Thoughts of a Country Preacher

The Monday morning ruminations of a pastor.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Can General Revelation Ever Be Salvific in its Effect? Part 3

Last week, we examined the four primary positions on general revelation. This week, I would like to focus our examination on the position that I hold.

Myself, I hold to the third position presented last week, the "Apologetic Natural Theology." In my view, the fall of man did not erase the image of God in creation, as proposed by Barth. Instead, the fall merely effaced the image of God in creation. Because the image of God still exists in the created order, certain aspects of God and the Christian faith may be uncovered by carefully studying nature. However, the information about God that we glean from the natural realm alone cannot lead one to salvation. Though we may discover the existence of God through the created order, we cannot learn anything about His nature. Because man sees the created order through a veil of sin, general revelation will not lead us to a monotheistic god, it will not show us the gulf between us and that unknown god, and it certainly cannot inform us of our need of a savior in the person of Jesus Christ.

I have largely come to my conclusion based upon my readings of several biblical passages that are relevant to this conversation. The first of these passages is Psalm 19:1-6. In the opening verses of chapter nineteen, the Psalmist writes that all of creation communicates to us the glory of God, and His work in the creation of the material world. It is interesting to note that in verse one the Psalmist uses the term "saphar" in its Piel Participial form, which tells us that God does in fact communicate to His creation through creation, that this communication is available to all, and that it is an ongoing, continual process. However, in verse three we see that this revelation does not come through words, but through the image of creation. From this verse, we see that general revelation is not propositional (thus unable to convey specific information about God), but it is rational, meaning that we can draw conclusions about the existence and nature of God from His creation.

The second passage that I would like to examine is Acts 14:8-18. In this passage, Paul and Barnabas are visiting Lystra, and in the course of their visit they heal a man who had no strength in his feet. Following this, the people of Lystra concluded that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and began to worship them. The focal point of this passage then comes in verses 16-17. Here, we learn that the rains and fruitful seasons that the people of Lystra had experienced were given to them as a witness to God. However, the people of Lystra (and presumably all of us) had misinterpreted these acts and have thus "gone their own way." This instance gives us two very real facts. First, the goodness we experience from nature conveys to us the goodness of God. Thus this passage gives credence to Aquinas’ ontological argument in that Paul is here arguing from the lesser to the greater, as does Aquinas. Second, this passage suggests that general revelation could feasibly be salvific in its effect were it not for man’s sinful nature. This possibility will be further explored in Romans 1:18-20, but for now it should suffice to say that our sinful nature leads us to misinterpret general revelation, and use it as an excuse to justify our own sinful desires.

The next passage I would like to examine is Romans 1:18-20. In this passage, Paul asserts that "that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them." Here, Paul affirms the fact that there is a general revelation to be found in the created sphere. In verse twenty, Paul writes that general revelation can inform us concerning God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power, and divine nature. Yet these things have been rejected by men because their hearts were darkened and we have suppressed the truth of God in our unrighteousness. This leads to the inevitable question, hypothetically, if we did not suppress the truth of God in our unrighteousness, could general revelation lead one to salvation? To this, I would answer "yes:" hypothetically speaking if one was without the taint of sin which darkens our hearts and causes us to suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness, then general revelation could be salvific in its effect. However, if we were without sin and able to accept the truth of God revealed through nature, we would not need general revelation to be salvific, so this journey into the hypothetical, though enlightening, is useless in the practical sphere of life. However, what we can glean from this passage is that general revelation does reveal God’s wrath against us, because we have perverted the natural creation and used it to satisfy our own sinful desires. So, while general revelation may not be enough to save us, it is enough to condemn us.

While in the book of Romans, there are two more passages that deserve our attention. The first is Romans 2:14-15 where Paul shows us that the "law written on our hearts", or, the human conscious, gives us evidence of a higher moral law. Thus this passage would support the "moral argument" as outlined by Aquinas. Second, in Romans 10:18, Paul introduces what may be seen as the first "man on the island" debate. Here he addresses the question "what of those who have never heard?" Paul answers this question by declaring that there are none who have not heard because "Their voice has gone out into all the Earth, and their words to the ends of the world." Here, Paul affirms that there are none who die in ignorance. Instead, everyone is given a "fair chance" to come to know God through general revelation. However, it is important to note that Paul does not say that this general revelation given to man is salvific in effect. If Paul were to be questioned further on this subject, I believe that he would refer back to his argument in Romans 1, and reaffirm the fact that general revelation is enough to condemn us, but not save us.

The final passage I would like to examine is 1 Corinthians 1:21, a verse that is often overlooked in the discussion of general revelation. Here, Paul states that the wisdom of man is not sufficient to come to know God. Here, I do not believe that Paul is using the verb "ginosko" in its epistemological sense. Instead, I believe that Paul is using it in its relational sense, meaning that man can discover the existence of God, but that discovery cannot lead one to a relationship with God. Instead, to enter into a relationship with God, we must be exposed to divine revelation, specifically, the revelation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (verse 18).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Can General Revelation Ever Be Salvific in its Effect? Part 2

Last week, we began our discussion of whether or not general revelation is sufficent to lead one to Christ. Today, we will examine the four primary positions on general revelation.

There are four main responses to the question "Can general revelation ever be salvific in its effect?" Two positive responses, Pluralism and Evangelical Inclusivism, contend that general revelation is sufficient to lead one into salvation. While two negative responses, what I will call "Apologetic Natural Theology" and "Particular Revelation" argue that general revelation alone cannot be salvific in its effect.

The first position on this topic, Pluralism, states that any source of enlightenment is sufficient to produce salvation in it’s subject. This position, which is perhaps the eldest son of the relativist camp, is held by many people within and without the Christian community. Its most notable Christian proponents are Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Wilfred C. Smith, Paul Knitter, and most notably, John Hick. In the Pluralistic worldview, humanity is a fallen creature, and must be elevated from that fallen condition through illumination from some source. To the Pluralist, Christ is but one of many means to salvation. One could feasibly be illuminated through Buddha, Islam, self reflection, or any other transcendental means. While many would see this as a general acceptance of all religious expression, even Pluralism’s most vocal figure, John Hick, admits that there are limitations. Hick does not believe that the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, nor the Branch Davidian cult of David Koresh qualify as religious experiences, though he does not offer an explanation as to why.

The second position on this topic, Evangelical Inclusivism, argues that salvific grace can be demonstrated and accepted through general revelation. This position has sought to find a balance between the relativistic Pluralism of Hick and the traditional exclusive view found in Conservative Evangelical circles. This position is represented by men such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, and has been affirmed in the Catholic Church by the Vatican II council. To support their position, Evangelical Inclusivists propose that Christ’s atoning work have both ontological and epistemological traits. Ontologically, Inclusivists assert that Christ’s death and resurrection has provided a universal means for humanity to obtain a saving faith. The epistemological traits are that we can know about his death and believe in his resurrection. To the Inclusivist, the ontological aspect of Christ’s work is all that is necessary for salvation. Inclusivists argue that one can come to understand the concept of a perfect God, and the concept of an imperfect man. The realization that there is a gulf between man and an unknown God is enough, says the Inclusivist, to produce a saving faith in a person.

The third position on this topic is what I call "Apologetic Natural Theology." In this position, general revelation is used as a starting point to rationally prove issues of faith, such as the existence of God, the reliability of the Christian Bible, etc. This position has been held by the Pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, B. B. Warfield, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and Josh McDowell, but is most evident in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’ efforts to prove the existence of God, and an immortal human soul were the precursors of modern apologetic thought. Aquinas believed that these assertions could be proven through cosmological, teleological, ontological, and moral arguments. Aquinas, like most who hold this position, taught that the rational mind is able to prove God’s existence through an inductive analysis of the world around them. However, though Aquinas thought that we could gain an understanding of God through His creation, Aquinas did not teach that this knowledge was salvific in its effect. In his work God and Creation, Aquinas argues that "our natural knowledge originates with the senses, and hence our natural knowledge can reach only as far as sensible objects can lead it." Later in the same work, Aquinas states that natural theology derived from general revelation can not show us God’s nature, it can only show us that God exists.

The final position on this topic, the "Particular Revelation" stance, is quite extreme. This position argues that nothing can be learned from general revelation as man’s fall affected the whole of creation, erasing the Imago Dei. Because God’s image has been erased from creation, He is now wholly transcendent, and can only be known through direct, special revelation. The only major theologian that I am aware of that has held to this view is Karl Barth. Barth’s position in this matter is very obvious in the opening pages of his work No: Answer to Emil Brunner. In this work, Barth states that:

Every attempt to assert a general revelation has to be rejected. There is no grace
of creation and preservation. There is no recognizable ordinance of preservation.
There is no point of contact for the redeeming action of God.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Can General Revelation Ever Be Salvific in its Effect? Part 1

My apologies for the lateness and short length of this post. In addition to my usual duties, I find myself cramming for the GRE and of course, now chasing after Missouri’s 2nd greatest bird.

Please accept this brief introduction to the topic I’ll be looking at for the next several weeks.

Can people be saved by God apart from his special revelation?

This question is primarily relevant in relation to the practice of evangelism, both at home and abroad. If it is true that general revelation can lead one to salvation, then many of us would have to re-evaluate both the aims and methods of our evangelism. If general revelation could lead one to salvation, then it would be foolish to send talented ministers and resources abroad when they are needed here at home.

If general revelation can lead one to salvation, then we should begin our evangelism, not with the Gospel, but with an apologetic appeal to what the unbeliever already knows through nature.

Conversely, if we contend that only the special revelation of God through Christ can lead one to salvation, then we must press forward in the missionary movement began by William Carey, and, like Paul, preach Christ, and Him crucified alone.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Effects of the Resurrection on the Believer

This article, written by John Piper, outlines how Paul lived his life in view of the resurrection. After spending resurrection Sunday pondering the resurrection of Christ, perhaps it would be wise for us to think on our own resurrection, and what it means for our life now.

Radical Effects of the Resurrection
By John Piper April 4, 2007

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. . . . Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” . . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:19, 30-32, 20)

Paul ponders how he would assess his lifestyle if there were no resurrection from the dead. He says it would be ridiculous—pitiable. The resurrection guided and empowered him to do things which would be ludicrous without the hope of resurrection.
For example, Paul looks at all the dangers he willingly faces. He says they come “every hour.”

On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers. (2 Corinthians 11:26)

Then he considers the extent of his self-denial and says, “I die every day.” This is Paul’s experience of what Jesus said in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” I take this to mean that there was something pleasant that Paul had to put to death every day. No day was without the death of some desire.

. . . with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea . . . 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:22-28)

Then he recalls that he “fought with beasts at Ephesus.” We don’t know what he is referring to. A certain kind of opponent to the gospel is called a beast in 2 Peter 1:10 and Jude 10. In any case, it was utterly disheartening.

We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. (2 Corinthians 1:8)

So Paul concludes from his hourly danger and his daily dying and his fighting with beasts that the life he has chosen in following Jesus is foolish and pitiable if he will not be raised from the dead. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, only the resurrection with Christ and the joys of eternity can make sense out of this suffering.

If death were the end of the matter, he says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” This doesn’t mean: Let’s all become gluttons and drunkards. They are pitiable too—with or without the resurrection. He means: If there is no resurrection, what makes sense is middle-class moderation to maximize earthly pleasures.

But that is not what Paul chooses. He chooses suffering, because he chooses obedience. When Ananias came to him at his conversion with the words from the Lord Jesus, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” ( Acts 9:16), Paul accepted this as part of his calling. Suffer he must.

How could Paul do it? What was the source of this radical obedience? The answer is given in 1 Corinthians 15:20:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, Christ was raised, and I will be raised with him. Therefore, nothing suffered for Jesus is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

The hope of the resurrection radically changed the way Paul lived. It freed him from materialism and consumerism. It gave him the power to go without things that many people feel they must have in this life. For example, though he had the right to marry (1 Corinthians 9:5), he renounced that pleasure because he was called to bear so much suffering. This he did because of the resurrection.

This is the way Jesus said the hope of the resurrection is supposed to change our behavior. For example, he told us to invite to our homes people who cannot pay us back in this life. How are we to be motivated to do this? “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14).

This is a radical call for us to look hard at out present lives to see if they are shaped by the hope of the resurrection. Do we make decisions on the basis of gain in this world or gain in the next? Do we take risks for love’s sake that can only be explained as wise if there is a resurrection?
Do we lose heart when our bodies give way to the aging process, and we have to admit that we will never do certain things again. Or do we look to the resurrection and take heart?

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

I pray that we will rededicate ourselves during this Easter season to a lifetime of letting the resurrection have its radical effects.

By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: Email: Toll Free: 1.888.346.4700.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Pastor at Rest 2

I don't usually do this, but since it pertains to my previous post I thought I would direct you to Mark Driscoll's blog that talks about his personal struggle with a too stressful schedule. I personally like his thoughts on taking a Sabbath before God imposes one on him through infirmities. His blog can be found here:

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Pastor at Rest

Though there are some who seem to believe that pastors only work about one day a week, pastoring can in fact be a tough, demanding job. This week I find myself teaching four different lessons, counseling several couples, arranging work on the church’s septic and lawn equipment, visiting a few members in their homes, and of course, keeping up with my personal evangelism schedule. Needless to say, my plate is full, and I know for a fact that there are many more pastors juggling many more projects every week. So, how do we cope with the fact that we have much to do and little time to do it? Well, most pastors decide to just work as long as it takes to get the job done, even if that means an 80 hour work week that leaves little time for our families, and even less time for ourselves. But this pace of life is very unhealthy, and will lead to diminished results of our work and, if we’re not careful, an early grave.

My solution to the many tasks ahead of me is not an 80-hour workweek; it is better time management. I have found that I can get more quality work done in 40 hours than I can in 60 or 70, if I just take a few minutes to plan out how I’m going to tackle the week’s workload. By planning my work, this allows me to plan the most important aspects of my week – rest and relaxation.

At least once a week I make it a point to get out of the house alone to do something I enjoy. I’ll go for a hike on one of Missouri’s great conservation areas, I’ll go fishing at a local lake, I’ll take the canoe out on the river, or go shooting at a local range, anything to help me get my mind off of the week’s craziness. I’ll have to admit, this idea of getting away is not new with me, it has been around for quite some time. One could say that it started with God taking a rest after creation. But admittedly, I first got the idea from Jonathan Edwards, who use to love taking long horse rides at the end of the day to unwind from his work. While describing the do’s and don’ts of ministry, Criswell tells us to make every effort to spend quality time with your family, and take a little time off each week to recuperate and recharge you mental, emotional, and spiritual strength.

Why is a day off so important?

1 – It renews your emotional strength.

As a pastor, you take on the problems and difficulties that people in your congregation are facing. Their problems and pains become your problems and pains. And yes, that is very emotionally draining. Taking a day away from these problems helps you see the bigger picture of life and forget about these problems. Putting a certain amount of enjoyment into your life will counter act the pain and sorrow you deal with through the week.

2 – It renews your physical strength.

Stress saps your strength and leads to all kinds of physical ailments. I know of one gentleman ministering nearby in particular who works all day everyday. Yes, his ministry is fruitful, yes he is well known, yes it is taking a toll on him physically. He is in his mid 40’s & looks like he is in his 60’s, and if he doesn’t slow down, he will likely not live to see retirement. I am surrounded by retired pastors, who all have serious physical problems right now because they did not take care of themselves when they were pastors. Getting out and doing something keeps the stress down, and encourages fitness.

3 – It keeps you grounded in real life.

Getting out gives you life experiences and helps you better understand what is going on in the world. Some of the best sermon illustrations I have ever used have come from experiences on family vacations, campouts, and hunting trips with friends. If I want to keep having illustrations like that, then I need to keep going on family vacations, campouts, and hunting trips. The best sermon illustrations come from real life.

4 – It is God honoring.

This is the most important reason. Yes, God wants us to work hard, and be diligent towards the tasks given to us. But, work is not all there is, God does want us to take time to enjoy what He has created and the life He has given to us. Exodus 23:12 says:
"Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.

What are some ways to relax?

I realize that a pastor’s time and resources are usually limited – mine are too, but that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying life. I focus on day activities that are fairly cheap. Usually I just go to a park or something and do something for free. When I’m feeling more outgoing, I’ll go to a golf course or drive to one of Missouri’s trout parks for man’s greatest pastime – fly-fishing. Going to high school, college, or professional games are fun, but more expensive. One fun and cheap activity my wife and I did in seminary was going to a glass blowing shop to make our own Christmas ornaments ($80 for the both of us). Also, consider renting a car and going on a day trip. One valentines weekend, Andrea and I rented a new model Ford Mustang from Hertz for $110 + gas for three days. You can also go to Harley dealerships to rent a bike, or find specialty agencies like in St. Louis for something really fun.

Hobbies are also a good and (sometimes) cheap form of entertainment. Have you ever wondered how to do wood carving? Go to the local library, check out a book, and get started. Myself, I have more hobbies than I really know what to do with. When I was younger, I use to do a lot of blacksmithing, but since dad’s shop is so far away I haven’t done much of it lately. I tinker around the house, work on our cars, and anything else that I want to do. One of my favorite hobbies is custom fly rod building. I’ve fly fished my entire life, but didn’t start building rods until college. My grandfather passed away, leaving a lot of broken and half-finished rods. This got me curious about how to build rods, so I started buying books on the subject, and after a little practice have become fairly proficient at it.

Finally, your church should give you a few weeks of vacation every year. Take them – and not just to go to convention meetings – take real vacations with your family. Go where your family wants to go, don’t think that you have to stay close by because "I might be needed." Train your deacons and lay leaders to handle the small stuff themselves, get your DOM or another close pastor friend to help them with the bigger stuff – there are very few things in life that should lead you to cancel a family vacation.

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