Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What Does It Mean to Honor My Parents?


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

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

So what is it to honor your parents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

St. Patrick's Confident Message in Dark Times


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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Presbyterian Church Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Viewing the World as God's Creation

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 1, 2019

Contentment and Generosity

I finished a sermon series on Paul's letter to the Philippians this past Lord's Day (you can listen to the series here). One point I noticed at the end of this letter was how Paul ended by highlighting both contentment and generosity.

Paul notes that he received their gift with joy, but not because he was discontent and desperate until he received it. Rather, he had learned to be content in whatever situation (4:10-13). And since Paul had just exhorted the Philippians to imitate him (3:17, 4:9), Paul intends for his reader to practice this contentment as well. But at this point, his readers could have wondered, "should we have sent this gift? If Paul was content, we could have saved ourselves the trouble and kept the gift."

Valuing contentment without also valuing generosity could leave you thinking that you don’t need to help others - they just need to be content. If they are content like they should be, why should I send help?

Paul correct this false inference: "Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble" (4:14). In fact, he notes that this generosity contributed to their own credit (4:17) and that it was a "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God" (4:18). This gift was an expression of the partnership they had with him (4:15). It gave him joy (4:10).

When God's people exercise both contentment and generosity, they steer clear of the temptations of envy, greed, and selfishness and learn to live in unity and love. Both of these traits depend upon a trust in God found in the gospel. Contentment is only possible "through him who strengthens me" (4:13), and generosity is motivated by its value in the sight of God and the assurance that God "will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (4:19). The peace of God comes to us as individuals and as a community when we turn from trust in our self and our stuff unto trust in God through Christ, leading us to both contentment and generosity.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

John Cotton and Covenant Community

My church holds to the Presbyterian confession of faith, shorter catechism, and larger catechism, believing them to be faithful summaries of the Bible's teachings (see here). They were written by the Westminster Assembly, which met in the 1640s. Yet these were not the only catechisms in use, since a catechism was a common tool used by pastors to teach the doctrines of the faith. One catechism that was written around the same time was John Cotton's "Milk for Babes," first published in 1646. John Cotton (1585–1652) was a Puritan pastor, first in the Boston in England, and then in the Boston in New England, and he wrote the catechism for the children of both Bostons. His catechism is shorter than our Westminster Shorter Catechism, with 64 questions rather than 107, and it was sometimes printed along with the Shorter Catechism in the popular New England Primer during the 18th century.

You can read Cotton's full catechism here, but here is his section on the church and the covenant. Even though Cotton was a Congregationalist, these answers are quite similar to our Presbyterian Westminster Confession, especially its chapter 26, "Of the Communion of Saints." In the last question, he does not go into detail how the children of believers receive the seals of the covenant, but he believed (as I do) that they receive baptism even as infants, but receive the Lord's Supper once they are able to examine themselves and discern the body (1 Cor. 11:28-29). The point here is that they are members of the covenant with their parents and received with their parents into the fellowship of the church. I really appreciate the way these answers make use of the covenant in its explanation of the church. My church uses this concept in our name, Covenant Family Church. This covenant is a covenant of grace and redemption, but it also obligates us to live in relationship with God and His people.

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Q. What is the Church?
A. It is a Congregation of Saints joyned together in the bond of the Covenant, to worship the Lord, and to edify one another, in all his Holy Ordinances.
(Psalm 89:5; 50:5, 16; Ezek. 20.37; Acts 2:42, 1 Cor. 14:23, 26)

Q. What is the bond of the Covenant, in which the Church is joyned together?
A. It is the profession of that Covenant, which God hath made with his faithfull people, to be a God unto them and to their seede.
(2 Cor. 8:5, 9:13; Gen. 17:7)

Q. What doth the Lord binde his people to in this Covenant?
A. To give up themselves and their seede first to the Lord to be his people, and then to the Elders and Brethren of the Church, to set forward the worship of God and their mutuall edifycation.
(Josh. 24:15, 21, 24, 25; 2 Cor. 8.5; Eph. 5:21; Neh. 9:38, with 10:28, 29-34)

Q. How do they give up themselves and their seed to the Lord?
A. By receiving through faith, the Lord, & his Covenant, to themselves, and to their seed, And accordingly walking themselves, and trayning up their Children in the wayes of his Covenant.
(John 1:12, Gen. 17:9-10, Isa. 56:6-7, Gen. 18:19)

Q. How do they give up themselves and their seed to the Elders and Brethren of the Church?
A. By confession of their sinnes and profession of their faith, and of their subjection to the Gospell of Christ. And so they and their seede are received into the fellowship of the Church, and the seales thereof.
(Matt. 3:6, Acts 8:37, 2 Cor. 9:13, Acts 2:38-39)

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Reconstruction of Society and the State


Rushdoony makes some pretty important points in this short video. Society is much larger than the state. The reformation of society comes as people are regenerated and begin to be responsible, govern themselves, and live as freemen. Notice and carefully consider his closing comment: "And only so will we take back government from the state and put it in the hands of Christians." The current state is increasingly totalitarian, taking over many aspects of government that are properly distributed throughout society. By living as responsible freemen, regenerated by grace, we can voluntarily take back these functions (e.g. education, welfare) and administer them to the glory of God. The reconstruction of society will include the state, but it will not view its transformation as the key to transforming society in a totalitarian manner. In a free and self-governing society, the state will be reduced to its proper role as one distinct form of government among many.

Monday, February 18, 2019

A Christian Perspective on Buddhism


Buddhism is the religion of roughly 488 million people. While most Buddhists live in Asia, Buddhism has gained new attention in the West over the past sixty years. Many Americans, even some Christian Americans, have found some elements of Buddhism to be attractive and have sought to incorporate them into their personal beliefs. Christians should realize, though, that Buddhism differs greatly from Christianity on a basic level and results in a vastly different perspective on life.

Buddhist Salvation

Buddhism arose in the context of India in the the 6th century B.C. During that time, Gautama (the Buddha) is said to have experienced “Enlightenment” (an experience many centuries in the making through various reincarnations), giving him insight into the true nature of reality. This gave him the ability to teach others how to escape the problem of samsara, the cycle of reincarnation and suffering that formed the background of Indian religious thought. His teaching began with the Three Marks of Existence. Buddha “contended that all things constituting the world as we know it, including persons, are marked by dukkha (suffering), anatta (absence of self), and anicca (impermanence)” (Netland, 61). Life is filled with frustration (i.e. suffering) because all things are continually changing and illusionary and yet we continue to treat things as if they were real and permanent. These marks of existence lead to the Four Noble Truths. These truths are that (1) existence consists of suffering and frustration, (2) suffering is caused by desire, (3) suffering can be overcome, (4) the way to overcome suffering is by following the Eightfold Path (Thompson, 49-50). Because the problem lies with us (we view reality wrongly), we can escape this problem by changing ourselves.

Yet, it is difficult to retrain our minds to conform to this new idea of reality. Buddha taught that to free ourselves of desires and to grow in “wisdom,” the Eightfold Path is necessary. Following the Eightfold Path requires one to correctly understanding reality; to have genuine intention to live rightly; to abstain from hateful and selfish speech, actions, and occupations; and to control one’s effort, mind, and concentration (Thompson, 50-51). The Buddhist, by following this path, progressively gains a deeper insight into reality and a deeper freedom from desire and frustration. As Buddha said to his first followers, it is this Eightfold Path “that was awakened to by the Realised One, which produces vision, produces knowledge, and which leads to peace, deep knowledge, Complete Awakening, and Emancipation….to the end of suffering” (Vin. Mahav., 53-54 [I.6.18, 22]). In common practice, the moral component of the Eightfold Path is summarized by the Five or Ten Precepts (depending whether is a layperson or monk) that one vows to follow. The Five Precepts are “1. To abstain from intentionally harming life. 2. To abstain from taking things not explicitly given. 3. To abstain from illicit sexual activity. 4. To abstain from harmful speech (lying, gossip, etc.). 5. To abstain from indulging in intoxicants (liquor or other drugs)” (Thompson, 96). In addition to these precepts, practices such as meditation are common to train the mind to experience the truth. An additional component is added in some strains of Buddhism: vicarious salvation. They would teach that one can essentially take a short cut by gaining from the work of others (usually those who have become Buddhas or bodhisattvas) through faith or devotion to them. In this way, a person can receive the benefits of the Eightfold Path without as much struggle and discipline. For example, in Pure Land Buddhism “Amitabha [a Buddha] promises to help all who mediate or call upon him. Pure Land, thus, was the ‘easy path,’ the way for those with faith in the salvific power of Amitabha” (Thompson, 79).

Different Problem and Different Solution

It should be noted that this way of salvation differs sharply from Christianity. In Christianity the root problem is sin, while in Buddhism the root problem is ignorance. Christianity emphasizes that man is guilty and disobedient to God’s law. Buddhism emphasizes that man suffers and is deceived by the illusory nature of this world. “Christianity is addressed to the sinfulness of men, and all the other problems are by-products of that. Buddhism is addressed to the misery of people, as Hinduism and Jainism also are” (Vos, 12). In Christianity the solution involves legal justification and reconciliation with God. In Buddhism the solution involves enlightenment, detachment from reality, and the cessation of frustration. In Christianity good works are caused by, and a response to, God’s gracious work in us. In Buddhism good works are usually done as ways to save one’s self. It is true that there is the possibility among some Buddhists for a vicarious savior received by faith alone, yet this vicarious salvation is still defined by the rest of the Buddhist system and has little to do with the Christian idea of Christ's righteousness being imputed to us so that we may be forgiven and adopted by God. Christianity is centered around God’s person, law, and love. We have rebelled against Him, broken His law, and thus earned His wrath. God saves us by forgiving our sins on account of Christ, bringing us into a loving relationship with Him, and making us more like Him. Buddhism centers around man’s consciousness. The problem is that man is conscious of suffering and the solution is to be free of that suffering by being free of existence. Christianity is a religion that is focused on pursuing something good - reunion and restoration. Buddhism is focused on escaping something bad.

Buddhist Inconsistencies 

Buddhism as a system is not free from internal inconsistencies. For example, it teaches that we should be concerned with escaping the bad effects of Karma that cause us to continue experiencing a distorted view of reality and suffering. Yet, what we experience now is primarily the result of actions in past lives. Much of what we do now will effect us in future lives. Thus, the motivation to do good and escape suffering is at least partly based on the fact of personal continuity between lives. Yet, Buddhism also teaches that persons (including souls) do not exist. “Person” is only a useful label for the collection of things like sensory awareness, conscious awareness, material forces, etc. What is carried on to the next life is not our souls, but only “the positive or negative qualities of consciousness” (Thompson, 49), i.e. Karma. This undermines personal continuity between reincarnations. “This religion tears the motivation out of doing what it wants you to do. It is moralistic, but then it doesn’t really tell you why you should be moral because your Karma is going somewhere else” (Bahnsen, 21). It would seem that the motivation to save one’s self is undermined by the fact that one does not exist as a person.

Another problem in Buddhism is that of authority. While Buddhism does have sacred writings (a vast collection in fact), it cannot claim the authority of a sovereign, all-knowing God as in Christianity. In Buddhism, true knowledge, which saves, comes through personal experience and discipline. In fact, among Buddhists is the idea that language cannot express the ultimate nature of reality (Thompson, 32). But one must have some knowledge conveyed through language and gained through the experience of others to enter the process of gaining this experience. This tension is felt by Buddha, who at first is opposed to sharing his knowledge with others. “This Dhamma I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond the sphere of logic, profound, understandable (only) to the wise.” (Vin. Mahav., 36 [I.5.2]). Buddha’s teachings were simply the result of his enlightenment; he had to learn them. He himself remained a man. At the beginning of his ministry he asserted his authority by claiming that he had attained perfection and nirvana and that therefore
“I will instruct you about the attainment of the Deathless, I will teach the Dhamma, (and) following the path as it has been preached, after no long time (you will attain)…that unsurpassed conclusion to the spiritual life, and will dwell having known, experienced, and attained it yourselves in this very life.” (Vin. Mahav., 49 [I.6.12]) 
The basis of authority was not in logical argument, but rather experience. Buddha had experienced it, and people would have to trust, just as Buddha had to, that his experience was not illusionary and that it led to true knowledge. Furthermore, Buddha himself taught that his followers should not accept things on anyone else’s authority, but only by one’s own authority. “[W]hen you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them” (Kalama Sutta, 10). Knowledge is only verified on the basis of one’s own experience. Buddhism is filled with the tension inherent in sharing and teaching a non-rational personal experience.

The Weakness of the Buddhist Worldview 

Besides formal problems, there are other aspects of Buddhism that simply make it undesirable or lacking. As we have already noted, Buddhism is a negative religion. In other words, it is primarily concerned with what it escapes, not with what it pursues. It focuses on cessation and the lack of suffering. This is reflected in its morals, which are all acts of abstaining. It is man’s desire to pursue, possess, influence, enjoy, or reform that causes his frustration. Buddhism is a religion of retreat. It admits defeat in the realm of the world and seeks a supposedly more realistic hope of detachment. It is a retreat from humanity, ownership, culture, rationality, and reality, all things which Christianity holds dear. Its “rest” is surrender and cessation. For Christians, the idea of perfect rest is a Sabbath rest. It is a rest that consists not in mere cessation, but also in the worship of God (Lev. 23:1-3). While Buddhism has tended to think of good as the absence of evil, Christianity has tended to think of evil as the absence or distortion of good.

The fact that Buddhism is an escape religion has impacted its social and cultural outlook. While Buddhists teach that compassion is a great virtue, compassion takes the shape of teaching others how to escape suffering through the Eightfold Path. Or perhaps it results in acts of kindness, but only as a way of freeing oneself of desire. It does not seek to construct something positive in society or culture. Art becomes a mere devotional tool or a way to train the mind, not a pursuit of beauty. Economic stewardship and delight in God’s creation are eschewed as forms of desire for what is not real. Science has little basis in a worldview that is based upon the fact that all material phenomena is in constant flux and is an illusion.

A Christian Interpretation of Buddhism

How then are Christians to view Buddhism? How do we explain it? A fundamental Scriptural passage for understanding other religions is Romans 1:18-32. There we learn that everyone has an underlying knowledge of God and naturally suppresses that knowledge (Rom. 1:18-20). Instead of worshipping God, they become fools by claiming to be wise, teaching false religions in exchange for the truth (Rom. 1:21-23). Since the Christian consensus began breaking down with the Renaissance, Western culture has generally tried to escape this sense of guilt and suppress the truth through secular philosophy or the distractions of entertainment and work. In the West we have been more like the preacher of Ecclesiastes who sought out all sorts of pleasures and occupations to counter the vanity of life. Buddhism, however, has realized the futility of these things. It has declared that all is vanity and actually finds relief in that. Instead, it seeks an escape from reality (which is God’s reality) altogether.

The consequence of man’s revolt against God, though, leads to the undermining of one’s self. It leads to death: death of the individual and of culture. The more consistently one rejects God, the more he will cut himself off from God’s reality. As it was with Adam and Eve, sin brings not only God’s wrath, but also exile from the Garden. Romans 1:24-32 speak of representative self-destructive behaviors that result from the rejection of God. In the case of the Buddhist, this suppression of the truth leads to the abandonment of reality. Even sinful pleasures have lost their appeal. The only good thing about life is the ability to help others escape it. The goal is to be beyond life and death–they call this immortality, but it might be better called eternal death.

In the end, we should view Buddhism as foolishness, though understandable foolishness. It should stir in us compassion for those who follow it. As Paul’s spirit was provoked within him when he observed the idols of Athens, so should our spirit be provoked when we observe Buddhism and its influence on so many millions of people. We should also be wary of attempts to blend Buddhism with Christianity. Despite superficial similarities, Buddhism and Christianity are systemically different. While studying Buddhism might help us understand other people better, it is certainly not a religion parallel to Christianity.

From a Christian perspective we see that a religion of escape, built upon questionable authority, that views existence as pain and illusion, is a pitiful religion. This study should fill us with gratitude for a worldview that is filled with beauty, truth, and goodness. We can delight in the world God has made, worshipping Him as the all-good sovereign, and live in hope of a future glorification. We can endure suffering, knowing that evil is not original, but a perversion that will be eradicated. We can rest, knowing that our hope lies in God, an absolute authority, who can communicate with us freely through His word. His promise is sure, and our Savior is victorious. And finally, our worldview is better, not because we were smarter or anyway superior to Buddha. Rather, we have received this way of life through God’s grace. Grace, that is, and not Karma.


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Bahnsen, Dr. Greg “Lecture 21 — Methods XI (Buddhism)” A Biblical Introduction to Apologetics. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2015.

Kalama Sutta. Trans. Ven. Soma Thera.

Netland, Harold A. Dissonant Voices. Vancouver, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 1997.

Pew Research Center, "Buddhists," 2012.

Thompson, John M. Buddhism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Vinaya Mahavagga. Trans. Ānandajoti Bhikkhu. May 2014.

Vos, Dr. J. G. “Lecture 12: Early Rise and Development of Buddhism” PHL 404 World 
Religions. Lakeland, FL: Whitefield, 2008.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Anxiety and Prayer


In Philippians 4:5–7, we are told to deal with anxiety by taking comfort from the fact that the Lord is at hand and by making our requests known to God, the giver of peace.
"The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
This passage is similar to 1 Peter 5:6–7,
"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." 
Both of these passages build upon what had already been written in Psalm 55:22. There David had exhorted,
"Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved."
Thus, we see a consistent pattern: God's people are not immune to feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear - but they are directed to go to God with these feelings, to seek His help, and to burden Him with these troubles. They are directed to pray with hope, trusting that God cares for His people, that He is near His people, and though for a time you may be humbled and distressed, God will guard and sustain you and at the proper time exalt you.

Psalm 55 gives us a more full picture of what this prayer might look like. It is not a bare request. In it, the suppliant does call for help (v. 16), but he also utters his complaint and moans (v. 17). It is a supplication, a plea, an argument. It is emotional and does not hide or suppress the anxiety that motivates the prayer.

The psalm begins with a bold appeal -
"Give ear to my prayer, O God,
and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!" (v. 1)
Verses 2b-8 consist of description. David, the author, describes his situation and his emotional condition.
"Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, 'Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest...'" (vs. 5-6)
David returns to the description of his external and internal distress in verses 9b-14, 15b, 20-21. He does not hide or suppress his worry or fear. In his plea to God, he describes his distress as reasons why God should help him. Then he does appeal for God to take action in verses 9 and 15:
"Destroy, O Lord, divide their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city." (v. 9)
Then in verse 16, David begins to do something different. In verses 16-19 and 22-23, he reflects upon and affirms the truth about God. Unlike David's false friend described in this Psalm, God is faithful. David repeats what God has promised to His people and David applies it to himself.
"But I call to God,
and the LORD will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he hears my voice." (vs. 16-17)
It is at the end of this Psalm that David says the words that are reflected in Philippians and 1 Peter. David moves from applying God's promises to himself to applying it to the godly in general. Those who cast their burdens upon the Lord will be sustained by Him (v. 22), but men of blood and treachery, though they seem ascendant for at time, will be cast down by the Lord (v. 23). David's faith has grown by this exercise of faith in prayer. By laying out his complaint before God (instead of simply brooding over it himself) and by applying God's promises to his situation, he has come to a place of greater faith, confidence, and peace. He ends this Psalm with the key conclusion: "I will trust in you" (v. 23).

Using this Psalm as a pattern does not mean that you will always be at peace by the time your prayer ends. In fact, this Psalm might be thought of as a pattern, not only of one prayer, but of a series of prayers over a period of time. In all of your prayers, you will want to mix in a description of your anxieties, your call for God to act, as well as reflection on and affirmation of God's character and promises. In this way, your faith will be exercised and strengthened. Prayer is a means of grace to the believer, and through it, in His timing, God will send His peace to guard your heart and mind. He will sustain and protect the one who trusts in Him.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Catholicity

Catholicity is not defined by union with the Roman papacy, but rather by union with Christ through the Spirit and faith in the gospel. This is what the Bible teaches in passages like Ephesians 2:19-22 and 4:1-16. The catholic (i.e. universal) church is composed of those who share "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). Notably, in Ephesians 2:19-22, the church is not built upon the successors of the apostles (or successors of Peter in particular) but upon the apostles themselves, along with the prophets, Christ being the cornerstone. The apostolic and prophetic foundation is not to be found in a pretended successor like the pope, but rather in the divinely inspired writings they left behind - the Bible - which finds its center in Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. May all who claim the name of Christ abandon other foundations for the church and build their house on the rock. Upon this rock, Christ will build His church. All other ground is sinking sand (Matt. 7:24-27).

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Family Integrated Ministry of Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter (1615-1691) had an intense view of pastoral ministry. His book, The Reformed Pastor, written while he was in the midst of his pastoral labors in Kidderminster, is a stirring call for pastors to give personal attention to all the people of their parish. He exhorted pastors to not only preach publicly, but also to give personal instruction from house to house, discerning the state of the people and addressing their particular needs. But like many of the Puritans, he realized that the pastoral ministry of the church could not do it all, nor should it ignore the divinely ordained institution of the family in its approach to ministry. Here is how Baxter put it:
"The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much on family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all. What are we like to do ourselves to the reforming of a congregation, if all the work be cast on us alone; and masters of families neglect that necessary duty of their own, by which they are bound to help us? ... Neglect not, I beseech you, this important part of your ministry. Get masters of families to do their duty, and they will not only spare you a great deal of labor, but will much further the success of your labors. If a captain can get the officers under him to do their duty, he may rule the soldiers with much less trouble, than if all lay upon his own shoulders. You are not like to see any general reformation, till you procure family reformation. Some little religion there may be, here and there; but while it is confined to single persons [i.e. individuals], and is not promoted in families, it will not prosper, nor promise much future increase.” (The Reformed Pastor, 100-102)
Therefore, part of his ministry was to train the fathers to lead their families in the ways of the Lord. Fathers were to lead family worship, catechism instruction, and Sabbath keeping. They were to promote religion by word, example, and the way they managed the household.

There was good biblical basis for such an approach. In Ephesians 5:25-27 husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and one of the things it tells husbands to imitate is the fact that Christ cleansed His church with the word. 1 Corinthians 14:35 tells wives to look to their husbands for instruction. In Ephesians 6:4, we read “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” While Abraham was unique in some respects, it appears from these New Testament passages that what God said of Abraham in Genesis 18:19 is still relevant for fathers today: "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."

Baxter practiced what he preached, and his ministry bore good fruit. Kidderminster was a changed place after Baxter's pastorate. Indeed, the emphasis on family religion was a strength of Puritan and Presbyterian churches in general. Yet, it is sorely lacking today. The family itself, and the father's position in the family, is weak in the modern age. The church has learned to rely on programs and activities that largely bypass any reliance on families and fathers. But what Scripture teaches, and what Baxter observed, is still true and relevant.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Keep Your Eyes on Good Examples

St. Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt
"Brothers, join in imitating me, 
and keep your eyes on those who walk 
according to the example you have in us." 
- Philippians 3:17

In this verse, the apostle Paul exhorts the Philippian saints to imitate him. A careful reading of this letter will reveal that Paul has been teaching by example throughout the letter. He began the letter humbly calling himself and Timothy "slaves of Christ Jesus" while using the formal titles for the leaders of the Philippians church ("overseers and deacons"). He had used his own mindset in prison to exhort the Philippian saints to prioritize the well-being of the gospel above self (1:12-18). He had used his own conflicted thoughts as a prisoner facing a potential death sentence to teach the Philippians contentment and joy in life and death (1:12-18). After recalling the example of our Savior in 2:5-11, he notes how similar traits can be found in him, Timothy, and Epaphroditus (2:19-30). He also warned the Philippians against false teachers by recounting his own story, how he willingly suffered the loss of his reputation and position for the sake of Christ, forsaking the confidence in the flesh that these false teachers now promoted (3:4-14).

Now Paul calls the Philippians to imitate him, to adopt his mindset, even as Paul has adopted Christ's. Yet, he also makes it clear that he is not the only one to be imitated. The essential part is not Paul, but the common pattern of life found in him and in other mature Christians. He includes others "who walk according to the example you have in us" (the "us" refers to Paul, Timothy, and perhaps Epaphroditus; these three have exemplified a way of life that can be found in others).

We ought to learn from Christ himself and the example he gave in his life (Phil. 2:5-11), but it is helpful to find the same pattern lived out by many people in many circumstances in many ages. These examples will not be perfect - in fact, a humble recognition of their dependance on Christ is a key trait they will exemplify. Paul's way of thinking that he wants you to imitate is found in Philippians 3:12, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." As other Christians grow in grace, humbly realizing their need of Christ, repenting of their sins, and becoming more conformed to His character, they blaze a trail for us to follow. Some Christians blaze a better trail than others. Following more than one mature Christian and rooting yourself in Scripture can help you avoid the times their paths go astray. Yet, if done right, following their trails is much better than trying to blaze your own trail. Moreover, the alternative is not necessarily blazing your own trail. If you don't follow mature Christians, you will likely follow someone else. And as Paul notes in the following verses, there are bad examples out there who are paving a path to destruction (Phil. 4:18-19).

As you apply this verse, look for mature Christians from the past and present. You can look to mature Christians in the Bible, in church history, and in our own day, to see what it looks like to manifest the mind of Christ, what it looks like to share in his suffering and the power of his resurrection. This work of imitation also brings us unity - we “join in” imitating good Christian examples. These mature saints give us a common heritage, a common way of life, one which transcends the barriers of culture and age. Together we seek the one mind of Christ found among his disciples.

Study the lives of the saints of the past, especially Christians who were particularly mature and Christlike. Each life is different and can bring out different lessons. One of the benefits of the saints of the past is that we can view their whole life story from beginning to end. These saints give us encouragement - we are not the first ones to walk this way. They kept the faith unto death.

Set your eyes also on mature Christians in the present. Identify people today who walk according to the example that Paul set. Examine their way of life and the way they make choices. Before you consider who is cool, who you like, or who is attractive, consider: who is like Christ? Who is like Christ's disciples? And make that person your pattern. Seek that type of person as your mentor or counselor. This goes for the young, who are in particular need of examples, having lived less years, but this goes for everyone! Paul does not limit himself to the young. We are all disciples, seeking after this goal. None of us have reached it. None of us are perfect. So learn from Christ, learn from God’s word, but also learn from mature Christians, past and present, and imitate them.

Monday, January 28, 2019

John Murray on Church and Culture

A topic that has received a bit of attention in recent years is the mission of the church, especially the church as an organization. Some would restrict it to the proclamation of the gospel, narrowly defined, while others seem to broaden it to the point where the church is responsible to do a little bit of everything in society. John Murray (1898-1975) wrote an article “The Church – Its Identity, Function, and Resources,” found in the first volume of his Collected Writings. The article does an excellent job articulating the church's uniqueness without unduly restricting it. Here is what he had to say about the how the church's ministry of the word connects with culture:
“The second aspect of this proclamation is the declaration of the whole counsel of God as it bears upon every sphere of human activity. The church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions. It must not invade other spheres. But the church is charged to define the functions of these other institutions and the lines of demarcation by which their spheres are distinguished. It would be a travesty, for example, for the church to discharge the functions of the civil magistrate either locally or nationally. But the functions and duties of the civil magistrate do come within the scope of the church’s proclamation in every respect in which the Word of God bears upon the proper discharge of these functions and responsibilities. When the civil authority trespasses the limits of its authority, it is the duty of the church to condemn such a violation. When laws are proposed or enacted that are contrary to the Word of God, it is the duty of the church in proclamation and official pronouncement to oppose and condemn them. And it is also the obligation of the church to inculcate respect for and obedience to all enactments of civil authority that are the legitimate exercise of its function. It is misconception of what is involved in the proclamation of the whole counsel of God to suppose or plead that the church has no concern with the political sphere. The church is concerned with every sphere and is obligated to proclaim and inculcate the revealed will of God as it bears upon every department of life.” (John Murray, “The Church – Its Identity, Function, and Resources,” Collected Writings, vol. I, p. 241) 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Communion of Saints in the Reformation


One of the insights of the Reformation that is sometimes overlooked today is its articulation of the biblical doctrine of the communion of the saints. Not only was it an important doctrinal issue, being one of the twelve points of the Apostles Creed, but it was one with immense implication for Christian life and community.

The Reformers rejected as unbiblical the idea that the communion of saints allowed the saints to share their merit with others, or that we can or should communicate with the deceased by prayer. They critiqued the idea that only certain believers were saints, emphasizing that all Christians are saints. Yet, they did see the communion of saints as not only a true doctrine, taught in passages like Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:1-6, John 15:1-12, Acts 2:42, and 1 John 1:1-7, but they also viewed it as a great benefit to believers. John Calvin summarized the doctrine by saying that “saints are united in the fellowship of Christ on this condition, that all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other" (Calvin, 4.1.3). This meant that by being a member of Christ, one could claim a share in all God’s promises to the church. Even the diverse gifts of the Spirit were given to us to be shared with each other. Calvin saw this as an important means of assurance and consolation that enabled the individual believer to appropriate to one’s self all the blessings God bestows on His members. Calvin described it as an aspect of the invisible church, a unity received and perceived by faith.

While Calvin only spent one long paragraph on the doctrine in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), it continued to be explained and used by Protestant theologians, often in the context of expounding the Apostles Creed. For example, question 55 of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) understood the communion of saints to mean that
“First, that all and every one who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of Him, and of all His riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.” 
This describes two parts, the indicative (what is) and the imperative (what should be). We share in Christ’s riches and gifts together, therefore we should use his gifts for each other. Unlike the medieval doctrine of the communion of saints, which led Christians to seek help from the dead, the Protestant doctrine taught them to give help to the living. When we come to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), we can recognize the same indicative/imperative pattern. While the Westminster Confession is unique among statements of faith in having an entire chapter on the doctrine, the first section of chapter 26, “Of the Communion of Saints,” is essentially a restatement of the answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.
"All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in his grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man." (WCF 26.1)
This argues that believers share in Christ’s benefits by virtue of their union with Him, and that they should use Christ’s gifts for the sake of each other. This is not a mere duty, but a duty supported by a fact: “they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces.” To have communion is to share something in common. We are each stewards of the grace given us, but all of it belongs to all Christians.

The second section of chapter 26 specifies the actions to which this communion binds us: common worship, mutual edification, and outward relief.
"Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offers opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus." (WCF 26.2)
It is to be extended to “all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” because this obligation rests on our union with Christ. This paragraph realizes that we are limited as finite creature by our abilities and opportunities, but it rejects boundaries of denomination, race, geography, and age. Union with a particular congregation is important for the fulfilling of these duties - indeed, the creation of local congregations is an outworking of these duties - but this communion is not restricted to them. The foundation is Christ.

The third section adds two important qualifications. This union does not imply that we become divine, nor does our communion with the saints mean that private property is abolished.
"This communion which the saints have with Christ, does not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous. Nor does their communion one with another, as saints, take away, or infringe the title or propriety which each man has in his goods and possessions." (WCF 26.3)
Once one realizes the meaning of communion – that we have a claim to each other’s gifts – it becomes clear why private property would seem threatened. Anabaptists and others were ready to take this doctrine to what they saw as the logical conclusion. Yet, this qualification is not only valuable in practice, but also biblical (Acts 5:4, 2 Thess. 3:8, Eph. 4:28).

Among the Puritans who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, the communion of saints was applied as a way of life and conduct. Diane Willen, in her article, "'Communion of the Saints': Spiritual Reciprocity and the Godly Community in Early Modern England," argues that the doctrine of the communion of saints and its application through mutual edification became an important feature of Puritan spirituality, and one that encouraged a flourishing reciprocity among the laity. As Thomas Gataker, a member of the Westminster Assembly, would write, "For as there is none so learned, but he may learne something from the very meanest, even from those that bee farre inferiour in gifts to himselfe" (Gateker, 59-60). Edification was not a one-way street – everyone was called to participate. This doctrine gave women an important and active role, since, in the Puritan community, “spiritual counseling and edification assumed a surprising degree of reciprocity between men and women” (Willen, 40). Christians were not expected to be dependent upon the pastor for all edification, exhortation, and encouragement. Rather, the conversations, letters, and family gatherings of believers were to be opportunities to apply the duties of communion.

About fifteen years before the confession as written, John Winthrop proclaimed this doctrine for Puritan New England. His speech, “A Model of Christian Charity,” would lay down a vision for the “City upon a Hill” that rested upon the communion of saints. He argued for the duties of “giving, lending, and forgiving” from the law of nature and the law of the gospel, which obligates us to one another as “a brother in Christ also, and in the communion of the same Spirit" (Winthrop, 11-12). This meant that
“we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body” (Winthrop, 18). 
Thus, this doctrine would flourish and influence social life in Great Britain and early America for a time. Yet the communion of saints would decline as an important theological point in the 18th century. Not only did the Enlightenment privatize Christianity and cede the public sphere to natural principles, but the polemical debates concerning church government, liturgy, and sacraments would nearly monopolize some discussions of the church in the British and American traditions. Today it is more common to disparage organized religion and social duties, and to emphasize personal freedom and autonomy. American Christians, in their tendency towards individualism, have forgotten Winthrop's exhortation. Many heirs of the Reformation have developed a "me and Jesus" piety which would trouble the Reformers (not to mention the Apostles). May Christians of the 21st century learn from our Reformation forefathers, recover an understanding of this biblical doctrine, and zealously implement it with love for Christ and His people. 

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Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.

Gataker, Thomas. The spirituall watch, or Christs generall watch-word: A meditation on Mark 13.37. Printed by John Haviland for William Bladen, London, 1622. 



Willen, Diane. ""Communion of the Saints": Spiritual Reciprocity and the Godly Community in Early Modern England." Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 27, no. 1 (1995): 19-41. 

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Charity.” The American Patriot’s Handbook, ed. George Grant, 8-19. Naperville, IL: Cumberland House, 2009.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Why Study Theology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 14, 2019

Gender Identity in a Culture of Autonomy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Trinity: Orthodoxy and Error

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

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

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

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