Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Breathe on Me: A Brief Examination of John 20:22

Last Sunday evening as we worked our way through John chapter 20, we encountered a couple of verses which raised questions: first, verses 6-7 (which I will, from this point forward, refer to affectionately as “Jay’s verses”) and, second, the verse examined by this post. I might add that verse 23 is also a very interesting Scripture to ponder.

The Text in Question

“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” John 20:22; King James Version.

It is Sunday evening, the very Sunday on which Christ arose from the dead. The disciples are in a locked room in the city of Jerusalem (except for Judas Iscariot, who is dead, and Thomas, who is absent) for fear of the Jews. Suddenly, Jesus appears in their midst and greets them with a wish for peace. In verse 21, he calls them to the mission of spreading the Gospel. This call is followed by our verse.

In the original, the verse is a mere ten words. Here is the Greek version translitered into English.

Kai touto eipon enephusesen kai legei autois, Labete pneuma hagion.

Translating directly from the text: “and this having said he breathed on and said to them, Receive spirit holy.”

The verb rendered “breathed on” is an imperative expressing a command or a prohibition. Contextually, Jesus is giving the disciples a commandment. However, there is nothing in the verb or in the statement which tells us when that reception is to take place. In other words, Jesus did not say, “Receive NOW the Holy Spirit” or “Receive TODAY the Holy Spirit”.

What Does John Mean?

So, is Jesus breathing on them and commanding them to receive the Spirit indicative of His actual dispensing of the Spirit? Is He giving them the Spirit at this very moment? If so, how do we reconcile this giving on Resurrection Sunday evening with the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days later, on Pentecost?

Personally, I have “flopped” around on my understanding of this verse. I’ve taught the Gospel of John in college and in church multiple times as well as preached through the entire book once. My review of various commentators over the centuries has led me to divide the primary interpretations of the verse into four groups. There are differences even within groups. Nevertheless, here are my four divisions and some of the comments made by others holding that interpretation.

1. John is viewing a unified event.

This interpretation views no conflict between John 20:22 and Acts 2. Both events are the same event being described by different authors in different ways. Luke, in Acts 2, describes the specifics of the coming at Pentecost in a chronological, historical manner. But, John views the resurrection, the ascension, and the giving of the Spirit as a single event. In other words, the evangelist is not concerned about the chronology and merely joins the future coming of the Spirit at Pentecost to his discussion of the resurrection.

Gerald L. Borchert, a 20th century scholar, holds this position.

“From my perspective, however, the arguments offered by Measley-Murray and Burge are to be preferred because they fit more faithfully into the style and logic of the writings by the Johannine evangelist. … the evangelist views the life of Jesus as a whole. Therefore, chronological sequences are not of primary concern to him. John viewed the resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and the ascension of Jesus as a unified event.”

I agree with Borchert in one sense. Of the Gospel writers, John is the least concerned with chronology. He is sharing those truths he knows to draw people to Christ. But, I find this interpretation to “strain” the text. Specifics are given here. It is, without question, Resurrection Sunday. The subsequent event with Thomas flows chronologically (eight days) after this one. To “shove” the thought of Pentecost into verse 22 is a bit too much for me. Furthermore, Jesus breathed on them and “said”. Nothing of the kind happened at Pentecost. Surely, this is not the correct interpretation.

2. Jesus gave the Spirit to indwell the disciples.

While the New Testament teaches the believer receives the indwelling Holy Spirit at his regeneration (new birth), we are at a transitional moment of history. In the Old Testament, we saw the Spirit come upon individuals and then depart. Jesus has yet to ascend and then send the Spirit. These disciples have been born again during their time with Christ (implication of John 15:3) but have yet to receive the indwelling spirit. This verse reflects the coming of the Spirit TO THEM.

Arthur W. Pink, 20th century Biblical scholar, appears to hold this position, if I am reading him correctly. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, he writes:

“This was supplementary to ‘Go tell my brethren.’  … From this moment the Spirit dwelt within them. We have been accustomed to look upon the change which is so apparent in apostles as dating from the day of Pentecost, but the great change had occurred before then. … What happened at Pentecost was the baptism of power, not the coming of the Spirit to indwell them!”

I understand what Pink is saying but I have a couple of issues with this interpretation.

(1) Jesus said He must go before He would send the Spirit (John 16:7). He is still present with them, so I would think sending the Spirit now makes His previous comment false. One might get around this difficulty by interpreting Jesus’ “going away” as His death, but that seems a stretch to me.

(2) What happens to poor Thomas? He’s not there! Does he not receive the Spirit until later? Does Jesus perform the same act (though unrecorded) eight days later?

No, I have difficulties with this understanding.

3. Jesus gave the Spirit to the disciples for apostolic ministry.

In verse 21, Jesus has just commissioned his apostles to proclaim the Gospel. This verse is a continuation of that commission. First, he breathes on them, symbolic of their commission. Then, He commands them to receive the Spirit meaning to receive the Spirit’s gifts necessary to carry out that ministry. The full, indwelling, powerful Spirit will be given at Pentecost. In other words, Jesus gives them the measure of the Spirit they require for Apostolic ministry. The full giving of the Spirit awaits Pentecost.

Church history has several Biblical scholars holding to this or a similar position. The great Reformer, John Calvin, expressed such a view in his New Testament commentaries.

“Because no mortal man is fit for such a difficult office, Christ institutes the apostles by the grace of His Spirit. … He testified by an outward symbol when He breathed on the apostles; for it would be meaningless if the Spirit did not proceed from Him. … The Spirit was given to the apostles now in such a way that they were only sprinkled with His grace and not saturated with full power. For when the Spirit appeared on them in tongues of fire, they were entirely renewed.”

The 17th century Puritan George Hutcheson, thought highly of by C. H. Spurgeon, appears to teach this interpretation. In his commentary on the fourth Gospel, Hutcheson writes:

“In the next place, Christ who sends them doth also furnish them with the gifts of the Spirit for that office, some fruits whereof, before that full measure was let out upon them, Acts, ii … This breathing on them when he communicated this furniture, being an extraordinary sign of his communicating this extraordinary furniture, is therefore not to be imitated by any in ordinary who have not the dispensing of those endowments”

Leon Morris, a 20th century Anglican writer, speaks similarly in his commentary on John. He writes:

“Having commissioned them Jesus bestows on them the equipment they will need for the discharge of their commission. … John is not writing as though there were a series of gifts made to individuals. Rather, he speaks of a collective gift made to the church as a whole. … But the important thing is not this, but the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. … It is false alike to the New Testament and to Christian experience to maintain that there is but one gift of the Spirit. Rather the Spirit is continually manifesting Himself in new ways. So John tells us of one gift and Luke of another.”

The gift, to which Morris refers, is the gift to forgive or retain sin (see verse 23).

I prefer this interpretation to the two previous ones. Jesus is not technically giving the Spirit to them now. The Spirit will come later. Furthermore, these men are special since they will hold the office of Apostle. Certainly, Christ, in his commissioning them to service, could endow them with special spiritual gifts. I’m not certain, though I agree with Morris that Christ is merely giving to them the authority of verse 23.

Yet, I have a problem once more with Thomas. He is overlooked, again, in this interpretation. Did he have to wait until Pentecost to be endowed as an Apostle? Does Christ make a second visit and breathe on him?

Another thing about these previous two interpretations: one must be careful NOT to interpret the “two givings” of the Spirit as normal for Christians. The concept of the “second blessing” may be read into these views of the passage. Someone might teach that we receive the Spirit at conversion but receive His power at a second giving (“baptism of the Spirit”). Even if this were true for the Apostles (either interpretation 2 or 3), this was a UNIQUE moment in history. Like the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, or Pentecost, these events happen once and only once. They are not the “norm” for a believer.

4. Jesus symbolically proclaimed the future coming of the Spirit.

This interpretation views Jesus’ breathing on His followers and His subsequent remarks as prophetic. He is, once more, foretelling of the future coming of the Spirit. For now, He does not give the Spirit to indwell the men. Nothing is given to the disciples apart from the promise of the coming Spirit.

The 18th century Baptist pastor, John Gill, agrees with this understanding as he has written in his commentary.

“… meaning not the grace of the Holy Ghost in regeneration, which they had received already; but the gifts of the Spirit, to qualify them for the work He now sent them to do, and which were not now actually bestowed; but this breathing on them, and the words that attended it, were a symbol, pledge, and confirmation, of what they were to receive on the day of Pentecost: hence it appears, that it is the Spirit of God, who by His gifts and grace, makes and qualifies men to be ministers of the Gospel.”

Also, 20th century scholar William Hendriksen follows this line of reasoning.

“This blowing had symbolic significance. It symbolized a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. In a sense, that gift is given to the entire Church. Nevertheless … it is to be exercised by the officers, by them alone, by them corporately. This particular gift which is here indicated is that of forgiving or retaining sins, which in this connection must mean, declaring that someone’s sins are either forgiven or retained.”

Hendriksen, like Morris, refer to the gift given as the one listed by Christ in verse 23. But, as I read Hendriksen, unlike Morris this gift remains future until the day of Pentecost. What transpires in verse 22 is merely symbolic.

Modern day pastor John MacArthur also views the verse in this way.

“These disciples, of course, were already regenerate men (John 15:3). So the fact that they still were waiting to receive the Holy Spirit indicates that the Spirit’s relationship to individual believers in the new covenant era is profoundly different from His Old Testament ministry. … Jesus’ actions here indicated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that was about to occur, completing the transition between the two covenants. … When Jesus breathed on them at this point, however, it was a powerful illustration … The simple act of breathing on the disciples was thus a meaningful emblem on multiple levels.”

In a sermon preached April 7, 2012, John Piper communicates this interpretation.

“So here in John 20:22, Jesus performs a kind of acted out parable. ‘He breathed on them and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit.’ He didn’t say, Receive him at this very moment. He said in effect: Realize that my breath, my life, my word will be in the Holy Spirit.”

While the text reads as though the Spirit is being given by Jesus to the disciples at this very moment, as I noted above, that is not necessarily the case. Though each of these interpretations present problems, I believe this last one is the best reading of the text. Jesus will ascend (i.e., go away) and He will, then, send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost. These ten men PLUS Thomas will be present along with others when the promised Comforter truly arrives. That is God’s appointed and foretold time for His arrival. From that moment forward, believers receive the indwelling Spirit and His ordained gifts for service at their new birth.

No matter how one interprets verse 22, praise the Lord He DID send His Holy Spirit!

A Filioque Soliloquy

This past Sunday, my pastor preached an excellent message on the Holy Spirit. Obviously, it is impossible to cover this subject in a lifetime, so he was able to merely touch on the subject. In describing our understanding of the third person of the Godhead, he used the Latin term “filioque” and explained it and the history behind it. Later, on a post in Facebook, one of my friends, an Orthodox friend of ours, made a reply to the post and a lengthy debate ensued between my pastor and him. I “laid low” for two reasons: first, I was busy with other items and, second, I made up my mind to write a blog response rather than do “battle” on Facebook. What follows are my humble thoughts on the matter as I read the Scripture. 

What is the Filioque?

The Latin phrase simply means “and the Son”. To see why it plays a role in theology, one must briefly review church history.

During the early centuries of the church, differences arose in the church’s understanding of the person of Christ. Attempting to resolve these differences, several church leaders met at the Council of Nicea in 325. Eusebius of Caesarea proposed the adoption of a creed, the final sentence reading, “We believe also in one Spirit.” The Council used Eusebius’ creed as a foundation and developed an official creed which contained one sentence relative to the Spirit: ““(We believe …) And in the Holy Spirit.”

In 381, a Council met at Constantinople to affirm Nicea as well as address other disputes within Christianity. The creed adopted at Nicea was updated, especially relative to the Holy Spirit. This modified creed (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed) expanded the description of the Spirit. This expansion read,

 “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father, who with Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:”

It is this creed which is known today as The Nicene Creed. It was officially approved at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

A regional council (not an ecumenical one) meeting in Toledo in Spain in 589 inserted a phrase into this Nicene Creed, modifying the sentence above. The statement on the Holy Spirit now read:

“And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:”

This phrase was adopted by the Church in the western part of the Empire but not in the east. Divisions continued to grow between the western and eastern Churches, especially when it came to papal authority. The two bodies divided in 1054 and the “filioque” in the creed was never adopted by the Eastern Church. It remains one of the dividing points between the two groups even today.

So, What Are We Talking About Anyway?

This subject has to do with the nature of our God and the internal relationships of the Trinity. Clearly, this is a deep subject for we will never fully comprehend the nature of our Creator. From our study of Scripture, we do know:

1. Our God is ONE being.
2. Our God eternally exists in THREE persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
3. Each person is fully God, but each person is distinct (i.e., the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, etc.).

But why is the Father known as the Father and the Son as the Son if both are equal in essence and eternal in existence? Scripture often refers to the Son as the “only begotten of the Father”, a phrase which has been misunderstood at times in church history. Some believed this phrase meant Christ was created by the Father, that there was a time when He did not exist. But, that is not what is intended. In some way we will never comprehend, the person of God the Father eternally begets the Son. Theologians speak of the Father “generating” the Son who is, therefore, “begotten”. Again, this is a timeless act. Father and Son have eternally existed in this manner. The Father actively generates the second person of the Godhead and the result is eternal filiation.

But, what about the Spirit? Ah, here is where the filioque phrase enters the discussion. Again, Scripture never refers to the Spirit as “begotten”. He is “the Spirit”, not another “Son”. So, there is a different action involved with the “eternal formation” of the Spirit than with the “eternal generation” of the Son. Theologians usually refer to the action as “spiration” and the result as “procession”. God actively and eternally “spirates” the Spirit and the result is “eternal procession”.

Originally, the Nicene Creed indicated this procession was from the Father and the Father only. God the Father spirates the Spirit, hence, the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father. But, the Western Church (including Protestants), have adopted the modified creed which has the filioque phrase. We understand Scripture to teach that the Spirit proceeds not just from the Father but also from the Son.

Remember, these acts (generation and spiration) are NOT creative acts.  They are not temporal and transient but eternal and unceasing.

Where is This Stuff in the Bible?

When one does theology (as you do when you open the Word), one must attempt to gather all relevant passages on a given subject before formulating a belief on that subject. There is some Scripture dealing with the issue of “eternal procession”.

John 15:26 – But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me.

This is the only verse which claims the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father. Clearly, that’s what it teaches! This verse is the reason the phrase appears in the Creed. But, note also, there is no mention here that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son. So, is the “filioque” incorrect? Does the Spirit only proceed from the Father?

Despite being charged of having adopted the theology of Rome (never been a Roman Catholic), I believe the Scripture supports the filioque phrase. I believe the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Here are some of my reasons for this position.

1. The words rendered “proceedeth from” above are two simple Greek words, one a preposition and the other a compound verb. “From” is the preposition “para” meaning “alongside” or “away from”. “Proceedeth” is the verb “ekporeuomai”, which consists of the preposition “ek” meaning “out of” and “poreuomai” meaning “to go”. So, you could translate the clause as “which goes out of away from the Father”.

I should also note the verb employed implies a continuous action. The Spirit is going out away from the Father. It is an on-going, not one-time action.

2. In that same verse (and the one below), Jesus teaches He (the Son) will send the Spirit. When you send someone, they “go away from” you.

John 16:7 – It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.

3. The Bible also teaches us the Father sends the Spirit.

John 14:26 – But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you.

Someone will point out that “send” in these verses is not a continuous action and they are correct. Both the Father and the Son “will” (future at the time spoken) send the Spirit.

4. Jesus also says the Spirit receives from Him.

John 16:14,15 – He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you.

In each verse, the phrase “of mine” is literally “out (ek) of me”.

5. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. Logically to my mind, how can He be the Spirit of both the first and second persons of the Godhead unless both are involved in some way with His Being? How is the preposition “of” (“Spirit of God”, “Spirit of His Son”) in these phrases to be understood?

Rom. 8:9 -But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.

Ga. 4:6 – And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your heats, crying, Abba, Father

Phil. 1:19 – For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

6. Finally, simple terminology seems to dictate the necessity of the filioque. The second Person is the Son because He is eternally generated (begotten) by the first person, the Father. But, if the Spirit proceeds only from the Father, why would He not also be called a Son? Furthermore, the Son does not generate the Spirit, or the Spirit could be called a “Grandson” to the Father. I realize this all seems a bit silly (and perhaps it is), but I believe the fact the third person is known as the Spirit (“breath”) gives some support for the idea He is the “breath” of both Father and Son. Therefore, He proceeds from both.

Does It Really Matter?

Well, yes and no. Since there is some revelation in the Word on the subject, we are bound as followers of Christ and servants of God to try to understand all we can about the nature and being of our Creator. But, we must also remember that the internal “makeup” of the Godhead is a mystery we will never fully comprehend.  

The Eastern Church (and my Orthodox friend) do have a couple of points in their favor for NOT including the filioque phrase.

1. As I noted above, the only verse in the Bible which talks about the Spirit procession is John 15:26 and it only mentions the Father. And, of course, the procession is described as a continuous activity.

2. NO ECUMENICAL CHURCH COUNCIL ever decided on the addition of the phrase. Personally, I do not care what such councils adopt if they are not in alignment with God’s Word.

Nevertheless, I believe the Western Church has the correct understanding. The Father eternally generates the Son. And the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit. He proceeds from both. As noted in paragraph 3 of the London Baptist Confession of 1689 affirms the filioque.

“In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him.

In conclusion, I believe the Spirit indeed eternally proceeds from both Father and Son. Yet, in the end, I can worship with any believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, whether they accept the filioque or not.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Meme Theme"

Suddenly appearing on my Facebook page the other day was this meme. Clearly, it is attacking the Reformed understanding of "sola Scriptura". The creator believes he is cleaver, using a text from 2 Thessalonians to "prove" the use of "traditions" in Christianity. I had a difficult time restraining my laughter!

The text is a rendering of 2 Thessalonians 2:15. The King James translators gave us the following:

"Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." (2 Thessalonians 2:15; KJV). 

The word translated "traditions" is the Greek "paradosis" meaning "handing over" or "handing down". That very much defines a "tradition". Most of the New Testament translations use "tradition". The problem is the meme creator misunderstands what is meant IN THIS CONTEXT by the word.

If I may, permit me to begin with a brief look at the New Testament usage of the word. It is found a mere thirteen times in the original manuscripts. Here's a list:

Matthew 15:2, 3, 6 - "tradition of the elders"; used by the Pharisees in questioning the behavior of Jesus' disciples and Jesus' responses. Note, for example, his response in verse 3.

"Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?"

The Pharisees thought the traditions (not the Scripture) passed down from their ancestors was on par with God's Word. Jesus tells them otherwise.

Mark 7:3, 5, 8, 9, 13 - The Mark passage is another description of the same event recorded in Matthew. Note here, the strong rebuke of Jesus found in verses 8 and 9.

"For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. ... Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition."

Again, the Pharisees love to keep ALL the rules found in the TRADITIONS passed down by their ancestors. For them, they are equal in authority to (or even supercede) the Scripture. Jesus says that is not the case.

So, in the only usage in the Gospels, the word is used negatively by Christ. Now on to the epistles.

1 Corinthians 11:2 - "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you."

Many of the more recent translations translate "ordinances" as "traditions" for it is the same word as found in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Important to observe in this verse is it is Paul who delivered these ordinances/traditions. The Apostle to the Gentiles has taught them to the Corinthians while with them and now calls on them to obey what HE taught.

Galatians 1:14 - Paul describes his former self as one "exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers." Again, this is a negative usage.

Colossians 2:8 - "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."

Another negative use of the concept of tradition.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 - here we have the passage from the meme.

2 Thessalonians 3:6 - "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us."

Again, we see a positive use of the word. But, as I noted in the 1 Corinthians passage, the Thessalonians were to walk after the tradition "which he received OF US", i.e., from Paul.

The context of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 clearly indicates that the traditions in question are those which have been taught by Paul and the other Apostles. Nothing is said here about early church fathers, religious leaders, or even Protestant Reformers. I believe verse 5 of this chapter indicates these are the traditions to which Paul refers.

In verse 15, though, Paul says "the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." What does he mean by this?

First, to repeat, "traditions" refers to what the Apostles taught, not what other men taught throughout church history.

Second, these "traditions" have been taught to the Thessalonians. They learned them from Paul himself when he was in Thessalonica on the second missionary journey (per v. 5; see Acts 17).

Third, how were they taught these traditions? Paul says "by word" or "by our epistle". The latter is easy to understand. Surely the epistle to which Paul is referring is his first letter to that church. In it, he sought to clarify misunderstandings those new Christians had on what they had learned from him. This second letter is a further attempt to provide clarification. But, what does he mean by "word"?

2 Thessalonians was penned around A.D. 52, about 20 years after the resurrection. At the time Paul wrote it, he was in Corinth on his second journey. 1 Thessalonians was the first of the New Testament books written by Paul; this one was the second. It is very probable that only one other book of the New Testament canon existed when Paul picked up his pen to compose this letter and that was the book of James.

Historically, then, the teachings of Christ, who He was, what He did, and what His work means to the believer, had yet to be recorded on paper. They were spread orally by the Apostles such as Paul. In other words, they were taught "by word". Such teaching is the oral tradition of Christianity. Those sent out by Christ repeated the Gospel wherever they went.

Ultimately, the words of the message were recorded in letters such as this. The revelation of God was completed. There was no further use of oral tradition in the same sense.

Some organizations, such as the one to which I assume the meme creator belongs, believes church tradition bears equal weight with the Scripture. If I may quote from one web site:

"... it can be seen that there is no theological distinctions or differences or divisions within the Tradition of the Church. It could be said that Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles. Using the Greek term Pateres tes Ecclesias, the Fathers of the Church, this "interpretive" part of the Apostolic preaching is called "Patristic Tradition."

Has the author of these words READ the church fathers? No theological distinctions or differences or divisions? Well, that is not what I see when I read the church fathers. Allow me to continue the quote from the site:

"The Fathers, men of extraordinary holiness and trusted orthodoxy in doctrine, enjoyed the acceptance and respect of the universal Church by witnessing the message of the Gospel, living and explaining it to posterity. Thus, Apostolic Preaching or Tradition is organically associated with the Patristic Tradition and vice versa. This point must be stressed since many theologians in the Western churches either distinguish between Apostolic Tradition and Patristic Tradition, or completely reject Patristic Tradition. ... there is one Tradition, the Tradition of the Church, incorporating the Scriptures and the teaching of the Fathers."

Well, there it is. Tradition is placed on equal footing with the Word of God. No wonder many in the West make such distinctions and/or reject Tradition!

By the way, which men are these who are considered to have "extraordinary holiness" and "trusted orthodoxy"? Who are they who "enjoyed the acceptance and respect of the universal Church?" Again I ask, have you read early church history?

How were these men chosen and considered to be the church fathers? I doubt if ALL early Christian leaders are included in this group. There had to be a picking and choosing of whom to include. Which church fathers make up the Patristic Tradition? Who had the "authority" to make such decisions?

By the way, if a specific father, for example Augustine, is part of this Patristic Tradition, is everything he said and wrote part of that tradition? If not, who had the "authority" to decide what to include and what to omit? Furthermore, is this "Patristic Tradition" limited to the second century? Third century? Fourth century? Why not the sixteenth century? Oh, oh! Protestant Reformation time!

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but Paul has no such tradition in mind when he wrote 2 Thessalonians. Wouldn't it be more proper to refer to this Patristic Tradition as the "traditions of elders" or "traditions of men?" Ouch! Recall Colossians 2:8, please, along with Jesus' rebuke of the use of such tradition.

When you set any tradition on the scale of authority opposite the Scripture and claim they are equal, you have an authority. Which of the two becomes your final arbiter in spiritual matters? No, tradition equal to the Scripture in terms of authority does not work.

Enter sola Scriptura! The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

"The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from the scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." AMEN!

The Reformed teaching of sola Scriptura is concerned with the sufficiency of Scripture. We believe Scripture, and only Scripture, is our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. All truth required for our salvation and spiritual life is found in the Scripture either explicitly or implicitly.  This teaching does not claim everything taught by Jesus or His apostles was preserved in the Word but it does mean everything God requires is given to us in His Word. Our consciences are, indeed, captive to the Word. We may not add or subtract from it.

It is Scripture and only Scripture that is our perfect standard of spiritual truth. God's Word reveals what is necessary for our salvation and for glorifying Him.

Nothing further needs to be said about the "Mean Theme so Extreme it is out of the Mainstream"!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Last evening, my pastor began an evangelism training class. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of members who were there and grateful for their interest and enthusiasm for the subject. Of course, having been born again for over forty years and having served as a pastor for over ten of those years, I have encountered a variety of evangelism training courses. Some of them have been very good and quite rewarding. Others, though, have left much to be desired.

Through experience, I have learned evangelism is best learned by just doing it! Find an opportunity (and they are abundant) to present the gospel to a lost individual and do so. Each situation is different, demanding its own unique approach. There are, however, certain facets of evangelism which never change. The principal one of these is the message you share.

In our opening session, the pastor asked the key question: "What is the Gospel?" No one can properly share the gospel if they don't know what it is! The class discussion was very interesting. It was clear those present have a good grasp of the key facts which comprise the gospel.  Now, how to present them is sometimes the challenge.

Having taught Old and New Testament History at the local Baptist university many, many times, presenting the gospel has been, for me, a requirement. Usually, when I ask my students the same question we were asked last evening, the answer I most often receive is "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John"! While they are correct in one sense, they have missed the true question. Often, their incorrect answer is due to their spiritual condition. They do not KNOW the Lord.

Each student of mine will hear me share the gospel with them more than once. I begin the Old Testament History course with a discussion of the creation and the covenant made by God with Adam (and mankind). Everything is perfect there in the Garden of Eden.

Then, we encounter Genesis chapter 3 and our world is turned upside down! We read of temptation, disobedience, rebellion, sin, guilt, condemnation, and judgment. We learn the very, very BAD NEWS. Each of us is born a sinner before God. Our nature is spiritually corrupt and chooses to sin against the Most High. The punishment for our sin is death, physical and spiritual. And, if we die physically while we are spiritually dead, we suffer the third death: eternal death. For my math-minded students, I codify this equation as:

SD + PD = ED (spiritual death plus physical death equals eternal death)

What a horrible, miserable equation! I am SD at birth. Because of my sin, PD will follow! What hope is there for me to avoid ED? None, at least, not in myself.

I explain to my students that, even in Genesis 3, we see the grace and mercy of our great God. Beginning with verse fifteen of that third chapter through the entire book or Revelation, God reveals to us His Good News, His Gospel. Yes, that's what the word "gospel" means: "good news". And what is that good news?

God the Son, the second person of the eternal triune God, took upon himself flesh, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life in full obedience to His heavenly Father, suffered and died on a cross as a substitutionary, propitiatory sacrifice, an atonement for His people, was buried, resurrected, ascended, and is coming again! And, if we, sinners by nature and by deed, will turn from our sins and put our trust (believe) in the Lord Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven. We experience a spiritual birth and the "SD" in our equation is replaced by "SL" giving us a new equation.


Physical death is no longer part of our equation. Oh, we might die physically, but, if we already possess spiritual life, we also possess eternal life! Praise God, this is GOOD NEWS! This is the Gospel!

Yes, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Gospels. They received that classification because they tell the story of the One who made THE GOSPEL (the message) a reality: Jesus Christ.

So, what is the Gospel? Personally, I like the way Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15.

"Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you THE GOSPEL which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand: By which also ye are SAVED, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS according to the Scriptures; And that HE WAS BURIED, and that HE AROSE AGAIN the third day according to the scriptures: And that HE WAS SEEN ...".

The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus Christ saves sinners!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Nature of God

Over the years, I have read several works by Puritan authors and have enjoyed most of them. As expected, some writers are more challenging to read than others. For me, Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) is one of those who are easy to read and overwhelming with their insight. He pastored churches and much of his writings are sermons he preached. Burroughs was also part of the body which wrote the Westminster Confession (a "Westminster Divine"), though he was an Independent and not a Presbyterian.

Presently, I'm reading through his work "Gospel Revelation". This morning, I was completely overwhelmed by a section in that book. So, I thought I would share some of what I read today.

Let me begin by noting that the first two chapters of the book are sermons he preached on the verse "For His name alone is excellent" (Psalm 148:13; if you're interested, chapter 3 is his application from this verse; and I thought MY pastor was long-winded!). His first sermon is titled "Ten Points on the Nature of God". His second sermon, on the same text, is titled "Eight Additional Points on the Nature of God"! Yes, Puritans are extensive expositors!

In this second sermon, Burroughs is describing God's excellence and comes to this point.

"15. God alone is excellent in His operation, in His power, in the manner of His working. Though God gives a power to other creatures to work, yet God works in a different way from all other creatures."

You are completely off base if you believe those two sentences are all he has to say on this specific point! No, not Burroughs! He breaks down the matter of God's operation in the universe with five sub-points. I will list them below and provide a simple summary. However, the author takes a complete paragraph to discuss each one.

"First, God does whatsoever He pleases either in heaven or earth."

God is sovereign and is free to act or not act as He, not we, choose.

"Second, the power of God appears in that the Lord does the greatest and most difficult things as easily as He does the least and the easiest."

God acts with the same power no matter what He is doing.

"Third, God is excellent in all that He does. There is nothing that God does at any time but was decreed to be done from eternity."

Again, here we see His sovereignty as well as His providence. God's work has been prefaced by an eternal, unchanging plan (decree).

"Fourth, God is so far from needing any matter to work upon, or instrument to work by, when He does anything as there is no more required for any creature to be or work at any time when God would have it, but the alone act of God's will thus was from eternity."

For example, God did not suddenly decide to create the world. He felt no compulsion to do so. Rather, he decreed the creation of the world from all eternity yet performed that creation in time.

"Fifth, where God has done any work, all His works add nothing to Him."

For example, if we prepare a meal, that meal benefits us, it adds to us. Nothing God accomplishes adds anything to His nature for He is eternally excellent.

What a blessing it is to consider the excellencies of our God!