© Charles A. Clough 2001
Charles A. Clough
Biblical Framework Series 1995–2003
Part 6: New Truths of the Kingdom Aristocracy
Chapter 2 – The Earthly Origin of the Church
Lesson 176 – Dispensational Theology: The Devil is NOT in the Details, Read On; Regeneration
24 May 2001
Fellowship Chapel, Jarrettsville, MD
Tonight we’re on our last lesson and unfortunately we’re not going to be able to finish the chapter on Pentecost, we’re almost done but what we’re doing here to get the flow of events is that this event of Pentecost is going to give us a handle or an event that locks up several doctrines and you can remember these four doctrines. There are many, many truths associated with Pentecost, this is not exhaustive by any means, this is just the key basics. You can always remember it with the acrostic, RIBS, R meaning regeneration, I meaning indwelling, B meaning baptism of the Holy Spirit, and S meaning the sealing work of the Holy Spirit. There are other things that He does, He intercedes, He gives spiritual gifts and all the rest. But this is not a class in systematic theology, as well as not being a class in exegesis; it’s to give the framework, just a basic outline of Scripture. We’re going to deal with just one of these four truths, these things that come out of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the earth and indwelling believers.
I guess the best way of looking at this is to think about all of history, from creation through the fall, one of the critical elements would be the judgment and the flood, but I’m thinking here of the call of Abraham and the bringing into existence this counterculture. Then we get down to the time of the Lord Jesus Christ when God becomes incarnate. And this national entity called Israel, that existed from the time of the Exodus to that time, that Israel, is given a moment of decision in history as to whether or not the nation wants to bow the knee officially and nationally to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are given two invitations, one during Jesus’ life, and two, after He died, rose and ascended to heaven. Peter, the apostle, gives the second invitation to the nation. Both invitations are rejected, and nationally Israel is sidelined for a period of history and in her place there arises this new thing called the Church. That’s our age.
I can’t stress enough that the contribution of dispensational theology is very important at this point because what it does, it distinguishes the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit for the Church versus the modus operandi for Israel and the Holy Spirit works differently from different perspectives in both these ages. Over the history of the Church there has been a respect for the Scripture, etc. but there hasn’t been a discernment as to what commands apply to the Church, and what commands apply to Israel. There’s been a lot of sloppy thinking here because people say well God doesn’t change, He’s the “same yesterday, today and forever,” and therefore they reason that because God is immutable, His modus operandi or way of working is immutable, and that’s not true.
Forgetting the Church and Israel distinction, let’s go back in time and think of the Gentile period. Was God’s work different prior to the call of Abraham than it was after the call of Abraham? Of course it was. Before the call of Abraham God the Holy Spirit worked with all national entities, with all people groups. He was revealing; He had his Melchizedeks all over the place who were His chosen prophets to carry on the Noahic Bible in every continent to every linguistic group, to every people group. As these people groups resisted and grieved the Holy Spirit, He restrained their sin for a while, Gen. 6:3, until the day of judgment. And when the day of judgment came, after that period, when civilization was re-established, so to speak, and you have all the sons of Noah, Japheth, etc. re-colonize the continents. Now we have the people groups, etc., obviously the linguistic groups post-date the flood. But my point is whether it’s prior to the flood or after the flood it was a way the Holy Spirit had of working corporately with the human race, all parts of it.
Starting with the call of Abraham, that is not true. After the call of Abraham there coexists a modus operandi of working with Gentiles and a modus operandi of working with Israel, and there’s a bifurcation that happens in history at that point. Obviously the work with the Gentiles becomes very minimal and with Israel it becomes maximal, so the emphasis is always on Israel, and that’s the heart of the Old Testament. What is God doing through this entity called Israel?
We’ve got to start in John 14 again because John 14:17 is a verse that we have to look at very, very carefully. Language is important in Scripture, sentence structure is important. I was never really gung-ho on syntax and language, although in high school I had four years of Latin and I learned more vocabulary and grammar in my Latin course than I did in all the English courses combined. It served me well in other studies, a very useful language to learn. Years later, when I started writing the first edition of this thing, there was a lady who was a PhD on a university campus, a professor of English literature; she was correcting my sloppy grammar and she made an interesting point. She said it’s so important to follow rules of grammar in language because those are the rules that are used to interpret the language, and they operate whether we like it or not.
One of the cases she gave me, it was interesting, in this framework, this is just the first draft of the second edition that we’re working with now but in the final draft of the first edition what she had me do, which I thought was very interesting, was every time that I wrote about a truth of Scripture she had me put all the verbs in the indicative mood. When I started working with the unbelief, she had me use subjunctive moods, and the shift in the mood of the verb, “if this were true….” It give sort of a suspended judgment, and the idea is that it’s a weaker force, you’re not indicating an absolute truth or something certain and objective. She went on and gave me some illustrations, and she pointed out how because most of us use the language orally more than we write, we tend to be sloppy. If you listen to yourself, if you take a tape recording of yourself, or you think about what you’re saying, you’ll realize how frequently we never complete a sentence when we’re talking. We start a sentence and we’ll get a thought and we switch, etc. and our oral speech is not that well organized.
When you write it should be an organized approach and it prevents a lot of misinterpretation. One of the analogies that she used that made sense to me was if you write computer code when the compiler operates on that code, when you write the instructions to the computer, it is very finicky about how you put the code in there. If you don’t put the code in there right it jams it or it can even misinterpret it and cause all kinds of problems. The machine is absolutely stupid. One of the great summaries of what a computer is was given to me many years ago by an MIT professor who said, guys, just remember that computers are simply morons that think very fast, they have absolutely no sense whatsoever internal to themselves. The point is that you have to communicate in an exact code, otherwise you get a problem.
Now it’s very interesting that intellectuals have a problem with us Christians. When they hear that we’re Bible-believing Christians, we believe in an inerrant Bible, for some reason this creates a big controversy with them that anything could be in language and be inerrant, like language has to be errant. Do you know what’s peculiar about that is that these very same intellectuals think nothing of using computers where the code hast to be inerrant. Day after day they’re using inerrant computer code, but they’re fussing at us fundies for saying the Bible is inerrant. I find that kind of intriguing.
Over to the language in the New Testament, John 14:17; here things hinge on a preposition. “The Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” There’s the distinction between the Holy Spirit’s modus operandi under the Old Testament economy and the New Testament economy. Notice the tense of the verb, He now, present tense, “abides with you.” Then the next verb is in the future tense, and He “will be in you.” That’s different, there’s something different that’s going to happen with Pentecost. Jesus gives a whole bunch of things in the rest of John 14, 15 and 16; the whole thing is an exposition of what’s coming. Right here, at the time of the Lord Jesus Christ, before His ascension into heaven, He was warning the disciples that the Holy Spirit had been “with them,” and would be “in them.” Those are locative type prepositions and they’re looking at location.
The word “in” is in what? In believers in the New Testament age. So where is the base of operations of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament era? It’s no longer from heaven; the Holy Spirit’s basis of operation is the living visible Church on this planet. That’s the stunning assertion here: that the base has moved from heaven down to earth, and the Holy Spirit is now operating on earth. So there’s been, at the point of Pentecost, there was this shifting, this invasion of planet earth, so to speak. What is so fascinating about this is that as I mentioned when I started this whole event weeks ago, isn’t it striking that most science fiction today always has invaders coming to earth and they’re always evil, and the earth people are defending against these space invaders. The space invaders connote evil. It’s almost a perversion, almost 180 degrees wrong, because Pentecost is an invasion from heaven of the Holy Spirit into this sphere of earth. The god of this world has been here all the time; the new invader is the Holy Spirit. So actually it’s the other way around, the earth is an alien fallen planet and the Holy Spirit has come to this fallen planet.
That’s the preposition. Now let’s take a sample from the Old Testament of how the Holy Spirit worked. In the notes on page 45 I give you many examples, and we’re not going to all of them, but one of them we are going to go to is Exodus 31:3. Here is a classic instance of how the Holy Spirit worked in the Old Testament in a way different, completely, than how He works today. Does this mean God changed His character? No, He’s “the same yesterday, today and forever.” It’s just that God has variations in the way He works. Doesn’t an artist have variations in the way they paint a painting? Doesn’t an author have variations in the way they write? Why can’t God have variations in how He administers history? I don’t know what the problem is here. But you’ll find people who will come out of a strong Reformed background and just get all upset over this dispensational difference from one age to the next in the Holy Spirit. It’s almost like it’s heresy or something—I never understood what the problem is here.
Exodus 31:3, this describes a work of the Holy Spirit under the Old Testament system. Verse 2, “See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.  And I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship,  to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze,  and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship,” this is part of the preparation for the Tabernacle. What is the effect of the Holy Spirit in verses 3–4? Has that anything to do with His character, or does it have something to do with His soulish skills, His manual skills? There the Holy Spirit is giving craftsmanship.
That’s my point and there’s a lesson in this because when you see the Holy Spirit working under the Old Testament economy He is building and protecting the nation Israel. Why is this man filled with the Spirit at this point? To construct the physical Tabernacle. For whom? For himself? No, for the nation Israel. So what is the goal and purpose of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament? It is to construct this thing called Israel so that Israel will be the conduit of the Messiah, Israel will be the conduit of the Scriptures, Israel will have impact historically. All of this has to do with everything that the nation Israel needed, the Holy Spirit was providing.
Can you think of a very famous story in the Old Testament, the story of the big strong man? Who was it that came upon Samson and gave him strength? It wasn’t that he was like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he lifted weights every day. He may have been a strong man in his physique, but the Bible makes it very, very clear that Samson’s strength waxed and waned. He didn’t have it constantly. He had it when the nation Israel was at stake, when the welfare of Israel of was stake. Was the work of the Holy Spirit in Samson one to edify his personal character? I don’t think so. Samson, as I was taught years ago, actually was God’s goon that started wars, because the nation was trying to settle into a syncretism with paganism. It’s very bad at the end of the book of Judges. And God needed somebody to stir up a war. You say why did God have to stir up a war? To get the people divided, He had to divide the Jews away from the pagans. And if it takes a war to do it, let’s have a war. So what was Samson’s role in life? To start wars.
What was one of the things he did to the pagan economy? He absolutely almost ruined the economy of Philistia. Remember what he did? He waited until the harvest came and then he took foxes (the humane society would have all kinds of problems with this one) and put torches on their tails and let them run through the wheat fields. He incinerated thousands of acres; we don’t think of the economic damage that man did. And when you strike at the economy of a nation, you take the nation down with you. It was a devastating thing for Samson to have done that.
And then in his last moments of his life, what did he do? He took down the temple of Dagon. They thought they were going to have a little show. He says I’ll give you a show, and even in that last moment he asked that God would avenge him, I mean this guy right to the end wasn’t one of your shining stars as far as his character was concerned. But he was a magnificent example of the Holy Spirit working with and on people in the Old Testament to build, construct, defend and otherwise protect the nation Israel. That’s the idea in the Old Testament.
Go to Psalm 51 because here’s David’s confessional Psalm and this comes across in a lot of Christian liturgy and actually it’s a wrong application of Psalm 51. It’s nice to confess sin, but in Psalm 51 the confession of sin that’s going on here is confession of sin under the Old Testament economy. So in Psalm 51 when David’s going on about his sin, you’ll notice that he comes to this place in verse 11 and what does he say? He says, “Do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.” There have been those in the church, godly people, nothing wrong with them, they meant well, and they say well, this is a confession Psalm so I’ll pray the confession Psalm, and they will pray “Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.” Sorry, that’s not true for the Church Age. The Holy Spirit abides forever, so there’s a difference.
Why was David concerned about the Holy Spirit being taken from him? What was the Holy Spirit doing in David? Think about the biography of David? Let’s go back in time historically. Before David was anointed king, who had previously been anointed king? Saul. So there was a house of Saul, a dynasty of Saul. Had Saul obeyed God, presumably his son, the crown prince, Jonathan, would have attained the throne of Israel. But the old man really screwed up in his life before God, and God said that’s it, I’m going to replace, not just Saul with David, I’m going to replace the dynasty of Saul with the dynasty of David. God could have killed Saul and had Jonathan sit on the throne, so it’s not just a rejection of Saul; it’s a rejection of the house of Saul.
So you have a dynastic shift that’s going on. By the way, when that happens, if you trace the references to the Spirit you’ll see the Spirit comes on to David. With the dynastic shift there’s a Spirit shift. So when David, in Psalm 51 prays “cast me not away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me,” he probably is also thinking, not just personally of the Holy Spirit but he may be thinking take not down my house, let the Davidic dynasty endure. Of course he had a promise it would endure, 2 Samuel 7, the Davidic Covenant.
But the idea here is don’t read New Testament ministries of the Holy Spirit backwards into the Old Testament carelessly. Obviously the Holy Spirit did many wonderful things in the Old Testament. Page 45 of the notes, I list all the ministries of the Holy Spirit that continue into New Testament times. “Prior to Pentecost, the Holy Spirit sustained the universe,” does He still sustain the universe? Yes. Has He always sustained the universe? Yes. So that ministry hasn’t changed.
The next ministry, He generated the Old Testament; that was finished when the Old Testament was finished, but in the New Testament He generated the New Testament. In the future when the prophets are reestablished during the Tribulation, who’s going to empower those prophets? The Holy Spirit. He restrained sin in the generation of Noah, it says specifically in Genesis 6:3. Does He still restrain sin? Yes, so that hasn’t changed. He had a special role in Israel; He worked to empower Joseph as a ruler in Egypt. Is this preferring Jew over Gentile? You bet, you’ve got a Jewish guy on a Gentile throne. Joshua as a key leader of the nation; He gave special natural skills, we just saw that. He directed in a special way in the judges, prophets and kings.
So that’s the ministry of the Holy Spirit “with” the people. And the Holy Spirit was “with” people all the way up to the time of the Lord Jesus Christ, because in the case of the Lord Jesus, how was the Holy Spirit with the disciples? Think about that one. Who did many of the miracles through the Lord Jesus? The Holy Spirit. So since the Holy Spirit did the miracles, Jesus could say the Holy Spirit has been with you, and clearly in the context of that John 14 passage He’s talking about Himself, the Holy Spirit is with you.
Page 46, we now move into the first of the great doctrines of the Church Age, the doctrine of regeneration. This gets tricky. Be careful what I am saying and be careful what I’m not saying. I am not saying that in the Old Testament there wasn’t some sort of ministry of the Holy Spirit to empower people to love the Lord, empower people to pray, empower people to live righteous lives. But it was known in the Old Testament as circumcision of the heart; that was the term. The word “regeneration” was not used, and I believe it wasn’t used for a reason. There was a circumcision of the heart ministry.
We don’t know all of it, but certainly by reading the book of Psalms you know the heart of a righteous person in the Old Testament resonates with our hearts. So whatever the Holy Spirit did in their lives it was remarkably parallel to what He’s doing in our lives. So then what is unique about regeneration? What we’re studying now is under the Old Testament and under the New Testament we have regeneration. Why are we doing this contrast? Because we want to see what’s new. We want to see what is peculiar to this age, what assets, what possessions do we have in Christ that the Old Testament saints did not have?
One of the sources, if you turn to John, John is filled with the language of regeneration and being born again; in fact, that’s where the term comes from. If you look at John 1:12–13, this phrase, being born again, originally was used, when people used it accurately, it was used of regeneration. Unfortunately the way it is used today it has broadened in its meaning, gotten shallower and broader. Originally it was a very narrow term and referred to a certain thing. So we want to look at what the certain thing is.
On page 45 I give you some of the original connotations. If you were to do a concordance study you’d come to these conclusions; it’s not something I made up. “It means ‘born again’ in the true theological sense, not in the often sloppy use of the term for the process of conversion.” Regeneration does not refer to the human side of conversion, the way it originally was meant. It’s talking about the divine side, it’s not talking about human experiences, it’s talking about a mysterious something that instantaneously is done in a microsecond when a person trusts in Jesus Christ. We don’t know all that’s involved, but it’s an instantaneous thing, it’s not a process, though obviously like birth it could be kind of like a spiritual pregnancy happened before it. The idea is that there is a birth at a moment in time and it is purely the work of the Holy Spirit. It must be very carefully pointed out that it is the Holy Spirit’s work, because today we live in a day of psychology this, psychology that, psychiatry this, psychiatry that, and we’re always worried about our inner selves, what happened when mama dropped me on my head and all the rest of the stuff that goes on in the name of therapy. That has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit and regeneration; get away from that.
Regeneration is not felt; it’s not a tingly feeling. It is a work that God does in the human heart somehow, some way, and we have no way of doing it; you could go into an MRI and the MRI before and after wouldn’t look any different. It’s something to do with our spirits and that’s what’s being born again, being created again. Let’s not diminish what this means, to be born again.
Actually John uses a Greek word that has a nuance of being born from above as well as being born again, and you really can’t tell. John’s kind of sneaky the way he does these things, he really means both, not contradictory meanings; by the way, there’s a sense of being born again because you were born one time, now you are born spiritually. But then there’s also the sense, you’re born of the earth and at regeneration you’re born from the Holy Spirit down from heaven. So you’re born from above and you’re born again.
But the emphasis here is on a miracle, it is nothing less than a miracle. You can’t force it on somebody, you can convince a person of the gospel, you can pray for them, but you cannot force anyone to be born again because we don’t have the lever, we don’t pull the lever. God the Holy Spirit pulls the lever, and He may not do it when we want Him to pull the lever. He is the one who controls it, so from the very start, when we talk about regeneration we are not talking about experience. We are not talking about conversion. Those are all works of the Spirit; don’t get me wrong, the Spirit is involved in that. But that’s not the term regeneration is talking about, this instant thing that happens, this recreation.
Turn to John’s epistle and we get into the hard stuff, because it’s in 1 John particularly, where John goes into a lengthy exposition of the truth of possessing eternal life. In 1 John 5:11–12 John links eternal life with Jesus Christ. This is not an easy passage of Scripture in our culture today. There is a lot of resistance. Some of you who have been in the Word of God for many, many years, you don’t have a problem with this, but I’m convinced that most young people in our evangelical churches today are going to have a profoundly difficult time with this, because verses 11-12 deny all other religions except those with a relationship with Jesus Christ, and that is extremely offensive in a pluralistic society like ours. “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no man comes to the Father but by Me.” Verse 11 says, “And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is [located] in” only one place, located ONLY “in His Son.  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Period! Black and white! One further point of clarification, if regeneration is connected to the Lord Jesus Christ, it is also connected with the term “eternal life,” and we must also qualify that we understand how the adjective “eternal” is being used here.
Warning: the adjective “eternal” is not used of life the way it is used of God, because when it’s used of God what does it refer to? God’s eternality, that He is forever. Does that mean that somebody with eternal life has God’s eternality? No, that would fracture the Creator/distinction. The creature always stays creature; the creature doesn’t become Creator. So eternal life is not sharing the attribute of God’s eternality. However, it’s related to His eternality because when we were going through the chart on the evil issue, what did we say God’s program in history is going to do? He is going to come to a point in history where the road forks. What did we say about this period? When the road forks, can the two roads ever join again? No. There’s no more transition. The day of good and evil mixture terminates when judgment occurs and the separation occurs.
Therefore, question: here’s the creature, the creature started here at the point of creation. The creature goes on and on. Does the creature ever get annihilated or does the creature exist forever? The creature exists forever. It’s sobering. And when this road occurs, this branch in the road, the good dwells with God as life forever and ever and ever. That’s what eternal life is talking about, it’s talking about the life that qualifies for eternal fellowship with God and it can never ever be destroyed. Eternal life, once given, can never be destroyed. This life goes on and on and on and on because it is divinely caused and it is brought about by God’s separating good and evil and keeping evil away from good forever and ever and ever. It’s all tied in with this picture.
This is why there’s a passage in John that’s very, very hard. To get background so we can get a head start on it, remember something about the life of Jesus Christ, because Pentecost comes in a sequence, it comes after Christ’s ascension. The ascension comes after His resurrection. The resurrection comes after the cross. The cross comes after His life. So there is a sequence. If you look at the sequence, after Jesus died, He received a resurrected body. If you remember, Jesus, particularly in John, mentioned that there would be two resurrections; there are actually many phases of it but two categorical resurrections, the resurrection to life and the resurrection to damnation.
What is the resurrection to damnation? It means that everybody has a resurrection body; the resurrection body is the reason that people can exist forever and ever. The body that we have today, look at us, all our parts are wearing out. The older you get, the more parts wear out, and if you get to the end of your life with your original parts you’re doing great. So this body isn’t it. The resurrection body is the body that endures forever and ever and ever. You don’t ever want to be part of the resurrection unto damnation because once you are resurrected to damnation, there never is escape from it. I mean, it’s so horrible to think about, no escape, you can’t commit suicide, as much as you would want to, you cannot destroy your own existence, it goes on forever and ever and ever.
But that kind of existence is not the life, the life is the resurrection unto life, and the life that we are talking about is defined in terms of number two in the life of Christ, His life, the life that Jesus Christ lived, which was perfect in righteousness. Eternal life couldn’t have been defined in the Old Testament because there wasn’t a model for it; there was just a vague … the law calling for obedience, but there was no model. Who in the Old Testament ever lived a perfect life? No one! In the Old Testament there is no model, so in the Old Testament there really isn’t a source of eternal life.
Two things we reviewed about this life; remember those doctrines, kenosis and impeccability, and I said when we originally covered kenosis and impeccability we’re going to revisit them. Tonight is when we come back and we revisit those two doctrines.
Number one, doctrine of kenosis: what does the doctrine of kenosis say? It says that Jesus Christ gave up the independent use of His divine attributes. I said “independent use.” It doesn’t mean He gave up His divine attributes - that would make Him a creature. He never gave up His divine attributes. He gave up the independent use of them, so that when Satan tempted Him, so that when He encountered the crises and events in walking around like we walk around in our turf, getting His feet dirty in the same mud heap that we get our feet dirty in, when the Lord Jesus Christ walked around this earth, when He saw suffering, when He met death, when He was tempted in all points as we are … He was tempted in all points like we are.
What kenosis says is that when He faced all those trials He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, and He, in effect, trusted which member of the Trinity to empower Him? The Holy Spirit. Jesus relied upon the Holy Spirit point after point after point after point in His life, and that’s why He says the Holy Spirit was with you, I’m here, the Holy Spirit is with Me.
As the Holy Spirit empowered Jesus, because Jesus Himself in His humanity trusted Him, and this is why He can be our priest. Remember that great passage in Hebrews encouraging us in our moments of trial and tribulation to pray, because we have a high priest that can be affected by the feelings of our infirmities. How could Jesus be affected with the feelings of our infirmities if He never was tempted? How could He be feeling for your infirmities when you come to pray to Him, through Him, how could He really enter in and empathize with what you and I are going through? Because He had to go through the same thing. He didn’t get freebie rides because He was God the Son. So the doctrine of kenosis balances the idea that Jesus was a free ride through this life and He had it easy and all the rest. No.
The second doctrine we want to review is impeccability. Jesus Christ was able not to sin, and Jesus Christ was not able to sin. If you look at the bottom of page 46 I state that “Jesus Christ was both ‘not able to sin’ and ‘able not to sin.’ ” We had a discussion about it and I pointed out that the word “able,” the verb is used with a different nuance, this is not a logical conflict here, there’s a nuance of difference. You can think of it this way, His deity demanded that He was not able to sin; His humanity demanded that He was temptable, able not to sin. Therefore, putting the two together in one person you get the fact that he was not able to sin but He could be tempted.
How that works out we don’t know. The fact is that because He was not able to sin but was able to be tempted, means that He faced enormous pressures, pressures far beyond anything that we can ever test. So in the gauge of pressure He was decades above us, [can’t understand word] of magnitude above us in the kind of pressures He had to face. So this is why Jesus is not only a priest, Jesus is going to be our judge. And we come and we blow smoke, well Jesus you really didn’t understand, it was just so hard, and He says no, I understand because I walked there too and here’s my evaluation of how you behaved in that situation. Duh! See, we can’t blow smoke in His face because He walked here and He’s going to be our judge, He’s the standard.
Turn to 1 John 3:9 because we have a verse here that talks about the impeccability of eternal life. It’s a very hard passage, it’s not easy to understand, but if you don’t approach it carefully you get yourself in hot water real quick. My translation reads, what most people take it to mean, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” I don’t know what your translation says there, but the word “practices sin” is an interpretation of the present tense of the Greek verb.
So let’s break this down. “No one who is born of God sins,” the verb is to sin, and it’s in the present tense, which often means action or keeps on going. “No one who is born of God sins, because His seed abides in him,” that is regeneration; that is referring to the nature of Christ, the eternal life dwelling in the person, “His seed abides in him, and He cannot sin,” he is not able to sin. Now what does that sound like? It sounds like the sinlessness of Jesus. You say wait a minute, whoa, hold it! John the apostle just got through saying in chapter 1 [blank spot, 1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”]
… so now in 1 John 3:9 it almost appears he is almost teaching a doctrine of perfection, but in 1 John 1:8 he’s denying it by saying we have sin. So now what do we do. One of the ways it’s traditionally done is to say the present tense in 3:9 means habitual sin, no one who is a real Christian habitually sins. That approach has a problem, and it was pointed out many, many years ago by a Greek scholar at Dallas seminary in the middle of a debate.
He pointed out if you’re going to take the Johannine use of the present tense to mean habitual behavior here, you’ve got to take it to mean habitual behavior here, too, and in all other places in the epistle. In 1 John 1:8 what would happen if we took the same idea that these people apply to 3:9 and applied it instead to 1:8, “If we say,” say is present tense, “if we continue to say that we have continuously no sin, we are continuously deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” If we say that we have no sin continuously, in other words we can do it sometimes. I mean, it just doesn’t fit.
What is worse is that if you take this thing, you get in an outright conflict because if you flip over to 1 John 5:16 look at this one. “If any one sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God” the Catholic Church always gets venial and mortal sins in that passage, actually it’s talking about something else. But verse 16, “If any one sees his brother constantly committing a sin,” well now wait a minute, in 3:9 it was said that no believer can habitually sin. So if you’re going to take the present tense in 3:9 how are you going to handle your problem in 5:16 because now it’s saying “a brother,” that’s one who’s is a believer, and you see a brother who continuously sins, but it isn’t unto death.
Clearly John must not be using the verb quite that way. He must be using it another way. But the question is we know John can’t be teaching perfectionism, and we know enough about ourselves that we’re not perfect. So how do we resolve this? I like what Zane Hodges did with this because he shows that it can be solved by doing something that everybody recognizes in Paul’s writings. Turn to Romans 7, that famous passage where Paul is struggling with sin. You’ll notice that Paul, Paul isn’t John and there is a difference in the vocabulary of these two writers, but they do a very similar thing. So let’s leave John a minute, we’ll come back to him in a few minutes, and let’s go to Paul, and watch how Paul thinks.
In Romans 7:20, here he is in the middle of that conflict passage, “but if I am doing the very thing I do not wish,” what is he doing, he is saying “I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” What has just happened in verse 20? That’s a very, very important chapter. Take that language apart, let’s unpack that sentence. “If I am doing the very thing that I don’t want to do,” - this is Paul, Paul is doing this - he’s saying, “I am doing the very thing that I don’t…” he concludes that he can’t be doing it, it’s the force of sin in him that’s doing it. Now is this cheap, is this some sort of a cop-out? No, Paul assumes responsibility for it, but there’s a powerful point that’s being made that the “I”, the real “I” here is something to which sin is somewhat external and foreign. Paul is doing something here.
Let’s continue, verse 21, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good.” So there’s a two nature thing going on, the evil is present, but I wish to do good. Now, why does he wish to do good? Because he’s regenerated, His seed abides in him. Is the seed wishing to do good? Yes. What’s happening here? Sin has overtaken. He’s responsible, we’re responsible; we’re not denying responsibility. This is a conceptual way of looking at yourself in Christ, and it’s extremely important. The exchange life people have mastered this, but it’s not just… I mean, they’re not the first people to do it. Verse 22, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,” notice location, “in my inner man  but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.”
We could go on and on here but all I’m pointing out is do you see the conceptual break that in Christ Paul is asserting that he has this inner man that this inner man is something that wishes to do well, always wishes to do well, and that is the same setting that John is talking about because “His seed abides in him.” The two guys are talking about the same thing, and it’s remarkable that the same translators who translate Romans 7 have no problem whatever with Romans 7, and all of a sudden hit 1 John 3 and slide in grease all over the board, when John, in fact, is apparently doing exactly what Paul is doing. We’ll come back to John in a minute, but let’s understand Paul.
He’s saying that when I become a Christian and I’m regenerated, I have been moved from being “in Adam” to being “in Christ.” And that is my fundamental change in identity. What all that involves is hairy and probably beyond our comprehension at this moment, but remember this section of Romans started where? In Romans 5:12 and what was Romans 5:12 all about? The shift from being in Adam to being in Christ?
There’s an identity that goes on here and that Paul can distinguish his evil doing from this, whatever it is that’s in him, because now he’s in Christ, and the picture that he has, because for many years I thought of it this way and I was wrong. It’s not that the “I” is sort of suspended between Christ and sin, and is sort of flopping back and forth. That doesn’t fit. What he’s saying is the “I” here is in Christ, and this sin is in the flesh, in the body, in the fallen soul, but the fundamental “I,” the ego, is now identified with Christ. And when sin happens the decision has been made to abandon this nature as motive and as the pattern of righteousness and go along with sin and go along with the fallen nature of Adam that we have in the flesh. By the way, in the notes I also cite Galatians 2:20, “the life which I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”
Before we move back to John, look at how he ends this in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” [25 “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”] Some have thought that Romans 7 refers to the struggle of the unbeliever, and the reason they try to do that is because they say wait a minute, the believer has the Holy Spirit.
I believe that Paul, in Romans 7:20–24 is doing a teaching thing here, as a wonderful teacher as he was, he’s telling us think through a trial that you have and think about what’s going on in your heart. Let’s do a little inner heart study here. He says that the new nature in Christ is wanting to do good, so all this is the effect of regeneration. That’s wanting to do good. But the regenerate nature by itself can’t subdue the sin nature, without … what did Jesus rely on? The Holy Spirit.
So regeneration, vital lesson here, provides the base of operations … if you’re an electrical engineer and you like to think in these terms, regeneration sets up the new circuitry but doesn’t provide the voltage. And regeneration establishes this new capacity but the capacity is anemic without the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit because it’s a little regenerated, I don’t know, if you could visualize the space, maybe it’s the size of a quarter in your brain somewhere or in your nervous system somewhere, whatever this connection is where the spirit interacts with the material through the central nervous system. Somewhere in our central nervous system is this regenerate spirit but the thing is encased in a pile of crap, called the sin nature and it cannot subdue it. It’s encased in this, so what does it have to do? We have to rely on the Holy Spirit, and that’s why the New Testament admonition, and that’s why Romans 8 takes us right to the Holy Spirit because He becomes central in the whole discussion, after Romans 7
Now let’s go back to 1 John and see if this approach doesn’t resolve the problem. John says we sin. John is not teaching any sort of perfectionism by any means, by any way, by any stretch of the imagination. John is not some naïve guy who says that Christians don’t sin. But in 3:9 he’s making an assertion about the regenerate nature and he’s saying the person who has been “born of God,” regeneration, there’s the term, “born of God.” “No one who is regenerate sins because His seed,” that’s God’s seed, “abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” What bothers people in verse 9 and it’s hard is that the pronoun “he” is there, that makes it sound like all of us, “he.” But wait a minute, what was Paul doing in Romans 7:20? It’s no longer who that does it? “It’s not longer I that sins.” What’s John saying? “It’s no longer I that sins.” Same thing.
So John in 1 John 3:9 is not fundamentally doing anything different than what Paul did in Romans 7. Both those fantastic teachers of the Word of God had the same concept, that when regeneration occurs, the miraculous act of regeneration by the Holy Spirit shifts and alters, in a profound way, our whole identity. And that is why in verse 10 he says, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious; an one who does not practice righteousness is not of God, or the one who does not love his brother.” This is the idea; we are out of fellowship and out of God.
The idea is not something new but I think it handles the problem of 1 John 3:9 in a lot more linguistically honest way than saying that it’s continuous sin. Of course, it’s related to something else. 1 John, the entire book, can only be taken one of two ways. Either this whole book is an argument to distinguish Christians from non-Christian or it is to distinguish Christians in fellowship and out of fellowship. That is fundamental in how you approach this epistle.
Obviously what I have said here by this solution to 1 John 3:9 shows very well which view goes with this approach, and that is that 1 John is talking about fellowship. That’s why he says “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That’s not a gospel invitation, that’s an address to believers and he’s saying that if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from what? ALL! Just the sin that we confess? Or cleanse us from “all unrighteousness.” That’s something that we’ll get into in the fall, this issue of confession of sin, filling of the Spirit and that sort of thing. But it’s all predicated on the thing of Pentecost and what the Holy Spirit has done this side of Pentecost.
Father, we thank you for our time this year, we thank you for the hours of study in the Word of God, and for the fact that you as the Holy Spirit comes to us brings the text to us and gives us that encouragement and that morale boosting energy, that the strength cannot and does not come from ourselves but the moment we in humble trust realize that we can’t do it, Paul couldn’t do it, John couldn’t do it, they all understood that they had to operate in their life exactly the same way Jesus in His humanity operated, namely by the filling of the Holy Spirit, by walking by faith, trusting the One who did the birthing, the new birthing, is also the One who can empower that newly given, miraculously given nature. We thank Thee through the person of Christ, our Savior.
Question asked, something about I find 1 John really hard: Clough replies: that’s right.
Question continued, I can see it in Romans but I’m still having a hard time seeing that in John because it seems like you can’t just read it and get that information from it, even if you read the whole epistle. Clough replies: You have to really think it through and it’s a good question about John. It’s not an easy passage and it’s not easy to think it through. The problem there is the whole Johannine …, first of all the whole Johannine approach versus Paul’s approach because the two guys use different vocabularies and use things differently. But like the epistle to the Hebrews you’ll find that internal to their own writings they are very consistent. So how you take one passage can’t be isolated from how you take other passages that he writes. This is why 1 John is an extremely difficult book. It’s short; it’s deceptively simple on the first reading, but then when you think about it, it’s a very difficult book. And it’s difficult precisely because of what you said.
As I pointed out, you’ve got verses in chapter 5, you’ve got verses in chapter 1 that you’ve got to balance with chapter 3, and the only thing I can tell you is that you wind up taking one of two roads through John’s epistles, actually the second and third one too, but it’s more obvious in the first epistle: either he is addressing and trying to define who Christians are out from those who merely profess, or he’s talking about something else; he’s talking about abiding, and that’s a vocational term for John. We didn’t get into that but the word “abide,” meno is either referring to being saved, or it is referring to being in fellowship, and that the act of abiding or not abiding is in fellowship or out of fellowship, walking by the Spirit, walking by the flesh. Or it’s referring, as the vine, because remember the word meno in 1 John is the same word he’s using over in John 15 with the vine and the branches. The question then is: is that salvation? If it’s salvation in John 15 is going to be salvation in 1 John. Those passages are hooked together. So, that’s why this is not easy stuff, because you’ve got to correlate all those together. And that is an exegetical exercise, believe me.
All I’m saying tonight is after you spend hours dealing with this issue, going through the text and through the text and through the verses, you will always come to one of two conclusions. You can’t mix and match, in other words, you will come to one conclusion. To abide in the vine, and that sort of thing, refers to salvation with no distinguishing comments internal to all the save; all the saved are kind of lumped together, versus the professing people who flake out and that sort of thing. Or, you’re referring to the people who are Christians who are walking by the Spirit, converting it into Pauline terminology because Paul uses the same thing, walking by flesh. In fact, in Romans 8 if you watch this idea now that we’ve [can’t understand word] it, read Romans 8 again, read Romans 7 and watch what happens when you go into Romans 8. You’ll see passages that talk about mortal death, and talking about passages that he who does not walk by faith, basically, mortify the flesh, put it to death, and who doesn’t do that dies, this sort of thing.
You’ve got those passages, plus 1 John 5 which is the analogue because remember I said in 1 John 5, that passage about the brother who sins not the sin unto death but does sin the sin unto death, don’t pray for him, and the Catholic Church historically got their moral sin and their venial sin out of that passage, and other church fathers.
The question then comes in 1 John 5, what’s that talking about, what’s the sin unto death there? Now you’re back to discerning how does John use the word “death.” Is he talking spiritually or is he talking physically. And that in turn is linked to how you handle “abide.” You see, it’s a whole bucket of words here that go together. And I warn you about that because you can’t go in here and start jerking one verse around without tampering with all the other ones and dealing with vocabulary. So obviously the way I’m approaching it here is I’m taking the word “death” to literally mean physical death, and that it’s talking about physical discipline, the same concept that is in Hebrews 12, and 1 Corinthians 11, the passage that’s usually read before communion services in most evangelical churches, where people who despise communion are sick, weakly and some have gone to sleep. He’s talking about divine discipline upon Christians, not upon unbelievers, upon Christians. And so there’s a sobering dimension here that’s suddenly introduced.
I understand the background where you’re coming from because people in that sort of background fear that by taking a fellowship approach you open the door to licentious living, when if you pursue the matter further you’ll see that actually there’s two dynamics that come out of this approach in both Paul and John. One dynamic is a negative one, and that is fear, a godly fear comes out of that because if those passages, they talk about darkness, who follow Satan, who are going to die, if those passages refer to Christians it’s talking about people who are disobedient, and that Christians can check out of this life in a horrible way. Yea, they’re saved but like Paul says, “so as by fire.” It’s not pleasant. That whole idea of significant and profound discipline upon disobedience in the Christian is a negative incentive. And it is an incentive that I believe protects against this idea that free grace is … you know, going to lead to licentious living.
There’s another and second kind of motivation, which is a positive one, and I think a very powerful positive one. If you go through Paul in Romans 7 and 8 and John with this approach, what you find out is there’s a powerful incentive to live the Christian life if you see and grasp your identity in Christ, because now you’re perceiving that you are part of a godly family, and why are you acting like an ungodly family, like you’re not part of the family. There’s a powerful motive in that, rather than I’ve got to do this good thing, I’ve got to do that good thing, because I’ve got to prove to myself, I’ve to prove to everybody that I’m a Christian. Now if you want kind of approach you can go to the Puritan writings, because the Puritans were doing that, many of the Puritans were doing that, trying to prove that they were saved by doing every kind of good work imaginable, going through all kinds of exercises.
The problem with that approach is this: let’s imagine ourselves to be a drug addict or some, what we would call a chemically addicted person, this sort of thing. We’ve got this force in our life and if my concept of the Christian life is that to have fellowship with God I’ve got to grapple with this, hoping thereby to eek out some victory to prove that I’m saved, that’s one approach. Or do I see myself in the family of God to start with and this so-called besetting sin is not really part of my depth nature and why am I letting this thing empower me. So actually it turns out, if you want to apply it from the practical side, I believe the fellowship approach has two powerful incentives. It has a negative one, a fear of discipline and loss of rewards, Paul says that, loss of rewards. And a positive one in seeing our identity in Jesus Christ, and that by being identified with Him, with the resurrected Christ, the god of this world loses some of his allure, the roaring lion seeking whom he may devour suddenly doesn’t become … I don’t say he turns into a pussy cat, but it takes some of his fangs away in your life and in your heart when you grapple with this sort of thing, is that wait a minute, why am I afraid of him, I’m a child of the King. So you proceed against the impediment, against the addiction, against whatever the besetting sin is from a position of strength.
Whereas if you take the classical Reformed approach and say that I have to prove my salvation by the following fruit, then we become fruit inspectors. The problem with that approach is while it sounds good on the surface, in actual day to day life and combat with besetting things, it doesn’t really provide a motivation because you’re never really sure where you are. In order to trust that God is going to help me in a trial I have to have faith that He wants to help me, but if in my identity I don’t see myself in Christ, it’s so easy to now think of the fact that well, with all the stuff in my life, I’m sure He’s not really too interested in me. What does that do? If you’re not really sure that God is wholly interested it seems to me that innervates the whole energy for the Christian way of life. It dissipates it.
Question asked: Clough replies: Other than preaching the gospel. What she’s bringing out here is something I hadn’t thought about, but you know that’s interesting because if you have a situation where you have a professing believer really messed up, you’ve got to take one of two tracks. We’re not infallible, we can’t see on the human heart, so the problem is you may very well see someone who is not a believer, you may very well see someone who is not a believer, but the reason they’re not a believer isn’t necessarily because of that sin. The reason they’re not a believer is because their heart has never been truly illuminated to the content of the gospel. That could be, and this explains a lot of the so-called false professions.
I believe it’s very difficult in our age, probably for the last forty years, to communicate a clear gospel to start with. I really believe that and I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to present a clear gospel presentation. Apart from the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, it so discouraging to try to show God’s grace when people don’t understand sin, they don’t understand sin because they haven’t got a clue about the nature of God, everything is what I feel, how I vote, what I think, no absolute truth, and it’s in this muck that we are trying to preach the gospel so right away we’ve got a problem here. We may well have a non-Christian but again it’s not because of their sin.
For example, I’ll use a gross sin, but let’s talk about homosexuals; I’ve worked with homosexuals. I don’t look upon a person who’s in homosexuality suspecting they may be a non-Christian because of their homosexuality. If they’re not a Christian it’s not because of homosexuality, it’s because of what’s going on, or not going on, or never had gone on in the human heart. And I think you uncover that by conversation. But in many cases they are Christian. Now what do you do? Bang them over the head? I don’t think so. The few, and in my experience, I’ve had experience with two or three homosexuals, I’ve only known one of the three who has truly come out of that lifestyle, and it was because that person had, I believe, a correct concept of who he was in Christ. I don’t think the other guys have a clue yet what’s going on here.
So if we’re children of God and children of the King, that creates the powerful picture, the self-identity, by identity I mean not psychologically, the identity in God’s sight of who we are. Now if that isn’t right, I don’t know how you ever personally, that person you’re trying to help, I don’t know how you can help them if they don’t get that right. They can’t become a Christian in the first place unless they get the gospel right, and they can’t deal with these besetting sins if somehow they can’t see the truth of what it means to be “in Christ.” That’s why it’s so important.
In the fall we’ll continue. We’re going to finish up the indwelling Holy Spirit which compliments regeneration, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, putting us in union with Christ, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit which shows us why it can’t be taken away from us, another argument for eternal security. So that’s it, have a nice summer.