Wednesday, July 19, 2006

what is the gospel?

A Summary of the Gospel
The gospel of Christ in general is this: It is the good tidings that God has revealed concerning Christ. More largely it is this: As all mankind was lost in Adam and became the children of wrath, put under the sentence of death, God, though He left His fallen angels and has reserved them in the chains of eternal darkness, yet He has thought upon the children of men and has provided a way of atonement to reconcile them to Himself again... Namely, the second person of the Trinity takes man's nature upon Himself, and becomes the Head of a second covenant, standing charged with sin. He answers for it by suffering what the law and divine justice required, and by making satisfaction by keeping the law perfectly, which satisfaction and righteousness He tenders up to the Father as a sweet savor of rest for the souls that are given to Him...And now this mediation of Christ is, by the appointment of the Father, preached to the children of men, of whatever nation or rank, freely offering this atonement unto sinners for atonement, requiring them to believe in Him and, upon believing, promising not only a discharge of all their former sins, but that they shall not enter into condemnation, that none of their sins or unworthiness shall ever hinder the peace of God with them, but that they shall through Him be received into the number of those who shall have the image of God again to be renewed unto them, and they they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. - Jeremiah Burroughs

giving Jesus a try?

Should we say, "perhaps you should try Jesus as your savior" "There are lots of religious options and if you try this particular religious option you might like it."? ...this kind of gospel presentation is almost a consumer market oriented mentality ... No, Paul tells us the gospel is "Jesus is Lord and He will soon be invading with His armies. He is offering pardon in advance of His invasion and should you receive the pardon and ally yourself with Him now before He invades, when he comes you will be considered His ally and He will raise you to Kingship. The alternative is to be under the wrath of the king. It is not some kind of religious option. It an announcement that a new king is on the throne and he'll be invading. The gospel is not an invitation to an array of a buffet style choices, it is a command. Will you heed the command? Jesus is Lord, repent and believe. -William Wilder

Friday, July 14, 2006

the discomfort of the justified life

by Jerry Bridges

I am writing this article just after the conclusion of the high school basketball season. The girls’ team from one of our city’s high schools had a successful season, going all the way to the state championship game where they lost. The next morning the sports section of our daily newspaper showed a pathetic picture of some of the girls sitting on the bench watching the clock run down and knowing they had just lost the championship game. There they sat, chins in hand, looking quite dejected because they had been defeated.

We Americans don’t like defeat, whether it’s in a basketball game or in dealing with sin in our lives. I suspect that’s why we don’t like the seventh chapter of Romans. It sounds too much like defeat. It really isn’t about defeat, however. It’s about struggle; a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:17, “For the desires of the flesh are against the spirit, and the desires of the spirit are against the flesh. For these are opposed to each other to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” This is a picture of struggle. Then Peter urged us in 1 Peter 2:11, “To abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your souls.” Notice the war metaphor. There is indeed a guerilla warfare going on in the soul of every believer that causes us a great deal of discomfort. We don’t like the struggle, and we especially do not like it when we feel defeated in the struggle.

Unbelievers don’t have such a struggle. For the most part, they enjoy their sin or rationalize their sinful attitudes. They feel justified in their self-righteousness, their critical and unforgiving spirits, and their pursuits of pleasure and materialism. Occasionally, they regret the consequences of their attitudes and actions, but they do not see them as sin. There is no guerilla warfare for the unbeliever. They may or may not have conflicts with other people, but there is little conflict within themselves.

Not so with the believer. The moment we trust in Christ as Savior, we are made new creations in Christ. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us to animate and empower this new life. He comes to deal with those sinful attitudes and actions, but they don’t disappear overnight. They must be, to use Paul’s words, “put to death” (Rom. 8:13, Col. 3:5). And that’s when the guerilla warfare begins. The flesh—that is, our persistent inclination towards sin, which we have from birth—that generates those sinful attitudes and actions begins to fight back. Romans 7:14–25 helps us understand this internal conflict with the flesh in a helpful way because it describes the experience of a growing Christian who is continually discovering the depths of sin still present in his or her life. Many Bible students will disagree with that last sentence. In fact, this passage of Scripture has been something of an exegetical battleground for centuries. Pages have been written by capable and godly people presenting other views and rejecting the view to which I subscribe. This is not the place, however, to discuss the various interpretations of Romans 7:14–25. Most readers of Modern Reformation will already be familiar with them. For those who want to pursue this debate, James Montgomery Boice’s expositional commentary on Romans has an excellent, nontechnical discussion of four main interpretations.

Theological giants, such as Charles Hodge and John Murray, have ably defended the view that Romans 7:14–25 describes the internal conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. And I certainly cannot add anything to their technical arguments. However, I can offer two of the most compelling reasons for seeing the passage as descriptive of the internal conflict with sin that any growing Christian experiences.

First, there is the natural, literary sense of the passage. What would those reading Romans 7:14–25, untutored in familiar theological debates, understand Paul to mean? Would they not assume that Paul is describing himself in his present state at the time he is writing? They might not fully understand what he is saying, but they would assume Paul is describing the reality of his present experience. Paul did not play literary games with his first-century readers. Admittedly, as Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:16, some things in his letters are hard to understand. But from his point of view, Paul wrote his letters in a straightforward manner to people who were fairly new believers. I believe the first-century Christians in Rome would have assumed Paul was describing his own experience as an illustration of how all believers struggle with the flesh.

The second reason I believe Romans 7:14–25 describes the experience of a growing Christian is that it so accurately reflects the experience of any believer who is intentional about his or her pursuit of a holy and Christ-like life. For the reality is, the more mature we become, the more anguish we experience over the difference between desire and accomplishment in our efforts to put sin to death and to put on Christ-like character.

Early in my Christian life I was exposed to the view that every Christian should “get out of Romans 7 into Romans 8.” This view depicts the Romans 7:14–25 person as one who is seeking to live the Christian life in the energy of the flesh, whereas Romans 8 depicts him as living by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Romans 7 person is living a life of spiritual defeat, but the Romans 8 man is living a life of continual victory. This view created great frustration for me because I never seemed to be able to make the transition from Romans 7 to Romans 8.

I could see myself described in Romans 7, but I assumed that was because I was a “defeated” Christian. Then gradually I came to the conviction that a person never does get out of Romans 7 in the sense that he or she no longer struggles with the flesh. God providentially brought me into contact with the works of the older Reformed writers who reinforced my newly developed conviction. This was a great liberating experience. I found I could deal with the reality of the Romans 7 conflict when I realized it was the normal experience of people who are sincere and intentional about spiritual growth.

Again, the reality for every believer is that the more we grow in Christian maturity, the sharper this conflict becomes. The more we understand the perfect will of God, the more we see how far short we come in obeying it. And we should keep in mind that we are not only to joyously obey the moral will of God but we are to graciously submit to the providential will of God—that is, to the circumstances, whether good or bad, that he brings or allows into our lives.

One of the most difficult precepts to obey of the moral will of God is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That this is a moral command is shown by Paul’s identical expression in chapter 4, verse 3 where he writes: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” It is God’s moral will that we abstain from immorality, and it is also God’s moral will that we give thanks in all circumstances.

Now, most Christians readily understand that it is God’s will that we abstain from sexual immorality. That command seems relatively easy to obey, especially if we focus on the act and not the thoughts of the heart. But to give thanks in difficult circumstances is an altogether different matter. Oftentimes I find myself giving thanks not wholeheartedly but as a sheer act of the will. But I don’t think that is really giving thanks. Recently, in a situation that did not turn out the way I had hoped it would, I said to God: “Father, I give you thanks for the way this has turned out, but I am disappointed.” Then the thought came to me, Jesus would not have been disappointed. Jesus so perfectly trusted his Father’s providential care of his life that he freely submitted to whatever circumstances came his way.

Now, I know and have taught numerous times that nothing happens to us that God does not ordain; that a sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from his will and that we are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29–31). This being true then, why do I not give thanks genuinely and joyously? Why do I not accept the fact that my infinitely wise and loving Father has ordained these circumstances for my good? It is because “when I want to do right [that is, joyously give thanks] evil [that is, the desire for my own agenda] lies close at hand” (Rom. 7:21). The flesh in the form of my own desires is often in conflict with the will of God.

I have deliberately chosen to use my recent experience with 1 Thessalonians 5:18 because it illustrates a point. The more we grow in Christian character, the more deeply God digs into our inner being to expose the works of the flesh that are still there. As a young Christian, the command of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 was not an issue for me. There were more obvious desires of the flesh I had to contend with. Now, after 57 years of being a Christian, I realize that God is not content merely dealing with the surface sins. He wants to take on the more subtle issues. So often then I now find the words of Romans 7:18b true: “For I have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out.” I have the desire to give thanks in all circumstances but not the ability to do it wholeheartedly, without reserve. That’s because the desires of the flesh, in the form of my agenda, are against the desires of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). It is because the passions of the flesh still wage war against my soul (1 Pet. 2:11).

Someone has stated that sanctification (that is, spiritual growth) is more often characterized by desire than by performance. I believe that is true of the person in Romans 7. He wants to do what is right. He delights in the law of God. But evil lies close at hand, waging war against the law of his mind (vv. 21–23).

I hasten to add, however, that these verses in Romans 7 are descriptive only of a person who is sincerely and intentionally seeking to grow in Christ-like character. The person who is complacent about his Christian experience and is not concerned about remaining sin in his life should find no comfort in this passage of Scripture. Romans 7 does not provide an excuse for tolerating sin but simply describes the experience of one who does not tolerate it but rather struggles against it.

How then does the person who is sincere and intentional about dealing with sin in his or her life handle the tension and frustration that seem so pervasive in verses 14–25? Is there no hope of ever experiencing the joy of the Christian life? Yes, there is. And Paul gives us two reasons to rejoice.

First, there is the confident expectation of future deliverance. In verses 24–25 Paul looks forward to the day when he will be delivered from this body of death. Paul knows that when that day arrives, he will be forever free from the struggle with indwelling sin. At last his experience will exactly coincide with his standing of perfect righteousness in Christ.

The second reason we can rejoice in the midst of our struggle is because of the truth of the gospel, which actually brackets the whole chapter of Romans 7. In verses 1–6, Paul teaches us both by analogy and directly that we have “died to the law through the body of Christ” (v. 4). That is, through our union with Christ in his death, we have died to the curse and condemning power of the law. We have died to the reign of the law in our lives. It can no longer pronounce us guilty because Christ has already borne our guilt on the cross.

Then in Romans 8:1, Paul assures us that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So, Romans 7:4 and 8:1 say essentially the same thing: God does not look on our struggles against indwelling sin with an attitude of condemnation and judgment because the condemning power of his law has been forever dealt with by Christ.

So in the midst of our struggle with indwelling sin, we must continually keep our focus on the gospel. We must always go back to the truth that even in the face of the fact that so often “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (v. 19), there is no condemnation. God no longer counts our sin against us (Rom. 4:8).

Or, to say it another way, God wants us to find our primary joy in our objectively declared justification, not in our subjectively perceived sanctification. Regardless of how much progress we make in our pursuit of holiness, it will never come close to the absolute perfect righteousness of Christ that is ours through our union with him in his life and death.

So we should learn to live with the discomfort of the justified life. We should accept the fact that as a still-growing Christian, we will always be dissatisfied with our sanctification. But at the same time, we should remember that in Christ we are justified. We are righteous in him. There is the familiar play on the word “justification,” which means “just as if I’d never sinned.” But there is another way of saying that which is even better: justification means “just as if I’d always obeyed.” That’s the way we stand before God—clothed in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. And that’s the way we can live with the discomfort of the justified life.

Jerry Bridges has served on staff with The Navigators since 1955 and is author of several books, including The Pursuit of Holiness, The Gospel for Real Life, The Discipline of Grace, and most recently, Is God Really in Control?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

romans 7 and the normal christian life

by Kim Riddlebarger

In the evangelical world in which I was raised, it was the minister’s job to ensure that everyone in his congregation was “living in victory.” What this meant was that those who were truly committed to Jesus Christ and had made him Lord over every area of their lives would not be content to remain “carnal Christians.” If you were truly committed to Jesus, you would strive with everything in you to move into the “victorious life” described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8. In that passage, the Apostle Paul supposedly speaks of victorious Christians as people who had made the determination to walk according to the Spirit and to no longer walk after the flesh (Rom. 8:1, kjv). Those hearty souls who managed to completely dedicate themselves to Christ could attain that lofty goal spoken of by Paul as “more than a conqueror” (cf. Rom. 8:37). To demonstrate that we were striving to attain victory, there were the familiar behavioral taboos. And you certainly did not want to be “left behind,” forced to endure the seven-year tribulation and risk coming face to face with the minions of the Antichrist.

While this version of the Christian life is widely accepted throughout much of American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, it is apparently now on the decline. This understanding of the victorious Christian life can only be sustained by an unfortunate misreading of Paul’s description of the Christian life as it unfolds in Romans chapters 6–8. This conception of the Christian life is framed by a combination of decisional regeneration, dispensational eschatology, and Keswick, Wesleyan, or mystical versions of the Christian life, all of which involve a “higher life” or “victorious” Christian life, centering in a conscious experience of victory over indwelling sin. In this scheme, Paul supposedly speaks of death to sin in Romans 6, and then describes his unregenerate (pre-conversion) condition in Romans 7, which is, in turn, followed by the critical passage in Romans 8:1, which, according to a textual variant that is not found in the better-supported Western and Alexandrian manuscripts, includes the exhortation to “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”

But is Paul defending this understanding of the Christian life in Romans 6–8? The critical hinge upon which this faulty understanding of the Christian life turns is Paul’s discussion of an intense struggle with sin depicted in Romans 7:14–25. In this passage, Paul speaks of a personal struggle that is so deep and intense that the person in view there describes himself as someone who is “sold under sin” (v. 14). He does not understand his own actions (v. 15). He wants to do what is right but ends up sinning anyway (vv. 15–16, 18). He speaks of sin almost as a force, living within him controlling his actions (vv. 16–17). When he does the evil he does not want to do, he feels like his members (his body and its passions) are waging war on his mind, which knows what is right even though he lacks the power to do it (vv. 22–23). So intense is this struggle with sin that the author speaks of himself as a “wretched man” in desperate need of deliverance by Jesus Christ.

Surely, such a person cannot be a Christian—or at least that is what I was told. And yet, I knew that deep down inside, Romans 7:14–25 is describing me. Whoever Paul was describing in these verses—I was told that this was either Paul’s own experience as a Jew before he was converted, or else this was a description of those Jews under the condemnation of law—he was just like me! While there is always a great danger in interpreting God’s Word through the lens of personal experience, it seemed that the more I tried to live in victory mode and leave my carnal desires behind, the more I felt like that person Paul was describing in Romans 7.

I had accepted Jesus as my personal Savior from my earliest recollection, so I knew that I was a Christian. The solution that was held out to those struggling saints like me (although I never admitted to anyone that I was struggling like this because my fellow Christians might think that I was still a “carnal Christian”) was to rededicate my life to Christ, or to ask God to give me more grace so that the desired victory might soon come. It never did. Then there was the counsel which held out that instead of trying with everything in me to be holy, I should stop trying and just “let go and let God.”

It was a great relief to learn that many Christians actually understood Paul to be describing his present experience as a Christian in Romans 7, even the experience of being an apostle! I recall this being raised during a Bible study, only to have it shot down as a complete impossibility, since, if true, it would mean that someone could become a Christian and yet live as a “carnal Christian.” If Paul was describing a Christian’s experience, there would be no incentive to seek the kind of victory it was believed that Paul was describing in Romans 8. This, it was stated, would justify someone remaining in defeat, if that was Paul’s condition. And while you could not lose your salvation, if you did not follow Paul’s example and move from the defeat depicted in Romans 7 into the victory of Romans 8, then you would lose out on your rewards in heaven and miss out on the victory promised to you by the apostle. It was left up to me to decide which I wanted: defeat or victory. I wanted to be more than a conqueror. But I felt like Paul’s wretched man!

Relief came when I learned that the view that Paul was speaking of his present experience as a Christian was held not only by a number of Christians (including all the reformers), but this was the view expressed in the Reformed confessions, which I was only then beginning to embrace. In Romans 7:14–25, Paul is speaking of a Christian’s struggle with sin; this is not a picture of defeat but a description of the struggle with sin that every Christian must go through and is a necessary part of sanctification. In other words, Paul wasn’t talking about the goal (to end the struggle), but Paul is speaking about the process by which God does bring us to victory over sin (our sanctification).
Despite all of the renewed debate in Reformed and evangelical circles over this passage since the publication of Kümmels’s famous essay on Romans 7 (Römer 7 und die Bekehrung des Paulus, 1929) and despite the publication of several recent evangelical commentaries (for example, the outstanding commentary by Doug Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, 1996), which argue that in Romans 7:14–25 Paul is not speaking autobiographically but of a hypothetical Jew before conversion, I remain convinced that Paul is describing his present experience of the struggle with sin. Furthermore, I do not believe that this section of Romans is depicting a deficient condition experienced by those Christians who choose not to be victorious (the so-called carnal Christian). No, I believe that this is a description of the normal Christian life. The reasons for this interpretation of Romans 7:14–25 are spelled out in great detail elsewhere (e.g., Cranfield, “Romans,” ICC; J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit), and we can but summarize them here.

First, in Romans 7:14–25, Paul speaks in the present tense, which stands in sharp contrast to the use of the past tense in the previous section (Rom. 7:7–13). This makes the natural sense of the passage a description of Paul’s current experience at the time of the writing of this epistle.

Second, in Galatians 5:17, Paul speaks of a similar struggle in which he is clearly describing the experience of all Christians, including his own: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Thus, Romans 7:14–25 and Galatians 5:17 are parallel passages. If Galatians 5:17 is a description of a war within every Christian, why can that not be true of Romans 7:14–25?

Third, an unconverted person could not delight in the law of God, such as Paul depicts here, nor desire to do what is right. This is a description of those affections for and delight in the things of God that only a Christian actually experiences. Furthermore, no non-Christian ever experiences the kind of godly sorrow described here. They may feel guilty, but they do not experience the despair of sinning against the revealed will of God, which they love inwardly.

Fourth, the argument that a Christian, such as Paul, would never speak of himself as a slave to sin, since he has already testified to the fact that Christ has set him free, is mitigated by the fact that Paul is aware of this freedom (“with mind my I serve the law of God”), and yet, because of indwelling sin, still feels as though sin has a death grip upon him. In other words, the final outcome of the war is a foregone conclusion—Christ wins and so will all those in union with him. But there are a number of battles with indwelling sin still to be fought, and this is what Paul is describing (the struggle, not the final outcome).

Fifth, that Paul is not speaking of his struggle before his conversion becomes clear when we consider how Paul felt about himself before he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Consider Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3:3–10:

For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

How could Paul see himself as blameless before his conversion (Phil. 3), if, in Romans 7:14–25, he’s describing his intense struggle with sin before his conversion?

Therefore, in Romans 7:14–25, the Apostle Paul is describing the normal Christian life. This is a struggle that every Christian will experience. The poor, struggling sinner who is erroneously told that the struggle with sin he or she is currently experiencing is a sign of defeat and that the person is not yet a Christian, or else has chosen not to take advantage of the victory offered to all those in Christ, should instead see the struggle with sin as proof that sanctification is actually taking place. The New Testament knows of only one victorious life—the life of Jesus Christ. All of those who are truly in Christ’s will go through the refiner’s fire so that when Jesus returns, he will receive a spotless and radiant bride. Far, then, from a description of Paul’s journey from a defeated Jew to a victorious Christian, in this passage, Paul is describing what every Christian will experience—a desire to do what is right and a continual struggle with indwelling sin. While final victory is assured, it will finally come when we are glorified: freed not only from sin’s guilt and tyranny, but its very presence.

Kim Riddlebarger is senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California, and co-host of the White Horse Inn weekly radio broadcast.

Monday, July 10, 2006

spurgeon on covenant theology

“The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture, are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenant of law and of grace. May God grant us now the power to instruct, and you the grace to receive instruction on this vital subject.” He also said If anyone should ask me what I mean by a Calvinist, I should reply, "He is one who says, Salvation is of the Lord."
Charles Spurgeon, addressing the Pastors College Conference in 1891 a few years before his death.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

...but we go free

Our merciful Father in heaven saw how the Law oppressed us and how impossible it was for us to get out from under the curse of the Law. He therefore sent His only Son into the world and said to Him: "You are now Peter, the liar; Paul, the persecutor; David, the adulterer; Adam, the disobedient; the thief on the cross. You, My Son, must pay the world's iniquity." The Law growls: "All right. If Your Son is taking the sin of the world, I see no sins anywhere else but in Him. He shall die on the Cross." And the Law kills Christ. But we go free.

- Luther, exerpt from his commentary on Gal 3:13

"Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree."