The writer of Hebrews makes clear what Christ has accomplished for the believer:
Heb 10:14 For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are made holy.
Grace teaching makes the point that we are made perfect, i.e. complete in Christ. The argument goes like this. God cannot associate with sin, yet God indwells the believer. There must be a real state within the believer where we are literally made clean in order for God to indwell us. We are born from above, born anew, and given a new nature, a new heart. The inner man is circumcised from our mortal bodies. We are made righteous and sanctified in Christ. Christ would not dwell in a sinful person, so he makes us a clean and a fitting dwelling for a righteous God. We are perfect, made complete, in the inner man even though we continue to live in a mortal body that drags us into acts of sin.
Paul writes to the Philippians (my emphasis):
Phil 1:3-7 I thank my God every time I remember you. I always pray with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is right for me to think this about all of you, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel all of you became partners in God’s grace together with me.
Verse 1:6 (underlined) is highly controversial. It is a proof text for Reformed theology and is used to support progressive sanctification. Most interpretations overlook the context for this verse. The church at Philippi had given financial support to Paul’s ministry. They have partnered with him in disseminating the gospel. The good work of verse 6 is the outflow of Paul’s proclaiming the gospel through the Philippians and into the world. God began that work in the church of Philippi and it will see completion in the day of the Lord’s return. See Grant Richison’s commentary on this verse for a fuller argument. Make sure to read the comments section where he reinforces his argument greatly. This verse has no direct connection to sanctification, or to our growing into perfection.
The key is that Paul and the Philippians have partnered in promoting the gospel message. That process will see completion at Christ’s return. The church at Philippi shares in Paul’s joy in what God is doing. Later Paul writes:
Phil 1:9,-11 And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
Phil 2:12, 13 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.
Phil 3:8-10 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death,
Paul makes it clear in these verses that the life of a believer rests in Christ. Our willing and our doing come from God. Our righteousness is from God and rests on Christ’s faithfulness. Paul longs to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. Thus he longs for the day when he too will be resurrected with Christ in heaven. These verses are looking forward. They have an end in mind.
Paul writes Philippians from prison. His future is uncertain. He does not know if he might be put to death in Rome, or be set free to once again visit Philippi. In either case he rejoices because the gospel goes forth no matter the circumstances.
With Paul’s possible impending death and future physical resurrection in mind (last verse in bold above) he says this:
Phil 3:12-16 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained.
How has Paul not been perfected? He is righteous and sanctified in Christ. What does he lack? He has yet to die. He has yet to share in Christ’s resurrection. Paul is not yet perfected in this way and he strives to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of him. Christ calls Paul upward towards Paul’s heavenly resurrected body.
Speaking to those who are perfect, Paul says have this same view in mind. In your sufferings look forward to the your heavenly calling, and your new spiritual body. Yes you are perfect here and now, but in this one sense you are incomplete. You will be made perfect when you die and receive your immortal bodies.
Paul says live up to the standard already attained. No view of progressive sanctification in that phrase. Paul is saying that while we are yet in our mortal bodies we should live in the reality of who we are in Christ. The standard Paul is talking about is Christ in you. Paul is saying in the meantime before our dying let us live in the reality of our completeness in Christ.
For Paul, the Philippians, and Christians generally there is a joy in this life despite our suffering, because we have something better coming. Paul says that the gospel goes forth no matter what our circumstances. Paul is not telling us to strive towards some idealized perfection in this life. He spends much time in this letter describing how futile, crap he calls it, his extensive portfolio of human produced and measured righteousness was. He soundly rejects such an approach to his life in Christ. Paul’s striving is part and parcel to Christ’s call on his life. Paul senses that he might soon die. The Philippians could suffer the same fate. Keep moving forward with joy, says Paul. As we give up our imperfect bodies we will soon obtain perfect ones. In the meantime live in Christ. Live in the reality of His perfection within you and the gospel will go forth to His glory and that gospel will go forth until His return.
If you read commentaries on this passage, you quickly find a spiritualization of Paul’s “upward call” and you find the insertion of process sanctification built upon Paul’s “striving” and his use of the word “perfect.” When Paul says, ” Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view.” some commentators say that he is using the word “perfect” here with some irony because of course none of us are perfect. They then give various arguments why Paul can’t be saying what he is saying. In essence their understanding takes Paul’s strong stand against “crap,” against his former life of striving for righteousness with zeal and with strict adherence to the law, and reintroduces that striving into Paul’s Christian life. They also deny the truth of the Hebrews verse quoted at the beginning of this blog.
I think the intensity of Paul’s situation is sinking in and he sees his last days unfolding very quickly. He has run a race. It is time to refocus and to forget what went before and to set his sights on the finish line. When he crosses over that line he will win the prize, he will receive his physical resurrection in Christ.
When Paul uses the Greek word for “perfect” he has in mind a specific meaning. It is not our understanding of perfection, but rather the connotation of being complete, being fully functional. Believers are fully functional in Christ. They have the very presence of God in them actively acting in and through them. In this way they are perfect. Paul along with all believers are not fully perfect in one crucial way, we are temples of God, but those temples are made of clay. Our flesh, emotions, mental state all lack the same redemption that our inner man experiences. The flesh must die for us to be complete as we receive our spiritual bodies in heaven. That is what Paul’s upward call is about.
Notice how upside down the gospel becomes when we read into these passages the need for Christians to press on to some idealized upward call of perfection. We reintroduce the very legalism, the works righteousness that Paul so forcefully and graphically rejects.
Should Scripture be read allegorically? The answer will make a huge difference in your theology.
Reading Scripture allegorically goes way back in Christian history.
Clement of Alexandria, wrote:
The two fish Jesus used to feed the five thousand represent Greek philosophy.
The Mosaic Law prohibitions against eating swine, hawks, eagles and ravens (Lev. 11:7, 13-19) represent respectively unclean lust for food, injustice, robbery and greed.
Allegory often takes a passage and makes a moral statement out of it. Many preachers allegorize by painting a broader picture with a Scriptural passage then what is directly in the text. Allegory is an effective tool when you want to engage a reader in a way that puts the story in their hands. It has been said that allegory draws the story into the reader.
Allegory always requires an interpreter. This can be the reader, the text, or an authority such as an expert on the subject or a belief system. Notice that what Clement of Alexandria drew from the scripture may or may not be true. People might easily reject his allegorical findings as not supported by the text. It is his interpretation.
When we write precisely we avoid allegory like the plague. A legal or scientific document cannot be read allegorically. A will states that a son can inherit on his twenty-eighth birthday. The son walks into court on his nineteenth birthday and claims that he is now entitled to the inheritance. The judge asks on what basis is he entitled. The son argues that he is mature enough to handle the responsibility. The judge says but the will states that you must be twenty-eight. The son replies that that only indicates a level of maturity, not a specific age. Do you think the judge will allow the son’s allegorical interpretation of the will? I doubt it.
Scripture is written using a wide range of literary styles. In the following verse taken from John we know that Jesus is not a literal door. He is speaking metaphorically. We understand and easily recognize this style of communication.
John 10:9-10 I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.
There is a common rule to follow when interpreting Scripture: “We should understand it in its plain, normal sense of meaning. We should interpret the Bible according to the rules of grammar and take into consideration the historical context in which it was written.” I would add that we need to read with careful attention to the Scriptural context of the passage we are reading. This is saying that we treat poetry like poetry, fables like fables, and so on. You read historical segments of Scripture in a different way than you read prophecy, the Psalms, or Paul’s complex arguments.
When a theology begins to allegorize in order to sustain its system, you can be certain that that system requires an interpreter that stands outside of Scripture. That interpretation can come from a necessity to maintain the logic of the theological system, or it might come from a proponents personal view. The interpreters claim will be that “he is rightly dividing Scripture.”
Take ten competent readers and present to them “God so loved the world…” and see if any of them would understand the word “world” to be “the elect.” If one of the ten made that substitution, you would not hesitate to ask if they hold a Reformed view of election. They are using their Reformed theological view of election to interpret Scripture. You would challenge this interpretation because they are not reading words naturally. Nothing in the text supports using “the elect” for “world.” Calvinism is ripe with an allegorical approach to reading Scripture. Why? Because the theology wobbles badly in light of the plain reading of the Word.
Covenant Theology, Calvinism, or Reformed theology holds a view called supersessionism. Supersessionism is a fancy word that means that the Church has replaced, i.e. superseded, Israel. God’s prophecies for Israel are fulfilled, or are now accrued to the Church. The blessings promised to Israel are now experienced by the Church. There is nothing special, in God’s eyes, about the Nation Israel, its land, or the present day Jewish race. In order to hold this view the Scripture must be interpreted properly. When one reads “Israel” in the New Testament one substitutes “Church.” What does this do to the plain, normal reading of Scripture?
In Romans 10:1 “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.”
How does this read allegorically where Israel becomes the Church: Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Church is that they may be saved. So Paul makes it a point to pray for the Church, the Body of Christ, the Saints, the Saved, so that they might be saved. No normal reading of that verse would allow such a substitution. We might also ask why is Paul praying at all for Israel if God no longer has any special regard for them. Why pray for Israel if that entity is now the Church. Why not simply pray for the Church?
Have you ever had a pair of jeans with holes in the knees. You pull a thread and soon you are wearing shorts. Theology is like that. You think you are in comfortable clothes, but soon you find you are naked as can be. Our approach to Scripture has consequences. You try to patch a theological hole and that works for a while until another one appears and then you find yourself patching again and again. Take an allegorical approach to Scripture and you soon have a patchwork of interpretation that hardly reflects the simple reading of God’s Word. Understanding Scripture becomes very complex and you are constantly studying, not Scripture, but the interpretation of Scripture in order to comprehend it. The interpreter becomes more important than the words they are interpreting.
Many supersessionists are preterists. Preterist hold that most or all the Old Testament prophecies were ended in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple. Supersessionists are often a-millennial meaning that there will be no future millennial Rule of Christ on earth. They hold that we live today in a spiritual kingdom where Christ reigns through His church. This is a spiritual and unseen kingdom. A-millennialism teaches that we are in the millennium now . But what do they do with these verses from Revalation:
Rev 20:1-10 Then I saw an angel descending from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain. He seized the dragon – the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan – and tied him up for a thousand years. The angel then threw him into the abyss and locked and sealed it so that he could not deceive the nations until the one thousand years were finished. (After these things he must be released for a brief period of time.) Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. Now when the thousand years are finished, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to bring them together for the battle. They are as numerous as the grains of sand in the sea. They went up on the broad plain of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and devoured them completely. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they will be tormented there day and night forever and ever.
If we are in the millennium now, then we are well past a thousand years for its existence. Faced with an ever lengthening millennium the supersessionist must deal with the six times “a thousand years” is presented in Revelation 20. Their solution is that a thousand years, a millennia, is not a thousand years, but rather it is interpreted to be “a very long time”. If it doesn’t fit allegorize.
The only Scriptural warrant given for this interpretation is found in 2 Peter 3:8: Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. Peter is simply saying that time means nothing to God when He expresses patience toward the ungodly. He is using a metaphor to describe God’s patience. He is not making a statement about time or the interpretation of time. So based on a metaphor and with that one verse the supersessionists have warrant, whenever the need arises, to change the meaning of a plain, exact number of years, a thousand years, to some vague duration of a very long time. That is how the allegorist deals with the fact that his thousand year millennia has already stretched well beyond two-thousand years. Without this external interpretation we would never know.
When you depend on an allegorical interpretation of Scripture you make yourself dependent on those who do the interpreting. You cannot discern what Scripture means for yourself. You must rely on those who know when allegory begins and ends and how it must be applied. You must rely on those who know what words really mean, because if you rely on the plain meaning of words you will get it wrong.
When your theology forces you to allegorize an essential point of an entire chapter of Scripture, you might want to question your theology.
In Compatibilism we find a wonderful land where words don’t mean what you think they do. Compatibilism is a position held by some Calvinists.
Here is what Compatibilism holds: 1) Determinism is true in that all human behavior is caused and determined, 2) voluntary behavior is nonetheless free to the extent that it is not externally constrained, 3) the causes of voluntary behavior are conditions within a person like acts of the will. Compatibilism does not combine libertarian and determinist positions. It does not hold that humans are “a little bit” free or that they have “limited free will” or some free will. Compatibilism is determinism with a position taken to preserve the idea that man is responsible for his behavior.
At the risk of oversimplification, I will restate what is implied in the definition. A person is free if he is not externally constrained. He is free to chose to do what he wants to do. God does not constrain a person from making those choices. However, God determines what a person wants to do.
In Calvinism God saves some and he doesn’t save others. Some are elected and others not. He accomplishes this by issuing an effective call to the elect and an ineffective call to those He does not elect. Those not called have a fallen will that will always reject God. Those called are regenerated and given a will that will always accept God. God determines what a man wills, while man chooses to act based on that determined will.
Calvinism has a serious problem. To preserve God’s sovereignty, all things must be determined by Him. This creates an issue concerning moral responsibility. A person cannot be held responsible for something he cannot avoid doing.
The issues faced by the determinist can be expressed logically.
Hard determinism creates a situation where the person is not morally responsible:
Premise 1: If we are morally responsible for our actions, then we must be free.
Premise 2: We are not free. (determinism)
Conclusion A: Therefore, we are not morally responsible for our actions.
modus tollens: If P, then Q. Not Q. Therefore, not P.
Libertarians make the following argument against determinism claiming we are indeed free (rejecting the second premise above):
Premise 1: If we are morally responsible for our actions, then we must be free.
Premise 2: We are morally responsible for our actions.
Conclusion B: Therefore, we must be free.
modus ponens: If P then Q. P is true therefore Q is true.
The Calvinist doesn’t like the logical consequences of these arguments. The Calvinist wants to hold mankind responsible for his actions, even while preserving God’s control of his actions. Conclusion A must be rejected, we are responsible for our actions. The Calvinist now must find a way within determinism to assert that conclusion B, man is a free agent, is true in order to continue to hold man responsible for his actions. How can man be free, God be sovereign in that He determines all things, and humans be responsible for their actions
The response to this dilemma is varied and complex, but the prevalent move is to redefine freedom. It is said that God does not constrain man externally, but he determines our willingness to act. Man is free in the sense that he is not externally constrained in any way from acting freely as his will or wants dictate. Man chooses to do what he wants, what he wills to do. At the same time man cannot do other than what his will demands and God determines what that will is. We are externally free while we are internally constrained. In order to hold free will and human responsibility as true, the determinist changes the plain meaning of freedom and a number of other key concepts.
The following is one persons expression of Compatibilist freedom:
Although a man is considered unable to choose against his desires, which are caused by his sin nature or God’s intervention, the moral responsibility of sin lies with him. He chose to do it, therefore he is held responsible. Not what caused him to choose, but he that chooses is held responsible. Compatibilsim
We are free to choose to do what we want and thus are responsible for what we do. God determines what we want, what we are willing to do, but He is not responsible for causing our actions. Determinism has not been abandoned, the definition of free will has been changed. We are free because there is no external constraint against our action, while at the same time we have a willingness to act that is determined by God. There is no room here for our normal concept of free will where one can chose either A or not A. Libertarian free will is the unencumbered ability to do otherwise.
As a side note, notice what is said, “…man is considered unable to choose against his desires, which are caused by his sin nature or God’s intervention…” This is a distinction without a difference. God leaves some men in their “sin nature” thus God is responsible for their sin. Saved or not saved, God is determining the state of a person’s will. Again the Calvinist doesn’t want to deal with the plain meaning of his determinism.
One writer exposes the tortured word play that is involved in compatibilism:
Ultimately, theistic compatibilism can only be logically consistent by redefining certain very key terms such as “free will,” “goodness,” and “sin.” Outside of these radical redefinitions there can be no logical consistency. In order for free will and Divine determinism to be compatible, one needs to understand “free will” as “free action in accordance with a determined will;” “goodness” as “anything that occurs;” and “sin” as “that which God chooses to call sin.” All of these redefinitions, though necessary for the logical consistency of compatibilism, are in themselves, illogical. “Free will” that is not free is nonsensical. “Goodness” that manifests as evil is illogical. “Sin” that is in accord with the will of God is spurious. Compatibilism, theistic or otherwise, is a logically untenable position. In order for freedom to be, determinism cannot be. The freedom of compatibilism is determinism under the guise of free will. Fundamentally, compatibilism is a determinist view which is, by nature, contrary to the concept of human freedom. Compatibilism a Critique by Brandon Canning
“In order for freedom to be, determinism cannot be.” The Compatibilist says that we are free to do what we want to do. We are free with no external constraint to choose to act based on our willingness. God determines what that willingness will be. Because there are no outside constraints, we are therefore free. But the reality is that I cannot do other than what my determined will allows. I cannot chose to do otherwise and I can do nothing to change my willingness. This is not freedom, thus Compatibilism fails to change the logical conclusions stated above. Under determinism God is the cause of all our actions, sinful or otherwise and man cannot be held responsible for what he does because he is not free.
Compatibilism is word play. It does not accomplish what the Calvinist wishes to accomplish.
He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:14 [NET])
For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about [was realized] through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17 [NET])
Grace did not begin until Christ. Christian grace will not be found in the Old Testament.
For Christians the law ended at the cross.
Law is the knowledge of good and evil and is most often found in written form. In man’s hands, the law is never static, always subject to interpretation, amelioration, and addendum. The law always punishes and never rewards. Keep this in mind as we talk about law and grace.
Christians avoid the reality of grace and in doing so miss the joy and freedom of the Christian life. They impose God’s moral law as a mandate for Christian living. They assert that Christians will rampantly sin if taught grace without the law.
One writer has this insight: “It seems that our vigilant efforts to prevent anyone from “turning grace into license to sin” has resulted, ironically, in our managing to turn sin into a barrier to accepting grace.”
“License to sin” is a red herring. It ends the discussion about grace and turns it into a discussion about the law. As soon as you introduce the law, you are no longer talking about grace. Grace and law do not complement one another despite the rigor the legalist applies to make them compatible. Law and grace are completely different systems and they oppose one another. One eliminates the need for the other. You live in the reality of grace or you live with the consequences of the moral law. The choice is either/or, not both/and. Grace produces life while the law produces death. Injecting law into a discussion about grace chases a red herring that cannot lead back to grace.
Only grace effectively deals with sin in our lives. The legalist refuses to come to terms with this Scriptural truth. They do not allow the discussion about grace to get that far. They offer their red herring and demand that we mix law with grace in order to have a balanced Christian life. They cling to the law not understanding what a terrible burden it is. Paul warns Christians about reintroducing the law into their lives:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
He is talking about the moral law, the Ten Commandments. Yes, the Ten Commandments will enslave us. God’s moral law does not set us free, nor does it produce life or righteousness. It offers a righteousness we can never achieve because we can never keep the whole law. By contrast, Paul makes it absolutely clear what grace accomplishes in the Christian life:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14).
It is argued that obeying the law will help us accomplish what those verses promise. Paul says it will not. Follow the law and sin the more. Follow the law and suffer the only thing it offers which is death. Grace, on the other hand, teaches a believer to reject ungodliness and makes him eager to do what is good. The law condemns us and excites us to deeper expressions of sin. Grace sets us free from the hold sin has over us producing life. At the Cross, the very nature of sin was broken and it is only by accepting God’s grace (Christ alive in us) that we can benefit from Christ’s work. Christians need to stop chasing a red herring and take a hard look at what grace is and what it accomplishes. They need to move beyond the law to something far more powerful. [Grace is not what Christian’s generally think it is. A place to explore grace can be found here where Jim Fowler writes in detail about grace.]
Looking hard at grace is intimidating to the legalist and he changes the subject by pulling out his obey the law red herring. He says we will take advantage and sin the more without the law. Without the law, how can we know how to be pleasing to God? It is only under that law that we can discern good and evil.
The legalist presents us with a hypothetical, a red herring. He speaks of a born again Christian looking to sin as much as he possibly can because he is now free from the law. I have never met such a person. The overwhelming testimony is that lives change for the good when Christ comes to dwell in a new believer. Those new lives move forward demonstrating the ever-weakening hold of sin. It is not always easy or pretty, but Christ joining Himself with a person has an undeniable and positive impact on lives. The Titus verse above makes it very clear that Grace instills in the believer a longing to do what is good.
Why do legalists pose the hypothetical? Why do they want to change the subject? Why do they refuse to explore what grace really is, or admit the negative impact of the moral law in the life of a Christian? Before I answer let me make it clear that we all suffer from this. We all struggle to come to a place where we are more focused on Christ than on our own human efforts. The problem resides in our flesh.
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:5 [ESV2011])
We cling to the law because it feeds our desire to be like God. We hold up the law, saying that is good and that is evil. We do this in our own life and for the lives of those around us. We pick and chose the laws we like and those we do not. We provide interpretations that make the law easy to comply with for us and hard for others. We use the law to judge ourselves righteous while we judge others unrighteous. In a word, we act like gods.
Hold fast to Satin’s lie that man can discern good and evil and miss the joy of our freedom in Christ. Hold fast your effort to be like God and you will never be free for you cannot possibly do what only God can do for you. Only God is good and only God knows what good is.
I am speaking to a systemic problem in the Church. Talk about grace in depth and you excite a range of emotions and responses that tells us something about ourselves. We become defensive. We sense fear. We express anger. We resist intellectually (red herrings, and many Bible verses). That is because grace attacks the last stronghold in us. It attacks the “me”, the “I”, the self-sufficiency that we cling to for our security.
Grace takes our self-control and joins it to another. Grace exposes the mortality of the flesh and denies that the flesh can be redeemed. Grace attacks our ingrained desire to decide for ourselves what is good or evil in our lives. Grace attacks the principle of sin in us. The flesh will always resist grace.
By grace, we have died to the flesh in Christ on the cross. Yet the battle rages in the Church and in our very being. God has won that battle in Christ. He has set us free to live our lives abundantly with Him apart from the law. Grace is the living dynamic of Christ in us expressing God’s purpose and character through us. New Testament grace did not begin until Christ rose from the dead and entered into the very being of man.
Grace is Christ Himself.
I like simple solutions that work. Occam’s razor states, “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, ‘plurality should not be posited without necessity’.” This means that the simplest answer is probably the correct one. Discussions about Faith trigger my Occam’s razor meter. They seem unnecessarily complex.
Problems exist in reading the Bible today when we encounter the word faith. The modern use of the word has drifted from the meaning of the original Biblical Greek word pistis. Additionally, there is disagreement on how we get faith. Is faith a gift? Is faith the result of regeneration? Is it something else?
A verse in Ephesians is used to support the idea that faith is a gift that comes after regeneration.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, emp. added).
If you believe the “that” and “it” in this verse refers to “faith” then you are reading this in English and not Greek. In English, the “it” and “that” would refer to the closest preceding noun, which is indeed “faith.” However, this is not the referent in Greek. In Greek, you look for a word having the same gender. “That” and “it” in this verse are neuter while the suggested referent “faith” is feminine. This disagreement in gender identifies a special case where one must obtain the referent from a broader context. I will let Eric Lyons make the argument for us here. He concludes that the gift in this verse is salvation not faith. Even Calvin agreed with this conclusion.
Faith is not a gift nor will you find a single verse in Scripture where it clearly states that faith follows regeneration. Faith is something else. Something that is very human and very accessible to everyone.
If faith is not a gift, then how do we get it? The root for the word faith is “believe” and the root for believe is the primary verb for persuade, peitho. Strongs gives the following definitions:
Peitho (verb) translated persuade means, be persuaded, to trust, have confidence, be confident.
Pisteuo (verb) translated believe means, to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in.
Pistis (noun) translated faith means?
Our word faith is derived from the Latin fides which is close in meaning to pistis. However, the word faith has, over time, changed in meaning and taken on a lot of baggage. The word has become a magic word that we use to manipulate God to do our bidding. It is suggested that our faith opens the door to God’s spiritual gifts. Faith is described as equivalent to holding a set of prescribed beliefs, a belief system. When talking about faith in God, some say it is a leap, implying that we must allow our minds to grasp something well beyond our capacity to know or understand, or that is beyond our senses.
Faith has taken on a power and mystique never intended.
Pistis is an abstract noun. Nouns often describe tangible things, a person, place or thing, but a noun can also describe an abstract, like honesty, or truth. These are things not detected with our senses, but are concepts that often describe a state of mind, or of being. Pistis describes a state of mind. This state is arrived at rationally after careful consideration of facts, thus it is a state of mind in which we are persuaded, in which we are confident, in which we have a belief. Often, Pistis is a state of mind in which we are persuaded to take an action.
I look at a ladder and I read the manufacturer’s instructions and warnings. I set the ladder against the wall and check that it is properly aligned. I consider the situation and come to a state of mind where the instructions and descriptions convince me that the ladder is safe to climb. In this settled state of mind and confidence, I climb the ladder. I return to the ground having put my trust in the ladder.
The ladder did not make me trust it, nor did my trust in the ladder do anything to make the ladder function as it was designed. My climbing the ladder was not a leap into the unknown. In fact, just the opposite is true. The qualities of the ladder make it trust worthy and reading about those qualities convinced me to place my trust in the ladder and to climb it.
Our understanding of faith is often upside down. We think we can influence the object of our faith if our faith is strong enough. The opposite is true. The trust worthiness of our faith object changes us and when our faith object is God the potential for that change is well beyond our own doing. Our faith object strengthens our trust. My understanding the ladder caused me to be confident enough to use it. Pistis means trust. This is consistent with its related words belief and persuade. In Greek mythology, Pistis was the personification of trust.
It fascinates me that the Gospel of John never uses the noun pistis where as Paul uses it extensively. John uses the verb pisteuo, believe. It is difficult to think that the two writers have something completely different in mind as though believing in God and trusting Him are two different things.
(John 20:30, 31 [ESV2011]) Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
(1John 5:13 [ESV2011]) 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.
John clearly links the one who is believing to one who is saved. He presents his gospel so that the hearer, or reader is informed, persuaded to believe, producing salvation. John uses a verb to emphasize the act, the process of coming to and maintaining a relationship with Christ while Paul by using a noun emphasizes a believer’s state of being in trust, which saves. The object of both men is trust in Jesus Christ and the totality of who He is.
You hear both writers in the following well-known verses written by Paul:
(Rom 10:15-17 [ESV2011]) And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Coming to know Christ, coming into salvation is a rational process. A sovereign God does not force it on us. He offers salvation to us by His revealing Himself to us. He speaks the Good News to us. The Holy Spirit is very active in that process, but in the end, it is a process of persuasion. We hear what God is saying and we have the capacity to respond positively to His good news. He forces no one into the Kingdom. He calls everyone to trust, to believe and we are persuaded to accept His saving grace into our lives.
Trust is a simple concept that we can all grasp. As I use my ladder repeatedly, I grow in my confidence in it. I grow to trust it more and more. We grow in trust relationships with other people as we get to know them and they over time earn that trust. In our relationship with Christ, we have as our trust object the most trustworthy person who ever lived, God Himself. He will not lie to us, or deceive us. His promises are sure. He is truth.
Why then is it so hard for us to put our trust in God and in His good news? The answer is simple. We place more trust in ourselves more than any other thing in our lives. How sad that is. This is even true for Christians who walk with the Lord on a daily basis. How do I know that? I watch my fellow Christians hold dearly to their own works as the basis for their standing before God. Teach them the freedom of grace, the rest found in grace, the inner perfection of grace, and they say yes that is all very nice, but then they cling dearly to their works as markers for their standing before God. Doesn’t grace and freedom from the law set me free to do what I want and sin to my heart’s content, they ask? The answer is no. The fact is that their clinging to the law, to a performance based life before God, makes them more susceptible to sin not less. Even so, they trust their own efforts more than the work of the Spirit of Christ in them.
It takes time to grow in grace. It takes time to learn that Christ is not just a concept, a grand ideal, a hypothetical that is nice to believe in, but a scary place to trust for anything real in our lives. We trusted Jesus for our salvation and now God asks us to trust Him for our sanctification. That is what we hear from Scripture. That is what God is telling us. Trust comes by hearing and that by the word of Christ. We need to allow God’s word to persuade us once more.
Romans 5:1-2 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith [trust], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith [trust] into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Trust is not a complex idea. It is simple enough for any of us to grasp and to do. The benefits are beyond our imagining. The promise is Christ in you the hope of glory. We place our trust in the Lord and receive His glory. We do not need to fully understand to respond to God’s grace. We simply have to understand how trustworthy our God is and to place our trust in that reality.
What I believe has changed dramatically over the years. I grew up with Presbyterian determinism. It never sat well with me mostly because of youthful rebellion. My concept of God was an old, angry, overbearing, dictator who simply wanted to control my life. I grew to be an agnostic and to love the power of science. Science would hold all the answers. Through it, I might find some control over my life. At some point, I began to dabble in astrology, which gives the illusion of science. Astrology seemed to explain the random, meaningless, occurrences of life. I soon discovered that the explanations offered were just a meaningless as the random occurrences seemed to be.
When presented with the reality of the Gospel message my belief system shifted again and based on that belief I placed my faith in Christ. That faith has remained constant while I have reevaluated what I believe repeatedly. I have not doubted the fundamentals of Christianity, but I have questioned the institutional interpretations of what it is to be Christian. The traditional doctrines bothered me and I have studied them extensively. The older I get the simpler my belief system. Christianity is Christ. There is a great deal behind that statement, but it all points to that terse expression of truth.
Like a child with a soft security blanket, we cling to our belief systems. We defend them with a passion that is beyond rational. We will not let them go. They become the end all of our Christian experience. Christianity rests in correct doctrine. If you hold a different doctrine, you cannot possibly have the same quality of Christian experience I have. So we think.
We forget how radical Christianity really is. From the beginning, it was an attack on the existing Orthodoxy. A change was coming that was far too radical for the orthodox to accept. They even killed the messenger. The early church struggled to keep the message pure. The temptation has always been to mix Old Covenant with New Covenant reality and the modern church has failed in this miserably. The reason rests in our systems of belief that have never let go of the Old Covenant law. Both Calvinism and Arminianism hold to a works based sanctification that points to the Law of Moses as its moral imperative, its guide. We are steeped in it. Most sermons exude the message that our good works, our obedience, our human effort (with God’s grace of course) makes us righteous and holy.
The concept of a works based sanctification gives the Church power over its congregants. It opens the door to behavior modification, to fund raising appeals based on guilt, to an “I am a sinner saved by grace” attitude that gives excuse for continued sin in our lives and for continuous confession. The church keeps us coming back for more. It creates a hunger it can never satisfy. Many of today’s churches offer a false hope. They imply that our doing good will overcome the evil that surrounds us. They preach a love separated from God, implying that we can be the origin of love in the world. This is false. God is love. His character expression cannot be separated from his being.
When we confront fellow Christians with the truth of the Gospel we create a crisis of belief. We are not used to having our security blankets (our orthodoxy) pulled out of our hands and we resist both mentally and emotionally. The crisis is made more extreme when the hearer of the Good News realizes that all his crutches, all his measures of his rightness before God, all his moral efforts, are being stripped of their power and meaning. Laid bare, they are shown to be an empty charade. Then one more layer is added to this new way of being a Christian. We are free in Christ, we rest in Him and we have a new living reality within in us that is willing to be our guide, Spirit speaking to spirit, our inner man right with God. The new reality asks us to believe in something beyond our senses and well beyond our control. It is unseen, unfelt, and very much an unknown way to walk in this world. Not only is our belief system crumbling, but also our faith object is changing from what I do, to what God is doing in and through me. This is so foreign to us that is frightens us.
How do we move the Christian beyond this crisis of faith and belief? Scripture says that faith comes by hearing. John says that he wrote his Gospel so that in its reading the readers might believe. There is no formula. There is no right way. There is no magic potion. We wish it could be that easy. Press a button and a conversion occurs. In our hearts, we know the freedom we have in Christ and we long to share that with our fellow Christians who are working so hard to please God. We preach and teach the Word and we pray for the Spirit to give them open minds and hearts to receive the truth.
One emphasis might help. Those who teach us need to show the place of our belief systems, both in the history of the Church and in the personalities and times that produced them. How and why they developed tells much about their content. When our belief systems go beyond what Scripture warrants we need to be told. We need to confront our orthodoxy as we study Scripture and mature in the Lord. We as congregants need to learn that it is healthy to question our orthodoxy and for it to change over time. We need to realize that Christianity is not a belief system. It is far more than that.
Letting go of our security blankets is a scary, but necessary if we are to experience all God desires for us. As our beliefs are challenged, our faith will not waver because if rests in the one who keeps us to the end.
Dr. James Fowler (Christ in You Ministries ) has issued a 95 Theses for the Twenty First Century Church. It is a challenge to today’s church to a reaffirmation of its historic beliefs and a re-examination of its ecclesial practices and exhortations. This initial draft document was to see its way to a dedicated web site that would invite comment and discussion. Dr. Fowler states his objective as follows: “To attempt to rebuild upon the present crumbling religious superstructures by re-forming existing policies and ideological systems is to invite disaster. The situation requires a complete restoration of the grace dynamic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, whereby the “old wineskin” (Matthew 9:17) of the religious status-quo are discarded and the “new-wine” of the living Lord Jesus is allowed to fill Christian individuals and the collective expression of the Church.” Later he states, “These ninety-five theses for the twenty-first century Church are written with the sincere desire that the reality of the living Lord Jesus and the genuine manifestation of His life in His Body, the Church, might be allowed full expression by the power of God’s Spirit.”
The Theses has a 2009 copyright and a 2010 revision date so I do not know if this project proceeded as far as intended. The dedicated web sites for presenting the document and for discussion are not live.
Dr. Fowler is a Christian Philosopher with a mature and fresh view of the Christian faith. Christianity is Christ in you, manifesting through you. God’s character cannot be separated from God’s being. “God does what He does because He is who He is.” For us to have God’s character expressed in our lives we must have Him alive and active in us. Man has the capacity to be receptive to God’s activity. Only God has libertarian free will in that only God is independent and creative. Man is dependent and derivative. While man does not have libertarian free will, he does have the capacity to choose.
Dr. Fowler has written extensively on what Christianity is not. It is not religion, a belief system, prescribed morality patterns, a means to changing or improving behavior, identification with a church organization, nor practicing regular rituals of worship. Dr. Fowler takes a Christ centric view of the Christian faith with Christ’s resurrection and presence in us being a key element.
There are several of the 95 theses that I have problems with. His statement on Israel (#44) I find difficult. It is replacement theology. He argues that Israel is a designation for the people in whom God rules. That rule now lies in God’s Son who rules over those receptive to Him in faith. To identify Israel as having a divinely chosen status perverts God’s intent. Christ’s rule as Lord can legitimately be called “Israel.” Reference is made to Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16. I do not think Israel can be this easily dismissed. I get the point that only those in Christ will be saved including those of the Old Testament, but I do believe God has a plan for his people that will unfold dramatically as Christ returns. Israel has a special place in God’s plan.
Over all the Theses are a challenge to us to rethink the Christian dynamic and our Christian expression. Our doctrinal positions have grown old and are pressed beyond Scriptural support. We have lost the Gospel of Grace of the New Covenant and we have lost the dynamic of a resurrected Lord at work in our lives.
I believe this discussion is long overdue.