Irresistible Grace

As we continue working through the Doctrines of Grace, summarized in the acronym TULIP, the fourth doctrine is known as Irresistible Grace. As with the first three, much misunderstanding surrounds the term “irresistible.” That is why more than a few theologians prefer the less confusing and offensive adjective “effectual” to describe God’s grace bestowed upon Totally depraved sinners whom he Unconditionally elects to atone for all their iniquity but Limited to those he intends to save by his irresistible love for them. See how these wonderful doctrines logically (and Irresistibly!) flow from one to the next. T –> U –> L –> I –> P.

Why is this effectual grace so important to our salvation? Because after the Fall of man, all who are born of Adam come into the world spiritually still-born. Scripture teaches we are totally dead in our sin, not merely sick. We need resurrection. So spiritual resuscitation, performing CPR on an all-dead soul, can do nothing to revive a life slipping away because all spiritual life is gone. Remember the scene as Jesus called forth his dead and already decomposing friend Lazarus from the tomb (John 11:1-44)? The apostle John frames the story as an illustration of effectual saving grace. The power of Christ’s grace, directed solely at Lazarus that day, irresistibly drew a 4-day old corpse out of the grave to new life. Do not mistake that miracle as somehow a cooperative effort between God and man. When God draws a sinner out of his or her spiritual death, it is 100% a work of God.

Ephesians 2:1-10 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

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Limited Atonement

The atonement is one of the most beloved, praised, and defended doctrines in all the Bible. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, shedding his blood for sinners to pay the penalty sin deserves, is the central accomplishment of the crucifixion and is at the very heart of the gospel. Many a preacher has repeated the mantra: “the atonement is the great at-one-ment, making sinners estranged from God at-one with him again.”

To the Christian’s ears, it sounds like an abomination to place any constraints on such glory. So why do we memorialize “limited atonement” in the middle of the five doctrines of grace? Because the reality is, everyone “limits” the atonement one way or another. The Bible teaches the atonement is limited in scope, not its effectiveness. In other words, Jesus died for the full scope of people he intends to forgive and save: the elect whom he chose to set his love upon before the foundation of the world. His sacrifice definitely saves sinners, not merely makes them possibly savable under certain conditions.

An atonement that is definite, not hypothetical in its power to accomplish salvation, is a glorious doctrine. But so many Christians reject their inheritance for a proverbial pot of stew. Sample that stew and you’ll find that a presumed doctrine of universal atonement (everyone’s sins are atoned for) tastes sweet at first, but turns bitter in the stomach.

How? Think about it. Continue reading

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Watch Out for False Saviors

Ah, one “elect” lemming in the bunch

Since 1958 when Disney filmmakers staged a herd of rodents running off a cliff to drown in the depths below, the myth of suicidal lemmings has persisted. Not because it’s true (it’s not—lemmings aren’t suicidal), but because it’s an irresistible metaphor for the truth of mass hysteria that sometimes manifests in mob psychology and behavior as people search for someone, anyone, to save them from problems, fears, enemies, lack of hope.

I don’t want to be deceived by any messianic pretenders, but if false christs and false prophets/teachers will perform highly believable signs and miracles, then how can I make sure not to be led astray with the many who will join the madness of crowds and march to their deaths. In Mark 13:17-23 Jesus tells us the prophesied sign of the temple’s first century destruction preceded the Lord’s “coming” to judge the generation that rejected the true Christ. Let the Christian (both then and now) understand the Lord’s instructions to watch out for deceitful christs in order to be saved from tribulations at the end of the age.

Jesus’ doctrine of the last days is his most difficult teaching to interpret. Verses 14-23 are the middle (part 2 of 3) of Mark 13 regarding when the temple will be destroyed and what will be the sign of Christ’s coming at the end of the age. He already introduced the idea of false saviors coming (Mk 13:6), and then explained what to expect when the true sign (the abomination of desolation) appears. Now he elaborates with more detailed instruction about how to watch out (!) for them. Continue reading

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Watch Out for the True Sign

The Abomination of Desolation?

There are a lot of crazy beliefs inside and outside the church about the Bible’s view of the end times. Some are totally off the wall (Armageddon locusts are Apache attack helicopters), some are half-true (the temple destroyed was the predicted end of the age), some emphasize the wrong things (who is Revelation’s 666 beast?). But very few are humble enough to admit this is an extremely difficult topic—perhaps the hardest to piece together of all Scripture’s various doctrines. One thing, however, should be simple and clear. After trying to make sense of the details, that one thing is the most important and practical thing of all—preparing men and women, boys and girls, to be ready in every way for Christ’s second coming.

Is it possible that I will be in big trouble when Christ comes to judge and save? What do I need to know and do so that I’ll not be caught unprepared? These are the most foundational questions that every soul wrestles with. Jesus Christ, in Mark 13:14-16, provides not just answers but himself who is the answer.  In those few questions we learn the prophesied sign of the temple’s first century destruction preceded the Lord’s “coming” to judge the generation that rejected the true Christ. Let the Christian (both then and now) understand the Lord’s instructions to watch out for vile antichrists in order to be saved from tribulations at the end of the age.

Jesus’ lesson on the Mount of Olives is perhaps his most difficult teaching to interpret. This passage is in the middle (part 2 of 4) of Mark 13 regarding when the temple will be destroyed and what will be the sign of Christ’s coming at the end of the age. Now he elaborates with more detailed instruction on how to watch out (!) for dangers to body and soul. Continue reading

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Watch Out for False Signs

Have you heard of the Rapture Ready Index? It’s a website started in 1987 by an evangelical Christian who believes whole-heartedly in a quirky brand of sensational end-times prophecy. The index tracks and measures real-world events across 45 categories that supposedly point to, in the aggregate, the greater probability of Jesus coming back soon. Think of it like a prophetic speedometer. The higher the number, the faster the world is racing toward Christ’s return. Last I checked the speed was near the all-time high. According to the index, the world is careening toward the end!

Which begs the question: During times of personal, communal, or civilizational upheaval, I need the security of answers. Is everything going to be just fine like it’s all a tempest in a teapot? Or is there good reason to fear and head for the hills? Or do I just need to lay low, not make any rash moves, and save for a rainy day? When life seems to be coming apart, how now shall we live? Jesus provides instruction and direction for us in Mark 13:1-13.

The whole chapter (Mark 13) is known as the Olivet Discourse, with parallel accounts in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Three Gospel writers include this “little apocalypse.” Being a single chapter, it’s not as long as Daniel and Revelation, but it is the longest continuous set of Christ’s teachings in Mark, so we will divide it into three segments, calling this mini-series “Watch Out!” because those words are often emphatically repeated by Jesus in this extremely important lesson for believers—insiders, Christians, the church. Continue reading

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Unconditional Election

“What in the world is this crazy teaching?!” I’ll never forget when a friend first heard his pastor talk about predestination. Two parts offended and one part intrigued, he was feeling what most people do when they encounter the doctrine of God’s unconditional election to save some sinners and not others. Can you relate? I sure do. How ought we approach such a delicately explosive topic? First, we’ll define terms. Next, we’ll let the Bible speak. Last, we’ll address objections and point the way forward.

What do we mean by unconditional election—the second letter “U” in TULIP that encapsulates the five doctrines of grace? It is God’s sovereign, predestinating choice to eternally save a sinful people for himself based only on his decision to love them because it pleases him to do so (Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:5-6). Westminster Shorter Catechism 20 explains: “God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.”

Is this a new concept for you? Even for seasoned Bible readers, unconditional election might sound like a theological novelty. Actually it is a foundational doctrine. Rooted in the OT, it’s full flower blossoms in the NT. Continue reading

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Honor and Shame

One of my mentoring pastors admits he was a real stinker as a child. In the back seat on a family trip he was making himself a pain in the neck and not listening to mom who was driving. His aunt sitting in the front seat reached her boiling point as she turned, wagged a finger in his face, and declared, “Young Robert, you should be ashamed of yourself, but the problem is you’re not!”

Pastor Rob shares that story in his testimony because God used shame as one of the significant turning points in his spiritual journey to faith in Christ. We think of shame as always a bad thing, but God uses a constructive kind of shame to awaken our conscience when we’re pursuing honor in a shameful manner but we don’t feel properly ashamed. Honor and shame are supposed to work in a check-and-balance relationship.

From this honor-shame social dynamic that dominated Jewish culture during Bible times, Jesus had previously told the honest scribe that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love others just as much as you care for you. For us there are clear connections between then and now. We might discover these by asking: What are some real-life examples of honorably keeping and shamefully breaking this command? How can I live a life of honor when one shameful deed can spoil it all? Is there an honor I can gain that is genuine, secure, and cannot be lost?

Let’s take a close look at Mark 12:38-44 for the Lord’s answers. Jesus Christ upends worldly notions of honor and shame, reserving greater judgment for revered spiritual experts who grasp for vainglory, but praising faith-filled worshipers who discreetly give God abundant proportions of their livelihood. Selfishly aim for honor, reap shame. Generously aim to love, gain honor.

Here in the temple Mark records the last public teaching of Jesus when he condemns the scribes for their hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor. Any further teaching is to thoroughly prepare disciples for the end of the age in his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and coming salvation and judgment. Continue reading

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Total Depravity

Even my spelling is depraved!

Philip Yancey once said “grace” is the last best word. It seems good words inevitably become stained by misuse, abuse, and disuse. Thankfully grace is still a good one. However, the concepts behind the “doctrines of grace” are much maligned. Let’s reclaim, one word at a time, their goodness that explains vital salvation concepts by the famous acrostic TULIP. These letters stand for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.

At first blush, the term “total depravity” looks like an ugly doctrine. Its beauty is in the stark reality of experiential truth. Simply put, it means every aspect of the human being is corrupted by sin. Theologians refer to “original sin” not as the first time you do something bad, but as the fallen nature into which you’re conceived.

Psalm 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

That fallenness reaches our bodies (in sickness and death), our minds (thoughts succumb to weak and dark tendencies), our wills (in freely choosing what is wrong), and even our souls (core impulses are enslaved to evil). Therefore human nature is totally (in total) depraved (affected for the worse). Scripture attests that our corruption is not as bad as it could be (we can be worse), but it is far worse than we estimate. Continue reading

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How to Do Apologetics

Proverbs 26:4-5 positions two seemingly contradictory verses side by side.

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

Answer a fool; do not answer a fool. The contradiction resolves when you see it’s talking about how to navigate different situations with various kinds of people. Wisdom’s part is knowing when to answer one way or another. Notice these proverbs assume three parties: a teacher teaching, a student learning and a fool asking. Looking at these proverbs from all three perspectives raises the types of questions Jesus answers in Mark 12:18-37.

Everyone at one time or another has played the fool, the student, or the teacher. So you should find some way to relate to these questions. Why do some people, when asking their questions, get better and more satisfying answers from the Bible than others? How can I give Christian answers that are not trite or sentimental, but are good, beautiful, and true to people who ask about the most important matters in life? And all this talk about answers reminds me of something that always annoys me: why is the slogan on that vague bumper sticker “Jesus is the answer” so enduring?

In this Bible passage, Jesus varies his defense of the faith from Scripture depending on who inquires, teaching skeptics by assuming their position then exposing grave error, teasing seekers with provocative summaries, and training servants by pressing the big question: who is the Christ? For you, is he a teacher or the Answer?

 Jesus is still in the temple courts where foes bombard him with questions in a last-ditch effort to defeat him. Battle lines are becoming entrenched and we can now envision the alliance of divergent religious leaders converges against Jesus, who has come to Jerusalem on a dual mission to announce judgment and accomplish salvation. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus Christ has not only shown himself capable of answering the most difficult questions, but he has also modeled how to answer, which is the task of wisdom, maturity, and real love. That’s the essence of apologetics: the art and science of wisely answering questions to point inquirers to Jesus. Continue reading

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Sphere Sovereignty

God’s Three Spheres of Authority: Church | Family | State

Everybody likes a witty comeback, and we fantasize about the answer we wish we had said at the time. If someone asked you, “Should I pay taxes to the government or not?” what would you say?

Will Rogers quipped, “It is a good thing that we do not get as much government as we pay for.”

Mark Twain replied, “The only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.”

And Winston Churchill, famed for his wickedly delightful comebacks, simply noticed, “There is no such thing as a good tax.”

All joking aside, paying tax on your hard-earned money, only to see it spent like you’re the butt of the joke, is enough to stir resentment and rebellion. What is the Christian response?

What, if anything, does a person owe the government if tax revenues end up funding things that are objectionable, ungodly, or evil? What does a person not owe the government? How can one tell when a line is crossed? In Mark 12:13-17, Jesus Christ helps us think carefully through such questions. A delegation of cobelligerent spies (representing church or state) tried to trap Jesus with a provocative question about the rightness of paying a detested Roman tax. Jesus’s answer is witty, wise, and convicting while laying the foundation for the sphere sovereignty doctrine. How are your life’s “spheres” arranged?

After Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants against the temple officials, they slinked away quietly but then send spies to entrap Jesus in his words, this time regarding the controversy surrounding the occupying Roman empire economically subjugating God’s people. More questions about Jewish issues are aimed at Jesus to defeat his claims of authority as a true teacher of God’s way. Continue reading

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