Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Livestream Communion?


I was surprised to recently learn of a confessional Presbyterian church which has encouraged its members to come up with their own communion elements and take them at home as part of live-streamed services. During "these uncertain times" we have seen many unusual things, and it did not surprise me as much to see other denominations debating live-streamed communion. But Presbyterians hold to a confession of faith which says that the minister should give the bread and wine "to none who are not then present in the congregation" (WCF 29.3).

Not only does this practice seem to clearly conflict with our confession of faith, but I think it also departs from the directions for the Lord's supper we find in Scripture. The Lord's supper is a shared meal, to be eaten together. In it, the church partakes of one food.

Biblical Principles

1. When Christ instituted this supper (e.g. Matt. 26:26-29), after giving thanks and blessing the bread and wine, he took the bread and wine and gave them to the disciples who were gathered together in the upper room. They ate and drank of the same bread and wine, given to them by Christ. 

2. When the apostles and the early church observed the Lord's supper according to Christ's institution, they did so in the gatherings of the church. They gathered to eat it (Acts 20:7). When Paul spoke of the Lord's supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, he uses the word for "come together" five times. He even spoke of how they came together "at the same place" (11:20 NET). One of the Corinthians' problems was that they did not treat the Lord's supper as a meal for the church, but rather as an individual meal. "For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk" (11:21). "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (11:33).

3. In 1 Corinthians 10, we are taught that the bread and wine are a participation in the body and blood of Christ, and thereby a bond of union with each other. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (10:17). The fact that the church partakes together of the same meal is important. This shared meal with the visible church is a sign and seal of our communion with each other in Christ - it makes our communion visible.

4. In 1 Corinthians 5, we are taught that the church should not eat with one who bears the name of brother who persists in manifest immorality. Not only does this imply that the church should eat with each other, but it also means that the elders of the church ought to have oversight of who eats with the church. 

Problems with Livestream Communion 

1. In a livestream service, the people are not assembled in one place. They do worship together. They do hear the same preaching and pray the same prayers. But they are not assembled together. They are not sitting with the rest of the congregation, nor can they even see the rest of the congregation in most cases. 

2. Though you can send words through a livestream, you cannot send food through it. The minister is appointed to give the bread and wine to the people after giving thanks and blessing it as Christ did. The people are to receive it. When members produce their own elements, they do not receive the elements given by the minister. 

3. Another consequence of this practice is that the congregation does not receive bread and wine from the same source. This takes away much of the symbolism of a shared meal with "one bread." 

4. When the Lord's supper is practiced by livestream, the elders loose substantial oversight. They loose oversight of what people use as elements. More importantly, they loose oversight of who partakes. Those who are excommunicated or not yet admitted to the table can partake freely and anonymously.

Conclusion

This may seem like an insignificant issue, especially in the times in which we live. Certainly there are bigger issues. But this one is important if we believe that the second commandment requires "the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word" (WSC Q. 50).

While we are in unusual times, the situation of a church's assembly being suspended is not much different from the situation of those confined to their home or a hospital for physical reasons. Some of God's ordinances are sometimes providentially interrupted for an individual (Ps. 42:1-4) or a people (Joel 1:13, Lam. 2:6). Yet, Reformed churches have always pointed to other appointed means to help those who are hindered from assembling, rather than risk distorting this ordinance. A home bound person can rely on other means of growth, such as reading God's word, prayer, sermons (written, recorded, live-streamed), as well as the visits of the elders and the saints and their prayers and words of encouragement. If necessary, pastors have sometimes come with others to the bedside and held a small church service there and administered communion. This is in fact what some churches have begun doing if unable to restore larger gatherings, holding multiple smaller services and/or the members taking turns coming in person. Another nearby PCA church is distributing communion at the end of their livestream service at the curb to people in their cars, the members partaking while parked with fellow members. Obviously not ideal, but I think it basically meets the biblical principles above.

That said, I understand and appreciate the difficulty churches find themselves in when they resort to livestream communion. It is a good desire to want to partake of the Lord's supper frequently. While our church was able to resume its gatherings a few weeks ago, other churches have decided to remain at a distance, and this increases the pressure to do something about the Lord's supper. I want to note the issue and the departure from our confessional standards (and, I believe, from Scripture), but these are brothers in Christ who are trying to navigate unusual circumstances. 

So may God continue to show his mercy upon us so that more churches may be able to gather soon without the threat of danger. May he restore and purify his ordinances and bless his people through them. And may he work through his preached word, which is not bound, that it may be fruitful and fill the earth with the children of God. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Future and Christ's Return


In 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, the apostle Paul gives a concise overview of the future.

First, Paul says that because Christ rose from the dead, those who belong to him will also rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20-22). This is the primary point of the chapter. The resurrection of Christ is fundamental to the gospel, and it necessarily implies our resurrection, so that to deny our future resurrection is to a deny Christ's resurrection and therefore the gospel. His resurrection showed that he had gained power over death by atoning for our sins by his death. Just as Christ rose from the dead, so all who belong to him will also rise from the dead. Not only do the souls of believers go to be with Christ when we die, but their bodies will be raised, glorified, and reunited with their souls at the resurrection.

Second, Paul says that death is the last enemy Christ destroys (1 Cor. 15:23, 26). Our resurrection comes in the culmination of his conquest when he returns. This is contrary to the idea of a rapture which takes place before tribulation, a millennial kingdom, and a final struggle with Satan. The resurrection described here (and in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) is when the last enemy to be destroyed - death - is destroyed. After that time, there will be no more enemies to be destroyed. And as John 5:28-29 says, Christ resurrects his people unto life at the same time as he resurrects the rest to condemnation. When Christ comes, he will raise the dead, judge all men, and welcome his people to eternal glory with him in the new heavens and new earth.

Third, Paul says that between Christ's resurrection and our resurrection he sits in heaven and reigns, putting his enemies under his feet (1 Cor. 15:24-25). He alludes here to Psalm 110 which describes the reign of the ascended Messiah at the Father's right hand as a time of conquest. By his word and Spirit, Jesus subdues our hearts so that we willingly offer ourselves to his service, having been redeemed by him from bondage. By his word and Spirit he equips us to wage war with him against the spiritual forces of evil. By his sovereign authority he protects his church and overthrows his enemies. Though his people will suffering persecution, yet the gates of hell will not prevail against them. Rather, Christ will preserve and extend his church and destroy those who persecute the apple of his eye (or mercifully convert them, as he converted Paul). While this age is one of perpetual struggle, it is not one of perpetual defeat.

Fourth, Paul says this whole process aims at establishing God's dominion over all things (1 Cor. 15:24, 27-28). Originally God was to rule the world through Adam. But in Adam the world rebelled, aligned itself with the evil one, and became subject to death. So Christ was sent as the last Adam to restore God's dominion over the earth and to fill it with his people. By his death for our sins and his resurrection from the grave, he secured the power to accomplish this task. He is now exercising this power and it shall culminate at his return with the redemption of our bodies and the release of this creation from its bondage to corruption (Rom. 8:18-23).

Therefore we should fix our minds on things above, on the reality of the reigning Christ. He is even now pouring out the benefits of his death and resurrection by his word and Spirit and accomplishing the conquest of this rebellious world. Though we and all creation groan under our present sufferings and the present reality of death, these groans are birth pains which shall be followed by resurrection life and victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Hope for the Future Increase of the Church

Last Sunday I preached on Isaiah 66:7-14, a prophecy of God's restoration of his church which portrays the church as a mother who would miraculously give birth to abundant children who would be nursed and cared for by her. Here I wanted to share John Calvin's comment on verse eight of this passage. Even though the church may seem nearly barren for a time, God shall in time make his church fruitful through the gospel, even as Calvin observed during the time of the Reformation.
"Who has heard such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
she brought forth her children."
(Isaiah 66:8)
John Calvin:
"He extols the greatness of the thing of which he has spoken; for he means that there shall be a wonderful and 'unheard of' restoration of the Church; so that believers shall not judge of it from the order of nature, but from the grace of God; for when men reflect upon it: they think that it is like a dream, as the Psalmist says (Psalm 126:1). He does not mean that the Church shall be restored perfectly and in a moment; for the advancement of this restoration is great and long-continued, and is even slow in the estimation of the flesh; but he shews that even the beginning of it exceeds all the capacity of the human understanding. And yet he does not speak hyperbolically; for we often see that the Church brings forth, which previously did not appear to be pregnant. Nay more, when she is thought to be barren, she is rendered fruitful by the preaching of the gospel; so that we greatly admire the event, when it has happened, which formerly we reckoned to be altogether incredible. 
"These things were fulfilled in some measure, when the people returned from Babylon; but a far brighter testimony was given in the gospel, by the publication of which a diversified and numerous offspring was immediately brought forth. In our own times, have we not seen the fulfillment of this prophecy? How many children has the Church brought forth during the last thirty years, in which the gospel has been preached? Has not the Lord his people, at the present day, in vast numbers, throughout the whole world? Nothing, therefore, has been here foretold that is not clearly seen." (https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom16/calcom16.xix.i.html)

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Salvation and Mother Church

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon entitled "Mother Church" on Isaiah 66:7-14. In that passage, God describes the church as a fruitful, beloved, and blessed mother. You can listen to the sermon here or watch it here. As I point out in the sermon, the church is also described as a mother in other passages, like Isaiah 54 and Galatians 4:21-31. This biblical image for the church has been used throughout church history by men like Cyprian (200-258), and John Calvin (1509-1564) echoed his comments when he wrote of the church:
“What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder: to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother … [A]s it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels. For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for ...” - John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (4.1.1, 4)
Beautiful words, but also strong words, especially that last sentence. He goes on to explain it by discussing Isaiah 37:32, Joel 2:32, Ezekiel 13:9, and Psalm 106:4-5. And Calvin was not alone in speaking so strongly of the visible church. Consider these statements from the confession of the continental Reformed churches and the confession of the British Reformed churches: 
"We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it..."
- Belgic Confession of Faith, 28 (1561) 
"The visible church ... is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."
-Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2 (1646)
Why would a Protestant say that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the visible church? Watch the video below to find out! I give four biblical reasons why there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the visible church. 


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Describing Manhood and Womanhood


I once had a professor, very good in other respects, who told me that men and women were different but that we cannot (and should not) say how they are different beyond obvious biological differences. Any attempt to do so was, in his thinking, an unwarranted generalization, certainly one unwarranted by the Bible. This was in reaction, I believe, to the concept of biblical manhood and womanhood promoted by people like John Piper and Wanye Grudem. I found my professor's position unconvincing.

It was interesting that another professor at the same school strongly emphasized the importance of the fact that we are embodied beings. He taught that our bodies are essential to us. We are material beings who have been given life. This has implications for gender differences. I remember him making a point that LGBT advocates have been able to promote a low view of the body because many Christians already viewed humans as essentially souls. Looking back at my notes from his class, I find this note: "More work needs to be done on the content of gender differences. (We had quite a bit of discussion in the second half of class.)" 

Indeed, the physical differences between men and women can be too easily minimized, as if they didn't make much of a difference apart from reproduction. But God has made us in wisdom, intricately and purposefully designing men and women differently. Not only did he give them different responsibilities, but he gave them different physical designs to match those responsibilities. These differences are ingrained in our natures, not restricted to roles we play in certain contexts. 

Allan C. Carlson describes the traditional family as the "natural family" because it is not merely traditional, but rooted in nature (see his books, The Natural Family: A Manifesto and The Natural Family Where It Belongs). Men and women are designed to create the natural family and to build society in conformity to it, but our society continually suppresses and rebels against this design in the name of the unnatural ideology of egalitarian individualism. 

So contrary to what my professor taught, I believe the Bible teaches that men and women are different and that these differences are not a total mystery. The fundamental differences are taught in the biblical account of the creation and naming of man and woman (see Genesis 1-5). They can be found in other parts of Scripture. Furthermore, they can be observed in nature. The Bible treats this knowledge as common sense. When it says that a particular army became like women (Jer. 50:37, 51:30, Is. 19:16), it assumes you know this is not a compliment. When it asks if a woman can forget her nursing child or fail to show compassion on the son of her womb (Is. 49:15), it assumes you know that this is a rhetorical question. 

One passage where some of the characteristic strengths of men and women are described is 1 Thessalonians 2. There the apostle Paul compared himself, Silas, and Timothy to a mother and a father. This does show that men can and should have virtues like gentleness that are more characteristic of women, just as the whole congregation can be exhorted to "act like men" in 1 Corinthians 16:13, that is, to be courageous. But at the same time, it affirms that men and women have unique gifts and strengthens which particularly equip them for their place in life.
"But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us." (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)
A woman is uniquely designed be nurturing and tender. She is designed to compassionately share her self with her children. She carries them in her womb and even after giving birth keeps them alive with her body, giving them milk. A mother best exemplifies what it looks like to be gentle and affectionately desirous of someone. And while not all women become mothers, all women have the nature of mothers, engrained as it is into their embodied existence. And therefore this sacrificial care, personal affection, and gentleness is characteristic of femininity in general. 
"For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12)
A man is designed to rule and to lead others to accomplish the mission. Note the words Paul uses. "Exhort" - a father calls his children to act. "Encourage" - a father motivates his children and gives them confidence. Without this, children get provoked to anger. "Charge" - a father entrusts responsibility to his children and holds them accountable. To see an example of what this fatherly exhortation looks like, read Paul's second epistle to Timothy. While a mother is best equipped to nurture and comfort a child, a father is best equipped to correct and direct the child unto maturity. Both of these elements are important for a child's upbringing. And again, while not all men become fathers (Paul, for example), all men have the nature of fathers. 

More could be said. If you are interested in more in this vein, you might listen to C.R. Wiley's talk "Toxic Matriarchy" here or read one of his books, Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos. I think this topic is particularly an important point for millennial men like myself. While older generations of men might have been more prone to be overly distant, workaholic, or harsh, my sense is that millennial men tend to turn away from these faults and are prone to become overly informal, lazy, or soft. While we should be accessible and loving, we must not neglect the fact that we are particularly designed to have gravitas and bear authority so that we might lead others onward.

While 1 Thessalonians 2 does not encapsulate everything about manhood and womanhood, it assumes a knowledge of gender distinctions which our culture is hesitant to admit. Our culture is hesitant to affirm that there is a natural order at all - this impinges on my freedom to be what I want. Instead, all these distinctions must be explained as mere social constructs, which can and should be challenged. But if a design deeper than a social construct undergirds traditional gender distinctions, then it would be wiser to make peace with the Creator and begin to learn how to live in the world he designed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Brief Answers to Baptist Objections

In earlier posts I have written about the doctrine of the covenant and how this doctrine informs our practice of baptism. In discussing baptism, I argued for the practice of infant baptism, that is, that believers and their children ought to be baptized. Here I want to briefly address a few common Baptist objections to this practice.

Objection: There is no command or example in the Bible of the baptism of the infants of believers.

1. An explicit example is not needed, since it was the default practice to include children with their parents, a common assumption among the original recipients of the apostles' preaching and writings. This was the case naturally (not just in Israel) and due to the way God had worked in the past, particularly with his clear commands regarding circumcision. The exclusion of infants would be the practice in need of biblical command or example.

2. While infants are not explicitly mentioned, in principle they are included when the Bible speaks of the believer’s “household” which would be in some sense “saved” and which was baptized (Acts 16:15, 31-34).

3. There is an explicit example of infants being baptized in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 when all Israel (which we know included infants) is described as being “baptized.”

4. It teaches it by deduction, as I have observed in my prior post. It can be deduced in several ways. For example: (premise 1) the disciples of Christ ought to be baptized (Matt. 28:28-20); (premise 2) the children of believers are disciples of Christ, being brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4); (conclusion) therefore they ought to be baptized.

Objection: Baptism is a person’s testimony of their choice to believe, and infants are incapable of doing this. 

Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promise and our engagement to be God’s, but it is not primarily a testimony of our faith to the world. It does visibly distinguish us from the world, but the Bible does not speak of baptism as our testimony to the world - more often it speaks of it as a testimony to us (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12, Gal. 3:27).

Objection: Baptism is no good without faith, therefore only professing believers ought to be baptized. The pattern is repent, believe, and be baptized. 

This is the same with circumcision: Abraham repented, believed, and then was given circumcision. Circumcision was a sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith (Rom. 4:11). But it did not logically follow, nor does it now logically follow, that the sign could not be applied to the believer’s offspring. The sign and seal of the righteousness which comes by faith was given to infants.

Objection: Baptism must be by immersion, and infants can’t be immersed, so therefore it must be for those who are older. 

1. Infants can be immersed. Eastern Orthodox churches practice baptism by immersion and baptize infants in that manner. See here. Even if immersion was required, it wouldn't be an argument against infant baptism.

2. Scripture does not teach that baptism must be by immersion. It must simply be washing with water. The word baptism means “washing” and can refer to immersion, sprinkling, or pouring (Mark 7:4, Heb. 9:10). Sprinkling is used as a symbol of God’s cleansing and regenerating work in Ezek. 36:25, Is. 52:15, Heb. 10:22, and the Spirit is described as being “poured out” on God’s people in a way connected with baptism (Acts 2, 10, Titus 3:5-6).

3. The earliest record of the mode of baptism we have outside the Bible, the Didache, allows for both immersion and pouring. “…baptize…in running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water; and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (7.1-3).

Objection: The new covenant only includes the regenerate, as Jeremiah 31:31-34 says. 

1. This still doesn’t help us determine who to baptize, since we cannot see infallibly who is regenerate.

2. The New Testament sees the threat of apostasy by visible saints in the same way that it was a threat in the Old Testament (e.g. Hebrews, 1 Cor. 10).

3. This passage does not say that the new covenant will achieve this by setting new standards for entrance. Rather, it says it will achieve this by God writing the law on their hearts (by the Spirit, in a parallel passage in Ezekiel 36:25-27). It is a promise of greater blessings, not of greater restrictions.

4. Deuteronomy 30:1-6 describes the same idea - God internally renewing his people following captivity - and explicitly includes children, promising to “circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring.”

Objection: People who are baptized as infants don’t take seriously the need to repent and believe. 

Sadly, this is sometimes true. I have found this objection especially from those with a Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant background, but nominalism is a threat in every church. It was true in the Old Testament, and it was true in the New Testament. But presumption was not addressed in the Bible by restricting circumcision or baptism to mature believers. The prophets and apostles addressed it by exhorting all the church to repent and believe, to be circumcised in the heart, not merely in the flesh. In fact, baptism ought to give more reason to earnestly train our children in the faith and call them to embrace the covenant, to live up to their baptismal identity. But the best way to address this practical objection is by example. May we who practice infant baptism not separate it from the duty to raise up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, encouraging them to embrace Christ and calling upon God to grant the reality symbolized in baptism.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Five Points of Calvinism

On Sunday afternoons, I have been teaching a series on what have been called the "five points of Calvinism." This Sunday I will conclude the series with the fifth point. You can watch them at the YouTube playlist below.

If you want to see something funny, I have a few helpers on the second lesson. I should have expected that putting a couple children in front of a screen where they could see themselves would lead to a few funny faces, but it took me about ten minutes to realize what they were doing...

As I have mentioned in the series, these five points do not summarize Calvinism or Reformed theology. Rather, they summarize the main points on which a Calvinist understanding of salvation differs from an Arminian understanding. And the point of these points is not to score points against Arminians - rather, they are important because they exalt the grace of God, humble the pride of man, provide comfort for believers, and promote gratitude to God.



Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Thoughts on Christian Culture and Christendom

As a Christian, I desire to see the dominion of Christ over every area of life. Not content to see Christianity restricted to a private religious realm, with others I seek an entire way of life and thought which is subject to Christ and his word, a culture which is shaped by a Christian worldview.

We seek to develop Christian culture, but not as if there is only one cultural expression of Christianity, or as if it is something to be created out of thin air. We seek to develop Christian cultures, to put Christ at the heart of every culture. Christendom has been composed of various Christian cultures united by a common commitment to Christ and the Bible. This approach affirms national, cultural, and familial identities and loyalties as we express our faith and obedience as unique nations, cultures, and families. These distinctions are not obliterated in a single Christian monoculture, though they may be radically transformed by Christ just like the individual Christian. Yet this approach also affirms the unity of the peoples and cultures of the world as they submit to Christ. It remind us that any particular Christian culture is one variation on a theme which it shares with others. Not only do we identify with our particular culture, but also with Christendom.

The institutional expression of Christendom, as well as the primary instrument of its growth, is found in the visible church of Jesus Christ and its ordinances (such as the word of God, sacraments, prayer, pastoral care and discipline, and worship). Christ has given his church a commission as well as the means to carry it out and his presence to make them effective. As Isaiah prophesied, the house of God and its instruction is central to the discipleship and transformation of the nations (Is. 2:1-5). Cultures become Christian as the gospel of Jesus Christ produces repentance and obedience in the hearts of men, changing the way they live their lives.

While human sin will continue to mar this process - all Christian cultures are in the process of being discipled - the goal of this process is not something ugly, barren, or harsh, which is how many imagine a Christian social order to be. Rather, a Christian way of life is a restoration of humanity and its culture, infusing it with renewed justice, wisdom, peace, and joy. When God’s ways are faithfully taught and demonstrated, they are capable of attracting admiration and imitation from unbelievers because these ways are inherently wise, beautiful, good, and true. It is for us to avoid obscuring their goodness by our sins and follies, to defend them from slander, and to put them on display in our lives.

Satan and the sin of man resists Christ, and we should be prepared to experience hostility and hinderances to our efforts to follow Christ in all our ways. Sinful habits are woven into the heart of man - ours included. So remember to rest on the power of Christ to subdue the raging nations. Ground your hopes on his gospel. And begin reformation with your own ways and the ways of your house. Be humble about your abilities and faithful in your particular calling - this is a vast project shared by the whole church from generation to generation. And even if others despise or slander you, remember your goal is to love them and to seek the good of your people and culture. And do so with hope. Though the church endures difficulty and trials, it shall be an instrument used by Christ to advance his reign, extend his blessings, and restore human culture in its diversity to the service of God.

Friday, April 17, 2020

An Outline of the Westminster Shorter Catechism

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is one of the doctrinal standards of our church and for centuries it has served as a faithful instrument for training Christians in the basics of the faith. You can read it at this link. In 107 questions and answers, it lays out the faith in a very orderly manner, and understanding this order can help understand the significance of each question and answer. So here is my outline of the catechism to help you gain an understanding of the catechism as a whole:

Introduction (1-3): The Word of God is the rule given to direct us how to fulfill our chief end, which is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, by teaching us:

I. What man is to believe concerning God (4-38)
    A. The nature of God (4-6)
     B. The decrees of God (7-38)
          Definition (7-8)
           1. Creation (9-10)
           2. Providence (11)
            3. Special Providence, i.e. God’s Covenant with Man (12-38)
               i. Covenant of life/works (12-19)
                    Definition (12)
                      a. Sin of Adam (13-16)
                    b. Estate of sin and misery (17-19)
                ii. Covenant of grace (20-38)
                         Definition (20)
                        a. Redemption Accomplished (21-28)
                          1. Christ's person (21-22)
                            2. Christ's work (23-28)
                      b. Redemption Applied (29-38)
                         1. Union with Christ (29-31)
                           2. Benefits of redemption (32-38)

II. What duty God requires of man (39-107)
     Definition (39)
     A. Duty to obey God's moral law (40-84)
           Definition (40)
            1. The Ten Commandments (41-81)
           2. Breaking the Ten Commandments (82-84)
      B. Duty to escape God's wrath and curse (85-107)
           Definition (85)
            1. Faith in Jesus Christ (86)
            2. Repentance unto life (87)
            3. Use of the means whereby Christ gives us the benefits of redemption (88-107)
                  Definition (88)
                  i. Word (89-90)
                  ii. Sacrements (91-97)
                  iii. Prayer (98-107)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Communicating with Wisdom: Part Three


In this three-part series on communicating with wisdom, we have seen what Proverbs 15 says about communicating with God and what it says about listening to other people. Here I want to address what it says about speaking to other people. As with the other two posts, the key principle here is humility rooted in the fear of the Lord (Prov. 15:33). Humility leads the wise person to speak carefully.

3. Speak to others with humility by speaking carefully.

Christians are called to be peacemakers, to reconcile with their adversary, to live peaceably with all as far as it depends on them. You have a duty to seek peace with your words. You also have a responsibility to edify one another with your words, speaking the truth in love. What that looks like depends on your place in life - when you speak out of place, it is called meddling rather than edification.

Men, this instruction has special relevance for you. As heads of the home, you have a greater responsibility to instruct and reprove, so be especially careful how you do it. In Colossians and Ephesians the apostle Paul specifically tells you to not be harsh with your wives, to not provoke your children to anger, and to stop threatening your servants. Do you see a theme?

Everyone - especially those who are in authority, who speak authoritatively, who have a greater responsibility to instruct and reprove - should be very careful to instruct and reprove wisely, in a way that promotes peace and growth, not anger and destruction.
"A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger."
(Proverbs 15:1)
Wrath can be turned away by the way you answer an angry person. Likewise, wrath can be stirred up by your words where no conflict yet existed. Words can put out the fire as well as spark the flame, depending on whether they are soft or harsh. A soft answer is when you speak with gentleness, in a conciliatory manner. The point is not weakness, but persuasiveness and restraint. For example, see Gideon's words in Judges 8:1-3. A harsh word is a “painful” word, an attack word, a cutting word, an insulting word. It provokes a defensive response rather than a receptive one. Jesus took harsh words very seriously (Matt. 5:21-22).
"A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit."
(Proverbs 15:4)
"Gentle" here literally means "healing." A "tree of life" refers to a "life-giving tree." Words can give healing and vitality, or they can also crush and destroy. Good reproof is like disinfectant on a wound - it might sting, but it designed to cleanse and heal, and the sting is kept to a minimum. Good reproof gives assurances of love in the midst of correction. But there is also bad reproof, which uses excessive pain and does not heal. It leaves one insecure and discouraged. There is life-giving reproof and there is life-crushing reproof. The tongue can be perverted by deceit, ulterior motives, pride, and anger.
"To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is!"
(Proverbs 15:23)
The same words can be beautiful when said in one situation but ugly in another, similar to how the color orange can be beautiful or ugly depending on where you put it. When the words fit the occasion, how good it is! What a joy it is to hear an apt answer! On the other hand, words out of place can be jarring. Even truth - even Bible verses - can be ugly when said on the wrong occasion. Consider the counselors of Job who said many true things, but without a good understanding of the occasion, and so caused pain rather than healing. It is not enough to study the Bible. It is also important to study the situation, both the broader context and the particular situation. Fitting the words to the occasion is a skill, like painting or matching clothes, and it can be learned with diligence and practice. It also leads us to the next proverb:
"The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,
but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things."
(Proverbs 15:28)
The heart of the righteous considers what it should send to the mouth, while the mouth of the wicked merely needs to open and the contents of the heart spill out. The righteous show discrimination, restraint, and forethought. The mind of the righteous is active, even before it comes time to speak. The righteous are humble, realizing that not everything they might say is good. They are careful because they fear the Lord. The wicked, though, are impulsive and do not show discretion.

So humility shows itself in our speech by the care that is taken. Specifically, to speak wisely, you should aim to speak in a way that (1) promotes peace, (2) promotes healing and growth, (3) is apt for the occasion, and (4) shows forethought.

This applies in our relationships in our families, in our church, as well as the broader society. Think of how we talk as parents, spouses, siblings, pastors, friends, politicians, reporters, journalists, talk show hosts, managers, trainers, coaches - so many occasions to use our words promote harmony, growth, and maturity, or to stir up strife, destroy others, and pour out evil things.

Conclusion

The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom. It leads you to listen attentively to God’s word and to humbly admit your sins and your need for instruction. Those who humble themselves before God will be exalted, and their prayers will be heard. They will also learn to communicate with others wisely. Those who are humbled by the fear of the Lord will be earnest to find wisdom from the wise. Those who are humbled by the fear of the Lord will also be careful how they speak.

So let us humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God and clothe ourselves with humility towards one another, so that our tongues may be instruments of blessing, bringing peace and life to our neighbors and offering acceptable praise to our Lord and Savior, to whom be all glory and honor forever. Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Communicating with Wisdom: Part Two

This is the second post in a series of three on the topic of communicating with wisdom, drawing from Proverbs 15. The key principle is humility rooted in the fear of the Lord (Prov. 15:33). In the first post, available here, I wrote on how humility governs our communication with God. In the third post I will get to how it governs how we speak to other people. But in this second post, I turn to the matter of how we ought to listen to other people.

2. Listen to others with humility by seeking wisdom from them. 
"A fool despises his father's instruction,
but whoever heeds reproof is prudent."
(Proverbs 15:5)
Listen to your father. It is foolish to despise the instruction and reproof given by your father (or mother, see verse 20). For a time, you have your parents as personal instructors whose calling is to instruct you. Treasure this gift and use it while you have access to it, that you might be prepared for time to come. Fathers will vary in wisdom, but focus on what you can learn.
"There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way;
whoever hates reproof will die."
(Proverbs 15:10)
The longer you ignore instruction and the further you go astray, the harsher the consequences get. First there is instruction, then reproof, then human correction, then the destructive results of folly, and then death and judgement. To stay on the good way, give ear to instruction and be responsive to it, repenting early when your sin or folly is exposed by it.
"A scoffer does not like to be reproved;
he will not go to the wise."
(Proverbs 15:12)
Look out for signs of being a scoffer. If you do not like to be reproved, if you do not go to the wise for instruction, then you might be a scoffer. Scoffers are those who proudly scorn wisdom and stubbornly remain in their folly. Put a high price on reproof. Incline your ears to the wise.
"The ear that listens to life-giving reproof
will dwell among the wise.
Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence."
(Proverbs 15:31–32)
There are many talkers that seek to get your ear. What you listen to will shape the person you become. If you listen to reproof and instruction, it will be to you a source of vitality and intelligence and an entrance into the ranks of the wise.

In summary, there are two ways to listen: the way of the wise and the way of the scoffer. The wise person seeks and heeds instruction and reproof. The scoffer hates being challenged and despises parents and other sources of wisdom.

The wise person is so earnest in the pursuit of wisdom that he is willing to be corrected and instructed. He is humble, willing to look weak for the moment so that he might improve. It takes humility to grow. The scoffer is not willing to be corrected or admit his need for instruction. He might look stronger in the moment, but he actually neglects the source of strength and endurance. As verse 10 says, he may escape minor embarrassments at first, only to face more severe consequences in the future - and in the end, death. It is dangerous to ignore instruction.

So learn early when opportunities to learn are many and future opportunities to use wisdom are many. Those who invest early get the biggest return on their investment, and the same with wisdom. Do not wait until a crisis to gain instruction and character. And for all your life, continue drawing on what you have been taught and adding to it - do not cast away what you have gained, including your ability to learn.

To listen wisely, take care what you listen to. Give ear to the wise, rather than fools or false teachers. Prize wise words and give weight to what wise people say, even if it is humbling. Give ear to life-giving reproof, rather than destructive words of flattery, error, cruelty, or folly. Sometimes this means avoiding foolish words, while other times it means not giving them much weight. We should show patience with others when they fail to speak wisely, knowing that we all speak foolish words from time to time. As we grow in wisdom, we will be able more and more to disagree with others with patience, knowing what words are important.

To listen wisely, take care how you listen to instruction. Listen with an eagerness to learn wisdom and a readiness to put it into practice. The humble will benefit from instruction. God gives wisdom freely to those who ask for it and seek it from him in the ways he has appointed. Even if reproof is not directly given, use what is taught as reproof - reprove and correct yourself based on what you learn.

Continued in part three:
Communicating with Wisdom: Part Three

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Communicating with Wisdom: Part One

At this time, with the combination of increased stress, increased time at home, and increased distance from others, many of us may be more tempted to sin in the way we speak to each other. Communication is normally an area of great potential and great danger, and this is even more true in our current situation. The book of Proverbs gives a lot of instruction on this area of life. Building on one of my recent sermons (available here), I want to note a few points from Proverbs 15 on speaking and listening wisely.

This post is the first of three parts: (1) how to communicate with God, (2) how to listen to other people, (3) how to speak to other people. The governing principle in all three cases is humility. As Proverbs 15:33 says, “The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.” God exalts the humble. Humility, rooted in the fear of the Lord, is the way of wisdom. Humility should govern our ears and tongues.


1. Humility teaches us to unite prayer with reverent attention to God's words
"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,
but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.
The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,
but he loves him who pursues righteousness."
(Proverbs 15:8–9) 
"The LORD is far from the wicked,
but he hears the prayer of the righteous."
(Proverbs 15:29)
God does not listen to all prayers. His blessing is not automatic. Prayer without repentance is vain. Prayer without the fear of the Lord is repugnant to the Lord. To expect God to listen to you while refusing to listen to him is a perversion of prayer.

It is hypocritical to honor God with your words, but not with your life. It is disrespectful to expect things from God without listening to his word. It is selfish to pervert this relationship from one of love to one of mere gain. God desires obedience more than sacrifice and prayer (1 Sam. 15:22).

Wisdom warns in Proverbs 1 that those who ignore wisdom will be ignored by wisdom when calamity comes upon them, “Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me” (Proverbs 1:28). God said much the same thing through the prophets to the unrepentant who yet offered sacrifice and prayer. “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15). Several times in his first epistle, the apostle Peter even warned Christians that their prayers could be hindered by sin, such as the sins of reviling others and of mistreating one’s wife (1 Peter 3:7, 9-12; 4:7).

Acceptable prayer is united with the fear of the Lord in the heart. Acceptable prayer is united with careful attention to God’s written word and a pursuit of righteousness. Acceptable prayer is humble, with acknowledge of sin and gratitude for mercy.

Humility comes before honor. The Lord hears those who repent, that is, those who confess their sins, who seek pardon through Jesus Christ, and who pursue righteousness. Repentance does not atone for your sins, but God grants forgiveness for Christ’s sake to those who believe and repent.

So be reconciled with God through Jesus so that you and your prayers may be accepted. These proverbs contain a warning against presumption, but they also contain comfort to those who by God’s grace are the righteous. God looks to the humble and contrite in spirit. He is close to them and hears them. Their sacrifice of praise and prayers are acceptable to him through the intercession of Jesus Christ the righteous. God loves you and hears you!

Even if our whole country called out for God’s protection, if it was done without the fear of God, it would be an abomination to him. We all should call out for God’s protection, personally and corporately, but let us seek it with hearts that are responsive to his word, with humility, repentance, and renewed obedience.

Continued in parts two and three:
Communicating with Wisdom: Part Two
Communicating with Wisdom: Part Three

Why Did Jesus Die and Rise?


Why did Jesus die and rise? The Bible says a lot about the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection, but here I give a short answer taken from Paul's epistle to the Romans (specifically, from Romans 4:20-5:1, 6:1-14, 8:8-25).

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Resources on the Westminster Confession and Catechisms


The Westminster doctrinal standards (a confession of faith and two catechisms) were written in the 1640s at the Westminster Assembly. This assembly was charged to reform the English church according to Scripture and to bring it into greater unity with the more fully reformed Church of Scotland. It was composed primarily by English Puritan ministers who worked with significant input from Presbyterian commissioners from the Scottish church. While these doctrinal statements did not last long in the Church of England, they were maintained by the Church of Scotland and have been adopted by Presbyterian churches wherever they have been established around the world.

These documents are rich statements of biblical truth and time-tested summaries of the Christian faith. The documents themselves are easily available online. Here they are as originally written, and here they are as adopted by our denomination (incorporating some minor revisions which you can view here). Since they have been used to teach people the faith for hundreds of years, there are many resources to help explain them and to flesh out and apply their theology. Here are some that I have found most helpful:

The Westminster Shorter Catechism

Westminster Shorter Catechism Project
This is a valuable online compilation of a number of older commentaries on the catechism. Most of these commentaries have been republished in modern times and can be purchased in book form. Two of them in particular I have found very good:

The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture by Thomas Vincent
This is a short and simple explanation of the catechism from Scripture, available for purchase here.

A Body of Practical Divinity by Thomas Watson
This is a longer exposition of the theology of the shorter catechism, given with practical application, now republished in three volumes, available for purchase here.

The Westminster Larger Catechism

Authentic Christianity: An Exposition of the Theology and Ethics of the Westminster Larger Catechism by Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft
For deeper study or as a reference work, this is a great resource. It is available to purchase here. It is based on Dr. Morecraft's 364 lectures on the larger catechism, which are available online here.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Lectures on the Westminster Confession by Dr. John R. DeWitt

The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession by Robert Shaw
Originally published in 1845, it has been republished by Christian Focus Publications (2008). It is available to read online here and to order here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Singing Hymns in Quarantine

"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them..." (Acts 16:25)


Thursday, March 26, 2020

"I Can Do All Things..."

"I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13)
Contrary to popular belief, this passage is not about your ability to do whatever you want, achieve success, and fulfill your dreams through Christ. Rather, the point is that God trains his people to be able to face all circumstances, which are often out of their control, with contentment through Christ. Here is the verse in context:
"I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:10–13)
Paul was writing to thank the saints at Philippi for the gift they had sent him. This joy was all the greater because it had been delayed. But he notes this delay was not their fault - they had sent a gift as soon as they were able. Then he clarifies: he is happy, but not because he was anxious and discontent in his prior position (later he will note that his joy primarily came from seeing their faithfulness and love). He takes this situation as an opportunity to comment on Christian contentment. Paul had learned that whatever the situation, he was to be content. Contentment equipped him to handle both abundance and need. He was able to face all circumstances through the strength given him by Christ.

This is a lesson which is especially important now as our life has been uniquely disrupted by the Covid-19 coronavirus. We have been "brought low." Our plans have been thwarted. Our economy has taken a hit. Some people are out of work, while others are nearly overwhelmed with work. It is easy in this situation to be anxious, frustrated, and discontent. And as many of us settle in at home, this discontentment can make it easier to loose patience with others around us.

So how do we gain this ability to face all circumstances by being content? Note two things. First, Paul had learned to be content. It was a skill that he had learned as he went through many circumstances. As James says in his epistle, the testing of our faith through trials produces steadfastness (James 1:2-4). Trials act like a plow, aiding the soil of faith to produce contentment as its crop. Second, Paul points to the source of his ability: "him who strengthens me." This contentment was a fruit of Christ's work within him. Christ works within his people by his word and Spirit, producing in us patience, hope, and endurance. Contentment is a product of grace.

If we go back one more verse, we see that Paul had said, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:9). When he describes what he has learned, he does this so that you might imitate him. Paul taught by example as well as by word. This way is not merely the way of Paul, but the way of Christ. Therefore, let us be good disciples and learn to "practice these things," seeking to be content in our current circumstance, with faith in the promises and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Using Arguments in Prayer

“God loves to be overcome with strength of argument. 
Thus, when we come to God in prayer for grace,
let us be argumentative.”
-Thomas Watson (1620-1686)

Prayer, as it is modeled in the Bible, includes arguments which give force to its requests. We should be argumentative with God, not by being quarrelsome, but by earnestly presenting our case before God, appealing to his character and promises. God calls us not only to list our requests, but also to give him reasons to grant our requests.

For example, when Jacob prayed to be delivered from his brother Esau in Genesis 32:9-12, he gave several arguments to support his request. First, he appealed to God proven faithfulness to his father and grandfather. Second, he appealed to God's word to him, how God had told him to return to his kindred that he might do him good (not harm). Third, he appealed to God's grace, noting that God had shown him undeserved steadfast love and blessing up to this point. Fourth, he appealed to God's promise to do him good and to multiply his offspring, which would not happen if he and his family were killed by Esau. Interestingly, this wrestling with God in prayer was followed by a literal wrestling match where Jacob refused to let go until he received a blessing (Gen. 32:22-32). In the end, God granted his request and gave him favor and peace with his brother.

This pattern can be seen in many of the prayers recorded in the Bible, as well as in many of the Psalms. In fact, a useful exercise in studying the Psalms of supplication is to follow the song's argument - what is being asked for and how does the singer seek to move God to act? For example, in Psalm 6, the singer asks that God would spare him and deliver his life, appealing first to God's compassion by presenting his own languishing condition, troubled and weak with grief (6:2-3, 6-7), second to God's steadfast love (6:4), and third to God's zeal for his glory by noting that God will be remembered and praised by those whom he saves (6:5).

Sometimes our case for our requests may be very strong, based on clear and specific promises of God. Other times our case is weak. We should realize that God might have better arguments, better reasons for not granting our requests. This was the case when Paul asked for the removal of his "thorn in the flesh," likely some type of physical weakness. Though Paul pleaded for its removal three times, God had good arguments for not removing it: it taught Paul humility, contentment, and a reliance on the grace and power of God (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

But even though we should be humble before God and submissive to his will, we should nevertheless present our best case for our requests. If we have no arguments, then why are we making the request? If God has no reason to grant it, then why make it? Giving arguments draws out your desires and fleshes out your requests. It also gives you a practical knowledge of God's attributes and promises. As you appeal to them, you apply them to your own situation and better see how they are relevant to you. This also helps you to see God's attributes and promises at work when your requests are fulfilled.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Comforting Doctrine of Providence


As John Calvin mentions in the quote above, God's providence is an immense comfort for the Christian. You can read Calvin's discussion of the practical use of the doctrine of providence (the source for this quote) here. But if you want a shorter explanation of the concept, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) explains God’s providence and its practical implications in this way:
Q. 27. What dost thou mean by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand. 
Q. 28. What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things?
A. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Psalm 42 - Genevan Psalter

As many churches have had their normal public worship interrupted due to the coronavirus, it seems that Psalm 42 is a fitting song for this evening. We can be thankful that modern technology allows for us to still participate together to some extent through livestream video (my church's worship service from this morning can be found here), but we can still wistfully remember "how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival" (Psalm 42:4). Here is Psalm 42 sung by the Jubilee Octet from the New Genevan Psalter (which uses a new translation and the original 1551 Genevan tunes and arrangements).



Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Biblical Law and Quarantine


As our civil authorities call for restrictive measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I have seen some resistance to the idea that they have the authority to enact such measures. Some people have questioned the civil government's authority to enact quarantines and other policies that hinder contact between people to slow the spread of contagious disease. Biblically, though, there is a case to be made for the magistrate having such authority.  

We have a case law on the matter with respect to "leprosy" in Leviticus 13-14. Biblically, the term "leprosy" was not restricted to Hanson's disease, but referred to a variety of contagious diseases which showed up on a person's skin and even included infections in garments and houses. In those chapters, the priests were given careful instructions on how to examine and diagnose the symptoms, in some cases shutting up the person in isolation for a time to see how it progressed. If the leprosy was unhealed and contagious, and the person was determined to be unclean, he was required to live in isolation from the rest of the community while he remained unclean. This even applied to prominent figures who got leprosy, like Miriam (Num. 12) and King Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:19-21). 

Now this law operated on two levels, the natural and the ceremonial. This disease was a natural threat to the physical well-being of the Israelites. But it was also a threat to the ritual purity of the Israelites (Num. 5:1-3). For a leper to come back into the community and its corporate worship, not only was healing required, but also an elaborate purification ceremony which involved the shedding of blood (Lev. 14). The natural defilement was used in the ceremonial system of the Old Testament to symbolize spiritual defilement and to teach God's people the importance of holiness. This is why the priests were given this responsibility - they were guardians of the sanctuary, overseers of Israel's corporate purity, authoritatively distinguishing between the clean and unclean.

This law as a ceremonial law was abrogated by the coming of Christ. They were part of what the Bible calls "regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:10). Physical defilement no longer makes on ritually unclean. It does not require a purification ceremony. What makes a person unclean? As Jesus said on another occasion, sin is what defiles a person (Mark 7:14-23). Those who confess their sins and turn to Christ are cleansed by his blood (Heb. 9:13-14, 1 John 1:7-9). 

Yet the natural basis for the leprosy law still exists. Diseases which are serious and contagious are still a threat to the community. The sixth commandment ("thou shalt not kill") still requires that we preserve our lives and the lives of our neighbors, and to the extent that this law applied the sixth commandment to society it remains relevant today. Testing, observation, and mandatory isolation to hinder the spread of the disease may still be needed for some diseases. Because this is no longer a matter of ritual impurity, this responsibility no longer belongs to priests, but to medical doctors and civil authorities (especially since disease is common to the whole society, not only the church). Certainly, this power should not be used lightly. This power must be exercised with knowledge and wisdom, applying the principle to a variety of circumstances. This power could be abused, which is why checks and balances in government are important. More could be said on the exercise of this power (some helpful legal and historical context can be found here), but that there is such a power given to the civil authorities seems to have biblical warrant. 

For more on leprosy in the Bible, you can listen to my recent sermon on Jesus' cleansing of a leper at this link

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Special Times of Prayer and Fasting

“When great and notable calamities come upon or threaten the church, community, or nation, when judgment is deserved because of sin, when the people seek some special blessing from the Lord, or when a pastor is to be ordained or installed, it is fitting that the people of God engage in times of solemn prayer and fasting.” (OPC Directory for Public Worship)
A biblical practice which used to be a common practice in early America but which has been neglected in the present day is special times of fasting and prayer, sometimes known as "days of humiliation." Fortunately, our president still has called for a day of prayer, and our country has a regular day of prayer, but the note of repentance and fasting is notably absent from these modern proclamations. God calls people to respond to calamity by humbling themselves with fasting and prayer, either privately or together depending on the calamity. We see this especially in Joel 1-2. As disaster came upon the people, God called them to "Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD" (Joel 1:14, see also Joel 2:12–17).

We find this practice exemplified in Scripture. When Nineveh heard Jonah's declaration of impending judgment, its king proclaimed a public fast as they confessed their evil ways and sought His mercy (Jonah 3:5-10). The Jews held a fast for three days for Queen Esther before she went to the king to save them, in view of the threat to her life (Es. 4:16). Ezra proclaimed a public fast when the Jews returned to Israel and danger was impending, that they might humble themselves and seek from him a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23). The church in Antioch was “worshipping the Lord and fasting” when the Spirit indicated that Barnabas and Paul ought to be set apart for ministry, which they did with more fasting and prayer (Acts 13:2-3).

Private fasting is exemplified by Nehemiah and Daniel, who fasted and prayed when they were distressed with the condition of God’s people and prayed to God, confessing sin and seeking mercy (Neh. 1:4, Dan. 9:3, 10:2-3). Anna regularly worshipped with fasting and prayer (Luke 2:37). Jesus assumes his disciples would fast privately (Matt. 6:18). Paul recognizes that a couple might agree to abstain from sexual relations for a special time of prayer and fasting (1 Cor. 7:5).

Fasting is not an end in itself, but serves other purposes. Drawing from John Calvin's teaching on fasting (here), I would note three main purposes for religious fasting: (1) it keeps you from over-indulging by keeping your senses from being dulled, (2) it prepares you for prayer and meditation, clearing your mind and taking away distraction, and (3) it expresses your sorrow for your sins and for the afflictions you or your family, church, or community experiences. The last two reasons are the relevant ones in times of public fasts.

A religious fast involves abstaining from food, more or less strictly according to the length of the fast and what one can handle. Sometimes a fast might only be from rich foods, like meat and wine, as when Daniel fasted for three weeks (Dan. 10:2-3). It also involves abstaining from other luxuries and entertainments which might be otherwise lawful, as well as other activities that may distract from the engagement to prayer, to the extent that one is able to do so. A public fast involves a shared commitment to private prayer, but usually involves public worship as well (Joel 1:14), with reading, preaching, prayer, and singing. (Our church will observe a day of fasting and prayer this Wednesday, March 18th, but we will observe the day from our homes because this will minimize contact with respect to the virus and because we only have access to our meeting facility on Sundays.)

In addition to days of fasting and prayer, the church can also call for days of thanksgiving, in response to particular blessings or deliverances. We are more familiar with this concept due to our annual day of Thanksgiving in November. An example of this type of day is found at the end of Esther (Es. 9:22). Psalm 107 speaks of giving thanks for particular deliverances, private and corporate.

The Westminster Confession of Faith describes these days as part of the occasional parts of worship: "religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon several occasions; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner" (WCF 21.5). It also mentions them as times when we are called to worship by providence in addition to the regular day of worship (the Lord's Day) appointed in the word: “God is to be worshipped … more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto” (WCF 21.6).

For more information on days of fasting and prayer, you can read the chapter on the subject in our denomination's Directory for Public Worship here, as well as the chapter on the subject in the original 1645 Westminster Directory for Public Worship here (scroll down to "Concerning Solemn Publick Fastings" near the bottom).
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
       and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13)

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Augustine on Burying the Dead

In the book, The City of God, Augustine gave a lengthly defense of the faith in the aftermath of the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths. At one point, in discussing the sack of Rome and the fact that some Christians were killed and left unburied, Augustine made the following comments on the burial of the dead.
"But even their own philosophers have despised a careful burial; and often whole armies have fought and fallen for their earthly country without caring to inquire whether they would be left exposed on the field of battle, or become the food of wild beasts. Of this noble disregard of sepulture poetry has well said: 'He who has no tomb has the sky for his vault.' How much less ought they to insult over the unburied bodies of Christians, to whom it has been promised that the flesh itself shall be restored, and the body formed anew, all the members of it being gathered not only from the earth, but from the most secret recesses of any other of the elements in which the dead bodies of men have lain hid! 
"Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing! For the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man's very nature. 
"And therefore to the righteous of ancient times the last offices were piously rendered, and sepulchres provided for them, and obsequies celebrated; and they themselves, while yet alive, gave commandment to their sons about the burial, and, on occasion, even about the removal of their bodies to some favorite place. And Tobit, according to the angel's testimony, is commended, and is said to have pleased God by burying the dead (Tobit 12:12). Our Lord Himself, too, though He was to rise again the third day, applauds, and commends to our applause, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial (Matthew 26:10-13). And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly burial cloths, and see to its burial (John 19:38). These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God's providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the resurrection. And we may also draw from them this wholesome lesson, that if God does not forget even any kind office which loving care pays to the unconscious dead, much more does He reward the charity we exercise towards the living. Other things, indeed, which the holy patriarchs said of the burial and removal of their bodies, they meant to be taken in a prophetic sense; but of these we need not here speak at large, what we have already said being sufficient. 
"But if the want of those things which are necessary for the support of the living, as food and clothing, though painful and trying, does not break down the fortitude and virtuous endurance of good men, nor eradicate piety from their souls, but rather renders it more fruitful, how much less can the absence of the funeral, and of the other customary attentions paid to the dead, render those wretched who are already reposing in the hidden abodes of the blessed! Consequently, though in the sack of Rome and of other towns the dead bodies of the Christians were deprived of these last offices, this is neither the fault of the living, for they could not render them; nor an infliction to the dead, for they cannot feel the loss." (Augustine, The City of God, 1.12-13)