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Should Christians Endorse War? (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; and other texts)

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October 14, 2001

Special Message

Marla and I will never forget standing in line at the Eiffel Tower in Paris on the first day of our trip to Europe when we learned about the terrible terrorist attack on the United States. Since our nation is now at war in Afghanistan, I thought that before I resume our study of Acts, it would be helpful to explore biblically the question, “Should Christians endorse war?”

In almost 25 years of pastoral ministry, I have never addressed this question. Since it is such an important and practical matter, you might be surprised to learn that the New Testament never directly addresses the issue. It is necessary to extrapolate certain biblical principles that apply to the moral and ethical questions involved. Because there are seemingly opposing principles to consider, such as loving our enemies versus maintaining justice, you will find Christians who are committed to God’s Word on both sides of the issue. We who hold to biblical truth may think that only theological liberals would argue for pacifism. But there are those who hold to the inspiration and authority of Scripture who oppose war for any reason. While I respect and do not question their commitment to Christ and His Word, I will let you know up front that I do not agree with their reasoning. Succinctly stated, my position is:

While Christians should seek peace, there are times in this fallen world where the only means to peace is to defeat an aggressive enemy.

I want to develop four thoughts to explore the subject:

1. We must keep in mind the fallen condition of the human race, including our own sinfulness.

Whenever you are attacked, whether on the national or personal level, there is the tendency to assume that you are totally righteous and the aggressor is totally evil. But this is never the case. The Bible plainly indicts us all: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). We may be right on a particular issue or occasion, but we need to check ourselves from the thought that easily comes when we are attacked, “I am without fault.” That thought leads us to pride, but the Bible enjoins us to humility by first taking the log out of our own eye in any conflict (Matt. 7:5).

I am not suggesting that the recent terrorist attack on the United States was anything but evil. Nor am I suggesting that we somehow deserved it. But any tragedy, whether it is the tower of Siloam falling down and killing 18 people, or an evil tyrant shedding blood, should cause those of us who were spared to examine our own hearts before God (Luke 13:1-5). Do we need to repent?

Have we gotten so caught up in loving this world and the things of the world that we have failed to give and labor for the cause of evangelizing the Muslim world? Are we burdened for the millions of lost Muslims and others around the world who have not heard the gospel? If so, we will be praying and giving from our abundance to take the gospel to them. If we honestly would admit that we don’t care about the eternal destiny of these people, the shocking events of September 11th should cause us to repent of our wrong priorities and to make sure that we are committed to the cause of world evangelization. I am not saying that we could have prevented the attack or that in any way we are responsible for it. Rather, I am saying that the attack should cause us first to look to ourselves and make sure that our priorities are right before God.

Also, keeping in mind our own propensity toward sin will restrain us from using or endorsing excessive force to achieve our military aims. I admit that when I see Muslim people cheering at what happened in New York and Washington, and shouting “Death to the United States!” it makes me angry. I feel like saying, “Blow their country off the globe!” But that would be a sinful, not a godly, response. While it is morally right to bring the terrorists to justice and to insure the rule of law around the world, it is not right to use more force than is necessary to bring about these goals.

Also, it seems to me that the pacifist view that war is never permissible underestimates the fallenness of the human race. Some leaders and some governments are so bent on pursuing evil aims that it is at best naïve and at worst to contribute to more evil not to stop them with force. One of the aims of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden is the elimination of the nation Israel. Short of their being converted, no amount of diplomacy or peace talks will remove their evil intent. Only adequate military force will insure the preservation of Israel. To assume differently is to disregard the depth of human depravity.

So the first principle that we must keep in mind when we think about going to war is the fallen condition of the human race, including our own sinfulness.

2. We must recognize and submit to God’s purpose for human government.

God ordained human government to promote justice and peace by upholding law and order. By extension, in order to maintain law and order within its borders, governments must maintain reasonable national defense, so that aggressors from the outside do not invade and disrupt the peace.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul makes it clear that “there is no authority except from God, and that those which exist are established by God.” Also, he goes so far as to call the government “a minister of God,” and says that God gives governments the authority to bear the sword in order to enforce punishment on those who practice evil (13:4). Peter reinforces this purpose of government to punish evildoers and praise those who do right (1 Pet. 2:14). The Old Testament often talks about the role of the king in promoting justice and righteousness in society (see Psalms 45 & 101, for example).

The Christian pacifist argues that there is a separation between church and state, and that what the state can do, namely, use force to restrain evil doers, Christians should never do (see Herman Hoyt and Myron Augsburger, in War: Four Christian Views [IVP], ed. by Robert Clouse). If Christians serve in government, they must only do so at “levels where they can honestly carry out the functions of their office without compromising their fidelity to Jesus Christ as Lord” (Augsburger, p. 89). But it seems to me that this would preclude a Christian from serving as President or in Congress, or in the police force or military, since all of those positions involve approving or using force to uphold the peace of our land.

Since God ordained human government, which necessarily involves the use of force to maintain law and order, it is not wrong for Christians to be involved in law enforcement, whether on the local or national level. When some soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do in order to demonstrate their repentance, he did not tell them to get out of the military and avoid using force. Rather, he told them not to take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely, and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). As Harold O. J. Brown argues (ibid., p. 112),

If we accept the existence of human government in a fallen world, we must accept some use of force. If we acknowledge the rightness of punishing evildoers by force—they will seldom voluntarily submit to it—then it seems possible to justify some acts of national defense in war. If we can justify the police, we can justify the army.

As I understand their position, to be consistent pacifists would need to forego all police protection. If a man breaks into your house and threatens to rape or kill your wife or daughters, a pacifist would have to allow him to do as he pleases. To call the police or to fight the intruder personally would be to fight violence with violence, which the pacifist condemns.

But I would argue that to be passive in the face of such evil is to be evil ourselves. Not to attempt to restrain evil when we can do so is to condone the evil. God has ordained authority, whether in human government or the authority of husbands and fathers in the family, to protect those under authority. If we can justify using personal force to defend our families from violent people or if, as Brown argues, we can justify calling the police to protect us or to protect others, then we can justify our nation using military force to protect its citizens and to promote peace and justice. Paul’s use of the word “sword” shows that the government’s authority extends to the taking of human life if necessary.

During one of the press conferences this past week, a reporter asked either Defense Secretary Rumsfeld or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Myers (I don’t recall which), “You say that the United States wants justice, not revenge. What is the difference?” It struck me as a dumb question, but since the reporter seemed not to know, perhaps it deserves an answer.

Vengeance carries with it the idea of evening the score, or of paying back an enemy what he did to us. Vengeance would mean going to some Muslim country and blowing up some key building or buildings, such as a mosque during a worship service. Since they killed our innocent civilians, we will retaliate by doing the same. That would be wrong, from a biblical perspective.

Justice means bringing those who violated the law to trial before a court of law and imposing the appropriate sentences; or killing them by police or military action, if it is not possible to capture them alive. Maintaining such law and justice is one of the prime tasks of God-ordained governments.

Thus we must keep in mind the fallen condition of the human race, including our own sinfulness. We must recognize and submit to God’s purpose for human government, to maintain peace and justice through the use of appropriate force.

3. We must seek peace through non-violent means whenever possible.

This principle applies both to individuals and to governments. The use of force should always be the last resort, when all else has failed. On an individual level, unless immediate self-defense or the defense of another person requires it, we should not use force ourselves, but should call law enforcement officers to restrain the aggressor. On a national level, seeking a peaceful resolution of conflict should always be the first approach. I believe that our President attempted that by asking the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden. But I also believe that he is correct in going after them militarily when they refused. To aid and abet a criminal is to be responsible on some level for his crime.

Furthermore, a government should never appease an aggressor by compromise. As Winston Churchill said, “The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion.” He also observed, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last” (Churchill: Speaker of the Century, by James Humes [Stein and Day], p. 270). The pursuit of peace should never involve compromising what is just.

But we must make sure, both as individual Christians and as a nation, that we always seek peace through non-violent means and resort to the use of force only as a last resort. Even though Josiah was a godly king who instituted many reforms, he wrongly insisted on engaging the Egyptian king in battle. The Egyptian king tried to dissuade him from combat, but Josiah wrongly pursued war, not peace. As a result he was tragically killed in battle at age 39 (2 Chron. 34:2; 35:20-24). As even the warrior king, David, wrote, those who fear the Lord and desire life should seek peace, and pursue it (Ps. 34:11, 12, 14). But, having said that,

4. There are times when the only means to peace and protection is to fight against an aggressive enemy.

This comes back to our first point, that the human race is fallen in sin, and that some leaders and nations are so intent on evil that the only way to restrain them is through war. Augustine was the first Christian thinker to advocate the just war theory, in which he argued that a war that is fought to restore peace and obtain justice is not incompatible with Christian love (see Clouse, War, pp. 14-15). Arthur Holmes (ibid., pp. 120-121) outlines some conditions for a just war: (1) It must be for a just cause. The evils that are fought must be serious enough to justify killing. (2) It must have a just intention, namely to secure peace. It is never right to go to war for revenge, conquest, economic gain, or ideological supremacy. (3) It must be a last resort, when all peaceful means have failed. (4) It should be formally declared by a legitimate government. (5) It should have limited objectives. The purpose is not to destroy a nation’s economic or political institutions. (6) It should use proportionate means, limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks. And, (7) it should seek, as much as possible, to avoid directly attacking civilian non-participants in the war. (See also, J. Budziszewski, World Magazine [9/29/01], p. 28).

Conclusion

Probably, most of you agree with the position that I have outlined in this message. My aim is to help you clarify your thinking from a biblical perspective. Judging from the proliferation of bumper stickers in town and from some of  the responses of local residents reported in the paper, there are many who would argue against any war, even in the current situation. I want to equip you to interact thoughtfully with such folks, using the conversation to stimulate them to think about God and His righteous judgment. I want to close by giving four action points for us as a church:

(1) The terrorist attack and our nation’s response should move us to more prayer. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul urges the church to pray, especially for political leaders, so that Christians can lead tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. In our homes and in our church gatherings, we should be praying for our leaders and for other world leaders, that peaceful conditions would prevail around the globe.

(2) The current situation should make us alert for opportunities for evangelism. After exhorting the church to prayer, Paul goes on to say that God our Savior desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:3-4). A military victory against the terrorists will not solve the problem of sin in this world. Only the gospel of Christ can do that. Here on the home front, people are fearful and worried about more terrorist attacks. It is a great time to tell them of the only legitimate way not to fear death, namely, by knowing that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.

(3) We should act with visible love toward Arab and Islamic people that we may have contact with. Sadly, there have been outbreaks of violence against Arabic people in America, simply because of their race or religion. Most Muslims are not in favor of terrorism, and we would be wrong to treat them as our enemies. A friend of mine was in Turkey when the attack took place, and he said that many Turks came up to him on the street and expressed their sympathy over what happened. But even if a Muslim expresses sympathy for the terrorists, we are still required to love  our enemies for Jesus’ sake. We should pray for their salvation and we should reach out to them in love as we should to any lost people, even if they mistreat us. They need Jesus as their Savior.

(4) Finally, as I already mentioned, we should examine our own hearts and confess our sins, both personal and national, to the Lord. If we have been apathetic about reaching the lost, we need to repent. If we have harbored hatred for certain racial groups, we need to repent. If we have squandered our wealth on personal pleasure and selfish living, without regard for taking the gospel to those who are lost, we should repent. If we have fallen into loving the world and living as if this life is all there is, we should repent. Genuine repentance is more than feeling sorry for our wrongs. It also involves turning from our sins and taking steps to rectify our wrongs.

The Bible promises that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). He can protect and restore peace to our land. But He wants us to seek first His kingdom and righteousness. Then He will add all the other things that we need (Matt. 6:33).

Rather than concluding with a song, I’d like us to conclude with prayer. According to 1 Corinthians 11, women are permitted to pray in church if they do so submissively, but according to 1 Timothy 2:8, it is the men who should take the lead in public prayer. I’d like for us to break up into groups of 4-6 people. If you don’t know someone in the group, introduce yourselves. Then several, especially the men, should lead in prayer for our nation, our leaders, our service men and women, and our church. Pray for God to use this conflict to establish peace and to open the door for the gospel both at home and in Muslim lands.

Discussion Questions

  1. Someone asks, “How can you reconcile turning the other cheek with going to war?” Your response?
  2. What should a Christian from a nation like Afghanistan do, where it is a capital crime to be a Christian? Is revolution ever justified?
  3. Can we pray for justice and yet love our enemy at the same time? How?
  4. Pacifists argue that if a Christian goes to war, he may be forced to kill a fellow believer on the other side. Does this preclude a Christian from combat duty?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Terrorism

Let’s Stop The Rhetoric About Abortion

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Also published: Arizona Daily Sun, January 19, 1996

President Clinton has voiced his opinion that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I hope the American public can see this for what it is: Rhetoric. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines rhetoric as “insincere or grandiloquent language.” In case “grandiloquent” is not a familiar word, it means that which is marked by “lofty or pompous eloquence: BOMBAST.” And, “bombast” is “pretentious inflated speech or writing.” You get the idea--we’re listening to a president who mouths misleading cliches, expecting the unthinking public to nod in agreement.

But I trust that you are not unthinking! Think with me about what is being said. First, to say that abortions are legal is, sad to say, true. This week marks the 23rd anniversary of the infamous Roe v. Wade, arguably the worst Supreme Court decision in history alongside the Dred Scott decision which declared blacks non-persons under the Constitution. But legal does not equal moral!

Mr. Clinton wants abortions to be safe. That’s nice! Safe for whom? They certainly are not safe for the baby, who is killed or maimed for life (if the procedure fails and he lives, which sometimes happens). To say that they can be safe for the woman is debatable, since studies show many serious long-term physical risks from abortions, not to mention serious emotional effects. One study of the emotional effects on the woman showed that 65 percent had experienced suicidal thoughts after they aborted their babies, and 31 percent attempted suicide. Those aren’t safe odds!

And, the President wants abortions to be rare, which presumably means less than the current 1.5 million a year (well over 30 million since Roe v. Wade). That’s a staggering pile of little bodies, deprived of the chance to live, in most cases simply because it was inconvenient to have the baby!

“But, wait a minute!” you say. “The President says that abortions should be legal, safe, and rare, not that they are! It’s a goal to work toward, not a reality.” But this, too, is pure rhetoric in the worst sense of the word (“insincere, pretentious speech”).

If he really wants abortions to be rare, then let’s push for legislation to eliminate all abortions performed for convenience, or for sexual preference (ironically for the women’s movement, many females are aborted because male babies are more desired). If we restricted abortions to cases of rape, incest, serious deformities, or to save the life of the mother, 97-99 percent of the abortions currently performed would cease immediately. While I would argue that it is just as immoral to kill a baby conceived through rape or incest or to kill a deformed baby as it is to kill a baby who was conceived against the wishes of the parents, I would agree to legislation limiting abortions to the above-stated causes because it would immediately save well over a million babies each year. If the President’s words are not just rhetoric, let’s get on with such legislation!

Most people mistakenly think that Roe v. Wade restricts second and third trimester abortions. This is simply not true. Approximately eight percent of abortions are done on second and third trimester babies (that’s over 100,000 per year), and according to Roe v. Wade a woman can legally obtain an abortion for any reason whatsoever right up to the point of birth.

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that first trimester babies are somehow less than human. The fact is, these babies are no different than you or I except that they haven’t lived quite as long as we have. They have a beating heart at 24 days, brainwaves at 43 days, and a complete skeleton and reflexes by 6 weeks. Time and nurture is all they need to be happy little kids playing at the park. Even Jesus started out on this earth as a first trimester baby! I’m glad He wasn’t aborted!

Last year, Susan Smith drowned her two toddlers by strapping them in their car seats and aiming her driver-less car into a lake. Political cartoonist John Deering drew a cartoon showing her car being hauled out of the lake, complete with a South Carolina license plate, a Baby-on-Board sign in the back window, and a Pro-Choice sticker on the rear bumper. There was no caption; there didn’t need to be. His point was clear: If it is wrong for a mother to choose to kill her toddlers, why is it not wrong to kill them a few months before?

A Planned Parenthood newsletter earlier this year ran an article titled, “Help Stop the Violence and Defend the Right to Choose.” The violence referred to was not killing babies, but killing abortion doctors. I’m against killing abortion doctors, but I’m also against Planned Parenthood which kills babies! Pro-choice means the choice to kill children who just aren’t as old as other children. The right to choose to kill your children should not be legal because it is not moral. Let’s drop the rhetoric.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

Asking The Right Questions About Life

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A four-year-old was enjoying lemonade and cookies on his grandmother’s patio when a bee started buzzing around the table. He became very upset, and his mother tried to calm him by explaining, “Nathan, that bee is more afraid of you than you are of him. Look how much bigger you are. Besides, if that bee stings you, his stinger will fall out and he’ll die.”

That four-year-old considered this for a moment and then asked, “Does the bee know that?”

That was a perceptive question! Often, we fail in life because we fail to ask good questions or we ask the wrong questions. When it comes to spiritual matters, I find many people who are asking the wrong questions: “Can Jesus Christ make my life happy and give me the inner peace I lack?” “Can Jesus help me save my troubled marriage?” “Can Christianity help me raise my children properly?” “Will becoming a Christian help me overcome the addictions in my life?”

I’m not denying that these are important questions. But I am saying that they are not the most important question. Even if you answer them correctly, but do not address the most important question, you will be building your life on a shaky foundation at best.

The problem with these questions is that they approach Jesus from a consumer mentality without regard for the universal reality of death and eternity beyond and without regard for the absolute nature of spiritual truth.

Take the first question, “Can Jesus Christ make my life happy and give me the inner peace I lack?” Suppose you commit your life to Christ and instead of happiness, your life suddenly encounters multiple major trials. Suppose your loved ones are taken in a tragic accident. Suppose you are diagnosed with terminal cancer. These things aren’t quite what you had in mind when you signed up for happiness and peace!

Or, what if someone else claims, “I found happiness and peace through Zen Buddhism”? Is that option just as good as trusting in Christ, as long as it delivers the goods that the religious consumer is looking for?

I am suggesting that since, as George Bernard Shaw observed, the statistics on death are quite impressive—one out of one people die—and since God is not a subjective projection of the human mind, but is an objective Being who created the universe, who is holy, and before whom each one of us must stand for judgment, the right question we all should be asking is, “How can I be right before a holy God?” None of the things we now think of as important will matter in that moment when we die and stand before Almighty God. Since we are all so vulnerable to death, that moment could occur even today for even the most healthy person reading these words.

The answer to this most important question leads us to the person of Jesus Christ. He made staggering claims about himself which preclude us from calling Jesus just a great moral teacher. For example, Jesus said (John 5:21-24, New American Standard Bible), “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes. For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. 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.”

Jesus is claiming here that he has authority to give spiritual life to whomever he wishes! What mere man can make such a claim! He boldly states that God the Father has entrusted all judgment to him, Jesus the Son. Again, what a ludicrous claim in the mouth of a mere man, even a great man! He goes further and claims that he deserves the same honor given to God the Father! That’s not only absurd, it is blasphemy, if Jesus is a mere man!

But, don’t miss it, Jesus also answers the most important question that we all should be asking in light of the certainty of death and the reality of judgment: How can I be right before a holy God? Jesus’ answer is that we need to hear His word and we need to believe it, especially the fact that He was sent here by God the Father. Why was Jesus sent? John 1:29 clearly states that He is the lamb of God, sent to bear the sins of the world. If you trust in Jesus as your sin-bearer, sent from God, Jesus’ promise is that you have crossed over from death to life, that you possess eternal life, and you will not be condemned in the day when you stand before God.

Don’t waste your life because you asked the wrong questions! The most important question is, “How can I be right before a holy God?” Jesus’ answer is, “Put your trust in Me as your sin-bearer and you will have eternal life.”

You may want to express your trust in Christ in prayer to God. A suggested prayer is, “Heavenly Father, I acknowledge my sin, rebellion, and self-centeredness to you. I rightly deserve your holy judgment. But I put my trust in your Son Jesus and His death on the cross, as the just payment for my sins. Thank you for giving me eternal life according to your promise.”

If you have truly put your trust in Jesus Christ, you have been born into God’s family. As a spiritual baby, you need to grow by feeding on God’s Word (1 Peter 2:2). Purchase a Bible (I recommend either The New American Standard Bible or The English Standard Version) and begin prayerfully reading it. I suggest you start in the New Testament, such as the Gospel of John or Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As you read, ask two questions: “Who are You, Lord?” “What do You want me to do?”

Also, you need to join a church where the Bible is taught and where God is truly worshiped. If you go to our church web site, www.fcfonline.org there are many resources to help you grow as a Christian. May God bless you as you begin your new life with Him!

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Baptism: Some Common Questions Answered

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Baptism is an important topic that also arouses much controversy and confusion. The decisive issue is, what does the Bible teach? I want to answer from the Bible some common questions about baptism. If you have a different understanding, I simply encourage you to study the Bible for yourself to see what it teaches (see Acts 17:11). Scripture alone, not church tradition, is our authoritative standard.

1. Why is baptism important?

Baptism is important because Christ commanded it as a part of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). If we neglect baptism, we’re disobeying our Lord. Since true faith always expresses itself in obedience, those who have believed in Christ and have been properly instructed about baptism will obey Christ by being baptized.

Baptism is the place where a believer publicly confesses Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and identifies with Christ and His church. In talking of our need to follow Him, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.... For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34, 38). Baptism is the initial way of confessing Christ publicly.

2. What is the meaning of baptism?

The word “baptism” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word, baptisma, and some related words which have the meaning of dipping or immersing. Since the object dipped or immersed became totally identified with the substance in which it was placed, the idea of identification is central to the meaning of baptism. Jesus’ baptism by John publicly identified Him who was sinless with sinners in anticipation of His death and resurrection as their sin‑bearer. In that sense, He referred to His own impending death as a “baptism” which He had to undergo (Mark 10:38‑39; Luke 12:50). For us baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection; our identification with Christ’s church; and, our cleansing from sin.

a) Baptism symbolizes total identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:3‑4: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 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.”

Technically, we were “baptized into Christ” through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is the work whereby the Holy Spirit places a person “in Christ” at the moment of salvation. So what Paul refers to in Romans 6 is not water baptism itself, but what it pictures, namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At the instant we believed, we became totally identified with Christ. His death became our death, His burial our burial, His resurrection our resurrection. Going under the water symbolizes death to our old way of life; coming up out of the water pictures the beginning of a new life, lived unto God, in the power of Christ’s resurrection (see also, Col. 2:11‑12).

b) Baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ’s church.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul states, “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.” The primary reference here, as in Romans 6, is to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when He places the believer into Christ at the moment of salvation. We become members of His body, the church. Water baptism symbolizes our identification with the church which took place spiritually at the moment of saving faith.

In the act of baptism, a person publicly identifies himself with other Christians. He is saying, “Now I’m one of them.” In our culture, with religious tolerance, water baptism isn’t too threatening. But in some countries, where Christians are persecuted, baptism separates the true believers from the phonies. You open yourself to persecution by being baptized. But even if we don’t risk persecution, baptism should represent that sort of bold, public identification with the church.

c) Baptism symbolizes cleansing from sin.

This is the point of 1 Peter 3:18‑21 (see below also) plus several other Scriptures. Cleansing is obviously a primary symbol of water. But it is not immersion in water (or sprinkling, pouring, or whatever mode) that cleanses the heart. Peter makes that very clear. Water can only remove dirt from the flesh. It is the blood of Christ which removes the filth from our hearts, because apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).

Because baptism is done with water, and water symbolizes cleansing, it is often mentioned in close connection with salvation. In Titus 3:5, Paul refers to God’s saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” But in the immediately preceding words he says that God saved us “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.” The act of baptism cannot save anyone. We are saved only God’s grace through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8, 9). After Saul had been blinded on the Damascus road, Ananias came to him and said, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling upon His name” (Acts 22:16).

The Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon (Spurgeon’s Sermons [Baker], 8:31), has a helpful comment in this connection:

I know that believer’s baptism itself does not wash away sin, yet it is so the outward sign and emblem of it to the believer, that the thing visible may be described as the thing signified. Just as our Saviour said, “This is my body,” when it was not his body, but bread; yet, inasmuch as it represented his body, it was fair and right according to the usage of language to say, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And so, inasmuch as baptism to the believer represent[s] the washing of sin—it may be called the washing of sin; not that it is so, but that it is to saved souls the outward symbol and representation of what is done by the power of the Holy Spirit in the man who believes in Christ.

This raises a third question that deserves more discussion:

3. Is baptism necessary for salvation?

The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8‑9). Both Romans and Galatians deal extensively with the theme that we are justified (declared righteous by God) through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any works of righteousness. Many Scriptures affirm what Jesus stated, “... 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” (John 5:24). He told the dying thief on the cross, who called out to Him in faith, that he would be with Him that very day in Paradise (Luke 23:39‑43). Obviously, the man was not baptized.

At the same time, Scripture is clear that genuine saving faith results in obedience (Eph. 2:10; 2 Thess. 1:8, “obey the gospel”). Thus every true believer who is properly taught and who has opportunity will be baptized in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. But baptism is the result of salvation, not the means to it.

In spite of the overwhelmingly clear testimony of Scripture, for centuries there have been those who have taught the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration, that salvation is bestowed through baptism. This is a serious heresy. If that sounds overly harsh, re‑read Galatians. Paul says that if any good works (even God-ordained rites, like circumcision) are added to the gospel, it pollutes God’s pure grace. Paul condemns those who teach such false doctrine in the strongest possible language: “Let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8, 9)!

I cannot deal with all of the verses which are used to support this heresy, but let’s briefly examine a few.

In Acts 2:38, Peter says, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; . . .” If this were the only verse in the Bible that dealt with this subject, and none taught differently, we might conclude that baptism is the condition for forgiveness of sins. But there are many other verses which say nothing of baptism as a requirement for forgiveness. In the very next chapter, Peter exhorts his hearers, “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). He does not mention baptism.

Also, in Acts 10:43, Peter tells the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house: “Of Him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Again he does not mention baptism as a requirement for forgiveness.

So how do we explain Acts 2:38? We must understand the close connection in the minds of the apostles between belief and baptism. Peter expected water baptism to be the inevitable result of repentance. To say, “I repent and believe in Jesus” but to refuse to be baptized would call one’s repentance and faith into question. So Peter adds baptism as the naturally understood consequence of repentance; but it is not the baptism, but repentance (which is inextricably bound up with saving faith), that brings forgiveness. Baptism is the outward sign of the inward belief.

I can only deal with one other text that is often used to teach that baptism saves a person. In 1 Peter 3:18‑21, Peter mentions the deliverance of Noah from the flood and then states, “And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (3:21).

There are several interpretive problems in this text, but I am only going to deal with the matter of baptism saving us. Peter takes pains to make it clear that the act of baptism—applying water to the flesh—does not save. Rather, it is what the act symbolizes—the appeal to God for a good conscience through the death (3:18) and resurrection (3:21) of Christ—which saves. Peter is saying that the flood was a type of which baptism is the antitype. Just as the flood brought death through judgment to the old, sinful world, but Noah through faith was borne above the waters to a new life, so with baptism. It symbolizes the fact that we have died through our identification with Christ to our old life and have been raised in newness of life to live for Him. The flood was an illustration of our salvation in Christ; baptism is the same. It is the symbol, not the means, of salvation.

4. Who should be baptized? Should we baptize infants?

The clear teaching of Scripture is that all who believe in Christ as Savior and Lord should be baptized in obedience to Christ. The New Testament order is always: The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ; acceptance of the message by faith on the part of the hearers; then, baptism. Never once is there an instance of baptism preceding faith as the norm to be followed. And there are no examples or commands concerning the baptism of the infants or yet unbelieving children of believing parents. Consider the following verses from Acts, noting the order of belief first, then baptism:

2:41: ... those who had received his word were baptized; ...

8:12: But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.

8:36‑38: And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.

While verse 37 [in brackets] lacks strong textual support in the earliest Greek manuscripts, its insertion in later manuscripts shows what the church held to be the necessary qualification for baptism.

10:44, 46b, 47, 48a: While Peter was still speaking these words [the gospel], the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.... Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

16:30‑34: [The Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas] “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

If any children were baptized that night, the text is clear that they had believed. There is not a shred of support for infant baptism here.

18:8: And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with his whole household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Thus the abundant testimony of the New Testament is that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ precedes baptism.

Those who argue for infant baptism say that it is the sign of the New Covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (based on Col. 2:11‑12). However, while there are some parallels between the two signs, there are many differences. The sign of circumcision was administered to the male, physical descendants of Abraham in obedience to the specific command of God. But the New Testament is clear that it is not the physical seed of Abraham which is saved, but the spiritual seed (Rom. 4:16; 9:8; Gal. 3:7). There simply is no command of God to administer baptism to the physical seed of Christians, male or female. If baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers.

Beyond that, we can argue that infant baptism is potentially detrimental. If an adult mistakenly assumes (as it would be most easy to do if brought up under this teaching), that because he was baptized as an infant, he possesses salvation and is a member of Christ’s church, then he is sadly deceived. There is no grace imparted in the physical act of baptism, apart from the faith of the one being baptized. To count on one’s infant baptism as the basis for standing before God is to trust in a false hope. Only personal faith in the crucified and risen Savior saves a person from sin and hell.

Granted that baptism is only for believers, three more questions arise:

5. How long after one has believed should one wait to be baptized?

Biblical examples indicate that baptism should take place as soon after a person believes as is possible. In the New Testament, the thought of an unbaptized believer was foreign. Baptism followed belief in Christ as one of the first evidences of faith. In many churches today, evangelistic appeals are followed by the statement that believers must not be ashamed to confess Christ publicly. So people are asked to come stand in front of the church as a confession of their faith in Christ. But in the New Testament, new believers confessed their belief in Christ by being baptized, not by walking the aisle.

It may be advisable to allow for a period of time for instruction in the meaning of baptism and to allow for some evidences of genuine faith to be seen in the believer’s life. But this is not required in the Bible. When a person trusts in Christ, he or she should be baptized as soon as it can be arranged.

6. How old should children who believe be before they are baptized?

This depends on the child’s maturity. The child should give some evidence, both in understanding and behavior, of being truly born again. While full understanding of the meaning of baptism is not necessary (what adult can say that he fully understands it?), some comprehension of the meaning and significance is desirable. Parents should not put pressure on the child, but rather let it be his decision in response to his understanding of the matter from the biblical teaching of his parents and the church. In other words, the child should be old enough to make an informed decision to confess his faith in Christ publicly. He should be old enough so that he can remember it all his life.

7. Should a person who was baptized as an infant or as a non-Christian be re-baptized as a Christian? Should a Christian be re-baptized after falling into sin and repenting?

There is one instance of re-baptism in the New Testament. In Acts 19:1‑5, Paul encountered some men who had been baptized by John the Baptist. But apparently they had left Palestine before they heard about Jesus. When Paul told them about Christ, they believed and were baptized a second time, this time in the name of the Lord Jesus. This suggests that a person who was baptized before he came to personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (whether as an infant or older) should be re-baptized as a confession of genuine faith in Christ.

There is no indication in the Bible of any baptized believer in Christ being re-baptized after a lapse of faith or when the person came to a deeper understanding of the real meaning of baptism. The way of restoration for a person who has fallen away from the Lord is confession of sin (1 John 1:9).

8. What is the proper mode of baptism?

Immersion, sprinkling, and pouring are three common modes. Some who practice immersion do it three times forward (once for each person of the trinity). I don’t believe that the mode of baptism should be an issue worth dividing over. But immersion is the meaning of the Greek word; it best represents the biblical truths symbolized by baptism; and, it was the method used in the early church.

The Greek word for baptize was used of a ship which had sunk or of a man who had drowned (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan], 1:144). It means to dip or submerge. But when the translators of the English Bible came to the word, sprinkling was the official mode, so they sidestepped the awkward matter by transliterating the Greek word into English, hence coining the word “baptize.” It should be translated “dipping”!

Immersion best represents the truth of total identification with Christ that baptism symbolizes. When the believer goes into the water, it pictures death (separation) to his old way of life. When he comes out of the water, it speaks of the fact that now he is raised to newness of life in Christ. Immersion also pictures total cleansing from sin. While it ought to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), there is no indication that it requires three separate immersions. Once under better symbolizes the fact that we are placed into Christ once and for all by the Holy Spirit.

Church historian Geoffrey Bromiley states, “Immersion was fairly certainly the original practice and continued in general use up to the Middle Ages. The Reformers agreed that this best brought out the meaning of baptism as a death and resurrection, . . .” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], p. 113). Even John Calvin (who advocated infant baptism) admits that immersion is the meaning of the term “baptize” and that it was the form used by the primitive church, although he thinks that churches should be free to adopt whatever mode they choose (Institutes of the Christian Religion [4:15:19]).

Conclusion

If you’ve never trusted in Christ as Savior, I hope that you will not think that because you have been baptized or that if you will get baptized, it will insure you of eternal life. Eternal life is the free gift God offers to you based on Christ’s death for your sins. You can only receive it by faith, not by your good deeds (including baptism).

If you know Christ as your Savior but you’ve never been baptized as a believer, I urge you to do so as a confession of your faith in obedience to Christ’s command at the next opportunity.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1994, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Baptism, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

The Basis For Christian Unity

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May 1996

Christian unity is a hot topic. Here in Flagstaff, there have been a number of inter-church “Unity” services and other cooperative events which often include both Catholics and Protestants. I recently received an invitation to attend a worship service being held at the Nativity Catholic Church, where Dr. Emilio Castro, former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, spoke on, “Together on the Faith Journey.” In 1993, several prominent evangelical leaders signed a document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” calling for closer cooperation between these groups. The popular Promise Keepers movement includes as one of its seven promises, “Reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.”

These trends and events raise the issue, What is the basis for Christian unity? Should Protestants and Catholics join together in the cause of Christ? Some of you may have wondered why I do not endorse or participate in “ecumenical” activities. I can only give the briefest sketch here. (I wrote a more lengthy paper on this several years ago; if you want a copy, let me know.) Here are a few thoughts that I hope will clarify and enlighten.

Biblical truth on essential doctrines, not “Christian love,” must be the basis for unity. I often hear, “Jesus said that the world will know we are Christians by our love and unity, not by our doctrine.” The implication is that doctrine is both divisive and secondary to love. But a careful reading of John 17 will show that Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth” (17:17). To sanctify means to set apart or make separate. We are to be set apart from the world because we hold to God’s truth.

Satan, the master at deceit, has many servants who claim to be Christian, but who deny fundamental biblical truth and thus are not truly Christian (2 Cor. 11:13-15; 1 John 2:18-27). Jesus warned of false prophets who are wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). One of the main duties of shepherds (pastors) is to guard the flock, which involves warding off the wolves (Acts 20:28). They also must exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9, plus many references to “sound doctrine” in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). If a person or church knowingly denies or distorts the essential Christian doctrines about the nature of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the way of salvation, or the inspiration and authority of the Bible, we are not one with that person or church, in spite of their claim of being Christian (see Gal. 1:6-9). We are warned not to do anything to endorse such false doctrine (2 John 8-11). Rather, we must refute it.

While we must never compromise sound doctrine, we must hold to truth with wisdom and love. It’s not always easy to distinguish essential doctrines from those that are important, but not absolutely essential for defining orthodox Christianity, so we must be discerning. Also, we may draw lines for personal friendship differently than we would for church unity or cooperation. It is not our place to judge the salvation of a person who differs with us doctrinally (unless he or she clearly denies the faith). Some may be truly saved and yet greatly deceived on some important doctrinal or practical issues. We can be cordial toward the person, and yet register our strong disagreement with him on the particular issue.

We must show grace toward those who are young in faith, who may be confused on certain doctrinal issues (see Acts 18:24-28). We must be patient, kind, and gracious toward those who differ with us on non-essentials. Perfect knowledge is not the requirement for fellowship, since none attain it this side of heaven. We must always be on guard against the spiritual pride that causes us to delight in proving that we are right and others are wrong. We can demolish a brother with our correct doctrine and thus sin by speaking truth without love. But we must never sacrifice essential truth on the altar of love. They cannot be separated.

My desire is that we work with all who truly know Christ to speak the truth in love, so that we all grow up in all aspects into Him (Eph. 4:15). But to join our church in cooperation with other churches which profess to know Christ but deny core biblical truths is to violate the biblical teaching on maintaining sound doctrine and holding to God’s truth. This is why I’m not comfortable participating in “Unity” services with the Roman Catholic Church, which officially promotes serious heresies. The basis for unity is God’s truth, held to in a loving, but uncompromising, manner.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1996, All Rights Reserved.

Related Topics: False Teachers, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

Books For Growing Christians

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(Updated & Revised, July, 2004)

Bringing good Christian books into your home is like inviting godly, wise Christian leaders to share their insights with you and your family. It’s a worthwhile investment. I recommend that you budget money to purchase good Christian books. If you spend money for cable TV or videos & movies, why not budget some money for books to help you and your family to grow in Christ? I usually purchase books rather than borrow because I can then mark them and write comments in the margin as I interact with the authors. I also set goals on how many books I want to read each year to help me keep at it. I try to vary my reading between devotional (often sermons from the godly men of the past), biographical (I have a separate book list entirely on this), and theological.

I usually buy books either used or at a discount. One source: Christian Book Distributors, Box 7000, Peabody, MA 01961-7000. Phone: (800) 247-4784. Web: www.christianbook.com Another source for some harder-to-find, but solid books: Cumberland Valley Bible Book Service, P.O. Box 613, Carlisle, PA 17013. Phone: (800) 656-0231. Web: www.cvbbs.com Even with shipping costs, you can usually beat retail prices. Also, try www.Amazon.com Go to www.campusI.com to compare prices on books.

This list is selective. There are many other worthwhile books. I’ve listed some that have helped me. Being on this list does not imply total endorsement. Read critically and prayerfully, comparing everything with Scripture! I have tried generally to list them in order of priority for purchase (or my favorites first) under each section. You can get free Bible software (donations requested) at www.freeBibleSoftware.com

Reference Works, Bible Study Aids

Note: You can now purchase many of the following works in various combinations on CD-ROM for your computer. Generally, you can get far more books for your buck this way, if you don’t mind having them in this form. You will have to search around and determine what best fits your needs.

  1. New American Standard Bible. It is the most literal translation, although sometimes not smooth. Get the updated version.
  2. English Standard Version Bible. This is a literal translation also, attempting to be a bit smoother than the NASB.
  3. New International Version Bible. For alternate reading & study; less literal than the NASB, but easier to read. The New King James Version is a modern update of the popular old version. Generally the Greek text behind the KJV & NKJV is not as authentic as the text behind the NASB & NIV (although this is hotly debated!).
  4. Exhaustive Concordance to the NASB. A concordance lists every word in the Bible and where it occurs, so you can locate a text if you can remember one word from the verse; or do a theme or word study by tracing every occurrence of a word in the Bible.
  5. The New Bible Dictionary.
  6. The New Unger’s Bible Handbook.
  7. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vol. Best evangelical, multi-volume commentary set. This set has been abridged into the two-volume NIV Bible Commentary, Kenneth Barker & John Kohlenberger III, eds. If you purchase this shorter set, you could also purchase vol. 1 of the Expositor’s set, which contains some very helpful articles.
  8. The Bible Knowledge Commentary Old Testament & New Testament (2 vols.). Brief commentary on the whole Bible (dispensational perspective, written by Dallas Seminary faculty).
  9. Calvin’s Commentaries. Expensive and does not cover whole Bible. But he is devotionally as well as exegetically good. You can find these on the web (www.monergism.com).
  10. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 vols.).
  11. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W. E. Vine. Word studies for students who don’t know Hebrew or Greek.
  12. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed. (4 vols.). More scholarly word studies than Vine, but you can use it even if you don’t know Greek. There is also a one volume edition of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.
  13. Any good Bible atlas.
  14. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, ed.
  15. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J. D. Douglas, ed.
  16. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. by Tim Dowley.
  17. Unlocking the Scriptures, Hans Finzel (principles of inductive Bible study; or, there are several other good books that help you learn to study the Bible on your own).

Theology/Doctrine

Don’t be scared off by this section! Christian families used to teach their children through catechisms, which are great summaries of biblical truth. American Christians need sound doctrine! In addition to the specific works listed below, I highly recommend that you read any of the Puritans. Also, men like Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon, J. C. Ryle, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones have many sermons in print that combine solid theology, devotion to God, and practical application.

  1. The London Baptist Confession of 1689 (this is now available from Cumberland in a modern version called A Faith to Confess: The 1689 Confession in Modern English).
  2. The Westminster Confession of Faith (along with the Longer and Shorter Catechisms; I don’t agree with their position on baptism and the Sabbath, but it is an excellent summary of solid doctrine).
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin (buy the edition by J. T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, which is more up-to-date than the Beveridge edition). While some sections are hard to read, others are outstanding (the section on prayer is great)! Next to the Bible, Calvin’s Institutes is far and away the most profound book I’ve ever read (twice at this date)!
  4. Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought, T. H. L. Parker (synopsis of the Institutes).
  5. Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem. Contemporary, Reformed on salvation. I do not agree with his charismatic leaning. A condensed version of this book is called, Bible Doctrine.
  6. Systematic Theology, Charles Hodge (get the one-volume abridged edition; Hodge was a solid Reformed professor at Princeton in the 19th century).
  7. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (2 vol.). Edwards is difficult to read, but immensely rewarding. He knew and loved God as few men have.
  8. The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther (a classic; a modern English edition is available from Cumberland called “Born Slaves”).
  9. Faith Works, John MacArthur, Jr. On “lordship salvation.”
  10. The Holiness of God, R. C. Sproul.
  11. Knowing God, J. I. Packer.
  12. The Doctrines of Grace, James Boice & Philip Ryken (on Calvinism).
  13. Chosen by God, R. C. Sproul. Clear, convincing, and practical.
  14. Still Sovereign, ed. by Thomas Schreiner & Bruce Ware. A collection of essays on the vital subject of God’s sovereignty. Some are very helpful.
  15. The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, D. A. Carson. Short, but provocative.
  16. The Love of God, John MacArthur.

Spiritual Life/ Devotional

  1. Any of Spurgeon’s sermons (many are available in paperback). They’re a bit wordy, but devotionally meaty. Worth the effort! (Also, check out the great Spurgeon web site: www.spurgeon.org
  2. Any of John Bunyan’s sermons or devotional writings. The Acceptable Sacrifice and Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ are now available from Banner of Truth. Both a wonderful!
  3. The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Richard Baxter (a Puritan, hard-to-find, but a wonderful exposition of the fact that our hope is in heaven, not in this life). This is one of the top five books I’ve ever read!
  4. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, J. I. Packer. (Packer isn’t easy to read, but this is a great book. I’ve read it three times so far.)
  5. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life, Donald Whitney. A study guide is also available.
  6. Don’t Waste Your Life, John Piper. I wish this had been available when I was in my 20’s.
  7. Desiring God, John Piper. Provocative and life-changing.
  8. The Pleasures of God, John Piper. What God delights in.
  9. God’s Passion for His Glory, John Piper. The first half is Piper’s introduction to Jonathan Edwards. The second half is Edwards’ difficult, but rewarding essay, “The End for Which God Created the World.”
  10. Sin and Temptation, John Owen (a condensed, modern English version is, What Every Christian ) This is the best treatment of how to deal with temptation. I’ve read it at least 4 times. Owen, a 17th century Puritan, is meaty, but very hard to read in his original works.
  11. Practical Religion, J. C. Ryle (a 19th century Anglican, but contemporary and solid; read anything of his you can find. This work is now in a modern, condensed version titled “Walking With God,” available from Cumberland).
  12. Holiness, J. C. Ryle. A classic.
  13. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 4 vol., J. C. Ryle. Great devotional insights on every paragraph in the gospels. This makes for great daily devotional reading as you read through the gospels.
  14. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan. Get a modern English version. Read and reread it yourself & to your kids. Spurgeon read it through yearly!
  15. Revival, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
  16. The Sermon on the Mount, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (incisive analysis of Matthew 5-7). All of Lloyd-Jones’ books of sermons are devotionally rich.
  17. Our Sufficiency in Christ, John MacArthur, Jr. Attacks the modern intrusion of psychology & pragmatism into evangelical circles.
  18. The Ultimate Priority, John MacArthur, Jr. (on worship).
  19. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, William Law (18th century, get a modern English abridgement if you can). A bit out-dated, but it shows you the solid spirituality of these godly men of the past in comparison with the flimsy spirituality of today.
  20. From Pride to Humility, Stuart Scott. A short booklet, excerpted from The Exemplary Husband. Every Christian should read this booklet repeatedly! It is really good and practical.

Church History/Biography/Missions

(I have benefited much from reading in this area. I have a more extensive biographical bibliography available. Some of these are of more interest to preachers, but would benefit any believer. I’ve listed them separately below.)

  1. George Muller, Roger Steer (Muller was a giant in faith and prayer).
  2. George Muller of Bristol, A. T. Pierson. An older treatment. This book profoundly influenced me.
  3. Hudson Taylor, Roger Steer (recent treatment of this great pioneer missionary to China).
  4. Hudson Taylor and Maria, John Pollock.
  5. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Ruth Tucker (great, moving historical biography of missions).
  6. Bruchko, Bruce Olson. Exciting story, great for reading to family.
  7. The Tapestry, Edith Schaeffer. Life of Francis & Edith Schaeffer, a real‑life drama of how God leads as we walk with Him.
  8. Worldly Saints, Leland Ryken. A great book on the Puritans; it will surprise you!
  9. To The Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson, Courtney Anderson. Life of the pioneer missionary to Burma. Judson is a phenomenal example of endurance in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
  10. Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot. Life of Jim Elliot, martyred husband of the author.
  11. Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot. Story of five missionaries martyred in Ecuador.
  12. Peace Child, Don Richardson. Couple goes to stone age, cannibal tribe with the gospel. Fascinating.
  13. Lords of the Earth, Don Richardson. If this were a movie, you’d swear it couldn’t be true. But it is true!

Especially for pastors, those interested in preaching:

  1. Walking With the Giants and Listening to the Giants, Warren Wiersbe (short biographies of great preachers).
  2. John Calvin, T. H. L. Parker (best biography, by leading Calvin scholar).
  3. Calvin’s Preaching, by Parker (Great book! Calvin’s emphasis on expository preaching).
  4. Spurgeon, Arnold Dallimore (best shorter biography of this giant).
  5. Autobiography of C. H. Spurgeon (2 vol., [Banner of Truth]).
  6. D. M. LloydJones, 2 vol., Iain Murray. Lloyd‑Jones is called the best preacher in 20th century. (Vol. 2 is 800 pages, but worth it! I was sad when it ended.)
  7. Jonathan Edwards, Iain Murray. Colonial New England revival preacher and theologian.
  8. Revival & Revivalism, Murray. Insightful history of American evangelicalism from 1750-1850, showing how modern American evangelicalism got this way. I’ve read it twice.
  9. The Puritans, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
  10. Knowing the Times, Lloyd-Jones.

Evangelism / Missions / Apologetics

  1. The Soul Winner, C. H. Spurgeon. Meaty, but nourishing. I come back to it often.
  2. Concentric Circles of Concern, W. Oscar Thompson, Jr.
  3. The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman.
  4. How to Give Away Your Faith, Paul Little. The basics on how to witness.
  5. Evangelism Explosion, D. James Kennedy.
  6. The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel. I don’t like his chapter on psychology, but the rest of the book is a solid presentation of the evidence for the faith. Use it in your witness.
  7. Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell. Wealth of information on the resurrection.
  8. Darwin on Trial & Defeating Darwinism, both by Phillip Johnson (a bit technical at times, but excellent attacks on evolution).
  9. Kingdom of the Cults, Walter Martin. A good reference work on the major cults.
  10. Jehovah’s Witnesses Answered Verse by Verse, by David Reed. Helpful if you’re witnessing to a JW.
  11. The Fatal Flaw & Answers to Roman Catholic Claims, both by James White. His web site is www.aomin.org
  12. Operation World, Patrick Johnstone & Jason Mandryk. A wealth of statistics and prayer needs for every country in the world. Get the most recent edition.
  13. Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson. Fascinating stories of how God prepares people groups for the gospel.
  14. Let the Nations be Glad, John Piper. Not easy to read, but worth the effort!
  15. Mission Frontiers, U.S. Center for World Mission (1605 Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104). Not a book, but a monthly journal that keeps you informed on current mission issues.

(For further reading on Missions, see the numerous missionary biographies in my Christian Biography book list.)

The Church/Ministry

(See the above section for pastors.)

  1. Lectures to My Students, C. H. Spurgeon.
  2. An All-Round Ministry, C. H. Spurgeon.
  3. The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper. Excellent!
  4. Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. His lectures on the task of preaching. He was a master!
  5. The Preacher and His Models, James Stalker (probably out-of-print, but excellent).
  6. Ashamed of the Gospel, John MacArthur, Jr. Critique of the “market the gospel” approach and call for biblical methods.

Marriage And Family

Most of the current Christian books in this and the next two headings are badly tainted by worldly psychology, rather than based on Scripture alone, which is sufficient (2 Tim. 3:16) and our only source for God’s wisdom in these crucial areas. I have tried to select books that are not psychologically tainted (although note the comments below).

  1. Self-Confrontation, John Broger, chapters 9-15 (a study workbook, not a book to sit and read; see below under “Counseling”). Practical, loaded with Scripture references.
  2. What is a Family?, Edith Schaeffer. Now out of print, but a creative, warm approach to biblical family life.
  3. Reforming Marriage, Douglas Wilson.
  4. The Exemplary Husband, Stuart Scott. The best book for husbands that I’ve read.
  5. The Excellent Wife, Martha Peace. Same comment as #5.
  6. The Fruit of Her Hands, Nancy Wilson (I have not read it, but my wife thinks it is excellent for wives).
  7. Christian Living in the Home, Jay Adams.
  8. Love Life for Every Married Couple, Ed Wheat. Although tainted a bit by worldly “self-esteem” teaching, his overall treatment of biblical love and responsibility in marriage is excellent.
  9. Intended for Pleasure, Ed Wheat. A Christian medical doctor deals with the sexual relationship in marriage.

Child Rearing

(See comments and some titles under Marriage/Family.)

  1. Self-Confrontation, John Broger, chapters 16-17 (see below under “Counseling”).
  2. How to Really Love Your Child, by Ross Campbell. A lot of psychology needs to be filtered out, but Campbell has some helpful, practical insights into how to make your children feel your love.
  3. The Duties of Parents, J. C. Ryle.
  4. You and Your Child, Charles Swindoll.
  5. Leading a Child to Independence, Paul & Jeannie McKean. Although tainted by worldly “self-esteem” teaching, they have some helpful insights on setting goals in child rearing.
  6. Parents in Pain, John White. Although you have to filter out numerous psychological “insights” that aren’t based on Scripture, White has some helpful insights for parents of wayward children.

Family Devotions

I encourage families to get a modern catechism (see #1 under THEOLOGY/DOCTRINE) and work through it with your children. John Piper also has prepared a catechism. See www.desiringgod.org (Search = catechism)

  1. Global Prayer Digest. A daily prayer guide for unreached peoples, available from Mission Frontiers, 1605 Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104. We use it after our family Bible reading to keep our focus on the mission task.
  2. The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes, Kenneth Taylor. Brief Bible stories for reading to pre-schoolers.
  3. The Muffin Family series, Gilbert Beers. Bible stories coupled with a short story which applies it. Good for 4-8 year-olds.

(There are probably many more resources now available, but since my children are grown, I do not keep up with them.)

Family Finances

  1. Master Your Money, Ron Blue.
  2. Your Finances in Changing Times, Larry Burkett.
  3. Your Money Matters, Malcolm MacGregor. It may be out of print; I like his humor.

Counseling/Emotions/Suffering

(Grouped somewhat topically):

  1. SelfConfrontation, John C. Broger (available from Biblical Counseling Foundation, P.O. Box 925, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270). A helpful, biblically based approach to personal discipleship and to helping others with their problems. Study workbook format.
  2. The Christian Counselor’s Manual, Jay Adams.
  3. How to Counsel From Scripture, Martin & Deidre Bobgan. They have since renounced their own book, but I think it has some helpful guidelines. Their web site is: www.psychoheresy-aware.org
  4. Christian Psychology’s War on God’s Word, Jim Owen (EastGate Publishers, Santa Barbara, CA 93110). Shows the harmful influence of “Christian” psychology.
  5. PsychoHeresy, Martin & Deidre Bobgan (EastGate Publishers). Hard-hitting, biblically sound critique of “Christian” psychology.
  6. 12 Steps to Destruction, Martin & Deidre Bobgan. Exposes the false teaching of the “Christian” recovery and “codependency” movements.
  7. Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, Ed Bulkley. I think that he is balanced in his approach.
  8. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, Martyn Lloyd-Jones. A spiritual classic.
  9. The Last Thing We Talk About, Joseph Bayly (on death & grief).
  10. Affliction, Edith Schaeffer.
  11. When God Weeps, Joni Eareckson Tada & Steve Estes.
  12. From Forgiven to Forgiving, Jay Adams.

Personal Management/Direction

  1. Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald.
  2. Strategy For Living, Edward Dayton & Ted Engstrom. On setting goals.
  3. First Things First, Stephen Covey, Roger & Rebecca Merrill. This is the only non-Christian book on this list, so read it with discernment. But I think they have a lot of wisdom on ordering your life according to your goals. Just make sure that your goals are biblical goals!

Contemporary Issues/World View

  1. No Place for Truth, David Wells. Not easy to read, but a great analysis of our culture and how the church has become worldly to the core.
  2. God in the Wasteland, David Wells. Sequel to the above. Calls for a return to God-centeredness.
  3. Losing Our Virtue, David Wells. Hits the worldly, market-driven American church.
  4. Recovering the Christian Mind, Harry Blamires.
  5. Worldly Amusements, Wayne Wilson. Hits Christians for their indiscriminate involvement with corrupt movies. Calls us to honor Christ in our entertainment choices. Every Christian should read this book!
  6. Lifeviews, R. C. Sproul. Easy-to-follow treatment of differing worldviews and philosophies.
  7. What You Should Know About Inerrancy, Charles Ryrie. Simple, brief treatment of an important theological issue.
  8. Men and Women in Biblical Perspective, James Hurley. Good on male and female roles.
  9. What Ever Happened to the Human Race? Francis Schaeffer & C. Everett Koop. Perhaps a bit outdated and maybe out of print, but God used it years ago to wake me up to the horrors of abortion.

Related Topics: Book Review, Christian Home, Christian Life, Discipleship, Library and Resources, Spiritual Life

Christians And Psychology: Some Common Questions Answered

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1993

During the past 15 to 20 years a dramatic shift has taken place in American Christianity: Psychology has flooded into the church. Christian psychologists are now the ones many Christians primarily look to for guidance in the Christian life. Christian psychologists write many of the best-selling books and dominate much of Christian radio. Many pastors use psychological terms and concepts in their sermons.

When anything new floods into the church, it needs to be evaluated in the light of Scripture, our only infallible guide for faith and practice. Many Christians are confused about “Christian” psychology: Should it be gladly embraced, used cautiously, or rejected outright? What follows are some common questions I’ve encountered and answers based upon God’s Word as I’ve wrestled with this issue.

1. Why can’t we use the best insights of psychology along with the Bible? Isn’t all truth God’s truth?

This goes right to the heart of the matter which is, “Is the Bible sufficient for dealing with our deepest psychological and emotional needs or not?”

First, we need to look at the Bible’s claims. Second Peter 1:3 states that through His power, God “has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge” of Christ. He goes on to specify that this gift consists of God’s “precious and magnificent promises,” which, of course, are contained in His Word. Furthermore, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

These claims are comprehensive—that God’s Word is sufficient for life and godliness, for equipping us for every good work. Surely, “everything pertaining to life and godliness” includes our emotional or psychological well-being. Since people with severe psychological problems are not “equipped for every good work,” we must conclude that Scripture claims to be sufficient for bringing healing to the whole person.

The list of the fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” Gal. 5:22-23) describes an emotionally balanced, psychologically stable person. If God’s Word and Spirit can produce this, why do we need to turn to worldly psychology?

“But,” some counter, “the Bible isn’t comprehensive. It doesn’t tell us in detail how to deal with many of the complex problems people struggle with. As long as psychology is in line with Scripture, why not use it?” Perhaps this can be answered by answering another question:

2. We use modern medicine; why not use modern psychology?

The answer is, the Bible doesn’t claim to be sufficient for dealing with medical problems; it does claim to be sufficient for dealing with problems of the soul (psyche, in Greek). How can we determine which psychological “truths” are true? If we answer, “Whatever works,” we’re on thin ice, since many false religious and spiritual techniques produce results. Scripture is the only basis for determining absolute truth (John 17:17).

There are currently over 500 brand-name psychotherapies on the market, with the number expanding yearly. They come at problems from many varied angles, but one thing is common to them all: They start with a biblically defective view of the nature of man, namely, that man is basically good and able to solve his problems apart from God. If you start from the wrong base, you can’t build a system that complements Scripture. If you mix dirt and water, you get mud.

The Bible warns us against turning to the world’s “wisdom,” since it is opposed to God’s wisdom (see Psalm 1:1-2; Isa. 55:8-11; Jer. 2:13; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). As Christians, we are to depend solely on God and His Word as our support and wisdom in the trials of life (see Psalms 19:7-11; 32:6-11; 33:6-22; 119) so that He alone gets the glory (Ps. 115; Isa. 42:8).

Serious problems have plagued the human race since we fell into sin. If a relationship with the living God and His Word was not adequate for coping with these problems, but we needed the insights of modern psychology to resolve them, then God has left people without sufficient answers for the past 2,000 years, until Freud and company came along to save the day. This is preposterous! The God who went to such expense to save us from sin would not abandon us to the world’s ways to find answers to our deepest problems (Rom. 8:32). While some problems may be new to our times (anorexia, mid-life crisis, etc.), and thus are not specifically addressed in Scripture, the principles in God’s Word are sufficient to deal with the underlying causes of these problems. There is no “new” problem for which Christ is not sufficient (Col. 2:10; 3:1-4).

The danger for modern Christians is that “Christian” psychologists read their psychological biases into Scripture and then cite Scripture as supporting and teaching these “truths.” One flagrant example: In Worry-Free Living [Thomas Nelson, 1989], Frank Minirth, Paul Meier, and Don Hawkins operate on the psychological premise that a lack of self-worth is the basis of most psychological problems (p. 140). This is not biblically sound. The Bible clearly and repeatedly states that sin is the basis of most problems.

But, the authors seek to illustrate this false psychological premise by claiming that the ten spies who brought back a negative report to Moses suffered from a negative self-concept, whereas the two spies who brought back the good report had proper self-esteem (p. 136)! They tell us that the reason that David could defeat Goliath, but Saul was a coward, was that David had good self-esteem, whereas Saul did not (p. 139)! This psychologizing of the Bible perverts its intended meaning (the Bible clearly attributes these varying responses due to the faith, or lack thereof, of the men) and leads the unsuspecting astray.

3. Won’t I be a better Christian if I resolve some of my inner conflicts through the insights of psychology?

In His inscrutable sovereignty, God allows trials, some mild, some severe, into every life. Some people have horrible childhoods—physical, sexual, and verbal abuse—that cause deep emotional problems. The question is, where does a person turn for healing? God’s Word repeatedly claims that God Himself is our healer, sufficient to bind up our wounds and make us whole through trusting in Him (see Psalm 147:1-11 for one example of many). God’s perfect and complete provision for our needs is the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. We are warned not to be taken captive by the world’s philosophies and principles, but to walk in the fullness of Christ, our all in all (Col. 2:6-15; 3:1-4, 11).

When we learn to rely fully on Jesus Christ as our source of strength and healing, He gets the glory due to Him as the only True God. When we rely on worldly psychology for part or all of our healing (if it can, indeed, provide such), psychology gets the glory. This is not to say that walking with the Lord provides miraculous, easy, instant emotional healing. Many passages show the struggles and difficulty of the Christian walk (2 Cor. 1:9; 4:7-11; 11:23-28; 12:7-10). The Christian life is pictured as warfare, and war is never easy! But God wants each of us to learn that He is the all-sufficient One who knows us and can meet our deepest needs. We don’t need the insights of worldly men to grow up in Christ.

4. I have trouble relating to God as a loving Father because my biological father was abusive. Can’t psychology help me work through the repressed pain from my childhood?

No one has had a perfect earthly father. Evil, abusive fathers have been around since sin entered the world. God has given us all we need in His Word to come to know and love Him as our Heavenly Father. We may have to identify wrong ideas we have adopted due to our upbringing and change these concepts and attitudes to conform to God’s truth. But God’s Word is adequate to make us whole persons in Christ. It alone reveals God as He is and the human heart as it is.

5. Don’t I need healthy self-esteem to be able to serve the Lord? Don’t I need to love myself properly so that I can love God and others properly?

Again, we must go to Scripture, not to psychology, to find the answer. Can you find a single verse that says that you need to build your self-esteem? Many distort the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), to fit the current psychological “wisdom.” They say, “The Bible commands us to love ourselves.” Some even go so far as to say that we cannot love God and others until we first learn to love ourselves. Thus they turn people toward a futile search for self-love.

If you study the verse in its context, it is clear that Jesus says there are two commands, not three: Love God and love your neighbor. The standard for loving your neighbor is how you do in fact already love yourself! Jesus assumes that we each love ourselves so much that if we just love our neighbor that much, we have obeyed the command. Paul also assumes that each person loves himself (Eph. 5:28-29) and uses this as the standard by which men must love their wives. Even those with poor “self-esteem” love themselves too much, because they are consumed with self. They aren’t sacrificing themselves for God and others. The mark of biblical love is self-sacrifice, not self-esteem (Eph. 5:25; John 13:34; 15:13; 1 John 3:16).

Not only does the Bible not encourage self-love; it strongly warns against it! Self-love heads the list of terrible sins that marks the end times (2 Tim. 3:2-4). The first requirement if we want to be followers of Jesus is to deny ourselves, not affirm ourselves (Mark 8:34). In fact, this is to be the daily experience of all disciples (Luke 9:23, “daily”). Many verses in the Bible tell us to humble ourselves and not to think too highly of ourselves (see James 4:6-10; 1 Pet. 5:5-6; Rom. 12:3); but none tell us to focus on how wonderful or worthy we are (because we’re not worthy--grace is for the unworthy). We are commanded to esteem others more highly than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

The problem with building your self-esteem is that the focus is wrong. Jesus said that if you seek to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for His sake and the gospel’s, you will save it (Mark 8:35). If you say no to your own self-focus and live for Jesus and others (the two great commandments), God graciously gives you the fulfillment you need. But if you seek fulfillment or self-esteem, you will come up empty in the end.

6. Shouldn’t I seek to build my children’s self-esteem? Don’t they need to feel good about themselves so they will be well-adjusted?

We should show biblical, self-sacrificing love toward our children, as we are commanded to do toward all people (even our enemies—Matt. 5:44!). We should seek to build our children in Christ by using speech that encourages and builds them up, not speech that belittles and tears them down (Eph. 4:29; Col. 3:8). We should be tender and compassionate toward our children, modeling the gracious love of our Savior (Eph. 4:32-5:2). We should esteem our children more highly than we do ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4).

But the goal of such behavior is not to “build their self-esteem,” but rather to model Christ and encourage our kids to be like Him. As our children see us denying self to please our Lord, they will want to follow and serve Him by laying down their lives out of love for Him and for others. If our focus is to help our kids “build their self-esteem,” we are encouraging the inborn selfishness that dominates every fallen human heart. If our focus is to show Christlike love to our children and to model a life of service motivated by His grace, they will learn to love and serve Him, too.

7. Doesn’t God want me to be happy? If God loves me, why do I have so much pain and suffering?

Perhaps we should distinguish between happiness and joy. God wants you to be filled with His joy, peace, and hope in every situation, but often such qualities shine the most in the midst of trials and pain (John 16:20-22, 33; 2 Cor. 4:7-11; 6:4-10; 12:7-10). God’s goal for us is not primarily that we be happy, but that we be holy (Rom. 8:28-29; Heb. 12:3-11). Even Jesus learned obedience through the things He suffered (Heb. 5:8); much more so must we! When we learn to submit to God’s sovereign hand through the trials we experience, to trust Him and look to Him as our strength and hope in those trials, we grow in holiness and abound in His joy, peace, and hope (1 Pet. 5:6-11; Rom. 15:13).

8. I tried Bible study, prayer, and obedience, but it didn’t work in terms of bringing me relief from the pain from my childhood. If psychology helps resolve this pain, why not use it?

First, your focus is wrong. The goal of the Christian life is not to be free from pain, but to become like Jesus. Second, I must challenge whether you truly followed God’s Word or not. To say that you followed God’s Word but that it “didn’t work” is to accuse God of false promises. To turn from that Word to the supposed wisdom of godless men is to abandon the living God for empty cisterns that hold no water (Jer. 2:13)! On the contrary, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar (Rom. 3:4)!

Let me ask, If following Satan brought you inner relief, would you do it? I hope not! Yet many Christians abandon God’s truth and turn to the self-centered approach of psychology because it offers relief from their inner pain.

The problem is not that God’s Word has been tried and failed, but that it hasn’t been followed completely. We need to take every thought captive to obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We must examine ourselves and judge wrong attitudes, thoughts, and motives by God’s truth (2 Cor. 13:5; 1 Cor. 11:28-31; 1 John 1:5-10). We are to seek God with all our hearts and not lean on our own or the world’s understanding (Psalm 63; Prov. 3:5-7; Isa. 55:6-11). We are to seek first His kingdom and righteousness, not the things the world seeks (Matt. 6:19-33). No one who has done this can say, “It didn’t work!”

9. But don’t certain complicated psychological problems require the expertise of a professional therapist?

Who made you and understands every hidden motive and thought of your heart: a therapist or the living God (Ps. 139)? We can’t even understand our own hearts completely, because we are blinded by sin (Jer. 17:9). Only God knows us thoroughly and only in His Word does He tell us how we must live to experience His blessing. Specifically His Word warns us against walking in the counsel of the wicked and promises that if we delight in His law, we will be blessed (Psalm 1). Why are believers turning to therapists trained in the ways of Freud, Jung, Rogers, Maslow, Skinner, and other scoffers rather than to godly men and women who rely solely upon God and His Word? In whom do you trust?

10. What about the popular 12-Step programs? The 12 Steps sound like biblical principles.

Remember, Satan is a deceiver. The best counterfeits look like the real thing, but they are false substitutes. The problem with the 12-Step programs is that they subtly replace trust in the living God and His Word with trust in the 12 Steps. These programs repeatedly say things like, “The 12 Steps work. Trust in the 12 Steps.” Furthermore, they are generic—they “work” no matter whether you make your “Higher Power” Jesus Christ, Buddha, or a candle on your shelf. This trivializes faith in the living Lord who alone is God, because if the system works no matter who you fit in the slot, then clearly the power is not in God, but in the system.

The Bible repeatedly warns against trusting in anything or anyone other than the one true God. To do so is the essence of idolatry. The 12 Step programs do not teach a person to trust in God in the biblical sense. Instead, people transfer their “addictions” to the 12 Step program.

Also, the 12 Step programs become a substitute for biblical spirituality. They replace biblical terms with psychological ones (drunkenness is called alcoholism, a disease; enslavement to sin is called addiction; sin is called sickness or disease; repentance becomes recovery). This is not a small quibble. Words express truth or error. The biblical terms are important. We don’t repent of sickness; we recover. We don’t recover from sin; we repent.

11. What about taking medication for psychological problems?

We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). God designed our brains to function through chemical reactions which are only minutely understood by modern psychiatry. There probably is an overlap between the physiology of brain function and the realm of the soul or personhood. There are some situations where medication can even out a person’s brain chemistry so that they become more “normal” or rational. In such cases, we should gratefully use modern medicine, just as we take antibiotics to get over infections.

But some cautions must be observed. First, medical science is in its infancy on matters of brain chemistry. Doctors do not fully understand how various drugs work in altering brain functioning. Thus we should be careful not to put too much trust in drug therapy. Second, even if the drugs help restore normalcy, each person must still deal with sinful thoughts and habits, bringing every thought captive to obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). If drug therapy is combined with the godless, self-focused counsel of psychology, it will not help. If used with biblical counsel that helps a person confront the sinful self, it can be a part of the healing process.

But even so, in most cases, the medication should be viewed as a cast. When you break a bone, a cast helps hold it in place until it is healed. If a person needs drug therapy, it is best to use it only while he is learning to think and act in line with God’s Word. As he learns to trust and hope in the Lord alone, to judge sinful thoughts, and to submit to and obey the Lord, in most cases he should be able to decrease the medication until he is free from it.

12. I’ve heard that “feelings aren’t right or wrong; feelings just are.” Is this biblical?

It needs to be qualified. The statement is often a reaction to people who have denied feelings. For example, some Christians are angry people, but since they think anger is sin, and they don’t want to face their own sin, they say (often with clenched teeth), “I’m not angry.” Or, since they think Christians are to be happy, they deny depression. But obviously, these are not biblically sound ways of dealing with these emotions. We are to be people of the truth (Eph. 4:25).

But neither is it biblical to say that emotions are totally neutral. The Bible recognizes that some anger is not sinful (Eph. 4:26; Mark 3:5), but it also labels much anger as sin that needs to be put away (Eph. 4:32; Matt. 5:22). It is not sin to be sad, depressed, or grieved when we are in the midst of a trial (Matt. 26:38; John 11:35; Heb. 12:11; Rom. 12:15b). But some depression is due to sin that needs to be confronted (Gen. 4:6-7). Sometimes depression is due to a combination of factors: Emotional, spiritual and physical exhaustion coupled with wrong thinking (see the story of Elijah, 1 Kings 17-19, especially, 19:4, 9-14). To be consistently lacking in joy, peace, and hope is not God’s will for the believer (Ps. 5:11; Rom. 15:13; Phil. 4:4; 1 Thess. 5:16).

Thus emotions are a lot like the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They signal that something is wrong under the hood. When they come on, you need to take time to pull over and figure out what’s wrong, so that you don’t burn out the engine. When you are troubled by negative emotions, it’s time to stop and seek the Lord and His Word as to the root problem, so that it can be corrected.

13. Are you saying, then, that counseling is wrong or not needed?

Not at all! I’m only saying that much of the counseling that has flooded into American Christianity through psychology is contrary to God’s Word of Truth. The Bible is clear that we often need the wise counsel of others, especially those who are mature in the faith (Rom. 15:14; Gal. 6:1; Prov. 24:6). We dare not be independent Christians, living apart from the body of Christ of which we are members. We desperately need one another, just as my hand needs my arm and the rest of my body to function (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Those who are strong need patiently to admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, and help the weak (1 Thess. 5:14). Thus we need counsel; but make sure that it’s biblical counsel, because, “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30). “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but he who walks wisely will be delivered” (Prov. 28:26).

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Character of God, Christian Life, Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Equip, Spiritual Life

3. Our Secret Sacrifices (Matthew 6:1-4, Mark 12:38-44)

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Jesus and Our Stuff (part three)

Jesus encouraged secret and discreet giving. Our generosity should never be motivated by people's potential applause. Instead we should aim to please our all-seeing God with openhanded and unpretentious giving. Jesus also praised the widow who gave sacrificially. Our giving should likewise be costly, leaving us in a condition that demands reliance on our sovereign Provider. This reminds us that God regards how much we have left as well as how much we give away. Is your giving characterized by discretion and sacrifice?

Related Topics: Discipleship, Finance, Sacrifice, Spiritual Life, Tithing

4. Our Displaced Dependence (Luke 12:13-34)

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Jesus and Our Stuff (part four)

When we depend on our stuff, we worry that we might not have enough. When we worry that we might not have enough, we stockpile all we can find. When we stockpile and hoard, we neglect the needy and less fortunate and fall into narcissistic selfishness. We find ourselves investing in the less valuable treasures on earth instead of storing up permanent treasures in heaven. We also presume upon God regarding the amount of time we have on earth. On the other hand, when we depend on a heavenly Father who tenderly cares for us like a loving Shepherd cares for His sheep, we rest in Him. Where have you placed your dependence?

*Due to technical difficulties, the video version is joined in progress (the audio version is complete).

Related Topics: Discipleship, Finance, Spiritual Life

A Great God Of Grace And Compassion

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Introduction

A few years ago we had the privilege of studying together Psalm 145, a psalm that speaks of God’s greatness (vv.1-3), his goodness and grace (vv. 4-9), and his glory (vv. 10-12). In speaking of God’s goodness David points out specific qualities of that goodness. Paramount among them, as we saw, was a pair of Hebrew words that in twelve passages have reference to God’s character: grace/gracious and compassion/compassionate. This pair emphasizes both God’s undeserved favor and his tender, compassionate heart with regard to man’s needs. It should be noted that the Hebrew terms used for compassion/compassionate often have the understanding “mercy/merciful,” for they are capable of either meaning. The context alone determines whether the Lord is acting out of a sense of common mercy or whether he has some deeper motive such as heartfelt compassion or sorrow for another’s situation.

In this study we shall follow the lead of the NET, which, as in Psalm 145:8, often renders the Hebrew terms involved as “compassion/compassionate.”1 Having established the basic grounds for this study as being built around the coalescence of a pair of words expressing God’s grace and compassion, we shall explore the contexts where they appear as a formulaic pattern in order to draw a firmer picture the Lord’s great goodness, first from the perspective of the Old Testament and then from their application to Christ in the New Testament. A closing section summarizing our findings and their application to Christian living will complete the study.

God’s Grace and Compassion in the Old Testament

God’s grace and compassion are well known and often mentioned by the writers of the Old Testament. They often appear individually but are especially effective when they occur together. Thus in Psalm 103 David portrays the Lord as one who grants forgiveness, brings healing, and executes justice and righteousness for all. He then cites the capstone of God’s eternal goodness by declaring,

The LORD is compassionate and merciful (Heb. gracious);
he is patient and demonstrates great loyal love. (v. 8)

He goes on to discuss some of the riches of his grace and compassion (vv. 9-10) and subsequently points out the paternal nature of the Lord’s compassion:

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on his loyal followers.
For he knows what we are made of;
he realizes we are made of clay. (vv. 13-14; cf. vv. 4, 17-18)

As Futato remarks, “It is just like God to forgive! It is in perfect accord with the “unfailing love” that fills his heart. He forgives in response to our frailty.”2

In Psalm 111 the psalmist rehearses God’s grace and compassion for his people in providing for them in many ways that are profoundly astonishing:

He does amazing things that will be remembered;
the Lord is merciful (MT, gracious) and compassionate. (v. 4)

Thus his grace and compassion serve as a stimulus for a proper response by all believers (v. 7). A wise believer will therefore be faithful and obedient to the Lord and follow his leading:

To obey the LORD is the fundamental principle for wise living;
all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight. (v. 10)

The psalmists’ observations and praise for God’s person, character, and actions are not the sole basis for understanding that the Lord is a great God of grace and compassion. In revealing himself to Moses, God reassured him that he, Yahweh, is a “compassionate and gracious God” (Exod. 33:19. As Cassuto suggests, these qualities with which the Lord interacts with his people are “first and foremost.”3 A bit later the Lord declared to Moses that these qualities in his character are ever available and manifest themselves in patient, loyal love, and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6-7). The Hebrew word commonly translated “loyal love” was in earlier days rendered “loving-kindness.” In a sense that understanding remains rather appropriate, for the English word “kind” is ultimately related to a primitive root that lies behind the word “kin” (note also the German word kind—“child”). Thus in treating his people graciously and kindly the Lord viewed them “as though they were his earthly family so that his “loyal love” … takes on a nuance that in his great faithfulness to God’s covenant people there is warmth like that of a father to his children.”4 Even when his people are unfaithful, even rebellious, the Lord remains a God of graciousness and compassion. They may be unfaithful but in his loving-kindness he continues to be consistent in his character and actions and, therefore, faithful to his covenant with them and its standards. As Stuart observes, “However fickle and unreliable humans may be in their relationship to God, he is nothing of the sort but can be counted on in every situation and at all times to be completely faithful to his promises for his people.”5

For its part, however, God’s people must also keep God’s standards and commands (see for example, Deut. 13:12-17a). If they do, they can be assured that, “The LORD will…show you compassion, have mercy on you and multiply you as he promised your ancestors. Thus you must obey the LORD your God, keeping all his commandments that I am giving you today and doing what is right before him” (Deut. 12:17b-18). Although the context is dealing with a specific transgression, its potential penalty and its remedy, the underlying principle is nonetheless true. Indeed, it is no less true even today. Although the precise civil and ceremonial regulations in the Mosaic law were meant for historic Israel, the underlying spiritual and moral principles are timeless, and spring from and reflect God’s own nature as a just and righteous God: “For all his ways are just. He is a reliable God who is never unjust, he is fair and upright” (Deut. 32:4; cf. Dan. 4:37). Today’s believers, who have been, “created in God’s image, in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth” (Eph. 4:24) should “stand firm therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness’ (Eph. 6:14).

God’s Grace and Compassion in Connection with Sin and Repentance

The Old Testament records many instances of God’s consistent grace and compassion in the face of Israel’s all-too-frequent waywardness and failure to keep—even deliberately disobey-- his standards. Therefore, Nehemiah could point out the Lord’s forgiveness of God’s people in past days (Neh. 9:16-17a), while reminding God that for his part the Lord is well known for his kind and patient spirit: “You are a God of forgiveness, merciful (MT, “gracious”), and compassionate, slow to get angry and unfailing in your loyal love. You did not abandon them” (Neh. 9:17b). Breneman concludes that such is simply the way matters are: “Despite our sin, God is gracious; despite God’s grace, we continue to sin; despite our continuing sin, God continues to be gracious (Rom. 5:20). God’s forgiveness is something no human could devise but can experience.”6

God’s patient grace and compassion for his people continued throughout their history of spiritual infidelity. For example, during the ninth century B. C., Israel had a king named Jehoahaz who could at times display spiritual sensitivity (2 Kings 13:1-6). Because of his continued sponsorship of an old illicit religious state practice, however, God repeatedly allowed King Hazael of Syria to oppress “Israel throughout Jehoahaz’s reign. But the LORD had mercy on (MT, “was gracious toward”) them and felt pity for (MT, “showed mercy to”) them. He extended his favor to them because of the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was unwilling to destroy them or remove them from his presence” (2 Kings 13:22-23). Indeed, God is ever4 faithful to the promises in the Abrahamic Covenant, which in turn became the basis for a chain of divinely granted covenants, first in the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:11-16; 1 Chron. 17:10-14) and then in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37; 33:14-16; Ezek. 37;22-27). Although the New Covenant holds promise for God’s Old Testament people, it is already in effect for all believers in the finished work of Christ (Matt. 26:27-29; 2 Cor. 3:6; Hebrews 8).7

In a similar vein, Hosea records God’s compassionate heart in the continued record of Israel’s spiritual history during the eighth century B.C. Although the Lord pronounced judgment on his people for their infidelity, like a loving father he could not bring himself to destroy his child Israel entirely (Hos. 11:1-3). God’s rhetorical questions (v. 8; cf. Hos. 6:4) illustrate his heartfelt, warm, and tender feelings for his people despite the coldness of their hearts toward him:

How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!
I am God and not man-- the
Holy One among you—
I will not come in wrath! (Hos. 11:8-9)

The Lord points out that because of his relation to his people, he could not bring himself to destroy them like the hopelessly rebellious and spiritually dead people of the cities of the plains (Gen. 19:23-28). Although the NET understanding of the first two lines of verse eight is fully justified, it is of interest to note that something of the great depth of the Lord’s feelings for his people is stressed more forcefully in the NLT: “My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows.”8 To be sure, his justice demanded that he must judge them and that judgment was coming. Nevertheless, he would spare them from complete annihilation.

His sentence against His people was thus a matter of the necessary carrying out of the requirements against a wayward child (cf. Deut. 19-23) and not a matter of human vengeance. Indeed, Yahweh is a holy god--One who desires to see that holiness resident and active in His people.9

Moreover, his “compassion overflowed with a desire for his people to come to him” (cf. vv. 10-11).

In the later eighth century B.C. after the fall of the Northern Kingdom because of its infidelity, King Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah. Hezekiah was noted not only for his faithfulness but also for his godly character. Thus the author of Kings records that:

He trusted in the LORD God of Israel; in this regard there was none like him among the kings of Judah either before or after. He was loyal to the LORD and did not abandon him. He obeyed the commandments which the Lord had given to Moses. (2 Kings 18:5-6)

As such he was a great reform minded king. Accordingly, the authors of Kings and especially Chronicles provide many details concerning Hezekiah’s reform policies. For example, in connection with the reinstitution of the Passover Hezekiah and his officials sent and edict throughout Israel and Judah summoning the people to come to Jerusalem for its observance, “for they had not had not observed it on a nationwide scale as prescribed in the law” (2 Chron. 30:5). In the edict itself all of God’s people were urged to submit to the Lord and serve him:

for if you return to the LORD, your brothers and sons will be shown mercy by their captors and return to this land. The LORD your God is merciful (MT: “gracious”) and compassionate; he will not reject you if you return to him. (2 Chron. 30:9).

Truly God’s great grace and compassion would surely be exercised, even toward his hitherto unfaithful people. Although he had to judge Israel for infidelity, in accordance with his promise in the Mosaic Law, there could be forgiveness and restoration (Deut. 30:1-5). Indeed, that which the Lord had pledged himself to do, could be applied to the situation in Hezekiah’s day.

The message in Hezekiah’s edict is in harmony with the words of the somewhat earlier eighth century B.C. prophet Joel to his people to return to the Lord with heartfelt repentance, for they were already beginning to experience God’s chastisement (Joel 2:12):

for he is merciful (MT. “gracious”) and compassionate, slow to anger and boundless in loyal love—often relenting from calamitous punishment. Perhaps he will be               compassionate and grant a reprieve, and leave a blessing in his wake: a meal offering and a drink offering for you to offer to the LORD your God (Joel 2:13-14).

Through the late seventh-early sixth century prophet Jeremiah the Lord gave assurance of the continuance of his compassion for his people saying,

Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
They are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them
and will surely have compassion on them.
I, the LORD, affirm it! (Jer. 21:20)

The message of the Lord’s loving, compassionate response to his people who call upon him in true repentance can even be seen during the exilic period. Through the prophet Zechariah the Lord declares that he will, “bring them back because of my compassion for them. They will be as though I had never rejected them, for I am the LORD their God and therefore I will hear them” (Zech. 10:6). Although he had judged his people, God remained available to the repentant cry of a righteous remnant.

In the light of the above passages, which reveal so clearly God’s character, it is comes as no surprise that many of the psalmists give testimony to God’s grace and/or compassion. Thus after his sin with Bathsheba David cried out to the Lord,

Be gracious to me, God,
according to your faithful love;
according to your abundant compassion,
blot out my rebellion.
Wash away my guilt,
and cleanse me from my sin. (Ps 51:1-2; HCSB)

God’s Grace and Compassion in Times of Suffering, Oppression, and Danger

Elsewhere David testifies to the Lord’s gracious compassion to the prayers of an oppressed and suffering believer in the midst of his painful experience (Ps. 86:7). Faced with oppression by some ruthless, godless men who are seeking his life, David cries out:

But you, O LORD, are a compassionate and merciful God.
You are patient and demonstrate great loyal love and faithfulness.
Turn toward me and have mercy on me!
Give your servant your strength!
Deliver your slave! (Ps. 86:15-16)

Of a similar sentiment are the psalmist’s words in Psalm 116:3-5:

I was confronted with trouble and sorrows.
I called on the name of the LORD,
“Please Lord, rescue my life!”
The LORD is merciful and fair;
our God is compassionate.

It should be noted in passing that in both of the above psalms the familiar formula of gracious and compassionate occurs in the Hebrew text (cf. HCSB).

In the troublesome and dangerous times following the fall of Jerusalem, Gedaliah, whom the Babylonians had installed as governor of the area, was murdered by a certain Ishmael ben Nathaniah (Jer. 41:1-3). Nethaniah did also other atrocities including multiple murders and the taking of many captives, taking them with him toward Ammon (vv. 4-10). Members of the surviving Judean army, headed by Johanan ben Kareah, managed to overtake Ishmael and his men and freed the captives (vv. 11-16). Hoping to avoid the Babylonians he and his forces headed for Egypt (vv. 17-18). On the way they met the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 42:1-2) and said to him, “Pray that the LORD your God will tell us what to do” (v. 3).

When Jeremiah had received the answer to his intercessory prayer, he informed the people of God’s instructions in the situation. Johanan and his followers were to remain in the land and attend to its welfare (vv. 4-10). If they did so, God would see to their protection and welfare: Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him because I will be with you to save you and rescue you from his power. I, the LORD, affirm it! I will have compassion on you so that he in turn will have mercy on you and allow you to return to your land. (vv. 11-12)

Thus Huey observes, “The Lord would show them ‘compassion’(raḥam, a word that suggests tender, motherly love; cf. Gen 43:14; 1 Kings 8:50; its root is associated with the womb…). Because of the Lord’s compassion, ‘he’ (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar) would have ‘compassion’ and would restore them to their own land.”10 Under the existing conditions it was only natural for Johanan to fear a Babylonian reprisal against them because of all that had taken place. Yet as we learn here, we can realize that the Lord’s compassion is available and can be relied upon even in the most dangerous times and places. What is needed is for people to follow his will and trust in him. Unfortunately, God’s instructions and Jeremiah’s advice were not heeded. Johanan not only fled to Egypt but took with him several members of the royal family, and even Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch (Jer. 43:1-7). It was to prove to be a severe miscalculation.

God’s Grace and Compassion in Everyday Affairs

God’s grace and compassion are not limited to occasions of repentance, suffering, oppression, and danger. They are readily at hand at all times. Accordingly, Nehemiah could call upon the Lord for his compassion to be present and operative as he went before Artaxerxes I, the king of Persia. He wished to ask the king’s permission to journey to Judah so as to oversee the work of rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh. 1:11-2:5). Doubtless under God’s supervision and direction, Nehemiah’s request was granted. As Fensham remarks, “The Lord of history makes the decisions, not Artaxerxes.”11

God’s grace and compassion for his people did not expire with Israel’s past or then present conditions, however. Isaiah revealed that the Lord had plans for his people’s future as well. Indeed, in the Lord’s appointed time and way, “The Lord will certainly have compassion on Jacob; he will again choose Israel as his special people and restore them to their land” (Isa. 14:1). As the Lord had once rescued his people out of Egypt, he would bring them out of their captivity and back into their land. To be sure, his judgment was coming, but this was not to spell the end to his covenant commitments. As Oswalt observes: “Here the prophet reminds his hearers, both present and future, that whatever punishment may come, it need not mean abandonment. God will once again choose. So it is with the church.”12 Indeed, even the people of other nations will join them and nations once their superiors will become subservient to them (vv. 2-3). Although the time period for Isaiah 14:1-3 would appear to relate to exilic times, God’s compassion for his people extends far into the distant future. Elsewhere Isaiah records God’s declaration that despite Israel’s seemingly ceaseless infidelity, his compassion never ends: “I have seen their behavior, but I will heal them and give them rest, and I will once again console those who mourn” (Isa. 57:18). Although a different Hebrew term is used here, as we have seen above in connection with Hosea 11:8 (NET), it does in some contexts have the stronger force of compassion. The Lord thus informs his people that despite their wickedness that had brought his judgment upon them, he will yet comfort them. Although the precise time period intended is not distinctly mentioned, based on matters of context Smith’s explanation appears to be correct in saying,

“Everything that caused heartache, pain, violence, oppression, and loss in the past will be removed so that God’s healing power might transform this evil world and create a new world based on his grace. This is all the work of God. Thanks be to God! … Although on this present world the righteous may suffer and die (57:1-2), in the end the righteous will be revived, healed, comforted, and given eternal peace (57:18-19) in the presence of God at his Holy Mountain (56:7; 57:13).” 13

The Lord’s inclusion of non-Israelites in his concern and compassion for all humanity is also clearly seen in his dealings with Jonah and the Ninevites. Not only did the Lord restore a stubborn and disobedient Jonah to his prophetic mission (cf. 2 Kings 14:25), but he fulfilled his present assignment by bringing the king of Assyria and the people of Nineveh to a dramatic change of behavior. Therefore, God did not bring the harsh judgment against them that Jonah had warned would happen. Rather than being pleased with the success of his mission, however, Jonah was greatly disappointed and displeased. Sharing his reactions,

He prayed to the LORD and said, “Oh, LORD, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish – because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one relents concerning threatened judgment.” (Jonah 4:2)

Here we have the twelfth example of the combination formula of grace and compassion (cf. Exod. 33:19; 34:6; Neh. 9:17, 31; 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron. 30:8; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; 145:8). This formulaic expression is remarkable in that it illustrates the fact even in Old Testament days God’s tender mercies, and heartfelt grace and compassion could be extended to the gentile world. In Jonah 4:11 the Lord goes on to press this point to Jonah. He is not only a compassionate God who cares for his own chosen people Israel, but one is concerned for the welfare and good of all people. Since this is true of the Lord, should that not be a concern for today’s believers as well? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” As we shall see, this concern is confirmed by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament.

God’s Grace and Compassion in the New Testament

That God’s grace is available to all and continues to be exercised through all time is well known and witnessed through the lives of many, many people. The New Testament attests to the fact that it is mediated through Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Tit. 2:11-13). Thus under divine inspiration the Apostle John wrote,

The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father….We have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. (John 1:14, 16-17)

God’s grace in Jesus Christ was an essential part of the Apostle Paul’s greetings in his epistles to the churches (Rom. 1:2; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2). It also appears in his closing remarks (Rom. 16:20, 24; 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Cor. 13:14; Gal. 6:18; Eph. 6:24; Phil. 4:2; Col. 4:18; 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18). Likewise, the Apostle Peter began his epistles with a greeting commending God’s grace to his readers (1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:2).

Grace is simply a common subject and theme throughout the New Testament. Accordingly, Peter urged believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” 2 Pet. 3:18). In passing, it may be noted that Peter’s admonition here serves to enclose (or bookend) this basic point in his epistle. As we pointed out above, Peter began his letter by commending God’s grace to his readers: “May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow it the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2). In his closing remarks Peter emphasizes that God’s grace becomes the channel through which the knowledge of the Lord becomes realized. Grace is thus the means of drawing near to the Lord.

God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, was also a conveyor of divine compassion. Such was already predicted in Zechariah’s prayer at the birth of his son John (who became John the Baptist):

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation though the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-78)

Although the NET’s “tender mercy” is a common translation of Greek words used in this verse, one of the Greek roots employed here is associated with a deep-seated, heartfelt emotion, hence can be rendered as “compassion.” Used here together with the noun “mercy,” the two words can be understood as “merciful compassion” (see, e.g., the HCSB).

Jesus was indeed to be a conveyor of divine compassion, a quality that can be seen in the scriptural accounts of his person and ministry. As Walter rightly observes, “The occurrences in Mark, Matthew (other than 18:27), and Luke 7:13 portray Jesus as one who compassionately takes an interest in those in need and helps them.”14 Thus in one case as Jesus and his disciples drew near to the city of Nain, they encountered a funeral procession held for a widow’s only son (Luke 7:11-12). As Jesus witnessed and understood the full significance of what was taking place, “He had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (v. 13). He then proceeded to restore the young man’s life, much to the fear and amazement of all who beheld what Jesus had done (vv. 14-16). Jesus’ compassion not only served to restore the lad’s life, but doubtless was a source of the widow’s grateful rejoicing. In a similar way, on another occasion Jesus responded to the plea of a leper who begged Jesus to heal him. Contrary to the usual social custom disallowing contact with a leper, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing. Be clean!’ The leprosy left him at once and he was clean” (Mark 1:41-42).

Indeed, compassion was a distinctive mark of Jesus character. Thus because of his concern for the needs of a crowd of some 4,000 people that had gathered to hear him teach and had nothing to eat, he miraculously provided food for them (Mark 8:1-7). As a result, “Everyone ate and was satisfied” (v. 8). Late in his ministry, as he and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem, two blind men heard of his approach and begged him to restore their sight (Matt. 20:29-33). In keeping with his concern for the needs of people, “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (v. 34). As Osborne rightly observes, “Jesus had great pity for the human dilemma and always responded. Most busy teacher-rabbis, let alone messianic pretenders, would never have ‘stopped’ in their rush to help the unfortunate, but Jesus does so every time.”15

Jesus’ Compassion as Displayed in His Teaching

The same Greek root we have been considering appears also in Jesus’ teaching, particularly in some of his parables. For example, in the parable about the unforgiving slave (Matt. 18:23-35) Jesus drives home the point that even as does God, so men ought to have forgiving, compassionate spirits. In the heart of the story Jesus portrays a slave who owed his master a sum of money that he was unable to repay. Therefore, his master ordered him to be sold along with his entire family and all that he had so as to repay the money. “Then the slave through himself to the ground before him saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will repay you everything.’ The lord had compassion on that slave and released him, and forgave him the debt” (vv. 26-27). The forgiven slave, however, in turn failed to forgive a fellow slave who owed him money (vv.28-30). When his master learned of this, he had the formerly forgiven slave imprisoned (vv. 31-34). In concluding his parable Jesus drove home the warning that God’s reprimand could await them should they prove to be insensitive and unforgiving toward their fellow man (v. 35). Indeed, if the Lord is compassionate, and shows grace and mercy to us as undeserving human beings, should we not also display the same spirit?

In his parable about the good Samaritan Jesus teaches that that people should feel compassion even for those with whom they normally have no dealings. In this story he tells of the desperate needs of a Jewish man who was beaten, robbed, and left “half dead” alongside the road (Luke 10:30-31). His severe condition was ignored by even passing Jewish religious leaders (v. 32). Yet when a travelling Samaritan, with whom the Jews had no dealings and even felt enmity towards, saw the Jew, he “felt compassion for him” (v. 33) and saw to his care (vv. 34-35). Jesus went on to instruct his hearers that they should display the same sort of compassion—sensitivity to the needs of all people, regardless of their background. Marshall properly concludes that being a good neighbor overlooks all personal distinctions: “Implicitly, racial considerations are shown to be irrelevant…. Both the giving and receiving of mercy transcends national and racial barriers.”16 Although this standard is very difficult for even sincere believers to follow, Jesus’ closing command (v. 36) is still the same: “Go and do the same.”

Summary and Applications

We have noted that the eternal God revealed himself to be a God of grace, mercy, and compassion. All three are expressions of his great love for the human world. We have seen that as a compassionate God he has a deep, abiding concern for all mankind and especially for those who accept him, believe in him, and follow him. We have noted that this is so despite man’s too often unfaithfulness. Even then he stands ready to forgive and receive a repentant person. We have also seen that God’s compassion can extend to and be exercised in man’s everyday needs and affairs. Indeed, the Lord’s compassion is a familiar theme not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, especially in the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Scriptures plainly demonstrate that the Lord is the prime example to follow. God’s love is abundantly displayed in his great grace and compassion for man’s needs. So much did the Lord love the world that, “He gave his one and only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In turn, God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, affirms that in his love for man he willingly laid down his life in order that people may believe in and follow him (John 10:11-18). Moreover, Jesus’ love and compassion extended not only to the salvation of their souls, but to their everyday needs. Accordingly, the beloved Apostle John wrote:

We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians. But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or tongue but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

Truly, as believers we should strive to be so concerned for the needs of our fellow believers that we stand ready to help at all times. Thus the Apostle Paul admonished the Colossian Christians: “Clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another…And to these virtues add love, which is the perfect bond (Col. 3:12-13, 14). 17

That believers should show genuine compassion for one another is readily understandable. But should our compassion be limited only to our fellow believers? The answer is, “No.” As Marshall remarks, “The need of the world is for food, clothing and jobs, for those who have these things to share with those who have not.”18 Moreover, we have seen above that God was concerned even for the needs of the Ninevites, who were enemies of the Jews (Jonah 4). As well, when Jesus was challenged by “an expert in religious law” (Luke 10:25) to explain what was meant in the law of God to “love your neighbor as yourself ”(v. 28), he taught through the narration of the parable concerning the good Samaritan that one’s neighbor extended to anyone who has a need. When the legal expert discerned what had been taught, Jesus challenged him saying, “Go and do the same’ Luke 10:37).

May we as today’s believers follow the Lord who is a great God, full of grace and compassion. May we heed Jesus’ challenge to be “good Samaritans.” May we follow Paul’s admonition by clothing ourselves “with heartfelt compassion” and so do our best to love our “neighbor.”

As the hymn writer Thomas Chisholm expressed it:
O to be like Thee, full of compassion,
Loving, forgiving, tender and kind,
Helping the helpless, cheering the fainting,
Seeking the wandering sinner to find!
O to be like Thee! O to be like Thee!
Blessed Redeemer, pure as Thou art!
Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness;
Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart.19


1 All texts in this study will be based upon the NET.

2 Mark D. Futato, “The Book of Psalms,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009)7:327.

3 U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967), 439.

4 Richard D. Patterson, “Psalm 145: A Song in ‘G Major,” (Biblical Studies Press, 2009), 3.

5 Douglas K. Stuart, “Exodus,” The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 716.

6 Mervin Breneman, “Nehemiah,” in The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 239.

7 For fuller details, see Andreas Kӧstenberger and Richard D. Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Intepretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 178-87.

8 For a discussion of translation possibilities here, see the NET note. It should be noted as well that the Hebrew word rendered “tender compassion” is a different one from that which we have seen in the formulaic expression “grace and compassion.” It does occur, however, together with that formula in Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2. See further, Mike Butterworth, “nḥm,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 3:81-83. 

9 Richard D. Patterson, Hosea (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 20-9), 108.

10 F.B. Huey, Jr., “Jeremiah, Lamentations,” in The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 360. See further, the word of Mike Butterworth, “rḥm,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A, Van Gemeren, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 3:1093-95.

11 F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1982), 157.

12 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 312. See also the NET text note.

13 Gary V. Smith, “Isaiah 40-66,” The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, 2009), 566, 567.

14 N. Walter, “splanchnizomai,” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, eds. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 3: 265.

15 Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Co0mmentary on the New Testament , ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 749.

16 I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 450.

17 The NET’s “heart of mercy” is more appropriately translated “heartfelt compassion.” See the NET text note on Col. 3:12.

18 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 195.

19 Thomas O. Chisholm, “O To Be Like Thee.”

Related Topics: Character of God, Grace, Suffering, Trials, Persecution, Worship (Personal)

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