Saturday, September 28, 2019

What is Doctrine? - J.I. Packer

Recently I have been reading J.I. Packer's book, Taking God Seriously (2013). It has been a great book, similar in some ways to J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism (1923) except that it is written the context of events in the Anglican Communion rather than the Presbyterian Church. One theme in the book is that Christians who take God seriously will take His word seriously and treasure its doctrines. You can watch him explain this point in this short video:

He writes in the book,
“The New Testament church appears as a community of learners, some of whom became teachers as well, but all of whom are called to the lifelong task of taking in, digesting, and living out, which includes giving out, the good news of Jesus Christ that the apostles expounded to them. Disciple translates a Greek word that means learner; the church is seen as a fellowship of disciples, and any congregation that did not consist of persons laboring to learn more about Christ than they knew already would hardly count as a church by New Testament standards.” (p. 33) 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Steadfast Love and Faithfulness

"What is desired in a man is steadfast love,
and a poor man is better than a liar."
(Proverbs 19:22)

"Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love,
but a faithful man who can find?
The righteous who walks in his integrity—
blessed are his children after him!"
(Proverbs 20:6–7)

"Steadfast love and faithfulness preserve the king,
and by steadfast love his throne is upheld."
(Proverbs 20:28)

Do you see a common theme in these proverbs? Steadfast love, faithfulness, and honesty are more important than riches, power, and position. Not only are they attributes of God, not only have you benefitted from His steadfast love and faithfulness, but they are even valued and appreciated by your fellow man. They are rare qualities and quite valuable. Consider this as you go about your work today. Seek to be steadfast and faithful more than you seek to be rich and powerful.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

What Does It Mean for God to Save Us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gratitude and Gluttony

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Communion of Saints and the Christian Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Jesus: the Son of Abraham and Son of David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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