Thursday, January 17, 2019

Why Study Theology?

I love the study of theology. Theology is the study of God and His word, both by examining the meaning of specific texts of Scripture as well as examining a particular issue as it is covered in the whole of Scripture. Yet, I am aware that not everyone shares this love of theology. In fact, some people actually see theology as something detrimental. They would prefer to simply live out and experience their Christian faith without studying it. They might read their Bible, but mostly to gain inspiration rather than to grow in knowledge and understanding. Why do we need more than this? Why should Christians study Scripture and grow in their understanding of Christian doctrine? Here are a few reasons:

1. Christians Are Disciples
A disciple is a student, a learner. This is the primary term used in the book of Acts to describe Christians. The disciples were marked by the fact that they "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42). Knowledge is necessary for faith and obedience. We cannot live the Christian life unless we understand the teachings of the Christian faith. A fundamental part of our identity is that we study God's truth, grow in understanding, and obediently apply this truth to our life. We see this expectation in the prayers of Paul: "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent..." (Phil. 1:9–10); and "we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" (Col. 1:9–10). The source for growth in wisdom and knowledge is the Scripture as it is taught, explained, and applied (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Col. 3:16).

2. Theology Recognizes the Unity of Scripture 
God’s truth is consistent. It does not come from multiple, conflicting sources. It naturally forms a unified system. It is true that there are gaps in our knowledge and that the revealed system of truth is not comprehensive. Yet, the truth we do have, even if it has tensions, does form one worldview, one system of thought. Whenever we compare two verses to come to a conclusion, we are practicing theology. Theology enables us to brings the Bible’s truths together and benefit from the teaching of the whole. It can be argued that systematic theology is inescapable. We all think from a system, a worldview. The question is whether our systematic theology will be biblical or not.

3. Theology Reveals our Inconsistencies
Because theology follows the implications of our beliefs and seeks consistency, it reveals our inconsistencies and compromises. It is not uncommon for people to believe contradictory things - our systems of thought are usually compromised and confused, consisting of various ideas we have picked up in the course of life without examining or harmonizing them. Unless we study theology, unbiblical beliefs can take root and produce further unbiblical beliefs and actions. These weeds stifle the growth and practice of biblical truth. A self-conscious effort to be biblically consistent and to have one’s system of thought drawn from the Bible enables us to root out these dangerous weeds and to plant biblical ideas in their place.

4. Theology Furthers our Understanding of God
When we study theology, we are getting to know God better. His character and His ways are made known in the whole of Scripture. When we study the details of His law or the details of His work of redemption, we get a better understanding of His holiness, grace, and love. In this way, we also clear up misunderstandings we might have about God. Knowledge about God is essential to a relationship with Him. Otherwise, we are treating God as an imaginary friend, a personalized god fit according to our needs and feelings.

5. Theology Strengthens our Defense of the Faith
The gospel could be summarized in a short sentence such as “Christ died for our sins and rose again on the third day,” but this summery assumes a larger framework in which this statement makes sense and is correctly understood. Evangelism and the defense of the faith requires us to know, summarize, and explain what we believe. It requires us to evaluate the unbeliever’s system and to recognize where it differs from ours. If we neglect the study of theology, our summery of the gospel can be dismissed as unimportant or distorted to conform with the unbeliever's current beliefs.

6. Theology Draws in the Wisdom of the Historical Church
Lastly, the study of theology enables us to benefit from the teachings of the historical church. Christ set up His church to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), to proclaim it with authority and to uphold it against all opponents (1 Tim. 4:11, Titus 1:9). Any teaching or preaching of the church will be theology – an attempted summery of biblical truth. It is true that the church has erred at times. It is still being discipled by Christ. But it would be foolish to start from scratch when Christians have worked together to understand Scripture for millennia. Not only is it beneficial to learn from others, and not only did Christ establish teachers in the church for the maturation of the church (Eph. 4:11-14), but teachers from other time periods help us transcend the pressures to compromise that we experience in the present.

My wish is that all God's people would have a desire for the truth and a love for the study of God and His word. It is glorious to see Christians filled with delight at learning more about God and His works and ways. Study is not the only part of the Christian life - things like work, prayer, eating, fellowship, and rest also take up time. Not everyone has the same intellectual gifts or training, and the teachers of the church are held to a higher standard than other Christians (James 3:1). Yet, it is a calling for all Christians to study theology and to grow more and more in the knowledge of God and His word. Take advantage of the opportunities you have. Prize the Christian Sabbath and the rest it gives you from work so that you might study God's word and be challenged and comforted by it and respond to it with faith and worship. Include study in your daily worship as individuals and families. In this way - by reading, listening, meditating, and conversing about God's truth - let the word of Christ dwell among you richly.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Gender Identity in a Culture of Autonomy

The desire to define oneself is strong in modern culture. Tradition, the created order, and authority (divine or human) are seen as dehumanizing assaults on the freedom of the individual. In this struggle for radical autonomy, the area of sexuality has been front and center. Earlier, I wrote about how this struggle defines the current debate about the bounds of sexual intimacy. Another aspect of this struggle has been the issue of masculinity and femininity - does the individual have the right to choose and create his or her gender, or are we responsible to embrace the gender we have been given? On this issue, God takes a clear position in His word.
"So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."
(Genesis 1:27) 
“A woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God."
(Deuteronomy 22:5) 
Here we see that our identity as male or female is rooted in creation and that it is an abomination to rebel against this order. It is not a personal choice. For a man to put on a woman's cloak is to identify as a woman, and this is forbidden. Gender is determined, not by personal choice, but by biological sex, which is clear for the vast majority of people. Notice, in these verses there is both the fact of gender - you are male or female regardless of how you choose to present yourself - and the duty to then embrace this identity and live it out. Someone who is male by birth also has a duty to be a man.

The law in Deuteronomy is a case law. That is, it expresses a principle by using a particular case. Masculinity and femininity involve more than clothing. Clothing is a symbol of a larger identity. Some of the symbols that identify us as masculine or feminine are rooted in the created order and do not change from culture to culture (for example, beards are masculine not feminine). Some symbols, though, may be culturally relative - yet this does not mean we get to ignore them. Language, for example, is culturally relative, but this doesn't give us free rein to use it however we want. The English word "woman" only means "woman" because that is how English-speaking people use the term, but this doesn't give someone a right to use the word to mean "man." Culturally relative symbols with a longer history (like words) will be less flexible than symbols of recent creation. Distinctive clothing, of which Deuteronomy 22:5 speaks, is usually partially based on creational differences (such as body shape) and partially based on cultural language (such as pink and blue baby colors).

Masculinity and femininity go deeper than the symbols. A man who wears manly clothes but fails to provide for his household or proves to be a coward when faced with difficulty and danger is not manly, despite his clothing. A woman who dresses in a feminine manner but seeks to rule or disrespect her husband or church is not feminine, despite her appearance. While men and women were both created in the image of God, they were created differently with different bodies, different abilities, and different responsibilities (Gen. 2-3, 1 Cor. 11:7-9, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 1 Pet. 3:7), and we are called to live accordingly.

The desire to define oneself apart from God's created order is not new. The people of God has lived among sexually rebellious peoples for its entire history and has been in an ongoing struggle to be distinct from this rebellion. For example, the early church drew a strong line between the practice of Christians and that of a sexually perverted Greco-Roman society. Clement of Alexandria, a church father of the 2nd century, strongly condemned not only sexual sins, but also effeminate men who sought to appear smooth and feminine by plucking out beards and wearing jewry and soft clothing. "Luxury has deranged all things; it has disgraced man ... Men play the part of women, and women that of men, contrary to nature ... O miserable spectacle! horrible conduct!" (The Instructor, 3.3).

Clement, as well as many others, recognized a connection between this effeminacy and sexual immorality, particularly homosexuality. It is effeminate for a man to have sexual relations with a man - he is acting like a woman. It is a feminine thing to have sexual relations with a man. As Romans 1:26-27 teaches, natural sexual relations involve a man and a woman - perversions of this are shameful and a rebellion against the natural order. So a man who seeks sexual intimacy with a man not only commits sexual immorality, but he also violates the principle of Deuteronomy 22:5 by acting as a woman.

In our age, the church continues to live among people who seek to blur what God has made distinct, who seek to rebel against God's created order and assert their autonomy. Not only do individuals practice sin, but egalitarian feminism, transgenderism, homosexuality, and gender autonomy are promoted and affirmed in the schools, media, entertainment, and politics. To oppose someone's right to define themselves or call them to repentance is seen as a denial of their humanity. What ought the church to do?

1. The church ought to be "a pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). It ought to clearly proclaim and defend God's word in the midst of a people who despise it. Rather than retreating to more popular parts of the truth, we ought to defend it where it is under attack. This is a primary task of the church.
2. The church ought not be unequally yoked with lawless unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). It should not tolerate within in it those who teach or promote sexual immorality or sexual confusion (Rev. 2:20). This principle also applies to Christian parachurch organizations and ministries.
3. Christians ought to live out a Christian understanding of sexuality. The church is a city on a hill, called to let the light of its good works shine before men so that they might glorify God (Matt. 5:14-16). The church's defense of the truth is not only intellectual. We also defend it by our example. There are destructive forms of masculinity and femininity out there, and Christians need to demonstrate the beauty of virtuous masculinity and femininity that accords with God's word.
4. As Christians live among unbelievers and do business with them (1 Cor. 5:9-13), they are to do good to them without affirming their sin (Matt. 5:43-48), and to call them to repentance and faith (Luke 5:29-32), being ready to graciously defend the biblical position when they question it (Col. 4:6). We live in the same world, fellow members of civil society, yet we are commanded: "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Eph. 5:11).

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Trinity: Orthodoxy and Error

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English Even though most churches that call themselves Christian hold to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, there are still many churches that have strayed from this basic doctrine. Sometimes the deviation is more intentional than others. Sometimes the doctrine is taken for granted, and so misconceptions can linger even among those at basically orthodox churches. Other times, a local leader or a denomination will cast off the traditional understanding and bravely go their own way (which usually ends up being a repeat of some past heresy).

Some groups are better known for their anti-Trinitarianism, groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, who deny that Jesus is eternal God, and Mormons, who call Jesus "God" but deny that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one being and who blur the distinction between God, angels, and humanity. But you can find error about the basic nature of God in relatively "normal" places as well. For example, one local church states that "The Holy Spirit is simply the Spirit of God and a term the bible uses describing God in action." This denies the distinct personhood of the Spirit. From the rest of their statement, it seems that this "non-denominational" church is influenced by Oneness Pentecostalism. In short, Oneness Pentecostalism denies that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons, but teaches they are they are modes in which the one person of God reveals Himself. One of the major denominations that holds to Oneness Pentecostalism, the United Pentecostal Church International, is headquartered near us in Weldon Spring. It was just announced that their college, Urshan College, will be moving to our town of Wentzville.

In this midst of this doctrinal confusion, I hope to write more about the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. For now, here is a simple statement that covers some of the basic points of the Bible's teaching on this issue.
1. There is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Timothy 2:5), and everyone else is not God (Gen. 1:1, John 1:3; Isaiah 45:5-7, 21-24).
2. The Father is God (Galatians 1:1-5).
3. The Son is God (John 1:1, 14; 8:58; Romans 9:5).
4. The Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4).
5. The Father, Son, and Spirit interact with each other as distinct persons (Matthew 3:16-17, Luke 3:21-22; John 15:26; John 17).
The classic statement of Trinitarian orthodoxy that flows from these biblical points is the 5th century "Athanasian Creed," which I would recommend reading here.

And lastly, a fun and helpful overview of the doctrine of the Trinity as set against common distortions is given in the following video by Lutheran Satire.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Beowulf and the Conversion of the West

It has been a long time since our tribes came to Christ. Many of us here in America come from peoples who have been Christian, for at least a thousand years. Beowulf brings us back to a time when its readers, as a people, were new to Christianity. They were people who knew the despair of paganism and were still undergoing a transformation of worldview and values.

The events spoken of in the poem are set in Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark) around A.D. 500. A few of the characters are historical figures, although they are shadowy figures we do not know a lot about. The poem was written in Anglo-Saxon England. It was most likely written either in the early 700s (the time of Bede) or the late 800s (the time of King Alfred). The writer was probably a monk, a Christian, who used materials from oral traditions to write this story. Thus, the story is set in a pre-Christian time, but it is being told by Christians for Christians. The explicitly pagan elements have been taken out, as the writer does not want to glory Thor or Odin. Rather, he focuses on the position of pagans from the perspective of Acts 17:22-31; a sense of the true God exists amid ignorance and distortions. Most of the Scriptural references in Beowulf are from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which forms the background of all the dispersed peoples of the earth. Though the characters might resorts to idols in times of necessity, at least some of them have an idea of the sovereign Creator God. The writer and the reader, of course, know the whole story - that this God is the God of the Bible.

Beowulf can be seen as a comment on the reader’s pagan heritage. The story portrays and critiques the heroic values of the time. The values of the nobility of the writer’s time were still much like that of Beowulf’s time. Their honor code prized physical strength, pride, individual honor, praise of men, the struggle against fate, and revenge (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 272-273). These values are highly prized in pagan stories, like those of the ancient Greeks. The story of Beowulf, while it uses these elements, shows their futility and how they often led to destruction.

This story does recognize some good goals that the characters have. Royal halls, such as Heorot, are symbols of community, joy, peace, and stability. The desire for order and fellowship is good. Gift-giving, loyalty, courage, kinship, and generosity are good values that strengthen this order. These characters are trying to maintain the order of creation against the chaos that threatens it. Some of the threats are internal, such as revenge and dynastic struggles, but the monsters of the story are the primary representatives of this chaos. They are outcasts, cursed of God, followers of Cain.
"Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth..." (Beowulf, lines 86-92)
This story portrays the fragile position of man and community. It portrays the pessimism of Germanic paganism. The victory of chaos seems to be real. It is hinted that Heorot, the royal hall, awaits a "barbarous burning" brought on by strife among in-laws (line 83). The throne of Hrothgar will fall into civil strife and usurpation. Beowulf will himself die. As Hrothgar warns him, "Your piercing eye/will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/dear warrior, to sweep you away" (lines 1766-1768). With Beowulf’s death the whole nation of the Geats is doomed.
"A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed up the smoke" (lines 3149-3155).
Yet, this story also transformed the way its readers viewed the world. In traditional Germanic myth, the gods were on the side of the humans against Chaos and darkness, yet humans and gods were doomed to lose ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 25). Courage against hope was held in high admiration and tragedy was inevitable. Yet, in Beowulf the sovereignty of the true eternal King is asserted – and very strongly proclaimed. The monsters and chaos are still present, and despite Beowulf’s heroic efforts they seem to overcome in the end, yet there is hope. God has not been defeated like the pagan gods. Fate is not an impersonal force that foils the efforts of man, but it is the personal will of Creator God who is on the side of order and community. Beowulf may die, and the royal hall may be burned, but as the story says, "The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind and always has" (lines 701-702). As Tolkien explains,
"The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and became inevitably the enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten [Eternal Lord], the eternal Captain of the new. Even so the vision of the war changes…The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important" ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 27).
In addition to proclaiming God’s victory, this story also transforms the image of a hero. Rather than being proud and selfish, Beowulf exemplifies true heroism. His story is being retold to shift the values of the audience. As Tolkien explains, this shift emphasized that strength is a gift of God (for which God is to be praised), loyalty and service to others comes before one’s self, and glory and position comes to the one who is responsible for his people–not the one who seeks to usurp authority (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 273-274). It is as if the story proclaims, "'This then is a story of a great warrior of old, who used the gifts of God to him, of courage, strength and lineage, rightly and nobly. He may have been fierce in battle, but in dealing with men he was not unjust, nor tyrannical'" (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 274). According to this story, true heroism is achieved in submission to the sovereignty of God. God gives gifts and Beowulf can only conquer through God’s power. Beowulf is taught to be humble and generous, for he is a mortal (Beowulf, lines 1760-1768). All this would be a powerful message to the ruling class in the author’s time which was still rather influenced by pagan thinking and codes of honor.

And finally, there is a element of this story that points to Christ. Christ is not mentioned in this story. He is the missing element on purpose. Seamus Heaney, noted poet and translator of Beowulf, points out that "It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things…" (Heaney, xix). Just as the Old Testament contains types of Christ, precursors that hint at future redemption that are of themselves inadequate, so the author of Beowulf points to both future redemption and the insufficiency of the present state. Beowulf is a hero who fights to free people from the darkness of evil monsters and the dragon. Christ truly saves His people from evil and the dragon. Beowulf dies as he kills the dragon after he had been abandoned by his followers. Christ also died killing the dragon after he had been abandoned by His followers. Yet Beowulf is unable to gain lasting salvation for his people. The story of Beowulf ends on an unresolved note. It ends with a death. Yet, its readers know the story does not end there. We know the Savior who died killing the dragon, but who also rose again from the grave. For mortals like Beowulf and us, death may be inevitable. Yet our King has risen from the dead, and by His power, so shall we. The eternal Lord shall not be defeated. He is building His "Heorot" and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. With this backdrop of everlasting joy we can appreciate the vivid tragedy in Beowulf


Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2014.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” The Beowulf Poet. Edited by David K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Participatory Singing in a Consumerist Age

Martin Luther, singing with his family.
In our age and place, there is a strong tendency to view music as a commodity, something you buy and consume. It has become the possession of gifted musicians and professionals. Singing is often viewed as gift given to a select few, rather than a skill that is normally achievable. Most of us interact with music primarily by listening to it, and listening to it through a speaker. This has an unfortunate effect on Christian worship. While professionalism and musical quality are admirable, our passive and consumerist approach to music has conflicted with our practice of congregational singing. In Christian worship, singing is primarily an activity, done by the people. As Colossians 3:16 says,
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."
In other words, to get the word of Christ to dwell among your community richly (the "you" is plural), you all must teach and admonish one another and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. This teaches us that singing is a blessing. It is a means by which God's word dwells in and among us. Singing stirs us up, gives us the ability to express our worship with greater passion, and to allow us to stir one another up to the worship of God.

Colossians 3:16 shows us also that singing is also a duty. As the Puritans and Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly declared,
“It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family. In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.” (Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, 1645)
 Singing takes effort and skill. Singing and music should be a fundamental part of a child's education, at least for Christians. Barring physical disability, singing, like talking, is a natural gift given to humanity to be learned and developed, even though there will be some who are especially proficient. The command to sing is repeated time and again in Scripture:
"Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!" (Psalm 149:1)
"Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name." (Psalm 30:4)
"Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the righteous! Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts." (Psalm 33:1-3)
"Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!" (Psalm 100:1-2)
"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…" (Ephesians 5:18–20)
Our singing in worship is basically prayer, creed, or exhortation put to music and sung. With our singing we praise God, confess sin to God, confess our faith to God and man, give thanks to God, and ask for things from God, all of this through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to sing with zeal and energy (Ps. 33:1-3). We are to sing with understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). We are to sing with our hearts, bringing our hearts into conformity to the words (Col. 3:16).
“Hence it is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God, unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart ... Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds, which, from their fickle and versatile nature, soon relax, and are distracted by various objects, unless various means are used to support them. Besides, since the glory of God ought in a manner to be displayed in each part of our body, the special service to which the tongue should be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God. This employment of the tongue is chiefly in the public services which are performed in the meeting of the saints. In this way the God whom we serve in one spirit and one faith, we glorify together as it were with one voice and one mouth; and that openly, so that each may in turn receive the confession of his brother’s faith, and be invited and incited to imitate it.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.21)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Work Out Your Own Salvation

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12–13)

Last Lord's Day, I preached on Philippians 2:12-18. I talked about our hope, which is that God is at work in us, and our goal, which is to be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation" (2:15). But one of the most startling things in this passage is our work, the call for Christians to work out their own salvation. What does it mean to work out your own salvation?

“Work out” is one Greek word used 22 times in Scripture that usually means something like "do," "produce," "accomplish," or "bring about." Wait a minute! We produce our own salvation? Well, in one sense, no. Later in Philippians (3:9) we find Paul’s saying that he does not have “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Our standing before God is based only on the righteousness of Christ, received through faith alone, not our works. So what does it mean to work out our salvation?

In context, Paul’s main emphasis has not been your standing before God, your “justification.” It has been implied, but instead, he has been talking about growing in love and knowledge (1:9), about walking as citizens worthy of the gospel (1:27), about having the mind of Christ (2:5), and, in our very passage, he has been talking of obedience (2:12). The Bible uses the term “salvation” to mean more than salvation from the condemnation due to us for our sin. Salvation also includes our salvation from sin’s power in our heart and behavior. It includes the manifestation of righteousness in our lives. God’s goal is not only to justify us, but also to change us. And this has been the main emphasis of Paul thus far in Philippians. This process is called our “sanctification.” Having been made citizens of the gospel by God’s acts of justification and adoption through faith alone, now the work of salvation continues as you are sanctified in your heart and life. You do have a responsibility to “produce” or “bring about” this aspect of salvation in your lives. It takes effort. Conforming your heart and life more and more to God’s word is only possible by the working of God within you (2:13), but you are nevertheless responsible to do it and able to do it.

All true believers will answer this call to pursue holiness of life. Manifesting the way of Christ in your life is an essential part of salvation. It is not optional. Those who do not follow Jesus but still claim him, saying “Lord, Lord,” will be denied by Him at the last day. He will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). Those who truly believe in Jesus will also follow and love Him. They will obey His words, repent of their sins, and imitate His ways. Justification and sanctification is a package deal - they are distinct, but they always come together, for they both come from Christ. Repentance and obedience are not causes of salvation, but they are necessary parts of salvation.

Imagine if there was a cruel usurper who forced the people to serve him. The true king comes and storms one of the castles of this tyrant and frees the people. The true king offers pardon and citizenship in his kingdom to his former enemies. Not only do the people embrace and receive this new status with joy, but then they also begin serving the true king. This is part of their salvation. If they continued serving the cruel usurper as before, then you can tell they did not embrace and receive the offer of salvation with faith in the true king.

In Philippians, Paul is telling the freed prisoners who embrace their new status to work out their salvation by now serving the true king, as befits citizens of his kingdom. This is part of their salvation, and this part involves their effort.

Do you then trust in Jesus for salvation? Have you received the gospel, receiving reconciliation with God and adoption as His child? Then continue this work of salvation by walking in a manner worthy of the gospel. Turn from your old master and follow your new Lord. This was God’s intent in salvation. You have been redeemed to serve God and to imitate Christ. 

Seek to conform yourselves to the gospel. Have the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus when He humbled Himself and loved us. Christ did not intend for your salvation to end with your conversion. He is in the business of making disciples who follow Him and His way of life. God is at work in you who believe, giving you this ability to repent of your sins and to more and more manifest righteousness in your life. So work out your salvation, so that you might be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation" (2:15).

Friday, December 28, 2018

Am I a Solider of the Cross?

The Christian religion ought never to be accused of being boring. And yet, some well-meaning Christians, in an effort to give comfort to those who struggle and doubt, make the Christian religion easy and passive: God loves you and saves you, the end. Now, I strongly affirm that we are saved by God's grace alone and that we are justified in God's sight through faith alone in Christ alone. And Jesus is a gracious shepherd, saving and bearing up through who struggle. Jesus did say, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). Yet, Jesus also warned His followers to count the cost, saying "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:24–25).

When you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are enlisting on one side of a conflict that has raged for millennia. You are entering into a covenant with God, a pledge of mutual loyalty. As one hymn put it, "Jesus paid it all / All to Him I owe." Jesus' gracious salvation, covering all our sins, does not end in passivity. Rather, it establishes a relationship that demands our all. Jesus had many enemies on earth, and He continues to have many enemies today. While evil exists in this creation, unrelenting war will be waged, and Jesus' followers will not be spared. The fallen world, our own sinful nature, and the evil one himself, conspire against us. And yet, they are on the defensive. Jesus is advancing against them, and He calls His followers to advance with Him into the fray, fighting with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). The Christian religion is not one where we sit back and soak it all in. It is an active thing, a passionate thing, a way of life that tests our loyalty and love. We may fall in battle, but by God's grace we get up to carry on the fight. The only end is death and glory.

"Am I A Solider of the Cross," a hymn by Isaac Watts, is a fitting rebuke to those who preach and practice an easy and passive Christianity. Below is a video of it being sung by my friend Andy, using the folk tune used for it in The Sacred Harp. The hymn tune "Marlow" (1718) and Doris Johnson's version using an Irish folk tune are also good settings of this hymn. The images in the video are of monuments to the Scottish Covenanters who were martyred in the 17th century, a sample of the many Christians who have faced opposition and even literal death due to their loyalty to Christ. This battle has been carried on by generations of Christians past - and like them, our loyalty will be tested in many ways. May we remain steadfast, finding grace and help from our King and Defender.

"Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 
Fight the good fight of the faith." 
1 Timothy 6:11–12

Am I a Solider of the Cross 
Isaac Watts, 1724

Am I a soldier of the cross,
a foll'wer of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause
or blush to speak His Name?

Must I be carried to the skies
on flow'ry beds of ease,
while others fought to win the prize
and sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace
to help me on to God?

Sure I must fight, if I would reign;
increase my courage, Lord;
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by Thy Word.

Thy saints in all this glorious war
shall conquer, though they die;
they see the triumph from afar
by faith's discerning eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
and all Thine armies shine
in robes of vict'ry through the skies,
the glory shall be Thine.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Child that Provokes a Response

Often at Christmas, Luke 2:1-20 is read, recounting the birth of Jesus and the angelic message to the shepherds. But consider now the account that follows in Luke 2:21-38.
        "And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, 'Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord') and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.' Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
'Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
  that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.'
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.'
        And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem."
Christmas time is often a time of waiting and fulfillment. Some await opening the presents under the Christmas tree. When I was younger, my siblings and I would organize the presents so that each one of us had a stack under the tree. We were able to open them on Christmas Eve, but we had to wait the whole day until the evening. I think this increased the anticipation more than if we had opened the presents first thing on Christmas Day. For many of us, we might await seeing relatives, traveling to them or getting the home ready for them to visit us. Or perhaps you look forward to some other annual tradition.

The Prophetess Anna, by Rembrandt 
In Luke 2:22-38, we meet two people who had been waiting for a long time. They had been waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. All Israel had been waiting a long time for this promised Savior and King. By this time, the Jews had a heightened sense of their sins. They knew that the prophets had given them many wonderful prophecies of prominence and prosperity, but in the present they were oppressed and corrupted. In response, some of the Jews had fallen into legalism and others had compromised with the Gentiles. Yet some were faithful and devout who waited for the consolation of Israel, the future time when the Messiah would come as a sign of God’s favor and redemption. Two of these Israelites are mentioned in our passage, Simeon and Anna. Anna was an eighty-four year old widow and prophetess. Simeon was probably also old, approaching death, and yet had received a special promise that he would see the Lord’s Christ before he died. Both of them had lived lives during eventful years. They had seen kings rise and fall. They had seen the Romans take over Israel. They had seen Herod’s tyrannical reign as a Roman vassal and Herod’s massive construction projects, including his work to rebuild the temple. Throughout all these events, though, Simeon had remained righteous and devout and Anna had not departed from worshipping in the temple with fasting and prayer, night and day. They were like watchmen waiting for the morning to dawn, standing by their post in expectation. They trusted the promises by faith in the midst of the unsettling events of their age.

Then one day, a poor couple comes in with a 40-day-old infant to offering the purification offering of two young pigeons. We know they were somewhat poor, because the normal offering was a lamb and a pigeon, but those who were poor were allowed by the Levitical law to offer two pigeons instead. There was nothing remarkable about this couple and their infant. There were many couples coming to do this. But the Spirit revealed to Simeon and Anna that this infant was the Lord’s Christ, the salvation of God. And just like Zechariah and Mary and Gabriel and the angels, they break out into prophetic song and proclamation that gives us insight into the nature of this Savior.

A major theme that stands out in Simeon’s song is how Jesus the Savior is the Light. The Kingdom of Satan is the kingdom of darkness. Darkness stands for sin, for ignorance, for deception. People can hide in the darkness, and many get lost in the darkness. The Gentiles lived in this darkness of sin and deception, and Israel had lost its bright glory. But those who had dwelt in darkness now had seen a great light. God had come to earth as an infant, and by His life, teachings, death, and resurrection He would reveal God’s saving truth to the nations and fulfill the hopes of the faithful of Israel.

We learn from Simeon’s words that “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…” (v. 34). His coming was a great blessing to some and a judgement upon others. Some were faithfully waiting for the light and would be glorified by its coming. Others were hiding in the darkness, not wanting their sin to be revealed. They were exposed by the coming of Christ. The birth of Jesus had brought a crisis to mankind – all would either need to bow the knee like the shepherds and wise men, or they would fight against Him like King Herod. Neutrality was not an option. Jesus did not allow people to merely think of him as a nice man or a sweet baby. No, either He was God on earth - the prophet, priest, and king - or He was a dangerous imposter. As C.S. Lewis later argued, either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. By forcing mankind to make this choice, Jesus revealed the thoughts of many. He exposed the hypocrisy and self-confidence of the Pharisees and shed light on the faithfulness of those like Simeon and Anna. Those who had longed for the Messiah with true faith in God’s promises were raised up and glorified at the coming of their Lord.

This infant now sits at the right hand of God in heaven with mature glory and authority, and He continues to be for the fall and rising of many. He remains a sign that is opposed by many. He continues to reveal the thoughts of many. His gospel calls for a response of faith, repentance, and total allegiance. He is coming again, and those who faithfully trust His promises will be glorified at His coming.

When Mary and Joseph heard these words about Jesus, it is said that they “marveled at what was said about him.” They marveled so much that they remembered the words Simeon spoke, they treasured them. Mary could be the one who told them to Luke. They received the truth about Jesus with awe and wonder. May this be our response as well! May we marvel at the words about Jesus so that we treasure them and remember their comfort and their challenge.
“Their example, then, serves to remind us that we will never be good students of Christ, until we too feel wonder and awe whenever God’s word is preached to us…If we attend to God’s word, if it so delights and moves us to awe that we make every attempt to understand it, if its teaching, finally, is the means of our salvation, let us draw others to the same light.” (Calvin, Songs of the Nativity, 179)
So let us marvel like Mary and Joseph, but let us also then give thanks and speak of Jesus like Anna did. Let us praise God and tell others, encouraging fellow believers and drawing in unbelievers to the light.

In Acts 13:47 we find something curious that is related to this passage. Simeon’s proclamation that Jesus was a light to the Gentiles repeated a prophecy of Isaiah 49 that the servant of the Lord would be a light for the Gentiles. But in Acts, Paul and Barnabas defend their ministry to the Gentiles by repeating the same prophecy, saying, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Jesus is the Light, and all who follow Him reflect His light. If you have received Christ as Lord and Savior, then He has made you a light to the Gentiles. No, you and I are not God’s salvation like Jesus is. But we carry the words about Jesus with us, bringing the words of blessing and challenge to all. By our lives of Christlikeness and our words of witness we proclaim the salvation of Christ. It is through us that He continues to bring people to a crisis of decision, revealing their thoughts, raising up those who receive Him and stumbling those who reject His salvation.

So let us examine our own response to the babe in the manger who is now the King on the throne. Does He have our allegiance and our trust? If He is our Savior and Lord, then we may be at peace like Simeon. Redemption and comfort has come to earth. And having received this peace, let us reflect this Light of revelation and glory into our dark and distressed world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Athanasius was a stalwart defender of the orthodox doctrine of Christ in the 4th century. His book, On the Incarnation, is a classic of Christian literature (you can read it online here). In it, Athanasius explains why Christ came and what He did and refutes the objections of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. He describes God's work of creation and man's fall into sin and rebellion. Mankind became liable to the law of death and corruption by its rejection of God the Creator. But the very God who created mankind, the Word who was with God and was God (John 1:1-3), determined to save it.
"He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which [the law of death] was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection."
A little later in the book, Athanasius uses an analogy to explain this event:
"This great work was, indeed, supremely worthy of the goodness of God. A king who has founded a city, so far from neglecting it when through the carelessness of the inhabitants it is attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction, having regard rather to his own honor than to the people’s neglect. Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man."
Throughout the book, Athanasius is confident in the wisdom, goodness, and power of the Savior. Even though he speaks of saving the human race, he does not believe that everyone is saved. This is why he seeks to convince unbelievers. Union with Christ is necessary to receive the benefits of His redemptive work. But Athanasius is optimistic about the advance of the gospel. Mankind is being saved through Christ, even if many individuals reject Him and perish. The world is progressively receiving the benefits of Christ's incarnation as the Creator is gaining back His creation, a process that culminates in the second coming. At the end of the book, as Athanasius concludes his arguments against the objections of the Gentiles, he ends on a note of victory as he exalts in the triumph of Christ, the true King, over all usurpers.
"Since the Savior came to dwell among us, not only does idolatry no longer increase, but it is getting less and gradually ceasing to be. Similarly, not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer make any progress, but that which used to be is disappearing. And demons, so far from continuing to impose on people by their deceits and oracle-givings and sorceries, are routed by the sign of the cross if they so much as try. On the other hand, while idolatry and everything else that opposes the faith of Christ is daily dwindling and weakening and falling, see, the Savior’s teaching is increasing everywhere! Worship, then, the Savior 'Who is above all' and mighty, even God the Word, and condemn those who are being defeated and made to disappear by Him. When the sun has come, darkness prevails no longer; any of it that may be left anywhere is driven away. So also, now that the Divine epiphany of the Word of God has taken place, the darkness of idols prevails no more, and all parts of the world in every direction are enlightened by His teaching."

Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" - A Song Not Worth Defending

Apparently the current chapter of the "War on Christmas" is the feminist objection to the song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Overall, it seems that conservatives have joined others in embracing the cause of defending the song, jumping at the opportunity to offend liberals. Now, I am not a feminist, but I will argue that Christians, at least, should not waste their time defending this song. Here are a few thoughts I have had on this whole controversy:

1. The main reason I do not think this song is worth defending is that even if the song does not promote rape (the current controversy), the song at least promotes fornication and a loose attitude to sexual sin. It's just not a good song by Christian standards, and if conservatives claim to hold Christian values (and they do claim that), then it is not a good song by conservative standards either.

2. This is not a freedom of speech issue. The government is not telling radio stations to play or not play the song. People can object to the song as immoral and radio stations can respond to the objections of their listeners and stop playing the song. It might be good if they took a lot of other songs off the radio as well, but that is really a different point.

3. It is ironic that in this issue, most feminists have taken the role of puritans and many conservatives have taken the role of defending sexual autonomy. If one needed proof that conservatives can fall prey to the temptation of defining themselves merely by what was popular several decades ago, this would be a good example. Christians ought to promote a consistent view of the world, rather than merely defending whatever liberals attack.

4. There is a reason that the mutual consent of the characters in the song is debatable, with some arguing that there is no mutual consent in the song, while others arguing that there is mutual consent in a playfully flirtatious manner. Consent can be rather complicated unless you wait until you hear something like, “I __, take you __, to be my lawful husband...” before having sexual relations. This is not to say that there is not a difference between consensual fornication and rape (see Deuteronomy 22:23-27), but it is to say that God’s law gives us clarity in a world made topsy-turvy by sin.

5. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is not the only Christmas song you won’t hear on the radio. At least in my experience with our local radio station that plays Christmas music, I almost never hear a religious song or a song written before 1900. There is a huge treasure trove of wonderful Christmas and seasonal music that is overlooked today. If you want to defend a Christmas song, there are much better choices than “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Carols like God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen or Joy to the World. Or the more obscure, but also rich, carols like The Truth Sent From AboveSavior of the Nations, ComeRemember, O Thou Man, and Tomorrow is my Dancing Day.

And so I'll leave with Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Fantasia on Christmas Carols," a melody of three traditional English carols: 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Living as Citizens of Heaven

In my most recent sermon, I came to Philippians 1:27-30, which begins with the exhortation: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ..."

There is only one Greek word underlying the English translation “let your manner of life be,” which is πολιτεύεσθε. You see in the first part of the word “πολι” ("poli") its connection to the Greek word for city (πόλις), where we get the word “politics.” A more literal translation of πολιτεύεσθε would be “behave as citizens.” One would say in those days, “behave as citizens worthy of Rome.” Each nation has its manner of life which is in some way distinctive. And there is a duty to live in a way that gives honor to your country, rather than disgracing it by your actions. Paul uses this idea to exhort the Philippians saints to act in a way that befits their identity with the gospel and their allegiance to Jesus whom the gospel proclaims to be the Lord. Paul picks up this idea again in Philippians 3:20, where he says “our citizenship is in heaven.”

This analogy was especially appropriate for a letter to Christians in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony in what is now northern Greece (Acts 16:12). It contained a much larger proportion of Roman citizens than other cities. It was a place for Roman soldiers to retire. When Paul was in Philippi, the people identified as loyal Romans (Acts 16:21), and Paul privately called attention to his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37), which embarrassed the Philippian authorities who had beaten him publicly without a orderly trial.

The Philippians knew what it meant for citizens to go to a foreign land as an colony, bringing their customs with them. They knew what it meant to live distinctly among the native people. They knew what it meant to have a lord who would protect and rule them from the capitol city. Paul uses this concept to communicate what it is to live as a Christian.

The point is not that “this world is not my home/I'm just a-passing through.” Rather it is about your identity, your king, and your way of life. Romans who lived at Philippi did not plan on returning to Rome. Rather, they were bringing Rome and its ways to Philippi. So as citizens of heaven, we take our pattern of living from heaven, our "capitol city" is heaven, we obey and trust in our King who is in heaven, we pray that His kingdom come and will be obeyed on earth just as it is in heaven. In the end, Jesus comes back to earth from heaven and raises up our bodies from the grave (Phil. 3:20), and the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to the new earth and God dwells with us here (Rev. 21:1-3). The church in this present age is a colony of heaven on earth.

Now the kingdom of heaven does not advance like Rome did. It does not conquer by the power of the sword, but by the power of the Spirit and Scripture. Its power does not come from man, but from heaven (John 18:33-38).

The kingdom of heaven also overlaps with the various cultures of this world. You do not loose your national identity when you become a Christian. And these two identities are not unrelated: your American identity now becomes reformed and qualified by your identity as a citizen of the gospel, just as your Christian identity can be expressed in uniquely American ways (for example, in American language).

But what Philippians 1:27 emphasizes is that our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven produces a unique manner of life, something that is shared by all the saints across the world, and that this manner of life is defined by the gospel. This manner of life is driven by different priorities, different motives, and a different basis. In some ways it will run contrary to the priorities and practices of the people around us. But this manner of life will be based on faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, on the example of Jesus Christ, and on the authority of Lord Jesus who gives us His commands in Scripture. In the next chapter (Phil. 2:1-11), Paul will expand on this point by exhorting the Philippian saints to reflect the love and humility of Jesus which was manifested so clearly in the gospel account. May the church seek closer conformity to its Lord and Savior so that it may live up to its distinct identity as "the light of the world...a city set on a hill" (Matt. 5:14-16), a colony of heaven built upon the gospel of Christ.