Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

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.

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 Hermeneutics of Evangelism: Some Additional Reflections

by W. Jackson Watts

At the recent Free Will Baptist Theological Symposium in October, I presented a paper entitled “Hearing the Gospel: Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Evangelism.” Drawing on the nuanced way we understand the idea of “hearing” (listening and obeying), I attempted to sketch out some of the ways in which human sinfulness shapes the way people hear our presentations of the Gospel. Specifically I argued,

“As discouraging as the experience of seeing people reject the Gospel can be, it may be equally unhelpful to ascribe these failures in communication to one single cause rather than a plurality of factors which shape the response of listeners….Instead of opting for simplistic reasons for failures to receive the Gospel, contemporary Christians should adopt a more biblical, multi-dimensional approach. Because the Bible demonstrates human sinfulness as a complex, multi-dimensional reality, evangelists—that is,faithful disciples—should expect to encounter varied obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. Yet they should still strive faithfully to evangelize in light of these challenges. Such an approach is true to the biblical witness and contemporary experience. Furthermore, it highlights the profoundly theological nature of evangelism.”

My paper goes on to highlight and describe some cultural features or lenses of human life, namely language, power, and personal peace, and how the Gospel is often heard (or misheard) through them. Hopefully by attending to the ways each of these function, we can unleash the Gospel’s full power in order to break through some of these barriers as the message of Christ calls all people, in all sorts of sin-stained cultural contexts, to repent and believe.

As any presenter does I suppose, I recognize certain limitations or ways in which my argument could be strengthened, expanded, or even clarified. I was thankful for the thoughtful and appreciative responses that followed my presentation. But if I revised my paper, there is a matter or two that I would expand upon or include some comment on. Here I’d like to add one additional thread to this important topic.

An Important Consideration

Much of my writing consists of an attempt to help the church strengthen its ways of thinking and living out Christian doctrine in the world. This theme in my writing appeared at the 2012 Symposium when I presented a paper on the relationship between doctrine and practice. Since then, I find myself increasingly preoccupied by this subject. Being a pastor and theology student brings me back to this again and again.

In some instances, I think the most noticeable, practical impact of this preoccupation is that I am writing on topics that essentially try to strengthen theologically the ways we’re thinking about a familiar topic. In the case of this year’s Symposium, it was the topic of evangelism. My concern was that without giving sufficient attention to the multi-dimensional nature of human sinfulness, we might under-appreciate why people sometimes reject the Gospel. While it’s certainly true that God blesses many of our evangelistic efforts even when we know little-to-nothing about some of the people we share with, sometimes our lack of familiarity with them, as well as our own cultural context, hinders us from growing more competent with the way we channel the full scope of the Gospel at them wherever we encounter people.

The one fear that I had in presenting this paper was not that people would deny the validity of the argument itself. Rather, I feared that they might not appreciate the weight of it, and thus think that while my paper offered some helpful reflections, it only made more complex a task which should be rather simple: sharing the Gospel. In the end, however, not a single comment or response so far has offered that critique. Still, I think it’s worth saying that it is possible to read my paper and notice a void concerning the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, if the Spirit is drawing, convicting, and even at work in the life of the evangelist prior to the evangelistic moment, then it might be easy to dismiss the value of us learning more about how people “hear the Gospel.” “We just need to preach the message,” some will say, “and either they’ll obey the Spirit’s leadership or they’ll reject Him.” I think a few comments are needed to address how the Holy Spirit’s work relates to my presentation.

First, I begin my reflection on the practice of evangelism with the deeply-held belief that without the Holy Spirit, no human being will be saved. This is a point at which Arminians and Calvinists agree, though they construe the nature of the Spirit’s work a bit differently. But I believe that it should be easy for Christians in different traditions to agree on this point because there is so much clear, Scriptural testimony to support it. The Spirit must first draw a man for Him to be saved.

Second, the Holy Spirit’s power to apply the preached Word is such that it doesn’t require the evangelist to possess years of education about sophisticated concepts like hamartiology (the doctrine of sin), Constantinianism, culture, or, Lord-help-us, “plausibility structures” (thank you Peter Berger). Yet we agree that the Holy Spirit, according to God’s good pleasure, works through human agents to communicate the Word using partly our own words, personalities, and backgrounds (including our education).

So while we must make every effort to not make evangelism too complex so as to discourage Christians from evangelizing (or confusing our hearers!), this concern for clarity actually support my basic argument. I think many people may not hear our Gospel presentations clearly because we’ve assumed that a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be up for revision, even when we’re finding people walk away from us without having trusted Christ. Rejection of the Gospel doesn’t leave us culpable for people’s rejection; it should leave us reflective about what just happened, praying that God will teach us through every victory and every failure–even if they’re only perceived victories or failures.

Finally, a robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit is essential for understanding the multi-dimensional nature of human sinfulness, which is what causes us to try different ways of presenting the Gospel. Sometimes God wants to reach persons in ways that differ from our expectations! The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit delights in doing things that unsettle both unbelievers and believers. He receives more glory this way, just as the stable was more glorious than any Hilton, or the cross more than any throne. I believe this shapes our evangelism because the Holy Spirit, whose power we desperately need, has a way of confronting people’s unique culturally-conditioned rebellion against God. And this doesn’t disqualify our usage of words, categories, and ways of presenting the Gospel unique to that situation. Rather, it can be a Spiritually-directed act which is happening.

In the panel discussion that concluded the Symposium, Clint Morgan highlighted the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. I definitely appreciated that as I personally don’t know as much as I’d like to about how He does what He does in our lives. But I recall Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8).