Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Doctrinal Statement and Philosophy of Ministry

"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2a).

When we hold the Bible in our hands, we are holding God's revelation through the prophets (Moses through Malachi), through His Son (the Gospels), and through His apostles and prophets (Acts through Revelation). Every word in Scripture is a word from God. All of it is important. All of it.

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). While there are many passages of Scripture that mystify modern readers, that does not negate God's proclamation that all Scripture is profitable.

It is all intended to be understood and applied. God created man in His image and gave us His Word to understand who God is and who we are. God instituted the Church, and gave us His Word so that we would know "how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).

On that basis, and standing on the shoulders of faithful men who have gone before me, I have a doctrinal statement and philosophy of ministry which express what I believe Scripture teaches on key doctrines, and what I believe Scripture commands regarding how ministry ought to be conducted.

These documents are not infallible, and should be upheld only to the degree to which they align with Scripture. These documents do not express an exclusive orthodoxy, which means that one could disagree with significant portions and still be a brother in Christ. These documents are simply a systematized understanding of what I believe Scripture teaches, and is the perspective from which I preach.

They are long, in part, because I am a practical inerrantist which means that not only do I hold to orthodox doctrine of God's Word is free from error in all its claims, but I also live out that doctrine by basing my life and ministry on God's Word as the sufficient authority. Trust me, they could be much longer.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Senior Testimony

Well, I started this blog in hopes of using it as an outlet for what I was learning over the last four years of seminary. It happened a little bit, but other things took priority. Nevertheless here I am on the brink of graduation. This morning I gave my senior testimony in chapel. It was both rewarding and frustrating. Rewarding because I was able to express my gratefulness to the Lord. Frustrating because I was limited to five minutes and could only say an ounce of what was in my heart. In order to honor my classmates and leaders, I transcripted my testimony in order to keep to my alloted time. So here it is:

Good morning, my name is Gabriel Powell. To stand before you today is a very surreal experience, and I’m hoping once I step away from this pulpit I won’t wake up realizing I’m late for class—like I did my first day of seminary.

I was born in Argentina while my dad was a missionary pastor sent from Grace. When I was three we moved back here and I attended Grace Community School from preschool to second grade. We then moved to Bellingham, WA where I grew up. For many years I was self-deceived about my spiritual state and thought I was saved, but it wasn’t until Junior High at a Bible camp that I realized I was on the path to hell. So I repented of my sin and submitted my life to Christ.

A couple years later I was serving on the student leadership team in our youth group, and the Lord began to light the kindling of my soul for ministry. In God’s providence I attended The Master’s College—where I met my wife—and got a degree in Computer Science. After graduation and marriage, we planned to work for about 10 years before pursuing seminary. But just over a year into that plan the Lord brought a TMS grad to work at Logos Bible Software, where I worked. He dangled the carrot of seminary in front of me and rather easily convinced me to apply right away.

Our original 10 year postponement plan was based purely on financial concerns. Through the selling of the home, my job at Grace to You, and the support of family and strangers, the Lord took care of those concerns. If you’re waiting, like I was, to have all your ducks in a row before starting seminary, know that God wrote the book on duck organizing.

If you’re wondering how I chose to attend The Master’s Seminary as opposed to going somewhere else, let me just say this: there was no other choice. And after four years of being here, the saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: there is still no other choice.

The greatest lesson I learned during seminary would have to be this: the gospel. Early on in seminary my heart was drawn to Colossians 2:13-14, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” For nearly four years this text has raptured my heart. Through this text the Lord has deepened by understanding of the depravity of my own soul—both before and after conversion. Through this text the Lord has deepened my understanding of regeneration—what it means to be made alive with Christ. Through this text the Lord has deepened my understanding of forgiveness and its implications. And through this text the Lord has deepened my understanding of the cross. My time in seminary and Grace Church has given me a deep love and affection for the gospel.

The second greatest passion the Lord has providentially worked into my heart is biblical counseling. For over a year I’ve had the privilege of serving as a counselor in the counseling department at the college. That experience has deepened my confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture, the power of God, and the joy—and yes, sometimes heartache—of shepherding. Men, people don’t need your pithy advice. They need God’s Word. A woman called me once, and through her tears she said, “I’m pregnant, but I don’t want to tell my husband because I don’t know how he will react.” In that moment, I got angry. Not at her or her husband. But at their pastors who effectively refused to shepherd them. Don’t be one of those pastors who are too busy running programs that you can’t shepherd the people. I thank God that He has given me the opportunity to learn at an institution which has as its motto, “We train men as if lives depended on it.” Within the providence and sovereignty of God, lives do depend on it.

Finally, I would be a fool if I did not express publically my unsurpassing gratefulness to the Lord for my wife and children. My wife has put up with a lot the last four years. She has done so with grace, patience, and support. My children also have been remarkably understanding and patient. God has been too good to me.

As for future plans, I’m candidating for the pastoral position at Sudden Valley Community Church in Bellingham, WA. If the Lord doesn’t open that door we’re content to continue the Master of Biblical Counseling program, which I’ve already started, until such a time as the Lord sees fit to entrust me with full time ministry.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Repentance vs. Penance


Ask most people to identify the distinction between repentance and penance, and you’ll most likely hear an answer that resembles an entry in the thesaurus. We live in an “I’m sorry” culture which has lost most vestiges of the concept of forgiveness. Parents teach their children to say “I’m sorry” regardless of whether or not they mean it. We have grown up with that practice thinking a simple “I’m sorry” resolves problems, restores relationships, and allows one to move on. Apologies are one step up from this practice. The term apology technically means to give a defense, and yet over time it has become another—perhaps more formal—way of saying “I’m sorry.” The reality is most apologies are a defense of one’s actions since they typically follow this format: “I apologize, but…” The response to both these expressions is often an obligatory “It’s OK” as if to excuse and minimize the wrong doing. Sometimes the perpetrator may offer some form of restitution, payment, or indebtedness (in the form of favors). These offers can be appropriately restorative or resemble a form of penance which serves only to buy the acceptance of the perpetrated.

These terms and the attitudes that often lie behind them are in contrast to the biblical model of dealing with sin and restoring relationships. It is expected that the unbelieving world would have its own standard for relationships, but it is a mark upon the Church that the biblical model has been overshadowed. What is equally discouraging is when some in the Church attempt to redefine the biblical model to accommodate theological strongholds. This has been the case in the Free Grace community where repentance has been modified to include multiple meanings with a particular de-emphasis on its relationship to sin.[1] Of course the Roman Catholic tradition in times past morphed biblical repentance into penance which, due to the influence of Catholicism, has done nothing but confuse many people as to the biblical process of repentance.

This essay will clear the air by biblically defining repentance and contrasting it with penance. It will be shown that biblical repentance is a change of action which begins with a change of heart regarding one’s sin. It is recognition of one thought or action as sin and therefore turning in mind and action from it toward God. Before focusing on repentance, it is necessary to understand penance as it is defined and practiced.


Penance can be simply defined as payment for an offense. This payment can come in the form of self-abasement or mortification, or other acts that serve as payment. The US Judicial system has adopted a form of penance when it requires some criminals to perform hours of community service. Jail is a form of punishment while community service is more a form of paying back the community. Religiously, penance grew out of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) as a method of earning forgiveness. In 1439 Counsel Florence defined penance as having three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Satisfaction is often achieved by “prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”[2] However it is important to understand the ultimately the priest subjectively determines the appropriate deeds required for satisfaction.

Penance, along with purgatory, is a means of paying for one’s sins which highlights the RCC’s denial of the sufficiency of the work of Christ on the cross. According to the practice of the RCC, the punishment of Christ on the cross did not result in the forgiveness of sins for those who would believe. Instead, the Christian maintains a grace tank. At birth or conversion, the tank is filled with grace and forgiveness for past sins. As one moves on the road of life with its accompanying sins the grace tank needs to be refilled which is accomplished through the various sacraments of which penance is the most repeated. Purgatory is the final rest stop in which one remains until all previously unforgiven sins are paid for. Penance, then, far from being a synonym for repentance, is rather a synonym for payment.


Now that penance is properly understood, we can give attention to the biblical model of repentance. The focus of this paper is on repentance in the life of a believer and therefore one of the presuppositions is the biblical understanding of the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement teaches us that all sin, past, present, and future, were paid for in full and forgiven at the cross (Colossians 2:13). Therefore repentance in no way seeks the forgiveness of those sins by God. Rather, the purpose of repentance is reconciliation. Reconciliation is necessary because sin separates. Sin has been simply defined as a lack of conformity to the law of God.[3] Not conforming to God’s law is rejection of that law and rejecting God as the giver of that law. Repentance is then the means by which the sinning believer turns from that rejection and is united to God and his law again. But what is the substance of repentance? What does it look like?

Repentance in the Old Testament

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the most common word for repent isשׁוב (šûb). This is not a technical term for repent, but instead is a common term used over 1,000 times in the Old Testament with a variety of meanings within a limited semantic domain. Its most fundamental meaning that stretches the entire semantic domain is to change. From the qal stem to the hophal stem the meanings include: to turn back, return, repent, abandon, bring back, lead away, reverse, and restore.[4] The precise meaning, as with many Hebrew words, depends on the context.

The dedication of the temple serves as a classic example of a diversity of meanings. Near the end of his dedicatory prayer in 1 Kings 8:46-53, Solomon gives a hypothetical situation pleading for God to respond graciously if Israel acts according to the cycle of sin and repentance they have in the past. In this situation Solomon says “if they turn [שׁוב] their heart… and repent [שׁוב]” (vs. 47) and “if they repent [שׁוב] with all their mind and with all their heart” (vs. 48). The first reference has the heart as its object. The other two contextually refer back to their sin against God (there is no other possible reference). In this passage repentance is a turning away from sin which is at the same time a turning toward God. This same speech is given in 2 Chronicles 6:36-40 with the same terminology.

Psalm 78:32-34 demonstrates this dynamic by speaking of the Ephraimites who continually rebelled against God despite his pouring out of judgment. Though short-lived, verse 34 speaks of their repentance, “When he killed them, they sought him; they repented and sought him earnestly.” It is clear in this context that repentance refers to ceasing or turning away from their sin and rebellion against God and turning to seek him.

The prophet Jeremiah uses שׁוב in a double sense of both turn from sin to God and then turning again from God to sin. In Jeremiah 34 the prophet brought a word from Yahweh to King Zedekiah after they had set free the Hebrew slaves according to the law of Jubilee, but then sinfully took their slaves back. Yahweh said to them through Jeremiah, “You recently repented [שׁוב] and did what was right in my eyes… but then you turned around [שׁוב] and profaned my name…” (vs. 15-16). This text demonstrates the non-technical nature of the שׁוב as a word which in this context simply means to stop doing one thing and start doing the opposite.

One final Old Testament example will demonstrate explicitly what repentance looks like. In the days of the prophet of Ezekiel the elders of Israel had “taken idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3), yet they came to be consulted by Yahweh through Ezekiel. Yahweh responded to them in this way, “Repent [שׁוב] and turn away [שׁוב] from your idols, and turn away [שׁוב] your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6). A paraphrase of this might be, “Repent! What I mean by that is turn from your idols to serve me and turn from your abominations to obey my laws.”

These passages demonstrate that when שׁוב is used in the context of sinful behavior it means to turn away from sin toward obedience to Yahweh.

Repentance in the New Testament

In the Greek New Testament the verb μετανοέω (metanoeō) with its nominal cognate μετάνοια (metanoeō) are the terms translated repent or repentance. There are several contexts where the terms are used in a technical sense with no apparent reference to repentance (e.g. John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). Therefore it is necessary to focus on those texts which have a reference point to understand the biblical use of μετανοέω.[5]

In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus “began to denounce the cities… because they did not repent [μετανοέω].” We are not told explicitly why these cities (Chorazin and Bethsaida) needed repentance, but Jesus does compare them with Tyre and Sidon who would have repented had they seen the work of Christ (v. 21). If we understood the would-be repentance of Tyre and Sidon, we can then establish what Jesus condemned Chorazin and Bethsaida for not doing. Tyre and Sidon were Gentile seaport cities that were condemned by God for their wretchedness in every area of life as well as for capturing and selling Israelites into slavery (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26-28; Joel 3:4; Amos 1:9-10). The judgment on these cities was on the basis of their utter sinfulness. So when Jesus says “they would have repented [μετανοέω] long ago,” he can only mean that they would have turned from their sin. Therefore the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida were being condemned by Jesus not just because they did not accept Jesus as the Son of God (though certainly that is included), but the focal point is that they did not turn from their sinfulness.

Luke 13:1-5 records a scene where Jesus was speaking and dialoging with the crowds. Some asked him about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate as they were sacrificing in the temple. The exact question is not given, but Jesus’ response tells us the question had to do with whether those Galileans died that way because they were worse sinners. Jesus responds by saying, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent [μετανοέω], you will all likewise perish” (v. 3). Repentance here points back to someone who is a sinner. There are various interpretations as to the actions to be repented of (e.g. political rebellion, sin against God, etc.), but the common thread is turning away from their sin.

Near the end of Paul’s second letter (that we have) to the Corinthians he writes, “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented [μετανοέω] of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (2 Corinthians 12:21). Paul is clear that he is fearful that some have not turned away from their sin. The Corinthians have received more than enough rebuke from Paul with particular emphasis on sexual sins, and yet it is possible that some have not turned away from it.

Thus far repentance has been defined as turning away from sin and toward God. There is a danger, though, in defining it as such. It is quite possible for someone to turn away from sin without any internal change of heart and mind. The adulterer could cease the affair to conform to his wife’s demands all the while having no change in his heart. Remember that sin is a rejection of God’s law which causes one’s standard to usurp God’s standard. Therefore all sins of action are first a sin of the mind. It is, as Jesus put it, “out of the abundance of the heart [that] the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This is why Jesus stated in Matthew 5 that lust is adultery and hate is murder. While there may be sins of ignorance, there are no unwilling sins. A person sins because it is their heart’s desire (James 1:14-15). Therefore any genuine repentance must begin in the mind.

Luke records for us a moment where Jesus gave his disciples a lesson on forgiveness. In Luke 17:3-4 Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” This simple but very difficult lesson causes the disciples to react with consternation saying, “Increase our faith!” (v. 5). Increase our faith indeed! What exactly is Jesus telling us to do? Should we constantly forgive malicious and abusive people? How do we know if the person is sincere since less than a day has passed? Is sincerity even necessary part of repentance? The context helps answer some of those questions which in turn will demonstrate that Jesus believes that repentance begins in the mind.

Some commentators bifurcate verses 1-2 and 3-4 as completely distinct sections with no unity.[6] Careful consideration shows a clear relationship between the two. The thematic focus of verses 1-2 is on the sin tempter. The thematic focus of verses 3-4 is on the sin victim. It is not necessary that the sinner be the same in both cases but in neither case is the sinner portrayed as overtly malicious. The sinner is a Christian (“little one” in verse two and “brother” in verse three) who could be described in terms of Romans 7—“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing” (Romans 7:19). Inasmuch as the sin is not indicated as malicious neither is it necessarily singular. Jesus does not specify that it is the same sin committed seven times, but rather leaves it open to one or more sins multiple times in the day. One should not conclude definitively, then, that the repeated repentance is over the same sin which would be no repentance at all. Two of the questions above have thus been answered, namely, Jesus is not speaking of a repeatedly malicious perpetrator, nor is he teaching that we should forgive false repentance. The sinner to be forgiven is a brother who sins against another multiple times in the day and realizes through rebuke or conviction that he has sinned and seeks forgiveness. Therefore repentance, according to Jesus in this scenario, is a change of mind where one recognizes and confesses one’s sin and seeks forgiveness from the offended. The validity of such repentance must be borne out in time as one progressively grows in their resistance to temptation.

One final example demonstrates how repentance begins in the mind. Acts 8:9-24 records how Simon the magician witnessed Peter and John and desired the power to bestow the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands. After offering them money for such a gift Peter responded harshly calling him to repent saying, “Repent, therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (v. 22). The text gives no clear malicious intent Simon had for this request, but perhaps Peter knew through the Holy Spirit what was in his heart. Whatever the case it is clear that as far as Peter was concerned the sin to be repented of was not the offer of money, but the heart’s desire behind the offer. Therefore the repentance Peter exhorted was not of the action only, but of the intention of the heart. For Simon to be truly repentant he had to change his mind with regard to his desires which immediately led to a change in behavior.


After considering the biblical concept of repentance it is clear that penance and repentance are distinct and separate concepts. Penance is an extra-biblical and contra-biblical doctrine while repentance is taught throughout Scripture. Penance obscures the atonement while repentance lives under the shadow of the cross. Penance seeks to earn forgiveness from God while repentance seeks unearned forgiveness from the offended. Penance requires contrition (feeling bad), confession, and satisfaction while repentance requires a complete change of heart, confession, resulting in change of action. Penance lessens one’s time in purgatory while repentance increases one’s sanctification.

In the final analysis true genuine repentance has occurred when a believer has changed his mind and recognized his sin. She has gone from glorifying self to glorifying God. He has replaced his standard for God’s standard. This is not merely feeling bad—which is remorse—but a deep and effective change in one’s thinking whereby one’s actions consistently demonstrate an internal change.

[1] Chris Jenkins responds to Robert Wilkin’s redefinition of repentance in “What is Repentance? Settling the Debate.” Journal of Modern Ministry 5, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 7-19.

[2] As quoted by Paul Enns. The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997): 535.

[3] Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology. Electronic edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 2:187. Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 1254. Augustus Strong. Systematic Theology. Electronic edition. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004): 549.

[4] Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M.E.J Richardson and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Volumes 1-4 Combined in One Electronic Edition., electronic ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1999, c1994-1996), 1429-1434.

[5] Jenkins rightly points to the critical flaw in Wilkin’s method of defining μετανοέω by pointing out that Wilkin uses only classical Greek texts (non-biblical) to define the word and applies that meaning to Scripture.

[6] Darrell Bock. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Luke 9:51-24:53. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 1380. John Nolland. Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 9:21-18:34. (Dallas: Word, Inc., 2002), 837.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Jesus in the Life of a Christian

What follows is Paul’s teaching Jesus in Ephesians. Every direct reference (excluding pronouns) is included.

Jesus did not merely secure salvation and then leave us alone; he continues to be the center of life. Paul is an apostle of Jesus and the recipients are faithful in Jesus (1:1). It is from Jesus and the Father that we receive grace, peace, and blessings (1:2-3). We have been adopted through Jesus (1:5) according to the plan made beforehand in Jesus (1:9). It is in Jesus that we put our hope and faith (1:12, 15). From Jesus’ Father we receive wisdom and revelation (1:17), whose power also raised Jesus from the dead (1:20) as it also raised us up with Christ (2:5). Our union with Jesus places us in heaven (2:6), and it is through Jesus that God expressed his kindness toward us (2:7). Though we are now created in Jesus (2:10) we were once separate from him (2:12), but because of his blood we have been brought near (2:13). Jesus is the cornerstone, the master of us all (2:20; 3:1). What we know of Jesus now was once a mystery (3:4), but we now know that in Jesus the promises of God are for Jews and Gentiles (3:6). This mystery of Jesus revealed is beyond comprehension (3:8), but nevertheless is manifested in the person of Jesus (3:11). Jesus not only dwells in heaven as our advocate, he dwells in our hearts (3:17). We must know Jesus’ love which surpasses knowledge (3:19) and give his glory for it (3:21). Jesus gave gifts to the church (4:7) for the building up of the body (4:12) to the end that the body would measure up to Jesus himself (4:13, 15). We must live in accordance with what we have learned about Jesus knowing that in him is truth (4:20, 21). We must live lives of forgiveness and love because Jesus has forgiven us and loved us (4:32; 5:2). The sinner has no inheritance in Jesus’ kingdom (5:5), and those who are made alive will have the light of Christ shone on them (5:14). Our thanksgiving ought to be in the name of Jesus (5:20) and our submission to one another out of reverence for Jesus (5:21). Husbands must model Jesus in their headship (5:23), and wives must likewise submit in the same manner as the church does to Jesus (5:24). Husbands must love their wives as Christ does the church (5:25), likewise nourishing and cherishing them (5:29). Marriage is a reflection of Jesus and the church (5:32). Slaves must work for their masters as they would for Jesus (6:5) knowing that they are indeed slaves of Jesus (5:6). Jesus and the Father give peace and love to those who love him (6:23-24).

In light of all this that Paul has said in Ephesians, it is no wonder that in Colossians 3:4 he also says, “When Christ who is your life…” and likewise in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pastor or Entertainer with a Message?

There are some pastors who error in that they speak as comedians with a message. Some error in that they are not comedians, but they don’t have a message either. There are some who preach the God’s Word, but do so through entertainment. There are some who preach seriously, but they’re not preaching God’s Word.

It is hard to criticize a pastor who preaches a passage, explaining the text accurately and with good explanation, but does it in such a way that is missing the gravitas of the passage. On the one hand it is refreshing because hearing anyone who gives an accurate treatment of the text is good. On the other hand it is annoying because the constant jokes make it difficult to think seriously throughout the sermon. It’s hard because it is fun to listen to a speaker who makes you chuckle and laugh.

Despite the reality that it is enjoyable to listen to this kind of preaching, I would never want this kind of speaker to be my long-term pastor for the following reasons:

1. I wonder if this person can be serious about anything for any length of time. How will they act in a funeral service? Will they make a joke when my spouse is in the hospital? Do they understand that there is a time for laughter and a time for weeping?

2. The Bible is not a book of jokes, nor do the truths it contains give way to laughter. Life can be funny and light-hearted, and laughter is good in its rightful place, but studying Scripture is not the time to make weighty matters light. Sermons should convict sinners, edify believers, challenge the soul, encourage the weak, break the strong. It shouldn’t make anyone jovial.

3. A sermon filled with modern illustrations and funny examples is out of necessity not filled with biblical illustrations or historical background. At the end of the sermon you might understand the truth, but you won’t understand the text—and there is a significant difference.

4. Pastors who are entertaining to listen to, no matter how correct their message, are reliant upon their personality and not the truth. People flock to them because they enjoy listening to the speaker, not because they love the truth he speaks. The fact that he speaks the truth legitimates their flocking to him, but it doesn’t cause it.

5. One of the important goals of good preaching is to teach by example how to study the Bible. An entertaining sermon week after week after week cannot achieve this goal.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Gospel

God has revealed Himself in the Bible as the Creator. The Bible starts with the words, “In the beginning God” (Genesis 1:1). The Bible makes no attempt to prove God’s existence but rather focuses on God as Creator of all things. The New Testament tells us that God not only created everything, but it was created for him (Colossians 1:16). That is to say that God created the universe for himself—for his glory. He did not create because he lacked something or needed anything (Acts 17:25), but rather in order that he would receive the glory that he deserves (Ephesians 1). Because God created everything, he also owns everything. As Creator he has the deed to the universe and can do with it what he wills (Psalm 24:1). God is under no obligation to operate on the opinions of others, especially finite created humans.

Among the many attributes that the Bible uses to describe God, the most unique trait that God embodies is holiness. Holiness means uniqueness, separation, distinction. On multiple occasions the Bible describes heavenly scenes in which angels surround the throne proclaiming God’s holiness (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). God is holy, unique, and distinct from his creation because he is perfect and lacking in nothing. He is perfectly righteous, just, loving, and merciful. He is perfect in wrath, goodness, graciousness, power. There is no evil in him because he is the standard of good. There is no sense in which he is imperfect or unable to accomplish his will. There is no lack of perfection.

As Creator and Owner, the most holy God requires perfect obedience to his law. If we want to have a relationship with him, we have to be perfect according to his standard. In other words, nothing less than absolute perfection is acceptable to Him. It is not enough to be 51% good. It is not enough to have a super majority of goodness. It is not enough be 99% good. God says that we could live a perfectly righteous life, yet if we failed at one point we might as well have broken the whole law (James 2:10).

This situation poses a serious problem because the Bible also says that everyone is a sinner. There is no perfect person that has ever lived. We understand sin pretty easily; sin is just not meeting God’s standard. Since God’s standard includes things like obeying governments, every time we speed on the highway we are in a real sense breaking God’s law. But we also sin when we don’t do things. For example, we sin when we don’t acknowledge God for who He is. We sin when we think of God flippantly and we sin when we misrepresent God. We sin when we act wickedly and we sin when we think we’re acting good. The Bible says that even our righteous deeds are offensive to God because we think that somehow the little good that we do will bring us favor from God and outweigh the wickedness in our hearts. We sin when we fail to acknowledge God and we sin when we replace God with our own gods of money, sex, power, and pleasure. There are millions of ways that we all sin on a daily basis. The main point is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

God is also perfectly just, therefore, He cannot let sin go unpunished, and He has declared that the penalty for sin is eternal death. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not only do we deserve to die physically, but we are already dead spiritually because of sin (Ephesians 2:1). We have sinned against an infinite God and we must pay an infinite penalty. It may not make sense that what we would consider to be a minor act lying would deserve death. But we understand that under the right circumstances a slap on the face can land one in a federal prison. The issue is not the act itself, but the one against whom the act is perpetrated. Punching a spouse has its consequences, but punching the President of the United States had severe consequences. In the same way when we break God’s law, we are sinning against an infinite being and therefore that act requires infinite consequences.

Unlike every other religion in the world there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. There is no finite righteous deed that can overcome infinite punishment. Every attempt we make to please God on our own is actually an offense to God because we think that somehow by doing good deeds here and there we can make up for our sins against the infinite God. On our own we cannot please God, or do anything that gets us anywhere near heaven (Romans 8:7-8).

Of course, God knows that we can do nothing. So He did something. While as Creator and Owner he could have chosen to destroy this world and start over, he didn’t. He decided to put himself on display by making known his own character that could not be known any other way. By choosing to save and redeem part of humanity he puts on display his grace and mercy. By allowing another part of humanity to suffer the consequences of their sin he puts on display his perfect justice. In everything God does he displays his own perfection. So what did he do? He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to come to earth as both God and sinless man. Jesus lived a perfect life even though He was tempted in every way (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus proved he was God by fulfilling hundreds of prophecies, many of which he could not orchestrate (like the place of his birth); he performed many miracles and proved his power of sickness and disease, the weather, knowledge of men’s thoughts and hearts. The reason the religious leaders of the time hated him was exactly because Jesus claimed to be God in what he said and taught.

After living a perfect life, he demonstrated God’s love by dying for us and paying the penalty for sin. Because he was perfect he did not have to pay for his own sin, therefore he could pay for another’s sin. And because he is God he could pay for an infinite number of sins, not just one person’s sin. 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that God “made him [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” And just to be clear, Jesus didn’t pay for sin because of what the Romans did to Him. When Jesus was on the cross, God the Father poured out His wrath on Jesus thereby satisfying the just and eternal penalty for our sin.

But as we remember every time we celebrate Easter, Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose again on the third day and accomplished victory over sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Sin and death no longer held power over Him, and they do not hold power over those who believe in Him. His resurrection clinched the victory that He came to accomplish.

Let me summarize what I’ve said so far. The Creator God is perfect and requires perfection. Man is not perfect, must pay the penalty for sin, and there is nothing he or she can do about it. Jesus came living a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose from the dead thereby paying the debt that man owed God.

Now, because of what Jesus accomplished, he offers eternal life to everyone who believes in him. You’re probably familiar with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” God has made it possible for us to live forever with him. What we could not do, God did by sending Jesus to die in our place (Romans 8:3).

What does He require of us? To repent and believe. Repentance simply means turning away from sin, and turning toward God. It means not living the way we want to, but living the way he wants us to (Isaiah 55:7). So we must repent. And we must also believe. Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” We must believe the good news that the Bible teaches. Put another way, we must believe in Jesus and submit our lives to him.

What happens when we believe? A great exchange occurs. God takes away all the sin we have committed in the past, and will commit in the future, and replaces it with all the righteousness of Christ. Think of it this way: God treated Jesus Christ on the cross as if he lived our life, and when we believe in Christ, God then treats us as if we lived Jesus’ perfect life. Perhaps you have heard the definition of justification “just as if I’d never sinned.” That is true as far as it goes, but justification is so much more than that. It starts with being declared innocent of all charges of sin, and moves forward to declare us perfectly righteous. In accounting terms, not only are we no longer in debt having a zero balance, now we have infinite resources in our account. This is the great exchange: our sin for Christ’s righteousness. This is why Paul could write, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Even though God freely grants forgiveness, it doesn’t mean it isn’t costly. As some have said, it is free, but it will cost you everything. It is costly because we go from being our own master to having Jesus be our Master. We give up living independently from God and surrender ourselves to him becoming dependent on him. Don’t think that you can believe in Jesus and your life can continue on as it always has. Perhaps many things will stay the same, perhaps not. The point is you must be willing to let him change everything if he wants to. So consider the cost (Luke 14:25-33). But also remember that being reconciled to God far outweighs the cost. What we have given up, we give up freely because we love God and he has been so kind and gracious to us. It is costly, but it is like selling everything to buy something one thing that is more valuable than everything put together.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Understanding Anger

Anger is universal. It is not limited to human beings but is expressed by the devil and his demons and most supremely by God. It is not merely an emotion, nor is it merely an action. Anger is not entirely positive, nor is it entirely negative. What exactly is anger and how should we evaluate it? David Powlison has written a helpful article dealing with anger in the biblical context and how Christians can understand it with precision and clarity.

The article is structured around the following five points: 1) The Bible is about anger, 2) Anger is something you do, 3) Anger is natural, 4) Anger is learned, and 5) Anger is a moral matter. Points three and four seem contradictory but the thrust of the fourth point is such that it should read “Anger Expression is Learned.” Following the fifth point the article ends with seven tests one can use to evaluate anger.

When one hears the statement “the Bible is about anger” perhaps the popular sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” comes to mind. Or perhaps one would contradict stating that the Bible is about grace; or it is about Jesus. Powlison makes the case that grace cannot be understood without anger, and Jesus’ incarnation would not have occurred if not for anger. From the moment of the fall, God’s anger toward sin has been the backdrop of all the positive elements of Scripture. Would grace be grace if God was not angry? Why would the Son die on the cross if God wasn’t angry? What is the motivation toward holiness if sin doesn’t have a consequence? Satan’s very existence is defined by anger as is known as the destroyer, murderer, and the father of lies. If God—the Holy One—can express anger, and Satan—the destroyer—can express anger, what does that indicate? It clearly indicates that anger has both positive and negative elements. It can be entirely good and entirely evil, though not at the same time. God’s anger is productive while Satan’s anger is destructive. God’s anger at sin was expressed by paying the penalty for sin on the cross resulting in justification. God’s anger at sin is continually expressed by disarming sin’s control of the believer through sanctification. God’s anger at sin will be expressed by finally eradicating it in glorification. Therefore the gracious loving acts of God are at the same time expressions of anger toward sin.

Contrasting God’s productive anger is Satan’s destructive anger. Though we know that Satan’s pride caused his fall did not anger precede pride? Satan must have been angry over his lower-than-divine position in order to desire a higher one. His anger was again expressed by deceiving Eve into rejecting God’s command. In the New Testament his anger came full force in bringing Jesus to the cross working through the Jewish leaders as well as Judas. In the end Satan’s anger will be brought to full force through the Anti-Christ who will amass a world army to do battle with God’s people. Therefore all of Satan’s works are expressions of his anger toward God. With those two real extremes in mind we can now consider human anger and evaluate it in relationship to God and Satan’s anger.

Though the first explicit mention of anger is in Genesis 4 in the episode between Cain and Abel, Powlison considers the first expression of anger to be Adam’s attitude and actions after the fall. This is based on Adam’s blame shifting, sense of superiority (blaming God for giving him the woman), and his sense of innocence because these are aspects closely related to anger. The woman demonstrated the same attitude in blaming the serpent. In the next chapter anger is fueled by jealousy and results in the first recorded murder between Cain and Abel. These instances of anger resulted in a world full of violence (Gen. 6:11). Powlison goes through a number of passages demonstrating characteristics of anger. In short, anger can be easily aroused, mask itself in innocence, be vengeful, result in cursing and uncontrolled actions. Anger is equated with murder in that it can hurt helpless people, make unjust judgments, cause character defamation, bring physical harm, and inner hatred. Righteous anger be characterized by loving reproof and correction, confrontation, protection of the innocent, and motivation to do good. Powlison also discusses the motivations for anger, namely, desires and unbelief. He reminds us that the Old Testament is clear that the Israelites grumbled because their desires were not met and in many situations they did not believe God would take care of them (e.g. by defeating Pharaoh’s army and the inhabitants in the promised land). Cain’s anger stemmed from his desire for approval and the anger of Potiphar’s wife stemmed from her unmet desire for Joseph. Virtually all sinful anger stems from getting what you don’t want or not getting what you do want.

The consequences of anger are an increasing amount of anger and destruction. Proverbs 29:22 states, “An angry man stirs up strife.” That is to say that anger is not self-contained. It spreads to others around it. Even God gets angry when we’re angry, but His anger is a righteous anger at our sinful anger. The Bible is filled with people who were continually angry such as Saul, Jonah, Jezebel, Nabal, Pharisees, and even the disciples became angry on occasion. Righteous anger is rare, but we do have records of people exhibiting this behavior. Moses expressed righteous anger when the people were worshipping a false god while he was on the mountain. Samson exhibited righteous anger when he knew the enemies of Israel were celebrating. We have many records in the Psalms of David’s righteous anger at the prospering of his enemies and his desire for God to glorify himself in their destruction. Finally, hints of Paul’s anger toward false teachers can be found throughout his epistles.

With this foundation of anger understood, Powlison moves on to discuss observations about the expression of anger.

Though anger is an emotion it always acts out through words and/or actions. Powlison refers to this as “Anger is Something you DO.” Not only do we typically act out in anger but our bodies change physically. Muscle and nerve tension, swollen nostrils, body temperature rises, at extreme times adrenaline can surge the body. This explains the terms often used for anger such as hot-tempered, breathing fire, steamed, volcanic, etc. Anger also involves our minds as we make judgments, replay the offense mentally, and perhaps quickly plot revenge. Anger also always has an object on which it is focused. Anger typically occurs between people as in families, politics, religions, work, friendships, etc. but it can also occur toward a impersonal object such a Balaam’s donkey, a pet, a piece of furniture that gives a stubbed toe, etc. Most importantly anger occurs between people and God. No anger toward God is just, but it abounds on earth as people blame God for suffering and difficult times.

For those who believe in the doctrine of utter depravity it is no surprise that anger is natural, but at the same time how one expresses anger is learned. Parents who yell at their children reap yelling children. Parents who react physically without self-control have the same problems in their children.

The final point is that anger is a moral issue. This is easily seen by the fact that a person gets angry when they feel wronged. That is to say they have made a moral judgment about something and deemed it wrong as opposed to right, therefore they react in anger. Not only does anger evaluate right and wrong, but it is also evaluated by God and others. Is the anger righteous or sinful? God reacts to sinful anger with righteous anger, people typically react to sinful anger with sinful anger.

Though Powlison uses a significant amount of Scripture, there was also much support by observation. That is not entirely bad as anger is something we are all familiar with and see all around us. But Scripture provides many of the same supports we see around us (which makes sense since the Bible matches reality). It would have been nice to see more information coming from Psalms and Proverbs which are rich with this issue. Overall as Part 1 in a series it was a helpful start at the subject and ended with good evaluative questions to ask oneself on whether a moment of anger is righteous or sinful.