A Comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology

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MUSINGS ON BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THESE TWO THEOLOGICAL SYSTEMS

By Dr. Bruce Ware

These are both movements that really affect a large swath of the evangelical Church with Covenant Theology affecting so much of the Church in the Reformed tradition and Dispensationalism largely through the first study Bible that came out, The Scofield Reference Bible (that was the only one when I was growing up; my folks had the Scofield Reference Bible). It made a big impact on Dallas Seminary and all of its graduates when Dallas was putting out so many pastors for Bible churches and independent Baptist churches. The Bible school movement was largely Dispensational. Moody Bible Institute and most of the Bible schools around the country were Dispensational. Some other seminaries that were Dallas-influenced are Talbot Seminary, Biola University (it used to be Bible Institute of Los Angeles and that is where Biola comes from; J. Vernon McGee and a number of people connected with Biola were Dispensational), Western Seminary (where I went) used to be a Dallas clone and it was Dispensational. So many areas in evangelical life in North America were affected by it.

We need to take a brief look at these two views. One heartening thing I will tell you at the beginning is it is one of those wonderful areas where, though there was such disagreement forty years ago, to the point where there were strong accusations being made by both sides about the other, today there has been a coming together of these movements by sort of progressives of both sides. With Modified Covenantalists and Modified Dispensationalists, the differences between them now, among those Modified groups, is minor in significance. It is not that much to worry about, to be honest with you. It is one area where godly, humble biblical scholarship and theological reflection has resulted in both sides being willing to acknowledge the excesses of their traditions and make changes. The result of that has been to come together in a marvelous way. If you want to read something that talks about this well, Dr. Russ Moore wrote his dissertation on the changing theological positions of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology as that affects socio-political action. But in order to get that “as it affects” part, he had to do quite a bit of theological ground work in describing what was going on in these two movements. A large portion of his dissertation relates to mega-changes, and the mega-shifts that have taken place in both of these movements. It is very well done.

A. Covenant Theology

1. General Description – Two Broad Covenants

Covenant theology holds, in terms of its basic understanding of Scripture, that we should understand the Bible as portraying fundamentally two covenants: a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace.

In the Covenant of Works, God made a covenant with Adam in the Garden, according to Covenant Theology. Namely, if you obey me and follow me and resist eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; if you stay away from that, if you don’t eat of that tree and follow me in obedience, then you will ultimately receive life. Covenant theologians have seen this as something more than the life of Adam then. It is not just a continuation of his life in the garden temporally, but what we would speak of as eternal life. They propose that there must have been a probationary period in which this testing was undertaken. Had Adam passed the test (who knows how much longer it might have been; maybe two more days and the test would have been over; we just don’t know), then he would have received eternal life because of his works. But if Adam failed the test, if he were to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, then we know from the text, in the day that you eat from it you will surely die (Gen 2:17). So death for disobedience; life, presumably a better life, a greater that the life he had now for obedience.

Covenant theologians acknowledge that the first part of this, the promise of life for obedience, is not stated explicitly in Scripture. But they think that it is implied by the negative statement, “If you eat of it you will die”. If you don’t eat of the tree, then you would receive the gift of eternal life. If that is the case, then it must be something different than what you have now, and if that is the case, there must be a probationary period. There must be a time period after which this would be given. All of that follows from what they know to be the case; namely, there is command given that if you eat of the tree you will die. The other part of it is spin off from that.

We all know that Adam failed the test and brought death upon himself and all of his progeny. Romans chapter 5 tells us that in Adam all sin and deserve his death. So we learn from Paul in Romans 5:12 and following that all die in Adam’s one sin.

In order to save sinners, God brings about another covenant. This is not a Covenant of Works because sinners could never work to make the payment necessary to satisfy a holy God on account of the offense that has been committed. The guilt is too great, and the offense is too serious. Another Covenant of Works (work it off now, pay your dues, pay off your debt) won’t work for human beings, for sinners. God inaugurates, instead, a Covenant of Grace, whereby his Son will pay the penalty for sinners, and those sinners in exchange will receive the righteousness of Christ. It is quite a deal for sinners. We give Christ our sins and he gives us his righteousness.

Double imputation is part of this understanding as well. Our sin is imputed to Christ, so he pays the penalty for our guilt and it is charged against him even though he doesn’t deserve to pay it. That’s what imputation means at that point; our sin is charged against Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us; it is credited to our account by faith – justification.

How much of the Bible does the Covenant of Works cover, what does it span? The Covenant of Works covers Genesis 1, 2 and part of Genesis 3 where the sin takes place. What about the Covenant of Grace where sinners now cannot be saved by works? If they are going to be saved it has to be by grace? Genesis 3 to Revelation 22. The point of this is that it leads Covenant theologians, in the traditional understanding, to think in terms of the broad sense of the holistic nature of virtually all of the Bible, from Gen 3 on, which is most of the Bible. Basically, the whole Bible fits under this Covenant of Grace notion. This leads to, in Covenant Theology, a strong sense of uniformity throughout the Bible, that is a strong sense of continuity. There is one thing God is doing from the sin in the garden and on, that is he is providing for human sin and saving the people. The Covenant of Grace spans both Testaments; it spans Israel and Church. In that sense, it leads to a unified sense in all of Scripture: Old and New Testaments together.

2. Covenant Hermeneutic

Because of this sense of unity that takes place, the hermeneutic of Covenant Theology tends to see in Scripture a unified teaching in both Testaments. So there is less of a notion in Covenant Theology that new things come about in divine revelation at new periods of revelation, rather there is more of a notion of simply amplifying or explaining with grater clarity or precession what has been there from the beginning. So for example, in Covenant Theology there is much more a tendency to look back in the Old Testament and see the same kinds of things as you do in the New Treatment. I’ll give you an example of that; some of you know that I teach an elective on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The older Covenant theologians (some of the more recent ones, Richard Gap and Sinclair Ferguson have not have gone this route) would tend to see everything that is true of the of the Holy Spirit’s work in the New Testament, his indwelling, his sealing, his empowering that is true for New Testament believers, is also true for Old Testament believers because of this uniformity idea. So if you ask the question what is new at Pentecost or new in the New Covenant? It is more a sense of extension of coverage than it is qualitative experience in the lives of true believers. God will extend this to the ends of the earth: Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. To the ends of the earth means extending this beyond the boundaries of the restricted members of the people of God. It is going to go public, nationwide, worldwide. My view is that this is a mistake to think this way. Instead there is a radical new happening when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost that the Old Testament actually prophesied and predicted was going to happen that would make a tremendously different change to the people of God. So you really have to have, it was once this way but now is this way. There really is a change, a marked qualitative kind of change that takes place in the coming of the Spirit in the New Covenant than in the Old. This is a more Dispensational way of thinking. Take a text like Romans 8:3-4

“For what the Law could not do [under the law this didn’t happen, the Law couldn’t do this], weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [we are talking history now, at this point in history, when Christ comes], and as an offering for sin, Him condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:3-4) So that looks to me like we ought to read it as under the Law things were one way, but now that the Spirit has come, Christ has come, things are different. But if you read the Old Covenant writers on the Holy Spirit, you will find a very strong urge to assume that New Testament teachings about the Holy Spirit must be true of Old Testament saints as well.

A similar thing might be said of Christology. There is a very strong sense of trying to see as much as possible of Christ in the Old Testament. Luke 24 makes it very clear that Christ taught concerning himself from the Law, the Prophets and the Writings (Luke 24:27).

It is a matter of which texts, what they are saying, and to what extent. There is a tendency in Covenant Theology to see more than what others might see from other traditions. The main point I am trying to stress here is that with this Covenant hermeneutic there is a tendency to see uniformity of content between the Testaments.

3. Israel and the Church

One of the places where this becomes both the clearest and most decisive in terms of separating covenant and Dispensational views is how Covenant Theology understands Israel and the Church. Here again, with the basic hermeneutic of uniformity, Covenant Theology would view true Israel as the people of God, that is, true Israel, saved Israel as the people of God and the Church as the people of God. There is really one people of God in both Testaments, both saved by faith, both serving the same God, both the special objects of God’s saving love. Israel really could be thought of and spoken of as the Old Testament Church. The Church in the New Testament can rightly be thought of as New Testament Israel. So we have Old Testament Church, that’s Israel, and we have New Testament Israel, that’s Church. So there really should not be seen significant differences as they are the people of God. Granted Israel is also ethnic and the Church is multiethnic. But apart from that difference, as it relates to nation and ethnicity, we ought to understand the people of God, as believers, constituting the same group of people.

What about promises made to Israel that seem to relate to a time in the future; for example, Israel coming back to her land, or her ultimate salvation by God. What about promises that look like they are eschatological in the Old Testament, and are not fulfilled at any particular point in history in the Old Testament or New Testament period? What do we say about those promises that relate to Israel? God makes the promise, I’ll take from your lands where you have been and I’ll bring you back to your land and you shall have one God, and I will reign over you, and I will destroy your enemies. All of these promises given to Israel, what should we do with those? In Covenant Theology, there is a very strong tendency to go in the direction of saying those promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the New Testament Israel – the Church. So the Church becomes the object of those promises.

In Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see Old Testament promises as coming straight forward and being fulfilled in the Church. So the land promises (you will be back in your land) shouldn’t be understand as literal land; there is not going to be a day when the ethnic people of Israel occupy literal geography; that is not the point of those promises. It is rather that they will have their kingdom, and it is a spiritual kingdom.

So the promises to Israel are to be fulfilled in a spiritual manner in the Church. When it talks about the Jews being saved, we are all Jews. Remember Paul in Romans 2 says, we are circumcised in Abraham. We are, by faith, part of the seed of Abraham in Galatians (Galatians 3:16). We should understand that all of us are Jews spiritually because we are tied in through Christ, through the seed of Abraham. After all, the promise in Genesis 12 was that through Abraham all the nations in the world will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3). So we are tied in.

What about the reign of Christ over nations? This is not a political military reign; it is a spiritual reign as people from every tribe and nation are brought into subjection to Christ. So in Covenant Theology there is a very strong tendency to see, basically, Israel and the Church as equated spiritually.

One place that you see that Reformed Baptists differ is with pedobaptism. In Presbyterian, Anglican, and the majority of reformed theology, they hold to pedobaptism. Here the same thing is happening; Israel circumcised their people as a sign of the Covenant and we are the new Israel. The difference is that our sign of the Covenant is a sign that is Christological in nature because we have been brought together in Christ; everything in the Old Testament pointed to him. Christ has now come, so the sign of the Covenant changes to baptism as a mark of Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as Israel’s sign of the covenant was given to infants, so the Church’s sign of the Covenant should be given to infants. Honestly, the strongest argument for pedobaptism (in my judgment) is a theological argument; if you try to argue texts, you run out quickly. In a used bookstore in Springfield, Illinois (we were visiting there as a family to look at all of the Lincoln memorabilia that was there), I spotted a rather sizable book on the shelve; the spine was pretty fat. It said on it, All That The Bible Teaches About Infant Baptism. That was the title of it. Wow, I thought, this is a thick book; it is impressive. So I took it off of the shelf and opened it up and it was an empty book. It was just all blank pages. They were charging something like $18 for it, so I didn’t buy it, but I wish I had. I would like to have a copy of that book. The argument is really a theological one: Israel, Church, sense of unity, and hence a very strong case is made on theological grounds for pedobaptism.

One question is: How do they understand a more unified sense of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old Testament when it looks as though in the Old Testament there are these special works with selective people? What they argue, in particular, are primarily theological arguments. These people had to be regenerated. How does regeneration take place? We know from John 3, it must come from the Holy Spirit. So you see how this works; these people exercised faith didn’t they? Where did faith come from? It must have come from the Holy Spirit. So it is a theological argument that utilizes what the New Testament says the Holy Spirit does. It sees those same actions or similar actions in the Old Testament and concluded that Holy Spirit must do these things as well. It is a very important question of how to account for Hebrews 11, the faith chapter. How do you account for a Daniel and a Joseph who exercised tremendous trust in God through very difficult experiences? It is a very good question, and I think that we just have to work very hard in the Old Testament to try to understand what is said there and what is happening there and take seriously the notion that something new takes place. Roman 8:3-4, says, “In order that the requirement of the Law might now be fulfilled in those who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Those are remarkable words. Or in Galatians 3 (Galatians 3:24, to be precise) the Law is a tutor to lead us to Christ. It is a tough question; I’ll admit it. I think that are some things that can be said, but it’s why this theological reasoning is persuasive to a number of Reformed people. The problem is so many Old Testament texts indicate the selectivity of the Spirit at work in the Old Testament and then there are specific texts that promise a future day that matches New Testament reality. Ezekiel 36:27 says, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” You read that and realize the holiness that He requires of his people will come about when the Holy Spirit comes and works in them. Think of 2 Corinthians 3:3, the letter written on their hearts by the Spirit. This is New Covenant.

B. Dispensationalism

1. General Description – Progressive Revelation

Dispensationalism is an understanding of the Bible, of biblical history, that notices and points to distinguishable Dispensations or administrations of God’s purposes, will, and relationships with people in general and particularly his people.

The key idea in Dispensationalism is progressive revelation. This is the bottom rock notion in this understanding of reading the Bible. Progressive revelation means, essentially, that God provides revelation at a particular time and that revelation provides certain commandments, requirements, warnings and promises. Some of those commands, warnings, and promises may continue beyond when that revelation is given, beyond the next period when great revelation is given. Or some revelations may stop at that particular point. When new revelation comes with Noah, or then with Abraham, or with Moses (think of these periods where new great revelation is given), some things continue on, and some things continue all the way through. Obey the Lord your God; that is from the beginning right to the end. In the revelation given to Adam in the garden, the command, “You shall not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for in the day you eat of it you will die,” (Gen 2:17) doesn’t apply to you and me anymore, specifically as a commandment. Where is that tree? How could you eat of it? You can’t. So it applies to Adam very much so. When revelation comes, there may be new things that start up that were not here before.

Noah is told that he can eat animals; that is part of the statement made to Noah after the flood. He can eat these animals (Genesis 9), but he cannot kill human beings (I take it that continues). I don’t find vegetarianism theological defensible. Both because of what God says to Noah about eating animals (which I assume continues), and certainly the prohibition of killing humans continues. Nor do you find it defensible in light of Israel, in what they are permitted to eat. And Jesus who pronounced all foods clean is obviously talking about unclean foods, which would include pork. So I guess you can have a bacon or a ham sandwich.

The point is that with progressive revelation, you see some things that are new which continue only for a time, and there are other things that might start, ones that weren’t here before, which continue all the way through, and some things which are just for that time period itself. This, then, amounts to different dispensations, different ways in which God administers his relationship with people. The most obvious example is the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. We now have in this time period these laws that relate to the sacrificial system; and it is clear that they last until Christ comes who fulfills what they are pointing to: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When God’s Lamb comes, then you don’t have to keep taking your lamb to the priest to be slaughtered. When the High Priest reigns, you don’t need a priest any longer. So here we have in this time period laws that are very relevant, extremely relevant, in exact literal detail. Fulfilling those Laws is extremely important in this time period, then when Christ comes they end. You don’t take a lamb; you don’t go to the priest; the priest doesn’t have to prepare himself for the Day of Atonement. All of these things that were there before are done. This is the main idea of Dispensationalism. It is progressive revelation. When revelation comes you need to notice what things have quit what was revealed before, what things start that weren’t revealed before and what things endure. Whatever you come up with in that time period marks that particular dispensation as the revelation of God in that time period.

2. Dispensational Hermeneutic

This notion of progressive revelation has lead Dispensationalist to interpret the Bible, to look at biblical history and interpret where you are in the Bible, very differently than the way Covenant theologians look at the Bible. The tendency in Covenant Theology is to look for uniformity; there is one Covenant of Grace that spans virtually the entire Bible. So there is a tendency to see this uniformity; there is one people of God. In Dispensationalism the mindset is very different. It is instead to notice discontinuity, differences in how God relates to people depending on the revelation that is given at that particular time. It is much more attuned to the discontinuities between various dispensations and to respect those, to be careful not to interpret something in this dispensation as you are reading it from a different time period. So you are not being respectful of what it means here. Charles Ryrie no doubt overstated it in his book, Dispensationalism Today, but he gave this threefold sine qua non (a Latin phrase meaning without which there is none) of Dispensationalism or the essential markings of Dispensationalism. One of them is a literal hermeneutic. He didn’t mean you interpret poetry literally. John kicked the bucket means that John died; that is the way you are supposed to interpret it. He didn’t mean literal in the sense of ignoring metaphorical poetic meanings or terms. What he meant by that is, when reading the Bible, understand what an author intends to say within the historical context of when he is writing it, so that you don’t read back into it things from the future or read forward of things in the past. You take care to read it within its own dispensation. That is what he meant by literal hermeneutic; to understand what the author meant then and there as he spoke at that time.

3. Israel and the Church

A literal hermeneutic has led to, in particular, the way Israel and the Church are evaluated. It is clear in Dispensationalism that Dispensationalists insist upon seeing Israel as Israel and the Church as the Church. There is a strong discontinuity between the two. The Church starts as Christ built it. Remember Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my Church.” Therefore, we shouldn’t talk about it in the Old Testament, even though the term ekklesia is used in the Septuagint (it is not being used in the technical sense, it just means a gathering of people together). We shouldn’t talk about Old Testament Israel as the Church. Jesus said, “I will build my Church, the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes” (Acts 1:4), “And when he comes he will anoint you with power” (Acts 1:8). So Pentecost is the beginning of the Church. We shouldn’t talk about Israel as the Old Testament Church nor should we talk about the Church as the New Testament Israel because Israel is an ethnic national group and we are multiethnic; we are multinational. It is confusing to talk of the Church as Israel.

So as it pertains to these promises we talked about under Covenant Theology, what do you do with the Old Testament promises that particularly relate to Israel? How do understand these when God says through the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:24, I will take you from the lands where you have been and bring you back to your land. And he goes on to say at the end of Ezekiel 37 that the Messiah will reign as your king; David will reign as your king. What do you do with these promises that relate to a future for Israel where the Messiah is reigning over his people in the land, the nations are subjected to the Messiah, and there is peace on earth; what do you do with these?

If these promises have to do with Israel, instead of seeing them fulfilled in the Church (because the Church is not Israel), you see them fulfilled at a future time when God will finish his promised work with Israel. There is a sense in which the premillennial view for Dispensationalism is supported because of Old Testament promises to Israel whether or not you have Revelation 20. Revelation 20 is a really nice extra to have because it gives you the exact time period, a thousand years. It makes it crystal clear that this comes after Christ has returned to earth and he reigns upon the earth for this thousand year period. That is nice to know all that, but we didn’t need Revelation 20 to know there had to be a time period in the future after Christ returned for God to finish his work with Israel. Why? Because these promises back here talk about land, Messiah, Jerusalem. According to a literal hermeneutic, what did Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Zachariah mean when they said “Jerusalem”? What did they mean when they said “in your land”? What were the authors intended meanings of these terms: land, Israel, Messiah, and other nations? They understood those things to be referring to physical realities. Have they happened yet? Has Messiah come? No. Is Israel in her land? Hence all the hoopla over 1948; this is when Dispensationalism just went nuts because here we have what appears to be (of course people said it much stronger than that back then) God’s movement to begin the fulfillment of bringing Israel back to her land to fulfill all of these promises. Then there were all kinds of speculation that came in terms of date setting and that kind of stuff.

In my judgment, Dispensationalism has far more merit as a Biblical Theology than its popularizers have allowed it to have in public perception. The popularizers went too far; they extended it into the unknowable. It was speculation but stated as fact. This has hurt the Dispensational movement, in my view.

So for dispensationalists, God is going to come back and wipe out the nations and save Israel, that will happen during the tribulation and he (The Messiah) is going to reign in Jerusalem over his people in the Millennial period fulfilling Old Testament promises.

C. Modifications of both Dispensational and Covenantal Understandings

What has happened, essentially, is that the notions that Israel equals the Church or Israel is totally separate from the Church have been challenged by both representatives in the Covenantal tradition and representatives in the Dispensation tradition. Both have come to see that a better model is one in which there is continuity and discontinuity together. Something like a screen between the two rather than a complete equation or a complete separation of the two. Some things can pass through (hence the screen), yet there are differences between them.

One the Covenant side there has been a recognition, for example, that we really should think of a future for Israel. There was a time when very few Covenant theologians would deal with Romans 11 (Roman 11:17, 23, 24, 26) where Paul talks about the olive tree and the natural branches were cut off and the unnatural branches were grafted on. But a time will come when he will graft the natural branches back on to the tree; that is Israel. That analogy is so helpful. How many trees are there in that analogy? One. How many kinds of branches? Two. Do you have one people of God or two? If you mean one people in Christ, then there is one. If you mean specifically designated Jewish people, for whom God has specifically promised salvation, verses the rest of God’s saved people, then it is two. How else do you understand the natural branches and the unnatural branches? Doesn’t Paul continue to think of the people of God as comprised of Jews and Gentiles? At the moment, most of those Jews are not saved; there is a hardening that has taken place. That is how he describes it in Romans 11. This hardening has taken place, so the Gospel has gone to Gentiles, but the day will come when he will graft the natural branches back on. Who are those people? They are Jews; they are going to be saved. So Paul says, all Israel will be saved. It was difficult for Covenant theologians and Covenant interpreters (a few did but not many) to see that as ethnic Israel. But increasingly in this more modified understanding, you are finding more and more Covenant theologians, people from the Covenant tradition acknowledging that, yes, this is what Paul means; he means that there will be some kind of future salvation of Jews – literal ethnic Jews. Whether this has to happen in the way Dispensationalist conceive it in a tribulation period where vast persecution takes place, tremendous destruction of people and material well-being in everything across the world, and at the same time massive conversions of Jews to Christ, or whether it happens in this age through some kind of evangelistic effort is really beside the point. That is a secondary question. Where there is much more agreement among Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians (in the Modified groups) is that it does look like there is future salvation of Israel.

Dispensationalists have changed. I think it might be fair to say that they have done more changing than the Covenant side. I think that is correct. In other words, Dispensationalists have recognized a bit more that has needed to be changed in their views and tradition than has necessarily been the case in with Covenant theologians.

I will give an example of this. In fact, I have written an article on this in the book that Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising edited entitled, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. I have a chapter in there on the New Covenant. Here is basically what I talk about in there. In the old view for Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing and the Church is another and you can’t mix the two. Here you are, reading your New Testament and you hear Jesus say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25). And Paul says, I am a minister of the New Covenant (2 Cor 3:6). And Hebrews speaks of the Old Covenant is taken away, and the New Covenant has come (Heb 8:13). The New Covenant is the Covenant for the Church, the Old Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, the Covenant for Israel.

What do you do with how Jeremiah 31-34 relates to the New Covenant for the Church, the New Covenant that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3, where he says he is a minister of the New Covenant? How do you relate Jeremiah 31 to that? There is a real problem with that because Jeremiah 31 (Jeremiah 32:31) says, “Behold, days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In traditional Dispensationalism, Israel is one thing, the Church is another and here you have this statement about a new covenant with the house of Israel, so what relation does this Jeremiah 31 New Covenant have to do with the 2 Corinthians 3 New Covenant, of which Paul is a minister? Jesus says, “This cup is the New Covenant of my blood”(Luke 22:20), and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25 repeats that, so what is the relation between the two? The dispensational answer is that they are two separate Covenants. Traditional Dispensationalism had a two New Covenant view. Because Jeremiah 31 had to be for Israel, whatever Paul is talking about, whatever Jesus is talking about, and (here is where it get really messy) whatever Hebrews is talking about has got to be a different covenant.

Now why did I say that, here is where it gets really messy in reference to Hebrews? Because Hebrews 8 and 10 quote Jeremiah 31 twice (Hebrews 8:8,9; 10:16) in making the point that the Old Covenant, the Mosiac Covenant is done away and New Covenant, to quote Jeremiah 31, “has taken its place”. Even despite that, they maintain this difference. This is how strong the theological commitment was to two peoples, Israel and the Church; keep them separate and don’t confuse them. It was so strong that even with Hebrews starring at them quoting Jeremiah 31, they insisted on two different Covenants. The text won with Progressive Dispensationalists (That is what they are called). Craig Blaising, who taught here for years, is one of the main leaders of this movement. He and Darrell Bock at Dallas are the champions of Progressive Dispensationalism. They argue that we have got to say that the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 is the Church’ New Covenant. What else would Jesus be referring to? The phrase, New Covenant, is only used one time in the Old Testament; it is in Jeremiah 31. Hebrews quotes it and says the old has passed and this has come in its place. So we have got to understand this is to be the Church’s New Covenant. In my article here is what I proposed: Are we to say then that everything that Jeremiah 31 talks about is fulfilled now in the Church? In other words, should we do this sort of an interpretation of Jeremiah 31; in which we have an Old Testament promise and we draw the arrow straight forward and say Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled in the Church period? I say no. Rather, I think that we draw an arrow forward and we draw an arrow to the future; we draw both. What allows for a “both and” answer? It is both in some sense fulfilled in the Church and in some sense fulfilled in the future. This is the theology of one of the strongest opponents of Dispensationalism: George Eldon Ladd.

Ladd is the one who really faced the evangelical church with this “already not yet” theology. We understand biblical eschatology as being fulfilled in a preliminary partial way, but are still awaiting the complete consummation, complete fulfillment.

This is a different topic; I’ll come back to New Covenant. How do answer the question has the Kingdom of Christ come, or is the Kingdom of Christ here? “Yes but,” or “Yes and no.” Don’t you have to say both? Is the Kingdom of Christ here? Yes, Colossians 1:13 says, We have been transferred from the dominion of Satan into the Kingdom of his beloved Son. In Matthew 12, Jesus casts out a demon, and the Pharisees said he casts out demons by Beelzebul (Matthew 12:24 ). But he says in response, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). So has the kingdom come? Yes. But what does the New Testament call Satan at various points? The god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), the ruler of this world (John 12:13), and the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:2). When you read Isaiah 9:6, 7, have you ever asked yourself the question, has this happened? “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on his shoulders; And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And of increase of his government there will be not end to establish it and to uphold it from this day forth and for ever more for the zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” Has this happened? Did you read the paper this morning? Something tells me we are not there yet. This was exactly John the Baptist’s problem. This is huge to get this. John the Baptist in Matthew 11 sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the appointed one or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). This is an incredible question, an unbelievable question. John the Baptist witnessed the dove descend on Jesus (John 1:32), and was told, “The One upon whom you see the dove descend, this is my son; follow him (John 1:33). John the Baptist baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:13-16). John the Baptist was the one who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and, “I am not worthy to untie the thong on his sandal” (John 1:27). He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This is John the Baptist who now in prison says, I’m not sure if this is the anointed one. What has happened?

John knows his Old Testament. This is the problem; he knows the promises that relate to the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, guess what the Messiah is going to do? Isaiah 9:6, 7 says he is going to reign over nations. Read the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. Incredible devastation to unrighteousness; he is going to destroy those who stand against him; he is going to exalt Israel. Here is the forerunner of the Messiah in prison. What is wrong with this picture? That is what John is thinking. So he thinks, maybe this isn’t the Messiah after all. Consider the angst that he must have been going through in prison, the huge spiritual struggle he must have been facing for that question to come out of him, of all people.

Jesus’ response is brilliant. “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:4, 5). Jesus is quoting Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah. So the point is, John, don’t miss it; the Messiah is fulfilling prophecy; I am the Messiah. But not all prophecy, not all now, it is “already and not yet.” Is the kingdom here? Already and not yet. Yes and no, you have to say. Yes, in some things; no, in others.

Back to the New Covenant, how do we see the New Covenant fulfilled? Already in the Church; in some aspects, in a preliminary partial way, we enter into this new covenant, but even a reading of Jeremiah 31 will show that not all of it is fulfilled yet. Because it says, “I will put my Law within you and you won’t have to teach each one his neighbor, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them (Jer 31:33, 34). That hasn’t happened yet. We have teachers in the Church appointed by God to tell people about God, teach them about the Lord. We have the gift of teaching in the Church for that very purpose. So it hasn’t happened yet.

Everyone acknowledges that there has to be an “already not yet.” It includes, in my view, an already in this age predominately gentiles (who were not even given the New Covenant, it was given to Israel) who get in through the seed of Abraham: Jesus. That is our avenue. They get in as Jews, well granted through faith in Christ, they will be brought to faith in Christ, but no other ethnic national group is promised, “I am going to save you.” God promises that to Israel though; they will be saved as a whole ethnic group. Not Babylonians, not Assyrians not anybody else, but Jews will be because God chose them. It is clear in Deuteronomy 7; God chose them, and he is going to save them. When that happens, the New Covenant God made with Israel and Judah is going to be fulfilled. You watch; God will keep his word

Blessings on You.

Dr. Bruce Ware

– See more at: http://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/covenant-theology-dispensationalism/systematic-theology-i/bruce-ware#sthash.NKg0GYoD.dpuf

Jewish Evangelism in the New Millennium in Light of Israel’s Future (Rom. 9-11) By Dr. Walter C. Kaiser Jr

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It is impossible to read and interpret the epistle to the Romans without confronting its central issue—the relation of the Jewish people to God’s plan of salvation and evangelism. Throughout the entire apostolic ministry of Paul, we, in fact, find this “two-step missionary pattern”: [Note #1: This expression is from Mark D. Nanos, The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 239-47]. “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; 2:10 RSV). Paul’s custom, upon arrival in a city where he had not previously preached, was first to enter the synagogue to preach, then to preach to the Gentiles of that city. [Note: #2: Acts 17:1-2, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”]. This two-step pattern is a distinctive of the apostle’s ministry and message: the Jew first and then to the Gentiles.

Nevertheless, even though all will agree on the correctness of this assessment, it has become commonplace among more recent theologians to regard the Christian church as the new successor and replacement for the Israel of Romans 9-11. Or alternatively, Israel is treated as a parenthetical insertion into, or disruption to the Gentile evangelistic outreach of, the otherwise unified argument of the book of Romans.

Examples of the former mistake can be seen in a fairly large number of places. The second Vatican Council described the Christian church as “the new Israel.” [Note #3: Geoffrey Chapman, The Documents of Vatican II (London: n.p., 1966), 24-26, as cited in D.B. W. Robinson, “The Salvation of Israel in Romans 9-11,” Reformed Theological Review 26 (1967): 81. Robinson also alerted me to several of the surfaces that follow from the church documents.] A similar document titled “Report of the Joint Commission on Church Union of the Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches of Australia” also identified the church with “the true Israel.”[Note #4: Joint Commission on Church Union, The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering (Melbourne: Joint Board of Christian Education, 1964), 12ff.]. These citations are only a small representation of the reigning thought among many reformed and covenantal theologians today.

But just as troubling is another sentiment among many dispensational and non reformed theologians. This perspective asserts that the doctrine of salvation in the book of Romans can be dealt with apart from the question of the Jewish people. It is thought that Romans 9-11 is merely a parenthetical insertion between Romans 1-8 and Romans 12-16, one that momentarily halts the discussion of the doctrine of salvation in the former passage and its practical implications in the latter. Even though this group correctly believes there is a future for ethnic Israel of the flesh, they do not clearly connect it with the present-day church. It is almost as if the plan of God for salvation changes as the days of the eschaton appear in the windup of the present period of history.

To counter such a belief, both of these positions must come in for some serious modification according to the biblical data. The task of this article, then, is not only to interpret the meaning of Romans 9-11 as faithful to the apostle’s assertions, but also to show that Romans 9-11, with its message about Israel, is integral to the subject matter of the epistle as a whole with its single plan of the salvation of God.

The Ancient Covenant: A Troubling Question

Romans 9-11 is not, as Hendrikus Berkof affirmed, some sort of “eccentric outburst, nor is it particularly difficult, as is suggested by the contradictory explanations.” [Note #5: Hendrikus Berkof, Christ the Meaning of History, trans. Lambertus Buurman, Dutch 4th ed. (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1966), 141.]. Berkhof went on to correctly observe that this text becomes especially difficult only when we wish to make it say something it does not say.

Why, for example, does the apostle say, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom. 9:2 NIV)? So strongly does Paul feel about this matter that he could wish himself personally accursed and cut off from the Messiah if it would have the benefit of bringing his Jewish brethren to the light of the gospel in the Messiah (Rom. 9:3).

Surely, this is a noble and praiseworthy sentiment, but it does not explain why the area of Jewish acceptance of the gospel is so troubling for Paul. Only when we get to Romans 11:1 do we find out what is so troubling to the apostle: “Did God reject his people?” The question poses a potential problem not only about Israel, but a bigger problem not only about Israel, but a bigger problem about God. In short, how can the everlasting plan of God be trusted and believed in for the salvation of all peoples? If God—the same God, who, based on His word and his own life (Gen. 12; 22; Her. 6:18)—once promised to Israel similar outcomes as those found in Romans 9-11, but has now rejected Israel and turned his back on them, what is left of the doctrine of the faithfulness and dependability of God? It is simply impossible for God to lie or go back on what he promises. Therefore, the problem of Israel is the problem of God due to his eternal promise-plan. [Note #6: I have developed the continuity theme of the promise-plan of God between the two testaments in my books Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) and The Christian and the “Old” Testament (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Press, 1999).].

The answer Paul will give to his own question is that the rejection of Israel is not total or complete, but only temporary and partial at that. “It is not as though the word of God had failed; for not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6 NIV). That is, there are many Israelites who are not lost, but are saved. This same divine discriminating policy has been observed from the very beginning. God chose Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau (Rom. 9:7-12). In so doing, Paul argues, God was not unjust. The marvel is that anyone experienced the mercy of God. The better question to ask is why God spared anyone at the time of the golden calf (Rom. 9:14-18). Furthermore, this divine sovereignty does not exempt human responsibility, for while the grace and mercy of God cannot be pursued by works, but only by faith (Rom. 9:31-32), mortals still culpable for their own refusals of this grace of God. But there is more to the answer: in Romans 10 Paul demonstrates that the rejection of so large a number in Israel is not arbitrary or out of character for God. Israel disregarded the righteousness that came from God and substituted instead a homemade righteousness that refused to submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3). Most of Israel failed to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Rom. 10:9). Thus, there is no way that any Israelite, who rejects God’s way of salvation, can blame anyone other than themselves. Had not the prophet Isaiah cried out on God’s behalf, “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations” (Isaiah 65:2) Paul used in Romans 10:21 this very argument from the prophet Isaiah to show that many of the Jewish people must bear responsibility.

The rejection of the majority of Israel, however, is “neither absolute nor unqualified.” [Note #7: Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 142]. Romans 11:1-10 argues that God’s dealings with the Jews and the Gentiles are closely interrelated. What may have seemed to be a divine rejection of the Jewish people was and is not such, for there has always been a remnant selected by grace who did believe and were saved (Rom. 11:5). Thus, the gospel had a twofold effect: some were saved and others were hardened by the same good news. This double effect mirrors that which the plagues of Egypt had on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The plagues were meant to lead the Egyptians to repentance (Exodus 7:17; 9:14, 29 et passim), but it hardened many off them. Some did believe (Ex. 12:38), but most, like Pharaoh, rejected all of God’s evidences.

Israel: An Indefectible Destiny

It is clear that Paul focuses his attention on Israel in these three chapters, but what “Israel” is Paul thinking about? Nowhere else in Paul’s writings has he expounded and used the term Israel so centrally and so insistently. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, Israel occurs only five times (NIV):

  1. 1 Corinthians 10:18—“Consider the people of Israel,” a passing allusion to the sacrificial order in the older testament;
  2. 2 Corinthians 3:7, 13—“the Israelites,” who were unable to look on Moses’ face when he came down from Mount Sinai;
  3. Ephesians 2:12—“excluded from citizenship in Israel,” refers to Christians who were not part of the state of Israel;
  4. Philippians 3:5—“of the people [stock] of Israel,” describes Paul as being a legitimate Jew;
  5. Galatians 6:16—“Israel of God,” is a passage hotly contested both for and against an identification with Israel.

In Romans 9-11, however, the term Israel or Israelites occurs fourteen times. But this recurrence represents more than focus: Paul speaks from within, and on behalf, of Israel. We shall badly misunderstand Paul if we think that he has renounced his membership within Israel due to his faith in Jesus. The apostle never seceded from his Jewish heritage and his people, for what he taught was consistent with his Jewish faith taught in the Tenakh.

Paul proposes no new definition for Israel: for him there was only one Israel. C.F.D. Moule had thought that the name Israel had lost its original character, with Paul reserving the name Jews for those who are externally, or by both, Jewish, and the term Israel being reserved for those who were part of the people of God, the religious community. [Note #8: C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1962), 46.]. This cannot be sustained however, in biblical usage. These two terms, Jews and Israel, are never contrasting terms, for when Paul wished to make that distinction, he spoke of those who were Jews “outwardly” versus those who were Jews “inwardly” (Rom. 2:28-29).

The real character and definition of Israel is set out in Romans 9:4-5. Their articles of incorporation, as it were, included “the adoption as sons,” “the divine glory,” “the covenants,” “the receiving of the law,” “the temple worship,” “the promises,” “the patriarchs,” and “the human ancestry of Christ [the Messiah]” (NIV). But even more startling, this calling and these gifts were “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). God himself could not change his purpose and plan toward his people whom he had set as the object of his election (Rom. 11:2).

It is this simple but complex affirmation that makes Romans 9-11 so difficult for those who approach it with a different idea in mind. The Jewish people are forever loved by God because of the promise God had given to the patriarchs (Rom. 11:28). Moreover, the promise of Isaiah 54:17 was true: “Israel will be saved by the LORD with an everlasting salvation” (NIV). This would be fulfilled when “all Israel” would be saved (Rom. 11:26).

Therefore, we must not separate and set asunder an eschatological Israel of the promise from an ethnic-empirical Israel of history. The Israel that Paul refers to in these three chapters is the one that “descended from Jacob/Israel” (Rom. 9:6, 10). What is more, the salvation of the Gentiles is closely related to the salvation of Israel, two arms of the one and same divine purpose and plan of God. That single plan for both is, in fact, the finale to the whole argument of the book of Romans. Paul concludes, “Messiah has become a minister of the circumcision {Jews} for the truth of God, that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8-13). Accordingly, the salvation of the Gentiles rests on the promises given to the patriarchs just as much as did the salvation of the Jews. But that same salvation is the one now confirmed in the appearance of the Messiah, Yeshua/Jesus, who is also a minister to the Jewish people with the same message of salvation.

There is the marvel: even though the Gentiles lacked the covenant and the divine promises made with Israel, they can now enter into that same experience though faith without becoming Israelites. They are partners with Israel, but not Israel. As believers, Gentiles are “children of Abraham” (see Gal. 3:29), but that’s not the same thing as saying they are “children of Israel.” [Note #9: This fine point is made by Robinson, “The Salvation of Israel in Romans 9-11,” 89. Robinson notes that this equation is sometimes made by theologians, but Paul never makes it.].

Paul uses the former term, but he refrains from using the latter. Thus, the term of continuity between believers, Jew and Gentiles, is “the people of God.” [Note #10: For further details, see Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Israel as the People of God,” in The People of God: Essays on the Believer’s Church, dedicated to James Leo Garret Jr. (Nashville: Broadman, 1991), 99-108.]. God may, and does, call other nations as “his.” Egypt, for example, is called “my people” in that future day of the Lord (Isa. 19:25). He also took out of the Gentiles “a people for his name” (Acts 15:14), but in no case did the writers of Scripture ever thereby consider these new believers as the “new Israel” and to be equated with national Israel.

The One Olive Tree

The imagery of the olive tree [Note #11: The most extensive treatment of the olive tree is found in A.G. Baxter and J.A. Ziesler, “Paul and Arboriculture: Romans 11:17-24, “Journal for the Study of the New Testament 24 (1985); 25-32.] is developed to warn the new Gentile believers that they have not supplanted Israel or that the ancient promises made to the patriarchs have been rescinded. W. D. Davies suggests that Paul may have purposely chosen the olive tree analogy over that of the vine, which is more natural to the Jews. The olive, Davies remarks, is a powerful symbol of Athens and the Greek culture. [Note #12: W.D. Davies, “Paul and the Gentiles: A Suggestion Concerning Romans 11:13-24,” in Jewish and Pauline Studies (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 153-63, esp. 155].

Paul’s primary purpose, though, was to make his sharp contrast between the wild and cultivated olive trees. The wild tree (Gr. agrielaios) was unproductive and bore no useful fruit, thereby making it a perfect analogy for contrast between the Jewish culture as supplied by God and the Hellenistic culture of the Gentiles.

The olive tree analogy focuses on the root and the branches. The other symbols in Romans 11:16, that of the “firstfruits,” the “dough,” and the “whole batch,” serve the same purpose as the root and the branches: the solidarity of the part with the whole. The apostle uses the Semitic concept of solidarity when he argues that the character of the root of a tree, or body, carries over into the whole plant or the branches into two separate entities, for the quality of the source of nourishment inheres in the quality of the resulting branches.

But what is the “root”? Whether the root is Abraham, the blessings and promises given to Abraham, or Messiah himself, as he is the “seed of Abraham to whom the promises were made” (Gal. 3:16ff.), makes little difference here. The same covenantal promise of God is referred to in any event: the promised Messiah who would come though Abraham. It is this root that sustains all the branches, whether they are newly grafted in or part of the original olive tree.

The branches, however, are a different story. The olive tree is rightly regarded as the Israelites’ “own olive tree” (Rom. 11:24). But does the entire tree represent Israel? Yes, insofar as it represents the dependence of Israel on the Abrahamic blessing. “Certain,” or “some” (Gr. tines), of the olive branches, however, have been lopped off (Rom. 11:17). So sensitive is Paul to the unbelief of his people that he uses the word “some,” or a “certain”  number, of branches have been cut off, thereby suggesting a minority, even though he perceives that it is a majority for the present time (cf. Rom. 3:3).

But from what have these natural branches been cut? They have not been severed from their ethnic entities, for they are still Jews regardless of their lack of belief. Moreover, Paul uses the passive verb (Gr. exeklasthesan—Rom. 11:17, 19029) for the breaking off of the branches, indicating that it is the action of God himself. (If it is a middle voice, then the action is one that the branches have brought themselves.) The branches have left the promises that God to Abraham. It is not that these branches have been replaced, but branches from a wild olive have been grafted in—in and among those natural branches that still have their roots in the promise of Abraham. The salvation now enjoyed by the Gentiles is continuous with the root of Abraham. In this way, Gentiles share in what had originally been given to Israel, which “some,” or “certain,” of Israel now reject.

The Gentile believers are designated as a wild olive. It is not their “wildness” that is in view here, however, but that they are not “cultivated,” “cultured.” In and of themselves, the Gentiles will never produce olive oil. (Had Paul used a vine for his analogy, it wouldn’t have worked because the wild grapevine does produce wild grapes.) Therefore, if the Gentiles are going to produce anything, they must be grafted into the people of God who spring from the root of Abraham. The Gentiles do not “support the root, but the root supports [them]” (Rom. 11:18 NIV). Without this root, Gentile Christians cannot live—nor can the church exist, for it would float in midair with no anchorage in the past or present.

Has God grown weary of Israel? Is that why some of the natural branches were lopped off? Paul meets this misconception in Romans ,11:19. On the contrary, the Jews have chosen not to believe and thus were lopped off. The Gentiles have been grafted in not because of a superior virtue on their part; rather, it was solely because of their belief (Rom. 11:19-20). Jews who believe in Messiah do not need to be grafted into an alien root as do the Gentiles, who came from paganism (Rom. 11:23-24). Jews could be re-engrafted into the olive tree all the more easily than the Gentiles were grafted in.

The ultimate acceptance of the Jews into those “in Christ” would be like “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15 NIV). By this, Paul meant that more than merely untold spiritual blessings would result. The “acceptance” (Rom. 11:15—Gr. prolempsis) would be an act inaugurating the end of all things. The final act of history would rest upon the Jews. When these who were “in Abraham” would also be “in Christ,” untold benefits would result, signaling the coming of the eschaton itself.

The Mystery of Romans 11:25

The “mystery” in Romans 11:25 does not hark back to the olive tree analogy so much as it does to the earlier statements in Romans 11:11-14, with its reference to “provoking to emulation,” i.e., “arouse my own people to envy and save some of them” (Rom. 11:14 NIV). The mystery is not so much that “all Israel will be saved” as it is how all Israel will be saved.

So the mystery is not the fact of Israel’s having “stumbled” (Gr. proskoptein). Note that Paul distinguishes between Greek ptaiein, “to stumble,” and Greek piptein, “to fall.” Israel has stumbled but not fallen. The question is why Israel stumbled and how they will be saved. The mystery, then, is the process that God is employing to bring about Israel’s final redemption.

How, then, does the metaphor of “hardening” of Israel illustrate the mystery of how God is dealing with the nation that has rejected him? Paul has used the concepts of “stumbling,” over the “stone that causes men to stumble” (see Rom. 9:32-33 NIV), and the branches that have “been broken off”(Rom. 11:17)—as well as the concept of “hardening” (Rom. 11:7)—to indicated the status of “the others” from the “remnant” (Rom. 11:7, 5). Mark D. Nanos comments that the word hardening (Gr. porosis) is derived from a medical group of words that refers to the hardening swelling of a bone that has been broken. It was used frequently and so interchangeably with the Greek paposis, meaning “maiming,” or “blinding,” that there was often little or no distinction between the two terms. [Note #13: Nanos, The Mystery of Romans, 261]. This hardening is not final, but is a temporary division of Israel that will set up the final benefits that will come in the end times.

What, then is the “partial hardening,” or “hardening in part” (Gr. app merous—Rom. 11:25) that has come over Israel? Some interpreters argue that only a part of the people were hardened while others argue that all Israel is hardened partially. But Paul is only concerned here with that part of Israel that has stumbled, not with all of Israel stumbling partially. Further, not all Israel has been hardened, even partially. There have always been a remnant and holy branches in the nation of Israel. But it is the hardened part in contrast to the remnant, that is in Paul’s view, who will eventually see and believe along with the newly grafted-in Gentile believers.

When will this hardening that has come over a part of the Jewish people end? Not “until [Gr. achri, a conjunction followed by an untranslated relative pronoun hou, that gives a future, temporal sense] the fulness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25 NASB). Sometime during or after the “fulness of the Gentiles” (KJV) takes place, this hardening of part of Israel will end.

But what di Paul mean by “the fulness of the Gentiles”? The “fulness” (Gr. pleroma) usually takes on a numeric quality of that which brings to completion what had been planned or sought. The RSV translates the term “fulness” in Romans 11:12 as the “full inclusion,” or “full number.” Thus, God has in mind a full number of Israelites just as a full number of Gentiles. When the full number of the Gentiles is reached, it will be Israel’s opportunity to experience their full number. The gathering of Gentiles goes on throughout all history, but there will come a time when this process will be wrapped up. That time is similar to Luke 21:24, where “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled” (KJV). Upon that happening, Jesus’ comment was, “You know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31 NIV).

The benefits that God has bestowed on the Gentiles are but “the proleptic deposit of what God will bestow upon Israel at the culmination of salvation history.” [Note #14: Bruce W. Longenecker, Eschatology and the Covenant: A Comparison of 4 Ezra and Romans 1-11 (Sheffield, UK: Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 1991), 261]. That is the point of Paul’s jealousy motif: Israel will one day realize that some Gentiles are enjoying what was originally promised to all Israel and thereby be provoked to jealousy to start emulating the faith that the Gentiles are exercising. Accordingly, the Gentiles are presently awaiting their full adoption as sons (Rom. 8:23), an adoption that Israel originally enjoyed (Rom. 9:4). These two adoptions come together, as we have already seen in Romans 15:2, where it is said that Gentiles share in the blessings of the Jews.

All Israel Will Be Saved

All Israel” cannot refer to the church. Instead, the real goal of Paul’s ministry could now be announced: it was the restoration of “all Israel” as God had promised (Rom. 11:26).

The “And so” (KJV Gr. kai hoots) that introduces verse 26 is descriptive of a process that plays off the earlier “until the full number of the gentiles has come in.” As Nanos said, “This balance allows one to avoid  the bifurcation most interpreters find necessary to support their larger reading of Paul’s message here. Paul is telling his reader both how and when God is saving ‘all Israel.’” [Note #15: Nanos, The Mystery of Romans, 274].

Surely this will answer Anthony A. Hoekema’s objection that Romans 11:26 does not say, “And then [implying the Greek word tote or epeita] all Israel will be saved,” but it has (kai) hoots (“thus, so, in this manner”), a word manner, not temporal succession. “In other words, Paul is not saying, ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and then (after this has happened) all Israel will be saved.’ But he is saying, ‘Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.’” [Note #16: Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 144-45].

Hoekema’s objection was dealt with more than a decade before Hoekema’s time when Hendrikus Berkof also connected the “And so” with “until the full number of the gentiles has come in.” But a point that both Hoekema and Berkhof missed was that Romans 11:27 linked this “And so,” with “this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” That has to be a clear reference to the new covenant [Note #17: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “The Old Promise and the New Covenant,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (1972): 11-23.] that Jeremiah announced in 31:31-34 and that is seen in some sixteen other passages that refer to the “eternal covenant,” “my covenant,” or “the new heart and the new spirit.” The contents of that new covenant are not only a replication of the promises made to Abraham and David but an expansion of them into the future.

The late Reformed theologian John Murray commented, after noting that Romans 11:26-27 is a quotation from Isaiah 59:20-21 and Jeremiah 31:34, “There should be no question but Paul regards these passages as applicable to the restoration of Israel.” He went on to say, We cannot dissociate this covenantal assurance from the proposition in support of which the text is adduced or from that which follows in verse 28 [‘on account of the patriarchs’]. Thus the effect is that the future restoration of Israel is certified by nothing less than the certainty beginning to covenantal institution.” [Note #18: John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 2:99-100.].

It can be concluded then, that while the “And so” may not be as fully temporal in its reference as some may desire, it is sequential in though and consequential in that it ties the promises of the patriarchal-Davidic-new covenant with the coming of the full number of Israel. Once this interconnectedness is admitted, the three elements—Messiah, the gospel, and the land—come back into play once again.

Hoekema also did not like limiting the “full inclusion” to the end times. But this too came from a refusal to see the past and present remnant of Israel as the foundation and guarantee that God would complete his eschatological and climactic act. Had not the prophets of Israel depicted a remnant returning to the land (e.g., Isa. 10:20-23) and becoming prominent among the nations in the latter day (Isa. 2:2; Mic. 4:1)? Paul’s phrase of “life from the dead” in Romans 11:15 takes on new force in light of Ezekiel’s figure in 37:12, 14. There, Ezekiel intoned, “O my people. I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel…I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land” (NIV).

But how many of Israel will be saved—“all”? It cannot mean “true” or “spiritual” Israel, as some have alleged, as if the church had supplanted Israel. That was the very point Paul was arguing against.

The notion of the substitution of the church for Israel was a historical development that Richardson says first began with Justin Martyr around A.D. 160. [Note #19: Peter Richardson, Israel in the Apostolic Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 205-6.]. But this conclusion is not based on what Paul is claiming in this passage; it owes more to many having concluded that Israel has been rejected. Surprisingly, however, Paul claims the reverse: Israel has not been rejected. Indeed, the church is built on the shoulders of the ancient promises to Israel and the future restoration of all Israel.

So how many did “all Israel” involve? “All Israel,” argued Dunn, was a common idiom for corporate or collective Israel as a whole. It referred to Israel as a people, even if not every person was necessarily meant. [Note #20: James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1988), 38B:681. See, for example, 1 Samuel 25:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1; Daniel 9:11, etc.]. The apostle has maintained a distinction between the “remnant” and “the others” in Israel. His goal was to “save some of them” (i.e., “the others,” Rom. 11:14 NIV) who were among the hardened. In this way, he sees all Israel being saved.

How will the coming “deliverer,” who comes out of Zion, accomplish this task of restoring Israel and regathering the dispersed of Israel? Contrary to Mark Nanos, the Dekliverer is a christological figure. He alone is able to “turn godlessness away from Jacob” (Rom. 11:26 NIV). If it is asked, “When shall Deliverer do this?” the answer is “When [he] take [s] away their sins” (Rom. 11:27 NIV), as was promised in the covenant promises.

Thus the pendulum of history swung from Israel to the Gentiles, but it will swing back to Israel again. And that is but another way of stating the mystery of this passage. From the standpoint of Messiah, many of the Jewish people are enemies of the gospel, but from the standpoint of God, they are beloved for the sake of the patriarchs (Rom. 11:28).

Conclusion

It is possible that the Gentile Christian church has lost its rootage and connectedness with its past and the single plan of redemption that stretched from eternity to eternity. When many in the church denied a physical Israel as being a part of God’s plan, it lost its missionary and evangelistic strategy for Jews, for it floated in the air without any antecedent history of, or connectivity to, the plan of God delivered in and through Israel.

The key objection to replacement or parenthetical theologies was made by Willis J. Beecher in his 1904 Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. He warned,

“If the Christian interpreter persists in excluding the ethical Israel from his conception of the fulfillment, or in regarding Israel’s part in the matter as merely preparatory and not eternal, then he [sic] comes into conflict with the plain witness of both testaments…Rightly interpreted, the biblical statements include in their fulfillment both Israel the race, with whom the covenant is eternal, and also the personal Christ and his mission, with the whole spiritual Israel of the redeemed in all ages.” [Note #21: Willis J. Beecher, The Prophets and the Promise (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), 383. See also Walter C. Kaiser Jr. “The Land of Israel and the Future Return (Zechariah 10:6-12),” in Israel: The Land and the People, ed. H. Wayne House (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 168-85.].

Jewish evangelism in the new millennium will need to take a full accounting of this marvelous book of Romans. God’s plan of salvation cannot be announced without taking the promise of God given to Israel and her history into its purview. The two-step program of Paul appears to be more than a matter of personal strategy: it is a program to go to the Jew first and also to the Gentiles, and has a divine rationale behind it. It would be wise for the church to once again take another look at how she is carrying out the work of the kingdom and how she is regarding the nation of Israel. Otherwise we will have small victories here and there, but we will miss the full favor of our Lord, who calls us to a much higher biblical standard of performance for the sake of his excellent name and his Jewish people.

Adapted from Chapter Two in To The Jew First: The Case For Jewish Evangelism In Sacrifice and History. Grand Rapids, MI.: Kregel, 2008.

CHART OF TITLES FOR JESUS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

TITLE REFERENCE SIGNIFICANCE
Alpha and Omega Revelation 21:6 The Beginning and Ending of all things
Bread of Life John 6:35 The one essential food
Chief Cornerstone Ephesians 2:20 A sure Foundation of life
Chief Shepherd 1 Peter 5:4 Gives guidance and protection
Christ Matthew 16:16 The Anointed One of God seen in the OT prophets
Firstborn from the Dead Colossians 1:18 Leads us into resurrection
Good Shepherd John 10:11 Gives guidance and protection
High Priest Hebrews 3:1 The Perfect Mediator
Holy One of God Mark 1:24 Perfect and Sinless
Immanuel Matthew 1:23 God with us
Jesus Matthew 1:21 His personal name meaning Yahweh saves
King of Kings, Lord of Lords Revelation 19:16 The Sovereign Almighty
Lamb of God John 1:29 Offered His life as a sacrifice for sins
Light of the World John 9:5 One who brings hope and gives guidance
Lord Romans 10:9 Sovereign Creator and Redeemer
Lord of Glory 1 Corinthians 2:8 The power of the living God
Mediator 1 Timothy 2:5 Redeemer who brings forgiven sinners into the presence of God
Prophet Luke 13:33 One who speaks for God
Rabbi/Teacher John 3:2 A title of respect for one who taught the Scriptures
Savior John 4:42 One who delivers from sin
Son of David Matthew 9:27 One who brings in the Kingdom
Son of God John 20:31 A title of Deity signifying Jesus’ unique and special intimacy with the Father
Son of Man Matthew 20:28 A divine title of suffering and exaltation
Word John 1:1 Eternal God who ultimately reveals God

COVENANT, DISPENSATIONAL, & REVELATORY THEOLOGICAL SYSTEMS COMPARED

A CHART COMPARING DISPENSATIONAL & COVENANTAL SYSTEMS

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Pattern of History:

Covenant Theology: Covenant of Works with Adam; Covenant of Grace with Christ on behalf of the elect (some distinguish between the covenant of Redemption with Christ and the covenant of grace with the elect).

Classical Dispensationalism: Divided into dispensations (usually seven); e.g., (1) Innocence (pre-fall), (2) Conscience (Adam), (3) Human Government (Noah), (4) Promise (Abraham), (5) Law (Moses), (6) Grace (Christ’s First Coming), (7) Kingdom (Christ’s Second Coming).

Progressive Dispensationalism: Divided into dispensations, of which four are prominent: (1) Patriarchal (Promise); (2) Mosaic (Law); (3) Ecclesial (Church); (4) Zionic (Millennium, the New Heavens and New Earth).

Revelatory View: Revelation and election initiatives succeeded by human failure to respond appropriately. Periods of transition then lead to further initiatives.

God’s Purpose in History:

Covenant Theology: There is a unified redemptive purpose.

Classical Dispensationalism: There are two distinct purposes, one earthly (Israel), one heavenly (church).

Progressive Dispensationalism: To manifest His glory in a progressive redemption that covers every sphere of creation and every structure of human relationship.

Revelatory View: The objective of self-revelation is pursued culminating in the revelation of a plan of salvation, whereby the goal of relationship may be achieved. It is a unified purpose, but not soteric throughout.

View of Biblical Covenants:

Covenant Theology: They are different administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Temporal promises are conditional and applicable to the church.

Classical Dispensationalism: They mark of periods of time during which God’s specific demands of people differ. Temporal promises are unconditional and are applicable to ethnic Israel.

Progressive Dispensationalism: The biblical covenants of promise (Abrahamic, Davidic, and New) are made originally to His people, Israel. Believing gentiles are included through Christ, who is the means of blessing for all who believe. All covenants have an “already-not-yet” structure.

Revelatory View: There are revelatory initiatives facilitated through various types of election. Temporal promises are conditional but remain applicable to ethnic Israel. The covenant is characteristically redemptive; ultimately soteric; but essentially revelatory.

Relationship of the OT Law to the NT:

Covenant Theology: Acceptance of OT teaching required unless specifically abrogated  by the NT.

Classical Dispensationalism: OT prescriptions are not binding unless they are reaffirmed in the NT.

Progressive Dispensationalism: Individual aspects of the Law are assessed canonically on a case-by-case basis. Christ completes and fulfills the law.

Revelatory View: OT legal passages function within the covenant serving a revelatory purpose that continues to be relevant. The law of Christ has been superimposed on the law of Moses.

Relationship Between Israel and the Church:

Covenant Theology: The church is spiritual Israel, in continuity with true Israel of the OT.

Classical Dispensationalism: The church is the spiritual people of God, distinct from Israel, the physical people of God.

Progressive Dispensationalism: Church = the unified community that receives God’s spiritual blessings in Christ. Israel = the national and political community in the midst of nations that ultimately will be blessed fully by God. Ultimately united in redemption.

Revelatory View: The Church is the people of God defined soteriologically. Israel, previously the revelatory people of God, now may cross over and become a subset of the soteriological people of God (now that their revelatory function is complete) if they respond by faith to the plan of salvation.

Old Testament Prophecy:

Covenant Theology: Refers to God’s people, the church.

Classical Dispensationalism: Refers to ethnic Israel.

Progressive Dispensationalism: Fulness of blessing to be given to believing Israel (and those in the nations who believe) in the final dispensation.

Revelatory View: Refers to ethnic Israel but conditional upon their faithful response.

Church Age:

Covenant Theology: God’s redemptive purpose continued to unfold.

Classical Dispensationalism: There is a parenthesis between past and future manifestations of the kingdom.

Progressive Dispensationalism: From Pentecost to the rapture, a phase in the progressive outworking of God’s wholistic redemption. It is not a parenthesis in the kingdom program.

Revelatory View: The period begun when the people of God are defined soteriologically as a result of God’s plan of salvation being reveled.

*Chart adapted from John H. Walton. Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. John H. Walton has proposed the “Revelatory View.”

Tim Keller Sermon: The Power of The Gospel

SERIES – Bible: The Whole Story—Redemption and Restoration – Part 6

Tim Keller preaching image

Prached on February 8, 2009 in Manhattan, N.Y.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.

Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. 16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” – Romans 1:1-7, 14-17

Every week we start by saying we are tracing out the storyline of the Bible, because the Bible is not so much a series of disconnected, individual stories, each with a little lesson or moral telling us how to live. It’s primarily a single story telling us what’s wrong with the human race, what God has done to make things right, and how it’s all going to work out in the end.

We’re drilling down into three places in the Bible. We’ve drilled down into Genesis 1 to 4, where we learned something about what the Bible says about what’s wrong with us. Now we’re going to drill down into Romans 1 through 4, perhaps the single most comprehensive and packed place where, through a letter of Saint Paul, we learn what God did about it.

All scholars and students of Romans believe verses 16 and 17 are Paul’s way of putting the gospel in a nutshell, his message in a kind of thesis statement. Therefore, it’s an extremely important statement. I want to meditate on it with you to help you break through. That’s kind of an odd statement (break through). Let me tell you why I use the phrase.

Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, actually, later in his life told a story. In the preface to one of his collections of writings, he wrote a little reminisce of a great experience he had (it’s also called the “Tower Experience”) as a young man. Many people would call it his conversion experience. It all had to do with Romans and Romans 1:16 and 17.

He wrote, “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.

Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. […] Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that, ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that … through gift and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” “When I saw that Law meant one thing and Gospel another, I broke through.”

That’s interesting. He had this breakthrough. What he means is he was completely transformed … his thinking, his heart, his life, everything … by these verses because he pondered and pondered until he broke through. I would like to help everybody here break through. That is to say if you haven’t, if these two verses have never done to you what they did to Luther, I’m going to try to show you three factors you have to grasp if you’re going to break through.

If it has, if the ideas here of these verses have transformed you, I’d like to give you by telling you the same three things (of course, since you’re all in the same room together) how you could help other people who are open have a breakthrough. There are three factors that have to do with breakthrough.

You have to grasp, according to, I think, this text, the form of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the power of the gospel. The form, the content, and the power. I’ll give you tests along the way. I’m being very focused. How do we break through? You have to understand …

1. The form of the gospel

You can see, especially if you read all the way through Romans 1:1–17, the word gospel shows up more here than any other place in the book. In fact, I think it may be the word gospel shows up more in these verses per phrase than any other place in the Bible. We have to ask ourselves, “What is so important? Why this word?”

The word gospel, as most of you know, is a Greek word we transliterate euaggelion. That is, eu, the good, and aggelos, an angel. We look at the word angel in English, of course. Right away we think of wings and things like that, which is wrong, because the word aggelos means a herald. What actually is at the very heart of the word gospel is the news media. Did you know that? News media? Okay.

How did news about great historic events get distributed back in those days? What was the news media? No print paper. No audio, video, radio, television. Well, then how was news …? What was the media for the news? The answer is it was heralds. That is, everybody is back in the town because they know there’s a great military battle that’s being fought miles away, so they’re behind the barricades. They don’t know what’s going to happen.

What happens when the general achieves a great military victory? How do we spread the news? He would send heralds. The aggelos. An aggelia, which is a message or a herald. The news. The herald would come in to the town and declare the news, “Victory!” Then he would run to the next town square and proclaim “Victory!” Then everyone would go back home with joy.

If that’s at the very, very heart of the word gospel, if that’s what the message is, the essence of the Christian message is news … good, joyful news … then this is the difference between the gospel and every other philosophy or religion. The gospel is not good advice about what you must do. It’s primarily good news about what’s already been done for you, something that’s already happened.

See, other religions say, “If you really want to meet God, do this, this, and this.” It’s good advice. Only Christianity is not good advice but primarily good news about something that’s already been done for you. This is test one. We’ve talked about this actually not too many weeks ago, so I won’t belabor it, but it’s crucial. One of the breakthroughs is to realize how utterly different Christianity is because it’s good news, not good advice.

If I ask somebody here in New York, “What do you think the essence of Christianity is? What does it mean to be a Christian?” the average person on the street would say, “Well, I think it means to try to live like Jesus and try to love your neighbor, try to live by the Golden Rule.” I want you all to know I think that is an incredibly great idea. Let’s all do that. I’m all for it, but that’s not news. That’s not the heart of Christianity. It can’t be, because it’s not news.

Is that news? Is that news about what has been done for you … outside of you, for you … that inflicts in you such joy that you finally can live according to the Golden Rule? See, that’s Christianity. Something has happened outside you, something momentous. It’s happened outside you for you, and that’s what inflicts into you life-changing joy. Now I can live according to the Golden Rule.

To say being a Christian is the Golden Rule, that’s not news. Therefore, there’s no breakthrough. See, breakthrough, transformation, comes like this. If you say to somebody, “Here’s the essence of the Christian message. You need to live like Jesus and love your neighbor according to the Golden Rule,” there are only three responses to that. One is you say, “Sure, I knew that.” Shrug. Indifference.

The second, like Luther, is, “Oh, that’s very hard. I can’t do that.” Crushed. Discouraged. The third is the Pharisees say, “I do that all the time.” So either shrugged or bugged or smug. No breakthrough. No breakthrough! No, “Oh my word! I never thought of that.” See, that’s what happened. When Luther broke through, he said, “This is a paradigm shift.” Sorry, it’s cliché, but it’s far more than that but it’s not less.

Here’s my question. Here’s the first test. I don’t know what you believe, but whatever you believe about God or how you ought to live, is it mainly about you, or is it mainly about what he has done? Is it mainly about you and what you must do, or mainly about him and what he has done? Which is it? See the breakthrough? The gospel is news, not advice.

2. The content of the gospel

The content of the gospel is that very spot where Luther meditated and meditated, where he says, “For in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed. A righteousness that comes by (dia, through) faith. Just as it is written, the one who is righteous through faith, that’s the person who lives.” He was thinking and thinking about this until suddenly he realized, “The righteousness of God is a righteousness that comes to me, and I receive by faith.” That opened everything up.

If we want to understand this term, which isn’t a very ordinary term … It’s a technical term in a way. It’s a term Paul uses, though, so we need to try to figure it out. It changed Luther’s life. It changed mine. We’re justified by faith. Let me use two illustrations to show you. The second one is considerably more poignant than the first.

The first one, though, think about this. Whenever we talk about being justified, we’re talking about not a change in the object but a change in the relationship to the object. Not a change inside the object, but relationship to the object. For example, if you’re speaking to me, and you say something, and I say, “Hmm. Justify that statement,” what do I mean?

I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” What I’m actually saying is, “It’s hard for me to accept that. Do something. Say something to change my relationship to the statement, to change my regard for it so I can accept it.” I’m not saying, “Change the statement.” “Help me get into a new relationship with it because I’m about to reject it.” “Justify that statement” means, “Change my regard for it. Do something.”

That is actually what the word means, especially at certain points here but also in Romans 5 where Paul says in verse 2, “Since we’re justified by faith, we have access to this grace in which we stand.” The word stand there means to stand in the presence of a great God or a great king or judge. This is what Paul is saying. Jesus has done something so God, looking at us, in spite of everything wrong with us … Jesus has done something to change God’s regard for us, his relationship to us.

Something has been done. See, that’s the news. Something has been done so now the Father looks at us and loves us and delights in us and accepts us. Our relationship has been changed. It’s not so much something happened inside, because then that would all be about us. That wouldn’t be gospel. It would all be, “Well, you have to do something.” It’s about something that’s happened outside of us that has changed God’s relationship to us. What is that?

To me, the second factor in what brings a breakthrough over the gospel is when you realize the gospel is about more than just forgiveness. Follow me, please. It’s about more than just forgiveness. Please don’t think I’m saying there’s anything wrong with forgiveness, but most people think that’s what this is. That’s what salvation is. That’s what Jesus did.

The idea is because Jesus died on the cross, when I do something wrong, I can ask God for forgiveness, and I’m forgiven. Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, of course it’s wonderful. It’s more than wonderful, but I want to show you here for a second it would not be enough. It’s way less than what’s being promised here. Yeah!

Because, see, if it’s true that that’s really salvation, that because Jesus died on the cross, now when I ask for forgiveness, I’m forgiven … God forgives me, wipes the slate clean. Do you realize what that means? It means that even though he has forgiven me for what I just did wrong, my relationship with him is still up to me because actually, in a sense, God says, “Hey, I just forgave you for what you did. I’m not going to hold that against you, but now you’d better get it right.” If that’s all forgiveness is, it’s not enough.

You know, for example, here’s a man, let’s just say, and he is in prison. What is going to get him a new life? Well, you could say the first thing that’s going to get him a new life is pardon. The governor writes a pardon, and he is out. Wow! He has a new life. No. He is just back to where all the rest of us slobs are. He is not in prison. Now he has to get a job. Now he has to work. It’s a long haul. He doesn’t have a new life yet.

You say, “Well, what more do you want?” I’ll tell you what’s more. The salvation of the gospel is not so much like simply getting a pardon to get out of prison. It’s besides getting a pardon, forgiveness. It’s also like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor on top of it. It’s a negative and a positive.

There’s a TV series called NCIS. It’s about Naval Criminal Investigative Services. It’s a cop show amongst military and criminal investigators. There’s a really great episode that was done about four years ago. The main character was played by Charles Durning, the great actor. The episode is about a poor broken-down old man, a former Marine, played by Charles Durning. He is in his eighties. He is broken down. He is kind of dowdy, and he is accused of murder. He is accused of murder!

At one point, two big, beefy Marines and a snarling Navy lawyer come after this poor little old man. They’re about to arrest him. They’re overshadowing him. Here he is standing in their presence accused. As they stand and they’re about to cuff him, actually, a friend of the old man pulls his tie aside. Under it is the Congressional Medal of Honor, because on Iwo Jima, he had done acts of extraordinary valor and bravery beyond the call of duty and had been given a Congressional Medal of Honor.

When he pulled that aside, the Marines and the snarling lawyer immediately saw what it was. Instead of looking at the poor little old man, the accused, condemned man, they saw that medal of honor, and they immediately snapped to attention and saluted. They were in awe. Just like that. It’s very, very good drama, and it’s very, very kind of moving to see. It is just an image, however faint, of what Paul is talking about here.

You know, one of the verses I always quote to you but I never explain is 2 Corinthians 5:21. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What does that mean? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Well, think.

On the cross, what does it mean to say Jesus was made sin? God made him sin. Does that mean God made him sinful, God put sin in his heart so he became greedy and angry and violent? No! He was up there forgiving his enemies. I mean, no! He was up there loving his Father, even when his Father was turning on him. Absolutely it didn’t mean he became sinful. It means he was treated as our sins deserve. He was given the treatment our record deserves.

So what does it mean to say that when you give your life to Christ, our sins are put on him? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In him! What does that mean? It can’t mean that automatically the minute you become a Christian, you become righteous in your heart any more than he became sinful on the cross. No, no, no, no.

What it must mean is we are covered with his medals. We are covered with his glory. We’re covered with all the awards and the medals of his valor and his cosmic bravery because he took on evil and he went down to death. All that he deserved is now on us. Here’s where the illustration doesn’t quite work because that old man basically was suddenly given all this … Even though he was condemned, they suddenly saw his medal, which he had won in a former life. In our case, the medals on us were won by Jesus in a former life.

Now the whole universe salutes us. Now God himself delights in us. We have become the righteousness of God in him. Now do you see the test? Do you see where the breakthrough comes? The first breakthrough is when you see it’s not advice but news. The second breakthrough is when you see it’s not just forgiveness, but it’s being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It’s a righteousness from God given to me by a gift.

No wonder Luther said, “Oh my word! That’s incredible.” It is incredible. When you ask somebody (I do all the time), “Hey, are you a Christian?” and the person says, “Well, I’m trying,” that shows they have no idea about what Christianity is about because Christianity is a standing. We have access to this grace in which we stand. See? It means you have no idea about what it means to be a Christian. You’re still stuck back in the idea it’s good advice.

Some people say, “Well, I hate to call myself a Christian, because I don’t feel worthy of the name.” Of course you don’t feel good enough, but you’re in him if you understand the gospel. He is always good enough. He is utterly good enough. Covered with his medals. Covered with his trophies. Covered with his badges and banners and ribbons in glory.

You know, some people will say, “That’s interesting. I guess the Luther types, religious people … Gosh. He was a monk. How much more religious can you get than that? I guess there are people who are always filled with guilt and shame. They’re religious, and they need this. They need this idea.” No, it’s not just them. Oh no!

I have talked to an awful lot of people recently who have lost an awful lot of money. Do you know what? One of the things you can see (in fact, sometimes they tell me) is it was a lot more than money. They didn’t know. They didn’t know! There’s a disorientation at the center of their being. They’re not sure who they are. There’s a complete loss of identity. There’s a complete loss of confidence. Do you know why? Because that money was their righteousness.

See, irreligious people don’t use the word righteousness. As we said a couple of week ago when we were talking about Cain and Abel, no human being can assure themselves … We cannot assure ourselves of our value and worth. We have to get somebody outside approving us, acclaiming us, declaring us worthy, declaring us a people of value.

Some people do it through, “I want to look beautiful.” Some people say, “I want to make money.” Some people say, “I want to achieve.” Whatever. The fact is, everybody is desperately struggling for righteousness. Here’s the weird thing. Everybody’s righteousness, if it’s not God’s, is going to be blown away. Recession is one way, but it’s going to happen. Old age is another way. Everybody’s righteousness is going to blow away unless this is upon you.

The second breakthrough then that you see is not just forgiveness, wiping the slate clean, but getting the cosmic Medal of Honor. You know, being accepted in the beloved, having the righteousness of God put upon us in Jesus. Being legally righteous even when we’re actually unrighteous. We’ll see more about that. Thirdly, the last thing you have to do if you’re really going to understand and break through is you have to have a sense of …

3. The power of the gospel

Not just the form, not just the content, but the power. Paul says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation …” I guess in my case, of all these … You know, even though it’s brief (verses 16 and 17 are brief), this is my favorite part of this nutshell.

Because, see, it’s not saying that the gospel brings the power of God or it results in the power of God or it’s a means to the power of God, does it? Well, no, it doesn’t. What does it say? It says the gospel is the power of God in verbal form. Therefore, when I believe it, when I hear it, when I understand it, when I grasp its propositions, its meanings, its words, to the degree that I actually get this gospel into my life, the power of God is coursing through me.

It is the power of God! Therefore, the way you know you’re beginning to understand the gospel and breaking through is instead of it just being a set of ideas, you begin to sense it being a power. How is that so? Well, here are a couple of ways. First of all, one of the ways you know you’re breaking through (or perhaps breaking through or have a chance of breaking through) is you feel its offensiveness.

Notice connected to this idea of the power of God, he says, “I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed of the gospel.” When you say something like that, “I am not ashamed of her. I am not ashamed of him. I am not ashamed of that,” that means there are whole lot of other people who are, or you wouldn’t have said that. Okay? There are a whole lot of other people who are offended or they think it’s crazy.

I want you to know everybody who hasn’t broken through or isn’t on the verge of breaking through thinks the gospel is crazy. Everybody! I’ve had two churches: one in a very blue collar, traditional, conservative place (a small southern town) and the opposite place. Here’s what’s so interesting. Everybody is offended by the gospel.

In Hopewell, Virginia, where I was pastor, everybody was hard working. They’re all religious. Even the atheists are Baptists. Everybody! I mean, even the atheists, the God they don’t believe in is the Baptist God. Everybody is religious. Everybody is very traditional. Everybody is hard working. Everybody is conservative. They’re offended by the gospel because they think it’s too easy.

I’ll never forget one of the first people I shared the gospel with was a woman. Right across the parking lot behind our church was a very broken down area. You know, rental property. Bad rental property, by the way. Trailers and things like that. There was a woman there. She was a very unhappy woman. Her name was Joy. In a southern town in the late 70s, she was divorced. She had two children. One was, I think, with no husband. One was with her former husband.

She was living essentially in poverty. She was a mess. She was disgraced. She was ashamed. We went in there. Three of us sat down, and we shared what I just shared with you, almost exactly the same thing. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “You mean, in spite of everything, he can accept me?”

I remember one of the things we talked about was I said, “Well, you know, if you really understand the gospel, that means the minute you believe in Christ and ask God to accept you because of what he has done, the minute your sins are put on him and his righteousness is put on you, God loves you and delights in you as much this very second as he will a billion years from now when you’re perfect and glorious and someone can’t even look at you without sunglasses. You see?” I said, “He won’t love you any more then than now, any less now than then.”

She couldn’t believe it. She cried. She thought it was the greatest thing. She embraced it. She believed it. A week later, we came back. You know, followup. We sat down. She was really upset because she had called her sister. Her sister was a very hard-working woman. She had a husband, three or four children. They were upstanding citizens. They went to church. They were good people.

When Joy called her older sister up and told her she was born again, she was saved, God loved her and all that, the sister said, “What are you talking about? It can’t be that easy. You have to work for this sort of thing. You have to work very hard, years of self-discipline, years of moral effort. I don’t know what kind of God that pastor is talking to you about, but I have no respect for him that he would just take somebody like you like that. It’s too easy.”

You see, it sounds really very dignified to say, “I can’t believe in a God. I have higher standards than that,” except do you know what? That sister had built her identity on being the good daughter, and Joy was the bad daughter. It was incredibly self-justifying to say, “It can’t be that easy.” You know, the gospel was in danger of destroying that wonderful dysfunctional family system in which Joy was the sick one. See?

So we had to go right back with the gospel. It did. I think it did. You see, in a traditional conservative culture, it’s too easy. Now we come up here where everybody is liberal and sophisticated and secular. Up here, it’s offensive not because it’s too easy but because it’s too simplistic. Here’s why. Because, you see, everything here is ambiguous and difficult. Nobody is sure.

See, we like philosophy here. We like ethics. We like discussions. Here are the pros and the cons. We get together, and we have discussions and forums. Everybody is a little bit right, and everybody is a little bit wrong. Nobody is really sure. Then we can go home and live anyway we want. It’s a great, great system, because who is to say. The clarity of the gospel, the absolute clarity of it, you know? They even like religion better because in it, you’re always trying, and you’re trying. You’re never quite sure whether you’ve done it. The clarity of it.

Here’s this first-century carpenter. He dies. Everything changes if you believe in that. You believe in that, and then you’re in. You don’t believe in that, and you’re out. Oh my gosh! The clarity of it! The simplicity of it! Don’t you see? Liberal or conservative, blue collar or white collar, north, south, east, west. The gospel is absolutely unique. It’s absolutely on its own. Everybody hates it. It makes absolutely no sense to anyone. It contradicts every system of thought in the world. It contradicts the heart of every culture in the world, every worldview.

It’s completely on its own. It offends everyone. See, whoever you are, you have to come from somewhere. You have to come from north or south or east or west or conservative or liberal. Something! You’re human beings. Therefore, unless you’ve felt the offense of the gospel, you don’t know yet what it even claims. Unless you’ve wrestled with it, struggled with it, you don’t even know what’s in it. You couldn’t know what’s in it.

When you begin to feel it and you begin to wrestle and struggle, then you at least have the possibility of breaking through. By the way, the gospel is not an academic thing. It’s not a set of bullet points we’re trying to get you to memorize. It’s from a person to a person. Therefore, it feels personal. When you’re really beginning to hear the gospel truly and understand the gospel, you start to sense there’s a power dealing with you, disturbing you, upsetting you. Maybe during this sermon, I hope. Maybe when you think about it or talk to a friend about it.

Do you find the gospel upsetting you, kind of dealing with you? Are you wrestling with it? Is it bothering you? I would rather somebody came to Redeemer for a couple of weeks and was so revolted that they had to leave. At least they were feeling the power rather than just saying, “Well, that’s interesting, but I don’t have much time for that.” Then you’re absolutely, absolutely in no position to ever have a breakthrough.

You have to feel the power of it. You have to feel the offensiveness of it. Here’s the other way in which is the power. Some people would say, “Well, all that matters, I suppose, is that you … Now that you’ve received the righteousness of Christ, that’s all that matters. Now you’re fine. It doesn’t matter how you live.” No, no, no, no, no. You know, what’s so amazing about Paul is he is able to get sound gospel theology everywhere.

Look at verse 7. “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints …” At the beginning of the memo: “To, From, Re:” He already has the gospel in there. Do you know why? He says, “What is a Christian?” “To all … who are loved by God and called to be saints …” Look at that. What is a Christian? Not primarily someone who is living in a certain way. The first is you’re loved by God. Your relationship has been changed. Something has been done to justify you.

You’re loved, but if you’re loved and if you know you’re loved, then you’re called. That means you’re invited. That means you’re attracted to be saints, which means to be holy. You never, ever, ever have the righteousness of God put upon you without, at the same time, finding it’s beginning to develop in you. You never, ever, ever, ever are loved by God in spite of your bad character without that starting to change your character.

You’re never justified except that you automatically begin to get sanctified. The righteousness of God will never be put upon you without it developed within you. If it’s not developed within you, then you haven’t really received it upon you. That’s the reason why Paul could look at Peter in Galatians 2, where Peter’s old racist sensibilities have begun to come back. He is not eating with Gentile Christians. He won’t even eat with them.

What does Paul say? Paul doesn’t say, “Peter, you broke the ‘no racism’ rule.” (Even though there is a ‘no racism’ rule; Christians shouldn’t be racist.) What he says is, “Peter, you say you’re justified by faith, not by works. You say you’re a sinner saved by grace. How can you be superior to any other race? You say you have the righteousness of Christ on you, but you’re not living in righteousness. Therefore, it’s not upon you if it’s not beginning to develop within you.”

If you are loved, then you are called, you’re attracted, into holiness. You want it. You long for it because, “I want to look like the One who did this for me. I want to please the One who did this for me.” If you don’t want to please, if you don’t want to look like the one who did this for you, then it’s still not personal. You really still don’t know what’s happened.

One of the great things I love about … There’s a passage in Matthew 11 where John the Baptist, in prison, about to be beheaded, sends some messengers to Jesus. The messengers say, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John the Baptist is doubting. I can understand why. You know, he declared Jesus the Messiah. He said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” but everything is going wrong. He is in prison.

“Wait a minute. You’re the Messiah, and I’m with you. I’m about to get my head chopped off. Are you really the one who is to come, or should we be looking for somebody else?” He is doubting. Jesus so nicely says, “Go back and tell John the Baptist, ‘The blind see … the poor have good news preached to them.’ ” He gives him some arguments why he is the Messiah. Then he says, “Say this to John: ‘And blessed is he who does not take offense at me.’ ”

What I loved about that is instead of Jesus saying, “How dare you question me! I’m the Messiah,” he says, “Let me give you some answers. I want you to know I am not offended by people who are struggling with my offensiveness. Good luck. Hope you get through it. It’s not very easy. I hope you get the blessedness of people who finally get through that offensiveness and break through.”

What a man. He is not offended that we struggle with his offensiveness. He is not at all upset about the fact that it’s hard. He says, “Here are some answers to questions. If you have any more, please come back.” What a Savior. What a man. Go to him. Let us pray.

Our Father, we thank you for the gospel. We thank you that we’re able to look these few weeks together at what Saint Paul has said that has changed so many lives. It’s changed mine. It’s changed so many here. We ask you would help us to break through. We ask you would help us to grasp the form, the content, and the power of the gospel in such a way that we do so that we, knowing we’re loved by you, sense your calling into a whole new life. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

ABOUT THE PREACHER

In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting.  Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.

Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:

Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).

Romans 1-7 For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (2014).

Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).

Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).

Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).

Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.

Center ChurchDoing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.

The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.

Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.

The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.

King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.

Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.

The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.

Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.

Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.

The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.

Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.

 

The Power of the Gospel Over Idolatry in the 21st Century

Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”

A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison

One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences?  Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.

One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question.  Why is idolatry so important in the Bible?  Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?

The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question.  How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior?  In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?

These questions-and their answers-eventually intertwined.  That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counseling of troubled people.

THE RELATIONSHIP OF INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATION TO SOCIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING

The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry.  But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament which long troubled me.  The last line of 1 John woos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).  In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word?  Is it perhaps a scribal emendation?  Is it an awkwardfaux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language?  Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked onto the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles?  Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.

Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart.  Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?  It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings.  In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question.  Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute?  The undesirable answers to this question—answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,” the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.2

The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self-centeredness, the wants, hopes, fears, expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts.  The externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies.  The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior-determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10,5:19), standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world.  In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12).  The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.

An Internal Problem

The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods.  But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here.  First, the Bible internalizes the problem.  “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8.  The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members.  The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry.  The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.

If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings.  The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia).  The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.”  It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7.  Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires.  Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5

A Social Problem

Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and molds us.  The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behavior with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart.  Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society…and, ultimately, his own heart?7

That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions.  Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behavior and mutual influence under the microscope.  The “lack” is only in specific application.  The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system—or any other size or kind of social grouping—work and influence one another for good or ill.  For example, the life patterns often labeled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.”  In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other.  They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.

The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well.  There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods.  In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.

The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth.  Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live.  Their idols sometimes are modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting…hell on earth.

Spiritual Counterfeits

Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth.  Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only…then….”  For example, the wife’s “enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the savior.  This idol promises and warns her, “If only you can give the right thing and can make it all better, then your husband will change.  But if you don’t cover for him, then disaster will occur.”  Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accursedness.  Idols lie, enslave, and murder.  They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning.  They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is powerfully extended by the Bible.  Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning.  The idols of the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways.  They manifest and express themselves everywhere, down to the minute details of both inner and outer life.  Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life.  The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries.  These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.

In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.”  The problem in human motivation—the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry.  Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.

This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset.  This second question is a counseling question.  How on earth do we put together the following three things?  First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins.  Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.

Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems.  People suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do.  These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like.  These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization.  My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems.  If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.

Third, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware.  We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us.  My behavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me.  “You might hurt me…so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.”  My behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs.”  Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.

How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?!  That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God).  It is also the question that any Christian counselor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind.  The Bible’s view of man—both individual and social life—alone holds these things together.

A Three-Way Tension

Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features.  All psychologies grapple with these issues.  But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heart which is both self-deceived and life-determining.

Here are some examples.  Moralism—the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street—sticks with responsible behavior.  Complex causalities are muted in toto.  Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens.  Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted.  Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination.  Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted.  Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies.  But the present milieu and responsible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.

Unity ‘with Respect to God’

The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words!—speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision.  There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count.  There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind.  “Idols of the heart,” “desires of the flesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing after…,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals.  There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us.  The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us.  Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death.  They sin against us.  God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations.  I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.”  I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneously true?

The answer, which all the psychologies and sociologies miss, is actually quite simple.  Human motivation is always “with respect to God.”  The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” because they themselves are idolatrously motivated.  In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.

Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society.  Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic.  It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these.  These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon which is essentially religious or covenantal.  Motivation is always God-relational.  Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue.  It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry.  The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly.  Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.

The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?”  The final question is,“Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?”  In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another.  People do not have needs.  We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan.  The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god?  Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.

Hunger as Idolatry

When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior.  I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears.  The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.”  Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on.  But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically.  I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”

We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously.  I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes.  Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving.  The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.

The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological.  Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes.  Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety.  Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety.  Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice.  Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed.  Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements.  The variations and permutations are endless.

Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another.13 Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms.  A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food.  For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs.  Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death.  Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status.  Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms.  Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger.  Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost.  I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry.  For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!

Security as Idolatry

Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower” the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals.  Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals.  But the same critique applies.  When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious behavior.  Rather than serving the true God, the god I serve is the approval and respect of people, either myself or others.  I am an idolater.  I am not “motivated by a need for security.”  I am “motivated by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.”  Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.”  Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation.  They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.

Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous.  “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger.  Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them.  In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.14

Idols: A Secondary Development?

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created.  Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs.  The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need.  In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs.  Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs.  Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ.  Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor.  We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor.  We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are.  We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people.  The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.

Humans lust after all sorts of good things and false gods—including love—in attempting to escape the rule of God.  The love-need psychologies do not dethrone the inner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry.  Structurally, the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the “health and wealth” false gospels.  Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.

It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols.  Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money.  A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.

The Bible is simpler.  Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous.  Idols can be compounded on top of idols.  But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well.  A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model.  In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.

The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior.  The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry.  Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.

CASE STUDY AND ANALYSIS

Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.

Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years.  They have two children.  He is a highly committed Christian.  He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor.  He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage.  He became enraged and beat her up.  Then he ran away, threatening never to come back.  He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.

The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness.  Wally has no close friends.

Several years ago Wally became involved sexually with a woman he was working with diaconally: “I know it was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how rough she’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort her physically.”  He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; but both acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt and mistrust.

He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and the deep freeze.”  On the one hand he can be abrasive, manipulative, angry, and unforgiving.  On the other hand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, and afraid of people.  He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s “bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting me or listening to me” and depression at his own sins.  Her patterns and his create a feedback system in which each tends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.

Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family.  He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42.  By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born.  Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please.  “If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’  If I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”

After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became “much more mellow; and, with my having become a Christian and trying to forgive him, our relationship wasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.”  His mother was “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimidated by my Dad.”  Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo” in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeois values. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, too shy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”

Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast.  “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.”  His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating.  He loves Jesus Christ.  He believes the Gospel.  He desires to share Christ with others.  He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped.  “I just react instinctively.  Then I feel guilty.  You know the pattern!”

Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off.  They are not extravagant spenders, but they face continual financial decisions: Dental work for the children?  Should we buy a house?  Should we take a vacation or work side jobs to earn a little extra money?  How many hours a week should Ellen try to work outside the home?  Can we really afford to tithe?  Should we accede to the kids’ desire for a VCR?  They live month to month, and the bill cycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.

How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?

“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry

Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions.  They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda).  Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma.  Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure.  If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.”  There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.

His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.”  Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand.  “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.”  “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side.  We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned.  “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.”  Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him.  At the same time Wally bought the idol.  He is simultaneously a victim and guilty.  He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system.  He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.

Relationships are rarely static.  There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion.  At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself.  At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.”  At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father.  He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.”  Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.

At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands.  He pitted his will against his father.  Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel.  In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use.  One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17

There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture.  His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father.  Idols are fluid.  The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead.  But rebellion is not unmixed.  It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies.  “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me.  At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”

Wally’s father was not static either.  In his later years he mellowed considerably.  Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the relationship.  It became peaceable but never warm.  Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves.  A demanding father became a less demanding father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement.  Our hearts also evolve.  A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled.  The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death.  Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.

Multiple Idols

We become infested with idols.  The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships.  Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church.  He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children.  Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship.  He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.

We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections.  We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail.  His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen.  The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy.  He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them.  He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded.  He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed.  All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.

Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream.  Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods.  In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme.  First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures.  Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture.  Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.

“Who can understand the heart of man?!”  And who can understand the world that negotiates with that heart?!  Wally and the myriad forces which impinge on him elude exhaustive, rational analysis.  Yet we can describe enough of what goes on in his complex heart and complex world to minister helpfully to him.  And the Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not the Wally of some prior point in his personal history.  Biblical counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can be given.  Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue, can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, and Wally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.

Many other idol systems and sub-systems impinge on Wally.  Some are the same players Bunyan described in his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, and opportunities which circle around money, sex, food, power, success, or comfort.  Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcohol industry—woo him with temporary compensations and false, escapist saviors from the pressures generated by his slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslave and whip him along at other times: “I must perform. I must prove myself.  Everyone I respect must like me.  What if I fail?”

Some of the other idol systems which daily impact on Wally are found within the marital system and the family system.  Ellen’s and the children’s values and desires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways.  If Ellen worries about money, if the children get swept up with complaining when they do not get what they want, if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic behavioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry, compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or whatever else, depending on how he interfaces with the particular micro-society that is constraining him.19

This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.”  False gods are highly catching!  With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like.  Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them.  False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates.  “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.

If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention.  These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins.  But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions.  They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences.  Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others.  Both tempt me, and I must battle both.

Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility.  But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives.  In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded.  The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely.  But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.

Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry

At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own.  He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems.  But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values.  His life implicitly validates many lies.  His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols.  Is he a Christian?  Yes.  But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ.  There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life.  But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.

Idols are rarely solitary.  Our lives become infested with them.  Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods.  For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois.  The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior.  They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes.  Your performance in my eyes.”

Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life.  At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure cooker he creates.  Alcohol abuse, TV watching, video games and pornography provide fleeting escape.  At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people.  He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.”  Of course, this is only a sampler.  Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.

The real Wally is irreducibly complex!  Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties.  This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case?  Yes, there are.  Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes.  He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him.  Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally.  “Pride” (I play god) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial.  One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way” and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly repeated in Wally’s life.  Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight.  Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in a different counselee might be greatly intensified.

It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif, in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life and do not speculate abstract typologies.  The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view.  In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses of Wally and others according to a typology.  He is a type-A person.  He is a Pleaser.  He is a Controller.  He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments.  He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family.  His root sin is anger.  His problem is low self-esteem.  In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth.  Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge.  In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.

Root Idols?

Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people, it might be expected that we could say something like, “His root idol is….”  But the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!”  For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth.  A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.

But sin is creative as well as habitual!  We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods.  The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience.  Typologies are pseudo-explanations.  They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power.  At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people.  At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual.  At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.

How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like.  Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:

Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple.  It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult.  While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning.  The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes.  It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25

 ‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair

How do individual styles develop?  Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols.  It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart.  Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail.  Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.

Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us.  For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal.  For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement.  His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports.  The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people.  For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.

Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate school education, first-born or eighth-born, male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960, and the like.  Much individual variation is due to hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth.  In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.

The diagnostic categories which pierce to the commonalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,” which we are using here.  These alone can embrace both the fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world, flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who has saved Wally.  They apply toevery person in a way which is simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all the complexities.  For all our differences, the Bible speaks to every one of us.

OTHER DIAGNOSTIC PERSPECTIVES AND THE GOSPEL: MULTIPERSPECTIVAL INTERPRETATION

As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry.  The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment.  Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes.  The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world.  But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.

Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living.  “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers.  Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods.  Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally.  Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism?  Decidedly not.  But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s.  The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil.  Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer.  But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.

The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people.  Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like.  This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.”  “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.

Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally.  His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle.  Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component.  The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences.  Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity” of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the “quality” of his problems.  A tense irritability can flare into rage and cursing.  A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair.  A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse.  Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins.  It does not create new kinds of sins.

The Role of the Will

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable.  As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility.  Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent.  Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right.  He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.”  He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.

Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil.  The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices.  One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly.  Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.

Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences.  Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, and growing love for people.  He has had other “high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love, and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.

But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random.  These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life.  Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change.  His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief.  One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative.  In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them.  It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion.  He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world.  The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.

My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!).  A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive.  But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”

The Lordship Question

There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole.  The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention.  But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God.  This can be looked at through numerous lenses:

  • Lordship through the lens of our hearts: The grace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versus the rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.

  • Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group, socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).

  • Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters: The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.

  • Lordship through the lens of somatic influences: living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.

  • Lordship through the lens of volitional choices: Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s will versus believing and choosing according to my spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the way that seems right to a man.”

  • Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.

Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it.  Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world.  The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes.  Wally is fully responsible for what he does.  Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions.  Wally is continually being conditioned from without, tempted, tried, and deceived.  Wally is also a Christian.  The Spirit and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.

Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people?  But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment.  The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.

One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively.  There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this.  The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived.  But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people.  What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life.  People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.

How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns?  But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ.  Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable.  I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior.  Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior.  The heart issues are typically misread, however.  “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God.  Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic status than they have in the biblical view.

These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotional problems.  “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.”  The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you.  Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.”  Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.

What is the Gospel?

What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped?  “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures.  The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.”  Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are.  God has unconditional love for you.”  That is not the biblical Gospel, however.  God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large.  A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.

The Gospel is better than unconditional love.  The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.”  Christ bears the curse you deserve.  Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness.  Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.”  He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.”  The center of gravity is different.  The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself.  Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside themselves.

Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please.  But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel.  The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me.  It loses its force as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin.  “The wound of my people is healed lightly.”30

Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem.  Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins.  The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated.  Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically.  In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.

Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu.  Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts.  Human responsibility would be compromised.  But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ.  Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully.  As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us.  We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power.  We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.

Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation.  Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.”  But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning.  The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration.  There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs.  Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us.  Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31

I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences.  People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-buyers, and idol-sellers.  We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee.  But there is a bigger Gospel.  At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:

Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible.  Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.  Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33

Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart.  He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.

The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies.  The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior.  The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.

Article published on October 9, 2009 @ http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Powlison

David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at: http://www.ccef.org/biography/david-powlison#sthash.BgnGUHsy.dpuf


1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or three commandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to the Lord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appears vividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges, Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.

2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.

3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for what determines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. See Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc.  The metaphor of “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to “idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity is employed to portray the inward motivational dynamics which the outward act reflects.

4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.

5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.

6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.

7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols.  If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that.  I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.

I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry.  The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.

8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound.  This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior.  This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.”  Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations.  But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation.  Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.

9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution.  This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases.  That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people.  The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.

The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.”  The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ!  Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).

So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner.  Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God.  Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.

Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.

The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confident people build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as perceptively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obviously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).

10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal problems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsibility only to oneself, family, and society.  “Sin” implies a primary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal and social responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.

11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives.  Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals.  Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.

12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are four passages, among many, which work out these themes in greater practical detail.  Notice how the language of relating to God—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—can be applied to relating to food.

13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”

14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.

15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us.  The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.

Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblical analysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included— rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman, idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.

16 Mark 10:42-45.

17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.”  It could equally be said that they boil up around us.  There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.

18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for this felicitous phrase.

19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle?  There may well be.  In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling?  Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships.  The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).

I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling.  Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins.  My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children.  That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out.  His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues.  But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.

20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men” (1 Corinthians 10:13).  This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature.  It plays itself out in an endless variety of forms.

21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced.  Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics.  Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship.  The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif).  In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship.  For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.

22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.

23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.

24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power.  It is purely descriptive.  It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”

25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.

26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer.  Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers.  James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.

27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.”  Satan is the arch-deceiver.  We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu.  Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.

28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation.  See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3 (1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christian counselors.

29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible!  Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without.

30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).

31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith.  Psalm 23—like many portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in.  Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude, from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions).  Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.

32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents.  There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.

Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart and behavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects in his family and church.  We have emphasized the negative side of social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.

33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.

– See more at: http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair#sthash.oEMKasPC.dpuf

James Montgomery Boice on “The First Miracle”

An Expositional Sermon By James Montgomery Boice on Acts 3:1-26

Acts Boice

 

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. 

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” – Acts 3:1–6

In chapter 3 of this study I pointed out that Acts is a transitional book. Acts comes between the Gospels and the Epistles. When we begin to read it, the Lord Jesus Christ is still here. The characters we come across are people who knew Jesus, those who in many cases had traveled with him during the days of his ministry. Most of them were witnesses of his resurrection. But then as we go on through the book, we come to people who did not have those experiences. Paul himself did not live with Christ during the days of his earthly ministry. And there are people like Timothy and Titus, Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos, who had not even seen him. The flow of the book is from those early days in Jerusalem, when Jesus is still present, to Rome, which is where Acts ends. Acts is a transition in another way too. It is a transition from an age in which miracles were common to a time more closely resembling our own.

Better Than Gold

Luke described the early fellowship of believers by saying, “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). In Acts 2 Luke does not give us any indication as to what those miraculous signs may have been. But now, when we come to Acts 3, we have the account of at least one of them.

Why did Luke choose to chronicle this particular miracle? The answer is two-fold: (1) because it was the occasion for a second sermon of Peter’s, which Luke wants us to hear; and (2) because the miracle and sermon were the cause of the first persecution of the church.

Verse 1 tells us that Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer. We were told in chapter 2 that one of the things the early church did was gather in the temple courts to pray. In time God would cause a break with formal Judaism. But the break had not come yet. The apostles and other early believers were still Jews as well as being Christians, and they were continuing to take part in the worship that their people had enjoyed for centuries.

As Peter and John were doing this, they met a man who had been placed at the temple gate to beg from those who were entering. He was unable to walk. But he had friends, and they had put him in what was obviously a good position. They must have reasoned that it would be difficult for people to enter the temple, offer heartfelt worship to God, and then, as they left, utterly ignore a poor man who clearly needed help. Peter and John saw him and stopped. We are told that Peter fixed his attention on him and demanded that the man look at them.

That is what the man wanted. I can imagine that if his experience was that of most beggars, most people would simply have walked by. If you see somebody who is needy and you do not want to help, you try not to notice him. That is what most people would have been doing. So when Peter and John stopped, looked at him, and said, “Look at us,” the man must have looked up very hopefully, thinking that they were going to give him something. I do not know what they begged with in those days. But if he had owned a tin cup, I imagine he would have held the cup out to them, no doubt thinking, This is going to be a good day. These people are going to give me money.

Then Peter uttered the words that most of us know very well: “Silver or gold I do not have.…”

Can you visualize what must have happened at that moment? The man was expecting silver or gold. So when Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have…” his eyes must have dropped, and he must have put his cup down. But Peter went on, adding, “But what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v. 6).

Notice, first, that it was to Peter’s credit that he could utter both parts of that sentence. There is a story from the Renaissance period that I have come across in several different versions. It may or may not be true. In any case, the version I like best goes like this: St. Thomas Aquinas was in Rome. He was walking along the street with a cardinal. The cardinal noticed a beggar. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a silver coin and gave it to him. Then he turned to Aquinas, the great doctor of the church, and said, “Well, Thomas, fortunately we can no longer say, as Peter did, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ ”

St. Thomas replied, “Yes, that is true. But neither can we say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ ”

It has always been sadly true that people have used religion as a means of acquiring wealth. We see much of this today, particularly in the way some “ministries” are promoted on television. The heads of these ministries make a great deal of money. Peter was not one of these people. I suppose that in the early church there were people who kept the church’s money. Later on we find that there was a treasury. Perhaps Peter had learned something from Judas, who dipped into the common purse when he needed something. Peter apparently did not. So when he went up to the temple to pray, he said quite honestly, I do not have any money. His penniless state may even have been a factor in his being close enough to God that he could also say, “But I am going to give you what I have.”

When Peter reached down, he took that man by the hand. Luke, who perhaps was interested in this miracle from the point of view of a physician, records with particularly vivid language how strength flowed into the man so that his feet and ankles could now bear his weight. He was completely restored to health. And he was so exuberant in his new-found health that he leaped—“walking and jumping, and praising God.” The language itself literally leaps, just as he leaped. This was a great, great day. And the people who knew the man because they had gone in and out of that gate many times and had seen him often were filled with amazement and undoubtedly praised God also.

In the case of the man who had been born blind, whose story is told in John 9, the man’s appearance was so altered that the people questioned whether or not this was the same man. In the case of the man healed by Peter there was no doubt at all. Everyone understood at once what had happened. A miracle had taken place by the same power that had been displayed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and at Pentecost.

Peter’s Second Sermon

At this point Peter began to preach his second sermon. When we compare Peter’s first sermon with this one, we find some differences. Yet there are similarities too, because regardless of the circumstances, Peter was trying to do the same thing here as on the earlier occasion: He was trying to point his listeners to Jesus as the Savior of the world. He also confronted them with their sin, appealed for their repentance, and gave reasons to repent and believe.

Christ-Centered

Just as in the sermon at Pentecost, this new sermon focuses on Jesus. I suppose it would have been possible for Peter to have focused on something else. He could have focused on the miracle itself. He could have said, “This is an important thing that has happened, and I want to make sure that you understand that this really is a miracle. Look at this man. Let’s all gather around and examine him.”

Peter’s sermon could have led into a testimony service. He could have said, “Now, brother, you have been healed. Here’s your chance to give a testimony. Stand up and tell everybody what Jesus has done for you.” A testimony like that might have focused on the man. The man could have said, “Let me tell you about my experience. Let me tell you how I first came to be part of what is going on here today.…” The man could have gotten quite a bit of personal attention out of that.

Instead, Peter said, “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus” (vv. 12–13). Jesus! This is where the emphasis of the entire sermon lies.

In speaking about Jesus, Peter is inevitably biblical. I say inevitably because this sermon is not so obviously biblical as the previous one. When we were studying the sermon Peter gave at Pentecost, I pointed out that it focuses on three great texts (see chapter 5 of this study). The way Peter preached that sermon was to quote each text at length and then explain it. The fact that he is biblical is not so obvious in this second sermon—although at the end he does quote from Deuteronomy and Genesis. Nevertheless, Peter is biblical.

The biblical nature of the sermon is apparent in Peter’s choice of words. When Peter refers to Jesus as God’s “servant,” as he does in verse 13, he uses the word for servant that occurs in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, where the coming servant of God (52:13) is described as the one who would be “pierced for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities” (53:5). The concept of the “servant of the Lord” was well-known in Israel because of Isaiah 53 and other texts. So when Peter used “servant” and then went on to speak of “the Holy and Righteous One”—another title for the Christ that also appears in Isaiah—it is pretty clear that he was thinking of these chapters. He was teaching that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament Scriptures.

When Peter talked about Jesus, he had a number of important facts to mention. One is that Jesus was a real man. Earlier when he spoke to the paralyzed man, he referred to Jesus as “Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (v. 6). It was not some imaginary, philosophical Jesus that Peter was proclaiming. It was a Jesus they all knew, a Jesus who had lived in Nazareth and who had traveled about the country teaching and doing good. But notice: That Jesus was also the same Jesus who had died for sin and then had been raised from death by the power of God. Peter was not retreating into philosophy, nor was he de-supernaturalizing the gospel, as some modern Bible critics have done. He was preaching a biblical Jesus who was both the Son of God and fully man.

When you think about Christianity, do you think primarily about Jesus Christ? And do you understand who Jesus is by the words and doctrines of the Bible? There is a lot more that Christians talk about, of course. But properly understood, those other things all relate to Jesus in some measure. Without Jesus you do not have Christianity, and the Jesus of Christianity is the Bible’s Jesus. To be a Christian is to have a personal relationship with him. Therefore Peter was preaching about him in this sermon.

Grappling with Sin

Peter’s sermon is also direct in speaking about sin. Even more than in his earlier sermon Peter emphasizes the sin of the people in disowning Jesus and handing him over to Pilate to be crucified.

He does it in a personal way. Where Peter begins to talk about the sin of the people he uses the word “you” (the second person plural pronoun) four times. In the previous sermon he only used it in that way once: You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23, italics mine). That is pretty blunt. But I suppose that as Peter reflected on it (and even got a little better with practice), he figured that when he got around to preaching a second time he would give that point emphasis. So now he says, “You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (vv. 13–15, italics mine).

Peter is saying this in the very city where the people had cried out against Jesus, saying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” He is speaking to these same people, perhaps with the very same leaders who had urged them to cry out looking on, and he is saying, You did it; you crucified him. The verbs are powerful, too: “You handed him over to be killed. You disowned [him]. You killed the author of life” (italics mine).

From time to time when I am preaching I will say something about the death of Jesus and how the Jewish leaders handed him over to Pilate to be crucified. Whenever a study like that appears on the radio later, as many of my studies do, I get letters from people who object to my saying that Jews demanded the death of Jesus. That is understandable, of course, because it is a sensitive point in Judaism, and I usually answer by pointing out that the Gentiles in the person of Pilate were also guilty. We are all guilty of Jesus’ death, and if we had been there at the time, we might all have joined in the cries of those who demanded Jesus’ death. But I notice here that, sensitive as that point may be, it was certainly never any more sensitive than it was in this early day when Peter preached in Jerusalem. In spite of the sensitive nature of the issue, Peter did not allow people’s feelings to stand in the way of preaching clearly. He did not say “Jews” to the exclusion of others. He included Pilate in his “you.” He included the Romans. They had actually put him to death. But that was not what concerned Peter in this sermon. Peter’s “you” meant everybody, including the Jews and perhaps even the Jews particularly. He was not pulling his punches.

We need to realize that we are all to blame for the death of Christ in one way or another. Even though we were not there at the time Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified, it was our sins that took him there. And if Jesus were here today, we would spurn him today, just as the masses of Israel spurned him in Jerusalem long ago.

An Appeal for Repentance

Third, not only does Peter’s sermon point to Jesus and highlight the listeners’ sin—making it clear that the people of Jerusalem had something to repent of—but it also contains an appeal. This is because in the final analysis, Peter was not interested in merely condemning his hearers. On the contrary, he wanted them to repent of their sin and believe on Jesus.

He begins with the words “Now, brothers” (v. 17). He does not treat them as foreigners, aliens, or enemies. Indeed, how could he, since what he said earlier, “You disowned him… you disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (he repeated it), was the very thing Peter himself had done? Peter had denied Jesus on the night of his arrest. So he does not stand aloof now as he appeals to these people. He calls them brothers, saying, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” Their ignorance did not make them guiltless. Nevertheless, they were not fully aware of what they were doing, and Peter was in exactly that category himself.

Where our English text has Peter encouraging his listeners to “turn to God” (v. 19), the Greek text actually says “flee to God.” That was probably intended to suggest a powerful image. In Israel there were cities set aside from other cities as “cities of refuge.” If an Israelite accidentally killed someone else, he could flee to one of these cities and there be protected from an avenger of blood, a relative of the deceased who might try to kill him in retaliation. These cities were not to protect real murderers. If somebody intentionally killed someone, well, he was to be tried and punished, as he should be. But if the killing was accidental—if it was what we would call “manslaughter” rather than “murder in the first degree”—then the killer could flee to the city and be protected there. He was to stay there until the high priest died. Then he could go home.

There is something like that idea in Peter’s sermon. Peter told the people that they were guilty of killing Jesus, but he taught that God would forgive their sin if they would repent of it and flee to the refuge that he has provided in Christ.

Peter tells them to “repent, then, and turn to God” (v. 19). These two things always go together. Sometimes we feel sorry for what we have done. But it is not enough merely to feel sorry. Sorrow is not repentance. Repentance is feeling sorry enough to quit, and quitting means turning from sin to Jesus Christ. When Peter tells the people, “Repent… and turn to God,” he makes the connection apparent and indicates exactly what we need to do.

Reasons to Repent and Believe

The fourth thing Peter does in this sermon is offer inducements to repent and believe on Jesus. The first is: “so that your sins may be wiped out” (v. 19), that is, so that you might be forgiven. Forgiveness is what people need, and the only place anyone will ever really find forgiveness is in Christ. A director of a large mental institution in England said to John Stott some years ago, “I could send half of my patients home tomorrow if only they could find forgiveness.”

Most people carry heavy loads of guilt. This may be true of you. You may not have not told anybody what you have done. You are afraid that if you told someone else, that person would reject you. Nevertheless, you remember what you have done, and you carry the guilt of your actions around with you day by day, week by week, and year by year. Your burden keeps you from being what you might otherwise be. Moreover, you do not find forgiveness in the world. The world is not capable of that. The world can judge you for your sin or pretend to overlook it. But it is not capable of forgiving it. On one occasion the Lord Jesus Christ said to a man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and the religious leaders who were standing by replied, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” They were absolutely right. They did not recognize that Jesus was God and therefore had the right to forgive sin. In that they were wrong. But their theology was right. Only God can forgive sin. That is why the world is so unsatisfactory in this respect. Peter is saying that God can forgive your sin; he can lift that great load of guilt. Clearly this is one great inducement to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

Peter has another inducement too. It is the “times of refreshing [that] come from the Lord” (v. 19). This may be understood in different ways. On the one hand, it probably concerns a future day of blessing when the Jewish people will turn to Christ in large numbers and a final age of national blessing will come. Paul talks about it in Romans 11. On the other hand, there are also “times of refreshing” for all God’s people even now.

Many of us go through much of life feeling pretty stale in what we do. We feel like the horse that eats hay and oats on Monday, oats and hay on Tuesday, hay and oats on Wednesday, and so on throughout the week. Many people find, especially if they are in an unrewarding job, that life is often quite dreary. And sometimes even their Christianity becomes stale. They say, “I’ve been coming to church every week. But somehow it just isn’t what it used to be. I feel so flat when I come.” Well, that happens. We all go through dry spells. Times like that do not necessarily mean that we are far from God. They only mean that we feel far from God. Sometimes the cause is bad health. Sometimes the cause is the weather. A few days of gloomy rain and cold sometimes plunge me into a dark night of the soul. What we are told here is that in Christ there will be times of refreshing.

Haven’t you known times when Jesus became so real and the gospel so vivid that your whole spirit, soul, and body were revived? If you want times of refreshing, times that make life really worth living so you can say, “Oh, it is good to be a Christian,” turn from sin and follow close to Jesus.

There is another inducement here also, in verse 26. After Peter gets through saying that all that has happened in Christ is a fulfillment of prophecy and that they ought to know it because it is clear in their Bibles (he quotes from Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19 and Genesis 22:18), he says, “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” First to you! To whom? Well, to the Jews! But more than that, because it was not just to Jews generally that Peter was preaching on this occasion. Peter was preaching to Jews who had been instrumental in the death of Jesus. They handed him over to be killed, disowned him, asked that a murderer be released to them, and demanded that Jesus be crucified. It is to these people, the very ones who had been instrumental in the greatest crime in human history, that God now comes with the gospel of salvation. And he comes to them first. It is God’s way of saying, “I know what you have done, but I do not hold it over you. I love you anyway. It is precisely for people like you that I caused Jesus to die.”

You and I cannot say that God sent his servant to us first of all. Many have come to Christ before us in former ages of human history. But the principle is the same. Regardless of what you have done, the low self-image you may have, or the guilt you may carry, God proclaims his Son to you. And the reason the gospel is proclaimed to you is because God says it is for you that Jesus died.

About the Author

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 7 in Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 2006.

A Summary of the Four Gospels

*THE FOUR GOSPELS

Symbols of the 4 Gospels

Background

The four Gospels record the eternal being, human ancestry, birth, life, and ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Taken together they present not a biography but a Person.

The fact that the four Gospels present a Person rather than a complete biography indicates the spirit in which they should be approached. It is more important to see and know Him who these narratives reveal than to try to piece together a full account of His life from these inspired records (John 21:25, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”). For some reason God did not lead men to write a full biography of His Son. The years preceeding His ministry are passed over in a silence that is broken only once, as recorded in a few verses in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:40-52, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man”). It is wise to respect the divine reticence.

Incomplete Story, Complete Revelation

But the four Gospels, though designedly incomplete as a story, are complete as revelation. We may not know everything that Jesus did, but we may know Him. In four great narratives, each of which in some respects supplements the other three, we have Jesus Christ Himself.

This is the essential respect in which these narratives differ from biography or portraiture. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The believing student finds here the living Christ.

The Old Testament is the inspired introduction to the New Testament, and whoever comes to the study of the four Gospels with a mind saturated with the Old Testament foreview of Christ–His Person, work, and kingdom–will be greatly helped in understanding them. Old Testament quotation, allusion, and type are woven into the Gospels. The very first verse of the New Testament drives the reader back to the Old Testament; and the risen Christ took His disciples back to the Hebrew Scriptures for an explanation of His suffering and glory (Luke 24:27, 44, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”).

Therefore, in approaching the study of the Gospels the mind should be freed, as far as possible from presuppositions such as the Church is to be equated with the true Israel, and that the Old Testament promises to Israel and the foreview of the kingdom relate only to the Church. Interpretations are not true simply because they are familiar. It should not, therefore, be assumed that “the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32) is synonymous with the Father’s throne (Revelation 3:21, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” or that “the house of Jacob” (Luke 1:33) is the Church composed of both Jew and Gentile.

The mission of Jesus was initially to the Jews (Matthew 10:5-6; 15:23-25; John 1:11, “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” …He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him”). He was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), and was “a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (Romans 15:8) and to fulfill the law that grace might abound. Therefore, a strong legal and Jewish coloring is to be expected up to the cross (Matthew 5:17-19; 10:5-6; 15:22-28; 23:2 & Mark 1:44, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven…These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly…“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,…and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” The Sermon on the Mount is closely related to law in the highest spiritual sense, for it demands as the condition of blessing, that perfect character which only grace through power creates (Matthew 5:3-9 and Galatians 5:22-23, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

The doctrines of grace are developed in the Letters, not in the Gospels; but they are implicit in the Gospels, because they rest upon the death and resurrection of Christ and upon the great germinal truths he taught, truths of which the Letters are the unfolding. The Christ of the Gospels is the perfect manifestation of grace.

The Gospels do not develop the doctrine of the Church. The word “church” occurs in Matthew only. After His rejection as King and Savior by the Jews, our Lord, announcing a mystery until the moment “hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:3-10), said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It was therefore, yet future; but His personal ministry had gathered out the believers who were, on the Day of Pentecost, made by the baptism of the Spirit the first members of “the church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:23 compare with 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

The Gospels present a group of Jewish disciples, associated on earth with a Messiah in humiliation. The Letters present a Church which is the body of Christ, made up of the regenerate who are associated with Him “in heavenly places,” co-heirs with Him of the Father, co-rulers with Him of the coming kingdom; and, as to the earth, although strangers and pilgrims, yet acting as His witnesses and the instruments for doing His will among men (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:3-14, 20-23; 2:4-6; 1 Peter 2:11).

The Gospels present Christ in His three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King.

As Prophet His ministry resembles that of the Old Testament prophets. But it is the nature and dignity of His Person that makes Him the unique Prophet. In former times God spoke through the prophets; now He speaks in the Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Old Testament prophet was a voice from God; the Son is God Himself (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).

The prophet in any dispensation is God’s messenger to His people, first, to establish truth; and second, when His people are in declension and apostasy, to call them back to truth. The prophet’s message, therefore, is usually one of rebuke and appeal. At times, however, as when his message of rebuke and appeal is not heeded, he becomes a foreteller of things to come. In this too, Christ is like the other prophets; most of His predictive ministry occurs after His rejection as King.

The sphere and character of Christ’s kingly office are defined in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:16), as interpreted by the prophets and confirmed by the New Testament. Whereas the New Testament in no way abrogates or changes the Davidic Covenant or its interpretation, it adds details  which were not in the original covenant. The Sermon on the Mount is an elaboration of the idea of righteousness as the predominant characteristic of the kingdom  (Isaiah 11:2-5; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:14-16). The Old Testament prophet saw in one horizon, so to speak, the suffering and glory of the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10-11, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories”). The New Testament shows that His suffering and glory are separated by the present Church Age, and points forward to the Lord’s return as the time when the Davidic Covenant of blessing through power will be fulfilled (Luke 1:30-31; Acts 2:29-36; 15:14-17), just as the Abrahamic Covenant of blessing through suffering was fulfilled at His first coming (Acts 3:24-25; Galatians 3:6-14).

Christ is never called King of the Church. “The King” is indeed one of His divine titles, and the Church joins Israel in exalting “the King of ages, immortal, invisible” (Psalm 10:16; 1 Timothy 1:17). The Church is to reign under Him. The Holy Spirit is now calling out, not the subjects but the co-heirs and co-rulers of the kingdom (Romans 8:15-16; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; Revelation 1:6; 3:21; 5:10).

Christ’s priestly office is the complement of His prophetic office. The prophet represents God to the people; the priest represents the people to God. Because the people are sinful he, the priest, must be a sacrificer; because they are needy, he must be a compassionate intercessor (Hebrews 5:1-2; 8:1-3). So Christ on the cross entered upon His high priestly work, offering Himself without blemish to God (Hebrews 9:14), as now He exercises on ever-living intercession for His people (Hebrews 7:25). John 17 provides the pattern of that continuing intercession.

In the Gospels, primary interpretation should be distinguished from moral application. Much in the Gospels that belongs in strict interpretation to the Jews or the kingdom is yet such a revelation of the mind of God and is so based on eternal principles as to have a moral application to the people of God, whatever their dispensational position. it is always true that the “pure in heart” are blessed because they “see God” and that “woe” is the portion of religious formalists whether under law or grace.

Special emphasis should be made to the things the four Gospels have in common.

(1) In all of them there is revealed one unique Person. The pen is a different pen, the incidents in which He is seen are sometimes different incidents, but He is always the same Christ.

(2) All the evangelists record the ministry of John the Baptist.

(3) All record the feeding of the 5,000.

(4) All record Christ’s offer of Himself as King, according to Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

(5) All record the betrayal by Judas; the denial by Peter.

(6) All record the trial and crucifixion of Christ.

(7) All record the bodily resurrection of Christ.

(8) All record events occurring during the forty days of the post-resurrection ministry of Christ–a ministry keyed to a new note of universality and of power.

(9) All point forward to His second coming.

And this record is so presented as to testify that the supreme business that brought Him into the world was His death and resurrection; that all that precedes these was preparation, and that from them flow all the blessings God ever has bestowed or ever will bestow upon humanity.

Since the first three Gospels contain so much material in common that they may be arranged as a synopsis, they are called the Synoptic Gospels. Careful readers of the New Testament will observe the similarities among and also the difference peculiar to these Gospels. That they contain dissimilarities is not surprising in view of the fact that each of these three Gospels is written for a particular purpose–Matthew to present Jesus as King, Mark to present Him as Servant, and Luke to present Him as Son of Man.

Matthew may have been the first Gospel written. It is thought that Mark’s account reflects, in its subject matter, Peter’s view of our Lord. That there were in existence many early accounts of the life and work of Christ is plain from Luke’s prologue to his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4).

As for John, this Gospel is in a class by itself. Probably written later than the Synoptics, it does not outline the life of our Lord but selects its material (including much that is not in the first three Gospels) in keeping with the writer’s declared aim of presenting Jesus as the Son of God (John 20:30-31).

Certain scholars have tried to trace the forms or patterns into which the earliest traditions about Christ were put for oral repetition. These forms are supposed to have provided material for the Gospels and are also thought to have been so thoroughly shaped by the needs of the early Church as to preclude a full historical basis for all the events recorded in the Gospels. In its effort to explain the difference in the Gospels, this critical view raises a question concerning the historical accuracy of the whole record. However, it fails to recognize evidence which supports the historicity of the Gospels. It may also be observed that selectivity of material does not necessarily mean distortion of fact, nor is the use of reliable tradition incompatible with the inspiration the Gospel records.

The important thing to keep in mind is the established fact that these Gospels are inspired historical documents of genuine authenticity and full integrity. Moreover, the believer in Christ knows in his own life the reality of the living Lord, who is so faithfully and yet so variously presented in the Synoptics and in John’s Gospel.

 *Article adapted from the Scofield Study Bible (ESV). New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 edition.

Tim Keller on “Removing Idols From Your Heart”

Sermon: Removing Idols of the Heart – Series: Growth in Christ, Part 1—October 22, 1989

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Colossians 3:5–11

We are in the middle of a series of studies of Christian growth, and eventually we’re going to be talking about the fruit of the Spirit here. We’re going to be looking at love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control. We’re going to be looking at all of those, but for these few weeks here we’re looking at how you can create a dynamic (a cycle) in your life that results in supernatural maturity and character change, and what we have been saying is there is a combustion cycle, you might say, a dynamic, a motor that needs to be going on in the heart of a Christian.

When that cycle is going there is growth, there is progress, and if there is no progress in your life, it’s because that cycle is not going. It’s a two-part cycle, and we have said that cycle is repentance and faith. Let’s again read the passage we’ve continually looked at, but we’re going to be looking at it in more detail in one aspect here tonight. We’ve been looking at it for a number of weeks, but we’re especially going to read Colossians 3, and I’m going to read verses 5–11, because it’s about repentance, and that’s what we’re looking at tonight.

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

The Word of the Lord

A quick review, but an important review. Repentance. When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg door to start the Protestant Reformation (one of the watersheds in the history of the world), the first thesis was all of life is repentance. That is misunderstood by the Christian church today. I believe the average Christian believes repentance is something for the bad times. It’s something for when you have done something rather majorly wrong.

You slid back in the Christian life. Then you need these times of repentance, but otherwise a Christian is supposed to walk on (if he or she is doing it right) in a obedience and having victory over sin and over troubles and rising above things and not letting anything get to them and always rejoicing in the Lord, whatever that is. Repentance is not understood the way Martin Luther understood it, who after all was the first Protestant, and we probably better take this seriously. He might have understood more about evangelical religion than many of the rest of us.

You see, he was right, not us. The cycle by which you grow, the thing you must be doing daily, is moving from repentance to faith. You remember in Luke 7, Jesus was in the home of Simon, a respectable pillar of the community, and when he was there a woman of ill-repute came in and began to kiss Jesus’ feet and anoint them, and Simon thought to himself, “If this man knew the kind of woman she was, he wouldn’t be doing this.” Or he probably also thought this, although it’s not listed in the text, “If this man does know what kind of woman this is and he’s letting her kiss his feet, what’s going on here?”

Jesus turns to Simon, perceiving his heart, and he says, “Let me tell you a story.” Whenever Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story,” you’re in for trouble. He has you in a corner, all right. He says, “Simon, there were two debtors. A single man had two debtors, and one debtor owed the man 50 denarii …” I still don’t know exactly what that is in yen yet, but I’ll find out. “… and the other debtor owed the man 500. He forgave both.” He said, “Simon, which of the two will love him more?”

Simon said, “Well, the one who was forgiven 500 denarii.” Then he turned to Simon and said, “Simon, listen. Ever since I got here she has been kissing my feet. She loves me, Simon. You don’t,” and then he said, “Because she was forgiven much, she loves much.” The last line of the little parable is, “… he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Here is what he was saying: “The difference between you and her, Simon, is not that you are more moral and she is less, or that somehow, because we’ve changed our standards, she is more moral because she is more honest or authentic or something like that and you’re a hypocrite or a stuffed shirt. That’s not the point.

She has more love and joy in her life toward me because her repentance is deeper, because she knows the size of her debt.” Because of her repentance being deeper and deeper her joy and her love are getting greater and greater, because the dynamic was unleashed in her heart. It was going on, and it wasn’t in Simon’s heart. Simon kept repentance for the bad times. Simon says, “I’m a pretty good person. I move right along, and as a result, occasionally … Yes, I repented last January, remember, when I did this thing I shouldn’t have done, and I repented maybe the September before that.”

He’s like most of us. Repentance is for the bad times, and as a result this woman is way ahead of him. Her joy and her love are deeper because her repentance is deeper. You see, the dynamic goes like that. If you understand the gospel (that Jesus Christ has covered your sins and he actually is your Savior) that means God doesn’t accept you because of your efforts but because of what Jesus has done. You’re accepted in him. You’re loved in him. If you understand that, then when you see your sins more deeply and when you repent, that releases joy and love.

If, on the other hand, you don’t rest your life on the gospel … If you’re an atheist, or if you’re a criminal, or if you’re a very moral and religious person but you don’t rest your life on the gospel … All those people are in the same boat for the purposes of this discussion because they all basically rely not on Jesus Christ for their sense of self-worth and acceptance, but rather they rely on their own power and ability. If you’re like that, if you’re one of them, then a discovery of your sin and a discovery of your weakness is going to lead you to despair.

In other words, repentance leads to despair if you don’t understand the gospel, and repentance leads to joy and love and a burst of energy and growth if you do, because repentance leads to a greater appreciation and gratitude and thrill at what Jesus has done for us. That is the dynamic and as that’s moving along, you grow. See, it’s very misunderstood. That is how you grow, and that’s what we’re talking about. The reason I keep repeating it is because I know how many of us think about repentance, but, oh, be very careful.

If you find that to look at your sins and to get a deeper knowledge of your sins leads to despair, I have to begin to ask you on what basis do you believe God loves you? What is the basis? Is it your efforts? Is it your moral excellence? Is it coming up to your standards? If so, of course repentance is just going to push you down, but if on the other hand Jesus Christ is your Savior, then repentance is the beginning of that cycle, it gets the combustion cycle going, and that’s what we’re talking about and what we have been talking about.

Now one more thing. See, I’m trying to recap, because I know people are in an out. A lot of you weren’t here last week or the week before last, so I have to recap, but I’m trying to recap using new illustrations so even if you were here, you’re getting a chance to rethink it and rethink it so it becomes clearer. The other thing I have to recap is we have tried to talk about repentance using a different name. We’ve said repentance is identifying and removing the idols of the heart. Now the reason we’re doing that is because if you don’t understand the idols of the heart, you can still think of repentance as just basically stopping certain kinds of superficial, external behavioral sins.

As we reread the Scripture we see the things the Bible talks about such as greed or sexual immorality and so on are really idols, you see. For example, covetousness (greed) is called an idol. Real quickly, again, psychologically from our point of view, an idol is actually something you get your identity from. Now I used an illustration this morning in the morning service I can use again tonight. Rocky Balboa says he wants to go the distance. He’s going to go for it. Why? What is he going for?

He says in the most important line in the film, “If I can just go the distance, I’ll know I’m not a bum.” Now I would submit to you … I propose to you … that you have something just like Rocky does in your life you believe, and you talk to yourself about it, and you say, “If I can have that, if I can get that, then I’ll know I’m not a bum.” We all have some things. In some cases, it might be relationships. In some cases, it might be financial security or independence. In some cases, it might be achievement and status.

It’s different for everybody, but there are some things in your life you look at and you say, “If I have that, I won’t be a bum.” That’s what an idol is, because an idol is making something else besides Jesus Christ your life, and the only way you can tell if something is an idol usually is God sends a problem into your life, and you begin to see you can’t get to that thing. “I can’t get there.” When you can’t get to it, you begin to realize what really is running your life. Now that is the psychological way to look at an idol. It’s identifying with something saying, “That’s my life. Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”

Theologically, what the Bible says is these are things you are making your righteousness. See, from God’s point of view, God says what you have done is you have gone about to patch up a righteousness of your own. Paul, for example, in Philippians, the book right before Colossians, talks about himself like this. He says, I was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”

He says, “… I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from [my striving], but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Now what he is very clearly saying is he’s giving you a list of all the things that used to be his righteousness. He’s saying, “Look at my pedigree. Look at my family background. Look at my career accomplishments. Look at my intellectual attainments, but I count them all as loss.”

What he means is, “They used to be my righteousness. They were the things I relied on and said, ‘This is my honor. This is my glory. This is my dignity.’ ” He said in order to be a Christian he had to give up on that, and he said, “I count them as rubbish.” Some of you know (it depends on your translation) rubbish is a kind of nice word the translators use there because it might be offensive. He said, “I count them all as dung, excrement, bowel movement,” you see, because that had become his righteousness.

Now the fact is, though, when you become a Christian, though you say, “Now I know God accepts me only because of the righteousness of Christ” (that’s what the gospel is), you still have a big part of yourself the Bible calls the “old” man. You have the new man who says, “Only in Jesus Christ am I acceptable, and he is my righteousness. He is my honor. He is my glory.” On the other hand, you have the “old” man who says, “Are you kidding?” You know, like that little 16-year-old girl years ago I remember talking to down in Hopewell, Virginia, at that other church I invited you to today.

I remember sitting down with Debbie. She was 16 years old. She was five foot ten and weighed about 90 pounds, and she couldn’t get dates. She was always saying, “Nobody wants to ask me out.” In as gentle a way as I possibly could do it, I used to say … I mean, I took time doing this. I didn’t just throw this at her, but I gently reminded her since she was a Christian and she professed faith in Christ, we have so many great things in Christ. We have our adoption. We’re in the family. We have guidance. We have protection. We have all these things. We’re going to rule and reign with him forever.

You talk about that, and at one point she looked at me, and she said, “Well, what good is all that if you’re not popular?” You see, Debbie will mature because at some point she’ll realize you don’t say that to ministers, and a couple of years after that, she’ll realize you don’t even say that to yourself because you don’t want to believe you’re really that crass. You don’t want to believe you’re really that enslaved. You don’t want to believe you’re really that childish, but we are, you see, and we do have a little thing down there saying, “If I can just go here, I’ll know I’m not a bum.”

We do have a little thing down there saying, “If I don’t have this, then what good is everything else?” You see, that was Debbie’s righteousness. She was going about doing that. There was an “old” man (a part of her) still operating on the old basis. The job of the Christian in order to grow is to identify what those things are and to pull them out. Now, by the way, we’re not going to go into identifying. That’s what we did last week, but doing that is a process like this. You’re looking at yourself and you’re saying, “Why am I so angry? Why am I so worried? Why am I so depressed?”

Then you say, “Let me analyze this. What is actually driving me? What goals do I feel like I must have?” Here is a good question a counselor friend of mine wrote down and would give his counselees when they were trying to analyze themselves and understand themselves. He says ask yourself this: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust?” That’s a great word, functional trust. Everybody who is a Christian says, “Oh, I trust Jesus and nothing else,” and he says, “I don’t care about what you say and what you believe and what you appear to say. What is your heart functionally trusting? What does it actually trust? What does it really rely on?

Here is the whole question: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust, its functional preoccupation, loyalty, service, and delight?” You can do that when you find yourself getting extremely anxious and biting your nails down to the knuckle. When you find yourself very depressed or extremely angry, you say, “What is it out there that I’m not getting to and why is it driving me like this?” That’s if you’re failing. But what if you’re succeeding and you find yourself stretching and stretching and working harder and enjoying it less?

At a certain point, you need to ask yourself a similar question. You should say, “The desires I have for this achievement, as satisfying as they are, isn’t it possible what’s going on here is I’m trying to go about patching up a righteousness of my own? Isn’t this success actually my effort to do for myself what only Jesus Christ can do for me? Am I trying to patch up a righteousness of my own?” Now that is what repentance is, and as we said before, you realize the flesh (the “old” man) …

Talking about the word, flesh, when the Bible says, “kill the flesh” or “war against the flesh,” it’s not talking about your body. When the Bible talks about the flesh, it will say, “These are the works of the flesh,” and it will say gossip, envy, pride … things that have nothing to do with the body … because the word flesh does not mean the body, usually, in the Bible when it talks like that. Usually, when the Bible talks about the flesh versus the spirit, the flesh is Self. It’s the “old” man. It’s the side of you who still wants to go about making its own righteousness, wanting to live for its own glory.

The fact is your flesh can still operate when you become a Christian. It can still operate, absolutely. People who still have a need to dominate the discussion, the need to hold forth, the need for security, the need for love and approval … You come into the church (the kingdom) and you can still be dominated by the flesh even in all of your Christian activity. Oh, yeah. There are some people who have this deep need for certainty and control.

They come into the church, and every time they take a class on the Bible what they’re actually doing, instead of reading the Bible to say, “Ah, I need to get this into my life,” instead they’re saying, “Aha! Now I can spot heresy. Now I can spot people who are not accurate, who are not preaching the true Word of God. Now I can hit them. Now I can get them. Now I can tell them what’s wrong.” There are a lot of people, you see, who are very critical and love control and love to be always the right ones.

Before they were Christians, they were insufferable, and now that they’re Christians, they’re still insufferable because the flesh is continuing to dominate them. It’s still continuing to control them. It’s very, very important to see. Therefore, every one of us has an “old” man. Every one of us has a flesh. Every one of us has a way of going about patching up our own righteousness, and the only way in which we’re going to grow is to recognize the ways in which that happens and repent of it every day.

You’re going to see pride. You’re going to see selfishness. You’re going to see gossip and defense. By the way, I know one pastor who, when somebody says, “I really don’t see all this going on in my life,” he says, “Okay. I want you to really do a discipline for me. This week a) don’t gossip, b) don’t defend yourself, and c) don’t brag. Now watch yourself. Never, ever, ever gossip. In other words, say nothing bad about anybody else, never defend yourself, and don’t brag. You just try that for a week and just see how easy it is.”

If you start looking for that sort of thing, which is the flesh, you’re going to find it’s all over. Repentance. Now last week, after the service a couple of people came up and said, “You were specific enough about identifying it. You were specific enough about making me feel terrible. You did a wonderful job of that. I thought I was doing okay until you showed me these things, but please give me a very specific one-two-three step way of taking the things out. I mean, it’s nice to see them, but taking the things out.

Okay. Let’s begin. I’ll be real specific, but on the other hand, it’s not that easy. Some of you get more frustrated than you ought to when you begin to see the things that are driving you, and you say, “I just can’t seem to purify my motives.” Some people say, “Now that you’ve helped me look at my motives, now that you’ve begun to help me see that, I begin to realize I can never purify my motives, and I start to feel discouraged, and I start to feel in despair.”

1. When you’re able to spot your problems like you are, half the battle is over

The only way your flesh can completely dominate you is if you are not aware of it at all. In a battle, for example, if the enemy is completely unknown to you (you don’t know where the enemy is or what their movements are at all) you’re going to get annihilated. If on the other hand, you can spot the enemy’s movements then you’re going to have a big fight. You might still lose on a given day, but at least you have a fighting chance.

In the same way, the only way you can be completely dominated by your flesh is if you don’t see it at all. If you know, because people have shown it to you and God has shown it to you, you need to control a group you’re in or if somebody has shown you that you’re extremely sensitive to what people think of you and you constantly get your feelings hurt … In other words, if you begin to get aware of your pride and the way in which your pride is shaped … Some of us, our pride (our Self, our flesh) takes the form of a need for domination and holding forth and telling everybody how they ought to live.

Others of us are just shy, self-conscious, or afraid of what people think and always getting our feelings hurt, which is just another form of self-centeredness. It’s just another form of pride. When you begin to see the form and see it for what it is, it no longer can ambush you the same way. On a given week you may fall prey to it, but if you’re able to name it, if you’re able to see it … In fact, anybody who comes and says, “Oh, I see all kinds of bad motives. I see all kinds of problems. I’m so discouraged,” I say, “You are not being really dominated by your flesh if you’re upset like that, if you can see the movement of it.

You have already basically engaged it. The most important part of the battle is actually over, and that is, you woke up.” You see, if the enemy is after you and you’re asleep, there won’t even be a battle. You’ll be dead, but if you’re awake, at least there will be a battle. If you feel the fight, that is a sign of life, and it’s a sign of growth, and it’s a sign God is working in you. The only people who are really losing are the people who have no struggle in their life at all, you see. Don’t be discouraged when you see the bad motives. That is a sign of life.

2. There are two basic parts to repenting of a sin

I began to tell you about the first one last week, but I’ll finish it and tell you the second part, too. First, you have to unmask it, and secondly, you have to take it to the cross. Unmasking it means make sure you stop doing little rationalizations, calling the sin by nice names, you see. Be ruthless with yourself. If you say, “Well, my feelings get hurt pretty easily, you mean you’re bitter. If you say, Well, I’m just very, very concerned,” you’re actually eaten up with anxiety.

You see, call it by its name, and recognize what is going on. We talked about that last week, and I just can’t go into it. The second part, which is what I really want to bring out, is the way in which you destroy the power of a sin is to take it to the cross, not to Mount Sinai. Take it to Mount Calvary, not to Mount Sinai. I’ll explain this for a minute. If you take a sin to Mount Sinai that means you’re thinking about the danger of it. You’re thinking about how it has messed up your life.

You’re thinking about all the punishments that are probably going to come down on you for it. That is not repentance; that is self-pity. Self-pity and repentance are two different things. I came to a place in my life where I realized 90 percent of what I thought I had been doing as repentance throughout most of my life was really just self-pity. The difference between self-pity and repentance is this: Self-pity is thinking about what a mess your sin got you into.

Self-pity is thinking about the consequences of it, what a wreck it’s made of you, how God will probably get me for it, or how my parents will probably get me for it, or how my boss will probably get me for it, or all the problems it will create in my life or already has created in my life. “Oh, Lord, how sorry I am this has happened. Oh, Lord, get this out of my life.” What you’re really doing is saying, “I hate the consequences of this sin,” but you haven’t learned to hate the sin. What is happening is instead of hating the sin, you’re hating the consequences of the sin, and you’re hating yourself for being so stupid.

Self-pity leads to continuing to love the sin so it still has power over you but hating yourself. Real repentance is when you say, “What has this sin done to God? What has it cost God? What does God feel about it?” Let me give you an interesting example of two guys who wrote 300 or 400 years ago. One man’s name is Stephen Charnock. Stephen Charnock tries to explain the difference between taking your sin to Mount Sinai, where you just look at the danger of it, and taking your sin to the cross, where you see what effect it’s had on God.

When you see what effect it has had on the loving God who died so you wouldn’t do it, who died for your holiness, when you begin to see that it melts you, and it makes you begin to hate the sin. It begins to lose its attractive power over you. Instead of making you hate yourself, you find you hate it, and so the idol begins to get crushed bit by bit. Listen carefully to Stephen Charnock, because he’s using old English. Charnock says there is a difference between a legalistic conviction of sin and an evangelical one.

“A legal conviction [of sin] ariseth from a consideration of God’s justice chiefly, an evangelical conviction [of sin] from a sense of God’s goodness.” Now hear this. “A legally convinced person cries out, ‘I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion … I have provoked one that is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth whose word can tear up the foundation of the world …’ But an evangelically convinced person cries, ‘I have incensed the goodness that is like the dropping of a dew. I have offended a God that had his hands stretched out to me as a friend. My heart must be made of marble. My heart must be made of iron to throw his blood in his face.’ ”

Now you see what he’s done. Don’t you see the difference? Let me tell you. I’m going to have to close. I’ll say one more thing. You unmask the sin. We talked about that last week. You take it to the cross. The way to destroy the power of a sin in your life is to take it to the cross where, you see, Jesus Christ died so you wouldn’t do it. Jesus Christ died out of a commitment to your holiness.

When you see that and realize this sin is an insult to him because it’s putting something as more important than him in your life, yes, that will make you feel bad, but it’s not a pathological kind of bad feeling. Instead, it actually frees you, because instead of making you hate yourself, it makes you say, “I don’t want this. I know what he wants for me. This thing I can do without,” and you’re free. You have to look and see what Jesus has done. You know, there is a place in the Bible where Jesus said to the people, “Fear not those who could destroy the body, but fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell.”

Just keep this in mind. He’s talking to his disciples, all of whom were going to die horrible deaths. Stay with me for one minute here. The people who were in front of him who he talked to, we know historically how they died. Some of them were crucified, which is a pretty terrible death. Some of them were ripped to pieces. You know, one of the things they used to do to Christians was to tie one hand and one leg to this horse and one hand and one leg to this horse and just let the horses go and rip them apart. Some of them were impaled while still alive on stakes and covered with pitch and lit as torches.

Some of them had little holes drilled in their skull while they were still alive and molten lead poured into them. Jesus knew what they were going to go through, and he has the audacity to say that’s a picnic compared to hell. He says, “Don’t be afraid of any of that stuff. What’s that? That’s a Sunday school picnic compared to hell.” Jesus talked more about hell than anybody else. You want to blame hell on Paul or somebody nasty like that, I’m sorry. Go take a look. Jesus Christ experienced not just one hell but all of our hells on the cross. All of them pressed down into three hours.

Why? So you could be holy. Now if you think about it like that … Do you know what I’m doing? I’m telling you how you have to preach to yourself, because when you’re saying, like Debbie, the little 16-year-old girl, “What good is all that if you’re not popular? What good is what he’s done if you’re not popular?” You have to look. I said, “You know, Debbie …” I couldn’t do this to her because it’s a pat answer. You have to give yourself pat answers. You can’t get them from anybody else.

She should have come to the cross and said, “Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, I see what you’ve done so I wouldn’t put anything before you, so I wouldn’t do anything but be holy, because only when I’m holy am I happy. You died so I wouldn’t do this. I drop it. I don’t even want to see it. It’s an ugly thing to me because of your beauty.” That is something you should be doing every day, and usually what I do is I find a verse that works on me. You know, verses get radioactive for a while. Last week, a particular verse that got radioactive for me was the verse in Psalm 32 where it says, “You are my hiding place. You fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I’m afraid I put my trust in you.”

I began to realize, “Wait a minute here. I find all kinds of things to hide in.” If some friend calls up from some other part of the country and says, “How are things going?” and I say, “Well, we’ve only had five weeks.” “How many people are coming?” I’m so glad he asked me that. I say, “Well, I don’t know, but probably something like …” He says, “That’s wonderful.” I’m so glad he said that. I find myself hiding in that, you see.

But then all day, all week I find myself hiding in things besides him. I begin to see my flesh creeping back in. I began to see myself, and what I have to do is I have to go back to the cross with it and say, “Listen. Nothing is worth what he is. There is nothing as valuable as what he is. I put that to death.” I have to do it. You can. It’s something that is done every day. He who is forgiven much loves much. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we ask you would help us to get ahold of some of these important truths and use them in our lives. What we ask, more than anything else, is you would enable us to see the difference between repentance and self-pity, between legalistic repentance and evangelical repentance.

Father, in many of our lives we have found we’ve stayed away from looking at our sins. We’ve stayed away from dealing with our idols because we just despair when we see them, yet we realize now what we need to do. We need to recognize what they are. We need to take those things to the cross. We need to leave them there.

We pray, Father, you would enable us to do these things, because it’s only then that we grow. We want to have ourselves growing in joy and in love like that woman, because her repentance grew as well. All of life is repentance. We see that now, because all of life is your love. Your love gives us the security for that. Now Father, lead us into this. Grant us repentance into the life, for we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.

About the Preacher

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for GodKing’s CrossCounterfeit GodsThe Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.

 

Tim Keller on The Joy of Knowing Jesus

Sermon: The Joy of Jesus by Dr. Timothy Keller

Series: The Fruit of the Spirit—The Character of Christ—May 3, 1998 on John 16:19–24

Tim Keller preaching image

I’m going to read from John 16:19–24.

19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.

22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

We’re doing a series here in the morning that has to do with character change, how we actually change. The premise is moral reformation is not the same thing as spiritual transformation. In moral reformation, you can make changes that aren’t the deep spiritual changes, the habits of the heart. One of my wife’s favorite authors is Judith Martin, “Miss Manners,” and she wrote a book called Miss Manners Rescues Civilization.

There’s one spot in there where she asks, “Where did manners come from?” Of course, she gives her learned opinion along the lines of, “Some caveman learned it paid to restrain and control his impulses through courtesy, manners, and customs. It was worth it to avoid living among people who were perpetually furious.”

Her whole idea is she says, “What are manners? Restraining your impulses, controlling your heart. Otherwise, you’ll just live amongst people who are perpetually furious.” That’s right. Moral reformation is fine. Over the years, people have been honest, people have been generous, and people have been self-controlled, simply so we don’t have to live amongst people who are perpetually furious with us.

But notice what she said. Moral reformation is restraining the heart. It’s controlling the heart. It’s sort of jury-rigging the heart. It’s not really changing the heart. What do I mean by jury-rigging? For example, you want self-control. You’re filled with fear. Use the fear to get self-control. “I’d better change, or people are going to find out.” Use the pride to get self-control. You see, out of self-interest, out of pride, out of fear, we can make these kinds of changes.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them. In fact, the world would be a terrible place without them. But that’s not the same thing as changing the habits of the heart. That’s not the same thing as, instead of restraining the heart, changing the heart so that out of the heart flows, at least with increasing naturalness and freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, integrity, courage, humility, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5.

What’s the difference? We’ve said moral reformation comes by looking at the rules and conforming, but spiritual transformation comes from looking at Jesus Christ and regenerating and transforming. Paul lays it down in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He says, “With unveiled faces we contemplate the glory of the Lord and are transformed from one degree of splendor to the next.”

Spiritual transformation does not come like moral reformation, restraining the heart by looking at the rules and conforming. Spiritual transformation comes from looking at Christ and being melted with spiritual understandings of his person and work. That’s the premise. Boy, that sounds so sweet, doesn’t it? That sounds so beautiful. What in the world does it mean? I know where you are. What does it mean?

That’s what we’re doing in this series. We’re looking at the character of Christ and how that character can come in and produce deep changes in our hearts. Today I want to look at something Jesus says: that he gives us joy. There is a joy Jesus gives. On the night before he died, not only in chapter 16 of John, but also in chapter 14 and in chapter 17, in this very last discourse, the last time Jesus had with his disciples before he died, he’s continually saying, “I have a joy to give you.”

I want to look at this joy. He tells us three things in this passage about this joy. He tells us about the promise of it. It’s real. He tells us something about the structure of it, and he tells us about the growth of it, how it comes. Let’s just take a look at that for a moment. The reality, the promise of this joy, then the structure of it (what it’s made of, it’s nature), and then how it comes to us, how it grows.

1. The promise of it

The reality of it. Here’s what he says. In this passage, Jesus Christ says, “If you come to meet me and you come to know me, you will have a joy that is deep and powerful and is now.” Essentially, he says here, “Joy is inevitable if you meet me.” Right here in the very beginning he talks about this “little while and little while.” Do you see this? Right at the top. He has already said, “In a little while you will grieve; then in a little while you will see me. I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn, and then in a little while your grief will be turned to joy.”

What is he talking about? Most commentators, though they think there may be some levels of meaning here, say basically he’s talking about the time between his death and his resurrection. He says, “I’m going to die, and you’re going to weep, but when you see me, when you meet me, the resurrected Lord, you’ll rejoice.” You will rejoice. He doesn’t say, “Some of you who are more emotional in temperament will rejoice.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you who have nicer lives will rejoice.” He says, “You all will rejoice.”

The reason it’s important to see what he’s saying here … He’s not saying, “You will see me at the second coming and rejoice.” He is not saying, “You will see me on the last day, you will see me when you die and go to heaven and rejoice.” He says, “When you see me resurrected you’ll rejoice.” Now why is that so important? Those of you who were here on Easter remember this, but those of you who weren’t here, don’t.

In a nutshell, why is it that Jesus Christ’s tomb was lost? Why is it that by AD 120 Christians weren’t even sure where it was anymore? Why is it, when the tomb of every prophet, every religious founder was always venerated …? It was a shrine. It was a place of pilgrimage. How could the Christians have lost the tomb of Jesus?

We said the reason would be that when you have your son, your son’s room, your son’s things, aren’t all that important. There’s nothing special about his room. There’s nothing special about his shoes, about his clothes, if you have your son. But if your son goes away, or your son leaves for a long time, or your son dies, suddenly those things become important.

The reason the tomb didn’t matter to them was that they had him. He wasn’t away. Real Christianity is to meet the risen Lord. It’s not just the apostles who have met the risen Lord. Anyone who’s a Christian doesn’t need to go to the tomb, because you have him. You don’t need a relic. You have him. You have a relationship. There’s a giving and taking of love.

Why is that so important? Because what Jesus is saying here is Christianity does not only promise this incredible joy in the sky, by and by. He doesn’t say, “You’ll see me in heaven and you’ll rejoice. You’ll see me on the last day and rejoice.” He says when you meet the risen Lord you rejoice. He says, “This is it. Everybody, you’ll have this joy. It will come. It has to come.”

In fact, the illustration of the woman … He says, “Joy is like a woman in labor; when her time has come, she has the child.” I’ve watched, very intimately, a woman have children three times, and I know one thing about labor and children. It will come. When it comes, it’s coming. There’s no stopping it. You don’t say, “Well honey, could you hold it until next week so we could have this trip?”

It will come. In fact, you can’t even say, “Honey, could you hold it for five minutes?” When Jesus Christ gives this woman in labor as the illustration of joy, what he is saying is, “If you actually meet me, you will have joy.” You will. It is inevitable. It has to be there. You’re not a Christian without this joy.

The Bible goes over and over. Listen. When I read this stuff, I got so convicted this last week. What the Bible says about joy … I guess, frankly, until I read it, at least in my mind and my heart and my head, I kind of had this idea that joy is optional. You know, “Some of us have harder lives than others. Joy is optional.” It can’t be. Joy will come. It’s like labor. It’s like birth. “When you see me you will rejoice.”

In the New Testament, the very first miracle of Jesus … Remember it? John 2, the wedding feast at Cana. What was the first miracle of Jesus? This is the beginning of his public ministry. When you begin your public ministry, you make sure you do the very thing that gives people the essence of what you’re about. Your first speech, your first ad, your first event … When you’re starting a campaign, you give them the essence.

What did Jesus do when he was trying to get across to people the essence of what he came for? He didn’t raise the dead. He didn’t walk on water. He didn’t heal the sick. He created 150 gallons of incredible wine to move a party to a new level. What was he saying? He was saying, “Have you heard of the myths of Dionysus? Have you heard of the legends of Bacchus and Dionysus? Have you heard about forests dancing and running with wine and dancing and joy? That’s kid stuff compared to what I’m bringing. I am Lord of the feast.” At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

What about the beginning of the church, the day of Pentecost? Jesus goes to heaven, the Spirit comes down, and the New Testament church is inaugurated. Everybody who saw them that day, everybody who saw the fullness of the Spirit … What did they say about them? “These people are drunk.” Yes. That’s Christianity. Not just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not just the beginning of the church; the beginning of every Christian life. What does the Bible say about how to become a Christian? What does the Bible say about conversion?

Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, and he said, “You became followers of the Lord.” He’s talking to them about their conversion. “You became followers of the Lord, for you received the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Do you know what it means to become a Christian? Some of you say, “Well I guess I’m a Christian.” What’s a Christian? You say, “Well, to believe Jesus is the Son of God, to believe he died on the cross, to believe he rose from the dead.”

The devils believe that, and they’re still devils. What’s the difference between a devil and a Christian? The devils know he’s the Son of God. The devils know he died on the cross. The devils know he rose from the dead, but they have no joy in it. The difference between a Christian and a devil is only joy. At the very essence of faith there has to be a kernel of joy, or it’s not faith. Do you see?

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a man who discovers a treasure buried in a field, and when he discovers it, he sells all he has and goes with joy. He sells all that he has and buys that field. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of the Christian life. What’s the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God, Jesus continually says, is a power that descends upon you and sends you out into the world to change the world, to do the will of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

What is that power? How do you know if you’re in the kingdom? Is it the way you dress? Is it the way you look? Is it the way you eat? Ask Saint Paul, and he’ll tell you. Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” When you’re right with God, a tidal wave of joy sends you out into the world to change it. That is the power of the Spirit.

Look at the gospel. Do you know what the word gospel means? Euangelion. It means literally the joy news. Jesus Christ is born. What do the angels say? “Behold, I bring glad tidings …” That’s the news. “… of great joy.” The word gospel means joy news. J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” … Don’t you hate it when somebody says something is famous and you’ve never heard of it? You say, “What am I? Chopped liver?” I’m sorry. I don’t know if it’s famous, but it’s a great one.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his great essay “On Fairy-Stories,” says there’s a kind of story … There are all kinds of stories, and they move us. He says there’s a kind of story (and he ought to know) that brings us unbelievable joy, whether it’s a movie, or a story we’re reading, or a story we see depicted on the stage, or a story we hear sung about. There are certain stories, he says, that bring us unbelievable joy.

He says these stories always have a certain kind of kernel to them. He says there’s always some incredible hopeless situation, and victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat. But how? Always through someone who comes in, and whose weakness turns out to be strength, someone whose defeat turns out to be a victory. He says it’s those kinds of stories that just seem to bring us joy. He believed (and I think he’s right) … He called them eucatastrophes.

Do you know what the word eucatastrophe means? The joyful catastrophe, the tragedy that turns out to be a triumph, the sacrifice that turns out to bring joy, the weakness that ends up being strength, the defeat that ends up being victory. He said, however, there’s a Eucatastrophe of the eucatastrophes. There is a Story in all of the stories. He believes there’s a bass string to the human heart, and those stories can kind of make it reverberate a little bit but can’t pluck it. He says there’s only one story that can: the story of the gospel.

All of the other stories are based on that. From the ugly duckling who turns out to be a swan, to Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty who gives up all of her happiness to throw herself in the arms of this Beast and, because of her incredible sacrifice, gets a love and frees this person beyond anything she ever understood. Tolkien says the gospel story is the only story that will pluck that string so the whole heart never stops reverberating and vibrating with joy.

The reason it will reverberate is, of all of the great stories, this is not one more myth pointing to the great reality; this is the reality to which all of the other stories point. It happened. It really happened. There really is a Beauty who kisses the beast. There really is a Hercules who defeats the villain. There really is a hero. There really is Jesus. The word gospel means the joy news. Joy. It’s real. You have to have it. It has to be there.

Let me put it to you this way before I go on. Do you know this? Let me talk to two kinds of people. One of the great things about Redeemer is there are always two kinds of people. Actually, there are three. There are people who say, “I’m a Christian,” and there are people who say, “I’m not a Christian,” and then there are a lot of people who say, “I wish I knew what I was.” That’s it. You’re all there.

For those of you who are Christians, I want to ask a quick question. If this is true, if joy is what it’s all about, if it’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of Christianity in your heart, it it’s inevitable, if it’s not for the second coming but for now, how can you live with the moroseness that you do? How is it possible?

Remember when Elizabeth was carrying John the Baptist and Mary was carrying Jesus in the womb? Mary gets near Elizabeth, and suddenly she starts. Mary says to Elizabeth, “What happened?” She says, “At the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Psalm 96 says that when Jesus Christ comes back, the trees of the wood will sing for joy. If the trees, if babies in the womb, if anything getting near Jesus leaps for joy, why aren’t we?

Here’s what I have to suggest. When the Bible says, “Rejoice, and again I say rejoice,” when it commands your joy, it cannot be saying, “Force your feelings.” That’s impossible. You can’t anyway. I’ve had people say, “Is the Bible telling me to force my feelings?” The Bible is not going to say, “Two plus two is five.” It’s not going to tell you to do something that’s impossible. What it must mean is this joy is so inevitable that if it’s not flowing through your life, you must be doing something to stop it. You must be.

I know there are times of grief. Joy is like a tree. It doesn’t always blossom. The joy can be growing in wintertime, just like a tree can be growing in wintertime. Joy is not always in blossom time. But here’s what I want to know. What comparatively small thing are you doing to keep you from seeing what you have in Jesus? What comparatively small thing are you so upset about it’s keeping you from seeing what you have in Jesus? You must be doing something. We must be doing something, if all of the things the Bible says are true.

Secondly, for those of you who are not Christians, or you’re not sure you’re Christians, one of the things that keeps you from Christianity has always been … You say, “You know, religion would be good at some time in my life, but right now I’m not bald yet. I’m a size 8. Later on I may need something to help me deal with life. Right now Christianity is interesting, but I like to have fun.” Jesus Christ throws down the gauntlet to you, and I’m going to try too.

If Jesus could make himself visible, he would say, “Look, if you have a real objection, okay. Suffering and evil? That’s a real objection. The injustice done by the church in my name in history? That’s a real objection. But when you tell me, ‘I don’t want to become a Christian because I want to enjoy myself, I want to enjoy life,’ first, that means you don’t even know what you’re rejecting. That has no integrity. Secondly, how could you possibly turn later to something you mustn’t even know about now or you wouldn’t say such a thing? How can you turn to it later? You don’t even know what it is.”

If you know anything about Lord Byron’s history, you’ll know he tried exactly what you’re doing: to have fun. Somewhere near the end of his life, he said, “There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away.” He’s right. Christianity is not something that makes you philosophical. It’s joy now.

2. The structure of it

What is the structure of this joy? This joy is very, very different. In a way, Christian joy is like every other kind of joy. You rejoice in that which you find beautiful. What is something you find beautiful? You find beautiful something that doesn’t give you something else but is satisfying in itself, just for what it is.

Some of you might find this weird. When I can’t relax, or if I can’t get to sleep at night and I just want to really get peace … There is a high mountain pass in Northern Wales I have driven over three times in my life. When you get over the top of it, you go down into the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen in my life. I think of that. I have a couple of pictures of it, but I also have a memory. I think about it.

Maybe you have places like that: a seashore … What gives you joy about that? What does it give you? All it gives you is itself. Joy and beauty … it’s the same thing. Keates said so. The only thing that can always give you joy is something you find beautiful not for what it gives you, but for what it is in itself. Why is the woman so happy that a child is born? Bad parents say, “Oh great, now I can have love in my life.”

If you have a child and the reason you rejoice is you say, “Finally, somebody will love me; somebody I’ll have a relationship with,” you’ll be a lousy parent. You’ll destroy that child, and the child will destroy you. Good parents rejoice in the child for what it is in itself, and as it grows up, you do everything you can just to let the child go off. You’re happy if your son or your daughter is happy. Why? Because that’s real joy. Real joy is you don’t want the thing to give you something else; you just find it beautiful for what it is in itself.

The structure of this joy is so incredibly different, because it tells us the spiritual joy Jesus gives is like the joy of a woman … Take a look. It says she’s in this incredible pain. She’s in this incredible labor. She’s beaten up like nobody can be beaten up. It says suddenly the child is born, and it says literally in the Greek, “She remembers her pain no more.” Notice it doesn’t say her pain is gone. I happen to know. I’ve watched this. When the child is born, her pain is not gone, but she remembers her pain no more.

What does the word remember mean? The Bible says when you become a Christian, God remembers your sin no more. Does that mean he’s not aware of the sin? Does that mean he says, “Did they ever sin?” No. He’s aware of the sin, but the sin doesn’t control the way in which he reacts to me. If he doesn’t remember my sins anymore because I’m in Christ, he’s not controlled by it. He doesn’t focus on it. It hasn’t captured his heart. Love has captured his heart.

Here’s what’s going on. Here’s this woman and she’s all beaten up, but the structure of her joy is not that she’s in denial. She’s not saying, “Well, doctor, I don’t feel a thing. I’m fine. Everything is fine.” She’s not saying that, but she’s furiously and lovingly and joyfully looking at the child, and she forgets her pain. It doesn’t mean she denies it. It doesn’t mean she’s not even hurting. It doesn’t control her. The pain can’t get her down anymore. Not when she has this.

The structure of Christian joy is that you’ve located your greatest joy and your greatest beauty in God. He gives you more joy, and you find him more beautiful than anything else in life. That’s the reason Jonathan Edwards, years ago, could say the difference between a religious person and a Christian is not that one is obedient and one is disobedient. Oh no. He says religious people and real Christians both obey God. They’re both committed to God. In fact, a religious person might look more obedient and committed.

The difference is that only the Christian is attracted to God. The religious person finds God useful, but the Christian finds God beautiful. What does that mean? It means the religious person will obey as long as God answers his prayers, but if God doesn’t answer his prayers, he says, “What good is it to be a Christian?” Some of you have done that. Some of you said years ago, “I worked my fingers to the bone, and I did all these incredible things, and I didn’t get into the law school I wanted to get into, and I’ve never had the career I wanted to do, so I walked away.”

What does that mean? It means your law career was the beauty. It was the satisfying thing. God was a means to an end. God was useful; he wasn’t beautiful to you, so you’ve never tried Christianity. You have a joy that is very different than Christian joy, because Christian joy coexists with suffering. Christian joy coexists with sorrow. She remembers her sorrow no more. It doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of it. It means it doesn’t control her anymore.

Worldly joy has to avoid suffering, worldly joy has to deny suffering, but Christian joy coexists and, in fact, is enhanced by it, because it shows you where true joy is going to be found. The structure of Christian joy is you’ve relocated your beauty, you’ve relocated your joy in God, and now circumstances can’t touch it.

This is, by the way, the reason why Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world. Christians should never be denying their own pain, and Christians should never be denying that the world is painful, and Christians should never be afraid of getting empathetically involved with people who are suffering. Why? Because you have a joy that coexists with that.

The world’s joy says, “I can’t admit how bad things are. I can’t admit how much I’m hurting. I can’t admit how bad the world is.” Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world, because they have a joy that coexists with sorrow. They have a joy that grows deeper … Just like the darker the night, the brighter the stars. Christian joy is like that. It gets brighter when things get darker. Everybody else’s joy just goes out. That’s the structure.

3. The growth of it

Up to now you’re saying, “Okay, that’s fascinating. This incredible joy, you rejoice even in suffering, and it’s a different structure and everything, but I can’t do that. I read these texts, ‘Rejoice, and again I say rejoice.’ I tried to be happy. I can’t do it.” Well, it’s not a matter of trying. When Jesus Christ tells us about this woman … Who is this woman?

The New International Version, the translation I read from, has done us a little bit of a disservice. The New International translation says she’s in all this incredible pain, she’s in all this labor, and then it says … Why? Why is she in all the pain? What does it say? “Because her time has come.” Gee, that’s unfortunate. Literally, the Greek says, “Because her hour has come.”

If you have ever read the gospel of John, you’ll know the word hour has a very technical meaning and has a very focused meaning. It has a very specific meaning. In 7:30; in 8:20; in 13:11; and in chapter 12, I can’t remember quite where; even in chapter 2 … Remember when Mary says, “They have no more wine,” Jesus turns and says, “Woman, it is not my hour”? What is the hour?

Do you know what the hour is in the gospel of John? “It was the sixth hour, and darkness took over, and Jesus Christ cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” In those days before epidurals and anesthetics, every time a woman gave birth she was in incredible agony, and she was right on the verge of losing her life. Jesus Christ is saying two things to us here.

He is the one in labor, and the first thing he says is, “I went into labor, but the labor pains I endured were my hour.” They were far greater than any woman has ever endured, because they weren’t physical. The only way for a mother to give the baby the joy of life is to take away her own joy at that moment. She has to give away her joy and maybe even give away her life to bring life to the child.

Jesus Christ says, “I gave away a joy to bring joy to you, and the joy I lost and the pain I suffered was my hour. Do you want to know what I threw away for you? Go back and read Proverbs 8. When my Father and I were creating the universe, I danced before the Father, and we delighted in the human race, the men and women we were creating to take part in our joy. Because of your sin, I lost everything. I lost that.

Don’t you say, ‘Oh, how bad could it have been? It was only three hours.’ No, no, no. I suffered something you’ll never understand. That’s why I suffered it, so you wouldn’t understand it. I lost something you will never know. I went into labor. It was my hour. I lost something you will never know. I suffered something you’ll never know. I lost all the joy I had, a joy you never will know, so you could have joy.”

That’s the first thing he’s saying, but do you know the second thing he’s saying? It’s just about as astounding. Not only does the woman show us how Jesus suffered, but the woman shows us why Jesus did it. In Hebrews 12, it says, “For the joy that was set before him, he went to the cross, despising the shame.” For the joy that was set before him. How could that be? What joy was it? What does the woman see? The baby.

Do you know what this means? What did Jesus get out of it? What did Jesus get out of that incredible, infinite experience of agony and torment he went through? Did he get out of it a sense of accomplishment? He didn’t need that. He had that. Did he get out of it the admiration of the Father? He already had that. Did he get out of it self-esteem? He already had that. What didn’t he have? Us. What could he have gotten out of us? Nothing.

What does that mean? He located his joy in us. He wanted us just because we were beautiful to him. It tells us in Isaiah 53, “The results of his suffering he shall see and be satisfied.” He’ll look at us and say it was worth it. How could that be worth it? The only way would be if he has located his joy in us. He has linked his heart to us. He has made us his treasure. He has made us his beauty. The great philosophical minds of the world have noticed that.

Jonathan Edwards says, “… Christ has his delight, most truly and properly, in obtaining [our] salvation, not merely as a means [conducive to his joy and delight], but as what he [actually] rejoices and is satisfied in, most directly and properly. […] ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.’ […] ‘The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will [quiet thee with] his love, he will rejoice over thee with singing.’ ”

We are his jewels. We are his treasure. There it is. How can this joy grow? It’s very simple. Actually, in some ways this sets up next week’s sermon, so I hope you can come back. Next week’s sermon is about suffering. The fact is, if you just see somebody say, “Be joyful,” you’ll never do it, but if you see Jesus Christ did this and he made you his joy, that will change you.

If you see him locating his joy in you and making you the ultimate beauty of his life, that means you will be able to finally … It’ll melt you, and you’ll be able to put your joy in him. Then you’ll have that joy with that whole new structure. He’ll become the joy. He’ll become all you want. You just want him. You don’t say, “I want him plus law school.” You say, “I want him.” Then you’ll finally be happy. Then you’ll look at him.

When I look at that valley or when I listen to some great music, that’s what my eyes … Your senses are made for a certain sight. Your eyes are made for certain kinds of visual beauty, and your ears are made for certain kinds of auditory beauty, and your nose is made for olfactory beauty, but your soul is made for this. Do you see him doing it? Are you affected by it?

Don’t you see? This is how all the fruit are connected. You say, “Okay, so that’s how I get joy, but how do I get patience?” Rejoice in his patience for you. “Well okay, how do I get peace?” Rejoice in his wisdom. You’re fearfully and wonderfully made. If you know how to rejoice in what he did for you, at the moment you lack peace or lack patience or lack courage or lack humility or lack self-control … What is self-control? You want a kind of beauty. You want a kind of pleasure. Rejoice in him as the ultimate pleasure.

Let me end this way. For those of you who say, “I don’t know much about this joy,” I’ll tell you how it happens. You never have a birth without labor, and you never have a resurrection without death, and you will never get this incredible joy if you come just for happiness. If you come to Jesus for comfort, you’ll never get it. On the far side of repentance is comfort. On the far side of labor is a birth. On the far side of death is a resurrection. Therefore, you need repentance in order to have this incredible joy.

You say, “What do you mean by repentance?” It’s simply this. If you think Christianity is saving yourself, if you think Christianity is living a good life, if you think Christianity is trying your best to live like Jesus Christ, of course there’s no joy in your life. You’re trying to save yourself. You don’t have the joy of the Holy Ghost, and you never will. Your life is humorless. You’re trying real hard. If you’re willing to say, “I am a sinner, and I deserve to be lost, but look what he has done for me,” that will give you joy. Don’t you see that?

I never get a chance to say this. There are people in New York City I run into relatively often. They’re women who say, “I can’t relate to a Savior in Christianity who’s just a man. I can’t relate to a man. He’s a man. He doesn’t understand. I can’t relate to that, a male Savior. How can I get into Christianity?” Don’t you see? This is the only man who ever gave birth. What does that mean? Of course Jesus was male when he was on earth. Historically he was male. But don’t you see what this is saying?

Jesus is trying to say, “I’m not less than a man; I’m more. The problem is not that I don’t understand what it means to be a woman or what it means to give birth. The problem is you don’t understand my labor over you. That’s your whole problem.” To the degree you understand that, to that degree, even in sorrow, it’ll just push you more into the joy. Even in your troubles, it’ll push you more to the One who is the final and true joy. Do you see? Look to him and be radiant. Let’s pray.

Our Father, we pray that now, as we take the Lord’s Supper, your Son Jesus Christ would become real to us. Help us to see the brokenness being the broken body giving birth to us. The cup poured out is his heart and his lifeblood poured out for us. Help us, as we see him locating his joy in us, doing all this just for us, just because of his love for us, his delight in us, give us that delight in him that will give us that impervious joy that will help us to move out into the world and change the world, because the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking; it’s righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

About the Preacher

Tim Keller praching w bible image

Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for GodKing’s CrossCounterfeit GodsThe Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.