Toying With God: Owen Strachan and the Submission of Christ in the Trinity

Note: I want to acknowledge one of our contributors and team members Andrew Warrick for some major changes in this work in reviewing/editing. We try to have each team member review each other’s posts before posting them and sometimes a team member will make changes in the editing process to a work that is up for a particular week. In this case I think it was substantial enough that I want to give Andrew credit.

The Jeffrey Johnson debate surrounding his new book, “The Failure of Natural Theology,” has made waves in the Reformed world with regards to theology proper specifically. But it seems his employee and sidekick Owen Strachan has his own way of stirring the pot. In a book that he and Gavin Peacock authored, “The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them,” there is discussion about authority and submission in the Trinity. Even though this book was published in 2016, his understanding of God ad intra still causes controversy today. Let us begin.

Paul explains this parallel in 1 Cor. 11:3 ‘But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.’ The Son does the Father’s will: ‘I do exactly as the Father commanded me,’ Christ said in John 14:31. He submitted Himself to the Father’s will (John 6:38). This posture of submission to fatherly authority did not begin the day Jesus came to earth. The Father is the authority of Christ, and always has been. The Son joyfully carries out the plan of His Father. The persons of the Godhead are not impersonal, with only titles to differentiate them. They are living persons, and their own love has structure and form. The Father as Father has authority; the Son as Son obeys His Father.

The Grand Design: Male and Female He Made Them, Kindle Edition

Now before you run away screaming, let us see why this is such a poor (and I dare say heretical) understanding of the Trinity, especially the relationship between the Father and the Son ad intra. Now, to the untrained eye this understanding of the Persons may fly under the radar. Jesus is the Son and it makes sense that he should submit to the Father ad intra. From a human standpoint submission is exactly what happens. I, as a son of my father, submitted to him. But applying that understanding to the Trinity would assume that the Father and Son as the subsisting essence of God function exactly like we do from a human standpoint. God’s “society” must function univocally, at least to some extent, as our society does. But God cannot be made like corruptible man or we have created an idol (Romans 1:22-23).

What must be kept in mind and what is lost in the authors’ discussion above is that Jesus has (yes, present tense) two natures.

“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,”
‭‭

Colossians‬ ‭2:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬

There is no accounting for the fact that in this mysterious union of divine and human nature there are things that are only to be posited of one nature or the other. Jesus slept, ate, grew, learned, all according to His human nature ONLY. This would also include submission. There is submission to God according to his human nature only thereby allowing us to consistently say the head of Christ is God while preserving the unity of the divine essence of God. It is assumed by the authors that Scripture must be talking about God ad intra in addition to the human nature of Christ. This is a fatal mistake. Never mind both John 14 and 6 are during the Incarnation meaning Jesus would be speaking according to His humanity back to the Father or in relation to Him (only Jesus’ human nature taking on relation, with nothing created in the essence of God). Yes, Jesus did act according to His divine nature while on earth, but if we have a proper understanding of God we can understand why this can’t be the case in every instance.

Two cardinal doctrines must be kept in mind: God is simple and God is immutable. If these are held dearly there will be no room for the error that Peacock and Strachan make. God’s simplicity means He is not composed of parts and is not divisible. And His immutability means God does not change. And not just that he doesn’t change and remains still with potency, but that He cannot change in any way as finite creation would. Divine simplicity ensures this. Movement would mean change and God would take on new states of being. Further discussion of these two doctrines can be found in our podcast episode reviewing Jeff Johnsons book here.

Given the backdrop of these two doctrines, we can now move onto a discussion of why Jesus cannot in any way be subordinate (as Owen and Peacock assert) to the Father according to His Deity. Now, Strachan has said in a recent article that,

One of those areas is the eternal authority of the Father and eternal submission of the Son (called ERAS, eternal roles of authority and submission). There are a bevy of texts that have led many theologians to conclude that Scripture teaches the eternal authority of the Father and the eternal submission of the Son. As I read it, Scripture presents such truth while continually promoting the full ontological equality of the Father and Son; the Father and Son are coeternal and each fully a divine person.

The Danger of Equating Eternal Authority & Submission with Arian Heresy (https://owenstrachan.substack.com/p/the-danger-of-equating-eternal-authority)

This is problematic as we have noted already, but notice there is this distinction made between the Persons and the essence of God, as if each Person is some kind of additional “something” on top of the essence rather than simply being a different subsistence of that essence. In Owen’s model, the Persons submit but somehow there is no submission in the Godhead as it relates to the being of God. Simplicity has already been undermined, as he implies there is a real distinction between the Persons and the essence of God to the point where each Person possesses distinct actual properties (as opposed to the relative properties) that exist outside of God’s being, enabling the Son to have a separate will that can be submitted to the Father. In other words, they have wills outside the essence of Deity. This is not the same thing as subsisting relations in the divine, this is creating a distinction that makes “Persons” and “essence” partite. Understanding the procession of the Persons properly will keep us from errors like this. When we talk about procession of the Son from the Father the question is, a procession from what? There has to be something that Jesus is proceeding from and it has to be the essence of the Father. John 20:21 lays out the procession of Christ from the Father. If the Father is eternal and He is infinite, simple, and immutable, it must be an eternal procession, one that does not divide or start and terminate yet really distinguishes the Father from the Son. But because Jesus proceeds from the essence of the Father, they must be equals since there is but one essence of God that each of the three persons subsist in. Each Person of the Trinity is the essence of God and therefore subsists, and this means there is no real distinction between what the Persons do and what the essence does. They are only distinguished from one another by where their relations “begin.” This preserves the unity of God while providing us with real distinction in the Godhead.

As soon as you insert gradations of authority within the immanent Trinity, gradations that are person-defining and therefore essential for the Trinity to be a Trinity, you forfeit one will in God. You forfeit the Trinity’s one, simple essence. Our God is simply Trinity…no more.

Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit, page 229

God’s nature is compromised if authority, functions, etc. are posited to the Trinity. Seeing Jesus simply as the Father’s essence is to avoid falling into the trap of breaking God up into parts. John Owen noted that the divine essence is simply subsisting specially for a divine person when he said, “Now, a divine person is nothing but the divine essence, upon the account of an especial property, subsisting in an especial manner.” (A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity and also of The Person and Satisfaction of Christ). Subsistence helps us to avoid falling into the error of division and roles because it’s simply (no pun intended) God existing as three. No division, no subordination, just “I AM” (Exodus 3:14).

…subordination would absolutely throw into question the divine equality attributed to the Son. And should EFSers object that they only mean the Son is inferior in authority (person), not essence (divinity), let’s not forget that the Son is a subsistence of the divine essence. Begotten from the Father’s essence from all eternity…the Son can be nothing less than equal with the Father in every way. For the divine essence cannot be severed, wrenched away, or divorced from divine power, authority, and glory, each of which subsists in the three persons equally.

Matthew Barret, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit page 236

I will clarify, Owen would not claim to be an “EFSer” (Eternal Functional Subordination) but a proponent of ERAS (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission) but based on Barret’s assessment, they have the same problem. Namely, that there is a personal difference in authority, not ontologically so. Being very careful with our words about God and our conception of Him will help us to avoid errors like these. Since Owen has been the center of the subordination controversy lately, I’m picking on him but he is by no means alone although it may present itself differently. Owen is continuing down a dangerous path, one that can only lead to destruction if continued. We need to bring God back to the focal point of our theology. Critical race theory, theonomy, complimentarianism, or abortion should not be our focus. These are important issues and they must be addressed but nothing is more important than who our God is. We must let this stick in our brains and our souls. Idolatry takes many forms, not just in statues made by man. Many idols wear religious garb. They look so appealing and entice with a passion, but the church needs to act like men, and stop sleeping while the enemy takes prisoners and slaughters behind our backs. Only then will we recover a proper doctrine of our incredible God. Men have labored hard by God’s grace to provide us what the Scriptures teach on God — not exhaustively, but in a way we can know Him truly. Let us stand on the shoulders of these vessels of grace.

Jeffrey D. Johnson and Motion in God

There has been much controversy on Jeff Johnson’s new book, “The Failure of Natural Theology.” Like a bombshell dropped on a city, it has blown up and brought to light very important topics, most notably on the doctrine of God. We recently did a podcast episode discussing the book which you can find here. One topic that stands out in Jeff’s book is his predication of motion in God. What does he mean by motion when talking about God? I want to clarify that here.

Motion Affirmed

“The Bible does not teach divine immovability…The biblical doctrine of divine simplicity and immutability does not mean, as Aquinas believed, divine immobility.”

The Failure of Natural Theology, page 137

This is but one example of Jeff affirming motion in God. He tries to defend the thesis that there is really motion in God while also trying to uphold the attribute of immutability. This is problematic because something that moves must by definition go from potentiality to actuality, thereby taking on a state of being it did not have before. This undermines divine immutability and divine simplicity as this would require God to change, moving from potential to actualization, and it would necessarily add something to God that is not God. Now you would have change and parts in God through this new state of actualization. Jeff’s view undermines the biblical and classical doctrine of who God is.

“The Trinity is the only being (because he is both one and many) who can move himself ad intra…But a self-moving God is what we find in the Trinitarian God of the Bible.”

The Failure of Natural Theology, pages 161-162

Motion Explained

While Jeff does not seem to spell out in so many words, “motion in God means this,” it is possible to see his meaning based on the overall discussion of his argument. Jeff thinks that motion in God must necessarily be so because motion in creation cannot be from an unmoved mover (pages 68-69). Jeff denies actus purus (page 66), the concept that God is pure act with no potency and is therefore partless and changeless.

“But if Aristotle’s god cannot move, how will he actively move anything inside or outside himself?”

The Failure of Natural Theology pages 68-69

So God must be able to move if He is to create. He cannot be the efficient cause of the universe (page 68). This is but one aspect upon which Jeff denies actus purus (another example being on page 148 where he talks about problems an unmoved mover would create with communicating to man). Now, when Jeff means God moves, he literally means God moves. Although, he may deny spatial movement he certainly affirms temporal movement. He does try to say that this movement in God is a different kind of movement than what we find in creation (e.g., pages 137-138), but it is still movement at its core. The terms of “self-moving” as coupled with his express denial of actus purus remove any notion that this is not actual movement. And as noted before, he denies actus purus so he is not talking about movement in God in terms of actus purus. On page 162, he attempts to defend his idea of motion by distinguishing between God’s essence as immutable but the persons of the Trinity as not. “The Father, as a distinct person, is intrinsically moved to love and glorify the Son…” (page 162). And on the same page he says there are eternal processions of the Son and Spirit, but he seems to not mean it in the same sense the Nicean fathers would have. He even discusses the meaning of the word “automobile” on page 162. He contrasts between a vehicle which is not truly self-moving because it depends on other things to really move and God who can really move Himself without the need for something outside of Himself. “Strictly speaking, the word automobile applies only to God. Only the triune God is autonomously self-moving” (page 162). This places the concept of motion in God with the automobile, just with one allegedly moving Himself and the other depending upon other factors to move. But motion is still there, albeit he tries to say this motion is eternal. Jeff will try to get around the inevitable denial of immutability by saying that the, “eternal state of movement within the Trinity is not a change in the immutability of God” (page 163). But on the previous page, he made a distinction between the persons and the essence of God by noting, “God is both immutable in his essence without being restricted to a static and motionless state within the relations of the three persons.” (page 162) So are the persons not God then if they are moving but his essence is not? How does this not compromise divine simplicity now that there are real distinctions in God that are not relational only? We are left wanting. But one thing is clear: motion means motion.

Motion as we understand it cannot be predicated of God. To move from one state of being to another, from potency to actuality, is to compromise the doctrine of God. Motion is creature by its very definition as Scripture sees it (Psalm 102:26-27 and James 1:17, both of which were discussed in the linked podcast episode). We must not think that we can make God like us. If He can be like us, then we have a creature and an idol.

“Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭1:22-23‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

Where Does Faith Come From?

This may sound like a rather obvious question but you would be surprised how many people get it all wrong. The dictionary defines faith as belief that is not based on proof. Where does this faith come from? Is it a product of a decision we make or is it something more? Thankfully, the bible is not silent on this.

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

How do we normally receive gifts? We either ask for them or they are given without any influence from us. The latter half of the passage in Ephesians tells us it was given to us without any influence on our part. There was no work done by us (praying, asking, doing good, etc). It was given as a gift out of God’s own heart. He chose to give the gift of faith without any work on our part whatsoever.

You have seen the dictionary’s definition of faith, but what is the biblical definition? According to Hebrews, “faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). This, combined with Ephesians 2:8-9, should be enough to prove faith is not something we earn or reach out for. It is something God gives us of His own will. Faith may be something we have but it certainly is not something we create. Faith is not a result of anything on our part. To further drive home the origin of faith, God has given us an abundance of verses that speak to it. For instance, we know that that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6), the flesh is hostile toward God, does not subject itself to Him, and unable to please Him (Romans 8:7-8), the natural man is unable to accept or understand the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14), and that one who is not with God is against Him (Luke 11:23).

We are all born into flesh. As natural man, not only is it impossible to understand the things of God (spiritually appraised), but it is also impossible to please God. It is impossible to submit to Him because we are naturally hostile towards God. We are not for God, therefore we are against God. How then can one believe we make the choice to follow God of our own free will when it is impossible to understand and we are in a state of hostility?

In reality, prior to being regenerated by the Spirit and given a heart of repentance, our desires are to do the will of another one we called father: the devil (John 8:44). The only way to escape this snare of the devil is if God grants us repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth so that we may come to our senses (2 Timothy 2:25-26). As natural man, we desire to do the devil’s work. In the 2 Timothy passage where it speaks of correcting those in opposition, it is not speaking of rebuking fellow believers. It is referring to correcting non-believers. It says we are to witness to non-Christians in case God decides to grant them repentance. Notice they do not come to their senses before God grants them repentance. The gift is given first. Only then will their desires change, not first. God makes the first move, yet we are told He will often do so through the preaching of the gospel.

In case there are still any doubts as to the efficacy of our will in changing our nature, Scripture also tells us the unregenerate man is incapable of making himself clean (Job 14:4), doing good (Jeremiah 13:23), or bearing good fruit (Matthew 7:18). It is only when the Father draws him (John 6:44) that he is granted to come (John 6:65). Upon this act of God, he is given a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27) and is considered adequate (2 Corinthians 3:5). A leopard cannot change its spots (Job 14:4) but God can.

Before we move on, let’s review what was just said:

1) We cannot clean ourselves any more than a leopard can change his spots.

2) One who does evil cannot also do good.

3) A bad tree will only produce bad fruit. There will be no good fruit produced by one who is unsaved.

4) The Father draws and grants. Without these, nobody can enter the kingdom of God.

5) Our adequacy is from God alone and not from our own choices.

6) God gives us a new heart. He gives us the Holy Spirit to walk in His ways. Before this, we were nothing but bad fruit incapable of doing good.

We cannot change our desires. We cannot change our hostility toward God. We are the way we are and we cannot change ourselves. Only God can make the change. Only God can initiate the change. Furthermore, the desire to change ourselves will not be present apart from the Spirit of God in His regenerating work.

We cannot think clearly about or desire Christ by our own unaided decision. Why not? We cannot respond to the good news of the gospel until we want Christ, and we cannot want Christ simply by a decision we can take at any moment we choose. We cannot say to our will, “Will, will to belong to the Lord!” It is beyond our powers to do that. No one can will the will to will what it will not will!

Sinclair B. Ferguson “By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me” p.4

Everything is from God. He draws us to Himself. He changes us. He grants repentance and an understanding of truth. He removes hostility. He causes us to die to flesh and to be born to Spirit. He is Almighty God and it is all in His hands.

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things are passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, NASB)

Faith may be a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9) but that is an incomplete statement regarding non-Christians. It is not just faith that God gives us but faith in Him. The Bible tells us that nobody seeks God (Psalm 14:2-3) and that without His gift of faith, it is impossible to understand the things of God (2 Corinthians 2:14). People can still have faith (i.e. belief in something) but that faith will always be misplaced unless God allows them to open their eyes and have faith in Him.

I certainly do believe it is possible to have more faith than another person even if that faith is misplaced. The great news is that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains if it is placed in God. Faith placed in anything else will be empty regardless how big it is. Be encouraged! Have faith!

~ Travis W. Rogers

Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Defense of Single-Fulfillment Christ-Centered Prophecy

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me

Luke 24:44

            The entirety of Scripture centers on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is its Author and Scope, and plainly testifies that He has been revealed in the Old Testament thousands of years before His incarnation. Yet, the precise way He is revealed there has become a contentious issue in modern scholarship. Many scholars struggle to see Him in the texts that Christ and His Apostles declare to prophecy Him, and those scholars have come up with various ways of explaining how those texts may be messianic. Michael Rydelnik compiled a list of their various theories, which include sensus plenior (or dual fulfillment), typical fulfillment, epigenetic fulfillment, relecture fulfillment, and midrash fulfillment. All of these have advocates today in the evangelical academy.[1]

            Fortunately, we have not been left to ourselves to develop the best method of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit has testified, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tm. 3:16-17). As Sam Waldron shows, the phrase, “man of God,” is used in the Bible to designate a minister or spokesman of God, so these verses are especially stressing the sufficiency of Scripture to equip God’s under-shepherds for all their duties.[2] Therefore, we can trust that Scripture shows us how to preach Christ from itself, because rightly handling the word of truth to minister the Lord Jesus is one of the primary duties of the man of God. If Scripture did not equip the pastor to preach Christ from the largest part of the Bible – the only Bible Christ’s original disciples had to preach from – then its claims of sufficiency for the man of God would be moot.

            We, therefore, must reject out of hand those approaches that deny we should follow the hermeneutical method used by Christ and His Apostles in favor of methods grounded only in human reason. Graeme Goldsworthy rightly asks, “If we cannot determine our hermeneutics of the Old Testament from the way Jesus, the apostles and the inspired authors of the New Testament interpreted it, have we any firm basis at all on which to proceed?”[3] We must embrace the method that our risen Lord gave to His disciples that they subsequently carried out (Lk. 24:44).  This method is not fully consistent with either the grammatical-historical approach (as most commonly applied) or even sensus plenior, but rather is best identified with what is sometimes known as the pre-critical, direct fulfillment approach. This approach is not only what appears in the pages of the New Testament, but also is the consensus of Christian commentaries before the modern era and – in my experience – it still dominates the pews.

            The topic of Old Testament prophecy regarding New Testament realities is often prejudiced as a conundrum, as if the majority of God’s people struggle to find Jesus in the texts the New Testament finds Him in.[4] But a survey of church history suggests that it was not the norm to have such a difficulty, and even today, my own experience has found that laymen receive the Old Testament prophecies with joy. The difficulties, I believe, largely stem from certain unbiblical presuppositions that have crept into modern scholarship rather than any true difficulty in seeing Christ in the Old Testament. As such, this paper requires us to first approach those presuppositions, including a brief exploration of the nature of inspiration and prophecy. Next, a few examples of the New Testament interpreting the Old Testament using biblical presuppositions will be provided, demonstrating the precedent the Bible establishes for the direct fulfillment view. Finally, an example of what it looks like to rightly interpret messianic prophecy will be given and contrasted with other approaches.

Scripture as true revelation

            Today, the prophetic writings are often treated as if they were little more than theological reflections by the prophet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while not denying the role of the Divine, many evangelical interpreters nevertheless imply that the prophetic writings have a real genesis in the minds of the prophets, who have a personal intention in their prophecies with an eye to having a specific effect on their immediate audience. Some evangelicals, like Francis Foulkes, will even say that their predictive capability often largely depends “on the warnings, the promises of the covenant, and on the fact that prophets were convinced that, as God had done in the past, so He would do in the future.”[5] This heavy emphasis on the role of the human author is quite contrary to treatments of inspiration by earlier men like John Owen, who says,

“The doctrines they [the human writers of Scripture] delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them, (1 Pet. 1:10, 11,) but were all of them immediately from God … Their tongue in what they said, or their hand in what they wrote, was עֵט סוֹפֵר, no more at their own disposal than the pen is in the hand of an expert writer.”[6]

To modern ears, Owen’s heavy emphasis on the primacy of the Divine author may be so jarring that it sounds like mechanical dictation theory. But it cannot be rightly classified as such, because Owen’s view does not include a suspension of the writer’s faculties in the process of inscripturation – he says in the same spot that the process included “a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception.”[7] Rather than suspending their faculties, Owen confesses that God “acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conceptions.”[8] In fact, while he denies Scripture is ever truly a product of the writers’ memories, he does not even deny that the Spirit would use their memories in their writings on occasion (cf. Lk. 1:1-4).[9] Owen’s point is simply that Scripture is not a result of men plumbing their own memories and thoughts to get across their own message. Rather, Scripture is a result of God speaking immediately in His human authors to get across His ideas and His words, which may have sometimes involved the confirmation of their memories and the use of vocabulary suitable to His instruments.

Scripture’s own attestation to its origin confirms Owen’s view. Not every book or genre of books in the Bible is equally clear in how the Divine author crafted it, but the prophets – which we will mostly concern ourselves with here – are quite explicit. Suffice it to say for the other books, they are equally described as the product of the supernatural breath of God (2 Tm. 3:16).

 When we take the words of the prophets at their face value, they do not at all suggest that their message is their own theological musings meant to accomplish their own agenda. Rather, they repeatably say, “a vision appeared unto me” and “the word of the LORD came unto me,” emphasizing that their message came to them externally. It was no vague internal impression of being led to say something; it was so tangible that, for Jonah, the word of the LORD was like a physical location that he thought he could flee from (Jon. 1:1-3). This has led many to understand that the phrase, “the word of the LORD came unto me,” is actually a reference to the pre-incarnate Word speaking to the prophets. This interpretation is strengthened by the New Testament witness, which states that the prophets were communicated to by the Spirit of Christ Himself (1 Pet. 1:11).

Far from getting across their own thoughts, the prophets sometimes would express bewilderment over their message and their ministry. Daniel often did not understand his visions, and when he asked for understanding at the end of his prophecies he was denied, “for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9). Jeremiah had no motivation to speak himself, but God said, “whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak” (Jer. 1:6-7). The very structure of Jeremiah (and several other prophets) reflects what one would expect if he was simply faithfully recording the messages delivered to him rather than presenting his own work; scholars have had a notoriously difficult time constructing an outline for that book, with some giving up on the idea of making an outline at all.[10]  Ezekiel was forbidden to say anything on his own and would only be allowed to speak when God supernaturally opened his mouth and gave him words to say (Ezek. 3:27). He also clearly did not choose the way he would be used to express God’s message symbolically, which is proven by his petition to God to change what he was instructed to do (Ezek.4:13-15). That the prophets were not expressing their own minds is likewise confirmed by the New Testament, which says, “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Bible denies that prophecy came in any way that would make it come by the will of man. Rather, the God of Scripture suddenly and powerfully makes Himself known to His prophets in various ways, instructing them what to write and what to speak through the influence of His Holy Spirit in them.

If the message neither came from the prophet’s mind nor was necessarily understood by them, it follows that the message was not necessarily given to be understood by the immediate audience either. This is rather explicit in Isaiah, where God tells Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” (Is. 6:9). The message was not given to be understood by its hearers, but served as a testimony against them, revealing their hardened hearts and blind eyes until the coming judgement (Is. 6:10-12). Ezekiel’s audience likewise did not understand him and said of him, “Doth he not speak parables?” (Ezek. 20:49). Again, Daniel was told that his visions were sealed up until the end, and this was certainly no less true for his immediate audience than for himself. Aside from Moses and the One who would be a prophet like Moses, God said that some obscurity would be a trademark of prophecy (Num. 12:6-8). There is nothing indicating that it was normative for prophecy to be fully understood in the context it was given in.

The New Testament is unambiguous that the Old Testament prophecies did not fully reveal the subject matter they addressed. Scripture says it was revealed to the prophets, “that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Pet. 1:12). It further testifies that, without the light of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament was read with a veil on, and still is by those who do not read through the lens of His revelation (2 Cor. 3:14-15). It describes the revelation of Jesus Christ as a “mystery…which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:3,5). As the Expositor’s Greek New Testament notes, the “as” (ὡς) of Ephesians 3:5 has a comparative force,[11] indicating that while the mystery was given to the Old Testament saints, it was not revealed to them with the clarity of the New Testament era – it was a mystery.  These passages teach us both that the prophets were prophesying of New Testament realities and that those realities were not fully revealed to them. Each of their writings will be somewhat cryptic if viewed alone.

It has been necessary to defend these conclusions because they contradict what is taken for granted by much of contemporary scholarship: namely, the conclusions contradict the presupposition that Old Testament prophecies were given to be plainly understood by the original audience and that therefore an exegesis considering only the immediate, human context of each text is sufficient to determine its meaning. It is understandable that scholars who hold to this have difficulty finding Christ in the Old Testament, because that presupposition comes close to ruling out the possibility of Him being there in the first place, especially when it is combined with a tendency to almost reduce inspiration to a bare providential phenomenon. Scripture, however, presents its composition as a miraculous intrusion of the Primary Cause into the normal workings of the secondary causes to form a self-sufficient Book. Accordingly, we are free to give up the task of reconstructing what we think the prophet may have intended in his local context through the use of scant secondary material, because the rest of Scripture provides sufficient interpretive light. The Bible claims God – not the human instrument – supplies the meaning of the text, and that His concern is not for the immediate audience alone, but also for His Church in all ages, especially His New Testament saints reading in light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. When we do this, we will begin reading the Old Testament like the Apostolic Church did.

Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture

            Having established that Scripture is fundamentally God’s words with a prophetic bent towards the revelation of Jesus Christ, we will see that Scripture indeed exercises those hermeneutics. Naturally, the New Testament provides us with the best and clearest examples of how to preach Christ out of the Old Testament, but even in the Old Testament we see the hermeneutical principles established, which we will first explore. We see, for instance that the typological events accompanying the message of prophecy were not seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy. Scripture teaches that the destruction and abandonment coming on God’s people because of the curse of the Law would be followed by Him bringing them out of all nations, circumcising their hearts, pouring out His Spirit on them, and causing them to obey His commandments under His peace and perpetual blessing (e.g., Dt. 30:1-6, Ezek. 36:24-27, Jer. 31:31-34). Given the emphasis on this message by the prophets prior and during the Babylonian exile, one may make the mistake of thinking that the exile and the return from it are the fulfillment of those prophecies. However, one can see in the post-exile prophecy of Malachi, for example, that these things have yet to be fulfilled. Far from having circumcised hearts, the prophecy bashes the corruptions of the Levitical priests, and the prophet hangs the threat of the curse over them and Judah (Mal. 3:4-5, 11-12, 4:6). The promise of the perpetual blessing still awaited fulfillment. Thus, when we see events near the time of the prophecies that in some ways resemble their fulfillment (but in other ways fall short), we should conclude that they are not true fulfillments of those prophecies, but rather types pointing to their real fulfillment.

While Scripture never acknowledges dual fulfillments when interpreting previous revelation, it does acknowledge types, which is another area where the Old Testament sanctions forward-looking, messianic hermeneutics. Like the New Testament, the Old Testament treats the events of B.C. history as absolutely historical, but nevertheless understands those events as foreshadowing the future. Psalm 78, for example, traces the working of God in redemptive history and shows how His previous works point to and culminate in the establishment of the throne of David (ultimately, the throne of the Messiah) and that at that throne we finally find blessing. In Jeremiah, likewise, God marks the redemption out of Egypt as pointing to the greater deliverance He will accomplish by the hand of the Messiah, and that only then would the prophesied deliverance of God’s people from all nations truly occur (Jer. 23:5-8). Thus, the Old Testament itself is sufficient to provide the Christological hermeneutics exercised in the New Testament.

            Turning now to the New Testament, the Old Testament prophecies likewise are never depicted as having multiple fulfillments – a near and a far one – but only one, centered on Jesus and His inauguration of the last days. This highly Christological hermeneutic follows from an understanding that the Old Testament is first and foremost God’s words. Since God is not chiefly concerned with isolated, historical events for their own sakes, but rather is chiefly concerned with magnifying His Son for whom all of history was created (cf. Jn. 5:20-23, Col. 1:16), it follows that all Old Testaments Scripture ultimately ties back to Him who is the true Apple of God’s eye. Thus, in the New Testament, even the precise choice of words is demonstrated to have predictive, Christological significance and Christ is shown to be the key to understanding otherwise obscure passages in previous revelation. An example of each of these will suffice.

            In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is one of the many Old Testament events cited as prophesying Christ and His priestly work. The original passage in Genesis makes no explicit reference to the Messiah (Gen. 14:17-24), but Hebrews follows the already scriptural pattern of Psalm 110 in identifying the episode as Messianic. This follows because the Bible is about Christ, and so Scripture gives us the example that it is not so much a matter of proving whether a given passage relates to Him, but understanding how it relates to Him. In the case of Hebrews, there is an insistence that it is not only the subject matter of a passage that is important, but also the manner in which it is presented. Hebrews tells us, “[Melchizedek is] without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Heb. 7:3). The author is not saying that Melchizedek literally had no father or mother, but simply that the way narrative frames him makes him “like unto the Son of God.” God here tells us, then, that it is significant that He did not introduce Melchizedek as “the son of [X]” in Genesis 14. He crafted the narratives of His people’s history in a precise way to point ahead to the fulfillment of everything in Jesus Christ.

            Acts 2 gives us the principle that when the words of the Old Testament do not fit a local referent, we should look to Christ as our hermeneutical key. Peter references Psalm 16, where the writer is said to have been delivered from Hades with his flesh saved from corruption. Rather than having a sensus plenior perspective, Peter bluntly points out that David “is both dead and buried,” and so it could not have been about David; it is a prophecy of Christ, who spoke through David (Acts 2:29-30). Many other psalms and several places in the prophets share that feature of no local referent sharing the characteristics of the subject speaking, with the characteristics only perfectly matching Christ. In such cases, the Bible uses prosopological exegesis.[12] This method was embraced even by pre-Christian Jewish commentators to recognize messianic texts.[13]

Case study: Accurately interpreting 2 Samuel 7:4-17

            Lastly, we will examine what it looks like to freshly apply the principles we have defended to an Old Testament passage, noting dissimilarities with other methods along the way. 2 Samuel 7:4-17 is a classic go-to text for establishing the Davidic covenant. In it, David is promised that he would have an heir to establish his throne forever and build God a house. But who is that heir? One perspective would say that Solomon alone is in view and that he simply typifies the Messiah, another would say that both Solomon and Christ are in view (the human author seeing an immediate fulfillment in Solomon with God intending a greater fulfillment in Christ), whereas the view defended here contends that Christ alone is the referent of this prophecy, and that Solomon only typifies the fulfillment. I take this perspective because it is aligned with the biblical hermeneutics already discussed and because Solomon frankly could not be said to fulfil several aspects of this prophecy. Most glaringly, Solomon did not establish David’s throne forever, as the Son in question is promised to do (2 Sam. 7:13,16). Some argue that “forever” (עוֹלָֽם) sometimes does not literally mean without end, but just like the English word, “forever,” circumstances reveal when this is the case. When we say something will last “forever,” there is an implicit exception if it subsists in a greater, perishable organism. This can be seen in the case of practices part of the perishable Mosaic Covenant and also in the case of the voluntary Hebrew slave, who is said to be his master’s “for ever” (Dt. 15:17). For the slave, an unspoken terminating condition of this “for ever” would be the perishing of a greater organism that the master-slave relationship exists in – e.g., the life of the master or slave. This unspoken condition is understood in Hebrew and English and should not lead us to assume that “forever” may merely mean “a long time” apart from the clear presence of similar unspoken conditions. Far from having contingency in a perishable organism, this promise for an everlasting throne was the latest step in God’s eternal, unconditional, and trans-covenantal promise to provide a Seed to permanently redeem mankind from the forces of evil, even using the same word as found in Genesis 3:15 for “seed” (2 Sam. 7:12). This promise was previously narrowed down to a Seed from the line of Abraham (Gen. 17:7), then the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10), and now it is further narrowed down to the line of David. But Solomon did nothing to establish this everlasting throne, but merely received his throne from David and passed it on to a son that he so ill-equipped for leadership that the kingdom was almost immediately divided afterwards, perishing altogether within a few hundred years. Hence, the prophecy advises us to look to someone in the future, to One who would only be set on the throne after David had died and gone to “sleep with [his] fathers” (2 Sam. 7:12). This is in contrast to Solomon, of whom David remarks, “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which hath given one to sit on my throne this day, mine eyes even seeing it” (1 Kings 1:48). For these reasons and several others, Augustine remarks, “He who thinks this grand promise was fulfilled in Solomon greatly errs.”[14]

Conclusion

            The biblical presentation of inspiration helps to make sense of a passage like 2 Samuel 7:4-17. When we understand that the prophet Nathan was not expressing thoughts he had formulated beforehand, but rather was being a faithful ambassador of the Lord, it is understandable how the prophecy did not fit anyone in their lifetime but rather fits only the One the Father is committed to exalting in Scripture. These biblical presuppositions allow us to straight-forwardly preach Christ from the Old Testament alongside the Apostles and Christ Himself.

Note: the above essay was originally written by me for a class at CBTS.


[1] Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 28-32.

[2] Sam Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: EP Books, 2016), 57-58.

[3] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 106.

[4] For example, see Jonathan Lunde, “An Introduction to Central Questions in the New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 7.

[5] Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 15-16.

[6] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 298. Logos.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Owen, Book III, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 133. Logos.

[9] Ibid, 132.

[10] Peter Y. Lee, “Jeremiah” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. M. V. Van Pelt, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 280. Logos.

[11] W. Robertson Nicoll, “Commentary on Ephesians 3” The Expositor’s Greek Testament. (New York, NY: George H. Doran Company, 1897), accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/egt/ephesians-3.html.

[12] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018). 192-201.

[13] For example, see the messianic citation of Isaiah 61:1-3 in 11QMelch: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11” Journal of Biblical Literature 86:1 (1967), 28, accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3263241?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[14] Augustine, City of God, ed. Philip Schaff and trans. Marcus Dods, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol 2. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. XVII.8, accessed August 31, 2021. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm.

Jesus and the Bruised Reed

In pursuing his calling, Christ will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax, in which more is meant than spoken, for he will not only not break nor quench, but he will cherish those with whom he so deals.

Richard Sibbes from his book The Bruised Reed

Our Lord loves us. Do we really believe that? When the Scriptures talk about the love of God for His people, do we embrace that? I think we tend to cliché the love of God so much that we don’t stop to think about what that really means and how it is applicable to our lives. We love talking about the judgement of God over sin and the seriousness of obedience and while those things are necessary discussions, sometimes it is good to remind ourselves as Christians that we are really loved by our Lord.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24 (ESV)

It is this great love that God has for His people that disciplines us, molds us, shapes us to be more like Christ. Even though we are broken, He will not forsake us nor leave us. What a glorious truth that is! That our Lord is faithful. He does not leave us when we fail or when we are broken. His faithfulness to us is not based on what we do but according to His precious mercy! He being the immutable God cannot leave His people and will not go back on His covenant. He would have to deny Himself which is impossible. We do not serve a God that changes his mind from day to day. One day we are in the kingdom the next day we are not. This would make God a liar and give us no grounding in His promises. I think as we continue to count it all joy (James 1:2) with trials and discipline that come our way, we will be able to persevere even though we are not able to see what the end really is for our suffering. As Sibbes said, “…Christ will not break the bruised reed…” We may be bruised, pushed around, persecuted, but our Lord’s will ensure the work is completed (Philippians 1:6).

This has been a short entry, but one that I hope is encouraging to your soul. If you are Christ’s, do not grow discouraged when it seems we are bruised. Know that the Lord is molding us more like Himself and that He will never forsake us.

Must We Accommodate the Weaker Brother? A Response to Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is no stranger to causing controversy. He is Provost and Research Professor of Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. His view on Christ’s relation to the Father within the Godhead (which places him outside of Nicean and biblical orthodoxy) has ruffled some feathers (as it should), but that is a discussion for another day. I want to focus on Owen’s assertions in a tweet he made on August 18th, 2021 and why he is wrong about how we are to accommodate the weaker brother. He said,

The “weaker brother” principle of Romans 14 does not mean you MUST accommodate the conscience of your weaker brother. It means you are free to do so, may choose to do so from love, but are in no way compelled to do so. Otherwise we would have a functional rule of weakness.

Owen Strachan Tweet from August 18th, 2021 at 11:36 AM

Lack of Exegesis

Yes, I know. He posted this on Twitter and there are only a certain number of characters that can be placed in a single Tweet. Which is precisely why at least some theological assertions should be left to mediums such as blogs, podcasts (such as ours, The Particular Baptist Podcast), or the pulpit as you can expound and exegete in a way that is difficult on Twitter. But Owen merely asserts without any references to context, Greek word usage, or any specific place in Romans 14 that would allow us to extrapolate his interpretation from the text. It is merely asserted. And this is a huge problem given his interpretation is in contradiction to the majority reading of Romans 14. I think that Twitter has led us to making quick, terse theological assertions and discussions preventing us from taking the time and effort to be clear and correct. It is better to leave certain conversations off the Twitter space and take the time to write long on them to ensure we are clearly heard and understood.

Loving our Neighbor

Owen says that we do not have to accommodate the conscience of the weaker brother. Paul didn’t actually mean that in Romans 14. It is merely optional. However, let us look at what Romans 14 says and exegete to find out.

Paul is continuing his discussion of love and holiness that we find in chapter 13:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:8-14 (ESV)

We are to walk as holy ones and walk in love with our neighbors which would (especially) include Christians. There is to be self-sacrifice and a putting of others’ interests ahead of our own. In doing so, we are fulfilling God’s law, ergo loving God. Keep this theme of love in mind as we go into chapter 14. Notice what Paul says in the opening verses:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.  One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.  Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Romans 14:1-4 (ESV)

Already we see that there is to be sensitivity to the weaker brother and this follows right after Paul discussed loving our neighbors in chapter 13. We are not to hate the brother who has a different view than we do about scrupulous things. We should be patient with them and see this thing they are NOT doing as something to not divide over. Calvin said,

He passes on now to lay down a precept especially necessary for the instruction of the Church, — that they who have made the most progress in Christian doctrine should accommodate themselves to the more ignorant, and employ their own strength to sustain their weakness; for among the people of God there are some weaker than others, and who, except they are treated with great tenderness and kindness, will be discouraged, and become at length alienated from religion.

Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 14

We should not be discouragers! We should not have a cruel spirit toward our brothers who are weak in the faith, weak in scruples. But we should love them and help them to grow, although not at the expense of their spiritual well-being. Owen has abandoned the principle in Romans 14 of obligatory love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. He makes love optional in our accommodation of the weaker brother while Paul grounds these principles in God’s law which requires love of our neighbor at all times. And how much more for God’s people! (Galatians 6:10)

The first rule of Christian love is that we receive others who are weaker in faith as brothers and sisters. Every Christian is a servant of Christ. Christ is his master and judge. I am not to judge those who are Christ’s.

Sproul, R. C. “Dealing with Those Who Are Weaker | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.Org | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.Org.” Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier Ministries, 28 July 2009, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/dealing-those-who-are-weaker.

We Must Accommodate

Given what we find from Paul below, it is a wonder how Owen could come to such a conclusion in his tweet. What he says is in contradiction to Paul’s clear and unequivocal language.

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Romans 14:13-19 (ESV)

Here we have imperatives, not suggestions. Here we have commands to be obeyed, not guidelines that I can follow if I so choose. But this is what Owen wants us to believe. However, the apostle says we are to not cause our brother to stumble. We are not to grieve our brother as we carry out our liberty. He grounds that in the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself. This means we are absolutely obligated to not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

Owen, at the end of his tweet says, “Otherwise we would have a functional rule of weakness.” This could be true if a situation arises where there are weak brothers who are trying to impose their views on other Christians and a church simply accommodates them without confronting them. As Paul said in the opening verses of chapter 14 of Romans, this would be wrong for the weaker brother to do since he is not to judge the one who eats meat (verse 3). So to accommodate him simply because he says we shouldn’t eat meat would be wrong. But if we know that there is a brother or sister who does not like what we do in liberty and we do it in front of them, we are not loving them or considering their weakness and we have sinned. And this has to be based on us knowing who the weaker brother or sister are and that they have this weakness. We cannot live in fear of the weaker brothers as there is any possibility of things that are not commanded or addressed in Scripture that could cause a brother to stumble. In verses 1-4 Paul talks about judging each other based on what we do or do not do in terms of indifferent activities. This would mean that there is knowledge of the weaker brother and his scruple. With this in mind, Paul then moves throughout the rest of the chapter to discuss how the strong are the handle the weak in the assembly. So while a “functional rule of weakness” could be had in unchecked situations, the rule of willing to lay aside what we want to do for our brothers must be in the forefront of our minds as it relates to Christian liberty. Simply writing it off will not do when we have clear instruction from the apostle.

Conclusion

It is frustrating to see this kind of talk about the holy Scriptures in the church. Seeing one who should know better because he is highly educated in the Word and is involved in teaching it to others means he is subject to higher criticism when he speaks. As the Scripture says,

But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Luke 12:48 (ESV)

If you are educated and are a teacher of the Word or are involved in somehow educating others in the Word, especially at the academic level, you are held to a higher standard than those who do not. Much is given to you, ergo much is required. May the Lord help us all to stay true to His Word and to exegete it rightly.

Baptism and Salvation Part 2 (1 Peter 3:21)

Continuing on in our series on baptism and salvation, we look at an even more difficult passage but one that is none the less used in Lutheranism to support the theological stance that baptism saves (at least from Dr. Jordan Cooper). If he has anything going for him in the Scriptures that supports a soteriological effect of baptism, this is (in my opinion) the best he has. It is an explicit declaration that baptism saves. However, if this is his best argument from Scripture and it can be refuted, then there is nothing else for him to turn to that could possibly support his position. But as we look at the passage further, we will see that soteriology is not in Peter’s mind when it comes to being “saved” by baptism. Let us look at the passage.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

1 Peter 3:18-22 (ESV) Emphasis Added

Peter is laying out from chapter 2 into chapter 3 what the Christian life is to look like.  Christians are not be a malicious, conniving people (2:1). They are to live in a way that is honorable in front of sinners (2:11-12) and submit to the authorities (2:13-17).  Christians are to be distinct from those around them while still living in the world (John 17:15) obeying God’s commandments and glorifying God in their good works (Matthew 5:16). This theme of Christian living then is continued on into chapter three with family life being discussed and how Christians should handle persecution. The apostle gives a simple Gospel reminder to his readers.  Jesus suffered as Christians might suffer under their pagan rulers.  They are to remember Christ’s work in that they are not alone in their trials.  This then leads us to the discussion on baptism.  There is a clear type vs. antitype distinction being made between what we see in Noah’s case and with baptism. As Steven Cole says,

“Peter is using the flood and deliverance of Noah and his family as a loose analogy or type of what is portrayed in Christian salvation and baptism. Just as Noah passed through the flood waters into salvation from God’s judgment, so believers pass through baptism into salvation from God’s judgment.”

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 18: A Difficult Passage Explained and Applied (1 Peter 3:18–22) | Bible.org.” Bible.org, Bible.org, 2 Aug. 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-18-difficult-passage-explained-and-applied-1-peter-318-22.

I am honestly not sure if this is the best rendering of the relationship between the type and antitype, but it gives us an idea of what Peter is doing.  Given this relationship and that the word for “baptism” is the Greek word βάπτισμα which means, “a dipping, a baptism” (A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament), Peter is talking about water baptism here and not simply the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or something to that effect.  This is the general typology that we see in the Scriptures.  You have a type (the Noaic flood) pointing toward something to come (baptism). 

“The grammar in the opening of verse 21 is difficult. To simplify, we should probably understand it in this way: “which (water) now also saves you, (who) are the antitype (of Noah and his family)—(that is) baptism.” In other words, the experience of Noah and his family in the flood is the type of which Peter’s audience and their baptism is the antitype (antitypon).”

Storms, Sam. “Does Baptism Save? (1 Peter 3).” Crossway, Crossway, USA, 5 Jan. 2019, http://www.crossway.org/articles/does-baptism-save-1-peter-3.

And this typology is part of why the apostle’s meaning is so difficult to shed light on. This leads to the question: is Peter talking about soteriology or some other type of salvation? Cooper would hold that this is talking about soteriology. This would tie in at least in part to Acts 2:38 which was discussed in my last blog post. But the assumption is that this usage of “saved” (Greek σῴζω) must be soteriological. Problem with this argument is that salvation can refer to more than one thing in the Scriptures. It can most certainly refer to soteriology (Romans 10:9-13), but it can also refer to the progression of sanctification throughout the Christian’s life. Let us look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 (ESV) Emphasis Added

In this famous chapter, Paul is laying out the Gospel with a focus on the resurrection but in the beginning of the chapter he says what the Gospel’s current effect is on the Christian.  It not only saves completely in our legal standing before God (Romans 1:16-17) but it also sanctifies us as we live out our lives.  Sin still clings to the believer but we are being redeemed so to speak as we rest in the Gospel.  And that work will be completed (Philippians 1:6). We also see this language earlier on in the Corinthian letter.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18 (ESV) Emphasis Added

Paul in talking about the Gospel message says it has a sanctifying effect upon the believer. Certainly these passages imply soteriology in that in order to continue on in salvation you must be saved initially (and finally I might add).  All this to show that the concept of salvation in the Scriptures is not monolithic and can take on different meanings depending on the context.  It must not be assumed that when salvation language is used that it must be soteriological.

Now that doubt has been cast upon the interpretation of “saved” in 1 Peter 3:21, how is Peter using that term? He says, “but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter even explicitly condemns any notion that the act of baptism has any saving effect (“not as a removal of dirt from the body”) which is amazing how this is missed by Cooper who emphasizes the actual act of baptism as being needed to be saved (again going back to Acts 2:38).

“Appeal” (ESV) is the translation of eperōtēma, which others render as “pledge.” If the former is accurate, the one being baptized “appeals” to God, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ (or more literally, “through” or “by means of,” if dia is instrumental; cf. 1:3), to cleanse one’s conscience and forgive one’s sins.21 In good faith or conscience we appeal to God for vindication, that we might be considered part of his victory won by Christ in the resurrection (3:21b). It is only in this light that God uses the water of baptism to save us—as it links us to Christ and his victory and promises.

Storms, Sam. “Does Baptism Save? (1 Peter 3).” Crossway, Crossway, USA, 5 Jan. 2019, http://www.crossway.org/articles/does-baptism-save-1-peter-3.

Baptism is the identification with Christ in His death and a declaration that we are His.  Although I don’t know if I would agree with Storms’ rendering of this passage as it seems he is saying that soteriology (initial salvation) is happening at baptism, but it does help us to see at least that baptism is declaring something.  Not only to the world, but to God Himself.  I think the salvation noted here is us appealing, pledging, answering to God saying we are going to live rightly now that we are saved. We are identifying with Christ and are therefore declaring our submission to Him going forward. 

Peter is using the flood and deliverance of Noah and his family as a loose analogy or type of what is portrayed in Christian salvation and baptism. Just as Noah passed through the flood waters into salvation from God’s judgment, so believers pass through baptism into salvation from God’s judgment. But, before you leap to wrong conclusions, Peter clarifies—it is not the act of baptism which saves (“the removal of dirt from the flesh”), but what baptism signifies—the appeal to God for a good conscience. “Appeal” can point either to the moment of salvation, when a person cries out to God for cleansing from sin; or, to the pledge given at the baptismal ceremony, when a person promises to live in a manner pleasing to God. Either way, baptism testifies to our faith in Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf (3:18). Since Christ’s suffering did not minimize His witness, but rather enhanced it, Peter is urging his readers to be baptized, even if it means persecution, in order to bear witness of Christ’s saving grace.

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 18: A Difficult Passage Explained and Applied (1 Peter 3:18–22) | Bible.org.” Bible.org, Bible.org, 2 Aug. 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-18-difficult-passage-explained-and-applied-1-peter-318-22.

I think Cole’s latter option that, “a person promises to live in a manner pleasing to God,” is probably the correct view. This verse is very difficult but we can at least say what it is not. There is no soteriological view of salvation here. It is merely the appeal to God for a good conscience that is saving us. Proper qualification must be given as we look at this passage.

Baptism and Salvation (Acts 2:38)

I have recently been taking a study into Lutheranism especially as it relates to baptism and salvation. Classical Lutheranism (at least) affirms that baptism does have a saving effect upon a person even though faith is still required by an individual. The confession of classical Lutheranism is the Augsburg Confession. The purpose of the Confession was to clearly define Lutheran theology.

The purpose was to defend the Lutherans against misrepresentations and to provide a statement of their theology that would be acceptable to the Roman Catholics…The first 21 articles of the Augsburg Confession set forth Lutheran doctrine in order to demonstrate that “they dissent in no article of faith from the Catholic Church.”

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Augsburg Confession”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Jan. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Augsburg-Confession. Accessed 23 June 2021.

Their Confession was to show distinctives from the Catholic Church while still identifying with it on much. If I want to know what someone believes that has a formal confession of faith, I would consult it. It should give the reader a good idea of what is believed about a particular topic. The Augsburg is formatted similar to the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith and Westminster Confession of Faith at least in that it has sections that are broken down by a theological topic, thereby making it easier to find a particular topic to read about. Article 9 is where we find the classical Lutheran view of baptism, at least in part.

Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace. They condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without Baptism.

Mahler, Corey. “Article IX. Of Baptism.” Book of Concord, BookofConcord.org, 2 Jan. 2020, bookofconcord.org/augsburg-confession/article-ix.

We see very clearly here that classical Lutheranism confesses baptism is needed for salvation. Melanchthon, who really authored the Confession and was a close friend of Luther, believed this doctrine and espoused it as a formal belief of their faith.

The principal author was the Reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who drew on earlier Lutheran statements of faith.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Augsburg Confession”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Jan. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Augsburg-Confession. Accessed 23 June 2021.

There are various passages that are used to support salvation by baptism and I will look at some of these here. It is not my intention to be exhaustive in presenting EVERY passage that a Lutheran may use to support salvation by baptism in this blog series, but I hope that by refuting these it can be seen that Lutheranism’s teaching about the soteriological effects of baptism are unfounded in Scripture. Dr. Jordan Cooper was a helpful resource in my research on the Lutheran position of salvation by baptism. Another resource that was helpful in this article was GotQuestions.org. Let us begin.

Baptism Forgiving Sins?

The first passage we will look at is from the book of Acts.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:38 (ESV)

Here Peter is addressing those at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had come down causing some to speak in “tongues” or different languages (2:4). This was signifying not only God working among Jews but Gentiles as well (2:8-11). Peter then presents the Gospel to those there and it is evident that God brings His convicting nature to those listening (2:14-37). This is where we find Peter saying to those there what they must do to be saved. Now this is where the passage appears to be confusing. It says that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins”. On the surface this gives the appearance that baptism itself produces forgiveness of sins. However this cannot be the case.

First of all, the passage cannot be isolated from the rest of the book. If we jump forward to Acts chapter 10 we see a very different formula than what appears to be in Acts 2.

And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Acts 10:42-48 (ESV)

Peter is preaching to Cornelius and others who were with him the Gospel. The apostle was doing the unthinkable: associating with dirty, uncircumcised Gentiles and even preaching Christ to them. Yet the message is clear: by believing in Christ forgiveness would come. Peter even ties this back to the Old Testament saying that all the prophets speak of faith in Christ as the means of forgiveness before baptism became an institution under the New Covenant. Unless we believe the Old Testament saints were saved differently than us today, they had to believe in Christ (albeit in promise form and not fully revealed) as they were justified by faith (as we see in places like Genesis 15 with Abraham) and there was no New Covenant ratified yet which the sign of baptism would be tied to. Faith is the means of justification and by effect forgiveness of sins. This would mean that any Old Testament saint that had faith would be lost, as they did not follow the alleged formula of Peter in Acts 2.

Going back to our passage, as Peter was speaking to the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit came down on them. Notice this was before they were baptized. This means they had believed and received forgiveness of sins already, apart from baptism. It was not until Peter had seen the clear evidence of the Holy Spirit upon them that the Gentiles were baptized. Paul says in Romans 8:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:9-11 (ESV)

The very fact they had the Spirit of God before baptism proves they were already saved since the possession of the Spirit is proof a person is Christ’s. And in Romans 8, Paul contrasts the difference between an unbeliever and a believer: one who has the Spirit and one who does not. This is all in the greater context of God’s righteousness being received by faith in Jesus (Romans 3). Baptism can only be a symbol and a means of communicating the Gospel at that point. Another question to ask as well: is Christ’s work enough for salvation if faith and baptism are required? Let us look at Romans 3.

…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:22-26 (ESV)

Christ’s work on the cross was a “propitiation”. His death satisfied the wrath of the Godhead against sin thereby bringing about forgiveness of every sin. If we receive this work by faith as Paul says then why is baptism needed for the remission of sins? If Christ’s work was enough to make me right before God and the righteousness received by faith (Romans 1:16-17) then my salvation is complete, is it not? This is a crucial point that is missed by our orthodox Lutheran friends. The sufficiency of Christ’s work is called into question (although I do not think they do so intentionally).

This leaves Acts 2:38 only meaning one of two things:

  1. The Gospel is changed in Acts 10 as Peter clearly did not use the same alleged formula from chapter 2 when preaching to Cornelius et al, and it is able to morph to fit different situations.
  2. Peter was actually preaching the same thing in Acts 2 and Acts 10.

Number two must be the only option. Not only does Acts 10 play a role in proving this, but the underlying language (Greek) must be inspected as well. GotQuestions.org was very helpful in this discussion:

We need to start by looking back to the original language and the meaning of the Greek word eis. This is a common Greek word (it is used 1774 times in the New Testament) that is translated many different ways. Like the English word “for” it can have several different meanings. So, again, we see at least two or three possible meanings of the passage, one that would seem to support that baptism is required for salvation and others that would not. While both the meanings of the Greek word eis are seen in different passages of Scripture, such noted Greek scholars as A.T. Robertson and J.R. Mantey have maintained that the Greek preposition eis in Acts 2:38 should be translated “because of” or “in view of,” and not “in order to,” or “for the purpose of.”… Besides the precise meaning of the preposition translated “for” in this passage, there is another grammatical aspect of this verse to carefully consider—the change between the second person and third person between the verbs and pronouns in the passage. For example, in Peter’s commands to repent and be baptized the Greek verb translated “repent” is in the second person plural while the verb “be baptized,” is in the third person singular. When we couple this with the fact that the pronoun “your” in the phrase “forgiveness of your sins” is also second person plural, we see an important distinction being made that helps us understand this passage. The result of this change from second person plural to third person singular and back would seem to connect the phrase “forgiveness of your sins” directly with the command to “repent.” Therefore, when you take into account the change in person and plurality, essentially what you have is “You (plural) repent for the forgiveness of your (plural) sins, and let each one (singular) of you be baptized (singular).” Or, to put it in a more distinct way: “You all repent for the forgiveness of all of your sins, and let each one of you be baptized.”

GotQuestions.org. “Does Acts 2:38 Teach That Baptism Is Necessary for Salvation?” GotQuestions.Org, Got Questions Ministries, 26 Apr. 2021, http://www.gotquestions.org/baptism-Acts-2-38.html.

What this means is that the English translation which gives the appearance of baptismal salvation, is not a very good one. English does not always do well in capturing what the underlying language is saying (this could happen in any type of translation from one language to another). This stresses the importance of utilizing the original languages of a text in our toolbox of hermeneutics.

In part 1 of this series we have looked at Acts 2:38 and whether it means baptism saves. It does not. The only thing we do that brings about justification is faith and that faith is a gift from God and cannot properly be said to be from us (Philippians 1:29). Repentance is implied in faith (and Peter calls specifically for the repentance of his listeners in our passage today, but that does not negate faith) but the conduit by which our right standing before God is through faith.

The Westminster Confession of Faith and General Equity

The Westminster Confession of Faith is probably the most prominent of the Reformed confessions. It has stood the test of time providing a biblical framework for theology. I am not sure if its writers knew the impact it would have on the Christian world when it was written. While I substantially hold to the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (referred to in this article as the 2LBCF), there is much that can be gleaned from the Westminster Confession of Faith (referred to in this article as the WCF) especially given that my confession is based in part on the WCF. However, these documents are not perfect and were written by mere men requiring us to not hold them to the level of Scripture. I want demonstrate what I see as an inconsistency in the WCF as it relates to the role of the state and what is called “general equity”.

What is “General Equity”

General Equity means that the judicial laws that applied under Old Testament Israel do not apply in the exact same way to states today, but that their moral equivalent applies for today. This concept of “general equity” is laid out in both the WCF and 2LBCF:

To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.

2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith 19.4

To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 19.4

Both the Westminster divines and the Particular Baptists who framed and adopted the 2LBCF held this idea of “general equity” as it relates to God’s law. An example of this is a quotation from William Perkins (thank you to Dr. Tom Hicks for this quotation):

Judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law

A Discourse on Cases of Conscience in The Whole Works, London, 1631, 1.520

Both were identifying themselves with the Reformed community. However, only one confession was being consistent in its application of general equity: the 2LBCF.

Correct, Yet Inconsistent

Although the WCF does teach the biblical view of general equity, it does not apply that principle consistently. If we go back to the 1646 edition of the WCF, we will see an interesting section as it relates to the magistrate:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven:(e) yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be. preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed.(f) For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) 23.3

I will note that this is the original WCF and is quite different in this chapter from the American revision done here. This change may have been adopted at or very close to the same time the American Constitution was ratified, conveniently. I’m glad that our Presbyterian brethren are more Baptist than they would probably admit and certainly like to be.

The 1646 edition, though, painted an interesting picture of what the state was to do with its power. It was not to hold the keys of the kingdom nor was it to administer sacraments, but it could punish you for blasphemy, heresy, and abuses of worship. It was to ensure that proper worship was enacted in a land. There is no concept of religious liberty as found among Particular Baptists.

The inconsistency comes where judicial law is applied in a way that is not congruent with general equity. There is a movement beyond the simple application of a “moral” equivalent whereby the framework (at the very least) of the judicial law (s) is applied to the contemporary state. An example of this is in the use of the proof text the WCF used to support the suppression of blasphemy:

And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.

Leviticus 24:16 (NKJV)

Clearly, at the very least, the divines thought that it was necessary to use capital punishment as it relates to “suppressing” blasphemy in the land. This went hand in hand with ensuring that true teaching is taught in the land and is “proved” through the use of another Old Testament passage:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall [a]put away the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:5 (NKJV)

Again, a judicial law that applied to a particular people (and a particular covenant) is applied to the contemporary state. While there may not be a complete application of the law, there is at the very least (through the use of this passage as a proof text) an application of it beyond general equity (putting to death a false teacher). If 19.4 was held to consistently, there would never have been the usage of judicial laws from Israel being applied to the contemporary state. I think this demonstrates the influence of the times in which the Westminster Assembly found themselves in and the integral nature the Assembly had with Parliament (see From Shadow to Substance The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704) page 109).

Conclusion

There is much we can be thankful for as it relates to the WCF. The 2LBCF would not exist without it and its influence on the Reformed world cannot be understated. But, as with any confession of faith, it is not infallible. With the influence of the cultural setting these men were in, it seems to have led to the inconsistency on their application of general equity and that different from what we find in Reformed thinking. May God continue to Reform His church.

THEONOMY: A Doctrine of Ignorance and Error

About a year ago, I wrote an article called Theonomy No More. In it, I addressed certain points such as why a theocracy is an unbiblical (and horrible) idea, how it inconsistently applies the threefold division of Law, and how it minimizes the completed work of Christ. Since writing that article, I’ve received multiple comments (some good, some bad) and have observed what appears to be a rising tide of those promoting the position. As a brief follow-up, I want to focus on why theonomy is a doctrine of ignorance and error.

6Some people have strayed from these things and have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.

1 Timothy 1:6-7, NASB

When Paul was writing to Timothy, he instructed Timothy to teach sound doctrine and to be careful of those who had turned aside to teach things they knew nothing of. While it may sound harsh, I believe theonomists are committing a similar error. I want to be clear that I do not automatically count a theonomist as a false teacher or heretic. There are many who are dear brothers in our risen Lord. However, the underlying concept and method being employed does share a common vein. They continually make proclamations of Law while understanding nothing of it. In fact, while promoting error, they typically do not even do it with any form of consistency, which I will briefly highlight. While this won’t be an exhaustive refutation of theonomy, my hope is that it will be enough to cause the reader to question it.

Undoubtedly, anyone who has ever encountered a theonomist has likely heard the person employ Matthew 5:17 as the definitive prooftext.

17Do not presume that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter shall pass from the Law, until all is accomplished!

Matthew 5:17-18, NASB

I guess that settles it. If not even the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until heaven and earth pass away, the argument must certainly be over! After all, I’m still here typing this article instead of enjoying eternity with our Lord. Then again, maybe there might be more to the story.

by abolishing in His flesh the hostility, which is the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances,

Ephesians 2:15a, NASB

In this, we are explicitly told Jesus abolished “the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances.” This is just another way of saying the Ceremonial Law has been abolished. The word used for “abolished” is καταργέω (G2673). It carries with it the idea of an external force putting a stop to something. For all my cessationist brethren out there, it’s the same word used in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, where Paul speaks of prophecy and knowledge being done away at the coming of the perfect. This poses quite the dilemma for the theonomist who desires to use Matthew 5:17 in an all-encompassing manner. Clearly, Christ has abrogated, at a minimum, a part of the Law. Therefore, the verse can’t possibly be saying no part of the entirety of the Law (Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial) will be abolished before heaven and earth pass away, as the Ceremonial Law was abrogated in His death, burial, and resurrection. It necessitates and “all or nothing” approach be deemed inadequate and incorrect.

With the Ceremonial Law being out of the picture, that leaves the Moral and Civil Law. While it could very well be that Christ was only referring to those two, with the Ceremonial Law being explicitly removed from the topic at hand, it does open the door to the possibility that another one may be on the chopping block as well. In fact, I will make the assertion that the Civil Law no longer applies either and that we are only bound to the Moral Law. While I believe the the “commandments expressed in ordinances” refers to both the Ceremonial and Civil Law, a case can still be made to one who disagrees.

One thing that must be kept in mind is that the Civil Law was only given to ethnic Israel. It was given for the purpose of preserving a people for the coming Messiah. Even before the Law was given to mankind, God’s Moral Law still existed and sin was still in the world (Romans 5:13). This is because it’s universal law that applies to all of humanity. Unlike the Moral Law, the Civil Law was only given to a specific people for a specific purpose. Not once do we see the early Church calling believers to uphold the Mosaic Civil Law. You can search until your eyes bleed but you won’t be able to find a single verse advocating for it. This is because they were not bound to it. Conversely, we do see Jesus making proclamation that the entirety of the Law rests on God’s Moral Law (Matthew 22:37-39).

At this point, we can see the Moral Law is the foundation of all binding law. We’ve also seen how the Ceremonial Law has been abolished. While there is no single verse that speaks to the abolition of the Civil Law, there is a clear example of who was and was not bound to it. Yet, we are all bound to the Moral Law. Of course, this isn’t to say the Civil Law doesn’t have any virtue to it. As I made clear in last year’s article, I’m not promoting antinomianism. Even the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith recognizes the Civil Law has a certain moral use to it through its general equity. But this does not mean believers are bound to observe it. This is because Christ fulfilled it in His active obedience. Believers are grafted into Him and His fulfilling of the Civil Law. There is only one aspect of the Law that we are now bound to: Moral Law.

Even among those who uphold this position, there tends to be uncertainty. Of course, we’re finite creatures living before an infinite God. Questions are certainly going to pop up. As stated, certain aspects of the Civil Law are helpful when held to the Moral Law. We are to strive for obedience in our duty to God (Commandments 1-4) and our duty to fellow man (Commandments 5-10). In our duty to man, we are not to murder, steal, covet, etc. These are all helpful and beneficial to society. But it does not mean we are to implement abolished Law in order to achieve it. While I may not agree with implementing the Civil Law, I also contend that applying morality to legislation is not synonymous with legislating morality. We can never make the unbeliever righteous by forcing him to obey the Civil Law. In fact, even if he were to follow it perfectly, he would still be unrighteous because it would not be with the motivation of obedience to God. In this case, even his perfectly kept legal standing would be as filthy menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6). The only way to achieve righteousness is to be in Christ. Nobody in Christ should ever seek to bring back that which He has fulfilled. What we should be doing is seeking to demonstrate our love for Him by keeping His commandments (John 14:15).

We should strive to obey the Moral Law, not out of selfish ambition but out of a love for God. Because we love God and seek to obey His commandments, we apply the second table of the Law to legislation out of a desire to obey the first table, but the first table should not be legislated itself. While the Law does serve as a mirror, the first table should be proclaimed, not legislated. For instance, some may say we should outlaw working on the Sabbath in order to help prevent someone from reaping God’s wrath for practicing a Fourth Commandment violation (Exodus 20:8-10). But this would be no different from outlawing non-Christian places of worship in order to prevent a First Commandment violation (Exodus 20:3). It simply is not what we see prescribed in Scripture. To make an argument to the contrary is to make an argument from silence, while defending error born in ignorance of the Law and what it teaches.

~ Travis W. Rogers

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