The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

I’ve talked to many Christians who were taught and believed that God’s people Israel in the Old Testament were saved by works, rather than grace.

Of course, looking at the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 will show that’s simply not true. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2).

God acts. God does the work. God does the saving.

Then he gives them his law. The order goes like this: God rescues his people. Then he tells them what their lives should look like under his kingly rule.

Add to that Hebrews 11 where we see that those saints who have come before were saved, not by their commitment to the law, but for their faith. That’s the whole point of that chapter.

That should be enough.

But another passage stuck out to me this morning I hadn’t noticed before. Deuteronomy 4:37: “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength.”

That sounds a lot like John 3:16, doesn’t it? That verse says, “God loved the world this way: he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

  • “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them” → God loved the world
  • “He brought you out of Egypt” → will not perish but have eternal life 
  • “By his Presence and his great strength” → he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him

When you lay the two passage side-by-side, we see that God’s love is the initiating motivation for salvation. His very real presence and grace is the power of salvation. And finally, freedom and life with God–the rescue from bondage and death–is the result of God’s salvation.

Whether Old Testament or New, the salvation of God does not come because of the obedience or conformity to God’s law, in part or in whole.

It comes freely and only to his people by his grace, his power, and his very Presence.


Day 13: The End of Self-Help

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68)

Zechariah is the father of John the Baptist. He sings a wondrous song at the birth of his son about another son—Mary’s son. His song has a simple, yet earth-shattering message: in the baby Jesus, God has come to town. This isn’t anything new of course. God had been coming to save his people for centuries! Zechariah begins, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (v. 68). These words “visited” and “redeemed” are reminiscent of the Exodus and how God saved his people when they were slaves in Egypt. Showing up to save. That’s what God does.

Why did God visit and redeem his people? Zechariah mentions two reasons. Enemies (v. 71) and sin (v. 77). Whether it’s ancient Israel, Zechariah, or us today, we’re all in “Egypt” apart from God’s grace. We are all are shackled from embracing God because of sin, evil, death, and Satan. We are all slaves to the kingdom of darkness and are desperate for freedom.

And everyone is trying to tell us how we can be rescued. Politicians, economists, educators, celebrities, even athletes. Everyone has a solution. What’s more is that we continually try to save ourselves. We see the brokenness in us and in the world around us and we create our own system of salvation. It might be through religious practice, personal morality, making money, romantic relationships, good grades, or professional resume. Anything. Ask yourself, “What do I look to for safety and security and freedom?”

It doesn’t take long to realize that self-help simply won’t cut it. Self-help couldn’t help Israel under the dominion of the Egyptian empire. It couldn’t help Zechariah. And it won’t help you or me either. It’s all too easy to try to climb ladders to get up to God. Yet what we need is God to come down to us. If the world is broken, no solution in the world will suffice. It has to be God. Only God can clean up the mess we’ve made. Only God can free us from our enemies, both inside and out. Zechariah’s song reminds us that God has come to town. And when he comes, it’s the end of self-help.

Scripture and Reflection Questions
Read Luke 1:57-80

  1. In what ways do you try to save yourself?
  2. Read. v. 68. The word “redeemed” means to be bought back. What are some areas of life where you need to see God’s redemption?
  3. Read v. 69. Why is phrase “the house of his servant David” important? Does it matter that Jesus has come from a real-live human family?
  4. What enemies do you have? Where do you need to ask God for help from your enemies?

From We Look for Light: Readings and Reflections for Advent

Ministry Theology

Why Ordo Salutis Matters for Preaching

Ordo who? Ordo Salutis is the Latin phrase for “order of salvation,” which refers to the logical (not chronological!) order of events in a Christian’s salvation. It’s an important thing, and not just a theoretical thing. For me, past Sunday, it was a sanctifying thing.

Typically, Ordo Salutis goes something like this: election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, glorification. God is sovereign in all of this–from point A to Z. He does it all in a Christian’s life. He gets all the glory. (Check out this graphic on the order of salvation via Tim Challies and this one–much more detailed–from John Bunyan).

Now, when a pastor is in the middle of a sermon, unless he is preaching about this topic, he typically is not thinking about these things (at least I’m not!). But it makes all the difference when the sermon is over. Ordo Salutis can particularly be an immense comfort after what the preacher believes to be an average sermon.

This past Sunday was such a moment for me. I finished preaching and simply, I felt downcast and uneasy. I thought I sounded like a babbling, incoherent fool during the message. I thought the congregation had a deer-in-the-headlight look on their faces.

But then God gave me a gift. One of the older men in our congregation (whom I consider a mentor), is a former pastor and now trains pastors. I told him how I felt, and he did not say that I was an incoherent, babbling fool. He said the sermon was “spot on” and helpful. I shrugged my shoulders. I still wasn’t encouraged. But what he said next was encouraging as well as illuminating. He said, “Ordo Salutis. Remember that the verbal call of the gospel comes first, followed by the effectual call. You don’t know what is happening in people’s hearts based on their faces. Preach and move on.”

I nodded my head and said, “Yes. Thank you.”

I was downcast when I was focused on me–my style, my delivery, my ability to say what I thought needed to be said. But when this dear friend directed my eyes to the sovereign God who draws people to himself, my fears were lifted. You see, in that moment, I was worshiping the idols of achievement and ministry success. I was not worshiping Jesus and trusting his Spirit to work in the hearts of people. I was putting in all on my shoulders. By God’s grace, Ordo Salutis brought comfort and kept me from a self-absorbed Sunday afternoon.

Theology is not solely for the seminaries or “famous” pastors. It is for normal pastors like me, who need my idols exposed and my spiritual eyes redirected on God and his gospel of grace.

Later in the day, as I reflected on what happened, I tweeted:

I’ve heard it many times before: a less-than-great sermon can still proclaim the great gospel. But Sunday it became real. God is sovereign in salvation, and the gospel, not my sermon, is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. I may preach an average sermon, but I will never preach an average gospel. That’s one lesson this young preacher was delighted to learn.


How Did St. Augustine Get Saved?

St. Augustine of Hippo is a giant of the faith. He was monumental in helping the church establish a doctrine of grace against Pelagianism.  He also wrote many influential works, the two most famous being Confessions (his spiritual autobiography) and City of God. The story of how he came to Christ is marvelous and encouraging to all who are longing for true rest.

Augustine’s life can be characterized as a search for joy. His main pursuit was carnal pleasure, which left him empty. Augustine reflected on his search, “I did not ask for more certain proof of you, but only to be made more steadfast in you.”[1] Augustine did not want a water-tight argument for Christianity. He wanted a water-tight Person who would promise and deliver true joy.

His pursuit led him to sexual promiscuity. Aside from some very wild teen years, he lived with one woman (whom he never names) for a long time, though they never married. He admits that this experience helped him discover the difference between a marriage covenant with the purpose of raising Christian children and a “bargain struck for lust.”[2]

In search of deliverance from this lust, Augustine sought out his friend Simplicianus. Simplicianus told him the conversion story of Victorinus. Augustine remarks that the story “shows the great glory of your grace.”[3] Most likely, Augustine meant that the story shows God’s grace in Victorinus’ life, but also how God used it to change his own life.

When Augustine heard of Victorinus’ public profession, he “began to glow with fervor to imitate him,” which was precisely why Simplicianus told the story in the first place.[4] Mere imitation cannot change a heart, but what transpired after this encounter was that Augustine increasingly realized his depravity and need for a Redeemer.

Augustine describes his conversion in terms of being “released…from the fetters of lust.”[5] Another story brought that about. One day with his friend Alypius, Augustine was visited by a fellow-African named Ponticianus. Just like Simplicianus, Ponticianus shared a story with Augustine: this one about release from the world through monastic living.

Augustine realized God was using Ponticianus’ story to help him see “how sordid…how deformed and squalid” his heart was.[6] But Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”[7] The Holy Spirit overcame such resistance and God drew Augustine to Christ. After Ponticianus left, Augustine was in the spiritual birth canal, as it were: “I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity,” Augustine wrote. “I was dying a death that would bring me life.”[8]

Augustine’s self-understanding heightened as he wrestled with his desire for holiness and carnal pleasure.[9] After a physical assault on his own body,[10] he isolated himself from Alypius and asked his soul, ‘How long shall I go on saying, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?”[11]

As Augustine surrendered, he heard a voice saying, “Take it and read!” He returned to Alypius where Paul’s letters lay on the table. He read Romans 13:13-14 and embraced the call to clothe himself with Christ. Augustine wrote, “You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world.”

Who saved Augustine? God did. But he did not use not water-tight, rational arguments to save Augustine. God used two stories that exposed Augustine’s desire for worldly pleasure and showed the glorious, eternal joy available when God is the object of pleasure.

[1] Augustine Confessions 8.1.
[2] Ibid., 4.2.
[3] Ibid., 8.2.
[4] Ibid., 8.5.
[5] Ibid., 8.6.
[6] Ibid., 8.7.
[7] Ibid., 8.7.
[8] Ibid., 8.8.
[9] In 8.9-10, Augustine enters into a fascinating reflection on the nature of the will.
[10] Ibid., 8.8.
[11] Ibid., 8.12.


Visual Theology

Tim Challies has produced some wonderful graphics that are designed to teach theology visually.

Below is the graphic for “Ordo Salutis,” which is Latin for “order of salvation.” This doctrine is designed to teach logical (not chronological) sequence of how Christians are saved.

Check out the rest of the graphics and, as Tim writes, feel free to download them as a high-res JPEG.