Musings on John 16

My wife and I suffer from a bit of the same Biblical interpretation issues at times –we still let the old teachings we had sat under for so many years to influence our thinking on a passage. It isn’t as though we try to do this. On the contrary, we try our best to let the scriptures speak their own truth. But we aren’t always successful.

One recent example of this is in John 16. Actually, there are two examples in this chapter, but I’ll leave the other example for another post. The example today comes from verse 23.

In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.

That’s quite the bold statement that Jesus made. My wife asked so poignantly, anything we ask in his name, the Father will give?

My mind immediately went to Joe, one of my favorite people in the FE church I grew up in (I still think a lot of him). Joe would tell me to trust the passage. It says anything, so it means anything.

Me: Anything? ANYthing?
Joe: Trust the passage.

Joe also told someone once that no Christian should ever die of cancer. I’m not sure how he arrived at that position, but I remember it caused a bit of a stir when he said this during a Sunday School class… and a widow was present, who had recently lost her husband to cancer (I doubt Joe had intended this stupid comment the way it was obviously going to be taken). I suspect he had simply been too influenced by Pat Robertson (Joe did like to watch the 700 Club) to notice that he was grossly misinterpreting passages like John 16:23.

So what does one do, when one prays to God in Jesus’ name, and the request is not granted? In practice, I’ve seen this play out in three ways.

  1. Blame the person praying for not believing that they’d receive what they asked for, based on the passages in James about having a double-mind.
  2. Blame the person praying for attaching Jesus’ name to a prayer that is contrary to God’s will.
  3. Suggest that God declined the request because he has something better in mind.

That’s kind of convenient, isn’t it? Preachers and Bible “teachers” can move in and proclaim that the people in their care can request any fantastic thing  from God that their mind can conjure, and when the request is not granted, they usually blame the one offering the prayer, and offer no recognition of the role that Adam’s curse has played in even putting us in the position where we’ve had a need to pray in the first place! –“I know you prayed that God would not allow your bread-winning husband to be taken in death, but don’t worry! These years of pain and suffering you’re about to have are part of God’s grand plan for your betterment!”

How deflating!

So, the more Biblically-literate folks speaking on this passage will tend to focus more on #2. It’s the natural place to go, I think. If verse 23 is true, then it should simply be a matter of discovering what is the will of God. Perhaps a clue is in the chapter?

“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”

Hmm… nope, not there.

Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’?


When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

I guess maybe that’s support for case #3? Seems like a bit of a stretch… Maybe there’s some clue in v 23 and 24

In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.

It was at this point that I had the urge to smack my forehead, after I read the Concordia commentary. Read the Lord’s words I’ve quoted here. Jesus isn’t endowing the disciples with name-it-claim-it theologies. He’s giving them something much more important: Jesus is offering his own name and status for intercession. Until this time, the disciples had never done this! They had never asked anything of the Father in Jesus’ name, because he had not yet been their intercessor.

And now he is. Now he sits at the right hand of the Father, and with that seat of honor comes a listening ear from the Father.

We read the passage and focus on the “anything in my name.” Instead, Jesus spoke the passage as “anything in my name.” That is, we have been granted the permission and ability to request of the Father as though it is Jesus himself doing the asking. The point of the passage isn’t the bounty we can achieve by praying, it’s that Jesus has given us his very own guarantee –one that belongs only to him–, his own standing with the Father, to ensure our requests are met. To phrase this a different way, the Father had conferred a special love and adoration to the Son, one that should allow him to receive anything the Son asked for… and the Son has given this to us! “Go ahead, ask my Father! Tell him I said it’s OK!”

Well, that’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? What should one pray for? The FE’s aren’t entirely wrong on this –one should only ask what can be rightly asked in God’s name.

Long ago, I worked at a job that had me travel pretty often. To make travel easier on me, they issued me a company credit card. Anything I purchased with that card, I had purchased in the company’s name. The merchants would give me whatever I had wanted, in full faith that the bill would be paid because I was making the payment in the company’s name… and then expense time came around, and I had to make an account of all of the things that I had purchased in the company’s name. No small item escaped their view! I had to show receipts for all of it, and only approved expenses were covered, even though the transaction was already complete. I’d have to pay for any non-approved transaction.

Simply adding “in Jesus’ name!!” to the end of a prayer does not, in fact, mean that the prayer is in Jesus’ name. It’s probably dangerous, as often as we say that phrase so frivolously. Imagine approaching God and saying “I want a Corvette” or “You are to heal me –in your Son’s name!” and Jesus looks to his Father and says “I didn’t OK that one. This guy will need to stand on his own.”

And so, we’re left to try to determine what is properly prayed in Jesus’ name. We sit and think, “if only he had told us…”

And hopefully we remember Jesus’ words.

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.”

Luther explains each petition in his Small Catechism.

7 Petitions. All of them, from Jesus’ own mouth. All of them, rightly prayed, in Jesus’ name. Each of them, we may boldly ask of the Father, with the good-faith backing of Jesus, “Yes, Father. I ask this for them. Hear their prayers.”

From this fountain of guidance from Jesus, we may ask anything that conforms to the overflowing generosity in these petitions. The exact words need not be used, but rather the petitions (though it’s tough to argue that I can improve on Jesus’ words!).

That’s a great deal.


Are Roman Catholics the Real Protestant Cavilers?


Photo used under Creative Commons, Copyright Flikr user Karen Roe.

I always get a small kick out of reading the inter-denominational commentary that abounds online. It’s great to be able to read what other folks think. It’s almost like you get the “inside baseball” view of some group by how they speak their perceptions of other groups, including one’s own group. It’s probably as close to one gets to seeing a tabloid of one group’s interpretation of recent events or writings.

Someone recently sent me a well-written (unlike anything you’ll find on this site) article from a Roman Catholic Christian. I have some mixed feelings on this article. It does give some great insight into how Roman Catholics of a traditional persuasion (at least by the author’s tenor) view the latest folly of American Evangelicalism, described here. This folly, “A Reforming Catholic Confession,” attempts to describe what American Evangelicals would like to describe as a remarkable level of unity among protestant Christians. Who doesn’t like unity?

Yet, I repeat. This effort is folly. Why?

Consider the great confessions of Protestantism. If you combined the intersection of all positive affirmations in Augsburg, Westminster, Scotland, London, etc. into one document, what usefulness would belong to such a document? If you wrote a document that could read compatible with several very different beliefs on Baptism, The Supper, predestination, and a host of other topics, how do you know what the church really believes if you attended? How would you know that even between churches of this common confession that you’d find similar beliefs between the churches? If one were to read such a document and say “Yes! This is the church of God’s truth! I must belong!,” what will the outcome be when such a person attends the church? I see no good coming from this. Why?

  • The more scripture that is taught and expounded in a church, the more distinctions are drawn.
  • The more distinctions are drawn, the more disagreement there is in the local body.
  • If there still appears to be great levels of unity, then the local parishioners are suppressing their conflict of conscience to maintain unity (I know. I’ve done this.), or are maintaining a willful suspense of disbelief.

So the end result is either that divisions arise, or else church-goers actually refuse to heed the promptings of the scriptures as they understand them. Is one of these situations better than the other?



A thousand times yes.

Division is, by far, the best option. Division will not lead a person to hell. Instead, it preserves the pearls (Christians, especially the downtrodden ones) from the swine (false teachers, and those who would lead believers astray.). It is best to be open and honest up front about these divisions.

“But didn’t Jesus pray for unity?” Yes, he did. and St. Paul also wrote that divisions are required so that you know who you should believe:

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.

This isn’t a matter of choosing division or choosing unity. We are to unite around the truth; it is as simple as that. This will, by necessity in a fallen world, cause division. Any attempt at a “highest common denominator,” as Jerry Walls (the main force behind this new confession) calls it, is folly and against the explicit commands of scripture.

So there’s a lot of reason to celebrate the Roman Catholic’s response to this folly. Yet, there are are some things amiss. In an effort to save time, I’ll just quote the article in different spots and give a response.

It’s easy to hit your mark when you define whatever you hit as “the mark.” Likewise, the Reformed Catholic Confession proves only that Protestants are united in the essentials of their faith because they’ve defined the “essentials” as those things about which they agree.

He’s right.

Protestants disagree about these issues, and the confession only says that baptism “strengthen[s] the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins.” This stands in contrast to Martin Luther’s declaration that baptism “delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God’s own . . .

Why does the author call out Martin Luther’s writing in this article? The majority of folks in this group are not Lutheran. Even the ones that are Lutheran, one would need to ask what kind of Lutheran they are. There are a few in my own LCMS that I’d like to have a brief discussion with, describing why this confession is neither necessary nor helpful. Indeed, it’s the opposite of helpful. It is synergistic at best. Nonetheless, there should be no doubt that the man who steadfastly refused to concede “this is my body” at Marburg, despite the unity promised in doing so, would do the same for this document if he were alive to debate it. It’s simply silly to use Luther to make your point, because Luther would also argue against this new confession. The folks who confess Concordia and who also signed this document aren’t merely entering this folly; they’re being inconsistent with their own confessions. This isn’t the same situation as “American Baptist Bob” speaking at public service alongside a charismatic or a Reformed Calvinist.

Is man so fallen that he cannot freely choose to accept God’s offer of salvation so that God must give him irresistible grace that guarantees he will never lose his salvation? Many Protestants say man is not that fallen and has free will, but Calvinists disagree and claim that man contributes nothing to his own salvation.

This is simply sloppy. He’s got so much truth mixed with so much error that it’s impossible to say “he’s right” or “he’s wrong.”

Firstly, there are other opinions than Calvinistic or Arminian. In fact, the Arminian camp can be divided between Classical Arminians and other. Let me further make the author’s point while correcting his over-simplification: Classical Arminians look very similar to Calvinists if you’re comparing them against Wesleyan and later Arminians and not Calvinists. Classical Arminians are very self-aware, as well as aware of the errors of Pelagius and will not allow themselves to fall into these errors. Whether or not one finds their presentation correct or persuasive is a different matter. Let’s also not neglect the Lutherans. Lutherans are entirely monergistic, and yet reject irresistible grace.

Why make such a big deal about proving that the author is even more correct than he writes? It is because it demonstrates that this author isn’t writing with the Reformation in mind, but rather the people who latch on to the Reformation like parasites, and he fails to distinguish the two. These folks should not be counted with the Reformation. They are not the Reformation. They do not confess the theology of the Reformation, regardless of the fact that they use the “faith alone” language. As such, they should not be given the term “protestant.”

I know. That’s a lost battle. But nonetheless, do not conflate these people with those in the Reformation.

The signatories might object that confessions of faith generally don’t mention specific moral issues, but there’s no denying that Protestants are sharply divided over issues like abortion and homosexual behavior. The Reformation Project even tries to use arguments from the Bible alone to promote homosexual behavior. Isn’t it essential for Christians to know—and agree on—whether these behaviors are sinful, just as they do on adultery and murder, for example?

Yes. And if you’re opposing the fundamental teachings of the scriptures, you are not espousing a Christian theology. If you’re not espousing a Christian theology, then you’re not espousing a Protestant theology either. We protestants are not “sharply divided.” Folks who reject ancient interpretations of scripture in favor of modern, culturally-influenced ones are adding division. As I said earlier, this division is a good thing compared with unifying to a common teaching mingled with error so as to make truth indistinguishable from error.

I’d also add though, that Roman Catholics are also remarkably inconsistent (as a group) on these topics. I don’t need to cite specific examples. Pay attention around election time, or to people’s daily Facebook posts. I agree that it isn’t fair for me to say this. The author would almost certainly disagree with these folks, and would distance himself from them. However, that’s my point. True protestants are in a similar position. I lament it for the both of us.

Some Protestants will probably respond to this critique by saying that the Catholic Church fares no better. After all, you can find theologians and priests who reject fundamental dogmas of the Faith like the perpetual virginity of Mary or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s true, but unlike “mere Protestantism,” the Catholic Church is an enduring hierarchical body that speaks through the Magisterium to the question of what Catholics are obliged to believe. Those who call themselves “Catholic” but openly reject these dogmas have put themselves outside of communion with the Church.

But for Protestants, there is no such authoritative body, no one to say which dogmas are essential to believe.

This is a blissful picture, but it’s just simply not true. There are plenty of history lessons to learn, but one needs to read them. There have been contested popes. Official teaching of the RCC sometimes changes so dramatically and in such a short period that lifelong Roman Catholics become disillusioned with the  change, and feel the RCC is more political than spiritual. It wasn’t uncommon even less than 20 years ago to have good Roman Catholics espousing the viewpoints of their catechesis, yet ones that were out of date with the current teaching (out of date since Vatican II!!). I remember hearing these conversations at holiday parties in my relatives’ houses. The church teachings had stuck with these people their entire lives, and now they were confused and disillusioned with the newer teachings. One could argue that the fundamental and core teachings of the RCC haven’t changed (and I find this a little bit comical), but others had new clarification that gave the appearance of new teaching. I’d reply: “maybe so, but that isn’t how the parishioners saw it.” I guess one could say that these folks had remained Roman Catholics by disagreeing with the RCC on what they considered “non-essential teachings.” Sound familiar?

That point aside, I think it’s important to remind folks of the famous quote from Luther at Worms,

Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.

The author then makes the argument that the RCC is correct and the Protestant churches incorrect regarding excommunication. The claim is that

But for Protestants, there is no such authoritative body, no one to say which dogmas are essential to believe.

and later

Without this organizational union, an excommunicated sinner or heretic could simply walk down the street to the next church that welcomes him.

To which I ask: what does the author think happens when a person is excommunicated from the RCC? They aren’t being burned at the stake anymore! Do they all quit their churchly activities immediately upon excommunication? Or, I suppose that’s when they officially become “Protestants” and then they’re no longer his problem?

No, this analysis just isn’t fair. Excommunication is simply drawing a bounding box in front of someone and saying: “You’re not in the box. When you repent and cross the line, you are in the box. The box will not be re-drawn to fit your error.” Protestant churches do this all of the time, even if not by explicit ecclesiastic action. And guess what? The excommunicated might start a new church. “Excommunication” only makes sense from the perspective of an ecclesiastical body. Each body performing this excommunication believes they have the authority of God to perform this. The only difference then is the size of the body, the network of churches. There isn’t a scriptural reason to defend this.

The author has come to some accurate conclusions, many of which I do find myself in agreement. But this should not be a reason to perpetuate the error of “protestant” bodies attaching themselves to the Reformation, and then using this to knock down a straw man, claiming that the Reformation has caused so many of the errors we see today.

Jesus Came

Jesus Came, the Heavens Adoring


With the passing of Thanksgiving, again comes the first Sunday of the new church year. It is now Advent, the season of repentance, when we prepare for Christmas, the season of Christ’s appearing in the flesh. Advent is, perhaps, my favorite season of the year. It seems odd to say that one enjoys a season whose constant drumbeat is “Repent!,” with mentions of Hell-fire. That is, until one experiences it first-hand for a couple years.

Jesus came, the heav’ns adoring,
Came with peace from realms on high;
Jesus came for man’s redemption,
Lowly came on earth to die;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Came in deep humility.

In the Lutheran tradition, we understand “repent” as being far deeper than mere admonitions to stop sinning, as though by telling people over and over, throughout the decades of their lives, they will someday develop the ability to kill the sin nature within them. This depth stems from the fact that in the Lutheran tradition, we also understand sin as being far deeper than being things which we do or do not do; we understand sin as being an infectious condition that has corrupted our entire being, each of us. Far from being a simple matter of whether to choose obedience or to choose disobedience, we have a disease that needs a cure.

As I move further to into the teaching of the tradition that recovered the Biblical understandings of original sin and justification, I’ve come to look at humanity (anthropology, in the words of the theologians) a bit differently than I used to. In my prior mindset, formed by a poor teaching of how people come to be saved (decision theology) and later a puritanical understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ atonement (primary emphasis on satisfying the Father’s wrath against a sinful people), my definition of “sinner” was “rebel.” This isn’t a bad definition insofar as it goes, but it’s lacking. It has no room for understanding the frailties of human flesh. It cheapens Christ’s life and death by improperly depreciating the effects of sin in our persons.

What effects?

Sickness. Pain. Death.

Jesus comes again in mercy,
When our hearts are bowed with care;
Jesus comes again in answer
To an earnest, heart-felt prayer,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Comes to save us from despair.

But more than these immediate effects of sickness and death, so also come more of the same that are their source. We cannot shake our sin nature! Consider some examples.

God blesses many with an abundance of food. In this abundance, Americans (myself included) are among the most gluttonous people to have existed. Ask anyone who eats too much, or too much of the wrong foods, if they’d characterize their eating patterns as mere poor decisions, or something closer to an inexplicable lack of will at the defining moments (when the food is in front of them), like an enslavement.

I heard a story on NPR this past weekend about Nina Simone, who suffered from bipolar disorder (called manic depression for most of her days). She would suffer from terrible bouts of depression, bad enough by themselves, and then would go through “manic” times, when she had an insatiable sexual desire. I’ve conversed with people in similar positions, where their self-defeating, sinful behavior is at times irrational. My observation is that in these cases, people want to have the desires to “do good” for both self-preservation as well as to please God, but are incapable of having those desires.

In my home state, we constantly have stories of robberies and killings over drugs, in addition to overdoses. In some cases, I’ve had (loose) ties to families who have been victim to these crimes, as well as the perpetrators. I think it likely that none who knew the victim of an overdose (for instance) could say that the victim aspired to such a fate. No; the weakness of the flesh yields an addictive downward spiral. It’s a prison.

I (and you!) have countless times given a startling lack of patience or empathy for a person in a difficult situation. Sometimes the other person is my wife. Sometimes it’s a co-worker. Sometimes it has been a complete stranger. Inevitably, when I think back on conversations, I wish I would have been a better neighbor to these people. But in the moment, when the words are on my tongue, I have no care for the harm my words may cause, not merely because I want my words to sting, but also because I find it impossible to want to not make my words sting.

This goes far beyond the “simple” cases of personal conduct, though. Sometimes we have no choice but to sin.

I will devote little time to political issues, but think of some problems we have in a democratic-like society. Which commandment should we break? Should we allow people to starve and be exploited through lack of basic education (yes, that happen(s/ed)) or should we instead forcefully take a person’s possessions against their desire (that may, in actuality, prevent them from hiring another person with family-sustaining wages), to pay for programs to alleviate such?

Which commandment should we break? Should we allow oppressive governments (who also disallow expressions of worship) to expand and make alliances with other bad governments, or should we go to war and force our own citizens to savagely kill other people out of a sense of self-preservation, while often times wrecking the livelihoods of innocent people (I’m thinking of Vietnam)?

Non-politically, I’ve known far too many people than I care to count who have been abandoned by their spouse. For the victim party, their human desires for companionship and sexual expression aren’t going to end simply because they were abandoned. What is the appropriate response when such desires remain? To remarry is to commit adultery (notice from the scripture that Jesus’ words are that she commits adultery). To not marry is to burn with passion, likely falling into greater sin and rebellion. I think the scriptures demonstrate with Paul’s writings that suffering the lesser sin (remarriage) is preferred, though still a decision wrought in sin (and let’s not hold this against these people, except where the scriptures would have us do so –the “husband of one wife” passages, for instance).

In each of these cases, whether we are examining personal behavior or collective behavior, we see that we have rebelled against God’s good command. In some cases, we find it impossible to “do the right thing,” even having known what is right. In many other cases, our options are to simply pick between the best of bad, sinful choices.

When it is said that sin needs a cure, that cure does not merely end with appeasing God’s anger at rebellions people. We find ourselves in an impossible situation, a vicious cycle of sin, where no option can please God. I’m reminded of R.C. Sproule’s illustration where humanity is stuck in a pit, unable to do the work to please God. Unless we should claim that we are inculpable for our sin due to our pitiful condition (pun intended), R.C reminds us: God told us to stay out of the pit in the first place.

Sin has indeed infected every aspect of our lives. We will die because of it. Who can escape it? What is the cure?

Repentance. We must repent of our sin.

But how can we do so? We are enslaved to sin. We cannot even desire what is good. It makes no sense to tell those entrapped in sin to “invite Jesus into your heart,” when our hearts stand in the way of such! No, changing our heart is not how we are converted. Rather, during conversion, our hearts are changed.

Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
Bringing news of sins forgiv’n;
Jesus comes in sounds of gladness,
Leading souls redeemed to heav’n.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Now the gate of death is riv’n.

So how does one repent?

Trust Jesus. Believe his words, that when he lived on Earth perfectly under God’s Law and died an innocent man that he did so while suffering the frailties of our flesh. Believe that such frailties stem from the infection that has frustrated our entire race. Believe that while Jesus’ atonement is indiscriminate, it is also directed: Jesus lives perfectly in human flesh so that he can carry my sin, and your sin. Having resurrected from the dead, he has promised that our Baptisms unite us to his resurrection.

Then, knowing he is carrying all sin, we pray daily for renewal, so that we would not be entrapped in the sin that so easily entagles, preparing ourselves for the promise on the other side of the grave: resurrection and “wellness,” having no fault.

Jesus comes in joy and sorrow,
Shares alike our hopes and fears;
Jesus comes, whate’er befalls us,
Glads our hearts, and dries our tears;
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Cheering e’en our failing years.

Pearls Before Swine

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

Matthew 7

Those are interesting phrases, verse 6. Do not give dogs what is holy. Do not throw pearls before pigs.

A few years after discovering the Reformation church, the Lutheran church, I am still occasionally amazed at how far off was the teaching on some passages in the prior churches I’ve attended. Sometimes it’s difficult to discover these, as I find it very difficult to shake the old interpretations from my mind as I read passages. Good commentary helps to uncover these, though.

All of my life, I have understood this passage as I was taught, that it is a commandment to reserve the words of Holy Scripture and “pearls of Godly wisdom” for those who respond with the appropriate attitude when confronted with them. On the surface, this seems to be a contradiction with the fact that most FE’s encourage and are pretty energetic about evangelism. Many of the ones with whom I have spent copious amounts of time do not let poor experiences in sharing the Gospel with a person discourage them. I consider it a happy inconsistency with their interpretation of this verse.

John MacArthur sums the interpretation up well in his Study Bible commentary:

Judge not. …There is a righteous kind of judgement  we are supposed to exercise with careful discernment (John 7:24). Censorious, hypocritical, self-righteous, or other kinds of unfair judgement are forbidden;  but in order to fulfill the commands that follow, it is necessary to discern dogs and swine from one’s own brethren.

Do not give what is holy to dogs. This principle is why Jesus Himself did not do miracles for unbelievers (13:58). This is to be done in respect for what is holy, not merely out of contempt for the dogs and swine…

Here, MacArthur finds a defense for his position to keep the sweet words of the Gospel from people in other verses. There are other verses he could use as well. Matthew 10:13-14 comes to mind.

I agreed with this interpretation for years, until this morning when I read the Concordia commentary.

Judge not Jesus is not referring to a decision rendered by a human judge, nor does he mean that Christians should never confront others with God’s Law. He refers to the condemnation of a fellow believer by one who has not first practiced proper self-examination.

[7:6] Jesus may be quoting a proverbial saying, which he applies to his previous teaching. He compares his disciples to “what is holy” and to “pearls.” He warns that hypocritical condemnation of fellow believers  is tantamount to throwing these precious persons out of the fellowship to the dogs and pigs…

For MacArthur, what’s most important is to keep God’s word pure, and that purity is maintained by keeping it from those who refuse it. For Jesus, what’s most important is to preserve the weak and heavy laden: “Do not dismiss these from my church; what about yourself?” (remember the parable of the unforgiving servant).

Here we see that contextually, Concordia’s commentary makes the most sense. Here we see Jesus’ words as further exposition of his  Gospel, not as further threats against a crestfallen people who only want to share the good news.

Communion with Condemnation

Photo used under creative commons license from flikr user shira gal

Photo used under creative commons license from flikr user shira gal

I was doing some dishes this morning (Jan 2) and listening to the radio. Pittsburgh has an FE (what’s a FE?) talk station, 101.5 WordFM. They play a combination of syndicated shows and local programming. I have a love-hate relationship with this radio station.

I used to love it. I listened to it constantly, going back about 10 years. It’s where I first heard R.C. Sproul. It’s where I first heard John MacArthur (who I really enjoyed listening to at the time… I thought his messages were Christian ones). If I could help it, I never missed a syllable of Marty Minto’s drive-time show (I’d probably gag these days). Alas, things change (mostly my views of the scriptures). I don’t listen to the station much, and when I do I’m usually annoyed at the sub-scriptural teachings on grace, the law-central nature of their “good news” messages, and their willingness to air rank heresies (I recently heard a preacher touting the “Prayer of Jabez”). Yet in all of this, they still bring high levels of production quality and professionalism to their programming, even for the local shows.

One such local show that aired this morning was a message from Orchard Hill Church. The preacher was good with words. It was obvious that he’s well-read in the scriptures. I’m not going to demonize this group; like the FE’s in my life that I know personally, it sounds as though they have a fervent desire to be true to the scriptures and to serve God & neighbor. Yet some things are amiss.

The message was from St. Mark’s Gospel, the Lord’s Supper narrative. The preacher actually drew from several sources concerning the institution of the Lord’s Supper. He taught that the primary purpose of the supper is as a mere memory of Christ’s work. He taught that the elements are symbolic of Jesus’ body, which was broken on the cross. He taught that we ought to examine ourselves, in order that we may refrain from taking the elements if we are unworthy. He also taught some unrelated bits about missional living.

I won’t talk about the last one, and I’ve addressed the first two topics in prior posts.

  1. The Lord’s Supper is not a mere memory of Christ’s work. The scriptures clearly state that it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ (KJV calls it “communion,” which means a deep fellowship; NASB calls it a “sharing” in Christ’s blood & body). We sin against the actual body of Christ if we take it unworthily. I’ve written about this before.
  2. The communion elements cannot be symbols of Christ’s broken body on the cross because Christ’s body was not broken on the cross. If it was, then Jesus was not the messiah, as prophecy states that the Christ’s bones will not be broken (he counts all of them). I’ve also written about this before.

The topic I’ve not expounded upon before concerns the abstinence from the elements. In the radio message this morning, the pastor pointed to the Pauline passages concerning this topic. The logic is simple, and I’ve seen it many times in FE congregations.

First, the pastor points to the scripture: “Examine yourself. If there’s anything you’re holding on to that makes you unworthy, don’t partake because you’ll be bringing judgement upon yourself.” Then there’s an exhortation: “This doesn’t mean just those who haven’t ‘accepted Jesus,’ but it also refers to long-time believers.”

I despise this unscriptural practice. Not that there aren’t people that should abstain from communion, but there is no good gained by this specific implementation of the practice.

This is the embodiment of what I’ve talked about in prior posts: FE’s love to give Law, but little or no Gospel. If ever there was a gift given to us in the writings of the New Testament, it is the words of institution of this sacrament.

…Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the[a]covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

In this sacrament, Jesus comes to serve us sinful people. He gives us his blood, which was poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. But instead, the FE teaching is: “come and partake of these elements that offer you no grace or salvation other than what you yourself are capable of conjuring up inside your own heart and emotions… and don’t take them if you think there’s even a hint of unworthiness in you, because you’ll be damned if you partake unworthily.”

I’ve seen this happen in local FE bodies, and it sickens me. Not the practice of guarding the table, but the theology behind this implementation of the practice. Think this through: we can argue about whether or not anybody is truly ever worthy to commune by the FE definition of “worthy” (and no, we’re not, if we look hard enough), but for the sake of argument and analyzing this theology, let’s allow this premise. This leaves us with 4 classes of people.

  1. Those who are worthy who think they’re worthy and commune.
  2. Those who are unworthy who think they’re worthy and commune.
  3. Those who are unworthy who think they’re unworthy and refuse communion.
  4. Those who are worthy who think they’re unworthy and refuse communion.

If we ignore the first class of people, we’ve got a series of problems to deal with. In case 2, we’ve got people eating and drinking to their own judgement, unwittingly. It might be a small matter to the pastor, who says “Hey, I warned you!” …but it is no small matter to the one who is bringing judgement upon themselves. The scriptures say that they may take sick, or even die. For the cautious among us, this leads directly to class number 4, where people are so fearful of communion that they will refuse the elements.

Class 4 is bad, but class 3 is just as bad. I’ve sat in pews with these people. It hurts to think of it now. Here, you’ve got someone who has heard God’s Law: “You must be worthy to take these elements. Only absolute perfection will do.” The person goes through introspection and sees the sin that they are bound to in the flesh. They see the hardness of their own heart. They know it’s hopeless. They’re unable to be worthy to commune with God. They actually believe the scriptures: they’re fearful of God, knowing they’re unworthy to receive his gifts.

…And then they are refused the only cure for this condition of lostness and hopelessness, the Holy Gospel, and the person goes home left under the condemnation of the Law. The entire purpose of the church has been undone by this theology. The refuge for the sick and dying is instead turned back in to the front lines of war. Rather than being served by Christ in this Gospel sacrament (“This is my body… This is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins”), the sinner is told to earn the Gospel message for themselves before it can be applied to them. This is not the Gospel of grace. This is not the Gospel of our Lord. This is not the Lord’s Supper.

Instead, consider the Lord’s parable, and give the gifts of eternal life to those who have been humbled!:

13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Indeed, blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Let’s not try to keep from them what’s rightfully theirs, by intercepting and keeping the gift that the merciful gift-giver has offered.

What Does This Mean?


Written as he recommended the head of the household to teach his family, Luther’s small catechism is written in a series of questions and answers. As the faith is confessed in this teaching aid, Luther will rhetorically ask: “what does this mean?” He then gives an explanation of the point in question, with scripture.

When reading the scriptures, one eventually comes upon the verses that mention Holy Baptism. When one arises, the question comes up: “what does this mean?” As an FE, I took a very different understanding than what these verses say. I’ve often said that I don’t chiefly blame myself for believing an un-scriptural doctrine of baptism. After all, this is what happens when one spends 28 years of his life hearing that the words on the pages of Holy Scripture don’t mean what they say. This isn’t to say that each and every passage that mentions the word “baptize” or “baptism” is clear and easy to understand, but the clarity of some cannot be easily denied.

I was cleaning off a bookshelf recently and removed two Bibles, one with MacArthur commentary and one with Zondervan’s commentary. At one point in my life, I honestly marveled at the “great insight” of these commentaries’ authors. In hindsight, I was probably in awe that they were able to uncover such “truths” from the passages that never occurred to me when I read them. This time, removing them from the shelf, I opened a page to some of the baptism passages and wanted to compare the explanations with the plain words of scripture. What follows are the results of this experiment. For a comparison, I’ve also included sections of CPH‘s commentary from the Lutheran Study Bible.

We can see that the scriptures present a high view of baptism, a far higher view than the FE will allow. The passages are so clear, we don’t need to have commentaries help us with understanding this doctrine, unless we are in need of help explaining that the scriptures don’t mean what they say. As a reminder of some,

Those summaries use words directly from the passages. Let’s go one-by-one (not in the order presented above), and see how the Zondervan and MacArthur commentaries line up with the passages.

Matthew 28:19 English Standard Version (ESV)

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,


As a sign of their union and commitment with Christ


Ignores the baptismal language in the passage.


Those baptized in the name of the Father  have God as their father; baptized in the name of the Son, they receive the benefits of the Son’s redeeming act; baptized in the name of the Spirit, they receive the life-giving, life-sustaining power and presence of the Spirit. Christian Baptism is founded on this institution.

Acts 2:38 English Standard Version (ESV)

38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.


Not that baptism effects forgiveness. Rather, forgiveness comes through that which is symbolized by baptism.


Baptism does not produce forgiveness and cleansing from sin. The reality of forgiveness precedes the rite of Baptism … Baptism, however, was to be the ever-present act of obedience, so that it became synonymous with salvation.


for the forgiveness of sins. Chief blessing of Baptism … receive the gift of the Holy Spirit The Holy Spirit is received through Baptism.

Acts 22:16 English Standard Version (ESV)

16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’


Baptism is an outward sign of an inward work of grace. … The outward rite, however, does not produce the inward grace.

Interestingly, the commentary for this verse also points to Titus 3:5 as a “baptismal” passage (washing and regeneration). I don’t think this is typical of Evangelicals.


 Salvation comes from calling on the name of the Lord, not from being baptized.

Here, MacArthur makes a point about the grammar of the passage, that “calling…” precedes the bit on baptism. As a layman, I find this interesting, as an examination of several English translations reveals that none of them translate the sentence in the ordering that MacArthur suggests makes a doctrinal point. MacArthur’s point is nonsense though, as he’s driven a wedge between “baptism” and “calling on the name of the Lord,” as though by believing the promises delivered in baptism, one is therefore not calling on the name of the Lord. Nowhere do the scriptures teach such a point.


Ananias vividly  describes what Baptism does.

Romans 6:3-4 English Standard Version (ESV)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.


In NT times baptism so closely followed conversion that the two were considered part of one event. So although baptism is not a means by which we enter into a faith relationship with Jesus Christ, it is closely associated with faith.


This does not refer to water baptism. Paul is actually using the word “baptized” in a metaphorical sense, as we might in saying someone was immersed in their work…


In Baptism, God applies Christ’s death to us so that we receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice … Baptism connects us with Christ’s work, clothing us in His righteousness. … Christ’s work is applied to us in Baptism. … We are united to Christ’s death  and burial so that we will be united to His resurrection and life.

Galatians 3:27 English Standard Version (ESV)

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.


Refers to the Romans 6 commentary.


This is not water baptism, which cannot save. Paul used the word “baptized” in a metaphorical manner to mean “immersed” or “placed into” Christ by the spiritual miracle of union with Him in His death and resurrection.

MacArthur’s commentary seems devilish to me. Contextually, there is no reason to think that “baptized” doesn’t mean water baptism and clearly that’s where a natural reading of the passage would take the reader.


Through Baptism, God incorporates believers into union with Christ. Thus His righteousness becomes theirs.

Ephesians 5:26 English Standard Version (ESV)

26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,


Does not address baptism specifically but only general “washings.”


Does not address the baptismal language.


Baptism, by which Christ sanctified (made holy) His bride, the Church.

Colossians 2:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.


…some see the passage as implying that, for the Christian, water baptism is the parallel sign of the covenant relationship.

…And still others of us see the passage implying that we were buried and raised with Christ in baptism.


The outward affirmation of the already accomplished inner transformation is now the believer’s baptism by water.


The same powerful working of God that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in Baptism. Baptism puts to death the sinful nature and resurrects us in faith to a new life in Christ. Baptism is not just a symbol of what God does through the teaching of God’s Word. It is water combined with God’s Word that makes it a washing of regeneration (Ti 3:5-7).

Hebrews 10:22 English Standard Version (ESV)

22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.


Very likely both “hearts sprinkled” and “bodies washed” allude to Christian baptism and the cleansing from sin through the sacrificial death of Christ that it signifies.


The “washing with pure water” does not refer to Christian baptism, but to the Holy Spirit’s purifying one’s life by means of the Word of God.


our bodies washed with pure water By Baptism (Eph 5:26; Ti 3:5)

1 Peter 3:21 English Standard Version (ESV)

21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,


There is a double  figure here. The flood symbolizes baptism, and baptism symbolizes salvation. … In reality, believers are saved by what baptism symbolizes

I don’t understand the insistence of taking such an interpretation. The passage clearly says which part is to be taken as symbol, and what it symbolizes. The flood symbolizes baptism, which saves. Baptism saves. Hath God really said?…


Peter is not at all [emphasis mine] referring to water baptism here, but rather a figurative immersion into union with Christ as an ark of safety from the judgment of God. … To be sure he is not misunderstood, Peter clearly says he is not speaking of water baptism.

Again, devilish. This is not a misinterpretation; this is reading with malice toward the passage. MacArthur fiendishly ignores the plain reading of the passage: baptism, which is symbolized in the flood waters, saves you, yet not on account of the physical washing but by appealing to God for a clean conscience through the resurrection of the vindicated one.


The flood is a figure of Baptism. In each case, water saves. The world was cleansed when Noah and his family were lifted up by the flood. Baptism cleanses and raises us to new life. … [more]

The commentary does eventually quote Luther saying similar things, but I think it could have done a better job with explaining the imagery in the flood. The flood cleansed because it was a flood of judgement. The Earth was cleansed when the flood waters swept away the insolent. Christ was judged in our place, as a sinner, and took on himself the curse of death. The passage from Romans shows us that through Baptism, we are identified with Christ’s death (and resurrection). Thus, the waters of baptism judge us but also vindicate us as Christ was vindicated.

One need not look too far into the NT scriptures to find the doctrine on baptism. One would think that if the FE position on baptism was the correct one that surely even ONE passage would appear that upholds the notion. Surely the apostles wouldn’t have let such Baptismal-regenerative language appear repeatedly in their letters that is purportedly opposed to the Gospel message when interpreted literally. A Lutheran Satire video captures the silliness of the FE’s position:

Now we need to reform the churches from the Reformation

Used under creative commons license from flikr user Susan Sermoneta,

Used under creative commons license from flikr user Susan Sermoneta,

It’s no secret that modern FE churches shy away from the theology of the reformation. For the most part, if FE people aren’t completely ignorant of the reformation’s theology (and how it came to be), then they’re often hostile to it. Reformation theology is deemed to be “too dry,” “too old,” or perhaps “too works-driven” because of the sacramental views found in reformation churches. Weeks ago, I was told in a caring manner that Baptismal Regeneration (the belief that God binds and gives his name to the baptized to the effect of making a live believer and disciple, Matthew 28:18-20) amounts to salvation by works.

This didn’t surprise me, because the theology of Lutheran and FE churches is so different. Generally speaking, we mean very different things when we say “sola fide.” There isn’t much coming from FE institutions that surprises me, having been in these institutions for nearly 30 years. Sometimes though, an FE believer will say something that brings afresh to my mind that they’ve abandoned the theology of the reformation. Typically, reformation theology is replaced by an unwitting embrace of Roman doctrine on the chief issue, how a man is justified before God.

I almost don’t want to do this because it seems like I think little of people when in fact I don’t, but I’m posting part of a message from my Facebook feed. It came from a childhood and high school acquaintance who attends cyber classes from a large and famous FE college in the U.S. As always, I have nothing but good memories of this person. Let there be more people like him/her!

The message was an email from a professor at the college to the cyber class, meant as a bit of encouragement. Here’s the message, scrubbed of names and the less interesting parts of the email:

Hey Everyone!

I had all of you on my mind today. I know the semester is winding down, and we are on the home stretch. I wanted to remind you that you are worthy of love. Not based in what you have done, but you are worthy of love based on His work in you and in your heart. Do not forget your calling. You are a hope to the hurting, a light to those who are lost, and a bond to the broken.

Let me be clear: this was a very loving email from the professor. I’m positive that this professor is the type of person I’d like to call a friend, like so many FE and Roman Catholic believers in my life. But this email underscores the condition of the modern FE church. While FE’s may decry the Roman church’s veneration of saints, praying to Mary, worship of relics, methods of prayer, the sacramental system, and a number of other items of import, the core of the doctrine of justification is shared by Rome and the FE bodies. That is, the two bodies may arrive at their doctrines of justification by very different paths, but the doctrine of justification is the same (even though the reformation language of “faith alone” is embraced in the FE churches).

There’s a common misconception in FE-ism that when the Reformation happened, the battle  between the Roman church and the reformers over the doctrine of justification concerned whether or not a man is justified by his own works or whether justification is by the believer’s faith alone. No; the battle was over forensic justification: in justification, does God change a sinful man into a holy man and thus call him “justified,” or instead does God declare a man guiltless despite what’s in his heart? The Roman Catholic church cited numerous scriptures that demonstrated that a faith formed in love (i.e. works of a love authored by God) is what saves. The reformers cited scriptures that demonstrate the opposite, that it was only faith that saved. But the heart of the distinction is not about works, in the way we speak of them today.

The reformers were essentially saying that God declares sinful men just simply because God has said they are, in view of Christ’s identifying with them. The Roman church considered this highly scandalous, insisting that God won’t justify unholy people (and how do you prove your holiness in this scheme? By works of love, of course). The two sides have disagreed from those days on, and thus eventually was born the formula of the reformation: justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. My point in this is not to show why the reformers were right; I think their writings will suffice for this. My only goal is to draw the parallels between the Roman Catholic church and the modern FE bodies.

The opposing doctrines from reformation times can be seen quite well by simply searching the Internet for writings from the Council of Trent (the Roman council concerning the Reformation) and from the Lutheran confessions. For example, consider an EWTN article and a piece from the Lutheran Confessions concerning this topic. The EWTN article sums the matter up nicely.

…One may ask “But isn’t it a bit stretch to say that modern FE’s (again, generally speaking) believe the same as the Roman church regarding justification?

A Roman believer would say that salvation is impossible without faith; one cannot be saved apart from believing God’s promises. God will not save a man who calls him a liar. Salvation is also impossible apart from God’s grace, as we are fallen men who have not earned God’s favor. We need his help, desperately. That help comes in Christ; we cannot be saved without Christ’s meritorious work on the cross. I don’t think any FE or Lutheran would disagree with this, but when you drill down to the specifics of how this doctrine plays out, it is evident that FE’s generally side closer to the Roman position than that of the reformation.

If one were to walk into a typical FE church and stand behind the pulpit to proclaim the “gospel” that “we are worthy of justification (or worthy of love) because of what’s inside us, but only because of what God has done within us,” I think that most people would just sit and nod in agreement (and horrifically, many FE churches would be content to do without the qualification “only because of what God has done inside us”). In a well-educated Lutheran church, there would be outrage. I urge the reader to try this: open the EWTN article and read it. Wherever you see the word(s) “(Roman) Catholic,” replace them with “Baptist,”  “Brethren,” “Methodist,” “Church of God,” etc. If you’re FE and you replace it with the name of your own local body, how much of that scandalizes you? My guess is that not much of it would make your blood pressure rise. Indeed, the article takes the tone that the modern FE churches only differ with Rome on overly-broad definitions of terms, not the actual doctrine.

The distinction in whether or not you feel scandalized is one of location. How does one partake of justifying grace? Is it something internal to the believer, or is it external? Here is where the rubber meets the road: the reformation bodies mean something quite different when we say “faith.” We mean “nude faith that is itself a gift of God, an empty hand that reaches to the Christ outside of us.” Roman Catholics and (non-Pelagian) FE’s mean “a faith (either cooperative or not) that is formed by God’s grace so that the new goodness that’s inside of us will save us.” Most FE’s aren’t even aware that they believe this, but consider the professor’s message: “You are worthy of love based on his work in you.” This is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. “By God’s grace, your heart is purified so that it is your heart’s condition that justifies you.”

“Ask Jesus into your heart.” I am reminded of this doctrine being promulgated in a Baptist church during Bible school one year. The entire evening had the theme that “God looks at the heart, not your outward acts.” This was somehow supposed to be good news for the children. If we take the scriptures seriously, that the heart is deceitful and none but God and know it, then how is our heart to be found pure before God and worthy of love? It is only by God’s work inside of us –internal to us. Again, this is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. The theology of the reformation would instead say “God has had compassion on you; you are loved, and Christ has secured your salvation. Retire yourself from your own efforts to please God; your sins are forgiven on account of Christ! Be baptized and wash away your sins!” In this manner, the Gospel is proclaimed objectively and externally, and creates saving faith in a person.

The contention is not over works, it is over what is meant by “justifying grace.” Once that term is defined, a doctrine of works necessarily and immediately follows. If one chooses the Roman Catholic and FE definition, what follows (as a universal) is a co-mingling of justification and sanctification (which is a separate topic, never to be confused with justification) that causes one to focus on their own obedience to the Law rather than Christ’s obedience in our place.

Praise God, the Biblical doctrine of justification points outside of the individual for the source of salvation. When we say Christ alone, we mean that his work and righteousness alone are imputed to us for our salvation. When we say grace alone, we mean that our good works play no part WHATSOEVER in justification because internally, our hearts always have some degree of hardness so long as we live (we are simultaneously sinner in the flesh and saint by God’s declaration). When we say faith alone, we mean that we never in this life will have anything worthy of offering God and that his promise alone –that is, his decree alone, apart from our works– saves. When we say grace alone, we mean that our justification is purely  a forensic (legal) declaration. All of these work together to drive the sinner/believer to despair of what’s in their own heart and to cling to Christ.