Yes…The Word Gehenna Really Does Refer to Hell in the New Testament

Yes...The Word Gehenna Really Does Refer to Hell

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write a post on the meaning of the word Gehenna (Gr. γέεννα) in the New Testament. Gehenna is the Greek word that normally stands behind the word “hell” in modern translations of the New Testament. The reason why I wanted to write on this topic is because there are several writers who suggest that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death (i.e. hell) but refers to some type of judgment that would be experienced during this lifetime.

Now most of the time writers who say that the word Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death say that the word Gehenna should be understood in light of Jesus’ teaching about the destruction of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem in passages like Matthew 24. The argument goes something like this: The word Gehenna ultimately derives from the Hebrew term גֵּיא הִנֹּם (gê’ hinnōm), which refers to a literal valley that lies just outside of the wall of Jerusalem – the Valley of Hinnom or, as the Old Testament refers to it, the Valley of Ben Hinnom. So when Jesus was referring to Gehenna in the Gospels, he was literally referring to this valley, not a place of punishment for the wicked after death. Jesus warned the people that if they didn’t give up their revolutionary and rebellious ways and accept God’s way for ushering in his kingdom, their bodies would be literally thrown into the Valley of Hinnom when the Romans attacked Jerusalem and conquered the city.

Recently, however, I came across a blog post that was shared by a friend on Facebook that, on first glance, seemed to be making the exact same argument (https://michaelpaul.com/2017/10/02/jesus-and-hell). So I decided that this might be a good opportunity to finally get around to writing on this topic and show why this particular understanding of the term of Gehenna is completely mistaken and doesn’t actually work when you try to apply it to the New Testament’s use of Gehenna. However, when I finally read the full post, the argument that the author was  making was quite a bit different from what I was expecting. The post did come to the conclusion that the term Gehenna doesn’t actually refer to a place of punishment for the wicked after death but he argued for a metaphorical meaning for the term Gehenna that was quite different from the view that relates it to the destruction of Jerusalem.

There were six main points that that the author wanted to make about Gehenna based on the background material he found in the Old Testament (note that these are direct quotes):

  1. The fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God.
  2. God abhorred the fires of Gehenna.
  3. They were the epitome of senseless human violence, particularly violence against the most vulnerable.
  4. Gehenna symbolizes God’s judgment, but this divine judgment is not an “angry God directly inflicting violence upon sinners for eternity” judgment.
  5. It’s a “reap what you sow” judgment – if we sow violence, injustice, and oppression, we will reap that violence, injustice, and oppression upon ourselves, in very human, natural, ways, within human history and not beyond it.
  6. It’s a judgment specifically upon the powerful, those with social or economic or political or religious clout, for the ways in which they oppress and commit violence against the weak, those on the bottom rungs of our social and economic and political and religious hierarches.

In this post, I want to show why this author’s understanding of Gehenna is completely mistaken and that there are some very serious problems with how he came to his conclusions. So this post is really about two things: it is about the meaning of the word Gehenna in the New Testament and it is about the dangers of misusing background material to interpret passages of Scripture.

There are at least four main problems with the conclusions that the author comes to and with the way that he came to these conclusions:

1. First, while the imagery of fire associated Gehenna can certainly be traced back to the fire that was used in child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, this does not seem to be the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.

The author points to Jeremiah 7:31 as the immediate background for the imagery of fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament:

Jeremiah 7:31 – They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire – something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. (NIV)

The author concludes that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna”. The problem, though, is that the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 are not the immediate background for the association of Gehenna with fire in the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, the Valley of Ben Hinnom became associated with God’s judgment on Jerusalem and the unleashing of the covenantal curses that are found in Deuteronomy 28 (see Jer. 7:32 and 19:6-9). This association was then extended to include God’s eschatological judgment on the wicked (i.e. the judgment that would take place at the final judgment). As Bruce Chilton points out, the Targum of Isaiah associates Gehenna with the place of final judgment on the wicked in several places (26:15, 19; 30:33; 33:14, 17; 53:9; 65:5).[1] The most important reference, however, is Isaiah 66:22-24, which describes a scene of judgment that will take place in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment) during the same time period as the new heavens and the new earth (cf. Isa. 65:17):

Isaiah 66:22-24 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (NIV)

While the term Gehenna does not appear in the Hebrew of Isaiah 66:22-24, it does appear in the Targum of Isaiah:

וְיִפְקוּן וְיִחזוֹן בְפִגרֵי גֻברַיָא חַייָבַיָא דִמרַדוּ בְמֵימְרִי אְרֵי נִשמָתְהוֹן לָא יְמוּתֻן וְאִשָתְהוֹן לָא תִטפֵי וִיהוֹן מִידְדָנִין רַשִיעַיָא בְגֵיהִנָם עַד דְיֵימְרוּן עְלֵיהוֹן צַדִיקַיָא מִיסָת חְזֵינָא׃

Isaiah 66:24 – And they will go out and see the corpses of the guilty men who rebelled against my word because their soul will not die and their fire will not be extinguished and the wicked will be judged in Gehenna until the righteous say concerning them, “It is enough!” (Translation mine)

This example is particularly important because the language of the worm not dying and the fire not being quenched in the Hebrew version of Isaiah 66:24 is picked up by Jesus in Mark 9:47-48 in connection with Gehenna:

Mark 9:47-48 – And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (Gehenna), where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

This should make it clear that the immediate background for the fire associated with Gehenna in the New Testament is not the fire of child sacrifice in passages like Jeremiah 7:31 but the fire of God’s judgment in Isaiah 66:24.

This means that the observation that “the fires of Gehenna were made by humans, not by God” and that “God abhorred the fires of Gehenna” cannot be sustained because they are reflections on the wrong background material. The context of Jeremiah 7 cannot be used to say that the fires of Gehenna that Jesus spoke about were not made by God and that God abhorred the fires of this Gehenna: it is talking about a different kind of fire.

2. Second, even if passages like Jeremiah 7:31 were the immediate background for the New Testament’s use of the word Gehenna, it is illegitimate to import the entire context of Jeremiah 7:31 into Jesus’ use of the term unless there are strong indicators in the text to point in that direction.

Is it really true that Jesus is talking about consequences “for those who use their power to oppress the weak, who live in wealth in indifference to the poor, who have the means to care for the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry but refuse to do so, who rest secure in their status and privilege while committing grace injustices against the vulnerable and the marginalized”?

The problem, though, is that when you actually read what Jesus has to say about Gehenna within the context of the Gospels themselves, it doesn’t sound a thing like the way the author described Gehenna in his post. All we have to do is take a look at one example to make it clear that his definition simply does not fit.  So let’s take a quick look at Matthew 5:27-30:

Matthew 5:27-30 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Gehenna). (NIV)

When you take a look at how the word Gehenna is used in this passage, it is clear that it has nothing to do with powerful people oppressing the weak; it has to do with the consequences of committing adultery in one’s heart. And, as we’ll see in our next point, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t simply speaking about the natural consequences for committing adultery in your heart; he’s speaking about the consequences that a person will have to experience on the Day of Judgment.

But this example should be sufficient to show that the definition given by the author for the meaning of the word Gehenna simply does not work. Whenever we’re dealing with potential background material for a particular passage of scripture (or any piece of literature for that matter), privilege needs to be given to the context of the passage of scripture we are trying to interpret. Background material should not be used to overthrow the plain-sense meaning of the passage we are interpreting.

3. Third, the New Testament’s use of the term Gehenna makes it clear that it does not refer to punishment that happens in this lifetime but refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. after the final judgment).

The reason why the author of this post said that the punishment in Gehenna was punishment that would be experienced in this lifetime rather than in the eschaton is because the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is punishment that would happen in human history (i.e. the Babylonian army would come and destroy Jerusalem).

However, there are at least four strong reasons for believing that when the New Testament uses the term Gehenna that it refers to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton rather than punishment in this lifetime:

First, Matthew 18:8-9 equates the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna with eternal fire (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον):

Matthew 18:8-9 – If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Gehenna). (NIV)

Now, of course, there definitely is some debate about what the word “eternal” means in the phrase “eternal fire” but it should be clear that whatever the precise meaning of the word “eternal” in this phrase, it is referring to eschatological judgment, not judgment in this lifetime.

Second, Matthew 18:8-9 makes it clear that the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna takes place at the same time that the righteous enter into eternal life. In verse 8 and verse 9 Jesus contrasts the fate of the wicked being thrown into eternal fire or Gehenna with the righteous entering life. Life, in this case, clearly refers to resurrection life in the kingdom of God (see Dan. 12:2), not something that takes place during this lifetime. Since entering life takes place during the eschaton, it is difficult to argue that being thrown into eternal fire or the fire of Gehenna takes place during this lifetime: it is clearly a punishment that takes place in the eschaton.

Third, Matthew 10:28 clearly places the punishment that the wicked experience in Gehenna in the eschaton rather than during this lifetime:

Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna).” (NIV)

In this passage, Gehenna is clearly a place that a person should fear even after they die. Human beings might be able to kill the body but they cannot kill the soul. God, on the other hand, is able to extend punishment beyond the death of the body, which clearly places the punishment in Gehenna beyond this lifetime.  We can discuss the reasons why “the One who can destroy both soul and body” is God rather than Satan in another post.

Fourth, Jewish literature outside of the New Testament, including the Targums, Rabbinic literature, and books like 1 Enoch make it clear that Gehenna was understood by many Jews to be a place of eschatological judgment for the wicked. In other words, the term Gehenna is used quite frequently in Jewish literature outside of the New Testament to refer to what we would call hell.  See the discussion, for example, in Chaim Milikowsky, “Which Gehenna? Retribution and Eschatology in the Syoptic Gospels and in Early Jewish Texts,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 238-249 or the discussion of Gehenna in the Jewish Encyclopedia available online here: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna. The use of the term Gehenna in the New Testament clearly comes from this same tradition.

Once again, the author of this post is using background material to overrule the plain-sense meaning of the text. The New Testament makes it clear that punishment in Gehenna takes place during the eschaton and this is confirmed by the similar usage in other Jewish texts.

4. Finally, the author of this post is simply mistaken when he says that the punishment in Jeremiah 7 and the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament are simply the natural consequences of human sin rather than something that God actively inflicts on the wicked.

While it is true that the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 ultimately came about through the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem, there can be no doubt that the Old Testament views God as the one who was behind this punishment, so much so that some text ignore the secondary agent and attribute the violence directly to God himself (e.g. Lam. 2:1-8). In fact, the punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7:33 echoes the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:26 – and Deuteronomy 28 attributes the execution of this curse to God himself. The punishment mentioned in Jeremiah 7 is not simply the natural consequence that comes about for people who act violently: it is punishment that comes from God because the people violated the terms of the covenant in Deuteronomy.

It is even more difficult to see the punishment in Gehenna in the New Testament as simply the natural consequence for human violence and oppression. Gehenna is a place of eschatological judgment. The person who gives the orders for the eschatological judgment to be carried out is Jesus himself (e.g. Matt. 13:36-43). The language of angels throwing people into a fiery furnace in Matthew 13:42 is parallel to the wicked being thrown into the eternal fire in Matthew 18:8 and into Gehenna in Matthew 18:9. Clearly God is active in the punishment in Gehenna: these are not simply earthly punishments that come about as a natural consequence for sin.

Conclusion

The main lesson that we can learn from this post is this: the immediate context of the passage we are looking at trumps any background material we bring to the text that does violence to the plain-sense meaning of the text. If the background material we bring to text clashes with the plain-sense meaning of the text, chances are we are wrong about the relevance of the background material.

This was clearly the case in this blog post. Gehenna does refer to a place of punishment for the wicked in the eschaton (i.e. hell) and the context of Jeremiah 7 is clearly the wrong lens through which to view the New Testament’s use of Gehenna.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Bruce D. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scriptures of His Time (Eugene, Oregon, Wipf & Stock, 1984) , 102.

 

 

 

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Did Jesus Experience God’s Wrath When He Died on the Cross?

Human Wrath vs. Divine Wrath

In a recent panel discussion, a fairly well-known Canadian pastor made an interesting comment about the way that we as Christians should understand the death of Jesus. He said that when Jesus died on the cross, it wasn’t the wrath of God that he was experiencing.  He said that when Jesus died on the cross he was only experiencing human wrath: the wrath of God had nothing to do with it.

As I’m sure that many people are aware, there is an increasing number of people who have grown uncomfortable with speaking about the death of Jesus in terms of Jesus experiencing the wrath of God. I’m sure that a big part of this has to do with different theological understandings of what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross. And I’m sure that, for many, an even bigger part of this has to do with a different understanding of who God is and what he is like (i.e. Does God actually get angry at sin? Does sin need to be punished for God to be able to forgive sin? etc.).

But in this post I simply want to focus on one main issue, namely, that human wrath vs. divine wrath is a false dichotomy: saying that Jesus experienced human wrath does not mean that Jesus wasn’t experiencing divine wrath at the same time.[1]

1. What is Wrath?

But before we get into why human wrath vs. divine wrath is a false dichotomy, it is important for us to define what the term wrath actually means. The word wrath (Heb. חֲרוֹן אַף, חָרָה לְ, or חֵמָה) simply means burning or intense anger.  And when the Bible speaks about God pouring out (שָׁפַךְ) his wrath it refers to God giving expression to his anger in some sort of concrete way.

But when the Bible speaks about God pouring out his wrath, we need to be careful: the focus isn’t so much on the emotions that God is experiencing but on the intensity of the punishment that the person or group is experiencing because of their sin. In other words, when the Old Testament speaks about God pouring out his wrath, it is simply another way of saying that God is punishing people in a severe way because of their sin.[2]

2.  Divine Wrath vs. Human Wrath

So the question we need to ask is whether or not the experience of human wrath and the experience of divine wrath are mutually exclusive. In other words, if a person or group is experiencing human wrath, does this automatically exclude the possibility that they are experiencing God’s wrath at the same time? I think the answer to this one is fairly clear: experiencing human wrath does not exclude the possibility that the person or group is also experiencing the wrath of God.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from the book of Lamentations to show why this is the case:

Lamentations 2:2 – Without pity the Lord has swallowed up all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has torn down the strongholds of the Daughter of Judah. He has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonor. (NIV)

Lamentations 2:3 – In fierce anger he has cut off every horn of Israel. He has withdrawn his right hand at the approach of the enemy. He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire that consumes everything around it. (NIV)

Lamentations 2:4 – Like an enemy he has strung his bow; his right hand is ready. Like a foe he has slain all who were pleasing to the eye; he has poured out his wrath like fire on the tent of the Daughter of Zion. (NIV)

Lamentations 3:1 – I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. (NIV)

Lamentations 4:11 – The LORD has given full vent to his wrath; he has poured out his fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion that consumed her foundations. (NIV)

There are two important things to notice in these passages:

(a) First of all, notice that each of these passages speak about the wrath of God being poured out on Judah/Jerusalem. In other words, each of these passages speak about God giving concrete expression to his anger because of their sin, keeping in mind that the focus here is not so much on God’s emotional state but on the intensity of the punishment he is giving out.

(b) Second, when God pours out his wrath in these passages, he is not pouring out his anger in a direct way. He isn’t pouring down sulphur from heaven and he isn’t sending some kind of plague to wipe out the people. When God pours out his anger he is doing through the Babylonian army: according to the book of Lamentations, God sent the Babylonian army to punish Judah/Jerusalem because of their sin and, when they came, he did not do anything to stop them.  Using the language of the Canadian pastor I mentioned earlier on in the post, from a human point of view we could say that Judah/Jerusalem was destroyed because of human wrath. But, using the language and theology of the book of Lamentations, Judah/Jerusalem was also destroyed because of divine wrath. There is no false dichotomy between human wrath and divine wrath: in these passages God poured out his wrath precisely through human wrath.

The Death of Jesus and the Wrath of God

The question we need to ask now is whether or not it is theologically appropriate to say that Jesus experienced the wrath of God when he died on the cross. I use the term theologically appropriate here because, as far as I am aware, there are no passages in the New Testament that explicitly refer to Jesus experiencing God’s wrath when he died on the cross, though there are a number of reasons for believing that it is strongly implied. When I ask whether or not it is theologically appropriate to speak about Jesus experiencing the wrath of God when he died on the cross, I am asking: “Based on everything that we know from the Bible that touches on this issue, is it appropriate to speak of Jesus experiencing the wrath of God when he died on the cross, even though that language is not explicitly used?” I believe that the answer to this question is “yes”.

Remember, what does it mean to experience the wrath of God? When a person experiences the wrath of God it means that they are experiencing severe punishment because of their sin. Sometimes that punishment is given out by God in a direct way; at other times that punishment is given out through what seems to be independent human action (i.e. human wrath). Sometimes the focus is on God sending those human agents to perform that judgment; at other times the focus is simply on God not rescuing his people from their hands: either way, these independent human actions are seen as God pouring out his wrath on his people.

So the question that needs to be asked is this: Does the Bible ever see the death of Jesus as punishment for sin? Again, I would say that the answer to this question is “yes” – but not for his own sin, but for the sins of others.  There are many places we could go to show this, but one of the best places to go is Isaiah 53:

Isaiah 53:4 – Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. (NIV)

In other words, they thought that God was punishing this person for his own sin.  But the passage doesn’t end there:

Isaiah 53:5-6 – But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (NIV)

This part of the passage clarifies what was meant in verse 4: Christ wasn’t experiencing punishment for his own sin; he was experiencing punishment for the sin of other people.

This is precisely what it means to experience the wrath of God: to experience severe punishment from God because of sin. By ordaining the death of Jesus (Acts 4:28) as punishment for sin (Isa. 53:6) and by not rescuing Jesus when he was dying on the cross (Matthew 26:46), God was effectively pouring out his wrath on Jesus so that we could be forgiven for our sins. The wrath/punishment that we deserve to receive fell on Jesus so that we could be forgiven for our sins (Rom. 3:25-26).[3].  If we believe that Jesus died in our place and experienced the punishment that we deserve to receive, it is appropriate to say that Jesus experienced the wrath of God, even if that precise terminology is not used in the New Testament.

Conclusion

Saying that Jesus experienced human wrath does not settle the issue of whether or not Jesus also experienced the wrath of God when he died on the cross. When the Bible speaks about God pouring out his wrath, it is not limited to fire coming down from heaven or to plagues coming down on people: very often it refers to what, on the surface, looks like independent human action but, in reality, is actually ordained by God. This is exactly what happened in the death of Jesus: Jesus experienced human wrath, something that, on the surface, looked like independent human action. But the reality is that this was ultimately ordained by God: Jesus was experiencing the wrath of God through human wrath so that we could be forgiven.

[1] Throughout this post I will be using the language of human wrath simply because this was the language used by the pastor mentioned at the beginning of the post. The reason why he used this language was clearly to contrast it with divine wrath. That being said, I don’t think that the term human wrath is the best way to describe the human actions we will be talking about in this post.

[2] A good example of this in the New Testament is John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (NIV) In this case the focus is not so much on the intensity of God’s anger remaining on people but on the intensity of the punishment that awaits people who don’t believed in Jesus.

[3] I realize that substitutionary atonement, especially penal substitutionary atonement, is an extremely contentious issue. I’m sure that I will address this in other posts in the future.

 

Is All Sin Really Equal in God’s Sight?

Are All Sins Equal in God's Sight

One of the most common misconceptions that evangelicals have about what the Bible teaches about sin is that all sin is equal in God’s sight. So you will often hear evangelicals say that there is no such thing as a “big sin” or a “small sin” because, in the end, sin is sin and all sin is equal in God’s sight.

Now where does this idea come from?  This idea comes from, what I believe, is a serious misunderstanding of James 2:10-11:

James 2:10-11 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

In this post we’re going be asking the question, “Is all sin really equal in the sight of God?”  We’ll answer this question by looking, firstly, at evidence that we find in the Bible that some sins are worse than others and , second, at why James 2:10-11 doesn’t teach that all sin is equal in God’s sight.

1. Some Sins are More Serious Than Others

So let’s start off by taking a look at some biblical evidence for why some sin is actually worse than others:

a) First, we can see that some sins actually are worse than others because in the Old Testament there were different degrees of punishment for different types of sin.

Let’s take a look at what the penalty for stealing was in the Covenant Law Code found in the book of Exodus:

Exodus 22:1 – If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. (NIV)

In this case, the penalty for stealing livestock was that the thief would have to pay the owner four to five times the amount that was stolen.  In other words, the thief would have to a pay punitive/restorative fine to the owner.

Now compare that penalty to the penalty for murder:[1]

Exodus 21:12 – Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. (NIV)

When you take a look at these two examples, it is clear that in God’s eyes murder is much more serious than theft: the penalty for theft was simply a restorative/punitive fine while the penalty for murder was death. The fact that there were different degrees of penalties for different types of sin shows that not all sin is equal in God’s sight.

b) Second, the fact that some sins are treated with a greater degree of horror in the Bible than other sins shows that sins are not actually equal in God’s sight.

Let me give two quick examples – and we’ll begin with the less controversial one first. The first example comes from 1 Corinthians 5:1-2:

1 Corinthians 5:1-2 – It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (NIV)

So in this passage, the Apostle Paul is talking about a person in the church in Corinth who was having an ongoing sexual relationship with his own stepmother, which, according to biblical law, is incest (Lev. 18:8). Paul is shocked that this kind of sin is happening in the church because this is a type of sin that was not even committed among the pagans (lit. Gentiles = non-Jewish, non-Christian).  Paul tells them that, rather than rejoicing with him, they should have kicked him out of the church and treated him like an unbeliever until he repented of that sin and gave up that relationship.

But when you read this passage you can tell that Paul is horrified by this particular sin.  This clearly means that for Paul, sin wasn’t all equal in God’s eyes.  And, if we believe in the inspiration of scripture, this also means that God doesn’t see all sin as being equal in his sight.

The second example comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 – this is the controversial one. It is clear that the city of Sodom and the other cities on the plain were guilty of committing all sorts of different sin. This sin was so bad that God told Abraham that he would go down (i.e. send two angels) to see if things were really as bad as he had been told. Did God not know how bad these people really were? Did he really have to send down two angels to find out if they were really as bad as he had heard? Clearly God was condescending to Abraham’s (and our) level to show that when he judges that is based on a thorough investigation of the facts and that any judgment that he gives is perfectly fair.

But even though Sodom and the cities on the plain were guilty of all sorts of different sin, “Exhibit A” in the case that God made against them was their treatment of the angels who came to visit. The men of the city welcomed the angels by telling their host to bring “the men” out so that they could rape them. Clearly rape is wrong. In the culture that produced Genesis 19, same-sex rape was even worse.  That point can be debated in a different post.

What was the result? Sodom and the rest of the cities on the plain were destroyed by burning sulfur that came down from heaven. But the question needs to be asked: Did God do this to every city that had sinful people in it? If the men of Sodom were simply guilty of gossip, would he have sent down burning sulfur from heaven to rain down on them and destroy them? The answer is clearly “no” – otherwise God would have had to destroy every city that was in existence back then.

So the fact that some sins are treated with more horror than other sins shows that God does not consider every sin to be on the same level.

c) Third, the fact that the Bible refers to some sin as “great sin” shows that not all sin is equal in God’s eyes.

All we have to do is take a look at the following examples (and many more could be given):

Exodus 32:30 – The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (NIV)

1 Samuel 2:17 – This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt. (NIV)

2 Kings 17:21 – When he tore Israel away from the house of David, they made Jeroboam son of Nebat their king. Jeroboam enticed Israel away from following the LORD and caused them to commit a great sin. (NIV)

John 19:11 – Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. (NIV)

The fact that some sins are referred to as “great” sins clearly shows that not all sin is equal in God’s eyes. In fact, these verses serve as clear evidence that there is a distinction between “big sins” and “small sins,” despite what many evangelicals say.

d) Fourth, the fact that Jesus said that there is one sin that can never be forgiven clearly shows that some sin is more serious than other sin.

Let’s take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 12:32:

Matthew 12:32 – Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (NIV)

This isn’t the place to discuss what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit means and whether or not that sin can still be committed today. The point is that speaking a word against the Holy Spirit is worse than speaking a word against Jesus (whatever that means) and that speaking a word against the Holy Spirit has to be more serious (in some sense) than other sins since this sin can never be forgiven.  And if this sin is more serious than other sins, then clearly not all sin is equal in God’s eyes.

2. So what do we do with James 2:9-11?  Let’s look at the passage again:

James 2:10-11 – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

Is James really saying that all sin is equal in God’s sight? I don’t think he is at all. So what is James saying? James is saying that there are basically two types of people in this world: people who break God’s law and people who keep God’s law. This can be seen by the fact that he uses the term “lawbreaker” in verse 9 and verse 11 (ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου ὡς παραβάται and παραβάτης νόμου respectively):

James 2:9 – But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (NIV)

James 2:11 – For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” (NIV)

James’ point is that if you treat rich people in the church better than poor people (2:1-9), you are guilty of being a lawbreaker. You shouldn’t think that you are good in God’s eyes because you haven’t committed murder or you haven’t committed adultery because there are only two types of people: lawbreakers or lawkeepers.  If you are showing favouritism in the church you are still a lawbreaker because you have broken a portion of God’s law.

When James says that the person who stumbles at one point is guilty of breaking all of it, he is saying that God’s law is a unified whole and that any sin, regardless of how big or small it is, makes a person a lawbreaker. James is clearly not saying that when a person shows favouritism that God will also hold them accountable for murder and adultery as well. He is simply saying that when people show favouritism in the church, they are breaking God’s law and that they should be put in the category of lawbreaker, which means that this is a sin that they need to deal with.

Good Intentions and Bad Intentions

When evangelicals say that all sin is equal in God’s sight, it is usually done with good intentions. Evangelicals want to dispel the myth that only “big sins” will keep people from being able to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways, the idea that only “big sins” will keep a person from being able to enter the kingdom of God is even more serious than thinking that all sins are equal in God’s sight. We have to remember that the standard for entering the kingdom of God is absolute perfection: if you perfectly keep God’s law, you will be allowed to enter God’s kingdom; if you are a lawbreaker, you will be excluded from God’s kingdom. And that means that the only hope for being able to enter God’s kingdom is to be forgiven through Christ and the sacrifice that he made for us on the cross. He is the only way that the stain of our sin can be washed away and that we can be qualified to enter into God’s presence in his kingdom.  So, whether we have “big sin” or “small sin” on our record, we need to be forgiven through Christ, otherwise we won’t have any hope of being able to enter God’s kingdom.

So most people definitely do have good intentions when they say that all sin is equal in God’s sight. But many people use this idea as an excuse for not addressing certain types of sin or to tell other people not to address certain types of sin: all sin is equal in God’s eyes so we shouldn’t be focusing on these types of sin. Now, if the person who said this were consistent, they would say that the solution would be to focus equally on all sin and show that it is all displeasing to God. More often than not, however, it is used as an excuse to shut down the debate about certain types of sin: all sin is equal in God’s eyes, which for some reason means that all sin is not that big of a deal in God’s eyes and people have freedom to do whatever they want.  So it can be seen that a teaching that is often used with good intentions can also be twisted to be used to downplay the seriousness of sin.

Conclusion

In the end, what matters is not whether our intentions are good or bad: what matters is whether or not what we are saying matches up with what Scripture has to say. In this case the conclusion is clear: it is wrong to say that all sin is equal in God’s eyes. Rape is clearly worse than theft; sexual abuse is clearly worse than speeding on a highway; and murder is clearly worse than telling an inappropriate joke.

Does that mean that these other things don’t matter? Of course they do! As Christians, we should want to be lawkeepers, not lawbreakers, not because keeping God’s laws will earn us a place in his kingdom but because when we became Christians we committed ourselves to obeying and serving Christ –  out of gratefulness for what he has done for us, because our hearts have been changed and we have a different attitude toward sin, and because it is simply the right thing to do.

So let’s make sure that we recognize “big sins” for what they are. Let’s make sure that we deal with them appropriately when they happen in our churches. Let’s make sure that we treat both “big sins” and “small sins” seriously when they happen in our lives and repent of them.  But let’s especially be thankful that Christ came to pay the penalty for all sin, both big and small, so that we could have a place in his kingdom.

Mark Steven Francois

[1] It is important to keep in mind that the definition for murder in biblical law is much broader than the definition for murder in American, Canadian, or British law.  In biblical law, murder takes place when a person intends to seriously harm another person and the harm that they intend results in that person’s death.  For murder to take place in biblical law, it is only necessary to show that the person intended to harm the other person, not that the person intended to kill the other person.  See especially Numbers 35:16-25.

“Masters Obey Your Slaves?” Craig Keener’s Bizarre Interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9

1. Craig Keener - Masters Obey Your Slaves

I recently came across an article written by Craig Keener that has to do with the implications that Ephesians 5:21 has for Paul’s instructions to slaves and slave owners in Ephesians 6:5-9 (http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/). In Ephesians 6:5, the Apostle Paul tells slaves to obey their masters according to the flesh (i.e. their earthly masters) with fear and trembling and with sincerity of heart. As one could imagine, this would have been a passage that slave owners in the New World would have used quite frequently on their own slaves, invoking the authority of God’s Word to produce obedience in their slaves.

In the introduction to his article, Keener notes that this is precisely the kind of scenario that one reads about quite frequently in slave narratives.  In response to this particular use of this text, Keener says: “What the slaveholders didn’t bother to quote was the context, which goes on to say, ‘masters, do the same things to them’ (6:9). That is, if slaves have to obey their masters, masters also must obey their slaves!”[1] Keener is aware that this would have sounded strange on the ears of many of Paul’s hearers, but notes that this is precisely the point: “Did anyone in the first century take Paul literally on that point? Probably not. But that doesn’t change that what he actually said expressed one of the most radically antislavery sentiments of his day.”[2]

After reading Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:9, I have to admit that it sounds very strange on my ears as well. And there is a very simple reason for that – it’s because Keener’s interpretation goes against the entire thrust of this passage and against the overall context in which this passage is found. It is an example of allowing modern-day values and modern-day concerns to skew the plain sense meaning of the passage when read both in its historical and literary contexts. But, of course, this isn’t something that I can simply assume or assert – the case needs to be argued from the passage itself.

But before we can get into why Keener’s interpretation of this passage isn’t really plausible, we need to ask what arguments led Keener to come to this conclusion. Based on what we can see in this article, there are two main reasons why Keener came to this conclusion:

(a) The first reason has to do with Keener’s understanding of Ephesians 5:21, which says, “[Watch carefully how you live your life]…submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.”[3] According to Keener, this means that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 (i.e. husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and slave owners) are being told that they need to submit to each other in each of these relationships. In other words, wives are supposed to submit to their husbands but husbands, by the same token, are also supposed to submit to their wives. In the same way, slaves are supposed to submit to their masters but masters are also supposed to submit to their slaves.

(b) The second reason has to do with the wording of the instructions that are given to Christian slave owners in Ephesians 6:9, which says, “And masters, do the same things to them” (Καὶ οἱ κύριοι, τὰ αὐτὰ ποιεῖτε πρὸς αὐτούς). Accodring to Keener’s understanding of this passage, “the same things” refers to the command in 6:5 for slaves to obey their earthly masters: just as slaves are supposed to obey and submit to their earthly masters, earthly masters are supposed to obey and submit to their slaves.”

So what should we say about Keener’s interpretation of this passage?

There are at least two main problems with Keener’s interpretation of this passage:

(a) First, Keener’s interpretation of this passage is based, at least in part, on a very poor interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Like we saw earlier, on Keener’s reading of this passage, Paul is telling the various groups listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 to submit to each other in their respective relationships, with each party submitting to the other party. While this certainly would be a plausible interpretation if we only had verse 21, everything that Paul has to say in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 argues against this understanding of this passage.

A much better understanding of Ephesians 5:21 is that Paul wanted believers to submit to other members of the church who had rightful authority over them.[4] “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,” doesn’t mean that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 should submit to the corresponding party listed in the passage; it means that believers should submit to the corresponding party that is in authority over them.

How do we know that this is the case? Let’s start off with the least controversial reason. In Ephesians 6:1-4, which Keener only mentions at the very end of his article, it says that children are supposed to obey their parents. Paul even quotes one of the Ten Commandments to prove this point. But Paul never says that parents are supposed to obey or even submit to their children. This would be absurd! Even Keener, at the end of his article, says, “Also, there is much less mutual submission in the instruction to fathers: children do need guidance.”[5] This is an incredible understatement, which shows the weakness of his interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Parents are not supposed to submit to their children. Parents are not supposed to obey their children. What does it say instead? It says that fathers shouldn’t make their kids angry or resentful but should raise them in the teaching and instruction of the Lord. Children are supposed to obey their parents; but fathers need to make sure that they don’t abuse the authority that God has given them over their children. What is Paul doing in this passage?  He is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instruction to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused and that it is exercised in a Christ-like way.  This is the pattern that we will see in each of the other pairs of relationships as well.

The second least controversial reason (believe it or not!) for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken is because in Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul tells slaves to obey their earthly masters, as one would expect in that historical context, but he never tells Christian slave owners to obey their slaves. He never tells Christian slave owners to submit to their slaves. What does he tell slave owners to do? He tells them to stop threatening their slaves because their Master in heaven, both the slave’s and theirs, doesn’t play favourites, which is likely a veiled threat of God’s judgment if they treat their slaves too harshly. What is Paul doing in this passage? Just like in the instructions he gave to children and parents, he is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused.

But what about Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 9 (“And masters, do the same things to them”)? As we saw earlier, Keener understands this as a command for masters to submit to their slaves. But this is hardly plausible given the pattern that we saw in Ephesians 6:1-4, the inherent nature of the master-slave relationship, and the instructions that actually come after these words in the second part of verse 9. In the second part of verse 9, Paul simply tells Christian slave owners to stop threatening their slaves. He doesn’t tell them to submit to them or to obey them, which would make no sense in this context. So what does “the same things” refer to? Based on the clear connections between the second part of verse 9 and the instructions given to the slaves earlier, “the same things” clearly refers to seeing Christ as your master (vv. 6-7, 9), doing the will of God from your heart (v. 6), and serving with the knowledge that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they have done, whether slave or free (v. 8). It clearly does not refer to masters obeying their slaves.  (This point actually answers the main issue being dealt with in this post but, for now, it is simply evidence that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is mistaken.)

The third, and most controversial reason, for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is implausible is because in Ephesians 5:22-33, wives are told to submit to their husbands but husbands are never told to submit to their wives. Keener acknowledges this point but dismisses it: “Some object, ‘But submission is explicit only for the wife!’ Ah, but the command to love is explicit only for the husband (5:25). Yet we understand that all Christians should love another (5:2), and that all Christians should submit to one another (5:21).”[6] But Keener’s objection, however, fails to take into account the context of Ephesians 5:22-33. While it is true that all Christians are supposed to love each other (Eph. 5:2), Keener completely misses the function of 5:25 in this context. As we saw in the other two examples, Paul starts off by listing the party that needs to submit to the other party. Next, he gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority isn’t abused and that they exercise it in a Christ-like manner. The instructions in this section aren’t simply interchangeable: they follow a very specific pattern and the differences in the instructions can’t be simply swept aside.  The reason why husbands are not told to submit to their wives is because, according to what Paul has to say in this passage (whether we agree with it or not), God has given husbands a position of authority over their wives.  They are told to love their wives to makes sure that they don’t abuse that authority and to makes sure that they exercise it in a Christ-like way.  (Keep in mind that we are not dealing with how to apply this passage today – we are simply dealing with what Pau is saying in this particular historical context.)

So it is clear that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken, which means that his understanding of Ephesians 6:9 is also mistaken: Ephesians 5:21 does not mean that slave owners should submit to their slaves.

(b) The second major problem with Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9 is that it seems to have been influenced by the need to harmonize Ephesians 6:5-9 (and 5:22-33!) with modern-day values and concerns. What are those modern-day values and concerns? There are two of them: our modern-day disapproval and outrage against slavery and our modern-day dislike for hierarchy in marriage. Again, it is interesting that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 stops short of applying it in any meaningful way to Ephesians 6:1-4. This likely has to do with the fact that there is little modern-day disapproval of parents having authority over their children. But there is a need among many interpreters to make Paul match up with our values and with our concerns when it comes to gender roles and the issue of slavery. There is a need among many interpreters to see Paul as a progressive. Keener even says in this article that Paul was a progressive thinker for his day.

However, from a strictly historical perspective, it is a priori unlikely that Paul was progressive when it came to most social issues.  In other words, our default position should be that Paul was “a man of his times” unless there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.  Ephesians 5:22-33 and 6:5-9 count as evidence to prove this point. Seeing Paul as a progressive when there is every reason to think that he wasn’t seems to me to be the result of an overly theological/normative interpretation of Paul rather than the result of a historical/descriptive interpretation of Paul. Before we deal with what implications these passages might have for our view of husband-wife relationships today or even of master-slave relationships in New World slavery, we need to figure out what Paul meant in his own historical context and then move on from there.

So was Paul telling masters that they should obey or submit to their slaves? Certainly not! This interpretation of Ephesians 6:9 makes no sense in the context of Ephesians 6:5-9 or in the context of Ephesians 5:22-6:9. It also makes no sense Paul’s particular historical/cultural context.  How do we deal with the issue of Paul and slavery? Well…that’s something that we might have to deal with in another post. But, regardless of how strong our opinions might be on slavery or hierarchy in marriage, we can’t deal with these issues by making Paul say something other than what he is actually saying.

Mark Steven Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College

[1] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/

[2] Ibid.

[3] The verb “to submit” in 5:21 is a participle that modifies the verb “to live your life” (περιπατεῖτε) in 5:15. Ephesians 5:21 is giving one specific example of what it means to watch carefully how you live your life. Given the relationship of the verb “to submit” in this passage to the verb “to live your life” in 5:15, translations like the NIV are completely justified in translating it as a command in English.

[4] Note that in this passage, Paul’s wording assumes that the slave owners are also Christians.

[5] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/.

[6] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/.

What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?

reformed

A couple of days ago I listened to a very interesting episode of Mortification of Spin, a podcast for the Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals, about the tenth anniversary of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement or, at least, the article that gave the name to that movement.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion was whether or not the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement is really “Reformed” and the clear answer that they gave to that question was, as one “Reformed” theologian would put it, “Nein!”

Well, the issue of what actually makes a person “Reformed” is a pretty familiar topic but I thought that I would add my two cents.  But, instead of dealing with the criteria that they offered in the podcast, I thought it would be interesting to look at three fairly well-established ways that the term “Reformed” has been used (realizing that there are others, of course!) to show that the issue of who is and who is not Reformed is a little bit more complicated than most people think.

1. A Church Body That Holds to the Three Forms of Unity

So here’s the first definition for what it means to be Reformed: a Reformed Church is a church body holds to the Three Forms of Unity. Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Three Forms of Unity, the Three Forms of Unity are the doctrinal statements that are traditionally held by churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. In Canada and the United States, if a church is named _________ Reformed Church, you can usually assume that it is a historically Dutch church that holds (or, at least, historically held) to the Three Forms of Unity.

So in this sense, it would be strange for a Baptist or some other type of generic evangelical to refer to themselves as Reformed since I personally don’t know of any Baptist churches that use the Three Forms of Unity or even a modification of the Three Forms of Unity as their official doctrinal statement. And if they were to call themselves “_________ Reformed Church” and put that on their sign, I think that most people would end up being pretty confused.[1]

But, in this sense, it could also be said that Presbyterians aren’t really Reformed either because they hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms rather than the Three Forms of Unity. In a Canadian or American context, if a Presbyterian Church put “__________ Reformed Church” on their church sign it would be just as confusing as a Baptist Church doing the same thing.  Of course, one could argue that the Westminster Standards have essentially the same doctrine as the Three Forms of Unity (which isn’t quite the case).  But, still, if a church was called “___________ Reformed Church,” most people would be surprised if they found out it was a Presbyterian Church.  What about the term “Reformed Presbyterian”?   Well, that just sounds really strange in my ear.

It should be kept in mind, though, that this first understanding of “Reformed” makes most sense in a Canadian or American context because of their very large number of Dutch immigrants that came to both countries. There are other Reformed Churches in Europe who use the term “Reformed” in their names but have historically only held to the Heidelberg Catechism and/or the Second Helvetic Confession.  But we can leave them out for the moment since those churches don’t have as strong of a presence in the United States of Canada (assuming that most people who read this are from those contexts).

 2. A Church Body That Historically Held to the Three Forms of Unity

This second definition is related to the first one. In this case, “Reformed” can refer to a church body that looks back to the Three Forms of Unity as their traditional doctrinal standard but don’t hold to it in any real sense of the term.

Let me give you one example of a “Reformed” theologian that falls into this category. For those of you who know me, you may or may not know this but I’m Dutch (well, part Frisian and part Dutch) on my mother’s side.  My mom’s maiden name is Kuitert.  Well, we have a very, very, very distant cousin named Harry Kuitert (we have a Kuitert family tree website in Dutch that goes pretty far back: http://www.kuitert.kuitert.info/Tjalling%20kwartierstaat%20met%20frame.htm). Harry Kuitert is considered to be a Reformed theologian. He was a professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam until 1989 and was actually the successor of G. C. Berkouwer. However, Harry Kuitert denies the deity of Christ, which means that he obviously doesn’t hold to the Three Forms of Unity anymore.  And I’m sure there are many other areas where he disagrees with the Three Forms of Unity. However, he is still considered by many to be a Reformed theologian because he was part of a church that historically held to the Three Forms of Unity.

Something similar can be said of Karl Barth. Karl Barth came from the Swiss Reformed tradition and is usually referred to as a “Reformed” theologian because of the church that he came from. I have to admit, I was taken aback the first time I heard Karl Barth being referred to as a “Reformed” theologian.  But that’s how people refer to him in academic theology.

3. A Church Body That Holds To a Non-Miraculous View of the Sacraments

This final definition will probably get the most objections from all sorts of different angles (and I’m very well aware of how poorly formulated this definition is) but here it is: a Reformed Church is a church body that holds to a non-miraculous view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now I better pause here and define what I mean by “non-miraculous”. By non-miraculous I mean (a) that they don’t believe in the physical body of Christ being present in the Lord’s Supper and (b) that they don’t believe in baptismal regeneration. Again, I’m aware that “non-miraculous” is probably not the best word to use since (a) Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper probably wouldn’t be seen as non-miraculous by its adherents and (b) some historically Reformed beliefs about baptism border on baptismal regeneration for babies who also happen to be elect.

However, from a confessional Lutheran perspective, the term “non-miraculous” fits the bill. In this sense, “Reformed” means to hold to a non-Roman Catholic or non-Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism (restricting ourselves to forms of Christianity that historically have its base in Western Europe). In other words, if you’re not Roman Catholic and you’re not Lutheran, you’re Reformed. The issue here is not which confession of faith you hold to or whether or not you believe in a certain view of predestination/election: the issue is how you view the sacraments.

Now, of course, there would be very few people who call themselves “Reformed” who would define the term “Reformed” in this way, but it makes quite a bit of sense historically.  And even though there are other differences that separate confessional Lutherans from the Reformed (i.e. what is allowable in worship, the form of worship, the relationship between the covenants, church government), historically the most important difference is their views on the sacraments. And I would argue that at least some of these differences stem from differing views of the sacraments, but that is another issue. But the reality is that the sacraments, specifically the Lord’s Supper, were the main point of division between Lutherans and the Reformed during the early years of the Protestant Reformation and, from a confessional Lutheran perspective, still is.

Conclusion

So what does it mean to be Reformed? Well, it depends on who you’re asking and in what context. But I think it’s safe to say that defining “Reformed” as “adhering to the five points of Calvinism,” “believing in a Calvinistic view of election,” or “having a high view of God’s sovereignty” is a relatively new innovation. That’s one reason why Lutherans scratch their heads when people today call Martin Luther a Calvinist or believe that Lutherans today are Calvinists too. I think we can understand what they mean by that– it has to do with a belief in the bondage of the will (i.e. total depravity) and unconditional election – but it still doesn’t make any sense. Perhaps the day will come when the term “Reformed” is universally understood to mean what it means in the term “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” but it is not this day.  So, for at least some in the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, I would add my “Nein” to the hosts of the Mortification of Spin.

[1] I think the term “Reformed Baptist” is getting close to being established enough for people to understand what that term means. Usually “Reformed Baptist” means “adhering to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith,” a Baptist confession of faith based on the Westminster Confession of Faith.

If you believe in free will, you might not believe the Bible…

free-will-1

The Conversation

One of the biggest issues that people have to face when they get into discussions about predestination and election is what does the Bible have to say about free will.[1] As soon as the topic of predestination comes up, someone almost immediately asks the question: “What about free will?”

And at that point things go in a very predictable way. The person who believes in a Calvinist or Lutheran view of predestination, which says that the ultimate reason why a person is saved and will persevere to the end is because God chose them to be saved before the foundation of the world, will say, “Well, the Bible is pretty clear that we as human beings don’t have free will.” And the person they’re speaking with says, “That’s absolutely ridiculous! Of course we have free will!”

In my experience, when most people end up in conversations like this, neither side really understands what the term “free will” when it comes to this topic. And I have to admit that I’ve been pretty bad in explaining what the term free will means in this context. Part of the reason, of course, has to do with the way that free will is often explained: most explanations that I’ve heard are either way too complicated or they’re just plain confusing. But the main reason is that the term “free will” is used in a very specialized way when it comes to the topic of predestination – you can’t just look up the word in a dictionary and expect to find what it means in this context.

What Does Free Will Mean?

So what does the term “free will” actually mean in this context? Well, here is a very simple explanation:

The issue of freewill has to do with whether or not a person can come to saving faith in Christ on their own apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. If you say that a person can come to saving faith in Christ apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, you believe in free will; if you say that a person can’t come to saving faith in Christ apart from the Holy Spirit, you don’t believe in free will.

And that’s all that’s meant by the term “free will” when it comes to salvation: the issue is whether or not the Holy Spirit is necessary to bring someone to saving faith in Christ.

Biblical Passages

When the issue is understood in that way, it’s pretty clear that the Bible says that we as human beings don’t have free will, at least not in this very specific sense – we need the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts before we can come to saving faith in Christ. Let me give you a couple of examples:

(a) John 6:44 – No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him and I will raise him up at the last day.  (NIV)

In this case we can assume that the Father draws people through the Holy Spirit. Either way, a person isn’t coming to saving faith in Christ on their own.

(b) Romans 8:7 – The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (NIV)

This is talking about a person who isn’t saved, a person who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit, a person who is still ruled by the sinful nature. That’s the contrast that’s being made in this passage. Unless the Holy Spirit does something to change this, the person won’t submit their lives to God.

(c) 1 Corinthians 2:14 – The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (NIV)

In this case “the man without the Spirit” is the person whose heart hasn’t been opened up by the Holy Spirit. To them the message of the cross is foolishness – unless the Holy Spirit does something to change that.

And we could go on to other passages as well.

But these passages make it clear that we as human beings are spiritually dead, that we have hard hearts, and that we are in rebellion against God. When left to ourselves we won’t accept the message of the gospel and we can’t accept the message of the gospel – unless the Holy Spirit does something to change our hearts.

This is something that every Christian should believe regardless of what they believe about predestination or election – if you don’t believe this, you don’t believe what the Bible has to say about human beings. This is something that Calvinists, confessional Lutherans, and Arminians all believe. Arminians are often accused of believing in free will. But real Arminians who know their theology actually agree with Calvinists and confessional Lutherans on this issue: real Arminians don’t believe in free will either. Roger Olson, for example, prefers to use the term “freed will,” which is a much better way of describing the Arminian position on this issue.[2]

The Real Areas of Disagreement

So what are the real areas of disagreement when it comes to the issue of free will? Let me suggest two areas:

(1) How far does the Holy Spirit open up a person’s heart? Does he only open up a person’s heart part of the way so they can make a free choice one way or the other or does he open up a person’s heart all of the way and guarantee that they will come to saving faith in Christ?

(2) And the second issue is this: Does the Holy Spirit do this for only some people or for everyone who hears the message of the gospel? How this question is answered will depend on how the first question is answered.

Conclusion

So does the Bible teach free will? No – the Holy Spirit has to work on a person’s heart and draw them to Christ, otherwise they won’t come to saving faith in Christ. If more people understood what the term free will really means in discussions like this, we might save a lot of time arguing about something we should all actually agree with and be able to deal with the real differences when it comes to these issues.

[1] Rom. 8:29-30; 9:1-29; 11:1-6; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Eph. 1:4-12; 1 Thess. 1:4-5.

[2] See Roger Olson’s excellent presentation on the broader issue here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0RWF_XByMM