Some people think they see contradictions in all parts of the Bible. Recently I attended a debate at a local school where a Christian apologist debated an agnostic over the validity of the resurrection of Christ. The agnostic (a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Princeton Theological Seminary) is a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina. From what I understood, he teaches graduate students to doubt that the Bible is an inspired, or at least inerrant, book. His arguments against the resurrection boiled down to insisting that the gospels had contradictions and therefore couldn’t be trusted. His examples were generally that since the four gospels give four different views of the life of Christ, they can’t possibly all be a correct view. Unfortunately, no sufficient response was given concerning a harmony of the gospels.
I think there are also many believers who see apparent contradictions in the Bible and make little or no effort to solve them. Calvinism and Arminianism; the holiness and the love of God; and law and grace are just a few that too many people don’t care to grapple with. The one that affects us as much or more than any is the apparent contradiction between justification and sanctification, the dilemma of complete forgiveness of sin as opposed to the struggle against, and mortification of, sin. Denominations have been formed from this apparent contradiction. Some place too much sanctification in their justification, thus becoming antinomian (Free Grace and Evangelical Free movements); some place too much justification in their sanctification, thus becoming legalistic (Pentecostal and Holiness movements).
Can we handle two truths that seem to be conflicting but really aren’t? Do we know that our sins are forgiven, removed as far as the east is from the west (Psa. 103:12), that He will remember our sins against us no more (Isa. 43:25), that where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Rom. 5:20)? But do we also know that we will one day stand at the Bema Seat of Christ to receive or lose rewards for things done in our body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10), that we may be beguiled out of our reward by false worship (Col. 2:18), that we may be saved so as by fire (by the skin of our teeth!) for sexual sins done while a Christian (1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5)? The failure to understand and live with both the doctrine of justification as well as sanctification makes for a lopsided Christian. Either he will live in fear of losing his salvation, or he will live as an antinomian. Neither would be the Christian the Bible describes.
The world will never understand these intramural discussions among believers. They can think only about scales of goodness and badness and spend their natural lives struggling back and forth to no avail. But believers are made for the meat of the Word. They have the mind of Christ and are obligated to study to show themselves approved in these things before God (2 Tim. 2:15). To hide God-given truth in the ground is to receive no reward at all.
Our present desire to do away with doctrine, separation, and even holiness, is not healthy. I’ve never been one for discarding denominational names because I believe a) the lost person doesn’t care, and b) this is an honest way of informing people before they come in of what you believe and how you operate. These names usually describe a church’s polity or their conclusions about justification and sanctification. In a biblically illiterate world, we need all the help we can get in educating people to the great doctrines of the Scriptures.
There are really four kinds of people found in the Bible if we count the lost and the saved. These four, but especially the last two, show what we believe about salvation and godliness.
1. The lost man with no regard for anything religious.
We come across this man often in the Bible. He is Cain or Korah, Sandballet or Tobiah, Simon the sorcerer or Bar-Jesus. This is the spirit of antichrist that has always been present in the world. They walk in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness (Eph. 4:17-19). They are to be pitied more than feared. They are like blind men walking into things they do not see. They are objects of God’s love, but have shunned His grace at every turn. They become the enemies of the cross of Christ, Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things (Phil. 3:19).
2. The lost man who is religious.
The Bible is also full of these men and women. Sometimes they are religious hypocrites such as Jeroboam or Manasseh, the Pharisees and Sadducees, Judas and Alexander. Like Simon, they are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity (Acts 8:23) and not even Peter could pray in their place before God.
Sometimes they are good people in the natural sense, with moral and religious inclinations who would be open to the gospel if they heard it. Jethro did not know the God of Moses but loved the Hebrew people to whom his daughter had attached herself. Rahab was quick to praise the Jewish spies in Jericho and to believe, as soon as she understood that salvation was of the Jews. The Ethiopian Eunuch was a religious man seeking answers to Biblical questions, but lost in his sin until an evangelist could preach to him. Cornelius prayed and fasted and sought God’s face without true knowledge until the time when God had His apostle prepared to speak the gospel to Gentiles. Lydia went to prayer meeting regularly but was lost until the Lord opened her heart to the message of His missionary. The Bereans searched the Scriptures daily to see if what they were hearing squared with their Scriptures, but were lost until Paul came and preached the true gospel to them. Sergius Paulus was a prudent man who desired to hear the Word of God, and though Elymas sought to turn him away from the faith, he believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord.
3. The saved man who is carnal.
It is possible for a Christian to be carnal. Paul could not speak to the Corinthians in the way he desired because of their carnality (1 Cor. 3:1-3). It kept them from even being able to receive the milk of the Word that they might grow. The writer of Hebrews scolded his readers for their lack of desire to go on to heavier doctrine when they should have been teachers themselves. In more pointed language John scolds the readers of his first epistle with severe consequences for living in carnality: inability to have fellowship with God, lack of assurance of salvation, lack of love for the brethren, and a lack of discernment regarding false teachers who were already among them.
Carnality may come from a lack of understanding about one’s position in Christ. Not knowing whether one is saved or not will not bring victory in the Christian life. The helmet of salvation is needed to keep the Christian soldier from ducking at every shot fired by the enemy. Working to keep oneself saved is a discouraging occupation.
Carnality may come from a lack of time spent in God’s Word and prayer. The filling of the Spirit is dependent on the Word of Christ dwelling in us richly in all wisdom (Col. 3:16). Fellowship with the Father and with the Son is maintained by prayer because the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and His ears are opened to their prayers (1 Pet. 3:12).
Carnality results from trying to navigate this life with the self in control instead of God. Sanctification is a work of God in our heart also. Our flesh does not have the power in itself, even regenerated, to overcome the world. As we yield to the Spirit of God, and as He teaches us through the Word of God, we grow strong in the Lord and the power of His might.
Carnality also results from thinking that all human effort to combat the flesh is unspiritual, that striving against sin is somehow a lower role in life than should be desired. But it is not. We are to be holy as He is holy, to put on armor that is made for battle, to pull down strongholds of opposition, to press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
A carnal believer is still secure in Christ. Sin cannot destroy the work of justification done in the heart. But the sinning believer appears the same as the lost man, since salvation cannot be seen except by good works. Without those Christian graces, you would not know that he is a believer except by his verbal testimony. The Bema Seat of Christ alone will reveal the sin and carnality with which many believers have lived.
4. The saved man who is spiritual.
The Christian is a spiritual man as opposed to a natural man (1 Cor. 2:14-16). Before he was saved he was by nature a child of wrath but now has been saved and changed by the Spirit of God (Eph. 2:3-5). By “spiritual” we mean spiritually mature or strong rather than weak (Rom. 15:1), spiritually mature rather than a babe in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1).
The Bible presents the spiritually mature Christian as the normal Christian. He may be a new child in Christ but knows full well his salvation, or a young man in Christ who is strong and fighting the battles of faith, or a father among believers who has walked with God from the beginning (1 John 2:12-14). This is the brother whom we are to love and with whom we ought to desire fellowship (1 John 3:14-16). It matters not whether the world of lost people love this man, since they did not love his Lord either (John 15:18). He is the example to which every young believer and every carnal believer should strive.
The spiritual Christian knows that he is never above sin (1 John 1:10) and has a great respect for the old nature that still resides in him. But this man has fought enough battles with the flesh to know where his strengths and weaknesses lie and he has walked enough years with his Lord to know where the victory comes from. He has lost desire for earthly fame or reward but more and more looks not at things which can be seen but things which cannot (2 Cor. 4:18). His wisdom is not from below but from above which begins with purity, then peacefulness, then gentleness. Others find he is easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and hypocrisy (Jas. 3:17).
There is no lost person who can imitate this man for long, no more than a sparrow can imitate an eagle or a mouse a lion. His life has a certain attractiveness about it that causes even the vilest of sinners to secretly desire its beauty. It has a certain humbleness and meekness to it to encourage the strongest believer to hold fast to his Lord. The spiritual man or woman is the real treasure in any culture.
And So . . . .
I am not and never have been for laying down our weapons of doctrinal warfare. I am for fighting a good fight and not a bitter fight, of speaking the truth in love. We know that a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. And none of us like hypocrites. For identification, fellowship, and participation in ministry, we may at times seek for common denominators, but we don’t even know what those are unless we are constantly striving for truth in every jot and tittle, nor would we be safe in such an environment unless we were grounded and settled and not moved about by every wind of doctrine.
Our road begins at its broadest intersection of the great doctrines of justification and sanctification. If we cannot navigate this cross-road, we will probably not be headed out in the right direction. Once we settle this, we will enjoy our journey through the highways and byways of God’s Word and our walk in the Spirit. If we get a little lost, we will always be able to return to this place and start again.
These things are not mere curiosity for the Christian. They are his life and passion. We must go and teach all nations . . . Baptizing them . . . Teaching them to observe all things, And we can know that He is with us, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:19-20).