Sunday, April 17, 2011
The Whole Counsel of God
This topic has been heavy on my heart in recent weeks. Am I proclaiming the whole counsel of God? Most of it at least? Part of it only? Am I living the whole counsel of God? Are you hearing the whole counsel of God? Am I innocent of your blood? What is the whole counsel of God?
Three things have set me on this journey. The first is the natural progression of a Bible study through the Book of Acts that I help lead, and the confrontation with the text of Acts 20: "But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God."
The second is the firestorm over and the very existence of the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell, which offers some surprising interpretations on the Bible's teaching on judgment and salvation. The third is my experience at The Gospel Coalition conference earlier this month in Chicago, which focused on preaching Christ and the Gospel from the Old Testament. So, in other words, the first part of my journey has involved a thorough study of the biblical exhortation to declare the whole counsel of God; the second part has involved an encounter with a very bad example of this in practice, and the third part has involved the experience of a very good example. God has brought me closer to Him in this journey, and closer, I think, to understanding what the whole counsel of God is, how to proclaim it, and how to live it.
WHAT ABOUT MY GRASS?
Why should you care? I try to always ask that question in my posts, because it is a legitimate one. What are you doing on here? How did the interwebs lead you here? Why are you reading these strange words? Why I am taking the time to write them? The Spring has sprung. It's beautiful outside. Do you see how long my grass is right now? I don't have time for counsel. Seriously, my mower doesn't have a setting high enough to conquer the field outside my window, and I'm about to reek havoc on my blade and many other things, not least of which my allergies; uncontrollable sneezing is about to commence. I don't have time to delay the inevitable. The longer I wait, the more miserable it is going to be. Are you with me? So what is the point here? The whole counsel of God? Come on. My grass looks like a jungle. I don't care about this elusive "whole counsel" of God, and I don't have time for it. Or, you might have just had, or are very soon expecting, a baby. A human being. This is not assumption, as I know many people this month or the next few months who are expecting children. This is a big deal. Obviously a bigger deal than an untrimmed lawn. But, I wonder, how does the whole counsel of God apply to your newborn? Are you going to explain it to them? Shouldn't you?
Oh, that you would care, and have time, and explain it! As usual, what I write here is not sufficient to explain such a massive topic. But I hope it plants a seed. I hope it helps your reading of the Bible. I hope it encourages your love of people. I hope it allows you to rejoice at the deepest level. I hope it secures your joy in suffering. The Bible is the special revelation of the God of the Universe in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. When you read it, this is always the point, and it always will transform your life. Confusion about these things is not God's will for us. So, let's get into it.
SOVEREIGNTY AND RESPONSIBILITY
Some of you might not be aware of a pretty fundamental disagreement within the Christian Church. I want to expose you to it, but with great care, because I don't mean to confuse you or distance you from the Savior; I mean to draw you closer to Him in awe and surrender, where He is waiting for you with open arms. This disagreement centers around salvation. One extreme says that God predestines those who will come to faith in Him and does the entire work in saving us. The other extreme says that we come to salvation based on our free will decision. Many label those that believe completely in predestination as "Calvinists" (even though this description can include a much wider, and more specific, interpretation of the nature and grace of God). Many label those that believe completely in human free will as Arminians (even though, in my experience, those that lean this way are largely less informed about the difference, by their own admission). A wise man, and a friend, once explained in a Bible study I was in, a simple answer to this question when it came up. It has stuck with me like a super-glue backed post-it note on my brain: both are 100% true. Whoa. Right? God predestines us, and we are responsible for the free will decision. That some read the Bible and don't see this is quite perplexing to me. The fact that is makes no logical sense whatsoever is irrelevant to its presence in Scripture and very clear truthfulness.
Reading Acts has been very revealing about this reality of both being equally and completely true at the same time. "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself." (Acts 2:37-41)
"When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48)
"A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshipper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul." (Acts 16:14)
Charles Spurgeon, no slouch when it comes to Bible teaching, offers the balance of these two truths as a central part of what it means to preach the whole counsel of God. In other words, if you favor one at the expense of the other, you are falling short of God's complete truth (whole counsel), and leading people astray. God predestines us, and we are completely responsible. Sorry if that is confusing. I didn't make this stuff up. Its just true. Listen to Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers (read his entire address here):
"To proceed then:—I question whether we have preached the whole counsel of God, unless predestination with all its solemnity and sureness be continually declared—unless election be boldly and nakedly taught as being one of the truths revealed of God. It is the minister's duty, beginning from this fountain head, to trace all the other streams; dwelling on effectual calling, maintaining justification by faith, insisting upon the certain perseverance of the believer, and delighting to proclaim that gracious covenant in which all these things are contained, and which is sure to all the chosen, blood-bought seed... We are told that the times have changed: that we are to modify these old (so-called) Calvinistic doctrines, and bring them down to the tone of the times; that, in fact, they need dilution, that men have become so intelligent that we must pare off the angles of our religion, and make the square into a circle by rounding off the most prominent edges. Any man who doth this, so far as my judgment goes, does not declare the whole counsel of God.
"But beloved, a man might preach all these doctrines to the full, and yet not declare the whole counsel of God. For here comes the labour and the battle; here it is that he who is faithful in these modern days will have to bare the full brunt of war. It is not enough to preach doctrine; we must preach duty, we must faithfully and firmly insist upon practice. So long as you will preach nothing but bare doctrine, there is a certain class of men of perverted intellect who will admire you, but once begin to preach responsibility—say outright, once for all, that if the sinner perish it is his own fault, that if any man sinks to hell, his damnation will lie at his own door, and at once there is a cry of 'Inconsistency! How can these two things stand together?' Even good Christian men are found who cannot endure the whole truth, and who will oppose the servant of the Lord who will not be content with a fragment, but will honestly present the whole gospel of Christ. This is one of the troubles that the faithful minister has to endure. But he is not faithful to God—I say it solemnly, I do not believe that any man is even faithful to his own conscience, who can preach simply the doctrine of responsibility. I do assuredly believe that every man who sinks into hell shall have himself alone to curse for it. It shall be said of them as they pass the fiery portal: 'Ye would not.'...
"I do not see that the whole counsel of God is declared, unless those two apparently contradictory points are brought out and plainly taught... Espouse but one phase of the truth, and you shall be cried up to the very heavens. Become such a Calvinist that you shut your eyes to one half the Bible, and cannot see the responsibility of the sinner, and men will clap their hands, and cry Hallelujah! and on the backs of many you shall be hoisted to a throne, and become a very prince in their Israel. On the other hand, begin to preach mere morality, practice without doctrine, and you shall be elevated on other men's shoulders; you shall, if I may use such a figure, ride upon these asses into Jerusalem; and you shall hear them cry, Hosanna! and see them wave their palm branches before you.
"But once preach the whole counsel of God, and you shall have both parties down upon you; one crying, 'The man is too high,' the other saying, 'No, he is too low;' the one will say, 'He's a rank Arminian,' the other, 'He's a vile hyper- Calvinist.' Now, a man does not like to stand between two fires. There is an inclination to please one or other of the two parties, and so, if not to increase one's adherents, at least to get a more ferociously attached people... Therefore, it was no mean testimony that the apostle asked for himself, that he had not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God.
"But, then, let me remark further, while there is this temptation not to declare all the counsel of God, the true minister of Christ feels impelled to preach the whole truth, because it and it alone can meet the wants of man. What evils has this world seen through a distorted, mangled, man-moulded gospel. What mischiefs have been done to the souls of men by men who have preached only one part and not all the counsel of God. My heart bleeds for many a family where Antinomian doctrine has gained the sway. I could tell many a sad story of families dead in sin, whose consciences are seared as with a hot iron, by the fatal preaching to which they listen. I have known convictions stifled and desires quenched by the soul-destroying system which takes manhood from man and makes him no more responsible than an ox. I cannot imagine a more ready instrument in the hands of Satan for the ruin of souls than a minister who tells sinners that it is not their duty to repent of their sins or to believe in Christ, and who has the arrogance to call himself a gospel minister, while he teaches that God hates some men infinitely and unchangeably for no reason whatever but simply because he chooses to do so. O my brethren! may the Lord save you from the voice of the charmer, and keep you ever deaf to the voice of error."
CAN WE MESS IT UP?
Clearly, Spurgeon's point was that you can mess it up, and fail to declare the whole counsel of God, if you talk about and model God's predestination only, or man's responsibility only. But predestination and responsibility need more explanation themselves to get at what is included in the whole counsel of God, and to keep us from messing it up.
There are many ways to get at this. John Piper, for his part, describes certain truths in Scripture that must be included to declare the whole counsel of God. He says that people need to understand something about God - his holiness, his role as Creator; something about Man - created in God's image; something about Sin - our falling short of the glory of God; something about Christ - His virgin birth, sinless life, deity, example; something about the Cross - Christ's death in our place for our sins, his resurrection to give us hope and secure our future; something about the Holy Spirit - its supernatural transformation of our heart, and its presence in our lives as a deposit of eternal life; and something about Faith - our trusting in Christ and repentance as a necessary step for this salvation.
That is a lot. And, Piper says, you can go wrong concerning these things in a hundred different places. As luck would have it, contemporary culture has offered a very relevant example of one of those places in recent months. I wish it hadn't.
My last post was about Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, specifically its denial of the existence of hell, as traditional Christianity has understood it, and its portrayal of salvation as a universal promise, with or without trust in Jesus. I have now read the book. Let me tell you, it is not very good. I say that with as much respect and love for Rob Bell as I can muster. It's horribe. I'm just sayin'. Seriously, its bad, bad, bad. I'm not kidding around. If you must read it, immediately after you do so, check out Scot McKnight's careful critique. Then, listen to, watch, or read, Mark Driscoll's bold and pastoral message on the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16. Seriously, please watch it. Then, check out John MacArthur's less gentle, but equally fair, analysis of the book and the overall theology of Rob Bell. That should give you the basics. If you still want more, go to Kevin DeYoung and his massive review. If still not satisfied (at this point you're a glutton for punishment), maybe some snippets of what I found as serious issues with the book will be helpful to you:
- He doesn't talk about individual sin, and almost never his own sin. All sin is corporate from his perspective. This is unhelpful to me, an individual sinner.
- Although he explains Bible verses, he does very little Bible exposition. In other words, he doesn't let the text speak for itself; instead he uses it to make his points, some of which are not coherent. This is unhelpful to me, as I am not a Bible scholar, yet I care about what the Bible actually says.
- He shows downright apathy towards the reality of judgment day. Of the verses he references to explain hell, none of them are the ones that mention a day of judgment. This is unhelpful to me in my preparation for judgment.
- He offers no explanation for the character of John the Baptist and his warnings. What I am to make of this rough, hairy, locust-eating man?
- He ridicules immature, ignorant, unnamed Christians as he communicates his frustration with traditional Christianity's articulation of hell. Mature believers would never talk the way he accuses. What would he say to the articulation of hell by lifelong Bible teachers who preach it with trembling, and plead with their hearers to trust in Jesus?
- His explanation of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is the worst form of moralizing. Ok, so I should pay attention to the poor people begging outside my door. That is convicting. But what am I to make of the torment, agony, and flame that the rich man faces?
- In general, he responds to an under-realized eschatology with an over-realized eschatology. God's kingdom has come to Earth, but its not fully here yet, but it kinda is. Or is it? If it is, why is there still death?
- He considers sin the rejection of the life God designed, not rejection of God himself. This is not a helpful description of my longing for a Savior or my guilty conscience, or much guidance as to how to live the life God designed.
- The only invitation he offers is to trust that we are loved, and that a new story is being told about us. I don't know many skeptics or unbelievers that would take the time to consider such a mediocre version of good news. His attempt to make the Gospel more palatable probably won't even work.
- He explains Hebrews from the perspective of the end of pagan sacrifices, instead of the fulfillment of Old Testament sacrifices. This makes the Book of Hebrews even more confusing to me.
- He can't understand hell outside the assumption that it represents that God has "changed gears" in his redemptive purposes. This assumption is not necessary and inconsistent with biblical truth, and makes Ephesians 1, for example, unintelligible to me.
- He actually utters the words, "We shape our God, then He shapes us." We shape our God? What? This does not give me any assurance at all that I will shape God anywhere close to how He is actually shaped.
I have a folder on my jump drive with more than 100 articles about this book from all over the Internet. I can find very few in support of it. Like I said above, Scot McKnight, a discerning Evangelical who has been sympathetic to the Emerging Church over the years, offers what I see as the most telling effort at correction. Please let me know if you would like other resources on this topic. I think I've said more than enough, and to be honest, I'm tired. The issue is now more so about the content of the controversy rather than the nature of it, and not even really about Rob Bell anymore. As John Piper hastily but prophetically stated in reaction to the promo video, Bell has now officially distanced himself from the Evangelical community, with which he, for some reason, still identifies.
Bottom line: if you diminish a doctrine as fundamental to the Gospel as the judgment of God, and ignore the glory that is seen in Jesus taking that punishment in our place, not only are you falling short of declaring the whole counsel of God, but also you are setting the stage for gradual disintegration of just about every other truth that makes the Gospel coherent, and wonderful. Don't do that.
DOES THE OLD TESTAMENT MATTER?
Did you watch the video above yet? It is way more important than anything I am writing here. I have been watching it every day. The Bible is not about me? The Old Testament characters point to something (ahem, Someone) more significant than a moral lesson on how to overcome obstacles or treat people more nicely? Even Jonah and the whale? And Esther? And David and Goliath? And the temple? And light? And bread? And the lamb? Its all about Jesus Christ? That is illuminating, life-changing, endlessly helpful, and a great relief. The Gospel Coalition conference featured brillant proclammations of this reality from very difficult to understand Old Testament passages. Here is an inadequate synopsis of some of the highlights:
John 5: 31-47 -- Albert Mohler
Mohler opened the conference with an overview of this passage in John and the practice of studying the Scripture and finding Jesus. He went through a fast-paced explanation and interpretation of the Book of Hebrews that I could never begin to summarize. He highlighted some of the ways that the general public dismiss the Old Testament, such as 1) considering it a different book (Hebrew Scriptures vs. Christian Scriptures), 2) considering it about a different deity (Angry God the Father vs. Loving Jesus), 3) denying that it has continuity with New Testament, and 4) presenting it as a moral dilemma. He then mentioned ways that preachers handle the Old Testament, such as 1) Avoid it altogether, 2) Use it as background only, and 3) moralize. By moralize, he meant turn every passage into a moral lesson, which in some ways is a good thing to do. "The only alternative to a moralizing preacher is a sociopath - but for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Moralizing is not wrong, its not just the main point, and it is tragic to end there."
After debunking a lot of these ways of handling the Old Testament, he showed how John indicates that Moses, John the Baptist, Scripture, and the Father Himself all bare witness to the centrality of Jesus Christ; how the purpose of the law was to foster hope; and how we need the New Testament to understand the Old. It was an amazing introduction.
Exodus 14 -- Tim Keller
And then came Tim Keller. This message was a game-changer. Just incredible. Do you ever think about the crossing of the Red Sea? I mean, really think about it? Maybe you don't believe it actually happened. That's fine. But when you start to realize its foreshadowing of our deliverance from bondage into the presence and salvation of Jesus Christ, all by grace, the struggle with whether or not to believe in the literalness of it fades away. And then, amazingly, it becomes more believable.
Keller asked and answered 3 questions:
1.) Q: What do we get out of? A: Bondage with layers
2.) Q: How do we get out? A: Cross over by grace
3.) Q: Why is it possible for us to get out? A: Because of a mediator.
Bondage with layers? You don't think of yourself in bondage, do you? If you're not a Christian, you are in bondage to sin, guilt, and to the law. If you are a Christian, you're still in bondage. Did you know that? "You can take people out of slavery, but you can't take the slavery out of the people." Even though there is now no condemnation for you, Keller says, subjectively we all know deep down that we're supposed to be perfect. We always default back to works righteousness, or trying to earn favor from God. And we fall short. Beyond that, we are in bondage to our sin nature. Justification delivers us from the penalty of sin, but sanctification is a gradual process of delivering us from the power of it. Think about this: every time you sin, you make it that much harder to resist that sin going forward. Every single time. Sin is suicide. We're in bondage! Finally, Keller explained how we are in bondage to idols. Even after we trust in Christ, our "old masters" come back after us, like Pharaoh in this passage, and try to convince us that we have to serve them or die. We all know this. An idol is something, besides God, that when it gets taken from you, you want to die. It is something that tells you that you will die if you don't "serve it". And you try, but it fails you. And then you're devestated.
So, how do we get out? We cross over by grace. By grace! Towering down on either side of us is a chaotic wall of water of God's wrath, unstoppable in its force, save by the power, willingness, and grace of God. And like the Israelities, and like Paul, we cross over, in an instant, and are changed. One minute we're in the bondage, the next minute we have crossed over by grace. Some of us may have crossed over in great confidence, some of us in great fear. No matter; we are equally saved. Keller explained how when you ask someone whether they are a Christian, and they answer something like, "Well, I'm trying", that shows they don't understand Christianity at all. Not at all. We are not saved because of the level of our faith but by the object of it - Jesus Christ. "After that, every problem is a flea bite in comparison to what has already been accomplished for you. And that's how you deal with the flea bites!"
Why is it possible? Because of a mediator. Greater than Moses, who stood aligned with God, as he spoke for Him to the people, and also aligned with the people, as he shared in their guilt, as a mediator - is Jesus Christ, who is our perfect mediator, living a sinless human life, taking the punishment we deserve, and rising from the dead as fully God to give us hope and assurance of salvation. Keller explained how in the Bible, from the very beginning, water represented chaos, and the Flood in Genesis is referred to by some as "decreation". When we turn away from our Creator, we get chaos and disintegration. That is what happened during the Flood, the Exodus, and even today. The Israelites had a mediator during the Exodus, Moses, who in the power of God held back the water walls of judgment. For us today: "Jesus Christ, on the cross, was being decreated so that you and I can be recreated."
Jeremiah 23:1-8 -- Conrad Mbewe
Hear the "African Spurgeon", Conrad Mbewe: "Brethren, this is the promise of the whole Bible. If God was to simply raise human shepherds over His people, sin would always bring about their downfall. The great promise of God is that He is sending Another, with a capital 'A'. And who is this? He is referred to in this passage as a branch, a Righteous Branch.
"What is it that destroyed Israel to the point that God would send them into captivity? It was the unrighteousness in leadership that seaps through and becomes the unrighteousness of the people. Therefore, if there is to be a real restoration from a place of judgment, than the wrath of God, which is essentially the justice of God, has to be lifted off from the people that were under its chastisment. And that could only be done with the satisfaction of justice through another. And beyond that it must be that this new leadership must be in himself righteousness. Because any other position would still mean that there is a debt to be paid, and consequently, (the people) would be right back to square one. So, who is this, who provided leadership to Israel on the basis of righteousness? You don't need to search very far to realize that there is only one across the whole of history who answers to this description....
"Whoever this person is, is God. For He is described in (Isaiah 9:6) not only as Wonderful Counselor, but also as Mighty God! This child, who is to be born, who is to be given to us, is the infinite and most glorious being, that angels have worshipped from eternity to eternity! The one who through His hands has brought into being the universe as we know it! He who governs all the rolling spheres across the entire universe, including the minutest details of our lives! And He will ultimately judge the living and the dead, including all of us in here. This is the Person being spoken about as the King. He is the Person who one day in the midst of all the confusion and sinfulness that was there in Isreal, was born as a little baby."
Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:14 -- Matt Chandler
"Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes." - Ecclesiastes 11:9a. Amen to that! Right? That's in the Bible?? Ok! Let's party! Seriously. We all know how to rejoice right? This is easy. Realize, though, that our rejoicing is deeply broken, and its on the surface. It's shallow. We rejoice in our youth, in our strength and energy, when underneath God designs that we rejoice in His grace that sustains our energy and youthfulness. We are wicked people.
"Yet, know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things." - Ecclesiastes 11:9b. Oh. Not as much Amen. That gives us quite the gut-check to the brokenness of our rejoicing, does it not?
"Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them'." - Ecclesiastes 12:1. Is there, then, Matt Chandler asks, a way to remember that redeems out rejoicing, and allows us to rejoice beneath the surface, deep down where God created us to rejoice, in Him? If so, how?
Read Scripture. It is everywhere in the pages of the Bible. There is a "gospel rhythm" throughout the Old Testament that points us to Jesus, and reminds us to remember our Creator, and our Savior, and His deliverance for us. Repent and believe in Jesus. Your remembering won't do much redeeming if you are not born again, saved by the blood of Jesus. Approach the throne of grace with confidence. "The litmus test of how well you understand the Gospel is how you respond when you fail." Meditate on the Gospel, constantly. Don't assume it! "If you assume the Gospel, all people will hear is moralistic therapeutic deism! That's all they'll hear." Finally, walk by the Spirit. Don't let a moment come when you are not overwhelmed, and marvelling at the Lord Jesus Christ and His accomplishment and love for you. Not a moment!
WHOLE COUNSEL OF GOD
So, in conclusion, the whole counsel of God is something along the lines of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That's really all. Jesus Christ really did come to earth as a baby, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He really did live a perfect, sinless life. He really did bring a taste of the Kingdom of God to earth. He really did demonstrate the power of God in healing, and He represents our prime example of who God is, and how He wants us to live. He really went to the cross, willingly, in accordance with the eternal plan of the Father, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He took our sin upon himself, and He really was forsaken by the Father and tasted the cup of His wrath, the punishment we all deserve. He really did die, and was buried. He really did rise from the grave, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, giving us confirmation of His deity and that His sacrifice was approved by the Father, and giving us assurance of salvation and hope that we too will rise in Him. And He really is coming back to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom really will have no end. He really did appoint and elect, before all time, those that are His own and would come to believe, and we really do still need to respond in faith and repentance. To those who by perseverence seek for glory and honor and immortality, He really will grant eternal life. But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, He really will grant wrath and indignation. There really is a heaven, and there really is a hell. Heaven really is way better than you could possibly imagine, and hell really is more agonizing than we could ever describe. And Jesus really is the way, and the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by Him. No one. Really. But, by the grace of God, there really is salvation. Really! Today is the day!