set free

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates is in prison, awaiting his execution. A number of his faithful disciples are gathered around him, discussing his fate. Socrates seeks to cheer them up by explaining his belief that he will soon be set free from his incarceration. The prison he expects to be released from is that of his body. Plato uses the dialog between these people to prove his belief that the soul is set free from the prison of the body at death.

“Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?

To be sure, replied Simmias.

Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion if this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and the body is released from the soul, what is this but death?”[1]

“And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body … the release of the soul from the chains of the body?”[2]

So, Socrates could comfort his disciples by assuring them that death would not be a defeat for him. He could confidently drink the hemlock because it would offer him true freedom – not just a physical release from his body’s bondage, but a greater release – release from the prison of his body itself.

Many Christian theologians and preachers have suggested that Socrates was right in that confidence. They teach the same thing about death that Socrates taught: that it brings freedom. Does the Bible affirm this, or did these theologians and preachers borrow the idea from pagan philosophers?

Death to be Feared

The Bible consistently teaches that death is an enemy to be feared,[3] rather than a solution to our present problems. God’s warning to the residents in Eden was “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”[4] If death were a good thing, bringing release from the prison of their body, God’s warning would not make sense.

Death is Darkness

The Bible associates death with darkness, not freedom and light.[5] It is pictured as a place void of all awareness, a place where the souls and bodies lie and await the next event – a resurrection and its accompanying judgment. The dead are described as unconscious of what is going on around them. This is not freedom.

Death is Sleep

The term “sleep” is the single most used description of death in the Bible. It is used in the Old Testament and in the New. It is used of believers and unbelievers. It is used of people before the atonement and afterward.

“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death”[6]

“After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died”[7]

“The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised”[8]

“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”[9]

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”[10]

“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”[11]

The image of sleep is especially important as a description of death because it speaks of the reality that death is not permanent. To die is to sleep, but to be raised is to be awakened. In the interval, people reside in a state of unconsciousness called (in Hebrew) Sheol, and (in Greek) Hades. In a previous article I wrote on this intermediate state, I concluded:

“Sheol, then, is a silent, dark state or condition in which everyone exists at death, and can only live again by a resurrection from the LORD. It is always contrasted with heaven, and never equated with it. It is not the hope of the saints; rescue from it is the hope of the saints.”[12]

Resurrection: rescue from death

The biblical hope is not death itself, but rescue from it. Jesus is the one who has the keys to set people free, and the prison that we are incarcerated in is not our physical body, but death and Hades.

“I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[13]

“And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”[14]

The New Testament consistently presents the hope of believers as their resurrection to full bodily life by Jesus at his return.

“for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”[15]

“Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.””[16]

“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection”[17]

“that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[18]

Paul made it clear that his hope was not a disembodied state (being unclothed) but a resurrection to eternal life.

“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[19]

Believers will be set free only at that time. Until then, we are still suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ sin – we die and return to the dust.[20] But Jesus can raise us to life again. That is the blessed hope: “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”[21] who comes to rescue us from death.

Summary

Teaching that death sets people free fails to reflect the Bible in three crucial areas. It is inconsistent with what the Bible says about death, it contradicts the Bible’s description of the intermediate state, and it detracts from the importance the Bible places on the resurrection.


[1] Plato, Phaedo, Kindle version, location 705.

[2] Plato, location 754.

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[4] Genesis 2:17 ESV.

[5] Job 38:17; Psa. 107:10, 14; Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79.

[6] Psalm 13:3 ESV.

[7] John 11:11-14 ESV.

[8] Matthew 27:52 ESV.

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:6 ESV.

[10] 1 Corinthians 15:20 ESV.

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ESV.

[12] Jefferson Vann, Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus.

[13] Revelation 1:18 ESV.

[14] Revelation 20:13 ESV.

[15] Luke 20:36 ESV.

[16] John 11:24 ESV.

[17] Philippians 3:10 ESV.

[18] Philippians 3:11 ESV.

[19] 2 Corinthians 5:2-4 ESV.

[20] Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9; 34:15; Psa. 90:3; 104:29; Eccl. 3:20.

[21] Titus 2:13 ESV.

rooted in God’s Word

ORO BIBLE COLLEGE just celebrated their 42nd anniversary.  Advent Christian missionaries and national leaders started the school in 1971 because the new churches being planted needed leaders who were equipped for service.  That mission still remains, and so does OBC. 

Penny and I came to OBC as professors in 1996.  We stayed for 13 years, and enjoyed it tremendously.

Picture of logoWe had the opportunity to pour ourselves into the lives of young people who wanted to make a difference in their world.  We found the Filipinos passionate about life, and eager to learn how to serve the LORD.  In the midst of an economically challenging life, sometimes made even worse by government corruption and political or sectarian violence, these young people had followed the Master’s call to serve, teach, and lead his church.  Their commitment was motivation for us to stay true to ours.

76

The faculty and staff we worked with were top-notch.  They were more than just co-workers.  They were our friends – our best friends.  Each had made a commitment like ours, and stuck with that commitment in spite of challenges that would have sent us home. 

We still keep in touch with many of these former partners in ministry.  But, sadly, some of them have since fallen asleep in Christ. 

A new generation of leaders has emerged t100_4894o take on the responsibility of training the students at OBC.  Most of these had been our students; have gone on to receive further training at seminary, and have now returned to OBC.  Knowing the passion these young men and women had while students, and their commitment to Christ, we are confident that they will succeed.

 

OBC is now facing new challenges.  New government requirements are requiring another rework of the curriculum and other adjustments.  A popular movement among Filipino churches has de-valued institutional ministry training.  OBC and other bible colleges are seeing reduced enrollment as a result. The missionaries have gone on to other assignments.  Please pray with us that OBC will not only survive, but remain an essential part of what the LORD is doing through his church in the Philippines.

excursus: scaling the wall (part 3)

 

When anyone dares to suggest that sleep is an appropriate way to describe someone’s death, opponents are often quick to respond. They tend to build a wall of evidence, consisting of texts which appear to support some kind of conscious survival after death. Those of us who hold to an unconscious intermediate state have scaled that wall. We see inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves.

Some of the texts have simply been misinterpreted, like …

    • 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, which expresses Paul’s desire to put on his resurrection body at the return of Christ, not to go to heaven when he dies.
    • Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus employs a scary tale about woe in Hades to show the Pharisees that just because they are rich today, their eternal state is not secure.
    • The bringing up of Samuel by the Medium at Endor (1 Samuel 28) was a miracle God allowed to rebuke Saul for his disobedience. It was an unusual event – all miracles are. It cannot prove that people are normally conscious at death.

Other texts have been mistranslated.

· There is some evidence to show that neither Jesus nor the thief on the cross actually went to heaven on the day that Jesus died. The traditional translation of Luke 23:43, then, is a mistake. Jesus was assuring the repentant thief that they would be together on the day about which he asked: the day Christ comes in his kingdom.

· Jonah’s cry “out of the belly of hell” (Jonah 2:2 KJV) was the cry of a man who felt he was about to die, and go to Sheol, the grave. It says nothing and proves nothing about the intermediate state.

Many of the remaining texts that serve as that wall of evidence fall into the misinterpretation category. They include the following:

“Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:3).

The transfiguration involved a number of miracles, including the sudden appearance of two great men from Israel’s past. The Bible specifically tells us that Moses had died and was buried.[1] Many think the Bible teaches that Elijah never died. However, there is some evidence that his ride into the heavens on a fiery chariot was a round trip. Some time after his famous trip to outer space[2] — possibly as much as two years after – king Jehoram gets a letter from Elijah.[3] Unless one argues that the Israelite postal service was really efficient, it appears that Elijah returned to write that letter. In other words, Elijah lived a normal life and presumably died a normal death.

All of this is to say that if Moses and Elijah reappeared physically to talk to Jesus at the mount of transfiguration, then both had been resurrected for that purpose. Their appearance was miraculous, and it proved the power of God, but it did not prove that they had been conscious in the intermediate state.

Yet the Bible does not specifically say that they had been resurrected. It says they appeared. Then, after talking with Jesus for some time, they disappeared. Later, when Jesus spoke to his disciples who saw it, he told them that it was a vision.[4] The appearance, and then disappearance of these two Old Testament saints was a vision designed to draw attention to the one who believers today should be paying attention to. As the voice said from the cloud “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”[5] This story is about the doctrine of revelation: how God has definitively spoken to us through his Son. To make this story about consciousness after death is to highjack it.

“GOD … IS NOT GOD OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING”

(Matthew 22:32)

Among the many opponents to Jesus and his message were the Sadducees. They had emerged as a sect from Second Temple Judaism who had jettisoned all belief in the supernatural. Chief among the supernatural concepts that they had rejected was the idea that God would resurrect the faithful. After a group of Sadducees learned that Jesus was in town, they approached him with a question. It was an elaborate question that (they felt) showed how ridiculous it is to believe that God would resurrect anyone.

“Now there were seven brothers among us.

The first married and died, and having no

children left his wife to his brother. 26 So

too the second and third, down to the

seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died.

28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the

seven, whose wife will she be? For they all

had her.”[6]

Perhaps these Sadducees imagined that Jesus would say “Now that you mention it, resurrection does seem a silly idea doesn’t it?” But Jesus attacked these Sadducees. He told them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He was arguing that resurrection was not so silly. The Bible promises it, and God is able to deliver on that promise.

In defense of the resurrection, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” While the text does not tell us whether Amram was alive at that time, it is quite clear that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had been dead for some time. So how can that text prove the legitimacy of the resurrection? Jesus said that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.”[7] what legitimizes the hope of resurrection is not that people survive their deaths, but that God does.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will live again, because God always lives.

Again, this text says absolutely nothing about the intermediate state. It does not say that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are asleep, but neither does it assert that they are awake. The proof of the resurrection that Jesus puts forth in answer to the Sadducees’ question is the existence of God. Since God is alive, those who died are alive to him. This is much like Jesus’ response to Martha who weakly told Jesus that she knew her brother would be raised at the resurrection on the last day. Jesus responded “I am the resurrection and the life.”[8] Her problem was not her concept of the resurrection, but her failure to see that the Resurrection was standing in front of her.

“A MAN … CAUGHT UP TO THE THIRD HEAVEN”

2 Corinthians 12:2

Arguing for the legitimacy of his apostleship to some obstinate Corinthians, Paul decided to prove that he was acceptable as a spiritual leader because of the “visions and revelations” he had received.[9] He told of a time some fourteen years earlier when he had been caught up to heaven and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”[10] Paul’s experience was so real to him, that he was unsure whether he was transported to heaven bodily, or whether it was a vision. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that Paul had been transported bodily to heaven. Would that event teach us anything about the intermediate state? Obviously not. It would only prove that such a trip is possible, for someone who is alive. It would teach us nothing about a person’s state at death.

Or, for the sake of argument, let us assume the opposite — that Paul’s experience was a vision in which Paul was allowed to see heaven, but his body did not travel there. That would not be substantially different from any of the other visions of heaven recorded in the Bible. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Paul was dead. Ergo, this statement teaches nothing about the nature of the intermediate state.

JESUS “DIED FOR US SO THAT WHETHER WE ARE AWAKE OR ASLEEP WE MIGHT LIVE WITH HIM” (1 Thessalonians 5:10)

Paul unashamedly used the sleep metaphor to describe the death of believers. In this text, he divides the Christian population into two groups. There are two groups today whom Jesus has died for: those who are awake, and those who are asleep. Those of us who are awake are obviously believers in Jesus who have not yet died. Those who are asleep are those who have already fallen asleep in death and await resurrection day so that they can live again.

What is the hope of these two groups? Our blessed hope is that the Lord will return some day and reunite both groups. Jesus died for us in order to make that possible. He died for us on the cross so that whatever group we are in (dead or alive) we can be with him in eternity. There is no statement about the state of consciousness that dead believers are experiencing. In fact, this passage is about what Jesus has done, and our assurance of what he will do for us.

Those who use this passage as part of that wall of evidence hope to convince readers that it is saying that all believers are presently alive with Christ. However, behind that hope is a theological tradition that says that everyone is alive, Christian or not. The tradition affirms the concept that everyone has an immortal soul, which cannot die, and must remain alive forever. This text says nothing of such an innate immortality. The only immortality it promises is for those who are in Christ, who have benefitted from his sacrificial death on the cross.

“THE SOULS OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN SLAIN …CRIED OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE” (Revelation 6:9-10)

It is really pulling from the bottom of the barrel to take a passage from an apocalyptic vision and try to use it to prove a doctrine, but people continue to consistently do it. We have no right to assume that beheaded souls can normally cry out than to assume that God’s throne normally has a literal lamb on it who is also a lion. The book of Revelation tells God’s truth using symbols, and to take those symbols as proof of their own existence is to misuse the text.

However, John probably knew some of those souls that he saw depicted in the vision. Some of them might have been his close friends. When he saw them crying out to God for justice, he was identifying with their cry. He wanted Christ to return and bring his judgment. But those who use this text merely as proof that disembodied souls remain alive do not believe that such souls are really crying out for justice. They think that once those souls were separated from their bodies they went to heaven and are experiencing the reward of eternal bliss. You cannot have it both ways. Either the righteous remain alive and go to their reward at death or they do not. In this passage, the righteous who have died are not yet vindicated. They wait for a resurrection.

“MY DESIRE IS TO DEPART AND BE WITH CHRIST” (Philippians 1:23)

Paul was contemplating the ramifications of his eventual death. He knew that whether he continued to live, or he died, either way Christ would get the glory. “Christ will be honored in (his) body, whether by life or by death.”[11] “For (him) to live is Christ, and to die is gain”[12] because all he has to look forward to is being raised at Christ’s second coming. That resurrection hope had become Paul’s obsession. His explained the “gain” that he hoped for later in this same letter to the Philippians:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because

of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ

Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered

the loss of all things and count them as

rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

9 and be found in him, not having a

righteousness of my own that comes from

the law, but that which comes through faith

in Christ, the righteousness from God that

depends on faith- 10 that I may know him

and the power of his resurrection, and may

share his sufferings, becoming like him in

his death, 11 that by any means possible

I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[13]

As Paul was contemplating the consequences of whether or not he died in Christ’s service or continued to live, a third option emerged in his mind which he said was “far better.” He said “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”[14] He was saying that the best thing to happen for him is for Jesus to break the clouds and call him to himself. Then Paul would depart and be with Christ. That would be more glorious than either of the other options. But, until that happens, Paul is content to continue serving the Christ of the resurrection.


How stable is that wall of evidence looking now? God’s word proves many things, and it is profitable for doctrine. But it nowhere proves the conscious intermediate state. Our hope in Christ is not found in human nature, it is found in a divine rescuer. We hope not to survive death but to be raised to new life.


[1] Deuteronomy 34:5-7.

[2] 2 Kings 2:11.

[3] 2 Chronicles 21:12.

[4] Matthew 17:9 (ESV, KJV, NASB, NET, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB, LEB).

[5] Mark 9:7 ESV.

[6] Matthew 22:25-28 ESV.

[7] Matthew 22:32.

[8] John 11:25.

[9] 2 Corinthians 12:1.

[10] 2 Corinthians 12:4.

[11] Philippians 1:20.

[12] Philippians 1:21.

[13] Philippians 3:8-11.

[14] Philippians 1:23.

ACST 52: The Change

Salvation is a miraculous work which the Father began in eternity past with our election. The Son made it possible by atoning for our sins on the cross. The Holy Spirit orchestrates its affects in our lives by applying it through a process of sanctification. That work of salvation affects an immediate and on-going change in the mind of the believer, which in turn transforms the believer’s behavior. This miraculous change of mind is called repentance. After conversion, the believer’s eyes are opened to the reality the Bible reveals about God, Christ, sin, Satan, the world, and the Church. The believer’s self-awareness is forever altered.

repentance in the Old Testament

Calling for repentance was already an Old Testament tradition long before John the Baptist. Solomon predicted a time when his nation would fall away from their God, but that the LORD would listen to them if they turned their hearts back to him and repent.[1] His father, David, taught that God was prepared to do battle against the wicked if they refuse to repent.[2] The prophet Isaiah divided the people of Judah into two types: the rebels and sinners on the one hand and the repentant on the other. The latter will be redeemed, but the former will be broken together and consumed.[3] The prophet Ezekiel called on God’s people to repent.[4] The prophet Jeremiah lamented the utter corruption of his people, and the fact that they refused to repent even after the LORD punished them: “You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.”[5]

The call to repent in the Old Testament was a challenge for God’s people to turn back to him, to return to their first loyalty. It was given in a context where the people had been tempted to go after other gods, and had yielded to the temptation. Even after generations of idolatry, God’s messengers continued to plead for his people to return, in spite of the fact that many who heard their words had never been truly loyal to the LORD. They pleaded for a rebellious people to reverse their rebellion. Repentance for them would be both a turning away from their sins and a turning towards the LORD.

enter, John the Baptist

When John the Baptist comes on the scene in the early pages of the Gospels, he proclaims the same message to the same people. He tells all Israel “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[6] He is telling a rebellious people to return to their God. But his message has even more urgency because the Lord and his kingdom are at hand. If the Lord arrives while his people are still in a state of rebellion, he will unleash his fury upon them. So, John pleads for Israel to prepare the way for the Lord, to make his paths straight. In other words, he is calling on the people of God to stop being obstacles to God’s will, and to refocus on obeying his will. That is what it meant for them to repent.

The Greek word for repent is metanoe,w and repentance is meta,noia – both words being a combination of the words for after (meta) and mind (nouj). It was a concept well suited for the particular use of John the Baptist, as he wanted to encourage his audience to rethink their situation, and change their minds, which would result in a change of behavior. He was not calling on them to simply change their minds, because it was their behavior that had put them in danger.

Repentance would be the crucial first response that John was looking for. It a choice that drastically and permanently changes the believer’s mind, conforming it to the truth as revealed in God’s word, and allowing it to redirect energies previously dedicated to unrighteous behavior. A repentant people would be free to correct injustice, and make it possible for the Messiah to reign.

John chose baptism as a sign that repentance had taken place. Immersion in water for ceremonial washing was already common in John’s day. Many of the Israelites had washing places in their own homes which were used to symbolize spiritual cleansing. John’s ministry was a call for the entire nation to repent. The public baptism in the Jordon River was – in a sense – an agreement to be a part of a national revival movement.

When the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees came to join up for the movement, John turned them down. Their “repentance” was meaningless, since it bore no fruit.[7] When the truly repentant had asked John how they could show their sincerity, he told them to be considerate of one another, and not greedy for gain at others’ expense.[8] A true change of mind was also a change of heart. When Herod and John clashed, Herod chose not to repent. His attitude was that if he did not like the message, just get rid of the messenger.

But the call to repent did not die with John the Baptist. Jesus[9] and his disciples[10] called for the same thing. The book of Hebrews lists repentance as one of the foundations of the Christian life. Paul said that it leads to “salvation without regret.”[11] The chief difference between the repentance demanded by Old Testament prophets and that taught in the Church is simply this: the Gospel calls everyone to repent: Jew and Gentile alike. Paul said “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”[12] In fact, the apparent slowness of the fulfillment of God’s promise is attributed to his desire that everyone have an opportunity to repent.[13]

Repentance is one of the marks of true conversion. A truly repentant person may occasionally sin, but she no longer lives in sin. Sin for her has become an embarrassing stumble in an otherwise upward climb. Her life has ceased to be a repeatedly downward spiral. Satan has not written her off. He continues to pester her with temptation, and she sometimes fails to resist it. But she belongs to Jesus.

one choice – and many choices

In the book of Revelation, some of the seven churches of Asia Minor were admonished to repent.[14] While this speaks more to Christ’s relationship with churches, rather than individuals, it is not wrong to conclude that the Christian life should be one of constant repentance. We should keep examining our lives, attitudes and motives, and be willing to change whenever we find the need. Repentance is one choice which will lead to many choices. It is the turning of our ships in the direction of our intended destination, and it will also require many other smaller course corrections as the journey progresses.

repentance and grace

It is possible to preach repentance in such a way as to deny that salvation is truly by the grace of God. This happens when repentance is explained as “getting right with God.” It is difficult to explain why Jesus had to die on a cross if all God wanted was for his people to wake up and clean up their own lives. The problem with the idea of cleaning up one’s own life is that we do not have the proper materials.

When Paul described salvation he concentrated on what God did for us by his grace: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”[15] It was God who predestined us, called us to himself, justified us by the blood of Christ, conformed us to Christ’s image through the power of the Holy Spirit, and glorified us for eternity.

Our repentance is one of the things that God foreknew. But foreknowledge means more than simply the fact that God looked forward into our future and saw a time when we would turn to him. God’s foreknowledge extends much further into the future. He saw us in complete fulfillment of his will and desire – for millions of years. He saw us in our perfected state for eternity. The reason he saw it is that he made it happen, although from our perspective it is still happening. By his grace, in eternity past, God chose to save us completely. Everything right and proper that has ever happened to us and ever will is a direct result of that choice of grace – even our repentance. That is why the Bible speaks of God granting repentance.[16]

God is sovereign in the salvation process. If he were not – say, if he only made repentance an option – we would always choose something else. The entire planet would look a dying Christ in the face and say “sorry you went to that trouble, but I’ll try my luck at saving myself.” But that is why grace is grace, and repentance is such a miracle. Each time a person responds to the gospel by repenting from his sins and putting his faith in Christ, it is the result of something God did for him in eternity past. Grace intervened.

repentance and works

Repentance is not a work. It is a surrender. It is not a determination to get right with God so much as a choice to give in to God. That is why there is no true repentance unless and until the sinner recognizes that he has sinned. After true repentance, sins are forgiven and blotted out.[17] Repentance is not penance. In penance, the sinner concentrates on personally correcting his own faults and sins by doing good works or works of contrition to balance the scale. The religious cycle of sin, penance, absolution, sin, etc… perpetuates the lie of works based righteousness. True repentance is an acceptance of God’s sovereign grace.

Truly good works are only possible after a sincere repentance. After surrendering to God’s grace as the only solution to their sin problem, true believers are then free to cooperate with the Spirit of grace. He supplants the sinful tendencies with righteous tendencies. He replaces the dysfunctional with the spiritually healthy. He replaces the holey with the holy. That is why Paul – who championed salvation by grace – encouraged his workers to commend believers for their good works.[18] Because of God’s grace, we are free to produce the good works that God intended.[19]

what follows repentance

True repentance is a change of mind that will drastically change the believer’s future. How grace works in each life will be different, so no two Christians will be exactly alike. Yet there are two characteristics which will be present in each changed life: a new testimony, and an altered life. These distinguishing attributes will be examined in the next two chapters.


[1] 1 Kings 8:47-48; 2 Chronicles 6:37-38.

[2] Psalm 7:8-13.

[3] Isaiah 1:27-28.

[4] Ezekiel 14:6; 18:30.

[5] Jeremiah 5:3 ESV.

[6] Matthew 3:2.

[7] Matthew 3:7-9.

[8] Luke 3:10-14.

[9] Matthew 4:17; 11:20; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5.

[10] Mark 6:12.

[11] 2 Corinthians 7:10.

[12] Acts 17:30 ESV.

[13] 2 Peter 3:8.

[14] Revelation 2:16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19.

[15] Romans 8:29-30 ESV.

[16] 2 Timothy 2:25.

[17] Acts 2:38; 3:19.

[18] 1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14.

[19] Ephesians 2:10.

snips and snails

SDC13504The nursery rhyme asks “What are little boys made of?” — and answers “Snips & snails & puppy dogs tails and such are little boys made of.”[1] Little girls fare slightly better. They are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” No one believes that these statements reflect the actual chemical makeup of boys and girls. But anyone who watches these little darlings play can understand what the original author was getting at.

formed from the dust

The Bible gives us a much more scientifically accurate description of what little boys and girls are made of – and their parents too. Moses, describing the creation of Adam, says that God formed him “from the dust of the ground”[2] or “of dust from the ground.”[3] Our bodies are composed of the same elements found elsewhere in nature. Paul tells us that our ancestor Adam was “a man of dust”[4] and we share his nature.

returning to the dust

After sin entered this world, human beings were punished for their rebellion by the LORD commanding a reversal of the creation process – which is called death. This is the pronouncement that God made: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[5] The breath of life which animates the dust is taken away, and the sinner returns to dust alone.

This description of death lacks the color added to it by time and tradition. There are no halos, no pearly gates, no bright light. Death is simply losing life. It is lying down in the dust.[6] It is going down to the dust.[7] It is dwelling in the dust.[8] It is sleeping in the dust.[9] It is returning to the dust.[10] It is being laid in the dust of death.[11]

Faithful men of God prayed to be protected from this fate. They did not imagine that death would give them an opportunity to worship. They prayed “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?”[12] The answer was “no.” Worship is something that living people do.

I am but dust

When Abraham dared to address the angel of the LORD, appealing for him to save the righteous in Sodom, he understood what he was made of. He said “”Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”[13] The LORD was the one with the immortal Spirit, not Abraham. Humans may devise all kinds of philosophical speculations about being imperishable and immortal, but the LORD “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”[14]

dust on the head

From ancient times, putting dust on one’s head was a sign of great shame, humility and mourning.[15] It was a reminder that we are mortal, made of the dust of the earth, and not like our creator. Leaders were reminded that God had exalted them “out of the dust”[16] and if they became unfaithful, he could humble them. Apart from his grace they are nothing.

Jesus standing on the dust

The good news of the resurrection is described in the Bible using the same term that details what we are made of. Job proclaims “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”[17] But that word “earth” is not the word used in Genesis 1:1.[18] It is the same word translated dust in Genesis 2:7.[19] The dust that the Messiah will stand on at the last day will be the dust of Job’s body. But then something amazing happens. Job continues “Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes shall see and not another.”[20] The Messiah stands over the dust of Job’s dead body and brings it back to life!

This is the hope that the Bible gives humanity. It is not survival after death but rescue from death. It is not being “found naked” (without a body) in the intermediate state but being “further clothed” with a resurrection body.[21] The Bible says that when Jesus Christ returns “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”[22] The nature of that change is made clear as well: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”[23] We are dust: that is what we are made of, but our destiny is to be more than that.


[1] from an original poem by Robert Southey (1774-1843).

[2] Genesis 2:7 (KJV, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV).

[3] Genesis 2:7 (ESV, NASB, NASBu).

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.

[5] Genesis 3:19 (ESV) see also Job 10:9.

[6] Job 20:11; 21:26.

[7] Psalm 22:29.

[8] Isaiah 26:19.

[9] Daniel 12:2.

[10] Job 34:15; Psalm 104:29; Ecclesiastes 3:20.

[11] Psalm 22:16.

[12] Psalm 30:9 ESV.

[13] Genesis 18:27 ESV.

[14] Psalm 103:14.

[15] Joshua 7:6, Job 2:12; Lamentations 2:10; Ezekiel 27:30; Revelation 18:19.

[16] 1 Kings 16:2 (see also Psalm 113:7).

[17] Job 19:25 ESV.

[18] Hebrew ‘erets

[19] Hebrew ‘afar

[20] Job 19:26-27 NASB.

[21] 2 Corinthians 5:1-4.

[22] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

[23] 1 Corinthians 15:49.