Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Messiah From Isaiah to Revelation

Isaiah has at least eighteen direct messianic references.[1] And by some counts, Isaiah’s prophecy is referred to over four hundred times in the New Testament. J. Alec Motyer says, “The Isaianic literature is built around three messianic portraits: the King (chapters 1-37), the Servant (chapters 38-55) and the Anointed Conqueror (chapters 56-66).”[2]

One example from Isaiah’s portrait of Messiah as king is found in Isaiah 11:1-10.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Notice this figure is a king who judges with equity (vv. 3-4), destroys the wicked who oppose him (vv. 4-5), and will bring knowledge of Yhwh (v. 9). Then in verse 10, the idea of a shoot from the stump is repeated:

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

So Isaiah sees this messianic world-savior king as a root of Jesse; Jesse’s true offspring, the greater David. The tree of Israel has been chopped off in judgment so that only a stump remains. But from that stump a tender shoot comes forth. And what was Israel’s hope? “There shall come…”

“There sounds out from the oldest to the latest sources…the mighty ‘he comes’ (cf. Gen 49:10), ‘he appears’ (Num 24:17), ‘he cometh’ (Zech 9:9), ‘he is born’ (Is 7:14; 9:4), ‘he comes forth (11:1), ‘he comes forth (Mic 5:1), ‘he is raised up’ (Jer 23:5), ‘until he comes’ (Ez 21:32), ‘I will raise up’ (34:23), ‘I bring’ (Zech. 12:8), ‘I saw, there come’ (Dan. 7:13).” This continually recurring assurance that the Paradise-prince will come to destroy all enemies and judge even to the ends of the earth, forms the deepest core of the mystery—it is expressed by a single word in Hebrew, in English, “He comes.” It stamps the religion of the Old Testament as specifically a religion of hope.[3]

The ultimate answer to Isaiah 11 comes in Revelation 22:7, “Behold I am coming soon.” And 22:12, “Behold I am coming soon.” And again 22:20, “Surely I am coming soon.” And who is it that is coming? He identifies himself in 22:16,

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright and morning star.”

Christian have a messianic hope still today. Certainly we have an advantage in the fullness of Scripture. We have not only Isaiah but also Revelation. But we can certainly understand the psychology of hope/anticipation that existed in Israel. Our worldview is not so very different from theirs.

We are still looking forward to a future world in which a world-saving king will reign, and will right all the wrongs, and will reverse entropy, and will establish harmony. All the things Isaiah wanted as Israel was on the verge of exile are the same things that we want and foresee as we are in the midst of exile.

And so the Christian ends where Isaiah points and Revelation ends, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

 

 

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 155-156.

[2] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: Introduction and Commentary, 13.

[3] B. B. Warfield, “The Divine Messiah in the Old Testament,” here he is both quoting and distilling Ernst Sellin.

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Celebrating Many-ness: Abraham Kuyper’s “Pluriformity”

Diversity is a beautiful byproduct but an impossible end goal. Diversity must be built upon unity. Aspiration needs foundation. Within the church we should embrace diversity aimed at enjoying God, but reject diversity for it’s own sake. Outside the church, we can affirm the goodness of diversity but must insist that it may only be found by shared vision of the good life, based on a standard of real truth.

One the greatest evangelical thinkers on culture and diversity was Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch pastor, theologian, and politician between 1860 and 1920. In 1869, Kuyper delivered a lecture in Amsterdam titled, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” in which he asserts that humanity strives for coherence and unity, though it is a counterfeit unity not oriented toward the Creator. Such was the unified rebellion demonstrated on the planes of Shinar where the tower of Babel was erected.

God’s Unity and “False Uniformity”

Kuyper begins the lecture by pointing to God’s creative work. “Unity is the ultimate goal of all the ways of God…one day by his will all dissonances will dissolve into harmony.”[1] The unity which is God’s ultimate goal is this: that all of his creation should acknowledge its Creator. Everything in the universe has its coherence in the Son of God. “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Kuyper then shows that human history reflects recurring counterfeit efforts to achieve unity apart from God. This he calls “false uniformity.”

But as with counterfeit currency, the similarity is only in name. In God’s plan vital unity develops by internal strength precisely from the diversity of nations and races; but sin, by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death. The unity of God is written in the blueprint of the foundations; the unity of the world is merely painted on the walls. The Lord’s unity is like the organic strength which holds together the fibers of the oak tree; the world’s unity is like the spider web which upholds tenuous tissues in between. Organically one or an aggregate, a natural growth of a synthetic formation, become or made, nature or art—there, in a word, lies the profound difference distinguishing the spurious unity of the world from the life-unity designed by God.[2]

Kuyper’s point is that human aspirations toward unity in the midst of diversity, apart from reference to the divine, are counterfeits that are bound to fail. Kuyper spoke with prescience to millennials.

The cries for brotherhood and love of fellow-man are but a slogan. Not fraternity but a false uniformity is the goal toward which its glittering images drive us.[3]

When diversity becomes an end-goal, then it becomes uniformity. There must be a coherent meta-narrative around which diversity structures itself. Many truths descend into no truth, and finally those who claim real truth are silenced. Those who resist diversity as an end-goal are not allowed to be diverse. They are excluded. This is the “reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity.” Thus diversity becomes a human idol, the “ism” of multiculturalism, and it cannot sustain itself.

Pluriformity Rather Than Uniformity

What Kuper calls for is pluriformity. Pluriformity is diversity with a foundation. “The unity of the human family may only be looked for in its origin and destiny, never in the developmental phases it passes through on its way.”[4] Diversity needs a foundation for its fullest and freest expression. And the true foundation of diversity is unity toward God, life according to the design of the Creator. Or even if divine revelation is rejected, then the “theater of nature” itself implies the same reality.

The starlit heaven does not show us innumerable identical stars but endless groups of stars all different from each other. Precisely in this multiform distinction the beauty of the firmament shines. So it may not be assumed that God meant to have uniformity in his human world and that pluriformity arose as a result of sin…Moreover, the very fact that God created male and female proves conclusively that uniformity was not part of the creation plan.[5]

As the church seeks to affirm the cultural embrace of diversity, we must be cautious not to over-embrace. The church must never embrace diversity as the end goal. Rather, the end goal is to enjoy God and to worship him.

Outside the church, we see in broader Western culture a top-down push toward multiculturalism. Diversity is nearly a new religion. While we can affirm the rightness of diversity, we must offer the warning that diversity must be enjoyed within common commitments. Otherwise it will lead to fragmentation.For instance, there are places that are no-go areas for police in London because Sharia law is operative in those areas. Other areas are particularly Hindu, and those customs dominate and rule. So rather than the next door neighbor being Muslim or Hindu, instead what has happened is increasing segmentation.

Kuyper suggests a practical policy for the church and for the state. For the church, Kuyper says that in regards to the tension between unity and diversity, “I know of no other solution than to accept—freely and candidly, without any reservations—a free multiformity.” (39) He was speaking in the context of an established state church. Instead he envisioned free and autonomous denominations. For the state, Kuyper suggested strong national identity as opposed to all nations being pressed into the mold of one global form (he would have voted in favor of Brexit).

Further Resources

 

 

[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 21

[2] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 23-24.

[3] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 24.

[4] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 35.

[5] Kuyper, “Common Grace in Science,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 445.

Vocation: Assessing Desires, Gifts and Opportunities

The question is often asked, “Am I called to vocational ministry?”

The Bible’s teaching about “calling” is primarily about God’s calling people to salvation and to walk in holiness. Romans 8:30 says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.” So there’s the calling to salvation. And then Ephesians 2:10 says, “We were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Compare that with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” Those two verses give us the call to good works. So when we talk about being “called,” we have to base our understanding of that term not in contemporary usage, but in Biblical usage. And the Bible fundamentally teaches that our calling is unto salvation and holiness.

It may be worth noting as well that the calling is rooted in God’s will. He predestined those he called. And he prepared the good works for them to walk in. His calling is rooted in his purpose. But that will or purpose is going to play out in some specific arena of life. Every Christian has been called to salvation and holiness. But that holiness is going to be lived in some specific context, a mechanic’s garage or an office desk, with three messy kids or lines of upset customers. And so we must further think about God’s specific calling for each individual. The question we all have in mind is, “What am I called to?” And that question is synonymous with the question, “What is God’s will for my life?”

When I was in college I asked a professor those questions, “Am I called to ministry and how do I know God’s will for my life?” And he gave me three points to consider—three ingredients that when mixed together then comprise a fair assessment of God’s will and calling. Here are those three points with some Scripture and comment on each.

First, consider what desires God has put in your heart. We often shy away from evaluating our own desires as if there is something inherently ungodly about considering what we want. But scripture doesn’t have that same hesitancy. Rather, scripture tells us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). This led Augustine to say, “Love God and do as you please.” In other words, if our delight is rooted in God, then the desires of our heart will generally be a good launching point from which to begin considering where God may be calling or leading us. The New Testament also confirms this when giving instruction for how to determine pastors-elders in the church, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Now of course that statement speaks to the dignity and legitimacy of the office of elder. But it also speaks to the legitimacy of a person desiring a certain role and aspiring towards that desire.

So zoom out on this principle and let’s apply it more broadly than just the role of elder. When you’re considering where God may be leading you, what he might be calling you to, what his will for your life is—a good question to start with (after confirming you’re saved and walking in obedience—the fundamental callings) would be this question, “What has God given me a desire to do?” (Note: there are varying levels of desire, but is there something that rises to the surface in your desires, perhaps as the strongest desire you have? Pray that God would give you desires in a specific direction that you might know them and seek to follow the desires he gives). But desires alone don’t determine calling.

Second, consider what gifts God has placed in your hands. God has given gifts to every member of the church in order for each of the members to contribute according to the type of grace they have received so that as every member works together contributing their unique input, the whole body may be built up in love. Does that sound familiar? It’s not my idea; it’s straight from Ephesians 2:7-15. And the point is that members should serve according to their individual gifts with a view towards the benefit of others and the unity of the body (i.e. people aren’t trying to insert themselves in roles that they are not gifted to serve in).

Another text that provides sure-footing for us on this point is 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” In other words, God’s “grace-gifts” come in various shapes and sizes. Some are wired for public leadership and speaking. Some feel more at home with hospitality. Still others would rather be working and serving behind the scenes. There is a role for each. And the whole body is happiest when gifted people are serving in roles according to their gifts. This process comes by the grace of God, “in order that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

Some practical advice on this point: don’t decide for yourself what your gifts are. We are prone to misperceive our strengths and weaknesses. Second point of practical advice: don’t rely on a spiritual gifts inventory assessment. Again, we are prone to misperceive ourselves, and most of these tests are just a matter of you answering questions in order to tell yourself what you’re good at. They are a guided self-assessment. Nothing more. And while self-assessment is good (it would be related to assessing your desires), it is also important to draw out and listen to the assessment of others, so that by their input you might more accurately perceive yourself. Ask your pastors and spiritual mentors what they see you doing well at. Ask them where you appear weak. Consider this also: what do people most regularly thank you for and tell you they’ve appreciated about you? The answer to that question will likely be a pointer to your gifting.

Don’t be satisfied with your own opinion on this. If your gifts are intended not primarily for your own fulfillment, but for the edification of the body, which is what Ephesians and Peter point to, then it is the body’s assessment of your gifts that is actually more important than your own assessment of your gifts.

Once you have determined your gifting, then you are in a better position to survey the possibility of God’s calling on your life. Especially if the desires of your heart and the gifting of your hands are strongly related to each other. But there is at least one other important consideration.

Third, consider what opportunities God has laid before you. Let’s say a guy wants to be a preacher, and he thinks he has the gift of preaching, but no churches are willing to offer him that role. Is he called? Well most people would say yes. In our evangelical culture, we regularly hear people talk about how they were “called to preach” at a certain age, like thirteen or even nine. However, it may be more appropriate to say that is when he first sensed the desire to preach, not the call to preach. Then maybe some time later he realized he had the gift of teaching—which would definitely indicate that he is moving in the right direction. But I would say that even then he is still not called—because God’s calling is always set in the context of serving the body.

Consider this example. Paul wrote Titus a brief letter about how to lead the church in Crete, and gave this direction, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Now the men Titus appointed, they were called. This is clear because in addition to having the desire of 1 Timothy 3:1 (to be overseers), and the gifting necessary for the role (“able to give instruction in sound doctrine,” Titus 1:9), they also now had a specific context to exercise the desire and gift, that is, the church in Crete. They weren’t “called” until Titus “appointed” them for a specific role.

Again notice how the body functions in regards to opportunities. The individuals weren’t determining their roles and gifting alone, and then forcing themselves into certain realms of service. They were being appointed by the body. Consider how this pattern shows up in Acts 13 as well:

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. While they [the church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

Do you see how men who were recognized as gifted, were then called to specific opportunity by the body? This is a good principle for us to pursue when trying to evaluate calling, whether to gospel ministry in the church or not. In other words, there is a sense in which this divine wisdom is proverbial and thus applicable to consideration of any role or job. In America, we have great freedom to pursue jobs and careers (specific opportunities) that match our desires and giftedness (remember, this is a historical anomaly). But we would be wise to always seek input from the body in making these decisions.

Finally, it’s important to realize that each of these three considerations are essential to determining a calling. I can’t base my determination of God’s will on any one of these things. Desire alone doesn’t mean I should move in that direction. Giftedness doesn’t mean the timing is right. An available opportunity doesn’t mean you have the skill-set to meet the need. All three must be present, and you would be wise ask for the honest, candid feedback of others to determine if you are perceiving your desires and gifts accurately.

Further Resources: Called to Ministry by Edmund Clowney (concise, 1976); Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen (comprehensive, 1980).

How to Study the Bible: A Ten Step Approach

 Here is the short version of the ten steps, then explained more fully below. This approach is from Grant Osborne. (Other great resources are Kay Arthur’s How to Study Your Bible and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

  1. Outline the book as a whole
  2. Line diagram of a specific passage
  3. Grammatical study based on line diagram
  4. Semantics study: meaning of key words based on context
  5. Syntactical study: what is the relationship between the words, phrases and ideas in the passage?
  6. Historical background: what internal evidence is provided about the original setting?
  7. Genre: OT narratives, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, NT narrative, epistle
  8. Historical interpretation: how has this passage been understood throughout church history?
  9. Doctrines: what doctrines are taught in this passage; what other parts of the Bible teach the same doctrine?
  10. Homiletical synthesis: what is the significance of this text for Christian living and for the church?

As I sat at my desk this morning I opened my Bible to Hosea 1 intending to read chapters 1-7. In this process there were two primary entities (though I’m tempted to include my coffee as a third). Those two entities were the text before me (Hosea) and me the reader. The writer Hosea and his mind are no longer present; the only record we have is this text he left behind.

My interaction with this text unfolds in a dynamic that Grant Osborne describes as a hermeneutical spiral, by which he means the movement back and forth between the reader and the text, leading to a probable understanding of the author/Author’s intended meaning. This process culminates in the reader’s understanding of the passage for the current context and significance for the church.

This back and forth between text and context is the essence of the hermeneutical spiral, and assumes the reality that the interpreter approaches the text with “pre-understandings.” The reader comes with his own language, culture, and assumptions to the text. The spiral describes the process by which the text challenges those pre-understandings and reshapes the mind of the interpreter, who then engages the text again with a new point of reference based on the text itself.

Osborne points out that this spiral occurs throughout the interpretive process, a process that he outlines in ten steps. These steps progress from inductive study to deductive study, from the exegetical to the theological.

  1. The first step is for the reader to outline the book as a whole, in order to understand the broad intent of the author in writing. This allows for clarity in understanding any particular portion of the book or letter that has been written.
  2. The second stage then narrows attention to a particular passage, completing a line diagram of that passage. A diagram of the passage allows the interpreter to identify the individual linguistic elements of the passage.
  3. The third stage is then a grammatical study based on the line diagram, in which the relationship between various phrases is explored. Here the interpreter could be looking for transitional words such as “and,” “but,” “yet,” “neither,” “thus,” “therefore,” and other words like these, which signal the nature of the relationship between the concepts before and after the word. The goal of grammatical study is to identity flow of thought. How are the various small thoughts in this passage linked together to fit within the author’s broader purpose?
  4. The fourth stage of the process is a semantics study (“semantics” is the study of word meaning). This zooms in still further to the individual words of the passage. What do the significant words in this passage mean? Here Osborne points to the significance of context, believing the meaning of any word is found in the congruence of two factors: the semantic field (possible meanings of a word) and the immediate context in which the word is used.
  5. The fifth stage is syntactical study, evaluating the order and relationship of words and phrases. This moves beyond grammatical study in terms of precision, based largely on the new understanding gained in studying word meaning.
  6. The sixth stage is to reflect on the background in which the text was produced. What internal evidence does the document give as to its author, purpose, location, and audience? This historical material will often shed further light on the intended meaning of various explanations or exhortations the author provides.

These first six stages comprise “general hermeneutics,” which could be applied in a “scientific” sort of manner toward any text. They are not unique functions of biblical hermeneutics.

  1. The seventh step begins to address the Bible in particular. This step will involve the process of biblical study and theology. Specifically, the interpreter will want to begin by evaluating the genre of the book in which he is working. It has been pointed out that genre establishes the rules for the language game. In order to interpret sensibly, one needs to understand the type of literature he is handling.For instance, when interpreting Hebrew poetry, a student will want to give particular attention to the feature of parallelism, how the lines are linked together and what the relationship between these pairings might be. When reading narratives, it is important to identify the various characters and to evaluate how they are each portrayed. Their actions and outcomes may form the theological lesson that the author has in mind. Apocalyptic and prophetic literature rely heavily on symbolism, imagery, and symbolic use of numbers. Interpretation must allow for symbolism to function as a literary feature without demanding a woodenly literalistic understanding of these symbols.Beyond genre, the student of Scripture will want to evaluate biblical theology, how the Bible develops theology from the Old Testament into the New Testament. How are the testaments related to one another generally? How does a particular New Testament writer employ quotations or observations from the Old Testament?
  2. The eighth step moves into the realm of applied hermeneutics, beginning with an evaluation of the way in which Christians have understood the text historically. Are there key debates the church has had regarding how to interpret this passage? What doctrines has the church historically understood to flow from this passage? An especially helpful tool for this step is the Scripture index in Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg R. Allison.
  3. This sets up the interpreter for the ninth step, which is a study of particular doctrines that the text addresses (systematic theology). This sort of evaluation will help the reader place a particular passage within the teaching of the Bible as a whole. How do the concerns of this passage fit with similar or apparently contrasting concerns in another passage?
  4. These nine steps prepare the interpreter of Scripture for the final homiletical synthesis of all the material. The main question in this tenth step regards the significance of the text being studied for the current church context and Christian living. Thus, Osborne describes the spiral as a meaning-significance model, where the meaning of the passage as intended by its author yields the significance of the passage for the church today.

The interpreter has not reached his goal until this tenth step has been finished. This is where the interpretive process culminates. As has been said, the goal of hermeneutics is the sermon, meaning that interpretation is aimed at understanding the way the passage challenges the Christian in a contemporary setting. The sermon is aimed first at the reader and then at the congregation that the reader might address.

The spiral motif is helpful in that it points out the dynamic relationship between the reader and text, encouraging the interpreter to seek the confrontation of the text and to open herself to having reshaped thoughts and attitudes. At the same time, the spiral is limited in its hermeneutical guidance. The real interpretive process lies in the ten-step process that Osborne outlines, whereas the spiral simply describes a reality that should be unfolding throughout every step of the process.

Sola Gratia: Where it came from and what it means

This past week I preached at Christ Church Rolesville as part of a series on the 5 solas. Below is a description of the history and meaning of sola gratis.

The idea that we are saved by “grace alone” has a long history in Christianity. If we were to trace the roots as far down as they’ll go, we find ourselves at a theological conflict between two men, one named Augustine and the other Pelagius.[1]

And it all started with a simple little prayer that Augustine had written around the year 400 AD. “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!”[2] When Pelagius read these words, he understood correctly that Augustine was implying that humans are incapable of obeying God’s commands unless God first grants them the ability to do so. Pelagius strongly disagreed. He believed the very fact that God would command something implies that we must have the ability to obey it. We don’t need God’s grace to help us obey; we simply exercise free will and make the decision to do it or not. How does one obey God? This is where they disagreed.

But behind this disagreement, Augustine and Pelagius had another disagreement. They had different opinions about the nature of humanity. Augustine argued that ever since Adam ate the fruit in the garden, that humanity was locked in corruption. It’s not just Adam that fell; we all fell in Adam. So Augustine says, “The sin which they committed was so great that it impaired all human nature—in this sense, that the nature has been transmitted to posterity with a propensity to sin and a necessity to die.”[3] So according to Augustine, Adam doomed humanity. When Adam fell, we all fell.

On the other hand, Pelagius said that when Adam fell, only Adam fell. But after Adam he said we are all still free to make our own decisions, whether we will obey God or not. Augustine and Pelagius had a pamphlet battle. They wrote all sorts of pamphlets back and forth, arguing against the other. Eventually, very early in the fifth century several church councils were called and found Pelagius to be denying the clear teaching of Scripture.[4] But even though the teaching of Pelagius was officially condemned, it never actually disappeared. The church in every generation has suffered from some form of it. In fact, in the thousand years between Augustine and Martin Luther, the official theology of the church had drifted somewhat away from Augustine and toward Pelagius.

Martin Luther came on the scene around 1500, over one thousand years after the Pelagius’ teaching had been rejected. Luther’s theological discussion was with the Roman Catholic Church. The church argued that grace could be infused to people as they performed certain actions like going to mass and participating in the eucharist. In other words people could simply exercise free will to do good and thereby earn the grace of God. But Luther denied that humans are capable of freely choosing any works good enough to earn God’s grace.

So the will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills….If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.[5]

 Martin Luther insisted when it comes to salvation, we don’t make the first move. Our will doesn’t choose it’s own rider. Rather, God gives the gift of faith so that we might believe. If anyone does what God commands, it is beccuase his grace and his grace alone has enabled us to do it. So the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was resurrected between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Other church Reformers agreed with Luther’s “grace alone” slogan, and John Calvin systematized these classic Reformation insights.[6]

From this history we draw two significant doctrinal truths.

The first of these two truths is called original sin.[7] The doctrine of original sin says the sin of Adam and Eve touched every future member of the human race. Simply put, we are all infected, corrupted and guilty.[8] Sin is a precondition of human life. We’re born this way, with the whole cluster of psychological, relational and spiritual sicknesses that result from the original infection. Original sin means, among other things, that we are spiritually sick: that no one is looking to submit their life to God. You may know people who do a sort of scavenger hunt through world religions, but interpreting that kind of thing through the lens of original sin, we might conclude that even those searchings are aimed at self-improvement rather than self-abandonment to God. No one is seeking to submit to God. Humans are corrupted from conception. That’s original sin.

The second doctrinal truth is called monergism. The word comes from monos- meaning one or alone (as in monogamy) and –ergon, meaning ability or work, somewhat like energy. The meaning of monergism is that God alone initiates with people, he works unilaterally in the hearts of people who aren’t seeking him, and causes them to seek him. Paul reminds the church in Rome that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If that’s true, if no one seeks for God, then how is it that some people end up finding him? Only by accidentally bumping into him on a dark path? No. Paul says, for anyone who knows God, the way they came to know him is that God turned the lights on. They were sitting in a dark room and happy to be in the dark, not looking for a light switch. Not seeking God. But God completely of his own initiative turned the lights on. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And that is monergism—God alone working.

So this idea of “grace alone” says something about God and something about us. About us: that we are dead in sin. About God: that he is full of grace.

 

[1] For more on this see Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 173-181.

[2] Augustine, Confessions 10, 29 (Penguin Classics), 233. Could be translated, “Give what you command; command what you will” (Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180). According to Latourette, it was these words that sparked the reaction from Pelagius, though no source is cited for this assertion.

[3] Augustine, City of God (New York: Image Books, 1958), 279. “No one was to be born of them who was less a sinner than they were. Such was the greatness of the guilt that the punishment so impaired human nature that what was originally a penal condition [punishment] for the first parents who sinned became a natural consequence in all of their descendants,” 252.

[4] The Councils of Carthage, 412 and 418 AD, Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180.

[5] Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will. Cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 76.

[6] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 74, 120, 166.

[7] In a portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, David McCullough says that she “discarded the doctrine of original sin” as part of a move away from her “harsh Calvinist heritage.” She came to believe that “neither man nor nature was necessarily corrupt. Hers was a faith of love and Christian charity” (Brave Companions, 49). This characterization of original sin as a “harsh” doctrine is typical.

[8] Corruption and guilt are the two aspects of original sin. “Corruption and guilt present the problems that the gifts of sanctification and justification graciously address,” Cornelius Platinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 29. Augustine’s phrase “propensity to sin and necessity to die” corresponds to these two aspects of original sin.