Posted in Salvation

Receiving From Heaven: The Third Time Around

“Once more into the brink….” (the third time around).

  • “[Jesus] testifies about what he has seen and heard [from heaven; from the Father], but no one accepts [receives; lambano Grk.] his testimony. The one who has accepted [received] his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful” (John 3.32-33; NET; brackets for clarification).

It is the testimony of John the Baptist that “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven” (John 3.27).[i]  He now applies this same truth to the witness that comes from Jesus the Christ. Since Jesus comes from “above” and is therefore “superior to all” (John 3.31), the individual identified as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29, 36), His ministry is greater than the Baptist’s. The Baptist realizes this and rightly concludes: “He must become more important while I become less important” (John 3.30).

That is to say, Jesus baptizes not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Something John the Baptist is not capable of doing. Why? Because the two have “received…from God” different things. To be sure the Baptist is a bright light that the people enjoyed for a short time (John 5.35; cf. Luke 7.28), but Jesus is unique; He is “my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to Him!” says the Father (Matt 17.5).

Jesus’ ministry and witness to the world is of greater value. The wisdom and knowledge which poured from His mouth is unlike any other in terms of absolute purity. Even His own generation recognized this for they said: “Where did this man get such wisdom and miraculous powers?” (Matt 13.54). For His message had authority and power over all, including demons (see Luke 4.32, 36). Leaving the people, a bit flabbergasted. Saying in all seriousness: “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7.46; cf. Matt 7.29).

Even so, what does John the Baptist say the reaction is of those who hear His (Jesus’) witness? Two seemingly contradictory things: 1) “…no one accepts [receives] his testimony (John 3.32b); 2) “…The one who has accepted [received] his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful” (John 3.33).  How can it be that “no one receives” his message—i.e. embraces His gospel—and yet at the same time some do, as v.33 implies? How in the world are we supposed to make heads or tails from that statement of the Baptist?

We need to go the source…

“How in tarnation do you spect us to do that? Jesus’ a’ready gone! He’s sup in heaven at the Fadher’s right hand, He is. So, ain’t like we can call him’up or sumpin?!”[ii]

True, but we do have His recorded testimony. The apostle John (the beloved disciple), under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, was kind enough to give us that information. So, testing Scripture with Scripture let us see what the Lord had to say about this subject of “receiving” or not “receiving;” paying special attention to the whether or not Jesus identifies this as properly being defined as a passive or active work.

I’m not sure how familiar you are with the Gospel According to John, but he spends an awful lot of time on laying these things out rather plainly. All we have to do is read them with some care, and the straightforward nature of the message gets through.

The sixth chapter of John is a pivotal one. Up until this point in the ministry of Jesus, his fame is growing by leaps and bounds. People are flocking to him everywhere. His followers have continually multiplied. That is, until we get to the end of this chapter. At that point the tempo shifts. Jesus’ popularity begins to lessen, many of his former disciples quit following him, and the religious leadership in Israel (especially, around Jerusalem) become bolder in their opposition to Him.

You can divide this chapter into three key segments:

  1. The first is evidence of Jesus fame and glory in the feeding of 5,000 with a young boy’s packed lunch (John 6.1-13). This sign points back to a time when God led their ancestors in the wilderness, under the leadership/deliverance of Moses providing for their needs (i.e. manna from heaven); a sign of both special and common grace. Therefore, many want to make Him king by force (John 6.14), but Jesus leaves them (v. 15), sends his disciples off across Lake Gennesaret (i.e. Sea of Galilee) to Capernaum (v.16-18).
  2. The second is evidence of Jesus’ true identity, a sign reserved for the twelve. Here the Lord walks on water (v. 19), rescues Peter (cf. Matt 14.27-31[iii]), and calms the stormy skies/sea just with his presence (John 6.15-21; cf. Matt 14.33).
  3. The third major segment covers the rest of the chapter (John 6.22-71). During this portion, we find that many of the crowd that had their bellies full the day before had eagerly chased after the Lord. Ironically, they wanted what He had, but they did not want Him. This includes those who had followed him for some time but stopped after the Lord gives His testimony.

Jesus’ Teaching in John 6:22-71

What caused people to stop following Jesus? They did not “accept” (receive) His teaching. “Hold on a minute are you using the word in an active or passive sense, Kris?” Actually, both if we understand the logical order or how one truly receives something from God, but we’ll get to that a bit later. Without any further ado, let’s look at what upset everybody that day.

You don’t believe…

More than once Jesus tells the people that they do not believe. First we find this statement of disbelief couched in their real reason for seeking Him: “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (John 6.26). In other words, “You came after me because your bellies were filled and you wanted more, not because you believed in me.”

I realize that might not seem as apparent to some readers, but I would merely ask that you look back at the conversations Jesus has had with others prior to this point in this gospel. The Samaritan woman at the well did not understand His meaning when he broached the subject of water. He explained to her,

  • “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water…[for] whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4.10, 14; ESV)

Similarly, Jesus is telling the crowd at Capernaum that had they discerned the truth they would have been coming to Him for more than just food. The illustration of bread, as in “I Am the Bread of Life” is driven by the fact that in Jesus one gains their life. Therefore, He tells them…

  • “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (John 6.27).

Do the people understand His meaning? No. Do people today comprehend what Jesus is saying here? Many don’t. Jesus lays emphasis not on physical labor, but the intent of His listeners. In other words, it is a rebuke of pursuing material things (alone) as if they somehow meet your needs. He is pointing to Himself as designated by God for true life, but they miss the point. They do not receive His teaching. Verse 28 highlights this for us: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Umm, how about trusting Him and believing His message?

That’s where Jesus turns in verse 29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Trust Me and believe My message.

Do they? Nope. Again, they fail to see what is really being said. Rather than take Him at His word—i.e. believing in Him, acting in faith—they ask for proof. Again, they want the bread (“Sir give us this bread always” [John 3.34]), but not Jesus.

In response, Jesus highlights the reason for this failure to discern the truth behind what He is saying: “…You have seen me and yet do not believe” (John 6.36; 2nd time he’s told them). You have not received my testimony. Why?

Identifying the Reason…

Remember that is really the heart of this dialogue. There is a reason why they do not actively “receive” Jesus’ witness. What is it? What’s the reason?

At this point, we will find out how good of a listener you are. Jesus is the One sent from God. That Father has put His seal on Him. The Father approves of the Son and tells us to listen to Him. Here is the reason Jesus gives for those gathered there not receiving His message.

  • “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6.37, 39).

Notice who is doing the work here. God is. The Father gives to the Son, and whoever comes to the Son will never be cast out. In fact, Jesus says it is the Father’s will that the Son lose none (no not one) of those given to Him from the Father, in order to raise them up on the last day. That is, Jesus promises to give eternal life to all that the Father has given Him. All that the Father gives will come to Him, and these will be granted eternal life.

Logically thinking this through…

Those Jews had come to Jesus, are they then the one’s that the Father has drawn to the Son? What would be a good indicator if this were true? We don’t have to guess, He gives us the answer: “…everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6.40).

Did they believe? Were they to be rightly counted in this number that Jesus refers to in this verse? NOPE!!

They did not believe in Him even though He had performed signs in their presence. They did not believe in Him even though He told them the truth. Rather they “grumbled about him” (John 6.41). They grumbled against Him, and revealed that they were not for Him.

And Jesus says the answer for them not “accepting” or “receiving” His message (in an active sense) is because God had not given them to Him:

  • “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6.44).

If that is not clear Jesus repeats this offensive message to his own followers:

  • “But there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who would betray him.) And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6.64-65; cf. John 2.23-25).

His disciples grumbled just like the other unbelieving Jews (see John 6.61) and Jesus challenged them to their face. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6.63).

The Tie in with John the Baptist’s Statement

The Passive Sense…

The result was just as John the Baptist pronounced it would be:

  • “[Jesus] bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony” (John 3.32).

The reason is because “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven” (John 3.27; NET). Unless it has been passively given to the individual in question by the Lord above, then it is impossible for that person to believe in Christ. John 6 illustrates the truth of this aspect of “receiving” from God in the passive sense, but that is not all.

The Active Sense…

There were some that believed. “After…many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him…Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’” (John 6.66-67). Simon Peter immediately speaks up, “Lord, to whom would we go?” A valid question; if not Jesus, then where? He continues, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6.68-69).

“Lord, your testimony is true. You bear witness of what you have seen and heard. We have believed your gospel, for we know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter and the others not including Judas Iscariot, who we are told “is a devil” (John 6.70), have actively received the truth.

Why? Well, according to Jesus’ own words it is because the Father has drawn them to Him (again, not including Judas Iscariot). They have received (passively) an internal drawing by the Father to the Son. As a result, they have been accounted as those whom John the Baptist also identified: “The one who has accepted [Jesus’] testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful” (John 3.33). This type of person is the only type that can actively “receive” the gospel of Christ.

**This is what the grace of God looks like, anything else is a watered-down version of the truth.

ENDNOTES:

[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the New English Translation (NET).

[ii] I should note, though I hate to do so, but for the sake of someone misunderstanding my lighthearted demeanor here I feel I must.  I love southern folk. I love the twang in their voice, and from my point of view they are some of the kindest people I have known; very polite and mannerly. Therefore, my choice of southern twang is for stylistic reasons, not poking fun.

[iii] This addition of Matthews retelling of the event is an important side note to the reader. The gospels (especially the synoptics) offer parallel accounts of the same historic event told from different perspectives. The variants we find in those parallel accounts give us a better understanding of what was happening in them. They add layers to the same truth without distorting it. A great benefit to the serious student of Scripture.

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Posted in John 3, Salvation

Receiving From Heaven: Continued…

When last we met, we were discussing John the Baptist’s statement in John 3. Where his disciples questioned him about his diminishing ministry and the subsequent rise of Jesus the Nazarene’s. Replying to his men, the Baptist explained in no uncertain terms the following truth:

  • “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).[i]

This statement by the Baptist identifies what many do not believe, fail to accept, or choose to ignore—we are incapable of getting anything in this life apart from our Heavenly Father giving them to us. I don’t think many Christians will find that truth problematic. However, where things get a bit hairy is when I tie this truth to salvation.

Complexities in our Language…

All words have meaning, and depending upon your background you will perceive the meaning of certain words a bit differently than others. This does not mean that words are undefinable. Nor does this truth imply that getting at the truth is impossible, but it should highlight us to the need of being aware of our own biases.

In other words, what people say is not always what you hear. Salvation is a gift. To receive something is to become a partaker of the gift. How you hear the word “receive” (i.e. how you define the term) will determine how you understand it. John the Baptist says that people “cannot receive even one thing” …apart from God. (This, then, would naturally include salvation.)

He uses the word “cannot” to describe inability. It is something that we as people are incapable of doing.  Now suppose you don’t accept what I just said that “cannot describes inability.”  Why do I say that? When I was a child and I asked for permission to sharpen my pencil in class how my teacher responded to the request was determined by how I asked the question:

  • Q1: Mrs. So-n-So, “Can I sharpen my pencil?”
  • Q2: Mrs. So-n-So, “May I sharpen my pencil?”

Question 1 is a question of ability. Is sharpening my pencil something I am capable of (can) doing? That was the wrong question to pose to my teacher, as they often corrected this tendency. Question 2 is a question of permission. Is sharpening my pencil something I am allowed (permitted) to do? Looking back at John the Baptist statement to his disciples, we should be able to see he emphasizes the inability of mankind.

Pay attention to categories of thought as you reread it. Is it impossible for a person to receive some things, most things or all things apart from God giving it? The Baptist points to “all things”: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (emphasis added).

Our understanding depends on where we lay the emphasis…

I realize that what really catches our attention is the word “receive.” What does it mean to “receive” something? Well, as I said last time it really depends on the sense in which the word is being used. To receive can either be in the active sense or the passive sense. How are we to know what sense is being meant by the Baptist specifically or John 3 in particular?

Context…context…context. If you want to find the answer to how John the Baptist is using the term pay attention to the flow of thought.  What is the underlying issue that the Baptist’s disciples are concerned about? Jesus’ ministry is growing: “Rabbi, the One you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizingand everyone is flocking to Him” (John 3.26; HCSB; italics added).

The point of contention is Jesus is baptizing Israelites in the Jordan. Technically, his disciples are the ones doing it (see John 4.2), but the practice is being performed in His Name.  This led to a debate between John’s disciples and a fellow Jew (or Jews) over purification.  Baptism is more than mere water dunking; it is a sign of new life, of one being purified from their sins. Jesus alluded to this truth earlier in John 3 in His conversation with Nicodemus when said one must “…be born of water and the Spirit” (John 3.5; italics added).

Both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were prophets of God. As prophets they understood the teachings of Scripture as they were sent as heralds of the truth to their generation. Jesus was greater than John since He came from above, but this does not diminish the importance of John the Baptist’s ministry[ii]. The reason we find both John and Jesus teaching baptism is because of what God promises to do for His people[iii]:

  • “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and [I will] give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and [I will] cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleanness” (Ezek 36.22-29; emphasis added).

This is God’s Work…

One of the reasons that I kept the above quote so lengthy is because I wanted to highlight that the entire work of baptizing (cleansing the inner-man) is God’s action not persons. God does ALL the work the person being saved by this work merely receives it. Actively? Like Christmas or birthday presents or money being handed out…where I just grab ahold of them at take them? No, the Ezekiel text shows that man passively receives what God is giving.

This prophetic utterance of Ezekiel finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Christ. All this gifting of God that Ezekiel foretold is said to be received by the true children of God, but the reception of the gift is passive not active. God actively gives and people receive, but the reception of the gift is passively accomplished.

Baptism is a work of God—again not speaking of the mere sprinkling of water here, which serves as a sacramental sign. Baptism signifies new birth, a new creation. And according to Scripture all who are in Christ are newly created.

Jesus teaching Nicodemus…

If we look back at John 3 in its entirety, we find that this is what is being taught. In fact, the apostle John’s teaching (not the Baptizer) flows from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to John the Baptists discussion with his disciples. The first speaking of being “born-again” or “born-from-above.” The second speaking of baptism which draws attention to the need of being purified (i.e. reborn) from sin; which, is the result of the new life gained by the life-giving Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said to the Lord, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3.2). What did Nicodemus just say? That it is impossible for any man to do the sort of things that has been reported about Jesus unless it has been given from above—i.e. “unless God is with him.”

Is Nicodemus a believing man? At first blush it appears so, but not according to the Lord. Yes, it is true that Nicodemus professed that Jesus must be “from God,” but so do the demons in the first century: “And demons also came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ but he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ” (Luke 4.41; cf. James 2.19). But what was the Lord’s immediate response to Nicodemus?

  • “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [Grk. from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3.3)

Oh no, there’s that pesky man “can-not” do statement again. Jesus says it is not possible for man to “see the kingdom of God.” Without delving deeply into a debate about another subject, I will merely point out that “kingdom of God” speaks of the rule of the king and not a physical location (cf. Matt 6.9-13; see 12.28). This helps us understand that the word “see” does not refer to physical sight as much as it does comprehension and understanding. Not to be limited to a mental form of comprehension or understanding, because again demons can do that, but spiritual comprehension (cf. 1Cor 2.8-14).

While, Nicodemus chokes on that statement the Lord hits him with another one:

  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3.5).

Once more we find man’s inability highlighted by Jesus. This time he refers to entering in.

No one can enter into the kingdom unless something else happens first. What is it? He must be “born of water and the Spirit.” Here Jesus draws from the prophet Ezekiel’s teaching (quoted above). A person must first be reborn through the waters of purification by the Spirit’s power before they can enter into the kingdom as a rightful citizen.[iv] Again, not location, but pertaining to “rule.” The rightful citizen desires to be obedient to the rule of the king.

Jesus offers a clear explanation of what he means when he speaks about being born-again,

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.6-8; emphasis added).

In other words, you cannot receive something unless it has been granted to you. Using an illustration of the wind to drive His point home, Jesus says, “so it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Just as the wind blows where it wishes coming from one direction to the next without our knowledge, so too it is with the Holy Spirit’s activity in the world. He does as He sees fit, and the only way we know He has been active is by paying attention to the results (i.e. hear [His] sound).

A Necessary Tie-In…

The use of “birth” language is especially important here. Our being born into this world is what we might consider a predominately fleshly activity. From an earthly standpoint we are the byproduct of parental coupling; the union of man and woman (cf. John 3.6a). From a heavenly standpoint we are brought into the world by our Creator’s sovereign decree (cf. John 3.6b). For God has “…determined [our] appointed times and the boundaries of where [we] live” (Acts 17.26b; cf. Deut 32.8). However, in both cases we receive life (passively) and all the bounty that pertains to it (time, wealth, and power) as a gift. Not because we asked for it, but because it was granted to us—an act of grace.

“You mean, God does not consult our wishes in the matter???” If he did, what would be the result?

ENDNOTES:

[i] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

[ii] The difference between what John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were doing was in terms of ability. John could only baptize with water pointing to a supernatural work of God; whereas, Jesus the Christ would baptize with the Spirit. Why? Because they were gifted according to their calling as the Baptist explained to his disciples (cf. John 3.31-36). John could not do what Jesus did, for he did not receive this ability from God above.

[iii] Please note as a rule of thumb that any doctrine found being taught on in the New Testament had its foundation laid in the Old Testament. These are not new teachings in the sense of never having been taught before. They are new in the sense that they are updated and perfected (in meaning and application) in Christ Jesus. The book of Hebrews probably illustrates this truth in detailed and thought out format more exhaustively than any other New Testament document.

[iv] You should ask yourself the following question: Why is that necessary? Why does man need to be purified? What does he need a new spirit within him? Again, Jesus says this is true, not Kris; although, I do concur. Not that the Lord needs my concurrence, but He does require my humility (as well as yours) on this subject.

Posted in Salvation

Receiving from Heaven: What does it mean to “receive?”

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3.27).

This is what John the Baptist said to his own disciples when they noticed that the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was beginning to pick up momentum. In that moment, John realized that his hour in the spotlight of God’s sovereign plan was diminishing: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30).

This man had an understanding of the realities of life from God’s perspective better than many today do. In verse 27 he speaks of the inability of mankind. Not a popular theme—human impossibility—but one oft repeated throughout this gospel. No small wonder when you consider that the writer was one of Jesus’ inner three. For Jesus constantly highlighted that what was impossible for man to do, was not impossible for God (cf. Matt 19.26; Mark 10.27; Luke 18.27).

The question regarding salvation is often debated on the grounds of various terms. The one I wanted to briefly discuss today has to do with the word “receive.” John the Baptist says that an individual “cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” This statement says multiple things at once.

First, the Baptist is highlighting the fact that all things come from God. He is our great benefactor. All gifts come from the Father of heavenly lights as another biblical writer so eloquently put it (James 1.17). Second, the statement speaks of human inability.

I will grant some may not appreciate tying this verse to the question of salvation, but I will explain why I have done so a little later. For now, what I would like you the reader to consider is the implication of the statement.

John the Baptist understood this…

The Baptist is not offering this as a hypothetical situation, but a clear category distinction.  No one can “receive” anything unless it has been “given” from above. Nothing…nada…zip…zilch!  “If God ain’t giving it, you ain’t receiving it!” to use some of my backwoods charm.

Consider the breadth of what the Baptist is saying. Look at his life. His disciples want to know why he is not upset that Jesus’ ministry is overtaking his own. Jesus is gaining notoriety; whereas, his limelight is quickly fading. And, his response? “Fellas, it’s not a big deal. Everything that we have in life, everything that we received is a gift from God. ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’”

What had the Baptist received that was from God? Everything. His birth was brought about miraculously. No doubt his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted to have children. That was their desire, but they were not able. “Elizabeth was barren and both [her and her husband] were advanced in years” (Luke 1.7). But God was gracious to them, giving them a son in their old age (cf. Luke 1.13-14). The Lord gave them a son, and He gave their son a name—John. The Lord gave John a ministry as a prophet. Being from the tribe of Levi he had already received a high calling from the Lord, but an ever-greater gift was granted him in that he was the herald for the coming King—Messiah (cf. Luke 1.15-17).

Again, what had the Baptist received from God? Everything!

Let me put it another way, “Was the life, the calling, and the subsequent ministry that the Baptist “received” from the Lord something that he first had to accept and take? Did he have a right or the ability to refuse what God had granted (gifted) him?”

Well, when did the Baptist receive his calling? Before or after his conception? Before or after he reached an age where he might choose to accept or reject it?

In order to answer those questions, it would seem that defining the term “receive” is our best bet. I have often heard the statement that in order to truly receive something as a gift, then I must be able to choose or reject it. It is then argued, “If I don’t take it or if I don’t have this ability/right, then it is essentially being forced upon me.”

This is a popular method by non-Calvinists to argue against the notion that in order to believe (i.e. have faith in God) one must first be regenerated—i.e. be born-again; born-from-above. For if God has to regenerate me before I believe, then he has not given me a gift but forced me to do something against my will.

(An interesting admission, to be sure, since the Bible is pretty clear we are not willing in our natural state, but perhaps that is a subject for another day.)

An Example Given in his Calling…

Before we go about defining “receive,” let’s see if we can follow the Baptist’s logic in the text. Let’s look at his calling: “did God force John the Baptist into his ministry as a herald of the coming King?” Think…when did the Baptist receive his calling? Before or after his birth? Which came first the calling or the birth?  The calling—his being appointed/ordained—came first.

You see, the Baptist’s ministry as a prophet of the Lord was predetermined long before he was born into the world[i]:

  • “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me…Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal 3.1; 4.5-6)

John the Baptist was that messenger sent to the children of Israel in the first century in the spirit of Elijah. Both Jesus (see Matt 11.14; 17.10-12) and the other gospel writers highlight this fact (see Luke 1.16-17, 76; John 1.23; cf. Isa 40.3-5). Again, we must ask, “Was the Baptizer forced into this ministry that he received from the Lord above?”

The only thing forced is the refusal to fully define the meaning and sense of a word. To receive something does not mean “I have to grab for it or be able to reject it, less it not be a gift but coercion.” There are two senses in which this word may be accurately defined and used; either active or passive.

So, in which way did John the Baptist understand his ministry as a gift (something he received) from above. Was it actively or passively received? Obviously, we can show that it was actively received after he grew up, lived in the desert, wore a goat-skinned tunic with a leather belt, eating honey and locust, proclaiming the good-news of the kingdom, calling on people to repent and baptizing them in God’s name in the Jordan River.

Identifying a problem…

However, there is a problem if we want to stop and say:

  • “There it is! That proves my point! John the Baptist had to actively accept his calling as a prophet before he did those things.”

Yes, that would be true if the sovereign King over all creation were nowhere found in the discussion, but that is not the case. Not even in the slightest. The necessary prerequisite is that the “receiving” of the calling from God must first be passively applied.

He had received his calling before he was born. God did not inquire of him, “Would you do this thing for me?” Rather, God said “for this purpose you were made.”  Did the fact that God predetermined the sort of man the Baptist would be make him any less of a man? No. Was it any less of a gift because it was something that had been granted to him without his consent? No, from his point of view it was an occasion for great rejoicing:

  • “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is complete” (John 3.29).

As I said before John the Baptist had a much clearer understanding of the true nature of things than many well-meaning, but poorly informed Christians do today. He looked at his calling and compared what he had received from God as a gift. Not because he grabbed for it, but because God made him what he was. God’s grace was richly poured into the Baptist’s life well-before he could even talk. He received from God truly good things. He identified them as a gift from above, not because his action was the first priority; rather, God’s action was the first priority.

With this insight, he could look at Jesus and say “he is from above and I am from below…He is above all and I am just an earthly man, ‘He must increase and I must decrease’” (John 3.30-31; paraphrased).

I’m not finished with this discussion, but I want to pause for a moment to give you an opportunity to mull these things over. (Well that, and I want to spend some time with my family for our celebration of the 4th of July.)  Sometime at the beginning of next week we will return to discuss the term “receive” in a more specific salvific sense; again, looking at the active and passive senses in which it maybe understood.

God Bless!

ENDNOTES:

[i] “Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass…” (Job 14.5); “…all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan 4.35).  Just a couple examples, (there are more) that explain how our lives—even our very steps—are sovereignly determined. For further reflection see Jer 10.3; Prov 16.1; 20.24.

Posted in Salvation

Salvation Roughly Defined, Stated and Explained as a Work of God

Roughly Defined…

Salvation…what sort of mental images does that word bring to bear? We Christians pride ourselves on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of salvation, but what is meant by that one word? What are we being saved from? Why do we believe others need saving?

These questions and many more are vitally important to the Christian faith and message. The term salvation is theologically rich in biblically defined categories. It speaks of atonement, deliverance, redemption, being ransomed, being redeemed, being adopted, etc.

Why do I need atoned for—i.e. what needs covering? What am I being delivered from—i.e. what am I being set free from? From who or what am I being ransomed—i.e. what price needed paid for my life? What am I being redeemed from—i.e. where am I taken from and given to? Why do I need to be adopted—i.e. why was I fatherless/who has become my father? Etc., etc. etc.

Now I do not have a long time to help you become acquainted with seeing the importance of these subjects, nor the implications that are specifically tied to them, but when Christians speak of salvation through/in Jesus Christ these categories (and more) are all simultaneously being assumed/conveyed.

Roughly Stated…

Ultimately, salvation speaks of deliverance. When a person is saved, they are delivered from slavery to sin, having had their sins covered, for the ransom price has been paid (life-for-life) in order to redeem them from their dead status as orphans alienated from the Life of God. Salvation is not a singular work of Jesus, but the triune effort of the one God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This is how that predetermined plan was carried out in history (it was predetermined, because it was something God decided before the beginning of creation; cf. Eph 1.4):

  1. The Father sent the Son into the world to die for those whom He was giving to the Son…He continually draws those individuals in history to Jesus.
  2. The Son, in perfect obedience to the Father in the power of the Spirit—willingly laid down His life for the people He came to save by becoming a substitute for them, paying the just punishment for their sin on the cross. His resurrection being a sign/a promise that He would do for His own what He did for himself—life after physical death; eternally.
  3. The Spirit is sent by Father and Son to glorify the Son by regenerating those for whom the Son died. Whoever the Father draws to the Son, whoever the Father and Son reveal the truth to—this work is done by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gives life, where life did not formerly exist. He grants to those chosen by God an inheritance as children of the Most High through the new-birth.[i]

Roughly Explained…

For the most part, Christians will find agreement with these biblical truths.   The gospel of God is that He provided life everlasting for those who were counted as His enemies. Unless one believes with their heart, and confesses with the mouth they will not be saved (Rom 10.10). Believe what? That Jesus is the Christ whom God raised from the grave. Confess what? That Jesus is Lord over all (cf. Rom 10.9; for both q/a).

  • “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame’” (Rom 10.11; cf. Jer 17.7; Isa 28.16).[ii]

Jesus as the Christ has been identified as Lord and Savior, there is salvation in no other name (cf. Acts 4.12; Psa 79.9).  He is not a new god, nor the god of the New Testament alone, but he is Yahweh in the flesh (cf. Heb 1.3). There are several indicators of this reality given in the New Covenant which necessarily find their root in the Old Covenant. To some this is a confusing reality, but the confusion is not because the Scriptures are unclear. The confusion stems from either accidental or willful ignorance of what all the Bible teaches. Jesus is Lord and Savior, He is God in the flesh, and salvation is found in no one else:

  • “I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa 43.11).

And yet we read,

  • “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12.37-38).

The apostle John explains to his reader that though Jesus had performed many signs (gave much evidence) that He was in fact Lord and Savior, the people who witnessed such things “still did not believe” (v. 37).  John says that this was to fulfill what was written by the prophet Isaiah. The reference to “arm of the Lord” ought to catch our attention, for that is an expression of speech that speaks of the “power of God” (cf. Rom 1.16; 1Cor 1.18; 1Thess 1.5).

The Lord’s apostle continues explaining to his readers an important point that is often overlooked by many well-intentioned Christians:

  • “Therefore, they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12.39-41).

First, notice that in applying Isaiah’s prophecy John gives the reason for the unbelief. Since the arm of the Lord had evidently not been revealed to those whom Jesus performed the signs to—i.e. God’s power had not been granted to them who witnessed such things—belief was impossible.

I will say that again just in case you have something blocking your field of vision. Maybe you glazed over the text too quickly, or the phone rang, or you started dozing because I’m a bit boring.  The apostle John says the people who were witnesses of Jesus ministry failed to believe, because “they could not.” In other words, they did not have the ability. Not my words, but the beloved disciple’s.

Second, he emphasizes what he said in verse 38. Evidently, “the arm of the Lord [had not] been revealed” since the people failed to believe in Jesus. John reiterates this point in verse 40 by stating that this was a fulfillment of what God had spoken through Isaiah formerly: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart…” (John 12.40a).

Where have we seen such language before? I mean besides Isaiah? Did we not see this during Moses ministry as well? How many times are we told that Pharaoh could not believe because the Lord had hardened his heart?  Some squirm at such statements, but if we read through Exodus, we see that at the beginning of Moses ministry in Egypt God promised that Pharaoh would not listen (despite all of the evidences), because the Lord hardened his heart (cf. Exod 4.21; Rom 9.17).

The “he” that John refers to is God. He is the one that refused to allow those people to believe. Their eyes remain blind and their hearts hard, lest they “understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them” (John 12.40b). Oh, but Jesus would never do such a thing. He’s too loving, too kind. He most certainly is, but He does make distinctions between those who are His and those who are not.

“Where does He do this?” you ask. He does this several times throughout His earthly ministry, but I will give you one example to prove my point:

  • “All things have been given to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him” (Luke 10.22; NET).

Back to John 12:41 for just a moment.

Jesus reserves the right to show mercy on whom He will show mercy. He does not owe “mercy” to anyone, nor is He required to pour out on everyone the grace to believe. John explains to his readers that when Isaiah spoke the things that he did (cf. Isa 6 for context), it was Jesus and His glory that he saw seated on the throne in heaven. Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh, and Jesus is responsible for the giving or not giving of the ability to believe. He reserves the right to grant salvation to whomever He pleases.

Closing Remarks…

You may wonder, “Why are you discussing such things now? Are you one of those ‘cage-staged Calvinists?’”  Uhm…no, I’m not.

What I find is that non-Calvinists are often highly offended of what Reformed theology holds to be true, as a result from studying/exegeting Scripture. In fact, if you were to look in to the history of the T.U.L.I.P. for which Calvinism is most popularly identified with, you will find that we did not pick the fight; rather, the Remonstrant’s did. The followers of Jacob Arminius picked the fight and lost at the Synod of Dort. The fight continues to this day because Arminian’s of all stripes (including Traditionalists, though they deny that affiliation) are so irritated by Reformed soteriology.

While, I believe my Arminian brothers are in fact brothers in the Lord[iii], I also have no problem answering their criticisms. One day those intermural debates will be unnecessary, but while we remain in the flesh wrestling with the biblical text and its meaning is of utmost importance to those in the faith. So, I think in the posts to come I will deal with some of the major points of contention as I understand them. Leaving open an opportunity for dialogue.

Next up: A Brief Discussion on what it means to “receive” something…?

ENDNOTES:

[i] These three points are not meant to be exhaustive in describing the work of the Trinity on the subject of salvation. This is a rough overview, as was the brief definition of salvation. More could be added and has been added by those much wiser than myself.

[ii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

[iii] Unfortunately, while I have maintained this position since moving into Reformed theology, there have been many that have ostracized me for my convictions. Rather than hearing an explanation, they prefer to accept various false characterizations and epithets that have been popularly proposed against Reformed thought.

Posted in regeneration, Salvation

Regeneration Logically Precedes Faith (Belief): A response to Haden Clark

Today, I wanted to take a brief moment to give my own thoughts in response to an article that I recently read by Haden Clark (here), whose contention is that our belief precedes our regeneration. A belief common to many Evangelical Christians today. In this response I hope to offer a counter balance to his conceptual argument against Reformed thought. I am admittingly intrigued by his proposed biblical support forthcoming, so I refrain entering into that water until a later date.

A QUESTION OF ORIGINS…

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The question puzzles millions, but only because of a difference in starting points. If you believe in an evolutionary style process where little by little information was added until you have a semi-final product (if its evolving, it can never be final), then no doubt you assume that the egg needed to come first. If you believe in biblical creation, then you realize that the chicken necessarily came first. God created birds, fish, various land creatures, and human beings according to their kinds, and He made them male and female.

The solution to the question is found in the authority that is acknowledged and appealed to. No one was there in the beginning. At least you and I were not, and so our beliefs about what was and how it came to be is decided on what we are found submitting to.

Although, the question of the chicken and the egg is not exactly the same it is similar to the question regarding belief: Which came first, faith or regeneration. Faith speaks of action. While, the world will often see faith as a “blind-leap,” a wishful hoping and wringing of the hands, true faith is the trust one places in another. This trust is not just by word of mouth—an expression of mental assent—but by a purposeful activity towards something.

A QUESTION HISTORICALLY WEIGHED: BY WHOSE AUTHORITY

Salvation is an important Christian doctrine that is often seen as an intramural debate within the body of Christ. The argument that often occurs in Christian circles regarding the issue of creation vs. evolution is the same sort of argument that occurs in the area of soteriology (salvation). Who has the final word? Who gets the final “say-so?” Who has ultimate authority?

One of the key doctrines that sparked the reformer Martin Luther to address the Roman Catholic Church with his grievances was on this very issue—salvation. Who saves who? Is it the Church or is it God? Is it something man must first assent to? Or is it something that God must first move upon? Who is responsible for our belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ? God or man?

Erasmus and Luther debated this very issue in the Bondage of the Will. Erasmus believed that it was strongly implied that man has some ability to believe in God. For, why would God command something that we the creature could not respond to? If God commanded it, then we must be able to respond properly (i.e. exercise faith). Luther strongly disagreed because Scripture does not imply the creatures ability, but strongly denies it. The denials are not implications, but rather direct rebuttals of any form of goodness in man.

Is belief in Jesus Christ a good or bad thing? Is having faith in the gospel of God—trusting in what God has done in history, specifically in Jesus of Nazareth—a good thing? Obviously, it is we would be foolhardy to deny it. But, that leaves us in a bit of a conundrum for the Bible is very clear on this: there is no goodness in fallen man. Not even a tiny, little spark.

SEEMINGLY AGREED UPON ASSUMPTIONS AND HOW THEY FALL APART

And yet, our faith in Christ, is an exceedingly good thing. Why? Because it is a gift from God, something that we did not originally possess, but was given to us. Haden Clark agrees,

  • Faith being a gift is another concept worth pointing out. All are in agreement on this point. Calvinists, Arminians, and Traditionalists all agree that salvation, faith, repentance, and the whole nine yards are a gift from God” (par. 18).

That is to say, it is the grace of God that brings about our salvation, faith, and repentance. It is the unmerited favor of our Lord that bestows upon us such wonderful treasures. Ironically, where we seem to agree is where we are found in strong disagreement. The problem is that we do not define grace in the same way.

Clark’s analogy serves as a good example of what I mean. He writes,

  • If I freely gave you a one-hundred dollar check that you took to the bank and cashed, and then proceeded to march around town boasting about how you had earned it, who would take you seriously? No one who knew the truth of the matter” (par ).

Well, what is the truth of the matter? According to Clark it appears that God grace is similar to a person offering you a gift of money, and you reaching out and taking it. However, what are the underlying assumptions? First that the person being offered the gift is fairly neutral to the prospect of a free gift. There is no apparent hostility between the two individual’s. Second, that the person who “receives” the gift is free to take it. Nothing binds the person. Shackles of any kind are non-existent. Third, that the individual “receiving” the gift is capable of discerning between that which is good and that which is not. Spiritual depravity is denied.

I am familiar with this line of argumentation. I used to believe it, even taught it for a time. What changed my heart/mind regarding it? My belief did not find allegiance with the text of God.

A better analogy might be offered at this point.

You are a criminal standing before the judgment seat. The books are opened, and the evidence is stacked heavily against you. “What say you?” says the Judge. Our mouths at that moment are found shut. In the past, we may have offered excuses to others in our lives for our sin, but before Him in the light of His holy Law we know in our hearts that we are rightly condemned. “Guilty! The verdict is punishment by eternal death.” When all hope seems lost, another opens His mouth. He says to the Judge of all the Earth, this one is spoken for. I have paid the price, laying down my life for his. I have already bore His punishment on the cross.” At that moment, the Judge looks at you and says, “Though your sin is deserving of death, One worthy and able of paying your debt has stepped in. Rather than receiving wrath—which you deserve—I give to you mercy. You have received the gift of life, when death was all that was promised to you. At that moment, you look to your Savior, your new Lord and pour out praises and undying fealty to Him. In Him you trust alone, for He has done what you could not do for yourself. He has given you eternal life—the gift (grace) of God.

To be fair, I will point out to you my own assumptions.

We are not basically good, but fully evil. Though we assume that we are free and nothing binds us, the reality is that we are slaves of sin. Our crimes are against a Holy God whose Law, which is perfectly spiritual and good, shuts our mouths. Had no one acted on our behalf we would all be damned. Our choices in life do not lead us to Him, unless He has been the one guiding our steps. The gift of God’s grace is not that we reached out to Him in hope, but that He reached out to us in love, and placed that love in our hearts. He first demonstrated this love by taking our place on the cross, and we return this love in faith because He changed our hearts, giving us new life. His grace He poured into us, we did not seek to do this for ourselves.

DEFINING TERMS WITH SHADES OF DIFFERENCE

Clark points out rightly that Calvinists believe, “If God grants you faith, you will necessarily believe” (par. 20). That is true. In Reformed thought, salvation—which includes our faith—necessarily leads to belief in the Triune God of Scripture.

Understandably so, given his own presuppositions, Clark finds this very distasteful. Why? It has to do with the way in which we defines “gift” or “grant” or the “grace of God.” He concludes,

  • If I give you a gift that you cannot resist, I didn’t give it to you. I forced it upon you to the extent that you could not reject it” (par. 22).

So, it is a violation of man, if God does for the creature what the creature is incapable of doing himself? It is a violation of man if God opens the eyes of the creature showing them the light of glory by giving him eyes to see? It is a violation of man, if God saves the creature from his own destructive living, stopping him from running headlong off a cliff chasing after the hounds of hell?

Perhaps, this is easier for me to see that this is not a violation of the creature, since I have children of my own. I pour my love into my kids lives doing for them what they do not intend to do for themselves. Perhaps, they sometimes view it as a violation of their own precious wills, but they are fools. It is my duty before God, and out of love for them, to correct their waywardness. To do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

Clark does not like mischaracterizations of a person’s position, and I agree with him. But he is mischaracterizing what Calvinists believe when he says that our view of God’s saving us is in reality Him “forcing upon” us the gift of eternal life. We believe that it is God doing for us what we are incapable of doing for ourselves, because of our fallen condition and inward hostility towards Him. If He did not act in such a manner, we would be left in our sinful state. His giving us such mercy, rather than wrath is not seen as violating us, but loving us.

IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO BE ASKED

Why do we need a new heart? Why do we to be made alive? If we are fully capable of turning, trusting, and responding to God apart from receiving these things, then why do I need them?

If faith comes before regeneration (i.e. being born from above), then why do I need a new life? I can already run to God, choosing the good. It seems to follow that I could likewise be obedient to the Law, for the gospel is also a law which demands that I repent of my sins and swear allegiance to Christ anyway. The consequence of failing to do so guarantees my damnation, just like the consequence of refusing to obey all of God’s other instructions.

Scripture identifies the order of life as a gift of God. Something that He brings about, and we the creature enjoy the benefit. What is true of our natural birth, is likewise true of our spiritual birth. “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help” (John 6.63a; NET). That’s why we have nothing to boast in; even our belief.