Depravity I

April 10th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been reading and researching the doctrine of Total Depravity for some time now, trying to prepare an essay or series of essays on the topic, but I find myself continuing to struggle with the best method to present the material clearly. Total Depravity is a uniquely Christian doctrine. It is the doctrine which shows man’s helplessness in the face of God’s just wrath, it shows the immense reach of God’s mercy, and it motivates our unadulterated gratitude for the purely divine work of salvation.

But being fully convinced of this fact is somewhat of a handicap for me. To quote Chesterton,

[Being fully convinced] makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase…and the coals in the coal-scuttle…and pianos…and policeman.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes rely impossible.”

Here I find myself, so full of reasons why one ought to believe in Depravity. There is a wealth of scripture passages. But where do I start? How do I go about explaining the significance of deadness and enslavement in Ephesians 2 and Romans 6? Should I just limit myself to an essay on Romans 1:18 through Romans 2? And what about Job 14:4; John 6:44, 65; Jeremiah 13:23; Matthew 12:33; and I Corinthians 2:14? How do I show them to be contributing to a unified doctrine? (I shy away from just listing them and talking about them one by one, but I struggle to see the best order.)

But yet what about the logical (as opposed the the scriptural) support for the doctrine? At what point should I bring in Edward’s Freedom of the Will and discuss the reality of choice and responsibility, but the truth that we do not have free will? Surely understanding the logical incomprehensibility of free will would be helpful, but I don’t know where to put it in the overarching flow.

So I am a tad bit overwhelmed. I am thoroughly convinced (nay, convicted) that this is a doctrine which is either denied or merely given ignorant lip-service by much of the church. Its historical teaching is misunderstood or mocked as trivially false. Boatloads of Christians stand ready to defend the Deity of Christ and his substitutionary atonement. Throngs of Christ Followers are prepared to rally round the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But there remains only a tattered few who fight for Total Depravity. And though it is neither the beginning nor the end, neither the foundation nor the pinnacle of a solid theology, it is a necessary step if we are to understand ourselves properly, if we are to understand how to grow properly, and if we are to see the depth of the riches of the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and worship him properly in light of what he accomplished.

But I must begin somewhere. In the classical sense, I suppose the best place to start is with a definition. What is this doctrine that is so crucial to orthodox Christianity? Next time, we’ll start right there.

The Sovereignty of God II

April 1st, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

This could be subtitled Sovereignty and Sarcasm, or An Exposition on Psalm 2. Or you can make up your own subtitle and leave it in the comments. For the next 700 words or so, we’ll be taking a look at Psalm 2, a text that gives us an idea of how we might respond to God’s sovereignty. As I won’t mention every verse exactly, nor will I begin with a summary, it might be helpful if you read it quickly before we begin. (Here’s the ESV.)

Permit me to read into the text just a bit, but I think the second psalm begins with God asking a sarcastic, rhetorical question: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” This seems like thinly veiled contempt on the part of God. Perhaps what was really going through his head was, “Look at the idiots! Have they no idea what’s going on?” In their foolishness, the kings of the earth have conspired against God. They say (and at this point I can hear God using his taunting-on-the-playground-voice), “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (“Morons.”)

Next in the text comes the reason for my willingness to read such deep sarcasm into God’s talk about these people: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD holds them in derision.” His contempt is mitigated only by the humor of the spectacle, and only momentarily. “Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.'” This earthly plot has no effect on what God has planned. It’s like he says to them, “You have done your thing, and it is laughable. I have done this, and you can do nothing about it. And now you’ve made me mad.”

The psalm has begun with cutting sarcasm, but in verses seven through nine, we see a shift in tone. Because scholars consider this to be a messianic psalm, we can infer that the “Son” to whom “the LORD” speaks is, in fact, the Christ. (This “Son” could refer to an earthly king, too, but we’ll not get into the interpretive issues of typology at this moment.) Though the tone of this section is anything but sarcastic, the content is still quite surprising. Jesus is not portrayed as some comforting savior, but as a militant conqueror who “shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them like a potter’s vessel.” The combination of sovereignty and wrath, even in our loving Savior, if fearsome to behold.

Up to this point we’ve seen that God’s sovereignty and power are so much greater than anything of this earth that any rebellion against him is laughable, and pathetic. The language is much like a giant taunting an gnat. But at verse 10 the psalm becomes suddenly didactic. “Now therefore,” we hear. Instructions are on the way; what ought we to do because of God’s sovereignty over this situation? We will:

Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the Son lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, we read elsewhere, and this same fear is exactly what we should feel upon contemplating his control and authority. He holds our plans and hopes and sadnesses and fears in his grasp and he does what he wills. Before we can learn anything else from God’s sovereignty, we must fear him.

But it is the final line of the psalm that is its most surprising. After verses of contemptuous questions and sarcastic laughter, after learning of the wrath of the Messiah and a warning to serve him in fear, the psalm changes suddenly, just as it ends. I like to think that the Psalmist, after meditating fearfully on the sovereignty of God and writing all this, suddenly paused, trembling, wrote this last line, and then walked away perfectly calmed. After this gnashing meditation on the wrath of a sovereign God, the Psalmist says simply: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

These are the two response that we should have when we recognize the sovereignty of God. The unregenerate in particular must fear his wrath. We who are saved should still fear, recognizing that we still sin. Though God’s wrath is no longer directed towards us, in his love, he will bring chastisement to the fullest degree. But after we arrive at fear, suddenly the sovereignty of God becomes our refuge, and a blessing to us. We who find shelter in God, we are blessed.

The Sovereignty of God I

March 28th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

Oftentimes a study of Calvinism is couched in terms of election and predestination. Sometimes it begins as a conversation about the five points or TULIP. Though I do not dispute the doctrine of election, nor do I dissent from any of the five points, neither of these are really good starting points for a solid understanding of Calvinism. Instead, one should begin with the two Biblical premises of absolute sovereignty and total depravity. (Oops, I just mentioned a point.) These are two of the key elements of understanding the Gospel. In fact, though some other religions may believe the doctrine of absolute sovereignty, no other religion claims the totally depravity of man; it is unique to Christianity.

So let’s begin with a discussion of sovereignty. Let us define it. That God is sovereign means that he has authority, power, and control over all things. He does all things according to his will. There is none who can affect change in him. What he wants to do, he does; what he wants to be, is.

The Bible is full of scripture extolling God for his sovereignty. A topical study of every passage that mentions sovereignty would take multiple posts. One of the themes of many of these passages is God’s sovereignty over nature. Psalms 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” His power over nature is clearly evident in the creation. When Job began to have a wrong attitude about God’s sovereignty, this is the argument God used against Job (with blatant sarcasm) In Job 38.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

His power is controls hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, diseases, and wild animals. His decree gives us starry skies, blue seas, and the green shade. His is the artistry and imagination behind the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest. He maintains unmitigated control over his creation and upholds it at every moment for his glory.

God’s sovereignty doesn’t stop with “nature” but extends within every person, too. God is sovereign over the decisions of men. We read about this in Exodus. When God called his people out of slavery in Egypt, he performed miracle after miracle before Pharaoh in order to convince him to let the Israelites go. And miracle after miracle Pharaoh refuses. Indeed, after the sixth plague, we read that “The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had spoken to Moses.” and again after the seventh plague, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants.” (Ex 9:12; 10:1) Right before the final plague we read, “The LORD said to Moses, Yet one plague more I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. Afterward he will let you go from here. When he lets you go, he will drive you away completely.” (11:1) The story of the Exodus is a story of God’s control not merely over plagues and disasters; God does not merely work miracles in the public arena of nature, but also in the intimacy of our hearts.

Paul recalled the story of Pharaoh in Romans 9, when he talks about God’s sovereignty in the act of salvation, saying, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this 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.” Proverbs 21:1 presses the point home, saying, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”

I could find plenty more scripture references that support this historic doctrine of Christianity, but I’m not going to. I hope that I’ve made the case that the doctrine is biblical, but I also think that this idea that God is sovereign over man’s decisions is logical. If God is to have power over everything, over the events of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, of life and death and what in the world I’ll be doing five years from now, then he must have control over the hearts of men, including my own.

In talking about God’s sovereignty, then, we’ve agreed (or at least you’re humoring me) that God is sovereign over nature and over men’s decisions. God is also sovereign over calamity. Of course, I think this flows logically and directly from the previous points we’ve made, that God is sovereign over nature and people, but this point has its own particular emphasis in scripture. In Amos 3, God is talking about the punishment he will bring upon his chosen people when he says, “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city unless the LORD has done it?” When Job said, “Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?” he seemed to assume that God has absolute control over Job’s disastrous circumstances (a claim thoroughly upheld by the ongoing dialogue in heaven). In Isaiah God says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD who does all these things.”

The sovereignty of God is foundational to the Christian religion. Up to this point, I have especially attempted to show God’s sovereignty in the arenas of nature, the human heart, and calamity. No doubt this has raised some important questions. If God controls everything, how can I be responsible for my actions? And does God cause evil? These problems are important, so I’ll not neglect them, but they must wait for another essay another time.

Next time, we’ll see how knowing the sovereignty of God should affect us.

God and Goodness II

November 23rd, 2008 § 0 comments § permalink

I hope that all my readers will not mind if I begin with the modest assertion that God is the most good (best?) thing (or person) in existence. (Let us call this Premise 1: God is the most good thing in existence.) Thus, if we think truthfully about him, we will think thoughts like “He is good,” or “His goodness is greater than any other.” To think such thoughts is to “think highly” of God.

It’s hard to say what exactly it means to think highly of (or esteem) someone. This is a rather physical/spatial metaphor. Thoughts not being exactly material or spatial, they are never exactly high or low. But regardless of this problem, I believe that my readers intuitively understand what I mean when I say “think highly”. Perhaps another way to put it is that we “think well” of the object of our contemplation (“well” being the adverbial form of “good”).

I hope that we can all agree that we ought to think truthfully. (Let’s call this Premise 2: We ought to think truthfully.) This seems trivially true: to think untruthfully is to be dishonest (at least if we know the truth). Obviously then, we ought to think highly of God, esteem him, praise him, etc.

But he also ought to think such thoughts of himself; not to think highly of himself would not be humility but dishonesty. Were God to say to himself, “I’m not really all that. I’m not the most good being in existence,” he would not demonstrate modesty but dishonesty. This is a terribly faulty idea of God to entertain. Were we to attribute such goodness to ourselves, we would be liars and prideful. God, on the other hand, cannot but think such things of himself.

Let us, then, introduce a third premise. We ought to have affection for good things. Of course, I have trouble supporting this from any logical perspective; it just seems mind-numbingly obvious. Ought we to have affection or disgust for child molestation? (Hint: disgust.) Ought we to have affection or disgust for sacrificial heroism? (Hint: affection.) If you disagree with me on this, then (a) you need to seek counseling and (b) I am unable and unwilling to argue this further with you. (It would be a waste of your, and what is infinitely more valuable, my time. (That’s a movie quote. I’m not actually that pompous. Most of the time.))

An important corollary to this latest premise is that we ought to have more affection for things that are more good (also known as “better”). (As amazing as we all know chocolate is, we should probably love God even more that chololate.)

Let’s conclude with a quick review:
Premise 1: God is the most good thing in existence.
Premise 2: We ought to think truthfully.
Premise 3: We ought to have affection for good things. (And corollary: We ought to have more affection for things that have more goodness.)

Next time: God in the Old Testament—Doing all for “His name’s sake.”

God and Goodness I

November 22nd, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

A good friend asked for my opinion just the other day. “It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write [an essay] upon the feeblest provocation. But after all, though [the Pirate] has inspired and created this [essay], [s]he need not read it. If [s]he does read it, [s]he will find that in its [paragraphs] I have attempted in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.” (From Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, Ch. 1)

The Pirate has asked simply what I thought of another blog. I cannot but answer. Feel free to take a moment now and read that post yourself, for, though it is not necessary to understanding the content of this post, it will be relevant to future posts in this series.

My problem isn’t with any of the explicit writings in that post, but the several problematic presuppositions behind the writer’s thinking. It would be difficult (or at least quite boring) for me to enumerate all of the points upon which we significantly differ, so I’ll focus on just one: the goodness of God. My thesis through this series will be that this writer has misunderstood what it means for God to be good. He or she (I’m going to use “he” in the future because I’m lazy like that) has missed how that one fact about God makes God unlike his expectations, and this is actually better than he could have hoped for. But he’s also missed that exactly because of (and not in spite of) God’s goodness, the world isn’t going to be fluffy and happy all of the time. In fact, God’s goodness can be a terrifying and awful thing. (Of course, as the entire series is not yet penned, I reserve the right to change my thesis on a whim at any time with no prior notice.)

On the divine goodness, C.S. Lewis said:

Any consideration of the goodness of God at once threatens us with the following dilemma.

On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, not the least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.

On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear—and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend.

The Problem of Pain Ch. 2

Unlike C.S. Lewis, we’re not going to investigate what the divine goodness is, but what it means for us. All the same, we are wise to notice that this is an extraordinarily difficult topic, one in which many have gravely erred. What makes this extremely difficult is just how “other” God is.

As A.W. Tozer tells us:

Forever God stands apart, in light unapproachable. He is as high above the archangel as above a caterpillar, for the gulf that separates the archangel from the caterpillar is but finite, while the gulf between God and the archangel is infinite. The caterpillar and the archangel, though far removed from each other in the scale of created things, are nevertheless one in that they are alike created. They both belong in the category of that-which-is-not-God and are separated from God by infinitude itself.”

The Knowledge of the Holy Ch. 13

But don’t simply heed the words of the great Christian writers. God has spoken; let us listen:

Exodus 15:11 “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”

Let us then begin our voyage through the goodness of God with this one thought about that one little blog that started this whole discussion: the writer of that post failed (and understandably so) to understand what it means for God to be good. In countering his philosophy I claim no special authority. I cannot even claim to have something original to say. My beliefs are rather shamelessly stolen from other thinkers (both past and contemporary), but my one authority is the Bible. I may not always explicitly quote it, and so I expect a reader with questions either to examine the scripture herself, “to see whether these things are true,” or ask me to supply a reference if I did not already. With that said, let us begin. (Or rather, let us wait for David to post the next segment.) (Oh, who am I fooling? No one is waiting.)

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