Braving Hard Passages: Baptism for the Dead

I have always taken comfort from the fact that if Peter could find some of Paul’s saying as hard (2 Peter 3:15-16), so can I. One hard saying in the Apostle Paul’s writing is his remark in 1 Cor. 15:29 regarding the baptism of the dead:

1Cor. 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

Two principles that are worth remembering when you come to hard texts are (1) we must always let Scripture interpret Scripture; and (2) do not form an entire doctrine from one obscure and difficult text. This second principle really flows from the first. No major doctrine in Scripture entirely hangs on one text. The beauty of Scripture’s unity is that the clear text interprets the less clear text, or at least keeps us from the misapplication of an unclear text.

First, we should consider the context of a passage unclear to us. For the Corinthian text, two contexts are worth noting: first, the near context of 1 Cor. 15, some in the church were denying the resurrection. Paul’s argument is to set them straight, there is a resurrection.

The other element of context worth remembering is the church of Corinth as a whole. If you read through the entire book you see that there was no small amount of problems in their doctrine, their unity, and their obedience. There was division and infighting over who followed Paul, Apollos, or Peter, and even competition over who baptized them. There was sexual immorality, improper activity at the Lord’s table, etc. This should lead us to think that if Paul is referencing some element of practice at the church, he is not necessarily endorsing it.

Finally, as we think through what baptism is, it is a sign and symbol of our union with Christ. Paul says in Romans:

Rom. 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Rom. 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

One possible interpretation then of “baptism for the dead” refers to a baptism for their own deadness in sin. “Why are you baptized as part of your death and your resurrection in Christ if Christ isn’t even raised from the dead?” This is possible but really is too much of an outside possibility. Gordon Fee even suggests traditional punctuation of the text could be reworked here (remember the punctuation isn’t inspired, First Corinthians, 766).  

In his commentary of First Corinthians, Gordon Fee suggests a few other options, including baptism being used metaphorically as martyrdom (First Corinthians, 765). He also suggests that it could be baptism for the ‘soon to be dead’ (766).

Anthony Thiselton surveys another possible option but concludes Paul is referring to normal experiences where someone dies and that leads to the conversion of a family member who is then baptized in a normal baptism. Thus, the dying of one person led another to convert and be baptized because they had hope and expectation of seeing them again (First Corinthians, 1248). This is a very attractive solution but it is tough to be confident that this is what is actually going on.

The phrases “on behalf of the dead hyper tōn nekrōn“ and “on their behalf hyper autōn“ really seem to have the sense of in place of, or on behalf of another. It seems to be some kind of vicarious baptism for other people. Baptism for the dead then is not for spiritual deadness but people being baptized for others who have already died.

I am persuaded by Manfred Branch’s interpretation. He argues that the plain reading of the text indicates that some Corinthian Christians were either being baptized for dead relatives or friends, or it was practiced for those who had converted by died before baptism was administered (Hard Sayings, 175). First, keep in mind, Corinth had a lot of problems with the ordinances as evidenced by the comments of Paul on the Lord’s Supper. Second, Paul does not affirm or rebuke this practice rather it seems part of his rhetorical argument, “why are you doing this, if you don’t believe in the resurrection?” Whatever they were doing, the force of Paul’s argument says “your actions are inconsistent. Yet your actions indicate your belief in a resurrection.”  I believe this rhetorical trap is more important in the scope of understanding all of 1 Cor. 15 even if I can’t be precisely sure who was being baptized and for whom they were baptized.

Two last pieces of advice for handling a hard passage:

  1. Don’t be afraid to read the commentaries. Sometimes they have a better understanding of hard passages than we do because of their expertise. That being said, Fee concludes “But finally we must admit that we simply do not know” (767).
  2. Do not be afraid to say we do not entirely know. We can come close to an answer. If you’re teaching the passage, illustrate what you think are the strongest options. Maybe explain why you think it is a particular option but acknowledge good evangelical brethren can reasonably disagree because it is a verse that is not as clear as we like. Do not be dogmatic in your view and do not turn it into a major doctrine.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


Manfred Branch, Hard Saying of Paul (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1989).

Gordon Fee The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

Antony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000).

Witnesses: A Meditation on the Passion

The pivot of history is the life of Jesus Christ; the capstone is His resurrection. To take His resurrection seriously we need good witnesses to His death. Some opponents claim that Jesus’ followers fabricated the resurrection out of wishful thinking. Others claim that Jesus didn’t really die, particularly Muslims.

Jesus’ Followers: Oddly, the disciples were among the missing, gripped by despair and fear – real fear, not mere paranoia. They met in secret, doors locked, since they were the next likely target (John 20:19).

 “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So said two despairing disciples, reflecting on what might have been (Luke 24:21-23).

It is psychologically unbelievable that His followers cooked up a plot. They were beyond hope – whipped, exhausted by fear and despair. They hadn’t listened closely enough to Jesus’ teaching![i]

The Centurion: He was the first to acknowledge something unusual about Jesus’ death, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.” He couldn’t have explained the theology, but spoke more than he knew. (Matthew 27:54)[ii]

Creation: “And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (v. 51) Jewish and Roman sources independently confirm that the temple shook and a lintel collapsed. They set the date at 40 years before its destruction in 70 AD. In the Bible, earthquakes often accompanied special activity by God (Exodus 19:18, Isaiah 6:4).

God Himself: Historians add that the bronze gates of the inner court opened of their own accord. God welcoming His people? Once inside, access to His inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, was now possible through the curtain, torn at Christ’s sacrifice.

Righteous Dead: The earthquake unleashed a crowd of human witnesses. The tombs opened and many holy people came to life, entering Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection.  The population must have found it unnerving! You didn’t know whom you might meet! Those once-dead witnesses testified that Death’s power was exhausted (vv. 52-53).

Soldiers: Not dead? Ha! Roman soldiers knew their business. They thrust a spear through His lungs to His heart. He truly died that Friday (John 19:34).

Joseph and Nicodemus: Jewish law required that an executed man be buried before sundown. Jesus’ Galilean family had no tomb in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, John 19:38-39).

So wealthy friends buried him.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph…. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him (vv.57-60).

Joseph and Nicodemus were rulers on the Sanhedrin council. Joseph’s discipleship was secret, reason unknown. But something changed! They brought lavish provision for the burial of Jesus’ body, surely not expecting resurrection. Like other followers, they hadn’t listened.

Jewish Leaders: Even dead, the Jewish authorities were afraid of Him, lest Jesus’ disciples steal the body and spin a story. So they went to Pilate, the Roman governor, a Gentile ‘dog’. That alone is amazing! Religious Jews went to see a Gentile, defiling themselves, on the highest of holy days, Passover! But I suppose, once you’ve broken the Mosaic Law earlier, you might as well break it again in the evening (v.62).

They tell Pilate. “Sir, we remember” – His disciples forgot; they remembered –  “how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’” So we need ‘to be sure to be sure’ that He stayed buried or “the last fraud will be worse than the first” (vv. 62-65).[iii]

They asked Pilate for a seal on the entrance and a guard posted for three days. “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go; make it as secure as you can.’” (v. 65)

The Women: “And Joseph… rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” (vv. 59-61) Those who ministered to Jesus during His lifetime, again stood ready. Knowing exactly where to go, they bought spices for anointing dead bodies. But again, there was an earthquake. The stone was rolled back. Jesus was missing. They believed someone had move His body (Mark 16:1, John 20:2, 13-15).

The Guards: So much for careful planning! When the angel appeared, the guards trembled in terror and became “like dead men.” The seal was broken. One wonders how much the Jewish leaders paid out in bribes to keep that secret – unsuccessfully (Matthew 28:12-15).

His enemies were chagrined, their plan counter-productive. The resurrection is all the more credible because the tomb had been under the watchful eye of Roman soldiers. We’re grateful they did that!

All these witnesses are God’s joyous shout of vindication, His great “Amen!” to the work of Christ. The plan of salvation was accomplished!

This good Man put to death by bad people did us a world of good. So that dreadful day becomes for us the happiest day! The idea of resurrection took time to sink in. When He first appeared, the disciples were frightened, then incredulous! But the power of the resurrection sent them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:37-43).

Jesus Christ’s resurrection was the ‘firstfruits’, a promise more convincing than once-dead people wandering around Jerusalem. Those people died again, but He did not and we will not (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)!

Now, when God asks us, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” we have an answer. We point to Jesus, crucified, dead and buried – raised on the third day.

Many will answer, “I lived a good life. I gave to charity. I was in church regularly.” How pointless, unless I can say with Paul, “The Son of God… loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20b).

Thanks be to God!

This is based on a message called “After the Passion.” from the audio set TRINITY: The Two Natures of Christ. Though this text is from Matthew, the set largely addresses Hebrews 2, delivered by Liam Goligher, Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia PA, in early 2017.

He is also the host of the broadcast No Falling Word on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals site. They have produced two sets of his TRINITY messages. “The Highlights of the Trinity Debate” page includes the blogs he wrote, which set ablaze a wide-spread discussion of the Trinity, beginning in June 2016, and is ongoing.

[i] Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:22, 18:33-34, John 2:19-21

[ii]  This message was derived from Matthew 27:32-66. Any verse-only references are from this passage. All other Scripture references will specify the book of the Bible and chapter.

[iii] Matthew 12:40, 26:61; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34; John 2:19-21

Braving Hard Passages: Hard Passages to Holiness

Words hardly do justice to the experience of preaching and teaching God’s word. Irony is the blanket from which the preacher cannot free himself. After all, the hope of glory is Christ in you (Col. 1:27), but those in whom Christ resides are, by themselves, corrupt, polluted, wayward, deaf and blind (Isaiah 35:5; 42:6-7, 16-17; Rom. 3:1-9; Rev. 3:17). This is how God describes people—even his people in whom he resides, because his residence does not eradicate all sin during our lives. Broken hardly does justice to this condition. Viciously, deceitfully, relentlessly opposed in our self-assured sincerity is more like it. When considering the topic of “hard passages” we might do well to adjust the angle from which we look.

One is reminded of Abraham Heschel’s statement: “Rather than blame things for being obscure, we should blame ourselves for being biased and prisoners of self-induced repetitiveness.”[1] From this perspective, every passage in God’s word is hard to read, understand, preach and hear. There are only hard passages because living the Christian life is a hard passage.

Jesus spoke this way. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard leading to life, and few are those finding it.” (Matt. 7:14). Then he coupled that with warning us against false prophets. Hmmm. Part of the difficulty of the path leading to life is that it is populated by those who handle God’s word so that it seems easy—easily understood, easily accessible, easily adored, easily acted upon. Sincerity with a smile is their stock in trade. They are allergic to conflict of any kind. They hyperventilate when a debate breaks out regarding the interpretation of any passage of Scripture. All controversies are immediately swept aside by appealing to the simple gospel. Billions die and go to hell, why we debate . . .     

Everything the Word made flesh is against and abolishing is what I am, what we his covenant people are, in and by ourselves. No wonder Paul’s words, “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” is set within the context of suffering. Yet we in America live in a culture in pursuit of the avoidance of suffering that thereby inflicts and enflames suffering, and often unknowingly. Heschel was correct: What “horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world.”[2] Sort of raises the question as to how comfortable one can become in such a world.

Yet we must live in this creation. God brought it into existence, placed us in it; our lives are an extension of it. He subjected it and us to futility, to bondage to sin and its consequences. Still he is rescuing his creation and his covenant people from this death through his Word and Spirit. These are not mere ideas upon which to intellectually dwell, or implement for social and political improvement, but chiefly and intensely personal realities determined, governed and actualized by the personal Triune God. He has revealed himself supremely in his Son. The Word became flesh and lived an earthly life for more than three decades in order to destroy the works of the devil (1John 3:8). No wonder he was described as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. We have no record of him ever smiling or laughing. That’s not inconsequential.   

That God’s word became flesh highlights what takes place when we read the written text of Scripture—we engage with the resurrected and reigning Lord Jesus. God’s written word is no mere written text. It describes itself as living and active. Our exegesis—reading the text to discern its meaning—involves us in a titanic struggle to submit to Jesus. Among other things, it means we never depart from reading Scripture unchanged or failing to act. Either we are at work being conformed into the image of God’s Son, or being conformed to the world. Sin is either being rooted out of us, or we are being reinforced in our sin. We dare not presume that we can easily discern which is happening at any given time. To those who had vast portions of the Old Testament memorized, but who were constantly arguing with Jesus, the question was asked: “Have you not read?” (Mt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31). 

God’s word tells us that conformity to the image of God’s Son means we cry, “Abba, Father” in the midst of a life of suffering to become like him (Romans 8:12-17). The written text of God’s word through the work of God the Holy Spirit is the primary means through which we experience sanctifying sufferings. The passages are hard because the passage is hard that is the highway of holiness. But the Good Shepherd walks with us through this valley of the shadow of death, and we do not remain unchanged.  

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

[1]Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (NY, NY: HarperCollins, 1962; reprint Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), x.

[2]Ibid, 3.

William Cowper – “A Stricken Deer”

1773 didn’t start well for William Cowper. In spite of seemingly comfortable circumstances, he felt pressured by both hurtful local gossip and well-meaning friendly advice into making a decision he was just not able to make.  

            He had been lodging with a pious family, the Unwins, for almost ten years, sharing with them joys and sorrows, including the unexpected deadly accident of Rev. Unwin. Recently, a friend of the family, Rev. John Newton, had invited Mrs. Unwin and her daughter Susanna to live next-door to him in Olney. He had extended the invitation to Cowper, who was for the Unwins like a son.

            Newton and Cowper found a great affinity of minds and souls. Cowper’s poetic talent and theological understanding provided fresh inspiration to Newton’s ministry. Together, the two men produced a large number of hymns to sing at prayer meetings – a collection today known as the Olney Hymns. Cowper was to Newton a trusted friend, and accompanied him to meetings and on regular visits to parishioners.

            Most recently, he had been wrestling with some trying circumstances. The sudden death of his beloved brother John, financial pressures due to John’s unresolved debts, and the death of two cousins had weighed heavily on Cowper’s frail mind.

A Troubled Life

He had always been a sensitive child. Born on 15 November 1731 in Hertfordshire, England, he had experienced sorrow and death from an early age – from the infant deaths of five siblings to the decease of his mother Ann, who died while giving birth to John (the only other child who survived). Cowper was six at that time. About fifty years later, he immortalized his mother in a heart-felt poem, “On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture.”

            Cowper continued his life without the person who had given him most comfort. His father, Reverend John Cowper, sent him to a school in Bedfordshire, 30 miles from home, where a 15-year old bully made him afraid to even raise his eyes in the boy’s presence. Later, the prestigious Westminster School in London, he watched a teacher suffer at the hands of bullies. In spite of this intimidating climate, he did well in his studies and created meaningful friendships.

            Cowper’s father directed him to study law – a path William disliked and felt unsuited to pursue. His first experiences in the legal field confirmed his feelings. His only consolation was his love for his cousin Theadora, which she returned. The relation continued for three years, until her father barred the financially unstable Cowper from marrying her.

            Moved by Theadora’s tears, her father found a suitable occupation for Cowper. By that time, however, Cowper had been suffering from persistent feelings of depression which blinded him to opportunities and convinced him they were presented to him to cause his failure. When a jealous opponent challenged his credentials, Cowper couldn’t take the pressure and entertained thoughts of suicide.

            He bought a half-ounce of laudanum, a tincture of opium, but couldn’t bring himself to swallow it. He thought of drowning himself. When an attempt to stab himself with a penknife failed (the blade broke), he hanged himself with a garter. This method didn’t work either, because the garter snapped just as William was losing consciousness. A friend found him as he had collapsed on his bed. This was the end of William’s career and any chance to marry Theadora.

            This experience was followed by greater depression, aggravated by fears of spiritual damnation. He found some relief in the sermons of a cousin, Rev. Martin Madan, who preached God’s free grace to sinners. At night, however, the terrors returned, so much that his family and friends suggested a hospitalization at St. Albans, a sanitorium. He stayed there for over a year, fluctuating from moments of utter despair (with at least one new suicide attempt) to great delight in the promises of the gospel which friends and even his doctor kept reminding him.

            When he left the sanitorium in 1765, friends and family committed to support him financially so he could live as a gentleman. It was around this time that he moved in with the Unwins.

A Mysterious Way

What tipped Cowper’s fragile balance at the start of 1773 might have been the people’s gossips about a love relationship between him and Mrs. Unwin. As long as Susanna Unwin lived with her mother, the situation looked respectable, but when she became engaged, the prospects of having an unmarried man living alone with an attractive widow seemed scandalous to many.

            Newton recommended that Cowper marry Mrs. Unwin, but Cowper and Theadora had promised each other never to marry anyone else, and to keep the promise secret. For this reason, he could neither marry Mrs. Unwin, nor explain why.

            There might have been other reasons for Cowper’s renewed bout of depression. In any case, on 1 January 1773 he felt the oncoming of a crisis similar to what he had experienced ten years earlier, including the urge to take his own life. He picked up his pen and wrote one of the greatest poetic reminders of God’s sovereign grace – the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.


Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.[1]

            During the night, Cowper was afflicted by dreams and hallucinations. He thought God was commanding him to put an end to his life. John Newton, who rushed to Cowper’s side when Mrs. Unwin called him, spared us the details of that painful night, mentioning only “an affecting and critical dispensation”[2] [which in those days meant “a distribution of blood,” probably from wounds Cowper had inflicted himself].

            Newton’s diary over the next month is a testimony of the gravity of Cowper’s condition. A few days later, Newton witnessed another “affecting scene” at Cowper’s side. “I have now devoted myself and time as much as possible to attend on Mr. Cowper,” he wrote on January 5. “We walked today and probably shall daily. I shall now have little leisure but for such things as indispensably require attention.”[3]

            In spite of Cowper’s distrust of his own salvation, Newton never doubted it for a moment. He was just “astonished and grieved” by the pain his friend was suffering. “My dear friend still walks in darkness,” he wrote. “I can hardly conceive that anyone in a state of grace and favor with God can be in greater distress.”[4]

            On Cowper’s request, Newton took him back into his home for thirteen months, where he reminded him daily of God’s faithfulness. When he finally returned to his home, Cowper devoted himself to quiet pursuits such as writing, gardening, carpentry, drawing, and caring for three young hares he celebrated in verse and prose as Puss, Tiney, and Bess.

            A few of his poems revealed his anguish (particularly his 1774 “Hatred and Vengeance, my Eternal Portion”). Many, however, were just expressions of a simple life and renewed attention to ordinary things: a cat who was mistakenly closed inside a drawer and – more famously – a poem in six books inspired by a sofa. The latter (“The Task”) moved from the origins of the sofa to a description of his life of retirement and the local village, a commentary on contemporary England, a denunciation of slavery, and an exhortation to turn to Christ. Cowper gives this exhortation as “a stricken deer that left the herd” and was stricken by arrows, until Christ found him, “who had Himself       been hurt by the archers.”[5]

            Whatever other people may have thought of Cowper’s permanence at Mrs. Urwin’s home, she became his caretaker, while he swung from feelings of gratitude to delusional beliefs that she hated him and was trying to poison his food.

            After his 1773 attack, Cowper never went back to church, but Newton didn’t give up on his friend. When Cowper died in April 1800, Newton preached at his funeral from Exodus 3:2-3, saying, “He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed.  And why?  Because the Lord was there.”[6]

[3] Ibid., 5 January

[4] Ibid., 23 January

Braving Hard Passages: I John 5:6

We have all had moments in conversation when we did not understand someone, and anyone who reads the Bible comes across texts they do not initially comprehend. Sometimes a person or passage uses words that are simple enough, but we wonder, “what do you mean”? The best thing to do, it would seem, is to ask.

If you open your Bible to 1 John 5:6 – and please, do – you find a passage with simple enough words, but you may wonder, as many others have, to what they refer. Since the apostle John is not available to take aside and ask what he meant when he said Jesus “came by water and blood,” how can one “ask”? Well, we can ask the Divine author for help, and that’s exactly where we should start – and please, do. Now, how might He answer? Below is an example of how one might proceed.

The first thing is to make sure I “heard” what was said. I can ask John to “repeat” by slowing myself down, reading, re-reading, and then reading again. And I read as deep as possible. I compare different translations, and if I can access the original Greek, then I do that (though a faithful translation should suffice in this case, as with so many).

Chances are, I have an initial hunch or two, but I consult commentaries as I ponder, and, if I’m truly wise, I ask a friend, my spouse, an elder, or another pastor. This is as natural as asking fellow students after class, “what do you think the teacher meant by that?” Others both help and complicate matters as they ask questions I didn’t think to, suggest new lines of inquiry, propose answers, and sometimes even correct my initial hunches.

Along with repeated re-reading, I make sure to know the surrounding context. Sometimes we walk into a conversation part-way, and are lost, but would not feel so lost if we had been there from the beginning. Reading through 1 John, I find many references to Jesus’ coming, and even the author presenting himself as an eye-witness of that coming from the outset (1:1-4). The verses immediately following our text (5:6) add “the Spirit” to “water and blood” as three sources of testimony to Jesus’ coming. So I want an explanation that connects all three.

Having searched John’s letter, is there anything else he wrote? Turns out he also wrote the Gospel of John, a full eye-witness account of Jesus’ coming. This is great, because now I can ask where, if anywhere, in his account Jesus “comes by water and blood.” Turns out John’s Gospel, as all four Gospels, begins with Jesus’ baptism in water and ends with Jesus’ bloody death (before his rising again). Comparing John to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a unique detail is blood and water coming from Jesus’ side after the soldier’s pierce it with a spear (John 19:34)!

These are exciting findings, but still, what is the significance of Jesus’ coming “in water and blood”? And how does it tie in with “the Spirit”? To reach a conclusion, I shouldn’t stop with 1 John or John’s other writings, I should also keep in mind everything written by the Divine author. How are water, blood, and Spirit generally coordinated in Scripture?

Water and blood both feature in the Old Testament sacrifices as cleansing elements (e.g., Leviticus 16). The Spirit is the agent of a final, great cleansing, and his washing is portrayed in the image of water (Ezekiel 36:25, cf. John 3:5). Blood cleanses sin because it means loss of life, and death atones for sin. Does this fit with 1 John and John’s Gospel? Absolutely. John presents Jesus as the One who provides the cleansing the Spirit performs. He is baptized as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and the one who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:29-34). He is the fulfillment of all the preceding animal sacrifices, dying once for all in our place for sin, and then sending the Spirit to wash us clean. With an explanation that makes sense in the context of 1 John, John’s other writings, and the Bible as a whole, the conversation can move happily forward.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.

City of Joy

The theme of joy in Scripture finds its focus in the joy of knowing God as our God and Saviour. As we seek his glory (as opposed to our own) we experience a joy that is utterly different from all the joys of earth combined. Nevertheless, amazingly, this joy can be found and experienced on earth.

The Israelites knew all about this. In fact they wove it into their anthology of worship in the Book of Psalms in words that have been used by God’s people down through the ages. Anticipating the joy of going up to meet with God in Jerusalem, the pilgrims would sing, ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”’ (Ps 122.1).

This psalm belongs to the group of psalms known as the ‘Songs of Ascent’. Psalms God’s people would sing as they travelled to Jerusalem for the great feasts and festivals of the Old Testament calendar. They were community psalms. They expressed the sentiments of shared experiences of life generally, but in the shared experience of God’s great salvation. In this third ‘pilgrim psalm’ the singers express the joy bound up uniquely with meeting with God in his city.

Even though they knew the ‘joys of life’ each day in their homes and with the communities from which they came, the joy located in the city of God had a quality all of its own. But in what did that mean in real terms? – Clearly it was not merely the thrill of a tourist seeing the city of Jerusalem for the first time, or even returning to it for another year. There was much more to it and the wording of the psalm helps us understand what this entailed.

At the most basic level it was the fact that Jerusalem was God’s city. Even though it was recognised to be the city of David, the capital he established for Israel, it was far more. The fact that in the lyric of the second verse of the psalm, the singers address the city as if it were a person, ‘O Jerusalem’, signals that this is no ordinary city. This detail picks up on many other references in the psalms and elsewhere in Scripture that identify the city in relation to God and not just to Israel or its kings.

Often it is identified as ‘Zion’ – a name it already had prior to its first being captured by David from the Jebusites (2Sa 5.7). It was later used to refer to the city itself, sometimes more specifically to the Temple area, but also to the city as an earthly symbol of the eternal city of God. However, the Sons of Korah, in a psalm about the security of God’s people, speak of it as ‘the city of God, the holy place where God dwells…God is within her’ (Ps 46.4-5). The one thing that set this city apart and made it a joyful refuge was the fact it symbolised God’s earthly dwelling with the temple as its epicentre.

The Jerusalem temple is in ruins; but the true temple still remains. Paul identifies the church as God’s new temple in which he dwells by his Spirit. Not in the sense of a physical building; but, as Peter says, all those who have come to Christ as ‘the living Stone’ through union with him become ‘like living stones [who are] being built into a spiritual house [or temple of the Spirit]’ (1Pe 2.4-5). So the joy of Jewish believers as they went up to their beloved city is taken to a whole new level for Christian believers as they gather for worship as the church.

Psalm 122 develops this insight further in terms of the character of Jerusalem as being, ‘built like a city that is closely compacted together’ (122.3). It is possible that this simply makes the observation, as any present day visitor to the Old Quarter of Jerusalem will know, that its streets were narrow and its houses tightly packed. But it could also be a vivid reference to its being a close-knit community – ‘bound firmly together’, as it can also be translated. This seems to be echoed in the prayer for peace and prosperity that comes later in the psalm.

Why should this be a cause for rejoicing? Because its opposites – disunity and dysfunction: the hallmarks of a fallen race – are the cause of sorrow. So, again as we see this feeding through into New Testament teaching about the church, we appreciate why it emphasises not only the church as God’s community; but especially on the need to preserve its unity.

Once more in the flow of the psalm we are given a glimpse of how God safeguards the unity of his people. It is by strong and stable government: ‘There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David’ (122.5). The life of the church is enfolded under the righteous rule of its great King – another reason for rejoicing.

Even though in the psalmist’s day the throne of David was in mind, the psalm makes it clear there was actually a higher throne in view. The pilgrims were to go up to Jerusalem, not to praise their current king, but ‘the name of the LORD’ (122.4). So it is to the LORD, their eternal King, that they address their prayers (122.6-7).

The LORD and King of Israel is the same LORD and King who appeared in flesh and lived among us (Jn 1.14). He is the ultimate source of the peace [shalom] we need more than anything and to him we joyfully come as we gather in his name each Lord’s Day. We hear his word, we sing his praise, we enjoy the fellowship of his people and we savour the sacraments of his love.

The climax of this Old Testament psalm is actually found in the New Testament, in a letter addressed to Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. To them (and to Christians of all ethnic backgrounds) the writer says, ‘You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem…’ (He 12.22-24). The joy of faithful Jewish pilgrims, in the shadowlands of Old Testament times, is eclipsed by the inexpressible joy of those who live on this side of Calvary. We see clearly what they only saw dimly. In the light of New Testament teaching we realise that when the church gathers in the name of Christ, through the power of the Spirit it is the earthly high point of our communion with the triune God and nothing less than a foretaste of heaven. So, as we set out on our ‘pilgrimage’ to church each Sunday, we should surely be singing, ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go unto the house of the Lord!”’ We are heading for the City of Joy.

Braving Hard Passages Podcast

Every pastor has encountered them.  Every member of the congregation has wondered after reading the title of the sermon and the accompanying text, “I wonder what he is going to say about this text?” Let’s face it some texts are difficult and when a preacher preaches through a book, well, he has no choice but to face them head on – and members of the congregation have to hear them!  So, today Jonathan and James will visit with Liam Goligher on the topic of braving hard passages.

What would you say about preaching through Song of Solomon? Should young pastors early in their ministry start teaching through difficult texts? Liam says, “Yes!”, and he has some good reasons why! Jonathan and James found out that Liam does not shy away from preaching through difficult passages of Scripture. Liam is the senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church and the voice of No Falling Word, a ministry of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He’s also known for his teaching series on the Trinity.

In fact, just for listening we are giving away Liam’s, “Trinity: The Eternally Divine Son.”  Just go to to get your copy!

Eternal Generation: Who Would Deny it?

While attending an academic conference this past year I went to a dinner with some friends and other conference attendees.  The conversation around the table was spirited, wide ranging and a lot of fun. At one point, the conversation turned to the eternal generation of the Son. In the midst of the discussion a man I had not met before said something to this effect, “I love Warfield but I just can’t understand why he rejected eternal generation.” His statement was not entirely accurate and in keeping with the mental sparring going on at our table I told him so. He did not agree.

Well, the conference is over and my table companions are all gone home. So, let me do some shadow boxing. Let me pose the question to my readers. Did Warfield reject the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son? Now, I have not changed my mind since the conference. So, the answer is no. Warfield did not reject the eternal generation of the Son.  But why would someone think that he had?

The answer can be traced to an article he wrote for the Princeton Theological Review in 1909 titled, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity.” In that article Warfield deals with Calvin’s seeming hesitations regarding the doctrine of eternal generation.  However, they are only “seeming hesitations” because a close reading of the article yields some concrete findings. For example, according to Warfield, Calvin did not reject the doctrine of eternal generation.  In fact, says Warfield, “We have just seen that Calvin explicitly teaches the ‘eternal generation’ of the Son…. It manifestly was a matter of fixed belief with him.”[1] But if Calvin affirmed the eternal generation of the Son, then what was the problem?  

Calvin’s problem was not with the doctrine of eternal generation per se so much as how “it was expounded by the Nicene Fathers.”[2] In other words, the fact of eternal generation as taught in the Nicene Creed was, for Calvin, not in dispute but the Nicene Father’s explanation of the fact was.[3]

The problem?

How can there be “a perpetual movement of the divine essence from the first Person to the second, always complete, never completed”?[4] Calvin seems to have found “this conception difficult, if not meaningless.”[5] To put it another way, how can there be a continuous act of generating when the three Persons have existed from eternity?

Consequently, Calvin argues for two axiomatic points. First, he argues that we ought to believe in and affirm the doctrine of eternal generation without trying to speculate on its nature. Second, not only must we affirm the eternal generation of the Person of the Son but we must also affirm the Son’s aseity as to his essence. To put it another way, if the Son (not to mention the Spirit) is of the same essence as the Father, then he is autotheos or God of Himself, that is to say there is a stress on the equality of the Persons sharing in the same essence. To these points, Warfield spoke emphatically,

In particular, it fell to Calvin, in the interests of the true Deity of Christ—the constant motive of the whole body of Trinitarian thought—to reassert and make good the attribute of self-existence (autotheotos) for the Son. Thus Calvin takes his place, alongside of Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine, as one of the chief contributors to the exact and vital statement of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God.[6]

In addition Calvin made two striking points; first, he argued that to deny the quality of aseity to the Son or the Spirit would make them creatures of the Father. However, it’s the second of Warfield’s assertions regarding Calvin that is most interesting. Warfield argues that Calvin was far from novel on this point. In fact, he even quoted the Nicene Fathers themselves as asserting it “in so many words.”[7] So, does Warfield deny eternal generation? Not any more than Calvin.


Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Warfield, Benjamin B., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 248.

[2] Ibid., 247.

[3] Ibid., 251.

[4] Ibid., 247.

[6] Warfield, Benjamin. B. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: vol. 2, Biblical Doctrines (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 171.

[7] Warfield, vol. 5.583.

Eternal Generation: A Confession of Historical Significance

The Presbyterian tradition has had a history of doctrinal slippage. This does not make the various Presbyterian denominations unique. Pretty much all theological traditions within Christendom have fumbled the theological ball at some point in history. This fact does not excuse the church from holding firmly to the faith once for all given to the saints. Nor does it justify a que sera, sera or whatever will be, will be attitude. Latitudinarianism and biblical orthodoxy make for uncomfortable bedfellows.

Maintaining biblical and theological orthodoxy, while at the same time recognizing that there is room for greater nuance and precision in many instances in doctrinal formulations, involves constant vigilance. One doctrine that has recently come in for questioning is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. Over the years there has been discussion as to whether John Calvin affirmed the teaching and theologians fall out on either side on that question. Our concern here is with the substance of the doctrine and how it was briefly yet clearly affirmed in one of the most significant confessions of Protestant Christianity. Of course, I am referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith. In WCF 2.3 (chapter two, paragraph or section 3), we find a brief reference to this essential doctrine:

3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Take note of the italicized portion of this portion of the WCF. Eternal begottenness is another way of naming eternal generation. What this paragraph is detailing are the properties that are unique to each person of the Triune Godhead. These brief descriptions get to the heart of what distinguishes the Father from the Son from the Spirit. While affirming the unity of the Godhead (the doctrine of divine simplicity, etc), the Westminster divines are here affirming that the Father is, as such, unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.

As we think about this phraseology, let’s remember that language about God is what theologians call analogical. Our knowledge is analogical of divine knowledge and our existence is analogical of divine existence. This affirms that our existence, language, and knowledge is similar to and reflective of God’s being, language, and knowledge while at the same time denying identity between divine and human existence, language, and knowledge.

Having said that, these descriptions are grounded in Scripture and the actions of God in the history of salvation give us some indication of what he is like in himself. However, this revelation is not exhaustive of who God is. But it is true. God’s revelation of himself (in history, nature, and Scripture) is true but non-comprehensive.

The WCFs affirmation of eternal generation allows us to distinguish between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Godhead while recognizing each and all are the whole God. God is not like a pie that can be divided into three slices. Specifically, we are saying that what distinguishes the Son from the Father and the Spirit is that he is eternally begotten or generated from the Father. That is, he is the Son and as divine his generation has no beginning or end. Unlike human generation there is no beginning in time nor is there an end to the birthing process.

If we deny eternal generation then we have nothing to say as to what differentiates the three persons of the Triune Godhead. The eternal generation of the Son is his own unique property that distinguishes him from the Father and the Spirit without undermining the reality of divinity simplicity (the doctrine that God is not made up of more basic parts like a brick wall which is made up many bricks and mortar in between the bricks which bricks and mortar can and do exist apart from the brick wall). The Father cannot be the Father without it having always been the case that the Son is the Son and the Spirit is the Spirit.

If we subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith we really ought to be familiar with what it says and be honest with ourselves and our churches if we disagree with such a basic tenet of the Christian faith.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Eternal Generation: Another Reason to Worship our God

            In 1650 amidst the rise of Socinianism in England, Francis Cheynell, a prominent Westminster Divine, wrote an apologetic of orthodox Trinitarianism, entitled The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[1] This work stood out as clear exposition of both biblical and historically orthodox Trinitarian theology.

            Most notable, Cheynell grounded the doctrine of Eternal Generation in the idea of God’s simplicity. This was as notable as it was surprising because of the Socinian’s understanding of God’s oneness, which caused them to deny the eternal generation of the Son. “The Socinians tell us, they cannot believe that the Father did beget a Son of his own substance, because God is eternal and unchangeable; the single essence of God is indivisible, and being most singularly one is incommunicable; part of the divine essence could not be communicated (they say) to the Son, because the essence is impartible, indivisible…”[2]

            But Cheynell rightly understood that the historic doctrine of simplicity (with its more complex nuances) undercuts (the simplicity of) mere oneness.[3] For Cheynell, it was divine simplicity that gave support to the idea of three eternal Persons, who in relationship to one another, were in essence one God. He asks us to compare John 10 verse 30 with verse 37, where Jesus says “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30) and then goes on to say that “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not” (John 10:37).

            Cheynell remarks that from these verses we can conclude “that Christ hath the same divine nature and Godhead with the Father; they both have the same divine and essential Titles and Attributes, and perform the same inward operations in reference to all Creatures whatsoever; and therefore [the Ancient Church Fathers] did farther infer that they had reason to use the word consubstantial… Christ doth lay claim to all that is natural, to all that belongs to the Father as God, [but] not to any thing which belongs to to him as the Father, as the first person of the blessed Trinity.[4]

            But in keeping with the doctrine of simplicity, Cheynell makes the point that just “as truth is not goodness, nor goodness truth, nor either of them unity, and yet all three are entity, so too the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Father, nor is either of them the Holy Spirit, and yet all three are God.”[5]

            In our own day, James Dolezal has posited the same point when he writes that “if [Divine] simplicity and its unique requirements are denied, any number of compositional models of divine unity might adequately explain how the one God subsists as three distinct persons. And it is not apparent that a compositional model of divine unity must necessarily be monotheistic rather than tritheistic.”[6]

            And indeed, this is what Cheynell wants to argue, but he does so in an interesting move. The angle from which he addresses the eternal generation of the Son from the Father is that, in light of God’s immutable and simple essence, the eternal begetting of a Son is a truth which magnifies the glory of God in all his simplicity.

            He writes, “If God had been the Father of men and Father of Angels only, and not the Father of our Lord Jesus, he would not have been so exceeding glorious as he now is; for Angels have but a finite excellency. But when he begets a Son equal to himself, without any change in himself, and the begetting of this glorious Person is as eternal as the divine nature itself, this mystery is exceeding glorious and admirable, and like the Godhead incomprehensible… Behold how the Godhead shines gloriously not only in one single Person, but in Father and Son both, by this manner of subsistence; that every tongue may confess Jesus Christ to be God and Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[7] For Cheynell, eternal generation is part and parcel of why we worship and glorify God.

            In seeking to unpack even further the connection between simplicity and eternal generation Cheynell writes that “the essence of God is spiritual (John 4:24), and therefore the Son is not begotten of the Father’s seed, or any material substance, because God is a single and pure Act, who doth beget a Son within himself, essentially one with Himself, and therefore his Son doth not subsist out of himself (John 14:10; John 10:30), for an infinite nature cannot be poured forth beyond itself.”[8]

            Chad Van Dixhoorn understands Cheynell here to be arguing that “the will of the Father did not precede and produce the Godhead in the Son… In other words, the divinity of the Son is ‘native’ to the doctrine of the Trinity; there was no decision, no decree that initiates the Son into the fulness of the Triune being.”[9]

            And yet Cheynell is careful to distinguish between the Father and Son. Even though “Scripture saith that the Father and the Son are one, and that all three Persons are one…” Cheynell expresses the truth that “God doth make himself known to us in a way most suitable to our weak apprehensions [and that] we must needs apprehend that there is a Divine relation between the eternal Father and his coeternal Son, and conclude that these two are distinguished from, and in a well qualified sense opposed to one another with a mere relative opposition, for there can be no contrary opposition between the Persons. This Relative and friendly opposition assures us that the Father is not the Son, and that the Father did not beget himself, but did beget his Son.”[10]

            These distinctions arise out of each person’s relations: the Father subsisting in Himself as unbegotten, the Son eternally subsisting as uniquely begotten of the Father, and the Spirit as uniquely spirated from both Father and Son.

            And yet, in God’s simplicity, the Father’s begetting also points to who God is in Himself as Triune! “Eternal Generation points at a personal property considered after the manner of a vital Act. But then as this personal property and relation doth not differ really from the divine essence, so too this personal power of begetting doth not differ really from the Essential Power, because God doth beget a Son in the unity of his own divine essence.”[11]

            So much so is Cheynell jealous to uphold the unity and simplicity of the Triune God that he says, “If you were to ask ‘Where was God before the world was made?’ I answer, that he was then, just where he is now, in himself. If you ask where the Father was, I answer, in the Son; if you ask where the Son was, I answer, in the Father. If you ask where the Spirit was, I answer, he was both in the Father and the Son, and they both in Him. God was in all three persons, and all three persons in the Godhead, and in one another, and so they do, and will remain to all eternity.”[12]

            For Francis Cheynell, this glorious mystery of God’s Triunity, held in biblical balance by his unity and simplicity, is what should undergird our worship of God.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] The full title being, “The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The blessed Doctrine of the three Coessential subsistents in the eternall Godhead without any confusion or division of the distinct Subsistences, or multiplication of the most single and entire Godhead, acknowledged, beleeved, and adored by Christians, in opposition to Pagans, Jewes, Mahumetans, blasphemous and Antichristian Hereticks, who say they are Christians, but are not.”

[2] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 190.

[3] Herman Bavinck writes that “The oneness of God does not only consist in a unity of singularity, however, but also in a unity of simplicity. The fact of the matter is that Scripture, to denote the fullness of the life of God, uses not only adjectives but also substantives: it tells us not only that God is truthful, righteous, living, illuminating, loving, and wise, but also that he is the truth, righteousness, life, light, love, and wisdom (Jer. 10:10; 23:6; John 1:4-5, 9; 14:6; 1 Cor. 1:30; 1 John 1:5; 4:8). Hence, on account of its absolute perfection, every attribute of God is identical with his essence.” Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation vol 2, pg. 173.

[4] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 26-27.

[5] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 106.

[6] Dolezal, All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, 105.

[7] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 55-56.

[8] ibid. 195. He continues, “There can be no essential change in the Son by this generation, because the generation is eternal, and the nature which is communicated by generation is unchangeable; the Father did unchangeably beget his Son, and his Son is unchangeably begotten. There is no shadow of changing or turning either in the Father of lights, or the Son of righteousness, because they are one and the same unchanging Jehovah (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6).

[9] Chad Van Dixhoorn, “Post-Reformation Trinitarian Perspectives” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, 198.

[10] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 102. And yet, says Cheynell, “God did not beget another God, for the Power of God is not, nay cannot be, exercised about anything repugnant to the Nature of God, and nothing is more repugnant to the Godhead then a plurality of Gods. Therefore, we must conclude, that the Father and Son are one and the same God. Now we are come to the Mystery which faith must receive and reason admire.”