© Copyright 2020, Steve Sabin. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Episode 3: Submergence
It’s Tuesday night, marking our acolyte’s third encounter with Thiely. There’s now a recurring appointment on Jordan’s iphone for the weekly Bible study at a trendy place called Midtown Brewmasters. Last week the group covered T, U, I, and P. This week, Thiely has put curriculum together covering “L” and a few other topics. Jordan has just parked and made his way inside.
Jordan, our acolyte, is in italics. Thiely and the others are in bold.
[Thiely] Jordan – you’re early!
What can I say? I’m a quick study. Learned my lesson last week and gave myself enough time to circle the block until something opened up. Snagged a spot 20 feet from the front door.
[Thiely] Sweet! I’m two blocks away.
[Peter] I’m three.
[Andre] I’m three as well, but in the parking garage – $5 an hour.
[Jake] Took a cab.
[X-man] I’m about like Jordan – pole position, just a few doors down.
[Thiely] Let’s place our order and get this party started. You want to start Jordan?
I’m ready. Last week’s sampler dial me in: Pipewrench Stout.
(The others place their orders and grab their Bibles. X-man and Thiely are old school and have black study bibles. The others reach for tablets and phones, including Jordan who’s brough his iPad.)
[X-man] Guys – I’ve been thinking. This group needs a name. What about “The B&B Bros”?
[X-man] Bible & Brews.
[Jake] Not feeling it guys. Sounds too much like airBnB. What about just BB Bros?
(a few shrugs)
[Thiely] Not bad.
[Andre] Sorry. Not a fan. Too much like the BeeGees.
[Thiely] Jordan – your thoughts?
I think we’re spending WAY too much time on this!
(laughter from everyone)
What about the six-forty-four bros?
[X-man] Totally not following you, dude.
You know – John 6:44? Last week’s homework?
[Jake] I’m diggin’ it. But what about just the six-forty-fours?
[Peter] Doesn’t suck. But keep the bros.
[Andre] Yup. Keep the bros.
[X-man] Still like B&B Bros.
[Thiely] You’ll get over it X-man. You get to keep your bros, but the B&B gets the axe. The Six-Forty-Four bros. Going once? Going twice? GONE. Here’s to the six-forty-four bros.
(Thiely raises his mug in a toast, and they all respond in kind)
[Thiely] Peter, can you open us in prayer?
[Peter] We thank you Lord for bringing us all here – safely and on time. We love Your word. We love Your ways. We thank You for making us Your children and opening Your word – that Your thoughts might become our thoughts. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear. In Your name, A-men.
[Thiely] So guys, I think the best way to dive into tonight’s topic is to read Matthew 1:21. Jordan, can I ask you to do that?
Sure. Give me a minute. Matthew 1:21. Here it is. Hey – are your sure I’m in the right place? This looks like the Christmas story.
[Thiely] Yup. I’m sure. What does it say?
“She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
[Thiely] Whose people?
[Peter] HIS people.
[Thiely] All people?
[Andre] No. HIS people.
Sorry guys – not following you.
[Thiely] Jordan, a very common mistake many Christians make is that they believe Christ died for EVERYONE.
Well, isn’t that the case? I mean, I may not be all that fluent in the scriptures yet, but even I know John 3:16. You know – WHOSOEVER believes. I thought whosoever means – you know – everyone.
[Thiely] Yes, but think back to what we covered last week.
Well, T, U, I, and P. Right?
[Thiely] That’s right. But spell them out fully and let’s remind ourselves how they interrelate.
[X-man] T: Total Depravity.
[Thiely] and Total _____?
[Andre] U: Unconditional Election.
[Peter] I: Irresistible Grace.
[Jake] P: Perseverance of the Elect.
[Thiely] Or Preservation of the Elect. Same idea. And how do these relate? Pop quiz time Jordan.
Well, because we are totally depraved, we are dead in our sin and trespasses. And because dead means dead, we are totally unable to respond to the gospel.
[Thiely] So far so good.
And because we cannot respond, God must choose us, not vice-versa. He did this from the foundation of the world, which means He elected us before we were even born, which in turn means unconditional election.
[Thiely] Exactly. What’s next?
Irresistible grace. If we are unconditionally elected, then we WILL respond to the grace He extends, and we WILL become saved. It can be no other way, because He has sovereignly decreed it – from the foundation of the world.
[Thiely] Which means?
That the elect will persevere. They’ll be preserved and will not – no wait – CANNOT backslide. It can be no other way if they are unconditionally predestined, elected, appointed – whatever.
[Thiely] Exactly. But we usually say “elected.” Now, here’s the last building block of God’s plan: WHO died to save the elect?
[Thiely] And if ONLY the elect are saved, did He die for everyone – or only the elect? In other words, did He spill His blood for those that would reject it, or those that would receive it?
I’m still struggling here guys. I’m not sure that I’m making the connection.
[Peter] Let me ask it this way: If Christ does an atoning work, is it limited in its sufficiency?
No – of course not. His blood and His death covers all of our sin – not just part of it.
[Peter] So if it is limited in some way, it cannot be that it is insufficient to save the non-elect.
Agreed. I’m not questioning whether it is sufficient. I’m just not sure why it has to be limited in some way.
[Thiely] Because that’s what the scripture tell us. You just read it. Read it again.
OK. Just a sec. My device locked. OK, here it is. “She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
[Thiely] Whose people?
[Thiely] Yes. HIS people. And are the non-elect HIS people?
Well, no. I guess not.
[Thiely] Are you starting to see how it fits now? How scripture actually spells it out for us once we have eyes to see?
Sort of. But I thought God loved everyone. That He sent His Son to die for everyone. What am I missing?
[X-man] Tell you what, bro. Can you see how this fits with TULIP?
Well, yes. I can see logically how it fits, but it just seems to be so contrary to almost every sermon I’ve ever heard. I thought Christ died for everyone – that God loved everyone.
[Thiely] God DOES love everyone. It’s just that He loves the elect DIFFERENTLY than He loves the non-elect. We can say with confidence – because scripture says it – that God IS love. The book of first John makes it very clear. But it doesn’t say that He loves everyone THE SAME. Remember that fellow I quoted last week?
Yeah. John, uh, something-or-other?
[Thiely] Yes – John Piper. And I had a feeling this question would come up tonight, so I also brought my tablet and opened it to his website. Here’s how he answers that exact question: “Does God love the non-elect?”
“Now, the problem arises when folks go beyond Scripture and infer (and here Piper gives a list of six different passages from both Old and New Testaments) that God, because of his love for all people, cannot and does not elect SOME to everlasting life, but ALL.
In other words, they infer that since he loves all, he must love all in the same way — that he cannot choose to love some in a more focused, electing, redeeming, adopting, eternal way. But it seems to me that’s exactly what the Scriptures teach.
He does have a different love — an electing love, a saving love — for some and not all. This is totally owing to the abundance of his grace, since nobody deserves it.”
Are you starting to see how it fits now? How scripture actually spells it out for us once we have eyes to see and have carefully trained ourselves what to look for? Most people blow completely past these distinctions because they are students of what they want to see in scripture – not students of what is actually there. Remember: SOLA SCRIPTURA.
Man, I’m just thunderstruck guys. It does all make sense, and everything fits like pieces of a puzzle, but why do so many people miss this? How did *I* miss it?
[Andre] Like I said last week, bro. Hidden in plain sight.
[Thiely] But as much as most of us love John Piper’s teaching, at the end of the day he’s just a teacher and he’s fallible. And if there’s one thing this group is about – what our Reformed theology is about – it’s SOLA SCRIPTURA so let’s look at a few more verses that make this clear. Someone turn to Matt 20:28. Someone else to Matt 26:28. And still someone else to John 10:11
[Jake] Matthew 20:28 says “even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
[Thiely] Do you see it? He gave his life as a ransom for MANY – not ALL.
[Peter] Matthew 26:28 says “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Yeah – there it is again. “Many” – not “all”.
[X-man] John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
[Thiely] Different word here, but same concept. He laid down his life for WHO?
[Thiely] Precisely. The sheep. Not the goats.
So Christ didn’t die for everyone. That’s where the “L” comes from – LIMITED Atonement.
[Thiely] Yes. Can you see now how Reformed theology is so true to scripture? And how the Five Solas are just as applicable today as they were 500 years ago?
Guys, I have to confess. I know I’m reading the same Bible here as I have for the last year – but it isn’t the same Bible. Everything – I mean EVERYTHING – looks different.
[Thiely] Well, the good news is that about 30% of protestant churches embrace Reformed theology. So you’re in good company. 70% of protestants see something very different than you do when they read the Bible. Sadly, it’s because very few of them are as serious about the scriptures as their Reformed counterparts.
I can really see you guys are serious about this stuff. Are all Reformed believers like you guys?
[Peter] Well, as the oldest of the six-forty-fours…
[X-man] Six-forty-four BROS. Don’t forget the bros.
(belly laughs all around)
[Peter] Well, as the oldest of the six-forty-four BROS, I’ve been around this stuff since I was just a child. I actually grew up in a Presbyterian church. And yeah, most people in Reformed denominations are pretty serious about these doctrines – as well we should be. I’m not sure how many study quite as diligently as us six-forty-fours…
(X-man gives him the evil eye)
[Peter] …as us six-forty-four BROS…
(more belly laughs)
[Peter] …but I can tell you that the doctrines are front and center in almost all Reformed congregations. You’ll find them clearly spelled out in our statements of faith and they are discussed at length in our teachings, writings, and sermons. So yeah – we’re all very serious about this stuff.
[Thiely] Jordan, there’s more to it than just TULIP. In fact, TULIP doesn’t mean much to many people and instead of using that acrostic like insider language, we tend to call it more formally the “Doctrines of Grace” because – at its heart – it’s all about grace. TULIP is just a convenient way to remember those doctrines. What separates us from many others outside Reformed theology is that we don’t water down grace.
Water it down?
[Thiely] Yes, water it down. We are Christ-centered. Christ does it ALL. HE elects us. HE resurrects us so that we can respond to the gospel. HE gives us everything we need for salvation: the grace, the faith, the substitutionary atonement for our sins, the assurance that we WILL persevere to the end. Others make it an unscriptural mix of God PLUS man. It isn’t all about God any longer. It doesn’t give God His proper place as the author and finisher of our faith. In the non-Reformed world, it works very differently: YOU choose God. YOU demonstrate faith – and that faith originates in YOU. Christ died for YOU even if you are non-elect and His death is somehow not strong enough to save YOU. YOU can resist God by refusing Him, thus thwarting His purposes. And YOU can take credit for accepting HIM and YOU can take credit for persevering to the end. Do you see how wrong the non-Reformed have gotten it? In their world, Christ does SOME of it – not ALL of it.
Well, when you put it like that, it’s pretty much a full 180-degrees out of sync with the “doctrines of grace” and there seems to be an awful lot of man instead of 100% Christ.
[Thiely] It isn’t that the non-Reformed aren’t saved. Nobody – well, at least very few – would go that far. But they rob God of His sovereignty. They shift it from being completely Christ-centered to this strange amalgam of God and man. Remember our Five Solas – our Five “Alones”?
Yeah – they’re becoming second nature to me: Scripture alone is our highest authority. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and we live for the glory of God alone.
[Thiely] I’m impressed! Have you been studying?
I was really intrigued after our first meeting in the lunchroom and started Googling some stuff. Five Solas, mostly. I figured the TULIP stuff would be covered in our six-forty-four st… I mean six-forty-four BROS study.
[X-man] And don’t you forget it!
[Jake] Give it a REST dude!
(Jake slugs him playfully; everyone laughs)
[Thiely] I get to cheat. I just look at my bicep.
I’m seriously likin’ that tattoo, Thiely. Gonna have to get me one a those…
[Thiely] This design is trademarked, bro. Don’t get any ideas.
(everyone laughs and the forgotten beers around the table are suddenly rediscovered)
OK. Maybe a barbed wire braid instead of Celtic braid.
[Thiely] OK – in all seriousness guys, I want to circle back to our “L” and make sure we don’t leave anything ambiguous dangling out there.
[Andre] What do you mean?
[Thiely] I mean Peter started down this path that I’d like to complete. When we talk about Limited Atonement, we aren’t saying that Christ’s work on the cross was somehow limited in terms of sufficiency. That there’s something man also needs to do, or that it doesn’t cover any and every sin the elect might commit. I want to make sure we’re crystal clear on exactly what is limited.
How about limited in terms of the recipients?
[Thiely] Very good.
[Peter] Or limited in terms of the beneficiaries?
[Thiely] Even better.
[Andre] Or maybe think of it as definite atonement. Instead of applying to everyone, it applies to only a definite classification of people.
[Thiely] Yes. In fact, some people prefer to say “definite” atonement rather than limited. It has more positive connotations and is less likely to elicit an auto-immune response from those not versed in the doctrines of grace.
[Jake] Or how about particular atonement. It is only available to particular people – not everyone?
[Thiely] Same idea, and some people prefer “particular” to both “definite” and “limited”. We have to be precise with our words, and “particular” is an excellent choice that is again, less provocative than “limited”. People instinctively get up in arms when language suggests “insufficient” and I think “limited” carries some of those connotations. Regardless, “limited” is the most frequently used because it allows us to maintain the memory aid of our TULIP acrostic. Significant efforts have been made by many in the Reformed denominations over the years to ensure that our language is absolutely faithful to scripture, but sometimes the way people interpret words like “all” or “any” or “every” can be far outside of scripture’s actual intention. So we have to be very careful in how we use words and what they actually mean. I have found it best to define words very carefully before I start talking to people about scripture.
[X-man] Ditto that, Thiely. I’ve also heard it said – by John Piper, come to think of it – that Christ’s atonement was limited because it only purchased irresistible grace for some people – not all people.
[Thiely] Piper makes an excellent point. I love the way he unpacks all this stuff so carefully. Jordan, I really need to introduce you to his teaching. Anyway, all of you guys are correct. But maybe the easiest way to remember what “limited” applies to is WHO. WHO is atonement limited to?
The elect. Only the elect.
[Thiely] That’s the magic word: the ELECT. In fact, you’ll find that for many of the scriptures we study, when they use words like “all” “any” “everyone” “sheep” “whosoever” and the like – these can usually be better understood by substituting the word “elect”.
Good to know. Thanks for that tip.
[Thiely] So, guys, it’s 8:30 and we always try to keep this to 90 minutes. I know all of us have pretty early mornings and I don’t think any of us will be lingering tonight. Jordan, how about you close us in prayer tonight?
I’d love to…
Father, I’m so grateful for this group of brothers. For the way You’ve led me here and opened the scriptures to me in an entirely new way. I thank You that Your word is truth, and that it fits together like a puzzle. Thank you for answering my prayer and helping Your word make sense to me. I thank You that You chose me – elected me – from the foundation of the world – and my brothers as well. I ask You to bless them and keep them during this coming week. Watch between us and keep us in Your care until we see each other next. A-men.
Our acolyte is well beyond just knowing the doctrines of grace now. He has internalized them and in the process he’s had to overcome some reservations. How can we truthfully say that God loves everyone if He didn’t die for everyone? What does “whosoever” mean in terms of the ability to respond to the gospel? The Atonement?
He’s asking exactly the right questions, but he’s trusting his teachers more than he’s relying on the Word of God. He has accepted the idea that God loves people differently not because the scriptures support it, but because TULIP demands it. And to fulfill those demands, scriptures supporting it must be carefully curated while those refuting it must be avoided with equal care for now – until the roots have gone even deeper.
At this point, SOLA SCRIPTURA is being fully reinforced – but more in appearance than in actuality. Admittedly, the men come to the study armed with nothing but their Bibles, but we’re now seeing the very heavy influence of TULIP whenever a problematic issue presents itself. Answers to every question must now resort first to TULIP, and only then to scripture. Indeed, TULIP has become the primary point at which scriptural reconciliation must occur rather than simply scripture with scripture. And when really tough issues need to be surmounted, Thiely is training the six-forty-fours, by his actions, that resorting to a favorite teacher – in essence to a commentary on the scriptures rather than to the scriptures themselves – is an acceptable avenue of first resort. Later, when the scriptures are consulted, it is primarily to reinforce the teacher’s perspective rather than seeing what the rest of the scriptures have to say on the matter.
Almost imperceptibly but steadily, our acolyte is learning by example how the Bible is to be understood and where to go when questions arise. Not to the Holy Spirit. Not to the Bible itself – but instead to the refuge of likeminded people. In other words, to an echo chamber.
Another thing we see introduced in this episode is a commendable zeal to keep things Christ-centered and to give glory to God alone. Our acolyte has been told in no uncertain terms that only Monergism (Reformed theology) adequately ensures God’s sovereignty and enthrones Him as the sole author and finisher of our faith. He has accepted, at face value, the demands that Monergism has placed on ensuring this rather than carefully examining what God Himself has to say about such matters. In short, his field of vision is currently constrained to only the first half of Proverbs 18:17: “The first to plead his case seems right.” In time, our acolyte will discover the hard truth contained in the rest of this proverb: “until another comes and examines him.”
But before that can happen, Jordan must descend far deeper into the rabbit hole to see what is at the bottom and whether the answers his newfound theology provides are satisfactory.
Or, if those answers – like King Belshazzar in the book of Daniel – will be weighed in the scales and found deficient.