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Ask the Pastor: Defending the Bible

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 ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

      Question: “How can I answer someone who asks, ‘How do you know that the Bible is God’s Word?”

     Answer: There are many different ways to tackle this question, and the best way depends on the state of mind and heart of the questioner. Your answer should be different if they are doubting and yet inclined to believe in the authority of Scripture, as opposed to being a skeptic and seeking to disprove Scripture’s authority. Also, your answer should be sensitive to the person’s current religious beliefs and knowledge of the content of Scripture. Overall, our culture is much different than it was a couple of generations ago, so you can usually expect the questioner to be almost completely ignorant of Scripture’s teachings and inclined to dismiss it as nothing more than primitive human ideas.

     The approach that I use most often is to begin by trying to establish some common ground in a belief that God exists. Very few people deny there is a God, although many have bought into the idea that we can’t know anything definitive about Him or His will. This is where I would try to put together some key pieces of the puzzle. I would ask: If you believe there is a God, do you believe that He created this world (by some means), and deserves the credit for the intricate mechanics and indescribable beauty of the universe? If so, do you recognize that human beings are unique creatures of God, able to reason and relate to one another at a far higher level than the rest of His creatures? The vast majority of people will answer “yes” to those questions.            

     Then I would ask the hard question: Do you think that God, having created such intelligent, relational beings in such a beautiful and complex environment, would leave them without any answers to basic questions about their existence? Here is where you will lose many people. Many people are willing to seek a God of “general revelation” (who can be known by what He has made), but few these days are willing to seek a God of “special revelation” – a God who has spoken to us, who has given us definitive answers to the central questions in life. We’re all like rebellious children – we try to avoid knowing what the rules and principles are in life so that we can attempt to avoid accountability. Therefore the idea of God placing an “inner light” inside each of us to guide us is very popular these days, but that is nonsensical, unverifiable, and is only another attempt to stay unaccountable for beliefs and actions. But if a person is sincerely seeking spiritual answers, they will be open to the obvious question – how can a God care so much about the details of creation and not reveal clear information about who He is, who He intends us to be, and what He expects from us.

     I would ask the person to consider what human beings do when they invent or create something. What manufacturer would create a kitchen appliance, a piece of electronic equipment, or new computer software, without writing an “owner’s manual” to explain how the product is supposed to work and be used, complete with warnings for misuse? If man as a creator always does this, why would we expect less from God? The idea is to get the seeker to accept the possibility that God has spoken, that there is a written account where He reveals Himself and His will. If they will accept this, a major spiritual barrier has been overcome. 

     The obvious question then becomes, “Which book has a right to claim to be God’s Word?” I don’t have space here to give a response to that important question, but let me say that at that point I can put forth the Bible with supreme confidence and great enthusiasm as THE Word of God. Other “holy books” (the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the teachings of Buddha, etc.) are quickly exposed as frauds and human compositions when honestly compared to the brilliant light and purity of the Bible, and of the Christ which it presents. It is good to be prepared to answer questions about alleged errors or contradictions in Scripture or to be able to explain how God inspired men to write His words or to explain how the different writings were brought together to form one consistent testimony to God and His will (there are many good resources for this information). However, the only way that a skeptic or seeker will be convinced is to read the Bible himself or herself and experience its transforming power. Their experience of God’s presence and power as they read His Word, if their heart has been opened by the Spirit, will confirm its authenticity. I know that’s what happened in my life, and in the lives of many, many others! 

     “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” Hebrews 1:1-3

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Ask the Pastor: Election and Problem Verses

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Originally posted July 21, 2021

 ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

      Question: “There are some verses in Scripture that seem to contradict the idea that God chooses only the elect to be saved – for instance, 1 Timothy 2:3-6, John 3:16, and 2 Peter 3:9. How are we to understand these “Arminian”-sounding verses?

     1 TIMOTHY 2:3-6“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

     There are two potential problems with these verses: first, Paul says that God "desires all people to be saved;" and later, he says that Jesus Christ "gave Himself as a ransom for all." Taken out of context, these statements seem to contradict what the Bible says elsewhere - that God chose some people, not everyone, to be saved, and that Christ died for those whom God chose, not for everyone.

     However, if you look at these statements in the context of what Paul says just before them (in verses 1 and 2), it takes care of the apparent problem. In verse 1 Paul says, "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people..."It's obvious that "all people" in verse 1 must mean the same as it does in verse 4. In verse 1 "all people" cannot mean every single person in the world - who of us could attempt to offer four different kinds of prayers (supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings) for all 5 billion people who are currently alive! Paul goes on to mention Kings and people in positions of high authority, because he recognizes that we tend to neglect praying for people that influence our lives from a distance. It's obvious that, in context, "all people" means the same thing in both verse 1 and verse 4, namely, "all kinds of people" - rich, poor, black, white, powerful, powerless, etc.

     This is related to one of the most important "mysteries" that God revealed in the New Covenant in Christ; that the people of God would no longer be ethnically and geographically limited primarily to Israel. The inclusion of the Gentiles and the “universalization” of the church was a new and exciting message that Paul was called by God to announce to the world. Therefore, he often emphasizes that the Gospel and the Kingdom are for all people, people from all nations, tribes, tongues, races, and social classes, no longer primarily for the Jews. Christ is the Savior for all men without distinction, not all men without exception.

     JOHN 3:16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  

     It’s ironic that this verse is seen as contradicting Reformed theology, because I see the third chapter of John as one of the clearest presentations of the Reformed view of God's sovereignty over the process of salvation. The Bible does teach that God will save anyone who will come to Him by faith in Jesus Christ. However, the Bible also teaches that, in our fallen state, we are hostile to God and would never even want to come to Him unless He first changed our hearts (Romans 3). That change is what Christ is referring to in John 3:3-5, when He says, "...unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God...unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." He makes it clear that unless the Holy Spirit gives you a new, spiritual birth you will not see, understand, or desire to enter God's kingdom. In verse 8, Jesus refers to the doctrine of God's election, "The wind blows where it wishes...So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." In other words, no one controls God's Spirit; He regenerates all whom God has chosen. Paul says essentially the same thing in Romans 9:15-16: "For [God] says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy."

     So, what is the meaning of "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish...?” The issue here is similar to the question of what "all men" means in 1 Timothy 2. Here the problematic word is "world." If you do a concordance or word study on how the word "world" is used in Scripture, you find that it has at least four different meanings: 1) the created world: land, sea, sky, and creatures 2) the world that is under Satan's dominion, that is in opposition to Christ and the church 3) all the people in the world and 4) all the different nations and types of people in the world - not only the Jews, but the Gentiles also. 

     In the immediate context, "the world" corresponds to "whoever believes in Him," and in verse 17 Jesus says that God sent His Son "that the world might be saved through Him."

     Since Scripture is clear that everyone in the world will not be saved, the word "world" in these must mean all the elect from all nations, races, and social classes. Again, "whoever believes in Him" will not be lost, but we know from the rest of the chapter (and the rest of Scripture) that only those whom God chooses and regenerates by His Holy Spirit will have the ability to see and believe in Christ, and to enter God's Kingdom.

     2 PETER 3:9“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

     This verse says that God is delaying the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment because He is patient and is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." Again, the key issue is who do the words "any" and "all" refer to? The context of these verses answers the question very clearly. The whole sentence makes perfect sense if the specified audience ("you") corresponds to the words to the words "any" and "all": "The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise...but is patient towards you, not wishing that any [of you] should perish, but that all [of you] should reach repentance." So, again, the words "any" and "all" refer to the elect, not every single person on the earth.

     So, the doctrine of election affirms that everyone who turns from their sins and believes in Jesus Christ will be saved; however, sinners in their fallen state do not have the ability to repent and believe unless God takes away their heart of stone and gives them a heart that grieves over its sin, desires to come to God, and believes in the promises of Christ (Ezekiel 11:17-20). That's why God must choose us before we choose Him - a choice that He made, Scripture says, before the foundation of the world. Salvation is God's work, from beginning to end.

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