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Friday, July 30, 2010

Judging, Throwing Stones, and Biblical Confrontation

When I was younger it seemed obvious that the most widely known verse in the Bible was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
However, in recent years I’ve heard two other verses (or paraphrases of verses) cited more often than John 3:16 in both the secular and the nominally Christian worlds.  First, Matt 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”; and second, John 8:7b, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…”  These verses are cited most often when some kind of behavior is identified as sinful, or when one is confronted with his or her own sin.  The implication behind such citations is that it is illegitimate to be concerned with or to address any sin other than your own. 
A couple of weeks ago in our message on Joshua 22, I stated that one way that the church maintains its fidelity to the Lord is by watching over one another and lovingly confronting each other’s sin.  In light of the two verses above, did I err in my interpretation of Joshua 22?  In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that Joshua 22 was not the first piece of Scripture I have exposited in which I encouraged the body that it is appropriate to keep one another accountable and to confront sin in one another’s lives.  Do John 8:7 and Matthew 7:1 contradict that teaching?  Is it illegitimate to be concerned with any sin other than my own?
First of all, let’s consider some other passages that would indicate that we should lovingly confront sin.  Perhaps the most widely known passage on this subject is the “church discipline” passage found in Matthew 18:15-17:  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” 
Could it be clearer than that?  If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.  This passage not only commands private confrontation, but increasingly public confrontation if the brother refuses to repent.  Now, that poses a problem.  Matthew 18:15-17 presents a perfect contradiction with the popular understanding of Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7.  But there is more.
Luke 17:3b: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”  The passage in which this verse is found is an exhortation by Jesus to forgive a brother no matter how many times he sins against you.  But forgiveness only comes after the brother has repented, and his repentance is known only after his sin has been confronted, or as this passage says, rebuked. 
In Acts 20:31 in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders, he says, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”  The Greek word translated “admonish” here means “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct.”  In other words, Paul confronted them.
Speaking of Paul, in Galatians 2:11-14, he tells of his public confrontation of Peter for the sin of hypocrisy. 
There is still more:
1Thessalonians 5:14: And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  “Admonish” here is the same word used in Acts 20:31.
Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
1Thessalonians 5:12: We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you.
2Thessalonians 3:14-15: If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.  Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.  Here “warn” is the same word translated “admonish” above.
And finally, 1 Corinthians 5 dedicates a whole chapter to the issue of sin within the church.  The body at Corinth included a man who was having a sexual affair with his stepmother and the church was tolerating it.  In v3, Paul says of the man, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.  Later in v12, he asks, Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 
If we took all of these contexts and put them in a row, we would see that confronting sin in the life of another believer is good, respectable, loving, wise, and commanded.  So how are we to reconcile that with the notions “judge not, that you be not judged,” and “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone”?
As always, context is key.  Considering how Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 are typically quoted, it is questionable whether or not the people quoting them have any idea about the contexts in which they are found.  The context of each makes it clear that the issue being dealt with in those passages is nothing like the kind of loving confrontation so obviously commanded in the New Testament. 
Key to each of these passages – both those cited above and Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 – is the intent behind the action.  In Matt 18:15-17, the intent is to “win” the brother, that is, to lead him to repentance.  In Luke 17:3 also, the intent is to bring the brother to repentance.  The idea is to edify the church by purging sin from its midst and to edify the sinning brother by leading him to repentance.  There is no malevolent intent.  This is not stone-throwing or mudslinging.  This kind of confrontation seeks the good of the church and the one confronted, not the condemnation or destruction of the one confronted. 
Yet what was the intent behind the confrontations referred to in Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7?  First of all, Matthew 7:1 is part of the famous Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that consistently holds up a standard of true righteousness contrasted with the false self-righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus says in Matt 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That piece of information about the context of Matt 7:1 is crucial.  What is being described in Matt 7:1 is the kind of self-righteous and unmerciful condemnation of others based on one’s own human standard, a condemnation that was practiced by the scribes and Pharisees.  There are numerous occasions in the gospels where we find the Pharisees doing this, not the least of which just happens to be the other passage we are dealing with, John 8. 
That Jesus is referring to hypocritical judgment like that practiced by the Pharisees is clear if we look at the following verses in Matt 7: 1 "Judge not, that you be not judged.  2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  4 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye?  5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
The Pharisees sought to condemn others while ignoring their own glaring sin.  The word “hypocrite” in the book of Matthew is a distinction reserved for the Pharisees.  In Matthew 23, 6 times Jesus cries, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  Thus, what is being forbidden in Matthew 7:1 is not the loving, edifying confrontation commanded elsewhere, but the self-justified, self-righteous, hypocritical condemnation exemplified by the Pharisees.  Intent is key.
Likewise with John 8.  There we find the scribes and Pharisees bringing to Jesus a woman caught in adultery (v3).  They challenge Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (vv4-5).
The intention of the scribes and Pharisees was not to bring this woman to repentance nor even that justice be served.  How do we know this?  V6 tells us explicitly what their intent was: This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.  They wanted Jesus to have to choose: He could have compassion for the woman and defend her (which the Jews knew was His nature), or He could uphold the law of Moses.  If He chose to save the woman, the Pharisees could then accuse Him of contradicting the law.  But Jesus knew their hearts and brilliantly turned the tables on them.  “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, much like what we saw in Matthew 7:1.
These words from Jesus in John 8:7 were spoken in a very specific situation to a very specific intent in the hearts of the Pharisees.  We should no more take them as a moratorium on confrontation than we should take the words of Matthew 19:21 to be a command to sell all our possessions in order to get into heaven. 
In short, the confrontations addressed in Matthew 7:1 and John 8:7 are completely different from the kind of confrontation commanded in Matthew 18:15-17, Luke 17:3, etc.  We ought not confront hypocritically, that is, condemning others while tolerating glaring, unrepentant sin in our own lives.  Rather, confrontation should be done in love and humility with the intent of edifying both the sinning believer and the church.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But What About Hebrews 6? Pt2

As we continue looking at the context of Hebrews in order to come to an accurate understanding of chapter 6, it is important to be reminded of the audience of this letter.  To whom was the author of Hebrews writing?  In the broadest sense, he was writing to Jewish Christians, but a careful reading will show that the author assumes there are those among the recipients who are not believers.  That fact is supported by the presence of the six warning passages found throughout the book.   
During the first year or so of our journey planting Providence Bible Fellowship, I made the mistake of assuming that all of the people to whom I was preaching were genuine believers.  For that reason, I spent little time in my sermons presenting, explaining, and defending the gospel.  I spent little time calling for the listener to repent and believe.  However, through a number of conversations with people in the church, I came to the conviction that there were at least a few people who claimed to be believers but who showed no knowledge of or faith in the biblical gospel.  It became clear to me that on any given Sunday I am dealing with three groups of people: 1) true believers; 2) unbelievers who have accepted the facts of the gospel, but who have not repented and trusted in Christ alone to save them; and 3) unbelievers who are not convinced of the truth of the gospel.  Consequently, in my preaching now I strive to address all three of those groups in each message.
I believe the author of Hebrews has done the same thing.  He is first of all addressing Jewish believers who are being persecuted.  To them he gives an exhortation to perseverance (10:32-39).  He is also addressing Jews who claim to be believers but who have not put their trust in Christ.  To them he gives warnings to search their hearts for unbelief (2:1-3; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:15-17).  He also addresses Jewish unbelievers who have not been convinced of the truth of the gospel of Christ.  To them he gives the tight argument of the superiority of Christ over all OT institutions, an argument that stretches through the whole book, but which finds its peak in chs9-10
The message of the book addresses all three groups.  That Christ is superior to the angels, Moses, the OT priesthood, and the sacrificial system gives to believers a bolstered confidence in their salvation and in the faithfulness of God so as to spur them on to perseverance.  To those convinced of the truth but not committed to it, this message gives the confidence that Christ is capable of atoning for sin and is worthy of their complete trust and surrender.  To those not convinced of the truth of the gospel, the message shows that Christ alone has accomplished what the Old Covenant could not – He has made a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin.  This is an important point to keep in mind as we address chapter 6.
Also, let me remind you about the pivotal truth found in Hebrews 3:14, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  “Become” is in the Greek perfect tense, which describes a past action that has continuing results.  So, a more wooden rendering would be, “we have become partakers of Christ in the past.”  Yet, the conditional clause describes a future condition – “if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  Therefore, the perfect tense indicates that if we hold fast to the end, it will show that we became partakers of Christ in the past.  In other words, our perseverance will prove our past salvation.  The opposite could be said as well.  If we do not hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end, we never became partakers of Christ. 
Now, last time we looked at the first two of the six warning passages found in Hebrews (2:1-4; 3:7-4:3a).  If we were to read those again keeping in mind both that the author is addressing several groups in this book AND the truth in 3:14 that perseverance proves true faith, it should be clear that the first two warnings served to prompt the reader to consider whether or not his faith was genuine.  These warnings cannot be prompting the reader to consider whether or not he has lost his salvation since 3:14 indicates that the true believer cannot fall away, but will inevitably persevere.
The third warning is found in 5:11-6:12Because these verses hold the main objection we are addressing in this series of posts, we’ll look at it last. 
The fourth warning is found in 10:26-31.  After several chapters explaining the superiority of Christ to take away sin, the author writes in v26, For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.  28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.  29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?  30 For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people."  31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is a warning against disobeying the knowledge of the truth.  Receiving the knowledge of the truth cannot be equated with being saved, since true salvation results in perseverance (3:14).  Rather, the group in view here must be those who have heard the truth but who have not repented and trusted in Christ.  Good fruit, which will be much more fully discussed in a later post, is presented in Hebrews as evidence of true conversion (6:9-12; 10:32-34).  So for a person to continue in sin (to bear bad fruit) after receiving the knowledge of the truth indicates that person is not truly converted, as evidenced by their “fearful expectation of judgment.”  That person has spurned the Son of God and outraged the Spirit of grace.
The fifth warning is found in 12:15-17.   In ch12, the author exhorts the reader to pursue holiness and in v15 writes, See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
This is a warning against failing to obtain the grace of God. And again, clearly, this can’t be speaking of a person who is saved.  True salvation results in perseverance (3:14) and good fruit (6:9-12), not bitterness, sexual immorality, and unholiness.  Additionally, Esau is used as the example of someone who valued the pleasures of the world above the blessings of God and for that reason did not inherit them.  Further, the phrase “root of bitterness” is a reference to Deut 29:18-21, which tells of the apostates living among God’s people who think they are saved even though they live in sin.  Deuteronomy says that such people will inherit all the curses of the law.  Clearly, Hebrews 12:15-17 speaks to those who claim to be believers but who have failed to obtain the grace of God.
The sixth warning is found in 12:25-29.  Speaking of Christ, the author writes, 25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they [the Israelites at Mt. Sinai] did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.
 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens."
 27 This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of things that are shaken--that is, things that have been made--in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.
 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,
 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
This is a warning against refusing Christ.  Again, the OT Jews are used as an example.  Having spent all of this year in the book of Joshua on Sunday mornings, we are well aware of the exodus generation’s failure in the wilderness.  These were people who claimed to be the people of God, but who disobeyed Him.  Remember that Hebrews 3 attributes that generation’s disobedience to their unbelief (3:7-19).  So even though they claimed to be His people, their disobedience proved their unbelief.  Their unbelief resulted in their rejection of God.  Likewise, people who refuse to obey Christ do so because of unbelief. 
It appears that each of the five warnings we’ve looked at so far were intended to prompt those who claim to be believers to consider whether or not they are actually saved.  They have been warned against drifting away from the gospel (2:1-4), disbelieving the voice of God (3:7-4:3a), disobeying the knowledge of the truth (10:26-31), failing to obtain the grace of God (12:15-17), and refusing Christ (12:25-29).  In each of the warnings, the OT Israelites are used as an example of disbelief, disobedience, and consequent judgment.  Never once are they described or portrayed as having believed and then subsequently disbelieved.  Rather they are shown to have been presented with truth, but they disobeyed it.
So here is some food for thought.  If these 5 warnings are not warnings against “losing” one’s salvation, how likely is it that the only other warning – the one in the middle (5:11-6:8) – is a warning against losing one’s salvation?  Chew on that for a while. 
Next time we’ll look at the inseparable link between faith and fruit in the book of Hebrews.  Don’t worry – we will eventually get to ch6, but we are still getting a feel for the context, without which any interpretation is suspect.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Strong Answer to a New Trend in Teaching on Sanctification

I've been asked a few questions recently about the believer's role in sanctification.  Do we actually expend effort in pursuing righteousness or do we simply meditate on the cross?  There seems to be a new trend in teaching on sanctification that sees our role in sanctification to be one of contemplation and meditation on the death of Christ to the exclusion of any personal effort toward obedience.  Here is an excellent article by Jay Adams on the issue.  I encourage you to look up the Scripture references at the beginning of the article as they show the obvious truth of Adams' position.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor: Confront first, ask questions later?

We saw in our message in Joshua 22 this week a lesson on being careful to remain faithful to the Lord.  We do that in a couple of ways – by watching over our own lives and by watching over each other.
The 9½ tribes on the western side of the Jordan River demonstrated great conviction and commitment in their approaching the Trans Jordanian tribes to address what appeared to be a breach of faith against the Lord, the building of an altar by the Jordan.  In fact, their actions provide a good example for us to follow as we seek to hold one another accountable.
First, that they saw the “altar of imposing size” shows that they were keeping watch over their brother tribes.  It is essential that we get out of ourselves and pay attention to one another.  Second, they decided to address the issue rather than ignoring it or purposing to “mind their own business.”  They recognized that ignoring the problem would have critical ramifications not only for the offenders, but for the whole assembly.  Third, they explicitly named the sin.  Generalities are not helpful here.  For the good of all, each party involved needs to know exactly what sin is being confronted, so that confession, repentance, and forgiveness can be specific as well.  Fourth, they warned the Trans Jordanian tribes of the consequences of their sin.  We also should remind one another that our sin doesn’t just affect us, but it also affects the whole body.  Fifth, they were willing to do whatever necessary to bring the Trans Jordanian tribes back to faithfulness to the Lord.  Not only were they prepared to give of their own land to the Trans Jordanians, but they were also willing to go to war.  We, too, should be willing to go the distance in winning back a brother or sister.
The Israelites’ example here is almost perfect.  I would note one flaw in their approach – they did not ask questions to confirm that a sin was committed.  They did ask a question, but it was phrased as an accusation: “What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the LORD?”  You see, they assumed a breach of faith was committed. 
There is a vital principle of communication found in Proverbs 18:13: If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.  If I react to a situation before hearing all the facts, before asking questions to determine the truth, I will likely make a fool of myself.  I will shame myself.  All the Israelites’ warning, passion, and pleading, however well-intentioned, was completely unfounded.  No sin had been committed.  In fact, the truth was that the Trans Jordanians’ building of the altar was motivated by the same zeal for faithfulness to God that motivated the 9½ western tribes to confront it.
There is an excellent lesson here.  Even when all the evidence available indicates that a sin was committed, that does not mean one actually was committed.  If ever there seemed to be an open and shut case for intent to worship a false god, this would be it.  These Israelites were only ever aware of two kinds of altars – the altar to the One True God, the central place of worship for all of the people of Israel; and the many altars to false gods scattered all over the Canaan land.  In their minds, this altar built by the Trans Jordanian tribes would have to be one of those two kinds of altars.  And since the altar of the One True God was located in Shiloh, this could only be an altar for the worship of a false god.  Their experience with the sin at Peor (v17; Num 25:1-4) would seem to confirm this.  All the evidence pointed to a breach of faith.
But was there a breach of faith?  Quite the contrary.  The Israelites answered before hearing.  The altar was a copy of the altar of God, not for offering sacrifices, but for serving as a witness to all subsequent generations that the Trans Jordanian tribes had a legitimate claim to worship the God of Israel (v28-29).
Presumption is a very dangerous thing.  When we presume, we run the risk of holding a sin against someone when that sin never took place.  We should always withhold any offense, admonition, or counsel until we have asked the appropriate questions to determine if our suspicion is true.
But what about in cases where we have the testimony of a witness?  Is it then okay to confront that sin before asking questions of the supposed offender?  No.  Proverbs 18:17 addresses such a situation: The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.  This is the Bible’s way of saying, “there are two sides to every story.”  Taking the word of one person against another is still answering without hearing because questions still have not been asked of the supposed offender.
This is played out in living color for me every time my children come to report each other’s crimes.  Time and time again the first child’s account of the situation does not closely resemble the account of the accused.  I’ve learned it is not much different with adults.  None of us can see another’s heart and know his or her motive.  Neither can we always be aware of all the circumstances surrounding an event.  That is why Scripture would have us ask questions about the situation, rather than leading off with an accusation.
What should Israel have done?  They should have asked, “why did you build that altar?”  Then they would have heard the truth and realized there was no need for a confrontation at all.
In the next week or so, I’ll address another issue.  I’m convinced John 3:16 is no longer the most widely known verse in the Bible.  It has been eclipsed by a two-way tie for first:  Matt 7:1, "Judge not, that you be not judged”; and John 8:7, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…”   How do we reconcile those verses with clear commands to confront (Luke 17:3; Matt 18:15-17)?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But what about Hebrews 6?

(To read the preceding posts in this series click here: part 1, part 2, part 3"But what about those who fall away...")

Hebrews 6:4-6 could be the passage used most often by those who would deny the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints: 
  4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,
 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
This passage speaks of people described in ways that we might assume could only be descriptive of believers – they were enlightened; they tasted of the heavenly gift; they shared in the Holy Spirit; they tasted of the goodness of the word of God...and yet, they have fallen away.  On top of that, v6 says it is impossible to restore them again to repentance, implying that at one time they had repented.  Doesn’t this indicate that it is possible to be a believer and then to lose your salvation?
When we take into account the context of the book of Hebrews, we have to say, “no.” 
It will take several posts to flesh this out, but a knowledge of the context of Hebrews is essential to understanding ch6.  The book of Hebrews was written to Jews who were professing Christians, suffering for their faith.  The writer seeks to encourage their endurance during suffering by reminding them of the superiority of Christ over any angel, prophet, priest, or Old Testament institution.  Since Christ is superior, they should hold onto such a great salvation and not return to an Old Testament form of Judaism.  There are several warnings in this book given to prompt the readers to consider whether or not they are truly saved.  Each of these warnings gives us clues that help to understand ch6. 
The first of these warnings comes in 2:1-4. 
  2:1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.
 2:2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,
 2:3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,
 2:4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Here we find that there will be great judgment for those who neglect such a great salvation.  The word for neglect means “to have no care for; to be unconcerned about.”  The argument made is this – if the Old Testament, declared by angels, was perfectly reliable and judgment was brought upon those who disobeyed it, how will those who disobey the message of Christ, as declared by Christ and His apostles, escape judgment? 
This is a warning against drifting away from what we have heard, that is, the gospel. There are a couple of things we want to latch onto as we move forward.  First, there is a message (the gospel of Christ) that must be embraced in order to escape judgment.  Second, that message was validated by the work of the Holy Spirit through signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts. 

The second warning is found in 3:7-4:3a.
  3:7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice,
 3:8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,
 3:9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.
 3:10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.'
 3:11 As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall not enter my rest.'"
These verses use the Old Testament Jews as an example of those who failed to enter God’s rest.  Psalm 95 (quoted in these verses) speaks of the generation of Israelites who died in the wilderness, to whom we have referred so often in our study of Joshua on Sunday mornings.  Those Israelites failed to enter God’s rest, that is, to enter the promised land (Jos 1:13).   The writer of Hebrews uses that failure as a warning to the reader to be sure that they enter God’s eternal rest, that is, eternal salvation.  The explicit warning comes in vv12-14:
3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
3:13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
 3:14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
The subsequent verses show that Israel failed because of their unbelief (Heb 3:19).  This line of thought continues into ch4:
 4:1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
4:2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.
He then sums up his argument in 4:3a, For we who have believed enter that rest…
This is a warning against unbelief.  Two things we want to take with us as we look at ch6: First, the Jews are held up as an example of those who appeared to have inherited God’s rest, but who failed to attain it because they did not believe.  Second, those who have believed do attain it.
Because of the length of this post and the volume of material left to cover in the coming posts, let me summarize what we’ve seen in the two warnings covered so far.
1. There was a warning against drifting away from the gospel (2:1-4).
1.1.    The gospel must be embraced in order to escape judgment.
1.2.    The gospel was validated by the work of the Holy Spirit.
2. There was a warning against disbelieving the voice of God (3:7-4:3a).
2.1.    The Jews of the wilderness appeared to have inherited God’s rest, but did not attain it because they did not believe.
2.2.    Those who have believed do attain it.

With all that in mind, try to take the time to read through Hebrews 5:11-6:8, which encompasses the passage so often used to object to the doctrine of perseverance.  Do the warnings we looked at so far, help at all in understanding Hebrews 6?  Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it.  There is much still to look at - we don't have the whole picture yet.
But more important than considering the theology of Hebrews 6 is to personally consider the two warnings we’ve look at.  It is all too easy for the Bible to become nothing more than a theological textbook to us, rather than the Word of Life.  So...are you holding fast to what you have heard?  Is there in you an evil, unbelieving heart?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Perseverance of the Saints - But what about those who fall away...

One of the most common objections to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints relates to those people who fall away from the faith.  Most of us have known people who made a profession of faith, were “on fire” for the Lord, and were faithful for a time, but who returned to a sinful lifestyle while either claiming to still be a believer or outspokenly denying the faith.  If one can never lose his or her salvation, how are we to explain the many personal examples of people who seem to do just that?
To begin to answer that question, let’s be reminded of our definition of perseverance, as given by Wayne Grudem: The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.
(As a side note, systematic theologians like Wayne Grudem do not pull their definitions out of the thin air and then go to the Scriptures to prop them up.  Rather, they assemble all of the relevant passages and study to discern what those passages teach regarding the doctrine at hand.  The theologian then attempts to formulate a definition of that doctrine that takes into account all of the relevant biblical teaching on that doctrine.  Therefore, Scriptural interpretation dictates the definition, not the other way around.)
The key to answering this objection is found in the last part of Grudem’s definition – only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.  What we are seeing when we observe a person who has made a profession of faith, lived for Christ for a time, and then fell away is someone who was never born again to begin with. 
Now we could arrive at that conclusion just based on the Scriptures we have already looked at in this series.  For examples, John 6:40: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day.”  Those who believe have eternal life and are raised up on the last day.  Therefore, if someone does not have eternal life, he never truly believed. 
However, we do have even better passages from which to answer this objection.  One such passage is found in John 8:30-59.  The passage begins with Jesus speaking to a group of Jews who “believed in him,” and ends with those same Jews seeking to stone Him to death. 
30 As he was saying these things, many believed in him.  31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (Joh 8:30-32 ESV)
The Bible speaks of these people as believing in Christ.  Because the scene ends with these same people wanting to kill Him, this must refer to a nominal belief.  They believed the facts about Jesus, but there was no surrender to that truth.  Jesus’ words in v31 give us the framework for understanding the passage, If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…”  Jesus goes on to speak about man’s slavery to sin, a concept that offends those listening.  He then gives an a critical assessment of the state of their souls in v37, “…you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.”  Christ’s word found no place in them.  In other words, they did not abide in His word, therefore according to v31, they were not truly His disciples.  That they did not remain in His word did not indicate that they were at one time disciples, but then fell away.  Rather, it indicated that they were never His disciples.
1 John 2:19 teaches the same truth.  Speaking of those who were at one time in the church but who became false teachers, John writes this: They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.  That these false teachers left the church proves that they were never members of the church.  If they had been true members of the body of Christ, they would have stayed.  Therefore, a lack of perseverance in the faith is an indication that such a person was never saved. 
Likewise, we have Hebrews 3:14, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  A knowledge of the Greek text is helpful here.  “Become” is in the perfect tense, which describes a past action that has continuing results.  So, a more wooden rendering would be, “we have become partakers of Christ in the past.”  The interesting thing is that the conditional clause describes a future condition – “if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm to the end.”  When we put these two halves together we see that this verse does not state that if we hold fast to the end we will become partakers of Christ.  Instead, the perfect tense indicates that if we hold fast to the end, it will show that we became partakers of Christ in the past.  Said another way, our perseverance proves our salvation; it doesn’t earn it.  What does that have to say to the objection at hand?  Those who do not hold firm until the end are proven to have never been saved. 
The context of this verse is important.  This passage contains one of several exhortations in Hebrews for self-examination.  Describing how the Israelites perished in the wilderness due to their unfaithfulness, the writer of Hebrews warns the reader in v12 to take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  Like the Israelites, those who fall away are shown to have evil, unbelieving hearts. 
So all of those people we’ve known who appeared to be saved and to love the saints and to do the Lord’s work but who failed to persevere were never true believers.  Only those who persevere were ever truly born again.
Next time, we’ll start to deal with some of the stronger proof-texts against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  Until then, ponder this: if Christ said of believers in John 10:28 that “no one will snatch them out of my hand,” how is it possible that someone could be His and then be lost?

Posted by Greg Birdwell