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Conversion, Repentance, and Faith

Recently I was asked by a friend to teach a lesson in a Sunday School class on the topics of conversion and union with Christ. This was one week in a series on the doctrine of salvation in a course on Systematic Theology. As I read through various systematic theology books in preparation for my class, I continued to find the argument that conversion (Greek epistrephō and apostrephō, often translated “turning” or “return”) was comprised of repentance and faith, with the former being the part of conversion where one turns away from sin and the latter being the part of conversion where one turns toward God. Here are some examples:

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John 21 – What’s the Point?

John 21 is often considered by scholars to be a late addition to the gospel and not original. For example, Bart Ehrman states that despite all New Testament manuscripts  having this section, the idea that it is not original to the gospel is a “common view among New Testament scholars throughout Europe and North America.” In accord with this, Westcott is recorded as stating, “It is impossible to suppose that it was the original design of the Evangelist to add the incidents of chapter 21 after the verses which form a solemn close of his record of the great history of the conflict of faith and unbelief in the life of Christ.” In other words, John 20 culminates with a clear and compelling conclusion to the gospel (John 20:30-31); John 21 can thus be nothing more than a second-hand appendage whose function detracts from that explicit and majestic finale.

Nevertheless, the utterly consistent manuscript evidence for the inclusion of John 21 is surely a troubling thorn in the side of this supposed consensus among scholars. Can the scholarly reasoning, strong as it might seem, outweigh such a mass of support? The goal of this blog post is not to argue the merits of strong scholarly reasoning when compared with strong manuscript evidence. Rather, it is to challenge the strong scholarly reasoning by providing an alternative explanation for why John 21 is included after the explicit and climactic purpose statement of John at the end of chapter 20. In brief, the goal of this post is to demonstrate that John 21 is not a detached, second-hand appendage without a thematic connection to John 20 but rather is a connected narrative flowing directly out of the explicit purpose statement of John 20:30-31 and serving as a historical window which allows the reader to understand why John purposed as he did to write his gospel.

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Judges and 1 Samuel

In English Bibles, the Old Testament is usually divided as follows:

Division Books
Law Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
History Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
Poetry Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon
Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel
Minor Prophets Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

The Hebrew Bible, however, is usually divided thus:

Division Books
Torah Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Former Prophets Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings
Latter Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve
Writings Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

Before diving into the subject of this post, a couple of things are worth noting:

  • The English Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are exactly the same in terms of overall content. There is no content existing in the former but not in the latter or in the latter but not the former.
  • The Hebrew Bible sometimes combines books that are separate in the English Old Testament. For example, the twelve “Minor Prophets” in the English Old Testament are combined together in the Hebrew Bible and entitled “The Twelve.” This means the English Old Testament (39) and Hebrew Bible (24) differ in their book count.
  • The English Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are different at times in terms of grouping. For example, the former includes Daniel in the “Major Prophets” whereas the latter includes Daniel not in the prophetic section but rather in the “Writings.”
  • A corollary to the previous point is that the English Old Testament and Hebrew Bible are different at times in terms of ordering. For example, the English Bible has Judges then Ruth then 1 Samuel whereas the Hebrew Bible has Judges then immediately follows with Samuel.

This last example–that of the ordering between Judges and Samuel–is one I wish to explore further in this post. As it turns out, there is some advantage to one of the orderings, and it is my desire in this post to briefly discuss that.

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John 17:6-26 – A Prayer for Protection

In John 13-17: Coming, Going, and Staying, I trace the flow and main point of John’s Upper Room Discourse, bringing out the central theme of the disciples’ need to continue trusting Jesus after His death and then later after His ascension. It is this theme that underpins Jesus’ command to “abide” or “continue” in John 15, and it is the fruitless branches that represent those, like Judas, who do not do so. Though the disciples, especially Peter, confidently declare that they believe and will never forsake Him (13:37; 16:29-30), Jesus declares that shortly (13:38) and wholly (16:32) they will leave Him alone. Yet, unlike Judas who receives no word of assurance upon his departure (13:27), Jesus indicates that the eleven disciples will nevertheless have peace in Him through his victory over the world (16:33). They will be protected in safety despite their treachery on the basis of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection and by the means of his prayer to His Father in John 17. This prayer for protection is the subject of this post.

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John 21:25 – Out of Space

When I was a new believer reading through the Bible, I was fascinated by much of what I encountered for the first time. The stories of Elisha, the miracles of the apostles, the prophecies and exploits of Daniel, the history of Israel, the vision of Revelation. Even the book of Leviticus, widely recognized as a miry bog which stops Bible readers in their tracks (see, for example, herehere, and here), was intriguing to me as I considered the God in whom I had believed giving detailed instructions to His chosen nation on how He was to be worshiped through the sacrificial system, including His enjoyment of the resultant “soothing aroma” (mentioned 16 times in Leviticus!) — I had no idea that was in the Bible!

In addition to the above, one specific verse was mesmerizing to me: John 21:25. It reads,

There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25).

I was flabbergasted reading such a statement. Really? If one were to begin writing in detail all that Jesus did, [s]he would run out of space in the world to store the tomes before finishing the task? Did John actually just say that? On the one hand, it is a fitting and unsurprising end to a gospel which documents a number of mind-boggling statements and works of Jesus. On the other hand, it is a statement that almost defies comprehension, one that leaves the reader, who is finally winding down to the conclusion of a jaw-dropping narrative, rocketed back up and remaining at last in the stratosphere of John’s high view of Jesus the Son of God. What was in John’s mind to cause him to conclude his gospel that way? What lead him to say such a thing?

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Proverbs 8:22-23 – Why Lady Wisdom?

In John 13-17: Coming, Going, and Staying, I mentioned that I had not yet posted a paper I wrote in seminary on Proverbs 8:22-23. In case this proves helpful to someone or opens the door for further conversations, see this exposition of Proverbs 8:22-23.

John 15:2 – Fruitless Branches

The Upper Room Discourse of John 13-17 is filled with beloved and well known passages about Jesus during his last days on earth. It includes, among others, the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus (13:1-20), the promise of Jesus preparing a place for His followers (14:1-3), the declaration that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6a), the promise of the Holy Spirit (14:16ff), the naming of the disciples as friends by Jesus (15:14-15), and the so-called “high priestly prayer” of Jesus (17). And, standing at the center of them all (see John 13-17: Coming, Going, and Staying) is the description of Jesus as the True Vine, His Father as the Vinedresser, and His followers as branches connected to Him (15:1ff).

The significance and impact of this last passage is marred and muted to some degree by a sharp division regarding the meaning of a portion of the vine analogy. In particular, there is disagreement about who is indicated by the branches that do not bear fruit (15:2), symbolic of one who does not abide in Christ (15:6). Is this a true believer who nevertheless fails to continue in the faith and thus is “taken away” (15:2) and eventually consigned to the fires of Hell (15:6)? Or, are these same judgments rather applied to a person who appeared to follow Christ but wasn’t really ever a true believer? Or finally, is this a true believer failing in sanctification that God “lifts up” (15:2, i.e., like a vinedresser carefully raising a branch off the ground to help it) but may eventually discipline “by fire” (15:6, i.e., in a temporal or only physical sense, at most in physical death; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:15)?

Jack Cottrell is a proponent of the first view. He writes,

The conditional nature of staying saved and the possibility of a believer becoming lost are clearly taught in John 15:1-6. Here Jesus is discussing those who are already truly in a saved state; they are branches that are “in Me” (v. 2), fully attached to the life-giving vine. But Jesus exhorts these branches to “abide in Me” (v. 4), clearly implying that whether we abide or remain in the vine is our own responsibility. Verse 6 clearly shows that it is possible for one to choose NOT to abide in Christ: “If anyone does not abide in Me . . . .” If anyone makes this choice, two things follow. First, the one who does not abide in Christ (i.e., ceases to believe) “is thrown away as a branch and dries up.” The expression “thrown away” is “eblethe exo,” literally, “thrown outside.” He was at one time inside—inside the church, inside the love of God, inside the circle of grace; but now he is outside, excluded from grace, as the result of his own initiative, not God’s. Second, those who choose to stop believing and who are thus excluded from grace are finally condemned to hell: “They gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (see Matt 13:40-42). This is not equivalent to 1 Corinthians 3:15, where one’s WORKS are subjected to the test of fire, thus affecting only the believer’s reward. Here the excluded branches themselves—the fallen ones—are burned. (http://jackcottrell.com/notes/once-saved-always-saved/)

John MacArthur is a proponent of the second view. He states,

The Father is at work and He’s doing two things, two very divine works.  He is judging false branches – cutting them off, drying them out, and sending them to hell; and he is pruning true fruit-bearing branches.  This is the Father’s work. . . . [W]hen He sees a branch that has no fruit, He takes it away, He takes it away.  Down in verse 6, He throws it away, it dries up.  Those branches are gathered, cast into the fire, and burned.  That is drastic judgment by God on false believers, false believers.  No fruit. You say, “Does every Christian have fruit?”  Yes, every Christian has fruit.  That’s how you know you’re a Christian. . . .That is the manifestation of life; and where the life of God exists, the fruit must be there.(http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/43-79/i-am-the-true-vine)

Earl Radmacher is a proponent of the third view. He writes,

Jesus is indicating what actually occurred during the Spring, namely, certain non-fruiting branches were “lifted up”: (to keep them from touching the ground and setting roots) and tied to trellises along with the fruiting branches while the side shoots of the fruiting branches were being “cleaned up.” . . . By removing them from the ground and placing them on the trellis the rows of plants would benefit from unhindered aeration that was considered an essential element to proper fruit development. . . . What Jesus has said in the first two verses of this beautiful analogy is nothing short of pure encouragement. He has introduced us to a very special “TLC” rule of our Father. He has told the eleven that God the Father cares for them like a vinedresser cares for his grapes. Further, they are each a part of Jesus and draw their spiritual life from Him like branches draw life from the vine. Jesus has affirmed that among those who are believers, those who believe in Him and so belong to Him, those who are “in Him,” some are ready to bear fruit and some are not. God the Father is caring for both groups of believers. The ones not ready to bear fruit are being “lifted up” by Him with a view to future fruitfulness. Thankfully, the Father does not cut off all non-fruiting branches or the vine would never produce fruit. Though they are not fruitful now, they are still important to Him and recipients of His loving concern. The Father is also caring for the ones who are now ready to bear fruit, like the eleven. He is taking those loving actions that will insure their greater fruitfulness. Jesus’ point to the eleven in this verse is singular. God the Father cares for all who belong to Jesus regardless of their fruitfulness. (http://helpmewithbiblestudy.org/9Salvation/SanctifyUnfruitfulBranchesLiftUp_Radmacher.aspx#ref24)

Which of these views is correct? The normal topics of argumentation to answer that question usually include the significance of the phrase “in Me” (and whether that proves true believers are in view), the meaning of the verb  translated “take away” (as opposed to the alternate rendering “lift up”), and the viticultural practices of the time of Jesus (for historical context into what Jesus might have had in view with the analogy). In addition to the links provided, there are many resources available on the web for tracking down these arguments and drawing an informed conclusion. The purpose of this post, however, is to very briefly take the results of my examination of the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17) in its entirety and see how that larger perspective might establish which view is correct.

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