Monthly Archives: February 2010

Are our hearts in our control?

As someone who has dwelt long in the land of experiential pietism, to speak of “the heart” is code for the inner part of a person’s nature that no one can affect except God himself.  God gives a good heart allow an evil heart and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

But for the author of Hebrews, the heart is a corporate responsibility.  As he says in chapter 3:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Likewise, I would think it is entirely up to God (and it is, in a way, but that doesn’t mean our actions aren’t instrumental to his plan) as to whether there be “an Esau” in our midst.  But that is not how the author of Hebrews thinks:

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

In my language-world, the only corporate exhortation that could be made about an “evil heart” or an “Esau” would be to expel such a person.  According to the author of Hebrews we are to prevent anyone from developing in this way by exhorting one another, lifting up drooping hands, and strengthening weak knees, to make sure that “no one fails to obtain the grace of God.”

Revisiting Abraham’s Character

Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,…

Do you think Protestant sermons would typically describe anyone as faithful just like Jesus was?  Notice the only contrast here is between the status of Moses and Jesus.  Nothing is said of the fact that Moses was a sinner and Jesus was sinless–though the author of Hebrews is a aware of that fact, 4.15).  It is as if it doesn’t matter.  Moses was still faithful like Jesus was.

And, of course, he was faithful by faith–by his trust in God:

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

I bring this up because of the strategy of Evangelical commentators on Romans to deal with Romans 4.5 by claiming that Paul disagreed with his Jewish opponents about Abraham’s moral character–while they thought Abraham had been faithful to God, Paul considered him to have been “ungodly.”

Could the author of Hebrews have agreed with this?  He said Moses was faithful by faith.  He describes Abraham’s behavior as no less faith-filled than Moses’:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Notice also how Abraham’s example is used as a model of faithfulness that we should imitate (see Hebrews 6).

So if Hebrews has no trouble calling Moses “faithful” and would have no problem saying the same of Abraham, would Paul disagree?

For Further Reading:

John Murray on Romans 4.5 and Abraham’s godliness

Gentile Abraham, David, and Phinehas

Do the works of Abraham the ungodly?

RePost: “Do you even remember the day that you sold out?”

I remember (imperfectly, I’m sure) that line from the protagonist in a John Grisham movie adaptation. The young lawyer sat across the table from an older lawyer. The older lawyer was defending a health insurance company that had deliberately refused their obligations to the point that a young man was now fatally sick. The young lawyer was supposed to be inquiring about the company’s deliberations, but he was overwhelmed. He got personal: “Do you even remember the day you sold out?”

While there are many unchurched people in our present culture, I think there are even more who need to be asked that question. People who were attracted for some reason to a Bible study or a church or a Billy Graham conference. But also, much more seriously, people who were raised Christians, who were baptized and catechized and then left home and now are unbelievers.

As someone who occasionally makes contact with friends from many years ago when we went to a Christian college together, this has almost become a haunting fear–a paranoia learned from experience. They were professing believers once. Are they now? What happened in the between time? “Do you even remember the day you sold out?”

It is something I pray about with all my children. God, I thank you for what they have, but please give them steadfastness in that faith. Don’t let them leave you. Guard their hearts. Remind them of what they have in Christ. Someday they’re going to leave home. My role in discipling them will diminish drastically. Will they stay or will they go?

Understand, I think the Bible shows us that we should be optimistic and positive for the most part. But I’ve witnessed many cases of selling out. Any time you catch up on a church that you’ve been away from for about a decade you will find cases. People sold out. And, for the most part, they make sure that they forget they did it. “Do you even remember the day you sould out?”

So what I’m saying could be abused. Comfort and assurance could be undermined. That’s understood. We should never make the Christian life look like some sort of shaky affair–as if the world was more attractive than the promises of Christ or stronger than the Spirit who raised him from the dead.

Nevertheless, I simply can’t express how pastorally suicidal it is to tell professing Christians that they never need to be concerned about eternal issues–that Christians are somehow incapable of selling out. Which is why I think it is pastorally harmful to go around saying that no one has ever sold out–that whatever common graces we have in common with those who left us are simply to be discounted so that the Christian can never both trust Christ (and/or view himself as one who trusts Christ) and heed God’s warnings that he will be eternally damned if he doesn’t continue to follow Him. It is not like this is a close or confused issue in Scripture. The Apostle Paul gives us loads of pastoral theology (Is there any other kind? Am I being redundant in that expression?) in which he arduously encourages believers to continue in the faith and cast off distractions in order to inherit eternal life. Christian security is no bobsled-ride from conversion.

I’m not saying that warnings are the only or even a primary means of encouraging perseverance among professing Christians. It depends on circumstances. Ephesians, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians and Hebrews don’t sound the same and neither should we pastors sound the same in all situations. But I became a Calvinist not because it was a self-attesting and self-contained tradition handed to me but because I was convinced that my own tradition (Evangelical Arminian) was in error and that I had to follow the Bible wherever it led. It would be a rather stone-cold extramarital affair if I was going to let an abstraction like the ordo salutis permit me to reject the Holy Spirit’s own language of pastoral exhortation as theologically dangerous:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,

“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”

FOR FURTHER READING:
The Necessity of New Obedience
Comments by Charles Hodge on Perseverance Texts in First Corinthians

Destroying limits is self-destructive

This conversation reminded me of an episode of Buffy.  To be clear, the portrayal of magic on the show is problematic (along with many other things), but I find it interesting that the writers dabbled in similar principles about good and evil in magic.

In this scenario Willow is a powerful magic user who has become psychotic with rage.  (She had attempted to stop using magic because the power was addictive.)  Tara has been murdered and Willow found she could not raise her from the dead.  (Dawn had formerly tried to raise her recently dead mother but, in a “Monkey Paw” scenario, changed her mind and canceled the attempt before something horrible came from the grave.  Warren is Tara’s murderer.

BUFFY: (sighing) We need to find Willow.

XANDER: Yeah, she’s off the wagon big-time. Warren’s a dead man if she finds him.

DAWN: (bitterly) Good.

BUFFY: Dawn, don’t say that.

DAWN: Why not? (the others looking at her) I’d do it myself if I could.

BUFFY: Because you don’t really feel that way.

DAWN: Yes I do. And you should too. He killed Tara, and he nearly killed you. He needs to pay.

XANDER: Out of the mouths of babes.

BUFFY: Xander.

XANDER: I’m just saying he’s … he’s just as bad as any vampire you’ve sent to dustville.

BUFFY: Being a Slayer doesn’t give me a license to kill. Warren’s human.

DAWN: (scoffs) So?

BUFFY: So the human world has its own rules for dealing with people like him.

XANDER: Yeah, we all know how well those rules work.

BUFFY: Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. We can’t control the universe. If we were supposed to … then the magic wouldn’t change Willow the way it does. And … we’d be able to bring Tara back.

DAWN: (very quietly) And Mom.

BUFFY: There are limits to what we can do. There should be. Willow doesn’t want to believe that. And now she’s messing with forces that want to hurt her. All of us.

via Villains – Transcript Buffy Episode. (emphasis added)

This show, by the way, has multiple moral problems–especially season six in which this episode takes place.  But I thought it was worth mentioning.

The 5 paragraphs of Romans 2 in the ESV

Romans 2

+ Romans 2.1-5 Jews are just as much provoking wrath as Gentiles are, so Jews have no reason to believe they are better. JEWS ARE IN NO POSITION TO JUDGE THE NATIONS

= Romans 2.6-11 God judges both Jews and Gentiles impartially so Jews don’t get special favors.

= Romans 2.12-16 Jesus will judge both Jews and Gentiles, vindicating those who trust in him and condemning those who reject his Word.

+ Romans 2.17-24 Jews are just as much provoking wrath as Gentiles are, so Jews have no reason to believe they are better. JEWS ARE IN NO POSITION TO TEACH THE NATIONS

= Romans 2.25-29 God judges both Jews and Gentiles impartially so Jews don’t get special favors.

So is Paul just restating themes?

Maybe not.

1. First claim: Romans 2.1-5: Israel is not in a position to judge the Gentiles but is going to be judged.

[Question A: But isn't God going to be partial to Israel?]

2. Second claim : Romans 2.6-11: God judges both Jews and Gentiles impartially.

[Question B: But doesn't the Law give Israel an advantage?]

3. Third claim:  Romans 2.12-16: The Law may alter the terms by which one is judged, but Gentiles can trust and obey or disbelieve and disobey just like Jews can.  So fundamental ly, though Jews were entrusted with the Law, the Gentiles can still obey God.  Better an obedient Gentile than a disobedient Jew.

[ Question C: But, remembering your first claim, are you sure that Israel has been so disobedient?]

4. Fourth claim (reiterating first claim): Romans 2.17-24: Israel’s failure is public and obvious.  Just as the exile was a smear on God’s reputation, so Israel’s sin is at the heart of Gentile theological perversion mentioned earlier (Romans 1.18ff).

[Question B2: But doesn't circumcision make a difference (as asked about the law in Question B above)?]

5. Fifth claim: Romans 2.25-29: Circumcision demands a certain kind of obedience, but is useless for demarcating blessing from God if the circumcised person is disobedient.  Obedient Gentiles, on the other hand, show they belong to the true God.

Not just the hearers of the law, the merely circumcised.

He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

That last phrase seems quite close to what Paul has said in Romans 2: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”

And then this:

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Israel’s failure to keep the law

Paul’s argument that Israel has not kept the Law does not begin in Romans 2.17 or even in Romans 2.1.  Romans 1.18ff has Scriptural allusions that show that Israel’s sin is involved in the sin of the Greeks.  The Gentiles are not off, “by themselves,” going off on their own way.  They are going off against what they have learned from the Israelites scattered among them or what those Israelites should have taught but did not.

Remember, when Paul was disgusted with idolatry in Athens, he began dealing with the Jews in that area as well as the pagan themselves:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned [1] in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and [2] in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

In fact, Paul’s ministry involved dealing with occultism among the Jews and Proselytes.  Acts 13:

When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.

And Acts 19:

Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.

All the evidence leads us to think this is the proselyte community.  Even if the pagans believed magic was shameful and had to be hidden (which I find doubtful, but I’ll let someone inform me otherwise if they have studied the question), the context is Jews and their Greek followers.

So while Romans 1.18ff does deal with Gentile sin in the Mediterranean world (Greek), it also hints strongly at Jewish compromise and corruption being involved in it.

This helps Paul’s transition in Romans 2 make sense:

Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

Typically the “therefore” would follow from what has already been said.  But Paul has just said it is worse to approve of the things than to merely do them.  So how can he say that one should not condemn such actions?  Perhaps because he has already alluded to the fact that for Israel to pretend to be separate from the cycle of judgment is mere pretense.  Everyone knows that Israel is involved.

Which brings us to the “man” of Romans 2:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed…

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

But did every single Jew engage in these practices?  We know from the Gospels that not every Jews sinned in that way.  The “you” or Romans 2 is much like the “I” of Romans 7, a representation of Israel. The Jews are notorious covenant-breakers and it destroys their witness.  They produce blasphemy rather than conversion among the Gentiles.

The point of Paul’s condemnation is not to convince anyone of universal human sinfulness.

Would Paul’s argument then pass by the righteous Jews like Zecharias and Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna?  Consider the prayer of Daniel. Israel’s failure to keep the law as a nation meant that God’s appointed role for the nation had been abandoned by the nation.  No righteous individual could change that.

So there was no point in an Israelite boasting in his covenant with God.  It was all an obvious and undeniable failure.  (Note the contrast with Paul’s boasting.  The issue is not that to “boast in God” is some sort of code-word for boasting in self.  The issue is that Christ is now actually accomplishing something that the Law never enabled Israel to do).

Finally, when Paul says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” he is talking about the sin he has been describing in Romans 1.18ff.  The Gentiles are not sinning against general revelation.  In Acts 14 and 17, Paul treats general revelation as something that should lead Gentiles to search for special revelation.  He doesn’t treat it as ending all ignorance.  In Romans 1.18ff he’s talking about Gentiles in the wake of the post-exilic dispersion of the Jews throughout the Mediterranean world.  The things “that have been made” is probably a mistranslation.  God is has been known in the things “that have been done” since the creation of the world.  Remember, when Paul speaks of Gentiles who “keep the precepts of the law” and who “condemn you who have the written code.” he is speaking of actual cases of Gentiles who did just that (here, here).  And to “have the written code” does not mean you alone have heard it or own a copy of it on  a scroll, but that you alone are covenantally entrusted with it (Romans 3.1).

RePost: Repentance and Grace

We know the passage well:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.3-8).

What is interesting is that this was not a message reserved for an inquiring Pharisee. Jesus gave the same message to his committed disciples.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18.1-3).

Here “turn” in the ESV is a more literal translation of what is rendered “are converted” in the NASB and the KJV. What seems obvious to me, but I don’t remember ever seeing discussed anywhere, is that these two exhortations are substantially similar. Jesus tells the disciples who have been following him for years and a secretly inquiring Pharisee the same thing.

I’ve heard pastors claim that none of the disciples were regenerate until late in Jesus’ ministry, perhaps even after his resurrection. I don’t believe that. It strikes me as the same sort of mistake as viewing Genesis 15.6 as a record of Abram’s conversion, when Hebrews 11 is quite plain that Abram was a believer at least from the time of Genesis 12.1-3. The disciples were following Jesus as much as Abraham had and yet they needed to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of God. (True, Judas never had the same faith as Abram, but that was only revealed by the way he responded to Christ’s ongoing exhortations.)

A couple of stories from Acts might also be relevant here. In Acts 10.1-4 we have the introduction to the story of the gospel being preached to the Gentiles:

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.

Obviously, Cornelius is already regenerate and justified as we define those terms in our theological parlance. As Francis Turretin observes:

Although a Gentile by birth, Cornelius was yet a proselyte by religion. Although he could not believe that the Messiah had come and was that Jesus whom Peter preached, yet he could believe with the Jews from the oracles of the prophets that he would come. Thus he is not to be reckoned among the Gentiles, but among the patriarchs who looked for salvation from a Redeemer nor yet manifested. Hence by the advent of Peter, he did not receive a beginning, but an increase of faith.

We find the same thing in the case of Lydia,

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16.13-15).

Lydia was, according to our theological definitions gleaned from the Bible as a whole, regenerate and justified before she ever met Paul. Paul worshiped with her because they worshiped the same God. God’s opening of her heart I think proves the necessity and reality of God’s effectual call by analogy and a forteriori argument, but the event shows first that even regenerate, justified, persons only pursue holiness and “increase of faith” by the Spirit’s monergistic work.

And these faithful, God-fearers do have to turn, change, repent, convert in response to the preaching of the Gospel. You would think their maturity would count for more and perhaps in some ways it did count. But they had to be babies again no matter how long they had learned the Scriptures. They had to leave everything they knew and follow God in a new direction. And one of the challenges to humility must have been this: they had to enter the Kingdom in the same way a a convert from paganism. Both faithful synagogue worshipers who were “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1.6) and Joe Pagan with his gods and goddesses, prostitutes and thievery, got in the same way. Both had to be baptized as if they came in on the same footing. One in Christ.

It is interesting. In both sorts of preaching we do see God’s antecedent grace affirmed. The angel told Cornelius that his life of faith was now being blessed with the fulfillment of the promises he had been hoping in. The Apostles preach to the Israelites that God’s grace to them is now being realized in the fulfillment of promises. But the pagans too are told that they have received grace (albeit common grace which would not result in personal salvation from God’s ultimate judgment). Acts 14 affirms God is close and in Acts 17 we find that, in addition to Israel’s special status as God’s son, all people are in a general sense God’s offspring. Because God has alway been (to a varying extent, whether special or common) gracious to them, they need to trust God now in his ultimate act of love and faithfulness through Jesus.

This seems to be the case even within the Church of the New Covenant. It is past grace and the certainty of it which gives one the privelige and duty of repenting of sin and endeavoring after new obedience.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves [17] or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12.12, 13). “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12.27). “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (10.21, 22). And again: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6.15-20).

In some quarters we might expect Paul to question these prostitute-hiring professing believers whether they had actually been united to Christ. “If your body were really a Temple for the Spirit, then you wouldn’t be engaged in this sin.” But that’s not what he says. According to Paul’s reasoning, to deny the Corinthians had received grace and the Spirit and incorporation into Christ would undercut his entire exhortation for them to repent.

This dynamic is found all over Paul’s epistles. While the circumstances of the exhortations are quite different, it seems to have some parallele to Matthew 18.1-3. The disciples were following Jesus. They had received grace. But they had to keep following. They had to become like little children. Judas refused.

Colossians 3.5-15:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man [anthropos = Adam] with its practices and have put on the new man [anthropos = Adam], which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

Or to summarize from Second Corinthians 6.1: “Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”

Even though the Colossians have already in some sense been transferred from one Adam to another, they are called to continue further in what they have. In fact, Paul has no problem describing what they must do as what has already happened to Christians. For example:

The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13.12-14; bold added).

Telling someone to put on Christ is not necessarily a denial that they have already been clothed in Christ. Nor does confidence that they have been clothed on Christ in any way weaken the necessity that they put on Christ.

One of the best Reformed expositions of this dynamic is The Free Offer of the Gospel by John Murray, though one should also consult his essay on common grace. Murray is dealing with the evangelism of unbelievers (though his texts in many cases also deal with the recipients of covenant grace) and shows that confidence in God grace does not undercut the Gospel call to repent and believe, but establishes it.

Thus, anyone who says that being in covenant makes them immune to exhortations to repent and believe simply doesn’t understand what it means to be in covenant. The dynamic of law and gospel (however much that terminology is misleading regarding the Old and New Testaments) is still firmly in place.

God values his reputation with a drop in a bucket?

And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”

But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.”

via Passage: Numbers 14 ESV Bible Online.

The nations are as a drop in the bucket and God is high and lifted up: this is true.

Yet the only reason a generation of Israelites was alive to enter the Promised Land forty years later was because God condescended to care about his PR.