Mike Riccardi – Ecumenical vs. Evangelical

One of the most devastating attacks on the life and health of the church throughout all of church history has been what is known as the ecumenical movement — the downplaying of doctrine in order to foster partnership in ministry between (a) genuine Christians and (b) people who were willing to call themselves Christians but who rejected fundamental Christian doctrines.

In the latter half of the 19th century, theological liberalism fundamentally redefined what it meant to be a Christian. It had nothing to do, they said, with believing in doctrine. It didn’t matter if you believed in an inerrant Bible; the scholarship of the day had debunked that! It didn’t matter if you believed in the virgin birth and the deity of Christ; modern science disproved that! It didn’t matter if you embraced penal substitutionary atonement; blood sacrifice and a wrathful God are just primitive and obscene, and besides, man is not fundamentally sinful but basically good! What mattered was one’s experience of Christ, and whether we live like Christ. “And we don’t need doctrine to do that!” they said. “Doctrine divides!” Iain Murray wrote of that sentiment, “‘Christianity is life, not doctrine,’ was the great cry. The promise was that Christianity would advance wonderfully if it was no longer shackled by insistence on doctrines and orthodox beliefs” (“Divisive Unity,” 233).

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Mike Riccardi – Suffering Well: Trusting God’s Absolute Sovereignty

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Several years ago, Justin Taylor linked to a moving and encouraging account of a pastor coming to grips with the fact that his second child, like his first, would be born with spina bifida. Amazingly, this man has found great comfort in rejecting the common notion that God will merely use this bad situation for good, rather than the biblical truth that He has ordained it for His glory and His people’s good.

Stories like these continue to confirm the reality that we must prepare ourselves to undergo suffering and trials righteously. We need to learn how to suffer well. And, as I’ve said over the past couple weeks, the way we do that is by being equipped with a theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of a particular trial.

And to that end we’ve been looking to Jeremiah’s experience with devastating suffering at the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and hoping to glean some lessons on how to respond to suffering righteously. First, we learned that a righteous response to others’ suffering includes suffering along with our brothers and sisters who suffer. Secondly, we learned that we must acknowledge the role of sin in our suffering. Today, we find a third lesson from Jeremiah’s righteous response to suffering: we must acknowledge, and trust in, God’s absolute sovereignty even in the unpleasant and painful circumstances.

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Mike Riccardi – God and Evil: Why the Ultimate Cause is not the Chargeable Cause

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Several weeks ago, I began a series of posts by outlining some foundational biblical teaching about God’s decree. We examined numerous passages of Scripture that speak of God’s decree as eternal, unconditional, unchangeable, and exhaustive. As a result, we concluded that God is properly said to be the ultimate cause of all things. As the Westminster Confession states, “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF, 3.1).

Whenever you say something like that in a theological discussion, immediately the question is raised: How can God be the ultimate cause of whatsoever comes to pass—even actions and events that are evil and sinful, things which God Himself prescribes against—and yet not be rightly charged with unrighteousness. Perhaps the most common answer to that question is an appeal to the notion of divine “permission.” In other words, though God is ultimately in control, He doesn’t ordain evil; He merely allows it. In a second post, I demonstrated why such a solution is unsatisfactory, both theologically and biblically. After considering a number of passages that don’t shy away from attributing to God a very active role in the bringing about of evil events, we concluded with John Frame: “God does bring about sinful human actions. To deny this, or to charge God with wickedness on account of it, is not open to a Bible-believing Christian. Somehow, we must confess both that God has a role in bringing evil about, and that in doing so he is holy and blameless” (Doctrine of God). That post demonstrated that Scripture plainly teaches both (a) that God is unquestionably righteous and (b) that He indeed ordains sinful events and actions. And if that’s what Scripture teaches (and it is), it is not our place to sit in judgment upon and question the consistency of those declarations. That only breeds the worst of biblical and theological mischief. To argue that God is unrighteous for ordaining evil is to sit in judgment upon both the Word of God and the Judge of all the world. Instead, it falls to us to receive both propositions as true on the authority of God’s infallible and inerrant Word.

But is there any way to understand how it can be that God is not the chargeable cause of sin, even though He ordains that it be? There is a way for the worshiper of God to ask that question submissively, not because we demand that God give an account of His understanding of justice that satisfies our sensibilities, but simply because we desire to know Him and worship Him for what He has revealed of Himself. And there is a way to answer that question that remains faithful to sound biblical interpretation and theological reflection.

The answer that Scripture seems to give can be boiled down to two propositions. First, though God is the ultimate cause of all things—even evil—He is never the proximate, or efficient, cause of evil. Second, Scripture regards only the efficient cause of evil as the chargeable or blameworthy party. Let’s look to a sample of texts that bears this out.

Assyria, the Rod of My Anger

In Isaiah 10, God pronounces woe upon His people for their idolatry and injustice (Isa 10:1–2). He threatens that He is about to bring about a “day of punishment” and “devastation which will come from afar” (Isa 10:3). “Nothing remains but to crouch among the captives or fall among the slain” (Isa 10:4). In verse 6, we learn that God will carry out this punishment against wicked Israel by sending the nation of Assyria to destroy her. He says, “I send it [i.e., Assyria] against a godless nation and commission it against the people of My fury to capture booty and to seize plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets” (Isa 10:6). God will send Assyria to level devastation upon Israel to punish her for her idolatry.

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Mike Riccardi – Bad Doctrine vs. Heresy: An Exercise in Theological Triage

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More than ten years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long!), Al Mohler wrote a seminal blog post outlining what he called “theological triage.” Borrowing the term from the emergency room, Mohler discussed the need for Christians to prioritize certain doctrinal issues over others. In what can be the chaos of an emergency room, medical professionals need to know how to weigh the urgency of various patients’ needs against one another; that is, a gunshot wound should be prioritized over a sprained ankle. Similarly, in the theological world, Christians must understand the difference between (a) “first-order” doctrines—where to hold an errant position actually precludes one from being a true brother in Christ—and (b) “second-” and “third-order” doctrines—issues on which two genuine Christians can disagree and nevertheless be truly saved. In other words, we need to be able to discern the difference between bad doctrine and heresy.

All biblical doctrine is important. I would go so far as to say all biblical doctrine is essential. It’s difficult to put any doctrine into a second or third tier, because it somehow feels as if to do so is to say it’s not important. But employing theological triage doesn’t mean that everything that’s not first-order is unimportant, any more than a doctor’s prioritizing a gunshot wound necessarily thinks a sprained ankle is unimportant. But the fact remains: genuine Christians can disagree on things like the mode and recipients of baptism; but if two people disagree on the triunity of God, one is a Christian and the other isn’t.

The Reality of Damning Error

Some people reject the very notion that disagreements about doctrine could preclude someone from salvation. After all, no one has perfect theology, and we’re saved by believing in Christ, not by believing in doctrine, they say. And it’s true, regeneration does not promise protection from all error. But it does promise protection from some error — that is, the kind of error which, if believed, indicates you’re not a child of God at all. We know that that kind of theological error exists because the Apostle Paul wrote Galatians 1:6–9:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!

Paul wrote that about the error of the Judaizers, which, if you think about it, by some evaluations was quite a fine point of doctrinal disagreement. Think about everything the Judaizers shared in common with the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints. They believed in one God, who exists eternally in three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They believed in the deity and humanity of Christ. They believed that He was Israel’s Messiah in fulfillment of the Old Testament. They believed in penal substitutionary atonement — that Christ bore the punishment of God’s wrath against the sins of His people when He died on the cross, so that they might be free from sin’s penalty and power (and one day its presence). They believed that He was buried, and that He rose on the third day. And they believed that repentance and faith in Christ was absolutely necessary for forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God in heaven. That is a lot of really important doctrine that they got right!

Their one issue boiled down, basically, to whether good works were the cause or the result of salvation. Was law-keeping the ground or merely the evidence of saving faith? Are we saved by faith alone, or by faith in Christ plus our religious observance? Now, that point of disagreement is an admittedly fine distinction! And yet Paul still employs the harshest language of condemnation for their error. “A different gospel” (Gal 1:6). “No true gospel at all” (Gal 1:7). “Let him be anathema” — condemned to hell (Gal 1:8, 9). “Severed from Christ” (Gal 5:4). “They will bear their judgment” (5:10). “I wish they would emasculate themselves” (Gal 5:12). Strong words for a disagreement on the ordo salutis! What it teaches us is, at the very least, there are certain things which, if believed, preclude someone from salvation, because to believe those things is to believe a different gospel, which is really no true gospel at all, and therefore which cannot save but can only condemn.

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Mike Riccardi – I Will Surely Tell of the Decree of the Lord

Divine-Decree-300x169 In numerous passages throughout the Bible, there are places where Scripture speaks of God’s “purpose” (Acts 4:28), His “plan” (Ps 33:11); Acts 2:23), His “counsel” (Eph 1:11), “good pleasure” (Isa 46:10), or “will” (Eph 1:5). In one way or another, each of these designations refer to what theologians call God’s decree. The Westminster Confession famously characterizes describes God’s decree as follows: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

So in those instances where Scripture speaks of God’s purpose, plan, counsel, pleasure, or will, these passages are referring to the divine decree by which God, before the creation of time, determined to bring about all things that were to happen in time. John Piper, summarizing God’s decree, says, “He has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming, with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history” (Desiring God, 40). This helpful summary presents three characteristics of God’s decree that succinctly encapsulate the teaching of Scripture: God’s decree is eternal, immutable, and exhaustive.

God’s Decree is Eternal and Unconditional

First, Scripture presents God’s decree as having been determined before the creation of time, and thus it is said to be eternal.

David praises God because all his days were ordained and written in God’s book before any one of them came to pass (Ps 139:16).

God’s election of individuals to salvation is said to have occurred “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4; cf. Matt 25:34; 1 Tim 1:9).

Paul also says that the plan of salvation of the Gentiles was in accordance with God’s eternal purpose (Eph 3:11), which mystery was “predestined before the ages” (1 Cor 2:7).

In Isaiah 46:10, Yahweh asserts that He will accomplish all His good pleasure and establish all things according to His purpose.

Paul makes a similar statement in Ephesians 1:11 when he states that believers have been “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.”

What these passages are teaching us is that all of God’s providential actions in time conform to a fixed purpose which precedes time. And this “fixed purpose” is none other than God’s eternal decree.

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Mike Riccardi – Theories of the Atonement: What Happened on the Cross?

Atonement-300x226 Throughout church history, there have been various views and theories that conceptualize the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. Because the atonement runs to the very heart of the Gospel, it’s important for us to know how people throughout the history of the church have understood the work of Christ, and to be able to test each by Scripture. Today, I want to briefly survey and evaluate some of the main theories of the atonement.

The Ransom Theory

First, there is what is known as the ransom, or classic, theory of the atonement. Also termed Christus Victor, this theory regards Christ’s atonement as accomplishing a victory over the cosmic forces of sin, death, evil, and Satan. Proponents of the ransom view believe that in the cosmic struggle between good and evil and between God and Satan, Satan had held humanity captive to sin. Therefore, in order to rescue humanity, God had to ransom them from the power of Satan by delivering Jesus over to him as an exchange for the souls held captive. Proponents of the ransom theory often appeal to Jesus’ statement that He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45).

Though Christ did give His life as a ransom for many, and though His death did indeed disarm the powers of darkness (Col 2:15), rendering powerless the devil who had the power of death (Heb 2:14), this view of the atonement affords more power to Satan than he actually has. Satan has never been in any position to make demands of God. Instead of this, Scripture makes it clear that Jesus paid the price on behalf of sinners to ransom them from the just punishment of God’s holy wrath (Rom 5:9). In the deepest sense, Jesus saved us from God, not merely the power of sin and Satan.

The Satisfaction Theory

Second, the satisfaction theory, championed chiefly by Anselm of Canterbury, supports the idea that Christ’s death made a satisfaction to the Father for sin. However, taking a cue from the paradigm of feudalism that characterized society at that time, Anselm focused more on the notion of making satisfaction for God’s wounded honor rather than the appeasement of His righteous wrath.

Now again, it is certainly true that God’s glory is belittled when sin is committed. Indeed, sin is synonymous with failing to honor
God by giving Him thanks (Rom 1:21) and falling short of His glory (Rom 3:23Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)). Thus, any adequate theory of atonement will vindicate God’s righteousness and restore His honor.

But Christ accomplished this vindication of righteousness in a particular way: by becoming a substitute for sinners, vicariously enduring in His body the punishment that was justly due to us (1 Pet 2:24). By setting forth Jesus as a propitiation of holy wrath, God has displayed Himself as both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Christ (Rom 3:26).

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Mike Riccardi – Romans 8 and the Extent of the Atonement: Help from John Murray

John-Murray-Portrait-290x300 The extent of the atonement continues to be one of those doctrinal discussions that tends to evoke more heat than light. I’ve always found it to be a shame that there is such widespread disagreement in the body of Christ concerning an aspect of theology that is so central to the Gospel itself: the atonement. While differences on the extent of the atonement may be less central than differences on the nature of the atonement, the question, “For whom did Christ atone?” is nevertheless a question that needs to be answered with biblical conviction.

Among the many texts that do get mentioned in these discussions, one text that I’ve very rarely seen discussed in personal conversation is Romans 8:28-39. And yet this text has very significant implications with respect to the particularity or universality of Christ’s redemption. Because, it seems, Romans 8 tends to get lost in the shuffle of exegetical and theological debate related to the L of TULIP, I thought I would reproduce a selection from John Murray’s classic, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, in which he demonstrates the role that Romans 8 plays in this discussion.

He asks the question, “Is there not also more direct evidence provided by the Scripture to show the definite or limited extent of the atonement?” and answers, “There are indeed many biblical arguments.” The first he addresses is Romans 8:31–39.

There is no question but that on two occasions in this passage, explicit reference is made to the death of Christ—“he that spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all” (ver. 32) and “Christ Jesus is the one who died, yea rather is raised up” (ver. 34). Hence, any indication given in this passage respecting extent would be pertinent to the question of the extent of the atonement.

Verses 31–32: The “us” is conditioned by vv. 28–30

In verse 31 Paul asks the question: “What shall we then say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” We are compelled to ask the question: of whom is Paul speaking? In other words, what is the denotation of the expressions “for us” and “against us”?

The answer is that the denotation cannot be other than that provided by the preceding context, namely, those spoken of in verses 28–30. It would be impossible to universalize the denotation of verse 31 if we are to think biblically, and it would be exegetically monstrous to break the continuity of Paul’s thought and extend the reference of verse 31 beyond the scope of those spoken of in verse 30. This means therefore that the denotation in view in the words “for us” and “against us” in verse 31 is restricted, and restricted in terms of verse 30.

When we proceed to verse 32 we find that Paul again uses this expression “for us” and adds the word “all”—“he that spared not his own Son but delivered Him up for us all.” Here he is dealing expressly with those on whose behalf the Father delivered up the Son. And the question is: what is the scope of the expression, “for us all”?

It would be absurd to insist that the presence of the word “all” has the effect of universalizing the scope. The “all” is not broader than the “us.” Paul is saying that the action of the Father in view was on behalf of “all of us” and the question is simply the scope of the “us.”

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Mike Riccardi – Gospel-Driven Integrity

integrity or ethics concept In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul is defending himself against the accusations of the false apostles, who were taking every possible opportunity to bring reproach upon Paul and his ministry in the eyes of the Corinthians. In what was actually a desire to be loving and considerate toward the Corinthians (cf. 2 Cor 1:23–2:4), Paul made a change in his travel plans in regards to his visits to Corinth. And like unscrupulous politicians running a smear campaign against their opponent, the false apostles seized upon this change of plans and blew it entirely out of proportion.

“The man talks out of both sides of his mouth! He’s undependable! Untrustworthy! He’s a fleshly man who goes back on his word because he’s guided by no higher principle than his own fallen nature! He doesn’t depend on the Spirit’s guidance, otherwise how do you explain the fickleness? And if you can’t trust him to get travel plans right, how are you going to trust his apostleship? How are you going to trust his gospel?”

Paul responds to these charges in 2 Corinthians 1:15–22. But as you read that passage, it doesn’t quite sound like a conventional defense of changing itinerary. Before he defends his conduct, Paul defends his integrity. And he does so by appealing to his theology. The reality of who God is, and what He has accomplished in Christ and in the Gospel, is the basis for all of his behavior. Paul’s conduct is rooted in his message. And for those of us who would claim to be ministers of that same Gospel (which is all of us!), the same must be true of us. I hope we’ll be instructed as we look into three of those arguments that appear in 2 Corinthians 1:18–20.

God is Faithful

First, God is faithful. He appeals to God’s faithfulness as the ground of his faithfulness (2 Cor 1:18). He basically says, “As God is faithful, our word to you is faithful.” God’s faithfulness establishes Paul’s faithfulness, because Paul is God’s messenger and preaches God’s message.

We read in that classic passage in Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” The God who is our Father is the paragon of faithfulness, trustworthiness, and dependability. With Him there is no variation or shifting shadow (Jas 1:17). The great anchor of the believer’s soul is that God does not lie (Heb 6:19).

All of our confidence and hope rests upon the reality that God’s Word is a sure and steadfast foundation—that our God is faithful to His promises which He spoke to us clearly in His Word. He does not deal with us in cunning and craftiness; He doesn’t commit Himself to us or promise us some great blessing, only to change His mind and fail to deliver because it better suits His own interests. The immutability of God is not just some arcane theological doctrine reserved for heady academic debate. It is the very foundation of the faithfulness of God—our only steadfast ground of hope. And because God is faithful, we can have the great confidence that when He makes a promise to His people, His ‘Yes’ does not carry a hidden ‘No.’

One commentator helpfully paraphrases Paul’s thoughts. He writes, “One could almost hear him say… ‘How could I possibly preach to you the good news of a God who always acts with your best interests at heart and never fails to fulfill his promises, and then turn around and treat you with utter disregard by behaving in a double-minded and self-serving way?’” He can’t. It would be an utter contradiction, because the character of God fundamentally drives and controls Paul’s life and conduct.

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Mike Riccardi – A Love that Sharpens

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“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.” – 2 Corinthians 2:4

When Paul wrote this verse, false teachers claiming to be apostles had infiltrated the church of Corinth and aimed to discredit Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle. The controversy led Paul to change his travel plans and visit the Corinthians ahead of schedule, as he hoped he could put the matter to rest by being there personally. But when Paul arrived in Corinth, one of the men in the church openly flouted Paul’s authority and insulted him before the whole church. To make matters worse, rather than coming to Paul’s defense and defending the Gospel that he preached, the Corinthians were taken in by this false teaching, and allowed this man’s sin to go unchecked.

After this “sorrowful visit,” Paul returned immediately to Ephesus and wrote them a severe letter, sternly rebuking them for failing to deal with sin in the church properly, and for straying from his apostolic teaching and message. In the verse quoted above, Paul explains the circumstances in which and the motivation for why he wrote the Corinthians his severe letter. And there is a pastoral lesson for all of us in the church who give and receive correction to our brothers and sisters.

This verse teaches us that Paul’s severe letter wasn’t just some sort of retaliatory catharsis, where he was venting his frustrations on the Corinthians to make himself feel better. It wasn’t because he was too much of a coward to be so forthright with them in person. It wasn’t because he was trying to be a domineering tyrant, seeking to intimidate the Corinthians into siding with him. It was so that his love for them would be made manifest. And his love for them would be made manifest when they considered what extraordinarily unpleasant lengths he was willing to go to in order to protect them from the damning effects of sin and false teaching.

He’s basically saying, “Dear friends, don’t think it was easy for me to write that letter to you. Despite what the false apostles are telling you, don’t think I took some perverse delight in confronting you like that. My Corinthians, I tell you: it was out of much affliction and anguish of heart that I wrote to you — and with many tears! I had no desire to make you sorrowful. I don’t love conflict. Frankly, it would have been much easier for me to avoid the situation entirely! But dear brothers and sisters, I love you all too much to abandon you to damning doctrines of the false apostles for the sake of avoiding difficult conversations! I love you all too much to not confront you about your sin.” Paul’s love was a sharpening love.

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