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Sin is Complicated: A Review of Plantinga’s Book on the Doctrine of Sin

Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. 202 pp. $13.99.

A Captivating and Balanced Perspective

There is a reason why Cornelius Plantinga’s treatment of the doctrine of sin has, after more than a decade since it won Christianity Today‘s Book of the Year Award back in 98, continued to be a standard book in college and seminary classrooms. Using vivid imagery, ample illustrations that captivate the reader, balanced perspective and witty logic, all within a Christian worldview, Plantinga’s treatment of the subject of sin is as entertaining as it is enlightening. One finds it easy to agree with the author’s opinion that the subject of sin needs “constant sharpening” due to a widespread dumbing-down of the notion in contemporary culture. In popular magazines, for example, over indulging in food, as in a “Peanut Butter Binge” or “Chocolate Challenge,” is considered sinful while “lying is not” (x).

“Know Thyself,” said Socrates – Even Christians—many who have a biblical awareness of the doctrine of the fall and even total depravity—tend to be more aware that they are desperate sinners in need of God’s grace than they are of their own particular sin-chemistry and how it might be working itself out in various areas of their own lives. We Christians all too often mistake our abstract theological understanding of sin in general for knowledge of the particular forms that nature takes in our day to day lives and the lives of loved ones; like a pastor who finds his escape from the pressures of family responsibilities in long hours of preparation for a sermon series on sin. Christians tend to have more expertise when it comes to dealing with the sins of their unbelieving culture than in knowing their own sin chemistry and how best to overcome it; like a Christian lawyer who becomes so critical of the corruptions in the legal field that she becomes vulnerable to apathy and irritability which in turn takes a toll on her marriage.

The author helps all to see the contours of that most deceitful and often most subtle enemy that reaps destruction without giving a news flash that it has come and gone, leaving the sinner hung out to dry. Therefore, just about anyone will benefit from reading Plantinga’s breviary of sin. Unbelievers will be likely to get a smack in the face as the reality of sin becomes unavoidably clearer with every chapter. Believers will benefit, among other ways, by recognizing the sins Plantinga so vividly describes in their own lives with every new lens the author uses to sharpen our vision from a different angle.

Note: Although Plantiga’s approach is to treat sin from a different angle in each chapter, I will only comment on three of his chapters: chapters 1, 2, and 8. His ten “angles” which correspond to the ten chapters are as follows: 1) Sin as Vandalism of Shalom, 2) Sin as Spiritual Hygiene and Corruption, 3) Sin as Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration, 4) Sin as The Progress of Corruption, 5) Sin as a Parasite, 6) Sin as a Masquerade, 7) Sin as Folly, 8) Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction, 9) Sin as Attack, 10) Sin as Flight [from God and fellow man].

Sin as Vandalism of Shalom: Why it gatta be like diss?

With his pithy maxim, “God is for shalom and therefore against sin,” Plantinga manages at once to be both simple yet profound (14). This is the basic idea of his first chapter and rightly so. It is the perfect place to start. Unless one is able to recognize that God is not a kill-joy; that he is not out to make rules against sin arbitrarily, but that he actually has the good of his entire creation in mind—how will one properly appreciate the motives for divine imperatives? To understand God’s motives behind his rigid imperatives is to better identify with his more ultimate concern. This axiom may be the most profound statement in Plantinga’s entire book.

Perhaps this truism is profound precisely because it is thoroughly biblical. The principle is made glaringly obvious when Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Salvation is described as “eternal life” not “eternal obedience,” because obedience gives true life while sin destroys it (Jn 3:16; 10:10). Although following Jesus may involve hardship and self-discipline, he appeals to his listeners by tapping into their desire for finding true fulfillment in life (Lk 17:33; Jn 4:10). By highlighting that God is against sin because he is for shalom, the author speaks to the ultimate concern of every human being for having a complete, whole, and fulfilling life. Individuals, as well as societies, all have the ultimate desire to enjoy life to the fullest. Shalom, as the author defines it, includes this fullest sense of life. Desire for this shalom should fuel evangelism because evangelism is the catalyst for shalom. The spread of the gospel begins the process of restoring all of creation back to its maker (2 Cor 5:12-20). The ultimate future for all believers is a restored creation (Isa 2:2-4; 11:1-9; 32:14-20; 42:1-12; 60; 65:17-25; Joel 2:24-29; 3:17-18) and one is to understand that this new creation has already begun in those who are reconciled, for they are reconciled to become an agent of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).

Because this element of the doctrine of sin is so often underscored in Scripture, every pastor should make constant appeal to the desire of the congregation to have abundant individual and communal life, to establish peace in their communities so far as they can, to play a role in the restoring of God’s creation to its proper ends. Comprehending the shalomic state as the chief and proper end that most glorifies God also makes it easier for one to trust and obey the God who gives life as a reward for such obedience (Rom 2:6-11). This careful clarification about the nature of sin—it is vandalism to the shalom that all humans crave—strikes at the heart of human motivation and is a mighty weapon for mobilizing laity for just about any just cause.

Sin as Corruption: Spiritual AIDS

Defining corruption as “an unhappy cluster of spiritual perversion, pollution, and disintegration,” the author appropriately describes the process of corruption as something similar to the process of the AIDS virus, a “progressive attack on our spiritual immune system that eventually breaks it down and opens the way for hordes of opportunistic sins” (33). In keeping with his thought in the previous chapter, Plantinga also recognizes that these corruptions make life “progressively more miserable” so that the very sin of corruption, as St. Augustine once put it, “‘becomes the punishment of sin'” (33). Certainly this is the biblical teaching. God gives sinners over to their sin as punishment (Rom 1:24-28). The “great law of returns” (68-72) promises that sin will reap destruction (Gal 6:7). General revelation quickly yields specific cases in which one sin or set of sins leads to many more vices—like a spiral of death—and these vices in turn produce various undesired side effects (cf. 130, 134).

The author also gives satisfying attention to the inward nature of sin. The opposite of corruption is “spiritual hygiene” defined as “wholeness of spirit” that fits “the universal design” (34). Basic to such hygiene is internal longing for such hygiene (34). The ideal person, though she may fluctuate in her passion levels for holiness and go through dry spells, “longs to long again” during her wait in the wilderness (34). Furthermore, such a person overflows with gratitude and “passed-on-kindness” (35). Coming to grips with the emotional nature of spiritual hygiene helps one to see that “sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing.”[1]

If this is true, mortal combat with the “diseased root” (33) will involve first and foremost a battle for the affections. If, as Plantinga suggests, sanctification is the cure for corruption, then true gospel ministry must primarily target the human heart in preaching, counseling, small groups, and all other means to life transformation. Holiness must not be thought of primarily in terms of “dos and don’ts,” as though holiness is to be equated with action. Rather, both mortification and sanctification must focus on the human heart above all else. Given the great law of returns and the nature of sin as spiritual AIDS, sin should be presented in the church as something awful and destructive. Testimonies should underscore this aspect of sin; the preacher should look for examples of drastic consequences in the local newspaper; counselors should look for ways to present a horrible picture of the alternative to faithfulness; Christians in general should not be afraid to “scare” people about sin, since such a scare would be appropriate to the nature of sin itself and consistent with the biblical language about sin and its consequences.

Sin as a Tragedy of Addiction: Goin’ for what you Know

The densest of all Plantinga’s chapters has to be the chapter on Addiction. Within the span of about twenty pages, Plantinga tackles some of the toughest questions while critiquing some of the most prevalent thought about addiction (129-149). The category of addiction is certainly biblical. Deacons are not to be “addicted” to much wine, for example. The offered definition of addiction as “a complex…attachment to a substance or behavior in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood” seems fair enough (130). However, the author seeks to wrestle with the more practical questions about the nature of culpability in relation to addiction. He concludes that one oversimplifies the nature of addiction by thinking of it as either “simple sin” or “inculpable disease” because of the actual complexity of the interplay between external influences and internal culpability. This contention does justice to the complexity of reality and is therefore worthy of acceptance (140). On the other hand, the author certainly takes this principle too far when he suggests that a depressed person who slides into substance abuse may not be culpable for her addiction (144).[2] Certainly external circumstances may reduce the degree of culpability, but they do not erase culpability.

With that caveat, certainly Plantinga is right to think of addiction as not merely a moral malevolence but also a true tragedy. Thinking of it this way greatly promotes pastoral compassion in the local church for those suffering with addictions. As the author himself points out, as a result of this paradigm, “We therefore want to accuse him and also to sympathize with him” (140, emphasis mine). Addiction should be presented in the local church with sensitivity to the suffering of the addicted, the complexity of the causes and degrees of addiction, as well as the culpability of the addict. Furthermore, where possible, pastors should seek to remove the addict from environments and circumstances that tend to feed the addiction.


The reader of Not the Way its Supposed to Be will come away from this book with a greater appreciation for the complexity of questions revolving around the nature of culpability as well as a keener ability to discern the subtlety of sin and how it might easily get a foothold in one’s life while in stealth mode. The preacher will find plenty of juicy illustrations for sermons on sin. All in all, Plantinga’s writing style and taste for relevant questions and interesting illustrations make his book the best I have ever read on the subject.


[1] Paul David Tripp, Instruments In the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2002), 67.

[2] Here the author seems to assume that depression is a mere physical evil, not a spiritual one, for he says: “Cases of intrauterine addiction, for example, belong in the former category, as do any other chemical or process addictions innocently contracted…. Perhaps some addictions in these cases qualify as physical evils rather than as moral evils” (44).

The Heart is the Target: A Review of Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemers Hands

The Heart is the Target

Although there are many mini-principles that flow out of Tripp’s paradigm, there are a few meta-principles that guide his book. The most important of these meta-principles, and perhaps the principle that all the other principles in his book are intended to carry out is the principle of the centrality of the heart to life-transformation. Tripp believes that the heart of the matter is the heart and that the heart matters more than anything else. He continually drives home that the goal of counseling is heart change. This primary principle can be seen from several angles in his book. Tripp adopts a distinctively Edwardsian view of the heart, for he sees it as a fount of competing desires (79-80). It includes the entire scope of the inner person—spirit, soul, mind, will, and emotions (59).

Tripp’s Language About Worship Underscores A Heart-Centered Approach

Tripp’s language about worship is an attempt to underscore the centrality of the heart in any pursuit of holiness and sanctification. Everyone has certain objects she values more than anything else in life and around which she orders her life; therefore, everyone is a worshipper at heart (44). Since worship is inescapable, the real question is: What will we worship—God’s glory or some “pseudo glory” (98)? Because worship of God is the aim, “The Heart Is The Target” (57). The primary battle in spiritual warfare, for Tripp, is the battle over the human heart (4). Heart-worship directs behavior and is the principle element in motivation (58). The author not only sees the heart as central to the pursuit of holiness but also to the nature of sin. “Sin is much more than doing the wrong thing. It begins with loving, worshipping, and serving the wrong thing” (67). Because the heart is like the steering wheel and gas pedal of a car, directing it where to go and supplying the power to get there, whatever we worship will have an “inescapable influence” over the rest of our lives, whether this influence is direct or indirect (68). This “fundamental biblical principle” explains why some people irritate us and others do not, why some situations press our buttons and make others happy, why some respond one way in a situation and others respond just the opposite—our hearts are different (77-78).
The “Crumbs of Externalism” Won’t Do
After one recognizes the key role the heart plays in both righteousness and sin, it becomes very easy to see why Tripp would loath the “crumbs of externalism” that only address behavior (70). He compares such a grossly limited focus to stapling apples to the branches of trees that do not naturally grow them (63). This fruit-stapling imagery highlights the absurdity of addressing someone’s behavior without addressing the heart issues (63). This basic understanding of human nature will need to be assumed and taught to those to whom we minister because “when most people seek change, they seldom have their hearts in view” (109). The first step in Tripp’s game plan for being an instrument in the hand of the redeemer is to get to know people in need, but getting to know people essentially means “knowing their heart,” and true friendship is the connection of hearts (111). Thus, not only does Tripp keep the heart central to the goal of change but also to the means of change—starting with the first step.
Love Makes the World Go-Round
Tripp’s second most important principle, which is the natural outflow of keeping the heart central to ministry, is the principle of love. This is a result of keeping the heart central because love is first and foremost a heart attitude. Although Tripp never explicitly argues this, we might say he seems to take it for granted based on the wording of the first and second most important commandments (88, 93). Since Tripp defines the heart as including the entire inner person, the heart is also central to the concept of love. When speaking of the importance of loving those to whom one ministers, Tripp often makes statements that might make a Reformed Baptist’s hair stand up on the back of his neck. For example, he says, “The foundation for people-transforming ministry is not sound theology; it is love” (117). The author is aware of the tendency for us as Christians to “lob grenades of truth into people’s lives rather than lay down our lives for them” (118). Sure, counseling involves problem solving, but it must be people focused (126, cf. 116, 134, 137). A woman whose husband has just left her does not need a recap on the Bible’s teaching about marriage and divorce. If that is all a minister can do, he will likely lose his opportunity to help (127). Christians must “mediate God’s presence”(129) by being marked by compassion rather than merely being “theological answering machines” (152, cf. 131).
Emotional Connections are Fundamental To Ministry
There are many other angles from which Tripp keeps the heart central to godliness and sin, and therefore central to ministry and life transformation. He advises his readers to focus first on making an emotional connection to the person who needs help (132). Questions such as “What are you feeling?” are basic to the process of understanding how to help them (133). Whereas some might say, “Your emotions are irrelevant; what really matters is what God says is true,” Tripp does not fall for this trap. He sees emotions as indicators of our interpretations of life—whether they are biblical or unbiblical (196). The key to personal ministry is not always about knowing exactly what to say (184), but those who love will speak when they see a sin problem that needs to be addressed (202). Love is the only right motivation for rebuking and confronting others (220).
Some Disagreements

Situations Don’t Have Causal Powers? – The ingredient of Tripp’s book which most commonly strikes me as unhelpful is his insensitivity to the complex interplay between life circumstances and heart chemistry. After telling a long story about his getting angry when his hopes for a nice Cuban meal were spoiled, he concludes: “My anger was not caused by the people and situations I encountered. My anger was caused by completely legitimate desires that came, wrongly, to rule me” (82). Tripp seems to assume that since his heart had a key role to play in determining whether he allowed the circumstances to make him angry, therefore the circumstances did not play a key role in making him angry. He thus perpetuates the false dichotomy common in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) between external causation and internal causation. One’s sin, according to typical BCM mantra, is not caused by external circumstances. Rather, it is caused by internal dispositions of the heart. Although Tripp effectively demonstrates that external circumstances are not always a sufficient cause and explanation for why we do what we do in a given situation, and that “any attempt to examine the causes of conflict must begin with the heart” (78), he does so by denying external circumstances a key role in determining human behavior (77, 82-83).

Situations & Heart-Chemestry Both Determine Action – In contrast to this false dichotomy, situations, as well as heart-chemistry, both play a vital role in determining our actions. I have never seen the need to affirm one to the exclusion of the other. While it is true that, on the one hand, two different people in the same situation may react differently, it is equally true that two people with the same values will respond differently when faced with different situations. A man is more likely to desire unlawful revenge under circumstances in which his wife and children are kidnapped, raped, tortured and burned alive than under circumstances in which they remain safe and unharmed. If he were to seek unlawful revenge under the former conditions, external circumstances would play a key role in explaining what caused his vengeful actions. Giving such circumstances a significant power of causation does not necessarily relieve the man of his culpability.
Furthermore, in contrast to Tripp’s oversimplification, external circumstances have a role in shaping our spiritual chemistry (i.e. our heart) over the years. Explaining a twenty-year-old’s lesbianism merely by recourse to her sinful heart begs the question about whether her life circumstances up to that point have greatly shaped the dispositions of her heart. What if she was molested from the age of 12 by lesbians? Would this not greatly pervert her heart and sexual longings? Because such life circumstances greatly influence the heart, restricting explanations for human behavior to present dispositions without due attention to one’s history and life circumstances is a remarkable oversimplification.[1] Extreme secularists have excused culpability in the sinful behaviors of others on the basis of hard circumstances. Radical fundamentalists have responded by ruling out circumstances from playing a key role in causing certain behavior and the development of human character. This is where I think the BCM has swung the pendulum too far. One does not need to deny external circumstances their power of causation in order to establish culpability.
Unintended Side-Effects: “It’s Not My Fault” – This reactionary error also unwittingly creates a new opportunity for denying culpability. A mother who abuses and neglects her children should take a great deal of responsibility for how bad they turn out. She should not be allowed the excuse, “But circumstances do not determine who we are, and you cannot blame me for how my children turn out. Their circumstances have not caused them to turn out to be rotten, it is a result of their sinful nature.” While a BCM proponent would seem to lack the appropriate paradigm to combat this sort of reasoning and thus be in need of revising its position, a dual explanation theory of human disposition and behavior would automatically render such an excuse as preposterous, irrational, and inconsistent with both Scripture and common sense (Mt 18:6). Although it seems that the concern of those within the BCM has been to keep the anti-responsibility models of secularists from attributing people’s problems merely to circumstance, I am afraid they have in the process allowed for parents who abuse and neglect their children to deny their responsibility in playing a key role in determining how bad their children turn out. In their concern for defending responsibility in one area, ironically, the BCM paradigm has left gaping holes in other areas. Furthermore, although secularists tend to be way off the mark about the answer to the human problem by virtue of their God-less theories, they rightly see that strategies for fixing the human problem are largely circumstantial (cf. 9). Once converted to a Christ-centered worldview through the power of the gospel, a new believer will be forced by way of obedience to Christ into a significant circumstantial repair that may take years of hard and holy sweat.

[1] Some might say, “Well, certainly circumstances play a role, but they do not cause a person to sin.” Language of causation is too tricky for a detailed philosophical inquiry into the nature and language of causation in this brief book review. However, it is worth considering the fact that Christ threatens those who “cause” (skandalise) the little one’s to sin (Mt 18:6).

Reasons to Believe in a Limited Atonement

It All Comes Back to Limited Atonement

There is a running joke between me and a friend of mine. When in the midst of deep theological conversations, we will say jokingly as a way of comic relief, “It all comes back to limited atonement!” It’s a way of poking fun at Calvinists who place too much importance on this doctrine as if it were at the heart of the gospel itself.

NEWS FLASH: Calvinism is not the gospel. The basic message of the gospel is not dependant on Calvinism. However, for some reason, the doctrines of Calvinism are always a hot topic no matter where you go (except where people have not been exposed to the different positions). Calvinists get passionate about it because their view is so often misunderstood. Arminians get passionate about it because they see Calvinism as a system which undermines the free love of God for everyone, and nowhere is this undermining clearer to them than in the “L” in TULIP–Limited Atonement.

Did Christ die for everyone or just the elect?

Of all the points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the hardest to demonstrate biblically. For this reason, four-point Calvinists are a common phenomenon. I was a NOEL (no “L”) Calvinist for about 3 or 6 months (back in like 02) while wrestling with the biblical issues involved. I was convinced that Limited Atonement was more of a philosophical or logical extension of the other four points of Calvinism than it was a biblical teaching. Therefore, I rejected it. I have since changed my mind.

Actual Atonement

I now hold to a view which I prefer to call Actual Atonement, although it is virtually the same as what has misleadingly come to be called the limited view of the atonement,[1] also known as effectual redemption and particular redemption. There are at least five good reasons to hold to an actual view of the atonement. First, it is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement. Second, the logic (not merely the words) of certain biblical passages seems to make the effectual view of the atonement necessary. Third, many passages affirm a limited group of people as the intended benefactors of the atonement. Forth, most biblical objections to the limited view of the atonement are easily answered by a closer examination of the range of meanings for words like “all” and “world” along with a closer look at the context in which these words are found. Once one sees the alternative interpretation for these verses to be consistent with the meaning of words and the context of the passages, such texts fit quite comfortably with a doctrine of Actual Atonement. Finally, philosophical objections to limited atonement, such as the objection that it ruins the sincerity of a universal offer of salvation, are based on clumsy logic and are easily answered.

First, What Does “Atonement” Even Mean?

First, the Actual Atonement position is more consistent with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement than the general view of the atonement. Unfortunately, general and limited views often speak past one another over the extent of the atonement on account of a failure to first agree on the nature of the atonement itself. Before I can make this claim, I should first clarify my understanding of the two most popular views. The general view holds to a dual intentionality in the atonement: “Christ’s sacrifice was intended both to provide salvation for all and to procure salvation for all who believe”[2] (i.e. the elect). The so-called limited view of the atonement holds that “Christ’s redeeming work was intended to save the elect only [all those who believe] and actually secured salvation for them.”[3] One should notice that the latter view of the atonement does not contradict the former, but rather affirms the second intention contained in it: “to procure salvation for all who believe.” Therefore, the real question is whether the language of the atonement in Scripture includes both the idea of appeasing wrath as well as the idea of provision, or whether it has a narrower meaning that only includes the appeasing of wrath. In other words, does the atonement language include the notion of “providing salvation for all” or as Geisler puts it, the notion that “everyone is potentially justifiable, not actually justified” by the atonement?[4] Since this is the real issue, the two views might be best understood as differences over the actual nature of the atonement itself—whether it includes possibility or whether it only includes actuality.

Since the Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement is an actual satisfying of God’s wrath (hilastērion,[5] Rom 3:21-26), it is difficult to understand how the accomplishment of a theoretical possibility would be included in such a propitiatory sacrifice. What is more, one finds not a single verse that teaches that atonement was made possible, provided for, or made available, through the death of Christ. Instead, all passages which address the nature of the atonement itself either explicitly teach or take for granted an actual atonement that secures salvation and redemption.[6] In short, Christ came to actually save sinners (i.e. actually appease the wrath of God), not make this salvation possible, provide for atonement, or make atonement available. For this reason, Geisler’s assertion that “the issue is not whether everyone is actually saved but whether the sacrifice of Jesus made salvation available to all,” is unperceptive as a response to this contention.[7] The Dual Intention view (Geisler and others argue for) that understands God to be providing the possibility of atonement for the sins of all but only applying it to some must also have a dual definition of atonement. When Geisler says “the Atonement is both unlimited in its extent and limited in its application,” he commits the fallacy of equivocation by changing the meaning of the word “Atonement” mid-sentence. The first meaning is a theoretical atonement (atonement made possible) and the latter actual (atonement made actual).

Therefore, those who hold to a dual intentionality must redefine the meaning of the atonement in unbiblical categories if it is to escape the equivocation fallacy. Atonement cannot mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath and yet not mean the satisfaction of God’s wrath at the same time and in the same sense. As John Murray put it, “The doctrine of the atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement.”[8] Since the biblical teaching is clearly that the death of Christ satisfied God’s wrath, and since there is not a single verse which speaks of a theoretical atonement which makes redemption “possible,” the Actual Atonement view is to be preferred to the General and/or Dual Intentionality view on the basis of having greater accord with the biblical teaching on the nature of the atonement.

Second, Certain Texts Force a Limited View on the Atonement

Second, certain passages make a limited view of the atonement necessary. For example, Paul guarantees the future security of all those for whom Christ has died on the basis of Christ’s accomplished atonement (Rom 5:8-10). On Paul’s logic, if the atonement was made for all people without exception, Paul’s promise of eternal security necessarily applies also to all people without exception. A limited view of the atonement seems to be the only way to escape vindication of a universalist hermeneutic. In another passage, Paul guarantees eternal security and glorification (“all things”) for everyone for whom God did not spare his own Son (Rom 8:32-34). On Paul’s logic, if God gave his own Son up for everyone, then everyone is sure to receive “all things” (i.e. universalism). Perhaps those holding to the general view of the atonement could appeal that Paul has in mind only one of the two intentions in this passage (the intention of securing salvation for all those who believe), but this is precisely the point made in my first reason for believing in an actual view of the atonement. Paul seems to have this effectual intention in mind as “the” meaning of Christ’s death.

Third, Many Texts Seem To Affirm A Limited Atonement Outright

Third, many texts simply affirm that Christ died for a limited group of people.[9] The doctrine of unconditional election provides secondary affirmation so long as one understands that God has atonement in view as the means for saving the elect (Rom 8:29-32; 9:17-23; Eph 1:4-6; 1 Thess 5:9;1 Tim 1:9). If only a limited number of people are intended to be eternally saved—the elect—we should naturally expect that only the sins of a limited number people—the elect—should be eternally satisfied by Christ’s atonement.
Fourth, What About John 3:16 and Other Passages?

Fourth, passages which seem to contradict a limited view of the atonement do not actually contradict it. Some of these passages do just the opposite. For example, consider the classic proof text for a general atonement: John 3:16. This passage teaches that God gave Christ to the world so that believers might be saved. All believers are elect and all the elect eventually believe. Therefore, even John 3:16 teaches a limited intention for sending Christ into the world—to save the elect (i.e. all who believe). One does not need to interpret “for God so loved the world,” to mean “for God so loved the elect,” for this to hold true. The purpose clause “so that” is limited to the elect regardless of how broad the scope of meaning for the term “world.”

John Owen notes that the meaning and usage of those terms which are universal in form—such as “world” and “all”—must be weighed very carefully for this reason: “Upon these expressions hangs the whole weight of the opposite cause, the chief if not the only argument for the universality of redemption.”[10] Once the full range of meaning for these words is closely examined, however, the biblical objections to limited atonement are less convincing. The word “world” (ho kosmos) in Scripture does not always refer to every person in the world without exception. There are many passages where kosmos simply cannot mean every individual human being (Jn 7:7; Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 4:9; 11:32). If one is to believe that Christ died for everyone without exception on the grounds that the Bible says he died for the sins of the kosmos, she unwittingly gives good reason to think that everyone alive in the first century was a follower of Jesus, since the Pharisees exclaimed, “Look, the world [ho kosmos] has gone after Him” (Jn 12:19).

Even more important, kosmos often refers only to those who believe. For example, Paul taught that Israel’s sin of rejecting Christ means “riches for the world” (ploutos kosmou, Rom 11:12). Can we say then, that every person in the world without exception has received the ploutos Paul has in mind? It seems clear that Paul is using the word “world” to distinguish between Jew and Gentile, and that he would intend us to understand only those who believe in Christ as the recipients of the riches Paul has in mind in this context. Such an interpretation, however, leads us to conclude that kosmos actually refers to a minority group among the people in the world—the few that find the ploutos in Christ (i.e. the elect). When the apostle John admonishes his readers not to think of Christ’s death as for them only but for the “whole world” (1 Jn 2:2), the grammatical structure is strikingly similar to statements found in his gospel (Jn 11:51-52). On the basis of this parallel one might conclude that “whole world” in his epistle simply refers to God’s people, the elect, scattered throughout the whole world.[11]

Although many passages describe the death of Christ as being for “all” (pas, Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14-15; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Heb 2:9; 2 Pt 3:9), like the word “world,” the word “all” in Scripture does not always refer to everyone, but it must be determined by context. Sometimes the word “all” simply refers to all those within a certain group defined by the context. For example, Romans 5:18 teaches that just as one sins led to condemnation for “all,” so one act of righteousness results in justification for “all.” Here, even within the very same context, one must interpret the former reference to “all” as virtually universal, and the latter as limited only to believers. Without allowing for such fair distinctions based on context, the interpreter has no way to object to the conclusion that all people without exception are justified before God. Paul’s statement in 1 Tim 2:6 that Christ was given as a ransom for all can simply mean “all kinds,” (indiscriminately with respect to Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free). In fact, Paul’s usage of the word “all” is best understood this way based on the way he uses it in the context (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2). “All” in Titus 2:11 can be taken in a similar way based on context (cf. Tit 2:2-4, 6, 9).

Finally, The Philosophical Opposition Tends to Be Weak

Finally, philosophical objections to Actual Atonement are sloppy mistakes in logic. Perhaps the most common is the objection that a limited view of the atonement makes the universal offer of the gospel insincere. First, we might say that if the Bible teaches on the one hand that God only intends to eternally redeem the elect, and on the other hand that we should offer salvation to all, we should conclude that God’s offer must be genuine even if our pre-conceived philosophical understanding makes the legitimacy of such an offer a genuine mystery. Second, this objection misunderstands the nature of the offer. The universal offer of salvation is always contingent. The offer is not intended to benefit everyone, only those who repent and believe. Thus, the nature of the offer itself astronomically limits the scope of its intended benefactors by virtue of its built-in conditionality. The offer, therefore, is just as genuine as the offer “Whosoever meets the requirements for enrollment to SBTS, as well as the requirements for discounts on tuition, will be able to receive such benefits.” The offer is intended for, and voiced to, all seminary students indiscriminately, but the benefit is only intended for a select group. This contingency does not ruin the genuine nature of the offer.

Many of the other objections leveled against an actual view of the atonement are really objections against Calvinism as a whole—that it contradicts the concept of a loving God, that it is unfair, that it prohibits people who sincerely desire to be saved from actually being saved. These objections impose philosophical definitions of love, justice, and grace that are foreign to the Bible. They also misunderstand the nature of responsible Calvinism.


[1] Limiting the atonement sounds negative. Most Calvinists do not limit the worth of the atonement as the language often suggests to some. Furthermore, everyone who is not a universalist limits the atonement in some way (whether its absolute efficacy or its extent), thus the designation does not strike at the heart of the differences in views of the atonement.

[2] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 379.

[3] David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 17.

[4] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 352.

[5] For a summary of the controversy over the meaning of hilastērion, along with the conclusion that it employ’s propitiatory cultic terminology of blood sacrifices see Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1998), 191-195. Schreiner points out that expiation and propitiation are not mutually exclusive categories. I might add that the presence of expiation in the passage would seem to depend ultimately on the grounds of the concept of propitiation. Schreiner says “The death of Jesus removed sin and satisfied God’s holy anger.” It seems this is true only because the death of Jesus removed sin by satisfying God’s holy anger.

[6] Mt 1:21; 20:21; Rom 3:24-25; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:12, 15, 26; 1 Jn 4:10; Rev 5:9, cf. Lk 19:10; Jn 19:30; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:30; 6:20; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Gal 1:3; 3:13; Eph 1:7, 14; 2:15-16; Col 1:13-14, 20-22; 1 Tim 1:15; 3:5-7; Heb 13:12; 1 Pt 2:24; 3:18).

[7] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 350.

[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 63-64. [emphasis mine]

[9] E.g. Mt 26:28; Jn 10:11, 15; 11:50-52; Acts 20:28; Rom 8:32-34; Eph 5:25-26; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:17; 9:15, 28; Rev 5:9.

[10] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1999), 190.

[11] I owe this insight to John Piper. John Piper, Tulip: The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Desiring God Ministries), 31.

Human Emotions are of Supreme Importance to the Imago Dei

If the brightest colors in the biblical picture of God are painted with the brush strokes of emotional language, we might expect human emotions to be central in the biblical picture of mankind since humans are the most God-like of all creatures. Furthermore, if God’s perfect holiness, raging wrath, and passionate love are to be understood in terms of his emotions, we might expect that the holiness, virtue, and love of those made in the imago Dei are also to be understood primarily in terms of emotions—and this is exactly what we find. Not only are fear, contrition, joy, gratitude and love commanded, they are central to biblical ethics and receive an unparalleled place in glorifying God. If this is true, central to redemption is the redemption of human affection from centering on sin to centering on God, and central to the restoration of the image of God in people is the restoration of God-centered emotions. 

Ways to Distort the Biblical Teaching about Emotions – The numbers of angles through which this truth can be supported are so overwhelming that a denial of it can only be respectively achieved by running the emotive language in the Bible through a foreign philosophical grid. Such philosophical intrusion takes place on at least three accounts. First, as we have already seen, Thomistic theism creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to the importance of emotion by denying their existence—and therefore importance—within God himself. Second, non-cognitive views of emotion in philosophers such as Plato (who contrasts emotion with the intellect), René Descartes and Schleiermacher (who equate emotion with the physical effects of emotion), David Hume (who understands emotions as animal like), Immanuel Kant (who argues that emotions have no role in ethics), in evolutionary scientists who follow the non-cognitive theories of Charles Darwin (who argues that emotion developed before cognition as an adaptive survival behavior independent of the will), and especially the James-Lange theory of emotion in psychology (which reduces emotions down to changes in physiology) have made great headway in confusing the masses about the nature of emotion itself. This confusion has resulted in an unnecessary dichotomy between ethics and emotion, and has greatly influenced New Testament interpretation.

Third, certain popular philosophical notions of culpability make adherents uncomfortable with the idea that God would command an emotion. Such conceptions of culpability rely on the premise that God can only command that which the subject of that command is actually able to do. By extension, it is assumed that God would not make demands of humans with respect to realms over which they have no immediate control. Attempts to come to terms with culpability paradigms have caused many interpreters to exclude the possibility that emotions are commanded in the New Testament since humans are unable to have direct control over them. According to this culpability model, then, love, which is the central virtue and fountainhead of all ethics, cannot be an emotion since God commands it repeatedly. There are many other reasons why interpreters have a vested interest in de-emotionalizing the biblical language of human emotion. Although by no means do these three philosophical trespasses exhaust the complexities of anti-emotion bias in handling the biblical text on human emotion, I have offered a brief critique of the first of these three philosophical disorientations and will also offer a brief critique of the second and third.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Emotion Don’t Cut It – Several cases could be made which would be sufficient in themselves to doubt whether non-cognitive theories of emotion do justice to either the human experience or the biblical texts. These cases could be grouped into at least three categories: cases made from philosophy, the sciences and the biblical text. Arguments from philosophy and science might be summed up with this brief affirmation: cognitive theories of emotion excel in philosophical explanation and scientific research where non-cognitive theories are woefully deficient. Elliot points out further that 1) “there has been no definitive success in differentiating the emotions on the basis of physiology,” 2) “even if each emotion were linked to different physical reactions it would not prove that the non-cognitive approach was correct. This would only show that different cognitions have different physiological reactions,” and 3) “from our knowledge of neuroscience, the brain structures used for emotion and cognition cannot be readily separated.”

Let Philosophy Bow Down to God’s Utterance – There at least three ways of handling the objection that emotions cannot be commanded if the subject has no immediate control over them. The first is authoritarian. If the Scriptures are the ultimate authority and they everywhere command emotion, we must bow down to the mouth of God and conform our petty philosophical construals to fit more comfortably with God’s flawless utterance. The second rebuttal is both philosophical and theological in the sense of being a philosophical argument that fits comfortably within a Calvinistic theological framework. If faith and repentance are emotional in nature (and they are), then God’s holding people responsible for coming to Christ in faith and repentance—even though they are not able without the effectual drawing of the Holy Spirit—demonstrates that capability is not a necessary condition of culpability. The third refutation is more philosophical and is based on a cognitive view of emotion. Simply put, the argument is this: “If emotion is cognitive, love is about something, can be commanded and is emotional.” In other words, if emotions are cognitive, they reflect our belief system. Consequently, our emotions are indicators of our value system—what we believe to be most valuable. Inasmuch as we are responsible for our belief system and our value system, we can likewise be responsible for our emotional dispositions that necessarily result from them. These are only a few of the arguments that demonstrate that emotions can happily fit within the category of imperatives without biblical, theological, or philosophical strain.

Let Words Mean What They Mean: A Call Back to Sober Linguistics – Arguments from the biblical text are less complicated, yet more authoritative. Since the stumbling block has consisted mainly in the error of reading philosophical ideas onto the biblical language, one might push the burden of proof on those who interpret passages in such a way by challenging them to demonstrate whether or not their philosophical ideas about emotion are either explicitly in the text or likely to be inherent in the meaning of the emotive language of the Bible. An evenhanded search for such foreign concepts, however, will inevitably leave the seeker disappointed. In New Testament studies, for example, there were both cognitive and non-cognitive views in the Greco-Roman world, the latter “stresses the unreliable nature of emotion and the need for it to be controlled by reason,” while the former “underscores the need to change harmful emotions by correcting false beliefs.” While non-cognitive Greek ideas about emotion can be seen alongside Jewish ideas about emotion in the writings of Second Temple Judaism, even the most Hellenistic of these writers still rejected the stoic idea of emotional extirpation. Furthermore, some of these same writers found Old Testament views of emotion in tension with Greek Philosophy. The writings of the New Testament are in sharp contrast with more developed ideas about the “passions” from Greek writings that explicitly stress the use of reason and use emotional language pejoratively. Simply put, neither a study of the original languages, contemporary backgrounds, or the context in which emotive terms are used provide sufficient warrant for depleting the emotional words in the original text of their controversially emotive content. On the contrary, they afford merit to do just the opposite.

Conclusion: We Should Not Be Surprised

Although starting as far back as the church fathers, the emotions of God have been seen as metaphorical by many, such erroneous ideas about divine emotions ultimately have their roots in Platonic philosophy, not the sacred Scriptures. “We have been told that God’s emotions were ‘anthropomorphisms’, described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself.” From the prophets of the Old Testament whose prophetic lifeblood resided in provocative metaphors to get emotional responses from the people through “shock value,” to the emotional letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament—even down to the pervasive emotive language about God and from the lips of God himself—the Bible is unabashedly emotional. Even more important, if one desires to take the humble path to discerning what most glorifies God and most impressively reflects his image, one cannot find a more sure route than the commandments of God himself. When Jesus boils the whole law down to love for God and love for people, he virtually places all worship, all obedience, all attempts to glorify God, and all social ethics in an all-encompassing God-like emotion (Mt 22:36-40, cf. Mk 12:28-31, Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13:1-3, 13; 16:14; 1 Pt 1:8; 4:8; Js 2:8; Heb 13:1; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-5:4). Since God is in nature a spirit, one should not be surprised that emotions—which are attributed to the spiritual realm—are the most customary characteristics of God and take center stage in the biblical cinematics of redemptive history. Since mankind is in the image of God, it should not be surprising, then, that the most important of the God-like features of creatures in his image should be their participation in those vigorous exercises of the heart that everywhere define their obedience, holiness, and relationship to God—namely, their emotions.


As far as making a case for the centrality of human emotions to the biblical picture of godliness and spirituality, Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, The Religious Affections, has not been significantly improved. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001 Edition). The only exception to this might be the developments made by John Piper in the ethical nature of pleasure and its relation to obedience. Piper, Desiring God. It would be laborious to rehash the multitudes of texts and arguments for this position in this brief paper. Sam Storms has attempted to make Edwards’ work of the affections more accessible to modern readers in Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007).

Edwards concludes “they who would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule by which to judge of the nature of religion.” Edwards, Religious Affections, 35.

Non-cognitive theories either define emotion exclusively in terms of the following three elements or put greater emphasis on one of the following three elements: 1) conscious experience, 2) emotional behavior, 3) physiological events. Non-cognitive theories create sharp dichotomies between cognition and emotion. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 20.

Here I follow the summary given by Matthew A. Elliott in his chapter “What is Emotion?” where he gives an overview of the history of theories on emotion with specific attention to the inadequacies of non-cognitive views of emotion in ethics and psychology. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 16-55.

The noncognitivist metaphysical view is philosophically responsible for denying that moral judgments had any meaningful reference to actual properties of actions, persons, policies and other objects of moral assessment and at best only expressed one’s personal attitudes toward something. Decognizers understand moral judgments to be incapable of being either true or false. David O. Brink, “Emotivism,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, gen. ed. Robert Audi (New York, New York: Cambridge Press, 2006 Printing), 260.

Elliot’s book to a large extent is a cataloging of these errors and the beginning of a new explicitly cognitive approach to interpreting emotions in the New Testament. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 124-235.

From ancient times the so-called “passions,” have been understood as passive from the perspective of the one who experiences them—that is, that emotions happen to a person. They are not something a person consciously chooses. The emotional pain, for example, that may result from an insult, might be compared to the nose bleed that may result from a punch in the nose. People do not make a conscious decision about whether to have a nose bleed when punched, it is demanded by the nature of physical chemistry. Likewise, our emotional responses are like necessary effects of our spiritual chemistry. In either case, emotions are, in a significant sense, out of the subject’s control. Robert M. Gordon, “Emotion,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 260.

“Many others have agreed by defining love in non-emotional terms. This has often been in response to trying to answer the question of how love can be commanded. … This is also a prevalent misconception on Old Testament studies.” Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 138. Elliot’s work goes a long way in exposing the prevalence of these errors.

Elliot lists the following philosophical problems with the James-Lange theory: 1) The problem of naming specific emotion without reference to cognition: “Whereas the James-Lange theory implied that each emotion must have a unique physical manifestation, experimental evidence points to the fact that there are identical physical responses for different emotions,” 2) the James-Lange theory is woefully deficient in providing a framework in which motivational theory makes sense, 3) the same physical sensations can be interpreted as different emotions in different circumstances, leaving the means for differentiating different emotions in the James-Lange theory inadequate, 4) the failure of the non-cognitive framework to provide evaluation of emotion, that is, to provide a framework for judging whether an emotion is appropriate or inappropriate, right or wrong. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 23, 27-28.

This would include argument like these: Aristotle, who understood human emotion as the result of intellectual realization, had a better understanding of emotion than Plato, 2) Descartes created a false dichotomy by holding that emotion was not caused by cognition but was first felt and then interpreted (or labeled) in cognitive categories, since both are quite capable of coexisting as different stages of the emotional experience, 3) Darwin’s theory of macro-evolution from which he posits a theory of the development of human emotion is vulnerable to critical scientific cross-examination and should not be taken as “pure” and authoritative science, 4) William James’ comment that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” flies in the face human experience of emotive causality, 5) the James-Lange theory of emotion is laden with anomaly where cognitive views of emotion excel in providing coherent explanation, 6) although the James-Lange theory of emotion held sway in the beginning of the 20th century, more recent work done by Cannon, Schachter and Singer have proven many of the details of the James-Lange theory false and represent a shift toward a more cognitive view of emotions in recent psychology. A close look at philosophy and the sciences actually demands for a cognitive theory of emotions and thereby takes the rug from underneath all philosophical theories relying on non-cognitive views of emotion (William James’ comment is quoted by Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 22).

Arguments against non-cognitive theories of emotion abound also in physiological evidence as set forth by Antonio Damasio:

1. Even when logical facilities are completely intact (as measured in numerous tests) an unfeeling person is unable to function normally or make good practical decisions. People who function as almost a logical computer, having a pronounced lack of emotion in normally emotional circumstances, are unable to function rationally;
2. It is beyond doubt that many different parts of the brain, both higher and lower brain sections, play an indispensable role in emotion;
3. It is probable, based on empirical evidence, that specific emotional responses are learned and not innate [Ibid, 29-30].

Ibid., 29.

As Elliot puts it: “The fact that these things are commanded is not disputed. What is at issue is: (1) are emotions actually commanded in these passages, and; (2) what do these commands mean in practice? The burden of proof is upon those who would argue that these are not commands of emotion. The meaning seems very straightforward. Whether or not we believe it is logical to command emotion, the simplest interpretation of these passages is that the biblical writers do, in fact, command emotion. … There is no evidence from the texts themselves that these terms have been redefined by the writers as theological concepts that do not contain an emotional core. On the contrary, the evidence points to these words retaining their usual meanings of simple emotions. The arguments of those who deny that emotion can be commanded seem to come from a desire to be consistent with their own philosophical understanding of emotion and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the writers of the New Testament. We must challenge the tenability of this position.” Ibid., 141.

See Piper, “Conversion,” in Desiring God, 53-74. Beyond Piper’s demonstration, it might be added that repentance must be defined in terms of the changing of one’s heart with respect to the law of God, which law might be summarized by the most important commandments to “love” God and people (Mt 22:36-40). Repentance might be seen, then, as primarily an emotional change in the heart of the individual who goes from loving sin (idolatry) to loving God and people in his image (reconciliation). This understanding is impressively confirmed, among other texts, by Ezekiel’s description of New Covenant conversion (Ezek 11:19-21, 38:24-27).

Ibid., 141.

Roberts, being influenced by Solomon’s proposal to redefine emotions as judgments, uses similar language define emotions as “concerned-based construals … they are states in which the subject grasps, with a kind of perceptual immediacy, a significance of his or her situation.” Roberts, “Emotions and Christian Teaching,” Spiritual Emotions, 11. For his argument on how this helps understand why emotions can be commanded see his chapter entitled, “Emotions and Christian Character,” Ibid., 22-31. Defining an emotion as a “judgment” or “construal,” however, seems to take the cognitive position too far. Rather, it seems more helpful to understand emotions as intense internal experiences based on one’s judgments/construals. With this sort of definition, one has the ability to maintain the distinction between the judgment itself and the emotion which results. Appreciation of this causality is lost when an emotion is understood as cognition (judgment or construal) rather than an experience based on cognition.

Eric L. Johnson teases out this thought briefly when he writes about emotions as “signs,” which “signify people’s deepest drives, understandings and values, often with greater accuracy than their thoughts about such things,” in his groundbreaking work Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 300-303. 

Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 79.

I have in mind Philo, Josephus, and the author of 4 Maccabees. Ibid., 117-121.

Ibid., 111.

Sandy believes that shock value was the prophetic strategy of metaphorical language because “metaphors speak with more emotion.” D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 70-73. The emotive and translucent nature of Old Testament judgment and blessing language leads Sandy to conclude that prophetic utterance was not mainly to inform the people concerning the future, but to provoke an emotional response that would arouse their hardened hearts.

The different positions typically discussed under the imago dei such as the substantive views (the image of God resides in a quality of combination of qualities), the relational views (the image of God is primarily having to do with mans experience of a relationship with God and fellow human beings), and the functional views (the image of God primarily consists in something someone does) easily overlap in fundamental ways and none of them do justice to all the ways in which we are like God if considered to the exclusion of the others. It seems better to accept each as a different angle on the imago dei rather than pitting them against one another. After all, Christians largely agree that our relationship with God is what is most important and that this relationship works itself out both through human capacities and human action. No matter how one slices the anthropological cake, growing in our heart-felt love for God and our sincere love for others is the surest way to the restoration of the image of God in us. However, since any action of the body is void of moral virtue unless it is attended by love (1 Cor 13:1-3), we must admit that moral action derives its ethical value from God-centered emotions. Not only is emotion the ultimate ethical priority, but also that which gives any and all action its ethical dimension. In this sense, while it is harder to see any of the imago dei views as the most God-like characteristic in degree, we can certainly affirm that emotions are the most prominent of the God-like characteristics in importance. Since all people are in relation to God whether they like it or not (either good relations or bad ones), reciprocating love between God and man is more basic to the image of God than mere relation. For a concise summary of the three major views see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006 Printing), 520-529. For a lengthier treatment of the doctrine see Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapdis, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994 Printing).

Although Elliot’s work may anticipate a resurgence of the Edwardsian paradigm for the importance of emotions to true spirituality, it is long overdue. Elliot’s work demonstrates that much work and thought is desperately needed in the study of emotions. He understands his work as only the beginning of a basic outline. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 237. This work includes further untangling kinks in biblical exegesis, biblical and systematic theology, Christian philosophy, church history, historical theology, and most importantly, practical theology. For example, although writers in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) have progressed in the amount of importance they place on emotion, I am convinced that their writings are still plagued with misunderstandings and false dichotomies with respect to the role of emotion in obedience in the Christian life. For example, the false dichotomy which is reflected in the approach which asks the question, “Are one’s sinful habits a result of one’s past or sin nature?” fails to grapple with the role of our past in shaping our emotional dispositions (including our sinful dispositions). The most prolific writer for BCM, David Powlison, however, still operates with this false dichotomy. Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 155. In spite of such errors, however, Powlison cannot avoid basing his whole motivational theory on the emotion of desire. His chapters entitled, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” and “What Do You Feel?” show how central emotion is in a practical approach to Christian counseling. Ibid., 145-62, 211-23. It is also my perception that much of the tension between secular psychology and biblical teaching that creates strong dichotomies in the counseling wars could be smoothed out with a mature development of emotion theory from a biblical perspective.

A Biblical Picture of God: A Passionate Deity

I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after idols.” – Yahweh (Ezek 6:9)

Because God’s Nature Never Changes, His Emotions Change


Although this Thomistic view of God might at first seem to find biblical support in passages that tell us God does not change (Num 23:19; Ps 33:11; 102:26; 103:17; Prov 19:21; Is 14:24; Heb 1:11-12; 6:17-18), other passages directly teach specific ways in which God does change (Ex 32:10-14; Jg 2:18; Ps 18:26-27; 106:45; Jer 26:19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon 3:10; Prov 11:20; 12:22). In fact, sometimes these two realities are confirmed within the same passage (1 Sam 15:10-11, cf. 28-29). Christian theologians and philosophers seeking to be aligned closest with the text of the Christian Scriptures are calling for an abandonment of classical notions of divine impassibility. Such a hermeneutical move is not hard to make. These texts do not make it necessary to affirm that God never changes in any way but only that God’s basic nature and moral character never changes. In fact, it is precisely because his basic nature never changes that his emotions toward sinners always change when they repent. Passages affirming God’s immutable nature in no way force the interpreter to conclude that God’s emotional state is somehow static towards his creation, much less that his emotions are unreal.


Nothing to Warrent a Metaphorical Understanding of Divine Emotions


While the passages that teach God is a spirit (Jn 4:24) warrant a metaphorical understanding of depictions of God’s body parts, there are no comparable passages which force a metaphorical understanding of the portrayals of God’s emotions. Not having a body prevents God from using body parts, but we would have to conclude that God does not have a spirit in order to preclude him from emotional experience, for such experience is fundamental to spiritual existence. Since activities of the human heart—including human emotions—are attributed to the spirit (Num 5:14; Dan 2:1, 7:15; Ps 78:8; Mk 8:12; Lk 1:47, 80; Acts 17:16; Rom 2:29; 8:15; 2 Tim 1:7), we have no reason to believe that our human experience does not profoundly correspond to God’s, since God not only has a spirit but is a spirit. As we might expect, language about the emotions of God are also attributed to his spirit (Deut 2:30). Language about the heart of God is virtually interchangeable, therefore, with language about his spirit. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that divine emotive language is no more anthropomorphic than language about the very nature of God himself (i.e. that he is a spirit). We might rather conclude that God’s emotions (as his thoughts) are more real, complex, frequent, and intense than human emotions. Just as God is more knowledgeable than humans (in fact omniscient), so we should think of God as far more emotional than humans (in a sense, omnipassient).
Descriptions of divine emotion cannot be reduced to divine actions without doing violence to the biblical language. Reducing the point of analogous correspondence of divine emotion to a similarity with human actions associated with those emotions does not best suit the biblical picture of the nature of God’s emotions and their relation to his actions. For example, not long after the fall of man God was so grieved over human sin that he wiped out the human race through a universal flood, sparing no one but Noah and his family—not even infants (Gen 6:4-8). The burning wrath of God cannot be reduced to his action, however, for Gen 6:4-8 is a pronouncement of present grief with a promise of future judgment. The grief existed apart from and previous to the act of judgment. We best understand the biblical text concerning this universal flood when we see it as directly motivated by God’s grief and anger. The laments of God are his “inward feelings” (Is 16:11). Changes take place with respect to God’s feelings. His wrath and jealousy are said to be “spent” and “satisfied” in God’s acts of judgment (Ezek 5:13; 21:17; 16:42; cf. 6:12; 7:8). God’s wrath is not the same as his acts of judgment; rather, God’s wrath is demonstrated through his acts of judgment (Rom 9:22). God’s zeal is “aroused” like the zeal of a man of war and is the stirring of his heart (Is 42:13; 63:15). Divine acts of deliverance are not the same thing as his compassion; rather they are “in accordance with” (or a result of) his compassionate nature (Neh 9:17, 19, 27, 28). The analogy of choice in the Scriptures for God’s emotion is not human action, but human emotion—and divine emotion is said to be “just as” human emotion (Ps 103:13, cf. Num 25:11).


Emotional Language Saturates the Biblical Picture of God


What is more, the emotional aspects of the divine nature dominate the biblical mosaic of God. The God of the Bible is no stoic deity. From beginning to end, the Bible paints a picture of God as being driven by his intense emotions. God weeps bitterly and drenches nations with his tears (Is 16:9). The reason why God tells Israel not to worship any other god is because he is very jealous, and he will “wipe [them] off the face of the earth” if their hearts go after other gods (Ex 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:16, Josh 24:19, 1 Kgs 14:22; Ps 78:58; Ezek 39:25, Nah 1:2, Zech 1:14; 8:2; Zeph 1:18; 1 Cor 10:22). As we might anticipate, God is “hurt” by the adulterous hearts of his people when they are “turned away” from Him (Ezek 6:9), yet because nothing thwarts God’s sovereign plans, he is also richly happy (1 Tim 6:15; 1 Tim 1:11). His tender compassion is described as a fruit of his loving kindness (Is 54:8; Lam 3:22-23, 32). Furthermore, the ubiquitous “zeal” of the Lord accomplishes everything from acts of mercy to acts of slaughter: his gracious acts of keeping a remnant in Israel (2 Kgs 19:31; Is 37:32), establishing justice and righteousness through the throne of David (Is 9:7; 59:17), protecting his people (Is 26:11), restoring his people (Joel 2:18), and judging his people (Ezek 5:13; 38:19; Zeph 3:8).
The entire redemptive history of the Bible centers on God’s love for fallen humanity that moves him to aggressively initiate all of redemptive history. Perhaps the following is the most often repeated list of God’s attributes in the Old Testament: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex 34:6, cf. Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 145:8; Is 54:10; Jer 16:5; 31:3; 33:11; Lam 3:22; Dan 9:4; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). As one might expect then, God’s love also finds a central place in the writings of the New Testament (Mt 5:44-45, Jn 3:16; 15:10; 16:27; 17:24, 26; Rom 5:8; 8:35, 39; 2 Cor 9:7; Heb 12:6; 1 Jn 3:1). Not only is love “of God,” but “God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-12, 16-19; 5:2, Jd 2, 21; Rev 3:19). One cannot understand the holiness, justice, judgment, redemption, or history of God and his people without understanding how these themes are tied in the biblical texts on the emotions of God.
In my next post, I will argue that emotions are of supreme importance to the Image of God in man.




This seems to have come about (at least in great part) through the Open Theism controversy. Most of the recent works on the doctrine of God have been forced to deal extensively with the Open Theist controversy and consequentially the multitudes of biblical passages that lead Open Theist’s to criticize the Thomistic picture of God. When the Open Theists swung the pendulum in the right direction, they swung it too far, however, and deny the classical doctrine of divine omniscience. Conservative theologians in reaction to this pendulum effect were jealous to provide a more biblical alternative to both the Thomistic view and the Open view. In spite of many errors that have spawned from Open Theism, recent theological dialogue with Open Theists has at least yielded this healthy corrective to the classic understanding of God: many now reject the classical doctrine of divine impassibility.
“This [Thomistic] concept of God, I believe, does have serious problems and requires modification. My own study has indicated those points where alterations could be made. Pure actuality, impassibility, and simplicity could be eliminated, …” Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 114. “In light of the nuanced understanding of divine immutability, it is necessary to reject divine impassibility. The king who cares experiences real emotions; he sympathizes with our pains and can rejoice over our joys.” John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), 277. 

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1993), 29.

For example, there are no passages that say, “God’s heart is not moved,” or “For I am the Lord, and nothing can harm me or excite my heart to pain,” or any such passages that would force us to question whether God experiences true emotions in the way an affirmation that God is a spirit forces us to conclude that God does not have body parts.

This analogy between the way we think of God’s thoughts and the way we think of his emotions came to me when I realized that just as one’s search for truth is an attempt to attain God’s thoughts (or think God’s thoughts after him), so our desire should be to feel the way God feels about everything we perceive. “So, we learn to pursue God’s pursuits after him, to act God’s acts, feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires. … No, we will never be all-knowing, or all-powerful, or all-present. But yes, we will be wise and loving, true and joyous. We will weep with those who weep.” David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003), 10.

Just as human wrath burns from “within” the human heart (Est 1:12, cf. Ex 32:19, Jd 9:30, 14:19, 1 Sam 20:30, 2 Sam 12:5, Job 32:3), so God’s “anger burned” against Israel and those who sinned (Num 32:10, 13). Just as humans are said to have fierce wrath (Gen 49:7), the same language is used to describe God’s wrath (Dt 29:28; 1 Sam 28:18; 2 Kgs 23:26). Even rage is found in God (Ezek 5:15). Human jealousy so closely corresponds with God’s, it is said to be the same as God’s jealousy (Num 25:11). His rejoicing over his people is compared to a bridegroom rejoicing over the bride (Is 62:5, cf. Zeph 3:17). This compassion is surely to be thought of as an emotion, for his compassion is described as being “just as” the humanly compassion of a father for his son (Ps 103:13, cf. Jonah 4:10-11) and they are described as the stirrings of his heart (Is 63:15). Matthew Elliot appropriately affirms, “God’s love is like a parent’s love for their child,” and asks: “Is there any stronger emotion?” Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2006), 106.

For a discussion on how God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his unshakable happiness, see “The Happiness of God” in John Piper’s Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 31-50.

“Set in the context of eschatological salvation, the NT macarisms have great emotional force. Often there is a contrast with false happiness.” F. Hauck, “makarios” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged Version, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003 Reprint), 549. Although makarios can have a broader meaning than just “happiness,” and may convey something more like “favored,” the emotive term “happy” is still inherent in the meaning, and thus translating makarios as “happy” is a good way to convey the cash value of the idea of “favor.” The concept of being favored or fortunate fundamentally depends on the concept of being happy. Who would want to be blessed if it amounted to pure misery? Being blessed only has its ultimate attraction in the happiness that necessarily coexists with it. Language of favor and blessing plays to our God-given desires for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Although I will argue later in this post series that there is no legitimate reason to deny that love (or any other emotional term in the Bible) is an emotion, for a detailed examination of the various words translated “love” and the common anti-emotion bias which seeks to suppress the emotive content these words, see Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 135-164.

Emotions, Starting with God’s

Exploring Some Stumbling Blocks

It is often said that Christianity is not about emotions. Even if one is willing to admit that emotions should not be altogether ignored (for such advice would seem impossible to human nature), we are warned by pastors and Christian teachers that they are not to become our main concern. We are told: “We must avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch upon feelings. Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.” “When we describe someone as ‘an emotional type,’ we do not intend to give a compliment.” It would seem that our emotions lead us into all sorts of trouble, and in lieu of such trouble it might seem like the best plan of action is to suppress them altogether and seek rather to be guided by our reason, or some other virtuous aspect of our nature. After all, does not the Bible itself teach that being “enslaved by all kinds of passions” is characteristic of the pagan lifestyle at odds with the new creation (Tit 3:3)?

This post series will seek to answer the above questions from a biblical perspective, not merely by looking at what the Bible teaches about human emotion, but rather, our study will begin by looking at the emotions of God himself. Several important conclusions will be reached from a study of the biblical text. Humans are “emotional” because God is emotional. Not only are our emotions valid or legitimate since they are simply a reflection of the nature of God, but they are a necessary component of all true virtue, holiness and righteousness. By the same token, human emotions are the most important among the God-like qualities of humanity. In the end, it seems unavoidable that an intimate and reciprocal experience of heart-felt love between God and humanity is precisely how God is most glorified, and therefore, there is no greater end for which people in the image of God exist than to experience deep emotions—namely, love and joy in God himself.
Emotional Language and Divine Immutability 

That human beings are emotional would seem to need no strained argument. On the other hand, there are at least two immediate stumbling blocks to a proper understanding of the relation of our emotions to God’s emotions: 1) the analogical nature of language about God as conceived by Thomistic Theism and 2) the logic of divine impassibility. We must keep both of these stumbling blocks from obstructing our path to the truth about emotions in the imago Dei.

Although all language about God is analogical, it became commonplace in classical theism to stress that God does not actually experience emotions any more than he actually has a human body based on the nature of anthropomorphic language. Just as we are not to conclude from passages that speak of God’s eyes, ears, and mouth that God actually has human eyes, ears and a mouth, so we are not to conclude from passages which speak of God’s anger, jealousy and joy that God actually experiences anger, jealousy and joy. This latter analogy is not between human emotion and divine emotion but rather between human emotion and divine action. Such passages are therefore thought only to mean “he acts toward us as a man would when agitated by such passions.” God’s emotions, then, according to Thomistic theism, only have correlation by virtue of his actions. 

The analogical nature of the biblical language about God, however, is not the only motivation for believing that God does not experience emotions. The doctrine of divine impassibility—which understands God to be incapable of suffering—is usually the motivating factor for a classical, Thomistic understanding of emotive language about God. A strong and strained emphasis on the immutability of God in classical theism—which understands God to be incapable of changing—has perhaps been an even greater impetus, therefore, for a widespread adherence to the doctrine of impassibility. Such emphasis has caused a long history of philosophical attraction in the church and theology. Here the argument does not lie merely in Scripture, but in philosophical extrapolation from passages on divine immutability. If God does not change (as the Scriptures affirm), then it would seem that his emotional state is also immutable. Besides, if God actually feels differing emotions toward human beings depending on what those human beings do, we make God’s experience dependent upon human experience, and God becomes vulnerable, as it were, to suffering emotional turmoil and injury. Can God actually be dependent on his creatures in any way—especially in a vulnerable way? Both the nature of analogical language and the doctrine of immutability have caused many to conclude that God does not actually experience emotion.
In my next post, we will see that this conclusion has been reached with a flawed logic and at the expense of the meaning of the biblical langauge about the emotions of God.


Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, 1990), 114-16.
Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 14. 

These problems are the most immediate because they relate to God himself.

A.A. Hodge quoted by Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 26. Italics are added by Culver.

Perhaps the popularity of the writings of Anselm is just as much to blame for the popularity of this pesky doctrine as the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Anselm wrote:

But how are You at once both merciful and impassible? For if You are impassible You do not have any compassion; and if You have no compassion Your heart is not sorrowful from compassion with the sorrowful, which is what being merciful is. But if You are not merciful whence comes so much consolation for the sorrowful? How, then, are You merciful and not merciful, O Lord, unless it be that You are merciful in relation to us and not in relation to Yourself? In fact, You are [merciful] according to our way of looking at things and not according to Your way. For when You look upon us in our misery it is we who feel the effect of Your mercy, but You do not experience the feeling [emphasis mine]. Therefore You are both merciful because You save the sorrowful and pardon sinners against You; and You are not merciful because You do not experience any feeling of compassion for misery.

Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 91.

Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm

Jay Adams and The Biblical Counseling Movement

The so-called “Biblical Counseling” model has replaced the “old” model of integrative counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY where I am currently working on my masters degree. This replacement is representative on a large scale of the most conservative (some would say “fundamental”) agenda in the evangelical church. As the story goes, because the church in general was highly influenced by secular models, the seminary eventually embodied a compromised approach. Secular psychology tended to undermine responsibility, replace biblical doctrine with Freudian nonsense, and replace instruction with alternative “therapy,” practices which never dealt with sin seriously. Eventually, some rugged evangelicals in the church stepped forward to call for a holy war against much of the so-called “Christian Counseling” that had virtually surrendered the biblical worldview by embracing secular counseling models, and had become an unhealthy alternative to real discipleship.The chief on the front lines in this reform was Jay Adams. His book Competent to Counsel (1970) was intended to be somewhat of a bombshell on the playground of the so-called “Christian” Counseling scene. Below, I have cut and pasted excerpts from my review of his book. It includes only a summary of his introduction, and then a brief critique of the books key idea(s).
Adams, Jay E. Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970. 287pp. $13.99.
Note: “Nouthetic” comes from the Greek word noutheo mostly translated “admonish.”
Several principles are defended hot and heavy in Adams’ attempt to introduce us to nouthetic counseling. Our author makes it easy on us to see where he is coming from by showing all his cards up front (i.e. in the introduction). Nouthetic counseling demands the counselor to recognize that the counselee’s ultimate and all-pervading problem is not mental illness but sin (xi). To say that Adams is suspicious about “the common practice” of referral (or “bifurcation,” of duties) in poimenics (the art of pastoral ministry) is an understatement (12, xii). He believes that the secular methods of counselors, psychiatrists and mental institutions are in fierce competition with a biblical approach to counseling. They seek to remove guilt from the counselee by “misclassifying” sin problems (xiv). Freud goes beyond science to teach “the art of living,” and secular modes have long become an alternative religion for a world that finds itself “in a mess” (xxii, 1). Adams seems to have been inspired by O. Hobard Mowrer’s Moral Model of responsibility to stand against the anti-responsibility models (xvi-xvii). Psychotherapy has become little more than a search through one’s past for someone else to blame (xvii).
Though Adams has been inspired by Mowrer, he is not satisfied with Mowrer’s Model, for Mowrer cannot ground morality objectively (xix). It is presuppositionally deficient (xviii). Our author is burdened by “the same old eclecticism with a Christian coating,” which, for Adams, amounts to nothing more than “accommodation” (xx). Perhaps the most revealing statement in the whole book, which typifies the nouthetic approach, is in the following unabashed confession: “The conclusions in this book are not based upon scientific findings. My method is presuppositional” (xxi). Although Adams does not wish to “disregard” science, he demands that scientific input only be accepted inasmuch as it illustrates and clarifies the biblical teaching (xxi). Even when science is used to illustrate or clarify the scriptures, it must not be thought of as somehow confirming or verifying the biblical teaching (xxi). “God’s Word does not need human support” (xxi).
A Brief, Suggestive Critique
Adams’ dogmatic presuppositional approach is both his greatest asset as well as his greatest limitation. On the one hand, his VanTillian approach brings a heightened awareness of holistic comparisons between different counseling philosophies and this in turn brings a greater discerning ability of what “fits” with the biblical teaching and what does not (and why). On the other hand, Eric L. Johnson points out that the VanTillian approach tends to undermine science as a knowledge-constructive practice (see footnote 1). Although Adams would agree that truth can be found in non-biblical systems (see footnote 2), his statements do not seem to allow for it. For example, he says: “Because non-biblical systems rest upon non-biblical presuppositions, it is impossible to reject the presuppositions and adopt the techniques which grow out of and are appropriate to those presuppositions” (102, emphasis mine). This statement not only oversimplifies the situation (many atheistic scientists have discovered marvelous aspects of God’s creation fully in accord with scripture), but it also breeds an overly pessimistic approach to science (and thus perfectly fits the fundamentalist stereotype). A biblical coherence theory of truth—defining truth in terms of worldview coherence—is different from a correspondence theory of truth—defining truth in terms of what corresponds to reality, regardless of what presuppositional context the truth is discovered in. Just because non-Christian worldviews abuse and misinterpret much of the scientific data does not mean the data in its purest form cannot be accepted just because it is not presented within a coherent Christian worldview. Only if Christians take the responsibility of empirical investigation seriously will the Christian counseling community be “increasingly comprehensive and sophisticated.”
In addition to Adams’ overly pessemistic attitude towards science and the reductionism of his theory of truth, Adams is also guilty of a methodological reductionism. By this, I do not mean that Adams does not have many methods. Rather, Adams unfortunately reduces all methods for counseling down to nouthetics. Biblical Counseling = Nouthetic Counseling. In fact, he oversimplifies the nature of real-life counseling by reducing it down to “problem solving,” and then speaking of the “problem” only in terms of sin. However, to be faithful to the biblical sources, one must include a variety of problems as well as a variety of methods. We must “admonish [noutheteite] the unruly,” but we also must “encourage [parameutheisthe] the fainthearted” (1 Thess 5:14). Adams could have just as easily reduced all counseling down to paramouthetics and walked us through a thousand methods for paramouthetic engagement. With Adams’ reductionistic approach, it does not surprise the reader that he never mentions the biblically revealed methods of admonishing with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs sung in thankfulness to God (Col 3:16). Such a method seems out of place with Adams’ narrow, cognitively-oriented categories of problem solving.
His failure to redeem much of the secular methodology and put it in its proper place seems also to be a result of this impractical, unbiblical, and oversimplified reductionism. For example, Adams appears to associate ventilation of one’s pent-up feelings with Freudian ideology of resocialization (11), but “venting” one’s feelings—so long as it does not involve hostile transfer of sinful feelings—is sometimes just what one needs to do, and in fact, should do. We like to say it this way—”I just needed someone to talk to about it.” Sometimes, we just need to talk to someone about our frustrations in life or our disappointments. In those times, we need someone to simply “be there” for us and sympathize with our situation (which may or may not be a sin-rooted problem).  Weep with those who weep.
Furthermore, since not all troubles are sin problems, not all methods include nouthetics. Most counseling relationships might inevitably involve a need for varying degrees of nouthetic confrontation (as do most real friendships). However, sometimes I have the “problem” of indecisiveness in an important decision. I get counsel from my mentor all the time because he is older than me and sometimes provides a different, more informed perspective on life which enables me to make a better decision. When I go to him for counsel on life’s big decisions, he does not probe my life looking to confront me for some sin (although if he did, he might surely find I am a sinner). Rather, he simply offers his advice, encouragement, prayer, and support. This is right and biblical.
Although Biblical Counseling would have a friendly place for nouthetic confrontation, to be true to the biblical text and to real life situations, we must admit that counseling is more than identifying and confronting sin. Adam’s narrow approach simply does not do justice to the full range of human “problems” and situations the way scripture does. Unfortunately, his book sparked a reform which has used his teaching as the basic approach to counseling to this day (the “Biblical Counseling” movement). Of course, I would rather have a narrow approach of nouthetics than a compromised approach which undermines a biblical worldview—if you forced me to choose. But with people who seem to have done a great job in integrating the best of the sciences with the rock-solid biblical worldview (e.g. Johnson), why should we choose Adams’ overly narrow approach which pontificates so many false antithesis and ranks of an unhelpful “psychology is the devil” sort of mentality? While Adams’ work is a breath of fresh air to many evangelicals who have been burdened by the influence of secular models which undermine biblical truth, and although he has swung the pendulum in the right direction, I (and several other evangelicals) am afraid that he has swung the pendulum a bit too far.


Footnote # 1: Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 614. This seems to be the reason why Adams is always trying to ground everything he says—even when he is giving extra-biblical wisdom—in some verse or biblical doctrine (even when it is not in the text).

Footnote # 2: Ibid., 615.

Footnote #3: “This approach to secular and other non-Christian thought is best explained by his adherence to a biblical coherence theory of truth [as opposed to a correspondence theory of truth], just like VanTil’s.” Ibid.

Footnote #4: Ibid, 616.

Providence: Affirmations and Denials…

1. I affirm that a biblical under- standing of divine providence is sufficiently accounted for in the following propositions: 1) All creation is absolutely dependant for its existence at every moment on the existence of God (Neh 9.6, 2 Pt 3.7, Heb 1.3, Col 1.17, Acts 17.28, Job 34.14-15; cf. Ps 104.29). 2) God’s eternal decree extends to all things (Eph 1:11) and has been [since creation], is [now], and will be [evermore] continually executed in the created order through a) natural laws (causes and effects set in motion at the creation of the universe) and b) supernatural creation of and intervention in the created order.

2. I deny that anything which has come to pass concerning the universe and its origin or that will come to pass concerning the universe and its future falls outside of the scope of God’s providence. This includes the heavens, the earth, and all its past, present, and future inhabitants, as well as the eternal destiny of the human race and all created contingencies contained therein (such as the new heavens and new earth)—nature (Ps 148.8, Job 37.6-13, cf. 38.22-30, Ps 104.4, 135.7, Ps 104:14, Mt 5.45), animals (Ps 104.27-29, cf. Job 38.39-41, Mt 6:26), seemingly random chance events (Prov 16.33), all the nations of the earth (Ps 22.28, Acts 17.26, cf. 14.16, Job 12.23, Lk 1.52, Prov 21.1 [cf. Ezr 1.1], 6.22, Dan 4:34-35), the daily needs and obedience of Christians (Mt 6.11, Phil 4.19, Phil 2.13, cf. Ps 33.14-15), the course of every life down to the very detail (Ps 139.16, Job 14.5, Gal 1.15, Jer 1.15, Ps 33.14-15, Acts 17.28, Ps 75.6-7), and all good things (Ps 139.16, Job 14.5, Gal 1.15, Jer 1.15, Ps 33.14-15, Acts 17.28, Ps 75.6-7).
3. I deny the adequacy of notions of divine providence which fail to distinguish between God’s direct and indirect causation in the execution of his divine decree. Such a failure would enable the theologian to conceive of God’s causing human beings to sin in the same way he causes Christians to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

4. I deny that responsible interpreters need not postulate some supernatural intervention or especial power which God continually exercises at every moment a blade of grass is growing or every time it rains on the grounds that the biblical authors attribute such phenomenon to him. Rather, we ought to think of all natural events as caused by God through the continuation of the natural order set in motion from the creation of the universe (secondary causation). Since the Bible speaks of God’s secondary/indirect causation in the same terms as his direct causation (God causes the grass to grow, and he causes the Red Sea to part) we cannot assume that the language of causation everywhere necessitates that supernatural/direct causation is involved in the nature of such causation. Rather, unless we have some reason from the text to believe a supernatural intervention must be involved for God to bring something about (such as the parting of the Red Sea), the hermeneutical default for interpreting the language of causation ought to be one which understands the nature of that causation as secondary/indirect.
5. I deny the adequacy of notions of divine providence which fail to attribute all events of history—including all moral and natural evil—to God’s causation in some way. Examples of moral evil’s caused by God are abundant (Ex 4:21, 7:3 [cf. Rom 9:17], Josh 11:20 [cf. Judg 3:12, 9:23, Judg 14:4], I Sam 2:25, 1 Sam 16:14, 2 Sam 12:11-12 [cf. 16:22], 2 Sam 12:15-18, 2 Sam 16:11, 2 Sam 24:1 [cf.24:1, 10-17, 1 Chr 21:1, 1 Kgs 11:14, 23]). The scriptural affirmation of God’s control of nature is coupled with biblical affirmations of his causation in natural calamities (Amos 3:6, 4:6-12, Job 1:21-22).
6. I deny the adequacy of notions of divine providence which falsely dichotomize human responsibility and free will against such causation, for the scriptural interpretation of historical events allows for God to draw straight with crooked lines and determine the outcome of history through the acts of unconstrained creatures (e.g. the story of Joseph and his culpable brothers [Gen 37:4, 5, 8, 11, 20, 24, 28, cf. 45:5, 50:20], the story of Jesus and the culprits of his violent death [Acts 2:23, cf. various translations of dieceirivsasqe in Acts 5:30]).

7. I deny that we live in a closed universe in which God does not directly and passionately intervene in the affairs of the human race or that the universe could exist one millisecond apart from God.
8. I affirm that the most important aspect to the unfolding of history is a divine intervention—God’s redemptive work of reconciling fallen creatures to himself through the divine incarnation, substitutionary death, burial, bodily resurrection, and eternal reign of his Son and appointed Judge and King of the universe, Jesus Christ.

9. I affirm that the reconciling of man’s sinful heart toward God is a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who directly intervenes against the natural course of the sinner’s heart so that all conversions are the execution of God’s eternal decree through direct/supernatural intervention.

10. I deny the legitimacy of categorizing as “Christian” any person, group, church, ministry, institution, or organization that would fail to affirm God’s direct and supernatural intervention on behalf of the human race as articulated in affirmation eight.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Picture Captions: The first picture is from the Switchfoot concert. The last one is where I got upset a few months ago and kicked down a huge tree. I almost got sued by the owners (jk). All those in between should be obvious to those chill in The Ville.

"I Wish I Were Dead" : How to Love the Depressed

Recalling Job – After God makes a deal with the devil concerning Job’s family and wealth, and God takes everything from Job, Job’s now classic response was this: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed by the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And the scripture adds, “Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God” (Job 1:22).

But round two saw to it that Job’s health was taken from him so that he had a miserable physical existence. Job’s three friends came “to sympathize with him and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They stayed quiet for seven days, “for they saw that his pain was very great” (Job 2:13).

Job was the first to open his mouth and speak after seven days of silence. We know he was silent because just after the mention of the seven days of silence, the text tells us “Afterward Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth” (Job 3:1). Job asks many questions:

Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? … Or like a miscarriage which is discarded, I would not be, as infants that never saw light. … Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul, who long for death, but there is none, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures, who rejoice greatly, and exult when they find the grave? Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden, and whom God has hedged in? For my groaning comes at the sight of my food, and my cries pour out like water. For what I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes.” (Job 3:11, 16, 20-26).

Job Had a Suicidal Mentality, And His Friends Were in Hush Mode – Clearly, Job would rather be dead than experience such emotional and physical pain. This is the suicidal mentality that inevitably flows from a miserable existence. When you are in so much pain that you cannot rejoice, cannot find hope, cannot see things getting better, and cannot live a normal life due to the pain, why even live? Especially for Christians—why not be at home with the Lord where all our pain is gone? This makes suicide especially attractive to believers—they know where they will go if they kill themselves. Yet, it is precisely the Christian who desires to be with Christ that also desires to please Christ and therefore not commit such a grave sin as suicide. This makes the struggle all the more complicated for a believer.

Two things I desire to point out about the book of Job so far. 1) Job wanted to die. Although God testified of Job that “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil,” when suffering of such great magnitude came upon him, though he still loved and had God to hope in, he nevertheless wanted to die. He cursed the day of his birth and was utterly depressed. 2) Job’s friends were silent when they saw Job’s calamity was great. Even these men—who assumed that Job must have sinned for God to allow such great calamity to fall upon him—even they held their tongue at the sight of Job’s suffering.

Both Love and Answers Help, but Love Before Giving an Answer – Just one application from this: When people are suffering greatly, what they need most is for someone to listen, try to understand their pain, and grieve with them. “Weep with hose who weep” is not a suggestion, but part of how we “let love be without hypocrisy” (Rom 12:15, 9). If your only reaction to someone who shares their grief with you is to start intellectually analyzing a person’s situation in light of biblical truths that you think apply to their situation, your heart is cold. Counseling one who suffers from depression is not like solving a math problem. It’s not as easy as 1) “What is your problem?,” 2) “What does the Bible say?,” 3) “Here’s your answer.” If we fail to weep with the suffering, we fail to love them. Someone who is hurting greatly needs your compassion more than they need your biblical analysis of their situation. That’s not to say people don’t need to be counseled with biblical truth—such counsel is essential to their recovery, especially if the sufferer is deficient in biblical understanding and Christian worldview. It is, however, to say that love must express itself first and foremost in compassion, not in analysis and biblical solution. The old adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is proverbial genius.

Love and Pleasure – Love for God & people is what makes the Christian Hedonist’s heart tick. If you understand better how to love, and what love looks like when you want to help someone who suffers with depression, your capacity to love, and therefore to expereince pleasure, grows.

More than a Trial

It’s funny how one minute you can feel on top of the world; full of hope; favored of God; full of life and love, and the next, like your sufficating from fear, depression, anger, unforgiveness, feelings of betrayal, feelings of lonliness, weakness, pain, and despair. It can happen. At the blink of an eye, it can overtake you. When you least expect it. Just when you thought life was getting better; just when you were getting ready to take the next step on the ladder of fulfillment, the next step can crack and send you back to the bottom of the ladder; back to the rock bottom of the sea of despair where the sharks of temptation swim around your head and snap at your flesh.

The word “trial” doesn’t even do it justice. Your faith isn’t just “tested,” it is weakened to the point of doubt and despair. No light at the end of the tunnel. No releif from the emotional suffication; the soul does not stop it’s heaving; it comes in waves; it comes with crushing power; it comes relentlessly; ripping up your insides like internal poison ivy; like a soul-quake; a heart attack; a mack truck of pain rolling over the finest parts of your soul, steeling your joy, sucking your hope up like a death vacuum, cracking your most inner shell like it was made out of plastic, shattering your peace like a brick shatters a car windom, leaving bullet holes in your gut like a roothless drive-by of angry gangbanger retaliatation, leaving you in a puddle of blood, on the torture rack, chopped to peaces, melted in the microwave of affliction.
When it comes, you can have a million friends who run to your rescue, and yet none of them will be able to comfort. They bring you water you cannot drink, they bring you medicine you cannot take, they bring you gifts you cannot accept, they bring you food you cannot eat, they bring you advice you cannot take, soap that does not make clean, lights that do not shine, songs that cannot be sung, glasses that fail to focus the eyes, clothes that do not take away the nakedness, coats that do not warm, lotion that does not stop the flesh from cracking, scissors that cannot cut off the pain, cars that do not start the engine of faith, and words without meaning. They surround you like media surrounds a press conference, yet you are all alone in a black hole of darkness. They pray over you, yet you feel far from God. They look upon you with compassion, yet you feel unloved. No one hears you crying; no one understands the pain. Like a man who watches the sun set, they see you falling and can do nothing. They throw you life lines you cannot grab, send you supplies you cannot use. They are helpless; you are helpless; all you can do is grit the teeth of your soul and wait.
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