Thursday, November 29, 2018

Motives to Sexual Fidelity

This is the second post in a series of three on sexual matters as they are covered in the book of Proverbs. Last time we examined two competing sexual ethics: Sexual Autonomy vs. Sexual Fidelity. This time, let us look at how Proverbs motivates its reader to pursue what is good. There are many ways the Bible motivates people to do things. One way is to appeal to duty: this is right, so do it. Another way is to appeal to gratitude: God did this for us, therefore do this for Him. Another way, a way that the book of Proverbs emphasizes, is that sin is foolish and righteousness is wise. In other words, Proverbs often appeals to consequences: avoid the way that leads to destruction and seek the way that leads to life. Here are some of the consequences it addresses as it seek to motivate the reader to avoid sexual autonomy and to pursue sexual fidelity.

Punishment or praise 

Proverbs 6:27–29, 34-35 - "Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor's wife; none who touches her will go unpunished…For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation; he will refuse though you multiply gifts."

There were legal consequences for sexual immorality in biblical law. The adulteress’s husband in particular would be able to press charges and demand justice. The death penalty was the maximum penalty, and while it appears the husband could ask for something less than death, Proverbs warns to not expect much generosity from a jealous husband. Even today, without laws against adultery, jealous spouses will seek some kind of justice and there often are legal repercussions. Think of political leaders like Presidents Clinton and Trump, and our former governor here in Missouri, Greitens; people still get ensnared by this legally because of the deceit and treachery involved in sexual autonomy.

When Proverbs 5:14 portrays the young man caught in adultery saying “I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation,” it refers to judicial punishment and how adultery put the young man on the brink of death. It also adds the fact of shame and public scandal. But the stakes get higher in verse 21 - "For a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths."

God sees even deeds done in secret. He knows your thoughts and plans. He knows your imaginations and desires. He will judge the sexually immoral who do not repent. While He will forgive His children, they may feel His discipline and correction. When King David committed adultery, God forgave Him, yet God still disciplined David by taking away his unborn child and bringing rebellion, incest, and violence into David’s family for the rest of his life.

But with sexual fidelity, rather than punishment, you will receive its opposite, praise from man and God. "What is desired in a man is steadfast love, and a poor man is better than a liar" (Prov. 19:22). What people desire, and what God desires, is for men and women to be faithful to their own spouses. Faithfulness, principled restraint, and a respect for others are honorable characteristics. Even if some may ridicule you for a time, in time your position will be generally vindicated over time. Sexual fidelity does not get you in trouble, while sexual autonomy eventually will.

Loosing your wealth and work to strangers or keeping it for you and your family

Proverbs 5:9-11 - “…do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your honor to others, and your years to the merciless, lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of a foreigner, and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed…”

Proverbs 6:26 - “…for a prostitute leaves a man with nothing but a loaf of bread…”

Sexual autonomy is a good way to ruin your finances and waste your labors. It is expensive. This is true whether we are talking about the resources necessary to carry on an immoral relationship or the cost of it once it is discovered (legal repercussions, bribes, etc.). Your work will go to a stranger, not your own house. And perhaps you invest your money and work in a relationship based merely on consent, and it works for the moment, yet that arrangement is precarious and falls apart as soon as the feelings or people change. Relationships based merely on feelings and lust do not build support networks and safety nets.

But with sexual fidelity, rather than loosing your wealth and work to another, you accumulate wealth, honor, strength, and freedom by avoiding this snare. You keep it for yourself and your family. A healthy marriage increases wealth. It yokes two people to work as one for a common good. It builds confidence, it enables the couple to think long-term, and it builds safety nets and extended support networks.

A seared conscience accustomed to treachery or habits of loyalty and friendship

Proverbs 30:20 - "This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, 'I have done no wrong.'"

Proverbs 23:27–28 - "For a prostitute is a deep pit; an adulteress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases the traitors among mankind."

Sexual autonomy tends to justify itself and deaden the conscience. The more you lust towards strangers or their images, the more it becomes a habit. And as it becomes "normal," you become less aware of your guilt and the ways it is shaping you. The deeper you go into the sin, the harder it is to get out. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage teaches you to be a traitor, either by breaking vows (if married) or at least by engaging in a life-uniting act without life-uniting intent (if single). It teaches you disloyalty, dishonesty, and selfishness.

But with sexual fidelity, rather than learning treachery, you learn loyalty and friendship. It teaches you to not take advantage of others, to respect boundaries, to be honest, and to be faithful. People can trust you. You spouse can trust you. Other men and women can trust you. This builds marriage and community.

Death or life

Proverbs 5:5 - "Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol"

Proverbs 5:23 - "He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray."

Proverbs 7:25–27 -"Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death."

Sexual autonomy leads to death. It is destructive in this life. It can lead to physical death as events spiral downward. And most importantly, it is judged with eternal death by the justice of God. It is not an unforgivable sin - there is forgiveness in Christ for those who turn away from this sin and believe in Him for salvation. But unless this happens, the consequence of sexual autonomy is eternal condemnation from God. Even Christians are warned against the danger in this sin. In 1 Corinthians 10, it is noted that even though the Israelites were "baptized" and partook of "communion" in Old Testament terms, they were still judged for their idolatry and sexual immorality. "Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12b). It can be a step in the direction of apostasy (Heb. 12:16). And even if it does not go that far, I have already mentioned the example of David. Even a believer can suffer in discipline in this life for such sins.

But rather than leading to death and destruction, sexual fidelity is a path of life. While you cannot be saved or get pardoned by sexual fidelity (or any good work), it is an aspect of following Christ. It is one important way we "walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous" (Prov. 2:20). Repentance, where we continue to progressively turn from evil and endeavor after good, is a necessary mark of the one who will receive eternal life (Heb. 12:14).

Practicing sexual fidelity also leads to life and flourishing in cultural ways. Rather than destroying marriage, sexual fidelity secures the well being of your own and other marriages. All the good marriage does for children, for society, for you, relies upon your sexual fidelity. Within marriage, sexual union is fittingly fruitful, uniting, pleasurable, and strengthening. It is a blessing in its intended place.

In summery, God desires His children to avoid the hard path of sin. He loves His children. So pay heed to His fatherly warnings and exhortations.


Continue this series here:
Directions for the Pursuit of Sexual Fidelity (Part 3)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Sexual Autonomy vs. Sexual Fidelity

The Bible's teachings on sexual matters are under particular pressure today. Not only are they attacked and ridiculed, but alternative approaches are subtly and not-so-subtly promoted throughout our culture. This culture tends to shape our ideas, sensibilities, and habits, and unless Christians purposefully understand what the Bible says about the issue, they will find themselves swept away with the current. This will be the first in a series of three posts on sexual matters as they are handled in the book of Proverbs. Here we will begin by looking at a general view of sexual intimacy.

Who is sovereign over your body?
The popular approach today is that of expressive individualism. This view can be summarized with the phrase: “my body, my choice.” It teaches you to do whatever feels right as long as it doesn’t coerce another person. It teaches you that anything is right if there is mutual consent between adults. You should do anything you want with your body. You ought not get into a situation that restricts you. You need to express your own choices and desires without any obligations or pressure from others. You are sovereign. We can call this sexual autonomy - you make up the law for yourself.

This view is not argued as much as it is taught and celebrated. In an age where God has little relevance, autonomy makes sense. It sounds better than some other person or tradition or government deciding what to do with your body. Yet, it is not without problems. The emphasis on freedom means that there is minimal obligation - your feelings are preeminent. There is no fidelity or reliability with this view since personal preferences change. Broken relationships, frustration, insecurity, single parents, and fatherless children are the results. Consent is not commitment, but commitment and reliability is necessary for trust, and trust is necessary for intimacy. This casual approach to sexuality also does not account for how it give you the habit of being self-centered in your approach to other people. This framework of personal sovereignty does not fit with how sexuality and relationships are intended to work.

Biblically, you are not sovereign over your body. Proverbs 5:21 reminds us that “a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths.” God is the one who evaluates and judges your actions. You are not sovereign your body or soul. Only God is sovereign. He is the Creator of all. He designed humanity. For Christians, He has the additional right of redemption. He has purchased believers from sin and death and made them His temple. You are not your own. You were bought with a price. You must use your body as He intended and as He directs. You must not do whatever feels right. You must respect His boundaries - both because He is sovereign and because He places the boundaries in good places.

But don’t we have some authority over our body? In a sense, but let us ask it in a different way:

Who is responsible for your body?
Who is responsible? You or others? If that is the question, then yes, you are responsible. It is your body. You have a stewardship over it, and other people must respect that. You are responsible to care for your body, to defend it, to glorify God with it, to serve Him with it, to use it as He intended. You should not blame others for what you decide to do with your body. Proverbs 5-7 give strong exhortations to the young man to resist temptation - he is held to be responsible to make the wise choice.

Yet, others do have a responsibility to be helpful. Some Christians claim they have no responsibility to clothe themselves in a way that will help you not lust. They point out that you are responsible for your own thoughts and actions, and that you cannot blame them - which is true. But that does not mean that they have no responsibility to you. We all have a responsibility not only to govern our own bodies, but also to avoid leading others into sin and to encourage them to be holy (Prov. 12:26, 16:29, 27:5-6, 9). “The seventh commandment requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 71).

To whom should you give your body?
In Proverbs 5-7 a contrast appears between “the wife of your youth” and the “strange” or “foreign” woman. What the ESV translates as the “adulteress” is literally a “foreign woman” and the “forbidden” woman is literally the “strange woman” (in the sense that she is a “stranger”). The ESV is correct to point out that the woman is not literally a foreign woman, but an adulteress or harlot. But the author is pointing out that this woman is foreign and a stranger to you. She does not belong to you and you do not belong to her. She stands in contrast with “the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5:18). In ancient Israel it was typical to marry young, and so the wife would then have literally been the wife of your youth. But regardless of whether you were married young or not, what is being emphasized is long-term commitment. She is not a passing acquaintance, she is not just your current crush, she is your wife - you will share a history together, you commit to remain steadfast through think and thin, you will become old friends. Proverbs 2:17 describes a spouse as the companion of your youth, God’s covenant being the bond between the two of you. Your body is precious - it is not meant for a stranger. We ought not to gamble our body, risking it to a stranger who may come and go. It is only meant to be given to your companion by covenant.

Sexual desire and intimacy is designed for a binding covenant relationship of companionship and love, namely, marriage. It is designed for a context of security and reliability founded not on merely feeling or preference, but on lifelong commitment through thick and thin to give yourselves to one another. It is in this context that the trust necessary for love and intimacy can flourish. Proverbs 31:10–11 says, “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.” The husband and wife unite their fortunes and work together to lead their household in different ways for their common good. This is the ideal context for raising children. Sexual union is a sign and seal of this broader life-uniting union, celebrating it and strengthening it. To use sexual intimacy outside this context perverts it from its intended use.

So our ideal is not sexual autonomy, but rather sexual fidelity - remaining faithful to God’s intent for our bodies and reserving sexual intimacy to a context of covenant fidelity in marriage. Sexual union is meant to be an aspect of a larger and covenanted union of life.


Continue this series here:
Motives to Sexual Fidelity (Part 2)
Directions for the Pursuit of Sexual Fidelity (Part 3)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Audio from the 2018 Pilgrim Heritage Celebration

As Thanksgiving draws to a close, you can linger on it a little longer by listening to the talks from our church's Pilgrim Heritage Celebration, which are now available online.

You can find them at this link:
2018 Pilgrim Heritage Celebration

And here they are individually:
The Pilgrims in England and Holland by Pastor John Huffman (22 min.)
The Pilgrims' Voyage and First Winter by Pastor Peter Bringe (21 min.)
The Pilgrims' Summer and First Thanksgiving by Jeff Hamann (31 min.)

We finished the evening with a poem written by William Bradford. He had been with the Pilgrims from the beginning and served many years as the governor in Plymouth. He left behind this poem when he died in 1657, calling the next generation to renewal and repentance, a call that would be heeded at various points in the history of New England over the next hundred years. May we heed its call as well.

A Word to New England
by William Bradford
"Oh New England, thou canst not boast;
Thy former glory thou hast lost.
When Hooker, Winthrop, Cotton died,
And many precious ones beside,
Thy beauty then it did decay,
And still doth languish more away.
Love, truth, goodness, mercy and grace--
Wealth and the world have took their place.
Thy open sins none can them hide:
Fraud, drunkenness, whoredom and pride.
The great oppressors slay the poor,
But whimsy errors they kill more.
Yet some thou hast which mourn and weep,
And their garments unspotted keep;
Who seek God's honor to maintain,
That true religion may remain.
These do invite, and sweetly call,
Each to other, and say to all;
Repent, amend, and turn to God,
That we may prevent his sharp rod.
Yet time thou hast; improve it well,
That God's presence may with ye dwell."

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

"My God Doesn't Judge"

A large majority of Americans believe in God, but many Americans have unbiblical conceptions of God. One of these is sometimes expressed by the refrain, “my God doesn’t judge.”

This attitude is a rather modern one. People have always desired to be free of divine condemnation, but few, if any, cultures have believed that it is unworthy of God to condemn. It has usually been believed that a good God is a just God who will not let the wicked get away with their wickedness. And yet, in our modern pluralistic age, tolerance is not only expected of men, but also of God. Judging people is seen as a form of hatred, as a kind of evil.

But for the biblical alternative, consider Psalm 96:9-13.

"[9] Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;
        tremble before him, all the earth!
[10] Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
        Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
  he will judge the peoples with equity.”
[11] Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
  let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
  [12] let the field exult, and everything in it!
     Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
  [13] before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
  and the peoples in his faithfulness."

In this passage, the world desires God. It rejoices over His coming and worships Him. Why? Because God comes to judge the peoples. What is good about this? First, He judges with equity and righteousness (v. 10, 13). Rather than condemning people in tyrannical or oppressive ways, God is fair and morally good in His decisions. He judges all equally without partiality. In a world that is topsey-turvey and pervasively distorted by corruption, injustice, and evil, God’s justice is a breath of fresh air. Second, this judgement establishes the earth (v. 10). Without a judge, the world's foundations are shaken with unsolved crimes against its sovereign Lord. With God as judge, all wrongs will be put to right and His creation restored in order and cosmic harmony. The creation has been burdened with the disharmony of sin, but the enforcement of righteousness brings resolution to the dissonant chord of evil. Third, holiness is splendor and beauty, something that is attractive. Those who worship the holy God are exhorted to beautify themselves with holiness. True worship is a response to the beauty of His moral perfection and untarnished purity. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). True moral perfection is foreign to us, but if we even have a basic concept of what that means, then it should be clear that such a wonderful thing cannot make peace with wickedness.

Many say, "my God doesn't judge," but we reply, "a good God will judge justly."

Even our pluralistic culture will sometimes awake to the reality that just judgement and condemnation is a good and desirable thing. When college student Brock Turner was sentenced to a brief 6-month stay in prison (which turned into a 3-month stay) for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, our country was in an uproar. Not only was it a light sentence for a horrible crime, but it appeared that the judge was being swayed by Brock’s status as a star athlete at a prestigious university. People wanted justice, and the judge’s leniency seemed insensitive to the crime and uncaring towards the victim.

Again, many in our country have been outraged when judges have acquitted policemen who have shot black men for debatable reasons. These occasions have caused controversies, some defending the policemen and others accusing them, but the goal for both sides has been justice, not tolerance.

Why do we see it as a good and desirable thing for human judges to justly condemn the guilty while we hesitate to see God’s judgement in a similar light? Doubtless, this is because we are guilty. But the answer is not to deny that God can make moral judgements or to make tolerance the ultimate virtue. The answer is not to take justice away from God’s hands. We need a God who loves justice.

The answer, instead, is to cling to Christ, in whom justice and forgiveness meet. Jesus, since He is God, is morally perfect and completely opposed to wickedness. He condemned the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. In the Sermon on the Mount, He portrayed Himself as the judge of the earth on the last day who will send away into judgement the workers of lawlessness whom He did not know (Matthew 7:21-23, cp. Matt. 25). That is the key, to be known by Him and saved by Him. We are guilty of crimes in God’s court, but as Romans 3:25 says, Christ has been put forward “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” In other words, He satisfied the demands of God's justice, so that God can be both just and the justifier of those sinners who believe in Christ (Romans 3:26). It is by the painful sacrifice of the cross that God continued to be the holy and just Judge we need and the forgiving Savior we need.

So, rather than dismissing judgment as unworthy of God, let us embrace the gift of Christ. This gift of forgiveness enables us to desire justice by taking away our fear of condemnation. Let us cling to the sacrifice of Christ. It enables us to rejoice over the coming judgment of the Lord and the restoration it will bring. Let us love righteousness as those who are no longer condemned by it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Thanksgiving and Hope

"I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ...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, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, 
to the glory and praise of God." 
(Philippians 1:3-6, 9-11)

Next Thursday we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. It is a time when we take special time to give thanks to God for His blessings to us, our families, and our country. It is easy in a fallen world to notice how much better things could be, to notice where things fall short. We notice our own failures and faults and notice the faults of others. Our attention is also fixed upon what could go wrong in the future. And these things have a place. It is proper to lament what is wrong with us and our world. It is proper to entreat God’s mercy for the future. But this is not all. Even in a fallen world, God has been very merciful, even to the unjust and wicked. His creation still shines with beauty and the earth still gives forth rich food. How much more has He been good to His saints?

In the passage above, one of Paul’s responses to the Philippians was thanksgiving. He thanked God for the Philippians and their faithful partnership in the gospel every time he prayed for them. Joyful thanksgiving for their labors in the past was the first thing out of Paul’s mouth. But then he moves from thanksgiving to hope, from the past to the future. Because God had given the Philippians such a love for the gospel, Paul is confident that God will continue to increase their love unto maturity in Christ. Their past spiritual blessings were not the product of fickle Fortune, but of a faithful God. Thankfulness to God leads to hope for the future. What God has done gives us confidence for what He will do. He will not abandon what He began. As Calvin observed from this passage, “undoubtedly this is the true manner of acknowledging God’s benefits — when we derive from them occasion of hoping well as to the future. For as they are tokens at once of his goodness, and of his fatherly benevolence towards us, what ingratitude were it to derive from this no confirmation of hope and good courage!”[1]

And so, this passage leads us from thanksgiving to hope. If God has begun a good work in you by His grace, you can more confidently aim for the goal of maturity in Christ, for God will not abandon what He has begun.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Why Celebrate the Pilgrims?

Every year my church hosts the Pilgrim Heritage Celebration. It includes a potluck meal and a program featuring talks by Jeff Hamann, myself, and, this year, John Huffman. As we approach the event, the question might be asked: why celebrate our Pilgrim heritage? Why make such a big deal over some grim puritanical figures from four hundred years ago? Well, here are a few brief reasons. 

1. The Pilgrims had admirable principles and vision. The settlers of Plymouth, and their Puritan neighbors, have been prone to unfair stereotypes over the years. Men and women of principle in any generation are prone to be accused of being stern, uncompromising, and intolerant. But when you read accounts like Of Plymouth Plantation, you meet with a people who were often generous, forgiving, and long-suffering. They got along not only with the settlers who joined them from England like Myles Standish, but also eventually won the respect of the sailors on the Mayflower and the native peoples in the New World. When they took care of a sick sailor who had ridiculed and cursed them earlier in the voyage, the sailor noted "O! you, I now see, shew your love like Christians indeed one to another, but we let one another lye and dye like doggs." Yet, the Pilgrims were unlike modern Americans in many ways, and they should feel a bit foreign. They had a strong appreciation for God's providential guidance of history and a strong devotion to the supremacy of the Bible over all human authorities. They were willing to suffer for objecting to unbiblical ceremonies in worship and unbiblical government in the church. And while they learned the benefit of giving each family their own land to work, they were not individualists, but cared greatly for the well-being of their church, community, and future generations.

2. The Pilgrims were just and graciously evangelistic to the native peoples. And it was good that they were so, for they owed a great debt to the assistance of Squanto and the Wampanoags. The “first thanksgiving” itself was a celebration of both Pilgrims and Wampanoags for the good harvest that year. Several of the tribes were glad to make alliances with the Pilgrims because they had been weakened by illness and were threatened by the Narragansetts, who had not caught the illness. The Pilgrims made fair treaties with the tribes and treated them as equal civil powers, seeking trade and mutual benefit. They came to Massasoit's assistance when a lower chieftain, instigated by the Narragansetts, rebelled against him. The peace between them lasted until King Philip's War, fifty years later. I have covered some of the Pilgrims' "foreign relations" in their first year here and here. My talk last year, available here, focused on how the Pilgrims and Puritans did not neglect evangelism in their attempt to build a "city on a hill," but rather engaged in culturally-sensitive and biblically-grounded missions towards the native peoples in New England. 

3. The Pilgrims' story is full of God's providential blessing. The story of the Pilgrims gives us another reason to thank and praise God. The Pilgrims were brave, but their success was not due to their bravery, power, or knowledge. They were rather weak and vulnerable at times. But a combination of details beyond their control came together for their good, and they certainly knew who to credit for these blessings. From John Howland's miraculous rescue at sea, to the fact they had a large screw on board to secure the broken main beam, to their unintentional landing in New England where some of the land had become vacant due to a plague, to their connection with Squanto who had lived in England and was willing to help, the Pilgrims had many reasons to be grateful to God, their Savior and Protector. It is helpful for Christians today to realize that God was not only active in history in biblical times, but that He has continued to orchestrate history and advance His kingdom since then. 

4. The Pilgrims set a foundation for future generations. We are their heirs. On Thanksgiving Day we tend to celebrate two things: blessings in our own lives over the past year, as well as the blessings our nation has received in the past, particularly in the events surrounding the "first thanksgiving" in 1621. But these two things are, of course, connected. Prior generations in our country have built foundations of faith, freedom, and prosperity which we benefit from today. God's providential hand in guiding the events of the past not only benefitted the Pilgrims, Puritans, pioneers, and patriots in our country's history, but also those who have come after them, including us. The Pilgrims' vision of society has influenced American culture, with their desire for the liberty produced by biblical restraint on arbitrary authority, as well as a Protestant work ethic. Social life underwent a reformation through the efforts of the Pilgrims and Puritans, as David D. Hall has written in A Reforming People and his article "Peace, Love and Puritanism," available here, and as Daniel J. Ford has written in Liberty and Property and In the Name of God, Amen

So this Thanksgiving season, consider doing something to remember the Pilgrims and to celebrate our rich Pilgrim heritage. Whether you watch the Pilgrims episode of "This is America, Charlie Brown," read Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, come to our event, or simply recount the story at the dining room table, it will be time well spent.

"Great are the works of the LORD,
studied by all who delight in them."
Psalm 111:2

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Old Testament Basis for Canonical Scripture

Many discussions of the biblical canon - that is, the list of books that compose God's written word - begin and end with the New Testament and view it from the perspective of church history. What role did the church play in the formation of the New Testament canon? Why did they recognize some books and not others? But more fundamental than the historical discussion is the theological discussion - how ought we to recognize God's word? What role ought the church to play? These are questions that only God can answer, and therefore we must seek them from Scripture itself. While this may feel circular to some, to find these answers anywhere else would be to make some other authority (e.g. the church, historical scholarship, subjective experience) the basis of our faith. If God's word, as found in His written word, is the ultimate authority for our beliefs, then we must justify our acceptance of the Bible from the Bible. The question is, is our acceptance of the 66 books of Scriptures arbitrary? Or is it an obedient acceptance determined by Scripture? Was the church at liberty to choose whatever books were best to its liking or was it bound to obediently accept the books that God sent it?

This is a big topic. We will be discussing it in my church's Sunday school class for several weeks. But the discussion begins not with the New Testament, but with the Old Testament. The New Testament church, after all, did not begin without Scripture. It began with the Old Testament which was already established.

From the beginning of human history, God has revealed Himself to humanity. He conversed with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He confronted Esau and warned Noah of the impending flood. It is unclear when God's word began to be put down in writing. The book of Genesis may have been begun by men like Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. But the clear beginning of written revelation is with Moses. 

Moses received the word of the Lord at the burning bush, in Egypt, at Mt. Sinai, and in the Tabernacle. God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11). And God made this very clear to all of Israel. The ten plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, God's thunderous words to all the people from Mt. Sinai, the cloud in the tabernacle, and the miraculous judgments upon those who resisted Moses' prophetic word all publicly testified that God gave His word to Moses to speak to the people (Ex. 19:9). In fact, the people asked that it be done this way after they had heard the Ten Commandments from God's own voice:
"Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.'" (Exodus 20:18–19)
But Moses did not merely speak God's words to the people. He also wrote down what God told Him and entrusted it to the Levites so that they might teach the people this word. 
"And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD...Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (Exodus 24:4, 7, see also Ex. 34:27)  
"Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD, and these are their stages according to their starting places." (Numbers 33:2) 
“And when he [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them..." (Deuteronomy 17:18–19) 
"Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, 'At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.'" (Deuteronomy 31:9–13, see also Deut. 31:22, 24-26) 
Therefore the people of Israel, and the Levitical priests in particular, were "entrusted with the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2). They began with the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), and they were commanded to not add to or take away from what God gave them (Deut. 4:2, 12:3). Only God had the prerogative to add further revelation, and He told them that He would. In Deuteronomy 18, God prohibited various pagan ways of fortune telling and divination and promised a continuation of prophecy among prophets like Moses whom He would raise up. He also gave Israel three tests to recognize true prophecy - it would be prophetic (Deut. 18:18), orthodox (Deut. 18:20, 13:1-5), and its predictions would come to pass (Deut. 18:21-22). As had been done by Moses, canonical prophecy would continue to be entrusted to the Levitical priests (Rom. 3:2). Even though the prophecy often critiqued the priesthood and sometimes met with resistance by the priests, in time the prophecy was divinely vindicated and obediently accepted. Only some prophecy was intended to be written down and preserved for the church, but this prophecy was in time received and recognized by the Levitical priests in Jerusalem.

Thus, by the time of Jesus, the Old Testament was a canonical collection of books recognized as God's word, a definitive copy of which was still kept in the temple. This collection was referred to either as "the Scriptures" (John 10:34-35, Luke 24:44-45), "the Law" (John 10:34-35), "the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 5:17), "Moses and the Prophets" (Luke 16:29-31), or "the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44-45). It was all considered prophetical, in continuity with God's revelation through Moses, and vindicated in its predictions. This body of Scripture was identical to the Old Testament of the early church and of Protestant Bibles today, although the books were counted differently (e.g. 1 and 2 Kings were considered one book). It was affirmed by Christ and obediently received by His followers. It was incomplete, pointing to the final revelation given by Christ and His apostles, but it was God's word, containing its own authority, imposing itself upon God's people. And along with the New Testament, it continues to call for obedient reception today.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A.A. Hodge on the Universal Reign of Christ

Today is Election Day! Last week I wrote about four biblical priorities to consider when voting today, which you can find here. This past Sunday, I preached on the reign of Christ over the nations from Psalm 2, and you can find that sermon here. Today I want to add an appeal from A.A. Hodge, a leading Presbyterian theologian of the 19th century. It is taken from "The Kingly Office of Christ," which is an excellent lecture on the topic and can be found in his Popular Lectures on Theological Themes, which is available online here. In this concluding appeal, he points out the dangers of neglecting the lordship of Christ over culture and the civil sphere. May we take it to heart, not only today, but as we serve Christ in everything we do.
A.A. Hodge
“And if Christ is really King, exercising original and immediate jurisdiction over the State as really as he does over the Church, it follows necessarily that the general denial or neglect of his rightful lordship, any prevalent refusal to obey that Bible which is the open lawbook of his kingdom, must be followed by political and social as well as by moral and religious ruin… 
Who is responsible for the unholy laws and customs of divorce which have been in late years growing rapidly, like a constitutional cancer, through all our social fabric? Who is responsible for the rapidly-increasing, almost universal, desecration of our ancestral Sabbath? Who is responsible for the prevalent corruptions in trade which loosen the bands of faith and transform the halls of the honest trader into the gambler's den? Who is responsible for the new doctrines of secular education which hand over the very baptized children of the Church to a monstrous propagandism of Naturalism and Atheism? Who is responsible for the new doctrine that the State is not a creature of God and owes him no allegiance, thus making the mediatorial Headship of Christ an unsubstantial shadow and his kingdom an unreal dream? 
Whence come these portentous upheavals of the ancient primitive rock upon which society has always rested? Whence comes this socialistic earthquake, arraying capital and labor in irreconcilable conflict like oxygen and fire? Whence come these mad nihilistic, anarchical ravings, the wild presages of a universal deluge, which will blot out at once the family, the school, the church, the home, all civilization and religion, in one sea of ruin? 
In the name of your own interests I plead with you; in the name of your treasure-houses and barns, of your rich farms and cities, of your accumulations in the past and your hopes in the future,—I charge you, you never will be secure if you do not faithfully maintain all the crown-rights of Jesus the King of men. In the name of your children and their inheritance of the precious Christian civilization you in turn have received from your sires; in the name of the Christian Church,—I charge you that its sacred franchise, religious liberty, cannot be retained by men who in civil matters deny their allegiance to the King. In the name of your own soul and its salvation; in the name of the adorable Victim of that bloody and agonizing sacrifice whence you draw all your hopes of salvation; by Gethsemaue and Calvary,—I charge you, citizens of the United States, afloat on your wide wild sea of politics, there is another King, one Jesus: the safety of the State can be secured only in the way of humble and whole-souled loyalty to his Person and of obedience to his law.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Biblical Priorities for Election Day

As we approach Election Day, it is a good time to remember that nations are accountable to serve God in their political capacity. Christians in particular ought to set an example of obedience to God in the civil realm. And His word is not silent on the matter. So how does Scripture guide our choice of civil leaders?

1. Choose those who are of good character. Whether in church or state, when the Bible lists qualification for an office, it emphasizes character. When Israel chose its leaders, it was told to choose "men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe" (Ex. 18:21) and "wise" (Deut. 1:13). This responsibility does not seem unique to Israel, since it came from Jethro, a non-Israelite. Indeed, Proverbs states that "It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness" (16:12) and "Fine speech is not becoming to a fool; still less is false speech to a prince" (17:7). The fear of God results in good character that is governed by the law of God, both one's personal life and in his public calling. Israel's king, who was to be a model for the nations, was to write out and study God's word so that "he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them" (17:19). Those who do not submit to God's law in their positions and behavior will be prone to be untrustworthy and tyrannical, being driven by their whims or the fear of man, vulnerable to bribes and threats.

2. Choose those who are are skilled. Israel was also told to choose "able men" (Ex. 18:21), "wise, understanding, and experienced men" (Deut. 1:13). Good character is essential, but someone with good character might still be ill-equipped to deal with the responsibilities of the office. Civil leaders need practical wisdom, discernment, and communication skills, as well as the knowledge required to accomplish the task. It was a curse to Israel when their civil leaders were (at least figuratively) "infants" (Is. 3:4, 12; Eccl. 10:16). Being young in age is not an insurmountable obstacle (e.g. Solomon and Josiah were good but young leaders), but leaders who are lacking in the ability and discernment which often (though not always) comes with experience should be avoided, especially for the more important roles. And less experienced leaders would do well to take Solomon's approach: "O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in...Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:7, 9).

3. Choose those who have their priorities straight. Civil leaders bear authority delegated to them from God, and as such they are responsible to Him for its use. We ought to choose leaders who understand what their main tasks are. Fundamentally, the civil government is a ministry of justice (Rom. 13:1-4). It upholds justice by overseeing restitution to the victim and administering punishments for crime. Its first and most basic task was to execute the murderer: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image" (Gen. 9:6). Innocent human life was to be vindicated by the power of the sword. Today, innocent human life is taken across our country by the practice of abortion. It should be a priority for civil leaders to criminalize this practice. Also, a primary priority of godly men and women in pagan governments that we find in the Bible (e.g. Joseph, Daniel, Esther) is the protection of God's people, the church. Those who bless God's people shall be blessed, and those who persecute or trouble God's people pick a fight with God (Gen. 12:3, Matt. 10:40-42, Is. 60:19-14).

4. Choose those who seek to maximize freedom for their people. Civil leaders with their priorities straight will not get carried away with taking on tasks beyond their calling. They will not seek to be an aggressive military power since the power of the sword they have is for justice and defense. They will not seek to take over education, health, and welfare, since these are responsibilities of family, neighbors, associations, communities, and churches. It might step in as a last resort, but this is regrettable and a sign of failure among the people. A wise and good leader will not burden his people with excessive taxation (Prov. 29:4, Amos 5:11, 1 Sam. 8:11-18, 1 Kings 12), which also requires limits on spending, since debt is also generally unwise and enslaving (Prov. 22:7). The goal for civil leaders should be freedom and peace for the people so that, as Paul says, "we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Tim. 2:2).