Archive for the ‘Odds and Ends’ Category

Which journaling Bible do you prefer?

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Let’s say you’re in the market for a new journaling Bible. You like to take notes while studying or listening to sermons. While you could jot your thoughts and discoveries in a separate notebook, you’ve considered an all-in-one solution. After some research, you’ve narrowed down your options to four possibilities.

First, you could get just a New Testament with space to make notes between lines of the biblical text. Preview the New Testament, Inductive Edition.

Second, you could get a complete Bible, Old and New Testaments, with space in the outside margins. Preview the Single Column Journaling Bible.

Third, you could get a complete, albeit it much thicker Bible than most with a full blank page next to each page of the biblical text. Preview the Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Fourth, you could get individual books of the Bible with a single-column of Bible text and a full blank page on the opposite side. Preview a Scripture Journal.

Which would you choose? Click one to cast your vote, then I’ll explain why I’ve asked:

Do you really know God?

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We continue our study of 1 John 2:3-6.

John uses the word know four times in this passage. He repeats it twenty-six more times throughout the epistle. Perhaps his vocabulary is limited, or maybe he stresses what he perceives to be a key word of his message. Given his rhetorical method of amplification, I believe it’s the latter.

By keeping the Lord’s commandments, we don’t think that we have come to know him (1Jn 2:3). We don’t wish. We know, present tense. Our obedience supplies us with continual awareness of the personal, intimate fellowship we share with God our Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1Jn 1:3). Though the relationship began in the past for believers—”we have come to know him,” John writes in the perfect tense—our union with him as well as our knowledge of it continues in the present, assuming we keep his commandments.

Despite what the Gnostics claimed about secret spiritual mysteries understood by only an elite few, John invites every professing believer to embrace the certainty of eternal life by walking in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called (Eph 4:1). We must bear the fruit of the Spirit as those who belong to Christ Jesus will (Gal 5:22; 24). If we don’t, our claim to salvation is questionable at best. Assurance is impossible.

I understand the temptation to comfort everyone we meet with the hope of heaven, especially when they possess a vague sense of God and perhaps the afterlife. Keep in mind, though, the Jews in Christ’s day had even more than that. They had a zeal for God, yet Paul’s prayer … for them was that they may be saved because they weren’t despite their assumptions to the contrary (Ro 10:2; 1). John the Baptist looked them square in the eye and preached:

“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Do not assume you are redeemed merely because you are a Jew. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:8-9)

Speaking of some of the Cretans to whom Titus was ministering, Paul asserts, “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (Tit 1:12; 16). John speaks of many antichrists who at one time had been seemingly ordinary members of the church but eventually proved to be false believers (1Jn 2:18). They couldn’t hide the true condition of their hearts forever. The evil person out of [the] evil treasure [of his heart] produces evil (Lk 6:45).

According to John, assurance won’t be found unless we keep God’s commandments (1Jn 2:3). More than just learn and follow them, he implores us to guard them as we would our most prized possessions. Doing just enough to retain your status as a Christian won’t cut it. John excludes nominal Christianity altogether. God-honoring, assurance-giving obedience is a matter of genuine love for Christ. Fifty years earlier, John heard these words from the mouth of the Savior himself: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). This entire epistle is practically John’s exposition of that one statement.

Please don’t misunderstand John’s brazen attitude. He’s not attempting to strap an unbearable yoke around the believer’s neck or promote some form of legalism. He’s not suggesting we must obey to be saved. To the contrary, he says, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father” (1Jn 2:1). It’s just that the new covenant God made with his people guaranteed a profound change in our hearts. Through Jeremiah, he promised:

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

Of course, a change of heart is a change of nature. Despite the sinful shell of flesh we still carry, Christians are born again into a new life where, though we may sin, sin becomes a struggle for us (Jn 3:3). That is because we begin to serve in the way of the Spirit, set free from sin, becoming slaves of righteousness (Ro 7:6; 6:18). For the first time in our depraved life, we receive the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God (1Co 2:12). We inherit the mind of Christ, which craves the truth, desires righteousness, and abhors sin (1Co 2:16).

Put another way:

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning—note that phrase makes a practice offor God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God. (1 John 3:9-10)

We don’t obey to be saved. We obey because we are saved.

So whoever says “I know the Lord” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn 2:4). Any claim to fellowship with God is completely unfounded if the one making the claim lives in continual, unrepentant disobedience. Jesus says, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (Jn 18:37). God writes his law … on our hearts (Jer 31:33). Authentic Christians possess the mind of Christ (1Co 2:16).

If God’s word, which is supposedly in us as his people, has no meaningful effect on our behavior, how can we presume to have an intimate relationship with the Heavenly Father or his Son? It would be like saying to a starved, poorly clothed person, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body (Jas 2:15-16). Our claim to know him would be empty and vain (1Jn 2:4). Frankly, it’s a lie according to one half of the Sons of Thunder (Mk 3:17).

On the other hand, whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected (1Jn 2:5). The preposition of doesn’t exist in John’s original writing. English translators have supplied the word to better complete the sentence, many of them choosing of rather than, say, for. They are intentionally vague to allow readers the chance to interpret for themselves whether John means our love for God or God’s love for us. Personally, I believe it’s both.

The love of God is one coin with two sides (1Jn 2:5). On one side, we see our love for God. Isn’t that implied by the context? “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). On the other side, though, we see God’s love for us. In fact, we love him because he first loved us (1Jn 4:19). Plus, John uses the passive voice when he says this love … is perfected. It is initiated and accomplished by something, better yet, someone other than ourselves. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which becomes our love for him (Ro 5:5).

We can’t separate our love for God from our love for his word any more than we can separate his love for us from our love for him. If he loves us, we love him. If we love him, we instinctively love his commandments. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk, that is, pattern his behavior, in the same way in which Christ walked (1Jn 2:5-6). Jesus is the vine; his disciples are the branches. Whoever abides in him and him in them, he it is that bears much fruit (Jn 15:5). If we have a saving, supernatural connection to Christ, the life he supplies us will bear fruit, though we’ll still need the occasional pruning.

I call John brazen, but he’s no less bold than Jesus. Jesus warns, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit God takes away. … The branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (Jn 15:2; 6). Judas Iscariot is a perfect example. Like him, some presume to have a relationship with Christ, but eventually prove otherwise. Whatever attracted them in the first place loses its appeal, and their hearts reveal rocky ground rather than good soil for the word (Mt 13:20; 23).

The Bible’s message of assurance has been known to have the opposite effect. Readers of 1 John, in particular, may feel more troubled than reassured, worrying that they may not be as obedient to or in love with God’s commandments as a Christian should. Frankly, some people ought to feel that way.

If following Christ seems like an undesirable burden to you, not to be confused with the believer’s constant struggle against the flesh, then perhaps you should be fearful. If you deem yourself saved but care very little about truth and holiness, you have every reason to question your supposed salvation.

If, however, you love God, believe that Jesus is the Christ, and show that you do by guarding his commandments as the most valuable things you own, I suggest you take a deep breath (1Jn 5:1; 2:3). As you slowly exhale, examine your heart as well as your life.

You’ll notice that your love, faith, and obedience are far from perfect, yet you’ll still feel peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Ro 5:1). You’ll still rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Ro 5:2). You’ll smile as you hear the voice of your Savior whisper, “I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28-29).

Then, your soul will not respond, “What yoke? What do I have to learn? What other obligations do I have to fulfill?” Instead, it’ll gladly say, “Lord … you have the words of eternal life. I’ll follow you anywhere” (Jn 6:68).

Assurance of salvation is an exclusive privilege

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Rubber meets the road here as John shifts his focus to the primary purpose of this epistle. It would be an ideal place for a paragraph break if Bible publishers were so inclined to add one. “And by this,” John begins, offering a new test by which we can evaluate our spiritual condition (1Jn 2:3). The introduction is over. Preliminary remarks are finished. It’s time to put ourselves under the microscope in search for assurance, not that you’ll need a microscope. The evidence of eternal life is right in front of you.

We don’t talk much about the doctrine of assurance these days. The Catholic Church thinks of it as heresy. They’ll mention it only to deny it. Many others on the Protestant side of the divide don’t believe assurance is possible to any meaningful degree since they don’t believe in eternal security. You can’t offer someone assurance if he may lose his salvation.

Universalists, who claim everyone will be saved, and those minorities now riding the trending wave of hyper-grace, who assume most people will likely be saved with or without knowing Christ—”I can’t judge somebody’s heart,” Joel Osteen said, contributing his celebrity voice to the movement on Larry King Live—may speak of assurance plenty, but it’s a cheap knockoff of the real thing. They’re offering confidence to people to whom the Bible doesn’t.

Working part-time for a local funeral home, I see it quite often. Mourning families assume the deceased is in heaven because he “was a good person” or probably “believed there’s a God.” Heaven is not the default destination of sinners, and Christ alone is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to God the Father except through him (Jn 14:6). But, of course, you can attract more flies, or goats as the case may be, with artificially-sweetened honey than the plain truth of the gospel (Mt 25:32). It certainly makes evangelism easier.

Perhaps the most widespread problem we face today is easy-believism. Arthur Pink noticed its dreadful rise among evangelicals more than seven decades ago, saying:

Many people who profess to be Christians but whose daily lives differ in nothing from thousands of non-professors all around them … are rarely, if ever, found at the prayer-meeting, they have no Family Worship, they seldom read the Scriptures, they will not talk with you about the things of God, their walk is thoroughly worldly; and yet they are quite sure they are bound for heaven! Inquire into the ground of their confidence, and they will tell you that so many years ago they accepted Christ as their Savior, and “once saved always saved” is now their comfort. There are thousands of such people on earth today, who are nevertheless, on the Broad Road, that leadeth to destruction, treading it with a false peace in their hearts and a vain profession on their lips.

I’ll give them credit for at least upholding that one is justified by faith [in Jesus Christ] apart from works of the law (Ro 3:28; 22). Sadly, everything falls apart after that. Once a person has prayed the sinner’s prayer or asked Jesus into their heart, they assume all is well forevermore. Maybe it is or maybe it’s not. They seem to have missed one of the most terrifying warnings in all of Scripture. As Jesus brought his sermon on the mount to a close, he preached:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Those four words send chills down my spine: “I never knew you” (Mt 7:23). When uttered by the Lord himself, they mean final doom for the sinner. There can be no redemption despite one’s profession of faith. He may have claimed the Lord Jesus as his own and even attempted to do works in his name, but he will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21). Yet he should have known something was amiss long before Christ says to him, “Depart from me, you worker of lawlessness.” Theoretically, he could have examined his life and observed his failure to do the will of God.

According to James, faith which doesn’t lead to a godly change of behavior isn’t genuine faith at all. Can that kind of false, masquerading faith save him? (Jas 2:14). There are countless reasons why a person might be drawn to Christianity without being authentically drawn to Christ. Family tradition and cultural norms probably top the list of possibilities. But so-called faith apart from works is dead (Jas 2:26). It doesn’t exist because a regenerated heart produces good just as a tree is known by its … fruit (Lk 6:45; 44).

Long before Jesus came to this earth, God promised his people:

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Paul seems to echo that promise when he tells Christians in Ephesus, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). In the book of Romans, Paul follows up his teachings on justification with the doctrine of sanctification, and he does so for a reason.

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

Inevitably, sanctification flows from justification. The born-again person who is in Christ … is a thoroughly new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2Co 5:17). The love of Christ controls us, dominating our heart and conscience, so we no longer live for ourselves but for him who for our sake died and was raised (2Co 5:14-15). Ultimately, Christ reconciled us to himself (2Co 5:18). He points our heart in his direction, and our feet can’t help but follow.

Jesus, James, Paul, John—the entire Bible rejects easy-believism. John, in particular, specifically writes, “Whoever says, ‘I know Christ’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn. 2:4). In case you didn’t catch it the first time, he repeats, “By this we may know that we are in Christ: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (1Jn 2:6). Evidently, John paid close attention when he heard his Lord say, “The one who does the will of my Father [will enter the kingdom of heaven]” (Mt 7:21).

Clarity is vital here.

First, our obedience can’t save us. By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works (Eph 2:8-9).

Second, we can’t expect regenerated Christians to become impressively holy overnight. Despite God’s sovereign work in our heart, we will still find ourselves praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). We will still discover evil lies close at hand (Ro 7:21). We will delight in the law of God, in our inner being, but … see in our members another law waging war (Ro 7:22-23). At times our sinful flesh will win the battle, yet our soul knows enough to cry out, “Wretched man that I am!” (Ro 7:24).

The point is, assurance is possible, but it happens to be an exclusive privilege. John doesn’t offer it to just anyone. He can’t give it to the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the atheist, the guy who’s kind to strangers, or even the person who religiously sits on a church pew every Sunday while living like a godless heathen every other day. The hope of eternal life requires a series of practical tests, and the first among them is our desire and willingness to keep God’s commandments (1Jn 2:3).

Can we have assurance of salvation?

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As we continue our study of 1 John this week, our passage will be 1 John 2:3-6:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3-6)

Most of my childhood memories are fuzzy at best. Trying to remember the earliest years of my life is like searching for channels on an old analog television set. Occasionally, I’ll get a signal, but it’s usually obscured by white noise and static. I do recall, however, my first theological intrigue with remarkable clarity.

How do I know I’m saved?

For reasons unknown to me, a decade of sermons ran through my head while at a sleepover with a friend. I couldn’t have been much older than ten as I reflected on statements I commonly heard from preachers week after week. God loves you. Christ died for you. Jesus saved us. I didn’t know much about the Bible, but I knew enough to realize those comments weren’t true for everyone. Inexplicably, I suddenly felt fearful that they may not be true about me. How could I know?

My friend happened to be a pastor’s kid. Surely, I thought, he’ll have some insight into the matter. I’m also the son of a preacher man, but the gaps in my spiritual knowledge were quickly becoming evident. So I asked him about it.

“How do you know whether you’re saved?”

“I think I’ve heard my dad say if you love God, you must be saved,” he answered.

“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well, I love God.” Though I didn’t verbalize it, I distinctly remember amending my reply as I thought, I think I love God anyhow. Again, how could I know?

That brief moment from twenty-five years ago stuck with me. For a long time, I questioned whether one’s salvation can be anything more than a guessing game. Even if objective evidence could be found, it seemed almost arrogant to assume I’m a member of God’s chosen race … a people for his own possession (1Pe 2:9). It didn’t help that I was taught to believe most of humanity is saved without even knowing it. I had learned a quasi-universalist, hyper-grace soteriology that muddied the waters to say the least. But that’s a matter for another day.

Little did I know, the subject of assurance is an age-old debate. Roman Catholicism has long denied the possibility of assurance because, according to the Catholic Church, no one but God can know whether a sinner has fulfilled his end of the bargain. God has done his part to save people, of course, but sinners must do the rest themselves. The Council of Trent determined a “believer’s assurance of the pardon of his sins is a vain and ungodly confidence.” You can’t possibly know you are saved until you stand before the judgment seat and hear God’s verdict.

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation restored hope to believers once burdened by Catholic dogma. The Reformers recognized that confidence in one’s salvation is the very essence of faith. To trust in Christ for eternal life is to believe the promises of Scripture that God’s love is unfailing. His powerful, providential hand will not allow even one of his redeemed children to be lost. As Jesus tells his disciples:

“I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn 10:28-29)

Within a hundred years, Reformed theologians honed the doctrine of assurance, carefully choosing language that couldn’t be misinterpreted as condoning antinomianism. No one, they thought, should be led to assume he won’t struggle with doubts about his salvation nor should he think a mere profession of faith will give him total confidence. Both the Westminster Confession of 1648 and the Baptist Confession of 1689 agree:

This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and struggle with many difficulties before he be partaker of it; yet being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of means, attain thereunto: and therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

In short, assurance of salvation is not only possible, but it is to be expected, assuming the professing Christian is diligent to confirm his or her calling and election (2Pe 1:10). Only then will there be richly provided … an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2Pe 1:11). After all, those sheep whom Jesus promised eternal security will, he says, “Hear my voice … and … follow me” (Jn 10:27).

Writing to believers, John takes on the challenging task of providing his readers with confidence in their salvation while trying to avoid any notions of antinomianism. It can be a difficult balance to maintain.

On the one hand, God removes the transgressions of his people as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12). It stands to reason we should have assurance. If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1Jn 2:1). Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 8:39).

On the other hand, those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). If we say we have fellowship with God, while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1Jn 1:6). How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Ro 6:2).

Do you see the delicate nature of this topic? Bend the doctrine of assurance too far in any direction, and it’ll break.

Deny the possibility of assurance altogether, and we strip faith itself of any meaning. What is faith but the assurance of things hoped for? (Heb 11:1). Believe that belief itself is enough—never mind one’s lack of moral obedience—and we may as well presume the demons will join us in heaven one day (Jas 2:19). Even they believe—and shudder! Assume one has been set free from sin without bearing the fruit that leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life, and we likely give false hope to children of the devil (Ro 6:22; 1Jn 3:10).

John won’t allow any of these theories to pass as apostolic doctrine. Though we may have theological certainty in the propitiation for our sins, Jesus Christ, we cannot know that we have eternal life until we also have a reasonable degree of moral certainty (1Jn 2:2; 5:13). Put another way, if we keep the Lord’s commandments, then and only then can we know that we have come to know the Lord and Savior (1Jn 2:3).

Reader’s question: What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?

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Your question is broad, but I’ll do my best. Most people who ask it have something more specific in mind. Does the Bible permit me to get a divorce? Since I am divorced, can I get remarried? Are divorce and remarriage unpardonable sins? Then again, maybe you meant to be vague, looking only for general principles and passages about the subject.

I’ll start with what I call the natural law of marriage found in the book of Genesis: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Ge 2:24). I prefer the term natural over moral because God ingrained these laws into creation itself. Long before he issued any positive laws, written or verbal—think of the Mosaic law—he made certain laws instinctive. Jesus even alludes to the preexistence and supremacy of the natural law when he says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8).

The natural law of marriage is simple enough. One man enters into a binding covenant with one woman where they become not two individuals together, but one co-dependent family. Jesus stresses the covenantal requirement of the relationship when he adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6). Two become one flesh as the man holds fast to his wife (Ge 2:24).

God designed marriage to be permanent. In fact, the only thing that can destroy a marriage is sin, directly or indirectly. Indirectly, a marriage may end when a spouse dies. Death, of course, is a consequence of sin. Directly, a husband may divorce his wife to, let’s say, marry someone else. Regardless, we can trace the end of every marriage back to sin, and that’s helpful to keep in mind as you study this subject in Scripture.

Roughly 2,500 years after the fall of mankind and plenty of wickedness later, God gives his positive law through Moses. One passage, in particular, is especially relevant to your question:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

Here’s the all-important phrase: “If … he found some indecency in her” (Dt 24:1). By the time of Christ, the Jews couldn’t agree on a proper interpretation of that statement. The Jewish Mishnah proposes three possibilities:

The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her. … And the school of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him. … Rabbi Akiba says, [he may divorce her] even if he found another fairer than she.

Jesus affirms the most conservative of the three positions, saying, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality,” that is, unchastity or indecency, “and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9; Dt 24:1). In other words, neither God nor Moses would ever condone divorce because your spouse burned your supper or you found someone else you like better. God’s positive law (Dt 24:1-4) doesn’t change or undermine his natural law (Ge 2:24), which was from the beginning (Mt 19:8).

Moses never commanded anyone to give a certificate of divorce and send his wife away as the Pharisees claimed (Mt 19:7). Instead, he put tighter restrictions on the practice. Namely, he wouldn’t allow any man to divorce his wife unless she had been unfaithful, meaning she had already broken the marriage covenant. A divorce, then, was little more than a legal formality acknowledging the violation of God’s natural law.

Jesus’s teachings about divorce give modern readers the most trouble. In his sermon on the mount, for instance, he challenged Israel’s status quo by claiming:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Here, strangely enough, the divorcee, not the one who initiates the unlawful divorce becomes an adulterer. Even so, the divorcee isn’t to blame. The one who divorces his wife … makes her commit adultery along with anyone she marries (Mt 5:32). His wickedness is like a disease that spreads to anyone he touches. No wonder God described divorce as bringing sin upon the whole land (Dt 24:4). It is never self-contained because divorce is a sin that inevitably involves more than one person. When subsequent remarriages take place, the violation of God’s natural law spreads even further.

There is no mistaking the heinous nature of divorce in God’s mind. With or without an exception clause, God never intended the marriage covenant between a husband and his wife to be broken. In Matthew 5, Jesus is distinguishing the lax views of Israel concerning God’s commandments and the Lord’s pure, unadulterated law. It’s not that he makes the law harder to keep. He just clarifies what the law always demanded of us.

But that, of course, is the law by which no human being will be justified … since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20). The first challenge of anyone studying the topic of divorce and remarriage in the Bible is admitting that divorce and remarriage condemn us under the law right along with unrighteous anger and lustful intent. (Mt 5:22; 28). Any deviation from God’s natural law is sin, and we become accountable to God as well as his divine wrath against lawbreakers (Ro 3:19).

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Our second challenge here, at least for some people, is to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve known more than a few Christians who want to leave their divorced brothers and sisters in a state of condemnation. While it is true adulterers cannot inherit the kingdom of God—the law won’t allow it—God’s people were washed … sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1Co 6:9-11). We must factor grace into the equation when considering a redeemed child of God.

According to Paul, the believer has:

died to the law through the body of Christ, so that he or she may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. … We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in a new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code, that is, the letter of the law. (Romans 7:4; 6)

To be clear, Christ doesn’t free us from the law to divorce and remarry all we want. To the contrary, our sanctification moves us toward greater and greater holiness where we serve in a new way of the Spirit and bear fruit for God as we never could before (Ro 7:6; 4). Ultimately, we are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Ro 3:24). Despite the adulterous sin of breaking the sacred covenant of marriage, we are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1Co 6:11).

Ironically, the legalists among us will use Romans 7 to defend their position. “See,” they say, “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives. … She will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive” (Ro 7:2-3). I call it ironic because Paul uses this example to teach God’s grace while the Christian legalist uses the same passage to prove the perpetual, unforgivable nature of divorce and remarriage. They trap sinners in a place where repentance and forgiveness are impossible. The divorced person can’t undo his divorce. The remarried person can’t undo his marriage without another divorce. Without grace, they’re stuck.

In case you didn’t know, some go as far as to claim a second marriage isn’t a marriage at all. It’s merely an adulterous affair. Yes and no. It is adulterous—technically, divorce itself is adulterous according to Matthew 5:32—but it’s still a God-recognized marriage. Jesus told a Samaritan woman, “You have had five husbands,” suggesting all five relationships were legitimate marriages (Jn 4:18).

This kind of legalism causes an assortment of problems. Depending on the particular variety, they say divorce can be a means of repentance. I’ve also heard it said a divorced person can be saved, though not a member of the local church. Perhaps the wildest notion I’ve discovered is where some pastors, who believe remarriage is a sin barring the remarried from church membership, will recommend the remarried stay married for the sake of their children. In other words, their advice is to continue in what they perceive to be sin for the good of the children. How can sin ever be good for anyone? But that’s where legalism can take us.

As Christians, our salvation doesn’t undo the sins we’ve committed nor does it allow us to sin all we want. Instead, the Spirit compels us to turn to God for forgiveness when we sin and seek to avoid sin in the future.

The divorced Christian learns to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I will not get remarried if I can exercise self-control and not burn with passion” (Lk 15:18; 1Co 7:9). The divorced and remarried Christian learns to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, but I will lead the life … to which you have called me. Though I have broken your natural law of marriage in the past, I will keep the covenant I have made with my current spouse” (1Co 7:17).

Does that answer your question? Maybe it’s a start at least.

The sweet aroma of Christ our advocate

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The beginning of John’s second chapter is the apostle’s first dose of theological certainty, and he offers it straight. This doctrine is best served without sugar because it’s sweet enough on its own. John seems to realize how his readers might misinterpret what he’s written. Are you suggesting a Christian cannot sin? Are you implying a Christian can sin all he wants?

“No,” John says. “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin (1Jn 2:1). As redeemed people, you are no longer … enslaved to sin (Ro 6:6). You have been set free (Ro 6:7). But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 2:1-2).”

Moving beyond the law, John now articulates the gospel. He has stressed the purity of God and the reality of our sin, implicitly preaching our need for salvation. There is nothing implicit, however, in these verses.

First of all, he doesn’t want any believer to assume we should be indifferent to sin. Instead, the message he received from Jesus himself is that those who have fellowship with him will confess their trespasses and stop walking in darkness (1Jn 1:5-6; 9). Second, he wants us to know that Christians will not altogether avoid sin, yet our moments of weakness cannot undo what Christ has accomplished and is accomplishing on our behalf.

God is both just and merciful. He proved his mercy by giving his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). He simultaneously confirmed his just nature by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemning sin in the flesh by condemning his Son, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us (Ro 8:3-4).

Our Heavenly Father is just because he satisfied his wrath against sin by punishing Christ. He is also merciful because he accepted Jesus as our propitiation, allowing him to suffer in our place (1Jn 2:2). In this way, the God who is light shows he is no less the God who is love (1Jn 1:5; 4:8).

The most common complaint I hear from people reading 1 John is that the book presents challenging if not contradictory concepts. “In one passage,” they say, “John rattles my confidence by suggesting a child of God will obey the commandments with little to no stumbling. But, then, he reassures me with a promise that Jesus is our unfailing advocate when I sin.”

Welcome to the Christian life where faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen rather than some form of tangible evidence (Heb 11:1). I’m afraid God’s elect aren’t stamped with an unmistakable “E” on their foreheads. Instead, we are simply told to trust. We are instructed to:

lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and … run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

As the justifier of the one who has faith in him, Jesus is the sole provider of assurance to those who believe (Ro 3:26). If we are to know that we have eternal life, we must trust him as our continual advocate with the Father and the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 5:13; 2:1-2). What other choice do we have? We are hopelessly guilty without him.

Inevitably, though not perfectly, John believes the one who trusts Christ for salvation will also learn to deny himself and take up his cross and follow his Lord and Savior (Mt 16:24). That is why he feels no apprehension as he moves back and forth between matters of theology and morality. What we do is just as important as what we believe, and vice versa. One flows into the next, and both merit self-examination.

How can you rest in the grace of God if you willingly keep every weight of sin on your back? (Heb 12:1). Meanwhile, how will you ever know eternal security unless you earnestly look to Jesus as the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world? (Heb 12:2; 1Jn 2:2). The atoning work of Christ is sufficient to save countless individuals from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9). Suffice it to say, I t is more than enough to cover your crimes against God.

John doesn’t propose any contradictions. The word of life is simple enough (1Jn 1:1). You are a sinner, and there’s no use denying it. You are guilty, but the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin (1Jn 1:7). If you truly believe that, John expects your life to reflect it. Why shouldn’t he?

Read this passage again and pay close attention to your heart’s response: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1Jn 2:1-2).

Does that statement smell more like life or death to you? (2Co 2:16). Among those who are being saved, the aroma of Christ will be the sweetest fragrance that ever touched your nostrils (2Co 2:15). Your heart will leap with joy while your soul relaxes. You’ll want to shed your sins for what they did to your Savior, and you’ll cling to him with all of your might. By this it is evident who are the children of God (1Jn 3:10).

Our advocate and propitiation

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I’m ashamed to admit that I once stood before a judge to plead guilty and hear my sentence. It was a tense moment, the kind that makes your bowels do backflips. I secretly hoped the judge could empathize with a lowly criminal like myself. Maybe she’d been in my shoes before and think, His crime is minor enough. I’ll just let it slide.

She didn’t.

A friend of mine, however, did experience the miraculous in a similar situation. The police charged him with a crime that should have meant jail time. They had him dead to rights as they say. But through some clerical error or perhaps the judge’s benevolence, they unexpectedly dismissed the case against him. An officer escorted him into the courtroom, he waited his turn, and the judge said, “You’re free to go.” Decades have passed, and he still doesn’t know why or how it happened, but it always makes him think of the gospel.

The Bible often uses legal jargon and imagery when relating the details of our salvation. We are encouraged to think of God as a judge presiding over our case. We, of course, are the defendants. The prosecution’s evidence against us is overwhelming. Beyond the faintest shadow of a reasonable doubt, we are guilty as charged. We know it. The judge knows it, and he’ll slam his gavel against the bench any moment now to make it official.

Only something else happens.

We assume all hope is lost. We can’t imagine our court-appointed public defender will be much help to us. Not only is he working for free—we can’t afford to pay him anyhow—but he also happens to be the judge’s son. He’s the squeaky clean type who has likely never even jaywalked. How can he relate to us? Why would he go out of his way to help?

So we wait, heads down and hands cuffed, when our lawyer interrupts the proceedings. “Your honor,” he asks, “may I approach the bench?” The judge nods. We don’t pay much attention. Why bother? Daddy and his boy are probably making lunch plans.

Minutes later, though, our lawyer returns to our side. He places a hand on our shoulder, looks deep into our eyes, and asks, “Do you believe in me?” Strangely enough, we do believe in him. His touch and disposition are suddenly compelling as though someone has flipped a switch in our brains. He is much more than we thought. He’s our paraklētos, our Helper and advocate (Jn 14:16; 1Jn 2:1). We trust that he is on our side, genuinely defending us, though he and everyone else knows we’re guilty.

“Yes, I believe in you,” we manage to say despite our surprise and confusion.

“Okay then,” he says. “I will set you free” (Jn 8:32). With that, he turns back to the judge as his face falls. He now appears terribly troubled. “I’m ready, your honor.”

The judge gives a quiet signal to the bailiff who approaches us and removes our restraints. The officer, then, places the handcuffs on our lawyer, escorting him out of the courtroom.

While we are still trying to process what’s happening, the judge says to us, “I’m well aware you have committed these crimes, but your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1Jn 2:12). He points toward the exit through which our lawyer just walked.

“I am letting you go because my son has agreed to accept the consequences for what you’ve done. And I’m allowing it because he, unlike yourself, is perfectly righteous (1Jn 2:2). He’s never committed a single crime. If he had, I’d have to punish him for his own crimes. He wouldn’t be qualified to bear yours. But he is wholly innocent.

“When you leave here today, you’ll probably feel extremely grateful. You may vow to never break the law again, but chances are, you will. And frankly, I’ll have to discipline you from time to time when the need arises, but it’ll be nothing compared to what you deserve (Heb 12:6). You are leaving here with complete freedom. Who shall bring any charge against you? (Ro 8:33). No one.

“Even so, I am instructing you to start living like a decent citizen of society. Stop breaking the law. But when you slip up as I know you will, come to me immediately and confess your sins (1Jn 1:9). I promise to forgive you.

“To be clear, you are a criminal, and I’m not giving you a free pass to commit all the crimes you want. But what good is your freedom if you spend the rest of your life always looking over your shoulder, crippled by a fear that you could be arrested and charged all over again. Double jeopardy applies here. Not only do you have an advocate with me, you also have a propitiation, an atoning sacrifice for your sins through my son (1Jn 2:1-2). He is covering your past crimes and every crime you will ever commit. And I can’t punish him, then punish you for the same crimes. It wouldn’t be fair.

I am telling you these things … so that you may not sin. But if you do, you have an advocate, and he is the propitiation for your sins always and forever” (1Jn 2:1-2).

Perhaps my courtroom analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to illustrate John’s point.

God’s people are not saved because we lack sin. In fact, we are the only people in this world who readily confess our sins (1Jn 1:9). In turn, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness time and time again.

We possess a paraklētos both within us and another who is with God, continually interceding for us (Ro 8:34). The Helper, the Holy Spirit moves us from within to practice the truth while an advocate, that is, Jesus Christ the righteous, acts as a mediator between God and men (Jn 14:26; 1Jn 1:6; 1Ti 2:5). The born-again Christian has a penitent heart, desiring to leave his sin in the past thanks to the Helper.

Thanks to our advocate … Jesus Christ we can pursue righteousness without fear of future condemnation, though we surely deserve it.

The law followed by the gospel

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We have not preached the gospel if we tell people only about God’s holiness and fury against sin. Technically, that’s not the gospel at all. That’s the law by which no human being will be justified … since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20). The law exposes our many crimes against God. It can never save us.

Even those who think they’ve kept God’s commandments to a reasonable degree are condemned. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it (Jas 2:10). Maybe you’ve never murdered anyone, but you will still be liable to judgment if you have ever been angry with your brother (Mt 5:22). Maybe you’ve never committed adultery, but everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28).

Furthermore, the human race is brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did our mothers conceive us (Ps 51:5). Even if we somehow manage to accomplish the impossible, that is, a life which never violates a single demand of God’s law, we are born into this world with a deficit. Sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and death through sin, and that death has spread to all men because all have sinned (Ro 5:12). His trespass led to condemnation for every last one of us (Ro 5:18).

We shouldn’t confuse the law and gospel, but the gospel doesn’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t first understand the law. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Pr 9:10). Until we have known our guilt before God and the divine wrath we deserve, how can the gospel be good news? Why would we need the gospel at all?

During his three-year ministry on this earth, Jesus often practiced a strange form of evangelism, an almost anti-evangelism. Just when potential converts seemed primed and ready to follow him, he would say or do something to discourage them. At one point, thousands of would-be disciples turned back and no longer walked with him, though one day before they were ready to make him king (Jn 6:66; 15). Today, we would label him a failure and question his calling as a missionary, but he knew what he was doing.

For example, a man once ran up and knelt before Christ and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (Mk 10:17). Some of us would tell him to recite a prayer or ask Jesus into his heart. Others might say, “Repent of your sins and be saved.” Perhaps a few in Calvinistic circles would cleverly suggest, “There is nothing you can do. God saves whom he will.” The Son of God took a different approach.

”You know the commandments,” he replied, ”Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mk 10:19). To our surprise, he seems to imply the man could essentially save himself by keeping the law. I suppose he could if he could keep the law without failing in even one point of it (Jas 2:10).

”Teacher,” the man proudly announces, ”all these I have kept from my youth” (Mk 10:20). Now is the time a Calvinist would beat him over the head with the doctrine of total depravity. Others may prefer to avoid the topic of original sin and simply suggest he accept Jesus as his Savior. Savior from what? You’ll have to ask them.

With an understanding beyond measure, infinite in scope, the Savior himself chooses to prick the man where he is most sensitive: his wealth (Ps 147:5). ”You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him, ”go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and then and only then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21).

In a way only he could, Christ saw a fundamental problem standing between this man and the hope of eternal life. There was no admission of guilt. There was no sense of shame to be found. While the man did walk away disheartened and sorrowful, he wasn’t mourning his sin (Mk 10:22). He hated the thought of sacrificing his great possessions even for an eternity with God. He wasn’t ready to ask himself, ”For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).

When John writes the first chapter of his epistle, he has our guilt before the God of light in mind (1Jn 1:5). He implores us to confess our sins and repent of them (1Jn 1:9). “Do not walk in darkness”, he says (1Jn 1:6). “And do not be so ignorant as to claim we have no sin (1Jn 1:8). If we say we have not sinned, as the rich man implied about himself, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:10).

But that is the law of God, and leaving the matter there would send us to our graves as hopeless, utterly forsaken sinners bound for an eternity of hell.

John may seem brash with his uncompromising style of writing, but he knows the love of God as well as anyone. It begins to pour out of him as he refers to his readers as “my little children” (1Jn 2:1). In an effort to give his brothers and sisters, who believe in the name of the Son of God, confidence that they certainly have eternal life, he wants them to be aware, painfully if necessary, that unrepentant sin is a capital offense against God (1Jn 5:13). “I am writing these things to you,” he says in what I imagine to be an earnest yet tender tone, “so that you may not sin.

The pastor who avoids addressing the sins of either believers or unbelievers is performing a terrible disservice to say the least. He can preach the grace of God all he wants, but it means very little until it’s framed by the reality of our guilt.

Yet the man who stops short at declaring our culpability and demanding our obedience to God’s moral law has utterly failed his calling as an ambassador for Christ (2Co 5:20). He has told only half of the story. He leaves his audience of criminals trembling before the judgment seat of God with shackles on their hands and feet waiting for the inevitable verdict and its subsequent punishment.

What happens next in that divine courtroom is both surprising and spectacular.

Some context

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Perhaps I should begin the week with some context. I’d hate for my emails to be a source of confusion for anyone.

As you likely know, I’m writing my way through the book of 1 John. Maybe it’s not your conventional Bible commentary, but it’s what I have to offer. Most people seem to be enjoying it.

I think.

Either way, I’ll focus this week on 1 John 2:1-2 where the apostle says:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

Quick question: Does the passage above appear highlighted in yellow? If not, would you please reply to let me know? It would also help to mention which email client or app you’re using (e.g. Outlook, Gmail, etc.). I’ve learned designing emails can be tricky.

The next installment on 1 John is due out tomorrow. Until then, may God bless.

Child of God, confess your sins

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John presumes his audience already believes in the name of the Son of God (1Jn 5:13). He is writing to professing Christians who, sadly, lack clarity concerning the word of life and perhaps the degree of confidence we should have toward him, that is, our Lord and Savior (1Jn 1:1; 5:14). Those first-century churches watched fellow members fall away, abandoning the faith and denying that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:22). Confusion and uncertainty are prevalent among them.

Having established the holiness of God—God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5)—as well as the reality of our sinfulness, John also wants his Christian readers to rest in the wonderful grace of God through Christ. Though the wages of sin is death … the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro 6:23).

Genuine fellowship … with the Father, not to mention his forgiveness is possible, but we must first be willing to confess our sins and stop walking in the darkness of unrepentant evil (1Jn 1:3; 9; 6). We need to quit minimizing our sin and, consequently, selling God’s glory short of its full awesome majesty by suggesting he doesn’t mind what we casually refer to as human fumbles (Job 37:22).

I haven’t personally known anyone in the church who altogether denies sin, though they do exist. They claim we can outgrow sin at the very least. I have known many, however, who attempt to reduce the severity of sin and even more who think the believer’s need for God’s cleansing and forgiveness has expired. They’ve grown indifferent to the moral law, touting, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who … indeed is interceding for us” (Ro 8:33-34).

Perhaps they’ve forgotten the Lord’s prayer. ”When you pray,” Jesus taught his disciples, ”say, ‘Forgive us our sins’” (Lk 11:2; 4). Maybe they haven’t read the psalms of David such Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
And take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:1-12)

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn John read that very psalm just before writing the first chapter of his epistle. It contains all of the same themes: fellowship with God, forgiveness, cleansing, confession, and repentance.

To be clear, the blood of Jesus does cleanse us from all sin, but that’s not the issue here (1Jn 1:7). John has the practical, experiential implications in mind. How can we have assurance of salvation, a salvation from the consequences of our sin, when we’ve lost any burden for continual penitence as though our sin has become inconsequential to God?

We think, Once saved, always saved. But John says, “If”—this statement is conditional—“we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).

On the one hand, John expects God’s redeemed people to bear fruit of eternal life in the form of humble, repentant hearts. On the other hand, he also knows, just as David discovered, even a child of God can experience the torment of broken fellowship with the Father when he refuses to seek the Lord’s continual, sanctifying forgiveness and cleansing.

As Jesus spent his final night with John and the other apostles, he:

rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:4-11)

Using a vivid illustration of physical washing, the Lord makes a distinction between total cleansing and an ongoing partial cleansing of those who have already been ultimately cleansed. Perhaps we’ve been justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, but that does not mean we are exempt from needing our feet washed (Ro 3:24). We are sinners, albeit redeemed sinners, who will step in the mud of our sinful passions day after day as long as we are living in the flesh (Ro 7:5).

In other words, even a child of God should confess his sins and seek forgiveness (1Jn 1:9). If we don’t, our confidence as God’s children will be in short supply. Gratifying the desires of the flesh stands in direct opposition to the Spirit (Gal 5:17). Unrepentant sin left unmourned and unconfessed will shatter our intimacy with our Heavenly Father. Though we have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, who can call out, ”Abba! Father!” while walking in blatant disregard for his moral law? (Ro 8:15).

“Do not continue in sin. Do not deny your sin. Do not hide your sin,” John pleads. “Instead, confess your sins. Acknowledge them, hate them, and hand them over to God. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:9).

The heresy of denying, redefining, or minimizing our sin

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I was speaking to a young man once who had started reading the Bible for the first time. He had come to the conclusion that anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus … will be saved (Ac 16:31). I didn’t anticipate his follow-up question, but I was thankful for it. He simply asked, “Why?”

I’ve since wondered how many apparent conversions have taken place in the church while the proselytes themselves don’t know why they have turned to Christ. Perhaps they think of him as a magic genie who grants the wish of eternal life to anyone who asks. Without understanding the holiness of God or the vile nature of our sin, suggesting they don’t know the meaning of Christ’s death, some Christian tells them to believe … and … be saved (Ac 16:31).

Saved from what? And why Jesus?

John begins his message with two indisputable facts. First, God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5). He is majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds (Ex 15:11). He is always just and perfectly righteous. Second, we are far from it. As depraved lawbreakers, rebels, and enemies of God, we are in desperate need of forgiveness, something we can’t possibly obtain apart from the blood of Jesus (Ro 5:10; 1Jn 1:7).

Being just, God must punish criminals. He cannot merely ignore our crimes forever. Being merciful, though, he can punish Jesus Christ the righteous in our place (1Jn 2:1). His Son, who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and was tempted as we are, yet without sin, proved himself to be a qualified propitiation for our sins (Mt 5:17; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 2:2). For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Co 5:21).

Suffice it to say, any effort to deny, redefine, or even minimize our sin is an offense to the gospel as well as Christ himself. Today, we want to claim that people are essentially good. We don’t sin; we make mistakes. We are not spiritually dead; we are slightly ill, sometimes. What difference does it make? God loves us anyhow.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Ro 5:8). It was the will of the LORD to crush him and put him to grief as an offering for our guilt (Isa 53:10). The God who is light despises our sin with such incredible hatred that he would not and could not pardon us until he had expended every last ounce of his wrath on someone (1Jn 1:5). Praise Christ for his willingness to lay his own life down for our sake (Jn 10:18).

Despite God’s grace, salvation through Christ does not change the Father’s abhorrence of sin nor does it mean we cease to be sinners. If we say we have fellowship with God while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1Jn 1:6). Or if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1Jn 1:8).

Evidently, the Gnostics succeeded in convincing some Christians that either they could continue in sin with no harm done or they were no longer sinners at all (Ro 6:1). “By no means!” Paul seems to shout when addressing the same issue. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Ro 6:2).

If eternal life is to have fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, and if God is light, and in him is no darkness at all, we cannot possibly claim to have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness (1Jn 1:2-3; 5-6).

True Christians were buried with Christ by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Ro 6:4). For by grace we have been saved through faith … created in Christ Jesus for good works, not to continue behaving like children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:8; 10; 3).

John wants us to be confident that we have eternal life, but we never will if we make a practice of sinning as though God doesn’t mind (1Jn 5:13; 3:9). John passionately refutes that terrible notion when he writes, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil, that is, the practice of sinning, not to allow us to sin all we want. The Christian cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1Jn 3:8-9).

The Bible teaches those who are saved have been set free from sin to become slaves of God and righteousness (Ro 6:22; 19). Though it acknowledges the sin that still dwells within us, it doesn’t permit anyone to assume he is born again if he doesn’t share God’s hatred of sin (Ro 7:20). It won’t allow us to be comfortable with our supposed salvation until we have confirmed our calling and election through faith and godliness (2Pe 1:10; 5-6). Paul advises we examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith (2Co 13:5).

Only if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, can we have fellowship with one another, that is, other believers (1Jn 1:7). Only if we walk in the light, can we assume the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin. After all, Christ saves us to be conformed to his image (Ro 8:29). If we show no interest or evidence that Jesus has set us free … from the law of sin and death, what legitimate claim do we have to the benefits of his atonement? (Ro 8:2).

It is just as bad, probably worse for us to deny our sin altogether. Granted, the Gnostics invented a remarkably clever way to do it, claiming only the body sins, not the spirit, and that the body doesn’t matter anyhow. Once the body dies, they thought, it becomes worm food for all eternity. Do what you want with your flesh.

Creative or not, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1Jn 1:8). God’s word is not in us, and we make a liar out of God (1Jn 1:10).

The character of God, the first coming of Christ, the Bible, the Old Testament law and prophecies, the gospel itself—all of it is worthless to anyone who fools himself into believing he has not sinned. Why turn to Christ at all? Why follow a Savior whom you don’t need? You may as well walk away from this thing we call Christianity because it’s meaningless for someone like you.

You’ll still be a sinner held accountable to God, of course, but you can’t expect to be justified until you have beat on your breast, crying out to God, ”Be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Ro 3:19; Lk 18:13-14).

God is light

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The early Gnostics in John’s day perverted more than the identity of Christ. They also distorted the rules for godly behavior. “The physical body,” they said, “is inherently evil. Only that which is spiritual can be good.” To them, the human body is little more than a prison for the spirit. But rather than teach Christians to discipline their body and keep it under control, they suggested the body and what we do with it is entirely irrelevant (1Co 9:27).

Do whatever you want with your body. Have an affair, get drunk, start a fight—it doesn’t matter as long as you keep your mind and spirit pure.

John abhors the notion, writing, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. … If we say we have not sinned, we make God a liar, and his word is not in us” (1Jn 1:8; 10). We can’t separate our actions from our hearts. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil (Lk 6:45). Yet people still invent new ways to call evil good, and good evil (Isa 5:20).

Rather than confess our sins in pursuit of God’s forgiveness, we often prefer to justify ourselves, pretending our sin isn’t that bad and that God is happy to turn a blind eye to our mistakes (1Jn 1:9). After all, God is love (1Jn 4:8). What kind of loving Father wouldn’t readily excuse our trivial shortcomings?

How about the kind who warns each of us, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when my righteous judgment will be revealed”? (Ro 2:5).

John realizes the New Testament church has a tendency to dilute God’s holy nature. We know he did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17). In turn, we think of God as gentler, more compassionate than he was in the past. We sometimes mistakenly distinguish between the God of today and the God of the Old Testament.

God is I AM WHO I AM (Ex 3:14). This is my name forever,” he told Moses (Ex 4:15). YHWH is no different today than he was from the beginning (1Jn 1:1). The same God who sent his Son to save sinners is the God who threatened to destroy Israel and blot their name from under heaven (Dt 9:14). He is the LORD who regretted that he had made man on the earth and vowed to blot out man … from the face of the land, drowning them under a worldwide flood (Ge 6:6-7).

God is certainly gracious, but he is also light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 1:5). The very essence of God is pure. Though he created an environment in which sin could exist, he cannot conceive of committing sin himself. Even the smallest transgression would aggressively violate his nature. Our God is a consuming fire who would destroy every sinner in an instant if not for his merciful patience (Heb 12:29).

When Isaiah stood before the throne of God, his gut impulse was not to express his love and admiration for the Father, but to tremble in fear (Isa 6:1). He shouted, ”Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). The prophet assumed his life was over because the wages of sin is death, and he was standing in the presence of the righteous judge … who feels indignation at the thought of every sin, not to mention every sinner (Ro 6:23; Ps 7:11).

The word of life, that is, the gospel message, begins with a proclamation of God’s holiness (1Jn 1:1). How else could we understand the severity of our sin from which Christ saves us? How else could we understand why Christ was stricken, smitten by God and afflicted? (Isa 53:4). It is only after we have come to know the perfect righteousness of God that we can grasp the demands of his law as well as our utter failure to keep them.

To know God is light is to recognize his justification for condemning every last one of us, inflicting his wrath on us (1Jn 1:5; Ro 3:5). None is righteous but God, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks after God. All have turned aside; together we have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Ro 3:10-12).

Tragedy is too polite of a word to describe our attempts at diminishing the horrifying nature of our sin. As Arthur Pink writes in his book, The Attributes of God:

We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness.

Before we study the God who is love, we need to meditate on the God who is also light, and in him is no darkness at all (1Jn 4:8; 1:5). Before we read how the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin, we should understand why we need to be forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness in the first place (1Jn 1:7; 9). Only then will we have a mind to confess our sins and plead for mercy. Only then can we truly appreciate God’s grace.

If God’s holy wrath against sinners seems contrary to what you know about Jesus, consider John’s source. From whom do you think he learned what he knows about the nature of God and his attitude toward sin? John clarifies, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you” (1Jn 1:5). He knows God is light because he heard and saw it from the Word himself who was God (Jn 1:1).

Reader’s question: Which Bible should I read if I’m ready to leave KJV Onlyism?

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First, I suggest you leave KJV Onlyism without leaving the King James Bible. The KJV offers translation choices and unique sentence structures that will only enrich your study of Scripture. The differences between it and whatever version you choose will prompt you to consider passages deeper than you otherwise would.

Second, it depends. I usually recommend Bibles on a case-by-case basis. For example, I may give an NIV to a young person who is new to the faith since it’s easier to read than some. But I may hand someone like you a copy of the NKJV or MEV since they are the closest parallels to the version you know best.

Bible translations primarily differ in two ways: source material and translation method.

Concerning source material, the KJV stands apart from most modern translations because it is based on a handful of later manuscripts, that is, hand-written copies of the Bible in its original languages. Today, most translations use much older and considerably more manuscripts to which the KJV committee didn’t have access.

Moving from the KJV to a modern translation means you’ll likely find a few textual variants. You may see an extra word. Perhaps a verse is missing. There are reasons for these differences, namely, the manuscript evidence supports the changes from what we read in the KJV.

If you’re willing to accept the existence of these variants—there aren’t as many as you may think—and even strive to understand them better, I recommend the ESV, English Standard Version. Arguably, the ESV is a direct descendent of the KJV, retaining much of its prose and cadence.

If you’re not ready to step quite so far from KJV Onlyism, you should try the MEV, Modern English Version. It’s a modern translation of the very same manuscripts as the KJV.

Translation method is the other factor to consider. Some Bibles are more literal translations than others, not that literal is necessarily better. In most cases, I’d argue for the essentially literal version rather than one that paraphrases some of the text. Then again, technically, they all paraphrase.

The most important feature of any translation is how well it communicates God’s word to the reader. A so-called “dynamic” translation could be more effective than its literal counterpart.

The ESV is just as literal as the KJV if not more so. The NIV, New International Version, is not quite as literal but a slightly smoother read for 21st-century Christians. If you want to split the difference, the CSB, Christian Standard Bible, is an excellent option.

The choice is yours to make, of course.

Personally, I use the ESV as my standard, but I’m never without other versions when I study. My collection also includes the NASB, KJV, NKJV, MEV, HCSB, CSB, NIV, NET, NLT, and a handful of others including some that were published before the KJV.

Reader’s question: Will God judge his elect people?

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Paul seems to think so. He says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2Co 5:10).

The book of Revelation depicts judgment as having two phases.

First, the dead are judged by what is written in the books, according to what they had done (Rev 20:12). Evidently, these books contain a record of our works, both good and bad.

Second, if anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15). This book is distinct from the others. It holds a list of names rather than works.

In phase one of judgment, Christ evaluates what everyone has done. In phase two, he determines who belongs to him, though not on the basis of works. Those whose names are in the book of life, those for whom the Lamb … was slain, were written before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). Never mind their works. God’s choice followed by Jesus’s atonement determine who belongs in this special book.

The following passage teaches the same concept:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

Assuming our foundation is, in fact, Jesus Christ, our duty as Christians is to build on top of it (1Co 3:11). But some of us will build with better materials than others. Anyone who has read the story of the three little pigs knows precious stones are superior to hay and straw (1Co 3:12). Eventually, the Lord will set fire to what we’ve built to determine its worth (1Co 3:13).

Notice, though, even if our lifetime of work gets destroyed by the fire because we used shoddy materials, we will suffer loss but still be saved (1Co 3:15).

In other words, the elect of God will be saved, yet even they will be judged by their works. The inevitable question is, why? Better yet, what kind of rewards or repercussions could there be if we’re at home with the Lord for all eternity? (2Co 5:8).

Your guess is as good as mine. All we can do is speculate. Perhaps our works will determine our positions on the new earth (Rev 21:1). Maybe some of us will tend gardens while others scrub toilets in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:2). You won’t hear me complain if God assigns me to janitorial duty. I won’t be too proud for the most menial task nor will I envy others. My arrogant, ungrateful flesh will be long gone, and I’ll be thoroughly satisfied when I behold God’s face (Ps 17:15).

Reader’s question: Do we have to accept Christ to be saved?

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Against what some will call my better judgment, I’ll once again wade into a lesser-known debate among some Calvinistic Christians. I suspect this question merits context, though. There aren’t many people who would ever think to ask it. “Of course we must accept Christ,” they’d say.

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved is a common and rather straightforward refrain of the Bible (Ac 16:31). God is, after all, the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Ro 3:26).

This question stems from a particular and possibly peculiar understanding of salvation by grace—peculiar for some of you anyhow. I’ll demonstrate with a single passage from John’s Gospel:

But to all who did receive Jesus Christ, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

Chances are, you’ve heard a few sermons that emphasized the former verse to the exclusion of the latter. This very text led a friend of mine to accept the full sovereignty of God in salvation as believed by most Calvinists. His pastor used verse 12 as proof of man’s free will in choosing Christ. Meanwhile, my friend wondered, What about the next verse? How can we freely choose Christ if we must first be born of God? His pastor never touched verse 13 even though it completes the sentence.

On the other end of the soteriological spectrum are those who loudly herald the latter verse while ignoring the former. “See,” they say, “we don’t choose Christ for salvation. He chooses us. We are not born again to eternal life as the result of man’s will. We must be born of God according to his sovereign purpose.”

There is just enough truth in that statement to be believable, but there’s also enough error to make us pause.

Those who affirm the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and so on may be tempted to deny the role of faith in our salvation. We may assume faith, that is, believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior, undermines the principles of salvation by grace since it is something we do.

The Bible, however, doesn’t consider faith something we do in the same vein as works of the law. Paul says, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Ro 3:28). Faith and works are diametrically opposed to one another. The works-minded person claims, “I can save myself by doing X, Y, and Z.” Faith, on the other hand, says, “I can’t save myself. Salvation belongs to the LORD. I will trust him to redeem me” (Ps 3:8).

According to John, we need theological balance here. No one will accept Christ unless he is born … of God (Jn 1:13). That’s one point for the sovereignty crowd. But no one will be given the right to become children of God unless they first receive Christ and believe in his name (Jn 1:12). That’s a point for the opposition. Put these truths together, and we’ll finally have a biblical perspective.

Long before John wrote his Gospel, God promised:

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

God’s people failed to keep the commandments of God generation after generation. Ultimately, God says, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” He decided to change his people from the inside out. He replaces our hard hearts with hearts of flesh. He puts his Spirit within us to cause us to walk in his statutes and … obey his rules (Eze 36:27).

Paul echoes that promise in his letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Faith itself is a gift of God, not a result of works (Eph 2:8-9). It is God’s Spirit within us that moves us away from sin toward Christ. When we are born … of God, we inevitably surrender our fate to Jesus, receiving him and believing in his name for salvation, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Jn 1:12-13; Ac 4:12).

Paul’s primary argument in the book of Romans is that the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law … through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Ro 3:21-22). Likewise, Jesus acknowledges the sovereign work of God in anyone born of the Spirit, yet he adds, “Whoever believes in me is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already” (Jn 3:8; 18).

Either God has revealed his righteousness through our faith in Christ or he has not. If so, we should not perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). If not, we are condemned (Jn 3:18).

To answer the original question concisely, I wouldn’t say we have to accept Christ to be saved. I suggest we will accept Christ. His sheep hear his voice … and they follow him, and he gives them eternal life (Jn 10:27-28). Perhaps our faith is weak or hardly recognizable to others, but the clear testimony of Scripture is that God’s people will receive him and believe in his name because they are born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1:12-13).

When you are born of God, you can never be the same. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2Co 5:17).

Reader’s question: Can we lose our salvation?

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My answer is an emphatic no. Once the Judge has declared someone not guilty on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, who shall bring any charge against him? It is God who justifies (Ro 8:33).

Jesus said, ”My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:27-28). Eternal is eternal, and never means never. Whoever believes in Christ for salvation is not condemned and never can be, but I should still include a brief caution (Jn 3:18).

The Bible never extends assurances to anyone who doesn’t believe the truth and obey it. Jesus expects his sheep who hear his voice to follow him (Jn 10:27). Paul encourages the church to examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith (2Co 13:5). “Test yourselves,” he writes. “Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test.

John requires we pass three areas of self-examination: theological, moral, and relational.

First, everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God (1Jn 5:1). On the other side of the coin, an antichrist is he who denies the Father and the Son (1Jn 2:22).

Second, whoever says “I know God” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1Jn 2:4). But you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him (1Jn 2:29).

Third, whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness (1Jn 2:9). By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever … does not love his brother [is not of God] (1Jn 10).

Of course, the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart (1Sa 16:7). Wolves dress in sheep’s clothing (Mt 7:15). Sometimes sheep act more like goats. Ultimately, only God can see our hearts with perfect clarity, yet each one of us is required to confirm our calling and election. … For in this way there will be richly provided for us an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2Pe 1:10-11).

Children of God cannot lose their salvation, but the assurance of security cannot be genuinely offered to anyone who fails to meet the test (2Co 13:5).

Profound fellowship and complete joy

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To be clear, the word of life is not fodder for academic exercise (1Jn 1:1). John is not affirming the true Christ, his identity, and his gospel to fuel the intrigue of philosophers or the very religious (Ac 17:18; 22). He’s not attempting to add one more perspective to a melting pot of empty deceit and human tradition (Col 2:8). His desire is to replace them entirely with the only message that can bring us into fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1Jn 1:3).

Again, John’s first epistle is designed to help those who believe in the name of the Son of God to know with certainty that you have eternal life (1Jn 5:13). Such confidence cannot exist if our faith is built on every wind of doctrine, human cunning, and man’s deceitful schemes (Eph 4:14). Nothing short of the truth will provide believers a sense of security.

Having heard, seen, and touched the word of life in the flesh, John and those earliest disciples already knew what it meant to have fellowship with God and one another (1Jn 1:1). But first-generation Christians were not members of an elite group with an exclusive right to enjoy intimate union with God and his people. Jesus told his apostle, Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).

John extends the same privilege to those who have not seen, saying, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us” (Jn 20:29; 1Jn 1:3).

It’s a shame that fellowship has lost much of its meaning today. We hear that word and think of fluorescent-lit rooms with folding chairs and stale coffee served from metal urns. We think of the hand-shaking and small talk that occurs five minutes before and after our Sunday worship.

John, on the other hand, is referring to authentic partnership. Drawn and bound together by more than common beliefs, genuine Christians share one life together. He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him and, consequently, one another (1Co 6:17). Compare the mutual life and love of the early church to what many of us may think of as fellowship today.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Ac 2:42; 44-47)

Salvation is more than a mental awareness of Jesus and his gospel. Even the demons believe that much (Jas 2:19). The church is more than a social club of like-minded people. It is the body of Christ (1Co 12:27). God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose (1Co 12:18). He saves us to experience and enjoy supernatural intimacy with him, his Son Jesus Christ, and one another (1Jn 1:3).

Christ defines eternal life this way: “To know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (Jn 17:3). He uses an old idiom, know, which the Jews applied to the physical relationship between a husband and his wife. For instance, Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived (Ge 4:1). To know God is be profoundly connected to him by affectionate trust and intimacy.

As a natural extension of our fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, we are joined and held together to one another (Eph 4:16).

Unfortunately, some Christians attempt to travel the road to heaven alone. I’ve heard more than a few people say, “I believe in Christ, not religion,” as they protest church attendance. John wouldn’t hesitate to highlight the contradiction of their statement. He says, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1Jn 4:21). How can we possibly love our brother if we’re never with him?

Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Once we’ve joined ourselves to the church, we also have to become an integral part of it. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Nobody can do as much damage to the church of God as the man who is within its walls, but not within its life.” Only after we plunge ourselves into the church’s shared life can we appreciate the eternal life to which God calls us (1Jn 1:1-2).

All roads lead to consummate joy, a complete satisfaction that can’t be undermined by any external circumstance. The world may throw us in prison, and we’ll keep praying and singing hymns to God (Ac 16:25). After all, Jesus promised to give his disciples not only his divine joy, but also a joy that may be full (Jn 15:11). Likewise, John writes this letter so that our joy may be complete (1Jn 1:4).

We live in a hedonistic society that is practically amusing itself to death. In the United States, the so-called American dream is to satisfy ourselves with material comforts and entertainment to the point we can say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing (Rev 3:17). To those who embrace that philosophy, Christ warns, ”I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16). We are better off broke and suffering than healthy and wealthy.

The Christian’s joy transcends any condition which we may find ourselves. It is the only kind of joy able to satisfy our entire person from our mind to our desires. Put another way, the word of life is the secret to thorough contentment (1Jn 1:1; Php 4:12).

Yet John proposes three fundamental caveats throughout this epistle. To obtain the joy of Christ and know we are saved, we must believe the truth, obey God’s commandments, and love one another.

John defends the true identity of Jesus (part 2)

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Though the Gnostics may not have denied Jesus’s deity, John knows many antichrists have come into the church who do, in fact, deny that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:18; 22). Consequently, they also deny God the Father because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 10:30). Perhaps he intends for the very first phrase of this epistle to remind everyone of the eternal, unchangeable person and work of Christ.

That which was from the beginning,” he writes, referring to the word of life (1Jn 1:1). Before all else, whether he addresses believers or unbelievers, John is determined to establish that Jesus of Nazareth is YHWH, the one to whom we must turn to be saved (Isa 45:22). In his Gospel, which John wrote so the unconverted may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he begins with a similar, albeit longer introduction (Jn 20:31).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

You’ll notice these themes of life and light run throughout 1 John as well. We can’t avoid referencing John’s Gospel as we study his epistle.

The word of life, or the Word of life if you prefer, is none other than God himself (1Jn 1:1). The term encompasses the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as well as their sovereign works, not to mention their message to the world.

More to John’s point, the word of life is both permanent and unalterable (1Jn 1:1). It is I AM WHO I AM (Ex 3:14). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:8). Neither Christ nor the gospel will ever change. Anyone attempting to tweak what the apostles taught are trying to deceive you (1Jn 2:26). Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1Jn 4:1).

John firmly believes that in Jesus the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9). No one will ever convince him otherwise since he saw Christ’s glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). Furthermore, the Gnostics will never persuade him that Christ wasn’t a real human being as well.

We have heard [the word of life],” John writes (1Jn 1:1). “We have seen him with our eyes. We looked upon him and touched him with our hands.”

The first generation of disciples heard Christ’s sermons in person. They received his private instructions. For three years, they watched him with their own eyes. Day after day, they gazed at his person as they witnessed his displays of supernatural power. They even touched his flesh. After his resurrection, Jesus invited them to touch him and see, saying, ”A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Lk 24:39). John is well known as the one who also had leaned back against him during their last supper together (Jn 21:20).

The message of eternal life through the one and only God-man, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, is what John says was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you” (1Jn 1:2). Jesus was with the Father from the very beginning and later made manifest to John, the other apostles, and all of those earliest disciples when the Word became flesh and dwelt among them (Jn 1:14).

Writing now to Christians who have not heard, seen, or touched Immanuel in person, he proclaims the word of life once again, which is why he uses the pronouns we, us, and you (1Jn 1:1; Mt 1:23). We, those who were there, want you, those who weren’t, to have certainty about Christ and eternal salvation.

“Never mind the vain philosophies and lies you’ve heard,” John implies by this introduction. “The simple gospel of Jesus Christ remains what it was from the beginning. I know because I was with Christ when he walked this earth. The one who is both God and man provides eternal life because he is both God and man.”

As Alexander MacLaren once said, “The gospel is not speculation but fact. It is truth, because it is the record of a Person who is the Truth.”

John defends the true identity of Jesus (part 1)

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What better place for the apostle to begin than the beginning? (1Jn 1:1). John is a man after my own heart, skipping personal introductions to address the most crucial matter at hand, that is, the word of life. I’ve never liked the way preachers sometimes hesitate at the start of a sermon. Pastor, we don’t mind a shorter message if it means avoiding ten minutes of story time before we get to the biblical text.

The true identity of Christ is at stake. If historical tradition is correct, John is in Ephesus as he writes this letter. Thirty years before, Paul warned the Ephesian elders, ”Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Ac 20:29-30). Paul’s prophecy has become reality, and John wastes no time untangling the mess with his direct, affirmative style.

Though it’s difficult to prove, the presence of Gnosticism, at least its earliest forms, appears evident. Pagan mysticism mixed with Greek philosophy sprinkled on apostolic orthodoxy was an unhealthy recipe for Christology. Gnosticism claimed a higher knowledge of spiritual things. The way of salvation was practically a secret, requiring special revelation to see and comprehend. The effects were damning because these teachings undermined the person and work of Jesus by stripping him of his humanity.

Gnostics believed all physical matter is inherently evil while everything spiritual is good. This philosophical dualism forced the Gnostic Christian, not that such a person can even exist, to deny that the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us, was in the beginning … with God, and … was God (Jn 1:14; 1). A Gnostic could tip his hat to Christ’s deity, yet he had no choice but to find creative ways around his incarnation. If flesh is evil, he thought, then God could not have come in the flesh.

The solution for some was simple enough. They assumed Jesus’s body was little more than a divine magic trick, a spiritual illusion. The Savior appeared to be in human form, but his physical presence wasn’t real (Php 2:8). Others were a bit more clever. They argued Jesus was a genuine man, but the Spirit of Christ descended on him only after his baptism and left again just before his crucifixion. Either version is a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who … want to distort the gospel of Christ (Gal 1:6-7).

Let them be accursed (Gal 1:9). Let them be thrown out and utterly destroyed.

These discussions of the God-man are not trivial debates over semantics. Our hope of eternal life is entirely dependent on:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

To say he is not God is to make him an ordinary sinner like every other person born into this world. To say he is not human is to remove him from the experiences, namely, being born under the law, which qualified him to redeem those who were also under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal 4:4-5).

Given the situation in and around ancient Ephesus, I’m not surprised at all by John’s clear declaration concerning the word of life at the very start of this epistle (1Jn 1:1). Jesus, who is the Word and the life, is the gospel itself (Jn 1:1; 14:6). He is the eternal life to which the apostles once testified and proclaimed throughout the known world (1Jn 1:2).

There may be more to the message of redemption than the identity of Christ—a call to believe and repent, for example—but none of it matters if Jesus isn’t who the Bible says he is: fully God and fully human.

I’m in love

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I’m in love. Also tired. But mostly the love thing.

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Thank you, everyone who texted, tweeted, emailed, and called to congratulate us on the birth of our baby girl.

In the fear of the LORD one has strong confidence, and his children will have a refuge (Pr 14:26).

The uncompromising author of 1 John

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John’s somewhat brazen, uncompromising approach may seem uncharacteristic of the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 13:23). We’re prone to think of him as an always-gentle spirit tenderly resting his head on Christ’s bosom. Thanks to Renaissance paintings, we picture a young man with soft skin and delicate features. We’re drawn to the mild-mannered apostle who writes, “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). Perhaps we’ve forgotten that he also teaches, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1Jn 4:20).

These days, we have a terrible habit of pitting love and truth against each other as though they are mutually exclusive. We want our pastors to wear rose-colored glasses and smile as they affirm just enough of God’s word to make everyone feel good about themselves. Many preachers will gladly oblige because life in the ministry is much easier when you aren’t making enemies.

Making enemies has always been the least of John’s concerns. We are talking about the man who, along with his brother, James, earned for themselves the nickname, Sons of Thunder (Mk 3:17). Even before they had an opportunity to validate the title, Jesus saw something in their personalities to suggest they were bold to the point of destructive. From the beginning, John was a zealous warrior for the truth.

To prove his devotion, he once made it his personal mission to stop someone casting out demons in Christ’s name (Lk 9:49). He even bragged to Jesus about his supposed accomplishment, believing anyone who was not a member of the elite Twelve could not or perhaps should not perform such wonders (Mt 10:1). Jesus was quick to correct him, saying, ”Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Lk 9:50).

Shortly after, James and John were ready to wipe a Samaritan village off the face of the planet for a single offense. When the people refused to receive Christ into their homes because he was a Jew, John and his brother asked the Lord, ”Do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:53-54). I doubt many pastor search committees would include John on their short list of candidates.

Polycarp, a student of John himself, tells the story of “John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus [a heretic] within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing.” Polycarp’s second-century testimony quotes the apostle as shouting, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”

Passion for the truth as well as hatred of heresy are godly attributes. God certainly calls his people to walk … with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, but never at the expense of truth (Eph 4:1-2). To sacrifice truth for the sake of unity, love, or anything else is to deny Christ who is the truth (Jn 14:6).

John never lost his thunderous nature. Christ and his Spirit merely refined it.

In his old age, John is just as willing to draw his sword, that is, the word of God as ever (Eph 6:17). He’ll swing it at anyone or anything possessing the spirit of error (1Jn 4:6). Only now he’s learned to wield his weapon with greater precision. Like a skilled surgeon in the operating room, his first epistle slices distinct lines between light and darkness, truth and error, as well as those from the world and those from God (1Jn 1:5; 4:5-6).

Yet no book of the New Testament speaks of love more than 1 John. Evidently, John paid close attention to Jesus’s words during their last evening together (Jn 13-17). He echos and further expounds on the Savior’s new commandment to love one another (Jn 13:34; 1Jn 2:7-11). Seven times he addresses his readers as little children as though he thinks of himself as a concerned father (1Jn 2:1; 12; 28; 3:7; 18; 4:4; 5:21). Serving as an example for all of us to follow, he displays a healthy balance of both boldness and tender affection.

Truth and love are not mutually exclusive. As John proves, one can hardly exist without the other.

An introduction to 1 John

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John’s first epistle can make some of us uncomfortable. His use of stark contrasts and hyperbole doesn’t leave much room for shades of gray. For example, we can be either children of the devil who keep on sinning or children of God who practice righteousness (1Jn 3:9-10). Which one are you? According to John, you aren’t allowed to say a child of God who occasionally sins. He rarely permits that kind of exception.

Compare John’s style to that of his contemporaries, namely, Paul. Unlike John, Paul frequently acknowledges hypothetical arguments against his teachings and interjects potential caveats. After refuting antinomianism in his letter to the Romans, he spends half a chapter explaining that even slaves of God can serve the law of sin (Ro 6:22; 7:25). John, on the other hand, wants us to confess our sins, but never think that God’s born-again people will keep on sinning (1Jn 1:9; 3:6). In his theological equation, he doesn’t bother to include our perpetual wresting match with the flesh.

John’s rhetorical method may also give us trouble if we’re more accustomed to Paul’s linear approach. Paul is systematic in the way he builds a case point by point. His writings are so clear and smooth that we can almost picture the outline from which he worked.

John prefers circles over straight lines. In the first chapter, he declares, “This is the message” (1Jn 1:5). Then, he repeats himself in chapter three, saying, “For this is the message,” before starting all over again (1Jn 3:11). He’s redundant for the purpose of amplification. In case you didn’t understand the first time, let me explain it again using slightly different terms. In his first sermonette, God is light (1Jn 1:5). In the second, God is love (1Jn 4:8).

Regardless of style, 1 John has an explicit purpose. Ultimately, the apostle, and I do believe the author is none other than John the apostle, wants those who believe in the name of the Son of God to also know that you have eternal life (1Jn 5:13). He may tackle other subjects in this epistle such as antichrists and false prophets, but his primary audience is genuine Christians and his objective is to provide an assurance of salvation (1Jn 2:18; 4:1).

First John is essentially a follow-up to John’s Gospel. When he chronicled the life and ministry of the Messiah, he did so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:31).

Now that John is older and writing to second, possibly third-generation Christians, he feels it is his apostolic responsibility to instill confidence in these believers. Jesus has been gone fifty years. Greek philosophies and antithetical teachings are pouring into the church, slowly drowning the truth of the gospel. Nearing the end of the first century, John may be the only apostle left to remind everyone what they first believed and should still believe about Christ and his work.

If we were to chip away at the truth, removing just a piece here and there, our hope for eternal life would disappear with it. Deny the deity of Jesus, for instance, and he’s no longer qualified to be the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 2:2). Deny that Christ has come in the flesh, and we’re left with the same problem (1Jn 4:2). One error means he was not born without sin while the other implies he was not born under the law (Heb 4:15; Gal 4:4). Either way, we make Jesus a fraud and condemn ourselves all over again as though the Savior never came.

Augustine once said, “When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.” John sees the simple truths of the Christian faith becoming obscured by time and false brothers, leading to fears, doubts, and the loss of joy within the church.

Perhaps you remember playing the telephone game in school. The teacher would whisper a brief message into the ear of a student who whispered it to the kid next to him. As it made its way through the entire class, words got lost, replaced, and added. The class clown might intentionally tweak the message to prove his wit and make others laugh. By the time it reached the back row, the teacher could hardly recognize her original words in what she hears.

The church has played the telephone game for several decades now without the help of a complete New Testament to guide them. Vital points of doctrine aren’t as sharp as they used to be, and the church’s ethical vigor has grown weak. Antichrists have come into the church disguised as brethren, spreading lies using the devil’s subtle tactics, and went out again (1Jn 2:18-19). The last living apostle feels he must restore black-and-white clarity to the word of life, not to mention hope to those disturbed believers who have witnessed the exodus of their friends (1Jn 1:1). Will I be next? they wonder. Will I also depart from the faith? Am I truly saved?

John responds with a series of emphatic statements and absolute truths. Accuse him of dogmatism, and he’ll say, “Thank you for the compliment.” He refuses to make even the slightest concession, not that he should.

He also offers several tests by which professing Christians can, as Paul said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2Co 13:5). What do you believe about Jesus? How has he transformed your life? How do you feel about others in the church? These questions and John’s subsequent commentary move us to reflect on everything from our theology to our commitment to Christ. In turn, we find either assurance of our salvation or evidence that our faith is artificial.

Did I mention 1 John can make some of us uncomfortable?

Tychicus and other unknown servants of Christ

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A sermon on Ephesians 6:21-22.

As I was reflecting on Paul’s benediction here in Ephesians this week, an old Bill Withers song came to mind. “Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.”

Paul mentions his friend and brother in the ministry, Tychicus (Eph 6:21). We don’t know a great deal about this man, but we know enough to say he was important to Paul. The Bible only mentions him five times, but that’s plenty to get a sense of who he was and the role he played particularly in Paul’s life.

He first appears in Acts 20 when Paul is at the end of his missionary work in Ephesus. He was a native of the region and likely grew up not far from Ephesus. He may have been in Ephesus with Paul when the riot broke out over people turning away from false gods, causing the silversmiths to loose a chunk of their idol-making business (Ac 19:21-41).

If I had to guess, I’d say Tychicus was one of Paul’s converts, and it seems he stayed with Paul even through his arrest. He traveled right alongside of Paul, Luke, sometimes Timothy, as well as others all the way to Jerusalem, then Rome. Paul later described the experience this way:

Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:25-28)

Tychicus wasn’t with him for all of that, of course, but he was there for much of it. He suffered right along with Paul. Evidently, he was still with Paul as Paul writes this letter from his Roman imprisonment. In other words, he never pulled a John Mark (Ac 13:13). He never ran away from the pressure and difficulties of missionary work. He never abandoned Paul, his friend and brother. He stuck with Paul despite the risk to his life.

You can imagine the bond that forms between two men who not only share the same strong convictions, but also endure intense trials together. I’m not surprised at all to see Paul refer to Tychicus as the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord (Eph 6:21). I suspect these words were not meant to flatter Tychicus. I think Paul was as sincere as one can be. He loved this man. They went through God knows what together.

To be clear, Tychicus didn’t expose himself to danger to merely spend time with his friend, Paul. He was a faithful minister in the Lord (Eph 6:21). He followed Paul through all kinds of peril to serve Christ before all else. Chances are, Paul sent this letter at the same he sent his letter to the Colossians. He mentions Tychicus in that letter as well, saying, “He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord” (Col 4:7). He removes all doubt with that description. Tychicus was a fellow servant in the Lord.

He was still serving at the end of Paul’s life. When Paul says his final goodbyes to Timothy, knowing his life will soon be over, he mentions Tychicus again. He writes, “Luke alone is with me. … Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus” (2Ti 4:11-12).

Again, the Bible doesn’t say much about this man, but it’s not too difficult to fill in the gaps. I can think of several adjectives to describe him: brave, loyal to both the Lord and his church, fiercely dedicated, faithful.

I suppose we should add encouraging to this list as well. Paul tells the Ephesians, “I have sent Tychicus to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage your hearts (Eph 6:22). More than a traveling companion or even an evangelist, Tychicus was an encouragement to the church. Paul likely chose him to carry these letters to the various churches because he possessed a special gift for lifting spirits and building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:12).

Even so, we rarely hear this man mentioned. How many sermons on Tychicus have you heard? Some of us are just now learning how to pronounce his name. He didn’t write any books that we know of, though he may have transcribed a couple of Paul’s letters. He isn’t talked about at length anywhere in the Bible. Why, then, would I spend this much time talking about him?

I believe church history is full of unsung heroes. Not everyone can be a Paul, John, Peter, Abraham, Moses, or David. Most of the body of Christ will never achieve a legacy beyond obscurity. We’ll serve in our small ways in our small corner of the kingdom, then we’ll fade away, never to have anyone write our biographies or remember us for generations to come.

If that sounds depressing to you, then you have a different perspective than I do. The legacy you leave on earth may be nothing to speak of, but eternity is another matter altogether.

I don’t know who first wrote it, but I’d like to read for you a brief proverb or poem which illustrates the main point I hope to make.

For the loss of a nail, lose a horseshoe;

for the loss of a horseshoe, lose a horse;

for the loss of a horse, lose a soldier;

for the loss of a soldier, lose a battle;

for the loss of a battle, lose a kingdom.

In other words, the loss of a seemingly insignificant nail can bring down an entire kingdom.

For all we know, Paul’s ministry would have failed without Tychicus. Maybe he was an instrument in the hand of God to support Paul’s missionary work, a role no other man could have filled. And if Paul’s ministry didn’t succeed, where would we be? Perhaps prophecies would have been left unfulfilled because Paul didn’t reach the Gentiles. Maybe much of the New Testament would have been left unwritten. Who knows. Regardless, God used this obscure man to accomplish fantastic things for the church whether we know the details or not.

If a single nail is removed, an entire kingdom could fall.

As a pastor, there’s always unspoken pressure to be more popular, to build a bigger church. On TV and the Internet, we’re mostly exposed to famous preachers with far-reaching ministries and massive congregations, so the temptation is to assume every pastor should strive for the same. I strongly disagree. If you lined up every church in America by size and walked from the smallest toward the largest, you could walk past ninety percent of them, turn around, and every church behind you would have 350 people or less. If you walked even fifty percent of the way, every church behind you would have 75 people or less.

If half of the churches in America will likely never grow beyond 75 people, a pastor should never feel discontent because the church he serves is small. He shouldn’t envy the celebrity pastors he sees on TV or even strive to become them. That’s silly if not sinful. He’s possibly missing out on the joys and blessings of serving the people to whom God has called him to serve. Paul told the Ephesian elders, ”Pay careful attention … to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Ac 20:28). God put him where he is, and he should be satisfied with what God has given him.

Maybe you can relate in your own way. Perhaps we’d all like to accomplish bigger and better things. Maybe you’d like to be a towering Paul-like figure who turns the world upside down, leaving your mark on church history (Ac 17:6). The truth is, though, most of us are called to play a much seemingly smaller role. In the body of Christ, some of us are eyes while others are ears. Some are hands while others are feet. Paul goes as far as to say, “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1Co 12:22). The kingdom can’t survive without the smallest nails.

Discouragement comes so easy for us. I hear it often enough to know that we occasionally feel we should be doing more. I want to lead a thousand people to Christ. I want to help the church double or triple in size. I want to feed every hungry person in a fifty-mile radius. With the very best of intentions, we desire ministries that move mountains. So when it seems we’re hardly kicking a pebble down the road, we get discouraged.

I don’t want you to feel that way. Your ministry is measured in heaven by quality, not quantity. Let me show you.

Matthew 26 tells the story of a woman—we know from John’s gospel the woman was Mary, sister of Lazarus—who offers a seemingly small sacrifice. She doesn’t reach thousands of people with the gospel. She doesn’t touch a hundred lives. From a purely human perspective, she doesn’t do much at all, yet her actions prove to be profound. Here’s what happened:

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.” (Matthew 26:6-12)

First of all, let’s talk about what she didn’t do. According to the apostles, and I suspect Judas Iscariot planted the seed, she didn’t sell this expensive perfume and give the proceeds to help the poor. It would seem she could have helped a lot of people. At least within her community, she could have made a name for herself. People would always remember her as the generous woman who gave away what was probably meant to be her wedding dowry to help the less fortunate. From a pragmatic standpoint, she could have elevated herself from nail to horseshoe if not a horse.

What did she do instead? In simple terms, she acted in faith. She sacrificed this expensive ointment for a reason. Jesus says, ”She has done it to prepare me for burial” (Mt 26:12). While the apostles are consumed with thoughts of Christ’s kingdom here on earth, Mary’s looking into the future. She has her mind on the upcoming crucifixion of Jesus. By faith, she knows her Messiah is about to die, so she takes what was likely her most prized and valuable possession and uses it to anoint his body. After all, there wouldn’t be sufficient time after his death. You may remember the Jews were anxious to get him in the grave before sundown.

In short, Mary acts in faith to give the very best she has to offer. In turn, Jesus tells his disciples, ”Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Mt 26:13).

“From this day forward and forevermore,” Jesus says, “the world will be reminded of this simple Jewish woman living in the first century who gave her best in an act of faith.” She didn’t turn the world upside down or impact a thousand lives in that moment, but Christ speaks of what she did as though she had accomplished world peace. He says, “I want her name attached to my gospel. When people proclaim the gospel, I want them to remember Mary.”

I find it interesting, though, the text in Matthew doesn’t give her name. That tells me the example she left is not about her, that is, her person. It’s about what she did. It’s about the kind of person she was. Christ doesn’t want us to sing Mary’s praises. He wants us to learn from her. He wants us to emulate her. He wants us to be encouraged by her.

Again, your ministry in this life is not measured by quantity. In fact, if you evaluate your efforts pragmatically by the tangible results, you’re bound to be discouraged and discontent. Don’t do that to yourself. Measure your service by quality. Even the great apostle Paul admits he accomplished nothing on his own. Whatever positive results God blessed him to see were the product of the entire body of Christ working together, each member filling his or her God-ordained role.

Listen to what he says in 1 Corinthians 3:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:5-15)

What is Paul trying to say here?

First of all, he acknowledges the inability of anyone to do anything worthwhile apart from God. God … gives the growth (1Co 3:7). If we’re faithfully serving, using our gifts, doing what we know is right, looking for opportunities to do good wherever they present themselves, God will always be in control of the outcome. Take comfort in that thought. You’re not responsible for the end results. If you preach the gospel to a thousand people and only one believes, praise God! In Isaiah, God says, “My word … shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose (Isa 55:11).

The second thing we learn from 1 Corinthians 3 is that we’re not judged by how much we build. Is your ministry only successful if you reach a thousand people and serve a thousand more? God didn’t call you to erect the entire building yourself. Some of us may construct an entire wall in our lifetime or maybe God intends for us to only contribute a few bricks.

Lastly, you’ll notice Paul’s emphasis is on the materials we use to build. Some will build with gold, silver, or precious stones (1Co 3:12). Others will build with wood. Some will use hay and straw, which anyone who knows the story of the three little pigs can tell you is not ideal. The point is, we’re to do our best with what God gives us.

To be clear, that’s not an excuse to do as little as possible. Elsewhere, Paul says, “Earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1Co 12:31). He also said, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:10). The Great Commission places a burden on us to go … and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19).

I don’t want you to think, I’m merely a nail in the kingdom. I’ll never accomplish that much. Why even bother? You may be a nail for all I know, but you’re not merely a nail. “For the loss of a nail … lose a kingdom.” The kingdom needs every last nail. Plus, you may be more than a nail. You just don’t know it yet.

I often think about the passage at the end of Matthew 25. In the midst of a culture that prized religious pomp and show perhaps above all else, Jesus speaks of God’s people being ushered into eternal life not because of all of the great things they accomplished (Mt 25:46). Instead, he says God’s sheep are known by the most humble acts of kindness.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

Think back over your life. I’m guessing you can remember a few times when someone said just the right thing at the right moment or lent a hand right when you needed it most. That person added a single brick to God’s building which probably gave you the strength to add a few of your own in other ways. Then, once you added your bricks, a few more people added theirs. You may not think you’re doing much in the kingdom of God, but God himself and probably those around you have a different perspective. If God has brought you into the body of Christ, he has made you invaluable.

I know I’ve strayed from the text itself here in Ephesians 6, but that’s where my mind went as I thought about Tychicus this week. Here’s a man recorded in Scripture for all of church history to read and consider, yet he’s so easy to overlook. Why? Is it because we know so little about him?

I think it’s because we can’t readily list his accomplishments. We can’t point to him as the spiritual father of countless Christians and churches. We can’t name all of the people he helped except maybe Paul. We skip right over the five mentions of him in the New Testament because he doesn’t have the lasting legacy or fame of someone like Paul.

But I hope we learn to appreciate the lesser-known servants of Christ like Tychicus, the so-called weaker parts of the body. I pray we learn to judge our own service in the kingdom not by tangible results, but by the service itself and our willingness to do it, whatever it happens to be.

Why bother with KJV Onlyism?

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Note: My “Sunday letters” are now daily letters. Subscribers will receive an email whenever I publish something new. If my emails become too much, don’t hesitate to tell me.

Several years ago, Travis sent me a distressed letter. His confidence in Scripture was rattled to the point of breaking. He feared he could no longer trust the word of God. I did my best to restore his faith, but the process was long and messy.

I blame the Bible critic, a Bart Ehrman disciple, who made it his personal mission to undermine Travis’s belief that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable (2Ti 3:16). He wanted to prove the Bible is fiction. “Not even good fiction,” he claimed. “Just look at all of the inconsistencies and mistakes. The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are riddled with problems. How can you believe this nonsense?”

To a lesser degree, I also blame KJV Onlyism, at least the particular version of it to which Travis held. He had a cracked foundation under his feet that couldn’t support the weight of the scoffer’s scrutiny. When the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against his house, it nearly fell (Mt 7:27). Travis’s faith in Scripture was merited. Confusing God’s inspired word with a single translation was his mistake.

Thoughts of Travis have moved me to revisit the topic of King James Onlyism from time to time over the last few years. I have nothing against anyone who prefers the KJV over other versions of the Bible. Though I disagree, I don’t even bother to argue with those who state the KJV is a superior translation to all others. I would never suggest the so-called Authorized Version is anything but a good translation, and I encourage everyone to read it, but—

Travis’s flavor of KJV Onlyism is dangerous.

I agree with the Baptist Confession which says, “Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments … All of which are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.” In other words, God’s word is God’s word. He inspired human authors to pen what he revealed to them. From Genesis to Revelation, all sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are God-breathed.

The doctrine of inspiration, however, leads Travis and others to make unfounded assumptions about God’s preservation of Scripture. We may assume, for instance, God ensured flawless copies of every book of the Bible were always available to every last one of his people for all time. That’s what Travis believed, and he was nearly destroyed after learning the evidence says otherwise. The Bible itself says otherwise. Read the story of Hilkiah finding the Book of the Law for the first time after fifty years of Manasseh’s wicked reign (2Ki 22:8).

Compare the surviving manuscripts. They contain textual variants from one to the next. Should it surprise anyone that scribes hand-copying the Bible on animal skins for 1,500 years would make mistakes?

If we’re talking about the King James Bible, consider the changes Erasmus, Stephanus, and others made to the text before and after it was translated into English. None of the changes are substantial to the point they affect vital doctrines of the church, but a change is a change. How can we believe God perfectly preserved his word?

That’s the point. In light of the facts, facts which unbelievers will attempt to use against us, we need to rethink our understanding of preservation before the rain starts falling on our poorly-built house. I believe God preserved his word, just not in the way we may assume.

Allow me to quote from a sermon I preached last year on the subject:

Bible history and its preservation are a bit messier and perhaps more complicated than what you realized. God hasn’t preserved his word through a perfect line of manuscripts. He hasn’t preserved his word through a perfect translation into English. He hasn’t even necessarily preserved every last word which he originally inspired to be written.

Where does that leave the doctrine of preservation? As I said before, the Bible itself doesn’t explicitly teach the doctrine of preservation, not as we often define preservation. It does, however, indicate that we should expect the good news of his word to remain forever.

Let’s pause for a moment to think about a seemingly unrelated subject. Do you believe God has preserved his church? Have you ever thought about how he preserved his church?

A quick perusal of the New Testament will show that almost every church in the first century had problems. Some had serious theological errors. Others had deep sin and morality issues. Even so, these churches were churches of Jesus Christ confirmed by the apostles.

Today, we all know that a perfect church can’t be found. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all.” He’s right. A perfect church doesn’t exist, yet the church remains.

In the earliest days of the church, God scattered his people across the known world. Why? Wouldn’t the church have been stronger if they had stayed together in Jerusalem? No, God preserved his church by scattering them. If everyone had remained in Jerusalem, their persecutors could have destroyed them all at once. Instead, the persecutors found it impossible to eliminate the church because the saints were everywhere. By the time they could stop the church in Jerusalem, lo and behold, there’s a church in Antioch. By the time they reach Antioch, there are four more in Galatia.

God similarly preserved the Bible. He didn’t providentially oversee the creation of a handful of perfect copies. Rather, he prompted men to make as many copies as possible. Even though they contained mistakes, his word would remain safe because there were too many copies to destroy. The church’s enemies tried. They gathered up every manuscript they could find to burn, but they could never find them all. There were too many copies in too many places.

Does the thought of textual variants bother you? Does it trouble you to think that God’s word was not kept perfectly preserved in every manuscript? If so, let me give you something to think about.

How many times have you heard or seen quotes from notable Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle? Have you ever read Homer’s books? I suspect you have. Have you ever questioned the legitimacy or accuracy of those writings?

Let me put things into perspective for you. The oldest manuscript of Plato is from approximately A.D. 900 (1,200 years after the original). We have seven copies. The oldest manuscript of Aristotle is from roughly A.D. 1100 (1,400 years after the original). We have 49 copies. The oldest manuscript of Homer is from A.D. 400 (500 years after the original). We have a whopping 643 copies. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is from approximately A.D. 130 (less than 100 years after it was written). We have a grand total of more than 5,700 copies.

By a wide margin, the Bible is the best-preserved work of all ancient literature. While some may question the Bible’s legitimacy because they’ve learned about the textual variants in the manuscripts, the historical evidence says otherwise. Not only do 5,700 copies still exist, dating as far back as the second century, but the textual variants of any significance also represent less than three percent of the overall text. That’s an accuracy rate of more than 97 percent. Do you think we’d come close to that if we tried hand-copying the Bible?

As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen without the providential oversight of God. He may have allowed errors along the way, but he most certainly preserved his word nonetheless.

God preserved the Bible by guiding the creation of thousands and thousands of copies, too many to ever be destroyed by the church’s enemies. He preserved the Bible by never allowing human mistakes to distort a single major theological point. He preserved the Bible by maintaining an extraordinarily high accuracy rate of all the manuscripts despite the propensity of sinners to corrupt pretty much everything they touch.

My comments about KJV Onlyism are not an attack on the King James Version itself. More than anything, I’m motivated by concern for people like Travis who think they’re reading a perfect representation of the inspired word in English. Even the KJV translators didn’t believe that. A good translation, according to them, is not the same as a perfect translation.

One who assumes the KJV is perfect, making every other translation nothing more than misleading counterfeits, is potentially vulnerable. I’ve seen it, and I deem it worth addressing even if I’ll be subjected to scorn from the very people I hope to reach.

Read the KJV. Use it as your primary Bible. Use it exclusively if you feel you must, but please don’t be hostile toward modern versions. Please don’t assume the exact words of the KJV are the perfect English equivalent of God’s inspired text. Study the Bible’s history. Study the languages involved. Prepare yourself for attacks against your faith. They will likely come sooner or later.

All glory be to Christ our holy King

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The following is the Sunday worship of Joy Christian Church on July 1, 2018. My words are transcribed with additional notes in brackets.

The book of Isaiah tells of a time when the prophet was taken up to the throne of God. In God’s awesome presence, Isaiah’s first response is not to pour out his affection for God, but to tremble in fear. He cries out, ”Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). His first impulse is to assume his life must be over. A sinner, he thought, cannot possibly stand so close to our holy God and live.

The first explicit commandment in the book of Ecclesiastes is: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God” (Ecc 5:1). Whenever we approach God in worship as we are doing this morning, we should begin with confession. We should acknowledge our sinfulness as well as the pure righteousness of God. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:9).

Let’s take just a moment to do that. As we sit in silence, pray that God may cleanse our hearts and renew our minds.

[The church prayed silently for a minute or two.]

David writes:

Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning. Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray. O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch. For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. (Psalm 5:1-8)

In reflection of Isaiah’s experience at the throne of God as well as an affirmation of our firm belief that God is holy, let’s sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

We sing another song that speaks of approaching the throne of God, but it also reminds us that we are able to approach his throne because a sinless Savior died. Through him, our sinful souls are counted free. Let’s sing “Before the Throne of God Above.”

Before I turn it over to you and ask which songs you’d like to sing, I’d like to introduce a not-so-new song for us to learn. We’ve sung it before. In fact, we sang it last week, but we could use some practice. The song is “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?”.

“Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?” Praise God for his grace!

Please call out one of the hymns you’d like to sing. We’ll sing a couple more before we turn our attention to the word of God.

[The church sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “My Savior’s Love.”]

Let’s go to the word of God. Turn with me once again to Ephesians 6 as we come to the end of Paul’s description of the Christian’s armor.

I’ve never asked you to do this, though I’ve often thought about it. It is the custom of some churches to stand as the word of God is read. By doing so, we acknowledge the importance and authority of Scripture. Some churches stand to sing, but if we stand for anything, I believe it should be the word of God.

This is a tradition as old—even older than the New Testament. The custom in Jewish synagogues was for someone to read a passage of Scripture while the congregation stands. Then, everyone would sit to hear a rabbi teach, expressing a distinction between God’s word and man’s word.

If you feel capable, will you please stand as I read Ephesians 6:10-20?

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:10-20)

You may be seated. Thank you.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we are captivated by your grace. You have shown your power over all our enemies as well as your willingness to save us from them. Christ was victorious on the cross, and his victory will be abundantly clear to all when he returns. We thank you and praise you. May you grant us your divine protection and strength as we fight the good fight until that day. In Christ’s name. Amen.

[I preached on Ephesians 6:18-20.]

Let’s pray.

Our holy Father, the fact that we can pray to you and know our prayers will be heard and answered is all thanks to your Son. He is the merciful Mediator between us and you. Without his willingness to die in our place and satisfy your wrath, we could never approach your throne of grace and expect to be heard. But your Son’s blood has atoned for our sin and given us peace with you.

Lord, thank you for your sovereign grace. Thank you for hearing our prayers. In Christ’s name. Amen.

As we come to the Lord’s table, the Bible reminds us what we are doing. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1Co 11:24). The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper compel us to remember the broken body and shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Understandably, that imagery puts the suffering Savior at the front of our minds, but I want us to see the whole picture. Yes, Jesus was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). He was smitten by God, and afflicted. … He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities (Isa 53:4-5). But he is also a conquering hero.

Listen to the words of Revelation 19:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16)

All glory be to Christ our King! He may have been hanging on a Roman cross the last time the world saw him, but he didn’t stay there. When they see him again, every knee will bow … and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Php 2:10-11). He’ll return not as a suffering Savior, but as a victorious King.

May we remember that while we eat this bread and drink this wine.

If you know Christ is your King, I invite you to come up, take a piece of bread and cup of wine, and return to your seat. We’ll pray, then eat and drink together.

[Pastor Wade prayed, then we ate and drank.]

We’ll sing “All Glory Be To Christ” as we bring our worship to end.

Brother John, will you pray?

[John prayed.]

As the apostle Paul said to the Philippians, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit (Php 4:23).

Should I celebrate the 4th of July?

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Today is the 4th of July, a significant holiday in the United States, but I don’t feel like celebrating. I haven’t forgotten the freedom that allows me to publish these words or worship my God without persecution. I’m thankful to God for these liberties. It’s just that I struggle to celebrate the independence of a nation which abuses its freedoms by so openly celebrating sin.

In America, we continue to slaughter over half a million helpless babies each year under the guise of reproductive rights. Women have the right to abstain from sexual activity, not murder the consequences of their actions.

In America, we parade pride and homosexuality through the streets under rainbow banners. As men and women violate the laws of nature itself, they mock and defy God by choosing for their cause a symbol which represents God’s merciful promise to never again … destroy all flesh for their wickedness (Ge 9:15).

In America, we encourage people to embrace their sick delusions rather than offer the help they need. If a man, for instance, thinks he’s really a woman, we don’t show concern for his mental health. We call him courageous and put him on the cover of magazines.

In America, we believe the lifelong pursuit of greater wealth, luxury possessions, and earthly comforts is noble. We laud it as the American dream and put our children on its path as early as possible. Never mind God’s countless warnings to those who are rich and have prospered (Rev 3:17).

Shall I continue?

No, I don’t feel like celebrating. A part of me wants to stand on the roof and shout:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-8; 10)

The larger part of me wants to pray for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1Ti 2:1-2).

Then again, maybe it’s too late for the country as a whole. Perhaps God has already given them up to dishonorable passions and a debased mind in judgment against them (Ro 1:26; 28).

Look around us. The nation is filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. … envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. … gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents (Ro 1:29-30). America’s women have exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise have given up natural relations with women and are consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men (Ro 1:26-27).

I’ll warn and pray anyhow, though my primary concern is the church scattered throughout this place. After all, judgment begins at the household of God (1Pe 4:17).

Our rampant nominal Christianity will prove spiritually fatal if God allows the nation to turn its guns against us. The one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy may have no root in himself, so when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away (Mt 13:20-21). Our tepid faith will cause Christ to spit us out of his mouth (Rev 3:16).

My prayer for the church echos much of Christ’s prayer:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:6-18)

Though I have nothing against fireworks, I’m not sure I want to spend the evening standing shoulder to shoulder with my neighbors, staring into the sky, wondering whether they see what I see. I’m too distracted to look at the man-made wonders flashing above me. Instead, I’m thinking about the Creator of the stars and this vast universe in which we live. I’m thinking about the souls of the people around me. Do they know God as well?

I don’t feel like celebrating because I don’t know whether the nation in its current state is worth celebrating. I think I’d rather spend the evening in prayer.

The armor of God isn’t quite enough

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The following is a sermon on Ephesians 6:18-20.

I’ve read enough personal accounts from war to know it doesn’t matter how well-equipped or well-trained a soldier is when bullets are wizzing by his head. Suddenly, his confidence in weapons as well as his ability to use them disappears. More than a few devout atheists have turned to God in those moments, pleading for divine protection. With their life on the line, they’re struck by an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

When David stood against Goliath, he didn’t walk onto the battlefield without advanced weaponry and armor because he trusted himself to win. God was the source of his confidence. He knew God would be with him.

You may remember David took five stones with him which suggests three things to me. First, he didn’t trust his ability to kill Goliath on the first throw. Second, he didn’t know whether God would allow him to kill Goliath with one throw. Even so, third, he trusted God. He may have taken more than one stone, but he still took stones to fight a huge, well-trained warrior who possessed the most sophisticated weaponry of the day. That’s an insane thing to do unless you believe God’s providence will intervene on your behalf.

There is something every soldier needs beyond his armor and weapons. Whether he knows it or not, he needs God. God holds the soldier’s life in his hand. The atheist who suddenly prays while ducking for cover in a foxhole instinctively knows his fate is outside of his control. He senses his helplessness in those moments of great danger and he turns not to his gun, himself, or his fellow soldiers, but to God.

When the Christian soldier prepares for battle, I suppose he (or she) is turning to God when he puts on his armor, that is, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, and so on (Eph 6:14; 16). But Paul specifically adds one item to this list for which he doesn’t even bother to create a metaphor. He simply says, “Praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). “Put on the whole armor of God,” he says, “then start praying” (Eph 6:11). God may supply your armor, but you will still need to go to him continually in prayer.

If you ask me, prayer may be the best way to evaluate our spiritual well-being. God saves us to become a part of his family. Romans 8 says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Ro 8:17-17). If God saves us to become his children, it stands to reason that we would enter into fellowship with him. Romans 8 also says, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Ro 8:15). Salvation brings us into fellowship with God where there is communication between us and our heavenly Father.

If we don’t pray as we should, however, what does that say about our spiritual well-being? Maybe we think we’re carrying the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, and the rest of our armor, but a lack of prayer indicates broken fellowship between us and God (Eph 6:16-17). Without that fellowship, we’re just a bunch of crazy people going to war against the devil with a pocket full of rocks. We may be carrying the kind of weapons one who trusts God would carry, but what good are they if we don’t have a meaningful relationship with the one who makes those weapons effective?

For example, I’m sure many Christians think they are mighty wielders of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17). They are master theologians who read the Bible daily and can discuss Scripture with the best of them. Is that enough to stand against the schemes of the devil? (Eph 6:11). Certainly not. I suspect the devil knows Scripture better than any of us. He’s surprisingly good with a sword. Look at what he did in the garden of Eden. It takes a lot of skill to twist the word of God so that Eve didn’t even notice he wasn’t quoting the word of God anymore.

We can’t defeat the devil simply because we know the truth. We can’t defeat him because we’ve committed ourselves to righteous living. We can’t defeat him because we claim to know the gospel of peace (Eph 6:15). We need these things, of course—put on the whole armor of God (Eph 6:11)—but we also need God himself. We need the divine warrior of Isaiah 59 who puts on righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head as he goes out to fight for us (Isa 59:17). We need the one who pierces to the division of soul and of spirit even when his sword is in our hand (Heb 4:12).

In other words, we need God with us at all times on the battlefield. We need to maintain our intimate fellowship, our closeness with him which can usually be gauged by how well we pray. A person who is in close fellowship with the Father will pray often and quite naturally. One who is not will struggle to pray. His prayers will seem empty if he prays at all.

Paul says we should be praying at all times (Eph 6:18). That may be the Bible’s most frequent instruction concerning prayer. First Timothy 2:8: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray.” Luke 21:36: ”Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place.” The example of the early church in Acts 2 says they devoted themselves … to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Ac 2:42). Acts 10 tells of Cornelius … a devout man who feared God … and prayed continually (Ac 10:1-2). In many of his letters, Paul urges the churches to regularly devote themselves to prayer. To the Thessalonians, he writes, “Pray without ceasing” (1Th 5:17).

On the other side of the coin, the Bible reminds us that God is always listening. In Psalm 55, David says, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. … God will give ear” (Ps 55:17; 19). No matter when we pray or how often we pray, God will give ear. He turns his head to listen to every word we speak.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “Our ultimate position as Christians is tested by the character of our prayer life.” I believe he came to the same conclusion I have. We may not have a more vital spiritual discipline than prayer.

Jesus prayed, ”This is eternal life, that they [the disciples] know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Salvation creates a relationship between God and his people—perhaps I should say it restores the relationship broken by Adam’s sin—and prayer should be a natural extension of that relationship.

Think of it in terms of a marriage. Let’s say a husband and wife rarely talk to one another. They hardly communicate. They’re more than willing to tell others they’re married—Hello. Have you met my wife?—but a fly on the wall in their home would tell you something is missing. In the mornings and after work, they don’t talk. It’s as though they barely know each other. Would anyone call that a healthy marriage?

We may boast about our salvation. We may tell people we’re Christians. But to be a saved Christian is, according to Christ, to know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ, his Son (Jn 17:3). Perhaps you say, “I am a Christian. Of course, I know God and his Son.” The follow-up question is, and only you can answer for yourself, how often do you speak to the God you claim to know? By the way, the word know implies intimacy. The Jews used the word as an idiom for the physical relationship between a husband and his wife. If you know God, your communication with him should be frequent to say the least. It should be deep, profound, and constant.

Obviously, to pray at all times does not mean our prayers will always be formal where we kneel on the floor in complete isolation and speak to God for hours (Eph 6:18). We don’t want our prayers to become overly ritualized ceremonies. Jesus warned against heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do (Mt 6:7). The New American Standard Bible uses the phrase, meaningless repetition. You wouldn’t turn to your spouse and say, “Okay, honey, I’m going to speak to you now. I’ll speak for about thirty minutes, then I’ll be back six more times today to do it again.” That’s hardly an intimate approach to communion with one another.

To be praying at all times is to be constantly, consistently conscious of God where we live with an acute awareness that our heavenly Father is with us, guiding us, and providing for us. We see him everywhere we look. His very existence shapes the way we think and how we perceive the world around us. When we meet someone who doesn’t know God, our first thought is, I want him to know my God. When calamity strikes, our first thought is, God, deliver me. When something good happens, our first thought is, God is gracious. When we see suffering, our first thought is, God, help the meek. Show me how to help the meek.

Elsewhere, Paul says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth” (Col 3:2). By doing so, we enter into a perpetual state of prayer even though our prayers may not always be formal. Ultimately, the gospel, as John says in his first epistle, brings us into fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus, and prayer is a vital means by which we experience that fellowship (1Jn 1:3). To quote Augustine, “Longing desire prayeth always, though the tongue be silent. If thou art ever longing, thou art ever praying.” In short, salvation is to know God. Continual prayer, then, is an expression of our desire to know God.

Paul adds a brief qualifier here. He says, “Praying at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18). Again from Romans 8, Paul tells us:

We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

It would seem communicating with God is so profound that we’re not even capable of doing it. Paul essentially says our prayers will always fall short. They’ll always be incomplete. We can never express the fullness of what our hearts long to communicate, but the Spirit knows what we’re trying to say and intercedes on our behalf.

Ultimately, it’s God’s Spirit within us who allows us to have the kind of fellowship with the Father we seek. Practically speaking, it means our prayers are more than words. There is a deep longing implied. We are conforming to the image of God as we experience intimate communion with him. When we pray, we crave God and we crave to be like God. We crave to be near him as we strive to align ourselves with his will. Needless to say, “in the Spirit” is a loaded phrase (Eph 6:18).

Next, Paul adds, “With all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18). The idea here is that our prayers will have variety. It’s similar to what Paul told Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercession, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1Ti 2:1). In other words, there’s a unique prayer for every situation, making the empty phrases of the Gentiles meaningless (Mt 6:7).

Our prayers should have intentionality behind them. We’re not reciting words to earn religious points with God. Again, we’re communicating in fellowship with our Father. Prayers, supplications, intercession, thanksgivings—these are all just slight variations of the same thing, but they suggest there isn’t a one-size-fits-all prayer.

Paul continues. “To that end,” he says, “keep alert with all perseverance” (Eph 6:19). Let’s not forget the context. We’re in the midst of an intense spiritual battle against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12). If we are to be successful, our fight requires vigilance and determination. Our prayers require vigilance and determination.

Do you remember the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18? Let me read it.

And Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

I’m afraid that many of us don’t approach prayer with that kind of determination. Perhaps we recite a brief prayer in passing as though we hardly believe God has the ability to answer it. Jesus promised, ”Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do” (Jn 14:13). The parable in Luke 18 goes even further. We don’t merely ask once. We go to him over and over and over again. As I like to say, we pound on the doors of heaven until he answers.

Along these lines, I also encourage you to be specific when you pray. We have a bad habit of praying with utter vagueness. God, I ask that you would bless the world. That’s like calling 911 to say, “Someone is hurt somewhere. Send help.” What’s really on your mind? Be specific. Paul even gives an example here: “Pray also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19). He doesn’t say, “Pray for me that God will bless me.” He says, “I need God’s help to preach the gospel. Specifically, I need his help to preach it with the boldness it deserves.”

If you hear nothing else this morning, please hear this: We need to get serious about prayer. Our most significant problems will always be spiritual, so we need to embrace this all-important spiritual means of getting help. Everything about us as Christians should be characterized by our dependence on God as well as our fellowship with him. Both inevitably demands constant, consistent, specific, determined prayer.

Recently, I came across a written prayer from years ago which I found to be quite inspirational. I’m not sure who wrote it. Listen:

O Lord, in prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality. Time, with its amusements and cruel disappointments, never appears so inconsiderate as then. In prayer, O God, I see myself as nothing. I find my heart going after Thee with intensity, and I long with vehement thirst to live with Thee. Blessed be the strong winds of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the new Jerusalem. In prayer all things here below vanish and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others. In prayer all my worldly cares and fears and anxieties disappear and are as little in significance as a puff of wind. In prayer my should inwardly exalts with thoughts of what Thou art doing for Thy church, and I long that Thou shouldest get Thyself a great name from sinners returning to Thee. In prayer I am lifted above the frowns and flatteries of life to taste the heavenly joy. Entering into the eternal world I can give myself to Thee with all my heart forever. In prayer I can place all my concerns in Thy hands to be entirely at Thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own. In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, Thy kingdom, with greatest freedom and brightest hope as a son to his Father and as a lover to his beloved. And so, O God, help me to pray always and never to cease.

Amen.

That’s a remarkable prayer, but it’s also a brilliant description of what prayer should be for God’s people. Prayer is a place where we find ourselves lifted above this world into a heavenly realm, a place where we walk and talk with God himself. We leave behind every fear, anxiety, discomfort, and sin. They simply vanish. The best part is, God has given us this place to enter whenever we want. Why wouldn’t we go there as often as possible?

I can think of at least one reason: shame. It’s not so much that we avoid God because we’re ignorant of his grace. We know if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1Jn 1:9). We tend to avoid God when we know we’re not qualified to confess our sins and be forgiven because we have no intention of giving up our sins. It’s difficult to crave the fellowship of prayer when we’re living in unrepentant sin. If I’m describing you, all I can do is urge you to turn to God anyhow. Confess your sins and humbly beg him for the willpower to overcome those sins. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, there’s a substantial part of you that wants to be free from sin and walk with God. Pray. I encourage you to pray.

Finally, Paul reminds us to remember others when we pray. “Make supplication for all the saints,” he says. If we learn anything from the book of Ephesians, it’s that God doesn’t call people to isolation. He joins his people together as a unified body. We are made (or remade) to be members of one another who live together, serve one another, and, of course, pray for one another. To some degree, we are spiritually dependent on one another. After all, who wants to go into battle alone?

Our lives should be so intertwined that we instinctively and frequently mention one another in our prayers. The Christian’s entire life should be marked by selflessness, and prayer is no exception.

As we reach the end of this passage on the armor of God, we learn of this one element which needs no metaphor, that is, prayer. We need the whole armor of God to conquer our enemies and win the daily spiritual battles we face, but we also need to be soldiers who pray (Eph 6:11). In every sense possible, we must walk with God on the battlefield. We must rely on him. We must speak with him often.

May God be with us as we fight the good fight of faith (1Ti 6:12).

Trust God’s word more than a single translation

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I always hesitate before uttering a word against KJV Onlyism. More than a few people will likely interpret it as criticism of the King James Bible itself and, therefore, the inspired writings of God. I know because I used to be one of them.

For a reasonable chunk of my adult life, I believed the KJV was not only the best translation of Scripture in English, but also a perfect one. It must be since God went to all the trouble of inspiring the text in the first place. Surely, faithful scribes hand-copied the Bible generation after generation without making a single mistake. Eventually, at least one of those flawless copies made it into the hands of the KJV translators who, then, produced a flawless translation.

Maybe I’d still believe that, but I happen to be a guy who likes reading history, especially church history, and the facts poked more than a few holes in my former theory. If there ever existed a perfect line of Bible manuscripts, that is, handwritten copies in the original languages, the evidence is long gone.

Today, we have access to more than 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament alone, making the Bible the best preserved work of ancient literature. Even so, these manuscripts contain textual variants. Differences exist from one to the next. When we compare the oldest to the newest, the text’s evolution—or is it devolution?—becomes apparent.

Perhaps God’s flawless family of manuscripts has since vanished. We may not have compelling evidence of its existence, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist at one time. Please welcome Erasmus onto the scene.

The Latin Vulgate, much like the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, was hand-copied by scribes for a thousand years before the printing press came along. Erasmus, a Catholic priest, knew it no longer accurately represented the original text of the Bible and sought to create a new Latin New Testament. Compiling a handful of late Greek manuscripts with the Latin Vulgate to fill in the gaps, he published his own New Testament, first, in Greek. Then, he revised it twice, making substantial changes to his first edition.

For example, he added what is now a well-known phrase to 1 John 5: “The Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” The Greek said, “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1Jn 5:7-8). After receiving sharp criticism for “removing” a vital text on the Trinity found in the Latin Vulgate, he ultimately conceded.

The changes didn’t end with Erasmus. Stephanus and Theodore Beza also revised Erasmus’s text multiple times before the KJV translators went to work. The translators themselves wrestled with alternate renderings and continued to make changes after the first edition of the KJV went to print. The 1611 KJV underwent more than 100,000 tweaks before arriving at the 1769 edition which most of us know and love today. In fact, the 1769 contains direct contradictions to the 1611.

If God didn’t perfectly preserve his word since the days of the apostles, then what? If the KJV, that is, the 1769 KJV, is flawless, we’d have to assume he re-inspired the text through a lengthy, rather convoluted process. While that is possible, what evidence do we have? And what about other languages? Do they also have re-inspired Bibles? What about the thousands of languages that still do not have Bibles?

Whenever I address KJV Onlyism, someone will ask, “Why cast doubt on the accuracy and reliability of Scripture?” Isn’t it better to hear these things from a fellow believer than a critic of the faith who only wants to destroy your confidence in God’s word?

I just want to encourage Christians to put more trust in God and his living and abiding word than a single translation (1Pe 1:23). I want them to understand the facts rather than rely on a simplistic, fairy-tale version of history. I hope they will prepare themselves to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1Pe 3:15).

Further study into the matter will not dismantle everything you know about God, the Bible, and theology. I promise you.

Guard your steps

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The first explicit commandment in the book of Ecclesiastes is: Guard your steps when you go to the house of God (Ecc 5:1). Evidently, there is a right as well as wrong way to approach God in prayer and worship.

The Preacher advises we go to God with open ears and wary mouths.

Why five smooth stones?

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Arrogance is unbecoming in a Christian pastor. That’s the kind of thing that’ll get a man an immovable thorn … in the flesh or worse (2Co 12:7). I’ll never forget the preacher who stopped mid-sermon and said, “I can’t continue. You’re not ready to understand what this passage teaches.” Would someone please lift my jaw from the floor? How did he know no one in the audience had the ears to hear?

More often, though, pastors would rather share their profound insights into the Scriptures than hide them. They beam with excitement as they expound on what they believe to be previously unknown truths. They’ve unlocked yet another mystery of the Bible and are thrilled to show everyone the surpassing greatness of their revelations (2Co 12:7).

For example, I’ve heard more than one sermon where a preacher claimed to know why David took exactly five smooth stones into battle against Goliath (1Sa 17:40). They strung together a series of unlikely verses and offered divine calculations to prove the significance of the number five.

If you were to ask me why David chose not one, not four, not six, not 144,000, but five rocks from the river, I’ll smile and shrug (Rev 7:4; 14:1; 3). For all I know, maybe five was the maximum capacity of his shepherd’s pouch (1Sa 17:40). I don’t have an answer because the Bible doesn’t offer an explicit reason, and I’m fine with that. My job is to declare the whole counsel of God, not satisfy the reader’s every curiosity by exaggerating riddles and proposing theories as sound doctrine (Ac 20:27).

That kind of practice has a way of inflating a preacher’s ego. The church learns to think of him as having special discernment no one else possesses. They can hardly interpret the Bible for themselves, crippled by unwarranted fear. I don’t see what my pastor sees. Maybe I should ask him before I incorrectly decipher the text.

No, we should receive the word with all eagerness from our preachers, but also examine the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so (Ac 17:11). As the Baptist Confession says, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, depends not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God.” The Bible, not the pastor, is our authority, and the Spirit, not the pastor, is the supreme mediator between us and the truth contained in the Bible. Jesus said, “The Holy Spirit … will teach you all things” (Jn 14:26).

Alistair Begg likes to say, “The plain things are the main things. The main things are the plain things.” Pastors should embrace his pithy mantra. Carve it into your lectern if you have to. We’ll spend a lifetime conveying just those things which Scripture clearly teaches. We don’t have time to waste on trivial mysteries. While they may intrigue people, causing them to marvel at a preacher’s deep perceptions, they do nothing to equip the saints for the work of ministry or build up the body of Christ (Eph 6:12).

Except ye utter words easy to be understood

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My heart breaks for those Christians still shackled by KJV Onlyism. At least once a month, I receive a message from someone desperate to free himself (or herself), but his church or pastor tells him to leave the chains where they are or else another translation of the Bible will expose him to Satan’s lies. In the ESV, NIV, or some other version, he’ll read nothing more than an evil counterfeit of God’s word.

I remember the excitement of not-her-real-name Lauren. She was seventy-years-old and had never used a Bible other than the King James Version. After a five-week study of the Bible’s history with me, she felt justified to purchase, albeit secretly the Modern English Version (MEV). It had the benefit of being a perfect parallel to the KJV since they were translated from the same Hebrew and Greek texts. She took her new Bible home and began reading.

A few days later, Lauren approached me, beaming. She was giddy. She said, “I have never read more than three chapters of the Bible in one sitting. The other night, though, I read Genesis from beginning to end before I even realized it. The stories had me captivated. I couldn’t put it down.”

That is what happens when the reader is not fumbling over archaic words and sentence structures. Scripture comes alive as never before when translated and printed in our modern vernacular. Even the KJV acknowledges, “Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?” (1Co 14:9).

Sadly, KJV-Only factions of the church have their spiritual nourishment stifled by mostly anecdotal evidence and hyperbolic claims with no basis in historical reality.

Preachers tell them not to trust modern translations because the King James Version alone has stood the test of time. But time is part of the problem. Four-hundred years have changed our language significantly and, as Paul points out, we need words easy to be understood (1Co 14:9).

These preachers will also make statements such as, “Modern versions remove verses from the Bible,” to deter would-be readers of contemporary translations. How do they know verses are missing? The KJV has them. “Look,” they say, “Acts 8:37 isn’t there. Modern versions don’t even bother to re-number.” They assume, of course, the KJV is perfectly accurate and never apply the same critical treatment to it as they do other Bibles. But what if the KJV has additional verses not originally inspired by God? It’s worth asking and researching before we condemn every other English translation of the Bible.

KJV Onlyism is not without irony. As Mark Ward says in his book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, “The idea that the word of God should be permitted to calcify slowly into a language normal people can’t read is one of the reasons we had a Protestant Reformation.” The KJV was a vital tool in opening up the Bible to many, many people from whom Catholicism had hidden by insisting no one could use a Bible other than the Latin Vulgate whether they could read Latin or not. Today, KJV-Only proponents mistakingly follow that Catholic model not by hiding the text altogether in a foreign language, but by obscuring it in archaic English.

If you’ve written to me asking what you should do given your KJV-Only environment, I recommend you arm yourself with the facts. Read Ward’s book as well as The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James White. The first covers language and vernacular while the second offers a crash course on Bible history, manuscripts, and the translation process.

I wouldn’t use these books, however, to prepare yourself for a fight. I’m not suggesting you launch an assault on your church’s traditions. But you should educate yourself before branching out beyond the King James Version you’ve known and loved all your life. I can’t recommend any modern translation until you know it won’t violate your conscience.

I pray for you. May you long for the pure spiritual milk of the living and abiding word of God and drink it until you’re full (1Pe 2:2; 1:23). May you drink it daily whether from the KJV, ESV, CSB, or any other reliable source.

The legacy of Abraham

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Working part-time for a funeral home, I preach a lot of funerals and attend even more. The subject of death enters my mind quite often which isn’t necessarily as morbid as it sounds. See Ecclesiastes 7:2.

Recently, a local pastor died unexpectedly. Hundreds of people from seven states flooded the small town of Angier, North Carolina to pay their respects. I heard the word legacy many times before, during, and after the service as people talked about this man’s character and impact on others.

I’ll admit I often think about my own legacy. With my first child on the way, I wonder what she and maybe her children will say about me. I think about the legacy of others, particularly faithful ministers of the past. I think about Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Arthur Pink, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. These men were not striving for fame or earthly immortality through long-lasting legacies, but they still deserve the respect we give them so many years after their passing. By the grace of God, they accomplished incredible things for Christ’s kingdom.

Today, I’m thinking about Abraham. He wandered the Promised Land for decades without a permanent structure to call home. As far as I know, the only land he ever owned was a cave he bought to bury his wife (Ge 23). He never built a city, a tower, or even a house, but he did build altars.

For instance, he erected one altar in Shechem and another in Bethel (Ge 12:6-9). Both of these places were known for pagan worship, but Abraham used them to worship the living God (1Ti 4:10).

After Abraham died, his friends, family, and the generations to follow couldn’t visit his massive estate or some commercial real estate he developed during his successful life. There were no streets named after him or statues placed in the center of town. People didn’t migrate to tour his childhood home as we would, say, Abraham Lincoln. If people were to visit any architecture that might serve as a testimony to his legacy, they would go to his altars. They would see artifacts reminding them Abraham was a man who worshiped God wherever he went.

That’s the kind of legacy I want to leave behind. I hope those few people who remember me when I’m gone say, “Jeremy was a man who worshiped God.”

Publish every day

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I heed the advice of every book on writing I’ve ever read. They all give the same counsel: Write every day. If practice makes perfect, then consistently putting pencil to paper is the best way, perhaps the only way to hone my favorite craft. I love to write more than any other hobby of mine. It can be challenging to the point of maddening, but I love everything about—well, almost everything about it.

I despise publishing and pretty much every part of the process after the rough draft. Putting words on the page is one thing. Polishing them to meet my ridiculously high standards for public viewing is another. In this single area of my life, I am a perfectionist. The thought of sending less-than-perfect prose out into the world to be seen by all makes my skin crawl. I can hardly stand it. So I rarely publish despite writing anywhere from one sentence to four-thousand words every morning.

Recently, a friend I’ll call John lectured me about my reluctance to publish. “Do it anyhow,” he said. “Whatever you’re writing each day in that journal of yours is probably worth something to someone. Consider it your minimum viable product, your MVP.”

John was a business major in school.

“I say,” he continued, “don’t just write every day. Publish every day.

I argued with him, stating half a dozen reasons why I should not follow his suggestion. “What I write is for me,” I said. “It’s raw and unfinished. I don’t edit. I just sharpen my Palomino and let the words leak out of me as slowly or quickly as they want to flow. I hardly use the eraser at all.”

And on and on the debate went until John repeated himself using a stern, fatherly tone this time around which I found difficult to ignore. “Publish. Every. Day,” he said, articulating one word at a time for emphasis. I conceded.

I understand what he was trying to tell me. Writing can be a gift that God gives and uses, but it won’t serve his purpose if it remains mostly hidden, tucked away in a well-worn leather journal on my desk. Like Moses who sought desperately to avoid his calling at the burning bush, I should conquer my stubborn fears by trusting the one who said, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Ex 4:11-12).

I’m not Moses, of course, and I don’t mean to imply my daily meditations can accomplish anything close to what we read in the Exodus story. Then again, one never really knows. God has achieved much more with even less.

Preservation of the Bible, textual criticism, and some KJV history

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If there is a subject which most pastors take for granted, it is the preservation of the Bible.

We don’t talk about it because we either assume people already believe God preserved Scripture—never mind whether they understand how—or don’t know enough to explain it to them. Regardless, shame on us. How can one defend his confidence in the Bible without knowing whether he should trust the Bible in the first place?

Last year, I met a man who carried the burden of a KJV-Only upbringing. We had a lot in common because I grew up under the same tradition. This man approached me with his heart devastated by a critic of Christianity. The scoffer was well-equipped with a knowledge of Bible history and attacked the KJV by showing its supposed flaws. His information was accurate, but his conclusion was misleading at best. My new friend was left shaken to his core, once believing every word of the KJV was perfect and had always been perfect. The critic had successfully undermined his confidence in the Bible.

This kind of situation would happen less if pastors understood and taught the basics of Bible history, textual criticism, and translation methods. The church doesn’t need hours upon hours of scholarly lectures. We’re not training believers for a Pd.D in advanced Greek or New Testament textual studies. If only Christians learn to better trust Scripture and perhaps how to defend it, then our job is done. We have equipped the saints in this vital aspect of our faith.

When one of my favorite churches in the country, Eureka Primitive Baptist Church in Chula, Georgia, asked me to speak, Bible preservation was on my mind. The following are two messages that I delivered on September 2-3, 2017.


This evening, I want to talk about a somewhat difficult subject. It’s difficult because, first of all, the Bible itself doesn’t address it. Even so, it’s an important topic for the church. You may wonder how a subject can be important for the church if the Bible doesn’t even talk about it, but you’ll understand why in just a moment.

Second, this subject is difficult because there are so many myths and misconceptions surrounding it.

The subject is the preservation of the Bible.

What does the Bible say?

As I said, the Bible itself doesn’t tell us how God intended to preserve his Word. In fact, it doesn’t even tell us that he would preserve his Word, not explicitly anyhow. There are some passages which we commonly use to defend the doctrine of preservation, but we often stretch those passages beyond their intended meaning.

For example, Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24:35). Was Jesus teaching the doctrine of Bible preservation? I don’t think so. In context, he seems to be telling his disciples that every prediction he’s made about the future will come to pass. It’s very similar to what God said through Isaiah: “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).

Psalm 12 contains another favorite verse for teaching the doctrine of preservation. According to the KJV, David writes, “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever” (Ps 12:6-7). Psalm 12 reads as though God intends to preserve his words until the end of time.

You may be surprised to learn that the King James translators considered a slightly different wording of Psalm 12:7. They believed the verse could be translated, “Thou shalt keep him, O Lord, thou shalt preserve every one of them from this generation for ever.” They made this point in their original margin notes. The significance of the pronoun change is that it cuts through the ambiguity. David was not teaching that God would preserve his words, but that he would keep his promise to preserve or guard his poor and oppressed people. If you read Psalm 12 in full, then you’ll understand what I mean.

Perhaps you can see the challenge we face when addressing the preservation of the Bible.

Even Scripture shows there have been times when God’s Word was hidden from his people. In 2 Kings 22, for instance, we’re told, “Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ … When the king [i.e., King Josiah] heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2Ki 22:8; 11). During the 55-year reign of King Manasseh, the people of Israel were deprived of God’s Word. Manasseh was a wicked man who rejected God’s law. In turn, the law was tucked away in the temple where no one could read it for decades.

Does that mean the Bible has nothing to say about its preservation? It does, but it’s never as emphatic as we’d prefer. Perhaps the best reference is found in Isaiah 40 where the prophet says, “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:7-8). Peter quotes this same passage in 1 Peter 1 before adding, “And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1Pe 1:25).

All things considered, I believe we can safely assume that God has preserved his Word, but that doesn’t mean he’s preserved it quite as uniformly as some might think. The message, of course, will always exist. His truth will always be spoken. The Scriptures will endure in one form or another. The question is, has God preserved the precise wording of the original inspired writings to be accessed by all people in all places throughout all times? The evidence says no.

Copying the Bible by hand

Let’s begin with an illustration. Let’s say that I have an original copy of John’s Gospel, but it’s not like the one printed in your Bible. It’s handwritten not on crisp, white paper, but on parchment made from animal skin. There are no chapter breaks or verse divisions. In fact, you won’t even find a single punctuation mark in the text. There are not even spaces between words. The book appears to be one long word on a single scroll.

Your task is to copy the entire book by hand. Cheating is not allowed. You are not permitted to scan or even type it. It must be handwritten on a scroll made of animal skin. I wish you the best of luck.

Once you’re finished, you’re going to pass your copy of John’s Gospel to the next person. They will copy your copy before passing it to the next person and the next. Eventually, every person here will have made a copy. Unfortunately, the original gets lost along the way. By the end of the experiment, we no longer possess the original. Perhaps we even lose a few of the copies. Brother So-and-So spilled coffee all over his, so he had to throw it away.

We no longer have the original text which God inspired John to write. How will we know what John’s Gospel says? We collect and compare the copies.

Here’s the problem: Chances are, every copy will contain mistakes. Inevitably, there will be variations between them. You will have miscopied a word, misspelled a word, overlooked an entire phrase, and perhaps even added a few words.

Weighing the evidence

Let’s say we were copying 1 Thessalonians where Paul writes, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1Th 2:7). The word gentle in Greek is epioi. Some of you, however, wrote the word nepioi, meaning “little children.” One of you even wrote hippoi, meaning “horses.” How do we know what Paul originally said?

Here’s what we have in the available manuscripts. Paul might have said, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” He might have said, “We were little children among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” As strange as it may sound, he also might have said, “We were horses among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” Which sounds correct to you? Most of you would probably say gentle. “Little children” sounds redundant and “horses” makes no sense at all.

There’s a twist. Let’s say the first five of you who copied the book wrote, “Little children.” It isn’t until we reach the sixth copy in line that we see the word gentle. From there, they all say gentle except for one manuscript which says horses. I think we can safely eliminate “horses” as a reasonable possibility. What’s left? The earliest manuscripts say little children while the majority of manuscripts say gentle. Which is correct?

We’ll have to use some logical deduction here. The external evidence suggests little children is the original text because that’s what the earliest copies say. It would seem the mistake wasn’t made until the sixth copy, which everyone else then duplicated from that point forward. The fact that the majority of manuscripts say gentle is practically irrelevant because the majority of manuscripts were written after the change was made.

What about the internal evidence? Why would Paul use such a sloppy metaphor? “We were little children among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children”? Would Paul really mix his metaphors like that?

As a matter of fact, he would. He did something similar in Galatians 4:19 where he said, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” Paul refers to the Galatians as his children whom he is giving birth to a second time. Even in 1 Thessalonians 2, he describes himself as both a mother and a father to the believers in that place. First, he says, “Like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1Th 2:7). Then, he says, “Like a father with his children” (1Th 2:11).

Believe it or not, the harder reading is often the correct reading. You can imagine the bewilderment of that sixth person who sat down to copy Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. This verse doesn’t make sense, he thinks. Someone before me must have copied it wrong. Obviously, Paul meant gentle. So he changes it. No one would knowingly make the text harder to read. If anything, he’ll make it easier to read.

The merits of the harder reading

I’ll give you another example from John’s Gospel. In John 7, Jesus tells his brothers, “I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come” (Jn 7:8). Uh oh, one of you thinks as you’re copying the book. Two verses later, the text says, “After his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private” (Jn 7:10). It appears you’ve found a contradiction which makes Jesus sound like a liar. First, he says he will not go to the feast. Then, he goes to the feast.

We’re at the end of our experiment. We’ve laid all our copies of John’s Gospel on the table. The earliest manuscripts quote Jesus as saying, “I am not going up to this feast.” The later manuscripts, on the other hand, quote Jesus as saying, “I am not yet going up to this feast.” Which do you suppose is the original reading of John’s Gospel?

It’s probably the harder, earlier reading. Chances are, the person who changed it saw the apparent contradiction in the text and attempted to eliminate it. It’s less likely that someone would do the reverse. Why would anyone make the text harder to read, seemingly contradicting itself?

Copying a scribe’s margin notes

I’ll give you one more example. As we’re comparing our copies of John’s Gospel, we come across a strange anomaly in John 5. The earliest manuscripts say:

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:2-8)

As you’re copying this chapter of John, the man’s reply to Jesus strikes you as strange. Why does he want to get into the pool? What does that have to do with being healed? You’re extremely curious, so you take a break to do some research. Soon enough, you discover an interesting myth about Bethesda that was popular during the first century. As it turns out, many people believed an angel would occasionally stir up the waters of the pool and whoever got in first would be healed of their infirmities.

It’s such an interesting tidbit that you make a note about it in your copy of John’s Gospel. Of course, there’s not a lot of room on the scroll, so you write it in small print wherever you find a space. Can you guess what happens when the next person copies your manuscript? God forbid anyone leaves words out of the Bible. When he sees your margin note about the angel stirring the pool, he feels compelled to copy it. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Here’s what his manuscript says:

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed—for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:2-8)

The additional note fits like a glove. It sounds as though it’s supposed to be there, but our earlier manuscripts don’t include it. We can reasonably conclude that someone added it along the way.

The common preservation myth

Would you be surprised to learn the examples I’ve given are real-life examples of textual problems in the Bible? Bible scholars and translators have had to wrestle with these very issues among the manuscripts, which brings us to the prevailing myth concerning Bible preservation.

Many Christians believe scribes hand-copied the Bible year after year without making a single mistake. God preserved every last word through a long line of manuscripts from day one until they were finally translated word-for-word into English.

There are a couple of problems with this view.

1) There are more than 400,000 textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts alone.

Today, we have access to approximately 5,700 manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest dates back to the second century. Keep in mind that when we talk about Bible manuscripts, we’re talking about handwritten copies of the Bible primarily in the original languages. The total number goes much higher when we include Latin translations and so on.

Four-hundred-thousand textual variants may sound like a lot, but not all variants are equal in weight. For instance, the obvious misspelling of a word is not a serious issue. I once took a proofreading test for a freelance writing position. They gave me a messy paragraph with all kinds of errors to see whether I was capable of identifying and fixing them. Many of the words were misspelled, but I could still read the paragraph fluently.

If we take all of the textual variants and remove the insignificant ones, then we’re left with a much smaller number than 400,000. If we then factor in the total number of words in the manuscripts, then we discover that the significant differences between the manuscripts amount to less than three percent of the text. Think about that. The Bible was hand-copied for 1,500 years, yet less than three percent of the New Testament’s 140,000 words contain potential errors. That’s remarkable consistency.

The fact is, 400,000 textual variants is not the most relevant number to us. The number that is far more important is 5,700 (the total number of manuscripts). Why?

Think back to my previous illustration where we all copied John’s Gospel by hand. If we no longer have the original, what’s the next best thing? It’s to have as many copies as possible. The more copies we have, the better our ability will be to determine what the original said despite the errors in our copies. By comparing the manuscripts, we’re able to reasonably determine what John originally wrote even though we don’t have the original.

Let’s say, on the other hand, we have only one copy. We have no choice but to accept what it says. We know that scribes likely made mistakes, but we don’t have any other manuscripts for comparison. If our one copy of 1 Thessalonians 2 claims Paul wrote, “We were horses among you,” then we’ll have to believe that that’s what he said. Imagine the sermons one could preach from that text.

My point is, textual variants (differences from one Bible manuscript to the next) are only a problem when we don’t have multiple copies to compare. The more copies we have, the more accurate our Bibles can be.

It would be incredibly convenient if God had preserved a flawless line of manuscripts, but the evidence doesn’t support that notion. He allowed human scribes to make mistakes. If we don’t understand and acknowledge that fact, then it would be very easy for a Bible critic to come along and do serious damage to our faith. They could readily undermine our trust in Scripture by pointing out all of the mistakes in the manuscripts from which our English Bibles were translated.

It doesn’t help us to live in a fairy-tale world where we deny the facts of history. Peter tells us, “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1Pe 3:15). Our faith is reasonable, so we should be able to defend it when critics attempt to tear it apart.

Before I explain how God preserved his Word even through the many errors made by scribes, let me address the second problem with believing there is a flawless line of manuscripts resulting in a flawless English translation of the Bible.

2) There can be no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation of the Bible into English.

You’ve probably heard it said that the King James Bible is a literal translation, but such a translation doesn’t exist. Perhaps the most literal translation of the Bible into English is the Wycliffe Bible which came along 200 years before the KJV. You wouldn’t want to read it, however, because it was hardly English.

The Greek New Testament has somewhere between 138,000-140,000 words. Every English translation surpasses that number by no less than 30,000 words. I believe the KJV New Testament has a little over 180,000 words. Literal word-for-word translations simply do not exist. They can’t because of the dynamic nature of languages.

Have you ever used Google’s Translate tool? If you type a sentence into Google Translate, convert it to another language and back again, it will come out different than the original. Something always gets lost in translation.

Two weeks ago, I was preaching on humility from Ephesians 4 and discovered neither the Greeks nor the Romans had a word for humility. It was such a foreign concept to their proud culture that they had no word for it, so Paul had to string together two words to convey humility: lowliness and mind. Humility means to have a lowliness of mind.

On the flip side, there were times when the English language didn’t have a suitable equivalent of a Greek word. Deacon, for instance, is not a translation; it’s a transliteration. There was no word for it in English, so translators simply created a new English word.

Let me give you an example from the Bible of what translation can do to a text. In Romans 9—I’m reading from the KJV—Paul quotes the book of Isaiah, saying:

Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth. (Romans 9:27-28)

Let me read the original text from Isaiah 10. Notice the differences:

For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea,
yet a remnant of them shall return:
the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness.
For the Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined,
in the midst of all the land. (Isaiah 10:22-23)

People became children. Shall return became shall be saved. Consumption decreed became finish the work. Shall overflow became cut it short. A consumption, even determined became a short work. In the midst of all the land became upon the earth. What’s going on here?

The New Testament of the King James Bible was translated from Greek. The Old Testament was translated from Hebrew. Translating from two very different languages produces different results. For instance, perhaps you’ve noticed that names are different in the New Testament compared to the Old Testament. Isaiah becomes Esaias, Jeremiah becomes Jeremy, and so on. Translating from Greek is different than translating from Hebrew.

In case you’re not confused yet, there is one more layer of translation in the quote I read from Romans 9. By the first century, Hebrew was no longer the most popular language of the Old Testament. The apostles, for instance, primarily used a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In other words, Isaiah in the KJV was translated from Hebrew into English while Paul’s quote of Isaiah was translated from Hebrew into Greek before it was translated into English for the King James Bible. The quote from Romans 9 went through an additional translation leading to a seemingly drastic change in the wording.

Now would be a good time to point out that words can change without altering the meaning or substance of a text. If Romans 9 doesn’t prove that, then consider the four Gospels. Focus on the letters in red, assuming your Bible has red print. Have you ever noticed that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t always quote Jesus as using the exact same words? Personally, that’s why I don’t care for red-letter editions of the Bible. First, it gives us the impression that the words of Jesus are more important than the rest of Scripture when all of Scripture is his words. Second, it gives us the impression we’re reading the very words of Jesus rather than the very voice of Jesus.

What’s the difference between words and voice? It’s the difference between verbatim quotes and capturing the substance of what a person said. Obviously, the Gospel writers were not quoting Jesus verbatim. Otherwise, their quotes would be identical. Instead, they captured the essential thought. It would be a terrible mistake to rewrite the Gospels just to create a precise harmony of the words. It may give Bible readers additional comfort to think all potential contradictions have been removed, but that’s not what the Spirit of God intended when he inspired the books to be written.

Preservation of the Bible

As you can see, Bible history and its preservation are a bit messier and perhaps more complicated than what you realized. God hasn’t preserved his Word through a perfect line of manuscripts. He hasn’t preserved his Word through a perfect translation into English. He hasn’t even necessarily preserved every last word which he originally inspired to be written.

Where does that leave the doctrine of preservation? As I said before, the Bible itself doesn’t explicitly teach the doctrine of preservation, not as we often define preservation. It does, however, indicate that we should expect the good news of his Word to remain forever.

Let’s pause for a moment to think about a seemingly unrelated subject. Do you believe God has preserved his church? Have you ever thought about how he preserved his church?

A quick perusal of the New Testament will show that almost every church in the first century had problems. Some had serious theological errors. Others had deep sin and morality issues. Even so, these churches were churches of Jesus Christ confirmed by the apostles.

Today, we all know that a perfect church can’t be found. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all.” He’s right. A perfect church doesn’t exist, yet the church remains.

In the earliest days of the church, God scattered his people across the known world. Why? Wouldn’t the church have been stronger if they had stayed together in Jerusalem? No, God preserved his church by scattering them. If everyone had remained in Jerusalem, their persecutors could have destroyed them all at once. Instead, the persecutors found it impossible to eliminate the church because the saints were everywhere. By the time they could stop the church in Jerusalem, lo and behold, there’s a church in Antioch. By the time they reach Antioch, there are four more in Galatia.

God similarly preserved the Bible. He didn’t providentially oversee the creation of a handful of perfect copies. Rather, he prompted men to make as many copies as possible. Even though they contained mistakes, his Word would remain safe because there were too many copies to destroy. The church’s enemies tried. They gathered up every manuscript they could find to burn, but they could never find them all. There were too many copies in too many places.

The best-preserved ancient literature

Does the thought of textual variants bother you? Does it trouble you to think that God’s Word was not kept perfectly preserved in every manuscript? If so, let me give you something to think about.

How many times have you heard or seen quotes from notable Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle? Have you ever read Homer’s books? I suspect you have. Have you ever questioned the legitimacy or accuracy of those writings?

Let me put things into perspective for you. The oldest manuscript of Plato is from approximately A.D. 900 (1,200 years after the original). We have seven copies. The oldest manuscript of Aristotle is from roughly A.D. 1100 (1400 years after the original). We have 49 copies. The oldest manuscript of Homer is from A.D. 400 (500 years after the original). We have a whopping 643 copies. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is from approximately A.D. 130 (less than 100 years after it was written). We have a grand total of approximately 5,700 copies.

By a wide margin, the Bible is the best-preserved work of all ancient literature. While some may question the Bible’s legitimacy because they’ve learned about the textual variants in the manuscripts, the historical evidence says otherwise. Not only do 5,700 copies still exist, dating as far back as the second century, but the textual variants of any significance also represent less than three percent of the overall text. That’s an accuracy rate of more than 97 percent. Do you think we’d come close to that if we tried hand-copying the Bible?

As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen without the providential oversight of God. He may have allowed errors along the way, but he most certainly preserved his Word nonetheless.

 

As I said last night, the doctrine of Bible preservation is not as simple as what we might think. The most common misconception is that God kept a perfect line of Bible manuscripts from the first century until it could be translated, again, perfectly into English. Perhaps the truth is a little less romantic, but it’s still the truth.

Rather than preserve his Word through a series of flawless manuscripts, God preserved the Bible through the mass production of thousands upon thousands of manuscripts which were scattered across the known world. By doing so, he ensured that persecutors could never ultimately destroy the Scriptures. There were too many copies in too many places.

What about the errors which scribes made when copying the Bible? Don’t those mistakes undermine the Bible’s preservation? No.

First of all, the significant mistakes represent a surprisingly small percentage of the text. Of the 5,700 manuscripts still available today, less than three percent of the text contains notable textual variants. Those variants are reduced to practically nothing when we compare and evaluate the various manuscripts. Through a process known as textual criticism, Bible scholars and translators are able to pinpoint the mistakes and better understand what the original text of the Bible actually said.

Before I go any further, let me define a few terms for you. By Bible manuscripts, I’m talking about handwritten copies of the Bible prior to printed Bibles. The printing press didn’t come along until the 1440s, so Christians relied on handwritten copies of the Bible for most of church history. Textual variants are the differences from one Bible manuscript to another. Textual criticism is the process of studying the variants to determine what the original inspired writings once said.

Today, I want to move a little deeper into this subject. It’s important that we understand the progression of the Bible throughout history. It’s also important that we understand where our English Bibles came from and how they were translated.

Two primary manuscript families

If you were to research this topic on your own, you would likely come across several mentions of text-types or text families. The two most relevant text-types are Alexandrian and Byzantine. In the 18th century, scholars became interested in classifying manuscripts by their unique styles and potential origins, so the concept of text-types was created.

For our purpose now, here’s what you need to know about them. The Alexandrian manuscripts are older, fewer, and shorter. The Byzantine manuscripts are later, greater in number, and longer.

Negative things are often said about one of these text-types or the other, so let me briefly comment on that.

Some people reject the Alexandrian manuscripts because they supposedly come from Egypt where well-known heretics once lived. Frankly, that’s a straw man argument. First, not all Alexandrian manuscripts are necessarily from Egypt. Second, heretics have come from all over the world. Third, Egypt has produced sound theologians. Regardless, the geographic origin of these manuscripts has little to do with their reliability.

I don’t know that anyone rejects the Byzantine manuscripts, but some do have a tendency to devalue them. Since they come much later in history, people assume they are of less value. Let’s not forget that they also represent the majority of manuscripts. In regards to textual criticism, every additional manuscript has value in determining what the original autographs of the Bible said.

Again, here’s what you need to know about them. (My goal is to keep things as simple as possible.) The Alexandrian manuscripts are older, fewer, and shorter. The Byzantine manuscripts are later, greater in number, and longer.

The Bible got longer

It stands to reason that the older manuscripts would be fewer in number. There’s been more time for them to get lost or destroyed. Perhaps you’ve heard of the so-called Majority Text. That’s a reference to these later Byzantine manuscripts. They, of course, represent a majority of the manuscripts. That’s not to say they are all identical, but they do outnumber the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts.

You may find it curious, though, that the later manuscripts are longer than the earlier manuscripts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Bible actually got longer over time, not shorter. I gave you one example yesterday from John 5. Apparently, a scribe added a brief explanatory note about the crippled man waiting to be healed at the pool of Bethesda, and another scribe eventually copied his note as though it were part of the original text.

Another common addition relates to the titles of Jesus. His titles got longer over time. Where the older manuscripts say Jesus, the later manuscripts might say Jesus Christ. Where the older manuscripts say Jesus Christ, the later manuscripts might say Lord Jesus Christ. You’ve probably heard it said that modern translations of the Bible remove words, but that’s very misleading. Most modern translations simply use older manuscripts which don’t contain those words. Intentionally or unintentionally, well-meaning scribes added those words over time.

The Bible’s longest additions

Most instances of textual variants between the manuscripts are small and minor. I don’t know of any that affect the fundamental doctrines of the church. Even the most significant variants are usually just a few words or less, but there are two notable exceptions. In both cases, we have what appears to be rather lengthy additions to the text.

The first is the story of the adulterous woman in John 8. That’s where Jesus famously said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). As we move through the manuscripts, this story is nowhere to be found in the earliest copies. It’s not found in some of the later copies. In a few of the manuscripts which do have it, there’s an asterisk indicating it may or may not belong. One manuscript places the story in the middle of John 7. Another manuscript places it in John 21. Two manuscripts place it in Luke’s Gospel. The story doesn’t exist then appears out of nowhere before moving around to several places, finally settling in John 8.

We have twelves verses that were probably not in the original text of John’s Gospel. Where did they come from? This story could be a rare instance of an event in the life of Jesus that survived outside of inspired Scripture. In other words, it could be a true story which the church kept alive by repeating it through the years. Eventually, someone wrote it down and it made its way into the Bible.

The other questionable passage of any real length is found at the end of Mark’s Gospel. You’ll thank me for this one because Jesus makes some challenging statements. You’ve probably never heard a pastor preach on this text, and you probably never will. For instance, Jesus says:

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:16-18)

What part of that passage stands out to you? The statement, “If they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them,” leaps off the page at me. Nowhere do we read of the apostles or anyone else drinking poison.

As it turns out, Mark 16:9-20 raises some questions when we study the manuscripts. In some manuscripts, these verses don’t exist. In some manuscripts, these verses are replaced with an alternate ending that says, “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Some manuscripts include both the shorter ending and the longer ending. Most manuscripts contain only the longer ending.

What’s going on with this text? For the sake of time, I’ll simplify what Bible scholars have considered when examining this passage. First, early church writings say nothing about either the shorter or longer ending of Mark. Second, the vocabulary and grammatical style change from verse 8 to verse 9. Third, two of the best and most respected manuscripts end with verse 8. All things considered, it would certainly appear as though someone added text to the end of Mark’s Gospel.

If you stop reading Mark 16 at verse 8, you can understand why a scribe might feel the book is incomplete. Mark ends by saying, “And they [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The end.

What about seeing the resurrected Christ? What about the Great Commission? What about the Lord’s ascension into heaven? After reading the other Gospels, it would be easy to think that Mark ended on a cliffhanger. He failed to tell the rest of the story. Then again, maybe Mark intended to leave his Gospel open-ended. It forces us to ask ourselves, “What now?” Isn’t that how Luke ended the book of Acts?

Regardless, the text of the Bible got longer over time, not shorter. The older Alexandrian manuscripts are shorter than the later Byzantine manuscripts.

From completion to Erasmus

Now that we’ve talked about the Alexandrian and Byzantine manuscripts as well as the Majority text let’s focus on the Textus Receptus (or the “received text”) which is the underlying text of the King James Bible. Hang on because I’m going to take you through hundreds of years of Bible history in a matter of minutes.

By A.D. 90, all 66 books of the Bible have been written. In A.D. 315, we have the first record of all 66 books being recognized as part of God’s inspired Word. In A.D. 382, a priest by the name of Jerome produces the Latin Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible which would become the most popular version of the Bible for more than a thousand years.

By A.D. 500, the Bible has been translated into more than 500 languages. Even so, the Catholic Church declares Latin to be the only acceptable language for the Bible in A.D. 600. That doesn’t stop people from translating the Bible into other languages, but it does give you a sense of the Latin Vulgate’s past significance.

By the way, the first English translation was produced in A.D. 995. Technically, it was an Anglo-Saxon translation, so it wasn’t quite the English we know today. The Wycliffe Bible of A.D. 1384 came a little closer to English we’d actually recognize.

Jumping ahead to the 16th century (roughly A.D. 1516), a Catholic priest by the name of Erasmus decides to do the unthinkable. He plans to create a new and better Latin version of the Bible. His mantra was “to the source.” In other words, he wanted to retranslate the Greek manuscripts into Latin.

Like all manuscripts, the Latin Vulgate was hand-copied for years. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press for more than a thousand years after Jerome first produced the Latin Vulgate. As a result, it contained all of the inevitable mistakes you would expect. Erasmus believed it was time to start over with a new translation.

There was just one overwhelming problem with Erasmus’s plan. For many people, the Latin Vulgate was not just a Bible; it was the Bible. It was the only Bible. You know as well as I do what happens when you mess with a person’s traditions, especially traditions related to the Bible. People were not happy with him. They found every reason to criticize him and his efforts.

Erasmus, however, proceeded anyhow. He studied a handful of Greek manuscripts at home before traveling to Switzerland to study a few more. Unfortunately, he found only six or seven manuscripts of the later Byzantine family. He didn’t have any of the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts. In fact, he did not even have a complete New Testament. As convoluted as it sounds, he was forced to take parts of the Latin Vulgate and translate them back to Greek before compiling all the manuscripts into a complete New Testament.

Keep in mind that Erasmus’s goal was not create a new Greek Bible. His aim was to improve the Latin Vulgate. Basically, he was comparing the Vulgate with a few Greek manuscripts and correcting the Vulgate when he found differences. Not having a complete New Testament in Greek wasn’t the end of the world. He just trusted the Vulgate in those places where the Greek lacked which is why his text was 60 percent identical to the Latin Vulgate.

Erasmus finished his first edition rather quickly. He later admitted that it was “hurried out headlong” and “precipitated rather than edited.” In other words, it was rough. Surprisingly, though, the Catholic Church approved it upon the condition he revise it, which he did five times.

Changes to Erasmus’ third edition

As I said before, Erasmus was sharply criticized for his work. In those places where his Bible differed from the Latin Vulgate, people got upset and questioned him. Perhaps the most famous example is 1 John 5:7-8. Let me read those verses from Erasmas’s first and second editions (an English translation anyhow): “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”

I’ll now read the same verses from his third edition:

For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:7-8)

In his first two editions, Erasmus was missing that seemingly vital clause: “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.” When people attacked him for it, he responded, “If a single manuscript had come into my hands, in which stood what we read [in the Latin Vulgate] then I would certainly have used it.” In other words, that phrase was not found in even the later Byzantine manuscripts.

Where does that phrase come from? We know that it appears in the Latin Vulgate. We know that it appears in the margin notes of a few later manuscripts. It does not appear, however, in any Greek text of 1 John until the 14th century. Most manuscripts which include it are from after the time of Erasmus.

My best guess is that it originated in the Catholic Church during the 4th century, made its way into the Latin Vulgate, and eventually embedded itself in Christian culture. Regardless, Erasmus must have felt pressure to include it, so he added it to his third edition with the annotation, “I have restored the text … so as not to give anyone an occasion for slander.”

From Erasmus to the Textus Receptus

I’ve spent all this time talking about Erasmus because the third edition of his work became an important part of the King James Bible. In A.D. 1559, a Catholic turned Protestant best known as Stephanus made several revisions to Erasmus’s third edition and published it. In A.D. 1605, Theodore Beza, a student of John Calvin, did the same. He took Stephanus’s work, made additional changes, and published it. By the way, they were both working with Greek, not Latin.

Before we go any further, let me put it all together for you in a nutshell. First, Erasmus combined a handful of later Byzantine manuscripts with the Latin Vulgate. Second, he revised and changed the text twice. Third, Stephanus revised the text again. Fourth and final, Beza also revised the text multiple times.

About the time Stephanus is working on his revisions, The Bishops’ Bible is published by the Church of England. The goal was to create an English translation of the Bible that could potentially replace the so-called “Calvinistic” Geneva Bible, which had come out a decade before. Suffice it to say that Queen Elizabeth had several objections to the Geneva Bible.

The Bishops’ Bible is relevant because it became the framework of the King James Version. King James himself told the translators, “The ordinary Bible, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, is to be followed and as little altered as the original will permit.” The King James translators took the Bishops’ Bible in one hand, and Beza’s text in the other, and they created the King James Bible of 1611.

What about the Textus Receptus? Textus Receptus (or the “received text”) is a slightly misleading title for the Greek text underlying the KJV’s New Testament. In fact, it wasn’t branded “the received text” until A.D. 1633, more than twenty years after the KJV was published. The name was basically a marketing ploy by the publisher.

It’s also a misleading title because it gives people the impression that the text is superior or perhaps the closest text we have to the original autographs of the Bible. As important as the TR is, it actually represents a relatively small sample of later manuscripts which underwent numerous revisions. It contains readings that cannot be found in any other Greek manuscript. Unless God was essentially re-inspiring the Bible during the TR’s evolution, we simply cannot claim that it’s the de facto version of the New Testament.

Critics of the King James Bible

Throughout most of church history, people have fallen into the trap of human traditions. Richard Baxter once aptly stated, “Men think God’s laws too many and too strict, and yet make more of their own.” When Erasmus decided to create a new Latin Bible, people vehemently protested. How dare you think you can improve upon the Bible! Believe it or not, people had the same reaction when the King James translators went to work on a new English Bible.

I wish modern printings of the KJV still included the translators’ original preface. They defended themselves against their many critics. The primary argument against them was this: Why make another English translation when we already have a good one? The translators answered by writing, “Nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” In other words, the previous versions of the Bible were great, but perhaps they could build upon the work of others to make an even better one.

At one point in the preface, the translators say, “We affirm and avow that the very meanest [or poor] translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.” As an example, they go on to talk about translations of the king’s speeches in various languages. Some translations are better than others, but the king’s speech is still the king’s speech. Even if the words aren’t exact, chances are, the substance of the speech is still in tact.

The King James translators did not believe they had created a 100-percent perfect translation of the Bible. Their governing philosophy was to make (hopefully) a more accurate translation with even greater readability than previous translations. In fact, they had already revised the text before the first edition was even published. Technically, the first edition never saw the light of day. The first printing was a combination of the first and second editions.

As you probably know, the KJV continued to be revised time and time again for more than 150 years. I’m not entirely sure which version was the last truly authorized revision, but most people today are reading the Oxford edition of 1769. You could be reading the Cambridge edition of 1762. My personal favorite is the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible. The text of that edition comes the closest to the 1611 KJV minus its archaic spellings. It also has the advantage of updated punctuation and formatting.

The flaws of KJV-Onlyism

With some hesitation, I feel that I should address the potential elephant in the room: King James Onlyism. Much like the Latin Vulgate or The Bishops’ Bible did at one time, the King James Version has a tendency to stir strong emotions in people. If anyone dares suggest there is a better translation of the Bible or even a translation of equal merit, there’s a chance someone will take offense. I know because I used to be that guy.

By now, you may understand why King James Onlyism has some flaws. In case you don’t, I’ll give you two things to think about.

1) The KJV of 1769 is not the KJV of 1611.

Occasionally, I’ll come across an Articles of Faith or church statement that says, “We believe that the scriptures comprising the Old and New Testaments, as given in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, are of divine authority.” The problem is, these churches are not using the 1611 KJV. They are most likely using the Oxford edition of 1769.

There are more than 100,000 differences between the 1611 and 1769. While the vast majority of changes are merely updates to the spellings of words, there are meaningful changes to the text. For instance, where Ezekiel 24:7 of the 1611 says, “She poured it upon the ground,” the 1769 says, “She poured it not upon the ground.” Though that example may not have any serious theological ramifications, it is still a direct contradiction between the two versions.

King James Onlyism is based on the premise that the KJV is the one and only accurate translation of the Bible. The question is, which version of the King James Bible are we talking about? They can’t both be 100-percent accurate if there is even one contradiction.

2) The KJV is not the inspired Word of God.

The KJV is a translation of copies of the inspired Word of God. I make this point because King James Onlyism tends to ignore all of Bible history before 1611. I’ve never heard anyone explicitly say it, but the KJV is often treated as though God re-inspired Scripture through its creation. God originally inspired people to write his word; then he re-inspired the King James translators.

How else could we solve the dilemma of textual variants in the manuscripts? How else could we explain the perfection of the King James Bible in light of the numerous changes to the text before and after it was translated? We’d have to assume that God essentially started over by inspiring a fresh version of his Word.

The truth is, and I mean no disrespect to anyone, King James Onlyism has more to do with the comforts of tradition than the facts of history. It puts our minds at ease to think we’re reading a perfect representation of God’s inspired Word.

Please don’t misunderstand me. The KJV is a fantastic translation of the Bible. There should be a copy in every Christian home, and we should read it. I don’t know of any Bible that is better for memorizing Scripture than the KJV. Even so, it’s not the only good translation into English. Just ask the translators themselves. They believed in accuracy and—let’s not forget—readability.

The importance of readability

In the midst of the King James Only controversy years ago, George Ladd, a Baptist minister, remarked:

The Holy Spirit chose as the language of the New Testament revelation the colloquial [or ordinary] language of everyday people, not an ancient classical idea. The modern insistence upon the supremacy of the King James Version of 1611 represents a reversal of the action of the Holy Spirit by insisting that for us the best idiom for the word of God is not the modern colloquial idiom, but the ancient classical language of Shakespeare.

He makes an excellent point. The apostle Paul said, “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards … God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1Co 1:26-27). The Spirit of God did not inspire the Bible to be written in lofty, sophisticated prose. It was written so that even the uneducated person could read and understand.

The KJV translators understood the importance of making the Bible easy to read. In large part, the KJV was revised so many times for that very reason. I cannot exaggerate how crucial it is for English-speakers to have a Bible they can read and readily understand without needing a dictionary from the 18th century.

What in the world is an armhole? (It’s an armpit.) What’s an oblation? (It’s an offering.) The KJV uses more than 400 obsolete words. It also uses many antiquated styles of formatting, sentence structure, and punctuation. To be clear, I’m not suggesting you throw away your King James Bible, but most Christians would greatly benefit from reading modern translations in addition to the KJV.

My wife grew up using the New International Version (NIV). I always found it amusing when I would preach from the KJV, explain what a word or phrase means, and she’d tell me after the sermon, “Your explanation is precisely what my Bible says.” It occurred to me that someone reading the NIV may very well have a better grasp on the substance of the text than someone reading the KJV. Why? They’re not fumbling through the obscurity of a passage written in archaic English. Modern translations remove that unnecessary layer of difficulty, making the text much clearer to the average reader.

Modern translations compared

Briefly, let’s talk about modern translations.

In A.D. 1782, the first KJV was printed in America. In A.D. 1833, Noah Webster published a revision of the KJV. In A.D. 1863, Robert Young produced a new translation intended to be more literal than the KJV. Of course, it was also more difficult to read. In A.D. 1901, the American Standard Version becomes the first major revision of the KJV in the United States. In A.D. 1952, the Revised Standard Version becomes the second.

Things get a little more interesting in the Sixties and Seventies. In A.D. 1971, the New American Standard Bible is published, fundamentally changing Bible scholars’ approach to translating the Bible from that day forward. Rather than exclusively use the Hebrew Masoretic text for the Old Testament and the Greek Textus Receptus for the New Testament as the KJV did, the NASB translators also used the Greek Septuagint for the Old Testament and a much wider pool of Greek manuscripts for the New Testament. Remember that the Textus Receptus represents only six or seven of the later Byzantine manuscripts. The NASB uses both Byzantine and the older Alexandrian manuscripts.

How are they different? In many cases, they’re not, but there are some verses where the NASB translates the older manuscripts while the KJV translates the newer manuscripts. For instance, here’s an example from Matthew 17:20. The Textus Receptus and the KJV say, “Because of your unbelief.” The Alexandrian manuscripts and the NASB say, “Because of the littleness of your faith.” The words are very similar but distinct.

In A.D. 1973, the NIV takes the same approach. They don’t disregard the Textus Receptus and the KJV, but they use as many ancient manuscripts as possible when translating. The NIV, however, doesn’t follow the same word-for-word method as the KJV and NASB. Instead, they translate using a phrase-for-phrase method. Rather than translate the exact wording in every case, they attempt to translate the essential thought being conveyed in some verses.

For example, Luke 9:44 in the KJV says, “Let these sayings sink down into your ears.” That’s not an expression we commonly use anymore, so the NIV doesn’t translate the exact wording. Instead, it says, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.”

By the way, don’t mistake a phrase-for-phrase translation for a paraphrased Bible. They are drastically different. A paraphrased Bible is hardly a translation at all. It’s a work of interpretation. The author is interpreting the text, not translating.

In A.D. 1982, the New King James Version is published. In my opinion, it’s a strange and perhaps unnecessary translation of the Bible. Its New Testament comes from the Textus Receptus just like the KJV, but the Old Testament comes from the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Masoretic text. That’s not a problem, but it does beg the question, why? If you’re trying to appeal to avid readers of the KJV, why depart from the King James tradition when translating the Old Testament?

If you happen to be one who believes the Hebrew text and the Textus Receptus are superior to what most modern Bibles use, but you still want a Bible in modern English, I recommend the Modern English Version (MEV). It is a perfect parallel to the KJV in modern English. In fact, you can buy a parallel Bible that has the KJV text on one side and the MEV text on the other side.

In A.D. 2002, the English Standard Version (ESV) was published. This Bible managed to bridge that important gap between accuracy and readability. The NASB was very accurate, but it wasn’t the easiest Bible to read. The NIV was much easier to read, but it wasn’t as accurate because it was a phrase-for-phrase translation rather than word-for-word. The ESV provides us with the best of both worlds.

Let’s compare a phrase from Acts 28:13. The KJV says, “And from thence we fetched a compass.” The NIV says, “From there we set sail.” The ESV says, “And from there we made a circuit.” They all say the same thing, but the ease of reading changes from one to the next.

Which version should you read?

Whenever I talk about this subject, someone will inevitably ask, “What version of the Bible should I read?” I’ll give you a few recommendations.

First, read the KJV, preferably the New Cambridge Paragraph KJV. It’s the closest you’ll come to reading the 1611. Plus, the formatting is much better.

Second, read the ESV. It’s an essentially literal translation in modern English. Even when it differs from the KJV because it uses older manuscripts, it includes footnotes to show you what other manuscripts say. In other words, even when the ESV supposedly “removes” text from the Bible, the text is still there. You’ll see a footnote that says, “Some manuscripts say—”

Third, read the NIV. According to Daniel Wallace, one of the most notable Bible scholars of our day, the NIV is perhaps the best representation of the original autographs of the Bible we have to date. While it’s not a strict word-for-word translation, it captures the essential meaning of the text better than most. Personally, I’m partial to the ESV, but I still reference the NIV quite often.

Fourth, use the NET Bible. Notice I didn’t say read the NET Bible. You can read it, of course, but the actual translation is not where the NET Bible shines. Its gold is found in the footnotes. It contains more than 60,000 footnotes explaining why our Bibles say what they say. If you want to know why the ESV doesn’t include John 5:4, go to John 5:4 in the NET Bible and read the footnote.

Using multiple versions of the Bible will be a tremendous help to you. It’s a principle we learn by reading the four Gospels. Two or more accounts of the same story aren’t necessarily identical, but comparing them is precisely what God intends for us to do. Multiple witnesses to an event give us a fuller understanding of what happened. Reading multiple translations of the Bible give us a fuller sense of what God’s Word says.

The living and abiding word of God

Please forgive me if I’ve overwhelmed you with too much information. Perhaps now you can understand why people prefer to believe the Bible has never changed in the slightest and the KJV is an absolute perfect translation. That would make things a lot simpler, but remember what I said last night. If you hold too tightly to that belief, then a critic of the Bible could easily use the facts to destroy your faith. Don’t let that happen. The preachers who advocate King James Onlyism have built a foundation which cannot stand under the weight of even the smallest scrutiny.

Don’t trust any one version of the Bible more than you trust the inspired writings of God. Don’t trust a tradition more than you trust God to maintain the power of the gospel even through “the very meanest translation,” as the KJV translators put it.

For 2,000 years, the church’s enemies have sought to destroy the Bible. The Bible has been copied and passed on under the worst of conditions. Scribes made mistakes along the way. They left out words. They added words. Today, there are nearly 7,000 languages in the world. Close to 5,000 of them have a translation of some or all of the Bible. Of course, some of those translations are better than others.

Can we even trust the Bible after all it’s been through? It’s been changed. Important manuscripts have been lost. The very best of translations have been revised.

A preacher once asked me, “Why confuse people by highlighting textual variants in the manuscripts or flaws in the King James Bible? What good does it do to call into question the accuracy of Scripture?”

I told him, “An ounce of evidence is worth more than a pound of presumption.” Believers should not be willingly ignorant of the facts. False assumptions do not glorify God, and they don’t help us.

I think we sometimes forget the most fundamental aspect of the Bible. Listen to what Peter said: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1Pe 1:23).

A book is just a book. Text is just text. Don’t make an idol out of your Bible. Always remember that the power of the Bible is not in the ink on the page. The power is God’s power. He makes the Bible come alive. Scribal errors and imperfect translations cannot prevent God from keeping the message of the gospel in tact and transforming lives even 2,000 years after the words were first written.

If the real history of the Bible doesn’t make you awestruck at what God has accomplished despite sinners doing our very best to compromise it, then I’m not sure you’ll ever be awestruck. The more I learn about the Bible, the more thankful I am for the providence of God.