Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sanctification: What and How

Hello B--,

When it comes to sanctification, I think our differences with the traditional understanding are smaller than they might appear--at least in terminology and general idea. The means of sanctification is where there will likely be disagreement.

The concept of sanctification (or holiness) is multifaceted in the Bible. For instance, as you pointed out, sanctification can simply mean that I am set apart from the world at salvation. All Christians are sanctified and holy through faith in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2, Heb. 10:10). This is absolutely true, yet the Bible also speaks about sanctification in other ways, such as the task of making our actual behavior holy (set apart, different than the unbelieving world and in line with God's will). See, for example, 1 Thess. 4:1-8. So as long as both of these definitions of sanctification are being upheld, there should be no disagreement.

What sanctification is is one thing. The means for obtaining it is another. Regarding the first kind of sanctification we obtain it through faith alone in Christ at salvation. But what about the second kind? It is here that I find myself disagreeing with traditional interpretations.

Typically it is taught that when we become Christians we receive new natures, or the Holy Spirit/Christ/God comes and lives inside of us and automatically begins to change us from the inside out. This, in my opinion, is an unbiblical understanding of sanctification, though it has been preached for so long that it has basically become Biblical in people's minds. I personally can't find in Scripture (when considered carefully) anywhere that teaches sanctification is automatic and is caused by a new nature. This concept strikes me as magical. "I can give you no intelligible reason why I'm being changed, except that I have a new spiritual substance inside me." To be honest, I believe that almost all Christians who hold this view don't actually operate consistently with it, and will always look to other things to explain their sanctified behavior or lack thereof. While people say they have new natures, they will still say that they have to renew their minds, and that when they sin it is because their minds were not in the right place... which is exactly what I see the NT saying about the means of sanctification: it has to do with our minds being renewed, and our behavior follows our thinking.

I believe the Biblical means of the second kind of sanctification is by renewing our minds; that is, getting lies out and getting truth in, and then living our lives in the remembrance and consciousness of the truth. Walking by the Spirit means setting our minds on the things above. Walking by the flesh means the opposite: setting our minds on the old creation and how it functions apart from Christ. I'm not suggesting this is the only thing Christians need to consider and implement, but it is the foundational thing (as you've been hearing me say in my Galatians sermons). When I walk by faith in the truth, I put myself in a position to fulfill the will of God in my behavior. I can now hear all the other commands and exhortations and not be intimated or rebellious, and I have all the motivation I need to say no to sin and yes to what is proper. If, however, I attempt to fulfill those same commands and exhortations when I have a fleshly mindset, I will find myself anxious, rebellious, and will be defeated.

Christians agree on what sanctification is, but in theory we disagree over the means of being sanctified. But in practice I hear most Christians speak inconsistently with their new nature theory, hearing them basically attribute success or failure to the mind. I want to make the experience of all Christians explicit in theory, which will help them fight the right battle: the battle for the second kind of sanctification, which is waged in the mind.

Blessings, B--,
-Eli

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: "Commentary on Galatians" by John Calvin

I very much enjoyed Calvin's commentary on Galatians. It is nothing less than fascinating to read a commentary on Galatians from the perspective of the 16th century by the great Protestant Reformer. For the most part, I found myself in agreement with Calvin, especially in the former parts of the letter (ch. 1-4); however, less so in the latter parts (ch. 5-6). Both Luther and Calvin were doing the best they could within the situation they lived, and they really did marvelously and should be commended. But they set the precedent in Protestantism--a precedent that has prevailed for five centuries--of misunderstanding Biblical assurance, repentance, flesh and Spirit, and what it means to take up one's cross and follow Jesus.

For Luther, Calvin and the commentators that have followed them, Paul combats the error of legalism and preaches the pure gospel of righteousness through faith alone until chapter 5 verse 13, at which point it is thought he takes a sharp turn and begins warning the Galatians about another error that can arise due to the gospel of grace: i.e. living sinfully because you are saved by grace (often called "license"). Paul, it is said, changes direction. Chapters 5-6 are no longer addressing legalism but license, and Christians need to watch out that they don't live sinfully lest they also forfeit salvation that way. To remain consistent with the gospel of grace, this is explained to mean that if you live sinfully it proves that you are not really a believer. Thus chapters 5-6 are about assurance: the evidence of salvation, which is a holy life.

It is unfortunate that Luther, Calvin, and so many commentators since them, failed to see that Paul was saying nothing of the sort. He wasn't turning to an altogether different error in chapter 5-6 than the one he had been dealing with beforehand. The entire book of Galatians is about legalism, and chapters 5-6 are no exception. Chapters 5-6 constitute the essential ethical argument for righteousness through faith alone against the false doctrine of righteousness through law. Paul is showing how walking by the Spirit (which means walking with your mind on the things of the Spirit--Romans 8:5--which things are Christ and the new creation--Colossians 3:1-4) actually produces a holy life, and that walking by the flesh (which means walking with your mind on the old creation--human effort attempting to fulfill the law for righteousness) is what produces the vile works of the flesh, which even the Galatians want to avoid. Paul hasn't changed direction at all.

It is such a shame that assurance of salvation has been sought for in our own selves and by the measure of our holy living, because this practically undercuts the power of the gospel to set us free from introspection and to give us joy and peace in the freedom of God's grace--the very thing that produces good works! Assurance, the apostle John tells us, comes only from faith in Jesus Christ, not from the holiness of our lives as is so commonly taught. Assurance is desperately needed by Christians in order to do any good works at all, for our assurance doesn't come from our works, but our works come from our assurance. And yet the very thing we need in order to do good works (assurance) is the very thing that so many tell us depends upon the doing of good works. And ironically, it is actually by evaluating our own good works that assurance is taken from us--and thus joy and peace are taken away, and consequently the doing of good works. Thus the secret of good works which Paul desires for us to see and experience in chapters 5-6 is completely nullified. This is what Christians have historically failed to understand.

Luther and Calvin definitely understood the gospel, and as a consequence of their preaching millions of people have been objectively set free and brought to salvation. But by their common oversights, these same Christians who have been saved because of their preaching have also been gripped by subjective bondage to the doctrine of assurance of salvation by works. We are left with a Church that is going to heaven, but that is struggling unnecessarily on the way there, and is being robbed of its joy, peace and power.

May the Church arrive at a true understanding of the book of Galatians, the doctrine of assurance, and the secret of good works.

Semper Reformanda.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: "How Good Do We Have to Be?" by Harold Kushner

This book is somewhat of a classic statement on what humanistic religion and wisdom thinks about God's righteous standards. Harold Kushner asks the all-important question and answers for the unregenerate world.

Actually, Kushner spends most of the book not answering the question the title of his book poses, but rather fills the pages telling us how good we don't have to be. According to Kushner, we don't have to be perfect, and contrary to the voice of our conscience God doesn't require perfection from us. Kushner gives no Scriptural justification for this. One is struck with the impression that throughout the book Kushner is merely giving us his own ideas while trying to give the appearance that he is getting such ideas out of the Bible. But in reality he does violence to the Scripture and attempts no real exegesis.

Kushner finally gives an extremely vague answer about how good we have to be - so vague it is almost impossible to relate. Was it that our good deeds must outweigh our bad? Or was it that we must only try to be good? It's hard to say. His answer is unclear, but this is basically the gist of what he points us to: God doesn't require perfection, He just requires you to do the best you can. But how do you know when you've done your best? Who knows.

Such an answer does three things: 1) it violates the teaching of Scripture, 2) it leaves people in inevitable uncertainty about the state of their soul, and 3) it keeps the door open for hypocritical and vain self-righteousness.

I strongly reject the conclusions of this book and encourage those who read this to find out from the Bible itself what God has to say about how good we have to be. Don't be deceived by false teachers who tell you that God requires less than perfection. According to the law of God moral perfection is indeed required (Deut. 4:1-2, 6:4, 25, 18:13, 29:29). Although none of us are morally perfect, this is because are inexcusably guilty. Yet the greatest news in the Bible is that Almighty God loves us sinners and atoned for our sins through the death of the Messiah and His Son, Yeshua. By putting our trust in His atonement we are forgiven and our sins will not condemn us. Only this honors the perfect law of God and shows us the amazing love and mercy of God. God does not compromise His justice, but satisfies it by the cross, which enables Him to justly forgive and justify sinners. This is the truth about God's judgment, and I urge everyone to believe it before it is too late.

Contrary to what Kushner says, we have to be morally perfect in order to be acceptable to God. This is precisely why we need salvation through the holy sacrifice of Yeshua the Messiah.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Calvin on the Transformation of the Symbol of the Cross

"The cross to which he was nailed was a symbol, as the Apostle declares, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ,” (Gal. 3:13, 14). In the same way Peter says, that he “bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” (1 Peter 2:24), inasmuch as from the very symbol of the curse, we perceive more clearly that the burden with which we were oppressed was laid upon him. Nor are we to understand that by the curse which he endured he was himself overwhelmed, but rather that by enduring it he repressed broke, annihilated all its force. Accordingly, faith apprehends acquittal in the condemnation of Christ, and blessing in his curse. Hence it is not without cause that Paul magnificently celebrates the triumph which Christ obtained upon the cross, as if the cross, the symbol of ignominy, had been converted into a triumphal chariot. For he says, that he blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross: that “having spoiled principalities and powers he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it,” (Col. 2:14, 15). Nor is this to be wondered at; for, as another Apostle declares, Christ, “through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God,” (Heb. 9:14), and hence that transformation of the cross which were otherwise against its nature."

--John Calvin

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Devotional Life of George Muller

Outstanding advice from one who knew the blessing of devotions by experience.

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"It has pleased the Lord to teach me a truth, the benefit of which I have not lost, for more than fourteen years. The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, or how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit. Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed myself in the morning. Now, I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the Word of God, while meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experiential communion with the Lord.

I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon his precious Word, was, to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching as it were into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and then my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart. Thus also the Lord is pleased to communicate unto me that which, either very soon after or at a later time, I have found to become food for other believers, though it was not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word that I gave myself to meditation, but for the profit of my own inner man.

The difference, then, between my former practice and my present one is this: Formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer, except when I felt my soul to be more than usually barren, in which case I read the Word of God for food, or for refreshment, or for a revival and renewal of my inner man, before I gave myself to prayer. But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour, on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc., and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or a quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray. I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart, first being nourished by the truth, being brought into experiential fellowship with God, I then speak to my Father and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word. It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point. In no book did I ever read about it. No public ministry ever brought the matter before me. No private intercourse with a brother stirred me up to this matter. And yet, now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything, that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is, to obtain food for his inner man. As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time except we take food, and as this is one of the first things we do in the morning, so it should be with the inner man. We should take food for that, as every one must allow. Now, what is the food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God; and here again, not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts. When we pray, we speak to God. Now, prayer, in order to be continued for any length of time in any other than a formal manner, requires, generally speaking, a measure of strength or godly desire, and the season, therefore, when this exercise of the soul can be most effectually performed is after the inner man has been nourished by meditation on the Word of God, where we find our Father speaking to us, to encourage us, to comfort us, to instruct us, to humble us, to reprove us. We may therefore profitably meditate, with God’s blessing, though we are ever so weak spiritually; nay, the weaker we are, the more we need meditation for the strengthening of our inner man. Thus there is far less to be feared from wandering of mind than if we give ourselves to prayer without having had time previously for meditation. I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am conscious of having derived from it myself, and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God, I ascribe to this mode the help and strength which I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials, in various ways, than I had ever had before; and after having now above fourteen years tried this way, I can most fully, in the fear of God, commend it. In addition to this I generally read, after family prayer, larger portions of the Word of God, when I still pursue my practice of reading regularly onward in the Holy Scriptures, sometimes in the New Testament, and sometimes in the Old, and for more than twenty-six years I have proved the blessedness of it. I take, also, either then or at other parts of the day, time more especially for prayer.

How different, when the soul is refreshed and made happy early in the morning, from what it is when without spiritual preparation, the service, the trials, and the temptations of the day come upon one."

--George Muller, May 9 1841.