All posts by Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and a theology professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He wrote Know the Creeds and Councils, Know the Heretics, and On the Grace of God. Justin also co-authored with his wife, Lindsey, Is It My Fault? and Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

The pages of the Bible are filled with miraculous acts of God, and those who believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture surely believe in miracles. Yet today, when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, even evangelical Christians tend to chuckle inside, perhaps attributing the "miracle" to an overactive imagination or the advancements of modern science. We are faced with a difficult paradox: on the one hand, we long for miraculous signs and wonders like those in Scripture, but often when we see or hear of events worthy of being called "miraculous" we struggle to overcome our modern skepticism. Has God ceased to work in the world the way he did in biblical times?

In order to answer this question, we need to develop a theology of miracles that will help us rightly understand the way God works in the world today so that we avoid the extremes of making everything a miracle, on the one hand, or allowing nothing to be a miracle, on the other. We need to determine what a miracle is and is not.

Wrong Views of Miracles

Many false views of miracles persist today. For example, some people believe God created the world like a watch that just needed to be wound up, only to be left alone, operating according to a set of natural laws. In this view, God isn't usually involved in the world, and miracles are those times when he chooses to interrupt the laws of nature. But this view squeezes God out of any ordinary, providential sustainment of the created order. That is, it assumes God doesn't normally act in creation, which, as we'll see, is not biblical.

A second wrong view of miracles also tries to squeeze any divine action out of the world, but in a different way. This view suggests that there are really no such things as miracles because, by definition, miracles violate the laws of nature. However, because we don't have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature, how can we be sure any given miracle did in fact violate some such law? Ironically, this position happily admits some things that happen in the world surpass our comprehension—it just attributes those mysteries to science rather than to God.

The opposite of the second perspective is the "God of the gaps" view, which basically attributes anything we don't presently understand to the miraculous power of God. Rather than explaining an extraordinary event by "mere science," the "God of the gaps" view explains any gap in scientific knowledge by divine existence or action. But as scientific knowledge grows, and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, so does the God who supposedly filled them.

Yet another wrong view of miracles turns every mundane action of God in the world into an extraordinary miracle. Michael Horton describes this view well in The Christian Faith:

In reaction against naturalism, it is often asserted by Christians that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives in the form of miracles. Starved for some practical sense of God's concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them a daily encounter with miracles. What is lost in the bargain is a sense of God's ordinary providence in and through creaturely means and natural processes that he has created and sustains. (368)1

That is, some Christians are so worried that modern secularism has no place for God that they overcompensate, calling everything extraordinary that happens a miracle. But when everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle.

Miracles vs. Providence

One of the most basic Christian beliefs is that God—as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all life in the universe—acts in, on, and through that which he has created. In one sense, the entire Bible is an account of miracle after miracle—of God's continual special working in creation to redeem and restore a covenant people for himself. The Westminster Confession states this point succinctly: "God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy."

So what is a miracle, and how is a miracle distinguishable from regular divine action? How can we maintain both a robust understanding of general divine providence and special divine intervention in miracles? In order to understand miracles rightly, Christians must account for God's everyday sustaining providence.

According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, "A miracle is a less common kind of God's activity in which he arouses people's awe and wonder and bears witness to himself" (355). Or, as Horton puts it, "Unlike God's ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances" (368). Notice both of these definitions of miracles presuppose that God is already involved in creation continually. 

God is involved in the world through more than just miracles; even natural processes can be attributed to divine agency. As Horton observes, "When a burn heals, it is God who heals it through the natural processes with which he has richly endowed and so carefully attends it" (369).

When we understand that God providentially guides and sustains our everyday lives, the distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" fades. Horton explains:

We frequently distinguish natural and supernatural causes, but this too may reflect the false choice of attributing circumstances either to God or to nature. The Scriptures know nothing of a creation or a history that is at a single moment independent of God's agency. The question is not whether God is involved in every aspect of our lives but how God is involved. Therefore, with respect to providence, the question is never whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God's involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous. (369, italics original)

"Interventionist" views of divine action see any activity of God as miraculous, diminish God's providential guidance, and create too strong a dichotomy between God's agency and creaturely agency. In contrast, a view that sees miracles as a special instance of God's activity acknowledges that "even in his miraculous activity God usually works through creaturely means, but he sanctifies them for extraordinary service" (368).

To be disappointed at not seeing "Bible-like" miracles in our own lives is to misunderstand the significance of God's providential care over creation. "Not only when God intervenes extraordinarily, suspending his natural order, but in his design and faithfulness to that order, we have reason to give thanks," Horton writes. "Not only when one's cancer mysteriously disappears, but when it is conquered through the countless layers of creaturely mediation, ultimately God is the healer" (369).

Whether we experience God's power in an obviously miraculous way, such as a healing, or simply through his providential guiding of a surgeon's hands, God is equally near to us, for "in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28).


1 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011). All Horton quotes in this article can be found in The Christian Faith.

What Christians Should Know About Halloween

Halloween has become the second highest-grossing commercial holiday after Christmas. But this festive day also carries a lot of baggage. Scholars Ralph and Adelin Linton write:

Among all the festivals which we celebrate today, few have histories stranger than that of Halloween. It is the eve of All Hallows—or Hallowmas or All Saints' Day—and as such it is one of the most solemn festivals of the church. At the same time, it commemorates beings and rites with which the church has always been at war. It is the night when ghosts walk and fairies and goblins are abroad. . . . We cannot understand this curious mixture unless we go back into history and unravel the threads from which the present holiday pattern has been woven.

The brief account seeks to vindicate Halloween from its "Satanic" and barbaric origins. While the dark side of Halloween may have been overemphasized, Christians must still acknowledge that the holiday originated (at least) in pagan and mythical practices. The extent to which such practices can be categories as "Satanic" is a debate of semantics. Is Roman mythology "Satanic"? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Regardless, the origin of Halloween is certainly in the realm of non-Christian spiritualism. As such, Christians should be careful in their approach to Halloween.

Halloween for Christians

Christians haven't always been sure what to do with this holiday of apparently pagan origins. Is it unredeemable, such that any Christian participating in the holiday will necessarily compromise their faith? Is it something Christians can participate in as a cultural celebration with no religious ramifications? Or is there the opportunity for Christians to emphasize certain aspects of our own faith within the holiday?

1. Should Christians renounce Halloween as "the Devil's day"?

One of the most famous recent examples of Christian interaction with Halloween comes from Pat Robertson, who called Halloween the "festival of the Devil." As such, he claimed that participating in Halloween is wrong for Christians.

In renouncing this holiday outright, Robertson fails to ask the following question: To what extent does something's evolution from pagan roots entail that its present practice is tainted? As Albert Mohler notes, there's been a shift from pagan ritual to merely commercial fascination with the dark side. Robertson misses that for most people in America, Halloween is about candy. A quarter of all candy sold annually in the United States is for Halloween night! Granted, dressing up as witches and goblins can be a tricky issue, but to think that putting on a scary mask or makeup opens you up to the dark side is a bit naïve.

In addition, there are two built-in problems with a blanket-rejection position. First, those who insist on rejecting certain holidays aren't being consistent. Should we reject other holidays because there's a propensity toward excess? In other words, if people are inclined toward gluttony on Thanksgiving or Christmas, shouldn't those holidays be renounced as well? After all, gluttony is a sin. Second, many times the reject position assumes the evil of the extrinsic world will taint the faith of a Christian. But Jesus says the exact opposite (Mark 7:21-23). The fruit of our lives (whether in holiness or sin) is always inextricably tied to the root of our hearts. If our hearts are prone toward sin in certain ways, we will find a way to sin. Sin indeed corrupts, but the sin is not so much "out there in the world" as is in the heart of every person. The reject position falsely assumes sin is mostly what we do rather than who we are.

2. Can Christians participate in Halloween wisely?

An informed understanding of the history of Halloween and the biblical freedom Christians have to engage cultural practices (1 Cor. 10:23-33) leads to the conclusion that we can follow our conscience in choosing how to approach this holiday.

Even so, how Christians ought to go about relating to or participating in Halloween is still a tricky subject. In order to navigate the waters successfully, one must always distinguish between the merely cultural aspects of Halloween and the religious aspects of the holiday. In the past the church has tried with varied results to subsume the religious aspects of Halloween by adding a church holiday. If we engage, care must be taken. There's a big difference between kids dressing up in cute costumes for candy and Mardi Gras-like Halloween parties, offensive costumes, and uninhibited excess. It's too simple, then, to make a blanket judgment to reject or accept Halloween as a whole. There certainly should be no pressure to participate.

For those still bothered by Halloween's historical association with evil spirits, Martin Luther has some advice on how to respond to the Devil: "The best way to drive out the Devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." Perhaps instead of fleeing the darkness in fear, we should view Halloween as an opportunity to mock the enemy whose power over us has been broken.

Editors' note: For a more detailed retelling of Halloween's history, see the longer version of this article that appeared on Justin Holcomb's website.

Why You Can Trust Your Bible

Critics who doubt the reliability and trustworthiness of the biblical accounts of Jesus' life have issued a make-or-break challenge to the church. They ask us: "How can we be sure the Bible can be trusted as accurate?"

It's common to see the argument that the Scriptures we have today aren't the same as what was written by the apostles in the first century. Such arguments attempt to portray the Bible as unreliable and therefore irrelevant. As we will see, however, these challenges do not stand up to scrutiny.

What About Textual Variants?

The Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were probably written during the second half of the first century. We don't actually have any of the original documents (called autographs) in our possession today. Instead, we have copies, often handwritten by scribes to preserve and circulate the words of the apostles so they could be passed around and used in worship services. The fact the original manuscripts were copied shows how important these writings were to local congregations. However, in the process of copying the manuscripts, scribes often made small changes, some of them unintentional and others intentional.

For example, early copies of the Greek New Testament were composed in an ancient style in which words were written in all capital letters with no spaces, punctuation, or paragraph divisions. A classic illustration of this style is the phrase "GODISNOWHERE." A copyist would have to decide whether the phrase meant "God is now here" or "God is nowhere." Context would determine the meaning of the phrase, so it's not surprising a scribe could occasionally get things wrong. Furthermore, scribes sometimes misspelled words, wrote the same word twice when it should have been written once, or skipped over sections of text because the same words occurred later down the page. These are all examples of unintentional changes.

Other times, however, scribes changed the texts they were copying on purpose. This happened for a variety of reasons. They might make grammatical improvements or liturgical changes (such as adding a doxology), or they might eliminate apparent discrepancies, harmonize passages, or make doctrinal changes. However, even Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who argues against the reliability of the Bible, recognizes, "Most of the changes found in our early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes, pure and simple—slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another."

Because of the large number of variations in New Testament manuscripts, some argue the words of the New Testament are unreliable. But in fact, the vast number of New Testament manuscripts actually enables us to figure out what the originals said with a great deal of certainty. As Mark Roberts puts it, "Having many manuscripts actually increases the likelihood of our getting back to the original text." Scholars can compare the various manuscripts containing the same passages of Scripture and determine, on the basis of internal and external evidence, which of the manuscripts most likely get the original wording right.

How Does the New Testament Compare to Other Ancient Documents?

The earliest manuscripts of the works of first-century historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius are dated from the 9th to 11th centuries—more than 800 years after the originals were written. In terms of the number of surviving manuscripts, there are 200 for Suetonius, 133 for Josephus, and 75 for Herodotus.

When we compare these ancient texts to the New Testament, the difference astonishes. For instance, the earliest New Testament manuscript is from around AD 125, while significant portions of the Gospels are represented in manuscripts from the late 2nd to early 3rd century. Whereas the best ancient historical works have 500 to 800 years between the actual date the work was written and the date of the earliest surviving manuscript, there is less than a 100-year gap between the writing of the Gospels and the manuscripts we possess. This difference cannot be overstated.

In addition, the sheer number of Gospel manuscripts we've found is staggering in comparison to other ancient works. As Mark Roberts notes, "The number of Gospel manuscripts in existence is about 20 times larger than the average number of extant manuscripts of comparable writings." This figure doesn't even represent the hundreds of thousands of quotes from the Gospels in the writings of the early church fathers. With nearly 2,000 manuscripts of the Gospels in hand, it becomes clear that to doubt the reliability of the Gospels is to doubt the reliability of nearly every ancient text ever found.

Scripture Is Trustworthy and Reliable

Because of who God is, and because of what God has done to preserve his Word, we have confidence the events described in Scripture are accurate and historical. This is important because Christianity, unique among world religions, depends on historical events: particularly Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. As J. Gresham Machen writes, "Christianity is based upon an account of something that happened, and the Christian worker is primarily a witness." Scripture tell us this account, revealing Christianity's climax—its central, historical, and verifiable event: God's gracious act of bringing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ.

Why the Rising Social Awareness in the Church Should Encourage Us

Recently, we have begun to see an encouraging trend in Christian circles: a greater awareness of violence and oppression (such as human trafficking), as well as an increased concern for rescuing and caring for victims. We are seeing an explosion of attention to social justice issues in organizations like Passion, International Justice Mission, and the World Evangelical Alliance, and with the publication of books like God in a Brothel and The White Umbrella. Everywhere you look, churches, parachurch organizations, and individual Christians are waking up to the hidden world of injustice, violence, abuse, and slavery around us—and taking action.

The Bible does not hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, and in fact God's people are clearly called to fight for justice and mercy for all people. Throughout the entire Bible, God is portrayed as one who is just and merciful in his dealings with humanity. Psalm 68:4-5 says, for example, that God is "a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows." Theologians from a wide variety of backgrounds—from Gustavo Gutierrez to Nicholas Wolterstorff to Tim Keller—have concluded that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, part of Israel's vocation was to enact social justice, not for its own sake, but because in so doing Israel would reveal the character of God to the surrounding nations, as a city set on a hill.

At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:17)

In this declaration and his ministry, Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is crucial to his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that proclaiming the good news of Christ's saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus' example revealed God's heart for the despised, the weak, the abused, and the vulnerable. Jesus spent significant amounts of time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcast and disliked groups, valuing and loving those who were excluded by the society of his day. This paradoxical approach to the power structures of the world is echoed by Paul when he writes, "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Apologetic of Mercy

Historically, the Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. The fourth-century church provides just one example:

In his attempt to reestablish Hellenic religion in the empire, [the Emperor] Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate Christian concern for strangers. Referring to Christianity as "atheism," he asked, "Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?" He therefore instructed the priest to establish hostels for needy strangers in every city and also ordered a distribution of corn and wine to the poor, strangers, and beggars. "For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort."

Similarly, in more recent history, Christian churches of the 18th and 19th centuries led the charge for the abolition of slavery, again providing a strong apologetic for the Christian faith and visibly embodying Jesus' mission to proclaim liberty to captives.

Social action is an opportunity for Christian churches to take the gospel to those who are most in need, provide an alternative community centered on Jesus (the church) to the marginalized and oppressed, and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to oppression and social injustice in our world and our communities is a way the church can practice the charge of Jeremiah 29 for God's people to seek the welfare of the cities where God has placed us, and to obey the call of James to practice "pure religion" (James 1:27) by caring for the most vulnerable.

In light of the theology of justice that permeates Scripture, we should give thanks that the renewed emphasis on care for victims and the oppressed has helped many Christians better realize a neglected aspect of our calling in the world. As Christopher J. H. Wright says,

Mission that claims the high spiritual ground of preaching only a gospel of personal forgiveness and salvation without the radical challenge of the full biblical demands of God's justice and compassion, without a hunger and thirst for justice, may well expose those who respond to its partial truths to the same dangerous verdict. The epistle of James seems to say as much to those in his own day who had managed to drive an unbiblical wedge between faith and works, the spiritual and the material. If faith without works is dead, mission without social compassion and justice is biblically deficient.

As we preaches the gospel of Christ's atoning work, leading to liberation from sin, we must also apply that liberating and atoning work to the evils of this world. Otherwise we are like the person to whom James refers in his epistle: "and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" (James 2:16)

Put simply, without embracing both the physical and also spiritual aspects of redemption, Christians will have an incomplete concept of God's mission for the world.

Creeds and Deeds

As we celebrate the church's reawakening attention to oppression and emphasis on action, we must watch out for our historical tendency to swing between extremes. One side focuses exclusively or primarily on meeting material needs—this could be labeled the "deeds not creeds" extreme, with its focus on action at the expense of proclamation. This approach, frequently but incorrectly labeled "social gospel," reduces human beings to merely material beings and ignores the need for spiritual new birth and forgiveness of sin through the work of Christ, received through faith by hearing the word of God's grace.

Fearing this pitfall, we sometimes swing to another extreme, the "anti-social gospel," which could be dubbed "creeds not deeds." This extreme emphasizes sound doctrine and focuses on proclamation, but meets only "spiritual" needs while ignoring or minimizing tangible action. As Michael Horton argues, a "creeds not deeds" approach fails because it is actually incompatible with biblical doctrine:

While it is certainly possible to have a church that is formally committed to Christian doctrine—even in the form of creeds, confessions, and catechisms, without exhibiting any interest in missions or the welfare even of those within their own body, I would argue that it is impossible to have a church that is actually committed to sound doctrine that lacks these corollary interests. With respect to individual Christians in their common vocations, the mercies of God in Christ propel a profound sense of obligation and stewardship. God has given us everything in Christ, by grace alone, so our only "reasonable service" is to love and serve our neighbors out of gratitude for that inexhaustible gift.

To avoid the pendulum-swing between extremes, the church must emphasize both creeds and also deeds, recognizing that Good News results in good deeds. Without that theological center, the church will be tempted to spin off into either deeds only or creeds only. God's grace motivates repentance and change, and only by proclaiming God's gracious, merciful response to our sin and failure will we find the fuel for loving and serving our neighbors in action and in truth.

The rise in awareness of oppression and concern for victims from the church should encourage us. Because of God's lavish grace toward us through the work of Jesus, we are motivated to be agents of his grace to others, especially the vulnerable and oppressed. By responding to oppression and injustice, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations and to participate in God's mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

Theologian Hero to a Nation

How many theologians can claim a national holiday in their honor? The 19th-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper had such great influence in the Netherlands that the entire nation celebrated his 70th birthday in 1907.

Kuyper was a man of many hats: statesman, politician, educator, preacher, churchman, theologian, and philosopher. He was a modern-day Renaissance man who participated in the cultural conversation of his day. While Kuyper's influence has been felt throughout the 20th century in the Dutch Calvinist branch of the Reformed church, his influence has expanded as scholars continue to mine his writings for resources to deal with the challenges of a public theology for the contemporary world.

Life of Reform

Abraham Kuyper was born to a middle-class pastor's family in the remote fishing village of Maasluis, Netherlands, on October 29, 1837.

As a young boy, Abraham was thought to be a dull student. He began his early education from home. However, he went on to graduate with the highest honors from the University of Leiden, and he did his doctoral work in theology. Leiden, at the time, was a bastion of theological liberalism, with professors who questioned the resurrection of Christ and the existence of the supernatural and embraced a historical-critical view of Scripture.

Kuyper was captivated by this liberal stream of thought but not content with its answers to all of his questions. After writing an award-winning treatise (in Latin!) on Calvin's view of the church, Kuyper was overworked and exhausted. On a six-week vacation to Germany, he read Charlotte Yonge's novel The Heir of Redclyffe, and "in the arrogant hero he recognized himself and his spiritual poverty." He realized the church could console his weary soul in ways his studies could not. Kuyper had seen a vision of what the church could be in his study of Calvin's writings, but he had not seen that church in the Netherlands. As a result, he pledged his life to reform.

Ordained in 1863, Kuyper began to pastor a small church in the village of Beesd. There he was pulled in two different directions: his orthodox Reformed heritage and the liberal theology he discovered at Leiden. After meeting with members of his congregation in their homes, Kuyper was in crisis. What he learned at university didn't match what these simple, sincere Christians believed.  This led him to realize the Reformed church in the Netherlands cared little for its membership, who had no voice in the church and even less a voice in the state and society.

Kuyper moved on to pastor in Utrecht and then, in 1870, he moved to pastor the Reformed Church in Amsterdam, the largest and most influential church in the Netherlands. He pastored there until he was elected to the Dutch parliament in 1874.

Action and Ideas

During the course of his 57-year career, Abraham Kuyper started two newspapers, founded an influential political party, helped create a new denomination, started a university, was elected as his nation's prime minister, and authored numerous important books. He spent 10 years as a preacher, 20 years as a professor, 42 years as a newspaper editor and chairman of his political party, 10 years as a member of the Dutch parliament, and 4 years as the prime minister.

Kuyper's ideas and academic works emerged from his grass-roots effort to urge his constituency into action, and most of his writings first appeared as newspaper editorials and pamphlets.

In 1898, Kuyper visited the United States to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. These were compiled into his most popular work, Lectures on Calvinism, which offer a biblical and systematic view of life and the world. Kuyper also published his own edition of Calvin's Institutes, since he believed the widely available Dutch translation at the time was insufficient.

Kuyper was a man of action as well as ideas. As scholar James Bratt points out, "For every hour [Kuyper] spent studying great books, he spent two more hours plotting the tactics of church reform, wheeling and dealing with university trustees, meeting with party representatives. . . . Kuyper was a movement leader, an institution builder, as well as an intellectual." Kuyper spurred church, social, cultural, and political change by advancing Reformed views of education, the church, and the state.

Theological Distinctives

There are two theological concepts for which Kuyper is most famous: sphere sovereignty and common grace.

Kuyper is known for his famous phrase, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry 'Mine!'" His concept of "sphere sovereignty" is one of Kuyper's most original ideas. Theologian Richard Mouw describes this concept:

God, [Kuyper] insisted, built into the creation a variety of cultural spheres, such as the family, economics, politics, art, and intellectual inquiry. Each of these spheres has its own proper "business" and needs its own unique pattern of authority. When we confuse spheres, by violating the proper boundaries of church and state, for instance, or reducing the academic life to a business enterprise, we transgress the patterns that God has set.

Kuyper believed that these God-given structures of creation were important for maintaining order and justice in society.

For Kuyper, though sin has pervasively corrupted the world, the glory of God's created order is not completely obliterated by the Fall, and therefore the various spheres and structures of the earth still reveal glimpses of God's goodness and power.

Kuyper's Major Writings

Lectures on Calvinism

His Decease at Jerusalem: Meditations on the Passion and Death of Our Lord

In the Shadow of Death: Meditations for the Sick-Room and At the Death-Bed

Our Worship

Particular Grace: A Defense of God's Sovereignty in Salvation

Principles of Sacred Theology

The Antithesis Between Symbolism and Revelation

The Practice of Godliness

The Problem of Poverty

The Revelation of St. John

The Work of the Holy Spirit

When Thou Sittest in Thine House

Women of the Old Testament

Vast Learning, Ageless Wisdom

His name, until recently, would be unrecognized by most people even within the church. So it may be surprising that J. I. Packer would say about Herman Bavinck: "Like Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards, Bavinck was a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill." Any name put on a short list with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards certainly deserves attention. But theologian Richard Gaffin goes a step further than Packer, calling Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, "Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition."

These are high praises, and to understand why they are not simply hyperbolic statements made to sell books, we need to examine the life and thought of Herman Bavinck.

Bavinck's Background

Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854, in Hoogeveen, in the Netherlands, and he died in July 1921. He was the son of Jan Bavinck, pastor of a church that had seceded from the theologically liberal state church of the Netherlands. As a young boy, Herman was fortunate to study at the Hasselman Institute---a highly esteemed private school---from age 7 to 16. He first studied theology in the city of Kampen at the theological school of the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk).

From there, Bavinck moved on to complete his doctoral work on the ethics of Ulrich Zwingli at the University of Leiden, under the supervision of several of the leading liberal scholars of the day at one of the most liberal universities of the time. He chose Leiden because "he wanted 'a more academic theological education' in which 'he could engage the new modern theology directly'" (see John Bolt, "Grand Rapids Between Kampen and Amsterdam: Herman Bavinck's Reception and Influence in North America," 267). This liberal education solidified in him the desire to engage with the most theologically pressing ideas of the academy in a way that took seriously the authority of God's revelation in Scripture.

After he completed his doctorate, Bavinck served briefly as a pastor for at a church in Franeker before, at the age of 28, he was appointed by the synod to be a professor in systematic theology and ethics at the Theological School in Kampen, where he worked from 1883 to 1902. But his short time as a pastor made him aware of the pressing needs and issues faced by the average parishioner. After Abraham Kuyper was named the prime minister of the Netherlands, Bavinck filled his place as the chair of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, and he remained a professor there until his death in 1921.

Contributions to Theology

In recent years, study of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has exploded, due in large part to the complete translation of Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek) from Dutch into English. In 2011, for instance, a full issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology was devoted to essays about different elements of Bavinck's theology. Even though Reformed Dogmatics was written more than a hundred years ago, its theological discussions are timeless, because they quite frequently discuss the history and development of both orthodox and heretical theological positions.

Like other Dutch theologians, Bavinck was not only concerned with ivory-tower theological discussion but also dealt with cultural issues such as politics, education, evolution, psychology, war, the role of women in society, economics, and international relations. Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908, and these lectures later composed the book The Philosophy of Revelation. Perhaps his most popular and accessible work, Our Reasonable Faith, is a relatively "short" (576 pages!) one-volume summary of the Reformed Dogmatics.

Bavinck's work was shared with the English-speaking world through the writings of Louis Berkhof, but he also had a significant effect on other Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos, Anthony Hoekema, and Cornelius van Til.

Theological Distinctives

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bavinck's theological work was his unflinching devotion to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, at a time when such views were unfashionable. Many theologians in Bavinck's day sectioned off religious knowledge as a purely subjective matter not to be confused with the "hard facts" of science and other forms of genuine, objective human knowledge. Rather than let modern scholarship barrel over the truth of Scripture, Bavinck held that all theology and religious experience rests on the foundational truth of the Bible. He genuinely believed that the Bible could speak authoritatively to issues pressing on modern people.

At the same time, Bavinck did not entirely reject the subjective elements of Christianity. He produced a theology that took seriously the objectivity of the Scriptures and the church's confessions, as well as the subjectivity of Christian consciousness and religious experience. Bavinck allowed room for the Holy Spirit to work subjectively in the lives of believers without undermining the objective revelation found in Scripture.

In addition, Bavinck expressed a broad Reformed theology that emphasized the unity and beauty of the one church in Christ and aimed to heal the divisions that he saw dividing the fractured Reformed church in the Netherlands.

Bavinck's Legacy

Carl Trueman suggests that the work of Bavinck is relevant for evangelicals today for five reasons:

  1. it is done in the context of faith and under the assumption that the Bible is God's revelation;
  2. it is grounded upon biblical exegesis;
  3. it articulately and charitably interacts with differing views;
  4. it delicately balances the history of theology and the contemporary social situation; and
  5. it is filled with personal devotion.

John Bolt sees a sort of duality that existed in Bavinck between the "academic theologian" on the one hand and the "churchly dogmatician" on the other. His academic tendencies led to him engage modern culture and science, and his churchly concerns drove him to strive for unity in the fragmented Reformed Church in the Netherlands. As Bolt puts it in the introduction to Bavinck's The Last Things, "Bavinck's life and thought reflect a serious effort to be pious, orthodox, and thoroughly contemporary." While certainly not as prestigious as Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, the work of Herman Bavinck is worth the attention of those exploring the Reformed tradition.

Bavinck's Major Writings

Pillar of Faith in an Innovative Age

Not all theologians are innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary. Some, like Louis Berkhof, merely serve God, love the church, and teach theology to eager students. Yet as Henry Zwaanstra writes, "No theologian or churchman has made a greater impact on the Christian Reformed Church than Professor Berkhof." As a result, the life and work of Louis Berkhof deserves attention.

Louis Berkhof was born in Emmen, in the Netherlands, in 1873. His parents, Jan and Gessje, were members of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination formed out of a split from the Netherlands Reformed Church in 1834. In 1882, the Berkhof family emigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Louis was 8 years old.

While a teenager, Louis was the secretary of the Reformed Young Men's Society in Grand Rapids, an organization whose purpose was "to study Reformed doctrine and the principles of Calvinism for all areas of human life" (see Henry Zwaanstra's "Louis Berkhof" in Reformed Theology in America: A History of Its Modern Development, 155). Through Berkhof's influence in this local society, it was organized on a denominational scale and became known as the American Federation of Reformed Young Men's Societies.

Berkhof professed faith in Christ in 1893. This same year, at age 19, he enrolled in the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church, which included a four-year literary course of study and a three-year theological course. The literary program was expanded into Calvin College, and the theological department became Calvin Theological Seminary. There Berkhof studied dogmatics with Hendericus Beuker, who admired the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

In 1900, Berkhof was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in Allendale, Michigan, and he served there until 1902. After the Christian Reformed Church Synod chose to appoint a student with a PhD instead of Berkhof to the chair in exegetical theology, he decided to pursue more formal education. So he went to Princeton and studied under Benjamin Warfield and Geerhardus Vos from 1902 to 1904.

In 1904, Berkhof became the pastor of Oakdale Park Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While pastoring this church he took correspondence courses in philosophy from the University of Chicago. In 1906, Berkhof was appointed to the chair of exegetical theology at Calvin Seminary. From 1906 to 1914, Berkhof taught all of the Old and New Testament courses at Calvin. However, in 1914 the OT and NT departments were divided, which allowed Berkhof more time to research and write. In 1924, he accepted a position as a professor of dogmatics, which paved the way for writing his Systematic Theology.

First offered the presidency of Calvin College in 1919, Berkhof declined and later became the president of Calvin Theological Seminary in 1931. After 38 years of being a professor, Berkhof retired in 1944. He continued to write articles for church periodicals until his death on May 18, 1957.

Contributions to Theology

While Berkhof was a gifted public speaker, professor, and pastor, he left his most enduring contribution in writing. His theological works are the most widely known, but he also wrote books addressing social issues, modern trends of thought, and Christian education, evangelism, missions, and life. Throughout the course of his career he wrote 22 books.

Berkhof was convinced the church has a role to play in social reform and ought not to be separatistic toward culture. As Zwaanstra puts it, for Berkhof, "The church was God's chosen instrument not only to save individuals and to prepare them for eternal life, but also to implement as much as possible the kingdom of God on earth."

Most of Berkhof's theological works were originally written for his lectures as a professor. In 1911 he wrote a basic hermeneutics textbook in Dutch, published in English in 1937 as Principles of Biblical Interpretation. During the course of his career, he wrote works on the New Testament, Joshua, biblical archaeology, work and faith, assurance, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, the atonement, liberalism, the kingdom of God, and the second coming of Christ.

Berkhof's magnum opus was his Systematic Theology, compiled and published as one volume in 1941.

Distinctives and Legacy

Berkhof was a master at organizing and explaining Reformed theology, especially in the tradition of Herman Bavinck. As Zwaanstra writes, "Berkhof's theology was essentially the theology of Herman Bavinck."

This steadfast adherence to the Reformed tradition flowed out of Berkhof's belief that it best captured the meaning of Scripture. During his career, Berkhof was thrown into a variety of denominational struggles and issues, such as the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. On each of these issues he stood his ground against the popular theological liberalism of the day. Against those in the liberal tradition who questioned the reliability of certain elements of Scripture, Berkhof asserted time and time again the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible.

While Berkhof's theological work is not particularly groundbreaking or original, he faithfully held firm to the teachings of Scripture throughout his entire life and sought to pass on those teachings to those entrusted to him. He wrote much, trained many, and was a faithful servant of God's kingdom.

Berkhof's Major Writings

Two Major Streams of Reformed Theology

Have you heard of the "other Reformed theology"? Many in the Reformed resurgence only know one aspect of the broad historical stream of Reformed theology, and sadly, many stereotypes of "Calvinism" exist because John Calvin's legacy has been unknowingly truncated.

Too often, Reformed theology is defined merely by the "five points of Calvinism": total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. While this emphasis on how God saves sinners has value, it fails to capture the full breadth of the heritage of Reformed thought.

Two major streams of Reformed theology developed out of the work of John Calvin: the Scottish Calvinist stream and the Dutch Reformed stream. The Scottish tradition has a strong focus on doctrines of salvation and the ordo salutis (order of salvation). But the Dutch Reformed tradition also emphasizes worldviews, cultural engagement, and the lordship of Jesus over all aspects of life. The two streams have not converged as much as you might expect, considering their common source. So let's take a short tour of the Scottish and Dutch Reformed theological traditions.

Scottish Tradition

In the early days of the Reformation, pastor-theologian John Knox (1514-1572) was part of a group trying to reform the Scottish church; his involvement, however, led to his imprisonment and eventual exile. While in exile, he traveled to John Calvin's base of operations in Geneva, Switzerland. There Knox became enamored with the doctrine of predestination. Knox eventually returned and became the leading figure in founding the Church of Scotland, the origin of Presbyterianism.

Subsequent generations within the Scottish Reformed theological tradition (including English Puritans such as Richard Baxter and John Owen) gained a reputation (not entirely fair) for being gloomy preachers of hell, for exercising harsh church discipline while delving into the private lives of church members, and for suppressing the arts. American theologians such as the great Jonathan Edwards were also influenced by Scottish theology and philosophy and inherited some of these same critiques. There may be a bit of truth in each of the common criticisms, but such practices arose out of unique cultural situations and should not be the only measures by which Scottish Reformed theology is judged.

Some Scottish Reformed theology drifted into some heavier-handed forms of Calvinism, but its original confession (the Scots Confession of 1560) upheld the missional nature of the church and the evangelistic focus of theology. The Reformed doctrine of the Scots was never separated from practical living. The Scots looked to the Westminster Confession of Faith as their doctrinal standard (underneath Scripture) and sought to implement those great theological truths into their everyday lives.

Dutch Tradition

Calvinism arrived in the Netherlands in the third wave of the Reformation in the 1560s. Dutch Calvinism contributed some of the most important early Reformed creeds and confessions: the Belgic Confession of 1561 gave original definition to the Dutch Reformed Church; the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 fostered unity between the Dutch and German Reformed; and the Canons of Dort in 1619 served as a Reformed ecumenical council.

Over time the Dutch Reformed Church drifted into theological liberalism. Then, in the late 19th century, the work of Neo-Calvinists such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkhof shaped what is now known as the Dutch Reformed school of theology (articles will eventually follow on each of these figures).

While Dutch Reformed thought has much in common with the broader Reformed tradition, several features set it apart. Some of the best summaries of Dutch Reformed thought are captured in Douglas Wilson's phrase, "All of Christ for all of life," and in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'"

Kuyper argued for the lordship of Christ over all of life and urged Christians not to dismiss certain fields of culture and society as "worldly." He believed that God established structures of authority in different spheres of creation, and recognizing the boundaries between these spheres maintains and balances justice and order in society.

According to Kuyper, God's rule on earth is brought about through the faithful cultural presence of his church. This belief led the Dutch theologians to emphasize cultural action on the part of Christians. Kuyper wanted Christians to understand that each worldview has unique philosophical assumptions, and that Christian assumptions shape the way believers should act in every area of life. As a result of God's absolute sovereignty, Christians experience the grace of God in all aspects of life, not just in church activities and worship services.

The high point of Dutch Reformed theology is arguably Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology (full disclosure: I first came to Reformed theology through reading Berkhof when I was 17). Dutch Reformed theology shared important essentials with the Old Princeton school of theology (from the Scottish Calvinist tradition) in the United States, but they differed significantly in some areas. The Dutch believed that people have no religiously neutral, "objective" rational faculty. This meant there was no common ground, necessarily, shared between believers and nonbelievers. This made apologetics more of a clash of worldviews than a debate over evidence.

Complementary, Not Contradictory

It may seem like the Scottish and Dutch streams of the Reformed church are miles apart in their emphases, but it is important to observe the significantly different cultural situations in which each of the traditions developed. The Dutch theologians faced a church giving in to modernist theological liberalism in the 19th century and tried to find a cultural home in their new settlements in the United States. As such, we should expect their emphases on the supreme reign of Christ over the ideologies of the day and their careful conception of culture. In a way, Dutch Reformed theology applied the broad principles of the Reformation.

The Scots focused more on the primary doctrines of the Reformation than on their specific application to new cultural situations. Moreover, the Scottish Reformed took the initial Reformation to the surrounding regions, which explains their emphasis on missions.

Nevertheless, even in these different points of focus, both the Scottish and Dutch Reformed theologians focused on making disciples and bringing the gospel to bear on the world around them. Both traditions offer compelling examples for the Reformed movement today.

Jesus' Church Is Here to Stay

The famously influential Nicene Creed contains a line that modern Christians sometimes misunderstand:  "I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church." The word "catholic" can be a source of confusion for those who think it is referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but the word simply means "universal." This leads us, then, to consider the important theological concept of the "universal church."

The term commonly used for the church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia. Jesus is the first to use the word ekklesia in the New Testament (Matt. 16:18), but it is used in various ways with various meanings. As theologian Louis Berkhof explains, ekklesia can have the following meanings:

  • A specific local group of Christians or a local church (Acts 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; Gal. 1:2).
  • A house church (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col 4:15).
  • A group of churches in a region (Acts 9:31).
  • All those throughout the world who profess to be Christians and organize for worship (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28).
  • All those throughout history who have been or will be united to Christ as their savior (Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18, 24).

The last two definitions are explained by John Calvin in his treatment of the visible and invisible church. The "visible church" describes Christianity that can be measured and counted externally:

The whole body . . . scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord's Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it.

However, Calvin recognized that not all who profess to be Christians and outwardly take part in church practices are truly united to Christ. Only God, who knows the hearts of all people, knows the exact membership of the invisible church:

The Church as it really is before God---the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world.

Another word is used for the church: kuriake, which forms the basis for the English word "church." Kuriake means "belonging to the Lord," emphasizing that the true church is the people who belong to the Lord. This is simply another way of expressing the biblical truth that the church throughout the world is Christ's "body" (1 Cor. 12). As Christians, we are not simply individuals; we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

Jesus Builds His Church

The concept of the universal church is important for Christians to grasp as we trust Christ and look to the future. Movements will rise and fall, and individual churches will come and go, but God's people, the church universal, will never be destroyed. Why? Because Jesus builds his church, and Jesus will not fail.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." These are the first words out of Jesus' mouth in response to Peter's powerful declaration, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Beginning with "and I tell you" gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of him being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task is to build his church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first person pronouns: "I will build my church."

Jesus' promise to build his church should give us hope and certainty that God's purposes for his church will ultimately succeed, but it should not make us arrogant about our own abilities. God loves to use the weak and frail people of the world to shame the strong and powerful (1 Cor. 1:27-29). By paradoxically exalting the low and helpless, God shows that he is the strong and powerful one whose purposes cannot fail. This means that Jesus' church will be built up not with outward, human strength, but rather in weakness and frailty, depending on the power of God's Spirit to advance his kingdom and bring glory to Jesus.

Jesus' very personal promise to build his church also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved ---"the gates of hell shall not prevail against" the church Jesus is building.

The organized authority of the kingdom of darkness---the "gates of hell"---conspire against Jesus, his gospel, his kingdom, and his church. The demonic forces engaged in conflict with Jesus before he built his church, and they will continue to attack his church.

This theme of cosmic conflict in Matthew 16:18 sets the existence of the church within the context of the ultimate conflict in Scripture, running from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 20. The conflict in Genesis 3:15 is a divinely inaugurated hostility, which is a promise of conflict and redemption but also victory. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, the work of God in the building of the church is set in a conflict that will be won by God in the end (Rev. 20). As Edmund Clowney writes,

This fallen, broken world is now Christ's world. It is the theatre of his redemption (1 Cor. 4:9; Rev. 5), the place of his mission, over which he has total authority for the accomplishment of his saving work (Mt. 13:38; 28:18-20; Jn. 8:12; 17:15-18). The rule of Christ will bring this present world to the glory of the world to come (1 Cor. 15:22-26; Rom. 8:19-20; Acts 3:20-21; Rev. 21:1). He will come again in glory to judge the nations and form a new universe (Mt. 24:14; Acts 1:11; Rom. 16:26; 2 Thes. 1:7-10; 2 Pet. 3:10).

God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel ("God with us"). But he doesn't stop there as he builds his church. The church is his, and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy. Jesus is the great church builder, and he will not fail.

Our Father of Fathers

Most people are quite familiar with the concept of God as Father. The modernist progressive theology of the last few centuries popularized the concept of the "universal fatherhood of God" along with the "brotherhood of man." However, if we look at Scripture we might be surprised at what we find about the fatherhood of God.

The Father of Israel

God is rarely referred to as Father in the Old Testament. When he is, it is usually in the sense that he is the Father of the nation of Israel (e.g., Deut 32:6), a term that primarily conveys a sense of authority. As the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament explains,

In the Israelite family, the father has almost unlimited authority. He is master of the house; the children are taught to honor and fear him (Mal. 1:6). He controls the other members of the family as a potter controls his clay (Isa. 64:7). Yet "he is not an isolated despot, but the centre from which strength and will emanate through the whole of the sphere which belongs to him and to which he belongs. . . . To the Israelite the name of father always spells authority."

God is also compared to a father to explain some of the characteristic ways he acts toward his people, such as his compassion, his discipline, and his care for the weak and powerless:

  • As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (Ps. 103:13).
  • The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (Prov. 3:12).
  • Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation (Ps. 68:5).

However, in the Old Testament God is not usually referred to as the father of individual people, and Jews did not address him as "Father." That is why when Jesus arrived, the intimacy with which he addressed God was so striking.

The Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Jesus' frequent references to God as "Father" were unheard of in his context. "Father" was his favorite way of addressing God. We see Jesus using this word for God 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels and more than 100 times in the Gospel of John, in stark comparison to the 15 times the term is used for God in the whole Old Testament.

The specific word Jesus used was Abba, the Aramaic word "Father." It's a word that small children could use when they addressed their fathers, though older children and adults used it as well (so it should be translated "Father," not "Daddy"). Addressing God as Abba conveys a level of intimacy with God that had not been claimed by anyone before Jesus: only a natural-born child would use this form of address. Jesus' use of Abba was striking enough that several times the biblical writers include the original Aramaic along with the translated Greek word pater, "Father."

Jesus' relationship to God as Father is unique. To Jesus, unlike anyone else, God is "my Father." Yet he taught his disciples (and us) to address God as "our Father" (Matt. 6:9). This is because through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, we are adopted by God into his family. God becomes our loving Father because we are united with Jesus Christ and receive the same family privileges and blessings that Jesus has as the faithful Son.

Because of our adoption into the family of God, we now have complete access to our Father. Hebrews 4:14-16 says,

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We share intimacy with the Father through our incorporation into Christ, and by the Holy Spirit indwelling us. Because of our relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit we can come to God in prayer and dependence at any time. His arms are always open to us.

Paul writes in Romans: "You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoptions as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!" The imagery of adoption means that believers are not naturally children of God, but become children of God because of Christ. Following Jesus' example in the Lord's Prayer, we address our Father as "Abba" to show us two things: our intimate relationship to God as his children and security with God based on his promises to us. As Martin Luther preached, the little word "Abba" surpasses all eloquence and combats the cruel teaching that we should feel uncertain concerning our status with God.

Abba summarizes the message on every page of Scripture: that God is merciful, loving, and patient; that he is faithful and true, and that he keeps his promises. All the promises of God were fulfilled in the gift of his only Son, so that "whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Biblical Fatherhood

Human fatherhood is modeled on the fatherhood of God. As Paul writes, "every fatherhood in heaven and on earth" is named after God the Father (Eph. 3:14-15). What are some of the characteristics of a father described in Scripture?

  • Gentleness and Compassion

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (Ps. 103:13).

  • Wisdom & instruction

Hear, O sons, a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching (Prov. 4:1-2).

  • Discipline

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (Prov. 3:12).

  • Love

Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23).

For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God (John 16:27).

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are (1 John 3:1).

  • Exhortation and Encouragement

You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thess. 2:10-12).

  • Protection

The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146:9).

  • Provision

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:7-11)

Being a father is a high calling, a way to image our loving heavenly Father who loves and cares for his children better than any earthly father can hope to. Those of us who are fathers should feel the gravity of this calling. When we fail to love like our heavenly Father, let's keep repenting and trusting in Jesus, who's adopted us into the family of God the Father.