Ask Steve: The Definition of a Successful Church

December 15, 2015 12:48 am

Not a Chance


Currently Reading:

Not a Chance: God, Science, and the Revolt against Reason

by R.C. Sproul w/ Keith Mathison

Category: Apologetics

2014 edition, Baker Books




Question: Steve, how would you describe a successful church? What characteristics mark a successful church?

Answer: When people think of what marks a “successful” church, many things come to mind. A church with huge attendance. A church that distributes salaries and benefits to over a dozen staff members. A church that excels in getting decisions for Christ. A church represented in a radio show or library of books that he has written. A church with celebrity pastors.

Although some of these ideas are pleasant for churches to experience (and might even indicate God’s blessing on that local body), these do not capture what it means to be successful. What is successful to man might not necessary be successful to God, and vice versa. That is why it is important to measure the success of a church according to the standards of Scripture, and not according to the ways of the world. What we do before God is always more important and eternally beneficial than what we do before man.

First, a successful church faithfully teaches the word of God. A church is called to do many things, but its first and foremost task must be to house accurate and applicable Bible teaching, whether during Sunday service, special events, or weekday Bible studies. A good church has a pastor who invests ample time in studying God’s word and exposits it to the public. Paul instructed young Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-2 of the importance of faithfully teaching God’s word to his congregation: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” Why? Because “the time will come when they [the congregants] will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires…” (2 Tim 4:3). Sound preaching is necessary to the spiritual health of the local church. Good teaching leads to salvation and sanctification; bad teaching leads to false conversion and worldly living. God has appointed pastors to be the spokesman of the church. They are the prophets who warn of sin, judgment, and the need to reconcile with a holy God. They are teachers who lead believers in the way of godliness and righteousness. This is the most impressionable way that a church shepherds the flock – the public proclamation of the word of God.

Second, a successful church holds fast to the faith and defends it amidst attacks. It is no secret that there are multitudes of attacks against the Christian faith today, and was so during the time of the Apostles. Skeptics and vile opponents attempt to discredit the teachings and historical observations of the Old and the New Testament, and many professing believers introduce questionable, if not destruction, heresies into the church. That is why Jude exhorted church leaders to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed…” (Jude 3-4). The spirit of the antichrist has worked since the beginning of time to sway people away from the truth, even sending teachers who masquerade as Christians into the church to promote a type of Christianity that has no power to save or to sanctify (1 Jn 4:1-6; Rev 2:20). This is why church leaders must be on guard to defend the truth. Sadly, many churches have made a shipwreck of themselves by compromising with the spirit of the world, accepting the legitimacy of abortion, homosexuality, Catholic and Muslim ecumenism, evolution, atheistic psychology, theological liberalism, and licentiousness. Churches who go this course are not successful pastors in God’s eyes, but are disobedient to His word (Lk 6:46) often times become apostate (Rev 2).

Third, a successful church is great at helping as many in the church as possible to apply the principles of Scripture in their lives. The church must be committed to discipleship. It teaches Christians, both young and seasoned, to pray, read Scripture devotionally, grow in holiness, participate in the ordinances with a clear conscience, give of their resources sacrificially, foster attitudes of faith, hope, and love, serving in church, and, of course, participate in evangelism. The church does what it can in its power and wisdom to “present every man complete in Christ” (Col 1:28). As admirable as these goals are, a church is truly successful when they not only disciple, but create disciplemakers. This means they are committed to raising up new, effective leaders who become missionaries, church planters, Bible study leaders, evangelists, and future elders/ pastors who go out into the world and replicates everything that Scripture commands regarding the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). The goal of all pastors, and Christian leaders, is to disciple Christians with the hopes that they will become disciplemakers themselves. This is how the church successfully perpetuates the faith down through the generations, and creates more laborers for a huge labor field (Matt 9:37-38).

Last but not least, a successful church is passionate about evangelism. Jesus calls for the church to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mk 16:15) and to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul even instructed a young pastor Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5) as part of his ministry call. In a sense, one can say that all of the Christian’s training is meant to prepare him to be an ambassador for Christ. If a Christian never evangelizes, then his education and growth in the faith never becomes useful in this life. This is why churches must be committed to evangelism, since it is one of the reasons why it exists. A church that practices evangelism through various programs, and trains its laypeople to practice it in their everyday lives, is a church that has much power. It is truly successful because it actively carries out the mission and will of God.

There is much more that can be said about what defines a successful church, but these four factors are what every church should highly consider when doing ministry. There are churches that have low financial resources, meet on rented property, have moderate attendance, and receive persecution and oppression from an unbelieving society. Despite these seeming failures, the church is a success before God if it lives the word faithfully, preaches the word faithfully, defends the word faithfully, and duplicates the word faithfully. What truly counts is the church’s commitment to the Scriptural principles that define a church. When it is all said and done, what counts is Jesus declaring to laborers of the church, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).


Recommended Resource: Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

Preaching on Hollywood Boulevard

November 29, 2015 10:48 pm



Currently Reading:

The Character of Leadership: Nine Qualities that Define Great Leaders

by Jeff Iorg

Category: Christian Life / Ministry

2007, B&H Publishing




Yesterday I had the privilege of evangelizing unbelievers in Hollywood by openly proclaiming the gospel to hundreds on Hollywood Blvd, as well as giving out tracts and DVDs afterwards. It’s been nearly 8 years since I’ve been saved and developed a zeal for evangelism, and I still see it as a vital part of the Christian life. I appreciate your prayers as I continue on these evangelism adventures and improving on my open air preaching:

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Open Air Preaching at North Hollywood Metro Station

November 11, 2015 12:30 am

The Mystery


Currently Reading:

The Mystery of the Holy Spirit

by R.C. Sproul

2015, 1990 1st ed., Ligonier Ministries

Category: Pneumatology / Theology




Last week, I had the opportunity to open air preach at North Hollywood train station. I’ve been to this spot many times with Grace Community Church for Sunday evangelism in the afternoon, but this was the first time I’ve actually preached publicly at this location. This is my 2nd time open air preaching (first time being at UCLA), and I would like to think I am improving as time goes by. Please continue to pray for my outreach ministry, whether it is tract distribution, one-on-one conversations, or open air preaching, that my work will bear much fruit in conviction and conversion.

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Book Review: It’s Not What You Think by Jefferson Bethke

October 26, 2015 12:13 am

It's Not

Jefferson’s Bethke’s new book, It’s Not What You Think, tackles the subject of Christian living in a unique way. The whole premise of the book is that Christianity is not just about a ticket to the afterlife, but that it has significant relevant and ramification for the present life. That is why Christians must see the significance of the kingdom of God as something we are to live out in our day to day lives.

While it is true that Christianity affects how we live and how it impacts society, the major concern I have with this book is its tendency to confuse the mission of the church with what the righteous actions of believers is suppose to be in conjunction with that mission. We are called to preach the gospel to all creation with the hope that unbelievers will respond and be saved. That is the essence of the Christian mission, and to much degree, the Christian life. However, it is true that the Christian is also called to live holy and godly, and be living testimonies of salvation to a lost world.

In general, I see this as an inspiring book for Christian living, but I can’t quite recommend it as a book concerning the church’s mission or what the gospel is.

Note: This book was provided complimentary by I was not obligated to give a good review, but only my honest opinion.

Book Review: Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas

October 2, 2015 6:31 pm


Sacred Marriage is one of Gary Thomas’ most popular book. It is also a tremendously helpful one. It is not a book that gives practical tips on how to better a marriage. Rather, it is a book that describes what marriage should be built on and what should result: Holiness. When a marriage produces holiness in the life of each spouse, it accurately represents the gospel to a watching world and brings glory to God, since the marriage is the ultimate picture between Christ and His bride, the church.

The book is broken down into 14 chapters. Each chapter speaks about a key practice of marriage that fosters holiness and spiritual growth. Chapter 4 (Learning to Love) teaches how love practiced within the marriage covenant can help the spouse grow in love towards all people in general. The practice of prayer, in Chapter 6, also shows how praying constantly and habitually with your spouse can be the vehicle to foster a vibrant prayer life. Each chapter shows practices that are vital and God-glorifying in your marriage, and how such affects your Christian walk in that it helps you to become more Christlikeness.

This is a book I would recommend. Its message is truly biblical, and more marriages can be what God intended it to be if spouses follow the principles laid out in this book. Marriage is not about personal fulfillment, needs, or sexual attraction, but about how one can selflessly serve one another, the effect being that each partner in the marriage grow in sanctification. Sanctification should be the goal of all Christians, no less married couples, who have a chance to practice such things on each other in building their character, effectiveness for ministry, and ultimately for the future day of the Lord.

Note: I received this book as a complimentary book from I was not obligated to give a good review, but only my honest opinion.

Ask Steve: Original Sin

September 28, 2015 7:26 pm

Kingdom First


Currently Reading:

Kingdom First: Starting Churches that Shape Movements

by Jeff Christopherson w/ Mac Lake

Category: Christian Ministry

2015, B&H Publishing




Question: Steve, what are the implications of Adam’s sin to the rest of the human race?

Answer: It is amazing to think that the world’s evil and brokenness is historically linked to the actions of the first man who had ever lived. Yet this is what God’s word teaches. The fall of Adam, as described in Genesis 3, is the cause of all the evil, pain, and suffering that has happened in creation ever since. The first man Adam, as well as the first woman Eve, was created sinless, fully capable of free will in obeying God and choosing good. This was a time in which no sin, evil, or disorder existed in God’s created universe.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the fruit from which the Lord commanded them not to eat of, they changed the entire course of history. They committed a grave sin which changed their moral condition (Gen 3:3; Rom 5:12). Not only did the sin destroy Adam and Eve’s moral purity, but also that of their offspring. In fact, sin ruined the whole of creation, which is why labor for man became difficult, and why there is disease, natural disasters, disorder, and decay. Because Adam was given dominion and stewardship over all the earth, his fall affected both his offspring and nature. This is called the doctrine of federal headship, which is defined as Adam legally representing his entire line of descendants in his moral actions. Because our federal head (Adam) fell, all of his descendants (while in Adam’s loins) fell as well. Because our federal head became guilty before God, that same guilt was imputed to all of those whom he represents – his children. This comprises everyone on earth who has lived since then, including you and me.

What exactly then is the implication of Adam’s sin for the human race? It is that every man born today is sinful by nature and incapable of repairing or altering their moral condition. This is the result of Adam’s original sin: it brought about physical and spiritual death, eternal separation from God, condemnation for sins, and personal depravity. The doctrine of original sin does not mean that we are all held personally accountable for Adam’s Garden of Eden disobedience, as if we are being punished for his crime against God. Scripture teaches that every man is held accountable for his own sins (Deut 24:16; Gal 6:5). Rather, original sin is the resulting condition of Adam’s transgression. Simply put, it is the default sin nature and consequences that was passed down to all of Adam’s descendants – a condition that would not have been so if Adam had not fallen into sin.

Adam 3This sin nature is the reason behind mankind’s total depravity. Total depravity is the teaching that every person is enslaved to a sinful lifestyle, with no real capacity to obey God and to live holy. This is because they are spiritually dead, and as a result, cannot please God with the purpose of earning salvation or even divine blessings through their everyday actions and lifestyle. This results in a separation between God and man which man cannot fix on his own efforts. Romans 3:10 states, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have come useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”

Mankind has no desire to seek God and to live for Him. They can certainly seek after a false god or an idol, but not the true God of the Bible. As Jesus taught, men love the darkness rather than the light (John 3:19). By nature, men live in the domain of darkness (Eph 5:8) and are likened to spiritual offspring of Satan (Jn 8:44). The depravity of man and their innate moral condition cannot be more obvious than Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:7, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Jesus casually, but significantly, affirms the sinful nature of humanity in this verse, and even affirms in Mark 10:18 that “no one is good except God alone.”

Adam 1Our sinful condition is the reason why we commit sin everyday. It is why we lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, fornicate, curse, gossip, slander, and hate others. Sin has affected our inward thought life, which includes pride, greed, lust, bitterness, unforgiveness, evil thoughts, covetousness, sloth, and jealousy. Sin has caused us to enjoy things which are sinful and to even encourage others to stumble into this sin, whether it be drunkenness, gluttony, homosexuality, abortion, or idolatry. Sin has even caused us to shrink back from failing to do what we ought to do, whether it be upholding justice or simply doing what is right. People struggle with different sins to a varying degree, but there is no case in which no person is not sinful by nature.

This reality is antithetical to the spirit of our age. Pop culture teaches that people are good by nature and only occasionally fall into minor sins, while major sinners are the truly evil people. In certain circles where moral absolutes are not defined, there is no such thing as a good or bad person, only mentally sane and insane people. New Age and Eastern philosophy teaches that every man has a divine nature within their being that only needs to be tapped into. Even Jewish and Muslim theology do not believe in the idea of original sin, but that men are born with a clean slate, and only occasionally do bad things. There are also certain sectors of Protestantism that do not believe that original sin has totally incapacitated man. The heresy of Pelagianism holds that original sin did not taint human nature completely. Man can still will to live a sinless life and to freely choose between good and bad.

Adam 2Are men capable of “doing good?” It depends on what standard you abide by. In secular morality, a person is good as long as he is kind to others, respect every one’s rights, is tolerant, and does not do commit major crimes like murder or theft. The Bible does not teach that men are incapable of doing things that are morally pleasing to other people. There are people who show acts of kindness, charity, selflessness, and patience. However, it is the motives behind these acts that God takes into consideration. The ultimate motive for every selfless, righteous act must be the glory of God. It must be done as an act of worship. If not done under these conditions, then every act of “goodness” is tainted and filthy rags in God’s sight (Is 66:4). Because unbelievers do not seek God and serve themselves, non-Christians who display such acts of charity only do so out of convenience, personal inclination, public praise, or because they are expected to do so in order to be men-pleasers. This is what Scripture means when it says that the intentions of the human heart are evil continually (Gen 6:5).

The implication of Adam’s sin is serious because it describes the moral dilemma that the world is in. Without acknowledging the reality of original sin, there is no logical explanation behind the evil and sufferings that we see in the world. Most importantly, there is no desire for the cure that is only found in the gospel. The gospel is not necessarily if the fall of Adam has not affected every man who has ever lived. There is no such thing as a righteous or good person, which is why every man needs to repent and believe in Christ in order to be delivered from the penalty (justification), power (sanctification), and presence of sin (glorification). Only than is there hope. The Holy Spirit not only applies the judicial righteousness that is required for a sinner to enter heaven, but also the practical righteousness that is required for a sinner to worship God in spirit and in truth.

Open Air Preaching at UCLA

September 27, 2015 5:38 am

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do open air preaching for the first time. It was something I wanted to do for about 5 years now, but never had an opportunity to do so until yesterday when I met up with an evangelist friend at UCLA for evangelism. It’s about 10 minutes, and based on Revelation 20:11-15. Tell me what you think!

Ask Steve: Israel and the Church

July 27, 2015 10:02 pm

Israel 2












Question: Steve, I have often heard talks about whether the church is the new Israel, or whether Israel and the church are distinct? Can you explain to me your beliefs on this issue, and why this issue matters to Christians (if at all)?

Answer: The correlation between Israel and the church has been a topic of immense debate for centuries, with opinions differing even amongst the godliest of men. There are only really two major views on this subject: 1. The church has become the new Israel in the figurative sense. God transferred all of the ancient covenant promises and benefits from ethnic Israel to the church. This view is called supercessionism, or replacement theology, and is popular amongst the Reformed branch of Christianity. 2. The church and Israel are distinct entities. The unconditional covenant promises to Israel remain intact to this day, which means there is still a future plan for the redemption of ethnic Israel in the last days. This view is called restorationism, and is prevalent amongst the dispensational and fundamentalist branches of Christianity, along with many Messianic Jews.

One’s view on this topic does not constitute a redefinition of the gospel or Christian living, which means that it is a secondary issue that Christians can agree to disagree on. However, a Christian’s belief about this issue does affect his hermeneutics (Scripture interpretation method), ecclesiology (church government) and eschatology (timing of the tribulation, millennial), which is why it is still a big enough issue for local churches to be separated by it. Depending on where you stand, it will affect your interpretation of nearly 1/3 of the Old Testament (prophetic passages), as well as key eschatological passages in the Gospels, Romans, and Revelation. That is why a Christian should have clear convictions regarding the meaning and relationship of Israel and the church, especially if they want to become teaching pastors or elders at a church.

My view is that Israel and the church are distinct. I don’t come to this conclusion because I have a particular bias toward ethnic Israel or Orthodox Judaism. I believe this because it seems to be what the Old and New Testament clearly teaches when comprehensively pieced together and understood in its plain sense of communication. I believe that when Scripture is read through grammatical-historical hermeneutics, God outlines a picture of Israel’s unique identity and future redemption. One would need to allegorize many portions of the Bible in order to equate Israel and the church as one and the same, or read New Testament theology into the Old Testament. However, we know that what God intended to communicate to the Israelites in the Old Testament cannot mean something different than what He intends to communicate to the church. This means that if God declared that He would redeem and restore national Israel (in the Old Testament), then He will redeem and restore national Israel. Now it is just a matter of timing.

The first reason to believe in the distinction between Israel and the church is the innumerable Scriptural references that teach it. For example, Jeremiah 33:6-7 prophesies, “Behold, I will bring to it health and healing, and I will heal them; and I will reveal to them an abundance of peace and truth. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel and will rebuild them as they were at first.” Concerning the future reign of the Messiah King, Zechariah 14:10 declares, “All the land will be changed into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem…People will live in it, and there will no longer be a curse, for Jerusalem will dwell in security.”

These are only a few of many prophetic passages in the Old Testament that indicate a reversal of fortune, redemption, and healing for Israel. The nation of Israel will be protected and delivered in the last day, being transformed from a waste land into an utter paradise of beauty and prosperity, where the Messiah would rule from His throne. Scripture is very specific in the details, such as when it speaks about the penalty of those nations that do not go up to Jerusalem to honor the Lord Jesus when He reigns in His millennial kingdom: “If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the LORD will smite the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (Zech 12:18).

The perspicuity of Scripture testifies to the truth of this observation. These prophecies, including its exact details of geography or events, would be completely mysterious, if not meaningless, if God intended it to only be a symbol pointing to the church. The Apostle Paul reaffirms the truth of Israel’s redemption in the last days in the New Testament era, when he writes in Romans 11:25-26, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery – so that you will not be wise in your own estimation – that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved…”

Israel 1The second reason that Israel and the church are distinct is God’s unconditional promises to Israel. In Genesis 12:3, we see God establish a unilateral, unconditional covenant with Abram. The terms of this covenant is that God would bless Abram with innumerable descendants (Israel), that they would inherit a land (Canaan), and that they would be a blessing to other nations (salvific plan). In 2 Samuel 7:12, we observe God’s institution of the unconditional Davidic Covenant with King David. The king would have a particular descendant who will “establish his kingdom.” As the rest of the verse reads, “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” This points to the coming of a King who would perpetual the life of David’s throne until the end of world history. Finally, Jeremiah 31:31-33 speaks about the unconditional New Covenant that God makes with Israel: “I will put My law with in them and on their heart I will write it…I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

All three of these eternal covenants have not come to its full results yet. The teachings of covenant theology are that all three of these covenants were somehow fulfilled in the church. This not only produces a number of difficulties, but contradicts the essence of a biblical covenant, especially a unilateral one where the full responsibility is on God to carry out the promises to the other party (Israel). Covenants cannot be broken, altered, or transferred (Gal 3:15). Nowhere in Scripture is there a clear, detailed explanation that the covenant promises transferred to the church, or that Israel was only a prophetic type that pointed to the antitype – the church. The only explanation as to why Israel had not benefited from these covenant promises yet is that it is an eschatological event yet to occur. This is the only reasonable position to take if one truly believes in the clarity of Scripture and the integrity of God’s faithfulness.

The third reason to believe that Israel and the church are distinct is historical. If the church is the new Israel and God pronounced His judgment on the nation during the apostolic era, why does Israel still exist today? If God wanted to make this lesson known concerning the “new Israel” that is the church, then the best way to have done this is to obliterate both the Jerusalem Temple and the Jewish people so that the mere “shadow” or “type” would no longer be necessary, since the substance came with the church. Rather, we see the ethnic people of Israel survive through the centuries, including major attempts to exterminate the race, and reconvene in Palestine to revive national Israel (in 1948) once again!

This bizarre phenomenon cannot be explained but by the intentional design of God to preserve the Jewish people, possibly for an eschatological purpose. We know this divine agenda is reasonable because God preserved and delivered the Jewish people during the 7-year famine in Egypt (Genesis 40-50), the Egyptian oppression and slavery (Exodus), the assassination attempt of Haman during Artaxerxes’ rule (Esther), and the return from exile in Babylon (Ezra, Nehemiah). Extrabiblical records also reveal God’s mercy upon the Israelites during the intertestamonial period when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to destroy the Jews, and, most recently, when Adolf Hitler pursued the same course of action. If God has a plan to preserve the Jews and bring them back to the homeland in which Jesus would return to rule on His throne, it makes reasonable sense that Satan would target the Jewish people in order to thwart God’s future plans. Yet Scripture speaks about national Israel’s rebirth (Is 11:11-12; 66:8; Ez 37:21-22) and Messiah’s reign in that land (Zech 12; Rev 20:1-10).

As I stated, the Israel and church issue at the heart of the dispensational and covenant theology debate is not significant enough that it should thwart the unity of churches that are exclusively focused on the gospel, evangelism, and holy living. However, this issue affects how one approaches and interprets Scripture, which is why it is important for ministers to assess the goal of his ministry and the extent of his expository preaching when candidating at churches. This issue is also significant because it can determine, to a large extent, whether churches support and show a high regard for the state of Israel. God promises in Genesis 12:3 that He blesses those who bless Israel and curses those who curse Israel. If this is true, then it is logical that Satan would want to discourage people from supporting Israel or from thinking that Israel is more “chosen” than other nations on earth. If the church wants to reap in God’s richest blessing, then one of its practices should be to pray for and evangelize national Israel.


Recommended Resource: Has the Church Replaced Israel By Michael Vlach

Ask Steve: The Clarity of Scripture

July 21, 2015 12:23 am



Currently Reading:

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

by Timothy Keller

Category: Prayer / Christian Living

2014, Dutton




Question: Steve, can you explain to me the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture. Is all of Scripture equally clear to everyone without distinction? If not, what qualifications must be made to the doctrine?

Answer: The clarity of Scripture is captured in an ancient doctrine called perspicuity. It is a central belief in the Christian faith, and is one of the aspects that describe the inspiration of Scripture. It is the belief that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who genuinely seek to understand and practice it. In other words, the words of Scripture are straightforward, clear, and understandable to every person on earth.  It is not mystical, relative, or open to every interpretation. A person does not need to be an intellectual or genius to understand the Bible’s teachings. A person does not need a committee or a hierarchy of leaders to interpret the Bible’s main messages for him. A person does not need to go to seminary in order to decipher the Bible’s meaning and/or true intent. The words of Scripture are written in a way that it speaks timelessly to every person who has ever lived.

The Bible is written as such by the authors because God intended it to be like that. The central message from Genesis to Revelation is man’s spiritual alienation from God, the ultimate consequences of his rebellion, and God’s work of reconciliation through Jesus Christ. It speaks concerning the problem facing mankind, and how they must respond in order to get right with the Lord. The Bible is one evangelistic book that is designed to help readers understand its message so they can respond in repentance, faith, and obedience to God.

Bible 1It is difficult for a person to come to salvation and live a faithful Christian life if the meaning of Scripture is hard to understand, historically conditioned, or subjective. Since the Bible claims to be everything that a person needs in order to be saved and prosper spiritually (2 Tim 3:16-17), the meaning needs to be clear in order for a person to follow it, no matter his intellectual, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. God is the expert communicator, and He has communicated His message in a way that even children and simple-minded people can understand. Psalm 119:130 says, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

I must say that the clarity of Scripture does not negate the need for teachers and pastors within the church. God has appointed elders and teachers (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11) for the purpose of instructing the saints. Their duty is to clarify and bring out the depth of central doctrines, explain passages that are not as easy to understand, and to exhort congregants to follow its principles. This is something that can be difficult at times for individual Christians to do, since God has designed the Christian faith to be communal and mutually edifying. Christians can read and understand Scripture in his private reading time, but he also needs to be part of the local body and learn from overseers whose task is to not only help the Christian with certain passages, but to hold him accountable to follow God’s word.

Even though the Bible is comprehensible in its central messages, not every portion is as equally clear. There are certain verses, words, and passages in both the Old and New Testament that are somewhat underdeveloped or culturally conditioned. Because of this, devout readers have a difficult time with these passages and usually need the help of pastors, commentaries, or other study aids in order to understand both the passages’ context and principle. Examples of such passages or verses include the mixing of garments in Deuteronomy 22:11, the head coverings of women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and the baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Most times, the work is in discovering the historical or cultural context of the words, but the underlying principle is always unchanging. This means that whatever principle applied to ancient Israel or the early church applies to us now in the 21st century – although the application of those principles varies according to changing times.

What exactly constitutes “clear Scripture?” Clear Scripture are passages that speak about non-negotiable doctrines, such as the meaning of the gospel and matters pertaining to faith and godly living. The Bible is crystal clear on these issues, therefore a Christian or non-Christian cannot argue that Scripture is vague on the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, justification by faith, the triune nature of God, the eternality of heaven and hell, the sinfulness of certain practices, and other relevant issues. It’s safe to say that perspicuity of Scripture also extends to doctrines such as male leadership within the church, plurality elder rule, literal six-day creation, believer’s baptism, and even eschatology (end times doctrine).

Bible 2Sometimes Christians do not find some of these issues to be perspicuous and hold different beliefs, even to the point of dividing themselves from other believers because of their stance. There are different reasons why readers do not find the meaning of Scripture to be comprehensible. The first reason is that the readers might not possibly be saved. When the Holy Spirit regenerates and indwells a person, He helps the believer grasp the truths of Scripture and convicts him to act on these principles (Jn 16:13; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 Jn 2:27). Unbelievers who do not have the Spirit possess a spiritually dead heart, which is why they do not understand Scripture, and even rebel against its black-and-white meaning (1 Cor 2:14). There is a sense in which unbelievers can grasp the concepts of the Bible, but they do not act on these principles because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:20). That is why unbelievers who are exposed to the light of the Word are held more accountable for their unbelief at the final judgment (Matt 11:24; Lk 12:47-48).

Another reason why Scripture is difficult to understand is the sin nature of the Christian. Sometimes a Christian will find an issue to be difficult to understand because he is practicing a sin that obscures his alertness in the faith (1 Pet 5:18). Even if the Christian is not harboring any sin and lives above reproach, the sin nature still blocks some Christians from deciphering and accepting the plain meaning of certain texts. Such sin propensity includes personal emotional feelings on certain subjects, stubbornly fixed notions concerning God’s character and acts, adherence to Protestant traditions, and intellectual pride arising from scholarly work. This is why a great deal of humility is required when seeking to understand all of Scripture’s meaning, because the Bible’s meaning will challenge our feelings and beliefs about certain issues, even though we might not find the truth to be personally preferable or intellectually stimulating. However, this is how a Christian must approach Scripture, especially if he believes that the Bible – as reflected in sola scriptura – is the foundation and source for interpreting all matters of life.

Bible 3The final reason why Scripture is sometimes hard to understand is that God has not gifted certain people to understand it. I am not referring to the major issues relating to salvation and sanctification, but to some secondary and peripheral issues that Christians disagree on. These people simply do not have the gift of discernment or acknowledge, which is something that the Lord distributes according to His sovereign will (1 Cor 12:8). However, this does not mean that these Christians do not have the responsibility of learning the truth for the sake of Christian growth. All Scripture is inspired so as to present every person mature in Christ (Col 2:10), which is why we need to understand it as much as possible.

The clarity of Scripture is crucial because it is the hope of every Christian’s instruction in the faith. The belief that the Bible is unclear until examined under the practice of historical-criticism, that its principles are outdated and subjective in a modern society that advocates religious pluralism, abortion, and gay rights, or that Christians need the authority of the Pope, the Mormon president, or a Christian prophet to dictate it, is clearly unbiblical and even dangerous. The clarity of Scripture is meant to reveal the truth about God to everyone, which is why the Bible is the final authority on all spiritual matters. It is the definition of absolute truth in a world that seeks to deny it or do away with it.

Recommended Resource: Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

Ask Steve: Limited and Unlimited Atonement

July 13, 2015 12:36 am



Currently Reading:

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?

by Kevin DeYoung

Category: Biblical Studies

2015, Crossway





Question: Steve, what is your view on the extent of the atonement? Did Christ die for the sins of the whole world or did He die specifically for the elect?

Answer: Scholars and fans of systematic theology find this to be a hot issue. Although this topic is not important enough that it brands one particular group as saved and the other as heretics, it still has implications on our understanding of the gospel, and to much degree, Christian living.

There are two views concerning the extent of the atonement – limited atonement and universal atonement. Limited atonement is the idea that Christ died exclusively for those whom He elected before creation (Rom 8:29-30; Eph 2:1-5). In other words, Jesus’ sacrificial work on the cross was only meant for those who would believe. He did not die for the sins of the reprobates – those who ultimately reject the gospel. Christ’s death on the cross was an atoning work only for God’s appointed sheep, while the rest of guilty humanity pay for their own sins and answers for them on Judgment Day.

Limited atonement is part the TULIP formula that characterizes Calvinism, and is a distinct doctrine of Reformed theology. It is based on the idea that every man is so depraved that he cannot save himself or chose God in his fallen state. God, in His grace, must elect and regenerate sinners so that they can respond to the Lord in saving faith. When the time comes, God draws those whom He foreknew with His irresistible (efficacious) grace through the work of the Holy Spirit, and the repentant sinners have the atoning work of Christ applied to them. Finally, God preserves the saints in their faith until the day of glorification. Limited atonement is one of the several steps in the process of salvation that greatly magnifies the sovereign work of God in salvation from beginning to end.

Limited 1In contrast, universal atonement is a view that understands the extent of Christ’s atonement quite differently. It is part of Arminian theology, which advocates the necessity of human free will, even at the expense of God’s sovereign and efficacious plans. Universal atonement holds that Christ did not die for only the elect, but for the sins of the entire population of human history. This doctrine is based on verses like John 1:19; 3:16, 1 Jn 2:12; Romans 6:10. The view is that Jesus generally paid for the sins of the entire world, but people still need to repent and believe in Christ in order to benefit from that salvific work. Those who die in unbelief are judged for their sins and punished eternally for it.

Arminianists, and even 4-Point Calvinists, believe in universal atonement for a couple of reasons. First, popular passages in the New Testament seem to suggest this idea when read at face value. John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosover believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” 1 John 2:2 also states, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” Second, advocates of universal atonement believe that limited atonement goes against the idea of God’s indiscriminate and loving offer of salvation to everyone in the world. If only the elect of God were atoned for, then that suggests that the rest of mankind has been denied access to the gospel, and have no opportunity to be saved (even if they wanted to). It other words, limited atonement is neither fair nor loving. Advocates claim that universal atonement does the most justice to the Scripture’s offer of salvation to anyone who would come, regardless of their background or circumstances (Matt 11:28-20; Rev 22:17).

Although I approach this subject matter with openness and humility, I generally believe that the Bible teaches a particular jurisdiction as it regards the extent of the atonement. In relation to God’s external call of sinners (through evangelism), I believe Jesus’ atonement saves anyone in the world who believes – no matter what race, gender, or sin background they have. But if the discussion pertains specifically to God’s internal/efficacious call of sinners, I believe that the atonement is specifically meant for the elect. In other words, I believe that the Bible teaches a theology of atonement similar to what is reflected in limited atonement. I admit that there are some challenges, especially when interpreting passages that seem to suggest that Christ died for the sins of everyone, but these interpretive difficulties are not so mysterious that it cannot be properly resolved.

Limited 3There are multiple passages which clearly reveal God’s election of certain people, and Jesus’ death on the cross being exclusively for them. One such verse is Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus could have mentioned “the world,” but referenced “many.” John 10:45 reads, “Just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father, and I lay down My life for the sheep.” Again, Jesus does not teach that He lays down His life for everyone – both sheep and goats – but for a specific crowd. Even Isaiah 53:12 (which prefigures the events of the New Covenant 700 years before the birth of Christ) reads, “…yet He bore the sins of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” The writer could have mentioned “the sins of the entire world.” But the point is, Christ died for the sins of a portion of mankind. Verses like these clearly teach that Jesus’ atonement was for those who would believe (the elect), and more specifically, that the saving benefits of the atonement only apply to those trust in Christ.

So what of those verses that seems to teach the opposite idea? It really comes down to how you understand the passages’ context and the author’s use of phrases like “all,” “whoever,” and “world.” When John 3:16 references that “God so loved the world,” it surely does not teach that Christ elected the entire world’s population to salvation, or that people are saved no matter what they believe (universalism). Rather, the world most likely refers to the geographical and ethnic extent that God’s salvation plan would eventually influence in the subsequent years.

We have to remember the context in which many of these passages are written. Many Jews at the time believed that God’s favor and salvation fell exclusively on the Jewish race, which led to an ethno-centric pride that caused many Jews to close themselves off from Gentiles. In 1 Timothy 2:1-8, we also observe a disparity between the Ephesian commoners in the church and the governing authorities who do not know Christ in a saving way. Is the gospel as available to the poor citizen as it is for the powerful kings of the land?

Many of these soteriological passages are meant to teach that God’s salvation will not only reach the Jews, but people from every nation. The gospel is open to anyone. Passages like John 3:16, 1 John 2:2, and Romans 6:10 does not necessarily teach that the extent of the atonement encompasses the entire world’s population, but that the gospel is available to anyone in the world who would believe. The intent of the passage is the sufficiency of the gospel for the world, not necessarily practical or judicial application. Of course, we observe from history that the atonement has affected people of all nations. We see that people of all races, religion, and socioeconomic background coming to the gospel for salvation, which demonstrates the scope of the gospel’s global reach as preached by Christ and the apostles.

I also believe that the extent of the atonement is limited because of what the death of Christ actually accomplished. This is not the same as what the cross potentially accomplishes or makes available, but what the cross actually accomplished. Acts 20:28 states that Christ purchased the flock with His blood. 1 Corinthians 6:20 also teaches the idea that a price was specifically paid to fully and finally redeem believers from their sins. The truth is, if the sins of “every person” were laid upon Christ on the cross, then why do unbelievers get judged and suffer in hell? If their fine was already paid by Jesus, then they should have no reason to be held accountable for their crimes, no matter what they believe about the gospel. Satisfying the penalty of an unbeliever, yet consigning him to hell for his unbelief would be akin to a form of double indemnity – God requiring double payment for the criminal’s debt. The only reasonable explanation for this dilemma is that on Calvary, only the sins of every person who would believe were placed in Christ’s account, while the sins of everyone who would die in unbelief were kept intact so that God would serve justice on them on Judgment Day (Rev 20:11-15). If the atonement were not designed exclusively for the elect, then the idea of God “purchasing His sheep” with His blood becomes meaningless, if not redundant, if the entire world’s population benefits from the atonement.

I do not want to negate the responsibility, and the call, for everyone to repent and believe in the gospel. The goal of limited atonement is not to discover who among the world is elect and who is not, or to shun the gospel from any one group of people. The gospel is for everyone, and whoever in the world trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior will be saved (Matt 11:28; Jn 6:35; Acts 2:38; 3:19). That is the message of the good news, and what we as Christians are to focus on in our Great Commission effort. In relation to God’s general call, I do believe that the atonement is for the world – as in every person has equal opportunity to believe and be saved.

Recommended Resource: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her by David and Jonathan Gibson