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Lordship Versus Free Grace: Was King Saul Saved?

August 6, 2012 7 comments

From a recent online discussion that started with a list of the seven suicide accounts in the Bible, the question came up as to whether certain Old Testament individuals, King Saul and Solomon, were saved.  (I briefly considered this very matter a few years ago, concluding that Solomon was saved but not King Saul.)  A few people insisted that — regardless of all the scriptural evidence to the contrary — because of Samuel’s words to Saul, “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me,” that meant Saul was saved and went to heaven.  As I realized during this discussion, even one’s interpretation of the biblical data on a particular person or event comes from that person’s presuppositions about something even more basic:  the understanding of salvation and sanctification, and the type of life (and fruits) manifested in saved and non-saved individuals.

If 1 Samuel 28:19 is the only text in the Bible to show that King Saul was a saved, regenerate man, I first note that Saul did not take any comfort in that message from Samuel.  The rest of that scene makes very clear, how very frightened Saul was: he “fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear” and no strength in him, not even wanting to eat.  This is a far cry from the scene where the thief on the cross was told that he would soon (that day) be with Jesus in paradise. Saul’s behavior is also nothing like David’s declaration in 2 Samuel 12, a peaceful assurance that “I shall go to him,” where his deceased infant son was.  Samson, another suicide case mentioned, met his death very differently from Saul: calling upon the Lord in that moment.  Samson knew he was going to die very shortly, and though his circumstances were quite different at that point, he did not cower in fear in light of his present physical pain and suffering and his certain physical doom, his impending death.  Job too showed that same understanding of death as a place of rest and peace.

The “answer” to Saul’s fearful reaction: that Saul was just upset and troubled by his circumstances, that he was reacting (as any ordinary person would) who wants to win the battle and continue his rule.  Also, that people in the OT didn’t have the same understanding about the afterlife as in the NT (citing the above example of the thief on the cross, while ignoring the OT examples given), and that the thief on the cross didn’t have anything in this life to lose (such as Saul who still had rule over a kingdom).

Really?  Saul’s behavior in that scene shows what had already been demonstrated previously in his life: his desperate attempt to cling to this life and to cling to the throne, even though he knew, as he had acknowledged to David when David spared his life, that David was to have the kingship.  At the point of death, no one who has a right relationship to the Lord is going to act all scared and panicked about the announcement of his death merely because he wants to win the battle, continue his rule and keep his earthly possessions.

The best explanation of Samuel’s message, that “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” is to recognize that the word used there is Sheol:  it does not refer to paradise, or Abraham’s Bosom, or even to hell (the place of the damned), but to the intermediate place of the dead, a place that has two compartments. Thus, saying that Saul and his sons would be where Samuel was, is not a case for salvation, but to the fact that they would be in that temporary holding place before the resurrection, a holding place that we know has two compartments within it.

Going beyond the incident in 1 Samuel 28, though, the abundance of other scriptural evidence portrays Saul as an unsaved man with sins that are categorically different from the fleshly sins that the great OT saints, such as David and Moses, fell into at times in their lives.  Saul directly disobeyed a direct order from God, to slay the Amelekites, and even presumed to offer the sacrifices himself.  Saul persecuted David (the type of Christ), failing to recognize the Davidic covenant promises; he also slew God’s priests (not a light thing to dismiss).  Then he swore an oath of safety to a medium, the very thing not allowed in the word of God, which plainly says to not allow a medium/sorceress to live; and he sought guidance from that medium.

What came about next in the discussion:  that person’s concept of “Free Grace” salvation, apparently of the extreme Zane Hodges variety, that no matter what kind of life a person may lead he or she is still a regenerate, saved individual.  The above analysis was wrong, they said, because that is just focused on the idea of keeping a list of merits and demerits, a type of laundry list, and by that type of legalistic reasoning no one could be saved.  And after all, Moses and David fell into great sin.  So the “Free Grace” reasoning concluded no difference at all between the lives of Moses, David, and King Saul.

But pointing out the many scriptures regarding King Saul is not building a laundry-list or “merits and demerits” type case of “how many sins” any given person committed. Rather, it is a look at the overall character of that individual. Was that person’s life characterized by certain types of sin, or were those sins the momentary lapses of a life that had an overall tenor of godliness? It can also be related to 1 John, what John describes about those who are saved, that they do not continue sinning, that their life is not characterized by sin.  The real issue, behind the discussion of King Saul’s eternal fate, is what God’s word itself says: that people are known by their fruits, and that believers do produce fruit.

Yes, Moses had momentary lapses, as did David in his sin with Bathsheba; they were weaknesses of the flesh, expressed in emotions such as impatience and physical lust. Those sins did not characterize the lives of those men, but were the exception rather than the rule. King Saul’s sins, beginning with the reasons the kingdom was taken away from him, were especially theological in nature, as noted above.

I close with excerpts from S. Lewis Johnson’s message concerning Saul and the 1 Samuel 28 passage, from his “Lessons from the Life of David” series.

 (reading the text) And Saul answered, “I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams.”  He doesn’t say by priests because, after all, he’s the one that slew the High Priest, so he seems to want to avoid that.  “Therefore I have called you that you may reveal to me what I should do.”

Isn’t that interesting?  We won’t go directly to the Lord God, who has spoken.  But we’ll go to a witch.  And we’ll go to the witch with the idea that we can put over to people that we are really interested in knowing what God is going to do.  So Saul’s distress is the distress of disobedience.  It’s not that he has a poor self-esteem.  It’s simply he’s disobedient.  And because he’s disobedient, that’s what happens when individuals are disobedient to the word of God.  He’s already been given his answer, over and over.  He wants to know his fate, but he wants to know it without repentance.  If only the dead Samuel would favor the one God has frowned upon.  Can you imagine that?  God has spoken and said, the kingdom has been torn from you, Saul.  You’ve lost your kingdom.  So Saul will say, I think that I would like to talk to Samuel in order that he may do me some favor, delivering me from the judgment of God, when God has already spoken that this is what’s going to happen.  Amazing, amazing, truly amazing.

. . .

Divine mercy is free.  But it’s righteous in its flow.  The notion that God must help everyone in trouble is not scientific and is wrong.  Because there are individuals who do not seek the will of God and therefore, when they seek out of disobedience and clinging to their sin, God just as in the case of Saul, is silent.  It’s too late.  Too late often individuals appeal to the Lord God.  In the case of Saul, it was too late.  He had, it seemed, clearly by his actions, brought on the judgment of divine retribution.  And that is ultimately what comes to him.  Those who have the opportunity, hearing the gospel message, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as the jailer did, and do not respond and persist down through the years in not responding, the time may come when, how shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation, may be written over their lives.

The Milk and the Meat of Scripture

June 23, 2010 Leave a comment

John MacArthur has described the difference between milk and meat in a Christian’s life:

Some times the Scripture can be milk and sometimes it can be meat. Now that doesn’t mean that some parts of the Bible are milk and some parts are meat. Really all of it is either milk or meat it depends on how deep you go.  For example I can say to you “God so loved the world” and if you are a brand new Christian you say yea, I understand that, that’s kind of milk. But then if I took off and began to develop the character of God, the character of His love, how His love works, what His love is defined at in the Scripture, the depths of all that that concept means, then that gets deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and gets into the meat aspect of that same simple truth. We say for example, God knows everything and that’s a milk statement, but we could develop that to the place where it becomes very complex and that would be the meat end of it.

In that same message he also advised:

Don’t ever think that because you came to church and heard the sermon on Sunday morning and Sunday night and you went to the Bible study on Friday that you don’t need to study on your own.

How true that is, since such a passive attitude will not be able to digest the meat, or discern between incorrect versus correct Bible interpretation.

Here are examples of the kinds of error that the person sitting in the pew at a local church, not doing any study on their own, could possibly face, by relying on a shallow pastor who they suppose really knows how to interpret and teach the Bible:

  • John 6:4 means that Jesus skipped going to the Passover in Jerusalem that year, and stayed up in Galilee and had his own “passover” with the people there.  For further appreciation of what that text really means, see this Matthew Henry commentary.
  • 1 Samuel 27:1 is interpreted that David did no wrong, and he did what he did because he had no choice.  No understanding about the true spiritual condition of David at this time
  • In 2 Samuel 1, the Amelekite really did kill Saul; from the other accounts we know that Saul attempted to kill himself, but he wasn’t successful and so the Amelekite’s part fits in there
  • 2 Samuel 12:8 means that God positively supported polygamy in the Old Testament; God had given David lots of wives and He would have given him even more (never mind that the text actually says “your master’s wives” referring to everything associated with Saul’s kingdom)

Today I want to look specifically at 2 Samuel 1, which I recently studied in S. Lewis Johnson’s “Lessons from the Life of David” series.  Even from just reading the text, plus the story at the end of 1 Samuel, combined with the basic notes in the NIV Study Bible that I used at the time, I understood that the Amelekite was making up his story — quite a different view from what was being said during the local Sunday sermon.  S. Lewis Johnson, in a meaty (not milk) message, confirms the correct understanding:  “almost all biblical scholars of a believing mentality are convinced that this man was lying.”

Now to the exposition and further explanation, the meat, to understand the details from the text to support this conclusion:
1.  We read that he shows up with his clothes torn and dust on his head.
“Now, you can tell from this that this man was not an ordinary man.  He was an observant man, he was a shrewd man because he realized coming in with his clothes torn and dust on his head that it would be thought that he was very, very supportive of the children of Israel.”
Clearly, he hoped for some kind of material gain — his secular mind could not imagine anyone thinking differently from him, rejoicing in the death of his enemy.

2.  The young man says “I happened by chance to be on Mount Gilboa.”
Mount Gilboa was where the battle was.  A large host of Philistines, so large that King Saul was afraid of them, and Israelites gathered there as well.  ….  No, no!  He didn’t happen to be by chance there.  He wanted to be there because after the battle there was always hope of gathering up some of the spoil, plunder, after the battle.

3.  The Amelekite’s use of the word “behold” which shows up in some of English translations, but appears several times in the Hebrew text.  From SLJ:

I’m going to read this as the Hebrew text has it. “And behold, Saul, leaning on his spear.  And behold the chariots and horsemen following hard after him.  Now, when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me.  And I said, behold, me.”

Now, if you read that carefully, you’ll see that what he is doing is playing a little bit loose with the truth.  And that little “behold” not rendered in the text that I have here — once as “there was” and then as “indeed” and then “here,” will give you an indication of the kind of speech that he was engaging in.  The use of that little term hinneh which means behold is indicative of the fact that what he is saying is a bit fictional.  It’s very much like the use of “hey” and so, “I happened by chance to be on Mount Gilboa where there was a great battle and, hey, Saul leaning on his spear and, hey, the chariots and horsemen following hard after him and Saul called to me and I said, hey, I’m here.”  No.  This man is a liar, he’s a prevaricator.

I looked this up in the KJV and ESV translations.  Sure enough, the footnote for 2 Samuel 1:7 tells us that the Hebrew is “Behold me.”  The ESV adds “behold” in verse 6.  Interesting.

4.   The author already told us in 1 Samuel 31 how Saul really died.  From the text we can understand that Saul was already dead — because it says that Saul’s armour bearer, seeing that Saul was dead, also fell on his sword and died with him.

“Saul is his own murderer, as his armor bearer knew.  So, in chapter 31, we have God’s description of what happened.  Now, we have the Amalekite’s fabrication of what happened.”

Perhaps some will say, well, what difference do such details make?  How does it affect my salvation, whether or not I think that the Amelekite killed Saul, or Saul killed Saul?  It may not matter in your overall salvation, but it does affect your concept of God.  Does God contradict Himself, telling us in one place that events happened this way, and then say differently in the next chapter?  It affects our understanding of man’s depravity, with yet another historical example of the true natures of both Saul and the Amelekite.  More so, it makes the difference between a baby Christian consuming only milk, versus the strong man Christian who can plumb the depths of God’s word for its great treasures and discern truth from error.

Finally, some great words from J.C. Ryle, also on the importance of reading our Bibles:

We must to be diligent readers of our Bibles. The Word is the sword of the Spirit. We shall never fight a good fight, if we do not use it as our principal weapon. The Word is the lamp for our feet. We shall never keep the king’s highway to heaven, if we do not journey by its light. There is not enough Bible-reading among us. It is not sufficient to have the Book. We must actually read it, and pray over it ourselves. It will do us no good, if it only lies still in our houses. We must be actually familiar with its contents, and have its texts stored in our memories and minds. Knowledge of the Bible never comes by intuition. It can only be obtained by diligent, regular, daily, attentive, wakeful reading.
From Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew

Charles Spurgeon: Achan, The Doubtful Penitent

June 7, 2010 Leave a comment

This weekend’s readings through Spurgeon, volume 3 (1857), included an interesting one in which Spurgeon took a text of three words that occur in many places:  the words, “I have sinned.”  Spurgeon looked at seven such individuals from the Bible, as a sampling of the seven types of such a confession:

  • Pharaoh:  The Hardened Sinner
  • Baalam:  The Double-Minded Man
  • King Saul:  The Insincere Man
  • Achan:  Doubtful Penitent
  • Judas:  Repentance of Despair

and finally two positive types:

  • Job: Repentance of the Saint
  • The Prodigal Son:  The Blessed Confession

The one I found most interesting is the case of Achan, from Joshua 7.  As Spurgeon says, the confession really is one to which we truly hope that Achan at last was saved, but we cannot know for sure.  In my own readings of this story, I had wondered if Achan, in the end, truly repented and was saved — though punished justly for his wicked act.  Certainly Achan gives a full confession when he is confronted, giving full glory to God in that; and Joshua treats him kindly.  In Spurgeon’s sermon I found that at least some of the learned Bible scholars have also concluded the same, a confirmation that my reading and comprehension are at least as solid as some other believers.  John Gill and Spurgeon supported this understanding from Joshua’s words to Achan, that “the Lord brings trouble on you today” (meaning today, but not afterwards).  From Spurgeon:

But I find in the Mishna, an old Jewish exposition of the Bible, these words, “Joshua said to Achan, the Lord shall trouble thee this day.” And the note upon it is—He said this day, implying that he was only to be troubled in this life, by being stoned to death, but that God would have mercy on his soul, seeing that he had made a full confession of his sin.” And I, too, am inclined, from reading the chapter, to concur in the idea of my venerable and now glorified predecessor, Dr. Gill, in believing that Achan really was saved, although he was put to death for the crime, as an example. For you will observe how kindly Joshua spoke to him. He said, “My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me.” And you find Achan making a very full confession. .. It seems so full a confession, that if I might be allowed to judge, I should say, “I hope to meet Achan the sinner, before the throne of God.”

Yet as Spurgeon observed, Matthew Henry did not see it the same way.  Today I looked up a few other online commentaries, to learn that John Calvin sided with Matthew Henry, while John Darby’s synopsis points out the recovery of the soul as the result of Christian discipline:

But it is well to remember here that christian discipline has always the recovery of the soul for its object. Even if the offender should be delivered unto Satan, it is for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord — a most forcible reason for exercising this discipline, according to the measure of our spiritual power; for we cannot go beyond that. At the least we might always humble ourselves before God, in order that the evil may be removed.

Given the differing opinions, Spurgeon appropriately cites Achan as an example of the death-bed conversion, the case where we hope for the best but cannot know for sure, and tells of other doubtful cases, death-bed conversions he had witnessed.

To end with Spurgeon’s final words on the matter:

Oh! to die with a full assurance; oh! to die with an abundant entrance, leaving a testimony behind that we have departed this life in peace! That is a far happier way than to die in a doubtful manner, lying sick, hovering between two worlds, and neither ourselves nor yet our friends knowing to which of the two worlds we are going. May God grant us grace to give in our lives evidences of true conversion, that our case may not be doubtful!