A Review of “Misread Text: Isaiah 41:10”

The five-point Calvinist doctrine has permeated several denominations. According to Jonathan Merritt’s article “The troubling trends in America’s ‘Calvinist revival’”, there appears to be a resurgence of Calvinism in America, and the adherents to this doctrine have been called “neo-Calvinists.” The five points of Calvinism are represented with the mnemonic device TULIP: T –Total Hereditary Depravity, U – Unconditional Election, L – Limited Atonement, I – Irresistible Grace, and P – Perseverance of the Saints. I have been working on a series of posts in which I refute the Calvinist approach to the concepts of predestination and election, showing that the doctrine conflicts with basic truths found in the Bible concerning God’s righteousness and man’s free will. Reformed Baptist James Smetanin, an author at The Reformed Alliance, recently published an article titled “Misread Text: Isaiah 41:10.” It is part of a series in which the author explains the true interpretation of particular texts that are often pulled out of context in order to accommodate a personal experience or theological belief. I believe it’s a great idea because, as the author rightly points out, all too often Christians are not aware of the implications of a verse when the surrounding context is considered. However, the problem is that the conclusion of the essay is meaningless within the framework of Calvinism.

The text discussed is Isaiah 41:10 (ESV): “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Smetanin argues that, although one may find comfort in this passage in times of fear, the context reveals that the intent of the verse is not to console, but rather to warn all people of the judgment of God. A fear concerning one’s soul is what is of concern, not the fears of this world. The author gives an interpretation of the passage beginning at verse one and ending at verse nine. My intention is not to comment on his exegesis of the text. What I take issue with is the exhortation that follows. He points out that the verses deal with sin, redemption, and judgment, and that there is urgency for people to repent and to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. A person that believes in the five points of Calvinism have the understanding that God has predestined certain individuals to be saved and others to be lost. There is nothing that one can do to change their condition, as it has been determined before the foundation of the world. The author affirms his belief in this doctrine in warning those who oppose God and his people: “They will have no chance of redemption, as God has already determined their fate.”

Smetanin (and any Calvinist for that matter) has no room to make an exhortation of repentance to any man, since they believe that their fate has been determined and sealed even before God created the earth. What is the sense, then, of calling people to repent if they have no chance of salvation? Aren’t they depraved to the point that God himself has to call them personally to turn from their wickedness? If an alien sinner studied the Bible from a Calvinist perspective and believed it, they would come to the conclusion that they have two options: repent or remain a sinner. However, the problem is that the decision really isn’t theirs, it’s God’s. If they realized this, then what exactly would they have to do? Nothing! They would just need to wait until God does the calling, and he may never call because it just probably wasn’t meant to be. Sorry.

That is not the plan of salvation that is taught in God’s word. Christ came to this earth as the Incarnate Word of God (John 1:14) to die for the sins of all mankind (John 3:16). His gift of eternal salvation is not limited to a select group of people; it is for all those who obey him (Heb. 5:8-10). You must hear the gospel of Christ (Rom. 10:17); that he was crucified, buried, and raised by God on the third day (Matt. 27:37 – 28:6). After you hear the gospel, you must believe it (Acts 16:30-31) and repent of your sins (Acts 2:38). Then you have to confess before men that Christ is the Son of the living God (Matt. 10:32; Matt. 16:16) and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). We are not the ones who work in baptism (Titus 3:5), but rather it is God who works to make us new creatures in Christ (Gal. 6:15; Col. 2:12). He forgives us of our sins, gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and adds us to the church of Christ (Acts 2:38,47). Once you have come into a covenant relationship with God, you must continue to live faithfully, and at the end, you receive the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). There is no one aspect of this plan that is more important than the others. The sum of his words is truth (Ps. 119:160), not faith alone, not grace alone, not baptism alone. Every single part of God’s plan to save mankind is essential.

God bless you.

The Messianic Jonah: His Resurrection and His Church

In the Bible, we learn of a prophet named Jonah that was commanded by God to preach to the people of Nineveh so that they would repent from their evil ways and turn to the Lord (Jon. 1:2). The prophet did not want to obey this command; he knew that God would be gracious and merciful towards Nineveh if they repented (Jon. 4:2). Therefore, he decided to escape to Tarshish in an attempt to run from the presence of God (Jon. 1:3). His efforts, however, were in vain because God sent a violent storm while he was on a ship, and the only way to calm it was by throwing Jonah overboard into the sea (Jon. 1:4-15). God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah up, and he remained in its belly for three days and three nights (Jon. 1:17). During that time, Jonah prayed to the Lord for deliverance. The Lord heard his prayer and spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah out on to dry land (Jon 2). He then commanded him a second time to go preach to the people of Nineveh. This time Jonah obeyed and went into the city proclaiming the word of God (Jon 3:1-4). The people believed and repented of their wickedness. When God saw this, he had mercy on them and withheld his punishment (Jon 3:5-10). This account presents various themes, such as repentance, obedience, and the grace and mercy of God. But also noteworthy is how this story points to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the establishment of his church.

There are at least two passages in the Scriptures that show how this story served for Jews as a foretelling of the coming Messiah. In Matthew 12:38-41, Jesus spoke of the account of Jonah as being prophecy. The Pharisees and Scribes at this time were asking for a sign from Jesus as proof that he was truly the Messiah. Even though they had just seen him heal a man and cast out a demon, they demanded more evidence. Jesus called them out on their hypocrisy. They were able to look into the sky and predict the weather, but yet they closed their eyes to the evidence that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:3). He told them that the only sign they would be given is that of the prophet Jonah. (Matt. 12:39-40, 16:4 English Standard Version): “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Jesus was referring to his death, burial, and resurrection.

We learn that the account of Jonah served as a prophecy also from Psalm 16:10-11. When Jonah was in the belly of the fish, he cried out to the Lord with a prayer that was very similar to the prophetic psalm of David:

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jon. 2:2).

“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (Jon. 2:6).

“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (Ps. 16:10).

Both Jonah and David spoke of being cast into Sheol, which according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, refers to Hades – the grave or the abode of the dead. However, God would deliver them from that pit. Jonah was indeed delivered when the Lord made the fish vomit him out onto dry land. Note also that Christ spoke of overcoming death, or Sheol/Hades, when he proclaimed that he would establish his church upon Peter’s confession that he was the Son of God (Matt. 16:16-18):

16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell (NKJV: Hades) shall not prevail against it.

The book of Jonah, the sixteenth psalm of David, and the proclamation made by Jesus in Matthew 16 show that Jesus would die, be buried, and be raised after three days. His resurrection would prove that he was the Messiah and would establish his church. The fulfillment of this prophecy is seen in Matthew 27:57-28:15. Jesus was buried in a tomb, and after three days, God raised him from the dead:

59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away (Matt. 27:59).

1Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said (Matt. 28:1-6).

Peter himself knew that the prophecy had been fulfilled, and thus preached it on the day of Pentecost in the first gospel sermon in which he cited the words of David from Psalm 16:10-11:

25 For David says concerning him, “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence’ (Acts 2:25-28).

David foresaw and spoke forth the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Messiah was not abandoned in Hades, and his soul did not see corruption. He is now sitting at the right hand of God, and his church has been established (Acts. 2:31-33, 47).

As Christians, we must believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and not be like the Sadducees, who denied that there was such thing as a resurrection (Matt. 22:23). If there is no resurrection, then our preaching and faith are in vain, and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:12-19). For the alien sinner there is no hope of salvation without the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:11-13). The people of Nineveh were saved from condemnation because they believed the preaching of Jonah and repented. At the judgment, their repentance will condemn the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time because he was much greater than Jonah, but yet they did not believe his preaching (Matt. 12:41). The same will happen to those who do not believe the preaching of the gospel today.

Simply believing, however, will not save you. It is true that the preaching of the gospel produces faith (Rom. 10:17), but it also brings about obedience (Rom. 16:26). Notice in Acts 2:37, after the people heard that they had crucified the Messiah, they were pricked to their hearts. They asked Peter and the other apostles, “What shall we do?” Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” What we see here is that you have to be baptized in order for your sins to be forgiven. A type of baptism is observed in Jonah being plunged into the sea: “the waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head” (Jon. 2:5). He was completely submerged in the water and was later pulled out by God. Paul spoke of baptism as a figure of Christ’s burial and resurrection in his letter to the Romans. According to chapter 6, verses 1-11, we emulate in baptism the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The submersion in water marks our death to sin (vv. 6-7), and when we are pulled out, it is our resurrection to newness of life (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 4:23-24; Col. 3:10) by the powerful working of God (2 Cor. 13:4; Col. 2:12; Tit. 3:5). We escape spiritual death; that is, death no longer has dominion over us. And as the church, the gates of Hades cannot prevail against us!

The Sovereignty of God and the Will of Man #2

The Dilemmas and Contradictions of Calvinism

In this post, I continue to explore the role that man plays in God’s plan of salvation. Particularly, I will focus on the doctrine of Calvinism in order to highlight the dilemmas and contradictions that emerge in its interpretation of predestination and election. I do not intend to review fully this theology, as it would require a much longer essay. However, I will present some points that give us an idea of its falsity. As I mentioned in my first post, there are five main points that summarize God’s plan of salvation within the Calvinistic doctrine, which are represented by the mnemonic device TULIP: T- Total Hereditary Depravity, U- Unconditional Election, L- Limited Atonement, I- Irresistible Grace, and P- Perseverance of the Saints. These points are so intimately related that if you can see the fallacy in one or two of them, the whole system falls. Therefore, I will discuss specifically the concepts of predestination and election.

The details of Calvinist theology are laid out in the Westminster Confession of Faith. The following is stated concerning predestination and election:

“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death”.

“These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished”.

Calvinism teaches that God, in his sovereign counsel, determined before the foundation of the world certain individuals to be saved and others to be lost. That is, each person in this world and those to be born have been predestined for either salvation or condemnation, and there is nothing that can be done to change it because their design and God’s decision are immutable. God’s election of the saved is independent of any works that man could do, and therefore, it is unconditional (Chap. III, Secs. III-IV). Calvinism also teaches that, if you are elected for eternal life, God personally calls you in such a way that you are irresistibly drawn to Christ (Chap. X, Sec. I). Once you have been called according to God’s grace, it is impossible to willfully fall away. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “[t]his perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election” (Chap. XVII, Sec. II). Although this summary is not exhaustive, the basic ideas of this theology present a dilemma because it contradicts basic truths concerning the righteousness of God and the free will of man. Calvinists claim to accept these truths; however, their teachings on these matters are conflictive and are based on an incorrect interpretation of the Scriptures. Note also that the implication of this doctrine is that once you are saved, you can never fall from grace, which does not align with what we observe in the Bible as it relates to the practice of sin.

One of the passages cited within Calvinism to support predestination is Romans 9:20-24:

20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

When these verses are taken out of context, and we do not consider the author’s original intent, they would indeed lead us to believe that God has predestined specific individuals to be saved or lost. However, this interpretation presents a serious conflict with verses concerning the righteousness of God (See Post #1). Even in the same chapter of the above passage, Paul asked the question, “[w]hat shall we say then? Is the unrighteousness with God?” (Rom. 9:14). His answer was clear, “certainly not!”

Calvinists support their interpretation of election with 1 Peter 1:2, 2:9 and Ephesians 2:8-10:

elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied (New King James Version)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (ESV)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (ESV)

These verses also have been taken out of their context, which has distorted the true message of the author’s writing. This abuse of the Scriptures lends to misunderstandings and false teachings. The idea that God elected certain individuals to be saved and others to be lost and that those who are saved cannot at any time fall from grace does not align with the word of God. If God’s decrees are unchangeable, and he has decreed that some will be saved and others will be lost, then we have to conclude the following: 1) God creates evil people who are designed this way from birth, 2) man does not have free will in making a decision to do good or evil, 3) even if a person wanted to be saved and actually lived a Christian life, it would be impossible because God has already decided that they would be lost, and 4) there is no way of knowing that you are saved or lost.

The Calvinistic view of salvation does not, in fact, teach anyone how to be saved. This doctrine contradicts fundamental principles concerning the Creator and his creation. It compromises the integrity of God, takes away our free will, and does not give us any assurance of salvation. The Scriptures teach that we should be confident in the fact that we are saved and are to have assurance in the faith (Col. 2:2; Heb. 6:11, 10:22, 11:1; 1 Tim. 3:13). The only way to have that assurance is to trust God’s plan and to choose to submit to whatever his plan entails; that is, we must be obedient just like Christ was (Rom. 16:26; Phil 2:8). This is not to say that we have the opportunity to boast because even when we are obedient, we continue to be unprofitable servants; we have only done what was our duty (Luke 17:10).

In my third post, I will attempt to resolve the contradictions that emerge in the Calvinist doctrine by defining predestination according to the Scriptures and by correctly interpreting Romans 9:20-24. We will see that, although God’s plan of salvation does involve predestination, it is not the type that is taught in Calvinism. The passage in Romans does not demonstrate that specific individuals are headed towards salvation or condemnation independent of their own free will and by an immutable decree made by God.

The Sovereignty of God and the Will of Man #1

The Character of God and the Nature of Man

This post is the first of a series on the importance of man’s role in God’s plan of salvation. My interest in this topic was sparked by various conversations and bible studies that I have had with people that agree and disagree with the notion that each individual has a role to play in his salvation. Man’s primary goal in this life should be to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). If we expect to be where the Father is when we part from this world, we must rightly divide his word in order to know what we must do to be saved (2 Tim. 2:15, 3:16-17). There are several doctrines on salvation that do not align with God’s word. One of the most prevalent is Calvinism. Calvinistic theology is summarized in five main points that are represented with the mnemonic device, TULIP: T- Total Depravity, U- Unconditional Election, L- Limited Atonement, I- Irresistible Grace, P- Perseverance of the Saints. The basic idea that underlies this doctrine is that man has no role to play in his salvation, and that God does all the work. This theology involves the concepts of predestination and election, which are found in the Scriptures. However, the Calvinistic approach to the interpretation of these concepts produces false doctrine because it contradicts basic principles about the character of God and the nature of man. I believe that in order to understand the topic of salvation, we must know who and how God is and how he has created mankind. Therefore, in this first post, I will explore passages from the Scriptures that reveal this information to us.

The only way to know God is by reading his word. He has revealed to us his character traits so that we know how he deals with his creation. I believe that the most important trait to know about God is that he does not change who he is. We learn this from Malachi 3:6, “for I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (English Standard Version). He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). There is no variation in him (Jas. 1:17). When we accept this, we know that whatever we learn about his character is just as true now as it was in former times.

The Scriptures teach that God is sovereign. The psalmist says in Psalm 115:3 and 135:6 that the Lord sits in heaven and does as he pleases. No one can direct the Spirit of the Lord. No one can teach him or make him understand (Isa. 40:13-14). He is the only Sovereign One, King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15-16). God is also righteous and just. He is a faithful God who does no wrong (Deut. 32:4; Rom. 2:11). He is also a jealous god, forbidding all other gods and idols (Deut. 4:23-24). The Scriptures also teach that God does not and cannot lie:

19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it (Num. 23:19 ESV)?

in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began (Titus 1:2 ESV).

17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us (Heb. 6:17-18 ESV).

Additionally, we learn in 1 Corinthians 14:33 that God is not a god of confusion, but rather, a god of order. There is no division in him, and he does not teach conflicting ideas in his word. Some other important features of God’s character are that he is patient, merciful, loving, and gracious (Eph. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). However, he is also wrathful and vengeful against disobedience, ungodliness, and unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18; Eph. 5:6; Heb. 10:29-31). God is light, and in him, there is no darkness (1 John 1:5).

The other necessary part of understanding salvation is knowing how God has created human beings. The basic truth about mankind is that God has created us upright and perfect; however, we stray away and seek to do our own will (Eccl. 7:29). God has made us in his own image (Gen. 1:27, 5:2; 1 Cor. 11:7) and has given us the free will to choose our own paths. This concept is made clear in the words of Moses and Joshua. In Deuteronomy 30:19, when Moses pronounced the covenant that the Lord made with the people at Moab, he told them to choose between life and death. Joshua also told the people in the renewal of the covenant in Shechem to choose whom they would serve (Josh. 24:15). We are encouraged to choose God’s will. The whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13); however, our selfish ambitions lead us to do our own will. When we do our will and not the will of God, it alienates us from him because of our hardened hearts and evil actions (Eph. 2:12, 4:18; Col. 1:21). It makes us his enemy (Rom. 5:10). The only way to be saved is by being reconciled to him (Rom. 5:11; 2 Cor. 5:18), and the only way to be reconciled to him is through Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6; Col. 1:20,22; cf. Acts 4:12).

All of our bible studies should be guided by these basic truths, but it is particularly important to keep these in mind when we study salvation. We need to be sure that we follow the Scriptures in this matter because the consequences are costly. In upcoming posts, I will refer back to these principles as I continue to explore man’s role in God’s plan of salvation. There will be various references to Calvinistic theology, particularly concerning predestination and election, as I believe the Calvinistic interpretation of these concepts conflict with the basic principles about the character of God and the nature of man.

By Grace (God’s Part) Through Faith (Man’s Part)

“who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” (2 Tim. 1:9-10)

God offered salvation to all mankind according to his grace and by the death of Jesus Christ even before the beginning of time. No work of man could have brought about salvation since mankind had not been created at the time God devised his plan. However, salvation is not by grace only; it is by grace through faith. Some say salvation depends solely on God. If this affirmation were true, we would have to conclude that God has grace and faith, which is impossible. He is omniscient – all knowing, and thus, does not have faith. According to Hebrews 11:1, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. Man is who has faith, and therefore, we conclude that man must appropriate God’s grace through faith: “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). We cannot be saved without faith because it is impossible to please God without it. We must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). The word of God teaches that, despite the fact that salvation is a gift of God, both man and God have a part to play in order for man to be saved because faith is a requirement that must be fulfilled by man.

If man is saved through his faith in God who has offered his grace, it is important to understand what faith is. As mentioned, it is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith is having confidence in our hope of salvation and being convicted about the things that we do not see, such as the existence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When God commands us to do something, although we do not understand it completely or see the connection, we must do it in order to please him. Faith is not just believing, but taking action according to the word of God. In Hebrews 11:6-30, we are presented with many examples of people who manifested their faith in the actions that they carried out: by faith, Noah prepared an ark; by faith, Abraham obeyed and offered up Isaac; by faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau; by faith, Jacob blessed each of his sons and worshipped; by faith, Joseph gave instructions; by faith, Moses suffered affliction with the people of God, forsook Egypt, kept the Passover, and the sprinkling of the blood; by faith, the people of God passed through the Red Sea by dry land; by faith, the walls of Jericho fell down after being encircled seven times; by faith, the harlot Rahab did not perish because she received the spies with peace. All of these people obeyed God and took action. They had obedient faith, not inactive belief (cf. Rom. 16:26).

Since faith is understood as obedience to the commandments of God, we must know what God’s commandments are concerning salvation. We learn about salvation by hearing the preaching and teaching of the gospel or by studying the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-11; Rom. 10:17). The message of the gospel is expressed in simple terms. God manifested himself in human form, and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ. Although he lived just like us, he fulfilled all righteousness and committed no sin (Matt. 3:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22). The very people he came to save crucified him unjustly, and his blood was spilled in order for man to receive forgiveness of sin (Matt. 26:27-28; John 1:1, 14; 1 Tim. 3:16). This sacrifice was an act of grace, which is God’s part. Now, we must do our part and appropriate that grace through faith by being obedient to the commandments of God. We must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Rom. 10:8-9), repent of our past sins (Acts 17:30-31), and be baptized or immersed in water (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, 22:16). As a result, we receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Lord adds us to his church (Acts 2:38, 41, 47; cf. Matt. 16:18). We come to see that, as we rightly divide the word of God (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15), these are the commandments of God concerning salvation.

Many reject the plain and simple teachings of the Bible, and manipulate God’s word in order to formulate their own false doctrines (2 Cor. 11:13-15). They deceive themselves (cf. 2 Tim. 3:13) by believing that they have no role in their own salvation. Logically, this kind of doctrine takes all the responsibility off of them. Whether they are saved or lost would not be their fault, but rather God’s. They state that man is saved by grace through faith without understanding what faith truly is. They also deny the essentiality of baptism, and repentance for that matter, in the plan of salvation. However, when one studies the Scriptures with an open and honest heart, it is difficult to deny that God has devised a plan based on his matchless grace and man’s obedient faith.

A Brief Note on Romans 8:28-30

Romans 8:28-30

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

The foreknowledge of God in Romans 8:29 simply means that God knew something before the beginning of time. This particular text shows that he knew before time those who would love him, which are those who keep his commandments (John 14:15-21; 2 John 1:6). He predestined those who love him to be conformed to the image of Christ. “Predestined” means that he has a destiny for all men to be like Christ, that is, to be Christians. This idea of predestination differs from that of Calvinistic thought in which the passage is interpreted as if there were a specific group of people elected to be saved and another group to be lost. The Bible clearly teaches that ALL men have been predestined. John 3:16 says, “[f]or God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The term “world” refers to the inhabitants of the earth, and not just some, but all. We know that God gave his only son for all of us because 2 Peter 3:9 says that he does not wish that any man should perish but that ALL come to repentance. God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world be saved through his son (John 3:17).

However, although he destined us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless like Christ (Eph. 1:4), only a few decide to go along with God’s plan. Many are called, but because of their unrighteousness, few are chosen (Matthew 20:16, 22:14). That is why it is important that we work out our soul salvation (Philippians 2:12). We are called to obey, and in that obedience, we are saved (2 Thess. 1:8). Think about it this way – the Israelites were God’s chosen people (Exodus 6:7; Deut. 4:20, 7:6, 14:2); however, they chose to live according to their own desires, not following the law that God had given them (Jeremiah 9:13ff):

13 And the Lord says: “Because they have forsaken my law that I set before them, and have not obeyed my voice or walked in accord with it, 14 but have stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals, as their fathers taught them. 15 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will feed this people with bitter food, and give them poisonous water to drink. 16 I will scatter them among the nations whom neither they nor their fathers have known, and I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them.”

God gave them the freedom to choose between him and other gods. Unfortunately, in many instances, they desired to worship other gods in spite of the fact that they were God’s chosen people. The same happens today in Christianity. God has chosen all of us, not just some of us, and he predestined a plan, which is the gospel. This plan of salvation was in the mind of God before the world began (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9); it is the great mystery that has been revealed to us (1 Tim. 3:16). He manifested himself in the flesh as Jesus Christ and died for the sins of all mankind so that we could have the opportunity to be reconciled with him (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Rom. 5:10-11; Eph. 2:11-18). Now he has left it up to us to choose to obey him (Rom. 16:26). Unfortunately, many will turn away from God and decide to not.

What do you really mean?

Matthew 6:5-8

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. “Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.

Introduction

This passage is part of Jesus’s well-known Sermon on the Mount. Along with all the teachings that are presented in this sermon, Jesus is about to instruct the people on how they should pray. The overarching theme of Chapter 6 is doing good to please God, and not man. During this time, there was a lot of hypocrisy among the scribes and Pharisees, who appeared to live righteous lives because of their vast knowledge of the law, but in reality, they were deceiving and taking advantage of the people. They were religious, but not righteous. They put on a show to impress man with their outward appearance and were not concerned about pleasing God. All their actions were in vain because their hearts weren’t in the right place. Therefore, in Chapter 6, Jesus is instructing the multitude on the type of attitude they should have when they do charitable deeds, pray, and fast. The focus here will be verses 5-8 because, although at that time Jesus was condemning a hypocritical attitude among the scribes and Pharisees, in modern day, many use the passage to condemn and restrict how we worship. Thus, I will discuss the message that is intended in this passage, which is that you must have the right attitude when you worship God. Once we understand this message, we can begin to let go of the restrictions that have been placed on the church when it comes to praying and singing during our worship services.

Vainglory and Vain repetition

There are two issues in verses 5-8 that Jesus focuses on when He instructs the multitude on how to pray: vainglory and vain repetition. In verse 5, Jesus makes reference to hypocrites, namely the Pharisees, who had the custom of displaying their acts of prayer while standing in the synagogues and on street corners to appear pious. This is known as vainglory or self-glorification, which is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “excessive or ostentatious pride especially in one’s achievements”. Other words related to vainglory are vanity and vaunting, both derived from the word vain. There is reference to vaunting, which is expressed as pride, in 1 John 2:16:

16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the PRIDE of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for purposefully praying in those places that were highly frequented in order that others could see them, bringing glory to themselves and not to God. Note in the Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14 that the Pharisee was boastful, claiming that he was not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers… he fasted twice a week and gave tithes of all that he possessed. However, the tax collector was so humble that he would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, and he beat his chest, saying “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” In verse 14, Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In verses 7-8, He also condemned vain or meaningless repetition in prayer. Vain repetition is translated from βαττολογέω (battologeó), which means to stammer, to babble, to chatter, to utter empty words, to be long-winded, to repeat (nonsensically), or to use many and idle words (Strong’s Concordance; Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). This word is actually used only once in the Bible (Matthew 6:7). Praying with “battologeó” was practiced among scribes and Pharisees as a show or a spectacle. They did this to appear righteous so they could take advantage of people (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40). The deception was in the way they dressed, where they sat in the synagogues and at banquets, and in their lengthy prayers. Despite these external performances of holiness, they were evil in their hearts and had pretentious attitudes (Matthew 23:25-28):

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Jesus did not care where they sat or how long their prayers were. He was concerned with them being clean on the inside. He did not accept them because their hearts weren’t pure, and they weren’t humble. 1 Samuel 16:7 shows that what truly matters to God is our heart:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

God wants us to be humble, and He is not interested in our actions if they are not from the heart. If we are only concerned about what we achieve as a result of our actions, God has no interest in us because we are not doing it for Him, but rather for ourselves. It is meaningless. It is truly vainglory. We know this to be true because the only reason why we have the opportunity to be righteous in the first place is because God made it to be so when He sacrificed His son as a propitiation for our sins. There was nothing that we could do for ourselves to escape the wrath of God. This was a gift that we did not deserve. Therefore, we must approach God humbly, bowing down to Him in our hearts. In verse 6, Jesus says,

“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

This verse is not telling us that we cannot pray in public because we certainly do this anytime we gather to worship the Lord. What’s important is that we do not seek the approval of man, but rather the approval of God. Additionally, we are not expected to be humble only when we pray, but also when we participate in acts of worship, such as singing, or when we do good deeds for others (verses 1-4):

1 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

The story of the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 teaches us that when our worship is directed to the true God with the right attitude, He will accept it and reward us accordingly. Although the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal performed prescribed extravagant and repetitious acts, their god did not manifest himself. However, when Elijah the prophet set up an altar in the name of the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and prayed that He would show the people of Israel His power so that they would turn their hearts back to Him, the Lord responded.

It is interesting to see the stark difference between the two acts: hundreds of men performing extravagant acts for a false god versus one man performing a simple act for the one true God. We can see the power of God in just a simple action, without having to resort to long extravagant acts of praise and worship as if it were the only way God could hear us. We do not have to prescribe a formula in order to get God’s attention. We see this in modern day in the Catholic Church, where they prescribe formulas of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Fathers” in order to receive a desired outcome from God. In Islam, Muslims are required to pray five times a day, bowing repeatedly, in the direction of Mecca. These acts are certainly examples of vainglory and vain repetition in worship that are not necessary, and surely God does not accept them (Matthew 23:25-28).

The message is clear and simple when we read Matthew 6:5-8 for what it is. We must be mindful of our motives when we pray, sing, teach, preach, participate in offering, and take the Lord’s Supper. We should approach God with a humble attitude, being careful that we are not putting on a show to please man. If we seek to please man, we cannot be bondservants of Christ (Galatians 1:10). God is the only one that is worthy to be glorified. However, with that being said, it does not mean that we should not (and cannot) have long prayers or be emotional or spend time praising God in songs. It does not mean that we should not (and cannot) repeat words and phrases when we pray and sing. I believe that those who use Matthew 6:5-8 to restrict how we pray and sing are taking the passage out of context, which brings us to the concept of meaningful.

In Matthew 6, Jesus is condemning vanity and hypocrisy. He is not condemning repetition. Not all repetition is bad. Matthew 6:7 is referring specifically to “vain” repetition. That means there can be repetition that is not vain, but rather, meaningful. The Bible shows us instances of meaningful repetition. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He knew His death was approaching (Matthew 26:36-44). He even warned the disciples in verse 41 to “watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Jesus prayed so fervently that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). He prayed on His knees (Luke 22:41) and even fell to His face (Matthew 26:39). He didn’t pray like this because He thought God couldn’t hear Him or wouldn’t answer His prayer otherwise. He prayed like this because He was truly in anguish and was sorrowful. This shows the humanity in Jesus and His emotions. If Jesus could be so emotional in prayer even to the point of sweating blood, why can’t we show emotion in our praise to the Almighty God? If it comes genuinely from the heart, then we should not find fault in it. James 5:16 says “the effective, fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much”. Fervent means to have or to show intense spirit or feeling, to be passionate or enthusiastic. God accepts fervor when it comes from a righteous heart, and when it is meaningful. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says “pray without ceasing.” Romans 12:12 says “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer…” Ephesians 6:18 says “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints…” We are expected to pray continuously so that we can overcome temptation and sin. Sometimes this involves lengthy prayers with meaningful repetition, which is acceptable so long as it is not an empty formula. Notice how Daniel prays fervently for the people of Israel, repeating “Oh Lord!”:

18 O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies. 19 O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for Your own sake, my God, for Your city and Your people are called by Your name” (Daniel 9:18).

It is important to note that in Matthew 6:5-8 Jesus is talking about prayer, not singing. But even if we were to extend this to other acts of worship, we still cannot condemn meaningful repetition. Are we not commanded to give on the first day of the week? Are we not expected to commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus by regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper? We are expected to carry out these acts regularly, but in a meaningful way and with the right attitude as in shown in 2 Corinthians 9:7 and 1 Corinthians 11:28:

“so let each on give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”

28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner[e] eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”

We even see meaningful repetition throughout Psalm 136.

1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!
For His mercy endures forever.
Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!
For His mercy endures forever:
To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His mercy endures forever;
To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,
For His mercy endures forever;

 Conclusion

It is true that Christ condemns vainglory and vain repetition because the motives, which are either evil or misguided, serve as an outward appearance to please man, and not God. We have to be careful because we do not want God to reject our praise to Him. It’s important that we do not put on a performance for others to see how righteous we are, and that we do not let our words become empty phrases through meaningless repetition because they do not exalt God nor edify others. However, we have to be careful not to use God’s word to restrict our worship so long as it is within the boundaries of what He has prescribed.