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To Be Human, To Read the Bible, To Live

This is a guest post by Dr. James Hamilton Jr., associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns.

The Challenge We All Face

The challenge confronts us all. We face it for ourselves, as our parents did before us and the coming generations will after us.

What challenge? That of being human, bearing the image, striving to know God, to find truth, and to help others find their joy, satisfaction, purpose, meaning, and life in knowing God through his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit. Mercifully, God gave us a book that teaches how to take on this great challenge of our lives. The book is no mere user’s manual. It’s a grand narrative that explains the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

The grand narrative stitches stories together, and adorning it are commandments and coaxings, poems and prophecies, prohibitions and promises, apothegms and apocalypses. There is no book like this one. Sweeter than honey, more precious than gold, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. Every word of God proves true.

What a book. Breathtaking in scope. Often imitated; impossible to replace. The Bible is just what we need. Jesus prayed the Father to sanctify his people in the truth. Then he said: “Thy word truth.” The Bible is true. The Bible is the tool God uses to change lives.  This book, the Bible, really is the great code. Crack it, and it will explain everything. If you come to understand the Bible, you will rise to the great challenge of life. Not only will you be made like Christ, you will equip others for this most epic of tasks.

How do we crack the code? How should we understand the book?

How Do You Read It?

I contend that we should interpret the Bible the way later biblical authors interpreted earlier Scripture. If we learn to do that, it’s a short step to learning how the biblical authors interpreted their own lives and the situations they addressed in their writings. What does it mean to attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors? To attempt that is to attempt biblical theology.

Who Taught Them That?

Who taught the biblical authors how to interpret earlier scripture and their own lives? 2 Peter 1:21 says “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” This means the biblical authors were inspired by the Spirit to interpret things the way they did. In addition, the authors of the New Testament learned to read the Old Testament from Jesus himself. Jesus taught his disciples to read earlier Scripture, to understand the world, and to make sense of life.

Should We Try This At Home?

If we aren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit, and if we haven’t been taught by Jesus, dare we attempt this?

The fact that we are not inspired by the Holy Spirit does not mean we should not follow the example of the biblical authors. It does mean that our conclusions are not inspired by the Spirit the way theirs were. Nor does the fact that we were not taught directly by Jesus mean that we shouldn’t learn from those who were.

We are not Apostles, but we follow them as they followed Christ (1 Cor 11:1). We are not inspired, but we are taught in the Scriptures by those who were.

So I say yes: you should try this at home. You should try to interpret the Bible and life the way the biblical authors do. What alternative strategy do you have? Read the Bible in an un-Christian or a-Christian way? Adopt a perspective other than the one the Spirit and the Lord Jesus taught the biblical authors?

If someone suggests that what the biblical authors have done is illegitimate, consider what they are saying: that the Spirit inspired something that doesn’t withstand examination? That the teaching of Jesus somehow led people into unreliable interpretive practices?

I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with the inspired guys. I’m not sure those who conclude that the biblical authors are bad interpreters have understood them. What if those who say a New Testament author got the Old Testament wrong have failed to understand both passages in question? It doesn’t matter where he got his PhD or who published his book: the biblical authors get the benefit of the doubt. Challenge them at your peril.

That doesn’t mean I understand everything. It does mean I don’t declare the biblical authors wrong, I keep reading the Bible, and I keep looking for satisfying answers.

Soak Yourself in the Text

The Bible has a story, it uses symbolism and imagery, and the symbolism and imagery summarize and interpret the story. The best way to learn biblical theology, to embrace and apply the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors, is to read the Bible. Constantly. Ask the Lord for insight into it. Memorize it. Meditate on it day and night. And keep at it.

There is always more to see. The Lord has yet more light to break from his most holy word. Open it up and ask him to do it.

James HamiltonJames M. Hamilton Jr. (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church. He is the author of God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, the Revelation volume in the Preaching the Word commentary series, and What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns.


Does Definite Atonement Undermine Our Assurance of Salvation?

This is a guest post by Dr. David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. He is a coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective.

You’re Fired!

Do you know about the Church of Scotland minister who lost his job for not believing in limited atonement?

The life and work of John McLeod Campbell (1800–1872) illustrate very clearly the problems that many people have with the doctrine.

In 1830, after five years of parish ministry, McLeod Campbell was charged with teaching two things against the Westminster Confession of Faith. He taught that Christ died for all humanity (universal atonement); and that assurance of salvation always went hand in hand with faith and was necessary for salvation.

He came to these views partly from his own pastoral experience. His parishioners seemed to suffer a terrible lack of assurance of the love of Christ and he concluded what many others have also suspected: to teach limited (definite) atonement destroys our ability to come to Christ fully convinced that he ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:20).

McLeod Campbell published his views in The Nature of the Atonement (1855). The book was an unrelenting attack on the doctrine of penal substitution, but he was convinced that penal substitution and definite atonement are so intimately connected that one could not exist without the other. J. I. Packer regards McLeod Campbell’s work as containing potentially the most damaging criticisms of penal substitution the church has ever faced.

Defending Definite Atonement

In From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, preacher-theologian Sinclair Ferguson provides a masterful engagement with McLeod Campbell as a way of helping those who today believe definite atonement undermines the love of Christ and destroys the comforting knowledge of certain salvation.

There are three key lessons we can learn:

1. The problems we so often have with assurance come from our hearts, not from a Calvinist theological framework in general, or the doctrine of definite atonement in particular.

The medieval system of indulgences thrived because of a lack of assurance and it continues all over the world in Christian circles where definite atonement is unknown or disbelieved. Lack of assurance is ‘the natural bent of fallen men and women who are at heart legalists and who therefore see the way to salvation in terms of their efforts to fulfill the demands of the law’ (Ferguson, 625). When we doubt our salvation, it’s simply the fruit of our natural tendency to look inwards.

2. This means that believing in a universal atonement (the opposite of definite atonement) is no immediate cause of assurance.

That’s because faith is always the means of obtaining the benefits of what Christ has done for us. Without faith, there is no personal knowledge of his goodness, however we conceive of the atonement. The assurance of salvation is not attainable apart from the exercise of faith. Asking ‘did Jesus really die for me?’ is like asking ‘how do I know whether I am elect or not?’ That sort of enquiry into God’s decree is not where the Bible puts the emphasis of what we must do.

Knowledge of my election does not come from looking into God’s book of life, turning to page 455 and seeing whether my name is there or not. It comes from simply trusting Christ. So it is with the death of Christ. The ‘warrant for faith and the assurance it brings in its exercise is not the knowledge that Christ died for us but the promise that he will save to the uttermost those who come to God through him’ (Ferguson, 624). The Christ a sinner comes to is the Christ who bore the specific sins of his particular people, and in that act of faith the sinner is numbered among those people.

3. Assurance of salvation is not only compatible with definite atonement but in fact flows from it.

Understanding the cross as the propitiation of God’s wrath for all of my sins helps me to see that I cannot experience God’s wrath on the last great day of judgment. The price has been paid, the penalty borne, the law satisfied, and condemnation removed. Calvin commented on Romans 8:32 that the death of Jesus ‘anticipates’ the judgment of God—it is that end-time judgment brought forward in time and spent on Christ instead of his people. God will not and cannot punish the same sins twice. The punishment inflicted on the Son by the Father for my sins has removed any punishment for me.

*See Sinclair B. Ferguson, ‘“Blessèd Assurance, Jesus is Mine”? Definite Atonement and the Cure of Souls’, in David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson, eds., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: 2013), 607–631.

David Gibson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he served as a staff worker for the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship (part of UCCF) and as an assistant minister at High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen. Gibson is also a widely published author of numerous articles and books, and the coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (excerpt).


December 20, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Author,Biblical Studies,Biblical Theology,Books,Guest Post,Life & Doctrine,Salvation,Theology | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Entertainment and the Christian Novel

This guest post is from Dr. Bryan Litfin, professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of the Chiveis Trilogy (excerpts, trailer).

Why Do People Buy Novels?

I can only think of three reasons. Sometimes the reader expects to be elevated by classic literature. I tried reading War and Peace for such lofty reasons once. Truth be told, I didn’t finish.

Literary novels are also read by students. Most purchases of the great classics are probably intended for the classroom. For every copy of Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird bought to pass the time on a plane, I imagine ten are bought by somebody in a literature class.

Most novels, however, aren’t fine literature. Few writers can expect future doctoral dissertations to be written about their works. And that brings us to the reason the vast majority of novels are published: for entertainment. People love to read stories—and any fiction writer who forgets that fundamental human motivation is in danger of becoming unemployed.

The Christian Novel

Surprisingly, though, many aspiring Christian novelists seem to think otherwise. Since Christians believe in absolute truth, they suppose novels ought to be written for didactic purposes. In such books the characters pause at critical junctures to give long sermons. Listeners sit in rapt attention while the mouthpiece character expounds his theological views. All of this lets the author convey divine dogma. But this isn’t realistic. People don’t sit quietly with bright eyes and busy little pens when somebody starts talking about doctrine. Believe me, I know – I’m a theology professor.

So does this mean the Christian novelist should “sell out”? Just write books that keep the readers turning the pages, with no intent to communicate lasting truth? Make our novels as vapid and nihilistic as secular fiction?  Surely there must be a balance.

When I wrote the Chiveis Trilogy, I had to confront these issues head on. I wanted to write a page-turner. My editor said the plot is “cinematic,” and I was glad to hear she thought so. I always felt I was writing a grand adventure that could sweep you into a swashbuckling escapade like the Indiana Jones movies I loved as a kid. However, my day job is teaching theology. Did I have to hang up my theological hat when I penned my three novels?

A Place for Theology?

I hope not. There’s a lot of theology in the Chiveis Trilogy, and my particular readership wants that. Yet you have to use subtle patterns as a writer. For example, the over-arching structure of my trilogy is Trinitarian. In the first book the characters encounter the Creator God as seen in the Old Testament. In book two they quest for God as he is known in Christ. The third book centers on the Holy Spirit in the catholic church. With this macro structure in place, various theological themes can be expressed naturally in the individual scenes—often without the readers even knowing they are imbibing theology!

One especially important theological topic is evil. The Christian novel must present sin on the page—sometimes with gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching intensity—and not gloss over it like cotton candy religious novels often do. Even so, evil must be revealed as grotesque. It always exacts a terrible cost, and in the end it does not win. My trilogy includes scenes with torture, rape, adultery, prostitution, violence. Those scenes make the reader’s heart beat faster because the terror is real. But I promise you, the depictions are not “gratuitous.” They are part of an overall narrative in which moral evil is shown as atrocious—yet the all-sovereign God still reigns on his throne. Christian novels should reflect this truth and not descend into pessimistic hopelessness.

Entertainment to the Glory of God

Some Christian novelists think they must aspire to something higher than entertainment to justify a novel. Though unbelievers might write for “mere entertainment,” Christian novels should always teach or they have little reason to exist. When this instinct leads to unpleasant sermonizing, readers see it and run.

But we’re all going to entertain ourselves with something. Much of what comes out of Hollywood or the New York publishing industry reflects an anti-Christian worldview. Believers consume these works for their excellent entertainment value while trying to filter what is objectionable. Doesn’t this indicate a crying need for works that are truly entertaining—but which glorify Christ as well?

Many readers have said the Chiveis Trilogy brought them closer to the Lord. The person who finishes the three-part cycle can only look back on it and say it elevated God’s name. However, if it doesn’t also keep you up past your bedtime, dipping into the next chapter although you promised yourself you’d quit, then I haven’t done my job. Christians need entertainment that honors Christ instead of trashing him. A novel’s first purpose must be to tell a great story—and there’s no reason it can’t be glorifying to God as well.

Bryan M. Litfin (PhD, University of Virginia) is professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of the Chiveis Trilogy as well as Getting To Know the Church Fathers. Bryan and his wife, Carolyn, have two children.

The Chiveis Trilogy is currently on sale for 40% off.


November 29, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Books,Culture,Fiction,Guest Post,Life & Doctrine,The Arts,The Christian Life | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:00 am | 0 Comments »

The Gospel: An “It” or a “He”?

This guest post was written by Dr. Marcus Johnson, assistant professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (excerpt).

Can “the Gospel” Do All that We Say it Can?

The gospel saves. The gospel transforms. The gospel heals. The gospel renews. The gospel liberates.   Such are the familiar refrains that issue forth from our faithful preachers and teachers. But are they right? Can the gospel do all this?

The answer is, of course . . . no, it cannot. Only Jesus himself can.

Wait a Second…

But, it seems right to ask, isn’t the gospel “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes …” (Romans 1:16)? Yes, of course it is.  But surely it makes all the difference what we mean when we so echo the Apostle Paul, especially given that his own experience of salvation was an encounter with the crucified, resurrected Lord himself (Acts 9).  So, which would be more accurate to say: that Paul was saved by the gospel (it), or by Jesus Christ (he)?

If it is the former – that Paul was indeed saved by his experience of the risen Lord – then how shall we think of his assertion that the gospel is the “power of God” for salvation?  Are we to think of the gospel as intrinsically able to save us, that is, apart from the presence of the Savior himself?

Although questions such as these might strike some as mere theological semantics, I submit that the way we conceive of the relationship between Jesus Christ himself, and the good news regarding him, is crucial for how we understand salvation.  In our faithful insistence that the gospel (it) is the power of God for salvation we must be careful never to lose sight of the One who alone can save us (he).

In other words, there may be a danger in how we speak which suggests that something rather than someone is the proper subject of our salvation.

The Gospel and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ

The danger for many Christians – who no longer think of salvation as constituted by a union with the crucified, resurrected, incarnate Son of God – is that the living presence of the Savior becomes unnecessary to the good news about him. In such a case, the gospel about Jesus Christ may begin to assume a role in our language and thought that only Christ can and should bear.  As our evangelical forefathers knew well, we must be able to distinguish between the gospel, which bears witness to Christ, and Christ who is the living reality of that gospel.  “To preach the gospel,” Martin Luther once wrote, “is nothing else than Christ’s coming to us or bringing us to him.”  Similarly, John Calvin noted that God ordained the preaching of his Word “as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, and all his benefits, is dispensed to us.”  Thus, while the preaching of the gospel is never less than revelation about Christ and his saving work, it always involved much more. 

That much more was the self-giving of Christ in and through his gospel; his real presence mediated through the proclamation of the good news. The Reformers knew that unless Christ was truly present through the gospel, preaching would be but an exercise in spiritual reflection or religious instruction, as opposed to the medium of his saving presence. Given our present cultural milieu, in which knowledge is essentially reducible to information—suffering as we do from the hangover of post-enlightenment rationalism—the distinction between knowledge about Christ in his gospel (mental appropriation or assent) and knowing Christ himself through the gospel (experiential intimacy) seems well worth marking.

In the Bible, “knowledge” is characterized by personal and life-giving union, not informational data (though it certainly includes the latter).  Think here of Adam’s knowledge of his wife, Eve; or, more importantly, the Son’s knowledge of his Father. So too, to have saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is to experience intimate union with him, not merely to know about him. Thus, knowledge about the gospel, imperative as it is, can no more save us than can its preacher, unless Jesus Christ is himself present to be experienced as the living reality of that very good news.

The Confusion of Means and Ends

The failure to emphasize the real presence of Christ in his gospel is often characterized by a resultant confusion of means and ends. The gospel is a divinely-ordained means for which Jesus Christ, and union with him, is the end (or goal).  Thus, the gospel can only be called “saving” because it functions as a means through which the Savior is present to bring us into his existence as the crucified, resurrected Lord (e.g., Colossians 1:24-29; Galatians 2:20).

To make the gospel an end rather than a means would be to lose the significance (literally, “the signifying purpose”) of that gospel: to bring us to partake of the One whose gospel it is.  As the Apostle Paul proclaimed it, the gospel ushers us into mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), the mystery of Christ’s union with his Bride (Ephesians 5:32).

The gospel is the gloriously good news about what Jesus Christ has accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension to reconcile us to God and recreate the world.  The offer of the gospel, however, is not enlightened data about what he has done.  The offer of the gospel is none other than Jesus Christ himself, who (through faith and by the Spirit) brings us into his very life as the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended Savior.  To say or suggest otherwise leaves the sinner (and the church!) without her only comfort.

By all means, then, let us proclaim the saving significance of the gospel, but may we never forget that “it” is not very good news at all unless “he” is truly present to save.

Marcus Peter Johnson (PhD, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Along with writing his doctoral dissertation on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin, he is also the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. He and his wife, Stacie, live in Chicago with their son, Peter, and are members of Grace Lutheran Church.

One with Christ is currently on sale for 40% at Crossway.org.


November 22, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Books,Guest Post,Jesus Christ,Life & Doctrine,The Gospel,The Gospel,Theology,Theology | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:00 am | 0 Comments »

Why Do We Need So Many Books on the Gospel?

This post by Dane C. Ortlund was originally published on May 25, 2011. We’re reposting it as we celebrate Crossway’s 75th anniversary. For more information, visit Crossway.org/75th.

Why do we need so many books on the gospel?

After all, after 2,000 years, don’t we know by now what the gospel is? Haven’t we “been-there-done-that”? Why do we need one book after another on the same old topic?

1. Because the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3).

In describing his ministry—a ministry that communicated “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)—Paul described it as testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

2. Because you’re going to roll out of bed tomorrow a functional Pharisee.

The instincts beneath your instincts, the impulses way down deep inside you, are law, not gospel. A good night’s sleep, not a heretical sermon, is all it takes to forget the gospel of grace.

3. Because the gospel is disputed and debated today.

What is the gospel? What are the implications of the gospel? What is the relationship between the gospel and the kingdom of God? How does the gospel relate to growth in godliness? What is the connection between the gospel and community? These questions need answers from different people, with different voices and different backgrounds, who love the same gospel.

4. Because the church is always one generation away from losing the gospel.

Every generation must rediscover the glories of free grace for itself.

5. Because for every book exulting in or explaining or defending the gospel, a hundred more roll off the press which, wittingly or unwittingly, distract us from that which is of first importance.

6. Because the gospel is the central message of the entire Bible.

Jesus said that even Moses was writing, ultimately, about him (John 5:46). The last verse of the Bible sums up the core message of the Bible: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:21).

The gospel is the scandalous news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our disobedience cannot dent God’s approval of us and our obedience cannot help God’s approval of us, as we look in trusting faith to Christ. And the priority of this gospel, the functional need of the gospel, the contesting of the gospel, the retaining of the gospel, the constant sidelining of the gospel, and the unified biblical testimony to the gospel all unite to say—yes, we need more books on this gospel.

Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is senior vice president for Bible publishing at Crossway. He is the author of several books and serves as a series editor for the Knowing the Bible series. He lives with his wife, Stacey, and their three boys in Wheaton, Illinois, and blogs at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology.



November 19, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Books,General,Guest Post,Life & Doctrine,Sanctification,The Christian Life,The Gospel,Theology | Author: Crossway Staff @ 8:00 am | 0 Comments »