Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18


July 2012

Law, Mediation, & Decree: God’s Immutability In Time

The Problem

    In recent years there has been a theological debate that has arisen in evangelicalism centered around the idea of an “open” view of God, termed “Open Theism” as opposed to Traditional Theism. This “open” view puts forth the idea that portrays God as someone that created a world in which man has libertarian freedom to decide his own future, thus making it impossible for God to have as traditional theist believe “perfect, exhaustive foreknowledge”, that is that God knows all that has been, is and will be -perfectly (This view of foreknowledge has been held throughout the history of the church and since the reformation era by both Calvinists and Arminians). Open Theists instead believe that God in his infinite wisdom knows all future possibilities. 

    Open Theism is attractive in the west especially because it is rational, it removes much of the awkwardness from the problem of evil, and it is extremely homo-centric in its focus. Rational theologians that promote this doctrine testify to a sense of relief with no longer feeling the need to defend how God can be good and sovereign and there still be so much evil and suffering in the world.

    I will not take the time to go into depth on this warping of the orthodox, biblical doctrine of God. Nor will I take the time to discuss the myriad of problems that Open Theists create for themselves by adhering to this doctrine. One thing that is clear is that like most false teaching that has arisen, especially since the dawn of liberal rationalism and modernity, is that this doctrine is a fabrication meant to save Christianity from embarrassment.


The Purpose

   The purpose I am writing this is try to put forth an biblically orthodox doctrinal and exegetical approach to passages of scripture which Open Theist use as proof texts for their theology. I will not take the time here to unpack every passage that they use but to lay out the doctrinal premise behind my approach to these passages and then exam one that is perhaps their most popular text.

    The texts that prove the most profound to open theists are the ones that show God as “repenting”, “relenting”, “remembering”. We often find such language in the Bible and especially in the Old Testament. Open Theists believe that they can only take these passages at face value which would indicate that God changes his mind or that he is “open” about the future. They would use these passages to indicate that future is not determined by God’s promises and decrees but by whatever mankind, bestowed with libertarian freedom, chooses to do with it. In such passages that portray God as changing his mind they would say that since God can’t lie (Heb 6:18) that he must fully intend to do what he says and only changes his mind when the unfolding events change. 

    In regards to the passages that refer to God as “repenting”, “relenting”, or  changing his mind, the argument between traditional theists and open theists has mainly centered on whether or not God is speaking in terms that can be taken literally or whether God is speaking in figurative, analogues, descriptive language referred to as the use of words as “anthropomorphisms”. Traditional theist argue that just as God, who is a Spirit, is often referred to in the Scriptures as “seeing”, “smelling”, “striking”, etc… that we must not always assume that when God refers to himself as “repenting” that we should take that to mean that he literally has regret over a decision he made, but rather is using human terms to express the very real posture of God in that situation.

    This is not a bad argument, but in regards to passages referring to God as changing his mind or repenting I have found it not helpful to argue primarily on the basis of whether or not God is employing anthropomorphisms. For God in revealing himself to mankind via language is in a sense always using anthropomorphic language by which to speak to us. God in his dealings with us is always reaching down out of his self-sufficiency and speaking in certain terms that we can understand in order to teach us certain objective truths. The Scriptures are what we call special revelation. That is that they are the inerrant, words of God who by his Spirit moved men to write them down (II Tim 3:16. II Pt 2:20). The language that God uses is human language and thus God is perfectly communicating via the medium of imperfect language. The purpose of scripture is to convey to God’s people truth about himself using the medium of human language with all of its nuances and limitations.

    With this then in mind when I come to a passage where God is employing human terms to convey truth I must not decide if God is speaking analogously or via anthropomorphisms, for it is clear that he is. In the end what I must do with that passage is decide why (to some degree) God chose to reveal himself in that way, at that time and in that specific circumstance.  

     The passage that we will look at today is Exodus 32. Moses has just come down the mountain from receiving the law to find that the people have proven unfaithful and turned to idolatry. God in the midst of seeing this says to Moses “I have seen this people, and behold it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore, let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I might make a great nation out of you.”

     God doesn’t lie. Ever. And he never makes empty threats. But here we have an account of God declaring his intention to destroy the children of Israel and to start over with Moses. The problem isn’t so much there as it is with the fact that Moses proceeds to make an impassioned mediatorial plea on the behalf of the people and the result is that “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on the people”. Does this mean that God makes empty threats? No, for we have already seen that God can’t lie. Does this mean then that God changes his mind? If we believe the Scriptures then we must also say no (Mal 3:6, James 1:17). At this point it is not helpful for me to consider if God is speaking in anthropomorphisms or not, for we have already determined that he always is in some degree when communicating to man. I can be left scratching my head on why God did not come out and speak in a way, like he does often, that would easily uphold the truth of his immutability (unchangeableness). With this passage in this moment what I should do is decide what God is trying to teach me here. I must look at the problem that is presented by this passage and answer the question…


 “How can God be unchanging and yet change his mind?”

    The solution is not to sweep one part or the other under the rug but to come to a theological understanding of how we can believe both about God and then decide from that what the passage teaches us. For this we must take time to look at a biblical, theological undergirding for this passage and others like it.


God’s Immutability

  Those from an evangelical upbringing would probably not doubt the idea of immutability (unchangeableness) as an attribute of God. But some if backed  in a corner would not be sure perhaps why they believe that God doesn’t change. Let us look at the scriptures and name just a few examples: “God is not a man who lies, or a son of man who changes His mind”(Num 23:19). Here we see two things, an affirmation of the truth mentioned earlier that God cannot lie and also the truth is introduced that God doesn’t change his mind. “…the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind”(1 Sam 15:29). And also: “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you O children of Jacob, are not consumed (Mal 3:6).

   Furthermore, those that can see the redemptive narrative in scripture can see that God is unchanging in His promises. His promise to Eve and the Serpent concerning the messianic seed of the woman (Gen 3:15), his promise to Abraham (Gen 12,15), his promise to regarding David’s royal line. “For all the promises of God find their yes in [Christ]”(II Cor 1:20). The whole scope of scripture then testifies to the fact that the God of the Bible is a God that does change.


God’s Eternal Decree & His Work In Time

  In understanding this passage in Exodus 32, and all of God’s dealings with his creation, we must acknowledge that we see in the Scripture the evidences of God working in time, which he created, and working in eternity in which time exists. We refer to the sovereign work of God in eternity, which stretches from eternity past and into eternity future and which includes time, as the eternal decree of God.

  The eternal decree of God is his unchanging and inscrutable purposes for which he created the universe. This is sometimes referred to as God’s will of decree. Nothing can stand in the way of it being fulfilled. Some examples in scripture would be that “The Lord has done what He planned; He has accomplished all of His decree, which He ordained in days of old. (Lam 2:17a) Also the Lord declares “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things not yet done, saying “My counsel will stand I will fulfill all of my purpose…” I have spoken and will bring it to pass. I have purposes and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:9-11).

 Yet this decree is for the most part hidden from man for “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”(Deut 29:29)

  So in God’s dealings directly with creation, in time in order to fulfill his decree, is through his law. This is sometimes referred to as God’s moral will and it extends beyond the mosaic law to all that God has revealed to man to be his will and demands for mankind.

   Disobeying God’s revealed will for man is what we call sin. The first example we have of this in scripture was very simple and straightforward “The Lord commanded the man and said “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”(Gen 2 16-17). Thus God introduced the way in which he would deal with creation in time, that is through a law which established a natural result for obedience and disobedience. We see this continued way of dealing with man throughout Scripture, especially in the Old Covenant. The formula is simple “Do this and live, do this and die.” This is the law that God established. Adam ate of that fruit and sin entered into the world. Thus the natural result of that sin was what God had established, death. “For the wages of sin is death….”(Rom 6:23) There are clear consequences to breaking God’s law and we see the those consequences often in a very stark way for those under the Law of Moses.

    So we see that in eternity God decrees all that will exist and all that will be. Nothing can frustrate that work as he, according to his perfect wisdom, boundless power, and absolute authority, works all things to fulfill his will of decree. One of the ways he designed to do this was in his dealings with man whom he created in time in the midst of eternity which he also created (and is not bound to). He “declares the end from the beginning.”

     In his sovereignty God is at work in time to bring about his eternal purposes. He gave the law as a tutor, with it rewards and promises of punishment, to teach his people about himself and to ultimately point them to Christ. Yet as we see throughout the history of God’s people, they persist in disobedience. We have learned that the natural result of disobedience is death and destruction. So how does the whole world keep from being swept away? It rightly could have been destroyed as a result of disobedience! So if God promises death and condemnation for disobedience, then how can he be unchanging if he relents from fulfilling his revealed purpose of destruction? Does he simply vacillate on his revealed will in order to bring about his eternal purpose of redemption? Does he patch things up and simply make it work until the time is complete? No!

    When we see God relenting from carrying the sentence demanded by his law, he is doing so in keeping with his working in time. For in God’s judicial system there is another actor at play besides the judged and the guilty…


A Mediator

   God, according to his decree, ordained that in his natural, judicial process that a mediator may step forward on behalf of the guilty party. In Genesis we see this with Abraham in the account of Sodom and Gomorrah. Every time that God declared his natural intention there was the possibility that a mediator could intercede in order to stay the pronouncement. In Ezekiel 22:30 God is about to pour out his wrath on the land for judgment for their wickedness and he declares I searched for a man among them who would repair the wall and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land so that I might not destroy it, but I found no one.”There was no mediator and so the next verse goes on to tell us of the judgment that came to be. In Jeremiah 11, God forbid that Jeremiah even pray for the people on whom God pronounced judgment. So we see times when God ordains that a mediator stand in the gap and times when he does not raise up a mediator and continues with the judgment, even commanding that an attempt not be made to mediate!

     The purpose of all of this is to point to the ultimate mediator “the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim 2:5). All mediators before Christ, foreshadowed Christ who is the only truly effectual mediator. For all mediators before Christ were meant, like the Levitical sacrifices, to point to Christ and to defer to Christ. For just as the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin, so also there is only one mediator who may truly mediate as the one who has passed through the veil. So when God relents of judgment that his law demands, he is in fact not relenting in the since that he is changing his mind or being a “sofety”, but is in fact showing us that the One Mediator bears the judgment instead. Christ, as the mediator, for all the church for all time, stood in the gap not as merely an intercessor, but as one who God necessarily transfers or imputes the guilt and thus the judgment to!

   So we can see that through the role of a mediator, symbolic like the sacrifices under the Old Covenant, God does not relent in the sense that he does not carry out the justice that his law demands. But he does relent in the sense that his justice is postponed or imputed on Christ.

   Therefore, God works in time without being at odds with his justice to bring about his eternal purposes in Christ.


The Passage

  So if the question is not really about whether or not God is speaking using anthropomorphisms or analogies, for in his verbal communication with man he really always is. And if God has revealed himself to us in His word so that we might know him. Then the question in regards to Exodus 32 that we must ask is since God revealed himself this way, at this time, and in these circumstances, what is he telling us?

   We have already seen that under the law the result of disobedience is death and destruction. Thus the natural result of Israel’s idolatry in this instance was that God would destroy them and start over if it pleased him to do so. For God to declare what he is going to do then is simply him stating what his moral will dictates must be done as a “cause and effect” action of Israel going against his revealed will for them. However, God in his decree ordained that in his natural, judicial process that a mediator may come forward, thus foreshadowing Christ, and stand in the gap and make intercession. So God states to Moses what is the expected result of Israel breaking his law (this is his moral will) yet God ordains that Moses be moved to make intercession in order that the wrath be stayed or rather deferred. Thus the purpose of this anthropomorphism portraying God in this way and in this situation is to display in a very human way what the natural result is of going against God’s moral will or law; God is angry and he must destroy you unless someone stands in the gap.    In this then we find not a weak, vacillating God who bends to the whims of man, but the God of the Gospel who truly intends that we be damned, who is angry at us in our sin, and yet in his decree he put forth Christ to be that mediator and to take for himself God’s wrath so that the obvious and natural reaction of us rebelling against God’s moral will (destruction) be stayed, in our case via penal substitution.

    Christ, once and for all stood in the gap for his people, but God does not lie or change. It is because of God’s immutability in this case that Christ has to die his substitutionary death. God declared from the beginning that the natural result of disobedience be death and God cannot change, so Christ died for those for whom he stood in mediation in order that God could “repent” or “relent” from his very real intent to destroy us, yet remain unchanging!



Anywhere in Scripture where we see God portrayed in very human and moveable ways we must exegete the passage by considering why the immutable God portrayed himself as changing, repenting, and remembering. We know he is unchanging and works all things according to the counsel of his will not just because the Word says so but because the narrative of Scripture is a monument to his absolute sovereignty and immutability. If we do not realize this need for cross-centered exegesis of all of Scripture then in the “openness” debate we will be left with merely firing independent passages in the Old Testament back and forth, arguing over which of these anthropomorphisms are analogues and which are an actual depiction of God’s nature. 

   We also must remember that God is at work in time but that he is also eternal and not bound by space and time. Therefore, though he deals linearly with us in a way that allows our finite, time-bound minds to see the narrative of his work of redeeming a people for his own glory, we must not forgot that he is at work in a non-linear, eternal setting to bring about the counsel of his will. In time God has given us his word, his law, his revealed purposes and will for his people. We should not from that try to speculate too much or make God too simple. But realizing that God’s word is his revelation to us we should seek to find what God is saying to his church, in our time in the history that God has made. All the way remembering that The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law” Deut 29:29


   Now, let us praise our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our mediator. He is our sacrifice. He is God’s ultimate revelation of himself to his people. Fully God, he became also fully man. He walked like a man, talked, laughed, cried. Displayed all the emotions that a man displays. Yet he was the “exact imprint of [God’s] nature“(Heb 1:3). He was and is and ever will be “the same yesterday, today, and forever”(Heb 13:8). The God who does not change.






Abortion & The Sovereignty of Man

The pro-choice ideology, the idea that a woman has the right to abort the life growing in her womb, springs from the natural result of the belief that man has the right to self-sovereignty, the right to choose. This idea was birthed in the western context both from homo-centric enlightenment ideology and the theological traditions that range from Palagianism to Arminianism. The exaltation of the sovereign choice of man over the sovereignty of God begins in very innocent, optimistic, idealistic forms leading from one implication to the next until babies are being murdered on the basis of a right to choose life or death – a choice that belongs ultimately to God alone.

    It is God who alone has the right to give life and to take it and it is presumptuous for man to wrest that right and apply it to himself. It is said that man has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This view is untenable for those with a Christian worldview, but it is the view from which the “right” for abortion comes. For what happens when an unexpected pregnancy gets  in the way of the life you want to live or the liberty that you enjoy? What happens when you have a feeble relative in the nursing home who is getting in the way of your pursuit of happiness? What happens when your 5-year plan is interrupted by the diagnosis that the baby inside has Down’s Syndrome?  We are so quick to latch onto ideas that sound right and noble without following those ideas through to their logical end when applied to a mankind that is depraved and futile in their thinking.

   Life is a gift from God, both physical and spiritual, at it his work that brings it about.  Beware of the fruit of exalting the sovereignty of man (his right to make choices divorced from an objective standard of truth) against the sovereignty of God. Ideas are seeds and they always bear fruit that are proof of their origin. The fruit being born in America is not foreign from what was planted by its founders despite their intentions. America is reaping exactly what was sown.

Christ – Promises Fulfilled & Promises Guaranteed

” For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.”

II Corinthians 1:20

   It is a marvel to consider the truth that the whole of Scripture testifies to this verse. If you would ask me why I believe the Bible and that it is inspired and inerrant, one of the foundational reasons I would have to give is this verse. All of the promises of God, of blessing and of judgment, fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled, find their “yes” in Christ.

     The list is exhaustive but as we stroll through the ages of redemptive history we can find ourselves catching our breath as we behold the truth of this verse in some of the prominent stories and promises of the Bible.

     In Christ, God fulfilled his promise to Eve and to the serpent. “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise you head, and you shall bruise his heel”. Christ, the offspring of the woman, faced temptation in the wilderness and was victorious, not being swayed by the Devil’s twisting of the words of God as was Eve. And finally he suffered, died and rose again, triumphing over his enemies.

   In Christ, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham that through his seed “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”(Gen 12:3). A reflection of the kingdom reality that Christ ushered in and the mandate he left for his church, that the seed of Abraham, vaster than the sand in the sea would not be only of Abrahamic bloodline, but from the bloodline of Adam’s fallen race.

    In Christ, God fulfilled the Passover promise that he made to his people that “when I see the blood I will pass over you.” Giving them a symbol of the blood that would be shed one day and if applied to the heart by like faith would reckon that one righteous and spare that one from the wrath of God.

    In Christ, God fulfilled his promise that David would always have an heir on his throne (II Sam 7:16-17). Now the risen, glorified King, root of Jesse, reigns on an eternal throne which shall never cease!

    In Christ, God fulfills what he declared in Exodus 34 The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty”. For in Christ God is true to his unchanging character as both just and merciful. How can God be so merciful and yet still execute his justice by not clearing the guilty? The answer is by providing a substitute in Christ, who by his perfect life and dual nature as the God-Man, bore as man the sins of man in order that God might be just in justifying the wicked. Then he was resurrected as a proof that God was true to what he spoke through the prophet Isaiah that  “Out of the anguish of his soul He shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities“(Is 53:11).

   Many more are the promises that God declared to his people. God made covenants with his people, all pointing to an everlasting covenant of grace with Christ as the testator. In Christ, God made good on the promises he made in the old covenant and by sending Christ to live a perfect life and die, then raising him from the grave he made a guarantee that all that would live and believe in him would never die for the wages of death had been paid.

   In Christ, God fulfilled his promise that he would pour out his Spirit on mankind (Joel 2:28) and that he would write his law  on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Christ did this by sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in his people (Jn 16:7), after he had ascended, who is now our guarantee, a down-payment, that God will finally make good, through Christ, on all his promises. For dwelling within us is the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead. That Spirit is “quickening our mortal bodies” so that we may be conformed into the image of Christ as we were chose to be before the foundation of the world and finally be raised by that same Spirit in the last day (Rom 8:11, Eph 1:4).


  If we look at the Scriptures we see that all of the promises of God find their “yes” in Christ because Christ is at the center of all of those promises, even the promises of judgment and wrath.Consider all of the promises that God has made, then consider how only in Christ is the fulfillment of that promise possible. Make a exercise of this and you will never ceased to be amazed at God’s marvelous dealings with his people! And with a sure hope you will be able to face every day with confidence in the God who out of his existence as Trinity makes promises (Father), fulfills them (through the Son), and guarantees them in the meantime (by the Spirit). Pondering on this is daily a huge encouragement to me and I hope it can be to you as well! Let us then read the word of God, face each day with its joys and trials, all the while uttering our amen to whatever comes, all to the glory of the God who keeps his promises.

On Miracles….

In response to the question of why in many church contexts and at various points in church history we do not see many obvious miracles being performed ultimately it must be understood that God in his infinite wisdom gives miracles according to his good pleasure and he distributes gifts according to his grace which are then exercised to the extent of the faith granted. It is important to understand this first of all. Now in a natural sense we must examine if we are at fault. The lack of expectation for miracles cannot be linked entirely to scientific rationalism or modernity for the days of the reformers and the days even of Augustine and the church fathers are not know for large numbers of miracles. I think miracles have been something that have been misunderstood and not sought for because we have historically misunderstood their purpose and been led astray by them. Of course any good doctrines divorced from a Gospel hermeneutic are standing on dangerous ground, so we must not fear the doctrines, that of miracles in this place, but seek to understand their role in a cross-centered context. I believe that some of us in the realm of evangelical orthodoxy are on the verge of realizing with proper balance the role of miracles in the church today in such a way that we see and increased awareness of them, an increased prayer for them, and an increased working of true miracles in an orthodox context all with a Christo-centric, God-exalting, Gospel-propogating end in mind.

Tough Love That Can’t Be Outwitted

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (2 Corinthians 2:5-11 ESV)

  Tough love is something that we have all experienced at some point of our lives and usually from those that love us most, like our families. We accept this as a normal part of family life and see it even as a refining virtue. The Scriptures are clear that this should be no different in the life of the church. People have a tendency, despite their natural family experiences with genuine tough love, to recoil at the thought of tough love in the church. In the sphere of ecclesiology this tough love in the church is called “Church Discipline”. Despite how ominous that sounds and how unpopular the idea is in the modern church, church discipline is a merciful form of tough love if carried out in a biblical manner.

The Church is also known as the “bride of Christ” and God is at work sanctifying that bride to make for himself a bride without spot or wrinkle (Eph 5:27-29). It is important that the church, as Christ’s representatives on earth, be growing in grace and Christ-likeness. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he warns the church about the one in their midst who was sexually immoral and was unrepentant. He warns them that a “little leaven leavens the whole lump” (I Cor 5:6). The body of Christ, His church, is a made up of many members that are all joined together (1 Cor 12). I believe it is not inappropriate to use this analogy to say that if I stub my toe the whole of my body reacts! In a local congregation there is no such thing as sin that only affects the individual. We see this lesson taught in the Old Testament when the sin of one or a few put the whole of Israel in danger (ie. Joshua 7, Ezra 9, etc). The practice of removing from fellowship a “so called brother (or sister)” living in unrepentant sin, which we call church discipline, is a form of tough love that must be in a church if that church is supposed to be healthy, biblical, and faithful to its calling as Christ’s bride and his representative body on earth.
In II Corinthians Paul find himself at the tail end of an episode of tough love that he likely oversaw from a distance. With a grief laden heart he explains in the beginning of chapter two why he delayed his coming to visit them. It was Paul’s wish that in coming to them he would be able to impart “a second experience of grace” (1:15, likely a second chance to give to give to the famished Jerusalem believers) and it was his desire that “his joy would be the joy of them all” but this was to be impossible if matters of discipline were unresolved for then he would come and have no reason to be glad on the account of the one to whom he had caused pain by means of discipline (2:2-3).

Before Paul can come to the church it is his desire that they have this matter in order. It is often debated as to whether this individual being disciplined is the fellow guilty of sexual immorality in I Corinthians 5 or if this is an individual who was stirring up rebellion against Paul. Either way the result here is what they had hoped for, the individual has repented, this is the goal of church discipline. This individual was put out by the church, under the direction of Paul (assuming this is the continuation of the I Cor 5 episode) “to deliver [him] over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Corinthians  5:5). The man has suffered enough in Paul’s estimation (2:6) and his repentance has proved genuine (II Cor. 7:5-13). However the danger for the church in this situation is not over yet! The pain and sorrow caused by this individual has been far-reaching. The leaven has had its swelling effect and the searing pain of a limb severed is still keen. Now we will look at the heart of our text, Paul’s plea for loving and victorious restoration of the offender.

A Wounded Body
The pain that was caused by the discipline of this individual was not a pain felt only by Paul, but by the entire church. Church discipline should never be a joyous occasion, but one of tender grief and loving jealousy for the name and reputation of the bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Paul is an example of the posture of a leader who understands the gravity of the situation. In 2:4 Paul exclaims that he wrote to Corinth “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause [them] more pain but to let [them] know the abundant love that [he had] for [them]“. With this in mind Paul acknowledges that he is not the only one that has been pained by this ordeal, but that this individual who had sinned had caused pain to the entire church.
It is important for Paul to recognize this. Anyone that has experienced church or family life shattered by sin knows the pain and even bitterness that can be caused by it. By recognizing that the entire church has been pained he is then able to admonish them with credibility as to their further action. Paul speaks as one who is not distant emotionally but one who has shared in their sorrow. Paul knows that this time for the church is crucial for its health and we will examine this closely but first we look at what Paul requires of the church in relation to the disciplined individual.

The church in Corinth sits on a sort of precipice with this repentant brother. He has borne the discipline and has clearly repented. The church has been hurt and wounded. Perhaps there are a few who didn’t desire the discipline, but we know that it was done by the agreement of the majority (2:6) and it is possible that more than a few did not wish to restore this man who might only disappoint them again or be a constant reminder of the pain that was wrought. Into this atmosphere Paul “begs” the church to reaffirm their love for this brother. After identifying with their grief he orders that they should “turn to forgive and comfort him” stating that the “punishment by the majority is enough“. The purpose of the discipline had been reached now it was crucial that the church move on to fully restore this brother in love. Paul was in blood earnest in this, for he knew that for the church to fail to obey his direction would lead to a serious blow by the enemy both in the life of the church and the certainly in the life of the one seeking to be restored. Disobedience to Paul’s direction would have led to a victory for the enemy on at least two fronts:

(1) Overwhelming Sorrow
The goal of church discipline is that the flesh may be destroyed by Satan in order that the soul may be saved. In this act we see God’s sovereignty at work over Satan to purify the church. Satan walks about the church, seeking whom he may devour and when one is removed from the protective fellowship of the church, whether by removing himself or by being put out in church discipline, Satan is ready to pounce. Now it is impossible for those that are among the elect to be entirely devoured (Rom 8:38-39) but Satan is cunning and his desire is to “steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10). Paul is concerned that the church, by not receiving this man back into the protective fellowship of the church gathered, would cause him to despair (2:7). Such despair is dangerous.

Paul realized that the enemy would love to see this man be driven to despair and utterly destroyed and rendered useless rather than being made whole. This situation was ripe for Satan to exploit. It is possible that the indignation of some could have led them to believe that they were right in not receiving the offender back into the fellowship. The longer they tarried in forgiving and comforting the offender, the longer he was left outside to be afflicted and ravaged in mind and spirit by the enemy. The result of this would have been tragic for the man put out of the church and a weakening of the Corinthian church’s Gospel foundation….

(2) Unforgiveness
Jesus taught clearly that the mark of one that is forgiven is that he forgives (Matt 6:14-15). Mercy is foundational in the life of one who has received mercy (Matt 5:7). John Piper once said (paraphrase) that “one who does not show mercy should have no expectation that he himself is a recipient of God’s mercy”. Yet a very real mark of a person(s) that has been wounded is the difficulty to show mercy. As Paul tells them to “turn to forgive and comfort him” he knew that a proper understanding of the Gospel was as stake here in the matter of forgiveness.

Satan would have loved for the church in self-righteousness to hold this man at arm’s length, not forgive him (and feel they were just in doing so) and thus see him consumed.

Amidst the pain and sorrow the danger of this was real. Paul takes the first step in forgiving this man from a distance, just as he had judged him from a distance (I Cor. 5), saying “Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything has been for your sake in the presence of Christ,…” Paul knows that in this situation it is not only the life of the individual who needs forgiving that is at stake but the life of the entire church! For he goes on to say that he did this “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his devices”. Paul, who had been a Pharisee of the Pharisees and a persecutor of the church, knew all too well how Satan will exploit a perceived rightness. In fact in his testimony Paul testifies that he was “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless“(Phil 3:6) yet utterly without mercy.
By not forgiving, by not showing compassion to one who had repented, the church would have forgotten in their hearts the center of the Gospel, which is that is that a holy God saves sinners. The Son of God was despised, rejected, forsaken, spit-on, beaten, and finally slaughtered in order that he might save his enemies. Satan would relish that we forget this in the church, not only so that he may devour the ones put out of the church but so that he may watch as those within the fellowship of the church devour each other.

All of our perceived righteousness and all of our propensity to harbor bitterness when hurt must be left at the foot at the cross. The church is a community of sinners saved by grace being changed from one degree of glory to the next. As the church we must never lose our zeal for the reputation of our God and Savior and we must never cease from our pursuit of personal and corporate purity, but we also must never cease being a people who are desperately aware of how much we need the Gospel each and every moment.
Paul knew that almost any command can be abused and church discipline is one of those commands. Most churches have discarded this biblical practice because of its harsh nature and sadly because it has been often abused throughout church history. However, the potential of abuse did not stop Paul from practicing church discipline and it shouldn’t stop us either. In order for us to discipline rightly we must understand that mercy is at the foundation of church discipline.

Just as tough love is found in the life of every healthy family so also it will be found in every healthy church. What determines if that tough love is in fact healthy and truly loving lies in how the church responds to the call to restore the offender who repents. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to test them and see if they were “obedient in everything” (2:9) this included forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an option for us, no matter how deeply we have been hurt by the sins of others. Satan would love to convince us that we have a right to be bitter or to withdraw, pout, and lick our wounds. It is not that our wounds are not real, even Paul was afflicted in his soul as a result of the situation he faced at Corinth, but we must understand those emotional wounds in light of the thorn pierced brow, the nail scared hands, and shredded back of Christ.

Keep the Gospel fresh in your heart and mind, “Pursue holiness without which no man shall see the Lord,”Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”,and you will not be outwitted by Satan. (Heb12:14, Eph 4:32)


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