Saturday, September 21, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gratitude and Gluttony


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

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

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Communion of Saints and the Christian Life


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Jesus: the Son of Abraham and Son of David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Sexual Immorality and Sanctification in 1 Corinthians 6-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Three Marks of a True Church


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

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

Friday, August 16, 2019

What It Actually Means to Be Citizens of Heaven



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

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The Necessity of the Pastoral Office


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

Friday, August 9, 2019

Praying and Listening to God

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Born Again to Love One Another

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Children and God's Covenant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Jesus and Family Relationships

There is a strain of teaching in the gospels which notes how spiritual unity in Jesus is more important than family ties. Jesus said he came with a sword, "to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:35–38). When his own earthly family came to talk to Him, not understanding fully His mission, Jesus replied, "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'" (Matthew 12:48–50).

With these comments, it can sound like the earthly family does not play much of a role in the New Testament. Sometimes these verses are used to critique an emphasis on restoring Christian families in line with God's word and treating the family as a basic institution. Now, these verses are important, but their target is not pastors who teach Christians to be good spouses and parents, respecting the household as a basic institution and equipping it to serve as God's instrument. Rather their target is situations where the claims of family and Christ are set against each other, for example, when a person is tempted to compromise in order to please a family member. When the church and the family are pulling in opposite directions, then our true home is in the church; when Jesus and the family are both seeking you ultimate loyalty, then you must follow Jesus. The same with yourself - when your desires and Jesus' words conflict, you must follow Jesus rather than yourself.

There is another strain of biblical teaching which emphasizes the importance of the household and family relationships. The household is generally incorporated into the covenant as a unit (Genesis 17:1-14, Acts 16:31-34), relationships with unbelieving family members are sanctified by believers, and the children of believers are holy (1 Cor. 7:14), parental instruction is a vital means of passing on the faith to children (Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4), and family duties are an important part of Christian growth and faithfulness (Col. 3:18-4:1, Eph. 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:18-7).

It is true that Jesus prioritized His heavenly Father and spiritual family over His earthly family, but the extent to which He worked along with natural family relationships in His ministry is often overlooked. Remember that John the Baptist was a relative (their mothers were cousins of some sort, Luke 1:36). We find that when Jesus died, among the women who followed him was not only his mother, but also his mother's sister. Comparing the gospels, it is quite possible Mary's sister was Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of the apostles James and John (John 19:25, Matt. 27:56, Mark 15:40), which would make John and James the cousins of Jesus. We know for certain that Jesus included two pairs of brothers among his apostles (Matt. 4:18-22), and that the mother of James and John followed Christ (Matt. 27:56), and that Peter's mother-in-law served Jesus after He healed her (Mark 1:29-31).

Jesus Himself had sisters and four brothers, most likely younger siblings from Mary and Joseph, though some have speculated that they were step-siblings from a prior marriage of Joseph's. As the people of Nazareth said of Jesus, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3). While His brothers at first did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5), Mary and His brothers were believing members of the initial church before Pentecost (Acts 1:14). James would become a significant leader in the Jerusalem church, even being referred to as one of the apostles (Gal. 1:19) and playing an important role in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13-22). Jesus' brothers James and Jude (short for Judas) both wrote the books of the Bible bearing their names. They recognized that Jesus was not merely a brother - they respectfully called themselves servants of Jesus - being well known enough that little further identification was needed: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1), "Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James" (Jude 1:1). Hegesippus, a 2nd century church history, recounted that Jesus' brother James was killed for his faith shortly before the fall of Jerusalem. He also recounted that Jesus' brother Jude had grandsons who were arrested under Emperor Domitian because they were of the royal line of David, but were released after explaining the true nature of Christ's kingdom (i.e. they would not try to take David's throne by force) and became leaders of the churches because of their testimony and because they were of the Lord's family.

These apostles and brothers that followed Jesus also followed Him with their wives. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that he was unmarried, but that this was an exception to the general practice: "Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [i.e. Peter]?" (1 Corinthians 9:5). These other apostles and Jesus' brothers had believing wives who traveled with them as they spread the gospel. Is that the picture you have in mind when you think of them fulfilling the Great Commission? There were stories in the early church, mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150 – 215), that not only did Peter have children by his wife, but that "when the blessed Peter saw his own wife led out to die, he rejoiced because of her summons and her return home, and called to her very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, and saying, 'Remember the Lord.' Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their perfect disposition toward those dearest to them" (Clement of Alexandria, recorded by Eusebius, The Church History, 3.30).

In short, there is an important message for us in Scripture to prioritize Jesus above all, even above the most dear of earthly relationships. Some people are tempted to compromise the faith to keep their children or spouse. Some people receive hatred and alienation from their family members for following Christ. Yet, family and Christ are not always at odds. God often works through natural relationships of family and the household. While families can be divided by Christ, they can also be brought together as a powerful force for good within the church. Even Jesus' family became an important part of the early church, even though at one point it was divided by Jesus' claims and sought to interrupt His ministry. May we pray that God would show similar grace to unbelieving family members, and may we serve the Lord more and more by fulfilling our family duties. May we find hope from where Scripture says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31), and may our households respond by being baptized together (Acts 16:15, 34, 1 Cor. 1:16), believing together (Acts 18:8), and serving together (1 Cor. 16:15).

Friday, July 19, 2019

I Heard the Singing Warriors - A Poem


I Heard the Singing Warriors
By Peter Bringe

"Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands..." (Psalm 149:6)

"For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh 
but have divine power to destroy strongholds." (2 Corinthians 10:4)

I heard the singing warriors, 
As they came down the street.
They sang a song so grand and strong,
Amid the ruins wrought by wrong–
There they the foe did meet.

I saw the happy warriors,
‘Mid darkness, shade, and gloom.
With sword in hand, they sang an ode
To God for joy, and thus they rode
Heedless of death and tomb.

I heard the wounded warriors,
A note of tragic woe,
They bowed their heads and raised their eyes,
“Look to your earth, O God, arise!
Let men your power know.”

I saw the bloody warriors,
Limping, weak, and hurt,
Still singing loud, with hopeful hearts
They formed a ring to shield from darts
New sprouts amid the dirt.

I watched the hopeful warriors
And, though the ruins loomed,
Amid the clash of sword and steel
I heard the sound of home and field–
It seemed new flowers bloomed.

I heard the singing warriors,
And understood their mirth:
Their lives were not their own domain
They fought for God, His kingly reign,
And peace, new life, on earth.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Marriage in Genesis 2


In an earlier post, we saw from Genesis 1:26-28 that humanity - created male and female in the image of God - is given a mandate to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it, and that this task is especially given to married couples. Men and women share this task in common, but as we move to Genesis 2 we find that men and women approach this task differently. And here we will focus on how they relate to each other in marriage, although these natural differences have relevance in all of life.

A common view today is that man and woman are equal and that marriage is subordinate to their pursuit of their (individual) dreams in which each has the same role in the marriage. (Even as I write this at the local library I hear a mother reading to her daughter the "Feminist ABCs" where D is for dreams and E is for equality.) This makes sense in an individualistic worldview where each person is their own maker, creating their identity and purpose out of thin air. But all this changes when we view the world through the lens of Scripture.

In Genesis 2, we find that man and woman were created by God, and that they were created differently. God made Adam from the dust and His breath (Gen. 2:7), while God made Eve from Adam’s rib (2:22). They had unique purposes behind their creation: Adam was created to work the ground and keep it (2:5, 15), while Eve was created to help Adam with this task (2:18, 20). Neither one of them was independent of the other, but they depended on each other differently. The ultimate end for both of them was the creation mandate, but Adam found the task and therefore received a helper, while Eve found the man and therefore received the task.

The fact that Eve was formed from Adam gave them unity. When Eve was brought to Adam, he saw that she was from his flesh, and so they united in marriage as one flesh (Gen. 2:23-24). Woman was taken from man, and ever since they have desired to become one again, a desire which is designed for marriage. Companionship, friendship, love, romance, and physical union thus play an important and natural role in marriage. And this union of affections and bodies also promotes their original calling to multiply and subdue the earth: it naturally leads to childbirth and it unites them closer so that they might work together as one.

Some have claimed that God's primary intent in marriage is not to make you happy, but to make you holy. But I'm not sure that marriage made Adam any more holy - it did, though, make him quite a bit more happy (Gen. 2:23). In our fallen state, marriage is supposed to make you holy as well as happy, and neither of these exhaust the purposes of marriage (since it's not all about you). Because of sin, marriage sometimes does not achieve its purpose, but this does not alter its purpose and design.

This one-flesh unity shapes the rest of the marriage relationship. Marriage is designed so that husband and wife work as one and treat each other as part of his or her self. The husband does not treat his wife as an external force to be conquered, but as his body to be directed and cared for. The wife does not see her husband as a conquering invader to be resisted, but as her head to be supported and obeyed. John Calvin commented on this chapter that “something was taken from Adam, in order that he might embrace, with greater benevolence, a part of himself. ” He says, “In this manner Adam was taught to recognize himself in his wife, as in a mirror; and Eve, in her turn, to submit herself willingly to her husband, as being taken out of him.”

We see from Genesis 2 that neither man or woman is independent - they both need each other - but they depend on each other differently. Adam helps as a head by directing and caring for Eve in love as His flesh and helper. Eve helps as a body by respectfully following and extending Adam’s leadership. As Calvin comments, “women, being instructed in their duty of helping their husbands, should study to keep this divinely appointed order. It is also the part of men to consider what they owe in return to the other half of their kind, for the obligation of both sexes is mutual, and on this condition is the woman assigned as a help to the man, that he may fill the place of her head and leader.”

Much more could be said on the topic, but from this chapter we can draw the following applications (in line with Scripture's own commentary on this passage in places like 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Ephesians 5:22-33):

Both Husbands and Wives: love and desire the other as one’s self. Seek your spouse's good and be close to your spouse in soul and body. Both should seek to help the other and promote God’s glory and fulfill His mandate together. Your marriage serves more than your respective needs - it is so much bigger than you.

Husbands: view your wife as your body. You provide and protect your body, so protect and provide for your wife. You direct your body for purposeful ends, so give her direction and instructions for purposeful ends. You train your body, so teach your wife as an intelligent human and co-heir of grace. You treasure your body, paying attention to what it communicates about its pains and needs, so value your wife and be understanding towards her. You honor your body before others since your body is you, so do not degrade or disgrace your wife before others.

Wives: view your husband as your body, particularly as your head. Even as your body works in unity with the head by following its direction, so help your husband by working according to his direction as one. As the body furthers and implements what the head intends, so take initiative to further your husband's mission by being faithful over your charge. Represent and reflect your husband, working as a faithful steward over his house.

For more on this topic, see my recent sermon "Marriage and Sexuality."  

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Joel Beeke on Family Worship


In this 7-minute video from the 2013 G3 Conference, Dr. Joel Beeke talks about the importance and practice of daily family worship. The booklet on the topic which he mentions for further study can be found at this link
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

America the Beautiful?


America the Beautiful  
There are many things we love about our country. As “America the Beautiful” recounts, we treasure its majestic mountains and fruited plains as well as the history of its people and their heroic sacrifices and achievements. We treasure our God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, loudly proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Our country truly has been blessed in many ways - compared to much of the world and much of history, our country is incredibly prosperous, powerful, and full of opportunity.

America the Perfect?
Yet, one thing that set apart our country from the beginning was our recognition that we were not perfect. The second verse of “America the Beautiful” includes these words,
“America, America,
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law.”
Some of us may find it quite easy to point out flaws in our society and our institutions. But the issue is not simply out there in other people. This is an issue rooted in human nature. Each of us are morally flawed.

Our founding fathers understood this principle and designed our system of government with this in mind. Because human nature is naturally given to selfishness and moral corruption, checks and balances are needed in government. As James Madison wrote:
“But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” (Federalist No. 51, Feb. 8, 1788) 
Or as Patrick Henry put it:
“Notwithstanding what gentlemen say of the probable virtue of our representatives, I dread the depravity of human nature. I wish to guard against it by proper checks, and trust nothing to accident or chance.” (Elliot's Debates, vol. 3, June 12, 1788)
Americans, the Guilty
This has implications for civil government which our founders understood. It also has implications for you as an individual. You are not an angel. You have not been just towards God and man. Have you always served, loved, and worshipped God above all? Have you always loved your neighbor as yourself? If you are like the rest of humanity, you have dishonored God and your neighbor with your desires (such as greed, lust, pride), words (such as profanity, lies, unkind words), and other actions. God is not one to look the other way when it comes to these evil deeds. He is a just ruler and will not approve of the guilty.

Americans, the Free?
Therefore, you stand condemned under the justice of God. Yet, God chose to free a people from this condemnation by sending His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus satisfied the justice of God by His sacrificial death on the cross, and offers forgiveness and reconciliation with God through faith in Him. If you repent and believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you shall be set free from condemnation and from the tyranny of sin: “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus gained a pardon for His people and sends the Holy Spirit to transform their character so that, more and more, they begin to overcome the bondage of their old human nature, and begin to manifest love, righteousness, and self-control (Rom. 14:17, Gal. 5:22-23).

May God indeed shed His grace on America, mending its every flaw, and may He begin with you and me.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Ethics of Taxation


As it has been said for the last three hundred years, taxes seem to be as inevitable as death. Yet the thought has surely occurred to many people as they hand over their money to the state - is taxation right? Should we pay our taxes? Should the government demand taxes, and if so, what limits are there?

Some people, inspired by the historic slogan “no taxation without representation” might think that taxation is simply the money that we decide to give to our government. It is at the discretion of the people how much is wise to give, and it is legitimate because we all get a vote. Yet, does 51% of my community have a right to take my money?

On the other hand, some today argue that taxation is theft. After all, why can the government take our possessions by coercion when this is considered theft if any other person or group does the same? “No one has the right to point a gun at you and demand your help, your money, whether it be an individual or a government.”[1] Christians would agree that the civil authorities cannot do whatever they want and that the eighth and tenth commandments assert a right to private or household property. What you have gained honestly without fraud or coercion is yours. Some Christians say taxation is theft but add that the head tax of Exodus 30:11-16 is an exception given by God as the only legitimate tax.[2]

While I am sympathetic to the position that taxation is theft because it makes some valid points, I do not think it does justice to all the biblical material. I argue that taxation is legitimized by the duty we have to support the civil authorities financially to enable them to fulfill their God-given responsibilities. Taxation for functions beyond their normal responsibilities is slavery. And with regard to the tax burden, less taxation is more freedom and a blessing, while more taxation is more slavery and a curse. Burdensome taxation, especially on the poor, is oppression.

The Bible ties our duty to pay taxes to the fact that the civil authorities have God-given responsibilities. “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed…” (Rom. 13:6-7). Taxes are an obligation which we fulfill for the sake of conscience (Rom. 13:5), a debt that we must pay (Rom. 13:7). God gives the civil authorities a right to taxes because they are God’s servants who do His work (Rom. 13:4, 6). This work is not unlimited. Basically, God has given them the duty of restraining bad conduct by executing God’s wrath through the punishment of criminals and the waging of defensive war (Rom. 13:3-4, 1 Peter 2:13, see also WCF 23.1-2). Additionally, this obligation is due only to people with a legitimate claim to civil authority. Usurpers, habitual tyrants, and officials acting illegally are another story, and here the concept of theft might be used to describe their actions (this is a main reason why the American colonies declared independence - they were being taxed by Parliament, which was a body that had no authority over them and in which they had no representation).

Other social responsibilities like education and welfare are not given to the civil authorities but are described as duties of family, church, and community (e.g. Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:1-4, 1 Tim. 5:3-8, Deut. 15, Lev. 19:9-10). When the civil authority begins to use tax money for these functions it is a form of slavery. It is like finding yourself in arrangement where someone takes your money or labor and provides you or your dependents with the things you should have provided for yourself. It is not a sin to be a slave, but it is certainly undesirable, and we have a responsibility to seek freedom when we have the opportunity (1 Cor. 7:21-23).

No one has a right to make innocent people slaves, and normally people should not volunteer to be slaves, but there are times when this is necessary. The Bible does speak of the case of a brother who becomes poor enough that he sells himself to a fellow believer for a time (Lev. 25:39-40 Deut. 15:12-15), a brother who becomes poor enough that he must borrow (Lev. 25:35-38, Deut. 15:7-11; debt is a form of slavery, Prov. 22:7), and of a brother who for one reason or another choses to remain in permanent slavery (Deut. 15:16-17).

In Genesis 41, Joseph, by the Spirit of God, foresaw the coming famine in Egypt and advised a 20% income tax during the plentiful years to save up provisions (Gen. 41:33-38). In God's wisdom, this temporary burden was apparently the best option for the Egyptians, forcing them to provide for the future. In the end, this measure led to literal slavery for the Egyptians who had to sell themselves and their land to buy back the provisions, resulting in a permanent 20% income tax (Gen. 47:20-26; though interestingly priests’ land did not become Pharaoh’s). God blessed the family of Jacob by making this a temporary dependance, allowing them to remain free after the famine, having been temporarily provisioned with the "free welfare" by Joseph (Gen. 47:12).

Israel later foolishly desired this permanent civil slavery, seeking a powerful king. But when Israel desired a king like the nations, Samuel warned the people that this king “will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants…He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves” (1 Sam. 8:15–18). This taxation is seen as a curse of slavery upon Israel for abandoning God as their ruler and relying on a powerful king. While an increase in taxes might have been necessary with any king,[3] a “king like the nations” would demand more than the restrained king who abided by Deuteronomy 17:14-17. Israel’s lack of self-government and restraint described in Judges drove them to a position of civil slavery.

When the state begins to use coercion to fulfill duties which ideally belong to the family, church, and community, it takes away our sense of responsibility for one another. It gives us an excuse to not provide for ourselves and our family, to not care for our parents, to not care for the elderly and disabled in our midst. A slave mentality is an irresponsible one that looks to other people for initiative, direction, purpose, and provision. Christians ought to cultivate the mentality of a freeman even when living in slavery (living not as people-pleasers, but as servants of God, looking to Him for reward; Col. 3:22-25). But if opportunity is given to gain greater freedom, Christians should take it.
“Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.” (1 Corinthians 7:21–23)
There are cases where the Bible condemns burdensome taxation as oppression. Taxation had become oppressive under Solomon and even more so under his son, Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Amos 5:11 condemns the people because “you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him…” The prophets several times condemned civil leaders who devoured the people's wealth (Is. 3:14, Mic. 3:1-3, Zeph. 3:3). Proverbs 29:4 says, "By justice a king builds up the land, but he who exacts gifts tears it down," and here I believe the ESV footnote, "taxes heavily," to be a more accurate translation than "exacts gifts."

Thus, taxation should be judged on its use, its amount, and its impact. The ability to enforce taxation is a power given to the civil authorities. One must have legitimate authority to exercise this power. The people have a duty to pay taxes to the civil authorities. When the tax is serving its proper goal, it is good and proper. It can become undesirably enslaving when it needs to cover for a lack of self-government. It can also become an unjust tool of oppression. While we should pay our taxes, Christians should live responsibly as freemen and seek freedom when given the opportunity (1 Cor. 7:21-24). As we care for our households, practice charity to others, tithe to the church, and seek the welfare of our community, we can hope for the blessing of greater freedom in the area of taxes.


-------------------------
[1] Chris R. Tame, “Taxation Is Theft (Libertarian Alliance Political Note No 44, 1989)” (PDF), http://www.libertarian.co.uk/lapubs/polin/polin044.pdf, accessed 3-17-18.
[2] R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press, 1973), 510.
[3] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2008), 802-803.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Creation of Man in Genesis 1:26-18

Genesis 1:26–28
"[26] Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'
[27] So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
[28] And God blessed them. And God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'"
The first chapter of Genesis asserts that God alone is eternal and that everything else is His creation. Everything visible and invisible came into being by His powerful word, in the space of six days, and all very good. This means that He is the potter and we are the clay. Not only does this mean He determines what we are and our purpose, but it also means that we have a nature and purpose! There is design and intention behind our existence - we are not the product of an accident, we do not have to make life meaningful by trying to create ourselves. And yet, that is exactly what we tend to do - seeking to be as God, determining who we are by our independent choices. But as those who are repenting from our sinful folly, what does it mean to return to our Creator's design? In Genesis 1:26-28 we find a few important basics about the nature of humanity.

The image of God

"God created man in his own image" (v. 27). What is the image of God? Man, both male and female, is the image of God. To be created after His likeness means that we are His image. The image of God is not some part of us. It does not say that some part of man was created after God's image. We are God’s image, and like an image, we resemble Him and represent Him.

How do we resemble and represent Him? No, we do not physically look like God, for God does not have a body - He is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). Yes, God the Son became man as well, but this was later and did not change the nature of God. Rather, we resemble God in other ways. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “How did God create man? A. God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, with dominion over the creatures” (WSV, Q. 10). We reflect God's knowledge, righteousness, holiness, and dominion. Colossians 3:10 and Ephesians 4:24 speak of being renewed after this image in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. Genesis 1:26-28 emphasize our reflection of God's dominion over the earth. And even though we reflect invisible attributes of God, we manifest them in the world with our bodies. Our whole person, body and soul, is created in God's image and designed to make God's character visible in this world, unto His glory. When man fell into sin, we continued to be God's image, but a distorted image - we remained rational, moral, religious, and cultural creatures, but all these areas were distorted by sin and idolatry. Those who are being saved by Christ are being restored in these areas, to reflect God truthfully again as His children.

Not only do we resemble God, but we represent Him. The image of the king is not just appreciated for art's sake - it is a symbol, a representation of the king and His authority. This is why our creation in God's image is brought up in Genesis 9 in the context of the penalty for murder. The fact that we are God's image gives us dignity and value - to attack God's image is an attack on God.
"Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image." (Genesis 9:6)
Finally, Genesis 1:27 also indicated that both male and female are created in the image of God. This brings us to our next point.

Creation of man as male and female

"...male and female he created them" (v. 27). God created man as male and female. These are not merely social constructs or the products of individual choice, nor did God create other genders to choose from. We are male and female based on the way our bodies are made. Since our rebellion, the physical creation does groan under the curse, and our bodies do suffer various unnatural things - sickness, disease, death, disabilities - and this includes rare occasions where biological sex is unclear. But the exception does not overturn the rule - mankind is still created by God as male and female.

Not only are we male or female (whether we like it or not), but we also have a duty to submit to this arrangement, to present ourselves as male and female. This is evident from the case law in Deuteronomy 22:5 which forbids wearing the attire of the opposite sex. I have written about this more in this post.

The mandate: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, etc.

Not only does God make man and woman, but He also gives them a task. In this task, we reflect God - we create and rule. Yet, our procreation and dominion is in some ways quite different than God's. It is done on our level, as those who, unlike God, are limited creatures created as male and female.

This task is big, and to unpack all that it involves would take more than a simple blog post. But fundamentally it involves having and raising children, filling the earth with God's image, and ruling it as His vice-regents or stewards unto His glory. Our exercise of dominion involves cultivating, conserving, and harnessing the potential of this earth, and so this mandate is sometimes called the "cultural mandate."

This task is given to all humanity. It is part of who we are as humans. All of us participate in this grand calling in one way or another. Sin hijacked this task - infecting us and our children with sin and guilt and perverting our use of authority and power. Just as sin distorted but did not destroy God's image, so it distorted but did not destroy this mandate. And just as God's grace restores us to the true image, so it restores us to a proper fulfillment of this mandate. Once again we can fill the earth with God's children - by raising covenant children and by evangelism - and once again we can fulfill our earthly callings unto God's glory.

This task is given to humanity, but it is important to realize that it was originally and fundamentally given to a married couple. An individual cannot fulfill the mandate. As Adam found out in Genesis 2, he needed a helper to fulfill this mandate. Together in the context of marriage, man and woman work together to be fruitful, to fill the earth, and to rule it. This is the way things naturally work. Men and women naturally have complementary strengthens and weaknesses such that they work best together. They are naturally attracted to each other in a way that naturally produces children. Thus, except in cases where they can serve God in singleness undistracted by this burning desire, the normal duty of adult men and women is to marry: "each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband" (1 Cor. 7:2).

We learn from this passage that marriage is not just about you and your needs, or even about your spouse and his/her needs - it is about serving a bigger cause, the creation mandate. Our marriages serve the goal of filling the earth with the image of God and ruling the earth as His faithful stewards. Marriages produce households, which are religious units, economic units, cultural units - microcosms of human society. God created marriage to be fruitful and productive, for the good of the world and for His glory. May God help our marriages to fulfill this intention through the sanctifying grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Three Reports on Revoice from PCA Presbyteries

There was a conference held in St. Louis last year called Revoice, which sought to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians who affirmed the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality. This event was controversial before it even happened and has continued to be polarizing, particularly among conservative Presbyterians. While Revoice was clear in teaching that sex belongs only within monogamous and heterosexual marriage, it was less clear on the issues of homosexual desire, orientation, and identity.

Revoice is not a Presbyterian organization, and its speakers came from a variety of denominational backgrounds, but it featured several speakers who are ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and was held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA), whose senior pastor spoke at the event and defended it against critics. After the conference, several of the PCA's regional presbyteries set up committees to study and report on the teachings promoted at the conference. These reports have been released as the PCA approaches its annual General Assembly later this month. I am in a different conservative Presbyterian denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). Yet we in the OPC have an interest in the direction and well-being of our sister denomination. I am also personally involved - I graduated from the PCA's seminary and I have friends in the PCA (on "both sides" of this controversy).

Here I want to review the reports on Revoice adopted by three of the PCA's presbyteries: Missouri Presbytery, Central Carolina Presbytery, and Westminster Presbytery. For those who do not have time to sort through these reports, perhaps this summary can give you an idea how the PCA is addressing this controversy.

Missouri Presbytery - "Missouri Presbytery Ad Hoc Committee to Investigate Memorial Presbyterian Church for Hosting the Revoice 18 Conference in July 2018" (111 pages, 32 additional pages in the appendices)

This presbytery is the one which includes Memorial Presbyterian Church and its senior pastor, Rev. Greg Johnson. Its task was to investigate not only Revoice, but particularly the role played by Memorial Presbyterian Church and its senior pastor. This investigation was first requested by Memorial PCA and later by Calvary Presbytery. Its report is by far the largest of these three reports, but it does include a "Summary of Allegations and Judgments" on pages 29-34 and "Commendations and Recommendations" on pages 110-111 for those who want to read a shorter version.

In receiving this report and adopting and approving certain parts of it, the Missouri Presbytery also noted on their website,
"We would ask readers to take care to not represent this report as an endorsement of Revoice, because our Presbytery does not understand itself to be endorsing Revoice by the actions it took at the May 18 meeting. As we say candidly in the report, we have concerns about where Revoice is going, and even now, how its goals and principles are being worked out by some of its participants under the umbrella this organization has become. We believe it is a young and evolving organization and stands in need of much prayer and guidance, and, in places, constructive criticism, to the end of becoming aware of some corrective moving it needs to make, at least in our judgment." 
More specifically, the report judged,

- "...that both TE Johnson and Memorial ought to have vetted more carefully the speakers and content of the Revoice conference.... In addition, ... by not providing a gracious, clear critique of the conference, especially at those points where it was alleged that there was difference with our doctrinal standards, the Session of Memorial and TE Johnson erred…” (p. 29)

- "...that neither Revoice nor the Memorial Presbyterian Church Session ground homoerotic desire and actions in Creation rather than in the Fall. We believe that Revoice itself does not teach that sexual desire for someone of the same sex is morally neutral and not sinful. In fact, they affirm that it is sinful." (p. 29)

- "...that the way Revoice and Side B believers in general use terms has been confusing to many of our churches. But we reject the claim that this is because terms like 'gay,' 'sexual orientation,' 'queer,' and 'sexual minorities' are always or necessarily unbiblical." (p. 30)

- that Revoice understands terms like "same-sex attraction" and "gay" in an expanded way so that "they are inclusive of 'attractions,' of an 'orientation,' of a quality of 'gayness' that lies behind homoerotic desire and yet is essentially or intrinsically related to it—rather than being simply related to it situationally" and in this "Revoice has committed at least an error of imprudence by indulging in needless and potentially dangerous speculation, and it remains to be seen whether this error will be used in such a way as to strike at the vitals of religion." (p. 30-31)

- that while a Christian can, in some sense, include their sinful desires as a part of who they are, "any part of 'who we are' that is the result of the Fall and sinful must be mortified, and all aspects of our identity must be seen through the lens of our primary identity as those who are made in the image of God and restored to that image through our union with Christ." (p. 31)

- "...that, to the extent that Revoice even entertains the possibility of 'celibate partnerships' (even within the limits expressed above), it has erred in offering unwise, unedifying relational arrangements to Christians who know same-sex-attraction (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12).... TE Johnson, in his Revoice workshop, publicly warned about the danger of friendships morphing into romances and stressed the importance of boundaries." (p. 32)

- "...that Memorial did not err in allowing Roman Catholics to speak in their church building under the aegis of Revoice…. However, Memorial erred in failing to make clear to their congregation our doctrinal differences with Roman Catholicism before, but especially after the Revoice conference." (p. 34)

The end result of this investigation is that the Missouri Presbytery required Memorial PCA to respond to these concerns (specifically, "the judgements and recommendations of this report") by their summer presbytery meeting in July, and that Missouri Presbytery adopted an “Overture to the 47th General Assembly of the PCA to Form an Ad Interim Committee to Seek Consensus on Doctrinal Boundaries and Pastoral Care in the Current Debates About Sexuality.”

Central Carolina Presbytery - "Central Carolina Presbytery Study Committee Report on 2018 Revoice Conference" (16 pages)

The Central Carolina Presbytery's report is generally well written and only 16 pages long. It helpfully summarizes the main talks at Revoice and then addresses them by looking at five issues.

Regarding desire and temptation, this report helpfully distinguishes between the Reformed and Roman Catholic understandings of sin and desire (both Reformed and Roman Catholic speakers were present at the conferences). While the Roman Catholic view is that disordered desires only become sinful when we consent or act upon them, our Presbyterian standards affirm that the corruption of our nature (original sin) is sin to be repented of, and that the desire for sin is a sinful desire. In other words, "when the heart is drawn after an illegitimate end, we must repent of that sinful desire, longing, or attraction and run to Christ for cleanness of conscience and forgiveness of sin" (p. 8). The report critiques the idea that same-sex sexual desire can be purified, leaving behind a unique attraction towards members of one's own sex. Unfortunately, the report ends up arguing that there is no such thing as non-sexual attraction towards another person (!).

Regarding labels and identities, this report notes that "'gay' or 'sexual minority' might be used occasionally in order to identify a persistent struggle that must be mortified by the power of the Holy Spirit. Insofar as identity language is used in this way, we see it as consistent with the manner in which faithful Christians have talked throughout the centuries (e.g., 'I’m an alcoholic but a Christian who is seeking to forsake this sin.')" (p. 10). But it also argues that adopting these labels can seem to foster the idea that these sins cannot be resisted, that they are part of a settled identity, and are perhaps morally neutral. I find this section of the report a bit unclear - it seems to realize that people can adopt these terms in a legitimate way, but then condemns the use of these terms since those who do so "are not merely identifying a struggle. Such linguistic moves signal an inappropriate add-on to what we all agree is a more fundamental category: Christian" (p. 11). It does helpfully recognize the life long struggle with sin described in Romans 7, while also noting that it is a mistake to view sexual orientation as immutable.

Regarding spiritual friendships, this report states, "We certainly agree with the Revoice Conference that same-sex attracted persons can find in the Bible, and should find in the church, examples of deep, loyal, committed relationships between persons of the same sex. We think it unwise, however, to posit a separate class of homosexual friendship that goes by different names and looks substantially different from the healthy friendships all Christians should cultivate and enjoy" (p. 13).

Regarding the "gift of homosexuality", I think the report says it well: "as we discussed above, we do not believe it is right to characterize sinful inclinations as a gift. But if same-sex attraction is not a gift to be celebrated, our brothers and sisters who pursue Christ courageously in the midst of this attraction certainly are. In short, we believe it is important to affirm that same-sex desires are sinful, that the fight against these desires is an admirable struggle, and that those who labor in faith and repentance to overcome these desires should receive our sympathy, our gratitude, and our support" (p. 14-15).

In the end, the report summarizes by saying: "We appreciate Revoice’s commitment to biblical marriage. We commend them for their desire to help sexual strugglers stay rooted in Christ and in historic orthodoxy. At the same time, we are concerned that some of the principal voices in Revoice have not been careful enough with their labels, their theology, and their relational advice. Consequently, at present we do not feel Revoice is a safe guide in helping Christians navigate questions of gender and sexuality" (p. 16).

Westminster Presbytery - "Report of the Committee to Investigate THE TEACHINGS OF THE REVOICE CONFERENCE, Adopted by Westminster Presbytery March 9, 2019" (27 pages)

Westminster Presbytery earlier sent an overture to the PCA's General Assembly with a list of twelve affirmations and denials on this controversy (available here), which I found to be good, though I would push back a little on article nine's denial. Unfortunately, their report is somewhat misled by a misunderstanding of what Revoice speaker Nate Collins meant in his book when he said that "the gay identity is a first-creation identity" (cited on page 3 of the report). While the report understands Collins to say that the gay identity was a pre-fall reality, Collins meant that this identity was part of this present, post-fall age, as opposed to the age to come. Collins does affirm that "sexual desire for someone of the same sex is sinful and something that I should repent from" (source), but also argues that being gay includes a broader aesthetic orientation that is not sinful in itself, though restricted to this age (footnote on p. 3). This understanding of sexual orientation is problematic, but this report ignores these distinctions and so misses the mark in some of its critique.

In short, this report commends Revoice for teaching that "Homosexual Sex and Homosexual Marriage are always Sinful." Yet, it argues that the "counsel and teaching of the Revoice conference is, for the most part, in grave error and is spiritually reckless and destructive" (p. 27)
- because it taught that "Sexual Orientation is Real, Fixed, & Likely Unchangeable, and same-sex orientation is not inherently sinful" (p. 2)
- because "Memorial PCA has put 3 Roman Catholic Speakers in front of the people of God as spokespersons for true Christianity and teachers of God’s word" (p. 13)
- because "Revoice’s Concept of 'Spiritual Friendship' Promoted by Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau [RC] is the Creation of Marriage Culture Minus Sex" (p. 16)
- because it taught that "Gender and Sexual Minority Christians are Victims of the Church Because the Church Will not Acknowledge Sexual Orientation and LGBT Identity" (p. 17)
- because it taught that "Roman Catholicism’s Anti-Scriptural Doctrine of Sin is True (aka: “concupiscence”): Sin consists in actions only, not in desires contrary to God’s Word" (p. 22)

I should note that it was Revoice, not Memorial PCA, that invited the Roman Catholic speakers, although as the Missouri Presbytery report noted, Memorial was not free of all responsibility to note where we disagree with Roman Catholics on these issues. Also, it is not correct to say that the speakers at Revoice taught that desires contrary to God's word are not sin. Some did make the problematic assertion that homosexual orientation or attraction is not sinful and a debatable distinction between lust and involuntary desires/temptation. For example, outside the conference in his interview on Crosspolitic, Memorial PCA's senior pastor, Greg Johnson, seemed to make the distinction that one must repent of volitional sins and lusts while one must mortify homosexual attraction (but that one cannot repent of homosexual attraction). This issue was more accurately handled by the other two reports.

Yet, this report helpfully draws to a conclusion by saying,
"In summary, Christian people and ministers must befriend, love, and express the deepest patience and grace toward people engaged in sexually perverted forms of sin.... And individuals ensnared by such sins must see in us a people who are determined to love and serve them regardless of whether or not they ever repent and come to Christ.... The church must support, encourage, and empower people to repent from and put to death their LGBT identities, attractions, desires, and/or actions with the help of Christ. And we must work hard to counsel and walk beside such people as they do so. Their battle with sin will be no less consuming and intense than our own. This is what the body of Christ and Christian fellowship is all about. We walk alongside each other, support one another in our battles with sin, and cheer each other on as we run the race with endurance." (p. 27)