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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Four Reasons Why Little or No Application in Sermons is a Good Thing

I don’t know that I’ve ever written on the act of preaching/teaching. But after doing it for some years now I have come to a conclusion that I know is not a popular one: Having little or no application is a good thing. Here are four reasons why.

1) My first inkling toward this thinking was, admittedly, knee-jerk. Sometimes (most of the time?) preachers would spend over half of their sermon on application; leaving very little time for exposition (digging in to the Word; using people, culture, context, etc. [not word studies!]) and thus the passing on of knowledge (head and heart) is limited. At the worst, I think it is plain laziness in study on the part of the preacher/teacher that brings this about. Soft on exposition usually signals very little study.

2) Secondly, and this is the more important of the two so far: Preaching application allows the listener to be lazy by discouraging self-reflection. Or, it can make a Pharisee in a room of tax collectors. If I preach a sermon, and at the end give 7 applications; someone in the audience can say to themselves toward the former, “Well, none of those 7 apply to me, this has nothing to do with me.” Or, for the latter, “Phew! I’m off the hook. But I sure do know Sam and Diane needed this one! Hope they were listening!”

Don’t think this doesn’t happen. It does. And again, it encourages laziness and Pharisaic tendencies on the part of the listener. Additionally, heavy application can re-enforce an image that the preacher/pastor is the one with all the answers. And well, if he doesn’t preach it, then it must not be so. Again, this is listener-laziness and an encourager of the much maligned leader/laity distinction.

3) Thirdly, the example of Jesus. While Jesus would use illustration heavily, He almost never used application (I’ll get to the Sermon on the Mount below). How many times did Jesus teach and leave the lesson open ended or with a hanging question? How often would He, by vague and even mysterious ways, tell His lessons? Ever heard of a parable? (It’s actually quite frustrating sometimes isn’t it?)

But it is clear that He would normally allow the listener to apply it to their own lives and situations without Him having to do it. And it is this approach that I have found most impactful. Hammer the exposition; use Aristotle’s modes of persuasion effectively and appropriately; and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work. God’s Word will not return to Him void. Sow the seed and allow God to do the work on the hearts and minds. 

This is why I love discipleship groups; especially when unbelievers enter. Because I know an objection to my objection on preaching application will be “well how will people see the Bible as relevant to their lives if we don’t tell them how it’s relevant to their lives!?” – But in preaching and in small discipleship groups while I am teaching a text, I always ask open-ended questions (leaving things hanging like Jesus did). And it is from these open-ended questions that I see most fruitful discussion and growth taking place. I don’t have to tell them how it applies to their lives. The wheels of the mind of each individual are in motion, and any true seeker will hear the question and apply the lessons of the Word to their day-to-day lives. I don’t have to always tell them how it applies. It just does. I don’t have to make the Bible relevant. It already is. And when unbelievers, especially, begin to see that; their hunger for more increases!

4) Lastly; and these are two hidden dangers. Too much application has the hazard of begetting legalism and can take people away from focus on Christ. To the latter point: I am currently preaching a 4-part series on Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptations of Jesus). Near the beginning of part 3, I said the following:
And so, in this series, we continue to look to Christ; and we are continuing to explore what it is He faced and how He overcame. That is the point. Christ overcame. This series we are going through is not just a pep talk and a step-by-step guide on how to overcome temptation and defeat sin in your life (ex: well if I do this, this, and this, I’ll be successful). Nor is this a “pull you up by your boot straps” sermon series (ex: if I try hard enough like Jesus did, I’ll be successful). No. Ultimately, this series is so that we will look to Christ and His victory; to see how He overcame for us in our place. Because though we believe, we will continue to sin in these bodies. Though we are being made more into His image and though we seek to please our God, our sanctification will never be fulfilled until that coming day. And so we look to Christ. We look to Christ alone because He is our victory now. He has overcome and by faith, we have overcome. It is His righteousness that we now possess by faith. It is not our own. It is His victory we have been given, not our own. And so through the battle of faith, which we have undertaken by claiming Christ as our King, we look to Christ alone and we give Him all the glory for His victory, which we now possess in Him alone
See the emphasis? Even though we will receive knowledge on how to defeat temptation and learn of the tactics of the Evil One, they are sub-points to the ultimate victory of Christ in our place in this moment of temptation. As I also said in the sermon, if Christ fails in this moment with Satan, Christianity is over. Forget about it. If Christ fails in Matthew 4:1-11 there isn’t any amount of victory over temptation that we would have that would bring us salvation and the Kingdom of God. Yes, we can gain knowledge on Satan’s tactics and our response to those tactics today; but the ultimate lesson in all of this is Jesus as the Son of God. We must become less; He must become greater. Look to Christ.

To the former point you may ask: “How can application turn me into a legalist?” And I admit this is subtle, but it can happen.

With a very cursory search online on the topic of application in sermons, I ran into an article by none other than Rick Warren. In it, he defends (seemingly with an ax to grind) heavy application. To do so, he points to the Sermon on the Mount (SoM). While I understand what he writes, I believe he overlooks the danger of legalism. For example: In using the SoM, Warren points to Jesus speaking to such things like “sharing eight secrets of genuine happiness” along with “living an exemplary lifestyle, controlling anger, restoring relationships” and that Jesus taught “how to give with the right attitude, how to pray, how to store up treasure in heaven, and how to overcome worry.” These things, to Warren, are all about application. As he wrote, Jesus “concludes with a simple story that emphasizes the importance of acting on what he’s taught: Put into practice what you’ve just learned!”

I agree. But not totally. Because there is no gospel there. It’s all about behavior modification. Therapuetic-Moralistic-Deism. It trends toward legalism. So while the SoM does teach these things and Jesus does use application (like “if you are made to walk one mile, walk two” and “pray for your enemies” etc.) – is that the point of the SoM? Is Jesus teaching some good advice for, as Warren says, “genuine happiness”? Warren, here, misses a central point of the SoM: We need a Savior! Not a way to live our best life now.

So while I would agree with Warren that the hearer needs to see the application and practicality of the Bible to their lives, and also agree that Jesus is pretty clear on the fact of putting into practice what He teaches; I would disagree with Warren by saying that specific application needs to come from the preacher/teacher to make it relevant. As I stated earlier: I don’t always have to tell them how it applies. It just does. I don’t have to make the Bible relevant. It already is. And in my experience, once engaged in such a discussion with believers and unbelievers, those whom the Lord our God has called (Acts 2:39) will see it; and they will want more. As Paul told Timothy: Preach the Word!

So yes, Warren, the Bible is the most exciting book in the entire world; and I also bemoan the boring approach many teachers/preachers take. But I believe the Bible is exciting on its own terms and by its own power. It doesn’t need me spoon-feeding the audience to make it so. Preach it with power and let God do His work.

Note that I am not saying an absolute “no” to application. What I’m saying is that little or no application is preferable. It’s not bad in and of itself, and I do use it (as did Jesus, some); and ministries that I respect have good tools for helpful application (example: 9Marks). However, when I do, I try and do so only to re-enforce major points or to address issues I know are present within the congregation that need to be specifically addressed. But I always try and leave plenty of open doors for the individual listener to apply it to their own lives.

Let that conviction happen. Let that rebuking happen. Let that edification happen. Let that encouragement happen. Let it happen from the Word. And when the hearer recognizes it themselves, the relevance of the Bible is made even more clear and impactful; and their faith and knowledge and application becomes more their own.

That’s what I see Jesus did. That’s what I want to do.

Extra Resource: John MacArthur on why he doesn't use much application. 


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Philemon: Paul as Christ Figure and the Matter of Substitution

As I had written in my last post, the little letter from Paul to Philemon, only 25 verses in today’s texts, holds treasures of meaning. Previously I addressed v.15-16a and God’s sovereignty through sin for the salvation of Onesimus. Today I will address v.18-19a, which reads,
If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…

By way of introduction, I will repeat how I began the previous post: Onesimus was a slave/servant of Philemon, who had a house church in the city of Colossae (v.1-2, cf. v.23-24 w/Col 4:7-17). Onesimus escaped his earthly-master, stole some goods on the way (v.18), and intended to disappear into the big city of Rome. It was not hard for runaways to disappear in Rome.

But somehow, and in some way, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, who was in prison (v.1, cf. Acts 28:16-30), and became a believer in Christ (v.10, 16). Paul, wanting to do right by Philemon, and in considering Onesimus’ new birth; seeks reconciliation between the two men who are now brothers in Christ (v.8-17; namely v.15-16). Paul wants to put things right for the sake of not only Onesimus, but for the church in Philemon’s home. Onesimus would have obviously caused a stink upon escaping!

Paul seeks, above all things, reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus. Up to verse 18, Paul has: greeted Philemon and the church as a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v.1-3); shown and reminded Philemon what he thinks of him and who he is in Christ (v.4-7); and by way of relational and spiritual rhetoric, appealed to Philemon for the sake of reconciliation with Onesimus (v.8-16). In verse 17 Paul writes that if Philemon considers Paul to be his partner (which points to the other connections they have [friend, v.1; fellow worker, v.1; brother vv.7,20]), then he will receive Onesimus in like terms. In other words, rejecting Onesimus back would be a rejection of Paul.

This leads well into Paul functioning as a Christ-figure (v.18-19a). From the words in v.18-19a, it is clear that Onesimus escaping resulted in losses for Philemon (and the house church?). Perhaps the losses were just due to the loss of labor and having to hire a new servant. But most believe (as do I) that Onesimus had actually stolen things as he escaped. So not only was Onesimus an illegal escapee, he was also a thief!

But Paul doesn’t name Onesimus’ sins. He simply says, if there is anything he owes you, I got it covered. Whatever it was, Paul says, count it as my debt.

This is amazing! Sound familiar?
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God
made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross, (Col 2:13-14). 
He made him who knew no sin to be sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God, (2 Cor 5:21). 
This is the Great Exchange. This is substitution. (see a previous post on The Reason and Necessity of Substitution and Satisfaction) And in this story, Paul is putting up himself as a Christ figure. This is Paul in full Christ-likeness. He is taking all debts that Onesimus has against Philemon and he says “they are now my debts” (in the verse, “charge that to my account”). He also pleads with Philemon to consider him in place of Onesimus at the point of encounter (v.17).

Was it Christ’s debt that Christ paid for sinners? No. It was ours. Was it Paul’s debt to be paid? No. It was Onesimus’. Paul took on Onesimus’ debt, in like spirit of Jesus taking on the debt of sinners. Paul is playing the substitute. (To play the analogy out fully, Paul places Philemon in the place of God and says, “use me as your sacrifice, not him”.)

In all this, Paul is pointing to Christ. Paul is pointing to the Gospel.

"Hey Philemon, remember what Christ did for you? Now consider Onesimus."


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Philemon: God’s Sovereignty Through Sin for the Salvation of Onesimus

The little letter from Paul to Philemon, only 25 verses in today’s texts, holds treasures of meaning. We find one of those treasures in verses 15-16a.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…

Onesimus was a slave/servant of Philemon, who had a house church in the city of Colossae (v.1-2, cf. v.23-24 w/Col 4:7-17). Onesimus escaped his earthly-master, stole some goods on the way (v.18), and intended to disappear into the big city of Rome. It was not hard for runaways to disappear in Rome.

But somehow, and in some way, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, who was in prison (v.1, cf. Acts 28:16-30), and became a believer in Christ (v.10, 16). Paul, wanting to do right by Philemon, and in considering Onesimus’ new birth; seeks reconciliation between the two men who are now brothers in Christ (v.8-17; namely v.15-16). Paul wants to put things right for the sake of not only Onesimus, but for the church in Philemon’s home. Onesimus would have obviously caused a stink upon escaping!

It is in this section (v.8-17) where we find verses 15-16a. In them, Paul, by faith (“perhaps”), considers that God took Onesimus from Philemon’s home for the sole purpose of meeting Paul and receiving Christ. NT Wright speculates that this may have served the purpose of Onesimus “find[ing] Christ himself,” instead of “picking up a second-hand faith, or the outward trappings of Christianity, in his master’s house”.

This brings us to the point of this brief commentary. Paul’s faith in God’s sovereignty through sin for the salvation of Onesimus.

Here is the nerdy, but necessary part: The ESV renders the phrase in verse 15 as “he was parted from you,” which accurately gives the verb (ἐχωρίσθη) its full passive voice. That is, it was a power outside of Onesimus that purposed the action, indicating that Onesimus was acted upon (in this case, by divine action; known in Greek-language-speak as a “divine passive”). This is affirmed by the “so that,” which denotes definite purpose and result of the action.

To give the verb an active voice would be to say that Onesimus purposefully departed from Philemon “so that” Philemon would have him back forever. But that makes no sense. Is Paul saying Onesimus fled Philemon’s house, robbed him, and escaped to a big city, for the purpose being in relationship with Philemon forever? That’s silly. More like Onesimus did what he did to stay away for good!

But in keeping the passive voice the text makes complete sense. What we have in this text is that God took Onesimus away from Philemon's house in order to have him converted by Paul and then restored to Philemon. Just so happens that God used illegal escape and robbery to do it.

(Note: The NIV, NASB, HCSB all do well in using the passive voice here. The KJV fails by making the verb active [“he therefore departed”]; and the NLT does its normal job of confusing the text entirely, pushing the focus of what happened on to Philemon [“it seems you lost Onesimus” – huh?].)

Paul’s faith in the providence and sovereignty of God through sin is an echo of Joseph’s, who after being sold into slavery by his brothers exclaimed,
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today, (Gen 50:20). 
You see the similarities? Respectively, there was a sinful action (Onesimus escaping from and robbing his master; and Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers) for a definite purpose and result that was outside the intentions of the actors (“so that [Philemon] might have [Onesimus] back forever... as a brother”; and “to bring about that many people should be kept alive”). So while the human actors had various sinful motivations, the True Providential Actor had different ones entirely.

Therefore, here we see very clearly that by faith believers in YHWH can believe and trust that He overrules and even uses sinful actions to fulfill His own purposes. Make no mistake, both Joseph and Paul believed this to be true. "Accident" and "luck" are two words absent from the vocabulary of those who truly believe in the sovereignty and providence of God.

And is this not a further mockery of the Evil One (cf. Col 2:15)?: That God will rule over evil and even use the momentary victories of sin to fulfill His great purposes? In Onesimus’ case, is there any doubt? In Joseph’s? In yours? In mine?

We can know that God is sovereign. There is no equal and opposite power to Him. Satan is, in the end, powerless toward his own ends, as God has determined by His own counsel and will. Satan has lost to the point where even his own victories are turned into his defeats (hello, cross). Does this not inspire awe, wonder, joy, and thankfulness to My Sovereign God?

Thanks be to God, that by faith not only can we actually believe a verse like Romans 8:28 (“that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”), but that there are times in our lives when we are privileged enough to catch a glimpse of how it is actually being accomplished! Is this not, in part, what Paul prayed for the believers to realize; that they might come to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of their Sovereign God (Eph 3:18)?

For Paul, and for me, the salvation of Onesimus is one of those times.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother… (Philemon 1:15-16a) 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

God’s Sovereignty in Particular Election in the Story of Redemption: Genesis Edition

God’s Sovereignty in Particular Election in the Story of Redemption: Genesis Edition

Something has been made very clear to me during my reading and study of Biblical Theology:

A denial of particular election is a denial of God’s grace in the story of redemption.

After God created all things “good” and man “very good” – man subverted the goodness by wanting to be like God in the possession and determining of truth. “Did God really say…?” became the door into the house of idolatry. The Word of God was no longer the standard of self-evident truth, but had been reduced to the status of the word of the creature. From that point forward, truth would be tested by human standards instead of God’s. Judgment came upon man and earth, but the story does not end there.

God has a plan; a plan of redemption and restoration (consummation) for both man and earth. This plan of ultimate salvation, for a Christian theist, is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But before we get to the Messiah, history takes its course. God begins His work, showing His commitment to His creation. He does not scrap it, though He was perfectly justified to do so. Instead, as Creator, He commits Himself to displaying His glory through sovereign actions in redemption and restoration.

Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-2). God chooses Abel’s offering over that of Cain’s (Gen 4:3-5); but we are never told why. Speculation from other passages like Hebrews 11:4, 1 John 3:12, and Jude v.11 can lend a hand as for a “reason,” but the fact is the Scripture never tells us why God liked Abel’s offering over that of Cain’s. This is the first sign we see of God’s sovereign choice.

Cain becomes angry to the point of murder and kills his brother (Gen 4:8). God judges Cain by cursing him and his line of descendents (Gen 4:11, 17-24), and eventually destroys them in the coming flood. Their wickedness and violence would be wiped out (Gen 6:5,11). So now with Abel dead and Cain cursed, where is hope found in this story of redemption?

God “appoints” Seth (Gen 4:25) as an offspring to Adam and Eve (Seth means “he appointed”); and his line began to “call upon the name of the LORD” (Gen 4:26). [Note the connecting themes of calling on the name of the LORD with God keeping a remnant for Himself for redemption and salvation in Joel 2:32.]

Seth is now the legitimate blessed line of Adam. Note the contrasting genealogies of Cain and Seth. Cain’s is not linked to Adam and ends with a cry of violence (Gen 4:23-24). Seth’s, on the other hand, begins with Adam, and flows down to a man named Noah. God establishes a particular line to bless. Note that Adam had “fathered other sons and daughters” (Gen 5:4); as did Seth (Gen 5:7) and each of the proceeding names down the line (Gen 5:10,13,16,19,22,26,30). But even with all these sons and daughters, there was a particular line of blessing from Adam, to Seth, down to Noah. These are explicit signs of particular election based upon the blessing and grace of God and not because of anything found in man.

We see here two particular lines of people. One line is cursed through Cain and another is blessed through Seth. Genealogies matter (note Luke 3:38).

So we have come to Noah, who “found favor in the eyes of the LORD” (Gen 6:8). Another way to say this is: “God liked him.” Only after this declaration of God, this stamp of blessing, do we read that Noah “was a righteous man” who “walked with God” (Gen 6:9). Certainly this identity of Noah is based solely on God’s own choosing of the blessed line; the line of grace. Remember, he came particularly down the line from Seth, the “appointed one.” It was nothing in Noah that earned God’s grace and blessing. This was God’s plan of redemption through a particular people in action.

So the flood comes and wipes out mankind and other living creatures (Gen 7). Note that this is the end of the line of Cain. They have been destroyed. Their violence is gone. Now only the line of Seth remains, through Noah. God’s revelation of redemption continues. But even after the flood, the hearts of men (this includes Noah’s) have not changed (Gen 8:21). They are still evil. God yet still restates the Adamic order (Gen 9:1-3), and establishes a covenant with both man and creation (Gen 9:8-17). It is forever clear that God will save and restore a people and He will save and restore the earth He created. He is committed.

A new race of people begins (Gen 9:18-19), but the evils of men’s hearts are revealed yet again. Like a coed in college, Noah gets drunk, takes off his clothes, and passes out (Gen 9:21). His son Ham sees his dad and tells his brothers about him (perhaps jokingly and for shame, Gen 9:22). And what follows is yet another separation of curse and blessing. Ham and his line is cursed, but Shem is blessed (Gen 9:24-27).

Again, we see here two particular lines of people. One line is cursed through Ham and another is blessed through Shem. Genealogies matter (now note Luke 3:36).

And so we see contrasting lines of people. Ham’s cursed line (Gen 10:6-20), which includes those who settled in Babel (Gen 10:10); is contrasted with the blessed line of Shem (Gen 11:10-26), which leads us to none other than Terah, the father of Abram (Gen 11:26).

This is God’s particular election, based solely upon His grace and the story of redemption He is authoring.

Sidenote: The name Shem means, “name.” God is writing this story with a “name.” But what do we see with the line of Ham? Some end up in Babel and they begin to build a great city. In this great city they want to build a tower “with its top in the heavens.” And why do they want to do all of this? To “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the earth,” (Gen 11:4). Interestingly, the Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) translates this text: “let us make a shem, otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of kol HaAretz.”

So here we have the two lines of people. The people of the curse want to make a name (“shem”) for themselves and not be dispersed, while the people of God’s blessing have a name through Shem, the blessed son of Noah.

God’s curse and judgment upon the line of Ham prevails, and not only do they fail to make a name for themselves, “the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth,” (Gen 11:8).

And so through Adam-Seth-Noah-Shem we come to Abram, son of Terah. Again, this is a particular election of a particular people for a particular redemption. All of those from Shem to Terah had other sons (see Gen 11:10-26); but it was Shem, Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, to Abram who received the blessing. Again: look familiar (Luke 3:34-36)?

This is God’s doing. This is God’s choosing. This is God’s story of redemption.

And so God calls Abram, and not coincidentally from the previous point, God declares “…I will bless you and make your name great…” (Gen 12:2). [Note: The OJB translates this: “…I will bless thee, and make thy shem great…”].

Before this calling, Abram was a pagan, and it is highly probable that he was a worshiper of the moon-god ‘sin’ in the land of Ur (Joshua 24:2). So there was nothing in Abram that made God choose him. So the only choice was God’s free choice to carry on His plan of redemption through this one man, Abram. Out of all others. Particular election. He could have chosen Lot, but He didn’t. And Lot, through incest, became the father of the Moabites and Ammonites.

There are many factors that show evermore that this redemption is the work of God. The story of Abraham is set against a background of impossibilities: his age (75 at the time of the call), Sarah’s age (10 years younger than Abraham), the Promised Land filled with Canaanites (descendents of Ham, by the way), and Abraham trying to pimp out his wife out not once, but twice (Gen 12:11-20; 20:1-18).

Yet still, God makes His covenant with Abraham unilaterally (Gen 15:17; 17:3-8): Abraham will have many descendants, his people will possess the Promised Land, God will be their God, and through him all nations will be blessed (also Gen 12:1-3). For Paul, this is the Gospel (Gal 3:8). It is clear that against the backdrop of impossibilities in the above paragraph, this will be a supernatural elective work of God, not man.

Abraham and Sarah don’t believe in full. They try to help God out and Abraham sleeps with Hagar; begetting Ishmael (Gen 16:1-16). There you go God, your promise is fulfilled!

Nope. Remember. This is God’s work, not man’s. Abraham deserves none of this, nor can he change or force God’s plan. His sins against the plan of God are multiple; but God’s grace and plan of redemption continues. God has chosen Abraham. He is blessed.

Twenty-five years after the call, Isaac, the promised son, is born. Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90 (Gen 17:17; 21:2-3). All obstacles have been overcome. Isaac is a gift of grace.

A key point here is Abraham’s faulty faith; and it reminds us that it is not our faith that saves us, but the object of that faith that saves us. God accounts Abraham as righteous (justified) only on that basis of his faith in Him (Gen 15:6). Again, this is the Gospel (Gal 3:9); and those with faith are blessed by God; not cursed. This is God’s doing.

Abraham dies, and God continues his electing grace by blessing Isaac, (Gen 25:11). Of all the sons of Abraham, whether by Sarah, Hagar, or Keturah (Gen 25:1-2), it was Isaac who God had chosen. Isaac marries, and Rebekah is pregnant with twins.

What is God to do now? There are two sons in the womb. Certainly the older will be the chosen one; or perhaps God will wait and see which one of Jacob and Esau live a good enough life to bless and carry on His plan of redemption.

Neither of those two things happen.

In one of the most clear and blatant examples of God’s elective grace, the LORD tells Rebekah, “the older shall serve the younger.” Paul expounds upon this act of electing grace in Romans 9:10-13.
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 
“In order that God’s purpose in election might continue…”

What is that purpose? It is to show God’s sovereignty in the story of redemption.

“This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring…so then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” (Rom 9:8,16).

This is why I opened this article with this comment: A denial of particular election is a denial of God’s grace in the story of redemption. It’s all right there in front of us. The entire story of redemption is predicated on God’s sovereign election. It is undeniable.

It is clear that Jacob had no merit of his own, for he was a deceiver and cunning in his behavior to receive the blessing from Isaac (Gen 27). But this is what God wanted. This is God’s story. Jacob was his man for blessing. By grace.

The story of Jacob again threatens the promises of God. But God remains with Jacob through it all. He has promised Jacob the gifts of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 28:3,13-15), and no matter of Labanic trickery will stop the fulfillment (Gen 29-31). And Jacob knew that only God’s promise would save him from his brother Esau (Gen 32:9-12).

Jacob struggles with God (Gen 32:22-23) and is later renamed Israel (Gen 35:9-15); a new name (recall Shem and Abraham). Given by God. Jacob goes from cunning deceiver to covenant patriarch (Gen 35:11-12), all by the grace of God. This is God’s story of redemption. The living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 22:32).

Abraham is chosen over Lot. Isaac of Sarah is blessed over Ishmael of Hagar. Jacob is blessed over Esau. The non-elect are given some advantages (note how Lot's and Esau's descenents are protected in Deut 2:4-5,9,19), but they still end up in conflict with the elected group, and not all receive blessing. As Paul tells us, even within Israel not all Israel is Israel. Not all are elect (Rom 9:6). There is a national election, and there is an election unto blessing and salvation.

This is God’s story of redemption.

Election continues with Joseph (Gen 37-50), the son of Rachel sold into slavery by his brothers. What a horrific thing. But it is exactly what God wanted. It was God’s design (Gen 45:5-8). God’s remnant would be kept. Man’s evil was God’s good (Gen 50:20).

Why didn’t God just send rain and crops for the people during the famine? We learn why in Exodus. God still had a story to write.

But before we get there, Jacob blesses his sons, two of which are adopted from Joseph (Gen 48:5). Jacob’s sons are only alive because of Joseph in Egypt; and the son of note for Jacob now is a son of election and blessing. His name is Judah.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples,” (Gen 49:10).

This blessed line of Judah gives rise to a kingdom ruled by someone in the same blessed line. His name is David, and his line rules Judah. This while some 13 ruling families rule Israel, which itself ceases to exist in 722BC. But the scepter shall not depart from Judah(!); and it is the blessed line of Judah and David that ends at Jesus of Nazareth. Genealogies matter (Luke 3:23-33).

This is God’s Sovereignty in Particular Election in the Story of Redemption.

And it continues today:
“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace,” (Rom 11:5-6).

Let us rid ourselves of all man-centered idolatrous presuppositions and traditions, including those that say particular election is not how God works. Instead, let us adopt what the Scriptures actually teach.

Let us never rob God of His glory in His acts of sovereign grace in the story of redemption. This is God’s story to author, not ours.


Monday, February 11, 2013

"It Is Well" - Sung By My Wife, Daisha Sheets

Almost eight years ago, my wife (voice) and the late Jan Jones (piano) recorded "It Is Well" and gave me the cut for my birthday. It is one of my top three songs; and no matter how many times I sing it I find it difficult to make it through. Even just listening to her perform it moves me to praise. I hope it is edifying to you. I promise you will not regret listening.

That's my wife.

Grace be with you -

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deuteronomy 7, Part 2 of 2: Holy War, Election, Christ

Continuing from #3 in Part 1:

4) Now, this issue about "the redemption of His people" that I just referenced must be addressed. It brings up another contentious topic; but again, I do not believe it needs to be so. Because though the Scriptures give us "reasons" that God ordered what He did to the inhabitants of the Promised Land, it does not negate the fact that in the beginning, God did the choosing. We see this in 7:6: "The LORD your God has chosen you ... out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth."

He chose to be merciful to Abram while he and his reletives were worshiping the moon gods in Ur (see Joshua 24:2). He chose to be merciful to Isaac over Ishmael, though the former was full of deceit and conspiracy. And as Romans 9:11 tells us, "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—" God chose Jacob over Esau. They were elected ones that recieved mercy. These are the fathers to whom God is faithful.

But on the other hand, God chose to do justice vs. the Amorites, even when the text is clear that the Hebrews were an obstinate people (see all of Deut 9). But this is God's prerogative. Nobody receives injustice from God. All people either receive justice (ala the Amorites) or mercy (the Hebrews). That's it. Nobody is "innocent." God is free to choose (see Rom 9:14-24). And in this choosing, we are not called to pride, but to thanksgiving and responsibility (keep reading).

5) Keep in mind now where the Hebrews are at this time in Deuteronomy. They are on the east side of the Jordan. They are about to be given the Promised Land. God is showing Himself for who He is: The One True, Holy, Merciful, Promise-Keeping God. Holy, Holy, Holy. (Holiness, by the way, is the only attribute of God that is exclaimed three times out of the mouths of angels; see Isaiah 6:1-3.) So for the Hebrews, this is the purpose of election. To be set apart. To be holy. To not be like all the other nations on the earth.

And the same is for us in Christ! See 1 Peter 2:1-12 and pay specific attention to v.9-10.

This helps us determine what the purpose of election is. Election is not to give us pride. It is an act of God alone (however inscrutable it may be), and it is to give us a certain responsibility. Ephesians 2:1-10 plays this out perfectly. We are elected/saved because of God's love and mercy alone and not because of what we have done or who we are (note the perfect parallels with Deut 7:7-8 and 9:4-6).

Yet it doesn't end there. As elected ones in His ecclesia (the gathering of peoples known as the Bride of Christ), we are told that we are "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

So just like the Hebrews, we were elected for something; for a reason and a purpose. As Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go andbear fruit and that your fruit should abide..." (John 15:16).

It is for good works. It is for obedience. It is for holiness (Eph 1:4). It is for the glory of God. There is purpose in election.
Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (10:14-15)
6) As a final note, I would like us to remember and glory in what we have in Christ. In Deuteronomy 7:12-16 we have the obedience of the people and God's blessing contingent upon that obedience. But consider what we have in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Thus, it is Christ's perfect obedience that is seen on our behalf. The sins of those with faith, put upon Christ. Christ's righteousness, imputed to those who have faith in Him. It is The Great Exchange. And so every contingency has been met for us. All our failures; via true faith in Christ, will not rid us of God's blessing. Just consider that for a moment ...

... Christ has done it all on our behalf. And so, let us now walk worthy of such a calling and so prove to not be liars who claim Him with our lips alone, but His disciples who live according to His Word.

Have your Sabbath rest in this. Enjoy the Promised Land.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

Grace be with you -


Deuteronomy 7, Part 1 of 2: Holy War, Election, Christ

I have been teaching Deuteronomy in Bible class this quarter and it has been a very good experience. The discussions have been great and the more I learn and teach the more I want to learn and teach!

The discussion this last Sunday focused around the topic of "Holy War" out of chapter 7. So excellent was the discussion that I was only able to get through half of the first page of my two pages of notes! :) Below are just some points we addressed, and others we didn't get to. This is part 1 of 2.

1) As we set the stage for the discussion on God's call on the Hebrews to war against those in the Promised Land, we first established one basic tenet. That is: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein," (Psalm 24:1).

God is Creator. What He has created He has full authority over to do with it as He pleases. He has no law above Himself. We read this also in the NT, where it is written, "And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place," (Acts 17:26). God, in His authority and for His purposes, has put people where He wants them, throughout all history.

As examples of this in Deuteronomy we have 2:5, 2:9, and 2:19, where repeatedly the Hebrews are told not to take over lands that God has alloted to others (like descendents of Esau and Lot). And so likewise, God has given the Promised Land to the Hebrews, and they are to go and take that land. God said "don't take that land, it's not yours" regarding some and "take that land, it's yours" to others.

The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who well therein" ... "having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place"

2a) We also discussed the thought that this call of God to anhialate the inhabitants of the Promised Land was not without reason. Even though God is never obligated to give us reasons, I do believe there are reasons given to us inside of Scripture for this case.

First, we see the prophecy told to Abram while he was put into a deep sleep way back in Genesis 15. In a dream God told him,
Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Gen 15:12-16) 
I want us to focus mainly on v.16. God was allowing "the iniquity of the Amorites" to increase and He told Abram that when a point was reached, the people would return. Therefore, the call for the Hebrews to invade and destroy is, in part, about the justice of God. God was prosecuting justice on the unrighteousness of the Amorites (which have a shared quality with the Hittites, Girgashites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites; Deut 7:1). And we see this explicitly pronounced in Deut 9:4-5, where it is written, in part, "it is because of the wickedness of the nations that the LORD is driving them out before you."

Which leads us to the second reason we are given for the overtaking of the Promised Land. It is found in 9:5b. It was not only justice on those nations, but it was also so that God "may confirm with word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." God is faithful to His promises to the fathers. See also Deut 7:8-9 for two explicit reference to this second reason.

2b) Having established that there was wickedness in the land, we then read this in Deut 7:6. "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth."

God is forming a holy people for Himself. The overtaking of the Promised Land is about Holiness! We see this in 7:2-5, where God tells them to not make a covenant with them (remember the importance of the exclusive suzerain-vassal treaty with God) and to destroy their idols (i.e. other gods). For more to the second point on idols, see 4:32-40 again. The LORD alone is God and He alone is to be worshiped. (and note the similarities between 4:37 and 7:8).

This is about holiness. This is about the One True God revealing that He is as He says He is. This is about God ridding the land of unrighteousness. This is about taking a people and setting them apart as His people. This is about God's promises to His covenant to the fathers.

3) So with all this said, in summary: The earth is God's and He can do what He pleases. This is about justice, against the sins of the people of the land. This is about holiness and God making a holy people for Himself. This is about idolatry, and God proving to be the One True God by His power in a world filled with polytheism (see Exod 9:16). This is about God forcing acknowledgment. This is about God keeping His promises. It is a revelation of all these things.

This is not a willy-nilly God saying, "I'm going to destroy these people just because I feel like it." Though He could, for He is the LORD, that's not what this is. There is much more wrapped up in this story. It is ultimately about the redemption of His people. And so, the people who filled the Promised Land were proper objects for this Holy War.

Deuteronomy 7 part 2 tomorrow will address the issue of election that we see here, and Christ.

Grace be with you all -


Monday, January 30, 2012

A Biblical Defense (and Advocacy) of Single Ministers/Pastors

We’ve all read them:
Wanted: Lead Minister/Pastor to serve at All Things Church here in beautiful Redrum Hills, WV. Applicant must have at least an undergraduate degree in Bible from an in-house institution, though a Master of Divinity is preferred. Applicant must have 263 years experience in ministry and must also be married, have 2.3 kids, and hold to sound doctrine while able to communicate well. Job requirements include … 
… I’ll stop right there, because the next part of the usual want ad leaves me just as concerned as the point of this post. However, I will say this: Please, elderships and search committees, read Acts 6:1-6! Other people can do things!

OK. Leaving that aside for now, I want to focus on that little phrase that sinks the heart of many of my brothers in Christ when looking for a local body to serve in. That phrase is brief, but it packs a punch. It reads, “must also be married”.

For the sake of all my single brothers out there, and as a gentle rebuke of the church-at-large, I want to say that this requirement cannot stand up to the test of Scripture regarding who can minister; particularly most effectively. A hard look at Paul’s instructions on the matter of marriage and service to God begs further reflection; and this reflection may help to serve the Body of Christ by granting access to leadership roles to the plethora of worthy men who just happen to not be married.

And as a note: I’m writing this as a married man, with 2.3 kids!

I would like to focus on Paul’s teaching regarding marriage that we find in his first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives his (and the Lord’s) instructions pertaining to marriage, separation, re-marriage, etc. It is throughout this chapter that we can decipher how Paul views single-men ministers as advantageous to the Kingdom of God.

First, Paul tells the unmarried and the widows “that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (v.8). Now certainly what follows is just as important; that if the unmarried or widows cannot control their sexual desires, then they should marry instead of “burn with passion” (v.9). It is good to note here that v.9 shows us what Paul’s controlling authority in this entire section is: Holiness. God’s desire is that we are to be holy as He is holy; and here Paul is saying that it is good to remain single UNLESS one would become unholy by being sexually immoral outside the bounds of marriage (i.e. burn with passion and submit to it). We’ll come back to this point later.

So here we have an initial teaching by Paul: staying single, like he is, is better. It is not a command (v.6), but celibacy is a gift from God that some have (v.7; I’m also inclined to use Jesus’ somewhat strange teaching about eunuchs in Matt 19:10-12 here as well; i.e. “let the one who is able to receive this teaching, receive it”). Therefore, if one has the gift of celibacy, and they do not burn with passion, they can stay unmarried and Paul advocates such a position.

Moving on, there are four other times in chapter 7 where Paul points to his advocacy of singleness.

First, 7:28
But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 
Then, 7:32-35 (which is the key text as for Paul’s reasoning as to why singleness is better for ministers)
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 
Then, 7:38
So then he who married his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 
And finally, 7:40 (concerning women who are single after husband dies, v.39)
Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. 
Here we have five different times in the same chapter that Paul advocates singleness above marriage. Again, the exception to this “rule” is if the single person cannot maintain their self-control and their urges are too strong. Then, due to holiness, Paul certainly wants single men and women to marry so that sexual activity can happen within the marriage bond.

Verses 32-35 are the key text, which Paul lays the groundwork for in v.8. He is single and he is as free as one can be for the work of the Lord. He goes where he wants when he wants (as led by God) and he is not anxious about “worldly” things. This is who he wants people to be for the sake of the Kingdom and the proclamation of the Gospel. Verses 32-35 say what every single married person who is reading it knows: that when married, our attention and anxieties turn to things other than the Lord. On the other hand Paul says the obvious: that if one is not married they can have “undivided devotion to the Lord.”

To bring this full circle now: how should this rather explicit teaching regarding marriage and singleness inform us regarding the hiring and sending out of ministers/pastors; particularly lead ministers/pastors? I would argue that if the single man has displayed holiness in his single life and he has proven to be a man of self-control regarding his sexual desires, that he should be at the TOP of the list to be hired or sent (barring any other objections or other skill sets missing that others may fill better). However, what we find today is that the single man will rarely, if ever, be hired as a lead minister/pastor, except for perhaps a youth group setting. Married men will always be preferred, but what I fear is that some married men who are being hired are much farther down the holiness scale than a single counterpart; yet Paul always promoted holiness above anything else.

I understand the desire to have a “family man” in the pulpit or as a leader in another capacity. For one, it is indeed written that, “it is not good for a man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). Also, the apostles (including Peter) and Jesus’ brothers were married (1 Cor 9:5) and there is something to be said for that. More so, congregations want somebody who is experienced in family life because that is where most people in our society are going in life (getting married, having kids) unless they are already; and so they will want the lead minister/pastor to be someone most people can relate to. However, we must come to grips with the fact that this factor was not the consideration of Paul in this letter. Consider Paul as a good case of singleness. Then of course there is Timothy, who Paul put in charge of the church in Ephesus. For all we know he was young and he was single; yet there he was, pastoring these churches and placing elders and deacons on top of that! And obviously, there was Jesus, who was perfect in every way, and single to boot.

In summary, I would simply like to encourage local churches to not automatically rule out hiring a single man as a lead minister or pastor. As Paul told the Corinthians, a single man who has displayed holiness in his celibacy is a better choice, for he will only be anxious about the things of the Lord, and not the things of the world. This can only be good for the Kingdom.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Spurgeon: The Idols of One's Own Taste

A little Spurgeon for today. O how true this is; rampant inside the church.
Man fashions for himself a god after his own liking; he makes to himself if not out of wood or stone, yet out of what he calls his own consciousness, or his cultured thought, a deity to his taste, who will not be too severe with his iniquities or deal out strict justice to the impenitent. He rejects God as he is, and elaborates other gods such as he thinks the Divine One ought to be, and he says concerning these works of his own imagination, 'These be thy gods, O Israel.' The Holy Spirit, however, when he illuminates their minds, leads us to see that Jehovah is God, and beside him there is none else. He teaches his people to know that the God of heaven and earth is the God of the Bible, a God whose attributes are completely balanced, mercy attended by justice, love accompanied by holiness, grace arrayed in truth, and power linked with tenderness. He is not a God who winks at sin, much less is pleased with it, as the gods of the heathen are supposed to be, but a God who cannot look upon iniquity, and will by no means spare the guilty. This is the great quarrel of the present day between the philosopher and the Christian. The philosopher says, 'Yes, a god if you will, but he must be of such a character as I now dogmatically set before you'; but the Christian replies, 'Our business is not to invent a god, but to obey the one Lord who is revealed in the Scriptures of truth.' The God of Holy Scripture is love, but he is also possessed of justice and severity; he is merciful and gracious, but he is also stern and terrible towards evil; therefore unregenerate hearts say, 'We cannot accept such a God as this,' and they call him cruel, and I know not what besides. 
From a sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon entitled "Heart-Knowledge of God," delivered December 6, 1874.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Stopping Textual Abuse: Identifying "the least of these" in Matthew 25:31-46

In the latest work from Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (What is the Mission of the Church?), while promoting mission and justice, they expose some of the misapplied Scriptures often used by popular level missional and social justice types. One of those Scriptures often misapplied is "the least of these" text. (I use them as a guide for this post, but what follows is produced by me.) Today, we’ll deal with one of the favorite texts of social justice advocates: Matthew 25:31-46. More specifically, verses 40 and 45 are the key verses most often pointed to. They read:

25:40 - “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”
25:45 - “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Jesus is telling a parable about the eternal judgment. He speaks of the Son of Man appearing in glory and separating people, like a shepherd separates sheep from goats (v.31-33). The King then tells the sheep to enter His Kingdom (v.34), that is, “eternal life” (v.46), and the goats are cursed and tossed into “the eternal fire” (v.41), that is, “eternal punishment” (v.46). The basis of this judgment is how people acted towards “the least of these” (v.40, v.45).

In v.35-39 and v.42-44 the people Jesus mentions as the “least of these” are those who are strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned, hungry, and thirsty. So isn’t this self-explanatory? Jesus is telling His audience in this text that the judgment to come will be based on how we treat all people in these conditions. We need to be all about social justice to all people everywhere and all the time! But while this is normally how the text is understood, (and I have no doubt it is mostly well intentioned; though perhaps agenda driven), the proper analysis of this text shows that Jesus is not talking about all people who are in these conditions (in the general sense), but about a more specific group of people who are in these conditions.

Before continuing, I want to concur with a statement from D.A. Carson when addressing this text: “I am loath to challenge [the usual interpretation] because it is always important for those who know and follow the living God to show their life in God in the realms of compassion, service, and self-abnegation.” However, “it is rather unlikely that that [all hurting people] are the focus of this parable.” (emphasis mine)

As much as social justice advocates want to define the phrase “the least of these” as all people everywhere who are oppressed or demoralized, Jesus does not define it that way and that is not the point of the parable. Verse 40 is the controlling authority for helping us see who the group of people Jesus is talking about are: “the least of these my brothers,” (or, for you 2011 NIV types, “my brothers and sisters”). Granted, v.45 does not include “my brothers” but it is clear Jesus is talking about the same group of people (it’s the same parable, the same audience, the same subject).

So who is a “brother” of Jesus? Jesus helps us understand whom His “brother” is in the same parable by the phrase that immediately follows “the least of these.” Whatever you did to them: “you did it to me” (v.40) or “you did not do it to me” (v.45). So whoever the brother is, s/he is directly connected to Jesus. Now we know that not all people are connected to Jesus, for only those who believe in Him are “in Him” or "in the vine." In as much as the rich are not automatically connected to Jesus, the poor are also not automatically connected to Jesus (though, Jesus’ compassion for them is clear, as should ours be). To take it a step further, Mark records Jesus as defining His brothers as “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Certainly, not believing in Jesus is contrary to the will of God. Carson makes an additional note on Acts 9:4. In it Jesus tells Saul that when Saul persecuted the Church, Saul was persecuting Him. So by extension, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are those in Him who do His will and are in His Church. There is also the multiple references to the brother in 1 John, where it is clear John is speaking about those who are in the faith. In the Matthew text, the clearest reference is to His disciples who were following Him and present during the telling of this parable, but in addition we can include all those who believe in Him and are following Him.

More convincingly, the word used for “least” in the Greek Matthew 25:40,45 text is the superlative μικροι (mikroi), and when we look at the other times forms of this word are used in Matthew, we see it references those who believe in Jesus/His disciples. Here are just two of those examples:

18:6 “whoever causes one of these little ones (μικροων, mikrone) who believe in me to sin…”
10:42 “whoever gives one of these little ones (μικροων, mikrone) even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple…”

Then going off of that second example is the parallel passage of 10:40-42 to 25:31-46. In both cases, Jesus is talking about his disciples who are traveling around preaching the Good News and who are in need of provision (food, drink, clothes, medicine, a place to sleep) and who may be in another land (thus, strangers) or are put in prison for their message. With all of this it is clear that Jesus is talking about a specific group of people in Matthew 25:31-46 and not everyone who is hungry, or sick, or in prison. “The least of these” text should not be used by social justice advocates to guilt others in the church into digging wells in Africa. As Carson writes, “There is overwhelming evidence that this expression does not refer to everyone who is suffering, but to Jesus’ followers who are suffering. The emphasis is not on generic compassion (as important as that is elsewhere), but on who has shown compassion to the followers of Jesus who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or in prison.”

Indeed, there are plenty of other texts that could be used (and should be used!) to support benevolence ministries to the unbelieving poor and suffering (like Luke 6:27-31; Matthew 5:16; Matthew 7:12; Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15, etc.) but Matthew 25:31-46 should not be one of them. In fact, the Matthew text should convict those who wish to help the unbeliever over that of a believer. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:10 “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We, as believers, have a responsibility first to the Body of Christ, then to others.

So as we seek to serve others both inside and outside the church, let us not prove our cause with sloppy exegesis. We don’t need to!