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 believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Him and share in all His treasures and gifts. Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.” 
This describes two parts, the indicative (what is) and the imperative (what should be). We share in Christ’s treasures 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. 


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.

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 (Matt. 5:43-48), and to lovingly 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. [Edit: now, two years later, it seems they have removed this phrase.] I have seen a few "non-denominational" churches that seem to be 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.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Beowulf and the Conversion of the West

It has been a long time since our tribes came to Christ. Many of us here in America come from peoples who have been Christian for at least a thousand years. Beowulf brings us back to a time when its readers, as a people, were new to Christianity. They were people who knew the despair of paganism and were still undergoing a transformation of worldview and values.

The events spoken of in the poem are set in Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark) around A.D. 500. A few of the characters are historical figures, although they are shadowy figures we do not know a lot about. The poem was written in Anglo-Saxon England. It was most likely written either in the early 700s (the time of Bede) or the late 800s (the time of King Alfred). The writer was probably a monk, a Christian, who used materials from oral traditions to write this story. Thus, the story is set in a pre-Christian time, but it is being told by Christians for Christians. The explicitly pagan elements have been taken out, as the writer does not want to glorify Thor or Odin. Rather, he focuses on the position of pagans from the perspective of Acts 17:22-31; a sense of the true God exists amid ignorance and distortions. Most of the Scriptural references in Beowulf are from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which forms the background of all the dispersed peoples of the earth. Though the characters might resorts to idols in times of necessity, at least some of them have an idea of the sovereign Creator God. The writer and the reader, of course, know the whole story - that this God is the God of the Bible.

Beowulf can be seen as a comment on the reader’s pagan heritage. The story portrays and critiques the heroic values of the time. The values of the nobility of the writer’s time were still much like that of Beowulf’s time. Their honor code prized physical strength, pride, individual honor, praise of men, the struggle against fate, and revenge (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 272-273). These values are highly prized in pagan stories, like those of the ancient Greeks. The story of Beowulf, while it uses these elements, shows their futility and how they often led to destruction.

This story does recognize some good goals that the characters have. Royal halls, such as Heorot, are symbols of community, joy, peace, and stability. The desire for order and fellowship is good. Gift-giving, loyalty, courage, kinship, and generosity are good values that strengthen this order. These characters are trying to maintain the order of creation against the chaos that threatens it. Some of the threats are internal, such as revenge and dynastic struggles, but the monsters of the story are the primary representatives of this chaos. They are outcasts, cursed of God, followers of Cain.
"Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth..." (Beowulf, lines 86-92)
This story portrays the fragile position of man and community. It portrays the pessimism of Germanic paganism. The victory of chaos seems to be real. It is hinted that Heorot, the royal hall, awaits a "barbarous burning" brought on by strife among in-laws (line 83). The throne of Hrothgar will fall into civil strife and usurpation. Beowulf will himself die. As Hrothgar warns him, "Your piercing eye/will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/dear warrior, to sweep you away" (lines 1766-1768). With Beowulf’s death the whole nation of the Geats is doomed.
"A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed up the smoke" (lines 3149-3155).
Yet, this story also transformed the way its readers viewed the world. In traditional Germanic myth, the gods were on the side of the humans against Chaos and darkness, yet humans and gods were doomed to lose ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 25). Courage against hope was held in high admiration and tragedy was inevitable. Yet, in Beowulf the sovereignty of the true eternal King is asserted – and very strongly proclaimed. The monsters and chaos are still present, and despite Beowulf’s heroic efforts they seem to overcome in the end, yet there is hope. God has not been defeated like the pagan gods. Fate is not an impersonal force that foils the efforts of man, but it is the personal will of Creator God who is on the side of order and community. Beowulf may die, and the royal hall may be burned, but as the story says, "The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind and always has" (lines 701-702). As Tolkien explains,
"The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and became inevitably the enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten [Eternal Lord], the eternal Captain of the new. Even so the vision of the war changes…The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important" ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 27).
In addition to proclaiming God’s victory, this story also transforms the image of a hero. Rather than being proud and selfish, Beowulf exemplifies true heroism. His story is being retold to shift the values of the audience. As Tolkien explains, this shift emphasized that strength is a gift of God (for which God is to be praised), loyalty and service to others comes before one’s self, and glory and position comes to the one who is responsible for his people–not the one who seeks to usurp authority (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 273-274). It is as if the story proclaims, "'This then is a story of a great warrior of old, who used the gifts of God to him, of courage, strength and lineage, rightly and nobly. He may have been fierce in battle, but in dealing with men he was not unjust, nor tyrannical'" (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 274). According to this story, true heroism is achieved in submission to the sovereignty of God. God gives gifts and Beowulf can only conquer through God’s power. Beowulf is taught to be humble and generous, for he is a mortal (Beowulf, lines 1760-1768). All this would be a powerful message to the ruling class in the author’s time which was still rather influenced by pagan thinking and codes of honor.

And finally, there is a element of this story that points to Christ. Christ is not mentioned in this story. He is the missing element on purpose. Seamus Heaney, noted poet and translator of Beowulf, points out that "It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things…" (Heaney, xix). Just as the Old Testament contains types of Christ, precursors that hint at future redemption that are of themselves inadequate, so the author of Beowulf points to both future redemption and the insufficiency of the present state. Beowulf is a hero who fights to free people from the darkness of evil monsters and the dragon. Christ truly saves His people from evil and the dragon. Beowulf dies as he kills the dragon after he had been abandoned by his followers. Christ also died killing the dragon after he had been abandoned by His followers. Yet Beowulf is unable to gain lasting salvation for his people. The story of Beowulf ends on an unresolved note. It ends with a death. Yet, its readers know the story does not end there. We know the Savior who died killing the dragon, but who also rose again from the grave. For mortals like Beowulf and us, death may be inevitable. Yet our King has risen from the dead, and by His power, so shall we. The eternal Lord shall not be defeated. He is building His "Heorot" and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. With this backdrop of everlasting joy we can appreciate the vivid tragedy in Beowulf


Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2014.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” The Beowulf Poet. Edited by David K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Participatory Singing in a Consumerist Age

Martin Luther, singing with his family.
In our age and place, there is a strong tendency to view music as a commodity, something you buy and consume. It has become the possession of gifted musicians and professionals. Singing is often viewed as gift given to a select few, rather than a skill that is normally achievable. Most of us interact with music primarily by listening to it, and listening to it through a speaker. This has an unfortunate effect on Christian worship. While professionalism and musical quality are admirable, our passive and consumerist approach to music has conflicted with our practice of congregational singing. In Christian worship, singing is primarily an activity, done by the people. As Colossians 3:16 says,
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."
In other words, to get the word of Christ to dwell among your community richly (the "you" is plural), you all must teach and admonish one another and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. This teaches us that singing is a blessing. It is a means by which God's word dwells in and among us. Singing stirs us up, gives us the ability to express our worship with greater passion, and to allow us to stir one another up to the worship of God.

Colossians 3:16 shows us also that singing is also a duty. As the Puritans and Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly declared,
“It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family. In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.” (Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, 1645)
 Singing takes effort and skill. Singing and music should be a fundamental part of a child's education, at least for Christians. Barring physical disability, singing, like talking, is a natural gift given to humanity to be learned and developed, even though there will be some who are especially proficient. The command to sing is repeated time and again in Scripture:
"Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!" (Psalm 149:1)
"Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name." (Psalm 30:4)
"Shout for joy in the LORD, O you righteous! Praise befits the righteous! Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts." (Psalm 33:1-3)
"Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!" (Psalm 100:1-2)
"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…" (Ephesians 5:18–20)
Our singing in worship is basically prayer, creed, or exhortation put to music and sung. With our singing we praise God, confess sin to God, confess our faith to God and man, give thanks to God, and ask for things from God, all of this through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to sing with zeal and energy (Ps. 33:1-3). We are to sing with understanding (1 Cor. 14:15). We are to sing with our hearts, bringing our hearts into conformity to the words (Col. 3:16).
“Hence it is perfectly clear that neither words nor singing (if used in prayer) are of the least consequence, or avail one iota with God, unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart ... Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds, which, from their fickle and versatile nature, soon relax, and are distracted by various objects, unless various means are used to support them. Besides, since the glory of God ought in a manner to be displayed in each part of our body, the special service to which the tongue should be devoted is that of singing and speaking, inasmuch as it has been expressly created to declare and proclaim the praise of God. This employment of the tongue is chiefly in the public services which are performed in the meeting of the saints. In this way the God whom we serve in one spirit and one faith, we glorify together as it were with one voice and one mouth; and that openly, so that each may in turn receive the confession of his brother’s faith, and be invited and incited to imitate it.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.21)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Work Out Your Own Salvation

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12–13)

Last Lord's Day, I preached on Philippians 2:12-18. I talked about our hope, which is that God is at work in us, and our goal, which is to be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation" (2:15). But one of the most startling things in this passage is our work, the call for Christians to work out their own salvation. What does it mean to work out your own salvation?

“Work out” is one Greek word used 22 times in Scripture that usually means something like "do," "produce," "accomplish," or "bring about." Wait a minute! We produce our own salvation? Well, in one sense, no. Later in Philippians (3:9) we find Paul’s saying that he does not have “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Our standing before God is based only on the righteousness of Christ, received through faith alone, not our works. So what does it mean to work out our salvation?

In context, Paul’s main emphasis has not been your standing before God, your “justification.” It has been implied, but instead, he has been talking about growing in love and knowledge (1:9), about walking as citizens worthy of the gospel (1:27), about having the mind of Christ (2:5), and, in our very passage, he has been talking of obedience (2:12). The Bible uses the term “salvation” to mean more than salvation from the condemnation due to us for our sin. Salvation also includes our salvation from sin’s power in our heart and behavior. It includes the manifestation of righteousness in our lives. God’s goal is not only to justify us, but also to change us. And this has been the main emphasis of Paul thus far in Philippians. This process is called our “sanctification.” Having been made citizens of the gospel by God’s acts of justification and adoption through faith alone, now the work of salvation continues as you are sanctified in your heart and life. You do have a responsibility to “produce” or “bring about” this aspect of salvation in your lives. It takes effort. Conforming your heart and life more and more to God’s word is only possible by the working of God within you (2:13), but you are nevertheless responsible to do it and able to do it.

All true believers will answer this call to pursue holiness of life. Manifesting the way of Christ in your life is an essential part of salvation. It is not optional. Those who do not follow Jesus but still claim him, saying “Lord, Lord,” will be denied by Him at the last day. He will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). Those who truly believe in Jesus will also follow and love Him. They will obey His words, repent of their sins, and imitate His ways. Justification and sanctification is a package deal - they are distinct, but they always come together, for they both come from Christ. Repentance and obedience are not causes of salvation, but they are necessary parts of salvation.

Imagine if there was a cruel usurper who forced the people to serve him. The true king comes and storms one of the castles of this tyrant and frees the people. The true king offers pardon and citizenship in his kingdom to his former enemies. Not only do the people embrace and receive this new status with joy, but then they also begin serving the true king. This is part of their salvation. If they continued serving the cruel usurper as before, then you can tell they did not embrace and receive the offer of salvation with faith in the true king.

In Philippians, Paul is telling the freed prisoners who embrace their new status to work out their salvation by now serving the true king, as befits citizens of his kingdom. This is part of their salvation, and this part involves their effort.

Do you then trust in Jesus for salvation? Have you received the gospel, receiving reconciliation with God and adoption as His child? Then continue this work of salvation by walking in a manner worthy of the gospel. Turn from your old master and follow your new Lord. This was God’s intent in salvation. You have been redeemed to serve God and to imitate Christ. 

Seek to conform yourselves to the gospel. Have the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus when He humbled Himself and loved us. Christ did not intend for your salvation to end with your conversion. He is in the business of making disciples who follow Him and His way of life. God is at work in you who believe, giving you this ability to repent of your sins and to more and more manifest righteousness in your life. So work out your salvation, so that you might be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation" (2:15).