Statement of Faith & Ordination Materials
Thesis: I believe the Bible is inerrant in its original form, divinely inspired, has been accurately preserved, and continues to be personally relevant to every human alive. This four-faceted statement sums up the most doctrinally crucial aspects of my convictions about the Bible. I also see the Bible (the entire collection of stories and other writings) as one unified story that points to Jesus. I plan on adding a section to this article on that topic in the future.
Scope: This is not a thorough defense as to why I believe these things, but I will expound on what these facets mean and why the Bible is so important to me. I would also like to note that I believe the Bible has great literary significance, as well as substantial historical and scientific implications. However, a thorough examination of those topics is beyond the scope of this article.
Canon: For this discussion, any reference to the Bible refers to the combined 66 Old Testament (TaNaK) and New Testament books recognized by canon in the Protestant tradition.
Scriptural Basis: Nearly every statement that follows can be summarized by the following two scripture passages:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. —2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God. —2 Peter 1:20-21 (NLT)
The Divinity of the Bible
I assert the divinity of the Bible in three aspects: it is inerrant, inspired, and authoritative. These concepts are closely correspondent and reinforce each other. What follows in support of this statement is based upon its self-affirming claims, so is relevant to someone with a basic acceptance of the Bible, as opposed to someone who rejects or distrusts it.
To say that the Bible is authoritative implies certain objective attributes. For example, authority grants the bearer (in case the Bible) a certain power or credibility that exists objectively in some respect. Submission and trust in its authority and credibility are not obligatory, but ignorance or rejection of the truth does not change the truth, nor does a faulty interpretation of the truth. Authority in this sense also refers to a source of authority which is external to humanity. It means that the Bible is not a mere mortal product of religion. Its authority did not come from the church, a council, convention, or even those who originally penned the words. The Bible’s authority is divine and establishes itself as a measure of truth. It proclaims its authority by describing its importance and origin (Matthew 5:17-20, John 10:34-35). As the word of God, it inherits His property of absolute truth. The authority of the Bible is derived directly from God Himself, through the process of inspiration.
Biblical inspiration refers to the concept of “God-breathed” textual communication. The word that has been translated as “inspired” literally means “breathed.” All of scripture was “breathed” out by God. 2 Timothy 3:16 states that “All Scripture is inspired by God…” declaring that God breathed the words of scripture into the writers for the benefit of humanity. Inspiration establishes the Bible as the culmination of specific concepts, words, and messages proceeding directly from God in the form of human language.
Because the words of scripture were “breathed” by God, they must be perfect. (Psalm 119:138, Psalm 119:142) God is perfect and defines truth, so what He says and does must be perfect and true. The Bible is a product of God, and as such it inherits His inerrant nature. There exists neither error nor blemish within its texts. Each word (as originally written) is perfect and verified by God. The Bible is crafted with calculated precision. The very presence or the tense of certain words can impact the meaning of a passage. The perfection of words extends to the perfection of their concept and message. It is completely and always true, and can be understood as such when interpreted properly in context. The whole collection is unified, without contradiction or conflict. It also fits within the guidelines set forth before Israel (Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:20-22) to determine the validity of human communicators of God’s word, as with the prophets.
In addition to the Bible’s self-affirmation, this view has survived the test of time. The church all throughout history has believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. This fact alone does not prove anything, but it strengthens the premise in that it has yet to be positively rejected or disproven. From an epistemological standpoint, one can argue that the Bible must be inerrant, or otherwise cannot be trusted at all. If some of the Bible might be false, how can we know what of it is true? Rejecting its inerrancy opens the door to a very slippery slope.
The Humanity of the Bible
The divinity and perfection of the Bible make it a unique book, but it is made even more fascinating by the fact that God did not physically craft the writings Himself. Instead, He used human skill, language, and culture. John 1 refers to Jesus, the human manifestation of God, as “The Word.” Scripture is also a human manifestation of God, in that it is his written Word provided in a human framework. In this sense, the Bible mirrors the doctrine of Christ’s hypostatic union. Both can be described as simultaneously completely divine and completely human. Each book takes on the personality and context of the author without causing any contradictions or detracting from its perfection. A variety of literary styles reflect the various needs and methods humans have of searching to discern truth and obey God. The humanity of the Bible is what makes it fit for human consumption. That is, God has specially prepared the revelation of His word in a format (human language) that we can consume.
Because the authors lived in a vastly different context than us, it can be helpful to understand their context as much as possible. To give just one example, looking at the method and style of Biblical narrative can enhance our understanding of the Bible. Ancient Jewish storytelling was concerned primarily with crafting an effective narrative that perfectly communicated its purpose and relevance, rather than recording a list of accurate details. An abundance of detail could be unimportant at best and distracting or misleading at worst. Such an intentional approach to detail lends a much heavier weight to each detail given. It also means that the meaning of details is much more important than the details themselves. That is, the details of certain stories may not be precise (as a video recording of an event would be), but they more accurately reflect the true story (as in telling someone about an event in a way that quickly and effectively communicates what happened). Such a storytelling style creates an invitation to participate in the story and learn about God through the journeys of the human characters, rather than memorize a list of statements about God.
The Preservation of the Bible
Through the efforts of faithful scribes, each original writing was preserved by meticulous copying and distribution over thousands of years. Thanks to modern archeology, we have an abundance of ancient copies that are very close in their time of writing to the originals. Comparing thousands of copies shows very little variation, and any differences are minor with no impact on the meaning of the text. I have full confidence that the text has been preserved well enough that its inerrancy has not diminished.
I also believe its divine attributes can be preserved through translated versions of the original languages. Of course, due to the importance of context, knowledge of the original languages can certainly provide a greater depth of understanding in scripture. Without being able to read the original languages, it is important to be aware of the shortcomings and challenges of translation processes, choosing and reading any version accordingly. However, the message and truth of God transcends language and can be understood sufficiently for salvation in any faithful translation. The word of God is immutable and everlasting (Psalm 119:89). It is worth mentioning that even when the overall message is preserved, there are some translations that are more beneficial than others, and often a combination of translations is most helpful. There are others still which stray so far from the original as to contain harmful or inaccurate content and implications.
The Relevance of the Bible
The Bible is God’s way of revealing Himself and communicating with us. He has revealed Himself to an extent through His creation; we can see the evidence of His design all around us in nature. (Psalm 19:1, John 1:3, Job 12:7-10, Romans 1:20). However, He has chosen to reveal Himself more fully and personally through the Bible, making it relevant to every human on Earth.
The Bible’s authority was given to humans for our benefit (Consider Exodus 19:5, Joshua 1:8). It presents God as our creator, and shows us that listening to what our creator says is in our best interest. Through the Bible, anyone can learn who God is, what He has done, and how to glorify Him. It is also “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12), playing an active role in the spiritual life of believers. It serves as a conduit and catalyst for personal communication with God. That it has transformative power is evident whenever someone truly lets the Word of God govern their every thought, feeling and action. (Colossians 3:16)
The Bible also defines the concept of sin against God, as well as the penalty of such. Because we are sinners and fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23), we desperately need His salvation and grace. There is no other way to be a part of His kingdom. The process by which God sacrificed Himself in His Son for the sake of the world is narrated in the New Testament and explained by the Old Testament.
Understanding the Bible redefines my understanding of myself. The Bible reveals that I have been redeemed, justified and sanctified by Jesus, and it teaches me how to live accordingly (Ephesians 4:1). I accept Him as my Lord and cede my life on earth to His glory. The life of Christ and the life of the church that followed serve as clarification and models for my life on earth.
The words of the Bible have been breathed into existence by God, providing perfect authority and truth. This truth has been preserved to this day, remaining relevant as a pathway to redemption, a gateway to restoration. My goal is not to take this tremendous gift for granted, but rather place Scripture at the utmost priority in my life, and encourage others to do likewise.
God in General–A Supreme, Ultimate Being.
God, in a general sense, can be defined first as an ultimate, supreme reality. In other words, God has infinite and limitless capability. That notion itself is one that humans cannot fully comprehend, but it does imply certain attributes. Though the following attributes can be inferred simply from the logical extrapolation of this definition, I will also provide biblical references to reinforce each conclusion, and I will use the Bible as my source to narrow my definition of God later. I will be referring to God with masculine pronouns throughout, with my rationale for such included in a later section.
From the definition of God as a supreme being comes the conclusion that God, by definition, exists. Few would argue that non-existence is superior to existence. Likewise, existing and living is superior to existing and not living. Therefore, we can refer to God as a “being,” a living existence.
Israel’s sacred name for God, YAHWEH, refers to existence and is closely tied to God’s revelation of Himself to Moses. When Moses asked God for a name, he received the following reply:
I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you. (Exodus 3:14-15, NLT)
Another implication of God’s ultimate supremacy is that He is infinite, having no beginning or end. A non-temporal being, existing separately from the construct of spacetime, is not subject to temporal concepts such as “origin.” God has no “origin,” He is infinite. His existence extends beyond the beginning and end of everything else. (Revelation 1:8, Psalm 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8)
God’s supremacy also applies to power and authority. His sovereignty is ultimate; no other being is above God in that regard, and His sovereign will determines the reality of every outcome in the universe. (Colossians 1:17; Psalm 97:9, 29:10; 1 Chronicles 29:11-12; Proverbs 16:33)
The word “omnipotence” is often used to refer to the limitless nature of God’s power. However, the purest definition of that word creates logical fallacies. Logic itself proceeds from the nature of God [see section on God as creator] and is simply a method that humans use to understand creation. Thereby we observe logical rules such as the law of non-contradiction as proceeding from and applying to God as well as to His creation. God is omnipotent in the sense that His power is the ultimate power, infinite and unlimited by any external force. (Jeremiah 32:27, Psalm 135:6, Luke 1:37, Isaiah 45:7, Job 42:2) However, the logical law of non-contradiction restricts us from entertaining paradoxical questions such as “Can God create a rock bigger than He can lift?”
Similarly, “omniscience” is often used to describe God’s limitless and comprehensive knowledge. There is nothing unknown to God. (Psalm 147:5, Hebrews 4:13, Proverbs 15:3) Some will point out a paradoxical problem this implies regarding the role of decisions and free will in creation. I will discuss the anthropological aspect of this elsewhere, but from a theological perspective, the problem can be dismissed simply by remembering that God is not constrained to any perspectives provided by the scope of time.
God in the Bible
God has revealed Himself in more detail than simply the characteristics inferred from the general definition of an ultimate, supreme being. Through the revelation of scripture, we can learn several more important truths about God.
God is Creator
Out of God’s existence, He spoke into existence every other reality in the universe. (Genesis 1:1, Psalm 33:6) All creation (that is, matter, energy, and what we refer to as spacetime itself) was created by God. (Colossians 1:16-17, Psalm 90:2, John 1:3, Isaiah 45:7) Knowing God as creator helps shape our understanding of creation. Namely, we see that creation reveals its creator, (Psalm 19:1, 8:3; Romans 1:20) and we ascertain concepts such as love, truth, goodness, and beauty within God’s creation because they are aspects of God’s very nature.
God is Knowable
God talked with humans after creating them (Genesis 2:16-17) and manifested a physical presence among them. (Genesis 3:8-13) It is thereby evident that although His supremacy is not fully comprehensible, (Isaiah 55:8-9) God is still knowable to an extent by humans. God’s continued communication with humans is a consistent theme throughout the rest of scripture, and scripture itself is a bridge that helps humans reconnect with their creator.
God is Holy
One of the most defining attributes we can know about God is His holiness. “Holiness” refers to God’s unique, unblemished, pure perfection. The word itself means “unique” or “set apart” so describing God as holy means there is none other like Him. Descriptions of God’s glory, especially in the context of worship, often involve the declaration of God’s holiness. (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8, Psalm 29:1-2)
Though only God can be truly described as perfectly holy, (1 Samuel 2:2, Exodus 15:11, Romans 3:23) He wants everyone and everything to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16, Ephesians 1:4, 2 Timothy 1:9) and cannot tolerate the existence of unholiness in His presence. I visualize the “intolerance” of God’s holiness like the pure burning heat of the sun, which is so intense it consumes and purges anything unlike itself which gets too near its presence. Similar imagery is found in Malachi 4:1. (Side note: God provided the ultimate solution to this problem through Christ, which is the subject of soteriology, addressed very briefly in the last section of this essay).
God is Triune
God’s plurality can be described as a community of love, which is a template all His creation is meant to reflect on every level.
God refers to Himself as a plurality (Genesis 1:26, 3:22) and a title frequently used for God in the Old Testament is Elohim, which grammatically (though not always literally) is a plural noun. The Old Testament has many such allusions to the trinity, but it is in the New Testament where God is revealed as three distinct persons, composing one cohesive Godhead. Those persons are known as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19; Romans 14:17-18; Luke 3:21-22; 1 Peter 1:1-2) Despite the distinct plurality of the Trinity, scripture is clear that God is a singular being. (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 44:6, 45:5-6, 18; John 10:30)
God is Benevolent and Loving
Not only is God knowable, but He also loves humans, wants to help them, and wants them to know Him. (Deuteronomy 7:9; Jeremiah 29:11-13; Isaiah 41:10; Psalm 46:10, 86:15; 1 John 4:16-21; John 3:16) Though humans adulterated their relationship with God (Genesis 3), distancing themselves from His holiness, the rest of the Bible’s narrative reveals God’s plan and process of restoring their relationship with Him, ultimately revealed and fulfilled through Christ. (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; Romans 5:8; Mark 10:45; 1 John 4:10; Ephesians 2:4-5; Titus 3:4-7)
God is Masculine/Male
From page one of the Bible, masculine pronounces are used to refer to God. Some have argued against the accuracy of such pronouns, but it reflects God’s self-revelation to humans. Two of the members of the triune Godhead are explicitly male, Father and Son. The Father and Spirit are not described as physical entities, so would not have male or female distinguishing physical features. However, when God did manifest physically as a human, He chose to do so as a man. Jesus often referenced or spoke to God the “Father” (John 14:9-11 just to provide one example), but never “mother” and always using male pronouns. Jesus’s words are consistent with and verify the various metaphors and pronouns throughout the Bible which refer to God as masculine.
Does this mean that women do not reflect the image of God, or that God does not have attributes typically attributed to females? By no means! God made all humans, both male and female, in the likeness of Himself, and exhibits nurturing qualities such as kindness, patience, and gentleness, which some may designate as “maternal.” However, He clearly wishes to be thought of as male and referred to by male pronouns, and to do otherwise is disrespectful at the least.
In summary, God exists infinitely without origin, as the ultimate, supreme, sovereign, all-powerful and all-knowing being who created everything else that is. We as His creation can know Him and know that He is holy, triune, male, and benevolent. I believe that in light of all this, the most important thing we can know about God is best summarized by John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
These existential questions are foundational, paramount topics of human thought, as (in my experience) people do not find satisfaction, peace, or fulfillment during their lives unless they first find some answer for those types of questions. I believe the Bible provides the best answers to all those questions, and the following is my understanding of exactly what its answers are.
Part 1: Defining Humans
The human creature is classified in scientific taxonomy as Homo sapiens, a species recognizable as distinctly unique standing amid the rest of creation. Our particular capabilities, capacities, and accomplishments have bred much introspective questioning. Centuries of self-recorded human history reveal endless questions about where we came from, why we are here, what our ancestors have done, what our purpose is now, and if there is any hope for our future.
These existential questions are foundational, paramount topics of human thought, as (in my experience) people do not find satisfaction, peace, or fulfillment during their lives unless they first find some answer for those types of questions. I believe the Bible provides the best answers to all those questions, and the following is my understanding of exactly what its answers are.
Where did humans come from?
Humans’ first appearance in the narrative timeline of scripture answers the first foundational question: where did we come from? The Bible’s first character, introduced as a powerful, creative being, brought the world and life into existence. (Genesis 1-2) On the final day of creation, this God created a new type of creature, a human, described first in Genesis 1:26-27. The process by which they were created is detailed further in Genesis 2:7, 21-22. A man was both formed out of the ground and given breath (life) by God, and in turn a woman was formed out of the man. (1 Corinthians 11:8-9)
Why were humans created?
Humans were the only part of creation described as being created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27, 5:1-3, 9:6). The decision to create such a being reveals that God desired a being that would reflect His nature and act as His standard bearer on Earth. They were told to populate and govern the earth. (Genesis 1:28) Throughout the rest of scripture we can see humans’ overall role in creation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first question is “What is the chief end of man?” and I believe its answer is one of the best and most concise summaries of scripture’s response. It simply states: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” (Psalm 73:24-26, 16:5-11, 144:15; Isaiah 60:21, 12:2; 1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31; Romans 11:36; Philippians 4:4, Revelation 4:11)
Part 2: Human Past, Present & Future
What happened to the original humans?
When God placed humans in their original home, a garden sanctuary, (Genesis 2:8-17) He gave them some guidelines and He was their only source of defining right and wrong, good and bad. (Genesis 2:16-17) Tragically, they chose to instead define those values for themselves, in direct disobedience to God. (Genesis 3:1-10) They took something for themselves that was good in their own eyes, instead of trusting God’s definition of what was good for them. As a result, God kicked them out of the garden, into a cursed world with adverse effects for them and all their descendants. (Genesis 3: 14-24, Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
The subsequent history shows the violent, destructive, and self-centered behavior of humans left to their own devices, distancing themselves from God by their sin. Patterns of human behavior in the Old Testament reveal the innate corruption of man due to the original man’s sin and is further defined in the New Testament, showing that humans have been unable to improve or cure their depravity. (Genesis 6:5, 12, 8:21; Psalm 51:5, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 1:18-25, 3:9-23, 7:18, 1 John 1:8-10)
Is there any hope for humans?
Fortunately, God did not completely forsake humanity. Even as He exiled them, He hinted at His plan to restore humans and conquer sin and death. (Genesis 3:15) He chose to continue interacting with humans, using some of them to showcase His mercy and serve as a conduit for His glory. In doing so, He also revealed humans’ need for redemption and salvation. (Read the whole Old Testament)
Over time, He established a series of covenants with His chosen people, the Israelites, and gave them teachings (including principles, concepts, customs, rituals, laws, and regulations) through which they could enjoy His blessings, guidance, and even His presence. People could experience God’s forgiveness and holiness through ritual purification processes and animal sacrifices. These rituals symbolized the cleansing of unholiness and absorption of their sin into an innocent replacement, the animal. However, they were never able to sustain their end of the agreement consistently. They entered cycles of holiness, loyalty, and prosperity, followed by depravity, rebellion, and destruction. Even over hundreds of years, this cycle only spiraled downward. (Again, see the whole Old Testament. For all the detailed explanations of their rituals and customs, read Exodus-Deuteronomy)
Because humans are incapable of saving themselves, God provided a new kind of human, born to a virgin woman through the divine intervention of God’s spirit. (Luke 1:34-35; Matthew 1:18, 20) This man, Jesus, walked the earth as a human manifestation of the holy creator God, and as such, lived a perfect, righteous, blameless life. (John 1:14, 10:30, 14:10, Colossians 2:9, Matthew 3:17, 17:15; 1 Peter 1:19, 2:22, Hebrews 4:15, 9:14, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 John 3:5, Romans 8:3) He explained the true meaning and purpose of God’s teachings and claimed to be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to His people. Furthermore, He revealed that through Him, God’s mercy would extend to humans all over the earth, not just Israel. (Luke 2:10, Galatians 3:28, Romans 10:12, 3:29, Colossians 3:11, Acts 28:28) He gave Himself as the ultimate sacrifice, a blameless substitute to absorb the sins of all humanity and redeem them into God’s family. He died brutally at the hands of men, was buried, then resurrected victoriously, all exactly as He said He would. (Matthew 20:17-19, John 19:5-6, 29-30, Luke 23:44-47, 24:6-7, Mark 8:31, 15:46-47, 16:5-7, Acts 3:15, 4:33, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 He left the earth still alive, shortly thereafter. However, He sent His Spirit to continue His work in and through those who believed and accepted Him.
To expound more on Christ’s story would be to overlap too far into Christology. However, the topic cannot be entirely avoided when discussing anthropology, because Christ essentially introduced a new way to define what a human is. Jesus’s life and work provided a perfect example of a “reborn” human, a “new creature” indwelt with the Holy Spirit of the Creator God Himself. (1 Corinthians 15:22, John 1:13, 3:1-10, Romans 6:3, 8:9, 10:9-10, 1 Peter 1:3, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Acts 2:38, Colossians 1:18)
The gospel of Christ is not only the hope for humanity but the great excitement and joy we live in during the present age. All humans can benefit from the gift of Jesus and the power of God to redefine who we are. (Not all do, but that falls under the subject of soteriology). Under this new definition, we are children of God, brothers in Christ, the functional and unified family and body of new humans. (Galatians 3:26, John 1:12, Hebrews 2:11, 1 John 3:12 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Romans 8:15, 12:4-5, Ephesians 1:5, 2:19, 4:4, 11-13, Galatians 3:26)
Why, then, do some who would define themselves as such not always look like children of God or act like brothers in Christ, but rather as a dysfunctional, broken and deeply flawed band of misfits?
This contradiction exists because even the spiritually reborn have yet to be physically reborn. God’s work is not yet complete. We may be in one of the final chapters, but there are pages written that have yet to come. To go much further would be to trespass upon the subject of eschatology, but I believe it should be mentioned that we are not the “final product.” That is the hope we have in what is yet to come, because humans in the present day are indeed deeply flawed and imperfect. Even the spiritually reborn at times succumb to the temptations and habits of their innate depravity. However, the promise we have is of an eternal life that extends beyond the eventual death and decay of our current bodies, and into a new body that will not be tarnished by sin. (Romans 7:14-25, 8:18-21, Philippians 1:6, Revelation 21:3-4, Isaiah 65:17-25, 66:22-23, Matthew 19:28, 2 Peter 3:7-13)
That is a concise summary of what I believe about Christ, but what does it all mean? I will aim to explain the above by breaking it down into five topics: the hypostatic union, the virgin birth, His ministry and teaching, His death, burial, and resurrection, and finally His disciples and ongoing eternal rule. Note that I will be using the past tense in many cases, as a reference specifically to the years that Jesus physically dwelled on the earth.
The hypostatic union is a theological term to describe the unique dual nature of Jesus. It refers to the fact that He was both fully God and fully human, simultaneously. Colossians 2:9 states this concisely: “For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.” (NLT)
Jesus walked the earth as a biologically human man, born with flesh and bones and every other physical, mental, and emotional aspect of a human. He ate and drank, talked and had relationships, traveled, grew tired, and slept. He felt love, compassion, sorrow, and anger. (John 1:1, 1:14, 2:15-17, 4:6, 11:33-35, 13:21, 19:28, Luke 2:7, 2:40, Matthew 4:2, 4:11, 8:10, 26:38, Hebrews 2:17, 4:15, 5:7)
Divinity & Holiness
Christ’s humanity is what He had in common with us. What made Jesus fundamentally unique among humans was His divinity and subsequent power, authority, and holiness. He was a physical, human manifestation of Yahweh, the creator and sustainer of the universe. He has always existed, even before His birth on earth. (John 1:1, 8:58, Colossians 1:15, 2:9, Hebrews 1:3, Matthew 1:23, 3:3) As such, He spoke and taught with divine authority (Mark 1:22, Matthew 10:1, 21:8, 13:54, 21:13, 22:23-33, 46, 28:18), acted with divine power, including the power to forgive sins (Matthew 4:23-24, 8:3, 8:5-17, 9:2, 9:23-26, 14:32, 36, Mark 5:30, Luke 6:19, 7:14, 49, John 1:29, 1:47-51, 8:11-12), and lived a divinely blameless life. (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 1:19) His holiness corresponds to His divinity; being God implies being holy (1 John 1:5, see theology proper on the holiness of God), and only a God-man would ever have the capacity for self-sustained holiness. (Romans 3:23, 3:9-12, 2 Chronicles 6:36, Isaiah 53:6, Micah 7:2-4, 1 John 1:8, 10, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19) Jesus was the first human to demonstrate sinlessness, overcoming the deceit and temptation of the evil character who drove the tension of evil from the first pages of scripture. (Matthew 4:1-11)
Paradoxical Unity of Distinct Entities
The hypostatic union is somewhat enigmatic, as is the doctrine of the Trinity as a whole, in that we as “only” human, cannot fully comprehend or imagine an existence like Christ’s. (1 Timothy 3:16, John 6:38, Matthew 26:39, compare Mark 13:32 and John 21:17) That said, both human and divine natures were definitively united in one man. (1 Timothy 2:5, John 10:30, 12:45) Furthermore, His union with the Father is something that we are even called to emulate! (John 17:20-26)
The divinity of Christ may be His defining feature, but the manner by which He came into our world was no less unprecedented (and has yet to be repeated). He was born naturally of a woman but was conceived supernaturally by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin woman. (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:27, 1:34-35, 2:7, Galatians 4:4)
Ministry and Teaching
Around the age of thirty, Jesus began preaching about the kingdom of God and calling for repentance. (Luke 3:23, Matthew 4:17) Wherever He went, He performed miracles which displayed His divinity and ministered to those who would receive him; particularly, the poor, lonely, sick and rejected. Meanwhile, He taught and discipled those whom He called to follow Him. (Matthew 4-25, Mark 1-13, Luke 4-21, John 1-17, Acts 10:38) He went beyond the teachings of any previous prophet or leader, in that He claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah, who was prophesied to conquer sin and death and restore the kingdom of God on earth. (John 4:25-26, 5:17-18, 13:13, Matthew 16:15-17, 26:63-64, Mark 8:29-30, 14:61-62, Luke 9:20-21, 22:70) He demonstrated extraordinary understanding of scripture. Though old testament laws and teachings are vast and complex, Jesus made the radically simple statement that all of it can be summarized by two commandments: love God, and love others as yourself. (Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34) Furthermore, Jesus claimed that He came to fulfill all the requirements of the law. (Matthew 5:17-20)
Death, Burial, & Resurrection
Eventually, Christ’s pointed criticism and condemnation of sin, corruption, and hypocrisy among the religious leaders incited outrage and indignation. This led to a conspiracy and plot to kill Him. (Matthew 26:1-5, 26:14-16) He was arrested in the middle of the night and was accused of blasphemy for His claims of divinity (Matthew 26:47-56, Luke 22:70, John 5:18). Pontius Pilate, who adjudicated the trial, found Him innocent of any wrongdoing and tried to spare His life. (Luke 23:13-16) However, the people who hated Jesus were so insistent that He was beaten mercilessly, mocked, and nailed to a cross to die. (Each of the gospels contains this entire account in varying detail) Jesus allowed himself to suffer everything they subjected Him to, and ultimately allowed himself to die. (Matthew 27:50, John 19:30)
At the moment of His death, the earth shook, the sky was darkened, dead people came back to life, and the veil in the temple was miraculously torn completely in two. (Matthew 27:51-52) Such a dramatic reaction from creation itself and the Jewish holy place was a confirmation of Christ’s claims (recognized by those present), as well as a signifier of a shift in God’s relationship with humanity. The veil previously acted as a barrier between God’s presence and mankind. Jesus made that barrier unnecessary and took on the role of high priest for all mankind. He, being a holy and blameless sacrifice, took on the sins of the world and conquered death itself so that we might have salvation through Him. (John 3:16, Hebrews 4:14-16, 1 John 2:2, 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18, 2 Corinthians 5:21)
Jesus’ lifeless body was placed and sealed in a tomb. (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-55, John 19:38-42) There it remained for three days, after which He resurrected, and the stone sealing the tomb was supernaturally removed. (Matthew 28:1-5, Mark 16:1-6, Luke 24:1-5, John 20:1-9) Jesus once again walked the earth, and He appeared in the flesh to His closest disciples and friends, as well as many other witnesses. (Matthew 28:1-9, Luke 24:34, 24:39, John 20:14-16, 20-27, 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, Acts 1:3)
It is important to avoid an unbalanced view of Christ’s dual nature. Denying either his deity or his humanity would result in an unscriptural understanding of Jesus, who would not have credibility, authority, or saving power.
Since the earliest days of the church, there have been wrongful, heretical views regarding Christ. Ebionitism, for example, posited Christ as a normal man who received the spirit of God when he was baptized. Arianism declared Christ as the first born of Creation, created from nothing before time began, and denied distinction within the Godhead. Apollinarianism departed from Christ’s total humanity, attempting to explain the unity of God and man. Such views are contrary to scriptures such as previously cited and have been condemned as heresy.
Great Commission & Ongoing Rule of Christ
Jesus had many followers, and there were twelve in particular whom He chose to be His closest disciples, the apostles. (Matthew 10:1–4, Mark 3:13–19 Luke 6:12–16) After His resurrection, Jesus gave them some final teachings but explained that He was leaving them under His authority and mission, to be passed on to all who would accept it. He promised to send the power, guidance, and comfort of the Holy Spirit, through whom they were to spread the good news of what He had done, from their hometown to the ends of the earth. (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:44-49)
The apostles saw Him ascend into heaven to take His place as ruler of the world. (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:50-51) Since then, Jesus has remained living and active, though His interaction with humans shifted. He now uses all His people through the power of His Spirit (the subject of ecclesiology and pneumatology). Notably, He did explicitly appear to some after His ascension: to Stephen during his trial (Acts 7:55-56), to Paul on the road to Damascus as a blindingly glorious light (Acts 9:3-5) and to John as a transfigured humanoid being. (Revelation 1:12-18) He is depicted as being seated at the right hand of God, playing an active role in the rule of the universe and the salvation of humans. He is our king and high priest. (Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:2, 3:22, Revelation 3:21, Matthew 22:44, Acts 2:3)
Jesus came as God incarnate. He existed as completely human and completely God—one person in the triune Godhead, possessing two distinct and essential natures. Living as a sinless human, humiliating himself to walk among a corrupt people on a fallen earth, he provided a perfect sacrifice for the redemptive atonement of all mankind. He was tempted, tested, and tortured to the extent or beyond that which I will ever experience. Nevertheless, he submitted to the will of the Father. He demonstrated the fruits of love and taught the meaning of truth. I strive to live according to His teachings and example of how a human should live and interact with his friends, neighbors, and enemies. Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. Let us seek, serve, and praise Him always, rejoicing in the great love, mercy, and freedom He gave us, as we pass it on to all who will receive it.
To best understand the identity of The Holy Spirit, let us first examine the etymology of His title. “Holy” is commonly used simply to distinguish from any other spiritual being and refers to His “otherness” and purity. However, the Bible may also refer to Him as “God’s Spirit,” “The Spirit of God,” or simply “The Spirit.” As such, the word “spirit” is the most important defining factor when referring to Him.
The word “Spirit” in the Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew and Aramaic word רוּחַ (ruach). I will attempt to summarize its rich depth of meaning without going into all 388 old testament appearances of the word, as exciting as that would be. It is important to note that not all appearances of ruach necessarily refer to the person of “THE Holy Spirit.” However, understanding the meaning of “spirit” is crucial, just as understanding the meaning of “lion” is crucial to understanding the meaning of “Lion King” even though not every reference to a lion is a reference to Lion King.
Ruach is often translated as “spirit” or “spirits” (212 times in the ESV) though sometimes it is translated as “wind,” “breath” and other similar concepts. The root רוח (rwch) means “to smell; to be relieved; wide, spacious” which relates the concept of “breath” specifically that which passes through the nose. That same root also refers to incense, burnt offerings, and aroma in general. (Genesis 8:21, 27:27, Exodus 29:18, Numbers 15:3-24, and many others).
Providentially, the concept of aroma can be a helpful analogy to the concept of The Holy Spirit. Aroma is intangible yet undeniable and, in fact at times inescapable! Anyone who has been sprayed by a skunk knows what it is like to be unable to “flee from the presence” of something! (Psalm 139:7-8) Aroma is powerful. It is invisible yet can dramatically alter the mood and emotion of any given situation, trigger vivid memories that were otherwise lying dormant, and is crucial to the full experience of tasting food.
Necessary to the experience of any aroma is the action of breathing, specifically by drawing air in through one’s nostrils. It is unsurprising, then, that “breath” is a core concept in ruach, and, like “aroma” is a helpful analogy. The same word translated in the ESV as “spirit” is translated 34 times as “breath.” In these cases, “breath” is generally used to refer to the life force of people and animals (i.e. “breath of life”). It is a logical association, as all creatures must breathe in order to live. Breath is the sustaining movement of an intangible, invisible presence, without which nothing on Earth could live. The same is true of The Holy Spirit. In this sense, the word “spirit” regarding any living beings can be well understood to mean something along the lines of “life force” or “the intangible but essential quality of life.”
Furthermore, we the created have none to thank but our Creator for the gift of this quality. Consider Genesis 2:7 (ESV): “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” It is only by God that we have life. (See also Job 12:10, 33:4, 34:14-15)
At times “breath” or “breeze” is not a forceful enough translation to fit the context, and it does not always refer to a “spirit” or “life force.” As such, ruach is translated 114 times in the ESV as “wind” or “winds.” Most often it is a wind proceeding from or sent by God, and often has devastating or otherwise dramatic effects. (Genesis 8:1, Exodus 10:13, 19, 14:21, 1 Kings 19:11, Psalm 48:7, Ezekiel 13:13, Jonah 1:4, to name a few)
One of my favorite passages containing ruach is in Exodus 15, where the people of Israel are praising God in song after he brought them safely through the Red Sea and delivered them from the pursuing Egyptian army. Verses 8 and 10 (ESV) read:
“At the blast [ruach] of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap…You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.”
Such colorful, poetic phrasing paints a vivid picture and incorporates multiple concepts in one image. Moreover, once again, we have a helpful analogy for understanding the nature of God’s Spirit. Wind is a powerful force. It can uproot trees, level buildings, toss around enormous waves of water, and carry storms across hundreds of miles. It can also propel a ship filled with people across the ocean or distribute pollen and seeds to propagate the earth. Anyone who has started a fire without lighter fluid knows how handy it is to have a forceful set of lungs to blow a week pile of sparks and kindling into a powerful, consuming flame.
Activity of The Spirit
The analogous necessity of breath and wind in the world leads us to the activity of God’s Spirit. Understanding a little about His nature, what exactly does he do? The Bible describes The Spirit at work from the very beginning.
Old Testament Activity
Genesis 1:2 describes the Spirit of God as “hovering over the midst of the waters.” (ESV)
Genesis provides a picture of God’s Spirit being the present, active force in the process of creation, ready to interact with the earth according to the Father’s will. Verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, and 26 all begin with “And/Then God Said” to open the explanation for the corresponding day of creation. This pattern itself invokes an implication of the ruach involvement, for, when one speaks, on what do the words ride? Speech is carried on the breath that proceeds from the mouth of the speaker. Consider also Job 26:13, Psalm 33:6, 104:30.
We also see cases of God’s Spirit selectively gifting or even overtaking various individuals throughout the Old Testament. Notable examples are Joshua (Num. 27:18), Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (6:34), Samson (13:25; 14:6), and Saul (1 Sam. 10:9, 10). In particular, prophecies and scripture itself are attributed to the intervention of God’s Spirit. (2 Samuel 23:2, Ezekiel 2:2, 2 Timothy 3:16-17) Note the significance of the phrase “inspired” or “God-breathed” considering our understanding of ruach.
New Testament Activity
Old Testament prophesies alluded to a future when God would put His Spirit in people, particularly in and through the Messiah, as an act of mercy and redemption. (Ezekiel 36:27, Isaiah 11:2, 61:1, Joel 2:28) Of course, Jesus claimed to be a fulfillment of said prophesies. (Luke 4:18-19, Acts 2:14-41) The claim in Luke 4 came on the heels of a pivotal series of events: the baptism, and subsequent testing of Jesus. During His baptism, The Spirit of God descended “like a dove,” and the voice of God the Father declared Jesus as His “beloved Son.” (Matthew 3:16-17) After his baptism, Jesus was “filled with” and “led by” the Spirit, setting a precedent for all those who would follow Him. (Luke 4:1)
After Jesus was raised from the dead, and before he ascended to heaven, he instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for The Spirit to come to them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4-8). Then, on the day of Pentecost, The Spirit arrived as promised, and did so dramatically. (Acts 2:1-13) Some examples follow of all believers, including gentiles, and not just leaders or prominent figures, being similarly “filled with the Spirit” as were prophets and judges in the Old Testament. (Acts 4:31, 7:54, 8:39, 9:31, 10:44)
The Spirit of the New Testament is the same as that of the Old Testament. However, Christ brought a shift by making the indwelling of The Spirit available to all who follow Him, as opposed to those rare and select few, even among God’s people, in the Old Testament. (1 Samuel 3:1, John 3:34, Acts 2:38)
Even when not acting in dramatic and miraculous ways, The Spirit is described as the unifying and sanctifying power in the church, drawing people to God and providing a common experiential factor across all languages and cultures. Salvation in Christ is possible through The Spirit. God’s Spirit convicts, sustains, guides, and informs us. He is the seal of our inheritance, and the proof of the hope we have in God. (John 3:5, 4:24, 14:26 16:7-10, 3:1-8, 6:44, 1 Corinthians 2:10, 3:16, 12:13, Ephesians 1:13, 5:8, Romans 8:9, 8:16, 2 Corinthians 3:14, Galatians 5:22-23, Nehemiah 9:20, Acts 2:38, Hebrews 9:14, Matthew 10:20, Psalm 143:10)
As Christians in this age, we ought to cherish this gift of The Spirit, pray for His guidance, follow His leading, abide in His comfort, rely on His power, and dwell as a unified body in His presence.
Each of these questions is answered rather directly by scripture, though with enough ambiguity as to result in a great variety of interpretation and subsequent division among Christians. In this essay, I will not explore every possible interpretation of scripture, nor attempt to draw definitive lines between contentious doctrinal views of soteriology. I will, rather, seek to point out what I view as the most straightforward and inarguable soteriological statements found in scripture.
Who Must Be Saved, and From What?
Salvation is not necessary unless there is something from which one needs saving. I thereby believe it crucial to define that thing before discussing the nature of salvation itself.
In my experience, and for centuries of Christian tradition, many people would answer “eternal damnation” or simply “hell.” I believe “hell,” while not invalid, is not a helpful answer in this context. “Eternal Damnation” is more to the point, however “damnation” (much like “hell”) generally has no precise meaning to most people in a modern context, and thereby leaves much to be explained.
“Death” is sometimes offered as the answer. Again, I believe that it is valid, but too ambiguous. The word must be redefined from the normal biological use of the word to achieve contextual accuracy. Furthermore, I do not prefer this term (again, in a modern context) as it implies the total annihilation of one’s existence. I do not think annihilationism is necessarily implied by scripture.
I believe the best and most helpful explanation of our plight from which we need salvation, whether applied to the word “damnation,” “death,” or “hell,” can be described along the lines of the tragic and eternal separation of ourselves from God.
The origin and nature of humans’ separation from God are explored more in Anthropology. For this discussion, it will suffice to say that all humans have inherited a broken relationship with God. Humans have fallen short of their creator’s standard of perfection, primarily through pride, disobedience, and rebellion. We have failed to adequately love God, love each other, and behave accordingly. As a result, we have earned the just punishment of God’s wrath.
The exact nature of such punishment is not as clear to me as it seems to be to those who routinely portray it in detail. I will say that a great number of modern conceptions of “hell” come from Dante’s Inferno rather than from the Bible. That said, the state of eternal condemnation is certainly presented as the least ideal state of existence. Biblical references tend to be vague and say little more than simply “eternal punishment” or “realm of the dead.” Others are outright mind-boggling (Revelation 20:13-14 for example). Though a few passages do give more detail, those details vary depending on the context.
The most consistent and prevailing theme I have found is that of separation from God. As far as I am concerned, being separated from the presence and love of God would be so excruciating and miserable that any other forms or sources of agony pale in comparison and matter little. To me, that is the most dreadful thing from which we must be saved. I also believe it is important to recognize that, while external forces can certainly influence us, we are all held accountable for our decisions. The subjects of God’s wrath are considered completely responsible for their own demise.
(Isaiah 59:2, 1 John 1:10, Romans 5:12, 3:10-18, 3:23, 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-3, Revelation 21:8, Matthew 10:29, 24:51, 25:41, 25:46, 13:42, 13:50, Psalm 9:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Acts 2:27, Jude 1:7, Proverbs 15:24, Ezekiel 18:20, Galatians 5:19-21, 6:7-8, Mark 9:43-47)
By what means can one be saved?
Having established that all have sinned and are headed for certain doom and despair, we can thankfully move on to examining the good news. The short answer is that one can be saved by God’s graceful intervention. We learn from the Old Testament narratives that God is full of love for humanity, relentlessly graceful and forgiving, and that heroic love comes to a climax in the New Testament.
Old Testament Precedent
Even in the face of man’s initial rebellion, God alluded to an alternative to the earned consequences of sin. He continued to interact with humans, and though they suffered the immediate consequences of their sin, He did not abandon them. They were expelled from the garden, but He allowed them to continue abiding on the earth. (Genesis 1-3)
Humanity’s sin, destruction, and violence only escalated, and though God sent a devastating flood as judgment, He saved Noah’s family as a remnant to repopulate the Earth with a set of basic moral and spiritual guidelines to follow. Knowing fully that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from His youth” He promised never to wipe them out again. (Genesis 8:21, 8-9)
Later, God called out one man, Abraham, and promised to bless his descendants, making them a large nation—a numerous and powerful group of people. More importantly, God promised that somehow Abraham’s descendants would restore God’s blessing to the entire world. This promise was conditional, as Abraham and his family had a set of expectations to participate in God’s promise. They had a part to play. However, God’s selection of Abraham was not based on any merit of righteousness. And even if it were, Abraham exhibited many occasions of unrighteousness. His one redeeming quality was that of faith, which was “counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:22) However, he didn’t always hold up his end of the deal, and even his faith seemed to waiver at times. Nevertheless, God did fulfill his promises, and Abraham’s family became the large and powerful nation of Israel.
(Genesis 12:1-3, 6-7, 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14)
An important landmark in Israel’s history was when, in a heroic display of grace and power, God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He then made another conditional promise, that He would dwell among them and they would be a kingdom of priests, representing and revealing God to the rest of the world. Through them, He revealed His standards for perfection and justice. However, humans fell short of that standard by a long shot. So, to allow for unholy humans to enter God’s holy presence, He gracefully provided a system for ritual purification, sacrifices, and priesthood. Israel could enjoy God’s presence and blessing, as long as they followed His ways and trusted Him to meet their needs.
(Exodus 1-23, 3:7-20, 19:1-6)
Of course, they strayed from God’s ways time after time again. God would often punish them in response but always allowed them to return to His love. Meanwhile, He began revealing through prophets that He planned to rescue them (and the rest of the world) from the bondage of sin in an even bigger way. Specifically, God promised to raise up a descendant of David who would establish a temple and kingdom that would extend across the world and into eternity, bringing God’s justice and peace to the whole earth.
(2 Samuel 7:10-16, Psalm 72:1-17, 132:11-12, Isaiah 9-11, 54:10, 55:3, 42:1-7, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:22-32)
Each of those Old Testament covenants layered onto each other, and each served to bring people closer to God. Each was an outreach of grace on God’s part (despite human failure) to restore His relationship with humanity and bring His blessing to the whole earth. I bring up the Old Testament history, because I think it is important to recognize that the New Testament does not tell a separate story, nor does it introduce a “new” or “more merciful” God. The New Testament is the extension and climax of the Old Testament story. It shows God following the same pattern of grace and redemption as He did in the Old Testament, taking it yet another step further. Each of those narratives (among many others) reflected and foreshadowed the even larger story that was to come.
New Testament Climax
When Jesus came, he claimed to be the fulfillment of all the Old Testament’s messianic prophesies. God becoming human, He was able to fulfill all of God’s roles and Man’s roles of the old covenants. He explained that His death would be the ultimate propitiation, a perfect sacrifice atoning for the sins of the world and sealing a new covenant for a new people in a new kingdom.
Jesus claimed to be the only viable means of salvation. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and nobody can have a relationship with God apart from Jesus.
Those who follow Jesus become part of the new “family of Abraham” regardless of nationality or bloodlines. Those who are in Christ are not condemned, rather are promised eternal life in a fellowship of peace and love with God and the rest of God’s family. We cannot earn salvation or be “good enough” for God to accept us; just like the Israelites, we will always end up failing at some point. In the Old Testament, salvation was only ever possible through God’s intervention and grace, and that precedent holds true in the New Testament.
Once we have recognized that we have sinned, receiving the gift of salvation requires only acceptance on our part. Acceptance is the wholehearted, inward belief and outward testimony that Jesus is God, that He died for our sin, and was raised from the dead. Such acceptance is a trust in God’s ability and willingness to provide justification and redemption. Such trust acknowledges and submits to God’s will. Submission to God’s will involves repentance and doing good things; that is the purpose for which we are saved. One thing leads to another, and they are inextricably intertwined. However, it is the faith which saves us and enables the rest to occur, not the other way around.
(John 3:14-21, 3:16, 3:36, 6:51, 14:6, Matthew 5-7, Luke 4:14-20, 19:10, 22:19-22, Galatians 2:16, 3:23-29, Acts 4:12, 16:31, 2:21, 2 Timothy 1:9, Romans 5:8-9, 5:18, 10:9-10, 3:24-26, 6:23, Mark 16:16, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 John 1:9, 1:7, 2:2, 4:10, 2 Corinthians 5:9, 5:19-21, 1 Peter 2:24, 3:18, Hebrews 9:14, Titus 2:11, 3:5-7, Ephesians 2:8-9, Colossians 1:20, Isaiah 43:25, 53:5)
Who partakes in salvation, and why?
Anyone may partake in salvation. There are no restrictions on who may accept the gift of salvation, regardless of race, sex, age, or history of prior sins. Though salvation was offered first to the Jews, and the rest of the world using the Jews, it was always intended to reach every corner of the earth. (Acts 2:21, Romans 1:16, 9:25-26 Titus 2:11, Ephesians 3:6, 1 John 2:2)
Those who are adopted into God’s family are done so by God’s initiation. This is consistent with the pattern we see throughout scripture of people finding salvation only by the grace of God, not by any power or actions of their own. God alone has the power over death, and no dead man can rise of his own volition. God, out of love, chose to bring all who are saved to Him, and the decision was made before the world began. This does not negate the importance of human response in the process of salvation, nor does it detract from the imperative of evangelism (see Evangelism & Mission).
Scripture is clear that God has chosen those He has saved, by merit of God’s own will, love, and grace. Scripture is also clear that all people are held responsible for their decisions, and that those who are saved have chosen to respond to God’s love with faith, acceptance, and reciprocating love.
The tension between God’s election/predestination of people and the notion of human free will has long been “discussed,” to put it mildly. The theoretical logistics are seemingly paradoxical, but I do not believe that God’s sovereignty, nor our free will is violated by salvation. An abundance of keystrokes and ink has been spent on this topic, and I think it can be beneficial to explore that tension. However, understanding the metaphysical mechanics of salvation is not necessary to partake in salvation.
I do not find it any more difficult, or less necessary, to accept the transcendentally incomprehensible truth of this soteriological fact than it is to accept the theological doctrine of a triune God. Both topics are difficult to understand in human terms; however I do not find either to be inconsistent, illogical, or self-contradictory. For now, I will have to leave it at that.
(1 John 4:19, Ephesians 1:4-5, 2:8-10, 1:11, Romans 3:20, 8:28-30, 11:5, John 15:16, 17:6, 15:19, 6:44, 2 Timothy 1:9, 1 Peter 1:20, Proverbs 16:4, Acts 13:48, Matthew 22:14, 1 Thessalonians 1:4, James 1:18)
What is the impact of salvation in the life of a human?
Jesus Christ has saved me, is saving me, and will save me. The redemptive spectrum of salvation includes the overlapping but distinct doctrines of justification, sanctification, and glorification.
The first and immediate effect of salvation is that of justification. Being “saved” is to have escaped the judicial verdict of “guilty.” The blood of Christ has paid the penalty of our sin, leaving us declared “just” in the holy eyes of God. Those who are saved therefore have been justified. The justification is final; the case cannot be reopened, the verdict can never be overturned.
(Titus 3:7, Romans 5:1, 3:28, 5:9, 8:1, 8:31-34, 8:38, Galatians 3:24, 2:16-17, Colossians 2:13-14, 2 Corinthians 5:19)
Sanctification is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process in the life of a Christian. It is the continual fight against sin, renewal of our minds, and growth in our relationship with God. The purpose for which we are saved is to do God’s work, to be Christ’s body and to represent God on the earth. God does the work of sanctification in our lives by His own power, but not without means of our participation. We are called to respond to salvation by living fully surrendered to God’s will, dead to sin and alive in Christ. We are called to live, think, and breathe through the lens of the love that has saved us. This is partly a natural and intuitive response, but it is not without internal conflict and resistance. Those who are saved are being sanctified.
(James 2:26, 2 Peter 1:10, Galatians 2:14-21, Romans 6:22, 2 Timothy 2:21, John 17:17, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:6, 6:11, 6:1-2, Ok all of Romans 6, Romans 7:14-25, Ok all of Romans, Hebrews 10:14, 2:11, 12:14, Philippians 2:13, Colossians 3:5, Ephesians 4:24, 4:13, 2:10, 1 John 3:9
Though it is a process that does not arrive at perfection in our mortal bodies, it is not a process without progress (see Discipleship and Personal Growth). However, progress is only made possible through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of Christ, indwells God’s people. The Spirit can guide and assist in practical matters, bring comfort and healing, discernment, and wisdom. He convicts and protects. By Him, we bear fruit and are filled with His fruit. By Him we are united. By Him, we are sanctified.
(Acts 1:8, 2:38, Galatians 5:16, 5:22-23, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 13:4-8, 2 Corinthians 1:22, 3:17-18, Romans 5:5, 15:13, John 14:16, 14:26, Luke 11:13, Mark 13:11)
The culmination of salvation and redemption is glorification. I hesitate to venture into many details in this realm, as I do for any matters of eschatology or anything yet to come. However, I understand it to mean the final and complete freedom from sin, and capacity to fully worship and fellowship in the presence of God in an immortal and sinless body.
(Philippians 1:6, 3:20-21, Jude 1:20-21, Colossians 3:4, 1 John 3:2, Romans 8:18, 8:23)
Praise God for such an incredible gift!
To begin a discussion about church, I must first define the word “church.” “Church” is defined by popular use as a building which people of a particular religion use to gather, worship, and facilitate other functions. However, that is not the biblical understanding of the word “church.”
Church is People.
The term ecclesiology comes from the Greek word ekklesia which simply means “assembly” or, more literally, “to be together.” At its core, the concept of church has no necessary implication of buildings, but of people existing in a community with one another. In other words, church is not a building; church is people.
Church is Universal & Local.
In a universal sense, the church refers to the global community of Jesus followers throughout all space and time. Any and all genuine Christians are members of the church, individuals who together comprise an entity that can be referred to as a singularity.
On the other hand, a church can refer to a more localized, immediate community of believers who live and worship in proximity to each other. A “local church” is defined by geographical location, and personal relationships within that context.
Therefore, we can refer to “the church” singularly (Acts 9:31) or “churches” plurally (Revelation 1:20) depending on the context.
Biblical Metaphors for the Church
My definition for “church” thus far is rather broad and vague, with far-reaching and complex implications. The concept of church is indeed very complex, so metaphorical illustrations can be very helpful in understanding it. As such, I will examine three biblical examples which serve to enrich our understanding of the nature of church.
The Church is a Body.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:12-31, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 1:22, 4:4, 4:15-16, 5:23, 5:29-30, Colossians 1:18, 2:19
Just as each Christian is a small yet vital member of the vast church of Christ, each local church is a unique and important part of the global church. The human body is an excellent illustration of how that works, in that one body is made up of many parts, each member with a vast variety of different roles, and all reporting to the head. When one part of the body is compromised, it affects the whole body’s wellbeing, and the body works best when all its members are working in harmony and balance.
The human body is comprised of many systems: the circulatory system, respiratory system, reproduction system, etc. Each system is made up of various organs, which are comprised of combined tissues, which are maintained by individual cells, and so on. Each entity, from the entire body down, is singular and unique, yet comprised of equally singular and unique entities.
This concept leads to practical implications. Just as we have different body parts to perform different tasks, so the church has a variety of people with unique gifts, callings, and responsibilities. 1 Corinthians 12:15-21 is humorously literal with this illustration, imagining a foot not wanting to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or an eye saying to a hand that it is unneeded. Verse 17 even imagines an entire body that is just an eye or an ear, to emphasize how absurd that idea is.
Verse 26 of that same passage brings up another practical point: the shared suffering and joys of belonging to a body. We all know how much a simple papercut can affect how we feel the rest of the day, let alone a sprained ankle, sore tooth, or stomachache. On the other hand, a back or foot rub can have an equally significant impact. In the same way, the lives of people in the church impact the lives of other people in the church, both negatively and positively.
Of course, there is one body part which is more crucial than the rest: the head. Without a head, a body is dead and useless, but with a head, a whole body can be animated, led, and coordinated. This speaks in part to the importance of leadership within local bodies, but more significantly it illustrates how vital it is for any church to be connected to their true head, Christ.
Perhaps the most literal aspect of referring to the church as a body is the fact that the church is referred to as “the body” of Christ. That is, the church is the physical faculties of Christ’s spirit on Earth. We as individuals do not live up to His perfect example, but together are His chosen method of accomplishing His work until He returns.
The final attribute of the “body” metaphor I’d like to point out is the ideal state of harmony and balance: the unity of a stable equilibrium between interdependent parts. This ideal state is known physiologically as homeostasis and could also well be applied to the ideal state of unity in the church. Even before “the church” in the Christian sense existed, unity was an ideal for God’s people, (Psalm 133:1). and is a major theme represented by passages describing the church as a body. Unity does not mean uniformity, rather a wide variety of people all being led by the same Spirit in order to accomplish the mission of God and exist together in a community of love.
The Church is a Building.
1 Peter 2:5, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Corinthians 3:9-11
The second example is that of a building. This may be somewhat of an ironic illustration after stressing that church is not a building. This is not as literal of a metaphor as that of the body, but the language and concepts of buildings and construction lend well to the purposes of this discussion.
The verses above refer to Christ as the cornerstone, the apostles the foundation, and the rest of us the “living stones” of a spiritual “house” which is continuously being built by God. This illustration is helpful in several ways:
First, it reminds us that without Christ, none of the church is possible. The “cornerstone” was the piece of a building upon which the rest of the construction depended.
Secondly, it recognizes the significance of the work of the early apostles. While subordinate to Christ, they facilitated an immediate and expanded model of the church, exemplifying the life of imperfect humans led by the spirit, living in community, and spreading the gospel.
Lastly, I like to take the metaphor even a bit further than the text explicitly does. Thinking of Christ as the cornerstone, us as the stones, and the Father as the designer, I see God’s Spirit as being the “mortar” which connects and unites all members of the church. Without this amalgamating element, the stones would not stay together, and the building would fall apart.
The Church is a Bride/Wife.
Revelation 19:7-9, 21:2, 2 Corinthians 11:1-4, Ephesians 5:25-27, Matthew 25:1
The last example is that of a bride. This example serves to illustrate not just the nature of the church itself, but of her relationship to God, and, more specifically, Jesus. I believe this metaphor is significant because it emphasizes the love relationship between God and people, while explaining how we as the church should anticipate the return of Jesus.
Describing the church as a “bride” or “wife” is an overt reference to the multi-faceted affection, desire, passion, and love that God has for His people. It acknowledges the love of John 3:16 and John 15:13. It also maps onto language in the Old Testament comparing God's people to a (usually adulterous) wife. This is a reminder of how painful unrequited or scorned love is for God. (Jeremiah 3:8, Ezekiel 16:8)
Given the examples above, it is unsurprising to find that Jesus told multiple parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to wedding-related events. (Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13) Each is used to illustrate different points of perspective, but in each story, God (Jesus) is portrayed as the bridegroom and His people (the church) as the bride. Matthew 25 primarily makes the point that when the bridegroom returns, only those who are “prepared” and “ready” will be able to join the feast. This of course ventures into eschatological discussion, however I think it is worth briefly mentioning here. The church as a whole (and subsequently each of her members) has an imperative to anticipate, look for, and prepare for Christ’s return with the same eagerness and readiness as a bride awaiting her wedding.
Where Did Church Come From? (Origin)
The global church as we know it today began with the work of one man, Jesus, and the subsequent obedience of His disciples. Jesus stated implicitly His intent to “build” His church in Matthew 16:18, before “the church” was even known as such.
The book of Acts chronicles the events immediately following Christ’s ascension, beginning with the disciples waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit, who came on the day of Pentecost. The result was a rather explosive kick-off for the church: that day saw about three thousand people added to the church in Jerusalem. In the days that followed, they (including many visitors from out of town) spent time together and supported each other by sharing resources and liquidating assets. This allowed them to learn from the apostles, worship together, and continue growing in number as a community in which everyone’s needs were met and God’s power displayed. (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37, 5:12-16)
This all drew significant attention, and eventually persecution from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Ultimately this led to the scattering and decentralization of the church throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) which began to fulfill Jesus’s commission to the apostles. (Matthew 28:16-20) However, the apostles remained in Jerusalem, while a man named Saul was at the forefront of seeking and executing Jesus followers. In an act of divine intervention, Jesus appeared to Saul and changed his perspective rather abruptly. (Acts 9:3-19) Saul’s conversion completely redirected his zeal, and he moved to the forefront of spreading the gospel everywhere to everyone, with ground-breaking special attention to non-Jews as “an apostle to the Gentiles.” (Romans 11:13, Ephesians 3:1) His ministry to Greek-speaking people also resulted in him being more commonly known by the Greek version of his name, “Paul,” in later years.
The remaining history of the church is quite long, complex, and at times sordid, but mostly beyond the scope of this discussion. Cultural and technological shifts have altered global contexts in which the church exists, and we can observe highs and lows in the moral and theological fiber of the church over time.
What is the Role of Church? (Purpose)
The church exists to carry out the mission of God as Christ’s body, spreading the gospel and existing together in love and unity as an image of God Himself. This purpose is already somewhat implied by the identity of the Church, and modeled in the origin of the church, but I will try to make a few practical points for applying this purpose in a modern context.
Church Equips and Sharpens.
There is an aspect of global cooperation when it comes to equipping each other for the work, however I think this begins as a function of local church bodies. Such equipping can take various forms and employs the variety of spiritual gifts given to believers. It is accomplished through discipleship, teaching, reproach, and encouragement. Holding each other accountable comes through genuine relationships, honest confession, and loving adherence to sound doctrine. All this should be done using Scripture as the primary tool and basis for truth. (See also Discipleship and Bibliology).
Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Church Provides a Family-Like Community.
This type of community is one which meets regularly to share in the basic components of Christian life, such as worship, food, friendship, scriptural study, etc. Whatever the logistics, the purpose for gathering is to “share life” through loving and meaningful relationships. This includes (but is not limited to) singing together, praying together, sharing meals, celebrating and grieving together, serving each other, and even just having fun and relaxing together.
Some such activities may involve large assemblies, while others necessitate smaller, home-sized gatherings. Often, I believe a combination of both large and small gatherings of various sizes can be a healthy pattern for a family. There can be great benefits to large numbers of people gathering, sharing resources, etc. However, that should never come at the expense of, or in place of, the familial relationships that are cultivated in smaller groups of people sharing in the natural rhythms of life.
One final note on the role of community is that it facilitates the observance of two ordinances: that of communion and that of baptism. Communion, by definition, is a communal function. Baptism is an event that naturally (though not necessarily) takes place in the presence of a gathering of people. Those two ordinances constitute two entirely different topics that I will not discuss in detail here; I just want to make a point that church can and should facilitate both.
Hebrews 10:24-25, James 5:14, Romans 8:15, 12:10-13, 1 John 4:7, Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 2:19, John 13:34-35, 1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:10
Church Enables Collective Outreach.
As much as people are meant to care for and provide for each other within church families, they are not meant to form isolated communities. They should also be mobilized and active within the larger context of their communities: their neighborhoods, towns, etc. In this way, people are not on mission merely as individuals, but as integrated and cooperative groups of people who are able to spread the gospel by means of proximity and intentionality in their communities. (See also Evangelism & Mission). As the church is the body of Christ on Earth, so it must follow His example of ministering to people, both physically and spiritually.
John 20:21, 17:11-16 Matthew 9:10-13, 2 Corinthians 5:20, 1 Peter 2:9-12, Mark 16:15, Matthew 25:35-40
What is the Anatomy of Church? (Structure)
In my experience, the identity, origin, and general purpose of the church are the most easily agreed upon attributes of ecclesiology. The most contentious and varied discussion seems to be that of church structure and logistical function.
The bible does not prescribe many specific details when it comes to this topic, so neither will I here. However, there are a few expectations which are clear. Some form of leadership and delegation of responsibility in any given community is natural, expected, and necessary, though all authority belongs to Christ, the true head of the church. Responsibility for leadership takes the form of various roles to help administrate, equip, teach, encourage, admonish, provide, serve, and protect.
These roles have multitudinous manifestations of nature and implementation depending on context. Leaders are referred to as “pastors” “elders” “shepherds” or “overseers” throughout Paul’s letters to early churches. He also mentions apostles and prophets, as well as evangelists and teachers. (Ephesians 4:11) However, I do not believe scripture provides any definite statutory prescription for a specific church model of structure and function. In fact, this is one reason why there are so many different types of churches in the world today.
What is prescriptive in those letters is the actual character and nature of people in leadership, and particularly “elders” or “overseers.” The way a local church runs on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis may differ drastically in different communities throughout the world, however the character and values of those in leadership should not, in essence, vary at all. (See Eldership Requirements & Responsibilities).
Acts 14:23, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, 5:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4
The other role described somewhat specifically is that of “deacon” or “servant” and simply refers to someone assigned to a specific task or duty. Because this tends to be an “official” and public role, there are similar character requirements listed for deacons as there are for elders. Many churches today still appoint deacons to varying degrees of responsibility and officiality.
Acts 6:1-15, 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Philippians 1:1, Romans 16:1
The church is people. We do not go to church; we are the church. We are connected by the Holy Spirit to the entire family of God throughout the world, as well as to our local families of servant missionaries. Together, under the leadership of Christ and His servants, we build each other up, serving each other and the rest of the world the way Jesus did on Earth. May we be faithful to God and to each other in love as we live and share the truth of God’s Kingdom in our lives, and in doing so join in God’s mission and continue Christ’s work as His hands and feet on Earth.
Eschatological discussions tend to revolve around the topics of the millennium, tribulation, “rapture,” the battle, and final judgement. Stark hermeneutical differences in literalness and the timeline of events have led to much controversy. I believe it can be beneficial to consider and attempt to understand these details, however such differences of interpretation are a good indication that scripture is just not entirely clear on them. As such, I do not believe that dogmatic doctrinal (or political) stances on eschatology, such that it leads to division, is beneficial.
For this reason, I will not be identifying my eschatological beliefs based on how I view the timeline of events, or how literally I interpret the characters and events described in Revelation. What I will focus on is what I believe to be of far greater significance: the overarching themes and truths which should not depend upon how literally you view the prophesies or the order in which events take place. I will then also address a few topics which I think have been misunderstood or inappropriately obsessed over at large.
Key Themes and Truths
At its core, the message is very simple: Jesus will come again to rule and complete the work of conquering sin & death forever. Those who follow him will ultimately rule with him in a recreated world where heaven and earth are reunited, and God’s glory permeates and sustains all things. All of this is a consummation of God’s plan for humanity, and a climax for Old Testament narrative and prophesy.
The Return & Rule of Jesus
Revelation 19-20 is the source of much of the controversy surrounding Eschatology. However, no matter your interpretation, I believe the crux is clear. It describes the arrival of the king of the world, and the vindication of His people. He judges everyone and everything on earth, dead or alive, and casts away those who are not in “the book of life.” Regardless of the details, these chapters serve to give hope for those who are in Christ (particularly the persecuted), and a warning for those who are not (particularly the persecutors and deceivers).
One detail I do think is notable is that in John’s vision, the “Lion of Judah, Root of David” is portrayed initially not as a majestic lion or king, but as slaughtered lamb. (Revelation 5:5-6) The lamb of course represents Christ, and this portrayal connects His sacrifice to His role as the messiah and conquering king. It was not through war or political upheaval that Jesus began His reign, but through His crucifixion and resurrection. By contrast, chapter 19 describes Him with far greater splendor and ferocity. However, that ferocity is very precisely aimed. The wrath He delivers is primarily to rulers, nations, and mysterious forces of evil, and the people who are rejected are those who rejected the offer of love and mercy made possible by the cross.
The Consummation of God’s Love for Humanity
Revelation 21-22 is where it really gets good! Here is where John has a vision of a new world. Heaven, once the dwelling place of God, is no longer as distinct from earth as it was. The two seem to merge, as the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven, and God dwells with humans on earth. This union of heaven and earth is so joyous and so intimate that it is likened to a marriage. (See also the ecclesiological concept of the church as the bride of Christ). Like a husband and wife, heaven and earth still exist as two entities, but are unified in a profound way. Jerusalem is described as God’s bride, which explains the marriage supper described earlier in 19:6-9.
21:9-22:5 describe the new world as resplendent, idyllic and glorious. God’s presence is no longer confined or withheld, nor even is light itself, as the sun and the moon are replaced by the light of God’s glory. His servants worship Him and reign with him forever.
Climax for Old Testament Narrative & Prophesy
While the book of Revelation can seem like a unique and even bizarre book, I think it is a very cohesive climax to the story of scripture, and its prophesies are very much woven into those of the Old Testament. In fact, there are far too many connections for me to examine thoroughly here, but I would like to point out a few that have stood out to me.
Humans Restored to Original Position
In Genesis, humans are created in God’s glorious image to rule. (Genesis 1:27-28) Romans 1:22-23 points out how humans’ decent into depravity was an inversion of that role, in which we abdicated God’s glory to worship images of the things we were meant to rule. Revelation sees a restoration to humans’ rightful place in God’s kingdom, made possible by Jesus.
Repetition of The Exodus Narrative
The plagues and bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16 echo the plagues in Egypt through which God showed his power and executed judgement on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. This creates a conceptual analog between the unrepentant recipients of wrath in Revelation to the unrepentant Pharaoh in Exodus. In both cases, the recipient is portrayed as a monstrous evil entity, while God is the powerful and heroic rescuer who defeats them.
Building on Old Testament Prophesies
The concept of God recreating heaven and earth is not unique to Revelation. Consider Isaiah 65:17-18: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.”
Furthermore, the descriptions of the new creation mirror descriptions of the Eden ideal, as found in Genesis 2 and Ezekiel 47, and fulfill prophesies of Jerusalem’s role as described in Isaiah 2 and Zephaniah 3.
There are a few eschatology-related words and concepts which I think have been misunderstood or misrepresented in popular discussion and media, and/or which have been given a disproportionate amount of attention. This will certainly not be an exhaustive or scholarly examination of such topics; however, I would like to bring up just a couple that have become especially glaring to me while studying eschatology.
The Word “Apocalypse”
The English word “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek word (ἀποκάλυψις) of similar pronunciation (“apokalypsis”). It is commonly used in modern context to be synonymous with “the end of the world.” I find this unfortunate for several reasons. First, the meaning of the word itself is simply “revelation” and is the Greek title of the book. Secondly, the book of Revelation is not so much focused on the end of the world as it is the judgement and redemption of the world.
Furthermore, there is other apocalyptic literature in the Bible, such as can be found in the prophetic material of Ezekiel and Daniel, as well as in other second temple period writings. However, the subjects of such writings are generally associated with God’s victory and vengeance and “the day of the Lord” as something to be longed for by God’s people. When is the last time you heard someone say “I long for the apocalypse‽”
Antichrist & The Beast
I think there has been an excessive amount of interest and speculation over the concept of “the antichrist.” The term simply means “against Christ” and scripture refers to a plurality of such figures. It never refers to an all-important figure called “the antichrist” only “antichrists” or “an antichrist.” So, the expectation of a single human fulfilling that role is quite unfounded in my opinion. Of far greater significance (in my opinion) is “the beast” of Revelation and I do not think that term necessarily replies to one person either.
Numbers were highly significant and symbolic in Jewish thought and literature. There is a rich depth of meaning to the numbers used throughout prophetic text. For example, the number 7 is found all throughout Revelation (53 times!) and is the number of completion. I personally have barely even scratched the surface of such depth and am surer of what the numbers do not provide than I am of what they do provide. I am certain that Revelation and other apocalyptic texts do not predict or provide an exact timeline such that anyone could know when these events will take place. This is easily confirmed by the words of Jesus himself (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32) and by comparisons of Jesus to a “thief” who comes unexpectedly in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3)
Regardless of whether Christ comes back today, or in ten thousand years from now, and regardless of what happens when He does, we (the church) should look forward to that time with hope and strive to accomplish “heaven on earth” in the meantime. That is, act as tabernacles of God’s presence to bring the light of His reign, His glory, truth, and love, to the world around us. Jesus is king, and will bring that mission to completion, conquering sin and death forever, and reuniting heaven and earth for eternity. What a blessing to have such a great hope; let us anticipate it with joy!
- Leadership in General
- Teachers need to understand what they are talking about before making confident assertions. (1 Tim 1:7)
- Authority over men must be exercised by men (1 Tim 2:12)
- An “overseer” or “God’s steward” (1 Tim 3:1-7, Titus 1:7-9) must be:
- Above reproach
- Able to teach
- Not a drunkard
- Gentle and self-controlled (not violent, quarrelsome, or quick-tempered)
- Not a lover of money or greedy for gain
- A good manager of his household (particularly as evidenced by his family)
- A mature Christian (not recently converted)
- Of a good reputation to the world
Several of the requirements listed above come with implied responsibility:
- He must be able to teach, and be informed as to what he teaches. This allows for authoritative teaching instead of vain discussion. (1 Tim 1:7) This implies the responsibility of studying scripture, spending time in prayer and meditation, and seeking truth and wisdom through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- Many of the requirements deal with lifestyle and social conduct. Being “above reproach” and having a good reputation is a responsibility, as it requires some degree of maintenance. This requirement, along with the others that deal with specific lifestyle choices, is not a “checkbox” requirement. It is an ongoing standard for personal conduct.
- From a social/civic perspective, he should not be a stranger to his community. He should be engaged at least to the point of establishing a solid reputation.
- Spiritually, an elder also has the responsibility of providing an example, both to the church and to outsiders, of a redeemed, sanctified life.
- Timothy is told to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Tim 4:12)
- Titus is told to “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned…” (Titus 2:8)
- There are two caveats to this responsibility.
- First, an elder is not expected to be perfect or without failure. All God’s people, including elders, are imperfect and broken. Elders will still sin and make mistakes; being above reproach does not mean hiding or covering up failure. However, it does mean they should exemplify humility and repentance, allowing God’s perfect grace, forgiveness, and redemptive power to take center stage in every circumstance
- Secondly, this responsibility is not unique to an elder. It is a core element to any Christian’s life. That said, leadership does add scrutiny and magnification to a man’s life, so he should be prepared for that.
Paul also mentions some other specific expectations for Timothy and Titus:
- Preach the word. (2 Tim 4:2)
- This is a straightforward responsibility and can be as simple as proclaiming exactly what is written.
- Preaching the word means sharing the gospel with unbelievers, as well as preaching it as a reminder to those who do believe.
- Give instruction in sound doctrine. (Titus 1:9, 2:1)
- The ability to do this comes from holding “firm to the trustworthy word as taught.”
- This may include helping others understand the nuances and implications of scripture, following its themes, and drawing conclusions based on a thorough understanding of the word as a whole.
- Provide practical guidance and training in holy living.
- This includes guidelines for behavior at home and family life. (Titus 2:1-6)
- This includes guidelines for civic and social life. (Titus 3:1-2)
- Be ready at all times (in season and out of season). (2 Tim 4:2) Ready for what?
- Ready for the Holy Spirit
- Ready for questions
- Ready for opposition
- Ready for Christ’s return
- Ready for “every good work.” (Titus 3:1)
- Reprove, rebuke, and exhort.
- As much as he must teach sound doctrine, he must “also rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9)
- This is to be done “with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim 4:2)
- Correction must only be done with the intention of building people up and strengthening their faith, not to humiliate or tear them down. Titus 1:13 says to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith…” revealing the motivation behind rebuke.
- This is to be done with authority; he must stand his ground. (Titus 2:15)
My Testimony—A Grace Story
- A formal written or spoken statement, especially one given in a court of law.
- Evidence or proof provided by the existence or appearance of something.
- A public recounting of a religious conversion or experience.
- The unmerited favor of God
I can remember in detail the evening that I sat down and prayed the five-year-old version of what is commonly known as “The Sinner’s Prayer.” It was May 6th, 1998. I was attending the weekly AWANA Cubbies program at my family’s church, First Bible Baptist Church in Greece, NY. We had finished our lesson and were settling in for perhaps the most highly anticipated event of the evening: snack time! It was a large group of preschool kids, and we were all sitting at those short little preschool kids’ tables waiting anxiously for our portions of animal crackers. They were the extra tasty kind that night, the kind with frosting on them! I was sitting by myself, not secluded but not actively engaged with anyone either.
At that age, I was a relatively solitary child, for a few reasons. I was not particularly shy, and had no real problem talking to other kids, but was not very inclined to making real “friends.” Though I wasn’t entirely aware of it until years later, I was often not very pleasant, and an insufferable know-it-all. In general, it took more patience to get along with me than could have been expected from my young peers. At that age, however, I usually felt content in my relative solitude, because I also tended to get caught up in my head anyway. My brain was always teeming with thoughts, both imaginative and analytical.
I was not (nor am I now) a genius by any measure, but my cognitive development was significantly ahead of the average timeline in proportion to my age. In addition to Sunday school and programs like AWANA, my parents often allowed me to be a part of adult conversations and gatherings. I was able to comprehend much of what speakers taught in the adult church services I attended. My mother also started homeschooling me when I was very young. Alongside phonics, reading, interpreting the weather and telling time, she made sure bible stories and doctrinal foundations were integral to her curriculum. All these factors together led to me having a decent level of knowledge and understanding of the core gospel message by the time I was five. I am far from unique in that respect (and I think a lot of five-year-olds could use more credit), but I think it is important to qualify this story with that bit of background.
Because my parents and other adults in the church had told them to me, I knew about the Bible's teachings. I knew about God. I knew that He is all-powerful, that He created the earth and all living things. I knew that His first humans disobeyed, which was called sin, and they were no longer allowed to walk with God in the garden He made for them. I knew that as a result their descendants were born into a curse, which broke their relationship with God and with the earth. I was told these things, and I believed them.
There was one truth I believed, but not just because people told me. It was for a reason much more profound than that. I understood it because I knew by experience that it was true. The truth is that every person is born with a desire to sin, and even if they try as hard as they can to fight that desire, everyone ends up succumbing anyway. I understood that personally. I can remember having disobedient and mischievous proclivities from a very young age. I also remember finding that I was consistently unable, despite my most earnest attempts, to act according to my noble intentions. I still did things I knew I shouldn’t do and didn’t do things I knew I should do.
Such helplessness and hopelessness would all be a rather dismal situation if it weren’t for the final truth, the “good news.” God knew people would not succeed at being sinless on their own. They needed help, and because God is full of love, He had a plan to save them. He made an incredible sacrifice by sending His son Jesus to live as a human. Jesus taught us about God and His law, then allowed himself to be killed on a cross to pay for the sins of the whole world. That act of love balanced the scales of justice and opened the door for people to walk with God again. Then, Jesus came back from the grave and appeared to His followers to say goodbye before going back to heaven. Finally, He sent His Spirit to continue guiding and empowering all those who follow Him. All we need to do is believe and accept this incredible gift, and we can be saved from our sin. Jesus allows us to have an eternal relationship with our creator, instead of being forever separated from Him by our sin.
All this brings us back to that short little preschoolers’ table, where I sat waiting for my animal crackers, silently pondering and simmering in thoughts. I had heard the long and the short of the gospel message from various perspectives. I knew the message of “salvation” was usually being directed over my head, to the much older people surrounding me. Nevertheless, that evening one phrase kept echoing in my head. I had heard speakers say “It’s never too early or too late” to respond to the good news. I heard this said to adults, but figured “never too early,” if taken literally, must apply to me, too! I thought to myself “Well, I keep hearing about how people need to pray about getting saved, and of course I’ve been planning on doing that myself when I get older, but why should I wait any longer? It’s never too early! I might as well do it now! After all, nobody knows how long they’ll live; I could die tonight!” (Yes, I thought about my mortality when I was five). So, there at the table, I put my head down and blocked out the rest of the world with my arms wrapped around my face. I don’t remember my exact prayer, but it was something like this:
“God, I hope it’s ok to be praying this now, but I figured why not? I know I’m a sinner. I do bad stuff, and that makes you sad, I’m sorry. Thank you for sacrificing your son Jesus for me, I know you didn’t have to do that. Please save me, Jesus, and come live in my heart. I know you don’t move into my heart, like, literally, but please just do whatever it is you do for your spirit to live inside of me. I want to make God happy, and I can’t do it on my own. Oh, and I believe in you. Amen.”
I think when I was finishing up my prayer someone asked if I was alright, at which point I felt a little embarrassed because I was hoping I had been more discreet with my prayer. Of course, I was fine and enjoyed the rest of snack time.
What happened that night? Did I suddenly become a flawlessly obedient, respectful son or a paragon of an older brother? Not by a long shot. However, two things unquestionably did happen.
First, I believe my eternal fate was sealed. God chose to set me apart for His purposes and drew me to Him. That prayer was my response to His initiation of a two-way relationship. I knew from then on that I was redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, and forgiven for all my past, present and future sin. I believed in God’s promise to establish an everlasting relationship with me that nothing can ever break.
Secondly, God’s Spirit did begin working to transform my heart. His work has been a continual transformation and molding since then. More than twenty years later, I can see all too clearly that there is still much work to be done. Along the way, I have exhibited varying levels of submission and receptiveness to His formative work. There were a few especially developmental events and seasons of life in which I can see (especially in hindsight) God shaping me.
One overarching instrument God used in my life from the beginning was that of my parents. I am thankful to have grown up under the excellent model of my devoted, patient, and loving parents. They, while of course not perfect, were faithful to pass on their knowledge of the one father who is perfect, reflecting Him as much as they could. Parenting is one of the most critical and impactful tools God uses in shaping young people. My first-hand experience has taught me how valuable that can be. Though my relationship with them is much different as an adult, I still much admire and value them as role models, learning from them to this day.
A couple of years after my snack-time prayer, I realized I should obey Jesus’ instruction for believers to be baptized after professing their faith. I was baptized at that same church, First Bible Baptist Church, by a pastor I had come to know and love. It was a little scary, the church was large (at least several hundreds of people at the time), and I had to stand in front of everybody, affirming my belief in Jesus! Regardless, I recognized the importance of that act of obedience. Jesus does not want His followers to be secretive about their faith; He wants them to proclaim it publicly.
When I was ten years old, I started feeling like I was still missing something. I knew God had saved me, and I had followed through with baptism. I just wasn’t sure what to do next, especially since I was just a kid! I knew a lot about God and the Bible. I knew I should spend time reading His word and praying. Still, I sensed that there was a step in my faith that I had not yet taken. I remember having a conversation with my mom, telling her about this feeling I had. She then asked me “have you ever told God that you want to submit your whole life to Him?” I wasn’t sure if I had or not. She explained how it is one thing to believe in God, but it is a step further to submit and dedicate your entire life to Him. I had heard this before, but for the first time, the weight of its meaning sunk in heavier the more I thought about it. I realized that, while knowing it was the right thing to do, I hadn’t fully acknowledged to God my desire for Him to take complete authority in my life. It was not a decision to be taken lightly, and it honestly scared me a little bit to think what God might do to me if I told Him “I’m all yours!” Nevertheless, I trusted that His plan would be the best possible plan. I prayed and told God I wanted to surrender my life and my will to His control. I asked Him to shape and mold me into whatever kind of person would bring Him the most glory.
When I got older, my faith began to grow and take new roots. While I was young, mine was merely an offshoot of my parents’. That is a beautiful start but cannot stand on its own in the long run. In middle and high school (still being homeschooled), my mother knew it was vital for us to learn how to think critically, gain understanding, and form conclusions on our own. That became an underlying focus in my academics, as well as my faith. I was encouraged to ask challenging questions and consider all the potential answers. I even explored the other major religions (including atheism), testing them and my own against reason and logic. I thought long and hard, not just about what I believed, but why. As a result, I began to grow roots of my own.
As I finished high school, I was feeling drawn to attend a secular college and had no real intentions of going to a “Christian” college. One day, I realized I hadn’t spent any time asking God where HE wanted me to go. I don’t think I even wanted to know. Still, I decided to sit down and pray about it for a while one afternoon. I had scarcely even begun praying when I got the answer, clear and frank. Of course, it was a Christian college that I never thought I would attend. I decided to ignore that answer for a while and still applied to some other schools thinking maybe God would change His mind, or that I had misunderstood His response. Eventually, I realized that was ridiculous and ended up going where He led me.
In college, my experience was somewhat two-sided. On the one hand, I was surrounded by some awesome people, dedicated to helping other students and me grow in our faith. I received some excellent academic training in core classes on scripture, theology, and philosophy. On the other hand, I often felt surrounded by superficiality and hypocrisy. At times I felt embarrassed to be associated with the Christian community at large. I developed some convictions and opinions that were not received well, and in the meantime, I got tired of trying to live the way God wanted me to. I was frustrated with God. I did not want to fight to do the right thing. I wanted God to make it easier for me to serve Him. “Why does it have to feel so difficult?” I asked. Stagnation was so much easier. It was more fun to do things that felt good instead of doing things I knew to be good. It was not a mindset of rebellion by any means, but it was a mindset of toxic apathy.
God was patient with me during that time and was waiting, ready for when I decided to start listening again. My academic and personal life had followed the slippery decline of my spiritual life. I finally realized that I was a mess when left to my own devices. I saw that I had become calloused to the presence of God in my life.
It was in that season I started having some conversations with a pastor in the church my parents were attending (they had moved around a lot since the beginning of this story). I explained my position. In my head, I completely believed the foundational doctrines of Christianity. But it stopped there. Though deep down somewhere the desire existed, I had lost any motivation to follow Jesus in practical terms. I found my beliefs (in my head) were in fact quite in line with the pastor’s, and we saw eye-to-eye on a broad range of topics. I appreciated this relationship God had put in my life, and sincerely valued the handful of meetings we had while I was still in college. During one of those meetings, He gave me a suggestion I’ll never forget. He asked me to pray for just one thing in the subsequent few weeks: that God would allow me to experience His presence. I gladly and fervently followed through with that prayer with an open heart. God, in turn, graciously responded. I started discovering and rediscovering the nature of God through everyday experiences. Gradually, He renewed my desire to follow Him.
I finished school with fresh zeal, and God continued to reveal Himself in profound ways to me during my last year. My parents moved again, but God led me to return to the North Country. I became a member of North Country Fellowship Church and wanted to get involved in any way I could. When the need arose, I started helping set up the sound system and mix the audio during the service. They announced some small groups were meeting during the week, and I got connected with one led by a young married couple in their home. When the church needed help leading the high school youth group, I, though barely older than a high schooler myself, signed up for the task.
Over the next few years, my relationship with God continued to mature, though still through periods of “ups and downs.” My continued connection to NCF has been a catalyst for a lot of learning and growth, and I am thankful to be still involved in several ministries in the church. I look forward to seeing God’s work continue in my life, my community, and North Country Fellowship Church.
Discipleship & Personal Growth
What is Discipleship and Personal Growth?
Let us first begin by defining each of these two topics, specifically as they relate to a follower of Jesus.
To “grow” as a Christian implies some observable and measurable improvement, progress and otherwise positive change over the course of time. Being a Christian is not a binary state of existence any more than being a human is. That is, one does not simply “flip a switch” to become a Christian and leave it at that. The language and analogy of becoming “born again” helps explain this concept: a baby once born is not “done” being a human, it must embark on a life-long journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual development, aided and directed by peers, and inevitably filled with varying seasons of “ups and downs” and observable trends.
Exactly what must we measure for improvement? Well, the short, ambiguous answer is “everything.” Christianity is meant to permeate every aspect of one’s life. 1 Corinthians 10:31 (NLT) states as such: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (Also Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:17, 1 Peter 4:11). A transformed mindset (Romans 12:2) governs our thoughts, decisions, actions, and relationships, by conforming, submitting, and merging our will with God’s. That close relationship with God, based on love and fear, is one purpose for which God created us. (See anthropology)
Unlike physical growth, of course, spiritual growth is not measured in pounds or inches. What then can we look to as markers of spiritual development? The transformative and guiding power of a Christian is the indwelling of God’s spirit; this is the gift of the church age. The results, or “fruits” of a life submitted to God’s spirit are listed in Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT): “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” Elders and Deacons, selected in part for their spiritual maturity, were given a more specific list of qualifications, all of which can be related to the fruits of the spirit. (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4) These are indicators not of perfection or “completion” but of enough maturation over time that they are no longer considered spiritual “infants.”
Discipleship is nothing more than personal growth in the context of other believers. While a Christian’s growth is “personal” in that it involves internal, specific transformation of an individual, it is not “private” because it is meant to be shared, passed on, and multiplied. That is how the global church began, immediately following the gift of the Holy Spirit, as can be seen throughout the book of Acts. Like a holy virus, it spread from one man, Christ, to his closest disciples, the apostles, and from them to thousands, from those thousands to millions and so on.
Discipleship is peer-guided education and improvement. It is learning from more experienced (or differently experienced) believers, and in turn, providing mentorship for others. Even a “newborn” Christian has enough information to start propagating other new followers immediately. (See Mark 5:19-20 for one example).
Importance of Discipleship and Personal Growth
Discipleship is key to the propagation of the gospel and multiplication of the church.
By its very definition, discipleship is the engine for continuous multiplication, edification, and growth, for individuals and the church at large. Ephesians 4:16 (NLT) describes this concept at its best: “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” The body is not a static fixture; a crucial function of “each part” is to help the other parts grow. Discipleship is not an optional or secondary function of the church; it is the core function of the church.
Both are prescribed by scripture.
To be a follower of Jesus is to strive to emulate His example, and live out His commands. Jesus was holy and blameless from birth and therefore free from needing any “improvement” in that regard (more on that, and scriptural proofs to come in Christology). However, even He grew, as every human must, over time (Luke 2:52) and it was not until He was about thirty years old that He began to minister publicly and make disciples. (Luke 3:23) From that point on, He invested His life heavily into those of His disciples, setting a precedent and example for each of them to pass on.
Personal growth is an explicit prescription for all Christians; we are expected not to remain stagnate, as infants, but to actively and continuously seek growth. (Hebrews 5:12-14, 6:1, 1 Peter 2:2-3, 2 Peter 1:5-8, Colossians 2:6-7, Ephesians 4:13-16) And of course, Christ not only modeled discipleship, but He also commanded his disciples to make disciples. (Matthew 28:16-20)
Personal growth is our duty and pleasure.
Recognizing God as our creator and savior should be enough reason on its own to inspire us towards personal growth, seeing that He has prescribed it to us through His Word. However, it is also our pleasure and honor as humans and results in greater satisfaction and fulfillment in life. To quote John Piper, “God’s ultimate goal in the world (his glory) and our deepest desire (to be happy) are one and the same, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Not only is God the supreme source of satisfaction for the human soul, but God himself is glorified by our being satisfied in him. Therefore, our pursuit of joy in him is essential.” In other words, fulfilling our truest purpose is what ultimately results in our greatest joy.
(Psalm 16:11, 25:11, Ephesians 1:4-6, Isaiah 43:6-7, 43:25, Romans 15:7-9, 3:25-26, 11:36, John 7:18, Matthew 5:16, 1 Peter 2:12, John 5:44, John 14:13, 12:27-28, 1 Corinthians 10:31, 1 Peter 4:11, Philippians 1:11, John 17:24, Habakkuk 2:14,
Philippians 1:19-23, 4:4, Psalm 1:1-3, 19:8, 34:8, 37:4, 32:11, 33:1, 67:4, 90:14, 100:1, Jeremiah 15:16, Deuteronomy 28:47, 30:6, Hebrews 11:6, 11:24-26, 12:1-2, John 6:35, 15:11, 16:24, 20:31, 2 Corinthians 1:24, 8:1-8, 9:7, 1 Peter 2:2, 5:2, Matthew 13:44, 5:10, Romans 5:2-4, 15:13)
Components of Discipleship and Personal Growth
Having defined each and established them as critical to a Christian’s life, how then can they practically be achieved? As I mentioned earlier, there can be a great deal of variance depending on the context of any given situation. However, I believe each of the following is fundamental to achieving discipleship and personal growth in any situation.
Components of Discipleship
Discipleship is impossible apart from relationships; its definition implies this. Discipleship is a relationship, a specific, intentional category of relationship. Discipleship is not achieved in isolation. The nature of this relationship should include friendship and love, and inevitably both parties are sharpened in the process. However, discipleship is different from general fellowship in that the one who disciples has some level of authority or experience compared to the one who is discipled. This allows for components in the relationship such as teaching, correction, and guidance. Such relationship dynamics can be observed throughout the gospels, Acts, and epistles.
Scripture is the binding common denominator of the relationship. The knowledge and purpose of the Christian faith rely on the Bible as our source of truth and guidance. It is the standard which shapes our worldview. (John 17:17, Romans 10:17) Two people with nothing else in common can find common ground in God’s word. (See bibliology and anthropology). It is only logical, then, for scripture to be central to any discipleship relationship. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT) says: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
The fundamental concepts of Christian service should be an underlying current and goal of discipleship. We are all called to be ministers (2 Corinthians 6:3-4), and workers who are ready and prepared for the job (2 Timothy 2:15). After all, good works are the purpose for which we are redeemed. (Ephesians 2:10) Ministry should be a way of life for a Christian, and discipleship is a venue to teach it as such while accomplishing good work at the same time. (Matthew 5:16, James 1:22, 1:27, 2:14-26, 2 Timothy 3:17, Titus 2:14, 2:7, Galatians 5:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:13
The health and growth of the church has already been established as a reason for the importance of discipleship, but what exactly is the role of the church in discipleship? Discipleship being a form of close, productive relationships, it is not accomplished by or dependent on a centralized structure. However, that is not to say that organization and corporate gatherings have no benefit to discipleship. A full discussion on ecclesiology is reserved for another essay, but I want to point out a few ways the church relates to discipleship, because discipleship is a function and result of the self-propagating church. First, a group of people pooling their resources and skills enables a more efficient distribution of ministry and service. Second, a larger gathering of people can provide opportunities for people to meet each other and form discipleship relationships within the body. It is also an opportunity for encouragement and inspiration, sharing what God has been doing and motivating each other to make disciples and seek discipleship. A church can also organize programs to facilitate discipleship. I think there is a danger in such programs in that they can tend towards classroom environments, or on the other end of the spectrum, party-like events with little to no focus on real spiritual growth. Neither one of those things is wrong, and both can certainly be beneficial. They can be wonderful supplements and tools. However, neither are a replacement for the genuine relationship necessary for true discipleship.
Components of Personal Growth
Just as scripture should be central to discipleship, it should be central to one’s personal life. One of the most effective ways to grow is to simply read and meditate on God’s word, absorbing and soaking in it so it becomes a part of you. (Psalm 143:5, 119:15, 63:6, 1:2, 119:11, Joshua 1:8, Hebrews 4:12, Jeremiah 15:16) Access to scripture in our culture has become ubiquitous, so memorization has become less of a necessity, but it is no less of a beneficial habit. Memorization truly binds scripture to your psyche, so it can be a part of your life even while you are not actively reading it. In addition to meditation and memorization, it is helpful to spend time studying scripture. Examining historical contexts and literary devices, tracing themes, and other such academic endeavors can provide a greater depth of understanding and appreciation of God’s word. (2 Timothy 2:15, 1 Timothy 4:15, 2 Peter 1:5)
Prayer & Praise
Necessary for the development of any relationship is communication. Prayer is our method of communication with God, and thereby important to developing our relationship with Him. It is only logical, then, to say that spending time in prayer is conducive to overall personal growth. Equally important is praising God, which could be considered a specific type of prayer, whether in song or otherwise. (Ephesians 6:18, James 5:13, Romans 12:12, Luke 6:12, 18:1, Philippians 4:6, Colossians 4:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, James 5:16, 1 Chronicles 16:28, Daniel 2:20, Jeremiah 20:13, Ephesians 1:5, Deuteronomy 10:21, Psalm 100:1-2)
I have already covered the topic of ministry, but I think it is important to reiterate that ministry is a way of life, which means it is not merely a component of discipleship or something that can exclusively be accomplished in a group context. A pervasive internal mindset focused on God’s mission is critical to personal growth.
Discipleship & Community
Similarly, I want to reiterate that discipleship and personal growth are not mutually exclusive, rather, they are components of each other. Someone who is discipled well will experience personal growth, and the more someone grows, the more they should be equipped to disciple others. Again, “personal” growth is only “personal” in that it is the growth of a specific person. It is not isolated growth, nor is it meant to be kept private. It is growth that happens in a forest full of trees, all of whom are dropping seeds and nurturing each other with God-given water, as they all stretch toward the same source of light. May we remember that this is our foremost purpose: to grow closer to God and others, with others, and bring more people into the family to do the same.
Evangelism & Mission
The Great Commission & Precedent of Grace
Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He famously charged His disciples with what is commonly referred to as “The Great Commission”:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, ESV)
That commission was a blueprint for the events that followed, as recorded in the book of Acts, and continues to be the basis and vision for Christian evangelistic mission endeavors today. Jesus’s great commission is an extension and fulfillment of God’s great mission, which traces back to the first humans, and is expressed in the Abrahamic covenant:
And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3, ESV)
God’s will has always been to bless people throughout the whole earth. His global, post-fall grace is displayed by the flood and Noahic covenant, by which the earth is shielded from the fullness of God’s just wrath. But God was not content to simply shield people from harm, he wants people to thrive, and the only true means of abundant, eternal life is a relationship with God. His long-term restorative plan for making that possible began with Abraham’s descendants, but was never meant to end there.
Jesus claimed to be the long-awaited and prophesied messiah, the one (and only one) who would restore Israel and the rest of the world into right standing with God. He arrived on the scene preaching about the good news of the arrival of God’s kingdom, explaining God’s mission and inviting people from all walks of life to join His family. Along the way, he mentored His disciples to continue the same ministry in his absence (though ultimately through the power of His Spirit) and propagate the good news, reproducing other disciples in an exponential fashion.
(John 14:6, Luke 4:43, Matthew 4:17, Luke 10:2)
Mission in Modern Context
Today, we find ourselves in the two-thousand-year wake of the great commission, and the assignment is no less important now than it was then. Though global cultures may differ in many ways now from the cultures then, we can learn some key lessons through the lives of Christ and His earliest disciples. The stories in the gospels and Acts, as well as the instructions of the epistles, contain valuable insight into the nature of evangelism.
We know that salvation is the work of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit (see soteriology), and the chosen agents of His Spirit since Christ ascended are His disciples, humans indwelt with the Spirit. The church is the body of Christ (more in ecclesiology), and as such continues the mission of Christ.
So, what does it look like to carry out the mission of Christ in 2019? The mission is everywhere, for everyone, and we carry it out through example, intentionality, and prayer.
When Christ walked the earth, He spoke truth and brought healing wherever he went. We too should approach every situation, wherever we are, as a potential opportunity to share the news of God’s kingdom or simply display God’s love. Wherever we are as well as wherever we go is the mission field.
The mission is not assigned to a select few agents, though the context and methods vary greatly among believers, all members of the church are members of the mission. If the whole body of Christ is meant to cooperatively function with a purpose, each individual within the body should operate within the framework of that purpose as well. Some people are called to leave their home towns or countries, others are not. Some are called to invest the majority of their time into equipping saints for the work, others are not. However, we are all called to share the truth in love wherever we go, and as we go.
Likewise, the audience, or target, of the mission, is everyone and anyone who has not had the opportunity (or even repeated opportunities) to hear and respond to the gospel. Though not all people may be redeemed, election is not for us to decide. We should think of every non-believer as a potential (not yet!) believer and approach the mission accordingly. This means our calling is to entire people groups and cultures outside of our own. There is darkness in need of light all over the world, and that is why the entire global community of believers must be engaged in the mission in some form or another.
Of course, that also includes everyone within our own culture: our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, the person sitting next to you on the train, the cashier at the gas station, and so on. Even in seemingly mundane rhythms of life, there are bountiful and crucial opportunities to share the gospel with people desperately in need of it.
(Matthew 4:23-25, 10:7-14 Acts 13:47, Mark 16:15, 5:19-20 Luke 8:39, Ephesians 2:10, 4:15-16, Romans 1:16)
Having established the “who” and “where” of mission, we can finally examine the “how.”
The first means of spreading truth and love is simply by living by the truth and truly embodying Christ’s example as vessels of God’s Spirit. Those who live by the Spirit bear the fruits thereof: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Demonstrating these things is a living testament to God’s grace and power. It overflows naturally into blessing other people, planting seeds of multiplication.
Being representations of God to the world around us is a fundamental fulfilment of our purpose, and much of Christ’s teaching was done by example. I must also point out that the example Christ gave was not one of self-righteous piety, a holier-than-thou attitude, or of a secluded or removed aloofness. In fact, those attributes do describe the religious leaders of His day, whom He condemned vehemently. Rather, His life was a stark contrast: he befriended sinners, broke rules, and carried Himself humbly without elevating Himself or His righteousness. And, as in the case of Zacchaeus, simply being around Jesus was a life-changing experience for many.
Numerous pages can be written as to exactly what it looks like to set a good example with our lives, in various contexts and detail, but I think it can be summarized quite simply. Our love for God and our love for each other should so saturate our lives that it overflows and impacts the people around us simply by means of proximity.
(Galatians 5:16-26, 1 Corinthians 11:1-2, Romans 12, John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:14-16, 6:1-6, 22:36-40, 23:5, Titus 2:7-8, Luke 19:1-10)
Example is not meant to stand alone, however. There are times we can and should take it a step further into intentionality.
One of the most obvious (though often neglected) aspects of gospel intentionality is that it requires interaction with others, specifically non-believers. Again, Jesus was not aloof or removed from society, He was frequently social, surrounded by people, and forming relationships. Relationships are crucial (and perhaps especially so in American culture) because they provide a basis for trust and receptiveness. That said, even a fleeting interaction with a stranger can have a lasting impact.
Regardless of whether we talk about long-term relationships or a brief moment that plants a seed, neither of those are accomplished by a hermit in the woods. By nature, the mission demands intentional social interaction.
To truly make those interactions missional, however, leads us to the next aspect of intentionality: gospel fluency. I borrow this phrase from the book of the same title by Jeff Vandersteldt because I think it is an excellent way to describe the measure of effectiveness in missionally-minded interactions. Fluency refers to one’s ability to express themselves articulately and accurately. Fluency in any language takes time to acquire and practice to maintain, and the best way to acquire fluency in a new language is to be immersed in it. Being fluent in the language of the Gospel means being so immersed in the truth and hope of the Gospel that it is a natural extension of our vocabulary. This does NOT mean that every conversation turns into a sermon or a call to repentance. It means that our worldview is so shaped by what God has done for us that we are able to speak truth in relevant, loving, and natural ways in the everyday moments of life.
Now, I say that not every conversation should turn into a sermon. However, there may come times when a bold proclamation of truth is warranted, and eventually everyone needs to hear (or read) the explicit details of the gospel in some way. As such, part of gospel fluency is the ability to articulate those details and explain the need and means of salvation to someone who is ready to hear it. The metaphor of fluency serves well again, because I believe those situations are best approached through conversations relevant to the not-yet-believer’s life, rather than formulaic strategies designed to provide a one-way path to a pre-written prayer. In other words, an organic conversation born of fluency is more effective than recitation that disregards context.
(1 Peter 3:15-16, 1 Corinthians 10:31, John 3:1-8, 4:7-26, Romans 12:2, Colossians 4:5-6)
The last, though certainly not least, of the aspects of intentionality I’d like to mention is that of prayer. Praying for people who have not accepted Christ is the one way we can impact them without direct interaction. And since we do not perform the work of salvation, God does, no interactions we have will make any eternal difference apart from the work of the Spirit in people’s hearts.
As such, we should continually pray for those who we know personally, as well as for those around the world who do not know Christ. We can pray that God will give them the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel and that He will soften their hearts to receive it in the meantime.
Finally, we can also pray for guidance as we practice fluency and navigate relationships. The Spirit knows who needs to hear what, when and where; the more sensitive and submissive we are to His leading, the more effective we will be on our mission.
(1 Thessalonians 5:17, Ephesians 6:18, Matthew 5:44, 1 Timothy 2:1, Luke 12:12, John 14:26, Romans 8:26)
Biblical Conflict Resolution
From my perspective, the Bible defines very clearly how Christians should behave amid conflict, and in general it boils down to some pretty simple, matter-of-fact concepts. Living them out, however, especially in the heat of the moment, can be quite difficult. I want to acknowledge that before presenting the biblical ideals. Nevertheless, we should strive to be peacemakers whenever possible: in our own lives, and even on behalf of others should the need arise.
When I first sat down to write this essay, my mind became somewhat overwhelmed thinking through all the possible types of scenarios which might call for biblical conflict resolution. I eventually realized that a systematic, flow-chart approach would not work for me. If you would like to read a systematic approach to biblical conflict resolution, I can highly recommend The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (and even that is, of course, a limited framework). Since this is meant to be a brief essay rather than a book, I am taking a more distilled approach.
Rather than examine a vast array of potential situations, I will simply point out some principles I have noticed in scripture. I see them as seeds of wisdom, simple but providing all the necessary DNA for dealing with a complex and multifaceted life.
Firstly, I should avoid causing or contributing to conflict when possible. All the teachings, wisdom and statutes given to people by God rest on the underlying ideal of humans loving God and loving each other. Even when conflict does not come from outright hatred for each other, it corrodes and/or impedes loving relationships. It introduces a barrier. On the other hand, when people truly love each other as themselves, conflict is much less likely to arise in the first place. Peace is the ideal portrayed in Eden at creation, and in the new world of Revelation. Meanwhile, conflict is the destructive inevitability of a sin-ridden world. Christians are called to reflect the ideal of peace to the best of their ability.
Romans 12:18, 14:19, Matthew 5:43-48, 22:37-40, Mark 12:29-31, Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 3:9-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, James 3:18, John 13:34-35, 16:33, Philippians 4:7, Proverbs 12:20, 16:7, Psalm 29:11, 34:14, 37:37
However, given that conflict between people is unavoidable, we should know how to navigate it in a way that is God-honoring, and, ideally, results in a loving resolution. Of course, the only variable I can truly control in any given situation is my own decisions and responses. So, what are some ideal responses to conflict?
As with most things, external interactions are a result of internal thoughts, feelings and attitudes. Internal decisions result in external decisions. (Luke 6:45, Matthew 12:34) Specifically, I think humility, respect and empathy are principal components of loving interactions.
Humility allows us to see when we are in the wrong, whereas pride resists repentance. If I have in fact wronged someone in any way, I need to repent, apologize, and thereby attempt reconciliation. If such a response is truly humble and sincere, the only barrier to reconciliation remaining would be that of the other party.
Colossians 3:12, Ephesians 4:2, 1 Peter 5:5, Proverbs 11:2, 15:33, 18:12, 22:4, Romans 12:3, 12:16
Respect recognizes other people as being image-bearers of their creator. If I see others as icons of divinity, created to be tabernacles of God’s presence, suddenly that person becomes very important. My priorities should naturally shift towards wanting to see them healed, built up, and shining in the light of God’s glory, rather than torn down and despised.
Genesis 1:27, Romans 12:10, 1 Peter 2:17, Philippians 2:3, Ephesians 5:21
Empathy considers the “golden rule” by trying to see the other side and discern how I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Understanding the other person’s perspective is, in my experience, not the default state for most situations. Simply taking the time to think through the other person’s background and events leading up to an interaction is one step toward empathetic reasoning. However, we can never truly see through other people’s eyes, so I may need to ask genuine and loving questions when I seek to understand someone else’s perspective.
Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31, Romans 12:15, 1 Peter 3:8, 1 Corinthians 12:26, Proverbs 24:17
Unless I can achieve a humble, respectful and empathetic attitude toward someone else, my words and actions have no chance at being truly loving, and therefore little chance at resolving conflict. These personal attributes and decisions are at the core of a God-honoring response to conflict; all other decisions stem from that internal perspective.
If I have honestly checked (and, better yet, cross-checked with a trusted friend or mentor) my own attitude and actions, repented of any wrong, and sought reconciliation, I can then pray that any other involved parties would do the same. If they are in fact willing, the process may take time or be almost immediate, but should always be steeped in love, humility, respect and empathy. Details beyond that are too widely varied to discuss here. However, there is no guarantee that even the most loving of approaches will be reciprocated. It may, in fact, be scorned. In such a case, my options narrow somewhat.
The first, completely valid, even Christ-like response is to simply forgive and move on. No matter what, I should seek to forgive others as I have been forgiven. This must be true forgiveness, as opposed to simply pushing it aside and allowing bitterness and resentment to fester within myself. Real forgiveness should not adversely affect my relationship with others nor cause any other long-term harm. But if I have truly forgiven someone, and can ignore everything else, that may be the best way out of conflict.
Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13, Matthew 5:39-41, 6:14-15, Mark 11:25, Proverbs 17:9, 10:12, Luke 6:35-36
Unfortunately, some offenses may be too serious to simply ignore, forgiven or not. In this case, I should first run through the above criteria. Have I made an attempt at reconciliation with a loving heart, humble spirit, respectful eyes, and empathetic mind? If so, and action is still needed, then I should involve a third party to help mediate the situation. What that looks like totally depends on the context, but regardless of the details, it is a crucial step towards reconciliation. An unbiased third-party can help ease tension and facilitate a fair resolution.
If an informal third party fails at arbitration, a formal process may be necessary. This means involving people who have authority over all parties involved, whether it is an employer, the government, or church elders. The latter of course only applies in the case of two believers who are in conflict. In that context, the church is meant to provide an essential layer of mediation. This is explicitly described in Matthew 18:15-17, where we see that ideally such issues should be solved as if it is a family matter: addressing your brother directly first, bringing one or two other people along if necessary, and finally bringing it to the church. If that still does not work, it can no longer be treated as a “family matter,” so other steps such as legal action may become acceptable. Otherwise, legal action against brothers and sisters in the church is strongly discouraged. (1 Corinthians 6:7) The phrase “let him be to you as a gentile…” is thereby significant, in that it opens secular avenues for resolution. It does not imply that our attitude of love towards them should be in any way diminished. Rather, we should be even more burdened to reach them with the love of Christ.
I have not touched much on the topic of what to do if you are a third party attempting to resolve conflict. Being a mediator is certainly a different experience than being directly involved in a conflict, but I think a successful approach still boils down to the same principles. It begins with love, respect, and humility, and prayerfully seeking to help others achieve the same.
Regardless of our role in any given situation, we should always seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and spend time in prayer, for ourselves and for everyone else involved. Prayer itself can be a catalyst to achieving the necessary heart condition for dealing with conflict. As with the attitude check, conflict should trigger an intentionality toward this fundamental aspect of a Christian lifestyle.
Again, each situation can be incredibly nuanced and complex, so this short paper is certainly not exhaustive on the topic. What I hope to have made clear is that I do believe scripture teaches a worldview and heart condition, rather than a set of rules to apply to conflict. Instead of a chart of instructions for every potential scenario, we have a booster shot of wisdom with which to navigate life. Regardless of any conflict’s cultural context, the biblical response is one of love, respect, humility, empathy, and peace. While this is much easier said than done, we may practice this and pray, and rely on the power of the Spirit to prevail over our insufficiencies every day.