God who loves and punishes

Noted New Testament scholar DA Carson addressed the issue of universalism last year.  This was just brought to my attention by Robert and Biela Liwag of La Union. You can follow this link: God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty.

After Carson’s address, there was a panel discussion. Here’s a recap of the address and panel discussion from Jonathan Parnell:

A special session convened in light of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. The panel, moderated by Kevin DeYoung, included D. A. Carson, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, and Stephen Um.

Listen to the audio of “God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty.”

Carson framed the discussion giving a brief and clarifying overview on universalism:

  1. Be clear about definition of universalism, don’t muddle what it is.
  2. Universalism is built out of several different assertions: a) everyone is savingly loved by God and is reconciled to God already; b) because of the wideness of God’s mercy, people of other religions will somehow find their way to heaven; c) initially, the only lost people are those who reject God’s love; d) despite their rejection of his love, these people are still loved by God.This set of beliefs invariably teaches other things that are often not articulated. It affects your view of atonement, impoverishes the love of God by disconnecting it from his holiness, and it assumes that Scripture always speaks the same way about God’s love.
  3. Despite different claims to the contrary, universalism is a later development. It has never been accepted in confessional Christianity.
  4. A few notes on biblical texts thought to defend and justify universalism:

2 Corinthians 5:19—“world” is not everyone without exception, but everyone without distinction.

Romans 5:18—“all” does not refer to the same locus of people. The broader context deals with two humanity, one in Adam and one in Christ. There is a contrast to these two different humanities.

John 12:32—“draw all people to himself,” in the context we see that Gentiles try to approach Jesus understands this as precipitated the cross. They do not come on the basis of past covenants, but on a new covenant rooted in the cross.

Revelation 21:25—”its gates will never be shut.”  The symbolism of the gates open is not about whether people can get in day or night. Gates were shut for defense, but in the new heavens and new earth there is no more threat for violence.

Carson pastorally asserted that universalism’s handling of the atonement itself is deeply manipulative—even blasphemous. We must not talk flippantly about the cross of Christ, explaining that penal substitutionary atonement is not built on a proof text but is woven through the entire biblical narrative.

Panel Discussion (led by Kevin DeYoung)

To Keller — Is our response to this subject worth it?

Yes. It’s sort of like the bird in the ecosystem who if goes extinct throws off everything. Anything other than endless punishment lessens sin and the God who has been sinned against. If you take away the infinity of punishment, everything diminishes.

To Keller — There is one thread that says Bell is saying the same thing as C. S. Lewis. How do you respond?

Lewis was rebelling against the spirit of the age, which said that Hell is bad. His whole project was to tweak his contemporary scene and show that Hell and judgment make sense. It appears that Bell does just the opposite and acutally sympathizes with the spirit of the age.

To Carson — In John 10:16, does the phrase “many sheep are not of this fold” refer to other religions?

Although there are more recent readings that try to take it this way, the context is clear that “fold” refers to the Jewish people. “Not of the this fold” refers to Gentiles who are outside of the old covenant. It is about becoming one new people, Jew and Gentiles, as the church.

To Carson — What do you think this reemergence of universalism may or may not signify about underlying shifts in Christianity in North America?

This is not new. The early twentieth century and the rise of liberalism started the project of trying to defend Christianity by jettisoning everything the age considers unreasonable.

Evangelicalism is so broad and diverse, and also thinner. The newer generation is making choices: many who want to be more acceptable to this age and others who are embracing the gospel, wanting it to be heard as it is. There is a big division taking place and Bell’s book is a marker to this.

To Um — Respond to Bell’s statement that the position saying only a certain number will be saved is “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts Jesus’ message of love.”

There are several assumptions that need to be addressed. One assumption is that God is obliged to show favor to a sinful humanity. We should remember that Jesus spoke more about Hell than anything else. Rejecting Hell has serious implications for what we think about Jesus, undermining his entire ministry. I understand the heart: no one delights in seeing people in eternal conscious torment.

To Loritts — What would you say to someone who has cut their teeth on Bell? They are not committed to this view, but are sympathetic to it.

We all need to be careful when we talk about these things not to overcorrect. We are to love unbelievers and we are to preach the love of God. I would encourage this person, not only to pursue right exegesis on this issue, but to the study of the nature of God altogether. Look at the wholeness of who God is. Secondly, look at how we really view Scripture. Thirdly, we need to understand that God does not need a PR agent or marketing firm. The whole idea of wanting to have a Jesus who the world can embrace is wrong.

DeYoung — “God does not need a publicist, he calls preachers.”

Teachers will be judged more strictly(James 3:1). Questions are one thing, let’s talk about them all. Allow people to ask them, ask them yourself. But we must stay in the realm of mystery. If you are a teacher, at some point you need to let clarity be king.

To Keller — In light of your commitment to the gospel, how did Bell’s book make you feel?

The first thing that disappointed me was not the content so much as the attitude. There is an immediate ridicule of apparent “close-minded” people. A conversation about conflict cannot begin with ridicule.

We should not pit the doctrines of God against one another. At the cross, the love and holiness of God both win.

To Carson — What advice can you give about receiving criticism?  Does disagreeing immediately make you the bad guy? Where does the younger generation need tweaking here?

First, I worry about ministries that focus just on correcting everyone. What I hope to do in all my writing is to promote the truth and proclaim it positively. When we correct, we do it because we think that the glory of God is being diminished.

Part of a positive faithfulness to proclaiming the truth involves refutation. Our articulation of right doctrine also involves saying what it is not. And all our correction should be done thoughtfully and humbly.

Concluding words:

Um asserted that universalism is unhelpful for sinners in need of atonement. Universalism subverts the work of Jesus on the cross. This whole situation is a wonderful opportunity for correction, for us to understand the finished work of Christ.

Loritts encouraged those considering universalism to write down all the issues their struggling with and go to the word of God. We should ask the Spirit to illumine our minds. We have listened to too many other voice. Go to the source.

Keller agreed with with Loritts and DeYoung and closed in prayer.

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Christ as pledge of divine mercy and fatherly love

I’m dipping into three commentaries on the Gospel of John: Calvin’s (1553, THL Parker translation 1958), Carson’s (1996), and Kostenberger’s (2004). The Reformer’s writing, published some 500 years ago, continues to shed light and move the heart.

–          In Calvin’s dedication to the senate of Geneva, he thanks the Lord for the hospitality the Genevan authorities has shown to refugees and Christians who needed to flee the wrath of Rome.

–          He compares 16th century Rome to Babel and the Anti-Christ.

–          Calvin encourages the Genevan senate to trust in Christ’s protection of their city because they have defended “two impregnable bastions”: the cultivation of pure religion and protected the Church.

–          The minister of Geneva believes that “genuine purity of doctrine, sound religion, the simple worship of God and the right administration of the Sacraments” have been restored the Church “as they were delivered by Christ.” Nevertheless, he admits that the flourishing of godly life among the Genevans has been a struggle. The people found it difficult to the discipline and yoke of Christ, having been exposed for a long time to Romish filth and license before the Reformation and Renewal came.

–          Calvin and the other Genevan pastors were criticized as overly strict. The pastoral leader believes that they had been strict only as their ministerial duty demanded, which is “faithfully to care for the salvation” of God’s people.

–          The pastoral office, in Calvin’s estimate, is great and excellent. It requires careful diligence among those who occupy it.

After the dedicatory page, we see Calvin discuss the “theme” of Gospel. His opening words are worth quoting in full:

 In Scripture [the Gospel] signifies [preeminently] the glad and joyful message of the grace revealed to us in Christ, to teach us to despise the world and its transient riches and pleasures, and to desire with all our heart and to embrace this incomparable blessing when it is offered to us. The immoderate delight of irreligious men in the empty enjoyments of the world, who are not at all, or little, touched by a feeling for spiritual blessings, is innate in nearly all of us. Therefore, to correct this fault, God specially calls by the name Gospel the message which He commands to be proclaimed about Christ. For in this way He tells us that nowhere else can true and substantial happiness be obtained and that in Him we have in perfection all the parts of a blessed life.

 

How does the Reformer view the relation of Gospel, Law and Prophets? First, he does not seem to prevent others from calling “Gospel” (as an extension) “all the free promises of God scattered” throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures. He wrote:

 And it cannot be denied that whenever God declares that He will be propitious to men and forgive their sins, He sets forth Christ at the same time, whose property it is to shed abroad the rays of joy whenever He shines. I admit therefore that the fathers partook of the same Gospel as ourselves, so far as the faith of free salvation is concerned.

However, the Reformation leader advises that we follow the lead of the Spirit in connecting the word Gospel to the coming of Christ. Hence Calvin’s definition in the quotation above: The Gospel is a “solemn proclamation of the grace revealed in Christ.” He adds, “the Gospel is called the power unto salvation to everyone that believes; because in it God manifests His righteousness. It is also called an embassy, by which He reconciles man to Himself. Moreover, as Christ is the pledge of the divine mercy and fatherly love toward us, so He is properly the subject of the Gospel.”

Focusing now on the four Gospels, Calvin teaches the following:

–          For the purpose of salvation, we need both the narration of Christ’s historical life and its interpretation as given in the Scriptures

–          All four Gospels certainly teach that Christ came into the world to “perform all the duties of a Mediator” – that is, to “bring salvation, to atone for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of His death.”

–          John’s Gospel is a like a key to understanding the other Gospels because it bears more conspicuously the purpose, power and fruit of Christ’s coming. “When we want to read in Matthew and the rest that Christ was given to us of the Father,” writes Calvin, “we should learn first from John to what end He was manifested.”

Worshipping, not complaining, when God says no

My wife and I started reading RC Sproul’s The Invisible Hand – Do all things really work for good? Looking at the story of David found in 2 Samuel 12:16-23, Sproul makes some meaningful comments:

Here we encounter the David who was a man after God’s own heart. Here the character that resonates throughout the psalms makes himself clear. When God said no to the pleas of David, he immediately went to church –not to whine or complain but to worship. Here we see David living coram Deo, before the face of God. David pled his case before the throne of the Almighty – and lost. Yet he was willing to bow before the providence of God, to let God be God.

Bavinck on theology and science

Several friends and I recently discussed the issues of theistic evolution and the historicity of Adam. We conclude that theistic evolution is unbiblical and harmful. We also affirm that God’s sure Word teaches that Adam and Eve existed and acted as Genesis tells it. I checked on what Herman Bavinck thinks on this matter in his Reformed Dogmatics. We need to hear him.

At the end of Bavinck’s discussion, he penned some right and wise words, found below. He wrote at the beginning of the 20th century. Now at the start of the 21st century, what he said still rings true.

So as Christians and as theologians we await with some confidence the certain results of the natural sciences. Theology has nothing to fear from thorough, multifaceted research. It only needs to be on its guard against attaching too much value to a study that is still completely new, imprecise, and incomplete; it therefore is constantly being augmented with conjectures and suspicions. It needs to be on its guard against making premature concessions to, and to seek agreement with, the so-called scientific results that can at any time be knocked down and exposed in their untenability by more thorough research. As the science of divine and eternal things, theology must be patient until the science that contradicts it has made a deeper and broader study of its field and, as it happens in most cases, corrects itself. In that manner theology upholds its dignity and honor more effectively than by constantly yielding and adapting itself to the opinions of the day.

Among self-confessed Evangelicals today, Peter Enns has very bravely questioned the historicity of Adam. A good review of one of Enn’s book on this issue is found at the most recent issue of Themelios.

The Gospel of Joy

A sixteenth century pastor-theologian spoke of the Gospel this way:

In Scripture [the Gospel] signifies [preeminently] the glad and joyful message of the grace revealed to us in Christ, to teach us to despise the world and its transient riches and pleasures, and to desire with all our heart and to embrace this incomparable blessing when it is offered to us. The immoderate delight of irreligious men in the empty enjoyments of the world, who are not at all, or little, touched by a feeling for spiritual blessings, is innate in nearly all of us. Therefore, to correct this fault, God specially calls by the name Gospel the message which He commands to be proclaimed about Christ. For in this way He tells us that nowhere else can true and substantial happiness be obtained and that in Him we have in perfection all the parts of a blessed life.

Man of God

For preachers and pastors who communicates God’s Word, here’s a good reminder from Peter Leithart:

The educated clergy of yesteryear were tempted to think that good preaching communicated a weighty and comprehensive theological system. The soothing prophets of success and the multi-media stars of today are tempted to think that they have the technical mastery to get results. Despite the differences, the essence of the temptation in both cases is to forget the essence of preaching. All are tempted to forget that preaching can do what it is supposed to do only if the preacher is a man of God. And they are tempted to forget that being a man of God means being a man of the Word and prayer. A sermon is not entertainment, nor a dump of information about God, nor a theological lecture. It is an encounter with the living God, and a preacher can fulfill his vocation well only if he knows that God.

Classic writers on pastoral theology emphasized this again and again. Alan of Lille compared preparation for preaching to an ascent up the seven steps of Jacob’s ladder. A man is ready for preaching after he confesses and repents of sin, seeks God in prayer, lives a life of thanksgiving, studies the Scripture with care, consults with seasoned interpreters about difficulties, and learns to expound Scripture to others. A preacher must be a “perfect man” who has ascended “from the beginning of faith to full development.”

Luther was more straightforward in making a similar point. He complained that some pastors rely on “good books” for their sermons, but neglect the weightier matters: “They do not pray; they do not study; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture. It is just as if there were no need to read the Bible for their purpose.” Such preachers are “nothing but parrots and jackdaws.” Thomas Oden notes that all pastoral actions are dimensions of the priestly task of “interpreting humanity to God” and bringing God’s word to humanity.

Alan, Luther, and Oden are simply restating the New Testament’s central claim about pastoral ministry. Since the preacher holds an apostolic office, he is called to imitate the apostles, who were determined to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

The pressures on this ancient discipline are enormous. One of the constant challenges of pastoral ministry arises from the sheer vastness of need that surrounds any pastor. As Eugene Peterson has often observed, pastors can camouflage their vocational failures under a frenzy of busyness—not least because church members notice busyness. A pastor devoted to prayer and the word looks like a withdrawn pastor, a pastor who doesn’t care much for his people, or any people for that matter. Parishioners may be more intrigued by a preacher who can speak in the latest slang, who quotes the hot bands, who jars them with obscenities from the pulpit than by a man who knows God deeply.

Preachers should believe that that God knows what people need better than people do. What builds the church is not a man who has acquired theological information, or a man who can keep the attention of a crowd. Theological information and rhetorical skill are important. But what a congregation finally needs is assurance that the man who speaks to them from the pulpit every week is capable of bringing God’s word because he is acquainted with the Father of Jesus Christ through the filling of their Spirit.