Tuesday, July 28, 2020

God's Promise and the Future

Last Sunday, I addressed some common misconceptions about the end times during our Sunday school lesson. You can listen to the lesson here. In addition to dealing with the rapture, the great tribulation, and the "terminal generation," I also asserted that the idea that the future will be one of increasing wickedness and decline until Christ comes is mistaken. Bad times are not unique to the end times. Sin, error, suffering, disasters, and apostasy have been around ever since Adam's fall. Rather, while "in this world you will have tribulation" (John 16:33), yet the future is one of increasing victory and blessing. Jesus is conquering the world, a conquest which culminates at his return. 

There are many passages in Scripture which portray this hopeful view of the future, such as Genesis 12:1-3, Psalms 2, 72, 110, Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-10, Daniel 2:31-45, 7:13-14, Matthew 13:24-33, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and 1 John 2:8, 17. One which I noticed more recently is Genesis 22:17-18. This was God's reassertion of his promise to Abraham after Abraham had demonstrated his faith by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God's command:
"I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:17–18)
This remains God’s promise to his people, particularly to Jesus Christ and those who believe in him. In Galatians 3, Paul describes how this promise was made to Jesus, the offspring of Abraham, and by extension to all who are in Christ (Gal. 3:7-9, 16, 29). Consider what this means for us: 

"I will surely bless you..." God promises to bless Christ’s church, to revoke the curse which was laid upon humanity in Adam and to grant them his grace and favor through faith in Christ. 

"...I will surely multiply your offspring..." God promises to greatly increase the church's numbers so that it becomes an innumerable host.

"...your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies..." God promises to give Christ and his church victory over his enemies. A person might grant that the church will grow, but might qualify this by saying fallen humanity will grow quicker - yet here the church is promised not mere parallel growth but victorious growth, not mere preservation but advance. Not only shall the gates of hell not prevail against the church, but Christ and the church shall prevail against the gates of hell. Christ conquers through his grace and judgment and uses the spiritual weapons of his church to promote his kingdom among his enemies. 

"...in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed..." God promises to use his church to successfully bring the blessing of Christ to all nations. Not only shall the gospel be preached to all nations, but in time it shall be a blessing to all the nations. In time, all the nations shall receive Christ by faith and receive the blessings of Christ's reign.

Even though these promises have been continually unfolding since they were spoken to Abraham, yet they can be difficult to believe when we see the sin, error, and apostasy which surround us. Our personal experience might not seem to match up with the picture painted by these promises. But if you find these promises hard to believe in our day, imagine how hard it was for Abraham. And yet he believed. Even before Isaac was born and when his body was "as good as dead" (Rom. 4:19), he believed his offspring would be like the stars and the sand and that all the nations would be blessed through him. 
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (Romans 4:18-21)
Like our father Abraham, let us believe God and his promises, knowing that our perspectives are limited and God's power is not. And also like Abraham, let us put our faith into practice by obeying God's voice. Have confidence in the reigning Christ, in the directions he has given us, and in the means he has appointed to establish and extend his kingdom. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Augustine and Covenant Theology

Recently I was looking back over The City of God by Augustine and came across what has become a classic description of the unity of old and new covenants as administrations of God’s redemptive grace. In his discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham, Augustine writes, 
“For what else does circumcision signify than a nature renewed on the putting off of the old? And what else does the eighth day mean than Christ, who rose again when the week was completed, that is, after the Sabbath? The very names of the parents are changed: all things proclaim newness, and the new covenant is shadowed forth in the old. For what does the term old covenant imply but the concealing of the new? And what does the term new covenant imply but the revealing of the old?” (The City of God, 16.26)
In describing why infants received a “sign of regeneration,” Augustine goes on to distinguish these covenants from the covenant of works made with mankind through Adam: 
“But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know. For the first covenant, which was made with the first man, is just this: ‘In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die.’” (The City of God, 16.27) 
While the covenantal nature of God's dealings with man received a great deal of attention following the Reformation, especially by Reformed and Presbyterian theologians, here we see the same basic understanding articulated by Augustine in the early 5th century. Outside the covenant of grace, we are all condemned by our violation of the first covenant and are doomed to death. But God has made his covenant of grace with those who believe in Christ and their offspring, administering it now in its new covenant form with greater clarity and efficacy. 

I have written more about the Reformed doctrine of the covenant in this blog post. You can also see all my blog posts on the topic here

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Trust and Community

"Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
who dwells trustingly beside you."
(Proverbs 3:29)

Proverbs 3:29 points out that plotting evil against a neighbor is not only wrong because it breaks God's law, but also because it severs the bonds of community and betrays the trust your neighbor has placed in you. Community is built on trust. For people to dwell together, they must trust those around them to some degree. Perhaps they do so reluctantly and minimally, only because such trust is a necessary part of living in a community. Perhaps they do so willingly - perhaps they even move to a community because they trust the people there. A certain degree of trust is necessary for people to merely have homes close to each other, and the more they interact together as a community, the more trust is required. When people do not trust each other, they become increasingly distant and the community breaks down. 

Our society suffers from a lack of trust. Suspicion of other people is very high and plays a role in many issues such as race relations, law enforcement, zoning laws, schools, politics, and COVID-related issues. I believe this lack of trust has also created fertile ground for conspiracy theories - once you are already convinced that a group is deceptive and malicious, it is easier to believe speculative theories about their nefarious deeds and plans. These theories then further erode trust in other people and make it easier to believe increasing far-fetched claims. 

To be suspicious is not necessarily wrong. Sometimes suspicion is justified and sometimes it is not. Sometimes a little suspicion is justified and sometimes a lot of suspicion is called for. To be totally without suspicion is to be naive, simple, and unprotected. But even if at times suspicion is a necessary evil, it is yet an evil - it makes life difficult for those who are suspected and hinders the community from working together as a society. And it is an evil which is wreaking havoc on our communities.

Unfortunately, trust is not built very well by merely telling people to stop being suspicious of everyone. Blanket condemnation of suspicion tends to provoke more suspicion, since it seems to call for blind trust. To restore the bonds of community, we need to be about the work of building trust. We should be working to show ourselves to be honest and dependable people who seek the well-being of our neighbor and the common good. And of course, we must be working to actually be honest and dependable people who seek the well-being of our neighbor and the common good, otherwise we only further the suspicion of hypocrisy which we are seeking to heal. Not only must we not plan evil against our trusting neighbors, but we must devise plans for their good, seeking the welfare of the community where we live and praying on its behalf (Jer. 29:7).  

Likewise, to restore the bonds of community, we must also hold our suspicions to a minimum, treating them as a necessary evil at best. Be slow to believe accusations against other people and groups of people, as well as negative characterizations of them. Do not spread "conspiracy theories," by which I mean speculative theories which are harmful to the reputations of others. Beware of judging others hastily. Instead, treat others the way you would wish to be treated. While exercising discernment, treat those who are superior in age, skill, and authority with a basic attitude of humility rather than hostile suspicion. Give honor to whom honor is due. Love your enemies by keeping your suspicion to an appropriate level rather than demonizing your enemies and putting everyone into two camps: completely trustworthy or not trustworthy at all. These are all biblical principles and they are essential for the functioning of any community. 

Building trust is important in the family, church, and commonwealth if these organizations are to function well. May we build trust in the body of Christ by pursuing and demonstrating our unity in love and in the truth. May we also built trust within our cities, counties, and neighborhoods by being trustworthy and charitable neighbors who demonstrate a shared commitment to the common good. We will still need to guard ourselves against harm in this fallen world, but in doing so may we not cut ourselves off in cynical isolation. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

America the Beautiful?

"I dread the depravity of human nature. I wish to guard against it by proper checks, and trust nothing to accident or chance." - Patrick Henry, 1788

Some of us may find it quite easy to point out wrongs in our society and our institutions. But the issue is not simply out there in other people. This is an issue rooted in human nature. As I point out in this video, not only does this have implications for civil government which our founders understood, but this also has implications for you as an individual.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Saint Louis, King of France

In recent weeks there has been some controversy over the statue of Saint Louis (1214-1270) in front of the Art Museum. There is a petition to take it down and rename the city, claiming that Saint Louis was anti-Semitic and Islamaphobic. Others are defending it, claiming that it stands for the pursuit of justice, charity, and piety exemplified by Saint Louis. 

It is true that King Louis IX had his faults, particularly in relation to the Jews. Yet his attitude and actions toward the Jews - the burning of Talmuds and his threats to expel the Jews - were not racially driven (in fact, he was generous to Jewish converts), but driven by his desire to suppress blasphemy and usury - a good reminder for present-day activists to not let a desire for reform lead them astray. He did lead two crusades, but these were defensive actions against Muslim aggression in the holy land, rather than an expression of hatred for Muslims. As Protestants, we would note as a fault that his conception of the faith was marred by some of the errors which were developing in the medieval church.

But King Louis IX has been honored for seven centuries as a good king, not because of his actions towards the Jews, but because of things like his humility, piety, judicial reforms, and charity. He was faithful in prayer, attentive to sermons, and sought to practice his faith in his public and private life. He fed the poor at his table and regularly washed their feet. He built hospitals and orphanages. He systematized the laws, reformed the courts, and held powerful men accountable. He abolished trial by combat, establishing trials with presumption of innocence and examinations of witnesses under oath. His reputation for impartiality was such that he was called upon by those outside France to arbitrate disputes. To learn more about Saint Louis, read more here: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-IX and here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/rulers/louis-ix.html

King Louis IX played an important role in developing Western Civilization, an imperfect civilization which has been greatly blessed by the influence of Christianity over the centuries. This civilization first came here by the French settlers who named the city St. Louis, and then by English-speaking settlers and the United States. This civilization has proven attractive enough that people of many backgrounds, including Jews and Muslims, have come here to share in the benefits developed by men like Louis IX. The statue of Saint Louis was created for the 1904 World’s Fair and served as the primary symbol of the city of St. Louis until the Gateway Arch was built in 1965. May it continue to stand in gratitude to the best of our society’s Western and Christian heritage. And may we continue to practice our faith for the glory of God and good of our community. For just as faith without works is dead, so monuments to the past without present-day faith and works are also dead and doomed to be taken away.