Romans 13 and the Closing of Churches

It is likely that most Christians in North America, and in many other countries throughout the world, are quite aware of the limitations that many governments have recently placed on most types of gatherings, including gatherings for worship, during the current coronavirus pandemic.  It is probably also true that most of us are sympathetic to the reasoning behind this ban on gatherings, in some places limited to nine individuals (e.g.: Wisconsin), or even two (Israel and Australia), who are not of the same household. It is reported that this contagion is much more deadly than influenza, although it is a virus of the same family as the common cold. Looking at this pandemic from heaven’s perspective, it might appear that God the Judge of all the earth is seeking to get sinful mankind’s attention yet one more time before more cataclysmic judgments fall.¹

What has stunned some observers, however, is the ease with which churches were effectively forbidden to meet together as before, with rarely a concern raised as to the broader implications of these draconian limitations, or to the principles upon which Christians meet in the first place. This passage in Romans 13 is often cited as authorizing the state to place these restrictions on Christian gathering.

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. (Romans 13:1-5)

While seeking to be careful to give due respect to those powers that be, and to Christians who believe that God in this passage gives authorities the right or responsibility to regulate Christian gatherings, I would submit that we ought to think more deeply on this reasoning before accepting it as the final word on the matter. This text in its context, in view of the end of chapter 12, is an exhortation to individual Christians to honor the governments right and responsibility to execute judgment on evil doers, and enforce laws for our good and the good of society. If the government sets traffic laws, or regulations to prevent fires in buildings, even church buildings, it is the Christian’s duty to comply. If the state says you may not sell your product because of the danger it poses to consumers, compliance is definitely the only godly path.

However, many godly believers would understand that this passage does not apply to the way we discipline our children, for instance. Corporal discipline by parents is outlawed in some places, but godly parents can in good conscience follow the scriptural pattern with care, realizing there may be consequences to their actions of faith. Other parents would take understandable issue with having to get their minor children vaccinated against sexually transmitted diseases, for the underlying reasoning behind the mandate is repulsive to their moral convictions. There may be other situations a believer might face in which Romans 13:1–5 would not apply.

I do not believe this text applies to gatherings of Christians to worship God, when gathered as such. I suggest that it would apply to funerals, weddings, and gatherings for youth activities. However, in what I have picked up over the years on the subject of church history, I am at a loss to think of any Christian teacher not a part of a state church who would have accepted as scriptural principle that Romans 13 should apply to or allow for the regulation of Christian gatherings “in assembly”.²

Now, before you discontinue reading this article in consternation at what you have just read, and level the criticism that I must not understand the magnitude of the health crisis that the world is currently in, let me hasten to add that I believe there is a portion of Romans 13 that does apply to meetings of saints during this time of general fearfulness and distress.

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

Faith and wisdom are vital in this matter of meeting together at this time, and love for others ought to temper our actions as the church of God. But it is love for Christ, seeking to give Him the due honor that he so valued in the woman who broke the alabaster box of precious ointment over Him, that He most desires in us. It was with respect to her that Jesus spoke this word to those whose professed care for the misery of others apparently eclipsed His claims on their devotion:

For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. (Mark 14:7)

It is commendable also to possess the godly attitude of giving up one’s rights for a time for the benefit of others, out of love for them. The apostle Paul was an example of this when he spoke of giving up his rights to be married and to live of the gospel in I Corinthians 9, but that portion serves to establish those rights nonetheless. The assembly of God has scriptural authority and right to meet to worship Him, and while leaders in an assembly might be exercised in the matter of setting aside that right for a time to serve others, yet it remains a God-ordained right still, a God-honoring right that I do not believe can be scripturally limited by authoritarian fiat.

What does this mean practically for Christians who would desire to come together to break bread in remembrance of the Lord, to partake of the Lord’s supper? It may mean temporarily dividing up into smaller groups to avoid giving offense or spreading a contagion, or it may mean gathering out of the public eye during times when gatherings are strictly regulated. We ought not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord, but at the same time we must be careful not to besmirch that testimony through carelessness.

Romans 13:8-10 can be applied as a regulative principle for Christians meeting together “in assembly”, in the name of the Lord Jesus, but Romans 13:1-5 really cannot be. Two thousand years of church history agree with that principle. More difficult days maybe coming, and already there are signals from certain political quarters that increased control and regulation would be preferable because it would enable society to function more smoothly and safely. Godly wisdom would have us hold to and act on the right principles now, so that we are not caught by surprise should these controls return under another guise.

¹   Romans 1:18; I Thessalonians 1:10, 5:2-3

²   See I Corinthians 11:18 and 14:18–35, J.N. Darby translation, for the teaching of being together “in assembly”.

If the Son Shall Make You Free

I met her while walking along the levee and under a bridge over the Santa Cruz River outside Tucson, Arizona. She was riding a bike, coming toward me, and yelling at someone. After a few moments, I realized she was yelling at me. I knew I had done nothing wrong, that I was on public property, getting fresh air, and communing with God on a very pleasant desert morning.

It soon became clear that this poor woman was not in full possession of her senses. She was hurling hateful invectives at me for no apparent reason, and it quite stunned me.  Was she suffering from mental illness?  That seemed to be a likely contributor to her state, but I questioned whether that alone could explain the extreme vitriol she expressed in her curses and vile speech.

Was she under the influence of mind-altering drugs? This was possible as well, and although I have very little experience communicating with substance abusers, I’m certain it is a terrible bondage to be under.

Was she overreacting in panic to the current Coronavirus pandemic?  Or did she feel threatened by the difference in our skin color?  Between her curses, I could make out accusations of white supremacy as well as allusions to the current state of things in the world, and that blame for it was to be allocated to certain groups of people that probably didn’t include herself.

But what especially troubled my spirit in that moment was the pathetic condition of a person under bondage to sin, for I observed her dreadful reaction when I spoke to her of the Lord Jesus Christ and mentioned kindly that I was praying for her even during that short time. Was her heightened vitriol at my words an evidence of demonic influence or possession?

It is not common or popular in modern Western society to speak of demonic possession. We tend to relegate a diagnosis of that nature to a short period of time in the first century, when the Lord Jesus and His apostles were on the scene to bring deliverance to Satan’s captives unable to deliver themselves.  And perhaps we allow for it in third world societies where modern medicine and psychology hasn’t trained men’s thoughts to avoid spiritual diagnoses or cures, and to look primarily for medical and scientific ones.

I pondered that poor woman’s words and actions for days, and I hoped for the opportunity to meet her again and speak a word to her of the kindness of God on subsequent morning walks along the river. I was not afforded that opportunity, but that did not prevent my prayers for her.

When the Lord Jesus cast out demons and released their pitiful victims from Satan’s bondage, I do not think we ever read that He did so at the request of the man, woman, or child who was possessed and enslaved by them. Either parents or others brought the demon-possessed to Jesus, or then they appeared before Him powerless to speak for themselves because the demons very evidently had full control of their tongues, so that with their mouths they spoke only the words of the terrified yet highly intelligent and powerful evil spirits (Luke 4:33-34, 41; 8:27-30).

What might this inability on the part of the enslaved individuals have to teach us?  In various other cases in which Jesus did miracles to display the almighty power of God triumphing over the effects of sin, the afflicted ones clearly expressed their desire for healing at His hand. Those physical afflictions healed by the Lord have their spiritual meanings, no doubt, and the power of the Spirit of God to make a blind man see can be used in the preaching of the gospel of God’s grace, for His grace and power can make the spiritually blind man see by faith.  But falling a willing prey to slavery under Satan’s power, as pictured in demon possession, renders a soul entirely unable to recover himself from that bondage, and further, there is no desire to be released from it.  Most certainly, those who had been delivered from demon possession were forever grateful for that deliverance, and we can see that in “Mary Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils” (Luke 8:2, 38).  But we can suppose that even she, like all of the others we are given account of, had either to be brought by others, or had to be chosen out for deliverance by the Lord Himself.

It is not a freedom of the will that causes people under the bondage of sin to cry out to God for mercy, and these have no inclination within themselves to bow the heart in humble faith to Christ. Paul writes in II Timothy 2:25-26 of the repentance that God must grant to a man in order that he might be released from the snare of the devil.  Such is the grip of the devil upon the souls of men, that it requires the almighty power of God to work a radical change in the soul while releasing it from its bondage.

The Lord Jesus spoke to the Jews in the eighth chapter of John’s gospel of their slavery to sin, which they denied indignantly. “Everyone that practices sin is the bondman of sin” (John 8:34, Darby trans.) is one of those fixed spiritual principles that so many either ignore or deny.  A man gets himself into the position of a slave by sinning according to his own will, and then is neither willing nor able to deliver himself from that bondage. In fact, in his natural state, he doesn’t even realize that he is a slave.

Jesus goes on to tell the Jews that “the bondman abides not in the house forever: the son abides forever”.  There is no dignity, no joy, and no permanence or security in being a slave, not only naturally speaking, but in the spiritual sense as well.  When the devil and his demons have had their way with their slaves, those poor souls are left ruined, helpless, and hopeless, bound for an eternity of misery.  It is only a son in a household that enjoys all the dignity and security and blessing that the father and master of the house can give, and it is this position of sonship that the Lord Jesus presents as a stark contrast to slavery in verse 35.

The Son of God then sums up the teaching on true freedom and the son’s place with these wonderful words:  “If therefore the Son shall set you free, ye shall be really free” (John 8:36).  His sovereign grace and power alone can set a sinner free from his bondage to sin, whether that bondage is evident as it was in the poor woman I encountered on the banks of the Santa Cruz River, or whether it is a socially less disturbing form of slavery to pride and self-will.  Neither the slave to sin, nor the dead in sin,¹ are inclined to improve their condition, but by the mighty word of the Son of God a soul is given eternal life and the true freedom to enjoy that life by faith.

¹   John 5:25-26;  Ephesians 2:1-5

There Shall Be One Flock, One Shepherd

Perhaps no part of Jehovah’s revelation of Himself to Israel was better understood, and yet more poorly maintained practically, than the truth that “there is one God”. The declaration of His unity prefaced the summary of the Law that declared Jehovah’s exclusive right to His people’s devotion: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”¹  But Satan, the father of lies, is always hard at work to detract from or destroy, by all means, the testimony and the effect of revealed truth on the souls of those who are responsible for holding and keeping that truth.  Because of that evil principle, Israel and Judah fell into idolatry time and again throughout their history up until they were taken captive by ignorantly idolatrous nations, so that the testimony of the one true God seemed all but snuffed out on the earth. However, the story did not end in that decadent state of things, for God always prevails in defending and displaying His own glory before all created things.

In sending His Son into the world to manifest His heart and to accomplish His eternal purpose, God revealed Himself as one God in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This doctrine came to be known as the “trinity” in historical Christianity. Now, in this dispensation (the “administration of the mystery”²), the triune God has according to His counsel wrought a unity that could not have been foreseen by men or angels before Christ came, for it was “hid in God”. The church (assembly) of God was formed into one body by the baptism of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost; there had never been anything like it in past ages, nor will it be simulated in the age to come, in the “administration of the fullness of times” (Ephesians 1:10).

The incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, declared that by His death and resurrection He would accomplish His desire to form into a unity all the scattered children of God, Jew and Gentile.  “I lay down My life for the sheep.  And I have other sheep which are not of IMG_0495this fold: those also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one flock, one Shepherd.  On this account the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again” (John 10:15-17).   The high priest Caiaphas, though an enemy of Christ, prophesied accurately “that Jesus was going to die for the nation; and not for the nation only, but that he should also gather together into one the children of God who were scattered abroad” (John 11:49-52).

The inspired epistles give us further teaching on this wonderful subject in retrospect. The work of Christ allowed for the creation of a corporate unity between Jew and Gentile that would have been impossible without that work, because of ancient national prejudices.  Paul writes to the Ephesians that Christ giving His life, flesh and blood, was in order to “make in Himself of twain one new man, so making peace;  and that He might reconcile both [circumcision and uncircumcision] unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Ephesians 2:13-18).  Equally true and precious is the fact that individual believers in Christ, without respect to any group they had been a part of, are “in the power of one Spirit . . . baptised into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bondmen or free” (I Corinthians 12:13).

The Father also has a supreme interest in the oneness of those whom He gave to the Son for redemption. In John 17, we see the Lord Jesus ask His Father, in several contexts, to keep His own in unity — “that they all may be one”.  This communion between the Father and the Son is particularly precious and holy ground, and is given so that we might have Jesus’ joy fulfilled in us. Here he asks for oneness for His disciples in their mission of testifying to the truth of the Father’s name and of His word (v. 11).  He also asks for all that would believe on Himself through the apostles’ word, that there might be unity in testimony to the world as to God’s revelation of Himself in His Son (v. 20-21), so that world might believe.  Jesus then asks that the glory He received from the Father and gives to His own would make them one — one in the glory of the privilege of eternal life and sanctification,³ that which makes the children of God like Christ in this world (v. 22).  Finally, Jesus asks the Father that His own “may be made perfect in one”, and this ultimate perfection will occur when His people are on display with Himself, reigning together over a world that will be made to know what so many now refuse to believe (v. 23):  that the Father sent the Son to bring many sons to glory, and they will forever be objects of the Father’s love, as well as of the Son’s.  The Father is not at all hindered, and will certainly not fail, in meeting the Son’s demands*, even though the church appears to be all broken up in this world because of our failure as Christians.

What then is the failure of Christians with respect to the unity of the Christian testimony?  If the work of Christ, the Son of God, guaranteed the formation of a perfect, inviolable unity of believers, and if God the Father fulfills the Son’s request that believers be one in privilege and in the testimony of the Father sending the Son, what could be the enemy’s point of attack? For Satan seeks to destroy the testimony of the “one body” in this world as much as he sought to destroy Israel’s testimony to the one true God.

The enemy attacks where the responsibility of man meets the activity of the Spirit of God — at the point where the word of God commits to saints the responsibility of “using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  The ascended Christ sent the Holy Spirit to baptize believers into one body, as seen in Acts 2.  The balance of that book of the Acts of the Apostles gives us much teaching, by example and illustration, on how the followers of Christ answered to the Spirit in the keeping of that unity which He had formed at Pentecost in Jerusalem. We read there of several threats to the maintenance of the Spirit’s unity, and how that the apostles and elders were led of the Spirit to avoid early failure in the collective testimony to the unity of the body of Christ, for they were keeping “the unity of the Spirit” practically.  In the epistles, we find accounts and warnings of deviations from that unity.  These are written for our learning, of course, and in a future article, as the Lord allows, some of these lessons may be addressed for the benefit of those who esteem highly that unity which is according to the Spirit of God, and who desire to keep it with diligence.

There is a thing of wonder on the earth that is the work of the triune God. It is the unity of believers in Christ, formed into one flock and one body, and intimately associated with Him who is both their Shepherd and Head.°  This unity exists for the glory of the Father, for the fulfillment of the Son, and according to the model of the “one Spirit”.  While this brief summary falls short of presenting “all the counsel of God” concerning His purposes in this dispensation, we who believe have the blessed right to rejoice as we grow in the knowledge of the mystery of Christ, who will soon display us with Himself in glory.

¹   Mark 12:29-32; James 2:19; Deuteronomy 6:4; Malachi 2:10

²   Ephesians 3:9 (J. N. Darby translation and NASB)

³   I John 1:1-2;  John 17:1-3;  Hebrews 2:10-11

*   See J. N. Darby’s rendering of erótaó as “demand” —  (“to ask on special footing, intimacy”) requests from a “preferred position” (E. Abbot, Johannine Grammar, 467,8). Such requesting receives special consideration because of the special relationship involved.

°   John 10:16 (J. N. Darby trans.); Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 2:19

(Numerous quotations from the scriptures in this article are from the New Translation, by J. N. Darby.)

Substitutionary Atonement: He Gave Himself for Me

Consider an illustration:  A group of young people conspire to vandalize the estate of a powerful and generous nobleman, and they follow through on the act, causing great and costly damage.  The nobleman and his only son go to great lengths to pay for and complete the work required to restore their estate to its original, pristine condition. With order restored and the honor of their name vindicated, the father and son then seek to show their good-will toward the young criminals by prescribing a way for them to make amends on an individual basis. They go so far as to offer an inheritance in the estate to each one who would clear his conscience by owning his crime and suffering an appropriate penance. However, to a person, the juveniles have neither the desire to accept the gracious invitation, nor the ability to pay the penalty that would allow them to be brought into the good nobleman’s family.  Then, in a wonderful display of kindness, the father sets his heart on several of the undeserving, guilty ones and sends his son to suffer the penalty for damages that these favored ones owed.  At great cost to his own wealth and honor, the son removes the barrier to their pardon, peace, and reconciliation. Now, with the noble estate restored and the squire’s honor vindicated, and with the chosen youths’ penalty paid, the son brings back with him those whom he had substituted himself for, those whose place he took, while the rest remain in their state of willfull alienation from the gracious nobleman.

In a previous article on propitiation, we summarized the teaching of Christ’s propitiatory work, how it glorified God with respect to all the offenses ever committed against Him, and how its virtue allows for the cleansing of the earth and the heavens, allowing God to declare His righteousness while proclaiming mercy toward men. But propitiation itself does not address the personal guilt and alienation of an individual soul; for that there must be a substitute, someone to stand in the stead of a sinner, suffering the penalty for those sins, and bearing them away “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). The illustration above attempts to show the distinction between the dishonor done to God by sins, and the guilt of the individual sinner, both of which are addressed in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

A ransom price was paid for all when the Lord Jesus Christ became, on the cross, the propitiation for the whole world. “God so loved the world“, and accordingly He “desires that all men should be saved” (John 3:16; I Timothy 2:4).  However, both the instructed Bible teacher and Gospel preacher know, on the authority of the scriptures, that God’s goodness toward men does not after all bring about the eternal salvation of every human soul; it does not have a universalist effect.  God set forth His Son Jesus as a propitiation (mercy-seat), declaring His righteousness in offering pardon and peace to all who believe on Him, who receive Christ by faith.¹  But it seems evident that so many do not believe!  How are they then to be condemned if a ransom has been paid and God propitiated?

While God’s righteous character has been vindicated and His claims met with regard to the sins of mankind that have defiled the earth and the heavens, the personal guilt for those sins, and the alienation of the sinner who committed them, must be addressed on an individual basis, rather than in a general way. This is where the truth of Christ’s substitutionary atonement complements the teaching of His propitiation in the multi-faceted doctrine of Christ’s infinite atoning work on the cross.   Propitiation is general in scope, and its emphasis is on meeting God’s claims where all of the sins of man had so dishonored Him.  But substitution (Christ’s vicarious work) is particular and definite, for it meets the desperate need of individual sinners for the guilt their sins have brought upon them.

The second goat of Leviticus 16, called the “scapegoat”, shows us in type that Christ’s mighty work of atonement not only has a God-ward aspect, but a man-ward aspect as well. The treatment of these two goats could hardly have been more different. The scapegoat was to bear away the individual sins of the people to an uninhabited place, and we see the transfer of guilt from the offerer to the goat, on behalf of the people, in the laying on of hands. This is a picture for us of Christ bearing away the sins and guilt of all who lay their hands (by faith) on Him, trusting Him as the only one who can take them away. “He was manifested to take away our sins” (I John 3:5).

There are numerous passages in the New Testament that teach the full truth of what the scapegoat’s substitutionary act pictures for us, and we will highlight some of them here. The Lord Jesus Christ “bore our sins in His own body on the tree . . . by whose stripes we are healed” (I Peter 2:24).   “Christ once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).  “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28).  “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). “Our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people” (Titus 2:13-14).  “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  Notice that when sin-bearing is spoken of, it only applies to those who are “healed”, and “brought to God”, and “redeemed”, and “made the righteousness of God”. Christ bore “the sins of many”, not of all, but only of those who trust Him, for He is the substitute only for those who have a right to say by faith that the Son of God “gave Himself for me.”

In the reality of God’s spiritual economy, when a man’s substitute is Christ, all of his sins are gone forever; but when a sinner rejects Christ as a substitute for himself, those sins will remain, he will die in his sin, and the wrath of God will abide on him forever, for lack of having them borne away by the Lord Jesus Christ.² There is no thought in New Testament teaching of a general bearing away of the sins of all mankind, nor of a partial, time-limited sin-bearing for the failing believer, for everything was settled for God’s elect on the cross 2000 years ago, once for all.

Is the Lord Jesus Christ your substitute? Were your sins laid on Him to bear them in His own body on the tree?  There is just one way to know, one way to have assurance that your sins are all gone, never to be held against you in judgment:  Receive Christ as the propitiation for your sins, and as your personal substitute who bore the wrath of a thrice-holy God for you, a lost sinner who could never stand before God on your own merits.  Jesus plainly told the Jewish crowd that “whoever comes to Me I will never cast out”,³ and that guarantee is as valid today as it was when He said it. Come to Him today to be justified from all your sins, and that will bring full pardon and real peace with God, for time and eternity.

 

¹   Acts 14:17; Romans 2:4; Luke 2:14; Romans 3:3, 21-26; 5:1

²   John 9:41; John 8:24; John 3:36

³   John 6:37, ESV

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

*  God has always been disposed in good-will toward man, but His righteousness required propitiation for that good-will to be manifested toward man in declaring men righteous, while He is shown to be righteous in doing so (Romans 3:21-26).

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