How to Study the Bible (Part 1)

big-beautiful-stack-of-books-231x300How should Christians study the Bible in a responsible way? Christians love God’s Word. It’s His special revelation to us. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith states the Bible is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction.”[1] Another Baptist confession states,

[T]he rule of this knowledge, faith and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God and all other Christian duties, is not the opinions, devices, laws or constitutions of men, but the written word of the everlasting God, contained in the canonical books of the Old and New Testament.[2]

The Bible is important to Christians. We want to know what it teaches, and we want to study it. The problem is that many Christian don’t study the Bible very responsibly. Consider these basic questions, each of which are common flesh-points among conservative Christians:

  1. What natural, innate capacity do men, women, boys and girls have to positively respond to the Gospel? Can you say that, because Jesus commanded people to repent and believe the Gospel (Mk 1:14-15), everybody has the natural capacity to do this?
  2. Why are some men saved, and others not? That is, what is the doctrine of election? The Apostle Peter wrote that all the foreigners scattered around Asia Minor were “elect,” (1 Pet 1:1), so can we conclude “election” is a group or corporate concept?
  3. When God sent His unique Son into the world, did He do so with the deliberate intent of saving only the elect, or all men? Can you really solve this problem by quoting Hebrews 2:9, and calling it a day? Is this a responsible way to handle the text?
  4. Does the Holy Spirit call and draw only certain people to salvation? Or, does the Spirit call everybody to a moral neutral point, so everybody can make their own independent decision to repent and believe the Gospel – and thus be held individually accountable? Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” (Jn 12:32). Does this teach the second option? Have we solved this dilemma?
  5. Can Christians lose their salvation? Peter wrote that certain false teachers actually knew “the way of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:21), but then turned back to their idolatry. Does this settle the matter?

In each of these examples, I took a single text (or a portion of one) completely out of context and used it in a way the author never intended. This is an example of how not to study the Bible. So, how do we study the Bible in a responsible way?

Here is a list I adapted from Millard Erickson, a systematic theology professor.[3] A normal person might not have the time or courage to do everything on this list, but it is an excellent road-map to correct Biblical interpretation:

  1. Pick a Topic for Study
  2. Collect Data
  3. Harmonize the Data (i.e. What Does All the Data Say!?)
  4. What Does the Data Actually Mean?
  5. What Have Christians from the Past Thought About This Topic?
  6. What Do Christians from Different Traditions Say About This Topic?
  7. How Does This Doctrine Apply Today?
  8. Where Does This Doctrine Rank in Importance?

This list probably sounds ridiculous. You have a life. You don’t have time for this. I understand. You don’t have to sit down with this list and your Bible tomorrow morning. But, you should at least know this is the responsible way to interpret the Scriptures.

  • This process could take as little or as long as you wish, but it should be followed.
  • The more time and energy you invest in diligent study, the more informed you’ll be.
  • There are good, simple (and cheap!) tools which can help you along.
  • This isn’t as hard as it might seem.

Throughout this series, I’ll briefly explain each step of the process, and give examples of how it can be done. I’ll recommend good, simple and reliable tools which can help you along the way. Hopefully, it’ll help you in a practical way.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

  • Real Bible study isn’t quick, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t flashy. But, there is nothing better than the settled assurance and conviction you get after studying a particular topic, and actually knowing what you believe and why you believe it.

Notes

[1] 1833 NHCF, Article 1.

[2] “A True Confession” (1596), in William L. Lumpkins, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 84, Article 7. This confession is one of the earliest English-Separatist documents, and it is thoroughly Reformed (to put it mildly!).

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 62-84. I’ve changed some of his titles, and added a few items to the list.

On the Fall of Man

books2Read the series on the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith so far.

How do Christians learn doctrine? Hopefully, they learn it in church. But, how should a church teach doctrine? Should you pass around copies of systematic theology texts, announce a new and “exciting” Sunday School series, and dig out some extra chairs for the sell-out crowd that is sure to come?

Well, that is one way to do it. Another way is to teach basic doctrine by using the creeds and confessions. Or, better yet – use your local church’s statement of faith.

  • They’re short and manageable
  • They’re comprehensive
  • They’ve stood the test of time
  • They’re not as intimidating as Louis Berkhof

Towards that end, this little series is a brief exposition of each article of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. Like many confessions, it packs a whole lot into a short paragraph. Today, I’m covering Article 3 – Of the Fall of Man:

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker;[1] but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state;[2] in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners,[3] not by constraint, but choice;[4] being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin,[5] without defense or excuse.[6]

What It Means . . .

Here are my thoughts:

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker;

God created man in His image. Theologians have spent a lot of time puzzling over what on earth this means. The confession sums it up nicely – Adam and Eve were created in holiness. They were perfect. They were “very good,” (Gen 1:31). In short, God made Adam and Eve more than a bit like Himself.[7] They were “created in holiness,” in the sense that His “marks of resemblance” were impressed upon them at creation.[8]

Adam and Eve were created “upright,” (Ecc 7:29). They had every advantage, every incentive and every reason to love their Creator. They were not morally “neutral.” They were positively holy, and were under the loving and just law of God, their Maker.

This sounds like pious “churchy talk,” but it simply means that Adam and Eve were happy living in God’s creation, under His rules. Obedient children love their parents, and don’t look at the “rules of the house” as some sinister burden to be borne until “freedom” comes. The law was God’s, therefore the law was good, and so Adam and Eve were made in a state of holiness to live and thrive under that law.

But, that holiness was untested. What would Adam and Eve do when temptation struck?

but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state;

They decided to rebel. There is no nice way to put this. They broke God’s law. They broke the rules of the house. They did it on purpose. They wanted to do it. They planned to do it. They did it. They were guilty. To be blunt, Adam and Eve became criminals. By way of their “voluntary” sin, they “fell from that holy and happy state.”

Again, this original arrangement which God declared “very good” (and He would know, wouldn’t He!?) was not a state of malicious slavery. They were happy. Life was perfect. They knew precisely what they could do, and exactly what they could not do. But, they chose rebellion. They chose treason. They chose death.

in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice

Adam and Eve’s sin broke the mold. This first couple, the prototype, ruined themselves and thus brought ruin and damnation on the entire creation. Here is an office analogy – they are the original document defaced with pen, and all copies (i.e. descendants) bear their marks. Adam and Eve became sinners, and they passed this status along to all their descendants – all the way to you and I today. They are the poisonous root which produced poisonous people. Everybody is now born as a child of wrath (Eph 2:3), actively hating God and rebelling against His law, His Son, and the Good News He suffered and bled and died to bring.

People are not forced to be sinners. They were made sinners by Adam and Eve, who broke that perfect mold so long ago, and each man, women, boy and girl voluntarily and enthusiastically acts on and proves this status as soon as they’re able.[9]

being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God

Because of what Adam and Eve did, they poisoned themselves with the infection and festering sore of sin. Their status changed from “holiness” to “sinfulness.” That poison was passed on, generation to generation. The result is that we are not holy anymore. Adam and Eve ruined us, and we each do our very best to continue that ruin by the way we live, what we think, what we do, and what we wish we could do.

God is holy, and we cannot ever be holy in our own power. That was all over long ago. There is no bridge which can be built, no ladder which can be ordered and no escape pod which can safely transport us off this doomed ship. You are not good enough for God. There is nothing you can ever do to be good enough. You are doomed. You are a criminal, and you are “void of that holiness required by the law of God.”

positively inclined to evil

You want to do evil. You want to be a criminal. You want to cut the cords which bind you to the Father and Son’s authority, jurisdiction and power. You do not want God. You do not want Jesus. You do not want salvation. You do not want anything but more rebellion.

This means nobody “cries out to God” unless the Holy Spirit is already calling that person to salvation. People don’t like the Gospel. People don’t want the Gospel. People don’t want Jesus and His Good News. It is a fundamentally counter-cultural message.

This world is under the power and influence of Satan, and the Gospel brings light into that darkness. Cockroaches don’t like darkness – they flee from it. We are born sinners, criminals, traitors, “sovereign citizens” in rebellion against the King. We are cockroaches who flee from the Gospel. God, in His grace, changes some of our minds and draws us to the light, saving us despite ourselves.

and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin

We deserve to be punished. This escapes most people, even many Christians. God owes you nothing. He doesn’t owe you mercy, love, grace or kindness. He owes you nothing at all. He should crush you, like man crushes a spider. You deserve to be crushed. You deserve to be punished. You have broken God’s laws, and we all know criminals deserve an appropriate punishment. Because we’re all born as sinners:

  • not by constraint but by choice,
  • utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God
  • positively inclined to evil

we deserve to suffer the just and appropriate punishment for our crimes. You choose to reject God every day. You are not good enough for God. You want to do evil, and you act on those desires every day. You deserve the worst punishment possible.

without defense or excuse

You have no excuse. God exists. He has made Himself known by His creation, and by His own moral law which is written on your heart. You are still made in His image, and reflect His own character and qualities. He has given us a sacred Book, in which are hidden all the treasures of heavenly wisdom.

  • It tells you about yourself.
  • It tells you about God’s holiness, and about his love.
  • It tells about His mercy.
  • It tells about Jesus; the perfect substitutionary life he led, and the penal substitutionary death He died.
  • It tells about His resurrection and triumph over the power of Satan, and the curses of sin and death.
  • It tells you that Jesus was seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses, and ascended back to the Father’s side.
  • It tells you that He is coming again, to judge the living and the dead – the righteous to everlasting life, and the unjust to everlasting damnation.

Now that Jesus has come and His work was finished so very long ago, you no longer have any pretense of an excuse. You no longer have any cloak for your sin. You are without defense or excuse.

This is the truth about man. This is who you are. This is why the Jesus came – to save you from yourself, in spite of yourself.

Questions for Study and Reflection – answers must be defended from Scripture!

  1. What does it mean that “man was created in holiness?”
  2. What does it mean to be created in the “image of God?”
  3. What does it mean that Adam and Eve were “under the law” of their Maker, God?
  4. What was Adam and Eve’s “voluntary transgression?” Beyond the act itself, what was at the heart of their sin?
  5. What does it mean that Adam and Eve’s state before the fall was “holy and happy?”
  6. How did Adam and Eve’s sin impact the human race? How is their sin imputed to us?
  7. Why is it important that we are all sinners “not by constraint, but by choice?”
  8. What does it mean that we are, by nature, “utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God?”
  9. Why does God require holiness?
  10. What can a person do to become holy, to regain what was lost by Adam?
  11. What does it mean to be “positively inclined to evil?”
  12. Who decides what “evil” is, and where do you find that definition?
  13. How does being made in the “image of God” relate to knowing what is “good” and “evil?”
  14. Why are we all “under just condemnation to eternal ruin?”
  15. What is “just condemnation?”
  16. What is “eternal ruin?”
  17. How is it fair to say that everybody is under God’s condemnation? Is God unfair here?
  18. Why are we “without defense or excuse?” That is, how does God make Himself known to us so that we are all truly without excuse?

Notes

[1] Gen. 1:27; 1:31; Eccles. 7:29; Acts 16:26; Gen. 2:16.

[2] Gen. 3:6–24; Rom. 5:12.

[3] Rom. 5:19; John 3:6; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 5:15–19; 8:7.

[4] Isa. 53:6; Gen. 6:12; Rom. 3:9–18.

[5] Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 1:18; 1:32; 2:1–16; Gal. 3:10; Matt. 20:15.

[6] Ezek. 18:19, 20; Rom. 1:20; 3:19; Gal. 3:22.

[7] “The simple declaration of the Scripture is that man at his creation was like God,” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. [reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011], 2:96).

[8] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.15.3.

[9] For the nerds who read this, I hold to a Natural Headship view of imputation.

On Potlucks and Baptist Business Meetings

It’s normal in Baptist circles to interpret the so-called Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) as a local church business meeting. I remember when I first came across this interpretation in Paul Jackson’s little book on Baptist polity. More recently, Kevin Bauder wrote:

Sometimes called the Jerusalem Council, this assembly was not really a church council at all. It was a business meeting of the local church in Jerusalem. The need for the meeting developed when teachers from Jerusalem came to Antioch with the message that circumcision was essential to salvation.[1]

Acts 15 was a church business meeting? Where, pray tell, was the potluck? I don’t think this argument really holds up, and Acts 16:4 is one reason why. But first – a brief survey of the text.

Big Trouble in Little Antioch

Certain men “from Judea” (not necessarily the Jerusalem church) came down to Antioch and began teaching that people had to follow the Mosaic law (specifically ritual circumcision) in order to be saved (Acts 15:1). Paul wrote against this heresy in the book of Galatians.

After Paul and Barnabas “had no small dissension and debate” with these brigands, the church at Antioch appointed them to head to Jerusalem and go “to the apostles and elders about this question,” (Acts 15:2). It seems Antioch recognized the apostles’ inherent authority, and the Jerusalem church’s status as the “mother church.” A church plant naturally looks up to the parent church. The leaders in Antioch looked up to the apostles in Jerusalem. They sought advice and consensus.

They arrived in Jerusalem and “were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders,” (Acts 15:4). Paul and Barnabas explained how God’s grace had clearly gone out to the Gentiles. This was too much for some of the Christians “who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” They protested, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses,” (Acts 15:5).

The fight was on. It is interesting that James and the others in the Jerusalem church had to know this was simmering below the surface, yet they apparently did nothing. The Jerusalem church was always characterized by a velvet-glove approach to this issue (cf. Acts 21:20-25).

The church did not gather to hash this out; only “the apostles and elders” did (Acts 15:6). “Much debate” ensued (Acts 15:7). Peter spoke (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas gave testimony (Acts 15:12).  Then James issued his judgment – “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,” (Acts 15:19).

James didn’t mention Antioch. He mentioned “Gentiles” in a generic sense, indicating he was speaking to a much larger issue. The dispute in Antioch was the impetus for a decision which had implications far beyond that single city. The letter the council sent with Paul and Barnabas was not for Antioch – it was for the entire region encompassing “the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia,” (Acts 15:23). This was a circular letter.

The letter read, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things . . .” (Acts 15:28). This is not the language of a friendly suggestion. It is the language of an ecclesiastical superior to an inferior. A Pastor of a church cannot “lay upon you” a burden to another church. He can offer friendly advice. This is not what happened here.

The Dogma of Acts 16:4

If Acts 15 simply depicts a Baptist church business meeting (minus the casserole potluck and fried chicken), then why does Acts 16:4 read thus:

As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem (Acts 16:4).

This is strong language. Paul and Timothy are passing through Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41), apparently revisiting “the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord,” (Acts 15:36). As they passed through these cities, they “delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.”

It is very possible this circular letter hadn’t yet reached the region beyond Antioch. Paul and Timothy were making sure it did. Notice the language Luke used. This letter is not a suggestion. It is a dogma. It is an ordinance, an order, a decree. It was a decision reached by the “apostles and elders” at Jerusalem. It carried authority. It was “delivered to them for observance.”

Does Acts 15 still sound like a local church business meeting?

To make matters worse, the word the RSV translates as “decision” is actually much stronger than that.[2] It was more than a decision – it was an order.

The phrase here is τὰ δόγματα (“the dogma”). It is well attested in the LXX, the NT and the early post-apostolic era. Silva wrote the semantic range encompasses the concepts of decree, ordinance or doctrine.[3]

  • In the LXX, we read that Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree (i.e. an order) that all the wise men of Babylon be brought forth, to interpret his dream (LXX Dan 4:3). Later, Darius issued a decree (i.e. a law) that no man could pray to anyone except him for 30 days (LXX Dan 6:9; see also 6:11, 13, 14, 16, 27).
  • In the NT, we read about the decree (i.e. an order) which went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world must be taxed (Lk 2:1). The Jews in Thessalonica claimed Paul and his companions were advocating for another king, in violation of Caesar’s decrees (i.e. laws; Acts 17:7). Paul wrote that Christ abolished “the law of commandments and ordinances,” (i.e. regulations; Eph 2:15). He also stated that Christ “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands” (i.e. regulations; Col 2:14). Kittell wrote that “In Ac. 16:4 the word signifies the resolutions and decrees of the early church in Jerusalem which are to be sent out to the cities of the first missionary journey. In the post-apostolic fathers the word comes to be applied to the teachings and prescriptions of Jesus.”[4]
  • In the early post-apostolic era, Ignatius wrote that Christians must “be diligent therefore to be confirmed in the ordinances (i.e. commands, orders)[5] of the Lord and the Apostles,” (Magnesians 13.1). Barnabas wrote, “there are then three doctrines (i.e. teachings, commands) of the Lord,” (Epistle 1.6). The Didache reads, “and concerning the Apostles and Prophets, act thus according to the ordinance (i.e. command, order) of the Gospel,” (11.3).

So, how should we understand “the dogma” which Paul and Timothy delivered for observance to these churches? It is clear from this short survey that something anemic like “decision” is a poor fit. It is doubtful the translation law will do; the Jerusalem Council was not a civil body with legislative authority. Perhaps regulation or ordinance is best. To be even more blunt, perhaps we can bring things down to the bottom shelf, so to speak, and drop ordinance in favor of order. After all, the very word “ordinance” means an authoritative decree or a law.[6]

The word originally meant opinion or belief in the early classical period, and its usage gradually morphed into something like judgment, decision or resolution (NIDNTTE, 1:752). But, don’t see evidence to suggest Luke was using the word to convey this weak of a meaning.

Basically, I don’t think you can escape the fact that this was not a suggestion from the Jerusalem Council; it was a decree, an order. Some might seek to soften it and say decision, but I don’t believe you can justify that weak of a translation from the word’s usage in the LXX, the NT or the early apostolic era (contra. NASB, RSV, ESV, NIV).

So, What Now?

I am a Baptist who leans heavily towards a dual-elder congregational view of church government. But, I think there are two ditches to avoid here:

  • Interpreting Acts 15 to be a Baptist business meeting. This is what many Baptists do.
  • Taking an apostolic ecclesiastical situation and imposing it in a post-apostolic era. This is what Presbyterians do.

There are no apostles today. There is no “mother church.” The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean in those days was a one off, a non-repeatable event. Robert Reymond, a Presbyterian, wrote, “Clearly, these congregations were not independent and autonomous. Rather, they were mutually submissive, dependent and accountable to each other.”[7] This is correct. But remember – this was an apostolic situation, not a normative situation. James is dead, and the Jerusalem church is gone. I fear Baptists are reading polity back into Acts 15 that simply isn’t there.

There was no business meeting in Acts 15, and there was no potluck following. Maybe next week.

Notes

[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: RBP, 2012), 97.

[2] For a grammatical discussion of Acts 16:4-5, see my translation here.

[3] For a full discussion, see Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 1:752-753.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, “δόγμα, δογματίζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 2:231.

[5] Michael Holmes (The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989]) translated this as “precepts.”

[6] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), s.v. “ordinance,” 1a, 1b.

[7] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 901.

What is Sin . . . Really? (Part 2)

sinRead the rest of the series.

Sin is more than an external action. It is also a thought. It is also a state of being; a status or condition. You are either pregnant or you are not. You are either a male or a female. You are either a condemned sinner in God’s universe – an individual made in God’s image who stands guilty and has the status of “criminal” . . . or you are not.

So much is clear. But, is there still another layer here? After all, why do people break God’s moral law? What is at the heart of this transgression? What drives the sinful action? That is, what is the motive?

This matter of intent is important. It lies at the heart of our legal system. The difference between murder and, say, involuntary manslaughter is the issue of intent. In the former case, you plan to kill somebody and you do it. In the latter scenario, you kill somebody in the heat of a sudden passion. Both are wicked and wrong. But, we all recognize that murder carries greater condemnation. We recognize this because we understand that intent means something.

Moral value is assigned to the act, thought or state based on the intent of the action. That criterion is motive. An act is “sinful” (i.e. “tainted with, marked by, or full of sin”[1]) because of the wicked motivation which drives the behavior. So, consider yourself:

  • What makes you lust after a co-worker?
  • Hate your Christian brother (i.e. “neighbor”)?
  • Cheat on your taxes?
  • Covet money?
  • Forsake the local church?
  • Close your eyes to the cares and needs of your Christian brethren?
  • Never read the Scriptures?
  • Watch pornography?
  • Value your career over your responsibilities to your own family?
  • Love yourself more than you love your spouse?
  • Shirk your responsibility to raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
  • Fail to live up to your God-given responsibilities as a mother or father?

It should be clear there is an intent, a motive and a drive which produces (1) a sinful action, (2) a sinful thought or (3) the state of “sinfulness” and condemnation in the unregenerate. The act, thought or state is merely the fruit of something far deeper. One theologian observed, “It may be admitted along with the speculative ideals that sin is an action of the will – either an overt omission or commission – but back of the will is the evil heart.”[2]

The act, thought or state of sin is not “sinful” in and of itself – it is merely the fruit of some other poisonous tree. My question today is – what is that tree?

There have been several answers. We’ll focus on three:[3]

Sensuality

This view hold that sin is really about lust. There are physical desires which every man recognizes are part of the material world, and there are spiritual virtues everybody recognizes are higher, nobler and more virtuous. Sin is a capitulation to the physical lusts (i.e. “sensuality”) at the expense of spiritual truth.[4]

This view is clearly wrong-headed. There are many sinful actions which have nothing to do with physical lust. Pride, discord, jealousy, envy and arrogance (to name a few) are certainly not about lusting after physical things. This concept of sin also tends to favor aestheticism; that is, the idea that a monk living in the desert is somehow more “spiritual” than the Christian who lives in the city. This is nonsense.[5]

Selfishness

We prefer God to ourselves. We want what we want, not what God wants. We are petulant, spoiled and wicked children who want a Burger King god – one who makes things our way. After all, God commanded His people to love Him supremely (cf. Deut 6:5). Christ sought the Father’s will, not His own. A true Christian does not live for Himself, but for the Lord. Satan’s main point of attack in the Garden of Eden was an appeal to selfish independence. The antichrist himself, the “man of sin,” is so named because he will exalt himself against God.[6] “[S]elfishness can be understood as the root cause of all other expressions of sin.”[7] One theologian wrote, “[W]hen selfishness is considered as an undue preference of our interests to God’s interests, we have in selfishness the essence of all sin.”[8]

This view has a lot to commend it. But, I don’t believe it quite goes far enough. There is still another layer to this onion.

  • A man does cheat on his wife because he is selfish.
  • He does cheat on his taxes because he is selfish.
  • He does forsake the local Christian church because he is selfish.
  • He does forsake his personal study of the Scriptures in favor of his career and his own narcissistic ambition.
  • He may even forsake his duties as a father, son and husband because he is selfish

But, there is something deeper:

  • Why does a man cheat on his wife?
  • Why does he cheat on his taxes?
  • Why does he forsake his local church?
  • Why does he neglect his own responsibilities as a father?

In effect, I’m asking:

  • Why does a man reject God in favor of his own self-interest?
  • Why is a man selfish?

This leads us to the next option; the best option

Rejection of God’s Authority

At the heart of all this is a willful rejection of God. You commit sinful acts, think sinful thoughts, and are born by nature as a child of wrath in the state of sin because you are in rebellion against God.[9] Even one theologian who advocated for selfishness as the poisonous tree wrote, “this selfishness is simply man’s desire for autonomy.”[10]

  • You are a terrorist insurgent, and God is the law keeper.
  • You are a criminal in God’s universe, and Jesus is the Righteous Judge
  • You are a seditious rebel, and it is God who you are fighting against

Because this is true, sin is really more than an act, a thought or a state of being. It is a willful desire for complete independence from God. This unending quest for autonomy manifests itself in:

  1. the wicked condition of spiritual degeneracy and depravity
  2. the evil thoughts, lusts and intents of the human heart and mind, and
  3. criminal actions which are against God’s law

Adam and Eve’s great sin was the start of it all. That sin was that “they became, in their understanding, their own authority, and their fallen descendants ever since that time have claimed a similar autonomy from God.”[11] A “willful ambition against God” was also Satan’s sin, and it is ours, too.[12] When you get down to brass tacks, Adam and Eve were disobedient – “[h]ence infidelity was at the root of the revolt.”[13] The Apostle Paul confirmed this:

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous (Rom. 5:18-19).

Adam’s trespass led to condemnation; his disobedience resulted in a fundamental change in status. He and his wife lost their status of moral innocence and gained the new status of “rebellious criminal.” Christ’s perfect righteousness is designed to reverse this tragedy for all who repent and believe in Him and His Gospel. Disobedience did this. What is disobedience but a deliberate rejection of authority?

  • Men are commanded to love God with all they have (cf. Deut 6:5),
  • He has given us a holy book, a “perfect treasure of heavenly instruction” which “reveals the principles by which God will judge us,”[14] and tells us precisely how to love Him,
  • An action, thought, or pattern of life which is opposed to God’s command is deliberate disobedience and “active opposition to God.” Indeed, “sin is the result of a free but evil choice of man.”[15]

The Psalmist wrote the same thing:

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision (Ps 2:1-4).

People are born in rebellion against God, and their entire life is spent desperately trying to cut the ties which bind them to the Father and the Son’s jurisdiction and authority.

The poisonous tree which produces the fruit of sinful actions, sinful thoughts and a sinful status before God is a quest for independence, for autonomy – a deliberate rejection of God. “In short, it is failing to acknowledge God as God.”[16]

What does this mean for you? What does this mean for Jesus and His sinlessness? Until next time . . .

Notes

[1] Merriam-Webster (s.v. “sinful”).

[2] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976), 2:254.

[3] See Erickson (Christian Theology, 596-598) for short summaries of these theories.

[4] See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 2:140-144 for a detailed discussion of this view, and its various flavors.

[5] John Calvin remarked, “the common idea of sensual intemperance is childish,” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012], 2.1.4.

[6] These points are from Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1907), 572.

[7] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:57.

[8] Theissen (Systematic Theology, 247).

[9] “Now there is no doubt that the great central demand of the law is love to God. And if from the material point of view moral goodness consists in love to God, then moral evil must consist in the opposite. It is separation from God, opposition to God, hatred of God, and this manifests itself in constant transgression of the law of God in thought, word, and deed,” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, combined ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996], 2:232).

[10] McCune (Systematic, 2:57).

[11] Robert Reymond, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1998), 445.

[12] See the discussion by Chafer (Systematic, 2:242-248). “All human beings acting independently who are not concerned to fulfill the divine purpose for them are re-enacting this same sin, and their destiny is that of the devil and his angels (Rev 20:10-15), unless they come under the saving grace of God,” (2:248).

[13] Calvin (Institutes, 2.1.4.).

[14] 1833 NHCF, Article 1.

[15] Berkhof (Systematic, 2:231).

[16] Erickson (Christian Theology, 598).

What is Sin (Part 1)?

sinRead the series so far.

This seems to be a simple question, with a simple explanation. I’m willing to bet when you read this question, you immediately started thinking of sin as an action in contradiction to an established norm. You aren’t alone – I did the same thing. We instinctively answer this question as if sin is an act. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the closest thing we have in America to a recognized lexical standard, defines sin as, “an offense against religious or moral law.”[1]

It is true that a sin is a transgression against a moral law. From the Christian worldview, the very idea of objective morality, and the universal human ability to differentiate between the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are proof that:

  1. there is a Creator,
  2. we are His creatures – created in His image,
  3. He defines morality and the concepts of “good” and “evil,” and
  4. all human beings are subject to His rule and, therefore, His law.

But, that’s not the whole story. It isn’t enough to craft a definition based on external actions and call it a day. Is sin just about externalism? Is it possible to think about something, and commit a sin? Is temptation still a sin, because it’s purely an internal lust? To get down to brass tacks, consider this:

  • Can you lust after a co-worker, as long as you don’t act on the thought?
  • Can you plan to murder the nosy neighbor next door, even if you don’t ever carry out this dastardly deed?
  • Can you pretend to be nice to a Christian brother, while inwardly you hate him?

If sin is simply an outward action, the answer to each of these is, “Yes!” Unfortunately, some popular theology texts do define sin as externalism. Consider these examples:

  • Charles Ryrie: “[S]in is missing the mark, badness, rebellion, iniquity, going astray, wickedness, wandering, ungodliness, crime, lawlessness, transgression, and a falling away.”[2] This is not really a definition at all; it’s a list! But, do you notice how these descriptions are more about external action than anything else?
  • Emery Bancroft: He defines sin as (1) missing the mark of the divine standard, (2) a lapse from God’s requirement, (3) a perversion of what is right, (4) a passing over of the boundaries of God’s law, (5) an affront to God, (6) unfaithfulness, (7) an offense, (7) a failure in duty and (8) disobedience.[3] Again, this isn’t really a systematic definition at all – it’s a redundant list.

Back to externals – is sin more than an act? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed the Old Covenant law as it was meant to be understood.[4] It was not meant to be a checklist; it was a Covenant to be obeyed from the heart. This is why Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:21-22).

You might not really shoot your nosy neighbor (or his annoying dog) twice in the chest with your trusty 9mm, but if you thought about it, you’re just as guilty. I’m being slightly silly, but you get the point. Here is a more pedestrian example:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27-28).

Yes, it is true you didn’t sleep with your co-worker. But, you thought about it. A lot. You are just as guilty.

It seems as if It seems sin is much more than mere action. Behold this good definition of sin from a conservative Baptist theologian:

Sin is any lack of conformity, active or passive, to the moral law of God. This may be a matter of act, of thought, or of inner disposition or state. [5]

There is a lot which could be written from this, but I’ll focus on a few components:

  1. Sin is an action
  2. It is also a thought
  3. It is also a matter of status (i.e. disposition or state)

The last bit is particularly important. You can commit a sinful action. You can think a sinful thought. But, sin is also described in Scripture as a state of being. “Acts of sin spring from a principle or nature that is sin.”[6] We are born by nature as children of wrath, which means we’re born as sinful people, in active rebellion against our Creator. As the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith put it:

We believe that man was created in a state of holiness, under the law of His Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from the happy and holy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint but choice, being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, wholly given over to the gratification of the world, of Satan, and of their own sinful passions, therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.[7]

Consider also the Apostle Paul’s words:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom 6:15-18).

Sin here is not an abstract action. It is a state of being. In this passage, it is a taskmaster people are naturally enslaved to – a master who only brings death. In contrast, God is the good master who distributes righteousness to His slaves.

So, when you think about sin, remember it is much more than an action. It is also a thought in your mind and heart. It is also a status which brings eternal damnation and everlasting condemnation, unending hostility and anger from the Holy God who made you, fashioned you, sustains you and calls you even now to repentance and faith in His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

But, is there something even more fundamental, more basic, to the idea of “sin?” There is. For, now, however . . . ciao.

Notes

[1] Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), s.v. “sin,” 1a.

[2] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 243-244.

[3] Emery Bancroft, Christian Theology, second revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 218-226.

[4] See Leon Morris, The Gospel of Matthew, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 112-113. D.A. Carson quibbled a bit, and wrote, “The contrast between what the people had heard and what Jesus taught is not based on distinctions like casuistry versus love, outer legalism versus inward commitment, or even false interpretation versus true interpretation, though all of them impinge collaterally on the text. Rather, in every case Jesus contrasts the people’s misunderstanding of the law with the true direction in which the law points, according to His own authority as the law’s ‘fulfiller’ . . . (Matthew, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 148).

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 596.

[6] Henry C. Theissen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 244.

[7] 1833 NHCF, Article 3, quoted in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 362.

 

This is What Heresy Sounds Like

I was early for a dentist appointment. I didn’t like the idea of sitting idly in the waiting room, listening to bad elevator music, so I darted into a used bookstore across the way. I found a curious little volume entitled The Christ.

The author, Charles Guignebert, passed away in August of 1939, just five days before the thunderclouds of war burst open upon the continent. He’d been Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Paris since 1919. He was also a theological liberal, and likely a complete unbeliever. I cannot be certain, of course, but the odds don’t look good. Not at all.

I picked up the book and looked at the jacket synopsis. The publisher proclaimed Guignebert’s tome was the “classic presentation of the historical origins of Christianity.” I skimmed down past the usual rapturous fluff and spotted the following endorsement:

Many critical scholars remain in [Guignebert’s] debt – Christian Century

Ah, the Christian Century. That publication was about as subtle with its theological sympathies as Breitbart News is with its politics. But, I always enjoy a good bit of heresy, especially when it’s on sale for $1.00.

I opened the book, careful to avoid the cloud of stale dust which burst forth from its pages, and skimmed the first bit of the introduction. Here is what I found:

Since Jesus did not want to found a new religion, he did not found Christianity. However, without knowing it, he did father the faith of which he is the center and the Church which was soon to be accounted him. This paternity, in fundamental contradiction with all that he beelieved, desired, and expected, would have driven him to dispair if he had but foreseen it (p.2).

I can’t wait to read this book. It’s right behind Harry E. Fosdick’s Christianity and Progress on my list. Both works are rank heresy. Christians up for a challenge can learn from heresy.

I spotted one more thing, though – something truly awful. On the inside flap of the book, I saw a little message jotted in neat, block letters:

Happy Easter ’90. Kareen, I hope this will help you in your search for Jesus. Love, Jim.

Let me spare you the suspense, Jim. This book did not help Kareen. It depicts a Jesus the New Testament knows nothing about. It reflects the hostility of satanic unbelief, and the hyper-critical skepticism of liberal elitism. Heresy can be useful. It challenges presuppositions, and forces you to strengthen your own convictions. But, it isn’t what a new or prospective believer needs.

I wish Jim had found something better for Kareen.