Reformation Day


Today is Reformation Day. The day that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It has given birth to Protestantism (btw, do you know what you are protesting about?).

Some questions I have,

What if the Reformation did not take place? What would we call people who believe in the doctrines of grace? What about the Arminians? Would there be Lutheran churches?

Anyway, Challies has invited posting on the subject at his Reformation symposium

Ligonier Ministries is offering Max McLean’s recording of Martin Luther’s Here I Stand; Thabiti Anyabwile; Luke Wood; Rebecca Writes; Travis; This Fire and the Rose; Jason Furtak; Heather; Ed Goode; Pastor David Hansen; Chris Hamer-Hodges; I See Daylight; Paul Huxley; Peter Bogert; Mark Horne; Doctrine Matters; Carla Rolfe; Andrew Hong; Justified Sinner; Spiritual Kung Fu; Steve Weaver; John Dekker; Eternal Weight of Glory; Colossians Three Sixteen; Vine and Fig; Such Small Hands; Fish and Cans; Paul Shirley; William Dicks; Darryl Dash; John Samson; C.R. Biggs; John Divito; Josh Rives; Kim from Hiraeth; Steve Adkins; Cap Stewart; Godsong Music; J.D. Wetterling; titus2talk; The Blue Fish Project; Joel Tuininga; The Schooley Files; The Legacy of the Reformation; Voice of the Sheep; Stepping Heavenward; White Horse Inn; Eternally Significant; Phillip Way; Aspiring Theologian; Candy in Sierra; New Lumps; A Woman Who Fears The Lord; Sweet Tea & Theology; The Bible Archive; Under Sovereign Grace.


Toward a God-Centered Philosophy of Christian Ministry

Preliminary Statement: This statement of faith and philosophy of ministry is written in the first person plural as the statement of my own convictions for the church. It is written as if I speak for the church I am (theoretically) apart of.


Dennis Wretlind observes, “From [Mark 1:38] we conclude (1) that Mark 1:21–45 is a unit, (2) that Christ had a well-defined philosophy of ministry, and (3) that Christ was in a constant fight to maintain his philosophy of ministry.”[1] It our conviction that we should emulate Christ in this. Part 1, therefore, attempts to delineate a “well-defined” (we take this to mean ‘biblically informed’) philosophy of ministry. Part 2 seeks to plot out a strategy for implementing this philosophy of ministry in the local church.

Part One: Priorities and Purposes (A Biblical Philosophy of Ministry)

The first thing that needs to be stated in a philosophy of ministry is its priorities. This presupposes that the Bible is the sole basis for determining how the church should do ministry. The Bible is the authority and so biblical priorities must be kept at the forefront.

Biblical Priorities

Jesus is clear, the greatest commandment that we, as believer’s, can fulfill is to love God and to love others (Mark 12:30-31). This provides a paradigm for constructing a biblical priority matrix. It is our first and foremost priority to love God and all that that entails. Accordingly, our second priority is to love others. This second priority transpires at two levels: the church and the world. Paul says in Galatians 6:10 “Therefore, as we have opportunity, do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Thus, as regards the second half of the great commandment, it is the body of Christ that takes preeminence in our biblical priority matrix. The priorities, then, can be summarized in order of importance as follows: (1) Love and exalt God (2) Love and serve the body (3) Love and reach out to the world. These three priorities provide the backdrop against which our purpose as a church can be stated: We exist to exalt the greatness and supremacy of God in all things, to spread a passion for this vision in all peoples, and to proclaim this vision in all places.

(1) Love and Exalt God: Exalting the Greatness and Supremacy of God in All Things

True biblical priorities should always translate into purposes for our life and church. Thus, the first biblical priority can be translated into the language of purpose as exalting the greatness of and supremacy of God in all things. Paul exhorts believers to do all that they do to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Yet Jesus says that the most fundamental thing in the Christian life is loving God and loving others. How are the two to be reconciled? There seems to be somewhat of a tension. Is the primary goal of the Christian to glorify God or to love him? Perhaps reflection on a few additional passages will bring clarity to this issue. In Galatians 5:22, Paul says the fruit of the spirit is love. Hebrews 6:10 says that “God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love” (cf. 1 Thes 1:3). From these two texts it is concluded that love is a fruit and a work. Jesus say in John 15:8 “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be my disciples.” Similarly, in Mathew 5:16 Jesus says “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good work and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Herein lies the reconciliation. The key distinction here is between teleology and instrumentality or, in other words, between purpose and means. The chief goal of all the church’s fruit and work is the glory of God. Love, therefore, is emphasized as the means most fit for achieving that goal. The exaltation of the glory of God is the chief purpose of the church while love for God and for others remains the primary vehicle through which this purpose is mediated. Thus love is the principal praxis of the church; God’s glory is its principal purpose. Our purpose statement, therefore, is aimed at reflecting this reality. The purpose of the church is not to love God and to love others. Those are the priorities. And the reason they are the priorities is because they are the richest expression of the purpose of the church. In other words, when the church of God loves the pleasure they find in His presence more than the pain they find in their suffering, God is exalted. When the light of the glory of God shines into his church as his chosen vessel, that light is prizimed to reflect the worth and excellence of his beauty to the degree that the church is effective in loving him through worship and service. So the purpose of the church is to exalt the greatness and supremacy of God. Therefore, it will view love for God as its first priority. As Raymond Urtlund points out, “Primarily—first and foremost—the church is to be for the Lord. He is the Head, and He must be the focus, the first priority. Churches —and individual believers—are to be committed first to Christ, then to one another in Christ, and then to the world.”[2]

(2) Love and Serve the Body: Spreading a Passion for this Vision in All Peoples

Once again, priorities should always inform our purposes. Our highest priorities should be based on the primary purposes of our ministry. As J. Gary Inrig emphasizes, “A biblical philosophy of ministry can help determine one’s priorities and shape his activities.”[3] The purpose of the church is worship (Eph 1:4-6). Thus, to spread a passion for the greatness and supremacy of God in the people of God is to spread a passion for worship, a passion for fulfilling the primary purpose of the church. The primary God-appointed means for accomplishing this task, furthermore, is through the love and service of other believers. In particular, a passion for the greatness and supremacy of God is mobilized in the body of Christ when believers’ are properly exercising their spiritual gifts for its edification and strengthening. Along these lines, Thomas Smith, in his article “Reforming the Pastoral Care of the Church,” makes a series of telling comments regarding 1 Corinthians 1:24. He says,

Paul describes himself as “working with them for their joy.” How unexpectedly Pauline! Paul can here sum up his whole purpose in ministry, his consummate goal in dealing with the Corinthians (a difficult church if there ever was one) in this word: “I want, more than anything else, to promote your joy in the Lord.” For many pastors and preachers this is a concept that is so foreign, so alien, so strange, that it never seems to enter their heads! They want to help their people in obedience, in holiness, in witnessing, in Christian living in the home, in giving, etc. But to sum up one’s whole philosophy of ministry as being “helpers of their joy”—it just doesn’t figure.[4]

He’ right, Paul’s use of his own spiritual gifts was for the advancement of the believer’s joy in God (i.e. for their edification). Each believer has been blessed with spiritual gifts and consequently with a capacity to magnify the excellence of Christ through loving and edifying others. They are endowed, moreover, with a responsibility as a steward of those gifts, to invest them in other believers in order to bring strength and encouragement to the body of Christ (cf. Eph 4:29). Furthermore, these gifts themselves must be invested with purpose by the giver of the gifts. And His purpose, the Giver’s, is to receive glory from the gifts he has entrusted to the members of His church. Simply put, “The Giver gets the glory.” 1 Peter 4:10-11 encapsulates this thought perfectly, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11 Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.” The reason for which we love and serve the body is to promote greatness and beauty of God in the body. And God’s program for the church in this way is a global program—this is the significance of the phrase, “all peoples,” in the purpose statement which is meant to specify the diversity of the body which is (or will be, at least) made up of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue (Rev 5:9). It is to express sensitivity and non-discrimination against any people groups (Col 3:11).

(3) Love and Reach Out to the World: Proclaiming this Vision in All Places

Our third priority for the church also informs the third element of the purpose of the church. John Piper observes correctly that, “Missions is not the purpose of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”[5] He’s right, missions is not an end in itself. The fuel and focus of missions is the glory of God. A bit more precisely, the aim of missions is to engender a true and appropriate response to God’s glory in all people in all places—worship. And so this is what is  meant by “Proclaiming this Vision in all Places.” That is, proclaiming the greatness and supremacy of God in all places, locally and globally, to all cultures. It means not only proclaiming the worth and majesty of God and the worshipful response which these great truths require, but it is also the means through which unbelievers may come into contact with them, the gospel. That Jesus Christ has paid for the sins of the who believe in Him and so paved the way for worship for all who will come to Him in faith is the central theme of evangelism. Now this endeavor is not exclusive to cross-cultural outreach. Loving and reaching to the world occurs at two levels: locally and globally (or cross-culturally). As a church we are committed to evangelism in our local community as well as in the communities abroad. We believe that there is no better way to love the world than to reach them with the Gospel and love of Christ by bringing them a vision of the Greatness of God that mandates a worshipful response. The great commission makes this abundantly clear. Missions and outreach are to be one of the primary tasks of the Christian church until the Christ return. Peter O’Brien and Andreas Kostenberger argue this forcefully in their book Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: “Together with 10:23 and 24:14 [of Mathew], the concluding commission of 28:16-20 also places the Christian mission firmly within an eschatological framework: mission is the church’s primary task between Christ’s first coming and his return. The striking open-endedness of the commissioning scene, similar to the open-endedness of the book of Acts, is pregnant with anticipation and potential.”[6]

Part Two: Philosophy of Ministry and the Local Church—Evangelistic Concerns

In Acts 2:41, during the embryonic stages of the church, it is clear that the local church was the true church.[7] They were the same. Notice that in Acts 5:14, it says that the numbers were added to the Lord. However, as laxity began to creep into the church and as various local congregations began to emerge, the local church became a mixture of believer’s and non-believer’s. Theologians often refer to this idea as corpus mixtus. The idea is that within the corporate gathering of the saints (corpus) there is a mixture of believers and non-believers (mixtus). As Nash emphasizes, “The passing of the centuries brought the complex situation in which the members of the true Church are mingled with the false professors in the membership of the visible organization. It can be seen readily from such a situation that the relation of the true Church to the visible organization is real and vital, and it is equally clear that the two are not identical.”[8] Several of Jesus’ kingdom parables predict that this would happen (e.g. Matt 13:25-40; cf. Matt 7:14-18). His instruction is that the church should not try and pick out who is of the true church and who is not; rather, the task of the pastoral leadership in the local church is to minister to the cooperate congregation and let the Lord sort out those who are his (and who are not) on the last day (Matt 13:40; cf. 1 Cor 4:3-5). This distinction, therefore, must be kept in mind when consulting texts on building and applying a philosophy of ministry for/to the local church (see Part Three). Walvoord goes so far as to say that “One of the principal causes for confusion in the nature of the church is the application of passages which belong to the body of Christ to the local church.”[9] So the first element that needs to be kept in mind when considering the application of our philosophy of ministry to the local church is that it is a mixed multitude, composed of both believers and non-believers.

Second, if the local church is composed of a mixed multitude, then the obvious implication is evangelism. A philosophy of ministry for the local church must be concerned with what John Stott calls “local church evangelism.”[10] Stott points out that the church of the Thessalonians, for example, had not only received the gospel but that the “word of the Lord…sounded for forth from them.” (1 Thes 1:5-6, 8). Its not enough to simply receive the gospel, Stott argues,[11] it must also “sound forth” from and in the local church. Because our local churches are in fact composed of both believers and non-believers the gospel must be at the center of its ministry. If the local church focuses all of its efforts on gospel ministry outside of the church, it will fail in its mission and ministry. It is imperative that the unbelievers who are apart of our local churches are being confronted by the gospel each time they attend a church service. It would be naïve and thoroughly unbiblical to allow ourselves to fall under the delusion that every person in our congregation is a true follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that there will be many on the day of judgment that will be sincerely convinced that they had a relationship with Christ here on earth. Yet his response to the them will be “I never knew you” (Matt 7:21-23). It is the duty and goal of the local church to ensure that the portion of people to which it has been allotted will have a clarity and depth of understanding regarding the gospel that will not allow for this kind of ignorance. It should be the prayer and concern of the local church to ensure that its members and attendants spend eternity with the one whom the profess to know as Lord.

Part Three: The Plan (Implementation in the Local Church)

The philosophy of ministry developed in this paper is intentionally God-centered. It seeks to place God at the center of the church, at the center of worship, and at the center of our priorities. That purpose, therefore, is carried over into practice in the language of exaltation. If the purpose of the church, as a whole, is to exalt God on the earth; the purpose of the church in carrying out its particular day-to-day duties will also manifest this purpose. Up to this point, we’ve talked about the priorities and the purposes of the church. In what follows, I suggest a plan for carrying out these purposes and priorities.

(1) Love and Exalt God: Exalting the Greatness and Supremacy of God in All Things

Expository Exaltation:[12] We believe the Bible to be God’s own self-revelation. Every one of its books is about Him. Therefore we shall exalt Him by exalting His word in the worship service (Psalm 138:2). We believe preaching to be the chief act of worship whereby the preacher unpacks from the Scripture the greatness and beauty of God. It is the purpose of preaching to display the wonder and glory of God for the church to behold so that they may respond in worship and know Him more. The best means of accomplishing this goal, it seems to us, is through the exposition of the Scriptures from week to week. John MacArthur goes so far as to suggest that the concept of expository, verse-by-verse teaching, is organic to the concept of biblical inerrancy. He argues that,

The special attention evangelicalism has given to the inerrancy of Scripture in recent years carries with it a mandate to emphasize expository preaching of the Scriptures. The existence of God and His nature requires the conclusion that He has communicated accurately and that an adequate exegetical process to determine His meaning is required. The Christian commission to preach God’s Word involves the transmitting of that meaning to an audience, a weighty responsibility. A belief in inerrancy thus requires, most important of all, expositional preaching that does not have to do primarily with the homiletical form of the message. In this regard expository preaching differs from what is practiced by non-inerrantists.[13]

If MacArthur is right, and we believe he is at this point, accurate exposition of the text becomes an absolute necessity for the preacher who desires to be faithful to what God’s character and word demands. However, a critical distinction should be made at this point. This is not to say that “expository preaching” as such is the only to be faithful to inerrancy and the nature of God. It may in fact be the best way, but this is not to diminish other legitimate enterprises of preaching as a means of communicating the truths of Scripture and the glory of God. In fact, textual or topical preaching may even be preferable in certain situations and environments. Macarthur’s primary concern is that the word of God be taught “accurately” and “exegetically” and there doesn’t seem to be anything that would suggest that non-expository messages will, necessarily, lack these two qualities. We also believe that fulfillment of the second and third priorities and purposes ultimately fulfills this first purpose as well (Rom 12:1-8).

(2) Love and Serve the Body: Spreading a Passion for this Vision in All Peoples

Education for Exaltation: In order to fulfill this second priority/purpose statement, it is vital that the body of Christ be equipped (Eph 4:11-18). According to the means and resources of the church, we commit to training believers in evangelism, biblical studies, practical theology, apologetics, worship, and spiritual growth principles. Classes and seminars will be held as often as possible. Members will encouraged to attend these classes so that they will grow in their faith and ability to minister to the body and reach out to the world. Most importantly, however, as the leadership we commit to investing the necessary time and energy into whatever preparations are needed to edify the body as a corporate whole. In particular, time will be invested in study and exegesis so that the sermons that are preached are not only useful for the exhortation of the body but also for its education (i.e. teaching). This philosophy of ministry which exalts the word of God and commits to training and preparing to teach the word of God has in no way been uncommon among protestant evangelicals. Zarchary Eswine traces the American legacy of “preachers who studied with a pen in hand” back to the Princeton era. He suggests that they were preachers who “reflected the view of ministry of other preachers who have been clothed with power from on high. From the “Common-place books” of Perkins and the “Miscellany’s” of Jonathan Edwards, to the “skeletons” of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, this view of the minister’s use of time demonstrates a philosophy of ministry which confronts the modern preacher’s view of his daily task.”[14] So while many preachers in today’s society feel that preparation time is a waist of time, we still strongly believe that one of the  primary roles of the pastor is to teach the congregation, to “feed [them] with knowledge and understanding” (Jer 3:15).

Edification for Exaltation: Not only is preaching to be centered on glorifying God as an act of worship, it should also be centered on edifying the body as an act of service. The Word should be exposited with a view to strengthening and encouraging the body of Christ. But this is not the only way in which edification should take place. Members must be encouraged to exercise their spiritual gifts for the edification of the body (1 Peter 4:10-11). Some have the gift of exhortation, others, the gift of giving, still others, the gift of encouragement (Rom 12:1-8); each believer is called to put his or her gifts to use for the edification and strengthening of the body. In addition to preaching, in order to further promote this aspect of exalting God and edifying the body, we insist on having edification services (1 Cor 14:1ff.) in which believers are encouraged to pray with one another, to worship together, to issue exhortations, to participate in and lead short devotions, to read and recite Scripture together and the like. Home groups and small Bible studies will also be implemented in order to satisfy this aspect of the purpose statement of the church.

(3) Love and Reach the World: Proclaiming this Vision in All Places

Evangelistic Exaltation: One of the primary ways of exalting God is through the proclamation of the gospel. If a church is going to fulfill the great commission, they must be an outreach oriented church. They must labor to reach the lost for the glory of God and for the expansion of His kingdom. This will be carried out in two ways: local outreach and global outreach.

Local Outreach: Local Church Evangelism

In section two of the development of our philosophy of ministry we went to great lengths to emphasize the difference between the true church and the local church. This has extremely significant implications for ministry in the local church. We must, as a church, commit not only to evangelizing the local and global communities for Christ, but also the intra-local community of our own church. Every local church is composed of a mixed multitude and as such the saving message of the gospel must be preached in the local church with urgency and with consistency. Each sermon should aim at including the major elements of the gospel within its content. Services should be sensitive to the needs of believers and nonbelievers. Some platform for response to the gospel needs to be made available to the unbelieving members of the congregation so that they are allowed a formal opportunity to place saving faith in Christ on a weekly basis (i.e. opportunity to prayer with church leaders at the end of the service, opportunity to speak with someone at an evangelistic-type booth after service, a card to fill out, etc.). Literature should also be circulated and made readily available to the church that is evangelistic in its appeal. Furthermore, there needs to be some way of incorporating new believers into the local church body. Once unbelievers who are attending the church have realized their need of salvation and have placed faith in Jesus Christ, there must be a process in tact that plugs them into the ministries of the local church. Essential to the spiritual growth of every Christian is fellowship (1 John 4:7-11). It is imperative that new believers get situated into a support network of other Christians in the church in order to keep them encouraged and strengthened in their faith. In short, discipleship programs—as much as possible—will be implemented within the church body as means of grafting new converts into the life of the true church.

Local Outreach: Community Evangelism

In the same way that comities (elder communities, et. al.) are formed to run the church, outreach comities (i.e. teams) must be formed to expand the church. Christ desires that his church be expanded in the local community of which it is apart (Acts 1:8). Teams shall be formed whose sole task is reaching the lost. Once the Lord begins to bless these teams with the fruit of faith in the lives of the unbelievers to whom they are ministering, there must be other teams in tact who are ready to bring these new believers into the local church, our local church. This will involve a process of discipleship in obedience to the great commission (Matt 28:18). It will also involve eventual believers baptism and church membership. It is imperative that these new believers are networked into the body of Christ so that they can be supported and strengthened in their new faith. This is where edification for exaltation comes in.

Global Outreach: Missions

In Acts 1 Christ not only commanded the church to reach there local surroundings (Jerusalem and Samaria), he also commanded that we reach the uttermost parts of the earth. While a church can not literally place itself in the utter most parts of the earth without changing its identity all together, it is able to send and support missionaries who can. Our church, therefore, is committed to commissioning missionaries to proclaim the vision of the glory of God through the gospel of Christ at the global level. The funding of full-time missionaries and their families must be at the top of our priorities and our budget. And they must be a top priority i.e. they must be funded well. Missionaries are not second class Christians. In fact, the opposite is true. They are the first class Christians who have sold all to follow Christ. They will receive nothing but the most excellent support, encouragement, and dedication from our church.


The purpose of our church, then, can be summed very simply:: we exist to love and exalt Christ, to love and serve the body, and to love and reach out to the world all to the glory and exaltation of Christ and his kingdom.

[1] Dennis O. Wretlind, “Jesus’ Philosophy of Ministry: Mark 1:38,” JETS 20/ 4 (1977): 321.
[2] Raymond C. Urtlund, “A Biblical Philosophy of Ministry Part 1: Priorities for the Local Church,” BSac vol 138 #549 (January 1981): 5.
[3] J. Gary Inrig, “Called to Serve: Toward a Philosophy of Ministry,” BSac vol 140 #560 (October 1983): 335.
[4] Thomas M. Smith, “Reforming the Pastoral Care of the Church,” Reformation and Revival  1:1 (Winter 1992): 95-96.
[5] John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1993), 43.
[6] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Missions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2001), 108.
[7] For further, see Charles Nash, “The Scriptural View of Church History,” BSac #39 (Jan 1943): 191.
[8] Ibid.
[9] John Walvoord, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Part IV The Nature of the Church,” BSac #464 (Oct 1959): 295.
[10] See his article “Christian Ministry in the 21st Century: Part Two The Church’s Ministry to the World,” BSac #145 (July 1988): 244.
[11] Ibid.
[12] I got this name as well as “Education for Exaltation” from John Piper.
[13] John F. MacArthur, “The Mandate of Biblical Inerrancy: Expository Preaching,” in Rediscovering Expository Preaching: Balancing the Science and Art of Biblical Exposition, ed. by. John F. MacArthur (Dallas: Word Pub., ), 21.
[14] “The Secret of Preaching: Wise Counsel from Old Princeton,” Reformation and Revival Volume 9 (Fall 2000): 134.

Scot McKnight on the Emerging Church at Westminster

Scot McKnight delivered his paper at Westminster Theological Seminary on”What is the Emerging Church.”

To define a movement, we must let the movement have the first word. We might, in the end, reconceptualize it – which postmodernists say is inevitable – but we will should at least have the courtesy to let a movement say what it is. How many of you would tolerate an Arminian defining Calvinism by reducing it to “irresistible grace” or even TULIP? or of calling all of Calvinsim “hyper-Calvinism”? I think folks like you should get to define what you think, and I think the emerging folks should be given the same privilege.

(HT: Jesus Creed)

Peggy Noonon on why Republicans should lose

Peggy Noonon on why Republicans should lose this November.

I. Howard Marshall e-book

A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology.”



Chapter 1: Why study Christian doctrine?

Chapter 2: Our Knowledge of God?

Chapter 3: What can we know about God?

Chapter 4: God and the Universe

Chapter 5: The Person and Work of Jesus

Chapter 6: The Life of the Christian

Chapter 7: The Christian Community

Chapter 8: The Last Things

Wayne Grudem Mp3

This is Dr Grudem’s “Christian Essentials Class.” Use his Systematic Theology or Bible Doctrine as the syllabus for this class

The Canon of Scripture: Old Testament, New Testament


Part 1,

Part 2,

Part 3

The 4 Characteristics of Scripture

Authority: Part 1, Part 2




The Sufficiency of Scripture

How to Interpret the Bible –

Part 1,

Part 2,

Part 3,

Part 4,

Part 5,

Part 6,

Part 7

The Doctrine of God: The Existence of God

Incommunicable attributes:

Part 1,

Part 2,

Part 3,

Part 4, and What is Time?,

Part 5, and Communicable attributes Part 1

Communicable attributes:

Part 2,

Part 3,

Part 4,

Part 5,

Part 6,

Part 7,

Part 8

I recommend John Feinberg’s “No One Like Him” after you have listened and read Grudem.

Divine Soveriegnty and the Problem of Evil: A Compatibilist Approach

Many suggest that the problem of evil provides a singificant obstacle to a robust understanding of divine sovereignty. I disagree. Here are my thoughts:


Thomas Tracy suggests that the “incompatibilist is concerned that theological determinism both (a) denies certain great goods in human moral life and relation to God and (b) makes God the cause of sin.”[1] Now in regards to (a), I think that compatibilism (see previous post) provides an intuitively plausible, scripturally consistent account of how agents may be held morally responsible for actions which God nevertheless determined. Furthermore, it seems that it has also been established that the text excludes libertarian accounts of freedom without exempting Joseph’s brothers from a general responsibility for their transgressions. However, a canonical/conceptual argument may be marshaled against compatibilism which runs as follows. If God ordains all things, including evil, then it follows that he is in some way implicated in the evil he ordains. They could argue that the functionality of the compatibilist concept breaks down when we try to apply it to a good God in whom there is no darkness. This is libertarian worry (b) according to Tracy. If we can deal compellingly with this final libertarian anxiety we will have offered a comprehensive theological, philosophical, and scriptural motivation for compatibilism.


Although the problem of evil objection might have some initial appeal, upon careful scrutiny it clearly breaks down. I will start with an analysis of individual actions and then work back to the origin and creation of evil. We can use the Joseph Story as a case study for individual actions (Genesis 50, esp. 50:20). First, recall that the acts of Joseph’s brothers were both intended by God and secured by his providential activity. The text is not clear, however, as to how God’s providential activity was effective in the event. I propose that God provided the circumstantial environment for the free decision to be made. In his middle knowledge (his knoweldge of what agents would do in particular circumstances), he knew exactly how Joseph’s brothers would act in that situation and chose to actualize it knowing that it would ultimately result in the fulfillment of his eternal decree. Now it seems fairly obvious that for God’s action here to be considered evil, it would have to flow from an evil motive or intention. But this clearly is not the case. It was only Joseph’s brothers that possessed the evil intention. God meant the event for good. Merely providing the circumstantial environment in which God knew the evil choice would be made in no way seems to be saying the same thing as God acted in an evil way. Indeed, God had a good purpose for Joseph’s brothers acting as they and had in this way predestined it. But this is not to say that he purposed or instantiated their actual evil intentions. The text clearly distinguishes between the good intentions of God and the evil intentions of Joseph’s brothers. So while God determined an event which involved the free evil acts of his creatures; his purposes, motives, intentions, and actions in the event remained good and undefiled by the evil free decisions of his creatures in the event. This account can be generalized to fit a variety of circumstances.


Well what about the origin and present existence of evil in the world? I will start by giving an account of the existence of evil presently in the world and then move on to give an explanation of the origin of evil. Regarding the problem of present evil, we first need to construct a simple working definition of omnipotence. Commensurate with traditional Christian Theism, I define omnipotence not as God’s ability to do anything; but rather, as his ability to do only what is logically possible and what is consistent with his nature. He can’t make a square circle or a rock too big to lift, for example. The reason he can’t make such things is because these semantic items have no corresponding states of affairs. As Freddoso and Flint point out, omnipotence should not be conceived of as raw power but as the ability to actualize states of affairs.[2] Given that God has the essential property of being maximally powerful, there is no state of affairs, the actualization of which exceeds his power. In the same way in which there is no such state of affairs as a square circle, there is no such state of affairs as a rock too heavy for God to lift. The idea is simply unintelligible. Having defined omnipotence, we are ready to move to the second stage of my argument. The first part of this second stage of my argument follows fairly closely some ideas advocated by John Feinberg.[3] Here, I argue that God had to choose between creating one of two good things: the removal of evil and the creation of a certain type of human beings. These two are mutually contradictory. And since God can’t actualize contradictory states of affairs (i.e. he can’t do what is logically impossible), he can’t be required to bring about both of the good things. The first good God could have chosen is to create our world with no evil. Now, this may be a good world if the only purpose God had for the world was a world with no evil. But if God wanted to create a world inhabited by certain kind of human being, a world free from moral evil does not seem to be possible. Before I explore exactly what this world might look like, I should mention that Feinberg seems to think that free will defenses (of any type) are not open to the compatibilist. I disagree. Consequently, the world I construct is similar to Feinberg’s in one way but drastically different in another. The similarity lies in the idea that if God wanted to create a world with a certain kind of humans, he could not create a world with no moral evil. But whereas Feinberg wants to emphasize that God may have wanted to make a world of a non-glorified humans, I will insist that God’s plan may have been to make a world of compatibilistically free agents. I do borrow significant elements from Feinberg’s non-glorified human defense in the content of my own defense but as a method, my approach follows more closely to Plantinga’s [4] than it does to Feinberg’s.


So if God wanted to create, for example, creatures that had a compatibilistically free will, who could act in accord with their desires—wherever they may lead—then it seems that he could not remove evil since to remove evil, he would have to remove all objects of desire that could possibly lead to evil. The first thing this would probably mean is that humans could not have bodies since we know that other people’s bodies can be an object of desire in an evil way. This would leave us with a world of disembodied minds only. But if people (if you can even call them that at this stage) could desire other people’s minds in an evil way then there could only be one mind. But if this mind, it seems, could desire its own mind or God’s mind in an evil way (as Lucifer did) then it does not seem that even this disembodied mind could exist. It seems further that the world would have to be one without beauty since this also can be desired in an evil way. Perhaps even no matter at all could exist since it would be possible that it become an object of evil desire. But I don’t think this was the purpose God had for the world; that is, a world with no bodies, beauty, or matter. Rather, it seems that what he had in mind was a world of what we call human beings; not super-humans or sub-humans but human beings—beings with bodily capacity; that is, natural or nonglorified bodies as the first phase of our existence (though we will receive glorified bodies one day). He also desired that we have freedom, emotions, intentions, and that we would have the ability to follow our desires where they lead. He intended that we be beings with social and relational capacities. As Feinberg points out,[5] he did not intend to create super-humans who have no further need of God’s assistance and so have no need to give him glory nor subhumans without, say, a freewill or bodily capacity. He intended to create human beings as we know them—with all of the goodness that that entails. How do I know that this is what God intended for humans, it is because this is what kind of humans and world God created.


Now in order for God to remove and/or prevent all moral evil, he would have had to do one of two things which both seem quite undesirable: First, he would have to contradict his intention to create human beings as we know them. As I have pointed out, he would have to make either super-humans or perhaps sub-humans without free will, bodily capacity, etc. But God’s intention was not to make these creatures but human beings as we know them. Or second, it seems that he would have had to create a world more evil than ours or one we simply would not want. Someone might reply that God could have created a different kind of being than he did so as to avoid moral evil—that is, a creature without, say, desires or intentions. Perhaps God could have done this and avoided evil but as Feinberg points out “It is hard to know what to call the resultant creature since it could neither move or think—even “robot” seems too “compli-mentary.””[6] Furthermore, a being without desires would not have free will nor would he be able to follow his desires where they led. Another response may be that while it would have been undesirable for God to make the sub-humans just described, he could have made moral super-humans who could always overcome their desires which go astray. But again, my contention is that human beings as we know them are a first-order good and are of significant value. Genesis 1:26-30 teaches mankind was made in the image of God and that he considered humanity good. That man bear this image was God’s intention for creation all along and so constitutes a value of such a high order that God was willing to actualize it even if it meant that evil would result.


So can God remove evil? Yes, I think so. But this would involve either that some creature other than human beings inhabit the world or altering life in a way that would compromise humanity in significant respects. So it seems that if God wants to remove evil from our world then he can. But he cannot both remove evil and accomplish other worthy goals for creation like creating humanity as we know it.


Finally, we address the origin of evil. Many critics of compatibilism have posed the following question: “If compatibilistic agents act on desires then how could a compatibilistically good agent (like Adam) make an evil choice?” This popular question confuses two issues: (1) the biblical view of the relationship between desires and sin and (2) the nature of the desire complex on compatibilistic model. First, in James 1:13-15 we are given a fairly detailed account of the relationship of desires to the act of sinning. This text makes three distinctions in the process of sin. It distinguishes between the temptation, the desire, and the act of sinning. The text makes very clear that sin has not taken place “until desire…has conceived” (NAU). Earlier in verse 14, the text makes plain that temptation occurs when desires are lured away. This implies that the desires which were enticed into temptation may have initially been good desires. It is not until these desires are corrupted by being led astray by temptations that they become sinful. So with Adam, for example, it would not have been the case the he started out with an evil desire and then chose to execute that desire by eating the fruit. Rather, his desires would have been good. But as I argued earlier, compatibilistic freedom means having the ability to follow your desires wherever they may lead. If God were to inhibit Adam from following his desire he would inhibit his freedom. Thus, while Adam’s initial desire may have been good, it was lead astray by temptation and ultimately corrupted. As Feinberg observes


Morally evil acts, then, ultimately begin with our desires. Desires alone are not evil, but when they are drawn away and enticed to the point of bringing us to choose to disobey God’s prescribed moral norms, we have sinned. Desires aren’t the only culprit, for will, reason, and emotion, for example, enter into the process. But James says that individual acts of sin ultimately stem from desires that go astray.[7]


This account is not only consistent with compatibilism but seems to function with it in a conceptually superior way than it would function with a libertarian account of agency. So far from the origin and existence of evil providing a problem for compatibilism, it actually ends up providing an argument from conceptual functionality for it.


[1] Tracy, “Divine Action, Created Causes, and Human Freedom,” 97.

[2] Flint and Freddoso, “Maximal Power,” 265-68.

[3] John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, exap. and rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 165-202; cf. John S. Feinberg, “And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism, and the Free Will Defense. TJ I NS (1980): 142-52.

[4] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); cf. his God and Other Minds (Ithaca: N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), 134-35.

[5] Feinberg, Many Faces of Evil, 183-90.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 170.