Below you will find short interactions with classic theological literature to help introduce you to some of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. There will also be irregular posts formed out of sermons, Bible studies, or coffee after 5:00pm.
In our house, we keep a bottle of Tylenol PM on hand at all times. Or as we like to call it, anesthesia. Headaches, muscle aches, you name it—take the recommended dosage, and I’ll see you in the morning.
Any bodily ailment may be in better shape after a night of restful slumber, but the next morning is different. If I take it too late in the evening, my brain is in a fog the following morning. My memory is shot. I repeat myself. Reactions are slower. I repeat myself.
That’s a result of taking a pain medication. But there are other traits of the human mind that need addressing, as well.
Noetic Effect: noun. The residual effect of sin on the human mind and its ability to understand and know God.
The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that every part of the human—mind, body, and soul—is affected by sin. We are not as evil as we could be, but no part of us goes untouched by the effects of sin. In God’s mercy, he limits the amount of evil on the earth.
But the mind? How has the mind been affected by sin? Are we stupid and just don’t know it? Or are the noetic effects something else entirely?
In Romans 1:28, Paul said, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (ESV).
“Debased” is the Greek word ἀδόκιμος, or adokimos. It generally means that something is unfit and should therefore be rejected or tossed away.
The mind of man has been so affected by sin that it needs to be completely renewed. Paul’s main argument in Romans 1 is that man has actively rejected God, and that has real consequences, both physically and mentally. Physically, we die. Mentally, our minds are dark.
Later in Romans 12:2, Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Paul tells us here explicitly what he hinted at in chapter 1. The mind must be transformed. The unregenerate mind cannot know the will of God. But in seeking to have our minds completely renewed in Christ, we can finally discern the will of God.
Paul establishes that our minds are dark and debased and must be transformed. He describes our minds in different terms elsewhere to help see the real effect of sin.
In Colossians 1:21-23 he said, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (ESV).
There are two descriptions of the fallen, unregenerate mind here: ἀπαλλοτριόω (alienated) and ἐχθρός (hostile). “Alienated” means to be estranged and not allowed into fellowship. “Hostile” is also translated as “enemy” and even used to describe Satan elsewhere.
And we make so little of sin! Because of wickedness and sin, both our own and other’s, we are estranged from God. We are his enemy.
Apart from being reconciled to God the Father through God the Son, God has cast us out of his presence. But because we are reconciled to God the Father through God the Son, we will be presented holy, blameless, and above reproach (no one will be able to bring a charge against us).
Where does this kind of mind come from? Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:18. “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (ESV).
Here we start to get a glimpse of the effect of sin on the mind. We’ve been told what our minds are—debased, alienated, and hostile. Now, Paul tells us that our understanding itself is darkened. But the effect is the same: we are “alienated from the life of God.”
“Darkened” is σκοτίζω (skotizo). It simply means to be covered over so that what is within is darkened. The metaphor is that our understanding is covered in darkness itself so that it is complete. Why? Because of ignorance and a hard heart toward God.
The remedy for a hard heart toward God is a heart of flesh from God. Only he can do that kind of work. A mind that is debased, alienated, hostile, and darkened doesn’t seek after God. No one does; no not one. Telling someone to love God who naturally can’t is just good advice (and like most good advice goes to waste). But telling someone that God has sought him despite his darkened mind? That’s good news.
The disciples asked Jesus how a man might be saved if it’s easier for a camel to travel through the eye of a sewing needle. Jesus’s response has comforted many who see their darkened minds still struggling to think rightly of God: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, ESV).
So the human mind is capable is figuring out how to send satellites to Pluto and nanobots into the human body. The mind can formulate poetry like Shakespeare that revolutionizes a whole language. But the mind cannot seek after a God it hates.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25).
In theology, many things are black and white. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the foremost. That simple, black and white phrase can be parsed out and studied for an eternity. To reject this simple statement is to reject the core of Christianity and turn it into to something else.
There are other doctrines which also need to be held dearly in order to conform to biblical Christianity and retain the truth of the gospel. Think of doctrines such as the Trinity (who is God?) and justification by grace through faith (how does God save us?).
Some doctrines, while still central to a clear understanding of the Christian faith, have divided Christians. And of course, both sides think they hold the truth. We’ll look at one of these doctrines today.
Creationism. noun. God created the entire cosmos through his spoken word and without the use of evolution as developed by Darwin and those following his work.
Perhaps nowhere else than in the doctrine of creation do we see how important another doctrine is: the authority of Scripture. Scripture may not address how often you need to change your air filters, but on issues where Scripture does speak, God has given the truth by which all other claims must be measured.
Christians devoted to the authority of Scripture can agree on the basic tenets of creationism. All of the created order is by God’s command, not chance. God existed in eternity past as Father, Son, and Spirit and did not need a creation in order to be fulfilled.
Beyond those basic truths, we must agree that what Scripture says about the days of creation are true, whatever they say. Even in poetic sections of Scripture, such as the wisdom literature and parts of the prophets, we do not need to do mental gymnastics to find out their meanings. Yes, we must apply sound interpretive principles, but we apply them because God’s word is meant to be understood.
Within creationism, there are many categories, but some of the more divisive ones are old-earth creationists and young-earth creationists.
Old-earth creationists argue that Scripture can be interpreted with integrity while maintaining recent scientific claims concerning the age of the earth. Young-earth creationists read the days of creation and the genealogies of the early chapters of Genesis and determine that all of creation was created at a high level of maturity.
Are both claims tenable? Or is it either/or?
To show my hand, I generally fall into the young-earth crowd. One of the main reasons I believe this is because Adam, one can infer from Scripture, was formed out of the dust at a high level of maturity, or as an adult. While there is no chapter-and-verse that says this explicitly, Genesis 2:15 does say that God created a man and told him to work in the garden. That command would be difficult to rationalize if given to someone without the intellectual capacity and physical ability to work the land.
Also, if you take the garden of Eden as a proto-temple, as I do, and Adam being a proto-priest, as I do, then it becomes more plausible that God made Adam as an intellectually and physically mature adult male, able to understand and obey religious commands. Ezekiel 28 uses the imagery of someone as a priest in the garden of Eden as a "taunt" against the king of Tyre. That imagery only makes sense if Adam was a priest before God in a temple-like environment in Eden.
God also made Eve for Adam so that he would not be alone and that the world would be populated with more worshipers of God. Without bringing in a set of diagrams from WikiPedia, procreation requires a certain level of physical maturity.
There is one old-earth creationist position that I believe could be justified, but it really share much in common with other old-earth positions. This position says that Genesis 1:1 is the actual creation act of God. We know this because in Genesis 1:2, the earth is already there and is described as formless and void of all life. From that point on, the days of creation are literal. Genesis 1:3 therefore picks up on day 1 of creation week. In effect, the world could be far older than the 6,000-10,000 years held by most young-earth creationists, but other biblical truth, such as the absence of death before sin, can still be tenable.
But even this is somewhat an argument from silence. There is no mention of any gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 unless you take 1:2 as describing that gap of time. I will concede that that is a possible reading of the text. There have been a goodly number of theologians in church history who have argued something like this, even before modern debates about the age of the earth.
Other old-earth arguments, such has the gap-theory (aeons passed between the individual days) or day-age theory (the word for “day” is to be taken as metaphorical term for a long period of time), seem to be more willing to concede Scriptural ground. I have read some of the literature arguing for linguistic evidence (what words mean in context) that the words in Genesis 1 and 2 are more fluid and not intended, even to the original audience, to be taken as conveying factual history. I think you start to place a disconnect between the way Jesus and Paul interpreted the creation passages if you start to expand the range of meaning of individual words too far.
There is no sin in trying to reconcile Scriptural knowledge with knowledge gained from the study of nature. Galileo was charged with heresy for contradicting the miracle of the sun standing still in Joshua 10 by saying that the earth was not the center of the universe. Was it a true contradiction, or were Scripture and nature looking at the same event from different perspectives? What role did a miracle play in Joshua 10? Why does no contemporary person reject the geokinetic theory (the earth is in motion, not static) when the church declared it to be a “suspected heresy” in 1633?
It’s interesting to note that what Galileo was charged with was rejection of the authority of Scripture.
But the evidence must be there, and the evidence must not contradict the truths found on the pages of Scripture.
If you join any of the armed forces and head off to their respective form of basic training, you’ll find yourself in an environment that is new to you, no matter your background. It’s meant to be a shock to your system. It’s meant to be nothing like what you’ve experienced before. People from all over the country come together to spend ten weeks confused, tired, and sore.
You spend the first few weeks regretting the series of decisions that led you to this moment. But before long, you realize that your drill sergeants aren’t actually robots sent from the future to destroy you. There is actually a plan in place, determined long before you arrived. Every condition and every environment is designed to elicit a particular response from you. This brings us to today’s word.
Determinism. noun. At any given moment, conditions are such that no other outcome is possible.
You may be thinking, what does this have to do with theology? Well, this brings us to the topic of free will.
John Calvin thought that “free will” was far too grand or distinctive a name for the idea it represents. With all the free will in the world, people use it to do reprehensible things that destroy lives. Do the few good things we do with our lives undo all the evil done by everyone else? Such is the conundrum of free will. You see why Calvin found “free will” too lofty of a term.
Daniel 4:35 reads, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”
We’re told that God acts according to his will. The angelic beings of heaven and the creatures of earth are all bound to act by his will, not their own. His will is unchangeable so that not one of us can alter it or do anything else. What this is saying that no one can thwart God's plan. But doesn’t it seem as though you and I make choices every single day?
Theologians have identified three ways that Scripture speaks of God’s will. God’s will can take the form of decretive will, preceptive will, and a will of disposition.
God’s decretive will is what we see in creation. God said, “Let there be light.” Did light respond, “Give me five more minutes”? Absolutely not. Light was not invited or given a choice. Light did what the creator of light told it to do. God told the sun to stand still while Joshua and his men fought their enemies. God’s decretive will is an unbreakable command, whether it is given to sentient creatures or inanimate objects.
God’s preceptive will is what we see in the ten commandments. God tells us not to make idols, but if we so choose, we can break God’s precept (or rule or commandment). These are primarily moral decisions. We see the patriarchs and Israel breaking God’s preceptive will throughout the Old Testament. We see Christians and churches breaking God’s perceptive will in the New Testament.
God’s will of disposition is an unbinding desire. We see God’s will of disposition in 2 Peter 3:9 when Peter wrote that God does not desire or will that any should perish. In fact, the dictionary definition of that Greek word for “will” (boulomai) includes desire and affection. It’s not a command but a disposition. Not every theologian agrees that God has a will of disposition (and sometimes lump it with God’s decretive will), but this kind of usage does have a lot of explanatory power for passages like these.
God’s decretive will, the first kind listed above, is deterministic. God so wills and then so orders things so as to ensure that what he says will happen does happen. Does that then mean that there are some things that God does not decree or know will happen?
Not so fast, heretic.
When we think of God, we must not think of him as simply the greatest created thing. He is wholly uncreated and is completely outside of creation. The word for this is transcendent. God, as pure being, transcends created being. If you haven’t popped some Ibuprofen yet, now’s a good time.
If you drew a circle and wrote the name of every created thing inside of that circle, you could not write God in that circle. God would be totally outside of that circle. God is self-existent and independent of everything.
If I were to build a car, I don’t become part of that car. When God made the world, he did not become a part of that world.
God has so created us that he has worked a measure of free choice into us. He is still quite responsible for creation, but as the only being outside of creation, he has worked moral responsibility into human nature. Is the Ibuprofen kicking in?
Here’s the end of the matter: God is sovereign and has determined the very steps that a man takes. And yet he has worked into that sovereign determinism our responsibility for the choices we make.
What should we take away from this? God has determined all things that come to pass, but he has not removed human responsibility from that determined outcome. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
There is simply a divine relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility that we must not tear asunder. We must be aware of falling into one of two traps:
1) God has so determined things that it does not matter what I do.
2) God’s purposes are determined by what I do.
Neither is helpful, and more importantly, neither is true.
We’re coming up on the 504th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. While there were many efforts to make considerable changes to the proliferation of rank heresy in the church before Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and John Calvin, October 31, 1517 marks the point of no return. When Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, it set in writing the reality that an impasse had been reached.
Like many names, “Protestant” started as a derogatory term. These people were protesting something, so what was it? And are we still protesting today? These wringers bring us to today’s word.
Protestantism. noun. A church movement beginning in the 16th century that set out to correct the doctrinal and practical errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
While there were many concerns of these rough-housing protesters, two were essential to the Reformation.
First, people are justified before a holy God by faith alone. There is nothing of merit in ourselves that is worthy of saving. To be forgiven our sins, God must act and God must act alone. Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-10). God grants us faith (or belief) apart from works (Philippians 1:29).
Within Roman Catholicism, to this day, the church officially teaches that baptism as an infant removes the effects of original sin. The only sins for which you are accountable are those you commit from that point forward. When a person exercises faith, God grants you a measure of grace to obey him. You are free to obey him or not, and your standing before him waxes and wanes depending on your level of obedience. Venial sins harm your soul, and mortal sins can in effect undo your justification. Catholics do not believe that God can justify sinners and he himself still be just.
If faith itself is a gift, then what must we do to be saved? We must confess Christ is Lord in faith! Before God grants us saving faith, we act according to our sinful nature. A fish does not have a choice to breath water. A sinner does not have a choice but to live sinfully.
Once we are regenerated, or born again, only then are we able and free to believe in Christ. We are justified by faith alone through grace alone. There is no room for boasting in Reformed theology. And because sinners are justified by faith in the finished work of Christ, we can be truly be justified, and God can still be just. His wrath has been satisfied by another.
Some have argued that God elects those who he foreknows will believe, so he looks down through time and elects those who will summon faith. That's twisted logic. And eventually, everyone who argues that faith is not a gift but something that man must have winds up believing justification by faith alone through sheer logic.
Was there something about the person who believed that deserved saving? Was he smarter than those who didn’t believe? Was he more virtuous? Was it sheer chance? Was he simply more aware of his fallen condition? The most ardent defender of Arminian theology will answer “no” to all of these statements. In principle, people may be Arminian, but in practice, they are Reformed.
Second, the Bible is the final authority for the life and practice of all Christians in every period of time across all cultures. Rome upholds Scripture as authoritative in tandem with tradition. They claim the tradition to be apostolic, but the Pope can also add to this tradition through declarations. For instance, the immaculate conception of Mary was not dogmatic (official church teaching) until 1854. Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven wasn’t official until 1950.
Good grief, dispensationalism is older than Mary’s assumption.
Protestants do not believe in nuda scriptura, or “nothing but Scripture.” Sola Scriptura is a technical term meaning that Scripture alone is the final arbiter of God’s revealed truth. Tradition has a place in the church, but it is secondary. Reason has a place in the church, but it secondary.
Any novel doctrine must be compatible with the clear teaching of Scripture and should be necessarily suspect. Roman Catholics will tell you that doctrines such as purgatory and the immaculate conception were just old doctrines with recent formulations. There is a glimmer of truth in that, but these doctrines were not widely accepted. That’s also a terrible test of truth. Reformers refuted these ideas 300-400 years before their dogmatic formulations.
The Reformation spawned a series of reforms within the Catholic Church itself. From 1545-1563, Catholics held the Council of Trent. It began as a response to the critiques of the Reformers. But it was at this council that the bishops restated their opposition to justification by faith alone, reinforcing Catholic belief that grace cooperates with works for salvation.
Trent also reinforced the authority of tradition as equal to the authority of Scripture. Catholics were equally bound to what the Pope said as to what God said.
Trent confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation of the eucharist, or the “real presence” of the body and blood of Christ in the mass. Instead of a memorial meal, despite physical appearances, bread becomes flesh and wine becomes blood. The mass is a true re-sacrifice of Christ every time is is performed.
1,000 words is a hysterical attempt at summarizing the Protestant faith and the primary components of the Reformation. But all this is to say that we can take the clarity of our beliefs for granted if we forget that real people fought real battles, some even being burned alive or drawn and quartered, for the truth of the word of God.
The Reformation was not so neat and tidy as we often explain it. There were fits and starts. There were a variety of responses to the Catholic doctrines and practices. Sometimes people even got a little savage. One Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, helped establish laws to drown adults who wanted to be re-baptized because they no longer held to infant baptism.
Luther did not discover justification by faith alone for the first time. Augustine, in the 300s, did not discover it, either. It’s not too much to say that Abraham, whose faith was counted as righteousness, did not discover it, either.
Truth is not discovered. Truth is revealed.
Many parts of life are like a kaleidoscope. You hold the tube up to your eye, give the end a twist, and the same pieces take a new shape. You can do this several times before you see the same configuration of shapes again.
It’s not exactly like that, but the theology of the atonement has many different shapes to it. That shouldn’t surprise us with something so awesome and majestic. The atonement is what took place at the crucifixion of Christ. There are a few different “theories” of exactly what took place at the atoning moment. The two dominant theories of the atonement are substitutionary penal atonement and Christus Victor. We’ll look at one this week and the other next week.
At the heart of substitutionary penal atonement is that Christ stood in our place, hence, substitution. To give a little bit more direction to the idea, there is another word that hones in on the central theme of substitution, or what actually makes the atonement “substitutionary.”
Vicarious. adj. Done on behalf of another or in the place of another.
In the atonement, Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God against rebellious sinners. We weren’t just saved from our sin, but we were saved from the necessary fate of all those in active rebellion against the Creator: eternal separation from the mercy and grace of God.
In Romans 5, Paul goes to great lengths to identify the vicarious nature of Christ’s sacrifice. He says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (vv.6-8).
Notice: Christ died for the ungodly, and again, Christ died for us. The Greek word used is hyper, which quite literally means “on behalf of” or “for the sake of”. Christ died on the cross on our behalf and for our sake. He bled and died to satisfy divine justice on evildoers. And because of his perfectly obedient life, he was in fact able to die for us.
In 1 Peter 3:18 we read, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” The righteous died for (or hyper) the unrighteous. It was through dying and being resurrected that his righteousness became ours.
Later, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The vicarious nature of the atonement was such that by dying on our behalf, our sin became his and his righteousness became ours.
The Old Testament sacrificial system did not take away sins. It simply reminded the people of their sin and God’s holiness, as well as look forward to the day that God would once and for all deal with sin decisively.
The author of Hebrews tells us, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4).
If the sacrifices in the tabernacle and the temple were effective, they would only have had to have been offered one time. The blood of animals, however, are not sufficient for the task. There would have to be another.
Later in v.10, Hebrews tells us, “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Finally, there was an offering or a sacrifice that could do what the blood of bulls and goats could not. There was perfect blood that could satisfy a just God’s wrath against evil and offer pardon for guilty sinners. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (v.14).
Through the vicarious nature of the atonement, Christ is the final offering for sin. There is nothing more to be done. The vicarious work of Christ is how we understand, among other kaleidoscopic realities, the redemption of our souls.
While that may be central and primary is seeing why Christ had to die, Scripture itself speaks of other effects of the atonement. To Christus Victor we turn our attention next week.