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.

The relationship between calling and regeneration in the ordo salutis

I am in the midst of writing a new book on the “ordo salutis,” or order of salvation. Please enjoy this excerpt as I discuss how calling and regeneration are related.

The order of salvation is a way to discern and teach various aspects of God’s saving work, but it is one work. We enumerate and separate these facets only as a didactic exercise, but all of these aspects equally apply to every elect person. The same individuals who were chosen by God before the foundation of the world are the same people who are ultimately glorified in the end. One work, one people.

But it is helpful (or else, why this book?) to consider each of these concepts separately for the sake of our understanding. And yet, we must recognize that we cannot completely separate one from another like a surgeon might remove an intact organ from the body. There is a symbiotic relationship in these concepts that do not allow such isolation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the link between calling and regeneration.

In a sense, the relationship of all of these aspects of the ordo salutis is logical rather than temporal. Calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and adoption happen concurrently in the experience of a believer. But more than simply occurring at the same time, calling and regeneration have a stronger link – namely, the calling creates new life (regeneration).

The best way that I can think to illustrate this is to give you a word picture, one that is supplied for us in John 11 with the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, were close friends of Jesus. Eventually Lazarus falls sick, and the sisters send for Jesus. But Jesus bides his time, and Lazarus then succumbs to his illness and dies. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Both Martha and Mary say at different times to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus assures them that he is the resurrection and the life – one of the great deity claims in the Gospels – and asks to be led to the tomb. Moved with great emotion, Jesus asks them to remove the stone. When they protest because of the smell, he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). After praying to his Father, he calls out to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus, now returned to life, comes out, and Jesus instructs the people to unbind him from his grave clothes. What a miracle, causing some to believe and others to plot his death.

There is, in this story, both a calling and a regeneration. Jesus calls out to a dead man (this is instructive), “Come out!” Now, a dead person is incapable of not only coming out but of even hearing such a call. Therefore, there must be a regeneration, a new life. When did this happen? It happened when Jesus called, for the call created new life. Jesus’ command, in the words of a prayer by Augustine, granted what he commanded. When Jesus calls a person, his summons creates what it commands.

So then, the concepts of calling and regeneration are inseparably linked. We can only isolate them (partially) in our minds, and even then, we are not able to completely disentangle these two aspects of God’s redeeming work.

Love’s Redeeming Work: Treasuring our Savior and His Great Salvation (The “ordo salutis” for everyone) is currently being researched and written. I am working toward a summer 2022 release. Stay tuned for more excerpts and details…Mark

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on theological systems

I’ve been in dialog with a reader on some of my former posts, and his challenges and questions have been helpful to my thought process. I hope I have also given him something to think about. This graphic contains a powerful quotation from expositor extraordinaire, the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from his Romans: Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4, The Law: It’s Functions and Limits. It should give us all something to think about in regard to our theological positions.

Planning on reading the Bible in 2022? Here’s help

It is a given that Christians ought to be people of the Bible. To that end, many of us embark on a new year with plans to read more in Scripture. If you are setting a goal for yourself to read the Bible this year (or parts thereof), Ligonier.org has put together a list of various reading plans from which to choose. The links to some of them (like Horner’s plan) require a membership in order to download. It can be found elsewhere without such a link.

Here’s the link to Ligonier’s page.

Here’s the direct link to Horner’s excellent system.

From the Ligonier page, here’s a “do it yourself” site to generate your own custom plan.

Happy reading!

The mind and devotion

I have never cared for the dichotomy that places intellect, study, and understanding at opposite poles from the idea of devotion to God.

And yet we subtly (or not so subtly) set them at odds all the time. “That’s a good Bible paraphrase for devotional reading, but I wouldn’t want to study from it.”

I recall back in my Bible college days that many of us struggled with having to complete our studies, much of which involved deep dives into the text and doctrines of Scripture, sometimes in the original languages. We would bemoan the fact that for all that learning, it didn’t always result in a greater connection to the Lord God our Creator and Savior. In fact, if we weren’t careful, we might find ourselves adrift, feeling apart from the Lord.

For some people, the response to that in their personal reading was to eschew the intellectual pursuit of the meaning of the text and attempt to read “devotionally,” whatever that meant. As if a feeling of devotion to God could be divorced from the mind. As if we can read the Bible without a thought as to its proper interpretation.

One of the more prophetic chapel messages in my time there that shot like an arrow into my heart was based on Luke 10:27 – “And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” From this text, Dr. Norm Geisler spoke on “Loving God with your mind.” After chapel, I had the opportunity to sit with him at lunch, and I proclaimed how much I liked his emphasis on the mind and our studies. I said, “Next to my devotion to the Lord, I keep my studies the next most important thing.” He gently corrected my misunderstanding of his point, clarifying that at this time in my life, pursuing my studies was my devotion to the Lord.

This helped to set me on a track where I would no longer set in opposition my intellectual pursuit of the Bible and doctrine against my devotion and fellowship with God. My practice has become to never read God’s Word apart from my mind. I may have times of deeper study, but it’s always with the goal of understanding and not “mere” devotion.

For this reason, I do tend to utilize resources that are doctrinally and exegetically based. For my daily study, I use Tabletalk Magazine from R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries. I find that many other so-called devotional magazines often only have 1 verse each day, devoid of context, and some “thoughts” on that verse, commonly accompanied by some personal story that reinforces the point. “Sermonettes for Christianettes” as pastor and musical artist Steve Camp has called them.

Instead, Tabletalk takes me through the year in a passage-by-passage running commentary on various sections of Scripture. This year, the daily readings are taking us through the Pauline Epistles of 1 and 2 Corinthians. A couple of years ago, the texts were the historical books of the Old Testament. Can you imagine the benefits of immersing for an entire year in a deep dive into the text of Scripture?

Tabletalk includes a daily point of application, called “Coram Deo:” “Before the face of God.” But this response is always based on a correct understanding of the text.

Whatever “devotion” means to a person, it should always include the mind and not be pursued as if it supersedes our thoughts. This was, in part, the error of the Gnostics in seeking a secret experience beyond that of knowledge.

Consider, rather, how the mind plays in expanding our sense of devotion. The more you delve into the depths of learning, the more you realize how little you know. Apply that to the things of God, and you multiply your devotion. For example, as I examine (with my mind) the biblical revelation of God’s character, I understand all the more how little I can comprehend of God, and my sense of how trustworthy he is explodes, and my devotion to him increases.

Again, as I study (with my mind) all the facets of God’s great work in redeeming humanity, I encounter in greater and greater measure the extent of the sin that made salvation necessary. I grasp in increasing magnitude the extent of his work on the cross, while never plumbing its depths. What I understood well enough as a child, I continuously discover to be beyond my capacity to fathom. This inability to reach the end fuels my devotion to it. I find it oddly satisfying while never finding its terminus.

If you have had a tendency to draw a dichotomy between your mind and your devotion, I urge you to take a different approach. Discover your heart of devotion in the deep places, where God dwells in unapproachable mystery.

Love’s Redeeming Work

I’ve hinted that I am working on a new book, and the time has come to reveal a working title, the theme, and little bit of cover art.

Once again, I am compelled to write on theology. My passion is to study God’s Word, to live it out as best I can, and to teach it to others (Ezra 7:10).

In that vein, I have taken to writing a theological treatise on salvation, the so-called ordo salutis in particular. The ordo salutis is the “order of salvation” as described by theologians. How is salvation applied to an individual, and is there an “order” (chronological or logical) by which we may understand the application of redemption? This is the topic covered in the “Applied” half of John Murray’s 1955 work, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.

My working title is Love’s Redeeming Work, and the subtitle is Treasuring Our Savior and His Great Salvation. There’s also a sub-sub-title: The Ordo Salutis for Everyone. My goal is to make the various elements of our salvation understandable to the everyday reader.

The ordo salutis (order of salvation) is a recounting of the steps by which God saves a sinner. In the classic Reformed sense, the order follows this sequence: Election, Calling, Regeneration, Conversion (Faith and Repentance), Justification, Adoption, Sanctification, Perseverance, Glorification. These topics are massive and weighty and worthy of our study.

My purpose is not merely the didactic, the teaching of doctrine. Beyond that, a deeper understanding of the doctrines ought to ignite a fire within us. A fire that causes us to treasure and savor all that God has done to apply redemption to our lives. The deeper we go into these waters, the more precious his grace is to us. My purpose is to be a catalyst for your treasuring of his great gift.

I have been prompted by the warning question of Hebrews 2:3 – “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” Planned by God the Father, purchased by Jesus Christ, declared to us by holy prophets and apostles, and applied to us by the Holy Spirit, this salvation is of such weight that we dare not miss it. To our peril we neglect it. How might we neglect this great salvation? John Piper has penned these words in answer to this question:

Don’t neglect being loved by God. Don’t neglect being forgiven and accepted and protected and strengthened and guided by Almighty God. Don’t neglect the sacrifice of the Christ’s life on the cross. Don’t neglect the free gift of righteousness imputed by faith. Don’t neglect the removal of God’s wrath and the reconciled smile of God. Don’t neglect the indwelling Holy Spirit and the fellowship and friendship of the living Christ. Don’t neglect the radiance of God’s glory in the face of Jesus. Don’t neglect the free access to the throne of grace. Don’t neglect the inexhaustible treasure of God’s promises.

John Piper

Even those who have been redeemed by God’s great salvation need reminders of the preciousness of what God has done and is doing in our lives. The mundane crowds out the sacred. The sense of wonder is lost, even among those who serve God well. This book is being written to call us to the quiet, to call us to savor, to call us to love.

Would you be in prayer as I complete the composition of this work? I am hoping to be able to publish in the first quarter of 2022. Pray that my research and study will bear fruit. Pray that I don’t get “stuck” in the writing process. Pray as I consider publishing options. Above all, pray that believers are strengthened and God is glorified.