Monday, November 24, 2014

Should Christians Confess their Sins? Part 6

Having shown that there are reasonable defeaters for these basic objections, it’s time to critique the traditional view a bit further as we build a positive case for a different paradigm on 1 John.
First, it’s necessary to understand that verses 6-10 are juxtaposed against each other. As you read, you bounce from one side of the net to the other like a ping pong ball. Verse 6 has you on one side of the net, then it’s over to the other side for verse 7, then back over the net again for verse 8, and so on. On the traditional view, the “net” in the metaphor is a particular understanding of “fellowship,” a fellowship which can be broken and then repaired or, if you prefer, exited and then re-entered. On this view, you exit fellowship (though you remain eternally saved) by sinning and then you re-enter fellowship by acknowledging that sin, either by name or otherwise.

And on this view phrases like “walking in darkness,” “denying that we sin,” “making God out to be a liar” are understood as descriptions of a believer who is out-of-fellowship. Conversely, verses 7 and 9 are understood (on the traditional view) as descriptions of a believer who is “in fellowship.” Or, they represent the means for regaining fellowship, presumably (key word) after one has sinned. And so descriptions like these:
…the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin 
He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
…are understood to mean “restore fellowship,” in spite of the fact that this sort of language isn’t used anywhere else in the NT to refer to any such thing.

It strikes me that if we found this kind of language anywhere else in the NT, we would say that it points toward justification. And, of course, we do find this kind of language elsewhere in the NT, and it does point toward justification. Revelation 1:5, Ephesians 1:7 and 2:13, Colossians 1:14, 2 Peter 1:9, Romans 5:9 are some examples where the same sort of imagery is used in reference to justification, often invoking the blood of Christ, forgiveness of sin, cleansing or washing from sin, etc. But when we confine the collective pronouns in 1 John 1:6-10 to John and his audience of believers, we create a problem. At that point we are forced by our assumptions to make the above expressions refer to something other than justification, because the audience is already justified. And so to preserve the harmony, a second category of forgiveness is contrived, one that is uniquely applicable to believers. Having done this, however, we now have to find a way to escape the conclusion that we’ve denied (to some extent) the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. After all, when we say that there is any sense in which we are not forgiven, then we’re saying that there’s something more Christ could have done.

But when we keep in mind the solutions I’ve offered for those five basic objections, this talk about the blood of Jesus cleansing from all unrighteousness can fall naturally into the realm of justification. And at that point, other things fall neatly into place.

In verses 6 and 7, there is a contrast between “walking in darkness” and “walking in the light”. The traditional view asks us to believe that “walks in darkness” was intended by John to indicate a Christian’s poor behavior. But we don’t find any examples in any other NT book where the light/dark metaphor is used to indicate behavior. Instead, we always find the metaphor associated with having believed in Jesus or having rejected Jesus. That may not prove that John was using it that way in 1 John, but when we have a metaphor like this that is repeatedly used elsewhere to indicate belief/unbelief, we should be very cautious about concluding that it means something different in a particular book especially when it’s the same author.

Looking at the Gospel of John, we find that light/dark metaphor used in association with believing the gospel or rejecting the gospel (John 3:18-21, John 8:12, John 12:35, John 12:46). This also runs parallel to some occurrences in the epistles where the metaphor is used the same way: (2 Corinthians 6:14, Ephesians 5:8 and 11, Colossians 1:12-14, 1 Thessalonians 5:5, 1 Peter 2:9).

Other expressions occur in verses 6, 8 and 10 which are oddly familiar from John’s other writings, and all are associated with the notion of rejecting the gospel. There is an emphasis on lying, not practicing the truth, deceiving ourselves, the truth/God’s word not being in us and making God out to be a liar.

In 1 John 5:10, the person who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is said to make God out to be a liar. In John 8:37 and 8:44 the idea of God’s word “not being in” someone is associated with rejection of the gospel. In John 3:21, the idea of “practicing truth” is associated with believing in Jesus, and so it stands to reason that “practicing a lie” would correspond to rejecting the gospel. And that is precisely how John uses it in Revelation 22:15:
But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.
Those who are “outside” are those who have rejected the gospel, and in doing so they “practiced a lie” and their sins are counted against them since they would not humble themselves to realize that they needed a savior.

In 1 John 2:22, John says that whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ is a liar.

Am I saying that believers can’t tell lies? Of course not. Nor am I saying that we couldn’t use these kinds of expressions to describe believers in certain circumstances. Metaphors are pretty flexible that way. Certainly, there are believers who lie, who deceive themselves, and who, you might say, do not practice the truth. But if we use those expressions that way, we shouldn’t think that we’re using them the way John intended them in his writing.

A Rose By Any Other Name
Throughout John’s letter there are allusions to or re-iterations of believing in Jesus or believing Jesus is the Christ. Some are more explicit than others. And this is what we would expect if John was concerned with little more than restoring his audience’s assurance. For purposes of this exercise, I’ll skip the allusions to the gospel that I think are present in Chapter 1. But John makes reference to “keeping His commandments” three times in the letter: 1 John 2:3, 3:3 and 5:2,3. The belief that these are references to our behavior—commandments like not stealing, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.—is widespread. However, it seems John tells us that this is not what he has in mind. In 1 John 3:23 John tells us what His commandment is:
And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.
In 1 John 5:3 John says that “His commandments aren’t burdensome.” Well, if His commandments amount to nothing more than believing in Him, then how could they be burdensome? Relying on someone else is never “burdensome,” is it? Isn’t the whole idea that Jesus bears the burden for us? Relying on Him to bear the burden couldn’t possibly be burdensome. But if “keeping His commandments” means avoiding sin, then doesn’t it strain credulity to suggest that this is not burdensome?

So it turns out that “keeps His commandments” can be seen as an allusion to believing in Christ, since this is His command. We also see allusions to believing in Christ (often contrasted against rejection of Christ) in 1 John 2:23, 1 John 4:2, 1 John 4:15, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:5, 1 John 5:10 and 1 John 5:12. These are, of course, the more obvious examples. But another expression that John uses is “practices righteousness.” This appears in 1 John 2:29 and 1 John 3:7. As with “keeps commandments,” the common reading here is that this is a reference to our avoidance of sin. But there are clues that this is not what John has in mind.

We can find one such clue in John 5:28-29, which says that those who “have done good” will be resurrected to life, while those who have done evil will be resurrected to condemnation. Funny… no mention of believing in Christ. Why? Well, Jesus had just spelled it out in verse 24. Whoever believes in Him will not come into condemnation and has passed from death to life. In verse 28, those who have “done good” (practiced righteousness”) are those who have believed in Him. Therefore, “practices righteousness” is an allusion to believing in Jesus. We find more warrant for this conclusion when we consider 1 John 5:1, which says that whoever believes in Jesus is born of God. But in 1 John 2:29 John says that whoever “practices righteousness” is born of God. And if that’s not enough, recall that one result of faith in Christ is that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. With that in mind, 1 John 3:7 makes all the sense in the world:
He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.
So we’ve seen two good reasons to view “practices righteousness” as an allusion to believing in Christ, and now we’ve got a verse that describes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who “practice righteousness.” And we’ve seen good reason to understand “keep His commandments” as a reference to believing in Jesus, and we’ve seen good reason to conclude that “walks in darkness” refers to unbelievers, while walking in the light refers to believers, and given the way John uses these metaphors elsewhere, we don’t have any good reason to understand them any other way. The cumulative case for a paradigm shift is building.

Additional Difficulties
The Frangible Fellowship view of 1 John suffers from a number of problems which ought to encourage us to seek out a better way to understand the letter:

Date of Writing
John’s first epistle is dated from between 65 AD and  95 AD, and this presents an interesting challenge for the traditional view. In an article about 1 John 1:9, Zane Hodges wrote that it would be difficult to find a verse “more crucial and fundamental to daily Christian living.” Essentially, Hodges is saying that the ideas he finds in 1 John 1:9 aren’t found anywhere else. It follows, then, that prior to the circulation of this letter, all Christians were “out-of-fellowship” and weren’t aware of any way to restore that fellowship. This is unthinkable.

Forgiveness, or Forgiveness?
If we deny that 1 John 1:9 pertains to justification, then we must create a new kind of forgiveness to explain away the justification flavor of verses 7 and 9. Also, we must believe that John is speaking of this new kind of forgiveness in verse 9, while in 2:12 (13 verses later) he’s speaking of the first kind of forgiveness. But under the paradigm I’m suggesting, forgiveness can simply mean “forgiveness” and we can now take passages like Psalm 103:12. Micah 7:19 and Hebrews 8:12 at face value, having confidence that we are completely forgiven.

Conspicuous Absence
There is no mention of confession and restoration of fellowship where the epistles address incidents of sin, such as the incident where the man is sleeping with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. If it’s true that sin interrupts fellowship with God and confessing that sin restores fellowship, then it’s very strange that Paul didn’t mention it here. You would think he’d have included instructions for the offender to confess his sin so as to restore fellowship, but such instructions are conspicuously absent.

Partial Confession
The issue of forgotten sins has long been a challenge to this traditional view. One popular solution is to infer that “forgive us our sins” points to the sins you confessed, and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” refers to the sins you have forgotten. This is problematic for at least two reasons: First, it expects that your confession cites specific sins. But we have good reason to think that “confess our sins” is very general. Secondly, the text says nothing about why a given sin has not been confessed. The person may have forgotten that sin, but they may have simply chosen not to confess it. The text does not disallow this. With John’s use of the plural form of “hamartia” in mind, we can conclude that you really only need to confess two sins.

Before, or After?
On this traditional reading of 1 John 1:9, there’s no mention of when the confession has to take place relative to the actual sin, nor is there a demand that you cease the sinful activity. The text simply says that I have to agree with God about the sin, and then God will forgive me. By this understanding I can plan to do something which I already regard as a sin. That is, before I’ve even committed the sin, I agree with God that what I’m about to do is a sin. And so I’m forgiven even before I’ve committed the sin. This reveals a fundamental problem with this aspect of the traditional view: It presumes that we don’t already agree with God that the sin we’re about to commit is a sin.

The Wrap-up
So, in considering the title question, “Do Christians need to confess their sins?” I am convinced that this was not John’s intent, and that the question itself reveals a misunderstanding of 1 John 1:9. I’m convinced that in this passage John is describing what is required of humans in order to become forgiven and declared righteous, where “confess our sins” amounts to little more than a personal realization that one cannot hope to justify one’s self; that a savior (Christ) must be relied upon instead. This is contrasted in 1 John 1 against the person who refuses to accept the truth, who insists on their own ability to justify themselves. Such a person, John explains, is walking in darkness, deceiving themselves, practicing a lie, making God out to be a liar, and the truth (God’s word) is not in them.

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 5

The fifth objection that needs to be addressed is the idea that the conditional statements in 1 John 1:6-10 are prescriptive rather than descriptive. Such an assumption flows naturally from the misidentification of the antecedent for collective pronouns which we’ve already explored.

However, it’s fairly easy to see that this isn’t necessarily the case with a conditional statement. Consider the following statement
“If we go fishing, we’ll catch fish.”
Such a statement need not be taken as prescriptive (never mind that it’s awfully optimistic). That statement is merely a truth claim. There is a protasis and an apodosis, but an actual command to go fishing is conspicuously absent. It’s merely stating that if we go fishing, we’ll catch fish. Maybe we’ll go fishing and maybe we won’t… but if we do, we’ll catch fish. If catching fish is something to be desired, then we’ll be inclined to go. If catching fish is undesirable, then we’ll be inclined not to go.
On that basis alone, we should be cautious about how we read conditional statements.

In the case of 1 John 1:6-10, the reader will be more inclined to take these as prescriptive if he’s convinced that those collective pronouns refer to believers. But when we consider the possibility that these collective pronouns refer to humans generally, these conditional statements lose whatever prescriptive feel they may have had. Now John can be seen to be simply telling it like it is. These conditional statements become mere descriptions of reality, and as mere descriptions of reality, it’s entirely reasonable that John would be describing this reality to believers, in just the same way that one believer could say to a group of believers “He who believes in Christ has eternal life.”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 4

The fourth objection to deal with is that if 1 John 1:9 contains the gospel, it doesn't state the gospel accurately.

The first point to make is that verse 9 doesn’t need to be a self-contained statement of the Gospel. That is, 1 John 1:9 was never intended to stand on its own. This verse is part of a letter and should not be considered in isolation. Having said that, it really depends on just what is meant by “confess our sins.” And so, we must make sure we understand “homologeo” the way John intended it.

I derive my understanding of this word by observing how John uses the word elsewhere. His use of the word in John 1:20 and 1 John 2:23 is instructive. In both passages, “homologeo” is juxtaposed against the idea of “deny.” From this, we can conclude that “homologeo” is the antonym of “deny.” We could use words like “agree,” “acknowledge” or “affirm.” You can affirm a proposition, or you can deny a proposition.

Some might caution that a given word isn’t always used precisely the same way, and this is true. However, when you consider that the verses on either side of 1 John 1:9 are describing denial, we’re justified in understanding “homologeo” in verse 9 as the antonym of “deny.”

So we could say that to confess your sins is to not deny your sins; to acknowledge them. But a there’s a peripheral question: “Which sins?” Is this about individual sins, or is it about recognizing our sinful nature?

So “homologeo” simply means to acknowledge, affirm or agree with a given proposition. But what proposition?

When you consider the content of verses 8 and 10 on either side of verse 9, you see that we (humans) can either affirm our sin, or deny our sin. That is, we either recognize our sinful nature, or we deny our sinful nature. But what follows from this?

If Bob recognizes and understands his sinful nature, then it follows that Bob believes he is unable to justify himself on his own merit. But if Bob will not recognize his sinful nature, then he will tend to rely on his own ability. And so we see that when Bob affirms his sin, he implicitly denies his ability to justify himself. When Bob denies his sin, he (erroneously) affirms his ability to justify himself. This is self-deception, and makes God out to be liar.

To trust in or rely on Christ for justification implies, that you affirm that you are unable to justify yourself, and to affirm that you are unable to do so is to recognize your need of a savior who can justify you.

We see this idea communicated in Luke 18:10-14 when the pharisee affirms his own righteousness, denying that he sins. In doing so, he affirms (quite erroneously) his own ability to justify himself and so “exalts himself.”

By contrast, the tax collector denies his own righteousness, and affirms his abject need of God’s mercy and in so doing, humbles himself. The principle brought out in this story is a trans-dispensational principle that goes back to Proverbs 33 and appears again in Luke, and in James 4, and—I’m convinced—in 1 John. God gives grace to the humble. He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. In the Luke 18 passage, Jesus says that the tax collector (and not the pharisee) went down to his house justified.

With that in mind, realize that there are instances in the NT, particularly in the Gospel of John, where we see allusions to the gospel rather than explicit presentations of the gospel. Consider John 6:54, for example:
“Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
No one in the Free Grace movement believes that receiving eternal life is conditioned upon eating anyone’s flesh or drinking anyone’s blood, certainly not Jesus’ blood… how could we? Clearly this is an allusion to believing in Jesus. We know it is an allusion to believing in Jesus because the result is eternal life and being raised up at the last day, and earlier in the same chapter Jesus puts it in those terms: (John 6:40)
“…everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
The conclusion here is that we need not require John to capture the precise terms of the gospel at every opportunity, especially not when he’s addressing people who have already accepted the gospel and therefore wouldn’t require such precision. Even so, “confess our sins,” can be taken as an allusion to believing in Jesus even without the numerous other verses in 1 John which make it more clear that believing in Jesus is the issue.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 3

The third reason why some will object to the idea that John is talking about salvation in 1 John 1:9 is that “confess” is a present-tense verb. The thinking is that the action John is describing is one that must continue on and is applicable in the present for his audience.

But consider again the quote from the pastor that I cited above, as he described the gospel:
"When you trust Christ as savior, He declares you as righteous and He gives you—as a free gift—everlasting life.”
Again, this pastor is addressing believers, and he is not presenting the gospel for the purpose of evangelizing his audience. Instead, he is re-iterating gospel truths to people who already have believed the gospel. Is this not a normal and healthy thing for a pastor to do? If so, why would it not be normal and healthy for John to do the same?

In the Free Grace camp generally, we’re somewhat accustomed to refuting this abuse of the present-tense, particularly with verses such as John 5:24, where many see “believes” there as requiring perpetual, continuing faith. But of course, these folks seem quite comfortable with the idea that the present-tense can also refer to a one-time event, such as the word “divorces” in Luke 16:18. Nobody thinks you have to divorce a woman “continually” and then marry another (also “continually”) in order to be accused of adultery.

It’s not that the present-tense cannot ever refer to continuous action, but to understand the present-tense that way is frequently not necessary and would lead, in many cases, to absurdities.

Therefore, it’s quite plausible that the present-tense in 1 John 1:9 was not intended to refer to “continuous action,” but rather to a one-time event, i.e., the point of forsaking hope in all but Christ. And so we find that the use of present-tense verbs turns out not to be a very sound reason to think that John cannot be talking to believers about salvation/justification.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 2

As I described in Part 1, I have noted five basic objections to the idea that John’s first epistle is about justification, and if these objections can be defeated, then it becomes reasonable to say that 1 John 1:9 could pertain to justification. The second objection I will deal with is that the book of 1 John is about "fellowship," not salvation. Therefore, so the argument goes, 1 John 1:9 cannot pertain to salvation or justification.

This is a noble objection because it aims to squash a very popular view of 1 John, where various verses are seen as “tests” of whether a person is actually saved. This “Tests of Life” model is deeply flawed and completely indefensible. I’ve heard Lordship teachers say that 1 John is about “assurance of salvation,” but it’s not difficult to see why this doesn’t work: If you have to “test” whether you’re saved or not, you quite obviously have no assurance. The entire approach is an exercise in futility. And since the criteria for proving you “have life” are so subjective and poorly defined, the tests can’t ever be counted on to produce a reliable result.

Free Grace teachers generally advocate the “Tests of Fellowship” model in opposition to “Tests of Life” as if it doesn’t suffer similar problems. You see, to say that the test is for “fellowship” instead of “life” doesn’t get around the fact that the criteria are subjective and poorly defined. Such tests cannot give you reliable results. Given God’s character, it’s difficult to imagine how God could give us tests that are unreliable.

John says in 1:4 that his purpose for writing is “that your joy may be full.” But when you consider the flaws of either “test” model, it becomes clear that if these “tests” are taken seriously, no one’s going to come out of it with any “joy.” They’re going to see that, well, they don’t keep His commandments, and so they must not have life. Or they must not have fellowship. Neither is good. How are such tests compatible even with the very first purpose statement of the letter?

To deal with this objection, we have to explore this idea of “fellowship.” I need to be sure that I understand what the term means. Unfortunately, John only uses the word “koinonia” 3 times, and all of those are in 1 John. So if we were to limit our word study to John’s writings, that’s all we have to go by.

In 2 Corinthians 6:14, however, we get a clear idea of the word’s meaning when Paul writes:
“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”
Paul is concerned about being “unequally yoked together” with unbelievers. The metaphor relates to oxen pulling a cart, engaged in a common cause. The oxen are “yoked together,” a picture of “joint participation.” Notice how broad this is. And the two rhetorical questions which follow add some emphasis. In English, (NKJV) we can see there are two different words here that correspond to being “yoked together.”
“For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
In the first question, the word “fellowship” is “metoche,” and then the word “communion” in the second question is the Greek word “koinonia.” When you compare the English translations, it’s clear that the two words are synonymous, meaning “fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation.”

Accordingly, I take “fellowship” to be a very broad term which simply means “joint participation.” It refers to two or more individuals being united in a plan, like two oxen pulling a cart. The question to ask here is: “Is ‘koinonia’ a word that can be used to describe our permanent identification with Christ, and our association with God through faith in Christ?” It seems that it’s used that way in 1 Corinthians 1:9 and Philippians 1:5, so the answer must be “Yes.” But does that mean it’s used that way in 1 John? Not necessarily, but the fellowship mentioned in 1 John is fellowship with God, so we’re already in the ballpark. I am convinced that “fellowship” in 1 John 1 does refer to our permanent, unbreakable union with God through faith in Christ and that 1 John 1:9 describes how that fellowship is established.

John’s Purpose:

So if both “Test” models are flawed, what is the point of John’s letter? Well… John tells us in plain terms. Purpose statements are found in 1:4, 2:1, 2:12, and 5:13. Considered as a whole, these purpose statements fit neatly under a larger umbrella. John wants to assure people that they really do have eternal life. It’s clear that John’s audience had been exposed to some false teachers and this apparently left a mark. These believers had evidently come under attack by deceivers who were trying to undermine their confidence in the truth they had already believed. The emphasis the text places on personal sins in John’s letter suggests that false teachers may have capitalized on the personal failures of the members. John wants to reassure these people again. And how better to do that than to re-iterate those basic truths of salvation, truths that the audience had heard and believed previously, but had been brought into question? In 5:13 John wants them to know that they have eternal life. In 2:12 He says that their sins have been forgiven (perfect tense). In 2:1-2 John reminds them that Christ’s advocacy on their behalf is the solution to their sin. All of this adds up to making complete the joy of John’s audience in 1:4.

The objection is that 1 John is about “fellowship,” not “salvation,” as if they are two different things. When we trust in Christ, we become “yoked together” with God, and we cannot become “un-yoked.” This, I’m convinced, is what John had in mind with the word “koinonia.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Should Christians Confess Their Sins? Part 1

Years ago I began to notice a fundamental discrepancy in certain aspects of Free Grace teaching. This discrepancy was not one that would endear me to Lordship Salvation… rather, it made me question whether some aspects of what I’ll call “standard” Free Grace teaching might be, well, a bit less than “Free Grace.”

I began to notice what appeared to be a certain amount of “doublespeak” when it came to the question of whether our sins are forgiven. I noticed that passages like Psalm 103:12, Job 14:17, Micah 7:19 and Hebrews 8:12 seem to emphasize the totality of forgiveness, while the teaching regarding 1 John 1:9 seemed to diminish that totality with the suggestion that when a believer sins, there is a sense in which he is not forgiven until and unless he acknowledges that sin to God, and that until he does that, he is “out-of-fellowship” and his prayers will not be heard. This is a view that I will refer to as "Frangible Fellowship." The word "frangible" essentially means "able to be broken." And something that can be broken needs to be repaired. On the Frangible Fellowship view, naming individual sins to God is the repair.

Frangible Fellowship teaches that the barrier between myself and God was removed, even permanently, by my faith in Christ, but that a new barrier—an interruption in my fellowship with God—could pop up again, brought about by sin, which was supposedly sealed up in a bag, hurled into the depths of the sea and removed as far from me as the East is from the West.

To be fair, I could follow the reasoning. It did appear that 1 John 1:9 was prescribing an action for the audience to whom he was writing. And although “forgive us our sins” and “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” sounded a lot like justification, I could understand why the teachers I was listening to were insisting otherwise. These were, after all, believers who had already been justified. So why would John prescribe for his audience an action which would result in what they already had? And if John wanted to tell anyone how to become justified, why wouldn’t he mention anything about faith in Christ? And why does John use present-tense verbs which seem to imply action that continues on to some extent?

I don’t mind admitting that questions like these looked daunting to me at first. But at the same time, I just couldn’t ignore certain features of the text, and so I was driven to look for answers to those questions. And it turns out that those questions do have very reasonable answers which are quite compatible with an emphasis on faith alone in Christ alone plus nothing.

In this article, I will argue that 1 John 1:9 does pertain to justification. I will present five basic objections people have to understanding it that way, and I will offer defeaters for each of those objections. I will then offer scriptural support for the understanding I’m advocating, and I will propose a reasonable context for the letter and show how this understanding fits that context, and I will offer additional reasons why I think 1 John should be understood this way and why I think the traditional understanding is in error.

I want to say that I have been deeply influenced—in a good way, I think—by various pastors whom I trust, but who hold the view of 1 John which I am critiquing. I mean no disrespect to any of them, nor to any other pastor who teaches Frangible Fellowship. I was taught the doctrine from an early age and believed it and practiced it for decades. When I began to realize that things didn’t appear to add up, I decided to strike out on my own, and it seems to me to have been worth the effort.

Objections to Overcome:

I have noted five basic objections to the idea that John’s first epistle is about justification:
1) Collective pronouns refer to John + readers
2) 1 John is about “fellowship,” not salvation
3) Use of Present-Tense Verbs
4) 1 John 1:9 misstates the gospel
5) The conditional statements in 1 John 1:6-10 are prescriptive
If these objections can be defeated, then it becomes reasonable to say that this passage could pertain to justification. If there remains no reason to avoid that conclusion, then we can go forward with exploring how that might work. In this first entry, I will address the first of the five objections.

Objection 1: Collective Pronouns

Misidentifying the antecedent for the collective pronouns in 1 John 1:6-10 is, I’m convinced, the biggest barrier to understanding John’s intent in this passage. The common reading is that “we,” “us” and “our” in these verses refer to John plus the people whom he’s addressing. And there’s no doubt in my mind that John is addressing people who have previously trusted in Christ and who do have eternal life. However, there’s nothing in the grammar here that actually tells us—in an objective way—what the correct antecedent is. This is an interpretive question that will be answered by contextual cues.  But what is the context? Certainly, part of the context is that John is addressing believers. But what problem do these believers face? Well, John seems to be interested in reassuring these people about their salvation. All four of the purpose statements found in the letter are consistent with this basic idea, and throughout the letter there are numerous references to believing that Jesus is the Christ as opposed to denying the same. This culminates in 1 John 5:13, at which point John explains that he’s written the letter so that his audience will know that they have eternal life. Does this not imply that the audience has been doubting it? So let’s look at that as a sort of “hypothesis” for the context and see if that leads us in any interesting directions.

Back to the issue of identifying the antecedent: When a writer uses a collective pronoun such as “we” or “us” or “our,” the writer is referring to a group of individuals that includes the writer himself. Whatever the antecedent, it needs to be a group of people that includes, at minimum, John himself. Since John is a believer and since the members of his audience are believers, it’s not unreasonable to think that perhaps “believers” is the group to whom “we” refers. But it’s not the only option.

The human race is also a group which includes John himself, and also encompasses his readers. So, it’s possible that “we” could refer to humans generally… and there are at least two verses in the New Testament where a collective pronoun is used this way: Acts 4:12 and 2 Peter 3:9.

Another example of the kind of pronoun use I’m suggesting is found in Isaiah 64:5. Isaiah was, of course, a believer; he was saved. But in this verse, Isaiah is addressing God and says:
“You are indeed angry, for we have sinned. In these ways we continue; and we need to be saved.”
 The English translations use the pronoun “we” in this passage, and I’ll assume that the translators have accurately captured Isaiah’s intent, and that there is widespread agreement about that. With that in mind, notice that even though Isaiah is already saved, he’s still using a pronoun which includes himself in the group that “needs to be saved,” and that “we” appears to refer to humans generally. I’ll grant that this is not a carbon copy of the scenario we find in 1 John, but it demonstrates a certain “freedom” with pronouns that some want to deny when they get to 1 John.

Recently I listened to a lesson from a Free Grace teacher which was centered on the truths of salvation. Addressing a congregation of believers, the pastor said the following:
“When you trust Christ as savior, He declares you as righteous and He gives you—as a free gift—everlasting life.”
 Notice that this is a conditional statement. He could just as easily have said “If you trust in Christ…” But more importantly, notice that his statement is conditional even though he’s addressing people to whom the condition no longer applies. The people in his congregation have met the condition already, and yet he’s addressing them as though they haven’t. Why? Because he is re-iterating to them a basic salvation truth. And as a “consumer” of Free Grace teaching, I find I am on the receiving end of this sort of thing frequently. It is quite a normal phenomenon in my experience. This occurred to me while listening to a trusted Free Grace teacher as he taught on 1 John 1:9 and said, essentially, that John couldn’t be talking about salvation because his audience was already saved. I immediately thought “Wait a minute… I’m saved, and I hear about salvation all the time.” In fact, I had heard about it quite a bit from this same pastor who now seemed to be telling me that such things never happen. I mean no disrespect to this pastor—one reason why I don’t wish to name him—but this is quite a large non-sequitur.

It’s important to point out, however, that it would not make sense for John to be “presenting the gospel” to this particular audience. And notice that in the practical example offered above, the pastor is not presenting the gospel to his audience. That isn’t his intent because he expects that the people to whom he’s speaking have already accepted the gospel. Nevertheless, he is teaching them about salvation, re-iterating the basic truths of salvation because, quite obviously, those truths need to be beat into our heads repeatedly. And it appears that New Testament writers recognized the wisdom of doing just that. Consider 2 Peter 1:12 where Peter writes:
“For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth.”
Peter recognizes how important it is to remind his audience of truths they are already aware of, and isn’t it interesting that Peter thinks it’s negligent not to?

The notion that the collective pronouns in 1 John 1:6-10 refer to humans in general is entirely defensible from grammar and from context. But, there is something else that tends to bother people about this idea: It asks the reader to believe that these antecedents change rather abruptly. Although this may seem counterintuitive, I have found numerous examples where such changes are evident and, in fact, undeniable. The first example is in 1 John 1, and is recognized even by those who teach the Frangible Fellowship view.

The collective pronouns “we,” “us” and “our” in the first five verses of 1 John cannot refer to the same antecedent as the same pronouns in verses 6-10. We know this because his audience never saw, heard and touched Jesus. John is talking about a group of people (the apostles) who had done these things, and then told this audience about it. The teachers who teach the Frangible Fellowship view, then, are comfortable with antecedents changing abruptly because they go on to teach that in verses 6-10 the collective pronouns refer to John and his audience, not John and the apostles as in verses 1-5.
Two more examples can be found in Acts 4:9-4:12 (pronoun: we) and also 2 Peter 3:2-9 (pronoun: us).

In the end, we shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the idea that the antecedents to pronouns change, and we should recognize even in our own communication that we use pronouns in a very fluid manner.

As I’ve discussed this idea about the pronouns with those who teach this traditional view, I’ve been reminded frequently that John is addressing believers. These reminders, while well-intentioned, often come after I’ve already made it clear that I also believe John is addressing believers. And even after I clarify again, the reminders seem to keep coming. The reason for this is a foundational assumption that “we” and “us” must be confined to John and his readers. It ignores the very real possibility that in these verses John is addressing his audience as mere human beings… and much like the example above, John is treating his audience as if they have not yet believed, as he re-iterates to them these basic truths of salvation.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bad Design is Still Design

One very popular argument against Intelligent Design is the argument from suboptimal design. It seems that many are persuaded by this argument, but it really doesn't take a whole lot of careful thought to see how ineffective such an argument is.

In a more general version of the argument, our critic might make reference to species which have gone extinct, or they might simply poke fun at how our health deteriorates as we age, and that eventually our bodies give out entirely, all while insisting that this is "crappy design."

Unfortunately, the person who offers such an argument forgets that automobiles, aircraft, ships, buildings, trains, computers, bicycles--and a million other things we use daily--all have finite longevity and are all products of Intelligent Design. Is someone actually going to say that a Lycoming aircraft engine is a "crappy design" because, for example, the engine will require an overhaul after around 2000 hours of operation? Passenger aircraft have a finite longevity as well, established by the very company that designed and manufactured it. Once a particular Boeing 747 has endured a certain number of pressurization cycles, the whole airframe must be scrapped. Does this mean that a Boeing 747 is a "crappy design?" I would challenge the ID critic to cite just one known product of Intelligent Design that will not wear out and become non-functional at some point in time. Obviously, Intelligent Design and limited longevity are quite compatible with each other.

The reason that argument seems attractive to many ID critics is that they they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the term "Intelligent Design." The word "intelligent" is not meant to be a description of the "quality" of a given design. A primitive arrowhead carved from a piece of flint is as much the product of Intelligent Design as the most modern, precision-engineered bowhunting arrowhead.

So it isn't whether the design is good or bad that tells us whether something is the product of Intelligent Design. When we say that something is the product of Intelligent Design, it's not because the design is good or bad. Rather, it's because we see that someone had to use intelligence to produce the thing in question, and intelligence boils down to the ability to make goal-oriented choices.

When you look at man's early attempts at flight, you will see a comical array of hopeless contraptions none of which had any hope of getting off the ground.  In spite of this, each was a product of intelligent design because someone made choices oriented toward achieving a particular goal. Even if those choices were bad choices, they were still choices oriented toward a goal and that is intelligent design.

Of course, we need to be prepared to deal with the more specific appeals to "bad design" as well.

But first, let's examine the structure of the argument. Anyone who points to examples of "bad design" to make a case against Intelligent Design is essentially saying that if something has a design flaw, it cannot be the product of Intelligent Design. But this raises an important question: Can we see design flaws in things which we know are products of Intelligent Design? If the answer is "Yes," then their argument is dead on arrival. And of course there are numerous examples of just this sort of thing:

In July of 1981, approximately 2,000 people assembled inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri to watch a dance competition. Spectators filled suspended walkways on the second, third, and fourth floors when, tragically, the structural support for the fourth floor bridge caused the collapse of two of the walkways, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200. The actual architect's design wasn't flawed, but the people building the structure departed from the architect's specs and essentially substituted their own design, and it turned out to be badly flawed.

In the mid '90s, General Motors took a lot of heat over a pickup truck design that placed the fuel tanks outboard of the frame rails, creating a serious fire hazard in the event of a side impact. Indeed, engineers were responsible for the design, and these engineers--like all other humans--were intelligent. But here we have a good example of suboptimal design, undeniably the product of Intelligent Design.

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger and seven crew members were lost in a massive explosion about 73 seconds after lift-off. The explosion was caused by the failure of an O-ring in one of the field joints in the right-side rocket booster. A design flaw in the O-rings made them vulnerable to wide temperature variations and this, along with poor decision-making at NASA, lead to the destruction of “Challenger” and her crew.

These three examples all demonstrate conclusively that the presence of design flaws is entirely compatible with Intelligent Design. The hotel, the pickup truck and the rocket booster are all the products of Intelligent Design, and yet they all exhibited certain design flaws.

Having said all of that, it's important to note that I'm not actually conceding that there are examples of suboptimal design in nature… I sincerely doubt there are any. But Richard Dawkins certainly thinks he's found some…

A YouTube video features Richard Dawkins and Randolph Nesse discussing the human eye. The entire conversation is about how the human eye supposedly disproves Intelligent Design. The video is instructive for several reasons. Speaking of the human eye, Randolph Nesse says the following:

"It's a perfect example of why the body is not designed. I mean, imagine a camera designer for a famous camera company like Nikon or Pentax who put the wires between the light and the film, which is how our eye is working."

Perhaps Nesse should have quit while he was ahead. He was doing fine until he had to admit that our "eye is working" in spite of what might appear to be a rather odd design.

He goes on to point out the the human eye has a blind spot, and he and Dawkins actually demonstrate this for the video. But then Nesse does something he shouldn't have: He keeps talking. After exposing the blind spot, he says this:

"What's amazing, though, about how natural selection has made the eye so that it works despite this built-in flaw, is that the eye constantly jiggles slightly. We call it 'nystagmus,' and this seems like a problem, but it's actually a solution."

It's obvious what Nesse has just done, and not all that cleverly. Whatever he sees as a design failure is evidence against Intelligent Design, but everything he sees as a design success counts as evidence for Darwinism. Convenient, isn't it? This is a classic case of "heads I win, tails you lose." But Nesse continues:

"Because if it wasn't for the eye jiggling constantly…, that blind spot would always be in the same spot and you'd never see anything there. But because the eye moves slightly, you end up getting complete coverage of your field of vision."

Curiously, Nesse refuses to see this as a designer's work-around aimed at optimizing the function of the eye, and Dawkins' own comment is that in spite of this serious flaw, the human eye is "a remarkably fine instrument." This is odd, because earlier in the video Dawkins cites a famous German psychologist named Helmholtz who said that "If an engineer had given him the human eye, he'd have sent it back." Why send back a "remarkably fine instrument?" These men are truly grasping at straws.

The fundamental problem with the argument from suboptimal design is rather simple: The only way you can assess the design of a particular system is if you have knowledge of all of the design objectives. You don't have to be an engineer to understand that engineering is all about balancing and optimizing multiple competing design objectives. A bicycle frame needs to be very strong, but it also needs to be very light. Making the frame strong would be fairly straightforward: Just carve the shape out of solid steel. Likewise, making the frame very, very light would be simple as well: Paper tubes, perhaps. But of course both would be useless… the solid steel frame would be too heavy and the paper frame would lack the necessary strength. What Dawkins and Nesse refuse to acknowledge is that they don't really know enough about all the design objectives that needed to be balanced to give us the eyes we have and so they're really not qualified to assess the design one way or another, and neither am I.

One rather odd example of this argument from suboptimal design came to me from a long-time friend of mine who asked me why men have nipples. Hmm. Good question. And I can see why, on the surface, this seems like a really strange design feature for men and I could see why it would make my friend scratch his head a bit. But when you actually dig for answers, this question ends up exposing a powerful argument for design.

The reason why men have nipples is actually quite simple: Every man starts out as a female. Every egg is female by default, and so has specification for all of the appropriate equipment. When an egg is fertilized by a sperm carrying a Y chromosome, those specifications get altered and a few weeks into development, what would have been ovaries become testicles, etc. But here's where we uncover a surprising argument for design: If we find an object that has useless features, does that mean it was not designed? Well, turns out the answer is "No."

I'm a car enthusiast, and I noticed that if you could look at the engine block of just about any car out there, you would likely find features on that engine block that are completely useless in that particular car. I'm talking about features common to cast parts like engine blocks, cylinder heads and manifolds called "bosses." A "boss" is a raised, reinforced part of an engine block's casting that is typically drilled and tapped to accept a fastener of some sort. A modern engine block is likely to be adorned with quite a few of these, but in any given car, only some will be used. And so, if you could get in there to see it, you would find that in any given car, there are a number of entirely useless casting bosses. In one car model, the engine might be mounted longitudinally while in other models the engine might be transverse-mounted, and this might require different mounting points where a different set of bosses are used.

Engineers are smart… if a particular type of engine is going to be used in different car models, they're only going to want to create one mold for the engine block, it's far more efficient. That one mold will yield a block that has provisions for mounting it in any of the car models designed with that engine in mind. But, as each engine is installed in individual cars, some bosses are not going to be used. And so you're left with these "empty" bosses--they're even drilled and tapped--but nothing gets bolted to them. They had a use, but because that engine ended up in car model X rather than car model Y, they no longer have a use.

A similar scheme can be seen here with the nipples on men. The nipples had an intended use in a potential sort of way, but because the egg ended up getting fertilized with a Y-chromosome instead of X, those nipples will never serve that potential purpose. The point is that this isn't bad design at all… it's actually quite good design. Or, at the very least, it's a design strategy that is easy to find in things that we know are products of Intelligent Design.

The moral of this story is that when you encounter this argument from suboptimal design, whether it's the human eye or the laryngeal nerve in a giraffe's neck, there's no need to give up any ground at all. Even IF we were to concede to certain design flaws in biology, (and we shouldn't) we know that in general, design flaws are not incompatible with Intelligent Design. But we also know that we can't even determine whether the curious routing of the laryngeal nerve in a giraffe is a "design flaw" because we don't know all the competing design objectives, and neither does the critic. All we can really say is that it's curious… even baffling. And there are many things that we use every day that have features which, if we were to pay attention, would puzzle us. But that never means that the object wasn't designed… in fact we know--whether it's a toaster oven or a hat rack--that it was the product of Intelligent Design. And so curious--even apparently useless--design features are not incompatible with Intelligent Design, which means that the argument from suboptimal design is a very poorly designed argument