Category Archives: Theology

Father Abraham

Tomb of Abraham in Hebron, Israel. Photo Credit: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

Someone recently asked me, “Who are the real children of Abraham? Are all the children of Abraham ‘Israel’? Do the promises contained in the covenants apply to those of the flesh or to those of faith?” Here’s how I responded to my friend…

I believe that throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, “Israel” refers consistently to the ethnic, physical descendants of Abraham. “Gentiles” is a broad term for all non-Jews. Sometimes, it speaks of the godless pagans. At other times, it simply refers to the non-Jewish people groups of the world and would be synonymous with “Greeks” and “the nations.” Context in each passage will easily determine if it carries a negative, spiritual connotation of godlessness (Eph. 2:11; 4:17; 1 Thess. 4:5; 1 Pet. 2:12; 4:3) or is a simple statement of non-Jewish ethnicity (Rom. 1:13; 9:24; 11:13).

In the Old Testament, people could only be in right relationship with God by believing in God as Savior, and participating in the Mosaic covenant. The law was never a means to salvation; it was God’s holy measuring stick to convict people of their sin, and then for those who believed, it became the outward expression of one’s faith in the one true God. Gentiles were required to proselytize or convert over to Judaism in order to become a full member of the covenant community. Remember, the church was a complete mystery at this point and had not been revealed, nor did it even exist (Matt. 16:18; Rom. 11:25; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-6; 6:19; Col. 1:26-27).

Contrary to the teaching of some, the New Testament continues to maintain a distinction between Jew and Gentiles. People will often look at a passage like Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek” and conclude that all distinction has been removed, and that the church is the new or true Israel. But this simply is not the case.

In the present era, the Jew/Gentile distinction is diminished, but it is never lost. In a similar way, male/female and slave/master distinctions may look different under the new covenant, but they are never abolished. We must not press Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:9-11 so far as to eliminate all distinction. These passages speak of spiritual equality, not functional equality. In fulfillment of his covenant promise to Abraham, God still has a future plan for ethnic Israel. See for example:

Acts 13:45–46 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.

Acts 14:2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.

Romans 9:24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 11:11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.

Romans 11:25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

1 Corinthians 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,

Galatians 2:14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

I believe this is the point of Jesus’ statement in John 10:16 also: And I have other sheep [Gentiles] that are not of this fold [Jews]. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

In what way, then, are Gentiles the children of Abraham? According to Romans 4, all who believe in Christ are children of Abraham according to faith. Paul as a Jew could call Abraham “a forefather according to the flesh” (Romans 4:1). But down in verse 11, he says Abraham becomes “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.”

Using a classic Hebrew figure of speech, where a child resembles his father, Paul is saying that even non-Jews can call Abraham father when we imitate the same kind of faith that he exhibited by grace alone in Christ alone. So, it may be a silly Sunday School song, but there really is theological truth in the song, “Father Abraham, had many sons…I am one of them, and so are you…”

Sometimes, the terms “circumcised of heart” and “children of Abraham” speak of a spiritual reality and refer to both believing Jews and Gentiles in a figurative sense. But, and this is important: the Bible never uses the technical term “Israel” to refer to the church.

Nor do I believe these expressions remove or transfer God’s promises away from Israel (which he made in the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants). Through the New Covenant, his blessings spill over and now affect believing Gentiles too. But God would never revoke the promises he made to the Israelite nation.

Jeremiah 31:35–36 “Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.’ ”

All glory be to God!

A Glimpse at the Wrath of God

I wince every time I see images of Hurricane Irma barreling toward the Florida mainland. All of this while the Pacific Northwest fights massive forest fires, Mexico reels from an 8.2 earthquake, and Texas cleans up unprecedented flood damage. As I watch these disasters unfold and pray for my friends who are affected, I cannot help but think Romans 1:18-19, which our church studied just a couple weeks ago.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

When I read these verses and preached on this passage on August 27, I commented how natural disasters are a preview of the wrath of God that point us to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here’s a transcript of my words Sunday morning two weeks ago. Little did I know just how dramatic God would put his wrath on display in the days ahead…

“Do you understand that when you see human suffering — when you see viruses, and influenza; when you see bacteria; when you see wars and natural disasters — you are seeing in a sense the wrath of God revealed against ungodliness and unrighteousness?

Those things didn’t exist in the pre-fall era. When God looked at his creation after six days, he said, “It is very good” (Genesis 1:31). There was no suffering. There were not wars, there was no sin, there were no diseases. Everything was perfect. But God gave a curse upon this world, and now we all groan under the weight of God’s punishment against sin.

The worst is yet to come for unbelievers. But all of these forms of suffering, and trials, and disasters, are but a foretaste of a future and eternal suffering that awaits the wicked. Oh yes, God’s wrath is already manifested and revealed from against ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

But ultimately, the greatest demonstration we have seen thus far of the wrath of God took place at Golgotha 2,000 years ago. When God sent his one and only son into this world, and Jesus hung upon that cross, and the sky went pitch black, and God crushed his son and wounded him so we could be forgiven of our sins. People saw the wrath of God being poured out. Even the Roman centurion – a pagan up to that point – said ‘Truly, this was the Son of God.’ …

The wrath of God has been revealed many times throughout history. Why? Because there’s so much ungodliness and unrighteousness. And perhaps the greatest demonstration of that unrighteousness is the willful and deliberate suppression of the truth.”

Our world is hurting. The suffering is overwhelming. My question is this: What is it going to take for God to get our attention?

Oh that God would use these disasters to shake us out of our spiritual stupor, and bring us to repentance, before an infinitely greater wrath arrives.

Practical Implications of Calvinism

I came across an interesting article this week on Some Practical Implications of Calvinism.

The label Calvinism can be confusing at times so I generally avoid it and prefer the phrase “doctrines of grace.” Calvinism basically teaches that God is sovereign over all things, including salvation. It recognizes we are dead in our sins and that God is the one who initiates and causes us to be saved by his Holy Spirit, apart from any human effort or will.

I personally believe this is what Jesus taught as well as the Apostle Paul. But it became known as Calvinism because it was popularized by the 16th century reformer John Calvin. He thought it through quite carefully and explained it in his commentaries and his multi-volume theology, The Institutes.

Anyway, I liked this article and thought you might enjoy it too. It shows how the doctrines of grace should drive us to humility and an evangelistic zeal, rather than arrogance and indifference toward the lost.

Tom Hicks lists the following nine implications of Calvinism:

1. Calvinism gives us confidence in the Bible’s sufficiency.

2. Calvinism helps calm our anxieties.

3. Calvinism helps prevent us from trying to control others.

4. Calvinism teaches us to love unconditionally.

5. Calvinism makes us bold to obey the Lord.

6. Calvinism supports a heart for missions.

7. Calvinism fosters deep humility.

8. Calvinism undergirds our assurance of salvation.

9. Calvinism leads us to worship.

You can read the whole thing here.

Which of these do you find most helpful, or perhaps even surprising?

Top Reasons for (and Against) Premillennialism

Yesterday during the sermon, I shared why I am still convinced premillennialism is the best understanding of our Christian hope.

Here are what I consider the most persuasive arguments both for and against premillennialism. What would you add to the list? Which of these do you find most or least convincing?

Arguments for Premillennialism:

*The irrevocable nature of the Abrahamic & Davidic Covenants (Gen. 12; 2 Sam. 7)
*Timeline of Daniel’s 70 weeks (Daniel 9:24-27 )
*Consistent Judgment/Restoration Theme of Israel in OT prophets
*Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutics – authorial intent
*Romans 9-11 – Partial hardening of Israel until the fullness of Gentiles come in
*The Church as a “Mystery” previously unrevealed in Scripture (Eph. 3:9-11)
*Kingdom Motif in Scripture – Messiah to reign over this earth in peace and righteousness
*Satan as present ruler of this world – will not be bound until millennium
*Book of Revelation – makes good sense when taken at face value
*Christians spared from God’s wrath – this includes escape from the Great Tribulation (Rom. 8:1; Rev. 3:10)
*The two-phase advent of Christ shows it is possible to have a two-phase parousia (appearance and second coming of Christ)
*Harmonizing all NT passages on kingdom, resurrection, judgment, Christ’s return points to a two-phase return and multiple judgments.
*Bible foresees a period when Messiah and resurrected saints will rule in a world where sin/death still exist (preceding the eternal state) (Isaiah 11)

Arguments against Premillennialism :

(Obviously, I disagree with these points and can offer rebuttals to each. But I’ve have heard many of these arguments and find them at least worth considering.)

*The appeal of a simple eschatological system – one return, one resurrection, one judgment
*All remaining kingdom promises could be fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth
*NT Use of OT – spiritual/typological/Christological fulfillment of OT promises
*”My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)
*”The Kingdom of God is at hand, in your midst” (Mark 1:15)
*Curse of fig tree represents judgment on Israel (Mark 11:12-14)
*No clear evidence for a rapture
*Church is equated with “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16)
*The Millennium is only mentioned one chapter in the Bible (this one really irks me!)
*Two different “brides” of God/Christ? (Eph. 6)
*Return to Judaism would be a huge step backward
*Dispensationalism is a recent development/aberration in church history

Millennialism – One Issue That Won’t Go Away

A friend who has been growing in the Lord wrote me the other day,

“Just by reading the Old Testament, I am a Pre-mil. It never occurred to me to be anything else because the scripture is so clear on the subject.  So when John MacArthur starts explaining [in a sermon] the different points of view I was astonished. … I am so disappointed and disillusioned that this cancer could take root and thrive in the Reformed Church.”

I too have been disheartened by the lack of premillennialists within Protestant evangelicalism. Sadly, Reformed Premillenialists are a dying breed in this generation. But I would stop short of calling other millennial viewpoints a ‘cancer’ in the church.

I was at Shepherd’s Conference back in 2007 when MacArthur fired the shot heard ‘round the Reformed world with his keynote address, “Why Every Self Respecting Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist.” The title was meant to be tongue in cheek – but only slightly. It took social media by storm, and even led to Sam Waldron writing a book-long rebuttal called, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto.

Many Christians, even very devoted and scholarly ones, now view the Church as the new or “true” Israel, and believe that Christ’s present rule has begun to fulfill the promises of the Davidic Covenant, and that ultimately it will be fulfilled in the Eternal State. This is called amillennialism. There is no literal thousand year ‘millennium,’ but rather in Christ they say we are already experiencing the firstfruits of the millennium.

Many amillennialists have a high view of scripture and even a high Christology. They are not deliberately anti-Semitic per se, but rather view the State of Israel just like any other nation now. Where they err, I believe, is to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament so deeply that everything becomes about Christ and his church. It is very subtle, because Christ and the church are so central to God’s redemptive plan. But God also made promises to Abraham and his offspring and chose to uniquely bless Israel.

Amillenialists blur the OT and NT together, creating in my opinion too much continuity, and overlooking that God can work in different ways during different eras (dispensations) of his redemptive plan. In light of the wonderful blessings we have in Christ, they forget that the OT contained real promises (land, seed, blessing) to real people (Abraham and his physical descendants). This side of the cross and resurrection, they now spiritualize many of the prophecies given to the Jews and say they are fulfilled in Christ and his church. According to them, any remaining kingdom promises will be fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth of the Eternal State. I believe this is a serious misunderstanding of Scripture.

Yes, the NT extends God’s new covenant blessing to those outside the Jewish covenant community. But God NEVER revokes his original promises to Israel made through the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenant, and repeated throughout the rest of Scripture. That is my position.

Reflecting on John MacArthur’s message at the 2007 Shepherd’s Conference, I think it could have been stronger. A good debater will try to accurately understand and represent both viewpoints, then dismantle their opponent’s arguments one by one. I think MacArthur did this in part, but in some ways, he failed to make a convincing case. Kim Riddlebarger, for example, said the sermon misrepresented his view. Over time, I believe MacArthur polished up his argument a bit and released this article, as excerpted from the excellent book Christ’s Prophetic Plans.

I’ve found over the years that my Amillennialist friends love simplicity. They emphasize the unity or ‘continuity’ of scripture. There is much to admire in their approach, but they go too far. They smirk at our complicated dispensational charts and timelines, instead mapping out a very simple eschatology with one people of God, one single return of Christ, one judgment, one resurrection, etc. It sounds so very nice on the surface. But it does not hold up to Scripture.

The main problem with amillennialism is that the Bible says God made an unconditional promise to the nation of Israel, and we dare not revoke it. God said he would rebuild ethnic Israel. And Christ will reign physically from Jerusalem.

A plain reading of the text (literal-grammatical-historical) necessarily leads to premillennialism. A typological reading of the text (viewing all Scripture allegorically, through the lens of Christ) easily leads to amillennialism. This, to me, is the fundamental difference between the two systems.

My favorite author on the subject is Michael Vlach at The Master’s Seminary. I encourage you to read this article if you’d like to learn more about this ongoing debate.