Calvinism and the Cherubim

•April 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

A brief reminder of one of my earliest memories of Bible reading came while listening to my pastor exposit Revelation 4. I remember being very young and reading Revelation. Of all its grotesque imagery, the most appalling scene to me were the angels who “day and night” cried out before the throne. I couldn’t imagine a more horrific fate than to be these creatures, whose existence subsists in this one unending act. Little did I know at the time, but this was my first encounter with reformed theology.

Everyone who comes to understand the sovereignty of God must first be shattered on this rock: that God has the right to do whatever he pleases, including the creation of beings existing solely to glorify him. Paul says there are elect angels (1 Timothy 5:21), which is a problematic phrase for infralapsarians, given ‘elect’s’ usual context of human election. It must be that, in eternity past, God first determined to create righteous and unrighteous beings, human and angelic, and that the fall was consequential to that first decree of creation.

But never mind that can of worms for now. The real question is, what does one do with the question of whether Satan and his demons have a chance to repent? Even the die-hard libertarian balks at the notion. Such a thing would be a mockery of God’s justice, and would invalidate the word of God (Revelation 20): Satan made his free will (their term) choice, and must suffer the consequences. Well and good, but who is to say Satan won’t break after a million years of torment? Will the demon be eternally hardened toward God, just as the cherubim are eternally softened? Has their free will been abrogated, and if so, when?

It’s a thicket of problems when you import Aristotelian and Epicurean free will into Scripture; more prevalent in its pages is the presence of six-winged and ox-headed aberrations that eternally repeat a sixteen-word message. It is no shock to me, then (though it is no less strange to me than to anyone else) that God should elect human beings for the purpose of glorifying him through their eternal praise, and should not elect others for the purpose of glorifying him through their eternal punishment.


Who are/were the Pharisees?

•April 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

It’s become popular in the church to borrow an argument from the world regarding Christians and pharisaism. It goes like this: “You’re a hypocritical Bible-thumper like the Pharisees.” Its latest manifestation is a post on quoting a passage from Josh Harris [link]. The post tweaks the Pharisee and Tax Collector parable to contrast modern reformed/fundamentalist and megachurch evangelicals. I want to clarify the word ‘Pharisee’ and evaluate the strength of the comparison, and finally to exegete the original parable to see if and where Harris’ version goes astray.

1. Who were the Pharisees?

‘Pharisee’ comes from the Hebrew parush meaning ‘set apart’ or ‘separate.’  The Pharisees were simultaneously a political party and a sect of Judaism that arose from the Hasmonean (Jewish) conquest of the Seleucid (Greek) occupiers of the Holy Land. Until 63 BC, when Pompey conquered Jerusalem for the Romans, the Pharisees enjoyed nearly a century of shared political rule with the Sadducees. These two parties coexisted in a tense populist-aristocratic dynamic. The Pharisees were the populists. They had a saying: “A learned mamzer [child of adulterous or incestuous origin] takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” In this sense, at least, they were certainly very similar to  the 15th and 16th century Reformers.

However, whereas the Reformers attempted to return people to the simplicity and sufficiency of Scriptural rule, the Pharisees worked to add “rule upon rule.” Because of their theonomistic philosophy, they saw it their duty to regulate the behavior of their ‘subjects’ to the smallest degree. They issued ruling after ruling on every conceivable aspect of life, and constructed a system wherein their word [Mishnah] was actually higher than the Law and Prophets, in that without the rabbinic commentary, portions of the Law and Prophets would be incomprehensible. Under the Pharisees and their descendents, the body of authoritative scripture became massive and immeasurably complex. For a layman to understand even a fraction of it was simply impossible; thus, the Pharisees carved a permanent place for themselves in Jewish society.

The Pharisees themselves were noted for their public displays of piety, as seen throughout the gospel accounts. Among their performances were their regular appearances in the marketplaces; they would stroll through the streets with sackcloth and ash-covered faces, as their fasting days happened to coincide with market days. They were very popular among the people for their piousness, their populism, and their patriotism – they were fervent enemies of the Greek, and later Roman, occupiers.

2. Is it a valid comparison?

It can hardly be said that the Pharisees were scriptural fundamentalists, except perhaps in comparison to the Sadducees, who rejected all but the Pentateuch and even then had little interest in its application to their aristocratic lives. Not only had they multiplied the volume of authoritative scripture many times over, but they had nullified certain commands in doing so, as Jesus notes in Mark 7:13. If any comparison can be made, it is in their general zeal for their theology. But that is a thin comparison, as most people have a zeal for their theology/philosophy/worldview, and the same charge could be leveled at the opposing side.

Nor were the Pharisees particularly conservative, in the sense of being ‘elitist’ and ‘slow to change.’ They were populists who twisted in the wind and disappeared with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. While some, like Nicodemus, were wealthy, many were not and took pride in their poverty. They were not sticklers on the deeper points of theology; there was greater emphasis on the hot-button issues of the time, namely, marriage, the Sabbath, the festivals, the ordinances of the Temple, and ritual cleansing. There was also wide variance within the Pharisee party, epitomized in the great schism between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai. In comparison, modern theological conservatives emphasize doctrinal unity around a core center of beliefs while allowing differences at the periphery. While some ‘fundamentalists’ are keen to be divisive on finer points of doctrine, these are not representative of the whole; adherence to Pharisaism was largely defined by which school one belonged to (Hillel vs. Shammai), and the differences in these were superficial.

While it is not my objective to draw a parallel between Pharisees and any modern day movement, it is nonetheless ironic that those most frequently making the comparison emphasize social justice, which was a Pharisaic theme. The Pharisees maintained popular support by acts of charity and a strong voice toward social equity. However, as Jesus pointed out, they “devoured widows’ houses” in reality. Whatever social justice they worked toward was a partial and hypocritical effort to feed their egoes and retain their status in Jewish society; the real truth is that they siphoned money upward through their theonomic system into their own accounts.

3. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

While the Pharisees were seen as the champions of the poor and the guardians of proper worship and national identity, the tax collectors were traitors who had stolen their way into the aristocracy. In other words, the Pharisee was the common man, and the tax collector was ‘The Man.’  The shock of the story was in Jesus’ upending of the peoples’ expectations; nobody could have predicted that the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, would go home justified.

Interestingly, there is nothing untrue in the Pharisee’s prayer. He does not exaggerate his record, nor commits any wrong by thanking God for his [supposed] sanctification. He is “in regards to the law, blameless.” The tax collector, in comparison, beats his chest and asks God only for mercy on a sinner. His words are also true. The issue is therefore deeper than the superficial actions; it is about the heart of the individual. The Pharisee’s heart harbors the kind of pride that feeds off the comparative wretchedness of others.

Of course, the Pharisee’s prayer probably suggests that the Pharisee sees a justification based on works, which would invalidate his claim to not be like the sinners. But the parable does not go this deep; the point is the correct recognition of the need for mercy regardless of personal righteousness.

In Harris’ version of the parable, a theologically conservative Christian has become the Pharisee, and a doctrinally ignorant (or perhaps theologically liberal?) Christian has replaced the tax collector. Instantly, problems arise; Jesus draws the line at justification for one and not the other. Is Harris suggesting that the doctrinally sound Christian is at greater risk of hellfire?

Thankfully, Harris’ parable doesn’t comment on the fate of the men. If it had, he would be at a loss to explain how sound doctrine can lead this first man to such an unsound prayer. If the man is steeped in Scripture, as he says, where is he finding the model to pray this way? Wouldn’t he rather pray as did the Psalmist, or Jesus? Or perhaps he would read the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and be warned not to pray this way…? It’s a strange loop, when you think of it: the man was thanking God for adherence to his Word, which, were it logically true, wouldn’t lead to thanking God for it, as the Word contains a warning against such behavior. At any rate, the Pharisee prayed thanks for his good works, not for his adherence to the Word.

Perhaps a greater problem is raised by Harris’ depiction of the “shallow, uninformed evangelical” beating his breast in the manner of the tax collector. Where did this man learn about his sin? Where did he learn the appropriate response? These churches don’t teach it. He simply wouldn’t know (Romans 10:14), unless he was listening to solid preaching or at home in the Word, which would invalidate Harris’ argument.

A better modern-day analogy may be to new age guru Deepak Chopra and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The former believes his good works justify him, the latter begged God for mercy in prison. Few in the world today would call Dahmer more righteous than Chopra. Yet, assuming his conversion was sincere, Dahmer became a perfectly righteous man at the end of his life; he had the righteousness of Christ. For all his good work and advocacy for the poor, Chopra denies the deity and exclusivity of Christ and remains in his sin.


It can be said that modern theological conservatives resemble Pharisees both in their zeal for their theology/worldview, their defense of established tradition and their tendency to argue finer points of the law. However, elitist comparisons fall short; the Pharisees were a diverse group that included artisans and peasants. They were wildly popular and used the support of the people to gain and maintain power. They took great pains to do [or at least be seen doing] acts of charity and social justice. They were not well-versed in the core aspects of divine revelation, as Nicodemus revealed in his ignorance of the Holy Spirit in John 3.

It is perhaps easiest to make the comparison because of the presence of the scribes. Jesus often lumps the two together in the phrase “scribes and Pharisees.” A scribe was a theological/political/judicial position which [theoretically] anyone could hold, provided he be trained. Scribes were required to read, memorize and transcribe (obviously) the Scripture and Mishnah. In addition, rabbinic training required memorization of large swathes of Scripture and Mishnah, so most scribes and Pharisees were well-versed therein. The mere knowledge of the text of Scripture, however, does not mean understanding, as Jesus says to the Pharisees: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”

The argument boils down to emphasis. While there are certainly arrogant individuals in the reformed/confessional camp, there are similar individuals in the other camp(s). Any argument based solely on the presence of arrogance in any camp is fundamentally flawed. That Harris and Challies (among others) characterize reformed and fundamental Christians as arrogant indicates their belief that there is some correlation between a commitment to doctrine and a temptation to arrogance. I would challenge them to prove where this is warned against in Scripture. It seems to me that Scripture points toward sound doctrine as the source and lifeblood of our sanctification, in verses such as John 17:17, 2 Tim 3:15-16, Col 3:16, and Titus 2:7; a repudiation or lack of doctrine would lead one toward arrogance (1 Tim 3:6).

Spoken through the Son, not the Spirit

•January 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his word.   Hebrews 2:3-4

Brief observations:

This passage is Trinitarian, though the fourth witness, the apostles, are placed second in rank to the testimony of the salvation. Jesus the Lord is first, then the apostles, then God the Father, then the Holy Spirit. This hierarchy does not rank these four in terms of innate importance, but rather in accordance with God’s will for the evangelism of this age: first to be considered is the testimony of Jesus himself, and then his apostles. Then come the testimony of God, who bore witness to Jesus only rarely, at crucial events (such as the baptism and the Passover celebration of John 12). Finally, of least importance are the miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. All four witnesses are crucial to the will of God, yet there is an important emphasis on the testimony of Jesus and “those who heard” (the apostles and, by extension, the prophets). The witness of Scripture is of more importance than the miracles of the Holy Spirit, and those who reverse this hierarchy do so to their own destruction.

All this echoes and supports the first verse of Hebrews: God has spoken to us in these last days by his Son, not by his Spirit. The Spirit directs us to the words of the Son, and never preempts these words.

I’m becoming a cessationist. Where is the evidence of the perfect gifts of God the Holy Spirit? Who speaks in tongues in an orderly fashion, always with an interpreter? Who casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead? Drinks deadly poison? Shakes off serpents?

The Parable of the Lost Sheep: Context is Crucial

•December 1, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Jesus uses the same parable in Matthew 18 and Luke 15 to teach parallel truths: that God pursues his disobedient elect, and that he also pursues his disobedient elect. Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound so different when I write it out…

Maybe a quick run-through will illustrate the difference.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14 ESV)
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
(Luke 15:3-7 ESV)

Let’s nail down the similarities first. Both are written in the second person, and are basically extended rhetorical questions – “Who doesn’t do this?” The logic is: if you will do these things (though you are evil), how much more will God do them? Both end up with the shepherd rejoicing.

Now, the differences. Matthew’s sheep “wanders,” Luke’s sheep is “lost.” Matthew’s sheep are left “on the mountains,” Luke’s “in the open country.” Matthew’s shepherd rejoices “more” over the one than the ninety-nine, but Luke breaks the parable to give us this information, which takes place in heaven. Matthew gives us the will of the Father. Luke tells us that the shepherd puts the sheep on his shoulders, takes it home and throws a party with his friends and neighbors.

Oh, and the big difference: the C word, context. Context, context, context. Matthew’s parable is in the middle of Jesus’ 4th discourse, given to his disciples. Luke’s takes place amidst a gathering of tax collectors, prostitutes and Pharisees. As often happens with Jesus’ words, two different messages go forth from the same set of words. When Jesus speaks to his own, these are words of comfort; when he speaks to those he never knew, they are words of condemnation.

Notice the little differences, and their impact on meaning. The sheep who “wanders” is the wayward disciple. Active, willful disobedience. The “lost” sheep is the ignorant sinner, without knowledge of the shepherd. It is the lost sheep of John 10:16 – “I must bring them also.” Matthew keeps the comparative rejoicing within the parable. He’s going for a different conclusion. It would be easy to read Luke’s conclusion into Matthew here, but don’t be tempted: this isn’t about ignorant sinners, but hardened disciples. In 18:3, 6, 7, 8, 9, and maybe 10, Jesus threatens his disciples with the consequences of sin. This is no denial of eternal security, but a warning against apostasy, a prediction of the coming heresy of the Judaizers. Even among the disciples now, Judas was becoming Judas. In order to comfort them (comfort them through warning? Isn’t the fear of God our comfort and strength?), Jesus reminds them that when they stray, he will come and get them, and in this way none of the “little ones” (the elect) will be lost.

Luke continues his theme of out-rejoicing Matthew (Matt 5:12 v. Luke 6:23), by mentioning rejoicing three times, as opposed to Matthew’s one. Joy is, indeed, the point of Luke’s parable, as the Lost Coin and Prodigal Son illustrate – the Pharisees had none of it, and Jesus wanted to make the point that if they had rejoiced at the tax collectors and prostitutes coming to him, they would have joined in the rejoicing in heaven, so to speak. There is a direct link from earth to heaven in regards to loving repentance, is the point.

The “lost sheep” of Luke’s parable is the wayward sinner who sinned in ignorance and must be rescued. The emphasis is on the lostness rather than the wandering of Matthew’s sheep, which shifts perspective from the actions of the individual sinner to the state of all sinners, which in turn shifts the focus to the Savior. Characteristic to Matthew, he emphasizes the correct behavior of the elect man, especially in binary contrast to the incorrect behavior of the non-elect man: a Hebrew line of thought. Luke’s gospel is much more unilateral: here is the Son of Man come to save the world, look to him all you ends of the earth, and be saved.

A final note: is the “do not need to repent” of Luke 15:7 ironic? Consider Luke 5:32 – “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The gate to life is narrow; make every effort.

Did we not cast out demons?

•August 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment
“John answered and said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.'” – Luke 9:49-50 (NASB)
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’” – Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)

How to square these two texts?

Assuming that the “many” in Matthew 7 are testifying truthfully about their deeds, it seems that Jesus contradicts himself. The statement, “he who is not against you is for you,” without futher qualification, is an absolute. Yet Matthew 7 is the clearer text, and Luke 9:50 is more proverbial. “He who is not against you” should be taken, therefore, as a generality, like the majority of Proverbs. “Train your child in the way he should go, and in his old age he will not depart from it,” for example, is not a universal promise, but a maxim of general wisdom. It applies in many circumstances, but not all.

In general, those who are not against Christians are for them. If someone is driving out demons in the name of Jesus, they are likely to be his followers. Likely, though not guaranteed, as Matthew 7 elucidates. And indeed, the two passages address very different questions.

The Luke passage answers the question, “How do we treat disciples of Christ who do not follow along with the Twelve?” The implication both in their question and in Jesus’ response is that the disciples were arrogantly parading their authority over demons as exclusively and inherently theirs, and not a gift of God to be distributed at his discretion. Jesus tells them not to hinder them, suggesting that this was the very action in the minds of the disciples – to oppose the casting out of demons among any non-apostolic groups. Jesus rightly discerns that the ministry of the apostles will be so divisive that it will be obvious who is for them and who is against them, and anyone helping them should be counted a fellow Christian.

The Matthew passage answers the question, “Is the mere claim of Jesus’ lordship enough to qualify one for salvation? Jesus responds by prophesying that many will fail to attain salvation who not only have claimed his lordship, but have performed mighty works in his name; thus eliminating any causal relationship between good works in the name of God (including claiming his lordship, which can be categorized as a good work) and salvation.

It is interesting that the casting out of demons in the name of the Lord is the thread that binds these two very different texts together, and it certainly is no accident. We are meant to contrast the opposite ends of the spectrum – the outcast Christian who casts out demons in the Lord’s name, and the outcast non-Christian who casts out demons in the Lord’s name. Both are alienated: the former by his fellow Christians and the latter by the Lord himself. By this contrast Jesus proves that the righteous will indeed be persecuted in this life, though finally accepted, whereas the unrighteous will be praised in this life, and finally rejected.

•July 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

My last post was May 2010, and then life got very busy. My son, Josiah, was born in October 2010, and I’ve been through the valley of humiliation (health problems) with my Shepherd since last summer. We left Korea in March of 2011 and have spent six months in California resting and preparing for the next phase of life. Our ambition is to go to the Middle East, where there is the greatest need for the gospel of Jesus. To this end, I’m going to keep blogging my way through the Scriptures, and deal with some Islamic issues on the side.

It’s a lot easier for me to love Amillennialists when they talk like this.

•May 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

From Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future

Dispensationalists commonly say that we amillennialists spiritualize prophecies of this kind by understanding them as being fulfilled either in the church of this present age or in heaven in the age to come. I believe, however, that prophecies of this sort refer neither primarily to the church of this age nor to heaven, but to the new earth. The concept of the new earth is therefore of great importance for the proper approach to Old Testament prophecy. All too often, unfortunately, amillennial exegetes fail to keep biblical teaching on the new earth in mind when interpreting Old Testament prophecy. It is an impoverishment of the meaning of these passages to make them apply only to the church or to heaven. But it is also an impoverishment to make them refer to a thousand-year period preceding the final state. They must be understood as inspired descriptions of the glorious new earth God is preparing for his people (205-06).
Dispensationalists accuse us amillenarians of “spiritualizing” prophecies of this sort so as to miss their real meaning. John F. Walvoord, for example, says, “The many promises made to Israel are given one two treatments [by Amillennialists]. By the traditional Augustinian amillennialism, these promise are transferred by spiritualized interpretation to the church. The church today is the true Israel and inherits the promise which Israel lost in rejecting Christ. The other, more modern type of amillennialism hold that the promises of righteousness, peace and security are poetic pictures of heaven and fulfilled in heaven, not on earth.” On a later page, after quoting and referring to a number of prophetic passages about the future of the earth, Walvoord goes on to say, “By no theological alchemy should these and countless other references to earth as the sphere of Christ’ millennial reign be spiritualized to become the equivalent of heaven, the eternal sate, or the church as amillenarians have done.
To the above we may reply that prophecies of this sort should not be interpreted as referring either to the church of the present time of to heaven, if by heaven is meant a realm somewhere off in space, far away from earth. Prophecies of this nature should be understood as descriptions – in figurate language, to be sure – of the new earth which God will bring into existence after Christ comes again – a new earth which will last, not just for a thousand years, but forever. … There will be a future fulfillment of these prophecies, not in the millennium, but on the new earth. … It is, however, not correct to say that referring these prophecies to the new earth is to engage in a process of “spiritualization” (275-76).

If they can accept that the prophecies of the OT are to be interpreted literally regarding the new Earth, then all you need to do is open to Isaiah 65 and point out the intermediate state (the millennial kingdom):

“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” (Isaiah 65:20)

This is not the new Earth, since death is banished from the new Earth (Revelation 21:4). This is the millennial kingdom that all the Jews after the Davidic covenant waited eagerly for. It will exist on the earth, after the Great Tribulation and the Second Coming, for 1000 years (Rev.20). And according to Isaiah, it will be composed mostly of people who die.

But wait – a few verses before, in Isaiah 65:17, establishes the context of the new heavens and earth.

Like all prophecy, this takes wisdom to understand. If the new earth is in view in v.20, then v.20 contradicts Revelation 21:4 outright. We have to understand, then, that like most Bible prophecy, this passage is layered. The idea of “new earth” here contains the millennium and the eternal state. The millennial earth is a new earth, but not the final new earth – so the idea is encompassing all the “newness” that comes in increasing measure with the governance of Jesus and his people until the eternal state is ushered in.

So v.20 is in the right context, the creation of the new heavens and earth that begins with the Second Coming. The only way to understand v.20-25 (including v.23, which mentions bearing children, something that Jesus said is non-existent in the eternal state) is to interpret Rev. 20 literally. There will be a thousand years of Jesus-ruled peace on the earth before the eternal state.

Biblically, it fits into the narrative as a whole (and the symmetrical nature of Hebrew literature). Just as after paradise there was a (roughly) 1000-year period of degeneration, so there will be a 1000-year period of regeneration before paradise.