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Thursday, 22 January 2015

A return to regeneration, indwelling and the coming of the Spirit

Almost exactly a year ago, I began tentatively exploring the nature of belief and salvation; specifically regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit before and after Pentecost. Briefly stated, I considered passages such as Ezekiel 36:24-28 and John 16:7, among others, which speak of a distinct difference between the pre- and post- coming of the Spirit. However, the Reformed ordo salutis (to which I subscribe) insists regeneration must occur prior to receipt of the Spirit. To state the problem briefly: if the Spirit is required in the work of regeneration and this precedes repentance in the ordo salutis, how did believers come to repentance prior to Christ's ascension when the Spirit was not present in their hearts?

You can read my three previous posts on this issue here, here and here. I last left this discussion having arrived (very tentatively) at the following conclusions: first, and never really in doubt during discussion, salvation was always by faith alone. Second, regeneration was always necessary to counter Total Depravity in both the OT and NT. Third, there appeared to be a distinction between the Spirit 'on' individuals in the OT and the Spirit 'in' believers in the NT (broadly speaking). The mechanics of how this all held together was left unclear.

I was (relatively) OK with this broad position until a recent discussion pointed out 1 Peter 1:10-11
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and enquired carefully, enquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
This verse appears to suggest the prophets had the Spirit of Christ indwelling their hearts prior to the coming of the Spirit himself. This sent me back to the issue for a reappraisal. Here are some further (still tentative) thoughts on this topic.

Before I go on, it's important to affirm what I uphold. Principally, I maintain salvation - in both OT and NT - was by faith alone. Similarly, I maintain the Reformed ordo salutis that Total Depravity demands regeneration by the Spirit prior to conversion. However, I want to uphold a legitimate distinction between Christ's going and the Spirit's coming. I also want to maintain a reasonable distinction between Ezekiel's comment (related to a future reality) and the present experience, at the time of writing, of OT believers.

In previous discussions, I posited the idea the Spirit may not necessarily have indwelt OT believers (though they were regenerate). The question follows: is it possible to have regeneration without indwelling? Certainly, the ordo salutis would allow for this. Further, there is no scriptural reason to insist - just because the Holy Spirit indwells believers as a sign and seal of their faith today - that excludes God's work on unbelievers prior to faith. Even in the church age, where we certainly receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, we believe regeneration occurs prior to conversion from which indwelling follows. Indeed, John 16:8-11, Titus 3:5 and James 1:18 would bear this reading out. If such is true, we have good grounds to argue regeneration occurs without indwelling (though receipt of the Spirit follows for believers today). If it is true that regeneration occurs prior to indwelling, this could readily apply to OT regeneration irrespective of their indwelling.

Given that, Jesus words in John 14:16-17 would also bear out this reading:
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Notice Jesus' construction here. His disciples know the Spirit because he dwells, or abides, with you (present tense) but he will be in you (future tense). As John Hendryx helpfully points out:
This is a future tense of an indwelling. Apparently the saints of the OT enjoyed regeneration but may not have enjoyed indwelling... Regeneration and indwelling are not exactly the same for in regeneration the Spirit works to illumine our minds and renew our hearts prior to our faith in which He comes to indwell us. That pre-salvific action is not called indwelling. "WITH YOU" and "IN YOU" appear to demonstrate qualitative differences.
So, just as the OT believing Jews experienced a type and shadow of things to come, so it may be they were regenerate - that is the Spirit worked on the hearts and minds of OT believers - without indwelling their hearts. Today, the ordo salutis is largely logical (not necessarily sequential). That is, regeneration is logically prior to conversion which is logically prior to indwelling and sanctification though the latter three (broadly) occur simultaneously and end in glorification. For the OT believer, the same logical sequence would be true but regeneration and conversion happen in quick succession, whereas indwelling, sanctification and glorification may all occur later in a much more rapid succession.

There is an argument that OT believers were both regenerate and indwelt by the Spirit. Yet, this quashes any meaningful difference, as outlined in Ezekiel 36 and John 16, pre- and post- the Spirit's coming. It is often argued the difference was between a partial experience of the Spirit and the fullness after his coming, the emphasis falling upon Joel 2:28-29 and the post-Pentecost signs and wonders. However, it can't escape our notice that such things also happened in the OT. Visions and dreams were experienced and miraculous works were done as well. This doesn't really provide us with any quantitative or qualitative difference.

How then do we explain OT believers doing miraculous works and specific tasks? It seems, in the OT, the Spirit came upon people and anointed them selectively and temporarily for particular works (cf. Judges 15:141 Samuel 16:12f2 Chronicles 20:14; et al). It is notable that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:10) and yet he is widely regarded to have died in unbelief. As such, the Spirit coming upon an individual did not necessarily indicate their spiritual state. The Spirit thus moved individuals to specific acts without necessarily indwelling. Again, such causes a problem for the view that Pentecost was the dawn of the fullness of the Spirit's coming (these acts of the Spirit were occurring in the OT). 

How then do we explain verses such as Numbers 27:18; Ezekiel 2:2; 3:24; Micah 3:8Luke 1:15, 41, 671 Peter 1:10f? They are best understood as the Spirit moving these individuals at particular times for particular tasks. So, the prophets who enquired "what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating" could be read less as a reference to their ongoing, permanent indwelling and more a reference to the empowering of the Spirit at the point they were prophesying. In other words, this is a manifestation of the selective, temporary anointing of the Spirit. It does not speak to permanent indwelling but their anointing by the Spirit as prophets, spokesmen for God, whom the Spirit also anointed to write the canon.

This reading allows us to make a qualitative difference between the pre- and post- coming of the Spirit. It stops us from quashing all meaningful difference in the words of Ezekiel and Jesus. It also allows us to uphold Paul's statements in Romans that the Spirit - the same Spirit who descended on Jesus, anointed him at his baptism and on whom he relied to live out a perfect human life - will empower us to keep God's law in a way OT  believers could/did not. This reading maintains the continuity of Covenant Theology - salvation by faith alone requiring the regeneration of the Spirit of God to overcome our Total Depravity - without flattening any sense of discontinuity from when the Spirit begins to dwell in the hearts of God's people.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Are we called to ignorance and credulity?

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8)

Many are the verses often ripped out of context to press particular points in the church. Matthew 18:20 is one such favourite (see here), Matthew 7:1 is another and John 16:23b is often handled this way too. Ignoring the context of these verses will inevitably lead us to false application (sometimes dangerously, sometimes less so). As Don Carson has often stated, attributing the quote to his father, "a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text". The above verse, Philippians 4:8, is another such example.

This verse is rarely used in its contextless form as an encouragement to other believers. Rather, it is typically wheeled out when one party wishes to stop another from acting a particular way. Such is a shame given a plain reading of the verse, even while ignoring the wider context, suggests it was intended as an encouragement to the believers in Philippi, not a warning to stop doing something in particular.

Those who employ a contextless reading tell us to think about those things that are true, honrouable, pure, excellent, etc. That is a plain reading of the text. Therefore, they aver, it follows we are to avoid thinking about those things that are not lovely, commendable, excellent, etc. As such, they go on, anything we can deem unlovely, not commendable or less than excellent must be shunned by the believer. It is here we run into some trouble.

On such a reading, the range of things condemned as unedifying is enormous. The usual suspects in view are such "worldly" pursuits as TV, music, film and then a whole host of other things dependent on the particular hobby horses of the individual. However, what they singularly fail to take into account on their reading is the logical conclusion of this position. 

If we can only focus on what is true, any form of fiction must be discarded because it is not (and that would presumably include such classics as Pilgrim's Progress.) Pursuing regular news coverage must be ruled out. Rarely is the news commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. In fact, any thought of considering the state of the world around us must be removed from our thoughts because, though it may be true, it is not pure, excellent or always worthy of praise.

But the view must be pressed further. Evangelism suddenly becomes impossible because, as often happens when one engages with the world, conversations may be less than excellent and praise worthy. We may have to listen to views, and language, that do not equate with Paul's exhortation. Paul himself was wrong to do evangelism because he was regularly flogged, beaten, stoned or imprisoned - hardly lovely and commendable. 

Then we are faced with portions of scripture itself. What precisely is lovely, pure and worthy of praise in certain descriptive parts of Old Testament narrative? Consider (or don't, if you take this reading) passages such as Genesis 4Judges 19:22-29 or 2 Samuel 13. Of course, in their appropriate context and with proper thought, there are valuable principles to be drawn and understood. But the events themselves, that we must consider if we are to understand what God would have us learn through such passages, cannot be meditated upon if we follow this contextless reading to its logical conclusion.

This approach to Philippians 4:8 is a charter for ignorance and lack of thought. We can only really consider the lighter, fluffier parts of the Bible because they are pure, excellent, true, etc. We cannot consider, with meaningful thought, anything that is not wholly true, honourable, just, pure, excellent, etc. Engagement of any sort with the world, and worldviews apart from the Bible, are out. Even portions of scripture describing unsavoury events must also be ignored if we are not to fall foul of considering things that are fundamentally unlovely. The Bible simply does not call believers to a state of credulousness and ignorance this way.

Instead of this approach, putting the verses in context can help us out. The preceding verses, Philippians 4:4-7, are dealing with our potential for anxiety. Paul is telling us to be anxious in nothing and to bring our prayers and petitions to God with confidence. The following verses, vv-8-9, are offering a solution to our anxieties. Moreover, the only thing to truly meet all the criteria outlined by Paul in v8 is Jesus Christ himself. Thus the solution to our anxieties as Christians is to focus upon the Lord Jesus (who himself will guard our hearts) and will allow us to thus bring our prayers with confidence to the Father.

Paul's point is that Christ should be our ultimate focus. As per v4, we are to rejoice in the Lord. Thus his exhortation in v8 is to make the Lord Jesus our central focus. Where we do this, our anxieties will be cast aside and we will bring our prayers and petitions to the Father with confidence. As Sinclair Ferguson points out, in the space of 3 verses, Paul calls us to constantly rejoice in Christ and reject anxiety. He comments "the two are related; the joyful person is not likely to be dominated by anxiety; the anxiety-ridden spirit cannot be a joyful one".

Paul is not calling us to credulousness, nor ignorance, nor circling off certain activities as unlovely, lacking excellence and unworthy of praise (though such things undoubtedly do exist.) His point is that Christ should be our focus. Where he is, our anxieties certainly will not prevail. Where he is the centre of our thoughts, film, music, tv and all other manner of possible activities can be assessed rightly and hold nothing for us to fear. Such a position does not lead us to cut ourselves off from the world, or meaningful engagement with it, but rather causes us to make proper and valid assessments of the things we see around us in light of Jesus; the object of our faith, the pivot around which we assess all else and the definition of the qualities of Philippians 4:8.

Paul makes this same point in v9. He tells us to shape our thoughts and minds around the apostles teaching and to practise such things. And the focus of the apostles teaching was the person and work of Jesus Christ. If our thoughts and actions are focused upon him, our minds will be focused on the things of v8. When our minds and thoughts and actions are focused this way, we may assess all else - not in a spirit of credulity or ignorance - but in the Spirit of Christ himself, which he gives to all true believers. 

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Jesus' humanity, deity and the power of the Spirit

I posted some time ago, here and here, regarding Jesus' humanity, mission and anointing by the Spirit. It seemed to cause quite a stir in certain quarters. There was particularly some concern expressed over Bruce Ware's The Man Christ Jesus.

In my previous posts, I argued the miracles of Jesus did not prove his divinity. Rather, they proved his anointing by the Spirit for his specific mission from God. I went on to argue that Christ lived his life in the Spirit, yielding perfectly to his power, such that the works he did were not acts of his deity but were done in his humanity by the Spirit's power. It is his perfect human life accounted to all true believers and this same Spirit given to all true believers.

Following his excellent The Good God, I recently received Michael Reeves latest book Christ Our Life for Christmas. Thus far, it is excellent and can be highly recommended. One particular point pressed by Reeves is that the Son (or Word) of God never acted alone. He always worked in conjunction with the Spirit (as in Genesis 1, when the Word of God is spoken into the darkness borne by the Spirit). Reeves argues, in relation to the incarnation, "And as it had always been,so it was when the Word became flesh: he did all that he did in the power of the Spirit".

I was particularly struck by the force of his argument. He goes on to comment:
Born in the power of the Spirit, he lives and acts as a man in the power of the Spirit. At his Baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit anoints him, then sends him into the lifeless wilderness just as he had once sent him into the lifeless void in Genesis 1. Returning to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, he announced and defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth using the words of Isaiah 61: 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour' (Luke 4:18-19). So he healed, did good, and drove out demons - all in the power of the Spirit (Matthew 12:28; Acts 10:38). Later he would offer himself up on the cross by the Spirit (Hebrews 9:14) and be raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:11)
In line with Ware's argument, Reeves states "Christ shows what it is to be a human, fully alive in the Spirit. And he is the head of a new, Spirit-filled humanity: all in him share in this anointing of his".

The importance of this cannot be missed. Though the impeccability of Christ must be defended, we mustn't miss the distinction between why he couldn't sin and why he didn't sin. As God, Jesus Christ could not sin yet, in his humanity, the reason he did not sin was because of his perfect reliance upon the power of the Spirit.

It is this distinction that means Christ's perfect life, lived in the Spirit, can be fully accounted to those who believe by faith in him. If the perfect righteousness of God could simply have been accounted to us, as God, Christ's humanity would have been unnecessary. Likewise, if Christ shifted at will between his deity and humanity during his ministry, it seems there would be aspects of his perfect humanity that could not be accounted to us (as he would have lived them out under his deity). Similarly, the call to "walk as he walked" must be rendered wholly impossible because he would have walked as God, in his deity, something we can never aspire to do. Instead, in his humanity, Christ perfectly yielded to the power of the Spirit - the same spirit he gives to all those who believe by faith in him and who are united with him in his death.

It is equally why believers, who receive the Spirit upon conversion, are now able to live lives that are truly and actually pleasing to God. Not in our own power, suddenly changed to be "good", but in the work of the Spirit in our lives when we yield to his power. Thus, when we sin as believers (and we always will until we reach glory), it is not because we have no means to put sin away (as when we were unbelievers) but rather because we are not fully yielding to the power of the Spirit at work in our lives. It is a tendency to yield to the call of sin (which we could only do as unbelievers) rather than the power of the Spirit (which we are now able to do as believers).