Are Church Members Free Agents?

One of the biggest developments of the modern era of sports is the rise of the “free agent.” Under “free agency” an athlete is bound to a team only for a short period at the end of which he becomes a “free agent” and a sort of commodity on the open market in a given league. As a result most players move about freely during their careers playing for several teams. Free agency has been with us long enough that it is now a question as to which uniform a player will wear when he enters the hall of fame.

American evangelicals, however, could teach professional athletes a thing or two about free agency. They have been roaming from church to church a lot longer than ball players have been switching teams. This relative churchless-ness or serial membership is the product of a radical egalitarian modernist self-identity, doctrine of the church, and view of the Christian life. As Nathan Hatch noted in The Democratization of American Christianity,

the driving spirit of much of American Christianity has been the revolutionary American spirit of autonomy and leveling. Every man a pope. Every family a congregation.

For confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations this poses a significant problem. It is another manifestation of the problem of Christ and culture. American Christianity and particularly American evangelicalism is too often the child of the post-Revolutionary culture. This fact explains the almost incredible explosion of sects and denominations in the modern period. It was not Protestantism per se that fragmented the church into a million autonomous pieces. It was the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit.

The crisis for confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations is intensified by the fact that we fundamentally reject the notion that members of the congregation are, once they have been baptized or made profession of faith, free agents. Those baptized as members of the covenant of grace are members of the church. They are raised in the covenant of grace. They are catechized and they are expected to make profession of faith in due time and if they refuse they face discipline, i.e. they are placed under the law again with the hope and prayer that God the Spirit will use the law to create in one an appropriate awareness of one’s sin and misery and need for a Savior and with that a living trust in and union with Christ.

Just as covenant children are not free agents so also those who make profession of faith, whether as baptized members or adult converts, also renounce their free agency when they join a Reformed congregation. When a Christian makes profession of faith in a Reformed congregation he takes four vows:

  1. First, do you declare that you love the Lord, and that you desire to serve him according to his Word–to forsake the world, to put to death your old nature, and to lead a godly life?
  2. Second, do you openly accept God’s covenant promise, which has been signified and sealed to you in your baptism, and do you humbly confess that you are sinful and that you seek life not in yourselves but only in Jesus Christ your Savior?
  3. Third, do you sincerely believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testaments, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation, and do you promise by the grace of God steadfastly to continue in this profession?
  4. Fourth, do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?

The first vow asks whether one is a Christian inwardly, whether one is repentant. The second vow asks whether one is believing, whether one has moved beyond mere external membership in the covenant of grace to appropriate for oneself the substance of the covenant of grace (i.e. Christ and his promises) by free divine acceptance, through faith alone (sola gratia et sola fide). The second vow presupposes that the catechumen is a baptized member of the congregation. In the case of mature converts the language is slightly different, but in either case the question is whether the candidate for membership professes a personal faith in the living Savior and in the triune God in whose name he or she was baptized.

The third vow means that, as a member of a Reformed congregation, one subscribes the Reformed faith. There is no “mere Christianity” in a Reformed congregation nor should there be two tiers of members, those who profess only the Creed and those who actually profess the Reformed faith. The faith taught in “this Christian church” is that revealed in God’s Word and confessed by the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards.

There are three aspects to true faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. In effect these questions ask the candidate to profess that he or she knows the faith, agrees to the truth of the faith, and believes the faith personally and heartily.

Then there is the fourth vow. This is the one that, from my experience as a pastor, many do not seem to grasp fully. Consider it again:

…do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?”

To married folk who used traditional wedding vows, this language might ring a bell. It is not far from “love, honor, and obey….” There are two parts: to submit and submit. First the candidate promises before God and the church to submit to the government of the church generally, i.e. to submit to the leadership exercised graciously and lovingly by the elders and pastors. In the second part of the vow the candidate promises to submit in the specific case of church discipline.

It is to these two parts of the vow four that we now turn.

Submission

As a people Americans are a stubbornly independent lot. This nation began with a revolution and that spirit continues to animate us in ways of which we are not always conscious. As valuable as that independent spirit might be for civil politics it needs to be questioned in the life of the visible church. One expression of our independent spirit is our reluctance to bow the neck and submit to church authority, under God’s Word. Church growth experts counsel churches not to advertise their denominational membership because it is a “turn off” to American Christians, who like to think that each congregation is utterly autonomous and independent from all others and under the control of the congregation itself.

Against this cultural backdrop comes the fourth vow of membership taken in most confessional Reformed churches says:

…do you promise to submit to the government of the church and also, if you should become delinquent either in doctrine or in life, to submit to its admonition and discipline?

There are two parts to this vow: submit and submit. The first part is general the second is specific. The first part is relatively easy and the second part is relatively more difficult because it is more specific. The first part of the vow requires members to submit generally to the government of the church. The second requires members to submit in the case they are particularly called to repentance and faith for a specific sin. This is when the church has “quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

This vow, of course, is the one that is most often forgotten. Folk take membership courses, read the catechisms and confessions and are usually impressed. They often unite with Reformed and Presbyterian churches in the flush of enthusiasm for the new found freedom of sola scriptura and sola gratia and sola fide. For some new members it is the first time they have ever been a part of a historic Protestant church. For others it is the first time they have been part of an organized congregation, and for others membership in a Reformed congregation means freedom from oppressive moralism and legalism in the Christian life (“don’t touch,” “don’t taste”). Sometimes people unite with confessional Reformed congregations on the rebound from bad relationships with other congregations.

In these sorts of cases candidates for membership do not always stop to consider the implications of the fourth vow. The first thing to understand about vow four is that the church only acts ministerially. That is, according to the Protestant understanding of the Bible, Christ has endowed the visible institutional church with real authority but that authority is limited by the Word of God and that authority is not magisterial but ministerial.

The church saying something does not make it so. The church only speaks according to the Word of God and only has authority insofar as she speaks truly from the Word. The church only recognizes what is. Thus, in the case of church discipline, the when a consistory (the assembly of elders and ministers in a local congregation) makes a judgment that one has left the faith and is impenitent (refusing to repent and believe) an announces that fact in the sentence of excommunication, the church saying so does not make it so. The church binds and looses but only ministerially, only in recognizing what is and in submission to and recognition of the teaching of God’s Word.

Nevertheless, Christ, the head of the church, has instituted real offices, to be filled with actual, sinful human beings, who must interpret and apply God’s Word, as confessed by the Reformed churches, to particular situations. Those offices are endowed with authority to make ministerial pronouncements about what God’s Word says. In other words, Christ is the head of the church but he administers his kingdom through subordinates: ministers, and elders.

Therefore, it is impossible for a member to say, “Well, I’m following Christ but I will not submit to the admonition of the elders and ministers” if those officers are acting according to God’s Word as confessed by the churches. If they come to one and admonish one to repent of adultery and the sinner refuses, the latter cannot plead, “But God brought us together.” One may not plead one’s bad interpretation of providence over against the clear teaching of God’s Word: “You shall not commit adultery.” To refuse the admonition of the consistory in this case is to refuse Christ himself. This is true when the minister preaches the law and the gospel and calls people to repentance and faith. These words are Christ’s words. To refuse them is to refuse the Christ who gave them.

When members finish the a new members class or when catechumens finish their instruction and appear before the elders and minister(s) to make profession of faith, they are entering into a binding relationship that removes their free agency.

Does this mean the the believer has no liberty whatever? Not at all. It has already been mentioned that the authority of the church is limited by God’s Word. The church cannot require one to do anything contrary to the Word and, as touching worship, the church may not ask or require anything of anyone that is not expressly or implicitly commanded in God’s Word.

This is one reason why we have multiple assemblies in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. If the elders overstep their boundaries the member has a right and even a duty to complain against that action first to the elders and then, if that fails, to a broader regional assembly and, if that fails, to a broader assembly. The process is difficult and often painful but it does work. If, however, an assembly (consistory, session, classis, presbytery, or synod/general assembly) is speaking according to God’s Word, members are bound to submit.

If for some reason, however, one chooses to leave a congregation for another, one’s options are limited. One may seek dismissal to another confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation. Asking for dismissal to a non-Reformed congregation or to a congregation that does not have the marks of a true church (Belgic Confession Art 29) is more complicated. Certainly one would want to sit down and discuss the particulars of the situation before taking action. In general terms, why would one who has made profession of faith in a Reformed congregation, who has said, “God’s Word as summarized in the the Reformed confession is my faith. I want to be united formally to this congregation and to be under the oversight of ministers and elders” later say, “I wish to be dismissed to the care of a congregation that denies the faith I professed when I joined the congregation?” If one’s views have changed and one no longer confess the Reformed faith then, frankly, one should be subject to patient, gracious instruction and admonition.

This also means that members should take care of their souls when they change employment or move house. Frequently it seems to be that economic considerations trump the spiritual so that Christians find themselves in a place with no congregation and no means to plant one. This is, to be sure, highly problematic. Would you move to a community where there was no oxygen? Would you move to a community where there was no food? Of course not! Why would you move to a place where there is no place to worship?

Nevertheless, Christians sometimes find themselves in difficult circumstances. Sometimes it is simply unavoidably necessary to move to a place where there is no confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation. Sometimes people become Reformed and then find themselves abandoned or they find themselves unable to find a confessional congregation. This is a grievous problem that requires pastoral wisdom and patience. Persons in such a state should consult with the nearest confessional Reformed or Presbyterian elders or minister to get advice as to what to do. It might require moving house and changing jobs or perhaps this is an opportunity to work and pray toward the planting (establishment) of a new confessional Reformed/Presbyterian congregation?

To conclude this part: the point of vow four is that, having married a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian congregation, as it were, one is no longer free to play the field. Making profession of faith is not dating or courting. It is marriage. If a divorce is necessary there must be grounds (adultery or desertion) and those grounds must be manifest. This means profession of faith and union with a true congregation is a momentous and solemn act not to be taken lightly and not to be set aside without the most grave reasons. To simply walk away from that relationship, as with marriage, is to invite—indeed it is to require—admonition and even discipline by the congregation.

Questions and Answers

In the last part we consider some of the questions raised by the first two parts above.

David asks,

How are we to preform church discipline to believers (for their own spiritual good) when they are not members of our congregation or can simply start going to the church down the block?

Floating Christians cannot be disciplined. They have disciplined themselves by virtue of removing themselves from true congregations (Belgic Confession articles 28–29) and from the ordinary ministry of the means of grace. If Cyprian, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster Standards are correct, that “outside of the church there is [ordinarily] no salvation” then these floating, nominal Christians are placing themselves in spiritual jeopardy. How can one claim to be a member of Christ without being a member of his body the church and how can one claim to be a member of the invisible church without being a member of the visible church where believers (members of the church considered as the church invisible) are found?

Sean asks,

Is there any consideration that the elders of a church have to be worthy of being submitted to? And should they abuse their posts, they abdicate their authority? Aside from gross sexual sin, I rarely see elders brought under discipline or called to account for incompetent and slothful leadership?

There is at least one false premise in the question. The first question is not whether the elders are “worthy” of submission. The first question is whether a congregation has the marks of a true church. Is the “pure gospel” preached? Is there a “pure administration” of the sacraments? Is discipline exercised? These functions are discharged by sinful officers. If those officers have disqualified themselves by gross sin, they should find themselves under discipline and removed from office. If we predicate our submission to elders and ministers on the degree of their sanctity we shall have accepted the Donatist view that the efficacy of ministry of the church is dependent upon the personal qualities of the minister. This is contrary to Philippians 1:15–17.

The validity of the preached gospel and the administration of the sacraments and the use of discipline is grounded in the promises attached to the gospel by God himself and the authority given to the church as an institution by the Lord himself.

If elders or ministers show themselves to be incompetent or sinful in the conduct of their office the laity have every right (and even duty) to complain against them to the session (consistory) and should that fail then the complaint should be laid against them to a broader (or, in presbyterian terms, higher) assemblies. If the assemblies of the church(es) do not agree, then perhaps you are using an unbiblical standard of judgment? If they agree, then you have served the church well.

Ben asks,

…how to do church discipline…since anyone under discipline can just pack up and move to another church. …Do you talk to other pastors in the area to try to get them on the same page before you have to put someone under discipline? Do you just rely on a strong ecclesiology, hoping that the Spirit will work in the hearts of those who might later come under discipline?

This is indeed the “sixty-four thousand dollar question.” I have faced this as a pastor many times. If people flee to a broad evangelical congregation there is not much probability that the leadership of that congregation will be much interested in hearing from the local “TR” (truly Reformed) congregation—at least I have not had much success in this area.

If, however, they flee to another Reformed/Presbyterian congregation then we have a right to expect that the other consistory (session) will cooperate with your efforts to corral a straying lamb. I’ve generally found other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian pastors and elders to be sympathetic and helpful. If, for some inexplicable reason, a congregation with which you have ecumenical relations is uncooperative then a complaint would be appropriate. If they are disregarding your discipline then perhaps they are disregarding the discipline of other Reformed congregations also?

In the former case, if someone has fled discipline, the only thing to do is to proceed with discipline as warranted by the case. I think your instincts are correct, to act in a churchly manner, and to trust in the Spirit to do his work as people are placed under the law with the hope that they will be driven back to Christ and his church.

E complains that

…I and many others are now darkening the door of Reformed churches precisely because we have shopped, “free agent” style, not for therapy, but for Truth. …PLEASE do not start mocking the “free agent” process that lead us out of the sewers of moralism and post-modernism bequeathed by Finney and subsequent ilk.

To which I reply:

I rejoice that your journey led you to a Reformed communion.

We cannot, however, assume that the assembly from which people have fled is equivalent to a rightly ordered church. Not every congregation that calls itself a “church” is actually a church. There are three marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the good news, the pure administration of the (two) holy sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and the use of church discipline. If a congregation from which someone flees lacks one or more of those marks then one has not become a “free agent” but rather a refugee looking for shelter. There is a great difference between a refugee and a free agent.

Our culture says we are free agents and the way many American Christians live their lives seems to suggest that it is easy and natural to be a free agent but it is not how Scripture speaks. The biblical conception of the church is one of a disciplined assembly of Christ-confessing believers, making use of those means instituted by the Lord, the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10), the sacraments (Matt 28:18–20), and church discipline (Matt 16 and 18).

Ours is a fluid age in which everything seems to be in flux but the Christian faith is not ever-changing. God’s Word is not ever-changing and the church is not ever-changing. Nothing symbolizes the permanence of our relation to the visible church than the sacrament of baptism: it is a ritual death (Col 2:11–12; Rom 6). It is an identification with Christ’s death, his circumcision and baptism, as it were, on the cross for us. To be circumcized/baptised is to be cut off from our old life and identified with a new life in Christ.

In a similar way, the Lord’s Supper testifies to our union and communion with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit. The Supper is a solemn, joyful, deliberate communal meal not a drive-through for fast-food. The Supper presupposes a genuine relation, stable between believers (1 Cor 11).

It is not as if one could never move from one congregation to another. We have Christian liberty under God’s Word. Commitment is not tyranny. Nevertheless, we are not free to abandon the visible assembly that Christ established and to which he committed the ministry of his Word and sacraments. Freedom is not free agency.

Limited Atonement

Introduction

Without a doubt, one of the Reformed doctrines which evangelical and fundamentalist Christians find most scandalous is the doctrine of definite, personal or limited atonement.1 This rejection happens, in part, because the Reformed teaching is not always well understood. Sometimes the misunderstandings have been our fault for not explaining and presenting this teaching well.2

Reasons for Rejecting Definite Atonement

The doctrine of definite atonement is also rejected, however, by those who understand exactly what we are teaching. In this class of rejections, there are two kinds, first those who believe that it is unbiblical and narrow to think that Christ should only have died only for a certain number of sinners.

This view assumes that it would be unjust of God to redeem intentionally only a certain number of people. In other words, for God to be just, it must be that everyone who ever lived has an equal opportunity to be saved. As it has come to expression in our time, this assumption is largely driven by the Modernist, non-biblical belief in (some version of) the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man.3

Others consider the doctrine of definite atonement narrow because they assume that we believe that only a few will be saved. This is it not so. The doctrine of definite atonement holds that Christ has saved a great multitude. This is the teaching of several places in Scripture (Heb 12:22–23; Jude 1:14; Rev 7:9–10). It is not that we expect only a few to be redeemed, but rather we simply reject the teaching that Jesus has either redeemed everyone who ever lived or that he has only made it possible for everyone to be saved. In fact, the doctrine of definite atonement is not narrow at all since we hold that Scripture teaches that every single person whom Jesus intended to redeem he has redeemed.

Second, others reject the doctrine of definite atonement because they reject its foundation, that Christ died for sinners, i.e., they reject the doctrine of a substitutionary atonement. In its place, these critics offer some version of the exemplarist doctrine of the atonement, e.g., the moral government theory of the atonement, whereby Christ is said to have died as an example, to show the exceeding sinfulness of sin.

Responses

We respond by rejecting the premises of these criticisms. Though it may be “narrow” by Modernist standards to hold that Christ died for a certain number of sinners, this criticism proves too much. If God did not intend to redeem any in particular, then it means that the atonement was indefinite. If it was indefinite, then Christ died for no one particularly. Is such a view consonant with Scripture? It would seem not, as will be demonstrated below.

It is very difficult to come to this question without certain assumptions. Many of us simply assume that God must love everyone in exactly the same way and that to suggest otherwise is bigoted. This assumption fuels another which is that God sent his Son out of this same universal love and to these two assumptions a third is added, that humans, in order to be morally responsible must have the ability to freely choose or reject the offer of salvation. From these premises many have read the Scriptures to teach precisely these doctrines. They cannot imagine that things could be otherwise.

Well, all of the assumptions listed in the previous paragraph are, in fact, unbiblical. This is not to say that there is not, in Scripture, a certain universal grace; certainly there is, but that grace is not saving grace. It has been described most frequently as “common grace.” Both Arminian and Reformed theologians have used this term. Arminians mean by it that God has willed (antecedently) to make salvation actually possible for all, if sinners will make use of this innate grace or power. Reformed theologians reject this definition of common grace and distinguish between special (saving) grace and common grace. 4 When Reformed theologians say “common grace” they mean that God reveals himself in Scripture to:

1) Have a favorable attitude toward all mankind, and not toward the elect only;

1) Have promised (to Noah) to restrain evil until the final judgment;

3) Bless humanity with gifts (civic righteousness) which benefit all humans without distinction.

We make this distinction because we understand Scripture to teach that the “moving cause” (to use Louis Berkhof’s language) of the atonement was not first of all love, but his good pleasure. Jesus taught this in Matt 11:26. After denouncing the unbelief of the cities where he had performed miracles, he began to pray and in that prayer he declared that his message was hidden from the “wise” and revealed to “children” because this was his Father’s “good pleasure” (eudokia) or his sovereign will. Paul taught the same thing, using the same term in Eph 1:5, 9. There is no doubt that God acted in love, by sending his Son (John 3:16), but we understand Scripture to teach that his love is the instrument of his will.

We also reject the Modernist premise of the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man. Though God is certainly benevolent to the just and the unjust (Matt 5:48) restraining evil and his final judgment (Gen 9:8–11; Matt 13:29–30) this benevolence is not the same as universal fatherhood and brotherhood. In fact, Scripture is clear that since the Fall the human race has divided into two great families, those who are the children of faithful Abel and those who are the children of Cain (Heb 11:4; Romans 9) and at the end of history there will two great races, those resurrected to life and those resurrected to “everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:1–3).

We also reject the moral government theory of the atonement that Jesus died primarily as an example. To be sure Jesus did set an example (1 Pet 2:21) but Scripture makes clear that the work of Christ was much more than that. He was our substitute, as 1 Peter 3:18 says explicitly, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous”.

If our Lord Jesus died only or even primarily to set an example, a great number of things in Scripture go unexplained. Why did God institute a system of ritual sacrifices for 1500 years before Christ’s incarnation? What do we make of the Biblical doctrine of sin? Surely, we are to think that sin is much more than simply following Adam’s bad example.

In fact, our relations to Adam are much more intimate than that of prototype to type. Scripture teaches that “in Adam all die” (1 Cor 15:22) and “by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man” (Rom 5:17) and ” just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (Rom 5:18). These passages do not suggest that Adam was primarily a bad example. Further, to make Adam primarily an example tends toward the heresy of Pelagianism, i.e., the denial of the catholic (universal) Christian doctrine of original sin. 5

A robust doctrine of sin is essential to understanding the doctrine of the atonement. To the degree one tends to downplay the nature or effects of sin (original or actual) then to that degree one also tends to downplay the need for a substitutionary Savior.

Personal or Impersonal; Finished or Unfinished?

It is of utmost importance that one ask the right question in this matter. The right question is, what does Scripture mean when it, in Romans 5:8, says that “Christ died for us”? What is the connection between his death and us? Was his death on the same order as Socrates death? Do we benefit from it by thinking about what a good man he was? No, Christ objectively accomplished redemption by his death and we benefit from Christ’s death by trusting and appropriating the benefits his death for ourselves. Hence Scripture says that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Thus when Scripture says Christ died “for us” it certainly teaches that he died for persons, individuals, not for abstractions. If he died for persons, then the only other question is whether he died for everyone who ever lived or not. When Paul said “us” did he mean everyone who ever lived? This seems highly unlikely. 6

Thus choice which the Christian faces then is not between a “limited” and “unlimited” atonement, but between a “definite” or “indefinite” or between a “person” or an “impersonal” atonement. It is the Reformed contention that God’s Word teaches that Christ died for persons, his sheep, those whom he loved, from all eternity.7 It is our view that Jesus did not die to make salvation available or merely possible, but that when he said “It is finished” (John 19:30) he was declaring that, as the once for all sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:27), he had completed the work which his Father gave him to do (John 6:57; 10:17–18).

The History of the Doctrine of the Atonement

The doctrine of definite atonement is not a Calvinist peculiarity. It is a mainstream doctrine which has been held by some of the greatest teachers in the Christian tradition, among them Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine, Gottschalk, Peter the Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini as well as Calvin and the entire Reformed tradition. One should also remember that the nature of the controversy over the extent of the atonement has changed somewhat since the rise of Arminianism, the Remonstrants and the response by the Synod of Dort (1618–19). In the discussions before Dort, one often finds the elements of the doctrine of definite atonement, but because the question is not as sharply focused as it became in the early 17th century, the answers are not as detailed as they later were. This is the nature of the development of Christian doctrine, controversy often produces theological precision.

Augustine of Hippo, the greatest of all the church fathers, taught most of the elements of definite atonement and was the “first great defender of the efficacy and particularism of God’s grace.”8 In his controversy with Pelagius and later the semi-Pelagians Augustine, of course, rejected the doctrine of free will (liberum arbitrium) in favor of absolute predestination and with his doctrine of predestination he also taught that Jesus had not died for everyone who ever lived. 9

Augustine had a cadre of supporters, among them was a French theologian, who was living in Marseilles at the time of the outbreak of the semi-Pelagian controversy in 426. From 431–34 he wrote a number of books against the semi-Pelagians. Prosper was explicit that, in one sense, with respect to his incarnation and the fall of all humans, Christ can be said to have died for the entire world. Yet, it can also be said that Christ “was crucified only for those who were to profit by his death.”10

Some think that he softened somewhat in the years following 432, that he could not reconcile those passages in Scripture in which God reveals himself as desiring the salvation of all, with his earlier notions of double predestination.11 He did teach (450) that sinners have the power to reject divine grace, and they are the same who are passed over. Those who believe, however, are those who are elect. 12 Only those who are elect come to faith.13

It appears that they misunderstand his inchoate argument about what would later come to be called “The Free Offer of the Gospel.”14 God reveals himself as willing what we know he has not decreed, the salvation of all.15 Some he passes by and some he elects to faith. Proof that he was teaching a seminal version the free offer is that in several of the same passages where he affirms the universal divine will to save, he immediately moves to a discussion of preaching.16 Likewise, when he says that Christ died for all men, he made it clear that the all equals “sinners” so that he was not necessarily teaching universal atonement.17

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.23

It is not our claim that everyone everywhere has held this doctrine, but the doctrine of definite atonement has been widely held and taught by some of the most important Christian theologians in the history of the church. We do not think that this is conclusive, but this fact does help to put the discussion of the doctrine in context.

THE NATURE AND NECESSITY OF THE ATONEMENT

One of the reasons some have difficulty with the doctrine of a definite, personal atonement is because they fail to evaluate properly the gravity of the human condition after the fall.

I have written elsewhere in more detail about the Biblical doctrine of sin and its consequences,24 it must suffice here to say that Scripture teaches (Romans 5:12-21) that, as the old Puritans had it, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The consequences of sin were death.

Since in Adam we have all sinned we must make satisfaction to that justice either by ourselves or by another. We, however, cannot make satisfaction by ourselves since we sin daily and thus daily increase our guilt.25

Consistently in Scripture sin results in death. It has been an all too frequent mistake in the history of Christian theology to confess original sin but to deny the extent of its damage or its consequences. The Bible nowhere allows us to think that sin produces anything but death. This was God’s warning to Adam, “The day you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). For this reason Paul says that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) and that, outside of Christ, we are “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1).

Romans 5.12–21 also makes it clear that Adam’s sin is also our sin, that is it has been imputed (credited) to everyone who has ever lived.26 We are biologically connected to Adam, but Scripture is much more concerned about our legal union with him and its consequences, chiefly, death. This legal union (imputation) will become even more important when we consider how it is that sinners come to benefit from Christ’s work.

It is important that we see the foundation for that Biblical teaching in a prior teaching. In our age it is perhaps more difficult than in others to appreciate the notion of justice.

On one hand, we have become amazingly casual about right and wrong. We cannot read this sort of thinking back into Scripture. The great evangelical scholar Leon Morris remarks that for the men of the Old Testament,

…God is angry with the wicked every day’ (Ps 7:11). They had no doubt that sin inevitably arouses the strongest reaction from God. God is not to be accused of moral flabbiness. 27

On the other hand, it is not as if we are bereft of any notion of justice, rather seems that everyone has his own concept of justice and we are often told that each idea of justice is equally valid.

This is not the Biblical view. According to Scripture, God is just and justice (Dan 9:16; Ezr 9:15; Ps 7:11; Isa 5:16; 2 Tim 4:8; Rom 1:17; Rom 3:21; 4 [all]). His law is no mere convention or raw exercise of power. It is rather an expression of his justice and therefore it is the righteous standard by which we are judged.28

Ezra 9:15 captures the correct human posture before God’s justice:

O LORD, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.

Scripture consistently makes God the moral standard against which all moral acts and claims are measured. The law is an expression of God’s nature and so sin is an offense against God personally. God does not clear the guilty.

We were made, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Q. 6, “in righteousness and true holiness.” In Adam’s sin we all died. Hence Paul says that, outside of Christ, we were all “dead in sins and transgressions” (Ephesians 2:1). According to Deut 27:26, “”Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” Likewise, Gal 3:10 repeats this same teaching,

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

We are “cursed” of course, because we are Adam’s children and as such we are unable to do what is required of us. For this reason, the Apostle Paul (Rom 3:20) is explicit that it is impossible for anyone to be justified by law-keeping.

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

It is in the light of these passages and many others that the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that God’s “justice requires sin which is committed against the most high majesty of God be punished with extreme that is eternal punishment of both body and soul. 29

Because the Modern world (since the early 18th century at least) has largely denied the fall, indeed it has assumed that we are basically, naturally good and that God must accept us, in our day we have some trouble with the notion that God is angry with sin. Yet it is the clear and persistent teaching of Scripture that God is angry with sin and sinners. The wrath of God is everywhere to be found in Scripture. In Nahum 1:2,3 in a warning to Israel, God’s Word announces a general principle which is universally true:

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his  enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the  guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet.

According to Scripture it is an attribute of God that he is jealous for his honor that he does not take sin lying down, as it were. His justice is relentless and must be satisfied. Some think of God as if he were a genial grandfather, alternately strict and indulgent. This is not how he reveals himself in this passage and others. Yes, he is “slow to anger” but it is also true that “he will not leave the guilty unpunished.” In the nature of things, God being who and what he is and we being who and what we are (sinners), we are in a dire predicament.

Similarly, in Isaiah 13:13 God’s Word says,

I Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.

Such passages could be easily multiplied. Nor should it be thought that, “well, that was the Old Testament, but God is different today.” This sort of thinking about God is very dangerous. There are not two gods in Scripture, a mean Old Testament deity and a friendly New Testament deity. Deuteronomy 6:4 teaches a fundamental truth: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The New Testament teaches exactly the same thing in 1 Tim 2:5 and James 2:19.

For example think of Jesus’ words in John 3:36:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”

It is most significant that it was our Lord who taught this, since it should dispel the notion that Jesus held or taught a religion than different from Moses.

The Apostle Paul agrees with the Lord Jesus. In Rom 1:18 he said,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

Notice that he says that God’s wrath “is being revealed”. The is a present, ongoing condition of human life. In this regard, the temporal punishments which occur now are mere shadows of things to come:

They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (Rev 6:16)

One might not expect this sort of language from the Apostle John, sometimes called “the Apostle of love.

That God is continually angry with sin makes salvation continually relevant because since God is not only angry with sin, but will punish unrepentant sinners eternally in hell.

The writer to the Hebrews makes this abundantly clear when he says that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb 9:27). Of course the entire Revelation given to John contains the same doctrine. For example, here is an extended quotation from Revelation 20:11–15:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Despite the symbolic language (or perhaps because of it) and regardless of one’s precise eschatology, the finality and force of this passage is evident.

Thus there must be a satisfaction for that sin. Since the earliest recorded moments of human history after the fall, man has known that there must be a substitute, a just representative to take the place of sinners. Righteous Abel (Gen 4:4; Matt 23:35) brought a living offering, a blood offering. Hebrews 12:4 teaches that Abel brought a better sacrifice than Cain. Why was Abel’s better? Is there something inherently better in a blood offering than in a grain offering? One would think not, but Hebrews goes on to say that “God spoke well of his offerings.” Abel’s offering was superior because it was a blood offering, because the blood testified our need of a Savior, of the principle of justice, “eye for eye” (Ex 21:24) hence Hebrews 12:24 teaches that Abel’s bloody sacrifice was a pointed picture, shadow or type of the better, perfect blood offering to come, that of the Lamb of God himself, Jesus.

The entire ceremonial system beginning with circumcision, the Passover (and all the feasts) and including animal sacrifices were nothing more than “types and shadows” pictures of Jesus, the final sacrifice for sinners (Heb 10:1–2; Col 2:16–17). They were never intended to be permanent. Their entire function was to teach us our sin and our need for a perfect substitute.

This was the basic principle in operation since the fall: sin offends the justice of God and the justice of God requires satisfaction, but the sacrifice must be holy and righteous.31 According to Hebrews 2:14–18, this was the reason for the incarnation (taking on of true human flesh) by God the Son, for his obedient life, his sufferings and death.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death– that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins  of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Notice that the writer to the Hebrews teaches that Jesus, the God-Man, came to be a “faithful high priest” in order to “make atonement” for the sins of “the people.” This language is rooted deeply in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the language of sacrifice. ItÂ’s and elaboration of the declaration of John the Baptist, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36). The “Lamb” is also the “priest” and this Lamb-Priest has made “atonement.” According to Hebrews, he has not simply made our salvation possible.

CHRIST’S WORK: EXPIATION AND PROPITIATION

One of the reasons that there is confusion about the extent of the atonement is that Christians do not always understand well what it is that Christ came to do. What follows is an explanation of the Biblical teaching regarding “atonement.” There are two parts to the doctrine of atonement, the first is expiation, the second is propitiation.

In general English usage, this term is sometimes used interchangeably for “atonement” or even for “propitiation.” Though closely related, “to expiate” really means to cover sins. There senses sometimes overlap as in Hebrews 2:17, where Jesus is said to be a merciful and faithful high priest, “in order that he might propitiate the sins of the people.” Here the same word (hilaskomai) which often means “to turn away God’s wrath” has “sins” as its object. The difference between the two senses is that the object of expiation is sin, not God. Christ’s death was, however, both an expiation and a propitiation.

This is a term which has been largely lost from contemporary English, in part because it has been omitted from many otherwise excellent Bible translations in favor of the broader term “atonement.” We contend that Christ’s death was propitiatory, the object of which was God’s justice and wrath against sin.

Our English word “propitiate” comes from a Latin word Propitio which means “to render someone favorable” or “to appease.” (Lewis and Short) This was Jerome’s rendering of two different words in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.

Exodus 32 recounts the story of the Israelite idolatry committed at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses, having come down and upon seeing their sins says (v.29):

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

Moses returns up the mountain to “propitiate” for the sin of Israel. The word which the is often translated “atonement” (NIV, NASB, KJV) is the Hebrew noun Kaphar here really means “to propitiate.” This word is used frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures and is often rightly translated “to atone.” You know this word from Yom Kippur “Day of Atonement.”

Indeed the word often means “to atone” generally, i.e., “to pay for” or “to ransom” in the sense of satisfying God’s justice. Sometimes, however, as in this passage the word takes on this very specific sense of turning away God’s wrath against sin.

Such usage should not surprise us, since, in Scripture uses it to describe human relations. For example, in Gen 32:16–20: Jacob is said to “propitiate” Esau. In the same way, in Prov 16.14: a wise man will “propitiate” an angry king! If humans can and must propitiate other humans, how much more must we propitiate God’s wrath.

This sense of turning away God’s wrath from his people becomes even clearer a verses later (14–16) when Moses prays and Yahweh “changes His purpose “his wrath is turned away, that is He is “appeased” and becomes “propitious” or favorable towards his people.

The word occurs here in the context of God’s wrath. The direct object implied in Moses’ “propitiation” is God, it is the sin of Israel with is the indirect object. If God did not need to be propitiated, then Moses would not need to make an atoning sacrifice. This is allowed by Hebrew grammar and demanded by the context.

Thus there is a close association between atonement and propitiation. Atonement is one of the results of propitiation being made.

In Number 16:46,47 we find a similar usage of Kaphar. In the episode of Korah, Dathan and Abiram and the grumbling of God’s people afterwards, the Lord comes to Moses and announces (v.45), “Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.” Clearly God’s people are in jeopardy.

Immediately, Moses sent Aaron to propitiate (Kaphar) God’s wrath. In the context of God’s wrath. With the very real possibility that God will consume them.

This teaching is reinforced in Leviticus 16. In this case, two of Aaron’s sons had died because they approached God improperly. Aaron was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies (the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle) only on certain conditions. Behind the curtain, within the Holy of Holies was the (vs.2) “propitiatory” or “propitiation place” (Kapporet), the place over the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat was the place where the priest makes “propitiation” on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Because he was a sinful human, God required Aaron (and all high priests) to “make propitiation” to God for his own sins before he can making propitiation for the sins of Israel.

This consistent OT teaching forms the background for much NT teaching about the work of Christ on behalf of his people.

The NT, of course, was written in Greek, and much of its vocabulary was drawn from the Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint, which is abbreviated, LXX.

The LXX translated Kaphar family of words with the Hilaskomai family of words. In the NT as in the OT it means “to propitiate.”

Some assume (somehow) that even though God is a holy and just God in the O.T., he is different in the N.T. and able and willing to tolerate sin. The following passages will make clear that this is not the case.

In the story of the publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14), the Pharisee congratulates himself for his righteousness. The tax-collector, however (v. 13) cries out to God saying, “God be propitious to me, I am a sinner.”

In 1 John 2:2 the Apostle John writes for the purpose of helping the Christians of Asia Minor not to sin, particularly that they should not deny that Jesus came in true humanity (1 John 4:2) and that they should love one another (1 John 4:11–12). These moral requirements are closely connected to the doctrine of the atonement.

The Apostle knows that the Christians of Asia Minor will sin and because that is so, they need a propitiatory sacrifice for that sin. Jesus is that propitiation. John says that Jesus is our hilasmos, i.e., he is our Kaphar. John purposely calls to mind the OT narratives concerning Aaron’s annual sacrifices for himself and God’s people. That Jesus accomplished this once-for-all sacrifice is, in fact, the basis of our confidence before God. “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). Why is God “faithful” and “just” when he forgives us? Because Jesus Christ the righteous has paid the penalty for his people, he has turned away God’s wrath for his people and therefore they may enter boldly into the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 10:19). We are not able to stand before God because he averts his eyes or overlooks our sins, but rather, because Jesus Christ has paid the debt in full and satisfied God’s righteousness.

The Apostle Paul teaches precisely the same thing in Romans 3:25,26:

God presented Him (Jesus) as the place of propitiation, through faith in His blood, for of a demonstration of His Righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins committed beforehand in the forbearance of God, for a demonstration of His righteousness now in this season in order that He might be just—righteous, and the one–declaring righteous—the one (having) faith in Jesus (my translation).

In this passage, Paul is explaining how we are declared righteous by God. (vss. 21, 22). In the past, he reminds the Roman Christians, God can be said to have “overlooked” the sins of the Israelites, not because he is morally sloppy, but in view of the promised (Gen 3:14–16) coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As part of this argument he says that, now, in Christ’s death, God’s justice is demonstrated and satisfied by Christ’s work in becoming our place of propitiation (hilasterion). This is the same word used in the LXX and in Hebrews 9:5 for the place of propitiation (Kapporet)–the “mercy seat.” In his death, as our sin-bearer (2 Cor 5:21) Jesus has become our propitiation and the place and means of propitiation, that we might become “the righteousness of God.”

Underlying much of our discussion thus far has been the assumption that Jesus came intentionally to redeem his people. That is, it was never his intention to propitiate the wrath of God for everyone who ever lived. Rather it was his intention to redeem all of his people completely.

It must be remembered the life and death of our Savior is presented in the NT against the background of God’s covenant promise to Abraham to his make him the father of many nations, to be the God and the God of his children (Gen 15:5; 17:1–10). Thus Biblical religion has always been both universal and particular. It is particular in that God promises to administer his promise through Abraham and thus Abraham’s people are distinguished increasingly from “the nations.”(31) The question becomes, particularly in the NT, who are Abraham’s children?

The Lord Jesus answers by teaching that everyone who believes in him is Abraham’s son (John 8:39, 56) The Apostle Paul answers by saying that Abraham is the father of those who believe, whether circumcised or not (Romans 4:9–12; 9:7–8), for Jesus Christ is “the seed” promised to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17 (Galatians 3:16) and all who are united to him by grace alone, through faith alone are his children. Therefore, in Christ, the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been destroyed, he has made the two one (Eph 2:14–15). This does not mean, however, that he atoned for the sins of everyone who ever lived, but rather for the sins of all those are Abraham’s children.

The work of Christ must also be interpreted against the background of more than 2000 years of sacrifices pointing to his advent, life and death. These sacrifices were offered by Israelites for themselves and their families. They were offered by the high priests for all Israel. They were not offered for everyone who ever lived, certainly not to make salvation available. Indeed, the Israelite commission was to conduct a holy war against the surrounding nations (Deut 7 [all]). Thus there is no trajectory of Biblical thought leading to the NT which would cause Christians to think that Jesus came as the Lamb of God to satisfy God’s wrath for everyone who ever lived.

This Biblical particularism is perhaps no where so powerfully evident as in the Servant Song in Isa 52:13–53:12. Beginning in 52:13 God presents his “servant” (Ebed). His work benefit “many nations (52:15).” As the prophecy is progressively disclosed, the servant is “despised” and “we esteemed him not.” The relations are now considered between “us” and the servant. Thus in 53:4 he took up “our” infirmities” and in v.5 he was “pierced for our transgressions.” Thus the expression “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” has a definite context. The “all” here refers to those for whom the servant will suffer and die, but this is not everyone who ever lived. This is clear in v. 11 where the Servant is said to “justify many.” Again in v. 12 the Servant “bore the sin of many.” We know of course from the Gospels and from Acts 8:26–35 that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 8 is none other than Jesus Christ. Thus the Servant Jesus is said to have suffered and died the “many”, i.e., his people, not for everyone who ever lived.

The NT makes clearer the fact that Jesus was given a people by the Father. In John 6:37–39 Jesus gives us some insight into His eternal relationship with His Father.

Everyone whom the Father gives to me will come to me, and the one coming to me, I will not cast out…this is the will of the One who sent me, that I shall lose none of everyone whom he has given me, but (instead), I will raise him up on the last day.

The Father has given a people to Jesus to save and resurrect. These people are a gift from the Father to the Son. A gift does not give itself! The Son has come (v.38) to do the Father’s will. The Father’s will is that none should be lost. Verse 65 intensifies the particularist theme.

…For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would  betray Him…This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has  enabled him. 32

Jesus knew those who would apostatize and betray him. Only those given to him by the Father come. The Lord is repeating what he has already said in vs.44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

People are the objects of the Father’s drawing work. The people drawn are those whom God has chosen before the foundations of the world. Those whom God has drawn to Christ come to faith. They believe in Jesus. According to vs.65, it is only when we are drawn by God, led by the hand as it were, that we come to faith. It is the work of the Spirit of God to lead blinded sinners to sight and faith, as Jesus made the blind man to see.33

This closely knit chain of God’s grace is absolutely necessary to our salvation. Jesus came to accomplish the Father’s will, to seek and save the lost, to save those whom the Father has drawn. Should Jesus fail to accomplish the Father’s will, we are all lost! Every believer affirms that Jesus did not fail. Jesus said, “It is finished!” (34).

In John 10 Jesus begins a long discourse explaining his relations with his people for whom he was to give his life. Jesus, the good shepherd, has a people, a flock as it were. They “listen to his voice” and he “calls his own sheep by name” (vv.3, 4). He becomes ever clearer. The good shepherd lays down his life for “the sheep” (v.11). This is particularist language. Shepherd’s care for particular flocks, not all flocks everywhere. Jesus has a flock, for whom he will die, whom he will save. Again, in v.16, there are “other sheep” who will also listen to the shepherd’s voice (v.16). This is the same sort of particularism and universalism which we saw in Romans 4, but there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The clear implication is that there are some who are not in the flock (vv.25–26) therefore they do not listen.

Again (v.27), Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice and follow him. In Reformed theology we describe this as the efficacious call or irresistible sovereign grace. Jesus not only calls his people, but he gives them eternal life (v.28) and “they shall never perish and

no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

According to Jesus, eternal life is neither earned nor deserved. It is a gift from the shepherd to the sheep, just as the sheep are a gift from the Father to the Son. Our salvation is as certain and safe as the Father’s hand is secure. Jesus’ promise is certain because he is one in his divinity with the Father.

In His High Priestly prayer, in John 17:2, Jesus again says that he has been granted all authority so that he can give eternal life.35 He does not say that he has been granted all authority with a view to waiting around to see who is clever enough to believe. Instead it is the Father who has given him believers, and to these same believers Jesus will give eternal life.36

This is a most important teaching. One of the great weaknesses with the Arminian version of universalism (i.e., that Jesus makes salvation available for those who will chose it) is that those who chose it, can also lose it. This is a recipe for uncertainty, doubt and fear. These are hardly fruit of the gospel.

The theme of the certain salvation of Jesus’ people theme runs through John’s writings in the NT. It culminates in the Revelation where Christ gives this promise to believers,

They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is  Lord of lords and King of kings–and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers (Revelation 17:14).

Notice well that it is Jesus the conquering Lamb and that he has with him those for whom he died, “his called, chosen and .”

By this Scripture teaches the perfection of Christ’s work. This is why Rom 8:1 declares that there “is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Why? Because Christ made salvation available and I was wise enough to cooperate with God’s grace? No, rather because “what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (Rom 8:3). In the death of Christ, God has actually saved his people. Hence Heb 1:3 says, “After he had provided purification for sins…”. Scripture throughout considers Jesus’ work on the cross to be finished, accomplished such that it wants no additions by us. Christ came not to make salvation possible, but to achieve it and this he did.

The Gospel of John opens with a certain universality. John 1:9 says that Jesus is the “true light” who “gives light to every man.” Should we understand John to be saying that every human being who has ever lived has been enlightened by Jesus? Of course not. In v.10 Scripture says that the light (Jesus) was “in the world (kosmos)” but the “world did not know him.”

John the Baptist’s declaration, that Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the kosmos” (John 1:29) can hardly mean “everyone who ever lived,” since that would mean that he actually redeemed everyone. If so, it would not accord well with John’s usage of kosmos before and after this passage.

As one can see, a problem arises in the interpretation of “world” in John’s writings. What if neither Jesus, the speaker, John the writer nor the Holy Spirit who caused John to write meant to communicate “everyone who ever lived” but, something else? In fact, he did mean to communicate something else. Just as the opening clause is not about the quantity (if one can speak of such things) of God’s love, so kosmos does not speak of the quantity of those for whom Jesus died, but the quality. Even though he used it 78 times in his writings, the Apostle John used the word kosmos consistently in this qualitative sense.

In 3:16 the Lord Jesus said,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that who ever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

First of all, read the passage slowly and carefully. Note the emphasis in the first clause, “For God so lovedÂ…”. Jesus was teaching Nicodemus, first of all, about the greatness of God’s love. How great was his love? So great “that he gave his only begotten Son.” The intention of this passage is not, therefore, primarily to teach about the extent of the atonement, but to teach about the quality of God’s love for sinners.

What was God’s intention (so that) in sending his only begotten Son? His intention was that “who ever believes” in Jesus should have eternal life. To all of this every Calvinist says “Amen.”

Whom did God love so much as to send his Son? The “world.” As you might know the term there is kosmos. It is translated fairly as “world.” Many assume that kosmos must mean “everyone who ever lived” and thus, when they read this passage they effectively substitute that interpretation for “world.”

The verse immediately following John 3:16 sheds more light on kosmos. It says that God sent his Son to the kosmos not to condemn it, but “to save” it through him. This use is better described as qualitative than quantitative. So also in v. 19. The light has come to the kosmos but “men” loved darkness rather than light. The parallelism between kosmos and “men” is instructive. Jesus came to redeem persons, not to make salvation available. By kosmos John is describing the kind or quality of people for whom Jesus died.

If there are some who are enlightened, then there are some who are not enlightened. If there are some who loved darkness rather than light, then they are “in the world.” Another way of saying the same thing every human has not been enlightened. If so, then “every man” in 1:9 or “world” in 1:29 or 3:16 cannot mean “everyone who ever lived.” If not, then universalism is not the most obvious way to read this sort of language in John’s writings.

There are places where kosmos has other senses, e.g., in John 4:42 and 6:33, 51 it seems to mean “needy creatures” (e.g., 17:5,6,9,11) Still the accent is on quality rather than quantity. Sometimes it simply means “humans” as in John 6:51, but the most consistent usage is that of John 7:7 (or John 15:18-19; 17:5, 13-14), “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.” Here kosmos has a strongly ethical, qualitative sense. It is not that no one ever hates the disciples, but rather, Jesus is thinking of “sinners” and here, of a particularly violent opposition to the Lord and his Christ. This same sort of usage carries over into John 8:2 where Jesus is the “light of the kosmos.” He is not the light of everyone who ever lived, but he is the light of “sinners.” Sometimes, as in Jesus discourse about the “light” and “bread” or in 10:36 or in 12:31 the kosmos has the sense of “this world” or the earthy, fallen realm as opposed to heaven (e.g., 16:8, 33; 17:11).

Even those passages where kosmos means a great number of people, and thus has a quantitative sense, it does not mean “everyone who ever lived”, as in John 12:19, when the “whole world” is said to have gone after Jesus or in John 21:25 where kosmos has a geographic extent rather than a quantity.

Within the context of John’s Gospel, it makes much more sense of John 3:16 to substitute the word sinners in the place of kosmos rather than to substitute, “everyone who ever lived.”

1 John 2:2 is often taken to require a doctrine of universal, indefinite atonement. It says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” There is no evidence that the Apostle changed his doctrine between the time he wrote the Gospel and this Epistle. In fact, understanding “kosmos” as “everyone who ever lived” makes no sense here. If it has a universalist sense, then John is teaching that Jesus turned away the divine wrath for everyone, but even within 1 John itself, there is abundant evidence that not everyone has been delivered from divine wrath, e.g., the “antichrists” present then and now 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7).

As in John 3:16, there are other strong exegetical reasons why kosmos in this passage should not be understood to mean “everyone who ever lived.” It is true that the qualitative sense is not in the forefront, but rather, this passage is an example of the sort of hyperbole which we saw in John 12:19 and 12:25. This verse must be taken in some relative sense. Indeed, very few NT scholars have been willing to take this in an absolutely universalistic sense. Further, if the sense is absolutely universalistic, then why the contrast between “our sins” and the sins of the “whole world” (NIV)? The contrast itself limits the force of kosmos here to something like “other sinners in other places.” Given what we know about the churches of Asia Minor to whom Paul, Peter and John wrote, such an interpretation seems quite probable.

It also helps if we compare this passage with 1 John 4.10 which says,

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (my translation).

Notice that it is God who first loved us, not that we loved Him. God’s love always comes first, since we are conceived and born in sin 37. John’s connection of kosmos with hilasmos, which we know means, “that which effectively turns away God’s wrath” also limits our exegetical options, unless one is willing to say that Jesus turned away God’s wrath from everyone who ever lived.

These passages are examples of Biblical universalism. Sometimes, because of the reasons given above, they are mistaken for absolute absolute universalism. The same thing happens with the word “all.” Years ago a pastor said, “all means all and thatÂ’s all that all means.” It is a memorable slogan, but is it true? There are many places where all means “wholly” or “completely” or “entirely” as in 2 Tim 3:16, “all Scripture” must be taken to refer to everything which is Scripture. Did, however, our Lord Jesus mean to say that he intended to die for everyone who ever lived, to make salvation available to those who would chose it? We think not.

In fact the word “all” is frequently used in a relative sense to describe a certain class or kind of person. In Titus 2:11, Paul says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” Has saving grace actually appeared to everyone who ever lived? No. Therefore “all” (pas) here must be taken in some restricted sense. Paul simply means, “has become widely available.” We could multiply examples. Does “all” in Titus 1:15 mean that “everything possible” is “pure”? No, rather “all things” (panta) means “everything of certain already proscribed set of things.” In Matt 10:22 Jesus says that “all men shall hate you because of me.” Did he mean to say, “everyone who ever lived”? No, this is an example of the sort of hyperbole which Jesus used frequently to make a point.

What of Hebrews 2:9, which clearly says that Jesus “suffered death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” How will the Calvinist/particularist wriggle out of this noose? By reading v.9 in the context of v.10! The text continues to say, “In bringing many sons to glory…” so that the “everyone” of v.9 refers to the “many” of v.10, for whom Jesus did not just make salvation possible, but whom he “bringing” to glory.

The best illustration of this is perhaps a passage which some have seen as proof positive that Jesus must have intended to die as the substitute for everyone who ever lived, is a passage which many have taken to contradict the doctrine of definite atonement,1 Timothy 4:10. Scripture says in part, “we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior (soter) of all men, and especially of those who believe.” At first blush it would seem that, if Hebrews 2:9 did not put and end to definite atonement, surely this passage must.

Recent research by Steve Baugh has shown, however, that, read in context, this passage is not concerned with the extent of the atonement. The key is Paul’s use of Soter 38. Firstly, he notes, what does it mean to juxtapose “Savior” (one who saves eternally) of believers but especially of believers? Of course believers are saved, but if “all men” means everyone who ever lived, then, they are all saved and we should become absolute universalists, in which case it is not just Calvinists who must change their views, but also Arminians who must abandon their half-way position and become absolute universalists.

The answer is that, in this passage, soter does not mean “one who saves eternally” but rather means “benefactor.” As Steve Baugh notes, in “Paul’s day, soter was a common title or description of men, emperors and deities.” In fact, there was a statue in Ephesus, where Paul ministered for a considerable period, dedicated to Julius Caesar, on which he was hailed as “the universal benefactor of human life.” Paul’s point, in the flow of his argument, is that, no, it is the ascended King Jesus, who rules at the right hand of the Father, who is the “benefactor of all men especially of those who believe.” Taken in the sense of common grace, this passage is not about the extent of the atonement, universal or otherwise.

One of the problems which some have seen with the doctrine of limited atonement is that it seems to limit God’s love and it might even tend to make Christians careless about the lost. They reason that if one believes that Christ died only for the elect, then why bother preaching Christ to all men, since all are not saved.

The logic of our critics, at this point, is flawed. The conclusion does not follow from the premise. The same God who has elected and redeemed has also instituted the means by which he will execute his will in history, chiefly the preaching of the Gospel. Therefore historic Calvinism has always had a deep concern for the lost. We have always held and taught the free-offer of the gospel, i.e., that God has commanded us to offer Christ to everyone so that “whosoever will may come” 39. It is our view that whoever comes, does so because God has known, loved and called him from all eternity. This is because, while we understand that God has, from all eternity decreed the election of many, for whom Christ willingly lived and died, it is also and equally important, that he has not told anyone who those people are.

We base this distinction in part, on Deut 29:29 which distinguishes between those secret things which belong to the Lord and the revealed things which belong to us, God’s people and to our children forever. We are not to inquire into God’s hidden (decretive) will, but we are obligated to obey his preceptive will.

He has thus, revealed his moral will to us, and that is that we should “Go, make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19). The first part of “making disciples” is to “go” and to preach. As Paul says, “how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14). This is what we call, the verbal, external call. This is the gospel call.

It is this sort of call of which Jesus speaks when he says, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:14). The same idea is found in Acts 17:30 where Scripture says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now God commands men everywhere to repent.” Jesus issues such a call to faith in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” and in John 3:16, “…whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life”.

This is also the way to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:13, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” This refers to his external, vocal, verbal, call to repentance and faith. At the same time, it should be noted that those disciples whom he calls in this passage actually do come! The verbal, external gospel call is the instrument used by God to bring men to saving faith. In 1 Corinthians 15:1 says that it is “by this gospel you are saved” which gospel? The one he proclaimed to them. Whatever one thinks of the doctrine of definite atonement, no one should doubt the Reformed and Calvinist conviction that we are to preach the gospel, as the Canons of Dort (2.5) say, “promiscuously” because it is by this instrument that God accomplishes his purpose of glorifying himself by saving his people through the foolishness of the preaching of the cross (1 Cor 1:23).

CONCLUSION

If one accepts that Jesus died as a propitiatory substitute for all his people, there are really only two alternatives, definite atonement or absolute (total) universalism. Either he saved everyone who ever lived, or he saved all those whom he loved.

As R. B. Kuiper said, “From the viewpoint of Scripture it is difficult to take unqualified universalism seriously.”40 It seems clear from the Gospel accounts and Acts that Judas the Traitor is eternally condemned.(41) Our Lord Jesus himself taught that there are some in eternal punishment (Luke 16:9–31). This is the teaching of Revelation 20:15, that there will be some in hell. Can anyone doubt that Hitler or those like him are with Judas? One takes no pleasure in such things, but it is important to think clearly about this issue. If there are any in hell, then clearly not all are saved. If all are not saved, then either Jesus failed in his mission or he succeeded.

Indeed, Calvinism and Arminianism agree that Christ did not actually redeem everyone who ever lived, thus the question is not even whether there is a “limit” to the extent of the atonement, but rather, what is the nature of the limit? Is limited by God’s choice and design or by free human choices?

It is our contention that Scripture teaches that Jesus did not fail. Rather where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. As the Second Adam (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22, 44) Jesus actively obeyed God’s perfect Law perfectly, and suffered all the wrath which was due to us, his people, for whom he died (Phil 2:5–11).

Endnotes

1. My colleague Robert Strimple, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California has long urged that “definite” atonement is a superior way to describe our view. In itself, Christ’s death is not limited in its potential, rather it is definite in its intent and personal in its application.

2. R. B. Kuiper made this same point. See For Whom Did Christ Die: A Study of the Divine Design of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), 6.

3. Kuiper noted that there are two types of universalism, 1) unrestricted, e.g., Unitarian Universalism; 2) Inconsistent Universalists, including Arminians, Lutherans and Barthians. See For Whom Did Christ Die, 5.

4. See C. Van Til, Common Grace (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1947); idem, Common Grace and the Gospel (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1977); idem, Particularism and Common Grace (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1951); H. Kuiper, Calvin on Common Grace (Grand Rapids, 1928).

5. On this see this essay on Pelagianism

6. I am grateful to my good friend and colleague Steve Baugh for making this point in conversation.

7. See John 10:1-18; Romans 8:28-30.

8. W. R. Godfrey, “Tensions Within International Calvinism” (Ph.D. Diss. Stanford University, 1974), 72.

9. See W. R. Godfrey “Tensions,” 72–4; J. Rainbow, The Will of God and the Cross, 9-22.

10. Defense of St. Augustine, trans. P. DeLetter, in Ancient Christian Writers vol.32 (London, 1963), 16. See also Godfrey, “Tensions,” 75.

11. De vocatione, 2.1–2.

12. De vocatione, 1.24

13. De voc, 2.12

14. De voc, 1.20; 2.3–4.

15. De voc, 2.25.

16. De voc, 2.2–4

17. De voc, 2.16.

18. See Rainbow, The Will of God, 26.

19. Rainbow, ibid, 27.

20. Godfrey, “Tensions,” 76.

21. Though I have not listed him, Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033–1109), whom all the Reformers followed in their substitutionary doctrine ofatonement, seems to imply a definite atonement throughout his work, Why the God-Man? (Cur Deus Homo). See Cur Deus Homo, 2.19.

22. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a.19.6.

23. Thomas Aquinas, ST 3a.48.1,2,6; 3a.49.1. See also Rainbow, Will, 34-46 where he shows that Wycliffe and Hus also taught definite atonement.

24. See How Did We Come to Faith?

25. Heidelberg Catechism QQ.12-13; See Matt.6:12; Job 9.2,3.

26. See John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1959), 7–21, 64–95.

27. New Bible Dictionary, s.v., propitiation

28. See Exodus 34:6-7; Nu. 14.18.

29. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 11.

30. Lev 17:11

31. Acts 3:14

32.John 6:64–65.

33. e.g., Ex 15:4.

34. John 6:65.

35. John 9 [all].

36. John 19.30.

37. Ps 51:5; Eph 2:1–4; Rom 1-3.

38. Baugh, S.M. “Savior of All People: 1 Timothy 4:10 in Context,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992): 331-40.

39. http://public.csusm.edu/public/guests/rsclark/free_offer.htm.

40. Kuiper, For Whom, 15.

41. John 18:5; Acts 1:16-18. Luke is careful to note that Judas received his just reward for his treachery. There is no indication in Scripture that Judas repented and believed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baugh, S.M. “Savior of All People: 1 Timothy 4:10 in Context,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992): 331–40.

Boettner, L. The Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941).

Calvin, J. Sermons on the Saving Work of Christ, trans. L. Nixon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950, repr. 1980).

Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vol. trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 1:464-534 (Book 2, chapters 12-17).

Godfrey, W.R. “Tensions within international Calvinism : The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619” (Ph.D. Diss. Stanford University, 1974).

— “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618”. Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1975), 133-71.

Hodge, A.A., Evangelical Theology (Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1976).

— Outlines of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1928).

The Atonement (Grand Rapids: Baker repr., 1974).

Hodge, Charles. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950).

Systematic Theology 3 vol. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:544-89.

Horton, Michael S. Mission Accomplished (Nashville: Nelson, 1986).

Kuiper, H. Calvin on Common Grace (Grand Rapids, 1928).

Kuiper, R. B. For Whom Did Christ Die? A Study of the Divine Design of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959).

Long, Gary D., Definite Atonement (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1977).

Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955).

— “The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel,” The Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vol. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976-82), 1:59-85.

–“The Atonement,” Collected Writings 2:142-50.

The Atonement (Philipsburg, P&R Publishing, 1962).

The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans, 2 vol. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959-65.

Nicole, Roger R. “Moyse Amyraut (1596-1664) and the controversy on universal grace : first phase (1634-1637)” (Ph.D. Diss. Harvard University, 1966).

Nicole, R., “The Doctrine of Definite Atonement in the Heidelberg Catechism.” Gordon Review 3 (1964), 138-45.

—— “John CalvinÂ’s view of the Extent of the Atonement.” Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985), 197-225.

Owen, John, The Works of John Owen vol. 10: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, repr. 1967).

The Works of John Owen vol. 10: A Display of Arminianism.

Peterson, Robert A. Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1983).

Rainbow, J., The Will of God and the Cross. Allison Park, 1990.

Smeaton, George The Doctrine of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953).

Strimple, R. B. Anselm and the theology of atonement : a study of the man and his message (Th.M. Thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1965).

–“St. AnselmÂ’s Cur Deus Homo and John CalvinÂ’s Doctrine of the Atonement.” Aoasta, Bec, and Canterbury. ed. D.E. Luscombe and G.R. Evans. Sheffield, 1996.

Thomas, G. M. The Extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (1536-1675) (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1997).

Turretin, F. Institutes of Elenctic Theology 3 vol. (Phlipsburg, 1992-7), 2:417-82 (14.10-14).

Van Til, C. Common Grace (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1947).

Common Grace and the Gospel (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1977).

Particularism and Common Grace (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1951).

Warfield, B. B. “Jesus Christ the Propitiation for the Whole World,” Selected Shorter Writings, 2 vol. (Nutley: P&R Publishing, 1970-3), 1:167-77.

The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1942).

Person and Work of Christ (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1950).

The Saviour of the World (Nutley, NJ: Mack Publishing, 1972).

The Israel of God

Introduction

There is much more to “end-times” or ultimate things (Eschatology) than what we say actually happens in the last days. We say what we do about eschatology because of what we think God is doing in history.

At the center of the debate is the question of “the Israel of God” (Gal 6.16). Of course, this is not a new question. During our Lord’s earthly ministry and after his resurrection and before his ascension, the disciples asked him repeatedly, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1.6).

Indeed, there was a widespread rabbinic and popular notion that the Messiah should be a powerful politico-military figure of Davidic strength and skill—”David has slain his tens of thousands” (1 Sam 18.7). John 614-15 records,

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

It was not, as some might have it, that the timing was off, but rather that an earthly kingdom was contrary to his every purpose. Again, at the end of his life, during his triumphal entry, he did not come to establish an earthly kingdom, but rather to fulfill prophecy, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt” (John 12:15; Isa 40.9; Zech 9.9).

Jesus had taught the disciples and others that he came not to bring an earthly kingdom as they expected, but rather he came to bring salvation from sin. At the end, when “the men of Israel” could no longer tolerate his refusal to submit to their eschatology, their plan for history, they crucified him. Scripture says,

In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matt 27.41-2)

It is also a sad fact that many Christians have agreed with the chief priests and teachers of the law. Classic Dispensationalism has long held that the Pharisees had the right method of interpreting the Bible, they simply reached the wrong conclusions.

It is the Dispensational-Premillennial belief that God made a promise to Abraham (Genesis chapters 15 and 17) that he would give to him an earthly, national people with the result that, in the Dispensational view, it has always been God’s intention to have such a people and if the Jews refused the first offer (or Jesus refused their terms!) then there must be an earthly, Jewish, Palestinian, kingdom in the millennium.

According to Dispensationalism, God was so committed to creating such an earthly, national people that this was the primary reason for the incarnation, birth and ministry of Christ. Had they accepted his offer of an earthly kingdom, Jesus would not have died. In this scheme, Jesus’ saving death on the cross is a happy by-product of God’s plan for national Israel.

It is also an article of faith among many Premillennialists that the creation of a modern Israeli state, in Palestine in 1948, is a providential confirmation of their claim that the Jews are God’s earthly, national people and that further, God continues to work out history along two parallel tracks, with an earthly Jewish people and a spiritual, Christian people.

This way of proceeding, however, is fraught with difficulties. First, such a way of reading contemporary events is highly dubious. Who among us knows certainly the exact meaning of providence? If a loved one gets cancer, should we speculate about what sin caused it? Our Lord warned against trying to interpret providence (John 9). If we cannot even guess the meaning of relatively small providences, how are we to interpret the meaning of rather larger providences? Who is to say that we should focus on the Israeli state? Perhaps we should focus on the plight of Palestinian Christians who have suffered gravely at the hands of Jews and Muslims, especially since the formation of Modern day Israel?

Though it might be exciting to think that God is doing something spectacular in our times, one fears that our lust for excitement is no better than the cry of those Israelites who said, “Give us Bar-Abbas.” It may well be that the end-times madness we have witnessed, first in the late 1970’s, again during the Gulf War and again in recent years, is really a search for certainty. Just as earlier generations turned away from the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, in favor of revivals, our age seems bent on finding confirmation of the faith in the delusion that we are witnesses to the end of history. The fact is that Christians have often thought the same thing, and they have been wrong.

Remember that after the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17.1) where Moses and Elijah appeared before their Lord, the disciples peppered Jesus with questions about an earthly Messianic kingdom, about whether Elijah had yet to come. Jesus replied saying,

“To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”

It was always Jesus’ intention to preach the advent of the Kingdom (“…the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” Mark 1.15), die for sinners, and rule his kingdom, as he is now, at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:36).

Later, in Mt 19:27-30, after hearing Jesus’ teaching about the true nature of the kingdom, Peter again asked the kingdom question, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” To which Jesus responded,

“I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Our Premillennial brothers take this as a promise of an earthly Jewish kingdom, but Jesus understood the kingdom quite differently. The parables which follow teach precisely that God is not setting up an earthly Jewish kingdom, but rather that, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” and that

“the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt 20.18).

He was even more pointed to the mother of James and John, who was looking for work for her boys: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Mt 20.21). He rebuked her by telling her that not only is he not going to set up an earthly kingdom, but that he is going to suffer and die and they are going to suffer and die because of him, because “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20.28).

Therefore, we cannot agree with the argument of the Dispensationalist Clarence Larkin, when he interpreted Jesus’ words,

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.7-8).

not as a rebuke to the disciples for seeking an earthly kingdom, but only as a caution to wait for the earthly kingdom.

Rather, Jesus came not to build an earthly Jewish kingdom now or later, but always and only his intention was to redeem all his people by his death on the cross, and to rule the nations with a rod of iron in his ascension until his return in judgment.

It is my contention that God’s chief purpose in history has been to glorify himself through the redemption of a people in all times, places and out of all races, which grace he has administered since the fall, in history in a visible, institutional church, under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and now Christ.

Therefore, the premise that God’s intent has been to establish a permanent or millennial, national, Jewish people has it exactly backward. Our Dispensationalist brothers confuse what is temporary with what is permanent, and what is permanent with what is temporary.

It is the teaching of God’s Word that Jesus is the true Israel of God, that his incarnation, obedience, death and resurrection was not a by-product of Israel’s rejection of the offer of an earthly kingdom, but the fulfillment of God’s plan from all eternity. This is what Jesus told the disciples on the road to Emmaus. One of them said, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” In response our Lord said,

“How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24.25-7).

The Apostle Paul summarized this same teaching when he told the Corinthians that ” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Covenant Defined

We cannot understand what God is doing in history apart from understanding one of the most important terms in Scripture: covenant. This is a very frequent word in the Bible (294 times). Covenant describes the way God relates to creatures. It is a mutually binding oath in which there are stipulations, blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience as well as signs and seals of the oath.

Law and Gospel: Covenants of Works and Grace

God made the first covenant in human history, a covenant of works with the first man in the garden. The promised blessing for covenant keeping was that Adam and all humanity would enter into glory (“eat…and live forever,” Gen 3.22); the threatened curse for covenant breaking was death (“you shall surely die,” Gen. 2.17). The stipulation of the covenant was that Adam should refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.17). The signs of the covenant were the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life (Gen 2.9).

As you know, Adam failed that test, and Paul says that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). So we are all now born under this covenant of works.

The second covenant in human history was also made by our God with our father Adam. This covenant, however, was not a law-covenant; rather it was a gospel covenant. In the covenant of grace, God promised on oath a coming Savior (“seed of the woman”) who would crush the head of the seed of the serpent when the serpent struck his heel (Gen. 3.14-16). The blessing of this covenant is eternal life (the tree of life) and the curse for covenant breaking remains death. The Gospel of this covenant is that there is a Savior who will keep the terms of the covenant of works and sinners will benefit from it.

There are three things to be said about conditions relative to the covenant of grace.

1. Relative to the cause of our justification, the covenant of grace is unconditional. God does not accept sinners for any other reason than that he graciously imputes to them Christ’s justice.

2. Relative to the instrument of our justification, saving faith, itself God’s gift (Eph 2.8-10), is the sole, passive (receiving) Christward-looking instrument or condition of the covenant. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola fide.

3. Relative to the administration of the covenant of grace, there can be said to be covenant stipulations, i.e., that means of grace by which God ordinarily raises sinners from death to life, namely the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and those means of grace by which he confirms his promises and strengthens our faith: the holy sacraments. Christian obedience is neither ground nor instrument of our justice before God, but the fruit and demonstration of Christ’s work for and in us.

In the history of salvation, this same Gospel covenant which God made with Adam was renewed with Abraham, but the promise was re-stated, “I will be your God, and to your children.” The sign in Genesis 15 was the cutting of animals and the stipulation remained faith. For this reason Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen 15.6).

In Gen 17.10-14, circumcision became the sign of initiation into the covenant of grace. The covenant and the sign are so closely identified that the Lord calls the sign of circumcision, “My covenant.”

The covenant of works did not simply disappear in the history of salvation. Rather, the covenant of works is repeated throughout the Scriptures, every time the Law is read and God demands perfect righteousness from sinners, e.g., “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Gal 3:10). When Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “do this and live” (Luke 10.28) he was repeating the covenant of works.

Likewise, the covenant of grace is repeated throughout the history of redemption, whenever God says, “I will be your God, you will be my people” he is repeating the promise he made to Adam. He repeated this gospel promise to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Moses and finally fulfilled it in Christ and then repeats it to us through the Apostles, as in Acts 2.39.

These two covenants unify all of Scripture. All humans are born dead in sins and trespasses and all those who are saved are in the covenant of grace.19

The Old (Mosaic) Covenant

Many Bible believers assume that every event which occurred in the history of salvation before the incarnation and death of Christ belongs to the Old Testament and many of them assume that since the incarnation, the Old Covenant Scriptures do not speak or apply to Christians. Indeed, some Dispensationalists even consider that some books in the NT do not apply to Christians today, because they were intended for those who are ethnically Jewish. Only a few years ago, I heard a Dispensationalist pastor say at Christmas, “The problem with the Gospels is that the Gospel is not in the Gospels. ”

The Scriptures themselves, however, refute such notions. The Apostle Paul in 2 Cor 3.12-18 defines the “Old Covenant” as Moses, i.e., broadly the books of Moses and most particularly the Mosaic laws (vv.14-15). In Hebrews 7:22, Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant than that which was given to the Israelites. In 8.6-13 in contrasting the New Covenant with the Old, restricts the Old Covenant to the Mosaic epoch of salvation history. He makes the same distinction in 9:15-20 also. Thus, speaking strictly, the Old Covenant describes the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai. Therefore, not everything which occurred in the history of salvation, before the incarnation, belongs to the Old Covenant. This is important, because the Old Covenant is described in the New Testament as “inferior” (Hebrews 8.7), “obsolete,” “aging” (8.13) and its glory “fading.”

In this connection, the other important fact to note about the Old Covenant is that it was intentionally temporary and typical. Colossians 2:17 describes the Mosaic (Old Covenant) ceremonial laws as a “shadow” of things to come. Hebrews 8:5 describes the earthly Temple as a “type and shadow” of the heavenly temple. The Mosaic Law itself, was only a “shadow” of the fulfillment which came with Christ.

The New Covenant

With Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension the promise which God made to Adam and repeated to Abraham remains, but the circumstances have changed. We who live on this side of the cross view things differently because we live in the days of fulfillment. In biblical terms, we live in the “last days” (2 Pet 3.3; James 5.3; Hebrews 1.2; Acts 2.17).

The entire function of the Old Covenant was to direct attention upward to heavenly realities (Ex 25.9; Acts 7.44; Heb 8.5) and forward in history to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The old signs, Passover and circumcision along with the other bloody sacrifices and ceremonies have been replaced. Yet we still live in covenantal arrangement with God, and the bloody pictures of Christ have been replaced with unbloody signs (reminders) and seals.

Just as God made a covenant with Abraham, he promised a New Covenant to come later (Jer 31.31). He made this New Covenant in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (Lk 22.20). The Lord Jesus consciously and specifically established “the New covenant.” The Apostle Paul said he was “a servant of the New covenant” (2 Cor 3.6) . How can this be if there is but one Covenant of Grace? The New Covenant is new as contrasted with Moses, but not as contrasted with Abraham.

This is the point of Galatians 3:1-29; 4:21-31, and 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 where Paul says that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading but the glory of the New Covenant is permanent. The message of Hebrews chapters’ 3-10 is that the Old Covenant (under Moses) was preparatory to the New Covenant. The fundamental theme of Hebrews 11 is that Abraham had a New Covenant faith, that is, he anticipated a heavenly city and to the redemption which we have in Christ (Heb. 11.10).

Israel Defined: Jacob Have I Loved

There was, therefore an Israel before the Old Covenant. Israel was the name given to Jacob. The first time the word “Israel” appears in Scripture, as the conclusion to the story of Jacob’s wrestling match (Gen 32.21-30).

After spending the night wrestling with an anonymous man, and “when the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob” (v.25), Jacob demanded a blessing from him. In turn, the wrestler renamed Jacob as Israel, which he defined as “wrestles with God and men.”

Thus, in the history of salvation, all those who stem from the Patriarch Jacob are, in a broad sense, “Israel.” Only two chapters later the term “Israel” is used to describe the place and name of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (34.7). At Paddan Aram, God again blessed him and named Jacob, “Israel” (35.9-10) and repeated the Abrahamic promise to be a God to Abraham and to his children.

All this might seem to support the notion that, Israel means, “those physically descended from Jacob.” Except that Jacob is not the beginning of the story. Before there was an Israel there was Abraham and his miracle son, Isaac (Rom 9) and before Abraham, Jesus says, “I AM” (John 8.58). It was to Abraham, that God promised, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Indeed, Jesus taught the Jews in John 8, that it was he who made the promise to Abraham (John 8.56). Remember too that the first fulfillment of that promise did not come by “the will of man” but by the sovereign power of God when he allowed Sarah to conceive in her old age. These will be important facts to remember when we come to Paul’s answer to the question, who is the Israel of God?

Israel My Son

In the Exodus from Egypt, God constituted the children of Jacob collectively as his “son.”

This is what the LORD says: is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son’ ”
(Ex 4:23).

This is not just casual speech, but a very deliberate description of the national people. The sons of Jacob are not God’s Son by nature, but, as it were, by adoption. Moses denies that there was any quality inherent in Israel which made the sons of Jacob worthy of being called the people of God.

The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other people, for you were the fewest of all people. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh, King of Egypt (Deut 7.7)

According to this passage, there are two reasons for God’s choosing of Israel, His undeserved love and His Covenant promise to Abraham.

Israel Astray

Israel was not, however, God’s natural Son. That much was evident in the wilderness, in Canaan and finally in the ejection when God changed the name of his “son” Israel to “Lo Ammi, not my people” (Hos 1.9-10)

God disinherited his adopted, temporary, national “son” Israel as a national people precisely because God never intended to have a permanent earthly, national people. After the captivity, they had largely fulfilled their role in the history of salvation. As a sign of this fact, the Glory-Spirit departed from the temple. This is because their chief function was to serve as a type and shadow of God’s natural Son, Jesus the Messiah (Heb 10.1-4).

Jesus the Israel of God

It is the argument of this essay that Jesus Christ is the true Israel of God and that everyone who is united to him by grace alone, through faith alone becomes, by virtue of that union, the true Israel of God. This means that it is wrong-headed to look for, expect, hope for or desire a reconstitution of national Israel in the future. The New Covenant church is not something which God instituted until he could recreate a national people in Palestine, but rather, God only had a national people temporarily (from Moses to Christ) as a prelude to and foreshadowing of the creation of the New Covenant in which the ethnic distinctions which existed under Moses were fulfilled and abolished (Ephesians 2.11-22; Col 2.8-3.11).

Matthew 2:15

In the Hebrew Scriptures the expression “out of Egypt” occurs more than 140 times. It is one of the defining facts of the existence of national Israel. When God gave the Law he said, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” They were a redeemed people belonging to their Savior.

Thus it most significant when Matthew 2:15 quotes Hos 11.1. Scripture says,

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Herod was about to execute his bloody rage against the firstborn of the Jews. Matthew’s inspired interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures must norm our interpretation of Scripture and according to Matthew’s interpretation, it is our Lord Jesus, not the temporary, national, people who is the true Israel of God. Indeed it is not too much to say that the only reason God orchestrated the first Exodus was so that he might orchestrate the second Exodus and that so we might know that Jesus is the true Son of God and that all Christians are God’s Israel regardless of ethnicity.

It is because Jesus is the true Israel of God that, in his infancy and indeed in his entire life, he recapitulated the history of national Israel. What rebellious national Israel would not do, Jesus did: He loved God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and his neighbor as himself (Matt 22.37-40).

Galatians 3:16

In a similar way, the Apostle Paul argues very clearly that the promises to Abraham were fulfilled in Christ. Gal 3.16 says,

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.

Paul explains what he means. The promises given to Abraham were NT gospel promises. They were given before Moses and they were fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is Abraham’s true Son, he is “the seed” promised to Abraham.

The purpose of the Law given to Moses was to teach national Israel and us the greatness of our sin and misery (Gal 3.22). The Law administered through Moses did not fundamentally change the gospel promise to Abraham (3.17-20). The New Covenant is nothing more than the fulfillment and renewal of the Abrahamic Covenant and the Abrahamic covenant was nothing more than the fulfillment and renewal of the gracious covenant made with Adam after the fall.

Jesus the Savior of Israel

Acts 13.23

Part of the confusion which surrounds God’s plan in history, and therefore part of the reason Christians are so confused about God’s plans for the future of his people, is that many misunderstand what Jesus came to do for national Israel. He did not come to set up a national, earthly Jewish kingdom, but he did come to be their Savior and the Savior of all of God’s people whether Jew or Gentile.

Our Lord, before he was incarnate, identified himself to Israel through the Prophet Isaiah (43.3) as “the Holy One of Israel,” their “Savior.” This was the same point the Apostle Peter made in his great Pentecost sermon, that David is not the King, since he’s dead. Jesus, since he lives is the King and it was about Jesus the ascended King that David prophesied (Acts 2.19-34).

Later, in another sermon, Peter said that God has now “exalted” Jesus “to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. ”

Abraham’s Children

With this background then, we are in a position to answer the questions, “Who are Abraham’s children?” and “Who is the Israel of God?” Jesus said,

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him” (John 8.28-9).

He went on to say that if they “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” To which they respond by pointing out that they are physically descended from Abraham (v.33).

To this Jesus responds, “If you were Abraham’s children…then you would do the things Abraham did” (v.39). This, then is our Lord’s definition of a child of Abraham, a Jew, or Israel: One who does the things Abraham did. What did Abraham do? According to Jesus, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (v.56). According to Jesus the Messiah, a Jew, a true Israelite is a one who has saving faith in the Lord Jesus before or after the incarnation. This only another way of saying that Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father” except through him (John 14.6). This verse applies to is Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as much as it does to anyone.

Thus it should not surprise us to find substantially the same teaching in the Apostle Paul’s theology. In Romans 4, Paul says that one is justified in the same way Abraham was justified, by grace alone, through faith in Jesus alone (Rom 4:3-8).

What of the Gentiles then? Paul asks, “When was Abraham justified? Under what circumstances? Before or after he was circumcised? “It was not after, but before!” (Rom 4.11).

So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (Romans 4.11-12)

Therefore, these two questions are absolutely connected. Justice before God “comes by faith” (Romans 4.16), not by law-keeping, not by being physically or ethnically Jewish,

so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring&—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all (Romans 4.16)

This is all so because, as he said in Romans chapter 2,

No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code…(Romans 2.29).

Christ did not come to reinstate and fix the Mosaic theocracy or to establish an earthly millennial Jewish kingdom, but to save Jewish and Gentile sinners and to make them, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, Abraham’s children.

The Dividing Wall Demolished (Ephesians 2:11-22)

The movement of the history of redemption is on this order. The people of God were an international people from Adam to Noah to Moses. Under Moses, the people of God became temporarily a national people. God instituted special civil and ceremonial laws to separate his national people from the Gentile pagans. In Ephesians 2:14 the Apostle Paul describes these civil and ceremonial laws as a “dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile. Because of that dividing wall, the Gentiles, considered as a people, were “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (2.12).

Now, however, because of Christ’s death, Paul assures Gentile Christians that “you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (v.13). How? Through his death, Christ has destroyed the dividing wall, torn the temple veil, destroyed the temple and restored it three days by his resurrection (John 2:19),

by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross…(Eph 2.15-16).

Now, by virtue of our union with Christ, both Jewish and Gentile Christians are “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Eph 2.19); “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3.3). Why? Because “…our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3.20). How is it that Premillennialism, by having two parallel peoples of God, does not rebuild that very dividing wall which Jesus destroyed by his death?

Not All Israel is Israel

One of the clearest places in Scripture on this question is Romans chapter 9. The context is the very question we are addressing now, what about Israel? Who is the Israel of God? Has God abandoned his promise to Abraham? Paul’s answer is, a Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly, who loves the Savior of Abraham. Since Jesus was circumcised (Col 2.11-12) for us on the cross, circumcision is morally and spiritually indifferent.

“It is not as though God’s Word has failed” (Romans 9:6). The reason that only some Jews have trusted Jesus as Messiah is because not “all Israel is Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.” Rather, Abraham’s children are reckoned “through Isaac” (9:7) What this means is that “it is not the natural children who are God’s, but children of the promise” (v.8). How was Isaac born? By the sovereign power of God. How are Christians born? By the sovereign power of God. Every Christian is an “Isaac” in his own way. Why is this so? Because

before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated (Mal 1.2; 9.11-13).

How can this be? It is because God “says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion'” (9.15).

It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Is God unfair? According to the Apostle Paul, as creatures, we have no “rights” before God. God is the potter, we are the clay, but Christians are redeemed clay, objects of mercy, prepared in advance for glory. We must evaluate our condition against the backdrop of God’s patience with those objects of wrath prepared for destruction (Romans 9.22-3). These vessels prepared for glory are taken from Jews and Gentiles alike (Romans 9.24). This is what he promised in Hosea, he has made those who were once “Lo Ammi,” “Not my people,” i.e., Gentiles, to be “sons of the living God” (Hosea 2:23; 1:10; Romans 9.25-6).

The reason that lawless Gentiles have “obtained righteousness,” and that Israel who pursued it by law has not, is because justification is not by works, but by grace (Romans 9.32). They stumbled over Jesus, the rock of offense. He did not fit their nationalist plans and I submit neither does he fit the nationalist/Zionist plans of Premillennialism.

It is not that Paul does not want Jews to be saved, but rather he wants Jews to be saved, and the only way for a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to become a true Israelite, is to be joined to the true Israel of God, Jesus, by faith. “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'” (Romans 10.12). “Not all of the Israelites have accepted the Gospel”.

Has God rejected his people? No, the elect are his people and all the elect will be saved. There are believing Jews. Paul uses himself as an example (Romans 11.1). He is a part of the elect remnant who have not bowed the knee to Baal. “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11.5). What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened

God’s election of some and reprobation of others are the twin facts of the history of redemption which Paul brings to bear on the question of “Who is the Israel of God?” time and again he teaches: Salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone; and “What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened…” (11.7).

Is God finished saving Jews? Not at all. Salvation has come to the Gentiles “to make Israel envious” (11.11). Gentiles, by God’s undeserved favor, have been grafted on to the Israel of God. “Israel has experienced a hardening until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved” (11.25-6).

Christians are the Israel of God in Christ

Galatians 6:16

Given this background, it should not surprise us at all when the Apostles call both Jews and Gentiles “the Israel of God.” This is Paul’s language to the mixed Galatian congregation.

1 Peter 2.9-10

The Apostle Peter uses the same sort of language to describe the mostly Gentile congregations of Asia Minor to whom he wrote, saying, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Hebrews 8:8-10

According to the writer to the Hebrews, those who call on the name of Christ are the “House of Israel.” Everyone who has trusted Christ is an heir of the promises of the New Covenant.

Conclusion

Does the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob love the Jews? Yes. Does he have a plan for the Jews? Yes, it is the same plan he promised to Adam, the seed of the Woman, the same plan he promised to Abraham, “the Seed.” That seed is one: Christ. He is the Holy One of Israel, he is the Israel of God. He did what Adam would not do. He did what stubborn Israel would and could not do. He served the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength.

Most of the Jews, however, were not looking for a Savior. They were looking for a king. Jesus is King, but he earned his throne by his obedience and death, and that is not what they wanted. They wanted glory, power and an earthly, political, theocratic, this-worldly kingdom. Jesus has established his kingdom, through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. This kingdom may not be as exciting as ruling from Jerusalem during an earthly golden age, it may not sell many books or fill seats in movie theaters, but the world never has found the Jesus of Scripture very interesting, that’s why he’s stumbling block to Zionist Jews and a foolishness to Greeks. To Christians, however, he is the Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.24).

Theses Theologicae (Theological Propositions)

Introduction

Since the medieval period, theologians have stated theology in the form of brief, sometimes provocative, propositions to be discussed.

1. Prolegomena

  1. Theology requires proper distinctions.
  2. The Protestant scholastics distinguished properly between archetypal (theology as God knows it in himself) and ectypal theology (theology as God reveals it to us).
  3. Archetypal theology is the understanding which the Triune God has always had of himself, and of every other fact or possibility. Therefore God has a theology apart from our experience of him or his self-revelation to us.
  4. Ectypal theology is GodÂ’’s accommodated self-revelation in the Word of God written. Because of the ontological distinction between the Creator and the creature God’Â’s self-revelation in the Bible is necessarily accommodated to human finitude.
  5. Failure to distinguish between archetypal and ectypal theology necessarily leads either to fundamentalism (i.e., the illegitimate claim of certainty by identifying the mind of man with God’s mind) or to skepticism.
  6. Because it is ectypal (revealed) theology, Scripture’s anthropomorphic language about God must be understood to be analogical.
  7. Scripture, because it is the product of the Holy Spirit, is the infallible, inerrant, word of God written.
  8. Pilgrim Theology is the apprehension, appropriation, and application of biblical (theologia ectypa) truth.
  9. Revelation is twofold: natural and Scriptural.
  10. Natural revelation is true but not saving.
  11. Scripture is the primary and unique source of theology.
  12. Study of general revelation must inform but not control our interpretation of Scripture.
  13. Theology must always account for the one and the many.
  14. The Christian faith is the most rational thing to believe but Christians do not believe it primarily because it is so.
  15. The Christian must not integrate faith and life as much as refuse to disintegrate what God has already united.
  16. Scripture is the primary and unique authority for faith and life, i.e. sola Scriptura is still the formal principle of Protestantism.
  17. Scripture is composed of two words: Law and Gospel. The Law describes God’s moral demands of his creatures and the Gospel describes God’s gracious provision for sinners.
  18. The Law-Gospel dichotomy is absolutely necessary for a genuinely Protestant and Reformed hermeneutic.
  19. Scripture interprets Scripture, the new interprets the old, and the clear interprets the unclear.
  20. Modernism is a competing sub-Christian religion.
  21. Progressive neo-evangelicalism is a form of “soft” modernism.
  22. Literal is not a synonym for true.
  23. Everything which one must believe for salvation is clearly revealed in Scripture.
  24. Karl Barth was a neo-Modernist, not neo-Orthodox, theologian, i.e. he was expressing Modernity in Christian terms, not Christianity in Modern terms.
  25. Inasmuch as it is a revealed religion Christianity is not susceptible of human revision or rescue.
  26. Progressive neo-evangelicals do not sufficiently value the orthodox Protestant tradition.
  27. There are four necessary mysteries in the Christian faith: God is one in three persons; Christ is one person with two natures; God is absolutely sovereign yet human beings are morally liable for their actions; God reveals himself as desiring what he has not decreed.
  28. The N.T. hermeneutic and interpretation of the O.T. norms our hermeneutic and use of Scripture.

2. Theology Proper

  1. All theology flows from the Doctrine of God.
  2. The God who is revealed in Scripture neither suffers (impassable) nor changes (immutable), in himself.
  3. The biblical God speaks and reveals himself.
  4. Scripture distinguishes between God as he is in himself and God as he is revealed to us.
  5. Reformed theology has both voluntarist and realist elements in its doctrine of God.
  6. Christology must be distinguished from the doctrine of God.
  7. God is one in three, co-eternal, consubstantial persons.
  8. All Christians believe the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
  9. Both creation and redemption are Trinitarian in character and operation.
  10. The Western Church was correct to condemn Pelagius was wrong.
  11. God the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son (i.e. the filioque is correct).
  12. God has made certain immutable decisions from all eternity.
  13. Divine sovereignty does not preclude human, moral, liability.
  14. All things happen according to God’s fatherly providence.

3. Anthropology

  1. We were created in imago Dei
  2. In the fall the image was marred but not lost entirely.
  3. Scripture precludes the possibility of evolutionary ancestors.
  4. Denial of the special creation of humanity jeopardizes the doctrine of Christ’s federal headship.
  5. There is universal, indiscriminate, divine benevolence this side of the consummation.
  6. It is true both that we are the image and we possess it.
  7. The image consists in our rational, volitional, affective faculties, and in our bodies.
  8. The image is renewed only by union with Christ.
  9. Augustine was right on sin and Pelagius was wrong, i.e., Post-lapsum non posse non peccare.
  10. We sin because we are sinners.
  11. The Christian is simul iustus et peccator.
  12. Entire perfection, in this life, is impossible.
  13. Post-lapsum we are unable to cooperate with divine grace toward justification.
  14. Adam is the federal head of all humanity, to wit, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.”
  15. Human beings are morally liable for their actions because of God’s sovereignty.
  16. Anyone who denies the prelapsarian covenant of works jeopardizes the Biblical and Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

4. Christology

  1. Jesus Christ is an historical person.
  2. The gospel accounts of Christ are true and reliable.
  3. All Christians believe the orthodox doctrine of Christ summarized in the catholic creeds.
  4. All Christians believe Jesus’ virgin conception and birth.
  5. Christ has two natures in one person.
  6. Jesus’ humanity had no existence prior to the incarnation.
  7. Jesus is a person and did not adopt an existing human person.
  8. Christ has two sources of consciousness and one center of self-consciousness.
  9. Jesus was self-consciously the God-Man.
  10. Christ expiated the sins and propitiated the divine wrath for all his people.
  11. Christ had to be fully God and fully man to accomplish redemption.
  12. Christ is federal, representative head of all his people.
  13. Jesus came to be the surety for all his people by his active and passive obedience.
  14. The Reformed doctrine of the communication of the properties (communicatio idiomatum) is this: What can be said of the two natures can be said of the person but what can be said of the person cannot ipso facto be said of the two natures.
  15. God the Son was and is extra Christum and was present with his people prior to the incarnation and by the Holy Spirit after the incarnation.
  16. Jesus’ humanity was glorified but not overwhelmed by his Deity, in the ascension.

5. Soteriology

  1. The God of the Bible relates to his creatures covenantally.
  2. Covenant or federal theology is so of the essence of Reformed theology that to revise it is to revise the substance of Reformed theology.
  3. Classical Reformed theology teaches three distinct covenants: the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the covenant of works (foedus operum), and the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae).
  4. The pre-temporal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) stands behind the covenant of works and covenant of grace.
  5. The covenantal arrangement of the history of redemption and the covenantal progressive revelation of Scripture is not a mere convention, but rather a reflection of the intra-Trinitarian covenantal relations among the persons of the Deity.
  6. The pre-lapsarian covenant may be called a covenant of works in respect to its terms, a covenant of life in respect to its goals, and a covenant of nature in respect to its setting. All three names describe the same covenant.
  7. In Reformed theology, the covenant of works is identical to the Law which says: Do this and live.
  8. In Reformed theology the covenant of grace is synonymous with the Gospel.
  9. Monocovenantalism or refusal to distinguish between the covenants of works and grace implies a confusion of Law and Gospel.
  10. When we speak in covenantal terms we should always specify to which covenant we refer.
  11. The Gospel is not a promise that one is elect. It is a statement of fact, that Christ obeyed, died, and was raised for the justification of his people and a promise that whoever has true faith in the Savior is justified and redeemed.
  12. Election is the superstructure of our ordo salutis, but not itself the application of redemption.
  13. Though election and predestination are essential to Reformed theology they are not in themselves sufficient conditions for Reformed theology since many theologians have held and taught them without being Reformed.
  14. Election and predestination are best used a posteriori to explain how one came to faith. Reformed theology is not deduced a priori from the doctrines of election and predestination.
  15. Therefore, typically, we do not reason from election to our salvation, but we reason from our saving faith in Christ to our election.
  16. The doctrine of union with Christ is best understood as an analogue to the doctrine of predestination. Salvation is impossible without union with Christ but we do not deduce our system from it any more than we deduce our system from predestination. The Reformed doctrine of union with Christ serves as an a posteriori explanation of how believers have come into possession of the benefits of Christ (i.e., justification, sanctification, and glorification)
  17. It is best to distinguish two aspects of our union with Christ: federal and vital. The elect have a federal union with Christ from eternity by virtue of the decree.
  18. Believers are brought into vital union by virtue of their federal union with Christ.
  19. The first benefit of vital union is the application of redemption in the Spirit’s work of regeneration (awakening from death to life) by the Spirit through preaching of the gospel.
  20. Because we do not come into possession of the benefits of that union until we believe, our confessional documents usually associate union (or communion) with Christ closely with faith in Christ (defined as receiving and resting).
  21. The doctrine of union with Christ should not be used to obscure the nature of faith in the act of justification or to marginalize faith as the sole receptive instrument in the act of justification.
  22. Jesus Christ fulfilled the covenant works in his active and passive obedience to God’s law on behalf of his people.
  23. The slogan “in by grace, stay in by works,” is nothing less than the Galatian heresy condemned by the Apostle Paul.
  24. The covenant of grace was inaugurated in the garden, post lapsum.
  25. The covenant of grace is principally between God and the elect.
  26. The covenant of grace is monopleural in origin and dipleural in administration.
  27. The term covenant of grace can be used broadly and narrowly. When used broadly, it refers to everyone who is baptized into the Christ confessing covenant community. When used narrowly, it refers to those who have received the double benefit of Christ: justification and sanctification.
  28. All baptized persons can be said to be in the covenant of grace in the broad sense. Not everyone who is baptized receives the substance or benefits of the covenant of grace.
  29. There is a just and necessary distinction to be made between those who are in the covenant broadly (externally) and those who are in the covenant both broadly and narrowly (internally).
  30. The pactum salutis is distinct from and the basis of the covenant of grace.
  31. In the history of redemption, the covenant of grace was renewed in Abraham such that he is the father of all who believe.
  32. The term “Old Covenant” as used in Scripture refers to the Mosaic epoch not every epoch before the incarnation nor to all of the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures indiscriminately.
  33. The Old Covenant was temporary and typological of the New Covenant.
  34. The New Covenant is a renewal of the promise made to Adam (Genesis 3:14-6) and the (Abrahamic) covenant of grace.
  35. The Christian religion is exclusivist because it teaches that Jesus Christ is and always has been the only Savior for sinners.
  36. The Law and the Gospel are necessarily dichotomous since the former only condemns and the only justifies.
  37. Sinners are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
  38. We are sanctified because we are justified, not vice versa.
  39. Good works are logically and morally necessary for the justified, i.e. they are nothing more or less than the evidence that one is indeed justified.
  40. Anyone who says that good works are part of the instrument or ground of justification has denied the Gospel of Christ.
  41. Christ’s active and passive obedience is the only ground for the justification of sinners.
  42. Justification (sola gratia, sola fide) is still the material principle of Protestant Christianity
  43. Saving faith is faith which alone apprehends Christ, his righteousness, and merits.
  44. Faith, in the act of justification, is not an infused virtue, but a divine gift and the sole, adequate, trusting, receiving, resting, simple, apprehensive instrument of justification.
  45. The power of faith, in the act of justification, lies only its object which is Christ and his righteousness.
  46. In the act of justification, faith does not contain “all other saving graces,” but rather is accompanied by them. To make faith, in the act of justification, to contain “all other saving graces,” is to adopt the Roman definition of faith as “formed by love.”
  47. Any definition of faith which contains more than one element (e.g., faith and works) or any other object than Christ and his finished work is sub-Biblical and sub-Protestant.
  48. The doctrine of “obedient faith” (or “covenant faithfulness”) as formulated by Norman Shepherd teaches a complex instrument of faith in the act of justification whereby we are not justified only on the ground of Christ’s righeousness imputed received through faith resting in and receiving that righteousness alone and therefore denies sola fide and solo Christo.
  49. Justifying grace is not a substance but unmerited divine favor.
  50. Divine grace is grounded in the sovereign will of the immutable God and is therefore irresistible.
  51. God freely imputes our sin to Christ and his righteousness to sinners.
  52. The Reformed ordo salutis is not a speculative construct but a biblical doctrine.
  53. Much of so-called neo-evangelical soteriology has been and is sub-Protestant and therefore not truly evangelical as that adjective is defined by the 16th- and 17th-century Reformation theologians.
  54. Assurance is of the essence of saving faith.
  55. Christ’s obedience and the divine promise is the ground of assurance.
  56. The practical syllogism may supplement the divine promises.
  57. Evangelism is properly defined as the public, official, proclamation of the Gospel.
  58. Evangelism is a Dominical mandate.
  59. Every Christian has an obligation to give witness to the faith and to his personal appropriation of that faith
  60. God reveals himself as desiring the redemption of all though he has decreed only the salvation of the elect.
  61. The free, universal, well-meant, offer of the gospel does not imply universal ability to believe.
  62. Not everyone will be saved.
  63. Only the elect will believe.
  64. None of the elect will be lost.

6. Ecclesiology

  1. The church is both the universal and local Christ-confessing covenant community.
  2. There are divinely prescribed and described offices and ecclesiastical courts with teaching, ministerial, and judicial authority.
  3. God has ordained three special offices in the Christ-confessing covenant community: minister, elder and deacon.
  4. These three offices have distinct functions. The ministerial office is prophetic, the presbyterial office is kingly, and the diaconate is priestly in nature.
  5. The marks of the true church are the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline.
  6. The preaching of the Gospel is the chief means of grace and that through which God the Spirit creates saving faith among the elect.
  7. The function of the sacraments is to confirm saving faith among the elect.
  8. The sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace.
  9. As signs they point to the reality of salvation.
  10. The word “seal” may be taken in two senses.
    1. If “seal” means “promise,” then it is a promise to all whom it is administered that whoever believes in Christ is justified.
    2. If “seal” is taken to mean “guarantee,” then it is a guarantee to the elect that everything signified by the sacrament shall actually be true of and for them.
    3. Taken in the latter sense, the sacraments are signs to all but seals only to the elect.
  11. As signs and seals of the covenant of grace, they are Gospel not Law.
  12. The sacraments are divinely ordained means of sanctifying not justifying grace.
  13. The only divinely ordained sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  14. The sacraments are God’s Word visible.
  15. Scripture teaches the baptism of covenant children.
  16. We do not baptize covenant children on the presumption of their regeneration, but on basis of the divine command and promises attached to baptism.
  17. Baptism does not itself regenerate.
  18. Baptism does not unite every baptized person “head for head” to Christ.
  19. Since union with Christ is the headwaters of the ordo salutis (i.e. the application of redemption), to teach that baptism necessarily unites the baptized to Christ is to say it ex opere operato confers the application of redemption upon every baptized person. This is a gross error.
  20. To say that baptism necessarily unites the baptized to Christ obliterates the Biblical and Reformed distinction between the church considered as a visible institution and as an invisible organism.
  21. Baptism does not promise that all the baptized are or will necessarily be regenerated (awakened from spiritual death to life).
  22. Baptism is a sign to all who baptized, whether regenerate and elect or not.
  23. Baptism promises to the believer that as certainly as water washes outwardly, so also has Christ’s righteousness been imputed to him.
  24. The mode of baptism is morally indifferent though effusion is exegetically and historically preferable since, in the history of salvation, the only ones who were immersed were those who were not on the Ark with Noah and Pharaoh and his armies. Baptism is an identification with Christ and his death, not an identification with the reprobate.
  25. The Lord’s Supper is the divinely instituted sign and seal of covenant renewal.
  26. By the operation of the Holy Spirit, through faith, Christ feeds believers with his proper and natural body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.
  27. Reformed Christians do confess Christ’s true, real and local presence. His humanity is truly, really and locally present in heaven and, by the Holy Spirit, we are taken to feed on his true, proper and natural body in the Supper.
  28. Rome says that the elements of the Supper become Christ’s body.
  29. Lutherans say that Christ’s body is with the elements.
  30. Zwinglians and the Evangelicals say that the Supper reminds them of Christ’s body.
  31. Calvinists alone can say that the Supper is Christ’s body and blood.
  32. The system of the catechism is opposed and superior to the system of the anxious bench.

7. Eschatology

  1. History is a creature and has a telos and a terminus.
  2. Salvation is eschatological inasmuch as it entails deliverance from judgment to final glorification.
  3. Eschatology is about ultimate things as well as “last” things.
  4. We have been in “the last days” since Jesus’ ascension.
  5. Biblical eschatology was revealed progressively.
  6. Postmillennialism and Premillennialism are both forms of a theology of glory or over-realized eschatology.
  7. Biblical eschatology is Christocentric not Israeleocentric.
  8. Postmillennialism and Premillennialism are both essentially chiliast.
  9. There will be no earthly millennial reign of Christ.
  10. Christ has always had only one people.
  11. Christ will return bodily, visibly, audibly, to consummate salvation.
  12. No one on this earth knows when Christ will return.
  13. Christ reigns now as sovereign Lord over all.
  14. There will be a final resurrection and judgment.
  15. The body and soul are distinct but separated unnaturally at death.
  16. The body and soul will be reunited at the resurrection.
  17. The bodily resurrection will occur at Christ’s return.
  18. There was an angelic lapse.
  19. Satan is a fallen angel
  20. Heaven is a place or experience of eternal blessedness.
  21. Hell is a place or experience of eternal torment.
  22. The reprobate and Satan will suffer eternal punishment in hell.

8. Ethics

  1. True Christianity cannot be privatized or isolated and must be lived in the Christ Confessing Covenant Community.
  2. Christ is the Lord of nature and of grace.
  3. The greatest struggles of the Christian life are two: accepting divine grace and divine providence.
  4. The decalogue is the general equity of God’s law. Christ summarized the decalogue in Matthew 22.37-40.
  5. The law of nature is substantially identical to the decalogue and was revealed in Eden and is known naturally by all humans such that all are without excuse before God.
  6. God’s law (whether expressed in the Old or New Testament) is the norm for the Christian’s moral life.
  7. There are three types of law in the Old (Mosaic) Testament: moral, civil and ceremonial.
  8. Because civil and ceremonial law were specifically and intentionally tied to the Old (Mosaic) covenant, they were fulfilled in the Kingly and Priestly work of Christ and are therefore no longer binding on the Christian.
  9. The Mosaic civil law, because it was specifically and intentionally tied to the temporary and typical Old (Mosaic) covenant, it was never intended to serve as norm for any other state than Mosaic-Davidic theocracy.
  10. Any attempt to reimpose the Mosaic civil laws or their penalties fails to understand the typological, temporary, national character of the Old (Mosaic) covenant.
  11. The moral law, to the degree it expresses the substance of God’s moral will and is not tied to the ceremonies of the Old covenant continues to bind all human beings.
  12. There are three uses of the Law: the pedagogical, the civil and the normative.
  13. The pedagogical use drives sinners to Christ.
  14. The civil use norms the state.
  15. In the New Covenant, only the second table of the Law can be said to bind the state.
  16. There are two kingdoms: that of the right hand and that of the left.
  17. Both kingdoms are under the authority of Christ, but are administered in diverse ways.
  18. In each Christians live under Christ’s lordship according to the nature of that kingdom.
  19. The kingdom of the Right hand describes the ministry of Word and sacrament.
  20. The kingdom of the left hand describes the exercise of power in the ecclesiastical and civil realms.
  21. Because of the distinction between the two kingdoms and because the Decalogue is substantially identical with natural law, Christians should advocate laws and policies in the civil realm on the basis of the universal, natural knowledge of the second table of the law.
  22. The third use of the law norms the Christian life.
  23. Denial of the third use of the Law (tertius usus legis) leads to antinomianism.
  24. The third use of the law, like the first use, also drives us to Christ.
  25. Because it cannot be known apart from divine revelation in Holy Scripture, no one may bind our conscience with any law other than that revealed by God.
  26. Sanctification is as gracious as justification.
  27. Sanctification is the result of justification.
  28. The revelation of God’s moral will in Scripture does not eliminate the need for wisdom in the interpretation and application of divinely revealed moral norms in the Christian life whether in the church or in civil life.
  29. The Christian life flows from the right use of the means of grace.
  30. There is a proper distinction between God’s hidden (decretive) and revealed (moral) will. The latter has been revealed in Holy Scripture and must be known and obeyed. The former is only known ex post facto.
  31. There is no secret revelation of God’s decretive will.
  32. It is more helpful to consider that prayer is the chief part of thankfulness than a means of grace considered narrowly.
  33. Broadly considered, prayer may be described as a means of grace since it is a divinely instituted element of worship through which God has promised to operate.
  34. Theonomy is not a Reformed ethical system.
  35. Only that should be done in worship which is explicitly taught or implicitly required by Scripture.
  36. The Christian life flows from and is impossible without theology.
  37. The Spirit must never be divorced from the Word. Any such separation is fanaticism.
  38. Inasmuch as modern evangelicalism (from c. 1720) is driven primarily by religious experience and not objective revelation as revealed in Scripture and confessed by the church, the Reformed may be described as evangelical but we are not modern evangelicals.

A Meditation on Divine Immensity

This meditation was originally given as a chapel talk in 2001.
_______________________________________________

Introduction

One of the turning points of my early Christian life was reading J I Packer’s Knowing God. That book did what better books should do: it helped me understand Scripture and thereby to know God in a true and more profound way. Since then it has always been difficult to understand those who separate “knowing about God” from so-called head knowledge from so-called “heart knowledge.” The science of theology entails the art of making good distinctions, but the distinction between head and heart knowledge is not one of them.

All Christians confess “I believe in God.” Our faith, our life, our being, our salvation is found in, grounded in and sustained by our Triune God. The Bible and the Christian faith begin with God. If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then we must know him. It glorifies God when we know him more deeply and we can enjoy and serve him well only as far as we know him, but we cannot know him in our hearts without knowing him in our heads.

Divine Accommodation

Remember that Calvin described Scripture as God’s condescending speech to us. From the divine perspective, it is baby talk, i.e., divine speech to creatures is true, if not exhaustive (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.1). Thus as he reveals himself to us, God uses anthropomorphisims, that is, he attributes to himself qualities which we think of as human. The divine attributes are ‘the essential properties by which he makes himself known to us…by which he is distinguished from creatures’ (F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.3.1.5). That is, they are those things which make God who he is. To say that God has attributes also means that there is a real foundation in the divine essence for his attributes revealed Scripture. They are not just modes of revelation or illusions or ways of talking with no basis in reality.

The Limits and Truth of Human Language About God

At the same time, it is not as if our word immensity comprehends God’s immensity. As far as our understanding of it is true to God’s self-disclosure our word immensity is accurate. We want to say with Scripture that God really does “think,” “feel,” and “will.” These are not just modes of speaking. Yet, they are not identical to our experience of these faculties. Our experience is analogous but not identical to God’s.

Substance and Attributes

Charles Hodge said that the divine substance and attributes are inseparable. The one is known in the other. A substance without attributes is nothing, i.e., it has no real existence’ (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1.371). Nor is it true to say that God is the sum of his effects—this is no more true of God than it is of us.

Communicable and Incommunicable Attributes

Reformed theology has historically maintained that some attributes are communicable to humanity and others are not. In sanctification, God communicates to us his moral attributes (e.g., holiness and justice) as part of the process of renewal. To be sure, our experience of these moral attributes is markedly different.

Those attributes which can belong naturally to God alone, those unique ontological attributes, are incommunicable. Immensity is one of those incommunicable attributes.

I. Exegesis

Immensity is not a theologian’s playground. It is a theological category which arises from God’s self-disclosure in Scripture.

1 Kings 8:26–7

Solomon’s dedicatory prayer says in part,

And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

Standing before both Israel as Qoheleth (convener of the covenant assembly), Solomon invokes Yahweh, the sovereign creator and redeemer of his people.

As he prayed, he considered what it means for humans to build a building in which our infinite, spiritual and immense God can be said “to dwell” Solomon was saying, “Look here, we know that you are so transcend our experience and being, that building a box in which to meet and worship you is, in one sense, absurd, yet you have graciously ordained it.” That is the mystery of meeting God. He is everywhere and fills everything. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Special Presence

Nevertheless, he designates special places where he meets with us. The question is not exactly, “where is God” – we know the answer to that; he is everywhere and fills everything; but rather, the question is, “how is God with us”? What Solomon was suggesting is that God has a special covenantal presence with his visible assembled people. This is a remarkable thing. On the other hand,, there is a sort of ordinary (if we can use that word of God), universal experience of the presence of God, and then there is a special, unique presence of God, which he reveals and gives to the people who bear his name when they are assembled before his feet.

There is an intensity of God’s presence with us when we call on him in the name of Jesus, an intensity which is greater than his universal cosmic presence. This is because, as Vos taught us, heaven is pre-eminently the place of God’s special presence. We the people of God participate in that special blessedness of God’s presence to the degree that we also participate, by the Spirit, in that final reality.

So the difference between God’s general and special presence must be a difference of degrees. It must also be a difference in quality. When God the Spirit comes to us, he blesses us with salvation and with peace with God, it is the result of his special covenantal-saving presence with his people.

Most of the time when the Scripture speaks of God’s goodness, it is in the context of his covenantal presence with his people. His tabernacle-temple is throne and therefore his royal resting place.

1 Corinthians 11:10

Paul had both these truths (GodÂ’s immensity and covenantal presence) in mind when he said that, in corporate worship, women who stand to pray should do so with their heads covered, in part, “because of the angels.” Whenever God draws near to his people, in the Old Testament in smoke and fire, his holy angels are always attending him. Paul was saying, “Yahweh is present when you gather, be careful.

1 Corinthians 14:25

Likewise Paul’s hope was that, when an unbeliever comes into the worshiping assembly, Christ’s special-covenantal presence in the assembly would be so obvious and overwhelming that he would fall down and worship the living God.

Hebrews 12:18,22

The writer to the Hebrews agreed. As the people of God gather to call on God’s name, they should be aware acutely of God’s immensity—that there is no place where we can escape his presence, but especially of his dangerous, holy and powerful covenantal presence. If Sinai was dangerous, Mount Zion is so much more, since we have come to the true mountain, the city of the living God. Heaven thundered at Sinai, but now heaven is open, and we have entrance by faith, and we are before the angels and they are before his throne.

A Damning Immensity

By implication therefore, there is a special, presence of God by virtue of his immensity with the reprobate. He is not with them in grace and forgiveness, but in righteous and everlasting judgment such that, relative to grace, it can be considered a sort of withdrawal, of the sort envisioned by Scripture when God speaks of “hiding” his “face” from one in judgment.

II. Dogmatics

Negative Definition

God is not diffused throughout creation as though he is partly here and partly there, but rather he is completely here, and completely there at the same time and with no loss to himself (See L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 60–1).

Positive Definition

Immensity is a sub-set of God’s infinity relative to space. God Put positively, to say that God is “immense” is to say that he fills all that can be filled with all of himself all the time. Put, negatively, there is no place where he is not. Therefore God cannot be “contained.” There could not be any such things as space or location unless God is immense and in is actively filling all things sustains them. “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Necessarily So

Is God’s immensity the result of his free-will or is he necessarily so? In other words, could God not be immense? The Bible does not know a God who could be other than he is. Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” The God of the Bible is not becoming, he just is. That does not mean that God does not also will to be immense, he surely does, but it also means that it is not possible that he should will to be something else. Therefore our theologians, e.g., Amandus Polanus, were correct when they said that immensity is one of GodÂ’s “essential” properties meaning that God, to be God, must be immense and without it God is not (Partitiones, 1.1).

By Power, Knowledge and Essence

If God is necessarily immense and if immensity is an essential property, then God is with us not only by his power and operation, but also in his very being. For God to be present with us is for him to be present, personally and intimately because God is a tri-personal God (See Turretin, Institutes, 3.9.4).

III. Elenctics

Our View Not Philosophical

It also puzzles me to no end when leading neo-evangelical theologians such as Donald Bloesch dismiss this view as unbiblical, and driven by philosophy more than Scripture. Were one a philosopher one could devise a much simpler and easier to understand doctrine of God, a much more manageable God. After all, how “rationalist” is it to say that God is completely here and there, at the same time?

Contra Theology from Below

Some contemporary Reformed theologians simply ignore the doctrine of immensity and still others start with human experience and work out to God and therefore they reject the doctrine as counter to empirical evidence or rationality. So, given it not surprising that, given their starting points, that they have trouble with this doctrine.

Contra Anthropomorphites

Among Origen’s enemies were the “Anthropomophites,” i.e., those who taught that when Scripture attributes to God bodily parts and passions, that we’re to take Scripture to teach that he actually has these things. The anthropomorhpites were not just a problem in the ancient church. There are so-called evangelical theologians who are verging on the same error in our day. In his recent book, Most Moved Mover [(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 34–35] Clark Pinnock toys with Mormon anthropomorphite formulations. Pinnock notes repeatedly that his doctrine of God is closer to the popular evangelical view than ours. That is probably the case, but it is the first time that God’s people have been confronted by popular idolatry.

Contra Deism

Nor can the God of the Bible be locked up into heaven. Because he is immense, he fills heaven and earth with himself. Not that he spills over, but that he fills whatever there is to fill yet not by multiplication or identification with the world.

IV. Practica

Prayer

Have you ever thought about the practice of closing one’s eyes in prayer? Has it ever struck you as an odd thing to do? It sometimes strikes me as perverse. Its true that we make our children close their eyes so that will not be tempted to monkey about when they are meant to be praying, but when we close our eyes we do not thereby come any closer to God. Indeed, as a way of recognizing God’s constant presence with us, perhaps we adults should pray with our eyes open. It is a marvel that the God upon whom we call in prayer is completely present. We cannot see or touch him, yet here he is, completely present and because we are adopted Sons in Christ, he is specially present with us by the power of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit.

God’s immensity means that God is not only transcendent—”out there”if you will—but he is just here, with us. This is why Paul told the Athenian Philosophical Society, “though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).

Coram Deo

It is perhaps God’s immensity which is in view as much as any other attribute when we speak of living our lives Coram Deo, before God. This is the force of the last half of Jeremiah 23:24 which contains the rhetorical question, “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD. ” The answer is, “Yes, of course.” So our response is to live in the Spirit and to conduct our lives morally before the face of the God who is completely present with us.

Therefore there is nothing we do which is hidden from him. Calvin is probably right, Ps.139:7 (“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”) is not intended as a proof-text for this doctrine, but it immensity is a corollary it. For the Christian, one who is alive to the living God, the question is, where indeed?

Conclusion

Our God is a great God. He is not like the gods of the nations nor is he like the God of the evangelical process/openness theologians. Far from being made by hands, he cannot be captured by hands because he is immense and yet because he is immense, he does not need to be captured, because he is not going away from us. Indeed, quite the opposite. He has come to us and sought us out.

It is our immense, triune God who wonderfully and mysteriously took on humanity in addition to his immensity, as the greatest condescension to our weakness. He who by nature fills and upholds all things by his power, became a flesh and blood human being. Why? Because the height, depth and width of God’s love is as great as his immensity. God the Father loved us with all that he is and gave up his only and eternally begotten Son, so that we might know him.

El Israel de Dios

Traducción al español: David Barceló, abril 2002.

Introducción

Hay mucho más concerniente a los “tiempos del fin” o últimas
cosas (Escatología) de lo que nosotros decimos que realmente
sucede en los últimos días. Nuestra escatología depende
estrechamente de nuestra visión de lo que Dios está haciendo en
la historia.

En el centro del debate está la cuestión del “Israel de Dios”
(Gálatas 6:16). Por supuesto, esta no es una cuestión nueva.
Durante el ministerio terrenal del Señor y después de su
resurrección y antes de su ascensión, los discípulos le
preguntaron repetidas veces, “Señor, ¿restaurarás el reino a
Israel en este tiempo?” (Hechos 1:6).

En efecto, había una extendida creencia rabínica y popular de
que el Mesías debía de ser un personaje político-militar
poderoso de fuerza y destreza Davídica — “David hirió a sus
diez miles” (1 Samuel 18:7). Juan 6:14-15 dice,

Aquellos hombres entonces, viendo la señal que Jesús
había hecho, dijeron: “éste verdaderamente es el profeta que
había de venir al mundo.” Pero entendiendo Jesús que iban a
venir para apoderarse de él y hacerle rey, volvió a
retirarse al monte él solo.”

No se trataba, como algunos lo entienden, de que no fuera el
tiempo, sino más bien de que un reino terrenal era contrario a
sus propósitos. De nuevo, al final de su vida, durante su
entrada triunfal, no vino a establecer un reino terrenal sino a
cumplir las profecías, “No temas, Oh Hija de Sión; mira, he aquí
tu rey viene, sentado sobre un pollino hijo de asna” (Juan
12:15; Isaías 40:9; Zacarías 9:9).

Jesús les había enseñado a los discípulos y a otros que él no
había venido a establecer un reino terrenal como ellos esperaban,
sino que había venido a traer salvación del pecado. Al final,
cuando “los hombres de Israel” no pudieron tolerar más su
rechazo a someterse a la escatología de ellos, su plan para la
historia, le crucificaron. Las Escrituras dicen,

De esta manera también los principales sacerdotes,
escarneciéndole con los escribas y los fariseos y los
ancianos, decían: “A otros salvó, a sí mismo no se puede
salvar; si es el Rey de Israel, descienda ahora de la cruz,
y creeremos en él.” (Mateo 27:41-42).

Es también triste el hecho de que muchos cristianos estén de
acuerdo con los principales sacerdotes y los maestros de la ley.
El Dispensacionalismo ha sostenido por mucho tiempo que los
fariseos tenían el método correcto de interpretar la Biblia,
sólo que llegaron a conclusiones equivocadas.

El Dispensacionalismo-Premilenialismo cree que Dios le hizo
la promesa a Abraham (Génesis capítulos 15 y 17) de que le daría
un pueblo terrenal y nacional de manera que, según el
Dispensacionalismo, siempre ha sido la intención de Dios tener
tal pueblo, y si los Judíos rechazaron la primera oferta (¡o
Jesús rechazó sus términos!) habrá de haber un reino, Judío,
Palestino, en el milenio.

De acuerdo con el Dispensacionalismo, Dios estaba tan
comprometido con la creación de ese pueblo terrenal y nacional
que esta fue la principal razón de la encarnación, nacimiento y
ministerio de Cristo. Si ellos hubieran aceptado su oferta de un
reino terrenal, Jesús no hubiera muerto. En este esquema, la
muerte salvadora de Jesús en la cruz es un feliz sub-producto
del plan de Dios para un Israel nacional.

Es también un artículo de fe entre muchos Premilenialistas el
que la creación de un estado Israelí moderno, en Palestina en
1948, sea una confirmación providencial de su reclamo de que los
Judíos son el pueblo terrenal y nacional de Dios, y más aún, que
Dios continua obrando en la historia en dos trayectorias
diferentes, con un pueblo Judío terrenal y con un pueblo
Cristiano espiritual.

Esta manera de proceder, de todas formas, está cargada de
dificultades. En primer lugar, esta forma de leer los sucesos
contemporáneos es muy incierta. ¿Quién de entre nosotros sabe de
forma certera el sentido exacto de la providencia? Si un ser
querido tiene cáncer, ¿deberíamos especular sobre qué pecado lo
causó? Nuestro Señor nos advirtió contra el intentar interpretar
la providencia (Juan 9). Si no podemos ni tan sólo intuir el
significado de providencias relativamente pequeñas, ¿cómo vamos
a interpretar el sentido de providencias mayores? ¿Quién dice
que deberíamos centrarnos en un estado israelí? ¿No debiéramos
más bien centrarnos en la difícil situación que viven los
cristianos palestinos, quienes han sufrido mucho en manos de
Judíos y Musulmanes, y en especial desde la formación del Israel
moderno?

Aunque resulte emocionante pensar que Dios pueda estar
haciendo algo espectacular en nuestros días, da temor pensar que
nuestra codicia de emociones no es mejor que el clamor de
aquellos israelitas que dijeron, “danos a Barrabás”. Bien
pudiera ser que la locura de los últimos tiempos que estamos
presenciando, primero a finales de los 70, y de nuevo durante la
guerra del Golfo y de nuevo en estos últimos años, sea realmente
una búsqueda de certeza. Así como las últimas generaciones
apartaron sus ojos de la predicación del evangelio y la
administración de los sacramentos, en favor de los avivamientos,
nuestra generación parece inclinarse por encontrar confirmación
para su fe en el ser testigos presenciales del final de la
historia. El hecho es que los cristianos a menudo han pensado la
misma cosa, y han estado equivocados.

Recuerda que después del Monte de la Transfiguración (Mateo
17:1) donde Moisés y Elías aparecieron ante su Señor, los
discípulos salpicaron a Jesús con preguntas sobre un reino
Mesiánico terrenal, sobre si Elías aún había de venir. Jesús les
respondió diciendo,

“A la verdad, Elías viene primero, y restaurará todas las
cosas. Mas os digo que Elías ya vino, y no le conocieron,
sino que hicieron con él todo lo que quisieron; así también
el Hijo del Hombre padecerá de ellos. Entonces los
discípulos comprendieron que les había hablado de Juan el
Bautista.” (Mateo 17:11-13).

Jesús siempre tiene la intención de predicar la llegada del
Reino (“…el reino de Dios se ha acercado; arrepentíos, y creed
en el evangelio. Marcos 1:15), morir por los pecadores, y
gobernar su reino desde donde ahora está, a la derecha del Padre
(Hechos 2:36).

Más tarde, en Mateo 19:27-30, después de haber oído las
enseñanzas de Jesús sobre la verdadera naturaleza del Reino,
Pedro preguntó de nuevo la pregunta del Reino, “He aquí,
nosotros lo hemos dejado todo, y te hemos seguido; ¿qué, pues,
tendremos?”, a lo cual Jesús respondió,

“De cierto os digo que en la regeneración, cuando el Hijo
del Hombre se siente en el trono de su gloria, vosotros que
me habéis seguido también os sentaréis sobre doce tronos,
para juzgar a las doce tribus de Israel. Y cualquiera que
haya dejado casas, o hermanos, o hermanas, o padre, o madre,
o mujer, o hijos, o tierras, por mi nombre, recibirá cien
veces más, y heredará la vida eterna. Pero muchos primeros
serán postreros, y postreros, primeros.”

Nuestros hermanos Premilenialistas interpretan esto como
promesa de un reino Judío terrenal, pero Jesús entendió el Reino
de una forma bastante diferente. Las parábolas que vienen a
continuación precisamente enseñan que Dios no está estableciendo
un reino Judío terrenal, sino más bien que “el último será
primero, y el primero será último” y que

“el Hijo del Hombre será entregado a los principales
sacerdotes y a los escribas, y le condenarán a muerte; y le
entregarán a los gentiles para que le escarnezcan, le azoten,
y le crucifiquen; mas al tercer día resucitará.” (Mateo
20:18).

Jesús fue incluso aún más claro con la madre de Santiago y
Juan, que andaba buscando trabajo para sus hijos: “Ordena que en
tu reino se sienten estos dos hijos míos, el uno a tu derecha, y
el otro a tu izquierda.” (Mateo 20:21). él la reprendió
diciéndole que no sólo no iba a establecer un reino terrenal,
sino que además iba a sufrir y morir y que ellos iban a sufrir y
morir por causa de él, porque “el Hijo del Hombre no vino para
ser servido, sino para servir, y para dar su vida en rescate por
muchos.” (Mateo 20:28).

Por lo tanto, no podemos estar de acuerdo con el argumento
del Dispensacionalista Clarence Larkin, cuando interpreta las
palabras de Jesús,

“No os toca a vosotros saber los tiempos o las sazones,
que el Padre puso en su sola potestad; pero recibiréis poder,
cuando haya venido sobre vosotros el Espíritu Santo, y me
seréis testigos en Jerusalén, en toda Judea, en Samaria, y
hasta lo último de la tierra.” (Hechos 1:7-8).

no como una reprensión hacia los discípulos por haber estado
buscando un reino terrenal, sino tan sólo como una advertencia a
seguir esperando el reino en la tierra.

Mas bien, Jesús no vino para formar en la tierra un reino
Judío ahora o más tarde, sino que su intención fue tan sólo
redimir a todo su pueblo por medio de su muerte en la cruz, y
gobernar a las naciones con vara de hierro en su ascensión hasta
su regreso en juicio.

Mi argumento es que el propósito principal de Dios en la
historia ha sido siempre el de glorificarse a sí mismo por medio
de la redención de un pueblo formado por gentes de todos los
tiempos, lugares y de todas las razas, cuya gracia él ha
administrado desde la caída, en la historia en una iglesia
visible e institucional, representados por Adán, Noé, Abraham,
Moisés, David y ahora Cristo.

Por lo tanto la premisa de que la intención de Dios ha sido
la de establecer una nación Judía permanente o milenial es justo
al contrario. Nuestros hermanos Dispensacionalistas confunden lo
que es temporal con lo que es permanente, y lo permanente con lo
temporal.

La Palabra de Dios nos enseña que Jesús es el verdadero
Israel de Dios, que su encarnación, obediencia, muerte y
resurrección no fue un sub-producto del rechazo de Israel a la
oferta de un reino terrenal, sino el cumplimiento del que fue el
plan de Dios desde toda la eternidad. Esto es lo que Jesús les
dijo a los discípulos en el camino a Emaús. Uno de ellos dijo, “nosotros
esperábamos que él era el que había de redimir a Israel.” En
respuesta nuestro Señor les dijo,

“¡Oh insensatos, y tardos de corazón para creer todo lo
que los profetas han dicho! ¿No era necesario que el Cristo
padeciera estas cosas, y que entrara en su gloria? Y
comenzando desde Moisés, y siguiendo por todos los profetas,
les declaraba en todas las Escrituras lo que de él decían.”
(Lucas 24:25-27).

El apóstol Pablo resumió esta misma enseñanza cuando les dijo
a los corintios que no importa cuántas promesas Dios os haya
hecho, “todas son Sí en Cristo” (2 Corintios 1:20).

Definición de Pacto

No podemos comprender lo que Dios está haciendo en la
historia si no entendemos uno de los conceptos más importantes
de las Escrituras: pacto. Esta es una palabra muy frecuente en
la Biblia (294 veces). El pacto describe la forma en que Dios se
relaciona con sus criaturas. Es un juramento que compromete a
ambas partes y en el cual hay condiciones, bendiciones por la
obediencia y maldiciones por la desobediencia así como señales y
sellos del juramento.

Ley y Evangelio: Pacto de Obras y Gracia

Dios hizo el primer pacto en la historia humana, un pacto de
obras, con el primer hombre en el paraíso. La bendición
prometida a cambio de mantener el pacto fue que Adán y toda la
humanidad entrarían en la gloria (“come… y vive para siempre,”
Gen 3:22); la maldición por romper el pacto era la muerte (“de
cierto morirás,” Gen 2:17). La condición del pacto es que Adán
se abstuviera de comer del árbol del conocimiento del bien y del
mal (Gen 2:17). Las señales del pacto fueron el árbol del
conocimiento del bien y del mal y el árbol de la vida (Gen 2:9).

Como ya sabes Adán falló en la prueba, y como Pablo dice “el
pecado entró en el mundo por un hombre, y por el pecado la
muerte, así la muerte pasó a todos los hombres, por cuanto todos
pecaron.” (Romanos 5:12). Todos nosotros hemos nacido bajo este
pacto de obras.

El segundo pacto de la historia fue también hecho por nuestro
Dios con nuestro padre Adán. Este pacto, sin embargo, no fue un
pacto de Ley; más bien fue un pacto de Evangelio. Este es un
juramento que compromete a ambas partes y en el cual hay
condiciones, bendiciones por la obediencia y maldiciones por la
desobediencia así como señales y sellos del juramento.

En el pacto de gracia, Dios prometió bajo juramento la venida
de un Salvador (“la simiente de la mujer”) quien heriría en la
cabeza a la simiente de la serpiente cuando la serpiente hiriera
su talón (Gen 3:14-16).

La bendición de este pacto es la vida eterna (el árbol de la
vida) y la maldición por romper el pacto continúa siendo la
muerte. El Evangelio de este pacto es que hay un Salvador que
guardará los términos del pacto de obras y que los pecadores se
beneficiarán de ello.

Hay tres cosas que han de ser dichas sobre las condiciones
relativas al pacto de gracia:

1. En cuanto a la causa de nuestra justificación, el
pacto de la gracia es incondicional. Dios no acepta
pecadores por otra razón que no sea la justicia de
Cristo imputada sobre ellos por gracia.

2. En cuanto al instrumento de nuestra justificación,
la fe salvadora, regalo de Dios (Efesios 2:8-10), es la
única condición del pacto. La fe es pasiva (la recibimos
de Dios) y orientada hacia Cristo. Esto es lo que los
Reformadores Protestantes querían decir con sola fide.

3. En cuanto a la administración del pacto de la
gracia, podemos decir que las condiciones del pacto son
aquellos medios por los cuales Dios habitualmente hace
pasar a los pecadores de muerte a vida, o sea, la
predicación del Santo Evangelio, y aquellos medios de
gracia por los cuales él confirma sus promesas y
fortalece nuestra fe: los santos sacramentos. La
obediencia cristiana no es ni base ni instrumento de
nuestra justificación ante Dios, sino el fruto y la
demostración de la obra de Cristo por y en nosotros.

En la historia de la salvación, este mismo pacto del
Evangelio que Dios hizo con Adán fue renovado con Abraham, pero
la promesa se volvió a establecer, “Yo seré vuestro Dios, y el
de vuestros hijos.” La señal del pacto en Génesis 15 fue el
cortar los animales y como condición permaneció la fe. Por esta
razón las Escrituras dicen, “Y Abraham creyó a Jehová, y le fue
contado por justicia.” (Gen 15:6).

En Génesis 17:10-14 la circuncisión viene a ser la señal de
iniciación al pacto de la gracia. El pacto y la señal están tan
íntimamente relacionados que el Señor llama a la señal de la
circuncisión “mi pacto”.

El pacto de obras no desapareció sin más de la historia de la
salvación. Más bien vemos que el pacto de obras se repite a lo
largo de las Escrituras, cada vez que la Ley es leída y Dios
reclama a los pecadores una justicia perfecta, p.e. “Maldito
todo aquel que no permaneciere en todas las cosas escritas en el
libro de la ley, para hacerlas.” (Gal 3:10). Cuando Jesús dijo
al joven rico, “haz esto, y vivirás” (Lucas 10:28) él estaba
repitiendo el pacto de obras.

De igual manera el pacto de la gracia es repetido a lo largo
de la historia de la redención, siempre que Dios dice, “Yo seré
vuestro Dios, y vosotros seréis my pueblo” él está repitiendo la
promesa hecha a Adán. Dios repitió esta promesa del evangelio a
Noé, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Moisés, finalmente la cumplió
en Cristo y luego nos la repite a nosotros a través de los
Apóstoles, como vemos en Hechos 2:39.

Estos dos pactos unifican toda la Escritura. Todos los seres
humanos están muertos en sus delitos y pecados y todos aquellos
que son salvos están en el pacto de la gracia.

El Antiguo Pacto (Mosaico)

Muchos creyentes en la Biblia asumen que cada suceso que tuvo
lugar en la historia de la salvación antes de la encarnación y
muerte de Cristo pertenece al Antiguo Testamento, y muchos de
ellos asumen que desde la encarnación, las Escrituras del
Antiguo Pacto ya no se aplican ni hablan a los Cristianos. De
hecho, algunos Dispensacionalistas incluso consideran que
algunos libros del Nuevo Testamento no se aplican a los
Cristianos de hoy, porque fueron escritos para aquellos que son
Judíos de etnia. Hace apenas unos años, oí decir a un pastor
Dispensacionalista en Navidades que “el problema de los
Evangelios es que el Evangelio no se encuentra en los Evangelios.”

Las Escrituras mismas, de todos modos, refutan tales ideas.
El apóstol Pablo en 2 Corintios 3:12-18 define el “Antiguo Pacto”
como Moisés lo hizo, en un sentido general en los libros de
Moisés y particularmente en las leyes Mosaicas (vv. 14-15). En
Hebreos 7:22, Jesús es la garantía de un pacto mejor que el que
fue dado a los Israelitas. Más adelante, en 8:6-13 al contrastar
el Nuevo Pacto con el Antiguo, restringe el Pacto Antiguo a la
época Mosaica de la historia de la salvación. Hace de nuevo la
misma distinción en 9:15-20. Luego, estrictamente hablando, el
Viejo Pacto describe el pacto que Dios hizo con Israel en Sinaí.
Por lo tanto, no todo lo que ocurrió en la historia de la
salvación, antes de la encarnación, pertenece al Pacto Antiguo.
Esto es importante, porque el Viejo Pacto es descrito en el
Nuevo Testamento como “inferior” (Hebreos 8:7), “obsoleto”, “viejo”
(8:13) y que su gloria está “desapareciendo”.

En este sentido, otro factor importante a tener en cuenta
sobre el Pacto Antiguo es que fue temporal y típico de forma
intencionada. Colosenses 2:17 describe las leyes ceremoniales
mosaicas (Viejo Pacto) como “sombras” de las cosas que habían de
venir. Hebreos 8:5 describe el Templo terreno como “tipo y
sombra” del templo celestial. La ley Mosaica en sí misma, fue
tan sólo una “sombra” del cumplimiento que vino con Cristo.

El Nuevo Pacto

Con la muerte de Cristo, su resurrección y ascensión la
promesa que Dios hizo a Adán y repitió a Abraham permanece, pero
las circunstancias han cambiado. Nosotros, quienes vivimos a
este lado de la cruz, vemos las cosas de diferente manera porque
vivimos en los días del cumplimiento. En términos bíblicos,
vivimos en los “últimos días” (2 Pedro 3:3; Santiago 5:3;
Hebreos 1:2; Hechos 2:17).

Todo el propósito del Antiguo Pacto fue el de dirigir la
atención hacia arriba, hacia realidades celestiales (Ex 25:9;
Hechos 7:44; Heb 8:5) y hacia adelante en la historia hacia el
sacrificio de Jesús en la cruz. Las viejas señales, la Pascua y
la circuncisión, así como los demás sacrificios sangrientos y
ceremonias han sido substituidos. Aunque aún vivimos en una
relación de pacto con Dios, y las imágenes sangrientas de Cristo
han sido reemplazadas por señales no sangrientas (recuerdos) y
sellos.

Así como Dios hizo un pacto con Abraham, él prometió que más
tarde vendría un Nuevo Pacto (Jer 31:31). Dios hizo este Nuevo
Pacto en la sangre del Señor Jesucristo (Lucas 22:20). El Señor
Jesús de forma específica y consciente estableció “el Nuevo
Pacto”. El apóstol Pablo dijo de sí que él era “un siervo del
Nuevo Pacto” (2 Cor 3:6). ¿Cómo puede ser si no hay sino un solo
Pacto de la Gracia? El Nuevo Pacto es nuevo si lo comparamos con
Moisés, pero no si lo comparamos con Abraham.

Este es el tema de Gálatas 3:1-29; 4:21-31, y 2 Corintios
3:7-18 donde Pablo dice que la gloria del Viejo Pacto estaba
desapareciendo, pero que la gloria del Nuevo Pacto es permanente.
El mensaje de los capítulos 3 al 10 de Hebreos es que el Viejo
Pacto (bajo Moisés) fue preparatorio del Nuevo Pacto. El tema
fundamental de Hebreos 11 es que Abraham tuvo una fe del Nuevo
Pacto, esto es, anticipó una ciudad celestial y la redención que
tenemos en Cristo (Hebreos 11:10).

Israel Definido

Hubo pues un Israel antes del Pacto Antiguo. Israel fue el
nombre dado a Jacob. Esta es la primera vez que la palabra
“Israel” aparece en las Escrituras, como conclusión a la
historia de la lucha de Jacob (Gen 32:21-30).

Después de haber pasado la noche luchando con un hombre
anónimo, y “cuando el hombre vio que no podía con él” (v.25),
Jacob le pidió una bendición. A cambio, el luchador le puso a
Jacob el nuevo nombre de Israel, el cual él definió como “luchas
con Dios y con los hombres.”

Así pues, en la historia de la salvación, todos aquellos que
provienen del patriarca Jacob son, en un amplio sentido,
“Israel”. Tan sólo dos capítulos después el término “Israel” es
usado para describir el lugar y nombre de los hijos de Abraham,
Isaac y Jacob (34:7). En Padam Aram, Dios de nuevo le bendice y
le llama a Jacob “Israel” (35:9-10) y repite la promesa hecha a
Abraham de ser Dios para Abraham y para sus hijos.

Todo esto parece apoyar la idea de que Israel significa “aquellos
que físicamente descienden de Jacob.” A excepción de que Jacob
no es el principio de la historia. Antes de que hubiera un
Israel ya hubo un Abraham y su milagroso hijo, Isaac (Rom 9), y
antes de Abraham, dice Jesús, “YO SOY” (Juan 8:58). Fue a
Abraham a quien Dios prometió “Yo seré tu Dios, y tú serás mi
pueblo.” En efecto, Jesús les enseñó a los Judíos en Juan 8 que
fue él quien hizo la promesa a Abraham (Juan 8:56). Recuerda
también que el primer cumplimiento de esa promesa no vino por “voluntad
de varón”, sino por el poder soberano de Dios al permitirle a
Sara concebir en su anciana edad. Todos estos son factores
importantes a recordar cuando nos acerquemos a la respuesta de
Pablo a la pregunta ¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?

Israel, Mi Hijo

En el éxodo de Egipto Dios constituyó a los hijos de Jacob
colectivamente como su “hijo”.

“Jehová ha dicho así: Israel es mi hijo, mi primogénito.
Ya te he dicho que dejes ir a mi hijo, para que me sirva,
mas no has querido dejarlo ir; he aquí yo voy a matar a tu
hijo, tu primogénito.” (Ex 4:23).

Esta no es una declaración casual, sino una descripción
deliberada del pueblo nacional. Los hijos de Jacob no son el
Hijo de Dios por naturaleza, sino por adopción. Moisés niega que
hubiera ninguna cualidad inherente en Israel que hiciera a los
hijos de Jacob merecedores de ser llamados el pueblo de Dios.

“No por ser vosotros más que todos los pueblos os ha
querido Jehová y os ha escogido, pues vosotros erais el más
insignificante de todos los pueblos; si no por cuanto Jehová
os amó, y quiso guardar el juramento que juró a vuestros
padres, os ha sacado Jehová con mano poderosa, y os ha
rescatado de servidumbre, de la mano de Faraón rey de Egipto.”
(Dt 7:7-8)

De acuerdo con este pasaje hay dos razones por las cuales
Dios escogió a Israel, Su amor inmerecido y la promesa hecha a
Abraham.

Israel Extraviado

Israel, sin embargo, no era hijo natural de Dios. Esto se vio
claramente en el desierto, en Canaán y finalmente en la
expulsión cuando Dios cambió el nombre de su “hijo” Israel por
“Lo-ammi, no mi pueblo” (Oseas 1:9-10).

Dios desheredó a su “hijo” adoptado, temporal y nacional,
Israel, como pueblo nacional precisamente, porque jamás fue la
intención de Dios tener un pueblo terrenal permanente. Tras el
cautiverio, ellos ya habían cumplido ampliamente su papel en la
historia de la salvación. Como señal de este hecho, el Espíritu-Gloria
partió del templo. Esto sucedió porque su principal función fue
la de servir como modelo y sombra del hijo natural de Dios,
Jesús el Mesías (Hebreos 10:1-4).

Jesús, el Israel de Dios

La tesis de este ensayo es que Jesús es el verdadero Israel
de Dios y que todo aquel que esté unido a él, sólo por gracia,
sólo por medio de la fe, viene a ser por virtud de esa unión el
verdadero Israel de Dios. Esto significa que es erróneo buscar,
esperar, anhelar o desear una reconstitución de un Israel
nacional en el futuro. La Iglesia del Nuevo Pacto no es algo que
Dios instituyó hasta que él pudiera volver a crear un
pueblo nacional en Palestina, sino que más bien Dios sólo tuvo
un pueblo nacional temporalmente (desde Moisés hasta Cristo)
como preludio y avance de la creación del Nuevo Pacto en el cual
las distinciones étnicas que hubo bajo Moisés fueron completadas
y abolidas (Efesios 2:11-22; Colosenses 2:8-3:11).

Mateo 2:15

En el texto Hebreo la expresión “fuera de Egipto” ocurre más
de 140 veces. Esta es una evidencia más de la existencia de un
Israel nacional. Cuando Dios dio la Ley dijo, “Yo soy Yahvéh tu
Dios quien te sacó de la tierra de Egipto.” Eran un pueblo
redimido que pertenecía a su Salvador.

Esto es aún más significativo cuando Mateo 2:15 cita Oseas
11:1. La Escritura dice,

Y él, despertando, tomó de noche al niño y a su madre, y
se fue a Egipto, y estuvo allá hasta la muerte de Herodes;
para que se cumpliese lo que dijo el Señor por medio del
profeta, cuando dijo: “De Egipto llamé a mi Hijo.”

Herodes estaba a punto de descargar su rabia sangrienta
contra los primogénitos de los Judíos. La interpretación
inspirada que Mateo hace de las Escrituras Hebreas debe regular
nuestra interpretación de las Escrituras, y según la
interpretación de Mateo nuestro Señor Jesús es el verdadero
Israel de Dios, no el pueblo temporal y nacional de Israel. En
efecto, no es nada exagerado decir que la única razón por la
cual Dios orquestó el primer éxodo fue para poder orquestar el
segundo éxodo y que así pudiéramos conocer que Jesús es el
verdadero Hijo de Dios y que todos los cristianos son el Israel
de Dios sin considerar su etnia.

Dado que Jesús es el verdadero Israel de Dios, por eso en su
infancia y de hecho en toda su vida, recapituló la historia del
Israel nacional. Todo aquello que el Israel nacional rebelde no
haría, Jesús lo hizo: él amó a Dios con todo su corazón, su
alma, su mente y sus fuerzas y a su prójimo como a sí mismo
(Mateo 22:37-40).

Gálatas 3:16

De forma similar, el apóstol Pablo argumenta muy claramente
que las promesas hechas a Abraham tienen su cumplimiento en
Cristo. Gálatas 3:16 dice,

“Ahora bien, a Abraham fueron hechas las promesas, y a su
simiente. No dice: Y a las simientes, como si hablase de
muchos, sino como de uno: Y a tu simiente, la cual es Cristo.”

Pablo explica lo que quiere decir. Las promesas hechas a
Abraham fueron promesas del evangelio del Nuevo Testamento.
Fueron dadas antes de Moisés y fueron cumplidas en Cristo. Jesús
es el verdadero hijo de Abraham, él es “la simiente” prometida a
Abraham.

El propósito de la Ley dada a Moisés fue el enseñar al Israel
nacional y a nosotros la seriedad de nuestro pecado y nuestra
miseria (Gálatas 3:22). La Ley administrada a través de Moisés
no cambió fundamentalmente la promesa del evangelio dada a
Abraham (3:17-20). El Nuevo Pacto no es si no el cumplimiento y
la renovación del Pacto con Abraham, y el Pacto con Abraham no
fue más que el cumplimiento y la renovación del pacto de Gracia
hecho con Adán después de la caída.

Jesús, el Salvador de Israel

Hechos 13:23

Parte de la confusión que conlleva el tema del plan de Dios
en la historia, y por lo tanto parte de la razón por la cual los
cristianos están tan confundidos sobre el plan de Dios para el
futuro de su pueblo, viene porque muchos no comprenden qué vino
a hacer Jesús por el Israel nacional. Jesús no vino a establecer
un reino Judío terrenal y nacional, sino que vino a ser su
Salvador y el Salvador de todo el Pueblo de Dios, fueran judíos
o gentiles.

Nuestro Señor, antes de su encarnación, se identificó a sí
mismo con Israel a través del profeta Isaías (43:3) como “el
Santo de Israel”, su “Salvador.” Este es el mismo asunto que el
apóstol Pedro trató en su gran sermón de Pentecostés, que David
no es el Rey, ya que está muerto. Jesús, puesto que vive, es el
Rey y fue sobre Jesús que David profetizó (Hechos 2:19-34).

Más tarde, en otro sermón, Pedro dijo que Dios había ahora “exaltado”
a Jesús “a su propia mano derecha como Príncipe y Salvador, para
que pudiera darle a Israel arrepentimiento y perdón de pecados.”

Los Hijos de Abraham

Con todo este trasfondo, ahora estamos en situación de
responder a las preguntas, “¿Quiénes son los hijos de Abraham?”
y “¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?” Jesús dijo,

“Cuando hayáis levantado al Hijo del Hombre, entonces
conoceréis que yo soy, y que nada hago por mí mismo, sino
que según me enseñó el Padre, así hablo. Porque el que me
envió, conmigo está; no me ha dejado solo el Padre, porque
yo hago siempre lo que le agrada.” (Juan 8:28-29).

él continuó diciendo que “Si vosotros permaneciereis en mi
palabra, seréis verdaderamente mis discípulos; y conoceréis la
verdad, y la verdad os hará libres.” (vv.31-32) a lo que ellos
responden señalando que ellos son descendencia física de Abraham
(v.33).

A esto Jesús responde, “Si fueseis hijos de Abraham, las
obras de Abraham haríais” (v.39). Esta es pues la definición que
el Señor hace de un hijo de Abraham, un Judío, o Israel: Quien
hace las cosas que Abraham hizo. ¿Y qué hizo Abraham? Según
Jesús, “Abraham vuestro padre se gozó de que había de ver mi día;
y lo vio, y se gozó” (v.56). Según Jesús el Mesías, un Judío, un
verdadero Israelita es aquel que tiene fe salvadora en el Señor
Jesús ya sea antes o después de su encarnación. Esta es solo
otra forma de decir que Jesús es “el camino, la verdad y la vida”
y que “nadie viene al Padre” sino por él (Juan 14:6). Este
versículo también se aplica a Abraham, Isaac y Jacob así como a
cualquiera.

Luego, no debiera sorprendernos encontrar básicamente la
misma enseñanza en la teología del Apóstol Pablo. En Romanos 4,
Pablo dice que uno es justificado de la misma manera que Abraham
fue justificado, solo por gracia, y solo a través de la fe en
Jesús (Romanos 4:3-8).

¿Y qué de los Gentiles? Pablo pregunta, “¿Cuándo fue Abraham
justificado? ¿Bajo qué circunstancias? ¿Antes o después de ser
circuncidado? ¡No fue después, sino antes!” (Romanos 4:11).

“…para que fuese padre de todos los creyentes no
circuncidados, a fin de que también a ellos la fe les sea
contada por justicia; y padre de la circuncisión, para los
que no solamente son de la circuncisión, sino que también
siguen las pisadas de la fe que tuvo nuestro padre Abraham
antes de ser circuncidado.” (Romanos 4:11-12).

Por lo tanto estas dos preguntas están íntimamente
relacionadas. La Justicia ante Dios “viene por fe” (Romanos
4:16), no por guardar la Ley, ni por ser física o étnicamente
Judío,

“para que sea por gracia, a fin de que la promesa sea
firme para toda su descendencia; no solamente para la que es
de la ley, sino también para la que es de la fe de Abraham,
el cual es padre de todos nosotros” (Romanos 4:16)

Esto es así porque, como dijo en Romanos capítulo 2,

“es judío el que lo es en lo interior, y la circuncisión
es la del corazón, en espíritu, no en letra; la alabanza del
cual no viene de los hombres, sino de Dios” (Romanos 2:29).

Cristo no vino para reinstalar y fijar la Teocracia Mosaica o
a establecer un reino terrenal Judío milenial, sino a salvar
pecadores Judíos y Gentiles y a hacerles, solo por gracia, solo
a través de la fe, y solo en Cristo, hijos de Abraham.

La Pared Intermedia Derribada (Efesios 2:11-22)

El movimiento de la historia de la redención se da en este
orden. El pueblo de Dios fue un pueblo internacional desde Adán
hasta Moisés. Bajo Moisés el pueblo de Dios fue temporalmente
una nación. Dios instituyó unas leyes especiales, civiles y
ceremoniales, para separar a su pueblo nacional de los paganos
gentiles. En Efesios 2:14 el Apóstol Pablo describe estas leyes
civiles y ceremoniales como la “pared intermedia” entre Judíos y
Gentiles. Por causa de esa pared intermedia los Gentiles,
considerados como pueblo, estaban “sin Cristo, alejados de la
ciudadanía de Israel y ajenos a los pactos de la promesa, sin
esperanza y sin Dios en el mundo” (2:12).

Ahora, sin embargo, por causa de la muerte de Cristo, Pablo
les asegura a los cristianos gentiles que “vosotros que en otro
tiempo estabais lejos, habéis sido hechos cercanos por la sangre
de Cristo” (V.13). ¿Cómo? A través de su muerte, Cristo ha
destruido la pared intermedia, ha rasgado el velo del templo, ha
destruido y restaurado el templo en tres días mediante su
resurrección (Juan 2:19),

“aboliendo en su carne las enemistades, la ley de los
mandamientos expresados en ordenanzas, para crear en sí
mismo de los dos un solo y nuevo hombre, haciendo la paz, y
mediante la cruz reconciliar con Dios a ambos en un solo
cuerpo, matando en ella las enemistades” (Efesios 2:15-16).

Ahora, por virtud de nuestra unión con Cristo, tanto los
cristianos Judíos como los Gentiles son “conciudadanos de los
santos, y miembros de la familia de Dios” (Efesios 2:19); “Porque
nosotros somos la circuncisión, los que en espíritu servimos a
Dios y nos gloriamos en Cristo Jesús, no teniendo confianza en
la carne” (Filipenses 3:3). ¿Por qué? Porque “…nuestra
ciudadanía está en los cielos” (Filipenses 3:20). ¿Cómo es pues
que el Premilenialismo, teniendo dos pueblos de Dios paralelos,
no reconstruye esa pared intermedia de separación que Jesús
destruyó con su muerte?

No Todo Israel es Israel (Romanos 9)

Uno de los lugares más claros en las Escrituras en cuanto a
este tema es Romanos 9. El contexto de este pasaje es la misma
pregunta que estamos tratando ahora, ¿qué sucede con Israel? ¿Quién
es el Israel de Dios? ¿Ha abandonado Dios su promesa con
Abraham? La respuesta de Pablo es que un Judío es quien lo es
interiormente, quien ama al Salvador de Abraham. Puesto que
Cristo fue circuncidado (Colosenses 2:11-12) por nosotros en la
cruz, la circuncisión es moral y espiritualmente indiferente.

“No que la palabra de Dios haya fallado” (Romanos 9:6). La
razón por la cual solo algunos Judíos hayan creído en Jesús como
el Mesías es por que “no todo Israel es Israel. No por el hecho
de ser descendientes de Abraham son todos sus hijos.” Más bien
los hijos de Abraham son contados “a través de Isaac” (9:7).
Esto quiere decir que “no son los hijos naturales los que son de
Dios, sino los hijos de la promesa” (v.8). ¿Cómo nació Isaac?
Por el soberano poder de Dios. ¿Cómo nacen los Cristianos? Por
el soberano poder de Dios. Cada cristiano es un “Isaac” en
cierto sentido. ¿Por qué es así? Por que

“-pues no habían aún nacido, ni habían hecho aún ni bien
ni mal, para que el propósito de Dios conforme a la elección
permaneciese, no por las obras sino por el que llama-, se le
dijo: El mayor servirá al menor. Como está escrito: A Jacob
amé, mas a Esaú aborrecí.” (Malaquías 1:2; Romanos 9:11-13).

¿Cómo puede ser esto? Esto es porque Dios “Tendré
misericordia del que yo tenga misericordia, y me compadeceré del
que yo me compadezca” (Rom 9:15).

“Así que no depende del que quiere, ni del que corre,
sino de Dios que tiene misericordia. Porque la Escritura
dice a Faraón: Para esto mismo te he levantado, para mostrar
en ti mi poder, y para que mi nombre sea anunciado por toda
la tierra. De manera que de quien quiere, tiene
misericordia, y al que quiere endurecer, endurece”. (Rom
9:16-18).

¿Es Dios injusto? De acuerdo con el apóstol Pablo, como
criaturas, no tenemos “derechos” delante de Dios. Dios es el
alfarero, nosotros el barro, pero los Cristianos son barro
redimido, objetos de misericordia, preparados de antemano para
la gloria. Debemos evaluar nuestra condición teniendo como telón
de fondo la paciencia de Dios con esos objetos de ira preparados
para destrucción (Romanos 9:22-23). Estas vasijas preparadas
para la gloria son tomadas tanto de entre los Judíos como de
entre los Gentiles (Romanos 9:24). Esto es lo que él prometió en
Oseas. él ha hecho de aquellos que fueran una vez “Lo-ammi”, “no
mi pueblo”, o sea los Gentiles, que ahora fuesen “hijos del Dios
vivo” (Oseas 2:23; 1:10; Romanos 9:25-26).

La razón por la cual los Gentiles, que estaban sin la Ley,
hayan “obtenido justicia”, y que Israel que sí la adquirió por
Ley no la tenga, es porque la justificación no es por las obras,
sino por gracia (Romanos 9:32). Ellos se tropezaron con Jesús,
la piedra de tropiezo. él no encajó con sus planes nacionalistas,
y digo yo, que tampoco encaja él con los planes nacionalistas/Sionistas
del Premilenialismo.

No es que Pablo no quiera que los Judíos no sean salvos, sino
que les dice esto porque quiere que los Judíos también se salven.
La única manera de que un descendiente físico de Abraham, Isaac
y Jacob sea un verdadero Israelita es unirse al verdadero Israel
de Dios, a Jesús, por medio de la fe. “Porque no hay diferencia
entre judío y griego, pues el mismo que es Señor de todos, es
rico para con todos los que le invocan; porque todo aquel que
invocare el nombre del Señor, será salvo” (Romanos 10:12-13).
“No todos los Israelitas han aceptado el Evangelio.”

¿Ha rechazado Dios a su pueblo? No, los escogidos son su
pueblo, y todos los escogidos serán salvos. Hay también Judíos
creyentes. Pablo se pone a él mismo como ejemplo (Romanos 11:1).
él es parte del remanente escogido que no ha doblado su rodilla
ante Baal. “Así también aun en este tiempo ha quedado un
remanente escogido por gracia. Y si por gracia, ya no es por
obras; de otra manera la gracia ya no es gracia” (Romanos
11:5-6). Lo que Israel buscó ansiadamente no lo obtuvo, pero los
escogidos sí. Los demás fueron endurecidos.

La elección de Dios de unos y la reprobación de otros son dos
hechos de la historia de la redención que Pablo saca a la luz
con la pregunta “¿Quién es el Israel de Dios?”. Y de nuevo
enseña: La salvación es solo por gracia, solo por medio de la fe,
y solo en Cristo; y “Lo que buscaba Israel, no lo ha alcanzado;
pero los escogidos sí lo han alcanzado, y los demás fueron
endurecidos…” (Rom 11:7).

¿Ha acabado Dios de salvar Judíos? De ninguna manera. La
salvación ha venido a los Gentiles para “provocar a Israel a
celos” (Rom 11:11). Los Gentiles, por el favor inmerecido de
Dios, han sido injertados al Israel de Dios. Y “ha acontecido a
Israel endurecimiento en parte, hasta que haya entrado la
plenitud de los gentiles; y luego todo Israel será salvo”
(Romanos 11:25-26).

Los Cristianos son el Israel de Dios en Cristo

Gálatas 6:16

Dado este trasfondo, no debiera sorprendernos nada el hecho
de que los apóstoles llamaran a ambos, Judíos y Gentiles, “el
Israel de Dios.” Este es el lenguaje de Pablo refiriéndose a la
congregación mezclada de Galacia.

1 Pedro 2:9-10

El apóstol Pedro usa el mismo tipo de lenguaje para describir
las congregaciones de mayoría gentil en Asia Menor, a quienes
escribe diciendo, “vosotros que en otro tiempo no erais pueblo,
pero que ahora sois pueblo de Dios; que en otro tiempo no
habíais alcanzado misericordia, pero ahora habéis alcanzado
misericordia.”

Hebreos 8:8-10

Según el escritor a los Hebreos, aquellos que invocaren el
nombre de Cristo son “la Casa de Israel.” Cualquiera que haya
creído en Cristo es un heredero de las promesas del Nuevo Pacto.

Conclusión

¿Ama a los Judíos el Dios de Abraham, Isaac y Jacob? Sí. ¿Tiene
un plan para los Judíos? Sí, el mismo plan que prometió a Adán,
la simiente de la mujer, el mismo plan que prometió a Abraham,
“la Simiente.” Esa simiente es una: Cristo. él es el Santo de
Israel, él es el Israel de Dios. él hizo lo que Adán no. él hizo
lo que un Israel terco no quisiera ni pudiera haber hecho. él
sirvió al Señor con todo su corazón, alma, mente y fuerzas.

Muchos de los Judíos, de todas formas, no estaban buscando un
Salvador. Buscaban un rey. Jesús es Rey, pero ganó su trono
mediante su obediencia y muerte, y eso no es lo que ellos
querían. Ellos querían gloria, poder y un reino teocrático,
político, y físico en esta tierra. Jesús ha establecido su reino,
a través de la predicación del Evangelio y la administración de
los sacramentos. Este reino puede que no sea tan emocionante
como gobernar desde Jerusalén durante una era dorada en la
tierra, pueda que no venda tantos libros ni llene tantas butacas
en los cines, pero el mundo nunca ha encontrado al Jesús de las
Escrituras muy interesante. Por eso él es piedra de tropiezo
para los Judíos Sionistas y locura para los Griegos. Para los
Cristianos, sin embargo, él es el Cristo, “poder de Dios, y
sabiduría de Dios” (1 Corintios 1:24).

Escatología últimas cosas final de los tiempos Israel
Jerusalén dejados atrás rapto últimos días últimas cosas
historia de la salvación pacto Judíos Gentiles Mesías anticristo
escatología últimas cosas final de los tiempos pacto historia de
la salvación historia de la salvación.

Concupiscence: Sin and the Mother of Sin

This essay was published originally in Modern Reformation 10 (2001).

Introduction

In recent years, the study of virtue has experienced a renaissance.1 While we are recovering our classical grammar of virtue, we should also to recover our vocabulary of vice as well. Concupiscence is among our choicest words to be recovered. Because of the great influence of Augustine, it has traditionally been associated closely with sexual desire, even within marriage. Its range of meaning, however, is broader. Derived from the verb Latin concupisco, “to lust for worldly things,” the noun concupiscentia is a word found many times in the Latin Bible (Vulgate). From there, it entered English in the early 14th century, but has fallen out of use as the Authorized Version (1611) has lost its influence on the language.

Concupiscence in Scripture

In the Latin Bible the “Tombs of Desire” (Kibroth Hataavah) prepared for those who craved food other than that which the Lord provided (Numbers 11:34-35) was rendered the “Tombs of Concupiscence” in the Vulgate. In Psalm 62:10 the Vulgate used the verb concupisco to translate the expression “set not your heart” (on riches). Among the seven vices which the Lord hates is lustful desire (concupiscat) for the beauty of the adulteress Folly (Proverbs 6:16, 25).

According to the Apostle Paul, concupiscence is the result of the fall and the quintessential illustration of the danger of the Law to sinners. In Romans 7:7, 8 concupiscentia translates the Greek noun epithumia or “coveting” (NIV) and “coveteous desire” (NIV). Following the Vulgate, the AV translates epithumia as “concupiscence.” Without the Law “I would not have known what concupiscence was.”2 In Galatians 5:17 it translates the Greek verb “to desire” (epithumeo) in the clause, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the [Holy] Spirit.” In Colossians 3:5 Paul lists “evil concupiscence” as one of those “earthly members” to be put to death and warns believers not to participate in the “lust of concupiscence” (1 Thessalonians 4:5; AV). The Apostle John warns against the transitory “concupiscence of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) which he contrasts with God’s eternal will (2:17).

So far it is clear from the Scriptures that concupiscence is sin, but according to James, it is more than that, it is also the seminary (seedbed) of sin. He uses an obstetrical metaphor to describe the psychological and moral process of sinning.

each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire (concupiscence), he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after concupiscence has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15, NIV).

For James, concupiscence is our fallen inclination to sin , such that our own corrupt hearts and wills are the authors of sin and it is them we must blame and not God. Concupiscence (original sin) conceives actual sin and actual sin brings death.

Three chapters later James fires a salvo at his congregation when he says, that the source of their in fighting is their concupiscence (4:1). He continues, “You lust (L. concupiscitis; Gk. epithumeite) and you have not, you murder and desire.” Rather than praying, despite the futility of their concupiscence, they pursue it even by taking fellow Christians to court (4:2). Because of their corrupted desires, God does not grant their requests when they do pray. It is not as if, however, if they could somehow suspend their concupiscence, God would suddenly begin answering their prayers. Rather, their concupiscence is only more evidence of the fact of their friendship with the world (4:4) and that they do not have true, saving faith (James 2:14-26).

According to James, not all concupiscence is evil. It is not that we should not have intense desires. Indeed the God the Holy Spirit who “dwells within us” does precisely that (concupiscit Spiritus), but he does not desire the sorts of things we do, but rather he desires piety and holiness (4:5). Therefore God the Spirit gives us greater grace and resists the arrogance demonstrated in concupiscence (4:6). Christ confessors ought to stop behaving like rank pagans. They ought to repent and believe, submit to Christ and resist the Devil. Paradoxically, spiritual strength is not found in fulfilled desires, but in abandoning them for Christ’s sake.

Concupiscence in Christian Theology

Tertullian (c.160-c.225) argued that the root of concupiscence is idolatry.3 In a letter encouraging Eustochium to continue her chaste (monastic) life, Jerome (c.345–420) said that Daniel (Daniel 1.8) had refused to eat the bread of desire or “drink the wine of concupiscence.”4

St. Augustine (354-430) expressed his mature views in the treatise, On Marriage and Concupiscence (419) written against the Pelagians.5 Under the influence of neo-Platonism Augustine interpreted Paul’s teaching on the “Spirit” and “flesh” in terms of being (ontology) rather than as ethical and eschatological categories.6 Though he denied any “carnal concupiscence” before the fall and he considered it the “law of sin” (Romans 7:23), he also associated it very closely with sexual desire.7 Baptism, “the laver of regeneration”
(Titus 3:5), washes away original sin and the guilt of concupiscence, but in this fallen world, the act of concupiscence remains, even among the regenerate.8 The “evil of concupiscence” may be tamed for procreation, but even in marriage it brings shame when its passions run hot.9

According to Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-1274) humans were created good, with all the virtues, but because we are creatures and material we necessarily have “lower powers” or “appetites.”10 Even before the fall, these powers were only subject to the soul, even before the fall, only by a “super added gift” (donum super additum) of grace. He says, “even before sin ” man “required grace to obtain eternal life.”11 From the beginning, before the fall, Adam had within his soul, certain lower powers, one of which (concupiscence) was “the craving for pleasurable good” and this desire itself arises from natural, lower appetites.12 Thomas reasoned this way because he presupposed a sort of continuum of being between God and man, with God having complete being and man have relatively less. In short, for Thomas, concupiscence is the result of being human and was the precondition for sin even before the fall.

The Reformation not only reformed the doctrine of justification, but also moral theology. Against the prevailing medieval and Roman view, the Protestants denied that we fell because we were human. Rather, as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) taught in Q. 6, we were created “in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know God our creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal blessedness.” Thus the First Adam needed no grace before the fall. Grace is for sinners, not for the sinless. The Protestant theologians consistently defined concupiscence as a post-fall phenomenon. Among the children of the first Adam, concupiscence is both an actual sin and the pre-condition or proclivity to sin.13

Unlike Aquinas, who restricted concupiscence to the “sensual appetite,” Calvin argued that it affects the whole of fallen man.

that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly,  that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence (Institutes 2.1.8).

Thinking about the deadly mixture of God’s Law and our sin, Calvin rejected any idea of sinless perfection in this life.

if we go back to the remotest period, we shall not find a single saint who, clothed with a mortal body, ever attained to such perfection as to love the Lord with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and, on the other hand, not one who has not felt the power of concupiscence (Institutes, 2.7.5).

Unlike Augustine, Calvin did not necessarily associate concupiscence with sexual desire. For Calvin, concupiscence is nothing more than a comprehensive synonym for sin.

The Ethics of Concupiscence

Concupiscence is a violation of the eighth and tenth commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 110) says,

110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?

God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, fraudulent merchandising, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also all covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts.

Considered according to its first use, the Law condemns all of us as concupiscent, covetous, thieves. The Gospel is that Christ Jesus, the Second Adam has actively obeyed this law for concupiscent sinners and his justice is imputed to all those who believe.

For those who have been justified sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, the Law has a third use: as the moral norm for the Christian life. Those who have been redeemed should not be marked by sinful desire. In this regard, it is striking that the Heidelberg Catechism focuses on our commercial life. If there is any area where American Christians have been prone to excuse themselves from God’s Law it is in the area of business. Ministers who address matters of commerce are likely to be accused of meddling rather than preaching.

Put positively, there are certain virtues which Christians must cultivate through the use of the means of grace (Word and Sacrament). The Heidelberg Catechism says:

111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?

That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.

Christians should be identified with utter honesty in all business dealings and by the proper use of God’s gifts. By its nature, concupiscence makes others into mere vehicles for self-fulfillment. The modern corporate business culture often makes concupiscence into a virtue by calling it “personnel management.”

Christian morality has been profoundly influenced by the corporate culture. Pastors are too often rewarded not for proclaiming faithfully the Law and the Gospel, but for being good CEO’s. In their meetings they do not often discuss Biblical exegesis or theology, rather, they tend to compare the size of their congregations. Ministry done for self-aggrandizement and by deceit is concupiscence.

The root of this sin is revealed even more clearly by the tenth commandment which forbids us from “the least inclination” against God’s Law and requires that “with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.”14 As we have seen from Scripture, concupiscence is about inclinations as much as it is about actions. Just as we need Christ’s justice imputed to us, we also need a daily renewal of our affections, flowing from which should be satisfaction with Christ and his mercies.

Conclusion

Concupiscence is a confusion of the two kingdoms. We live and fulfill our callings in both, but one is eternal and the other is not. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20) we must also acknowledge that we have too often replaced the virtue of selflessness with the vice of concupiscence. With the help of grace, let us repent daily of our concupiscence and desire instead to be so governed by the “Word and Spirit that we submit always more and more” to Christ.15


[1] See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd edn. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1984); Oliver O’ Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David Wells, Losing our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] On this passage Calvin says, “The recesses in which concupiscence lies hid are so deep and tortuous that they easily elude our view; and hence the Apostle had good reason for saying, ‘I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet'”  (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 2.7.6.

[3] De idolatria, cap. 1. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1986), 3.61.

[4] Letters, 22.9. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 6.26

[5] See The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 5.263–308.

[6] On Marriage, 1.18, 35.

[7] On Marriage, 1.18,25,34.

[8] On Marriage, 1.20–22, 28, 29.

[9] On Marriage, 1.27.

[10] Summa theologiae, 1a, 95. Art. 1, Art. 3

[11] ST 1a 95. Art. 4, reply to obj. 1

[12] Summa theologiae, 1a 2ae Q. 30, Art. 4; ST 1a. 81, Art. 1

[13] See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in T. G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 101.7. See also Luther’s Larger Catechism, §222–52.

[14] Heidelberg Catechism Q.113.

[15] Heidelberg Catechism Q. 123.

The Splendor of the Three-in-One God: The Necessity and Mystery of the Trinity

©1999 Modern Reformation All Rights Reserved. For permission to reprint or re-post contact Modern Reformation

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” In contrast to the polytheistic religions of her neighbors, Israel was made deeply conscious of the fact that there is only one God (hence, the term, “monotheism”). The monotheistic doctrine of God is at the headwaters of the Christian faith, but it is the doctrine of the Trinity which makes our doctrine of God distinctively Christian. Islam, one of the world’s fastest growing religions, is monotheistic, but rejects entirely the doctrine of the Trinity as unreasonable. Jewish critics have long regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as polytheistic. Clearly the doctrine of the Trinity is a stumbling block to vast numbers of people, but without it we are no longer Christians. The Trinity is among those doctrines by which heresy (as distinguished from error) against the “catholic, undoubted Christian faith” is properly judged (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 22). Since the fourth century AD, the agreement among orthodox, catholic Christians on the essentials of the doctrine of the Trinity has greatly outdistanced agreement on many other doctrines (e.g., the doctrine of salvation). 1

Given the centrality to our faith of our teaching about the Trinity, it is profoundly ironic that for most believers this doctrine is practically disposable. In my experience, most North American evangelical Christians when asked to state the doctrine of the Trinity (if they can do it at all) will almost always give a heretical answer. The most common heresy among Western Christians has been “modalism,” which is the notion that God is not really one God in three persons, but rather only appears to be three persons. This is what we often teach in our Sunday Schools by way of the illustrations we use which imply that God wears a series of masks (first Father, then Son, then Spirit) or takes different forms under different conditions (e.g., water in solid, liquid, and gas forms). 2

The Christian view of God is, as the Athanasian Creed teaches, that:

…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.

As this creed continues, “the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty.” In biblical, creedal, and Christian teaching, God is one substance (Deut. 6:4). Whatever it is which makes the Father to be God, is that which makes the Son and the Spirit to be God: “Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost (Athanasian Creed).

At the same time, tri-personality is also essential to the Deity: “For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost” (Athanasian Creed). It is possible to conceive of a god who is unipersonal, but the history of theology shows that any such god would necessarily be impersonal and so transcendent as to be unknowable, which is practical atheism. 3 If we lose God’s tri-personality we forfeit our Christology. We believe that Jesus Christ is God the Son in the flesh, that he is of the same substance as God the Father and God the Spirit. We would also forfeit our Pneumatology (that is, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) since we also believe that God the Spirit is of the same substance as the Father and the Son. If this is so (and without these truths one cannot be a Christian!), then God must be triune. As the Athanasian Creed puts it: “Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.”

How this can be is a mystery, but it is a necessary mystery. It is necessary because “we are compelled by the Christian verity” to confess this doctrine. It is necessary because: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” (Athanasian Creed). It is a necessary doctrine because our very destiny is at stake, not merely fine points of doctrine.

The Necessity of the Trinity

The way one reads the Bible is intimately related to the God one finds revealed there. Christians, being Trinitarian, read the Bible as a unity. That is, because God is one, the Scriptures are one. If God is revealed to be triune in the New Testament we should expect to find him so revealed in the Old Testament. God’s Word itself recommends this hermeneutic: 1 Peter 1:10-12 teaches us that the same Holy Spirit who inspired Moses and the prophets also inspired the apostles as they interpreted the Law and the Prophets for us.

It also means, as John 1:1 teaches us, that the Son has always been God’s Word. He did not become the Word only in the incarnation, but rather he was the Word “in the beginning.” More than that, he was “with” God the Father, which means that he has always been personally distinct from the Father. At the same time the Word “is God” which means that God the Son and God the Father are, as the Nicene Creed states, “of the same substance” (consubstantial). Thus, the Apostle John teaches us not to read the Son into the Old Testament, but to refuse to read him out of it.

Hence, when we consider the fundamental Israelite confession about God, “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut. 6:4), we understand that this unity not only permits but entails tri-personality. Indeed, read from the perspective of the New Testament–how else can a Christian read Scripture?–the Old Testament is rich with Trinitarian revelation. The New Testament turns to several places in the Old Testament for its doctrine of the Trinity. Psalm 110 is cited more than any other Old Testament passage (see Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42-43; 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; Heb. 1:13; 5:6, 10; 7:17, 21). The psalm speaks of the accession and rule of a Davidic Priest-King. The New Testament, however, focuses consistently on the doctrinal teaching of the psalm and, therefore, regards it as a promise of the ascension and inter-adventual reign of Christ. In that case, the primary reference of the psalm is not (as Peter reminds us in Acts 2:34-35) to David, but to the intra-Trinitarian relations between the Father and the Son and the outworking of those relations in redemptive history.

A second strand of Trinitarian revelation in the Old Testament is the revelation of the Son in the history of redemption in the person of the Angel of the Lord (Malak Yahweh). When the Angel of the Lord appeared he was treated not as a mere heavenly representative of God, but as God himself; he did not reject worship, but accepted it as only God can. (Typically it is only after one has had an encounter with the Angel of the Lord that one realizes that, in fact, it was no mere angel but God himself; see Gen. 16:9-13; 22:11-18; 32:28-30; Ex. 3:2-6; Judges 6:11-14, 22; 13:22.) Both Augustine and Calvin interpreted these manifestations as wonderfully cryptic revelations of God the Son in a pre-incarnate state. 4

John 1:1-3 teaches that when Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” we should understand that creation occurred through the agency of God the Son and that his work was essential to the act of creation because the Creator God is triune.

The work of redemption was also a Trinitarian work. Think, for instance, of the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. On the principle that the God who revealed himself to Israel is triune, and that the Son has always been the Word (God’s authoritative self-revelation), we should consider that it was God the Son who met Moses in the burning bush, and at the top of Mount Sinai: “No one has ever seen God; God the only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, this one has revealed him” (John 1:18). Jesus declared, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The writer to the Hebrews teaches that Christ is not only the “radiance of the glory” but the “exact manifestation” of the “divine being” (hypostasis), “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3).

Hebrews 12:18-24 contrasts Mount Sinai with that mountain to which we have come. In so doing, however, it also tells us how we should think about the God who revealed his “hindmost quarters” to Moses. The mountain to which Moses came was covered in darkness, fire, gloom, and storm. In the New Covenant believers have come, however, to thousands of angels, to “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:23-24). Notice how the writer to the Hebrews uses a series of parallel expressions to drive home the same point: “church of the firstborn” (i.e., the risen Christ), “God, the judge of all men” who is “Jesus the mediator of a better covenant.” It was the Son who was revealed awesomely at the top of Sinai, who met with the elders, before whom they ate and drank, whom they “saw and did not die” (Ex. 24:9-11), and it is the Son with whom we have to do today.

There is significant evidence that God the Spirit was also active in creation. The New International Version is right to spell Spirit with the capital “S” in Genesis 1:2. The “Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” That such work is proper to the Spirit is suggested in 1 Peter 4:14 which uses the same image to describe the Spirit’s relations to the New Covenant temple people. By the analogy of Scripture we understand that it was God the Spirit who guided us through the wilderness. The pillar of divine presence, surrounds and protects God’s people, hovering over his creation and new creation, indwelling and sanctifying, as he ever has. 5

God the Father was also active in creation, speaking the Word, present in the redemption of Israel in the person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. Who else could have passed over Israel for the sake of the blood of the lamb, but God the Father? One has only to think of how the Father provided earthly manna for his people and how he gave that ultimate manna which gives eternal life to all who eat by faith (John 6:31-33). Certainly one sees wonderful evidence of his providence throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. At each turn the Father was meeting our needs, with drink from the rock and food from heaven (Num. 20:11, 1 Cor 10:1-4). All this establishes not only that God revealed personal distinctions in the Old Testament, but that he revealed himself as tri-personal.

The New Covenant Scriptures make explicit what was implicit in the Old Covenant. We may begin with our Lord, himself a Trinitarian theologian. His conception of himself and of his relations to the Father and the Spirit was unreservedly Trinitarian. This is not surprising given that he was himself a member of the triune Godhead, God the co-eternal, eternally begotten Son incarnate. We have already reviewed Jesus’ revelation of the personal distinction between himself and the Father. He also made clear that God the Spirit has his proper work drawing sinners to the Son; “the Spirit blows where he will” and without the work of the Spirit no one is able to see the Kingdom of God (John 3:8).

Christ’s Trinitarian consciousness is clearly evident in his command to baptize in the triune name of God. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt. 28:19). Notice that Jesus said, “in the name.² This is a most significant expression in Scripture. Out of the burning bush God the Son revealed the divine name to Moses: I AM. God’s name is who he is in himself, and also who he is in relation to us, the self-existent one. Thus, Herman Bavinck was right to say that, in this passage, Jesus drew together all the Trinitarian revelation of God in Scripture. 6

Paul was equally explicit about God’s tri-personality in the benediction contained in 2 Corinthians 13:14 in which he named each of the Trinitarian persons: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.² (This expression is doubtless linked to the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26.) This was Paul’s consistent language about God. Frequently he used the noun “God” to refer to the Father (e.g., Rom. 1:1, 7, 8; 8:14-17; 15:5-6; 1 Cor 1:3; 8:6; 11:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2, 17; 4:6; 5:20). He refers to the Son as “Christ” and to the third triune person as the “Spirit.” Read this way, his epistles are replete with allusions to the Trinity.

It is no wonder then that the earliest Fathers of the Christian church developed the biblical Trinitarianism almost immediately. This teaching was crystallized in the great ecumenical creeds: The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (325 AD), the Athanasian Creed (381-421 AD) and the Chalcedonian Definition (451 AD). 7

Against the Arians, Athanasius (c. 293-373), an Alexandrian archdeacon, defended stoutly the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. When Scripture says “only begotten God,” it means that the Son has always been begotten of the Father (see John 1:18). There has never been a point (remember we’re speaking of eternity) when the Son was not. The Son has always been the Son and the Father has always been his Father. This eternal begottenness of the Son does not mean, however, that the Son is a creature. Because he is the same substance (homoousios) as the Father and the Spirit, he was also uncreated.

The biblical and Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a necessary mystery to the faith so that without it, there would be no faith. It is necessary primarily because the Scriptures teach it. Because it is a biblical doctrine, the creeds teach it and for the same reasons our theologians have taught it. Despite all the attempts by students to investigate it and despite all the attempts by critics to level it, the doctrine of the Trinity remains a glorious mystery.

The Mystery of the Trinity

“So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God” (Athanasian Creed). How can God be truly one and also three distinct, co-eternal, subsistences or persons is a mystery; and yet we are bound to say that he is. To confess these truths is to commit oneself to a great and glorious mystery–that is, something which is necessarily true but which transcends our ability to explain fully. 8

In this case, then, we must repudiate the root of the Arian heresy: rationalism, the notion that one should believe only that which one can comprehend entirely. With Athanasius, we know that if “there was when the Son was not,” the Son could never be a Savior. He also knew that we can confess Jesus to be “very God of very God” only if God is triune; otherwise we are polytheists. “So we are forbidden by the catholic religion, to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords” (Athanasian Creed).

As trinitarians we also acknowledge that it is possible to apprehend revealed truths about God and to develop them, but it is not possible to comprehend him in our formulae. Therefore, it is impossible to remove mystery from the Trinity and remain Christian. At the same time, it is also evident that Christianity is a theological religion. That is to say, it is not sufficient to quote Scripture in the face of heresy, but rather we are morally obligated not only to read Scripture carefully, but also to assemble its truths, to make good and necessary deductions from scriptural truth to edify God’s people, and to array those truths against unbelief.

For example, our Trinitarianism separates us utterly from unbelief. There is no other article of the Christian faith which so alienates unbelievers as our claim that there is one God in three persons. When we come to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians realize that we are completely dependent upon God’s Word for saving knowledge of God. Since the patristic-creedal period, perhaps no theologian has meditated on the Trinity more profitably than John Calvin (1509-64). 9 With the breakup of the medieval Church, the sixteenth century was littered with sects including anti-trinitarians. Calvin responded to the Unitarians by defending both God’s essential simplicity (God is one) and his tri-personality or tri-subsistence (Institutes 1.13.2, 6).

He used the term subsistence to distinguish between the divine essence and his tri-personality. These sorts of considerations are sometimes developed under the heading ontological Trinity, i.e., the Trinity regarding God’s being. He reminded us that there are certain attributes which belong to each Trinitarian person which are not shared among the persons of the Trinity. Recognizing these distinctions is part of not “confounding the persons” (Athanasian Creed). These properties unique to each person distinguish (not separate) each person from the others. For example, only the Father is unbegotten. “The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten” (Athanasian Creed). The Son, because he is such, is eternally begotten. “The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten” (Athanasian Creed). Only the Spirit is able to proceed from the Father and the Son. “The Holy Ghost is of the Father and Son, neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding” (Athanasian Creed). Considered distinctly, however, each divine person can be said to be God “of himself,” i.e., the Father, Son and Spirit subsist of themselves. “And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another” (Athanasian Creed).

At the same time, Calvin also reminds us of another heading in the doctrine of the Trinity, the economic Trinity. This relates to the outworking of creation and redemption. For example, it belongs to the Son to become incarnate. It belongs to the Father to elect people to faith in Christ. It belongs to the Spirit to draw sinners to Christ and to sanctify them through the Word. Under this heading, we can think of the Father primarily as the Creator. The first articles of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds both encourage this sort of thinking. The Son can be said to have voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father, for the sake of redeeming his people, and the Spirit voluntarily subordinates himself to the Father and the Son for the sake of sanctifying his people, as the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds both teach.

Thinking in these categories does not imply, however, that either the Son or the Spirit became less than they were, otherwise we would be “dividing the persons” (Athanasian Creed). Rather, these distinctions are a part of the administration of salvation, not changes in the divine being.

Both the personal distinctions within the Trinity and the Trinitarian character of God’s works of creation and redemption witness to the fundamental unity in the divine being. They also witness to the eternal fellowship and love which exists within the Trinity. The Greek Fathers spoke of God’s perichoresis or what Francis Turretin called the “mutual intertwining” of the persons of the Deity.10 In this case, we know that the Trinity we worship is no static deity, but rather that there are dynamic relations among the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. It is out of that dynamic, loving fellowship that both creation and redemption have issued.

Conclusion

The doctrine of the Trinity is of the essence of our religion. We cannot and should not think of creation or redemption as anything but Trinitarian operations. This is a duty of the Christian faith. Christianity is more than duty, however. Being drawn to greater wonder and awe before the face of God is one his best gifts. The Trinity reminds one that the Christian religion is not about us, but about God and his glorious grace. The Father to whom we pray is the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, and the Spirit in whose power we pray is of the same substance as the Father and the Son and he is their gift to us to draw us by Christ to the Father.

Since the Trinity is such a necessary mystery, though woefully misunderstood or forgotten in our churches, how can we recover this truth? Three sources have helped me. First, God’s Word is thoroughly Trinitarian and it is the fundamental source of all Christian teaching. Second, it was through meditating on the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds that I began to read Scripture with renewed Trinitarian eyes. Third, the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds also alerted me to the fact that Reformed theology is unreservedly Trinitarian. 11 It structures our theology. Calvin’s Institutes (1559) were laid out along the lines of the Creed. The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) is in three parts, each roughly corresponding to the work of the economic Trinity.

The benefits of reading the Bible in the communion of the saints (e.g., Athanasius, Basil, Calvin) have been revolutionary. Recovering the doctrine of the Trinity has delivered me from a warped conception of God. I have learned again that there is no other God than the God who is one substance in three subsistences (persons); that the Christian is not entitled to think of God in any other way than he has revealed himself (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 25, 96); that with Calvin and before him Gregory of Nazianzus (330-89) we must say, “I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightaway carried back to the one.” 12 For Gregory, for Calvin, and for us, to think of God as triune is not a second blessing, reserved for the illuminati. Rather, it is how anyone must think of God, for any other god is an idol to be rejected. 13

Notes:

1 For example, semi-Pelagianism, whether in its Roman or Arminian form is a grave error, but it is not heresy, at least not in the same way as anti-Trinitarianism. It is true, however, that certain modern developments in Roman dogma (e.g., the alleged assumption of the Virgin Mary) threaten seriously the catholicity of their doctrine of God.

2 Some other well-meant but errant illustrations: the egg, forms of gold, apple, the lover, beloved and love and the shamrock. On the dangers of such analogies, see John Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.18. L. Berkhof gives a more favorable view of some analogies. See idem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 90.

3 This is true of Islam. Strictly speaking Allah is not personal. Personal speech about him is mere convention. This is true of most other forms of Unitarianism.

4 See Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Wheaton: Victor, 1996), 82-85, 90-92. See also Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. W. Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955); and Hermann Witsius, The Apostles’ Creed, trans. D. Fraser, 2 vol. (Edinburgh, 1823; [reprint: den Dulk Foundation P&R Publishing, 1993]), especially vol. 1.

5 See Dennis E. Johnson, “Fire in God¹s House: Imagery from Malachi 3 in Peter’s Theology of Suffering (1 Pet. 4:12-19),” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 29 (1986), 285-94. See also M. G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); Bavinck, 255-56, 271-74.

6 Bavinck, 264-66.

7 See Gerald L. Bray, “The Patristic Dogma,” in Peter Toon and James D. Spiceland, eds., One God in Trinity (Westchester: Cornerstone Books), 42-61; idem, “Explaining Christianity to Pagans: The Second Century Apologists,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ed., The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997). The Chalcedonian Definition was primarily a Christological statement, but it presupposed the creedal doctrine of the Trinity.

8 The great Reformed theologian Francis Turretin spoke of the “adorable mystery” of the Trinity. See F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vol., trans. by G. M. Giger, ed. by J. T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992-1997), 1:3:23.

9 See Calvin, Institutes, 1.13. Also see B. B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity, The Princeton Theological Review 7 (1909), 553-652, reprint in Calvin and Calvinism (New York, 1931). The latter edition is used here. See also R. S. Clark, “The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism of Caspar Olevian (1536-87),” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 15-39.

10 Turretin, Institutes, 1:3:23:13.

11. On this point, see Clark, “The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism”; Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen¹s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1998); idem and R. S. Clark, ed., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999).

12 On Holy Baptism, oration 40.41, cited in Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.17.

13 Witsius, ibid., 1:129, 135.

The Importance of Being More Than Earnest

Originally published in Modern Reformation (Sep/Oct 1996)

Doctrine. Theology. For many evangelicals these words are as pleasant as the phrase, “impacted tooth!” That theology is irrelevant to Christian life has essentially become a received dogma. Nevertheless, as much as indifference about Christian truth reigns among evangelicals, to the same degree we have actually adopted a competing religion, and therefore the Christian explanation no longer interests us. If this is true, then a call to reconsider the importance of theology is also a call to repentance and faith.

Doctrine is “that which is taught” from the Latin word doctrina. In my experience however, doctrine elicits one meaning and teaching quite another. To test the negative associations attached to the word doctrine ask yourself, “Would I rather attend a church known for its solid teaching or its solid doctrine?” For most evangelicals, a teaching church wins hands down. The word doctrine evokes “closed,” “narrow” and perhaps even “bigoted.”

As a result of this aversion to theology, evangelicals have reached a sort of gentlemen’s agreement on disputed doctrines. If it is true that one does not discuss politics and religion in polite company, then in evangelical circles, it is even more impolite to broach controversial topics such as baptism or predestination. For many evangelicals, the present consensus about the practical necessity of “a-doctrinal” Christianity is a sort of nirvana. In this view, doctrinal disagreements are not important and achieving doctrinal precision is not the true work of the church.

A-Doctrinal Christianity: Pious or Not?
This position seems pious. Who can disagree with the aim of spreading the Good News? Second, doctrinal debates have too often been conducted uncharitably with each side concerned primarily with winning. Third, there has occasionally arisen in the church self-appointed doctrine police which one might call the DC crowd–the doctrinally correct–who are interested more in being right and making certain everyone knows they are right than in helping one grow toward the truth. These folk treat Christianity as a matter of accumulated secret knowledge which they alone possess.1 When faced with these folk it is perhaps wise to agree to disagree. There are things about which sincere believers can intelligently and charitably disagree. Charity is not, however, an excuse to simply ignore. The main branches of historic Protestantism were anything but ignorant of the differences between themselves.

Why Theology Has Fallen on Hard Times?
Why, for one cause for our present indifference to theology is the widespread evangelical ignorance of the source (Scripture) and tradition of Christian teaching. Why? North American evangelicalism has long been infected by modernity. In the middle of the 18th century, the ultimate authority of God’s Word came under full-scale attack. The Enlightenment modernists asserted the primacy and autonomy of the human mind. By the end of the 18th century, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had convinced European philosophy that one cannot know things, outside of the mind, as they are in themselves (Ding an sich). Rather, he said, reality is a convention, the picture our mind forms of the world outside us. In this view, God is not the Triune Creator and Redeemer who reveals himself as the I AM, but rather the product of our experience of him. About the same time, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) concluded that since we cannot know much about God directly and we cannot trust the truthfulness of the Bible, we ought to think of Christianity as a “feeling of divine dependence.” Even if Kant and Schleiermacher are not household names, their ideas formed the cornerstone of modern society.

It is easy to tell what we Americans value by the amount of money we spend on it. College professors who teach Business, Medicine or Law are typically more highly paid than those who teach History. Why? Because our culture values those disciplines which will allow our children to go out into the world and make money. Under Kant and Schleiermacher, our culture, including evangelicalism, has placed a premium on that which produces immediate gratification. This move relativizes the importance of Christian truth in the church. When was the last time you saw a congregation rise up in protest because the pastor failed to preach a series of sermons explaining the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity? If, however, the pastor fails to preach an annual series on “How to Improve Your Marriage,” he will hear about it at the annual meeting. J. Gresham Machen called this syndrome the “tyranny of the practical.” Substitute “immediate” for “practical” and his meaning is clear. The mainline churches made this trade early in this century. Evangelical Christendom faces this crisis today. We evangelicals do not choose churches because of doctrinal commitments, but because of the number of programs available to meet our felt needs. We do what makes us feel good. We have agreed with Schleiermacher that what really matters is what I experience. If theology doesn’t make me feel good, then, by all means, let’s be rid of it.

Pietist Evangelicalism: The Conduit of Modernity
Though several scholars of American evangelicalism have argued that it was Princeton’s alleged rationalism which imported modernity into evangelicalism, it seems rather that the blame must be placed elsewhere. A close reading of the Princeton theologians will show that they were in essential harmony with Calvin and the Orthodox Reformed tradition on most points. There was, however, a pietist strain in evangelicalism which was not as hardy as old Princeton’s confessional theology. Because the organizing principle of pietism and mysticism is experience, they were able to find common ground with those, like Schleiermacher, who could point to personal experience, while denying the historicity of the faith. With this experiential bridge, they were more liable to being co-opted by modernity.

Another legacy to evangelicalism is a radically individualistic faith. If one cannot be certain about the historicity of the faith then one flees to mystical experience. Pietistic evangelicalism replaced the “priesthood of all believers” (access to God through Christ alone) with the “papacy of every believer” (the sole authority of the believer). Individualism has replaced the older Protestant idea of divinely ordained authority located in Scripture and in the courts of the church, and has led to a nearly irreparable fragmentation of the Christian landscape.

Activism–doing in place of thinking–is another result of the influence of modernity. We measure spiritual growth by the level of one’s religious activity. One prominent source for this activism was Charles Finney’s “New Measures” revivalism (the altar call, the anxious bench, etc.) which appropriated Schleiermacher for evangelicalism. The New Measures were the triumph of method over theology, pragmatism over principle and a wholesale rejection of the Reformation. An activist orientation also entails an unhappy indifference to and ignorance of history and theology. So, evangelical congregations across the continent anoint heretical pastors and slide into ancient heresies long ago addressed and rejected by the historic orthodox faith.

Why Theology is Necessary
It is dangerous, if not impossible, to live the Christian life in the absence of Christian truth. There are, to be sure, happy inconsistencies–does anyone really pray what an Arminian confesses? Nevertheless, there are serious problems with the “a-doctrinal” approach to Christianity. Everything one does flows from one’s view of God, history, the world, and self. If one says, “I want to do evangelism, not theology,” I should ask, “what will you tell
them?”  Whatever one tells the lost will necessarily be doctrine.

Not all evangelicals capitulated to modernity. Since the Reformation, there have always been those whom one might class as confessional evangelicals. Because our Protestant parents believed differently, they acted differently than us. The leaders of the Reformation worked constantly to resolve their differences over important issues, viz., Baptism and the Eucharist. These efforts were usually motivated by genuine love for one another and a strong desire to see the evangelical church united. They saw theological dialogue as an act of Christian charity.

These discussions took place both in the church and the academy, in a forum inherited from the medieval church called the colloquium (Latin for “conference”).2 A colloquy was a structured discussion of doctrinal differences controlled by a moderator with an agenda. The teams met in a plenary session, then divided into smaller groups to tackle various issues and then returned to meet in common session to report on their progress. Evangelicals ought to revive the system of the colloquy. The benefit of such a system is that each ‘side’ is forced to sit down and prayerfully study God’s Word and the history of doctrine and decide what they think Scripture teaches. It is only when we self-consciously, systematically think through how we understand God’s Word and patiently, sympathetically attempt to understand how our brothers interpret God’s Word that we are prepared to compare conclusions and to make substantial, biblical, progress toward a common understanding of the faith. To challenge one another, even vigorously, over important theological questions is an act of love. Indifference to theology implies that the firmly held convictions of one’s brothers do not merit serious consideration. It is no mere coincidence that the system of the colloquy fell into neglect with the rise of modernity. Why discuss those things which are no longer of interest?

The present state of affairs must be changed. To decide what Scripture teaches, what the church believes, to re-consecrate oneself to the knowledge of our Triune God, these are the actions of a rebel against the Kantian sterility of modernity.

Orthodoxy simply means “right thinking” or “right worship.”3 Thus, “dead orthodoxy” is an oxymoron. One cannot be truly orthodox and spiritually dead. Only when we’ve stopped believing the historic faith does it become dead. Not surprisingly, it was Schleiermacher who first described orthodoxy as dead. Trinitarian orthodoxy is, however, as subtle and exciting a truth as anyone would ever wish to meet. Our faith is full of mystery, wonder and the smell of life, not death. Nor should orthodoxy be condemned because it has sometimes been taught badly. I once had a disagreeable plate of hash browns at 3:00 AM in Idaho. I have not, however, given up on hash browns simply because some fry cook once ruined them.

The institutional church has been assailed for decades for its alleged lack of relevance. To call her back to concern for truth is asking the church to shift into reverse. To some it may sound as if you are asking the church to commit statistical suicide. We must be prepared to show Christian leaders why Christian truth is the starting place for ministry. If you are ready to walk into the “a-doctrinal” breach of church leadership, contending for doctrine, then perhaps God has called you to just such a ministry in your congregation.

Recover the Confessions and Confessionalism
We must recover our Protestant confessional background by studying the Reformation confessions in the light of Scripture.4 We must be prepared to lovingly, but firmly, call the evangelical church, her leaders, and her courts (presbyteries, synods) to account for the abandonment of her historic doctrinal commitments.

Finally, we can return to the Reformation system of the colloquy. One might organize a discussion within one’s own congregation or between one’s congregation and an evangelical congregation from another tradition.5 Having witnessed the often pathetic state of theological discourse in evangelicalism today, I think we could stand a few colloquia! Failing that, make a point of meeting believers from other Reformation traditions. Perhaps you know someone who attends an historic Protestant church which is not being faithful to its confessional heritage. It might be helpful to meet with that person to discuss your confessions and their role in the church.

Conclusion
You are reading this magazine presumably because you are concerned about the state of the church. You have decided to educate yourself, to read, to think and to grow intellectually and spiritually. But just as you probably did not come overnight to your present understanding of the need for good theology, you should not expect an entire congregation or its leadership to instantly change. So be patient and humble.

That the evangelical church will have a theology is inescapable. The question must be whether we are committed to believing and confessing a good, historic, confessional, theology which is faithful to the Bible, or whether we will accept the unhappy modernist settlement.

Notes
1 This is the danger of gnosticism or salvation obtained through the possession of secret knowledge which grants one admission into an elite group. Gnosticism is an ancient philosophy and movement which is notoriously difficult to define. The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek verb Ginoskein (to know) and noun Gnosis (knowledge). Most evangelical scholars think that Gnosticism did not become an organized movement until just before the 200’s A.D. However, the seeds of the movement were present in the first century and its likely that John’s letters addressed some aspects of the movement in the cities of Asia Minor. The early church Father, Irenaeus (c. A.D. 175), wrote five books against the Gnostic heresies. That Gnostic ideas were still in circulation during the Reformation is evidenced by the fact that the Belgic Confession Article 12 (1561) repudiated Manichaeism, a later form of these false ideas.
2 It is true that the Reformers met with mixed success in their attempts to find unity. They did succeed more than is sometimes recognized. Dissatisfied with the failure of the Marburg Colloquy (1529), Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchthon and Heinrich Bullinger met secretly five years later at Constance to resolve differences over the Eucharist. There they agreed that Christ is eaten “by faith”. At Hagenau (1540) Calvin and Bucer signed the Augustana Variata (1541), a significant version of the Augsburg Confession (1530) indicating substantial unity on the supper between at least a segment of Lutheranism and the Reformed Churches. In 1549, the Reformed Churches in Switzerland signed the Consensus Tigurinus marking unity on the Eucharist. It was always Calvin’s hope to see Protestantism united against her common enemies.
3 These two concepts are not far separate. Romans 12:2 (Geneva Bible, 1602 edition) speaks of our ‘reasonable’ service to God.
4 It might be well to begin with the catholic creeds, i.e., the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and the Definition of Chalcedon. I find that about 10% of my students are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. If your congregation does not use these Creeds it might be well to inquire about it. One should be greatly troubled if a church will not use the catholic creeds.
5 I have benefited greatly from virtual colloquies through on-line conferences.