What is Calvinism?

Calvinism is the popular term for a particular body of teaching about salvation. Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God in salvation. The five major points of Calvinism flow out of this emphasis on God’s absolute rule over all things. Calvinism is often taught using the acronym TULIP:
Total depravity of man
Unconditional election to salvation
Limited atonement by Jesus
Irresistible grace of God
Perseverance of the saints

Total depravity is the doctrine that all have been entirely corrupted by sin. Though none are as bad as they could be, none are good in the eyes of God. None are all able to bring about their own salvation. This finds support in verses like Romans 3:10, “There is none good, no, not one” and Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Unconditional election teaches that God predetermined who would be saved. Because God is sovereign over salvation He chose, based upon His grace alone, to save certain individuals. His election is of the specific individuals He would bring to salvation. This finds support in verses like Ephesians 1:4, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:”

The phrase limited atonement is not liked by many Calvinists. Some prefer to idenitfy this doctrine as particular redemption, or definite atonement. Limited atonement teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross, while sufficient to purchase salvation for all humanity, was designed and intended to purchase the salvation of the election. Jesus’ death on the cross secured the salvation of those God graciously elected to save. That is why one Calvinist author calls this doctrine, “Mission accomplished.” This finds support in verses like John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

Irresistible grace teaches that those God elected to save will inevitably be saved. This does not mean God will save people whether or not they want to be saved or that He will save apart from the preaching of the gospel. Those God chose to save and Jesus died to save will be inexorably drawn to God. They will not, in the end, refuse His call to salvation. They cannot refuse to believe because God works in their hearts in such a way that they will desire salvation. This finds support in verses like John 6:37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”

Perseverance of the saints teaches that those whom God has elected, atoned and saved will persevere in faith until the end. Salvation, once received, can never be lost because God will continue the work of their salvation. Just as the elect could not resist the grace of God that brings to salvation, they cannot turn away from the salvation that God has given them. This finds support in verses like Philippians 1:6, ” Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:”

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Does it matter how old the earth is?

A person’s belief of the age of the earth reflects a belief system. Priority is given to either the claims of science or the claims of the Bible. The age of the earth matters for the Christian because of what the Bible says about the origin of the earth, of humanity and of suffering. If the Bible is not historically accurate about the age of the earth then it’s reliability regarding the sin of man is suspect.

The inclusion of a long period of time before the creation week recorded in Genesis 1 does great damage to the literal reading of Genesis 1-3. An earth populated with animals for millions of years before the creation week presents significant theological problems concerning death, decay and destruction. If the fossil record is the record of an ancient earth that existed before Adam and Eve, then death and disease were common before the events recorded in Genesis 3. If death existed before sin, then death is not the punishment of sin. If suffering existed before the creation of man, then suffering is not a consequence of sin.

If the earth is millions or billions of years old, there is much in earth’s history that is not revealed in the Bible. While the Bible never attempts to present a full history of all mankind- it does not contain the history of China, Greenland or South America the Bible does present a history of the origin of the world, the formation of humans and the spread of sin. If the Bible leaves out huge gulfs of time, there is abundant space to question the reliability of the Bible for understanding the nature of humanity. If the historical record of the Bible has major gaps, then that calls into question the BIble as a valid historical record. This matters because sin, salvation and the promises of God are connected to a historical context. Jesus is a historical figure whose history is traced from person to person all the way back to a historical Adam. If the Bible is not reliable as a history book, does it present an accurate historical picture of Jesus?

This question matters because it shapes how a person reads the Bible. If the Bible is a reliable historical record, then great weight will be placed upon its genealogies and historical markers. If the Bible is not to be read literally, or if its history is a series of homilies intended to teach spiritual truths, then the chronological data in the Bible will have little importance in the discussion of the age of the earth. This question matters because the inclusion of millions of years into the history of man undermines the reliability of the Bible when it discusses the origins of sin and suffering. If the Bible cannot be trusted as an accurate historical record of the earliest days of man, can it be trusted when it discusses Abraham and Moses, Israel, Babylon, the Roman Empire, the apostles or Jesus? If the Bible does not present in Genesis an accurate, literal record of the history of the world, when does it begin to do so? If the Bible is not trustworthy to teach of how man sinned, how can it be trustworthy to teach how man is saved?

Does the age of the earth matter?

Creationists insist the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Evolutionists and theistic evolutionists insist the earth is much older, about 4.5 billion years older. The disagreement over the age of the earth is just one part of a much larger debate about the origins of the universe and the formation of humanity. Why do some Christians make such a huge deal about the age of the earth? Does it really matter to Christianity if the earth is a few thousand, a few million or a few billion years old?

Many people are familiar with the basis for believing the earth is very old. Various techniques calculate the age of the earth from the amount of radioactive elements remaining rock. This process measures the difference between how much of a particular element (like Uranium) was originally in the rock and how much is present in that rock today. Because the rate of decay from a radioactive to a stable element is known an estimated age of the rock can be calculated. Calculations have yielded ages of rocks over 4 billion years.

Those who believe the earth is young base that conclusion on the historical information included in the Bible and the work of men like James Ussher. In the 1600’s Ussher, the Archbishop of the Anglican church in Ireland, used the Bible to create a detailed chronology of mankind. He added together the genealogies listed in Scritpure, calculated the length of time from Abraham to Moses and from the Exodus to the Babylonian captivity. He concluded the Biblical data showed that the earth was created 4,004 years before the birth of Jesus. Other Biblical scholars have examined Ussher’s chronology and the Biblical data. Though some have come up with different dates for creation (J.B. Lightfoot concluded the earth was created 3,929 years before Jesus), many have reached the conclusion that the Bible puts the creation of the earth approximately four thousand years before Jesus’ birth.

The question of the age of the earth cannot be answered in isolation from presuppositions and interpretations. None are unbiased observers. The presupposition that elements present in a rock today can be used to determine the age of the earth requires the scientist to presume the earth formed through natural processes without Divine intervention. The supposition of a Creator immediately affects the examiners ability to understand the results. For example, a Creator could have created rock with quantities of radioactive isotopes and stable elements that give the appearance of greater age. The presupposition that a Creator made everything opens the scientist to the possibility that the Creator revealed Himself to man in some way. Thus, a holy text, like the Bible or the Qoran, which claims to be the very words of the Creator gave much importance in considering the origins of the universe. How a person answers the age of the earth reflects a belief system, or at least, it reflects the influence of a belief system. The age of the earth matters because what one believes about the existence of a Creator matters.

To be continued . . .

What is the difference between a sacrament and an ordinance?

The Catholic church observes seven sacraments. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and many others observe two sacraments- the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Baptists observe two ordinances- the Lord’s Supper and baptism. If these things are discussed in casual conversation, the terms sacrament and ordinance are often used as if they mean the same thing. Even the thesaurus treats them as synonyms.

In a technical, theological sense a sacrament does not mean the same as ordinance, and in fact, every denomination intends something different with the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Though the outward practice of the Lord’s Supper may be very similar in  a Lutheran church and a Baptist church, the beliefs about what is taking place are very different. The difference is not just a difference of terms. The differences cannot be brushed aside as unimportant.

A sacrament is something that gives grace to the recipient. By receiving the elements of the sacrament, whether it be water, bread or wine, the person receives the grace of God. The grace received is not necessarily saving grace, but grace for Christian living. For example, a baby baptized in the Presbyterian church is believed to receive grace that makes her a member of the covenant community. In the sacramental view, participating in the Lord’s Supper gives a person a measure of grace which strengthens him to live in obedience.

An ordinance is a command to be obeyed. In the observance of communion and baptism the church and the Christian obey the commands of Jesus. The ordinance presents a memorial of the work Jesus to save. In communion and baptism the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are graphically portrayed. No grace is transferred to the individual by either ordinance. By participating the individual testifies of grace received. This view is held mostly by Baptists.

Differences over the sacraments/ordinances are not something that should cause great controversy between Christian brethren. Nor is this generally a gospel issue which marks someone out as unbeliever or a false teacher. Space exists for friendly disagreement among Christians, but the difference of understanding over ordinances and sacraments is important. Many theologically conservative churches will expect a person to accept the church’s view of the rite before participating. This issue shapes how one views the function and purpose of two of the most important memorials given by Jesus to His church.

Does the Bible forbid suicide?

Suicide is always tragic. Often it is the last despairing step of those who have lost all hope. Christianity has long taught that suicide is a sin. Now the wrongness of suicide is being questioned. What does the Bible say about suicide? Though the Bible mentions seven acts of suicide it does not specifically condemn any of those acts. The context of several of those accounts, like that of Saul and Judas, gives the impression that suicide is the act of a wicked man.

An understanding of the Biblical view of human life is essential to answering this question. All human life is sacred. Space does not allow a full exploration of this idea, but from the very first mention of man the Bible makes clear that human beings are unique creations. Man was created in the image of God. The destruction of that image is a great evil. God told Noah after the flood, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” (Genesis 9:6) In Numbers 35 God instructs Israel how to deal with murder and murderers. He impresses upon them the seriousness of taking a human life, “for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.” (Numbers 35:33) Any violence against a person is an assault against the image of God. This is why God forbids murder. This is why suicide is a sin.

The Bible’s commands against killing people must logically include killing oneself. The same reasons that make murder a sin, the desecration of the image of God and the extreme selfishness necessary to murder another, are the same reasons suicide is a sin. The individual has no right to plot the destruction of any human life. The person has no more authority over whether he lives or dies than he does over whether his neighbor lives or dies.

Suicide is an extreme act of selfishness. Whatever other motivations are behind suicide, the person ultimately decides to value his own escape from discomfort over the grief it will cause those left behind. Suicide sees the person’s own suffering as more important than anything or anyone else. Suicide declares “I will make the decision when my time on earth is done.” Such arrogant selfishness violates the command of God to love Him supremely and to love others selflessly. (Luke 10:27)

The example of the Psalmist is instructive of how to consider despair and death. David knew the brevity of life and many times felt the approach of death. His life was by the violence of men and grief of soul. In all things, David trusted the Lord. David went through times as dark and difficult as any faced by a person, yet he trusted the Lord. He gave no voice to suicidal thoughts, but said “My times are in thy hand.” (Psalm 31:15) His example shows how to respond in those times when, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.” (Psalm 22:15) The right response is, “My soul fainteth for thy salvation; but I hope in Thy word.” (Psalm 119:81)

Suicide is not unforgivable. But, whether it be through a self-administered gunshot or a physician administered lethal dose, the willful killing of self is a sin.

Why did God give the Law to the Israelites?

No Israelite was ever saved by keeping the law of Moses. No obedience could make them righteous before God. (Romans 3:20) Since the law could not save, why did God give the law to Israel? Speculations abound about the purpose for the law, but speculation is not necessary. The Bible gives several specific reasons why the law was given.

God told the Israelites the law was to protect them from idolatry. (Deuteronomy 4:9-14) The nations in Canaan and the nations surrounding Canaan worshiped many false gods. The law served to remind Israel their God is the only true God. The law reminded them of the mighty miracles God performed when He delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. The law was given so Israel would only worship Jehovah and so Israel would remain confident in Him. (Psalm 78:5-7)

The law was given to set the Israelites apart from the Canaanites and other pagan nations. The Israelites were set apart from all the rest of the world by God. Through the keeping of the law the Israelites secured their position as a “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” to the Lord. (Exodus 19:6) This unique status was reflected in their keeping of the law. Because God is holy, He gave the law to His people to teach them to be holy as well. (Leviticus 20:7-8) Because Israel was set apart for God the law was given to keep them set apart.

God gave the law to convict men of sin. (Romans 3:19; Galatians 3:22) The law makes clear that no man can meet the standard of God’s of perfect righteousness. Because of the law no person has any excuse before God. Everyone is guilty. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10)

The conviction of the law goes hand in hand with the Christ oriented purpose of the law. The law was given as a teacher to drive people to Jesus. (Galatians 3:25) By showing the impossibility of perfect obedience, the law points sinners to the only One who can make the unrighteous righteous. The law does not save, but the law points humanity to the salvation that is only possible by faith in Jesus. This has been the law’s purpose since it was first given. Before Jesus was born the law pointed men to the promised Christ. The many sacrifices of the law were a constant reminder to the Israelites that death is the wages of sin and a constant reminder of the promise of God to send a deliverer who would suffer the wages of sin in their place.

The law was a wonderful gift given to the Israelites. Those who believed God could say, with David, “Oh how I love thy law.” The restrictions and requirements seem severe to modern readers, yet each command was given by God for a good purpose.

Can we pray to Jesus?

Who do you address when you pray? Do you address God? The Father? Jesus? The Holy Spirit? All three at the same time? Some religious groups teach that Christians should not pray to Jesus. Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven.” Most of the prayers in the Bible are addressed to God the Father. Because of the Lord’s prayer and the many Biblical examples of prayer to God the Father, some churches have taught that prayer must always be addressed to the Father. The Bible clearly teaches the Christian to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus, but what about praying directly to Jesus?

This may seem like splitting hairs, but evaluating prayer habits is profitable. If the Bible teaches anything the proper way to pray, then Christians should desire to know and follow the instruction of Scripture.

Because God is a Trinity, there is a sense in which all prayer is addressed to the Father, the Son and the Spirit. However, because God is a Trinity there is a significant sense in which prayer is addressed specifically to one member of the Godhead. Christians cannot say that because of Trinity it does not matter which Divine person we address in prayer. The Christian must approach God in the way He prescribes. God never allowed people to approach Him any way they desired. From the very beginning God defined the way in which man must come to Him. Entering into the presence of God must always be in accord with the specific instructions laid out by God.

Does the New Testament teach the Christian to pray to Jesus? Yes, it does. In the New Testament the majority of uses of the title “Lord” are in reference to Jesus. Acts 2:36 says, “God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” In those places where a prayer is addressed to “the Lord” it is likely that prayer is addressed specifically to Jesus, God the Son. The New Testament contains several specific examples of prayer to Jesus. When Paul prayed to the Lord to remove his thorn in the flesh, the context of 2 Corinthians 12 makes clear that Paul was praying to Jesus. When Stephen was being stoned to death he prayed, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59) In 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul speaks of Christians as those who, “call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Bible ends with a prayer to Jesus. “Even so come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20) Prayer to Jesus is modeled in the Bible. Prayer to Jesus is right and proper.

However, a disclaimer is necessary. The majority of prayers in the Bible are to the Father. Some are to Jesus. None are to the Spirit. Thus, the old formula, “Praying to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit” should be the pattern of Christian prayer. If the believers prayer is shaped by the Bible, then the Bible’s emphasis in prayer will also be the Christian’s emphasis in prayer.

Why should I read the Bible?

It is that time again, time to make a list of New Year’s resolutions that you will keep for a few weeks and then slowly forget about. While there are many good resolutions to be made, one worth the Christian’s consideration- and keeping- is the resolution to read the Bible more in 2018.

Some Christians have been reading the Bible religiously (pun intended) for years (the author knows of one Christian lady who has read through the Bible every year for over 45 years). Some have never read the entire Bible. Some read the Bible one time and thought once was enough. The Bible is not always easy to read. Some parts are difficult to understand, some are very foreign and some are troubling. Despite these difficulties reading the Bible is worth the time and effort.

Scripture does not command the Christian to read it at least once a year. The Bible does not command a specific reading schedule, but what the Bible says about itself should motivate Christians to want to read it. Saving faith comes through the hearing of the Word of God (Romans 10:17) and the child of God has been born again through the ministry of the Word (1 Peter 1:23). The Bible was written for our edification and instruction (Romans 15:4), for our spiritual growth (1 Peter 2:2), for our teaching, correction, rebuke and training (2 Timothy 3:16) and for our equipping in good works (2 Timothy 3:17).

The Bible commands the Christian to mediate on it (Psalm 1:2), to allow it to abide within (John 15:7) and to be doers of it (James 1:22). The Bible is to be read, explained and applied in the church (1 Timothy 4:13). The Bible praises those who know it and study it (Acts 17:11). The book of 1 Peter says that those who have been born again will hunger for the Word of God. The natural desire of the child of God is to want to read His Word.

The Christian should regularly read the Bible. While a Bible reading plan is helpful to guard against only reading the easy or more enjoyable parts it is not necessary. What is necessary is the regular reading of the Word. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable.” (2 Timothy 3:16) The If the believer is to profit from the Word, if he is to grow in maturity and if he is going to be equipped for every good work, then reading the Bible is the least he should be doing.

The Word of God is eternal (1 Peter 1:25). Scripture is alive and powerful (Hebrews 4:12) The Word of God will never fail (Matthew 5:18). The Bible is perfect, holy, just and brings great profit to the reader. It gives warning, wisdom, salvation, rejoicing and understanding. It is true and righteous. To the child of God the Bible is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. (Psalm 19:7-10) The question is not why you should read the Bible. For the Christian the real question is, why would you not read the Bible?

Here are some plans to help you get started.

What was the star of Bethlehem?

In the gospel of Matthew the Bible tells of the wise men who came to Jerusalem following a star from the east. Most nativity scenes today show a bright star shining over the stable. The star is mentioned by the wise men, “We have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2) Later, after the wise men left Jerusalem for Bethlehem, the Bible says, “The star which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” (Matthew 2:9) Matthew 2 indicates the wise men saw the star at least a year before they arrived in Jerusalem.

The identity of this mysterious celestial object has given rise to many speculations. The most popular suggestions are that the star of Bethlehem was a comet, a miraculous light or a conjunction of stars and constellations that indicated to the astronomically astute magi that a great king was born in Palestine. What was the star the wise men followed?

One idea involves some sort of conjunction of constellations with stars or planets. The speculation is that a particular star crossed into a constellation like Leo (the Lion) indicating the arrival of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The problems with this are several. Most important, the Bible never gives the Christian, or anyone else, authority to interpret the constellations as messengers of supernatural events. The Bible contains no positive examples of this kind of astrology. The star of Bethlehem could not have been a star, planet or supernova in astrological conjunction. The wise men followed the star from the east. The appearance of a major star in the western sky might have been in the right position to lead the men from the east to Palestine, but after their detour to Jerusalem the star led them to a specific house in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem the star stayed above a single house. What constellation, star, planet or supernova can do that?

A comet is a more plausible suggestion, though it still seems unlikely. Some comets do remain visible for the length of time required for the wise men to follow it to Palestine. However, comets do not hover in one spot. Nor do they have the ability to point out a single house. The star led the wise men and then remained over the house where Jesus lived.

The most likely explanation is that this was a miraculous point of light given by God to guide the magi. This star was another miraculous manifestation from God telling men that the promised Savior was born. However, the Biblical information is limited and no conclusion about the nature of the star can be held with any high degree of certainty. More important than the identity of the star is the identity of the one pointed to by the star. The baby worshiped by the wise men was the promised Savior sent by God the Father to redeem men. He is Jesus, God the Son and God the Savior, worshiped by wise men throughout history.