For those who would rather read a sermon than listen to it, here’s the manuscript. Some of what I said during the live preaching of the sermon will be different, of course, as I don’t read my manuscripts verbatim.
What does the Bible say about Christians and the government? How should biblical teaching influence your interactions with the government, including how you vote? That was the topic of yesterday’s sermon. Listen to it before you head to the polls tomorrow.
It seems like not a day goes by without reading or hearing something about homosexuality and/or homosexuals wanting the alleged right to “marry” a person of the same sex. Story after story is written with one main goal: to normalize homosexuality through desensitizing people to it. Lately, things have become much more intense than I ever can remember. Name-calling, intolerance, and unbridled bigotry are the hallmarks of the contemporary homosexual movement. The latest news story is about a privately owned fast food chain, Chick-Fil-A, known for its Christian values, whose owner publicly stated he holds a biblical view of marriage (ie., a lifelong covenant before God of a man and a woman to one another exclusively). At least three different mayors of some of the largest cities in this nation have vowed to do everything they can to keep out such “intolerant” and “bigoted” businesses, all in the name of tolerance, of course.
But here’s the problem. The stance of CFA is nothing less than normal, historic, orthodox Christianity over the past 2,000 years (not to mention the stance of Judaism before that). Therefore, when a mayor (or any government official) asserts that opposition to homosexuality or the claim that homosexuality is morally evil disqualifies a business from setting up shop in a community, that mayor is not only banishing fast food chains like CFA, but churches as well. Every Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church in this country believes that homosexuality is sinful and against God’s will for humanity. If CFA is not allowed in Chicago or Boston because of its owner’s view of homosexuality, why should it be any different for a local church whose pastor and membership believe the same thing as CFA’s owner? Once that domino falls, the state will dictate to churches what is and is not acceptable doctrine if a church wants building permits to set up a facility in a given town.
Gospel-preaching churches simply cannot accept homosexuality as good or acceptable for people made in God’s image. This is not a “civil rights” issue; this is a moral issue, specifically, an issue of sexual morality (or immorality, as the case may be). When Christians assert that homosexuality is sinful, we are not saying anything different than when we say that adultery is sinful. It’s not an issue of anyone’s “right” to be an adulterer, nor is it an issue of discrimination or intolerance. It’s an issue of what is right and wrong, and on whose authority. Beyond the moral issue, though, this is a Gospel issue. One of the core symbols given to humanity to explain the Gospel is that of marriage. Jesus is the bridegroom, and the Church is His bride. When marriage is dishonored, whether by adultery or homosexuality, the Gospel is dishonored. Christians cannot accept homosexuality as an acceptable “alternative lifestyle” without denying the Gospel and thereby denying Jesus Himself.
The position the Church must take to maintain her identity as the Church of Christ and the position of the homosexual movement are directly at odds. There can be no compromise on this issue. If the positions of three prominent mayors become the norm, Christians can expect to be mistreated verbally by American culture, and, in time, mistreated through physical persecution. A recent article on time.com asserted that organizations that promote biblical morality are “malevolent,” and society rarely tolerates what it considers to be evil for very long. But none of this should be a surprise. After all, “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…. They will make you outcasts…” (Jn 15:20; 16:2). Through it all, we have this confidence: The gates of hell will not prevail no matter how much they rage against the truth. Jesus Christ has overcome, and so have we in Him.
If you listen to many evangelistic presentations today, whether corporate in a church setting or one-on-one in street evangelism, you will notice that the goal of the presentation is often to lead the unbeliever to pray “the sinner’s prayer.” The sinner’s prayer is typically a short prayer that expresses the unbeliever’s desire to have his or her sins forgiven and to receive eternal life because of Jesus’ death on the cross. On the surface, the idea that a new believer would confess her sins to the Lord and ask to be forgiven based on the finished work of Christ is expected (actually, that all believers would do this regularly is expected). And yet, so often, the sinner’s prayer ever so subtly leads unbelievers away from a biblical understanding of the Gospel and salvation.
One of the most shocking truths to many contemporary evangelists is that not one evangelistic encounter in the New Testament culminates in someone saying a prayer for salvation. Despite the complete absence of anything remotely like the sinner’s prayer, thousands of conversions occurred in the New Testament period. Let’s look at some examples.
Immediately following the very first sermon in church history, the hearers ask, “Brethren, what shall we do” (Acts 2:37)? Peter responds by saying, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Peter does not lead the people in “the sinner’s prayer.” He doesn’t even mention prayer! He exhorts the people to repent and then be baptized because their sins have been forgiven in Christ if they do in fact repent.
In Acts 8, Philip the evangelist encounters an Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah. After Philip preached Jesus to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:35), the eunuch asked, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized” (Acts 8:36)? The text doesn’t say whether the eunuch prayed to receive salvation, but it does emphasize his baptism. Philip’s message must have been like that of Peter on Pentecost, a call to repentance and faith demonstrating itself in the obedience of baptism.
In Acts 16, we encounter two individuals who receive salvation. The first is Lydia, and Luke says that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). The next verse adds, “And when she and her household had been baptized…” Once again, what is emphasized is not a salvation prayer but the obedience of baptism. Later, when Paul and Silas are in prison, the Lord shakes the prison with an earthquake, resulting ultimately in the jailer asking Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? Paul’s answer is most instructive: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). A couple verses later we read, “And he [the jailer] took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.” The elements of faith and baptism again are central. Paul does not respond to the jailer by telling him if he wants to be saved to pray a prayer. He tells him to believe in the Lord Jesus. He preaches to him the Gospel of justification by faith alone. And the immediate expression of that faith is baptism.
I can remember as a kid praying the sinner’s prayer over and over again, each night before I fell asleep, wondering if I had said it right, or if I had really meant it, or if God had really heard it. The sinner’s prayer was a source of torment and terror to me. It had been presented by well-meaning leaders as a sort of magic phrase to say to receive salvation. What was not emphasized was faith and baptism (I was not baptized until I was 20, although I became a believer at least 10 years before then). I can remember sitting through altar call after altar call whispering the prayer, just in case it hadn’t “stuck” the previous week. “What can it hurt to pray it again?” I thought, just to be safe. In all of this, salvation became justification by works, specifically, the work of prayer, praying the sinner’s prayer. Following each altar call, the pastor would pronounce with great confidence, “If you just prayed that prayer and meant it, you are now a member of the kingdom of God,” hanging the entire assurance of our salvation on a formulaic prayer and our sincerity in praying it.
There is a better, more biblical way. There is a way that will not make sinners think salvation is obtained by reciting a magic phrase. There is a way that will not reduce justification to dependence on how sincerely I prayed a prayer. There is a way that lines up with the way of the Apostles and evangelists in the New Testament. That way is to tell sinners to believe in the Lord Jesus and to show their faith in baptism. After all, we are justified by faith, not by prayer. And the first step of obedience is baptism. Today, I derive great assurance from these two things: I believe in Jesus, and I see the evidence of it in the Spirit’s work in my life, beginning with my baptism in Jesus’ name. I don’t say “the sinner’s prayer” anymore. And I don’t encourage others to say it. I do pray, of course. I encourage other believers to pray as well. But when it comes to entering the kingdom of God, I tell others to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. When they believe, they are to be baptized as soon as possible. And they are to pray without ceasing, not to get saved, but because God has saved them through faith and faith alone.
In the latest issue of The Master’s Seminary Journal, Michael Vlach writes a critique of the non-dispensational understanding of Christ and Israel. After laying out the case of four non-dispensationalists for understanding Israel to be fulfilled in one way or another in Jesus, Vlach turns to Isa 49:3-6 as a prooftext for the dispensational view that “national Israel” has a future distinct from Gentile Christians in the church. On page 54, Vlach lists four conclusions that lead him to reject the non-dispensational position. Let’s have a look at his conclusions and see if they lead to a rejection of a covenantal position on the meaning of Israel.
1. No writer in the Bible states that Jesus’ identification with Israel means the end of national Israel’s significance.
Immediately, we are confronted with a thorny problem that simply will not go away throughout Vlach’s article. What is “national Israel?” Unfortunately, Vlach does not define this phrase anywhere in his article. I assume he means something like “a geo-political nation consisting of exclusively ethnic Jews.” But herein lies the problem. When the Bible, specifically the OT, uses terms like Israel, Jacob, and Judah, does it always mean a geo-political nation consisting of exclusively ethnic Jews? Genesis, the foundation of all the OT promises to Israel, dispels any notion of Israel as a geo-political nation consisting exclusively of ethnic Jews. Israel begins not as a nation but as a family. The family of Israel consists of both Jews and Gentiles within the twelve tribes themselves, as Joseph, who becomes the patriarch of two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, marries an Egyptian woman. This sets a pattern that recurs throughout the Old Testament, as Gentiles regularly become part of the family (and, later, nation, to use Vlach’s term, of Israel). This reality is seen most clearly in the line of Jesus Himself, which consists of the Gentile Rahab and the Moabitess Ruth. When Rahab converted, she became an Israelite. When Ruth converted, she became an Israelite. Were these women ethnically Jewish? No. Were they part of the nation of Israel? Yes. Therefore, the idea that “national Israel” is a nation composed exclusively of ethnic Jews is debunked in the OT itself.
With that foundation, Vlach’s point that the Bible does not eliminate the significance of ethnic Jews is well taken, though certainly it is not a point on which dispensationalists have a monopoly. Certain strands of Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Historic Premillennialism, as his quote from Ladd shows, have a place in their eschatological system for ethnic Jews. Unfortunately, until Vlach defines what he means by “national Israel” and validates his definition from Scripture, his first point must be disregarded as either being nonsensical, since the Bible does not know of a “national Israel” consisting exclusively of Jews, or irrelevant, since theologians from both dispensationalism and covenant theology recognize a place for ethnic Jews in their eschatological systems.
2. Isaiah 49 specifically predicts that the Servant and ultimate Israel, Jesus Christ, would restore the nation Israel and bring light to the nations.
An attempt to exegete Isaiah 49:3-6 would take an article in itself, so I will not attempt it here. I simply want to point out that the prophecy in Isaiah never states that Israel will be restored as a geo-political nation. The context of the passage is clearly the salvation brought by Jesus Christ. The raising up of the tribes of Jacob and the restoration of the preserved ones of Israel is a reference to God redeeming Israel from her sins. For the Servant of the LORD, to bring this great salvation only to ethnic Jews would be too slight, so God will make the Servant a light to the nations so that this great salvation reaches the ends of the earth. The point of the passage is therefore not to separate and divide “the nation Israel” from the Gentiles, but to show how both Jews and Gentiles will experience the same salvation from the Servant of the LORD. Any exegesis of this text must interpret the restoration of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles as a unity.
3. Jesus did not view His identity and ministry as the end of national Israel’s existence; instead, He affirmed national Israel’s place in the eschaton.
Because Vlach limits “national Israel” to ethnic Jews, he creates a problem the Scripture does not contain and therefore does not answer. Jesus did not view His identity and ministry as the end of Israel’s existence. He viewed His identity and ministry as the expansion of Israel to include a multitude of Gentiles. While several passages could be used to prove this point, I’ll simply mention one, John 10:16.
Jesus said, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (emphasis mine). At this point in the context of John, Jesus can only be referring to the Gentiles as the “sheep which are not of this fold.” The dispensational insistence on national Israel being a group of ethnic Jews exclusively cannot reckon with this text. Jesus does not say that He will call the other sheep and make them something other than part of the “one flock.” The sheep that were by and large outside the fold would soon be called into the fold and join the one flock of the people of God, which could have only referred to Israel to Jesus’ original audience. Israel’s identity is not annihilated by Jesus; it is expanded to include sheep from among the Gentiles.
4. Even after the church started the apostles affirmed a future for the nation Israel.
As with the first point, if all Vlach means is that the apostles affirmed a future for ethnic Jews, then many covenant theologians would have no quarrel with him. However, Vlach goes beyond this to mean that “the nation Israel” will exist apart from Gentiles as an exclusively Jewish political entity. This idea, however, goes against the entire tenor of not only Acts but the rest of the New Testament.
When the church started in the book of Acts, the Apostles did not see themselves as anything other than Israelites who had believed in the Messiah. They understood themselves to be the people who were following their ancient religion and practicing their faith according to the Scriptures. If the Apostles would have thought of themselves as something other than “Israel” as the church of Jesus Christ, one can only assume far less consternation would have occurred when the Gentiles began receiving the Holy Spirit. If the Gentiles who had believed were not considered to be part of Israel, why was there ever a debate about whether they should be circumcised? And, assuming the Judaizers simply had a poor ecclesiology, as dispensationalists must, why were the Judaizers not refuted with the simple, straightforward argument, “Gentiles do not need to be circumcised because they are not part of Israel; they’re part of the church!” The only reasonable conclusion is that the early church did not make the church/Israel distinction dispensationalists have made the cornerstone of their system. The entire point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as he refutes the Judaizers, is that Gentiles become full participants in God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his offspring through faith alone, so they do not need to be circumcised to become members of “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).
In Eph 2:14, Paul makes this point as clear as can be. The wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles is broken down in Christ. They are now one body in Him. But the dispensational insistence that the nation of Israel has a future distinct from the church attempts to rebuild the wall broken down by Christ’s cross. In this future Vlach posits, is the nation of Israel in Christ, or not? If they are not in Christ, how are they saved? By what Gospel? In whose name? And on what authority? If they are in Christ, why is there such a sharp distinction? Will Christ rebuild the wall He tore down by the very blood of His cross? Does He think so little of His own cross-work that the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Him is only meant to be a temporary blip in history?
Finally, Rev 1:6 states clearly that Christ “has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.” John is writing to churches filled with Gentiles. What else can he mean, if we are to interpret Revelation literally, except that the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles who have been released from their sins by the blood of Christ, is a kingdom, a nation of priests to God?
Vlach is absolutely correct that the apostles affirmed a future for Israel, rightly understood. It is a future in Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, but that includes them both. It is a future as a kingdom of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation, that is, Jews and Gentiles, bought by the blood of the Lamb. It is a future where Israel is what she was always meant to be: The uniting of a multitude of nations as the covenant people of the one, true, and living God, to give glory to His name through His Son, Jesus the Messiah, and to enjoy Him forever.
In conclusion, Vlach’s four conclusions are not persuasive reasons to adopt dispensationalism.