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1. Survey of Bible Doctrine: God

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I. How do we know about God?

    A. Through General Revelation

      1. The natural world reveals God (Acts 14:15-17; Rom.1:19-23)

      2. Human Conscience reveals God (Rom.2:14-16)

    B. Through Special Revelation

      1. Miracles reveal God.

        a. When He extends natural laws (Josh.10:12-14 – sun stood still)

        b. When He makes exceptions to natural laws (2 Kings 6 – axehead floated)

      2. Fulfilled prophecy reveals God.

        a. O.T. (Is.43:28-45; Ezra 1:1-4 – Cyrus predicted)

        b. N.T. (Micah 5:2; Matt.2:1 – birthplace of Christ)

      3. Jesus Christ Himself reveals God. (Heb.1:1; John 1:18)

      4. Scripture as a whole reveals God.

II. Can we prove God’s existence?

    A. The Bible generally assumes it rather than proves it (Gen.1:1).

    B. The Bible does assert that the natural world demands God’s existence (Ps.19; Is.40:26; Acts 14:17; Rom.1:19 ff).

    C. There are several philosophical proofs for God that are sometimes helpful for doubters. These are logical conclusions that are also found in Scripture.

      1. Cosmological argument – How could there be anything if there wasn’t a Cause (God) who was Uncaused (Romans 1:20)?

      2. Teleological argument – How could there be design in the world if there was no Designer (God - Psalm 19:1-6)?

      3. Moral argument – Why would people recognize right and wrong if there was no moral LawGiver (God – Romans 2:14,15; James 4:12)?

      4. Ontological argument – Where would people get the idea of a Perfect Being (God) except from God Himself (Act 17:27; Romans 1:19)?

III. How can we describe God?

    God has many perfect characteristics (attributes).

    A. God has incommunicable attributes (characteristics belonging only to God).

      1. Self-existence (John 5:26).

      2. Immutability (Psalm 102:25-27; Ex.3:14; James 1:17) – God does not change His essence or plan.

      3. Infinity

        a. Eternality – Infinite in time (Ps.90:2)

        b. Omnipresence – Infinite in space (Ps.139:7-11)

      4. Holiness – The absence of evil and presence of purity (Lev.11:44; John 17:11; 1 John 1:5 – “light”)

    B. God has communicable attributes (characteristics found in a limited degree in man).

      1. Attributes of Intellect

        a. Omniscience – God knows all things actual and potential (Ps.139:16; Matt. 11:21).

        b. All-wise – God acts upon His knowledge to always do what is infinitely best (Rom.11:33-36).

      2. Attributes of Emotion

        a. God is Love – God is incomprehensibly active for our good (1 John 4:8).

        b. Grace – unmerited favor (Eph.2:8)

        c. Mercy – concern, compassion (James 5:11)

        d. Long suffering – self-restrained when provoked (2 Peter 3:9,15)

        e. God is just – God is perfectly righteous and exact in His dealings with man (Ps.19:9).

      3. Attributes of Will

        a. Omnipotence (Job 42:2) God is able to do anything He wills. He will not do anything against His nature (sin) or anything that is logically self-contradictory.

        b. Sovereignty (2 Chron.29:11,12) God is the final authority – the ruler over all the affairs of the universe. He may choose to let some things happen according to natural laws He put in place.

IV. What are God’s names?

    God’s names emphasize who He is and what He does.

    A. Elohim – This word/name stresses His power, rulership and majesty (Gen.1:1; Is.54:5).

    B. El-Shaddai – “God on the mountain” – strength, control and therefore comfort (Gen.17:3; Ps.91:1,2)

    C. Adonai – This word/name stresses that He is Lord, Master (Josh.5:14).

    D. Jehovah – “I am” – This word/name stresses His changeless self-existence (Ex.3:12).

      1. Jehovah-jireh - “The Lord will provide” (Gen.22:14)

      2. Jehovah-rapha - “The Lord who healeth”

      3. Jehovah-nissi - “The Lord my banner” (Ex.17:15)

      4. Jehovah-shalom - “The Lord our peace” (Jud.6:24)

      5. Jehovah-ra-ah - “The Lord my shepherd” (Ps.23:1)

      6. Jehovah-tsidkenu - “The Lord our righteousness” (Jer.23:6)

      7. Jehovah-shammah - “The Lord is present” (Ezek.48:35)

      8. Jehovah-Sabbaoth – “The Lord of hosts” Commander of the armies of Israel (1 Sam.17:45)

V. In What Form Does God Exist?

    A. God is a “personal” being. God is not human yet He is “person” like man in that He has intellect, emotions and will (see “communicable attributes”). It is in this sense that we are in the “image of God” (Gen.1:26,27; 9:6). He does not share our imperfections but he does share our personal nature. God is not a “force”. He is a personal being.

    B. God is a “spiritual” being. God does not consist of any material substance. He is spirit (John 4:24). He has no body.

    C. God is a “triunity.” “Trinity” is a term that describes the “threeness” of God. But that is only a partial description. God is also “one” – He is a unified being. So a good term to describe both truths is “Triunity.” “Trinity” may always be the most-used term, but we must understand that biblically “trinity” is really “triunity”.

    D. Definition: There is only one God but in the unity of God there are three equally eternal Persons, the same in substance but distinct from each other (Adapted from B.B. Warfield).

      1. Errors (Denials of the trinity)

        a. There is not one God with 3 natures, roles or qualities.

        b. There are not 3 different Gods.

        c. The Son and the Holy Spirit are not less than God or creations of God.

      2. The “oneness” of God

        a. There is only one God (Deut. 6:4; Is. 45:14; James 2:19, etc.) – There can only be one perfect being. If there were two they would not differ at all and would thus be the same being.

        b. The one God is not divisible into parts – Since God is spirit by nature and not material in composition, He cannot be divided into 3 parts of 1/3 God each. God the Father, God the Son or God the Holy Spirit therefore cannot be conceived of any anything less than wholly God in essence.

      3. The “threeness” of God. Each of the 3 persons possesses what only God has, so each is fully God.

        a. The Father is God.

            Rom.1:7 – “God (who is) our Father”

            John 6:27 – “the Father (even) God”

          b. The Son is God.

            1) He possesses incommunicable attributes.

              a) Self-existence (Heb.7:3; John 5:26)

              b) Immutability (Heb.1:10; 13:8)

              c) Infinity

              d) Eternality (Heb.7:3)

              e) Omnipresence (Matt.28:20)

            2) He participates in the functions of deity.

              a) He created the world (John 1:13)

              b) He sustains the world (Col.1:15-17)

              c) He forgives sins (Matt.9:1,2)

              d) He performs final judgment (John 5:22; Rev.19:16)

            3) He receives worship.

              a) Of angels (Heb.1:6; Rev.5:12,13)

              b) Of men (John 9:38; 20:28; Matt.28:9)

            4) He has divine titles.

              a) Jehovah (Luke 2:11; 5:8)

              b) Son of God (Luke 1:35; John 5:18)

            5) Jesus claimed to be God (John 5:18; 8:24,28,58; 10:30-33).

            6) Other explicit claims (John 1:1; Rom.9:5; 1 John 5:20)

            Also there are 4 texts with grammatical forms proving that Jesus Christ = God (2 Thess.1:12; 1 Tim.5:21; Tit.2:13; 2 Pet.1:1).

        c. The Spirit is God.

            1) Explicit claims (2 Cor.3:17,18)

            2) Names and titles of deity

              a) Yahweh (Yahweh in Isa.6:1-13 is called Holy Spirit in Acts 28:25.)

              b) Spirit of God (Rom.8:9,14; 1 Cor.2:11; 12:3; Eph.4:30)

            3) He possesses incommunicable attributes.

              a) Self-existence (Rom.8:2)

              b) Omnipresence (Ps.139:7 ff)

            4) He performs incommunicable works (no one but God can do them).

              a) Creation (Gen.1:2)

              b) Resurrection (Rom.8:11)

            5) Implicit claims

              a) Acts 5:3,4 – lie to Spirit equals lie to God

              b) 2 Cor.3:17 – “The Lord is the Spirit”

      4. The “triuness” of God

        a. Old Testament evidence

            1) God speaks of Himself with plural pronouns (“us” Gen.1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Is.6:8) and plural verbs (Gen.1:26; 11:7).

            2) The “Angel of the Lord” is sometimes clearly “God” yet He is distinct from “God” (The Father). Thus He must be Christ in pre-incarnate human form (Gen.16:7-13; 18:1-21; 19:1-28; Mal.3:1).

            3) Other passages clearly distinguish Persons of the Godhead (Father/Lord/Spirit – Isa.48:12,16; LORD/Lord – Ps.110:1).

        b. New Testament evidence

            1) God is “one” (Eph.4:6; James 2:19)

            2) God is “three” (Matt.3:16; 1 Cor.12:4-6; 1 Pet.1:2).

            3) God is “three in one” (Matt.28:19 – “In the name (singular) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”).

      5. Summary: The doctrine of the trinity (triunity) is “knowable” and “believable” but will never be completely “explainable” by human minds or human words. The mechanics of how triunity exists and functions remains a mystery to us just as the how of the Incarnation (Christ is God and Man) does. We know God is One. We know He is Three. Thus we know the Triunity is true.

      Practically, for Christians, we know the triune nature of God was necessary:

        a. Only the perfect sacrifice of the divine Son could pay for our sin (John 3:16).

        b. Only the divine Spirit could indwell all of us (John 14:16,17).

        c. The Father Himself must be distinct to perform such a plan.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)


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Key Ideas

The Fatherhood Of God
The Brotherhood Of Man
The Infinite Value Of The Human Soul
The Example Of Jesus, The Perfectly God-Conscious Man,
The Establishment Of The Moral-Ethical Kingdom Of God On Earth

Liberalism is a term that is much used and little understood. It is used in the political, religious, social, and intellectual arenas, often without definition. In a practical sense many individuals of a conservative bent would identify a Liberal as anyone more open-minded than they are. In fact, religious Liberalism involved a commitment to a central set of theological and religious propositions. These propositions, when worked out gave birth, in fact, to a new religion which retained orthodox terminology but radically redefined those terms to give them new meaning. For example, nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar and theologian, W. Robertson Smith when told that he had been accused of denying the divinity of Christ, Smith responded by asking, “How can they accuse me of that? I’ve never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”

Liberalism as a theological system did not arise in a vacuum, nor was its aim to destroy historic Christianity. Liberalism can only be understood in the historical and philosophical context out of which it arose. In a very real sense Liberalism as a system was trying to salvage something of Christianity from the ashes of the fire of the Enlightenment. B.B. Warfield observed of Liberalism near the turn of the century that it was Rationalism. But a Rationalism that was not the direct result of unbelief. Rather, it sprang from men who would hold to their Christian convictions in the face of a rising onslaught of unbelief which they perceive they were powerless to withstand. It was a movement arising from within the church and characterized by an effort to retain the essence of Christianity by surrendering the accretions and features that were no longer considered defensible in the modern world.1 The rising tide of unbelief that confronted the founders of Liberalism was the Enlightenment.

The Roots of Liberalism

The Effects of the Enlightenment: (The Age of Reason; The Aufklrung)

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century which elevated human reason to near divine status and ascribed to it the ability to discern truth of all types without appeal to supernatural divine revelation. The movement has been termed as The Modern Paganism2

The Enlightenment gave birth to much that we still see today as part of the modern mind. These features include:

    1. The beginning of scientific history

    2. Any truth must justify itself before the bar of reason

    3. Nature is the primary source of answers to the fundamental questions of human existence

    4. Freedom is necessary to advance progress and human welfare

    5. Literary and historical criticism are necessary to determine the legitimacy of our historical legacy

    6. The need for critical philosophy

    7. Ethics as separate and independent from the authority of religion and theology.

    8. A suspicion of and hostility to all truth claiming to be grounded in some kind of authority other than reason, e.g. tradition or divine revelation

    9. Raising to the value of science as the avenue by which man can find truth.

    10. Toleration as the highest value in matters of religion

    11. A self-conscious continuation and expansion of the humanism first developed during the Renaissance3

Philosophically during the Enlightenment man saw it as possible for him to reason his way to God. In a real sense this was the modern tower of Babel with all the hubris that implies.

During this age there arose a group of scholars who have come to be known as the Neologians (or Innovators). It was they who pioneered the work in biblical criticism, attacking the doctrine of biblical inspiration as it had been precisely articulated during the late Reformation period. The Neologians specifically assaulted traditional Protestant doctrines generally and Lutheran doctrines specifically. They attacked the supernaturalism of historic Christianity in general and such doctrines as the trinity, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the virgin birth, the resurrection, Chalcedonian Christology and the existence of Satan.

On another front this age saw the rise of Deism, which asserted while that God was indeed the creator, He had created a clockwork image universe which operated by natural law. God himself would not interfere with his creation, hence miracles became impossible because they would violate the inviolable laws of nature. Works appeared such as Christianity as Old as Time, arguing that Christianity merely republished the revelation of God which was available to man in nature. God himself was transcendent, separated, above and uninvolved in creation.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant marks the watershed between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period which followed. In a very real sense Kant is the last of the Enlightenment philosophers. But as an enlightenment philosopher his Critique of Pure Reason destroyed the hubris of the Enlightenment program of seeking all knowledge through the use of reason. Kant so revolutionized the way modern humanity thinks that philosophers still refer to “Kant’s Copernican Revolution.” As Copernicus changed the way scientists thought about the solar system, Kant revolutionized the way that modern man understands reality. Before Kant, philosophical epistemology had generally been divided into two camps, the idealists who saw ultimate reality in the mind (ratioalists) and the empiricists who said ultimate reality in the physical universe. Enlightenment philosophers debated the status of human knowledge empiricists arguing on the one hand that all knowledge came into the brain from the outside, with rationalists contending that knowledge arose out of the mind itself.

Kant asserted that neither side of the debate was right. Instead human knowledge arose from the interplay of incoming sensory data (absorbed through the five senses) and innate categories built into the human mind which processed that data and in turn made it “knowledge.” He further held that reality was to be divided into two realms, the phenomenal (the created order in which we live and which is open for us to experience) and the noumnenal (spiritual, metaphysical reality). According to Kant’s theory of knowledge the human mind is divided into categories. These included; Quantity (unity, plurality, totality), Quality (Reality, limitation, negation), Relation (Inherence and subsistence, causality and dependence, community), Modality (possibility-impossibility, existence-non-existence, necessity-contingency). These are the only categories possessed by the mind and thus the only categories by which to interpret data. Significantly, in Kant’s system there were no categories by which to receive data from the spiritual (noumenal) world. In this way, humanity is like the blind man. He has no organ to receive the light which surrounds him. He believes that light exists and things are there to be seen, but he has no faculty by which to perceive it. Since he is blind to noumenal reality of all types, man cannot know “the thing in itself.” All that can be known is things as they are experienced.

The Enlightenment Philosophers attempt to know God as he is in himself by reasoning up to Him. was, according to Kant, a vain attempt doomed from the outset. God inhabited the noumenal realm and thus could not be experienced by man. Kant did not entertain the possibility that God could break into the realm of history (the phenomenal realm) and reveal himself.

But Kant was not an atheist. He postulated the existence of God, but denied the possibility of any cognitive knowledge of him. It was man’s conscience that testified of God’s existence, and He was to be known through the realm of morality. Kant published another work Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone which set forth his conception that religion was to be reduced to the sphere of morality. For Kant this meant living by the categorical imperative-which he summarized in two maxims:

“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

“Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.”

In other words, every action of humanity should be regulated in such a way that it would be morally profitable for humanity if were elevated to the status of law. In one sense this can be seen as a secularization of the Golden Rule.

Kant as a philosopher made no claims to being a Christian. Throughout his adult life was never known to utter the name of Jesus Christ, nor would he enter a Christian Church. When called upon to attend academic functions at the chapel of the University of Koenigsberg where he taught, he would march in his academic robes to the door of the chapel, then slip out of line and go home rather than enter the church.

Hegel: the philosopher of the nineteenth century

G.F.W. Hegel, a contemporary of Schleiermacher gave the dominant shape to idealistic philosophy during the nineteenth century. A philosopher of history and religion Hegel proposed that all of reality is the outworking of Spirit/Mind (Geist). History is the objectification of Spirit, i.e. Spirit/Mind is working itself out in the historical process and as such history carries its own meaning. From this it follows that there is a continual upward progress in history. History is undergoing a continual cultural and rational (although not biological) evolution, being pushed and pulled forcing culture upward toward its final form by means of the dialectic. Hegel saw historical evolution in terms of a pendulum swing between opposites (thesis-antithesis) which resolved themselves (synthesis) in a position that was higher than either of the opposites. The synthesis then became a new thesis in the upward pull of the historical process.

Whereas philosophy had traditionally been occupied with the concept of BEING Hegel substituted the process of BECOMING. Because all of history was seen as the process of the objectification of Spirit, and human beings were a part of the historical process, all human knowledge was said to be Absolute Spirit thinking through human minds.

An example of how Hegel saw this dialectic working itself out can be seen in his philosophy of history. The original thesis was the Despotism of the ancient period. The antithesis to Despotism was seen as the democracy of ancient Greece. The higher synthesis of these opposing forces was understood as Aristocracy. Aristocracy in turn became the new thesis which was opposed by Monarchy.

Hegel cast his long shadow over the entire 19th century giving it an optimistic cast which dogmatically asserted the progress in history and the perfectibility of humanity. Barth comments , “. . .it was precisely when it (the nineteenth century) was utterly ruled and completely ruled by Hegel that the new age best understood itself, and it was then at all events that it best knew what it wanted.”4 According to Barth, Hegel held sway until the catastrophe of 1914, World War I. His philosophy of history gave the structure adopted by the emerging schools of biblical criticism, as well as the mental cast to the entire century.

Hegel’s philosophy is the philosophy of self-confidence.5 The optimistic slogan that characterized the late nineteenth century Liberalism, “Every day in every way we are getting better and better,” reflects that optimism.

Schleiermacher: Father of Liberal Theology


Friederich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the Father of Modern (Liberal) Theology and arguably the greatest theologian to live between the time of Calvin and Barth, was born into the intellectual ferment of the enlightenment and Kant’s criticism of its program. The son of a Reformed chaplain in the Prussian army, Shleiermacher was educated in the Pietism of the Moravians. From their fervent piety with its emphasis on the life in community and commitment to traditional Lutheran doctrine he received his early religious experiences. While studying with the Moravians he first read the Neologians’ critique of historic Protestant orthodoxy. He was so impressed by their arguments that he left the Moravians and enrolled at Halle, a center of Neologian teaching. The young Friederich accepted the Neologians’ criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy, but rejected their rationalistic and moralistic substitute. About this time Schleiermacher was drawn into the Romantic movement which arose in reaction to the sterile critical and analytical rationalism of the eighteenth century. Romanticism stressed the intuitive and synthetic nature of human reason insisting that truth was to be gained by grasping the whole rather than by an abstract analysis of the parts.

Schleiermacher’s theological program proceeded under three premises (1) The validity of the Enlightenment criticism of dogmatic Protestant Orthodoxy, (2) Romantic Idealistic philosophy gives a better soil in which to ground the Christian faith than the shallow moralistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, (3) Christian theology can be interpreted in terms of romantic idealism and thus allow mankind to be both Christian and modern while being intellectually honest.

In viewing the Neologians’ critique of orthodoxy as correct and in light of Kant’s perceived destruction of the possibility of a rational knowledge of God, Schleiermacher influenced by Romanticism, found a new seat for religion and theology, one that could not be touched by enlightenment criticism--the Gefuhl (the feeling). This feeling is not to be understood as mere emotion. It is the deep inner sense of man that he exists in a relationship of absolute dependence upon God. It is his “god-consciousness” This is the center of religion and piety.

3. The piety which forms the basis of all ecclesiastical communions is, considered purely in itself, neither a knowing or a Doing, but a modification of feeling, or of immediate self-consciousness

4. The common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or, in other words, the self-identical essence of piety, is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God.

In taking this route, Schleiermacher turned the traditional theological method on its head. Rather than starting with any objective revelation, religion was seen at its core as subjective. Experience was seen as giving rise to doctrine rather than doctrine to experience. Theological statements no longer were perceived as describing objective reality, but rather as reflecting the way that the feeling of absolute dependence is related to God. It is this experience which is seen as the final authority in religion rather than the objective revelation of an inerrant Scripture. He says “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections set forth in speech..”

Despite having the potential for God-consciousness, humans are by their nature in a state of “god-forgetfulness” from which they are unable to save themselves. Redemption is found through the experience of Christ through the corporate life of the church. Redemption is "mystical, “centered in the personal communion of the believer with the fully god-conscious man Jesus Christ.

For Scheleiermacher, Jesus Christ was unique. Not that he was the God-man of historic orthodoxy, but rather in that he demonstrated in his life a perfect and uninterrupted God-consciousness,. He displayed the “veritable existence of God in him.” This was the redemption which Jesus accomplished. and brought to mankind. In this understanding the cross is not in a sacrificial atonement, but rather it is an example of Jesus’ willingness to enter into ‘sympathy with misery.’ Redemption was then the inner transformation of the individual from the state of God-forgetfulness to the state of God-consciousness. To put it another way, redemption is that state in which god-consciousness predominates over all else in life. Thus his theology was utterly Christocentric in that it was concerned with the example of Jesus as the perfectly god-conscious one.

Ritschl: Theological Agnosticism

The second major stream in classic Liberalism (which synonomous with Liberalism in its later form) was established by Albrect Ritschl. Whereas Schleiermacher was mystic, seeing the center of religion in the feeling, Ritschl was more closely tied to Kant and saw religion in terms of morality and personal effort in establishing the Kingdom of God (a moral ethical Kingdom). According to Ritschl,

Christianity is the monotheistic, completely spiritual and ethical religion., which, on the basis of the life of its Founder as redeeming and establishing the kingdom of God, consists in the freedom of the children of God, includes the impulse to conduct form the motive of live, the intention of which is the moral organization of mankind, and the filial relation to God as well as in the kingdom of God lays the foundation of blessedness. (Justification and Reconciliation, III., ET 1900, 13)

Religious truth in the Ritschlian conception became different in kind from all other knowledge; it involved moral-ethical judgments which were subjectively determined by the individual. The system surrendered rational knowledge of God and things divine. In its place it substituted, as the essence of Christianity, a subjectively verified personal theism, a devotion to the Man Jesus Christ as the revealer of God and His kingdom, and a subjection to His moral-ethical principles.

Employing the epistemology of Kant (as modified by Lotze) as a foundation, Ritschlianism sought to separate religion and theology from philosophy and metaphysics, founding religion strictly upon phenomenological experience. Kant had asserted that the only knowledge available to mankind was that of experience, the phenomenological. With this proposition the Ritschlians agreed. "Theology without metaphysics" became the watchword of the entire school.6 Following in the Kantian tradition, the Ritschlians asserted that human knowledge was strictly limited to the world of the phenomena, a world which included the realm of verifiable history and the realm of personal experience. Knowledge of God as He was in Himself, His essence and attributes fell outside the possibility of human experience, so, no positive assertions concerning His nature could be made. This was how Ritschlianism represented a "theological agnosticism."7 Ritschl himself asserted (with Kant) that man could not know things "in themselves" but only on their phenomenological relations.8 Since man had no categories by which to perceive God in the world, knowledge of Him fell outside the realm of the "theoretic" (scientific/empirical). Since Ritschlianism was strictly empirical, the value of historical study was elevated as a means by which one could discover God's revelation in history: the person of Jesus Christ.9

Revelation of God and certainty in religion for the Ritschlians took place when one was confronted with the historic person of Jesus Christ10. The truth communicated in this revelation was not "theoretic" (scientific) but "religious." Such a distinction divorced faith from reason. According to the Ritschlians the two realms had to be kept entirely separate.11 Religious truth was no longer to be found in objective, verifiable propositions but in the realm of the subjective experience, in "value judgments". These "value judgments" were of a different nature than scientific knowledge. They gave no definite objective propositional knowledge, rather they set forth their subjective value for the individual.12 For example, the existence of God could not be rationally demonstrated. But since man needed Him, that was proof that He existed.13 However, nothing could be inferred concerning His nature, attributes, or His relationship to the world.14 The God of the Christian might be Jesus Christ, " . . or he may believe in one or another kind of God. His God may not be Christian at all. It may be Jewish, as Jesus' God was. It may be neo-Platonic. It may be Stoic or Hindu. It may be Deistic."15 One could not communicate objective truth about God from his revelation in Jesus Christ; the most one could say was that in Jesus Christ one received the impression that God was present and active before him.16 Thus, religious knowledge (in the objective sense) became the common shared experience of God.17

The whole enterprise was one of religious positivism. It began with the data of experience, the experience which the individual had with the historic Christ. That experience included the freedom and deliverance He imparted to the individual by virtue of His life and teachings. This deliverance could not be denied since it was within the realm of the individual's experience. But the enterprise also ended there. Although it professed to meet Christ in the pages of Scripture, it denied any knowledge of His preexistence, His atoning death, or second coming. Although Jesus was afforded the title "Son of God" and had divinity ascribed to Him, these were but titles of honor, communicating no ontological reality. Such knowledge was beyond the realm of experience.18

Ritschl believes Christ to be God because in Him he is conscious of a power lifting him above himself, into a new world of peace and strength. Why this should be he cannot tell, nor can he give an answer to the man who asks him for an explanation of the fact of his experience. Enough that he point to Christ as the one through whom he has received deliverance, leaving it to the other to make the test, try the experiment for himself.19

Since knowledge in the system was limited to phenomena, Ritschlianism was adamantly anti-mystic. It denied the soul any direct access to God.20 From the perspective of Ritschlianism the aim of mysticism was,

. . . ontologically unsound in that it involves getting back of phenomena to the noumenal. That one may assume a noumenon back of phenomena is of course true but that one can hold valid communion with it--that one can press back beyond phenomena and come into direct touch with it is a delusion.21

God was seen as personal yet unknowable in any real sense. Knowledge of God was mediated through the person of Jesus Christ as He appeared in history.22 Looking back of Christ to God was a vain proposition. Communion with Him involved, not mystic rapture, but moral effort on behalf of His kingdom.

To commune with God is to enter into his purpose as revealed in Christ--to make them our own and to fulfill them increasingly and to gain the inspiration and the power which come from knowing that they are God's will. . . . Genuine communion with God to the Christian is the conscious and glad fulfilling of God's purposes.23

Comparative Religions/History of Religions School


Another development which took place within the context of Liberalism was the birth of the study of comparative religions. Two factors underlie this new discipline which proved to be another threat to the distinctiveness of Christianity. The first was Romanticism. Romantic philosophy led to a curiosity about and appreciation for other peoples’ religions as authentic ways of expressing the human experience. The second factor was the increase of knowledge which came as a result of the colonization of the world by the Western European powers. Vast amounts of new knowledge about the world and competing cultures and their native religions became available. The burgeoning science of archaeology opened the past and now allowed for the Bible to be studied against its cultural milieu in a way that had not heretofore been possible.

These two factors combined to form a new area of scientific study, comparative religions. All religions were seen in their most basic form to lead to one truth (God) and to promote a common ethic of love for one’s neighbor. In Germany, comparative religions took the form of the History of Religions school which studied the religions of the nations surrounding Israel and concluded that Israelite religion had taken elements of the surrounding pagan beliefs and placed these within a structure of monotheism. For example, Israel’s tradition of creation and the flood were said to have been borrowed from the Babylonian Genesis and the epic of Gilgamesh.

The History of Religions school was hostile to Ritschlianism for Ritschl’s lack of sensitivity to the historical background of both Christianity and Judaism. It held that Biblical faith in both its Old and New Testament expressions was not distinct and a result of supernatural revelation, but represented humanity’s evolving conceptions about God and religion.

Adolf von Harnack

Harnack represents the apex of Liberal theology. He was the greatest historian of Christianity of the generation and his work has set a standard for scholarship for the succeeding century. His History of Dogma has been the definitive work on the subject since its publication. Harnack operated totally within the framework of Liberalism, seeing the pristine purity of the gospel as having been corrupted even within the New Testament era, transforming Christianity from the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus. Further corruption took place in the succeeding centuries as Christianity moved out of its Jewish background and confronted the Hellenistic world. Controversies over the trinity and the two natures of the incarnate Christ hopelessly confused the Gospel message in Hellenistic philosophy. He argued that the task of the theologian was to get back to the kernel of the gospel by stripping away the husks of Hellenism to find what was real and permanent.

Specifically, the Gospel was seen as having nothing to do with the Person of the Son. It dealt with the Father only.24 In this understanding, Jesus' preaching demanded "no other belief in his person and no other attachments to it than is contained in the keeping of his commandments."25 Any doctrine of the Person of Christ was totally foreign to His ideas. Such doctrine lay not in the teachings of Christ Himself, but in the modifications introduced by His followers, especially Paul.

Harnack held that it was through the work of Paul that the man Jesus Christ was first seen to have more than human stature. It was he who was seen to have introduced modifications to Christianity by which the simple gospel of Jesus was ultimately replaced by adherence to doctrines relating to the Person of Christ. Moreover, Paul was seen as having been the one who first invested the death and resurrection of Christ with redemptive significance.

If redemption is to be traced to Christ's person and work, everything would seem to depend on a right understanding of this person together with what he accomplished. The formation of a correct theory of and about Christ threatens to assume the position of chief importance, and to pervert the majesty and simplicity of the Gospel.26

In his brief but important work, What is Christianity?, Harnack distilled the essence of Christianity as, The Fatherhood of God, The Brotherhood of Man and the infinite value of the human soul. The kingdom he contended was an internal affair of the heart.

Social Gospel

The Social Gospel was the Liberal Protestant attempt to apply biblical principles to the problems associated with emerging urbanization. Key is that it saw the Kingdom as a social/political entity

Late nineteenth century America underwent profound sociological upheaval. The industrial revolution had thrust the problems of urban society upon a nation that had heretofore been primarily rural. As the problems of dynamic sociological revolution manifested themselves in the slums and work houses, the individualistic gospel of revivalism had little to say to the problems that faced the urban dwellers every day. Walter Rauschenbusch spent eleven years in the “Hell’s Kitchen” area of New York city ministering among the German speaking immigrants. Here he saw poverty, injustice and oppression. This led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate A Theology of the Social Gospel. His premise was that

The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God tot save every soul that comes to him, But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and out faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.27

While Rauschenbusch was relatively conservative in his theological outlook, those who took up his mantle saw the message the gospel and the task of the church as working to end human suffering and establish social justice.

Major Theological Propositions of Liberalism


God is the loving immanent Father in constant communion with his creation and working within it rather than upon it to bring it to the perfection for which it is destined. God is the loving father who corrects his children but is not retributive in His punishment. “. . . The idea of an immanent God, which is the God of evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker who is the God of an old theology.”28 Such a position breached the traditional barrier between the natural and the supernatural. “Miracle is only the religious name for an event. Every event, even the most natural and common, is a miracle if it lends itself to a controlingly religious interpretation. To me all is miracle”29


No longer was man seen as radically sinful and in need of redemption. Rather he is in some sense in communion with God.. There was no infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. God was even to be known in measure and by analogy through study of the human personality. Emphasis was placed upon human freedom and ability to do all that God required, and eternity was interpreted as immortality of the spirit rather than the resurrection of the body.


Liberal Protestantism rediscovered the humanity of Christ, a truth that had been in practice ignored in previous generations. But, Liberalism went beyond a rediscovery of Christ’s humanity to a denial of his ontological deity. Instead of the incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ became the perfect man who has attained divine status because of his perfect piety (god-consciousness). Jesus is the supreme example of God indwelling man. There is no qualitative distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity. The distinction is quantitative; He is more full of God that other humans.

    Religious authority:

Whereas previous generations had seen the Bible as the ultimate practical authority for the Christian, Liberalism made authority wholly subjective based on individual spiritual experience. Ultimate authority was not to be found in any external source, Bible, Church, or tradition, but on the individual’s reason, conscience and intuition. The Bible became the record of man’s evolving religious conceptions. The New Testament was normative only in the teachings of Jesus. The rest of the New Testament falls victim to changing the focus of the gospel from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.


Man is confronted with salvation in the person of Jesus. By following his teachings and the example of his life one enters into communion with him.

    The Kingdom:

This is a moral kingdom with God ruling in the hearts of humans. The kingdom is also manifested in society by the establishment of justice and righteousness in the political sphere. It will be finally established as God works through man in the historical process.


The guiding principles of were distilled by Harnack in his What is Christianity? These were:

    1. Universal Fatherhood of God

    2. Universal Brotherhood of Man

    3. Infinite value of the individual human soul

Additionally, Jesus Christ served as the Supreme example, the man who was perfectly God-conscious at all times, in whom God was perfectly immanent. HE lived his life by a "higher righteousness" governed by the law of love, independent of religious worship & technical observance. He lived out in his life the perfect example of which we may all become.


The term modernism was first used of a movement within Roman Catholicism and pointed to a mentality that was similar to Liberal Protestantism. However, in the United States the term came to be applied to the radical edge of liberal theology (beginning c.1910) . Whereas earlier liberalism was a kind of pathetic salvage movement trying to save the essence of Christianity from the ashes of the Enlightenment, Modernism posed a direct challenge to evangelical Protestantism and fostered a full scale response in the form of Fundamentalism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the American religious scene was wracked with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Progressively effected were Congregationalism, Episcopalianism Northern Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist bodies so that by about 1930 many of these bodies were seen to have been “taken over.” This pitted those defenders of historic Christianity against the rising tide of a new “theology” that rejected the normative status of the Bible and even of Jesus Christ . In this Modernism signaled a step beyond Liberalism.

As a movement Modernism embraced the Enlightenment, an optimistic view of history based on the radical immanentism of God which saw the Holy Spirit as operative within both nature and culture perfecting them. This concept marked a direct dependence on Hegel’s philosophy history. The division between secular culture and the sacred were seen as invalid because the Holy Spirit was seen as operative in both realms making “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Modernism emphasized autonomous human reason focusing on humanity’s freedom and self determination and it gave a religious authorization to modern efforts of man to improve his lot by relying on his own inherent goodness. The radical power of sin and evil were minimized to the level of inconvenience. Truth was seen in the latest findings of science rather than in any supernatural revelation or in any historic person. In this Modernism represented a step beyond Liberalism.

In the U.S. Modernism as a movement found its impetus from Shailer Matthews and the Chicago School (University of Chicago). Matthews used a sociohistorical approach to religion arguing that religion is functional in that it helps people to make sense of the environment in which they find themselves and that theology is “transcendantlaized politics” arising out of the church’s interaction with its particular culture. This meant that Christianity had to be “modernized” in every age in order to remain a live option for each new generation.. As a movement Modernism went into decline in the 1930s under the attacks of Neo-Orthodoxy but key ideas found revival during the radicalism of the 1960s.


Immanentism: loss of personality of God: radical immanentanism that became panentheism; denied miracles

Christianity had historically asserted the doctrine of God’s omnipresence, i.e. that he was present everywhere in the created order while remaining separate form it. The new stress on divine immanence in the world did not represent a return to the classical doctrine of omnipresence. Omnipresence as it had been traditionally understood emphasized the distinction between God and the world, whereas immanence implied an "intimate relationship, that the universe and God are in some sense truly one."30 Thus, a thoroughgoing doctrine of immanence led to a denial of the supernatural as traditionally understood. There were not two realms, a natural and a supernatural, but one. Nor were there miracles in the sense of God breaking into the natural order for God was not perceived as being “out there” to break in; rather, all was miraculous for God was in all.

Lack of a doctrine of sin:

Coupled with this loss of divine transcendence there was an accompanying elevation of the position of man. No longer was he viewed as depraved and separated from God. Rather there was a blending of the distinction between God and man, a blending which emphasized not human sinfulness but human perfectibility. It was a view of man which Machen called "essentially pagan."31

The catch phrase of liberalism: “Every day in Every way we are getting better and better.” gives clear evidence that the doctrine of man propounded by Liberalism was a return to the Pelagianism of the fourth century. Sin was treated as a minor peccadillo rather than a radical evil which necessitated the incarnation and atonement.

Lack of need for conversion/moralistic salvation: redemption as mystical communion with Christ in the community of the church or in establishing the kingdom of God on earth

Lack of an authoritative Bible: The rise of Biblical criticism

The rise of Biblical criticism in the mid to late nineteenth century represented a wholesale attack on the Sola Scruiptura foundation of the Protestant faith and the theology of the post-Reformation period which had articulated a precisely defined doctrine of inerrancy. In some of these explanations the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy was extended even to the vowel pointing of the Hebrew text. The biblical critics blasted such doctrines. The rise of textual criticism shook the confidence of many as to the accurate transmission and preservation of the text. Literary (Higher) higher criticism applied to the Bible the methods of literary analysis used in secular documents. However the critics looked at the books of the Bible itself and concluded from their anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions for example that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. In the New Testament, the work of Strauss, Baur and others purported to demonstrate that much of the New Testament was to be dated from the second century, rather than arising from the hands of the apostles writing as Jesus’ authorized representatives. This all served to undermine the unique character and authority of the Bible both in the scholarly as well as in the worshipping community. No longer was it possible to proclaim “Thus saith the Lord.” This destroyed the possibility of the rational certainty of the faith.

Loss of uniqueness of Christ: The quest of the historical (merely human) Jesus

The identity and status of Jesus during the nineteenth century underwent continual revision. David F. Strauss first attacked the supernatural in the NT as mere myth. This launched the 19th century quest of the historical Jesus; which has been described as Liberalism “looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness [and seeing] only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face . . . at the bottom of a deep well.”

The Jesus of Liberalism, bore little resemblance to the Church's historic understanding of Jesus Christ as having both human and divine natures joined organically in one person. This was largely due to the radical empiricism that the Liberal school applied to the area of religious truth. This empiricism eliminated all but phenomenological data from any truth claim. As this method was applied to Christological doctrine a great reduction transpired. Rather than affirm the historic formulations, a "form of the dynamic Monarchianism of Paul of Samosota [was] revived by Harnack and his followers."32

Any metaphysical speculation about the two natures of Christ was seen as nonsense. A history of Christological doctrine could not rid one "of the impression that the whole fabric of ecclesiastical Christology [was] a thing absolutely outside the concrete personality of Jesus Christ."33 The starting place had to be the historical Christ, the "person" Jesus.34 Any assertion that Jesus was not limited by His cultural milieu and environment as any other individual was limited by his own cultural peculiarities, would be to assert that He was a "specter".35 In their eyes, to be a human implied a complete human body, soul and human personality.36 That Jesus was fully human but only human became the sine qua non upon which the Ritschlian understanding of Christ was built. This man Jesus was the One who was to be found in the pages of the gospels.

Jesus became the great example. He was the founder of a religion who embodied in His own life what He taught concerning God.37 In contrast to the majority of mankind, who came to a knowledge of God through some sort of crisis experience, this God-knowledge was in Jesus from the beginning, flowing naturally from Him "as though it could not do otherwise, like a spring from the depths of the earth, clear and unchecked in its flow."38 The means by which Jesus achieved this God-consciousness and His resulting mission to spread the kingdom of God among mankind was beyond human comprehension; it was "his secret, and no psychology will ever fathom it."39

"Knowledge of God" . . . marks the sphere of Divine Sonship. It is in this knowledge that he came to know the sacred Being who rules the heaven and earth as Father, as his Father. The consciousness which he possessed of being the Son of God is, therefore, nothing but the practical consequence of knowing God as the Father and as his Father. Rightly understood, the name of Son means nothing but the knowledge of God.40

In Jesus' own understanding, His God-knowledge was unique. He knew God "in a way in which no one ever knew Him before."41 It was this unique God-knowledge which constituted Him the Son of God. It was also from this knowledge that his vocation flowed. Jesus knew that it was "his vocation to communicate this knowledge of God to others by word and by deed--and with it the knowledge that men are God's children."42

Whether we shall call Christ divine depends on what we mean by God. If God is substance then Christ is not divine for there is no evidence of divine substance in him. If God is purpose then this does make Christ divine for there is nothing higher than his purpose. Christ's divinity is a conclusion not a presupposition. Yet it is not immaterial whether we call him divine or not. Such an interpretation has importance as showing our conception of God. It does not hurt Christ to not be called divine. If we recognize his supremacy that is enough. But if we do not call him divine it is because we have another and unchristian idea of God. We seek in God something not found in Christ. We get God elsewhere than from Christ. This procedure is due to the unfortunate fact that our theology is not christianized.43

Activity is society centered ignoring personal spirituality

As Liberalism developed in America it took on a decidedly activist cast. The social Gospel sought to right social injustice, but at the expense of a recognition of personal sin and emphasis upon personal piety. The church was the Public Church but it ignored the personal aspects of the gospel and faith. This led to a natural blending of the message of the church with the agenda of secularly dominated political systems, making the agendas often indistinguishable.


J. Gresham Machen denied that Liberalism was Christianity. Whereas Christianity was rooted in supernaturalism, Liberalism was rooted in naturalism. Liberalism as a religious system, was "the chief modern rival of Christianity" which was at every point opposed to historic Christianity.44

“A God without wrath,
led men without sin,
into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of
a Christ without a cross.”

H. Richard Neibuhr


C. Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith.

A. von Harnack, What is Christianity?

J. Dillenberger & C. Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development.

K. Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism.

L. Averill, American Theology in the Liberal Tradition.

W. R. Hutchinson, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism.

D. E. Miller; The Case for Liberal Christianity.

1 B. B. Warfield, "The Latest Phase of Historical Rationalism," Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 591.

2 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977).

3 Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983) 4-5.

4 Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Valley Forge:Judson Press), 386.

5 Ibid., 391.

6 James Orr, The Ritschlian Theology and The Evangelical Faith (New York: Thomas Whittaker, n.d.), p. 57.

7 A.B. Bruce noted that this agnosticism was not absolute, but a severe restriction of the knowledge of God attainable to man. (AJT 1:1-2.) Cf. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (New York: Oxford, 1976), pp. 122-132.

8 Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, [eds.] H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1900), pp. 18-20

9 It is not without significance that both Harnack and McGiffert were primarily historians, who undertook to clear away the accretions of Greek metaphysical speculations from Christianity in order to discover the pristine gospel taught by Christ apart from philosophical considerations.

10 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 172-178. By the "historic" person of Christ was understood the record of the life and teachings as presented in the pages of Scripture. The record of Scripture was seen as only historical, it was not divinely inspired and authoritative (see McGiffert, Apostolic Age, pp. 15-35; 116-121). Furthermore, the strict empiricism of the Ritschlians led them to deny the reality of miracles. Historical criticism became a matter of indifference since faith in Christ did not rest on any particular facet of Christ's life and teaching, but rather the "total impression of His person." Therefore criticism could not affect the fact that the individual had experienced Christ. (William Adams Brown, Essence of Christianity, p. 261.)

11 Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, p. 207.

12 Ritschl, Doctrine of Justification, pp. 207, 225.

13 J. H. W. Stuckenberg, "The Theology of Albrecht Ritschl," AJT 2 (1899):276.

14 Bruce, "Theological Agnosticism," p. 4.

15 A. C. McGiffert, Christianity As History and Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 145.

16 William Adams Brown, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Scribner's, 1902), p. 257.

17 Orr, Expository Essays, p. 8.

18 Adolf Harnack, What is Christianity? (New York: Putnam, 1902), p. 131.

19 W. A. Brown, Essence of Christianity, pp. 260- 261.

20 Orr, Expository Essays, p. 63.

21 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, p. 176.

22 The restriction of religious knowledge to the Person of Jesus Christ was arbitrary. No attempt was made to show how or why Jesus had received a special knowledge of God. Rather it was an a priori assumption. (Sutckenberg, "The Theology of Ritschl," pp. 276-277.)

23 McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith, pp. 177-178.

24 Ibid., p. 147.

25 Ibid., p. 129. Cf. McGiffert, p. 120. "But again when we assert our faith in the Lordship of Jesus, we declare that his moral standards and principles are the highest known to us, and we believe that they are the moral standards and principles of God himself. . . This was Jesus' ethical message to the world: 'Ye are all brethren,' 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

26 Harnack, p. 186. (Italics original.)

27 Walter Rauchenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York, 1917) 5.

28 Henry Drummond, Ascent of Man (New York, 1894), 334.

29 F. Schleiermacher, On Religion, 88.

30 Ibid. p. 202. This insistence on the unity of God and creation led to a panentheism which at times became out and out pantheism. (Bernard Ramm, "The Fortunes of Theology from Schleiermacher to Barth," Tensions in Contemporary Theology, Eds. Stanley N. Gundry and Alan F. Johnson [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976], p. 19

31 Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 65.

32 Charles A. Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith, (New York: Scribner's, 1913), p. 267.

33 Adolf von Harnack, What is Christianity? (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), p. 234.

34 A. C. McGiffert, Christianity as History and Faith (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 107.

35 Harnack, What is Christianity?, p. 12.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., p. 11

38 Ibid., p. 34.

39 Ibid. p. 132. McGiffert asserted of Jesus' kingdom mission: "The secret of Christ's permanent hold upon the world is largely this, that he saw visions loftier, more compelling and more enduring than those seen by other men before or since. . . . Jesus brought the vision of a divine Father who careth even for the meanest." (p. 235.)

40 Harnack, p. 131. (Italics original.)

41 Ibid., p. 131.

42 Ibid. Cf. McGiffert, pp. 118, 306-307.

43 McGiffert, p. 111.

44 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 reprint), p. 2.

Related Topics: Theology, Apologetics

Responsibilities of Fatherhood (Deuteronomy 6:1-19)

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Deuteronomy 6:4-10 has been called the Magna Carta of the home which would guarantee the happiness and well being of the family in the purpose of God. But while it is an important passage for the home, this passage must not be used outside of its overall context and purpose or it loses its real impact for the home.

One of the chief purposes of this section of Scripture is a call to ministry and testimony as the people of God through obedience to God.

Exodus 19:6-7 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. ‘These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” 7 So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD had commanded him.

Deuteronomy 4:6-8 “So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD OUR God whenever we call on Him? 8 “Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?

Deuteronomy 6 is not simply a call to obedience for obedience’ sake or obedience for happiness’ sake, nor is it just a passage with principles for the home. It is a call to obedience for God’s glory, as an evidence of love for God and for a ministry to the world through the perpetuation of faith in the Lord from generation to generation. Personal blessing was promised, but primarily as a by-product of relationship with the Lord, not as an end in itself.

As God’s people today (the church of Jesus Christ), this is not unlike our call and responsibility (1 Pet. 2:5-12). Remember, these Old Testament principles, warnings, and exhortations are given for us today as examples to us and for our instruction and “that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

There are three key notes that form the background and backbone for this passage in Deuteronomy:

  • Obedience as an evidence of love and reverence for God.
  • Warnings against forgetting the Lord.
  • The need of the transmission of God’s truth to the coming generations—godly parenting (cf. Ps. 78:1ff)

Deuteronomy 6 shows us how this is to be done or what is necessary if we are to be an obedient people who do not forget the Lord and who seek God’s Word with careful obedience handed down from generation to generation.

The Call for Obedience:
Communication of Truth

Deuteronomy 6:1-2 “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgments which the LORD YOUR God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it, 2 so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged.

Deuteronomy 4:10-11 “Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ 11 “And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom.

The experience at Horeb in Deuteronomy 4 was designed to produce a reverential fear of God in the hearts of the people so that a covenant between them and the Lord would be possible. In the Old Testament the fear of God is more than awe or reverence though it includes both. Fearing God is to become so acutely aware of His moral purity and omnipotence that one is genuinely afraid to disobey Him. Fearing God also includes responding to Him in worship, service, trust, obedience, and commitment.

That day at Horeb God’s omnipotence was displayed in the fire … black clouds … deep darkness, and the voice of God that thundered from the heavens. His moral purity was displayed in the Ten Commandments, called His covenant (Bible Knowledge Commentary).

Of course, the perpetuation or transmission of faith and truth into the hearts of each new generation was vital to continued obedience and the privilege of remaining in the land where Israel could enjoy its blessings and fulfill God’s purposes for them as a priesthood nation to the nations.

The Foundation for Obedience:
Hearing God’s Truth

3 “O Israel, you should listen and be careful to do it, that it may be well with you and that you may multiply greatly, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. 4 “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!

Hearing God

The foundation for obedience begins with listening—with hearing the Word. Hearing is a protection against scarring or hardening (Heb. 3:7).

These verses are addressed to the nation of Israel. But in particular, they are addressed to parents—especially to fathers and grandfathers because of their leadership role according to Scripture, and because of the responsibility of parents in the perpetuation of faith in their children. This is clear from the context (cf. verses 2, 7, 20).

Dads, the most important thing you can do for yourself and your family is to make hearing the Word of God one of the greatest priorities of your life and the lives of your children. Our children must learn the importance of hearing and knowing the Word of God formally and informally. Hearing, knowing, and obeying the Word is critical to our spiritual growth and walk with God, to our ability as parents, and to the lives of our children.

A little girl, with shining eyes and little face aglow, said, “Daddy, it is almost time for Sunday school. Let’s go! They teach us there of Jesus’ love, and how He died that we might all have everlasting life by trusting in Him!”

“Oh, no,” said Daddy, “not today, I have worked so hard all the week, I am going to the woods and to the creek. There I can relax and rest. I must have one day to rest, and fishing is fine, they say. So run along. Don’t bother me. We’ll go to church some other day!”

Months and years have passed, but Daddy hears that plea no more: “Let’s go to Sunday school!”
Those childish years are over and that Daddy is growing old, when life is almost through,
he finds time to go to church. But what does daughter do? She says, “Oh, Daddy, not today. I stayed up almost all last night, and I’ve got to get some sleep!” (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, #1628, Assurance Publishers, p. 431).

Next, the text teaches us the foundation of obedience and godly parenting is:

Knowing God

The purpose of hearing the Word is to know the Lord. “Hear” is the Hebrew shama, and means “to hear and understand, or to hear with discernment.” Hearing the Word must never degenerate into religious formality or into merely a religious routine in which we do our ‘nod to God,’ but afterwards immediately forget God (cf. Ps. 50:22). The text will show us, that our purpose for hearing the Word and its truth is to really know God intimately and personally, to so understand the truths of Scripture that they become the means and guide to a personal relationship with the Lord. We do “not live by bread alone, (i.e., by the details of life) but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” We need to live by God’s Word that we might personally know God and put our trust in Him.

We need to understand how much we lack of the knowledge of God. We must learn to measure ourselves, not by our knowledge about God, not by how many verses we can spit out by memory, not by our gifts or talents or ministry, but by how we pray, by how we commune with the Lord in His Word, by what goes on in our hearts, and by our level of obedience to what we know (For a wonderful study on this need, see J. I. Packer’s book, Knowing God).

The rest of verse 4, “…The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” is debated as to its exact meaning. It may stress the unity of God, or the uniqueness of the Lord (i.e. there is only one God like Yahweh). Ryrie writes,

Verse 4 is subject to various translations, though the statement is likely stressing the uniqueness of Yahweh and should be translated, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” A secondary emphasis, His indivisibility, is apparent in most English translations. The Lord’s uniqueness precludes the worship of any other and demands a total love commitment (v. 5). This confession does not preclude the later revelation of the Trinity, for the word God (Elohim) is a plural word, and the word one is also used of the union of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2:24) to describe two persons in one flesh (Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, Moody, p. 285).

Verse 4 gives expression to what was to be the heart of Israel’s confession of faith, namely, Yahweh was not a pantheon of gods, nor was He one of the gods of the ancient mystery cults. He was the only true God who was one in essence, but clearly revealed in the New Testament as three in personality.

The point is we must hear the word to learn about the Lord that we might know Him and live in the light of all that He is as the sovereign and holy God of the universe and savior of our lives—the God of redemption and revelation. This is very important. A proper perspective about God is vital and fundamental to our love and obedience to Him, and our to ability to trust Him for all of life. Without this knowledge embedded in our hearts and functioning as the rock of our lives, we will pursue the gods of the world; we will experience the emptiness of materialism and fall for one of the many traps of Satan. As we come to know God, we learn that we need no other god’s—He alone is sufficient to meet our needs and to fulfill our lives; indeed, He is our SUFFICIENCY, OUR ONLY ONE.

As we study His Word and come to know Him, we learn to trust Him, and this in turn is transmitted to our children.

Obeying God

“Hear” in verse 4 includes the idea of “to hear and obey.” The point is that we really have not heard unless we are following through with obedience, acting on the precepts of Scripture. We must act in accord with Scripture (6:2b-3a, 4), from the heart, from an intimate understanding and relationship with Him or we have not truly heard. Note the words, “to keep all, …” “be careful to do it,” and “hear.” Taking Scripture as our index is the point here: we must realize that we cannot guide our own lives.

Proverbs 14:12 There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.

Proverbs 12:15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel.

Jeremiah 10:23 I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself; Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.

Note the following principles:

(1) Knowledge without obedience is never enough.

(2) Knowledge that is without obedience is only partial knowledge. Indeed, it is knowledge without understanding. It constitutes information without spiritual understanding and insight.

(3) To truly know the Lord is to desire to obey, and then to obey!

To have met with the living God is to change. That means obedience. Otherwise, we have merely had an encounter with ourselves religiously and emotionally. Parents who refuse to obey God themselves are teaching their children disobedience. The clearest and loudest words our children ever hear, are those of our own example.

  • Children who live with critical parents learn to be critical.
  • Children whose parents scream and argue learn to do the same.
  • Children whose parents find all kinds of excuses to miss Bible class and church will find it easy to do the same.
  • Children whose parents are not involved in ministry and concerned for others, will likewise be indifferent to the needs around them.

When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University, he spoke these words to a parent’s group:

I get many letters from you parents about your children. You want to know why we people up here in Princeton can’t make more out of them and do more for them. Let me tell you the reason we can’t. It may shock you just a little, but I am not trying to be rude. The reason is that they are your sons, reared in your homes, blood of your blood, bone of your bone. They have absorbed the ideals of your homes. You have formed and fashioned them. They are your sons. In those malleable, moldable years of their lives you have forever left your imprint upon them. (Tan, #4174, p. 960).

The Nature of Obedience:
Love for God

5 “And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; …”

The Extent of Love

We are to love the Lord totally, “with all our heart,” and to give ourselves to Him unreservedly. This is the tough one, not because the Lord is so hard to love, but because we are so prone to self love and selfish pursuits. We are so like the old hymn says, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.”

When we struggle to obey, it is simply and plainly the age old problem of ‘conflicting masters,’ and ‘treasures of our hearts.’

Matthew 6:19-24 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 22 “The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. 23 “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (NASB)

We need, therefore, to re-evaluate our values and our priorities. We might consider these two questions:

  • How real is God to me?
  • Is my relationship with Him merely intellectual?

The secret to loving the Lord is knowing Him. And the secret to knowing Him is Bible study and prayer. If we do not love the Lord and make Him the supreme priority of our lives, the chances are very high that neither will our children. And, only our love for the Lord will cause us to make the training of our children, or godly parenting, a priority in our lives. Otherwise, we will tend to neglect our children for our own pleasures, or business, or other personal pursuits.

How often have we not read of men or women who have made it big in business, in the theater, in sports, or even in ministry, yet dismally failed with their children. Dads, our children may become successful by the world’s standards, but if they do not end up living for Jesus Christ, in love with Him and concerned for His values, then, in God’s eyes they are failures and it just may be because we have failed in our responsibility. We need to be reminded that children have their own volition and can turn away from godly parenting, but too often it is because we ourselves have failed to live for the Lord as we should.

Proverbs 15:17 Better is a dish of vegetables where love is, Than a fattened ox and hatred with it.

Proverbs 17:1 Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it Than a house full of feasting with strife.

Do you believe what these Proverbs say? Where are your priorities, dad?

The Nature of Love

“These things are to be on your heart.” “These things” refer to the things of God and God’s Word. To “be on your heart” means “to be on your mind, in the center of your thoughts, and the object of your devotion.” It means our relationship to God and our obedience to His Word is contrasted to the tablets of stone. It means our relationship is not to be merely legal and mechanical, but spiritual and reflective. Love and obedience are:

  • Spiritual—not mechanical
  • Central—Not peripheral
  • Primary—Not secondary

This means we learn to live and think in terms of biblical principles and the realities of God in everything we do. The word of God becomes the grid and framework for every aspect of life, for home, work, worship, or play (cf. 2 Cor. 10:4, 5).

All of this forms the foundation for the next point:

The Propagation of Obedience:
Teach and Model the Word

7 and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. 8 “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. 9 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:20-25 “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 ‘Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; 23 and He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers. ‘ 24 “So the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD OUR God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today. 25 “And it will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.”

This forms a natural progression. We aren’t capable of truly teaching until we are first following, hearing, obeying, loving, and being occupied with the Lord ourselves. We must model the Word as we teach it.

There are five ways the text shows us this teaching is to be done.

(1) Diligently—though parents have many other important tasks and responsibilities, none are more important with greater implications than this responsibility. It must not be taken lightly.

(2) Incisively, Accurately—this is included in the word “diligently” which means “to sharpen” and then “to teach clearly, accurately, incisively.” Our teaching must be clear and precise, not in vague generalities.

(3) Repeatedly—these verses indicate teaching is not a once-in-a-while or a one-time effort. It goes on all the time. The secret to learning is repetition.

(4) Naturally—it is to be done when we sit, walk, lie down, and rise up. In other words, we are to look for teaching opportunities by word and by example through the everyday activities of life in the home. Also, compare verses 20 and following for the practical outworking of these things through the natural curiosity of children. The home is the natural God-given place to communicate and display the Word of God. It’s the place “where life makes up its mind.”

(5) Personally—(cf. 4:9). What our children learn in Sunday school and church is important, but we can’t rely on this alone. This passage is speaking to parents, not the church. Training is first and foremost the responsibility of the parents (cf. Eph. 6:4 addressed to fathers). Again, this stresses modeling. What one says is rarely as influential as what one does.

As mentioned in the first part of this lesson, when parents listen, obey and love, they provide a model for children which reinforces what is being said in the home.”

Warnings Regarding Obedience:
Don’t be like the World

10 “Then it shall come about when the LORD your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied, 12 then watch yourself, lest you forget the LORD who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. 14 “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, 15 for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.

16 “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested Him at Massah. 17 “You should diligently keep10 “Then it shall come about when the LORD your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied, 12 then watch yourself, lest you forget the LORD who brought you from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. 14 “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, 15 for the LORD your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the LORD your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.

(1) This is a warning against loving the world (vss. 10-15). There is in this warning what seems to be almost an axiom. We rarely absorb cultural advances without also absorbing moral and spiritual values as well. The land of Canaan was advanced in material culture. Cities were well laid out, and houses showed good design and construction. Floors of buildings were often paved or plastered. Drainage systems had been developed. Workers were skilled in the use of copper, lead, and gold. Pottery was among the finest anywhere in the world. Extensive trade was conducted with foreign countries, including Egypt, Northern Mesopotamia, and Cyprus. In technical knowledge, the Canaanites were much more advanced than the Israelites who had spent the past forty years in nomadic conditions of the desert.

History show that less developed cultures are normally absorbed by those more advanced. In years which followed, Israel did not become absorbed by Canaan, but she did experience profound influence. Had this involved only material culture, such as pottery manufacture, city construction, or methods of farming, there could even have been benefit; but when it came to include ways of thinking, ideas, and especially religious belief and practice, the harm was great (Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, Zondervan p. 169).

There is a spiritual principle here: In prosperity people tend to forget God and instead put their trust in material things. This in itself is bad enough, but another problem always results—we absorb the viewpoints and attitudes of the world around us.

(2) This is a warning against testing the Lord by rebellion and disobedience (vss. 16-17). This will eventually result in personal and national discipline, always.

(3) This is a warning against losing sight of godly goals, a warning against failing to live purposely for God (vss. 18-19). We must never lose sight of why we are here. We are not simply here as earthdwellers to pursue our own selfish goals. Rather we are pilgrims. The minute we lose sight of the ‘pilgrim’ mentality, we are in danger of becoming absorbed with the world. The result is that we fail as parents, because we have first failed as God’s children ourselves.

Jonathan Edwards was the son of a godly home. His father was a preacher and before him his mother’s father. Note the history of the offspring of this godly man:

More than 400 of them have been traced, and they include 14 college presidents, and 100 professors, 100 of them have been ministers of the Gospel, missionaries, and theological teachers. More than 100 of them were lawyers and judges. Out of the whole number 60 have been doctors, and as many more, authors of high rank, or editors of journals.

In fact, almost every conspicuous American industry has had as its promoters one or more of the offspring of the Edward’s stock since the remote ancestor was married in the closing half of the seventeenth century. (Tan, #4182, p. 962).

Related Topics: Christian Home, Fathers, Men's Articles, Children

Soteriology - The Doctrine of Salvation

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The Meaning and Scope of Salvation

Even a casual look at the world quickly reveals man’s condition in sin and the awful plight in which this fallen condition has left him. Furthermore, it is a condition against which mankind is completely helpless when left to his own human resources. In spite of all man’s expectations of a new society in which he is able to bring about peace and prosperity, the world remains shattered and torn by the ravages of sin locally, nationally, and internationally. The Bible speaks, however, of God’s gracious plan to provide a solution to man’s problem. We call it salvation or soteriology. Ryrie writes:

Soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, must be the grandest theme in the Scriptures. It embraces all of time as well as eternity past and future. It relates in one way or another to all of mankind, without exception. It even has ramifications in the sphere of the angels. It is the theme of both the Old and New Testaments. It is personal, national, and cosmic. And it centers on the greatest Person, our Lord Jesus Christ.1

According to the broadest meaning as used in Scripture, the term salvation encompasses the total work of God by which He seeks to rescue man from the ruin, doom, and power of sin and bestows upon him the wealth of His grace encompassing eternal life, provision for abundant life now, and eternal glory (Eph. 1:3-8; 2:4-10; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; John 3:16, 36; 10:10).

The word “salvation” is the translation of the Greek word soteria which is derived from the word soter meaning “savior.” The word “salvation” communicates the thought of deliverance, safety, preservation, soundness, restoration, and healing. In theology, however, its major use is to denote a work of God on behalf of men, and as such it is a major doctrine of the Bible which includes redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, conviction, repentance, faith, regeneration, forgiveness, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. On the one hand, salvation is described as the work of God rescuing man from his lost estate. On the other hand salvation describes the estate of a man who has been saved and who is vitally renewed and made a partaker of the inheritance of the saints.2

The Motivations for Salvation

When we look at the stubbornness and rebellion of man, we ask the question, why should God want to save sinners? And especially, why should He want to give His unique and beloved Son to die the agony of God’s holy judgment in bearing our sin on the cross?

Scripture’s answer is that salvation redounds to the glory of His grace. Salvation brings glory to God and it does so because it manifests the nature and character of His person (Eph. 1:6; Phil. 2:11). Salvation reveals a number of things about God that bring glory to the person of God and show us something of the reasons for salvation:

(1) It reveals His love. That God would reach out to sinful man by sending His only begotten Son is the greatest manifestation of His love. It declares God provided salvation because He is a loving God (John 3:16; 1 John 4:7-10, 16).

(2) Salvation through the person and work of Christ is also a manifestation of God’s grace, the non-meritorious favor of God (Eph. 2:7-9). Only Christianity offers a salvation based on grace rather than works. All the other religions of the world have man working to acquire salvation.

(3) The salvation of the Bible also manifests the holiness of God. God provided salvation through the person and work of His Son because He is a holy God. In His love and grace God desired fellowship with man, but man’s rebellion and sin created a barrier between God and man that hindered any fellowship with man whatsoever because of God’s infinite holiness. Both God’s holiness and His love are satisfied, however, by the person and work of God’s Son so that man can be reconciled to God and fellowship restored.

(4) Adam and Eve were created in the image of God that they might give a visible display of God’s character as they walked in fellowship with the invisible God. But when the human race fell through Adam’s sin, the image was not only marred, but man lost the capacity for fellowship with God. Through salvation, the capacity for fellowship is restored and also is man’s ability to manifest, though imperfectly, the goodness of God.

The Three Phases (Tenses) of Salvation

Salvation in Christ, which begins in eternity past according to the predetermined plan of God and extends into the eternal future, has three observable phases in the Bible. Understanding this truth can relieve a lot of tension from the standpoint of security and enable the believer to relax in the Lord and His grace while simultaneously moving forward in spiritual growth.

Phase I. This is the past tense of salvation—saved from sin’s penalty. Several passages of Scripture speak of salvation as wholly past, or as accomplished and completed for the one who has believed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This aspect views the believer as delivered once and for all from sin’s penalty and spiritual death (Luke 7:50; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; Eph. 2:5, 8; Tit. 3:5; Heb. 7:25; 2 Tim. 1:9). So complete and perfect is this work of God in Christ that the believer is declared permanently saved and safe forever (John 5:24; 10:28, 29; Rom. 8:1, 37-39; 1 Pet. 1:3-5).

Phase II. This is the present tense of salvation and has to do with present deliverance over the reigning power of sin or the carnal nature’s power in the lives of believers (Rom. 6:1-23; 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 2:19-20; 5:1-26; Phil. 1:19; 2:12-13; 2 Thess. 2:13). This phase of salvation in Christ is accomplished through the ministry of the indwelling Spirit, but it is based on the work of Christ and the believer’s union and co-identification with Christ in that work.

Phase III. This is the future tense of salvation which refers to the future deliverance all believers in Christ will experience through a glorified resurrected body. It contemplates that, though once and for all saved from the penalty of sin and while now being delivered from the power of sin, the believer in Christ will yet be saved into full conformity to Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29; 13:11; 1 Pet. 1:5; 1 John 3:2). This recognizes and shows that the Christian in his experience never becomes perfect in this life (Phil. 3:12-14). Full conformity to the character of Christ, experientially speaking, awaits ultimate glorification. However, the fact that some aspects of salvation for the one who believes are yet to be accomplished in no way implies that there is ground for doubt as to the outcome of eternal salvation because all three phases are dependent upon the merit and the work of God in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.3

The Nature of Salvation As the Work of God

Salvation is the free gift of God to man by grace through faith, completely aside from human works. Works in the life of a believer are tremendously important, but they are to be the result of receiving and appropriating God’s grace in the salvation they receive. As the prophet declares, “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). “Therefore, in every aspect it is a work of God in behalf of man and is in no sense a work of man in behalf of God.”4

Salvation as the saving work of God so completely provides for the believer that believers are declared “complete in Christ” and “blessed with every spiritual blessing” (Col. 2:10; Eph. 1:3). A fathomless source of blessings become the possession of all believers when they trust in Christ as their Savior. The Apostle Paul refers to these blessings as “the unfathomable riches of Christ” in Ephesians 3:8. “Unfathomable” is the Greek anexichniastos which means “past finding out, unsearchable, not to be tracked out.” The idea is that our blessings in Christ are “too deep to be measured.”

See Appendix A for a list of the Believer’s Unfathomable Riches in Christ.

This saving work of God encompasses various aspects which together accomplish salvation: these include redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, propitiation, justification, imputation, regeneration, propitiation, expiation, sanctification, and even glorification. It is all of this and much more which provide salvation, make believers qualified for heaven and become the children of God (John 1:12; Col. 1:12; Eph. 1:6).

As a Finished Work

The last words uttered by the Savior just before He died on the cross were, “It is finished.” He was not referring to the end of His life or ministry, but of His substitutionary sufferings on the cross which He would complete by His death which occurred immediately following His shout, “It is finished.” He was declaring He had finished the special work of salvation which the Father had given Him to accomplish. We speak of “the finished work of Christ” because there is nothing left to be done to provide man’s salvation. God has done it all in the person and work of His Son and He raised Him from the dead as the proof of that very fact. The work of God in Christ is a once-and-for-all work of God accomplished in total by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Christ’s death was distinctly a work accomplished for the entire world (John 3:16; Heb. 2:9) and, provisionally speaking, it provided redemption (1 Tim. 2:6), reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19), and propitiation (the appeasement or satisfaction of God’s holiness) (1 John 2:2) for every person in the world.

Salvation is a done proposition. Man’s responsibility is to accept this by faith, faith alone in Christ alone. The finished work of Christ includes not only deliverance from the penalty of sin, but also from the power of sin. Faith in Christ for salvation means coming to Him as the source of salvation from every aspect of sin through trusting in the accomplished work of Christ. When Christ cried out, “It is finished” (Greek, telesthai, the perfect tense of teleo, “to complete, finish” expressing completed action with continuing results), He was affirming the fact of the finished nature of what He had accomplished on the cross for the world. Regarding Christ’s work as a finished work, Lewis Chafer wrote:

The fact that Christ died does not in itself save men, but it provides the one and only sufficient ground upon which God in full harmony with His perfect holiness is free to save even the chief of sinners. This is the good news which the Christian is appointed to proclaim to all the world.5

In all the other religions of the world, salvation is a work that man does for God. This is what makes biblical Christianity distinct from all the religions of the world because in the Bible, salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:0); it is the work of God for man and Christ’s final shout of victory affirmed this truth.

Since the Christ’s work is finished, it should be clear that salvation is not a work of man for God. When a person comes to Christ, he is acknowledging that he cannot save himself but has now recognized the work of salvation God has wrought for him and which he accepts as God’s gift. Salvation originates in God’s purposes, not in man’s and is forever delivered from any legalistic approach that would elevate human works as a ground for salvation.6

The Necessity of Salvation—The Barrier

In Ephesians 2:14-16 Paul speaks of the barrier of separation which exists between God and man. As long as this barrier exists, there is no possibility of fellowship between God and man. The barrier, or literally the dividing wall mentioned in Ephesians 2:14, referred historically to the dividing wall in the temple in Jerusalem. This wall separated the court of the Gentiles from the rest of the temple and excluded the Gentiles from the inner sanctuaries. But this wall was a picture of the spiritual barrier that stands between God and man which precludes man’s access into God’s presence. The Jews could go beyond the dividing wall, but this was only because they had access through their God-given sacrificial system which pointed to the person and work of Christ, the Messiah, the One who would make peace and remove the barrier.

The study of the Bible reveals there are several spiritual factors which go together to make up this barrier of separation between God and man. Though sin is the root problem, it is not the only issue. A combination of factors make up this wall of separation. So just what constitutes the barrier between God and man?

Barrier 1: The Holiness of God

We often think of God as a God of love—which He is—but more is said in the Bible of God’s holiness than of God’s love. In fact, Isaiah 57:15 even declares that His “name is holy.” In Isaiah 6:3, the holy cherubim continuously proclaimed the holiness of God. After seeing this in the vision of God’s absolute holiness given to the Prophet, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” Habakkuk spoke of the holiness of God and said, “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and thou canst not look on wickedness with favor …” (Hab. 1:13). John wrote, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Abraham confessed God as the Judge of all the earth who had to act in accordance with His holy justice (Gen. 18:25). In 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul called God the righteous Judge. In Deuteronomy 32:4, Moses spoke of God’s holy character:

Deuteronomy 32:4 The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.

These and many other passages point to the perfect holiness of God and stress the fact that God cannot and will not act contrary to His holy character. If He is without injustice and completely righteous in all that He is and does, how can He have fellowship with sinful man or anything less than His perfect holiness?

The holiness of God has two branches: perfect righteousness and perfect justice. God is absolute righteousness and perfection. It is impossible for God to do anything wrong or to have fellowship with anything less than His perfect righteousness. Since God is also perfect justice, which acts in accord with His perfect righteousness, He cannot be partial or unfair to any creature and He must deal with the creature in perfect justice. This means all that is unrighteous or sinful must be judged and separated from Him (cf. Ps. 119:137-138; 145:17 with Hab. 1:13; Rom. 2:5-6, 11; 1:18; 14:11-12; 1 Pet. 4:5).

Barrier 2: The Sin of Man

Galatians teaches us that man is shut up (locked out, shut out from God) because man is under the eight ball of sin. Romans 3:23 declares that all have sinned and fall short (miss the mark) of the glory of God (His holy character). In Isaiah 59:1-2 the prophet said, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; Neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear.” Isaiah was reminding Israel that though God has the ability and desire to deliver men, He cannot act contrary to nor bypass His perfect holiness.

Sin creates a barrier between God and man which hinders access to God. This is true for the unbeliever who can only come to God through Christ who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). It is also true for the believer in Christ. Even though they are saved and have access to God in Christ, fellowship with God as His children is broken by known sin which must first be confessed so that fellowship can be restored and God can answer prayer (Ps. 66:18).

The barrier of sin is one of the reasons why God, in His sovereign love, gave His Son to die on the cross for man’s sin. There are three aspects which go to make up the barrier of sin which will be mentioned just briefly in this study.

Imputed Sin: Romans 5:12 teaches us the fact of imputed sin. Adam is the representative head of the human race and because of our natural relationship to him, his sin is imputed, reckoned, to the entire human race. God views the human race as though we all sinned in Adam or with Adam. But in this we also see God’s grace as Paul explains in Romans 5:12-18, for just as Adam’s sin was imputed to every human being as a descendent of Adam because of Adam’s one act of sin, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who become children of God by faith in Christ because of His one act of righteousness (Rom. 5:16-18). As such, Adam was a type of Christ (Rom. 5:14).

Inherited Sin: The Bible teaches the fact that, as the posterity of Adam, every child is born with a sinful nature inherited from his parents. Many passages of Scripture refer to this principle. According to Ephesians 2:1-3, all are dead in sin and are “by nature the children of wrath.” Other important verses are:

Genesis 5:3 When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

Psalm 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

Psalm 58:3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth.

The vital principle is that men do not sin and become sinners, rather they sin because they are sinners.

Individual or Personal Sin: This refers to the products of the sinful nature of inherited sin, the actual deeds or acts of sin which all men do because they are sinful (Rom. 3:18, 23).

Barrier 3: The Penalty of Sin

Because God is holy and man is sinful, God’s perfect justice must act against man to charge him as guilty and under the penalty of sin with a debt to pay, and a sentence to serve. Thus, the Law of the Old Testament functions as a bill of indictment. It shows man guilty and under the penalty of sin. This is clear from the following passages:

Romans 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Galatians 3:19 Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made.

Galatians 3:22 But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Colossians 2:14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us (the Old Testament law) and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

The “certificate of debt consisting of decrees” refers to the Law and its indictment that man is under the penalty of sin which is death. Man has a debt to pay. But the thing which must be understood is that the debt is so great that man himself cannot pay it either by religion, or good deeds, or morality. The very best that a man can come up with falls far short of the glory of God. Man is dead, incapacitated in his sinful condition (Rom. 3:9-23; Eph. 2:1-3). Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:23 is that all men are in the same boat whether immoral (Rom. 1:18-32), or moral (Rom. 2:1-16), or religious (Rom. 2:17-3:8). All miss the mark of God’s holiness and are under the penalty of sin which is death (Rom. 3:9-20, 23; 6:23). Man’s only hope is in the righteousness of God which He supplies through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-5:21). How the work of God in Christ removes the barrier will be discussed in the material below on the doctrine of reconciliation.

As a further by-product of these three parts of the barrier, other things automatically occur which compound the problem and add to the barrier and the impossibility of salvation apart from Christ.

Barrier 4: Spiritual Death

Paul teaches us that “in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). Man’s position in Adam brings spiritual death, eventually physical death, and ultimately eternal death—eternal separation from God. Romans 6:23 tells us “the wages of sin is death,” and in Romans 5:12 we read “therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Death is the awesome consequence of sin (cf. Gen. 2:17; 1 Cor. 15:21, 56; Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). The point of these verses is that death, whether physical or spiritual, is a product of man’s position in Adam and his own personal sin. This means that man in himself is without spiritual life and spiritual capacity. The result of this is spiritual failure. No matter how hard he tries he fails and falls short of God’s holy character. Men simply cannot save themselves no matter how hard they try or no matter how sincere they are. This is why the Savior told Nicodemus, a very religious man, “you must be born again” (John 3:3-7). This was Christ’s way of teaching this religious man that he needed spiritual capacity, a new spiritual birth, a spiritual birth from above accomplished by the Spirit of God in order to see, understand, and be a part of the kingdom of God.

So man is not only separated from God by sin, by God’s holy character, and by the penalty of sin, but he is faced with the problem of spiritual death and the need of spiritual life. Being spiritually dead, man needs spiritual life and eternal life which can only come through the new birth and a new position in Christ as the source of life.

Barrier 5: Unrighteousness

The Prophet Isaiah wrote, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6). (Italics mine.) Quoting Psalm 14:1-3, the Apostle Paul exclaims, “As it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one.’” In order for people to have fellowship with God they must have a standing, a righteousness equal with God. Because of their condition, dead in sin, they can never establish a righteousness sufficient to pass the righteous judgment of God.

This is the error of the typical religious person who, by his morality and religious deeds, attempts to establish his own standing before God. The error is twofold: First, he does not recognize the absolute awesome holiness of God’s character. For many, if not most, God is simply an elevated man, the man upstairs. Second, such a person does not see the effect of sin on their own character and ability. The Apostle speaks to this very thing in Romans 10:1-4 when he writes of his religious brethren:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Therefore, all of man’s human good or religious works are just dead works and worthless from the standpoint of acceptance with God (Rom. 4:1-4; Heb. 6:1; 9:14).

What then is the solution to this dilemma of mankind, this five-fold barrier? The solution is God’s work of grace in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. This work of grace is called reconciliation.

2 Cor. 5:18-19 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

The Work of Salvation: The Removal of the Barrier

The Doctrine of Reconciliation Explained

Reconciliation is one of the key words of Scripture because it means the sinner, separated and alienated from God by the barrier, can be restored to fellowship with a holy God. How? Through that which God has done for man in His Son, Jesus Christ. This work of God in Christ results in the reconciliation of the believing sinner to God. Precisely and biblically just what does the doctrine of reconciliation include? What does reconciliation itself mean? Who is reconciled, how, when, and where? These are some of the questions that will be answered in this study.

Definition of Reconcile

(1) The English word “reconcile” means to cause to be friendly again; to bring back to harmony, make peace.

(2) The Greek words for reconciliation and their definition: (a) Katallasso, the verb, and katallage, the noun form. This word comes from kata which means “down,” and allaso which means “to change” or “exchange.” Thus, katallasso means “to change from enmity or disharmony to friendship and harmony,” or “to reconcile” (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18-19). (b) Apokatallaso. This is a triple compound word (adds the preposition apo, “from,”). It does not occur in earlier Greek and seems to be used by Paul to express the idea of the completeness of reconciliation (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20-21). We can properly translate it “to reconcile completely.”7

Each of these Greek words primarily referred to a one-way kind of reconciliation, one accomplished by one person. This is important because the Greeks had a word, diallasso, that referred to a two-way or mutual reconciliation—one dependent upon the work of both parties. Diallasso “denotes a mutual concession after mutual hostility, an idea absent from katall-.”8 Though katallasso could be used of a reconciliation between people (1 Cor. 7:11), the exclusive choice of the katalasso family of words for the reconciliation of the sinner stresses that salvation is totally the work of God that man may either accept by faith or reject, but either way, salvation is a work not partly of man and partly of God as it might occur between people, but totally, 100%, a work accomplished by God through His Son, the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17-19; Rom. 5:11).

(3) The concept of reconciliation is, of course, not limited to the word “reconcile.” When Scripture speaks of “peace with God” (Rom. 5:1), of Christ as “our peace” (Eph. 2:14), and of His work of “establishing peace” (Eph. 2:15-17), this is reconciliation, the work of God in Christ to remove the enmity and alienation that separate God and man (Rom. 5:1-11).

(4) Doctrinal Definition: In short, reconciliation is the whole work of God in Christ by which man is brought from the place of enmity to harmony or peace with God (Rom. 5:1). There are other terms used in Scripture of God’s gracious work in Christ like redemption, justification, regeneration, and propitiation, but reconciliation seems to be the over-all term of Scripture which encompasses all the other terms as a part of what God has done through the Lord Jesus to completely remove the enmity or alienation, the whole of the barrier (sin, God’s holiness, death, unrighteousness, etc.). It is this work that sets God free to justify the believing sinner by faith in Christ so there is peace with God, the change of relationship from hostility to harmony.

The Source of Reconciliation

The source of reconciliation is God and not man as 2 Corinthians 5:18 and the Greek words mentioned above make perfectly clear. Reconciliation is a work which has its source in the love, holiness, goodness, and grace of God. It is all by His doing that we come to be in Christ Jesus, the place of peace with God (1 Cor. 1:30-31).

The Agent of Reconciliation—Who?

The agent of reconciliation is the Lord Jesus alone. It is He who personally died for all the world and bore our sin, the cause of alienation, in His body on the tree (Rom. 5:10-11; 2 Cor. 5:18; Col. 1:20-21; 1 Pet. 2:24).

The Object of Reconciliation—Who?

Three answers are often given to this question: God is reconciled to man, man is reconciled to God, or both are reconciled to each other. But clearly, Scripture teaches that the object of reconciliation is man and not God. God is not reconciled; He is propitiated and man is reconciled. Man is the one at enmity with God and who must be brought back into relationship with God. Ryrie writes:

Second Corinthians 5:19 seems clear: God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself. The world of mankind is clearly the object of reconciliation. Romans 5:10 agrees by stating that we were reconciled to God. “God is the one who is active in reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19), and men are said to be reconciled (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:20); i.e., they are acted upon by God. Thus believers are said to receive reconciliation. They are recipients of a relationship of peace and harmony brought about by God.”9

The Instrument (Cause) of Reconciliation

The instrument and cause of reconciliation is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. “God made Him to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). It is the death of Jesus Christ that changes man from enmity to harmony with God (Rom. 5:10; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:20).

The Results of Reconciliation

(1) Removal of the barrier, those things which separate man from God as sin, God’s holiness, penalty of sin, spiritual death, unrighteousness (Eph. 2:14-18).

(2) Positional sanctification and a perfect standing before God (Rom. 5:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 2:10).

(3) Justification (declared righteous before God) through Christ’s righteousness imputed to us (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

The Ministers of Reconciliation

The ministers of reconciliation are all believers in Christ. Every believer is an ambassador of Christ and a minister of reconciliation. Since Christ died for us, we are each obligated to live not for ourselves, but for the Lord and to be His representatives in a world that is alienated from God (2 Cor. 5:15-21).

The Goal of Reconciliation

The goal of reconciliation or the ultimate purpose is imputed righteousness or justification so each believing sinner may have fellowship with God (2 Cor. 5:21). Another goal of reconciliation is transformed character, Christlikeness here on earth. This is probably the emphasis in Colossians 1:21-23 according to the context of Colossians.

The Work Accomplished by Reconciliation

In that which follows, we will look at the specific aspects of the precious work of the Savior that accomplished our reconciliation. It is helpful for a better understanding of the work of Christ to see how each aspect of Christ’s work discussed below blots out the various aspects of the barrier as it was discussed above.


Propitiation is that part of the work of reconciliation which deals with the barrier of God’s holiness, the obstacle erected or caused by man’s sin. Thus, the holiness of God becomes a key part in removing the alienation or enmity against God.

Holiness is the most central and epitomizing character or attribute of God’s being. Not even love or grace surpass it. In defense of this statement we should note that God is called holy more than anything else in Scripture. As an epithet to God’s name “holy” is found the most. In fact, “holy” is one of the names of God. In Isaiah 57:15 we read, “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy …” (cf. Ex. 15:11; Ps. 30:4; 47:8; 48:1; 89:35; Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; Isa. 5:16; Rev. 15:4; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).

(1) The Derivation: The Hebrew word for holiness or holy is qadosh which contains the basic idea of separation or apartness, and then “sacred, holy.” The Greek word for holy is hagios which similarly, in its most fundamental meaning, means “separate, set apart.” Hagios was used of what was separated from the secular world to a sacred and set apart place.

(2) The Definition: Negatively, holiness is that perfection in the being of God which totally separates Him from all that is evil and defiling. As we call gold pure when it is free from any dross or other metals, so the nature and actions of God are 100% free from any impurity or evil of any kind. Light is a symbol of God’s holiness and so John wrote, “God is light and in Him is no (none whatsoever) darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Positively, holiness stands for the absolute integrity and purity of the being and nature of God. It means God must always think and act in a way that is consistent with His perfect righteousness and justice, what we might call the executive and judicial branches of God’s pure holiness.

(3) The Description and Application of God’s Holiness in Relation to Salvation: (1) Holiness is an essential and necessary perfection of God. This means God’s holiness is not maintained by an act of God’s will. God does not choose to be holy because He wants to. God always thinks and acts in a holy manner because He is inherently holy. God wills holiness because He is holy and not in order to be holy. He cannot be anything else. (2) God’s holiness means He can never approve of anything evil, but that He perfectly, necessarily, universally, and perpetually abhors evil. (3) God’s holiness in its outworking and manifestation in history has two branches or aspects. There is the legislative side, God’s perfect righteousness, and the judicial side, His perfect justice. (4) Because God is perfect righteousness, He cannot have fellowship with anything less than His own perfect righteousness (Hab. 1:13; Isa. 59:2). God is offended by man’s sin. Thus, because God is also perfect justice, He must by His own character condemn, pass judgment and the penalty of death and separation upon the sinner who falls short of God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:9-23). Therefore, propitiation is that part of God’s work of reconciliation in Christ which deals with satisfying the holiness of God. Propitiation is toward God.

(4) Definition of Propitiation: Propitiation is the doctrine or truth that the person and death of Jesus Christ appeased, turned away, God’s wrath, satisfied His holiness, and so met God’s righteous demands that the sinner can be reconciled into God’s holy presence.

(5)The Description of Propitiation and the Problem it Solves: The problem of antinomy—the contradiction of opposing laws or attributes—love and grace versus righteousness and justice. God is perfect love and grace and desires to forgive and bless the sinner. He desires to bestow His love and grace on man. But God is also perfect holiness and because of man’s condition in sin, He must judge the sinner. God’s own character or attributes, His holiness and love, stand in opposition to each other. God’s attributes are infinite, absolute, and immutable. This means neither God’s love nor His holiness can be bypassed at the expense of one over the other. All must be satisfied. In His love, God cannot accept the sinner to Himself and bypass His holiness, but neither can God in His holiness bypass His love and send the sinner to the Lake of Fire without providing a solution. All aspects of the character of God must be satisfied. Therefore, in His perfect wisdom, power, love, grace, and holiness, God provided the person and work of His own Son, the Lord Jesus, who by His life and death reconciled the conflict (antinomy) of God attributes.

God’s righteousness is satisfied by the person of Christ and His life. Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law. He was without sin and lived in perfect righteousness and harmony with the will of God. At His baptism, the Father said, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Here God the Father verified the sinlessness of Jesus and showed that He was qualified by His person and life to begin His ministry. By the miraculous events surrounding the cross, the darkness, the shaking of the earth, the rending of the veil, and the resurrection of Christ, the Father further showed that Christ was not only qualified to be our sin bearer, but that He had successfully satisfied the holiness of God and had dealt with man’s sin (1 John 2:1-2; Heb. 2:17; 1 Pet. 1:18).

God’s justice, which requires judgment for sin, is likewise satisfied by the death of Christ as the substitutionary payment for our sin (Rom. 3:25-26). Christ’s death redeemed and expiated man from sin and its penalty by His judicial substitutionary death—the innocent for the guilty. As our substitute He bore our penalty. This satisfied the requirements of God’s justice.

God is now free to bestow His love and grace on the unworthy sinner and still act in harmony with His holiness because Jesus Christ satisfied the demands of God’s holy character (Rom. 3:25-26). The cross is much more than the display of God’s love; it is also the supreme display of God’s absolute holiness. It shows that God could by no means still be just and accept the sinner apart from the person, life, and death of Christ.

(6) The Greek words used for propitiation and their significance:

Hilasmos: This word occurs two times, once in 1 John 2:2 and once in 1 John 4:10. It means “an appeasement, a satisfaction, or a propitiation.” It may also refer to the means of propitiation or satisfaction.10 Jesus Christ is the means and only means of satisfying God’s holiness and appeasing His holy wrath.

Hilasterion: This noun occurs twice also, once in Romans 3:25 and once in Hebrews 9:5. The ending of this word, terion, often indicates a place of something, i.e., the place of propitiation or satisfaction. Hilasterion is used in Hebrews 9:5 of the mercy seat which covered the ark. The mercy seat was the lid to the ark of the covenant which stood in the Holy of Holies into which the High Priest of the Old Testament could go but once a year and then not without the blood of an animal that had been shed at the altar of sacrifice. This all foreshadowed and spoke of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

First, there was the location of the ark. The ark was located in the center of the Holy of Holies just as Jesus Christ is the center of life and the heart of our salvation. All things revolve around and depend on Him; He is the center of our life.

Second, there were the materials of the ark. It was a wooden box of acacia wood overlaid within and without with gold. Acacia wood was practically incorruptible and this naturally spoke of Jesus Christ in His humanity without sin, without corruption. It was a product of the earth, but it was not subject to any chemical action which could cause it to rot. Thus, the Lord had a real human body, but by the virgin birth He was not subject to the normal laws of genetics and the inheritance of a sinful nature. The gold, of course, spoke of His deity. So as the gold and the wood were united into one, yet separate and distinct, they spoke of Jesus Christ as the God-man. The gold within and without spoke of Christ’s perfection and glory.

Third, there was the function of the ark. The ark represented God’s throne. He did not sit upon it in a literal sense, but He dwelt between the cherubim which stood on top of the ark on the mercy seat. In Psalm 99:l we read, “The LORD reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!” This naturally represented the holy presence of God.

Fourth, there were the contents of the ark. Hebrews 9:4 tells us that it contained three items all of which spoke of Jesus Christ, of God’s provision, and of man’s sin and failure.

The Golden Jar holding manna: This spoke of Christ as the bread from heaven, the life-giver and prophet of God who came to earth to reveal the Father (John 6:32-35). But it also stood for and reminds us of man’s sin and failure. In view of Israel’s history in the desert, it spoke of the leanness of soul, or soul barrenness and spiritual revolt that occurs when men seek their happiness in this world and its things rather than in the Lord and His Word (Deut. 8:3, Numb. 11:1-6; Ps. 106:15 [KJV]).

Aaron’s rod that budded: Aaron was the High Priest and the budding of his staff spoke of Christ as our priest offering Himself and representing man before God as our great High Priest. The budding speaks of Christ’s resurrection, His authority, and the eternal nature and validity of His priesthood. The resurrection proves that the Father was satisfied with both the person and work of Jesus Christ and that He continually remains our means of access and acceptance with God. Let us not forget, however, that the occasion for the budding of the rod was the rebellion of Korah and the grumbling of Israel against God’s authority and appointment of His servants to positions of authority (Numb. 16:-17:10). Again, it stands for man’s sin and rebellion.

The Tablets of the Covenant: Literally “The stone tablets.” These tablets represented the Law and stood for the fact that Israel was a theocracy under the rule and authority of God. As such, they also spoke of Jesus Christ as King and of His right to rule over the earth as King of Kings. He was born a King, He lived as a King rejected, He died as a King, but He will return as King of Kings.

The Law also stood for the Holiness of God, but it also pointed to the sinfulness of man, hopelessly separated from God in himself.

We can see, therefore, how each item first spoke of Jesus Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, but also we must see how it spoke of man’s failure and need of Christ as that One who reveals God, represents us before God, and who alone can reign over us in perfect righteousness.

Fifth, there was the lid to the Ark, the mercy seat and the cherubim of glory. There were actually two articles of furniture in the Holy of Holies. They appeared as one, but on closer examination they were two, the Ark and the mercy seat which furnished a top for the Ark. Its material was solid gold, including the cherubim which were seen coming out of the mercy seat on either end. The Hebrew word for mercy seat is kapporeth which meant a propitiatory place or a covering. It formed a covering for the Ark and was the place where the blood was to be sprinkled. This pictured the covering of sin by the blood which propitiated God’s holiness and thereby represented God as passing over sin. This was done, however, with a view to Christ’s death which would remove the sin problem once and for all and satisfy the holy demands of God (Rom. 3:25-26). The emphasis of the word “mercy seat” is not that of a covering or lid, but a place of propitiation.

The mercy seat typified the divine throne and the place where God communed with Israel. God did not sit on the mercy seat but hovered above it between the two cherubim in the form of the shekinah cloud or glory, the manifestation of the divine presence of God.

The two cherubim stood with wings outstretched and forward over the mercy seat. This portrayed the holiness of God. Undoubtedly one cherubim represented the perfect righteousness of God, signifying that God, as perfect righteousness, could not have fellowship with sinful man. The other represented His perfect justice and signified that He must condemn and judge man in sin as represented in the contents of the Ark.

The lid or seat was transformed from a throne of judgment to one of propitiation and mercy by the action of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. On this day, blood that had come from the offering of a bullock and a goat on the altar of sacrifice was brought within the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat and before the Ark. This was done first for the High Priest himself and then for the people. The blood satisfied the holiness of God because it represented the merit of the person and work of Christ symbolized by the bullock and the goat which had been offered on the altar of sacrifice. Christ as our substitute satisfied the holiness of God, therefore, God would pass over the sin of the Old Testament saints with a view to who Christ would be and what He would do as the means of propitiation (Rom. 3:24-26).

Hilaskomai. This is the verb form and the final word used for the concept of propitiation. It means “to make propitiation” or “be propitiated.” It is used in Hebrews 2:17 and in Luke 18:13. The Luke passage is especially significant. This is the passage of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). The Pharisee thought in his own self-righteousness that he had something by which he could be received before God, something which could change God’s attitude toward him and make him acceptable to God. By contrast, the Publican literally said, “Oh God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.” This man realized because of his sin and God’s perfect righteousness that he had nothing that could satisfy and meet the just and righteous demands of God. By his prayer he was confessing his sin and, by faith, he was trusting in the Levitical offerings which, portraying the death of Christ, could alone propitiate or meet the holy demands of God. Christ said that this man, the Publican, went down to his house justified.

Propitiation is the Godward aspect of the value of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Redemption, as we will see, is sinward, reconciliation is manward, and propitiation is Godward. Therefore, because God is propitiated by the work of Christ, He is free to justify the sinner and accept him into His presence (Rom. 3:25-26).


Redemption is another part of the overall work of God by which God has brought about our reconciliation and the removal of the barrier. It deals specifically with the problem of man’s sin and with the fact that man is viewed in Scripture as imprisoned or enslaved because of sin (Gal. 4:3-8; 3:22).

Sometimes the term redemption is used rather loosely by theologians and Christians meaning nothing more than simply deliverance. It does mean deliverance, but it means a particular kind of deliverance, a deliverance that results from the payment of a great price. This concept is always in view even when the word redemption is used in passages such as Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Psalm 74:2; and 78:35. Redemption is based on some great expenditure of God. The price God paid is always in view.

Redemption means liberation because of a payment made. In the New Testament, that payment is the death of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The key Greek words used for the concept of Redemption:

Agorazo: This word comes from agora which means “market place.” It literally means “to purchase, buy from the market place.” In ancient times slaves were brought to the market place, put on the slave block, and then traded or sold to the highest bidder. Scriptures that use this word are 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23; 2 Peter 2:1; Revelation 3:9-10. Agorazo stresses Christ’s sovereign worth, value, and thus His ability to redeem us from the slave block of sin by paying the price of our redemption.

Exagurazo: This is a compound verb derived from the preposition ek meaning “out of” plus agorazo. It means to “purchase out, buy out” or “ransom out.” The word is intensive and adds the idea of “deliverance and freedom through the price paid” (Gal. 3:13; 4:5). This word places more emphasis on the deliverance and freedom. Believers have been set free from the slave master, the law and its indictment and condemnation of man as a sinner.

Lutrao: This word comes from lutron which means a “ransom price.” Lutron comes from luo, a verb meaning “to release, set free.” So lutrao carries the meaning of “to release by paying a price” (1 Pet. 1:18-19; Heb. 9:14). This word emphasizes the price paid and the resultant freedom. The price paid was the death and shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Apolutrosis: Apolutrosis comes from the preposition apo meaning “from” plus lutrosis, the noun form of lutrao mentioned earlier. This word with the preposition is somewhat intensive and means “to permanently set free” (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14).

An Explanation of the Doctrine of Redemption

The Agent of Redemption: The agent is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ who, in His sinless person and by His death on the cross, purchased our redemption (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Rom. 3:24). As part of the work of reconciliation, God the Father removed the sin problem through the person and work of His Son.

The Instrument and Point of Redemption: This is the blood and the cross of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). The blood stands for the fact Christ died as the lamb of God sacrificially and as the substitute for sinners.

The Object of Redemption: This is man’s sin and slavery to sin. The object of redemption is not simply man, but man’s sin problem and his bondage to sin (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Gal. 3:13).

The Results of Redemption: (a) forgiveness of sin (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), (b) deliverance from bondage to sin and the Law (Gal. 3:13), (c) provides the basis for imputation and justification (Rom. 3:24; 2 Cor. 5:9), (d) provides the basis for our adoption as adult sons of God (Gal. 4:5-6), (e) provides the basis for an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15), and (f) provides the basis for capacity to glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20).

For Whom Did Christ Die?

In connection with the doctrine of redemption and the our consideration of the doctrine of reconciliation, there is the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Did He die for the entire world, or for only the elect? The strict Calvinist who believes in the five points of Calvinism believes Christ died only for the elect. This is what theologians call the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

But the Bible plainly teaches that Christ’s death and His work of redemption was not only sufficient for the entire world, but that He actually died for the sins of all the world. This belief, known as Unlimited Atonement, does not mean universal salvation, but only that Christ’s death paid the penalty for the sin of all the world and for all time. For the Savior’s death to be effective for any individual that person must personally believe or trust in Jesus Christ as his/her personal Savior.

1 Timothy 4:10 For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. (Emphasis mine.)

The one sin for which Christ did not die is rejection of His person and work (John 3:18, 36).

John 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.


As redemption was that part of God’s work of reconciliation that dealt with the problem of man’s sin, so expiation is that part that deals with the penalty of sin that the Law exacts on man the sinner.

Expiation means to undo the wrong done by paying or suffering the penalty for that wrong as demanded by law. In essence, expiation means to remove the penalty officially imposed by law which indicts and proves the sinner guilty. While there are no Greek words used in the New Testament that mean “to expiate” as used here, there is a key passage that deals with this specific truth. It’s Colossians 2:14.

Explanation of Colossians 2:14:

having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

In verse 13 Paul speaks of the regeneration and redemption of the believing sinner when he says “… He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions …” Then in verse 14, he shows how this was accomplished through the death of Christ by the expiation of the sinner’s penalty.

“Having canceled out.” “Canceled” is the Greek exaleipho which means “to wipe out or off.” It was used (1) of smearing out letters written on wax, (2) of an erasure of an indebtedness, and (3) of wiping out an item on an account. The question is, just what has been wiped out or canceled?

“The Certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us” answers this question. Literally we can translate this “the handwritten document in decrees (or commands) which was hostile to us.” This refers to the Old Testament Law that, in revealing God’s holy character, also reveals man’s sinfulness.

“Certificate of debt” is the Greek cheirographon which means “a hand writing” or “a handwritten document.” “Decrees” is the plural of dogma, “a decree, command, or ordinance.” It is interesting to note that the word cheirographon was actually used of a certificate of indebtedness like an IOU or a bond. In this regard, the Law was indeed, at least in part, a handwritten document consisting of laws or commands written by the finger of God (2 Cor. 3:7; Deut. 9:10). But these commands became indictments which charge all of mankind to be under sin and guilty before God. The Apostle strongly emphasizes this point. Though the Law is good, was designed for man’s blessing, and reveals God’s holy character, it also stands against man because it shows man to be a sinner and under the penalty of sin which is death (Rom. 3:19-20; 6:23; 7:7; Gal. 3:10). So because of man’s condition in sin, the Law is viewed as against us (Col. 2:14), as bringing a curse (Gal. 3:10-12), as bringing death or as an administration of death (2 Cor. 7:7-13), and as holding man in bondage to sin and death (Gal. 4:3-5, 9; Rom. 7:10-14). No wonder the Apostles stressed it is against us and hostile to us.

“And He has taken it out of the way.” How blessed and glorious this is. It strongly shows how reconciliation is a work accomplished by God in Jesus Christ alone. The verb “taken it out of the way” is the perfect tense of airo, “to lift up, take up or away, to remove or carry off.” The perfect tense presents this as a completed act with continuing results. The barrier has been taken out of the way, out of the picture.

“Having nailed it to the cross.” “Having nailed” is an adverbial participle in the Greek text which points us to the means of removal. The penalty of sin demanded by the decrees against us was taken out of the way by the death of Christ for believers. The culture and procedures of that day shed some interesting and illuminating light here.

Under the Roman procedure of trial and conviction, no one could be legitimately brought to trial until he had been officially indicted or charged with a prepared certificate of debt or a written indictment. On the certificate the criminal’s unlawful deeds or crimes were written. Then after trial, if convicted of the charges, his indictment with its offenses and the penalty was nailed to his prison cell door. There it remained, standing in the way of his freedom until the sentence was served or otherwise paid or removed. When once paid or served, the constituted authority would write “canceled” or “paid in full” on the indictment. The freed person would than take his indictment and nail it to his door showing his penalty had been paid and removed.

The Apostle’s point is Jesus Christ has paid our certificate of debt with its charges and nailed it to His cross, showing forever that it has been paid in full.

Therefore, in the doctrine of expiation, Jesus Christ is the agent, the cross is the point and place, and the penalty of sin is its object.


Isaiah 53:4-11 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? 9 His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. 10 But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.

The doctrine of the substitutionary death of Christ is closely related to expiation. As redemption was that part of reconciliation aimed at the problem of man’s sin, and expiation was that part which dealt with the concept of the penalty that man must pay, so substitution is directed toward the specific penalty required, the penalty of death.

By the substitutionary death of Christ we mean that Christ, as the innocent Lamb of God, died and suffered the penalty of death in the place of the sinner, the actual guilty party. This means He took our place and bore the penalty of God’s judgment which we rightly deserve.

Greek Words Which Imply Substitution

There are two Greek prepositions that are important to this doctrine because they are used in the New Testament for the concept of the substitutionary death of Christ.

Anti. The basic and most common meaning of anti is “in the place of, in the stead of” and naturally teaches the concept of substitution, one thing in the place of another. The following passages illustrate this common usage. (1) “… Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of (anti) his Father Herod” (Matt. 2:22). (2) “… he will not give him a snake instead (anti) of a fish, will he?” (Luke 11:11) With this in view, compare the following two parallel accounts in the Gospels which clearly point to the substitutionary work of Christ: (1) “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but serve, and to give his life a ransom for (anti—in the place of) many” (Matt. 20:28). (2) “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for (anti) many” (Mark 10:45).

Huper. The most common meaning of huper is “for the sake of,” but it may also be used like anti to mean “in place of.” That huper may mean “in the place of” is clear from the following passages:

(1) Philemon 13 provides a good illustration that huper can be used in the sense of “in the place of.” Paul writes of Onesimus, the servant of Philemon and says: “whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf (huper) he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel.” Had the Apostle kept Onesimus with him, Onesimus would have served as a substitute for Philemon.

(2) Then in 2 Corinthians 5:20 Paul says: “therefore we are ambassadors for (huper) Christ (in the place of Christ), as though God were entreating through us.” Since Christ is no longer on earth preaching the gospel, believers are left here in His place as His ambassadors and representatives to entreat men to believe in the person and work of Christ.

The following are verses where huper is used of the substitutionary death of Christ:

Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for (huper) us.

1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for (huper) our sins according to the Scriptures.

2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf (huper), that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Hebrews 2:9 But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for (huper) everyone.

Hebrews 2:9 teaches us that Christ tasted death for every man and since man’s penalty for being a sinner is both spiritual and physical death, Christ tasted, partook of both in our place. When Jesus shouted out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” He was speaking judicially of God as the holy and righteous Judge who had placed the iniquities of all mankind on Him and who had thereby turned His face from the Son while He was bearing our iniquity in our place. At this time Christ died spiritually and was in some mysterious way cut off from the fellowship He had always known with the Father because He was bearing our sin (Isa. 53:4-11; 2 Cor. 5:21). After these dark hours on the cross Christ called out “it is finished,” meaning His redemptive work was done, He had borne our sin. He then bowed His head, gave up His spirit and physically died. By His death on the cross, He paid the penalty for all humanity and He became our substitute.

In Scripture the death of Christ is revealed to be a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Accordingly, John the Baptist introduced Jesus with the words, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus in His death was actually the substitute dying in the place of all men. Although “substitute” is not specifically a biblical word, the idea that Christ is the sinner’s substitute is constantly affirmed in Scripture. By His substitutionary death the unmeasured, righteous judgments of God against a sinner were borne by Christ. The result of this substitution is itself as simple and definite as the transaction. The Savior has already born the divine judgments against the sinner to the full satisfaction of God.11


Though the word “regeneration” is only found twice (Matt. 19:28; Tit. 3:5), it is nevertheless an important doctrine and a concept that is found in many New Testament passages. Regeneration is specifically revealed as the direct work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-6; Tit. 3:5), but the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son as a result of the work of Christ on the cross. It thus becomes a part of the reconciling work of Christ whereby man who is spiritually dead can have life and fellowship with God (John 7:37-39).

In relation to the barrier, the regeneration is that part of the reconciling work of Christ which deals with man’s spiritual death. It deals with man’s need of spiritual life or the new birth (John 3:3-6; Eph. 2:1-4). Though it is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, all three persons of the trinity seem to be involved in this blessed work of imparting new life. James 1:17-18 relates the Father to regeneration under the figure of being “brought forth” (apokueo, “to give birth to”). The Son, the Lord Jesus, seems also to be involved in regeneration, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes” (John 5:21).

Regeneration is the supernatural act of God whereby the spiritual and eternal life of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is imparted to the individual through faith in Jesus Christ.

(1) The Greek Word for “Regeneration” is palingenesia (from palin, “again, once more,” and genesis, “birth”) and means “a new birth, a renewal, rebirth, or regeneration.”

(2) Usage: It is used in Matthew 19:28 to describe the refurbished conditions that will exist during the millennial reign of Christ. But in Titus 3:5 the word is used of the bestowal of spiritual and eternal life to the believer on the basis of God’s mercy.

(3) Synonyms Used for Regeneration: While the word regeneration itself is used of spiritual regeneration only once (Tit. 3:5), the concept is clearly taught in a number of passages by a combination of other terms.

  • John 1:13. “Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” The Greek word for “born” is gennao, “to bring forth, give birth, be born.” The context is clearly speaking of new spiritual birth by which men become the children of God (vs. 12).
  • John 3:3. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” The words “born again” mean either “born again” or “born from above.” Actually, both ideas apply here. Because men are born spiritual dead, they need a new birth, one from above accomplished by God the Holy Spirit.
  • For other passages and synonymous words compare John 5:21; Ephesians 2:5; Romans 6:13; 2 Corinthians 5:17 and James 1:13.

(4) Three Figures of Regeneration:

  • The New Birth: As a man is born physically by physical birth to human parents so also he must be born by spiritual birth to a spiritual parent whereby he or she becomes a child of God (Gal. 3:26; John 1:12; 3:3-6).
  • Spiritual Resurrection: Man is born spiritually dead in sin, but by regeneration the believer is made alive, spiritually resurrected so to speak. This means he has spiritual life and can now have fellowship with God and can function for God in newness of life (Rom. 6:5, 13; Eph. 2:5-10; John 5:21-23). The emphasis here is on a new kind and quality of life.
  • A New Creation: Regeneration also views the born again believer as a creation, a new spiritual creation of God created for Good works. This calls attention to our need to operate out of our new life in Christ through the power of God (Rom. 6:4-14; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10).

(5) What Regeneration is not:

  • It is not conversion. Conversion is what man does in turning to God. Regeneration is what God does for man to give him life.
  • It is not sanctification or justification.
  • It is not an experience though it is the basis for personal experience with God since it bestows new life and new spiritual capacity.

(6) The Mechanics of Regeneration:

  • Faith is the human requirement. Compare John 1:12-13 and note the order.
  • Scripture: The Bible provides the content one must believe so regeneration may occur (1 Pet. 1:23).
  • God is the cause of regeneration. He regenerates men according to His will (John 1:13; Jam. 1:13).
  • The Holy Spirit is the agent of regeneration (Tit. 3:5; John 3:6).
  • The Time of Regeneration: Does it occur before or after faith? In Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith, for it is argued, a sinner must be given new life in order to be able to believe, but the emphasis of the Bible is that one becomes a child of God through faith. If there is new life through regeneration, why does one need to believe? Undoubtedly, faith and regeneration occur simultaneously. Regeneration is instantaneous and occurs at the moment of faith in Christ. It is an instantaneous act of God which bestows new and eternal life.

(7) The Results of Regeneration:

  • Provides the believer with spiritual and eternal life (cf. Eph. 2:1 with vss. 5f; 1 John 5:11).
  • Provides a new nature and capacity for fellowship with God (John 3:6; 2 Pet. 1:3-4).

(8) Some Lesson from Regeneration:

  • Stresses man’s spiritual and eternal death apart from faith in Christ and the new life He gives.
  • Stresses man’s total helplessness to be a part of God’s kingdom or to change his life without God’s supernatural intervention through Christ and the work of the Spirit of God.

Justification and Imputation

In the parable of the religious and self-righteous Pharisee and the tax-gatherer, Christ declared that the tax-gatherer, in contrast to the Pharisee, was justified through his faith in the Levitical offerings which alone could propitiate the holy character of God (Luke 18:10-14). In Romans 3:25-26 Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as the means of propitiation and then shows the death of Christ demonstrated God’s righteousness so that He might remain just and at the same time be free to justify the one who has faith in Jesus Christ. But what is meant by justification and what is involved?

Justification and imputation are those aspects of reconciliation that deal with the barrier of man’s lack of righteousness. Sometimes, in order to keep the definition of justification nice and simple, one often hears it defined as meaning, “Just as if I’d never sinned.” This definition is simple, but it misses the heart of the truth of justification. Being acceptable before God involves more than just the removal of our sins.

The barrier, remember, consists not only of man’s sin, but of man’s negative righteousness, his lack of perfect righteousness. Isaiah declares that all of our righteous deeds are as filthy rags in the sight of the perfect holiness of God (Isa. 64:6). Man not only needs the subtraction of his sin, but also the addition of perfect righteousness, the righteousness of Christ. God’s solution to this problem is found in the doctrines of “imputation” and “justification” as set forth in the Bible.

Justification Defined

Justification is a judicial or a forensic concept and is therefore related to God as the righteous Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25; Deut. 32:4; 2 Tim. 4:8). Ryrie writes:

If God, the Judge, is without injustice and completely righteous in all His decisions, then how can He announce a sinner righteous? And sinners we all are. There are only three options open to God as sinners stand in His courtroom. He must condemn them, compromise His own righteousness to receive them as they are, or He can change them into righteous people. If He can exercise the third option, then He can announce them righteous, which is justification. But any righteousness the sinner has must be actual, not fictitious; real, not imagined; acceptable by God’s standards, and not a whit short. If this can be accomplished, then, and only then, can He justify.

Job stated the problem accurately when he asked, “how can a man be in the right before God?”12

Justification answers this question posed by Job. Doctrinally, justification is the judicial act of God, based on the work of Jesus Christ, which justly declares and treats as righteous the one who believes in Jesus Christ and who stands by imputation in the righteousness of Christ.

Scripture reveals a number of important aspects to the process of justification defined below:

(1) The Plan and Manifestation of Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:21

Through the Gospel of the New Testament, this righteousness from God has now, since the coming of Christ, been clearly made known. This was the fullness of time when God brought the Suffering Savior into a sin-ridden world to deal with man’s sin. However, though revealed more clearly than before, this gospel message is not new.

God revealed His righteousness in many ways before the full revelation of the Gospel. He did so in His Law, His judgments against sin, by the preaching of the prophets, and by His blessings on the obedient. These were all ways by which God revealed His righteousness. But that was not all. Even this gospel message in which righteousness is received by faith was witnessed to and anticipated throughout the Old Testament in the many prophecies of the Messiah who must not only reign on the throne of His father, David, but must first suffer and die for our sin.

Beginning at Genesis 3:15, and continuing through the entire Old Testament, witness is given to salvation by faith in Messiah. God bore witness to the righteousness from God in the Old Testament sacrifices, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the prophecies, the types, and passages like Isaiah 53. But though the Law could witness to God’s righteousness, it could never provide it for sinful man, “weak as it was in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

What, then, were some of the other characteristics of this righteousness from God? Most importantly, as a righteousness from God (Rom. 3:21), it is independent of the Law. Note that the words “apart from the Law” are literally, “apart from law.” Law is anarthrous, that is, without the article. It is broader than just the Law of the Old Testament. It refers to any kind of law whether it is the Law of the Old Testament, or the law of one’s conscience (2:14-15), or even the righteous principles of the sermon on the mount. So then, what’s the source of this righteousness from God? Note verse 22.

(2) The Prerequisite and Channel for Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:22a

Righteousness comes through the channel of faith in the person and work of Christ. “Even” of the NASB represents the Greek conjunction de. It is transitional and introduces this verse as an explanation which points us to the channel by which man may receive this righteousness from God.

The righteousness of God.” “Of God” is a genitive of source. It means either “the righteousness derived from, sourced in,” or “dependent on God.”

“Through faith in Jesus Christ” points us to the means or the channel. Righteousness from God is received “by means of” faith in Jesus Christ.

In the final analysis, all men end up trusting in something, if only in their own works or record; but the Apostle’s point is that the only means of having God’s righteousness is through trusting in Jesus Christ.

(3) The Problem or Reason for Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:22b-23

God can show no favoritism with people since He is perfect holiness and since all have sinned and fallen short of His holiness. As the Judge, He must deal with their actual righteousness.

(4) The Price or Cost of Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:24-25a

While justification is free to the believer, without cost, it was not without cost. The price paid to redeem us from the slave block of sin was nothing short of the death of Christ who alone could satisfy (propitiate) the holy character of God.

(5) The Place or Position of Justification Righteousness—2 Corinthians 5:21

When the individual receives Christ he is placed into Christ. This is what makes him righteous. We are made the righteousness of God in Him. This righteousness alone overcomes our desperate, sinful condition, and measures up to all the demands of God’s holiness.13

(6) The Pronouncement of Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:25b-25

God must be perfectly consistent with Himself. He cannot break His own Law nor violate His own nature. “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). A God of love wants to forgive sinners, but a God of holiness must judge sin and uphold His righteous character as witnessed in the Law.

How can God be both “just and the justifier” of those who are sinners? The answer is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God on the Cross for the sins of the world, He fully met the demands of God’s holiness as demonstrated in the Law. At the same time, He fully expressed the love of God’s heart. As the book of Hebrews makes so clear, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament never took away sin, but when Jesus died, His death was retroactive all the way back to Adam and took care of all the sins of the past, especially of those who were believers. No one (including Satan) could accuse God of being unjust or unfair because He appeared to pass over the sins of Old Testament saints.

(7) The Proof of Justification Righteousness—Romans 4:24

The words, “and was raised because of our justification” points to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as that momentous event following the cross which gave proof of God’s acceptance of the death of Christ for our sin.

Justification and Sanctification Compared

(1) Sanctify means to “set apart.” Sanctification has three aspects: positional (unchangeable), experiential (progressive), and ultimate (complete: being in God’s presence).

(2) Positional sanctification (Rom. 6:1-11) is the basis for experiential or progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:12-14).

(3) Experiential sanctification is the process whereby God makes the believer more and more like Jesus Christ through our union with Christ and the indwelling Spirit. Note: Just as in justification, sanctification is the work of God that must also be appropriated by faith.

(4) Sanctification (experiential) may change from day to day. Justification never changes. When the sinner trusts in Christ as his or her Savior, God declares him or her to be righteous, and that declaration will never be repealed nor need to be repeated.

(5) Justification looks at our eternal position in Christ (positional sanctification) whereas sanctification, depending on the context, may look at our experiential condition from day to day.

(6) Justification exempts us from the Great White Throne judgment, whereas experiential sanctification prepares us for the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ, and the blessings of rewards.

(7) Justification removes the guilt and penalty of sin for us. Experiential sanctification removes the growth and power of sin in and over us.

(8) In justification Christ died for sin’s penalty, where as in sanctification He died unto sin’s power.

Imputation Defined

Imputation is the reckoning or “charging to the account” of one what properly belongs to the account of another. Because of the person and work of Christ, God imputes or credits our sin to the person of Jesus Christ and imputes His righteousness to our account through faith in Him. The key word used of this is the verb logizomai which means “to count, reckon, credit, charge to the account of another.” In Romans 4, the Apostle writes:

Romans 4:3-8 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned (logizomai) to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned (logizomai) as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned (logizomai) as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons (logizomai) righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account (logizomai).”

2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

In these verses, we clearly see both the negative, our sin imputed to Christ who was made sin for us along with the non-imputation of our sin to us, and the positive, His righteousness reckoned or imputed to the account of those who trust in Christ.

The key word in the doctrine of justification and imputation is the verb dikaioo (dikaiovw). This verb ends in oo (ow), and verbs which end in oo (ow), are usually causative and mean “to make the object of the verb into the idea of the word.” For instance ikanoo (ikanovw) means “to make sufficient, empower someone for something.” But when a verb is formed from an adjective of a moral or spiritual connotation it means “to regard as, treat as, pronounce or declare as.” Thus dikaioo does not mean to make righteous, but to “declare, treat as righteous” when in essence the object may be just the opposite. Thus, the justified sinner is still a sinner and not without personal sins, but he is still viewed and treated as righteous by God and justly so because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness by imputation. The believer stands in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and his sins are not imputed to him. Not only are his sins subtracted, but Christ’s perfect righteousness has been added to the account of the believer.

Justification, then, does not mean “to make righteous.” If it did, the believing sinner would never again sin because he would have been made constitutionally righteous so he could not and would not sin. That condition will occur in our ultimate condition of sanctification at the resurrection, but not now. Justification means that God accepts us and views us as perfectly righteous in Christ even though in our experience we will commit acts of sin or unrighteousness.

The failure to make this distinction has throughout history led people into various works systems by which they tried to become righteous and acceptable before God. Our acceptance before God comes through the gift of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner. Justification is by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:19-25; 4:1-12).

It is important to understand that there are two kinds of righteousness. There is the perfect and absolute righteousness of Christ which God gives to anyone who will believe and trust in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior (Rom. 3:22-24). Then there is the relative, less-than-perfect righteousness of men, which on a scale of 1 to 100 can never even come close to 100% in comparison to the standard of God’s righteousness. No matter how good or religious, all fall short of the righteousness which God requires (Rom. 3:23). Only the righteousness of Christ (which man can receive freely by faith) can give him acceptance with God.

The Apostle Paul who had been one of the most religious men who ever lived said in relation to these two types of righteousness:

Philippians 3:7-9 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.

In other words when Paul saw the glory of Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road he came to realize that all his works of righteousness or human good were no better than refuse as far as providing a standing before God. Or as Isaiah put it, “… And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment …” (Isa. 64:6).

A Personal Application

In the preceding sections we have seen the marvelous provision of God whereby men might be saved. In His grace and mercy, God has removed those things that separated man from God. Yet, while God has done this, there still remains another barrier. This is the barrier of Christ Himself and His work on the cross. For unless one personally trusts in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross as the sole solution for his sin, he remains cut off and separated from God.

There is only one sin today which can keep a person separated from God and lost, the sin of rejection of Christ or unbelief in Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Note carefully, therefore, the following verses of Scripture which illustrate this fact.

John 3:17-18 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

John 12:48 He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.

John 14:12 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father.

Acts 4:12 And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast.

If you have never put your trust in Jesus Christ, may we invite you to do so right now. He has removed the barrier that stands as a separation between you and God and an abundant life of fellowship and significance as a child of God, but you must personally receive Jesus Christ by faith. Your failure to personally trust in Christ as your Savior is the only thing that stands between you and a personal relationship with God so that you can begin to experience the abundant life of Christ and deliverance over your sin, the powers of darkness, and the things that have held you in bondage (life dominating patterns) all your life.

Just pray this prayer in faith (or one similar) and we assure you by the promises of the Word of God, you will be saved and enter into the family of God as a child of God, born anew by the Spirit of God.

“Father, I understand that I am a sinner and separated from you, but that Jesus Christ has died for my sin and offers me eternal life and an abundant life can turn my life around through a relationship with Him. Right now I turn from myself and place my trust in Him as my personal Savior. Thank you heavenly Father for saving me and giving me eternal life through the Lord Jesus Christ.”

If you have prayed this prayer, you are now a child of God, but you are also a babe in Christ who needs to grow through spiritual nurture. You need to be discipled, to have fellowship with other Bible believing Christians in a Church that truly teaches the Bible so you learn the Word of God. These things are crucial for your spiritual health and growth.

1 Peter 2:2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.

2 Peter 3:18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Appendix A: The Believer’s Unfathomable Riches in Christ


When anyone accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour they are instantaneously enriched with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3) and declared to be complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). In fact, the Apostle Paul refers to these blessings as “the unfathomable riches of Christ” in Ephesians 3:8. “Unfathomable” is the Greek anexichniastos which means “past finding out, unsearchable, not to be tracked out.” The idea is that the believer’s blessings in Christ are “too deep to be measured.” Many of these blessings, however, are clearly defined for us in the Bible. When you receive Jesus Christ by faith, at least the following 34 things are unconditionally promised to you as a member of the body of Christ, the Church, as stated in God’s holy Word.

However, if you never receive Jesus Christ by faith as the only begotten Son of God who died on the cross in your place to pay the penalty for your sins, and rose again to ever reign with God the Father, then you will forfeit these awesome blessings.

How can you receive these God-given blessings in Christ? The Bible says:

John 1:12 As many as receive Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.

John 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.

John 8:12 Then Jesus spake unto them, saying, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies. And whosoever liveth and believeth me shall never die. Believest thou this?

If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour, let me encourage you to believe what the Scripture says about all people and about the Lord Jesus Christ. God declares to us in the Bible that we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (His holy character), and that the wages of sin is death, physical death and eternal separation from God. But God also declares to us in Scripture that Jesus Christ is God’s eternal Son, the God-man Savior who died on the cross for the sin of all the world. So what must you do to receive eternal life and the 34 things listed below?

Simply put your trust in Jesus Christ and thank Him for your salvation which He purchased for you by His death on the cross. As soon as you accept Him, you will be born again by the Spirit of God and Christ will come into your heart. At that moment, you will receive the “unfathomable riches of Christ” and the blessings listed below will become your eternal possession.

The Position and Possessions of the Believer

1. In the Eternal Plan of God14
  • a. Foreknown

Romans 8:29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren;

1 Peter 1:2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure.

  • b. Elect of God

1 Thessalonians 1:4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you;

1 Peter 1:2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure.

Romans 8:33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies;

Colossians 3:12 And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;

Titus 1:1 Paul, a bond-servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness,

  • c. Predestinated

Ephesians 1:11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,

Romans 8:29-30 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; 30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

Ephesians 1:5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,

  • d. Chosen

Matthew 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.

1 Peter 2:4 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God,

  • e. Called

1 Thessalonians 5:24 Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.

2. Reconciled
  • a. Reconciled by God

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Colossians 1:20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

  • b. Reconciled to God

Romans 5:10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

3. Redeemed

Colossians 1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

1 Peter 1:18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers,

Romans 3:24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

4. No Condemnation

Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

1 Corinthians 11:32 But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord in order that we may not be condemned along with the world.

John 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

5. Related to God Through Propitiation (the satisfaction of God’s holiness)

Romans 3:24-26 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

1 John 2:2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

6. All Sins Removed by His Efficacious Blood

1 Peter 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.

Romans 4:25 He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

7. Vitally Joined Together With Christ for Judgment of the Old Self “Unto a New Walk”
  • a. Crucified With Christ

Romans 6:6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin;

  • b. Dead With Christ

Romans 6:8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,

1 Peter 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.

  • c. Buried With Christ

Romans 6:4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Colossians 2:12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

  • d. Raised With Christ to Walk by a New Life Principle

Romans 6:4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Colossians 3:1 If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

8. Free from the Law
  • a. Dead to the Law

Romans 7:4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.

  • b. Delivered From the Law

Romans 7:6 But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

Galatians 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

Romans 6:14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.

2 Corinthians 3:11 For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.

9. Children of God
  • a. Born Again

John 3:7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

John 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,

1 Peter 1:23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God.

  • b. Quickened

Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

Colossians 2:13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,

  • c. Children of God

1 John 3:2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.

2 Corinthians 6:18 “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty.

Galatians 3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

  • d. A New Creation

2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

Galatians 6:15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

Ephesians 2:10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

  • e. Regeneration

Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,

John 13:10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.

1 Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

10. Adopted (placed as adult sons)

Romans 8:15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

Also a future adoption:

Romans 8:23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

Galatians 4:5-7 in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

11. Acceptable to God by Jesus Christ
  • a. Made the Righteousness of God in Christ

Romans 3:22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;

1 Corinthians 1:30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,

2 Corinthians 5:21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Philippians 3:9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,

  • b. Sanctified Positionally (Positionally Set Apart in Christ)

1 Corinthians 1:30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,

1 Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

(This is in no way to be confused with experiential sanctification as mentioned in John 17:17 or the final perfection of the believer as mentioned in Ephesians 5:27 and 1 John 3:3.)

  • c. Perfected Forever

Hebrews 10:14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

  • d. Made Accepted in the Beloved

Ephesians 1:6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He freely bestowed on us (made us accepted [KJV]) in the Beloved.

1 Peter 2:5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

  • e. Made Qualified

Colossians 1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

12. Justified

Romans 5:1 Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Romans 3:24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

Romans 8:30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

1 Corinthians 6:11 And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.

Titus 3:7 that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

13. Forgiven All Trespass

Colossians 1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Colossians 2:13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,

Colossians 3:13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

Ephesians 1:7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace,

Ephesians 4:32 And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

(A distinction is necessary here, between the complete and abiding judicial forgiveness and the oft-repeated forgiveness within the family of God. See 1 John 1:9.)

14. Made Nigh

Ephesians 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

(With this, there is a corresponding experience, see James 4:8 and Hebrews 10:22.)

15. Delivered From the Powers of Darkness

Colossians 1:13 For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,

Colossians 2:13-15 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

16. Translated Into the Kingdom

Colossians 1:13 For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,

17. On the Rock, Christ Jesus

1 Corinthians 3:11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,

2 Corinthians 1:21 Now He who establishes (make firm as on a rock) us with you in Christ and anointed us is God,

18. A Gift From God the Father to Christ

John 17:6, 11-12, 20 I manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy word … 11 And I am no more in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are. 12 While I was with them, I was keeping them in Thy name which Thou hast given Me; and I guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled … 20 I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word;

John 10:29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

19. Circumcised in Christ

Colossians 2:11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ;

Philippians 3:3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Romans 2:29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

20. Partakers of the Holy and Royal Priesthood
  • a. Holy Priesthood

1 Peter 2:5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

  • b. Royal Priesthood

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;

Revelation 1:6 and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father; to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

21. Chosen Generation, A Holy Nation, and A People of God’s Own Possession

1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;

Titus 2:14 who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.

22. Having Access to God

Ephesians 2:18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

Romans 5:2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.

Hebrews 4:14-16 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 10:19-20 Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh,

23. Within the “Much More” Care of God

Romans 5:9-10 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

  • a. Objects of His Love

Ephesians 2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,

Ephesians 5:2 and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

  • b. Objects of His Grace

(1) For salvation: Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;

(2) For security: Romans 5:2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 1 Peter 1:5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

(3) For service: Ephesians 2:7 in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

(4) For instruction: Titus 2:12-13 instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, 13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus;

  • c. Objects of His Power

Ephesians 1:19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might

Philippians 2:13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

  • d. Objects of His Faithfulness

Hebrews 13:5 Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,”

Philippians 1:6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

  • e. Objects of His Peace

Philippians 4:6-7 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.

  • f. Objects of His Comfort

2 Thessalonians 2:16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace.

  • g. Objects of His Personal Care

1 Peter 5:7 casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.

  • h. Objects of His Intercession

Hebrews 7:25 Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

Romans 8:34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

Hebrews 9:24 For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us;

24. His Inheritance

Ephesians 1:18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints,

25. Our Inheritance

1 Peter 1:4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you,

Ephesians 1:14 who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

Colossians 3:24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.

Hebrews 9:15 And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

26. A Heavenly Association

Ephesians 2:6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus,

  • a. Partners With Christ in Life

Colossians 3:4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

1 John 5:11-12 And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.

  • b. Partners With Christ in Position

Ephesians 2:6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus,

  • c. Partners With Christ in Service

1 Corinthians 1:9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

2 Corinthians 6:4 but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses,

2 Corinthians 3:6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 5:20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

  • d. Partners With Christ in Suffering

2 Timothy 2:12 If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us;

Philippians 1:29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,

1 Peter 2:20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

1 Peter 4:12-13 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing; so that also at the revelation of His glory, you may rejoice with exultation.

1 Thessalonians 3:3 so that no man may be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this.

Romans 8:18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

Colossians 1:24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body which is the church in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

27. Heavenly Citizens

Philippians 3:20 But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, (RSV)

Ephesians 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,

Hebrews 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels,

Luke 10:20 Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.

28. Of the Family and Household of God

Ephesians 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,

Ephesians 3:6 to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Galatians 6:10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.

29. Light in the Lord

Ephesians 5:8 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light

1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness;

30. Vitally United to the Father, Son, and Spirit
  • a. In God

1 Thessalonians 1:1 Paul and Silvanus and Timothy to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

Ephesians 4:6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

  • b. In Christ

John 14:20 In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.

Colossians 1:27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

(1) A member in His Body: 1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

(2) A branch in the Vine: John 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing.

(3) A stone in the Building: Ephesians 2:19-22 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

(4) A sheep in the Flock: John 10:27-29 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

(5) A part of His Bride: Ephesians 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless.

(6) A priest of the kingdom of priests: 1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;

(7) A saint of the new generation: 1 Peter 1:3; Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, … 1 Peter 2:9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light.

  • c. In the Spirit

Romans 8:9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.

Compare the Spirit in you:

1 Corinthians 2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God,

31. Blessed With the “First-Fruits” and the “Earnest” of the Spirit
  • a. Born of the Spirit

John 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

  • b. Baptized by Means of the Spirit

1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

1 Corinthians 10:7 And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.”

  • c. Indwelt by the Spirit

1 Corinthians 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?

1 Corinthians 2:12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God,

John 7:39 But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Romans 5:5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Romans 8:9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.

2 Corinthians 1:21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God,

Galatians 4:6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

1 John 3:24 And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

  • d. Sealed With the Spirit

Ephesians 4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

2 Corinthians 1:22 who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.

  • e. Anointed With the Spirit

2 Corinthians 1:21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God.

1 John 2:20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know.

32. Glorified

Romans 8:30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

33. Complete in Him

Colossians 2:10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;

34. Possessing Every Spiritual Blessing

Ephesians 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,

1 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1987, p. 277.

2 Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Abridged Edition, Vol. 2, John F. Walvoord, editor, Donald K. Campbell, Roy B. Zuck, consulting editors, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL, 1988, p. 21.

3 The Three Tenses of Salvation, adapted from Major Bible Themes, edited by John F. Walvoord, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1973, p. 184,

4 Chafer, p. 181.

5 Chafer, p. 185.

6 Chafer, p. 122.

7 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1960, p. 51.

8 Abbott-Smith, p. 109.

9 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books, 1987, p. 293 quoting A. Berkeley Mickelsen, “Romans,” Wycliffe Bible Commentary, NT, Moody, Chicago, 1962, p. 1197.

10 Abbott-Smith, p. 216.

11 Major Bible Themes, Chafer/Walvoord, p. 60.

12 Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 298.

13 Ryrie, p. 299.

14 Adapted from Systematic Theology, Volume III, Soteriology, pp. 234-266, by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dallas Seminary Press.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy: A Hierarchy of Doctrinal Commitments

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Prefatory Remarks:1

The following essay is taken from a larger work to be published by Zondervan in 2002, tentatively entitled The Survivor’s Guide to Theology. The purpose of the book is to explore the various aspects of Theological Introduction2 looking at the study of theology, from epistemological, methodological, and systematic perspective. My purpose in this section is to explore the idea of doctrinal taxonomy and look at the historic foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, not to expound my personal commitment to a particular tradition. Comments made about the various theological traditions and positions have reference to the official stated theology as embodied by the best of the traditions, as opposed to the popular piety. For example the popular piety of Roman Catholicism teaches that by being good enough and using the sacraments one can be saved. This is something very different from official Catholic doctrine about salvation. From the perspective of Calvinism, popular piety in some circles falls into a fatalism that is not reflected in the best of the theological expositions of the tradition. The fact that I place particular formulations of the doctrine of salvation on a second level of a taxonomy does not imply that I hold the Reformation understanding of justification sola fide as unimportant. Indeed, what can be seen at times only murkily in other traditions is brought into bold relief by the Reformers. That this truth was not clearly articulated until the Reformation should inform us that it is not necessary to cognitively understand forensic justification in order to be saved. Salvation involves faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to any particular formulation of doctrine. However, in this case a Protestant understanding of forensic justification may give a clarity to the proclamation of the gospel message and provide a firm foundation to living the Christian life that other traditions’ articulations of salvation cannot provide.

The Problem

As the sociological, political, and philosophical climate of the church has changed in various eras, the church has been confronted with challenges to the doctrinal commitments held as truth. These challenges in turn have repeatedly provoked reactions in the church. In these reactions, different doctrines have been raised to a new level of prominence. The changing situations did not necessarily bring about further development of doctrine; rather in some cases doctrines which had up to this time been considered less important were raised in importance to meet a current challenge.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the status of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. With the rise of liberalism, historic Christianity took a defensive posture and militantly reasserted the “fundamentals” of the faith. However, these “fundamentals” were not simply a restatement or a recasting of the content of the historic ecumenical creeds. The “fundamentals” of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy were often boiled down to five propositions.

  • The inerrancy of scripture
  • The deity of Jesus Christ
  • The virgin birth
  • Bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The personal return of Christ

Two out of these five “fundamentals,” the virgin birth and the inerrancy of scripture, are not echoes of the core of the historic faith, but rather demonstrate a raising of more historically minor doctrines to a primary level to fulfill an apologetic expediency. In the case of the virgin birth, the doctrine had always been contained in the Church’s understanding and creedal affirmation with reference to the means of the incarnation. But during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy the doctrine was elevated to a “touchstone” status. It became a test as to whether one believed in the supernatural activity of God in the world. The modernists denied the possibility of miracles in the sense of God breaking into history and violating the “laws of nature.” The apologetic rationale of the fundamentalists was that if one would admit the reality of as the virgin birth, he or she would not have a problem affirming the reality of “lesser” miracles.3

With reference to the doctrine of inerrancy, the church had always affirmed the utter truthfulness of the scriptures; as early as Augustine we find affirmations of the inerrancy of the scripture. Catholicism always held the truthfulness of scripture, but progressively throughout the medieval period tradition was elevated as a separate and equally valid source of revelation and authority. This position was formally creedalized at the Catholic counter-reformation Council of Trent. Protestants responded with the doctrine of sola scriptura. During the period of Protestant Scholasticism the doctrine and nature of divine inspiration was developed in new, more refined ways. There even arose a teaching among some of the Protestant scholastic theologians that the vowel points in the Hebrew text were inspired.4 In opposition to Roman Catholic claims of the authority of tradition and the Pope, the authority of scripture was consciously raised during the Reformation and immediate post-reformation period in an attempt to rescue scripture from the captivity of the official Catholic magisterial interpretation that obscured the message of the Bible. But even in the great Protestant confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century the doctrine of inerrancy is not explicit.

During the nineteenth century higher-critical theories arose and attacked the literary and historical integrity of the scriptures. In response conservative representatives of historic Protestantism asserted the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures. As noted, the concept of inerrancy is at least as ancient as Augustine, but the nineteenth-century response to the literary criticism of the sacred text involved a refinement, sharpening, and extension of the older concept of scriptural infallibility/inerrancy. This sharpening arose in the heat of controversy and became an apologetic tool to defend the veracity of the Bible and with it the historic Christian faith. Inerrancy became a touchstone doctrine for fundamentalists and their successors, evangelicals.5 Inerrancy has remained a touchstone for conservative evangelicalism to this day,6 with the doctrine functioning as the basis of scholarly societies such as the Evangelical Theological Society and also as a foundational doctrine for numerous Evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges. In fact, from a practical perspective the doctrine is often deemed as more critical than matters of Christology or understandings of the person of God.

Another recent historical example illustrates this same tendency to elevate doctrines to a primary level that have never been so seen historically. Throughout the early and mid-20th century heated and acrimonious debates raged between covenant theologians who adopted an amillennial eschatology and dispensational theologians who adopted a futurist eschatology. Here the issue was not even over the authority of scripture; the issue was over a doctrine that had never been agreed to by the consensus of the church. Yet, within dispensationalism a particular eschatological understanding had on a practical level been raised to a fundamental of the faith. In the eyes of many dispensational teachers a denial of their particular understanding of the details surrounding the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom was a denial of the faith.

Scripture clearly indicates that belief is important, and that the content of the Christian faith is to be jealously guarded. An individual or group can not take “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and modify it either by addition, deletion, or by twisting the received truth. Paul admonishes Timothy, “The things you have heard from me, these teach to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” The whole concept of a Christian tradition arose out of the second century in the church’s encounter with Gnosticism. Gnosticism might be likened to a second century New Age Movement that appeared on the surface to be very similar to Christianity. It formed the first major theological challenge to the young church. It was in the context of confrontation that the concept of tradition arose. The idea itself means literally “that which has been handed down or over” and echoes Paul’s admonition to Timothy (2 Tim 2:2). The early Church leaders argued that the content of the apostolic kerygma had been faithfully preserved by the leadership of the Church and that that preaching was also preserved in the emerging canon of the New Testament. This stood in opposition to the Gnostics who, although they claimed to have a secret knowledge handed down from the apostles outside the church, merely invented their teaching while claiming that they were Christian.

Within the evangelical fold there is a precommitment to scripture and a desire to base all doctrines on scripture through solid exegesis. However, it must be recognized that from a historical perspective the church’s theology did not arise directly out of the New Testament. Historically it arose out of the apostolic kerygma, a kerygma that predated the rise of the New Testament and a kerygma that centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is this to which Paul refers when he commands Timothy to contend earnestly for the faith. It is this focus--the person and work of Jesus Christ--that forms the heart of Christian Theology. Virtually all recognize intuitively that issues, for example, of church government are of a qualitatively different nature than issues surrounding the Person of God or of Christ. Yet, despite this implicit recognition there is still in many quarters a mindset that insists that since truth is of God all truth must be defended with equal vigor. Many are willing to “go to the wall for” fine points of eschatology or ecclesiology or even finely developed and nuanced points of doctrine concerning core issues. These individuals tend to be ‘theological maximists,” i.e., they believe that we must discover and systematize all truth and commit ourselves absolutely to those maximums. They believe that to admit degrees of importance of truth is somehow an affront to the whole concept of Truth.

The matter of TRUTH as opposed to a human grasp of truth is crucial to understand at the very outset of any discussion of establishing a relative hierarchy of significance and importance of doctrines.

The very nature of Christian Theology demands from its practitioners and adherents a commitment to the fact that truth exists and that it can in some measure be grasped. Among evangelicals at least there is a precommitment to the Reformation cry of “Sola Scriptura.” Scripture stands as the final authority above tradition and ecclesiastical authority.7

In practice among Protestants at least since the time of the post-reformation period of Protestant Scholasticism, there has been the tendency to view the systematized whole of Christian doctrine as TRUTH. The scholastic method takes this even one step further, seeing all truth as on the same level and seeing a denial of any part of the system as a denial of the whole system. The scholastic practice of building frameworks and then within those frameworks deducing what must be true from that which is known lent itself to this mentality. Scholastic method was from one vantage point a magnificent achievement. The method caused theologians to build “cathedrals of the mind” magnificent structures that attempted to incorporate all theological knowledge into one comprehensive system, showing the place of each part and interrelationship of all the various parts. The down side was that the system tended to become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and there was a leveling of the importance of truth. The interrelatedness of doctrines led to the conclusion that to deny anything in the system was to deny the whole body of Christian doctrine and therefore the faith itself.

This methodology very naturally leads to a rigid doctrinaire mentality that sees for example, fine points of eschatology as on the same level of importance as the doctrine of the trinity or the hypostatic union of humanity and deity in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. It further leads to the charge of heresy against anyone who does not hold the exact same formulation of doctrine as oneself. This mentality has over the centuries filtered its way down from the level of the theologians all the way to the educated layman in the pew. This is not a matter of knowledge; it is a matter of mindset.

Another negative side effect of the scholastic methodology and mindset is that it feeds an intellectual dishonesty because it places off limits study that could possibly threaten an existing systemic conclusion. With reference to this phenomenon it must again be stressed that theology is a human discipline and that theological systems and doctrines are human constructions which to a greater or lesser extent refract the truth of divine revelation. As human constructions they must by their very nature remain open to examination, criticism and correction because of the nature of human understanding. It remains finite, perspectival due to the historically bound nature of knowledge. Further it is twisted and warped due to the noetic effects of sin. Any time an individual or group places areas of investigation off limits because the “wrong” conclusions would threaten their orthodox understanding, that person or group has ceased to be a seeker of truth and understanding and theology becomes defensive and apologetic as opposed to a search for and verification of truth. Perhaps the best example of this mentality is seen in the great B.B. Warfield. Warfield has been called the greatest theologian seen in America after Jonathan Edwards. He is said to have had the theological mind of a Charles Hodge and a Wm G.T., Shedd rolled into one. Yet he never produced a systematic theology of his own. He believed that the Westminster Confession presented the apex of theology, and that Charles Hodge’s exposition of Reformed theology could not be improved upon. Any theological conclusion that challenged or threatened a conclusion of Westminster had to be discredited. Warfield’s collected works span ten sizable volumes, and the quality is superb. But the perspective is always critical and analytical not creative and probing. He took his stand on Westminster and never wavered from it. In fact his position at Princeton Seminary at the end of his life as Professor of Polemic theology!

To reiterate, in contrast to the scholastic methodology, we must recognize that beyond the basic apostolic kerygma, theologies and doctrines are human constructions which more or less adequately encapsulate, interpret and contextualize the teaching of scripture for later generations. Philip Schaff, the nineteenth century church historian, in describing the creedal commitments of the church observed that confessions are man’s answer to God’s word.8 And in the best case any creed or confession is only “an approximate and relatively correct exposition of revealed truth, and may be improved by the progressive knowledge of the church.”9 If we extend Schaff’s observation to theology generally the fallibility and limitedness of the human construction becomes more apparent since a theological system arises out of a single mind rather than the life of the church or a collection of minds.

Extending Schaff’s observations further, we must distinguish between the form of a doctrine and its substance.10 This criterion recognizes that by virtue of the fact that we live in specific historical situations we will conceptualize and express our understanding of the truth in concrete historical forms that arise out of our own zeitgeist. An example may prove helpful: a building contractor in the south uses bricks to build a house while a contractor in the northwest uses wood or a contractor in California uses stucco. These houses constructed of different building materials look different on one level, but they bear a “family resemblance” on a deeper level and all accomplish the same purpose, and we are comfortable moving from one type of house to another. The contractor uses the building material at hand, rather than import foreign material from afar. Likewise, the fathers used the intellectual material at hand to express the truth of the trinity to their society rather than import Hebrew thought into a Greek speaking and thinking world. And it may be appropriate to re-express the truth of a given doctrine in a form that is appropriate to the concrete historical situation in which we live to aid in understanding. A good example of the recasting of a doctrine can be seen in Alister McGrath’s recasting the doctrine of justification by faith in the categories of existentialism and personalist theology.11

This alerts us to the ever-present danger of placing too much emphasis on particular words and not going past the words to the meaning expressed by those words. In point of fact, doctrinal statements and creedal affirmations can easily become verbal shibboleths that obscure meaning and foster division over words rather than meaning. On the other hand, doctrinal statements can and are reinterpreted by individuals to mean something entirely different than the creed was meant to express. W. Robertson Smith, the nineteenth century Scottish Old Testament scholar, when told that he was accused of denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, is said to have replied, “How can they accuse me of that? I have never denied the divinity of any man, let alone Jesus.”12

While we are to contend for the truth, all truth is not of the same order, despite the mentality of many theologians and teachers. We must recognize that there are theological truths that transcend local and temporary historical situations, while other “truths” are so affected by the Zeitgeist out of which they arise as to be idiosyncratic. An example of this idiosyncratic tendency would be the tendency of some denominations to enshrine the spiritual experience of the denomination’s founder in doctrinal terms that become normative and “distinctive” of the denomination. For example, the spiritual experience of A.B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is reflected in the two distinctive doctrines of that denomination, healing in the atonement and post-conversion crisis sanctification.13 This leads to the conclusion that some theological truths are more important than others. If this is the case, how are we to determine what are the criteria which upon decisions about the importance of a truth are to be made? What are the first order theological truths which must be maintained? What are the second order truths, etc.? And how are we to recognize them?

The ranking of theological truth affects not only the historical articulation of a doctrine and marginalization of that which is idiosyncratic, but also involves the ranking of truths arising out of scripture itself. In many cases the scriptural material is abundantly clear and the church has always clearly affirmed certain doctrines. In other cases the scriptural evidence is scanty or cloudy. In these cases any conclusions drawn must be held with a degree of tentativeness.

Millard Erickson has suggested the above ranking in theological statements in importance and authority.14 This ranking is suggestive and helpful to get the student to think about the relative certainty of things believed. But from the perspective of formal theological affirmation, this hierarchy of authority is not totally adequate, especially if it is lifted from a context of further qualification of these levels of authority. For example, direct statements of scripture which may on the surface sound absolute may be qualified or relativized by other scriptural evidence. Erickson speaks of “direct statements of scripture.” While there is no hint that Erickson intends this, one might infer a theological method whereby a teaching is supported by a verse of scripture pulled out of its context and absolutized without reference to the larger biblical theological teaching on the subject. This was the rabbinical method of “pearl stringing” of scriptural references together without regard to their literary or historical context. This method was also adopted by the scholastic theological method and too often is seen even in contemporary popular theological method. “Direct statements” can be and are used as a theological “trump card” to clinch an argument. The authority of “direct statements of scripture” must be understood in the sense that the statement is interpreted accurately within its literary and historical context and not erroneously made to be a contextless abstract and global assertion.

On the second level of authority we must draw the distinction between necessary inference and logical inference. Erickson draws the distinction between direct implications and probable implications of scripture. These distinctions, while helpful, are not the same as the distinction between necessary and logical inferences from scripture. Necessary implications are those which either undergird an assertion and without which underpinning the assertion would fall, or they are implications that are from a logical perspective included in an assertion and need only the application of a syllogism to draw out the implicit information. A logical implication would be an inference that would be in harmony with the statement, but not necessarily drawn in syllogistic fashion from the statement.

Near the top of his hierarchy of authority Erickson places inductive conclusions drawn from scripture. Again this level of authority/certainty needs further qualification. The scientific method is by its very nature inductive and thus can never yield absolute certainty in its conclusions. However, inductive conclusions can approach the level of practical certainty if all the data have been examined and accurately interpreted. Thus the degree of certainty of inductive conclusions depends on the thoroughness of the inductive study.

Erickson is implicitly drawing a distinction between the teaching of scripture and the phenomena of scripture. This type of arrangement of authority is seen particularly in discussions of biblical authority. It is generally recognized within evangelicalism that if one begins with the teaching passages of scripture and once having established the teaching moves to the phenomena of scripture, he or she will ultimately emerge with a doctrine of scripture that embraces inerrancy. Whereas if an individual begins with the phenomena of scripture and from the phenomena proceeds to the explicit teaching passages, that individual will not embrace inerrancy. It is at this point that the question of method inserts itself into the whole equation.15

Erickson places conclusions from general revelation near the top of the pyramid and outright speculations as at the top as having no authority. His statements with reference to the authority of general revelation need serious qualification. General revelation, taken broadly, refers to the God-created order, and forms the larger context within which we must interpret the special revelation given in scripture. The failure within the more recent evangelical tradition of not giving general revelation its proper place in setting the bounds on some issues that have scientific answers has led to all sorts of intellectual and theological mischief in making the supposedly direct statements of scripture speak to issues far beyond the purposes for which they were given and globalizing the authority of the Bible beyond its purposes. To say that conclusions drawn from general revelation must be subject to the more clear statements of scripture, slavishly applied, could be used to “prove” a flat earth or a geocentric universe. There must be some kind of reciprocal process by which general revelation can inform special revelation and special revelation interprets general revelation.

A bit on the troubling side is that this whole presentation of levels of authority seems to be based upon a Baconian/common sense assumption that the facts are pre-theoretical and “out there” as objective information. As chapter two has shown this is an inadequate conception of the reality of the situation. All the while we are cognizant of the primarily narrative nature of the text and the difficulties that come in transforming narrative statements into theological assertions.

The Components of Doctrine/Theology

Charles Hodge defined theology as the arrangement and display of the facts of the Bible. This simple definition is still the operative cognitive definition among many evangelicals to this day. As we have seen in previous chapters, there is much more that goes into the construction of a doctrine or a theological system than simply the biblical text. There are in fact numerous preunderstandings of various types that shape the Gestalt of any theological expression. Alister McGrath in his 1990 Bampton Lectures16 focused upon the elements of doctrinal construction and identified four elements that give shape to any articulation of doctrine.

Elements in Doctrine

    Doctrine as that which defines the community

McGrath traces this aspect of doctrine from the early church down through the Reformation. A couple of illustrations will demonstrate how doctrine functions in this role. Justification by faith became the doctrine that demarcated Lutherans from Roman Catholics. Likewise the Lutheran understanding of the nature of the Eucharist (often referred to as consubstantiation) defined Lutheranism vis a vis Reformed Protestants. Doctrine gives the theological justification for a group’s existence. It is key in a group’s self-definition. Even the council of Trent focused on the self-definition of the Roman Catholic Church rather than a definition of the heretics. Key in doctrinal articulation is the element of social demarcation defining who is in and who is out.

A more contemporary illustration might be the doctrine/practice of glossalalia within the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave tradition. At the outbreak of Pentecostalism in 1906 the defining phenomenon was the practice and doctrine of tongues. Major Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God have to this day doctrinal statements which insist that tongues is the evidence of salvation, and that a lack of a glossalaliac experience is evidence that an individual is not saved. This experience/doctrine was that which identified Pentecostalism early on. It is interesting to note that as the tradition matured and moved trans-denominationally the emphasis on tongues was downplayed, and at one point in the 1980’s only about 35% of those who identified themselves as Charismatic spoke in tongues.

Doctrine as Interpretation of Narrative

Doctrine is generated by and subsequently interprets the Christian narrative. During the modern era the emphasis has been on the propositional nature of truth. This whole perspective is closely aligned with the Enlightenment concept of universal truth. The advent of postmodernism has brought a reassertion on the power of the narrative, and the priority of the story over the didactic. In this respect the new era has returned to the power of the story, a position more in harmony with the perspective of scripture itself.

Ultimately, Christianity is about narrative, a story, the story of God’s dealings with humanity culminating in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Christian community is derived from the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It is that story which gives the Christian community its identity. The New Testament itself adopts this perspective. It insists that the believers’ identity is found with Christ. Paul develops the concept of ejn Cristw’/ (in Christ). Jesus’ story becomes the believers’ story; he has been co-crucified with Christ, buried with Him, and become a participant in His resurrection. Jesus is the paradigm of existence.

Narratives are grounded in history; they are not universal abstractions. Even the church’s sacraments are rooted in the story of Christ; they focus upon his life and death.

But stories need to be interpreted to have meaning. They can be interpreted at many different levels, and may have various interpretive frameworks imposed upon them. It is at this point that we look to the scripture. The scripture contains the foundational texts of Christianity, its story. But story is not doctrine/theology. They two are of fundamentally different as types of genre. McGrath suggests that the story itself contains the fundamental structure, the nascent interpretive framework out of which doctrine is constructed.

During my first year as a college professor, as I was expounding the doctrine of the Trinity to college juniors, I made the comment that the church didn’t have a formal doctrine of the Trinity until Nicea, in A.D. 325. The hand of one of the students shot up. “What do you mean, they didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity? I open my Bible and I find it everywhere!” What he did not realize that he was looking at those scriptures through the framework that had been worked out during those early centuries. He was at the center of the interpretive spiral, if you will. The interpretive spiral is a well-known phenomenon in the discipline of hermeneutics, the goal of which is a fusing of the horizon of the author and the reader. McGrath suggests, rightly, that there is a similar process in the generating of doctrine from the narrative.17 The story contains a substructure of conceptual frameworks. These implicit frameworks serve as the starting point. They are the “hints” and “signposts” which guide the reader/interpreter/theologian in making initial doctrinal affirmations. Then the text is re-read in light of the initial doctrinal conclusions, and modifications and embellishments to the framework are made. There is a dynamic interplay, a dialectical interplay between the text and the doctrine.

In the process of constructing doctrine a transformation from narrative to propositional statements occurs. It must be realized that narrative, because it is given as story, is not to be approached deductively, but rather inferentially. The difference between the two methods of analysis is significant. All too often theologians have been guilty of treating the text as a series of premises from which conclusions could be deductively drawn. This is a serious methodological error. Rather, it is at this transformation point that we decisively shift genres and produce doctrines which are given in a form foreign to the scriptures and teach truths which the scripture does not necessarily explicitly expound.

The church has always had those that could be legitimately called theological primitivists, those who do not wish to step beyond the text. But the whole point of doctrine/theology is that simple reiteration of the statements of scripture is not enough. To return to the doctrine of the Trinity, the Apostolic Fathers simply repeat the baptismal formula without comment, affirming that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God. But, if this is true, then there is a problem with the received doctrine of monotheism, which understood God as unity, not duality or tri-unity. The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of reflection on the nature of God as revealed in the text of scripture as an attempt to explain how the one God could also be three. It is not metaphysical speculation based on Greek philosophy, although those early theologians used philosophy in order to help them explain the concept.18 The doctrine of the Trinity is rather an interpretation of the narrative. We might illustrate this with the concept of an acorn. The acorn is not the oak tree, but it contains the material from which a tree will grow.19 In this sense it is legitimate to speak of the development of doctrine. We recognize that doctrine must be ultimately linked to the text of scripture as its primary source. As McGrath has noted: “The sola scriptura principle is ultimately an assertion of the primacy of the foundational scriptural narrative over any framework of conceptualities which it may generate”20

While the theologian may feel at liberty to explore other sources of potential interest, doctrine is historically linked with scripture on account of the historicity of its formulating communities. Christian communities of faith orientate and identify themselves with reference to authoritative sources which are either identical with or derived from scripture.21

Scripture’s primary function is not to give theological statements but to relate the story of God’s dealing with humanity, especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. “Scripture does not articulate a set of abstract principles, but points to a lived life.”22 Whether approached directly or through a filter of creeds and traditions, scripture constitutes the foundational documents of the Christian faith.23 These foundational documents provide the material from which theology is inferred and constructed.

Doctrine as an interpretation of Experience

When attention is turned to the third of McGrath’s four components, doctrine interprets experience, those within the evangelical tradition tend to get very uncomfortable. Evangelicals heartily assert that genuine Christianity involves experience, yet at least from the time of the Princetonians, evangelicals have compartmentalized theology and life into two separate areas, not letting experience inform or shape theology, or theology necessarily inform experience.24 Charles Hodge insisted that experience did not make a Christian; believing a set of facts about Jesus Christ did.25 Following in the common-sense tradition of Hodge and Princeton, Evangelicals have seen truth as absolutely separate from the knower, as something that exists “out there.”26 Additionally, experience has smacked of Schleiermacher and Liberalism on the one hand and the excesses of the Pentecostal tradition on the other. Yet, a closer examination of the scripture presupposes an experience, particularly an experience centered around the believing community.

McGrath’s appeal to experience is looking not at private religious experience, but at the communal experience of the Christian community. In particular, he notes that Christianity addresses the human experience of alienation. It is this experience which becomes a point of contact. Christianity “addresses such experiences in order to transform them, and to indicate what the shape of the experience of redemption through Jesus Christ might be like.”27 It is at this point he contends that we encounter a problem: the adequacy or inadequacy of language to express experience. McGrath invokes Wittgenstein’s musing that words cannot communicate the aroma of a cup of coffee as an example of this unhappy phenomenon. While words cannot adequately express experience, they can point to experience as signposts.

He notes that while the experiential aspect of doctrine in most frequently associated with Romantic theologies, such as Schleiermacher, we find roots and even specific explications of this concept even as early as Augustine.28 While McGrath does not explicitly draw the conclusion, it can be inferred that at the beginning of the Christian faith, experience preceded doctrine, i.e., the apostles experienced the risen Christ and that that experience led them (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) to write as they did. In so saying it must be noted that the experience could not have been a pre-linguistic mystic experience, but one that occurred within their existing framework of reality.29

The question of experience again raises the troubling question of the adequacy of human language. McGrath observes:

Underlying the profundity of human experience and encounter lies an unresolved tension—the tension between the wish to express an experience in words, and the inability of words to capture that experience in its fullness. Everything in human experience which is precious and significant is threatened with extinction, in that it is in some sense beyond words, and yet requires to be stated in words for it to become human knowledge. It is threatened with the spectre of solipsism, in that unless an experience can be communicated to another, it remains trapped within the private experiential world of the individual. Words can point to an experience, they can begin to sketch its outlines—but the total description of that experience remains beyond words. The words of John Woolman’s associate express this point: ‘I may tell you of it, but you cannot feel it as I do.’ Words point beyond themselves to something greater which eludes their grasp. Human words, and the categories they express, are stretched to their limits as they attempt to encapsulate, to communicate, something which tantalizingly refuses to be reduced to words. It is the sheer elusiveness of human experience, its obstinate refusal to be imprisoned within a verbal matrix, which underlies the need for poetry, symbolism and doctrine alike.30

C. S. Lewis has observed a similar tension on the aesthetic level:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things— the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of the worshippers. For they are not the thing in itself; they are only the scent of the flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.31

McGrath endorses a suggestion made nearly two centuries ago that “the function of doctrine is to effect a decisive transition within the language of the Christian community from the poetic and rhetorical to the ‘descriptive-didactic.’“ This means that poetic or rhetorical and doctrinal language are distinct, but related means of communication within the believing community. In fact, it is because rhetorical and poetic language are the primary language of the community that doctrine becomes necessary for responsible communication to the community in its primary language.32

Doctrine functions as the cognitive element within Christianity, the skeleton that supports and gives shape to the flesh of spiritual experience.

Concerning the relationship between poetic and religious language, C.S. Lewis has noted:

This is the most remarkable of the powers of Poetic language: to convey to us the quality of experiences we have not had, or perhaps can never have, to use factors within our experience so that they become pointers to something outside our experience—as two or more roads on a map show us where a town that is off the map must lie. Many of us have never had an experience like that which Wordsworth records near the end of Prelude XIII; but when he speaks of ‘the visionary dreariness,’ I think we get an inkling of it.33

The point here is that poetic language not only has the ability to communicate emotion but to arouse emotion in the hearer. Emotion can be communicated through words although it cannot be reduced to words.

In order for my experience to be expressed, communicated to or aroused by another, it demands statement in cognitive forms. That these cognitive forms fail to capture such an experience in its totality is self-evident, and hardly a matter for rhetorical exaggeration: it is one of the inevitable consequences of living in history and being obliged to communicate in historical forms.34

There is in doctrine an interplay between the cognitive and the experiential. T. S. Eliot expresses this interplay:

We had the experience but missed the meaning
An approach to the meaning restores the experience35

While the Enlightenment separated facts from interpretation and implicitly endorsed a view of knowledge that has been characterized as ‘brute empiricism’ it is now generally recognized that there is not such thing as bare, brute facts.36 Experience is not pre-theoretical, but is already theory laden, arising within an interpretive framework, however tentative that framework may be. Prior belief plays a vital part in interpreting experience.37

To try to sum up this most difficult point: doctrine arises out of the poetic and rhetorical and narrative language of scripture, language that points beyond itself to the experience of God and redemption. It gives cognitive form to the experience referenced in that language and in so doing provides a framework, a skeleton to support the life of the believing community. It does more than this however. The doctrine, the meaning, creates and restores the original experience in the life of the hearer. “Doctrine opens the way to a new experience of the experience.”38

To reiterate, for the church today, experience is an inadequate foundation for doctrine, nor does contemporary experience legitimately generate doctrine but doctrine informs experience and thereby gives significant insight into the existential side of Christianity.

Doctrine as a Truth Claim

In leaving this factor until last, some might infer that the truth claim of doctrine is of less than paramount importance. This is not the case. In fact, it is the truth claim of doctrine that underlies its importance and its fulfilling of the other functions. But this raises the question Pilate asked our Lord, “What is truth?”

Numerous definitions for truth have been propounded, and in answer to the question there is no universally accepted definition, Plato’s proclamation that the philosopher is the lover of truth notwithstanding. Disciplines have various criteria for truth, some explicit, some implicit. None universally agreed upon. One suggestion, traceable ultimately to Marx and Engels, is that truth is simply “correspondence with reality.” Truth is that which describes things as they actually are.

Classically there are several definitions of truth, all of which bear what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance, despite their distinct but related emphases on the nature of truth. The Greek term ajlhvqeia carries the interpretation of truth as the “state of discoveredness or unhiddenness.” The term has primary reference to the thing itself and only secondarily to a statement about the thing. It is a description of how things are now, in the present moment. The Latin veritas by contrast carries a sense of precision of utterance or exactness. The truth is faithful and exact, without omission. It is complete. As opposed to ajlhvqeia,veritas has primary reference to past events, and is closely associated with history, or narrative. As Cicero said, “Who does not know the first law of history to be that an author must not dare to recount anything except the truth? And its second that he must endeavor to recount the whole truth.”39 The Hebrew emunah contains a sense of personal reference: truth related to a sense of trust. Thus the true God is not simply the only one who exists, but the God who is trustworthy and faithful to his promises. So in everyday language, the false friend is not one who is non-existent, but one who cannot be trusted. Thus, emunah has a proleptic aspect as it points toward future faithfulness. Like veritas, emunah has past reference, but not simply for the sake of the past. Rather, the focus is a shaping of the present and future through predictive hope, and gives a paradigm for understanding the goal of history.

Christian doctrine relates to these ideas of truth in that it is rooted in history. Theologians speak of the “Christ-event.” While the terminology is not popular among evangelicals, it does serve to call attention to the fact that Christianity is rooted in history with all its contingencies, rather than in timeless truths. Brunner has gone so far as to say that truth is something that happens. Jesus is truth (Jn 14:6). God is not to be identified with sterile philosophical concepts but rather with reference to Jesus, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Truth is then grounded in history and reflection upon historical event, Spinoza and Lessing notwithstanding.

Doctrine involves interpretation, as McGrath has suggested above. But in any interpretation the question asked is at least as importance as the answer given. Thus in examining Christian doctrine we must not only look at the cognitive statements, but also the questions that led to those statements. Does Jesus Christ, the “Christ-event,” precipitate the questions to which doctrines are the answer. The Church has always answered this question with a resounding “Yes!” There is an essential continuity of the core doctrines of the Christian faith throughout the ages. While doctrine has ventured beyond Christology, we must not forget that Christ is the lens through which our understanding of other doctrines is mediated. For example, for the Christian to affirm “God is love” involves an implicit christological reference. The affirmation links a hitherto undefined concept, love, to its concrete demonstration in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate.

The truth of doctrine also involves internal self-consistency. Indeed heresy has been defined as the adherence to teaching that is inconsistent with the central affirmations of Jesus Christ and the Redemption that he provides. Doctrine/theology is an integrated whole with one doctrine informing another. We may speak of a doctrine of Christ, a doctrine of man, a doctrine of God, or of sin, but we recognize that these doctrines in order to be true must be internally consistent and consistent with the foundational doctrines of the faith. There must be an intra-systemic unity of the truth expressed in doctrine. By way of example we could show how the person of Jesus Christ controls what have been labeled as the four natural heresies of Christianity, all relating to either the need of, or the possibility of, redemption.40

The truth of doctrine is not simply a reflection on the past or even the “Christ-event.” The truth of doctrine is not simply information. This is, I believe, a great failure in evangelical tradition. We have tended at least since the time of old Princeton to view all truth as of the same type.41 Doctrine however must be orientated toward faith. It cannot be simple factual information. As Dorner contended, there is a personal demand upon the individual for facts to move from the realm of the abstract and theoretical to the realm of the vital. With this faith commitment arises a certainty that comes from personal encounter with the living God. This is the existential aspect of doctrine, associated with Kierkegaard, but implicit within the text itself. It was at this point that confessional faith failed in the Era of Protestant Scholasticism. This point also relates to the authority of experience. Doctrine involves an existential imperative that demands to be appropriated personally in one’s inner life.

Doctrine makes truth claims, but these claims are of necessity colored by the lenses of the theologian and the epistemology s/he employs. Hence it is necessary to be in conversation with past generations, the continuity of the Christian tradition. We all make mistakes, but we do not all make the same mistakes.

The Necessity of
Establishing a Doctrinal Taxonomy

As noted above, there is a general recognition that some doctrines are more important than others. Erickson speaks explicitly to this reality in his Christian Theology.42 As such, certain doctrines are to be given more prominence in discussion. He adds a second important observation in that, for example, “eschatology is a major area of doctrinal investigation. Within that area, the Second Coming is a major belief. Rather less crucial (and considerably less clearly taught in Scripture) is the issue of whether the church will be removed from the world before or after the great tribulation.”43 To unpack the significance of what Erickson says, there are certain doctrines that in and of themselves are major doctrines—we could say core doctrines—but finer developments of those doctrines are not to be considered of first order importance.

Establishing A Doctrinal Taxonomy Historically

A generation before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy Philip Schaff published The Creeds of Christendom; a few years later Charles Briggs published The Fundamental Christian Faith. In both of these works there is an explicit recognition that the doctrinal conclusions embodied in the creedal affirmations of the creeds of the ancient church represent the theological core of the Christian Faith. This perspective was also that of Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century. Vincent gave much thought to the issue of doctrine and concluded:

I have devoted considerable study and much attention to inquiring, from men of outstanding holiness and doctrinal correctness, in what way it might be possible for me to establish a kind of fixed and, as it were, general and guiding principle for distinguishing the truth of the Catholic faith from the depraved falsehoods of the heretics. . . . Holy Scripture, on account of its depth, is not accepted in a universal sense. The same statements are interpreted in one way by one person, in another by someone else, with the result that there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. . . . Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that is directed by the rule of the Catholic Church. Now in the Catholic Church itself the greatest care is taken that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all people (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). 44

Vincent recognized the inadequacy in a simple appeal to the text of scripture in that the scripture was subject to a variety of interpretations. Something more was needed. He settled on the principle of the “consensus of the faithful.” In other words, there had to be universal recognition by the laity as well as the clergy. A doctrine could not be local. A doctrine could not be new. Another way to sum up this teaching is catholicity. The substance of Christian doctrine must be universal. This is in fact the presupposition of Tom Oden in his systematic theology. Oden has endeavored to write a consensual theology using as his method the vincentian canon, focusing upon what is common to all branches of Christianity.

In so saying we must distinguish between the form and the substance of a doctrine. One of the amazing phenomena of language is that it is possible to say the same thing in a variety of ways, and even in a variety of languages. This should alert us to the necessity to probe what linguists call deep structure, the universal meaning, rather than stumbling over surface structure, specific verbal articulations of theological conclusions.

Having said this, the question remains, “What specifically belongs at the core of our theological commitment?”


First and foremost as noted above, the person and work of Jesus Christ belong at the heart of any theological taxonomy. These concepts involve a number of interconnected teachings and assumptions. As these were worked out historically the questions focused first upon the relationship of the pre-incarnate Son to God the Father. The early church struggled with finding adequate language to express the relationship between the Father and the Son, recognizing the deity of each without inadvertently falling into the trap of asserting two Gods. Early on several attempts were made to explain this relationship; these were adjudged to be inadequate. The crisis that precipitated the church’s formally declaring its understanding at the Council of Nicea was the teaching or Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, who taught that the Son was the first created creature who became the creator of the cosmos. Arius summed up his teaching with the phrase, “there was a time when the son was not.” The church responded at Nicea in the Nicean creed asserting that the Son was consubstantial with the Father. This statement was an assertion of the eternal divinity of the Son, as a full participant in the deity of the Father. The council of Nicea did not address the question of the Holy Spirit as such. The understanding of the Holy Spirit’s full participation in the Godhead came as a result of the work of the three great Cappodocian fathers, especially Basil, and was codified at the Council of Constantinople (A.D. 381). This statement gave explicit form to the already existing practice of recognizing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as fully and equally divine.

As explanations of the nature of the Trinity developed, the Eastern and Western church developed different frameworks of understanding for the doctrine—frameworks which especially from the perspective of Eastern Theology are incompatible. So, in a taxonomy of doctrine the fact that God exists as Trinity stands at the very core of the Church’s faith, while explanations of a framework of trinitarian understanding would be ranked as second level theological reflection.

    The Two Natures of Christ

The second major theological development of the ancient period was a precise articulation of nature of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ, specifically the doctrine of the two natures, deity and humanity, and the explanation as to how these two natures come together in one person (the hypostatic union). Since the birth of the church there had been an implicit recognition that Jesus was unique as both fully human and also fully divine. Early on, the church had simply repeated these assertions without trying to explain the nature of the incarnation or relate the divine and human together in the one historic person of Jesus Christ. As with the Arian controversy, the church’s understanding of the person of Christ also arose out of controversy. But in this case the understanding was refined in three successive controversies.

In order to understand the christological conclusions forged at Chalcedon, there must be an understanding of the theological climate of the ancient church in the fourth and fifth centuries. The question of the person of Christ was one that occupied the Greek-speaking church, a church which was divided into two theological schools. The first school, that of Alexandria, was heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy and was interested in spiritual realities. The tendency here was to emphasize the deity of Christ, often at the expense of his humanity. One of the staunch defenders of Nicene orthodoxy was Apollinarius, the Alexandrian theologian and friend of the great Athanasius, the architect of trinitarian orthodoxy. Apollinarius saw that one of Arius’ arguments was not properly trinitarian but focused upon the nature of the incarnation. Apollinarius responded with an explanation of the relationship of Christ’s deity to his humanity that in effect made Christ less than fully human. Apollinarius’ hypothesis was that in the incarnation Jesus Christ had a human body and soul, but the spirit (rational mind) had been replaced by the divine logos, the second person of the Trinity. The reaction against Apollinarius’ teaching was swift in coming, and his position was condemned as heretical by the council of Constantinople in A.D. 381.

Roughly a generation later, Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople and a representative of the other major theological school in the Greek-speaking east—Antioch. The Antiochean school was interested in historical interpretation of scripture and focused upon the true humanity of Christ. While not denying Christ’s deity their focus was upon Jesus’ humanity and the example he gave to his followers. Nestorius, as was typical of the school of Antioch, drew a sharp distinction between the humanity and the deity in the incarnate person of Jesus. So sharp was the distinction that he was understood to be teaching that Jesus was in reality two separate persons inhabiting a single body, Son of Mary and Son of God. This perception was exacerbated because of Nestorius’ opposition to the already popular designation of Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer).45 Nestorius was himself an intractable individual, and when Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, challenged Nestorius’ position, he defiantly refused to back down and challenged the orthodoxy of Cyril. After a series of confrontations, the Emperor convened a council that met at Ephesus in A.D. 429. This council condemned Nestorius and his doctrine of “two sons.” While historical research has questioned whether Nestorius himself did in fact hold the doctrine that bears his name, Nestorianism as popularly understood undermined the doctrine of salvation with its failure to adequately integrate the two natures into the one historic person who was Jesus Christ.46

Twenty years later another christological crisis arose. This time the nexus of the controversy was Eutyches, a well respected elderly but unimaginative and poorly trained monk in Constantinople who reacted with disfavor to the Council of Ephesus’ insistence that Christ existed in two natures after the incarnation. Heavily influenced by Alexandrian theology and spirituality, Eutyches taught that after the incarnation Jesus had but one nature, the divine. He was variously understood to be teaching that Jesus’ humanity was absorbed by his deity, or that in the incarnation the two natures fused to become one more than human but less than divine, a tertium quid (third something). Eutyches’ heresy did not violate the dictum arising out of the Apollinarian controversy, (“that which he did not assume he did not heal”) but did ultimately fall into a docetic heresy and violated the anti-docetic dictum “Grace never destroys nature.” Eutyches’ heresy destroyed the humanity of Jesus after the incarnation and also fed into the dualistic temptation to flee from the flesh. After much political maneuvering and a council that declared Eutyches orthodox (the Robbers Synod of Ephesus in A.D. 449), he was finally condemned at Chalcedon in A.D. 451.47

Chalcedon produced the final creed of the ancient church.48 Pronouncements since that time have been confessions. The Creed of Chalcedon addressed particularly the understanding of the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. However, a careful reading of the creed shows that the statements are apophatic rather than catophatic. It is a creed of negation rather than assertion. Rather than give a precise definition of the incarnate Christ, the creed draws parameters around what is allowed within orthodox christological theologizing. As later centuries proved, there was still much room for debate and discussion about particular emphases, but the boundaries were established. In looking taxonomically at the doctrine of the incarnate person of Christ, an affirmation of the truth of the creed arising out of Chalcedon is to be considered at the heart of the Christian faith. Further refinements and frameworks built within the boundaries, which from the very beginning accommodated Alexandrian and Antiochean emphases, are of second or third level importance.

    The Nature of Divine Grace

Implicitly the early church recognized the necessity of divine grace for salvation. From the immediate post-Apostolic period the church recognized the absolute necessity of divine grace for salvation and that, left to itself, humanity could not be saved. But the theological climate of Gnosticism kept the church from reflecting upon the nature of human depravity and the need of divine grace. During the fifth century a British monk, Pelagius, came to Rome and taught a gospel of moral reformation, stressing the full ability of humanity to obey God completely. At this time Augustine had already articulated his doctrine of human depravity and the accompanying spiritual inability to please God apart from a prior application of divine grace. The ensuing debate, the Pelagian controversy, brought into bold relief the issues concerning the nature of human depravity and divine grace. The church recognized the legitimacy and necessity of the concept of human depravity as being inexorably bound up in the nexus of the doctrine of salvation. It did not however unequivocally endorse Augustine’s doctrine of total depravity. Pelagianism was condemned at Ephesus and at a number of local synods, but it was not until the Reformation that the Augustinian doctrine was endorsed and incorporated into a formal theological matrix. Thus, it would be proper to say that an understanding of human depravity is at the center of the historic faith, but the historic faith does not endorse any particular articulation of depravity, whether it be Augustinian, Reformed, Semi-Augustinian, or even Semi-Pelagian. The doctrine of human depravity and its correlate doctrine, the necessity of salvation being of God and by grace belongs to the heart of the web of Christian proclamation; any particular articulation belongs at the most as a second level truth.

    The Canon of the New Testament

As we turn our attention to the rise of the New Testament canon, we must recognize that at this point we are not dealing with the foundational doctrines of the faith, rather we are dealing with the foundational documents of the faith. The early church adopted the Old Testament as its original scripture. Very early it recognized the canonicity of the gospels and the Pauline epistles. Gradually the rest of the New Testament writings were recognized as having divine imprimatur. However, with the text of the New Testament the process is qualitatively different than with the doctrinal controversies discussed above. Here the church never made a universal formal declaration of the extent of the New Testament. The lists that arose were associated with particular bishops, e.g., Athanasius in his festal letter of A.D. 369, and with local synods in Hippo and Carthage about 20 years later associated with the great Augustine. The canon of the New Testament was not imposed upon the church by ecclesiastical authority. Rather its authority arose by consensus.49 As a result of the way the canon of the New Testament arose, it was not formally closed until the Reformation period, although from a practical perspective it was virtually closed in the sixth century. Again due to the historic consensus of the church the shape of the canon of the New Testament would be understood as at the center of the faith, although from an epistemological rather than a formal doctrinal perspective. Certainly there has never been a serious attempt within the church to add any more books to the received canon, and any questioning of the legitimacy of any of the books of the New Testament have focused upon the fringes as opposed to the books that preserve the heart of the inspired apostolic proclamation of Christ and his Word.

Establishing a theological taxonomy exegetically

For the theologian and the exegete there is a constant tension.50 This tension arises out of contradictory expectations, expectations to preserve truth on the one hand and on the other hand to act as a scientist to test the validity of truth and to act as an explorer seeking new truth or a fuller grasp of truth. Along these lines, the theologian and exegete must wrestle with how we define orthodoxy and whether a simple pursuit of truth can be accomplished in light of the noetic effects of sin. Too many evangelicals do not nuance their theological convictions nor do they hold them up to critical examination. This smacks of a method that gives tradition an unqualified authority and is more in keeping with historic Roman Catholic method than having a Protestant spirit, for it regards the tradition (whatever that tradition may be) as unquestionable and undifferentiated. If we approach the question of the certainty of doctrine from an exegetical as opposed to a historical basis, the greatest certainty about doctrine comes from a two-pronged approach: empirical (solid exegesis, biblical theology, etc.) and pneumatological, i.e., the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit about certain truths, thus bringing home a greater degree of certainty about more central things. A taxonomy of doctrine is the result. To what does the Spirit bear witness? Essentially matters pertaining to Christology and soteriology. Practically, this tells us that rationalism and the Enlightenment cannot invade the Spirit’s territory; solid historical-critical exegesis cannot destroy one’s faith in the resurrection of the theanthropic Person because that faith though rooted in history is not based solely upon history. When it comes to less central issues, there needs to be a hierarchical order of certainty and a concomitant hierarchy of centrality as we develop a taxonomy of doctrine. Thus, for example, looking at issues of eschatology, the central truth of Christ’s bodily return is what unites believers. First John explicitly says that the Spirit bears witness to this fact. But when Christ comes is left to the church to hammer out on the basis of solid exegesis. Conviction in such issues dare not be as certain as convictions about the person and work of Christ. Otherwise, we succumb to the danger of “majoring on the minors,” of missing the central message of the Bible, and of suppressing the witness of the Spirit on the more crucial issues. There are, to be sure, less central issues of which we can have a very high degree of certainty—largely because any reasonable exegesis must come to such conclusions. But there are also topics on which one thinks that his views are Spirit-guided, but his own certainty of such matters is stated more humbly. It is intriguing to note in 1 Cor 7:40 that Paul uses this kind of language in his view of remarriage after the death of a spouse: “But if the husband dies, she is free to marry whom she will, provided the marriage is within the Lord’s fellowship. She is better off as she is; that is my opinion, and I believe that I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 7:39b-40, REB). There seem to be degrees of certainty that the Spirit bears witness to. Issues of marriage and remarriage are not core doctrinal convictions, but must still be worked out in terms of sapiential preference and solid exegesis.

Thus, on the other hand, in those areas outside core theological commitments, we have both the freedom and the responsibility to do tough exegetical spadework and to follow where the evidence leads us.

As those who believe that God is truth, we must commit ourselves to pursue truth in our exegesis no matter the cost, as long as it is within the bounds of taxonomically core doctrinal commitments as defined by the Spirit’s witness and solid exegetical conclusions. This will by its very nature involve challenging (and maybe slaughtering) sacred cows. But it is the exegete’s and the theologian’s sacred responsibility to examine the text historically. Checks and balances are in place—both theologically and exegetically—via the witness of the Spirit, solid exegesis, and the fact that the theologian’s and the exegete’s labors are done in community with others who can evaluate and challenge conclusions.

A Theology of Minimums?

In all that has been said, the question may arise, “Are we not forced to accept a theology of minimums rather than organizing and arranging truth and bringing all things under the Lordship of Christ?” To this the response is, not necessarily. What we are arguing is that there is a central core of truth that has established itself through the centuries and been agreed to by all who name the name of Christ, regardless of the communion or denomination of Christianity to which they belong. It is this core that is the starting point of our theological understanding. It is the minimums that identify us as Christian as opposed to something else. This core represents the minimum theological commitment of a Christian. But beyond that minimum there is within the theologian an inward push to organize all understanding and systematize it into a comprehensive whole. This compulsion, it could be argued, is an inward human compulsion. We at least in the West must see how things fit together. We must “dismantle the universe” whether it be physical or theological and learn how it works, and coax out its hidden secrets.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Clues” the crew of the Enterprise awakens after having been rendered unconscious by an energy field apparently for a few seconds. The ship is apparently unharmed although it was hurled several light years from its location. However, several small anomalies and inconsistencies lead Captain Picard to believe that something more sinister has happened to the ship and that Commander Data is somehow complicit in the affair. As the mystery unravels it is discovered that the ship has encountered a xenophobic alien race and in order to survive Captain Picard had to agree to have all memories of the encounter wiped from the consciousness of the crewmembers and all physical evidence eliminated. When the discovery of what really happened is made, the alien race again threatens to eliminate the Enterprise. Picard pleads the case noting that the reason that the ruse was discovered was that clues were left behind and that humans are compelled to figure out mysteries. It is precisely this compulsion to figure out mystery that has compelled modern science to its advances. It is the same force that compels the theologian to make further discoveries and advance theological understanding.

At this point we fall under the model of the theologian as explorer/scientist. We test, probe, investigate, and extend our theological knowledge and build a comprehensive understanding, an understanding that we believe is right and accurate. As we work we operate within a paradigm of understanding. And we seek to extend the paradigm. As we learn we develop a full orbed system that tries to incorporate all truth about God and his universe from any and every source under its umbrella. But eventually for a number of possible reasons, that paradigm cannot accommodate new data and another paradigm is proposed. That proposal is inevitably met with stiff resistance and the charge of heresy is leveled against those who would change the status quo.

Theology deals by definition with revelation. The ultimate database from which it draws is the entirety of creation. The subset database is the Bible, special revelation. The subset of special revelation is the salvific message of redemption. It is this that composes the “theological core,” the sine qua non of the faith. The theological enterprise is broader than the core; it seeks to organize and make sense first of the rest of special revelation and beyond that the totality of general revelation. It is as we move beyond the core that the conclusions become more tentative and open to interpretation and debate.

But when we step back from this system we have built, a system of maximums, we must recognize that our system arose out of a particular set of assumptions and pre-understandings that were universalized in our understanding and thought patterns, but in reality were not universal. Rather they were local and historically conditioned. That is not to say that all that understanding was wrong; it was the best that could be done at that place and at that time with the data and methods available.

To approach this question from another perspective, we recognize the core of the faith as having the status of metanarrative. It expresses universal and transcultural realities, although these realities arose out of particular historical events. The expansion upon the basic metanarrative encapsulates the timeless metanarrative within what is essentially a local narrative.

When conditions change, the local narrative51 may be challenged and even discarded, but this discarding is not a discarding of the metanarrative features encased in the local narrative. Rather it is the discarding of the local understandings/interpretations that have grown up around the core metanarrative, understandings that involve even the framework in which it has been encased.

The battle arises between those who have transformed the local narrative (be it Thomism, Lutheranism, Reformed, or whatever theology) into metanarrative and treat it as normative for all people, places, and times the minds of those who adhere to the systematization they equate it with metanarrative, and those who advocate a new (and as yet untested) paradigm that does not view the theological issues involved in the same manner or importance as does the old paradigm.

Ranking non-core issues

The historic faith of the Church expresses that which is at its core, the sine qua non of Christianity. A denial of the essential truth of any of the core doctrines places one outside the faith from the perspective of its essential proclamation and involves one is heresy. Yet there are many more doctrines and perspectives than those expounded in the historic and ecumenical creeds of the church. The church is divided into three major communions, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism. Within Protestantism there are numerous traditions, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Arminian as well as innumerable denominations. While Christians agree on the fundamental doctrines of the faith,52 How are we to deal with the significant differences that exist between communions and narrower traditions? How are we to rank the authority of theological constructions that are narrower than those embodied in the ecumenical creeds?

The first reality that must be reiterated in this process is that all theological constructions are finite, limited approximations that represent, recontextualize, or redescribe the presentation of the scriptural material. Additionally, by virtue of the nature of language, there is a high degree of metaphor and figurative language in scripture and in the concepts there embodied. Grant Osborne has discussed the metaphorical nature of theological language with reference to hermeneutics and its implications for theological construction.53 Osborne argues rightly that theological statements are at their core metaphorical. The consequence is that “doctrinal statements are figurative representations of theoretical constructs, and the accuracy or ‘truth’ of their portrayal is always a moot point.”54 When added to the historical dimension this makes for a degree of tentativeness in the certainty of assumptions.

In Christian theology we are dealing with something analogous to what Thomas Kuhn would call “paradigm communities” in science. Those theological formulations which transcend the boundaries that separate the three major Christian communions must have the highest authority. Within particular communions, those doctrines that are common to the entire communion will be ranked next in level of authority. In actuality, this principle applies particularly within Protestantism since it, to a far higher degree than Catholicism or Orthodoxy, finds itself characterized by discrete traditions, sub-traditions and sub-sub traditions.

Within Protestantism we would look historically at such doctrines as:

  • justification sola fide, by faith apart from human works. This is the doctrine out of which Protestant was born.
  • an understanding of the sacraments as testimonies and reminders as opposed to sacerdotalism, which sees the sacraments as actually infusing divine grace into the recipient.
  • the centrality and the final authority of the scriptures, which ranks as a hallmark of Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
  • the extent of the canon as excluding the apocrypha.

These are all examples of what would be considered second level doctrines. They are important, maybe important enough to divide over, but not a part of the fundamental core of the apostolic kerygma, and hence not an explicit part of the historic faith.

Divisions also exist between Protestant traditions, particularly between the Reformed/Calvinist tradition and the Arminian and Wesleyan/Arminian tradition. Issues that separate these traditions focus particularly upon the understanding of the nature of human depravity and spiritual ability and the nature of divine grace. The battle between these two camps has often coalesced into heated and acrimonious debate over the issue of election/predestination. Often unrecognized is that in these doctrinal constructions there is a divergence in the theological methods by which the doctrines are established and defended. The Reformed camp particularly has committed itself to a scholastic theological method that Calvin himself would find objectionable. Conversely the Arminian camp has historically had no solid center around which it built its system and has tended to drift theologically in the direction of rationalism. While not denying that there are profound implications to the questions raised, looking taxonomically at the importance of these debates they must be ranked as third level. The doctrine of predestination did not die on the cross; Jesus did.

Many other questions beg to be addressed in this discussion. Questions about organizing principles,55 philosophical systems employed by various systems and theologians, hermeneutics and the application of hermeneutics to various genre of scripture, and the implications for the development and articulation of doctrine are all-important questions that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, to address all of these questions is beyond the scope of this discussion. What this chapter has tried to demonstrate is that it is a fundamental error to view all our doctrines as on the same level of importance. Some doctrines are fundamental to the faith. These are the consensus doctrines spelled out in the ancient creeds. Interestingly these are not the doctrines that evangelicals get upset about when they are challenged. Looking taxonomically, the irony is that the doctrinal discussions that engender the most heat and least light are those doctrines that are historically and exegetically the least well established, but have been raised to touchstone level by particular denominations and traditions in a sectarian fashion.

It is in the realm of ranking doctrine that the reality of theological politics rears its ugly head. After all, everyone believes that his or her theological construction is the biblical one. Very, very few consciously recognize that factors other than the biblical text come into play in their theological belief structure. The commitment to the truth of God leads them to adopt a defensive posture and attack those who challenge their beliefs at any point. A commitment to pursue understanding and truth done within a dogmatic or confessional community must often be accomplished quietly and without challenging the powers that be, for such a challenge could well cost the individual his job or ministry. This is not hyperbole; it is a reality that I have seen happen on numerous occasions over issues as seemingly trivial as advocating dialogue with other denominations, of adopting a hermeneutical principle that is perceived to threaten the existing structure, of declaring that a denomination’s “denominational distinctives” are not cardinal doctrine.

There tends to be a fundamental insecurity among those who wield the power in denominations and schools that often cannot tolerate the mind that dares to ask questions. Reactions to new perspectives are often swift and “knee jerk.” While addressing primarily the evangelical community on this point, the same intolerance is seen on the left wing of the theological spectrum. Numerous conservative students have found their theses and dissertations rejected because they did not toe the line with politically correct exegesis or ride a theological hobbyhorse of the party line at more liberal institutions.

The raising of issues that properly are fourth or fifth level concerns in a taxonomy to touchstone level reveals a fundamental flaw in the way theology is approached. While we would not normally think in these terms, this mentality becomes schismatic and culpable before Christ because it takes the focus of reflection off Him and His work and introduces division into His body, the church.

As has been said elsewhere, systematic theology does not arise directly from the Bible, the claims of adherents to particular systems notwithstanding. It is a human enterprise.56 Theological definition is a human response to God’s revelation, and the organizing principles are of human, not divine, origin.57

While God is truth, we are not God and only have an incomplete grasp of His truth. By recognizing the relative importance of the truths we hold, we are better able to maintain the bond in unity in love.

In essential things unity
In non-essential things tolerance
In all things charity

1 This essay is a preliminary and unedited draft of a chapter in a forthcoming book; see prefatory remarks for data.

2 Theological Introduction or Prolegomena is a field of study akin in to OT Introduction and NT Introduction. In this case introduction does not mean easy, but rather preliminary issues that must be understood before looking at any system of doctrine.

3 Millard Erickson explicitly recognizes this raising of the virgin birth to touchstone status as an apologetic ploy, and that the virgin birth is not absolutely necessary for maintaining the reality of the incarnation. It is in his understanding probably a second level doctrine, i.e. not necessary for salvation. Christian Theology 2nd ed, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 757-760, 772.

4 These vowel points were not added until the medieval period by the Masoretes because Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language and there was a danger that the Jews would forget how to pronounce the text of the Hebrew scriptures .

5 The point here is not to attack or defend the doctrine of inerrancy, but merely to show how and why it achieved its central position among American evangelicals.

6 The 1970’s saw a renewal of the inerrancy controversy that had raged during the late 19th and early 20th century. The inerrancy controversy of the 1970’s and 80’s was an in-house fight among evangelicals who both asserted the characteristic essentials: “. . . conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorites that is the basis of Evangelicalism” (David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 3.) Traditionalists insisted upon the adequacy and authority of the formulations made in the late nineteenth century, while the opponents raised numerous objections to the doctrine based upon epistemology, linguistics, history, and the phenomena of the text.

7 We recognize with the historic Protestant tradition that sola scriptura means that scripture is the ultimate authority, not the only authority, a position that Donald Bloesch labels nuda scriptura (Theology of Word and Spirit, [Downers Grove: IVP, 1992] 193).

8 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom I, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977) 7.

9 Ibid.

10 Hubert Cunliffe-Jones (ed), A History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 19-20.

11 Alister McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 408-436. McGrath is supremely concerned about the communication of doctrine to generations unfamiliar with the categories of scripture and of the Reformation.

12 Cited by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 758.

13 To be sure these “truths” have been taught in other times and places, but the fact that Simpson experienced physical healing and had a crisis spiritual experience of the holiness variety that he identified as “sanctification” led to these doctrines being elevated to touchstone status in the denomination.

14 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 83-34.

15 See Chapter 00

16 Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) 35-80.

17 Ibid, 60.

18 It is at this point particularly that we see the epistemological/philosophical substructure of the theologian affecting the Gestalt of the doctrine articulated.

19 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 61.

20 Ibid, 64.

21 Ibid, 55.

22 Ibid, 56.

23 Ibid, 55.

24 This stress on the objective nature of the Faith has led to the charge that Princeton was rationalistic in its approach to Christianity. Numerous historians and theologians have contended that the Princetonians compartmentalized faith and life. For example, C. R. Jeschke states of the Princetonians:

The strict compartmentalization of formal theology and the life of piety that came to prevail at Princeton reflected in part the growing irrelevance of traditional modes of thought and inherited statements of faith for the needs of the church in a rapidly changing world. The fact that Hodge and his colleagues, like most of their contemporaries, were unaware of the sickness in the theological body, only permitted the condition to worsen, and heightened the reaction of the patient to the cure, when its true condition was finally diagnosed. (“The Briggs Case: The Focus of a Study in Nineteenth Century Presbyterian History” [Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1966], p. 56.)

Andrew Hoffecker has challenged this perception of the Princetonians, contending that those who make such assertions ignore the wealth of devotional material left by Alexander, Charles Hodge and Warfield (Piety and the Princeton Theologians, [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981]). Despite Hoffecker’s defense of the Princetonians themselves, it is not too much to say that many even among the Old School read only the theological material of the Princetonians. This fact contributed to a cold creedal orthodoxy among a significant contingent of the Old School with its stress on pure doctrine. Even the great Greek grammarian Basil Gildersleeve, himself a Princeton graduate, decried the “baleful influence of Princeton” stating that there was from there “very little hope of a generous vivifying force” (Letter from Gildersleeve to Charles Augustus Briggs, Briggs Transcripts 5:470 located at Union Seminary Library, New York)..

25 Charles Hodge, as representative of the Princetonian position, displayed a great antipathy for any emphasis on the subjective nature of Christianity. At one point he stated: “The idea that Christianity is a form of feeling, a life, and not a system of doctrines is contrary to the faith of all Christians. Christianity always has a creed. A man who believes certain doctrines is a Christian.” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 29:693.)

26 See chapter 2 for the inadequacies of this presumption.

27 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 66.

28 Ibid, 66.

29 See Sue Patterson, Realist Christian Theology in a Post-modern Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 73-93. In this chapter entitled “The anatomy of language riddenness” she explores the way in which language actually creates and shapes our world.

30 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 67-68.

31 C. S. Lewis, Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 4-5.

32 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 69.

33 C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 133..

34 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine 70.

35 Quoted by McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 70.

36 See chapter 2, p. 00.

37 See chapter 2 p. 00. Thomas Kuhn’s classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, deals at length with the interpretation of data and how that it is given meaning within a framework. Only when data accumulates over a period of time which will not fit the framework do new understandings arise.

38 McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine, 71.

39 Ibid., 73.

40 See Chapter 00 for a further discussion.

41 See M. James Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, New York: Mellen University Press, 1994), 27-33.

42 Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed., 82-83.

43 Ibid., 82.

44 Vincent of Lerins, 000.

45 While most evangelicals intuitively side with Nestorius on the question of Theotokos vs. Christotokos there are important theological issues here cutting to the very heart of the incarnation. Protestant theologians from the Reformers to the 20th century have insisted that Mary is indeed Theotokos . For example Zwingli declared: “the Virgin should be called the Mother of God, Theotokos.” (An Exposition of the Fait, LCC XXIV, 256) Luther too concurred with this opinion. Calvin takes a whole paragraph in the Institutes defending the doctrine of Mary as Theotokos (2:14:4). In the twentieth century Karl Barth noted that it is “a test of the proper understanding of the incarnation” that “we do not reject the description of Mary as ‘mother of God’“ (Barth, CD I/2:138). The logic of the Theotokos designation is given by John of Damascus: “For as he who is born of her is true God, so she is truly Mother of God.” (John of Damascus, OF III.12, FC 37, 292.) The Council of Ephesus affirmed that this designation as Mother of God was “according to his human nature” but not “according to the divine nature.” Oden has summarized the significance of the title: Theotokos “does not mean that the nature of the Word or of his divinity received the beginning of its existence from the Holy Virgin, but that since the holy body, animated by a rational soul, which the Word united to Himself according to the hypostasis, was born from her, the Word was born according to the flesh” (Tomas Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989), 157.

46 For an excellent discussion of the implications of Nestorianism see C. FitzSimmons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy (Harrisburg, PA: Moorehouse Publishing, 1994) 119-138.

47 See Appendix, p. 000 for the text of the creed.

48 The difference between a creed and confession is significant in that a creed is affirmed by all of Christendom whereas a confession is limited to a particular tradition.

49 See M. James Sawyer, “Evangelicals and the Canon of the New Testament” Grace Journal of Theology 11:1 (1990) 00.

50 This section addresses the question of taxonomy from the perspective of the work of the exegete and is drawn from unpublished work done by Daniel B. Wallace. Grant Osborne, too, discusses this topic in The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), 286-317.

51 I am using the term postmodern term “local narrative” here not in the more conventional sense of geographically or culturally local, but in the sense of a theological system/tradition that conceptualizes Christianity in a peculiar fashion and which those within that tradition tend to globalize as the one right understanding.

52 For the purposes of discussion, fringe groups and liberal Christianity are not in view here since both of these groups actively deny crucial elements of the historic faith. Even non-creedal groups such as the Baptists agree with the doctrines taught by the ecumenical creeds while not generally accepting the authority of the creeds themselves.

53 Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991) 299-309.

54 Ibid., 307.

55 See here Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987) for an excellent discussion about issues surrounding the questions of system building and organizing principles.

56 See Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, volume 1, p. 3-11. Schaff’s discussion focuses upon the development of creeds in the life of the church. Systematic theology in this sense is a further extention of the theologizing found in the creeds of the church.

57 See B. B Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology.” In The Necessity of Systematic Theology, John Jefferson Davis (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978). Even as he insists on the objectivity of the facts of divine revelation, Warfield’s whole argument hinges upon the idea that theology is a science as geology or other natural sciences areas a sciences. It is the work of man to collect, to organize and to show the organic relationship of the data, integrating it into a concatenated whole. See also Vern Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), Poythress’ argument is for the perspectival nature of human knowledge a perspectivalism that extends even to biblical and theological study. Implicit in his argument is that human understanding is finite and limited, thus while there may be objective truth in the mind of God, humans cannot attain to it. Therefore no one system of theology can give us ultimate truth. All systems are partial and incomplete.

Related Topics: Theology

Preface to God's Plan

Jesus warned about “straining gnats and swallowing camels” (Matthew 23:24). By this He was referring to a fixation on particular details of the Law, while loosing sight of the broad principles and purposes of the Law. Many of us get “lost in the details of Scripture,” and lose sight of the big picture of what God is doing in this world. We need to understand the details of the Bible in the light of the eternal “plan” which God is carrying out in history.

This series is dedicated to a study of this eternal plan, as it relates to time, to man, to Israel, to the Gentiles, to Jesus Christ, to Satan, and to us today. It is my hope that this study will help you to put today’s events into an eternal perspective.

The material in these sermons is available without charge for your personal study and to assist you in living, teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Theology Proper (God)

1. The Author and Perfecter of the Plan


“What in the world is going on?” You have probably asked this question or a similar one more than once in your life. We ask this question when we perceive that what is happening does not seem to square with our understanding of how things are supposed to be. It assumes there is a God, and that He has a plan and a purpose for His creation. It also assumes that present conditions seem to contradict that plan.

“What in the world is going on?” Some of the great men of the Bible asked this of God. When Job’s life seemed to crumble, his family, flocks and wealth suddenly snatched from him by the cruel hand of fate, he pressed God for an explanation of what was going on in his world:1

Then Job replied, “Even today my complaint is rebellion; His hand is heavy despite my groaning. “Oh that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat! “I would present my case before Him and fill my mouth with arguments. “I would learn the words which He would answer, and perceive what He would say to me. “Would He contend with me by the greatness of His power? No, surely He would pay attention to me. “There the upright would reason with Him; and I would be delivered forever from my Judge (Job 23:1-7).

Habakkuk also questioned what God was doing when God informed him that He was about to chastise Judah by means of the cruel and wicked Chaldeans:

Art Thou not from everlasting, O LORD, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. Thou, O LORD, hast appointed them to judge; And Thou, O Rock, hast established them to correct. Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor. Why dost Thou look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why art Thou silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they? Why hast Thou made men like the fish of the sea, like creeping things without a ruler over them? The Chaldeans bring all of them up with a hook, drag them away with their net, and gather them together in their fishing net. Therefore, they rejoice and are glad. Therefore, they offer a sacrifice to their net and burn incense to their fishing net; because through these things their catch is large, and their food is plentiful. Will they therefore empty their net and continually slay nations without sparing? I will stand on my guard post and station myself on the rampart; and I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, and how I may reply when I am reproved (Habakkuk 1:12--2:1).

In Psalm 73, Asaph confesses questioning what God was doing, coming dangerously close to accusing God of disregarding His covenant promises. He could not understand what in the world God was doing by allowing the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer.2

In each of these biblical instances, the question, “What in the world is going on?” was unanswered. God did not explain to Job why he allowed Satan to afflict him. Neither Asaph nor Habakkuk were given the explanation they sought. The focus of each of these men was redirected from the problems which perplexed them to God. Once they came to view their circumstances in light of who God is rather than seeing God in the light of their circumstances, they ceased to question God. They still did not know the plan-- “What in the world is going on?”--but they did know the Planner. That was enough.

When the Lord Jesus came to earth, many were those who asked themselves what in the world was going on. Mary pondered many things in her heart which she did not understand concerning the coming of Messiah. In the beginning, the disciples of our Lord were beside themselves with joy and excitement. But when Jesus began to speak of His rejection, suffering, and death, the disciples were baffled. “What in the world is going on?” they thought. Peter even appointed himself to speak with Jesus and to straighten Him out. How could the Messiah possibly speak of His own death?

Earlier in Jesus’ earthly ministry, He spoke of the kingdom of God in parables, veiling the truth for the time. As the time of His crucifixion drew near, Jesus began to spell out more clearly details of the divine plan for creation.3 He drew their attention to the Old Testament prophecies, explaining how His rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection were a necessary part of God’s eternal plan. The disciples still did not understand.

After His resurrection and before His ascension into heaven, Jesus finally opened their eyes to understand the plan of God, especially concerning His sacrificial death.

And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27).

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. “You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:44-48).

This study, led by our Lord, was probably His most comprehensive teaching. He drew together not only all of His teaching during His earthly ministry but all of the Old Testament teaching concerning Himself, especially His suffering and sacrificial death for the sins of men. The response of the two men on the road to Emmaus gives testimony to the power of that lesson:

And they said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

When we are with our Lord in eternity I believe we shall sit at His feet as He teaches us this same lesson. Even more, I think He will teach us not only of His suffering and how this was fulfilled in the Scriptures, but also of His glory. What a lesson that will be!

In our study of God’s eternal plan for His creation, we shall seek to imitate as closely as possible the method of our Lord in teaching His disciples concerning His suffering and death. Just as our Lord began at the beginning and taught through the Old Testament, so we shall seek to study God’s plan for His creation from the beginning to the end. As our Lord limited His teaching to the revelation of the Scriptures, so shall we. Until we sit at the feet of our Lord and hear from His lips God’s plan for the ages, from Genesis to Revelation, we shall search the Scriptures ourselves. May our hearts burn within us as we do!

In only a few lessons, our series will cover the watershed events of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. We will span the course of history and beyond, beginning with eternity past and ending with eternity future. As we do this, I would like you to approach our study as an appetizer and not as a full-course meal. We will consider subject matter vastly beyond us both in volume and in content. Do not try to understand all of the details on your first reading, but rather seek to get a glimpse of the horizon. Look for the forest rather than the trees. The depth of the majesty of God and His eternal plan could never be expounded or exhausted in a single message or series. My hope is that this study will serve as an appetizer, whetting your appetite for the full-course meal. That meal will not be found in these lessons alone, but in your own study.

We will consider in this first lesson God as the Author and Finisher of the eternal plan for creation. The next lesson will consider God’s overall plan and its characteristics. In the remaining lessons, we will explore the plan of God as it has been progressively revealed, explained, and executed throughout the course of history. This will include God’s plan as it relates to . . . 


      Israel and the Gentiles


      The Messiah


      The Church


      The Future

In some ways, the study of God’s plan for the ages is simply an expanded study of this text in Romans 8:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

May God grant that our efforts, guided and enlightened by His Spirit, may underscore the truth of this text, that God is Sovereign, in complete control over His creation and that He is orchestrating history to bring about His glory, which is the good of every Christian.

May this lesson, and those which follow, help us take our eyes off of ourselves and fix our eyes on Him who is the Author and Finisher of the faith.4

A Guiding Principle

A vitally important principle should govern our study of God’s plan for creation. The principle is put forth in Deuteronomy 29 as Moses declares to the Israelites God’s plan for the Jews, a plan encompassing Israel’s sin and rebellion, chastening, exile, and restoration:

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

The revelation of God’s plan for His creation is partial; it is purposely so by divine design. Some things are “revealed” and some things remain “secret.” The “secret things belong to God,” we are told. They are not for us to know. The things revealed are for us. They are for us to know, to understand, to meditate upon, and to explore. Specifically, they are revealed to us so that we might obey God’s commands.5

How often we do just the opposite of what God has instructed here. Often, we set aside what God has revealed to us, seeking instead to solve the mysteries of what has not been revealed. We try to fill in the blanks of prophecy, as though this were necessary, when God tells us the blanks are by design because this information is not necessary.6 Let us seek to avoid this error in our study.

The Author and Perfecter of the Plan

Imagine finding a pamphlet entitled “Operation Desert Scam,” written by a man claiming to have a solution to the Middle East problems. The pamphlet outlines a plan for gaining political power over the Middle East. The writer is confident; the plan is bold. At the end of the proposal is the name of the man proposing the plan: Saddam Hussein.

Who will ever forget the words of “Stormin’ Norman,” General Schwarzkopf, describing Saddam Hussein as a military leader? Saddam Hussein was no military man; he was a power-hungry dictator. He was no strategist, no tactician, and no general. The failure of Iraq’s attempt to annex Kuwait is attributable to the failure of Saddam Hussein’s plan. This is because the plan was no better than the planner.

The same is true of God’s plan for all of creation: The plan is as certain as God, the Planner, is wise and powerful. The plan is as good as He is morally perfect. It is as just as He is righteous and holy. It is as compassionate as He is full of mercy and compassion. It is imperative then that we begin our study with a consideration of God as the Planner. Only from this vantage point can we properly appreciate the plan itself. An adequate appreciation of the nature and attributes of God requires more than a lifetime; it requires an eternity in His presence. Here we can only briefly survey some of God’s attributes and characteristics which reflect upon His plan for creation. We will take a sampling from the Scriptures of God’s nature, His character, and His activities as declared in the Bible.

The Planner is the Creator of all things:

All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:3, see also verse 10).

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created by Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16).7

Because God, the Planner, is also the Creator, He is the rightful owner of all creation. After the exodus, God reminded the Israelites they were no longer Pharaoh’s slaves; they were His slaves. He further instructed them that the land they were to possess and enjoy was not their land but His (see Exodus 19:4-6; Leviticus 25:23, 55; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2). As the Creator, God has the right to do with His creation as He wishes because He owns all of creation.

As Creator God also had the freedom to design and fashion His creation in a way that would best serve His purposes. A house designed and built by someone else will be different than the one you would design and build. When someone else builds a house and we buy it, certain things can be changed but some things are beyond modification.

The Scriptures are clear that all creation was planned and brought into existence by God. His creation was made the way He wanted it, in accordance with His eternal plan. He has not been handed a creation of someone else’s making. All things were created in accordance with His plan and His purposes.

The Planner is the Redeemer of His creation:

At the exodus, God redeemed the Israelite nation from their slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:13; Deuteronomy 7:8; 13:5; 15:15; 21:8; 24:18). In even a much greater way, God has redeemed all creation through the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:18-20).

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight . . . (Ephesians 1:7-8).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption . . . . And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor was it that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:11-12, 21-26).

At the time one is drawn to faith in Christ, the redemption God accomplished through the blood of Jesus Christ results in immediate forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life. Christ’s work on the cross is also the basis for the full and final restoration of all creation in the future:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Romans 8:18-23).

The Planner is the Sustainer of His creation:

In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind? (Job:12:10)

For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring’ (Acts 17:28).

And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17; see also 1 Corinthians 8:6).

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).

God, the Planner and Creator, is also the Sustainer of His creation. He is not distant and uninvolved with His creation; He is deeply involved in every aspect of its existence. He has individually fashioned each one of us; He has numbered our days (Psalm 139:13-16). He feeds the birds of the air (Matthew 6:26) and the rest of the animal kingdom as well:

The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God. . . . They all wait for Thee, to give them their food in due season. Thou dost give to them, they gather it up; Thou dost open Thy hand, they are satisfied with good (Psalm 104:21, 27-28).8

The Planner is all-knowing:

God knows each of us intimately, including the number of hairs on our head and the thoughts of our hearts (Matthew 10:30; Psalm 139:1-6, 16). He knows when a sparrow falls to the ground and the number of hairs on our head (Matthew 10:29-30). God knows not only what will happen, but what could happen. That is, He knows all things actual and all things possible:

Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Thy servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. “Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Thy servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Thy servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When it was told Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the pursuit (1 Samuel 23:10-13).

David had been fleeing from King Saul who was trying to kill him. David and his men went to Keilah to fight the Philistines who had besieged this city of Judah (see Joshua 15:44). After liberating the city, David and his men remained on there. When Saul learned David and his men were staying in Keilah, he sent his army to capture them. David was informed that Saul would try to take him captive, and so he inquired of the Lord (by means of the ephod) what would happen if Saul were to encounter him in this place. David wished to know if Saul would come to Keilah, and, if so, whether the people of the city would turn him over to the king. God answered that Saul would come and that the people would turn him over.

But notice what happened. David and his men fled from the city. When Saul learned they were no longer at Keilah, he gave up his pursuit. God told David that Saul would come to Keilah, and that the people would hand him over to the king. In fact, Saul did not come, and the people did not hand David over because David fled from the city with his men. God’s answer to David’s question was based on the premise that David would stay at Keilah. If he had stayed, Saul’s army would have come to the city and the people of the city would have handed David over. God was able to answer David as He did because God is omniscient, all-knowing. He knows not only what will actually happen but what would happen under any set of circumstances. This kind of knowledge is vastly superior to anything we can even imagine. When God formulated His eternal plan, He took into account everything that could possibly happen.

God, the Planner, is all-wise:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

To the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 16:27).

For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

Knowledge and wisdom are different. Knowledge is the raw material; wisdom is the skill to use this material in the most advantageous way in light of the goal. For us, knowledge is the information we gather from our research; wisdom is the skill to understand and arrange this information into an accurate, enjoyable, and informative paper. God knows all, but in addition God has the wisdom (skill) to arrange and orchestrate all the elements of His creation so the end result is “good, acceptable, and perfect” (see Romans 8:28; 12:2). The Planner is the God who is “all wise.” There is no better planner than God.

The Planner does not change:

Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17; see also Job 23:13-14).

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:28-29).

And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why doth Thine anger burn against Thy people whom Thou hast brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Thy burning anger and change Thy mind about doing harm to Thy people. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants to whom Thou didst swear by Thyself, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people (Exodus 32:9-14).

Human plans change, and they change frequently because of imperfection. Our church is currently involved in a building program. Mike Mayse, our architect, is doing an excellent job. When I asked him a question about a certain aspect of the program, Mike pulled out a massive “scroll” of building plans, and I learned the answer to my question. But now our building plans have changed. There have been several sets of plans because we did not know all we needed to know when we made the plans. Our imperfection causes changes to occur. God alone is perfect, and thus there is no need for Him to change.9 And since His plans are perfect as well, they will not change either. Centuries before the event, God said what would happen; centuries later, events occur just as He said.

The Planner is sovereign over every aspect of His creation:

As Creator and Redeemer, God has the right to determine the destiny of His creation. As the all-knowing, all-wise God, He has the ability to formulate the plan to do so. As a sovereign God, He has the power to execute the plan and bring it to completion.

God’s complete control over His creation is evident everywhere. All of the animals obediently entered the ark before the flood. The waters of the Red Sea parted, allowing the Israelites to pass through but swallowing up the Egyptians who pursued them. In the New Testament, the stilling of the storm amazed the disciples who were awe-struck that even the winds and waves obeyed the voice of the Master (Luke 8:22-25).

    God is in complete control over the lives of individuals:

The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:1).

The tongue is the hardest member of the body to control (see James 3:8). If God is in control over what men say, then He is in full control.10

    God is in control over kings and kingdoms:

For not from the east, nor from the west, nor from the desert comes exaltation; But God is the Judge; He puts down one, and exalts another (Psalm 75:6-7).

The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes (Proverbs 21:1).

“And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, and knowledge to men of understanding” (Daniel 2:21).11

God’s control is such that He is able to give men the freedom to make choices and even to sin, and yet use this to fulfill His purpose:12

“And I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:21-22).

Blessed be the LORD the God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to adorn the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:27).

For the wrath of man shall praise Thee; with a remnant of wrath Thou shalt gird Thyself (Psalm 76:10).

“For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God should be fulfilled” (Revelation 17:17).

God’s control is vastly greater than any control known to men. In the final analysis we have little control over others. It takes parents only a little time to realize this.13 When we seek to increase our control over others, we do so by limiting their freedom. Society puts criminals in prisons. Parents restrict their children to their rooms. But God’s control is so complete, He does not lose control by giving men freedom to make choices.14 Joseph knew that while it was the decision of his brothers to sell him into slavery behind it all was the guiding hand of God achieving His purposes and promises. Centuries earlier, God said this to Abraham:

And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:13-16).

Centuries later, Joseph could say to his brothers:

“And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph,” God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay’” (Genesis 45:7-9).


There is a plan for Creation. It is God’s plan. Because He is the Creator and Redeemer, God has every right to determine the destiny of His creation.15 His justice, mercy, and love assure us that the kingdom He has planned will be good, for all those who trust in Him. Due to His knowledge and wisdom, the plan will be perfect. In His sovereign power, His kingdom is sure to be established, just as He planned and promised. The plan is a good as the Planner.

It is important that we appreciate God and His attributes in relation to His plan. The plan alone is not enough. Only when the plan and the Planner are presented and received together is the purpose of God achieved. God never asked men to trust and obey Him without a plan. In the Gospels, Jesus not only called on men to believe in Him but to follow Him. It is vital that the Planner and the plan be presented and accepted together.16

To proclaim the Planner, without the plan, is to dilute the gospel of Jesus Christ and is a futile effort to make the gospel appealing and to increase results. To proclaim the plan, without presenting the Person, is to fail to point men to the only proper Object of faith. Ultimately, men have faith in the plan because it is God’s plan.

God’s plan for His creation is no mere academic matter, something we study for the mental exercise or to satisfy our curiosity. The plan, because it is God’s plan, is a matter of life and death. Listen to the words of Moses as he set out the plan of God for the nation Israel:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. “But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You shall not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

Throughout history men have rejected God and His rule over them because they did not like His plan. Adam and Eve chose Satan’s plan rather than God’s. Israel conducted itself in the same way, rejecting God by forsaking His law. When the Lord Jesus came to the earth, offering men the blessing of eternal life in the kingdom of God, they rejected Him as their King because they did not want the program which He proposed. I believe the same thing is happening today. When unbelieving men and women hear the message of the gospel, they do not like the program. As Paul put it, the program is offensive to the Jews and foolish to the Gentiles (see 1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

To believe in God, and to submit to His plan, is to find life. To reject His plan is to reject the Planner and to choose death. Our study is of the highest importance to you personally - for our study concerns your eternal destiny.

Our subject for this study draws my attention to a text in the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, where we read:

“Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. “And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me. “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. “Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; otherwise believe on account of the works themselves. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father. “And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:1-15).

Two vitally important truths are evident in this passage.

First is that Jesus Christ was the revelation and personification (incarnation, if you please) of God to men. The disciples wanted to see what the Father (the Planner) was like. Jesus told them that seeing Him was to know what the Father was like. We began our study by looking at some of the characteristics of the Planner. Jesus told His disciples He was the personification of the Planner. In Christ, the Planner is revealed to men, fully and finally (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Second, in Christ, the plan is presented to men. As Jesus spoke to His disciples about the future, He was explaining God’s plan to them. They protested they could not understand it. They wanted to know the way. Jesus told them He was the way. When the plan seems beyond our grasp, all we need to remember is that God’s plan can be summed up in one word, in one person: Jesus Christ. To believe in Him is to trust the Planner. To know Him is to know the plan. We need only to fix our eyes and our faith on Jesus, and we will have chosen the Planner and the plan, with the outcome of eternal life (Hebrews 12:2).

Years ago, I happened to be present when a wise and godly elder was being informed of some rather serious problems between a husband and his wife. I thought they needed help concerning their specific problem (and perhaps they did). His response surprised me. He said, “I think they need to study the attributes of God.”

I must admit I thought his advice was inappropriate and irrelevant. I now see it differently. Often times we become obsessed with our problems, with our needs. We ask the question, “What in the world is going on?” We strive to learn how the Bible, and more specifically, how God relates to our need. We wonder why a God who is all-wise and all-powerful can be so aloof, so unconcerned with our personal crisis. We want to know, right now, what God’s plan is for our life. We want to know what He is doing through our adversity.

When Job, Asaph, and Habakkuk pressed God for an explanation of their circumstances or an answer to their questions, they did not get one. Job was not informed that Satan and the angels were being instructed. He was not even told his suffering would ultimately strengthen his faith and lead to further blessings. He was simply reminded of who God is. He was turned Godward, to reflect upon His majesty, wisdom, and power. Job finally got the point. If God is all-wise and all-powerful, if God is the Creator and Sustainer of all creation, then He is in control. He was in control of Job’s life, and He was doing what is right, what is best. Job did not understand the plan. He did not need to know it. He did know enough about the Planner to trust in Him, whatever his circumstances. Centuries later, Peter put it this way:

Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (1 Peter 4:19).

If we do not know the plan, we do know the Planner. That is all we need to know in order to trust and obey.

In my study of this lesson, I was reminded of the little book written by J. B. Phillips some time ago entitled, Your God is Too Small. God is not too small; our understanding of Him is too small. We think little thoughts about a God who is greater than our minds can conceive. When our God is too small, we become swallowed up by our circumstances and begin to question what He is doing.

The solution to most of our problems is more simple than we would wish to admit. It is to enlarge our understanding of the greatness of our God. There is a way to do this. It is not a way which appeals to the flesh. That way is to go on what I like to call a “low cholesterol diet.” We need to reduce our intake of “high cholesterol.” The cholesterol to which I refer is self-centeredness, a preoccupation with our own needs and desires and problems.

I propose reading which is God-centered rather than man-centered. It should be reading which results in worship in a deep sense of God’s worth rather fleshly self-absorption. Bible reading will do this for us best of all. Some authors writings can help us as well. Their books will likely not be on the best- sellers list, because they do not cater to the flesh. A. W. Tozer is one of the great writers who persists at pointing us to God and to His greatness. Books on the attributes of God, written by men like Arthur Pink and others, are healthy food for the soul. As our grasp of the greatness of God increases, our self-absorption will begin to diminish. Our preoccupation with our own pain will be swallowed up by the pleasure of knowing and serving God.

One of the foundational attributes of God which assures us concerning His plan is His sovereignty. Sovereignty, like salvation, must be received or rejected. Those who cannot find comfort and solace in the sovereignty of God will find His sovereignty a source of irritation. Sovereignty runs contrary to the natural (fallen) bent of our flesh. Dr. B. B. Warfield has written pointedly on this matter:

“The difficulties we feel with regard to Predestination are not derived from the Word. The Word is full of it, because it is full of God, and when we say God and mean God--God in all that God is--we have said Predestination.

Our difficulties with Predestination arise from a, no doubt not unnatural, unwillingness to acknowledge ourselves to be wholly at the disposal of another. We wish to be at our own disposal. We wish ‘to belong to ourselves,’ and we resent belonging, especially belonging absolutely, to anybody else, even if that anybody else be God.”17

May the sovereignty of God and the resulting certainty of His plan become a great comfort and encouragement to you.

Praise God He has established a plan, a plan which is for the good of all who love Him and trust in Him, a plan which is as sure and certain as the character of God Himself. May God grant us wisdom and understanding as we seek to better understand His plan. As we study the plan, may we come to know and to entrust our souls to our Creator, the Planner who is worthy of our trust, our praise, and our obedience.

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) How can our Lord’s teaching concerning Himself in Luke 24 (verses 25-27, 44-47) guide us in our approach to the study of God’s plan for the ages?

Jesus drew together all of the Old Testament texts which spoke of the ministry of our Lord, especially those which had to do with His suffering and death. They were familiar with these texts in isolation, but they had not seen them as a whole. Jesus began with the Law of Moses, and then went to the Psalms and all the Prophets. We should do likewise. If we rightly understand God’s plan for the ages, we should be able to see it unfolding as we move from Genesis to Revelation (we, of course, have the New Testament Scriptures as well to take into account).

(2) How does God’s plan for creation relate directly to you and to your life? Why should this study be important to you?

God’s plan for the ages is the “big picture.” It tells me what God is doing and the goal to which history is moving. It tells me the future, which enables me to make the right decisions in time (see Hebrews 11). It informs me of God’s will in general, which sheds much light on God’s will for me in particular. It reminds me that God is not “here for me” as much as I am here for Him, to trust and obey Him, and to worship and serve Him. It puts things back into a proper perspective.

(3) What do the nature and attributes of God have to do with God’s plan for creation?

Plans are no better than the planner. God’s plans are not as thoroughly spelled out in the Bible as His nature and attributes are. But knowing who God is tells me that His plan, whatever it may be, is “good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The nature and attributes of God assure us that the plan is as perfect as the Planner.

(4) Without considering any of the details of God’s plan (as it relates to this question), in what ways can we be assured that His plan is superior to any human plan because of who the Planner is?

God’s plan is based upon His knowledge of all things (actual and possible), wisdom, goodness, perfection, and sovereignty. He has both the right and the wisdom to formulate and execute a plan for all creation. The creation of all things was one of the first acts of God in beginning to carry out the plan. History, when viewed biblically, is but the outworking of His plan. God’s plan is superior to man’s plans in every way that God is superior to man.

(5) How does focusing on God help me to deal with my problems?

Sin is self-centered; worship is God-centered. Preoccupation with myself is both wrong and counter-productive. Whenever we view God through the midst of our problems, we have a greatly distorted picture of God. Whenever we view our problems in the light of who our God is, we see them very differently. We now see problems as a gift from God, drawing us nearer to Him, and achieving His plan and purposes in a way that will bring Him greater glory. Focusing on God, rather than my problems, strengthens my faith, giving me the strength to endure the sufferings and groanings of life, which God has purposed for my good and His glory (see Psalm 73; Romans 5, 8).


God is the Creator of all things:

Genesis 1 and 2
John 1:3
Acts 17:24-26
Corinthians 8:6
Colossians 1:16
Hebrews 1:2; 11:3
Implications: Genesis 2:15-25; Exodus 19:4-6; Leviticus 25:23, 55; Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; Psalm 19; 139.

God is the Redeemer of His creation:

Exodus 15:13
Deuteronomy 7:8; 13:5; 15:15; 21:8; 24:18
Romans 8:18-23
Ephesians 1:7-8
Colossians 1:18-20
Hebrews 9:11-12, 21-26
Peter 1:13-21

God is the Sustainer of His creation:

Job 12:10
Psalm 104:21, 27-28
Matthew 6:26
Acts 17:28
Corinthians 8:6
Colossians 1:17
Romans 11:36

God is all-knowing:

Samuel 23:10-13
Psalm 139:1-6, 16
Matthew 10;29-30
Luke 5:21-22
John 1:44-49

God is all-wise:

Job 38-41
Proverbs 8
Romans 11:33-36; 16:27
Corinthians 1:18-25

God does not change:

Exodus 32:9-14
Job 23:13-14
Psalm 102:26-27 (see Hebrews 1:12)
Jonah 3:1-10 (see Jeremiah 18:1-12)
Matthew 5:17-18
Romans 11:28-29
Hebrews 13:8
James 1:17

God is sovereign, in complete control over every aspect of His creation.

Genesis 15:13-16; 45:7-9
Exodus 3:21-22
Samuel 2:6-7
Ezra 7:27
Job 12;10
Psalm 31:15; 66:7; 75:6-7; 76:10; 104:21, 27-28
Proverbs 16:1, 9; 21:1
Daniel 2:21; 4:25, 35
Matthew 5:45; 10:29
Luke 8:22-25
Acts 14:17
Revelation 17:17

1 Even when God does reveal the plan, it is not spelled out fully but only in broad terms. God informed Isaiah concerning some of what lay ahead for him in his ministry (see Isaiah 6). To my knowledge, the most definitive explanation of God’s plan for a man’s life is that revealed to Paul (see Acts 9:10-16; Acts 13:1-2; 16:6-10; 20:22-23; 21:10-14; 22:14-21; 26:14-18; 27:23-24). Even here, much is not told to Paul. Little did Paul realize, for example, how God would arrange for Paul’s transportation to Rome (see Romans 15:22-29; Acts 21-28).

2 Suffering seems most often to be the occasion when men question God’s way of governing His creation. Such was the case with Job, Habakkuk, and Asaph.

3 See Matthew 24 and 25; Mark 13; Luke 21.

4 See Hebrews 12:1 and 2.

5 This is consistent with the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 and with the exhortation of Peter in 2 Peter 3:11-13.

6 All that is necessary has been revealed to us in Scripture. See 2 Peter 1:2-4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

7 See additionally Acts 17:24-26; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2; 11:3.

8 I submit the reason we fail to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), is because we have forgotten from where our food comes. Is this part of the reason Jesus considered hunger a blessing (see Luke 6:21, 25)?

9 In reading the Bible one will notice instances in the Scriptures where God appears to change His mind (see Exodus 32:1-14; Jonah 3:1-10). Since a detailed explanation cannot be attempted here, two general comments must suffice. First, the change is apparent, from man’s point of view. At our point in time, we view God as having changed. From His eternal perspective, the apparent “change” was a part of His eternal purpose. In Exodus 32, Moses’ argument was that God could not change His mind and forsake the nation Israel because of her sin. Moses reasoned that God’s glory required God to finish what He had started and not change to some other plan. Second, in the Book of Jonah the “change” which seems to have happened here was not really a change; God was consistently following the principle He Himself laid down in Jeremiah 18:5-12.

10 This truth needs to be pondered. First, we must be careful not to give God credit for everything that is said, as though He prompted the words rather than permitted them. Much sin is committed with the tongue. God allows men to speak certain things which are evil. God does not prompt men to speak evil, for He is not the author of sin. God may prevent men from speaking certain evils which would hinder His plan. But when any word is spoken, it is by divine permission. Let us remember this the next time someone says something very hurtful to us. God allowed it, just as He allowed Satan to afflict Job. But just as surely, He did not permit it for the downfall or destruction of His children but for their good. Also let it be remembered that God sometimes prompted one of His creatures to say something which it would not otherwise have said. I am thinking of Balaam’s beast (Numbers 22:21-30), Balaam himself (Numbers 23:1-12), and the high priest in Jesus’ day (John 11:42-53). Men are always accountable for what they say (Matthew 12:36-37) and for what they do not say (Acts 12:20-23).

11 See also Daniel 4:21, 34-35; Isaiah 10:5-7, 15.

12 “Augustine somewhere makes the following correct distinction: ‘that they sin, proceeds from themselves, that in sinning they perform this or that particular action, is from the power of God, who divides the darkness according to his pleasure.’” Calvin, citing Augustine, as quoted by J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962) p. 167.

13 Those parents who do not (or will not) see this are those who injure and even kill their children, because they refuse to admit they cannot completely control their child. They injure the child by using force to make him submit to their desires or demands. There are things we as parents can control, and we are responsible to exercise this control (see 1 Timothy 3:4). There are also many things beyond our control (such as the salvation of our children). This is why wise parents spend much time in prayer. Prayer acknowledges that God is in control.

14 These choices, however, are highly influenced by the circumstances over which God is providentially or directly in control.

15 See Romans 9:19-24 where Paul uses the imagery of the potter and the clay to stress God’s right to determine man’s destiny and the impropriety of any man questioning that right.

16 Those whose understanding of the Scriptures and of the power of God are deficient try to increase the results of evangelistic efforts by playing up the person of our Lord and playing down God’s plan. This is because the plan is not appealing to the flesh and will only be believed and received as the Father draws men through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The gospel should be a clear presentation of the person of our Lord, as well as the plan to which we are called to submit.

17 B. B. Warfield, “Some Thoughts on Predestination.” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 1 (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), p. 103.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Theology Proper (God)

2. God’s Perfect Plan

“Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, you who have been borne by Me from birth, and have been carried from the womb; even to your old age, I shall be the same, and even to your graying years I shall bear you! I have done it, and I shall carry you; and I shall bear you, and I shall deliver you. To whom would you liken Me, and make Me equal and compare Me, that we should be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse and weigh silver on the scale hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; they bow down, indeed they worship it. They lift it upon the shoulder and carry it; they set it in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; it cannot deliver him from his distress. Remember this, and be assured; recall it to mind, you transgressors. Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isaiah 46:3-11).


I remember reading of a man who thought he had a fool-proof plan for sneaking into a drive-in movie without paying. He would crawl into the trunk of the car, and his wife would pay only for herself. Once inside the drive-in, she would let him out of the trunk.

The plan sounded good, but it failed. The man did crawl into the trunk, and his wife drove into the theater just as they planned. Only when she attempted to release him did they realize the problem with the plan--the husband had the keys to the trunk in his pocket. After firemen cut through the trunk, the man was released, but neither he nor his wife saw the movie. Some plans may sound good, but they do not work. Even if this plan had worked, it could hardly be called good, for the intent was to deceive and enjoy a movie at another’s expense.

God’s plan for creation is a good plan. The goal for which it was instituted is of the highest good. It is good in a functional sense, because the plan is certain to work, producing the ends for which it was ordained. Ultimately, it is good because it is God’s plan.

Our first lesson considered God as the Planner, concentrating on some aspects of His nature and attributes. Because God is the Planner, we are assured that the plan is both certain and good. In this lesson we will consider the plan, focusing on the general characteristics of God’s plan as a prelude to our study of the unfolding of the plan in history.

There is a Plan

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that there is a plan. A number of evidences could be used for the existence of God’s plan for creation, but the most compelling evidence is that which is recorded in Scripture:

The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart from generation to generation (Psalm 33:11).

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

“This is the plan devised against the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out against all the nations. For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:26-27).18

The statements of the Second Person of the Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ, are consistent with the words of Scripture concerning God’s plan. The Old Testament prophets laid out God’s plan for Messiah, which included both His suffering and His glory:

Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering Thou hast not desired, but a body Thou hast prepared for Me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast taken no pleasure. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (in the roll of the book it is written of Me) to do Thy will, O God.’” After saying the above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast not desired, nor hast Thou taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Thy will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:5-10).19

At the time of His birth, some of God’s plan for Christ were described (see Luke 1 :26-38, 67-79; 2:8-14, 25-35). Repeatedly our Lord indicated He was not pursuing His own plan but fulfilling the plan of the Father:

And it came about that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” And He said to them, “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” And they did not understand the statement which He had made to them (Luke 2:46-50).

The disciples therefore were saying to one another, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:33, 34).

And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? (Matthew 26:39-40).20

A Definition of the Plan

Before emphasizing some of the characteristics of God’s plan for creation, we must have a definition of God’s plan. The most concise and accurate definition of God’s eternal plan is found in the Westminister Confession of Faith, which reads:

“God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

With this brief definition, let us now seek to expand our definition by identifying some of the plan’s important characteristics.

Characteristics of the Plan

(1) The plan is God’s plan.

“Remember this, and be assured; recall it to mind, you transgressors. Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure’; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it” (Isaiah 46:3-11).

Our first lesson focused on God as the Planner. In this lesson, we are studying the plan--God’s plan. The plan reflects the attributes of God, the Planner.

(2) The plan of God encompasses all that He has predestined to occur.

When our Lord spoke of the Father’s plan for all eternity, He spoke of it as the Father’s will. Likewise, when we speak of “God’s plan for creation” or of “God’s plan for the ages” we will sometimes refer to this as God’s will, and rightly so. But this “will” of God must be carefully distinguished from several other “wills.” Broadly speaking, the expression, the “will of God”21 can summarized in this way:


God’s eternal decree


God’s desire


God’s standards for men


God’s overriding will

The “purposed will of God” refers to God’s eternal decree, the plan which will surely come to pass. It encompasses all of the other “wills.” The “preferential will of God” refers to that which gives God pleasure or displeasure. Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals that the cross of Calvary was not our Lord’s desire, but it was His purpose. “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). In spite of this desire, God has purposed that some will be eternally saved, while others will be eternally damned (see Romans 9). Just as we may spank a disobedient child when it is not our desire or delight, God’s decree includes some things in which he does not delight, like the punishment of the wicked.

The “prescriptive will of God” is God’s will expressed as a standard for man’s conduct. It is God’s will set down in the Scriptures as commands, standards, or principles which govern what we do or do not do. It is God’s prescriptive will that we do not steal, lie, or worship idols. It is likewise His (prescriptive) will that we love Him and love our neighbor. God’s “permissive will” includes those events or actions of men which are, in and of themselves, sinful. They are contrary to God’s preference and to His prescriptive will. Nevertheless God uses sin to accomplish His will. God used the sinful actions of Joseph’s brothers to bring the entire family of Jacob (Israel) to Egypt, thus fulfilling His will (see Genesis 15:12-16). He used the opposition of the scribes and Pharisees, the treachery of Judas, and the political cowardice of Herod and Pilate to bring about the sacrificial death of our Lord:

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know-- this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. “And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:22-24).

God’s purposed will incorporates all of His subordinate wills. In His Word, God reveals both His preferential and prescriptive will.22 When men trust and obey Him, God employs their obedience to fulfill a portion of His plan. When men rebel and disobey Him, God sovereignly uses their sin to further His plan. In this way God causes all things to work together for good, to those who are the called according to His plan and purpose (see Romans 8:28).

(3) The plan of God is eternal.

God is eternal, and so is His plan. The plan was established in eternity past, long before God created the heavens and the earth. It extends to eternity future when God’s kingdom will be established on the earth, and men will enjoy the eternal blessings of being in His presence, or the agony of eternal separation. The revelation of God’s plan in the Bible does not begin at the beginning of eternity (if we can speak in these terms) but at man’s beginning, since the Bible is about man and for man.

The foundation of the world is a point of reference in the Bible:

“Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him (Ephesians 1:4).

Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you (1 Peter 1:18-20).

And it was given to him [the beast] to make war with the saints and to overcome them; and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain (Revelation 13:7-8).23

For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “As I swore in My wrath, They shall not enter My rest,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world (Hebrews 4:3).

God’s plan was established long before creation. His program for mankind began at creation. Because the Bible is addressed to men, the story of creation is the starting point. Satan’s origin and fall are given little attention in the Bible. In the texts dealing with his fall, reference to him is somewhat veiled, intertwined with an indictment of kings (see Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19).

(4) The plan of God is all-encompassing.

When human plans fail, it is often because the planner has overlooked some detail. Something unforeseen arises, and suddenly plans collapse. This is because every detail was not taken into account. God’s plan is all-inclusive. It is based on God’s omniscience (knowing all), so that everything past, present, and future is taken into account. God’s omniscience, as we have seen, includes all things which will actually occur, as well as all things which could possibly occur. Every contingency is taken into account in God’s plan. God’s plan is for all creation, things in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities (Colossians 1:16).

God’s plan includes seemingly insignificant details. It excludes “good luck” or coincidences. When Joseph wandered about in a field looking for his brothers, he did not just happen to be found and told where his brothers had gone (Genesis 37:14-17). The fact that the pit into which Joseph was thrown was empty was no coincidence (37:24). The passing caravan, which was headed toward Egypt, was no accident either (37:25-28). The fact that Ruth would “happen” upon the field of Boaz, a near kinsman of Naomi, was not mere chance but a matter of God’s providential control (Ruth 2:3).

God’s plan includes the sovereign election of individuals to salvation and to destruction. As difficult as this may be for some to accept, it is the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture (John 1:12-13; 6:37, 44, 65; Acts 13:48; 16:14; Romans 9; Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Apart from the sovereign intervention of God, through His Spirit, no man seeks God, and no man will ever find Him (see Romans 3:10-18; John 6:44). Because salvation is God’s work, and not our own, God should receive the glory. This fact also makes our salvation and sanctification secure (Philippian 1:6). This is no way minimizes our responsibility to proclaim the gospel or man’s responsibility to receive or reject it (see Romans 10; Matthew 28:18-20, etc.).

God’s plan also includes the creation of life, the design, and the destiny of men (see Psalm 127; 139). It includes the calling of individuals to specific service (see Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:15). The plan has precise timing as well (Jeremiah 25:11-12; Daniel 9:2, 24-27; 12:11-12; Mark 1:15; 13:32-33; Luke 1:20; John 7:6).

(5) The goal of God’s plan is to bring glory to Himself.

“But indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Numbers 14:21).

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands (Psalm 19:1).

“For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can my name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:11).

“Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Revelation 4:11).24

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).25

The demonstration of God’s glory is offensive to the unbeliever who would rather seek his own glory (see Romans 1:18-25). So it was with Satan as well (see Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:12-15). Charles Hodge aptly points out the error of making man’s happiness the goal of God’s plan:

“If we make the good of the creature the ultimate object of all God’s works, then we subordinate God to the creature, and endless confusion and unavoidable error are the consequences.”26

To the Christian, the glory of God is our hope:

Through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2).

(6) God’s plan does not change, and it cannot be thwarted--it is an efficacious (certain) plan.

This characteristic of God’s plan is frequently and dogmatically affirmed in the Scriptures. God’s plan does not change:27

In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil (Hebrews 6:17-19).28

The plan of God is absolutely certain:

The counsel of the Lord stands forever, The plans of His heart from generation to generation (Psalm 33:11) .

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord, it will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

“This is the plan devised against the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out against all the nations. “For the Lord of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His stretched-out hand, who can turn it back?” (Isaiah 14:26-27).

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:28-29).

The assuring truth that God’s plan is efficacious (certain) is because it is God’s plan. This is based on the truth that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, that He is faithful to His promises, and that His glory is at stake. It is also based on the fact that God’s plan is eternal and all-inclusive. Nothing is more certain than the plan of God.

Having this clearly in mind, let us also take note of some other characteristics of God’s plan.

(7) God’s plan is partially and progressively being revealed.

The plan of God is complete, fully developed, and as good as done, from God’s point of view: “His works were finished from the foundation of the world” (Hebrews 4:3). From a human point of view, the plan is being unfolded progressively through history and is only partially revealed. The Old Testament Law laid out the broad outline of God’s plan. God’s plan could be seen in its initial outworking through the history of Israel. The Old Testament prophets persisted in calling Israel’s attention to the fundamentals God had laid out in the Law. They also added more detail to the plan which God had outlined in the Law. If the Law foretold of a Savior through the “seed” of Eve (Genesis 3:15), it was later revealed that this seed would be the offspring of David (2 Samuel 7) and also of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). The suffering of the Messiah is hinted at in Genesis 3;15 and is foreshadowed in the offering up of Isaac (Genesis 22) and in the rejection and suffering of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), as well as in the Passover (Exodus 12). It is further explained in the Psalms (16, 22) and the prophets (Isaiah 53). The coming Messiah, who was at first understood to be a “son of man” is later described as the “Son of God” (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2). And so the Messiah was progressively revealed as the God-man.

When the Lord Jesus came to the earth, suffered, died, and rose again, God’s plan for the Messiah’s first coming was fulfilled. The Gospels, along with the Epistles, thoroughly explain the plan of God for Messiah’s first coming. Our Lord, followed by His apostles, gave further insight into God’s plan for His second coming.

In its outworking, God’s plan is progressive in yet another way. God’s plan is divided into separate, but related, programs which might be called administrations. Some call them dispensations. Even those who reject dispensationalism admit to one degree or another that there are differences in the way in which God has exercised His rule over men. At each point of change, there are some principles and precepts which remain constant, while other aspects change significantly.29

While God has revealed all that we need to know about His plan for creation, there is much He has purposed not to reveal to us. We are instructed not to seek to fill these gaps (see Deuteronomy 29:29; Revelation 22:18-19). Some prophecies are deliberately “veiled” by highly symbolic imagery, and others are “sealed:”

“And those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase. . . . As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what will be the outcome of these events?” And he said, “Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time. “Many will be purged, purified and refined; but the wicked will act wickedly, and none of the wicked will understand, but those who have insight will understand. “And from the time that the regular sacrifice is abolished, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. “How blessed is he who keeps waiting and attains to the 1,335 days! “But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age” (Daniel 12:3-4, 8-13).

At times of sin and rebellion against God, the prophetic lamp is extinguished, so to speak. This is because God does not wish to inform nor to comfort sinners. The source of man’s confidence and comfort is God. When men turn from God, they turn also from His comfort and the enjoyment of peace and hope:

Be delayed and wait. Blind yourselves and be blind. They become drunk, but not with wine; They stagger, but not with strong drink. For the Lord has poured over you a spirit of deep sleep, He has shut your eyes, the prophets; And He has covered your heads, the seers. And the entire vision shall be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, “ Please read this, “he will say,” I cannot, for it is sealed. “ Then the book will be given to the one who is illiterate, saying, “ Please read this. “And he will say,” I cannot read. “ Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be concealed. “ Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the Lord, and whose deeds are done in a dark place, and they say, “Who sees us?” or “Who knows us?” (Isaiah 29:9-15).

(8) God’s plan is a mystery.

To the degree that God has not revealed His plan, it is a mystery. But even that which He does reveal is a mystery.

For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles--if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him (Ephesians 3:1-12).

God’s plan is a mystery because it is the product of the divine mind of God and not the finite mind of man:

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:6-9).

It is a mystery because of the mysterious way in which God works, using sin to accomplish His good will, suffering to produce glory, death to bring about life. It is a mystery which fallen man cannot fathom apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit:

But just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, And which have not entered the heart of man, All that God has prepared for those who love Him.” For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:9-16).

(9) The outcome of God’s plan for the Christian is his good.

You and I do not set up insurance programs, savings accounts, or college education funds for every child in the neighborhood. We make provisions for the good of our children. God’s plan is not only for His glory, but for the good of “those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). His plan is not for the “good” of those who rebel against Him and reject His plan. God’s plan has a purpose for both the saved and the lost, but the destiny of each is vastly different:

What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:22-24).

(10) God’s plan employs means which the human mind would see as incompatible with the end God has purposed.

While the outcome of God’s plan is certain to be for the good of the Christian, the process which God uses may appear otherwise. God allows sin to be committed for evil purposes when it produces the good He has purposed. It is very difficult in the midst of the process to see the “good” God is producing as the final product. A cake in the making is quite different from the finished product. The process includes beating and heating, but the final product is good eating.

God’s children must therefore live by faith, trusting in God’s promises even when present circumstances seem to contradict them. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us this was the case with all of the Old Testament saints:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

We must come to see suffering not just as the result of sin but the process for producing saints:

And you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:5-11).

(11) If the goal of God’s plan is to demonstrate the glory of God, the means is the establishment of God’s rule or dominion on the earth.

In short, God’s plan for creation is all about the establishment of the “Kingdom of God.” Every dispensation, or administration, found in the Bible concerns God’s rule on earth. Satan was the most powerful angel, the most powerful of all the creatures God brought into existence. But he did not wish to be subordinate to God’s rule. He wished rather to have the preeminence, to rule himself (see Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28). Adam and Eve were created to rule over God’s creation in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Satan persuaded Eve and then Adam to rebel against God and against His one rule. God created the nation Israel to serve as a kingdom of priests, the instrument through which the rule of God over the earth could be implemented (see Exodus 19:5-6). They too rebelled against God, His rule, and His rules (His law).

When Jesus came to the earth, He presented Himself as the Messiah, the God-man whom God appointed to rule, seated on the throne of His father David. Israel did not want God’s kind of kingdom, and thus they rejected and crucified their King, insisting that Caesar alone was their king (John 19:15). Now, the church rules, but not by physical force (see John 18:36). We rule in Israel’s place for the time being as a “holy priesthood,” a “chosen race,” and a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:5, 9-10). The history of the church (see Revelation 2 and 3) will demonstrate that we too will not rule as God would have us do, and thus He Himself must come to the earth to establish the kingdom of God.

God’s plan for creation is to rule over His creation in a way that demonstrates His glory. Until that day, when our hope of glory is realized, we must live in a world that suffers the effects of man’s fall, a world in which there is suffering and groaning. We shall find that we ourselves groan, waiting for His perfect rule (see Romans 8:18-25).

While the heated debate among Christians over the “lordship salvation” controversy seems to have abated for a time, the issue is still very much alive. I find that God’s plan for creation involves both--lordship (God’s rule) and salvation (through Christ’s sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection). Why do we try so hard to remove the issue of our Lord’s rule (lordship) and salvation? The Messiah came to save men from their sins, and He will come again to establish His rule over a fallen world. When we repent and turn to Christ in faith, we should understand that we receive Him as Savior and Lord. To whatever excesses this truth may have been carried, let us not reject the truth. Nebuchadnezzar learned about lordship the hard way, but he indeed learned:

“This is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: that you be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes. . . . “But at the end of that period I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His Kingdom endures from generation to generation. “And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’” (Daniel 4:24-25, 34-35).30

Throughout human history, men have demonstrated their faith in God by submitting to His rule. They, like saints today, understood that one must trust and obey. If we love Him, our Lord Jesus said, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). This is why Moses set the law before the people of Israel as a matter of life and death (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20). It is not because law-keeping saves us, but because reverence for God will be reflected by respect for His laws.


There is a plan for creation. It is God’s plan. It is an eternal plan, one which encompasses all of creation, and every detail. It is a plan which is certain to be fulfilled, for the glory of God and for the good of those who love Him. The plan is a mystery, which we would not have known apart from its partial and progressive revelation in the Bible. It is one we cannot understand, apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is a plan which employs means we would naturally think are inconsistent with its end--its goal. God uses suffering to produce holiness, faith, and His glory. He uses the rebellion of men to establish His eternal rule.

To the degree that God’s plan has been revealed to us, it has been given for a purpose. What is the purpose of knowing God’s plan? Let us conclude our overview of God’s plan by considering some of its practical implications.

(1) What God has joined together, let not man separate.31 God has a way of joining things which men want to separate. We, for example, want to separate “love” and “our enemy.” We also want to separate suffering and glory. No wonder Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:10-12) the Old Testament prophets were so puzzled by the prophecies which spoke both of Messiah’s suffering (like Isaiah 53) and of His glory (like Psalm 2 or 110). God’s plan for the ages informs us that suffering is compatible with God’s glory. Let us not seek to separate these two, since God in His plan, has joined them.

Saints of old struggled with this tension of suffering and glory. Job could not understand his suffering. Asaph, in Psalm 73, struggled with the success of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. God’s program reveals that suffering in the will of God leads to glory (see 2 Timothy 2:10-12). Let us never forget that no one will ever experience suffering and glory more than our Lord. Whatever suffering God may call us to endure, to enter into His glory, it will never begin to compare with that our Lord Himself experienced (see Romans 5, 8; Hebrews 12).

(2) God’s plan should shape our plans. God’s plan suggests that we should plan. But His plan is also instructive as to the kind of plans we make. Some see planning as inconsistent with our faith in God, directing us to such texts as:

“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on” (Matthew 6:25a, KJV).

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34, KJV).

I have cited the King James Version’s rendering of these verses because the archaic wording is misleading. It seems to prohibit any thought, any consideration of the future. If so, this would surely prohibit planning for the future. In the context, however, it is clear that Jesus is teaching us not to worry about the future; He is not telling us to refrain from planning for the future. Worry is the opposite of faith. Our worries concerning the future are hypothetical, based upon our fears and not upon God’s promises. They focus on what we fear might happen, and they neglect God’s plan which assures us of what is certain to happen.

Jesus never discouraged plans. He exposed the foolishness of poor planning, especially planning which failed to count the cost (Luke 14:28). He urged potential followers to count the cost of discipleship (Luke 9:57-62). Early in His ministry, when our Lord was popular, He instructed His disciples to take no provisions for their journey (Luke 9:3-5), but when opposition to our Lord intensified, Jesus told His disciples to make provisions for their future needs as they went about proclaiming the gospel (Luke 22:35-38). Planning is not condemned in Scripture; it is commended (see Proverbs 31:10-22).

As Christians, the kind of plans we should make ought to be subordinate to and guided by God’s plan. God has not revealed His entire plan to us, and thus we do not know the specific dates and timing of promised future events (see Matthew 24:34-36). Because God’s plan is a mystery, understood fully only after its fulfillment, we dare not be presumptuous in our plans for the future. All of our plans must be subordinate to God’s plan and must take into account God’s rearranging of our plans:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16).

We must not take our plans too seriously. In the Book of Acts, the apostles devised a plan to replace Judas (see Acts 1:12-26). From what we can tell, the action taken by the apostles did not have much of an impact on the church. When, on the other hand, God raised up Paul as an apostle, completely independent of the apostles, the world was turned upside-down. The apostolic church had not planned to evangelize the world and probably would have opposed it (see Acts 10 and 11). Nevertheless, God sovereignly sent out witnesses (Acts 8:1; 11:19-21) so that churches began to spring up in the Gentile world.

In my estimation, the apostle Paul’s plans serve as a model for our plans. They were inspired by and consistent with God’s plan for him and for his ministry, as well as for the world (see Acts 9:15-16; Romans 1:1-15). Because God’s plan included the salvation of all nations, Paul kept pressing toward those places which were unevangelized (Romans 15:18-21). He drew tentative conclusions concerning God’s plan for his life, and then set himself to carrying out God’s purpose (see Philippians 1:19-26; 2:19-24).

Paul’s plans were often modified by divine intervention. Paul and others were alert to God’s leading (see Acts 13:1-4; 16:4-10; Romans 15:22). Sometimes human and/or satanic opposition played a part in the changes in Paul’s plans, but all of this was in the providence of God (see 1 Thessalonians 2:14-18).

The important lesson for us to learn is that we should plan for the future. Our plans should be governed and guided by what we know of God’s overall plan for His creation. Our plans should also be tentative, knowing that God often accomplishes His will in ways which we would never have imagined and for which we would never have planned. In these cases, our plans must change as the hand of God becomes evident.32

(3) God’s plan has not been revealed to stifle our sense of responsibility but rather to reinforce it. The expression, “What will be, will be” does not go far enough. The Bible teaches us that “Whatever God wills, will be.” This truth is taught in the Bible to encourage and motivate us to live godly lives. It is not intended to cause us to become careless as though nothing we do matters. God’s kingdom is certain, but whether His purposes are realized through a Moses (who obeyed God) or a Pharaoh (who opposed Him) makes a great deal of difference to Moses and Pharaoh.

Our Lord and His apostles taught that God’s plan was the basis for godly living. Peter, in his last epistle, puts it this way:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you (2 Peter 3:10-15).

This lesson brought a text to mind which I have not taken seriously enough before:

“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. ‘Give us this day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen’ (Matthew 6:9-15).

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” One might conclude from these words that God’s will is not being done on the earth, but that it is in heaven. Our study of God’s plan for creation teaches us that God’s will is being done on the earth. How then can Jesus instruct us to pray in this way?

“As it is” is the critical phrase which provides the solution to our dilemma. God’s will is being done in heaven. God’s will is also being done on the earth. But God’s will is being accomplished in heaven in a way that is different from the way it is achieved on earth. The Lord instructed us to pray that His will would be done on earth in the same way (“as it is”) being done in heaven.

What is the difference between the way God’s will is being done here on earth now and the way His will is presently being done in heaven? On earth, God’s purposed will is accomplished by means of man’s obedience as well as man’s disobedience.

In heaven, God’s will is done differently. There, His will is written on the hearts of men. Men will do His will, joyfully, consistently, and without exception. There will be no permissive will in heaven. There will be no sin, no rebellion, no need to employ evil to achieve good or suffering to bring glory. On earth at present, God’s will is being accomplished, but not in the way which most delights the heart of God. In heaven, it will be different. We are instructed by our Lord to set our hearts on heaven and to pray for the kingdom of God to come so that God’s will indeed will be done on earth as it is in heaven. For this to be true, you and I who know and love God must delight in the thought of man’s complete submission to God and to His will. Knowing God’s plan should produce such desires and such prayers.

May our continued study of God’s plan serve this purpose, to instill within our hearts faith and hope, and to motivate us to live godly lives in this present evil age to the glory of God. May we be used in His plan as obedient servants, and not as stubborn sons kicking and screaming at every turn. May we be a Moses and not a Pharaoh. Either way, God will be glorified, and His will accomplished. It is a choice we have been given. It is a choice which determines not only our eternal destiny, but our peace, joy, and hope in the present. May we choose to praise God, the Planner, for His perfect plan.

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) How do you know there is a plan?

Plans are necessary in order to pursue and fulfill a purpose. They give structure and order to one’s pursuit of that purpose. God is a God of order and purpose. Most importantly, God’s Word frequently speaks of God’s plan, counsel, or purpose (see attached Scripture references).

(2) Why does it matter whether or not there is a plan?

If there is no plan, then there is no purpose--no goal--for creation. There is, in this case, no guiding purpose to which we may subordinate our lives and by which we can gain perspective, priorities, and direction. If there is no plan, God has no purpose, and if God has no purpose for us, we are adrift in life.

(3) Why would anyone conclude there is no plan or Planner (e.g. “God is dead”)?

If one sees no purpose for life, then he would conclude there is no plan or Planner. When life seems chaotic, random, and senseless, the same conclusion seems logical. For those who deny the existence of sin and the trials and tribulations which result from it, logic would conclude that there is no plan. When men reason that suffering is incompatible with glory and that God could not and would not employ sin and evil to achieve His plan, they reason that a plan and a planner are non-existent.

(4) If there is a plan, why do we need to know it?

Knowing God’s plan enables us to know and relate to the Planner more intimately (Genesis 18:17-19; John 15:15). It informs and inspires our prayers (Daniel 9). It puts before us a destiny so glorious that we are encouraged to endure the groanings of this life, and indeed, to endure suffering and rejection for the sake of Christ (Romans 8:18-25; Hebrews 11:24-26). It assures us that God’s ends are often accomplished through means which seem contradictory. It teaches us that groaning leads to glory. It reminds us that what we see in the present is often deceptive and quickly passes away while the kingdom of God is eternal (Psalm 73:17-28), and that the future which may appear certain to the human eye is illusive and deceptive (James 4:13-17). Knowing God’s plan suggests that we too should plan, but that our plans should be tentative, subject to divine veto or revision. Those parts of God’s plan which have already been fulfilled assure us of God’s faithfulness to fulfill His promises on time, literally, and exactly, as promised. They also instruct us that we can never fully grasp the plan until it is fulfilled.

(5) What does not (or cannot) God’s plan do for us?

The revelation of God’s plan will always be partial and incomplete. We are not to understand the details of God’s program but the main outline. We are to discern the “camels” and not speculate on the “gnats” (see Matthew 23:24). Knowledge of God’s plan does not reduce our need for faith, but increases the need for faith. This is because what we “see” now often appears to contradict what God’s plan says about His kingdom. The more we know of the plan and see of our present circumstances, the more faith is required (see Hebrews 11).

(6) How can we go about understanding God’s plan as clearly as He intended? What method should we employ in studying the plan?

The method our Lord employed in teaching the two men on the road to Emmaus, and later on the 11 apostles (Luke 24:25-27, 44-48), seems best. Our study will seek to trace the major elements in God’s plan through the Scriptures. We should limit our study to what the Scriptures say, and avoid speculation about what is not said (see Deuteronomy 29:29; 1 Timothy 1:4-7; 2 Timothy 2:23). We should give emphasis to that which is said emphatically, clearly, and repeatedly.

(7) Overall, what is God’s plan like?

God’s plan is God’s plan. It is a perfect plan, because it is based upon the infinite knowledge and wisdom of God and on His character. It is a plan to demonstrate the glory of God and to produce what is for the Christian’s good by establishing the righteous rule of God on earth. The plan is eternal, all-encompassing, and certain.

(8) What makes God’s plan perfect?

The plan is perfect because the Planner is perfect and not to be compared with any other (see Isaiah 46:5-7).

(9) What does God’s plan suggest to us about planning?

It suggests that we, like God, should plan. We should have a purpose and a plan to achieve that purpose. God’s plan should be adopted as our plan and thus guide and govern all our planning. Our plans should be subordinate to God’s plan and made in a way which anticipates God’s overriding of our plan.

(10) Why does God not reveal any more of His plan than He has?

We do not really need to know what He chooses to conceal. Often, such knowledge would only prove to be detrimental to our motivation. (If, for example, we know the exact day of His return, we might be slack in our service until just before His return. This would be something like parents leaving their children home with instructions to clean the house before they return. If the children know when the parents are coming, the house may be a pig pen until seconds before they come through the door.) Leaving some details out forces us to put our trust in God, the Planner, and not just in the plan.

(11) Will any more of God’s plan be revealed?

The Bible indicates that while God has spoken at various times in the past, revealing His plan, He spoke finally and fully when our Lord appeared (see Hebrews 1:1-3). The teaching of our Lord and His apostles appears to be sufficient. We know more of God’s plan because of Scriptural revelation and the record of fulfilled prophecy in history than any saint of old ever dreamed of knowing.

(12) Does knowing God’s plan explain what is happening in our lives at the moment?

God’s plan seldom explains exactly what God is doing at the moment. Job, for example, was not informed that his trials were a part of a heavenly object lesson to Satan, as well as a faith-strengthening exercise for him. What God’s plan does explain is that God is in control, whatever may be happening at the moment, and that this is being orchestrated by God to produce what is for His glory and our good (Romans 8:28).

(13) What in God’s plan would man have never included?

Suffering (divine or human); a sovereign God; delay (waiting); faith.

(14) What is there about God’s plan which gives the Christian comfort?

God is in control.

(15) What is there about God’s plan which men find distasteful, even unacceptable?

God is in control.

(16) Is God in control of everything that happens in my life?


(17) Is God ever the author or the cause of sin or evil?


(18) Is God in control of who is saved and who is not?

Yes. This is not what men want to hear. Men do not want to admit they are not in control. They rebel against God’s control. This is the expression of our sin, just as submission and obedience to God evidences our faith. Apart from divine intervention and enablement, no one would or could be saved (see John 1:12-13; Romans 3:10-18; John 6:44; Ephesians 2:1-3). If God were not in control of salvation, no one would ever be saved, for sinful men would never turn to God to be delivered from their sins. And since it is God who began the work of salvation, we are assured He will finish what He started (Philippians 1:6). The doctrine of divine sovereignty flies in the face of all that sinful men want to believe about God and themselves. One must take the Scriptures seriously so that doctrine is based upon God’s Word and not on our wishes or preferences. Idols are the gods which men make as they want them. God made us as He wanted us. False worship wants a “god” man can control; the Bible portrays a God who is in control of all creation, including man. Who would you rather have in complete control, a gracious and compassionate God who is righteous and all-knowing, or sinful man, enslaved by Satan and the flesh?

A Biblical Summary and Overview

Some passages which characterize God’s plan:

(1) There is a plan: Psalm 33:11; Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 14:26-27; 46:8-11; Matthew 26:39-40; Luke 1:26-38, 67-69; 2:8-14, 25-35, 46-50; John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40; 19:30; Romans 8:28

(2) The plan for creation is God’s plan: Isaiah 46:3-11

(3) God’s plan encompasses all that He has predestined to occur:

  • God’s purposed will: Psalm 33:11; Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 14:26-27; 46:3-11; 55:10-11; Romans 8:28-29
  • God’s preferential will: 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9
  • God’s prescriptive will: Exodus 20:1-17
  • God’s permissive will: Numbers 22-24 (note especially 22:12, 21-22, 34-35); Acts 2:22-24

(4) God’s plan is eternal: Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:11-19; Matthew 25:34; John 17:24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Hebrews 4:3; 1 Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 13:7-8; 17:8

(5) God’s plan is all-encompassing: Genesis 37:14-17, 24, 25-28; Psalm 127; 139; Jeremiah 1:5; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; Galatians 1:15; Colossians 1:16

(6) The goal of God’s plan is to bring glory to Himself: Numbers 14:21; Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 48:11; John 17:1-5; Romans 5:2; 9:22-24; 11:36; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Hebrews 1:3; Jude 25; Revelation 4:11

(7) God’s plan is unchanging and cannot be stopped: Psalm 33:11; Proverbs 19;21; Isaiah 14:26-27; 55:10-11; Romans 11;28-29; Hebrews 6:17-19; 12:25-29. See also Exodus 32 and Jonah 3.

(8) God’s plan is partially and progressively revealed: Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; 22; 49:8-12; Exodus 12; Deuteronomy 29:29; 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 16; 22; Isaiah 9:6-7; 29:9-15; 52:13--53:12; Daniel 12:3-4, 8-13; Micah 5:2; Luke 24:27, 44; 1 Corinthians 13:9-1; 1 Peter 1:10-12; Hebrews 1:1-2; Revelation 22:8-13

(9) God’s plan is a mystery: Isaiah 55:6-9; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16; 13:12; Ephesians 3:1-13

(10) God’s plan will work out for the good of every believer: Romans 8:28; 9:22-24

(11) God’s plan employs means which the human mind would reason to be incompatible with His intended goal: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Romans 11:11-13, 28-32; 1 Peter 1:3-12; Hebrews 11:13-16; 12:5-11

(12) God’s plan is to demonstrate His glory by establishing His rule over the earth: Genesis 1:26; 9:1-17; Exodus 19:5-6; Psalm 2; 110; Isaiah 9:6-7; 14; Ezekiel 28; Daniel 4:17, 24-26, 34-37; John 19:15; Romans 10:9; 1 Peter 2:5, 9-10 Revelation 19:16; 21-22

Passages which speak of man’s sin and of the impossibility of salvation apart from divine intervening grace: Romans 3:10-18; John 1:12-13; 6:44; Ephesians 2:1-3

Passages which speak of God’s control over the eternal destiny of men: John 1:12-13; 6:37, 44, 65; Acts 13:48; 16;14; Romans 9; Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8; 17:8

Passages which declare our responsibility to proclaim the gospel: Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 10:13-15

Passages which speak of man’s responsibility for their response to the gospel: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Proverbs 1:20-33; Isaiah 55; John 3:16-21; Romans 10:1-13; Revelation 20:12-15; 22:12-17

18 See also Isaiah 46:8-11.

19 See 1 Peter 1:10-12.

20 See also John 5:30; 6:38-40.

21 What might be called the “personal will of God” is, by far, the most popular of God’s wills. It is the plan which God has for me, individually, within His overall plan. It does not, however, fall within the scope of this lesson.

22 The legalist concerns himself with a minimal keeping of God’s prescriptive will. The true follower of our Lord seeks also to determine God’s preferential will, so as to please Him.

23 See also Revelation 17:8.

24 See also 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

25 See also Isaiah 48; Ezekiel 20; Romans 1:18-25; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; Ephesians 1:3-14.

26 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprinted [photolithoprinted], May 1977) I, p. 536.

27 Some may question this statement in the light of those passages which speak of God “changing His mind.” We cannot here sufficiently deal with this question thoroughly, but consider this observation which may be helpful in seeking a solution to this problem.

In virtually every instance where God is said to “relent” or to “change His mind,” the context is man’s sin and God’s threat of judgment. Such was the case in Exodus 32 and also in chapter 3 of Jonah. In both cases, men had sinned, and God threatened to destroy them because of their sin. In the light of Jeremiah 18:1-10, we should see that God’s promise, both of blessing and of judgment, is conditional. He will not bless those who depart from righteousness and turn to sin. Neither will He destroy those who repent, forsake their sin, and turn to righteousness. In God’s economy, a threat of punishment is not a promise of certain punishment, unless men refuse to repent. Jonah’s anger, in chapter 3, was based not upon God’s change, but rather upon His constancy. God is always merciful and compassionate, Jonah protested (4:2). Sparing Nineveh was consistent with God’s Word (in Jeremiah 18 and elsewhere) and with His conduct in dealing with Israel. Thus, in those texts which speak of God changing His mind, the end result is that God consistently carries out His plan and His promises.

28 See also, Hebrews 12:25-29.

29 What is constant, as can be seen from the New Testament, is the principle of justification by faith, and not by works (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:1; Galatians 3:11). For example, from the time of Adam to Noah, it seems that no meat was eaten. When God established a different administration under Noah, he, like Adam, was to subdue the earth and rule over it. It was now permissible to eat meat, however. When the Law was given through Moses, only certain kinds of meat were to be eaten, and those which could be eaten had to be slaughtered in a way that removed the blood.

Another example of change can be seen in the way God instructed Israel to worship Him. The Tabernacle, and later on, the Temple, played a prominent role in Israel’s worship. It was God’s place of abode, within Israel. The rituals of worship were the duties of a select group of priests. In the New Testament administration of the church, all the saints make up the priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10), and there is no mediator between God and man other than our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). Instead of dwelling in a physical building, God dwells in a new “building,” the church (Ephesians 2:14-22).

30 See also Isaiah 10:5-7, 15.

31 See Matthew 19:6 for this expression, which I am obviously employing out of context.

32 And so it was that though the church at Jerusalem never planned to evangelize the world, they recognized God’s hand at work in saving the Gentiles and commenced to plan in such a way as to cooperate with God’s plan as they saw it unfolding (see Acts 10 and 11; also Galatians 1:13--2:10).

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Theology Proper (God)

3. Satan’s Part in God’s Perfect Plan


Undertaking a study of God’s plan for Satan reminds me of those occasional times I put on a motorcycle helmet and set out for a ride. I do so with mixed feelings; I look forward to the ride, but I remind myself of the dangers involved. This study is important, but we dare not be ignorant of Satan’s strategies, “in order that no advantage be taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11). Our approach must be one of soberness, for the issues at hand are life and death, heaven and hell. We should avoid levity and flippancy. Satan is a serpent, and as such, he is not only deadly but often is so well camouflaged we do not see him. Some Christians see too much of Satan, as though he were behind every biblical bush. Others see too little of him. Some therefore give him too much credit and others too little.

The Bible displays a sense of proportion concerning Satan which we should seek to gain and then maintain. The Scriptures tell us all we need to know about Satan, and no more. Given Satan’s key role in the plan of God, his great power, and his cunning ways, we might expect to find more about Satan in the Bible than we do. God neither wishes to flatter Satan with too much publicity nor desires that we become preoccupied with him. Satan fell because of his insatiable desire for prominence, desiring the glory which belongs only to God. Satan should receive only the attention he deserves. God’s Word supplies the facts and perspective we need.

In this series, we are engaged in the study of God’s eternal plan for creation, having previously considered God as the perfect Planner and then His plan as the perfect plan. This lesson will consider Satan, who is literally hell-bent on perverting or preventing God’s plan. Our study will begin with a survey of the names and the nature of Satan. It then will move to the major focus of this lesson: Satan’s part in the plan of God, as seen through the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, from before creation to the final chapter of history. We will then draw some conclusions with their implications.

Beginning at the Beginning

One might expect we would start at the beginning of the Old Testament, where in the first three chapters of Genesis Satan tempts Adam and Eve, and the fall of man occurs. But the study of the temptation and the fall of man must wait until our next lesson. We must first go back in time--but forward in Scripture--to the biblical account of Satan’s creation and fall. Satan and the angels existed before the creation of the world. Indeed, the angels witnessed creation and rejoiced:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on 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?” (Job 38:4-7).

Job was not present at creation. No man was, but the angels were. In Genesis 3, Satan is present in the garden, but he is already fallen. Two Old Testament passages, Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, deserve solemn reading as they graphically portray Satan’s fall:

“How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations! “But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit” (Isaiah 14:12-15).

“Son of man, take up a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “You had the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: the ruby, the topaz, and the diamond; the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper; the lapis lazuli, the turquoise, and the emerald; and the gold, the workmanship of your settings and sockets, was in you. On the day that you were created they were prepared. “You were the anointed cherub who covers, and I placed you there. You were on the holy mountain of God; you walked in the midst of the stones of fire. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, until unrighteousness was found in you. By the abundance of your trade you were internally filled with violence, and you sinned; therefore I have cast you as profane from the mountain of God. and I have destroyed you, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom by reason of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I put you before kings, that they may see you (Ezekiel 28:12-17).

In this survey of Satan in the plan of God, we can only touch briefly on texts which hold much more than we can consider here. But we must note these general observations about the Isaiah and Ezekiel texts above:

(1) Both texts begin as a taunt against a king of a nation which opposes both God and Israel. Isaiah 14 is a taunt against the king of Babylon (14:4); Ezekiel 28 is against the ruler or prince of Tyre (28:2).

(2) The taunt in both texts takes us beyond and behind the earthly king Satan, who stands behind them and whose character and work they exemplify. Some would dispute the claim that Satan is addressed in these two texts, but the descriptions in both go beyond that of a man and fit no one other than Satan. Who but Satan:

  • has fallen from heaven (Isaiah 14:12)?
  • can be called the “star of the morning” and “son of the dawn” (Isaiah 14:12)?
  • had the “seal of perfection” and was “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty,” in “Eden, the garden of God” (Ezekiel 28:12-13)?
  • was “blameless” when created (Ezekiel 28:15)?
  • was “the anointed cherub” (Ezekiel 28:14)?

(3) These texts indicate what we should already know--that Satan’s character and conduct are manifested in those over whom he has control. The Christian is to manifest the character and conduct of our Lord. The non-Christian likewise manifests the character and conduct of Satan (see John 8:39-44). The taunt therefore addresses the earthly king who opposes God and His people, and the “prince” who stands behind, prompting men to carry out his will.

A pair of bifocal glasses offers an analogy of these texts. Some bifocals have a very clear, distinct line between one lens and the other. Newer lenses often have no distinct line; one lens blends into the other. So it is with these texts in Isaiah and Ezekiel. One “lens” is the earthly king, who opposes God and His chosen people. The other is Satan, the ultimate enemy, the ultimate evil, standing behind, orchestrating opposition through his servants. The shift from one “lens” to the other is not a clear line but a blur. Looking through the center of the lens lets us see clearly who is intended. Isaiah 14:12-15 are addressed to Satan just as Ezekiel 28:12-15 are. The immediately surrounding verses are blurry, referring most likely to both men and Satan.33 We now can understand these two texts as referring to Satan’s creation, his fall, and his character.

From Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel, we gain vitally important information about Satan which is most helpful in understanding His activities throughout history. He is a created being, who was without sin in the beginning (Ezekiel 28:15). He is an angel, a cherub (Ezekiel 28:16). He was created wise, beautiful, and powerful. His beauty, splendor, and power led to his downfall, because he did not receive these as a gift from God. Instead, he took pride in what he was given. Ambition grew in the soil of pride, and Satan was no longer content with what he had. He wanted more. He wanted that which rightly belonged to God. Because of this he was cast down, and his position was taken from him. So it would be for those kings who walked in his steps.34 They too began to develop a “god complex,” puffed up with pride and ambition because of the position and power given them.

Satan in the Old Testament

Satan is not a prominent person in the Old Testament. He is introduced early in the Scriptures and consistently represented as both the adversary of God and of men. We will consider the four Old Testament passages which depict Satan as the adversary.

Satan in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-5)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’” And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1-5).

Man was put in charge of the garden (Genesis 1:26-31). So far as we can tell, Satan had no authority, no part in the rule of God over the creation. The chain of command indicated in chapters 1-3 is Adam, Eve, and then Satan (as a creature). Satan, in true form, manages to turn this order of authority upside-down. He takes charge, gets to Adam through Eve, and brings about the fall. Satan’s arrogance and self-confidence ooze from the verses of our text.

The one who wanted to be “like God,” and who was cast down because of his pride and ambition (Isaiah 14:13-14; see Ezekiel 28:2, 9), now convinces Eve that disobedience to God’s command will make men “like God” (Genesis 3:5). Satan begins with a question, raising doubts about the goodness of God, and ending with a flat denial of God’s words which imply that God is a liar. He changes Eve’s perspective, so that the God who graciously forbade eating from the forbidden tree is viewed as a God who withholds what is good from man for His own selfish reasons. In the final analysis, Satan seems to achieve a total success by bringing about in men the same rebellion for which he was condemned. Satan approaches Eve as an ally, but in the end he is exposed as her adversary. The fall of man, and its resulting curses, are a direct result of Satan’s deception.

Satan as the Adversary of Job (Job 1 and 2)

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Hast Thou not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Thy hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse Thee to Thy face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord (Job 1:6-12).

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth, and walking around on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to ruin him without cause.” And Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Thy hand, now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse Thee to Thy face.” So the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life” (Job 2:1-6).

These texts contain important truths concerning God, Satan, and man which we will summarize:

(1) The Book of Job introduces Satan as an adversary, in the context of suffering, early in the history of mankind. While Job is not among the very first books of the Bible, many scholars believe Job lived during the patriarchal times, before Moses. While Satan may not be prominent in the Old Testament as a whole, he is clearly introduced early on as God’s enemy and man’s adversary.

(2) Satan is counted among the “sons of God” and is thus still included among the angels.

(3) Satan has freedom to go about the earth and even has access to heaven and the throne of God.

(4) Satan acknowledges God’s authority, but he does not respect it or fully submit to it. Satan knows he cannot afflict Job without God’s permission. He acknowledges that for him to afflict Job is ultimately for God to afflict him (Job 1:11; 2:5).

(5) Satan is arrogant toward God. Satan’s retort, “Skin for skin,” in verse 4 of chapter 2 may not be fully understood, but the attitude behind it is obvious. Satan shows no respect for God.

(6) Satan assumes that men are like him--that they strive for success and shun suffering. Satan’s words reveal his belief that men only serve God when it serves their own fleshly interests, and that they will turn from God when suffering comes into their lives. Satan cannot imagine anyone worshipping God for who He is, rather than for what He gives. He thinks men must be bribed to worship and to serve God. His view is: “Take away the success, replace it with suffering, and saints will turn from God.”

(7) Satan never learns. Satan is not teachable. Nothing changes his mind. While God acts in a way that could instruct Satan, he neither learns nor changes.

(8) Unwittingly, Satan serves God’s purpose. Satan’s efforts produced the opposite of what he hoped to achieve by inflicting Job with adversity and suffering. While Satan is rebellious toward God and an adversary of Job, the suffering God imposed ultimately resulted in a deepening of Job’s faith and brought greater blessings to Job.

Satan’s role in the Book of Job is a kind of microcosm, illustrating the place Satan plays in the overall plan of God. The role Satan plays in Job’s life illustrates the role Satan plays in the overall plan of God for creation. Satan is the enemy of God. He is neither humble nor submissive to God. He challenges God, thinking that afflicting Job will result in Job’s desertion from the ranks of those who worship God. But God is sovereign in Job’s sufferings. Satan can only afflict Job with God’s permission--and only within the limits God Himself has established. Job’s sufferings, while inflicted by Satan, are ultimately from the hand of God. Job may be asking the wrong questions, but he is asking the right person. After two chapters, Satan passes off the scene. When the story ends, Job’s faith has been deepened, and he is worshipping God. Job’s final condition is far better than his first. In spite of and because of Satan’s opposition, Job has been blessed, and Satan’s purpose has been frustrated. In the end, Satan learns nothing and gains nothing. God gained a more intimate relationship with Job, an opportunity to instruct the angels, and an occasion to teach us about Satan, the spiritual war, and the gracious role of suffering in the life of the saint.

As described in the Book of Job, what happened through Satan’s opposition to God and Job is exactly what always happens in the plan of God. Satan is allowed to manifest his rebellion and bring about that which he supposes will hinder God’s people and His plan. Satan is allowed to do only that which God has planned for His glory and our good. He does nothing apart from divine permission. He does nothing contrary to God’s plan. Through Satan’s opposition, God’s purposes are fulfilled, and Satan’s purposes are frustrated. In spite of his failures, Satan never learns. Instead, he hastens on in his rebellion.

Satan as the Adversary of Israel

Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and to the princes of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan, and bring me word that I may know their number.” And Joab said, “May the Lord add to His people a hundred times as many as they are! But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why does my lord seek this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt to Israel?” Nevertheless, the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Therefore, Joab departed and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem. And Joab gave the number of the census of all the people to David. And all Israel were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword; and Judah was 470,000 men who drew the sword. But he did not number Levi and Benjamin among them, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab. And God was displeased with this thing, so He struck Israel. And David said to God, “I have sinned greatly, in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of Thy servant, for I have done very foolishly” (1 Chronicles 21:1-8).

Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 24:1).

These two parallel passages tell of the same event from two very different perspectives. The account in 1 Chronicles informs us of Satan’s role in the numbering of Israel’s men. It also tells us Satan worked through David and that his purpose was to oppose Israel. The account of 2 Samuel takes us back a step further to the ultimate explanation. God was angry with Israel and allowed Satan to attack Israel through David.

This text tells us what we have already learned from the Book of Job: God uses Satan in His plan to achieve His sovereign purposes and to fulfill His plan. But it takes us one step further, teaching that God not only employs Satan to bring about the blessing of His saints, but that God also uses Satan to bring about divine discipline.

Satan as the Adversary of Joshua

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?” (Zechariah 3:1-2).

While this account adds little to what we know about Satan, it underscores an important fact: Satan is the untiring, unceasing adversary of God and of His people.

A very clear and consistent portrait of Satan is painted in the Old Testament: he is the enemy of God and the adversary of man. He seeks power and recognition for himself, arrogantly resisting and rebelling against God. He is rebellious, evil, cunning, and unteachable. He persists with his devious work. In his ambition and efforts to further his own position, he willingly sacrifices mankind and indeed all creation. He may approach us as an ally, but sooner or later he is unmasked as our adversary, a deadly foe.

Satan in the New Testament

Satan’s character and conduct do not change in the New Testament; they only intensify. We now press on to the New Testament to see how God has permitted Satan to oppose Himself and men and to fulfill His eternal plan.

Satan’s purpose is always the same: he seeks to exalt himself above God by opposing God and men. While his goals are always the same, his methods differ greatly. We see this in the way Satan opposed our Lord at the time of His first coming.

(1) Satan directly opposed God through the temptation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.’” Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘HE WILL GIVE HIS ANGELS CHARGE CONCERNING YOU’; and ‘ON THEIR HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, LEST YOU STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.’” Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.’” Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him (Matthew 4:1-11).

Satan himself was a “son of God” (see Genesis 6:2; Job 1:6; 2:1) who rebelled against God and was cast down. In the wilderness, Satan opposed God through the Lord Jesus. The issue was clear: Jesus’ sonship. And thus the repeated challenge, “If you are the Son of God . . .” (see Matthew 4:3, 6).35 In the past, Satan was quite successful in tempting men on the basis of his own fallen perspective, ambitions, and values. Satan’s temptation of Jesus reveals much about himself, as well as something very important about our Lord. The temptations which found a responsive chord in the hearts of fallen men, had no appeal to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Unlike Satan, Jesus was intent on doing the will of the Father and not acting independently. Jesus, unlike Satan, was willing to humble Himself, even to the point of death, to fulfill God’s purpose of providing the only means for man’s forgiveness and eternal life. Our Lord’s submission to the will of God was the basis for our Lord’s victory in the wilderness, as well as His victory at the cross over Satan, sin, and death.

(2) Satan also indirectly opposed the Lord Jesus Christ through his demonic helpers and through human instruments, including Israel’s spiritual leaders and two of our Lord’s disciples:

And behold, there was a woman who for eighteen years had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. And when Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness.” And He laid His hands upon her; and immediately she was made erect again, and began glorifying God. And the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the multitude in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; therefore come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall, and lead him away to water him? And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 11:13-16).

“You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him . . . and after the morsel, Satan then entered into him. Jesus therefore said to him, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:2, 27).

From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting you mind of God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:21-23).

(3) Satan opposes the Gospel by seeking to keep men from salvation in Jesus Christ.

“Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. And those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:11-12).

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

(4) Satan holds men and women captive to accomplish his will, often when they are not even aware of it.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Ephesians 2:1-3).

And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

(5) Satan opposes Christ by attacking Christians, seeking their downfall and destruction.

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you (1 Peter 5:8-10).

(6) Satan seeks to deceive and to distort the simple truths of the gospel.

But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3).

(7) Satan opposes Christians in disguise, often posing as a true believer and teacher of the truth.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

(8) In opposing the gospel, Satan employs a full range of spiritual weapons and forces, many of which are unseen.

Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Satan’s Opposition Furthers God’s Plan

The New Testament Scriptures, as well as the Old, reveal that while Satan opposes God and man in an attempt to frustrate God’s plan, his efforts are used by God to further His plan. The temptation of our Lord only demonstrated our Lord’s qualifications as the “Son of God.” Satanic opposition to our Lord was the occasion for our Lord to show His power over Satan and the demons. Our Lord’s death, which for a short time appeared to be a victory for Satan, proved to be the basis for Satan’s defeat (see John 16:11).

Satan’s opposition to the saints also may appear for a short time to be a victory for Satan. While Satan is used in the discipline of wayward saints, the goal is their spiritual deliverance from the bondage of sin:

I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:5).

A messenger of Satan was permitted to afflict the apostle Paul. But far from hindering Paul’s spiritual growth or ministry, it produced humility and dependence on God:

And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me--to keep me from exalting myself! (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Motivated by pride, Satan opposed Paul and the gospel. God sovereignly turned this around, producing in Paul humility and dependence on the Lord. Think of it! The harder Satan works to oppose the gospel, the more he promotes it. It is all part of God’s perfect plan!

God’s Plan for Satan’s Doom

To this point in time, God has purposed Satan’s existence and opposition to fulfill God’s plan. But for Satan the perfect plan of God includes a future day of doom. God’s perfect rule over creation requires the elimination and removal of Satan, sin, and death from this earth. Only then will God’s cure for the curse be complete. The Bible predicts and describes the defeat of Satan. The primary aspects of the plan, as God has revealed progressively through the Scriptures, is summarized here:

Satan’s doom is repeatedly and emphatically foretold in Scripture. In Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, Satan’s doom is implied in the taunting of the earthly kings of Babylon and Tyre. God spoke of Satan’s defeat in Genesis 3, under the foot of the seed of the woman:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel (Genesis 3:15).

The Old Testament prophets provide more details concerning the “bruising of the heel” of Satan’s destroyer. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 speak of the sacrificial death of Messiah which spells Satan’s doom.

Our Lord spoke of Satan’s defeat during His earthly ministry, especially as the time of His death drew near:

“Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

“And concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11).

The apostles likewise spoke of Satan’s doom, seeing it as accomplished through the death of Christ, but still to be fully carried out fully in the future:

And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you (Romans 16:20).

The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).

Until Satan’s doomsday comes, men may still be delivered from Satan’s power and punishment; they need but trust in Jesus Christ, who died in their place to pay the penalty for their sin and to deliver them from bondage to Satan through sin and death:

“‘To open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me’” (Acts 26:18).

And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

While Satan’s future doom is certain, there is a present defeat in progress. Every time Satan acts in a way which he purposes to oppose God, God uses it to further His plan. Even in the midst of his opposition, Satan is always serving God.

Doomsday is coming soon for Satan. He and his demonic helpers are aware that their days are numbered.

And behold, they [demons] cried out, saying, “What do we have to do with You, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29).

Satan’s downfall is described in the Book of Revelation in three major stages. The first phase of his final destruction begins with the closing of his embassy in heaven. His access to heaven and the throne of God, which he has long enjoyed (see Job 1:6-7; 2:1), is suddenly terminated when he is barred from heaven and cast to the earth:

And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. And the dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death” (Revelation 12:7-11).

This “casting out” of Satan serves only to increase his anger and rebellion toward God which he now takes out on those who dwell on the earth. The period of great tribulation is set in motion. God’s wrath on sinful men is achieved through this angry outburst of Satan, and the world is judged for its sin.

After the time of great tribulation, our Lord returns to the earth as its King to establish His rule over all the earth for a period of 1,000 years. During this time, Satan is bound so that he can no longer oppose God or men:

And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-6).

At the end of the 1,000 year reign, Satan is released for a time. He finds on the earth a large number of people who prefer Satan’s reign to that of our Lord, and so a great and final battle is waged against Satan and those who have chosen to follow him. When Satan and his forces are defeated, he and all of his followers are judged and cast into the lake of fire, forever:

And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:7-15).


We began with a consideration of Satan’s origin and his fall. The Bible ends with an account of Satan’s final doom. From beginning to end, Satan’s existence, His fall, and His opposition to God are all a part of God’s eternal plan for His creation.

The inclusion of Satan in God’s plan raises a problem which must be considered. Simply stated: How is it that a holy God would purpose the existence of Satan, and therefore of sin?

Or, “If Satan is in the plan of God, then surely sin must be in the plan as well. How can a holy God include sin in His plan?

This question can only be answered in relation to the purpose for which the plan was designed. The answer is given early in the Bible in the Book of Exodus. The text which answers the question follows immediately after Israel’s “fall” in the wilderness, while Moses was on the mountain with God. The Israelites persuaded Aaron to fashion a golden calf which they worshipped with much immorality. God sent Moses down to the people and threatened to destroy them. When Moses appealed to God, He withheld complete destruction and promised that Israel would possess the land of Canaan as He had promised. But God refused to go up with His people.

Moses made a very unusual request recorded in Exodus 33 and 34:

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight, and I have known you by name.” Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” Now the Lord said to Moses, “Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered. So be ready by morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain. And no man is to come up with you, nor let any man be seen anywhere on the mountain; even the flocks and the herds may not graze in front of that mountain.” So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession” (Exodus 33:17-34:9).

Moses appealed to God to see His glory. God consented to at least a partial display of His glory. The important thing to note is what is identified as God’s glory. The radiance and splendor is but a reflection of that glory--not the glory itself. The glory is what God is--His attributes:

“I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:19).

God told Moses that His glory was to be seen, in part, in His grace and compassion, sovereignly bestowed on men.

When God’s glory was revealed to Moses, it is identified by this divine declaration:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).

The glory of God is declared here in two aspects of God’s dealings with men: (1) His mercy toward some, necessitated and occasioned by their sin, and (2) His wrath toward others, due to their sin. Few would challenge that God’s grace is glorious. But many would question the wrath of God as a manifestation of His glory. Our text indicates these two aspects of His glory cannot be separated.36 How then do we explain that God is glorified by condemning men to an eternity in hell?

The explanation is not that difficult. Is a police officer praised for letting a murderer free? Police are expected to deal kindly with law-keepers and severely with law-breakers--unless we are the law-breakers. Since all men are law-breakers, we would all rather be let free by God. But this would not be right. A righteous God cannot overlook sin. He must deal severely with sinners. We expect it of Him. For this very reason we often find men protesting when the wicked seem to be prospering (see, for example, Psalm 73).

God’s wrath is justified when men break His laws. Even more, God’s wrath is justified when He provides for man’s forgiveness and men reject it. God is not severe just in His dealings with sinners; He is also gracious, compassionate, and long-suffering with sinners. Graciously, God sent His own Son to the cross of Calvary. There, Jesus bore the wrath of God. He was punished, not for His sins, but for the sins of the world. The gospel is the good news that anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved from God’s wrath, forgiven their sins, and assured of eternal life. Those whom God condemns to an eternal hell are those for whom Christ died, those who rejected His offer of salvation. God is truly glorified by His punishment of sinners and His grace to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

Look once again at the Exodus 34 passage. Immediately after God spoke of His glory, both in punishing sinners and in saving sinners, Moses appealed to God:

And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, “If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession” (Exodus 34:8-9).

Moses first bowed in worship, and then he made a request based upon the glory of God which had just been revealed to him. Since God had revealed Himself as gracious and compassionate, then let God glorify Himself by showing Himself gracious to this sinful people. The grace of God, which is a part of the glory of God, is the basis of Moses’ appeal for this sinful nation. God granted Moses’ request. God granted it for His own glory--and for Israel’s good.

When men protest God’s punishment of sinners, and at the same time reject His grace, they show themselves worthy of His wrath. When rebels who behave like their father, the Devil, are condemned, God acts in a way that displays His glory.

Every man is faced with this choice: will you receive God’s grace by repenting of your sin and trusting in God’s provision for you as a sinner, or will you reject God’s grace and endure God’s wrath? Each man must choose his master. There are only two: the Savior, Jesus Christ, and Satan. By birth, we enter life under the domain and control of Satan. By new birth, faith in Christ, we submit to the Lord Jesus Christ as Master and Savior and become citizens of His kingdom.

A lesson in contrast emerges from our study of Satan. What Satan is, Jesus Christ is not. What Jesus is, Satan is not. Consider these contrasts:37



Everyone’s Adversary

The sinner’s Advocate

Exalted himself, resulting in man’s ruin

Humbled Himself, resulting in redemption

Accuses us before God

Intercedes for us with God

Followers share in his ruin

Followers share in His reign

Men become like him

Men become like Christ

A liar and deceiver

He is the truth

Promises freedom, but makes men slaves

Takes slaves and gives them freedom

Turns men from the Father

He is the only way to the Father

Produces death

Delivers from death

Resists the will of God

Submits Himself to the will of God

Cruel and sadistic

Gracious and compassionate

My friend, whom will you choose? If you do not choose Christ, you are already Satan’s slave, doomed to share in his eternal torment. Those who follow Satan share in his doom. Those who receive God’s grace in Christ share in His reign of righteousness.

Beyond this destiny-determining decision, there are other implications of our study mentioned in conclusion for your consideration.

(1) Satan deserves our respect; he should not be underestimated. Satan does not have a proper respect for God’s authority. False teachers also fail to respect heavenly powers:

Yet in the same manner these men, also by dreaming, defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties. But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you” (Jude 8 and 9).

The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self-willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord (2 Peter 2:9-11).

It is not all that surprising that Satan’s followers manifest the same disrespect for authority as their father. Indeed, it is troubling to hear Christians speak flippantly of Satan. Nowhere in Scripture is Satan a joking matter. Nowhere is he to be taken lightly. Nowhere in Scripture do we find men or women of God taking Satan on as though he were an easy match. I hear a great deal about “binding Satan” and other such actions, but I do not find these practices in the Bible. Let us remember that he is an angelic being with great power. Though an enemy, let us respect him as a deadly foe.

(2) Satan should not be overestimated. Just as some do not take Satan seriously enough, others give him too much credit, often crediting Satan for every irritation or problem of life. Satan does not often bother with such matters, at least so far as Scripture speaks of him and his activities.

Satan also has very significant limitations. For example, he is limited to those activities consistent with God’s plan. Satan is not allowed to act in a way that actually alters God’s plan. Further, he is neither all-knowing nor all-wise. Satan does have a vast demonic network and is therefore supplied with much information. But he is still not omniscient (knowing everything). We have no evidence, for example, that he can read our minds, though he surely can hear our spoken words and prayers.

Although he was created with great wisdom (see Ezekiel 28:12), Satan is most certainly not wise. The Scriptures reveal that his perspective is now very warped. Certainly the Scriptures instruct us that Satan has not learned lessons from history or from God’s dealings, such as in the Book of Job. He persists at pressing on with his rebellion.

The Book of Proverbs often reminds us that wisdom is proportionate with humility. Likewise, arrogance is proportionate with folly (see Proverbs 1:20-33; 3:5-7). Wisdom is also a result of the “fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 9:10; 15:33). Wisdom comes from God; thus, those who reject and resist Him cannot be wise (see Proverbs 21:30). Satan is intelligent. He is incredibly cunning; but he is not wise. Everything he thinks and does is from a mind and heart warped by pride and arrogance. Let us not credit Satan with wisdom or objectivity, for these are strangers to one so dominated by pride and self-interest.

(3) Nothing can frustrate or hinder the plan of God. The combined opposition of Satan and his host of fallen angels cannot frustrate the will of God but can only fulfill it. We can be assured nothing else will either. Not even your sin or mine will change God’s plan. The only thing the Christian’s sin can do is hinder our fellowship and joy. But it will not frustrate God’s plan. How futile and foolish then is our sin and our rebellion, for it produces nothing of value.

(4) God has provided for the Christian “ways of escape” for the sins of pride and rebellion. Our study of Satan shows us how incredibly deadly are pride, arrogance, and disobedience. We can be sure that Satan will tempt us in these very areas. In His grace, God has provided “a way of escape” (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). Pride is continually condemned in the Scriptures as sin. The Bible constantly emphasizes God’s grace and reminds us that nothing worth boasting about finds its source in us; instead it is a gift from God.38

Worship is not only the privilege of every believer, it is a preventative for every believer. Satan would not worship God; instead, he sought worship for himself (see Matthew 4:9). Worship is a preventative to pride and rebellion (see Psalm 95). When we worship God, we see things in their right perspective (see Psalm 73:17f.). Worship acknowledges the worth and supremacy of our God. It should result in the “service of worship” (Romans 12:2), that service which does not seek to earn God’s favor but rather is inspired by humility and gratitude for God’s grace.

(5) God’s instructions to the church have good reasons. Our study of Satan in the plan of God suggests very good reasons for practices many Christians reject as senseless and irrelevant. Paul deals with the submission of women, and the perplexing matter of head-coverings, in the context of headship, or supremacy. Headship was Satan’s problem; he would not submit to the Headship of God. Headship, as submitted to by the women of the church, serves as a lesson to the angels. Apparently the angels need such instruction because of the on-going rebellion toward God involving not only Satan but a large number of other angelic beings. Does Paul’s teaching on the submission of the woman not make sense to us? Submission did not make sense to Satan or to Eve either. They did not need to understand why; they needed but to obey.

God’s order for the church bears directly on the structure and function of the church. Women, due to the teaching on submission, must not take leadership positions over men (see 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Timothy 3 [only men are spoken of as elders or deacons]; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36). Neither is any one man to usurp authority over the church. The New Testament speaks of the church as governed by a plurality of elders, not by a single individual. Absolute power corrupts, as we see with Satan and many kings of old--and even with some religious leaders (Matthew 23:8-12).

Not only must the gender and number of leaders in the church comply with the Biblical teaching on authority and submission, but the maturity of those chosen for the office of elder must also comply:

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil (1 Timothy 3:2-6).

Paul writes that Satan’s fall should be instructive and applicable to Christians. Just as Satan became swollen with pride, so church leaders must not allow immaturity to tempt them to a similar frame of mind, with its resulting condemnation.

The Bible has been written to increase our depth perception--our ability to look behind the immediate source of circumstances to see God, the ultimate source. The kings of Babylon and Tyre were those who opposed God and His people. Behind these men was Satan, the opposer. But behind Satan is a holy, righteous, and compassionate God, who is causing all things to work together for His glory and the good of His children.

I sometimes hear Christians referring to adversity or difficulty, assuming that it has come from Satan. Perhaps it has. Perhaps not. But if it has come from Satan, it has ultimately come from God. In the midst of his trials, Job was not aware that Satan was involved. For him, it did not matter. Job knew that God was sovereign, and thus whatever came his way came ultimately from the hand of God. Job’s problem was that he questioned the wisdom of God. Job’s great comfort came when he grasped that God is not only sovereign, but also wise and good.

Satan is out there. Sometimes we will know it. Sometimes we will not. But behind him is the God of the universe who is in complete control, using Satan, angels, kings, and sinful men to accomplish His plan. Satan’s might and power are great but not when compared with the God who uses him to achieve His plan.

Let us turn our hearts and minds in concluding this study to the words our Lord Himself taught us to pray:

“Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil [the evil one, see marginal note]. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen’” (Matthew 6:9-13).

For Further Study and Meditation

(1) How much emphasis does the Scripture place on Satan?

The Scriptures contain all the revelation concerning Satan the Christian needs to be informed of His nature and character, as well as his opposition against God and men. The Bible does not give Satan the attention he would like, because he is not worthy of it. The Scriptures which teach us about Satan are meant to turn us from Satan and toward God.

(2) What do we know about Satan’s origin and Satan’s fall?

From Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, we know that Satan was created by God as an angel (a cherub), and that in his original state he was very powerful, most beautiful, and wise. At some later point, sin was found in him, and he was judged by God. From that point on, Satan has been in rebellion against God. In His opposition to God, Satan has become the adversary of men as well. His opposition to men began in the garden of Eden and continues to the present.

(3) What is Satan’s nature (attributes, character)? What does the Bible say Satan is like?

Satan’s character is reflected by his names and descriptions as given in Scripture (see below).

(4) What names of Satan are used? What do they tell us?

Satan’s names and designations tell us about the nature, character, and attributes of Satan. Most of these may be summarized as follows:

Names of Satan

  • Satan [adversary] (1 Chronicles 21:1; Job 1:7, etc.)
  • the Devil (Matthew 4;1; John 8:44, etc.)
  • the Dragon (Revelation 20:2)
  • the Serpent (Genesis 3:1; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 20:2)
  • the Evil One (Matthew 6:13; 13:19, 38; 2 Thessalonians 3:3)
  • the “angel of the abyss” (Revelation 9:11)
  • Abaddon or Apollyon (Revelation 9:11)
  • “the accuser of our brethren” (Revelation 12:10)
  • “the adversary” (1 Peter 5:8)
  • Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24)
  • Belial (2 Corinthians 6:15)
  • the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9)
  • the great dragon (Revelation 12:9)
  • the enemy (Matthew 13:28, 39)
  • the evil one (Matthew 13:19, 38)
  • the father of lies (John 8:44)
  • the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4)
  • the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2)
  • the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)
  • the ancient serpent (Revelation 12:9)
  • the tempter (Matthew 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5)
  • Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1)

Satan’s nature, character and attributes:

  • an angel; a cherub (Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:14)
  • a “son of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1)
  • a liar (John 8:44)
  • a murderer (John 8:44)
  • cunning, crafty (Genesis 3:1)
  • a hinderer (1 Thessalonians 2:18)
  • a deceiver (2 Corinthians 11:3)
  • one who takes advantage of others (2 Corinthians 2:10-11)
  • a tempter (Matthew 4:3; 1 Corinthians 7:5)
  • evil (Matthew 13:19, 38)
  • arrogant (Job 2:4; Luke 22:31)
  • a schemer (2 Corinthians 2:10-11; Ephesians 6:11)
  • a hypocrite (1 Timothy 4:2)
  • cruel and lacking any compassion (see Luke 13:10-17)

(5) What is Satan’s goal? What is He trying to do?

Satan’s goal is to promote himself and his glory by opposing God. In reality, just the opposite is happening. In God’s plan, Satan is bringing glory to God by his opposition.

(6) To what degree is Satan free to do what He wants? How much power does He have?

Satan has considerable power, but he is not at all free. As we can see from Job 1 and 2, Satan can do nothing to Job apart from God’s permission. God permits Satan to do only that which is a part of His plan.

From all that we can discern from Scripture, Satan is intelligent but no longer wise. His perspective and thinking are warped by his own arrogance and ambition. He has a broad-based network of demons, which keep him up well informed. Satan is not God, nor does he possess the attributes of God. He is powerful, but not all-powerful; He knows much, but he does not know all.

(7) What are Satan’s weapons? What gives him the power to work as he does? What means does he employ?

Satan weapons are the flesh and the world. Most often, Satan works indirectly, through these means. In addition, Satan employs fallen demons, unbelievers, and even the failures of the saints (like Peter in Matthew 16:23). There are other beings, such as the two beasts of Revelation 13 and the false prophet (Revelation 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).

Satan’s power comes from God’s divine providence which allows him to do what he does. In addition, Satan has the power and authority rendered to him by the fallen angels (demons) who have followed him in rebellion. Further, Satan has power to affect men. This comes through the internal “pull” of the flesh and through the external “push” of the world.

(8) What is Satan’s destiny?

Defeat and doom. His downfall was first pronounced in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. It was promised in Genesis 3:15. Jesus spoke of his defeat in John 16:11. He is defeated by the Lord Jesus Christ, specifically through the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. He is overcome at the cross, but his full and final defeat is future (see Romans 16:20). Through the preaching of the gospel and personal faith in Christ, men are being delivered from Satan’s grasp and granted eternal life (Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 2:9). Sometime in the future Satan will be cast out of heaven, and his anger toward God and men will be intensified in its expression toward men in the limited time he has remaining (Revelation 12:1-12). Just before the 1000 year reign of our Lord, Satan will be bound, so that he cannot oppose men or God (Revelation 20:1-6). After 1000 years of living under God’s rule, Satan will be released for a time, and many will choose to follow him. This leads to a final battle between Satan and his followers and God and His saints (Revelation 20:7-9). Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire forever, along with all who have followed him (Revelation 20:10-15).

(9) Why does God allow Satan to exist and do what he does?

Satan’s creation, fall, and opposition was all included in God’s plan for creation. Satan’s fall and opposition to God is the instrument by which man fell (Genesis 3). Satan’s existence must be understood in the light of sin and also of God’s plan. God’s plan is to demonstrate His glory. Exodus 33:17--34:7 teaches that God’s glory is displayed in the way God deals with sin. For some, God deals graciously, forgiving them of their sins; for others, God punishes them for their sins. Apart from the existence of sin, the demonstration of God’s glory would not have been possible in its fullest form. Sin is the occasion for God’s glory, and thus He has included it in His plan, along with Satan, its promoter.

(10) What is the relationship between non-Christians and Satan? (See John 8:44; Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 John 3:8,10)

Satan is the ruler of the kingdom of darkness. That kingdom includes every person who has not trusted in Christ. The “father” of the unbeliever is the Devil. His followers behave as he does (John 8:44). Whether men realize it or not, they are under his control, and they do his bidding. Often his control comes indirectly through the world or the flesh. Men may think they are free, but they are actually Satan’s slaves. Satan works hard to keep men from the truth--and from deliverance from him and his kingdom which comes through believing in Christ (Luke 8:12; 2 Corinthians 4:4).

(11) How does Satan seek to work in the life of a Christian?

Satan seeks to destroy the Christian (1 Peter 5:8). To do this, Satan seeks to distort the truth, to deceive the Christian, and ultimately to turn the Christian away from simple faith and obedience in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Timothy 4:1-5). Often, Satan will disguise himself or his teaching as coming from a true believer as an “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

(12) Satan is a master of disguise, a creature with many faces. What are some of the forms which Satan takes, in his efforts to resist God and destroy men?

Satan has many “faces.” Some of these faces, with the ideas he promotes, are:

  • Satan the invisible, non-existent one. The Devil is a myth.
  • Satan under cover. Satan working invisibly, or through some intermediate agency (1 Chronicles 21:1; Job 1 and 2; John 8:40-41; 13:2, 27).
  • Satan, our ally, who is here to help (see Genesis 3:1-5).
  • Satan, the fierce, frightening one (see 1 Peter 5:8).
  • Satan, the accuser (Zechariah 3:1-2; Revelation 12:10).
  • Satan, the arrogant one (Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28).
  • Satan, the tempter (Matthew 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5).
  • Satan, the religious “angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
  • Satan, the religious, legalistic, hypocrite (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
  • Satan, the wonder-worker (2 Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 13:11-15; 16:14).

A Biblical Summary and Overview

(1) Satan’s rebellion: Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28

(2) Satan’s opposition in the Old Testament

Genesis 3--the fall of man
Job 1 and 2--attack against Job
Chronicles 21:1--attack against Israel (see also 2 Samuel 24:1)
Zechariah 3:1-2

(3) Satan’s opposition in the New Testament

Matthew 4:1-11 --temptation of Christ
Matthew 16:23--employment of Peter (“Get behind Me, Satan”)
Luke 13:16 --employment of demons
John 8:44 --employment of the scribes and Pharisees
John 13:2, 27--employment of Judas

(4) Satan’s on-going opposition in the present age

Luke 8:12--opposes the gospel
Corinthians 4:4 --blinds men’s minds
Tim. 2:26; Ephesians 2:1-3--holds men captive in sin
Ephesians 6:10-18 --opposes Christians
He seeks to devour--1 Peter 5:8
He seeks to deceive--2 Corinthians 11:3
He seeks to distort the gospel--1 Timothy 4:1-5
He seeks to disguise himself & hinder the church--2 Corinthians 11:12-15

(5) Satan’s opposition furthers God’s purposes

Corinthians 5:5
Corinthians 12:7

(6) The Death of Christ: Man’s deliverance and Satan’s defeat

Luke 13:16
Acts 26:18
Timothy 2:24-26 --Deliverance from Satan’s dominion
Colossians 1:13
Peter 2:9
Genesis 3:15
John 16:11
Matthew 25:41 -- Satan’s Defeat
Romans 16:20
John 3:8
Romans 16:20 -- defeat is still future
Revelation 12-- Satan thrown down, Satan’s Doom
Revelation 20 -- chained 1000 years, thrown eternally into hell

Scripture Texts on Satan:

Isaiah 14:4-14 (especially verses 12-14)
Ezekiel 28:11-19
Genesis 3
1 Chronicles 21:1; (compare 2 Samuel 24:1)
Job (chapters 1 & 2); 38:4-7
Psalm 91:11-13
Isaiah 27:1
Zechariah 3:1-2
Micah 7:17
Matthew 4:1-11; 16:23; 23:33; 25:41
Luke 4:1-12 (parallel to Matthew 4:1-11); 8:12; 10:18; 13:16; 22:31
John 6:70; 8:44; 13:2, 27; 16:11
Acts 5:3; 13:10; 26:18
Romans 16:20
1 Corinthians 5:5; 7:5
2 Corinthians 2:11; 4:4; 11:3, 12-15; 12:7
Ephesians 2:1-3; 4:27; 6:10-18
1 Thessalonians 2:18; 3:5
2 Thessalonians 3:3
1 Timothy 1:20; 3:6-7; 4:1-5; 5:15
2 Timothy 2:26
Hebrews 2:14
James 4:7
1 Peter 5:8
1 John 2:13-14; 3:8, 10; 5:19
Jude 9
Revelation 2:10; 9:11; 12:7-12; 20:1-15

33 The same blur or shift of emphasis is evident in Isaiah 40-55, where the “servant” of God is either Israel, Messiah, or Cyrus. Sometimes it is difficult to decide who is the servant. For this reason, an early version of the NASB supplied the words, “My people” in Isaiah 52:14, suggesting that the “servant” in verses 13 and 14 was Israel, not Messiah. What Israel failed to achieve as God’s servant, Messiah fulfilled. The one “servant” is thus replaced by the Servant, the Lord Jesus Christ.

34 See also 2 Chronicles 26, especially verses 15-16; Acts 12:18-23.

35 It is my understanding that the goal of God’s plan is the demonstration of His glory. Further, I believe the means is the establishment of God’s rule over the whole creation. The expression, “son of God” is a significant one in establishing God’s rule. Technically speaking, Jesus is not the only “son of God,” He is the Son of God who alone can establish the rule of God over creation. Satan was the first “son of God” who failed to rule as God’s prince. Adam too was a “son of God” (Luke 3:38), who was to rule for God (Genesis 1:26). Israel was next chosen as God’s “son” (Exodus 4:23; Hosea 11:1), followed by David and his dynasty (2 Samuel 7:12-16). All these sons failed to fulfill their calling as God’s “son.” The only solution was for the “son” to be a sinless man, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus came as the “son of God” to fulfill that calling (Psalm 2:4-9; Matthew 2:15; 16:16; 17:5; Luke 3:22ff.; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). Jesus is the Son of God, who will establish God’s righteous rule over all creation. In this “sonship” every Christian will share, so that we will reign with Him (Romans 8:14-25).

36 The joining of God’s mercy with His wrath is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 9:19-24.

37 A worthwhile study would be to contrast the names of Satan with those of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.

38 See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 4:7; 2 Corinthians 12;1-10; Ephesians 2:9; Philippians 3:1-21.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Satanology, Theology Proper (God)

26. Israel and Aaron at the Hand of Moses (Exodus 32:15-35)


The second half of Exodus chapter 32 reminds me of the T.V. western, where evil forces cause a herd of cattle to stampede, racing out of control, and threatening to trample over a helpless heroine. The hero must somehow find a way to single-handedly turn the crazed cattle around and avoid disaster. That is precisely what Moses must do here. He must turn a mob of two million people around. They are in a crazed state, worshipping a golden idol, dancing in a


The second half of Exodus chapter 32 reminds me of the T.V. western, where evil forces cause a herd of cattle to stampede, racing out of control, and threatening to trample over a helpless heroine. The hero must somehow find a way to single-handedly turn the crazed cattle around and avoid disaster. That is precisely what Moses must do here. He must turn a mob of two million people around. They are in a crazed state, worshipping a golden idol, dancing in a state of frenzy and engaged in immorality. For all intents and purposes, they are behaving just like the Canaanites, whom they are to dispossess.

The people have been brought safely out of Egypt by God, led by Moses, God’s chosen leader. God has just given the Israelites the Mosaic Covenant and they have enthusiastically and intelligently committed themselves to live in obedience to God’s commands. Moses has been gone for 40 days, during which time he has been on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God, seeing the heavenly tabernacle and receiving the earthly pattern, so that it may be constructed. He has also received the commandments, written by the finger of God in the two stone tablets.

During his absence, the people have decided to worship another god, whose presence will be visible and assuring, in the form of a golden image. Initially, I was inclined to think that the Israelites but wanted a visible representation of Yahweh, the one true God. I have changed my mind, however. I believe that Israel actually rejected both God and His appointed leader, Moses, and chose to serve a different god altogether. I have come to this conclusion for several reasons:

(1) First, when the Israelites spoke of their new idol as their “god” they consistently used a term which the pagans used for their gods (which, as the marginal reading of our text indicates, is plural). It can be used of Yahweh, but I don’t think it is used in this sense by the Israelites. Only Aaron spoke of this “god” in terms reserved for Yahweh (cf. v. 5). I believe that Aaron was feebly and foolishly trying to syncretize the false worship of the people with the true worship of Yahweh. Israel’s “golden god” will be given credit for leading Israel out of Egypt, and will be the guarantee of future victory in battle, as the Israelites press on to dispossess the Canaanites and dwell in the promised land.

(2) Second, when Moses drew the line, asking people to declare their allegiance to Yahweh, the majority of the nation failed to identify themselves with the Him. If Israel refused to stand on God’s side, then they had already rejected Him, choosing their golden god instead.

(3) Third, the severity of Moses’ response to what he saw, on coming back to the camp of the Israelites, signals to us the seriousness of Israel’s sin.

As we read the events of the last half of Exodus chapter 32 we should bear in mind a dialogue between Moses and God which is recorded in the 3rd and 4th chapters of this same book. Moses was commissioned by God to go to his people, the Israelites, to lead them out of Egypt, and to confront Pharaoh, demanding that he let Israel go. There, Moses, who is later called the “meekest man on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3), protested that he was not eloquent in speech. Aaron was given to him as his mouthpiece, and after angering God with his reticence, Moses went to Egypt, with Aaron.

It is good to remember this, for we would never have believed such could have been the case from reading Exodus chapter 32. Moses, the meekest man on the face of the earth, the man who is not powerful in speech, is able to single-handedly confront two million Israelites, including Aaron, to tear down their idol, grind it to powder, and make them all drink the gold dust in the water. Aaron, on the other hand, the man on whom Moses would lean, who was such an eloquent man, is the one who caved in to the demands of the people, as described in the early part of the chapter, and who, when confronted by Moses, can but reply that he threw the gold into the fire and “out came a god.”

What is it that made such a meek man so mighty, a man of poor speech so eloquent, a single man able to turn around a hostile multitude of two million people? And what is it that makes an eloquent man so mousy, and a leader such a weakling? A thorough study of our passage will take us a long way in finding the answer to these questions.

The Structure of This Scripture

Exodus 32 began with a description of Israel’s sin in the absence of Moses (vss. 1-6). The people’s demand to have an idol was quickly met through none other than Aaron. It was Aaron who hastily fashioned the “golden god,”75 with the involvement of the people (cf. v. 20). God then terminated Moses’ stay on the mountain with a command to return to the camp, informing Moses of the evil which the people had committed, of the roots of their sin, and of the severity of the judgment which their actions called for (vss. 7-10). Moses’ intercession resulted in at least a momentary stay of execution for the Israelites (vss. 11-14).

Our study takes up at this point. In verses 15-20, Moses’ response to the sins of the people is described. Two major actions result: the demolishing of the tablets of stone, on which God had written the commandments; and, the demolition of the golden calf, which included making the Israelites drink water which contained the ground gold of the idol. In verses 21-24 Moses confronts Aaron for his role in this apostasy. Verses 25-29 describe the severe action which is required to bring the Israelites back under control. Finally, in verses 30-35, Moses intercedes for the Israelites, petitioning God to forgive them. Nevertheless, God says that they will be accountable for their sin, and brings a plague upon them.

The Sequence of These Events

As I have studied verses 15-35 I have come to the conclusion that the events described here may not be dealt with chronologically. This conclusion is based upon several observations:

(1) First, the paragraphs seem to reflect a topical unity rather than a chronological sequence. Verses 15-20 seem to encompass the entire nation; verses 21-24 focus upon Aaron; verses 25-29 focus on the Levites; verses 30-35 depict the intercession of Moses with God. The presentation of this material then, seems to be governed by a topic not a time.

(2) It is very difficult to grasp all the events of this chapter occurring in the order in which they are mentioned. If viewed chronologically, the golden calf, for example, would be destroyed, ground to powder, and drunk by the people (vss. 19-20), before Moses confronted Aaron (vss. 21-24). This would then be followed by the slaying of many Israelites, still running out of control (vss. 25-29), and a plague is yet to come (v. 35).

(3) A corresponding description of the events which occurred here is given in Deuteronomy chapter 9, and the sequence of events is not the same. Let me briefly summarize the sequence of events of the two accounts, to show the difference in the two accounts:

Exodus 32

Deuteronomy 9

Tablets smashed, v. 19
Idol smashed, v. 20
Aaron rebuked, vss. 21-24
Israelites slain, vss. 25-29
Intercession, vss. 30-32
Plague, v. 35

Tablets smashed, vss. 16-17
Moses intercedes for Israel, vss. 18-19
Moses intercedes for Aaron, v. 20
Moses destroys idol, v. 21
Moses intercedes, vss. 25-29

There is, in the account of Deuteronomy 9, the suggestion that another 40 day and 40 night period of fasting and prayer was involved (vss. 18-19) in addition to the two others, at which time the Law was written on the stone tablets. Moses’ intercession is described in 9:18-20 and again in 9:25-29. These may be the same occasion. If so, then chronology is not the governing factor here. So, too, the destruction of the idol seems to come later in the account in Deuteronomy. I take it, then, that chronological sequence is not in Moses’ mind here, but rather a logical and topical sequence, which best portrays the evil of Israel and Moses’ actions to remedy it. The sequence may roughly approximate this:

  • Moses returns from the mountain and gets the people’s attention
  • Moses smashes the tablets of stone
  • Moses tears down the golden calf and throws it into the fire, to melt
  • Moses rebukes Aaron
  • Moses calls the Israelites to declare allegiance/Levites to slay others
  • Moses grinds golden calf to power, makes Israelites to drink it
  • Moses intercedes for people
  • God brings plague on them

Moses and the Israelites

What a contrast Moses must have sensed, coming down from the mountain top, from the midst of the cloud of God’s glory, to the pathetic pandemonium below. In his hands were the two stone tablets, written on both sides, by the very finger of God (vss. 15-16). And all the while, the mountain behind was ablaze: “So I turned and came down from the mountain while the mountain was burning with fire, and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands” (Deut. 9:15).

Joshua had accompanied Moses, at least part way up the mountain, and had waited for him to return (cf. Exod. 24:13). He was thus not privy to that which God had told Moses about the debauchery going on below (cf. 32:7-8). As they drew nearer to the camp of the Israelites, there was a loud noise originating from the camp. It was so loud and so animated, Joshua thought it was the sound of war (v. 17). Moses knew better, however, and told Joshua that it was not the sound of war, neither the shouts of victory nor of defeat, but rather of revelry: “It is not the sound of the cry of triumph, Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat; But the sound of singing I hear” (v. 18).

We are not told what Joshua’s reaction to these sounds was, but we are told how Moses responded (vss. 19-20). As he approached the camp, Moses saw both the idol which “they” (both Aaron and the people are involved here, cf. v. 4) had made, and the dancing of the Israelites. This dancing was surely related to the “playing” mentioned by God in verse 6, as well as the abandonment (literally “let loose”) of verse 25. Thus, this dancing was a part of a sexual orgy, which was typical of pagan fertility rites.

Seeing this, Moses was furious. The text tells us that “his anger burned” (v. 19), an expression used earlier for the anger of God (v. 10). Moses then threw down the tablets, shattering the tablets which were written on by the very finger of God. The account in Deuteronomy gives an additional detail: “And I took hold of the two tablets and threw them from my hands, and smashed them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). All Israel’s attention was thus riveted on Moses as the tablets were thrown down and then, it seems, pulverized.76 In this act, Moses was dramatically confronting the nation with their sin and with its consequence—the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant. The blessings promised by this covenant were contingent upon Israel’s obedience. Israel’s relationship to God was specified by this covenant. Now, due to the sins of idolatry and immorality, that covenant was shattered.

Imagine, if you can, having the president of the United States taking the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and tearing it up before the eyes of the nation on national T.V. We would wonder what rights we would be guaranteed. We would wonder how we would be governed. We would have no assurance of the protection of the Law, of the limits placed on the power of the president. We would have no sense of security, no basis for governing our own actions or dealing with the actions of others. We would have no sense of security as a nation. That, I believe, gives us a taste of what Israel should have felt, with one added feature: Israel had no basis for having any relationship with God, the God she had just rejected.

It has been suggested that Moses was wrong to smash the two tablets.77 There is no suggestion in the text, so far as I can see, that this was wrong. When Moses did sin, such as the time that he smote the stone (Num. 20:1-13), God quickly and severely disciplined him for doing so. Had Moses been wrong here, I believe that we would have been told so in very clear terms. Moses’ actions were a reflection of the righteous indignation of God. From the words which God had spoken to Moses in verse 10 of Exodus 32, Moses had every reason to expect that God had viewed this covenant as violated and set aside.

Just as Moses had smashed the two stone tablets, he smashed the golden idol (which Moses called “your sin” in Deut. 9:21) also. Moses’ actions once again conveyed to the Israelites the attitude of God toward this abominable idol and of Israel’s worship of it. It was thus destroyed in a way that was consistent with the command God gave Israel regarding their dealing with the heathen idols of the Canaanites: “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them, and break their sacred pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24; cf. Deut. 7:5, 25-26).

This act has a very interesting parallel in ancient Near Eastern literature: “The destruction of this idol finds an interesting parallel in one of the Ugaritic texts. The goddess Anath is described as destroying the god Mot. This destruction included burning him, grinding him as grain in the handmill, and casting the remains out in the fields for birds to eat.”78

This was not only an act which depicted abhorrence of this idol, but which made it impossible to repeat the worship of this particular idol ever again. The idol was burned, then crushed and ground into fine powder—gold dust—and then poured out on the surface of the water (“the brook that came down from the mountain,” Deut. 9:21), from which the Israelites were forced to drink. There would be a real irony here if the Israelites had been drinking to their god, for Moses made them drink their god.

What I am about to suggest may make some of your eyes roll in wonder, but I shall say it anyway. Had Moses not made the people drink this gold dust, I believe that you would have found the whole nation of Israel out at that brook, panning for gold. It might have made the California gold rush look like a picnic. That gold was defiled, so that it must not be used again, especially not for the construction of the tabernacle (cf. Exod. 25:3; 35:5, 22). By making the Israelites drink the gold dust, it would emerge from their bodies as something unclean and defiled. Thus, they would never touch it again. Drinking the gold was thus the process of defiling it.79

Moses and Aaron

Aaron was in a great deal of trouble for his prominent role in Israel’s idolatry. As Moses writes elsewhere, “And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him; so I also prayed for Aaron at the same time” (Deut. 9:20). It may be well for us to remember that the one who Moses rebuked to his face was also the one for whom Moses interceded before God.

The question which Moses asked would be especially convicting to Aaron: “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” (v. 21). The inference of Moses’ words is that the people must have done something terrible to Aaron, inflicted some painful torture, made some nasty threats, for him to give in to their demands. The text gives us no such indication, however. The thrust of all this is that Aaron gave in quickly and easily, without any resistance, and without any great threat to his safety or harm to his person. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4).

Aaron’s response is intended to reduce the anger of Moses. One wonders whether Aaron realized how great the danger was for him with regard to God’s anger. His explanation for making the idol is exceedingly weak. His first line of defense is to project his sin on the people: “… you know this people yourself, that they are prone to evil” (v. 22). Aaron was right, of course. God had said so in even clearer terms in verses 7-9. The difference between Aaron and God is that Aaron used the sinfulness of the people around him as an excuse for his own sin. God would reveal His righteousness in response to the sins of the Israelites; Aaron would reveal his unrighteousness in response to the sins of Israel. Unlike Aaron, Moses responded to Israel’s sins as God did. It is not enough for us to recognize merely the depravity of man, we must resist it.

If Aaron emphasized the evil of the Israelites, he also minimized his own role, the role of a leader, who went so far as to fashion this god, and to guide in the worship of it. His words would suggest that he simply threw the gold into the fire and that a golden calf just popped out. “It was a miracle!” Aaron seemed to say. It was something like the commercials we see today, an “instant god”—just pop a little gold jewelry into the fire and wait for a few minutes, and out comes an idol.

There is here, I think, a strong contrast between the love of Moses for the people, and his willingness to die with them, as well as to intercede for them, and the disdain which Aaron reflects for the people in v. 22. I believe that it was Sigmund Freud who had a great disdain for people. Even in Moses’ strong and seemingly harsh dealing with the sins of this people, he loved them more in doing so than Aaron did in giving way. If Aaron did not disdain the people, he at least had a “boys will be boys” attitude toward their sin.

Aaron’s words sort of drift off, without any response from Moses. Actually, there is no need for Moses to say anything further. Aaron has condemned himself, with his own words. There are no eloquent words to excuse or explain such a sinful act as Aaron’s.

Moses and the Levites

Precisely when the events of this paragraph took place in the chronological sequence of the golden calf incident, I don’t know. If this happened shortly after Moses’ return to the camp, it may have been the means of shutting down this pagan worship quickly. If, however, some time had elapsed (for example, enough time to have allowed Moses to melt down the golden calf, pulverize it, sprinkle it on the water of the nearby brook, and then make the people drink it), then the fact that the people are still out of control would only serve to emphasize the seriousness of the sin of the Israelites.

One of the responsibilities of Aaron as a leader was to “keep things under control.” Obviously, he had failed to do so (v. 25). The unruliness of the Israelites may have been manifested in nakedness80 and in frenzied worship, which seems to have included wild dancing and unrestrained passions. The text of verse 25 rendered “out of control” literally reads, as the marginal note indicates, “let loose.” I cannot help but think of the beer commercial which went something like this, “Turn it loose, turn it loose tonight!” Israel did turn it loose, and it took a very serious course of action to get matters back under control.

I think that it is safe to say that worship which gravitates from enthusiasm and exuberance to abandonment and loss of control is never from God. Paul made it clear that when one was under the control of the Holy Spirit, one was also to be in control of oneself (cf. 1 Cor. 14:32). Thus Paul could condemn unruly worship (1 Cor. 11:17ff.) and could instruct the church to “do everything decently and in an orderly fashion” (1 Cor. 14:40).

The unruly behavior of the Israelites was wrong not only because it was being practiced without self-control and restraints, but because it was being observed by Israel’s enemies and was a “derision among her enemies” (v. 25). Having already fought with the Amalekites (Exod. 17:8-13), and soon destined to fight with other Canaanites, Israel was being watched very closely by their enemies (cp. Num. 22:1-3). The frenzied worship of Israel was noted by their enemies, and would eventually serve to haunt them, as we shall see later in this message.

Moses stood at the gate of the camp and called for every Israelite to make a choice: “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!” (v. 26). We are told that the entire tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron (Exod. 2:1), gathered to Moses. This does not necessarily mean that no one else joined Moses, only that all of the Levites did pledge their allegiance to the God of Israel.81 Many did not join Moses, however, revealing their rebellion against Yahweh. They really had turned to another “god” and rejected God.

The Levites are then instructed to strap on swords and go about the camp in a systematic fashion (from gate to gate, v. 27), killing anyone they met, including they be friend or relative. This action seems exceedingly harsh at first glance, but this is not the case, as can be seen from the following factors:

(1) The order for the Levites to kill their fellow Israelites was a command of God, not just of Moses. The command to kill was preceded by, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel” (v. 27).

(2) What God commanded the Levites to do to the apostate Israelites is precisely what He commanded the Israelites to do to the Canaanites. The idolatrous worship of the Israelites was Canaanite-like and thus requiring the same remedy:

“When the LORD your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the LORD your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them” (Deut. 7:1-2; cf. Num. 31:17).

(3) The same severity was called for in dealing with those Israelites who followed foreign gods and attempted to draw others after them in their apostasy:

“If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people” (Deut. 13:6-9).

We must remember that those who are to be killed are those who have rejected the God of Israel, choosing to serve a foreign god instead. Worse than this, they have also rejected the rebuke of Moses and have refused to turn from their “god” to the one true God. Those who died were those who refused to pledge their allegiance to Yahweh.

(4) The slaying of 3,000 Israelites was necessary to bring them under control, thus sparing the entire nation of greater judgment. Had this not happened, a great disaster may have been required. The killing of the few may have spared the lives of the remainder. Thus, the killing of the Israelites was necessary, and, in the long run, for the benefit of the nation. Sometimes kindness is cruel and “cruelty” is kind.

The exact meaning of verse 29 is difficult to determine, and there are differences of opinion among the scholars.82 I am inclined toward the position taken by Gispen, which is supported by the translation of the King James Version:

I prefer to translate verse 29 as follows: ‘For Moses had said’ (cf. KJV) when he issued the order to kill brother, friend, and neighbor, ‘offer today to the LORD, each one his brother, his friend, and his neighbor, in order that the LORD may bless you today’; this rendering agrees with that of Buber-Rosenzweig, and the KJV.83

Thus rendered, when Moses commanded the Levites to go about the camp, slaying those who had rejected Yahweh, he, at that time promised them a special blessing (the priesthood) for doing so. There is a sense, then, in which the slaying of the sinful Israelites was a kind of dedicatory sacrifice, inaugurating the Levites into the priesthood. The blessing pronounced on the tribe of Levi by Moses, at the end of his life, is related to the obedience of the Levites:

And of Levi he said, “Let Thy Thummim and Thy Urim belong to Thy godly man, Whom Thou didst prove at Massah, With whom Thou didst contend at the waters of Meribah; Who said of his father and his mother, ‘I did not consider them’; And he did not acknowledge his brothers, Nor did he regard his own sons, For they observed Thy word, And kept Thy covenant. They shall teach Thine ordinances to Jacob, And Thy Law to Israel. They shall put incense before Thee, And whole burnt offerings on Thine altar. O LORD, bless his substance, And accept the work of his hands; Shatter the loins of those who rise up against him, And those who hate him, so that they may not rise again” (Deut. 33:8-11).

Moses and God

Having put an end to the false worship and immorality of the Israelites, Moses must once more beseech God to forgive the people for their sin. Moses did not minimize the seriousness of Israel’s sin, nor did he promise them that his efforts would bring about forgiveness. Before he left to return to the top of the mountain, Moses told the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (v. 30).

Think of how the Israelites must have felt, having just heard these words from Moses, watching him plod once more up that mountain, with the mountain probably still burning with fire (cp. Deut. 9:15). The Israelites had no covenant at this time, assuring them of God’s presence with them. They even had no assurance that God would allow the people to live, after their great sin. And the Mosaic Covenant, which had just been ratified and broken, had no solution for sin such as that which they had just committed. Moses could not smile, assuring the people that God would forgive them. Their only hope was in the grace of God and in the mediatorial role of Moses.

In verses 31 and 32, Moses mediated on behalf of his people. He acknowledged the great sin of the Israelites (v. 31), and he asked God to forgive their sin (v. 32). Many have thought that Moses, like Paul (cf. Rom. 9:1-3) was petitioning God to save the Israelites at the sacrifice of his own soul, when he prayed, “But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!” (v. 32).

While there are many different interpretations given here, I understand the “book” of which Moses spoke here to be the “book of the living,” not the “book of life” of the New Testament.84 Moses is not trying to exchange his soul for the salvation of his people, but is petitioning God to forgive, not on the basis of anything he or Israel can do, but only on the basis of God’s goodness and mercy. If God will not forgive Israel, then Moses wishes to die as well. This very effectively declines the offer of God to make a new nation of him.

God’s response is recorded in verses 33-35. Every man is accountable for his own sin, and the penalty is death. This is simply another statement of the Old Testament warning, “The soul who sins will die” (Ezek. 18:4), an Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament statement that “the wages of sin in death” (Rom. 6:23). The death will not come immediately, however, so that God’s covenant promises may be fulfilled to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Thus, Moses is instructed, “But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin” (v. 34).

Moses is commanded to lead the Israelites on toward Canaan. God’s angel will go before them, but not God Himself. There will still be a day of reckoning, however, when the penalty for Israel’s sin must be paid. I believe that the penalty God is referring to here is the death of this entire generation in the desert, because of this sin and others which will follow, including Israel’s rebellion against God at Kadesh (Num. 13, 14). I believe that the writer to the Hebrews confirms this: “For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (Heb. 3:16-17).

The sins of the Israelites were many, of which this was the first great act of rebellion. In the later account in Deuteronomy Moses included a number of other sins, to show that this was but one of many serious acts of rebellion against God (Deut. 9:22-24). The 40 years delay in God’s judgment thus gave Israel further opportunity to prove she was worthy of God’s sentence of death, as well as providing sufficient time for the second generation of Israelites to grow up, so that God’s purposes might be realized through them, and not their fathers.

The final verse of the chapter (v. 35) speaks of a plague which God brought upon the people.85 I understand this plague to be something different from the slaying of the 3,000. I do not see this plague as the fulfillment of the promise of a later day of judgment. No deaths are reported as a result of this plague. Thus, it could have been a non-lethal plague, which brought discomfort on the Israelites, but not death. Thus, God made His displeasure known to the entire nation.


It will be of help to us in our efforts to interpret and apply this chapter by surveying two incidents in the Old Testament which reveal the ways in which men of old interpreted and applied it to their lives. In these two incidents, there is an example of the wrong use of biblical history and a corresponding illustration of a godly use of the incident at Mt. Sinai.

The first of these incidents is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 25. In chapter 22, we are told that the Moabites feared the Israelites, and thus Balak, the king of Moab, sought to entice Balaam, a prophet (whether a true prophet or a false one is debated), to pronounce a curse of Israel. Time after time, Balaam blessed the nation which he was trying to curse. And yet, what Balaam could not do by attempting to pronounce a curse, was nevertheless accomplished:

While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry about Israel (Num. 25:1-3).

When it became apparent that paying Balaam to curse Israel would never work, another plan was recommended by Balaam—that the Moabite women use their wiles so as to sexually intermingle with and ultimately to intermarry with the Israelites, thus turning their hearts from God to their gods: “And Moses said to them, ‘Have you spared all the women? Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD’” (Num. 31:15-16)

Where do you suppose Balaam came up with the idea that Israel could be turned from worshipping God in the fashion which he proposed? The only convincing explanation is that Balaam figured out this plan, based upon what he had either seen or heard about Israel’s conduct in the worship of the golden calf. You will remember that Israel’s conduct here was said to be a “derision among their enemies” (Exod. 32:25). I believe that Israel’s conduct in Exodus chapter 32 revealed a fundamental weakness, which Balaam’s counsel capitalized on in Numbers chapter 25. Thus, Balaam applied the passage in an evil way, so as to promote sin and his own selfish interests. For this, incidentally, he paid with his life (Num. 31:8).

There is a bright side to this dismal scene, however, for if Balaam learned an evil lesson from Exodus 32, Phinehas learned a lesson in righteousness. Moses had given orders to the leaders of each tribe to slay those under their authority who had sinned against God in their immorality, just as God had instructed (Num. 25:4-5). We don’t know how faithful these judges of Israel were, but Phinehas is cited as an example of righteous zeal:

Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked (Num. 25:6-8).

Phinehas was a Levite. He had to have known of the incident described in Exodus chapter 32. I believe that he understood the conduct of the Israelites with the Moabite women to be similar in nature to that of the Israelites with their golden calf. Thus, when he saw an Israelite man flaunting his sin publicly, he took his sword and ran both the man and the woman through. The actions of the Levites in Exodus 32 and that of Phinehas, the Levite, in Numbers 25 are similar, as are the results—God’s blessing (cp. Exod. 32:29 and Num. 25:10-13).

While Balaam learned a lesson in evil, Phinehas learned a lesson in righteousness, from the same incident, from the same text of Scripture.

The second incident is found in 2 Kings, chapters 22-23. The counterpart of Balaam is Jeroboam, the wicked king of Israel. The counterpart of Phinehas is righteous king Josiah. When the kingdom of Israel was split, Jeroboam, king of the northern kingdom of Israel feared that the Israelites would worship in Jerusalem, and thus be reunited with Judah, the southern kingdom, so that he would lose his throne. Attempting to prevent this, Jeroboam built two golden calves:

Then Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will return to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah; and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king consulted, and made two golden calves and he said to them, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan (1 Ki. 12:26-29).

Notice the similarity of what Jeroboam did with what Israel did as recorded in Exodus chapter 32. Israel had a golden calf in Exodus 32. Jeroboam built two golden calves for his people. And note the words which Jeroboam spoke, “Behold your god, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Ki. 12:28). They are the same as those Aaron spoke at the foot of Mt. Sinai, in the absence of Moses. I contend that wicked Jeroboam learned a lesson in evil from Exodus 32. He willfully duplicated the evil of Israel, knowing that it was a great sin, and one that nearly destroyed the nation.

Jeroboam’s wickedness, like that of Balaam, is countered by a righteous man, who also learned a lesson in righteousness from the account of Exodus chapter 32. In 2 Kings chapter 23 we read of this incident, brought to pass by righteous Josiah:

Furthermore, the altar that was at Bethel and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he broke down. Then he demolished its stones, ground them to dust, and burned the Asherah. Now when Josiah turned, he saw the graves that were there on the mountain, and he sent and took the bones from the graves and burned them on the altar and defiled it according to the word of the LORD which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these things (2 Kings 23:15-16).

It is important to our understanding of this incident to realize that it was just prior to Josiah’s reforms that the “book of the Law” was found:

Then Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe, “I have found the book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan who read it. And Shaphan the scribe came to the king and brought back word to the king and said, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the LORD.” Moreover, Shaphan the scribe told the king saying, Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. And it came about when the king heard the words of the book of the Law, that he tore his clothes (2 Ki. 22:8-11).

The Law had been neglected and unread until the reign of Josiah, when it was providentially discovered. Josiah’s actions are the direct result of his response to the reading of the Law, which would have included the account of this incident in Exodus 32. Thus, just as Moses tore down the golden calf which Aaron had fashioned, Josiah tore down the golden calf which Jeroboam had made. So, too, this second calf was pulverized, the altar torn down, and the rubble defiled by human remains, so that it would never again be used. Josiah’s actions are a direct application of the lesson which Exodus 32 was written to teach Israel about the evils of idolatry.

In the case of Balaam and of Jeroboam, the evil of Exodus 32 was a pattern for their own sins. In the case of Phinehas and Josiah, the response of Moses to the sins of the people was a pattern for their righteous obedience to God.

What, then, should we learn from Exodus 32, and from the example of Phinehas and Josiah? First, we should learn to take sin as seriously as God does. We dare not minimize its evil. We dare not tolerate its existence? We dare not, in the name of compassion, fail to deal decisively and severely with those who sin. And if we would apply this to our own lives, we must deal as drastically with our own sin as well. This, I believe, is taught in both the Old Testament and in the New as well.

O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, And Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies (Ps. 139:19-22).

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out, and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into the hell of fire” (Matt. 18:8-9).

Harsh words? Yes they are, but we should learn that a righteous God takes sin very seriously. Whether that sin is in our brother, or whether it is in us, we must deal with it as the deadly ailment that it is. We must rid ourselves of it like the plague it is.

Church discipline is not popular these days, partly because we are afraid of being sued, I suppose, but primarily because we are soft on sin. Moses’ dealing with the sin of his people is an example for us, as it was for Phinehas and Josiah. Parents find the discipline of their children a difficult task, and they often justify their passivity and lack of discipline by pointing to the parental abuse of some parents toward their children, or of the interference (sometimes uncalled for or excessive) of state agencies, who are not only opposed to child abuse, but to any form of discipline. Let us take sin as seriously as God does, knowing its deadly, destructive power.

The events of this chapter also dramatically demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant of the New Testament over the old, Mosaic Covenant, which has been given in Exodus. There are two particular areas of superiority evident in our text. First, the new covenant, unlike the Old, gives us the assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we have peace with God.

What a perfect illustration our passage has given us of the inferiority of the Mosaic Covenant to the new covenant. The Mosaic Covenant was based on the righteousness of men, and thus served only to condemn. The new covenant was based on the righteousness of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and thus could be counted on to forgive men and to save them from their sin. Israel virtually “held its breath,” whenever the high priest went into the holy of holies, to make an annual atonement for sin, just as they must have anxiously waited while Moses went up that mountain, into the cloud of God’s presence. The old covenant gave no assurance of the forgiveness of sins; the new gives us absolute confidence and boldness.

Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb. 10:19-22).

There was no atonement provided by the Mosaic Covenant which could cover the sins of the Israelites. They did not draw near to God, even before their sin of idolatry. Rather, they urged Moses to speak to God, while they maintained a safe distance from Him (Exod. 20:18-21). The new covenant allows every Christian to approach God boldly, knowing that Christ has made full and final atonement for their sins.

Second, there is a superiority of the new covenant over the old with regard to the High Priest. Remember that Aaron, who has quickly succumbed to the pressure of the people, who has fashioned an idol for them, and who has established a false worship ceremony, is the Aaron who is soon to be the first high priest of Israel. It was his task to go into the holy of holies to make an annual atonement for sin. How much confidence would you have with Aaron as your high priest?

Aaron truly typifies the sinfulness of all of the Levitical and Aaronic priests, who had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before they could offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people:

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins; he can deal gently with the ignorant and misguided, since he himself also is beset with weakness; and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself (Heb. 5:1-2).

Christ, our great High Priest, is different. Since He is without sin, He need not make an offering for His sins, and thus He can be a perfect sacrifice for our sins:

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priests, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever (Heb. 7:26-28).

How sad it is when men seek to live under the old covenant, when it could not save, but only condemn; when it could not atone for sins, but only pronounce the sentence of death; when it could not give confidence and assurance of forgiveness, but only fear of death; when it had high priests who were as fallible as Aaron. The new covenant rests solely on the work of Christ, and not on the deeds of fallible men. Let us find our salvation, our sanctification, and our security in Christ, through the new covenant of His blood.

Finally, our text gives us a great deal of insight into biblical leadership. What a contrast there is here between the “leadership” of Aaron and that of Moses. I have briefly contrasted the two in this way:



Represented God to men
Told men what God wanted them to hear
Led by principle

Represented men86
Told men what they wanted to hear
Followed men
Led pragmatically, impulsively

There is a great deal being said about leadership today, but we must be very careful to distinguish between biblical leadership and that which is only a part of the passing trends of the day. A biblical leader is responsible to represent God to men, and to call men to obedience to the revealed will of God. A biblical leader is to keep things under control, not to be controlled. A good leader is not responsible to give people what they feel they want (like an idol), but rather to call men to their duty to do what God has commanded.

Good leaders are few and far between. Good leaders do not need the consent of the majority nor a powerful coalition with them in order to call a people to repentance and obedience. I have been very distressed to hear a well-known Christian leader say, in effect, “If we are to bring America to godly conduct, we must muster a large power block of people to get control of the government and to make leaders listen.” Moses was but one man, and he single-handedly turned Israel’s riotous idolatry around. We do not need to have large numbers to radically change the world in which we live, we need only the word of God and the power of God, and the courage to act on them. Let us learn to stand alone, like Moses, though all others (like Aaron) fail. We will find then, I believe, that there will always be a few like the Levites who will take courage and stand with us.

75 It suddenly struck me that the idol which Aaron made for the people was fashioned in a “quick and dirty” fashion. This thought came home to me when I began to compare the way in which God had the gold work of the tabernacle done (especially the work on the top of the Ark of the Covenant). The plans were meticulously worked out, and only the best craftsmen were commissioned to do the work. Aaron, on the other hand, was not a master metal worker, so far as we are told. I take it then that the haste of this project, along with the limited skill of the metal workers, such as Aaron, must have made this idol somewhat less than one of the great works of art of man’s history. It is as though that idol had stamped on its side, “Made in Taiwan.”

76 “The breaking of the tablets is a repudiation by Moses (presumably acting on God’s behalf, although we are not told this) of the validity of the covenant. Because of Israel’s breach of the terms, it has been rendered null and void.” R. Alan Cole, Exodus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 218.

77 I think the Gispen misses the point entirely, when he finds Moses to be sinning in the breaking the tablets: “This parenthetical statement indicates that Moses’ subsequent breaking of the tablets was wrong: even he, the interceding mediator (cf. vv. 7-14), fell into sin. Verse 16, cf. Deuteronomy 9:10. It would have been much more impressive and would have placed the focus much more on God if Moses had presented the two tablets to the people side by side with the golden calf; that would have been a lesson in comparative religion! Moses had violated the ‘work of God,’ where He only had the right to destroy the work of sinful people!” W. H. Gispen, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), p. 297.

78 John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 288.

79 There are others who would give different explanations to this act of drinking the gold dust. For example, Cole writes: “Finally, the gold dust sprinkled on the water of the wady, flowing down from the mountain, the water that Israel must drink, reminds us of the ‘water of bitterness’ to be drunk by the wife suspected of unfaithfulness (Nu. 5:18-22). As Israel has in fact been unfaithful to YHWH, her heavenly ‘husband,’ so the curse will indeed fall upon her (verse 35; cf. Nu. 5:27).” Cole, p. 219.

I do not think that Cole’s explanation is borne out in this text. In support of my explanation, notice that when Jeroboam’s golden image (fashioned after that of the Israelites in Exodus 32) and altar are destroyed, they are pulverized, like the golden calf, and they are deliberately defiled by burning dead men’s bones on them, thus assuring that no one would ever use this profane place again for worship (cf. 2 Ki. 23:15-16). Since I will refer to this text later, I will not go into this passage in detail now.

80 “We might interpret ‘running wild’ (lit. ‘unloosed’) in the sense of ‘nakedness’ (cf. KJV), since the appearance of Moses had probably settled them down, unless we are to assume an orgy of such dimensions that the masses in the camp continued to run around as if crazed. I am inclined to accept the latter interpretation, in which case only those who were near Moses had seen him destroy the golden calf. It is also possible that the destruction of the calf did not take place until afterward; or Moses may have destroyed the calf and forced the Israelites to drink the water and powder later (cf. Deut. 9:21).” Gispen, p. 299.

“The word for ‘naked’ in the Hebrew text … has the sense of loosening or uncovering. It is felt by some commentators that the term does not necessarily mean nakedness as much as giving free rein to their wild passions. The enemies who are referred to in this verse may be Amalekites who still lingered in the area (cf. Exod. 17:8-16).” Davis, p. 290.

81 I believe that the text implies that there were a number of Israelites from other tribes who joined Moses. The instruction to show no mercy to one’s brother, but to kill him (v. 27), could not very well apply to a Levite, since all the Levites joined Moses. The term could be used more generally, of course, meaning something like “fellow-Israelite.” Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that only Levites joined Moses.

82 “The idiom ‘fill the hands’ means ‘institute to a priestly office,’ ‘install,’ ‘inaugurate,’ and the like. It occurs frequently in P, but also in earlier narratives (Jg. 17:5, 12; I Kg. 13:33). It is always used in connection with the priests or priesthood, except in Ezek. 43:26, where it is used of the consecration or inauguration of an altar. The origin of the idiom is uncertain. It may have originated in a custom such as the one which is described in Exod. 29:22-24 and Lev. 8:22-29. There it is said that Moses placed in the hands of Aaron and his sons parts of a sacrifice, made the gesture of presentation with them, and then offered them on the altar. The ‘ram of ordination’ in those passages is literally, ‘ram of filling. … The Hebrew idiom, may, however, be derived from—and it is in any event similar to—the Akkadian idiom … which came to mean ‘appoint to an office,’ ‘put in charge of something,’ and the like.” J. P. Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), p. 310.

83 Gispen, p. 300.

84 The “book” is found elsewhere in Ps. 69:28 and Isa. 4:3. Cf. also Mal. 3:16; Ezek. 13:9; Dan. 12:1.

“This is a metaphorical way of expressing the idea of ‘the world of living men,’ and at the same time stating the truth that every man’s life or death is in God’s hand. Census lists like those in Numbers I may be the origin of the expression (cf. Ezk. 13:9); the lists of God’s people might well be called ‘God’s book.’ In the New Testament, the concept becomes spiritualized, as meaning the roll of those who have entered, or will enter, into eternal life (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5).” Cole, p. 221.

“The OT ‘book of the living’ (Ps. 69:28) is different from the ‘book of life’ of the NT (Lk. 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8 etc.), which was a book in which were inscribed the names of those destined for eternal life.” Hyatt, p. 311.

“This [“if Thou wilt forgive their sin”] usually means in the Old Testament that the punishment of death will be remitted (cf. David, 2 Sa. 12:13), although punishments of a lighter and disciplinary nature may well follow.” Cole, p. 221.

85 “Yahweh’s smiting usually means sending a plague (cf. 12:23, 27; Jos. 24:5; Isa. 19:22).” Hyatt, p. 312.

86 Part of our problem with leadership in America is based upon our history as a nation and upon the structure of our government. In our country leaders are representatives of the people, and thus are responsible to carry out the will of the people. Spiritual leadership is different, for we are ambassadors of Christ, representing Him, not the people. Aaron was representative of the people. Moses was a representative of God.