Tuesday, December 31, 2019

R.J. Rushdoony on Reading Scripture

At the beginning of a new year, many people set out with a new plan to read the Bible. This is a good practice, since Scripture was given not only for the conversion of the unbeliever, but also for the continual discipleship of the believer. Christians should be ready, though, to be personally challenged by the Bible. Reading is important, but how we read is also important. We must read it as the word of God, with faith and submission, ready to obey it. In "The Use of Scriptures in the Reformed Faith," R.J. Rushdoony helpfully comments on how we should prepare to receive Scripture when we read or hear it.
"The offense of Scripture to the unregenerate is that it tells him that he is not a god but a sinner under the judgement of God. To the regenerate, the Bible is the good news of his salvation, but, to the extent that he is unsanctified, to that extent the offense of Scripture remains. This side of heaven, therefore, the believer must contend with an unwillingness in himself to read and to submit to God's Word. Behind this fact of offense is our reluctance to keep on growing; we tend to be satisfied with a few drops of faith in the ocean of our sin. We are unwilling to change, to see our faults, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to hate only what God hates, and to love as we have been loved. Hence the necessity of Scripture: we need the open and sure Word of God as a corrective, a guide, and as commandment." (R.J. Rushdoony, Faith and Action: The Collected Articles of R.J. Rushdoony, p. 1160)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Guarding Against Falsehood in the New Year

"You shall not spread a false report.” (Exodus 23:1)

Perhaps for the new year, we can commit to not sharing false, misleading, and fake news? Perhaps we can be proactive in this regard by fact-checking memes, quotes, and stories before sharing them, rather than depending on others to do that work for us?

It is usually not difficult to get more information with the resources available online. Usually a brief internet search is all that is needed. And if you don’t have time to verify what you share on social media or in conversation, perhaps you should share less? And if you share something that is possibly true but not verified and without a source, then perhaps you can at least include a disclaimer to that effect?

We and the news articles we share will continue to be fallible, but by proactively guarding against false reports, you will contribute to the well being of society and do good to “your neighbor, who dwells trustingly beside you” (Prov. 3:29). Preserving truth and honesty is a shared project. We are in this together. It both requires you to be discerning with the reports you read and hear, as well as discerning with the reports you share. It not only forbids slander rooted in malicious intent, but it also forbids negligence in the effort to guard against falsehood and preserve the good name of others.

This year will be an election year, and if it is like the last one, it is sure to bring with it misinformation, falsehood, half-truths, misleading claims, and fake stories designed to provoke outrage. And this is in addition to the regular temptation to spread a false report. So be on your guard, love your neighbor, and take responsibility for your communications, remembering the ninth commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:16).

"Q. 77. What is required in the ninth commandment?
"A. The ninth commandment requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man, and of our own and our neighbor's good name, especially in witness bearing."
(Westminster Shorter Catechism)

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas and the Covenant

When we consider the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas time, it is natural to wonder what it means and what practical significance it has for our lives. Preachers all over the world seek to answer this question as people gather in the hope to discover some deeper meaning behind their traditions and celebrations. And indeed, the incarnation of the Son of God gives preachers plenty of material - many things can be said about this pivotal event. Today I want to make the point that to fully understand and properly respond to the birth of Jesus, you must understand how this birth is connected with God's covenant with his people.

The prophetic song of Zechariah the priest in Luke 1:67-79 places the birth of Jesus in this covenantal context. While the occasion for the song is the birth of his son John, the song (like John) is primarily focused on the coming of the Lord. And Zechariah states that the incarnation of the Lord is an expression of "the mercy promised to our fathers" and "his holy covenant" (Luke 1:72).

What is this covenant? Zechariah says that in this covenant, made with Abraham and his offspring, God promised "to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days" (Luke 1:73-75). This is a summery of the covenant promises God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 22.

God continued to renew this covenant with Abraham's descendants, with Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5) and Jacob/Israel (Gen. 28:13-15). Most dramatically, God renewed this covenant with the children of Israel in the days of Moses. In those days, according to his covenant promise, God delivered Israel from the hand of their enemies (i.e. Pharaoh) so that they  serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all their days (Exod. 4:22-23, 6:2-8, Deut. 7:7-11). This covenant was formally renewed with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai (20:1-17) and again in the promised land under Joshua at the beginning and end of the conquest (Joshua 8:30-35, 24:1-28).

After Israel had settled down in the promised land, God continued to renew his covenant with them and made it clear that a greater fulfillment of this covenant would be brought about through the king of Israel, specifically, through King David and his heirs (2 Sam. 7, Ps. 72, 89, Is. 9:1-7). It would be through the line of David that would arise the promised one who would deliver God's people from their enemies and lead them in righteousness and peace, bringing all the nations under his blessed reign.

A thousand years after King David, God had not forgotten his covenant, nor had his promised mercy come to an end. In order to keep his holy covenant and to practice his promised mercy, God took on human nature and was born as the promised heir of David. Just as God had visited his people in Egypt and delivered them from bondage (Gen. 50:24, Ex. 3:7-8, 16-17), so now God "visited and redeemed his people" (Luke 1:68). Just as God had delivered Israel from Egypt because of his covenant promise to their fathers, so now he delivered his people through the birth of Jesus for the same reason (Luke 1:72). God acted in the incarnation because of his oath to Abraham (Luke 1:73). And God had fulfilled this oath by raising up "a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David" (Luke 1:69), that is, a Davidic king who would powerfully save his people. This king would deliver them by giving them the forgiveness of their sins and by guiding their feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:77-79).

This means that Jesus was born to confirm the covenant, to fulfill God's oath "to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days" (Luke 1:73-75). The birth of Jesus was the first act of the final battle against the ancient foe. Jesus came as an atonement for his people's sins so that he might transfer them from the domain of the evil one into the kingdom of God (Heb. 2:14-15, Col. 1:13). As John Milton wrote of Christ's nativity,
    "And then at last our bliss
    Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
    The old dragon under ground
    In straiter limits bound,
    Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And wrath to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail."
What does this mean for our part? How should we respond? My point is that if Jesus was born to confirm God's covenant, then we should respond by embracing this covenant and living accordingly. Jesus sets believers free from the dominion of sin and Satan, enabling them to keep covenant and grow in holiness. The proper response to the Christmas story is, through faith in Christ, to cast aside our fearful bondage to the fallen world, our sinful passions, and the devil, and to serve God in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

God sent redemption to earth to bring people into covenant with him. Jesus was born to free all those who trust in him that they might walk in his ways in fellowship with him. Do not be as the generation who experienced the exodus but perished in the wilderness because they broke the covenant by rebelling against the Lord. Do not despise the work of the incarnation and turn back to bondage and death. Remember the works of the Lord, trust in his mercy and faithfulness, and follow the Lord as his loyal servants. Forsake the darkness, and walk in his light, for he will guide our feet into the way of peace.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Beatitudes: Persecuted Disciples

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)

What does this persecution look like? This is not any persecution, but persecution for righteousness’s sake and for Jesus’ account. Mere persecution is not a sign that you are righteous. For persecution to be a sign of blessedness, it must be provoked by your righteousness or your connection to Jesus. Christians should not be like the soccer players who fake injuries to get the other side in trouble. You should pursue righteousness and faithfulness to Jesus, not victimhood. Leave it to others to provide the persecution - do not seek it as a goal.

What does suffering for righteousness’ or Jesus’ sake look like? It is the suffering you receive because you refused to join others in doing evil or to give them your approval. It is the suffering you receive because you stood up for what is righteous by defending the rights of God and man. It is the suffering you receive because you shared the gospel. It is the suffering you received because you persisted in confessing and serving your Lord, or simply because you are known as a Christian.

Persecution tests the quality of your righteousness and your faith in Jesus. If your righteousness and faith is merely done to gain the favor of man, then it will fade away when persecution arises. If your righteousness and faith is the true and heartfelt repentance described in these beatitudes that looks in hope to the promises of God, then it will remain steadfast amid trials.

This persecution can be expressed in variety of ways: you may be insulted, ridiculed, or slandered (“revile you … utter all kinds of evil against you falsely”); you may be rejected, disliked, or discriminated against; you may be hurt, punished, jailed, or even killed.

Why are those who are persecuted in this way blessed? They are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. This brings us back to the first beatitude, which includes the same blessing. The kingdom of heaven is the summary of all the other blessings. The disciples of Jesus have entered the kingdom of heaven and begun to enjoy its blessings. And Jesus goes on: rejoice and be glad! This is a matter of joy! Why? Because your reward is in heaven. This means that it is (1) from God, (2) eternal, (3) beyond this mortal life, and (4) incorruptible.

Furthermore, you shall prove to be true heirs of the saints of old. This is the way they treated the prophets before you, this is the way they treated Jesus, this is the way they treated the apostles, this is the way they treated the martyrs, the Reformers, the Puritans, the Covenanters and Huguenots, the missionaries of more modern times, your brothers and sisters across the world today - indeed Christians of all eras. Some have been more notable in their suffering, but something we generally share in common with all the saints is rejection by men.

How has your righteousness and faith in Jesus been tested by persecution? Do you remain faithful under trial? Is your commitment to righteousness and to Jesus such that it can bear the insults of the world?

In the last beatitude we learned to pursue peace. In this beatitude we are reminded to seek after righteousness as well, even when it provokes persecution. Not only should you pursue righteousness, but also joy. Jesus tells the disciples, "rejoice and be glad!" Rejoice not in the pain of the suffering, but in the blessings that are yours and the fellowship in suffering that you share with your Master and your fellow disciples. Do all of this as disciples of Jesus, holding fast to Him through trials, temptations, and ridicule. And know that your reward far surpasses all the blessings that men may seek in this life. As Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” concludes,

“And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child and wife,
Let these all be gone,
They yet have nothing won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth.”

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Beatitudes: The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Who are the peacemakers? Peacemakers are those who make peace. This can be broken down into four aspects. First, peacemakers have a peaceable disposition. Second, peacemakers do not cause strife with bitterness or malice (they are not "peace-breakers"). Third, peacemakers pursue reconciliation and harmony with others. Fourth, peacemakers pursue reconciliation and harmony between others.

Peacemaker make peace by being patient, forgiving, generous, and just. They make peace by restraining the violent and unjust, by encouraging patience and generosity, by deescalating situations with gentle, fair, and careful words. They do not always avoid conflict (they are not "peace-fakers"), but when they engage in a conflict it is with the goal of peace and in a manner that fits that goal.

Peace is a beautiful thing. As Thomas Watson (1620-1686) remarked, "It is not fairness of rooms that makes a house pleasant, but peaceableness of dispositions." A shabby house with peace is more beautiful than a fine house with discord and bitterness.

Where there is no peace, the Spirit is not active, since peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Where there is no peace, the kingdom of God is not present, since peace is of the essence of the kingdom (Rom. 14:17). Where there are no peacemakers, there are no disciples of Jesus.

The world loves the idea of peace, but it does not know peace nor does it make peace. It is not enough to admire peace - they are blessed who make peace, not merely admire peace. The disciples of Jesus know peace with God, and are therefore able to share this peace with others.

Why are peacemakers blessed? They are blessed because in this way they prove to be true sons of the God of peace. He is long-suffering, generous, forgiving, and on a mission of reconciliation, pursuing peace with His world (2 Cor. 5:19). The children of God are like Him by being peacemakers; the children of the devil are like him by being murderers, hating and being hated.

God shows His grace by taking the disciples of Jesus as His children. He adopts them, giving them access, fatherly care, and an inheritance in His household. He begets them spiritually so that they begin to resemble Him.

Consider then, whether you a peacemaker. Do you make peace? Do you words generally promote peace or initiate strife? Do you seek reconciliation with the brother who has offended you (Matt. 18:15) and the brother whom you have offended (Matt. 5:23-24)? Do you seek peace with all men (Rom 12:18), even your adversaries (Matt. 5:25)?

Seek and pursue after peace. Do not treat it as a nice by-product, an accessory, but rather as a goal. Cultivate a peaceable disposition rooted in God’s grace. Put away bitterness and malice, and seek harmony and fellowship with your brother and your neighbor.

Peace is a sign of God’s grace, of His kingdom come to earth, of His likeness being imprinted on yours. Blessed are you peacemakers, disciples of the Prince of peace, for you are children of God. He is your loving Father and He cares for you.


For prior posts in this series, see:
1. "The Beatitudes: Introduction"
2. "The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit"
3. "The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn"

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Beatitudes: The Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

What does it mean to be pure in heart? Something that is pure is not diluted with impurities, but is genuine and true. This who are pure in heart are sincere and single-minded. This is what sets apart Jesus’ path of discipleship from the way of the Pharisees. It demands righteousness in the heart, not merely in externals. There is a purity of heart that is possible for His disciples to attain in this life. Even though it is not a perfect purity, it is a purity which is comprehensive (the whole person), definitive (begun in conversion), and growing (growing throughout this life). The apostle Peter appealed to this purification as a past event with present consequences when he said,
"Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…" (1 Peter 1:22-23). 
Why are the pure in heart blessed? They are blessed because "they shall see God." They shall see God's glory and enjoy His favor. Those who are purified in this life shall see the Lord. As Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Even in this life, the pure in heart see God by faith. The saints are transformed by this revelation, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The vision of the Lord transforms us, making us shine with glory even as Moses’ face shone with glory.

The pure shall more immediately see God when He appears at the end of the age. As 1 John 3:2 says, “we know that when [God] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” They shall see God’s glory in Jesus Christ, as the apostles saw Him on the mountain at His transfiguration.  The pure shall see God’s glory by gaining an overwhelming impression of His true glory, holiness, and love. And then we shall be perfectly purified, transformed according to His purity. No sin shall disrupt our satisfaction in God’s beautiful holiness and love.

Are you pure in heart? Have you purified your heart through faith in the gospel? Have you been born again by the Spirit? Do not expect perfect purity, as if sin did not also dwell within. But have you turned to God without reserve, undergoing a change of heart, so that from the heart you hate sin, love God, and desire holiness?

And as disciples of Jesus, pursue purity of heart. Strive after holiness in soul and body. Religion is not merely an external thing - it is especially a matter of the heart. Reform your actions, but also cultivate the affections and thoughts of the heart. Fight sin and impurity there. Pray for God’s mercy upon your heart, to give you a clean heart, a faithful heart, a pure heart.

If you find this seed of purity begun in your heart, take heart, you are blessed. The seed of grace results in the flower of glory. You shall see God. You shall receive the blessed vision of God in all His glory. You shall enjoy eternal and unbroken communion with God. This communion is begun now - and how good this union is! Yet it shall be even more direct and overwhelming when faith gives way to sight.


For prior posts in this series, see:
1. "The Beatitudes: Introduction"
2. "The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit"
3. "The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn"

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Beatitudes: The Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

What is it to be merciful? Thomas Watson (1620-1686) put it this way:
“What is meant by mercifulness? I answer, it is a melting disposition whereby we lay to heart the miseries of others and are ready on all occasions to be instrumental for their good.” 
Mercy involves sharing in the afflictions of other with sympathy and compassion. It is something that begins on the inside. The opposite of mercy is a hard heart. The blessed disciple is not the disciple who is detached from the world, who cares for himself by distancing himself from the suffering of others. The blessed disciple is the one who feels for others, who has compassion on others and desires to help them. It is provoked by the afflictions and needs of others in body and soul. This disposition results in action. It leads you to help others and forgive others. It leads to charitable giving, charitable opinions of others, care for the sick and injured, hospitality, encouraging words, and a helping hand.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). The priest and the Levite hardened their hearts, walking on the other side of the road. What made the good Samaritan different? When he saw the half dead man, he had compassion (v. 33) and then showed him mercy (v. 37) by caring for his wounds, bringing him to the inn, and giving money for his care. As Jesus said at the end of that parable: "You go, and do likewise."

Why are the merciful blessed? They are blessed because "they shall receive mercy." Those who do not forgive, will not be forgiven (6:14-15). Those who have no mercy for their fellow disciples will be shown no mercy on the day of judgement (25:31-46). But those who forgive others and show mercy to others are those who will be forgiven and shown mercy by God. God will pardon them even in this life as soon as they turn to Christ with faith and repentance. God will show them His fatherly favor and compassion even now - providing for their needs, directing all things for their good, giving them strength and deliverance. He will also acquit them in the day of judgement, passing over their sins for Christ’s sake and praising and rewarding their good deeds, delivering them from all their misery.

Are you merciful? Do you find yourself having compassion on those who suffer? Does this “melting disposition” motivate you to be helpful to them?

In what ways can you be more merciful? As a disciple of Jesus, you ought to be merciful. Do not insulate yourself from the suffering of others, especially the suffering of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Call out to God for a more merciful heart. Let not your heart be hardened. Show mercy by encouraging the weak, evangelizing the lost, patiently correcting the wayward, forgiving one another, practicing hospitality and sharing your selves and stuff, giving charitably and helping those in need.

If you are a merciful disciple, then take heart! Even if your acts of mercy seem small and pitiful, you shall be shown the great and marvelous mercy of God. Blessed are you, the merciful, for you will receive comfort in weakness, help in troubled times, deliverance from evil, and favor in the day of judgement.


For prior posts in this series, see:
1. "The Beatitudes: Introduction"
2. "The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit"
3. "The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn"

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Beatitudes: Thirsting for Righteousness

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)

What is it to hunger and thirst for righteousness? Hunger and thirst are strong desires for food and water, things which are both needful and satisfying. Jesus is saying that His disciples will have a craving for righteousness. They will value righteousness like food and water. Righteousness will bring them satisfaction and delight.

This hunger for righteousness includes our desire for a righteous status before God and our desire to see righteousness prevail in the world, but judging from the use of righteousness in the surrounding context (5:10, 20), it primarily refers to our desire to be righteous in heart and deed. This is part of repentance. Not only do you recognize your poverty (5:3) and mourn over your sins (5:4), but you turn to God and a desire for renewed obedience. Jesus had shown this hunger for righteousness in the temptation in the prior chapter when He told the devil that He would live not by bread alone, but by the words of God (4:4). In John 4:34, Jesus said His food was to do the will of the one who sent Him. In a similar way, the disciples of Jesus hunger and thirst to do the will of God and to be righteous in every respect. They treasure righteousness. They are attracted to righteousness. They crave righteousness.

Why are they blessed? Usually we consider the full blessed, not the hungry and thirsty. But those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, because God shall satisfy them by giving them righteousness. God gives them Christ’s righteousness through faith, reckoning it as their own. God is putting all things to right, and will do so definitively at the end of the age. God is infusing Christ’s righteousness into His people, making them more righteous by their union with Christ. Our conformity to righteousness is imperfect in this life, but it shall be complete in the age to come, and we shall delight in "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). But woe to those who are full and satisfied now, who do not long for this perfect righteousness. Those who do not hunger and thirst for righteousness shall not be satisfied.

Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness? I do not ask if are you righteous in everything you do, but I ask: do you desire righteousness? Do you seek after righteousness? Do you prize the righteousness of Christ, imputed to your account and infused into your being?

May you hunger and thirst for righteousness, more and more! Having mourned for your sins, earnestly desire what is right and just. Love righteousness and delight in its beauty. Crave righteousness like food and drink, desiring to satisfy yourself with it. The craving may be frustrating, for you will not gain it all at once. But keep your eye on the goal. Seek it as a disciple of Christ, and you shall find it by grace.

And if you hunger and thirst after righteousness with faith in Jesus, you are blessed, for you will be satisfied. Even now, you enjoy the righteousness of Christ and stand before God justified and accepted. Even now, that indestructible seed of righteousness has been implanted in you and is growing. One day, not sinful desire, not corruption, but pure righteousness shall be yours.


For prior posts in this series, see:
1. "The Beatitudes: Introduction"
2. "The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit"
3. "The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn"

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Beatitudes: The Meek

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

Who are the meek? The meek are not violent, grasping, cruel, or easily provoked. Instead, the meek are gentle, peaceable, restrained from giving evil for evil. Contrary to popular opinion, being meek is not the same as being hesitant and cowardly. The meek are self-controlled and patient, repaying evil with good. It is natural to be easily aggravated, to strike back, to assert yourself at the slightest injury. This may be natural in our fallen condition, but it is not good, and it is not the way of Christ’s disciples.

Why are the meek blessed? The reason is that they shall inherit the earth. The world thinks the violent shall inherit the earth. You might feel that you cannot risk being meek and merciful. It is natural to think that it is necessary to aggressively assert yourself and grab what you can get, otherwise others will take advantage of you and you will loose everything. People like the idea of being meek, but they cannot risk it in a world of wolves. They think that in this world you have to claw your way to the top and snap at those who threaten you. But Jesus declared that the meek are blessed, for they are the true heirs of the earth.

How do the meek inherit the earth? They inherit the earth now and in the age to come. On the one hand, the meek are gaining their inheritance now through spiritual conflict. Like Joshua, but in a spiritual manner, they are conquering the earth by the gospel of Christ. Like Israel, the meek do not gain their inheritance without a struggle, even though their gospel weapons can look as counterintuitive as the Israelites walking around Jericho. Yet they have "divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 9:4). The meek advance not by violence and greed, but through the grace of God. And while they engage the struggle, God cares for their earthly needs (Matt. 6:33). On the other hand, believers look to that final day in which we shall inherit the earth, the "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). They look to the day when Christ shall return, raise them from the dead, purify the earth from sin and evil, and dwell there with His people (Ps. 37, Ps. 104:35, 1 Cor. 15:20-28, Rev. 20:11-21:8). Therefore they presently walk in their inheritance, knowing that this is their Father’s world which they shall one day fully possess. Abraham is a great example in this respect. He was meek, peaceable, not grasping, and knew by faith that the land he walked in was his inheritance.

With this in mind, are you meek? Do you practice meekness toward your family, or friends, or co-workers? In other words, are you self-controlled, patient, and gentle? Where can you work on being more meek?

Seek after meekness, for it is one mark of Jesus' disciples. His disciples learn, more and more, to be meek. They will learn to be self-controlled, humble, and peaceable. They will trust God to give them their inheritance rather than resorting to sinful practices to get what they want.

And if you are meek, though the world may think you foolish, you are blessed. You are an heir of the earth if you are Christ's (1 Cor. 3:21-23). You do not hold your possessions uneasily as a trespasser in God's earth. You are in your Father’s world, and you shall remain forever. You await a sure and unfading inheritance. Though the wicked prosper for a time, their prosperity is deceptive. Your gain is real and eternal.
"In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
     though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land
     and delight themselves in abundant peace."
(Psalm 37:10–11)


For prior posts in this series, see:
1. "The Beatitudes: Introduction"
2. "The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit"
3. "The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn"

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Beatitudes: Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

Why do the disciples of Jesus mourn? They mourn for their sins, the sins of others, for evils, for unjust suffering they endure, for the suffering that others experience. Jesus mourned during His time on earth when He saw sin and death in His world. The blessed ones are not those who are above suffering and sadness, detached from this world. No, they are those who in this age mourn. They know the glory that was lost and miss it. They are appalled at the corruption in this world and in their hearts. And so they are sad.

Why are they blessed? Mourning is not inherently a blessing, but the promised comfort is. It is those who now mourn that shall be comforted. They shall receive the glory that was lost. God will wipe away their tears and take away their pain and sorrow. They shall know everlasting joy in union with God. Even now they know the comfort of God's promises and His ongoing care. Even now they receive His comfort through His word and His people (see 2 Cor. 1:3-7). But those who do not mourn over their sins, who are gay and jolly now despite their sins and the evil of this world, they shall not find comfort in the time to come.

Do you mourn? Have you been touched with sadness for your sins? Do they bring you sorrow? Does the corruption of this world bring you sorrow? Can you say with the Psalmist: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law” (Psalm 119:136). Do you mourn over the sad condition of Christ’s church, its impurity, its disunity, its sins and errors, and the suffering it receives from its enemies? If you do not mourn, it is not for lack of things to mourn for.

As disciples of Jesus, be those who mourn. Do not mourn without hope, and do not mourn greatly over the little things and little over the great things. Do you desire to be a better mourner? Then reflect on what is good and love it. Then turn your gaze to this present life and see where it falls short - the sin, the curse, the suffering, the disgrace. Do not harden your hearts.

If you mourn in this way, then take heart - you are blessed. You shall be comforted. You shall know enduring, everlasting comfort. Even now, you shall begin to be comforted by God’s word and promise, by His presence and favor. Even now, you shall gain a foretaste of this comfort, and even the foretaste is more meaningful and substantial than the weak comfort of the apathetic and self-satisfied.


For prior posts in this series, see:
1. "The Beatitudes: Introduction"
2. "The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit"

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Beatitudes: The Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

"Return of the Prodigal Son" by Rembrandt
Who are the poor in spirit? The poor are lowly, afflicted, and in need. The poor in spirit are this way, but not externally in wealth or class, but in spirit. The poor in spirit are inwardly afflicted over their sins, they are humble before God and man, and they beg for God’s mercy, knowing their need. Those who follow Christ see themselves as poor in spirit, dependent upon God’s grace. They have an attitude of humility and gratitude.

Why are the poor in spirit blessed? Because this is how one receives the kingdom of heaven, with repentant humility and grateful trust. As Jesus said in Luke 18:17, "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." The kingdom of heaven does not belong to the self-satisfied, the self-confident, or the proud. It belongs to the childlike, the penitent, the grateful. The kingdom of heaven belongs to beggars of mercy. Though they may look afflicted and lowly, yet they are blessed citizens of the heavenly realm.

So consider: are you poor in spirit? Do you realize your poverty? Do you prize Jesus like a poor man prizes his daily bread? Do you realize why He is so needful?

Set aside your self-sufficiency and be poor in spirit. Continue to subdue your pride and cultivate a penitent spirit. As Martin Luther said in the first of his ninety-five theses, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." On his deathbed, the final words of Luther also reflected this beatitude: “We are beggars. It is true.” May that be your attitude toward Jesus - come to His word as beggars, come to His Supper as beggars, come to prayer as beggars. He exalts the lowly and will not turn away the one who comes to Him broken and needy.

If you are poor in spirit, take heart - you are blessed! Yours is the kingdom of heaven! Blessed are you who have been struck with the holiness of God and have humbled yourself before Him! Blessed are you who realize your need and turn to Christ and the riches of His grace! You have entered the heavenly kingdom, the realm of God’s blessings.


For the first post in this series, see: "The Beatitudes: Introduction"

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Beatitudes: Introduction

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting a series on the Beatitudes as they are recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew (5:1-12). Here I want to make some general observations about the Beatitudes. They read as follows:

"Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.'"
1. The Beatitudes are descriptions of Jesus' disciples. It is the disciples of Jesus who are the primary audience of this teaching: "his disciples came to him." He had begun calling His disciples in chapter 4, telling them to follow Him, and now they begin to learn what it means to follow Jesus. He is not giving principles of generic morality which you can plug in to any religion. He is talking about those who follow Jesus (4:19), who suffer for His name’s sake (5:11), who will be judged by Jesus on the basis of their relationship with Jesus (7:21-27).

2. Jesus says these things on a mountain. We are not sure what mountain this is - it could be a reference to the Galilean hills - but obviously the identity of the mountain is not the point. The point is that Jesus was on a mountain. In this way, He was like Moses at Mount Sinai. Both of them delivered from a mountain the words of the covenant that define our relationship with God. God's covenant includes promises of blessings to covenant-keepers (Deut. 28:1-14), and in the Sermon on the Mount we find this especially in the Beatitudes. The covenant also includes the promise of curses on those who forsake the covenant (Deut. 28:15-68), and we find this especially at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in 7:15-27.

3. This is not a normal description of the good life. The world seeks after the good life and argues about the way it is to be found. Is it found by fulfilling your desires now, enjoying this world to the max? Or is it found by the suppression of your desires, resigning yourself to your fate?

Jesus taught that the blessed life is found, not by following some technique, but by participating in the kingdom of heaven. The blessedness of this kingdom does not come all at once. It does not fulfill your desires, neither does it suppress them, but directs them to an increasing and eternal fulfillment. It is a kingdom of hope. It looks to the blessings that come from the God who is in heaven, blessings which begin now and culminate in the age to come.

And one comes to enjoy this blessedness in an unexpected way - it comes through the hard road of discipleship. To enjoy the blessings of the kingdom, you must repent of your sins and turn to Christ. The Beatitudes are an explanation of Jesus' basic proclamation from the previous chapter: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17). Each of the initial descriptions (e.g. the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.) are variations on repentance. And as is made clear by the identical reference to the kingdom in the first and last beatitudes, each of the blessings listed in the other beatitudes are variations on what it is to participate in the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Sexual Desire and Marriage

Last Sunday I preached on Jesus words about murder and adultery, recorded in Matthew 5:21-30. You can listen to the sermon at this link. In that passage, Jesus notes that not only is the external act of adultery forbidden, but adulterous desire is also forbidden. This accords with the similar prohibition in the tenth commandment: "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife" (Exod. 20:17). In my sermon, I quoted the following passage from John Murray's book, Principles of Conduct, and I thought I would post it here as well.
“The line of demarcation between virtue and vice is not a chasm but a razor’s edge. Sex desire is not wrong and Jesus does not say so. To cast any aspersion on sex desire is to impugn the integrity of the Creator and of his creation. Furthermore, it is not wrong to desire to satisfy sex desire and impulse in the way God has ordained. Indeed, sex desire is one of the considerations which induce men and women to marry. The Scripture fully recognizes the propriety of that motive and commends marriage as the honorable and necessary outlet for sex impulse. What is wrong is the earliest and most rudimentary desire to satisfy the impulse to the sex act outside the estate of matrimony. It is not wrong to desire the sex act with the person who may be contemplated as spouse if and when the estate of matrimony will have been entered upon with him or her. But the desire for the sex act outside that divinely instituted and strictly guarded sanctuary which God has reserved for the man and his wife alone is wrong; and it is from this fountain of desire that proceed all the evils by which the sanctity of sex is desecrated.”

Thursday, November 14, 2019

John Calvin on the Old and New Covenants

There is one covenant that God has made to reestablish fellowship with sinful humanity, revealed in first in the old covenant (Old Testament) and then in the new covenant (New Testament). There is one people of God throughout history, bound to Him and to each other by this covenant. Christ did not come to abolish the old covenant. He came to bring it to fulfillment in a permanent form, based on His redemptive work, with greater spiritual power and new ceremonies that more clearly exhibit what the old covenant ceremonies pointed to: Christ. John Calvin remarked on this continuity between the old and new covenants, and the abiding authority of the Old Testament law, in his commentary on the Gospels.

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17)
"God had, indeed, promised a new covenant at the coming of Christ; but had, at the same time, showed, that it would not be different from the first, but that, on the contrary, its design was, to give a perpetual sanction to the covenant, which he had made from the beginning, with his own people.
'I will write my law, (says he,) in their hearts,
and I will remember their iniquities no more.'
(Jeremiah 31:33, 34)
By these words he is so far from departing from the former covenant, that, on the contrary, he declares, that it will be confirmed and ratified, when it shall be succeeded by the new. This is also the meaning of Christ’s words, when he says, that he came to fulfill the law: for he actually fulfilled it, by quickening, with his Spirit, the dead letter, and then exhibiting, in reality, what had hitherto appeared only in figures. 
With respect to doctrine, we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed. The coming of Christ has taken nothing away even from ceremonies, but, on the contrary, confirms them by exhibiting the truth of shadows: for, when we see their full effect, we acknowledge that they are not vain or useless. Let us therefore learn to maintain inviolable this sacred tie between the law and the Gospel, which many improperly attempt to break. For it contributes not a little to confirm the authority of the Gospel, when we learn, that it is nothing else than a fulfillment of the law; so that both, with one consent, declare God to be their Author." (source)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Westminster Assembly on Dating and Courtship

The Westminster Assembly was a 17th century council of English Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian ministers who were tasked with unifying the English and Scottish churches with a shared statement of faith, catechism, system of government, and guidelines for worship. Its confession of faith and catechisms are still the doctrinal standards of Presbyterian churches today.

Today I want to share some of what the assembly said about biblical guidelines for the process of getting married. In evangelical circles in our time, there has been a bit of confusion and discussion about how to respond to the culture of individualism, casual dating, sexual "freedom" that surrounds us. Some have used the term "courtship" to describe a way of getting married that is more purposeful, careful, and respectful of parental authority. While this approach has gone well for some, myself included, in other people's experience the attempt to implement this alternative way has been messy and prone to overreaction, which is why I bring in this historical perspective. Over-reacting and under-reacting are both driven by an unbalanced focus on the present situation. The teachings of the church in other cultures and eras can give us balance, new insights, and the wisdom of experience. So what did the Westminster Assembly have to say about getting married?

First, the Westminster Assembly has a chapter on marriage in its Confession of Faith (chapter 24, see link for biblical footnotes). In short, it affirms that the Bible teaches that marriage is to be monogamous and heterosexual, for mutual help, procreation, and the prevention of immorality. Incestuous marriages cannot be made lawful, and divorce is only lawful in the case of adultery or willful desertion which is unable to be remedied by church and state. Article three of this chapter is particularly relevant for the topic of getting married:
"It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry, who are able with judgment to give their consent. Yet it is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies." 
Second, the Westminster Assembly described the duties of the seventh commandment (the one against adultery) at length in the Larger Catechism (Q. 137-139). Not only does it describe our duty to be chaste in "body, mind, affections, words, and behavior," but also our duty to preserve our own chastity and the chastity of others. This requires "watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses; temperance, keeping of chaste company, modesty in apparel" - certainly important directions in our present day which exalts pleasure, autonomous freedom, and irresponsible clothing choices. Most importantly for the topic of getting married, it affirms that one duty of the seventh commandment is "marriage by those that have not the gift of continency." If you are of marriageable age, you have a duty to seek marriage, unless you have a special gift of restraint such that sexual temptation is not a threat (1 Cor. 7:2-9; see this post for more on that text). The catechism says that one of the sins forbidden by the seventh commandment is the "undue delay of marriage."

Third, and perhaps most overlooked, is what the Westminster Assembly said about getting married in the Directory for Public Worship (under "The Solemnization of Marriage"). Before the directory gives directions for the wedding ceremony, it gives directions for the process of getting married. Give particular attention to how it handles the consent of the couple and their parents, beginning in the fourth paragraph. In short, the free consent of the couple (Gen. 24:57-58, Mal. 2:14) and of their parents (Ex. 20:12, 22:17, Deut. 7:3) are both needed before the engagement is made public (i.e. they all have ability to veto the marriage), although parents cannot deny their consent without just cause.
"Although marriage be no sacrament, nor peculiar to the church of God, but common to mankind, and of publick interest in every commonwealth; yet, because such as marry are to marry in the Lord, and have special need of instruction, direction, and exhortation, from the word of God, at their entering into such a new condition, and of the blessing of God upon them therein, we judge it expedient that marriage be solemnized by a lawful minister of the word, that he may accordingly counsel them, and pray for a blessing upon them.
Marriage is to be betwixt one man and one woman only; and they such as are not within the degrees of consanguinity or affinity prohibited by the word of God; and the parties are to be of years of discretion, fit to make their own choice, or, upon good grounds, to give their mutual consent. 
Before the solemnizing of marriage between any persons, the purpose of marriage shall be published by the minister three several sabbath-days, in the congregation, at the place or places of their most usual and constant abode, respectively. And of this publication the minister who is to join them in marriage shall have sufficient testimony, before he proceed to solemnize the marriage. 
Before that publication of such their purpose, (if the parties be under age,) the consent of the parents, or others under whose power they are, (in case the parents be dead,) is to be made known to the church officers of that congregation, to be recorded. 
The like is to be observed in the proceedings of all others, although of age, whose parents are living, for their first marriage. 
And, in after marriages of either of those parties, they shall be exhorted not to contract marriage without first acquainting their parents with it, (if with conveniency it may be done,) endeavouring to obtain their consent. 
Parents ought not to force their children to marry without their free consent, nor deny their own consent without just cause. 
After the purpose or contract of marriage hath been thus published, the marriage is not to be long deferred."
And fourth, even though it is not the product of the Westminster Assembly, but of one of its members, I would recommend William Gouge's book, Of Domestical Duties (1622), which has been published in a modern edition as Building a Godly Home, 3 volumes (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), available here. The topic of getting married is covered in volumes 2 and 3. William Gouge was a senior member of the Westminster Assembly, a Puritan pastor in London, and a married man with thirteen children. His book is worth reading. Here is one quote from him on the process of getting married:
"The first liking is sometimes on the parents' or other friends' part, and then made known to the party to be married ... (Gen. 24:58). Sometimes again the first liking is on the party's part that is to be married, and then if that party be under the authority of parents, the matter must be proposed to them, before there be any further proceeding ... (Judg. 14:2). Even if the party is not under the authority of any, it is very fitting that counsel be taken of wise and understanding friends ... After a liking is thus taken by one party for a good mate, that liking must be proposed to the other party so liked, to know if there is a reciprocal affection of one towards another ... Mutual love and good liking of each other is as glue. Let the parties to be married be well settled before they come to meet with trials through cohabitation, and that love will not easily be loosened by any trials ... When both parties have shown a mutual liking to each other, and upon mature deliberation and good advice do think one to be a fit match for another, it is necessary that a joint consent and absolute promise of marrying one another before sufficient witnesses be made." (Building a Godly Home, vol. 2, p. 17-19)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Who is the Holy Spirit?

The Spirit is not a dove, but once He used the form of a dove to symbolize Himself (Matt. 3:16)

1. The Holy Spirit is God, the same God who is revealed throughout Scripture. The apostle Peter identifies the Spirit as God in Acts 5:3-4. The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:17, identities the Spirit as the Lord, and in that context "the Lord" is God, the same God who revealed His glory to Moses. This means that He shares in all the attributes of God: He is eternal, invisible, present everywhere, all powerful, all knowing, perfectly righteous and wise, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. 

2. The Holy Spirit is a person, not a force. Jesus described the Spirit in personal terms when He called the Spirit "another Helper," just as Jesus had been a helper (John 14:16-17, 26). The word can mean helper, counselor, or advocate. The Spirit can be lied to (Acts 5:3), which implies a personal relation to the Spirit. The Spirit can also be grieved (Eph. 4:30).  

3. The Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. The Spirit is sent by the Father and is “another Helper” compared to Jesus (John 14:16-17), so the Spirit is distinct from both of them, even though the three of them are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. We also see the Spirit distinguished from - and interacting with - the other persons of the Trinity in passages like Jesus’ baptism where He descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16-17).

4. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son is distinguished as the only one eternally begotten from the Father (John 1:14) and the Spirit is distinguished as the one who eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. This term comes from John 15:26, where Jesus says, "when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me." The Eastern church argues from this that the Spirit only proceeds from the Father, but the Western church has argued that since Scripture also speaks of the Spirit as "the Spirit of his Son" (Gal. 4:6), that the Spirit proceeds from them both. This makes sense, since just as the Son reveals and points to the one from whom He is begotten, the Father (John 1:14, 18), so the Spirit reveals and points to those from whom He proceeds, both the Father and the Son (John 14:26, 15:26, Gal. 4:6). 

5. The Holy Spirit is the giver of life. "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). In both creation and salvation, the Spirit is described as the one who gives life. We get a hint of that when God gives life to man by His breath in Genesis 2:7, since the word for breath and spirit are the same (see also Job 33:4). Psalm 104:29–30 describes God's ongoing work in the order of creation by the Spirit, "When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground."

Therefore, it is fitting that the new spiritual life of salvation also comes from the Spirit. We are born again with a renewed nature by the Spirit (John 3:5-6). We are united to Jesus and given eternal life by the Spirit (John 6:54-56, 63). We are delivered by the Spirit from our sinful nature and its rebellious ways unto a new nature defined by virtues like love, peace, and self-control (Gal. 5:16-24). The Spirit gives life to the church, making the body work together in mutual service and binding it to Christ the head (1 Cor. 12:3-7, 12-13). And finally, our bodies will be raised up on the last day by the Spirit (Rom. 8:11). In short, while the Son accomplishes salvation, the Spirit applies these benefits to the elect. 

6. The Holy Spirit reveals God's word to humanity. The Spirit spoke through people and guided them to write down God's word for future generation in the Scripture. The apostle Peter told his readers to pay attention to Scripture, because no prophecy of Scripture came "by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). And while he had the Old Testament particularly in mind, Peter put apostolic witness on the same level (1:16-19, 3:2) and identifies the apostolic writings as Scripture at the end of his epistle (3:15-16). This is no surprise, since Jesus said that the Spirit would remind the apostles of His words (John 14:25-26), so that the whole Bible is the product of the Spirit's work. 

In connection with this work, the Spirit also gave gifts of healing and miracles to confirm the apostolic message (Heb. 2:4) and gave the gift of speaking in foreign tongues to communicate the inclusion of the Gentiles in the new convent (Acts 2:4-11, 1 Cor. 14:21-22). The new covenant being established and the canon of Scripture being finished with Jesus and His apostles (Heb. 1:1-2, 2:4, 2 Peter 3:2), these particular gifts have ceased with the passing away of the apostles.

Yet, the Spirit continues to work in the hearts and minds of people to enable them to recognize, receive, and understand the written word of God (1 Cor. 2:12–14). The Spirit gives us the ability to believe and obey God's word, not only externally, but also from the heart (Ezek. 36:26-27).

7. The Holy Spirit is essential to the Christian faith and life (Matt. 28:19). Neglecting the Spirit cannot come without fundamentally distorting Christianity. This usually happens by making the faith moralistic, merely formal and external, or a matter of "cold orthodoxy." On the other hand, many people today have a unbiblical understanding of the Spirit's work, isolated from the written word and the work of Christ. This can lead to a dangerous confusion between the Holy Spirit and your inner thoughts and feelings. But a proper appreciation of the Holy Spirit leads to a lively faith and active love in the fellowship of the saints which is guided by Scripture and leads us to appreciate and enjoy the work of Christ and the love of the Father. And so we confess in the historic words of the Nicene Creed of 381:
"And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets."

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Join Us for the 2019 Pilgrim Heritage Celebration!

In the video above, I give a brief explanation of why my church hosts an annual event that remembers and celebrates the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth colony. This year's event will be held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, November 23rd, at the Family Vision Library (2020 Parkway Dr. St Peters, MO 63376). I will be speaking on how we might live today as heirs of the Pilgrims, learning from their example and extending their vision into the future. I will be joined by Jeff Hamann, who will recall the history of the Pilgrims, and Dan Ford, who will speak about the legacy of the Pilgrims in American history. Dan Ford is the author of The Legacy Of Liberty and Property and In the Name of God, Amen: Rediscovering Biblical and Historical Covenants.

The main program will begin at 3:30pm. This will include the talks, as well as music and other fun. Afterwards we will eat together with a delicious Thanksgiving-style dinner, and we will conclude with a 17th-century country dance.

Registration for the event is now open online at this link. Register today at least several days in advance so that we can tell the caterer how much food to bring. Admission is $5 a person, and children 2 years old and under are free. Let me know if you have any questions by using the contact form at this link

For recordings from the last two years of this event, see here and here. You can also read this post that I wrote in preparation for this event last year, explaining why the Pilgrims are worth a celebration. You can also watch the dance that I plan on calling at the end of this year's event at this link

“Lastly, (and which was not least), a great hope and inward zeall they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way therunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
-William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation

Friday, November 1, 2019

Should Christians Keep the Old Testament Feasts?

Because modern Christianity tends to neglect the Old Testament, some have sought to supply this lack by returning to Old Testament practices like the food laws, the seventh-day Sabbath, and at least some of the feasts. It also seems that this movement comes as a radical reaction against the history and tradition of the Christian church. For example, the choice between the traditional church calendar and the Old Testament feasts is seen as a conflict between tradition and biblical truth. This is a bit ironic, because they usually end up adopting Jewish traditions that have continued to develop since biblical times. But it is a powerful appeal, especially to Protestants, and appears to have some truth to it - after all, Sukkoth is in the Bible, but Christmas is not. So should we return to the Old Testament ceremonies and holy days?

In his letter to the saints in Colossae, the apostle Paul wrote,
"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ." (Colossians 2:16–17)
This is one of the places in the New Testament which teaches that the old covenant ceremonies that pointed to Christ are no longer binding on Christians in the present era. Now, I have seen some argue that Paul is here affirming these practices, in effect saying: "do not let anyone condemn you for practicing these things, since they point to Christ." But this is not Paul's point in Colossians. Rather, he is saying, "do not let anyone condemn you for not following these practices, since you already have the substance they pointed to - Christ!" How do I know this? Because the sufficiency of Christ, as opposed to regulations regarding what you can taste and touch, is Paul's theme (Col. 2:6, 20-21). He had already addressed the matter of circumcision, the preeminent symbol of the old covenant administration. He argued that they were already circumcised with a circumcision made without hands by putting off the flesh and being united to Christ, an event confirmed by their baptism (Col. 2:11-12). They were circumcised without being physically circumcised by having the substance, Christ. This pattern holds true for other ceremonial laws of food and times.

The laws regarding clean and unclean foods had been given to represent the purity of God’s people, in distinction from the nations (Lev. 11, Acts 10:9-29). The unclean foods were literally unclean and often unhealthy, but that is not the main reason they were forbidden (just as ritual washings were primarily spiritual in meaning, even though they did physically wash things). The true uncleanness or defilement is sin and curse. The food laws were a shadow, but the substance belongs to Christ. Christ takes away our defilement and makes us clean. In Christ, we are called to avoid the defilement of sin and to be holy. Christ taught us the true meaning of defilement in Mark 7:18-23 when he said,
“‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’” 
The festivals and new moons were holy times in Israel, observed with sacrifices and often participated in by eating. These also were shadows of Christ. The Passover pointed to Christ, our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-13). The Feast of Firstfruits pointed to Christ, who rose as the firstfruits of the dead on that very day (1 Cor. 15). The Feast of Weeks or Harvest (i.e. Pentecost) commemorated blessing in the Promised Land and the giving of the law. It pointed to Christ, who achieved lasting rest in the land (Heb. 3-4) and who sent His Spirit on that day to write the law on our hearts (Acts 2). The Feast of Trumpets prepared the people for the next two events in that seventh month: the Day of Atonement, which pointed to Christ’s atonement for our sins which was achieved on the cross (Heb. 9), and the Feast of Booths, which looked back to God’s provision for Israel in the wilderness and the promised land and looked forward to Christ, who is the manna from heaven, the bread of life (John 6), and the rock from which comes living water (John 4, 1 Cor. 10). And all the sacrifices on these days and on the new moons pointed to Christ, the once-for-all-time sacrifice which paid the penalty for our guilt and defilement and reconciled us to God (Heb. 9-10).

Also on this list is “a Sabbath” or “sabbaths.” This probably refers to the sabbath years, as well as the weekly, seventh-day Sabbath. The old covenant Sabbath pointed to Christ and His redemptive work. It was a day of rest, and Christ has given us rest. If we have entered God’s rest in Christ, we have rested from our works (Heb. 4:10). It was also a day that commemorated the accomplishment of redemption. In Deuteronomy 5:15, Israel was commanded to keep the Sabbath in remembrance of their exodus from Egypt. It was then that God rested from the work of redemption and that Israel rested from its bondage. But this pointed to the full accomplishment of redemption in the resurrection of Christ. Thus, the seventh-day Sabbath was a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. And so we do not observe the seventh-day Sabbath of the old covenant, but we follow the example of Christ and the apostles and observe the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. The Sabbath principle is an aspect of creation and is part of the moral law, but the day has changed because a new creation has begun and something greater than the exodus has come.

Thus, all of these old covenant ceremonies of food and time are no longer required. They were tutors given to bring Israel to Christ before His coming. They were shadows, giving us the outline of the one to come, but now that He has come, we turn from observing the shadows to Jesus Christ. Jesus established new ceremonies that fit the greater clarity of the new covenant, like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Lord’s Day. While the Old Testament feasts are in the Bible, to treat them as holy days, to be observed today as such, is unbiblical.

The Old Testament is important. It is often sadly neglected today. It is still part of the Bible, God's infallible word. But it is vital to understand it and obey it in the light of Christ and the new covenant.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Reformation and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Reformation Day is coming up in a few days on October 31st, and one of the central points of the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine articulated in the quote below. As opposed to the idea that the whole counsel of God was given partially in Scripture and partially in a distinct oral tradition preserved by the church leadership, the Reformers taught that Scripture was sufficient, not lacking any additional revelation to be gained through church tradition, and that Scripture alone remained an infallible rule of faith and obedience. Because the whole counsel of God was given in His written word, and only there preserved infallibly, it could serve as the basis for a reformation of the church and a correction of her doctrines and traditions where they had gone astray.

“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.” 
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Our Duty towards Unjust Civil Government

In two recent posts, I have considered the duty of civil government and the duty of the people toward civil government. Here I want to conclude this short series by considering our duty when civil authority is abused. Those in civil government often use their power in unjust ways or ways that go beyond God's intention for civil government, adding additional burdens for those under them. While the civil government ought to be the champion of justice and liberty, sometimes it is the very thing that undermines these principles. So what should we do when the civil government is unjust or overbearing? Here are some things we should do:

1. Focus on serving God in your current condition, rather than fretting. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24, be content even when you are in some degree of servitude and serve God by respecting your master. "Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it" (1 Cor. 7:21). But seek freedom when you are able. "But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity ... do not become bondservants of men." (1 Cor. 7:21, 23).

2. Embrace responsibility and act like freemen in spirit. Do not let your condition lead you to lose initiative or become embittered and discouraged. You are a freeman of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:22). Govern yourself, take responsibility for your own, and show mercy to others.

3. Be patient amid injustice - especially as private citizens. Jesus gave us a general rule in Matthew 5:38-42 to not resist the one who is evil, particularly in cases like when someone gives a personal insult, takes your clothes, or impresses you into government service for a mile or two. Note also what Paul says in Romans 12:14-21, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them ... Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God."

4. Repent of your sins and seek mercy from God in prayer. Participate in corporate repentance as a people, confessing not only individual sins, but also societal and national sins. God can use tyrants and oppressors to judge sinners and to chastise His people (Judges 2:11-23), and the intended response is for us to repent and seek His mercy (Jonah 3). And pray also that God might correct injustice and tyranny and save His people from oppression (Ps. 10, 82, 94), appealing to His righteousness and steadfast love.

5. Disciple others in a biblical view of society, justice, and the state (Matt. 28:18-20). This is key to lasting change, particularly when people are transformed by the gospel and desire to honor God in this area. Political campaigns might call people to action, but they cannot replace the formative work of education, gospel transformation, and discipleship.

6. Be involved in politics. Seek reformation with whatever influence you can reasonably exercise. This includes campaigns, protests, petitions, donations, voting, and the like. “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate…” (Amos 5:15). A free system of government, like we have here in the United States, gives citizens a large amount of opportunity and responsibility to establish justice and freedom through political involvement. The well-being of your neighbors depends in part upon your political involvement.

7. Challenge unjust actions by legal means. Call a lawyer. Appeal from one authority to another. Paul made this sort of resistance several times (Acts 16:37, 22:25, 28:19). Occasionally strategic law-breaking may be part of such a legal challenge. 

8. Respectfully and firmly disobey if the civil government commands you to sin. Consider the examples of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3), Daniel (Dan. 1, 6) and the apostles (Acts 5). "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

9. Run away when in private danger for just cause. Consider the example of David (1 Sam. 19:12, 20:1, 21:10) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3).

10. Support resistance by another civil authority. Within a system of civil government, there is a variety of authorities, and each civil authority has a particular duty to use force to protect the people under his charge against unjust aggression (Rom. 13:1-5). It is proper for a civil authority to interpose between the people and an unjust ruler. The people as a whole is one of these civil authorities, though private individuals are not. We see an example of this imposition in 1 Samuel 14:43-45 when the people stopped King Saul from executing Jonathan, as well as in 2 Chronicles 23 when the priests and the commanders and heads of the people made Joash king and dethroned Queen Athaliah the tyrant. Because this interposition involves resistance with force, it should be subject to just war criteria and used when other remedies have been tried and failed. We see more recent examples of this principle in the English Civil War and the American War for Independence. A less dramatic example of this is when a lower magistrate refuses to enforce an unjust law from a higher authority. 

It is easy to get discouraged when the power of civil government begins to be used for injustice or to expand government control and take away freedom. The is especially the case in our day when an individual seems so small in the grand scheme of things. But to give up in discouragement and bitterness is only to become even more a slave than you were already. There are many things that a person can do, and with the help of others and the blessing of God, change is possible. Our Lord reigns in the heavens and laughs at the pride of even the most powerful tyrants.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Our Duty toward Civil Government

"It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honor their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience' sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted…" 
(Westminster Confession of Faith 23.4)

Earlier, we had looked at the duty of civil government (here). Now I want to consider the duty of the people toward civil government, as defined in God's word.

The authority of civil government to execute God’s judgement upon the unjust was instituted by God in Genesis 9:4-6. The form of government is not fixed in that passage. Principles like wisdom and justice must guide each nation to construct the best form for their situation.

By God’s common grace, this institution can be found in virtually all societies, much like marriage. Even in Israel, where God’s written law was supreme, the written law did not replace human authority, but rather defined and established it. Subjection to human rulers was a duty in Israel, for example, in word, obedience, and attitude.
"You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people." (Exodus 22:28) 
"You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left." (Deuteronomy 17:11) 
"My son, fear the LORD and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise, for disaster will arise suddenly from them, and who knows the ruin that will come from them both?" (Proverbs 24:21–22)
And so it is no surprise that the apostle Paul did not approach submission to civil government as a pragmatic compromise with a pagan power merely to avoid punishment. Rather, in Romans 13:1-7, he teaches that it is the institution of God and that our duties toward it are done for the sake of conscience.

We find in that passage that we ought to be subject to the various civil authorities and to not resist them, for God has appointed them (13:1-2). In the original Greek, the words “be subject,” “instituted,” “resist,” and “appointed” are all variations on the word τάσσω, "to set." The idea is to set yourself under authority, because God has set the authority there, so do not set yourself against what God has thoroughly set in place. Know your place and place yourself under the governing authorities in word and deed.

We are told to do good and to not fear punishment; in other words, to govern ourselves so that the civil authority does not need to intervene (v. 3). We are told to be in subjection to the magistrate, both to avoid God’s wrath at his hands and for conscience's sake (v. 5). We are told it is our duty to pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers (v. 6). Give taxes, revenue, honor, and respect to whom they are due (v. 7). This honor and respect includes your attitude, your words, and even visible signs of respect. In 1 Timothy 2:2, Paul adds that we should pray for them as well (1 Tim. 2:2). For more on praying for civil authorities, see this post.

In our current political culture, it is common for people of all political persuasions to disrespect those who serve in civil government. It is a temptation we all face. Your faithfulness to these commands from God's word are especially tested when the official in question is someone you strongly disagree with. In a day when insults, ridicule, exaggeration, falsehoods, and reviling is common, be firm in your convictions but respectful to all, especially to those with authority, remembering the apostle's words to Titus, "Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people" (Titus 3:1–2).

But what about when civil government is unjust and tyrannical? Is there anything else we can do? While being respectful and subject to authority, what can we do to oppose injustice and tyranny? I will follow up on this question in another post.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Duty of Civil Government

"God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates, to be, under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the public good: and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defense and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evildoers." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 23.1)

Civil government is not just a good idea - it is appointed by God. In Genesis 9:3-6 he gave man the responsibility to avenge the murder of the innocent, to reestablish justice with the power of the sword when the image of God is attacked. This basic responsibility developed under God's direction to a general responsibility to enforce justice, to punish the evildoer, and to protect the innocent.

We see this point articulated in both the Old Testament law and in the New Testament in passages like Romans 13:1-7. There we see that civil rulers, even pagan rulers, have delegated authority from God (Rom. 13:1). They have their legitimacy from God’s appointment (Rom. 13:2). Just like the judges and elders of Israel (Deut. 1:17), so even pagan rulers judge not for men, but for God. They are God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). They exercise God’s authority and are accountable to Him. They are appointed to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:4). When justice is violated, civil rulers are to restore justice. “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow…” (Deut. 16:20). Wrongdoing provokes God’s just wrath, and rulers carry it out as far as they can as limited human authorities.

The power they have to carry out God’s wrath is the sword (Rom. 13:4). The authority of civil rulers is symbolized by the sword since it is their final appeal, their ultimate power. They vindicate the innocent and restore justice by capital punishment, but also by other means, like restitution and corporal punishment. The sword is used against private criminals as well as foreign armies - rulers have the authority to defend their people and land in just war.

The result is that they are a terror to bad conduct (Rom. 13:3). They restrain evil in the earth. They promote peace by punishing those who break the peace. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:2, when kings and rulers do their job, it allows us to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Therefore, they are for your good. The saying of Cicero which was adopted as the state motto of Missouri, “Let the good of the people be the supreme law,” is not perfect when it is left unqualified and undefined. Yet it is true that rulers are God’s servant for the good of the people. They are servant leaders, ruling for the sake of those under their care, not for themselves. They serve the public good by restoring justice, judging the evildoer and defending the innocent. They are especially a benefit for those who are vulnerable and weak (Prov. 31:8-9). They also have a particular duty to protect the liberty and promote the good of Christ's church as "foster fathers and nursing mothers" of God’s people (Is. 49:23, see also WCF 23.3, WLC 191, and this post).

Since civil rulers are God's servants, they must take their standard of justice from God. This is known to some degree through the design of creation and the witness of conscience, but it has been revealed infallibly and most clearly in the Bible, being summarized in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). So to understand what the civil government ought to be doing, let us consider the principles of the Ten Commandments, what we might consider the Bible's "bill of rights."

1. God’s right to ultimate loyalty (Ex. 20:3). He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Sovereign over all, and all authorities on earth ought to act in accordance with this truth. The civil government ought to confess subjection to God, particularly his anointed King, Jesus Christ (Ps. 2), rather than serve a false god or treat themselves as god. In our secular age, the state - as the manifestation of the will of the people - is often seen as supreme, divine, and messianic.

2. God’s right to be worshipped as he has appointed (Ex. 20:4-6). The civil government ought to discourage false worship and idolatry, at least protecting and prioritizing the true worship of God (Is. 60:10-12, Judges 6:25-32). Certainly in its own ceremonies, assemblies, and proclamations of thanksgiving and fasts, it should worship the true God as he has appointed in his word. As our Larger Catechism says, in addition to our personal opposition to false worship, we should act against it "according to each one's place and calling" (WLC 108).

3. God’s right to his name (Ex. 20:7). The civil government ought to keep its oaths, punish oath breakers (Lev. 19:12), and suppress public blasphemers (Ex. 22:28, Dan. 3:29). Just as a human has a right to his good name (see below), so God's name ought to be vindicated from slander. As John Calvin wrote, "those laws are preposterous which neglect God's right and provide only for men" (Institutes, 4.20.9).

4. God’s right to his day and man’s right to a weekly rest (Ex. 20:8-11; note the added emphasis on rest for laborers in Deut. 5:12-15). Because this day is appointed for God's worship and man's rest, the civil government ought to enforce restrictions on business on a weekly sabbath day (see this post for more on the corporate implications of the sabbath). Since the resurrection, the sabbath day is the first day of the week, the Lord's Day. Like the rest of the Ten Commandments, this command is based in creation and binding on all people. This commandment explicitly includes "the sojourner who is within your gates" (Ex. 20:10, see also WLC 118). See Nehemiah 13:15-22 for an example of this being enforced on non-Israelites in a firm but careful manner.

5. Parental rights and authority (Ex. 20:12). The civil government should generally respect and support parental authority and training (Matt. 15:4, Deut. 6:7, 21:18-21) and the honor and duties “belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (WSC, 64). Civil government becomes totalitarian when it seeks to supplant the natural household and other "intermediate institutions" in society. It must be careful that its policies do not discourage or replace the natural ties and responsibilities of the household (1 Tim. 5:4).  

6. Human right to life (Ex. 20:13). Human life is valuable because God created humanity as his image, his representative (Gen. 9:6). The civil government ought to administer the death penalty for murder (Gen. 9:6) and various penalties for negligence, manslaughter, and physical abuse/injury (Deut. 22:8, Num. 35:22-29, Ex. 21:26-32). It should support the right of justified self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3) and wage just war against aggressors (Deut. 20, Rom. 13:4). This duty to defend innocent life extends to the unborn (Ex. 22:22-25), so that abortion, rather than being a right protected by the government, should be prohibited by it.

7. Rights of marriage (Ex. 20:14). The civil government ought to uphold and recognize the institution of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, according to God's design (for more on marriage, see this sermon). It ought to put limits on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9, 1 Cor. 7:15, Deut. 24:1-4, see also WCF 24.5-6), hold men accountable for premarital sex (see Ex. 22:16-17), and punish those who are caught committing rape, adultery, and homosexuality (Deut. 22:22-27, Lev. 20:10-13).

8. Right of property ownership (Ex. 20:15). The civil government ought to enforce restitution for goods unlawfully taken or withheld (Ex. 21:33-22:15), punish fraud in the market place and unfaithfulness in contracts (Lev. 19:11-13), and punish kidnapping and enslaving (Ex. 21:16). The protection of private property encourages responsibility, initiative, and long-term thinking. Rulers should avoid using their power for unjust confiscation, excessive taxation, or other ways they might violate this principle (1 Kgs. 21, Mic. 3:1-3, Amos 5:11; see this post for more on taxation).

9. Right to one’s good name and the truth (Ex. 20:16). The civil government ought to punish false witnesses with the penalty that would have been received as a result of his witness (Deut. 19:15-21) and vindicate the innocent against slander (Lev. 19:16). This is essential to harmony in society and to a judicial system that might enforce justice justly.

10. You shall not covet (Ex. 20:17). This last one is like the first - primarily an internal command. Just as rulers should confess subjection to God, likewise should they confess their duty to protect those under their care, even from themselves, recognizing their limits and the purpose of their authority.

Finally, an important part of justice is having a just method for adjudicating cases and punishing crime. The Bible insists on an investigation of the facts, presumption of innocence, due process, and at least two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15, Josh. 7). In biblical law, there is a focus on the victim’s rights, an aim at restitution and restoration, and limits and checks on government power. I also believe it teaches that for capital offenses, the death penalty can be reduced to a lesser punishment due to various circumstances in some cases (though not in the case of murder). Also, the Bible teaches that it is vital for judges to have good character and wisdom if they are going to do their job well (Deut. 1:13, Ex. 18:21, 1 Kgs. 3).

So civil government is appointed by God to enforce justice so that people may enjoy peace and liberty. In the next two posts, I will move on to the duty of people toward the civil government: