The Mercies of God and the Transformed Christian Mind, Q & A

The Cove | Asheville, North Carolina

(These notes taken during the session)

How does the Bible respond to the issue of slavery?

Good question. Tough question. My answer goes in two directions:

  1. Distinguish kinds of slavery (there are punitive kinds of slavery and chattel kinds of slavery; some may be appropriate, some are not), and...
  2. The Philemon approach. Paul wrote to Philemon as a way of undermining the presuppositions that make slavery stand. Then the question becomes: Why didn’t the New Testament writers not just come out and damn slavery explicitly. I think it could go back to the indigenous principle and what was timely and helpful in the first-century context. There are enough impulses there in the New Testament to guide us today on this issue. I think Philemon in the New Testament does hold the key to the undermining of slavery.

How’s your health?

As far as I know, I don’t have cancer. My PSA is negligible. But I thought I was cancer-free before. None of us knows what’s coming tomorrow. So we all have to rest in God.

Is Gen. 1:28 a command to have as many children as possible?

No, it’s not wrong to use non-abortifaciant birth control. There may be kingdom reasons for determining whether you have ten or five children. What biblical basis would you give? It relates to the whole issue of whether you should marry or not. Genesis 2 says that man should not be alone. That’s normative. Then you come to Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, and he’s single and wishes that all would be. Tension. Here’s my answer. Genesis 2 is before the Fall. If there was no sin, then that would have remained normative. Then Paul qualifies a creation ordinance with a redemptive principle. Now apply this principle to children. The creation ordinance is to pursue a full quiver, lots of babies. But then redemptive factors come in that may qualify that. I just want to plead that we not let those factors be selfish factors. Just like it is fitting to not be married in light of the redemptive order, so it is fitting to use birth control for kingdom reasons and godly purposes.

How does a sovereign God work with our prayers?

God is absolutely sovereign and governs all that comes to pass. And I totally believe that God answers prayer and that when you don’t pray God doesn’t do things that He might have done had you prayed. God is as sovereign over your prayers and He is over the answers. He ordains the done thing and the means to get it done. If God wants a nail driven into a 2X4, then He’ll ordain that a carpenter hit it with a hammer. So it is with other means of grace—like prayer and evangelism. God ordains both the end and the means. He has ordained to use the means of prayer. Pascal said that in prayer God gives man the dignity of secondary causality. It’s the people who don’t believe in the sovereignty of God who have a problem with prayer, if they don’t think it through. We’re all Calvinists on our knees. Prayer is a God-appointed means.

How can I be merciful toward someone I’m intensely angered by?

We have three more hours on mercy coming. I will wrestle at the end of Romans 12 with when it’s best to be tolerant and when to be confrontive. It happens with you being overwhelmed by the mercy of God toward you. We all deserve so much more to be hurt by God than anyone else deserves hurt from us. Out of sensing God’s mercy toward us, we find ways to bless. But more is coming.

I find it really hard to get the sense that God is really totally for us. Can you help me?

We all have trouble with this. We are wired for despair or legalism. Some are wired to be gloomy and sorrowful, and some are make-it-happen people—make it happen with God, church growth, sanctification, everything. We never grow beyond our need for the gospel. The gospel is not something by which you get saved and then you live your life another way. Romans 8:32 is my return-to verse when I’m fighting your fight. He didn’t spare His own Son—how can He not also with Him freely give us all things? If He did this hardest thing, how sure is it that He will do the easier thing? The hardest thing God ever did for you was giving over His Son. Everything else is a piece of cake. He’s done the hardest thing. Now he’s totally for us. So we must daily preach the gospel to ourselves. I used to have the naïve notion that sanctification was progressive in the sense that it was cumulative. But we will struggle with sin until the hour we die. And what will we do in that hour? Recall a few alternative good deeds? That’s not how the conscience finds rest. I’ll tell my soul, “He died for me.” All the way to the end, we preach the gospel to ourselves.

How do your reconcile the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man?

I don’t think those need to be reconciled because I don’t think the freedom of man exists if by it you mean ultimate, self-determination. We are all slaves of sin until we are liberated and become slaves of God. We’re not neutral. We’re wired to love ourselves. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. The question that really matters is: How do you reconcile the sovereignty of God with man’s accountability? How am I accountable for my deeds if I’m already bent that way? There have been valiant efforts, like Jonathan Edwards’ The Freedom of the Will.

Here’s where I’m resting: I don’t think I’ll be able in this life to give a satisfactory answer to how. The Bible teaches both. Both are true. God is totally sovereign. And human beings are totally accountable for what they do. I live with this tension. I preach this tension. You are responsible to do this, and God is sovereign. I’ve found that when this is fleshed out in real life, it is not mainly troubling for people but mainly comforting. Some of the people who have walked through the deepest water love this truth the most. It is a great hope to know that God is sovereign and can save the worst of sinners.

One more thing: Unconditional election is a tremendous help in evangelism. If someone says to you that they have sinned so deeply that there is no way God could put His favor on them. My answer: Who do you think you are to say that God couldn’t have chosen you? How bad you are has nothing to do with whether God has chosen you! Unconditional election says that recalling your whole history of sinfulness is useless in disqualifying you from His election. And if you believe, you are elect.

What does it mean that you are a seven-point Calvinist?

I don’t say that much anymore. It just puzzles people. Calvinist is bad word in the South. You can junk the word if you like. The other two are:

6) This is the best of all possible worlds, and...

7) Double predestination (the doctrine of reprobation). Nobody at the Judgment Day will be wronged. None will have a charge to bring against God. Those whom God does not elect will be genuinely deserving of their damnation.

The ultimate purpose of the universe is the display of the mercy of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If this is the ultimate goal, then God would have to ordain sin. And death. And suffering. Without sin and death and suffering, there is no cross. The cross was not Plan B. Several New Testament texts say that we received grace before the world began. This world is Plan A. Malaria. The inner city. It’s all Plan A. What kind of God would say, “Oops.” He’s working everything together into a perfect, beautiful tapestry that we can’t yet clearly see from our perspective. The alternative to a sovereign God to explain the suffering of this world is no comfort to the sufferer.

How would you speak the gospel to a family member who professes Christ but believes he was born a homosexual?

I need more information. Would he say that he’ll act that out as a Christian? I do believe that there are some genetic bases for homosexuality. I’m not troubled by that. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. I’m spring-loaded to certain sins because of my parents but I’m still responsible. Homosexuality is a disordering of nature. We should acknowledge this. Whether he sins with this disordered sexuality depends on whether he remains chaste.

Everyone in this room is disordered some way. We’re all not natural in some ways. But what we do with our disordered life is what matters. What sends people to hell is not being wired toward homosexuality but acting it out and persisting in unbelief. There are avenues to live chastely and be used of the Lord in ways of ministry. There are a lot of unanswered questions there, but I find that to be helpful.

One more thing: Never let someone use homosexual as a noun referring to themselves if they’re a Christian. In Christ, we are new creatures. Our identity is in Christ. There may be homosexual temptations and struggles, but don’t say that a Christian is a homosexual. I will not identify myself in terms of my disorder.

My dad left when I was eight. It almost destroyed me. I surrender my life to Jesus at age 24. Now I’ve been married twenty years, seven kids. In light of Matthew 19 and the so-called “exception clause,” are there some divorcees called to remarriage and some not?

I just preached two messages on this just four weeks ago. I’ll sum up where I am. I’m very persuaded that the two “exception” places doesn’t make remarriage right, except if the spouse has died. God keeps covenant with His people. The day that Christ divorces His bride is the day that you can divorce your wife without any guilt.

Then what does Jesus mean in Matthew with the “exception” clauses? The word is “fornication,” not “adultery.” And Matthew uses these as distinct sins beside each other in chapter 15. Why would Jesus use “fornication” instead of “adultery”? Because of the situation that only Matthew mentions: Joseph’s resolve to divorce Mary in a just way in a betrothal situation. Matthew, having recounted that story, gets to his divorce statements and so includes the clause of exception—“whoever divorces his wife—and I’m not talking about the kind of betrothal divorce that Joseph justly resolved to do....” Now there’s a lot more to say. I don’t think any second, third, or fourth marriages should be undone because they were entered into sinfully. See those sermons here.