Saturday, May 25, 2019

Beating Swords into Plowshares

Tomorrow I will be preaching on Isaiah 2:1-5 and the vision of the nations flowing to the house of the Lord. As the nations learn God's ways and submit to His rule, the result is that of peace. John Calvin's comments on this passage are quite good, and they can be read online at this link. Here I want to share some of his comments on verse 4, where the peace that flows from God's reign is described.
"And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares He next mentions the beneficial result which will follow, when Christ shall have brought the Gentiles and the nations under his dominion. Nothing is more desirable than peace; but while all imagine that they desire it, every one disturbs it by the madness of his lusts; for pride, and covetousness, and ambition, lead men to rise up in cruelty against each other. Since, therefore, men are naturally led away by their evil passions to disturb society, Isaiah here promises the correction of this evil; for, as the gospel is the doctrine of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18) which removes the enmity between us and God, so it brings men into peace and harmony with each other. The meaning amounts to this, that Christ’s people will be meek, and, laying aside fierceness, will be devoted to the pursuit of peace.... 
"Besides, Isaiah promises that, when the gospel shall be published, it will be an excellent remedy for putting an end to quarrels; and not only so, but that, when resentments have been laid aside, men will be disposed to assist each other. For he does not merely say, swords shall be broken in pieces, but they shall be turned into mattocks; by which he shows that there will be so great a change that, instead of annoying one another, and committing various acts of injustice, as they had formerly done, they will henceforth cultivate peace and friendship, and will employ their exertions for the common advantage of all; for mattocks and pruning-hooks are instruments adapted to agriculture, and are profitable and necessary for the life of man. He therefore shows that, when Christ shall reign, those who formerly were hurried along by the love of doing mischief, will afterwards contend with each other, in every possible way, by acts of kindness."

Friday, May 17, 2019

A Few Points on the Current Abortion Debate

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City
As Alabama and Missouri have recently passed relatively strong laws against abortion, there has been an escalation of the already strong debate in our society on the subject of abortion and the state. I have posted here in the past on the case against abortion from the Bible and the church fathers. Here I want to make a few points on the current debate on anti-abortion legislation.

1. The point of anti-abortion laws is the same as existing laws against murder. The pro-life position argues that abortion is murder, the unjust taking of innocent human life.

This is why exceptions for rape and incest make no sense to someone who is pro-life. Rape should be strongly punished, but it does not justify the killing of an innocent party.

This is also why the argument for "safe, legal" abortions as opposed to "unsafe, illegal" abortions makes no sense - the fact that robbery and murder are illegal do make those actions more dangerous, but this is not an argument to make them legal (in this vein, see this satire article). It is the job of the civil government to protect and vindicate innocent life and punish those who take it unjustly.

2. Anti-abortion legislation, like all legislation against crime, is a moral issue, so it is no surprise that religion is involved. This is why the argument against imposing my religious views on others does not hold weight. If you asked me why murder, stealing, or perjury is wrong and unjust, I would also appeal to my religious beliefs. Non-Christians still have some god-like authoritative source for their moral judgments, which they then seek to impose by law in society. (And few object to the imposition of religious beliefs when they are invoked to support the fair treatment of minorities and immigrants.)
"Law is in every culture religious in origin. Because law governs man and society, because it establishes and declares the meaning of justice and righteousness, law is inescapably religious, in that it establishes in practical fashion the ultimate concerns of a culture. Accordingly, a fundamental and necessary premise in any and every study of law must be, first, a recognition of this religious nature of law. Second, it must be recognized that in any culture the source of law is the god of that society" (Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 4). 
3. This is not a "war against women," but a certain type of feminism is waging a war against the unborn. In line with my first point, the focus of anti-abortion laws and the pro-life position is on the life of the unborn child. Its goal is not to punish or suppress women - in fact, the pro-life movement has resulted in many charitable efforts to help pregnant women and their children in difficult circumstances. With that said, egalitarian feminism does come into conflict with nature. With its insistence that men and women must have identical options, abilities, and positions, it runs into the fact that men and women are created with different bodies.

In general, we are created to naturally desire sex, which naturally leads to pregnancy, which naturally leads to distinctions between men and women and their abilities. All this naturally leads to traditional marriage as the best arrangement for these factors, all of this being designed by God. The conservative and biblical approach is to strengthen marriage, passing laws such as those that limit divorce (Matt. 19:3-9), hold men accountable for premarital sex (Ex. 22:16-17), and punish rapists (Deut. 22:25-27). But egalitarian and individualist theories have sought to get rid of all distinctions between men and women, even if it means killing the unborn.

Now some feminists, including many of the founders of feminism, have not taken their position to this extreme and have opposed abortion, pointing to other solutions such as birth control, adoption, and accommodations in the work place. But a certain type of feminism believes that women need the ability to have their unborn children killed so they can be free and equal. But it is a sorry version of freedom and equality that requires women to betray their own unborn offspring and have the innocent murdered. So yes, the pro-life position does conflict with a certain type of feminism, but this is because this type of feminism is waging a war on unborn children.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Thoughts on the Vision of Daniel 7

Daniel's Vision of the Four Beasts, by Matthew Merian (1630)
This Lord's Day, I will be preaching on Daniel 7. This is a complicated and often debated passage. Some interpret this vision to be about Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabees, others interpret to be about the Antichrist and the second coming, and others interpret it as partly about Christ's ascension and partly about the Antichrist and the second coming. I do not think this passage has anything to do with the antichrists mentioned in 1 and 2 John, nor do I think that its focus is on Antiochus Epiphanes (although Daniel 8 will focus on him). While I am not equally certain of all the details of the chapter, here are a few points on this vision that begin to lay out my approach.

1. The vision of "one like a son of man" coming with the clouds to the "Ancient of Days" portrays the exaltation and ascension of Jesus Christ.  "The Son of Man" was the name that Jesus most used for Himself, identifying Himself with this figure in Daniel's vision. This is not a vision of Jesus' second coming, since it portrays Him coming, not to earth, but to the Ancient of Days in heaven. This same scene is portrayed in Revelation 4-5.

2. The "one like a son of man" is interpreted in Daniel 7 to symbolize the saints (7:18). Just as a given figure in Daniel's visions can symbolize both an earthly king and his kingdom, so also the "one like a son of man" symbolizes both Christ and the saints. Thus, just as Christ is exalted and receives the kingdom, so the saints (by virtue of their union with Christ) are exalted and receive the kingdom (Luke 22:29, Rev. 5:10, Eph. 2:6). Likewise, the suffering under the "little horn" that precedes this exaltation applies to both Christ and His people. As Jesus said, "it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things" (Mark 9:12).

3. The four beasts refer to four world kingdoms, the same as the four world kingdoms of the statue in Daniel 2, which are Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece (under Alexander and his successors), and Rome. The first empire is identified as Babylon in chapter 2:37-38. The empire to conquer Babylon was the that of the Medes and Persians. The third empire, which conquered the Medes and Persians, was the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, which continued to exist in a divided state under his four successors (see 7:6 and 8:8). The fourth empire, which conquered these divided kingdoms, was Rome. I think the best explanation of the horns of the fourth beast that I have read is the one given by John Calvin. He argued that the ten horns symbolized the multiplicity of rulers under the Roman Republic, and the little horn symbolized the rule by one man in the line of Roman emperors.

4. The son of man/saints are delivered over to the little horn of the fourth beast. Jesus is crucified and the saints are persecuted under Rome. But the Father makes His judgment in their favor. The beast/little horn looses its dominion and is destroyed (7:11-12, 26). The rebellious kingdom of man lost authority over Christ when He rose from the dead, and all the kingdoms under heaven were given to Christ as His royal inheritance (7:11-14). Although the Roman emperors sought to persecute the saints, their opposition was overcome by the gospel (7:24-27). Universal authority was given to Christ so that "all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him" (7:14), and ever since then, He has been exercising His dominion, bringing all nations into His service as the saints carry out His great commission.

Update: the sermon on Daniel 7 is now available online at this link

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Building Community in Christ

Coming out of our recent Men's Advance, which focused on the theme of Christian community, I am reminded that Christian community is supernatural community. It is rooted in the work of God's grace which produces love for God and one another. It is not founded on narrowly-defined special interests or the natural affinity one might have with people that are the same age, race, or class as you. It is founded on our shared union with Christ which makes us one body and produces the fruit of love. If this union and love is lacking, then no amount of techniques will be able to salvage Christian community.

Yet, this does not mean there is nothing for us to do. We must believe in Christ, repent of our sins, and embrace the the normal means of grace that God uses for our growth, which are the Word of God (preached, read, studied, discussed, applied, etc.), the sacraments, and prayer. We find community by depending upon the same source - Jesus Christ as He is offered to us in the gospel. This fellowship that we have then manifests itself in love, forgiveness, brotherly affection, service of one another and with one another, hospitality, generosity, mutual edification, and shared worship.
"Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:8–10). 
The church is a creation of God's grace, but we have a duty to make it visible. The communion of saints is a gift, given to us freely in Christ, but it then obliges us to act accordingly. We are stewards of God's varied grace, responsible to use it to serve one another.

Our Westminster Confession of Faith lays out this biblical framework for Christian community in its chapter, "Of the Communion of Saints." It declares that since those who are united in Christ are "united to one another in love," they "have communion in each other's gifts and graces" and are therefore "bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities" (WCF 26.1-2).

If this still seems too theoretical, then consider how this week you might sing with one another, encourage and exhort one another, share with one another, forgive one another, and pray for (and with) one another. Consider how you might more faithfully practice family worship, hospitality, and Sabbath observance. Consider how you might stir yourself and others to love and good works. And consider the love and forgiveness God has shown you, remembering that "if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11).

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Freedom, Fruitfulness, and Apostasy in 2 Peter

One theme of 2 Peter is that those who have been cleansed from their sins ought not go back to live in them. At the beginning of the letter, Peter stresses that believers have "escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire" (1:4), and that therefore they ought to build on this foundation with divine qualities like virtue, self-control, and love (1:5-7). The one who neglects to cultivate such qualities "is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins" (1:9). It is folly to return to the enslaving dominion of sinful desire if Jesus has set you free from it.

In Peter's day, just as in ours, there were those who promoted a different view. In chapter 2, Peter gives attention to false teachers and treats them as a very serious threat. Not only will they lead people astray, but the immorality these false teachers produce will cause the way of truth to be blasphemed by unbelievers (2:2). How do these false teachers operate? They "they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error" (2:18). They target those who are not firm and steady, but who are "barely escaping" from the fallen ways of the world (2:18), "unsteady souls" (2:14). The false teachers entice them by using the appeal of sinful pleasures. Even as it happens today, these false teachers "promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption" (2:19). Those who "indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority" (2:10) might feel that they are free and independent, but they are in fact subject to a harsh master, "for whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved" (2:19). And this way leads to death: "For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved" (2:17).

What makes this even worse is that these false teachers, and the unsteady souls they targeted, had once professed the truth. Some of the strongest descriptions of apostasy can be found in this chapter. It says that these false teachers "will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction" (2:1). They feasted with the church (2:13), but forsaking the right way, they went astray (2:15). They sought to lead others back into the corruption they had once escaped from, and Peter says this would be a worse condition than the condition of regular unbelievers. "For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first" (2:20). They were dogs returning to their vomit, and washed pigs returning to wallow in their mire (2:22).

We know from the apostle John that such apostates never truly belonged to the church (1 John 2:19). Jesus will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him to save (John 6:37-39). But John also records Jesus' teaching about those people who are connected to Christ like dead branches are connected to a vine - because they do not receive life from the vine, they are unfruitful, and therefore they are cut off and thrown into the fire (John 15:1-11). Their covenantal connection to Christ is real enough that they can be described as "cleansed" (1:9, 2:22), "bought" by Jesus (2:1), and those who "have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior" (2:20). Nevertheless, they were predestined for condemnation rather than predestined for salvation (compare 2:3 with Jude 4) and unregenerate, and this was manifested by their unfruitfulness and apostasy (1:9, 2:15).

On the other hand, true believers manifest their regeneration by their fruitfulness and perseverance. If you have escaped the defiling passions of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, then avoid entangling yourself in them again and "be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election" (1:10). How? This is how:
"...make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ .... for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (1:5–8, 10-11)
These qualities are graciously granted to us by God through the knowledge of Christ (1:3-4), so let us therefore "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen" (3:18).

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Vision for Christian Community in Church and Home

Community is weak in modern America. People are taught to live for themselves and to adopt a consumerist mentality. The family is fragile. The father’s leadership in the family is tenuous, if not ridiculed. The generations are generally severed.

The church, by adapting to these realities, sometimes makes them worse. It too can become a well-branded commodity, more an activity center than a community, catering to youth culture and neglecting the place of the family in its ministry.

A number of churches and families have realized these problems and have sought to foster an organic, familial, and multi-generational church culture where church and family strengthen each other. Here is how Covenant Family Church, the church I serve, seeks to summarize this vision (as found here on our website):
Our name, Covenant Family, refers to our vision to be a church that is loyally bound to our God and each other in Christ, showing love among this church family and strengthening individual families as part of this whole. This ministry philosophy that views the church like a family and families like miniature churches, while viewing them as different but complementary institutions, has sometimes been called a “family integrated” approach to church. 
Building upon our Presbyterian distinctives, we emphasize that God has bound us together in His covenant as a family (Eph. 2:19-21). Those who have been adopted by God as their Father have each other for siblings. Those who love God will also love their brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 4:7-8, 19-21). Thus, we seek to avoid church programs that divide and segregate the church by age, class, or special interests – seeking to integrate the various gifts and strengths found in our family (1 Cor. 12:12-26, Eph. 4:1-16, Titus 2:1-10). We also worship together as one covenant family. 
We also value families, believing that God includes in His covenant not only believers, but also their households (Gen. 17:1-14, Acts 16:31-34). We desire to equip and encourage parents to disciple their children in the ways of the Lord (Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4), being sensitive to the tendency for church programs to replace or hinder this family discipleship. Despite the opposition of our culture, we value marriage as God created it as a basic institution for our good and His glory (Gen. 2:18-24, Eph. 5:22-33, 1 Cor. 7:2-5) and we value children as a divine blessing to be desired and cherished (Gen. 1:28, Ps. 127:3-5, 128:3-4). 
Yet, there is a place in our church for the single, the fatherless, the orphan, and the childless. We do realize that some Christians have a gift of celibacy, and others are single or childless due to tragic and complicated circumstances, and this is where the church as an integrated covenant family is especially important. God is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” and He “settles the solitary in a home” (Psalm 68:5–6) as He brings them into His household. We are unified in Christ, whether “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free,” rich or poor, married or unmarried, whether you have numerous children or none (1 Cor. 12:13). 
It has been a blessing for me to grow up in, and now pastor, a church with this desire for a more relational model of church ministry. This effort has not been without difficulties and shortcomings, and it is prone to lose momentum since it pushes against the pressures of modern culture. Consequently, this Saturday, our church is holding our annual Men’s Advance with the theme of "building community." Kevin Swanson and Scott Brown will be joining us to speak on the challenges and lessons learned in trying to implement a more relational model of local church life, as well as articulating and reviving this vision for Christian community. If you are free this Saturday, consider joining us. You can find more information about the event at this link.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

No, You Cannot Choose "Your Sabbath"

The idea that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath is rather unpopular today. Our culture prizes individual freedom and economic efficiency, both of which conflict with the idea of a corporate observance of a day of rest and worship. As our society has become more and more secular, its schedule and rhythm of life no longer makes space for the Sabbath. While society used to give support to the Lord's Day, now Christians must swim against the stream to carve out this time. Secular society has its own rival "church calendar" that seeks to shape our character by scheduling our time.

Many Christians have wavered in the face of this pressure. One approach that some have taken is that any day of the week can be your Sabbath. The idea is that in the new covenant the seventh day is no longer the Sabbath and there is not a specific day substituted in its place. Those who hold this position would agree that a Sabbath principle rooted in creation continues to apply (i.e. there should be one day in seven as a day of rest), but that it is a matter of individual choice as to what day of the week that is. This allows them to observe their Sabbath whenever it works best in their schedule, minimizing conflicts with the schedule of the broader society.

I believe that a specific day has been substituted for the seventh day. As my church's shorter catechism says, "From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian sabbath" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 59). I don't intend to make the case for this position in this post, but I would appeal to texts like Deuteronomy 5:15, Luke 24, John 20:19-23, 26-29, Acts 2:1ff, 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:18, 20, 33; 16:2, and Revelation 1:10. What I do want to point out is that even if God did not specify which day of the week was to be observed as the Christian Sabbath, the choice would not be left to individual believers. 

The Sabbath is not designed as something to be observed by individuals on their own. It is designed to be observed by a community. This requires that a day be agreed upon by that community rather than leaving it up to individuals to choose their Sabbath.

When the fourth commandment was given, not only was it commanded that "you" shall not do any work, but also "your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you" (Deut. 5:14). Exodus 23:12 also emphasizes corporate responsibility and communal benefits, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed." This is not merely a command for individuals, but a command for a community to rest and give rest and to share in this rest together. It gives leaders a responsibility to see that those under their charge observe this day, knowing that our schedules are rarely individual matters.

The Sabbath rest was not merely for the cessation of work - although physical rest was certainly part of it. It was also a day of worship. As Leviticus 23:3 proclaimed, "Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places." Work was set aside for the sake of worship with God's people. Central to the idea of the Sabbath rest was worship - not only private and family worship, but worship in the assembly of the saints. Furthermore, we find this pattern of a weekly holy convocation continued in the New Testament (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 11:18, 20, 33; 16:2, Heb. 10:25). This important aspect of the Sabbath is not possible if the Sabbath is left to individuals. Even if one believes there is no divinely appointed day of the week in the New Testament, there is a practical necessity that the church chooses a weekly day to observe this holy rest and common worship. And throughout the history of the New Testament church, this day has been the first day of the week, the Lord's Day.

Like I said, I believe the the first day of the week has been divinely appointed as the Lord's Day, which is the day the Sabbath principle is observed in the new covenant. But even if one is not convinced of this, I believe one should observe the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath because this is the publicly recognized day the church observes its weekly rest and worship. Giving individuals the option to observe any day of the week as "their Sabbath" actually transforms the Sabbath - making it a day off for individuals, rather than a community holiday observed with a holy convocation. In a day in which community is weak and culture is generally secularized, Christians need a communal holy day on a regular basis. This is God's appointed means to build up His saints so that they can maintain their distinct identity in a world that seeks to conform them to its ways.


Speaking of community, my church is hosting a men's conference next week with "building community" as its theme. For more information, go to this link

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Why Is Christ's Resurrection Important?

Jesus suffered and died to atone for the sins of his people. His sacrifice of himself was perfect and sufficient. What then could his resurrection add to this? Why do we gather for worship on the day of resurrection, rather than the day of his death? Why is the resurrection important?

The more you read the New Testament, and the more you look for references to the resurrection, you will notice that the apostles thought it was very important. You could look at the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels. You could look at the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts which strongly emphasized the resurrection. You could look at 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul reminds his readers of the vital importance of the resurrection as part of the gospel. But here I want to direct your attention to the book of Romans. Paul's epistle to the Romans gives at least four reasons why the resurrection is important.

1. Jesus Was Raised to Be Exalted
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God ... concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord..." (Romans 1:1, 3–4)
The resurrection confirmed Christ's claims and exalted him as Lord and Savior. First, this refers to the fact that His identity and claims were vindicated. His identity was central to His message. He had claimed to be the awaited Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of man who was prophesied in Daniel 7 who would save his people and judge the world (Mark 14:61-64). He had prophesied at least three times that he would be raised from the dead on the third day (Matt. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19), and even His enemies remembered this claim (Matt. 27:63). His resurrection was a divine vindication of His claims.

But it went beyond this. Every other time the Greek word in Romans for "declared" is used in the New Testament, it means to "appoint" or "fix," not merely to declare what already is the case. Romans 1:3-4 teaches that it was God's Son who was descended from David (thus he did not become the Son of God at His resurrection), but it does teach that he became the Son-of-God-in-power by his resurrection. He was no longer humiliated and weak, suffering for sin. It was at his resurrection that he was "given all authority in heaven and on earth" to apply the salvation he had purchased and to rule and defend his kingdom (Matt. 28:18-29, Acts 2:36, Psalm 2:7-8). He was always sovereign as God, but now he was sovereign also as Savior for the purpose of redemption.

The proper response to the Son-of-God-in-power is the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5). The response of those who met the risen Lord was to worship him and confess His true identity (Matt. 28:9, 17; John 20:28). It was also to go boldly and to make the nations His disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, Rom. 1:5).

2. Jesus Was Raised for Our Justification
"It will be counted [as righteousness] to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Romans 4:24–25)
Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Rom. 8:33-34). It is a declaration that one is righteous, rather than a declaration that one is guilty and deserving of judgment.

The resurrection was the justification of Jesus - the declaration that he was righteous, that our sins which had been imputed to him were paid for. That weight was off of Jesus’ back. Death no longer had a legitimate claim on him. The atoning work of Christ’s death, because it was complete, led to His resurrection. By suffering and dying, Jesus was paying our debt, and in the resurrection God said “paid in full, you are free to go.”

This righteous sentence is imputed to believers. This righteousness is yours in Christ. He was “raised for our justification.” His justification becomes your justification when you are connected to Christ by faith.

Imagine if a man was raised to the rank of nobleman because of His brave deeds. Then later, this nobleman married a commoner, making her a noblewoman. The resurrection is like that initial declaration about the man's status. Jesus received His status as righteous and free of the claims of condemnation and death. Then, our justification happens when we are united to Him, just as in our analogy the woman began to share her husband's status when she married him.

And so, the suffering of Jesus (the atonement) is the basis for His resurrection, and the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for our justification.

This passage from Romans tells us that those will be counted as righteous who believe in God and His provision of salvation in Christ. So receive and rest in Jesus and rejoice in the peace with God that it brings (Rom. 5:1).

3. Jesus Was Raised for Our Sanctification
"We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his ... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness." (Romans 6:4–5, 11–13)
The fact that we are pardoned and accepted as righteous in God's sight does not mean that our actions can go on unchanged. This is not because our works contribute to our status before God. Rather, this is because the only way to be justified is by being connected to Christ by faith, and being connected to Christ also changes us. If you are united to Christ, you have died with him and risen again as a new creation. Christ was raised so that you too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4). You have been raised with Christ, ransomed and regenerated, born again to a new life by His resurrection (1 Peter 1:3).

But even though you have died and risen to new life, you still have the duty to act accordingly. You have been given the ability to live differently by Christ's resurrection, but old desires and habits die hard. This passage tells you to consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). Let not sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions (6:12). Present your body parts as instruments for righteousness (6:13), rather than instruments of unrighteousness. Rather than a body of sin (6:6), your body is transformed by Christ’s resurrection to be a body of righteousness (compare with Rom. 12:1).

4. Jesus Was Raised for Our Glorification
"If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:11)
The final result of Christ’s resurrection is your glorification at his second coming. If you have been united to Christ by the Spirit, then your body shall be raised just as his body was raised. If you have been justified, you shall also be raised, acquitted, and blessed. Just as death had to let Christ go, so it will need to let you go at Christ’s command. Even though we have the tremendous comfort knowing that after we die we will be with Christ (Phil. 1:21-24, 2 Cor. 5:8), this disembodied state is temporary. Death shall not have the final word for us. It shall be the last enemy standing, but it too shall be overcome (1 Cor. 15:20-26).

Your mortal body, the one you have now, shall be raised to life and glory by the Father, through the Spirit, because of Christ’s resurrection. Your bodies shall be like Christ's body - physical, tangible, in continuity with our bodies before death (Luke 24:38-43). We shall not be ghosts. Like him too, your body shall be glorified, made free from weakness and morality. Your body will not be replaced, but it will be changed in a glorious and miraculous manner (1 Cor. 15:51-52).

And so we and all creation groans as we await the consummation of God’s redemptive work (Rom. 8:22-23). Things are not finished. But this is a groaning of exception and hope. Because Jesus was raised, believers can have a confident expectation of the coming glory, the redemption of their bodies and the renewal of creation.


Jesus is risen, and He is exalted on high! Behold your God and Lord, your prophet, priest, and king.
Jesus is risen, and you are justified! Behold in His resurrection the declaration of righteousness which is yours in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is risen, and you are given new life! Behold in His resurrection your new birth, a new beginning which is yours in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is risen, and you are promised future glory! Behold in His resurrection the assurance of your future resurrection, the redemption of your body, which is yours in Jesus Christ.

Humbly worship Jesus, your risen Lord!
Receive and rest in Jesus, your risen Savior!
Live in righteousness as those who have been raised with Jesus, your risen Head!
Groan with expectation and take heart, looking to Jesus - His body was raised and so shall yours!

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

What Jesus Said About His Death

The night before he died, Jesus taught his disciples the meaning of his coming death. While his disciples did not know what would happen, Jesus did. He had come for this purpose. Long before, he had told them that he "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). His death would do something for them – it would ransom them. On that night before his crucifixion, he instructed them for quite some time, but a key part of this instruction incorporated the meal itself. He used the elements of the Passover meal to refer to himself and his coming death. Not only would this set up a new ritual for his disciples (the "Lord's Supper") that replaced Passover, but it also interpreted his death in terms of the Passover and Israel's exodus from Egypt. His death, like those events, would be redemptive – it would deliver from God's judgment.
"Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matthew 26:26-28).
It did not take long after Jesus' death and resurrection for his disciples to repeat this ritual as he had told them to do. Two months later it is described as a common practice of theirs (Acts 2:42). As the company of disciples grew, they would continue to gather on the first day of the week to practice it together (Acts 20:7). The Apostle Paul would quote the words of Jesus, passed down to him within a few years of Jesus' death, in what even skeptical scholars admit to be one of Paul's earliest letters (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

In our culture today, there are many who would want to interpret Jesus's death in ways contrary to his own words. And yet, Jesus' own interpretation of his death was well-taught to his disciples and incorporated by Him into a ritual that was practiced early, often, and across the whole church. He died to satisfy the demands of justice, ransoming us from its claim, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to our Creator. This death is effective only to those who are united to Jesus by faith, who participate in the sacrifice. Unless one has taken refuge under the blood of this sacrificial lamb, he or she is still subject to the sentence of eternal death demanded by justice. God has provided a way of peace and reconciliation. Let us claim this death as our own, done on our behalf. Let us eat the bread and drink the wine. "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Thanks be to God!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jesus' Descent into Hell

"He descended into hell". This article of the Apostles' Creed has taken many who are unaccustomed to the creed by surprise. "Jesus? In hell? What was He doing there? And where is that in the Bible?" While the meaning of this article has been a matter of debate, it has generally been accepted as an important element of the faith, not only by the Roman Catholic Church, but by historic Protestantism as well.

In Reformed theology, this descent has been explained in two ways - that Jesus suffered the pains of hell or that Jesus abode under the power of death until the third day. These ways are complementary. I believe both are true, although the second way is the agreed upon understanding of the creed in my denomination (and in all denominations that hold to the Westminster doctrinal standards).

1. Jesus Suffered the Pains of Hell

The first way was defended by John Calvin, who noted that this descent into hell was "of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption" (Institutes, 2.16.8). Calvin taught that the creed, after describing the aspect of Christ's suffering that was visible to man (that He "was crucified, dead, and buried"), then described the aspect that was invisible, that Jesus felt the weight of God's wrath and judgment: "the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man" (Institutes, 2.16.10). In this way, Jesus did not go to the location of hell, but He suffered the pains of hell. Not only did He feel physical pain, but as He said "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death" (Matt. 26:38), so much that "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Jesus bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) as He experienced the just wrath of God that was due to us. This led Him to loudly cry out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). As one hymn puts it, "the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that Justice gave." The Heidelberg Catechism of the continental Reformed churches (German Reformed, Dutch Reformed, etc.) followed this interpretation by saying:
Question 44. Why is there added, "he descended into hell"?
Answer: That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell.
2. Jesus Continued in the State of the Dead, under the Power of Death

The second way is articulated in the Westminster Larger Catechism of the British Reformed churches (Presbyterians, Puritans).
Q. 50. Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?
A. Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell.
The view of the Westminster standards gives attention to how this article of the creed is based on Acts 2:24-32, which quotes Psalm 16:10. There Peter, speaking of Jesus, says,
"Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him '... Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption' ... He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses." (Acts 2:24-25a, 27, 31-32, KJV)
It is important here to realize that the English word "hell" has been used to translate two different Greek words found in the Bible: "Gehenna" (γέεννα, what we usually think of when we use the term "hell") and "Hades" (ᾍδης, which can have a broader reference to death or the state of the dead, equivalent to the Hebrew word "Sheol"). The view of the Westminster standards notes that Acts 2:24-32 speaks of Hades, not Gehenna. Most modern translations makes this clear by leaving the word untranslated: "'For you will not abandon my soul to Hades' ... he was not abandoned to Hades" (Acts 2:27, 31, ESV). In line with this, many modern translations of the Apostles' Creed translate this article of the creed as "he descended to the dead."

Therefore, the Larger Catechism notes that the Bible does speak about the time after Jesus' death and before His resurrection, and that it speaks of this time as part of Christ's humiliation (in the sense that Jesus' human life is divided into the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation). Jesus was dead, with His soul was unnaturally separated from His body, dwelling with other departed souls. In addition to Acts 2:24-32, Romans 6:9 also speaks of how death had dominion over Jesus until He rose from the dead.

Notice, this explanation states what seems to be clear from Scripture while leaving room for various positions on details about which the Bible does not speak as clearly, such as where exactly Jesus' soul was at this time and what He was doing there (was His soul in heaven? a place of torment? the "bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16:22)? paradise? was the bosom of Abraham/paradise the same thing as heaven or was it part of Hades until the resurrection?). Nevertheless, most Reformed teachers argue that even though this condition was an aspect of humiliation under the power of death, during this time Jesus's soul dwelt in paradise with His people (Luke 23:43), having committed His spirit to God (Luke 23:46).


Like I mentioned earlier, I believe both of these perspectives teach us something important and can be expressed by this article of the creed. Jesus bore the griefs and sorrows which we ought to have suffered in hell. Not only did He experience physical pain, but He experienced that tremendous mental pain and torment of being judged by God, and He did that for us. Jesus also truly laid down His life, giving Himself up to the unnatural and fearful power of death. Yet, He could not be held by it - rather, He exhausted its power and overcame it by rising from the dead, taking away its victory over His people. As Hebrews 2:14–15 teaches, Jesus took on human nature, "that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." Jesus did this work for us, so let us gratefully confess it and find in it comfort and confidence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Christ Died for Our Sins

The death of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith. Some have tried to downplay it, finding the key element of Christianity in moral teaching or the character that Jesus exemplified. But this leads to a version of Christianity that is foreign to the Bible and the Jesus of history. The message of the Christian faith is that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

This early creedal summery not only recounts historical facts, but it also shows the significance of them by the little phrase, "for our sins." (It also communicates that these facts are to be explained "in accordance with the Scriptures.") It may sound simple, that Christ died for our sins, but since our sins have many ramifications, so does Christ's death. As John Murray explains,
"Jesus came to save and, therefore, dealt with the whole entail of sin. This is the significance of those diverse categories in terms of which the Bible interprets for us the atoning death of Christ. It views the death of Christ as sacrifice, as propitiation, as reconciliation, and as redemption. These are all conditioned in their precise character by the various ways in which the entail of sin is to be viewed.  
"Sin involves guilt and the death of Christ as sacrifice is the provision for our guilt. Sin evokes the wrath of God and propitiation is that which propitiates the wrath of God. Sin alienates us from God and reconciliation is directed to that exigency arising from sin. Sin consigns us to bondage, bondage to sin itself and too Satan. Redemption is the provision for this bondage, the death of Christ is our ransom." (Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1, p. 38)
Murray goes on to also note that just as sin lead to death, so the death of Christ is the destruction of death. So Christ's death undoes the work of sin, which leads us to consider all that sin has done. This in turn leads us to consider how God made the world before we rebelled against Him. It is no wonder, then, that the death of Christ is central to the Christian faith, for it is the remedy for our fundamental problem.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Tithing, Charity, and Financing the Work of the Church

Collecting the Offering in a Scottish Kirk by John Phillip (1855)
Giving money seems to be a topic which preachers are either too eager or too reluctant to speak about. On the one hand, sometimes the appeal for money comes off as self-serving or driven by anxiety and economic pressures. On the other hand, others want to avoid seeming greedy or anxious, and will tend to avoid exhorting people on the topic. I tend to be in the latter camp. But avoiding the subject is not a remedy for bad teaching. So what does the Bible say? Here I hope to give an overview of what the Bible says about tithing, charity, and financing the church's ministry of worship, word, and mercy.

The Old Testament Tithe and the Levites

The tithe (giving a tenth) dates back at least to the patriarchal era, long before Moses and the law given at Sinai. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20), and Jacob also vows a tenth to God (Gen. 28:22). The way it appears in these passages, it looks like the tithe was already an established pattern.

In the Mosaic law, it is debated by commentators whether there were one, two, or three tithes. Numbers and Leviticus refer to one tithe, given to the Levites and priests (Lev. 27:30-33, Num. 18:21, 24). Deuteronomy refers to using the tithe annually for the Levites and for feasting in Jerusalem and it refers to gathering it every third year as local communities for the poor and Levites (Deut. 14:22-29, see also 12:11-19). If these passages refer to three tithes, then one tenth went to the Levites, one tenth went to household celebration in Jerusalem (with Levites), and every three years one tenth was "laid up within your towns" for the local Levites, sojourners, fatherless, and widows. Yet, I find it most natural to take Deuteronomy, not adding tithes, but clarifying the multiple uses for what is always simply called "the tithe." Commenting on this passage in Deuteronomy, John Calvin say “Those are mistaken, in my opinion, who think that another kind of tithe is here referred to. It is rather a correction or interpretation of the Law, lest the priests and Levites alone should consume all the tithes, without applying a part to the relief of the poor, of strangers, and widows.”[1] If this all refers to one tithe, then the tithe was used to provide for the Levites, but also for religious celebration and (every third year) the care of the needy. The addition of these other roles in Deuteronomy would be explained by the fact that in Leviticus and Numbers the people were being still fed by manna. Deuteronomy was preparing the people to live in the land where the poor and needy would need help.

In both the "one tithe" and "three tithe" perspectives, a great deal of the tithe went to support the Levites, and a tenth of the Levites’ portion went to the Levitical priests. Those Levites who were not priests assisted the priests, enabling the priests to focus on their tasks of sacrifice and worship (Lev. 1-10), teaching (Lev. 10:10-11, Mal. 2:7), and benediction (Num. 6:22-27). In order to assist the priests, the rest of the Levites served a variety of functions, such as tabernacle transport (Num. 1:47-54), officials, judges, gatekeepers, musicians (1 Chron. 23:4-5, 25-32), treasurers (1 Chron. 9:26), and teachers of God's word (2 Chron. 17:7-9, Neh. 8). The Levites not only ministered in Jerusalem, but also lived in the towns, no doubt serving in the weekly local convocations that developed into synagogue worship (Lev. 23:3, Deut. 14:27, 2 Chron. 17:7-9).

The New Testament Tithe, the Apostles, and the Diaconate

Yet, in the New Testament, the Levites were supplanted. As the author of Hebrews points out, in Abraham, Levi gave the tithe to one who was superior, Melchizedek (Heb. 7:9-10). Christ came “in the order of Melchizedek,” and took the place of the Levites. His ministry on earth before He offered Himself as a sacrifice was one both of word and deed. On the one hand, He proclaimed, taught, and prayed, and on the other hand He healed, fed, and showed mercy to those who physically suffered. When he ascended to heaven, He left His apostles as those sent as representatives to carry on His ministry. Thus, it was natural in the early church for believers to lay their contributions at the feet of the apostles, rather than at the feet of the Levites (Acts 4:34-37). The disciples gave generously, beyond what was required by the tithe. They gave to the Lord for the furtherance of His ministry by giving to the apostles. The apostles soon realized that they needed to focus on the ministry of word and prayer, not managing money and the financial needs of the poor. Thus, they set up deacons to do this work and to thus carry out Christ’s ministry of mercy (Acts 6:1-7). The diaconate was established as a perpetual office in the church, mentioned also in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The apostles and elders were still involved in some of the recorded examples of collections for the saints (Acts 11:29-30), although they seemed to operate with others who might have been deacons, such as “our brother whom we have often tested” (2 Cor. 8:22) and “those whom you accredit by letter” (1 Cor. 16:3). It is likely, as was true in the early church, that the apostles/elders continued to have governing authority over the process, but left the detailed administration of finances and resources to the deacons (when deacons were available).

Current Obligations

The New Testament church, as administered by its officers, has the financial obligation to at least pay preachers (1 Cor. 9:3-14, 1 Tim. 5:17-18) and financially assist those in need (1 Tim. 5:3-16, 1 Cor. 16:1-4, 2 Cor. 8-9, Acts 4:32-37, 11:27-30). Some needs, in both categories, will be occasional and will require a specific offering. Other needs, in both categories, will be regular, requiring regular giving. While the tithe is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament, it remains the biblical pattern for regular giving to the church, such that Christians should give to the church in a similar way. While the use of the tithe is not identical to that under the old covenant, it generally covers the same functions (teaching, worship, charity, religious celebration).

In addition to regular and special giving to the institutional church, all Christians are called to give charitably to others (1 Tim. 6:17-19, 1 John 3:17), to lend charitably (Luke 6:34-35, Lev. 25:35-38, Deut. 15:1-11), and to cultivate economic practices equivalent to gleaning (Lev. 19:9-10). Men are especially responsible to providing for one’s household and relatives (1 Tim. 5:8), and each person is called to work as they are able to further the wealth of one’s self and others (Eph. 4:28, 1 Thess. 4:11-12, 2 Thess. 3:12).

Example of the Early Church

The early church continued to gather the regular contributions of the church, which were administered by the deacons who reported to the bishop. As Calvin remarks concerning the early church,
"For [the deacons] received the daily offerings of the faithful, and the annual revenues of the Church, that they might apply them to their true uses; in other words, partly in maintaining ministers, and partly in supporting the poor; at the sight of the bishop, however, to whom they every year gave an account of their stewardship” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.5). 
Some early church leaders, like Justin Martyr and Tertullian simply refer to a collection without explicit reference to a "tithe," but others like Cyprian of Carthage and some early church manuals like The Apostolic Constitutions do refer to the practice of tithing (as a minimum, not a limit), and this became more common as time went on. Also, as the church grew, the division of church goods was specified with greater detail. Calvin quotes Gregory I (A.D. 540-604) as an example of this,
"Gregory speaks still more clearly: 'It is the custom of the Apostolic See,' says he, 'to give command to the bishop who has been ordained, to divide all the revenues into four portions – namely, one to the bishop and his household for hospitality and maintenance, another to the clergy, a third to the poor, a fourth to the repair of churches'" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.4.7).
Calvin recounted these practices to commend them. During his era, the Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of the practice of Scripture and the early church and had become corrupted by the love of money. This area of life was one in need of reformation. In our consumeristic age, where both Christian individuals and church leaders can be misguided with their use of money, may we learn to trust God for our daily needs and use our wealth for His glory, fulfilling our personal responsibilities as well as giving to the church for its ministry of word, worship, and mercy.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Presbyterian Missionary on the Missouri Frontier

It is profitable to remember that God has preserved and furthered His church throughout all ages by raising up faithful servants by His grace to teach and proclaim His word. The gospel is not passed on automatically. At no time in history has it been effortlessly passed on to the next generation. In American history in particular, we faced the challenge of maintaining and spreading the gospel even as people moved to new lands without established churches. One man who was instrumental in this effort in our own local area was William Sterling Lacy.

William S. Lacy (1791-1881) was the first Presbyterian pastor ordained in Missouri. Before coming to Missouri, he had graduated from Hampden-Sydney College, taught there for a short time, served in the War of 1812 in Virginia, studied law under John Randolph of Roanoke, and then turned to the pastoral calling. An old newspaper recounts his time in Missouri:
"When Mr. Lacy connected with the Presbytery of Missouri [in 1820], it was as a licentiate of Hanover Presbytery of Virginia, and when he was ordained in 1824, he was the first Presbyterian Minister ever ordained in the State ... His first settlement was in St. Charles County, Mo., where he remained about a year, and he then removed to property he owned in St. Louis County, near the present site of the Maline Creek Church, and here he remained four years, actively engaged in preaching at various places in the county, such as Bonhomme, Cold Water, Bellefontaine, and other places. After this time he again removed to St. Charles County. A few years after he came to Missouri, he was commissioned by the Board of Home Missions to travel a portion of the months of the summer and fall seasons, to preach and to organize churches on the Missouri and Upper Mississippi Rivers, which portions were known as the Boonslick and Salt River sections. He was among the first Presbyterian ministers to visit the counties of Callaway and Boone ... On his return to [St. Charles County], Rev. Lacy took charge of the Dardenne Church, where he remained until 1832, when he removed south to Arkansas. He preached twice a month at Dardenne Church, with the balance of the time spent at Troy in Lincoln County. He was a fine horseman, and he was well mounted. He delighted to ride over the wide prairies in this new and sparsely settled State."
Rev. Samuel Chester, writing of his early years under Rev. Lacy's later ministry, would write of him,
"He was a man of striking personal appearance, elegant manners, and fine literary attainments. In his old age he lost his eyesight, but his memory was stored with literary treasures which made him independent of things in print. He could recite from memory the entire New Testament and many of the Psalms and other poetical parts of the Old Testament. He knew much of Shakespeare and Scott and all of Robert Burns by heart."
You can read more about Rev. Lacy at this link. He married twice due to the death of his first wife, Sally (who was the niece of Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Seminary), and he had a total of 17 children. One of them, Rev. Beverly Tucker Lacy, served as chaplain for Stonewall Jackson and his men and afterwards came to Missouri like his father and pastored churches in St. Louis and Mexico, Missouri.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Church Tradition and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Recently I was discussing some points of doctrine with a Roman Catholic, and as the discussion moved quickly to the source of doctrinal authority, I was reminded why the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is so important. This doctrine is well summarized in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith,
"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." (WCF 1.6)
This idea can be found in Scripture, such as in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 where Paul tells Timothy,
"from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
It is true that God gave revelation which is not contained in Scripture. Not everything that the prophets prophesied or that Jesus spoke or that the apostles preached was written down. Yet, whatever is necessary for us to believe or obey was written down in Scripture and preserved for the ages to come. Because Scripture can give sufficient knowledge for salvation and can make the man of God complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17), then the one who knows Scripture does not need to fear that he is missing out on an additional doctrine or duty which is outside of Scripture and in oral tradition alone.

The tradition of the church is important, since Christ appointed pastors and teachers for the benefit of his church. There are some things in the Scriptures that are hard to understand, "which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). Yet, these pastors and teachers are bound to teach what Scripture says, to give a faithful interpretation of what is there. Not only should they not contradict Scripture, but they should also not add more doctrines or duties to what is in Scripture, for Scripture contains all that we need to believe and obey.

As was evident in the Old Testament church, the oral tradition of the church can error. The leaders of the Jewish church had added to, contradicted, and wrongly interpreted the demands of Scripture. It was Scripture that was infallible and which Jesus and the apostles used to correct these errors (Matt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-23, John 7:21-23, Matt. 22:29-31). And so while some lingering oral tradition from the apostles may have given the early fathers help in faithfully interpreting the writings of the apostles, this oral tradition is not infallible and ought not to be relied upon to go beyond what is written in Scripture.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What Does It Mean to Honor My Parents?

Today, the spirit of the age is autonomy. In other words, each person wants to create his or her own identity apart from external influences or authorities. Whether it is in a Disney movie or a presidential debate, we are told to look inside ourselves for guidance, and that once we make up our mind, we can be whoever we want to be. We create our identity by pure willpower, by sovereign choice. At the same time, our culture has an epidemic of people trying to find themselves. We feel lost, disoriented, searching for purpose and identity. Our culture resonates with lyrics like that of "A Place in This World":
“I'm alone, on my own,
and that's all I know.
I'll be strong, I'll be wrong,
Oh but life goes on.
Oh, I'm just a girl,
Trying to find a place in this world.”
Finding ourselves on our own, digging deeper into the self, is like trying to find the essence of an onion by looking for its core. We keep peeling and peeling until nothing is left. And in case you think this only applies to the people “out there” or to the music on the radio, I think Christians sometimes have the same problem. Sometimes they dress it up in the language of “finding God’s will.” While Christians have always needed guidance on decision making, the need to “find God’s will for your life” seems to be much more a problem today than at other times in church history.

Not only would our fathers in the faith point to God’s word, prayer, and the fear of God, but they would also point to our callings and the authorities in our lives. Among other things, listen to your parents! What do they counsel? What is your family’s vision and place in life? We are not isolated individuals, making a sovereign choice ex nihilo, out of nothing. But as a culture, we have cut ourselves off from many sources of counsel, calling, and inheritance – no wonder we are so lost when it comes to our identity and work! I bring this to our attention to introduce the subject of honoring our parents. Honoring our parents is actually beneficial for us, since it helps us find our identity, calling, and vision. It is the way we have been made to live. It is desirable.

So what is it to honor your parents?

1. Honor. At its root, the command, "honor your father and your mother" (Ex. 20:12), binds us to an attitude of respect. Leviticus 19:3 repeats this command but instead of "honor" it uses the word "fear" or "revere." This is a humble attitude of respect which does not treat one's parents lightly. The same chapter goes on to apply this principle more broadly to one's elders, and places it in parallel with our fear of God: "You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:32). Notice this verse also connects honor with physical acts that demonstrate honor. We see this practiced by King Solomon in 1 Kings 2:19. When Bathsheba his mother came to see him, he - the king of Israel - rose from his throne, bowed to her, and had a seat brought for her, placed at his right. While our gestures of honor may vary from culture to culture, some tangible expressions ought to be used (and even in our culture, rising from our seats and even bowing are still understood as giving honor and respect).

2. Obedience. The command to honor parents is quoted by the apostle Paul to support his command, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6:1). The exhortation to obedience is also found in Colossians 3:20, "Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord." One way to honor parents is to do what they tell you to do. Now this is particularly binding on children, those under their parent's authority at home. That seems to be the focus of the commands in Colossians and Ephesians. There comes a time when a young man "leaves" his father and mother in some sense, in anticipation of cleaving to his wife, who in turn also leaves her father's house and joins her husband's (Gen. 2:24, Num. 30). In biblical Israel, men reached the age of majority at age twenty and were then responsible for military service, voting, and the head tax (Num. 1:2-3, 1 Chron. 12:38, Ex. 20:13-14). Yet, there are positive examples in the Bible of adult children obeying their parents, such as the sons of Jonadab (Jer. 35). While the obligation is different than that of children, obedience is still a way to show honor. (The obedience of adult children deserves a closer look at another time, especially with an eye to how different economic arrangements influence this obligation.)

3. Internalizing Commands. Part of the transition from the obedience of a young child and the honor from an adult child is the internalization of the parent's commands and instructions. The Bible exhorts children not only to obey their parents's commands, but also to adopt them as one's own principles. Proverbs 6:20–22 says, "My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching. Bind them on your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you." Since this passage clearly reflects Deuteronomy 6:7, it is assumed that this parental instruction is based on God's word. But as long as their instruction does not conflict with Scripture, there is a duty to humbly receive what is taught, to hold fast to what is good, and to make it your own. The greatest joy of a godly parent is to see their children walking in truth and wisdom not merely because the parent tells them to do so, but because it has become part of their character (Prov. 10:1; 23:15, 24; 3 John 1:4).

4. Seeking Counsel. Another way to show honor to parents is to seek and cherish the counsel of parents. This should not be done as a replacement for internalizing their instruction, but neither should the greater independence of an adult child prevent him from seeking and listening to counsel. Proverbs 23:22 says, "Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old." Why? Because wisdom and counsel is valuable. The next verse follows up this exhortation by saying, "Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding." Your parents' counsel should be treasured. This shows honor for the ones who gave you life. This obligation does not cease then they (and you) get old.

5. Covering Disgrace. Part of showing honor to parents is to cover their disgrace. There are limits to this - this does not require you to be dishonest or to hide crimes which ought to be reported. But, it does mean you should refrain from speaking to others of what brings shame or embarrassment to your parents unless it is truly necessary. Genesis 9:18-29 recounts how Noah, after the flood, planted a vineyard, became drunk with its wine, and lay naked in his tent. While Ham disgraced his father by spreading a report and leaving his father in this state, Shem and Japheth honored their father by covering his nakedness, walking backwards so that they would not see their father in this state.

6. Caring for Elderly Parents. A very important part of the command to honor parents is the care of elderly parents. Just as parents are responsible to care for their children when their children are incapable of caring for themselves, so children are responsible for caring for their parents when their parents are unable to care for themselves. To ignore this responsibility is quite serious (1 Tim. 5:8). Jesus asserts this aspect of the commandments in Matthew 15:1-9 where he condemned the Pharisees for excusing people from this responsibility through their extra-biblical traditions. Jesus himself, when dying on the cross, cared for his mother. Mary was probably widowed at this point, and Jesus as the oldest son would have been particularly responsible for his mother's care. Thus while He was on the cross he gave John the responsibility to care for his mother: "he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:26-27).

7. Receiving Your Heritage. The honor of parents comes with promise (Deut. 5:16, Eph. 6:2-3). This promise is not only generally offers long life and prosperity on an individual level, but also on a corporate level. In other words, the honor of parents brings continuity and inheritance. Not only will you live long in the land, but you all (as a family or people) will live long in the land. This continuity, receiving the heritage of your parents, is both a duty and a blessing, while dishonor of parents is both disobedience as well as self-defeating. Even when your parents are unbelievers, your family’s heritage is reborn and reformed, not obliterated. All of us are part of a multigenerational project which includes receiving, respecting, reforming, and giving. R.J. Rushdoony insightfully comments on this aspect of honor,
"This brings us to the first general principle inherent in this law: honor to parents, and to all older than ourselves, is a necessary aspect of the basic law of inheritance. What we inherit from our parents is life itself, and also the wisdom of their faith and experience as they transmit it to us. The continuity of history rests in this honor and inheritance. A revolutionary age breaks with the past and turns on parents with animosity and venom: it disinherits itself. To respect our elders other than our parents is to respect all that is good in our cultural inheritance. The world certainly is not perfect, nor even law-abiding, but, although we come into the world naked, we do not enter an empty world. The houses, orchards, fields, and flocks are all the handiwork of the past, and we are richer for this past and must honor it…The basic and central inheritance of culture and all that it includes, faith, training, wisdom, wealth, love, common ties, and traditions are severed and denied where parents and elders are not honored." (Institutes of Biblical Law, p. 166)
"To despise one’s parents, or to hate them and dishonor them is to despise the immediate source of one’s life; it is a form of self-hate, and it is a willful contempt for the basic inheritance of life. From pastoral experience, it can be added that those who, when rebuked for their hatred of and dishonoring activity towards parents, arrogantly say, 'I didn’t ask to be born,' have a limited life span, or, at best, a miserable one. Their course of action is suicidal. They are saying in effect, 'I’m not asking to live.'" (p. 168)
The honor of parents, as with the rest of the commandments, is the way of life. Our heavenly Father is pleased when we honor our parents. It may be hard. Sin might get in the way. Forgiveness and love is necessary. If we realize how much we have been forgiven, we will willingly show forgiveness to our parents. If we fear and honor our heavenly Father, we will seek to reflect that in our fear and honor of our parents. If we are thankful for receiving eternal life, we will be thankful to those who gave us life. If we truly want to know God’s will for our life, we will look to the sources of guidance that He has appointed. And if we honor our parents, we will cover their disgrace, care for them, seek their counsel, internalize their commands, and joyfully carry on the heritage they have given us. May we treasure the talents they have given us, and invest and increase them with confidence in God’s promise of life and prosperity to all such as keep this commandment.

Friday, March 15, 2019

St. Patrick's Confident Message in Dark Times

Saint Patrick was an important 5th century missionary to Ireland. Even as civilization seemed to be collapsing as the Romans evacuated Britain and pagan from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany began to raid and invade, Patrick was advancing forward with the gospel. He saw these difficulties as signs of God's judgment - he and his people had ignored the warnings of their priests and fallen into ignorance and apathy. Yet, when Patrick himself was taken captive by Irish raiders this caused Patrick to reconsider the gospel he had heard and repent, turning with all his heart to God. After six years in captivity he would escape, returning later to the land of his captivity as a missionary. Late in life, he wrote his "Confession," in which he tells the story of his life. You can read it at this link. Just after recounting his conversion during his captivity he explains his motive for evangelism and describes the faith he preached. 
"That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven. 
"This is because there is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father. He is the one who was not begotten, the one without a beginning, the one from whom all beginnings come, the one who holds all things in being – this is our teaching. And his son, Jesus Christ, whom we testify has always been, since before the beginning of this age, with the father in a spiritual way. He was begotten in an indescribable way before every beginning. Everything we can see, and everything beyond our sight, was made through him. He became a human being; and, having overcome death, was welcomed to the heavens to the Father. The Father gave him all power over every being, both heavenly and earthly and beneath the earth. Let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, in whom we believe and whom we await to come back to us in the near future, is Lord and God. He is judge of the living and of the dead; he rewards every person according to their deeds. He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes believers and those who listen to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ. This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a trinity of the sacred name."
May the gratefulness that inspired Patrick give us also the confidence to bear witness to the great wonders of our God. May the message of our triune Savior that Patrick preached be believed and proclaimed by the church today. Even if we face difficulties, may we be confident that Christ will continue to preserve and expand His gospel reign even in the midst of dark times.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Presbyterian Church Government

The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk, by John Lorimer
If someone asked me to define Presbyterianism, I would point to our doctrinal standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) and perhaps list a few notable distinctives like a belief in God's sovereignty in history and salvation, the unity of the Old and New Testaments in terms of covenant theology, and its distinctive form of church government. But it is the last of these, church government, which provides the origin of the word "presbyterian."

The word “presbyterian” comes from the Greek word for elder (πρεσβύτερος). The term began to be used back when the major divisions among English-speaking denominations were defined by church government. On the one hand there was the Church of England with its episcopal system (the word episcopal come from the word for bishop, ἐπίσκοπος). In that system, the churches in a region were governed by an individual, the bishop. On the other hand you had congregational churches which were independent local churches governed largely by congregational vote. Presbyterian churches, though, were governed by a plurality of elders, both in the local church and on a regional level.

So in Presbyterian churches, the congregation is led and governed by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23) who along with deacons are elected by the congregation and ordained by other elders (Acts 6:1-6, 14:23, 1 Tim. 4:14). These elders also meet with the elders of other churches to lead and govern the church on regional and denominational levels (Acts 15). The assembly of elders in a local church we call a session, the regional assembly we call the presbytery, and the denominational assembly we call the general assembly. As the Scripture citations above indicate, we adopt this form of government because it is what Christ and the apostles appointed for the church. The Bible does not appoint all the details of how this form operates, leaving some room for flexibility where wisdom and prudence must dictate. Yet, it does describe these basic principles.

Biblically speaking, elders can also be called overseers, bishops, pastors, and shepherds (Titus 1:5-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4). While all elders are equal in authority, there is a difference between what we call “ruling elders” and what we usually call “teaching elders” or “pastors.” These teaching elders are those elders “who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17) who are called to preach the gospel as their life calling (1 Cor. 9). Ruling elders are still church shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4) who ought to be "able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2), but they are not preachers and usually make their living in another way. To many people, ruling elders seem to be laymen since they usually do not have a seminary degree and are not part of a paid staff, but ruling elders are ordained officers of the church and serve on the ruling bodies of the local, regional, and denominational levels.

We also believe deacons fulfill an important office in the church (Acts 6:1-7). They oversee and administer the mercy ministry of the church, helping those in need and coordinating the efforts of the congregation to that end.

In this form of government, both church members and church officers are held accountable. No individual governs alone and there is the ability to appeal to the regional presbytery (and the general assembly, if necessary) when things go wrong on a local level. This connection between local churches not only helps coordinate church discipline and settle doctrinal controversies, but it also helps coordinate and strengthen efforts like home and foreign missions, Christian education, and diaconal assistance. It is not foolproof or infallible - no system of government can save a church on its own - but it is a wise system, established by our wise Lord, for the good of His people. As Ephesians 4:7-16 teaches, Christ gave His church its leaders to strengthen the body so that it may attain to "the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph. 4:13–14). May Christ bless what He has appointed and give His church shepherds that reflect Him, our chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).


For more on this topic, you can read our Book of Church Order at this link and chapters 30 and 31 of the Westminster Confession at this link. A short book which serves as a helpful introduction to the biblical basis for Presbyterian church government is Which is the Apostolic Church? by Thomas Witherow, which can be read for free online at this link

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Viewing the World as God's Creation

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith...who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
1 Timothy 4:1-5
The truth that God is the Creator of this world has implications for us literally all over the place. Rather than rejecting marriage and certain foods, we can say that these earthly physical things are good. They have a purpose and definition from God. We are held responsible for our use of them. Our relation to the Creator is foundational to our relation to the world. If we are in rebellion to God, we will be frustrated in this world. We might then say with T.S. Eliot before his conversion:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.” 
But if we have been reconciled to the Creator as our Father, we look at the sunset as a glorious manifestation of His beauty for our enjoyment. We can receive it as it was intended to be received - with thanksgiving.

One of our Missouri sunsets
But from where does evil and suffering come? Unless we believe in the doctrine of creation, it will seem that suffering is natural to this world and that man is a victim. But believing that God created all things good, we see that evil is an intruder into the world, suffering being a result of this, and the responsibility for this is laid at our feet. Sin is not natural, but it became natural to us when we rebelled against God in Adam. Humanity’s relation to God, as covenant-keeper or covenant-breaker, determines the fate of the world. When humanity fell morally, the whole world was cursed. Evil is not nature’s fault. We can’t blame suffering on the fact that we are physical. Rather, our relation to God is central.

This leads us back to the creedal recounting of Christ’s life given in 1 Timothy 3:16, which immediately precedes 1 Timothy 4:1-5 (quoted above). Jesus did not save us from our flesh. He did not save us by forbidding things like food and marriage. Salvation is not defined as escape from creation. Rather, He saved us, body and soul, by becoming man and bearing the curse in His death. He restored our relationship with God. Humanity had become the source of the problem, therefore He created a new humanity. He rose again to new life and was taken up into glory. Those who participate in His work through faith are restored us to a life of godliness – a life that is just as human, but not under bondage to sin’s guilt and power.

This teaches us to see sin and suffering as invasive and unnatural. Christians learn to see their sin as repulsive and antithetical to their identity. We have died with Christ and have been raised with Him to new life, to a renewed creation, one which is alien to sin. We also groan with lament and expectation, knowing that suffering, death, and decay still abide in this world but will not be here forever. Yet we also can enjoy the goodness of creation that still exists. Marriage, food, work, art, and community can be pursued with joy. We have been restored to the good work of living in our Father’s world. Rather than being the out-of-tune instrument in the band, we have been repaired to join back in the song of creation. In other words, Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Good doctrine leads us back to our callings in the world. God’s story leads us to godliness. Saturating in this truth should make it more and more natural to serve our Creator in all of life with thanksgiving for all He has given us.