Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Soteriology




The whole point of Christmas is beautifully summed up in the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; NKJV).  And it is the most famous verse in the Bible for good reason: it encapsulates in just a few words the central point of the Christian message.

The verse begins by saying “For God so loved the world . . .”   This is itself is a remarkable thing.  John almost always uses the word “world” in a negative sense: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16).  The world is a world of lost sinners who are in rebellion against God and have given themselves over to sinful desires and vices.  It is a world that is patently guilty in the sight of a perfectly just and holy God.

How, then, could God “love the world”?  Certainly not in the sense that He found the world adorable, for it most certainly was not.  Rather the word “love” is used in a different sense here.  It is the pity and compassion that God shows towards a suffering humanity.  It is a love which is directed towards the unlovable, and it is a love which is marked by self-sacrifice.  “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8).

But how did God demonstrate His love toward us?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”   As noted earlier, when Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son,” that means that He is God’s Son in some special and unique way.  Jesus was God’s Son from all eternity, and shared the Father’s divine nature.  That means that when God “gave His only begotten Son” He was giving up the one Person who was nearest and dearest to Himself – His most precious and beloved relation.

And the text says that He “gave” His only begotten Son.  When one person “gives” something to someone else he surrenders control over it.  And how did God the Father “give” His Son?  By sending Him into the world to die on the cross.  By letting His Son assume the guilt of lost sinners and bear the penalty in Himself.  But letting Him die a slow agonizing death.  The sky was darkened and Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  It had to have been the most horrible moment of Jesus’ entire existence.  The Father punished the Son for our sins.

But why would God ever do such a thing?  What could possibly be gained by it?  Our text says, “that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The recalls the language of Daniel 12:2, where speaking of the future resurrection of the dead it says

“And many of the those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,

Some to everlasting life,

Some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Jesus Himself had warned His disciples, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28; the word translated “destroy” is a different form of the same verb translated “perish” in John 3:16).  What is at stake here is nothing less than man’s eternal destiny.  We will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.  Salvation is what makes the difference, and that required an atonement for sin.  Only Christ could do that.

But there is a condition attached to the promise.  The promise of salvation is to “whoever believes in Him.”  The phrase in the Greek (ho pisteuon eis auton) suggests more than just believing something about Jesus.  It implies placing one’s trust in (eis) Jesus, relying on Him as our only hope of salvation.  It requires a personal and conscious act of commitment on our part.

The birth of Christ, then, was an unparalleled demonstration of divine love toward a sinful and rebellious human race.  And we miss its full significance unless we ourselves recognize our personal need.  We are fallen sinners; Christ came into the world to save us.  Let us go to Him in full repentance and faith to receive the forgiveness of our sins and new life from above!




Jan Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring


In John Chapter 4, verses 1-26, we have the account of a conversation that Jesus had with a woman of Samaria.  It is a fascinating exchange, and it gives us insight into the nature of true religion.

Jesus and His disciples were on their way back to Galilee following their trip to Jerusalem, and they took the direct route which led through Samaria.  The Samaritans, at least to the Jews’ way of thinking, practiced a debased form of Judaism, and hence weren’t really Jews.  And a Jewish man ordinarily would not be seen talking to a woman in public, least of all a Samaritan woman.  But here Jesus found Himself, weary from His journey, sitting on a well in Samaria, when lo, a Samaritan woman came by to draw water from the well.  Jesus, thirsty, asked her for some.  The woman was surprised that a Jewish rabbi would make such a request of her, and the remarkable conversation began.

Jesus replied to her surprise by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (v. 10; NKJV).  The woman, of course, had been thinking in terms of normal social relations: Jews normally did not have anything to do with Samaritans.  What she did not realize at this point is that she was not dealing with an ordinary Jewish man.  She was, in fact, dealing with the Messiah Himself.  And what He had to offer her far surpassed what she had to offer Him.

But what did He have to offer?  He says that He could give her “living water.”  She, of course, had no idea of what He was talking about.  Just a minute earlier He had been asking her for water.  He obviously did not have any means of drawing any water Himself from the well.  And so Jesus goes on: whoever drinks from the water in the well will eventually get thirsty again.  “. . . but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (v. 14).  Here Jesus is evidently not talking about literal, physical water, but rather of something inside of a person that leads to everlasting life.  As John makes clear later in his gospel (John 7:39) Jesus was, in fact, speaking of the Holy Spirit, whom He compared on the later occasion with “rivers of living water” (7:38).  Jesus is using vivid imagery drawn from the real life experience of people who live in dry, arid climates: a river of water brings life to the soil it touches.  Without water the land becomes a barren desert.

There is an important spiritual truth here.  We are directly dependent upon God for whatever spiritual life we have.  In and of ourselves, in our natural condition, we are spiritually dead, devoid of spiritual life.  Our only source of spiritual life is God Himself: He must impart it to us, and this He does through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  In the process of conversion the Holy Spirit convicts us, enlightens us, and finally indwells us.  It is an inward spiritual renovation accomplished by the power of God, and it leaves us changed persons – alive to God and to spiritual reality.

But the conversation with the Samaritan woman does not end there.  The woman does not quite understand what Jesus is telling her – she still thinks that Jesus is talking about literal, physical water, and she asks for some of it, “that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (v. 15).  But then Jesus does something unexpected: He tells her to get her husband.  She says that she does not have one.  “Right you are,” Jesus says in effect.  “For you have had five husbands, and you’re not married to the man you’re living with now” (v. 18, paraphrased).  The poor woman was probably floored.  How could He have possibly known such a thing?  But, as it turns out, He was right, and she began to realize that there was something special about Jesus.  “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).

This led her to ask Him a question.  The Jews worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem; the Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim.  Who was right?

What Jesus tells her is nothing less than astonishing: “. . .the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (v. 21).  He goes on to explain: “But the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (v. 23)

Here Jesus is making an important statement about the nature of true worship.  True worship.  True worship is not tied to physical surroundings because it is essentially a spiritual activity.  “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him much worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24).  God Himself is Spirit – He is not a corporeal being, and hence is not tied to a physical space, and He does not have any physical needs. Therefore He can be worshiped anywhere and everywhere.

But if worship is not tied to a physical location, how do we worship?  How do you worship God when you are not in a “house of worship”?  The answer is, you worship Him in your spirit.  As human beings we are both flesh and spirit.  But the real “you,” your real personality, resides in your spirit, your non-corporeal self.  And that is the part that can have communion with God.  And so that is the part of you that God wants to have worship Him.

Unfortunately it is all too easy for us as human beings to go through the outward motions of worship and not worship God at all.  We can sit in the pew, sing the songs, put money in the offering plate, and listen to the sermon.  But if the heart is not engaged, if we do not feel a genuine love for God and joy in what He has done for us, our “worship” is all sham and pretense.  It is not worship at all.  It is sheer hypocrisy.  And God can see right through it; He is not impressed at all.

What is needed then, in the modern church, is genuine spiritual life and genuine worship.  For too long we have been content merely to “go through the motions.”  The real question is, what kind of spiritual life do we have when we are not sitting inside of a church building?  This is not to say that God wants us to forsake His public worship.  But true spiritual life does not cease the moment we exit the building.  If it is the real thing, it grows and thrives throughout the week.  It is evident to others.  It is “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”




We have seen that salvation is “by grace . . . through faith. . .not of works” (Eph.2:8,9; NKJV). Does that mean, then, that good works are unnecessary? That we can live like the devil and still go to heaven?

It all depends on what we mean by “unnecessary.” Salvation is not based on human merit – we do not earn our way into heaven. But we are required to repent – to show genuine remorse for the sins that we have already committed. And good works will naturally flow from salvation. If we have been genuinely born again we are changed persons – we do not live the way we used to live before. In other words, good works are not the necessary precondition of salvation, but they are the necessary consequence of it. We do not do good works in order to become saved; we do them because we are saved.

Paul brings this out in Eph. 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” He begins by saying that “we are His workmanship.” Spiritually the Christian is what he is as a result of what God has done inside of him. And what is God’s aim in “creating” us? We were created “for good works which god prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” And how did He “prepare them beforehand”? By providing us with the things that we need to live a godly life. He gave us the Bible to teach and to guide us; He gave us His Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in us. And yet this does not eliminate human responsibility. God gives us these things so “that we should walk in them.” We are the ones who do the walking. But we do it because of what God has done in our lives.

Paul goes on to explain the transformation in chapter 4, verses 20-24. Here he speaks of “learning Christ” and “being taught by Him.” He does not say that “you heard about Him,” but rather that “you heard Him.” You were, in some sense, at least, taught by Christ Himself.

And what did we learn from Christ? “. . .that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man . . . and that you put on the new man” (vv. 22, 24). The verbs “put off” and “put on” suggest the imagery of a change of clothing – you take off your old garments and put on new ones. It is a picture of how dramatic the change is in the new believer’s life. Furthermore, what we “put off” is “your former conduct, the old man” (v. 22). The change is so radical and dramatic that it is practically the same thing as discarding our old personal identity. The way we used to live before we became Christians was “corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” We went through life letting our self-centered desires guide and control us, and we became enslaved to sin as a result. That whole corrupt way of life we are to put completely behind us. In it’s place we are to “put on the new man” (v. 24).

But what is this new way of life like? First of all, it involves a profound inward change. Paul says that we are to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” As we commune with Christ in prayer and personal Bible study, the Holy Spirit changes our thoughts and desires, and enables us to see things differently. We have a new awareness of spiritual reality, a new worldview and a different set of values. We have different motives and desires. As a result we live differently than we did before. We live “in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). And this “new man” was “created according to God.” It is something God creates inside of us by the presence and power of His Holy Spirit, and it makes our lives conform to His own holy nature.

What all of this involves, practically speaking, to that Paul devotes the second half of his epistle. But the point of it here is this: salvation involves both justification and sanctification. We are saved from both the guilt and power of sin. Good works are the evidence of new life in Christ. Let us “pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).



The Conversion of Saul

Given the description of human sin and depravity in Eph. 2:1-3, one might ask why would God ever want to save a sinful lot like that? And yet God does. As Paul goes on to say, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . .” (Eph. 2:4,5; NKJV). God saves sinners because it is His nature to be merciful and gracious.

God is “rich in mercy.” Mercy is the capacity to feel pity or compassion for those in need. When a merciful person sees someone in dire straits, he reacts by trying to help that one. And God is not just merciful; He is “rich in mercy”; He has an abundant store of mercy. Thus He can feel compassion for the most depraved sinner.

And God has the “great love with which He loved us.” Our English word “love” is capable of a wide variety of meanings, some of them contradictory to each other. But the Greek word used here (agape) came to have a distinctly Christian meaning. The classic description of agape is, of course, I Corinthians 13: “Love (agape) suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself ; is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil . . .” (I Cor. 13:4,5). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

But how did He love us? How do we experience it? Our text says that He “made us alive together with Christ” (v. 5), “and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). We, of course, were not literally and physically resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven with Christ. We are still very much physically alive here on earth. What does our text mean, then? What is apparently referred to here our union with Christ, a union that is both positional and mystical. Positionally we have a new status with God. Our sins have been forgiven, and we have been adopted as God’s children and made heirs of eternal glory. We have a new relationship with God. In that sense we have been brought from death to life.

And all of this came about because once we believe and have sealed our faith in baptism we have become one with Christ. He is our representative; He acts on our behalf. Thus what is legally true of Christ is also true of us. He is righteous in the sight of God the Father, therefore we are as well. If He died, was buried, and rose again, then we are considered to have done the same as well.

But our union with Christ is also mystical. If we have been truly born again Christ is living within us through His Spirit. “For I through the law died to the law that I might live in God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:19,20). When I became a Christian I was born again; I received spiritual life from Christ. I have a new awareness, and new motives and desires. I want to please God in all that I do.

The passage emphasizes that all of this is the result of God’s grace, His pure, unmerited favor. “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9). “Grace” (charis) means kindness, goodwill, favor. In this passage Paul draws a contrast between “grace” and “works.” Salvation is “the gift of God,” not something that is earned through our good works. We owe our salvation entirely to God’s good favor, not in anything that we have done or deserved. It is something that we receive “through faith” – we simply put our trust in Christ and His finished work on the cross.

And it is all of grace, “lest anyone should boast” (v. 9). God’s purpose in our salvation is that “in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). That a holy and just God would save guilty, hell-deserving sinners is extraordinary indeed. It is a truly remarkable display of grace and kindness, and we rightly stand amazed at it all.

What it all comes down to is this: why should God have saved me? When I look back on my own past life there was nothing there deserving of God’s favor and blessing. I was a sinner. I willfully did things that were wrong and I justly deserved to be punished for the sins that I had committed. Even worse, I was a sinner by nature. Sin was deeply ingrained in my very psychology. God owed me nothing but His just condemnation. But He saved. Out of His own pure grace and mercy, and not on account of anything that I have done, He saved me. I owe it all to Him. I can take no credit for it myself. And hence I owe Him all of my gratitude and praise. What a wonderful Savior!

“Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.”

Elvina M. Hall



            Salvation is all about saving lost sinners. But why does anyone, aside from a few depraved criminals, need to be saved? The answer is that we are all sinners. What we need to do is to see ourselves as God sees us. And it is not a pretty picture.

In Ephesians chapter 2 Paul gives us a vivid picture of a lost and sinful humanity. He begins by saying that we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1; NKJV). But what does he mean by this? He goes on to elaborate.

First of all, he says that we “walked” in these trespasses and sins (v. 2). By this he means that we lived our lives this way; we routinely and habitually committed transgressions and sins in the daily courses of our lives. But we weren’t just acting independently in this. We were part of a larger and thoroughly corrupt social and cultural system. We sinned “according to the course of this world” (v.2), or “according to the age of this world,” as it might more literally be translated. The “world” is the whole organized system of human society; and the “age” is the period of time during which things are done a certain way. And during this present age we see human society acting in rebellion against God, routinely ignoring His commandments and breaking His laws. And we were all, at one time at least, very much a part of this wicked, godless system.

But there is even more to it than just that. When we “walked according to the course of this world” we were also walking “according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). This is a reference to none other than Satan himself, the unseen spiritual being who manipulates the actions of sinful human beings in order to achieve his own foul ends; and we, through our actions, played right into his hands. He is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience.”

The result, on our part, was a lifestyle marked by sin and depravity. “. . . among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature the children of wrath, just as the others” (v. 3).

First of all, he tells us that we “conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh.” Paul often uses the word “flesh” to refer to our entire fallen human nature, and not just to our physical appetites, although it can include them (cf. Gal. 5:19-21, where “the works of the flesh” include such things as “contentions, jealousies . . . selfish ambitions, heresies.”). “Lusts” are not necessarily sexual lusts, but any kind of self-centered desires. Sometimes in American society we try to dignify these desires by calling them “the profit motive,” “consumer demand,” or “drive and ambition.” But it all boils down to “me, myself and I.”

Paul elaborates further: the lusts of our flesh include both “the desires of the flesh” and those “of the mind.” Here the word “flesh” clearly does refer to the physical appetites, the insatiable craving for food, drink, sex, and the such like. But our sin doesn’t stop there. Alas, it also takes in the “desires of the mind,” of our thoughts and reasonings. It is not just a matter of our animal instincts, but it includes our intellectual life as well. We are driven by pride and ambition; we scheme and plot to get ahead. But our more refined sins of the intellect are just as sinful and rebellious as the desire for wine and women.

But why do we behave in such senseless and self-destructive ways? The answer to that question is the most disturbing of all. We “were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (v. 3). Our “nature” is our inborn quality or constitution. In other words, we were born sinners – it is part of our inbred nature.

Paul elaborates even further on man’s sinful, fallen condition in Eph. 4:17-19. There he says that the Gentiles walk “in the futility of their mind” (v. 17). The reasoning process leads to a false understanding of reality. And why? Because their understanding is “darkened” (v. 18). Why? Because they are “alienated from the life of God.” Why? “Because of the ignorance that is in them.”   And why is that? ”Because of the blindness of their heart,” or as it might better be translated, “the hardness of their heart” (NASV;ESV). As a result they are “past feeling” and have “given themselves over to lewdness, to work uncleanness with greediness” (v. 19). It is a vivid depiction of the psychology of sin.

In a word, what we have here is a description of total depravity. Sin has affected every part of a man’s being: his emotions, his intellect, and his will. And this is why Paul could say that we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (2:1) and “alienated from the life of God” (4:18). It is not a pretty picture.

This, then, is the condition in which God finds us. And this, in a nutshell, is why we need salvation. The remarkable thing is that God would even think of saving us at all. We were His enemies. We were in rebellion against Him. We had broken His law. He would have been perfectly justified in sending us all to hell. But He didn’t. In His grace and mercy He chose to save us instead. But more about that in our next blog post.


The Sealing of the Spirit

So far we have seen the roles that the Father and the Son play in our salvation. But it does not end there; the Holy Spirit has an important role to play as well, a role that is often overlooked by the modern church.

So far our text (Eph. 1:3-14) has told us that we have been predestined to adoption (v. 5), have received redemption (v. 7) and an inheritance (v. 11). But those things are either invisible or in the future; how can we know today that any of it is true?

The answer is that God has given us the Holy Spirit now. “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13; NKJV). A seal was used to authenticate a letter or document, as well as to secure a door or container. In our context, when the Holy Spirit comes into a believer’s heart it has the effect of authenticating his salvation. The Spirit is something that we can possess now that guarantees what we will later possess in glory. This is further underscored in the next verse where the Holy Spirit is described as “the guarantee of our inheritance.” The word translated “guarantee” is an interesting one. It is actually an ancient Semitic word (not Greek) used in commercial transactions and it referred to a kind of security deposit or down payment that guaranteed full payment later on. Thus the Holy Spirit is a kind of pledge or down payment on future glory.

The text says that the Holy Spirit is a guarantee “until the redemption of the purchased possession” (v. 14). This phrase is difficult and has occasioned much debate among the commentators, but I think that the interpretation that best fits the context is that the “purchased possession” is the future glory that awaits us (cf. I Thess. 5:9) and the “redemption” is when we actually receive it (cf. Eph. 4:30).

Significantly the Holy Spirit is referred to in our text as “the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 13). As Jesus met with His disciples at the Last Supper He promised them that they would not be left alone, even though He would soon be departing from them. “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14:16; cf., 16:5-15). And thus when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered believers at Pentecost it was the fulfillment of the promise that Jesus had made to His disciples. It was also the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy about the end times:

“And it shall come to pass afterward

That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh . . .”

(Joel 2:28,29).

But what exactly is the sealing of the Spirit? And how do we know if we have received it? First of all, the text indicates that it is something that happens to every genuinely born again believer: “. . . after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, in whom also, having believed, you were seated with the Holy Spirit of promise” (v. 13). In other words, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of believer that seals him. And every genuine believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him. “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:8).

But what does the Holy Spirit do in the life of a believer? First of all, He leads us and guides us into truth. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26; cf. John 16:12-15). This is not to say that we are to be guided by your personal, subjective feelings and do things that are contrary to Scripture. Rather, the Holy Spirit helps us understand and appreciate the spiritual realities described in Scripture. But more about that in our next blog post.

Then the Holy Spirit helps us in prayer. “Likewise the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26).

And then, of course, the Holy Spirit produces His “fruit” in us. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22,23). The new birth, the indwelling of the Spirit, results in a changed life. We now have a desire to live a life that is pleasing to God.

And then there is the presence of spiritual gifts. “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (I Cor. 12:7). The passage then goes on to enumerate a variety of spiritual gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (v. 11).

And then there is the element of assurance. In Rom. 8:16 we read, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Here the Holy Spirit, who dwells inside of us, is communicating directly with our spirits and assuring us that we truly are God’s. Surely this is “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! / O what a foretaste of glory divine!”

It must be kept in mind, however, that the Holy Spirit is a person and we are individually persons. Therefore the relationship between the Spirit and ourselves is dynamic and variable. It is possible to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). It is also possible to “grieve the Holy Spirit” as well (4:30).

What the modern church most desperately needs today is a fresh outpouring of the Spirit. It needs to return to a theology that recognizes our dependence upon God, and it needs to fall on its knees and ask for the Spirit to return in power and glory. It needs to ask the Spirit to purify the church and empower its ministries. Only then will we see genuine revival.


Christ our Redeemer

As we saw in our last blog post God is to be praised because He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3; NKJV), and we saw how that our salvation was rooted in a plan that God had even before He created the world. But a plan is nothing but an unfulfilled wish unless something happens to bring it to fruition.

It was Jesus who made it happen. God “made us accepted in the Beloved [i.e. Christ]” (v. 6). “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (v. 7). “Redemption” involves the payment of a price which has the effect of securing the release of prisoner or slave. In our case the problem was our sin which had alienated us from God. We by nature are sinners and we routinely break God’s law. As a result we are under God’s wrath and condemnation. To remedy that problem Christ came into the world and shed His own blood on the cross. In that way He paid the ransom and set us free from the penalty of our sins. And thus we receive “the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (v. 7).

To the forgiven sinner this is the most wonderful blessing of all. To know oneself to be a sinner, to have inexcusably broken God’s law, is to feel the despair of divine judgment. And then to have that sin forgiven, to be treated as though you had not sinned at all, is a relief beyond all measure. I was a sinner hopelessly lost; and yet now I am forgiven! That is grace indeed.

“Guilty, vile and helpless, we;

Spotless Lamb of God was he;

Full Atonement! Can it be?

Hallelujah! What a Saviour!”

Philip P. Bliss

But more than that our text tells us that “we have obtained an inheritance” (v. 11). An inheritance is something that you receive upon the death of the testator, the person who made the will. Paul doesn’t tell us here exactly what this inheritance is, but Peter describes “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1:4). Here on earth we may not have much at all. But for the redeemed there is the prospect of eternal glory in the age to come. As Paul himself would say in another context, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

For Paul when Christ came into the world it was even more than the accomplishment of redemption; it was the decisive turning point in human history. For Paul was preeminently the Apostle to the Gentiles; and in his letter to the Ephesians he was writing to a church that was largely made up of believers from Gentile backgrounds. What was striking about this is that prior to the coming of Christ God’s dealings with the human race were confined almost exclusively to one small nation, the nation of Israel. But now the offer of salvation has been extended to the entire human race. And so Paul could speak in this passage of God “having made know to us the mystery of His will . . . that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ . . .” (vv. 9,10). He goes on to explain in Chapter 3 that the “mystery’ which has now been revealed is that “the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).

Here we see God’s grace in full display. God’s grace and mercy would now extend to the darkest corners of the earth. Persons of every station and walk in life would be brought to Christ. And the church, the mystical body of Christ, would be made up of persons from every nation and language. To someone from a Jewish background prior to the time of Christ this was virtually inconceivable. It was an unprecedented display of God’s grace and love.

Here again Paul emphasizes that this is all a part of God’s eternal plan. It was all “according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (1:9), and we were “predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (v. 11). The text does not go into detail about how God can control events while preserving human responsibility, but it is nonetheless true that God is in control and achieves His purposes in history, and that includes our predestination unto salvation. We cannot claim any credit for ourselves for the blessing we receive – it is all of God’s unmerited favor. And it is also that “we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” (v. 12).



Election & Predestination

Most Evangelicals today think that they understand the gospel – the word “evangelical,” after all, is derived from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news” (euangelion). In our modern American self-help culture, however, we are naturally led to think in terms of individual freedom and self-initiative. Hence we like to think of salvation as an offer made by God to the human race, and we are free to accept it or reject it as we choose.

There is a sense in which that is true, of course. God does make the offer and we do have to decide and bear the consequences of our decision. But there is far more to salvation than just that. Salvation is fundamentally God’s work, and we are the passive beneficiaries. God saves us; we do not save ourselves.

This is brought out clearly in a passage at the beginning of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Having greeted the believers at Ephesus Paul then launches into an extended benediction – a kind of hymn of praise to God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3; NKJV). The praise goes to God – “”Blessed be God.” Why? Because of what He has done for us: He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.”

Paul then goes on to elaborate, explaining what each person of the Trinity does in our salvation: the Father (vv. 4-6), the Son (vv. 7-12), and the Holy Spirit (vv. 13,14).

The role of the Father can be summed up in two words: election and predestination. Some people recoil at these two words. Doesn’t God want everyone to be saved? Doesn’t He give us a free choice? In a sense He does. But according to our text our salvation originates in God’s eternal decree.

Paul begins by saying that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). The word “chose” (exelexato in the Greek) bears the clear and unmistakable meaning of selecting some persons or things from out of a larger group. Furthermore the verse says that God “chose us” – not just some general plan of salvation, but “us,” as individual human beings. And He did this “before the foundation of the world,” i.e., before we even existed to make any choices ourselves. In other words, the whole thrust and emphasis of the passage is that our individual salvation originates in the plan of God – he was the One who took the initiative, not we ourselves.

And what is the aim of God’s plan? “ . . .that we should be holy and without blame before Him.” But how can this be? We are by nature fallen sinners. God is perfectly holy and just. How then could we ever be seen by Him as “holy and without blame”? As Paul will go on to explain, it is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

But God does not just have a plan; He executes it. “ . . .having predestinated us to adoption.” The word “predestine” means to determine beforehand. And in our case what God has predetermined is that we should receive adoption as sons. We are to be brought into a relationship with Him in which He is our Father and we are His children. And again God did not just settle on a plan or method; He predestined “us.” Thus some form of determinism is definitely in the picture, and it is a determinism that affects us as individuals.

All of this is done “according to the good pleasure of His will” (v. 5). God’s “will” is what He wishes or desires. The “good pleasure” is whatever pleases Him. Thus the determining factor in our election and predestination is what pleases and satisfies God. It is God’s will that ultimately determines what happens to us.

At this point all sorts of difficult questions arise. Why doesn’t God choose everyone for salvation? Why did He even allow sin to enter into the picture in the first place? Questions such as these may be impossible to answer, for they require us as finite human beings to probe the infinite mind of God. When Job and Paul were inclined to ask such questions the answer they got was “who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20; cf. Job chapters 38-41). All we can go by is what has been pleased to reveal to us in Scripture. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law’ (Dt. 29:29).

But our text does give us a clue: God does all of this “to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved” (v. 6). What election and predestination do is to shine the spotlight on God’s grace. If we were all innocent bystanders, and God arbitrarily chose some of us for salvation and the rest for eternal punishment, the4n that would make God look like a cruel and arbitrary tyrant. But we are not innocent bystanders; we are guilty hell-deserving sinners. The non-elect simply get what they justly deserve. God metes out His perfect justice. The elect, on the other hand, get what they do not deserve — the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. But they cannot take any credit for themselves for the gift that they receive. There just as hell-deserving as the rest. Their salvation is due entirely to God’s free, unmerited favor. The proper question to ask is “why me and not others?,” and the answer is certainly not anything in me that somehow makes me better than the others.

The condemnation of the non-elect serves to highlight the grace shown to the elect. The condemnation of the non-elect shows us what we all deserve. If all were saved we would no doubt take our salvation for granted, as though it were a kind of government entitlement program. But not all are saved. Some receive the punishment justly due them, thus highlighting God’s justice. The others receive a free gift they did not deserve, thus highlighting God’s grace.

What all of this should do for those of us who are saved is to move us to a profound sense of gratitude toward God for all that He has done for us, who were so undeserving of it.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

That save a wretch like me . . .”



Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith

Robb Ryerse

Civitas Press, 2012

206 pp., pb.

What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.

As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.

Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.

Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.


So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).

His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).

However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.

While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.

The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.

If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?

The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.


Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.

Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).

The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.

It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.

The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.

What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.

True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.

By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.

The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.

It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.

The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”   Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?

Parmigianino, ca. 1530

The Conversion of Paul

The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?

The Church

Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).

It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.

Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?


What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.

But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.



C.S. Lewis


Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis

Macmillan, 1960

190 pp., pb.

When dealing with a writer like C.S. Lewis one is always confronted with the question of whether the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty. There is much to commend Lewis as a writer: he is intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. Lewis was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University and the author of the children’s stories The Chronicles of Narnia. As a former atheist who became a professing Christian, he is especially effective at pointing out all of the flaws in modern secular thinking.   But when he turns his attention to theology his work has serious problems of its own. As it turns out, his strength as an apologist is his weakness as a theologian.

His book Mere Christianity began as a series of radio addresses which were then published as three separate books between 1943 and 1945. The final printed version is divided into four parts: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” “What Christians Believe,” “Christian Behaviour” (we retain Lewis’ British spelling here, even if Spellcheck doesn’t like it!), and “Beyond Personality.”

In the first part (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”) we see Lewis at his best. Here he lays out the apologetical argument for belief in Christianity. He appeals to the innate human sense of right and wrong, and argues from that that there really must be an external, objective standard of morality; and that this, in turn, can be accounted for only if there is a Supreme Being. Lewis demonstrates convincingly that there is no adequate secular alternative. It is either God or nothing.

It is in the second part (“What Christians Believe”) that Lewis gets into trouble, and the chief flaw is contained right within the title of the book. He is seeking to defend “mere” Christianity, which he defines as “what Christians believe.” The problem here is that he is defining Christianity so broadly that it includes the Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox churches, as well as Protestantism (he himself was a member of the Church of England). This means that instead of going to Scripture and expounding it, he is merely content to state what all the branches of professing Christendom hold in common. Unfortunately this means that he is hopelessly vague on the most important doctrine of all, the nature of salvation.

Lewis tells us that he does not want to commit himself to any particular theory of the atonement, but he is particularly dismissive of the one that is the most biblically orthodox, what is generally called the Penal Satisfaction theory. Biblically orthodox theologians, end even Roman Catholic ones, for that matter, have argues that Christ died as a substitute for those who would believe on Him, and effectively paid the penalty for their sins. All that Lewis will say, however, is that “Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start” (p. 57). “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself” (p. 58). And that is as far as Lewis is willing to go.

And probably because he is so vague on the nature of the atonement Lewis was also vague on how we receive its benefits. He tells us that there are three means by which we receive the life of Christ: baptism, faith, and Holy Communion, but he will not tell us how the three relate to each other. “. . . I am not saying anything about which of these three things is the most essential” (p. 63). But the Bible itself is quite clear on the matter: we are “justified” (i.e., made righteous in the sight of God) by faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:24). Baptism and the Lord’s Table are signs and seals of that faith, the formal, outward means by which we publically express our faith and make a formal commitment to Christ. But what actually saves us (what theologians call “the instrument of justification”) is our personal faith in Christ alone as our Savior. (Note: there is no direct command and no clear example anywhere in the New Testament for baptizing anyone who cannot personally make a public profession of faith in Christ. Infant baptism makes about as much sense as a label on an empty bottle!).

Unfortunately Lewis even goes so far as to suggest that a person could be saved who had never heard of Christ at all. “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (p. 65). At this point Lewis has quite taken leave of his senses.

The third part of the book is entitled “Christian Behaviour,” and here again he does not take a strictly biblical approach, but is content simply to lay out “what Christians believe.” Thus at one point he delineates the “seven virtues” – the four “cardinal virtues” (prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude) and the three “theological virtues” (faith, hope and love). These distinctions he borrowed from Roman Catholic teaching, and the Catholic Church, in turn, borrowed the “cardinal virtues” from Greek philosophy. But it is nothing less than astonishing to see Lewis, and the Roman Catholic Church, reaching to non-biblical, and even non-Christian sources, for guidance on morality! Sadly, however, it has to be admitted that modern evangelical Protestantism has tended to avoid the subject of Christian ethics altogether, and Lewis does have some helpful insights on the subject.

The fourth section of the book, “Beyond Personality,” entails a rather abstruse discussion about the nature of the Trinity, and here Lewis is not alone in philosophizing about the metaphysical distinctions within the Godhead. Lewis then concludes that section with a discussion about how to live the Christian life. But here it is hard to discern what role, if any, that the Holy Spirit plays in conversion and sanctification. At points Lewis seems to be saying that God uses natural means to change us – if we let Him – and that it is a slow, gradual process that lasts over a lifetime. Lewis concludes his book with a speculative discussion about what the future evolution of the human race might look like.

Part of the problem with Lewis’ approach to “mere Christianity” may stem from the fact that he was a member of the Church of England, a church which has typically tried to be all things to all men, and has sometimes tried to straddle the fence between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But if a church is not soundly biblical in its theology, and especially if it is not clear on the issue of salvation, in the end it has nothing to offer a perishing humanity. The most valuable thing that the church can give the world is the truth, the truth about its predicament and salvation. If we genuinely care about our fellow human beings we will give them the gospel, and we will do this both lovingly and faithfully. Anything else is nothing less than criminal – it leaves men and women to perish in their sins.

Lewis has performed a valuable service to the church as an apologist. As a former atheist who converted to Christianity he was forced to think through the issues and arrive at some firm conclusions, and as a result he can present the case for Christianity very convincingly. We can only wish that he had done a better job of explaining Christian doctrine – as it has been revealed to us in Scripture!