Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: Preserving True Saints to the End

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Preservation of the True Saints

This doctrine will have an impact when we come across a person (whether inside or outside of the church) who says that they received Christ as Savior at an earlier time, but that they have “backslidden” or lost their salvation and need to be saved again (or similarly, “rededicate my life to Christ”). But as we are assured in Rom 8:28-39 and other passages (Jn 6:37; 10:27-29; 17:12; 18:9; 1Cor 1:8-9; Phil 1:6; 1Thess 5:23-24; 2Thess 3:3; 2Tim 1:12; 4:18; Heb 7:25), our assurance of salvation is based upon the bedrock of the gospel. This is primary.

But a close corollary that cannot be missed is the need to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4), bearing fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8), renewing our minds to conform to Christ (Rom 12:1-2; Col 3:10), putting off the old self, putting indwelling sin to death and putting on the new man(Rom 6:6; Eph 4:2; Col 2:11; 3:9), walking in the Spirit and not in the flesh (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:25).

All of these together, and more, mean that a person redeemed by Christ is a new creation and should not walk in their former manner of life. If that has not happened, then that person may need salvation for the first time and has not come to grips with the fulness of the truth of the gospel. Another possibility is that they are a true believer, but they have been disobedient to the Lord for an extended period of time, are immature, and in need of loving correction and to be discipled.

The bottom line is this: many of those in America who profess to be Christians know little to nothing about the true gospel and are in need of salvation. Some have been “Christianized” through exposure to the church, but their lives demonstrate a rebellion to our King. They too must be evangelized.

Those who are sincere and broken will need further conversation and observation to conclude their spiritual state, along with many gospel conversations that will either bring them to Christ or bring them to stability and point them toward maturity.

Just Do Better…Tell that to Martin Luther!

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Is salvation merely a message of “do better?” Is Christianity simply a moralistic religion that teaches that all we need to do is obey God? That is what the self-righteous Pharisees thought, and it is what many people in churches think. To them, Christianity is a list of rules that can be kept–albeit with a lot of sacrifice. But is that what Jesus taught?

In Romans 1:17, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” (Romans 1:17, ESV). This text traumatized Martin Luther before his conversion to Christ. Here was a man that sincerely wanted salvation. He had dedicated his life to holy living in a monastic community where he sacrificed on a daily basis. Yet his soul was tortured. Here are Luther’s own words, written a year before his death on March 5, 1545 following a long life of joyful blessing in true salvation through Jesus Christ.

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was … a single word in Chapter 1 [:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.… And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. [Emphasis added]

The “gates of paradise” were opened up to Luther because he no longer depended upon his own law-keeping to satisfy the perfect demands of God. He saw salvation as a gracious act of God alone. Christ was perfectly righteous, fulfilling the whole law in our place. He died in our place and we are justified because of his perfect life and substitutionary death.

The hamster wheel of self-righteous deeds done in order to save ourselves is endless and endlessly disappointing. But the worst thing is that it does not end in heaven, but hell. The one who rejects the perfect finished work of Christ on the cross in favor of his or her imperfect works should expect nothing more, and will get nothing less.

Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: The Atonement

Atonement: The Heart of the Gospel

Our theological term “atonement” comes from the Anglo-Saxon root that means “to be at one with another” and was over time shortened to  ‘atonement” (at-one-ment). It is the reconciliation of God to man and man to God that comes through the vicarious (meaning, in our place) penal (meaning it was the wrath of God poured out as the justified penalty for our sins) substitutionary (meaning that it was not for Christ’s sin, but for the sin of others) death of Christ.

But for whom did Christ die? Did he die for the whole world or did he die only for his elect? The answer is for both. When we are talking about the death of Christ, we need to be aware of precision. We are not saying that Christ’s death was unable to save all people that have every existed—that would be to say that the blood of Christ was insufficient in power and ability. But if we were to say that Christ’s death was effective in saving all people that have ever existed, we would fall into that heresy called “universalism.”

Minimally, we cannot deny that Christ’s death was both sufficient and effective for the elect. This is not debated by any who hold to the biblical doctrines of grace. But did Christ’s death on the cross have any effect upon the non-elect—those who would never come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ? Yes.

On 1Tim 4:10, the MacArthur Study Bible notes say in part,

The simple explanation is that God is the Savior of all men, only in a temporal sense, while of believers in an eternal sense. Paul’s point is that while God graciously delivers believers from sin’s condemnation and penalty because He was their substitute (2 Cor. 5:21), all men experience some earthly benefits from the goodness of God. Those benefits are: 1) common grace—a term that describes God’s goodness shown to all mankind universally (Ps. 145:9) in restraining sin (Rom. 2:15) and judgment (Rom. 2:3–6), maintaining order in society through government (Rom. 13:1–5), enabling man to appreciate beauty and goodness (Ps. 50:2), and showering him with temporal blessings (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:15–17; 17:25); 2) compassion—the broken-hearted love of pity God shows to undeserving, unregenerate sinners (Ex. 34:6, 7; Ps. 86:5; Dan. 9:9; Matt. 23:37; Luke 19:41–44; cf. Is. 16:11–13; Jer. 48:35–37); 3) admonition to repent—God constantly warns sinners of their fate, demonstrating the heart of a compassionate Creator who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:30–32; 33:11); 4) the gospel invitation—salvation in Christ is indiscriminately offered to all (Matt. 11:28, 29; 22:2–14; John 6:35–40; Rev. 22:17; cf. John 5:39, 40). God is, by nature, a saving God. That is, He finds no pleasure in the death of sinners. His saving character is revealed even in how He deals with those who will never believe, but only in those 4 temporal ways.[5]

The Canons of Dort, Articles 3 & 4 (Second Head of Doctrine) say this:

“The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.[6]” And “This death is of such infinite value and dignity because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and, moreover, because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.[7]

These statements are in complete agreement with the biblical record. Christ’s death on the cross is only salvific for the elect, but his death also gives benefits to the whole world. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church agrees with this, stating,

“In Reformed parlance we speak of “common grace” as God’s goodness even to those who are destined to be lost (Romans 2:4-5; Matthew 5:45). God’s goodness to reprobate sinners may be considered the product of the cross. In that sense it might be said that Jesus died for all mankind. But saving grace is called “special grace.” And whatever we may say of benefits flowing from the cross, Christ did NOT die to save those whom He willed to pass over unto deserved condemnation!”[8] 

So, why is this so important for us to know? Well first, because it is the nature of the gospel. Christ died to save others. But whom? Some go so far as to reject even saying that Jesus died for the world, in spite of the fact that the Bible clearly says so. But saying this does not mean that all will be eternally saved, nor does it embrace universalism or the heresy called Pelagianism.

You can say that Jesus died for the world! At the same time, we know that not all the world will be eternally saved. Secondly, we need to be honest about several verses in our Bibles that say that Christ’s death did something beyond saving the elect.

We can’t say that it means that the world was justified and redeemed, but we can see that there are temporal types of salvation that were won by Christ. This isn’t something we need to deny. If we do, we deny the fulness of the glory of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. And finally, we need to know this because we need to study the hard things of the Word and strive to be as accurate as possible, wrestling with the truth, and not denying those bothersome bits that don’t fit well into our thinking.

[5] John MacArthur Jr., ed., The MacArthur Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 1997), 1867.

[6] Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).

[7] Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).

[8] From http://www.opc.org/qa.html?question_id=284

Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: Election

Must be a low information voter.

God cast a vote for you, Satan casts a vote against you, and you get to cast the deciding vote? Really?

Election: Who Chose Whom?

The Arminian/semi-Pelagian understanding absolutely rejects any type of election based solely upon the free choice of God. Their understanding of this can be seen in the response of the Synod of Dort (1619):

“The true doctrine concerning election and reprobation having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those:[3]…Who teach: That the incomplete and non-decisive election of particular persons to salvation occurred because of a foreseen faith, conversion, holiness, godliness, which either began or continued for some time; but that the complete and decisive election occurred because of foreseen perseverance unto the end in faith, conversion, holiness, and godliness; and that this is the gracious and evangelical worthiness, for the sake of which he who is chosen is more worthy than he who is not chosen; and that therefore faith, the obedience of faith, holiness, godliness, and perseverance are not fruits of the unchangeable election unto glory, but are conditions which, being required beforehand, were foreseen as being met by those who will be fully elected, and are causes without which the unchangeable election to glory does not occur.

This is repugnant to the entire Scripture, which constantly inculcates this and similar declarations: Election is not of works, but of him that calleth (Rom. 9:11). And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48). He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy (Eph. 1:4). Ye did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16). But if it is by grace, it is no more of works (Rom. 11:6). Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son (1 John 4:10).[4]

God is sovereign in his divine choice of those who are saved contra the Arminian system. As for those who would say that this means that God actively predestines sinners to condemnation (a view sometimes called double predestination) Scripture does not teach that God actively predestines sinners to the Lake of Fire, but that those whom God does not elect unto salvation are passed over, left in their sins to face the fruit of their sin. This form of reprobation sees God as passive in his condemnation because man is merely receiving the just desserts for his rebellion and law-breaking.

If a person holds to an understanding of personal depravity that is less than total, or is inconsistent with this understanding, he or she will more than likely see election as being based upon the free choice of the sinner.

[3] Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).

[4] Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997), I.2.5 Emphasis mine.

Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: Radical Depravity

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Theological Commitments

Theology drives our commitments and practices. Ideas have consequences. In order to have a biblical commitment to evangelism, we must understand what the Bible teaches about five elements that will have a bearing on how we evangelize.

Depravity: How Deep Does it Run?

  • Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23, ESV)
  • We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, ESV)
  • The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

This doctrine is critical in the issue of the sovereignty of God in the gospel because the doctrine of the radical depravity of man reminds us that it will take more than fiery sermons and emotion driven appeals to sinners in order for them to come to salvation. Ephesians 2:1 tells us that our gospel-prospects are incapable of responding to our gospel sermons, tracts, debates, and appeals. They are dead! Charles Spurgeon said,

“I shall not attempt to teach a tiger the virtues of vegetarianism; but I shall as hopefully attempt that task as I would try to convince an unregenerate man of the truths revealed by God concerning sin, and righteousness, and the judgment to come.”[1]

The Arminian/Wesleyan view is that because of the death of Christ, all of humanity was given “prevenient grace” or “preventing grace.” Prevenient means “going before” and the idea is that when Christ died on the cross, his death made it possible for all men to come to Christ—it is said to be a grace that goes before all men so that they can believe if they exercise their free will. Arminian/Wesleyan theology teaches that radical depravity/total depravity did exist at one time, but that the death of Christ has enabled all men everywhere to now exercise faith on their own.

But as we can see clearly in Ephesian 2:1-3, the Apostle Paul clearly saw that ongoing inability in humanity is still a reality after the death of Christ. Historically, for some Arminians/Wesleyans, this doctrine of prevenient grace has led to the heretical view of universal salvation (universalism), where all men are saved because they believe that Christ’s death really did affect all men so that Christ’s death was applied to all men in a very real sense, it logically should mean that all are able to be saved—and then it is a short path to saying that all are saved.

Our understanding of man’s state before God (anthropology) is a critical starting point not only for the believer as they think through the issue theologically, but it must be the first issue tackled when evangelizing. If a person does not understand the holiness of God (Heb 12:14), they will not see the sinfulness of men in general, and themselves more particularly. A person who is not a sinner in their own mind will not see the need for salvation. John Calvin said,

“It is plain that no man can arrive at the true knowledge of himself, without having first contemplated the divine character, and then descended to the consideration of his own. For, such is the native pride of us all, we invariably esteem ourselves righteous, innocent, wise and holy, till we are convinced by clear proofs, of our unrighteousness, turpitude [moral wickedness], folly and impurity. But we are never thus convinced, while we condone our attention to ourselves, and regard not the Lord, who is the only standard by which this judgment ought to be formed.”[2]

Our charge as preachers of the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ is to do no less than to raise the dead! We are called, like Elisha, to bring the widow’s son back to life. We are to do the work of Ezekiel, to call to the masses of men, women and children, to call out to those dead bones, because we know that God raises the dead. Christ raised Lazarus, and Christ raised us! What is impossible for man is possible for God.

Now, if you have an understanding of man that says that he is anything less than spiritually dead, then there is some hope for mankind being talked into the kingdom of heaven, persuaded or convinced with mere intellectual arguments, contra Paul’s words that “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.” (1Cor 2:14).

But for those of us that grasp the biblical view of man as utterly incapable to come to God on his own (Mk 10:26-27; Jn 6:44), then we know that every salvation is a work of God from beginning to end.

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry (n.p., 1900;  reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 322.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols., in The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.1.35.