Gentiles Who Practiced Judaism and Became Converts in Acts: Believers Who Believed? Or Drawn by God and Converted to Christ?

The book of Acts has a number of terms to describe people who followed Judaism to a degree and would become followers of Christ. Their descriptions make them sound like believers who naturally accepted Christ when they heard of what He did for them, but this was not necessarily the case. These terms include proselytes, devout, worshipers of God, and those who feared God.

Proselytes (prosēlytos) included those who heard the mighty works of God in their own tongues (Acts 2:11), Nicolaus from Antioch (Acts 6:5), and synagogue-attending converts who followed Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:43). For the latter, they were even described as devout proselytes (sebō prosēlytos; Acts 13:43). Being a proselyte could describe one’s present (Acts 2:11) or past (Acts 6:5) adherence to Judaism.

Those who were devout (sebō) or worshipers of God (sebō theos) included those who would believe the gospel, such as the devout proselytes in Pisidian Antioch (13:43), Lydia (Acts 16:14), devout Greeks in Berea (Acts 17:4), devout Athenians who attended the synagogue (Acts 17:17), and Titius Justus who housed Paul (Acts 18:7). There is one instance in which the devout were synagogue adherents but persecuted Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:50). So, a devout person might apparently deny the gospel, indicating an absence of faith to begin with. This being the case, whether or not those who believed in Christ had faith prior to hearing the gospel is hard to say. What we do know is that, for some of them, their time in the synagogue prepared them to accept the Messiah (e.g., Lydia). For others, however, it did not (Acts 13:50).

Another term for devout (eusebēs) describes Cornelius and one of his soldiers (Acts 10:2, 7). Cornelius was also one who feared God (or, a “God-fearer”; phobeō theos; Acts 10:2, 22), as were Paul’s non-Jewish listeners in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16, 26). In these instances, Cornelius would believe the gospel, and Paul’s God-fearing listeners would follow his gospel. As with the devout and worshipers of God, whether or not these individuals had faith prior to accepting the gospel is hard to say. For instance, Cornelius is described as devout, upright, fearing God, a giver of alms, and eagerly obeying the angel that told him to send for Peter (Acts 10:2–8, 22). At the same time, before believing the gospel, he had been considered unclean by Peter and the Jews (Acts 10:28; 11:3), likely because he had not fully converted to Judaism. He probably followed the OT in many ways but had not been circumcised (Acts 11:3; cf. Exodus 12:48). This being the case, though fearing God to a degree and being slowly but effectually drawn to saving faith over time, he needed to hear the Word of God about Jesus Christ, be granted by God the repentance that leads to life, and believe this message in order to be saved (Acts 10:34; 11:1, 14, 18).

How Do I Know I’m Justified? Five Answers from Galatians 3:1–5

After an introduction to his letter (Gal 1:1–5), rebuke of the Galatians for going astray (Gal 1:6–10), and a defense of his apostleship and the gospel’s divine origin (Gal 1:11–2:14), Paul directly addressed his letter’s primary burden, to steer his readers away from seeking justification by works and back to knowing they are justified by faith alone, that is, that they had been declared righteous by God through their faith on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ (see Gal 2:15–21, esp. 2:16). In Galatians 3:1–5, he gave a series of rhetorical questions to emphatically assert in various ways that the readers really did know that justification was by faith alone. I will state each of these assertions in my own way for us today below. So, if Paul were to ask you how you would know you have been justified, here are some answers you could give today.

First, you can know that you are justified because you believe the gospel. For the Galatians, Paul stated, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1). “Publicly portrayed” has the idea of something like a placard with writing being held up before their eyes. What Paul meant was that, while in Galatia, he vividly preached the death of Christ along with its significance so that it was as if they had seen His crucifixion for themselves. When confronted with a false gospel of being justified by works, they should have known better than to have been led astray. Instead, they should have remembered the message preached by Paul and what they had first believed. Jesus lived a perfect life. He died a sinless death. And we must believe in Him in order to be united to Him and have His death and righteousness be our own. Otherwise, He will never live in us so that we might live to God. If your faith is in this gospel, you can know that you are justified through your faith.

Second, you can know that you are justified because you received the Spirit. Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit…by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2). The answer is an obvious yes. The Spirit is given to those who hear and believe. Perhaps a helpful follow-up question is to ask, How can I know I received the Spirit? One answer could be that you know the Spirit lives in you now. As you live a life led by the Spirit according to the Word of God, the Spirit communicates to your spirit the assurance that you are indeed a son of God (see Rom 8:14–17). If you have the Spirit now, then you received the Spirit previously, and you received the Spirit when you first believed. And, if you have received the Spirit, you know that you have been justified and need to do nothing else for your justification.

Third, you can know that you are justified because you continue live by the Spirit. Paul asked the Galatians, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). The implied assertion in this question is that what is begun by the Spirit in salvation is continued by the Spirit in our sanctification, giving evidence of our justification. If we think that our initial faith in Christ and continued life in the Spirit must be set aside in order for us to gain or maintain justification by our own works done apart from the Spirit, then we fall prey to a false gospel. However, if you have received the Spirit by faith and continue to live in the Spirit by faith, then you can know that you have been justified and will one day stand before God complete (cf. Phil 1:6).

Fourth, you can know that you are justified because you have suffered for the gospel. Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you suffer so many things in vain?” (Gal 3:4). Were they to abandon the gospel, they would be abandoning a gospel for which they had previously suffered (cf. Acts 13:50; 14:5, 19; Gal 4:29). Turning to a works-based false gospel, they would be saying that their past suffering was for nothing because it was for a gospel based on faith alone. However, they had believed it enough to suffer for it, showing that they indeed believed it. So why turn away now? When we believe in being justified through the work of Christ and not our own works, and when we are willing to suffer for our belief in this message, we can know that we are justified.

Fifth and last, you can know that you are justified because you see the Spirit at work in your life. Speaking of the Father, Paul asked, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:5). While I do not personally believe that we should expect to see miracles at work in our churches today as an evidence of our faith, it could be said that it is a miracle when God supplies the Spirit and thereby transforms sinners into saints who serve one another for the glory of God. This work of the Spirit comes by hearing with faith, and when we see it in our lives and others who believe the gospel, we can know that we are justified.

Believe the gospel. Live and believe as you ought in order to know the Spirit lives within you, and do so not in your own power but by the Spirit through faith. Suffer for the gospel if necessary. See the Spirit’s work in your life. In these ways, you can know that you have been declared righteous by God.

Galatians 2:15–21: If We Were to Paraphrase Paul

As a follow up to last week’s post, here is my attempt at a paraphrase of Paul from Galatians 2:15-21.

Though we are Jews and not Gentile sinners (2:15), even we know that justification is not by works of the law but by faith in Christ Jesus (2:16).

But if we seek justification through faith in Christ, does Christ become a servant of sin by justifying us apart from the Law? Of course not (2:17). Actually, I myself am the sinner if I return to the law (2:18).

In fact, it was through the law that I realized I could not fulfill the law’s demands but had to pay its penalty of death and find justification some other way. So, you could say that I died through the law to the law, and the law was intended to teach me this very thing (2:19a; cf. 3:19–25). I had to die to the law in order to live to God (2:19b).

In fact, thanks to my sin, I failed to live according to the law and realized that I could not fulfill its demands and therefore had to die as punishment for my failure. This realization was actually a purpose of the law (cf. 3:19–25). In being united to Christ, I was united to Him who undeservedly died according to the law’s penalty for sin. So, you could say that I died through the law, to the law (2:19).

As to how my penalty was paid, I was crucified with Christ (2:20a). The “old me” who was under the power of sin is no longer alive, and who I am now in this body is so fundamentally different that you could say it is Christ who lives in me (2:20b). This kind of life is possible because of my faith in the Son of God, which is compelled by how He lovingly sacrificed Himself for me (2:20c).

Having clarified the role of the law, I do not nullify the grace of God by saying it is not necessary for my justification. If I say that righteousness can be found through obeying the law, then I effectively claim Christ to have died for no purpose (2:21).

Overlooking Differences in Hope for Unity in Evangelism

For nearly fifty years, Jay Adams has been occasionally cited as a model for a theologian who supposedly discourages evangelism because of his understanding of election and the atonement. Said Adams in his well-known statement from 1970 in his book Competent to Counsel: “As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, for he cannot say that. No man knows except Christ himself who are his elect for whom he died.”1

This isolated quote might cause one to assume that Adams never gave the gospel, but his very next sentence is this: “But the counselor’s job is to explain the gospel and to say very plainly that God commands all men to repent of their sin and believe in Jesus Christ.”2 His counselees would have apparently heard the gospel and been made aware of their obligation to repent and believe.

In light of the first quote from Adams above, held in isolation, some assume that, should one have a view of election as Adams does, so also will he follow Adams (or Reformed theology in general) in holding to a limited atonement and therefore refrain from telling an unbeliever that Christ died for his sins, leaving the would-be witness to the gospel apparently crippled in his evangelism. (And in response to this, please remember the second quote above.)

But, suppose that one could hold to the belief that God chose only some unto salvation and is yet not quite where Adams was in all of his other Reformed, soteriological particulars (pun intended).

Suppose for a moment that the theological world of orthodox Christianity has some diversity when it comes to how to understand election, the atonement, and the relationship of these two to evangelism. And suppose that some of these people could believe that God chose some for salvation in eternity past and also find such a belief in complete harmony with having a passion for evangelism.

Suppose that, even when one believes that, in eternity past, God chose to create all things, allow the fall, provide salvation through Christ, place His saving love on some who would otherwise be left in their sins, predestine their salvation, and call them to Him through the means of a witness, His Word, conviction, regeneration, and their personal acceptance of the gospel―suppose that even when someone holds to these beliefs…such a one could actually be quite evangelistic.

Suppose that, even when one believes God chose some for salvation, such a one could also believe that Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all and functions as a basis whereby to call whosoever will to salvation.

Suppose that, even when one believes God chose some for salvation, such a one could also believe that, while this choice was active, His allowance for the damnation of others was passive since, after all, He is not the author of sin and their damnation is only their just due for suppressing the truth about Him.

Suppose that, even when one believes that God chose some for salvation, such a one could also leave it to the unrevealed and likely incomprehensible mysteries of God as to how one can be passed over for salvation in eternity past and yet be held responsible for rejecting the truth in his day of judgment.

Suppose that, even when one believes that God chose some for salvation, such a one could also believe that God desires all to be saved, in keeping with an atonement sufficient for all, and therefore invites all to accept Christ as their Savior.

Suppose that, even when one believes God chose some for salvation, such a one could also believe that a delay in God’s judgment does not mean slowness on His part but actually patience towards all so that some might reach repentance.

Suppose that, even when one believes God chose some for salvation, such a one could also believe that God will keep saving for Himself these chosen until Christ comes again, meaning the Great Commission is never over until we join our Lord in the air.

And suppose that, even when one believes God chose some for salvation, such a one could also believe that, while not being ultimately responsible for an unbeliever’s rejection of the gospel, an unbeliever’s blood could be on the believer’s hands to some degree because the believer failed to give this unbeliever the gospel. For me personally, I wonder at times if some of the tears that my Savior will wipe from my eyes will be tears of mourning for those who I knew who died in their sins but never heard the gospel from me.

Do you suppose it could be so?

At least for me, I know it to be so because I am at least one such a one.3

I realize that my beliefs are my own and do not represent everyone who reads this article. I also realize that there are some theological tensions above that some would prefer to theologically diffuse while I would prefer to leave them as they are.

And I also hasten to clarify that I will gladly be a joint witness with those who give more or less stress to either God’s sovereignty or man’s freedom in light of their own convictions. I hope that others share this sentiment. May our love for one another create a collective, harmonious voice so that we might better sound the gospel of our glorious Christ in making disciples for Him.

  1. Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), p. 70. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. For a longer summary of these beliefs in soteriology, my position would be more or less represented by Bruce Demarest in his chapters on election and the extent of the atonement in his work The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), pp. 97–199. []

The Grace of Jesus Christ

What is the grace of Jesus Christ? A search for “grace” and “Jesus” or “Christ” allows us to answer this question in brief, as seen below. This grace is divine favor to us, given to us, His undeserving people, for a variety of reasons.

This grace from Christ is from the Father as well, as the opening prayers of many of Paul’s letters show (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Phm 3; 2 John 3). Often, however, when Paul ends a letter, he simply prays for his readers to have grace from Jesus Christ (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:14; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; 2 Thess 3:18; Phm 25). In keeping with this thought, John, too, ends the book of Revelation and thus the NT and all of Scripture with this prayer (Rev 22:21).

The grace of Christ is His divine favor that is expressed in a variety of ways. This favor is to us for our salvation in general (Acts 15:11; Rom 5:15, 17; 1 Cor 1:4; 2 Cor 8:9; Eph 2:5; 1 Tim 1:14). We could even narrow His grace down to specific aspects of our salvation. This grace is shown to us in electing us to salvation in eternity past (2 Tim 1:9), in drawing us to Himself through His effectual call through the gospel (Gal 1:6), in enabling us to serve others (Eph 4:7; 2 Thess 1:12), and in giving us eternal comfort and good hope that salvation is truly ours (2 Thess 2:16).

Not only does this grace extend to eternity past and find its experience in the present, we will also find His grace in time to come. This is the grace of our glorification at His revelation (1 Pet 1:13) and even the grace that we receive in the ages to come thereafter (Eph 2:7).

Until that time, we are commanded to grow and be strengthened in His grace (2 Tim 2:1; 2 Pet 3:18). We need this grace for power to overcome what trials may come our way (2 Cor 12:9). This grace comes to us by the Spirit of grace (Heb 10:29) through the word of God’s grace (Acts 20:32), from the throne of grace through prayer (Heb 4:16), and through the grace we are given to minister as much to one another (Eph 4:7, 16).

Did the Holy Spirit Dwell in Old Testament Believers? Or Should We Be Asking Something Else?

If one were to do a bit of reading, he would see that many who have historically asked the first titled question really intend to answer, “Was the Holy Spirit active in an Old Testament believer’s salvation and sanctification?” And, because most would at least say that the Spirit was active at the initial point of a believer’s salvation in the OT (cf. Deut 30:6 with Rom 2:29), usually the intention is to discover the similarity or disparity between how believers are progressively sanctified from one testament to the next.

In the OT, the Spirit of God is said to occasionally or even continuously empower some of those who ruled over Israel (e.g., Num 11:17, 25; 1 Sam 11:6; 16:13). On rarer occasion, the Spirit also granted unique skills and strength to individuals to aid Israel in some way (e.g., Ex 31:3; 35:31; Judg 15:4). These works of the Spirit are not necessarily transformational in the sense that the individual so empowered was being progressively sanctified through these unique works of the Spirit. At the same time, an individual’s lack of sanctified behavior could forfeit one of these unique works of the Spirit (1 Sam 16:14; cf. Judg 16:20).

So, if we are looking at any of the above works to answer the question, “Did the Holy Spirit dwell in Old Testament believers,” assumedly as He does NT believers (something continuous and part-and-parcel of our salvation and sanctification; cf. Rom 8:9–11), we don’t have enough biblical data from the above to answer our question. And, if our true intention is to really answer the question, “Was the Holy Spirit active in an Old Testament Believer’s salvation and sanctification,” the passages cited above are not directly to the point. The above works of the Spirit are not necessarily intended for an individual’s sanctification but for unique works of service that benefit others in some way, perhaps somewhat analogous to the Spirit’s work in granting spiritual gifts today (again, please note the “somewhat”―the parallels are not perfect).

It would seem that Israel at some point and at least to some degree understood the nature of the Spirit’s indwelling when God promised as much to the nation through some of her prophets (Ezek 11:19–20; 36:26–27; 37:14; cf. Jer 31:31–34). And while good men beg to differ, it is my understanding that what was promised involves the scope of this indwelling (for all of Israel) and not so much that God would sanctify the recipients of these promises in a fundamentally different way than how He had been doing so for individual believers in any OT era (i.e., that He would be in them and not just near them with His presence in Israel’s temple or in some other way). If this understanding is correct, one is then left to figure out whether or not what was promised to all of Israel was already true of believing Israelites in the OT (or other believers that lived before Israel came to be, for that matter).

My painfully short answer to that final question is this―if one can be told that God created all things in the OT and then find out in the progress of revelation that the Son was involved in this creation (see Gen 1:1 with Col 1:16), so also we could be told in the OT, for example, that some walked with God (e.g., Gen 5:21; 6:9) and can now describe this walk in NT terms, that is, that the Spirit was at work in their sanctification. The absence of this terminology in the OT does not necessarily mean that this work of the Spirit was absent at that time as well.. And to say that selective, occasional empowerments in the OT prove that progressive sanctification by the Spirit for all OT believers was missing would be akin to talking only about spiritual gifts in the NT when asking how sanctification works today. What is difficult is that the matter is not later detailed as, say, something like Christ’s involvement in creation. And for this reason, we should show each other charity when we do not theologically connect the dots of biblical data on this matter in the same way.

To put it another way, one can say that the Spirit was active in salvation and sanctification in the OT and still recognize that there are differences between the Spirit’s manifold work in the OT and NT believers today, such as unique empowerments for service. The Spirit’s selective and occasional works for service then are now matched by a uniform grace to all believers to serve the body of Christ, recognizing that this grace is variously tailored for and thus differently displayed by one Christian to the next (1 Cor 12; 1 Pet 4:10–11). For those such as myself, the difference for the Spirit’s work in a believer from one testament to the next primarily involves what is given (or not) for his service and not for his sanctification and certainly not for his salvation.

A final caveat would be this―if the Spirit’s grace for unique works of service was selective and infrequent in the OT, and if the Spirit’s grace for gifts in the NT is uniform (though varied in manifestation), and if this grace is intended for building up our fellow Christian (1 Cor 12:7), then we certainly enjoy a regular means of grace that aids our sanctification in a way that was not enjoyed before Pentecost. Yet still, to say that we have an external aid today that believers did not have then still falls short of saying that there is a fundamental difference between the Spirit’s internal work in sanctification from one testament to the next.

The Call of God unto Salvation

In 2 Timothy 1:9, God is the One “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” For Paul and Timothy then and for us today, what is this “calling,” and when does it take place?

This “calling” is theologically termed the effectual call, which Wayne Grudem defines as “an act of God the Father, speaking through the human proclamation of the gospel, in which he summons people to himself in such a way that they respond in saving faith.”1

Backing up one step (and yet part-and-parcel of the effectual call), there is also a general call for salvation that is given to all who hear the gospel. Louis Berkhof defines this general call as “the presentation and offering of salvation in Christ to sinners, together with an earnest exhortation to accept Christ by faith, in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.”2

This general call can obviously be resisted, for many indeed reject the offering of salvation in Christ. However, there is a work of God that renders the general call of the gospel effective unto salvation for some (thus giving us the descriptor effectual), those who God “summons,” as described earlier. This is the work of regeneration, the impartation of spiritual life to the sinner so as to enable him to choose Christ unto salvation (cf. John 1:13; 1 Pet 1:3, 23). “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:14), but, “even when we were dead in our trespasses,” God “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:5) through the Spirit’s work in regeneration, enabling us to indeed accept the things of the Spirit of God, i.e., the gospel. Rolland McCune clarifies, “[I]t is probably best to consider the effectual call as regeneration itself (i.e., the impartation of life) which secures the sinner’s immediate response of repentance and faith.”3

Balancing the sovereignty of God with the responsibility of man, McCune explains the nature of regeneration further: “God has ways of working with the human volitional apparatus so that it freely and voluntarily chooses to come to Christ for salvation, even while He instigates and controls the entire matter. In fact, in the final analysis, there is really no synergism involved. Calling is all of God.”4

So, the calling in 2 Timothy 1:9 is God’s effectual call unto salvation, as it is in other passages that speak of a believer’s call unto salvation.5 It was for at least Timothy and Paul (“us”) and, in principle, anyone who had likewise been saved and called. The general call to salvation becomes effectual when God regenerates the sinner so as to bring about his voluntary acceptance of the gospel.

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 693. Italics removed. []
  2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1938), 459. Italics removed. Berkhof uses the term external call, but the concept is the same. []
  3. Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 44. []
  4. Ibid., 46. []
  5. For a number of other verses that refer to the effectual call, see Rom 8:28; 11:29; 1 Cor 1:9; Gal 5:13; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:7; 1 Tim 6:12; 1 Pet 3:9. []

1 John 5:18, and a Note on Perseverance and Preservation

2016-10-06-opened-bible1 John 5:18 (ESV) states, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” In this verse, we see both the perseverance of the believer and the protection of that believer by Christ. Let’s look at these two topics more closely.

Preservation is the work of God whereby He eternally secures and guarantees the final salvation of all believers.

As Christ claimed in John 6:39, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Likewise, He stated in John 10:28–29, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” In these passages, we see that God and Christ secure and guarantee the believer in his salvation. This idea is present in 1 John 5:18: “he who was born of God [i.e., Jesus Christ] protects him.”1

Whereas preservation is God’s role in securing a believer’s salvation, the believer is responsible to persevere. Perseverance is the divinely-enabled and continued progress of a believer in faith, doctrine, and practice whereby he is assured of his eternal security.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:7–8, it is the “Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.Paul states in Philippians 1:6, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Likewise, Christians are those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). In each of these passages, God or Christ is described as enabling the believer’s perseverance in some way.

This perseverance involves one’s faith, doctrine, and practice. The believer’s faith is “the victory that has overcome the world” (1 John 5:4). His doctrine allows him to be presented “holy and blameless and above reproach before him” because he will “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” (Col 1:23). His practice is to “follow” Jesus (John 10:27), doing “good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

Understanding 1 John 5:18 with the above, we do not keep on sinning because God protects us from falling away from Him. He keeps us in our salvation. At the same time, however, we persevere. We do not keep on sinning because we persevere in our faith, doctrine, and practice as He enables us to do so. May God protect us, and may we persevere and be thereby assured of His protection.

  1. “He who was born of God” is best understood as a reference to Christ. It is not that He has been born, as if to say what is true of believers is true of Him, namely, that He experienced a conversation that has continuing results. Rather, His birth was a unique one-time event, and thus He was born. Thus, Christ is the one who protects the believer in 1 John 5:18, but this is obviously not apart from the work of the Father (cf. John 10:28–29). []

What Is the Sin That Leads to Death and the One That Does Not?

1 John 5:16 (ESV) states, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”

Can we commit sin that leads to death today? And what is a sin not leading to death? And is it unloving not to pray for a situation in which sin leads to death?

Answering these questions requires us to identify the meanings of “brother” and “life” and “death.” If we follow John’s consistent use of these terms in 1 John, a brother is a fellow believer (cf. 1 John 2:9, 10, 11; 3:10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; 4:20, 21), life is eternal life (cf. 1 John 1:1, 2; 2:25; 3:14, 15; 5:11, 12, 13, 20), and death is eternal death (cf. 1 John 3:14; 5:17). The difficulty with keeping these definitions 1 John 5:16 is figuring out how to understand the statement that God gives life to a brother who already possesses eternal life. In other words, how does God give eternal life to someone who already has eternal life?

Some solve this dilemma by redefining the terms. The brother is a so-called professing brother but doesn’t really have eternal life and thus receives it when God gives it to him. Or, because salvation allegedly does not include one’s surrender, the sinning brother adds to his eternal life the bliss of victorious and abundant life, something apparently missing when he was initially saved or something lost because of his sin. Or, the life and death are physical, meaning that the brother sins and, if persistently unrepentant, loses his physical life at the hand of God as do those in 1 Cor 11:30, thankfully to be then brought into heaven to enjoy the eternal life he could never lose.

Realizing that good men disagree over interpreting what is admittedly a very difficult passage, I will attempt to identify “a sin not leading to death” a “sin that leads to death” by sticking as close as possible to the meaning of John’s other uses of the terms “brother,” “life,” and “death.”

A Sin Not Leading to Death

For this sin, notice that it is something observable, something “anyone sees.” At the same time, it is unspecified, leaving us to wonder what it could be. It is something ongoing, something someone is “committing” and has not committed only once. It is committed by a believer, “his brother,” that is, the brother of the one to pray for him. It is something that will end because the prayer will be answered by God’s giving of life to the sinning brother, assuming, it seems, that his repentance takes place as well.

As noted above, the rub comes when attempting to understand how eternal life is given to the brother who already possesses eternal life. The best solution I can offer to this dilemma is that, while eternal life is something experienced and present, it is also something future and promised, as said by John himself (cf. 1 John 2:25). This being said, John states that life is something God “will give” (future tense) to the sinning brother. Thus, the believer is praying that God will do what will take place, that He will give the sinning brother what is coming to him, eternal life in time to come. Assumedly, the sinning brother repents and is thereby assured that this life will indeed be his to enjoy.1

Sin That Leads to Death

For this sin, it, too, is observable. By observing it, the believer knows he is not obligated to include the matter in his prayers (though he can if desired). We can assume that it is committed by an unbeliever. John does not mention a person in the statement “There is sin that leads to death.” So, if the implied sinner in this statement commits this sin leading to death, and if the death is eternal, then it cannot be committed by a believer, because believers cannot lose their eternal life (cf. John 10:28–29).

Finally, like the sin not leading to death, this sin is unspecified. While many attempt to identify this sin as high-handed sin in the OT, mortal sin, blasphemy against the Spirit, or apostasy, it nonetheless remains that John himself left it unspecified. Since 1 John is the most immediate context to search for clues, we could surmise from the passage preceding 1 John 5:16 and the letter as a whole that a sin that leads to death is the sin of rejecting Jesus as the Christ who came in the flesh to die for our sins (1 John 5:12–13; cf. 2:1–2; 4:1–6; 5:6–11). Such a sin was easy to observe because the one committing this sin eventually left the church (cf. 1 John 2:19).

So, to end on a pastoral note, when you see your brother habitually sinning in a way that is not a verbal denial of who Jesus is and it seems his faith is otherwise sincere, pray for him, and God will indeed give him all that is coming to him in his eternal life.

For the situation in which one refuses to believe Jesus is who God says He is (which obviously cannot be a brother), John does not say that you should pray for that, but it seems you are certainly welcome to do so.

  1. For this view, see Karen H. Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 234, and Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,, 2000), 191. []

Did God Choose Some unto Damnation?

2016.08.06 - Flame

If God decreed all things, did He actively decree that some would sin, be unbelievers, and thus be punished forever? If we were to ask Jesus for an answer to this question, He might point us to His words in Matthew 25, a prophecy of the judgment of believers and unbelievers to come at His return.1

In this setting, Jesus will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).  Those on the right were blessed by Father to inherit a kingdom that He planned to give them even before the time He created the world. The Father knew who these kingdom citizens would be and planned to bless them in this way. To state it in terms of this article’s title, He decreed in eternity past that there would be a kingdom and that these blessed would be its citizens.

As for unbelievers, however, Jesus does not state that a place of damnation was prepared by the Father in like manner for them. He states to those on His left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). There is no mention of the Father, and the place of punishment was not even prepared for them but the devil and his angels. The implication is that the unbeliever is not guilty of not being one for whom the Father prepared the kingdom. Rather, the unbeliever, like the devil and his angels, rejected God and was cursed and would be held responsible for his unbelief by being punished forever.

In short, the Father prepared a kingdom for those would believe. The Father is not said, however, to have prepared eternal fire for unbelievers. In all of this, we see one of the texts in the Bible that holds the mystery of the sovereignty of God side-by-side with the responsibility of man. God did not prepare a kingdom for some, but these outcasts chose to shun His kingdom, for which they find themselves cursed and forsaken to eternal fire.

Seeing that men shall answer to God for how they have loved and lived for Him, may we implore the lost all the more to repent and turn to Him!

  1. Says Spurgeon from his Rom 9:15 sermon “Jacob and Esau,” commenting on Matt 25:41, “At the last great day, when all the world shall come before Jesus to be judged, have you noticed, when the righteous go on the right side, Jesus says, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father,’—(‘of my Father,’ mark,)—‘inherit the kingdom prepared’—(mark the next word)—‘for you, from before the foundation of the world.’ What does he say to those on the left? ‘Depart, ye cursed.’ He does not say, ‘ye cursed of my father, but, ye cursed.’ And what else does he say? ‘into everlasting fire, prepared’—(not for you, but)—‘for the devil and his angels.’ Do you see how it is guarded, here is the salvation side of the question. It is all of God. ‘Come, ye blessed of my father.’ It is a kingdom prepared for them. There you have election, free grace in all its length and breadth. But, on the other hand, you have nothing said about the father—nothing about that at all. ‘Depart, ye cursed.’ Even the flames are said not to be prepared for sinners, but for the devil and his angels. There is no language that I can possibly conceive that could more forcibly express this idea, supposing it to be the mind of the Holy Spirit, that the glory should be to God, and that the blame should be laid at man’s door.” To see this sermon in whole, go to http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0239.php. []