Two questions on Romans 5:12-21

I recently received two questions regarding two different verses in Romans 5:12-21. The zeroth rule of interpretation is to pray for illumination.

O Father, would you open our eyes that we may behold wonderful things from your word.  Amen.

And the first rule of interpretation is to never read a single Bible verse – always read in context.  Here is Romans 5:12-21 from the ESV:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There’s a lot here.  We need to read this slowly and to read this multiple times.  Summarizing a larger section of text is a good exercise and aids our understanding.  Provisionally, let’s use:

Just as sin and death came through Adam, justification and life come more abundantly through Jesus Christ.

For further study, we could outline these verses to attempt to capture the flow of Paul’s thought in a bit more detail than a single sentence offers.  This is left as an exercise to the reader.

The first question:

Romans 5:15 says, “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” Does that mean more people will be saved than go to hell? What does it mean that “much more have the grace of God” than death from Adam?

My initial thought is no, this does not imply that more people will be saved than go to hell.  Jesus seems to imply the opposite when he says in Matt. 7:13-14, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Also, in Luke 13:23-30 someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (v. 23) to which Jesus responds, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able.” (v. 24) This also seems to imply that those who will be saved are fewer than those who will not be.

We can also ask, what does “much more” modify?  The ESV could be read to make a contrast between the “many” who died through Adam and then the “much more” being saved through Jesus.  But it appears that the object is “the grace of God” and not those in Christ since the sentence ends with “… abounded for many.”  If it were referring to those saved then Paul would be repeating himself in an awkward way.  Now, that’s certainly possible but unlikely.  Though the ESV doesn’t give us much help on what an alternative could be, we can look at how other translations handled this verse.

“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if by the one man’s trespass the many died, how much more have the grace of God and the gift overflowed to the many by the grace of the one man, Jesus Chris” (Rom 5:15 HCSB)

“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Rom 5:15 NIV (1984))

“But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.” (Rom 5:15 NASB (1995))

“But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:15 NLT, 2nd edition)

These translations all show, in one way or another, that the “much more” is attached to the “grace of God”/”God’s grace” than to a group of people.  The NLT does make clear the meaning – the grace of God through the work of Jesus Christ is greater than the disobedience of Adam.  I believe that fits the context best.

The second question:

Romans 5:18 says, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification for all men.” If Adam’s trespass affects all men (I agree with that), then the second half of the verse seems to apply to all men as well, right (I don’t think I agree with this)? How does limited atonement fit in here?

This is a good question – this is a classic proof-text for universalists, that is, those who would say that all (or perhaps the vast majority) of people will be saved.  It seems ad hoc to have the first mean “all people without exception” and then limit the second “all” to a certain set of people.  Doesn’t the text leave both “all”s unqualified?

First, an important point about the word “all”.  All almost never means all without exception.  If I went to a meeting at work and asked, “Are we all here?”, I’m not asking if all 6 billion people currently living on Earth are currently in the meeting room. And I’m certainly not asking if all people who have ever lived, are living, or will live, are currently in the meeting room.  The context implies a limitation - are all the people who are suppose to be at this meeting here? For “all” to be a truly unqualified and universal in scope, there are usually clarifying statements.  For example, John 1:3 says, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”  Col. 1:15-17 and Heb. 1:1-4 both reinforce this point and both verses include language to clarify that “all” is universal in scope.

Second, the previous verse clarifies the members of each group by specifying that “those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness [will] reign in life through … Jesus Christ.” The group of people who enjoy Christ’s benefits are those who “receive” him.

Third, context has setup a sharp contrast between Adam and Christ – the work of Adam’s disobedience that brought sin and death and the work of Christ that brought justification and eternal life.  And this work is done for those who are “in” them.  If we read Romans 5:18 this way:

Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation upon all men [in Adam] , so also one man’s righteousness brought justification and life for all men [in Christ]. (Rom. 5:18 Bob’s Living Translation)

Those who are in Adam receive Adam’s work (disobedience) and wages (death).  Every single person born (save one) was “in Adam”.  Those who are in Christ receive Christ’s work (righteousness) and wages (eternal life). Not every single person born is or will be “in Christ”.  We are “in Adam” by natural birth and are only “in Christ” by supernatural birth.

Fourth, we can look at other verses that say essentially the same thing.  In 1 Cor. 15:22-23 Paul says,

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”

If we just read v. 22 we would inclined to equate both “all”s.  But v. 23 explicitly limits the group to “those who belong to Christ”.  Again, the “all” here means all in Christ.

Fifth, we can argue by the absurdity of the contrary.  If “all” means that all people without exception are saved, perhaps by some kind of efficacious universal redemption, then a number of other doctrines and verses seem absurd:

  • The way is actually not narrow, but impossibly broad.
  • Romans 8:1 assures us that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” But there never was any condemnation for anyone regardless of being in Adam or in Christ.
  • In fact, Paul’s insistence on justification by faith apart from works in the previous four chapters is meaningless.
  • Why would Paul preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard it if they didn’t need to hear it to be saved?
  • Romans 10 contains a long argument about a righteousness that comes by faith and the necessity of someone to preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard it.  But if all people without exception are saved, this point is not just moot but actually wrong!
  • Romans 1:18-3:20 establishes the problem statement that the rest of the book answers – all have sinned and are falling short of the glory of God.  Though that is certainly less than ideal, if all without exception are saved then it’s not really a pressing problem.

There are probably other doctrinal absurdities.  Finding these is left as an exercise to the reader.

Finally, the second question also asks what this has to say with limited atonement.  Usually, when people use the phrase “limited atonement” they are thinking of the L in TULIP, perhaps better identified as “definite redemption” or some other sort of phrase.  But a reading of “all” as “every person without exception” is not just a threat to a Calvinistic or Reformed doctrine of atonement but even to an Arminian or Lutheran understanding of the atonement.  So in the broadest sense possible anyone who has a “limited” atonement would have a problem with reading “all” that way.  The non-universalist is required to limit the atonement in scope (as in definite redemption), in efficacy (as in Arminian schemes), or in mechanism (as in hypothetical universalism).  But all of that is worthy of a separate blog post.

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“Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace” by Willaim W. Combs

I finished reading a 16-page article by William W. Combs, “Does the Bible Teach Prevenient Grace?” Combs believes not and his article sets out as a brief survey of the history of interpretation and examines a few key passages.  At least twice Combs tips his hand, saying

Apparently, Wesley did not want to identify involuntary
transgressions as sin in order to maintain his illusionary doctrine of
Christian perfection.

(But Combs, tell me what you really think!)  Later in the appendix classifies both Norman Geisler and Roman Catholics as Semi-Pelagian which, perhaps warranted, neither would define themselves as such.

The history and exegesis is necessarily brief for a paper of this size.  I wonder if Combs is engaging with the best of Arminian scholarship on the subject.  Though the overall number of citations is large for a paper of this size, the number of different sources is a bit small.  Nevertheless, Combs provides a good overview of the position while offering a standard Calvinist response.

In a debate between Michael Horton and Roger Olson (part 1 and part 2), Roger Olson anticipates the objection that the Bible does not teach prevenient grace by making an analogy to the Trinity.  Even though the Bible does not explicitly teach the Trinity, Christians having no problem holding that doctrine.  So even though the Bible does not explicitly teach prevenient grace, Christians should have no problem holding that doctrine.

I think we can challenge the analogy: first, that the doctrine of the Trinity and Prevenient Grace do not have the same theological priority; second, the Bible does explicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity; third, even if we grant the first two points there are still other verses to explain.

  1. Historically, the doctrine of the Trinity was a the subject of the first ecumenical councils of the church.  To deny the Trinity puts one outside of Christianity by any reasonable definition.  Though I believe that the Bible does not teach prevenient grace, I don’t believe that the distinctions of Calvinism are a “make or break” doctrine.
  2. I think Olson falls into the word/concept fallacy. Just because, say, Genesis 1-3 doesn’t use the word “covenant” does not mean that the concept is not there.  Nor does it follow that we are not justified to read and understand Genesis 1-3 under the rubric of covenant.  Olson is right that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible.  Olson is also right that the Trinity is a developed doctrine.  But to say that the Bible does not explicitly teach the Trinity or that the Bible merely implies the Trinity is to relegate the doctrine to a clever solution to a particularly difficult problem, not the core of who God is.  I challenge the unstated assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity is merely a later doctrinal development.
  3. Even if we grant that prevenient grace and the doctrine of the Trinity were somehow analogous, we have to still deal with other texts that seem to directly contradict our understanding.  Combs showed how John 6:35 and John 6:44 explicitly teach the opposite of prevenient grace.  Combs points out another point that I had not considered before – that under prevenient grace passages like Romans 3:1-20 and Eph. 2:1ff can only describe a hypothetical person.  That is, if God has sent grace to every single person without exception such that their free will has been recovered, then no such person actually exists. Combs says, “Paul spends a good deal of time telling us things like ‘there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God’ (Rom. 3:11) and ‘a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor. 2:14). But according to Arminianism there never has actually existed any person like the apostle Paul id describing. It does not seem reasonable that Paul would write to the Romans and Corinthians emphasizing a depravity that does not exist, nor has ever existed”

In conclusion, Combs paper is a good, short introduction to the topic.  Against the Arminian concerning the doctrine of prevenient grace I think we can rightly ask for chapter and verse.

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“The Everlasting Gospel” by William Blake

What can this Gospel of Jesus be?
What Life & Immortality,
What was it that he brought to Light
That Plato & Cicero did not write?
The Heathen Deities wrote them all,
These Moral Virtues, great & small.
What is the Accusation of Sin
But Moral Virtues’ deadly Gin?
The Moral Virtues in their Pride
Did o’er the World triumphant ride
In Wars & Sacrifice for Sin,
And Souls to Hell ran trooping in.
The Accuser, Holy God of All
This Pharisaic Worldly Ball,
Amidst them in his Glory Beams
Upon the Rivers & the Streams.
Then Jesus rose & said to Me,
“Thy Sins are all forgiven thee.”
Loud Pilate Howl’d, loud Caiphas yell’d,
When they the Gospel Light beheld.
It was when Jesus said to Me,
“Thy Sins are all forgiven thee.”
The Christian trumpets loud proclaim
Thro’ all the World in Jesus’ name
Mutual forgiveness of each Vice,
And oped the Gates of Paradise.
The Moral Virtues in Great fear
Formed the cross & Nails & Spear,
And the Accuser standing by
Cried out, “Crucify! Crucify!
“Our Moral Virtues ne’er can be,
“Nor Warlike pomp & Majesty;
“For Moral Virtues all begin
“In the Accusations of Sin,
“And all the Heroic Virtues End
“In destroying the Sinners’ Friend.
“Am I not Lucifer the Great,
“And you my daughters in Great State,
“The fruit of my Mysterious Tree
“Of Good & Evil & Misery
“And Death & Hell, which now begin
“On everyone who Forgives Sin?”

source


Recommended reading: 2 Corinthians 3; Romans 10


Blake asks us, “What is it that the Gospel of Jesus gives us that ancient philosophers (“pagan deities”) don’t?” He sets up a major antithesis between the Gospel and what he calls, “the moral virtues”.   Blake contends that morality is actually the basis for Satan’s accusations against us.  Blake paints a graphic picture of morality as a war that rages across the earth and leads countless people to hell. The word of Christ, however, speaks differently. The word of forgiveness (“Thy sins are all forgiven thee”) is contested by the religious (“Caiphas”) and non-religious (“Pilate”) alike but it “opens the gates of paradise”.

Blake personifies the moral virtues as forming the very instruments by which Jesus was crucified.  This morality springs from (“begin”) the guilty conscience (“accusation of sin”) and can only lead to the rejection of Jesus (“destroying the sinner’s friend”).

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Understanding perfect minimal hashing

Let h be a hash function that takes a key k from some universe of keys U and maps it to some set of integers \{ 0, 1,\dots,n-1\}.  More formally, \forall k \in U, h(k) \to \{0, 1, \dots, n-1\}. In the simplest hash, we can have an array V of n elements. The value h(k) is used as the index of that array such that V[h(k)] is the value corresponding to that hash key.

The hash data structure is designed to give us average O(1) time on inserting, deleting, and fetching – that is, given a key k return the value h(k). While an array also has these same O(1) average time for inserting, deleting, and fetching, this only works if you can afford to allocate memory for every possible key.  Whereas an array has space proportional to the size of the universe of keys, a hash has space proportional to the size of keys used.

In general, the size of the universe of keys U is much larger than the size of the set of buckets n.  That means there may be two keys that hash to the same value.   \exists x,y : x \neq y \land h(x) = h(y).  This is called a hash collision.  Common strategies for handling collisions include chaining, where the value stored in V is a linked-list of all collied values, and open addressing, where multiple indices in V are checked for a single key k .

Load factor describes what percentage of hash buckets n are occupied.  Assuming that the hash keys h(k) are randomly distributed we will see collisions long before we hit a 100% load factor.  Even with the strategies mentioned above, we will eventually need to rehash to avoid worst-case performance. Rehashing means reconstructing the hash by picking a new hash function h, increasing the number of buckets n or both.

A hash is considered perfect when there are no collisions between the keys.  A hash is considered minimal when the load factor is at 100% – that is, when the number of buckets n is equal to the number of keys in the hash.  A perfect minimal hash guarantees at worst-case O(1) inserting, deleting, and fetching.  If we know exactly what keys will be in the hash, we can find a hash function h such that we generate a perfect minimal hash.  Finding this hash function is called perfect minimal hash function generation. One site mentions that part of his algorithm for finding perfect minimal hash functions in NP-complete.  I don’t know if this is true generally of perfect minimal hash function generation.  I’ve found two programs that will generate a perfect minimal hash function from a static set of keywords – the GNU program gperf and cmph.

Gperf is an older GNU utility that generates C or C++ code that contains a hash function and the lookup table.  Gperf has tons of options to specify how to go about the search for a perfect hash function and how to output the code.  The manual is fairly extensive and the author’s paper describes the implementation details.

CMPH is dual-licensed LGPL and MPL program that is actively developed by four researchers in the field. The concepts page gives a brief overview of the theory while the subpages describes the different algorithms used.  The authors also compare their tool to gperf saying that gperf is used for small key sets and generates perfect hashes while CMPH is geared towards very large sets and perfect minimal hashes.  How large is “large set”?  Quoth the main page: “[CMPH] has been used successfully for constructing minimal perfect hash functions for sets with more than 100 million of keys, and we intend to expand this number to the order of billion of keys”.  CMPH also gives some empirical data on average key size and load-factor for each algorithm used.

Why would you want to use a perfect hash function generator?  If you are operating in an environment with tight memory or space constraints, you may use a perfect hash function generator to squeeze some extra performance out.  If you know your keys in advance and are parsing a lot of text, it may be worthwhile to generate a perfect hash function.  And for key sets on the order of 100 million to a billion, it may be worthwhile to investigate CMPH.

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“No Worst, There is None” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries have, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing–
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
erring! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! Creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


Recommended readings: Psalm 88, Psalm 130


This poem is pure lament, which is why I love it.  The author describes a fearsome depression, a “world sorrow”, that baffles the mind.  It is a grief that is thrown (“pitched past”) far beyond the blackness of despair (“pitch of grief”). The newer pains seem to learn from the previous ones (“schooled at forepangs”) and are the more severe for it (“wilder wring”). The author asks for deliverance from both the Holy Spirit (“Comforter”) and Mary.

The author describes his sorrows as a herd that huddles together, focusing in on a single problem – “world sorrow”. A sorrow that comes from merely existing in this world.  He describes these pains like being repeatedly struck on an anvil.  And like the striking of an anvil with hammer, the pain is short (“lull then leave off … no lingering … [per]force I must be brief”) but nevertheless intense (“wince and sing”).

My favorite lines are what come next: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.” There is such a mental anguish through depression and “world sorrow” that those who have never experienced it “hold them cheap”.  Our endurance (“durance”) does not hold out long in the face of such an abyss.  These lines are a bit of a mystery to me – are “Creep” and “Wretch” vocative nouns or imperative verbs? What does it mean to find comfort under a whirlwind? Whatever the answer is to those two questions, the last image is very clear: just as every day “dies” with sleep so all life ends with death.

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Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Last night was Nick’s “Theology Monthly” where we discussed creation.  There was disagreement over the interpretation of “day” in Genesis 1-2 and even disagreement over its importance.  I believe that “day” refers to a literal 24-hour period of time.  It seems to me

  1. to be the most natural reading of the text
  2. to be the way later Biblical authors understood the text (cf. the 4th commandment)
  3. that there are no problems in the text that require a solution of a non-24 hour day
  4. that denying a non-24 hour day has implications or consequences I would deny (e.g. when and why do living creatures die?)
  5. that alternative explanations seems ad hoc
  6. that a consistent application of the logic behind denying a 24-hour day allows the interpreter to override any Biblical data–no matter how clear–with ostensibly scientific data.

During the discussion, Josh commented that there were many occasions throughout history where scientific findings were used to correct interpretations of the Bible.  I want to challenge such a reading of history.

First challenge – name at least 2 times that has happened.  The most obvious candidate is Galileo’s kerfuffle with the Catholic Church.  Even if I grant that incident (which I don’t, see below), what other instances are there?  One might suggest Christians using the curse of Ham as a justification for slavery.  But this gross misinterpretation was not overturned by scientific data.  The Red Cross still segregated blood donations well into the 50s until it was shown that blood from non-Caucasians  is identical to those from Caucasians.  Furthermore, the abolitionist William Wilberforce was working from an explicit Christian theology.  One last example – John Woolman in his journal came to similar convictions from a reading of the Bible in the early 1790s.  I do not believe that the interpretation of slavery in the Bible was fundamentally altered by a scientific discovery.

The way I read history, Galileo was a heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church not because they were so convinced that the Bible demanding a geocentric solar system but rather because they had uncritically accepted the physics of Aristotle and Ptolemy.  Ironically, Galileo proves the exact opposite of what people usually claim! The church gets into interpretive difficulties when it accepts the scientific consensus of the age.  We must be faithful to Scripture – speaking where it speaks and being silent where it is silent.  If another field of inquiry speaks where the Bible is silent we can tentatively adopt those conclusions.  If another field of inquiry speaks in direct contradiction to where the Bible speaks, we must side with the Bible.

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“The Revival” by Henry Vaughan

UNFOLD ! unfold !  Take in His light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys which with His day-star rise
He deals to all but drowsy eyes ;
And, what the men of this world miss
Some drops and dews of future bliss.

Hark ! how His winds have chang’d their note !
And with warm whispers call thee out ;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle’s voice ;
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear !

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“If He Had Faltered Even Once” by Kevin Hartnett

They spit upon His meekness,
And struck Him in the face.
Their floggers swung with hatred;
They stripped Him in disgrace.
Deep worked the Roman anger
That tortured Him, a Jew;
Yet this His contemplation:
“They know not what they do.”

His people cheered “Hosanna,”
Then had Him crucified.
They freed corrupt Barabbas;
To sentence Him, they lied.
He hung outside their city,
Where leaders mocked Him too;
Yet this, the hurt He carried:
“I would have gathered you.”

No angels came to help Him
When Heaven on Him fell.
The Devil tried to reach Him
Through ev’ry lie in hell.
Unthinkable the anguish
As Father crushed the Son,
Yet this His firm conviction:
“Thy will, not mine, be done.”

No selfishness, no hatred,
No spitefulness was there.
No unbelief, no cursing,
No pity from despair.
One sinful thought; one failure,
And Love would not succeed.
The ransomed souls of hist’ry
Must His perfection plead.

If He had faltered even once,
In flames of hell would men abide.
Then ponder Christ, and praise at length
The strength of Him there crucified.


From http://khartnettpoetry.typepad.com/kevin_hartnett_poetry/2007/05/if_he_had_falte.html

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“God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Hopkins

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Recommended reading: Psalm 8, Psalm 19


Hopkins tells us that God’s glory in the world is an electric current (“charged”), shines like light reflecting from flecks of foil and is like a thick oil. Since God’s presence on earth is so great, why don’t people pay heed to (“reck” – see “reckless”) his authority (“rod”)?

Like the teacher shows in Ecclesiastes, human existence is vain, arduous, and repetitive. Generations have come and gone, being spent on their work. And yet nature still speaks to spiritual realities – just as the sun sets in the west to rise again in the east so also the Holy Spirit continually refreshes creation.

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Faith in faith or Faith in Christ?

I came upon this quote by Sinclair Ferguson:

True faith takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself. Faith gets a man out of himself and into Christ… Even those of us who have weak faith have the same strong Christ as others!

My pastor Andrew Kamm asked me to write a few words to expand upon with Ferguson is saying.  To do that, we’ll need to talk about justification.

Justification is the legal declaration from God that announces that a sinner is righteous in God’s sight. Justification includes the forgiveness of sins and the crediting (or “imputing”) of Christ’s righteousness. This can be done on the basis of substitution and is often called, “The Great Exchange”.  2 Cor. 5:21 explains it this way: “For our sake He [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ took all of our sins and we get all of His righteousness.

We receive this justification not by any work we do but we receive justification by faith. Luther’s rediscovery and powerful articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone – that sinners are justified by God through faith – is at the very heart of Protestant Christianity.

But with justification by faith there is an important distinction to be made.  To put it in technical language, faith is the instrument, not the grounds of our justification.  Faith is the open hand by which we receive justification not the reason we can be justified.  This may seem like a subtle point, but it is important: to confuse the instrument and grounds of justification will drive us to despair by placing ourselves back on the treadmill of good works.

The grounds of our justification is the perfect and finished work of Christ.  We can be justified because Christ accomplished redemption.  Faith is what unites us to Christ and His perfect work, not what makes His work perfect for us. If you walked on a frozen lake and you didn’t fall in, the reason was not the strength or quality of your trusting that the ice will hold you but rather the fact that there are ten feet of solid frozen ice under you. Christ is mighty to save on His own account.

Ferguson reminds us that our faith is not placed in our experience of God but it is placed in God Himself.  Though our experience of God and the strength of our own faith changes throughout the days, weeks, and years, God Himself does not.  We look to the object of our faith to overcome all of our own shortcomings.  Faith allows us to take our eyes of ourselves – our lies, our evil, our ugliness – and to look at God – His truth, His goodness, His beauty.

I can think of two applications that should flow from this great truth:

  1. To all of those who struggle with faith – take heart!  The weakest faith clings to the strongest savior!
  2. The prayer of the exasperated father, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24), should be our response when we recognize our faith is failing.  It is the prayer of the converted – it is addressed to God Himself and recognizes Him as not only the giver of faith but as the one who maintains it in us.  Here is a great hymn to help us in our prayer in worship:

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