Paul’s self-identification in his letters

It struck me as I was reading one of the Apostle Paul’s letters that he has a common way of identifying himself in the salutation of his epistles. I decided to do some analysis, because while there are some divergences, there’s a commonality that is striking.

Let’s look at each epistle and his salutation (usually in the first couple of verses):

RomansPaula servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle
1 Cor.Paulcalled by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus
and our brother Sosthenes
2 Cor.Paulan apostle of Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother
GalatiansPaulan apostle
and all the brothers who are with me
EphesiansPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
PhilippiansPaul and Timothyservants of Christ Jesus
ColossiansPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother
1 Thess.Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy<no identification>
2 Thess.Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy<no identificastion>
1 TimothyPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
2 TimothyPaulan apostle of Christ Jesus
TitusPaula servant of God and an apostle of Christ Jesus
PhilemonPaula prisoner for Christ Jesus
and Timothy our brother

What are some general observations about his openings?

  • Paul identifies as an apostle in 9 of 13 letters (exceptions – Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon).
  • Paul’s favorite designation of himself – “apostle of Christ Jesus (or Jesus Christ)” – 7 times.
  • Paul calls only himself an “apostle.”
  • When Paul’s name is immediately combined with another name (“Paul and Timothy,” “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”), he does not identify the group as “apostles.”
  • When Paul separates names with a personal description (“Paul, <description>, and <Name>, <description>” he never identifies his companion as apostle, but rather “our brother” (1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal., Col., Philemon).
  • Paul’s identification of himself as a “prisoner” in the letter to Philemon points to the fact that in this letter, he appeals to Philemon on the basis of love rather than his authority as an apostle (see v. 14).

To Paul, the idea of apostleship was central to the issue of authority in the early church. The household of God was built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The mystery of Christ, hidden for ages, was “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5). Now, when we read Paul the Apostle, we can “perceive [his] insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). The New Testament presents the office of apostle as foundational, unique, and not to be continued, for once the foundation is laid, we build on it (1 Cor. 3:10), but we don’t lay another foundation.

The one time in Scripture that we see a selection of a new apostle is in Acts 1. After the events of the Passion Week, the days that followed, and the ascension of Jesus, the eleven apostles gathered to await the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Peter took the lead in suggesting that they fill Judas’ empty place with another man to be the 12th apostle. He recounted the type of person they would need to select to fill this role: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Here we clearly see what they considered to be the necessary qualifications to be an apostle – 1) to have followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, and 2) to have been an eyewitness to the resurrection so that he can continue to testify to the validity of the resurrection claims of the gospel. The uniqueness of this event in Acts signals that the appointing of apostles is not to repeated in the churches today.

Paul, appointed a preacher and apostle by Jesus Christ himself (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11, cf. Gal. 1:12)), described his experience as an eyewitness to the resurrection as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8), in that Jesus appeared to him post-ascension on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Paul was unique in his placement among the apostles.

Because of the foundational role played by the apostles in establishing the church and presenting the “apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), this is an office that has no modern day counterpart. No plan for apostolic succession was ever proposed or executed. Some of the activity that the apostles did, such as taking the gospel to frontier peoples, does continue, but the office does not.

All this is instructive when we observe certain preachers these days who self-identify as an “apostle.” This is unnecessarily self-aggrandizing at best, and harmful at worst. It opens the door to so-called new revelations that undermine the sufficiency and authority of Scripture.

In this age of the church, God’s revelation is complete, and there is no need for further “words from God.” We have God’s prophetic word “more fully confirmed” in the Holy Scriptures (2 Pet. 1:19-21). We need preachers, not to speak new words, but to “devote [themselves] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).

On Assurance of Salvation

There’s a reason we wait until dark to light fireworks. Against the dark skies, the glow of the explosions is brightest. Fireworks during the day, like at a baseball game, are loud but not nearly as interesting to observe.

The same could be said in the realm of ideas; doctrines, principles, and philosophies always have heightened clarity when put in the context of competing concepts.

For example, the good news of the gospel – the perfect life, substitutionary death, and validating resurrection of Christ for sinners – becomes crystal clear against the backdrop of the bad news of our sin and deserved judgment.

This principle has again become pertinent to me recently as I studied theological ideas around the justification of sinners and the assurance of their salvation.

Both the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1687) have nearly identical sections entitled, Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation. They are both contained in Chapters 18 of their respective documents.

In the first paragraph of these chapters, both Confessions have this identical statement: “Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.”

What a powerful statement! True believers “may be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace.”

Now, I have taken hope and comfort from Scripture passages like the entire book of 1 John, which was specifically written to assure believers of their standing in Christ. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). I have pursued godly dispositions and holy affections as I endeavor to confirm my calling and election (2 Peter 1:10). When doubts assail, I have examined myself to see whether I am in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

All of these verses (and many others) support the idea that we can, in this life, know we are saved, in the state of grace, rejoicing in hope (Rom. 5:2).

It is on the basis of Scriptures like these that the Confessions make their affirmations of the reality of assurance for the believer.

While our election, calling, and justification are sure, our feelings and awareness of assurance can wax and wane. This is why we must pursue it.

First, we base our assurance objectively on the promises of God in his Holy Word, which never fail.

Additionally, we base our assurance subjectively on our experience as we see the fruits of justification at work and increasing in our lives.

“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

2 Peter 1:8-11

The Synod of Dort (1619) had this to say regarding assurance: “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election,…by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God – such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” (First Head, Article 12).

So then, we are told Scripturally that we can know that we have eternal life, and we are to pursue this assurance and certainty with all godly vigor. That in itself is a powerful and comforting truth.

Now, for some context…

To give even more clarity to this truth, let’s now consider the historical and theological backdrop.

These Confessional statements were written in the early decades of the Protestant Reformation. They come in stark contrast to Roman Catholic dogma, which was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

At the center of the teaching on assurance is the biblical concept that justification is a legal declaration of complete acquittal of sins. Through the finished work of Christ, we are declared and treated as righteous through faith. In Protestant theology, justification is a completed state, by which we are forgiven and accepted by God.

This is the foundation of assurance.

However, in Roman Catholic teaching, even though terms like grace, faith, and justification are used, they do not mean the same thing. In Catholic teaching, justification is not declaring someone righteous, but making someone righteous. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and renovation of the interior man…whereby a man becomes just instead of unjust” (Trent, Chapter 7). Since justification includes sanctification which is not final at any point in life, a consistent Catholic would not say that they are justified, but that at the end of their days, they hope to be.

Consequently, if a person cannot say with certainty that they are now justified, they cannot claim to have assurance of salvation. In fact, it’s not just that assurance is impossible; it is not to be pursued at all! Trent calls assurance as I have described it, “a vain and ungodly confidence.” “If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema” (Trent, Canon 16).

So then, those who penned the Reformed Confessions were not simply espousing the biblical truth on assurance as Scripture teaches it; they were doing so against a backdrop of despair and vain hope of the Roman Catholic faith rooted in works righteousness.

Truly, the motto of the Reformation stands, Post Tenebras Lux (After darkness, light)! What a great fireworks display this truth is.

On monergism

Precision is important in endeavors like math and science, but no less so in the “-ology of God” (theology).

All too often, I encounter theological discussion where terms are used somewhat loosely. This is unfortunate, for this lack of attention to precision can lead to confusion, or worse, error.

Currently, I am working on my next book, which will be a theological treatise on the ordo salutis, or the order of salvation.

In the ordo salutis, we study the order in which God brings salvation to a person. Sometimes the order is chronological, but other times it describes a logical order of events which occur simultaneously. For example, faith precedes justification, but justification happens immediately upon belief in Jesus Christ; it logically follows faith.

The full ordo salutis, as described by Reformed theologians, consists of this sequence: Election/Predestination – Calling – Regeneration – Faith and Repentance (Conversion) – Justification – Adoption – Sanctification – Perseverance – Glorification. The clearest biblical support for a kind of ordo salutis is found in Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Perhaps the primary distinction in the Reformed ordo salutis is the placement of regeneration before faith. That regeneration must precede faith is made clear in passages like John 1:12-13, where those who believe and become children of God are said to have been born of God, and 1 John 5:1, where we read, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” [note the tenses].

We call this regeneration “monergistic,” meaning that it is the sole work of one – God Almighty. The opposite of monergism is synergism, which is the viewpoint shared by Arminian theologians, that says we cooperate with God in our regeneration and that regeneration is a result of our faith.

Time does not permit me to expound on the mass of biblical evidence for monergism. Suffice it to say that dead men can’t raise themselves (John 3; Ephesians 2; Ezekiel 37). We must be born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man (John 1:13), by a monergistic act of the Spirit of God.

Where precision is needed

Now, where I want to be precise is this: some people with whom I have been in dialog, people with whom I largely agree, have said something like, “Salvation is completely monergistic.”

Here’s where precision is necessary. If by salvation it is meant the whole of salvation, I would want to offer a clarifying statement. Technically speaking, regeneration is monergistic. The act of bringing a spiritually dead person to life is the sole work of God. There is neither cooperation nor activity on the part of the person so revived.

Moving forward in the ordo salutis, regeneration results in conversion – the belief and repentance of the sinner in turning to God and Christ in faith. In conversion, the work of God in saving a person moves from the subconscious to the conscious life of the believer. “Regeneration takes place at the level of the subconscious, and conversion takes place at the level of consciousness.” (Derek Thomas –

At this point in the order of salvation – conversion – the believer is consciously involved. Even as we affirm that saving faith itself is a gift (Eph. 2:8), we do not say that God believes for us. Indeed, we believe; we repent.

Additionally, sanctification is a part of the greater picture of salvation. Sanctification is not the monergistic act of God, though God is the determining factor. We are enjoined by Paul in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I, Mark Knox, am to work out my salvation. But the text goes on to say, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). The very reason I work out my salvation (sanctification) is because God is working in me. God is decisive in this, if not in the same monergistic way he is in regeneration.

Finally, as we move toward glory, we persevere in our faith. In fact, we must hold fast. “The gospel…by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Cor. 15:1-2). “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14). Thus, we are commanded, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23). I, myself, am to hold fast and persevere. But notice Hebrews 10:23 continues much like the Philippians passage continues: for he who promised is faithful.”

I must persevere, for if I don’t, I show myself to have never been a true disciple. But my perseverance is grounded in and secured by God’s preservation. “He who promised is faithful.” “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Though I am called upon to hold fast my faith, God is again decisive. He sovereignly preserves, and we persevere in his power.

So, perhaps it’s a small distinction, but of such surgical distinctions are we kept from imbalance and error.

I would summarize it this way – that God is sovereignly monergistic specifically in regeneration, and God is decisively determinative (but not in a monergistic way) in other aspects of our great salvation.

What are we to make of He Gets Us?


I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I do tune in to NFL and college football. One series of commercials that has caught my attention this year is an ad campaign called He Gets Us.

These ads are well-produced, edgy treatments of various topics all pointing out how much Jesus “gets us.” The tag line on the website reads, “Jesus gets our lives, because he was human too.”

Any time a significant campaign that features our Lord and Savior launches into the general culture, I’m going to take notice. And because the ads don’t have a lot in the way of content – just some simple ideas – it beckons me to check it out and examine further what is being said about Jesus.

I went to their website and navigated to the “About Us” section. It begins with this statement: “He Gets Us is a movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness. We believe his words, example, and life have relevance in our lives today and offer hope for a better future.”

They speak of themselves as a “diverse group of people passionate about the authentic Jesus of the Bible.” They want everyone to “understand the authentic Jesus as he’s depicted in the Bible – the Jesus of radical forgiveness, compassion, and love.” They claim to be neither “left” nor “right” and not affiliated with any particular church or denomination.

They speak of their desire to create a safe place to ask questions. They commend Jesus’ openness to people who have typically been excluded. They affirm that, just like you, Jesus didn’t like it when religious people were hypocritical or judgmental. “We’re simply inviting you to explore with us at He Gets Us how might things be different if more people followed his example.”

Terms like “confounding love,” “radical compassion,” “radical forgiveness,” “authentic Jesus of the Bible” are all words that sound good, but can be rather empty by themselves. So, who do they identify Jesus to be?

I searched for some sense of a doctrinal statement. The closest they came to identifying some kind of theological basis was in a couple of statement in the “About Us” section. “We’re led by Jesus fans and followers. People who believe he was much more than just a good guy and a profound teacher. And that Jesus is the son of God, who came to Earth, died, and was resurrected, then returned to heaven and is alive today.”

OK. Not bad, but also not distinctive. There are many false groups who would affirm Jesus as the “son of God” and yet deny his unique, co-eternal deity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. (I find it interesting that “son” was not capitalized; is that significant?)

So, we read a little further, “Ultimately, we want people to know his teachings and how he lived while here on Earth. And this will be a starting point to understand him and his message. Though we believe he was what Christians call fully God and fully man, that may not be what you believe. We’re simply inviting you to explore…”

That’s a little clearer. Invoking the credal verbiage of “fully God and fully man,” we come closer to the historic, orthodox faith. But that’s the extent of any doctrinal affirmation. There’s not a declaration of why Jesus died, was resurrected, and returned to heaven.

The ads on TV give us glimpses of Jesus’ experience on earth – “Jesus was a refugee.” “Jesus disagreed with loved ones. But he didn’t disown them.” “Jesus was born to a teen mom.” “Jesus had to control his outrage, too” (in reference to injustice). These commercials are well-produced, with modern, urban settings to highlight that “he gets us. All of us.”

Topics on the website are identified with hashtags such as #activist, #hope, #inclusive, #judgment, #justice, #reallife, #refugee, #relationships, #struggle. It is quite clear from multiple places and expressions on the website that this organization is seeking a broad inclusivity of those who have been marginalized. The articles cite numerous Scripture references and to my knowledge don’t convey any gross misteaching.

So, what does this “movement” seek for us to do? In the section titled “Take Action,” there are three main appeals. “Read About Jesus” links to (3) seven-day reading plans from (YouVersion). “Connect” allows you to submit contact information for someone local to contact you, or you can connect with a group. Finally, you can “Text for prayer or positivity” to have a volunteer pray for you or send some words of encouragement.

Finally, you can “rep the movement” by purchasing gear (hats, shirts, stickers). But, you don’t pay with money; the products are “free.” You just “pay with love.” Then you can share on Instagram or Twitter how you paid for it, presumably to spread the example of Jesus.

What are we to make of this?

I often have a natural skepticism and healthy cynicism when it comes to presentations about Jesus that reach pop culture status. But I don’t want to dismiss out of hand. I want to delve into a group’s purpose and goals in the hope that there might be something true and real. Like Paul, I want to be able to say, “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). And while the people at HGU might do it differently than I would, I must also ask of myself, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Rom. 14:4). None of this is to say that false teaching is OK or that we shouldn’t call out false teachers.

But what can I say about my impressions of He Gets Us?

There might be some real discovery of Jesus Christ. Or maybe not.

The statements on the website, as far as they go, are orthodox. But they don’t go very far. This opens the door for error to enter.

It seems one of the over-arching purposes of this movement is to open dialog with people about who Jesus is. This is a good thing. For example, in the “Connect” section I mentioned earlier, you can get connected with a discussion group. This takes you to an organization known as Alpha. This organization trains groups and ministries in “creating spaces for honest, open, and judgment-free conversations for anyone to explore the Christian faith.” As a non-aversive attempt to engage people, this is to be applauded. Francis Schaeffer once wrote of our obligation to provide “honest answers to honest questions” (Two Contents, Two Realities). Christians by and large would do better to listen and ask questions more and to preach less, at least at the outset of conversation.

My church has run a number of Alpha groups. It’s been a great tool for engaging the non-churched. Hopefully, visitors to the site will take that step and connect with a solid group and encounter Jesus Christ through the Word of God and the proclamation of the gospel.

But for someone who doesn’t connect with a group like this, I fear that He Gets Us may give a false sense of assurance. Something along the lines of, “Yeah, he gets us. He gets me. He gets me and my messed up life. He’s on my side; I’m good with Jesus.” But people need to hear the gospel. The message of the gospel – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus proclaimed with its meaning and purpose – is missing from the He Gets Us website. To be sure, there’s the mention of his death and resurrection, but as I said, no declaration of why Christ died (“for our sins” – 1 Cor. 15:3). Without such a declaration, I fear that a false confidence may result.

I perused the 21 Scripture readings and their devotionals. In not one place do they expound on the true purpose for Christ’s coming to earth. The thrust seems to be more toward being like Jesus. In the end, what the He Gets Us people say about themselves is telling: “We’re simply inviting you to explore with us at He Gets Us how might things be different if more people followed his example.”

This is not a gospel statement. Following the example of Jesus might have some temporal benefits, but at its heart, this is moralism. This is “Jesus came to show us a better way to live, and we should follow his pattern.” But it’s not the gospel.

The gospel is not what you should do; it’s what Jesus has done. “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Let me be blunt. The gospel is inclusive. It is for everybody.

But the gospel is also equally exclusive. It is not for those who only follow Jesus’ example. It is not for those who promote their self-righteousness. It is not for those who will not recognize their sin against God. It is not for those who do not repent of their sin and place their faith in Christ. It is not for those who don’t recognize the exclusiveness of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

So let good conversations take place. “Hey, can I share with you more about Jesus?”

How do I know I am chosen?

Because I identify myself on social media as a “chosen follower of Jesus Christ,” a friend recently asked me, how do you know you are chosen, and that you will endure to the end?” This was my answer.

________, what a great question! I appreciate you taking the time to ask.

First of all, in general, I believe that all believers are chosen because of the testimony of Scripture that says we are (Eph. 1:4-5; Rom. 8:29; 2 Thess. 2:13-14).

But I think your question is more personal: How do I know that I have been chosen? And then consequently, how do I know that I will endure to the end?

I cannot say it any better than what was stated in the Canons of Dort on this very question: “The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God – such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” (First Head of Doctrine, Article 12)

In other words, rather than wringing my hands wondering, wondering, wondering, am I elect, am I elect?, the “fruits of election” testify and bring assurance and help me to “confirm my calling and election” (2 Peter 1:5-10). The more I see growth in grace and sanctification and holiness, the more I am confirmed that I belong to Christ.

As I walk with Christ these many years, there is also the inner confirmation of the Holy Spirit, as “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” This Spirit does this through various means such as through the promises in the Word, the convicting voice when I sin, and the reassuring hope that when I do sin, I have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 Jn. 2:1).

As for knowing if I will endure to the end, there too I cling to God’s promises, knowing that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Now it is true that I must endure, working out my own salvation with fear and trembling. But I do so on the foundation that it is God who works in me, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

It is my constant prayer that in the end I be found faithful, that I endure to the end. Not because I think a true Christian can undo God’s work and become unsaved again. True believers endure to the end (see Heb. 3:14 and take note of the verb tenses). I do not want to be found after all this, to have been a false believer.

“I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that He is able to protect what I have entrusted to Him until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

Asking the right questions

Part of learning, especially when it comes to difficult theological subjects, is the asking of clarifying questions. We want to make sure we’re understanding what the Bible is teaching, and questions can help us get there.

And then there are those inquiries that aren’t raised to clarify understanding, but to challenge the point being made. Querys keep being made because the questioner doesn’t like the answer.

A clarifying question can let the teacher know if the listener is missing the point. “No, that’s not what I mean. Let me try again.” But occasionally, the questioner demonstrates by his interrogatory that he totally gets the point. The teacher at this point wouldn’t retract anything but double down on his assertion.

This happens a couple of times in Paul’s writing as he anticipates his readers’ questions.

One such occasion is in Romans 6:1. Paul has been talking about the gospel, and in particular, that where sin increased, grace abounds all the more.

This leads to the query: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

This question demonstrates an accurate understanding of the gospel points that Paul has been making: that “one is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom. 3:28).

Paul doesn’t at this point back off his point as if his readers misunderstand. Instead, the question asked reveal a clarity of comprehension.

The gospel is shocking. That the most heinous of sinners can receive forgiveness and justification without earning them is a most jarring thought when encountered fully. It leads naturally to the question of Romans 6:1. The query demonstrates that the hearer “got it.”

We see this also in Romans 9. Paul is discussing God’s sovereign freedom to dispense mercy as he pleases – “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18).

Then comes the anticipated objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'” (9:19).

Paul at this point doesn’t say, “Wait a minute. That’s not what I meant.” In fact, he goes all in on his statements (vv. 20-21), affirming God’s sovereign freedom and grace.

I’ll take it one step further. In this topic, which is full of mysteries which cannot be reconciled in our finite minds, we must get to the unanswerable question. If you’ve come to the place where you have “settled” these truths and questions like Paul raises don’t grab you, then perhaps you have not penetrated to the heart of the matter.

Paul not only doesn’t directly answer the objection, he also doesn’t hedge his statement. Instead, he turns the objection back on his readers to accuse them of “answering back to God.” He gives his answer: you’re in rebellion against God’s revelation.

Paul’s response to this objection accuses them of continuing to question God’s revealed sovereignty and right as the Divine Potter over the clay of his creation.

Paul understands the heart that drives this objection; it is a recalcitrant heart that does not submit to the God who dispenses mercy as he pleases.

This is a hard teaching to think about. But the revelation is clear at this point. God is sovereignly gracious to whom he pleases. Objecting to this teaching reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

Objecting to this teaching [of God’s sovereign grace] reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

The problem is not the questioning. The problem is that the questions keep being asked even after revelation has been given.

The question rightly asked demonstrates clarity of perception. The same question repeatedly asked demonstrates contrariness of posture.

The seed must die

Jesus spoke these words after meeting some Greeks who “wished to see Jesus.” He made it plain that the time for his glorification had come. That’s an interesting way to describe the hour of your death. But then he explained, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

I think that when Jesus met with those Greeks, it brought to mind that the Kingdom of God is for everyone. We see the arms of Jesus open wide to receive people from every tribe, nation, and tongue…the “much fruit” of the seed falling into the ground and dying.

We look to the cross of Christ on this Good Friday, contemplating Jesus’ death to cover our sins and secure our redemption. May it continue to bear much fruit in the world.

*I am thankful to Matthias Media, from whom I borrowed the phrase, “the seed must die.”

The “heart” of Christianity is not one thing

It’s crossed my mind recently that anything of the Christian life that we may feel we’re “good” at, we tend to regard as THE heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Sometimes I’ll hear someone say they’re focusing on the simple work of the gospel, helping the poor and unfortunate. “That’s what Jesus did,” they’ll say, and proceed to declare that that’s the heart of Christianity. Sounds compelling, especially with Jesus on your side.

For others, Christianity is not about dogma and doctrine; it’s more about living in community with other believers. They don’t miss a chance to engage and connect with others, and since this is something at which they excel, this becomes the sine qua non of the Christian faith.

Still for others, they may feel that the work of the Holy Spirit is not regarded as highly as it ought to be, and since these folks pay great attention to the Spirit and express how vital their dependence on him is, well, living in the Spirit must be what Christian living is all about.

Then there are those (and I might find myself in this camp from time to time) who gaze out upon the Christian landscape and see a vast wasteland of biblical illiteracy. And since things like “zeal without knowledge” are to be avoided, and sound doctrine is to be nourished, and false doctrine is to be contended with, then the heart of the faith must be orthodoxy, and lots of it.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

We all have a tendency to take those things that we might do pretty well and think of them as ultimate. That everyone should have the same perspective and activity.

We think this way because then we don’t have to think about those other areas where we might be lacking. After all, they’re not as important; they aren’t the “heart” of Christianity.

Jesus was once asked which was the great commandment in the Law (Matt 22:34-40). I imagine it was hoped that he would identify that one commandment that would make his listeners feel proud of their own compliance. Instead, I find it amazing that he instructively gave them two, as if to say, “You know, it’s not one thing.” But he gave the two great commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Scripture expands on these by teaching us that they are not two things, but really the same thing. You can’t love God and not love others.

Woven within the two-in-one Great Command is everything else Jesus and the Scriptures command – “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

So, all these pet things that we call the heart of Christianity are really extensions of loving God and loving neighbor.

You want to feed the poor? That’s loving to your neighbor and by extension, to Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:31-40).

You wish to get close to other Christians, meet them face to face, and encourage the brothers and sisters in community to continue in the faith? That’s love displayed to Christ’s body, the Church, and thus love toward God.

You desire a greater dependence upon the Holy Spirit and wish to see others to the same? One of the greatest expressions of love to God is our reliance on his Spirit. It’s loving to others to instruct and teach them to do the same.

And doctrine? Correcting false ideas about God upholds his holiness and loves others with the truth.

Now, the point is not for me to think that one of these is my “thing” and the others are not. Yes, I may have a passion and gifting and skills that are God-given for one or another of these qualities. But that doesn’t stop me from my calling to do the others, to follow the whole instruction of God. And I surely don’t need to consider what I am zealous for as THE heart of Christian living.

I need to be a poor-feeding, community-engaging, Holy Spirit-relying, truth-telling, God-and-neighbor-loving follower of Christ!

John Cooper on “Deconstruction”

I’ve been wanting to write on “deconstruction” for some time now, but it’s been tough collecting my thoughts on the “good” ways to deconstruct your Christian experience vis a vis the “destructive” ways that invariably shipwreck one’s faith. This post, though long, is well worth the time you take on it. No one has written so clearly and forcefully as John Cooper.

I pray for myself and the friends of my days, that we hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23).

Why Am I So Brazen? by John Cooper.