Tag Archives: unbelief
Ruminating on ROMANS! (Some Thoughts on Paul’s Great Epistle) #28 “What I DO Understand in Romans 11!” (A Study of Romans 11)
Many of you know that my New Jersey friend Frank and I are reading through God’s Word together (described here). We’re now in the book of Romans and are reading chapter 11 each day this week.
1. There are two categories of people: Israel and the Gentiles.
2. There are some clear advantages to being born a Jew (v. 1).
3. There is a remnant chosen by grace (that we may not be aware of) (v. 5).
4. Grace versus works is a fundamental conflict (vv. 5-6).
5. There were/are two categories of the people of Israel: the elect and the hardened (v. 7).
6. Somehow God is involved in the hardening of some (vv. 8-10), as predicted in the Old Testament.
7. But Israel’s “fall” was not “beyond recovery” (v. 11).
8. Israel’s transgression = salvation has come to the Gentiles (v. 11).
9. Somehow envy is important to the Lord (v. 11).
10. Israel’s transgression means riches for the world and their loss means riches for the Gentiles (v. 12).
11. But there is hope for their “inclusion” (v. 12).
12. Paul takes pride in his ministry to the Gentiles, as the apostle to the Gentiles (v. 13).
13. Somehow arousing envy in God’s people will save some of them (v. 14).
14. Their rejection brought reconciliation to the world (v. 15).
15. Their acceptance will bring life from the dead (v. 15).
16. We get the imagery of dough, firstfruits, and branches (vv. 16ff).
17. The Gentiles are a wild olive branch that has been grafted in (vv. 17ff).
18. The branches were broken off because of unbelief (v. 20).
19. We dare not forget the kindness and sternness of God (v. 22).
20. Israel’s “hardening” awaits the full number of Gentiles coming in (v. 25).
21. In some way all Israel will be saved (v. 26).
22. God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all (v. 32).
23. God’s plan and purposes should drive us to praise (vv. 33-36).
Ruminating on ROMANS! (Some Thoughts on Paul’s Great Epistle) #27 “Spiritual Botany 101” (A Study of Romans 11)
Many of you know that my New Jersey friend Frank and I are reading through God’s Word together (described here). We’re now in the book of Romans and are reading chapter 11 each day this week.
I will be the first to admit that I know virtually nothing when it comes to botany. I was cursed with a black thumb (except when we lived in Manitoba and everything grew like crazy!).
Here in Romans 11 Paul is discussing Israel and the Gentiles. And he resorts to a botanical metaphor. Following are a few of my observations on this passage:
1. If the root is holy, so are the branches (v. 16).
2. Some of the branches have been broken off (v. 17).
3. The Gentiles are called “a wild olive shoot” by Paul (v. 17).
4. They, this “wild olive shoot” have been grafted in among the others (v. 17).
5. This grafted in shoot now shares in the nourishing sap from the olive root (v. 17).
6. There is no reason for that grafted-in wild olive shoot to consider itself to be superior to those other branches (afterall, it did not graft itself in!) (v. 18).
7. If that wild olive shoot does think itself superior to those other branches, it should be reminded that it does not support the root. The root supports it (v. 18).
8. The wild olive branch might say, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” (v. 19).
9. Okay, but those branches were broken off because of unbelief. And the wild olive branch is challenged to “stand by faith” (v. 20).
10. That wild olive branch is also challenged to not be arrogant, but to tremble (v. 20).
11. Why should that wild olive branch tremble? Because “if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (v. 21).
As a “wild olive shoot,” I’m grateful for God’s mercy in grafting me in to the nourishing sap of this olive tree! I want to beware of unbelief in my life and I long to “stand by faith”!
Ruminating on ROMANS! (Some Thoughts on Paul’s Great Epistle) #10 “Not Wavering Through Unbelief!” (A Study of Romans 4:20-21)
Many of you know that my New Jersey friend Frank and I are reading through God’s Word together (described here). We’re now in the book of Romans and are reading chapter 4 each day this week. Here is something that I noticed in reading this chapter:
I will be the first to admit that there is much in the Old Testament that I do not understand. I’m not claiming to understand all of the New Testament, by the way.
But I don’t understand how Paul could write these words in Romans 4:20-21 –
As I read Genesis 16, Abram obeys his wife Sarai (who had borne him no children) and sleeps with Hagar, her Egyptian slave. Sarai’s reasoning is “The Lord has kept me from having children. . . . Perhaps I can build a family through her” (v. 2).
Abram agrees and Sarai gives Hagar to Abram and he sleeps with her and she conceives. I don’t know that he had to sleep only once with her. Perhaps it was multiple times over a significant time period. But Hagar becomes pregnant.
We know the rest of the story. Hagar begins to despise Sarai (v. 4). Sarai gives Abram the gears and says, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering! . . . May the Lord judge between you and me” (v. 5). Ouch.
Abram gives Sarai permission to do to Hagar whatever she thinks best. And Sarai mistreats Hagar who flees to a spring in the desert.
The angel of the Lord meets Hagar there, tells her to go back and submit to Sarai, and that the Lord would give her innumerable descendants. Hagar names the Lord who spoke to her (note: “angel of the Lord” = “the Lord”) “the One who sees me” (v. 13).
Hagar bears Abram (at the ripe old age of 86) a son whom he names Ismael.
This whole episode sure sounds like Abram is, indeed, wavering through unbelief regarding the promise of God. Or am I missing something?
Friends: If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that my friend Frank (in New Jersey) and I have been doing an email Bible study for over a year. We read the same chapter every day for a week — and then send a brief email of encouragement to each other. We’ve completed most of the epistles of the New Testament — and it’s been a great discipline for both of us.
We’re now working our way through 2 Corinthians. We continue our study of several verses in Chapter 2:
A Fragrance . . . or a Stench? (A Study of 2 Corinthians 2:14-17)
We’ve noticed, first of all, the image of a triumphal procession (v. 14). We have been conquered by Christ! Oh, glorious defeat!
Please notice, second, that Christ not only leads us as captives but uses us to have an olfactory impact on others! We believers are carrying with us, on us, in us, “the aroma of the knowledge of him.” We smell like Christ. We carry with us “the aroma of the knowledge of him.”
We also saw, third, that our primary audience is GOD! We read, “For we are to GOD the pleasing aroma of Christ . . .” (v. 15). HE is our “audience of one.” We smell like God’s own Son.
We then recognized that “we are a pleasing aroma of Christ” to two human audiences (v. 15). Amazingly we are told that we are a “pleasing aroma” to both (1) those who are being saved and (2) those who are perishing. Wow. Those “who are perishing” might not think that our aroma is pleasing, but if our primary audience is God, it is HIS opinion that matters the most! What “those who are perishing” may regard as a terrible stench, God says is a “pleasing aroma” to Him.
In our last post we observed that, apart from God as our primary audience, we believers are “smelled” by two groups. Verse 15 describes one group as “those who are being saved” and the second group as “those who are perishing.” The Bible is quite clear that the wages of sin is death. We begin to die the moment we enter the world. And, while physical death is awful, spiritual (or eternal) death is the worst possible situation one might encounter. Those who have not trusted Christ are presently dying. This bifurcation of all of humanity into two groups is incredibly offensive to those who are not yet believers, but it is still true.
As we conclude our study of this amazing text, let’s notice that the believer’s aroma brings something with it. For those who are perishing, it brings DEATH. For those who are being saved, it brings LIFE. One would not think that a mere smell would produce such dramatic results, but our aroma stands for a personal, saving relationship with the Lord Jesus. Believers find that image fragrant and pleasing; unbelievers react to that image as some odorous and repugnant.
The logical question that Paul asks is “And who is equal to such a task?” (v. 16). What task? The task of representing Christ in this world and recognizing that some will literally and figuratively turn up their noses at the gospel of our Savior.
Today’s Challenge: What an image! As you move through today, ask yourself if you are faithfully representing your Savior — and don’t be discouraged when some turn up their noses at you!
Some of you might have read my post back on February 28 entitled “Answering a Personal Attack: My Response to a Former Preacher Turned Atheist.” Bruce responded to my comment on his blog (see below) and I just responded to his response. Feel free to leave a comment at the end of this post if you wish. Thank you to those of you who have been praying for me during this conversation. Larry
Bruce Gerencser (Post author)
Friends: The following article challenges the very idea of hell. David Bentley Hart is an American theologian who recently published the book That ALL Shall Be Saved. I will be reviewing that book in several subsequent posts. But to hold to universal salvation one must get rid of the traditional view of hell. May I suggest you read over the following article and leave a comment or two? We will critique this article over the next few weeks.
Why Do People Believe in Hell?
The idea of eternal damnation is neither biblically, philosophically nor morally justified. But for many it retains a psychological allure.
Dr. Hart is a philosopher, scholar of religion and cultural critic.
Once the faith of his youth had faded into the serene agnosticism of his mature years, Charles Darwin found himself amazed that anyone could even wish Christianity to be true. Not, that is, the kindlier bits — “Love thy neighbor” and whatnot — but rather the notion that unbelievers (including relatives and friends) might be tormented in hell forever.
It’s a reasonable perplexity, really. And it raises a troubling question of social psychology. It’s comforting to imagine that Christians generally accept the notion of a hell of eternal misery not because they’re emotionally attached to it, but because they see it as a small, inevitable zone of darkness peripheral to a larger spiritual landscape that — viewed in its totality — they find ravishingly lovely. And this is true of many.
But not of all. For a good number of Christians, hell isn’t just a tragic shadow cast across one of an otherwise ravishing vista’s remoter corners; rather, it’s one of the landscape’s most conspicuous and delectable details.
I know whereof I speak. I’ve published many books, often willfully provocative, and have vexed my share of critics. But only recently, in releasing a book challenging the historical validity, biblical origins, philosophical cogency and moral sanity of the standard Christian teaching on the matter of eternal damnation, have I ever inspired reactions so truculent, uninhibited and (frankly) demented.
I expect, of course, that people will defend the faith they’ve been taught. What I find odd is that, in my experience, raising questions about this particular detail of their faith evinces a more indignant and hysterical reaction from many believers than would almost any other challenge to their convictions. Something unutterably precious is at stake for them. Why?
After all, the idea comes to us in such a ghastly gallery of images: late Augustinianism’s unbaptized babes descending in their thrashing billions to a perpetual and condign combustion; Dante’s exquisitely psychotic dreamscapes of twisted, mutilated, broiling souls; St. Francis Xavier morosely informing his weeping Japanese converts that their deceased parents must suffer an eternity of agony; your poor old palpitant Aunt Maude on her knees each night in a frenzy of worry over her reprobate boys; and so on.
Surely it would be welcome news if it turned out that, on the matter of hell, something got garbled in transmission. And there really is room for doubt.
No truly accomplished New Testament scholar, for instance, believes that later Christianity’s opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber is clearly present in the scriptural texts. It’s entirely absent from St. Paul’s writings; the only eschatological fire he ever mentions brings salvation to those whom it tries (1 Corinthians 3:15). Neither is it found in the other New Testament epistles, or in any extant documents (like the Didache) from the earliest post-apostolic period. There are a few terrible, surreal, allegorical images of judgment in the Book of Revelation, but nothing that, properly read, yields a clear doctrine of eternal torment. Even the frightening language used by Jesus in the Gospels, when read in the original Greek, fails to deliver the infernal dogmas we casually assume to be there.
On the other hand, many New Testament passages seem — and not metaphorically — to promise the eventual salvation of everyone. For example: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18) Or: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) Or: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) (Or: John 13:32; Romans 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11; and others.)
Admittedly, much theological ink has been spilled over the years explaining away the plain meaning of those verses. But it’s instructive that during the first half millennium of Christianity — especially in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic and Semitic East — believers in universal salvation apparently enjoyed their largest presence as a relative ratio of the faithful. Late in the fourth century, in fact, the theologian Basil the Great reported that the dominant view of hell among the believers he knew was of a limited, “purgatorial” suffering. Those were also the centuries that gave us many of the greatest Christian “universalists”: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus the Blind, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus and others.
Of course, once the Christian Church became part of the Roman Empire’s political apparatus, the grimmest view naturally triumphed. As the company of the baptized became more or less the whole imperial population, rather than only those people personally drawn to the faith, spiritual terror became an ever more indispensable instrument of social stability. And, even today, institutional power remains one potent inducement to conformity on this issue.
Still, none of that accounts for the deep emotional need many modern Christians seem to have for an eternal hell. And I don’t mean those who ruefully accept the idea out of religious allegiance, or whose sense of justice demands that Hitler and Pol Pot get their proper comeuppance, or who think they need the prospect of hell to keep themselves on the straight and narrow. Those aren’t the ones who scream and foam in rage at the thought that hell might be only a stage along the way to a final universal reconciliation. In those who do, something else is at work.
Theological history can boast few ideas more chilling than the claim (of, among others, Thomas Aquinas) that the beatitude of the saved in heaven will be increased by their direct vision of the torments of the damned (as this will allow them to savor their own immunity from sin’s consequences). But as awful as that sounds, it may be more honest in its sheer cold impersonality than is the secret pleasure that many of us, at one time or another, hope to derive not from seeing but from being seen by those we leave behind.
How can we be winners, after all, if there are no losers? Where’s the joy in getting into the gated community and the private academy if it turns out that the gates are merely decorative and the academy has an inexhaustible scholarship program for the underprivileged? What success can there be that isn’t validated by another’s failure? What heaven can there be for us without an eternity in which to relish the impotent envy of those outside its walls?
Not to sound too cynical. But it’s hard not to suspect that what many of us find intolerable is a concept of God that gives inadequate license to the cruelty of which our own imaginations are capable.
An old monk on Mount Athos in Greece once told me that people rejoice in the thought of hell to the precise degree that they harbor hell within themselves. By which he meant, I believe, that heaven and hell alike are both within us all, in varying degrees, and that, for some, the idea of hell is the treasury of their most secret, most cherished hopes — the hope of being proved right when so many were wrong, of being admired when so many are despised, of being envied when so many have been scorned.
And as Jesus said (Matthew 6:21), “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
David Bentley Hart is the author, most recently, of That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation.
The official UUA hymnal, titled Songs of Doubt, includes the popular song in a few dozen different arrangements and nothing else.
Now UUA church members can sing along with deeply spiritual lyrics such as “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky.” While UUA churchgoers aren’t required to participate in hymn singing, the preaching of the Word, church attendance, or anything else, church leaders hope this move will encourage more parishioners to sing along.
“The old hymns were problematic because they mentioned Jesus, the cross, and God sometimes,” said a UUA pastor of doubt formation. “Now we can sing that there aren’t any countries, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, just like the Great Feminine Spirit in the sky would have us do.”
“One day all the world will live as one, as Lennon’s classic hymn says,” she added. “Preferably under communism.”
Interesting commercial. Why were these people skeptical? What changed their minds? How does this commercial appeal to everyone’s desire to “believe in something”?
“Sorry, only six months!” “SIX MONTHS TO LIVE, Doc?” “That’s right. Say, you could use some of that time to engage with some unbelievers who are attacking the Christian faith!” “Okay, Doc,” I said, as I left his office with only 180 days left on this earth.
What if I, what if you, had only six months to live? How would your life be different over the next 180 days?
Several holy habits ought to mark each of us if we are followers of Jesus. We must spend time in His Word; we must take prayer much more seriously than we do; we must follow Jesus’ example and be a friend of sinners; and we must look for opportunities to disciple others!
Another holy habit, I would suggest, applies to those who have been believers for a while. There are some strong challenges to the gospel, the reliability of the Bible, and the exclusivity of Jesus. Titus 1:11 says, “They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.” False teaching and teachers must be confronted. And Christian leaders need to read books they know will boil their blood before they get past the preface (my definition of a “boiling book”).
Here are a few books by the false teacher Spong:If you’ve been a believer for a few years, you need to read some books that don’t agree with your Christian convictions, especially if some of your unsaved friends are being influenced by them. Faithful readers of this blog know that I did a 22-post review of Michael Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?