Islam (17)

In the last blog post on this subject, we studied the Bible’s teaching on Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael, and we took note of the significance of the sacrifice of Isaac for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thousands of years after the book of Genesis was written, Mohammed wrote the Qur’an (c. 609-632 AD), which makes very different claims about Abraham, Isaac, and (especially) Ishmael.

Ishmael the Prophet

First, in Islam, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael are revered prophets:

Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus (Joshua), and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them; and we bow to Allah” (Surah 2:136).

We have sent thee inspiration, as we sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him. We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus (Joshua), Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David we gave the Psalms (Surah 4:163).

Also mention in the Book (the story of) Ishmael: he was (strictly) true to what he promised, and he was a messenger (and) a prophet. He used to enjoin on his people prayer and charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord (Surah 19:54-55).

Notice that Ishmael is equal in his status of prophet with the other prophets, although the Bible nowhere indicates that Ishmael was a prophet. In fact, the Bible barely recognizes Ishmael as a believer. (Theologians are divided on whether Ishmael was an elect child of God or a reprobate, a discussion of which would distract us from the main point of this article).

The Sacrifice of Ishmael

Second, most Muslims teach that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but Ishmael. (Although Ishmael is not named in the pertinent passages of the Qur’an, most Muslims believe that the Bible is wrong when it teaches that Isaac is the subject of Genesis 22). Two passages of the Qur’an are relevant at this point:

He [Abraham] said, “I will go to my Lord. He will surely guide me!” “O my Lord! Grant me a righteous (son)!” So we gave him the good news of a boy ready to suffer and forbear. Then, when the son reached (the age of) (serious) work with him, he said, “O my son! I see in vision that I offer thee in sacrifice: now see what is thy view!” (The son) said, “O my father! Do as thou art commanded: thou wilt find me, if Allah so wills, one practicing patience and constancy!” So when they had both submitted their wills (to Allah), and had laid him prostrate on his forehead (for sacrifice), we called out to him, “O Abraham! Thou hast already fulfilled the vision!” Thus indeed do we reward those who do right. For this was obviously a trial. And we ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice. And we left (this blessing) for him among generations (to come) in later times: “Peace and salutation to Abraham!” Thus indeed do we reward those who do right, for he was one of our believing servants. And we gave him the good news of Isaac, a prophet, one of the righteous. We blessed him and Isaac: but of their progeny are (some) that do right, and (some) that obviously do wrong, to their own souls (Surah 37:99-113)

Surah 37 does not give the name of the “righteous son” for whom Abraham prayed. Most Muslims assume that the son is Ishmael, but that is an interpretation, not what the text explicitly teaches. The Qur’an presents Abraham and his son (supposedly, Ishmael) as cooperating in the sacrifice: Abraham tells his son (supposedly, Ishmael) about the vision, and (supposedly) Ishmael agrees to be sacrificed. In the Bible, Isaac seems not to know what is going to happen, at least not until they reach the top of the mountain: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). In both accounts (Gen. 22 and Surah 37) the sacrifice does not take place and Abraham’s son is ransomed (see Genesis 22:13, where a ram in a thicket is sacrificed). The Qur’an’s account specifies that the son to be sacrificed will have reached “the age of serious work,” which would make him a young teenager or older.

The son in Surah 37 could be Isaac, not Ishmael. Nothing in Surah 37 demands that we identify the son as Ishmael. In Surah 37:101, for example, God announces “good news” concerning a son, but the same expression, “good news,” is used of Isaac in Surah 37:112. Could not the “good news” of Surah 37:101 and 112 be the same “good news,” i.e., the “good news” of Isaac? (In the Bible, God does not announce good news concerning Ishmael, for Ishmael is not the promised child).

Abraham and Sarah also receive “good news” (or “glad tidings”) in Surah 51, where the reference is surely to Isaac, not Ishmael (the parallels with Genesis 18 are clear):

They [the angelic messengers] said, “Fear not,” and gave him glad tidings of a son endowed with knowledge. But his wife came forward (laughing) aloud: she smote her forehead and said: “A barren old woman!” They said, “Even so has thy Lord spoken, and He is full of wisdom and knowledge” (Surah 51:28-30).

The angels’ announcement, Sarah’s unbelieving laughter, and the reference (in Surah 51:31-37) to the angelic messengers’ errand to Sodom are clear parallels with Genesis 18, where the reference is to Isaac, not Ishmael. In both Surah 37 and 51, the Qur’an references “good news” or “glad tidings” concerning the birth of a son: that son is Isaac, not Ishmael.

One Muslim apologist seeks to discredit the Biblical account of Ishmael’s expulsion in Genesis 21, for if Ishmael was not cast out, then he could certainly qualify as the son who was sacrificed. (This would also contradict the apostle Paul in Galatians 4). His main objection to the story is that Ishmael is presented as a child in Genesis 21, whereas we know that he was a teenager (considered an adult in that day). The Hebrew word translated “child” (Gen. 21:14-20), however, is not specific to young children: the word is used of Joseph (who was seventeen years old) in Genesis 37:30, Naomi’s adult sons in Ruth 1:5; and Rehoboam’s immature advisors in I Kings 12:10. It is also not unusual for Ishmael not yet to have been married, since Isaac did not marry until he was forty years old (Gen. 25:20). Esau was also forty years old when he married his first wife, Judith (Gen. 26:34). Therefore, to insist that Ishmael should have been married in his teens is mere conjecture.

Ishmael and the Kaaba

Third, Abraham is supposed to have journeyed to Mecca, where he and his son, Ishmael, (not Isaac) established the Kaaba, which is a stone structure in the center of Islam’s most holy mosque. To this mosque, every Muslim is required to make a pilgrimage at least once in his life, as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The devout Muslim faces this Kaaba when he prays five times a day.

We covenanted with Abraham and Ishmael that they should sanctify my House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer) … And remember Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundation of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us: for thou art the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing” (Surah 2:125, 127).

While Surah 2 does not specify the location of the house of worship that Abraham and Ishmael supposedly built, Surah 3:96 makes reference to Bakka (or Makkah), which is (probably) Mecca in Saudi Arabia: “The first house (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka (Makkah), full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings” (Surah 3:96). Another passage mandates pilgrimage to this “sacred house”:

Behold, we gave the site to Abraham, of the (sacred) House, (saying), “Associate not anything (in worship) with me; and sanctify my house for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). And proclaim the pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways” (Surah 22:26-27).

If Abraham and Ishmael made a journey to Mecca to build a sacred house, the Bible is silent about it. In fact, such a journey is impossible to reconcile with the book of Genesis. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans (modern day Iraq) and commanded him to dwell in the land of Canaan. The Bible records two forays outside of the Promised Land, both of which were examples of Abraham’s spiritual weakness, not his faith. In Genesis 12:10, Abraham travelled without divine sanction to Egypt to escape a famine. In Egypt, Abraham sinned grievously by deceiving the Egyptians about his wife. In Genesis 20:1-2, again without divine sanction, Abraham journeyed to the land of Gerar, where he committed the same sin. Clearly, it was God’s will that Abraham remain in the land of Canaan as a pilgrim and stranger.

The distance between Ur and Jerusalem is approximately 2,900 km (or 1,800 miles). Since God commanded Abraham to dwell in Canaan, not to leave that land, the land that God promised to give him and his seed, why would Abraham leave Canaan in order to travel some 1,700 km (or 1,055 miles) southwards to Mecca in order to set up the “house of God,” and then return to live out his days in Canaan? Why would he do that when the Bible clearly teaches that Abraham erected altars in Canaan and when eventually God mandates his house to be built in Jerusalem, not in Mecca? (In the New Testament, of course, there is no fixed place for the worship of God: “The hour cometh,” said Jesus, “when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” [John 4:21]).

Conclusion

The Word of God is clear—God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans (and out of idolatry) and commanded him to sojourn in Canaan, which, apart from two brief departures from the land, he did. In Canaan, God promised Abraham a son, a son who would not be born as a result of the efforts of either Abraham or Sarah, but as a result of a miracle. Abraham believed God’s promise:

And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God: and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:19-22).

Ishmael was born as the carnal seed, not as the spiritual seed of promise. Therefore, when Ishmael expressed his enmity against Isaac, he had to be sent away, lest he share in Isaac’s inheritance: “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). With Ishmael gone, Abraham was tested to the limit, for God commanded him to sacrifice his only (remaining) and his only (truly legitimate) son, the child of the promise, even Isaac, the one through whom God would realize his promise of salvation for all nations. Abraham, having sustained the examination of his faith, was strengthened, and Isaac went on to be the one through whom Jesus Christ would come.

And all those who believe in Jesus Christ, as he is set forth in the gospel, are the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and they partake of all the spiritual blessings of salvation that are found in Christ alone.

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ: that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14).

One final point: the Muslim will object that the Qur’an is true and that the Bible (Genesis, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, etc.) has been corrupted. Nevertheless, to corrupt the Bible in this way would require a corruption of the entire text of the Old Testament, for God is consistently called “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob” and never “the God of Ishmael.” In addition, for a Muslim to believe that the text of the Bible is hopelessly and irretrievably corrupt requires him to reject the Qur’an, for the Qur’an teaches that Allah gave the law and the gospel and even encourages the reader to find the truth in those sources:

It is he who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and he sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and he sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong)(Surah 3:3).

Let the people of the gospel judge by what Allah hath revealed therein. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better) than those that rebel. To thee we sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the truth that hath come to thee (Surah 5:47-48).

If Allah sent the law (including the book of Genesis) and the gospel (the four gospels accounts were written centuries before Mohammed’s birth), and “guarded [them] in safety,” how could they be corrupt—how could they be corrupt already in Mohammed’s day (c. 609-632)? And if they were (already) corrupt, how could the people of the gospel “judge by what Allah hath revealed therein”? If, on the other hand, the (alleged) corruption took place later, we have plenty of ancient manuscript sources of the text of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which date to centuries before Mohammed. Either way, the Qur’an compels the reader to consult the Bible for truth!

That is what we urge the reader of this blog to do—seek in the Bible, which is the word of God, for the truth concerning Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, and, most importantly, Jesus Christ!

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Read the other articles in this series.

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Islam (16)

It has been several months since I addressed Islam on the blog (blog post Islam 15 dated May 25), so it is time to pick up the subject again. In this blog post, I intend to address the differences between Christianity and Islam with respect to Abraham, Isaac, and especially Ishmael. I will divide the material into two blog posts: first, I will explain the Bible’s teaching; and, in the next blog post (DV), I will contrast this with the teaching of Islam.

Isaac and Ishmael

We begin with what the Bible teaches on this subject, before we contrast this with the teaching of the Qur’an. God called Abraham, who at that time was named Abram, and his wife Sarah (or Sarai) out of Ur of the Chaldees in Genesis 12:1-2. Over the course of many years, God repeatedly promised a son to childless Abraham (and to his barren wife); indeed, God promised him numerous descendants, centered on a promised seed (Gen. 12:2, 7; 13:15; 15:4-6, 18; 17:1-7, 15-17, 21; 18:9-15; 21:1-8).

Notice two things about God’s promise to Abraham. First, God had a definite son in mind, a son whose father would be Abraham (“he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir” [Gen. 15:4]), and whose mother would be Sarah (“I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son” [Gen. 18:10]). Second, although Abraham did have other sons, namely Ishmael (Gen. 16:16), born when Abraham was 86 years old, and the sons of Keturah, born after the death of Sarah (Gen. 25:1-4), only Isaac was the son of the promise, the true heir, and the one in whom God established his covenant:

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him (Gen. 17:18-19).

But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year (Gen. 17:21).

in Isaac shall thy seed be called (Gen. 21:12).

Ishmael, therefore, is not the promised son with whom God establishes his covenant. This is true for two reasons. First, Ishmael is not the offspring of Abraham and Sarah, but of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. Second, and more seriously, Ishmael is the product of the foolish and sinful impatience of Abraham and Sarah: instead of waiting for the promised miracle, the aged couple attempt to produce the promised child by a work of the flesh. This is unacceptable to God because God must receive the glory by fulfilling his promise in his time. The birth of a child in such a sinful manner leads to tension in Abraham’s household with the result that Hagar flees with the child from the wrath of Sarah (see Gen. 16:4-7).

After the birth of Isaac, who is the promised child, Ishmael, who is not the promised child, is cast out of the household because Sarah sees him mocking Isaac on the day that Isaac’s weaning is celebrated (Gen. 21:9). If Isaac was weaned at about two years of age, Ishmael was a teenager at the time. (Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born; Abraham was 99 years old when Ishmael was circumcised at thirteen years of age; Abraham was 100 years old at the birth of his son Isaac, which means that Ishmael was fourteen years old at the time; therefore, when Isaac was aged two, Ishmael was sixteen or so).

After Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s house, Genesis 21 describes how God miraculously supplied their needs in the wilderness, and relates God’s promise to Hagar to make of Ishmael “a great nation” (Gen. 21:18). Ishmael grew up away from Abraham’s household (“in the wilderness of Paran”) and married an Egyptian. Later in Genesis 25, the Bible relates the generations of Ishmael as “twelve princes” (Gen. 25:12-17), and records Ishmael’s death at the age of 137 years (Gen. 25:17). The rest of the history of the Bible, however, focuses on Isaac’s, and not Ishmael’s, descendants: Jacob (Israel) and his children, through whom the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, came.

Therefore, while it is true that Ishmael was a son of Abraham, and even blessed by God (Gen. 27:20), although God did not bless Ishmael’s generations, Ishmael was not the promised seed. After Ishmael was cast out, Abraham had no further dealings with him (except that Ishmael was present at his father’s burial).

The Sacrifice of Isaac

This is important to remember when we consider the history recorded in Genesis 22. We do not know how much time elapsed between the expulsion of Ishmael (Gen. 21:10-13) and the sacrifice of Isaac, but the Bible does mention “many days” (Gen. 21:34). It is very likely that years, perhaps even decades, had passed before Abraham was put to the test to sacrifice Isaac. The Bible calls Isaac a “lad” (Gen. 22:5, 12), but the word so translated has a wide range of meaning. Certainly, Isaac was old enough to have a conversation with his father (Gen. 22:7-8) and old enough to carry a substantial amount of wood for the burnt offering (Gen. 22:6). He was not a two-year old or a toddler, but a teenager or older.

In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, whom God calls Abraham’s “only son” (vv. 2, 16), as a burnt offering. To this the Muslim objects, “Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Abraham had another son, his firstborn, Ishmael.” (In fact, as we shall see, Muslims generally believe that Ishmael, not Isaac, was sacrificed some years before Isaac was even born!). Nevertheless, Isaac is rightly called Abraham’s only son for two reasons. First, Isaac was the only son left in Abraham’s household. Ishmael, although he was still alive, lived away from Abraham. Therefore, it was obvious to Abraham that, when God spoke of his “only son,” de did not have Ishmael in mind. God did not tell Abraham to seek out Ishmael and sacrifice him. (Ishmael would have been a married man by then with children of his own living in the wilderness). In fact, Abraham might well have been relieved if that had been God’s meaning, for then he could have sacrificed Ishmael and spared Isaac (whom he loved). Second, and more importantly, Isaac, not Ishmael, was the son of the promise, the true heir, and the one through whom Christ should come. That is what made God’s command so painful, and that is why it was such a difficult trial for the aged patriarch:

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen. 22:2).

This is also the New Testament perspective of Isaac. In Romans 9 the apostle Paul explains that God’s promise to save “Israel” does not mean the salvation of every single Israelite, for “they which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Rom. 9:8). Therefore, to use Paul’s language, Ishmael, or his descendants, did not count. In verse 7, the apostle writes, “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, in Isaac shall they seed be called.” Therefore, God did not call Ishmael, or, at least de did not call Ishmael’s descendants, to salvation. This is good news for the Gentiles because physical descent from Abraham neither guarantees salvation nor excludes a person from salvation. The issue is not, “Are you a physical descendant of Abraham?” but “Are you in Christ?” And, praise be to God, one can be “in Christ” even if one has no Jewish blood whatsoever, for the Gentiles are included in the salvation of Christ!

In Galatians 3, Paul identifies the “seed of Abraham” not as Ishmael, not even as Isaac, but as Jesus Christ: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). Since Christ is Abraham’s seed, all those who are “in Christ” (whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, bond or free) are also Abraham’s seed: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). In chapter 4, Paul contrasts Ishmael and Isaac—Ishmael, the son of the “bondwoman” (slave), is “born after the flesh” (Gal. 4:23), while Isaac, the son of the “freewoman” (Sarah), is “by promise” (Gal. 4:23). The one “born after the flesh” (Ishmael) persecuted the one “born after the Spirit” (Isaac), which, says Paul, is still the case today—unregenerate, unbelieving people (even unregenerate, unbelieving, religious people) persecute God’s regenerate, believing children (see Gal. 4:29). Therefore, concludes Paul, the Galatians (Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ, and, therefore, Christians in all ages) “as Isaac was, are the children of promise” (Gal. 4:28).

The Significance of the Sacrifice

Given the importance of Isaac—and not Ishmael—as the promised son through whom the Messiah, Jesus Christ, came, the writer to the Hebrews writes the following about the events in Genesis 22:

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promise offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called, accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure (Heb. 11:17-19).

Isaac was not merely the beloved son of a doting father, the son of his old age. Isaac was much more significant—in Isaac Abraham had all the promises of salvation. In Isaac Abraham saw Jesus Christ! When he laid Isaac on the altar, he sacrificed (and showed himself willing to sacrifice) all hope of salvation, and he prefigured what God himself would do in giving his Son on the cross for the sins of his people. The main difference is, of course, that for Jesus there was no substitute. A voice cried from heaven to spare Isaac, but no voice cried from heaven to spare Jesus. Instead, Jesus willingly bore the wrath and curse of God against the sins of his people on the cross, the punishment that Abraham, Isaac, and all of God’s people deserve to bear.

What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things? Who shall say anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us (Rom. 8:31-34).

Next time, DV, we shall examine what Muslims believe about Abraham and his sons—they believe that Abraham sacrificed Ishmael, and not Isaac!

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Read the other articles in this series.

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Answering an Atheist: A Theology of Suffering

Good evening [...]

Christianity has a specific theology of suffering, which is absent in atheism, for in atheism suffering is basically meaningless. In fact, in atheism everything is meaningless: people might try to find meaning, but there is no real, objective meaning to anything, if, as atheism teaches, all events are random. Our lives were not planned if there is no God who planned them. Our lives are simply the result of the random collision of molecules. That is what I mean by meaningless. If you want to believe that the random collision of molecules that brought about your existence has meaning, you are free to do so. Nevertheless, such a position is incoherent and illogical.

God has a purpose for suffering. We do not always know the exact purpose in every case. If we did, the Bible would be intolerably long. The Bible gives guidelines and principles. I crave your indulgence while I seek to explain.

First, God has inflicted suffering on the creation, and especially mankind, because of sin. Death exists in the world because of sin. And the miseries of this life that lead to death occur because of sin. Because all people (including Christians) are sinners, all people (including Christians) are subject to suffering. Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin and foolishness. (God does not always spare us from the natural consequences of our actions). Sometimes we suffer because of the sins of others. In those cases, God uses the sins of others for his own purposes, which are often hidden from us. In reality, however, there is no such individual as an “innocent victim.” As far as our relationship to the Creator is concerned, we are all guilty, as I have explained before by the doctrine of the fall. Therefore, whatever suffering we experience in this life, whether in our bodies or in our souls, we deserve from the hand of a righteous and just God. The Bible is full of examples of God punishing people for their sins, whether directly or by a human instrument. For example, God drowned the population of earth in Noah’s day, and he rained fire and brimstone upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God did that, he was punishing the wicked as an example of what all men deserve. Jesus addressed a similar issue when he was asked about a terrible atrocity that had taken place in Jerusalem:

There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:1-4)

Notice how Jesus responds. First, he denies that the victims of that atrocity (a violent bloodbath caused by Pilate’s soldiers) were greater sinners than the other people of Jerusalem; second, he denies that those who were crushed under the rubble of a tower were greater sinners than the other people of Jerusalem; and third, he warns that worse judgment is to come so that the people must repent (turn from their sins) or they will perish. A similar statement could be made about people who are caught up in violence and natural or manmade disasters today: they are no better or worse than those who were spared; therefore, you better repent or you will perish in the judgment. 

In fact, the only truly innocent person who ever suffered was Jesus: he did not deserve to suffer and die, and nobody suffered as much as he did. But the beautiful truth of the gospel is that he was willing to die for sinners who did and do deserve to die. His death on the cross pays for the sins of God’s people, so that they, even though they still suffer in this life, will not perish in hell forever. 

Second, the Bible teaches very clearly and without any embarrassment that God not only “allows” suffering to happen, but that he sends it. A god who is not in perfect control of all events, including events, even sinful acts, that cause suffering, is not the God of the Bible. Such a god is not sovereign; therefore, such a god is not worthy of worship. The people in the Bible believed and understood this. They attributed all events, great and small, good and bad, to the hand of God. Christians who believe the Bible and take its message seriously believe this too. Two examples from the Old Testament will suffice. Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob, suffered terribly: his brothers sold him into slavery into Egypt; and he was falsely accused and imprisoned. But look at how he understood it, for later he said to his brothers:

I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life . . . And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?  But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive (Genesis 45:4b-5; 50:19-20).

Notice what Joseph does: first, he does not deny that his brothers’ deeds were evil, for they “meant evil;” but second, he looks beyond those deeds to the hand of God: God, who is sovereign over all things, so directed the lives of Joseph and his brothers to bring Joseph to Egypt. Joseph is not angry or bitter against God for this: he worships God and acknowledges God’s great wisdom in so directing events in his life. God is blameless, for God has directed the sinful deeds of men without being corrupted by them. God has not changed. Even now, he is directing all events, even the sins of men.

The second example is Job, who is legendary for his suffering. In one day, Job’s property was plundered, Job’s ten children died, and Job was afflicted with a terrible disease. The culprits were marauding bandits and Satan, who used a wind to destroy the house of Job’s children and smote Job with painful boils. Nevertheless, Job looks beyond the human, natural, and Satanic causes, and sees the hand of God. Job’s response is one of faith:

Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly (Job 1:20-22).

Had Job seen only the instruments that God used, he might have angrily cursed the thieves who stole his cattle; he might have cursed “his bad luck” that the wind had blown down his children’s house; or he might have cursed Satan who sent the boils. Worse, he might have cursed God, which is what Satan wanted him to do, and which is what Satan expected him to do. Instead, Job worshipped and blessed God

Job’s faith in God was sorely tested, for even his wife encouraged him to curse God. 

Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die. But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).

Job sharply rebukes his wife for her foolish words. His argument is clear—we receive good from God’s hand (as Job said earlier, “the Lord gave”). Therefore, we ought also to receive evil (as Job said earlier, “the Lord hath taken away”). Job understood that all things, whether good health or sickness, whether riches or poverty, whether children or childlessness or bereavement, whether life or death, come from God. The Christian who takes the Bible seriously believes the same thing. The unbeliever, who does not believe in God and certainly does not trust in him, is at a loss when tragedy happens to him. As a Christian pastor, I can come to my congregation when they face a terrible affliction and can remind them that the affliction is from God. If it is from God, there must be a reason behind it. To the Christian I can give the comfort that God uses affliction for the good of his children. There is no such comfort for the unbeliever who simply has to follow the philosophy of the atheist standard bearer, Richard Dawkins:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). 

Third, the Bible teaches that God uses suffering for the good of his children. Now, let me be very clear—not all people are God’s children. Unbelievers are not God’s children. Only believers are God’s children. Jesus taught this when he confronted unbelievers in Israel: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (John 8:44). Unbelievers, therefore, have no reason to believe that God uses suffering for their good. Quite the contrary: God uses both prosperity and affliction for the destruction of the wicked. All the events in the lives of the wicked and unbelieving serve God's purpose to destroy them: "The Lord hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4). That is a terrifying thought, one which should make the unbeliever repent, lest he be destroyed in God's anger. Nevertheless, the New Testament is full of examples of how evil serves God's people, but one will suffice: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). If all things work together for good for God’s children, nothing is excluded. Disease, persecution, bereavement, and death, and everything else—these work together for good. No wonder that the apostle Paul can make such a triumphant conclusion:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39)

In fact, according to the New Testament suffering prepares the Christian for future glory, so that the Christian is able, even through the tears, to rejoice in hope. 

And if [we are] children, then [we are] heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:17-18).

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

The Christian certainly feels pain when he is afflicted—if he did not, it would not be affliction. When his body is ravaged with disease; when he loses a beloved family member to death; or when he is persecuted, as is the case with many Christians in various parts of the world, he weeps, and he even cries out to God. Nevertheless, he does not weep without hope. God answers his prayers, not always with the deliverance he expects. Often God answers by giving the Christian strength to continue to confess God’s goodness in a hostile and often perplexing world. God gives the persecuted the strength to face death. The atheist weeps without hope, for the best that he can hope for is that his suffering will come to an end at death, perhaps alleviated with modern medicine. However, such a hope is in vain, for when he dies without God his worst (and eternal) sufferings are about to begin! 

That is why I urge you to believe in Jesus Christ. By his death and resurrection he has conquered death. Only in Christ can we make sense of suffering. And only in Christ are sinners, who deserve to suffer forever, delivered and brought into everlasting glory. One day, we must all die. We might die peacefully in our sleep, or of a horrible disease, or even in a violent manner. God has many instruments by which to call us out of this life. But then what? For the believer, death is a passageway into eternal life; but for the unbeliever, death is a trapdoor into hell. Only Jesus makes the difference. I would love to tell you more about Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.

Cordially,

Rev. McGeown

Limerick Reformed Fellowship

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (15)

In our last blog post on April 21 (blog post: Islam 14), we compared the soteriology of Islam with Christianity, that is, we looked at Islam’s doctrine of salvation. Like all religions, Islam offers its adherents salvation from this world of sin and misery. Some religions offer a “better place,” while others offer a higher form of consciousness. Buddhism, for example, offers the idea of nirvana, which is release from the endless cycles of reincarnation through which believers must pass on the way to full enlightenment.

Islam offers “paradise” (or heaven) and warns against “hellfire,” although Islam’s offer is conditional and uncertain. Since works are required to enter paradise, and since entrance into paradise depends ultimately on the (somewhat capricious) will of Allah on the Day of Judgment, no Muslim knows whether he or she shall enter paradise or hellfire. Assurance of salvation is, therefore, impossible. Such is the misery of all who trust in some form of salvation by works.

We noticed last time that Islam’s way of salvation is to follow, more or less faithfully, the way of the five pillars of Islam, the chief pillar of which is the shahada, or the confession that Allah is the only true God and Mohammed is his messenger or prophet. We also explained that the shahada is false, for the triune God of scripture is the only true God, while Mohammed is a false prophet. Therefore, the whole superstructure of Islam, which rests on that one central pillar, falls, much as the temple of Dagon fell when Samson leaned upon its pillars (Judges 16:29-30).

Of course, to attack the shahada in one’s first conversation with a Muslim is unwise and counterproductive, as it will close the door to any further interaction and simply offend the Muslim. We have not done so until blog posts 14-15, because we took the time to lay out very carefully the Christian confession concerning the Trinity, the deity and sonship of Christ, the incarnation, the two natures of Christ, the nature and necessity of the atonement, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. An aggressive, iconoclastic form of witnessing might work on the internet where you want to impress your friends, but it will not help you win a hearing from a coworker or neighbor. And if your motive in witnessing (online or elsewhere) is to impress your friends, then please do not try to witness to a Muslim neighbor. Your motive in witnessing should be the glory of God and the salvation of your neighbor, not theological one-upmanship or the accumulation of notches on your debating belt!

We have presented the truth of Christianity to our Muslim neighbor (or this series of blog posts has equipped us to do so). The differences between the two theologies have been clearly set forth. Our Muslim neighbor has even been able to comprehend and answer correctly the questions of our quiz (see blog post, Islam 12, January 27). Intellectually, the Muslim now understands Christianity. Perhaps, intellectually, the Muslim has a better grasp of Christianity than many Christians (on topics such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, etc.). He sees clearly, much more clearly than before, the stark differences between the Islamic view of Jesus (Isa) and the Jesus presented in the Bible.

What must the Muslim do now? Is an intellectual appreciation of the differences sufficient? The answer is simple: he must repent and believe. In fact, the answer pertains to all unbelievers, whether atheists, agnostics, religious unbelievers, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. All unbelievers, no matter what form of unbelief they have, must repent and believe. That is the Biblical, evangelical, and Reformed answer. Unless the Muslim repents and believes, he will simply perish as a more knowledgeable unbeliever.

Because Muslims are somewhat foreign to us, we think that they are a special class. They are not: they are sinners; therefore, they have the same need as any other sinner, to be saved from sin and death. The way of salvation for the Muslim is the same as for any other sinner: the way of repentance and faith.

Repentance is a turning from sin. It is fundamentally a spiritual turning, for it begins in the heart. A repentant person has a change of mind. The Greek word translated repentance in the New Testament, metanoia, simply means “a change of mind.” The repentant person has a change of mind about God: where before he was indifferent or hostile toward God or where before he worshipped a false god, he now understands the truth about God and turns toward him. The repentant person has a change of mind about sin: what he once thought was good and pleasant, he now sees as wicked and displeasing to God. The repentant person has a change of mind about himself: where before he viewed himself as a good person or perhaps imperfect, now he sees himself as a wicked sinner in desperate need of salvation and he will not rest until he finds salvation outside of himself in Jesus Christ. The repentant person has a change of mind about Jesus Christ: before he entertained all kinds of unbiblical notions about Jesus, but now he sees him as the eternal Son of God, the only Savior, and he gladly receives him as Savior and submits to him as Lord. In short, repentance is a change of mind in which a person is sorry for his sins and turns from them.

To use our example, the Muslim must repent. We must call him to repent. He must no longer believe what he once did. He must stop living as he once did. He must turn from Allah, Mohammed, and the Qur’an, and turn to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Bible, regardless of the consequences. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). “Repent ye therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). “Ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God: and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

The truth that repentance is the gift of God, which he works in the hearts of his people (Acts 5:31; 11:18), does not annul the truth that repentance is an activity of man to which God commands the unbeliever. God will condemn the unbeliever for not repenting, whether he is able to repent or not. We are not hyper-Calvinists: we believe that God calls everyone, everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). God calls your Muslim neighbor to repent. God calls you to repent, and if you are a Christian, you will repent daily. While God works repentance in you by the Spirit through the Word, God does not repent for you: you must repent and so must your Muslim neighbor.

The second thing that your Muslim neighbor must do is to believe. He must exercise faith. To the Muslim neighbor, we say, as Paul did to the Philippian jailor, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). We must not be shy about saying that. Especially, the minister must not be shy about preaching that. It is the call of the gospel. Notice its form—it is an imperative verb (a command), “believe;” followed by a promise, “And thou shalt be saved.” God issues a serious command—“Believe! Believe in my Son!” God adds to that a promise—“And thou shalt be saved.” However, there is a definite relationship between the command and the promise. God does not say (and nor do we), “God promises to you that, if you believe, you shall be saved.” Instead, God (1) issues the command, “Believe,” (2) states the promise, “And thou shalt be saved,” and (3) identifies the recipients of the promise as those who obey the command, believers. This is the pure Reformed theology from Dordt:

Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel (Canons 2:5).

For a Muslim to believe is really the same as for anyone to believe. He must hold for truth everything that God has revealed in his Word. He must especially believe what the Bible reveals about Jesus Christ. Moreover, he must trust in the crucified Jesus Christ, repudiating everything in which he has heretofore trusted for his salvation. The Muslim, for example, must repudiate the Qur’an—he cannot believe what the Qur’an teaches about Jesus and what the Bible teaches about Jesus, for those two testimonies are mutually exclusive. The Muslim must repudiate the hope that he has heretofore placed in his good works, in the five pillars of Islam, for example, for his salvation. Instead, he must come empty-handed to Jesus, trusting only in the perfect obedience and atoning sufferings of Christ (Christ’s righteousness) to cover all of his sins. The Christian witness must explain the beauties of Jesus Christ to the Muslim, so that the Muslim (by the grace of God) sees that Jesus is the only and perfect Savior. And the Muslim neighbor must be urged to believe in that Jesus.

It is true, of course, that true, saving faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29), and that by it we are united to Jesus Christ and made partakers of all of Christ’s benefits. Nevertheless, the Muslim must still believe, for faith is also an activity to which God calls all men. While it is true that the unbeliever, whether Muslim or not, cannot believe, God still commands him to believe. God calls your Muslim neighbor to believe; God calls you to believe; and if you are Christian, you do believe daily.

Faith for the Muslim will be costly, perhaps especially costly, as we saw last time. But God’s promise to the believing sinner, whether Muslim or not, is especially precious: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36). “He that believeth in me [Jesus], though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31).

Reader, have you believed in Jesus Christ? Believe in him. He that believes in him shall never be ashamed.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (14)

So far in our study of Islam, we have focused on theology (who God is—and especially the doctrine of the Trinity) and Christology (who Christ—and especially the Person of Jesus as the Son of God, His relationship to the Father, His incarnation, sufferings, death, and resurrection from the dead). In our last blog post on February 23 (Islam 13), we considered the essential gospel truth of the resurrection of Jesus.

However, it is not enough that a Muslim (or anyone else to whom we witness) has an intellectual understanding of these truths, but to be saved he must believe them. With the subject of faith, we come to another important subject—the doctrine of salvation.

In Islam, salvation consists of the Five Pillars, which are (1) confession (of faith in Allah and in Mohammed, his prophet) or the Shahada; (2) prayer (usually five times a day—dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and night); (3) almsgiving (or Zakat); (4) fasting in the month of Ramadan; and (5) the pilgrimage to Mecca (Or Hajj). Of these five pillars, the first (confession) is fundamental, for it makes a person a Muslim: to become a Muslim one must say (preferably in Arabic), “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadur rasoolu Allah.” This translates into English as, “There is no (true) God but Allah and Mohammed is the Prophet (Messenger) of Allah.” By saying the Shahada with conviction, a person is converted to Islam.

Having recited the Shahada, one enters a life of seeking to attain unto salvation by obedience to Allah through prayers, devotional exercises, and good works (as defined in the Qur’an and in Sharia Law). Islam, therefore, is essentially a works-based religion—there is no room for grace in Islam.

Consider these texts from the Qur’an:

“If any do deeds of righteousness—be they male or female—and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them” (Surah 4:124).

“But those who believe and work righteousness—no burden do We place on any soul, but that which it can bear—they will be Companions of the Garden, therein to dwell (forever)” (Surah 7:42).

“But those who believe and work righteousness, and humble themselves before their Lord—they will be Companions of the Garden, to dwell therein for aye” (Surah 11:23).

“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure; and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions” (Surah 16:97).

“But any that (in this life) had repented, believed, and worked righteousness, will have hopes to be among those who achieve salvation” (Surah 28:67).

Christianity, unlike Islam, is not a works-based religion, but the only grace-based religion. Every other religion teaches people to work (at least partly) for their salvation, while Christianity announces the good news that salvation is entirely the work of God, given freely by his grace, and received by faith alone. Grace is God’s favor toward sinners, a favor that is free, that does not come to us because we deserve it, or because we earned it, or because we did anything to cause it or to maintain it. That grace is seen in the sending of Jesus Christ into the world in the incarnation to suffer the penalty of sin and death due to us for our sins. Nothing in us motivated God to send his Son to be crucified for us—God’s motive was his free grace for sinners.

Salvation must be by grace alone because all people are sinners. As sinners they are not merely flawed or imperfect, but as sinners they are guilty, corrupt, and depraved. We call this truth the doctrine of “total depravity,” which teaches that all people are so sinful that they are wholly inclined to all wickedness and incapable of any good. Therefore, a sinner cannot perform any good works in order to be saved. Sometimes, Christians will say, “You cannot perform any works that are perfect enough to please God and to satisfy his justice.” By that statement, they mean, “You can perform some good works, but they will always fall short of the perfection required by God.” However, the truth is worse than that—the unbeliever cannot perform any good works! All of the works that he performs—even the works that seem to be religious, charitable, helpful, and praiseworthy—are sins. (Of course, if he was irreligious, uncharitable, cruel, and base, he would sin even more). That is why to be saved we have to repudiate not only our obvious sins (the things of which we are ashamed; the things that we know constitute disobedience to God), but also our cherished “good works” (the things of which we are proud; the things that we think constitute obedience to God). In other words, salvation by works—and therefore Islam—is a complete non-starter! The same is true of every other religion—Buddhism, Hinduism, and even false Christianity, such as Romanism. Any religion, even if it seems to share some of the beliefs and practices of Christianity, that teaches any form of salvation by works is not Christianity, but a false religion in which there is no salvation.

“For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, the man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:10-13).

It is not possible, therefore, for a Muslim to trust in the Five Pillars of Islam and be saved, for the Five Pillars are simply a form of salvation by works.

His first pillar, the confession, is a lie—an idolatrous lie. Allah is not the only true God—the triune God of the Bible is the only true God. Belief in the deity of Christ, for example, is not optional. Jesus declared, “All men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him” (John 5:23). Muslims claim to honor Jesus as one of the prophets, but Jesus requires (demands) honor equal to the Father. Jesus is not one of the prophets, but he is the Son of God. Elsewhere, Jesus warns, “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). “I am he” is better translated simply as “I am”—“if ye believe not that I am.” “I AM” is the divine name, as Exodus 3:14 reveals, “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Jesus claims the divine name again in John 8:58: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus did not say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” Adam, Abel, Seth, or Noah could have said that. The angels could have said that. Only Jesus can say, “Before Abraham was, I am,” because only he is the eternal, unchangeable I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Muslim must do what the Thessalonians did: “How ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

Of course, for a Muslim to repudiate the Shahada, so that he no longer says, “La ilaha illa Allah” (“There is no God but Allah”), but confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, as Thomas did, “And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), is nothing short of earth-shattering. For a Muslim to do so is for him to commit the unforgivable sin of Shirk, as we have seen before, the “sin” of associating others with Allah. Nevertheless, the Muslim must confess the truth concerning God and Christ to be saved. For a Muslim no longer to say, “Muhammadur rasoolu Allah” (“And Mohammed is his Prophet [Messenger]”), but to confess instead that Mohammed was a false prophet, is something that only the grace of God can cause a Muslim to do. Nevertheless, the Muslim must do this, for the teachings of Mohammed in the Qur’an and the Word of God (the Bible) are antithetical to one another.

No Muslim can view this as a light thing—and no Christian witness can treat this as a light thing. A Muslim convert to Christianity (an apostate in Islam) faces ostracism, rejection by family, disinheritance, and in some Islamic countries physical punishment and even death. Therefore, he must know what he is doing when he confesses Jesus as Lord. That is why we have carefully explained the truths concerning God and Christ before we reached this point. However, this is not new. In the Bible, those who confessed Jesus were persecuted. The persecutors were often family members, the community, and the religious leaders of the synagogue, and later the civil and religious authorities of the Roman Empire. Jesus is, however, uncompromising in his demands, something we comfortable Westerners with our “religious freedom,” “First Amendment Rights,” and “easy conversions” often forget:

“And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them, if any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-33).

Consider our Muslim friend—or any prospective convert. His wife says, “You must not confess Christ.” He must hate, repudiate, and reject his wife in order to follow Christ. His parents and his brethren fall before him on their knees begging him with tears not to repudiate Islam. He must hate, repudiate, and reject his parents and his brethren and their tears in order to confess Christ. The authorities threaten to arrest him for his confession of Christ. He must hate, repudiate, and reject his freedom and embrace a prison sentence in order to confess Christ. The judge sentences him to death, but offers clemency if he will recant his confession of Christ. He must hate, repudiate, and reject his own life and willingly submit to death if the alternative is to reject Christ.

Do not imagine that people are not forced to make that choice every day. Do we, from the comfort our Western homes, behind our keyboards, know anything of that? When our family tempts us to compromise (perhaps in something as simple as church membership), do we buckle under the pressure? Do not imagine, then, that it is easy for the Muslim to turn his back on the religion of his fathers and become a Christian.

Pray for our Muslim neighbours—pray that God would give them grace to see the beauty that is in Jesus Christ, the eternal, only begotten, incarnate Son of God. Pray that God would give them grace to repudiate all of their empty, dead, and corrupt works in order to have Christ. Pray that God would give them the courage to count the cost, take up the cross, and follow Christ. And pray that you, too, would have the grace to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. Our confession must be the Apostle Paul’s:

But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (13)

On January 13 (blog post: Islam 11), we considered the death of Jesus on the cross, explaining why only he is qualified to be the Mediator and substitute for his people. On February 2 (blog post: Islam 12: Christianity Quiz), we reviewed the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and sin and salvation.

Christianity would not be good news if Jesus had remained in the tomb. A dead Lord Jesus is neither Lord (for a Lord rules) nor Savior (remember: Jesus means Savior, and a dead Jesus cannot save). The Qur’an is somewhat ambivalent on the subject of the resurrection of Christ, for in the Qur’an the infant Jesus speaks from the cradle in defense of his mother:

“I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; and He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; so Peace is upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised to life (again)!” (Surah 19:30-33).

Elsewhere, Allah makes this promise to Jesus: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: then shall ye all return to me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute” (Surah 3:55).

Most Muslims, however, deny that Jesus died, and therefore they also deny that he rose from the dead. (The day of resurrection in Surah 3:55 probably refers to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, a belief shared by Muslims, Jews, and Christians, although obviously they do not agree on every aspect of that doctrine).

The Bible teaches emphatically and clearly that Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, in witnessing to a Muslim we must not end with the cross. The four gospel writers agree that Jesus rose from the dead, and although (without contradiction) they vary in the details, they teach the same basic truth.

First, Jesus rose from the dead in the body. At the point of Jesus’ death on the cross, his soul was separated from his body, which is the experience of all who undergo physical death (although Jesus is the only one who had the power [authority] to lay down his own life): “And Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost” (Mark 15:37); “And having said thus, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46); “And he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (John 19:30).

Jesus’ soul departed from his body and went to be with his Father in paradise: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” cried Jesus (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ body hung lifeless on the cross, and to prove that Jesus was really dead, a Roman soldier pierced his side with a spear: “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:34). Later, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus buried the lifeless body of Jesus in a tomb.

But Jesus’ death (with the separation of his body and soul) did not bring about the end of the incarnation. The human and divine natures in the one person of the Son of God were not separated. There was no severing of the hypostatic union. The Belgic Confession explains:

And though he hath by his resurrection given immortality to the same, nevertheless he hath not changed the reality of his human nature; forasmuch as our salvation and resurrection also depend on the reality of his body. But these two natures are so closely united in one person, that they were not separated even by his death. Therefore that which he, when dying, commended into the hands of his Father, was a real human spirit, departing from his body. But in the meantime the divine nature always remained united with the human, even when he lay in the grave. And the Godhead did not cease to be in him, any more than it did when he was an infant, though it did not so clearly manifest itself for a while.

While the dead body of Jesus lay in the tomb, it was still united to the person of Jesus, whose divine person was also still united to his human soul! (Although his human soul and body were separated, and are finite, his divine person is infinite and omnipresent). Nothing can separate the human and divine in Jesus—not even death!

On the third day, when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not rise as a disembodied spirit. At the point of his resurrection, his body and soul were reunited, and he rose in the body. His body was glorified as a real human body. We see that in his post-resurrection appearances in which, for example, he ate food and permitted his disciples to touch him: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have…And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them” (Luke 24:39, 42-43).

Second, Jesus’ resurrection was attested by many witnesses. These witnesses are significant because none of them expected him to rise from the dead. The women who came to anoint his body on the first day of the week expected to find a dead body. Mary Magdalene in particular was devastated not to find Jesus’ body: “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him” (John 20:2). The initial reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ resurrection was fear and even unbelief. Especially Thomas would not be convinced until he saw Jesus: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). On seeing Jesus, Thomas’ response was worship: “And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Not only did these same men boldly proclaim Christ’s resurrection, but they were so convinced about it that they were willing to die for the truth of it! The disciples were neither gullible fools nor deliberate deceivers. They knew that Jesus had risen because they were eyewitnesses of his resurrection!

Third, there are “many infallible proofs” of the resurrection. Apart from the compelling eyewitness accounts, we mention two: the empty tomb and the position of the grave clothes. Incontrovertible is the truth that on the third day, against all the expectations of his friends and enemies alike, the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. In addition, the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped were lying in the tomb intact. Grave robbers could not have left the grave clothes behind so neatly, and grave robbers do not unwrap bodies before they carry them away. Besides, no one had the motive, means or opportunity to steal the body, which was guarded by armed soldiers on the orders of the Roman governor!

Fourth, the resurrection is significant both for Jesus and for his people.

The resurrection was vindication and glory for Jesus. He had been condemned, but God, in raising him from the dead, attested that he is the Son of God. “[He was] declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead” (Rom. 1:4).

The resurrection proves that Jesus has conquered death. If Jesus had remained dead, we would have to conclude that death had permanently conquered him. And if that were the case, we would have no hope, for if Jesus could not conquer death for himself, neither can he conquer it for us.

The resurrection of Jesus is the way of eternal life for God’s people. Jesus died for sin, bearing in his body and soul the punishment due to the sins of his people. If Jesus did not rise, we can only conclude that he failed to satisfy the justice of God. Therefore, we are still in our sins. Paul writes,

And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept (I Corinthians 15:17-20).

Finally, because Jesus rose from the dead, we have the confidence that our bodies will also one day rise from the dead. That is the hope that a Christian has at the funeral of a believing loved one, a hope of which the unbeliever is altogether devoid.

That is the Christian gospel—the Son of God became a man; the Son of God was made under the law whose curse he suffered when he died on the cross; the Son of God was buried; and the Son of God rose again from the dead, triumphant over death!

The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed (Romans 10:8-11).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam 12: Christianity Quiz

We interrupt the series of blog posts on Islam. If you have been following, and if you have comprehended the blog posts so far, you, and hopefully your Muslim contacts, should be able to answer these questions. Quiz yourselves and your families, especially your teenagers in Heidelberg/Essentials catechism class. How well do you understand the Christian faith? Could you prove these important teachings from scripture? 

Part 1: the Trinity

TRUE OR FALSE?

  1. Christians believe in three gods?
  2. Christians believe that the Son of God is a creature?
  3. Christians believe that there are three Creators?
  4. Christians believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one person?
  5. Christians believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three beings?
  6. Christians believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each one third of God?
  7. Christians believe that when Jesus was on the earth, there was no God in heaven?
  8. Christians believe that Mary is a god?
  9. Christians believe that the Father came before the Son and the Holy Spirit?
  10. Christians believe that the Father and the Holy Spirit have physical bodies?
  11. Christians believe the Father first created the Son, who then helped him create the world?
  12. Christians believe that the Father and the Son created the Holy Spirit?
  13. Christians worship only the Father, and do not worship the Son or the Holy Spirit?
  14. Christians believe that the Father adopted the Son at his baptism in the river Jordan, at which point he became God's Son?
  15. Christians believe that Jesus became the Son of God when he was born into the world?
  16. Christians believe that to become a father, God took a wife through whom he bore a son?

 

Part 2: The Incarnation

TRUE OR FALSE?

  1. Christians believe that when the Son of God became a man he was no longer God’s Son?
  2. Christians believe that during his life on earth the Son possessed no divine attributes?
  3. Christians believe that the Son of God was always human, even before the incarnation?
  4. Christians believe that because Mary is the mother of Jesus, she should be worshipped?
  5. Christians believe that the human nature of Jesus consists only of a human body, but not of a human soul?
  6. Christians believe that because Jesus is human and divine, he is or has two persons?
  7. Christians believe that Jesus has one nature?
  8. Christians believe that the qualities of one nature also belong to the other nature in Jesus? For example, Christians believe that the body of Jesus is omnipotent and omnipresent, like his divine nature?
  9. Christians believe that, because Jesus was hungry, thirsty and tired, he was not really God?
  10. Christians believe that, because Jesus suffered and died, he was not really God?
  11. Christians believe that, because Jesus performed miracles, understood the secret thoughts of men, and was worshipped, he was not really human?
  12. Christians believe that Jesus did not really have a human nature; he just seemed to?
  13. Christians believe that the human nature of Jesus was corrupted with sin?
  14. Christians believe that Jesus lived a perfect life of obedience and that he never sinned?
  15. Christians believe that, as a human being, Jesus was obligated to keep God’s Law?
  16. Christians believe that the Son of God on earth prayed to God?

 

Part 3: Sin and Salvation

TRUE OR FALSE?

  1. Christians believe that God tolerates sin and turns a blind eye to it?
  2. Christians believe that God only punishes “serious” sins such as murder or adultery?
  3. Christians believe that the penalty for sin is death?
  4. Christians believe in total depravity, which means that man is totally corrupt, unable to do anything good, and inclined to all evil?
  5. Christians believe that the sin which Adam committed in the Garden affected only Adam?
  6. Christians believe that all human beings are born good, but they become sinful because of their environment?
  7. Christians believe that it is possible to do enough good works in order to earn salvation?
  8. Christians believe that God accepts a work as truly “good” if it is sincere?
  9. Christians believe that a truly good work must be done out of faith to God’s glory?
  10. Christians believe that, because sinners could not save themselves, the Son came to be the Savior?
  11. Christians believe that Jesus obeyed the Law of God in the place of his people because they could not perfectly obey it themselves?
  12. Christians believe that Jesus carried the penalty of the Law of God in the place of his people because they could not carry that penalty themselves?
  13. Christians believe that the penalty that Jesus carried is the wrath (anger) and curse of God?
  14. Christians believe that the Father forced Jesus to carry that penalty against his will?
  15. Christians believe only Jesus was qualified to carry that penalty because he is God in human flesh?

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For the answers to these questions, visit the Islam 11 blog post.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (11)

A Review of the Differences 

In our study of Islam, we have noticed that the two religions are diametrically opposed to one another.

First, Islam arose after Christianity—Mohammed was born in 570 AD, centuries after the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the early church (c. 325-451 AD). In a certain sense, Islam can be called a truly anti-Christian religion, in that it developed in opposition to Christianity (although, as we have noted, Mohammed in his Qur’an was really attacking a caricature of Christianity).

Second, Islam’s Theology, or doctrine of God, is diametrically opposed to Christianity—the Islamic god Allah is a Unitarian deity, transcendent above the creation, and lacking the eternal fellowship of life and love of the triune God of sacred scripture. The cardinal doctrine of Islam is tawhid or the absolute, indivisible oneness of Allah, and the cardinal, unforgivable sin of Islam is shirk, the sin of joining or associating others with Allah. Christianity teaches God’s oneness (there is one God or one divine being or essence) and God’s eternal threeness (for He exists or subsists in three, distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those three persons are co-equal, co-eternal, and co-essential or consubstantial).

Third, Islam’s Anthropology, or doctrine of man, is diametrically opposed to Christianity—Islam views man as essentially good, albeit prone to evil, and rejects the doctrine of original sin or inherent depravity, whereas Reformed, biblical Christianity views man as totally depraved, needing divine grace to deliver him from sin and death. In many ways, therefore, Islam is close to Pelagianism, which also teaches the inherent goodness of mankind without the need of divine grace, a heresy rejected by the church roughly a century before Mohammed’s birth.

Fourth, Islam’s Christology, or doctrine of Christ, is diametrically opposed to Christianity—Islam views Jesus Christ as one of Allah’s greatest prophets, second only to Mohammed. The Islamic Jesus (called Isa in the Qur’an) is virgin born and he performed miracles (even as a child). The Islamic Jesus is in no sense divine, but is a creature subject to the lordship of Allah. Therefore, Islam has no concept of the Incarnation or of the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ. Moreover, Islam repudiates any notion that Jesus is the Son of God, for Allah cannot have a son according to Islam’s understanding of God. Since Islam rejects a divine, incarnate Savior, Islam also rejects the atonement of Christ (both the need for it and the possibility of it), and the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Most Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified, but a switch occurred at the last moment to spare Jesus the indignity of the cross. Christianity teaches that Jesus willingly suffered for the sins of his people in order to deliver them from sin and death, which sufferings are efficacious for the salvation of God’s church.

Fifth, Islam’s Soteriology, or doctrine of salvation, is diametrically opposed to Christianity—Islam views man as imperfect, but savable. Salvation in Islam is by the performance of good deeds, whether almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage. In Islam, salvation depends on the outcome of the “scales” on the great Day of Judgment: “Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will attain salvation: But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in Hell will they abide” (Surah 23:102-103). Christianity teaches that man is lost and undone, and that Jesus came to seek and to save those who were lost. Therefore, salvation is by grace alone, a concept altogether foreign to Islam. In Christianity, salvation from the beginning (regeneration) to the end (glorification) is entirely the work of God. The Christian does not trust in good works, because his best works are imperfect. Instead, he trusts in the works of Jesus (his obedience, suffering, and death on his behalf), and he performs good works out of a thankful heart, which has been renewed through the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Muslim’s Soteriology drives him to seek to accrue sufficient good works for the Day of Judgment. Nevertheless, the Muslim can never have assurance of the favor of Allah, for who can know whether his “scales” will balance on the Last Day? The Christian’s Soteriology causes him to enjoy peace with God because he knows that all of his sins have been forgiven through the shedding of Christ’s blood.

Given the stark differences between the two religions on the most basic and fundamental issues of truth (Who is God? Who is man? Who is Christ? What is salvation?), it is astounding that many teach today that Islam and Christianity are basically the same. They are not, and we do our Muslim neighbor no favors by pretending that they are. However, we also do not vilify or demonize our Muslim neighbor—he is as lost in his sin as our unbelieving atheist, Jewish, or even nominally Christian neighbor. Instead, in love, we seek gently and patiently to explain to him the only way of salvation in Jesus Christ.

 

Jesus: The Only Substitute

In our last blog post on Islam (November 28, 2016), we ended with the following “dilemma” (a dilemma for us, not a dilemma for God. God does not experience dilemmas):

The sinner cannot pay the penalty for his own sin. If he does, he perishes everlastingly.
God will not clear the guilty. If he did, he would be unjust.

Is there, then, anyone who can pay the penalty of sin for the sinner?

The answer, we said, was that God provides a substitute, his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

A substitute is one who stands in the place of another and does for another what he cannot do for himself. A biblical term similar to substitute is the idea of “surety.” A surety is one who assumes the responsibilities and duties of another. If the other person fails in his obligations, the surety fulfills the obligations for him. Jesus is called the surety in Hebrews 7:22: “By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.”

The obligation that comes to every human being is to love God with the whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love the neighbor as oneself. That is a summary of the whole law of God. Or, to express it differently, the obligation that comes to us as creatures is perfect, lifelong obedience. The law of God says to us, “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). Elsewhere, James writes, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Therefore, our “best efforts” (whatever they are) are not good enough.

As the substitute or surety, Christ says to his people, whom he came to save, “I have taken the obligation of perfect obedience upon myself. Where you have not obeyed God, I have obeyed God for you. Where you have not loved God with a perfect heart, I have loved Him on your behalf.” Paul explains it this way, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:5).

What a wonder—the Son of God, the Lawgiver, becomes subject to the law of God (“under the law”), and willingly, and perfectly, obeys it for miserable, sinful, rebellious lawbreakers!

Since mankind has not kept the first obligation, he becomes subject to a second obligation, which is punishment. As sinners, we are liable to the wrath and curse of an offended, holy God, a God who will by no means clear the guilty. God’s wrath is perfectly just and holy, and that wrath issues in the sinner’s death. Unless God is propitiated with respect to man’s sin, the sinner’s end is eternal punishment in hell.

As the substitute or surety, Christ says to his people, whom he came to save, “I have taken the obligation of punishment upon myself. Where you deserve in God’s just judgment to be punished for your sins, I have been punished in your place. I have taken upon myself the wrath and curse of my Father, so that you are received into my Father’s favor as his beloved sons and daughters.” Peter writes, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). Paul writes, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).

What a wonder—the Son of God, who is perfectly righteous, holy, and without sin, is punished for the sins of his people, so that his people, who deserve to perish, are saved!

In order to qualify as the substitute or surety, Jesus must fulfill three requirements.

First, he must be a true man. Since human beings have sinned against God, a human being must fulfill the obligations of lifelong obedience and atoning sufferings and death. Therefore, an angel was not qualified to be the substitute or surety of God’s people. God did not send the angel Gabriel to perform the work of salvation. And we have seen, in considerable detail, that the Son of God, in the incarnation, took to Himself a real human nature, consisting of body and soul.

Second, he must be a righteous man. Any would-be substitute cannot himself be guilty of sin. Otherwise, he would be obligated to satisfy for his own sins, which he could not do. There are no specimens of humanity who are perfectly righteous and sinless—even the greatest of men, whether prophets, religious leaders, scientists, philosophers, kings, or artists, are sinners, and, therefore, guilty before God. None of them is qualified to be the Savior.

Third, he must be God. Consider the work that the Savior must perform, and you will understand that only divine omnipotence and perfect wisdom could accomplish it. The Savior must bear in his own body the sins of all his people, which is a burden that would crush a mere man. The Savior must suffer the terrible weight of the wrath and curse of God, which would destroy a mere man. And the Savior must be personally God so that his obedience, sufferings, and death have infinite value in the sight of God. None of the sufferings of men and angels can be compared with the sufferings of the Son of God in our flesh.

That is why Jesus Christ is the only Savior—he is the only one qualified to be the Savior. Others can teach us about salvation, as God’s true prophets and apostles have done. But only the Son of God, who is eternally and unchangeably God, and who, in the incarnation, became truly and completely man, and who is perfectly righteous and holy, can be the Savior.

And God, knowing our need for such a Savior, in great love for his people sent exactly that Savior whom we need. Our calling is to believe in that Savior, to trust in Him alone, and to love and to serve Him forever out of gratitude for his salvation. Listen to the good news proclaimed by the angels: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

 

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ANSWERS to the Christianity Quiz:

Part 1: all the statements are false.

Part 2: all the statements, except 14-16, are false.

Part 3: all the statements, except 3, 4, 9-13, and 15, are false. 

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Islam (10)

In our last blog post on this topic, we showed that the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ were voluntary and necessary, necessary because God ordained them for His Son; voluntary because Jesus willingly endured them for His people.

But why would the merciful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ordain such dreadful sufferings for His beloved Son? Why would He not spare Jesus? The answer lies in another necessity, the necessity of our salvation.

The Dreadful Cup

Jesus wrestled with this necessity in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before His arrest. After the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus made His way to a garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem. In that garden, Jesus prayed. In His prayer, we get a glimpse into the soul of Jesus as He contemplated the path that He must take to the cross. Jesus describes how He felt: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt. 26:38). What could have so oppressed the soul of Jesus that He became “sorrowful and very heavy” (v. 37)? What could have caused Him to be “in an agony,” so that “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44)?

The answer is found in one word—the “cup.” In the Bible, a cup describes the allotted portion of something. Sometimes a cup is a cup of blessedness and salvation. The Psalmist sings, “The LORD is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup” (Ps. 16:5) and “my cup runneth over” (Ps. 23:5). Elsewhere, the Psalmist vows, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD” (Ps. 116:13). Often, however, a cup is a cup of punishment, cursing, and wrath: “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire, and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup” (Ps. 11:6); “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them” (Ps. 75:8).

Jesus knew that God had appointed a cup for Him to drink, but when He saw the contents of the cup, He shuddered. The cup contained the wrath of God, the fullness of His Father’s fury against sin. Only by the drinking of that cup could the sins of God’s people be forgiven! Understandably, Jesus looked for another way—could, perhaps, salvation be accomplished even if He did not drink the cup? Listen to His prayer: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” and “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done” (Matt. 26:39, 42).

The Father answered by His silence—there is no other way. Either Jesus drinks the cup, or we must drink the cup. If we drink the cup, we will perish, because we must drink the cup forever in hell if Jesus does not drink the cup for us.

Having understood that, Jesus willingly went forth to embrace suffering and death. The Son of God in our flesh submitted His human will to His Father’s will. The next time that Jesus mentions the cup is at His arrest. Peter attempts to save Jesus with the sword, whereupon Jesus, rebuking Peter, exclaims, “Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).

The Necessary Cup

That leads us to another question—why is such a cup necessary? Why does anyone have to drink the cup? Could the cup not simply pass away so that no one—not Jesus, and not we—drinks it? Or to express it in different words, could not God simply forgive sins without the need for the suffering and death of His Son?

The answer to that question is the justice of God.

God’s justice is that perfection of His being according to which all of His activity is in perfect harmony with His holiness. As the holy God, He hates sin, which is rebellion against His Law; as the just God, He punishes sin. God revealed this in the Garden of Eden, where He declared, “In the day that thou eatest thereof [of the forbidden fruit] thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Throughout scripture, God has revealed that the penalty for sin is death: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20); “They that commit such things are worthy of death” (Romans 1:32); “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Every pious Jew understood this, for God has ordained a system of animal sacrifices to teach him this important truth.

Moreover, death in the Bible is not merely physical death, but spiritual death, which is the corruption and ruin of man’s nature; and eternal death, which is eternal torment in the lake of fire.

Therefore, as the righteous judge, God will punish sinners with death (physical, spiritual, and eternal death), and God must punish sinners with death (physical, spiritual, and eternal death). Not to punish sinners with death would be for God to be unjust.

The Bible, however, teaches that God forgives sins. But He will not forgive sin at the expense of His justice. God declares to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty…” (Ex. 34:6-7). The true God of the Bible is merciful—rich in mercy, abundant in mercy and truth—but He will not clear the guilty. He has always revealed that in order to forgive sins He requires satisfaction of His justice. Anything less would be injustice, or a denial of His justice.

Islam teaches forgiveness without atonement, for Islam teaches that Allah forgives sin without payment for sin. At the same time, the Qur’an claims that Allah is just: “Allah is never unjust in the least degree: if there is any good (done), He doubleth it, and giveth from His own presence a great reward” (4:40). If Allah is not unjust, how can Allah forgive sins without satisfaction of his justice? The Qur’an offers no answer to this.

Atonement is necessary.

The sinner cannot pay the penalty for his own sin. If he does, he perishes everlastingly.

God will not clear the guilty. If He did, He would be unjust.

Is there, then, anyone who can pay the penalty of sin for the sinner?

The answer is that God provides a substitute, His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

To that we turn next time, DV.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (9)

In our last blog post on this topic, we examined the Qur’an’s denial of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ:

That they said (in boast). ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not—Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power. Wise” (Surah 4:157-158).

Apart from that textual stumbling block—the text of the Qur’an denies that Jesus was crucified—the Muslim stumbles over another matter: it is not fitting that God’s holy prophet should suffer such terrible shame by being crucified. What the Muslim needs to understand is that the sufferings of Jesus Christ were voluntary and necessary.

Voluntary Sufferings

The idea that Jesus was a tragically misunderstood moral leader whose life was cut off in his prime by the malice of His enemies is false. Yes, Jesus had cruel and malicious enemies, who desired His death. Certainly, many conspired against Him to destroy him, but Jesus was never a helpless victim.

Jesus makes it very clear throughout the gospels that he came to perform his Father’s will. Throughout His life, He operated according to a divine, and not a human, plan and timetable. As early as twelve years old, Jesus declares, “I must be about my Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). Throughout the gospel according to John, reference is made to His “hour,” an hour that had not yet come (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20), but which at the end of His life had finally come (John 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1). In John 5:19, Jesus declares, “The Son can do nothing of himself,” which means that the Son cannot act independently of the Father or in opposition to the Father, for they are one. In John 6:38, He explains, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” The Father’s will was for the sufferings, death, and resurrection of His Son, something Jesus clearly knew and understood.

Therefore, Jesus was not forced against His will—either by men, or by His heavenly Father—to suffer and die on the cross. He willingly embraced the cross as the way of obedience. He steadfastly resisted anyone and anything that would deflect Him from that purpose. When Peter tried to persuade Jesus not to go to the cross, Jesus sternly rebuked him: “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matt. 16:23). As the time of the end drew near, Jesus “stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), knowing full well what awaited Him there. When Peter attempted to prevent Jesus’ arrest, Jesus rebuked him again, “Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it? (John 18:11). Even when Jesus was on the cross, He refused to come down and rescue Himself, despite His ability to do so, because He willingly gave His life.

In all of this, Jesus is unique. Only Jesus, as the Son of God, has power (authority) over His own life and death. As creatures, we cannot determine the moment of our death—and the sixth commandment forbids us to try. Listen to what Jesus declares, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18).

Jesus willingly laid down His life on the cross out of love—love for the Father and love for His people. “Greater love,” says Jesus, “hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). “The Son of God … loved me, and gave himself for me” is the confession of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20. “Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it,” declares Paul in Ephesians 5:25 In Titus 2:14, Paul describes the Savior this way, “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”

Notice the constant refrain of the New Testament—He gave Himself; He offered Himself; He laid down His own life for those whom He loved. That is the Christian gospel of salvation.

Necessary Sufferings

The sufferings and death of Jesus Christ were necessary. If they were not necessary, the infinitely wise and good God would not have ordained them for His Son; and the infinitely wise and good Son of God would not have willingly submitted to them.

Jesus knew from the beginning that they were necessary. In Matthew 16:21, just after Peter made the famous confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (v. 16), Jesus confessed the necessity of His sufferings: “He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.” When His enemies came to arrest Him, He declared, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?” (Matt. 26:53-54). He added in verse 56, “But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Later, after His resurrection, Jesus explained the necessity to His disciples: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26) and “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day” (v. 46).

The sufferings and death of Christ, therefore, were necessary, first, because God decreed them as part of His eternal purpose; and, second, because the Scriptures prophesied them.

There is a third necessity. The sufferings and death of Christ were necessary for our salvation. Without the sufferings and death of Christ, we cannot be forgiven, and we must perish. But because of the sufferings and death of Christ, all those who believe in Him are saved.

To that subject we turn next time, DV.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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