Friday, October 17, 2014

The Reason for Hell

It is not uncommon to hear people say that the concept of hell (i.e. eternal punishment) was an ungodly invention of the Middle Ages to scare and control people, and the sooner we rid ourselves of the doctrine the healthier this world will become. Such talk is, however, careless.

It is manifestly untrue that the concept of hell was an invention of the Middles Ages. Not only is the idea plainly taught in the Bible (which this article will focus on), but belief in hell can be found in both Jewish writings of the pre-Christian era as well as in early Christian writings immediately following the apostolic era. After briefly examining the historical belief in the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment, we will then examine the Biblical rationale behind the doctrine.


By way of example, the Book of Enoch, a Jewish work predating the time of the Maccabees, is literally swollen with the concept of hell and eternal punishment. Here is just a small sampling representative of what is found everywhere in the book:

“And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgment and punishment and torment of those who curse forever and retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them forever.” (Enoch 22:10-12)

“And they [i.e. the heathen] shall be cast into the judgement of fire, and shall perish in wrath and in grievous judgment forever.” (Enoch 91:9)

“Woe to you, ye sinners, when ye have died, if ye die in the wealth of your sins; and those who are like you say regarding you: ‘Blessed are the sinners: they have seen all their days. And how they have died in prosperity and in wealth, and have not seen tribulation or murder in their life; and they have died in honor, and judgement has not been executed on them during their life.’ Know ye, that their souls will be made to descend into Sheol and they shall be wretched in their great tribulation. And into darkness and chains and a burning flame where there is grievous judgment shall your spirits enter; and the great judgement shall be for all the generations of the world. Woe to you, for ye shall have no peace.” (Enoch 103:5-8)

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, wrote concerning the Pharisees (the most respected religious group in Israel in his day) that they believed in and taught the doctrine of eternal punishment:

“They [the Pharisees] say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, 8:14)

“They [the Pharisees] also believe that souls have an immortal vigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, 1:3)

From these few passages we can see that Jews, before the advent of Christianity, believed in the doctrine of the hell and eternal punishment. This idea was never corrected by Jesus nor the apostles, but was only confirmed and amplified by them. They spoke about hell often and assumed that their hearers understood what they meant.

Early Christian writings immediately following the apostolic era also clearly evidence belief in hell and eternal punishment. The following is, again, just a sampling:

Polycarp, an early bishop of Smyrna, when about to martyred in a Roman arena was threatened with fire and given an opportunity to recant his beliefs. He responded thus: "Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly." (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. XI)

"If we do the will of Christ we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment." (Clement of Rome, 2 Clement 5:5)

"We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life, better than this present one... or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere by-work, and that we should perish and be annihilated." (Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Ch. XXXI)

"The punishment of those who do not believe the Word of God, and despise His advent, and are turned away backwards, is increased; being not merely temporal, but rendered also eternal. For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, 'Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,' these shall be damned forever; and to whomsoever He shall say, 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for eternity,' these do receive the kingdom forever." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4:28:2)

Therefore, to say that the concept of hell is a later theological invention is simply false. What might be truer to say is that men like Dante in the Middle Ages sensationalized it, but they certainly did not invent it.


As I said earlier, the Bible speaks plainly about the reality of hell and eternal punishment. Here are several passage on eternal punishment from the Bible:

"And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Daniel 12:2)

"The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Isaiah 33:14)

"And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." (Isaiah 66:24)

Jesus quoted Isaiah 66:24 many times as his usual way of describing hell:

"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:43-48)

John the Baptist also alluded to this:

"Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable." (Luke 3:17)

The reason the fire is not quenched is because the fuel never ceases. A horrible thought. Whether the fire is literal or not does not matter. Woe to us if they are symbols! For if the symbols are that horrible, the substance must be more.

Jesus plainly tells us about the end of the age. The following are not parables, but explanations of parables:

"The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 13:41-42)

"So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 13:49-50)

Jesus tells us who we should fear:

"And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him." (Luke 12:4)

Jesus is not telling a parable when He contrasts eternal punishment and eternal life:

"Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." (Matt 25:41, 46)

It has rightly been noticed that Jesus talked more about hell than everyone else in the Bible put together. Let's remember that He did this to warn us because He loves us, and the whole reason He came into the world was to save us from this condemnation. Jesus spoke the hard things in love.

To all of this should be added the apostles' words. Here is a sampling:

"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power." (2 Thess. 1:8-9)

"The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night." (Rev. 14:10-11)

From these passages one can understand why Bible readers have always believed in hell and eternal punishment, and have great cause to tremble at it. The doctrine of hell has its foundation here, not in Dante.


In order to understand the rationale behind eternal punishment, it is essential to understand that sin is not merely two-dimensional (that is, sin is not merely against mankind and society) but is three-dimensional (that is, sin is against God also). It is solely due to our false understanding of sin, our thinking that it is not that big of an evil, that we fail to understand the Biblical punishment pronounced against it. This is clearly demonstrated by those who argue against the idea of eternal punishment, who repeatedly claim that such a severe punishment could not possibly be merited by people living in a finite world, and that it seems absurd to think, for example, that poor, innocent "tea-sipping grannies" should be worthy of such a punishment. But once we see sin for the real evil that it is, as God considers it to be, even the "tea-sipping grannies" are found to be in the category of Psalm 14:2-3, and are found to be sinners for whom Jesus had to die.

The seriousness of sin is not finally measured by how it affected people, nor by how many people it affected, nor by how long it took to commit the sin, nor even by the amount of sin acquired in one lifetime. Although these considerations are all important in the context of human society and human justice, these alone do not provide the basis for a crime so serious that would merit eternal punishment. This fact is rightly pointed out by critics of the doctrine of hell. However, what these critics fail to recognize is the actual Biblical reason for the seriousness of sin; that is, the three-dimensional nature of all sin.1 According to the Bible, the seriousness of sin is finally determined by the worthiness of the One against whom all sin is ultimately committed: God. The more worthy the offended party, the more serious the sin. As Thomas Manton correctly remarked: "There is no little sin, because there is no little God to sin against."

Jonathan Edwards' words here are important:

“Every crime or fault deserves a greater or less punishment, in proportion as the crime itself is greater or less. If any fault deserves punishment, then so much the greater the fault, so much the greater is the punishment deserved. The faulty nature of any thing is the formal ground and reason of its desert of punishment; and therefore the more any thing hath of this nature, the more punishment it deserves. And therefore the terribleness of the degree of punishment, let it be never so terrible, is no argument against the justice of it, if the proportion does but hold between the heinousness of the crime and the dreadfulness of the punishment; so that if there be any such thing as a fault infinitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inflict a punishment for it that is infinitely dreadful.”

Notice how the severity of the punishment is totally irrelevant when determining the justice of the eternal punishment. The only real question is: is there a sin that corresponds to (merits) such a punishment? Therefore we can see that the whole matter rests upon our understanding of sin: is it really that bad or not? While the Bible teaches it is really that bad. Human wisdom always has taught that it is not.

"Hell is one of those things that is so naturally unthinkable that it actually commends itself as belonging, not to the realm of human conceptions of justice, but of divine revelation. The greatest reason for our quarrel with hell is because we are 'cut off' and 'out of touch' with the holiness of God. We are insensible of divine reality. If God is possessed of a holiness that is infinite, sin becomes something much more than a finite, time bound event, as we tend to imagine. That is why we are incapable of knowing the degree of our sin apart from revelation." (Reginald Kelly)

On this matter we must listen to God and not to human wisdom. Who is the better judge of what sin is?

When seen in this light, the limiting and minimization of hell is actually just the limiting and minimization of God. If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no sin worthy of eternal punishment, which means that there is no being who exists who is infinitely worthy. This idea, that the measure of the seriousness of sin depends upon the measure of the worthiness of the offended party, is not off the mark. We all actually feel this way and operate on this principle. Would you not consider someone especially despicable if he murdered, for example, someone like Mother Theresa? Of course murdering any person is evil, but is there not an added element of evil if it is done to someone who is more honorable? Or does not stealing from your own mother and father who love you have more despicableness in it than stealing from a complete stranger (which, make no mistake, is also evil). Does not the despicableness rise as the honor and worthiness of the one sinned against rises? Therefore the vileness of a crime does in fact depend upon who the crime is committed against.

But what is the measure of the honor and worthiness of God?

Gregory Boyd, a prominent American pastor in our day, is a vocal critic of the doctrine of hell and one who has gathered quite a following. In a video interview in which he discusses the idea of hell, he asks people to consider whether it is loving and just for God to send people to hell for all of eternity on the basis of finite sins they have committed in their finite lifetimes. Boyd's criticism is an excellent example of the standard criticism leveled against the doctrine of hell, and his oversight is typical and helpful for us to see. The picture Boyd paints is a caricature of the doctrine of hell and is not addressing the Bible on its own terms. Boyd's reasoning excludes any notion of mankind deserving hell due to sinning against God. Instead, in the video, he simply juxtaposes a picture of the flames of hell with pictures of nice, smiling people and asks us to decide whether sending these friendly people to hell is right. Of course, considered from only this angle, any normal human being would see the injustice in that! Boyd appeals to our emotions, and gives us an incomplete view of the matter.

A better question is: could it be possible that mankind deserves hell? This will require us to think about sin, and to think about it in new ways and in new dimensions which we don't usually consider. In the first place, when we read the Bible, which we have solid reasons to believe is theopneustos (God-breathed), we read about God sending people to hell. We don't need to like it (God Himself doesn't like it!), but we must wrestle with the fact that it is there and ask "why": what does God see in His infinite wisdom that we are failing to see in our human wisdom? Many turn a blind eye to the fact that God explains why men deserve hell, simply because they don't immediately understand the reason, or do not want to. We ought to submit ourselves as disciples (students) of God to be instructed. What we are never permitted to do, however, is caricaturize the Bible by ignoring the explanation of hell as the just deserts of our sin against God. If one is going to criticize hell, one must criticize hell as it is found in the Bible and not as it isn't. Disagree with the Bible if you'd like, or agree with it, but don't ignore it. Boyd should have spend his time talking about how sin isn't really that bad because sinning against God isn't infinitely despicable because God isn't infinitely worthy, instead of pointing to the mere idea that God will send people to hell and concluding from this that it is unjust.

I believe with all my heart that God is love, and that His love is wonderfully revealed in and through Jesus Christ. God's love is incomprehensible love; it is deeper, wider, longer and higher than we can possibly understand. God loved this world so much that He send His Son to save it from perishing in an everlasting punishment. Christ laid down His life, not for good people, but while we were yet sinners and enemies of God, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-10). The love of God is displayed in the cross of Christ where Jesus died as the propitiation (turning away of God's wrath) for our sins (1 John 4:10). We needed saving from God's wrath because of our sins, and Jesus came to do just that because of God's love. God is not only wrath, but love. Nor is He only love, but also wrath. Behold the goodness and severity of our God.

As Jonathan Edwards observed, the severity of hell is irrelevant to the question of its justice. The real question is: is there a crime heinous enough that would deserve such a punishment? If a sin can be found that merits eternal punishment, the question of its justice is answered. The question of the justice of eternal punishment depends upon the existence of a sin worthy of it or not.

If we are searching out the question using only our own human experiences with other humans, then we can never see things the way the Bible declares things to be. God is not like anything else we know and experience. He is qualitatively different than all things (holy), so if we seek absolute parallels between God and man we will inevitably evade reality. This is why solely appealing to and considering human affairs is flawed. Human relations are similar, but are not identical to our relations with God. As a parent loves a child, so God loves us, but His love is even greater. As a parent would, painfully, be willing to see his son or daughter suffer the deserved punishment for their crime, so God is willing, painfully, to see the same, only God is even more just, and therefore more willing, and more loving, and therefore it is even more painful for Him. God does not revel in the eternal punishment of the wicked. In fact, God send Christ to save the wicked from it.

As there is no crime that could be committed in the two-dimensional context of human relations that would justify eternal punishment, so we need to recognize that God is judging sin in an entirely different context than mere human relations. Human beings must reckon with the fact that they deal with not only other humans, but with God. Furthermore, they must reckon with the fact that they have lived as enemies of God, disregarding Him and spurning His authority. And who is God? God is the Wholly Other, the Uncreated Creator, the perfectly Wise and Good and Beautiful, Who, by His nature, is the essence of Wisdom, Goodness, Beauty and Righteousness, and Who continually provides the raison d'être of our very existence. According to the Bible, it is against God that we have sinned, without any cause at all. This is evil and despicable beyond anything we know on earth in human relations, for the honorableness and worthiness of God adds an element of evil to our sins unlike anything we are accustomed to.

It is not my intention to suggest that there is no similarity between divine relations and human relations, but only to say that when it comes to God, we are dealing with a Being of infinite proportions unlike any other being we know, and therefore while there are similarities between how we relate to humans and how we relate to God, it is never a perfect parallel, because with God the proportions are infinitely greater.

The Old Testament law reveals that executing justice is a matter of lex talionis, tit-for-tat, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24-25). This is God's retributive standard as He reveals it in the law. What this ultimately means is that the punishment needs to fit the crime. Not all sins under the law received the same punishment because there are differences in the seriousness of crimes committed in the context of human relations, and therefore there are differences in the severity of the punishments.

According to the standard of "an eye for an eye", what is the fitting punishment for sin committed against God? In view of who God is, hell is the only appropriate punishment for sinning against God. All sin has both a horizontal dimension (as it relates to humans and to human society) and a vertical dimension (as it relates to God). Horizontally, sins are more or less serious and receive different kinds of punishment. This is right and good. No sin, when considered horizontally, deserves an eternal punishment. But if we only consider sin from this dimension we will never be able to believe in the justice of hell, even though the Bible teaches it. It is only when we see that sin is committed against God, as the Bible clearly teaches it is, and only when we see how supremely evil that is, will we begin to understand the justice of eternal punishment. If it be asked: "What parent would beat their child ceaselessly and daily without end?" The answer is, no parent. There is no human situation in which a parent could justly do that. But what if, hypothetically, there was a divine situation in which eternal punishment was what a person really deserved? If there is such a sin that deserves such a punishment, it would therefore be unjust for God not to recompense it. Furthermore, because it would be a matter of justice it would say nothing about the love of God. God sends people to hell, not because He is unloving, but because He is not unjust. Eternal punishment has everything to do with the standard of retribution as stated in the law and the existence of a crime that is so serious it really merits such a punishment.

So when people say, "Hell is so bad! What loving parent would do that? How could God do that if He really loved people?" they are missing the point. It's not about God's love and it's not about how bad hell is. It's about God's justice and whether there is a crime worthy of such a punishment according to "an eye for an eye". That's the whole issue. That is why when we dismiss hell as unjust, we are actually saying that there is no sin that is really exceedingly evil, or that all sin should only be judged horizontally, or that to sin vertically against God is really just as bad as sinning horizontally against humans, because God isn't really qualitatively different than humans. In essence, the denial of hell is a denial of God in some way. That is why, in the last analysis, to deny the doctrine of hell is to be guilty of blasphemy on two counts: one, for the impudence of not giving heed to the revelation of God, and two, for the irreverence of not believing that God is infinitely worthy.


The concept of hell and eternal punishment is not an invention of men in the Middle Ages, meant to scare and control people. Men would never have come up with a doctrine like hell, as, humanly speaking, it is the most offensive and difficult concept of all for human beings to accept without first understanding the true nature of sin against God. But when you understand the true nature of sin against God, the doctrine of hell reasonably follows. Therefore the doctrine of hell is a sacred doctrine and has as its basis God's revelation to mankind. Jesus talked so much about hell, warning sinners of the wrath to come, because He came to testify of the truth, and because He came to rescue sinners from this condemnation by His own blood. Whoever believes in Jesus Christ and trusts entirely in His propitiatory sacrifice will be saved. But whoever ignores Christ's warning, and does not take refuge in Christ for his salvation, will be damned. These are the only options.

May you patiently consider this matter and choose to be a student of God rather than follow the wisdom of this world. Remember that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight." (Prov. 9:10)

1 For an excellent essay on the Biblical understanding of sin, see A God-Centered Understanding of Sin by Stephen Witmer..

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Importance of Understanding Sin

In this clip, Dan Barker, a former Christian pastor turned atheist, expresses his conception of the Christian message, and I think he captures what many people feel when they think about the message of Jesus Christ. However, Barker grossly mis-characterizes of the Christian message.

What Barker fails to acknowledge is the foundational premise of the Bible: that human beings are sinful and deserve judgment from God. Instead, in this portrayal they are presented as innocent pedestrians walking by a complete stranger who is mad at them for not recognizing him; but the Almighty God cannot be compared to a human, equal to other humans, calling to them from the porch. God is the holy uncreated Creator of heaven and earth, the fountainhead all things, and the giver of life to all people. We owe our very existence to Him and all that we enjoy. Furthermore, all nature testifies loudly and clearly to His existence, power, wisdom and goodness. We are therefore greatly evil for not recognizing God and giving Him the glory and reverence that is due Him. It is perfectly good and right that we should, but we do not, for no good reason. Our treason against God stems from nothing other than our stubbornness and pride. Since we are offending, not an equal, but one who is infinitely above us and who is infinitely worthy, we are guilty of a crime of infinite evil. The stature of the offended party determines the stature of the crime and consequentially the stature of the punishment. For example, the first degree murder of a human being deserves a greater punishment than the first degree murder of a dog. So also our offense against Almighty God is ineffably heinous and is therefore worthy of an infinite punishment. Jonathan Edwards truly observed: "If there be any such thing as a fault infinitely heinous, it will follow that it is just to inflict a punishment for it that is infinitely dreadful."

It is only in the light of our deserving of judgment that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins becomes meaningful and beautiful. Christians have always seen in the death of Christ the most beautiful revelation of God's grace and love for humanity. This is because, foundationally, Christians see the seriousness of their sin and their own deserving of judgment. What a staggering thought that even though we humans have sinned so evilly against God and justly deserve His judgment, God has responded with forgiveness and mercy by giving His Son to the be propitiation for our sins! But if we make God's wrath arbitrary, then the death of Christ becomes arbitrary and senseless. All intellectual problems with the Christian message stem from the failure to recognize sin as the evil that it is.

"Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet." (Thomas Watson)

For an excellent essay on the Biblical understanding of sin, see A God-Centered Understanding of Sin by Stephen Witmer.

Friday, September 19, 2014

James and Paul on Justification: An Introduction

Contrary to what is often said, James is not to be pitted against Paul, nor is Paul to be pitted against James, because they are not at odds.

It is to be noticed that the only time we see the phrase "faith alone" in the Bible is in the book of James. However, while it is true this is the only place we see the explicit phrase used, it would be nonsense to limit the idea of "faith alone" to this one place. The entire purpose of Romans 3:27, 4:2-6, 9:10-11, 11:6, and Ephesians 2:9, for example, is that salvation is by faith without works: i.e. faith alone.

There is a Protestant saying that has been around for a long time: "We are justified by faith alone, but faith is never alone". This saying explains how faith, not works, justifies us, while pointing to the obvious fact that faith always produces action. If it does not, this shows there is really no faith but only the untrue profession of faith. The action James is drawing our attention to is nothing more than the proof of faith, which, according to James, confirms the account of Genesis, that "Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness." This justification took place before Abraham did any work at all, but his faith was later tested and proved to be real by his action.

According to James, why was Abraham justified? Because he believed God (James 2:23). Yet by sacrificing his son Isaac, Abraham proved through this action that he believed God. Notice: he did not prove through his action that he was a good man, but that he believed God. His action, the necessary product of his faith, proved that he had faith in God's promise, that God would do what God said God would do, i.e. make a great nation through Isaac. Abraham proved that he really did believe God and therefore he was justified through faith alone, because his faith was real and was not alone.

It can now be seen how James stands firmly with Paul and not against him. James is not against justification by faith alone, but is against untrue professions of faith that are alone (that is, without faith-proving action). On the other hand, Paul writes against the idea that God justifies us on account of our works rather than on account of faith alone. To be specific, Paul is against the idea that when God judges the world in righteousness God will proclaim righteous (justify) those who are by their actions righteous. Paul is against the idea that people, by doing righteous deeds, are thereby righteous and will on this account be justified. To put it another way, he is against the idea that to be declared morally acceptable by God a person must by their actions be morally acceptable. But according to the Bible, as well as our experience, everyone is in fact unrighteous and sinful by their actions. Abraham was no exception. He, too, was a sinner - that is, a bad person - who did not achieve moral acceptability by his behavior.

Nevertheless, Abraham had faith in God's promise to him, which was given by God to him though he was a sinner, and he proved that he had real faith by his action. The most crucial thing to notice here - and the point that most people fail to notice - is that the action of Abraham which James draws our attention to was not action that showed he was a good person, but action that showed he believed God. Do you see the difference? James is not talking about good deeds that prove you are a good person, but action corresponding to your faith which proves that you believe. No one is good, and by works no one shows that they are good. We can only be justified through faith alone. But by our actions we can show that we believe.

Consider Abraham's faith-proving action which James points to. It was not a good deed. It had nothing to do with the law, nor was it an action that we would consider moral and universally obligatory. Abraham's faith was tested by God when God told him to extinguish the very son that God had promised would be the means of making for Abraham a great nation. God promised Abraham one thing, and then told Abraham to do something that would naturally eliminate all hope of fulfillment! This was a test to see whether Abraham believed God would fulfill His promise, despite all appearances to the contrary. Abraham believed! The Scripture tells us that he went to sacrifice Isaac believing God was able to raise his son from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). When God saw this, He knew, not that Abraham was a good person, but that Abraham believed. It was not a moral deed which proved his moral worth, but a deed of faith which proved his faith.

James gives us a second example of justification through faith alone where faith is not alone. Who does he point to? None other than Rahab the prostitute! She, James tells us, was justified (James 2:25)! She was not justified (declared righteous) because she proved her righteousness by righteous doing. There is no mention of good deeds here. Rahab was a prostitute, and like everyone else in this world, she was not a good person. But like Abraham, Rahab had faith in God, and she proved that she had faith in God, not by performing any acts of righteousness, but by hiding the Israelite spies. That's all! She hid the spies, proving her faith was real and not an untrue profession, and therefore she was justified. It had nothing to do with being good.

This is where Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and even many Protestants misunderstand James, because they think he is writing about good works rather than about faith-proving action. They think James is saying that we need both faith and moral behavior in order to be justified, or that moral behavior is what proves that we have faith and are righteous. It is because they misunderstand James that they create conflict between him and Paul.

But, as the Scriptures tell us, God "justifies the ungodly", that is, the morally unacceptable, through faith alone (Rom. 4:5). Faith is never alone, for where there is real faith it is always proven by action, The two examples of Abraham and Rahab which James points to show us that this faith-proving action is not law-keeping or good works - not action that proves we are good people - but action that proves we believe. Thus this faith-proving action will be different depending on what our faith is. For Abraham, it was sacrificing Isaac. For Rahab, it was hiding the Israelite spies. For Christians, well, that's a topic for another article. The essential point to see in this article is: James is not talking about proving we are righteous by good works, but about proving we are believers by faith-proving action.

James and Paul have always been in agreement. It is their readers who wrongly pit them against each other.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: "Joy Unspeakable" by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to seriously study the doctrine of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. If you want a well-rounded view of the subject and want to learn from all sides of the debate, you simply cannot pass by "Joy Unspeakable". Lloyd-Jones is in an unique position to write on this topic since he is one of the most celebrated Reformed preachers of all time. Lloyd-Jones sees himself as defending the "old evangelical" view of the Holy Spirit against the modern view of his day which equated the baptism in the Spirit with regeneration. Whether Lloyd-Jones is correct about this or not is for you to decide.

Lloyd-Jones cannot be categorized with the Pentecostals, nor with the non-Pentecostals. For example, he argues in favor of Pentecostalism that the baptism in the Spirit is a subsequent and distinct experience from conversion. It is experiential and comes with evidences. However, also he argues against Pentecostalism that the evidences of the baptism in the Spirit have nothing to do with the gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues. Nor does he agree with the Holiness camps that the baptism in the Spirit has to do with sanctification. He strongly denies this. Lloyd-Jones contends that the chief end of the baptism in the Spirit is to bring Christians assurance, which is the indispensable power to be witnesses of Christ. Therefore the evidences of the baptism in the Spirit will be a man empowered with assurance.

Lloyd-Jones argues that the baptism in the Spirit is not something one can work up or make happen, but rather that it is a sovereign work of God to happen in His timing and in His way. He emphasizes this greatly. It is not something man initiates, but something God initiates. It is not us doing things to fill ourselves with the Spirit (as in Ephesians 5:18, which Lloyd-Jones calls the normal way), but it is something different. The Spirit "falls on" people, and it is exceptional, an experience they do not make happen.

Throughout the book Lloyd-Jones repeatedly uses examples from history, seeking to prove his points not only from Scripture but from the lives of saints who have claimed a distinct experience with the Spirit. It sometimes struck me that what Lloyd-Jones is calling the baptism in the Spirit is nothing more than when a Christian catches a glimpse of the glory of the truth of the gospel. It is that experience that many of us have had that only seems to last for a brief moment, when you are overwhelmed with emotion due to a more vivid sight of the truth.

Finally, Lloyd-Jones is greatly concerned with the need for revival in the Church. He inseparably connects one's doctrine of the baptism in the Spirit with one's doctrine of revival. If you believe the baptism in the Spirit to be indistinct from conversion, you will therefore not believe in revival. To Lloyd-Jones, the Pentecostal experience is essentially revival, and vice versa. Revival is when God pours His Spirit upon the Church, giving them fresh power to proclaim the gospel.

This book is full of strengths and weaknesses. It is greatly challenging. It hardly deals with spiritual gifts. It constantly asks you to examine your own Christian experience. It doesn't fully satisfy the exegetical questions. However, the best part about Lloyd-Jones is that he actually attempts to prove his position from the Scriptures. He does not just say, as many do, "I can't explain it, you just have to experience it for yourself." Thankfully, Lloyd-Jones gives us more than that.

While I do not fully agree with Lloyd-Jones's conclusions, I consider this book an excellent contribution to the study of the Spirit. Want to wrestle with the doctrine of the baptism in the Spirit? You must at least read this book.