Monday, January 29, 2007

If Faith is Passive, Why is a Person Commanded to Believe?

Transcribed from A Veiled Reference, by Dr. John Niemelä, Professor of Hebrew and Greek at Chafer Theological Seminary.
Now one of the things [i.e., questions] that is often alleged when we speak about a passive or a stative idea of faith is, “Well, how do we deal with the fact the Bible commands belief? ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved’ [is a] command. That sounds like I have to do something. That sounds like I have to make a decision. That sounds like I have to do something.”

Commands to believe do expect a volitional response. There is no denying that. But the volitional response is in a slightly different area than we might think. The unbeliever obeys the command [to believe] by exposing himself or herself to biblical truth, allowing God’s word to make its persuasive case.

We look at the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of John is arranged around eight signs that are designed to prove to the reader that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing this, a person may have life in His name.

God’s word is persuasive. The unbeliever who exposes himself to God’s word and seeks not to put up barriers, seeks not to add to the veil, but seeks to come to an understanding, a fair understanding of what it really is saying, is someone who is open to be persuaded. That’s all that a person can do—make themselves open to be persuaded. Because what happens when we decide to believe something that we know isn’t true? We’re “making belief.” We have to know that it is true before we can believe it. The point that we have understood it to be true, we have believed it. But we have to be open to allow it to persuade. And the unbeliever is in that same situation. The command is to put ourselves in a position of being able to be persuaded by the word. If a person says, “I’m open to the word,” and he never opens the Book, and never talks to Christians, and never does anything to be exposed to the message, he can say he’s open all day, but is he?

The concept is: in order to be persuaded, we have to have the word in a position to be able to affect us. The issue for the unbeliever is to be open to God’s truth that is revealed by the Spirit. When he or she becomes persuaded that Christ has irrevocably given him or her everlasting life, he or she has believed.
[End Quote]

Monday, January 22, 2007

What’s the Difference Between Understanding and Believing?

Transcribed from A Veiled Reference, by Dr. John Niemelä, Professor of Hebrew and Greek at Chafer Theological Seminary.

I may understand an argument without understanding it to be true. What we’re seeking to do here is to differentiate what’s the difference between understanding something and believing it. If I understand something to be true, I have believed it. But if I understand how it’s supposed to work, but I don’t understand it to be the truth or the way something really happens, then the only kind of believing I can do there is “make-believe.” I can pretend for the purposes of discussion that something is true that I know is not true. Understanding doesn’t guarantee that I understand it to be true, but believing means I understand it to be true. Now I may understand something; I may be able to wrestle with it. But it is an advance on the thinking for me to understand it as true.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Sawyer / Johnson Dialogue - Conclusion

Part 1 Part2 Part 3
Part 4 Part 5

Please see the introductory paragraph to Part 1 of this series for an explanation of the literary license taken in formatting this dialogue.

Phil: I’m on vacation this week while I’m speaking here and there and attending a board meeting, so I’m not going to spend hours and hours on this, but I do want to say that the problems with Hodges’ soteriology are deep and systemic. The fact that his supporters often want to steer discussions to niggling points about Hodges’ novel exegesis of James 2 is telling. If we’re going to spend time debating this, can we at least deal with the big-picture issues first?

Jodie: Your desire to start with the big picture is reasonable, but in practice, the only way to understand the big picture is through the details. Of course, the only way to truly understand the details is by understanding the big picture, so proper interpretation has to proceed patiently in order to allow those two parallel concerns to be discovered without running roughshod over either aspect. This is what is so amazing about Hodges’ interpretation. James’s thought shines in a very cohesive, subtle and rational way. His diatribe argument does prove the narrow point, and also indicates that his big picture interpretation of James is far more probable than the popular view. This is why I’ve focused on it. The idea that Hodges’ view on James is driven by a need to “explain away” anything is farcical.

Phil: Hardly. Hodges’ “exposition” of James came years after he had published multiple books setting forth his soteriological peculiarities. As far as I know, he has never claimed that he came to these views by reading James. Rather, his James volume was a response to people who kept pointing him to James in reply to his repeated championing of the idea that dead faith is nonetheless saving faith.

Jodie: I can’t believe I’m reading this. Trust me, he claims just that. Apparently we’ll just have to agree to disagree on Hodges’ inner motivation! One of the most obvious and hilarious differences between the GOP and the Dems is that the latter is obsessed with their perception of tainted motivations.

No hurry, if you’re on vacation, I’m busy too. I’ll continue to respect your time and will definitely try to be as concise as possible.

Since you have described your view of the ‘big picture’ of James, I’ll flesh out my view.

Verse 1:19 is the key verse that acts as a hinge between the ideas of the introduction and the main body. This introduction posits James desire that the believers live a consistent God’s word empowered lifestyle which is not only “steadfast” (consistent) but “perfect and complete” (a God empowered expression of the miracle of new birth, the word implanted). The climax of the introduction is a contrast between how sin produces death but God sovereignly produces the miracle of new birth.

The key verse says, in light of the trials God is giving you to produce a consistent spirit-filled life in you, be quick to receive meekly God’s Word, be slow to speak and slow to wrath. the body of the epistle unpacks these three admonitions.

James beautiful conclusion reminds the readers of the practical ramifications of applying this advice, the need for the patient faith of Job and Elijah.

In general James is shot through with the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount, concerns doing God’s will and is essentially the law of Christ. James insists that not just the Mosaic law had to be obeyed in total not in part but that every syllable of the Lord’s lofty commands must be obeyed:

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

At the very end, James teaching on the proper response to trials, humble obedience, which is the only response that will yield righteousness in the lifestyle of the Christian, is threaded into his desire to obey the royal command to love:

James 5:19-20 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

I’m sure there is much you disagree with here, but maybe I touch on some things you would agree with.

God bless.
This was the end of the dialogue, as far as I know.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Sawyer / Johnson Dialogue - Part 5

Part 1 Part2 Part 3 Part 4

Please see the introductory paragraph to Part 1 of this series for an explanation of the literary license taken in formatting this dialogue.

Phil (continuing his critique of Hodges’ view of James 2): 4. Which is to say that the major defect in Hodges’ whole soteriological system goes far deeper than his eccentric exegesis of James 2. In fact, this much is plain from the outset: Hodges’ unusual reading of that text is necessitated in the first place by the theological peculiarities he brings to the text—especially his inadequate understanding of the new birth and his semi-pelagian notion that divine grace isn’t efficacious for salvation without the sinner’s prior consent. But apart from the framework of no-lordship presuppositions, Hodges’ interpretation of James 2 doesn’t even make sense. That, I would think, is why he has a hard time getting critics to interact seriously with his exegesis of the passage. Most of them are left scratching their heads and wondering why anyone would think sound exegesis should ever require so much gymnastic and contortionistic skill.

Jodie: Phil, you also wrote of Hodges “semi-pelagian notion that divine grace isn’t efficacious for salvation without the sinner’s prior consent.” If you mean by “prior-consent” a sinner’s believing in Christ, as you can see by the above scenario, sinners can’t believe without God drawing them and illuminating their minds to the truth of Christ. Belief itself is simply not a voluntary reaction, it is involuntary. That the last few centuries of Calvinist theologians have rejected this is not exactly a feather in their cap. Name one of your political beliefs that you could change at will. I don’t agree with everything Nancy Pearcey says but her simple definition of faith/belief is excellent, saying that beliefs are thoughts that stick around. In the case of saving faith, belief is a glorious thought that normally coincides with the emotional catharsis we see in the man born blind.

Phil: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more inadequate description of saving faith.
Jodie: At least we’re getting somewhere. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Scripture is crystal clear that we are called righteous by God because of our unadorned faith. In my opinion, your real authority is not the word of God but your own conscience. You’re holding the word of God captive to your conscience instead of Luther’s vice versa.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Sawyer / Johnson Dialogue - Part 4

Part 1 Part2 Part 3

Please see the introductory paragraph to Part 1 of this series for an explanation of the literary license taken in formatting this dialogue.
Phil (continuing his critique of Hodges’ view of James 2): 3. Hodges’ view also only works if you have a semi-pelagian notion of faith. Hodges’ interpretation of James 2 is not only semi-pelagian; it is also in conflict with Paul’s clear teaching in Ephesians 2. If faith itself is a gift and the fruit of God’s regenerating work in us (which it is), and if God has ordained even good works for us to walk in (which he has), then Hodges’ interpretation of James 2 is utterly impossible. On the other hand, if you look at James 2 in that same light, the historic interpretation of James 2 makes perfect sense.

Jodie: On your view that Hodges’s belief about faith is semi-pelagian, I’ll leave that type of categorizing to you. But I would say that I see myself as ending up in an adequate place concerning God being the one doing the saving.

Phil: …which is just what all semi-pelagians think. Scripture repeatedly stresses that salvation is entirely by grace, and that even our good works are ordained by God. Anything less than that is not an “adequate” stress on the necessity and efficacy of divine grace for salvation.

And may I point out how ironic your statement is? No-lordship doctrine, which is supposed to safeguard against salvation by works (though it actually makes faith itself a human work) congratulates itself for retaining an “adequate” (but never quite exclusive) focus “concerning God being the one doing the saving.”

Jodie: I’m not sure if you’re ignoring what I say or accusing me of being disingenuous. Faith is absolutely not a human work!

God exclusively is the One who saves. Your less than rational dogmatism on faith being a voluntary decision is what leads you into this cul-de-sac. Again, I asked you to name a political belief which you are holding voluntarily and that therefore if you chose to you could believe other wise. Just name one that if you wanted to you could change at will.

Needless to say I do believe that our salvation is entirely by grace and that all our good works are ordained by God! Could you be more specific about what you are disagreeing with?

Obviously this is a huge topic, so to show you my own view I’ll repost a sketch of how the sovereignty of God interacts with His saving of sinners. I apologize that the scripture references aren’t unpacked.

a) God sovereignly elects people to regeneration. Eph 1:4 On this topic, God also elects some to the kind of suffering and faithfulness that he will reward at the Judgment seat of Christ. Matthew 20:16 2 Peter 1:9-11 Matthew 19:28 John 21:18
b) All men are effectively deceived by the strategic Satan. 2 Cor 4:4
c) No man seeks God on his own. Romans 3:11
d) All men are drawn to Christ. John 12:32
e) All men are convicted of sin, righteousness and judgment. Jn 16:8
f) Most men do not receive these inner witnesses. Matt 7:14; John 1:11 The Spirit may well cease to illuminate them to the light of the Gospel. Mat 12:31
g) The Spirit continues to illuminate the open-minded elect to the truth of Christ using the instrument of the word of God. 1 Peter 1:23
h) The word of God breaks apart the deception and reveals the truth of Christ as Provider of eternal life and Guarantor of future resurrection. John 11:25; John 6:40
i) When the truth has been fully revealed to the sinner, they do not decide to believe, they believe. This is not a decision. Romans 4:21 Psalm 62:1
j) At the moment of belief, eternal salvation happens: the person is justified and born again, meaning regeneration. Galatians 2:16; Jas 1:18 k) Regeneration is the gift of eternal life, but it is really the life of the second Person of the Trinity. It is perfect and holy and is never part of sin. 1 John 5:20; 1 John 3:9; James 1:17
(To be Continued - DV)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Sawyer / Johnson Dialogue - Part 3

Please see the introductory paragraph to Part 1 of this series for an explanation of the literary license taken in formatting this dialogue. The view of James 2 being discussed is found in Zane Hodges' commentary on the Epistle of James. For those who are unfamiliar with Professor Hodges' view of James 2:14-26, Dr. Thomas Constable, Department Chairman and Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, espouses a similar view in his notes on James 2, which can be found online here.

Phil (beginning his critique of Hodges’ view of James 2): 1. Hodges hasn’t “proved” anything. He’s making a far-fetched argument driven by his own incorrigible theological conclusions. In other words, Hodges’ interpretation of James 2 is impelled by the need to explain away one of the key passages that refutes his whole soteriological system.

2. James is expressly arguing that dead faith is non-saving faith. He opens the section (v. 14) by asking the question “Can that faith [without works] save”? and his answer is that faith devoid of works is by definition powerless, useless, and ineffectual—“dead.” Of course, that’s the very thing Hodges denies, so he has to redefine the key elements of James’s argument (embodied in the words save and dead.) Note: Hodges’ re-interpretation of James makes no sense whatsoever without his deliberate equivocation on the meaning of the word “save.”

Jodie: You seem to come at this from two different angles. Hodges in fact very much insists that James is teaching “that faith devoid of works is by definition powerless, useless, and ineffectual—“dead” to use your own language.

Phil: Yeah, right. Except for the fact that Hodges’ whole point is that he thinks such “faith” is a sufficient instrument for justification.

Jodie: Phil, this absolutely sums up your inability to get beyond your own paradigm. Hodges does not argue that James is teaching this. Justifying faith is simply not the topic James is on. Justifying faith is not what James is discussing! The faith he is speaking of is here and now faith.

1:5-6 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.

2:16-17 “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

5:7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.

5:15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.

5:17-18 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

Here and now faith! But obviously this may be an area we’ll continue to disagree on!

And yes, his argument on James, and the entire controversy over the gospel, does focus on the fact that the NT writers didn’t use the word “save” and “salvation” as the terms of art that Christian theologians and modern evangelicals do. When we see the words deliver and deliverance we don’t immediately assume the topic is eternal deliverance, and yet with the words save and salvation we tend to do just that. This has been a big mistake. The NT writers, steeped in the OT Scriptures, were quick to think of salvation as being from various threats: eternal condemnation, temporal sin, God’s temporal wrath, and yes, the physical threat of death, as is seen throughout Proverbs and Psalms.
(To Be Continued - DV)