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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Theresa May’s UK Election Disaster (2017)

The RFPA have asked me to explain the implications of the recent election result in the UK. Since many of the readers of this blog reside outside of the UK, I should begin with some basic facts about the political system.

The UK, which consists of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but not the Republic of Ireland, is a parliamentary democracy, as well as a constitutional monarchy, with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. The various regions (countries) of the UK have devolved assemblies, which means that much of the power to govern those regions (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) is given to local political representatives, although the main parliament at Westminster (London) retains certain centralized powers. This information is important when it comes to understanding the role of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is a regional party (from Northern Ireland).

When a General Election is called, various candidates campaign for the six hundred and fifty seats available in the House of Parliament in Westminster. A winner of a seat is called a Member of Parliament (MP). The main parties in England are the Conservative (or Tory) Party, led by Theresa May; and the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, a left wing socialist. The majority party either rules outright, if it has an overall majority; or it rules in a coalition government with a smaller party; or it seeks an agreement with a smaller party to support it in government. The latter arrangement is what Theresa May is seeking with the DUP. If the majority fails to form a government, the minority party could conceivably seek to form a coalition with other parties.

Although a General Election was not due until 2020, British Prime Minister Theresa May called an early election in April 2017. Her rationale for doing so was to increase her majority to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, which are due to begin shortly with the EU. When she called the election, the opinion polls gave the Conservatives a 20-point lead over the Labour Party. Nevertheless, the Conservatives, having fought a disastrous campaign, lost 13 seats, and crucially lost their overall majority in the House of Commons. This means that Theresa May is not able to form a government without the help of other parties.

The party to which Theresa May is turning her attention is the DUP, a regional party (from Northern Ireland), which won 10 seats in the General Election. This has caused widespread derision in the liberal-leaning media, for the DUP is much more conservative than the British Conservative (Tory) Party. The name Democratic Unionist Party indicates that the party defends the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, a union that Sinn Fein, the second largest party in Northern Ireland, opposes. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, remarked that the union would be the DUP’s “guiding star” in their negotiations with Theresa May. The DUP, which was founded by fundamentalist Protestant preacher Dr. Ian Paisley and many of whose members and supporters are evangelicals, is pro-Brexit and very conservative on the important social and moral issues of abortion and so-called “marriage equality.” Although abortion and “same sex marriage” are legal in Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), they are not legal in Northern Ireland, where the DUP has consistently opposed their introduction. This has led to the DUP being labeled (by the ever tolerant media) as sexist, homophobic, creationist “climate deniers.”

To make matters more complicated, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, a member of the Church of Scotland, and a lesbian who is planning to “marry” her (female) partner, is opposed to the DUP for their (in her view) “homophobic” positions. Davidson has campaigned to extend the right of people to marry the same gender (so-called “marriage equality”) to Northern Ireland. Davidson has sought, and apparently received, assurances from Theresa May that the DUP’s conservative policies on abortion and marriage will not be permitted to influence the British government. Theresa May cannot risk alienating the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs of her own party while she attempts to win the support of the DUP.

Many questions remain unanswered. What will the DUP ask for, and receive, in exchange for their support of a Conservative government under Theresa May? How will May’s decreased majority affect the UK’s Brexit negotiations? How will the DUP’s involvement in May’s government affect the political talks in Northern Ireland? And will May even be able to form a government, and if so, how long will such a government last? Time will tell. Jeremy Corbyn has reportedly told his party not to put away their election posters just yet, as another election could conceivably be called in the not too distant future!

One thing is for sure—God is sovereign and he governs in the affairs of men.

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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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In Review: Called to Watch for Christ's Return

Called to Watch for Christ’s Return, by Martyn McGeown. Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2016. Pp. 286. [Reviewed by Rev. Ryan Barnhill]

Called to Watch for Christ’s Return began as a series of sermons preached by the author on the Olivet Discourse, a speech in which “Jesus proclaims his second coming, an event with which history will come to a dramatic and sudden close” (ix). These sermons covered Matthew 24:1-31, dealing with the signs of Christ’s coming—deceivers, the preaching of the gospel, the great tribulation, and more. These sermons also dealt with Matthew 24:32-25:46, treating the subject of watching for Christ’s return—the unknown time of his return, Christ’s coming as in the days of Noah, parables associated with his coming, and more. These sermons comprise the content of the book. We are thankful that these fine sermons have reached a wider audience through their publication in book form.

The main strength of Called to Watch for Christ’s Return is its exegetical precision and richness. The material is always mined from the text. Concepts are carefully defined and developed, and difficult passages are lucidly explained. Especially does this clarity of exegesis become important in passages that deal with such matters as the abomination of desolation (Matthew 24:15-20) and the unknown time of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36). Such passages are often misinterpreted, leading to a host of errors. Thus, proper, sober interpretation is critical in these kinds of difficult passages.McGeown’s work is a needed and timely contribution to the study of eschatology (the end times), for two reasons. First, there are so many today teaching unbiblical ideas about the end of the world. Called to Watch for Christ’s Return interacts with these systems of thought, dismantles them, and plainly sets forth the biblical, Reformed, amillennial position. Second, we live in the last days, and that alone makes this book important. We must know what to expect in these last and evil days, we must be admonished to watch for the coming of our Lord, and we must be comforted.

McGeown’s work is necessarily polemical. That is, it is a work which exposes and refutes the errors. Advocates of both postmillennialism and premillennial dispensationalism seek to find evidence for their views in Matthew 24 and 25. Postmillennialism teaches that the Olivet Discourse—at least some of it, if not all of it—is a reference exclusively to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This interpretation is fundamental to the postmillennial position, lest the events of which Jesus speaks interfere with postmillennialism’s future golden age. In contrast, premillennial dispensationalists claim that the Olivet Discourse refers exclusively to the future—not to AD 70, but to a future Jerusalem and a future temple. Negatively, the author exposes these errors, and demonstrates how a sober interpretation of Jesus’ teaching pulls the rug out from under these millennial systems. Positively, McGeown sees Matthew 24 and 25 as a blending of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, on the one hand, and Jesus’ second coming, on the other hand. The destruction of Jerusalem is a type or picture of Jesus’ second coming. This view, the amillennial view, and this view alone, does justice to Jesus’ words.

In a book on watching for Christ’s return, one would expect not only polemics, but also pointed instruction and warning for believers. After all, we are all prone to spiritual slumber instead of watching for Christ’s return. The command of scripture to watch for our Lord’s coming is a weighty command, and the author conveys it well: “Watch! Christ is coming. Let us not be found sleeping when he returns, but looking for his return. Let that watchfulness begin today if it has not been our habit before, so whether he comes on the clouds or calls us in death, we will be ready to meet him” (214). Called to Watch for Christ’s Return is a stirring call to stay vigilant in these last and evil days.

The book is also comforting and warm, an approach that arises from the author’s pastoral heart for God’s people who live in the perilous days prior to Jesus’ coming. This warm tone characterizes the entirety of the book, and climaxes in the last chapter; any reader’s heart will thrill in reading this last chapter, which explains, in part, the glories of the new heavens and the new earth. Read and meditate upon this breathtaking description of heaven: “Death, sin, and the curse will be absent—forever banished from the new creation. We will enjoy spiritual joy and satisfaction in abundance, for we will enter into the fullness of our inheritance. Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit! That is life, eternal life, life that lasts forever and has no end. Life with Christ. Life in the presence of God, fellowshipping with him. That is blessedness and joy! That is worth waiting for! Do not fear the judgment day. Do not be weary with watching and waiting. But pray, even for that great day” (280).

Our Lord is coming. Watch. Watch—by reading. Called to Watch for Christ’s Return, as a faithful exposition of Jesus’ words, will instruct you, arm you against the errors, comfort you, and quicken your hope. Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly. 

 

If you have not yet ordered your copy of this book, do so today! 

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Answering an Atheist: The Problem of "Evil"

The question of suffering has exercised philosophers and theologians for centuries. The issue has always been: “If God is good and almighty, he would not allow his creatures to suffer, and there would be no evil in the world.” However, the statement of the question is problematic, for it presupposes that we can determine what a good and almighty God should do. The answer of the Christian is not to philosophize about what God should do, but to ask what God has revealed about himself in his Word. 

Before I explain further, I should point out that atheism has no answer to this question. According to atheism, the entire universe is the result of a random movement of molecules over countless billions of years. During that incredibly long period of time, life forms supposedly emerged from non-living chemicals (no scientist has demonstrated how that is even possible), and by means of a long process of “natural selection” (commonly called “Survival of the Fittest”), we have arrived at the present state of affairs with man at “the top of the evolutionary tree.” However, man is only “at the top of the tree” because he is the most advanced and developed life form, not because he is the most significant or the most important. In fact, man is, according to the atheistic worldview, of no greater significance than a tree frog, an elephant or a slug. 

To you, your mother or your friend might be more significant than a slug, but you, your mother, and your friend have no transcendent meaning if atheism is true. If atheism is true, the impersonal, indifferent universe does not care that you exist. Your life has no meaning beyond the few years you exist here, and after you are gone you will return to the earth to be “worm food,” until another life form comes along to take your place. Therefore, if you, your family, and even millions of your fellow humans suffer and die, it has no real significance. Unless you are famous (or infamous)—and most of us are not—no one will remember that you existed one hundred years after your death. You might exist in the records of a government bureaucracy from which you will eventually be deleted, or you might exist in the memories of your descendants—if you leave any—but in the grand scheme of things your life is basically meaningless. 

Given such a worldview, why even care about suffering? Why devote your life to alleviating suffering? Why try to make the world a “better place”? As one man put it, “If you decide the purpose of your life is to discover a cure for cancer and I decide the purpose of my life is to discover the tastiest doughnut, the universe really doesn’t care one way or the other. The same goes for the guy who decides the purpose of his life is to get as much pleasure as he can at other people’s expense, even if it causes immense suffering. It’s all ultimately arbitrary” (James N. Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity? [Christian Focus, 2016], p. 100). Atheist Richard Dawkins expressed it in these words, “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). 

Therefore, the question of evil and suffering is not really a “question” for atheism. “Evil” (especially moral evil) presupposes an absolute, transcendent, objective moral standard. If it is not “evil” for a cat to kill a mouse (because morality is a meaningless concept for a cat), then it is not “evil” (if atheism is true) for a man to kill another man, especially if killing that man gives him an “evolutionary advantage” over other men. If evolution is true, then why should a man be subject to moral norms, while a cat is free to kill mice without being judged as “evil”? What makes a man’s life any more valuable than the life of a mouse? Why do we punish manslayers as murderers, but we reward mice-killers as “pest control experts”? And if it is not absolutely, objectively wrong to kill one man, why is it absolutely, objectively wrong to kill many men, or indeed a whole race of men?

The answer many atheists give is that society functions better with moral standards or that something becomes morally wrong when society judges it morally wrong. However, why should we care how society functions? If one man is meaningless, why should a society of men have any meaning? Why should human society have any more meaning than an anthill or a beehive? If there is no absolute moral standard according to which all men are judged (i.e., the law of the transcendent Creator God), then cannibalism is acceptable in one society and “honor killings” are acceptable in another society simply because “society” approves of them.

The Christian’s answer to evil and suffering is to begin with God, who is absolutely and perfectly good. Since God is good, the creation he made was good. In fact, when God created the universe, he surveyed his handiwork and “Behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The original “goodness” of the creation included the absence of suffering and death. Death, which atheists view as natural to the evolutionary process and struggle for life, was not part of the good creation that God made. 

Therefore, when an atheist denies God because of the presence of suffering and death in creation, he must first understand that such suffering and death were not part of the original creation. (He must not complain about the creation that God made, but join the Christian in lamenting what the good creation has become). In addition, mankind was good, which means that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were created in holiness and righteousness in God’s image. Adam and Eve were not created sinners: they became sinners. (Incidentally, this means that Christians do not accept the idea of macroevolution, because we do not accept the idea of death before sin. Therefore, the world is not the product of billions of years of evolution, but the creation of a good and wise God).

Adam and Eve were created as God’s friends in a covenant relationship with him, which is why God made them rational, moral creatures (unlike cats, dogs and chimpanzees, which are not rational, moral creatures, and which therefore cannot relate to God). The Heidelberg Catechism—a document written at the time of Reformation—explains it this way, “God created man good, and after his own image, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise Him” (A. 6). 

Adam and Eve did not remain for long in the state of holiness in which God had created them. They disobeyed God in the famous account of the “forbidden fruit.” That act was not a matter of “just eating a piece of fruit.” God had given them a rich abundance of fruit in the Garden of Eden. They enjoyed fellowship with him. He even walked and talked with them in the cool of the day. When God placed a restriction on their activity (do not eat of this one tree), God was perfectly righteous. As the Creator, God determines good and evil, not man. The devil persuaded Eve to assert her “autonomy” and to decide good and evil for herself, and Adam quickly followed her. That act was deliberate rebellion against God. 

From that one act, all forms of evil, suffering, and death have entered the creation: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (Romans 5:12a). God in judgment inflicted death upon the creation because of man’s rebellion. The blame or guilt for sin, suffering and death must not be imputed to God, but to man, the rebellious creature. All human evil, from theft, to dishonesty, to violence and murder, as well as war, genocide and every form of depravity and vice, is a consequence of Adam’s first transgression. 

That does not seem fair to many people, for why should the sin of one man, Adam, affect the whole human race? The answer is found in the identity of Adam. Adam was not merely one individual. God created him to be the head of mankind, not only the biological or organic source of mankind, but also the legal representative of mankind. In other words, Adam represented all of us in the Garden of Eden. We might not like that representation, but it does not change the fact. When Adam fell into sin (and it was not so much a “fall” as a deliberate “leap”), we fell with him, which is why we are all subject to death: “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12b). “For by one man’s disobedience [the] many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19a). And do not think that, had you been there, you would have fared better than Adam. You would not. Your representative in Adam was perfect: he was created in the image of God, he had the warning of God ringing in his ears, and he had every incentive to remain faithful to God, and yet he fell. You would have done the same. 

But there is also mercy in God’s dealings with Adam. The headship of Adam prepared for a better headship. Jesus Christ represents his people. What he accomplished in his perfect obedience, suffering, and death was not for himself: it was for the people whom he represented. “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall [the] many be made righteous” (Romans 5:19b). If it is unfair for God to punish all men for the sin of one representative (Adam), then is it also unfair for God to save all believers for the obedience of one representative (Christ). 

Why, then, is there suffering and death in the world? Why is there evil? First, because God is righteous, and a righteous God punishes sin. He punishes sin in various ways, at different times, and to different degrees in this life, and finally and fully on the day of judgment and in the world to come. Second, evil, suffering, and death serve God’s purposes in history: God’s main purposes are the gathering of his people and development of evil in the world, with the ultimate purpose the glory of his own name. Third, suffering serves the salvation of his people, for God uses suffering to test, purify, and prepare them for the life to come. Fourth, God used the greatest of all evils, the death of his Son, to accomplish salvation, to purchase forgiveness of sins and eternal life for his people. If God ended evil today, he would have to destroy all human beings on the face of the earth. But God is not ready to do that, for important events planned by God must still occur before the end can come. The world has not only an origin, but also a goal, another truth denied by atheism.

God does not give us specific answers to the problem of specific “evils.” Why did this war occur? Why did that person suffer in that particular way? Why did my friend get that disease? Why did that man commit that atrocity or crime? Christianity provides general answers that we can apply to the big questions. Atheism, which views all things including “evil” as meaningless, does not.

God commands you through his Word to cease your rebellion against him, to turn from your sins (whatever they are), and to believe in his Son. If you continue in your sins, you will perish, but the one who believes will receive eternal life. 

The Bible says, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets, Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you (Acts 13:38-41).

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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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N. T. Wright’s “New Perspectives”

Introduction

Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) hosted its thirtieth “January Series” in January 2017. Appearing, he informed his audience, for the fifth time, N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in England, and current research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, gave a speech in connection with the (Henry J.) Stob lecture series with the title, “The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross,” on Tuesday, January 24.

Wright is the most popular contemporary proponent of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), so it is not surprising that he is now offering a fresh (or new) perspective on the cross of Jesus Christ.

Wright’s “New Perspective” on Paul

I report on his latest speech in the “All Around Us” rubric of the Standard Bearer (possibly the March 1, 2017 issue). In this blog, I will briefly review the main tenets of Wright’s NPP.

First, Wright redefines the concepts of “justification” and “righteousness.” The Reformed, biblical, and creedal explanation is that righteousness is a legal status in which one is in harmony with, or in conformity to, the standard of God, which is summarized in God’s law. To be justified is to be declared righteous, that is, to be declared, on the basis of the perfect work of Jesus Christ, to be in harmony with God’s standard. The righteousness of Jesus Christ, his lifelong obedience and his atoning sufferings and death, is imputed, or reckoned to the account of, the sinner, and that righteousness is received by faith alone without works.

Wright denies the possibility or the necessity of the imputation of God’s righteousness. For Wright righteousness is simply God’s covenant faithfulness by which he puts right what evil has done in the creation and keeps his promises to his people. Justification for Wright is not so much a matter of personal salvation, but it is to be declared, on the basis of faith, to be part of the covenant community—the New Israel—which God vindicates now and on the last day.

Moreover, Wright understands Paul’s fierce polemic against the Judaizers in Galatians and elsewhere not as a battle between justification by faith alone versus the notion of justification by the works of the law (because, argues Wright, Paul and his Jewish contemporaries never believed in salvation by works in the sense that the Reformers understood), but as a controversy over how one is declared to be part of the vindicated (or justified) community. Therefore, according to Wright’s reading of Paul, the apostle argued that one is declared a member of the church on the basis of faith, while the Judaizers insisted that one cannot be declared a member of the church—that is, justified—without circumcision and obedience to the (ceremonial) laws of Moses. Therefore, argues Wright, when Paul disputed about circumcision—even to the point of anathemas—he was not disputing about salvation, but about who was a member of the church.[1]

How, then, is one personally justified according to Wright’s NPP? By believing that Jesus is Lord, one is brought into, and declared to be a member of, the new covenant community, the church. At that point, on the basis of faith, one is “justified.” However, to remain one of God’s people, a believer must continue to believe and to be faithful, that is, continued justification and salvation and final justification and salvation depend on good works. On this point, Wright writes:

This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.[2]

Thus Wright’s position, which includes a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner, is simply a scholarly version of the old heresy of justification by faith and works.

Wright is an eloquent and engaging speaker, and undoubtedly many at the Calvin series hung spellbound on his every word, but for all his rhetorical flourishes Wright leaves us with no real atonement, no gospel, and, consequently, nowhere to hide on the day of judgment.

In view of the popularity of Wright, even in Calvin College, where he is hailed as a hero of the faith, those who love the biblical and Reformed truth of justification by faith alone will welcome the imminent publication of a new book by Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Gospel Truth of Justification.

Expect to hear more about Engelsma’s book soon (DV).

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[1] Notice Wright’s avoidance of the phrase “by faith alone,” a fatal omission, and his use of prepositions—justified on the basis of faith. The Reformers, following scripture, teach that justification is by or through faith alone. Faith is not the basis. Faith is the means or instrument of justification.

[2] N. T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 258; cited in John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham, IVP, 2008), 100. Notice the basis of justification is “the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit”—Believing reader, the life that you lead in the power of the Spirit is the imperfect obedience which you, out of sincere love, but in much weakness, have rendered to God in gratitude for your salvation. Will you dare appear before God on that basis, instead of on the basis of the perfect obedience and atoning sufferings and death of Jesus Christ? That is where Wright’s theology would lead you, which will issue in damnation on the day of judgment.

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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?

________________

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

________________

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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IN REVIEW: The Reformed Baptism Form

The Reformed Baptism Form: A Commentary, by B. Wielenga (Edited by David J. Engelsma and translated by Annemie Godbehere). Jenison, MI: RFPA 2016. 448 pages. $39.95 Hardcover. [Reviewed by Rev. Martyn McGeown]

The publication of this book will interest—and even excite—all those who love baptism, and in particular, all those who love the Form for the Administration of Baptism used in Reformed churches. Many church members and officebearers have heard the Form read, or have used the Form, hundreds of times as baptism has been administered to the covenant seed. But have we sufficiently pondered the beautiful language of the Form?

Bastiaan Wielenga (1873-1949) was a Dutch Reformed minister who not only studied the Form, but who loved the Form, and delighted in its clear, Reformed, biblical, devotional, and pastoral language. He wrote the commentary on the Form not for scholars, but for the ordinary child of God who loves the covenant and the God of the covenant. The RFPA has done the Reformed church world a great service by offering this book—the first English translation of a commentary on this priceless liturgical form—to the reading public.

Wielenga carefully explains (even exegetes) the language of the Form, dividing his material according to the divisions of the Form itself, the doctrinal section (misery, deliverance, and gratitude), a defence of infant baptism, the prayer before baptism, the questions to the parents, and the prayer of thanksgiving after baptism. However, he does not treat the section on the baptism of adults, which, although used on the mission field, is used less frequently in the established church.

Some of the outstanding features of the commentary are the following.

First, Wielenga’s writing is devotional. Wielenga is a very capable theologian and exegetes with the heart and language of a pastor, and even of a poet. The beautiful and moving passages in Wielenga’s writings are so numerous that a reviewer could not possibly do justice to them. Credit for this, of course, must also go to the translator, Mrs. Annemie Godbehere, with whom the reviewer was personally acquainted. Undoubtedly, it was her skill that helped bring Wielenga to life for an English readership. One example of Wielenga’s beautiful turns of phrase will suffice. In this quotation, Wielenga is explaining the need believers have for assurance and the richness of God’s supply in holy baptism:

Do we still need another seal? Does this confirmation need to be confirmed again? The seal sealed?
Yes, it must—because the Lord knows his people. He knows how they lack courage and how feeble they are. He knows that man, because he is in his own existence deceitful, distrusts and disbelieves others, even God.
Hence the Lord God, if he will ever see the mansions filled in his paternal home, cannot be stingy with promises, oaths, and seals. An overflowing source of assurances must let its streams of grace overflow the weak believer. Indeed, our covenantal God repeats his manifold declarations so many times that man, if he were less pathetic, with a dark purple blush of shame about his obstinacy would call out, “Lord, I do believe you; yes, Lord, it is enough, I know it already.”

Because it is exactly the opposite, and the godly constantly ask for stronger assurance, the cry of “Help thou mine unbelief!” does not grow silent before death closes their lips. Thereby God, who takes more pity on us than an earthly father, seals the covenant of grace in baptism. Even with this, he does not account the measure of his undergirding grace full, for in the Lord’s supper he has joined a second and no less royal and divine seal to the covenant (72-73).

Second, Wielenga’s doctrine of the covenant is (mostly) orthodox and mainly in line with our Protestant Reformed understanding. Although he does slip into “agreement” language on occasion, and although he does make a few statements on conditionality within the covenant with which we strongly disagree, Wielenga does view the covenant as an intimate relationship between God and his elect people. “That the Father establishes a covenant with us and adopts us as his children is intimate. That Christ makes us members of his spiritual body is even more intimate. But that the Spirit comes to dwell in us is the most intimate conceivable intimacy” (103).

But baptism, this holy baptism, is a seal and indubitable testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God. It is a covenant not entered into for a time, but rooted in an eternal election. It is a covenant not established on the proof of and dependent on the goodness of men, but anchored in the mediatorial heart of Christ who paid for all the sins of his people and accomplished all obedience.

Note, this is the power and beauty of Reformed doctrine as it shines brilliantly in our form: salvation not promised conditionally, but absolutely guaranteed! (143).

There are places where Wielenga slips into conditional language, but they do not appear so frequently as to mar the book. The astute reader will take note of them.

Third, Wielenga defends that view of covenant children which regards them as regenerate in infancy, and as partakers of a real, spiritual, and not merely external, holiness. This view does justice to God’s promises, rightly explains the language of the Form, and gives great hope to Reformed parents in the rearing of their children. “Just as the children, included in Adam, their covenantal head, are partakers of an internal depravity, so also are the children, included in Christ, partakers of an internal regeneration and holiness” (155). “The compilers of this form also did not regard the children of the congregation as spiritually dead but as spiritually alive” (220). “We are certain that any view other than that of an internal sanctification is out of place in the baptism form and is also not in keeping with the doctrine of the covenant that predominated in the church of the Reformation” (326).

If this child, shortly after baptism, came to die, the parents, if they have come to understand something of the eternal comfort in life and death, may find in this baptism a ground for the hope that their early-deceased darling entered into glory. If the child grows up, the parents may proceed with the rearing from the supposition, or if this word displeases you, from the hope, the quiet expectation, that the God of the covenant has already laid the new germ of life into the child’s heart (407-408).

Wielenga regards the opposite view as Methodism, a Methodism increasingly common in Reformed circles today:

In contrast to the Methodist, who in the rearing only focuses on conversion, making of Sunday school and Christian education a conversion institute, the Reformed parent, who has learned to live out of the covenant, prayerfully looks to the God of the covenant. He pleads the promises of the covenant for his child so that he increases and grows up in the Lord Jesus Christ (408).

Fourth, Wielenga discusses a good number of practical questions concerning the ceremony itself, and there are times when he is unsparing in his criticism of certain practices that had arisen in the churches of his day: should baptism be delayed until the mother recovers or until relatives from out of town can arrive; who should hold the baby; how many times should the water be applied, once or thrice; and should the minister say “Amen” after the baptism? Although some of these matters are historical curiosities to us, some of them are still serious issues today.

Not out of custom! May this reverberate in our ranks. Let us battle against the great enemy of all spiritual life, called custom; against this large monster, which in its cold embrace spiritually smothers thousands—and by its icy breath spiritually murders thousands (286).

Every young parent—especially the fathers, who seek baptism for their children in the consistory room—would do well to read this book. It would be worthwhile for married couples to read this book as they rear the covenant seed. And it would warm the hearts of all Reformed church members to read this book carefully and devotionally, whether they have children or not, for the doctrine of the covenant and of salvation is the joy of our souls.

Reader, may the fruit of the joint contemplation of our precious baptism form be that the word with which this prayer and thus our entire form concludes may find in all our hearts a warm echo. That is to say, on all these truths, promises, and admonitions, may your whole soul pray and worship. Amen (425).

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Called to Watch


Called to Watch for Christ's Return

written by Martyn McGeown

A few days before Jesus gave his life on the cross, his disciples asked, “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matt. 24:3). Christ responded with the Olivet Discourse, a detailed teaching on the doctrine of the last things.

We need to understand the signs of Christ’s coming for our comfort as we look for “that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

 

 

 

 

Retail: $14.95

Book Club: $9.72 USA, $10.46 International

304 pages
softcover

ebook version available

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