One of my favorite scenes in the Mad Max trilogy, starring Mel Gibson, comes when Max squares off against a brutal, masked bodyguard named Blaster in Thunderdome, a caged orb in which the only rule is: “Two men enter … one man leaves.” A fight to the death. Pass the popcorn.
Sometimes I think Christians favor the Thunderdome approach for determining proper interpretation of difficult Bible passages or theological issues. Let’s pit Calvinists against Arminians, young earthers against old earthers, and premillennialists against amillennialists. Toss them into Thunderdome. Two men enter … one man leaves.
But consider what happens when two Christians holding seemingly conflicting views actually have a great deal in common.
A case in point: Paul and James on the subject of faith and works.
This is the seventh in a series of excerpts from the new MBC resource, “What Every Christian Should Know About Salvation,” available at mobaptist.org/apologetics.
In justification, God declares us righteous. In sanctification and glorification, which we explore in future columns, He makes us so. These interlocking works of God ensure that followers of Jesus are fully conformed to the image of Christ.
The Greek noun dikaiosis, or justification, describes the act of God declaring sinners righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ. Believing sinners are acquitted – freed of all guilt – as their sins are transferred to the account of Christ and exchanged for Christ’s righteousness.
Theologians often refer to justification as forensic, which means “having to do with legal proceedings.” This legal declaration does not change our internal character. A judge does not make defendants guilty or innocent; he simply declares them to be one or the other.
Regeneration, indwelling, and sanctification are ways God works salvation inus, making us spiritually alive, taking up permanent residence in our spirits, and conforming us to the image of Christ. But justification occurs outsideof us. Put another way, the location of justification is heaven, where God declares believing sinners in right standing before Him.
Objection 8: There are so many Christian denominations today, it’s clear that Christians can’t agree on what the Bible teaches.
The Handbook of Denominations in the United States (12th Edition) lists more than 200 Christian denominations in 17 broad categories, from “Baptist Churches” to “Community and New Paradigm Churches.” If Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:11), and if there is to be “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5), why can’t Christians get along? Even within denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention there have been major splits over issues such as the inerrancy of Scripture and the role of women in the church. Doesn’t all this contentiousness prove a fatal flaw in the Bible, since even people who study it and say they believe it can’t agree on what it teaches?
First, it should be noted that many of the disagreements among Christians are over matters of conscience, such as which day of the week to worship, dietary restrictions, or which translation of the Bible to use (see Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 10:23-33), or they focus on lesser points of doctrine, such as the mode of baptism, church polity or the manner in which missions activities are organized and funded.
Second, it should be acknowledged that Christians often have engaged in petty squabbling, internal power struggles and political wrangling, resulting in unnecessary divisions in the body of Christ, not to mention damage to the church’s reputation. The New Testament implores believers to be gracious toward and forgiving of one another; clearly, this has not always been the case.
At the same time, Christian denominations generally developed out of a desire for fellowship and joint ministry between individual churches – a biblical concept (Acts. 11:27-30), according to Charles Draper (“Why So Many Denominations?” Apologetics Study Bible, p. 1709). In addition, denominations many times began as renewal movements. The Reformed movements of the 1500s sought to restore the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and justification by faith to the church, which had all but abandoned these biblical teachings. In time, some Presbyterians drifted toward liberalism and new conservative Presbyterian groups emerged to preserve the Reformed teachings. Baptists came along within the Reformed tradition. Pentecostals and charismatics formed new unions based on their view of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts.
There is a rich diversity among Christian denominations, and the differences between them often are not as wide as they appear. This is not to say that all differences are minor, or that all should be set aside for the sake of unity, for in Scripture Christian unity is the product of God’s Spirit working in the hearts of regenerate people and anchored in the truth of God’s Word. Some separations are, in fact, necessary. In the New Testament, many false teachers were disciplined or left the churches (see 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 1 John 2:19). In addition, the apostle Paul warns the church that false teachers will rise to prominence in the church in the days before Christ’s return (2 Tim. 3:1-9). The church today should be on guard against those who preach “another Jesus … a different spirit … a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4). For example, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christian in their theology and practice, yet both organizations deny the central teachings of Scripture, particularly those having to do with the person and work of Christ, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.
Charles Draper summarizes: “The most important thing to do is to examine a church’s teaching and practice to see if it is consistent with Scripture. And finally we have to realize that in this life Christians will not agree on everything” (Ibid.).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips
Did God really regret He created mankind, as Gen. 6:6 suggests? Why did He order King Saul to wipe out an entire race of people (I Sam. 15:18)? Who should be turned over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5)? And what is the sin that brings death (1 John 5:16)? These are so-called “hard sayings” of the Bible.
What is a “hard saying?” Simply put, a “hard saying” is a passage of Scripture that is difficult to understand. We shouldn’t feel badly that we struggle with some Bible verses; even the apostle Peter had a hard time with some of Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:16).
Why are some Bible passages difficult to understand?
- They seem to contradict other Scriptures (“No one has ever seen God”).
- They are isolated passages that cannot be cross-referenced with other Scriptures (“Being baptized for the dead”).
- They call God’s character into question (“The Lord regretted that He had made man”).
- Or they seem to make unreasonable – even unholy – demands of God’s people (“Go and complete destroy the sinful Amalekites”).
What are some keys to understanding these “hard sayings?”
- Context (who, what, when, where, why and how?)
- Key words (“The Lord regretted …”)
- Comparison (“I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau”)
In this 12-part study, we will explore some of the most prominent “hard sayings” in Scripture.
The apostle Paul penned his letter to the Galatians for several key reasons: 1) to defend his authority as a true apostle of Christ; 2) to affirm the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith; and 3) to illustrate that the Christian life is to be lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, not through self-imposed bondage to the law. Throughout this epistle Paul declares that there is true freedom in Christ.