Saturday, May 20, 2017


I think that many of our theological battles are needless and sometimes hostile - possibly the result of our thinking too little of Scripture and too highly of our ability to understand it so that it fits neatly into our theologies.

Please understand that I am not at all against doing theology and laboring to understand the Word. Instead, I think that there are times when we must realize there are certain paradoxical teachings we must humbly accept. The doctrine of the Trinity is a good example of this. I have to admit that the Bible’s teaching about the Trinity is paradoxical. It is not amenable to our understanding. It claims that God is One and yet God is Three.

Why then do we believe in the Trinity if we cannot understand this doctrine? Simply for this reason – the Biblical evidence illuminates the Trinity.

Our acceptance of this doctrine doesn’t represent a denial or neglect of rationality and understanding. Instead, we are forced to acknowledge that there are some Biblical teachings that we cannot wrap our minds around.

After the Trinity, the greatest source of confusion and conflict revolves around the doctrine of Compatibility. This doctrine also maintains something that is paradoxical – that human volition and responsibility is somehow compatible with God’s sovereignty, providence, and His plans for our lives.

This theological tension can be summarized by the question, “Who causes what? Who’s responsible for the consequences of our lives – God or us?” On this issue, Christians have gone to antagonistic extremes. Those on the Arminian end of the spectrum say things like:

·       In order to be saved, we have to continue to confess our sins, repent, seek holiness and live obediently. The Book of Hebrews (12:14) warns: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Meanwhile, Calvinists rightfully claim that Christ had paid for all of our sins on the Cross and that we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, He will “remember” our sins “no more”:

·       “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Hebrews 8:12 quoting Jeremiah 31:34)

Besides, Christ’s sacrifice has made us holy forever so that we will never be condemned:

·       By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

·       Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)

On top of this, our Savior has utterly removed our sins from us:

·       Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)

If this is so, why then do we still need to confess our sins? Arminians maintain that our salvation and forgiveness depend on a continual confession of sins:

·       If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

·       And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:15-16)

Consequently, if we don’t confess, we will not be forgiven. Even more troubling to those who believe that our eternal destiny has been sealed is Jesus’ teaching that our salvation depends upon our willingness to forgive others:

·       For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)

Hasn’t our Savior completely eradicated our sins and promised to “remember” them “no more?” Why then the ongoing requirements to confess and forgive? This seems to contradict the promise that salvation is a free gift.

However, not only is confession necessary for healing, it is also necessary for forgiveness (James 5:15-16)! But hasn’t forgiveness already been accomplished? If so, why then do we need to continue to confess in order to receive His forgiveness?

How can we reconcile these paradoxical teachings? Is it possible that both the Arminians and the Calvinists have something important and Biblical to say? Could it be that salvation and forgiveness represent the gift of God but yet require our ongoing participation?

I think that these oppositional positions can be largely harmonized (but not completely) once we grow in our appreciation of the majesty and transcendence of Scripture and diminish in our own estimation of our understanding.

This seems to be the most Biblical answer to this paradox: God has entirely forgiven us and has irrevocably written our names in the “Lamb’s Book of Life.” In God’s mind forgiveness/salvation is a done-deal (Phil. 1:6; Romans 8:38-39; 11:29). However, He must work out this process through the entirety of our lives, and this involves our responses. If God were to turn His back on us, we would fall (John 15:4-5; 2 Cor. 3:5; 1 Cor. 10:12-13). However, this doesn’t mean that we are now free to pursue sinful desires (Romans 8:6, 13). Instead, we have to exercise self-control lest we be “disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).

Martin Luther affirmed the necessary and ongoing role of confession and forgiveness:

·       Unless God constantly forgives, we are lost. Thus this petition really means that God does not wish to regard our sins and punish us as we daily deserve but to deal graciously with us, to forgive as he has promised, and thus to grant us a joyful and cheerful conscience so that we may stand before him in prayer.

This agrees with my own experience. When I confess my sins, I know that He has forgiven them and feel unburdened and relieved, even if not immediately. But why should this be if He has already resolved my sin problem?

The answer is mysterious and paradoxical. He has resolved it, but He continues to apply His forgiveness as we confess! He will remember our sins “no more” because the Holy Spirit is constantly at work applying what Christ has accomplished at the Cross to our stained lives.

It is also because our Lord is continually at work in our lives that we continue to exercise faith and confession unto salvation. In God’s mind, all of these blessings are already accomplished and part of His free gift of faith and salvation, which includes our participation.

Do we have to continue in faith, repentance, and confession? Yes! We have to remain faithful to the end:

·          “All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

·          But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Col. 1:22-23)

·          We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. (Hebrews 3:14)

Some reject this simple and direct teaching because it seems like it requires our good works, which contradicts salvation-as-a-gift and will enable us to boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, continuing in faith, repentance, and confession is part of the guaranteed gift of God. The gift of faith is an ever-flowing fountain bringing us to eternal life (John 4:14; 1 Peter 1:5). However, even though salvation is a gift, we too have our role to play (which exemplifies Compatibilism):

·       Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Paul claimed that even though salvation is fundamentally God’s doing, it also involves our obedience; however, God gets the credit for even our obedience:

·       But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Paul credited God for even his strenuous labors. Why? Weren’t these labors a matter of Paul’s initiative and effort? Yes and no! They did represent Paul’s efforts, but Paul recognized that God was responsible for His efforts and initiative. So He gets all the glory. It’s all the fruit of His Spirit.

Do we completely understand this? I don’t! We have a fancy theological name we attach to it – Compatibilism. Somehow, our voluntary contributions are compatible with God’s plan and sovereign workings in our lives. How???

Although I don’t understand this, the compatibility of God’s sovereign work with our freewill and responsibilities is mirrored throughout Scripture. For example, we have been saved, but we are being saved as we cooperate with God (Hebrews 4:11; 6:10-11; 1 Tim. 4:16). This paradox is something we just need to accept and not take it captive to our own limited understanding. We make responsible, free, and weighty choices, but God is even sovereign over our sinful choices and uses them for His glorious purposes.

Let’s now apply all of this to the issue at hand – confession and forgiveness. Must we confess our sins? Definitely! Nevertheless, our forgiveness is assured (Jeremiah 31:34)! How? God has assured it:

·       No one who is born of God will continue to sin [and also to not confess], because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning [purposely], because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9; 5:18)

Our Savior will not allow us to go in the wrong direction for long. He will lead us into confession so that He can complete His work of forgiving our sins and cleansing us, as He has promised (Phil. 1:6; Romans 8:28). However, confess we must!

Let’s bring this lesson back to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness:

·       For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

Here’s what is clear about this teaching:

1.    Our forgiving others is inseparable from God forgiving us.
2.    Our refusal to continue to forgive others means that God will not forgive us.

Must we forgive others to be saved? Yes! This is related to the issue of whether we must continue in faith. We must! But is our salvation uncertain? No! It is guaranteed by the God who promised to keep us. But how? Our Savior will work in our heart to produce the necessary requirements, including forgiveness (Phil. 2:12-13; Eph. 2:10). This too is part of His free gift.

How can our obedience be part of God’s free gift? Here is my meager understanding - a living faith will produce obedience. If I trust in my doctor, I will take the pills she prescribes. If I trust in God, I will do, by His grace, what He tells me to do.

Faith and obedience are therefore inseparable. We demonstrate our faith through obedience. This is why James could say:

·       But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:18)

A real faith will lead to obedience and the forgiveness of others. If we refuse to forgive, it means that we refuse to trust our Lord. It also means that we have failed to grasp the Gospel and to realize how badly we need forgiveness.

Scripture informs us that God not only guarantees our salvation but also guarantees that He will keep us through the entire process:

·       Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

Nevertheless, God’s role does not cancel out our responsibilities. Somehow, there is a glorious overlap between God’s work and ours – Compatibilism. This can be illustrated when we look at the doctrine of Scripture.

On the one hand, Scripture is the product of human endeavor. When we examine the writings of Paul, we learn that his Epistles reflect his style and vocabulary. The Psalms bring out this fact even more dramatically. They often reflect human tortured expressions and even accusations against God. Yet, so many verses assure us that Scripture, including the Psalms, is entirely God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Matthew 4:4; 5:16-18) and totally the product of the Spirit (1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:20-21).

Jesus affirmed the Divinity of Scripture in many instances. When He appeared to His fearful disciples after His resurrection:

·       Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)

Jesus regarded even the very human Psalms as inspired. Some try wrongly to resolve this mystery claiming that part is inspired and part isn’t; part is of man and is fallible, and part is of God and is infallible. However, this is not the testimony of Scripture or of Jesus:

·       But he [Jesus] answered [Satan], “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

Jesus regarded every word as inspired! Scripture, according to its own testimony is both human and God-breathed out -- Compatibilism. This is both a mystery and a tribute to God who can work infallibly through our freewill decisions and efforts.

In order to correctly understand Scripture, we must apply this mysterious understanding to all aspects of our lives. First of all, God is in control – Sovereignty of God:

·       Lord, You will establish peace for us, for You have also done all our works in us. (Isaiah 26:12)

  • The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way. (Psalm 37:23)

·       “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings.” (Acts 17:26)

God’s sovereignty is all-encompassing. Although we are responsible for our lives, He has His plans, and these plans never change – Compatibilism:

·       The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people He has chose as His own inheritance. (Psalm 33:11-12)

·       There are many plans in a man’s heart. Nevertheless the LORD’s counsel – that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)

What then can our prayers accomplish if God’s mind has been made up since the beginning? Some claim that prayer accomplishes nothing more than some minimal attitudinal changes. Others would say that prayer can accomplish anything. This brings us back to the original question – How can free human actions and choices coincide with God’s sovereignty and His changeless plan? It would seem that we must either degrade our humanity or God’s changeless plan to make them fit together, and this is what we tend to do. However, Scripture suggests that we should do neither. Instead, both extremes are true - Compatibilism.

On the one hand, Scripture teaches that our prayers bring results:

·       You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. (James 4:2)

·       Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16)

But how do we reconcile these verses with the well-attested Scriptural fact that God’s plan (and mind) cannot be changed? First of all, both sets of truths work together. James had used Elijah as an example of how the fervent prayer of a righteous man can accomplish miracles (James 5:17).

However, the miracles that his prayers accomplished on Mt. Carmel, before and thereafter, were according to the will and directions of God. God had directed Elijah to challenge the priests of Baal to a contest to establish the identity of the true God:

·       And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. (1 Kings 18:36)

Elijah’s prayers had been effectual because they were accomplished according to the Word and plan of God. Both human and Divine causation are true, even though God’s role is primary – Compatibilism. Therefore, we must not compromise or diminish either God’s plan or our prayers.

Here is what I want to say in conclusion:

1.    God’s Word is to be marveled at. Ask God to open our eyes to its wonders. In some regards, we cannot contain it within our narrow understanding.

2.    We only see in part (Deuteronomy 29:29; 1 Cor. 13). Therefore, before we dispute the position that our brethren take, we must try to understand it and appreciate its value, knowing that we too are somewhat blind or limited. They may have a perspective that we need to embrace.

3.    Let us therefore pray for wisdom (James 1:5).

4.    We have to strive to maintain the unity of the Body of Christ our different interpretations of Scripture (Ephesians 4:1-5).

We shouldn’t despair because aspects of Scripture seem to elude our understanding. Science is also very limited in understanding. Although it has led to great technological advancement, it has also been unable to even answer the simplest questions, like “what is space, time, matter, or light?” Do we reject science because of this? Of course not! However, we have to admit that scientific understanding will only take us so far.

Likewise, we must not reject Scripture because of its paradoxical elements, with which we will continue to grapple until His return.

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