Divine Justice and the Imprecatory Psalms

Posted by on Feb 24, 2015 in Featured, Psalms

Divine Justice and the Imprecatory Psalms

Old_Bibles-1As a divine person, only Jesus could experience the Father’s wrath to the last drop. The wrath of God is only known in its fullness by the Son of God. There was not “one square inch” of God’s wrath towards sin that went unexpressed at Golgotha. In those three hours, we witness God’s terrible wrath against the ungodly that have yet to kiss the Son (Ps. 2:12). This is the same wrath that Christ endured for the Saints; this is the same wrath that the ungodly will drink in unending drops.

But is it the case that these two revelations of God’s wrath – which are also one in the same – are the only revelation of wrath? The Bible speaks clearly: The wrath of God toward unrighteousness is expressed even in the present (Matt. 3:7; Luke 21:23; John 3:36; Ro. 1:18; 2:5; Eph. 2:3; 4:6; 1 Thess. 2:16).

Vengeance belongs to God and Christ alone (Ro. 12:9; Col. 3:8), and unrighteous anger does not produce the righteous life of God (James 1:19-21). Among sinful men, anger often threatens to overthrow reason and order. Fits of anger are strictly prohibited (Gal. 5:20), but anger itself is morally ambiguous and reflects – in some sense – the divine character.

Unlike the Homeric gods, the LORD is free from unworthy passions; unlike the gods of the Hellenistic philosophers, the LORD is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty…” (Num. 14:18). While decrying the unworthy gods of Homer, the early Christians continued to attribute anger to God. Why? Because anger is not unworthy of God. Incorruptible anger demonstrates God’s judicial sentiment and concern for human salvation. If God cannot be angry, then He cannot be just, merciful, or good. By analogy, if man cannot be angry, then he cannot imitate God in Christ (Mark 3:5). When it is properly qualified, we can see that there is an anger that belongs to the righteous life that God desires. It is an anger that imperfectly imitates the anger of the impassible God.

With that background in place, we turn to the question, “Is it time now to pray the imprecatory psalms?” Yes. But, more importantly, when did we stop?

Christians join with the Psalmist (and with Christ) to pray all of the Psalms, regularly. Sinful anger is sinful. Righteous anger is righteous. The former is to be rejected; the latter is to be embraced. The book of Psalms forms the worship of Israel and of Christ. They are the inheritance of the Body of Christ. The Psalms take God’s people through the full range of Christ’s own righteous emotions. If the imprecatory Psalms are worthy of Christ, then how can His people refuse them?

Justice is not only for a future time. When temporal justice does appear – sincere though imperfect – we rejoice. God’s wrath remains on the ungodly. We know that His wrath is being stored up for a future time. And we know that His future wrath is revealed even in the present. The cry for justice is not at odds with the plea for the repentance and faith of the wicked. Repentance from sin and faith towards Christ does not remove the need for justice in our day, for justice is a cause worth taking up in prayer, not in general only, but also in particular.

There would seem to be places in Scripture that make a blanket prohibition against the cursing of our enemies, yet these cannot be pressed into service against the imprecatory psalms. Why? Because if we read the Bible like that, there are as many texts that would also seem to prohibit all anger (in an equally unqualified sense). On one hand, obedience to Romans 12:14 is among the marks of a true Christian, on the other, the Psalms belong to the worship of the Church. If the prohibition against cursing concerns the same subject as the imprecatory Psalms, then this creates the kind of problem that appeal to the particular and special situation of the Old Covenant Church simply cannot resolve. Some might even say this appeal leads to a schizophrenic spirituality for the faithful Israelite.

If Wynne’s hermeneutic is adequate for a Christian appropriation of the Psalms, then what other Psalms are now inappropriate for the people of God?

A quick glance at the Reformed tradition charts a better path.

Jonathan Edwards:

Miscellany 600. “It was not a thing allowed of under the old testament, nor approved of by the old testament saints, to hate personal enemies […] except it was as prophets speaking in the name of the Lord. So that there is no inconsistence between the religion of the old testament and new in this respect.” Edwards points to the example of the apostle Paul (2 Tim 4:14). Revenge and its desire are forbidden by the Law of Moses (Lev. 19:18). More than merely prohibiting revenge, the love command is implicit in that Law (Exod. 23:4-5).

Edwards continues, “We can’t think that those imprecations we find in the Psalms and prophets were out of their own hearts, for cursing is spoken of as a very dreadful sin in the Old Testament.”

Miscellany 640. Edwards made seven observations concerning David’s imprecatory prayers:

1) Unless David is speaking in the name of the Lord, “he is not to be understood as praying against any particular persons, that God would indeed execute vengeance on such and such men, or that he did not desire that they should repent.”

2) Imprecatory prayers are spoken by the innocent and blameless, against the bloodthirsty accursed.

3) David’s many enemies – insofar as they are his continuing enemies – are understood as “exceedingly hardened and very implacable.”

4) David prays against his enemies not as his enemies only but as God’s enemies (Ps. 21:8-13).

5) David prays not merely as a private person but as head of the church.

6) David’s prayers are not petty but are “necessary for his own deliverance and safety, and the safety of God’s people, and of religion itself, and for the vindication of his and their cause, and also of God’s own cause. When they were unjustly judged and vilified, condemned and persecuted, he prays that God would, in his providence, show himself to be of their side; and he also prays for it as a testimony of the love and tenderness of God to him, according to his gracious promises to his people. It would be very suitable for the persecuted people of God now in like manner to pray against their persecutors. So also may a king pray for the destruction of his enemies whose destruction he seeks in war.”

7) “Tis questionable whether David ever prayed against his enemies, but as a prophet speaking in the name of the Lord.”

As long as the wicked are permitted to afflict the saints, God’s justice is called into question. David’s prayer is made from a righteous frame against the incurably wicked. His strong words are not merely for the achievement of his personal and private ends. He trusts that God is a just judge, and he knows that the wicked will not prosper forever. Through affliction, he cries out that God would be faithful to the covenant promises. Imprecation did not only concern the particularities of the theocratic kingdom, but was also wrapped up in divine justice and God’s covenant faithfulness.

Calvin’s comments on Ps. 137:7 are revealing,

“We know that God intended in this way to comfort and support the minds of the people under a calamity so very distressing, as that Jacob’s election might have seemed to be rendered frustrate, should his descendants be treated with impunity in such a barbarous manner, by the posterity of Esau. The Psalmist prays, under the inspiration of the Spirit, that God would practically demonstrate the truth of this prediction […]. To pray for vengeance would have been unwarrantable, had not God promised it, and had the party against whom it was sought not been reprobate and incurable; for as to others, even our greatest enemies, we should wish their amendment and reformation.”

The Psalmist understands that vengeance belongs to the LORD. These Psalms are not justification for personal vengeance but for the furtherance of God’s redemptive plan. The saints – throughout history – long for divine vengeance, even while they weep for the impenitent.

Calvin’s comments on Ps. 58:10 offer much wisdom,

“There is nothing absurd in supposing that believers, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Ghost, should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. That cruel satisfaction which too many feel when they see their enemies destroyed, is the result of the unholy passions of hatred, anger, or impatience, inducing an inordinate desire of revenge. So far as corruption is suffered to operate in this manner, there can be no right or acceptable exercise. On the other hand, when one is led by a holy zeal to sympathize with the justness of that vengeance which God may have inflicted, his joy will be as pure in beholding the retribution of the wicked, as his desire for their conversion and salvation was strong and unfeigned.”

We await the prophetic fulfillment to the imprecatory Psalms when Christ “will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Rev. 19:11-16).” That is the eschatological hope that is expressed in biblical imprecations (Ps. 58:10-11). The saints will rejoice when God’s righteous justice is brought to bear on this world, when the wicked are destroyed and the righteous dwell in peace.

Christ has surely borne the fullness of God’s wrath. Our sincere prayers of imprecation are not perfect. Yet when they are formed by Word and Spirit, they are pleasing to God. The taking up of the language of these Psalms does not mean the putting away of forgiveness, mercy, and hope for conversion. When the Church takes up imprecation it does so trusting that God has promised to put things right. Lament and imprecation express zeal for – and trust in – divine justice. Imprecation is the natural cry of God’s people when God’s faithfulness appears delayed. Despite all appearance to the contrary, we believe that God will be faithful to His Word.

Eschatological impatience is the fruit of hope in God’s covenant faithfulness. Eschatological impatience is on display in both the Old and New Testaments (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20).

God’s inscrutable, wrath-filled providence in history was not only for the Canaanites. God has promised to reveal His wrath against ungodliness. The particularized complaint of the saints against injustice recognizes that God is faithful to His Word and will act according to it. So, pray for the conversion of your enemies, and for the destruction of the incurably wicked, whoever they may be (only God knows). Lord come quickly, and for some, sooner rather than later.

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The Five Solas of the Reformation and Their Importance Today

Posted by on Nov 6, 2014 in Church History, Featured

The Five Solas of the Reformation and Their Importance Today

The Reformation in the 16th century is long known as a religious renewal which we refer to today as the Protestant Reformation. This movement is known to have changed the course of Western civilization, but what is often not understood about this event is that not one single man caused it. It didn’t begin with Martin Luther (1483-1546) when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church doors of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

Luther’s “Tower Experience” is said to be where he came to grasp the definitive doctrine of the Reformation: justification by faith alone. With that said, it’s also important to note that the Reformation grew out of earlier attempts for renewal, the most notable of which was led by Peter Waldo (1140-1217) and his followers in the Alpine regions—John Wycliffe (1324—1384) and the Lollards in England (those without an academic background); and John Huss (1372-1415) and his followers in Bohemia. All of these men and many more are called forerunners of the Reformation—rather than Reformers—since, although they anticipated many of the emphases of the Reformation, they lacked a complete understanding of the critical doctrine of justification by faith alone. While the intent of Luther’s Reformation was originally to purge the Roman Catholic Church of its abuses, the Lord expanded this Reformations reach and influence in other regions and throughout the coming centuries. And its five core teachings are as valuable today as they were in the 16th century.

The Five Solas

The Reformers taught what is known as the “five solas”: Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), faith alone (sola fide), grace alone (sola gratia), Christ alone (solus Christus), and glory to God alone (soli Deo gloria). Dr. Joel Beeke notes, “The first of these battle cries deals with the fundamental issue of authority, the middle three deal with the basics of salvation, and the final one addresses worship” (6). [i]

The Importance of the Five Solas for Today

In the past few years researchers have been hard at work studying problems in the American church. One study done by sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion came to conclude that American’s youth believe in a philosophy called “moral therapeutic deism.” Smith and his research team define this as: 1) “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth”; 2) “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions”; 3) “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself”; 4) “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem”; and 5) “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

This definition is significant for several reasons. The decline of mainstream American denominations came about as a denial of the authority of the Bible. When the authority of the Bible is diminished, there is no standard for faith and practice thereof. Thus, a return to the first solasola Scriptura—should be our battle cry. The Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient Word of God. When the Bible speaks, God’s people should hear, heed, and obey the Word by His grace. Not only this—the Bible proclaims the Truth of the other solas, namely that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ. Man has not been saved for his own purposes but for God’s purpose and glory. Thus man’s greatest need is indeed Christ. As Charles Spurgeon said, “I have a great need for Christ, I have a great Christ for my need.”

The greatest need of the Church has always been reformation around the Word of God. Thus, undergirding these five solas is ecclesia semper reformanda est, which means”the church (is) always to be reformed.” The Word of God stands over us—individually and collectively. This is why the Church must always be a listening to the Word Church. Romans 10:17 states, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Michael Horton notes,

“Personally and corporately, the church comes into being and is kept alive by hearing the gospel. The church is always on the receiving end of God’s good gifts as well as His correction. The Spirit does not lead us apart from the Word but directs us back to Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. We always need to return to the voice of our Shepherd. The same gospel that creates the church sustains and renews it.”[ii]

Rather than being restrictive, ecclesia semper reformanda est undergirds the five solas by providing a foundation on which they can stand. The Church exists because of Christ, is in Christ, and is for the spread of the glory of Christ. As Horton further notes,

“When we invoke the whole phrase — “the church Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God” — we confess that we belong to the church and not simply to ourselves and that this church is always created and renewed by the Word of God rather than by the spirit of the age.”iii]

The five solas provide the foundation for a robust and true evangelical faith and practice. My prayer is that the Lord would daily renew in His people a love for what He loves—a love of His grace, proclaimed in His power from every pulpit throughout the land, and from every mouth and tongue of His beloved for His glory.

[i]Joel Beeke, Living For God’s Glory An Introduction To Calvinism (Lake Mary, FL, Reformation Trust, 2008), 6.

[ii] Michael Horton “Semper Reformanda”, October 1st, 2009, Table Talk Magazine, accessed 4 November 2014. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/semper-reformanda/

[iii] Ibid. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/semper-reformanda/

 

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Is the Reformation Still Relevant Today?

Posted by on Oct 31, 2014 in Church History, Featured

Is the Reformation Still Relevant Today?

Is Reformation theology still relevant today? Absolutely! It reminds us that we have a big God and that salvation is found in Him alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for God’s glory alone. And we know this because Scripture alone is our highest standard for truth. We don’t determine what is good and true about God. God does.

I would argue that the biggest problem in the church today is that many of us have too small a view of who God is. We have shrunk an infinite being. We have diminished His glory and put Him into very small and manageable boxes. This ignores the objectively there God altogether to the point that He becomes (to us) just a projection of what we think He is like, what we feel He should be like.

We need a new reformation—a re-reformation.

We, as the church in the 21st century, need to recapture a sense of the grandeur of God—how vast and awesome He is. We need a biblical view of His glory. We need a biblical view of His sovereignty. We need a biblical view of what it means to say He’s both transcendently holy and imminently relational. We need a biblical vision of His love, His mercy, His justice, His grace. If we start there, awestruck by the infinite God at the center of our worldview, then many other issues in our church world will sort of self-fix. As true worship is happening, our marriages will get better, our churches will have less scandals, and our joy will be maximized in Jesus Christ.

Allow me to give a few historical examples of this.

Way back in the first century, we find Jesus Christ championing a big view of God. Meanwhile, there are these Pharisees who had shrunk their view of God by essentially saying, “At the end of the day, our rule-keeping and our mile-long lists of dos and don’ts, that is where we get our righteousness.” Jesus confronts this man-centered view of salvation (which, by the way, is no good news at all). He reminds the Pharisees that they are not the point. The glory of God is!

The same debate breaks out later in the first century. Only this time, you have the apostle Paul on one side and the Judaizers on the other. The Judaizers were a group of Jews who were telling all the Gentiles (non-Jews) that if you want to get saved, you’ve got to supplement God’s grace with circumcision and adherence to all kinds of rituals within the Jewish culture. The apostle Paul boldly rose to the challenge, confronted the Judaizers, and revealed that their message of salvation is a different gospel altogether. After all, if salvation is a man-centered endeavor that comes down to us jumping through religious hoops, then what’s so good about that news? Paul contended for a radically God-centered view of reality.

If we move forward in church history to the 4th century, we find the same scenario. Same question, new century. Pelagius was a monk who said that man had the power in and of himself to choose salvation. Augustine contended against him, claiming that Pelagius had strayed off a biblical course and down the dead-end road of works-based salvation. Augustine fought to bring the popular theology of the day back to the Bible alone—back to a God who does the saving. What’s interesting is that at this point, the fourth century Roman Catholic Church actually sides with Augustine and deems Pelagianism heretical.

In the 16th century, however, the Roman Catholic Church had slid from a God-centered view back into a man-centered view of salvation. Under their teachings, one could buy a plenary indulgence—a little sheet of paper that was basically a sure-shot passport to heaven. One could also visit a number of sacred sites and gaze upon the relics of Saint Peter and others. It was a man-centered movement about trying to reach God by the power of human volition. Then, Martin Luther shows up on the scene standing in the same shoes that Augustine stood in the 4th century, the same shoes that Paul stood in during the 1st century. Luther contended for a biblical view of salvation in which all credit goes to amazing grace of God. Thus, Luther helped start the Protestant Reformation: protesting what had become a man-centered institution.

Now, here we are in the 21st century.

A recent survey asked a large number of professing Christians how we get to heaven: Is it by good works or as an act of grace? An alarming 73% of Protestants in mainline denominations said that God let’s us into heaven based on our good works. Many of today’s Protestants have embraced the very anti-gospel doctrine that Protestantism originated to protest! It is the same pattern we’ve seen throughout history. We get pulled downward into our self-powered salvation attempts with an almost gravitational force.

So, this raises the question: Who are the Luthers, the Augustines, the Pauls of the 21st century? In other words, who are the people willing to stand up for the good news that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone? Where are the people willing to stand in those shoes?

How desperately we need God at the center!

God is salvation’s author.

He alone gets the glory.

This is reformation thinking, and we will need it always.

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John Owen on the Proper End and Design of Evangelical Truth

Posted by on Jul 17, 2014 in Church History

John Owen on the Proper End and Design of Evangelical Truth

The gospel-centered movement may be new, but gospel-centeredness itself isn’t a novelty. Love for the gospel lies at the center of the rich heritage of evangelicalism, reaching back hundreds of years.

I’m (very) slowly plodding through The Works of John Owen, the most important theologian in my Christian life. Tucked away in Owen’s 250 pages on The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel (in Volume 7 of Owen’s works) is a short, but insightful, delineation of what Owen calls the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths.

The context is Owen’s treatment of the first (of six) causes of apostasy from the gospel, namely “that rooted enmity which is in the minds of men unto spiritual things, abiding uncured under the profession of the gospel” (p. 82). Owen demonstrates that when the gospel doesn’t fully penetrate a person’s heart, so as to bring about the intended transformation of the heart in particular ways, then the hostility of the unregenerate nature eventually rises up against the truth, even if there has been an outward profession of faith.

But in arguing for this point, Owen takes some time to articulate just what the intended effects of the gospel are – the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths. There are three of them, which I will state in my own words, followed by some excerpts from Owen.

1. Rest and Satisfaction in Christ

The first goal of the gospel is to “take off the soul of man from rest and satisfaction in itself” and to “seek after righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness, by Jesus Christ” (p. 83). The natural inclination of fallen human beings is to look inward, to ourselves and what we can accomplish, to find the solution to our various problems. The problems may be moral, psychological, or spiritual, but the core conviction of our untransformed hearts is to think, “I can do it. I can handle this.” So, we try to live better lives, to be better people, and to find within ourselves the resources we need for goodness and happiness (or in Owen’s words, “righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness”).

But the gospel “presseth to take men off wholly from their old foundations” (p. 84). It shows us our insufficiency and redirects our trust to Christ and his sufficiency alone. The gospel shows us that “present peace” and “future blessedness” are found not in ourselves, or anything we can do, but only in Jesus.

2. Renovation of the Soul

The second goal of the gospel is one I’ve written about more extensively: the “the renovation of our minds, wills, and affections, into the image or likeness of God” (p. 83). We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ, says Paul (Rom. 8:29), and the primary means God uses to effect this transformation is the gospel, applied to our hearts by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

But how does this actually happen in practice? Owen answers: “by presenting spiritual things unto us in that light and evidence, with that power and efficacy, as to transform us into their likeness” (p. 83). In other words, transformation happens when the truth of the gospel comes into our hearts with both clarity and efficacy, logic and fire, conviction and passion, Word and Spirit, light and heat.

3. A Heart for Worship

Finally, Owen says that evangelical truth “engageth the whole soul, in all its powers and faculties, through the whole course of its activity…to live unto God in all holy obedience” (p. 83-84). Worshiping God is the only rational response to the lavish mercies of God (Rom. 12:1). But when the gospel does it’s work in our hearts, worship is seen not simply as our duty to God (although it is), but as the natural reflex of our hearts in response to God’s revelation of his grace and mercy through the cross and resurrection of Christ and the gift of his Spirit.

Questions for Application

To return to Owen’s main point, let me end with some personal questions.

  • Has the gospel produced these effects in your heart?
  • Is your trust firmly fixed on Christ and his cross, or are you still looking inward for moral improvement and existential satisfaction?
  • Are you being more and more transformed into the image of Christ?
  • Do you look more like Jesus than you did a year ago?
  • Do you delight to worship God?
  • Do the lavish mercies of God beckon your heart to praise and enjoy him?

If not, maybe the gospel hasn’t penetrated deeply enough. Maybe there is still an “uncured enmity” or hostility to God and the gospel deep inside your soul. Be watchful. When this is the case, Owen warns, “spiritual truths are first neglected, then despised, and at last, on easy terms, parted withal” (p. 84). Religious people sometimes profess to believe without really believing. When they do, they first “stifle truth as to its operation” and eventually “reject it as to its profession” (p. 85). This is the natural course of apostasy from the gospel.

The only solution is to embrace the gospel more deeply, with an earnest desire for the Spirit to apply evangelical truths more deeply and powerfully to our hearts.

This post first appeared at Brian’s blog and is posted here with his permission.

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Outreach: Does the Inerrancy of the Bible Matter Evangelistically?

Posted by on Jul 17, 2014 in Inerrancy

Outreach: Does the Inerrancy of the Bible Matter Evangelistically?

Introduction

Throughout this series (http://servantsofgrace.org/an-attack-on-marriage-is-ultimately-an-assault-on-gods-character-and-gods-word/) and (http://servantsofgrace.org/teaching-feelings-opinions-or-the-inerrancy-of-the-bible/) we’ve looked at how inerrancy relates to the family and the church but today we will look at how inerrancy relates to outreach. Some people may think that outreach isn’t really related to inerrancy at all, but such people are gravely mistaken. If the Bible isn’t without error then that will affect how we engage in evangelism, discipleship, missions, and apologetics.

At present some Christians are focusing more on what they think about the Bible rather than what the Bible says about Adam being a historical person. If Adam isn’t a historical person then we will have issues with our understanding of sin, salvation, the Church, and all facets of ministry. Theology has consequences and denying inerrancy whether explicitly or implicitly is one of those issues that while not explicitly a gospel issue will have devastating effects on our understanding and implementation of the gospel into every area of our lives and or ministries.

Outreach and Inerrancy

The mission of God is to seek and save the lost and make disciples from every people group to the glory of God. Understanding inerrancy is crucial, because our understanding of this doctrine will affect how we evangelize, make disciples, and engage in apologetics. Inerrancy is so important, because it has a direct bearing on our understanding of God’s mission to save, sanctify, and glorify a people for His own possession and kingdom. Not only does inerrancy have a direct consequence on our understanding of issues related to the family, Church, and outreach, but in denying inerrancy we will have issues with every area of our theology.

As we have already learned, inerrancy is a very important issue– one that merits serious reflection and defense.  The Church is called to preach the Word of God in season and out of season and to reach people in order that they may be transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since our outreach is so important may we never forget that in seeking to make disciples we should be driven not by our opinions or feelings, but by the Word of God that pierces the heart of hardened criminals and sinners and brings them to the knowledge of the Truth through the preaching of the Word of God.

Conclusion

The doctrine of inerrancy is important. Denials of inerrancy are denials of God’s truthfulness to us. God would be a liar if the Bible contained error. In addition, if one denies inerrancy, then the truth of the entire Bible comes under suspicion. Believers would be left without any solid foundation for faith. No one would be certain what was true and what was not. Lack of belief in inerrancy opens the door to denying the major doctrines of the faith. While this may not happen with each person who rejects an inerrant Scripture, it is the logical result of denying inerrancy.

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