Propitiation: Where Mercy Glories Over Judgment

Mankind has offended against his Creator God.  Adam’s trepass in Eden brought defilement into that beautiful scene, spoiling that which Elohim had just pronounced “very good”.  The man and the woman exercised their wills in independence from God, succumbing to the temptation of Satan in the form of a serpent, whose earlier offense of pride and independence had already defiled the heavens, that is, the spiritual realm. From that time up until now, even “the heavens are not pure” in God’s sight, and the earth manifestly suffers under the curse brought about by sin.¹

God has been dishonored by His creatures; His rights or claims over them have been called into question, and the surpassing glory of His name has been profaned. Scripture texts such as Leviticus 20:3 make clear to us that man’s wickedness brings both defilement to God’s sanctuary, where He dwells, and the profaning of His holy name.  This state of things in the universe could not continue to subsist without remediation. God’s holiness and His glory could not allow it. In Isaiah 48:11, we find that Jehovah must, for His own name’s sake, maintain His own exclusive glory and the sacredness of His name.  Based on relevant scripture passages which give us insight into God’s purposes and ways, we can suppose (with no desire to limit Him) that He had perhaps only two alternatives:  He could choose to annihilate the universe He created, banishing all the spirits of men and of angels to that “place prepared for the Devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), and dwell forever alone in that realm of “unapproachable light”.  Or God could choose to find (and praise be to Him forever that He has found) a righteous means of propitiating Himself with respect to the dishonor done to Him, so that His glory among His creatures might be vindicated; so that He could after all cleanse the defilement of evil from the heavens and the earth; and so that He would be able to righteously reach down to sinful man, offering mercy and pardon where man’s sin and rebellion had ruined everything.

What does it mean for someone to be propitiated? It is not a word or concept that we often use, but an attempt to explain it simply might go like this:  When a person is propitiated, his anger is appeased by means of a sacrificial act or gift, so that his attitude or demeanor is changed from anger to good-will toward the one(s) who wronged him.  So, God set forth the Lord Jesus Christ as a propitiation (Romans 3:25-26), in order that, on the principle of faith in Jesus’ blood, God can both “be just (righteous), and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”  Christ became the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world (I John 2:2). Every sin ever committed against God, defiling His sanctuary and profaning His name, received a righteous answer when Christ fully glorified God by dying on the cross and shedding His infinitely precious blood.  As a result, God can now righteously show mercy and offer forgiveness and reconcilation to all members of the fallen human race.

On the great Day of Atonement, two goats were needed to adequately (though not perfectly) portray that which the suffering and death of Christ on the cross would accomplish for God and for man. The first goat was specifically for Jehovah, and the second goat was for the people, called the “scapegoat”.  (The scapegoat aspect of the atonement has to do with man’s need of Christ’s sin-bearing or substitutionary work, which is not the subject of this article, but may be addressed in the future.)   After the high priest made atonement for himself and his household, he was to kill that first goat and bring its blood into the holiest of all, sprinkling it on the mercy-seat, a term that translates into Greek as hilastérion in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, showing it to be synonymous with the term propitiation.²  The priest’s act of sprinkling the blood would propitiate Jehovah with respect to all the sins His people had committed in the previous year.  “And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Leviticus 16:16).  The sanctuary, where God dwelt in the midst of Israel, was defiled, and needed to be ceremonially cleansed each year in order that the honor of His name and the glory of His majesty might be maintained among His people, who were to bear testimony of Him to the nations (Deut. 4:5-8).

The dishonor done to God by the sins of His creatures has defiled both the earth and the heavens, but the propitiatory work of Christ now provides the righteous basis for Him to “take away the sin of the world”, including the removal of the effects of sin from creation in a future “restitution of all things.”  And just as it was necessary that “the figurative representations of the things in the heavens should be purified with” the blood of calves and goats, ceremonially, so also “the heavenly things themselves [must be purified] with sacrifices better than these”, in a spiritual and eternal manner.³

Sins and trespasses had also resulted in alienation and enmity between men and God, and a great gulf lay between Creator and created, seemingly unable to be crossed.  But when the fullness of time had come, God was found in Christ “reconciling the world to Himself, not reckoning to them their offences” (II Corinthians 5:18-19).  This stay of judgment, and this offer of mercy and good-will on the part of God to reconcile men to Himself, could only be proclaimed in view of Jesus Christ being set forth as a propitiation or “mercy-seat”, much as the sprinkling of goat’s blood on the mercy seat in the tabernacle in the wilderness allowed Jehovah to dwell among His people and be merciful to them.

The Man Christ Jesus gave Himself a “ransom for all” (I Timothy 2:6), and now the gospel of the grace of God can be proclaimed to all nations, for “whosoever will” may come to God by faith in Christ.  This is how God wonderfully worked out, before the entire universe of angels and men, and for His own glory, the spiritual principle recorded for us in James 2:13:  “Mercy glories over judgment.”

 

¹   Genesis 1-3; Ezekiel 28:11-19; Isaiah 14:12-17; Job 15:15; Ephesians 2:2

²   Leviticus 16:15; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:5

³   John 1:29; Acts 3:21; Hebrews 9:22-24

Come Out and Be Separate, Says the Lord

The teaching of separation from doctrines and practices that cause spiritual and moral defilement has been de-emphasized in recent decades in the Christian testimony. Where at one time more care was taken in the denominations of Christendom to exclude individuals and influences that were seen as endangering doctrinal or moral integrity, most churches now exercise very little carefulness in their fellowship (communion), and often accept all comers on their own responsibility to the Lord’s Supper.  While the standards of separation or exclusion were often legalistically established and enforced in past centuries, regrettably so, there remain some Christians who are concerned that this liberalizing trend is not a move toward a more scriptural principle and practice of fellowship.

It is really rather remarkable how little time or emphasis even the abstract teaching of separation to God is receiving in modern evangelical Christianity, in light of the prominent thread of types and teaching on the subject running right from the dividing of light from darkness in Genesis 1, on through to God’s final and permanent work of separation at the end of the Revelation. Whether in Noah, or in Abraham, or in national Israel, or whether in the church or assembly (Greek: ecclesia, literally called out), God in His sovereign grace has always seen fit to bless and preserve the objects of His electing love by separating them morally from “the present evil world” (Galatians 1:4).  To “sanctify” in the Bible is to “set apart” for a purpose, and God’s work of sanctifying souls is for His own purposes and glory, and for the blessing of His saints both as individuals and collectively.

It should be noted that there are very many dear believers in Christ who take to heart and seek to practice for themselves as individuals the exhortation in Ephesian 5:11, to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”.  Many also are exercised in their consciences by Paul’s word in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (6:17-18).  What a touching promise of the special enjoyment and nearness that can be ours as individual “sons and daughters” of the Father! It is made possible in our souls by cooperating with His sanctifying work in us through separation from what is dishonoring to Him.

Scriptural separation ought first of all to be held as a principle and put to practice for the honor of Christ.  Secondly, it is for our own preservation from moral and spiritual defilement, so that we can better enjoy our spiritual blessing in nearness and fellowship with “Him who sanctifies and those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 2:11).  There is another consideration for sanctified souls in their desire to please the Lord Jesus:  we ought to carefully avoid the tendency to practice the kind of separation that is prideful or legalistic. Religious flesh always takes what is right and godly and appropriates it for its own aggrandizement, but “the flesh profits nothing”.

These points apply to individual Christians, of course, but the collective exercise of godly separation is perhaps more challenging and fraught with social and organizational considerations. Should all be welcome to come into a meeting of the assembly and partake of the Supper on their own cognizance or responsibility, giving no account of their manner of life or doctrine? How much ought family considerations or friendships enter into the liberalizing of fellowship at what many still call “the Lord’s table”?¹  How much responsibility do Christians have for others with whom they have fellowship, and how much accountability to others are we bound to acknowledge in our communion, our sharing in the “one loaf”¹ and in the “Lord’s cup”?

The Bible contains much teaching on separation, and here are a few of many texts that shed light on the subject.  These can keep us from becoming either careless or unbalanced in principle and practice if we allow the Spirit to keep the claims of Christ before us as preeminent.

  • John 1:4-5 – “The light appears in darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not.”  The Light came into the world, but darkness remains for now, and the two principles will forever be separated, having no point of association with each other, no fellowship together.  “What communion hath light with darkness?” (II Corinthians 6:14)
  • John 17:13-19 –  “Sanctify them through Thy truth; Thy word is truth.” Christ’s desire is to have His people set apart from the world, for Himself.
  • II John 7-11 –  Here we find false doctrine as to person of Christ, and strict separation from it must be maintained.  Examples of such error: Denial of the trinity of the Godhead; denial of the deity of Christ; denial of His full humanity (body, soul, and spirit); teaching that Jesus could have sinned.  Mormonism, Gnosticism, and the Jehovah’s Witness cult all hold some of these evil teachings.
  • Galatians 5:9 –  “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”.  The leaven of doctrinal error as to Christ’s work must be put away, to separate us from its defiling effect.  Examples of that type of false doctrine:  Judaistic principles in Christendom; righteousness by works; salvation and security conditional upon our faithfulness; keeping God’s law in order to be justified. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and most of Protestantism hold defective or legalistic teaching on the atonement of Christ and the justification of the sinner.
  • I Corinthians 5:1-13 –  “Purge out the old leaven . . . Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves.”  Moral evil must be put away and separated from by the assembly collectively, in order to maintain purity and to be preserved for the honor of “Christ our passover” sacrificed for us.  Examples:  Murder, theft, drunkenness, abusiveness, fornication (sexual immorality which includes adultery, sexual relations outside of the marriage bond of one woman and one man, and all LGBT activity and accommodation).  Sadly, sexual immorality in its various forms is losing the stigma of sinfulness in much of Evangelicalism, including the megachurch phenomenon and the seeker-friendly Church Growth movement.
  • I Timothy 5:21-22 –  “Lay hands quickly on no man, nor partake in others’ sins. Keep thyself pure.”  Having fellowship or identifying with someone hastily without proper care may result in a moral participation in that person’s sin.  Proper care should also be taken in the church when people come in who are not known to the local gathering and want to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  Communion at the Lord’s Table calls for Christ-honoring separation and a consciousness that one is having close fellowship with all who partake (I Corinthians 10:16-21).
  • Titus 3:10-11 –  “An heretical man (a divisive person) after a first and second admonition have done with.”  Heretics work to divide saints where they ought to go on together, so they must be separated from to preserve “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3).
  • I Cor. 15:33-34 –   “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” (KJV)  “Bad company ruins good morals.” (ESV)  This is written in the context of plain teaching against false doctrine.

Some Christians may shrink from the teaching of separation in the “house of God” because of the legalism or pride they perceive in those who practice separation.  It is true that there has been much unspiritual imbalance relating to separation in church history, and this is to be regretted and avoided. Here are a few texts that can help believers avoid prideful or legalistic view of separation.  By examining I Corinthians 1:10-13 and Acts 20:30, we come to understand that following leaders of parties or schools of thought results in unscriptural separation into denominations. In Jude 19, we read that separating due to pride and ungodly motives is very wrong.  As to allowance for the exercise of individual conscience in contact with the world, in I Corinthians 10:27 we find there is liberty for a Christian to visit with or eat with an unbeliever (“if you be disposed to go”), which is of course a different scenario from avoiding interaction with a so-called “brother” on a sinful course, as in I Corinthians 5:9-13.  In this latter passage, we find an example of the balance and perspective that Paul brings to bear on the matter of separation in the world. We ought to distinguish between situations and relationships that differ.

In summary, the Christian with a godly desire to honor Christ and be preserved in his Christian testimony² may take courage in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, given as “vessels” to dishonor were already appearing in the great house of Christendom:  “If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. But youthful lusts flee, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.”³  Individual Christian faithfulness in separation from defilement is God’s prerequisite for the enjoyment of happy fellowship with saints, and for maintaining (if in weakness) a corporate testimony that honors the One whose house we are — the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My word, and hast not denied My name” (Revelation 3:8). These words of Jesus to the weak assembly testimony in Philadelphia ought to encourage our hearts to go on in faithfulness to Him.

 

¹    I Corinthians 10:16-21, Darby translation

²    I Thessalonians 5:21-23

³    II Timothy 2:16-22, Darby translation

On Courage and Compromise in the Christian Profession

History teaches us that there has always been the tendency to compromise Christian doctrine and godly principles to avoid the frowns of one’s peers or adversaries, or to mitigate the vitriol of those who are energized by the Enemy of every righteous soul. No doubt they are most at risk who are esteemed as leaders in the Christian testimony, or those who achieve prominence in religious circles due to their talent or charisma. These have the most to lose in terms of influence and wealth should the tide of popularity flow away from them.  But none of us are exempted from this tendency and danger, for our egos generally seek either acceptance, praise, or peace.  The “pride of life”, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the lusts of the eyes and of the flesh (those worldly principles which all find a point of connection to our fleshly natures), are all arrayed against the soul in the spiritual battle to maintain sound scriptural doctrine and principle.¹

In recent years, numerous prominent Christian individuals and groups² have come under pressure from the outsize influence of the LGBTQ movement in the western world.  The ancient understanding of the nature of man as created by God to be male and female, and intended by Him to be married for life in an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous relationship, has been challenged and dismissed by those who deny God’s creatorial prerogative. We are bound as believers to hold this moral imperative as fundamental to the faith.  I have no doubt that in general, this denial of the Creator’s rights over His creation is born of a hatred for the living and true God, and motivated by the Devil himself. It is his aim to destroy the work of God, including the incremental destruction of faith and faithfulness in the souls even of those over whom he knows he has no ultimate power: the genuine Christian. It is probable that many who have come under the spell of compromise for the sake of peace would not have dreamed just ten or twenty years ago that they would be forced into such a fainthearted position.

We can read of compromise by prominent Christians in the church’s history who “caved in” to authoritarian or peer pressure. We find it in the story of Martin Luther and his loyal cohort Philip Melanchthon in the 16th century.  Luther, for all his personal failings, held firm in maintaining the truth of sola fide and sola gratia, that salvation is by faith alone by grace alone apart from works, and that the will of the natural man is in bondage and plays no part in the quickening work of the Spirit of God in the soul. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, could not bear the truth nor the implications of these principles, and sought by various means to counter them.  After Luther passed off the scene, Melanchthon sought to appease and make peace with the Roman church by modifying his earlier position on those principles that Luther had so clearly understood from the word of God, giving place to the works and the will of man in conversion and salvation. The Lutheran movement lost its way doctrinally, and has never recovered from Melanchthon’s pacifistic compromises.

We are shown by example in the biblical record the danger of compromising fundamental truth, for the Spirit records there for our learning the failures of even His devoted servants. The apostle Paul is found making what might appear to be compromises out of deference to his Jewish brethren, during the time of transition from Jewish religious habits to a fully Christian walk of faith and practice.³ God in patience bore with this, until He revealed clearly that “we have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (Hebrews 13:10).  However, God used Paul to preserve the integrity of the gospel by giving him the courage to withstand Peter (and to call out tenderhearted Barnabas) for compromising the gospel in order to keep the peace with those who had come up from Jerusalem with their religious prejudices (Galatians 2).  For a Jewish believer in Christ to have a difficult time giving up the Mosaic law and their traditions was understandable and could be borne with in grace; but to hypocritically cave in for fear of men, pressuring the Gentiles to live like Jews under law, was an assault on the truth of the gospel of the grace of God, and could not be tolerated. Peter and some others had compromised the gospel, and courageous Paul was bound to defend it with vigor.

It is the responsibility of every Christian, not just prominent ones, to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  To do so takes courage, and appeasement is destructive to the testimony of the Lord. But will it really matter if you or I allow the latest contemptuous attack on God’s creatorial rights to cow us into a compromising attitude or position?

It matters indeed to Christ, who will reward faithfulness and godly courage, and that ought to be enough motivation for us who are His. If Genesis 2 is not to be taken literally as God’s revelation of how He made man in His own image and constituted mankind as male and female, for both pleasure and procreation, then Luke 1 & 2 may be just as doubtful, and the incarnation of Christ may be mythical. If God’s promise to Eve in Genesis 3 was not really to a woman whose seed was distinct from that of her husband’s, because their gender and orientation could become fluid and subject to their own capricious meddling, then multiplying and filling the earth does not happen, and the incarnation cannot either. You see, holding the truth of God’s revelation of His purposes for man and His ways of accomplishing those purposes, including their culmination in redemption wrought by the Man Christ Jesus, seed of the woman, is vital to Christianity and the gospel.

“God has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but of power, and of love, and of wise discretion” (II Timothy 1:7).  May God help us use what He freely gives in defense of the truth for His glory.

 

¹   I John 2:15-17;  I Peter 2:11-12

²   “Caving Under LGBTQ Pressure” by Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association

³   Acts 18:18; 21:20-26

God’s Love Shed Abroad In Our Hearts

Every autumn, those of us who live in the northeastern quadrant of the United States or in Eastern Canada enjoy the flaming beauty of the reds, oranges, and yellows that adorn our deciduous forests, particularly where maple trees are in abundance. The intensity and brightness of the warm hues vary from year to year and from place to place, depending upon the weather the trees experience during the growing season and up until the shortened days signal that the time for their change has come.

This temporary treat is another one of our Creator’s temporal gifts, as is the order and beauty of the whole universe in all its grandeur. And since the inspired word of God often uses natural phenomena to illustrate moral or spiritual truth, permit me to make an observation in a similar vein. If one were to be posted on a high vantage point and were able to view a large hardwood forest for a couple of weeks in the fall, on a “time-lapse” basis, he would be able to watch while, as if from an invisible pail of paint, these lovely natural colors are poured out to permeate and grace the whole scene.

Can we not enjoy this imagined vignette as a picture of “the love of God [that] is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit”? (Romans 5:5)  The Greek word translated here as “shed abroad” is sometimes rendered as “poured out”, but it seems that the emphasis in the wonderful act of God described here is on the effect that outpouring of His love has on our quickened hearts, rather than on the act of pouring itself.  As justified saints, the holy boast we now may have in the hope of the coming glory of God is dependent upon the warming and brightening effect of that love of God shed abroad in our hearts, perhaps slowly at first, but always permeating in due time.

Every natural illustration of a spiritual reality falls short necessarily, and this colorful analogy is no different. The supernatural effect of God’s love in the heart of a believer is permanent, although it may vary from person to person, and it may fade and brighten over time depending upon environmental and internal conditions.  How needful it is for the Christian to be spiritually exercised about the conditions provided or permitted in his or her heart!  But the love of God, which produces love for God, remains in the heart of the child of God, for “we love, because He has first loved us” (I John 4:19). As certainly as the believer in Christ will never be separated from the “love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”, so the great love the Father has given us in calling us His children will never leave our hearts cold and barren and dead in the end.¹

Some of us hesitate to place emphasis on the subjective aspect of Christianity that might allow for boasting about our love for God.  We remember that Simon Peter fell very soon after he professed his love and devotion to the Lord Jesus on the night He was betrayed, and Jesus in His public restoration of Simon asked him the searching question: “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?” (John 13:37 & 21:15). There is real spiritual danger in dwelling on or boasting of our love for God, but it is nonetheless true that the scriptures mention that subjective side of our relationship with Him in several places, both to teach us objective truth, and to cause us to reflect on what the Spirit of God has wonderfully wrought within us.

In Romans 8:28, we read the oft-enjoyed assurance that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.” We learn several things from this verse and those that immediately follow. We gain the assurance that God has His eye on His own, and that no matter what happens in our lives, whether it brings pain or pleasure, it is ordered or allowed of God for our blessing in this life and the next. But we also learn this equivalence:  those whom God has called in time according to His eternal purpose (having predestinated them before time began) are exactly the same as those who love Him. That subjective love for Him does not originate with us; it is all the result of God’s work within us because He purposed to do so outside of us, before we ever existed.

I Corinthians 8:1-3 gives us another pair of clauses linked together, teaching us that the love that God has put in our hearts by His Spirit is the factor that determines the genuineness of a professed relationship with Him. “If any one love God, he is known of Him.” This declaration is made in this context, that knowledge is neither praiseworthy nor determinative in our standing with God, for “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. If any one think he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know it.”   This passage gives the lie to any gnostic pretension of being saved by knowledge, and shows the weakness of the Arminian argument that “the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (see II Peter 2:20-22) is the hallmark of a salvation that may be forfeited at last.  Galatians 4:9 corroborates Paul’s and Peter’s teaching: “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God . . .”    Ultimately, what determines the salvation and security of your soul is whether God knows you, and if you possess a love for Him in your heart, He most certainly does know you!²

The apostle John gives us still another perspective on what necessarily accompanies a love for God.  It must be acknowledged that “every one that loveth Him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of Him”, for God’s work of new birth in a soul generates a life and a love that all believers have in common with Himself.  While all are commanded to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, it is only the born-again heart that can obey the commandment of Christ to “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In John’s first epistle, chapters 4 and 5, the link between loving God and loving one’s brother is futher clarified. Loving the “children of God”, those who have been begotten of God and believe on Christ, is both a test of reality and a source of real assurance for one who says he loves God. This is not some general benevolent feeling we may have toward all men, but a special and particular love that we have for all of those whom God’s grace has quickened, and who share the same life that we have.

Now, if there is no special affection and care in your heart toward those who give evidence of being God’s children and not the devil’s, or if the suffering of saints for Christ’s sake in this evil world does not grieve your heart, then what John wrote by the Spirit of God is a reality check meant for your conscience. But if you love God, you will love His children also, assuring you and proving that you abide in the light, which is the natural environment for all those who have His incorruptible seed abiding in them (I John 2:10; 3:9-10).

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!”³  Every one of the children in the family of God possesses the same mutually shared love by the same divine operation and source and channel, an outpouring from God by His Spirit in time, soon to be on display forever in brightness and variegated perfection, and lit by the sunlight of Christ’s glory.

 

¹   Romans 8:38-39; I John 3:1-3; Ephesians 2:4-5

²    See also Matthew 7:23. It is the knowledge of relationship, not a knowledge of facts.

³    I John 3:1 NKJV

Feed My Lambs, Shepherd My Sheep

Perhaps there is no more tender or affecting figure of the Lord Jesus than that of Him as the Shepherd caring for the needs of His sheep.  We see Him as a shepherd in at least three different characters in the Bible.  He spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John, chapter 10 — the One who would lay down His life for the sheep His Father gave Him, in order to meet their need of life and salvation. Hebrews 13:20 presents Jesus as “that Great Shepherd of the sheep”, caring for the needs of His own from beyond the grave and seated in heaven.  And Peter calls Him the Chief Shepherd, to whom all the undershepherds are accountable, by whom their needs are supplied, and of whom they will receive reward.  Peter was perhaps especially conscious of his responsibility as a shepherd, for the Lord Jesus at Peter’s restoration before his brethren commissioned him to “feed My lambs . . . shepherd My sheep . . . [and] feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17 Darby translation).

The spiritual gift of a shepherd or pastor is one of the many gifts given to the body of Christ by its ascended Head, each gift being distributed by the resident Holy Spirit as He wills, for the growth and building up of the body, the church of God.¹  In a normal, orderly assembly, the shepherding gift is exercised by elders who have a desire to see the saints go on in a healthy spiritual state, pleasing God as individuals and in fellowship together.²  But neither the shepherd gift nor the desire to use it for the blessing of others ought to be limited in practice to men of a certain age, for women and younger saints may just as well be used by the Spirit to discern and meet the spiritual needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ, in the appropriate setting.

The terms “pastor” and “shepherd” are synonymous in the scriptures, and are translated both ways into some English versions from the same Greek word.  The tendency during most of post-apostolic Christianity has been to institutionalize of the role of the pastor. The person in that official role might be called a priest, a bishop, a minister, or a pastor.  The general effect of this officialdom, often called the clergy, has been to inhibit the normal spiritual exercise of gift by those outside of that class, and to discourage members of the body of Christ from using the gift that God (not man) has given and is able to develop in them. The people of God suffer a lack, whether a significant lack or an imperceptible one, under any system that seeks to improve upon the simplicity of the scriptural pattern of shepherding in the house of God, the assembly.

An official pastor or hierarchy of leaders usually serve and are compensated at the pleasure of a congregation or under the authority of a board. There is no warrant nor precedent for such an arrangement in the New Testament.  A faithful and selfless shepherd of the flock of God takes his direction from the Chief Shepherd alone, while being “clothed with humility” as regards his brethren (I Peter 5:1-6).

Here are a few practical observations that may be a help and encouragement to those being led by the Spirit to provide shepherd-care for the flock. Many more could be added to these.

When working with a soul, a shepherd ought to be less concerned about formulating a response or providing a wise answer than about listening to and discerning the needs of the sheep and the lambs around him. Words of grace and exhortation, or even of careful warning, will come at the right time for the benefit of the sheep, if the shepherd is in communion with his Lord.

A godly shepherd may not be able to expound the scriptures eloquently and attract crowds of people by his charisma or his delivery, but he has a heart of love for the sheep, resulting from his love for their Great Shepherd.

A genuine shepherd is not as concerned about “losing sheep” to other pastors as he is about whether the needs of those sheep are met according to God’s estimation, and in His way.  The shepherd’s prayer is that those whom the Lord Jesus has entrusted to his care, for whatever period of time, would “walk worthily of the Lord unto all well-pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and growing by the true knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).

Dear pastors among the flock, undershepherds of Christ, continue to carry on your valuable work for the Lord in faithfulness to Him.  You may not know until you receive your “unfading crown of glory” how many sorrows and difficulties among the saints were avoided or averted because of your care, nor how many hearts were encouraged and pointed away from self and to Christ.³  Commendation from Him, and glory with Him, will be all the reward your shepherd’s heart could desire.

 

¹  Eph. 4:7-15; I Cor. 12:4-11       ²  Acts 20:17-28; I Peter 5:1-4       ³  I Peter 1:4; II Cor. 4:5

The Church, the Kingdom, and Baptism

The parallel concepts of the church of God and the kingdom of God are both taught in the New Testament, first by the Lord Jesus Christ, and then by His apostles.  Jesus taught extensively about the kingdom and its moral principles (including in what is called the Sermon on the Mount), while He simply and briefly introduced His church, the assembly of God, as an entity that He would form and build at a future time (Matthew 16:18). Upon providing a glimpse of the church to His disciples, Jesus gave to Peter the keys to the “kingdom of heaven” (or “kingdom of the heavens”, a more specific term than the “kingdom of God”). This meant that Peter had the responsibility to allow both the Jews and Gentiles into the realm of the kingdom, the sphere of Christian profession entered by baptism.¹ But it was Paul at a later time who received from the ascended Christ the fullness of the truth of the church He had already begun to build.

We ought not confuse the kingdom and the church. The lack of a good understanding of the principles connected with each of these concepts has allowed for sectarianism, worldliness, and legalism among Christians corporately, and has caused misunderstanding on more specific issues such as communion, assembly discipline, and baptism.

Pertinent to this discussion is the meaning of the term “Christianity”, which has been in common usage for centuries, although we don’t find it as such in the scriptures. We read the term “Christian” three times in the Bible, and in each case it refers to individual disciples who were given that designation by outsiders who evidently noticed that they sought to walk through this world in obedience to Christ.²  But since “Christianity” is universally used to refer to the great world religion that has Christ for its founder (to speak as men of the world might), I would suggest this clarification of the term for the believing mind: The church of God is Christianity in its essence and in reality, while the kingdom is Christianity as to its ethics, and in responsibility to the absent King. When we speak of Christianity as a religion, we can sometimes also use “Christendom”, which is similar in scope to the kingdom of heaven, for we are referring to that mass of people whom God holds responsible as having been privileged to receive and enjoy Christian ethics or morality.  However, when we speak of Christianity as that heavenly thing introduced by Christ and the apostles and much better than Judaism and the Law, it is really applicable only to those who by faith have received the gospel, who are actually members of the invisible church of God.

Here are some principles that apply to the church of God, that are not applicable to the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven:

  • The church is entered by believing in one’s heart the gospel of the grace of God, that Christ died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day, and is seated at God’s right hand (I Corinthians 15:1-4);
  • It is invisible, in the sense that the reality of an individual’s faith in Christ cannot be seen by natural means, no matter their denomination or church-going habits (II Timothy 2:19);
  • It is seen as a body, the body of Christ, with Him as its Head, never to be separated from Him (I Corinthians 12:12-13);
  • It is known as Christ’s bride and wife, whom He has washed and cleansed both with the blood of His atonement, and by the water of the word of God (Ephesians 5:22-33);
  • It is called into the fellowship or communion of the Son of God, of which the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s Table is a sign that calls for vigilance in maintaining holiness among those who commune there (I Corinthians 1:9; 10:16-22; 11:26-31).

And here are a few of the principles of the kingdom, that conversely do not apply to the church:

  • The kingdom of the heavens is entered by baptism, and the disciples were given the command to “make disciples of all nations” by Him who, as King, has been given “all power” in heaven and earth, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20);
  • It is visible, in the sense that those who have undergone Christian baptism at whatever age can be quantified and observed, and are considered responsible to practice Christian ethics as disciples (Matthew 18:22-35);
  • It is a sphere or realm over which Christ is even now the rightful King (although He has not yet been manifested to the world as King), and all who profess subjection to Him are in that kingdom (Matthew 22:1-14);
  • It may include true believers and false professors of Christ, and there is sometimes no way to tell them apart, so they are both allowed to go on side-by-side until the end of the age (Matthew 13:24-30);
  • Little children are of the kingdom, it pertains to them, and that is true in a special way for the children of believing parents (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; I Corinthians 7:14).

As a brief aside, let us just notice the difference in the designations “the kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God”.  The first is a dispensational term used only in Matthew where the Lord’s teaching has a particularly dispensational character, and the second is often used when referring to a sphere of moral privilege and responsibility resulting from the proclamation of the gospel, whether during the church period or not.³

The apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders (in Acts 20:24-28) of having preached the “kingdom of God”, and then almost in the next breath, he encourages the elders to shepherd the “church of God”. While referencing both the kingdom and the church, he does not conflate the two, but allows them each their proper bearing in the context. It would not make sense at all to switch the two phrases in that passage, for the privileges and responsibilities of the kingdom are to be proclaimed to all men for faith to grasp, but the church of God, so near the heart of the Lord Jesus as its Savior, Head, and Bridegroom, is to be shepherded by the elders with all the tender care of that great Shepherd of the sheep.

More could be written on the subject of the kingdom of God and the church of God, but I will end with a few lines on the subject of baptism. The courageous Anabaptists of 16th century Switzerland saw the dead formalism of infant baptism as practiced in the Roman Catholic church and by the Reformers, and rejected infant baptism as an institution. They suffered much for that courage. But this they apparently did not understand, that baptism does not give one entrance into the church of God, and it is never presented that way in the scriptures. Baptism gives entrance into the kingdom, where the authority of the King is recognized, and many parents, on the initiative of their own faith, bring their households under that authority by baptizing their children. In this way, they make public their desire to raise and disciple their children as Christians, according to the moral requirements or ethics of the kingdom of God. We read in the Bible of several households that were baptized as households.*  Indeed, how could a Jewish parent who got saved have borne thought of leaving their children on Jewish ground, while they themselves took the ground that baptism separated them from the guilt of the Jewish nation?°  They would have had no inhibition against baptizing their children, for they had neither teaching that forbade it, nor a thousand years of ritualistic, enforced infant baptism to repulse their consciences.

There are very many godly believers who hold a strong “believer’s baptism” point of view, and their concerns as to the institutionalization of infant baptism and “baptismal regeneration”, as practiced and taught in the great systems in Christendom, are legitimate indeed.  But the practice of baptism should never have been a reason for separation from fellowship or a cause of sectarian division among true saints of God, and it certainly should never have occasioned the persecution of those who refused to bow to its ritualism, for it is not given the weight of a foundation doctrine by the word of God. Even now, proponents of believer’s baptism and household baptists are able to go on together in happy fellowship in many places.

What ought to guide us in these matters of Christian practice and fellowship is a good understanding of the distinction that the Lord Jesus and his apostles made between the church of God and the kingdom of God.  The Lord Jesus is the rightful King that heaven has received for manifestation in a future earthly kingdom, and He is also the Head of the body, the church, and we bring honor to Him in recognizing and acting upon all that the scriptures teach concerning Him, who is eminently worthy.

 

¹   See Acts 2:37-40 as to the Jews, and Acts 10:44-48 as to the Gentiles. See also Acts 8:12, where baptism is again connected with the proclamation of the kingdom of God.

²   Acts 11:26, 26:28, and I Peter 4:16

³   For example: “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you,” and “The kingdom of God is within you”  (Luke 10:9; 17:21).

*    Acts 16:15, 33; I Corinthians 1:16

°    Acts 2:38-40; 22:16

Will You Also Go Away?

As the Lord Jesus Christ began His ministry among His people, He attracted many men and women to Himself, and the Bible calls those who followed Jesus “disciples”. Some of those disciples were apparently impressed by the miracles He did, some perhaps by the perfection of His person, by His moral glories, and at least one of them followed the Lord because he saw it as a way to enrich himself.  A few genuinely believed on Him out of a pure heart, receiving the testimony of God against themselves as sinners in need of a Savior, for even the name “Jesus” bore witness to His mission from Jehovah as Savior of His people.¹

Since the days of Cain, there has always existed the possibility, the danger, of a man professing faith or practicing religion without true faith in the living God and in His revelation of Himself. Saul and Jehu might be cited as examples of this sad phenomenon in the Old Testament. But after the Light shone upon men so brightly in the person of His Son, the living Word of God, the treachery of the apostate became so much worse when seen in the illumination of the revealed Truth of God.  So that, when many of Jesus’ disciples went away because of His hard sayings on the subject of the need for imbibing by faith His body and blood offered for the life of the world, and of the uselessness of the flesh (man’s fallen nature), it was a fall from a place of higher privilege than from mere Judaistic religion. They left, in unbelief, that great privilege of being in the company of the very Son of God walking among men.²  This brought forth the Lord’s searching question to those disciples who remained: “Will you also go away?”

However, I believe we can say that apostasy after the cross and the descent of the Holy Spirit is an even greater fall, and even more treacherous. That awful danger is what the baptized Jews were warned of in the epistle addressed to them, in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31. Some would take these passages to mean that these who were in danger of falling away from the Christian faith were truly believers with eternal life, but a careful reading of these passages shows a complete lack of evidence for that.  Faith is not mentioned in connection with those who are being warned, and “life” and “salvation” are both conspicuous by their absence, except to present a stark contrast in 6:9.  Some of these Hebrews professing Christianity are seen in grave danger of falling away from a privileged position of provisional sanctification as outwardly connected with genuine believers.³

Is it not a normal thing that a preacher should take into account that a few in his audience may be “going along for the ride” without actually having believed and received eternal life?  An earnest warning of the dangers of apostatizing is in such a case an implicit plea to truly believe, rather than to be satisfied with the trappings of Christianity and casually partaking with saints.

In Colossians 1:21-23, we see a juxtaposition of assurance of the believer’s reconciliation to God on the one hand, and of reconciliation’s test of reality on the other hand. “And you . . . hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death . . . If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” There is no contradiction here, no questioning of the foundational truth of eternal security, and no “Lordship salvation” principle teaching that a soul might be unsure of his standing before God in new creation life until the very end of his natural life. This portion confirms that believers in Christ have already been reconciled, an irreversible act of God, but at the same time, that apostasy from the faith, from a profession of the doctrines of Christianity, is something to be watched out for in the collective testimony of the church.

In every generation of the church’s history there have no doubt been apostates who were motivated early in life by self-centered interests to connect themselves with a Christian testimony, only to be revealed as counterfeits in due time. Now, the Lord knows them that are His, and for every case of apostasy, there are real Christians who backslide and languish for a time in that state, dishonoring as that is to the Lord, and detrimental as it is to the life, liberty, and happiness of such a failing believer. The Lord Jesus not only knows all of His own, but He keeps all of those who are really His sheep.° The doubts and worldliness of a believer are not contemplated in Colossians 1:23, but when one denounces the foundation doctrines of Christianity, and despises the idea of a hope for a life to come, we as saints of God are fully justified in doubting the reality of that person’s profession of faith, no matter how real it might have seemed to us when emotion or persuasion worked an apparent conviction or lifestyle change.

The case of a Canadian evangelist named Charles Templeton came to my attention a few years ago. Charles had a conversion experience when he was 20 years old, and in spite of having only a ninth grade education, he developed a real ability to speak to and connect with people. Charles preached the gospel to crowds of many thousands in the United States and Canada in the late 1940’s. It is said that during his campaigns, an average of 150 people per night were converted and experienced real change in their lives. Charles made use of his natural abilities in salesmanship as he preached about the power of prayer to change lives. He was a pleasure to listen to as he told of the benefits of faith and religion, and he connected with people on an emotional level. He was a close friend of the evangelist Billy Graham, and they went on gospel campaigns together. Sadly, by the late 1940’s, Charles was having increasing doubts about the accuracy and inerrancy of the word of God, and he and Billy Graham took a different path in their preaching careers. After a three-year stint as an early televangelist, he felt he couldn’t continue on any longer given his doubts about the faith, and he soon became an agnostic. Near the end of his life, he wrote and published his memoirs, which he entitled “Farewell to God: My reasons for rejecting the Christian Faith”. Such was the end of a life that, to outward appearances, was started on a course of faith and good works.

Some time before Templeton died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001, the well-known author Lee Strobel, the former atheist who was converted and later wrote “The Case for Christ”, had the opportunity to interview him. Although suffering the effects of Alzheimers, Templeton was still able to carry on an intelligent conversation, and here is an excerpt of that exchange.

Strobel: “And how do you assess this Jesus?”

Templeton: “He was the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus . . .  He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history . . . In my view, he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words that Strobel never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”   After a few minutes of deep and sad emotion, he quietly but adamantly insisted: “Enough of that.”  Charles Templeton had Jesus for his human hero, but he had long ago rejected Him as Savior.

How very sad that there will be some who reach that great white throne judgment having come so close, yet having fallen so far away, from the faith of God’s elect. If you, as a reader of this article, have an inclination to leave the faith or to question the reality of God’s moral claims upon you, I urge you to come to believe, to trust Christ for eternal life, before you fall away from the faith with no possibility of recovery. No real Christian ought to be moved to doubt his or her salvation by these warnings, but the Spirit of God desires that they be aware that some nominal professors of Christ around them may take that awful course of apostasy themselves. May it never shake our confidence in our Savior God.

 

¹   Luke 7:29-30; Matthew 1:21

²   John 6:60-71

³   See also I Corinthians 7:14 and Hebrews 13:12 for other examples of “provisional sanctification” by outward connection to family or nation.

°   II Timothy 2:19; John 10:28; I Peter 1:5