It grieves me to meet you in this way. The church I pastor has been strengthened by your ministry. Your voice is known here because of the work you have done to support families, comfort the hurting, counsel those who seek wisdom, and—most importantly—preach the Gospel. I would be eager to write to you about these things, but I am loathe to address you about the matter at hand. I address it because “the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is at stake. But before I go there, I want to stress that I respect you and honor you for your work in the ministry. If “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Hebrews 6:10), far be it from me to overlook your track record in Gospel ministry when bringing this corrective.
The problem is that your recent article, “My Confession: Toward a More Balanced Gospel” does not belong to our common salvation, but rather, stands in subtle opposition to it. Even as you have lent your ear to Dr. Eric Mason, and his teaching, as admitted, contributed to your change of understanding regarding the Gospel, please lend me your ear, although I have done nothing to earn a right to speak to you. For twelve of the last fourteen years of my life, I ministered in inner-city Philadelphia, where I was an ethnic minority. I was “white” among a majority “black” and Hispanic culture and church. Later, I was a minority in a Vietnamese congregation. According to the (Marxist) proponents of intersectionality, maybe this would afford me some credibility to speak to the matter at hand. But I don’t think so.
All that matters here is the truth. If you and Dr. Mason and I would choose to sit and swap dramatic stories about the things we have seen and suffered in inner-city Philadelphia, I don’t think I would be outdone. But such talking wouldn’t solve the problem. It might even make things worse. In the end, it is only truth that stands to convince you anew of what you already knew of the Gospel of God’s Grace before your recent changes. Truth, not me, can convince you, and we have but one Word of Truth in order to know what that is. I hope we agree on Sola Scriptura. Yet people have a role in rightly handling the Word. So, as Job listened to Elihu, despite his lack of earned social credibility, please hear me out, even though I am unknown to you and we are meeting in this undesirable way.
Your new gospel, over against the one you preached so effectively for so many years to the great benefit of many, is a deviation from the genuine Gospel, due to a fundamental category error. You write, “we have been chosen to be his ambassadors, not only of his forgiveness, but equally of the justice that he was unwilling to compromise in order to deliver his grace to us”. You thus assert that the message of our ambassadorship, the gospel we herald, is “equally” a message of forgiveness of sin—an offer from our King to rebellious sinners, of which we are merely stewards—and a message of justice, our role having yet to be determined. The latter you make equal to the former.
Thus, in your new gospel, God’s ambassadors herald 1) forgiveness and 2) justice. Or, the gospel is the message of forgiveness and the message of justice (one not to be outdone by the other). That is how I am understanding you…gospel=forgiveness+justice.
The genuine Biblical Gospel, by comparison, if put into such an equation, would be Gospel=Grace. The entire right-hand side would be called “grace” because it encompasses the whole of what God did for us in giving us what we ill-deserve. The Good News according to the Scriptures is that God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son—Jesus Christ—to die upon the cross, thus satisfying His own demand that sin be justly punished, and that He rose to life for our justification, so that all of us repentant believing ones will receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. Notice how centered on God this Gospel is. It is so much about Him, one could rightly call it The Gospel of God’s Grace.
Your equation has Good News equal to the forgiveness God provides plus some justice that is differentiable from the forgiveness that is already there on that side of the equation. That is like saying Gospel=Grace+Grace. If gospel=forgiveness+justice, and the justice you are referring to is God’s heavenly justice, then the forgiveness to which you wish to add it already implies the satisfaction of God’s justice. So, your only change would be to redundancy. But, if you are not being redundant, if you are moving “toward” a gospel that is different than what you used to preach, then you must now be speaking of some other kind of justice—not what God has satisfied, but something we usher in, on earth as it is in heaven. Either way, you can’t have it both ways. If you want to speak of justice as part and parcel of the Gospel, then it must be that justice which Jesus satisfies on the cross, namely, God’s justice that must punish sin. But if you start out speaking that way, then you cannot jump categories to speak of our pursuit of justice in human relationships, unless you clearly indicate that you are now referring to this different kind of justice.
My core concern is that your article does not clearly differentiate between God’s justice in heaven—righteousness upheld in relation to His holy Self and a bunch of rebel sinners—and justice on earth. Beginning well, at some point in the article, you conflate these categories, because by the end of it, the preaching of an atonement that satisfies God’s justice is no longer sufficient Gospel, but needs “justice” work on our part to make it balanced and complete. Quite eloquently, you say that “on the cross of Jesus Christ, grace and justice kiss”. Such language is near to Gospel truth. I might quibble with the language a bit, preferring to say that love and justice kiss, while grace flies like a banner over the whole. But your category is clearly a heavenly one, recognizing that God is the One with whom we have to do. He is at the center of this word picture. It is His love (Romans 5:8), His justice (Romans 3:26), His grace (Ephesians 1:6) that makes this good news so glorious. You and I are tracking together early in the article. But then your subheading reads, “The Gospel of Justice”.
Let it be said that the Bible nowhere speaks of a “gospel of justice”. Nor does it speak of a “gospel of love” (a phrase often used by “Red Letter Christians”). “Justice” cannot be the Gospel, because if God gives justice to us, then we all go to hell. That’s not good news. “Love” cannot be the Gospel, because if God gives love to us, freely pardoning without a blood atonement and without faith to connect us into it, then God is not just, and our hope of heaven is founded upon the whims of an all-powerful (and completely untrustworthy) Being. That’s not good news. “Grace” can be the Gospel, because if God extends His kind forgiveness to whom He desires on the merits of the shed blood of the perfect Lamb, lovingly giving us what we don’t deserve while justly punishing our sin vicariously, then we are happily forgiven. That’s good news. And so it is that the Bible speaks of “the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24), but never of “the gospel of justice” or “the gospel of love”.
Under the heading “The Gospel of Justice”, your category error begins when the so-called “gospel of his justice” comes down from heaven into the realm of man-to-man relationships. Drawing upon the general equity of the biblical teaching that genuine faith will produce good works (James 2), you go beyond merely asserting that doing justly (Micah 6:8) is part of what genuine Christians do. You elevate that particular piece of fruit of the Gospel to the category of the root. The root of the Gospel is God Himself, who—in His grace—extends to sinners what we don’t deserve—namely, forgiveness of sin and eternal life. The new man in Christ, born from that root (born of God), will produce fruits in keeping with repentance. The Christian is like a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). We arise from the root of the Gospel, like the church is said to arise from the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20). But, you push the fruit under the ground, trying to make it a root. You make “justice” in human relationships part and parcel of the Gospel. It is not.
The Gospel is 1) the Person of Christ, 2) the work of Christ, 3) according to the Scriptures 4) the forgiveness of sin and eternal life, and 5) repentance and faith. It is a profoundly God-centered message. It doesn’t need to be balanced out by any man-centered category of justice. To add to the Gospel actually defaces it. So says the book of Galatians.
Finally, it must be said, the pursuit of “justice”, which is at best one of many fruits of the Gospel, needs to be defined and supported with specific examples before it can even be considered a meaningful call to action. Nowadays, in this country, given the current political climate and agendas of men, one cannot merely say that “justice work” is what we need to be doing. Does that mean looking for “white privilege”? If you find it, what does it mean we are to do?
Paul, I call on you to recant your article for the reasons given above. Your article poses a number of questions. Mine does as well. I would welcome a public dialogue between us, or one that included us and one or two others who stand on each respective “side”. I understand that reasoning together from the Scriptures is better than making demands. So, I welcome any face-to-face interaction you are willing to grant. But, be it known that I believe the Gospel is at stake, and therefore call you to return to the Gospel you preached for many years. I implore you to confess the absolute God-centeredness of the Gospel, and do so publicly, like your recent “confession”.
I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t say they want the best for their kids. In twelve years of inner-city mission work, we saw a thousand problems stem from one bad root—the breakdown of the family, yet even so, every parent we met would say they wanted the best for their kids. Suburban parents say the same. Go to a suburban soccer field on a Saturday in the Fall and you’ll see hundreds of involved parents, every one of which would say they want the best for their kids. Go anywhere in the world—Muslim countries, Hindu, wherever—and you’ll hear parents say the same thing. Except for the utterly unrestrained, every parent says they want the best for their kids. But what if what’s best for kids is the very thing that everyone hates?
The thing that kids need most is God. The place where kids most often find God are in their own families. The way in which God is found in families is through the ordering of the home in accordance with the Scriptures—Christ as the Head, the father under the headship of Christ, the mother under the headship of Christ and her husband, children under the headship of Christ, their father and their mother. A family ordered according to Biblical prescription is what kids need most. But a Biblically-ordered family is the very thing the world hates.
Why is that? There are many reasons, but here are two of the biggest: 1) Biblical ordering of families belies the worldview of those who are not under the authority of the Bible and 2) Biblical ordering of families upholds the authority of the Bible, against which the unregenerate heart is in rebellion. Let’s explore these two reasons why people reject a Biblical ordering of the family, then we’ll demonstrate the value of ordering families according to a Biblical worldview. It’s easy to say that you want the best for your family, but unless you are willing to submit to the Bible’s authority to order your family, you are setting your kids on a path to destruction (Philippians 3:17-21), not toward what is best for them.
First, there will always be a titanic struggle between a cultural view of the world and a Biblical view of the world. This is the greatest world war. It has been raging ever since the Garden of Eden was lost, and it will continue to rage until Christ returns to set up His Kingdom. The components of the cultural worldview will change over time in accordance with culture (superstitions, stoicism, modernity, postmodernity, etc.). The Word of the Lord remains the same (Isaiah 40:8). Although worldly thinking shifts like sand according to philosophy, it is always finding new ways to oppose the thinking of the Bible. The world is always oil to the water of the Word. The two do not mix. The one always displaces the other. The Fall of Man (Genesis 3) was like the Exxon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It emptied toxic sludge into life-giving water. Many fish and birds lost their lives in the oil, and so it is with the children of our culture.
The families of our culture are suffocated by the world in which they live. But, like fish born into the oily water, they don’t know anything different. It is home to them, and feels like home. If they notice they are dying in it, they don’t know the way out. They are at home in this culture that values alien virtues like human autonomy, privatized “truth”, relative morality, “fairness”, gender as a spectrum (rather than a binary), race as a binary (rather than a spectrum), equal outcomes, and more than ever…the indistinguishability of maleness and femaleness. This is the air of today’s culture, or I should say, the oil of the culture, because it gives no oxygen—no life. The worldview of our culture is death to the family, nothing but death. It is lifeless black sludge that suffocates the very kids that every parent claims to love.
Second, parents left to their natural state will hate the Biblical ordering of the family because the natural man is in rebellion against the God who reveals His will in the Bible. At enmity with God, parents hate the idea of ordering their family according to Biblical parameters because they hate the Bible’s authority. They will zig simply because the Bible tells them to zag. The heart of the rebel actually takes pleasure in doing the precise opposite of what the Authority says to do.
So, circling back around, here is the way things stand for the reasons given. Every parent says they want what’s best for their kids, but the vast majority of parents—whether urban parents, where the breakdown of family has become obvious, or suburban parents, where the breakdown of family is often masked by smiles and sunglasses at soccer games—are in abject rebellion against the God of the Bible. As a result, they unwittingly give their kids what’s worst for them. They might give nice Christmas gifts, but rebelling against the Christ, they withhold the only gift that gives life. Moreover, even as they do the stuff that good parents do—teach them to throw a ball, watch them at the school play, pack their lunches, wipe their noses—they model godlessness in the home. Wives boss their husbands around, even yelling obscenities at them. Husbands passively mope about the house, never leading the family to the foot of the cross. Children rebel against the very parents they see in rebellion against God. Yet, the parents convince themselves their children cannot see.
Children see. And the way to show them the path of life is to walk upon it. It is the only way to help them, the only way to love them, the only way to be a truly good parent. If a parent merely mouths the words of Christianity without living according to the precepts of the Word, the words of the parent become an inoculant to the genuine thing. Having seen only a distorted and dead version of Christianity, they become immune to hearing about the real thing. It’s almost better not to speak the words of the Bible if one is unwilling to live by the Bible. At least that way, the kid may grow up to one day regard their parent as a counterexample, and so fully embrace the genuine Way in contradistinction to what they experienced growing up. But hypocritical living (professing Christ without possessing Him) and outright worldly denial of the authority of the Bible both end up in the same place. Children grow to be the center of their own universe, little gods without the ability to create even a spark of life. And so they die in their sins.
Compare that with the Christian home. “Take note of those who live according to the pattern” (Philippians 3:17). Look at those who order their homes according to the Word of God, who both profess the Kingdom and possess the Kingdom life. “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
I offer this lifeline to every parent who reads this. I see where the two roads diverge in the forest. And I see where each of those roads end. Go with me to the inner city and I’ll show you brokenness, and brokenness that has nothing to do with wealth and poverty. Where worldly thought patterns regarding marriage, sexual morality, victimization and responsibility have informed the parenting of children, the results are most disastrous. And the same train wreck awaits the offspring of the suburbanites who think according to the patterns of the world. There is a way that leads to death. But come with me to church and I’ll show you children raised under the wisdom and admonition of the Lord. Here you will find kids who read their Bibles before bed and watch their parents live according to the precepts of that Book.
Parent, do you want the best for your kids? If so, then place your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sin. Speak the words of Scripture to your kids. And order your home according to the pattern laid out for us in Scripture. Christ is the Head of the Christian home, even as He is the Head of the Church. The husband is to love his wife, praying for her, caring for her, encouraging her with words of life. The wife is to submit to her husband’s lead, praying for him, supporting him, submitting to him as her head. The children are to obey both parents in everything, submitting to them as unto the Lord. The best gift that you—parent—can give your kids is for them to see you living a Biblically-ordered life in the home. Husbands, let your kids never doubt the affection you have for their mother. Wives, let your kids never doubt the respect you have for their father. Every parent says they want what’s best for their kids, but only those who live according to the Scriptures are doing them any good.
A home ordered according to the patterns of the Bible does not guarantee that children will come to Christ. Salvation is a sovereign work of God. But that sovereign God often uses a Biblically-ordered home to bring kids to faith. The opposite home-life (the worldly one) is an instrument of death to the very kids the parents say they love.
All genuine Christians want to be fishers of men, ambassadors for Christ, messengers of the Kingdom, witnesses, heralds of the truth, soul winners, and runners with beautiful feet. We want to be effective evangelists. But there seems to be a bit of a gap between what we desire to be and what we see happening in real life. When we imagine ourselves in the heavenly Kingdom, we want to see ourselves in the midst of a great assembly, many of whom arrived there after hearing the gospel fall from our lips. But when we assess ourselves by looking at our actual performance over the years since becoming Christians, we often lament that, at least so far, we don’t know of many (or any) people that have come to Christ through our invitations.
The gap between our desire to evangelize and our actual practice of the same doesn’t need to be a source of shame or discouragement in our lives. Quite the contrary, according to Hebrews 10:24, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” The most loving thing one person can for another is to tell them the Way to escape the wrath of God. The best “good work” is the harvesting of souls. So, where there is a lack of love—a sloth of evangelistic effort—there is a tremendous opportunity for growth. With a little encouragement, the Christian may step out into a whole new world. Like a young lion’s appetite for killing will awaken and grow to an insatiable rage after the lion tastes the blood of his first kill, so it is that when a Christian tastes the life-giving fruit of leading someone to Christ, he or she will always want more and never say enough (Proverbs 30:15-16).
If that gap between evangelistic desire and evangelistic fruit exists in your Christian life, then recognize that the closing of it can be one of the greatest encouragements you have ever experienced. When you pray persistently (Luke 18:1-8) like this: “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel…that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Ephesians 6:19-20), and God answers that prayer, your heart will swell with great joy. Moreover, when other Christians see God accomplish this work in you, they will be spurred on to pray for the same. Imagine the holy ferocity of an entire congregation awakening to the taste of evangelism. It would make that old lion (1 Peter 5:8) and his pack of demons tremble and run for the hills.
Here, then, is my effort to spur us on to the love and good work of evangelism. Drawing from the Scriptures first and from my own experiences second, I think there are two awakenings that need to take place in the lives of Christians in order for us to evangelize effectively. If waking up is too strong an analogy, since it implies that many are sleeping, then please accept the metaphor of obstacle course racing. It seems that there are at least two major obstacles as we run our Hebrews 12:1 race that get Christians hung up. There are open fields ahead, glorious sights along the way, but many Christians are standing at an obstacle, afraid to go over, and stuck, because there is no other way to get running again*.
Obstacle 1: The Fear of Looking the Fool
One of my favorite shows on NBA TV is called Shaq-tin a Fool. The show is essentially a classic blooper reel for the NBA, only it is hosted by Shaquille O’neal, who adds a lot of funny commentary. There are a couple NBA players that are the special victims of Shaq’s jesting. As much as the viewer enjoys laughing at the funny mistakes that are bound to happen from time to time on a basketball court, you also sort of feel bad for the guy you’re laughing at, especially if he is one of Shaq’s special victims.
If anyone desires to fish for men, he must be willing to be a fool for Christ. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him…” (1 Corinthians 2:14). There is no way around this. The message you bring to an unbeliever is powerful and life-giving, but that is not how they will hear it. To them, it will sound silly and life-draining. It is inevitable that they will hear it this way, unless God intervenes by the supernatural working of His Spirit (which sometimes He will).
The hardest part of any evangelism encounter is the awkward first step. If you came to visit your Pastor in his office, then talking about Christ would be a walk in the park. But here is the first obstacle of evangelism. The person you are evangelizing is, by definition, not a believer. That means that what you suspect to be the case is exactly right. You WILL look foolish in their eyes.
When I play basketball in a men’s league, most of my teammates like me (especially when the threes are falling…even if not so much when I go the rim). But this much I know…before the season is over, not one of them will think I’m cool. I won’t be the first guy invited over for beers and a game. Now, you say, my looks and awkward manner accounts for this. And you might be right. But, if I’m in the league for the right reason, then I know I am going to make a fool of myself in front of each of my teammates (hopefully it won’t be for something that deserves to be on Shaq-tin a Fool). I’m going to make an awkward statement or ask an awkward question. I am going to make a guy uncomfortable and make myself look strange. And this is precisely God’s desire.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-22)
“Are you a good person?” Recently, hanging out after a game, I’ve taken to asking guys this question. You can imagine their surprise. I can see the wheels turning as the person thinks “that’s a weird question to ask…I wonder where he’s going with this.” The guy will usually answer affirmatively, with several little caveats, and generally try not to say too much (hoping, I think, that the conversation will end quickly). But then I hit them with follow up questions about lying, stealing, adultery, and murder. Before long, we are in a fully engaged gospel conversation.
Sometimes I notice that other guys around the gym are noticing that I have another guy on the line. Perhaps they have been there themselves. Or perhaps guys are talking.
Because we also talk about other stuff, and because we play ball together, guys don’t seem to mind too much. But I do think that when I go into the gym, my reputation precedes me, and that…not in a good way.
In the summer of 1999, I sat at a table having lunch with some guys. We met in real estate school. We were all taking the 10-day course to get a Salesperson license. When 12:00 hit, we had an hour off to go to Taco Bell. That lunch was one of the first times that the Lord gave me the boldness to ask that awkward first question. To my surprise and great joy, I got to taste fruit that day. A young man named Keith accepted Christ after school that day. After tasting fruit that first day, I have never really worried much about what people think of me when I witness to them. I am perfectly happy to be a fool for Christ.
Is this the obstacle that is tripping you up? Do you want to climb over, but there is something of your reputation that you want to take with you? You are going to have to leave your reputation behind and accept a new one. Be branded with Christ, marked with the foolishness of the cross, and the foolishness of preaching. Persistently ask God for the boldness it will take to accept disapproval, or perhaps worse, even mocking, ridicule, or abuse.
Obstacle 2: The Discouragement of Having to Wait
My kids recently discovered the amazingly-unproductive and profoundly-annoying invention known as the rock tumbler. What does it do? It tumbles rocks. You put rocks in. It tumbles them…for days…and days…and days. And what comes out? Rocks. The process is the definition of frustration.
So it often is with evangelism. And the analogy isn’t altogether bad, because like a rock, sinners born in Adam are lifeless. And no matter how much we tumble them, adding whatever grit we may, a polished rock is still a rock…lifeless, hard, unfeeling.
The second great obstacle that hinders evangelism is the discouragement that sets in when evangelistic effort appears to produce no fruit. If we stop and think about it, we recognize that if it takes years for a seed to grow into a tree and finally bear fruit in season, then the gospel seeds we sow might be at work in the dark soil of a heart, even when there seems to be no fruit to show for it. Maybe many of the seeds we planted are growing behind the scenes. But the longer we go without seeing fruit, the more prone we are to discouragement. That’s just part of our human nature.
Our theological minds tell us different. We know the parable of the sower (Matthew 13). So, we should expect that even many of the people we thought had become Christians are only false converts. Moreover, we should expect that there will be plenty of people with hard hearts that have no room for the gospel. With this knowledge, we should count our success by the faithfulness of what and how we sow, not by the degree to which we see the fruits. Let the angels separate wheat from weeds in the age to come. Let’s not concern ourselves with what we can or cannot see now. There is good counsel here.
But emotionally, it is hard to keep sowing when we hardly see anything that looks like wheat. If the ground always looks like a cart path, or a rocky place, or a thorny place, it is hard to keep on sowing. When there is so much weed that you can’t see any wheat, discouragement sets in.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12a). Many potential evangelists are home in bed, suffering from a sickness that keeps them off the mission field. But “desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12b). See even one soul come to Christ and it will be life to your bones.
If you have grown discouraged because it seems to take too long to see people come to Christ, let this be your call to not give up hope. Perhaps you need to stop looking at that one patch of ground that seems never to produce any fruit (It might actually do better if it doesn’t have to grow in your shadow). Move along and sow more seed—lots of seed. Scatter it everywhere. Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up hope. Expect the wait. But if you have hundreds of seeds in many different soils, you will be sure to see something come up, if you continue to pray and do not lose heart.
The stone of stumbling, over which most people fall, is Jesus Christ our Cornerstone. But that Rock of Offense is able to do something amazing, something a rock tumbler could never do. Jesus Christ is able to make “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-8)! The process through which he takes people in order to save them varies greatly. Some come quickly. Others slowly. But in the end, let’s remember that it is He alone that is able to work the miracle of regeneration. Let’s sow seeds in what appears to be hard, rocky and thorny places, as well as into the soil that looks good for seed, because, let’s be honest, none of us can tell the difference. Take courage and sow liberally. Your hope will not be deferred forever. Soon, he will let you see fruit, and you will become a tree of life. Just keep praying, and sowing, and hoping.
There are many reasons why Christians don’t evangelize. None of them are good. Most commonly, we fear man. We worry about what others will think of us if we ask awkward questions that make people uncomfortable. We know what people will think when they find out we’re Jesus freaks. So, we don’t evangelize. Or perhaps there is another hangup. When we have tried our hands at evangelism, we haven’t seen much fruit. So, we got discouraged, and we haven’t waded back into those cold waters very often. Fishing isn’t any fun if you never catch a fish.
Brothers and sisters, let me remind you that the Father gave His Son to die for us who believe. If He is that passionate, don’t you think He cares whether or not we speak up and tell the world about what He has done? If He was a passive God, then maybe we could justify our lack of interest in evangelism. But if He is so passionate, if the message we bring says anything to us about the kind of God He is, if the Object of the gospel is the reason why we preach, then a voiceless Christian is a sad contradiction. Let’s overcome the obstacles (He overcame the cross). Let’s speak with tongues ablaze, because He is more than willing to give His Holy Spirit to those who ask (Luke 11:13).
*Not that evangelism is the sum total of the Christian life (as if someone who isn’t evangelizing has necessarily stopped running), but here again is evidence that every analogy falls short of the thing it seeks to signify. I only mean to say that in the area of evangelism, many Christians get hung up and may even grind to a halt.
Why do Christians pray? If God is sovereign, and He is executing His plan according to His Kingly freedom, then why does it matter if we pray?
After all, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8), so it’s not as if He needs us to instruct Him as to what He should do. When we pray, we are bringing our tiny perspective to a God that knows everything about every inch of the Universe (Job 38). If I’m praying that my kid will win his basketball game and a Christian parent in the opposite bleacher is praying the same for his kid on the opposing team, then are the prayers we send to heaven competing like our kids compete on the court?
If you really think about it, whenever people pray, could you say that they are actually competing with God? When Christians pray, are we trying to convince an all-wise King to do something that He hadn’t already planned to do without us to advise Him? Is our will in a given situation competing with God’s will? Why ask things of a God who already knows what to do better than we do?
The question becomes sharper when we consider that God is already (and always) more loving than we are. Goodness and love are at the core of His being, so it is not as if He needs us to convince Him to be better than He is. In prayer, we bring our limited goodness to a God who defines the very meaning of love (1 John 4:8). Wouldn’t we do better to simply be quiet and watch Him unfurl the events of this world, including everything that impacts each of our lives?
In view of God’s sovereignty, why pray? Before answering, let us establish the premise of the question, namely, that God is absolutely sovereign over all things.
There are systems of philosophy that do not begin with this premise. In fact, most do not. Because we all experience ourselves making choices, choices that have consequences and for which we are responsible, many philosophers assume that our creaturely will is truly free. God has not decreed everything that comes to pass. Man is master of his own destiny. This view that asserts the autonomous will of man, not the autonomous will of God, is actually a bedrock of almost every religious or philosophical system on earth. There is, accordingly, a strong tradition within Christianity that vigorously upholds the free will of man. This Christian free-will tradition often goes by the name of Arminianism, named after a Dutch professor of theology who died in 1609, but it goes as far back as the early church fathers.
The contrasting view, called Calvinism, named after the man who (along with Luther) was a primary leader of the Protestant Reformation, also goes back to the early church fathers (like Augustine) and, I would argue, the Apostles and Prophets themselves. Calvinism is known for its assertion that God (not man) elected a particular people before the foundation of the world, predestining them to receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But this view of how God saves according to His sovereign choice is only part and parcel of a larger assertion, namely, that all things happen according to God’s sovereign decree. So, whether it be in the salvation of a sinner—our most pressing concern, or any other matter whatsoever, Calvinism asserts that God has decreed everything that will come to pass.
Is Calvinism biblical? Is it true? The answer to these two questions is necessarily the same. And yes, the Bible teaches that God has a sovereign Decree.
“The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). The certainty of God’s plans are juxtaposed in the preceding verse to the plans of the hearts of man, which are far from certain, far from autonomous. “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples” (Psalm 33:10). There is only room for one absolutely free will in the Universe, and according to the Scriptures, it does not belong to us.
Even the most wicked scheme that humankind has seen through to completion was not outside the foreordained plan of God. According to the willful decisions of Pontius Pilate, Herod, the Jews, and the Romans (each one operating according to the individual desires of their own hearts), the only innocent, the infinitely valuable, the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, was hung to die upon a cross. Although they had creaturely wills that chose according to their desires, they did “whatever
[God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:28). So, in short, the Bible teaches that God has a sovereign decree, and man’s creaturely will is compatible with that decree. Man is held responsible for his choices, since he chooses according to his desires. But God is absolutely free as He executes His plan.
The Westminster Confession adequately summarizes the Bible’s teaching. “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
If this view of God’s sovereignty is allowed, established by Psalm 33:10 and Acts 4:28, as it could be by Genesis 50:20, Isaiah 10, and a host of other passages, then it raises questions about prayer, to which we now return. If God already has a sovereign decree, then why pray?
First, It is important to realize that God ordains prayer. That is to say, He commands and prescribes it. The so-called “phone-number of God (33-3)”, taken from that famous verse, Jeremiah 33:3, is a simple and direct command to pray, notwithstanding the complexities of our theological understanding. “Call to me and I will answer you.” The command is clear. What’s more, the prescription is accompanied by a promise. We are to pray, and here is what He will do: answer. So, communication between the Holy One and His creatures is not only allowed, not only encouraged, but even commanded, and rewarded.
As we move into the New Testament, we find that the promises related to God answering prayer not only remain, but even seem to be intensified. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). And, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). And, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). And, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). These are amazing promises indeed. All the more reason to simply obey His command. God has ordained that we should pray.
Second, God ordains means as well as ends. When our minds try to reconcile the above promises of Jesus with the aforementioned teaching on God’s sovereign decree, it won’t be long before we feel like our minds are getting twisted in knots. Since I cannot fully untangle the knot for myself, let alone for anyone else, allow me to stop trying after suggesting one key point that has helped me at many turns. That is, God ordains the means as well as the ends.
It shouldn’t surprise us that God already knew everything that we would pray even before we ask. After all, He exists outside of time. And, as hundreds of predictive prophecies recorded in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament indicate, He knows the future as certainly as He knows the past. By contrast, we are time-bound creatures. So, we live in a cause-and-effect continuum whereby certain choices we make result in certain outcomes. But for God, what we see as means (often things in our present) and what we see as ends (often things in the future) are simply settled knowledge in His mind, known by Him because He has ordained them both. So, from our perspective, we pray and see a desired outcome unfold. But for God, He knew what we would pray (no matter what it is) and how He would answer. Both the means and the ends have been ordained.
Third, and finally, God deals with us according to His prescriptive will, not His secret will. This point is crucial, because although we are told that God has a secret will (a decree that governs the Universe), we are not told what that decree is. To us it is a secret. We are not accountable to it. We are not judged by it. We are not expected to live by it. Rather, we are called to live according to His revealed (prescriptive) will.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Recall that Peter spoke of two wills in God, one prescriptive and the other secret. “For this is the will of God” (Peter speaks prescriptively) “that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15). “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will” (Peter speaks of God’s secret will) “than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). Peter understood that God has two wills, or two kinds of willing.
One will of God is prescribed for us. That is what we have revealed to us in the Bible in the form of commands. God commands, for example, all men everywhere to repent of sin (Acts 17:30) and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16). This is the will of God by which we must live. And it includes the prescription to pray. The other will of God, like a larger circle that holds the prescriptive will of God like a circle within it, is secret. By definition, we cannot know it. So, we are not to live as if we can know it. So, for example, we are to broadcast the gospel far and wide, and indiscriminately. Why? Because we do not know the identity of the elect.
When it comes to prayer, then, we are to pray according to the prescriptivewill of God. We should call on God for certain things because He commands us to ask for them. And we should fashion our prayers according to what the Bible reveals of His character and concern. For example, we should ask for things that are in keeping with the compassion and mission of Jesus Christ, as He is revealed to us on the pages of Scripture. Our job is not to try and figure out the secret will of God, but rather, to pray according to biblical concerns.
In conclusion, there is no contradiction between God’s having a sovereign decree and our responsibility to go before Him in prayer. If in our minds we allow Him to be who He is (the sovereign Ruler of the universe), we will find ourselves in no way restrained from offering meaningful prayers to Him. We will do so because we are told to do so. We will do so because we have a category whereby He is able to actually answer them while at the same time remaining sovereign and unchanged by them. Simply allow the Bible to define its own categories and live according to the jurisdiction which we have been given. He runs the Universe. We are called to pray.
Prayer is one of the most important aspects of our walk with Jesus. Even as we hear from Him in His Word, we need to take time to talk to Him from our hearts. Our theology should be God-centered enough that we avoid the trap of thinking that He needs our prayers to accomplish His plans. Yet our walk with Christ should be child-like enough that we avoid the trap of thinking we know more than we do. Is anyone sick? Let’s pray for healing. Are some lost? Let’s pray God brings them to Himself. Is there a church that wants to be used mightily by the Sovereign King? Let us join together and call upon His name in fervent prayer, asking that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I took a class on evangelism in Seminary in which the Professor—Dr. Doug Cecil—used a helpful analogy to describe the gospel that we are to preach. He likened the gospel to a hamburger, which, he said, has 3 essential elements. According to the analogy, the bottom bun of the gospel is sin, because unless people come to know their problem of sin, they cannot know their need for the Savior. Says Dr. Cecil, you cannot preach the gospel without the bottom bun of sin. The top bun is faith, because that is what justifies. The gospel brings people to repentant believing, or else it does not save. If we do not call for faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, our preaching is missing the top bun. Now, there are many other condiments and toppings that rightly belong in the gospel, but one more thing is necessary to actually have a hamburger. You have to have the meat. The meat of the gospel, according to Dr. Doug Cecil (and I agree with him) is substitutionary atonement.
Substitutionary atonement includes the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, but focuses especially on the meaning of His death. To be sure, we must declare that Jesus is the Son of God, and by that mean that He is God in flesh. We must declare the facts of His having been crucified and buried, and that He rose from the dead. But unless we declare the meaning of His death, our gospel is missing the meat, or the substance, that makes it what it is.
Substitutionary atonement is a theological term that simply means that Christ died as a substitute for believers, taking the penalty that we deserve upon His shoulders. He bears the wrath of God against our sin, not against His own, for He, in fact, had none. He substitutes for us—the Bridegroom for His bride, the Shepherd for His sheep, the King for His subjects, the God-man for the fallen children of Adam who are made by this one sacrifice to be the children of God. The Scriptures clearly teach that substitutionary atonement is the core of the gospel.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4, emphasis mine)”
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, emphasis mine)
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, emphasis mine)
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
Substitutionary atonement is the core of the gospel and has been regarded as such throughout the ages by the true Church, but we live in a day of rampant apostasy. Even supposedly evangelical churches, like the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, are hosting conferences and purveying teachings that present the God who substitutes His Son to propitiate His own wrath against sinners as a “Monster God” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdYMO2ZBboc). False teachers (like Brian Zahnd in this “Monster God debate”) decry the very meat of the gospel under the cover of supposedly evangelical leaders like Mike Bickle (pastor of IHOP). Although, in the debate, Dr. Michael Brown was also given a voice to herald the truth, the witnesses to the spectacle were divided in their assessment of who spoke the truth. And so it goes with deception. It tickles the ears and appears right to undiscerning minds who think according to the flesh rather than according to the Spirit.
The problem of apostasy in the church and unbelief among the peoples of earth is something that we cannot fix. Only God can change a heart of stone to a heart of flesh that is able to receive the teaching of the gospel. Nevertheless, God has ordained that the gospel would go forward and convert sinners by means of preaching. And it is our job to communicate the meat of gospel with clarity.
So then, armed with a clear understanding of the gospel—sin, substitutionary atonement, faith—let us go forth preaching this message to the ends of the earth. With Paul, let’s “pray that I will proclaim this message as clearly as I should” (Colossians 4:4). With Dr. Doug Cecil, let’s go out preaching with a hamburger on our brains. The top bun is sin. The bottom bun is faith. And the meat is substitutionary atonement. Our thinking about the gospel sharpened by this analogy, let us call sinners to faith in the loving God (Romans 8:32) who did not spare His one and only Son, but gave Him up for us all.
In a law court, the accused stands in danger of punishment. Facing accusation, the defendant might well plead guilty and accept the punishment. Or the defendant could plead innocent and fight the charges. In the course of a trial, sometimes, rather than testify, a person will plead the fifth and exercise their right to remain silent. We hear all these pleadings in a court of law.
In evangelical circles, it is not uncommon to hear another plea. It usually occurs in prayer. The evangelical will plead the blood of the Lamb. It could be a parent praying for their young children, who for the duration of a school day, will be separated from the protection of the parent. The parent must entrust the child’s spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being into the hands of other adults, so in supplication to God, the parent will plead the blood of the Lamb over the child before they depart. It could be someone who just received bad news. It could be a prayer team remembering missionaries on a foreign field. It could be part of a prayer for the healing of a physical illness. In all these cases and more, it is not uncommon for Christians to plead the blood of the Lamb.
What does this practice mean? Is it Biblical? If I were to commend it to you, would you do it?
Pleading the blood of the Lamb means that we are asking God for something highly important to us, and that the basis of our request—the ground upon which we take the privilege to stand before God in the asking—is the person and work of Jesus Christ, which is what we mean by “the blood of the Lamb.” For example, parents departing from their children plead the blood and therein effectively say to God, “Please protect our loved ones while we are apart, and do so on account of Jesus, whose blood removed our sins and any condemnation, and whose life gave us life and an unshakable inheritance, assuring us of Your favorable disposition toward us and Your never-ending protection of our lives.” That is what the parent is really praying, and pleading the blood is a nice easy shorthand way to say all that.
It is not a Biblical prayer—per say—in that the actual wording—this particular shorthand—is not there in the text, but I think it is consistent with the language and theology of the Bible. Romans 8:31-34, in response to the glorious truths of the Golden Chain of Redemption (Romans 8:29-30) reads:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
Notice two things about this passage: the courtroom language and the basis of our vindication, which provides us a favorable standing before God. First, the question is raised as to who would endanger us by charging us with wrongdoing. The image is one of a courtroom. God is the judge. There is a potential accuser, and we are the ones in danger of being accused, condemned, and punished. We might be harmed. We stand in need of protection. That is why we plead. We are in a courtroom, in danger that the Judge of all the earth might deal harshly with our poor guilty souls.
Second, notice the reason why nothing comes of this danger. Notice why we face no danger at all. Our advocate, “if God is for us” (8:31), has already done something that assures His absolutely favorable disposition toward us. He “did not spare His Son”, but gave Him as a bloody sacrifice to atone for our sin. Who could possibly stand up to accuse us? No more charges can be brought because the Judge (who loves us) is already satisfied with the payment our Advocate has made on our behalf. The One who “indeed is interceding for us” is none other than Jesus, and the basis of His intercession is the life He poured out (“life is in the blood” Leviticus 17:11) unto death upon the cross. On the basis of the person and work of Jesus—His life and death, we are absolutely favored by God. That is why we plead the blood.
So, first, the courtroom metaphor of pleading is there in Romans 8:31-34 and the blood of the Lamb is the reason given as to why we know that God “will graciously give us all things.” Pleading the blood is a Biblical thing to do. We plead the blood because it is Biblical shorthand for Romans 8:31-34.
We plead the blood because it means that we trust God to protect our loved ones, and we trust Him on the basis that He proved His love by the giving of the Son to die for us. It is not uncommon to hear me plead the blood, and I encourage you to do the same. Pray this way for your children and for all the elect. Here’s how you can make my day. Come up to me and say that you have been pleading the blood of the Lamb over someone you know. Better yet, go lay your hand on their head, or come to me and extend your hand toward my head and give me the privilege of receiving prayer for my well-being, grounded as it were upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Plead the blood of the Lamb over me, and I’ll do the same for you. We are a people that once stood in danger of eternal condemnation but now find ourselves completely and eternally safe under the protection of a God who did not spare His own Son. We plead the blood.