Justified by faith or by works? (James 2:14-26) – Part 2

POST OVERVIEW. The second in a series of articles on James 2:14-26. The purpose of these articles is to give the believer a correct understanding of this passage by providing a number of different approaches to this text. The goal is that, through these studies, the believer will see that James’ teaching here does not conflict with the New Testament’s doctrine of justification by faith. (See also Post #652, 5/24,2023.)


Having given an introduction to this series of studies (See Post #652, 5/24/2023), we will begin with an examination of “justify.” This portion of our study will be a little technical, but it is necessary for us to look at definitions and to understand how this word and its related terms are used in the New Testament.

THE FIRST USE OF “JUSTIFY.” As we mentioned above, in the New Testament, the English word “justify” is a translation of the Greek word “δικαιόω.” This word is of profound significance in the gospel of salvation, because its most common usage has the meaning of “declare righteous.” The main message of the gospel is that any sinner who believes (“places their faith”) in the Lord Jesus Christ is immediately declared righteous, forgiven of all their sins, saved from the wrath of God, and has eternal life. In short, by faith he “has been justified.” (This is the passive use of the word “justify.”) This entire set of effects of faith in Jesus has been abbreviated as “justification by faith.” The consistent and abundant teaching of the New Testament is that we are “justified” (declared righteous, etc.) by faith and by faith alone in Christ alone and not on the basis of works. (See later in this series for a deeper understanding of “works” and also for how many times the Bible insists that being justified/justification is not by works.) This use of “justify” (declare righteous) is what the apostle Paul uses almost exclusively in his doctrinal teaching about the gospel of the Lord Jesus and his letters of Romans and Galatians are particularly filled with this doctrine. For this reason, most believers automatically think of “justify” and “to be justified” in terms of “not by works” and “justification by faith alone,” and become concerned and vocal when someone suggests that a sinner can earn salvation (be justified) based on his works. It thus becomes obvious why James 2:21-25 has created some confusion and controversy among believers because James blatantly affirms that Abraham and Rahab were justified by their works. What do we do with that?

A SECOND USE OF “JUSTIFY.” And here it is necessary for us to realize that, while the overwhelming majority of uses of “justify” or “be justified” relates to declaring someone righteous based on their professed faith in the Lord Jesus, there is also a minority use of the word, and it is this minority use of “justify” that James uses in our study passage. James uses “justify” in the sense of “giving outward evidence of an inward reality” or of “supporting a claim to possess an invisible quality.” Other synonyms could be “exhibited,” “demonstrated,” “proved,” or “gave evidence for.”


When I was a purchasing manager several years ago, I had a supplier whose name was Jim Cooper. Jim was a big man. He was probably 6’ 5” and was broad and “thick.” When I shook his hand, my hand almost disappeared into his. He was big. One day we were talking and he mentioned that he was having some pain in his knees. “Yeah, it was probably from too many years playing football.” I paused for a second, then asked, “When did you play football? Were you ever a professional football player?” He said, “I played for the Dallas Cowboys in the late 70’s and 80’s.” I remembered the Cowboys of that era and that they were powerful teams, so I asked, “Do you have a Super Bowl ring?” “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Super Bowl XII for the 1977 season.” “Would you mind bringing that ring in so I could see it? I have never seen a Super Bowl ring.” “Sure thing. Next time I come over I will bring it.”

Now, I did not doubt for a second that Jim could produce that ring. First, he was an honest man, so he was not lying to me, but second, he was a big man, and the possibility that he had played for the world champion Dallas Cowboys was not a stretch, at all. But at that point in time, Jim’s claim of having a Super Bowl ring was not justified. Jim would not “be justified” until his invisible claim of being on the 1977 Dallas Cowboys was validated (“justified”) by the visible evidence of a Super Bowl ring from Super Bowl XII.

And, true to his word, the next time Jim and I got together, he put his Super Bowl XII ring on the conference table so I could take pictures of it with my phone. Because he had produced tangible visible evidence of his unseeable claim, he was fully “justified.” Jim Cooper claimed to be a member of the World Champion Dallas Cowboys and then produced the ring that proved his claim. In this way, he was “justified.”

If, on the other hand, Jim had claimed to be on the Dallas Cowboys in 1977 but had no Super Bowl ring, there would have been a lot of doubt about his claim. Without tangible, visible evidence to validate his claim, his football career would remain a mere claim, a mere maybe.

This is the way that James uses the word “justify” in 2:21, 24, and 25. If a man claims to have saving faith, then he needs to “justify” (prove, validate) that claim by giving tangible supporting evidence. And the tangible evidence that James is seeking is the evidence of “works.”


After carefully examining the word “justify” and seeing that James uses the word in a very different sense than Paul and the other New Testament writers, we can conclude that there is no conflict or contradiction in James 2:14-26 when compared to other New Testament doctrinal teaching.

NEXT ARTICLE. In this article we have carefully looked at the word “justify.” In the next article, we will examine “works” by first defining what the biblical writers mean by “works” and second, by considering what the role of works is both before and after salvation (Point #2 in our list in Post #652, 5/24/2023). We will conclude the next article by documenting the verses in the New Testament which explicitly teach that “being justified” (“declared righteous”) and justification are always “by faith” and are never “by works.”

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 5/25/2023                   #653

Justified by faith or by works? (James 2:14-26) – Part 1

POST OVERVIEW. The first in a series of articles on James 2:14-26. The purpose of these articles is to give the believer a correct understanding of this passage by providing a number of different approaches to this text. Through these studies, the believer will see that James’ teaching here does not conflict with the New Testament’s doctrine of justification by faith. (Also see previous Post #393, 4/26/2021, on this same passage.)

“But how can a man be in the right before God?” – Job 9:2


From the time of the fall of man in Genesis 3 until the apostolic preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Job’s crucial question went unanswered. But after Pentecost, first the apostles and then the faithful church began to proclaim the good news that, now that Jesus has atoned for sins on the cross, all who repent and believe in Him can be declared righteous and can receive eternal life. That is the gospel we proclaim and by which we are saved. We are justified by faith alone in Christ alone.


But with this as a background, how do we understand James when he declares in his epistle, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” (James 2:21)? Perhaps even more unsettling is what we read a few verses later in James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Then finally James writes, “Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works?” (2:25). Is James teaching another gospel in which the sinner is justified by faith plus his own works? Has James abandoned “justification by faith alone,” the central doctrine of the Reformation? Does the Holy Spirit-inspired Bible teach that there are actually two ways to be saved, one by faith in Jesus and another by faith plus works?

These are important questions that I want to address in a series of articles which consider James 2:14-26 and discern what James is teaching in this section of his epistle. As we go through these teaching articles, there are several key points that we will consider.

  1. The word that is translated “justify” (δικαιόω in Greek) or, in the passive, “to be justified,” has two different meanings depending upon the author’s intent. Therefore, we need to understand more about this word “justify.”
  2. An understanding of “works” in the New Testament. What do we mean by “works?” The difference between the role of works before salvation and the role of works after salvation must be considered.
  3. The personal relationship between Paul and James and their complete agreement on the content of the gospel.
  4. The New Testament’s abundant, explicit teaching that justification (God’s declaration of righteousness) is never by works.
  5. A comparison of Hebrews 11 with James 2 allows us to conclusively determine that James is using “justify” in a non-salvific sense.
  6. Finally, a careful, unbiased reading of James 2:14-26 makes the author’s purpose and meaning unambiguously clear.

This, then, will serve as an introduction to this mini-series on James 2:14-26. My plan is to work through each of these points in the list above (not necessarily in order) so that we remove any confusion about justification that might be created by this passage and we also pay attention to the warning that James is communicating here.

My next post will be about the meanings of “justify.” (Point #1 from the list above.)

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 5/24/2023                   #652

And the day of vengeance of our God (Isaiah 61:2)

POST OVERVIEW. The second part (see #646, 5/2/2023) of a study of Isaiah 61:1-2 as quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 when He was in Nazareth. This one on “The day of vengeance of our God” (61:2).

In our last post (#646, 5/2/2023), we had begun to discuss Isaiah 61:1-2 and to consider why Jesus had quoted part of these verses when He was in His hometown of Nazareth in Luke 4. In that scene in the gospel of Luke, Jesus announced that He was the promised Messiah and that His appearance was ushering in “the favorable year of the LORD” (Luke 4:19). Now for a long time God’s mercy will welcome believing sinners into His kingdom as sons and daughters. With the first advent of the Messiah, today is “the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).

But we see from Isaiah 61:2 that the favorable year of the LORD will not last forever. The favorable year will end and then there will come “the day of vengeance of our God.” It is understanding this day of vengeance that will be our focus in this post.


But before we explore the day of vengeance which will occur at Jesus’ second advent, I want to consider the nature of His first advent. Why did Jesus’ earthly ministry during His first appearance have the character that it did?

The main point to be grasped is that, for there to be a “favorable year of the LORD,” Jesus had to perfectly accomplish the work He had been given to do in His Incarnation. Jesus was not merely born in Bethlehem, but much more than that, He was sent by the Father to fulfill His mission. The Son of God was sent from heaven to accomplish the work of atonement that He had been given to do (John 17:4). In His life, He was to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17) by perfectly obeying it so that He could be a sinless sacrifice for the sins of His people (Hebrews 10:10, 12, 14). When He had perfectly obeyed the Father in His suffering and had humbled Himself to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8), He was able to shout the victory cry, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)


So, Jesus did not come in His Incarnation to judge the world (John 3:17) but came to be a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) so that many would be saved through Him.


The good news is that Jesus has accomplished His work of atonement and has made it possible for sinners to be reconciled to a holy God. Now through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ anyone who believes will be saved from the wrath of God.

With His death on the cross, Jesus finished His work of atonement.

Now, during “the favorable year of the LORD,” the church has been given the work of making disciples and of proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.

But on the last day, Jesus Christ will appear in His awesome Second Coming to execute His work of judgment. This will be the terrifying “day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2), and it is to this subject we now turn.


Jesus did not mention this day of vengeance in the synagogue in Nazareth, but all the Scriptures make clear that there will certainly be a day of judgment at the end of the age and the Scriptures will certainly be fulfilled. There will be an end to the favorable year of the LORD and a beginning to the day of vengeance. The time of mercy and grace and compassion will pass away and the day of wrath and fury and recompense for all wrongs will come upon the world like a flood and like thief in the night, and there will be no escape.

The Bible has much to say in Old Testament and New about this day of vengeance, this “day of the LORD.” These awesome scenes of powerful destruction are given to the unrighteous as warnings to drive them to repentance (Romans 2:4-9). The wicked should fear the judgment of the Lord and flee from the wrath to come (Luke 3:7).

And Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords is the One who will execute the judgments of that day. Jesus is the One who will tread the great wine press of the wrath of God (Rev. 14:19). Jesus is the One who will carry out the wrath of the Lamb on the great day (Rev. 6:16-17). Jesus is the Rider on the white horse who is called Faithful and True (Rev. 19:11). On that day He will strike down the nations with His sharp sword and will rule them with a rod of iron, and He will tread the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty (Rev. 19:15).

The day of vengeance of our God is the same thing as the day of the LORD in the Old Testament prophets. The prophet Joel tells of a day of darkness and gloom, of clouds and thick darkness. This is a day that comes as destruction from the Almighty. Blood and fire and columns of smoke. In Micah, the Lord declares, “in that day I will execute vengeance in anger and wrath on the nations which have not obeyed” (Micah 5:15). Nahum declares, “The LORD is avenging and wrathful. The LORD takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies” (1:2). “The hills dissolve. Indeed, the earth is upheaved by His presence (1:5). Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire” (1:6). Zephaniah cries out, “Near is the great day of the LORD, near and coming very quickly (1:14). A day of wrath is that day, a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom (1:15). Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung” (1:17). And time would fail me if I listed all these passages in the prophets.

This “day of vengeance” is the same thing as “that day” in many passages in Isaiah. In Psalm 110, the Lord (“Adonai” in the Hebrew; this is Jesus) “shatters kings in the day of His wrath. He judges among the nations. He fills them (the nations) with corpses. He will shatter the chief men across a broad country” (110:5-6). In 2 Thess. 1:7 during the day of vengeance, “The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God.” When describing Jesus on the day of judgment, the author of Hebrews says, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31), and later he says, “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).

SUMMARY. The message is clear. Jesus has died and Jesus has risen and He has given sinners a season of mercy when they can repent and a reason for hope if they will believe in Him. Yes, Jesus has died and Jesus has risen, but Jesus is coming again. Now is the day of salvation, for when He comes again, He will come in terrifying vengeance.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 5/3/2023                     #647

The planned evangelistic encounter

A friend and I have been going through Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J I Packer. This study has taken me to the place where I am thinking in terms of a “planned evangelistic encounter” as the way to regularly be engaged in witnessing for Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8) and to be an active “fisher of men” (Matt. 4:19). The following are notes as they appear on my working page.

The gospel has complexity (astute quote from Packer in chapter 3). This means that the evangelist must plan in advance what portion of the full gospel he is going to present in the evangelistic encounter.


In the “entire gospel,” there are many complex ideas to communicate to the other person (God, sin, fallen man, judgment, Jesus Christ, death on a cross, resurrection, repentance, forgiveness of sins, heaven and hell, eternity, guilt, born again, the church, etc.). Because it is impossible to communicate this information in a short time or in a single sitting, I am proposing that the one who is “sowing seeds” (Matt. 13:3ff) and who is “fishing for men” (Matt. 4:19) on a regular, intentional basis (shouldn’t this be every disciple of Jesus?) should develop a “planned encounter” containing a “desired message.” That is, I am proposing that the evangelist plans the evangelistic encounter from initial contact through disengagement so that:

  1. The evangelist’s DESIRED MESSAGE is clearly communicated.
  2. The hearer has been given a clear opportunity to respond to the message.
  3. The hearer’s response can be evaluated.
  4. The hearer has been given a “next step” which they can pursue if they so desire (this would most appropriately be information about our church that was consistent with the evangelist’s message).
  5. The overall encounter can be evaluated and improved.


Note that the DESIRED MESSAGE must be drawn from the gospel message as communicated in the New Testament. Therefore, in this sense, the DESIRED MESSAGE is the most constrained portion of the evangelistic encounter. This message is the heart and soul of the encounter. Indeed, it is the entire reason for the encounter. The other variables and components (see below) that make up the evangelistic encounter are largely up to the personality and creativity of the evangelist and are, therefore, not tightly constrained. For these variables, there is no right or wrong. There is no eternal truth at stake. But the DESIRED MESSAGE portion of the encounter is not like that. This gospel message contains essential truth that must be understood and believed for the hearer to be delivered from the wrath to come. For this message, the evangelist is accountable to the Lord (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Cor. 1:23-24; 2:2; 15:1-2; 2 Cor. 4:7; Gal. 1:8,9; 2 Tim. 1:14).


Here are the components of the evangelistic encounter that should be planned.

  1. Venue. Where will this encounter take place? In a park? On a plane? On a street corner? At the beach? At work? In a café? Homeless shelter? Food pantry?
  2. Hearer. Whom do you envision as your hearer, the one who will hear your DESIRED MESSAGE? Having your hearer in view can help you anticipate roadblocks to your DESIRED MESSAGE.
  3. What is the means of engagement or initial contact? This is an important part of the encounter to consider. How do you plan to gain the person’s attention so they will even listen to you? How directly do you move to your message? You are in control of this part of the encounter. How do you move from stranger to person worth listening to? Thought-provoking question? “What is your opinion” on something related to the gospel or to Jesus? Short opinion survey that leads to the DESIRED MESSAGE?
  4. DESIRED MESSAGE. What is the good-news gospel message you are going to proclaim? The message must contain enough information to point to Jesus, to His death and resurrection and His offer of salvation and eternal life for all who turn from their sin and trust in Him. Remember, this is the main purpose of the encounter. The evangelist should aim to proclaim the DESIRED MESSAGE in every evangelistic encounter, whether that is done fluently and according to plan or done awkwardly. It is the message that has the power to save (Romans 1:16) and so it is the message that must be communicated.
  5. Interaction and reaction to the message. How will you continue the conversation after the message is proclaimed? How will you seek a clear response from the hearer? What follow-up questions will you ask? What reactions might you anticipate?
  6. Disengagement and end the conversation. At some point, either the evangelist or the hearer will seek to disengage from the conversation. The aim here is to make sure that the contact is not wasted. Prolong the conversation until you believe you have been heard and the hearer has given you an acceptable response. When it is time to disengage, do so graciously and be sure to hand out a deliverable that gives the hearer a follow-up opportunity, like information about a local church with service times and church address. It would be appropriate to include a gospel tract with the follow-up information.

BRAINSTORMING. Planning and developing ideas for these evangelistic encounters would very profitably be done in brainstorming sessions, where six to ten disciples from the church gathered on a Saturday morning for training and brainstorming workshops.

The next post related to this topic will focus on the contents and the delivery of the DESIRED MESSAGE.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 5/1/2023                     #645

Evangelism study – Is sin a part of gospel proclamation? Part 1

POST OVERVIEW. A study of Acts assessing whether the sin of the hearers was a part of the gospel message proclaimed by the apostles. (There will be a subsequent study of the epistles to see if the gospel proclaimed includes a portion directed at the sin of those the evangelist is attempting to convert.) This is part 1 of the Acts investigation.


As David Bell and I were carefully going through Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, the excellent book by J I Packer that examines the task of evangelism from a theological point of view, we came to the third chapter of the book that talks in detail about what constitutes the actual message itself. That is, what is the content of the gospel message we are to proclaim? Packer states that the message of the gospel is a message about God, about sin, and about Jesus Christ, and then the hearers are summoned to faith and repentance. Packer’s four points are very similar to those of another influential evangelism book by Greg Gilbert called What Is the Gospel? In his book, Gilbert speaks of God, man, Christ, and response. In my experience, this is very typical of conservative instruction books on evangelism and it seems true to the message we should proclaim. It makes sense and holds to what I believe the apostles proclaimed. So, David and I were ready to discuss the details of how we could present this gospel message about God, about sin (or about man and his sin), and about Jesus to an audience and compel them to believe in Jesus and repent of their sin.

But we encountered a problem as we began to look at the book of Acts. The book of Acts is THE biblical book on evangelism. It is the disciple’s instruction manual for gospel proclamation, since it gives us the only examples in the Bible of people who heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The context of Acts is a context like our own, meaning that the gospel proclamation in Acts is done by ordinary men and women and occurs after Pentecost (coming of the Holy Spirit) and before Jesus’ return. The preaching of the gospel in Acts is done in obedience to Christ’s Great Commission given in Matt. 28:19-20, which is exactly the same commission that we must obey. Since all this is true of Acts, I am convinced that our evangelism and gospel proclamation is to be patterned after what we see in Acts. This book of Holy-Spirit inspired Scripture is given to Jesus’ church as the instruction manual for the gospel and our evangelism must be constrained by what we find there.

And here is where we began to experience some tension. David began by saying that, as he examined Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus in Athens from Acts 17, he became aware that Paul barely mentioned sin at all. David said that he became uncomfortable the more he looked at the passage and saw that Paul almost avoided mentioning sin. Yes, he does say that “God is now declaring that all people should repent” (17:30), which hints at sin, and that “God will judge the world” (17:31), which could be understood as alluding to the punishment of sin, but as far as boldly telling these pagan philosophers that they are in peril of going to hell forever because of their sin, there is not a suggestion. So, as we discussed this and pored over the text, it became apparent that the gospel Paul proclaimed in Athens was very light on sin.

At that point, I commented to David that the other sermons and gospel proclamations in Acts might reveal the same thing. That is, as we studied the sermons and gospel proclamations in the book of Acts, we might find that the apostolic proclamations include little to nothing about sin or sins. We might find that the gospel according to the apostles, the gospel that was “fully preached from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum” (Rom. 15:19) and that saw Gentiles by the thousands come to saving faith in Jesus, included very little about sin. And if that was the case, what would we do with our evangelism books and methods that carried a large portion of teaching about sin? This investigation into Acts and what the apostles preached about sin had suddenly turned into a high-stakes event that could seriously shake up our evangelism.


Here, then, is what I am proposing as my approach to this project.

  1. Go through Acts and identify all occasions when the gospel is intentionally preached. List those occurrences by passage.
  2. Examine the text of these occurrences and note any explicit or implicit mentioning of sin.
  3. Summarize the findings and draw preliminary conclusions.

The next post in this series will give the listing of the gospel passages in Acts and will begin the examination of these passages.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 4/21/2023                   #643

Romans 1:18-25: The General Revelation Cannot Save

POST OVERVIEW. An article considering how the creation clearly reveals the existence of a powerful creating God but does not present the gospel so that man can be saved.

After declaring that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16), Paul launches into the prosecution of all mankind because of their sin and unrighteousness. Romans 1:18 declares that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness and then Paul talks about “general revelation,” which is the term for what creation reveals to us about God.

“Because that which may be known about God is evident within them, for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” – Romans 1:19-20

But while the creation “declares the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1-6), and while what has been made by the creative hand of God gives anyone but a fool (Psalm 14:1) overwhelming evidence of a supreme Creator (Romans 1:19-20), the creation and general revelation will never bring a sinner to repentance and faith, and this for many reasons.

First, for the fallen and unredeemed man, the creation does not reveal the one true God, but merely evidences some power much greater than the creature. That this is true is displayed by pantheism and polytheism and even through the foolishness of evolution, in which modern man denies what his senses and his intellect make unambiguously clear to him. To move a sinner to salvation, the sinner must be pointed to the one true God, indeed, must be pointed to the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the gospel. The sinner must encounter the God who saves sinners.

Second, the creation does not reveal the fallenness and the wickedness of every human heart and does not reveal that man is by nature sinful. Through the creation alone any man and every man is free to behave as he pleases, because the creation is not moral. It displays God’s power, but it does not proclaim His holiness. Without the Law there is no concept of sin (Romans 3:20; etc.), and so there is no awareness of how wicked we are. The Law was given to display God’s holiness and our unholiness.

Third, the creation does not make clear that God’s holy wrath is directed against my sin and that my sin deserves to be judged. Only the gospel declares to the sinner that their sin deserves the judgment of death and presents to the sinner the certainty of hell for those who will not respond to the gospel message.

Fourth, there is nothing in the natural creation that would point to the Lord Jesus Christ and would declare Him to be the Savior of sinners. The Lord is not presented through what has been made, but rather through those who have been chosen to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8, etc.). Paul declares in Romans that the Lord Jesus must be presented or no one can ever believe (Romans 10:14-15). The gospel is where the Lord Jesus is proclaimed.

Fifth, the creation does not tell the sinner what to do in order to be saved. It must be acknowledged that the plan of salvation wrought through the Incarnation and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is completely unlikely and would never be conceived by the mind of man. But even if there was history that told of Jesus, nowhere would man know of the significance of that life and what to do to respond to Jesus. Only the gospel tells us that we must respond by believing on Christ as Lord and Savior to be saved.

Sixth, the creation brings no conviction of sin, because the creation is not empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that brings conviction of sin (John 16:8ff) and without His power, the man does not experience conviction. By contrast, the Holy Spirit is empowered to bring about conviction of sin.

Seventh and finally, the creation gives the sinner no power to repent and believe. The creation is powerless to move the sinner to repentance and faith. Without the Holy Spirit’s moving through the gospel the sinner is left dead in transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1-7). But the gospel brings with it the power to stir the dead heart of the sinner and to remove the heart of stone and to create a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36).

Thus we must conclude that there is no way that “the native in Africa” who has never heard the gospel can come to faith in Christ and be saved, for there is nothing in their experience that can bring them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. All of this information and all of these steps listed are necessary for salvation, but it is “the gospel that is the power of God to salvation” (Romans 1:16). Without the gospel being preached and understood and without the response of faith no one is saved. Thus the person holding a Bible in a stadium in Houston who has never been convicted of their personal sin and who therefore has never come to repentance and faith is no better off than “the native in Africa” who has never been exposed to one word of the gospel. Both are equally lost.

In our next post, we will consider the implications of these ideas about the creation for our evangelism and for our apologetics.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 3/6/2023                     #630

Two riders on white horses (Rev. 6:2 and Rev. 19:11)

POST OVERVIEW. This post compares the rider on the white horse of Rev. 6:2 with the Rider on the white horse of Rev. 19:11 to reveal how to interpret these two passages.


In Revelation 5, the victorious Lamb is given a scroll sealed with seven seals, and the Lamb is the only one worthy to open the scroll and to break its seals. He breaks the first seal and a rider on a white horse rides out “conquering and to conquer” (Rev. 6:2). Then later, in Rev. 19:11, we encounter another Rider on a white horse who “judges and wages war.” In this post, by comparing these two riders, we will show what these two symbols represent and how beautifully they relate to one another.

As is evident from this chart, the parallels between the riders are both profound and intentional. The first rider of Rev. 6:2 represents the commissioned church as it rides out at the very start of the gospel age conquering the nations with the bow of the gospel.  Then on the last day, at the very end of the gospel age the Lord Jesus comes from heaven to judge the rebellious nations and to pour out God’s wrath on all those who oppose Him. The first rider (6:2) goes out to proclaim the gospel message, a message which is able to bring the dead to life, but the second rider (19:11-21) goes out with a sharp sword, a sword which will put the living to death.

“Behold, a white horse!” But the appearance of the different horses produces very different responses. The white horse in Rev. 6:2 carries a rider who is proclaiming the good news of the gospel, so when the shout “Behold!” is heard for this white horse and rider, joy begins to spread. Armed with the bow of the gospel, this rider is conquering the nations to bring many into the King’s army. This rider is welcome because he brings good news. This is the proclamation of the favorable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19), the announcement of “the acceptable time” and “the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:1-2). This is the opening of the gospel age, the time of the great ingathering of the elect as the Gentiles are called from every tribe and tongue to repent and believe in Jesus.

By contrast, when the nations hear “Behold, a white horse!” for this second Rider (Rev. 19:11), it will be a time of horror and despair. The Rider on this white horse “judges and wages war.” “From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations” (Rev. 19:15). The second sounding of “Behold!” announces the end of the gospel age and declares that the time for mercy is forever past. Now there is only “a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES” (Heb. 10:27). When the shout “Behold!” is heard to warn of this Rider’s approach, it is only a notice that all hope is to be abandoned, for “there will be delay no longer” (Rev. 10:6).


We have shown that there is an obvious parallel between the two riders on white horses who are located at the beginning and the end of the gospel age. The rider sent out at the breaking of the first seal in Rev. 6:1-2 represents the commissioned church going out to proclaim the gospel message to the nations. The Rider who rides out in Rev. 19:11-21 is the Lord Jesus coming “to judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim. 4:1) on the last day as He “strikes down the nations” (Rev. 19:15).

The interpretation that we have proposed emerges entirely from these two texts, but there are other passages in Revelation which connect with these riders and which strengthen and clarify other points of interpretation. A future post will explore those connections.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 2/25/2023                   #628

An appreciation of Paul’s letter to Philemon

POST OVERVIEW. A commentary on Paul’s letter to Philemon pointing out the evident and intentional grace shown from one believer to another.

Paul is best known for his towering theological masterpieces, for works like Romans and Galatians and Ephesians which lay the doctrinal foundations for the Christian faith. In the company of such profound writings, the little letter from Paul to Philemon about a runaway slave who comes to Christ and whose life is completely transformed can be forgotten as insignificant. But “Philemon” is profound in its own right as it provides for us a model of how believers are to treat one another within the body of Christ and gives us a practical example of what it means to love one another.

OCCASION OF THE LETTER. The contents of the letter are better understood when we understand the context of the letter. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the man who has preached the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Romans 15:19), is in prison for his faith. While in prison, Paul has had the opportunity to evangelize a runaway slave named Onesimus and has won him to the Lord, and now the apostle is writing to Philemon, the master of Onesimus and a fellow believer in the town of Colosse, so that the slave can return to his master. Oh, and Paul is also the man who led Philemon to Christ (v. 19). That is the basic context and those three are the main characters. Below are my comments on this epistle. The purpose for this article is to show how dramatically different the interaction of believers with one another is from that of those who are still in the world.

A PRISONER OF CHRIST JESUS, V. 1. Notice how Paul introduces himself at the start of the letter. He and Philemon obviously know one another. Philemon is “a beloved brother and fellow worker” with Paul (v. 1). We will see that Paul is familiar with Philemon’s ministry (vv. 4-7) and that it is likely that Paul was the one who led Philemon to faith in Christ (v. 19). It is significant , therefore, that Paul introduces himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

Due to centuries of worldly thinking, believers today tend to think of Paul as one who garnered respect and attention wherever he went. After all, he was an apostle of Jesus Christ and was perhaps the most effective preacher ever. But those who know their Bibles better know that apostles were treated with contempt by those outside the church (1 Cor. 4:9-13) and by the false teachers within the church (2 Cor. 10:10). Even as he writes this letter with his own hand (v. 19), he is “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Perhaps for emphasis, Paul mentions his bonds again in verse 9 and he and Epaphras are “fellow prisoners” in verse 23. Paul does not present himself as he usually does in his epistles, as “an apostle of Christ Jesus,” but instead presents himself as a prisoner.

It is evident, therefore that Paul does not see himself as of superior rank to Philemon. Even though he is a chosen instrument of the risen Lord Jesus sent to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), Paul’s relationship to Philemon is that of “fellow worker,” of a fellow disciple of Jesus who has, like Philemon, been saved by grace. In the world, the famous lord it over others (Mark 10:42) and use their position to elevate their ego and to crush others down. But with disciples of Jesus there is no pecking order, no hierarchy. Paul models for us that all believers, from the aged apostle (v. 9) to the newly converted runaway slave, are on equal ground at the foot of the cross. He displays that we are “to be of the same mind toward one another, not haughty in mind but associating with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

COMMENDED BY THE APOSTLE. Paul spends verses 4-7 encouraging Philemon and commending his ministry to the saints there in Colosse. His loving words to his brother and fellow worker express Paul’s genuine joy that Philemon is refreshing the hearts of the saints (v. 7). And this is not a false flattery from Paul to more easily persuade Philemon to do what Paul desires. Paul’s commendation is sincere and carries no hint that he is “buttering up” Philemon.

In terms of ministry impact, Paul’s missionary journeys and apostolic writing far outstrips Philemon’s small house church ministry, but there is no sense of rivalry here. Each is given his talents according to his own ability (Matt. 25:15), so it is faithfulness with the ministry that has been entrusted to you that is the issue. Philemon’s place in the body is not as prominent as Paul’s, but each part of the body is vital to the body’s functioning (1 Cor 12).

AN APPEAL TO PHILEMON. Although Paul is an apostle, he refuses to use his apostleship “to order what is proper” (v. 8), but instead he “appeals” to Philemon twice “for love’s sake.” Paul is confident that he will make the right decision, but he allows Philemon the dignity and the respect to consent to receive Onesimus back as a useful brother, rather than forcing him to submit under apostolic compulsion. Paul is allowing Philemon to make whatever decision he is led by the Holy Spirit to make, including the possibility that he will make the “wrong” choice. This is what it means to love one another. Paul appeals to Philemon to consent, but also gives him complete freedom to choose.

THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL TO SAVE. Onesimus left Philemon as a disobedient, runaway slave, but through the ministry of the apostle Paul and the power of the gospel, he is now a brother in Christ. The runaway slave has repented of his sin and, even though he would prefer to stay with Paul and never return to Philemon, this new convert is convicted by the Holy Spirit to go back to Philemon and resume his service to him as a slave. He was useless, but now he is useful (v. 11). Onesimus is now a hard-working slave and a brother in Christ to Philemon. Now the slave Onesimus and the master Philemon and the apostle Paul are all brothers in Christ. The gospel is mighty to save!

AN APOSTLE PAYS THE DEBTS OF A SLAVE. Remarkably, Paul is not only willing to let Onesimus leave him in prison and go back to his master, but Paul also commits to pay any of the slave’s debts out of his own means. In the body of Christ, those who have much are to help those who have little (2 Cor. 8:14-15). As Paul expresses in another place, we most gladly spend for the needs of others (2 Cor. 12:15). So here Paul presents an example as he, the chosen instrument of the Lord and the apostle to the Gentiles, spends his money to satisfy the foolish debts of a runaway slave.

SUMMARY. The letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of “practical theology” as Paul shows us how to love and respect our fellow believers. Every believer is to be treated with grace and is to be encouraged equally. There is no rivalry or competition in ministry, but all good works are to be applauded as unto the Lord. Out of love, I will be inconvenienced to serve another brother. I will gladly spend my money and my time to help and edify another believer.

Most of all, the gospel is the power of God for salvation.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 2/13/2023                   #621

A transaction for eternal life? (Luke 18:18-23)

POST OVERVIEW. An investigation into Luke’s account of the encounter between “rich young ruler” and the Lord Jesus. Why was this man not converted? How does this affect our evangelism?

Each of the synoptic gospels contains this encounter between Jesus and the “rich, young ruler.” Our young friend seems to ask the right question of the right Person and he seems to be genuinely interested in eternal life, yet, in the end, he walks away from Jesus empty-handed. What went wrong? What did he miss?


I want to take two different approaches to this episode with the rich young ruler. The first post will be the traditional one where we simply examine the text, studying this meeting between a religious young man and the Lord Jesus to see why some people never receive the gospel, even though they appear to have every reason to do so.

But in a second post will focus on Luke 18:22 and consider what we who are disciples of the Lord Jesus can learn about stewarding those things which the Lord has entrusted to us.


As mentioned before, the most striking feature of this encounter between Jesus and this “rich young ruler” (RYR) is that this man who seemed so ripe for harvest and so eager “to inherit eternal life” went away from Jesus without it. There must be something here that requires deeper exploration, because for some reason, the Lord of glory did not convert this simple evangelistic opportunity. A closer look at this story reveals that the RYR’s claim to desire eternal life was only a passing whim.  


In this encounter, even though the young ruler and Jesus seem to be talking about the same thing using a common vocabulary, they are, in fact, seeing this encounter and its outcome from two very different perspectives. So, when the RYR expresses a desire for eternal life, instead of quickly answering his question, Jesus presents him with a series of tests to see if his desire is sincere.

So, first, Jesus tests the RYR to see if he understands Jesus’ true identity. Those who receive eternal life confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and they will only do that when they grasp that Jesus is incarnate deity, God in human form, the Word made flesh. The RYR has addressed Jesus as “good Teacher (Luke 18:18),” but does he understand that Jesus is divine? Jesus thus issues him a test, essentially asking the RYR, “Do you understand that I am God?” The man fails the first test and remains willfully ignorant of Jesus’ identity.

But also, it is telling that the RYR comes to Jesus for eternal life, not for an eternal relationship with the living God. It seems that the man expects the good Teacher to give him a short list of required behaviors so that he can check the boxes, nail down this eternal life thing, and get back to his wealth. As Simon the magician (Acts 8:18-19) wanted to obtain the Holy Spirit without saving faith in Christ, so the RYR wants to inherit eternal life without surrendering everything to Jesus. His thoughts are of a commercial transaction, a fair price for a desired good. Perhaps his thinking goes like this: “Good Teacher, I have a lot of money and can afford to give some of it away to gain eternal life. So, go ahead; name Your price and we can do this deal and You can move on and so can I.” The young man is interested in what the good Teacher can provide, not in the good Teacher Himself. But it is precisely an eternal relationship with Himself that Jesus is offering. To the one who declares Jesus as Lord, to the one who will bow before Him and obey His commands, Jesus gives Himself forever and He will never leave him or forsake him. The RYR must realize what we all must realize that Jesus is not selling eternal life, but He is calling people to deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23). Jesus is offering an eternal relationship with the one true and living God to all those who will give away everything and submit to His lordship and follow Him.

Jesus next tests the young man’s awareness of his own sin and his consciousness of his sin’s consequences (18:20). Does the RYR realize that he is a sinner deserving God’s wrath and full judgment for his rebellion, or does he see himself as a decent chap who is better than most? In the parable that Jesus has just told in Luke 18:9-14, is the RYR the Pharisee or the tax collector? Our young friend’s response (18:21) reveals that he is the Pharisee in the parable. Thus, he fails another test.


At this point in our story, this man wants to obtain eternal life without declaring Jesus as Lord, he wants eternal life apart from loving the One who gives eternal life, and he wants eternal life without confession of sin and repentance from sin. He wants eternal life on his own terms for his own ends. As an act of grace, Jesus gives the man one last opportunity. If our friend passes this last test, he will certainly obtain eternal life.

“Sell all you possess and distribute it to the poor, and come, follow Me (18:22).”

This is a direct command from the Lord of the universe. Like all biblical commands, there are only two possible responses, obedience or disobedience. There are three parts to the Lord’s command and the man must obey all three parts. The RYR’s hardness of heart is starkly revealed in his refusal to obey any of them. Jesus commanded him to sell all he possesses and he flatly refused. Obviously, he had nothing to distribute to the poor. And, most damning of all, when commanded to follow the King of kings, the RYR walks away. He disobeys Jesus and turns his back on Him because he wants to keep his money and his position and his respectability much more than he wants eternal life.

So, what at first appeared to be a man ripe for harvest, a man whom the Father was drawing (John 6:44), turned out to be someone whose heart was still hard and who was only willing to inherit eternal life if it cost him nothing.


As we reflect on this story and its surprising outcome, it may be instructive to consider how this bears on our own evangelism. Because my own evangelistic opportunities are few, my tendency is to interpret any interest in the gospel as an indicator of saving faith, but this story of Jesus and the RYR says otherwise. Our Lord tested this man’s enthusiastic question (18:18) to see if he understood what eternal life would cost him. Therefore, as we encounter those who appear curious about the gospel or about church or about Jesus, we would be wise to be cautiously optimistic. Does this person understand that Jesus demands everything from those who would be His disciples? Will you bow down to Jesus Christ as Lord and obey His commands? Do you acknowledge your sin and will you repent of it, knowing that Jesus has atoned for the sins of His people? These types of questions can be helpful in determining if this person asking about “eternal life” is also willing to pay the price to obtain it.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 1/18/2023                   #612

Belief and baptism, but no Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12-17)

POST OVERVIEW. Another study from Acts 8 as the gospel spreads to the Samaritans. Here we consider the difficulty of the Samaritans believing in the name of Jesus Christ and not immediately receiving the Holy Spirit.

This post is part of a short series of articles wrestling with the difficulties of the events of Acts 8. Earlier we considered the situation of Simon the magician (post #597, #598) and now we look at the Samaritans who truly believed and were baptized and yet did not immediately receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 8:12-17.


Before we dig into this very interesting episode, we need to remember that we are reading the book of Acts, which is part of the New Testament’s history section. Acts covers a time of rapid change as the work of God on earth transitions from the ministry of Jesus to the ministry of the church.

To review our teaching from post #597 (12/7/2022), Jesus was sent from heaven to earth primarily to accomplish the atonement and to ransom His people from sin. In His crucifixion, He finished His work (John 19:30). Then He was resurrected, He commissioned His church to proclaim the gospel to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20) and to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8), and He ascended into heaven until the Father’s appointed time for His return. That was Jesus’ ministry.

When Jesus ascended to heaven, the ministry of the church began. The book of Acts describes the initial spread of the church from one hundred twenty timid Jewish disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem with no new-covenant doctrine or practice to many thousands of mostly Gentile believers scattered all over the Mediterranean world with well-established doctrinal teaching and church practice. The result of this massive transition is that, while all the events of Acts certainly occurred and occurred as described, all the events that occurred were not normative for the church age. In other words, the student of Acts must carefully discern if the event under study is merely descriptive (just describing what happened) or if this event is prescriptive (giving a normative practice of the church until Jesus returns). Some of the events that occur in Acts are unique and simply occurred as part of this transition landscape.

How do we discern what is merely descriptive? There are two basic principles to detect these events. The first principle asks, “Is the event unique in the Scriptures?” For example, Acts 2 relates the coming of the Holy Spirit. This event is marked with a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire resting on the disciples (Acts 2:2-3). Do we expect this to occur again? Should this be a regular occurrence in our local church? No, it is not normative. The events of Acts 2 are unique and unrepeated.

But a second principle is to consider whether the events of the scene are consistent with New Testament teaching on this subject. What do the epistles teach about this and did Jesus say anything about this subject during His ministry? For example, in our current study in Acts 8, we see that the Samaritans believe in Jesus and are baptized before they receive the Holy Spirit. Should we in our churches today teach that the Holy Spirit is received some time after we believe by the laying on of someone’s hands? No, we should not teach that, because the epistles contradict that doctrine (e.g. Ephesians 1:13-14).

With these principles, we read in Acts 8:12 that the Samaritans “believed Philip preaching the good news about the name of Jesus Christ.” There is no reason to doubt that these Samaritans genuinely believed. Philip had proclaimed Christ to them (8:5), he had performed signs of casting out unclean spirits and of healing the paralyzed and the lame (8:6, 7; see also 8:13). The expected result of preaching Christ and performing attesting miracles is that the people would believe. After they believe, the Samaritans are baptized, exactly according to the pattern at Pentecost.


“When the apostles in Jerusalem (8:1) heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John” to Samaria (8:14). Why did they send Peter to Samaria?

These events serve to introduce a KEY CONCEPT for understanding some of the events of Acts. Recall that Acts 1:8 is the theme verse for the book of Acts. According to that verse, the gospel of Jesus Christ will spread from Jerusalem to (all Judea and) Samaria and even to the remotest part of the earth (to the Gentiles). What we see happening is that, as each new threshold is crossed (the Jews in Jerusalem, the Samaritans in Samaria, and the Gentiles in Caesarea), the apostle Peter is required to confirm that salvation has actually come to each group and so that group may receive the Holy Spirit as a sign of their salvation. Accordingly, Peter is the one who preaches the sermon at Pentecost and declares that all those who repent and believe will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Here in Acts 8, although Philip has faithfully proclaimed the gospel and the Samaritans have genuinely believed, the Holy Spirit is withheld until Peter prays for them and lays his hands upon them (Acts 8:15-17). This is because Peter, as the lead apostle (Matt. 16:18-19; John 21:15-17), must confirm that the Samaritans are indeed included in the gospel before the Holy Spirit can be received. Finally, in Acts 10, when the gospel goes to the Gentiles, to Cornelius and his relatives in Caesarea, Peter is again there to confirm that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44), when “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45). Peter “ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48) because they had “received the Holy Spirit” (10:47) just as the Jews in Jerusalem had received Him on Pentecost.


The point is that, in this transition period, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is going out first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the Gentiles, the apostle Peter must confirm that each new group is truly included in the gospel before the Holy spirit is received. Thus, what occurs in Samaria in Acts 8, where there is genuine belief without the receiving of the Holy Spirit, is a one-time, unrepeated event and is not normative for the church age.

What is normative for the church age? Now that Peter has confirmed that the gospel has gone to all groups, whether Jew or Gentile, anyone from any group who has genuinely believed in the Lord Jesus receives the Holy Spirit immediately at salvation (see Romans 8:5, 9, 11, 14; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11, 13; Eph. 1:13-14; etc.). The teaching of the New Testament is that all believers are sealed and in-dwelt by the Holy Spirit from the moment of initial faith.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 12/29/2022                 #605