Posts Tagged ‘Theology


can calvinists and arminians church together?

Well, the short answer is that in the church to which I belong both have for many years.   Some in the church, if labelled, would be ‘moderate Calvinists’ and others ‘moderate Arminians’.  I suspect both are ‘moderate’ because the influence of the other has protected from extremes.  This does not mean there are no discussions  and exploring of differences, there are, sometimes ‘ardently’.  But we have never lost respect for each other and  differences have never surfaced in any aggravated way publicly.  We disagree, agreeably. Why is this?

I think a number of factors contribute to the Spirit enabling unity in the face of potentially divisive issues of faith.

recognising that unity of the faith is a goal and not a given in any church

A church is a body of believers who are united in the Spirit by belief in a common gospel.  Paul calls all believers to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1).  Unity of life in the Spirit is the basis of all fellowship among God’s people.  It is the starting point.  Believers may be immature and muddle-headed about many things but through belief of the gospel they are one in Christ.  From this starting point a goal lies ahead – what Paul calls, ‘the unity of the faith’ (Eph 4:13).  This is an unity we are to ‘maintain’ (as with the Spirit) but a unity we should seek to ‘attain’ or ‘reach’ (4:13); the unity of life in the Spirit from which we start has as its goal a maturing in the ‘unity of the faith’ and as Paul says,

Eph 4:13-16 (ESV)
… of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 

In other words, church allows for growth in understanding, wisdom and holiness.  It doesn’t insist we display this maturity right away.  It doesn’t demand we all think the same from the word go.  It doesn’t require signing up to a full blown theology as a basis for membership.  It allows that it may take many years, in fact, a lifetime, for the kind of maturing that is its goal.  One reason I am uncomfortable with Confessions of Faith is that they seem to demand ‘unity of faith’ as a starting point rather than an end point; a body of divinity to which one may hope new believers eventually arrive becomes a binding force on their conscience  from the beginning.   This allows little room for growth and development.  One must accept the whole system fairly early on or be out in the cold.  Worse, inevitably a confession, every confession, any confession, even a good confession, is narrower and more circumscribed than Scripture.  Its very purpose is to remove ambiguities, delimit and proscribe.

Thus, it is difficult if not impossible for a believer whose understanding is of an Arminian bent to accept the authority of a Calvinistic confession, and vice versa, though both will happily accept the authority of Scripture.   Believers, united by the same Spirit, members of the same body, find it impossible to share church fellowship because confessions insist on beliefs in certain areas that belong at best to a mature ‘unity of faith’ and even then involve tensions.  We should, in my view, trust the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Word to guide the church into spiritual maturity in belief and behaviour.  After all, if the Lord does not build the house, then who can?

loathing stereotypical labels

I hate labels.  Labels divide.  Labels segregate.   Labels are all too often partisan and destructive.  Their purpose is generally to vilify or glorify and rarely to enlighten.  In fact they cannot enlighten.  They are inevitably caricatures.  They take rounded people and make of them flat and wooden images.   Labels do not define people, they diminish them and distort them.  And people’s views, if guided by Scripture, do not neatly fit into pre-packaged theologies, for the truth of Scripture is inevitably bigger than our systems and labels.  Labels impose and imply a theology, and even if it is a generally good theology it is inevitably a theology that demands more sophistication than is the basis for gospel unity in the Spirit.  Labels mean a theology that leaves other believers out in the cold; they create fences not fellowship.

The more we resist taking and giving labels then the easier it will be for ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ to live together as fellow members of the body of Christ.

displaying some theological grace

Now I am aware in our postmodern age ‘theological grace’ can be abused.  Some want certainty where the Bible is silent and uncertainty where it clearly speaks.  I do not support this.  There are many areas where we must be firm and say ‘thus says the Lord’.  I am not by any means advocating a trampoline theology that can bounce in every direction that we please.  There is a faith ‘once and for all delivered to the saints’.  Having said this we must remember the firm words of Paul,

1Cor 8:2-3 (ESV)
If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 

We should all remember that our knowledge is limited.  And nowhere more so than before the inscrutability of God’s sovereignty working in and through the history of the world.  At the end of the day, each view must confess there are mysteries in this topic that none can answer.  This is because we are humans and not divine, men and not God.  It is our privilege to go as far as God reveals and no further.  We must leave some issues with God.  We must, in the final analysis, allow God to be God and simply trust where understanding is withheld (Roms 9:19-22; Job 38-42).  Humility about our understanding, especially here, is all too appropriate.

We should remember too that while knowledge is important, it is not all-important.  In fact, knowledge is not the truest criterion of Christian maturity of relationship with God, love is.  Knowledge that does not act in love simply ‘puffs up’ and is conceited.  Love is never conceited.  The knowledge that is mingled with love will not insist on its way.  It will not expect others to understand things exactly as we do, to cross our particular ‘t’s and dot our ‘i’s.  Love will bear with slow apprehension, even the misapprehension, of others.  It will welcome those that Christ has welcomed but not for the sake of an argument.  It will not despise the other who holds some of the recognised tensions of Scripture differently.  It will not judge, but leave all judgement to the Lord.  It will not seek to quarrel and debate over matters that are not clear-cut and not of the essence of the gospel (Roms 14).  It will not force its will and opinion but wait upon the Lord.  Truth exists to promote love not destroy it and where truth is used to bash believers we must ask whether what we are pressing is truth and certainly whether it is ‘spoken in love’.

speaking with grace and seasoned with salt

Much aggro can be avoided just by a little grace in how we say things.  Too many who wave a flag for one or other of these positions (Calvinist or Arminian) insist in force feeding them on others.  They use confrontationary and extreme terms to make their point.  They push debate to philosophical and logical conclusions that stretch Scripture and sometimes go beyond it.  They leave their opponent (that brother for whom Christ died) with no wriggle room for individual conscience.  We must distinguish between persuasion and coercion, between verbal appeal and verbal brow-beating.  We should work at presenting our views in ways that are honest but as palatable as possible.  We should judge how able our audience is to ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ what we wish to say.  We should aim to give as little offence as possible without compromising truth. Belligerent and bellicose Arminians and Calvinists do not defend truth they betray it.

listening with love

Do we listen with love and forbearance?  Do we make allowances for infelicities of language?  Do we make allowances for different presuppositions?  When my Calvinist/Arminian brother expresses a prayer in a way that doesn’t quite gel with my theology do I make allowances and simply mentally transpose where necessary?  Do I focus on the 95% that we share in common and refuse to get out of perspective the 5%  on which we differ?   Christian love and forbearance can cover a multitude of sins.  The reality is, when we do listen respectfully to each other and avoid unnecessary abrasion then we even begin to move towards each other.  Love and respect win over those who differ from us, often much more effectively than the force of argument.

recognising scripture’s differing perspectives

A great deal of the heat is taken out of the controversy when we recognise that Scripture works with two perspectives that need to be held in tandem and tension.  Some NT writers focus on God and his grace while others focus on man and his faith.  Now these are never presented in opposition.  Nor is one ever stressed to the exclusion of the other, however, in any one book, one position is normally principal and the other subordinate.  For example, in a books like Romans and Ephesians,  God’s grace and initiative in salvation is primary while faith though important is secondary.  In other books, such as Hebrews and the Catholic epistles,  the imperative of faith is primary and the grace of God is subordinate.

The issue is not the relative importance of each.  Nor is the issue (as some suggest) that some NT writers have Calvinistic leanings and others Arminian. What is written, is written by the Spirit of God and is unified truth.  It has dimensions and perspectives but no contradictions.  No, the differing perspective  or emphasis is due not to different theologies but to different pastoral concerns.  The pastoral purpose determines the theological perspective.  If, as in Romans, the pastoral purpose is the proclamation that God’s promised salvation has broken into the world uniting Jew and gentile in Christ then the emphasis will be on God’s initiative in grace.  Faith will be there and vital, but it will be subordinate to God’s activity in grace.  If, however, the pastoral issue is a potential failure in faith then the stress will be on the human need to persevere in faith drawing from all the grace of God in the gospel to do so.  In each case, to repeat, the pastoral problem determines the theological perspective.

It is always thus in Scripture.  Where the issue is the trustworthiness of God then God and his grace is to the fore.  Where the issue is the responsibility of man then man and his faith is centre stage.  The object determines the subject.

Now, I am not naive enough to think that recognising these differing perspectives eliminates every difficulty and brings immediate harmony between Calvinist and Arminian, far from it.  However, I do think it helps to ease many of the tensions.  Indeed, it seems to me, that if we recognise these two perspectives and give them full credit then many of the more contentious issues disappear.  The differences that remain belong more to the realms of systems and logic where we ought in humility and grace bear with each other.

In my view, if we work with these dual perspectives and live with the above principles of Christian love and forbearing we shall discover that our opponents (Calvinist or Arminian) miraculously morph from a demon with red glowing horns into my brother or sister in Christ, believers like us who by grace are being transformed into the image of Christ, fellow pilgrims to and fellow citizens of the Kingdom of  God.

Wouldn’t it be marvellous if this Christmas the ‘peace among men’ which the angels announced knew part of its realization in Calvinist and Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ sharing together the joy of church fellowship celebrating the birth of their common Saviour and Lord.


the obedient life of christ was not vicarious

I know we should not use the weakest expression of a position to criticise it.  I know it is easy to knock straw men.  The following example is both.  However, it is a view that I hear echoed regularly online; it may be a weak expression of a belief but it is certainly a prevalent one.  Here’s the quotation:

‘The believer is lukewarm, his/her Saviour was consumed by zeal. The believer is prayerless, but Christ continued all night in prayer to God. The believer is sluggish in obedience, but Christ delighted to do the will of the Father. All this and more – he is our peace, he is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption – when the law comes asking for obedience, believers can point to the Substitute in their law place.’

This is a belief founded on the view that the life of Christ is vicariously ours.  We are told that Christ’s active obedience to the law is our righteousness before God.  His death is not enough to declare us righteous, we also need an ‘active’ righteousness, a life lived.  I have tackled some of the better expressions of this position elsewhere in detail, here I am simply observing the absurdity of a popular expression of ‘imputed active obedience’.

I hope the absurdity of the quotation is obvious to all.  A Christian woman fails to dress modestly but Jesus dressed modestly on her behalf!  Is the corollary true?  I am not a good father and as Christ was never married he cannot have kept the law for me in this area.   The whole line of reasoning is monstrously inappropriate.  Christ’s life does not cover every situation believers over the ages have found themselves in an provide a corresponding ‘law-keeping’ for our ‘law-breaking’.  Yes indeed, Christ has glorified God in a life lived entirely in obedience.  Yes this life was necessary for our justification for the justifying death of Christ required a perfect sacrifice; the value of the death is in the life.  But it is not his life that atones but his death.  In the law the sacrifices that atoned were blood sacrifices.  Scripture could not be clearer:

Lev 17:11 (ESV)
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.  Substitution lay in a death died not a life lived.  Consequently, we are said to be justified by Christ’s blood but never by his life (other than his life in resurrection which is something different).  The Law demands death for the law-breaker.  No amount of law-keeping by another can make a guilty man righteous.  Christ is my substitute by taking that death upon himself.  He took the curse of a broken law and so redeemed me from the law.  If I live now, I live on the other side of death in a resurrected Christ.  I stand in his righteous position before the Father.  It is a position that is beyond law and not answerable to law.

The great tragedy of this emphasis on IAO is that it takes atonement away from the cross and places it at the incarnation.  Notice how the writer finds his peace in Christ’s life rather than his death: ‘when the law comes asking for obedience, believers can point to the Substitute in their law place.’  The glory of the cross is occluded.  Yet in heaven the song of the redeemed is to the lamb, the one who has purchased men to God by his blood’.  It is at the cross that substitution takes place (Isa 53).  There redemption is accomplished (Roms 3).  It is Christ lifted up who draws all men to him.  The cross is the place of propitiation and where God’s righteousness in salvation is displayed (Roms 3).  It is in being justified by his blood we have peace with God (Roms 5:1).  We are reconciled to God through the death of his son (Roms 5:10; Col 1:10).  It is on the cross he suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he may bring us to God.  In the words of an old hymn concerning the cross:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In my place condemned he stood
Sealed my pardon with his blood
Hallelujah, what a Saviour.

The lesson for us all is – let the Bible speak and not theological constructs.  When we adopt constructs and then extrapolate on them, we end up with positions that are risible.  Moreover, it seems to be a rule that the construct eventually supplants the truth.


we are not simultaneously sinners and saints (2)

In the previous post on this topic, I endeavoured to demonstrate that the NT regularly presents believers as ‘saints’ and not ‘sinners'; who we are ‘in Christ’ and not what we were ‘in Adam’ is pressed as the way believers should think of themselves.  Sometimes this raises the protest, ‘but does not Paul speak of himself as a ‘sinner’ in 1 Timothy?’

The passage referred to is the following:

1Tim 1:12-17 (ESV)
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

At a cursory glance, this text appears to be Paul referring to himself, a believer, as a sinner.  After all, he uses a present tense (‘of whom I am chief’).  Now let me say, if Paul does describe himself, a believer, as a ‘sinner’,  I do not think this undermines the central thesis that Christians are saints not sinners and should view themselves as such.   We should look at the rule and not the exception to guide our theology.  If we build our thinking on a topic, biblical or otherwise, on the exception and ignore the rule we will soon find ourselves in trouble.

We must ask rather the purpose of the exception.  In this case the ‘exception’ is intended to inspire confidence in unbelievers that God’s grace can extend to them.  If God saved the chief of sinners (Paul) then no-one is beyond the pale of his mercy.  Now, if believers today describe themselves as ‘sinners’ for similar reasons, I doubt if any would object, certainly not I.  This post is not a wooden, blanket objection to Christians referring to themselves as  ‘sinners’.

Yet, the question is begged:  is the ‘exception’ really an exception?  I doubt if it is. In my view, when Paul terms himself ‘the chief of sinners’ he is so doing on the basis of what he was in his pre-conversion days and not his present life in Christ.

The present tense serves to emphasize that in Paul’s mind none has surpassed his wickedness. No-one has overtaken his distinction as the greatest sinner God has saved. He is certainly not saying that he thinks of himself as the chief of sinners on the basis of an assessment of his present Christian life: it is  an assessment based on his past life as a persecutor and blasphemer, a life so opposed to the gospel that it gives hope to all. Paul’s  life as a Christian would be no encouragement to the ungodly that they may find mercy, rather the opposite. Now, he recognises, the Lord judges him faithful, ‘ I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful…’. No, it is his pre-conversion life that gives hope to every sinner… if Paul acted as he did yet God showed him mercy there surely can be mercy for me. The chief, the most active, the most inveterate of enemies, was the best and most powerful of witnesses that the grace of God abounded over sin, and that the work of Christ was perfect to put it away.

And so the ‘exception’ is not as clear as some believe.

Why is ‘the rule’ important?

It is important, for if we regularly think of ourselves as sinners then we will live as sinners.  If my ‘faith-perspective’ tells me I am a sinner then it inevitably excuses sin; I am a ‘sinner’, that is what I am, therefore I should not be surprised if I sin, or dismayed by it, I am acting according to my nature.  To think of myself as a sinner simply puts me in bondage to sin.  For the word ‘sinner’ describes a state, a nature, or a condition.  The psychology is immensely damaging; give a dog a bad name…

This is why the NT is so vehement that believers are not sinners but saints.  Over and over again, Paul tells believers ‘this is what you once were… here is what you now are’.  He wants us to grasp the perspective of faith that we are God’s ‘holy ones’, his ‘set apart ones’.  We are ‘new creation’.  And his reason is blatant; it is that we live according to who we are.   Take an urchin and put him in a palace as a prince but keep telling him he is really an urchin and he will behave like an urchin for that is how he thinks of himself.  However, put an urchin in a palace as a prince and keep insisting he is a prince and must think and act like a prince and he will do so.   Who we believe we are affects how we think of ourselves and how we behave.  It’s hardly rocket science.

And so, repeatedly, Paul reminds believers of what they have become ‘in Christ’ as the rationale for godly living.  ‘How can you who have died to sin live any longer therein?’ (Roms 6:2). ‘ If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations?’ (Col 2:20). ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self  with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.’ (Col 3:9). ‘If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’ Col 3:1).

Is Paul asking us to believe a fiction?  Are we simply sinners trying to be saints?  No, a thousand times no.  Paul wants us to grasp that union with a dead, risen and glorified Christ in the Spirit, has made us an utterly new people.  We are no longer ‘in Adam’ but ‘in Christ’.  Our real identity is ‘new creation’.  As God looks at Christ in heaven he sees us too.  Christ glorified is our identity.  As Christ is, we are.  Beyond condemnation. Beyond sin.  Beyond accusation.  Beyond law.  Beyond this world.   And the present reality of this is conveyed to us by the indwelling Holy Spirit (who mediates the presence of Christ).  In his words to his disciples,

John 14:18-20 (ESV)
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

He came in the person of the Spirit, that the life he received in resurrection his followers may receive too (because I live [in resurrection] you also will live).  We share in the resurrection life of the risen Christ.  We share his position and power (Eph 1:15-23).  As he is so are we in this world (1 Jn 4:17)… ‘holy and without blame before God in love’ (Eph 1:4).  Our lives are hid with Christ in God (Col 3:3).  This is our true identity and position and by God’s grace we have all the resources in Christ (everything necessary for life and godliness) to be who we are.; not sinners but saints.


an amateur theologian

I’m an amateur theologian.  ‘Theologian’ isn’t the right word, too pretentious, but I can’t think of another at the moment.  Perhaps I should say, I am an amateur student of Scripture.  Or, an amateur searcher of the Word.   Anyway, the word I’m really interested in focussing on in this post is not ‘theologian’ but ‘amateur’.   It’s a word that smacks of inadequacy I guess.  I don’t mind that.  We are all  inadequate before the Word; if we don’t know this then we are in a dangerous place.  It is the Spirit who gives insight in spiritual realities (not the academy); the Spirit reveals spiritual truths to spiritual people (1 Cor 2:13).  If in our conceit we think we think we ‘know’ then we need to remember; ‘if anyone things he knows (thinks he is a professional) he knows nothing as he ought’ (1 Cor 8:1-2).

But the real reason why I am content to be an amateur is that an ‘amateur’ is a ‘lover’.  It is french for ‘lover of’ which in turn is derived from the latin ‘amatorem nom’.  I am happy to be a lover of Scripture.  If I am, I have fellowship with people of faith throughout history.

Ps 119:97-105 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​Oh how I love your law! ​​​​​​​It is my meditation all the day. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, ​​​​​​​for it is ever with me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I have more understanding than all my teachers, ​​​​​​​for your testimonies are my meditation. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I understand more than the aged, ​​​​​​​for I keep your precepts. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I hold back my feet from every evil way, ​​​​​​​in order to keep your word. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​I do not turn aside from your rules, ​​​​​​​for you have taught me. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​How sweet are your words to my taste, ​​​​​​​sweeter than honey to my mouth! ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Through your precepts I get understanding; ​​​​​​​therefore I hate every false way. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Your word is a lamp to my feet ​​​​​​​and a light to my path. ​​​

We ought never graduate from being,

1Pet 2:2-3 (ESV)
Like newborn infants, [who] long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it [we] may grow up into salvation- if indeed [we] have tasted that the Lord is good. 

To all amateur’s of the Word everywhere, every blessing.  God help us when we become mere professionals in the things of God.


we are not simultaneously sinners and saints (1)

One of the things you’ll notice that I keep banging on about in the blog is the need for us to see ourselves, we Christians, as God sees us.  That is, to see ourselves from the perspective of faith (faith is accepting all that God says, including what he says about us).  Christians reason all too often from what they perceive themselves as being to what they are.  They see they sin and thereforeregard themselves as sinners.  This is a mistake.  The Bible does not speak of us as sinners but as saints.

Some are willing to speak of themselves as saints but insist they are still sinners.  They cite Luther’s famous words, ‘simul justus et peccator‘ or ‘simultaneously justified and a sinner’, or, ‘both saint and sinner’.  You can even buy t-shirts with the slogan emblazoned.  Now, if Luther simply meant that although we are saints we still sin then that would be fine.  Perhaps he did.  However, he is not interpreted this way.  We are told that we must view ourselves as ‘sinners’ as well as ‘righteous’.

What is wrong with Christians thinking of themselves as ‘sinners’?  Well, firstly we should note, the Bible never does.  Repeatedly we are referred to as ‘saints’ but never as ‘sinners’.  In fact if we are justified in Christ we are quite explicitly said to be no longer sinners.  Take the following text, for example,

Rom 5:6-10 (ESV)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to  die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

Do you observe the logic and the contrast involved?  Paul argues from the greater to the lesser in two interconnected ways.  Firstly if God loved us enough to give his Son in death to save us will he not continue to save us in Christ’s life in resurrection?  Secondly, if God loved us enough to save us while we were unloveable, ‘without strength… sinners… enemies’, then will he not love us and continue to save us now that we are no longer ‘without strength… sinners… enemies’?  For this is the clear implication.  Indeed, he clearly states we are no longer enemies (we are reconciled).

When the Bible describes someone as a ‘sinner’ it is describing a state, a condition, a standing, an order of being.  It is a description of humanity outside of Christ.  Words like,  ‘sinners… the unrighteous… enemies… aliens.. lawless… ungodly’ describe people who are not Christians.  They describe what Christians ‘once’ were but are no longer.

Notice in 1 Cor 6 unconverted people are described as ‘the unrighteous’.

1Cor 6:1 (ESV)
When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?

The ‘unrighteous’ like the word ‘sinner’ is a designation for those who are unsaved.  In 1 Tim 1 Paul lists a variety of words to describe people outside of Christ.  These all stand in contradistinction to ‘the just’ by which he means believers. Notice the word ‘sinner’ is included in the list of those outside Christ.

1Tim 1:9-10 (ESV)
understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,

Indeed in using the term ‘sinner’ for those who are not part of the people of God he is simply echoing the language of Jesus.  In the Sermon on the Mount, speaking to believers, he says

Luke 6:32-36 (ESV)
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 

For Jesus, ‘the righteous’ and ‘sinners’ are mutually exclusive groups.

Mark 2:17 (ESV)
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “… I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

Luke 15:7 (ESV)
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

I quote these texts without discussing how one becomes ‘righteous’ but simply to observe that in Jesus thinking to be in one category means not being in the other; if one is ‘righteous’ then one is not a ‘sinner’.  Peter, the apostle, quoting the OT book of Proverbs, uses a similar taxonomy.

1Pet 4:18 (ESV)
And ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“If the righteous is scarcely saved, ​​​​​​​what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” ​​​

Clearly, Jesus and the NT writers are using well established categories.  Paul explains how we belong to one of the two categories in Romans 5.

Rom 5:19 (ESV)
For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Here the wider framework of ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’ (or saint) categories is revealed.   Those who belong to Adam are constituted sinners and those who belong to Christ are constituted ‘righteous’.   Do Christians belong to Adam?  Are Christians ‘in Adam’?  The consistent voice of Scripture is that we are no longer ‘in Adam’ but we are ‘in Christ’.  Indeed these are, like ‘sinner’ and ‘righteous’, mutually exclusive families.  Paul uses two parallel expressions that make this point.  One expression he uses is the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ (or ‘old self’ and ‘new self’).

Col 3:9-10 (ESV)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Eph 4:22-24 (Darby)
namely your having put off according to the former conversation the old man which corrupts itself according to the deceitful lusts; and being renewed in the spirit of your mind; and your having put on the new man, which according to God is created in truthful righteousness and holiness.

Again these are absolute categaories.  A similar absolute category distinction is ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’.  ‘Flesh’ is the nature of life in Adam (the old man) and ‘Spirit’ is the nature of life in Christ (the new man).  Again, as with Adam and Christ, we belong to either/or; to be ‘in the Spirit’ means to not be ‘in the flesh’.

Rom 8:9 (ESV)
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

These absolute category distinctions are expressed variously in Scripture.  For example, we either belong to darkness or light.

Eph 5:8-10 (ESV)
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

We are either in the Kingdom of darkness or the Kingdom of Christ.

Col 1:13 (ESV)
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,

We are either dead to God in sins or alive to God in Christ.

Eph 2:1-6 (ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins… and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

Equally we either are dead to this world or alive in it.

Col 2:20 (ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-

It should be clear by now that the categories are absolute.  We cannot speak of ourselves as simultaneously a sinner and a saint (or righteous)  any more than we can speak of ourselves as simultaneously an enemy and a friend or a hater of God and lover of God or opposed to God and for God or darkness and light.  These are mutually exclusive categories.  Each is the opposite of the other and opposed to the other (Cf. Gal 5:17).  And so, again and again, Scripture emphasises this change of estate. Christians are: in Christ and not in Adam; in the Spirit and not in the flesh; alive and not dead; righteous (a saint) and not a sinner.  This is not a point about which Scripture is unclear, ambivalent or indifferent rather it is crystal clear and forceful: if any man is in Christ he is a new creation, old things have passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor 5).  Language could scarcely be clearer or more insistent.  Luther’s maxim, however popular, is unhelpful and misleading; we are not simultaneously saints and sinners, we are saints and not sinners.

So, why does it matter?


using biblical language where possible

I often contend for the use of biblical language when possible instead of theologically constructed vocabulary.  To do so tends to clarity and avoids confusion and sometimes offence.  For example, instead of speaking of one ‘covenant of grace’, as Covenant theologians do, why not simply speak of God’s purpose or God’s plan.  Not only is this biblical but it is manifestly more accessible to those who are not privy to the Covenant Theology system, including the ordinary believer.  Unnecessary jargon tends to obscure truth rather than reveal it.

It is gratifying to note that John Calvin had similar concerns. Concerning the word ‘merit’ he writes in his institutes,

I wish that Christian writers had always exercised such restraint as not to take it into their heads to use terms foreign to Scripture that would produce great offence and very little fruit’ 

Institutes 3:15:2

Would that those who claim to be his true heirs heeded his advice.


letting god be god

Rom 9:14-24 (ESV)
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.  You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

The ultimate truth about God is that he is sovereign.  He acts according to his will and does all, according to his own wisdom, for his own glory.  He is glorified in the display of his power,wrath and mercy, all proclaiming his righteousness, and those who are wise and of faith bow before this and worship.  I repeat, he is God and so does as he wills.  Much could be said about this (including noting that in the text above the emphasis is on his willing to be compassionate), but whatever is said, the bottom revelatory line remains the same – God is God and is answerable to no-one, least of all you and me; he judges us we do not judge him.  God’s ultimate Godness is rooted in his sovereignty and nothing else (not even his love).

To deny God his sovereignty is to deny him his majesty.  It is to deny him his rights as God, the very essence of the sin and unrighteousness that provokes his just wrath (Roms 1: 18-24).  When God awakens us to his majesty, our sin becomes immediately obvious and desperately sinful, his judgements and wrath immediately just, and we throw ourselves upon him for mercy.

If we fail to grasp this is who God is, and a response in fear, awe and self-abasement, before him is absent, then we do not really know the God of the Bible and we will be susceptible to many of the destructive evangelical myths and monsters mentioned in the previous post.

If we are wise, we will ponder this text deeply, and believe.

the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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