Challenges: In What Sense?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

I’ve spoken briefly about the textual and theological consistency of the Bible, but there is another helpful trick I learned when reading and interpreting. It’s pretty simple. When you come to a passage, ask yourself, “In what sense is the author using this ________________ (word, phrase, metaphor, illustration, etc.)?”

Let me give several examples.

1. I remember a time a few years back when I was studying 1 Cor. 9 in the seminary library. I came across Paul’s phrase, “…lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27). This worried me. Other NT uses of the word “disqualified” clearly referred to lost people.

Was Paul saying that he could lose his salvation?

I don’t think so. Throughout chapter 9, Paul explains that he has given up some of his rights as a minister of the gospel with an eye toward eternal rewards. So, in what sense is Paul using the word “disqualified?” I think he knows that he will forfeit at least some of his “imperishable” (v. 25) rewards if his godly character is marred and he is no longer able to fulfill his calling.

2. James and Paul give us another classic example. It’s easy to get tripped up when we hear Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is “not a result of works,” then turn over to James 2:24 and read, “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Is Paul speaking out against James’ teaching? Are they unintentionally contradicting one another? Or, is something else going on?

In what sense are they using their language?

When you read the context of Ephesians 2 and James 2, you see that each author has a specific purpose in mind. Paul is expounding God’s gracious acts in saving human beings, while James is addressing those who claim to have faith but have not been changed by it.

In other words, each author shows us a crucial facet of saving faith. Paul wants us to know that, if we’ve been saved, God did it. We didn’t work our way into it. But then James jumps in and adds, “And that gracious act of God saving you will change you! You’ll give generously to those in need because you’re now a different person!”

3. The word “salvation” itself carries a variety of meanings in the NT. It does not always mean eternal salvation from sin and death. Sometimes it simply refers to physical healing (e.g. Mark 5:28). Context will reveal the sense intended.

4. In Luke 9:59, a man wants to bury his father before becoming a disciple of Jesus, and the Master replies, “‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Conversely, Paul tells us in 1 Tim. 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” We’ve all heard explanations that harmonize these passages, but again I want to ask, “In what sense is Jesus telling one man to leave his father; and in what sense is Paul telling believers to care for their families?”

Jesus demands total allegiance from a half-hearted would-be follower, while Paul reminds those who are already believers to not shirk their responsibility to family. (Actually, Jesus says the same thing in Mark 7:11-13.) The Bible proclaims what each heart needs to hear.

Asking “In what sense does the author say _________________?” does not mean we can interpret a text to mean whatever we want it to mean. There are definite limits to the semantic and contextual ranges of words and phrases. When we ask “In what sense?” we need to acknowledge that context is king. A little work to understand the context of a passage can save us a whole lot confusion and frustration.

The Moment of Total Victory

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
– 1 Jo 3:2-3 ESV

In church yesterday morning, the Holy Spirit’s work among us was obvious as we sang these words from the hymn “It Is Well”:

And Lord haste the day 
When my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound
And the Lord shall descend
Even so it is well with my soul.

As I sang, my mind joyfully turned to this phrase from 1 John 3: “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” In fact, I can’t get that phrase out of my mind this summer. It’s about the moment when “My faith shall be sight.” The moment of glorification. The moment when believers will finally and completely cease all rebellion against God’s best for us (sin), and the moment when all of the brokenness which results from our sin will also cease. It is the moment of total victory.

It is as if that moment will be a flash of refining fire from which no one will be able to hide. Those who, by God’s grace through faith, have come to despise their sin and its effects will receive what they’ve been longing for: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). But those who reject the knowledge of God and His offer of eternal life will, sadly, also be given what they desire – separation from Him.

Our youth group went to camp a few weeks ago, and during one of the services, we were singing songs of worship. At that same moment, though, I couldn’t get my mind off of my own sinfulness. It felt like a dark cloud hovering over my soul. I was tempted to feel defeated, but then we began to sing Hillsong’s “O Praise the Name”:

I cast my mind to Calvary
Where Jesus bled and died for me
I see His wounds, His hands, His feet
My Savior on that cursed tree

Then on the third at break of dawn
The Son of Heaven rose again
O trampled death, where is your sting?
The angels roar for Christ the King

And I can hardly type the words of the final verse without hope, victory, and joy welling up in my heart:

He shall return in robes of white
The blazing sun shall pierce the night
And I will rise among the saints
My gaze transfixed on Jesus’ face

My gaze transfixed on Jesus face. Oh how my soul aches for that moment. I imagine it even now; and it’s amazing how, even in reflecting on that future total victory, I receive a power over sin that no amount of outward religious practice or self-righteous deeds could ever hope to provide. In fact, I think that this is at least part of what the Apostle Paul means when He says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” (Col. 3:3) and “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom. 12:2).

We can have victory over sin now as we set our minds on our final, total victory. 

And what should be the result of this aching to see Jesus face-to-face? What should come from our longing for that future day of glorification? John says, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 

Purifying ourselves today will undoubtedly be more difficult than simply thinking about the gospel; yet it is certain that if we do not first find joy in reflecting on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return, defeat is all the more likely. Again, overcoming sin today is going to take a lot of (formative and corrective) discipline and self-denial (see Heb. 12), but we dare not attempt it without first “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Finally, don’t forget that “We are God’s children NOW.” And we have not received “the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…but the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Rom. 8:15). Romans 8 tells us that the aching in our heart for the moment of Christ’s appearing has been put there by the Holy Spirit, and it is the direct result of having been adopted as a son and daughters of God. Incredible!

So in your struggle against sin today…
look to the past – to the glorious gospel which has set you free,
look to the present – to the reality that you are a child of God, and
look to the future – to the total victory that awaits you when you see Him, for

“When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Praise His name!

Why Faith?

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” -Romans 3:21-22a, ESV

It may sound strange, but one question about Christianity I have thought a lot about is:”Why faith?” Why is it that God chose faith as the means by which men and women are made right with Him? Why not some other means?

Well, let’s first consider our other options. I can think of two:

Option #1: Works, effort, religious observance, etc. This option would mean that we somehow make ourselves right with God by making up for our own sin and inadequacy. This is the path that most religions of the world take and is, I would argue, the default of the heart of man. We want to “redeem ourselves.” But what is the actual result of this attempt to be right with God? If one comes to think that he has been successful in his efforts, boasting is the result. This is why the Apostle Paul explains that the gospel of grace removes any ability to boast (Rom. 3:27; Eph. 2:9).

However if one has a more realistic view of himself, he quickly begins to realize that he can never “balance out” his good with his bad. What rubric would determine the moral weight of his thoughts, words, and actions anyway? How could he even begin to keep score? Attempting to do this would be maddening.

Option #2: Sin is no big deal. I suppose another option might be for God to treat our sin as if it is no big deal. This seems to be the default of the secular, agnostic modern man. The problem with this is also immediately obvious. For God to treat our sin as if it is no big deal would be to undermine His perfect goodness, justice, and holiness. When God chooses to give mercy and grace to human beings, this is not the same thing as treating our sin as if it is no big deal. Quite the opposite. God has provided a way to lavish mercy and grace upon us, but only at great cost to Himself – the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. In this way, He remains just and is able to simultaneously be our Justifier (Rom. 3:26). In the gospel, God does not set aside His goodness, justice, or holiness; He upholds them and at the same time makes a way for us to be right with Him.

But even if one were to reject the idea that God must maintain His goodness, justice, and holiness, the “no big deal” argument still can’t hold water. In order for the world to be a good and just place (which even the most anti-religious want!), all evil and injustice must be removed. The Bible tells us that this is precisely what God is up to in His plan of redemption, but if He were to treat sin as if it is no big deal, then He could never accomplish this mission. He would go on allowing this and that “minor” sin to continue, and thus never bring complete goodness or justice to the world.

Hopefully I’ve given you some good reasons to reject the other supposed options that are offered in our quest to be right with God. But we can’t stop there. It is also important for us to realize why faith is in fact the best means God could have chosen to make us right with Himself. This becomes clear when we realize what biblical faith actually is.

You see, in today’s culture, the words “faith” and “belief” have taken on a particularly religious flavor. For most people, these words have come to mean the acknowledgement or affirmation of a set of doctrines. And while biblical faith is not less than affirming true things about God and His world, it is way more!

Biblical faith is more akin to our English words for “trust” and “confidence.” The Bible knows nothing of a true faith which acknowledges doctrine without living in line with that doctrine – without loving God and loving people in response to that doctrine (Jas. 2:14-26). This points us to the superiority of faith over works and the “no big deal” mentality.

Think about it. The ideas or persons or things in which we place our trust guide every aspect of our lives. If you trust your parents or teachers, you listen to what they say. If you trust an airplane, you take your seat on the flight. If you trust a restaurant or grocery store, you eat their food. If you trust others, you develop deep relationships with them; but if you trust only yourself, you live a guarded and self-centered existence.

Trust is the linchpin of the will. It permeates every thought and precedes every word we say and action we perform. Every belief held, every decision made, every word spoken, and ever action taken is first filtered through our personal faith in someone or something. This is not simply an abstract religious concept. This is a what is means to be human. This is what it means to have a will and to live genuinely human lives: we evaluate who/what we trust, and we move forward in light of our belief. Because it is such a fundamental part of who we are, most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

And so, it is incredible to think about how God in His wisdom chose the kind of gospel He chose in order to create the kind of outcome that was needed. We needed our wills changed that we might trust Him; so He sent His Son to display His mercy and grace, which lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). At its core, to sin is to not trust God (see Gen. 3:1ff). So at its core, repentance must be about placing our trust back in God. And the gospel is the glorious reason why we should trust Him.

How can we move from questioning God’s goodness to being like God in His goodness? The gospel (Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection on our behalf) is meant to so radically reorient our will that we truly, finally realize life’s most important truth: we can trust Him.  

From Creation to the Heart and Back

As I was studying and then teaching through the five Old Testament covenants last week, some interesting thoughts came to mind. They got me excited, so I thought I’d share them.

Have you ever noticed the scope of each covenant and how there is movement from a focus on the whole of creation to the individual hearts of men and women?

  • The Covenant with Noah is for “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen. 9:16).
  • The Covenant with Abraham is ultimately for “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).
  • The Sinai Covenant is for the nation of Israel (Ex. 19:5-6).
  • The Covenant with David is for David’s household (2 Sam. 7; 1 Chron. 17).
  • The New Covenant is, in my estimation, for the heart. Yes, of course, it is, as the text of Jeremiah 31 itself states, for Israel; but when Jesus came, He made it clear that that scope of the New Covenant was both more focused (on the heart) and, at the same time, more broad (all the nations) than Israel.

Here’s what I mean.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God commands Israel to “circumcise [their own] heart” (Deut. 10:16); but it quickly becomes clear that this is simply not going to happen. Deuteronomy 29:4 explains the reason: “the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” But a better promise is made: The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). This is the New Covenant right here at the end of the Old Covenant Torah!

Next, we run into Jeremiah 31, which tells us that in the New Covenant we’ll have God’s laws written upon our hearts after being forgiven of our sin.

Finally we come upon Ezekiel 36, which says that God will vindicate His great name in all the earth by bringing Israel out of exile, cleansing her of her sin and idolatry, giving her a new heart, and putting His Spirit within her. Christians believe that this is exactly what happens at the moment of salvation – not just for believing Jews but for all people, because the true exile we need to brought back from is our separation from God’s presence due to sin (see Gen. 3:23-24).

So, do you see the progression? All living creatures to all the families of the earth to Israel to David’s line to the heart.

This is where it gets fun!

Now notice the means by which the New Testament picks up these promises of God and speaks of their fulfillment. (Hint: To some degree it is in reverse order!)

The ministry of Jesus focuses on the heart. It needs to be said that Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not their good works! His problem was that their good works, which were based on the traditions of men, had begun to supersede the Greatest Commandments – love God and love people! Obedience is a heart issue.

Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant with his body and blood (Luke 22:19-20).
Jesus fulfilled the Davidic Covenant by becoming the Eternal King who sits at the right hand of the Father on the throne of heaven (Eph. 1:20-22).
Yet most of Jesus’ ministry was for the Jews (Matt. 15:24).

So what happens next? The fulfillment of God’s promises breaks out to the nations on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2).

And what is the scope of the final fulfillment of God’s covenants?
Revelation 21-22 tell us that it is creation-wide, and Romans 8 explains that even now the creation is groaning as it waits for its full redemption (vv. 19-22).

God starts with promises that are creation-wide (Noah). He drills all the way down to the heart-level. And… this is important… He fulfills all of His promises through Jesus, by the power of the indwelling Spirit, starting at the heart-level and moving out to the whole of creation.

Praise His name!