Jun 27, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 2

II. The Church Is Comprised of Baptized Believers

After his glorious resurrection, the Lord Jesus issued his Great Commission to his disciples with these words:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:19-20)

This text tells us that the church is supposed to do four things: (1) Go, (2) make disciples, (3) baptize those disciples, (4) teach those disciples. For our purposes in this chapter, we will focus on item (3), baptism.

We are told by the Lord Jesus that the church is to make disciples and that the church is to baptize those disciples. As most Christians know, baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It also serves as the believer’s "pledge of allegiance" to Jesus. It is the way in which a person makes his profession of faith public and formally commits himself to being a disciple of Jesus. As such, baptism is often called the Christian's "first (public) act of obedience."

Because of this, it should go without saying that membership in a local church requires baptism. Only Christians can be members of local churches. The church is a gathered community of those who have become disciples of Jesus. But, one cannot be a true disciple if one refuses to obey Christ’s commands, and one of his commands is baptism. And this is why we see in the New Testament that every time someone believes in Jesus, he is baptized before his entrance into the visible, local church.

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:40-41)

Notice the sequence here. First, the people received the word. That is, they believed the gospel and were saved. Second, they were baptized. Then, thirdly, they were added to the church. So, the church consists of baptized believers.

Jun 21, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 1

In an age in which the church is often ignored or belittled, I will offer over the next few weeks a multi-part essay on the nature and importance of the church. Part one is posted below.

What is the Church and Why Should I Care?
by Steven B. Cowan


"I don’t need organized religion. I can worship God my own way in the privacy of my own home."
"I do not belong to a local church, but I belong to the universal church made up of all who believe in Jesus."
"Can’t I just think of my little home Bible study group as my church? Why do I have to join a formal organization to please God?"

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these kinds of things from professing Christians. Many religious people today seem to have little regard for the "traditional" local church, for what is often called "organized religion." There are perhaps many reasons for this. For one thing, churches do not always care for their members as they should. Hurting, spiritually-needy people sometimes fall through the cracks and are neglected by the church leaders and other members. Little wonder then that people who have been "burned" by churches would want nothing to do with "organized religion." For another thing, people in our relativistic, self-centered culture simply do not want the accountability the comes from membership in a local church. Add to this the fact that churches have done a poor job in recent generations of educating their members on the nature and importance of the local church—even denying at times that the Bible teaches formal church membership—and people outside the church have all the excuse they need to stay away.

Yet the Bible speaks much about the church. It tells us that Christ established the church; that he died for the church, and that he loves the church. Moreover, the Bible does teach (as we will see) that Christians should join themselves to organized, local churches. For these reasons, it is crucial that those who name the name of Jesus understand what the church is and what our relationship to the church should be. In this essay, we will outline the nature of the church under five headings and explain why you should care about being a part of a local church.

I. The Church Is a Gathered Community

Though the Bible does speak of a universal church that is composed of all Christian believers everywhere, and which is invisible (see Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:23-32; Heb. 12:22-23), the Bible is very clear that this universal church is to have concrete expression in particular places by Christians gathering together to form local churches, local communities of believers. This is proven, first of all, simply from the word "church" itself. This term comes from the Greek ekklesia, which means "assembly" or "congregation." So, a church is an assembly or gathering together of people.

But, we can say more. In Acts 2, after Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, we are told that 3000 people converted to faith in Christ. In verse 42, we learn that these new converts "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Notice that one of the several activities that these early disciples is said to have devoted themselves was "fellowship." This term comes from the Greek koinonia, which has to do with people joining together for mutual benefit; having a shared life together as we see later in Acts chapters 4 and 5.

So a church is more than simply a meeting; more than a loose and casual gathering as when people get together for a party or at City Hall to vote on business. No, a church is a congregation of people who have a shared life together, a fellowship. The church is a community.

One of the most wonderful images of the church in the New Testament is the image of the "Body of Christ" This image makes it plain that the church is an intimate fellowship that exists for the mutual benefit of all church members. The Apostle Paul describes the church in 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 using the image of the Body of Christ.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. . . Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Among other things, this passage clearly teaches at least three important truths about the members of the Body of Christ:

(1) Each Christian is given a spiritual gift for the mutual benefit of the whole church (v.7).
(2) The church needs each gifted member (vv.15-18).
(3) Each gifted member needs the whole church (v. 21).

What may we conclude from this? For one thing, we must say that the Body of Christ is healthy in so far as each member contributes his spiritual gifts for the good of all the other members. For another, since the church is a gathered community, there is the clear implication that each member of the church ought to have a commitment to the church. If a person exists in this kind of intimate fellowship in which he faithfully shares his gifts with the others, and they share with him, then that must involve a mutual commitment of each member to all the other members. We call this kind of commitment a covenant. For the church to be a gathered community, functioning as a healthy Body of Christ, requires that those who are gathered together enter into covenant with one another.
[to be continued...]

Jun 15, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 3

So far, I have argued (1) that the Bible does not teach libertarian freedom, and (2) that libertarian freedom is not necessary for moral responsibility.

I turn finally to the third reason to reject libertarianism: it can be shown that not only is libertarianism unnecessary for moral responsibility, it is positively inconsistent with moral responsibility. That is, if a person has free will such that his actions are indetermined, he cannot be morally responsible for his actions. Let me give you an argument to show you why.

Suppose there is a person named Smith, who is trying to decide between two job offers. Let us label the first job "JobA" and the second job "JobB." And let us suppose that there are reasons in favor of Smith choosing JobA, and other reasons in favor of Smith choosing JobB. The former we will call RA and the latter RB. Now RA may include such factors as that the salary is higher than that of JobB, the location is in a low-crime area, and so on. But, other equally significant factors support JobB, so that RB includes the fact that the location is closer to family, the work is easier, and so on. Now suppose that Smith finally decides to accept the offer for JobA. We need to ask the question, then, "Why did Smith choose JobA?" The libertarian, being an indeterminist, cannot say that the reasons Smith had for JobA—RA—compelled or determined that Smith choose that job. Smith, being free, could have done otherwise. But, I want to suggest that if Smith had free will when he choose JobA, then his actions were random and arbitrary in such a way that he could not possibly be morally responsible for choosing JobA.

The libertarian, of course, will cry foul at this point. "How can Smith’s choice be arbitrary since he had some reasons—RA—for choosing it?" Well, I can agree that RA can be meaningfully cited as reasons for why Smith chose JobA, but I submit that the libertarian has answered the wrong question. The salient question is not, "Why did Smith choose JobA?", but "Why did Smith choose JobA rather than JobB?" I do not think that the libertarian can answer this question satisfactorily.

In fact, I believe that the libertarian indeterminist is caught on the horns of a dilemma: The question is, "Why did Smith choose JobA rather than JobB?" Either there is an answer to this question or there is not. If there is an answer, then Smith's choice is determined (and indeterminism is false). If there is no answer, then Smith's choice is made arbitrarily. So, if indeterminism is true, then Smith's choice is a random choice, and his moral responsibility for that choice is vitiated. Let me present this dilemma a bit more formally:

(1) Either there is a causally sufficient reason why Smith chose JobA rather than JobB, or there is not.
(2) If there is a causally sufficient reason why, then Smith's choice is determined.
(3) If there is no causally sufficient reason why, then Smith's choice is arbitrary.

In defense of (3), let us imagine three different scenarios regarding the relative weight of the reasons Smith may have with respect to the two job offers. First, suppose that Smith's reasons for choosing either job are equally weighted. That is, let it be the case that RA provides no motivation to prefer JobA to JobB, and vice versa. If so, then it seems that there is no reason why Smith chose JobA rather than JobB, even though he did have the considerations of RA in favor of JobA. Would not his choice to accept one job rather than the other be just as arbitrary as if he had no reasons for choosing either job (i.e., if both RA and RB did not exist)? So it seems. So, how does adding equally weighted reasons for the respective jobs diminish the arbitrariness of the choice in such a way as to ground Smith's moral responsibility?

The difficulty does not go away if we assume that RA and RB are not equally weighted. Suppose that RA makes the choice of JobA more preferable, so preferable in fact that it would be clearly irrational to choose JobB. The indeterminist/libertarian would still maintain that there is no causally sufficient reason why Smith chooses JobA (if in fact he does choose JobA). Smith is perfectly capable of choosing JobB in this situation. But, the compatibilist can reply that moral responsibility would come down, on this view, to having the ability to make an irrational choice. And who would want such an ability?

But, what if RA is weightier than RB, but not by a great margin? That is, would our assessment of Smith's moral responsibility be any different if he had some reason to prefer JobA to JobB, yet that reason was not so overwhelmingly preferable that choosing JobB instead would seem obviously crazy? I don't think so. It would still turn out to be irrational to choose JobB if Smith could not say anything in explanation of his choice.

To see this, imagine two possible worlds, W1 and W2, that both contain our character Smith. And let us assume that in both worlds he has some small preference for JobA as opposed to JobB (but not a very strong preference). Now suppose also that in both worlds Smith opts for JobB (the less preferable job). Intuitively, is seems possible for such a choice to be made, and we would not, in ordinary situations, immediately charge someone who made such a choice with irrationality. Let us suppose, for example, that in W1 Smith, if asked why he chose JobB rather than JobA, would reply, "I just had a gut feeling about JobB." We would be prone, I think, to accept this answer and not consider Smith irrational because acting on a gut feeling is often the appropriate thing to do and does in fact constitute a reason for Smith to really prefer JobB after all. It's the presence of this reason that explains why we are willing to give Smith's rationality (in W1) the benefit of the doubt.

However, suppose that things are slightly different with respect to Smith in W2. Suppose that he had no gut feelings about JobB that influenced him to choose it in spite of JobA's apparent preferability. We ask, "So even though JobA seemed more preferable on purely rational grounds, you chose JobB because it appealed to you in some unspecifiable way?" Smith replies, "No, JobA appealed to me more. I just picked JobB. No reason." It would be safe to conclude that Smith is irrational. He quite arbitrarily chose JobB rather than JobA against clear reasons for the latter, and he did so for absolutely no reason. Hence, it would seem that the indeterminist wants us to ground responsibility in the ability to act irrationally. But, I submit that there is no reason that we should go along with this. When people act irrationally and arbitrarily, we tend to think that they are defective in some way—in a way that causes us to mitigate their moral responsibility. So, it would seem that libertarian free will is actually inconsistent with moral responsibility.

What do I conclude from all this? When confronted with the apparent problem of reconciling God’s sovereignty and free will, there is no reason to follow the Arminian in opting for free will and rejecting divine sovereignty, nor is there any need to paradoxically hold these concepts in tension. Because the only motivation for holding on to free will—the need to preserve moral responsibility—has no force. Moral responsibility does not require free will, and thus there is no reason, no motive, to diminish God’s sovereignty.

Jun 13, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 2

In the last post, I pointed out that the Bible nowhere teaches that human beings have libertarian freedom. All that Scripture clearly teaches in this area is moral responsibility. Nevertheless, I noted that a critic could argue that, Scripture's silence notwithstanding, moral responsibility requires libertarian freedom as a necessary condition.

So, the second reason to reject libertarianism is that there is no compelling reason to believe that libertarianism—the ability to do otherwise— is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. To see this, let me introduce what is known in philosophical literature as the Frankfurt Counterexample. The contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt formulated an ingenious scenario or example in order to refute the notion that we need alternative possibilities or the ability to do otherwise in order to be responsible for our actions. He tells the following story.

Suppose there is a mad-scientist named Black and another man named Jones. Jones has been deliberating on who to vote for in the next Presidential election, either Bush or Hillary Clinton. Black would very much like Jones to vote for Clinton (this is why he is a mad scientist!). And let us suppose that Black has secretly implanted in Jones’ head a device which constantly monitors Jones’ every thought and action, and is also able, if Black pushes the right buttons, to control Jones’ thoughts and actions (but it doesn’t do this all the time).

Now, if Jones chooses to vote for Clinton on his own, then Black will do nothing. He will just sit back and let it happen. But, if Jones begins to choose to vote for Bush, then Black will intervene, push the right buttons and force Jones to vote for Clinton.

Now, let us suppose that Jones does decide on his own, without any manipulation from Black, to vote for Clinton. Two questions: Could Jones have done anything other than vote for Clinton? It wouldn’t seem so. Was he morally responsible for his actions? Indeed he was.

So, here is a case in which it is apparent that a person can be morally responsible without having the ability to do otherwise. I do not mean to suggest that this gives us all we might want in reconciling divine sovereignty and moral responsibility, but I do think it accomplishes this much: it shows that it is not at all obvious anymore that having the ability to do otherwise is necessary for moral responsibility.
[to be continued. . .]

Jun 7, 2005

Reconciling Divine Sovereignty and Free Will? - Part 1

I will present in three parts a paper I read a couple of years ago at the Birmingham Southern Baptist Founders Fraternal dealing with the thorny issue of the relationship between God's sovereignty and human freedom. I hope the readers find it useful. Comments welcome.

By Steven B. Cowan

[Part 1]

God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass. . .

Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that there is not anything befalls any by chance, or without his providence. . .

(The Second London Baptist Confession, 3.1, 5.2)

These statements from the Second London Confession reflect the biblical testimony that God is absolutely sovereign over his creation. Nothing happens apart from his will, his control. Since most of you here today would agree with this doctrine, I will not rehearse the biblical texts which support it. But, let me simply go on record as saying that I think that the Bible teaches this doctrine most clearly and unambiguously.

Of course, as our Arminian brothers will be quick to remind us, the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty and meticulous providence poses a threat to human freedom. If God ordains everything that comes to pass, including the future actions of human beings, then it seems that human beings cannot do other than what they in fact do. And, that being the case, how can they be free? How can they be morally responsible for their actions? The Arminian, as you know, thinks that if God is this sovereign, this much in control, then we cannot be free and responsible. And thus he chooses to preserve human freedom by mitigating God’s sovereignty in some way. Most often this is done by saying that God chooses to limit his sovereignty to allow room for human freedom.

Now those of a Reformed or Calvinist persuasion are not comfortable with this solution primarily because of our conviction regarding what the Scriptures teach about God’s sovereignty. Yet, I have heard many Calvinists, faced with this apparent conflict between God’s sovereignty and human freedom say something like this: "Well, I know that the Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign. And it sure seems that the Bible also teaches that humans have free will. The Bible teaches both, so I must affirm both. I can’t explain how they fit together. It’s a mystery. So, we must be content to hold sovereignty and free will in tension."

Before I go any further, I need to point out that both the Arminian and the Calvinist who takes this approach to the problem have something very significant in common. They both share the same view of free will—that is, they both affirm the libertarian definition of free will. On this view a person has free will when he has the ability to do otherwise. In other words, imagine a person who stands at a fork in the road, who is deliberating on whether to go right or left. Now suppose that he chooses to go left. According to the libertarian, the person’s choice was a free choice if, in the very same circumstances, he could have gone right instead. This is what we mean by the ability to do otherwise. And this view of freedom, obviously, entails that a free choice will not be determined in any way.

The Calvinist who wants to hold free will in tension with God’s sovereignty does so because he cannot see any clear way to reconcile God’s sovereignty with freedom understood in this libertarian sense. And I want to suggest that he cannot see any clear way to reconcile them for good reason: they cannot be reconciled! God’s sovereignty and libertarian freedom are undeniably and immutably contradictory! If God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, then it follows with irresistible logic that nothing other than what he ordains can come to pass. And this means that if God ordains that Steve Cowan give a lecture at the Birmingham Founders Fraternal on April 25, then Steve Cowan cannot do other than give that lecture. So, if God is sovereign, then neither Steve Cowan nor anyone else has the ability to do otherwise—that is, no one has freedom in the libertarian sense.

The upshot of this, of course, is that, since contradictions cannot be true, God’s sovereignty and human free will cannot be held in tension. On this score, the Arminian is right: we must choose between God’s absolute sovereignty and libertarian freedom. The Arminian, of course, will say that we ought to choose libertarian freedom and mitigate or diminish God’s sovereignty. However, I suggest that we go the other way; that we choose God’s sovereignty as clearly taught in the Bible, and say goodbye to libertarian freedom.

There are three reasons for this. First, I think it needs to be pointed out, despite what many people believe, that the Bible nowhere directly teaches libertarianism. Search the Scriptures to your heart’s content and you will never find that the Bible affirms that humans have the ability to do otherwise. Now what you will find is that the Bible clearly and strongly affirms human moral responsibility. God gives us commandments and he expects us to keep them. And when we don’t, he holds us morally accountable. So, there is no denying that the Bible teaches moral responsibility.

Now the reason that many people think that the Bible teaches free will (in the libertarian sense) is that they assume or presuppose that moral responsibility requires libertarian free will. In other words, people come to the biblical text with an a priori philosophical presupposition that libertarianism is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. But, the Bible nowhere affirms that presupposition. But, of course, someone might say that even though the Bible doesn’t directly affirm that libertarianism is a necessary condition of moral responsibility, it is certainly plausible to believe it is. The Bible doesn’t teach libertarianism, but there are lots of things we believe and ought to believe that the Bible doesn’t teach, e.g., that 2+2=4. So, perhaps we ought to accept libertarianism any way. This leads me to my next two reasons to say goodbye to libertarianism. . . [to be continued]