Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Reformation and the Sufficiency of Scripture

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

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable 
for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 
that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Our Duty towards Unjust Civil Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Our Duty toward Civil Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Duty of Civil Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Key Issues in the Reformation

Reformation Day is in just two weeks! The Protestant Reformation was a tremendous historical event in the 16th century, but what was it all about? Watch the video below to see how I summarize the main doctrines that the Reformers promoted and the Roman church rejected. May the example of the Reformers inspire us to continue to contend for these biblical truths, to the end that all who claim the name of Christ may one day be united in such convictions.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

John Knox on God's Word in the Home

In 1556 the Reformation was spreading in Scotland, but it remained out of favor with the authorities, and the established church remained under Rome. As reformer John Knox left Scotland to spend a few years as a pastor to English-speaking refugees in Geneva, he wrote a letter to be circulated among the Scottish people, "A Letter of Wholesome Counsel." In the letter, he gave counsel on the importance of God's word and how they might benefit from it, despite living in a country in which Roman Catholicism was still in power. While he goes on to teach the importance of Bible study as a congregation, here he speaks of the importance of the daily use of God's word in the home, a point which remains "wholesome counsel" today as we seek maintain true religion in an increasingly secular society.
"But to you, dear brethren, I write my knowledge, and do speak my conscience, that so necessary as the use of meat and drink are to the preservation of life corporeal, and so necessary as the heat and brightness of the sun are to the quickening of the herbs and to expel darkness, so necessary is also to life everlasting, and to the illumination and light of the soul, the perpetual meditation, exercise, and use of God's holy Word. 
"And therefore, dear brethren, if that ye look for a life to come, of necessity it is that ye exercise yourselves in the Book of the Lord your God. Let no day slip over without some comfort received from the mouth of God. Open your ears, and he will speak, even pleasing things to your heart. Close not your eyes, but diligently let them behold what portion of substance is left to you within your Father's testament. Let your tongue learn to praise the gracious goodness of him who of his mere mercy hath called you from darkness to light, and from death to life. Neither yet may you do this so quietly, that ye will admit no witnesses. Nay, brethren, ye are ordained of God to rule and govern your own houses in God's true fear, and according to his holy Word - within your own houses, I say, in some cases ye are bishops and kings; your wife, children, and family are your bishopric and charge; of you it shall be required how carefully and diligently ye have instructed them in God's true knowledge; how you have studied, in them to plant virtue, and to repress vice. And therefore I say, ye must make them partakers in reading, exhortation, and in making common prayers; which I would, in every house were used once a day at least. But above all things, dear brethren, study to practice in life that which the Lord commands, and then be ye assured, that ye shall never hear nor read the same without fruit." ("A Most Wholesome Counsel," from The Select Practical Writings of John Knox, 2011, p. 126-127; also available online at this link

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Principles for Singing the Psalms

My church sings Psalms. We do not sing only Psalms - we use the Trinity Hymnal (1990) in addition to the Book of Psalms for Singing (1973) - but on a given Lord's Day usually about half of our songs will be from the Psalms, sometimes more. Singing (or praying) the Psalms can be a bit confusing when someone is unfamiliar with how to interpret and apply them in the new covenant era. So here are a few principles to keep in mind when singing the Psalms today.

1. View the lyrics of the Psalms as formative words. The Psalms are God's word, as well as words intended to be sung by His people. Thus, not only do they teach you truths (about God, Jesus, the church, yourself), but they are designed to shape your affections, your prayers, and your hopes as they teach you how to direct and express them. And so when you come to a Psalm that rubs you the wrong way, seek to understand it properly and then let the Psalm form your sensibilities, rather than let your sensibilities judge the Psalm.

2. Jesus is the Davidic king and the head of Israel. When you sing of David, the king, or the anointed one in the Psalms, think primarily of Jesus Christ. For one thing, Christ is the Greek word for “anointed one.” Psalm 2 is a classic example here - it refers to God's anointed king in Zion, and this is applied to Jesus Christ several times in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 4:23-31). And Jesus, as king, embodies and represents His people and takes up their songs on His lips. Psalm 69, for example, does not talk about the Christ explicitly, but in the New Testament it is applied to Jesus as one who embodied and represented His people (Rom. 15:3, John 2:17, Acts 1:20). So there are various ways the Psalms can be fulfilled in Christ, and sometimes they can apply to him and to us to the extent that we are united with Christ (e.g. his suffering and exaltation is related to our suffering and exaltation).

3. The church of Jesus Christ is the people of God, His dwelling place. So when you sing of Israel, Zion, city of God, temple, take these as references to the church of Jesus Christ. The "us" in the Psalms refers to us who are in covenant with God through Christ. This is a point made several times in the New Testament: those in Christ are the offspring and heirs of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), apostate Jews were taken out of Israel and believing Gentiles are grafted into it (Rom. 11), the church is the temple and dwelling place of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:19-22). The New Testament applies the "us" of the Psalms to the church (Rom. 8:36).

4. These are songs for God's people. They were collected in the book of Psalms for their use by God's people, to give expression to shared desires and to shape a common identity. So sing them as a Christian. If you cannot relate to things said in them personally, you can still sing them by identifying with Christ and His body. Perhaps you don't feel like your suffering is like that described in Psalm 22, but you identify with Christ who did suffer in that way, and with the church who suffers in that way as a body and in some of its individual members.

5. Related to this, conflict in the Psalms is covenantal not personal. As a consequences of the other principles above, the enemies referred to in the Psalms are the enemies of Christ and His church. The Psalms are not expressions of personal vengeance and bitterness, but of covenant loyalty. When we sing them, we side with Christ and His church against their enemies and with God's justice against wickedness and tyranny. Just as with God’s proclamations of judgement (e.g. Jonah 3), there is an implicit understanding that these curses are conditioned on a lack of repentance (a condition made explicit in Psalm 7:12). If these enemies repent and turn to Christ, then God’s wrath is satisfied in His Son and the person is forgiven. We desire both that God’s justice be established and that all peoples be saved, and we find both desires expressed in the Psalms (see the desire for the salvation of the nations in Psalm 67).

So with these in mind, sing the Psalms with your voices and with the heart. Sing them so that they begin to dwell within you, shaping your desires and affections and the way you see this world. Sing them from day to day, as well as on the Lord's Day. Sing them on your own, and sing them with others - your family, friends, and church. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)