Archives For Mike Riccardi

TriageMore than ten years ago (can’t believe it’s been that long!), Al Mohler wrote a seminal blog post outlining what he called “theological triage.” Borrowing the term from the emergency room, Mohler discussed the need for Christians to prioritize certain doctrinal issues over others. In what can be the chaos of an emergency room, medical professionals need to know how to weigh the urgency of various patients’ needs against one another; that is, a gunshot wound should be prioritized over a sprained ankle. Similarly, in the theological world, Christians must understand the difference between (a) “first-order” doctrines—where to hold an errant position actually precludes one from being a true brother in Christ—and (b) “second-” and “third-order” doctrines—issues on which two genuine Christians can disagree and nevertheless be truly saved. In other words, we need to be able to discern the difference between bad doctrine and heresy.

All biblical doctrine is important. I would go so far as to say all biblical doctrine is essential. It’s difficult to put any doctrine into a second or third tier, because it somehow feels as if to do so is to say it’s not important. But employing theological triage doesn’t mean that everything that’s not first-order is unimportant, any more than a doctor’s prioritizing a gunshot wound necessarily thinks a sprained ankle is unimportant. But the fact remains: genuine Christians can disagree on things like the mode and recipients of baptism; but if two people disagree on the triunity of God, one is a Christian and the other isn’t.

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Don't Miss the Forest for the TreesSome time ago I wrote an as-condensed-as-possible version of the great story of redemption, tracing God’s gracious promise to provide the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent through the Old Testament. I examined how that promise narrowed from the seed of the woman, to the seed of Abraham, to the nation of Israel, and to the line of David. We saw how Israel’s repeated failure to be faithful to the covenants Yahweh established with them all pointed to the One who would exemplify covenant faithfulness and fulfill all righteousness on behalf of His people. To put it another way, contrary to what some believe about dispensationalists and the Old Testament, we observed how the whole of the Old Testament finds its climax and fulfillment in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the Israelite par-excellence, and the Son of David. If you’ve not read that post, I’d encourage you to do so.

I mentioned in that post that a great help for interpreting the Bible properly consists in keeping that big picture in the front of our mind so that we can interpret the parts in light of the whole. We don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. This is especially helpful in the Old Testament, where the increased historical, cultural, geographical, literary, and even covenantal gaps can make us raise our eyebrows at not a few passages, which just seem wholly unfamiliar.

Now, we need to be sure that we interpret each passage on its own terms, according to its context, always in search of the intent of the original author. But keeping this grand narrative of redemptive history in mind and locating at what point in the story of redemption that a particular passage finds itself, can often help us understand why some more obscure (or at least, seemingly-removed) passages are in the Bible. Passages that look like road blocks or obstacles in our Bible-reading plans can be transformed (at least in our perception, anyway) by relating them to the larger story of redemptive history.

Today I’d like to just share a few examples.

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Reformation Day - Nerds498 years ago tomorrow, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, kick-starting the Protestant Reformation. Nearly 500 years later, God’s people reserve this day to celebrate the rescue of His Word from the shackles of Roman Catholic tyranny, corruption, and heresy. The glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the sufficient Scriptures had been recovered, and it’s been doing its saving work ever since.

Romans 1:16–17 stands at the heart of the Reformation, especially because of how central it was in Luther’s conversion. Luther speaks of how he had hated the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” because he understood it to be speaking only of God’s standard of righteousness by which He would judge unrighteous sinners. But eventually, he says, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

Today, as we reflect upon and remember the grace of God that fell upon the world in the Protestant Reformation, I want to reflect upon the Gospel that made it happen—and particularly the concept of righteousness which was so central to the regeneration of the great reformer. And to do that I want to focus on another text that Paul penned, which gives us wonderful insight into the saving righteousness of God. In Philippians 3:9, Paul explains what it means to be found in Christ—namely, “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (NKJV).

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Semper ReformandaReformation Day is fast upon us. Next Saturday will be the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther famously nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and kick-starting the Protestant Reformation as a result. Because of that, there will likely be many posts in the Christian blogosphere celebrating the recovery of the biblical Gospel from the perversions of Roman Catholic theology. And because of that, there will likely be many Romanist sympathizers who chide us Protestants as divisive, overly-narrow, unity-destroying, and judgmental. They’ll say something like this (a comment we’ve received before at The Cripplegate):

This is what drives me nutty about Christianity. We all believe in the Bible, Jesus Christ, the road to salvation and the Resurrection. Do I believe exactly as you do? I’m sure I don’t, but I don’t believe you’re any less Christian than I am. We need to understand that there’s more that unites us than divides us.

The problem, of course, is that Protestants and Catholics don’t all believe the same things about the most foundational aspects of the Christian Gospel. That means that we’re not just other Christians from another “denomination.” When two people disagree on issues as fundamental as the basis and instrument of salvation (i.e., Christ’s righteousness alone imputed through faith alone, versus Christ’s righteousness imparted through faith and our works) and whether good works are part of the ground of our righteousness or merely the evidence——one of them is a Christian and the other isn’t.

We see that proven plainly by the way the Apostle Paul spoke about the Judaizers. The Judaizers were professing Christians who “began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). In other words, they taught that the righteousness of Christ received by faith alone is not enough to secure your salvation. To be sure, you need to have faith in Jesus; they wouldn’t deny faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. They would just say it was insufficient; instead, you must “complete” your justification by performing certain good deeds. In other words, the Judaizers sought to add personal works of righteousness to the ground of their justification. They were the first-century counterpart to the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches, “If anyone says that the [justification] received is not preserved and . . . increased before God through good works but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 24). For the Judaizers, those works were circumcision and the other Mosaic ceremonies. For the Catholics, those works are baptism, participation in the Eucharist, and the other sacraments.

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Problem of EvilSeveral weeks ago, I began a series of posts by outlining some foundational biblical teaching about God’s decree. We examined numerous passages of Scripture that speak of God’s decree as eternal, unconditional, unchangeable, and exhaustive. As a result, we concluded that God is properly said to be the ultimate cause of all things. As the Westminster Confession states, “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF, 3.1).

Whenever you say something like that in a theological discussion, immediately the question is raised: How can God be the ultimate cause of whatsoever comes to pass—even actions and events that are evil and sinful, things which God Himself prescribes against—and yet not be rightly charged with unrighteousness. Perhaps the most common answer to that question is an appeal to the notion of divine “permission.” In other words, though God is ultimately in control, He doesn’t ordain evil; He merely allows it. In a second post, I demonstrated why such a solution is unsatisfactory, both theologically and biblically. After considering a number of passages that don’t shy away from attributing to God a very active role in the bringing about of evil events, we concluded with John Frame: “God does bring about sinful human actions. To deny this, or to charge God with wickedness on account of it, is not open to a Bible-believing Christian. Somehow, we must confess both that God has a role in bringing evil about, and that in doing so he is holy and blameless” (Doctrine of God). That post demonstrated that Scripture plainly teaches both (a) that God is unquestionably righteous and (b) that He indeed ordains sinful events and actions. And if that’s what Scripture teaches (and it is), it is not our place to sit in judgment upon and question the consistency of those declarations. That only breeds the worst of biblical and theological mischief. To argue that God is unrighteous for ordaining evil is to sit in judgment upon both the Word of God and the Judge of all the world. Instead, it falls to us to receive both propositions as true on the authority of God’s infallible and inerrant Word.

But is there any way to understand how it can be that God is not the chargeable cause of sin, even though He ordains that it be? There is a way for the worshiper of God to ask that question submissively, not because we demand that God give an account of His understanding of justice that satisfies our sensibilities, but simply because we desire to know Him and worship Him for what He has revealed of Himself. And there is a way to answer that question that remains faithful to sound biblical interpretation and theological reflection.

The answer that Scripture seems to give can be boiled down to two propositions. First, though God is the ultimate cause of all things—even evil—He is never the proximate, or efficient, cause of evil. Second, Scripture regards only the efficient cause of evil as the chargeable or blameworthy party. Let’s look to a sample of texts that bears this out.

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No PermissionIn my last post, I outlined some foundational biblical/theological teaching on the decree of God. We looked at passages of Scripture that speak of God’s decree as eternal, unconditional, unchangeable, and exhaustive. As a result, we concluded that God is properly said to be the ultimate cause of all things.

Immediately, this raises the question: How can God be the cause of actions and events that are evil and sinful—things which God Himself prescribes against—and yet not be rightly charged with unrighteousness? Some people answer this question by appealing to the notion of divine “permission.” In other words, though God is ultimately in control, He doesn’t ordain evil; He merely allows it. I don’t find this kind of explanation convincing for two reasons.

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Divine DecreeIn numerous passages throughout the Bible, there are places where Scripture speaks of God’s “purpose” (Acts 4:28), His “plan” (Ps 33:11; Acts 2:23), His “counsel” (Eph 1:11), “good pleasure” (Isa 46:10), or “will” (Eph 1:5). In one way or another, each of these designations refer to what theologians call God’s decree. The Westminster Confession famously characterizes describes God’s decree as follows: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

So in those instances where Scripture speaks of God’s purpose, plan, counsel, pleasure, or will, these passages are referring to the divine decree by which God, before the creation of time, determined to bring about all things that were to happen in time. John Piper, summarizing God’s decree, says, “He has designed from all eternity, and is infallibly forming, with every event, a magnificent mosaic of redemptive history” (Desiring God, 40). This helpful summary presents three characteristics of God’s decree that succinctly encapsulate the teaching of Scripture: God’s decree is eternal, immutable, and exhaustive.

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“You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
– 2 Corinthians 3:3 –

2 Cor 3;3As false apostles in Corinth are challenging Paul’s credibility, they object to his authority and promote their own on the basis of letters of commendation. They’ve got doctored letters from some church in Jerusalem, and they’re calling Paul out because he has none. Paul responds by saying that Christ Himself has written him a letter of commendation. And it wasn’t written with mere ink or on stone, but by the Spirit on human hearts. The salvation of the Corinthians themselves was all the commendation Paul needed.

If we follow Paul’s imagery carefully, we wouldn’t have expected him to set up a contrast between human hearts and tablets of stone. He’s just spoken of natural letters written in ink, and you don’t use ink on stone. We would have expected Paul to say something like, “Not on papyrus, or parchments, which fade away along with the ink written on them.” But he doesn’t say that. He contrasts “tablets of human hearts”—literally, “tablets that are hearts of flesh”—with “tablets of stone.”

Why? Well, the false apostles (i.e., those whom Paul was defending himself against in 2 Corinthians) were Judaizers. They were teaching that circumcision and keeping the ceremonial law of Moses was necessary for salvation. And so by changing the contrast from “written on paper” to “written on tablets of stone,” Paul is contrasting the impotence of the law in under the Mosaic Covenant with the almighty sanctifying power of the Spirit under the New Covenant, which has now dawned with Christ.

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Apple and SnakeThe last few months have been emotionally tiring for Christians in America.

Though many debate whether the United States was ever a “Christian nation,” there can be no denying that a Christian worldview and biblical principles were fundamental in the formation of this country. Indeed, the founding fathers understood this even as they crafted the charter documents of our government. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which mark the ideals of every American, are endowed to us by our Creator. John Adams wrote, “We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

And for many years, America seemed to be comprised of a largely “moral and religious people.” That’s not to say that everyone was a Christian, or that outward morality or religiosity was equivalent to having truly been born again by the Holy Spirit. But for so many years, this nation that was built upon the freedom of speech, expression, and religion has provided a conducive environment for the Church of Jesus Christ to fulfill her mission: to freely proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, and to make disciples of those whom the Lord saves. This symbiotic relationship has resulted in a general moral consciousness in society that has made it suitable to be governed by our Constitution, according to the vision expressed by Adams above.

But as I said, the last few months have been particularly tiresome for Christians in America, as our society continues to give indication after indication of increasing hostility against the very values that our country was built upon.

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Greatest StoryGod’s goal in all of His creative and redemptive work is to bring glory to Himself (Isa 43:7; cf. Eph 1:6, 12, 14).

This is expressed in His creation mandate to Adam and Eve, in which He commissions man, as those uniquely made in His image, to rule over the earth in righteousness (Gen 1:28). Man is to bring glory to God by their manifesting His presence as His vice-regent throughout all creation.

But immediately Adam and Eve fail in their commission. The serpent deceives Eve, Adam eats of the forbidden tree, and in that moment the human race is catapulted into spiritual death and damnation (Gen 3:1–7).

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