Friday, 12 February 2016

How many will be saved?

Jesus was asked the question, “How many will be saved?” He gave this answer, “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). His answer is not based on the things we don’t know. It’s based on the things we do know.
These are the things that we do know:
(a) the fact of human sin which can pervert even the most well-intended theology of grace into a means of self-justification;
(b) the fact of human responsibility which may not be diminished by any system of thought, however much it may emphasize divine grace;
(c) the fact of the divine promise - “everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13) - which must be central to the Christian proclamation concerning eternal salvation.
A proper understanding of Christian proclamation is closely related to the avoidance of spiritual presumption. Speculation concerning the number of the saved, regardless of the direction it follows, can lead to spiritual presumption.
(i) “A priori” universalism may lead to spiritual presumption because it is inclined to take human responsibility with insufficient seriousness.
(ii) Eschatological dualism may lead to spiritual presumption, should the “saved” forget that they themselves have received mercy. Thus, the antithesis between good and evil becomes a proud and legalistic antithesis that isolates the “saved” from the world, rather than an antithesis which intensifies the call to witness to God’s mercy. The Gospel does not give the “saved” to regard themselves as superior to those adjudged to be lost. The Gospel is very different from the kind of moralism by which the “saved” tend to regard themselves as not so sinful that they deserve to be lost. The “saved” must never forget the Biblical warning, - “you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another?” (Romans 2:1).
The possibility of spiritual presumption need not, by itself, lead to the rejection of a particular positions. It is important, therefore, to understand that we should not reject any of these eschatological interpretations simply because of the danger of spiritual presumption. Of both of these eschatological interpretations, we ask the question, “Does this way of answering the question, ‘How many will be saved?’ provide us with an accurate echo of Christ’s response to this question?”
G C Berkouwer emphasizes that “Scripture deals with the future only in the context of preaching, appeal and demand for response” (The Return of Christ, p. 397). Questions regarding the eschaton are to be asked, not with a view to theological system-building but with a view to emphasizing the personal response of faith for which the Gospel calls.
To the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”, Jesus gave the challenging answer, “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:23-24). To the question, “Who then can be saved?, Jesus gave the encouraging answer, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:26-27).
When we read the words of Luke 13:23 - “Strive to enter by the narrow door”, we should also note the second half of this verse - “for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” In this second half of the verse, Jesus clearly indicates that there will be the lost as well as the saved. We emphasize the exhortation, as a serious call to faith in Christ, without speculating concerning a withdrawal of the threat of judgment. We must take care when we speak of these things. We dare not presume to make our own pronouncements concerning what God will or will not do. Our responsibility is to be faithful and fearless in preaching the warning of the Gospel as well as the promise of the Gospel.
What are we to say about the possibility that God, in the freedom of His grace, might choose to withdraw the threat of judgment from all people?
(a) We should not suggest that we expect this to happen. There are too many warnings in God’s Word for us to take for granted the salvation of all.
(b) We should not complain if God chooses to save all. There are suggestions, in Scripture, that this may happen. If it does, we rejoice! For now, let’s be faithful in the preaching of the Gospel. We preach the words, “Everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord” (Romans 10:13) without reducing this statement to “Everyone will be saved.” We proclaim the message, “By grace you have been saved” without forgetting to add the words “through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).
Where does this leave us in relation to the question of universalism?
It underlines the importance of ensuring that, in our preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we should continue to include the warning of the Gospel as a faithful echo of His words of exhortation - “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:24).
There are some passages of Scripture which appear to lead which appear to lead us in the direction of universal reconciliation (e.g. Romans 5:18; 1Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20).
In his book, I Believe In The Second Coming Of Jesus, S. H. Travis writes, "He would be a strange Christian who did not feel the pull of universalism. Anyone who has deeply sensed the love of God must surely long that somehow God would bring every man and woman to experience that love. Universalism has a fine emphasis on God’s love and his sovereignty in achieving his purpose. It offers hope and comfort to the bereaved … yet these advantages are dearly bought, for the doctrine is a serious distortion of biblical teaching” (p. 201).
He highlights both the attraction of universalism - “a fine emphasis on God’s love and sovereignty” - as well as the reason why many feel that they cannot commit themselves to a universalist view - “a serious distortion of biblical teaching.”
People will disagree over the interpretation of the Bible verses which feature in discussions concerning universalism. Neither side will convince the other side. I think that it is important, for both sides, to recognize that universalism has both strengths and weaknesses.
* Those who are critical of universalism should recognize the validity of the point made by Travis, “He would be a strange Christian who does not feel the pull of universalism. Anyone who has deeply sensed the love of God must surely long that somehow God would bring every man and woman to experience that love … It offers hope and comfort to the bereaved.”
* Those who teach universal salvation should recognize that, for all the “advantages” of question, we must still ask the question, “Does universalism rightly represent all that the Scriptures have to say concerning our eternal destiny?”
However we may answer this question, we must respect those who take a different point of view from ourselves.
When different Scriptures appear to be pulling us in different directions, we should take care not to go beyond what the Scriptures actually say. When we start making, “There will be …. ” statements, we may be claiming to know more than we really do know. When we are sounding out the warning, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3), we are not claiming that we know everything about what’s going to happen in the future. Our objective is to proclaim “so great salvation.” We encourage our hearers to make sure that they don’t miss out on “so great salvation.” In John 3:16, “eternal life” is contrasted with “perishing.” John 3:18 tells us that those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ are “condemned already. John 3:36 tells us that “the wrath of God rests on” them. There is ample encouragement, in the preaching of Jesus, to make sure that the Gospel warning remains a part of our preaching which has as its great goal the bringing of sinners to the Saviour - “Strive to enter by the narrow door.”

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Saved by Grace, Reaching out with Grace

"(T)he church may not function as a fearful border guard, but rather as one who brings good tidings (Rom. 10:15; Is. 52:7) .... For Christ died for us 'while we were yet sinners, while we were enemies' (Rom. 5:8,10). All hardness, imprudence and rashness can only be signs that she has forgotten the gracious overstepping of the boundaries at her birth" [G. C. Berkouwer, "The Church" (Grand Rapids, 1976), p. 162].

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Faith and Sanctification

Except for one reference to A Half Century of Theology, all of the quotations in this post are from Faith and Sanctification.
Berkouwer approaches social concern from a Biblical and Reformed perspective. In Ephesians 2:8-10, the emphases ‘by grace’ and ‘through faith’ lead directly on to the emphasis ‘for good works’. Berkouwer underscores this connection between ‘Sola Fide and Sanctification’ (Chapter II, pp. 17-44). He emphasizes that the true nature of good works cannot be understood apart from Christ who is our ’sanctification’ (1 Corinthians 1:30) (p. 21). Sanctification is not ‘the humanly operated successor to the divinely worked justification (p. 78). ‘Genuine sanctification’ has a ‘continued orientation toward justification’ (p. 78). Berkouwer emphasizes the ‘by grace … through faith’ context in which the ‘for good works’ character of sanctification expresses itself. He draws attention to the nature of the Spirit’s work in sanctification: ‘The Spirit alone could perform the miracle of making man walk on the road of sanctity without a sense of his own worth’ (p. 78). The life of sanctification has a gracious character which Berkouwer observes in the parable of the unprofitable servants (p. 41) and a social context which he sees in the parable of the good Samaritan (A Half Century of Theology, p. 191). A Reformed theology, grounded in the ‘Scripture alone’ principle, seeks to rightly represent the purpose of Scripture - ‘to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus … that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy3:15, 17). Berkouwer, in his discussion entitled ‘The Imitation of Christ’ (Chapter VII, pp. 135-160), emphasizes both the gracious character and the social context of the Biblical teaching concerning sanctification.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Living the Life of Faith

In speaking of the connection between Christian faith and Christian living, Berkouwer emphasizes the importance of a proper understanding of divine grace. He stresses that, through divine revelation and reconciliation, we become aware that we are dependent on divine grace without being destroyed by divine power. In adopting this approach, Berkouwer seeks to construct a theology which does full justice to the true objectivity of the Christian faith and the necessity for that faith to be a subjectively-experienced faith. Emphasizing that God and man are not to be viewed as competitors, he rejects both the idea that God should compel us to obey Him and the notion that man can ever find true fulfilment apart from willing and glad submission to the God of salvation.
As we affirm our faith in God, we must also emphasize the importance of a life-transforming experience of His grace. God is not merely the object of study for the academic discipline we call theology. He is the One who changes our life. To believe in Him is to be changed by Him. If we believe the Christian faith, we must also live the Christian life. We must reject a man-centred subjectivism which makes human experience the ultimate criterion by which truth is judged. If, however, theological reflection is to avoid becoming barren intellectualism, we dare not forget that the faith of the Church 'comes out of the experience of God's people struggling to hear his Word in the context of life' ( M. Eugene Osterhaven, The Faith of the Church: A Reformed Perspective on its Historical Development, p.7).
These two important points - the normativity of divine revelation for our uinderstanding of human experience and the significance of Christian experience in the development of our understanding of Christian truth - lie at the heart of Berkouwer's theology.
He emphasizes that the normativity of the Gospel excludes the idea that human experience should ever be given 'constitutive importance in the determination of the central focus of Holy Scripture' (Holy Scripture, p.124). He stresses that we only make a true affirmation of the authority of Scripture when we commit ourselves to living the life of a true believer - being a believer in deed.
Making the connection between what we believe and how we live, Berkouwer writes, 'When the 'acceptence' of Holy Scripture as the Word of God is separated from a living faith in Christ, it is meaningless and confusing to call this acceptance belief in Scripture or an 'element' of the Christian faith'. In making this point, he emphasizes that '(t)his does not imply an underestimation of Scripture or of belief in it, but rather a great respect for Scripture, which addresses itself to our faith'. Insisting that '(b)elieving Scripture does not mean staring at a holy and mysterious book, but hearing the witness concerning Christ', Berkouwer refuses to separate the acceptance of the Bible's authority from the experience of 'being gripped by the message to which its words testify' (Holy Scripture, pp. 54, 166-167).
Drawing attention to the practical challenge of the Gospel, Berkouwer emphasizes that salvation is 'not presented as a deed which as a matter of course comes to all, but as a calling of God ... an invitation, a call to conversion' (Divine Election, pp.235-236).