Saturday, September 21, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

What does it look like when God saves a person? What is included in God's work of salvation? We can begin to answer these questions by taking a look at Ezekiel 36:22-38, a prophetic passage that describes God's saving work among His people. In Ezekiel's context, God's people had defiled the land by their sin and had been sent into exile among the nations where they continued to profane God's name (Ezek. 36:17-21). God therefore declared His intent through the prophet Ezekiel to save His people for the sake of His holy name. This renewing work began with their return to the land under King Cyrus the Persian, but its fullness came with out-pouring of the Spirit following Christ's ascension (Acts 2). And so what is included in this saving work?

1. God sprinkles His people clean from sin's defilement. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses..." (36:25). Sin defiles those who sin and separates them from God, who is holy and pure. But when God saves people, he cleanses them from their sin so that they are pure and holy in His sight. How does He do this? By the blood of Christ, shed for sinners (1 John 1:7, 9; Rev. 7:14). As this verse anticipates, this cleansing is symbolized and confirmed to His people in the water of baptism (Eph. 5:26, Acts 22:16). 

2. God gives His people a new heart, produced by the Spirit, which results in obedience to God's rules. "And I will give you a new heart ... And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (36:26–27). Our former heart was a "heart of stone" (36:26), dead to God, unable to please God (Rom. 8:8), and blind to the truth (1 Cor. 2:14). But God changes us on the inside, renewing our understanding and will, giving us faith to receive Christ and His cleansing blood (1 Cor. 2:12-13, Eph. 2:1-10) and giving us a new character marked by virtues which Paul describes as "the fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22). Because of this internal work of the Spirit, we grow more obedient to God's law. The Spirit does not replace the law, but rather causes us to walk in its ways. 

3. God adopts His people as His own, and binds Himself to be their God. " shall be my people, and I will be your God" (36:28). This is what it means for God to establish His covenant with a people (see similar statements in Gen. 17:8, Ex. 6:7, Lev. 26:12). A covenant is an alliance, a bond of friendship, a fellowship sealed by an oath. It is a two-way relationship, in which God graciously blesses His people and they respond with love, obedience, and praise. God dwells with His people as their Father and refuge, and they can confidently approach Him in prayer. Not only do we gain a new standing before God and a new character, but we are also embraced by God as His people. 

4. God grants His people repentance, so that they are ashamed for their sinful ways. "Then you will remember your evil ways ... you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act ... Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel" (36:31–32). One result of having a new heart is that you recognize your sin for what it is. A Christian is not ashamed for his sins merely because of public embarrassment, but because he sees that his sins are defiling, loathsome, shameful, and evil. He grieves over his sins, he hates his sins, and he abhors his own sinfulness and depravity. And with this sense of his sin, he turns from it to God and His grace, knowing that he is saved not because of his own works, but because of God's mercy and love. This results in peace, joy, thanksgiving, and growth in righteousness (Ps. 32). This cycle continues all this life, as we struggle with sin and progress towards holiness. 

5. God builds up His people as a community. "And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited' ... like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people" (36:35, 38). God does not save individuals for them to remain in isolation. His salvation of individuals is part of a bigger plan. God is gathering His church and spreading His kingdom. He causes it to be fruitful and multiply, that it might fill the earth and subdue it to Christ. When God saves a person, He unites that person to the church. He gives the believer a community, restoring love and fellowship with God and each other. And He gives the believer to the community, equipping each one of us to serve the rest of the body and contribute to its further growth. This work of salvation then also looks forward to its future completion at the coming of Christ, when the church shall be gathered and perfected, paradise restored, and God glorified for all eternity. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gratitude and Gluttony

God gave us food for our good. He made it delightful and profitable, giving joy and strength (Ps. 104:14-15, Acts 14:17). God created food to be enjoyed (1 Tim. 6:17) and "to be received with thanksgiving" (1 Tim. 4:3). While in this life there are times to fast from all or some food (Ezra 8:21, Dan. 10:2-3, Matt. 5:16-18), there are also times to feast (Deut. 14:22-27, Luke 14:13, Matt. 9:14-15), and in general we are made to depend upon and enjoy God's provision of our daily bread (Matt. 6:11, 33). But as with all the gifts of God, man in his rebellion is able to use it in a sinful manner - to reject it, to idolize it, to abuse it.

A proper use of food is governed by gratitude, but when gratitude is gone, one sinful abuse of food is that of gluttony, i.e. eating too much or with immoderate desire. Gluttony is a sin described in the Bible. It is found among the rebellious wilderness generation in Numbers 11, which describes the episode of the people’s ingratitude, discontent, and craving for the food of Egypt. Gluttony is brought up in Ecclesiastes 10:16–17, which discourages untimely feasting, and encourages feasting for strength rather than for drunkenness. Ezekiel 16:49–50 lists “excess of food” as one of the sins of Sodom. Proverbs 23:20-21 warns against being with those who partake of too much wine or too much meat. Other verses like Deuteronomy 21:20, Proverbs 28:7, and Titus 1:12 also speak of gluttony.

The Puritan, Richard Baxter, gave quite a bit of thought to biblical ethics, and has a significant section on gluttony in his Christian Directory. An article which gives a good summery of this section can be found at this link. In short, Baxter's basic definition is that “Gluttony is a voluntary excess in eating, for the pleasing of appetite, or some other carnal end” (Christian Directory, p. 309). As he reviews what the Bible says on the matter, he notes that excess can refer to things such as excessive amount, excessive frequency, and excessive cost. He also notes that what counts as excess may look different for different people:
“it is not the same quantity which is an excess in one, which is in another. A laboring man may eat somewhat more than one that doth not labor; and a strong man and healthful body, more than the weak and sick. It must be an excess in quantity, as to that particular person at that time, which is, when to please his appetite he eateth more than is profitable to his health or duty” (p. 309). 
He also notes that what counts as excess depends also on the type of food:
“Nature will easier overcome twice the quantity of some light and passable nourishment, than half so much of gross and heavy meats. (Therefore those that prescribe just twelve ounces a day, without differencing meats that so much differ, do much mistake.)” (p. 316). 
The Bible does not describe in detail exactly how much food is too much, but it does give us these guidelines, encouraging self-control and requiring each of us to wisely and knowledgeably evaluate our own situations and the food before us, and to apply these principles accordingly. As we receive food in gratitude, as a gift of God, it turns us from being centered on our often self-destructive and misleading desires to being centered on the ends for which God created food, receiving it to our strength and joy, rather than to our hurt.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Communion of Saints and the Christian Life

In an earlier post, I had written about the biblical doctrine of the communion of saints and its development in the Reformation. In short, this doctrine is the idea that believers share a common union with Christ and His benefits, giving them a share in each other's gifts and graces, so that each is bound to maintain a fellowship in common worship, mutual edification, and outward relief. Here I want to write again on how this doctrine enriches our explanation of the church and our role in it. We can explain the church not only as a means by which salvation comes to us through the word and sacrament, but also as a benefit of salvation and a purpose of salvation.

Would anyone want to reject forgiveness, resurrection, or any other benefit of salvation? Those who have been baptized into one body by the Spirit have been given all His diverse gifts found throughout the whole body (1 Cor. 12:7, 12-13). This includes the gift of pastors and teachers, which Christ gives to His church to build it up (Eph. 4:11). The gifts of the whole church are a gift to me. It is a great benefit to the individual body part (eye, ear, etc.) to be united with the rest of the body. The church, the society of saints, is a divine gift, obtained by the sacrifice of Christ and received only though union with Him.

And not only is the church given to us, but we are each given by God to the church. One purpose of our salvation is to build up a new humanity in Christ. The sanctification of the church is a goal of Christ’s death (Eph. 5:25-27). Thus, grace is given to each of us so that we might each do our part to increase the maturity and Christlikeness of the church (Eph. 4:7-16). While the salvation of individuals is one goal of salvation, it is also a means to a further goal, which is the maturation of the church.

And so the Christian life is a shared life. It is one that involves binding relationships that are founded on union with Christ. Active membership in the visible society of saints is not an optional or merely desirable aspect of the Christian life. As a means, a benefit, and a purpose of salvation, the it necessarily has a place in the life of the believer.

The organization of the church provides a context for practicing this communion by identifying the body of Christ through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline. A fixed congregation under established leadership provides a context where we can maintain this fellowship in worship, mutual edification, and care for one another’s needs. In this way, the communion of the saints is nourished by Christ's appointed ordinances, equipped to built itself up, just as a body needs to eat food and then process this food with its various organs so that it gains strength and growth. We can only gain this benefit by participating in a particular visible church. As Abraham Kuyper said, “From the organism the institution is born, but also through the institution the organism is fed” (“Rooted and Grounded,” The Church, 2016).

So the church is not a mere accessory to the Christian life, nor is church membership a bare command. The importance of the church flows from our shared union with Christ. The doctrine of the communion of saints connects salvation and the church and unites the believer to the body. The correct understanding of this doctrine motivates and directs a participatory practice of Christian community in the context of the organized church. In a day where American Christians are prone to privatize the faith and abandon organized religion, we could use grater reflection on this important biblical concept.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Jesus: the Son of Abraham and Son of David

"The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Matthew 1:1)

This past Sunday, I began preaching on the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ (1:1-17). While the purpose of this genealogy might not be evident at first glance, a closer look will show that Matthew is emphasizing that Jesus is the heir of David and of Abraham, reviving the hopes that seemed dashed by the Babylonian deportation. You can listen to the sermon here, but in summary, here are four implications for our understanding of Jesus.

First, as the promised heir of Abraham, God’s blessings and curses are based on your relation to Jesus. They are not based on your relation to the modern state of Israel. Rather, just as the Father said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3), so He promises this to Jesus. By extension, this can apply to the church, those united to Jesus - to persecute them is to persecute Christ - but the main point is that your relation to Jesus as the Savior, whether you receive Him or reject Him, determines whether you are favored by God or cursed.

So align yourself with Jesus by faith, so that you might be blessed. Woe to those who reject Him. Galatians 3:25-29 says that those who believe in Jesus, those who have put Him on in baptism, become Abraham’s offspring and inherit his promised blessing.

Second, as the heir of Abraham and David, Jesus brings God’s blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3, 22:18, Ps. 72:17). He accomplishes redemption and sends out His disciples to bring this blessing to all nations. Not only does this redemption save people from death and judgment, but it also teaches them true righteousness and gives them a heart to practice it.

Just as it was the mission of the old covenant people to bring God's blessing to the nations, so it is our mission today. Yet the source of blessing is not ourselves, but Jesus. We do not proclaim ourselves - we proclaim Christ! We bring this blessing to the nations both as a city on a hill, living distinctly as Christ’s disciples in a way that attracts unbelievers (Matt. 5:13-16), as well as disciples sent out into the world to brings others in (Matt. 28:18-20).

Third, Jesus is the Davidic king who rules over God’s people. He delivers them, establishes righteousness and peace, and subdues His enemies (2 Sam. 7, Ps. 2, 72, 110). This is how He brings blessing to the nations, expanding the kingdom to the ends of the earth. “All authority” is basic to “go therefore.” In Matthew, the gospel is called the “gospel of the kingdom,” the glad tidings of the blessed reign of good King Jesus.

So rejoice in these tidings, declare them, and joyfully serve your king. Find security knowing that Jesus is a powerful king, a merciful king, and your king.

Fourth, as the Davidic king, Jesus builds God’s house (2 Sam. 7:12-13). But He does not build a temple building like Solomon. Rather, he builds the temple of the Holy Spirit, the church. He comes as Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:22-23), and at the end of this Gospel, Jesus says He will be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 18:20). So the church is the dwelling place of God. And it is in Matthew 16:18 that Jesus says “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

So do not fear for the church. Jesus is with us yet, and the gates of hell cannot thwart Him. He is gathering His church, building it up by His grace, teaching and training it by His word.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Sexual Immorality and Sanctification in 1 Corinthians 6-7

In an earlier post, I had written about sexuality and marriage as God created and designed it: Marriage in Genesis 2. In today's post, I want to look at the same issue from another passage, 1 Corinthians 6:9-7:16, which approaches sexuality and marriage as it currently exists in our fallen world.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 states that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God and this includes the sexually immoral, adulterers, and homosexuals. These desires and acts are manifestations of rebellion against God's will and design. Do not be deceived, thinking that everyone will inherit a place in God's eternal kingdom and glory. The Corinthians were to therefore turn away from these sins and to discipline those who refused to repent and continued in these ways (1 Cor. 5:11).

1 Corinthians 6:11 goes on to give hope for sinners and to inspire gratitude and humility in the hearts of believers by saying, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." Being justified (accounted righteous) and sanctified (cleansed from defilement and made holy) are benefits purchased by Christ, to be obtained in His name, and they are applied to us by the Spirit of our God who unites us to Christ through faith. Therefore, believers are not "the unrighteous." The blood-washed saints will "inherit the kingdom."

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 then goes on to apply this new identity to the present life of the Christian. It says that your body is a body part of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and a ransomed possession of Christ. Therefore, do not unite Christ to immorality! Do not defile the temple with sin! Do not spurn the great cost of your redemption by using Christ's possession against His will!

Therefore, flee sexual immorality! Make your body holy, consecrated, and governed by Christ. Make it an instrument of righteousness (see also Rom. 6:12-14).

1 Corinthians 7 goes on to describe how one flees sexual immorality. His basic principle is "because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband" (1 Cor. 7:2). Marriage is a duty for most adults. The sexual desire is a natural desire, built into human nature, designed for a good end (Gen. 1:26-2:25), so direct it unto good rather than evil.

In 1 Corinthians 7:3-6, we find it is the duty of married people to not deprive each other sexually, except by mutual agreement for a limited time. Why? (1) Your bodies belong to each other - resulting in mutual rights and duties; and (2) for the prevention of immorality, minimizing Satan's ability to tempt you to sin.

In 1 Corinthians 7:7-8, there is an exception to this general rule of marriage. Singleness has some benefits if one has the gift for it (see 7:32-35). Singleness is not the gift. Continency - the ability to be single without distraction and passion - is the gift (see also Matt. 19:10-12). Those with this gift can still marry, but they do not need to, and they should consider whether they might serve the Lord better as single.

1 Corinthians 7:9 returns back to the normal duty to marry, and to this we might add 7:36-37 and 1 Timothy 5:11-14.

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 goes on to address the topic of divorce. It begins in verses 10-11 by summarizing what Jesus had taught on the subject in the case of marriage between two believers (Matt. 5:31-32, 19:1-9). They should not divorce (divorce in the case of sexual immorality was an exception taught by Jesus and assumed here by Paul), and if they do, they should remain unmarried or be reconciled. Verses 12-16 address the case of a believer's marriage with an unbeliever, a situation not addressed directly by the Lord while He was on earth. In this case, the believer should not leave - the unbelief of one's spouse does not defile the rest of the family (although this type of mixed marriage should not be entered into, see 7:39). But if the unbeliever does not consent to continue their marriage and separates, then the believer must let them go. In such a divorce, they are free of their former marriage and can remarry.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Three Marks of a True Church

How can you identity the church? Does a group become a church just because it gives itself the name? The Protestant Reformers had to deal with this question because their Roman Catholic detractors claimed (and still claim) that Protestants churches were not churches since they were not in union with the Pope and did not always have bishops who could trace back their ordination in unbroken succession to the apostles. Some Protestants, particularly Anglicans, have contested the second claim about ordination, but many Protestants saw that debate as not worth having, since Scripture does not make the unbroken succession of episcopal ordinations necessary for ordination or the existence of a true church. Since the days of the Reformation, identifying true visible churches has continued to be an issue. Roman Catholics maintain their claims, while many Protestants seem to identify a church as any gathering of Christians (with varying definitions of what it means to be a Christian). 

The Scottish Confession of Faith was written in 1560 by John Knox and five other ministers for the newly reformed realm of Scotland. They addressed this issue directly in their 18th chapter where they discuss the "notes" by which the true "kirk" (the Scottish word for church) is distinguished from false kirks. They denied that the "notes, signs, and assured tokens whereby the immaculate spouse of Christ Jesus" are "antiquity, title usurped, lineal descent, place appointed, nor multitude of men approving an error," giving various examples from the Bible to prove their case. Rather, they went on to articulate three "notes" by which the true kirk could be identified:
"The notes, therefore, of the true kirk of God we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the word of God, into the which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles do declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, which must be annexed unto the word and promise of God, to seal and confirm the same in our hearts;[1] last, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God's word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and virtue nourished.[2] Wheresoever then these former notes are seen, and of any time continue (be the number [of persons] never so few, about two or three) there, without all doubt, is the true kirk of Christ: who, according to his promise is in the midst of them:[3] not that universal [kirk] (of which we have before spoken) but particular; such as were in Corinth,[4] Galatia,[5] Ephesus,[6] and other places in which the ministry was planted by Paul, and were of himself named the kirks of God."
1. Eph. 2:20; Acts 2:42; John 10:27; 18:37; 1 Cor. 1:13; Matt. 18:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; 1 Cor. 11:24-26; Rom. 4:11. 2. Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5:4-5. 3. Matt. 18:19-20. 4. 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:2. 5. Gal. 1:2. 6. Eph. 1:1; Acts 16:9-10; 18:1, etc.; 20:17, etc.
A year later (1561), these three marks were also articulated in the Belgic Confession, which was written in the Netherlands and later adopted by many of the Reformed churches on the continent of Europe. In article 29, it declares,
"We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church — for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”[1] We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.[2] But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.” The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel;[3] it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them;[4] it practices church discipline for correcting faults.[5] In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God,[6] rejecting all things contrary to it[7] and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.[8] By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it."
1. Rev 2:9. 2. Rom 9:6. 3. Gal 1:8; 1 Tim 3:15. 4. Acts 19:3-5; 1 Cor 11:20-29. 5. Mt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:4, 5, 13; 2 Thess 3:6, 14; Tit 3:10. 6. Jn 8:47; Jn 17:20; Acts 17:11; Eph 2:20; Col 1:23; 1 Tim 6:3. 7. 1 Thess 5:21; 1 Tim 6:20; Rev 2:6. 8. Jn 10:14; Eph 5:23; Col 1:18.
It is important to be a member of the church - not only the universal church, but a local assembly of Christians where these three ordinances of Christ are established, with a recognized leadership capable of administering them. Every church will have its errors and faults, but join a church where you can find Christ's ordinances of Word, sacrament, and discipline (which is broader than merely excommunication, but includes discipleship, correction, and admonition, all with the goal of repentance and growth). Of course, these marks are not the entirety of a church - they are the skeleton or the foundation. As Christ works through His appointed means, His people respond in faith and love, engaging in shared worship, mutual edification, and loving help.

Friday, August 16, 2019

What It Actually Means to Be Citizens of Heaven

Recently I have begun recording short videos to share on Facebook and YouTube, and here is the latest one. I have written about this subject before - and I believe you will continue to see some overlap between what I write on this blog and say in these videos - but it is an exciting concept worth repeating. What did Paul mean when he said that Christians are citizens of heaven? In about three minutes, I seek to explain Paul's often misunderstood point about our heavenly citizenship.
"But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself." (Philippians 3:20–21) 
"Only let your manner of life be [πολιτεύεσθε, behave as citizens] worthy of the gospel of Christ..." (Philippians 1:27)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Necessity of the Pastoral Office

In the passage below, John Calvin writes on the importance of the ordained leaders of the church. He and other Protestant Reformers taught the importance of the Bible as the final standard that judges all human authority, as well as the necessity of direct and personal faith in Christ. Some modern Protestants have taken this truth to mean that the organized church and its officers are unnecessary or even a hinderance. Yet the Reformers also realized that Christ, in this same Bible, also appointed the ministry of evangelists, pastors, and teachers to build up the church in this prophetic and apostolic Scripture. Here Calvin comments on Ephesians 4:4-16, which speaks of how Christ "gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ..." (Ephesians 4:11–13).
"By these words he shows that the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the Church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body. He also intimates, that the Church cannot be kept safe, unless supported by those guards to which the Lord has been pleased to commit its safety. Christ “ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). The mode of filling is this: By the ministers to whom he has committed this office, and given grace to discharge it, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the Church, and thus exhibits himself as in a manner actually present by exerting the energy of his Spirit in this his institution, so as to prevent it from being vain or fruitless. In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto Him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided prophecy flourishes among us, provided we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather the ruin and destruction, of the Church. For neither are the light and heat of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a Church in the earth." (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.3.2)

Friday, August 9, 2019

Praying and Listening to God

"If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination." (Proverbs 28:9)
This makes sense if you think about it. This is one thing that separates prayer from a shopping list or a daydream. Prayer functions in a two-way relationship where we speak to God while listening attentively to what He has said to us in His word. Otherwise, prayer devolves into an abomination, an expression of a relationship that we have created to revolve around us. God is to be obeyed and worshipped. He is not to be used. He gives good gifts to us as our Father, not as a bank account. Let us continue to call upon our merciful Savior, seeking His aid and mercy, but let us also turn our ears to what He has said to us. For as God said through the prophet Isaiah,
"But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word."
(Isaiah 66:2) 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Born Again to Love One Another

"[22] Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, [23] since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; [24] for
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
[25] but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you. [1] So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. [2] Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—[3] if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good." (1 Peter 1:22–2:3)
In this passage, the apostle Peter tells his readers to do three things: (1) to love one another earnestly from a pure heart, (2) to put away malicious attitudes and practices opposite to this sincere love, and (3) to long for the pure spiritual milk of the Lord. He gives the following reasons:

1. Put away malice and hypocrisy and love one another, since you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for this purpose (1:22). A purpose and result of this purification is a "sincere brotherly love." Peter exhorts them to love earnestly and whole heartedly because they now have the heart that is capable of doing such a thing and because they were delivered from the dominion of sin for this purpose. Now, saying that you have purified your soul is not the way you might expect him to put it. Usually the Bible speaks of purification being a work of God. But viewing it from the side of human responsibility, how have Christians purified their souls? By their obedience to the truth. Interestingly, Peter uses similar terms in his speech at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. There he says, of both Jews and Gentiles, that God had "cleansed their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9). Therefore, the "obedience to the truth" in 1 Peter refers to the fact that they have responded to the gospel with faith, and had thus received its benefits, including the initial purification of their souls. In verse 22 he emphasizes their believing response to the word; in the next verse, he emphasizes the grace of God which made this believing response happen:

2. Put away malice and hypocrisy and love one another, since you have been born again by the word of God (1:23-25). The word of God is living and active - God uses it to create the world out of nothing and to bring life from the dead, writing it on the hearts of His people by His Spirit. Our doctrinal statements call this "effectual calling" (i.e. the calling of God that has saving effect). Not only have Christians obeyed the truth - they have been born again by it. This is how they are able to obey it. Peter uses an analogy in this passage of the conception, birth, and growth of an infant. Our natural birth resulted from conception by the seed of mortal and fallen man, but our new birth resulted from conception by the seed of the abiding word of God. Because this word is living and abiding, it causes permanent results, giving us a new nature which grows unto sincere love for one another. This nature grows unto its intended end as it continues to be fed by this abiding word. This leads us to the third duty:

3. Long for pure spiritual milk, for you are newborn infants who need milk to grow (2:2). You have been born again, having been conceived by the word, and this makes you a newborn infant. My wife and I have a newborn infant, and we know the importance of milk and growth. Our baby is designed and intended for growth, but she needs milk to do so. Likewise, Christians are designed and intended to love earnestly and sincerely and to put away malice and hypocrisy, but they need the word of God to grow in this way. Here "salvation" is considered broadly, including all the benefits of Christ, including the way of life that He produces in His people. To grow up into this salvation, long for the word of God. Do not long only for an intellectual knowledge of the word - although that is necessary - but also a believing and submissive reception of this word, so that by it, your union with Christ might grow and your new nature flourish. Long for it, desire it, the way a baby longs for her milk.

Peter concludes this section with an additional appeal: "if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good" (2:3). Have you not tasted that the Lord is good? You have received this word - has it not been a good thing? You want more of it, right? Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander do not tase good and they rot the insides. But the word of the Lord is good, producing growth in love that comes from a pure heart.
"Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!"
(Psalm 34:8)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Children and God's Covenant

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 17:7)
This covenant with Abraham (made and renewed in Genesis in chapters 12:1-3, 15:1-21, 17:1-14, and 22:15-18) is the same covenant made with us today. It is administered differently now after Christ, with different ceremonies and sacraments, and greater revelation and spiritual power, but the promises are the same, and the rest of Scripture expands upon their significance, namely: renewed fellowship with God, abundant offspring to be covenant heirs, inheritance of land, and worldwide blessing to the nations. The condition is the same, then and now: faith in Christ. These promises are fulfilled in Christ, who is the offspring of Abraham, who inherited the whole earth, and brings worldwide blessing to the nations. And so all those who believe in Christ can share in this covenant - not just the Jews. As Galatians 3:29 says, “if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” In Christ, the church receives the promises of renewed fellowship with God, abundant children as covenant heirs, inheritance of the world, bringing worldwide blessing to the nations through Christ.

In Genesis 17:7 we see God’s promise to take your children into His covenant (“to be God to you and to your offspring after you”). We find this promise repeated in the New Testament:

- Acts 2:38–39, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

- Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul then taught the household, the jailer believed, and he and his household was baptized and rejoiced together. The ESV currently notes that the Greek text of verse 34 only says that the jailer believed. Doubtless the other adults in the household articulated faith as well, but the passage emphasizes that the jailer's faith brought salvation to the household as a unit. They were all included, just as with Abraham's household.

So, children are viewed in the New Testament the way they were in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the children of believers were treated as God’s people, recipients of God’s mighty acts of redemption like the Exodus, receiving circumcision, which Romans 4:11 describes as the old covenant sign of justification by faith; they were called to remain in the ways of the covenant, holding fast to God, to not treacherously break covenant. So in the New Testament era, the children of believers ought to be treated as God’s people, members of the church which was purchased by Christ’s blood, receiving baptism, the sign and seal of redemption, called to remain steadfast in faith and repentance, to not fall away into apostasy.

It is like the church is a train that is bound for glory. When you board the train, you normally bring your household (though Scripture recognizes situations where this does not happen). When children are born to you, they are born on the train. They must be told to remain on the train - some children, even some adult converts, foolishly jump off the train to their death or precariously dangle over the edge for a time - but their starting position is not neutral, nor are they put off the train to give them their own chance to board the train. They are born on the train. Baptism is simply recognizing that fact, giving them their train ticket.

So the children of the covenant ought to be baptized, included in the church, and treated like as a members of the covenant - not strangers or aliens. 1 Corinthians 7:14, for example, calls the children of a believing parent not “unclean,” but “holy,” or “holy ones,” a term usually translated as “saints.” Since they are covenantally holy, regarded as clean, they should be given the sign of cleansing and inclusion - baptism. When God brings your children into the visible church, He makes them Christians in name, to be regarded as Christians in fact unless they fail to embrace God’s grace and break covenant with their God. Like everyone else in the church, they ought to be encouraged to believe in Christ, to make use of the means of grace, to repent of their sins, and to walk in greater faithfulness with their God.

The baptism of my daughter (right to left): myself, my children, wife, siblings, parents, and wife's parents
This covenant promise also comes in connection with the covenant duty of parental discipleship. As God said of Abraham in the next chapter, "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). God fulfills His promise to be our children’s God through means - namely, faithful Christian parenting.

God’s covenant obligates parents to raise up their children with Christian education and discipline (see also Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4). The Bible teaches that Christian parents must raise their children with 1. instruction (Deut. 6:7), 2. authority/discipline (Gen. 19:18, Prov. 29:15, 17), 3. persuasion (as exemplified throughout the book of Proverbs), and 4. example (Prov. 23:26). You must engage the head (to know), hands (to do), heart (to love), eyes (to envision).

Genesis 18:19 also teaches that children must keep the way of the Lord. Children have great privileges and position - God has made His covenant of friendship with them, including them among His redeemed people - but these benefits will only continue if they continue in the faith of their parents, trusting in Christ and following Him as His disciples. This covenant sealed in their baptism gives blessings to those who keep the covenant in faith and repentance, but it brings God’s curse and wrath upon those who turn aside from their covenant obligations and do not grab hold of Jesus Christ.

So covenant discipleship and covenant keeping is key to the fulfillment of the covenant promises. One of these promises is blessing upon parental discipleship. But this in turn serves another Abrahamic promise, which is that God will bring worldwide blessing through Christ and His church. God promised godly offspring to His people so that they would be a blessing to the world. Christians do not bear and raise children just to have children, but to grow and spread the kingdom of God. Children are for dominion, weapons in the spread of the kingdom (Ps. 127). Raise up children within the covenant in order to grow the church, to fill the earth with Christ’s image, so that they may further the domain of Christ over all creation.

This post is adapted from my latest sermon, "Children," which is available online at this link