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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Review of The Israel of God, by O. Palmer Robertson

I remember hearing one of my seminary professors say that before too long, the church would reach a virtual consensus about eschatology (the doctrine of the end times).  He was thinking that most Christians would end up believing his particular view, which was dispensational premillennialism.

Not if more people read this book…

O. Palmer Robertson has taught in seminaries and Bible schools around the world for many years, and at the time of this publication was on the faculties of Knox Seminary and the African Bible College.  He previously wrote a number of fine works that I have appreciated and learned much from.  These include The Final Word and The Christ of the Covenants.  But in my opinion he outdid himself with this one—it has become one of my favorite books.

Since I finally reached some conclusions about my eschatological views after years of consideration, I have been frequently met with “What planet are you from?” stares when I have suggested that the Jews returning to their homeland in 1948 has nothing to do with Bible prophecy, nor can that group of people even be considered the “Israel” that is talked about in the Bible.  The “Israel” for whom God has future plans is not an ethnic, geo-political nation, but a worldwide group of believers made up of all races, etc. etc.  And the funny looks turn into frowns…

Well here is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend as an explanation for why I say those odd things (odd today, in the spiritual climate of America—but they would not have been odd throughout most of church history).  Robertson tackles the quite broad (but also quite crucial) issue of “Who or what is Israel?” in masterful exegetical fashion.  That’s right, I said exegetical—which may be surprising to those who have been told that “covenant theologians” and “amillennialists” base their beliefs mostly on systematic considerations.

Not so with Robertson.  As in his other writings, he is concerned first and foremost with what the text of Scripture teaches.  So in between a skillful introduction (quoting Bill Clinton as an advocate of the other view is a stroke of genius!) and a clear-as-crystal concluding chapter with twelve carefully-worded propositions, the book is crammed with extensive discussions of the biblical passages about the land, the temple rituals, the kingdom of God, and so forth.  His lengthy expositions of Hebrews 7 and Romans 11 alone are worth the price of the book (to quote one of the endorsers, because he’s right).

I won’t rehearse Robertson’s arguments and conclusions here, because he has communicated them so well in the book, but I will simply encourage you to read it, whether you think you will agree or disagree with him in the end (I know it’s probably too much to ask everyone to have an open mind).  If you do end up disagreeing, you should at least feel the force of his arguments and make sure that you are arguing against the real teaching of “covenant theologians,” and not just some superficial caricature of what they believe.  (And along those lines, I should add that Robertson is very irenic.  It seems to me that he would be a tough opponent to hate, if his writing style is any indication of his personality.)

To leave you with a taste of what you’ll encounter in this excellent book, here are a few interesting excerpts, starting with the aforementioned quote by Bill Clinton:

“If you abandon Israel [the current nation in the Middle East], God will never forgive you… It is God’s will that Israel, the biblical home of the people of Israel, continue now and forever.”  So spoke the President of the United States in a speech delivered before the Israeli Knesset assembled in Jerusalem. (p. 1)

The holiness of the land is inescapably related to the fact that the holy God dwelt there.  As has been stated, “Because Yawheh was near to it, his own holiness radiated through its boundaries.”  It is not that the land itself possessed some special sacredness in and of itself.  As a matter of fact, the phrase “holy land” apparently is used only twice in the whole of Scripture, and in each case the word land must be supplied by inference (Ps. 78:54; Zech. 2:12).  In other words, the holiness of the land is derived from the presence of the holy God.  But once his person has been removed, as is implied by the withdrawal of the Shekinah in the days before the captivity of Jerusalem, the land is no longer holy and so becomes subject to human devastation. (p. 11)

The disciples must have understood that the Gentiles had a place in the messianic kingdom.  But they had the greatest difficulty comprehending the “mystery” that the “Gentiles” would be in every way equal with the Jews as “heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6).  It is this equality of possession of the kingdom-promises by Jews and Gentiles that still today is most difficult for the church to grasp.  While virtually every believer is ready to acknowledge that the Gentile has a place in the messianic kingdom, many have difficulty accepting the equality of Gentiles with Jews in the possession of the promises. (pp. 136-137)

The idea of a middle phase in the coming of the kingdom, during which, for a thousand years, Christ physically subdues his enemies from an earthly throne located in Jerusalem, would be sadly anticlimactic in the experience of the Christian.  Already the believer is seated with him in the heavenly places.  Already he experiences the richness of life in the Spirit.  Already he is aware that Christ rules over all the nations.  Already he communes in prayer with the resurrected and reigning Christ.  What then would be the advantage of an earthly throne from which Christ would subdue his enemies, and to which the believer would have to come for a special audience with his Lord?  In other words, the present state of blessing for the believer is already so rich that nothing less than the consummate state would be “worthy to be its sequel.” (p. 164)

[Reviewer’s note:  If you would like to read an extensive discussion of the “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, ask for a copy of my exegetical article on the topic.]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Some Thoughts on Ed Welch, Jay Adams, and "The Flesh"

I'm teaching through the book of Romans for the first time this year, and have reached Chapter 7, so I went back and revisited an article by Ed Welch that I had read many years ago about Paul's use of the term "flesh" (Greek sarx).  In the article Welch criticizes Jay Adams' understanding of that term, and by extension his whole approach to counseling.  You can find the article here.

I didn't follow up and read any other discussions about the article or the issues, but just had a few thoughts to share after considering Welch's. 

First, it seems that Welch and Adams, or at least their followers, have polarized as a result of this and other disagreements, and I think that is unfortunate because they are both right about many things.  For instance, Adams' definition of "flesh" as "the body wrongly habituated" helpfully reminds us of the clear scriptural fact that the physical body plays an important role in our sinful behavior.  This simply cannot be denied when you look at Paul's language in Romans 7, where the use of terms like "body" and "members" make it impossible to eliminate the physical from his meaning.  In other words, "the flesh" or "living according to the flesh" clearly has something to do with the physical body.  But on the other hand, Welch is right in pointing out that to locate the flesh only in the physical body is a mistake of interpretation that can lead to problems in counseling method.  And Welch is particularly helpful in pointing out harmful tendencies in counseling that is too behavioristic (though I question whether such problems arise primarily from Adams' view of the flesh, as Welch implies).

The tendencies to err on the side of "behaviorism" are probably more due to the personality, experience, and giftedness of the counselor himself, as are the tendencies to err on the side of "heartism," which is the mistake of focusing too exclusively on what is happening internally and not providing enough practical help for the putting off and putting on of new behavior (which in a cyclical fashion actually affects the heart itself, according to Matthew 6:21 and other passages).

Speaking of personality, experience, and giftedness, it seems to me that Welch and Adams are different in all of those, by God's sovereign providence, and that's another reason they as well as their followers should be learning from each other rather than polarizing against one another (see 1 Corinthians 12). 

Another thought I have after reading Welch's article is that his alternative definition of sarx is at least as problematic, and maybe more so, than the one he's criticizing.  He actually proposes that in Romans 7:14-25 may be speaking of a past experience, even though Paul uses the present tense consistently in the passage, deliberately switching from the past tense he used in the preceding autobiographical section.  And Welch's idea that "the flesh" refers to a Jewish community ideal is as novel as the view he criticizes for being too novel.  It is also proven wrong by the fact that Paul says "in my flesh" rather than "in the flesh" in verse 18, and speaks of it being at work "in my members" (twice in verse 23).

I think Welch's best contribution to the meaning of sarx is when he says that we don't have to locate it somewhere inside of us (or outside of us, for that matter).  I agree with this, because I think "the flesh" is not a material thing but a spiritual principle that we can "walk in" or "live according to" when we listen to the lies of the devil and trust them rather than God's Word.  It's hard to reduce such a principle to a brief definition, as commentators immemorial have found, but my best shot at this time, to play off the main subject of this article, would be to say that the flesh is "the heart and body wrongly habituated," or "the principle of sin that remains influential in both our hearts and our bodies."

Like I said, I think that Welch and Adams are both right in many ways, and that they and their followers can learn from one another.  And we all need to do so, because "the flesh" ensures that we all will continue to be wrong in many ways, and therefore in constant need of that continued learning.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Won't Be Quittin' My Day Job

My son Calvin graduated from High School last night, and the parents were allowed to say a few words.  Here's what I had to share:

Calvin has always been very unique.  He's the only child of seven to have black hair, so I've often referred to him as "the black sheep of the family."  (Usually that's only been a reference to his hair, but there have been some times...)  Because he's so unique, I knew he'd wanted something different for this occasion, and I also knew he'd probably like nothing better than for me to make a fool of myself in front of everybody.  So since he likes rap, I wrote one about him.  This is the first time I've ever done this, and I plan for it to be the last, but here it is.  (Then I added to Calvin, "If you don't like it, your mom wrote it.")

From the time he arrived with a shock of black hair
Till the time had arrived when he’s standin’ up there

He’s been one of a kind, the rarest of breeds
In the race of unique, always takin’ the lead

Obsessions started early with a water-logged youth
Woulda put ‘im for adoption if he wasn’t so cute

We’d find 'im with a hose, or sittin’ in the sink
He would jump into a pool or lake without so much a think

He cutely called it “Lalo” when he’d wetly be at play
Became a little monster when we tried to take it away

One idol to another, as he grew into a man
Endless games and sleep don’t fit a parent's plan

But we’re thankful now he’s older, by the grace the gospel brings
That his passion and obsession have been turned ta higher things

He’s still the only black sheep and unique in every way
And we’re Godfidant this snowflake will be more than just a flake

With his personality and his heart of mercy too
He’ll be used by Jesus Christ in his makin’ all things new