvation is more than a simple fix of my sin problem. To properly understand the significance of sin, the nature of God and man must be understood. God must be seen as the Creator of all things visible and invisible. His ownership over all the world must be recognized. Next, man’s rebellion against his Creator must be seen with all its lethal implications. Man’s sin leads to his death. These lines of thought are the first to be established in the accounts of the Bible. It is within that context that the gospel message is declared. God, who is just, has been sinned against, and justice should be expected.

However, though justice is right and should be applied to men, something different happens. God in his grace and mercy, sets apart some to be redeemed from their guilt. Though they are dead in their sins and trespasses, God makes them alive. He gives to them faith that they might to find salvation in Christ. He gives them repentance that they would not continue in sin. And one of the most amazing parts of the gospel follows out of this grace from God: where justice should be given, mercy is given instead.

Instead of condemnation, man is given justification. But I want to be clear about what happens in man’s justification. The good news of the gospel is found in the hopeless condition of man. What man is unable to do because of sin, God does on his behalf so that he may be justified.

To give clarity, it is important to define justification. I prefer the definition given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There justification is defined as: “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” This definition divides justification into two parts, one negative in that it removes something from man and the other positive, in that it adds something to man.

In justification, God removes the guilt of my sins. He provides a pardon. He does that because the guilt of my sin has been laid on Christ. On the cross he bore this curse for his people. As the apostle Paul says: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). This curse of condemnation is removed by Christ because, though he was perfectly obedient to God and committed no sin, he became the object of God’s wrath in my place for my sin. So the guilt of my sins is removed.

However, something more is happening in the gospel than a simple removal of guilt. God does not move me from a position of condemnation to one of neutrality. God gives something positive to the believer in justification. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me. Imputation is an accounting term that transfers something from one account to another. In justification, the righteousness of Christ is transferred from his account to that of his children. Again, Paul says, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19). Part of the gospel is that I am counted righteous in the sight of God because the merit of Jesus’ perfect works is credited to my account. Man moves from a position of eternal guilt to one of eternal favor.

So man, who rebelled against his Creator, and deserves punishment is given mercy instead. That is not because God ignores his justice. Rather, he satisfied it by pouring his wrath for sin out on his Son. With guilt removed, he now extends mercy to all those set apart for his mercy. That is a deeper understanding of the work of redemption. It shows the greatness of God’s gift of salvation more abundantly. This perspective gives God’s people far more reason not to take their salvation for granted, but to rejoice before the Lord all their days for his goodness and kindness to them in the gospel.

Regeneration and the Depth of the Gospel

the Bible

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

To be able to articulate the gospel properly, the Christian must consider all of the parts of his salvation. To truncate the gospel by presenting only a part of it as the whole is a distortion of the truth. God does not only justify, but he also adopts, sanctifies, preserves and glorifies. However far before discussions about these various results of Christ’s work can begin, it is necessary to consider the work of God in salvation that precedes these parts. For example, election shows salvation is a result of God’s will, not dependent on any work in the creature. Election shows how man’s total depravity is overcome in the gospel. Total depravity teaches man’s nature is so effected by sin that all his parts are corrupted in such a way that there is no path for him to God without some saving, intervening work. It heightens the sense of God’s grace, kindness and mercy in the work of redeeming some of his creation for his own mysterious purposes. But the work of salvation also includes the regeneration of the Christian.

Not only does God choose, but he also regenerates the one he is saving. The Bible shows the fatal effect of sin in mankind. In the build-up to the account of the fall, God explains Adam’s obligation to the Lord. Adam is to obey him fully in not eating the forbidden fruit, and if he does he will surely die. The account is well-known. He does eat, and through this sin death enters the world. However, Paul shows us the grace of the gospel in describing God’s regenerating work: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2:4-5, ESV). Life under the tyranny of sin is death, but life in the service of Christ is life. Herein is the work of regeneration: moving a soul from death to life.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism refers to regeneration using another term: effectual call. Though different terminology, the meaning is the same. The catechism defines effectual calling as a “work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” (WSC #31). Before the Spirit’s work in regeneration, there is no reaction to spiritual life because man is dead. However, God, because of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the reviving work of the Holy Spirit, awakens in his creatures an awareness of sin and its consequences. He also breathes into a previously dead heart a saving knowledge of Christ and his substitutionary work with a corresponding desire to follow him.

The gospel message is greatly enriched by looking at all the parts of how God works salvation in man. Far beyond a simple declaration of righteousness in justification, the gospel contains those evidences of the warmth and mercy of God toward his creation. More than simply the process of forsaking sin and loving obedience, the gospel shows man’s position of complete dependence on God. The regenerating work of God in Christ creates a depth of understanding only attained when all the parts of man’s salvation are considered.

So God’s grace is seen in his work of choosing some from among his rebellious creation to belong to him. He takes men and women who are dead in sin, and gives to them life in Christ. Salvation is not just a legal declaration of innocence of sin. Through the doctrine of regeneration, God’s grace and kindness for his people is clearly seen in that fact that he makes them alive again. He performs the miraculous, enabling us to comprehend the significance of the work of Christ and to flee to him for salvation.

Does Election Clarify the Gospel?

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV)

One of the difficulties with having theological discussions is definitions. For example, justification means two very different things depending on if you are speaking with a Roman Catholic or a Protestant. The same is true, albeit in a less formalized way, about the word “gospel.” In Scripture the word is used as a place-holder, to summarize all the teaching of Christ. Today’s meaning for the word is often a truncation, or a partial meaning of the good news of salvation. In many cases, the word is used to describe justification, that part of salvation where the sinner is legally declared righteous before the Lord, and the guilt of his sin against God is removed because Christ has satisfied divine justice in his place. Certainly that is good news, but that is not the totality of the gospel. It is part of the story of salvation, but it is not the whole.

Salvation is applied to the believer through a process. This process is all in the hands of God, and he directs the redemption of a lost soul in such a way that it is perfectly accomplished in him. In theology, this process is called the Ordo Salutis, Latin (I’m told) for the Order of Salvation. This logical order of how God coverts a soul, protects the gospel from abridgement and mutation.

Louis Berkhof, in his systematic theology, describes the reformed view of the order of salvation as beginning with regeneration, followed by conversion (including faith and repentance as sub-headings), which leads to justification, adoption, and sanctification. The order is concluded by considering God’s preservation of his saints, and his glorifying them. These theological categories give a much richer understanding of the relationship between God and his people and the way in which he reconciles them to himself. However, these categories are not all neatly found in just one verse. They are found in the breadth of Scripture.

So, thinking through these different parts of God’s work of redemption in his people, what does regeneration add to the definition of the gospel? Regeneration describes the awakening of a dead human spirit. Ezekiel describes regeneration as he speaks of the return of Israel out of exile: “And I will give you a new heart, and a hew spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 36:26). A stone heart has no life in it, but God makes the heart of his people alive. This truth defines the helplessness of man and heightens the sense of his dependence on God for salvation. This truth is not intended to run man down, or simply to make him think ill of himself. Rather it is intended to help him to think with greater joy about God who saved a wretch like him.

The electing work of God is seen as a reason for great gratitude in the verse at the top of this article. There Paul states that the electing, or “chosing” work of God in salvation is cause for constant thankfulness. It is like the man who is being swept way in the rapids, but who is snatched out of it by rescuers on the shore. He will be more grateful to those who saved him than a person who is able to swim to the side and only requires a hand up. Man’s dependence on God for his salvation sets the stage for how he views the rest. With God’s work of regenerating, or making alive, the human heart we begin our understanding of the gospel by giving praise to him.

Against a Truncated Gospel

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)

The central question Christianity answers is: “How does God reconcile man to himself after sin enters the world.” The passage above from Romans is one of many passages in Scripture that shows the centrality of salvation. Paul certainly thought the declaration of the salvation to men as central to his apostolic task. He describes this message of reconciliation as “the gospel.” It is a beautiful label meaning “good news” and good news it is.

There is nothing that could be better news for man destined for eternal judgment than that salvation has come to him. But what is all included in the gospel? To what part of Scripture would you turn to define the gospel? If you are one of those people who sits behind home plate at televised baseball games, you might suggest John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is a beautiful verse, but it contains only part of the gospel. Therein is seen the danger of trying to make too brief a summary of the gospel. Summaries are prone to leave parts out. And when parts of the gospel are left out, the presentation becomes an incomplete picture at best, or a destructive error at worst.

I often travel south of Augusta as part of my responsibilities within the church. As I do so, there is a small church I pass.  I am not sure what the name or denomination of the church is. I can never get past the banner they proudly display by the entrance of their property. This sign has been there for years, and boldly announces: “God is not mad at you no matter what.” That is exactly the kind of unbiblical theological nonsense that leads to the eternal destruction of many human souls and flows from an incomplete understanding of the gospel.

I’m sure this church is sincerely trying to declare the gospel, but their “gospel” message is truncated. They are putting forth a message that, instead of bringing salvation, will give a false sense of security leading to destruction. If God is not mad at me, no matter what, sin makes very little difference. However, Psalm 11:5 says, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” This verse must be held hand-in-hand with John 3:16 and shows the church’s banner for what it is: man’s idea. Psalm 11 is part of the gospel. That is because the gospel is not contained so much in a handful of verses lifted out of the Bible. Rather the entirety of the Bible contains this good news.

I understand the desire to boil the gospel down to a very short phrase. However, giving a faithful representation of God’s plan of redemption via summary is a difficult task. Jesus, when explaining the events around his own crucifixion and resurrection, did so not using one phrase or verse. Instead, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:17). Christians have to include the whole breadth of Scripture when it comes to explaining the gospel. Otherwise the gospel will be presented in a truncated, inaccurate form.

So what is God’s plan of redemption? What does he do to bring salvation to men? Again, a simple verse will not suffice, but the same Paul who speaks of the gospel in Romans 1:16 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” a few chapters later (Romans 8:30). The picture of what happens in redemption according to this verse includes predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.

All of these, and other parts described in other places of Scripture, work together to give a complete picture of redemption. These heighten the sense of good news. So I want to take some time to consider the different parts of the gospel over the next few weeks, in the hope of presenting a faithful gospel message to the praise of God.