Can Free Will Explain the Conversion of Sinners?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “I chose Christ of my own free will”? In many Evangelical circles such a notion is so self-evident as to be proverbial. “Well, of course we must exercise our free will in order to be saved!” So goes the conventional wisdom. Christians sling the phrase free will about with the same ease Tom Brady throws footballs to Rob Gronkowski. But do most really have any idea what they mean when embracing the notions that stand behind these overwrought words? Free will is part of the stock parlance of Arminian theology, and those who employ it with a little sophistication mean something like that which is advanced by philosophers known as libertarianism. And no, we are not talking about Gary Johnson! On the other hand, Calvinists have usually disparaged the use of the term, avoiding it like the scourge of Black Death. But of course Arminianism and its many step-children believe that Calvinism puts the grip of death upon the freedom and responsibility of human beings. In their mind, the dreaded Calvinists would have all humans beings consigned to a vast kingdom of droids.

Is this true?

A modest renaissance of sorts is occurring with a little known brand of Calvinistic thought that, while opposed to the libertarian impulse of Arminianism, embraces a wholly different kind of free agency. It is known as compatibilism and serves as a useful way to frame what the Bible really says about this slippery notion of free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility was most clearly articulated in Jonathan’s Edwards’ magnificent tome Freedom of the Will. Edwards picked up where Luther and Calvin left off in their carefully crafted works on the subject. Of course, they all stood on the shoulders of Augustine as he tried to grapple with the Biblical text.

In what follows, I offer a humble ode to the thinking of these theological giants on the complex issues that surround the sovereignty of God in salvation and what takes places in sinners who are converted to Christ. In order to understand the dynamics of conversion, one must understand the often neglected doctrine of regeneration. I suggest that regeneration is not only ill-conceived in Arminian theology, it bears little consequence for how we make sense of the metamorphic miracle that transpires when a sinner enters the glorious kingdom of Christ. That supernatural transformation can only be explained by the Calvinistic interpretation of the relevant Biblical data. Furthermore, only Calvinistic compatibilism can make sense of the conundrums that have plagued our understanding of the tension that resides between absolute divine sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other.

Let us consider some definitional points first.

Libertarianism and Compatibilism

Libertarianism holds to two basic notions. First, it is adamant that our choices as human beings can in no way be determined by anything outside of the autonomous power of one’s individual will. No outside influences of any kind are allowed to have sufficient determining power so as to cause us to make one choice or another. Not even our inner deliberations, desires, motives, preferences, and what not, are sufficient causes for the choices we make. And of course, God himself cannot interfere with the human will so as to determine any choice we make; otherwise we can be neither free nor responsible in making those choices.

The second fundamental tenet of libertarianism is known as the freedom of contrary choice. This simply means that no matter what choice one makes, in order to be truly free, an alternative choice must be a genuine possibility and able to be made with equal ease. So for example, in order for a person to exercise a free and meaningful choice to believe upon Christ for salvation, he must be able equally to choose not to believe. Without this unhindered equanimity in choosing Arminians believe humans cannot be held responsible for their choices.

There are many serious problems for this notion of free will from a practical, philosophical and especially theological perspective, but I will not canvas those problems here. I direct people to my full length book on the matter, What About Free Will? What I wish to do instead is consider a positive case for an alternate view of free agency based upon a careful inquiry into the Biblical witness. The Bible embraces a view of human choosing that is consummate with compatibilism. A Biblically framed compatibilism holds that free and responsible choices are compatible with a God who also sovereignly determines what we will or will not choose. In other words, there is a dual explanation for every choice we make. God is the primary yet remote cause of our choosing while we humans are the secondary yet proximate cause of our choosing.

Now in case one is not inclined to think that God is meticulously sovereign in all things—well, what page of the Bible do you wish to be referred? I take this as one of the few truly undisputed suppositions in matters that lie before us.

The Three Compatibilist Mechanics of Human Choosing

Before I consider a theology of conversion it is important to understand the notion of choosing from the strictly human side of the compatibilist equation I have stated. This helps define how one’s choices are determined not simply from the divine perspective, but from the temporal, situational, and personal angle of what goes on in our internal faculties. Three important propositions are affirmed by a compatibilist view of human choosing.

First, we always choose what we want to choose. Nobody ever makes a choice they don’t want to make. This is axiomatic. But immediately some will raise a question here. Don’t we in fact sometimes choose things we don’t want to choose? Little Billy sometimes cleans his room even though he doesn’t like to. Incredibly, he can and does often do what he doesn’t want to do. Would we not agree there is some truth here? But doesn’t this show that libertarian notions of contrary choosing win the day? Not quite. When you examine the matter closer, you discover that there are determinative reasons why one make choices they otherwise would not. We never stand at a fork in the road and choose one direction or the other without some particular reason, even if those reasons are not particularly strong. This is not what libertarians and Arminians would have us believe, but I think it is easy to show they are mistaken. In little Billy’s case of the messy room, perhaps good ole dad stood behind him with threats of the woodshed; and so the properly fearful lad had a compelling reason to pick up those errant Legos. Billy wanted to clean his room because he didn’t want the alternative!

Let us put the matter another way. You can analyze every choice you make and you will discover that you always choose that which you perceive to be in your best interest at the moment of choosing. Go ahead! Think of something. We never choose things we think will harm us. Blaise Pascal said it well:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Even people who choose suicide are deluded in thinking at that tragic moment that self-inflicted death is the best choice for them. They think it will benefit them. Of course it will not benefit them, but we are often deluded about what really benefits us. Sin, temptation, and deception hold hands very tightly.

This principle of self-interest is embedded in the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself. In making this statement (and others like it), the Bible assumes that we have a natural love for ourselves—a natural interest in our own happiness and in making choices that we believe to be to our benefit. Of course, in principle there is nothing wrong with this so long as our choices truly are in our best interest. Only God can define the choices that are in our best interest. We do not retain that prerogative. What brings glory to him is always what brings the greatest benefit and subsequent happiness to ourselves. When we are deluded by what brings glory to ourselves (the true definition of selfishness) is when we are truly harmed by our choices.

Secondly, compatibilism says that all of our choices are determined by whatever our motives and desires are. Now there are many conditions, external and internal to ourselves, that can influence our motives and desires, but when all is said and done we never act against those motives—in particular, the strongest ones. If a contrary choice presents itself it will always have its own particular compelling reasons. Humans don’t do random. Even if we analyze the so-called willy-nilly things we do we find that there is some hidden dormant factor that sufficiently explains the direction we take. For the better part of the day we are barely conscious of the reasons that drive most of our choices. But let us reconsider Billy. The reason why he cleans his room when he otherwise hates to is because he is motivated by the threat of punishment if he doesn’t. Of course, maybe he is brave enough to test his dad’s resolve, but that would simply point to another set of sufficient reasons for doing so. Every boy now and then thinks he can get away with murder in a messy bedroom. Bravery can be a stubborn thing. The point is, you can analyze all your choices by what motivates you. The strongest motives that underpin the perception of what is in your best interest at the moment of choosing are what determines the choices you make.

But there is a third very crucial component here. And in this case, we are particularly concerned about our moral and spiritual choices. This is what the Bible is primarily concerned about and so this is where we must pay closest attention. What is it that motivates us to make moral and spiritual choices? Where do the motives for these choices come from? They proceed from our fundamental nature as human beings. In this regard, when the Bible uses the word “heart” it often has reference to our fundamental moral and spiritual disposition as human beings. Solomon says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). The heart here represents our core nature. It is our mission control central; and from the heart flow the course of decisions that we make about life.

The Fallen Nature of Humanity

But what is the condition of our heart? The Apostle Paul tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). This means a fundamentally corrupted heart. Consider what the Bible says here: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Paul instructs the Ephesians believers to “walk no longer just as the Gentiles [unbelievers] also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17). Notice not only is the heart hardened here wherein our basic affections and desires lie; but our core nature includes our minds that operate in futility, emptiness, and uselessness in regard to spiritual things. This is the default mode of every human being who lives apart from the holy well-springs of the life of God.

Paul puts this another way when he says: “The mind set on the flesh [sinful nature] is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7). The sin nature is hostile toward God and the things of God. It does not want to obey God’s moral imperatives in a way that brings him glory alone (Rom. 3:23). Thus we cannot please God in our natural sinful state. In fact, Paul says we are not even able to do so. As sinners infected by the curse of Adam we are unwilling and unable to do anything that pleases and glorifies God. All of our best attempts at goodness are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), tainted by every dark hue of sin our hearts can devise.

Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to alter our desperate condition. The prophet says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). Jesus says the same thing employing some other color metaphors:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt. 12:33-35)

Jesus uses the idea of a tree to represent the basic nature of human beings. There are either good trees or bad trees. There are either trees that are poisonous and produce poisonous fruit or there are good trees that produce good, nutritious fruit. In order for a tree to produce good fruit it must be made good. It must undergo a radical transformation. The heart is either full of good treasure or evil treasure. Jesus is summarizing what a Biblically oriented compatibilist view of the human will tells us. If you have a corrupted nature then you will only have corrupted desires and motives which produce corrupted choices.

So the question of crucial importance here is this: what must happen in order for the tree to be made good?

The Need for Regenerated Natures

We have a need for regenerated natures. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes very graphically the transformation that takes place in the sinner who is changed into a Christ follower. He begins by depicting the pre-Christian state of his readers.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

The unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins. Spiritual silence—stone cold death. They are dominated by the dark designs of the flesh—the sin nature we inherited from Adam and in which we freely and gladly indulged. Yes, Satan, the prince of the power of the air, has a powerful grip upon sinners, but every sinner willingly (freely we might add) follows after the devil’s sinister plots of provoking humans unto disobedience to the moral will of God. They can do no other despite the protests of Arminians who espouse an illusory freedom of contrary choice. What we might regard as average people who go about the normal routines of life have no inclination to spiritual things, rather they are by nature children of divine wrath. All people are born children of wrath and immediately enslaved to their sin nature (Psa. 51:5; John 8:34). Spiritual stillbirths litter the whole landscape.

With this framework of human depravity in mind, consider the following question. Could any person repent of their sin and believe upon Christ while being enslaved to this condition? Many Arminians like to think that our condition as unbelievers is not spiritual death but spiritual weakness or sickness. Within our sickly condition we still have a spark of spirituality in our souls. We can still reach out to Christ for salvation, however feebly. To be sure, divine grace is necessary in this scheme, but it is not sufficient for salvation to obtain. That rests with the libertarian free will of man.

But this scenario simply does not comport with the picture of our human depravity. The desperate catalog of our condition in Romans 3:9-18 says otherwise. No one who lives under the curse of sin is good or righteous (vss. 10, 12). No one has a capacity or a set of motives whereby they seek the true God (vs. 11). They have all turned from him to paths of self-destruction (vss. 12, 16). The sinner has no regard for a holy God (vs. 18). Such persons are in no condition to repent of their sins or to exercise faith in Christ. We might indeed say they are free, but they are clearly in bondage at the same time. They freely choose according to the corrupt desires of their corrupted nature, and can do no other. They cannot defy their nature, but it is important to note that they don’t want to defy their nature. This is why freedom of the will must be defined no more broadly than choosing according to one’s most compelling desires. The unbeliever has no desires for anything other than what their sinful nature dictates.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. Why is it that some people believe the gospel and others do not? Would we not say that faith and repentance are morally good and God glorifying actions? In fact, would we not say that these actions represent the climax of morally good choices? What could be better than falling upon your knees before a holy God in brokenness and utter contrition; of humbly acknowledging the depth of your depravity; and of seeing that faith in the wondrous Christ, who offered his life as an atoning sacrifice to pardon such depravity, is your only hope? Likewise, would we not say that to hear the clear and powerful message of the gospel and of the mercy of God and of forgiveness of sins and then to turn away from this message in unbelief—is this not tantamount to the most egregious of sins? But what causes a person to repent of their sins and trust Christ for pardon? Is it something that proceeds from one’s own good nature? Of course not, unless we want to deny the inherent sinfulness of human beings as the Bible so clearly describes it. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit. Something has to change. Something radical has to take place; something that results in the virtuous actions of repenting of sin and entrusting one’s desires and affections to a glorious Savior. A radical transformation of our nature must take place before such choices can be made. This leads us to the lynchpin of conversion, the doctrine of regeneration.

The Doctrine of Regeneration and Conversion

This is precisely what Paul has in mind as we further consider his flow of thought in Ephesians 2. After describing the pre-Christian state of human beings (vss. 1-3), he goes on to outline this glorious transformation of regeneration:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

The believer in Christ went from death to life. How did this happen? Was it because sinners had the good sense to take their dead souls and infuse new life into them? No. People couldn’t do that even if they had the desire to do so. It was the sovereign God’s mercy toward vile dead sinners. It was the magnificence of his love for his elect even as they remained dead in sin, in an unperturbed state of constantly turning away from God, despising his moral imperatives, walking in their own way, and indulging in the corrupted desires of their hearts. God in his rich mercy and great love arrested appointed sinners in their tracks and he infused new life in them.

Paul says elsewhere: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5). Peter rejoices with similar words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). We did not cause ourselves to be born again, God did. No one causes their own birth. And yet without this new life we could not have the living hope Peter and Paul speak of. More importantly, for our purposes, we could not choose to repent and believe.

Remember our basic thesis about the mechanics of choosing. We always choose what we want to choose, and what we want to choose is what we believe to be in our best interest. Furthermore, the moral and spiritual actions we want to choose are rooted in our most compelling desires and motives. But these are inextricably tied to our basic spiritual nature. If we have a spiritually dead, intractable corrupted nature, then we will only have corrupted motives that produce corrupted choices. In order to make good, God pleasing, God glorifying moral and spiritual choices we must have a new nature implanted within us. As God tells Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)

God does this out the grace that flows from his own sovereign freedom. To be sure, we repent of our sin and trust Christ as an act of our own choice, freely and willingly. But we would never do so unless a change in our natures took place. That is something we cannot do. We are wholly passive as God replaces our heart of stone with a soft, pliable, pure, good heart that then suddenly develops desires for salvation it never had before. Our renewed heart then actively chooses salvation in response to those new desires; free of divine coercion, unhindered in any way, made completely voluntarily and yet in full concert with a sovereign God who made his choice first.

And this returns us to our compatibilistic equation. God is the primary cause of our actions, no less in the normal routines of life, but particularly as it concerns our spiritual transformation. But this does not somehow dismantle our responsible and freely made choices. Divine sovereignty is never to be equated to fatalism—a distinctly pagan notion. We are not lifeless marionettes dangling from the Master Puppeteer’s strings. We are responsible creatures who participate in his story in a necessary nexus of cause and effect. Regeneration is the supernatural side of the coin that initiates the work of salvation—the cause. Conversion is the effect—the natural and human side of the coin whereby we respond in faith and repentance to the effectual calling of the Spirit (John 6:44; 2 Tim. 1:9). Thus, the saving grace inherent in regeneration must precede faith.

In regeneration our wills are passive. In conversion they are active. Put another way, regeneration is the primary cause of our coming to Christ. Conversion is the secondary cause. God’s work of transforming our natures and infusing them with new life is largely silent and imperceptible, whereas our response in conversion is obviously tangible and self-conscious. The priority of regeneration is the only way to make sense of the gracious nature of salvation. It is the only way that prevents us from boasting and taking credit where no credit is due (1 Cor. 1:26-31). The honor and the praise are reserved for God alone. But what a privilege he has afforded us in having this strangely unique, personal, and beautiful part in the wonder of salvation. It is pure joy to be an actor in the divine Playwright’s grand story of redemption.

There are many questions this understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility raises—maters that go far beyond the conversion of sinners. This dual matrix for explaining divine and human action pervades the whole of Scripture and touches upon matters like sanctification, prayer, evangelism, the problem of evil, and more. I encourage you to investigate these issues more fully in my book What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

Book Review: Living Without Worry

Lane Worry

Tim Lane is becoming better known in the Biblical Counseling movement and has written a workman-like book on the subject of worry and anxiety. In 11 short chapters, Lane’s book, Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, lays out the basic problems associated with worry and anxiety and how it should be addressed from a Biblical perspective. In this regard, Lane spends a good deal of time pointing the reader to Scripture instead of psychological remedies. He canvases a great deal of different passages from the Old Testament (particularly the Psalms) and New Testament, where he focuses equal time in Jesus’ teachings in the gospels along with Paul, James and Peter’s epistles. He even looks at the worry Paul suffered when ministering in Athens and Corinth from the book of Acts.

Lane defines the problem from several different angles throughout the book. For example, he says, “The essence of worry is attempting to find your ultimate hope, comfort and meaning in something that is temporal and fleeting” (p. 24-25). He says, “What you worry about is a good indicator of what you truly value and rely upon” (p.93). Essentially worry is turning our eyes off of Christ and upon things that consume us in this world. Lane points out that “worry is a sign that you believe that God is not good or that he is not in charge, and that he therefore cannot be trusted to care for you” (p. 138). Worry becomes a crisis of faith and doubting the character of God. Wrong thinking about God leads to wrong living. However, Lane helpfully points out that right thinking does not always lead to right living. In chapter 9 he says change in the Christian life can be elusive and we should not always expect instant results even when our focus is centered upon Biblical solutions.

The book has a very practical focus. Lane examines many different scenarios that can produce anxiety such as relationships, marriage, parenting, finances, suffering, and even past sins and traumatic experiences. He shows how anxiety relates to our perspective on the past, the present and the future.  Lane makes some helpful distinctions as well. For example, worry should be distinguished from concern. It is okay to be concerned about matters, but concern can become “over-concern” (p. 20) which degenerates into sinful worry. And worry simply reveals what our hearts really cling to. “Over-concerns reveal over-loves” (p. 30). On the other hand, there are legitimate reasons to worry, for example when we contemplate the destiny of our souls if we have not genuinely repented of sin and placed our faith in Christ. In chapter 5, he points out that the prospect of eternal hell should produce a great deal of fear and anxiety. In fact, no worrisome matter on this earth can compare to the fear hell generates. The remedy is to have a secure future in heaven. The assurance of salvation not only dissipates hell as the worst of fears, but it can dissipate all lesser fears.

The ultimate solution to fear, worry and anxiety is not terribly difficult to understand. It is simply cultivating renewed faith in a God who loves us beyond measure, whose comfort and care exceeds our worries, and who maintains a good purpose for all the believe goes through. He is in utter control of our lives. But moving from doubt, exasperated by various worries, to confident trust in the Lord is never an easy path. But thankfully Lane points out that we serve a patient and merciful God.

Although Lane’s book is nothing extraordinary, it is quite helpful to the Christian struggling with worry and I warmly recommend it. I do have a few caveats. First, I did not like the fact that when other authors were quoted, references were left out. I like to know where quotes come from. Secondly, the construction of the book itself made it a little difficult to read. Its pages, cover and binding were particularly stiff requiring some hand strength to keep the pages open.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.

The Grandeur of Grace

Grace. Amazing Grace. It is a theme richly woven within every fiber of the tapestry of the Christian faith. Yet, it has become so much a banal staple of the parlance of Christian discourse that the term has lost its luster. It no longer excites the passions of believers beleaguered by indifference. But, Oh! How glorious is that grace that set the captives free—the fountainhead of God’s love for a world trapped in its own destructive melee.

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God’s grace in its simplest expression is unmerited favor. It speaks of a particular kind of love largely unrecognized in even the most compassionate enclaves of human kindness expressed in this world we inhabit. It is reserved for those who embrace it and thus become privileged to be named as His children. It is a moving display of affectionate passion that forms the very ground of God’s redemptive actions toward rebel souls. This grace is a gratuitous, ill-deserved reward; a prize conferred for no achievement. It issues forth from the incalculable benevolence of its heavenly source. God’s grace is unfettered and free, bounding forward into the hearts of receptive sinners like you and me.

This is to say no one is able by the strength of moral will to gain God’s favor. Virtually every religious system conceived by mankind is rooted in the ability accorded to ourselves. Religious man is transparently focused on the self. He thinks he is fully capable of appeasing what ever powers he imagines through his own self-inflated perception of success. However, God’s grace only extends toward those who recognize their utter failure in meeting the terms necessary to attain salvation.  Ironically, the force of grace is only apparent when such individuals recognize how unworthy they are of its benefits.

While grace is without cost to its beneficiaries, it incurred an incalculable expense to God. It required Him to send His Son to this sin stricken earth as a vicarious sacrifice on behalf of others; to pay the price of punishment for crimes He did not commit. The condescension of Christ to bear the burden of sinful creatures on a shameful cross casts a transcendent light upon this unearthly love—pure and undefiled. He was whipped and beat, spat upon, cruelly mocked and despised. He was left to die a cold and lonely death outside of Jerusalem while His detractors retreated into the warmth of the city gates. Christ’s physical agony pales in comparison to what He experienced in His spirit. Few are those who appreciate the magnitude of humiliation the divine Son of God underwent so humanity might have the proffer of the only genuine freedom that exists.

The abundant character of God’s divine mercy is unbounded in its ability to meet every need of every sinner. No amount of malice that seethes through the veins of the vilest offender can thwart the designs of grace to erase the impossible stains left in the wake of such transgression. One need only look at the Apostle Paul—a formerly horrible blasphemer and violent persecutor of Christians—in order to see God’s kindness toward His enemies. The tenderness of God invaded the stony regions of  Paul’s heart and led him to instruct his readers, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

That the Creator of the universe died for His special creatures is nothing less than astounding. Perhaps the only thing more astounding than this marvelous extension of love, is how so many refuse it. But for those who do not, the love of God for as wretched sinners as they is grace—nothing less than Amazing Grace.

8 Truths about Marriage from 50 Words of Jesus

Many people assume that because Jesus had little to say on marriage during His ministry on earth that He was open to the flexibility of this institution including the acceptance of same sex marriage. But is this true?

While Jesus said little about marriage, what He did say is packed with such depth of insight that only Jesus could unfold so much in so few words. We need not consider what He said about the issue of divorce and remarriage. The substance of what Jesus said on marriage can be ascertained from His positive affirmation of the institution in Matthew 19:4-6. These 3 verses contain 50 words Jesus spoke on the subject. From these 50 words (in the Greek text) we discover 8 truths about marriage.

“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female.” (vs. 4)

  1. Marriage is Heterosexual

Jesus goes to the beginning – to the creation itself to substantiate the divine design for marriage. He quotes from Genesis 1 to say God made humanity male and female. If God had designed marriage between people of the same sex then why would Jesus lay the foundation for marriage by making an appeal to this fundamental distinction in genders? The institution of marriage is rooted in the way God created human beings right from the very start. He did not create a suitable marriage partner for Adam by creating another male. He made a female. Some say Jesus never condemned homosexuality. The fact is, He did something better. He pointed to the blueprint.

  1. Marriage is Complementary

Because God made male and female, he made marriage to be a complementary union. Marriage is not about sameness between partners. What makes marriage exciting and causes it to flourish is in the diversity that exists between male and female, between masculinity and femininity.  Men and women complement one another in every way – physically, sexually, psychologically, and even spiritually. But because men and women are each created in God’s image, even though they are different and fulfill different roles, they stand on equal ground before their Creator.

  1. Marriage is Monogamous

When God made Adam and Eve, He made only one of each.  He did not make a plurality of females to be joined to Adam. God did not design marriage to be polygamous. Now of course as soon as sin entered the world so did non-monogamous marriages. Polygamy proliferated in Biblical times, even among God’s people. But Jesus indicates it was never meant to be that way.  Even though we don’t generally practice polygamy today, people frequently violate monogamous marriage by joining themselves to others as if they were married. The culture of hooking up in our society today has virtually replaced monogamy with something that just as well be polygamy.

“And said, ‘A Man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (vs. 5-6a)

  1. Marriage is Exclusive

When a man gets married he is called to leave his parents and be joined to his wife. This means that a new partnership in matrimony grows out of a previous partnership in matrimony. Notice the previous partnership involved a male and a female. This indicates the exclusive nature of marriage. Marriage is the most important human relationship God ever made and that explains why it is also the first relationship He made. No other relationship should be allowed to interfere with the marriage relationship – neither parents nor children nor outside interlopers. Marriage requires absolute fidelity.

  1. Marriage is Mutual

When a man and a woman leave their parents to join in matrimony they are making a voluntary commitment to one another.  Fidelity and mutuality go together.  Marriage is not about one’s self. It is not about meeting personal needs.  It is not about setting conditions upon the marriage partner. “I will love you, if you do this and that.”  Marriage is an unconditional covenant bond not a contract. 

Our society views marriage like a contract.  In a contract two parties have certain obligations for a particular period of time.  If at any time one of the parties violates the terms of the contract and neglects their obligations then the contract is terminated and the other party is free to walk away.  Contracts are conditional. 

Marriage as the Bible describes it is covenantal and that means it is unconditional. When two people come together in marriage, they are vowing to serve one another, to lift up the well-being of the other as their first priority.  This means exercising steadfast love and grace because people are sinners.  Contract marriages depend on the ability not to sin if they are to work.  Biblical marriages are designed to operate on grace because it recognizes that sin is real and it can never be avoided in one’s spouse.

  1. Marriage is Intimate

When a man and a woman are joined together Christ says they become “one flesh.” Many think this refers simply to the consummation of marriage in sexual union. That is true and it is one of the wonderful and exclusive gifts that God grants married people. Nothing destroys marriage more when a sexual union is established outside the bonds of marriage. It is a gift that people have repeatedly trashed and trivialized to point that it no longer reflects the intimacy it was designed to enhance. 

But the fact is, the exclusive sexual union in marriage is the result of a deeper kinship that marriage is designed to create. God purposed spouses to be soulmates. He designed a man and a woman to be so drawn to one another that an indissoluble bond of trust and confidence is developed between one another.  This soulish union brings the joy of sex to a place of deeper intimacy than just physical. But it also shows that when sexual infidelity takes place, that oneness is utterly shattered and sometimes irreparably. 

“What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” (vs. 6b)

  1. Marriage is Permanent

Marriage was designed to be permanent.  In Malachi 2:16, God says with all the authority and power invested in His being as the Lord of this universe: “I hate divorce.” There is nothing more tragic in God’s eyes then when two married sinners cannot extend grace and forgiveness toward one another and they break the marriage covenant they vowed to uphold.  Certainly sin wreaks havoc in marriages and the Bible makes some exceptions for believers in which divorce as a last resort is justified.  But even in those exceptions, the first thought should always be grace and reconciliation. When Christ betrothed the Church as His beloved bride His promise is to extend His devotion to her for all eternity. His grace rescued us from our own rebellion and even when we stumble badly as God’s children, he forgives and restores us to fellowship with Himself.  This same undeserving grace should be extended towards spouses when they violate God’s design for marriage.

  1. Marriage is Sacred

When two people get married we say it is a relationship sanctioned and honored by the government, our family and friends and of course the two people getting married.  But marriage is not merely a civil bond that generates only human approval. It is something that God Himself approves and sanctions.  In fact, it is a bond that He Himself oversees. 

When you got married did you ever think that it was not the minister who married you? It wasn’t the justice of the peace.  Rather it was God Himself that joined you and put His stamp of approval upon your marriage. When you make your vows of marriage you are saying,

God, I offer this marriage to You so that You might be honored and glorified. Should I do anything to mar my marriage vows I stand accountable to You, because You are the one who joined me to my spouse. I answer to You for how I conduct myself in this marriage and I pray You will infuse me with all Your grace and power to love and cherish my spouse no matter what transpires that seeks to constrain me from doing so.

When these essential features of marriage embodied in the infallible words of Jesus are upheld then marriages abide by God’s design. Only when people listen to the voice of Christ will marriage experience a long needed revival in our day. Only then will married couples experience deep satisfaction and joy. Then perhaps we might see marriage flourish again, and in turn society will flourish. 

What to Look for in a Girl

I have 4 boys, 3 of whom are teenagers. So this means there is a good deal of talk about girls, dating, marriage and what not. When our oldest started thinking about girls a few years ago these discussions began in earnest. I decided to put together a guide to help them think about what to look for in a girl they wanted to date and eventually of course the girl they would like to marry. This is not our philosophy about dating. It’s just about girls. So here we go!

Qualities to Look for in a Girl to Date or Marry (mostly in order of importance):

This is a guide, not a set of rules. It contains mostly questions to start thinking about what to look for in a girl. The qualities represent something of an ideal set of circumstances. You must realize that nobody is perfect and you should never look for somebody perfect because there is no such person. We are all sinners in constant need of God’s grace as well as grace from one another. If you set your expectations too low, you will be disappointed. Likewise, if you set them too high you will be disappointed. Of course set your expectations reasonably high but be prepared to extend grace. Also realize that you yourself don’t meet the perfect ideal in a man. So you should expect grace to be shown to you too. The first section is non-negotiable, a girl must be committed in her relationship to Christ. Some of the questions in last two sections are somewhat more flexible and subjective. Some things might be more important to you than others and you might think of still others.

Non-negotiable Qualities (needs to be determined ASAP):

  1. She must be a genuine Christian.
  2. She must be a committed Christian.  How do you know if she is? 
  • Does she knows the gospel well and she can articulate it?
  • Is she consistently involved in a Biblical Church by participating and serving?
  • Does she express humility and joy in her relationship with Christ?
  • Does she read her Bible and pray regularly?
  • Does she consistently seek to grow in her faith and obedience to Christ and God’s Word?
  • Does she enjoy being with other Christians more than non-Christians?
  • Does she show spiritual (Biblical) discernment and avoid worldly behavior?
  • Does she enjoy Christian media, music, books and movies with God-honoring Biblical content?

 Initial (but also long-term) Qualities (as you are getting to know her):

  1. Is she ‘forward’ or reserved? Does she show respect for male leadership? Does she let the man lead and initiate things without trying to undermine or manipulate him?
  2. Is she attractive not just on the outside but especially the inside?
  3. Does she dress modestly and not wear too much make-up? Does she make herself appear alluring in a sexual way? Does she appear and conduct herself like a ‘lady’?
  4. Is she guarded with her emotions and affections? Is she quick to express her emotions in a way that draws attention to herself? How quick is she to express affection with words (e.g. flattery) or physical gestures (e.g.hugging) especially publicly?
  5. Does she have a pleasant personality, one that is not too wild, giddy, pretentious or stuck up (arrogant)?
  6. Does she like to gossip? Does she know when to speak up and to remain silent? Does she show respect for others  and act respectably herself?  Does she exhibit integrity (does she have her act together)? 

Long-term Qualities (once you get to know her more):

  1. Does she show respect for her parents? If she has no respect for her parents (particularly her dad), then chances are she will have no respect for you.
  2. Does she see her highest calling as being a wife and a mother, or a career person? Does she love kids?
  3. Is she kind, compassionate and understanding? Is she easily angered or frustrated? Is she patient with difficult people including yourself?
  4. Is she willing to forgive when wronged and to ask forgiveness when she is wrong?
  5. Does she tend to be encouraging to others or put them down?
  6. Is she selfish? Is she mostly concerned for herself, or does she think of others too?
  7. Does she show courage and strength of conviction for what is right and good and true? Does she tend to be wishy-washy about important matters?
  8. Does she have intelligence and good common sense? Does she show wisdom and discernment in practical matters? Is she smart or foolish in how she spends her money? Is she a compulsive buyer?
  9. Is she conservative politically and socially (e.g. abortion, same sex marriage, etc.)?
  10. Does she tend to be lazy or a diligent worker? Is she sloppy or careless?
  11. Is she flexible in matters that are not important and teachable in things that are? Does she express her opinions respectfully and respect the opinions of others including yours? Is she argumentative?
  12. Does she enjoy some of the same things you enjoy? How similar are your tastes?
  13. Does she have a good sense of humor and enjoy laughing? Is her humor compatible with yours?

Book Review: Tempted and Tried

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Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ is written by Russell Moore, the dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president  for academic administration at the Southern Baptist Theological  Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  Moore is a well known Christian thinker modeled after his close friend and mentor Albert Mohler.

I really hate to give this book a less than stellar review, but it was quite disappointing to me. I choose to use the book for a men’s group largely based on the reputation of Russell Moore and the overwhelming 5 star reviews on Amazon. I have not read any of Moore’s other books, but I have heard him speak and have read some of his shorter articles on the internet with profit. How could I go wrong? Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not reading the book in full before proceeding to use it for our men’s group.

The fact is, the book contains some real substance but is marred by several things. First of all, the chapters are way too long. Furthermore, they were not divided up into manageable reading chunks. Some kind of discernible outline for each chapter would have been helpful. It made it difficult to wade through page after page with no break. Secondly and related to the first point, the organization of the book did not seem well thought out. I realize that it is supposed to be an exposition of sorts of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. However, the themes Moore covered meandered throughout the book so that it was hard to keep track of where he was going. Much of the content was haphazard and it was often unclear what his point was. Once you begin to start seeing what a particular point was then he suddenly seemed to shift gears without driving the point home. Thirdly, much of what he says seemed obtuse and esoteric. It was simply unclear what it is he was trying to say. I found myself reading many paragraphs 3 or 4 times before I think I understood what he was trying to say. I also found it hard to connect many of his illustrations to the point he was making. I am an avid reader of all sorts of literature including dense theological volumes, but I had trouble getting through this book and so did everyone in our men’s group.

Having said all that, occasionally Moore said some brilliant things with real clarity and power. For several pages he writes with simplicity, pointedness and passion unfortunately only to be followed by more fogginess a few pages later. The book contains some real gems that challenge one’s thinking and encourages the believer in dealing with sin and temptation. His focus on the centrality of the gospel is commendable when there is so much clap-trap from Christian writers these days. When his points were clear there was nothing I disagreed with. He obviously has tried to remain faithful to the truth of Scripture and that was important in my decision to choose this book for our men’s group.

Unfortunately, while others have clearly profited from this book, aside from places here and there, I found it a rather frustrating reading experience. This is not a book I will probably read again and I think there are other books on sin and temptation that are more profitable for the believer.