The Fragile Doctrine of Justification

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As all but cave-dwellers know, this coming Tuesday, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to door of the castle church in in Wittenberg. Many have commented that the Reformation is over, and that the similarities between Rome and Protestantism are such that the two sides should pursue a shared future. But this is wishful thinking at best, and willful ignorance at worst. The two sides are by no means in agreement on fundamental issues of salvation and grace, to say nothing of ecclesiology.  What has changed is that individual Roman Catholics and even the Pope himself have declared solidarity with Luther on justification by faith. But due to the nature of authority in the Church, this has created an odd situation. Who speaks for the official church? If it is the hierarchy and the magisterium, then Rome and Protestantism are still very far apart. If it is the Pope and his pronouncements, these are in contrast to official teaching. In short, Rome has its own authority problem.
For any who may wonder about th
e difference in justification, the following diagram illustrates this.


Justification for the Protestant/Evangelical believer is a crisis followed by a process. We are justified by faith in Christ. This faith is personal and individual. Each believer must exercise it. This is why baptism follows faith. It is a picture of dying with Christ, being buried with him, and being raised to new life. Baptism is not saving, it does not put one into the body of Christ. It is a picture, a powerful one to be sure, of a spiritual reality. But it does not impart grace or spiritual life. It is a step of obedience on the part of a believer.

Sanctification is the process of making us more like Christ. It is a life-long process, but importantly, while it makes us more like Christ, sanctification does not alter our standing with God. It alters our condition, but never our position with God. Our position is based on the finished work of Christ, and can never be altered. This is why salvation is often portrayed as new life, new birth, a new creation. Eternal life is just that – never-ending. NO man can pluck us from Christ’s hand, nor can our sin. Our sin – all of it – was paid for on Calvary, and the resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of his satisfaction in his son.

The Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is very different. Baptism starts this process, and indeed, puts one into the Church, and imparts eternal life. Without this rite, salvation is not possible. The fact that an infant cannot express faith is entirely unimportant.   Grace is infused throughout the life of a believer as they partake of the sacraments, and as they persevere in works the Church has defined as necessary.  The chart above shows references from Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), but it should be noted, the Catechism is a passel of ambiguity and contradiction. Some things can be read as entirely congruous with evangelical doctrine, other things are wholly at odds with biblical teaching. This is, no doubt, by design, because the Church ultimately reserves the full understanding of any teaching to itself, to its hierarchy.

The most striking difference is that with Rome,  righteousness is not imputed to the believer as a once and for all act, following which we grow into greater likeness to Christ. Rather, righteousness is granted to the believer as a result of cooperating with grace throughout a life of obedience. In other words, it is by works, by what we do, can be lost. It is therefore not eternal life, but probational life. One’s position in heaven will only be attained if one’s condition is good enough. Justification and sanctification become intertwined, and if you’re not sanctified enough, then you will not in the end be justified!

This is exactly the opposite of the New Testament teaching on what it means to be “In Christ.” When we are in Christ, our position is with him in the heavenly places. If we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit, our fellowship is broken, but we do not lose our eternal life.  Because our position is based on his work and not ours, our sins do not put us outside of Christ. Nothing can.

When people tell you that Catholics and Protestants really believe the same thing about salvation, don’t believe it.  This is a reminder that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is always – and once again – under attack. I do not say Roman Catholics are attacking it, but the enemy of our souls is because he hates these truths and the freedom and peace that they bring. It is a fragile doctrine if we are not good stewards of these truths. At this half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation, let everyone who understands these truths re-commit to their clear proclamation.

A word to any Roman Catholics reading this – I pray that you would consider what the Scriptures say about eternal life. Regardless of what the Church may say, search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. Those of us who understand and value the incredible truths of justification by faith pray that you, too, would understand what Jesus has already done to purchase your salvation.



The crux of the Reformation is a question of authority

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Authority is found in God’s Word, not in the Church

Heiko Oberman summarized one aspect of Luther’s view of Scripture as follows: “The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church.” This 500th anniversary month of the Reformation is a good time to revisit the truth this presents. One nexus of the Reformation difference is one of authority. For the evangelical, authority is in the Scriptures, and for the Roman Catholic or Orthodox, it is found in the Church. Here, too, one must be clear about the definition of the church. For the evangelical, the church is an organism, a living body composed of all the born-again souls redeemed by the Lord Jesus. There is no earthly headquarters, no earthly head. For the sacramental traditions, the church is an organization, a hierarchy. The bishops, archbishops, and cardinals that comprise the hierarchy are for these traditions, “the Church.” This is why the phrase is sometimes used, “As the Church teaches, and has always taught…” Believers who are grounded in Scripture don’t use such a phrase, knowing that the church doesn’t teach anything – Scripture teaches us.

How do you know what the Scriptures are?

One sometimes hears the claim that “you would not know what the Scriptures are if the Church didn’t tell you.” This sounds like a plausible claim on the surface, but it’s false. It represents a particular way of looking at authority, and is, in fact, a denial of the intrinsic power and God-breathed nature of Scripture. It is both spiritually false, and historically inaccurate. What we now call the Old Testament, Paul called “the sacred writings” in 2 Tim. 3:15, and he ascribed to them a power, as inspired by God himself. The authority of these books was, therefore, a given at the time of the apostles. Authority is not the same as canonicity, and the latter is an exercise that recognizes the former. The view that says the Church must tell us what books are Scripture is a denial of the inherent authority of these God-breathed writings. The same is true of the New Testament writings. There were many extant writings at the time of the apostles, but the 27 books we have as the New Testament are the only ones preserved as canonical. Why? These books showed themselves to be divinely inspired, to be the product of the apostles or their delegates. In short, the books of the Bible are self-authenticating and needed no external approval. The councils that later pronounced on the books of Scripture did nothing but recognize what already prevailed.  These books are the words of God Himself. The sacramental traditions claim to agree with this, but in practice, they deny it. As Michael Kruger has written,

The only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it. Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so. The Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), when all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia). On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should not be received on their own authority, but apparently, the church’s own claims should be received on their own authority. The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia.[1]

The church – all of those redeemed by God – has a role in the canon. That role is to recognize and submit to the Word of God. The locus of authority can never be the church itself. She is the bride of Christ, subject to his word. She does not form the word or pronounce judgment on the word. Indeed, Luther’s words simply echo what Peter wrote: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23). 

[1] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Crossway Publishers), Kindle Locations 914-921.

I Always Do What Pleases Him

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The Humility of Jesus in John’s Gospel

John’s gospel is a unique document, and students of the life of Christ rightly set this gospel apart from the others. There are the synoptic gospels, and John. John contains 879 verses, and only 124 of these are traceable to the other gospels. This means a full 86% of John’s material is unique to his gospel. A striking aspect of the book is how often Jesus refers to his father. When referring to God, Matthew contains 42 occurrences of “Father.” Mark has 4, and Luke 13. But John’s gospel has 113 such references. What do these many references to God as the Father of Jesus tell us?

Jesus the Eternal Son

The character of this gospel is to present Jesus as the man from heaven. He is the one coming from above, the Word of God, the one in the bosom of the Father, making God known.

The deity of Christ is unequivocal in John. Jesus is equal with God (5:18), he and the Father are one (10:30, 17:11). Before Abraham was, Jesus tells the Jews, “I am.” There was no mistaking what he meant, for the Jews took up stones to kill him. “I am” is a clear reference to the covenant name of God, revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14, I AM THAT I AM. One cannot read anything in John as a new category, that is, as Arianism claims, a god, but not THE God. In 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” If Jesus and the Father are one, and there is but one true God, a lesser god, and one in whom we find eternal life, is not possible.

The intimacy of the Father and the Son

In the gospel where the deity of Christ is so manifest, the book also displays the relationship of Jesus as the Son of the Father with great intimacy. The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he is doing (5:20). He tells the Twelve that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. (14:9). If they know him, they know the Father also. The 14th chapter is filled with references to the Father doing, acting, loving toward the believer, and the ground of it all is the relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus will ask the Father, and he will send the comforter (14:16.) The words of life, all that Jesus has heard from his Father, he has made known to the disciples. (15:15). But the self-giving love of the Son means that this intimacy is shared with believers. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” (15:9). And those who love the Son will be loved by the Father (14:21.)  The great hymn writer Horatius Bonar captures this sentiment when he writes:

So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love wherewith He loves the Son,
Such is His love to me.

The humility of the Son

A wonder of John’s gospel is the portrayal of Jesus in his humility. He is the Son who does only what he sees the Father doing (5:19). He seeks not his own will, but the will of him who sent him (5:30). This, of course, culminates at the cross. Giving himself freely, out of love for the Father, and in submission to his Father, this is Calvary. “The cup that the Father has given me, shall I not drink it?” Peter would intervene, but Jesus explains that in going to the cross, coming to this hour, that the Father is glorified (12:28). Paul muses on this mystery in Philippians 2, when he says Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. This, believer, is the substance of our worship. The Son’s humility in going to the cross, fulfilling what his Father sent him into the world to do, accomplishing all, made it possible for Jesus to utter “It is finished.”

This display of humility in the eternal Son of God is the substance of our worship. We can never stray very far from the condescension of Calvary. We should never, for Christ crucified is the heart of the gospel. This makes a frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper an important reminder to us. Considering his humiliation, his death, never gets old, never becomes routine.

His life of humility is also the pattern for the believer. In John 13, when Jesus set aside his outer garments, and took up a towel, washing the disciple’s feet, he presented a model to them. “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Later, in his first epistle, John will expand on this, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” A sin-cursed world needs to see believers satisfied and marveling at the wonder of Calvary. But it also needs to see believers modeling the example of Jesus.


Deus Ex Machina

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Yesterday’s iPhone X announcement was not so much a product announcement as a media event. While technology writers covered the event, it’s notable that the NY Times TV critic James Poniewozik also wrote about it. Indeed, he writes about the launch as Apple selling us “a better vision of ourselves.”

As society has become increasingly technologized, it is ever so tempting to apply technology to all problems, but more than that, to imagine that some thing, some device will make me better. It will make me smarter, more productive, and more efficient. Yesterday’s iPhone event is an example of how we are lured into this mindset. Apple is masterful at presenting their technology as indispensable for your life. And it’s not just Apple that does this. All technology companies do it – Google, Amazon, et al are all selling a version of a life made better by technology.

The Scriptures warn about worshiping and serving the creature rather than the creator. We can paraphrase that to say the device rather than the deity. Think about how often you check your phone, how infrequently you are without it, how it demands your attention through notifications. All of us spend a lot of time with our technology. This can overwhelm other aspects of our lives, and what is “virtual” can dominate what is truly real.

The prescient Neil Postman wrote about this in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. The book is now 24 years old, making his observations all the more remarkable. The danger, says Postman, is when a society moves from technocracy to technopoly, where the culture becomes so dominated by technology that we believe it holds all the answers. “Technopoly’s hold [is] to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress.”[1] It is difficult to argue that we have not entered such a stage, where technology is treated with decreased skepticism. Indeed, we may have moved from technopoly to technolatry.

But our greatest need is not a better vision of ourselves, but a new version of ourselves – a new creation. That doesn’t come through technology, but through new life in Christ. The problems that still plague humankind are not problems that technology can solve, or that quicker access to more information will ameliorate. As Postman further observed, we should not assume “that the most serious problems confronting us both at personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to adequate information… If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. Mathematical equations, instantaneous communication, and vast quantities of information have nothing to do with these problems. And the computer is useless in addressing them.”[2]

We may not bow down to wood or stone, but our propensity to worship the creature (or what we create) rather than the creator is a part of our fallen condition. Christians should be aware and on guard for the subtle encroachment of the “god in the machine” that whispers and chirps to us.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is not written from a Christian perspective, but much of what he writes applies to Christians. More recently, Tony Reinke’s Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You is specifically aimed at believers with exhortations to be wise about our technology consumption.

Poniewozik muses on what the iPhone X means for him. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m immune to this allure… I will almost certainly buy one of the new phones. What will I do with it? What does anyone? I will Instagram photos of my cooking that I think look more appetizing than they are. I will see another tweet from the president. I will Google song lyrics. I will read Facebook posts and get mad on the internet. And another year from now, I’ll set another reminder to watch another Apple event, believing somewhere deep down that with one more upgrade, I might be perfected.”

Christians need to recall what the writer to the Hebrews said about the Lord Jesus. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Overcoming sin, and becoming more like the Lord Jesus – there’s not an app for that.


[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York, Vintage Books, 1993), p. 117.

[2] Neil Postman, p. 119.


If They Do Not Hear Moses

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At the end of Luke 16, Jesus tells a parable about a poor man named Lazarus, and an unnamed rich man. Both men die and go to different destinations. The poor man goes to “Abraham’s bosom”, commonly thought to be heaven. The rich man ends up in Hades – hell. He is in agony in the flames and cries out to Abraham for relief. There is much speculation about this parable. “Can those in hell really communicate with those in heaven? Can they, in fact, see across the divide? Interesting as they may be, those details aren’t the main point of the parable. Near the end, the rich man’s appeal to Abraham is this:

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

The parable isn’t about how one gets to heaven or hell but articulates a doctrine of Scripture. The rich man’s appeal is for a miracle. Send someone from the dead to warn them about this place, to tell them the truth, and then they will believe. But Abraham counters, they have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them. Moses and the Prophets encompass all the Hebrew Scriptures, the whole of what we know as the Old Testament revelation. These are the Scriptures that Jesus turns to in his post-resurrection ministry as a witness to himself. And, on the Emmaus Road, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:27).

The Scriptures of the Old Testament contain the testimony of Jesus as Messiah. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, the one bringing good news to the downtrodden in Isaiah 53, and the coming King Psalm 24, and the book of Daniel. The Scriptures bear witness to the truth of Jesus as Son of God and the one by whom God will judge the world.

The rich man isn’t satisfied with this answer, and says “no, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” This is an attitude that hasn’t lost currency. To the extent we downgrade the Scriptures we share this attitude. We are telling God that his word is insufficient if we demand to see signs or to have a “surer witness.”  At the end of John’s gospel, he tells his readers “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” What Jesus did while on the earth validated his identity to those first eyewitnesses. But now that he has been raised from the dead, God himself has validated his son, and he points us to the Bible as the surest witness possible. The purpose of recording these things is to enable belief, and belief in Him brings life.

At a time when so much of the church is departing from a doctrine of Scripture that affirms it as God’s Word, it is imperative for Christians to have a solid foundation in the Bible.  We help no one by offering a gospel that isn’t built on God’s revelation. We appeal to no one with an authority that isn’t that of God himself. We have no message for a sin-cursed world if it not based on God’s book. It not only behooves Christians to have a robust view of Scripture, if we do not hold to the Scriptures as God’s Word, we are prey to every doctrinal wind and wave that blows.


Do we still long for the Lord’s return?

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Ben Franklin famously said that the only things certain are death and taxes. Too often we forget that it is only taxes that are certain for the Christian. For the believer in Jesus Christ, death is not a certainty, nor the immediate hope. Rather, it is the return of Jesus to take us from this world. The Lord’s return has been the expectation of believer’s from the very beginning, but it is a hope that has waned in recent decades. Why? There are a few causes for Christians not holding to hope of Jesus’s imminent return as they once did. Many preachers avoid speaking on prophetic themes due to the perception that prophecy is controversial, and potentially confusing. Admittedly, there are differing views on the prophetic portions of Scripture, but that isn’t unique to prophecy. One can turn to many books of the Bible, and find a different interpretation among different preachers, and different traditions. That doesn’t stop men from expositing those books. That the prophetic sections may be confusing is also a poor reason to avoid them. There are other parts of the Bible that are challenging to understand and to preach, and pastors don’t avoid those. I think in some ways, the popularity of prophecy has harmed it.

Trivialized prophecy

The Left Behind series, first as books, then as movies, may have brought parts of biblical prophecy to a mass audience, but as always happens, in popularizing it, it also trivialized. The underlying theology of the series is historical premillennialism, with the expectation of the coming of Jesus preceding the 70th week of Daniel’s prophecy, also known as pre-tribulational. Schools such as Dallas Seminary, Grace Seminary, Biola, among others, teach this theology. That has changed with some schools, but the point is that a large part of conservative evangelicalism held to this theology. In the Bible conference movement of the early 20th century, prophetic themes were also a mainstay. But the Left Behind books, by sensationalizing it, made premillennialism seem outré and strange, just a bit to the left of snake-handlers. The loss is that this discouraged believers from the study of prophecy, regardless of the position. For some, they feel that holding no position may be best. We need to look critically at any attitude that dissuades us from studying part of God’s word. Date setting and other attempts to tie current events to the prophetic calendar have also negatively effect on the study of prophecy. This is a foolish and harmful practice. The New Testament tells the believer to look for the savior, not signs. It is a diversion to look at circumstances rather than to set our expectation on the soon return of Jesus Himself.

We are comfortable here

Another reason our eagerness for the Lord’s return has ebbed is because we feel comfortable in the world. It is a constant danger, and a constant temptation that believers get comfortable here on this earth, forgetting that our citizenship is not here, but is in heaven, where, as Paul says, we await a savior. Jesus warned his followers to be watchful, “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” (Luke 21:34) Grace, Paul tells Titus, teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldy lusts. Grace loosens the grip of this world on our souls, if we heed it. And that loosening takes the form of looking forward to what Paul calls the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. If we have our hope set on him, the present age, an age dominated by sin, will have less of a hold on us.

The return of Jesus for his own is the perennial hope of Christians. We have the privilege that in our lives, he could come. We would not die, but rather mortality would be swallowed up by immortality! Paul tells the Thessalonians “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Death and going to be with Christ is not our immediate hope, his return is. When were you last encouraged that the Lord is coming soon?


Science, Hubris, and the Importance of Admitting Ignorance

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I heard a piece this weekend on the TED Radio Hour that got me thinking a bit about assumptions, the scientific method, and how science is for some, a kind of faith. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at Cal Tech, gave a talk entitled “Cosmology and the Arrow of Time.” Some salient points Carroll made were, the universe is changing as time passes. It is expanding. The universe was “smooth” at the beginning. This was a time of low-entropy, of high order. The universe was in a very delicate arrangement, it was not random, but we’re not quite sure why.

Through the program, host Guy Raz and Sean Carroll discuss some of these ideas, and Raz asks this: “If there was low entropy in the beginning, if there was order, could it suggest that there was something that intended it to be that way?” Carroll’s somewhat extended reply:

“It could be. If you ask a question like that, the answer is yeah, it could be. There are many things that are possible. That’s certainly something that people have thought about. There’s something called the teleological argument or the argument from design for the existence of a supernatural creator that says that, you know, features of our universe, if they were very different wouldn’t have allowed for us human beings to exist. But the early universe, interestingly, the problem is not just it was quite orderly, but it was really way more orderly than it needed to be for us to be here. If you really want to make this argument that the universe is set up to allow for the existence of life or humanity or something life that, the early universe is overkill. So it seems that whatever the explanation is, for why the early universe has the features its does, that’s not a really good one. We need something to explain why it is so exquisitely low entropy, so many particulars in such a very, very specific state. And as physicists, we have theories, you know, we don’t know which one is right, it’s early times as far this big question kind of thinking goes, but it’s not hard to imagine that we’ll get a good physics explanation rather than reaching for something beyond the physical world.”

Christians, of course, call that explanation for early order “God.” Genesis begins with an account of God creating the heavens and the earth. But the account is low on details, because, as Herbert Lockyer noted, “The Scriptures were given to tell men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The Bible is not a textbook on cosmology, so we shouldn’t expect that kind of detail. But Carroll discounts an explanation involving the supernatural, apparently because the early universe is too orderly than it needs to be. He doesn’t explain why a situation of too much order is problematic. Too much order for what, or why? I don’t think that’s a good reason, but one thing he does admit is, “We don’t know.” My intention here isn’t to pick apart his argument, but to highlight this overarching theme: What we often think of as science has lacunas of understanding, and for all we may know, there is much that is not known.

In other words, a basic question on the origin of the universe, an important piece of information about solving a scientific problem, remains out of reach, not understood. How does that fit in with the idea of “settled science” I wonder? My question is not so much to induce a revision of cosmology, so much as ask my atheist friends if they are prepared to acknowledge there are gaps –in human understanding of science, and these gaps are sometimes wide. Knowledge has so often been revised; updated, and indeed supplanted; that it seems a posture of humility is a good one to assume on so many of these questions. It’s very difficult to set up an experiment to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, so there is theory, some data surrounding those theories, but in the end, they are theories. And the very fact that those theories have been revised demonstrates they can be wrong. Scientists appeal to a lack of evidence for the existence of God, but an honest scientist will likewise admit that there is no proof of the non-existence of God. In other words, it’s not a good argument.

For a working cosmologist such as Sean Carroll, he can get closer to the data, and whatever experiments may be possible, but for the rest of society, that’s out of reach. What we are left with is faith, belief in information given to us from someone else, and those who believe do so not because of firsthand knowledge, or eyewitness accounts, but on a personal decision to trust the information you’re being given.

So, for my atheist friends, I have a suggestion and a plea. It’s forthright to acknowledge science involves gaps and theories, and remains not at all settled, but elusive and faith-based. I think this should be uncontroversial, for it is demonstrable. And given this, my plea would be for humility in the light of this. Current science may be the best it has ever been, but it’s incomplete. That’s a fact.




Getting to Know the Gospels Better

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One cannot study the gospels without the idea of harmony coming to the fore. Specifically, in the synoptic gospels, the idea of laying one gospel alongside the other two has a very long history. Beginning with Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century, putting the gospel records side by side to see both similarities and differences can show you an awful lot. Tatian intended to highlight the fact that the gospels are one story. He reduced the 3780 total verses of the four gospels to 2769 in his “harmony” – a reduction of about 25%(!) One can see some logic in his method. The Lord Jesus did not live four different lives, each evangelist giving us but one of them. His earthly ministry, death, and resurrection are relatable as a single narrative story. What Titian’s method obscures, however, is that the Holy Spirit inspired not just one evangelist, but four. Each of the four has a distinct perspective on the life of Christ, and so attempts at harmonization can mask the diverse pictures each gospel writer provides.

In one of the books I’ve been using for gospel study, the author recommended marking in your Bible which gospel incidents (aka ‘Pericopes’) occur in which gospels. An pericope is not just a narrative of an event, or a parable, but any unit teaching Jesus spoke, or something the evangelist recorded. It can be as short as a single verse, such as Mark 14:51, the young man who flees from the garden after the arrest of Jesus. In looking at the gospels in these incidental portions, you’re better able to better compare them, and importantly, to glean from them more of what each author put there differently from his fellow evangelists. I did this, and I believe it has indeed given me a better understanding of the gospels. It isn’t a short exercise, and it requires a fair bit of grunt work, but I see it paying dividends. There are a couple of steps to doing this.

1.  Get a list of gospel periscopes. There are several online, and various folks count them differently. The one I used is from the Semantic Bible site.  This list has 355 distinct periscopes. Note that things like Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s genealogy are counted as different. Your first thought may be, “Both Matthew and Luke contain genealogies of Jesus.” They do, but they differ enough from one another that you should ask how and why, and it makes sense to count them as different.

2. Mark your Bible with an different colored dot for where these periscopes occur. I chose purple to represent Matthew, green for Mark, red for Luke, and blue for John. Any color will do, you just need to be consistent. It took me several hours over 3-4 days to do this. It’s laborious, because you have to constantly refer back to the list, and make sure you’re in synch. This is the result:

The above is from Matthew 12, and you can see that beginning at verse 22, this pericope is found in all 3 synoptic gospels. However, with verse 31, only Matthew and Mark record the portion about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. At verse 33, the tree and its fruit is found only in Matthew.  You can thus see how each writer frames the same story a little differently, and you begin to ask why. You ask not only about the material they include, but how they record it is significant. For example, all three synoptic gospels record the baptism of Jesus. Only Matthew contains the dialogue with John about needing to baptized by Jesus, and Jesus’ answer about fulfilling all righteousness. Why? Matthew and Luke both say that afterward the heavens were opened, (though Matthew says “the heavens were opened to him”) but Mark says the heavens were “torn open.” Why? These are examples of the subtle differences you begin to notice in the gospel records, and doing so helps you go deeper into these narratives of the Lord Jesus. Asking good questions of the text of Scripture helps you better understand God’s Word.

Another thing you notice is what material is unique to each writer. For example, all of Luke 15, and about half of chapter 16 are unique to this gospel. Why? Even without the markings I describe above, it’s fairly easy to see that a huge amount of John is unique (On the basis of verses to be found in other gospels, it’s nearly 86% of them that are found only in John.) But something else I noticed is that as the gospels progress, and Jesus comes closer to his death and resurrection, this material is found in all four gospels. This tells me what Paul echoed to the Corinthians, that what is of first importance is, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The atonement is the heart of the gospel, and it is the heart of the gospels. That is but one small example of the benefits of studying the gospels in this degree of closeness.

Jesus is the Logos, the Word, the one in whom God has, in these last days, spoken to us. The very words of Scripture are the way we know him. Studying these words with greater focus, greater detail, can only yield spiritual treasures.


Reading Scripture Recursively

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I’m a programmer by trade and so the idea of recursion or looping is something I use all the time. It’s the technique of repeatedly passing through a set of data, usually doing some process on each bit of data as you read it; counting, summing or sorting. The thought of applying that to the Bible isn’t immediately apparent, but there are some parallels. Many Christians set of goal of reading through the entire Bible in a year. That’s a valuable goal that yields real benefits. For one, you maintain a familiarity with all of Scripture that’s important to an understand biblical theology. Such an overview of the grand themes of the Bible is necessary and sadly lacking for many readers of Scripture.

But there’s another kind of reading that is likewise necessary, to more deeply explore a particular book of the Bible. I refer to this as recursive reading, because you pass over the same material repeatedly. Reading in this fashion isn’t a head-banging exercise to simply do it again and again. Rather, as you read, you are looking for themes to emerge, you note the writing style of the author of a book, or what words are repeated in the book. You get an understanding of the book that only comes by more or less soaking in it.

A couple of years ago, I read through Ezekiel in this way and noted that the phrase “And they shall know that I am the LORD” kept coming up.  That phrase occurs over a dozen times, demonstrating that a key purpose in the prophecy given of Ezekiel was to call the people back to the One they had forgotten. If I hadn’t read and re-read the book, that detail may not have struck me. This method works best, particularly with the Old Testament, if you read larger chunks of Scripture in one sitting. To get through the Bible in a year, you need to read about 3.5 chapters per day. I’ve found that to pick up the sort of themes and other details I’m talking about, 10-12 chapters at a time is a better amount. Doing that, you’d get through the book of Exodus in 4 days. After that, you flip back to chapter 1 and do it again. And then do it again after that. Repeat till saturated. You’ll begin to notice things and to understand in a far different way than you would by visiting a book of the Bible only once a year.

The other aid in recursive reading is to write. I’ve used a wide margin Bible for several years, and would not part with it, but if you don’t have one, or don’t want to use one, a notebook at the ready will do. I also think it’s very important to write, not type your notes.  The research around cognitive science bears out that retention and learning are simply much better when you are dealing with physical media of pen and paper, rather than electronic. My own experience, anecdotal though it may be, affirms this as well. I remember things better if I write in longhand.

Coming to the New Testament, this method is no less beneficial. The gospels are longer books, narrative in many places, and so a similar technique applies as with Old Testament books.  A concordance is a great tool, and here too, this is another area where I go old school and not electronic. If you look up a word online, it’s rare to see a list of all occurrences in a single list. If you do, there is still pagination involved.  I still use Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance quite often, and seeing the words and their occurrences shows what an online concordance doesn’t. Look at the number of times Mark uses the word “straightway” or immediately compared to the other gospel writers.

Mark is the gospel of action, and his repeated use of this word demonstrates this theme. Could you have read that in a commentary? Sure, but don’t reach for the commentary first. Go to it last, after you’ve exhausted your own reading, written what you’ve learned, and then you can compare your thoughts with someone else’s.

In the epistles, you’re dealing with much shorter books, but the benefit of going over the same ground, again and again, is no less true for these letters. Material in the epistles is concentrated theology, like a sponge that is full, but repeated wringing will bring forth more. In a book such as Ephesians, reading it through once a day for 30 days, writing, sifting, ruminating on the text – this gives you an understanding that a once a year pass through will simply not provide. What modifiers or adjectives does Paul uses when he talks about grace? Can you arrive at a definition of ‘mystery’ as Paul uses it in Ephesians? Those are a couple of examples of the sort of questions recursive reading helps you with. It’s impossible to know the Bible too well. God’s Word continues to yield treasure to the one who reads, and mining the Scriptures in this way will bring eternal wealth.



The Son of Man: Jesus’ Self-Designation as Messiah

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The term “Son of Man” occurs repeatedly in the gospels as the way that Jesus most frequently refers to himself. Why is this, and what does the term mean? The fact that the term is limited almost exclusively to the gospel records also informs the meaning of Son of Man.  There are at least three things one can say about the title, and its meaning.
Son of Man is a Messianic title. The use of Son of Man can be traced to Daniel 7:13-14, where the vision Daniel sees includes this:

“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.”

From Daniel, one can see that Son of Man is an ascription of Messianic identity. In applying it to himself as he repeatedly does, Jesus is making an overt and explicit claim to be Messiah. The second half of this passage further clarifies who Messiah is. He is the one to whom a kingdom is given, people – all people – will honor and serve him. No longer is it only the people, but peoples who will serve him, all the Gentile nations along with Israel. His kingdom is not temporal, but eternal. These things cannot be true of anyone but God. The Messiah therefore is identified as deity. No one but God is to be served everlastingly. This is important to see, because for those who aver that Jesus never made an explicit claim to be God, Son of Man is in fact just this.

When Jesus uses the term in the gospels, it comes with statements that reinforce these claims. “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (Matt. 9:6). Recall that the scribes had murmured to themselves that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, for no one but God had authority to forgive sins. In this they were indeed correct, but Jesus meets this not by opposing that assumption, but by affirming that he, as Son of Man, has the authority to forgive sins, because as Daniel makes plain, the Son of Man is a title of deity.

In John 5, Jesus makes a series of statements that are almost mathematical in their implication. If A = B and A = C, then A = C. “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father.” (John 5:21-23) This culminates in Jesus’ claim that he possesses all authority to judge. “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” Here, again, the authority he has is linked to his being the Son of Man.

Why does Matthew have the preponderance of usages of the term? Messiah is preeminently the promised Messiah to Israel. He is her King and ruler. Secondly, the title also has to do with ruling on the earth, and the promises of earthly blessing are given to Israel, not to the church. This is why the usage of the term is so concentrated in those chapters where Jesus is teaching about his return and the judgment to come upon the earth. Matthew 24, the chapter when Jesus speaks of his return in power and glory, contains 6 references. The parallel passage in Luke has 4 occurrences.

Son of Man does not highlight Jesus as Head of The Church.
After the gospels, the term occurs but once in Acts, when Stephen is about to die and sees the heavens opened, and says “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56.) Recall that is was before a Jewish council, and the high priest that Stephen is witnessing, and this, too, makes sense. Importantly, the term Son of Man occurs in none of the New Testament epistles. Why is this? Again, it is because the term refers to Jesus in his office as Jewish Messiah, rather than Bridegroom or Head of church. Paul, more than anyone else, presents Jesus as head of the church, which is his body.  It surely indicates this purpose that when speaking the body of Christ, no writer of an epistle ever references Son of Man when speaking of the Lord Jesus. Those in the body of Christ will not come into judgement to determine their eternal destiny. They have already been judged in the person of Christ on the cross. But those who are not in Christ will one day face judgement for their sins, and will stand before the Son of Man. This reflects the absence of the term in the epistles. When we come to the book of Revelation, the term reappears. And this, too, is fitting. The book has to do with judgments upon the earth, the sphere of the Son of Man’s authority. Yet because the Son of Man does not preeminently highlight Jesus in his relation to the church, this does not mean that Christians should not be interested or set aside all that it entails. On the contrary, we worship the Lord Jesus for all his manifold offices and glories.

Son of Man points to the Kingdom of God on the earth. The subject of prophecy is often fraught with difficulty and confusion. Many believers simply don’t study prophecy because it is perplexing. But I continually go back to something written by William Kelly on the topic. In his Lectures on the Book of Revelation, he notes:

“The objection to the study of prophecy arises from a root of unbelief, sometimes deeply hidden, which supposes all blessing to depend on the measure in which a subject bears immediately on one’s self or one’s circumstances. Thus when some cry out, That is not essential, I would ask, Essential to what? If they mean essential to salvation, we agree. On the other hand prophecy is essential to our due appreciation of Christ’s glory and of the glory that is to be revealed. To slight prophecy therefore is to despise unwittingly that glory and the grace which has made it known to us. It is the plainest evidence of the selfishness of our hearts, which wants every word of God to be directly about ourselves.”[1]

In other words, if prophecy is primarily about what is future, rather than the here and now, this shouldn’t lessen our interest in it. It has to do with the revealing of Christ’s glory upon the earth. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, it will be for judgment and to establish his kingdom physically and visibly. In the prophets, there are numerous passages that put forth these Kingdom conditions. The Kingdom of God is such a vast topic, and so much the substance of Old Testament revelation that it is impossible to do justice to it briefly. But one can say that among the many promises about the Kingdom, its open manifestation is certainly among them. A couple of examples illustrate this. Hab. 4:2, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Is. 11:9, “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea.” This open manifestation of the Kingdom links to the Son of Man, and  takes us back to Daniel 7, where dominion and rule are promised to the Son of Man. As you read the gospels, reflect on all the richness that this self-designation of Jesus means. If it is a promise of the glory to come, it is his glory, and therefore should interest every Christian.

[1] William Kelly, Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Bibles and Publications, Quebec, 1984), p.4-5.