Fact: The Bible is a big book. The sheer variety of literature found in it is intimidating to anyone who really wants to know it. Studying the Bible is a little like walking onto a new continent with a pick and a shovel and determining to dig up all the gold found there. You start out enthusiastic and a little naive about the task you’ve taken on, but as you hike around digging, you begin to realize just how big the land mass is. “I’ll spend the rest of my life digging!” It is a big book.
Someone once said “The Bible is like a mighty river; there are places where a child can wade, and there are other places in which you can drown an elephant. Good swimmers seek deep water.” I love that statement because it affirms two important truths: the Bible can be read with profit by a very simple person. But also, the Bible is of sufficient depth to dazzle the greatest intellects. Not that simple people can “get” the Bible and intelligent people cannot. Rather, there is material in the Bible which a child can understand, but there is also material that has made the greatest theologians of history scratch their heads.
What ought we do when faced with a continent with so many different landscapes? Always stick to the flat, easy areas? That’s hardly daring. It’s sort of like remaining in kindergarten your whole life. No, let the children come and learn, but don’t let them stay children! Let them grow into “young men” and “fathers” (1 John 2) who grow in knowledge and learn to gaze in wonder at the marvels of the Book. Travel far into the heavenly country! Plunge deep into the spiritual river! Keep hungry for more knowledge of God. Stay thirsty.
Bible study principle number 1: Always hungrily, humbly seek the Word, and never think you’ve “arrived” in your understanding of it. This isn’t to deny that a person can become “grounded” in their Bible knowledge. How depressing would it be to think that we should “always be learning but never come to a knowledge of the truth!” Nevertheless, never get to the point where you can no longer be corrected by the Bible. Always recognize there’s room for clarification, adjustment, and even correction. Always let the Word be your judge. The Bible is the reference point, and a deadening confessionalism creeps in whenever we replace the Bible with the present state of our (or anyone else’s) thinking, no matter how hard-earned or helpful it may be. Encountering God in His Word should be humbling the deeper you go. A person hasn’t explored the Continent much who hasn’t felt shaken and frightened. A person who gets used to plunging into the Depths will indeed walk away stronger, but he also has great respect for those massive currents. “To him will I look . . . to him who trembles at my Word.”
So is a thirsty pursuit of God’s Word still a feature of your life? Do you continually “come to the waters?” Or is the word of a theologian (or worse, the word of a novelist) getting more of your time? (You’ll fill your mind with something.) As my busy life rushes past me, I am always keenly aware of the fickleness of my own soul and my proneness to wander. And, thank God, I become more and more grateful for Christ, who “doesn’t quench the smoking flax” and who keeps bringing me back thirsty to His Word once more.
I recently preached a three part mini-series on “Christ-Centered Sanctification.” The burden of the series is that conservative-minded Christians might retain a zeal for growth, or progress in the Christian life, but lose their love for Jesus. Without love to Christ, all our works and efforts become wood, hay, and stubble.
I don’t have the room in this post to go into detail about the sermon series, but I did discover a couple of quotes from the Puritan Thomas Vincent that I thought would be encouraging to anyone, whether they heard the sermons or not.
“The life of Christianity consists in our love to Christ. Without love to Christ we are as much without spiritual life as a carcass is without physical life.” That statement summarizes everything I wanted to say in the series. Vincent goes on to explain why love to Christ is so important:
“Christ knows the influence which love to Him has. He knows it engages all the other affections. He knows that if He has peoples’ love, their desires will be chiefly after Him. Their delights will be chiefly in Him. Their hopes and expectations will be chiefly from Him. Their hatred, fear, grief, and anger will be directed at sin as it is offensive to Him. He knows that love will engage and employ for Him all the powers and faculties of their souls. Their thoughts will be brought into captivity and obedience to Him. Their minds will be employed in seeking out truths about Him; their memories will be receptacles to retain them. Their consciences will be His faithful deputies. Their wills will choose and refuse according to His direction and pleasure. . . . Their eyes will see for Him, their ears hear for Him, their hands work for Him, their feet walk for Him. All their gifts and talents will be at His disposal.”
This quote from Vincent shows how a person’s heart commitments and chief delights determine everything about that person. Ask yourself, “What is the state of my love for Christ?” Nothing can be more relevant than the answer to that question.
Here is a journal entry I came across recently. I think it might open up the magnitude of Christ’s humility to us a little bit more.
What does it mean that “He made Himself of no reputation?”
He took on the flesh of Abraham and David, dirty sheepherders, who knew sheep and tents and lice and manure. He Himself knew these things no doubt. He was conceived in a young girl’s womb, which He Himself had crafted years before. He sustained the girl’s life as she carried Him nine months sustaining His.
He directed Mary and Joseph to a town where He would be met with an animal’s feeding trough. His birth was normal, involving placenta, an umbilical cord, and blood.
He had one purpose on His mind, “the Son of man came to minister and give His life a ransom for many.” And these “many” were His enemies, haters of God, rebellious, twisted images of Himself, their very existence a perpetual insult to His holiness. The first day of His earthly life, He had enemies.
He submitted Himself to parents, themselves by nature sinners against Him. Since He voluntarily submitted to His own Law, He obeyed His parents, “for this is right.” He was trained in a common laborer’s trade, and worked long hours at it, and no doubt excelled.
Fulfilling all righteousness He was baptized by a sinful man, John. He endured temptation and near starvation in the desert. He made Himself available to any needy individual and spent three years helping others, morning, noon, and night, when fresh, when tired, even washing people’s feet like a slave and having no place to lay His head, all the while setting His face like a flint toward the Cross.
Behold the fierce love of the Eternal Son, who would suffer any indignity to meet our greatest need.
Another reason why Philippians 2:6 is difficult is the following statement: “He thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” This is a statement that somehow manages to mean nothing, or almost nothing, to many believers.
Here are two facts about Paul’s statement: First, the word robbery is the Greek word “harpagmos,” which refers to the action of snatching at something, or you could say seizing something, or grasping something. This could include the idea of “theft” in the sense of snatching something that is not one’s own, but the word doesn’t demand this connotation, since the verb form of the word is used of the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “caught up.” No one is going to accuse the Lord of stealing people when he catches them up to be with Him forever! They are His people. The best way to translate “harpagmos” is “a thing to be grasped or seized.”
A second fact about Paul’s statement is that “to be equal with God” is an infinitive phrase that is the direct object of the verb “he thought” and so it ought to come directly after “he thought.” Thus the proper translation is: “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, or seized.” So there are two facts about the statement, jotted down quickly during interruptions from my kids every sixty seconds or so. Thank God He gives grace to be patient; the two of them are continuing to interrupt me, which tells me I’m doing OK with them.
Now consider one possible understanding of Phil. 2:6: “Because he was existing in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God to be robbery.” The big problem with this rendering is that it make Paul’s statement out to be redundant. It is essentially saying, “Because he was equal with God, he didn’t think of being equal with God as robbery.” He was equal, so He didn’t mind being equal. Hmmm. I’m not sure this is the right view. Paul could have simply said, “Though he existed in the real condition as God, he made himself of no reputation” and the meaning would have been abundantly clear.
Another option: “Although He was existing in the real condition as God, He did not consider equality with God as something to be held on to.” Here is the problem with this understanding: It teaches that though the Son was full Deity, He decided not to hold on to Deity. It says the Son “let go of” equality with God. In other words, it teaches that God can change in His essence, which denies Immutability (“I am the Lord, I change not”). This destroys the faith, for if God can change in His nature or promises or character, then who knows how He’ll evolve. Perhaps a century from now, the new “good” will be this century’s “evil.”
Another option: “Although he was existing in the real condition as God, He did not consider equality with God as something to be seized.” This option is internally inconsistent. The first half claims the Son has full Deity, but the second half denies he ever had equality with God. “Held on to,” from option #2, implies He let equality with God go, which is bad. “Siezed” implies he never had it at all, which is if possible even worse.
So how are we to understand this verse?!?
I think the key is the distinction between “essential equality,” and “functional subordination.”
“The Son was existing in the real condition of God.” This is a statement of essential equality, that is, the Son is equal with God in His essence. God’s essence, mentioned for example when the writer of Hebrews uses the word hupostasis in Hebrews 1:3, is the combination of attributes that makes Deity Deity. Such attributes are omniscience and omnipotence, both of which can be easily demonstrated from Scripture as belonging to the Son. The Son is fully God.
The next statement, “he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, or seized,” means that the Son assumed a role that was subordinate. He did not become less than God; He simply subordinated Himself functionally to His Father. “The Father is Greater than I” (John 14:28), “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of my Father” (John 6:38). “I come to do thy will O God” (Heb. 10:7).
So Philippians 2:6 is the record of the thoughts in the mind of the Son when He considered the plan of redemption. Though He was fully God, He thought “I will subordinate myself to my Father in the Incarnation to save sinners.” It is a rare glimpse into the thought world of the Son, and what it reveals is incredible love and awe-inspiring humility. And if He humbled Himself so, who are we to exalt ourselves?
Distinguishing between “essential equality” and “functional subordination” also fits with the context beautifully. The Son “humbled himself” (verse 8) before an equal, His Father. He didn’t give up condition as Deity, He gave up position, or “reputation” as the KJV so aptly puts it in verse 7.
Finally, the distinction between “essence” and “function” fits the previous context too, where believers are encouraged to humble ourselves below our essential equals (v. 3-4), and then we are encouraged to look to Christ as our great example of that same sort of humility. Christ (who was fully God, the Almighty creator, co-equal, and co-eternal) humbled Himself and took to Himself a human nature, and always did the will of His Father. It is a message worthy of millennia of preaching. Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing our great redeemer’s praise!
Philippians 2:6-7 “Being in the form of God, he thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation.”
We’ve been discussing Philippians 2:6 on Sunday Evenings, and it is one of the most difficult verses I’ve ever had to explain. There are several reasons for that, though I only have space to list two before wrapping up this post.
First, Paul used an adverbial participle in the first phrase . . . “being in the form of God.” This is inherently ambiguous and could mean either “although he was in the form of God” or “because He was in the form of God.” The former option is the most popular among translators, though I’m leaning toward the latter.
Second, What does “form of God” mean? Form (morphe) usually refers to the physical appearance of an object (see Mark 16:12 where it is said that Jesus “appeared in another form unto two of them”). “Form” usually refers to “that by which the eye distinguishes one object from another.” But since God is Spirit and has no physical shape (John 4:24; Col. 1:15), “form of God” cannot refer to God’s physical shape. So what does it mean? It could mean that Christ existed in God’s essence: “being in the essence of God.” This is what Hebrews 1:3 teaches: “Christ is the express image of God’s person.” Person here means “essence” or “substance.” It is the Greek word hupostasis, which refers to essence, or that which makes a person what he is (in God’s case, His omnipotence, omniscience, etc). So “existing in the form of God” may mean that Christ existed as the “exact representation of God’s essence,” which is what Hebrews 1:3 teaches. Christ said things like “If you have seen me you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:9) because He is an precise copy of the Father’s essence. They are one in essence, and thus both are fully God and worthy of worship. A second solution is to take “form” as being akin to the word logos in John 1:1: “In the beginning was the logos, or Word.” John coined this term logos for Christ, because no one has ever seen the Father; it is the Second Person’s role to reveal the Father to creation (see John 1:18). In other words, Christ is the self-expression of the Father. As a man’s word is the expression of his inmost being, so Christ is the self-expression of God to His creation. Therefore, “form” may be similar to “word,” just a visual idea instead of a verbal idea. “Word” illustrates “divine self-expression” with a verbal idea. “Form” may illustrate “divine self-expression” with a visual idea.
It is important to point out that either way you take it, the phrase “Being in the Form of God” upholds Christ’s full Deity. Philippians 1:6 discusses Christ in His pre-incarnate state (before he became the babe of Bethlehem). Christ eternally existed as “the exact representation of God’s very essence” and as “the divine self-revelation.” Christ is fully God, just as the Bible asserts in so many places: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:7). “Before Abraham was I am” (John 8:58). And there are so many more.
Though Philippians 2:6 is difficult, it is nice to know that there are some conclusions that can be reached. When you think that God the Son added to Himself a human nature to save man, you understand how low He really stooped. You understand how merciful He really is. “He humbleth Himself to behold the things that are in heaven and in earth” (Psalm 113). If it is humbling for God to merely behold heaven, how much more did He humble Himself to be born in a stable, laid in a manger, submit Himself to human parents, live a life of service to others, and die an ignoble and excruciating death? We are the objects of extreme mercy. The Maker of the Empyrean Ocean of the Heavens walked upon the dust of the earth. The One Who Upholds All Things was held in a mother’s arms. The Fountain of Blessing became the object of cursing. He Who Spoke Worlds into Existence allowed Himself to be spat upon. The Prince of Life Shed His Blood In Death. This was how far God was willing to go to bless us. This is how far He had to go, if sinners like us are to be saved.
Such thoughts magnify God and humble us. How can we exalt ourselves when He so humbled Himself? How can we think much of ourselves when we are so bad it took the death of God’s Son to save us? Consider the following reflection from C. H. Spurgeon . . .
“Jesus is the great teacher of lowliness of heart. We need daily to learn of him. See the Master taking a towel and washing his disciples’ feet! Follower of Christ, wilt thou not humble thyself? See him as the Servant of servants, and surely thou canst not be proud! Is not this sentence the compendium of his biography, “He humbled himself”? Was he not on earth always stripping off first one robe of honour and then another, till, naked, he was fastened to the cross, and there did he not empty out his inmost self, pouring out his life-blood, giving up for all of us, till they laid him penniless in a borrowed grave? How low was our dear Redeemer brought! How then can we be proud? Stand at the foot of the cross, and count the purple drops by which you have been cleansed; see the thorn-crown; mark his scourged shoulders, still gushing with encrimsoned rills; see hands and feet given up to the rough iron, and his whole self to mockery and scorn; see the bitterness, and the pangs, and the throes of inward grief, showing themselves in his outward frame; hear the thrilling shriek, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And if you do not lie prostrate on the ground before that cross, you have never seen it: if you are not humbled in the presence of Jesus, you do not know him. You were so lost that nothing could save you but the sacrifice of God’s only begotten. Think of that, and as Jesus stooped for you, bow yourself in lowliness at his feet. A sense of Christ’s amazing love to us has a greater tendency to humble us than even a consciousness of our own guilt. May the Lord bring us in contemplation to Calvary, then our position will no longer be that of the pompous man of pride, but we shall take the humble place of one who loves much because much has been forgiven him. Pride cannot live beneath the cross. Let us sit there and learn our lesson, and then rise and carry it into practice” (Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, June 3rd, on Phil 2:8)
This Christmas, magnify God for His mind-boggling gift of Jesus Christ.
More on Philippians 2:6 to come!
Donald Macleod shows what the acid test is. It is the perfect antidote to all the silly thinking about what the spirit-filled life looks like.
The great overall result of being filled with the Spirit is that we submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). The context also speaks of Spirit-filled praise and gratitude, but it is marvelous to see the apostle move from the principle of being filled with the Spirit to detailed ethical instructions about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants (Ephesians 6). Being filled with the Spirit shows itself first and foremost in the kind of husband we are, in the kind of wife, in the kind of parent, in the kind of child, employer or employee.
Above all, it shows itself in submission. Surely the great thing here is this: the transformation of our attitudes so that I never, never approach a problem or a relationship from the standpoint of my own rights. I approach it from the standpoint of my obligations. That is the value of the whole idea of submission. The natural man, the non-spiritual man knows his rights. He knows what everybody else owes him. But to the Christian, the only person who has rights is the other person. Paul doesn’t tell the husband, or the child, or the employer his rights. He tells every one of them his obligations. It would work wonders in the church if we had that kind of spiritual attitude, concerned not with what people owe us but with what we owe them.
The quote is from A Faith to Live By, a wonderful book that combines theological depth with a keen pastoral concern. Have a Spirit-filled Thanksgiving!
There is nothing more crucial than God’s Immutability, the truth that God’s essence, promises, eternal plans, and character cannot improve or change (Malachi 3:6). If God’s essence can improve, then He wasn’t perfect to begin with. If His essence can change then God cannot guarantee that He will remain faithful to truth without turning to falsehood. This is crucial, because if God is changeable then maybe He’ll decide to change the way of salvation, redefine Good, or make Heaven into Hell. If God is changeable, there’s no telling what to expect when we pass into the next life. But people have wondered, didn’t God become man? Didn’t that involve a change in His essence?
The incarnation did involve a change to the Second Person of the Godhead but not a change in His essence, promises, eternal plans, or character. The Son added to His divine nature a human nature. The divine nature itself didn’t change; rather the divine nature eternally coexists with the human. This is a genuine change, but I think it is quite obvious that coexisting with a human nature doesn’t demand that there be a change of essence in the divine.
The incarnation actually shows how changeless God’s character really is! It shows that the Son’s love, wisdom, and grace didn’t change in the thousands of years since the plan of salvation was devised. God planned salvation from the beginning (Eph. 1:4), and He faithfully carried out that plan through the millennia, culminating in the Incarnation. God’s grace is relentless throughout the eons. His kindness endures forever. It is not fickle. It does not cool off, fade away, or go through ups and downs. His love is indomitable, and in Christ it reaches even me. “Yesterday, today, forever Jesus is the same; all may change but Jesus never; Glory to His name!”
See Hebrews 1:10-12.
My personal interests are Scripture, theology, church ministry, culture, history, and literature, so my thoughts in this blog will be eclectic, though I will strive to connect all things back to God. Some posts will be musings, others exegetical studies, still others updates on church ministry. It all will spring from my current thoughts, reading, or experience. One of the great delights (and challenges!) of life is to subject every thought to the obedience of Christ . . . to view all things with “the mind of Christ.” I look forward to sharing with you my attempts to view all things with a Scripture lens. . .
Right now I’m sitting on my couch surrounded by my kids and various books. You know the kids, but the books are: A Summary of Christian Doctrine by Berkhof, A Faith to Live By by Macleod, A Body of Divinity by Watson, and Alexander of Macedon by Harold Lamb. All are good. But the kids are sometimes bad.
Today I’ve spent some of my reading time in Alexander, a book Harold Lamb wrote while visiting Asia during WWII. I’ve learned that Alexander was short, stocky, blond, possibly gay, slightly deformed in the neck, and had one blue eye and one brown eye. He also was the best military general in the history of the world. Never defeated, he fought from Greece to India, declaring himself a god and spreading Greek culture all the way. Humanly speaking, the New Testament was written in Greek because of him.
Some thoughts about him: First, maybe he really thought he was the son of Zeus, but I have a feeling he declared himself thus because it secured his people’s loyalty and his own fame. This is typical of how people use religion. They may or may not believe the various dogmas, but they want to appear to advantage, so they give lip service, or perhaps they even get involved seriously. Religion becomes opportunism, just another gimmick to advance self. And as I read, my heart said to God, “May that not be me.” Alexander may have had some shreds of sincerity in following his false god. How much more horrible to follow the true God with false motives!
Second, Alexander spent his short thirty-year-life conquering the world for the glory of Macedon. What am I spending my life doing? Just like him, I will
die, and I will leave behind something. I won’t make the huge mark Alexander did, but I will leave some sort of mark. What will it be? What will my works be? Wood, hay, stubble? Gold, silver, precious gems? All around us are godless people accomplishing “great things” for their own glory or their own security. If I only accomplish something small, I want it to be for the glory of Christ who, on the cross, took all my foulness and gave me his perfect robe of righteousness.
Next post, Did the Incarnation Improve God? How does the doctrine of the Incarnation influence the vital teaching that God cannot change?
There is much talk of unity among Christians in our day, and for good reason! We all long for the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. And we all grieve over the disunity in the churches. Unity is threatened when Christians divide and separate from each other; so we should never separate from other Christians, right?
Unfortunately, many Christians would answer, “Yes,” because that is what the party line of our day says. But Scripture is clear: “I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (1 Corinthians 5:11). “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Yes, many people separate sinfully. But, as these statements from Scripture make clear, there are times when, to remain obedient to God, you must separate from other believers. I have a hard time imagining another truth from God’s Word that has been more ignored in our day.
Is the Bible our authority? Then we must obey all its commands. We cannot be Scripture snobs, only following the passages that rub us the right way. We can’t dictate to our Lord which of His commands suits us. Who is Lord when we’re the ones dictating?
So how can we have unity when we also must be separate? Unity and separateness seem to contradict each other, don’t they? They don’t have to. God expects us to hold to both of them. But how?
First, Christians must stop separating from other believers over non-essential matters. Christians are very choosy about whom they will fellowship with. And when they decide which church they will attend or not attend, they display the standards by which they choose. ”I like the color of the carpet there.” “That person looked at me funny, so I’m not going there.” “Nobody visited me, so I’m leaving.” “That church uses video equipment, so I’m going there.” “The music is more hip there.” “They serve doughnuts there.”
If we decide where we will attend church with only these kinds of considerations, then we’ve shown how shallow we are. Or if these kinds of considerations are the main factors in our choice, again, we’ve shown how shallow we are. We’ve shown that we choose churches like we choose fast food places: it’s all about pleasing self. How can we learn to “forbear one another in love” when we’ll leave the church over the color of the carpet? How can we learn to strive for the “unity of the Spirit” when we’ll leave the church for doughnuts? What a person will join a church for they’ll leave a church for. We need to stop separating from other believers over petty issues.
Many people might say that they have theological reasons for their choice of which church to attend. That’s good, but we all need to realize that many Christian movements today are centered around important but non-essential teachings. There are movements today all about child-rearing. Others center on home-schooling. Still others are focused on end-time events, the nation Israel, re-discovering our Christian heritage, boosting masculinity, and so on. Obviously, these various things are good or at least tolerable. The problem comes when Christian people start majoring on these things. They start selecting whom they will fellowship with based on whether or not they feel the same way about homeschooling, for example. And sometimes such folks end up fellowshipping with people who may agree with them on homeschooling but who don’t believe in justification by faith alone or who don’t believe in the sufficiency of Scripture.
What happens when people choose whom they will fellowship with based on non-essential teachings at the expense of the essential teachings? The end result is a smorgasboard society in which everyone chooses which “flavor” of Christianity they want based on pet issues, on their own likes and dislikes. The meat of the Word gets passed over for junk food. Jesus doesn’t come in flavors, but we treat Him the way our market-driven society has taught us to treat everything. Sad.
Second, we must get aquainted with the essential truths of the Word and major on those. The Pharisees were guilty of majoring on the minors. It’s so easy for us to scoff at them as though we weren’t made of the same flesh! Jesus said to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23). We need to avoid the Pharisees’ problem by keeping the main thing the main thing. We need to major on the majors.
What are the majors? What are the essential truths, the foundational teachings that deserve our first loyalty? Judgment, mercy, and faith must be important or Jesus wouldn’t have mentioned them. But in addition, essential Christian truths are those that are essential to Christianity. They are truths that, if altered, would make Christianity something different than what the Bible presents. You see, God calls us to earnestly contend for “the faith” (Jude 3), and we shouldn’t tolerate anybody’s attempts to twist it (Galatians 1:9). But what are these essential Christians truths we are to protect from corruption?
There’s inspiration. If the Bible is inspired, that is, breathed out by God, then it is authoritative. It comes from an omniscient and truthful God. It is dependable. You can bank on it. It is error-free. But if you consider its teachings to be laced with human opinion, then it is subjective; it’s ethical and spiritual claims are uncertain. It has no more authority than any other book. But Christianity claims to be absolute: true for everyone whether they believe it or not. The Bible claims full inspiration in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Therefore, the inspiration of the Bible is an essential Christian truth. If you deny inspiration, no truth from the Bible can stand as more than someone’s opinion. Never fellowship with a ”believer” who is all out for mercy ministries and giving to the poor, for example, but he denies the Bible is inspired. If you do, you’ve denied that inspiration is a test of fellowship, and essential Christians truths are always tests of fellowship! The guy who gives to the poor but doesn’t respect the Bible has no ultimate basis for giving to the poor.
There’s also Creation. The Bible presents man as having been created by a personal God. We’re not alienated from a vast impersonal universe. We’re made in God’s image. We’re different from the rest of Creation because we’re special and unique. We didn’t evolve from lower forms of life. We were created by a direct act of God. If there’s no Creator who is infinite and personal, then we don’t have a reference point for morals other than people’s opinions: and people’s opinions differ! If one society decides that murdering Jews (as the Nazis did) is the right thing to do, on what basis does any other society judge them wrong? If there is nothing but human opinions, then it is just one society’s opinion against another’s. And thus it is might makes right after all. If there is no ultimate standard of right and wrong, then the Nazis at the Nuremburg trials were right: “You have the right to judge us only because you won.” If we deny Creation by the infinite personal God whose very character is the standard of right and wrong, we’ve lost everything. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great Russian novelist, wrote “without God, all things are permissable.” If we deny Him, we turn ourselves into monsters. Thus, Creation by the infinite, personal God is an essential Christian truth. Never fellowship with a “believer” who may be as serious as you are about corporal punishment, for example, but who nevertheless denies that we were created by a God who makes the rules and cares that we keep them. Don’t allow a major to become a minor.
There’s also sin. If we deny that all people are sinners, condemned by a rightfully angry God, we’ve cut the heart out of the gospel itself. If we’re not sinners under God’s wrath, then why did Jesus die, taking our sins upon Himself (2 Peter 2:24)? Never fellowship with a “believer” who is excited about what is happening in Israel, for example, but who doesn’t believe that people are sinners, condemned by God. By the way, what do you do when you’ve discovered that someone you fellowship with is denying an essential Christian truth? Do you immediately separate? No, Matthew 18:15-17 gives instruction on how to deal with it. You try to talk with him first, and you only separate if he won’t change after a number of attempts to reason with him. Separation is not to be done abruptly and with glee. It is a last resort and a cause for tears.
There’s also salvation by faith alone through grace alone. This is another essential Christian truth that is being denied by people who claim to be Christians. The Bible is clear on this point. “By Grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Titus 3:5). People who think they can earn salvation by doing good deeds are terribly mistaken. We are saved from sin by trusting Christ as Savior. If we think we can earn salvation, we’re essentially saying we can put God in our debt. We’re essentially saying we can make God owe us salvation. But “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23)! All we deserve is judgment! ”Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). But even though we’re under a curse, God graciously sent His Son to die in the place of sinners (John 3:16). If we trust Christ to save us from our wretched sins, then we’re saved. “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). This is an essential Christian truth because it deals with the question: ”Who are God’s people anyway?” It deals with the question, “What is a Christian?” In a way, this is the most foundational of all the essential Christian truths. Never fellowship with a “brother” who denies this crucial truth, no matter what other areas you happen to agree on.
There’s also holiness of lifestyle. If we as Christians don’t strive to obey Christ’s command to “be holy as I am holy,” then not only are we disobedient but we are contradicting Christ’s whole purpose in saving us. He didn’t save us to leave us to ourselves but to change us into His image. He “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14). Never fellowship with a person who justifies his sin by saying “Hey, I can do what I want; it is the age of grace!” A person like that is resisting God’s whole purpose in salvation. They turn “the grace of our God into lasciviousness” and are condemned (Jude 1:4).
More examples of essential Christian Truths to come.
In conclusion (for now), Cornerstone Baptist Church wants to be a church that finds its unity around the essential Christian truths from the Bible. We want to major on the majors. Though we all will have differing beliefs about less important issues, nevertheless, we won’t make those issues tests of fellowship. On those issues we will strive to show magnanimity, forbearance, tolerance, patience. But on the essentials, on the foundational doctrines, we can show no tolerance to those who seek to change them.
So, is Cornerstone Baptist Church all about negative “heresy hunting”? Do we make defending the faith the most important thing? No. Christ is the most important thing. But “earnestly contending for the faith” is vital (Jude 1:3). If the white blood cells are working in the body, then the rest of the body is protected from all that threatens to infect it. We don’t make the body’s defense system the center–that position belongs to Christ. But we make sure the defense system is there and working properly. Just as having a good immune system is essential to bodily health, discerning and separating from false teaching is essential to the health of Christ’s body. In fact, separation from false teachers and false teaching is an essential Christian truth.
If we’re protecting the essential Christian truths, then the people of God can approach their Bibles as they were meant to: we can safely nourish ourselves on its green pastures. We can find in it the spiritual milk and meat that will feed our souls and make us more like our Lord who loves us so.
When you talk about Christianity with an unbeliever, the discussion depends on one main issue: authority. “Why should I believe what you say about spiritual matters?” a skeptic might ask. You must be ready for this issue by asking yourself some questions: Is the gospel true merely because you’re telling it to them? Is it true merely because you heard it all your life? Or is the gospel true because it comes from an all-knowing God who cannot lie?
But there’s the issue! Not everyone believes that the Bible comes from God. And when you’re talking with an unbeliever about spiritual things, they will often discount what you’re saying on this very ground: “You’re telling me things from the Bible, and I don’t accept the Bible.” Whether they tell you this or not, they’re probably thinking it.
How do you give the gospel to someone who rejects the fundamental presupposition of your whole life and worldview? You tell them why they too should believe that the Bible is the Word of God. You can do this in two basic ways: experientially or rationally.
Experientially means giving the gospel, while conscious of the fact that the unbeliever’s own experience validates many of its claims. Just give them the gospel, knowing that their own conscience will agree with a lot of what you say. This is powerful because it appeals to their own thoughts, which, no matter how deeply suppressed, agree with God’s Word. Which verses in the Bible agree with sinners’ consciences? Verses about sin, Christ’s Law, and judgment.
Press verses about sin. People know, deep down, that they are terrible sinners (Rom. 1:31). They have flashes of insight in which they see their hypocrisy in judging others when they do similarly evil things (Rom. 2:1). It is incredibly convincing to see the Bible deal honestly with us about ourselves. The Bible doesn’t whitewash our sin. It doesn’t flatter us. It condemns us for the cruel, gossiping, arrogant, limelight-loving, selfish beings that we know we are, if we’d be honest. This is incredibly convincing, because it shows people that the Bible is simply an honest book. Everyone else is trying to ignore or downplay sin. The Bible points it out, describes it, and condemns it. Read Romans 1-3. Illustrate verses on sin by sharing how convicted you were of your own sin when you got saved, and how you saw that your sin was heinous, not minor. Sin in the seed is essentially the same as in the full tree.
Press verses about Christ’s Law. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount nearly converted Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s main reason for not becoming a Christian was that He didn’t like Christians. But the teaching of Jesus haunted him, and it’ll haunt others too. There is special convicting power in those words: “You’ve heard it said ‘don’t murder’ but I say ‘don’t be angry.” Anger unrestrained leads to murder. Jesus demands a clean heart, not mere outward conformity. Jesus wants a heart of love, which genuinely cares even for those who hurt us. “Love your enemies.” This is unparalleled; all our hearts long for it, and the only thing that keeps us from it is ourselves. I once worked with a Bosnian Muslim who fought in Sarajevo in the early 1990s. This man had killed people on the other side, and the experience marked his personality. He was a very angry man. On one occasion, at work, another co-worker mocked my Muslim friend, who then came back to his workstation next to mine. He turned to me, and his large eyes were bulging and red with anger. He whispered to me through his thick accent that he wanted to “kill that guy.” I had been trying to witness to him for a long time, and I saw a perfect opportunity to bring conviction into his life. Even as he stewed in his murderous rage, I told him Jesus’ words about loving your enemy and doing good to those who despise you. I told him that Jesus has the right view of what we ought to be, not Allah. My friend’s eyes widened in shock at what I had told him, and he said “it is impossible to be that way.” But I saw the impact the words of Christ made upon him. No one can deny that the words of Christ call for a moral code that would bring unceasing peace on earth. It is the greatest moral code ever given, and it is crushingly convicting to see how far we fall short of it. Use Jesus’ Words to point out our need for what He did later: die for our sins.
It is reasonable to expect that the God who understands us so well also is distressed by our sin. Therefore, press verses that teach judgment. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). Explain that God is holy, sin is His arch-enemy, and He can tolerate none of it. It’s like poison to Him. He’s zealously pursuing a sin-free universe. “Cursed is everyone who continues not in all things which are written in the book of the Law” (Gal. 3:10). Illustrate the verses by referring to your own experience of conviction, when God was leading you to Himself. Remember the feeling of impending doom you had when you understood that you were being bad? Remember the feeling that the axe could fall at any moment? Remember your brokenness when you realized the pain you had caused others? Press upon them thoughts of judgment. It will resonate, though they may rebuff you.
Humanity is hard-hearted, but some people will hear the voice of their master in the verses you share. “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me” (John 10). Be “always ready” to support the gospel message by statements from the Bible that our own sinful hearts will agree to and, if the Spirit moves, bow to.