The Magnitude of Evil and the Abundance of Grace: Oh God, Whom Will You Hear First?

In Gregory Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil, he relays a story about a small Jewish girl named Zosia.  Zosia had pretty eyes, and some Nazi soldiers noticed.  Simply because they were bored, they decided to remove her eyes on the spot in front of her mother.  The author whom Boyd quotes describes the scene, stating that the cries of the girl, the screams of the mother, and the laughter of the Nazi soldiers mingled together and made their way to heaven.

The author asks poignantly: Oh God, whom will you hear first?

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“Do You Have Good Reason to be Angry?” If Not, Your Emotions Don’t Matter That Much

A while ago, I wrote a blog post giving a nuanced look at an unfortunate decision by some of the professors of our seminary to post an inside joke on Twitter… where, you know, everyone on earth can see it without understanding any context.  I criticized them for that, but at the same time, I also pointed out that ignoring context and loudly screaming “Racist!” was also foolish.  You can do both: Criticize the professors for doing something unwise but also understand the context of their picture and why it’s not racist.

Unsurprisingly, my article got some blow back (it also got a lot of support), though none of this blow back dealt with the main argument.  Instead, what got a lot of attention was a throw-away line in the article (again, in the context of actually criticizing these professors for posting that picture on the internet):

Given our hyper-sensitive culture these days, where even stating bare facts like “There’s a very high rate of single-motherhood in the black community” can draw accusations of racism, it was foolish to post that online.  That’s not to excuse our hyper-sensitive culture, but surely a joke like that is not worth the controversy and potential damage to the witness of the professors as well as that of the seminary.

Many people latched on to this line with great offense (though I’ll repeat, it had little to do with the main argument, and it was a comment about the culture as a whole which honestly shouldn’t be that controversial).  “How dare you call people hyper-sensitive!” “You can’t fault people for how they feel!” “You shouldn’t invalidate people’s emotions!” So on and so forth.  What is interesting is that virtually all of these comments came from Christians.

This honestly squares with my experience both from within and without the church when people’s emotions are criticized.  These days, when someone is told he is being too sensitive, that his anger is unjustified, that his jealousy is irrational, or that his hurt feelings have no bearing on the truth of a matter, the typical response from him and others around him is to have varying levels of anger and shock.  The implicit assumption is that emotions are always uncontrolled responses, always valid, and ultimately unassailable.

The problem with this line of thinking for Christians is rather simple: It is far from a biblical stance (not to mention counter-intuitive if you really think about it).  The fact of the matter is that the Bible implies that we are accountable for how we feel and that our emotions can very well be wrong.  Notice what I did not say; I did not say that how you act due to your emotions can be wrong, though that is of course true.  I said the very emotions you have can be wrong, sinful, selfish, or irrational if they are unreasonable and/or come from a wrong heart.  As unpopular and surprising as this is for many Christians (and especially non-Christians), this is what Scripture teaches.

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Robert Jeffress, Trump, and North Korea: Does Romans 13 Apply?

Back before the nominations, I wrote a post about how I found a lot of Christian support of Donald Trump to be curious, and one name I mentioned was Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas.  I’ve heard him preach a few times and I do not doubt his commitment to the gospel, but he’s also known to create controversy with his comments on politics.  Recently, he made the news again when he stated in an interview with The Washington Post that he supported Trump’s strong remarks against North Korea because God has given Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong Un.  He cited Romans 13 as his basis and said that the president, as part of the government, should not seek to follow the Sermon on the Mount in his role.  His comments were met with widespread criticism from the media as well as other Christians who accused of him of warmongering and for using the Bible to justify violence.

I’ll mostly leave aside the question about what to do about North Korea.  As a Korean, I know full well that North Korea has an evil government that might be the most backward on the planet, but what to do with them is not a question I’ll seek to answer here.  Instead, I’ll narrow my focus to Jeffress’ use of Romans 13.  He actually has a point, but the application of Romans 13 to this situation is a bit murky, and he could have worded what he said more carefully.

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Can Christians Who Believe in Libertarian Free Will Consistently Believe in Eternal Security?

A few months ago, I went to a regional meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society at Southwestern Seminary, and while I was only able to attend one day of it, I got to hear some interesting papers.  One presentation was by a Reformed philosopher who advanced an argument against the consistency of believing in eternal security–the belief that once someone is truly saved, he cannot lose his salvation–while also believing in libertarian free will (positions that are arguably held by the majority of conservative Southern Baptists).  It was an interesting paper and he presented it with passion, though I ultimately did not find it very convincing.  I think his mistake is that he presented a false analogy with another argument that he believed people make against Calvinism, which makes his parallel argument against eternal security unsound.  Keep in mind that he believes in eternal security; he only presented the latter argument as a way to show that Christians can’t have both libertarian free will and perseverance.

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Failed Attempts to Rescue Limited Atonement From 1 Timothy 4:10

I noted in a recent post that there is no verse that straightforwardly confirms limited atonement, the belief that Jesus died only for the elect.  On the flip side, there seems to be plenty of verses that flat out contradict it, which Calvinists have to deal with in order to preserve the L in TULIP.  In this post, I want to focus on 1 Timothy 4:10, another problematic text for the Calvinist position.

Here’s the verse: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (NASB).  It is the relative clause that gets the bulk of the attention here, and it is obvious why: On face value, it sounds like God is the Savior of everyone but is the Savior in a special way for believers.  This would flow quite nicely with unlimited atonement: Through Christ’s atoning death for everyone, God is the Savior of all, but this atonement is only applied to those who believe.

Such a reading, however, would contradict limited atonement, so Calvinists have proposed several ways of reading this verse.  I’ll summarize and evaluate the ones that I am familiar with, and it will be shown that these attempts fail to make a convincing exegetical case and often rely on dubious word studies, faulty reasoning, and de-contextualized readings in order to preserve a dogged allegiance to a system.

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Prooftexts for Limited Atonement and the Negative Inference Fallacy

I’ve written several articles critiquing the interpretation and logic of those who advocate limited atonement, the contention that Christ died only for the elect.  I’ll now discuss their use of verses that they think give a positive case for limited atonement.

Intellectually honest Calvinists will admit that no text in Scripture explicitly teaches limited atonement: There is no verse that says that Christ died for the elect only or at least explicitly denies that Christ died for everyone.  However, many Calvinists will argue that this is no big deal.  There is no verse, after all, that explicitly spells out the Trinity or Incarnation, yet those are considered not only clear scriptural teachings but central doctrines of the faith.  The reason that the Incarnation is certain, for example, is that there are texts that teach that Christ was a man and others that teach that he was God.  It takes only a small step of logic to put them together and conclude that Christ was both fully God and fully man.  Likewise, all it takes, according to Calvinists, is a small logical step from certain passages to reach limited atonement.

The texts they typically use are passages that teach that Christ died for a select group of people.  Here are a few examples:

John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…”

Other verses can be offered, but these are enough to get the picture.  While none of these verses state that Christ died for the elect only, Calvinists argue that it is nonetheless reasonable to make this conclusion.

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Faith, Works, and an Elusive Quotation in James 2:14-26

One of the major reasons why there was the Protestant split with the Catholic church was over the nature of justification.  Luther and others argued for justification by faith alone, while the Catholic Church reiterated its commitment to justification by faith and works.  I affirm justification by faith alone, though I know that Catholics understand justification a little differently (they do not make a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification), so it is an oversimplification to accuse the Catholic Church of teaching a gross works-righteousness.

Protestants are armed with many texts, such as Eph. 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (NASB).  However, while the Reformers harped on passages like this, the Catholic Church had James 2:14-26, which includes the famous phrase, “Faith without works is dead” (2:26b).  Due to this and other issues, Luther had doubts about the book of James and is famous for calling it “an epistle of straw.”  While he seems to have retracted that statement and eventually accepted a harmonization between it and the Pauline epistles, he clearly favored the latter.

Protestants have since readily explained that while salvation is by faith alone, a true faith will always produce good works if given the time.  This is often stated, “Salvation is by faith alone, but faith is never alone.”  This is why Paul states after Eph. 2:8-9 in v. 10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”  However, while this seems straightforward, it turns out that this is not so easy to see in James 2:14-26 on face value.  James says in 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” which a Catholic might say is about as clear a repudiation of justification by faith alone as you can ask for.  Thus, Protestants should give a careful account of this passage, just as Catholics need to deal carefully with passages like Ephesians 2.  I hope to do so below, though I will neglect giving background information for space considerations.

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Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 2

In part one, I laid out my methodology and analyzed the argument that 9:30-33 is discontinuous with the first 29 verses of chapter 9.  I looked at the usages of the phrase “What shall we say then” and concluded that it does not in fact signal a major shift in perspective but rather a smooth transition that readily connects with what comes before.  I think this preliminary analysis tips the scales towards a non-Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 because 9:30-33 clearly emphasizes faith, so Calvinists like Thomas Schreiner are not justified in trying to make a big point that Paul neglects to mention faith before this.

We now get to the meat of chapter 9.  Again, to prevent this from being even longer than it is, I will not address every single issue in absolute detail, but I do hope to give a textually-driven interpretation of this chapter that shows that a non-Calvinistic view is not only plausible and responsible, such that Christians who hold to some similar interpretation are not obviously flouting good interpretive principles, but may also be superior to the Reformed case.  This is also a good time to reiterate that I respect my Calvinist brothers and have read several of their commentaries and listened to a few of their sermons on this (I’ll repeat that Schreiner’s work is especially very good).  This is just disagreement within the body of Christ.

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Navigating Romans 9 Exegetically and Theologically: Part 1

I and a partner are currently teaching through a series on Romans for our church’s Sunday School, and we have recently gone through Romans 9-11.  All of these chapters can be challenging, but Romans 9 in particular is notorious for being one of the most difficult and debated chapters in the Bible.  It is also one of the most, if not the most, important prooftexts for the Calvinist position, and that makes it a hotbed for a lot of disagreement (some Arminians, in turn, claim that Romans 9 proves their position).  I hope to address the chapter here succinctly, carefully, yet civilly, though it will not be possible to address every single issue fully without making these posts absurdly long.

Tackling a chapter like this in an efficient manner is challenging, but I’ll try to lay out my methodology:

-It is widely accepted that 9-11 is one unit, but for space considerations my focus will be on chapter 9.  The other two chapters will be mentioned in passing when helpful.  This will no doubt be a deficiency in these posts, but it is practical.

-Paul uses several Old Testament references that cause a lot of interpretive issues.  My working assumption will be that the original contexts of those references will be helpful to look at because while NT writers may do some new things with OT texts, I don’t think we can say that they changed what they meant to their original audience without seriously jeopardizing the trustworthiness of God’s Word.

-I will focus on what Paul wants to answer and largely assume that he avoids wild tangents.  To see his argument, I think it will be particularly helpful to first focus on both his introduction and his conclusion, similar to how one might get the gist of an academic paper by reading its introduction, scanning its body, and then reading its conclusion.  This helps one see where the author starts and where he plans to end up.  Granted, not all academic papers are written well and coherently, but in this case, I think it is fair to expect the inspired writer Paul to make sense.

-This post will focus on issues regarding the introduction and conclusion, and the next will address the body.

With these things in mind, I’ll begin.

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On the Trigger-Happy Use of the “Heretic” Label

Though I’ve written several articles criticizing Calvinism, one may notice that there is one thing I have not done: I have never called Calvinism a heresy or any particular Calvinist a heretic.  In fact, I’ve made clear that even if I disagree with Calvinists, I still respect many of them as preachers of the Gospel and consider them brothers in Christ.  The use of the word “heresy” is very serious, and because of that, I tend to have little patience for those who use it quickly and carelessly.

Uncharitable Immaturity

For example, several years ago I was listening to a Mark Driscoll podcast as a passenger in a car (back in his heyday of popularity), and he mentioned the story of Noah.  Unfortunately, the clip is no longer up on Youtube, though you can still find many references to his message online.  You can also still download the original sermon (date: April 5, 2009), though the relevant quote is this:

What do we do with Noah? Hi Noah! Genesis 6. Let me tell you the story of Noah. Here’s the deal. If you grew up in church you probably don’t know the story because it gets butchered! It freaks me out; there is this long of things that freak me out and this is way up on the list. Every children’s Bible I get, I get white-out and I fix this part and I get a sharpy, and my kids all know that dad freaks out on the Noah story. Dad does freak out on the Noah story, because every kids Bible I’ve ever seen preaches a false gospel in the story of Noah. I don’t want my kids to be heretics, so I white it out and fix it. (emphasis added)

And the story in every kids Bible is told like this: Noah was a righteous man, he was a good guy. Everybody else was bad, Noah was good, Noah got a boat, everybody else swam for a little while. Moral of the story is be a good guy, you get a boat named Jesus, don’t be a bad guy, you’re going to have to swim for it. It’s ridiculous! Alright Genesis 6, Noah, verse 5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” We call that total depravity. Who was bad?  Everyone. How bad? Totally. When? All the time. That’s pretty all inclusive. Now this is a heart-breaking statement, “And the Lord was sorry that he made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man from the face of the land. Man and animals and creeping things and birds of heaven for I’m sorry that I made them.’ But, here’s the big idea. Noah found what? Favor; it’s the Hebrew word for grace. Noah found grace or favor in the eyes of the Lord. God looked at the earth, everyone’s only bad all the time, including Noah. And God looked a Noah and said, “I’m going to love that guy.”

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