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Category Archives: Study of God

A Great Statement of Faith

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably, ordained whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (The Westminster Confession of Faith).

Two applications

John R. W. Stott

“Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this “cannot” and “will not” lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But however we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 95-96).

J. I. Packer

“The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty . . . what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He visits have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 139).

Steve Cornell

 

Teach this truth to new believers

Discipline is a mandatory part of God’s plan for spiritual transformation.

One of the early points of Christian discipleship should be instruction on the fact that, “The Lord disciplines those he loves.” Some Christians are not experiencing spiritual growth because they don’t understand this truth. 
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And a failure to understand this can easily lead to a bad attitude toward God — which in turn hinders growth in spiritual maturity. We can’t afford to misunderstand that, “God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness.” We must also be informed that, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10-11). 

Mature Christians should be able to offer a few personal examples. 

It’s helpful to see how the father in the book of Proverbs included this truth as he trained his son about life with God. The father challenged his son to trust in the Lord with all his heart and acknowledge the Lord in all his ways. To respond this way to God, the son must avoid the temptation to lean on his own understanding. He must fear the Lord and shun evil, lest he become wise in his own eyes. He must also understand a firm truth about life with God – “the Lord disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:5-11). 

If he responds to the Lord as his father guided him, he will “make his path straight or smooth” and it will “bring health to his body and nourishment to his bones.”  If he honors God with his wealth, with the firstfruits of his crops, he will have an overflowing provision from the Lord.

But will things always go this way for His son? The father knew better. David Hubbard suggested that the father,

“. . . knew that perfect obedience was an impossibility. The temptations were too pressing and attractive; individuals were too gullible and willful. No matter how clearly God marked out the paths of righteousness, some would miss them by carelessness and others would leave them by stubbornness. And when they did, because their basic trust was in God and their deep-seated desire was to please Him, He would meet them as a disciplining Father determined to point out their mistakes and return them to the right road” (pp. 72-73, Communicators Commentary, Proverbs).

The words of Proverbs 3:11 suggest that the son may be tempted to misunderstand the Lord’s discipline. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke.” Like a child who resents his father or mother when they discipline him, so God’s children sometimes resent His fatherly discipline. 

It is this exact concern that occasioned the New Testament use of these verses from Proverbs found in Hebrews 12.

The Hebrew Christians (to whom the book of Hebrews was written) were facing intense persecution and suffering. They were being persecuted mostly by their Jewish friends and relatives who opposed their turn to Jesus as Messiah.

These believers were in danger of being overwhelmed with discouragement because of a false reading of their circumstances. It is this that occasioned a very significant use of Proverbs 3:11-12:

“And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’” (Hebrews 12:5,6).

Notice how the New Testament author takes a text of scripture written centuries earlier and treats it as the voice of God conversing with suffering believers in New Testament times. He personalized the text in verse 5 when he wrote; “addresses you.” 

Then, in Hebrews 12:7-13, the writer applied the authority of the text from proverbs by expounding its implications — resulting in one of the most in-depth treatments of the subject of God’s discipline.

NT use of OT Scriptures:

Not unlike other New Testament uses of the Old, this one freely re-applies the Old Testament text, without drifting outside its original intention. The quote runs this way, “do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you.” It picks up the Septuagint (Greek translation of the O.T.)  addition: “and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” But the main truth is that “the Lord disciplines those he loves.” The readers of the book of Hebrews needed to hear this so they would not misread their hardships as an indication that God had abandoned them—that he was unconcerned for their well-being.

The author of Hebrews argues for the opposite position. 

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7-11).

The statement in Hebrews 12:7 is significant: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” Their hardships were brought on primarily by mistreatment from others. Here they are encouraged to “endure it” — (don’t collapse and give up) — as God’s discipline. As an example, verses 2-3 appeal to Jesus. 

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Emphasis mine).

Perhaps it is most difficult to discern the hand of God or, “God treating us as sons,” when difficulties come from hostile treatment by others. Yet it is at these times that we must rise above the circumstances and see God as superior to the evil intentions of people. We must resolve to see our situation as from our heavenly father — not from those who treat us with hostility. We must confess our Father’s greater love and ask him to sustain us and thank him that he is willing to take so much time to conform us to his likeness. “God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).

Endure the unpleasant work of the planting and growing season by being mindful of the harvest (see Hebrews 12:11). What did Joseph say to his frightened brothers in Genesis 50:20?  “Although you intended evil against me God meant it for good to bring about the saving of many lives.” The Psalmist recognized another benefit in suffering when he wrote: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” and “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I may learn your decrees” (119:67, 71).

Pause long over the truth that the Lord disciplines those he loves so that you will not be tempted to despise the Lord’s discipline and resent his rebuke. 
 
Steve Cornell
 
 

Misunderstanding the ways of God

Here’s a truth we can’t afford to ignore, misunderstand or underestimate: “The Lord disciplines those He loves.” Discipline is part of God’s plan for spiritual transformation – for all of His children.

If you’ve known the Lord for any length of time, you’ve learned that, “God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). Yet, in experience, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

If you’re new in the Lord, when you experience hardship, you might feel tempted to question whether God loves you. “Perhaps,” you think, “I have angered him and he has turned from me.” You may have thought that life with God would fix everything. Why are you facing new challenges and still battleing old ones. What should you think?

Dr. J. I. Packer offers wise and encouraging insight,

“the God of whom it was said, ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms’ (Is. 40:11), is very gentle with very young Christians, just as mothers are with very young babies.  Often the start of their Christian career is marked by great emotional joy, striking providences, remarkable answers to prayer and immediate fruitfulness in their first acts of witness; thus God encourages them and establishes them in ‘the life.’ But as they grow stronger, and are able to bear more, he exercises them in a tougher school.  He exposes them to as much testing by the pressure of opposed and discouraging influences as they are able to bear — not more (see the promise, 1 Cor. 10:13), but equally not less (see the admonition, Acts 14:22). Thus he builds our character, strengthens our faith, and prepares us to help others. Thus he crystallizes our sense of values. Thus he glorifies himself in our lives, making his strength perfect in our weakness. There is nothing unnatural, therefore, in an increase of temptations, conflicts and pressures as the Christian goes on with God — indeed, something would be wrong if it did not happen” (p. 246, Knowing God).

Dr. Packer then raises the question of how God carries out His purposes in drawing us closer to himself:

“Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road.”

“When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself – in the classical scripture phrase for the secret of the godly life, to ‘wait on the Lord’” (p. 250, Ibid).

In Proverbs 3:11-12, the father reminded his son that the Lord disciplines those he loves. The father also challenged his son to trust in the Lord with all his heart and acknowledge the Lord in all his ways. To respond this way to God, the son must avoid the temptation to lean on his own understanding. He must fear the Lord and shun evil, lest he become wise in his own eyes. 

If he responds to the Lord in this way, God will “make his path straight or smooth” and the son will find that it will “bring health to his body and nourishment to his bones.”  If he honors God with his wealth, “with the firstfruits of his crops” he will have an overflowing provision of his necessities.

Will things always go this way for His son? The father knew better. In his helpful commentary on Proverbs, David Hubbard suggested that the father

“. . . knew that perfect obedience was an impossibility. The temptations were too pressing and attractive; individuals were too gullible and willful. No matter how clearly God marked out the paths of righteousness, some would miss them by carelessness and others would leave them by stubbornness. And when they did, because their basic trust was in God and their deep-seated desire was to please Him, He would meet them as a disciplining Father determined to point out their mistakes and return them to the right road” (pp. 72-73, Communicators Commentary, Proverbs).

The words of Proverbs 3:11 suggest a possibility that the son will be tempted to misunderstand the Lord’s discipline and respond wrongly to it. “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke.” Like a child who resents his father’s or mother’s discipline, so God’s children sometimes resent His discipline. 

A powerful New Testament text:

A New Testament quote from Proverbs 3 appears in the most extensive biblical passage on God’s discipline (Hebrews 12:5-6).

The Hebrew Christians, to whom the book of Hebrews was written, were facing significant persecution and suffering. They were being persecuted mostly by their Jewish friends and relatives who opposed their faith in Jesus as Messiah.

“The affliction had largely been in the form of social and economic pressure, though some of them had been imprisoned (10:34). We can imagine the arguments they heard for rejecting the new faith. ‘Look at what you have gotten yourselves into. You have become Christians and all you have had are problems, criticism, hardship, and suffering. You have lost your friends, your families, your synagogues, your traditions, your heritage — everything.’ Some believers perhaps were wondering why, if their God was a God of power and of peace, they were suffering so much. ‘Why are we not winning out over our enemies, instead of our enemies seeming always to have the upper hand? Where is the God who is supposed to supply all our needs and give us the answers to our questions, and fulfillment to our lives? Why, when we turned to a God of love, did everyone start hating us?’” (MacArthur, Hebrews, p.384).

These believers were in danger of being overwhelmed with discouragement from a false reading of their circumstances. It is this that occasioned a very significant use of Proverbs 3:11-12:

“And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’” (Hebrews 12:5,6).

Notice how the New Testament author takes a text of scripture written centuries earlier and treats it as the voice of God conversing with suffering believers in NT times. He personalizes the text in verse 5; “addresses you.” 

Then, in verses 7-13, the writer actualizes the authority of the text from proverbs by expounding its implications — resulting in one of the most in-depth treatments of the subject of God’s discipline.

NT use of OT Scriptures

Like other New Testament uses of the Old, this one freely re-applies the Old Testament text, without drifting from its original intention. The quote runs this way, “do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you.” It picks up the Septuagint (Greek translation of the O.T.)  addition: “and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” But the main truth is that “the Lord disciplines those he loves.” 

The readers of the book of Hebrews needed to hear this so they would not misread their hardships as an indication that God had abandoned them.

The author of Hebrews argues for God’s discipline as a sign of family. 

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7-11).

The statement in Hebrews 12:7 is significant: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” Their hardships were brought on primarily by mistreatment from others. Here they are encouraged to “endure it” — (don’t collapse and give up) — as God’s discipline. As an example, verses 2-3 appeal to Jesus. 

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Emphasis mine).

Perhaps it is most difficult to discern the hand of God or, “God treating us as sons,” when difficulties come from hostile treatment by others. Yet it is at these times that we must rise above the circumstances and see God as superior to the evil intentions of people. We must resolve to see our situation as from our heavenly father — not from those who treat us with hostility. We must confess our Father’s greater love and ask him to sustain us and thank him that he is willing to take so much time to conform us to his likeness. “God disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).

Endure the unpleasant work of the planting and growing season by being mindful of the harvest (see Hebrews 12:11). What did Joseph say to his frightened brothers in Genesis 50:20?  “Although you intended evil against me God meant it for good to bring about the saving of many lives.” The Psalmist recognized another benefit in suffering when he wrote: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” and “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I may learn your decrees” (119:67, 71).

Sometimes God uses afflictions to promote obedience. Other times he allows suffering to prevent disobedience as in the case of the apostle Paul. In II Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul wrote,

“To keep me from being conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

God protected the spiritual well-being of Paul by means of a thorn in the flesh. Whatever this thorn was, it was clearly tormenting and something Paul begged God to remove. But God allowed it to remain to protect Paul from the devastating effects of what would prove to be a greater disaster — conceit. Although the thorn was a “messenger of Satan,” it was also given to Paul by God for a higher purpose.

The conclusion?  “. . . do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves . .” (Proverbs 3:11-12).

Steve Cornell 

See: Why does life have to hurt so much?

 

Living within the tension of two truths

 

“This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

  1. The wrong seems oft so strong,
  2. God is the ruler yet.

Example #1.  Genesis 45:4-8

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.’”

Example #2  Acts 4:27-28

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

The tension of two truths:

1. They did …. (The gospels reveal all the horrible things they did to Jesus)

2. They did ……. “what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

In Scripture, we discover that:

  1. Human actions are treated as real and morally accountable.
  2. But human actions, even when they violate the moral will of God, do not threaten God’s purposes. (Four dimensions to God’s will: 1. Moral, 2. Dispositional, 3. Sovereign, 4. Hidden)

Westminster Confession:

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably, ordained whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

The two truths

God’s sovereignty and how it relates to human accountability has perplexed many thinkers. If God is on the sidelines helplessly observing the chaos, He’s not worthy of worship. If He is blamable for the moral evil in the world, other complications seem insurmountable. This is where we must turn to Scripture for a better understanding and in it we find two truths repeatedly emphasized.

1. God is an absolute, unconditional, sovereign Ruler who transcends the created order and yet condescends to it as the personal Creator, Judge, and Savior. He is not blamable for human evil but neither are His purposes threatened by the choices of finite beings.

2. Human beings are responsible and accountable to God as their Creator, Judge, and Savior.


Helpful insights from D. A. Carson

• In the crucifixion of Jesus, “Herod and Pontius Pilate and the rest conspired together; they did what they wanted to do, even though they did what God’s power and will had determined beforehand should be done.”

• “That is why many theologians have refused to tie ‘freedom’ to absolute power to act contrary to God’s will. They tie it, rather, to desire, to what human beings voluntarily choose.”

•  “Joseph’s brothers did what they wanted to do; Herod and Pilate and the rulers of the Jews did what they wanted to do. In each case, God’s sovereignty was operating behind the scenes: the human participants, to use the language of the early Christians, ‘did what God’s power and will had decided before hand should happen.’ But that did not excuse them. They did what they wanted to do.” 

• “… suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? All of scripture cries against the suggestion.”

• “Then should we conclude that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s ‘power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed?”

• “But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed one to die in their place?”

Two truths we must honor:

1. God is an absolute, unconditional, sovereign Ruler who transcends the created order and yet condescends to it as the personal Creator, Judge, and Savior. He is not blamable for human evil but neither are His purposes threatened by the choices of finite beings.

2. Human beings are responsible and accountable to God as their Creator, Judge, and Savior.


• These two truths are presented repeatedly  in Scripture as authentic and compatible realities.
• If we teach either one in a way that diminishes the other, we do not faithfully represent Biblical truth.
• The mystery behind the compatibility is not fully known to finite minds. But we are called to live faithfully within what seems to us like a tension.

“At no point whatsoever does the remarkable emphasis on the absoluteness of God’s sovereignty mitigate the responsibility of human beings who, like everything else in the universe, fall under God’s sway. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.” (D. A. Carson)
“… I am God, and there is no one like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done. Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure’; … Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isaiah 46:8-11).

• According to Scripture, God “does according to his will in the host of heaven, and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off his hand or say to him, What has Thou done?”  (Daniel 4:35).

• The Psalmist declared that “the Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and in their depths” (Psalms 135:6).

Practical focus on Joseph:

Joseph’s story began like so many others. He was the “victim” of a dysfunctional family. He was caught between inordinate parental favoritism and sibling hatred (see: Genesis 37:1-5). This appeared to define the next 15 years of Joseph’s life as he was sold by his brothers as a slave and then passed from one human owner to another. But Joseph traced his way to faith in the providential goodness of God, even over the evil intentions of his brothers. Joseph rejected the traveling companions of resentment, anger, bitterness, self-pity and revenge. His responses to his brothers spoke of his deep commitment to the providential goodness of God (a conclusion he had to reach and settle on many times throughout his years of great trial).  See: Genesis 45:1-8; 50:15-21 w/ 47:28.

Steve Cornell 

Audio version: “Living Within the Tension of Two Truths.”
 

Do we worship God in Trinity?

 I have enjoyed the resources and dialogue on the Gospel Coalition website (co-founded by D. A. Carson and Tim Keller). They have an excellent Confessional statement  and Vision for ministry. I have participated in a number of discussions and featured one post on their site.

Two well-known members of the Gospel Coalition (James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll) are currently at the center of a controversy involving the doctrine of the Trinity. The stir began over MacDonald inviting Bishop TD Jakes to a leadership forum called the Elephant Room.

The Elephant Room is a “conversation among all kinds of leaders about what the scriptures actually teach” that will be aired on January 25, 2012 in nearly 100 cities in North America. Part of the goal of the Elephant Room is stated as follows:

“To advance Christ’s call to unity we must do what men have always done, we must push and prod and challenge and sharpen each other’s beliefs and methods.”

A number of people who support the idea of the Elephant Room, could not support the invitation of Bishop TD Jakes to be part of the conversation. The primary reason for concern centers on whether or not TD Jakes actually believes in the historic doctrine of the Trinity.

Quite a few leaders have articulated this concern: Justin TaylorNathan Busenitz, Carl Trueman (endorsed by Tim Challies), and then presented with a more polemic tone here), Ray Ortlund and Mark Lamprecht. Other bloggers, like Kevin DeYoung offered an explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Thabiti Anyabwile offered some of the strongest concerns about inviting TD Jakes.

James MacDonald wrote a helpful and gracious post to explain his thinking about inviting TD Jakes. He also wrote a follow-up post expressing his enthusiasm about having Jakes in the Elephant Room. Mark Driscoll wrote a post both welcoming the opportunity to address TD Jakes and explaining the doctrine of the Trinity.

Much of the discussion seems to come down to the purpose of the Elephant Room. How much doctrinal agreement is intended for this event/medium? Is representation of a particular doctrinal viewpoint required or is it meant to be a lively discussion/debate about doctrine and practice? The answer to these questions could direct the response to Jakes involvement.

A word of caution:

While reading some of the posts on this controversy and some of the comments, I recalled a word of caution attributed to the late Medieval Catholic Monk, Thomas á Kempis:

“What good does it do you if you dispute loftily about the Trinity, but lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity?”

Although Christians joyfully confess that: “We worship God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor separating the substance” (Athanasian Creed), the Church father correctly observed that, “He who would seek to understand the trinity is in danger of losing his mind; yet he would deny the trinity is in danger of losing his soul.”

“… if there has ever been a genuine ‘problem’ in Christian doctrine, then surely it is how the eternal God can be both One and yet Three at the same time” (God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice, p. 9, Timothy George).

When contemplating truths like the Triune nature of God, we must remind ourselves of a distinction between truths that are beyond our knowledge and truths that contradict what we know. The God revealed in Scripture infinitely transcends our finite comprehension. What we know about God, we know because He has condescended to reveal himself to us. Yet we should expect that some of His majestic existence will simply be beyond the realm of finite minds (Is. 55:8-9; Job 11:7; Rom. 11:33). This is not truth that contradicts our knowledge but truth that is simply beyond it. 

The testimony of Scripture in its entirety conclusively leads to the triune understanding of God. We would not expect such a truth to originate from human minds. Yet the communitarian nature of God is clearly reflected in the beings He made in His image. The best response to such a revelation of God’s being is worship.

The best way to defend the doctrine of the Trinity is to invite people to read the Bible from beginning to end. Although both Muslims and Jews reject the Trinity as Tritheism, the entire witness of Scripture requires a triune understanding of God. 

“We may say, then, that when the whole text of Scripture is taken seriously, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges. It teaches clearly that God is one and is unique, that he is the only God that is true and exists. It teaches, either directly or indirectly, that there are three persons who are fully divine, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And it also teaches, indirectly and by implication, that these three are one (Making Sense of the Trinity, by Millard J. Erickson, p. 42). 

Consider a few points:

  1. Statements on the oneness of God (monotheism) (Deut. 6:7; I Cor. 8:4, 6; I Tim. 2:5-6; Ja. 2:19). These statements were given to people who were surrounded by polytheistic religion.
  2. Allowances for oneness in a compound sense - There is a plurality within the oneness of God. In Gen. 1:1 the word for God (Elohim) has a plural ending; In Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:17; Isa. 6:8 we observe plural pronouns in reference to God. Deut. 6:4 uses a compound unity noun in reference to God (Cf. Gen. 2:24; Num. 13:23; Ez. 2:64; Jer. 32:38,39). Consider also: Theophanies/Christophanies – “The Angel of the Lord” – Gen. 16:7-13; Ex. 3:1-6; Jud. 13:21-22; The Angel of the lord is called God. Zech. 1:12 – “Then the Angel of the Lord answered and said, ” Lord of Hosts”… The Angel of the Lord talks to God. Yet: “God is Spirit” (John 4:24) and “No man hath seen God” (John 1:18). 
  3. Distinctions of Father, Son, Holy Spirit -(Mt. 3:16-17; 28:19-20; Jn. 5:32,37; Acts 7:56 w/Heb. 1:3; Isa. 48:16; Jn. 14:16,17; 15:26; I Cor. 12:4-6; II Cor. 13:14).
  4. Co-sharing of attributes, works and titles of deity between Father, Son, and Spirit

a. Each is immutable –

      • Father – Ma. 3:6; Ja. 1:17
      • Son – Heb. 13:8
      • Spirit – Heb. 9:14

b. Each called God -

      • Father – I Pet. 1:2
      • Son – John 1:1; 20:28; Ti. 2:13; Rom. 9:5; II Pet. 1:1
      • Spirit – Acts 5:3-4; I Cor. 3:16; I Cor. 6:19

c. Each involved in creation -

      • Father – Heb. 11:3; Ps. 102:24, 25; Rom. 11:35
      • Son – Col. 1:16; Jn. 1:3
      • Spirit – Heb. 9:14

d. Each is eternal -

      • Father – Ps. 90:2; Isa. 40;28
      • Son – Jn. 8:58; Rev. 1:8
      • Spirit – Heb. 9:14

5.  Statements on equality in Scripture - Phil. 2:5-10; Heb. 1:1-3; I Jn. 5:20

6.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit at work in salvation -

      • Eph. 1:3-4 – Chosen by the Father
      • Eph. 1:5-7 – Redeemed by the Son
      • Eph. 1:13-14 – Sealed with the Spirit
      • The Father sent the Son (Jn. 3:16), the Son sent the Spirit (Jn.16:7-14).
    • “The gospel of salvation through a divine-human mediator and a divine Spirit cannot be true if trinitarianism is false, nor can there then be such a thing as communion with the three persons of the Godhead distinctly” (J. I. Packer). 

The practical implications of this doctrine relate to who God is, how He works, and how He is to be approached.

Deeper reflection on the doctrine of Trinity: 

    1. God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity and Making Sense of the Trinity, by Millard J. Erickson.
    2. God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice, Timothy George (editor)
    3. The Beauty Of The Infinite: The Aesthetics Of Christian Truth, David Bentley Hart
    4. God’s Life in Trinity, Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker (editors)
    5. The God Who Is Triune: Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God, Allan Coppedge

Latest from James MacDonald

Be sure to see the seasoned response from D. A. Carson and Tim Keller: Reflections…

Steve Cornell

 

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3 Questions for the Brave

A contemporary context for the three questions:

Themes related to common grace have gained renewed significance among younger evangelicals. As an example of how this plays out, some Churches speak of inviting people to belong before believing. They see life with Christ as more of a journey or a conversation. Younger evangelicals are often reticent about viewing their Christianity as a destination or a conclusion one reaches. But perhaps their openness to belonging before believing is also reactionary to non-negotiable lines drawn by their spiritual predecessors. These lines were used to distinguished those who were in from those who were out. Separation from those on the outside of the Church was a major emphasis. Yet the separatist approach often came with the hypocritical baggage of legalism–a major aversion for younger evangelicals.

A theological context:

I think the belonging before believing position is partly based on a theology of shared humanity rather than differences between believers and unbelievers. It’s a desire to seek commonality over separation from the “world”.

We have all (for example) been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9) and, therefore, share much in common. We all live under God’s common grace as recipients of blessings outside of the boundaries of salvation.

Every human being on the planet is known by God, considered and evaluated by God, called to account by God” “To be human is to be addressable by one’s Creator—with no regard for ethnicity or covenant status. God can speak to an Abimelech or a Balaam or a Nebuchadnezzer as easily as an Abraham, a Moses or a Daniel” (C. Wright, The Mission of God).

¨To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:14). ¨The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1).  “Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11).

By emphasizing belonging before believing, some emerging churches are open to enlisting those who have not yet come to faith to use their gifts in the service needs of the Church. If you’re a gifted violinist or artist, your gifts are encouraged and celebrated in the gatherings. I am not sure how much this approach is knowingly validated on a doctrine of common grace but it would give it the best possible read. This is one example raising important questions like the three I raise below.

Side bar: Are Church work days the only places for non-believers to get involved? Are we uncomfortable with an unbeliever being part of our worship team or in our choir (if we still have one)? I am not limiting my exploration of the questions below to these matters but they provide a focus for discussion. How would you answer these questions? How do texts like Acts 14 and 17 relate (see below)? What about Psalm 19 and Romans 1?

Three questions:

1. In what ways does God care about the actions and achievements of non-elect persons that are not linked directly to issues of individual salvation?

2. Are salvific categories adequate to cover all of God’s dispositions toward human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed?

3. How do we take with utmost seriousness the lines between belief and unbelief, between those who live within the boundaries of saving grace and those who do not, while at the same time maintaining an openness to—even an active appreciation for—all that is good and beautiful and true that takes place outside of those boundaries?

Steve Cornell


Acts 14:15-17

After the miraculous healing of a crippled man, the people rushed Barnabas and Paul to worship them. Listen to their response:

“Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:15-17).

These are descriptions of God’s activities—not toward those who believe, but toward unbelievers. “He has not left Himself without testimony” (Verse 17).

Acts 17:24-28

The apostle also addressed these matters to the philosophers of Athens:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28).

Helpful works:

1.
The Mission of God, by Christopher Wright

2. He Shines in All That’s Fair by Richard Mouw

3. Consider the Lilies by T. M. Moore

 

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The problem of evil in the world

Crooked by Gisli F

by Steve Cornell

A survey was taken to ask people what they would want to know from God if they were permitted to ask Him one question. “Why did God allow so much suffering and evil in the world?” was the leading question. When he was an atheist, C.S. Lewis was troubled by this question. He said: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.”

Atheist Richard Dawkins used a similar argument: “If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies…are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would neither be evil nor good in intention…In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason init, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, nor purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” (River out of Eden).

If this is an accurate picture of the universe, why should anyone value human life or abhor evil? Who is qualified to declare some things to be good and moral; others to be bad and evil? Why should someone expect to find meaningful existence in a universe of blind physical forces? What place does justice have in such a world? Why is there deign and purpose?

Troubled by such questions, atheist C.S. Lewis asked, “How had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist-in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless- I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality-namely my idea of justice was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.” (Mere Christianity)

But we continue to seek meaning, discover purpose and define good and evil. And, we find ourselves drawn back to the possibility of a designer, a creator, a lawgiver, and a judge.

Yet we struggle to understand how such a being relates to a world of suffering and evil. If God is simply on the sidelines helplessly observing the chaos, He is not worthy of worship. If he is blamable for the moral evil in the world, other problems arise. This is where we must turn to Scripture for a better understanding and in it we find two truths repeatedly emphasized.

1. An absolute, unconditional, sovereign God who transcends the created order and yet condescends to it as the personal creator, judge, and savior.

2. Human responsibility and accountability to God as creator, judge, and savior.

If you do not come to terms with these two truths, you will not understand the Bible or make sense of the world. I am not suggesting that these truths are easy to understand nor am I suggesting that all mystery is removed. Some mystery remains, yet it remains in the context of a number of sobering points of clarity.

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably, ordained whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” (Westminster Confession)

“At no point whatsoever does the remarkable emphasis on the absoluteness of God’s sovereignty mitigate the responsibility of human beings who, like everything else in the universe, fall under God’s sway. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.” (D. A. Carson)

Explaining the two truths about God:

“Many Christians today think that if human beings are to be thought of as morally responsible creatures, they must be free to choose, to believe, to disobey, and so forth. But what does ‘freedom’ mean? Sometimes without thinking about it, we assume that such freedom must entail the power to work outside God’s sovereignty. Freedom, we think, involves absolute power to be contrary, that is, the power to break any constraint, so that there is no necessity in the choice we make. If we are constrained to choose a certain option, if what we decide is in fact utterly inevitable, then how could it be ours? And if not truly ours, how can we be held morally accountable?” (D. A. Carson)

Some examples from the Bible:

In the crucifixion of Jesus, “Herod and Pontius Pilate and the rest conspired together; they did what they wanted to do, even though they did what God’s power and will had determined beforehand should be done. That is why many theologians have refused to tie ‘freedom’ to absolute power to act contrary to God’s will. They tie it, rather, to desire, to what human beings voluntarily choose.”

“Joseph’s brothers did what they wanted to do; Herod and Pilate and the rulers of the Jews did what they wanted to do; the Assyrians did what they wanted to do. In each case, God’s sovereignty was operating behind the scenes: the human participants, to use the language of the early Christians, ‘did what God’s power and will had decided before hand should happen.’ But that did not excuse them. They did what they wanted to do.” (emphasis mine)

“Taking this a step further, suppose God had not been sovereign over the conspiracy that brought Jesus to Calvary. Would we not have to conclude that the cross was a kind of afterthought in the mind of God? Are we to think that God’s intention was to do something quite different, but then, because these rebels fouled up his plan, he did the best he could, and the result was Jesus’ atoning death on the cross? All of scripture cries against the suggestion.”

“Then should we conclude, with some modern theologians, that if God is as sovereign as the early Christians manifestly believed him to be so sovereign in fact that the conspirators merely did what God’s ‘power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ then the conspirators cannot reasonably be blamed? But that too destroys Christianity. The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed one to die in their place?”

“God is absolutely sovereign, yet his sovereignty does not diminish human responsibility and accountability; human beings are morally responsible creatures, yet this fact in no way jeopardizes the sovereignty of God.” (D.A. Carson “A Call to Spiritual Reformation” p.156)

 

Presenting the Unknown God Pt. 1

“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean. (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’

‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28′For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.’”

“When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” (Acts 17:16-34)

An amazing man enters an extra ordinary city

This is the account of an extra ordinary man of God confronting an extra ordinary city of man. The apostle Paul was the man; Athens, the city. Consider this extra ordinary man:

“The apostle Paul traveled much greater distances than from Chicago to New York, not in the ease of a train, an automobile, or a plane, but for the most part on foot, and that not on level roads such as we know, but through sandy deserts, along fever-ridden coastal plains, swimming icy rivers, set upon by robbers, beaten by his own countrymen, thrown into prison, sometimes left as one dead. Look at a map of the Roman world that shows you Paul’s journeys, and then confess that our travels are insignificant compared to his.”

“But there was more than mere travel with this man, Paul. Our day is a travel age, vast multitudes move from the city to the country and from the small town to the great city, in innumerable excursions, for a change of scenery, rest and entertainment, without accomplishing anything except having a good time. Paul did not travel for travel’s sake; he traveled to preach- to stir up men, to bring conviction to human hearts, to assault the strongholds of paganism, to do everything in his power, by the grace of God, for the deliverance of men from the bondage of darkness and serving dead idols, to beholding the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

“Frankly, my fellow believers and fellow preachers, even when we do travel to preach, what happens in the great cities we visit? Nothing! A morning audience of people already Christians, a delicious dinner, a few kind words, a generous check, and we go on our way. What does the city know of our coming? Nothing! What does the city care? Nothing! What are our results? So meager as not to be reckoned. But this man Paul, when he went into a city, turned it upside down, riots broke out, men left the temples; the sale of images immediately showed a decrease; he was seized by the populace; he was brought before kings. Through this man paganism was dealt a deathblow. Look at that map- Colosse, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, Lystra, Derbe, everywhere great and flourishing churches, with bishops, before the end of the century! And then open your New Testament and see what he did in the way of writing, such epistles that nineteen hundred years of study have not exhausted them.”

“There has never been any man as great since the death of our Lord, as this man. This is that servant of Christ, the mighty Apostle, who is entering on foot this summer day, the city of Socrates, of Plato, of Aristotle. The city where almost everyone in philosophy worthy the name had been born and grown to maturity, where art had reached its greatest glory, and oratory had been heard in its greatest power, where a knowledge of everything then worth knowing, of the skies above, the earth on which we live, and much that is under the earth, had been brought together, in a passion for truth.  What could this man Paul do, what would he want to do, in this city of Athens?” (Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand, pp. 247-248).

Unexpected arrival in Athens

As far as we can know the city of Athens was not on Paul’s travel itinerary. God had called him to the province of Macedonia. Athens was in the province of Achaia. Paul must have been confused by his circumstances. He knew God called him to Macedonia and yet he was driven from one Macedonia city to another until it became clear that there was no safe place for him in the province.

In Philippi, people responded positively to the gospel but Paul ended up being severely beaten and jailed. In Thessalonica, people responded favorably to the gospel but hostilities toward Paul became so intense that the new believers had to escort Paul to the city of Berea. In Berea, people again responded to the gospel with great eagerness examining the scriptures carefully to see if Paul’s teaching was correct. But the persecutors from Thessalonica made their way to Berea and drove Paul out of that city.

Driven from one Macedonian city to another as if there were no place for him in the province, he finally ended up in Athens, a city of Achaia, and one of the great cities of human history from man’s perspective.

“When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:13-15).

An extra ordinary city

An extra ordinary man of God in an extra ordinary city of the world. Although the political stature of Athens had diminished by the time of Paul’s arrival, the city maintained a prestigious reputation as a world-renown center of intellectualism.

The titles ascribed to Athens tell the story:

“The Mansion house of wisdom.” “The fountain of all arts.” “The Mother of humanity.” and “The eye of Greece.” It was a university city proud of its cultural and intellectual achievements. At one time it was home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and other notable philosophers. Anyone aspiring to intellectual significance had to connect with Athens. Athens had more that was splendid in architecture, more that was brilliant in science, and more that was beautiful in the arts, than any other city of the world; perhaps more than all the rest of the world united. Athens was not your normal city, but the apostle Paul was by no means your normal man.

“Now and then there breaks from the shell of mediocrity a man of unswerving convictions willing to stem the tide of evils of his day, such was the apostle Paul” (W. Smith). In just ten years, this man started churches in four Roman Provinces: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Prior to his arrival in these provinces, no churches existed.  After his ministry to these areas, the gospel of Jesus Christ was flourishing in all four provinces with established local churches.

Paul’s life before Christ

Paul was at one point a zealous persecutor of Christians (perhaps the most feared persecutor).  Out of loyalty to his Jewish heritage, he viewed the Church of Jesus Christ as a threat to the purity of Judaism.

Although raised in the Greek city of Tarsus with the privileges of Roman citizenship, nothing tainted his Jewish heritage.  Paul had attained all the elements of status among the Jewish people.  He was: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee who followed all the legal demands of the law and demonstrated his zeal for Israel by persecuting Christians” (Philippians 3:4-8).

Then, to use Paul’s own words, in midcourse, while persecuting the Church, he was: “apprehended by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12). And from his conversion to Christ to his death, this ma n turned from being foremost persecutor of Christians to become the foremost proclaimer of the gospel.  He had the unique combination of being thoroughly educated in Old Testament scriptures and completely familiar with Greek culture and learning.

Was the visit to Athens a low point for Paul?

Some see this as a real low point for Paul. It would seem reasonable to think that he was a little discouraged by the events in Macedonia. Surely he was concerned about the physical safety and spiritual wellbeing of the new believers he had left behind.

He is alone in Athens waiting for his co-workers to join him. Maybe this would be a good time for Paul to rest from the demands of ministry. After being hunted and hated; beaten and driven from city to city, he has an opportunity to vacation in Athens. Most people came to Athens to observe the wonder of its architecture and paintings, and to listen to the debates of the great philosophers. Is this what Paul will do in Athens? How will Athens affect Paul?

How did Athens affect Paul?

The average person came to Athens and was filled with a sense of awe and amazement at the monuments of human achievement. But, the apostle is no average person. Paul was “greatly distressed” to see that Athens was a city “full of idols.” One commentator noted that, “…there is no account that the mind of Paul was filled with admirations; there is no record that he spent his time in examining the works of art; there is no evidence that he forgot his high purpose in an idle and useless contemplation of temples and statuary. His was a Christian mind; and he contemplated all this with a Christian heart. That heart was deeply affected in the view of amazing guilt of a people who were ignorant of the true God, who had filled their city with idols reared to the honor of imaginary divinities (Barnes).

A person’s character and the purposes of his life determines what he sees wherever he goes.  When Paul saw that Athens was full of idols, he was “greatly distressed” by what he saw. “His spirit was being provoked” (N.A.S.B.). “His spirit was stirred in him” (K.J.V.).

A city full of Idols

Historians said that one was more likely to see a god or goddess in the streets of Athens than a man.  “There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues, and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, ‘whose gleaming spear-point was visible forty miles away.’ Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, the city’s patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana, and Aesculapius. The whole Greek Pantheon was there– all the gods of Olympus. And they were beautiful.  They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. There is no need to suppose that Paul was blind to their beauty. But beauty did not impress him if it did not honor God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Instead, he was oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the God-given artistic creativity of the Athenians was being put. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols” (John Stott).

Idolatry in Athens was not the tribal, barbaric type. It was more of a high-class cultural reality. Yet, no matter how high-class, their idols stood as monuments to the emptiness and futility of their existence. Their idols were also an affront to the glory of the one true God.

Foolishness of Idolatry

On one level, it appears to be a great contradiction that the world’s center of learning and wisdom was filled with the most foolish things a man could create.

“But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats” (Psalm 115:4-7).

Athens had idols to represent every aspect of human life and the physical universe. So extreme was their idolatry that they even erected an altar with an inscription to an unknown God (just in case they missed a deity). “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To an unknown God. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

What greatly distressed Paul about the idols of Athens?

The answer to this question will provide the greatest possible incentive for evangelism.  The single Greek word translated by the N.I.V. as “greatly distressed” is a rare word in the New Testament. But the word is not rare in the Greek translation of the O.T. It means, “to be irritated or provoked to anger.” This word is repeatedly used in the Greek translation of the O.T. to describe the response of the Holy One of Israel to the idolatry he observed (see: Isa. 6:5:2-3; Dt. 9:7,18,22; Ps. 106:28-29).

In a general sense, an idol is anything that stands in the way of the worship of the one true God. An idol misrepresents God and distracts people from God’s exclusive right to glory. God said, “I am the Lord, that is my name! I will not give my glory to another, or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). The testimony of the new believers in Thessalonica was that they “turned to God form idols to serving the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9). Someone has said that, “Our Creator and Redeemer has a right to our exclusive allegiance, and is ‘jealous’ if we transfer it to anyone or anything else. Moreover, the people of God, who love God’s name, should share in his ‘jealousy’ for it.”

Application:

When we see people giving anyone or anything the honor and glory that belongs to God, we should be greatly distressed. Was Paul burdened about the eternal destiny of the people of Athens? Yes! But that concern was secondary to his jealousy for the name and honor of God. The highest possible incentive for evangelism is not obedience or compassion, but zeal for the glory of God. And since God the Father exalted Jesus to the highest place of honor, we should feel greatly distressed by the lack of honor given to Him.

Many of us would have to admit that we are too undisturbed by the lack of honor for Jesus that surrounds us. Are we blinded by the achievements of man to the point that we fail to see how they often stand in opposition to the glory of God? Let us ask God to open our eyes and fill us with zeal for his glory. May God help us to be greatly distressed by the idols of our times!

A song for reflection:

Help me to see this world dear Lord as though I were looking through your eyes. A world of men who don’t want you Lord yet a world for which you died. Let me kneel with you in the garden. Fill my eyes with tears of agony. For if once I could see this world the way you see I just know I’d serve you more faithfully.

Steve Cornell

See also: Part 2 and Part 3

 

How to waste your life and lose your soul

“Happiness based on worldly security alone is endlessly vulnerable to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which may come in the form of illness or inflation or the loss of a loved one. There are all manner of threats to the meaning of our lives both internal and external which conspire to destroy it if it is inadequately grounded.”

“We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it.  The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God.  Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.” (J. I. Packer) 

 
 
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