Please note that there is no midweek Bible Study this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday. The midweek Bible Study will resume next week (on Wednesday, December 2).
Please note that there is no midweek Bible Study this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday. The midweek Bible Study will resume next week (on Wednesday, December 2).
Please remember that Lake OPC is offering two abbreviated (45-50 minute) morning Worship Services at this particular time. The first service, beginning at 10:00 a.m., is a “mask required” service. Attendees at this service are expected to wear a face mask during the entirety of their time at church, including during the worship service. The second service, beginning at 11:15 a.m., is a “mask recommended” service. Attendees at this service are encouraged to follow the protocols of the current mask mandate, although the wearing of face masks will not be required nor enforced at this service.
God’s Word makes it clear that we sinners receive God’s gracious gift of salvation through faith (meaning, personal trust) in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior, apart from works. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
But how does God by the Holy Spirit deliver the gift of salvation that Christ has purchased for His people, and which is received by faith alone? And, having delivered the gifts of faith and salvation to believers, how does God preserve believers in their faith, and therefore in the state of grace, bringing them at last to heavenly glory?
The biblical answer to these vitally important questions is, through the means of grace, in particular through the Word and the Sacraments. These ordinances are called “means” of grace because they are like instruments or tools in God’s hands to offer and deliver His good gifts of grace and salvation to us sinners, who through God-given faith receive them. As the Bible-based answer to Shorter Catechism Question # 88 (“What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?“) states: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”
The primary and indispensable means of grace is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit uses the reading, but especially the preaching, of God’s Word to bring sinners to conviction and repentance for their sins and to faith in Jesus Christ for their salvation. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” With the exception of extraordinary cases, such as elect infants dying in infancy and other elect persons who are mentally incapable of understanding the Word, God’s usual way of delivering His grace to sinners and of bringing them to faith in Jesus is through the ministry of the Word. As elect sinners hear God’s Law proclaimed in the Scriptures, in God’s timing they are brought to a genuine contrition for their sins. As they hear the good news of free salvation in Christ proclaimed from the Scriptures, in God’ timing the Holy Spirit enables them to trust in Christ alone for their salvation. This mighty work of regeneration and new life is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit using the means or instrument of the Word, especially as that Word declares the gospel (“good news”) that in Jesus Christ the believing sinner has a merciful, forgiving God!
In line with the above, Shorter Catechism Question # 89 asks, How is the Word made effectual to salvation? The Bible-based answer to that question is: “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”
Other vitally-important and often neglected means of grace are the sealing ordinances, or sacraments, of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are “visible words” which proclaim the gospel in symbol form (First Corinthians 11:26). They are signs and seals of God’s covenant of grace, God’s pledges of grace and salvation to those who receive them with faith in Christ. As the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ commanded His apostles (and thus His church), “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, emphasis added). At His last supper with His apostles, on the night in which He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus also commanded the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a perpetual observance in His church (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; First Corinthians 11:23-26). And as the Apostle Paul wrote regarding the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (First Corinthians 10:16). There is a sense in which believers actually “participate” or have “fellowship” or “communion” in the body and blood of Christ when they partake of the Lord’s Supper (not in a physical, carnal sense, but through the Holy Spirit and by faith).
While the sacraments are not absolutely necessary for salvation in the same sense in which the Word is (without which no one can ordinarily be saved, since faith comes from hearing the Word); at the same time Christ commanded the observance of these sacraments by all who profess to be His disciples. Therefore, a professing “believer” who neglects, refuses participation in, or even condemns participation in the sacraments, not only commits a grave sin which calls the genuineness of such a professed believer’s “faith” into serious question. Such an individual also cheats himself or herself out of both a great blessing and a vital means that God uses to preserve His people in their faith and state of salvation. Just as faith is begotten and preserved by the Word, so it is confirmed and strengthened and preserved by the sacraments.
Shorter Catechism Question # 91 asks, “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?“. The Bible-based answer to that question is: “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.”
So what are some take aways from all of this?
First of all, if God by His Spirit ordinarily delivers His grace and salvation through the Word and the Sacraments (which faith alone receives), and ordinarily preserves His people in a state of grace through those means, then if we desire to receive God’s good gifts of grace and salvation, and to continue persevering in a state of grace and salvation*, then we must diligently seek to avail ourselves of those means of grace that God has ordained to deliver His grace to us and to preserve us in faith. Certainly it is vitally important that we read the Scriptures and pray privately, and in our families, using the means of the Word in private and family worship. But if we desire to understand and receive God’s good gifts of grace, it is especially important that we attend upon the public means of grace, gathering with others around the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the fellowship of Christ’s visible church.
Secondly, and finally, this doctrine of the means of grace goes against the grain of the hyper-individualism of modern American evangelicalism, which views God’s grace operating mystically and directly (without the mediation of any means of grace), which sees Christianity as merely a “personal relationship with Jesus”, and which has a low view of the church (which is often viewed as helpful but optional to living a faithful Christian life). If we affirm the biblical doctrine of the means of grace, let us also value and promote the vital importance and centrality of the church to our lives as those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.
*Scripture certainly teaches that God will preserve true believers in a state of grace and salvation. Those who have truly come to Christ will be preserved by Him, and thus true believers are eternally secure in their salvation (for example, John 10:27-30; Romans 8:1; etc.). However, this comforting truth does not mean that believers may therefore be lazy or careless in their walk with the Lord, or that they may casually neglect the means of grace without consequence. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that ordinarily God chooses to preserve His believing people through their perseverance in faith (First Peter 1:5) – a persevering faith that is nourished, preserved and strengthened by God through the means of grace! While God does indeed preserve us, at the same time we are responsible to give all diligence to make our calling and election sure (Second Peter 1:10-11). It is through that very diligence that God preserves us believers in faith.
All Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible: English Standard Version
Recently I received an email from a gentleman who asked me, among other things, “…do you believe a person can be a Christian and have besetting sins in their lives?” Below is the response I offered him. (To protect his privacy I have not included his name.)
Dear Mr. _______,
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, ESV)
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:19-21, ESV)
We hear a lot today about “community.” In fact, the word “community” has become quite the buzz word in current conversation. For example, we read and hear of a vast multitude of contemporary “communities” that have popped up in recent history, such as the “online community”; the “academic community”; the “gay community”; the “trans community”; the “homeschool community”; the “gamer community”; the “vegan community”; the “activist community”; etc. It would seem that almost every activity, group, interest or cause seeks legitimacy in the eyes of the public by tacking on the word “community.”
But what is a “community”? However one might understand that term, it is a term that bespeaks such things as social cohesiveness, sharing in a common cause or activity, and the building and nurturing of meaningful relationships around that common cause, interest, or activity.
But why, all of a sudden, has the term “community” become such a common buzz word?
I would suggest that, ironically, the multiplication of “communities” in our contemporary world and the prevalence of the term “community” in today’s lingo, is evidence of both a deep longing for genuine community and a deep sense of isolation and loneliness in our supposedly super-connected world.
To put it another way: Many today are constantly “connected” through social media and online “communities,” yet few experience the joy and the messiness of genuine community – genuine face-to-face, flesh-and-blood community, with all of its richness and all of its awkwardness. One can spend hours a day on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, texting, “chatting,” etc., while at the same time doing so from the isolation of one’s basement and with a deep sense of loneliness. Ironically, social media, for all of its genuine and indisputable benefits, enables us to be all together, yet alone.
It used to be that most people got their sense of community from three vital institutions: the family, the nation, and religion. But in our post-modern world all three institutions are on life-support. In the United States, it used to be that most people got their sense of identity and community from their family (nuclear and extended), their sense of national patriotism (love of and loyalty to country), and their affiliation with their local church or synagogue. But with the breakdown of the traditional family (thanks in large part to the toxicity of the sexual revolution), the rise of secularism (and thus the decline of religious institutions such as churches), and the cultural denigration of love for country, many today – especially in younger generations! – don’t know who they are, where they came from, why they’re here, or where they can find genuine community.
In our superficial online world where multitudes crave for genuine community, but few experience it, the gospel of Jesus Christ offers a stable identity and a lasting community. The true and living God is Himself, in a sense, a communal Being, existing eternally as a community of co-equal, co-essential Divine Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all within the one Divine Being. God is not an isolated, eternal hermit (as would be the case if He were a unitarian being), but exists eternally as a Trinity of love, fellowship and (dare I say it?) “community.” The mystery of the Trinity reveals that God is a relational Being, and He has created us (His image-bearers) to be relational, communal beings. Our sin and rebellion have separated us from fellowship and communion with our Creator (and thus from genuine community). But through Jesus Christ and His saving work for His people, communion with God and community with God’s people are restored for those who trust in Him with a penitent faith!
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, having trusted Him alone as your Lord and Savior, then your ultimate identity is “in Christ.” If you have been baptized into the Triune Name (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), you have been marked with the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace, and thus you belong to the visible covenant community of Christ, the visible church. As the church gathers together in corporate assembly around the word and sacraments, engaging together in biblically-based, historically-rooted worship (also known as “liturgy”), it experiences (through faith) living, vital communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, and thus it also experiences the only kind of genuine community that can satisfy our deepest, God-given longings.
The early Christians in the Book of Acts experienced genuine community as they gathered together frequently for instruction, worship, and holy communion, and also as they shared their meals and their lives together (Acts 2:42; 26). Through grace God had made them part of His forever family, the church, and it is clear that they loved to spend time together with their spiritual brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. What a picture of genuine community! And what a tragedy that such community is so hard to find today.
Lasting, stable community this side of glory can only be experienced as you commune with Christ your Savior in the means of grace, and as you involve yourself in the communion of Christ’s church. Knowing your identity as a baptized Christian who belongs to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ and to His church – the forever family of God – will not only give you an unshakeable sense of meaning, purpose and destiny. It can also offer you the sense of genuine community for which you crave. Christian: Find your identity, and your community, in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His Body, the church!
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who coined the phrase “chronological snobbery.” As I understand it, this is the attitude that the present generation has reached the pinnacle of wisdom and enlightenment, and thus has nothing to learn from the benighted voices of the past. It is essentially an adolescent outlook on life, one which we find in the stereotypical teenager who thinks her parents are totally clueless about almost everything, and thus that life would be so much better in both the home and in society if her parents and other ignorant adults would just embrace her point of view and govern life by her dictates.
As the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun, and this would certainly include chronological snobbery. Every new generation has had the tendency to view itself as having attained to the pinnacle of wisdom and enlightenment, and thus has tended to smirk at the ideas and traditions of the past with a condescending arrogance. We focus on the sins and failings of past generations, but ignore the wisdom of the past and the blessings their hard work and sacrifices have brought to us. (Do we really think that future generations will not look back on us with a critical eye toward the sins and failings of our present generation?)
This arrogance of the present reaches its summit when institutions grounded in God’s creation order and received traditions that have stood the test of time are foolishly discarded by social engineers attempting to redefine reality in the name of “progress.”
For example, the 1981 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: New College Edition defines “marriage” as historically-understood in the following words: “The state of being husband and wife; wedlock”, and “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife” (p. 801). This definition of the institution of marriage is not only grounded in God’s created order as revealed in Holy Scripture (Gen. 2:21-24; Matt. 19:4-6). It is also grounded in millennia of universal human practice and tradition.
While there is no such thing as a perfect marriage, and while sinful humanity has distorted God’s good gift of marriage, just as it has distorted every other good gift of the Creator; at the same time the marriage institution, as defined above, has stood the test of time and has proven itself to be a vital, foundational institution of any stable social order, and a great source of human flourishing and blessing. But today’s adolescent-minded social engineers, manifesting the chronological snobbery of the present arrogance, have thought themselves wiser, smarter, and more enlightened than millennia of past generations, and thus have discarded this traditional, biblical definition of marriage by expanding its definition to include “gay marriage” between members of the same sex.
Another example of the arrogance of the present is the attempt by those who pride themselves on being “progressive” to redefine the basic gender categories of male and female – categories which are grounded in God’s creation order and settled scientific reality (i.e., basic biology, genetics, anatomy & physiology) – and to push an anti-realist ideology which absurdly claims that gender is “fluid” or a “spectrum,” and thus that one can “identify” one day as male and the next as female based purely on subjective factors. The social engineers pushing this ideology have the weight of Scripture, science, human history and everyday human experience marshaled against them. Nevertheless, they are undeterred in pushing their agenda (and requiring that you and I conform to it!), for they regard themselves as the smart ones, the enlightened ones, the elites, the wise ones who know far better than the foolish generations of the past or the knuckle-dragging neanderthals of the present who continue to cling to such outdated notions of gender.
It has been said that the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. Yet, Holy Scripture is full of history – redemptive, real, space-time historical events – and God expects us to learn the lessons of biblical history, which is, after all, “His Story.” It is wisdom to study such history with reverence for the sovereign God of history. It is the height of folly to ignore such history and imagine that we know better than the peoples of the past.
None of this is to claim that we cannot be critical of past generations or point out their sins and failures. For example, I firmly believe it is right and moral to criticize the evils of the race-based, man-stealing institution of black slavery in America’s past. Slavery was a grievous national sin and a deep stain upon the noble history of the U.S.A. (It was also an evil institution that many white men in the Union army during the Civil War shed their blood and laid down their lives to abolish.) But it is to claim that, just as human beings after the fall are complicated mixtures of the remnants of original virtue combined with the radical corruption, depravity and vice of sin, so human history is a complicated, nuanced business. We can learn from both its positive and its negative examples. And in all of this the biblical Christian will measure everything by the ultimate standard of God’s infallible Word.
The bottom line is this: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7, ESV). “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble…Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6, 10, ESV)
Before discarding the deeply-rooted traditions, ideas and institutions inherited from past generations in the name of “progress” (or simply because it has become trendy to do so), ask yourself: (1) Is it based in Scripture? (2) Has it stood the test of time, and if so, why? (3) Why have so many past generations observed or practiced them? And, (4) If it is right to reject them, what do we propose to put in their place, and what long-term effects will they have?
Let us avoid the arrogance of the present. Instead, let us critically and thoughtfully embrace the wisdom of the past, even as we press forward to the future. And in all things, let us strive to be faithful to God’s revealed Word. “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV)
The Bible reveals God to be a God of truth. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, said of Himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, ESV; emphasis added). Therefore, Scripture requires that followers of Jesus be a people who are committed to the sanctity of truth. As God requires of us in the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness…” (Exodus 20:16, ESV); in other words, don’t lie, either in court or (by implication) in any other arena of life.
Today a dangerous, anti-Christian, anti-reality ideology has taken root in almost every aspect of our society, including many of its’ most influential institutions of academia, the government, the entertainment industry, and even many businesses. It is an ideology that flies under the noble-sounding banner of “diversity” and “tolerance,” yet intolerantly requires a total, unquestioning, totalitarian conformity to its dictates, acceptance of its propaganda, and which threatens severe consequences to non-conformists, who are branded in broad-brush fashion as “haters.” Most dangerous of all, it requires that you lie about reality, or else!
To what am I referring? Answer: Today’s trendy gender ideology, as promoted by LGBTQA+ activists.
Today’s gender ideology denies that gender is “binary” or necessarily rooted in the biological and genetically-grounded categories of sex (namely, male and female). It claims that such “cisgender” categories are “assigned” at birth (rather than viewed as givens), but denies that such categories are fixed and immutable.
In gender ideology, if a biological male “identifies” as a “girl”, such an individual is to be regarded as a girl, addressed with female pronouns (“she,” “her”), allowed to use the women’s restroom, allowed to participate in female sporting events, etc. To refer to such a “transgender” individual using male pronouns is to be guilty of “misgendering” such an individual. And, for such a sin against today’s gender ideological orthodoxy, its’ more radical adherents want “heretics” (i.e., nonconformists who do not buy into their ideology) to suffer severe consequences for their nonconformity, such as being marginalized and demonized as “haters,” losing their jobs, possibly even facing fines and imprisonment, and other unpleasant consequences.
For example, it is my understanding that a recent gender-pronoun law proposed in Canada threatens fines and/or imprisonment to individuals guilty of “misgendering” others – i.e., not referring to them by their chosen gender pronouns. The controversial Canadian psychologist and professor Dr. Jordan Peterson has faced a great deal of nasty vitriol, criticism and ridicule for opposing this law on grounds of civil liberties and freedom of speech.
Why should Christians be concerned about this trend? Why not just “go along to get along”? First of all, because this ideology is grounded in a deeply anti-Christian doctrine: The doctrine of self-sovereignty. In other words, it is based on the lie that “we create our own reality.”
Today’s gender ideology says that your gender is what you say it is, based on which gender you identify with. Such a doctrine is pure, unadulterated humanism, and involves a deeply narcissistic worship of self. Faithful, biblically-consistent Christians cannot bow to today’s gender ideology because it is idolatry, and loyal followers of Jesus will not worship idols (including today’s idolatry of the self and of self-identity).
In contrast to today’s gender orthodoxy, the Holy Scriptures, the historic church, and all consistent biblical Christians past and present believe, confess and teach that God sovereignly determines and defines reality – including the reality of gender. And what does God have to say about gender? How many genders does the Bible (God’s Word) say there are? “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, ESV; emphasis added).
God in His Word defines gender reality in gender-binary terms. You are either male or female, a boy or a girl, a man or a woman. Period. God’s Word does not give any credence to the idea that gender is “fluid,” or that gender is a “spectrum.” Scripture grounds gender in objective, biological reality – the reality of “male” and “female.” To go along with the speech codes that today’s gender ideological orthodoxy seeks to impose is to engage in blatant rebellion against God’s created order (and thus to live in rebellion against the Creator Himself), to commit idolatry (by bowing to the idol of self-identity), and – perhaps most significant for today’s culture of speech codes – to bear false witness (i.e., to participate in a lie). Since Christians are called in Scripture to be a people of truth who are committed to the sanctity of truth, the faithful, biblically-consistent Christian cannot and will not embrace or bow to the lies of today’s gender ideology.
But not only is gender ideology contrary to Scripture and historic Christian doctrine. Not only is there a religious problem with today’s gender orthodoxy. It is also anti-science. Science and objective everyday reality itself identify human beings under the categories of male and female. All of us know in our heart-of-hearts that this is true (and thus that gender ideology and transgenderism are false); and on a practical, everyday basis all of us live our lives and relate to others through the objective lens of gender binary reality. Biology, genetics, human anatomy & physiology (in other words, science) identify you as either male or female, boy or girl, man or woman. Science and objective everyday reality show an inseparable link between gender and biological sex. To claim otherwise is to claim raiment for the emperor when in fact the emperor has no clothes.
Now, in stating the above I would be remiss if I did not make some important clarifications, lest the reader misunderstand.
First of all, let the reader understand that I am not denying that there are some men who exhibit feminine qualities, just as there are some women who exhibit masculine qualities. And that’s fine. Though God created each of us either male and female, He also created us all with unique personalities and qualities, so we might express our maleness or femaleness in somewhat different ways. But that does not thereby mean that gender is somehow “fluid” or relative or arbitrary. (I’m also not denying that there are extremely rare instances where persons are born without a clearly identifiable biological gender, though such is an exceptional condition and deformity, and an exception cannot prove a rule.)
Furthermore, I also recognize that the way we are taught to express either our masculinity or our femininity can vary from culture to culture. For example, in many western societies historically men typically wore slacks and women typically wore dresses. But such societal norms are (at least to some extent) culturally relative, and not of themselves definitional of “maleness” or “femaleness.”
In addition, I am not suggesting that Christians should speak or act harshly toward individuals who suffer from gender dysphoria or gender confusion. Gender confusion is a profoundly painful, deeply real struggle for some, and as followers of Christ we should seek to be sympathetic, compassionate and understanding toward such persons. Let us remember that individuals who suffer from gender confusion are human beings created in the image of God, and thus should be treated with kindness, tolerance and compassion. At the same time, it is neither a loving nor a kind thing to reinforce the delusions of those who suffer from gender confusion by (for example) referring to them by their chosen gender pronouns. (My personal recommendation when interacting with such individuals is to avoid pronouns and to refer to them by name.)
For example, if I were under the sincere delusion that I was in fact Jesus Christ, and thus insisted that everyone address me as “my lord and savior,” would it be a loving thing to concede to my wishes and address me in that manner? Absolutely not! In fact, to do so would be one of the most unloving and unkind things you could do for me in such circumstances, for you would only be reinforcing my delusions and thus hurting me further.
Dear Christian reader: Today we are facing increasing pressure from our culture to conform to the new gender orthodoxy, especially its’ speech codes. This includes pressure to break the ninth commandment through participating in lying by referring to “transgender” individuals according to their chosen pronouns – even though such pronouns do not reflect objective biological and genetic reality. We will be told that we are “unloving” – even “bigoted” – if we don’t conform to these speech codes. But truth speech is not hate speech, and it is in fact unloving to speak lies to our neighbor, especially if such lies only serve to reinforce a harmful delusion. God in His Word calls us to “speak the truth in love.” Let us love our neighbor as ourselves by defending the sanctity of truth and refusing to speak lies – even politically correct ones.
There is a myth than many Christians today have bought into, especially here in the United States: the myth of the so-called “victorious Christian life”.
Allow me to explain, first by clarifying what I do not mean, and then by defining what I do mean by this “myth.”
First of all, it is true that God’s Word does speak of our Christian identity as one of victory. For example, after speaking of the believer’s security in Christ, of life in the Holy Spirit, and of God’s everlasting love of His own in Christ, the Apostle Paul writes, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:27, ESV) Furthermore, many passages of Scripture could be brought forward as showing that in union with Christ the believer has been given victory over sin, death and hell, and is headed for ultimate vindication and victory on the final Day. I certainly affirm all of these wonderful Bible truths, and am certainly eager to confess and declare Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, death and hell. By grace alone, and through faith alone, we certainly do share in Christ’s victory, at least in principle, and I would in no way desire to deny it! But these biblical truths are not what I am referring to when I speak of “the myth of the victorious Christian life.”
What, then, is this “myth”? In popular American Christianity the notion of the “victorious Christian life” is the idea that, once you have truly made a “decision” for Christ or something equivalent to it (such as “rededicating” your life to the Lord, the “second blessing” of being “baptized in the Holy Spirit”, speaking in tongues, etc.), you can expect to be automatically raised to a higher level of Christian experience where you either no longer have to struggle against sin (or at least you are raised to a level where the struggle becomes much easier), and where your Christian life is an experience of going from one spiritual “victory” to another. Unlike the “ordinary” Christian living the “ordinary” Christian life of constant struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, the “victorious Christian” is raised to a higher plane of spiritual existence where he or she is, essentially, “above” such struggle.
Contrary to this popular myth, the Word of God reveals in many places that, in this present life, the typical Christian life will be one of constant, daily struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. In fact, the Christian life is pictured as a battle, and disciples of Jesus are depicted as soldiers who must put on the whole armor of God in their spiritual warfare (see, for example, Ephesians 6:10-20). The battle of discipleship requires strenuous effort, full engagement, and diligent use of God’s means of grace (especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, in the context of Christian fellowship). In fact, the Christian life is a life of daily, ongoing renewed repentance, faith and walking after a new obedience. In theological terms, our sanctification involves daily “mortification” (putting sin to death), and daily “vivification” (renewed daily trust in and obedience to Christ). Our baptism summons us to this daily renewed repentance and faith, in light of our union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection (see Romans 6).
The reason I call the notion of the victorious Christian life a “myth” is because Scripture teaches that in this present life we will never be completely free from or “above” this daily struggle against sin and for holiness.
Yes, it is true that we are already, in principle, victors in Christ, because we are united to Him by faith and through the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence in our lives is a surety, guarantee and downpayment that one day this struggle will be over, when Christ returns in glory on that final Day of resurrection when our redemption is consummated (Ephesians 1:13-14; Romans 8:23).
However, in this present life we often “groan” as we await that final day (Romans 8:23). In this present life we often find ourselves conflicted as our good intentions and earnest desires after holiness, produced by the indwelling Holy Spirit, are frequently disappointed by the remnants of the sin nature within us that often makes its’ unwelcome presence felt, leading us to cry out with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24, ESV).
Furthermore, even though we believers are redeemed and beloved children of God, in this present age we are still often subject to the common afflictions, infirmities and miseries of this life, such as sickness, financial struggle, loneliness, disease, poverty, oppression, etc. In addition to these common human afflictions, followers of Christ often have the additional burden of having to bear scoffing, ridicule, mistreatment and sometimes even outright persecution due to their allegiance to the gospel.
The modern-day peddlers of the “victorious Christian life” do a great disservice both to potential converts and to God’s people, because they peddle a false and misleading message. To tell prospective converts that coming to faith in Christ will guarantee them health, wealth, happiness and ease is setting them up for disappointment (at best), or for apostasy (at worst), for it is false advertising. Jesus never promised His disciples a comfortable life of ease, and there is probably no better formula for producing false converts than a type of “victorious Christian life” teaching that promises (either explicitly or by implication) that the Christian life is a life of ease and comfort. Furthermore, there are few messages more disheartening and discouraging to the struggling believer than this myth of the “victorious Christian life,” for it basically tells them that their struggles must be due to some defect in their faith. After all, if they were truly Spirit-filled and walking by faith, then (as the myth would suggest) they would not be having such struggles.
For those believers who have become accustomed to a steady diet of false teaching on the victorious Christian life, the perspective expressed in this blog post might seem shocking, perhaps even depressing. But, in reality, I would suggest that it should be greatly encouraging to the believer, because it strips away false expectations and assures the struggling believer that the experience of battling intensely against the world, the flesh and the devil are part of the ordinary life of Christian discipleship. In fact, there is a very real sense in which the Christian life is a life of struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil!
Finally, a rejection of the myth of the victorious Christian life in favor of this more biblical view of the Christian life should encourage the believer because it does assure victory in the end, even as it promises Christ’s intimate presence and abiding grace even in the midst of the struggles we encounter as we live out our lives as followers of Jesus in this present age. Jesus doesn’t promise us a life of ease and comfort this side of glory, but He does promise to be with us in the midst of our struggles, and He promises to pull us through all of our trials and tribulations in the end! As our Lord Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, ESV) And, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV) Dear reader, may this truth comfort and fortify your soul as you do battle against the world, the flesh and the devil! Amen.
The final point of doctrine in the so-called “doctrines of grace” or “five points of Calvinism” is the biblical doctrine known as “the perseverance of the saints.” The Westminster Confession of Faith offers a succinct definition of this doctrine in chapter 17, section 1:
“They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
This doctrine is not to be confused with the common distortion of it, which in non-Reformed evangelical circles is called “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.”
The popular “eternal security” doctrine often conveys the idea that you can be guaranteed eternal salvation, just so long as you make a one-time “decision for Christ” (which often involves revivalistic practices such as praying a ritual “sinner’s prayer” or responding to a so-called “altar call” at an evangelistic meeting). In this popular view, as long as you have “asked Jesus into your heart” or made that “decision” for Christ, you are guaranteed eternal life in heaven, even if you live the rest of your life in open rebellion against God and His law, and, in some versions of this doctrine, even if you commit apostasy and lose your faith altogether. This view is one expression of antinomianism, and it is heresy.
Contrary to this shallow, heretical understanding of “eternal security”, the biblically Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that true believers, though they may fall into sin (even into serious and scandalous sin for a time), will never totally nor finally fall away from their faith in Christ, but will continue to strive to persevere in faith, repentance and holiness, even to the end of their lives. The ultimate reason why they will do so is not found in their own merit or will-power or strength or resolve, but in the sovereign and gracious God who plans, accomplishes and applies Christ’s saving grace to His elect. The God who has chosen, redeemed, called, justified and adopted His elect ones will continue to sanctify them unto the end, enabling them to continue clinging to Christ in daily renewed faith and repentance. The faith by which God’s elect are saved is not merely a one-time “decision” for Christ, but an ongoing, continuous, Spirit-wrought clinging to Christ as the only Source and Hope of one’s eternal salvation.
The biblically Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is rooted and grounded in the clear teachings of God’s Word, the Bible, and in the biblical logic of the doctrines of grace.
There are many Scripture passages which teach and support the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. To offer just a sampling:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jesus Christ, in John 5:24, ESV)
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (Jesus Christ, in John 10:27-30, ESV)
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6, ESV)
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (First Peter 1:3-5, ESV)
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10, ESV)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, ESV)
And, of course, the Apostle Paul’s great “chain of salvation” in Romans 8:30 makes it clear that all who are predestined, called and justified will likewise be glorified in the end. Which implies that none of those who are thus predestined, savingly called and justified will fall short of the final stage of salvation, glorification.
The biblical logic of the doctrines of grace likewise undergird this important and comforting doctrine of Perseverance. Think about it: Scripture reveals that fallen men and women are completely in bondage to their sin natures, totally unable and unwilling to turn themselves to God apart from His sovereign grace (Total Depravity). God’s choice of sinners for salvation is not based upon God foreseeing that they will meet certain conditions by their own “free will”, but rather it is based upon His sovereign good will and pleasure alone, and made certain by His sovereign decree (Unconditional Election). In the fulness of time God sent His Son to die on the cross in order to atone for sin and infallibly secure the eternal redemption of those whom the Father had unconditionally elected in Him (Limited Atonement / Definite Redemption). In time the Holy Spirit applies the redemption purchased by Christ to those who have been chosen (Christ’s “sheep”) and redeemed by Christ by giving them new spiritual life (the new birth) and effectively drawing them, through the gospel, to trust in Christ alone for their salvation (Irresistible Grace). Perseverance of the Saints is simply the completion of God’s saving plan in the lives of the redeemed. The idea that one who has been chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and renewed and called by the Holy Spirit could subsequently fall away, fully and finally, thereby losing his eternal salvation, denigrates the perfection and completion of God’s saving work in Christ. It would imply that puny man could overthrow the sovereign grace of God. But the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints comports fully with the biblical logic of God’s saving plan, and therefore it gives glory to the God who, by His grace alone, saves sinners.
But what are we to make of objections to this doctrine? Two major objections to the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints are that it caters to loose, sinful living, and also that it contradicts passages of Scripture which seem to teach, at least on the surface, the possibility that a true believer can fall away and thus lose the gift of salvation.
Regarding the first objection, it is said that this doctrine implies that believers can be casual about their sin. After all, if God has unconditionally chosen me, if Christ has infallibly redeemed me, and if the Spirit will preserve me infallibly unto eternal salvation, then why not relax and give oneself over to sin? This objection confuses the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance with the antinomian doctrine of “eternal security.”
The Reformed view is the perseverance of the saints, not the preservation of the sinner. In line with the Word of God, the Reformed doctrine of the true believer’s Perseverance unto the end teaches that, because the true believer has been born again by the Holy Spirit, he hates his sin and seeks to fight against it.
Yes, true believers may and will sin, and sometimes true believers can backslide into serious and scandalous sin. However, the heart of a true believer is a heart that mourns over remaining sin (Matthew 5:4) and which hungers and thirsts after righteousness (Matthew 5:6). True, born again believers will not be casual about their remaining sin, but will fight it daily as they long for the glorious day when the last remnants of their sin nature will be finally eradicated and they will be finally conformed fully into the image of Christ in true holiness and righteousness.
Yes, God preserves His elect unto the end, but Scripture indicates that God preserves His people by moving them to persevere in faith, repentance and holiness. This is why, for example, the Scriptures urge professing believers to examine themselves to make sure they are in the faith (Second Corinthians 13:5), and to give diligence to make their calling and election sure by adding virtue to their professed faith (Second Peter 1:3-11, especially verse 10). The things that God uses to preserve us in faith include the diligent use of the means of grace (the word and the sacraments, along with prayer) – which is why the Reformed Faith not only stresses the importance of personal Bible reading and prayer, but also diligent and faithful attendance upon the public means of grace in a faithful local church.
What about those Scripture passages that seem to contradict the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance? Let me close this article with a look at two of the more prominent passages that are often used to deny the Reformed doctrine of the Perseverance of the Faith.
Hebrews 6:4-6 says this: “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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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.” (ESV)
On the surface this passage seems to clearly teach that it is possible for a true believer to fully and irrecoverably fall away from the faith and thus to lose the gift of salvation. How do the Reformed respond to this passage?
The Epistle to the Hebrews was apparently written to a group of Jewish Christians who faced severe persecution for their faith, and who were therefore mightily tempted to turn away from Christ and revert back to their previous Judaism. It is a “word of exhortation” to these professing believers, showing the superiority of Christ’s priesthood and the new covenant to the old covenant and its’ levitical priesthood, and urging them to continue to persevere in their confession of the Christian Faith.
This stern warning can be understood in one of two ways: (1) Some Reformed scholars believe that the language of this passage (which speaks of “tasting” the heavenly gift and the goodness of the gospel) is not speaking of true conversion, but of a powerful yet merely external experience of the Spirit in the fellowship of the visible church. For example, some have suggested that the “enlightenment” spoken of in this passage merely indicates that they had been baptized, and the “tasting” language merely indicates they have heard the gospel preached and participated in the Lord’s Supper. In this view the warning implies that mere external participation in the benefits of the visible church, while important, is not of itself sufficient to guard one from falling away from a profession of faith. True, persevering faith must also be present. (2) Other Reformed scholars believe that this language is speaking of true conversion, and of the danger of falling away, but is presenting this as a hypothetical, not an actual, possibility. They point to verse 9, which seems to indicate that such falling away does not belong to salvation. In this view the purpose of this somber warning is to drive the professing believer to cling all the more closely to Christ and His gospel. Whichever view one takes, this passage of itself does not contradict other clear passages of Scripture which teach the Perseverance of the Saints.
Galatians 5:4 says this: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (ESV)
This passage uses some very strong language, speaking of being “severed” from Christ and of being “fallen away from grace.” How do the Reformed understand this language, and how is it compatible with the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance?
In the context of Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians he is seeking to counteract some Jewish Christian false teachers (whom scholars call “Judaizers”) who were teaching the Gentile believers that faith in Christ alone is insufficient for justification before God. In addition to faith they must also be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. Paul anathematizes this view as a false gospel, and those who teach it as accursed (Galatians 1:6-8). His point is that if the Galatians give in to the teaching of the Judaizers and embrace their false gospel of justification by faith plus works, they will in effect be cutting themselves off from Christ and the grace that is offered in the true gospel of justification by faith alone. To embrace a false gospel of legalism is to fall from the way of salvation by grace alone. Again, the purpose of this warning is to urge them to continue to cling to Christ alone, and not to fall into legalism. A Reformed take on this passage would be to say that if any of the Galatians had, in fact, submitted themselves to the false gospel of the Judaizers and persisted in seeking to be justified by works of the law, they would have thereby shown their original profession of faith to be false. They would have shown themselves to be cut off from Christ and from the grace of the gospel, and thus not true believers. But none of this contradicts what Scripture so clearly teaches elsewhere about the true believer’s perseverance in the faith.
Praise God that our salvation is secure from first to last! May these doctrines of grace comfort your soul and add fuel to your Christian life as you continue to cling to Christ in daily renewed faith and repentance, and as you continue to diligently use God’s means of grace.
The doctrines of grace, also known as “the Five Points of Calvinism,” are a seamless garment. They logically – and biblically – go together and mutually support and imply one another. So, for example, the fact that mankind after Adam’s fall into sin is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-3; Genesis 6:5; Romans 3:9-18), with wills in bondage to sin, and with a sin nature that impacts the whole of man’s being (i.e., total depravity), implies that fallen man is spiritually and ethically incapable of taking the first step toward God and of “choosing Christ” apart from God’s Divine initiative of grace. Therefore, if God’s people are going to be saved they must be unconditionally elected – chosen of God by pure grace, apart from them meeting any “conditions” which merit God’s choice – from before the foundation of the world and without any foresight of their faith or works (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 9:16, 18). If the salvation of God’s elect is to be secured, then Christ must die specifically for the purpose of actually redeeming them from sin and thus effectively guaranteeing their eternal salvation (limited atonement / particular redemption; John 6:37; 10:11; 17:6, 8; Ephesians 5:25). And if they are to be brought to the enjoyment of the salvation that Christ purchased for them, they must be spiritually resurrected and brought to saving faith in Christ (irresistible grace) and kept by the power of God in that grace until the end (perseverance of the saints).
In this brief article I want to focus specifically on the fourth of the five points of Calvinism – namely, irresistible grace.
The doctrine of God’s irresistible grace is a biblical truth made necessary by two biblical considerations: (1) The biblical teaching on man’s total depravity, which demonstrates that fallen, unregenerate man has a will in bondage to sin, and is thus morally and spiritually incapable of choosing Christ or accepting the offer of the gospel. The natural, unregenerate man has no interest in the gospel or in the Christ presented to him in the gospel. While he could, if he wanted to, choose Christ, yet he has no inner desire, no will, to receive and rest upon Christ as He is offered in the gospel. Thus the natural, unregenerate man who is left to his own choice will inevitably choose to reject the gospel. It takes a supernatural miracle, a spiritual resurrection, a new birth, to bring a sinner to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, for fallen man’s heart must be changed before he will desire and choose to come to Christ for salvation. (2) The efficacious power of God’s Word. God’s Word is powerful, and accomplishes all that which He intends for it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:10-11). If God’s Word of grace failed to save anyone for whom that grace was intended, then man’s fallen will is more powerful than God’s grace, God is not God, and believers have no security in their salvation. The efficacy of God’s Word requires irresistible grace.
Now, of course, fallen man resists God’s grace all the time, in the sense that fallen man resists the claims of gospel proclamation of Christ’s Lordship and the external call of the gospel that comes through the written Scriptures and through the preaching of the gospel. Gospel preaching and gospel witness can be, and often are, resisted by those whose hearts are devoid of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can be resisted in this external sense of resisting and rebelling against the ordinary means of grace, for the Spirit is the Source of those external means of grace. (It was in this sense that the martyr Stephen was speaking when he accused the unbelieving Jews of resisting the Holy Spirit in Acts 7:51, for they had resisted the preaching of the prophets, the witness of Jesus Himself during His earthly ministry, and the apostolic witness to Christ’s resurrection.)
But when God is intent upon effectively calling an elect sinner out of the bondage and misery of his sin into His kingdom of grace and salvation, the external call of the gospel to repentance and faith will be accompanied by a supernatural, internal work of grace that so changes the sinner’s heart and frees the sinner’s will so that Christ is made sweet to him, and so that he comes most freely and willingly to Christ for salvation as Christ is freely offered in the gospel. As the Lord Jesus said in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (ESV; emphasis added) This irresistible grace is God’s effectual, saving call, and is to be distinguished from the mere external call of the gospel (though the saving call comes to God’s elect through the external call of the gospel). The external call can, and often is, resisted by sinners. But the saving, effectual call is not and cannot be resisted, for in this saving call God supernaturally changes the heart of a sinner and gives him a will and desire to trust in Christ alone for salvation. This is why Paul in Romans 8:30 says that all those who are (effectually, irresistibly) called are justified and glorified — a statement which would not be true if he were talking merely about the external call of the gospel.
This precious doctrine of grace has many practical implications for the church. For example, if God’s grace toward His elect proves in the end to be irresistible, this can give the church confidence in her gospel witness and proclamation to a lost and dying world, for it assures the church that the resistance toward the gospel of even the most hardened sinner can be overcome in time by God’s irresistible grace. It is also a doctrine which, when correctly understood and heartily embraced, fosters a spirit of humility among God’s people, for it reminds us that our salvation is ultimately not due to anything we have willed or done, but it is solely of God’s grace and God’s grace alone. We have nothing to boast in, except in the Lord and in His grace! May this doctrine of grace be precious to your soul, dear reader.