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"In Christ Alone" and Penal Substitution

Friday, November 06, 2020

If there is anything in the worship traditions of the churches of Christ that frustrates me, it is the double standard of scrutiny applied to hymns with content versus hymns with no content.  We have reversed the intent of Colossians 3:16, so that rather than seeking hymns that express a rich indwelling of the word, we primarily are concerned that hymns don’t teach false doctrine.  As long as a hymn doesn’t teach false doctrine, it must be suitable for the congregation!

This goal produces a perverse result.  Hymns that don’t teach anything obviously can’t teach false doctrine, so they slide into the repertoire without objection.  On the other hand, hymns that are rich in Biblical content attract heightened scrutiny because they have something to say.  Because such hymns commonly are written by denominational authors, they sometimes contain a questionable word or line.  Then, brethren who have swallowed the camel of the hymn that says nothing strain at the gnat of ambiguous content.   If only the concern aimed at the latter were directed at the former!

For instance, several months ago, I had a conversation with a brother about the hymn “In Christ Alone”, which I believe to be the strongest hymn yet written in this century.  However, he was concerned that it taught the false doctrine of penal substitution in the line, “But on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied.”

For those who aren’t up on their Calvinism, penal substitution is the idea that Jesus did not merely die on the cross in our place.  Instead, He was punished on the cross in our place.  In bearing our sins, He Himself became morally guilty, so that the wrath of God justly fell upon Him.  There is much more to penal substitution than that, and it ties into a number of other Calvinist doctrines (especially the doctrine of eternal security) in complicated and logically intricate ways, but this summary should be enough to make the rest of this post make sense.

Can that couplet in “In Christ Alone” be read as teaching penal substitution?  Undoubtedly.  In fact, I would go further than that.  The authors of “In Christ Alone”, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, are Scripturally knowledgeable Calvinists.  I believe they intended for the couplet to teach penal substitution.

That’s not really the question, though.  In the churches of Christ, we have a looong history of reinterpreting Calvinist hymns to suit our doctrinal convictions.  The last verse of “The Solid Rock”, anyone?

I think it’s perfectly legitimate for us to do that.  The key is that many Calvinist hymns are Scripturally rich, so whatever understanding we apply to the underlying passages, we also can apply to the hymns that quote them.  If we are paying attention at all to the words of “The Solid Rock”, we are doing this when we sing it, and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same to “In Christ Alone”.

I don’t know what connections others make when they sing that section of “In Christ Alone”, but I can’t help but think of the discussion in Romans of the wrath of God.  Romans 1 reports that the wrath of God is revealed against all the unrighteous, but Romans 5 tells us that we can be saved from that wrath through Christ.  Why?  As Isaiah 53:9-10 reports, even though Jesus had done nothing wrong, God was pleased to crush Him and put Him to death as a guilt offering.  If the wrath of God was not satisfied at that point, when was it satisfied?  Indeed, I am reasonably certain that Townend and Getty relied on the NASB rendering of Isaiah 53:11 in writing the couplet.

I have no doubt that some will find this explanation, ahem, unsatisfying.  Similar quibbles attach to “How Deep the Father’s Love”.  In both cases, brethren allow ambiguous language to keep them from singing a doctrinally rich, profoundly meaningful hymn.  I think that’s a shame, particularly when the alternative is too often semiliterate nonsense penned by a praise-band leader who might use his Bible for a pillow but not otherwise. 

Yes, false doctrine can be drawn from hymns.  False doctrine can be drawn from the Bible too.  In neither case should the cure for falsehood be the avoidance of truth.

The Hope of the Christian

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

As you may or may not have heard, in a couple days, this country is going to be having an election.  In some ways, all of us are looking forward to this with anticipation.  It will be lovely to be done with political ads, at least for the next year or so!  

However, at least judging from what I see on Facebook, at least some Christians are considering the election with great concern.  They are making, or at least sharing, all these dire predictions about what will happen if the wrong guy wins.  I can only conclude from this that if the wrong guy does win, they’ll have some bad moments!

I totally get that.  I think it’s praiseworthy for Christians to love their country and be concerned about its future.  As God says in Jeremiah 29:7, His people are to seek the welfare of the city where they are in exile.

Nonetheless, we must remember that we are in exile, and that as blessed as we are to live in the United States, this country is not our true homeland.  This is not where our future lies.  To help us remember that through Election Day and beyond, let’s spend this evening considering the hope of the Christian.

Throughout this lesson, we’re going to be looking at a context from 1 Peter 1, and the first lesson it teaches us is that our hope is A LIVING HOPE.  Here, let’s read from 1 Peter 1:1-5.  To begin with in this text, let’s consider what it means that as Christians, we have been born into this hope.  Peter tells us that Christ rose from the dead so that in imitation of Him, we could be born again.  One of the big differences between the old life of sin and the new life in Christ is that the new life is a hopeful life. 

Think about it.  If you’re outside of Christ, you don’t have much to look forward to.  You get a few decades of suffering, you die, and it’s game over.  In Christ, though, we look forward to eternal life with Him, a life that is incomparably better than anything any of us ever have experienced. 

What’s more, we can be certain of receiving our eternal inheritance.  Peter tells us that it is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and kept in heaven for us.  Nothing bad can touch it.  We only can lose our inheritance by losing our hope.

In the meantime, Peter informs us that God is guarding us by His power through faith.  This does not mean that Christians never suffer nor undergo trial.  In fact, Peter will tell us in the very next verse that they do!  It does mean, though, that throughout trial and suffering, God will safeguard what matters.  In the first century, some Christians died for their faith, but God carried their souls safely through.  Today, no matter how bad things get, He will do the same for us.

Second, Peter shows us that we can continue to HOPE THROUGH TRIAL.  Consider 1 Peter 1:6-9.  Nobody enjoys trial or suffering, but Peter wants us to understand that those things are part of the life of the Christian too.  Indeed, sometimes we undergo suffering precisely because we are Christians.

Nonetheless, Peter points to two positive effects of trial.  The first is that trial refines us.  Suffering changes us, and the greater the suffering, the more extreme the change. 

This change can be in either direction.  Sometimes, Christians don’t seek the Lord in trial, and they become embittered or even fall away because of it.  However, when they do seek the Lord, the trial purifies their character and makes them more like Christ.  Some of the most amazing Christians I have ever known had suffered greatly in the past, and they would not have been who they were without the suffering.

The second positive effect of trial is that it glorifies God.  As you’re aware, I love going on vacation to national parks and seeing God’s awe-inspiring creation.  However, the most awe-inspiring works of God that I’ve ever seen in my life are when some Christian faces a soul-crushing tragedy but stands tall because they are standing on the rock of Jesus Christ.  That kind of faith glorifies Him now, and it will continue to glorify Him eternally.

Because of these things, Peter says that we actually ought to rejoice in suffering, especially when the suffering is going to be terminal.  Remember:  some of the original recipients of this letter were going to face the sword of the executioner or the fangs of the wild beast in the arena.  Even to these, Peter—who knew he would be among them soon—is saying, “Rejoice!”

Let’s look at this from our perspective.  Right now, thankfully, it doesn’t look likely that most of us are going to be killed by persecution.  However, if the world continues, most of us are going to have that conversation with the doctor that he starts by telling us to sit down. 

In that day, worldly wisdom says to be upset, maybe even to blame God.  The wisdom from above, though, says to rejoice and be thankful.  This is not because we’re masochistic people who enjoy the thought of Alzheimer’s or terminal cancer.  It is because we have a living hope that death cannot destroy, and in that dark hour, our hope will be all that matters.

Finally, let’s examine how we can learn HOPE FROM THE PROPHETS.  This time, our reading is 1 Peter 1:10-12.  At first glance, this seems like a big non sequitur.  Peter was talking along about our hope and holding on to that hope through trial, then all of a sudden he’s talking about the prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus.

In reality, this isn’t a non sequitur at all.  Instead, Peter is identifying one of the most important bases of our hope—the prophetic evidence for Christ.  Let’s put it like this.  Ever run into a skeptic who wanted to see a miracle to prove that Jesus was the Son of God?  Well, the Bible is a miracle we can hold in our hands.  In this, I don’t merely mean that the Bible records the evidence of miracles.  Instead, it is a book that could not have been created without the intervention of God.

Let’s pick one example.  Last week before the Lord’s Supper, Charlie read part of Psalm 22 for us.  This reading included Psalm 22:16, where David says, “They pierced my hands and my feet.”  We understand this, of course, as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

Well, why did David say that?  This was not something that happened to him personally.  In fact, in his time, it didn’t happen to anybody.  The ancient Israelites didn’t crucify people.  In the ancient world, only the Romans commonly used that as a method of executing criminals.  And yet, David, writing in a world with no crucifixion and no Romans, predicted that God’s servant would be crucified.  A thousand years later, this happened to Jesus, carried out not by Jesus’ friends but by His enemies. 

Here’s what this leaves us with.  David, writing a millennium before Jesus, made a very specific prophecy about how Jesus would die, even though he had no cultural reason to say such a thing.  Then, in the fullness of time, Jesus’ enemies kill Him in exactly that way, in their hatred ironically confirming that He was the Messiah. 

Frankly, I am at a loss to explain this other than as the handiwork of God.  What other explanation possibly could be offered?  Nor is Psalm 22:16 the only prophecy like this.  There are others, equally specific, right in the same psalm.  There are many more in other psalms, and there are still more scattered throughout the Old Testament—hundreds of them in all.  Jesus fulfilled all these, and because He did, we can have every confidence that God exists and that Jesus is His Son.  Our hope is not foolish.  It is certain.  


Monday, November 02, 2020

Interestingly, the most famous Bible passage about overconfidence is also among the most misquoted.  No matter what translation you’re using, Proverbs 16:18 does not say, “Pride goes before a fall.”  Go ahead; look it up! 

Whether the wording is exactly correct, though, the point is accurate, and there are few better demonstrations in Scripture than the apostle Peter on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.  In Mark 14:27-31, Jesus warns him that he is going to fall away, and it’s going to happen before the next dawn.  Peter dismisses this dire prediction, insisting instead that he will die before denying his Lord.

Of course, that’s not how things go.  Peter found it easy to affirm his love for Jesus when he was surrounded by disciples of Jesus.  However, when he is surrounded by enemies of Jesus, he sings a different tune.  He denies Jesus three times as Jesus said he would, and he punctuates his denials with oaths and curses.  In the abstract, he thought he could handle the temptation.  When temptation became real, though, he proved unequal to the spiritual challenge.

The devil loves to deceive us, and overconfidence is nothing more than self-deception about our spiritual strength.  He uses our inflated self-estimation to maneuver us into a situation that will reveal our weakness instead.  Countless thousands of Christians have walked this same sad road since Peter’s day, and it probably is true that many who read this article also will succumb.  For instance:

  • You know that we are told to assemble together, but there is something in your life (a job, a family situation, etc.) that makes consistent assembly difficult.  You think you can skip church on the regular and not suffer spiritually.  Truth, or overconfidence?
  • You know that bad company corrupts good morals, but you’ve got an ungodly friend who is So Much Fun to be around.  You think you can enjoy the good and not be led into sin by the bad.  Truth, or overconfidence?
  • You know that you struggle with porn, but you think it’ll be fine for you to be home alone for several hours with a live Internet connection.  Truth, or overconfidence?
  • You know that the Bible tells older Christians to teach younger ones, but you react angrily when some of the older folks at church warn you about your clothing, your parenting style, your choice to drink alcohol (“The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin!”), or the spiritual voices you’re listening to.  They’re just a bunch of busybodies who don’t understand things as well as you do!  Truth, or overconfidence?

Tragically, the devil often understands our weaknesses better than we do ourselves, and he gladly will use our pride to lead us around by the nose.  Peter came to his senses when the rooster crowed, but all too many Christians never do.  Instead, they are destroyed by their arrogance.  This could be us; indeed, unless we clothe ourselves in humility, it will be us. 

Daily, then, let us remember Paul’s wise words in Romans 12:3.  Let none of us think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, but rather have sound judgment!

Clothed in Christ

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Among its many other literary merits, the Bible employs a rich stock of spiritual imagery.  Some of these images are epic in scope.  Light, for instance, is important literally from the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation.  However, even more modest images can add meaningfully to our understanding of God’s purpose for us.

One such image is that of being clothed.  This idea appears perhaps most prominently in 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.  There, it is used to describe the process of resurrection.  Currently, we possess fragile, mortal, imperfect bodies.  In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul describes these as our earthly tents, destined to be torn down.  However, in the resurrection we will be clothed in what Paul calls a building from God, a heavenly body that is immortal and perfect.  It will be so much better that Paul expresses his longing to be clothed with it rather than his current body.

In 2 Corinthians 5:3, Paul identifies another important characteristic of this house-garment.  It will keep us from being found naked.  Throughout the Bible, and indeed in our normal lives today, nakedness is associated with shame.  If I emerged from the shower to find half the congregation standing in my bathroom contemplating me, I would be greatly ashamed! 

Thus, Paul clearly is discussing what Jesus calls “a resurrection of life” in John 5:29.  This is the resurrection of the faithful, those who may have confidence in the day of judgment.  By contrast, the ungodly can anticipate only shame and failure as the guilt of their sins is exposed.  They will be found naked.  Obviously, it is vital for us to be clothed with a heavenly form!

Fascinatingly, all of these conclusions apply to an apparently unrelated passage that also uses the clothing image.  In Galatians 3:26, Paul notes that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  The NASB even renders this as “hav[ing] clothed yourselves with Christ.” 

The same things are true of this clothing process as are true of the clothing process in 2 Corinthians 5.  First of all, it comes from God.  Colossians 2:12 reveals that baptism raises us up not because of our work, but because of our faith in the working of God.  Second, as that passage implies, baptism is a resurrection.  In the lovely language of Romans 6:4, baptism unites us with the death and burial of Christ, so that we can rise to walk in newness of life.  Finally, like the resurrection of life, baptism shields us from shame.  Once we have put on Christ in baptism, our sins are no longer visible to God.

The Scriptural lineage of resurrection begins with Christ, the firstborn from the dead (incidentally, the book of Revelation has a great deal to say about the clothing of the resurrected Christ).  It continues through baptism, a spiritual resurrection.  Then, it concludes with the resurrection of the body, which will take place at the end of all things.  If we wish to be clothed then, we clearly must clothe ourselves with Christ now.

People of the Book

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

When my family and I were on vacation last month, the Sunday we were gone, we assembled with a local congregation of Christians.  It certainly was one of the more memorable services I’ve attended, but not in a good way.  Most notably, it took 45 minutes for anyone behind the pulpit to invite me to open a Bible.  No Scripture was read during the Lord’s Supper, and even the sermon was a long story rather than an examination of God’s word.

Not surprisingly, this was a church in trouble.  Even though there were about 100 people in that building, my children were far and away the youngest present.  The singing was downright dispiriting.  I’ve been far more edified by the song worship of congregations a tenth of that size.  Unless something dramatic changes, that church will shut its doors, and right now, all they’re doing is running out the clock.

This is not something that only happens to other churches.  It can happen to the Jackson Heights church too, and all the problems begin with a failure to turn to the word.  The Bible is the wellspring of our spiritual existence, and as soon as this congregation gets cut off from God’s word, it will wither and die.  The same thing happens to Christians who lose their connection to the Scriptures.  With this in mind, then, let’s consider this morning what we can do to be people of the book.

There are many passages that could help us with this study, but I think one of the most powerful statements of God’s will here appears in Deuteronomy 30:11-14.  In fact, this text is so rich that we’re going to stay here for the rest of the morning.

In it, Moses makes three main points, and the first of these is that if we want to be people of the book, we have to SEEK THE WORD.  In this regard, he tells us first of all that the word is not too difficult for us.  Contextually, this isn’t talking about the word being difficult to do.  It’s about the word being difficult to understand. 

There are plenty of false teachers out there who insist that the word is too difficult, that everybody can’t understand it, but that’s a lie.  In reality, everybody here who has enough spiritual understanding to be accountable to God for their sins also has enough spiritual understanding to grasp the gospel.  Now, it is true that different people have different gifts when it comes to Bible study, and some can understand more than others, but all of us can understand what we need to.

Second, we don’t need to find somebody else to understand the word for us either.  As Moses says, we don’t need to ask who will go up to heaven and get the word, or who will go across the sea to get it.  Instead, the word is very near to each one of us.

This means that every one of us should make the Bible our guide rather than relying on any human being to be our guide.  I hope that the things that I teach and preach are helpful to you spiritually, but never should any of you take my word for it instead of searching the Scriptures for yourself.  I think Clay does an excellent job in his work here, but I know he too would say, “Don’t trust me.  Trust the word of God.”  Sad to say, millions will find themselves in hell because they trusted a man instead of the word.  The more time we spend with the word ourselves, the safer our souls will be.

Second, we must OWN THE WORD.  We must make it our own.  We must make it a part of ourselves.  Notice that Moses says that the word is to be found in two places in God’s people.  It is to be in their mouths, and it is to be in their hearts.

Let’s start with the mouth.  A couple of years ago, there was a meme floating around on Facebook that bemoaned one of the consequences of getting older.  It said, “These days, I open my mouth, and my mother comes out.”  I’m here to tell you, brethren, that’s true for me!  I’m pretty much the male version of my mother.  In fact, part of me is kind of glad that nobody here but Lauren met my mother so that none of you can tell how bad I’ve gotten!

Many of us know what that’s like.  We know what it’s like to open our mouths and have our parents come out.  How often do we open our mouths and have our Father in heaven come out?  How often do we open our mouths and have Jesus come out?  How often do we open our mouths and have Bible come out?  If we truly have made the word our own, it will reveal itself in our speech.  If, on the other hand, nobody could tell from talking to us that we’ve ever cracked a Bible, we’ve got work to do.

In fact, there’s only one way to make sure that Bible comes out of our mouths.  It’s by implanting the word in our hearts.  It’s by studying the Scriptures with the goal of remembering them and transforming ourselves. 

It’s one thing to be a hearer of the word, to show up for services and sit passively through sermons and Bible classes.  It’s another to be a student of the word, to be eager, attentive, hungry to learn, to ask questions when we don’t understand.  We can’t absorb the word by osmosis, like the student who tries to prepare for a math test by putting the textbook under his pillow.  Instead, we must choose to actively take it within ourselves and make it a part of us.

Finally, we must KEEP THE WORD.  As Moses indicates, God has revealed His will to us and instructed us to internalize it so that we can keep all the commandments of His law.  Bible study isn’t an intellectual exercise.  It’s a life-transformation exercise, and if the word does not transform our lives, we have missed the entire point of the activity.

Sadly, I’ve known Christians who have missed the point like this.  They regard themselves as great students of the word.  Frequently, they sneer at the ignorance of their brothers and sisters in the congregation. 

However, their lives reveal their own lack of understanding.  They struggle with horrendous sin problems.  Their marriages are a mess.  Their interactions with others are frequently unpleasant, marked by anger, bitterness, and pride.  Now, I’m not in any position to assess the claims that such people make about how much time they spend with the Bible.  Nonetheless, I can say with confidence that whatever time they have spent, it has not had the effect on them that God desires it to have.

Of course, even as we consider such Christians, we must beware of falling into the same trap.  They claim to be freshwater springs, but they send out salt water.  How about us, though?  How is the transforming work of the word of God evident in our lives?

Many of us here are not new Christians.  We’ve been studying the word for decades, and if we have applied ourselves at all, that should have resulted in a pretty decent understanding of what’s between the covers of the Bible.

As James says in James 3:13, if indeed we are wise and understanding, it’s time to reveal the gentleness of that wisdom in our good behavior.  It’s time to erase the last traces of worldly wisdom from the way we treat others.  We know that God wants us to be peacemakers in all our relationships, especially the relationships of our families.  Well, it’s time to start making peace.  We know that God wants us to be gentle and compassionate to those who have any kind of need, whether physical, mental, or spiritual.  Well, it’s time to start caring for those people.  Only in this way do our lives proclaim God’s will and show His glory to others.

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