A few weeks ago I made a post on the platform formerly known as “Twitter.” It was a simple post, affirming the crucial doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).
PSA teaches that on the cross, in mercy and grace, the Lord Jesus Christ acted as our substitute by taking upon Himself the penalty we owed due to our sins and paying it in full so that we could be set completely free from all our guilt and God could shower upon us the riches He planned for us in Christ.
This, of course, has been an extremely precious doctrine for countless Christians down through the centuries, so naturally Satan hates it and works ceaselessly to spread confusion, error, and even outrage concerning it. And that is exactly what I encounter when I affirm it on social media.
Usually, the pushback I receive is so typical as to be downright boring: everything from baseless claims that PSA is nowhere to be found in Scripture to false charges that it is a recent invention to rabid attacks that PSA is satanic.
But this time it was different.
This time I heard an argument I don’t recall hearing before. Someone alleged that God’s “wrath” has a very specific meaning in Scripture. He claimed it always refers to God “letting go,“ “removing His protection,” and “leaving sinners to face full-force the evil they have chosen.”
That’s it. That’s all he thinks God’s wrath is. For him, that’s its definition. As far as he’s concerned, there is no more to the wrath of God than that. No inflicting of specific punishment; nothing that might lead to the traditional biblical doctrine of hell. He speaks of sin as simply a disease-a metaphor Scripture itself uses, but an incomplete one since Scripture doesn’t stop there-and God’s wrath is limited to not curing it.
Of course, he’s basing this on his personal understanding of Paul’s description in Romans 1:18-32 of the results of suppressing the truth about God in unrighteousness that especially characterizes the pagan world. Tragically, as our own world becomes progressively more pagan, we’re seeing more and more of this today.
But where did he get the idea that he could pick out one passage of Scripture out of all the ones that talk about God’s wrath-and there are plenty (Ex 22:23-24; 32:10; Job 20:28-29; Ps 2:12; 78:31, 62; 95:11; 106:23; Is 63:3, 6; Jer 10:10; Ez 13:13; 22:20; 38:19; Hos 13;11; Rom 12:19; Rev 14:10)!-and base his definition of it entirely on it?
DÃ©jÃ vu all over again.
This argument sounded strangely familiar to me and for good reason. It’s virtually identical to the method Bill Gothard uses to define “grace.”
According to Gothard, “Grace is the desire and power to do God’s will.” This is one of the first things attendees of Gothard’s Basic Seminar learn. It’s found on page 6 of the seminar textbook.
As we pointed out in our book, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, Gothard uses this homemade definition to deliberately undermine the historic evangelical Christian definition of grace as “unmerited favor” (or a bit more precisely: “demerited favor;” cf. Rom 11:6; Eph 2:8-9; 2 Tim 1:9).
There are numerous problems with this definition. For starters, it describes something that is essentially virtuous: the desire and power to do God’s will. Obviously, this is a desire and power we need to have in order to be good Christians. They are, properly speaking, virtues, and in order to be of any use or relevance they need to be in us.
It only takes a moment to see an immense problem with this definition once we impose it on a text such as, “For by grace you have been saved” in Ephesians 2:8. If you replace “grace” here with the virtues of “the desire and power to do God’s will,” the text reads very differently: “For by the desire and power to do God’s will you have been saved.” And this is made all the worse when it’s realized that this Gothardite “translation” means that we are actually saved by virtues we possess!
Gothard’s definition of grace makes Paul teach a different Gospel!
And what text of Scripture does Gothard base this definition of “grace” on? Oddly enough, the Scripture reference he gives in his textbook is Philippians 2:13: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (ESV). That verse does not claim to define “grace” and nowhere in the immediate context of that verse does Paul even mention “grace,” so it’s difficult to understand how he concluded Paul was supplying its definition from that text.
All Christians agree that the desire and power to do God’s will is one of the things God gives us in His grace. So, in that sense, we all consider those things a part of grace. But they do not define grace. Grace itself is a much, much bigger, and more fundamental concept.
So, how do people make these errors and how have they become so common?
A logical error
When we think of any text of Scripture that describes something God gives us in His grace, we can think of it as “a part of grace.” And when we think of any Scripture that describes something God does in His wrath, we can think of it as “a part of wrath.”
Problems arise, however, when we assume that what is true of a part is also true of the whole. This is known as a “fallacy of composition.” The illustration given in Wikipedia is helpful; it goes as follows: “This tire is made of rubber; therefore, the vehicle of which it is a part is also made of rubber.”
Likewise, it is a fallacy of composition to say, “The grace that God gives us to enable us to please Him is the desire and power to do His will; therefore, all of the grace is is the desire and power to do His will.”
And it’s also a fallacy of composition to say, “The wrath that God shows to those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness consists of handing them over to greater sins; therefore, all of God’s wrath consists of handing sinners over to greater sins.”
This is one way these false views become so common: critical thinking has been inadequately-even rarely-taught by our schools or churches in recent generations. So, fallacies like this have become increasingly common.
A linguistic fallacy.
The logical fallacy I just described leads to a linguistic fallacy. In his book, Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson calls this the “unwarranted restriction of the semantic field” (Baker Academic, 2nd edition, page 57). This is a fancy way of saying that this fallacy ignores the wider meaning of a word, as well as the various shades of meaning it has in common usage. In the cases I’ve considered here, it does this by opting for a kind of technical meaning that’s not found in Bible dictionaries or Greek or Hebrew lexicons-because you won’t find the peculiar definitions of “wrath” or “grace” that I describe above in any of those reference works. They are artificially manufactured “technical terms” that often no one outside their authors’ little group is even aware of. And your first clue that this is what’s going on is found simply by consulting the standard reference works I just listed.
Description is not definition.
To take this subject down from the high shelf and use what may prove to be a handier rule of thumb: description is not definition. The random Twitter dude who insisted that Paul’s description of one aspect of God’s wrath constitutes its definition was violating this rule. I’m sure he still is. So also has Bill Gothard for more than a half-century.
Descriptions are not definitions. Biblical words already had meanings before the biblical authors used them and it’s absurd to think they gave them an entirely different meaning without telling anyone. So, the proper procedure for understanding biblical words is to consult the linguistic reference works that God has graciously given us. Sometimes words are used in interesting ways in various contexts. We know this happens in English, and it also happened in Hebrew and Greek. But these languages have been studied for centuries now and if you’re using a standard reference work, you should be able to find those unique shades of meaning being mentioned.
A few years ago I came across a video of a local pastor trying to explain grace and he gave his own definition, which came from Titus 2:11-12:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age. (NIV)
He was employing the same basic method Gothard uses to define this word, but basing it on a different Scripture and coming us with his own unique meaning. He said, “grace” is defined as that which teaches us to say “No” to sin and “Yes” to God. That, he said, was its definition. So that, for him, is what grace is: a teacher of righteousness.
What is so bizarre about this method for defining grace is that it overlooks so many other texts that seem to be more useful in arriving at its basic meaning, such as when Paul wrote:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9, 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. [Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV]
Why focus on one solitary text that contains the word “grace” when there are so many others that when taken together provide a much fuller picture? Any method that relies on a single verse to create a definition of an important biblical term is automatically suspect.
The same applies to defining the Biblical meaning of God’s wrath. Why should we limit ourselves to Romans 1:18-31 when we also have texts like this one?:
…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, (2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9, ESV)
True, Paul doesn’t actually use the word “wrath” anywhere in 2 Thessalonians, but he warned about it three times in 1 Thessalonians (1:10; 2:16; 5:19) and I dare anyone to come up with a more pertinent description of what he meant in those verses. I think it’s obvious the Thessalonians understood the connection.
The problem with the definitions of “grace” that both this pastor and Gothard have erroneously concocted from their misreadings of Scripture is that they both lead inevitably to a relationship with God based on works. When getting more grace is defined solely in terms of getting what you need to do better works, the most foundational aspects of grace are left out: mercy, redemption, forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, adoption as God’s children, eternal life-all the blessings that Christ bought and paid for on the cross. To leave these out and focus on works is to leave out Christ Himself!
And the problem with a definition of “God’s wrath” that limits it to simply letting sinners go their own way and stumble into greater sins is that it fails to present the authentic biblical “bad news” that serves as the dark and fearful backdrop to the Good News of the Gospel. The more you diminish the threats of God’s law against sinners, the more you diminish the riches of God’s grace for believers.
So, avoid itinerant seminar salesmen and random self-authorized social media sophists who somehow know more than all the Hebrew and Greek scholars who came before them. Words are the currency-the medium of exchange-of ideas, and when it comes to accessible scholarly reference works and learning opportunities, we have an embarrassment of riches like no generation before us. Accept no substitutes. Take no shortcuts. Whether we properly understand and communicate the Gospel depends on how much we properly understand and use the words of Scripture that reveal it to us.Î©
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