Why Do They Take the Bible Seriously?

by W. Jackson Watts

 

Recently our church baptized and welcomed into membership a couple who had been converted earlier this year. They had attended the church for well over a year, during which they developed a clearer understanding of the Gospel. Eventually they realized that their earlier professions of faith had been rooted in something besides the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, and finally they trusted in Him.

All Christians should be overwhelmed anytime a person ever responds positively to the Gospel of Christ. Additionally, it is humbling that God chooses the foolishness of preaching to elicit faith and repentance in people’s lives. However, it is equally humbling (and surprising) to see what sometimes transpires in the earliest stages of discipleship.

In the case of the aforementioned couple, and in many more instances, we often discover that new believers seem to eagerly latch on to what are sometimes seen as contested and controversial truths. Some of these Christian teachings include the complementarian view of gender roles in the church and home, the penal substitutionary view of atonement, and the inerrancy of Scripture. Such teachings separate Christians and entire denominations from others. Yet it often seems to be the case that new converts embrace the teachings of the church family in which they have been saved, even if they are doctrines which do not enjoy uniform support across confessional Christian groups.

Social scientists would simply refer to this as “socialization” in which we find individuals that are new to a group tend to adopt the beliefs and mores of the herd. Others may reduce it to a naïve willingness to entrust one’s mind to the faith community simply to be filled with whatever is thought to be true. There may be other explanations as well, or some combination of factors which contribute to new converts’ ability to adopt contested doctrines.

Admittedly, my own view is anecdotal and not driven by empirical research. However, I’d like to focus on one key doctrine—the inspiration and authority of Scripture—and offer two reasons why I think new converts often embrace a high view of the Bible. This subject is worth thinking about as we try to develop a strategy for catechesis. How much time do you spend on each doctrine in a new believers’ course, for instance? By considering how this doctrine is received by new believers, we may receive insight into how it might be further developed and taught to Christians in their initial stages of discipleship.

  1. When Jesus is taken seriously, the Bible is taken seriously.

A new convert recognizes that they have been saved not by a generic belief in God or confidence in self, but in a total surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. No matter how basic their understanding of the Gospel is, they will have been presented with a biblical understanding of human nature, sin, Christ, and salvation. Often the evangelist, regardless of the setting, will have either held a Bible or shared verses directly from it. In instances where people attended worship services for a lengthy period of time before trusting Christ, they will have heard numerous sermons, songs, and prayers populated with biblical truths. Because of this, it’s very likely that upon being saved they would possess at least some of the mental and spiritual architecture necessary to embrace a high view of Scripture.

Intentional instruction on the Christian view of Scripture should still take place despite the pieces already in place in the new believer’s heart and mind. In no time, unsaved friends, family members, or a History Channel documentary will undermine their budding conviction of God’s Word. So for apologetic and the purpose of spiritual formation, it is wise and necessary that we help new converts learn the Bible (what it says and how it applies) and learn about the Bible (how we got it). But thankfully, people often make the connection between the Jesus who saves and the words from Jesus you can rely upon.

  1. When the Spirit works, God’s Word is at work.

As I noted in a previous post, “without the Holy Spirit, no human being will be saved.” The faithful Christian must regularly pray, teach, think, and live with this truth in mind. But it is equally significant that we apply this to the nature of conversion.

First Corinthians 2:12 reminds us that “now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” Later in verse 14, Paul asserts, “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

We find a link established in these verses between the Holy Spirit and the understanding and acceptance of truth that comes through His work in a believer. In the larger context of this passage, Paul demonstrates how the Gospel confounds all forms of earthly wisdom and power as it comes to us in the form of the suffering Christ. Therefore, we can see that the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to accept this Christ is the same Spirit who regenerates us when we profess faith in Christ. It is the same Holy Spirit who “carried along” the prophets and apostles (cf. 2 Pt. 1:21). And since the Word of God is inspired (regardless of whether a hearer knows or accepts this), it seems to explain why a truly converted person gravitates toward a high view of Scripture: The Holy Spirit intends to move them in that direction.

Conclusion

These reasons certainly don’t exhaust or completely account for this pattern that I and others have observed over the years. However, it should offer us pause as we praise God for the unity between the Triune God’s work in salvation, and His involvement in developing our convictions about His Word.

A Trinity in Name Alone is Not Enough

by Kevin Hester

In October of this year, Christianity Today reported the findings of a recent LifeWay Research poll commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. The poll was targeted at the evangelical community and surveyed a number of key theological topics and concepts including God, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and salvation. While these topics would seem to be basic Sunday School fodder, the results of the survey were disturbing. In most cases, 25-50% of Evangelicals reported a lack of awareness or assurance regarding the teaching of the Church on basic dogma.

One seeming bright spot was that 96% of self-reported Evangelicals believed in the Trinity. However, subsequent questions revealed that this affirmation lacked significant comprehension. For example, 31% of respondants said that God the Father was more divine than Jesus, and 58% believe that the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.

This survey reveals that our churches, while confessing dogma, are failing to adequately teach, define, and defend the basic beliefs of the Church. Evangelical ignorance of basic Trinitarian theology is especially troubling given the evangelistic efforts of anti-Trinitarian sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and various oneness Pentecostal groups. When these efforts are coupled with societal forces pushing the Church toward inclusivism, it is not difficult to imagine a new Socinianism arising.

In order to defend the faith, our churches must remain committed to theological catechesis in the home, in our Sunday Schools, and from our pulpits. Yet many forces press against such teaching. Emphases on practical Christian living and evangelism are needed, but not at the expense of doctrine. An identification of catechesis with “liturgical” or “liberal” faith communities pushes many Evangelical congregations toward a softer social focus. In downplaying doctrinal distinctions, the non-denominational movement has left many Evangelical churches devoid of any theological teaching at all. When these forces are coupled with a lack of education among the clergy and the arguments of the cults, we leave our congregants open to heresy and fail to heed the words of Paul (Ephesians 4:14) and Peter (2 Peter 3:17).

There are biblical, historical, and theological reasons for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. While the word “trinity” is not found in Scripture, the concept certainly is. God is clearly presented as one God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 44:6, Romans 3:30). At the same time the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are all clearly defined in Scripture as personal beings who do the work of God and receive the worship that is due only to God. The union of their purpose and will as well as their economic distinction is seen in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and in the great benedictions of the Church (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Historically, the Church has affirmed its Trinitarian belief in consistently rejecting teaching that sought to conflate the persons of the Godhead (Monarchianism) and beliefs which denied the full divinity of Christ (Adoptionism and Arianism) or the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatomachianism). The Church established this belief in the foundational confessions of the Church at Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) affirming that the one God exists eternally as three distinct (but not separate) personal ways of existing.

Theologically then, the Church teaches that God is one in number, purpose, and will, but three in relation to dispensation or work. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in one God all possessing the attributes of God in full measure. Because God cannot change this Trinitarian, existence is an eternal aspect of God’s ontological existence.

So what? Is this theological jargon really all that important? What is really at stake other than some old arcane creeds and musty hymns? The implications of the doctrine of the Trinity likely go farther than you would ever imagine. As we will see below, without the Trinity we have no way of understanding who or what God is. Without the Trinity, there is no Gospel and no pattern for governance in the world. Without the Trinity, there is no reason to love and no model for what that love looks like.

Personal, Relational God

Personal beings are beings that are capable of relating to others. If God does not exist as a Trinity, then there is no ontological basis for the relational attributes of God. To paraphrase Augustine in de Trinitate, what does it mean for God to be love (1 John 4:8) if there is no object of that love? God’s love means that God is a relational God who is infinitely loving. This love has always been part of God’s nature. Without the Trinity, God could be eternally existent, having omnipotence, and immutability, but these characteristics would be self-contained without reference to anything outside God’s self. There would be no underlying reality for its expression and therefore no creation, no redemption, no revelation.

Revelation

The Trinity serves as the basis for our understanding of God’s personality and as a consequence, God’s revelation. We are personal beings and therefore relate personally. Revelation cannot be separated from personhood. To deny the Trinity undercuts any basis for communication between God and humanity. It also brings Scripture into question. We have noted the way that Scripture speaks of both the unity and three-personal nature of God, but Scripture also bases God’s revelation in this fact as well. Jesus is the Word of God with all that entails (John 1). Jesus says when we see Him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Hebrews testifies that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:3). The reality, and by extension the accuracy of the revelation found in the incarnation, is tied to the Trinity.

Gospel

The Father’s sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit are revelatory, but they are also redemptive. The economy of God’s work in the world involves all members of the Trinity and they work together in creation, revelation, and redemption. The Father accomplishes redemption by sending the Son and accepting His sacrifice for sin. The Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death to the believer and works to draw the world back to the Father through the Son. The Gospel itself is therefore meaningless without reference to the Trinity. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out an ecumenism that denies Christ’s central role in salvation and its Trinitarian framework is devoid of the power of redemption (Trinitarian Doctrine for Todays Mission, passim).

Human Society

The loss of a rigorous doctrine of the Trinity not only impacts the relationship between humanity and God. The Trinity also serves as the basis for all human relationships in all areas of human society. Inasmuch as humans are created in the image and according to the likeness of God, we should expect to find traces of the Trinity in human relationships. The Trinity serves as the foundation for the equality of humankind (as all members of the Trinity are equally God) but also the order of society. There is a hierarchy of roles in the economy of God’s work in the world, but this is a functional subordination rather than an ontological division. While the Father sends the Son and the Spirit testifies to the Son, each member of the Trinity relates to one another in love and order. The obedience and order demonstrated in the economy of God establish important principles of human subordination as well without denying equality. Each member of the Trinity works in love to glorify the other members rather than themselves.

Love

Naturalism teaches that people are valuable only as they are capable of exercising their will to power; they are simply commodities. Christianity teaches us that humans are intrinsically valuable by nature and that our response to one another must be guided by love. This is indeed part of the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-31). This commandment is based in God’s nature and is exemplified for us in the members of the Trinity. The interpersonal relationship of the Trinity teaches us how to love. The love for others we are commanded to have is a selfless love that glories in another’s creation in the image of God, recognizes their value, and willingly submits to God’s order. The doctrine of the Trinity helps remind us that love is an action rather than an emotion. As John has said, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Conclusion

Part of loving then, is being willing to tell the truth. The Trinity is more than a word. It is more than a quaint, old-fashioned notion or a dusty dinosaur of a dogma. It lies at the very foundation of Christianity and cannot be removed without disrupting the entire edifice of the Church. Rather than a confusing distraction to the Gospel, preaching and teaching on the Trinity (and other foundational Christian dogmas) is the Gospel. Such preaching might just be the most loving thing we could do.

A Christmas Message from the Commission

In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve, most Americans are at their busiest time of the year. Last-minute gifts are purchased, parties are put on, and a busy travel season continues.

The members of the Theological Commission recognize these patterns as our lives reflect this busyness in their own way as well. In the spirit of Christmas, during which we ponder the mystery, glory, and joy surrounding the first advent of Jesus Christ, we simply want to wish our readers a ‘Merry Christmas’ this week. We will resume our normal Tuesday post schedule next week on the 30th. Until then, we pray God’s richest blessings on you, and appreciate your readership and interest in the work of the Commission in 2014.

Daniel Whitby on the Warning Passages in Hebrews

by J. Matthew Pinson

Recently I was reading an old book from Daniel Whitby entitled A Discourse Concerning the True Import of the Words Election and Reprobation (1710). Whitby was a well-known Anglican Arminian in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His works are (in)famous for eliciting lengthy responses from Jonathan Edwards.

As a Reformed Arminian, I greatly dislike many things about Whitby’s more moralistic, semi-Pelagian brand of Arminianism (I would agree with many of Edwards’s criticisms!). But one of the things I agree with Whitby on is his belief that it is possible for genuine believers to make shipwreck of their faith and thus fall from grace.

Two things especially stood out to me in Whitby’s treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews (specifically Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-39). First, he interprets these two passages as Reformed Arminians do—that they refer to an irremediable apostasy and represent the same sort of phenomenon that Scripture refers to as the sin against the Holy Spirit. Second, he discusses how unlikely it is that these warnings are hypothetical.

Apostasy as Irremediable and as the Sin against the Holy Spirit

In discussing Hebrews 6:4-6, Whitby states: “That the persons here mentioned must fall totally and finally, is also evident, because the apostle doth pronounce it a thing ‘impossible to renew them to repentance.’ And (ii.) he declares their repentance impossible on this account, that they ‘crucified to themselves afresh the Son of God, and put him to an open shame’; that is, they again declared him worthy of that punishment they had inflicted on him; and so to them there ‘remained no more sacrifice for sin, but a fearful looking for of judgment,’ x. 26, 27.”

Whitby goes on to discuss that the phrase “if we sin willfully” in Hebrews 10:26 refers to believers “falling off from Christianity,” and for them there remains no more sacrifice for sin but only divine judgment (vv. 26-27). Whitby goes on to explain that the statements in Hebrews that those who have fallen away have “done despite” to the Spirit of grace (v. 29) indicate that they “were guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost” and “fell totally and finally.” This is “so exceeding evident,” Whitby exclaims, “that I know none who ever ventured to deny it.”

So that was the first thing that struck me about Whitby’s treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews: that it agrees with the Reformed Arminian reading, which sees Hebrews as teaching the irremediability of apostasy, indeed which identifies the falling away described in Hebrews as the same event as the sin against the Holy Spirit.

The “Hypothetical View” of the Warning Passages as Untenable

The second thing that stood out to me in Whitby’s treatment of the teaching of Hebrews 6 and 10 on apostasy was his comment about how unlikely it is that these warnings are hypothetical. This reminds me of a discussion I had recently with some colleagues about how Calvinism does not match what God wants preached and proclaimed—or what He commands—with his intent.

The discussion went something like this: if God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and preordains a state of affairs in which some men are not divinely enabled to obey His command, then there is a disjunction between His command (“Repent!”) and His intent (“I have no intention of enabling you to repent; in fact I have predetermined the universe in such a way that you can never repent”).

In the same way, if the argument is true that the warning passages in Hebrews are hypothetical—that they are intended to warn people against something that cannot occur—then there is a disjunction here between what God wants to be preached and proclaimed, and what He intends. God is warning people to persevere and to avoid apostasy, when He knows apostasy can never really occur.

Whitby skillfully describes the difficulty with this in his discussion of Hebrews 10:38: “Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” Whitby remarks that “if we read the words hypothetically, the supposition cannot be of a thing impossible, for then God must be supposed to speak thus: ‘If the just man do that which I know it is impossible for him to do, and which I am obliged by promise to preserve him from doing, my soul shall have no pleasure in him,’ which is to make God seriously to threaten men for such a sin of which they are not capable, and of which they are obliged to believe they are not capable, if they be obliged to believe the [Calvinistic] doctrine of perseverance, and so to make his threatenings of none effect” [1].

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[1] See Daniel Whitby, A Discourse Concerning the True Import of the Words Election and Reprobation (London: John Wyat, 1710), 406-09. There is no doubt that Whitby is no Reformed Arminian on the doctrine of perseverance and apostasy! Still, I found his remarks on the warning passages in Hebrews very illuminating.

The Necessity of Thinking Hard: Part 1

by Rodney Holloman

Recently, after attending my first Theological Symposium outside of graduate school, a friend asked me why I chose to go and participate. I simply replied that as a member of our Commission for Theological Integrity, I needed to be there. The Symposium was academically challenging and the exchange of ideas with others was quite enjoyable. After some back and forth, he then prodded further in simple candor with, “Why did you waste your time?” His questions were not mean spirited or intended to be derogatory. They simply revealed a prevalent thought among some (or many?) preachers and full-time Christian workers: “Why go to the bother of doing all that hard work that doesn’t have an immediate payoff?”

A few weeks later, I was having lunch with a dear missionary who was updating me on the work in his area. After asking about some of the other pastors in his area that I knew, he sadly replied that he was unsure how committed to biblical orthodoxy they were now. He stated that a current “trendy” author’s books were being translated into their language and that the books were wreaking doctrinal havoc among the younger ministers.

As I parsed these events and the well-intentioned question of my brother, my mind thought back to a decade of training young men and women for the ministry. This decade included teaching two semesters of Systematic Theology every year that (among other things) emphasized the importance of “thinking hard” about important subjects. Part of the passion of my life and ministry has been to equip others and inspire them to want to equip others as well. I wondered if we really should encourage critical thinking displayed through accurate writing or only ask for rote memorization of basic facts. Is the challenge of engagement and hard scholastic work only for a bygone era of the church?

So, my question remains, is there really a necessity of doing the hard work of reading, analyzing, critiquing, interacting, and writing regarding subjects with little “commercial” value that will only appeal to a few who make the time to engage? Emphatically, yes! I offer the following foundations for your consideration.

Biblical

There are biblical reasons to stretch, grow, read, and study not only those with whom we agree, but also those with whom we disagree. 2 Timothy 2:15 entreats us to study and reminds us of the negative implication “so that we won’t be ashamed.” Later in 4:13, Paul requests the “books and the parchments.” Addressing the learned crowd on Mars Hill, he quoted one of their poets, demonstrating at the very least, his outside reading. Repeatedly he warned of the Judaizers, showing at least some familiarity with their false doctrine. The beloved apostle would go to great lengths to strengthen the church’s resolve against Gnosticism in all its forms in John’s first epistle.

Again, Paul writing to Titus in chapter 1:9-16 commands him to hold fast the faithful word in order to exhort and to convince the ἀντιλέγοντας, or literally the “anti-speakers.” These contradictors must be answered, but they cannot be answered if we are not engaged with what they are speaking. We cannot answer if we are not studying. Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 3:15 that we are to be “ready to give every man an answer of the hope that lies within us.” The Bible commissions us to study, to reason, to do the hard work of polemics and apologetics.

Historical

One American seminary famously advertises that if you attend their school, you won’t major in “Old Dead German Apostates.” I love the snap of that ad and appreciate its intent. To wit, many may think that examining the ideas and writings of the past has no value in the present or that they serve no purpose in a local context. Truly, this thinking frightens me the most.

Over and over again, we see that when the church and its scholar pastors did not boldly confront error or choose to lead in its proclamation of truth, there were devastating consequences. J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism published almost 100 years ago set forth in shocking detail our current situation and need:

 The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight [1].

Historically, we are always learning from the past, always beholden to the future. We cannot drop the baton of furious learning, critical interaction, and academic scholarship. We are to study, think, and write not only because of the lessons of the past, but because the future generations depend upon it.

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[1] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 1–2. (Emphasis Mine)

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine