© Copyright 2014 by Jimmy Akin
Recently, Gretchen Passantino Coburn posted an interesting piece on whether Jesus was trying to avoid the Cross when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Not My Will, But Yours Be Done). The piece very correctly points out that Jesus knew it was his Father’s will for him to die on the Cross and that he lived his life in complete submission to the Father’s will (thus also setting an example for us). As a result, there was never any conflict between his will and the Father’s, properly speaking.
What are we to make, then, of his prayer, “Not my will but yours be done”? The article makes a striking proposal:
[W]e argue below that it was not death on the cross that Christ was longing to avoid, but death in the Garden before the cross; and that Christ’s will was not different than the Father’s will, but in harmony with the Father’s will. We argue below that Christ, in danger of expiring in the Garden, cried out to the Father for the necessary power either to remain alive through his Garden experience, or, if he expired in the Garden, to be revived by the Father so that he would be alive for his coming crucifixion.
I have a different understanding of this passage, and Gretchen has very graciously invited me to do a follow-up piece for purposes of discussion.
The First Question
The first question we need to address is whether Jesus was about to expire in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to the article,
Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Luke says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Matthew and Mark affirm, “he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38, cf. Mark 14:33-34). [Theologian J. Oliver] Buswell notes that profuse perspiration is a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead “shuts down” preparatory to death.
What should we make of this argument?
“I Could Die”
The statement that he is sorrowful “to the point of death” is generally understood as hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). This is a common mode of expression in the Bible and one that Jesus uses in the Gospels. We even have similar sayings in English where the possibility of death is raised without it being meant literally (e.g., “I’m so embarrassed I could die”).
The possibility (probability) of hyperbole is so significant in this case that Jesus’ statement about being sorrowful “to the point of death” can’t be relied upon as proof he was literally about to die in the garden.
The argument for the claim thus depends critically on Jesus’ sweat becoming like blood and this being an indication of imminent death.
Is the Text Original?
The statement that his sweat became like blood is found only in Luke 22:44. It is not in Matthew, Mark, or John. However, there are significant reasons to question whether this material was originally in the text of Luke. Most modern Bibles will carry a footnote on verses 43 and 44, like this one from the New American Bible:
These verses, though very ancient, were probably not part of the original text of Luke. They are absent from the oldest papyrus manuscripts of Luke and from manuscripts of wide geographical distribution.
It is risky to make a dramatic interpretive claim (Jesus was about to die in the garden barring divine intervention) concerning an event found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) when the key detail is found only in one Gospel and there is strong reason to think it was not in the original.
Is Bloody Sweat a Sign of Imminent Death?
If we assume that the statement was in the original, there is still a problem, because Buswell appears to have been mistaken about the nature of this phenomenon. While rare, bloody sweat is a known medical condition. Referred to as hematidrosis (Greek, “blood-sweat”), it is caused when the capillaries rupture into the sweat glands. Hematidrosis frequently is the result of anxiety, and it has been successfully treated with beta-blockers such as propranolol, which are used (among other things) to treat anxiety: however, it does not appear that hematidrosis is “a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead ‘shuts down’ preparatory to death.” The condition is not on that order of magnitude. While often produced by anxiety, the condition is a dermatological one that involves the capillaries leaking into the sweat glands, not a sign of overall systemic shutdown.
I did a quick review of online medical literature and turned up many cases where hematidrosis was not a sign of impending death. (See, for example, here, where patients are noted to have had repeated instances of hematidrosis.)
Buswell, writing in the early 1960s, may have had less access to medical information about hematidrosis. In fact, the condition is rare enough that it had not been studied as much then as it has been now. As a result, it could be understandable for Buswell to draw inaccurate conclusions.
A Clearer Indication? An Explanation?
It also strikes me that, if the Evangelists meant us to understand that Jesus was about to die on the spot, in contravention of God’s plan for him to die on the Cross, they would have signaled this to the readers in a clearer way.
They also likely would have provided some explanation for why this last-minute crisis was occurring. For example, was it a final attempt by Satan to foil God’s plan? If so, how do we explain the Gospels’ insistence that it was Satan who prompted Judas to betray Jesus? Furthermore, Jesus himself describes his arrest (not the agony in the garden) as “the hour of darkness” (Luke 22:53), suggesting that Satan was behind it.
But if it wasn’t the devil that tried to bring about Jesus’ death in the garden, what did? It wasn’t the Father’s plan for him to die there, and so it wouldn’t have been the Father. That would leave us with either an accident that seems to threaten God’s Providence or Jesus simply having a panic attack so severe that it threatened his life. Personally, I’d be inclined to resist either of those suggestions.
An Alternative Theory
As an alternative theory of the event, I propose that Jesus knew in advance that he would die on the Cross and that he was resolute toward this goal. However, it is emotionally one thing when death is remote and another when it is staring one in the face.
Thus Christ was able to deal serenely with the prospect of Lazarus’s death—and even remark on how it would bring glory to God—when he was still in Galilee (John 11:1-4), but he nevertheless wept when he was standing at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35-36).
This response is rooted in the death aversion that is part of human nature. Being in proximity to death causes averse feelings in humans (fear, sorrow, revulsion), and that’s a good thing. It is part of God’s plan, and it leads us to try to preserve life.
By virtue of his human nature, Jesus had death aversion also, and—as with the rest of us—it manifested with particular intensity when the hour of his death drew close: nevertheless, he was resolute to go through with the climax of his mission.
“Not My Will But Yours Be Done”
Jesus’ statement “Not my will but yours be done” does not indicate an actual opposition of wills. Indeed, it indicates the opposite—that he is completely submissive to the Father’s will.
The paradoxical nature of this statement is to be understood along the lines of similar paradoxical statements that Jesus makes—e.g., “He who saves his life will lose it,” “The first will be last.” These statements rely on ambiguity of language for their solution (i.e., they rely on the fact that terms like “saving” and “losing” and “first” and “last” can be taken in different senses).
In this case, the term that is subject to ambiguity is “will.” This can indicate a determination, decision, or choice—or it can indicate a wish, preference, desire, or similar emotional rather than volitional state. One can even recognize that one’s wish is not going to be fulfilled, but still give voice to it as a way of expressing one’s feelings.
That ambiguity seems to be in play here. By making his statement, Jesus is expressing his fundamental submission to the Father’s will while giving voice to the fact that he is experiencing death aversion. His statement could be paraphrased, less paradoxically, as “Not what I might wish, but may what you determine be done.”
Emotions vs. Resolve
This does not imply that Jesus’ will is not united to the Father’s. Indeed, he indicates that it is united to the Father’s. Rather, it implies that Jesus is feeling something different than what he wills. What he wills is to do what the Father has determined, but he is experiencing the feelings of death aversion that are normal for human beings in the presence of their own imminent demise. His giving voice to those feelings allows him to achieve an emotional release—just as when he wept or when he cried out in anguish—but his will is still in submission to the Father’s.
This incident thus highlights the dynamics of Jesus’ experience as a man. We also find ourselves in situations, particularly when we are suffering or preparing to die, where we need to say what we’re feeling as part of dealing with our emotions—even though we are resolved in our wills to a particular course of action.
By way of conclusion, I’d like to thank Gretchen and Bob Passantino for defending the fact that Jesus was always resolved to do the Father’s will, and I’d like to thank Gretchen for her gracious invitation to do this post.
by Bob and Gretchen Passantino, © Copyright 2003
The night Jesus was arrested, before his trial and crucifixion, he prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, having asked three of his disciples to wait nearby, praying for him. Luke tells us, “He withdrew about a stone’s throw and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done'” (Luke 22:41-42). Matthew records Jesus as making his request of the Father twice: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken away from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will'” (Matthew 26:39) and “He went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done'” (Matt. 26:42). Mark records his prayer in a positive way, “‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Did Jesus Shrink from His Commitment to Die for Our Sins?
Many people understand this to mean that Jesus, without sinning, was in some way reluctant to endure the cross but was willing to set aside his own desires and instead follow God’s will in this matter. This interpretation takes “cup” to mean “death on the cross” and “not my will, but yours” to mean that Christ desired not to go to the cross.
Sometimes this passage is used to illustrate how Christ was tempted in his suffering, as Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted,” and as Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.”
It is commonly said that understanding Christ’s “weakness” in the Garden enables us to be confident that Christ identifies with us in our own “weakness” and is therefore compassionate and forgiving. Although we agree with the passages in Hebrews and agree that Christ is sympathetic, compassionate, forgiving, and sinless, we do not agree that this commonly held view is the actual meaning of Christ’s statements to the Father in the Garden. (1)
Christ’s Prayer Was Answered Affirmatively by the Father in the Garden
Instead, we argue below that it was not death on the cross that Christ was longing to avoid, but death in the Garden before the cross; and that Christ’s will was not different than the Father’s will, but in harmony with the Fathers’ will. We argue below that Christ, in danger of expiring in the Garden, cried out to the Father for the necessary power either to remain alive through his Garden experience, or, if he expired in the Garden, to be revived by the Father so that he would be alive for his coming crucifixion. (2) Incarnationally (Col. 2:9), he had the intrinsic power to sustain himself or revive himself, but, as in all things, Christ lived by the Father’s power and not his own.
We would explain the Garden prayer in this way: Father, I cannot fulfill my destiny at the cross if I am not revived here in the Garden. As I have my entire life, I ask this to be accomplished by your power, not my own. And, in fact, God did answer Christ’s prayer, sustained him in the Garden by means of angels, and preserved him alive to face his crucifixion to save us from our sins.
Because this view is not well known, it might sound at first unreasonable and unscriptural. Let us examine it carefully and scripturally (3) and you will see the strength of this interpretation contextually, theologically, and biblically. (4)
Christ Repeatedly Acknowledged and Affirmed God’s Plan for His Crucifixion
The idea that Christ would, at the last moment, waver in his commitment to the cross seems contrary to what we know about Christ’s steadfast commitment throughout his ministry to die on the cross for our sins. He clearly taught the principle of his atonement when he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15). Jesus echoes this thought again, saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Matthew notes Christ’s commitment to his coming death, burial, and resurrection and contrasts it to Peter’s desire that Christ not die:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “Never, Lord!” he said, “This shall not happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:21-23). (Mark’s account – 8:31-33 – adds that Jesus “spoke plainly about this.”)
It does not seem reasonable that Jesus would rebuke Peter for the very sentiment he himself supposedly expresses in his Garden prayer.
Jesus Was Confidently Committed to Dying for the Sins of the World
Not only did Jesus repeatedly acknowledge that his death would come to pass, he also repeatedly stated his confident commitment to dying on behalf of sinners. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees just before his last trip to Jerusalem, challenging them, “Go tell that fox [Herod], ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (Luke 13:32-33).
After Jesus’s resurrection he rebuked two of his disciples for failing to understand the necessity of his death, burial and resurrection, saying, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Even though Christ said this after his resurrection, there is no reason to believe that he came to this conviction after his struggle in the Garden. In fact, he clearly says that even the disciples should have always known the inevitability of the cross because of the prophets. If he held the disciples accountable for what the prophets said, how much more would he, the very One of whom they prophesied, (5) be held accountable?
In fact, the crucifixion of Christ is the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The gospel without the cross is no gospel at all (1 Cor. 2:2). Jesus concluded his commission of the disciples with this confident focus: “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
A Second Look at the Garden Prayer
With this background of overwhelming scriptural evidence that Christ recognized and was committed to the necessity of his crucifixion to save us from our sins, let’s look at the Garden scene again. We will observe four important principles. First, there is indication that Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Second, there is no evidence from the passages that Jesus (our “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” high priest – Heb. 7:26) ever wavered in his commitment to the cross – amply attested to by the passages we have already reviewed. Third, there is ample biblical evidence that Jesus’s will was not contrary to the Father’s will, but submitted to the Father’s will. Fourth, it is apparent that his prayer was answered affirmatively and he was strengthened in order to be able to leave the Garden and go to the cross.
Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Luke says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Matthew and Mark affirm, “he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38, cf. Mark 14:33-34).
Buswell notes that profuse perspiration is a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead “shuts down” preparatory to death. (6)
From outside the gospels we get a plain declaration of Christ’s experience in the Garden: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth,he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb. 5:7).
Jesus Never Wavered but Always Followed His Father
There is no evidence in the Garden passages that Jesus wavered in his commitment to the cross (the very words that are used to adduce that are the ones we are contending mean something else altogether).
There is abundant evidence (as we saw above) from Jesus’s statements throughout his ministry that he knew of the inevitability of the cross and that he wholeheartedly committed himself to the cross.
Jesus’s Will Was In Accord With But Submitted To His Father’s Will
In addition, there is strong scriptural evidence that Jesus’s entire life was a life of exemplary dependence on the authority, will, power, and agency of the Father (i.e., “the one he has sent”- John 6:29). (7) The gospel of John speaks more explicitly and repeatedly to this theme than any other gospel. Jesus explained clearly:
I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it (John 5:19-21).
Jesus continues, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (30). It is important to note here that what pleases the Father is not contrary to what pleases Christ, but that Christ’s humble motivation for his judgment is not his own pleasure but the corresponding pleasure of the Father. Jesus continues his message, saying, “For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me” (36).
John identifies Jesus’s will as submitted to the corresponding will of the Father when he quotes Jesus: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:16-17). Look at the next verse: Jesus makes it explicit that to defer to God’s will is to be humble to, not to be contrary to, God’s will: “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who speaks for the honor of the one who sent h im is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him” (18).
(This interpretation of “not my will, but yours” also fits similar statements by Jesus in John 5:30 and 6:38. It is not a disharmony between the wills of the Father and Son that is in focus, but the priority of the Father’s will over the Son’s. In other words, Jesus is in exact agreement with the Father, but the submission of Jesus’s words and works to the authority of the Father is the model he lived for all of us. In theology we speak of the fact that we are saved by Christ’s active obedience and passive obedience and by not only what he did, but under what authority he did what he did.)
John quotes Jesus referring to his like-mindedness with the Father concerning his coming crucifixion: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him” (8:28-29).
Although the picture is clearest in John, Jesus’s submission to the Father in all things is the undercurrent of his entire ministry even as described by the other gospel writers. His duty was not merely to die for us, but also to live for us – in the exemplary relationship to his Father that we are to follow as the adopted children of God. The whole tenor of his ministry is that of the dutiful Son coming in the name (power, authority) of his Father. Repeatedly he urged his followers to lives of humility and self-sacrifice – in imitation of Jesus and his relationship to his Father. “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).
“All things have been committed to me by my Father,” we learn from Jesus as recorded in Matthew 11:27 (cf. Luke 10:22). Jesus reminds his disciples, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (Matt. 20:23). Jesus relates his role as a servant to the Father directly to his commandments for his disciples, saying, “But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me” (Luke22:27b-29).
It is overwhelmingly clear that Jesus was submitted to the Father in will, purpose, action, and speech. His will was not contrary to the Father’s will, but in submission to the Father’s authority (will).
Jesus’s Prayer Was Answered: He Survived the Garden to Go to the Cross
We have seen that in the Garden Jesus was in imminent danger of death; that he prayed for the Father to rescue him; that he was fully cognizant of and committed to the cross; and that his will was not contrary to the Father but in submission to him. The only piece of our Garden puzzle left to insert is evidence that his prayer was answered affirmatively.
Earlier we cited Hebrews 5:7 as evidence that Christ prayed to be delivered from death in the Garden. The conclusion to that verse is clear: “and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7). The common biblical idiom is that when one’s prayer is “heard” it is answered in the affirmative. (8)
This corresponds perfectly with the gospel account, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43). Matthew and Mark note that immediately after his recovery: “Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45, cf. Mark 14:41).
Our examination has shown that Christ did not have a last-minute crisis of faith and fear of his coming crucifixion. He did not overcome his own, contrary will, in order to obey his Father’s will. He did not fear in the same way his disciple Peter had before, when Jesus rebuked him for trying to keep him from the cross.
In the most extreme conditions a human could suffer, conditions critical enough to kill anyone without immediate intervention, he proved once again that his life was a life of perfect submission to his Father. He depended on his Father for everything he taught, everything he did, and even for sustaining his life so that he could fulfill the mission determined by “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23), his death on the cross for our sins.
We can rejoice in the one who lived for us and died for us, who looked forward to his crucifixion with unwavering purpose and commitment, who said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. . . . Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:23-24, 27).
Christ Repeatedly Acknowledged and Affirmed God’s Plan for His Crucifixion
Jesus repeatedly affirms the prophetic necessity of his coming death. In Matthew 17:22-23 Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life” (cf. Mark 10:31). Jesus also says, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt. 20:18-19 cf. Luke 18:31-33).
When Jesus is explaining about the coming kingdom of God, he instructs his disciples to imitate his self-sacrificing humility, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28 cf. Mark 10:45; Luke 9:22, 44). Jesus confidently announced immediately before his arrest, “As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matt. 26:2 cf. Mark 10:33-34). During this same time period John records Jesus’s words, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the world, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:30-32). John immediately explains Jesus’s statement: “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (v. 33). When Jesus announced that he would be betrayed he added, “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed” (Luke 22:22). He assured his disciples, “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors;’ and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37).
Jesus Was Confidently Committed to Dying for the Sins of the World
Even after Jesus had been arrested, when Peter tried to defend him by cutting off the ear of one of the guards, Jesus pointed out that he could have remained free by the Father’s intervention, but that he did not pray to the Father to intervene because “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way? . . . But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:54, 56). John quotes Jesus at the same time saying, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).
Jesus’s Will Was In Accord With But Submitted To His Father’s Will
John also records Jesus’s description of himself as the “bread” from heaven – “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). He also says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (37-38). Again, Jesus will is not contrary to the will of the Father, but Christ is motivated by his humility to the Father’s will, in harmony with (but not motivated by) his own will. This is the same humility that Christ urges on his followers, completing his message on the bread of heaven by urging, “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me” (57).
John records Jesus’s words in the midst of the temple courts to the doubting leaders of his day: “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me” (7:28-29).
John understood that Jesus meant his hearers to understand that he will was in complete harmony with the Father’s will as he quotes, “. . . I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the one who sent me – the Father” (8:16b-17). It is clear from this that Jesus means his hearers to understand that his testimony is identical to that of the Father, continuing, “You do not know me or my father . . . . If you knew me, you would know my father also” (19b).
Other quotes from Jesus in John include, “I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence” (8:38); “I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me” (42b); “I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself” (49-50); “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (54); “we must do the work of him who sent me” (9:4); “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (10:29-30); “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may learn and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (10:37-38); “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me” (12:44-45); “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me: The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10-11); “the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (14:31); “just as I have obeyed my Father’s command and remain in his love” (15:10); “everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you” (15:15).
In Jesus’s great prayer at the end of his ministry (John 17:1-26) we find the following affirmations of Christ’s submission to the Father: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you grated him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. . . . Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work your gave me to do. . . . I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. . . . Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me. . . . They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. . . . All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. . . . just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. . . . They know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
1. A related argument about Christ’s “humanity” is made from Christ’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). We discuss this in our article Did the Father Leave the Son on the Cross?
2. We seen an interesting type of this in the story of Abraham offering his son, Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham, even when God told him to prepare to sacrifice his son, continued to have complete confidence in God’s promise that he would have descendants (and one Descendant in particular) through Isaac who would bless the world. He did not know how God would accomplish this, whether by preserving Isaac (as actually happened – 22:11-14), or, if necessary, by rasing Isaac from the dead (as Hebrews 11:19 notes), but that he knew God would intervene is clear from his comment to his servants, “we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5).
3. We have attempted to include every significant passage related to this issue. We have chosen the most important citations for our main argument, and have listed the other related passages in appendices at the end of this article.
4. We are indebted to theologian James Oliver Buswell, Jr. for first bringing this interpretation to our attention many years ago [A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962 (vol. 1), 1963 (vol. 2) (bound together), II:62-65]. This article is our own argument, supplemented, re-arranged, adapted, and modified from Buswell’s approach.
5. 1 Peter 1:10-12 says, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
7. Paul describes this in his letter to the Philippians, where he urges the Christians to exercise the same humility toward each other as Christ did toward the Father: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing” (2:5-7a).
8. (Buswell, II:63.) The following two verses in Hebrews are somewhat difficult to exegete. The passage reads, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). If our application of verse 7 to the Garden is appropriate, we could argue the application of this passage to mean, although he was already the perfect Son of God, his patient reliance on the Father’s power to preserve him in the Garden (his obedience), displayed that relationship to all who then demonstrate the same kind of patient reliance on the Son to bring us eternal salvation.
A Summary of Concepts
© Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino
Revelation:From God to man (man hears what God wants written)
Inspiration: From man to paper (man writes that which God wants written)
Illumination: From paper to heart (man receives that which God has written)
We know that God spoke to man, but how did He speak? Hebrews 1:1 says that He spoke to the fathers and prophets in many portions and many ways:
- through angels (Gen. 18; Gen. 19; Dan. 9:21-27; Luke 2:8-14; etc.)
- through a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11, 12; Ps. 32:8)
- through nature (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 10:18; Acts 14:15)
- through a loud voice (Gen. 3:9-19; Ex. 3:14)
- through dreams (Gen. 28:12; Matt. 1:20; Matt. 2:12)
What is involved in transferring the voice of God into the vocabulary of man? There are five different areas to be considered: (1) various theories of inspiration; (2) scripture texts on inspiration; (3) implications of inspiration; (4) importance of inspiration; (5) completion of inspiration.
The term inspiration is found only once in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The Greek word is theopneustos and literally means “God-breathed.”
Theories of Inspiration
The natural theory–the Bible writers were inspired only in the sense that a poet or writer is inspired naturally. In other words, that spark of divine inspiration that supposedly is in all men simply burned a little brighter in the hearts of the Bible writers.
However, 2 Peter 1:20 says, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
The mechanical theory–God coldly and woodenly dictated the Bible to his writers as an office manager would dictate an impersonal letter to his secretary.
The Bible is the story of divine love, and God is anything but mechanical or cold concerning inspiration. The Holy Spirit never transgressed beyond the limits of the writer’s vocabulary. We can see this because the highly educated Paul used a larger, more complicated vocabulary than the fisherman, Peter. The Church has never held what has been stigmatized as the mechanical theory of inspiration. The sacred writers were not machines. Their self-consciousness was not suspended; nor were their intellectual powers superseded. Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. It was men, not machines; not unconscious instruments, but living, thinking, willing minds, whom the Spirit used as His organs….[T]he sacred writers impressed their peculiarities on their several productions as plainly as though they were the subjects of no extraordinary influence.
The content theory–Only the main thoughts of the Bible are inspired. This is the position of the liberal theologian who would cheerfully accept those portions of the Bible which deal with love and brotherhood, but quickly reject the passages dealing with sin, righteousness, and future judgment. But this is contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16 (quoted above). Charles F. Baker writes,
A certain bishop is purported to have said that he believed the Bible to have been inspired in spots. When asked for his authority for such a statement, he quoted Hebrews 1:1, stating that this meant that God spoke at various times in varying degrees. Thus, some spots were fully inspired, others were only partially inspired, and still others were not inspired at all. The bishop was embarrassed when a layman asked: “How do you know that Hebrews 1:1, the one scripture upon which you base your argument, is one of those fully inspired spots?
The spiritual rule only theory–The Bible may be regarded as our infallible rule of faith and practice in all matters of religious, ethical, and spiritual value, but not in other matters, such as some of the historical and scientific statements found in the Word of God.
Jesus said, however, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”(John 3:12).
The verbal-plenary theory–All (plenary) the very words (verbal) of the Bible are inspired by God. Matthew 4:4 says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” First Corinthians 2:13 says, “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” Jesus says in John 17:8, “For I have given them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.” Jesus says in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”
Scripture Texts on Inspiration
2 Peter 1:20, 21; Hebrews 1:1; John 10:35; Matthew 5:18; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 3:2; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 15:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:15; and the verses already referred to above.
Note: Some people say that when Paul was speaking on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, he differentiated between what was scripture and what was his own opinion. What is actually the case is that Paul was directly quoting Jesus in the first part, but was “merely” prompted by the Holy Spirit in the second part.
Implications of Inspiration
As one carefully considers the subject of inspiration, he is led to the following conclusions:
1. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not each that all the parts of the Bible are equally important, but only that they are equally inspired.
2. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not guarantee the inspiration of any modern or ancient translations of the Bible, but refers only to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (the autographs).
3. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not allow for any false teaching, but it does on occasion record the lie of someone (for example, Genesis 3:6). Therefore, we have an accurate record of the devil’s words. As one reads the Bible, he must carefully distinguish between what God records and what He sanctions. Thus, while lying, murder, adultery, and polygamy are found in the Word of God, they are never approved by the Word of God.
4. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not permit any historical, scientific, or prophetical error whatsoever. While it is admitted that the Bible is not a textbook on science, it is nevertheless held that every scientific statement in the scriptures is absolutely true.
5. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not prohibit personal research. The New Testament writer Luke begins his gospel with the following account:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me, as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out….(Luke 1:1-3 NASB).
6. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not deny the use of extra-biblical sources (see Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; Jude 1:14, 15).
7. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not overwhelm the personality of the human author. The Bible writers experienced no coma-like trance as do some mediums today during a seance, but, on the contrary, they always retained their physical, mental, and emotional powers. See Isaiah 6:1-11, Daniel 12)
8. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not exclude the usage of pictorial, symbolic, hyperbolic, or summary language. This is to say the Holy Spirit does not demand that we accept every word in the Bible in a wooden and legalistic way. For example, a case could not be made that God has feathers like a bird in Ps. 91:4. Here the thought is simply that the persecuted believer can flee to his heavenly Farther for protection and warmth.
9. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not mean uniformity in all details given in describing the same event. See Matt. 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, and John 19:19, about the superscription on the cross.
10. Verbal-plenary inspiration assures us that God included all the necessary things He wanted us to know and excluded everything else. 2 Tim. 3:15-17.
Importance of Inspiration
Of the three tools involved in the making of our Bible, the tool of inspiration is the most important. This is true because:
1. One may have inspiration without revelation. For example, rather than supernaturally telling Luke what to write in his gospel, the Holy Spirit led him to carefully check out all of the records.
2. One may have inspiration without illumination. Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:11) that the Old Testament prophets did not always understand everything they wrote about.
Completion of Inspiration
Is inspiration still going on today? Yes, inspiration is still going on today, but with the close of the apostolic age, God led the church fathers to canonize what we know today as the Old and New Testaments. We have all of the information we will ever need regarding God, our relationship to him, and our salvation straight from God to us.
If someone claims to have a revelation from God, we must check to be sure that it is in harmony with God’s word that has already been revealed.
We have already stated that without inspiration, no scripture would have ever been written. We may now claim that without illumination, no sinner would have ever been saved. Illumination, then, is that method used by the Holy Spirit to shed divine light upon all seeking men as they look into the Word of God. We need illumination because:
1. We are naturally blind because of sin. (1 Cor. 2:14, Matt. 16:16-17)
2. We are satanically blind. (2 Cor. 4:3-4)
3. We are carnally blind. (Heb. 5:12-14, 1 Cor. 3, 2 Peter 1)
There are two main results of personal illumination: that people are saved and then that the saved people are matured.
Implications of Illumination
1. The Holy Spirit looks for a certain amount of sincerity before He illuminates any human heart. We are quick to point out that sincerity is not enough to save anyone, and so it is. However, it should be also noted that it is equally impossible for an insincere person to be saved. This first implication is brought out in John 4:24.
Furthermore, it should be stated that no Christian should ever look on illumination as automatic. This is to say, God has never promised to reveal precious and profound Biblical truths to any believer who will not search the Scriptures for himself. See John 20:31, Acts 17:11, 2 Tim 2:15, 1 Peter 2:2.
2. The Holy Spirit often seeks out the aid of a believer in performing his task of illuminating the hearts of others. See Acts 8:30, 31, 35, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:26, Acts 18:28.
For Further Reading
Bloesch, Donald G. Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming J. Revell Company, 1984 ed.
Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.
Carson, D. A. And John D. Woodbridge, eds. Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.
Demarest, Bruce A. General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974.
Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Revised and Expanded). Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.
George, Timothy, et. al., eds. The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.
Trembath, Kern Robert. Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration: A Review and Proposal. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Turretin, Francis. The Doctrine of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981.
 This essay is a summary of the information contained in Norm. F. Geisler and William E. Nix’s General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986 ed.). It is meant to outline the arguments brought forth in that book and was used originally as a handout in a class taught by the Passantinos using Geisler and Nix’s book as the textbook. Another approach to the issue is in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology Volume One: Introduction and Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2002).
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1.
© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapter 1-24 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 25-48 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,1998.
If I could only have one commentary (2 volumes) on Ezekiel, Block’s 2 volumes would be my choice. Rich combination of historical, literary, theological, & doctrinal information & insights. Non-dispensational. Good focus on Ezekiel as preparatory for the coming Messiah, the Savior not only of Israel, but of the whole world. Don’t be intimidated by the huge page count. This is a resource you will use for reference & select reading, not to start at the beginning & spend the rest of your life slogging through (although I & a few other nuts do).
Hummel, Horace D. Ezekiel 1-20 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing Company, 2005.
Hummel, Horace D. Ezekiel 21-48 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing Company, 2007
Being Lutheran in my theology, I probably agree more with Hummel’s 2 volumes than I do any other commentary on Ezekiel. However, Hummel, being Lutheran, also tends to remain silent on some of our most vexing & obscure passages, preferring to heed the old Chinese proverb, “Better to keep your mouth shut & be thought a fool than to open it & remove all doubt.” But also, being Lutheran, Hummel does a superb job of delineating the law (which kills you) & the gospel (which raises you to new life), & of seeing Christ & his redeeming act at the center of every passage.
Longman, Tremper, David E. Garland, eds., Michael Brown, Paul W. Ferris, and Ralph Alexander, contributors. Jeremiah – Ezekiel (Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2010.
This is an excellent non-denominational, non-dispensational approach to Ezekiel. Especially good on history & literature. Not quite deep enough to satisfy me like Block or Hummel.
McGee, J. Vernon. Ezekiel (Through the Bible). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
This is the only dispensational book in my short list. Yes, he was a dispensationalist through & through, but his pastor’s heart & his calling to proclaim the gospel are at the core of everything, & if you ignore his relation of ancient to modern, you will be richly blessed, my friend. And it’s short enough & simple enough to be a very satisfying appetizer.
Stevenson, Kenneth and Michael Glerup, eds. Ezekiel, Daniel (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Academic Press, 2008.
I had to include this in my short list because of its unique resources. Do you want to know how the ancient church & church fathers understood (or didn’t understand) Ezekiel? Here are all the references from the ancient church writers & preachers on Ezekiel. Lots of different views, lots of ancient historical & theological perspectives, not a lot of consensus or criticism, but that lets you judge for yourself.
© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15 NKJV). “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me” (Psalm 27:10).
Dr. Laura Schlessinger is known for her advocacy of second-chance families. She argues that we have two opportunities to experience a good parent-child relationship. The first chance, the relationship into which we are born, we have little control over, and we may well experience a horrible parent-child relationship. The second chance, when we become parents, is our opportunity to have the best parent-child relationship through careful, value-laden choices that give our children the parent-child relationship we may never have had. As much as people have been encouraged and challenged by Dr. Laura’s take, I think there’s an important parent-child relationship she has missed: our relationship to God as our perfect parent.
We have a third – and, in fact, the only significant – parent-child relationship that will never disappoint or fall short of our expectations: Our experience of God as our loving Creator, Sustainer, Savior, and Glorifier. Everything we could conceive of that is good and fitting for a mother to be, that is what God is to each one of us. When I say “God is our mother,” I do not mean to support radical feminism, deconstruct God into a fantastical feminine deity, or change our language about God. Instead, God, who is infinite, eternal, and a-sexual, sometimes identifies himself as a mother to give us a particular kind of idea, a teaching picture or icon, by which we can understand better his creative power, his love, his forgiveness, and his faithfulness.
God, full of sorrow over the rebellious idolatry of Israel, expresses the anguish every mother has experienced as her child turns away from the safety mother has provided: “I taught Ephraim [Israel] to walk, taking them by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4). When for the first time we hold the tiny treasure of humanity in our arms at birth, when we focus all of our energy toward providing a safe haven of joy for that tiny life, we experience a tiny taste of the love and care God has for us. He creates us knowing that we will turn away from him, knowing that we will reject his love; and yet continuing to love us so much that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God yearns for us to return to his arms as a child runs to mother seeking safety, reassurance and love. He foresaw the return of the Jews in Isaiah’s day, “then you [the Jews] shall feed; on her sides shall you be carried, and be dandled on her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:12-13).
The love of God goes far beyond the greatest love the greatest mother could ever have. It is perfect, infinite, and eternal. At the height of Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment against the unbelieving Jews of his day, he lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).
Moses talks of God’s parental care in similar terms: “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him” (Deuteronomy 32:9-12).
When we understand that God is our perfect Mother, we can rest, secure in the knowledge that He will protect us from evil, give us the power to overcome sin, and keep us in His care and love eternally. The teaching picture of the female bird depicts this refuge best as the Psalmist prays, “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; hide me under the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who oppress me, from my deadly enemies who surround me” (Psalm 17:8). Safety in the Lord is absolute: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my soul trusts in You; and in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, until these calamities have passed by” (Psalm 57:1). We can be confident that “He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth will be your shield and buckler” (Psalm 91:4).
God is our Mother in the very best sense of the term. God’s love for us precedes any human maternal love since God loved us before Eve became the “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Do you want to know how to be the best mother you can? Look to God for His example. Do you long to be loved and cared for by the mother you lost or maybe never had? Look to God – He is your Mother in perfection. Think of the love God has for us: knowing that we would turn from him, rebel against him, sin and break his commandments, he still created us and then provided the perfect sacrifice to restore us to Himself. Better than any human mother, he knows not only the grief of loss and the pain of sacrifice, but also the potential for joy in being a mother: “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). God is joyful over you! Rejoice with Him!
© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
My virtual mailbox has been crowded with questions about the movie NOAH that opened March 28 2014. I haven’t seen it. I’ve read a lot of reviews, some from people I respect in the arts, the Bible, and/or theology. It was the first place box office winner for its opening weekend, pulling in more than $44 million in US ticket sales. It remains to be seen whether it can maintain that level of popularity, but that’s not my focus here. This is all I’m going to say about the commercial success or failure of the movie.
Many others have commented on the cinematic license taken with the literary text. This doesn’t bother me, since movies almost always take significant liberty with an underlying written text. What works in words may not work at all in visuals and the opposite is usually true, too. I understand the movie misses the great story of redemption foreshadowed in the story, the sinfulness of humanity, salvation by faith, and God’s redemptive faithfulness to the world He has created, including the humans He has created in His image. I also understand there is quite a bit of environmental gospel in the story and that at some points humans are characterized as the enemies of God’s natural world. This is all I’m going to say about the biblical or non-biblical story line of the movie.
My focus here is on some of what is absent from the biblical story. I will address some of these significant absences from Genesis chapters 6-10 here.
First, the foundational assumption for biblical interpretation is to understand the main theological theme of the passage and use that to govern all interpretation. The main theme of Genesis 6-10 is not environmentalism, evolution, or human stubbornness. The main theme is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story: that sinful man, judged and condemned in Adam, is nevertheless loved and redeemed by God’s own work by His Spirit in His Representative (Son), and transformed into His fruitful Spouse. Noah is both Adam (the sinner) and Christ (the chosen One). The flood is God’s judgment. The Ark is God’s rescue (Christ on the Cross). Noah’s family and their progeny are the Church, the People of God. The dove and the olive branch are the signs of the renewed and redeemed creation. The sacrifice after the Flood is the Memorial of God’s sacrifice on our behalf. Absent are doctrinal side issues that distract us from this main redemptive theme.
I’m not “allegorizing” the “plain meaning” of the Bible. I believe in the complete accuracy of the Bible as God gave it and meant it to be understood. When the Bible is recording history, it is accurate history. When it is recording science, it is accurate science, etc. But underlying and overarching every kind of text (historical, scientific, poetic, epic, narrative, metaphorical, etc.) is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story in part or in whole, in type or anti-type, in anticipation or remembrance. Once we fix this theological bedrock in our interpretive framework, many of the questions we ask of a particular text are completely irrelevant and it is no wonder they are not addressed exhaustively (if at all) in the text.
Have you ever tried to relay an experience to someone and he or she keeps interrupting you to ask irrelevant questions? Maybe you want to talk about how somebody cut you off on the freeway and only God’s grace saved you from causing a fatal five car pileup. Does it really matter what color the offending car was? Or what was being advertised on the billboard next to the freeway? Or what was in your fast food meal that spilled all over the seat and dash when you slammed on your brakes?
Let’s look at the story of Noah from a similar perspective. If the main story is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story, does it matter if the entire geographical globe was flooded or could the “whole earth” mean the whole area occupied by humans? Our theological bedrock requires the second, but the first is irrelevant to the theology.
If the main story is redemptive, does it matter if Noah and his wife or his sons and their wives had other children who were or were not taken into the ark and saved from the Flood? Theology teaches us that all have sinned (even Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives, and any other of their descendants) and that all of us deserve judgment (flood). All of them deserved to be condemned in the Flood and none of them deserved to be saved from the Flood.
If the main story is redemptive, then any who were saved from the Flood were saved by God’s mercy and grace, by the redeeming sacrifice of His future coming, dying, and rising Son. Yes, it says Noah “found favor” with God, “walked faithfully,” and was “found righteous.” But remember our theology: we find favor in Christ, we walk faithfully in Christ, we are found righteous in Christ. Our salvation and rescue from judgment is not derived from our seeking God’s favor or creating our own faith or doing righteous acts: our salvation and rescue from judgment is derived from Christ’s perfect representative life, death, and resurrection. He is the one who is favored by God, who is faithful, who always acts righteously. Our favor, faith, and righteousness are products of our salvation, not generators of our salvation. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were saved in spite of the fact that they were just as disfavored, unfaithful, and unrighteous as everyone else (including any other family members who may have lived then). They were saved in spite of their sinfulness, not because of their sinlessness.
Second, a sound principle of biblical interpretation (indeed, all literary interpretation) is that one must not presume that absence of evidence presented is evidence of absence. Confusing? Here’s an example: If I were to say “I worked on an article today,” that simple statement wouldn’t be evidence of absence of any other activity I did today. In the same way, if one gospel says “one angel was at the tomb” on Christ’s resurrection day, that isn’t evidence against another gospel’s “two angels were at the tomb.” (In fact, if you have two angels, you always have at least one angel.)
Let’s apply this to the story of Noah. For example, I’ve been asked, if Noah were really 600+ years old, and his sons were also old, then how could it be that neither Noah and his wife nor his sons and their wives had any other children? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think Noah had other sons, and unreasonable to think he had no daughters, including not a single daughter who was “righteous” as his three sons were? If you read the five relevant chapters of Genesis carefully, you will not find any text excluding Noah or his sons from having other children, either before the Flood or while they were on the ark. The point of the story is that God chose eight individuals from among the sinful class of all humanity to rescue from his Flood judgment. Any other descendants or siblings are irrelevant to the theological point of God’s selection of certain individuals for saving from the Flood. Remember, this is an event that points us to the Main Event. Whether “true believers” drowned in the Flood is irrelevant: the drowning of a “death-doomed body” (Romans 8:11) is a tiny calamity compared to that same person’s eternal life and final resurrection life in a resurrection body.
Third, absent from the Genesis story of Noah are works that qualified Noah or his family members to receive God’s rescue from the Flood. Noah built the Ark, preached God’s coming judgment, gathered the animals, and put his family inside after God chose him, not in order to be chosen by God. Noah’s obedience was a consequence of his salvation, not a means to attain his salvation.
Yes, Noah “found favor” with God (Genesis 6:8) and was saved from the Flood even though he was a sinner. Just as Mary “found favor” with God and was chosen to bear the Son of God even though she was part of sinful humanity. And just as Job “found favor” with God, who restored him to “full well-being” (Job 33:26). Job did not earn God’s favor, God blessed him with His favor as an application of his grace and mercy long before the historical time of His Son’s sacrifice. Look at the sequence in Psalm 84:9-11. In verse 9, the psalmist asks God to look “with favor” on His anointed One (the Messiah). In verse 11, the psalmist rejoices that God looks “with favor” on “those whose walk is blameless.” Who is blameless? Only One is actually blameless: Jesus the Messiah who took our sins on Himself on the cross and rose from the dead, the “firstborn” of all those saved (Luke 2:52). The psalmist and all others of faith (whether before, like Noah, or after, like Peter, Paul, and Christians throughout all ages) find “favor with God” by being “in Christ.” (See especially the term “in Christ” or “in Him” in Ephesians 1.)
Yes, Noah “walked faithfully” (Genesis 6:9), but this was accomplished by God’s work in His Son, not by anything Noah accomplished on his own. Remember, Jesus is the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Paul argues (Romans chapter 4) that Abraham was saved, not by works, but by faith, noting that he was “declared righteous” in Genesis 15:6, before he had done any works, that is, before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24).
In summary, there are features significantly missing from the biblical account of Noah (Genesis 6-10) by the Holy Spirit’s design to keep our focus on the glorious story of redemption it depicts and prefigures. Absent are side issues like the precise geographical extent of the Flood or whether rainbows ever appeared before the Flood. Absent are designations of whether anyone else in Noah’s generation inherited eternal life either after drowning in the Flood or after being included but unmentioned in the Ark. The Ark event is an earthly example of a spiritual reality: the Flood stands for eternal judgment; drowning stands for eternal death; living in the Ark stands for salvation; landing on the mountains of Ararat , offering a sacrifice, and planting a vineyard stands for God’s renewed creation and fulfilled kingdom.
There are other significant absences in this event and in the rest of God’s Word. The absences are not meant to withhold God’s Gospel from us, but to focus us on His Gospel. The Word of God is given to us, not to satisfy our every idle curiosity, but to display God’s Great Redemption. Second Timothy chapter two declares that the Word of God is “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
In my more than forty years of Christian apologetics ministry, questions about the “unforgivable sin” continue to recur. Those who pose the questions are not indifferent to God. Nor do they hate God. Instead, they invariably grieve their loss and they despair of salvation. We have a classic Answers In Action article addressing the particular scripture passages that confuse readers. This article is much more focused on the principles behind such confusion and despair. It is derived from a response I composed to plea from someone who feared for his soul, but is generally applicable to anyone who believes he or she may have committed the unforgivable sin.
First, I commend those who continue to pursue relationship with God in spite of their fear, confusion, doubt, and despair. This is a characteristic of a human heart experiencing the saving power of the Holy Spirit, not a heart that has refused God’s grace and forgiveness and hardened itself to salvation. In other words, someone’s persistent concern and return are proof in themselves that he or she has not committed the unforgivable sin.
Two features are most common in those with this unresolved struggle: (1) They give undeserved and misunderstood weight to their continuing sinfulness, and (2) They elevate their subjective experience of each moment over the objective truth of the gospel, affirmed by the testimonies of God’s Word and God’s people (both through time and in personal relationship with other believers).
Many in this uncertainty point to their repeated and continuing sinfulness as evidence they have never been and never can be saved. This is contrary to the testimony of God in His Word. Until we die and are resurrected and brought completely into God’s fulfilled kingdom, every single one of us will continue to sin. Martin Luther has a well-known observation that can be summarized like this: If you have no desire to sin and are not sinning, check your heart & your breath to see if you are still alive. In the same way, if you are not grieving over your sin and longing for forgiveness through Jesus Christ (especially as distributed in the Lord’s Supper), check your heart and your breath to see if you are still alive. Repeated and continuing sin is not an evidence of the absence of salvation.
In other words, it is the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of sinfulness with which they are born and which continues to live in them until the resurrection; but it is also the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of regeneration, to have remorse and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Sadly, for those who despair, it seems easier to “believe in” his or her “sinful seed” than to “believe in” his or her “seed of life,”
This brings me to my second main point: As long as one gives more trust to his or her own subjective fear, and less trust to the testimony of the Spirit through His Word and His people (the community of believers local & universal), he or she will be “tossed about by every wind of doctrine.” Such a one has no objective anchor for the soul. The “bedrock of the sea” that will hold our “anchor” firm is God Himself (and His Word), who loves each one of us so much that even while we were loyal to sin, He gave His beloved and only Son to pay the price for us & bring us back to Him (John 3:16 and Rom. 5:1-5). He desires and commands an intimate, personal, and unique relationship with each of us through His Spirit. The “anchor” that keeps each of us connected to the bedrock (God) is God’s community of believers, not only universal but also local and intimate through relationship with believers in fellowship, worship, and knowledge of God’s Word.
The most common persistent sin struggle despairing people experience is pornography. This is to be expected, because pornography is a counterfeit of the personal intimacy God created as the only fulfillment of our relationship to Him and our relationship to others. Pornography substitutes exploitation for self-sacrificing love; physical stimulation for spiritual transformation; transitory climax for enduring devotion. Being filled by sex is not the problem: being empty of God-directed intimacy (with Him and with other believers) is the problem.
The “solution” to this struggle to believe one can be saved is like many biblical paradoxes: it is incredibly easy and simple; it is undeniably difficult and complex. The solution is complete and utter abandonment to God, an emptying of one’s self, a forsaking of one’s own will, a “reckless” throwing of oneself on God, trusting His mercy and grace so much that if He does not “catch” him or her, he or she will be utterly destroyed on the rocks of divine deceit. In one way, it is simple and easy: just give up everything. In another way it is profound and impossible: just give up everything. It is that conundrum that God accepts nothing from us but must have everything from us; that we must surrender to His Spirit but we can’t surrender on our own. Praise be to God that the resolution to this difficulty is that the equation is not equal – it is not “all us” and “all God.” God has “weighted” the equation such that our inability makes way for His ability, and He is eager and able to overcome our inadequacies, not by our act of coming to Him, but by our surrender to receive Him coming to us. Because we are still in this sinful world, in our sin-infected body, with our sin-tainted mind and spirit, we will continue to fall and will consequently surrender ourselves over and over. But the good news is that God is not fickle like we are: while we waver between sin and surrender, He is always there in mercy and grace, forgiving and restoring us. Again, the equation is not balanced: God has the upper hand in love and forgiveness, not us.
What I see missing from most of those who fear they’ve committed the unforgivable sin is that “anchor” of intimate relationship that secures them to the bedrock of the Lord. There is a reason that God established human marriage, a lifelong covenant between two people, as a picture of the relationship between God and us.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a defines that lifelong covenant as “love.” “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Is this the kind of relationship a fearful one has with God? With other believers? If not, then this is what he or she needs to seek eagerly: not by trying to stir up an emotion or prove oneself, but by practicing living according to its precepts.
Be patient with God: give Him time to display His plan; don’t dictate one’s own plan to Him.
Be kind to God: put the best construction on God’s action in one’s circumstances; don’t assume He is out to exclude someone who yearns for Him.
Do not envy God: act in trust that He is a loving Father; don’t demand the lonely autonomy of someone cut off from God’s guidance.
Do not choose one’s own way over God’s way: many might think going their own way is a sign of humility (they’re not good enough for God) but instead it is a sign of boasting (their sinful inclinations are more powerful than God’s forgiveness).
Focus one’s attention on God: fill the mind and life w/worship and love of God; don’t pretend one is repentant by being obsessed with his or her own sinfulness and fear, and yet neglecting the solution-giver, the Lord Himself.
Practice true humility: C. S. Lewis skillfully describes the difference between proud and humble, “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less;” in other words, focus on the Lord and His power and blessings in life, not on one’s own helplessness and fears.
Don’t dishonor the Lord by insisting that the greatness of one’s sinning is greater than the Lord’s greatness to forgive and regenerate: it is contrary to God’s Word to believe that He would reject someone and hold him or her accountable for his or her own sins when he or she is desperate for acceptance and forgiveness through Christ; rather, honor the Lord by honoring His sacrifice through His Son.
Don’t judge the Lord by one’s own subjective, fallible, inadequate judgment: God is the one who promised to forgive the sins of anyone who repents; no individual has the power to exempt oneself from His promise.
Affirm that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is greater than any individual’s anger: even if one thinks his or her devotion to pornography (or any other sin) is extraordinary, in fact it’s always possible (and usually easy) to find others whose sin abounds even more; in fact, God does not limit His forgiveness to those whose sinning is trivial but extends it to those whose sinning is gross. It is not quantity of sin that excludes one from salvation – the tiniest sin is enough and the greatest is not enough – the quality of Christ’s redemptive work covers all.
Stop clutching to both individual recurrent sin and one’s misjudgment of God: He has promised to keep no record of one’s sins since they are covered by Christ; when someone continues bringing them up (either by remembrance or repetition), he or she is accusing God of being a liar.
Now look at the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 13: These are the positive features of the intimate, personal, loving relationship God has provided for each of us in Jesus Christ. Turn our back on all the negatives & follow God’s encouragement to rejoice in the truth that salvation is God’s work in Christ, not our work toward Christ; to accept His protection of our salvation, not our own good intentions; to trust the Lord’s love and compassion, not our own fickle emotions; to have confident hope in the finished work of the cross on our behalf, not in our own fallible intuition; accept the perseverance of the Lord on our behalf, not our own wavering back and forth between obedience and sinning. Finally, practice confidence in the divine love that never fails rather than the unredeemed human love that is counterfeit.
If we practice intimate love relationship with the Lord, we will be drawn inexorably into intimate love relationship (not sexual) with God’s people, the church (both universal and local). We will begin to trust others, rely on their encouragement and support, welcome their assurances and corrections, experience mutual positive involvement in each others’ lives, and begin to identify ourselves with God’s people rather than with those who are aliens to the faith.
If we sincerely practice loving God and loving God’s people (that means making ourselves vulnerable to both God and a local fellowship of believers), the power of sin, fear, and doubt in our lives will begin to lessen. Doing so is not pursuing a subjective, fleeting, transitory emotional experience – I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs defining true divine love.
In conclusion, here are common specific questions fearful people often ask and summary answers to them. “What do I do now?” Move forward boldly and with utter abandon into God’s forgiving and loving arms. “Where do I go now?” To a local fellowship of believers who are truly in love with their Bridegroom, Christ, and therefore can model that love for you. (You know intuitively how to distinguish between those who are generally trustworthy and those who will attack your faith and “punish” you for your failures.) “What am I to believe about salvation?” That it is God’s plan, God’s work, God’s love, and God’s intention, not only for all the others, but also for you. “How do I stop back-sliding?” By learning through practice and association with God’s people to enjoy and occupy yourself with the things of the Lord who is your Lover rather than the things of the world that prostitutes itself. “Can I be free of slavery to pornography?” Yes! When you begin to make a habit of loving God in the 1 Cor 13 sense, you will find yourself falling more and more in love with God and His people and you will experience the true love that will so outshine the transitory counterfeit of pornography that you will look back on it and think, “How could I ever have substituted that pitiful deceit for God’s immense love?” “How can I test myself” must be answered in the negative: you cannot test yourself, a self-defeating subjectivity; but you can trust God’s test confirmed through His church, both the voices of history (like Lewis and Luther) and the voices of those you become intimately personal with in fellowship by God’s love. The true purpose of confession in the church is, in fact, to provide this confirmation of God’s forgiveness to those who are trapped in fear by their subjectivity. Martin Luther said, “Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven” (The Small Catechism).
A classic article from the late Bob Passantino and Answers In Action
© Copyright 2003 by Bob Passantino
Nearly everyone is familiar with the “Golden Rule” even if they don’t realize that it comes to us in its perfect form as a command of Jesus: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).  This command to deal fairly with others should govern everything we do as Christians, including how we defend our faith.
Taken within the context of Jesus’s other teachings, the Golden Rule is a minimalist argument, that is, the conduct commanded in the Golden Rule is the least one can do acting in imitation of the love of God. As a matter of fact, in many other places Jesus tells us that the superior commandment is not merely to be fair to others, to treat them as we would like to be treated, but even to excel in love toward others. He tells us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27, 35) and to forgive someone repeatedly (Matt.18:21-22). Jesus Himself provided the best example of this Better-than-the-Golden-Rule: He sacrificed Himself willingly for us while we were still sinners, deserving nothing better than God’s condemnation:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
The maximalist argument we could call the “Platinum Rule,” exemplified in Paul’s command to the Christians in Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Whether minimalist or maximalist, the command to treat others fairly is a command Christians can’t ignore, even when we are practicing apologetics, which is defending the faith. Years ago I was disturbed by the attitudes and arguments some Christians were using as they defended the faith, arguing with non-believers, cultists, and those of other faiths. Far too often I saw Christians making fun of the beliefs of others, taking unfair advantage of them in discussions, even misrepresenting the truth or their opponents’ arguments if they thought they could get away with it. I began to encourage others to remember the Golden Rule when they were practicing apologetics. At first I called this the “Golden Rule of Apologetics” – the Golden Rule has a place in our apologetics. Although that is true and sufficient, I quickly began to see people respond to my encouragement by using the Golden Rule selectively in their apologetics – when it served their purpose and they thought they couldn’t get away with anything else.
Over the years I have modified my principle and now I call it the “Golden Rule Apologetic” – the only apologetic system worth pursuing is the apologetic system that is governed by the Golden Rule. There is good biblical and philosophical precedent for this principle.
The passage we chose to exemplify the ministry of Answers In Action is 2 Timothy 2:24-25:
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
Paul reminds Timothy to be kind and to gently instruct; in other words, to practice the Golden Rule with those who oppose the Gospel.
In 1 Peter 3:15b-16, which actually uses the word apologia (defense or reason), Peter says that one’s apologetics should be governed by gentleness and respect:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Paul uses the Golden Rule Apologetic with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-31). Rather than merely mocking them for their polytheistic beliefs, he treated them kindly and fairly, commending them for their religious respect and using their own poets’ statements as a starting point for declaring the truth of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
Paul condemns religious hypocrites in Romans 2 for not following the Golden Rule Apologetic. He argues,
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things (Rom. 2:1)
Paul contrasts this hypocrisy with God’s Golden Rule by which he continues to extend his grace and mercy to sinners even though they deserve condemnation:
Do you show contempt for his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? (Rom. 2:4).
In the Old Testament the principle I have applied to apologetics is applied to the every day activities of God’s people. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 gives this command:
Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Leviticus 19:35-37 parallels this teaching:
Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.
This is commonly referred to as the principle of “equal weights and measures.” Remember, to deal fairly and honestly is our minimal obligation under the Golden Rule. To deal generously and better than expected is our maximal obligation which transforms the Golden Rule into the Platinum Rule.
In philosophy a general rule called the “Principle of Charity” reflects the Golden Rule. In philosophy, one should give the most generous understanding and weight to what someone says. For example, if someone states his argument poorly, rather than merely pointing out the logical mistakes he has made, the Principle of Charity demands that his opponent correct the flaws in the argument (if they can be), and then respond to the best form of the argument rather than his opponent’s poor form of the argument. Another application of the Principle of Charity is to replace poor arguments with better arguments. If, for example, a Jehovah’s Witness gives two poor arguments against the deity of Christ, the Christian has the responsibility to give that Witness the best arguments against the deity of Christ – and then show that those arguments do not overturn the truthfulness of the deity of Christ. Those who fail to follow the Golden Rule in philosophy end up refuting “straw man” arguments that don’t properly represent the position we oppose in the first place.
An important part of the Golden Rule Apologetic is that you must not demand of your opponent what you are unwilling to provide. For example, if you are arguing with a Mormon that the Book of Mormon is full of contradictions, you must be willing not merely to cite those contradictions, but also to provide reasonable answers if the Mormon points to supposed contradictions in the Bible. If you launch ten quick arguments against your opponents’ view and then don’t give him time to respond, you cannot fairly complain if he does the same thing to you. On the other hand, if you bring up one argument at a time and spend the time necessary to be sure you both understand each other and where the evidence leads, you should feel free to ask your opponent to have the same patience and single mindedness with you.
You can even use the Golden Rule Apologetic to defend yourself. If your opponent makes fun of and misrepresents your view, you have every right to ask him if he would like you to act that way toward him. I am not saying that you should “pay him back” by mockery and misrepresentation (remember our Platinum goal), but that you bring out your Golden Rule principle to reason your opponent into a fair discussion.
If you apply the Golden Rule Apologetic every time you defend the Christian faith, you will find that those of opposing beliefs will listen more closely to what you say, respect your position even if they continue to deny it, give greater weight to your arguments, and be more willing to examine their own beliefs. You will not only give a good representation of Christianity, you will also be used by God to extend his mercy and patience to others, just as it was extended to you.
The next time you are tempted to perform sloppy apologetics, to mock someone with whom you disagree, or to dismiss opposing arguments without fair consideration, remember the Golden Rule and practice it until it becomes the Platinum Rule in your life.
 Other versions are in the Old Testament (see, for example, Leviticus 19:18) and in the writings of other religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism).
© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NIV).
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Defining the Gospel
The gospel, or “good news,” is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). It is God’s Great Redemption Story – the work of God by the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by which fallen, sinful, broken humanity is reconciled to God and regenerated to become the fulfillment of God’s image in his restored Creation.
The gospel is the reconciliation of humans with God. The working of the gospel is empowered and enacted by God, not humans. While God uses humans to proclaim the gospel, it is God’s power that acts in that gospel to produce repentance and salvation in the recipient of the gospel.
Apologetics, specifically Christian apologetics, is a defense of the truthfulness of Christianity and its truth claims, centered on the reality of the gospel.
The term apologetics comes from the ancient Greek apologia, used in the legal sense as a defendant’s response to the charges against him in a law court. When Socrates was accused of treasonously corrupting the youth of Athens, his speech in his own defense was called his Apologia. The term occurs in the New Testament specifically by the apostle Paul when he defends himself against the charges of heresy lodged by the Jewish leaders to the authorities (Acts 26:2); in another form in Philippians 1:7 (16) for defense of the faith; in a negative form in Romans 1:20 indicating that reprobates’ sins are indefensible; and most popularly known in 1 Peter 3:15 as not merely the “why” of belief, but the reasoned, argued, evidenced defense of the Christian hope.
Christian apologetics may include defenses such as rational arguments for the existence of God, historical arguments for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, scientific arguments affirming God as creator (intelligent design), philosophical arguments for biblical morality, etc.
The Appropriate Use of Apologetics
When someone testifies to the gospel, and his or her message is challenged, apologetics is the discourse by which those challenges are met. In this context, apologetics has three main purposes: (1) to hold scoffers accountable for their rejection of the gospel; (2) to remove the roadblocks of ignorance and/or misinformation that impede someone’s serious consideration of the gospel; and (3) to strengthen the faith of the believer (not merely giving the believer facts that support his or her faith, but actually nourishing one’s faith life).
Apologetics Exposes Resistance to the Gospel
First, apologetics exposes the scoffer’s rejection of the gospel as a spiritual or life issue, not an intellectual or fact issue. It breaks down the walls of defense that disguise someone’s rejection of God.
Most often, when someone is asked why he or she is not a Christian, some kind of an “ant-belief” apologetic is offered: “Christians are just hypocrites;” “How can I believe in a good God when I see so much evil around me?” “That Jesus stuff is ancient mythology;” “The Bible is full of contradictions;” etc. Some people specifically identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or skeptics and their objections appear more sophisticated: “The existence of God is unprovable;” “Science has done away with the need for people to believe in God;” “The Big Bang explains everything without need to resort to some Creator explanation;” etc. None of these kinds of objections disprove the existence of God. (They may bring into dispute the nature or character of God, the character of those who believe in Him, or the reliability of the revelation attributed to Him. They do not disprove God’s existence.) In fact there are abundant counter-arguments and positive arguments for the existence of God, the truthfulness of Christian theism, the reality of the Incarnation and Resurrection, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.
As 1 Peter 3:15 commands us, Christians are to be “always ready” or “constantly prepared” to defend the Christian faith, and when we take this charge seriously, God can use our arguments to expose the scoffer’s resistance to the Holy Spirit. The scoffer, those influenced by the scoffer, and, of course, those believers who challenge the scoffer can then see clearly that the scoffer is rejecting the truth, not clinging to the truth. Romans 1:18-20 tells us that scoffers “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Many years ago my late husband Bob Passantino and I were asked by a new Christian to persuade her atheist husband to stop mocking her for her faith and to allow her to attend church and other Christian events. The atheist (we’ll name him John for this story) claimed he embraced the truth of atheism and didn’t need the crutch of belief in a myth like his wife. Bob talked to John on the phone and discovered he was an unsophisticated atheist. John was unprepared to appreciate the force of the apologetics Bob and I were prepared to deliver. So Bob sent John a list of books (this was before the Internet) to educate him in his atheism. All of the books were against Christian theism. Bob challenged John to read and learn more sophisticated arguments in preparation for talking with us. In the meantime, John agreed to stop harassing his wife for her faith. A couple of months later we met with John, who was eager to demonstrate his newly acquired anti-God prowess against us. (Evidently he didn’t consider that Bob, the Christian theist, who had prepared the atheist reading list for him, probably had answers to those arguments.) After several hours of discussion, we had answered all of his new arguments, improved some of his arguments but answered the improvements, and given him even more sophisticated arguments which we also successfully answered. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, John finally gave up his intellectual subterfuge. He said, “You both have every reason to believe what you believe, and I have no reasons to reject belief. But I will never believe in God! I hate God!” That was the crux of the matter: in his deepest heart, he knew God existed but he hated God and would not surrender to him. As far as we know, he never relented in his rejection of God, but it was evident to us, his wife, and himself that his problem was not intellectual, but spiritual. And he never mocked his wife for her faith or interfered with her practice of it. Apologetics holds people accountable for rejecting the gospel.
Apologetics Removes Mistaken Assumptions
When someone’s heart is softened toward the gospel, he or she often becomes distracted or confused because of exposure to false ideas about the truth of God, revelation, salvation, and Jesus Christ. That false information can obscure the truth. Like a “magic eraser” sponge, apologetics can wipe away those false arguments. While there is an abundance of evidence for Christian truth claims, and abundance of evidence against contrary world views, unless someone is aware of those arguments, he or she may fail to seriously consider the call of the gospel. Whether one’s spiritual head is turned by an attractive philosophical argument, a scientific conundrum, or a social fad, such diversions rob potential believers of the truth. The apostle Paul described this kind of spiritual blindness in Acts 17, as he addressed the Greek philosophers of Athens, describing their indiscriminate polytheism as ignorance, and proclaiming to them that he would enlighten them about the truth. He preached Christian theism and the reality of the resurrection, concluding, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
My late husband Bob and I once talked in a mainline Protestant church on the dangers of “New Age” beliefs and practices, including pantheism (God is everything and everything is God), psychic readings, reincarnation, etc. Afterward an older gentleman approached us and loudly announced, “I liked your presentation, although with my hearing problems, I missed a lot. I’m glad you brought up reincarnation. I’m fascinated by it and am trying to recover memories from my previous lives.” He seemed completely unaware that we had criticized reincarnation, refuting it from reason, science, and the Bible. We had the opportunity to meet with him in a quieter setting later and spent quite a bit of time listening to why he was so intrigued with reincarnation and explaining its inadequacies to him. By removing the attractiveness of reincarnation and exposing it as a cruel imagination that punishes people in this life for sins they didn’t even know they committed in a previous lifetime, and which gave no assurance that the cycle of rebirth would ever end, we were able to eliminate the man’s attraction to reincarnation. Then when we gave him the assurance of the gospel and the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, he was drawn to firm confidence in immediate salvation and confident hope for eternal life with God instead. Apologetics erases mistaken false ideas and clears the way for the persuasive truth of the gospel.
Apologetics Nourishes the Faith of the Believer
Most Christians know that spiritual nourishment, including food for the mind, is necessary for Christian maturity. Most churches emphasize Bible study and education for successful discipleship. Many pastors exhort their congregations to learn the Word of God. Even though apologetics is sometimes treated as the neglected step-child of Christian education, believers acknowledge that defending the faith against rational attack is an important part of Christian living.
Often overlooked is the essential factor of Christian apologetics for the individual believer’s spiritual health and welfare. It is not sufficient for a Christian to know what he believes and why he believes it merely for the purpose of defending the faith or winning the convert. Apologetics is not merely the “supplement” to the Christian diet. It is the spiritual nutrition boost that can complete the spiritual diet and revive the flagging spirit. Rooted in the saving power of the Holy Spirit, the new Christian life must be nourished not only by worship, fellowship, learning the Bible, and prayer, but also by confirming the faith through apologetics.
One of the key apologetics passages for the truthfulness and historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is in chapter fifteen of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Most who know apologetics are very familiar with this chapter, which represents an early proclamation of the resurrection dating from between AD 30 and 33, virtually contemporaneous with the event itself. The chapter begins with the strong command of Paul that this gospel of the resurrection has not only saved the Corinthian Christians, but it is that on which they have taken a stand, and it will continue to keep them strong if they hold firmly to the Word: otherwise, they will have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:2). How do we “hold firmly” what we’ve been told to believe? By understanding and knowing the strength of the belief. Paul spends the rest of the chapter preaching to the believers the truth of the resurrection and the falsity of its denial. He is not practicing apologetics to non-believers nor primarily equipping believers to combat unbelief outside the church. He is encouraging and nourishing the faith of the believers by proving the resurrection and disproving false beliefs. That is why he ends the chapter by encouraging the believers with the same images with which he opened the chapter – stand firm, let nothing move you, give yourself completely to the Lord’s work, because the reality of the resurrection gives you confidence “that our labor in the Lord is not in vain” (58).
This aspect of apologetics has been sadly neglected even as the last 30 years of American evangelicalism has seen a blossoming of Christian apologetics. Most of our involvement with apologetics has been for the purpose of refuting the opposition, defending the faith, and equipping believers to do likewise. We ought to expand our apologetic commitment and focus more time and attention on the spiritual nourishment apologetics gives believers. To the Jews who believed in Him, he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).
My husband Pat became a Christian as a young man, believing the gospel as it was told to him by his boss, a painting contractor who took him on as a young apprentice. Pat respected his employer, attended church with him and his family, was baptized, and learned about the Bible from a dedicated and wise pastor. But as he encountered the trials and temptations common to man, his faith stumbled. He didn’t know how to answer his non-believing family members when they mocked his faith. He didn’t know why, much less how, to resist temptations to sin when the lures around him seemed so much more tangible than something eternal promised after he would die. Always inquisitive, interested in science, an avid reader, he encountered more and more challenges to the simple gospel he had simply embraced. As he began to learn more about why he believed (he didn’t even know the discipline was called apologetics), he discovered his faith stirring with new growth. Solid apologetics in science confirmed his conviction that everything in the universe, from the expanses of space to the tiniest particle, was created by an intelligent designer. Apologetics in philosophy gave him confidence that it made sense to believe in Christian theism. Historical apologetics strengthened his identification with an unbroken line of apostolic testimony of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Finally, his study of the evidences for the resurrection enabled him to stand firm in his faith, confidently offering the gospel to others with the same promise of resurrection and eternal life that he had received. Pat’s faith is firm, unwavering, confident, and healthy. It’s not all attributable to apologetics, of course, as the Bible gives us a broad range of ways the Holy Spirit strengthens and confirms our faith. But his faith is an example of the kind of strength apologetics “muscle milk” brings to the believer.
Pat is not alone in his experience. After more than 40 years in apologetics, I can testify that for several of my colleagues, apologetics became a life-giving transfusion of spiritual life as they experienced faith-challenging crises in their own lives. I’ve had more than one apologetics friend in the midst of trauma tell me, “If it weren’t for my confidence in the truth of the gospel, I would have abandoned all hope.”
One of the most common scriptures used in apologetics is found in the short New Testament letter of Jude written to Christians in multiple churches of the first century. Jude verse 3 commands the Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”
Apologetics is not the gospel, but it has three crucial purposes: (1) It knocks down the pretense of those who reject the gospel; (2) It erases the misconceptions that distract non-believers from the gospel; and (3) It nourishes the faith of the believer.
Let me conclude with Jude’s advice to the Christians about how to use apologetics: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (20-23).