We don’t want to see the gospel spoiled. We desire to preserve the truth. If we hope for either, we must understand the way God designed to keep both intact. I’m not going to carry nuclear materials in a brown paper sack and not expect bad things to happen. We can say we care about the gospel and the truth, but we don’t and can’t respect either when we leave them unprotected.
The gospel and truth are popular topics today. I’m happy about that. I love the gospel and the truth. We have seen new alliances form today with the gospel supposedly at their center. They have set aside other doctrine—ecclesiological, eschatological, pneumatological—in order for what they say is a stronger emphasis on the gospel. I believe, however, that the greatest threat to the gospel and the truth relates to container in which they are held. The truth, and therefore the gospel, is to be protected and propagated by the church (1 Tim 3:15) and if so, it must be the church alone responsible for that task. However, it must be the church, the actual church, the scriptural church, that does the protecting. We should assume that something different than what Scripture presents as the church could protect the truth. And there are very distinct views of the church. One is that the church is universal and visible. Another is that it is universal and invisible. And a third is that it is local and visible. Each of those three is different than the other.
To see all of this, I want to provide a snapshot of what occurred in the history of doctrine. First, the Bible stands as the sole and final authority for faith and practice. The writing of the New Testament brings us back to the beginning of Christian belief and practice. Genuine doctrine springs from the Bible. Scripture provides the means for judging how men and institutions departed from the truth. The New Testament is a historical record. We can be sure of the history there, because it is inspired by God. We can’t be entirely certain of all the other history, because it truly was written only by men. From the period beginning shortly after the New Testament was completed in the first century, we can read what we call the “church fathers” or the “patristics.” Today when we read those writings, we are getting really only an edition of what they wrote, one that is less certain in its veracity than Scripture, because the patristics don’t come with the promise of preservation. It is possible, even probable, that later these writings were edited to look closer to Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholic theologians read their version of the church fathers. Later, the reformers read a probably amended edition of the church fathers and then the interpretations of the theologians who read them. The Protestant reformers corrected the soteriology of the church fathers and the Catholic theologians. They went to the Bible to do that. However, they didn’t amend the ecclesiology or the eschatology or even much of the hermeneutics of the church fathers and the theologians of Roman Catholicism.
What is clear from reading the writings preserved by Roman Catholicism, called the church fathers or the patristics, is that many of them mixed Greek philosophy with Scripture in their doctrine. By the time we get to Augustine in the 5th century, we have someone who combined the ideas of Plato with Christianity. Augustine originated the invisible church concept in the Donatist controversy. He was influenced by the Platonist belief that true reality was in the invisible, and if the visible represents the invisible, it always does so partially and imperfectly. The allegorical hermeneutic of Origen, borrowed by Roman Catholicism, also influenced the reformers in their ecclesiology, eschatology, and system of interpretation.
The purpose of this post is not to expose the passages necessary to understand what God’s Word says the church is. It is to show that the wrong view of the church will affect the preservation of the gospel and the truth. Someone may say that he shows his great love for the gospel by only dividing over the gospel or what some call “gospel-related truths.” However, I contend that if he does not hold the right view of the church, he contributes to the destruction of the gospel. The gospel can’t be preserved in a leaky container or its contents will be spoiled.
The same people most responsible for spoiling the gospel in history, Roman Catholics, are also most responsible for corrupting scriptural ecclesiology. The Catholics invented the universal church and then the invisible church. The Protestant Reformers did not amend that false teaching. Only churches who remained separate from Catholicism kept a scriptural ecclesiology, the belief in an only local and visible church. Through history they have been known by different names, but today they are called Baptist.
Scripture teaches an only local and visible church. Only that church, the only scriptural one, can keep the truth. The Lord Jesus Christ and His inspired New Testament give only a local and visible church, the only true church, the necessary means to keep the truth and therefore the gospel. Churches keep the truth through discipline, through the offices of the pastor and deacons, through the practice of separation, and through the purity of the ordinance of the Lord’s Table. A universal and invisible church is a leak container that will not preserve the truth. It treats the truth like an open pick-up truck treats an pile of tomatoes. If a few of the tomatoes fly or drop out, it won’t really matter as long as many or most get to their intended destination. Something beyond or in addition to a true church does not have the means necessary to keep the truth. For sure non-church institutions, like colleges or mission boards or publishers, can preserve the truth. The very existence of these parachurch organizations threaten the truth and the gospel. Cobbling together a coalition big enough to support the extra-scriptural institution requires laxity of doctrine.
No kind of viable, practical unity around common doctrine is possible and is not even available to all professing believers from all the various evangelical denominations. To attain some faux unity, doctrines and truths will be devalued and dropped by the wayside. Without the means possessed by true churches to keep the truth, doctrines will leak and leak until very little Scripture is believed and practiced. I believe the wrong view of the church has done more damage to the truth and the gospel than any other doctrine. Great damage will continue to be done to the truth and the gospel until there is a return to a biblical ecclesiology in Christianity.
God has not left men without a basis for discerning true spirituality. 1 John 4:1 indicates that genuine Christians can test “the spirits whether they are of God.” At the same time, most people have been deceived in this area. The road is broad that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13-14). As a means of validating their condition, men seek after signs (1 Corinthians 1:22) that very often are counterfeits that lure men into a false sense of spiritual security. From the teaching of Jesus (Mt 7:21-23), we know that at the judgment seat, their tragic deception will be exposed with no future opportunity for correction. Men can be fooled into trusting in fraudulent indicators of their spiritual states.
In the first chapter of his epistle, James says men deceive themselves with the faulty notion that God accepts the mere hearing of His Word. This reveals the nature of people’s deceit. They can rationalize a tolerance of their own disobedience to what God said. Satan is a deceiver and liar, who would have men mislead by their own unreliable measurements of spirituality. And the Devil majors on spiritual subterfuge in particular—it’s his domain of activity (Eph 6:12).
On the other hand, the Word of God is sufficient (2 Tim 3:15-17). We don’t have to be deceived. We have the truth, which sets us apart from spiritual error (John 17:17).
Who Is Spiritual?
Sometimes you might hear someone say, “He’s a spiritual person.” Based on a scriptural evaluation, that would be the same as saying, “He’s a saved person.” Every saved person is a spiritual person, because at the point of his justification by faith, he has received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9, 1 Cor 6:19-20, 1 John 3:9). Only believers are spiritual. No unbeliever is spiritual, even if he says he’s “a spiritual person.”
No believer is any more spiritual than any other person. The Holy Spirit is a Person. When someone receives the Holy Spirit, he has all the Holy Spirit that he will ever get. He doesn’t need any fresh outpouring or anointing. The concept of “more spiritual” isn’t in the Bible. God does command believers to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), which is to be controlled by the Spirit (Rom 6). When a believer is controlled by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will manifest Himself in various ways described in the New Testament.
How Does the Holy Spirit Manifest Himself?
The New Testament indicates several different ways that we can discern true spirituality. We should expect all of these of someone who is spiritual. Because everyone has equal spiritual resources (Eph 1:3; 2 Pet 1:1-4; 1 Cor 1:7), everyone also has equal opportunity for manifesting true spirituality. In other words, no one is breathing any kind of pure spiritual air that sets him apart from any other believer.
God isn’t responsible for spiritual lack. When a man is tempted, he is drawn away of his own lusts (James 1:14). The Holy Spirit will show Himself through a believer, but more than any one thing, self gets in the way. Humbling self is an important first step to revealing true spirituality.
First, a person who is filled with the Spirit is letting the Word of Christ dwell in him richly. Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16 are parallel passages. Someone who is controlled by the Holy Spirit is also controlled by God’s Word. When we disobey Scripture, either in thought, word, or deed, at that moment we are also either resisting or quenching the Holy Spirit. True spirituality manifests itself in obedience to the Bible. A Christian life obedient to the Spirit will look like Scripture.
Second, the Holy Spirit will show Himself through the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I don’t think the emphasis of “fruit” is in the nature of bananas, apples, or oranges. Fruit is production. The Holy Spirit will produce a certain type of attitude that will result in a right kind of behavior. That disposition is seen in the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit isn’t something you work on, but a work that the Holy Spirit does in and through you. And that fruit will show up because the believer submits to the Holy Spirit. The fruit is all or nothing. He either is manifesting the Holy Spirit or he isn’t. If he is, then all of the fruit will show up. Others will see the Holy Spirit and not self when the Christian is filled with the Spirit.
Third, when the Holy Spirit is in charge in someone’s life, this will show up in God-honoring music (Eph 5:19) and perpetual thanksgiving (Eph 5:20). The Holy Spirit directs the Spirit controlled person toward praise and thanks, both pointing toward God and away from self.
Fourth, the Holy Spirit will transform the relationships of those who are controlled by Him (Eph 5:21-6:8). This is how the Holy Spirit fulfills the law through love. The Christian is directed by the Spirit to meet other’s needs, which are all different by Divine design. A child has a different need from a parent, an employer from an employee, and a husband from a wife.
Fifth, the particular spiritual giftedness of the Spirit-filled person will show up in His church (1 Cor 12). The Holy Spirit divides to a church as He wills, providing it His own unique blend depending on its needs. When the Christian submits to the Spirit, he will fulfill his part in the body. The whole church is more important than his part in it. Jesus will be glorified by being manifested by the Spirit through the church in the world.
Sixth, he will preach the Word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31). No believer has any more power than any other believer. He can be more bold, however, depending upon his submission to the Holy Spirit. If he’s bold, the Holy Spirit will work through the Word of God unto the salvation of souls. There is no unique power for evangelism. The power rests in the Scripture through the Spirit. Boldness will look, well, bold. Some may confuse this for pride, because proclamation of truth lacks the nuance that some expect of a fake humility.
We have these six means for detecting true spirituality. They could be faked for a period of time, but not for long. However, we should content ourselves with what God’s Word reveals as genuine indicators. The replacement gauges of spirituality provide people with false positives, fooling them into a dangerous spiritual ease.
How Does the Holy Spirit Lead?
Part of discerning true spirituality revolves around the discernment of the will of God. How does the Holy Spirit lead? We’ll approach this question next time.
Two evangelical or fundamentalist churches could be nearly identical in their doctrinal statements but still be quite different, as much distinct in their view of spirituality as are the disparate understandings of “belief in Christ” terminology for a Mormon and a conservative evangelical. Yes, I believe there’s that much noncomformity. This undiscriminating approach to spirituality, I believe, may be the most damaging, though ignored, situation in the church today. One finds its reality in varying degrees of subjective experience, while the other looks to an objective faith, yet both, again, with the same theological creed. The similarity of the latter provides cover for the contrast of the former, the diversity explained as a matter of preference or taste.
Church members, professing believers, wish for an authentic spiritual experience in their church attendance. They judge authenticity by excitement and emotion, even enthusiasm, which might manifest itself in several varied ways. It’s not that feelings would be their chief criteria if they were asked to mark a box on a checklist. These same people don’t believe they are being guided by their feelings or that their emotions are being swayed by external factors to produce a false sense of spirituality. Their feelings, however, are what are telling them that their experience is authentic, especially in their “worship.”
Scripture shows that true spirituality is judged by God’s Word, by the truth. The two types of churches I’m talking about would both agree with that. However, that is not how the individuals often judge whether spirituality has been attained. They might ascertain the spiritual condition by means of release of emotion, shouting, tears, swaying, giddiness, head bobbing, jumping, toe-tapping, or hand waving, all possible indications of something happening in the realm of genuine spirituality. It also might show up with signs of power, that is, hands raised or movement toward the front at an invitation. What might not be considered is that all or some of these spiritual barometers might be caused or initiated by human manipulation of some kind, either through the rhythm of the music, the rise and fall of someone’s voice, a story, the lighting, clapping, or by the suggestion of the speaker to a wanting audience. The shared experience of the crowd further validates the authenticity. Something good must have happened.
Certain symptoms of legitimacy accompany the concoction of fraudulent spirituality—tightly closed eyes, head tilted heavenward, certain hushed tones, or the Clintonesque biting of the bottom lip. This is assembly line authenticity, Andy Warhol Campbell Soup Can realism. A trembling, purposefully scratchy voice, cries out a plaintiff wail with all the gusto that fake authenticity can muster.
The shared emotions of a church galvanize the people like some chant in the pregame ritual of a football team. This does have a sort of power. Many may think of this as heavenly power as they undergo its effects, persuaded that they must have connected with God. They may even mistake it for love between one another because of the shared warmth. It has the power to succeed at attracting or keeping people who wish for something more or different than faith. Churches not aligning themselves with these ways feel a pressure to use the same methods of provocation.
Many who choreograph these types of experiences, that replace true spirituality with the fake, know what they are doing. They know what certain rhythms do. They want the lighting in the building and the cadence of the speaking and the chords and the speed of the music to have their effect on a crowd. They manufacture the feelings with fleshly means and then call it spirituality. Some of the purveyors of these schemes are modern Calvinists, who, while trumpeting the sovereignty of God and bewailing the new measures of Arminianism, whip their own brand of religious ecstacy.
The faux spirituality conforms to a perverted view of Divine immanence, God’s relatedness, stemming from a post-enlightenment evacuation of Divine transcendence. The new emphasis on God’s immanence corresponds to a cultural shift in focus from God to man. Sin is less a concern in its offense of God as its psychological implications for men. The spirit engendered in a church service has the power to overcome a broken relationship or downcast countenance, providing the desired therapy.
Church music, and even all music, reflects the new view of spirituality. Man’s taste has become preeminent in musical composition and performance, both style and words. I believe the music has had a more detiorating effect on the perversion of spirituality than even the substance of the lyrics in church hymnody. Professing Christians have watered down the doctrinal content of hymns, but that has followed the use of popular tunes, which are popular because they lure where luring occurs—the flesh. Man’s flesh isn’t drawn away by his spirit, but by his flesh, and enticed.
Not only have churches been fooled in this particular false spirituality, but also an imposter in the realm of something perhaps even more wicked, that is, mysticism, a secret spirituality found in eastern religions and felt in the their music and worship. They produce natural, whispery, repetitious sounds that our culture has now accepted as something in touch with God. It sometimes takes on the calmness of the surface of a mountain lake or the lapping of the waves on the seashore. The connection isn’t with the God, Almighty God, the Lord of Hosts, but the god of this world, who is also the god of pantheism. These rhythms and sounds are now incorporated into modern worship music, again fooling people with a counterfeit spirituality.
In the 1960s, the Jesus movement portrayed itself as authentic Christianity, tapping into the counter-culture sweeping the United States and then the world. The emotions and even rebellion young people felt in their relations to traditional family and government structure and authority was revealed through their music. These feelings were real. The music itself became, to them, an expression of their inner yearnings. The people involved put on no airs—in their dress, with their hair, with their physical touch. They didn’t hold back, just let it hang loose, elucidating the kind of liberty they felt in Christ. They also talked “like so sincere.” The Jesus people took that music and incorporated it into Christian worship. The music itself became associated with authenticity and genuine spirituality. Other forms were stilted, repressive, and against the feeling of the movement. The music not only reflected the emotions, but produced or proliferated them. They were accepted as evidence of spirituality. This movement has bridged the gap for all forms of the world’s music as true expressions of man’s relationship with God.
Not every church takes the tactics to their furthest end. Don’t think that because someone is worse than you that you get a pass on these techniques and this warping of true spirituality. Many churches have stirred up their own unique stew of varied strengths and styles.
This attack on the meaning of spirituality is an attack on the truth. There is true spirituality defined by Scripture. Genuine spirituality is sanctified by God’s Word, not by people’s feelings.
I think that what we have here is equal to the perversion of false doctrine. We have dumbed down or altered spirituality and then many other theological concepts necessary for true worship and obedience to God, including love and the nature of God Himself. God does not receive the affection of which He is worthy. And many men through this deceit are further tangled in a web of pseudo-spirituality from which for many there is no escape.
Back in the day, well, of Noah and his family, so way, way back in the day, the truth took a very small minority and yet it was still the truth. We see this again and again in Scripture. We don’t see the truth attract a majority of people. The smaller group always believes what’s right. I think most who are reading this already knew this.
So when we look at history to calculate what people have believed, we don’t expect the right position to be held by a majority of people or even necessarily a majority of professing Christians. We want to see if anyone at all took a particular position. Some will depart from the faith (1 Tim 4:1); not everyone. A total apostasy counters Christ’s promise that the ‘gates of hell would not prevail against His church’ (Mt 16:18). We would expect to find evidence of someone holding the right position. If we can’t find our view anywhere in history, we should be concerned. However, if we find that our belief represents a minority in history, that does not work against that position being the right one. Based on what we see in Scripture, the minority view is more likely also the right view.
God said He would preserve His Word. He didn’t say He would preserve history. So when we study history, we have take several factors into consideration. First, we are often getting someone’s slant on what happened. Many times the victor lives to tell the story and he tells it like he wants it to be remembered. Second, men can lie, because they are liars. God never lies, but men do. Third, we would expect true believers to be persecuted, and if that’s the case, they might not be able either to write their thoughts or have them preserved. Fourth, not much history is available period before the advent of the printing press, so that alone might result in a skewed perspective of what happened before 1440. The dark ages really are dark ages. Considering all of these factors, we do our best to sort through all materials available and make a judgment on the validity of the sources. We can assume that the Holy Spirit will bear witness to the truth.
With the above criteria in mind, how does one approach, for instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)? That confession represents a lot of professing believers in the 17th century. Should we just assume that all the positions of the Westminster divines were true because the WCF is so accessible and so predominant? Like with any position we’re studying, we start with what the Bible says about it, comparing Scripture with Scripture. After we’re sure the Bible teaches a doctrine, we look to see if other people believed it. If we can’t find it in the WCF, then we look elsewhere. When we look at other sources of historic information, if we find that belief expressed by others, we consider the integrity and veracity of the non-WCF group or person who believed differently than the WCF. There may be a good explanation why they differed, and why the WCF may have had the position wrong.
The Westminster divines were free to write and publish their confession. It was printed and widely disseminated. Other groups in less favor with various governments found it exponentially more difficult than the Westminster group to propagate their doctrine in written form. They lived with much greater opposition and with fewer opportunities, in part because what they did preach and teach was, in fact, the truth. Satan and his system oppose the truth. I recognize that this makes sense as a typical argument for fringe thinkers espousing heterodoxy. That’s why we must weigh the quality of the source and compare its conclusion to the exegesis of Scripture from which we start. That must first stand up to the scrutiny of a literal hermeneutic.
The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches a position of the perfect preservation of Scripture in the language in which it was written, a view that necessarily results in a belief in only one Bible. That’s also the only position found in history before the 19th century. I can’t point to any statement of doctrine that disagrees with that bibliology before the 19th century.
The WCF also says the church is all believers, but not everyone took that traditionally reformed position on the church. Something entirely different is seen in the Schleitheim Confession, which predates the WCF, as well as in the first century writings of Clement of Rome (96AD). The first use of the words “catholic church” don’t appear until 106AD, just once with Cyprian of Antioch, and then later only in The Martyrdom of Polycarp in 155AD and the Muratorian Fragment in 177AD. Universal church postdates local only ecclesiology. The WCF supporters may have outnumbered the proponents of the Schleitheim Confession, but this is a case where the majority is wrong.
Our approach to historical theology is not to believe the position held by the most. We should believe what the Bible teaches and then look to see if we can find that in history. We shouldn’t be surprised if a smaller number believed the truth than didn’t.
Faith believes what God said just because He said it, not because it’s been proven to us or because we’ve experienced something. Since faith puts confidence in what God said as true only because He said it, it is faith in things that we cannot see. At one time, theology was the queen of the sciences because God’s Word was considered evidence. The Enlightenment and its consequences changed this way of thinking for professing Christians.
A big clash exists in evangelicalism over the age of the earth—new earthers versus old earthers. The new earthers take the Genesis account literally. The old earthers are influenced by “human observation and discovery.” For instance, they look at the time it takes for light to travel from distant stars and assume that the universe must be billions of years old or else we wouldn’t be able to see these stars through a telescope. So there’s a challenge from science to the record of Genesis 1-3.
Many more evangelicals believe in evolution than what you would even imagine, and especially among the so-called elite and scholarly. This debate among them elevated in March when a well-respected Old Testament Hebrew scholar, Bruce Waltke, posted a pro-evolution statement on a well-visited evangelical website. Several conservative evangelicals have reacted to his statement in very heated fashion. Rightly so. I don’t want to get into extreme detail here, but the paradigm for evangelicals and their faith changed well before this debate began. I do think we have some pot calling the kettle black occurring here.
Evangelicals long ago started discarding scriptural and historic belief for sight. Nothing is more important to faith than the Bible. The Bible promises its own perfect preservation. Evangelicals and fundamentalists took this same paradigm of unbelief long before Bruce Waltke and these old-earth evangelicals. They now say that the Bible never really taught preservation per se. Well, not that the Bible wasn’t preserved—it was, just in a way that you have no hope of a perfect Bible and the one you have you really don’t know the number of mistakes. Just in too, that’s what the Bible has always taught. No one has said this before, but as I speak, well, that’s what it says about itself. I know that some evangelicals and fundamentalists are now saying that they are getting their doctrine of the preservation of Scripture from the Bible.
Having said that, most evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t believe in the perfect preservation of Scripture. Kevin Bauder represents their position on this when he writes in Only One Bible? (p. 155) that Scripture does not affirm that “any singled printed text preserves all of the words and only all the words of the autographa.” He continues: “Such a specific affirmation clearly lies outside of the teaching of Scripture.” Those two statements he makes in the first paragraph of his chapter, “An Appeal to Scripture.” The very next line, which is the first sentence of the second paragraph, he writes: “If the preservation of the Word of God depends upon the exact preservation of the words of the original documents, then the situation is dire.” That last statement is the rub for evangelicals and fundamentalists.
From Bauder’s statements, really just quoted as a representation, because this is the stand of almost all of evangelicalism today, you can see that they depend on their sight and their observation, i. e., their scientific discovery, for their position on preservation. Again and again, evangelicals say that miracle was not the means of God’s preservation. No miracle involved. Supernaturalism was not the means. You would see this many times in Only One Bible? This was not always the case among Christians. At one time, pre-enlightenment and textual criticism, relying on the Bible alone for their doctrine (sola scriptura), they believed in the perfect preservation of Scripture.
Preservation passages are being twisted with the same pattern as creation passages. If you are going to discard the promises of preservation found in the Bible for the science of textual criticism, that without theological presupposition proudly follows the “evidence,” then next will come other doctrines of scripture like creation. That’s not all, of course, because the abandonment of a grammatical-historical interpretation of Genesis 1-3 undermines the entire rest of the Bible, including the gospel itself.
A second part to this paradigm is the new evangelical emphasis on primary versus secondary doctrines. They rank doctrines for the purpose of cobbling together alliances. These old earth evangelicals want to keep the faux unity between them and the new-earthers. They attempt to do this by categorizing this creation doctrine as a non-essential. I read this all over. They insist that it does not affect the gospel, and since the gospel is “first in importance,” the old earth position should not separate them from the new-earth evangelicals. They just differ on a tertiary issue. This, of course, is ripped right out of the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist playbook. If the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists do not agree to see the nuance between the two beliefs, and not to agree to disagree, they’re the ones causing unnecessary division in “the Lord’s body.” Evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t mind that you believe in the perfect preservation of Scripture. They just don’t want you to cause division over it. Keep the peace.
So let’s review. Evangelicals already moved into the conform-scripture-to-science column with textual criticism. The doctrine of perfect preservation was as firmly established as a Christian belief as teaching on creation from Genesis 1-3. So here we have just more of the same. And now we can still all get along because none of these are essential doctrines. Chalk it all up to a paradigm of evangelical unbelief.
The book I edited and in which I wrote, Thou Shalt Keep Them, provided exegesis of key preservation passages in the Bible in their context. There were several passages that we did not deal with that will be part of a second volume when it comes out. One of these is Isaiah 59:21. Recently, I merely mentioned Isaiah 59:21 as a part of the introduction to a post at my blog on the LXX issue. A young man named Adam, attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, decided to attack this particular article. He dealt with it as though this really was the major work that I had done as an examination of passages which teach the perfect preservation of Scripture. I only quoted Isaiah 59:21, no more. I provided no commentary, but this is what he wrote concerning that:
Now, one has to really shake their head at the gross misuse of scripture here. Take, for example, the quotation from Isaiah 59. The context is Israel’s transgression before the Lord [vrs.12-13], and the resultant mistreatment of them by their enemies [vrs.14-17]. However, the text says that God will repay them for their deeds, and will bring them a redeemer, so that all will fear the Lord [vrs.18-20]. It is in that context that you find the statement about the covenant being with them in verse 21. Hence, the words here are the *promises* of God to his people, not individual words of the text itself. It is parallel to the usage of Numbers 30:3:
Numbers 30:2 “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
Now, are we really to suggest that his vow was just one word? No, of course not. Yet, this is the very same context of covenants and promises of vengance etc. that we find Isaiah 59:21! All I can say is that this is a gross misuse of Isaiah 59:21.
He says that I grossly misuse scripture by relying on Isaiah 59:21 as a verse on the preservation of scripture. I’ve preached through the whole book of Isaiah, verse by verse and word by word through the Hebrew text. It took me about three or four years.
He talks about the context of Isaiah 59:21, but he really does not go back far enough to understand what Isaiah 59 is about. He needs to see the entire chapter if he wants to properly understand the context. A proper reading of Isaiah 59 will show that v. 21 really does teach the perfect preservation of Scripture to every generation of believer.
Context of Isaiah 59:21
Isaiah 59 allows us to see the world like God sees it, and in this chapter he depicts salvation for Israel and for all mankind. For our own well-being, we must give heed to this portrayal by God of His salvation. Chapter 59 begins like chapter 58 with a concern expressed as to why God is not answering prayers and why Israelites do not seem to sense His presence. They were not experiencing God’ s promises for one reason: their sin. Sin was the barrier between them and God, and this is the theme of Isaiah 59:1-8. As the people recognize the cause for their difficulties, they respond to God first by crying out to Him (vv. 9-11) and then confessing (vv. 12-15).
Isaiah 59:15-21 ends not only this chapter but an entire section that began in 56:1. God is pictured as a Mighty Warrior that defeats Israel’s enemies. But who are her enemies? The enemy isn’t the Canaanites, but her inability to live the life of God. God wants righteousness and He will come to deliver them from sin, and in so doing, Israel can become what God intended her to be. God will come to defeat sin in spiritual warfare. Ephesians 6:13-17 hearkens back to this text in Isaiah. God’s victory over sin has worldwide implications—from the east to the west God will be glorified. His ultimate purpose for attacking sin was so that He might be a Redeemer (59:20).
The Teaching of Isaiah 59:21
In the final verse of Isaiah 59, v. 21, God pronounces a covenant with those He redeems, those whom He saves from sin. And here it is:
As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.
The “them” are the ones that God’s hand is not to short that He cannot save (cf. 59:1). He guarantees those who turn from their transgressions several things.
First, God’s Spirit will not depart from them.
Second, God’s Words, which He has put in their mouth, will not depart out of their mouth. God makes a promise that these whom He has redeemed will always have His Words accessible to them. God will always provide for them what they need to know Him, believe in Him, and live for Him. Adam offers the typical, faithless treatment of “words.” He says, “These are not the individual words.” Instead, they are merely the “promises.” Where does he get that? Ironically, not in the words of Isaiah 59:21. He reads “promises” into the verse, that isn’t there, and it seems so that he might keep alive the uncertainty of the text that will permit his continued textual criticism.
Third, God’s Words will not depart from the mouth of those believers’ seed and their seed’s seed from that point unto forever. We’re still living under this promise to believers.
God promises perfect preservation and availability of His Words to every generation of believer.
Regarding Isaiah 59:21, consider others who write about this verse. John Owen called Isaiah 59:21 “the great charter of the church’s preservation of truth.” Edward Young in his classic commentary on Isaiah writes (p. 442): “The gift of the Spirit (cf. John 16:13), who will instruct the Church in all truth and in the comforting, saving words that God has given her, will abide with her seed forever. The Lord is declaring that His eternal truth, revealed to man in words, is the peculiar possession of His people.” John Owen and Edward Young both see this verse the same way that I do. Adam would have to chide them as well for their “gross misuse” of scripture—pretty cheeky for someone in his M.A. program in divinity school.
I am amazed at the extent to which men will pursue a goal of attacking the doctrine of the perfect preservation of Scripture. Why not accept the plain reading of the text? God’s Word sustains authority and God offers His people certainty. We should cherish these wonderful gifts of God’s grace. Every generation of God’s redeemed really do have every one of His Words by which to live.
Recent reactions to the Together for the Gospel (T4G) meeting in Louisville expose the fundamental error for evangelicalism and fundamentalism. One of the most popular and well-read bloggers in evangelicalism, Tim Challies, covered T4G, obviously at its invitation, and afterward explained what he thought was so good about the T4G brand of togetherness. I’ll break down his argument later, but Ben Wright, one of the bloggers on the SharperIron blogroll, revealed (probably unintentionally) the thinking of fundamentalists and evangelicals on togetherness, unity, and fellowship. He writes concerning Challies’ argument: “There may be another argument that reaches his conclusion, but I don’t think he gets us all the way there.” You see, the “conclusion” and “getting all the way there,” that is, to this utopian evangelical unity, is what is important to evangelicals and fundamentalists. They come with the arguments later. This, by the way, is pragmatism. You start with a desired conclusion and assume an argument. The conclusion is big enough and important enough to them to pervert scripture to get there.
And pragmatism was David’s ox cart in 2 Samuel 6. He needed the ark to get from point A to point B, that is, to reach his desired conclusion, and that desire led him to the ox cart. It was the best, fastest, and easiest way to get the ark from point A to point B, so the cart was the means that David justified for transportation. It wasn’t the scriptural means to get there. It wasn’t a godly method. It wasn’t how God wanted things done. But it would work. It was utilitarian. All that was proved wrong when Uzzah touched the ark and died. David got out of the ox cart business. You would think that professing believers would end their ox cart fascination for ever after that. But ox carts will be built if the conclusion is what guides the argument. You want to get to point B after all.
Now some might argue that Ben Wright, featured at SharperIron, is just a young man, one of the restless, petulant, and angry reformed, regularly disrespectful and impudent to older separatists whom he doesn’t like, using the faux authority that SI provides him as a reward for his ejection to the big tent of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is true that his blog reads mainly as a bitter evangelical rant against his personal distaste with traditional fundamentalism, but I think his point does speak for evangelicalism and now a sizable segment of fundamentalism (why he gets SI promotion). You have a conclusion, unity, and better, significance or bigness, and so now you just have to start looking for the arguments to get you there.
Challies’ arguments for T4G togetherness do represent the kind of stretch that evangelicals and fundamentalists invent to reach their desired ends. They also generally approve of these types of attempts, as long as whatever the reasoning, faulty or not, directs them to their theologically correct conclusion. “Just keep trying, Tim, you’ll finally get us to our goal.”
The first Challies’ argument is in essence that not all doctrinal error is sin, so you don’t have to correct the error and can still be in unity, even for a difference like infant sprinkling versus believer’s baptism. Now Challies says that some doctrinal error is sin, like preaching that Jesus isn’t God or saying that homosexuality is permissible. Why? No reason in particular. Those doctrinal errors won’t threaten the T4G coalition. However, he says we should not see all doctrinal error as sin because doctrinal error is merely the consequence of sin, just like illness is the consequence of sin. His basis for this in scripture? Nothing. And then I think we get a second argument, which is that conscience is the guide in the doctrines that divide godly men. Since two men who differ in doctrine both are persuaded in their own conscience that they are right, neither should they “abuse” the other’s conscience by dividing over those differences. Challies ends by writing this:
I am encouraged to see Christians uniting across lines that were once considered too wide to cross. Together for the Gospel is an excellent example of Christian leaders being willing and eager to put aside secondary differences for the sake of the gospel. While they disagree on many fine points of doctrine and even many very important points of doctrine, they all hold tightly to what matters most–the gospel message. This is one line that would be too great to cross but one, within which, there is opportunity to practice humility and fraternity. They join together not to condemn, not to argue, but to affirm the common bond of gospel unity. Though never downplaying differences, neither do they seek to bind one another’s conscience. And this, I think, is how God wants us to be as just a foretaste of that greater, more complete, perfect unity to come.
The conscience is a God created warning device within us that is trained by what we know and believe. Challies is arguing that keeping a properly operating conscience is more important than believing right on “secondary differences.” In other words, what informs the conscience is less important to Challies than the conscience itself. For instance, a conscience may be informed by false doctrine that infant sprinkling is correct, but it is better for T4G and evangelicals to preserve the smooth function of the conscience than to tell the conscience what is true. The conscience has been raised in this argument above Scripture and above the Holy Spirit. That kind of thinking is permissible to evangelicals and won’t send you off the T4G reservation, because it is an ox cart that can bring them to their desired destination.
SharperIron linked to Challies’ post without disclaimer, as if this were an important bit of interaction for the contemporary fundamentalist thinker. The concluding paragraph of Challies presents numbers of awful points. He’s happy that men are coming from widely divergent points of view in order to “unite.” He disintegrates a biblical doctrine of unity. In the last line of his essay, he says that the unity that we have now is different than the one we’ll have together in heaven. The unity I seek, the one in Scripture, is the same as the one in heaven and the one Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Challies explodes a scriptural understanding of humility and fraternity. He implies, of course, that people who emphasize doctrine for unity are proud. On the other hand, those who put aside difference to get together are the humble ones. The problem is that they don’t “downplay” differences, they just ignore them. Challies also says that arguing about differences wouldn’t be humble and would “bind one another’s conscience.” What that is, I don’t know. Feeding a conscience with the truth won’t bind a conscience. The reality is that the conscience operating correctly should be warning someone that something is terribly wrong at the T4G conference. All of this combined devastates discernment in the people that need it the most, Christian leaders. We could rename the conference, Together for Devastating Discernment—T4DD.
What I hadn’t heard during that week was that there was one more conference during the same time as T4G and IBFI, that is, Wheaton’s Theology Conference, featuring the British theologian, N. T. Wright. Christianity Today quotes Wright saying, “Nothing justifies schism.” Brett McCracken breaks down the idea in his CT article that these two massive and sold-out conferences should be getting together to fulfill a New Testament understanding of unity. I don’t agree with any of this, but McCracken writes concerning T4G and the Wheaton conference:
Are we on the same page on the core issues? Can we agree on the claims of the creeds? Yes? Then let’s hash out the details of theological minutia (which is definitely important) in a spirited, friendly debate as the people of God exercising the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
He concludes his article:
What if both conferences had merged and two seemingly antagonistic groups of Christians put aside their differences for a few minutes to just sing (in both conferences the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” was sung), side-by-side, in worship of the triune God who gives the same grace through which all who follow Christ have been saved? That would be a unity the rulers of the world would truly be afraid of.
This two evangelical factions seem to know what the conclusion should be. Now if they can just find the ox cart that will get them there. Ask Tim Challies. He’s already got one built.
If you see the evangelical or fundamentalist ox cart on its way somewhere, wait for someone else from whom to thumb a ride. Unity is found in the assembly, the church. Outside of the church, it is found in churches of like faith and practice. Same belief and practice are the basis of the unity, just like we see in the Bible (Eph 4:1-3). And that’s the only unity that pleases God. The ark of the covenant was the presence of God. The presence of God is purity, holiness, and righteousness, both doctrinally and morally. His presence was not meant for our ox carts.