Thursday, July 22, 2021

Jesus the King

Q. 26: How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
Answer: Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies. (WSC)

While Jesus has an eternal dominion over all as God, he also has received a mediatorial dominion over all as our Redeemer, to the end that he might save, lead, and protect God’s elect and thereby restore God’s reign over a fallen world (Matt. 28:18).

By nature, the world is under the kingdom of Satan and the judgment of God. But by grace, people are brought into the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God and of His Christ (Col. 1:13-14). Jesus binds the strong man and plunders his house, drawing people into his kingdom (Matt. 12:25-29).

The kingdom of Israel under King David and his heirs was the manifestation of this kingdom in the Old Testament. God chose this people and provided them with a king to deliver them and give them peace and rest (2 Sam. 7:8-11, Ps. 78:70-72). He promised to raise up David’s offspring to succeed him and to establish his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12-16, Ps. 72, 89:1-37).

Yet, as David’s descendants acted corruptly, the kingdom fell. The prophets explained to the people that this was temporary. God would remember his covenant with David and raise up his heir and restore his kingdom and make it greater than ever before (Is. 9:6-7, 11:1-10, Ezek. 34:23-24, Micah 5:2-4). The king would return to Israel and shepherd God’s people and extend his reign to the ends of the earth. This would be the Christ, God’s anointed, who would deliver his people and establish heaven’s reign on earth. As the fulfillment of this prophecy, Jesus came as the Son of David, the promised king (Luke 1:31-33).

Psalm 110 serves as a good summary of his kingship. Jesus was enthroned as king when he ascended to his Father’s right hand on the basis of his victorious work of redemption (Ps. 110:1). He now rules in the midst of his enemies, making his enemies his footstool (110:1-2). First, he does this by subduing the hearts of his people in conversion by his word and Spirit, so that they “offer themselves freely on the day of [his] power” (110:3). He rules his people internally by his grace and externally by his word, discipline, and officers. He rewards their obedience, corrects them for their sins, and orders all things for their good. Second, he does this by restraining and conquering all his and our enemies. He “will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses” (110:5-6). As Psalm 2 describes the choice, we must either submit to the king and take refuge in him or suffer his wrath and perish (Ps. 2:12). He wields this power even now as he extends his kingdom. For example, he overthrew Jerusalem for its persistent persecution of him and his disciples. But one day he will return in glory to judge the world, bringing all of this work to perfect completion.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Jesus the Priest

Q. 25: How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?
Answer: Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us. (WSC)

As the catechism has already said, Jesus became our redeemer to deliver us from our estate of sin and misery. The position of redeemer (the larger catechism uses the term “mediator” to refer to the same position) has three aspects. As our redeemer he executes the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king.

The book of Hebrews explains a great deal about the priesthood of Jesus. It describes how he is a merciful high priest, able to sympathize with our weakness, having been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 2:17, 4:15). It teaches that he is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem who received a tithe from Abraham and was a type of Christ (Heb. 7, Ps. 110:4). In contrast to the Levitical priests, who were “many in number because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (Heb. 7:23-24). He continues even now to make intercession for those who draw near to God through him (Heb. 7:25). Hebrews also explains how Jesus secured an eternal redemption by his once-for-all offering of himself as a sacrifice without blemish to God (Heb. 9:12, 14). “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

By his death, Jesus satisfied divine justice and reconciled us to God. His sacrifice of himself was a “propitiation” for our sins (Rom. 3:25, Heb. 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 4:10), which is to say that it appeased the just wrath of God and incurred God's favor by atoning for our sins. It is the grounds for our forgiveness, the debt of sin having been paid by Christ. It is the basis for Christ's intercession for us before the Father, so that our persons and service is accepted by him. This is not to say that Jesus and the Father were at cross-purposes. The Father had sent the Son because of his love for us for this very purpose, that God and sinners be reconciled. As John Murray has said, “The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this: that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Jesus the Prophet

Q. 24: How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?
Answer: Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation. (WSC)

I think it is safe to say that Moses was the greatest prophet in the Old Testament. The concluding postscript of Deuteronomy says that “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 34:10-11). Yet, Moses prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15-16 that the Lord would raise up a prophet like Moses for his people, to mediate between them and the Lord.

When people began to observe Jesus’ teaching and miracles, they realized that he was this great prophet, the Prophet. The Gospel of John makes this clear by noting that John the Baptist denied that he was the Prophet (John 1:21-27), while the people correctly realized that Jesus was the Prophet (John 6:14, 7:40). Peter himself quoted the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18 in Acts 3:22 as referring to Jesus.

Both John and the writer of Hebrews pointed out that Jesus surpassed the other prophets by being God himself, the eternal Word, the only-begotten Son of the Father (John 1:1-3, 14-18, Hebrew 1:1-3, 3:1-6). Jesus makes his Father known perfectly and completely because he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). And as the Redeemer who accomplished redemption, Jesus proclaimed the final and permanent administration of the covenant of grace. Therefore Jesus is the final word. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1-2a). This is why Scripture was completed and revelation ceased once his word given through the apostles was written down (Heb. 2:3-4).

Jesus exercised this prophetic ministry during his time on earth as he preached the gospel, taught his disciples, told parables, pronounced blessings and woes, foretold future events, taught through symbolic actions, and did miracles, signs, and wonders. Yet, his earthly ministry was not the only time he executed the office of a prophet. He also revealed God’s will by his Spirit through the prophets and through his apostles whom he commissioned (1 Peter 1:11, John 14:25-26, 15:26-27). The prophets and apostles are the foundation and he is the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). In addition, Jesus continues to exercise this office as he disciples us through Scripture and enlightens our minds by his Spirit to understand it (1 Cor. 2:12-16).

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Prophet, Priest, and King

Q. 23: What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?
Answer: Christ, as our Redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation. (WSC)

The eternal Son of God became our redeemer to deliver us out of an estate of sin and misery unto an estate of salvation and glory. He became the mediator between God and sinful man. He is not our redeemer and mediator by nature, but by grace. As our redeemer, he fulfills the duties of a prophet, a priest, and a king. In the Old Testament, people were appointed to these offices by anointing (by the Spirit and/or with a ceremony using oil), and so Jesus is called the "Christ," which in Greek means the "anointed one" (as does the Hebrew word "Messiah.") He fulfilled the duties of these offices in his life on earth and he has continued to fulfill them in heaven.

God laid down the pattern for these offices in the work of the prophets, priests, and kings of Israel in the Old Testament. The prophets like Moses, Elisha, and Jeremiah delivered God’s word to his people, often did miracles which demonstrated God’s power and mercy, and interceded for the people. The priests like Aaron, Zadok, and Ezra received God’s word from the prophets and taught it, maintained the worship and holiness of God, offered the various sacrifices of the people to reconcile them to God, and interceded for the people. The kings like David, Asa, and Jehoshaphat received God’s word from the priests and enforced it, guided the people by it, delivered the people from their enemies, gave them peace in the land, and interceded for the people. Sometimes these offices overlapped. Melchizedek was both a priest and king, Ezekiel was both a priest and a prophet, and David was primarily known as a king but was also a prophet (Acts 2:30).

Yet, all these men were themselves in need of salvation and all of them died. Their insufficiency pointed forward to one who would come and fulfill these tasks for God’s people and accomplish an eternal redemption. It was necessary that God himself come to fulfill these tasks. In fact, when Jesus was born, it had been hundreds of years since a prophet had prophesied and even longer since the last Davidic king had reigned. This increased all the more the sense of expectation among the people as they looked forward to the fulfillment of the messianic prophesies. Scripture prophesied that a man would come who would be a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15-16), a king from the line of David (Is. 9:6-7), and a priest who would make atonement by his own death and who would make intercession for his people (Is. 53).

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Humanity of Christ

Q. 22: How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
Answer: Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her yet without sin. (WSC

Christ has from eternity been the Son of God, of one substance with the Father. At a particular time, he became man for our salvation. He did this without giving up his divine nature, but united the two natures in one person. This is one of the great wonders of the Christian faith. It is such a wondrous thing that from time to time some people have felt the need to tone it down, to explain that his physical body was an illusion or that he only took on part of man’s nature (e.g. a human body but not a human mind). But our catechism explains what God has revealed in his word concerning Jesus, that because we “share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things” and was made to be “like his brothers in every respect” so that he might be our high priest and die on our behalf (Heb. 2:14-18). As a man, he “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).

Therefore, his body was a true body, subject to the limitations of a human body. He took on a human soul, a “reasonable soul” (that is, a rational soul). He took on a human mind, will, and affections. He fully shared in our human experience, both in the outer life and in the inner life. When he suffered for us, he suffered in both body and soul (Matt. 26:38). He is able to sympathize with our weakness (Heb. 4:15). While he remained without sin, and thus did not experience inner temptation arising from evil desires, yet he did experience things like hunger, thirst, sorrow, and weakness, as well as the temptations of the world and the evil one.

He took on this human nature when he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary (Luke 1:35, Matt. 1:18). As regards his divine nature, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, but as regards his manhood, he was begotten of Mary, of her substance. He was the promised offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15), of Israelite and Davidic descent according to the flesh (Rom. 9:3, 5).

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).

Friday, June 4, 2021

The Only Redeemer

Q. 21: Who is the Redeemer of God's elect?
Answer: The only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever. (WSC)

In the covenant of grace, God delivers his elect from their sin and misery by a Redeemer. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He did not become the Son of God by being born on earth, for God did not send him to become his Son, but “sent his only-begotten Son” that we might live through him (1 John 4:9, John 3:16). Jesus dwelt in eternal glory and love with the Father and the Spirit (John 17:5, 24). He has always been God. But it was for us, and for our salvation, that he became man around 4 BC. This incarnation was necessary for him to be the mediator between God and man and for him to offer himself as a ransom for sinners (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Having added to himself human nature for this purpose, he will always be both God and man.

It is very important to maintain both the union and the distinction of the two natures of Christ. His two natures are distinct but not separate. One heretical distortion of this doctrine, known as Nestorianism, is to divide Christ into two persons, which gets into biblical and theological problems really fast. Another heretical distortion, known as Eutychianism, is to combine Christ’s two natures into one nature, usually with the result that his humanity is divinized. But the book of Hebrews, especially 2:14-18 and 4:14-16, emphasizes the importance of Christ’s true humanity. The council of Chalcedon in 451 rejected both of these distortions as it articulated the biblical doctrine of Christ’s two natures in one person (you can read their definition here). Incidentally, R.J. Rushdoony named his organization after Chalcedon because of the implications of this doctrine, such as that no man or state can transcend its creatureliness and play God. Our confession of faith affirms the council of Chalcedon’s definition in chapter 8, article 2, “So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Thoughts on Pride Month

“…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 1:7)

In his short letter, Jude wrote to warn of those who had crept into the church and were perverting the grace of our God into lasciviousness (Jude 1:4). One of the examples of judgment he gives is that of Sodom and Gomorrah. While Sodom had many sins (Ezek. 16:49-50), Jude identifies its practice of sexual immorality, and of unnatural desires in particular (cp. Romans 1:24-27), as causes for God’s judgment. These cities “serve as an example” that we might turn away from such ways.

The apostle Peter, in a similar passage, adds a positive example, that of “righteous Lot,” whom God rescued. While not everything Lot did was exemplary, he was exemplary in being “greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)…” (2 Peter 2:7–8).

As you see sexual sin promoted, this month in particular, it is right and fitting to be distressed by it. It is not self-righteous to be repulsed by the celebration of homosexuality if you are also examining yourself and repenting of you own sins, being moved in both cases by grief and hatred towards sin and a love for God and his holiness.

Near the end of his letter, Jude exhorts his readers to be “building yourselves up in your most holy faith” and to “have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 1:20, 22-23). Aversion to sin and detestation of sin is compatible with mercy towards  those who practice it. Scripture exhorts us to both.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Are All Sins Equal?

There is a popular misconception out there that all sins are equal, that no sin is worse than another sin. Many Christians have picked this up from a misunderstanding of James 2:10, which says that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it." But this verse does not mean that to break one commandment is to break every commandment. Rather, as the preceding and following verses explain, it means that to break one commandment makes a person a transgressor of the law and liable to judgment (James 2:9, 11). Apart from the mercy offered in Christ, the law demands perfect obedience. 

While all sins are the same in that they all violate God's law, are contrary to his character, and deserve eternal judgment, yet in other respects they are not the same. The Bible regularly speaks of sins that are greater than others (e.g. John 19:11, Ezek. 8:6) and which deserve greater judgment than others (e.g. Matt. 11:22, Luke 12:47-48). The Westminster Larger Catechism summarizes the biblical material on this point in the questions below (you can find them here with abundant, but not comprehensive, biblical citations). 

To believe that no sin is worse than another sin is an unbiblical concept. I believe many people hold to this idea with good intentions, but it often leads to bad consequences in practice and a superficial understanding of sin. A wise person knows how to evaluate sin and does not treat it all the same. In this way, not only is he able to address the sins of others more wisely and justly, but he also gains a better sense of the depravity of his own sins and a better sense of the mercy of God in Christ. 

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Question 150: Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
Answer: All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Question 151: What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
Answer: Sins receive their aggravations,
  1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
  2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
  3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
  4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord's day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
Question 152: What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?
Answer: Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

God's Gracious Covenant

Q. 20: Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
Answer: God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer. (WSC)

Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy! We were helpless on our own, wallowing in the sin we loved and doomed to unending misery. But he did not leave us to perish in our sin and misery.

“Election” and “predestination” refer to God’s choice of a people to be saved by him and brought to everlasting life and glory. This choice occurred before the creation of the world in eternity (Eph. 1:4, 2 Tim. 1:9). It was not based on God’s foresight of our actions (Rom. 9:11). In fact, any faith or good deeds we do is a result, not a cause, of his decision to save us. We have no grounds of boasting in our salvation - all the praise goes to God’s grace (Eph. 1:5-6). While God is just to leave some in their sins and judge them for their freely chosen rebellion against him, showing his justice, wrath, and power, he also demonstrates his mercy in his election of some to everlasting life, not on the basis of works, but of his grace (Rom. 9:10-24, 11:5-6).

Because God had from all eternity elected some to everlasting life, he entered into a covenant of grace, a second covenant. This one would be a redemptive covenant, bringing his people out of sin and misery into an estate of salvation. It would be a covenant established upon the work of a Redeemer, not our perfect obedience. In it, salvation is freely offered to all those who believe in this Redeemer (John 3:16). Here is how the Larger Catechism explains how the grace of God is manifested in this second covenant:
“The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.” (WLC, Q. 32)
God published this covenant as early as Genesis 3:15 where he gave the promise of the woman’s offspring who would crush the serpent's head. He continued to renew and progressively reveal this covenant with his people throughout the Old Testament - with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the children of Israel at Sinai and on the plain of Moab, under Joshua in the Promised Land (twice), and in King David and his heirs. The revelation of this covenant culminated when the Redeemer himself came to accomplish redemption. Jesus established the final and permanent administration of this covenant, sometimes called the “new covenant.” For more on the doctrine of the covenant, see my video on the topic here or read my blog post summarizing the doctrine here.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Misery of Fallen Man

Q. 19: What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell for ever. (WSC)

In question 17, the catechism had noted that due to sin, man fell into an estate of sin and misery. Question 18 described the sinfulness and question 19 describes the misery of this fallen condition.

Through sin, all mankind lost communion with God. We were created to live with God, to communicate with him, to receive his favor and blessing, and to give him glory and grateful praise. The covenant of works had bound God and man in a bond of mutual love. But this bond was broken and enmity between God and man was introduced when man broke God’s command and sided with the serpent. Adam and Eve first hid from the presence of the Lord and then were sent out of the Garden, away from the tree of life (Gen. 3). Apart from Christ, mankind has no hope and is without God in the world (Eph. 2:12).

Not only did mankind lose communion with God, the source of every blessing, but it also justly came under his wrath and curse. People are now by nature “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), that is, “people destined for wrath.” Because he is righteous, God's wrath burns against wickedness. “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11). God’s wrath and displeasure is a great misery for fallen man. 

God's curse makes mankind subject to suffering, death, and hell. Even in this life, God begins to punish men for their sins (Lam. 3:39). Physical suffering is combined with inner suffering: the “sense of God's revenging wrath, horror of conscience, and a fearful expectation of judgment” which are to the wicked the beginning of their torments (WLC 83). And as God had warned Adam, "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). Moreover, the final sentence of the cursed on the day of judgement will be to be sent away from Christ into eternal punishment (Matt. 25:41, 46).

This is the summery of man’s misery, although it is not meant to sufficiently convey the experience of this misery. But this is also the misery from which we are delivered by the grace of God. That will be the topic of the next question. 

The Life of Oliver Woods

I have written in the past concerning the history of Samuel Woods, a captain in the American Revolution, a Presbyterian elder, and one of my wife’s ancestors. I would like to continue down the line and discuss Samuel’s youngest son, Oliver, my wife’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather. 

Oliver Woods was born at Boone’s Station, Kentucky, October 15, 1784, the son of Samuel and Margaret Woods.[1] He was named after an older brother who had been killed by Indians in Kentucky.[2] Later the family moved to south central Tennessee.[3] In 1807, Oliver married Nancy Haynes in what would become Giles County, Tennessee. Nancy had been born in either North Carolina or South Carolina on March 5, 1784.[4] Her father, John Haynes, and his brothers fought in the American Revolution, one of his brothers being killed and another taken prisoner at Cowen’s Ford.[5] Her father volunteered six times to serve in the NC militia during the war, and his service is recorded in his pension application.[6] Following the war, her father moved the family to Tennessee where she met Oliver.

Oliver and Nancy lived in Tennessee for the first thirty or so years of their marriage. Oliver farmed as well as taught school and vocal music, being well educated and a skilled musician.[7] During the War of 1812, he and his brother William enlisted. He served in Col. Hall’s 1st Regiment of Tennessee Volunteers, which was one of the three regiments mustered for Andrew Jackson’s expedition to Natchez (December 1812 to April 1813).[8] It is said that his brother William fought at the Battle of New Orleans.[9]

In the 1830s Oliver moved his family to Benton County, Arkansas and owned 160 acres which is today next to Wal-Mart’s Headquarters in present-day Bentonville (between SE 8th St. and SE J St.).[10] Yet by 1840 he and his wife and two of their children are listed in the census living in Barry County, Missouri. In 1850, Oliver and Nancy are listed in the census as empty nesters, both 67 years old, farming in Lawrence County, Missouri. Nancy died in 1859[11] and Oliver is listed in the 1860 census as 76 years old, living in the household of his son, John B. Woods, also in Lawrence County. It is said that Oliver was “one of the fourteen men who cast their vote for Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, and was compelled to leave the county. He went to Iowa, and died at his daughter’s, Eliza Andrews, home, in 1863.”[12] His gravestone says he died on May 14, 1863, aged 78 years and 7 months. He is buried in New Hope Cemetery, Hiattsville, Appanoose County, Iowa.[13]

Oliver and Nancy had five children still living in 1863.[14] As one reads the history of their children, it is evident that they passed on the faith of their fathers, although they had made the switch to the Cumberland Presbyterian branch of Presbyterianism. 

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church began in 1810 in the wake of the revivals in Kentucky and Tennessee and the consequent shortage of ministers. In contrast to the main body of Presbyterians, it lowered the educational standards for ordination, did not require ministers to subscribe to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and modified its confession of faith accordingly (available here). I do not agree with their modifications, but at least they were not going as far as others at the same time, like Barton Stone, who left Presbyterianism altogether.

The children of Oliver and Nancy Woods:

- Samuel Newton Woods, b. Nov. 7, 1808, m. Cicily Pace in 1828, d. April 29, 1848, Lawrence County, Missouri.[15] It was said that “religiously he was a Cumberland Presbyterian, politically he was a Benton Democrat.”[16] (This is the son from whom my wife is descended.) 

- John Blackburn Woods, b. Feb. 10, 1811, m. Martha Pace in 1832, d. July 11, 1884. He went on to own 1,700 acres in Lawrence Co., Missouri. He was a Union supporter during the Civil War, a judge, a Republican, and a Cumberland Presbyterian,[17] one of the first elders of the Presbyterian Church at Mt. Vernon, Missouri.[18]

- Nancy L. (Woods) Andrews, b. Oct. 24, 1812? m. Silas Milton Andrews in 1834, d. Aug. 23, 1903. She and her husband were early settlers of Appanoose County, Iowa and she died there at the age of 90. The Andrews were Democrats and Nancy had been a member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church since she was 17 years of age.[19]

- Margarette M. (Woods) Pace, b. Feb. 24, 1815, m. Christopher Pace in 1830, d. June 23, 1895 in Bentonville, Arkansas.[20] It was reported in the Bentonville Sun (29 June 1895), that she was “born in Tennessee in 1814 and was united in marriage to C.S. Pace in 1830 and in 1835 removed to Benton county, Arkansas … The deceased united with Cumberland Presbyterian church at the age of fifteen and lived a consistent member to the time of her death ... Five children…mourn the loss of a most devoted mother and the community has lost a noble Christian woman.”[21]

- Elvira (Woods) Erwin, b. 1820, m. Robert Erwin on Dec. 12, 1843, d. Sep. 1885 in Cornersville, TN.[22]

- Andrew Pinkney Woods, b. Jan. 16, 1821, m. Elizabeth Jane McCall, d. Feb. 17, 1887 in Barry County, Missouri.[23]

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Footnotes

1. “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa (Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1878), 603. This year and state is confirmed by his listing in the census in 1850 and 1860 (Lawrence County, MO). 
2. LeGrand M. Jones, Family Reminiscences (St. Louis, MO: C.R. Barnes Pub. Co., 1894), 44. His brother’s death is also mentioned in “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603.
3. The date is given as Nov. 4, 1807 in “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603. The marriage record states that Oliver acquired the marriage license on December 1st, 1807 in Williamson County, TN, part of which later became part of Giles County (Tennessee State Marriages, 1780-2002. Nashville, TN, USA: Tennessee State Library and Archives. Microfilm).
4. This date the NC as the location is found in “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603. A SC birthplace is listed in the 1850 census and in the White Journal, John Henning Woods, 1856-1873 (Ms2017-030), page 2. http://digitalsc.lib.vt.edu/exhibits/show/john-henning-woods/white-2-family-tree. Her father’s pension application says that they lived in NC and moved from there to TN. 
5. “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603.
6. Pension application, 13 Apr 1846, for John Haynes' Revolutionary War Service, Widow's pension W27. https://revwarapps.org/w27.pdf 
7. “John H. Woods,” The History of Lawrence County, Missouri, (Goodspeed Pub. Co., 1888), 1005-1006. There is record of Oliver owning land in Giles County, TN on Jan. 28, 1817 (Tennessee State Library and Archives; Nashville, Tennessee; Series Number: 02; Series Title: Entries). 
8. He is listed as a private in 1 Reg’t (Hall’s) Tennessee Volunteers (National Archives and Records Administration. Index to the Compiled Military Service Records for the Volunteer Soldiers Who Served During the War of 1812. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M602, roll 232.) Its regimental history is available here: https://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/regimental-histories-tennessee-units-during-war-1812.
9. “John H. Woods,” The History of Lawrence County, Missouri, 1005-1006. “Oliver … and William took active parts in the War of 1812, William especially distinguishing himself at the battle of New Orleans.”
11. “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603.
12. “John H. Woods,” The History of Lawrence County, Missouri, 1005-1006.
14. “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603.
17. “John H. Woods,” The History of Lawrence County, Missouri, 1005-1006.
18. Lawrence County Missouri History, edited by Jessie C Miller, et al; (Lawrence County Historical Society, 1974), 539-540.
19. “S.M. Andrews,” The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, 603. Biographical and Genealogical History of Appanoose and Monroe Counties, (Iowa, Lewis Pub., 1903), 81. Her gravestone, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53892815/nancy-louisa-andrews
22. She is mentioned in the family tree recorded in the White Journal, John Henning Woods, 1856-1873 (Ms2017-030), page 2 (Special Collections, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.) http://digitalsc.lib.vt.edu/exhibits/show/john-henning-woods/white-2-family-tree. Other information from census records (1850-1880). 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Sinfulness of Fallen Man

Q. 17: Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A: The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.

Q. 18: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it. (WSC)

As we saw last time, Adam’s sin had consequences for all those whom he represented in the covenant of works. By his sin, mankind fell from its original blessed estate. Now the catechism goes on to explain the estate into which man fell. This second estate is one of sin and misery. “Estate” here refers to man’s state or condition. The condition of fallen man is marked by depravity and its consequences.

Next week we will come to the question regarding the misery of this estate. But first, the catechism describes the sinfulness of this estate. This sinfulness consists of two kinds of sin: original and actual. “Actual” is not contrasted here with “imaginary.” Rather, the distinction is between the corruption of our nature and the activity which proceeds from it, namely, sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. Both original and actual sin are truly and properly sin, being out of accord with God’s law.

Original sin consists of three things. 1. The guilt of Adam’s first sin. This guilt is imputed to mankind, (Rom. 5:12-19), since Adam acted on our behalf as our covenant head. 2. The lack of original righteousness. God had created man not merely neutral, but good (Gen. 1:31), with a knowledge of God and an inclination and ability to serve him. It was natural then for man to love and obey God, but this natural tendency was lost in the fall. 3. The corruption of his whole nature. This is sometimes referred to as total depravity, that is, the idea every faculty of man is morally corrupt. His mind is debased and hostile to God (Rom. 1:28, 8:7), his heart is deceitful and wicked (Jer. 14:9), and his body is an instrument of sin (Rom. 6:13, 19). Not every sin is equally depraved, and not every man is as bad as he could be (thank God!), yet even when he does things which externally may conform to God’s law, they are defiled by sinful motives (Matt. 6:1-16, Heb. 11:6, Titus 1:15) and therefore cannot please God (Rom. 8:8).

From this sinful nature proceeds all actual transgressions. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). As Jesus said regarding false prophets, “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17).

This was the condition which we all inherited. We were all dead in trespasses and sins, carrying out the sinful desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph. 2:1-3). It is only by the grace of God that we are delivered from this bondage to sin (Eph. 2:4-10).

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Fall of Adam and the Fall of Mankind

Q. 16: Did all mankind fall in Adam's first transgression?
Answer: The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression. (WSC)

Adam was the head of the human race. God made his covenant with humanity by making his covenant with its head, with Adam (Gen. 2:15-17). It is similar to how a king might make a treaty with another nation by making a treaty with its king. In this case, Adam broke the covenant, aligning with the serpent, plunging the whole human race into a war with God. Because he represented his descendants, they all sinned in him and fell with him. His sinful nature would be conveyed to them by natural generation (Gen. 5:3, Ps. 51:5, John 3:6), and his guilt was imputed to them by virtue of the covenant (Rom. 5:12-21). Therefore all are doomed to die, being subject to the curse of the covenant of works.

This relation between us and Adam is taught in Romans 5. Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” (5:12). He notes that Adam’s transgression was unique, “a type of the one who was to come” (5:14). He sinned as a representative head bringing condemnation and death to all he represented, just as Christ obeyed as a representative head and brought justification and life to all he represented (5:15, 18-19). “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:19).

Notice how our catechism carefully describes those whom Adam represented: “...all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation…” What man did not descend from him by ordinary generation? Whom did he not represent? Who did not receive his fallen nature? The one who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary and born of her, yet without sin. Jesus Christ is the head of the new humanity, bringing us out of our fallen estate unto life and glory.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Forbidden Fruit

Q. 15: What was the sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created?
Answer: The sin whereby our first parents fell from the estate wherein they were created, was their eating the forbidden fruit. (WSC
God had made our first parents, Adam and Eve, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. He had given them dominion over all the earth and an abundance of plants and trees producing food for them. They could eat of any tree of the garden, except for one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on pain of death (Gen. 2:16-17). It was to be a symbol of God’s authority, a reminder that everything else was given by his generosity, and a test of man’s loyalty to his Creator.

Yet, despite all these good and generous provisions, our first parents violated God’s law by eating this forbidden fruit. In doing so they rebelled against God, aligned themselves with his enemy (the serpent), and demonstrated ingratitude for God's gifts, unbelief in his word, and the proud desire to be as God. This was the sin that broke the covenant of works and caused their fall from their first estate.

Genesis 3 describes how this sin took place. A serpent came to tempt Eve to sin, a serpent who is identified in Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 as the one who is called “the devil” and “Satan.” In John 8:44, Jesus described the devil as “the father of lies” and “a murderer from the beginning.” While he was good when originally created by God, yet this has been his character since he first came on the scene in Genesis 3. The devil was filled with malice as he came as a serpent to destroy mankind. He achieved this destruction by deceiving Eve, persuading her with lies to doubt God’s word and to desire and eat the forbidden fruit. She then gave Adam the fruit and he ate, knowing that it was forbidden. The devil continues to prowl around, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), so be watchful and prayerful that you might not succumb to temptation. And be grateful that this sin was not the end of the story. While it caused immense harm for all mankind, it also set the stage for God’s glorious work of redemption.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Three Church Fathers

Let me briefly introduce you to three important leaders in the early church, Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Augustine. All of them encountered opposition and faced either exile or invasion. Yet they held firm to the faith, preaching and teaching it to the end.

Athanasius (c. 296-373), Alexandria, Egypt. He attended the council of Nicaea as a deacon, assisting one of the foremost opponents of Arianism. He then became the bishop of Alexandria for 46 years and defended Nicene orthodoxy. During his time as bishop we was exiled five times for a total of 17 years because he refused to readmit Arius and his followers (the emperors going back and forth between opposing Arianism and seeking to force reconciliation). And so the saying came about, "Athanasius contra mundum": Athanasius against the world. You can read his book, On the Incarnation, online here

John Chrysostom (347-407), Antioch, Syria. "Chrysostom" means “golden-mouth” and was a nickname given him because of his reputation as a preacher. In his preaching he exposited Scripture, verse by verse, with lively and bold application. He was called to serve as the archbishop of Constantinople, where his preaching against the abuse of wealth and power gained him influential enemies. These enemies eventually achieved his banishment. Though he died in exile, his reputation recovered after his death. You can read his sermons on the Gospel of Matthew online here

Augustine (354-430), North Africa. Despite having a Christian mother, he grew up in Carthage as a pagan. His journey to Christianity is recounted in his Confessions. After his conversion in Milan, he became a presbyter in Hippo in North Africa in 391 and bishop in 396. He engaged in a controversy with Pelagius, defending the doctrine of God's grace in salvation. In response to pagan critiques following the sack of Rome in 410, he wrote The City of God, a masterpiece of apologetics, an evaluation of Roman history, and a history of redemption (past and future). He died with his city besieged by the Vandals. You can read his Confessions online here, although other translations are available for purchase. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

What Is Sin?

Q. 14: What is sin?
Answer: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. (WSC)
The apostle John gave us a simple definition of sin when he said that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Sin is defined by the law of God. If it is not a violation of God’s law, it is not a sin. But God’s law requires perfect conformity. It is a perfect rule of righteousness, showing us what is right, revealing to us the will of God. As Paul says, the law is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). It is not an arbitrary law, but an expression of God’s holy character and our place in God’s design. Any departure from this law is a departure from righteousness, a deviation from our duty, a rebellion against God, and a basis for judgment.

Our catechism mentions two ways we fall short of God’s law. First, "sin is any want [lack] of conformity unto … the law of God." This lack of conformity is found in our sins of omission, not doing what the law commands. The law calls us to fulfill our duties, and failure to do our duty is sin. This lack of conformity is also found in original sin, our innate hostility against God’s law in our fallen state. It is sinful for our nature to be hostile to God, out of accord with his will. This is described in Romans 8:7, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Sin is deeper than our actions. It also refers to our desires, our mindset, our heart. Unlawful desires that spring into our minds are sin. We ought to confess them to God and mortified them, seeking the renewal of our minds and hearts.

Second, sin is also the "transgression of the law of God." This refers to sins of commission, doing that which is forbidden. He has given us a good deal of freedom within his law, as he gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Yet, God has also set boundaries with his law, guardrails to our path. To violate these boundaries is sin and a manifestation of pride and a lack of faith in God. Instead, let us say with Psalm 119:32, “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!” As God renews our minds and hearts by his grace, we are enabled to not merely stay on the path, but to run eagerly in the good and righteous way of his commandments.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Fall of Our First Parents

Q. 13: Did our first parents continue in the estate wherein they were created?
Answer: Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God. (WSC)
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, began in a state of innocency and blessing, enjoying communion with God, his favor and gifts, and the promise of eternal life. Yet, this situation would not last.

Our first parents had free will in two respects. First, like us, they were able to make free choices, doing what they wanted. As our confession explains, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that is neither forced nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined to good or evil” (WCF 9.1). Second, God had made them as good people, able to obey God perfectly. Not only were they able to choose what they wanted, but they were able to want what was good. This is a freedom that they lost when they fell from their original estate and were alienated from God.

Our first parents fell from their original estate by sinning against God (Gen. 3). The devil came to Eve as a crafty serpent and tempted her with deceptive words. Eve chose to sin against God, and Adam followed her. In his case, he sinned against knowledge, not being deceived like his wife (1 Tim. 2:14).

Why did good people chose to sin? Why did they rebel against the God who had been so good to them? Yet we are not in a place to feel superior to Adam and Eve. There is some mystery to why they sinned, but at least it is a mystery we can relate to. Why does anyone sin? It doesn’t make sense to sin, whatever the circumstances. As Herman Bavinck wrote,
“Sin started with lying (John 8:44); it is based on illusion, an untrue picture, an imagined good that was not good. In its origin, therefore it was a folly and an absurdity … The impossibility of explaining the origin of sin, therefore, must not be understood as an excuse, a refuge for ignorance. Rather, it should be said openly and clearly: we are here at the boundaries of our knowledge. Sin exists, but it will never be able to justify its existence. It is unlawful and irrational.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 70)

 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The First Covenant

Q. 12: What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?
Answer: When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death. (WSC)
This question explains the first covenant that God made with man. Note several things about this covenant:

1. This covenant was an act of providence rather than creation. Man owed obedience unto God as his Creator, but God did not owe man this covenant relationship. As our confession of faith says, due to the distance between God and his creatures, “they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.” It was of God’s generosity that he placed Adam and Eve in a fruitful garden, gave them fellowship with him, and promised eternal life on condition of the perfect obedience that they already owed to him.

2. While Genesis 2-3 does not explicitly describe this arrangement as a “covenant,” all the elements of a covenant are there: two parties (God and mankind under Adam’s headship), a condition (perfect obedience), a promise of blessing (life in its fullest sense), and the threat of curse (death in its fullest sense). Some have even described the tree of life as the “sacrament” of this covenant of works, a sign and seal of the promise of life. In addition, Hosea 6:7 seems to call this arrangement a covenant, and the parallel between Adam and Christ in Romans 5 also indicates the covenantal nature of this arrangement.

3. While Adam and Eve were covenantally obligated to obey God by keeping the moral law and fulfilling the creation mandate (Gen. 1:26-28, 2:15), their loyalty and obedience was particularly tested by the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17).

4. While we are no longer able to obtain life by this covenant due to our sin, yet it forms the background of the rest of the Bible. In the end, through Christ and by grace, we end up with what was promised in the covenant of works. Not only does Revelation 21-22 contain many references to Genesis 2, but echoes of Eden are found throughout the Bible. Even outside the Bible, in the hearts of men and women, there is a natural longing for Eden, for a time and place where man dwelt in peace with God, with each other, and with creation. But the way to that condition is now blocked by sin. It would take another special act of providence, and a costly one, to open again the way to paradise.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Providence of God

Q. 11: What are God’s works of providence?
Answer: God's works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions. (WSC)
In his work of creation, God brought everything into being and gave it design and order. He rested from this work on the seventh day. Yet even then he continued the work of preserving and governing it. He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3) and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). This providence encompasses all things that happen: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

While the natural order works according to God’s design, it does not work automatically or mechanically. God makes the sun to shine, the rain to fall, and the plants to grow (Matt. 5:45, Ps. 104:14). The food and drink received by all living things is given by God, though he may use many instruments, including people, to do so (Ps. 104:14-15, 145:15-16, Matt. 6:26, Acts 14:17). People and nations are under his providential governance (Dan. 2:21, 4:17), although they are responsible for their actions, which remain voluntary. For example, Babylon (Hab. 1-2) and Assyria (Is. 10:5-19) are both described as instruments of God, being raised up by him for his purposes, yet without their knowledge - they were simply fulfilling their desire in rebellion against God. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, their intention and act was evil, but God’s intention behind the same event was good (Gen. 50:20). God uses true secondary causes in working out his plan.

Therefore: 1. Be sure to have this God on your side. There is no escape from him, as Jonah found out. 2. For those who are God’s children, this doctrine is of great comfort, leading to hopeful prayer, patience, and endurance. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). 3. Give praise to God, from whom all blessings flow (James 1:17). All the good things we enjoy come from his gracious hand, even though we do not deserve them. 4. Meditate upon God and get to know him better through his works of providence. Behold in his providence, his generosity, wisdom, justice, and power.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Creation of Mankind

Q. 10: How did God create man?
Answer: God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.

The doctrine of man is a major area of conflict in our day. Who are we? Who decides who we are? Should we seek to live up to some universal moral standard, or should each of us create his own? Should we seek to fulfill some God-given purpose, or is each of us left to create one's own purpose for one's existence?

This simple but powerful answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that (1) God created mankind, (2) he made mankind male and female, (3) he made mankind after his own image, (4) this image is expressed in man’s knowledge, righteousness, holiness, and dominion. The first three assertions can be found in Genesis 1:26-28, and the fourth can be found partly in the same passage as well as in two verses which describe the renewal of this image: Colossians 3:10 and Ephesians 4:24.

God made us male and female. He formed Adam's body from the dust of the ground and formed Eve's body from his side, and he named them accordingly. There are two sexes, and these identities are given to us, ingrained into our bodies, not left to the choice of individuals. This sexual identity, as man or woman, is a good part of God’s creation and should be affirmed. Sin seeks to blur the distinctions God has appointed, and the more it holds sway, the more it distorts human desires, destroying natural orientations (Rom. 1:26-27) and natural affections (Rom. 1:30-31). In our day, this distortion is not merely something individuals might deal with, but an ideology being promoted in our society. One of the ways to resist this ideology is to affirm our God-given identities and demonstrate the beauty and goodness of his design in our lives as we are renewed by his grace.

God created man, male and female, in his image. We are the image of God. This means two things. First, it means we represent God. To mistreat man is to attack God (Gen. 9:6, Prov. 14:31). Man is God’s representative on earth, his vice-regent. Just as a king might set up statues and flags and images on coins to assert his reign - the violation of which is taken personally - so God has set up man as a symbol of his royal authority on earth. Second, it means we resemble God. This is connected to the first point. We resemble him to display his glory on earth. Particularly, we resemble him in knowledge, righteousness, holiness, and dominion. (There are certainly some differences as well: unlike God, we are physical, visible, and finite; unlike us, God is infinite and eternal in all his attributes.)

Sin distorts the image of God. Humanity still has some dignity as God’s image (and should be respected as such, Gen. 9:6), but man has marred the image and acts contrary to it. He remains a rational, moral, religion, and productive being, but his thinking is blind to God and futile, his righteousness is filthy rags, his religion is idolatrous, and his dominion is ultimately vain and often cruel. But thanks be to God that he sent Jesus Christ to save his people that they might “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10).

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Creation of the Cosmos


Q. 9: What is the work of creation?
Answer: The work of creation is, God's making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.

This is how the Shorter Catechism summarizes the doctrine of creation, a fundamental Christian belief undergirding the worldview and message of the Bible. Not only is it taught in Genesis 1-2, but it is taught throughout the Bible (Ex. 20:11, Ps. 33, 104, John 1:1-4, Acts 17:24-31, Rev. 4:11). The Bible teaches that God alone is eternal and uncreated. It teaches that he created everything else, visible and invisible, merely by speaking them into existence. He went on to divide, unite, shape, and fill what he made, wisely designing each part with purpose as part of a harmonious whole.

The earth is therefore not a product of chance, nor of long ages of struggle and death. Rather, it is the product of a good and wise God. Death and misery were not an original part of this world, but came as a consequence of human rebellion. 

This unique work of creation took up six days. Did he need to take that long? No, he did not. Yet one purpose he had in doing it this way was to set an example for us, to work six days and rest one day (Exod. 20:11). 

This doctrine has many practical consequences. For example, it has implications for gender and social order (see here) and for how we interpret nature as a revelation of God (see here). Here is how Kevin DeYoung has summarized some of its worldview implications:

“The opening chapter of Genesis is a rejection of atheism (because there is a God), a rejection of polytheism (because there is only one God), a rejection of pantheism (because the creation is not God), a rejection of humanism (because man is not God), a rejection of naturalistic evolution (because the world and its creatures come into being by intelligent design), a rejection of materialism (because the physical world is not all that is really there), and a rejection of dualism (because both the spiritual and physical are not opposed).” (source)

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Creation and Providence

Q 8: How doth God execute his decrees?
Answer: God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.

In this question the shorter catechism moves from God’s eternal decrees to his work of carrying them out in history. God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). He has a plan from eternity and he also make it happen in time. These works can be divided into two categories: creation and providence.

These two works are distinguished by Genesis 2:1-3. On the seventh day of creation God finished his work of creation and rested. Yet, he continued to work in another way. When Jesus was criticized for doing deeds of mercy on the Sabbath he pointed out that while God rested from his work of creation on the seventh day, yet he continued to work in a different way: “But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working’” (John 5:17). God continues to uphold the world he made. Psalms like Psalm 104 and Psalm 136 describe both creation and providence in their praise of God.

Another place we find both of these works mentioned is in Hebrews 1:1-4. And not only does it mention both creation and providence - it says that both of them the Father does through the Son: “through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:2–3). Psalm 104 adds that both are also accomplished by the life-giving Spirit. “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30). Just as we see the Father, Word, and Spirit in the opening verses of the Bible, so they continue to be active in maintaining the world. And God's triune work will become particularly evident in the special work of providence known as redemption.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Piety, Aeneas, and Cornelius

Aeneas' Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci
Once a week I teach an ancient history class for a local homeschool co-op, and one of the books we are reading is the Aeneid by Virgil. The main theme of this epic poem is that of pietas, a trait demonstrated by its Trojan protagonist, Aeneas. This Latin word refers to reverence and dutifulness and is the word from which we get the English word "piety." Aeneas demonstrates it by his devotion to the gods and his father by showing reverence to them and embracing the duty they gave him of founding the city of Rome for his people and descendants. The force that is opposed to pietas in the Aeneid is not only impiety, but furor (the Latin word for passion, frenzy, or rage). In the Aeneid, this frenzy and passion is personified by Juno who stirs up storms, the lust of Dido, the Trojan wives who seek to burn the ships, and the hostile forces and civil tumult in Italy, all of this to turn aside pious Aeneas from the path of duty.

The English word "piety" has the same basic meaning as pietas: reverence and devotion to God and others to whom you owe reverence like parents, resulting in fidelity to one's obligations (see here and here). But today, as C.R. Wiley points out in his lecture "Make Men Pious Again," the word "piety" may come with connotations far removed from the world of the Aeneid. Perhaps "piety" sounds overly formal and sanctimonious. On the other hand, perhaps it sounds like something otherworldly, something that restricts the faith to the private world of feelings. Historically, though, piety has been both something that is rooted in the heart and something with consequences for all of life. Furthermore, this concept is found in the Bible. 

The Greek equivalent to pietas is εὐσέβεια (eusebeia). Instead of being translated piety, it is usually translated "godliness," but like pietas it refers to reverence, devotion, and dutifulness before God. Here is where its various forms are used:

εὐσεβής - (adj.) godly, devout, pious: Acts 10:2, 7, 2 Peter 2:9.
εὐσέβεια - (noun) godliness, reverence, piety: Acts 3:12, 1 Tim. 2:2, 3:16, 4:7-8, 6:3, 5-6, 11, 2 Tim. 3:5, Titus 1:1, 2 Peter 1:3, 6-7, 3:11.
εὐσεβέω - (verb) I show godliness, pay homage, am religious: Acts 17:23, 1 Tim. 5:4.
εὐσεβῶς - (adv.) godly, devoutly, piously: 2 Tim. 3:12, Titus 2:12.
θεοσέβεια - (noun) reverence for God, godliness: 1 Tim. 2:10, θεοσεβής in Jn. 9:31.

As in the Aeneid, the Bible describes εὐσέβεια in opposition to impiety and evil passions. The passions of the flesh "wage war against the soul" (1 Peter 2:11) much as they waged war against Aeneas to turn him aside from his duty and destroy him. But this deliverance from frenzy comes through Christ, who is "the grace of God" who "has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness [impiety] and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly [pious] lives in the present age…" (Titus 2:12).

It is interesting that Luke, a Gentile, recounts the healing of a lame man named Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) just before introducing a godly Roman centurion (Acts 10) in a book that ends with the gospel of the kingdom coming to Rome (Acts 28). Perhaps there was a symbolic meaning in Luke's inclusion of Aeneas' healing - that pagan Rome and its piety was helplessly disabled, in need of Christ the Savior. In any case, in Acts 10 we come to a good example of a pious man who served the true God. Cornelius, the Roman centurion from Italy, is described by Luke the same way Aeneas is described by Virgil: "a devout [εὐσεβής] man" (Acts 10:2). So consider some ways that Cornelius' piety was demonstrated:
  • He feared God (10:2). In particular, he feared the one true God. God deserves honor and respect, but impiety treats God lightly and causally. This fear is an attitude of reverence and awe which is expressed by paying homage to God and serving him according to his word. The Bible teaches us much concerning the fear of God (e.g. Prov. 1:7, Jer. 6:20-24, Mal. 1:6, Heb. 12:28-29). A pious man fears God. 
  • He feared God with all his household (10:2). This likely means he practiced it with them in family worship, cultivated it through instruction and by example, and applied it in their way of life. This influence extended to the soldier who attended him, who is also described as “devout” (10:7). While Cornelius practiced private prayer, he did not keep his religion to himself, but brought his household along with him. A pious man leads his household in piety and promotes piety within it.
  • He gave alms generously to the people (10:2). Alms were gifts to the needy and were given in the synagogue and on the street (Matt. 6:2). For example, the lame beggar at the temple asked for alms (Acts 3:2), Paul brought alms to the Jewish Christians from the Gentile Christians (Acts 24:17), and Tabitha was known for her alms, such as making clothes for the widows (Acts 9:36). In the church, the deacons were appointed for the regular distribution of alms. A pious man is generous and merciful (see also Ps. 112:5, 9). 
  • He prayed continually to God (10:2-3). Not that he prayed every minute of the day, but consistently throughout the day (such as at "the ninth hour"). His alms and prayers were like sacrifices to God (10:4, see also Heb. 13:15-16). As Aeneas demonstrated his piety by offering sacrifices to the gods, so the Christian offers these spiritual sacrifices to the one true God through Christ. A pious man is mindful of the worship of God, reverently offering these sacrifices. 
  • He was a just man (“upright,” 10:22). Piety itself is an aspect of justice - God deserves our reverence and devotion - and it moves a person to justly fulfill the rest of his obligations to God and man. It motivates us to fulfill our callings in life, knowing that by doing so we serve the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). Thus, piety can be used to refer to the way of life that results from true doctrine (1 Tim. 4:7-8, 6:3). In 1 Timothy 5:4-8, Paul notes that εὐσέβεια is shown in fulfilling family obligations such as honoring parents and supporting them in old age ("filial piety"). So a pious man is just, fulfilling his duties to God and man.
  • He sought Peter to hear his message from God and invited his household and friends to hear it (10:7-8, 24). This eagerness to hear God's word and to bring others along is described in Isaiah 2:3 and Zechariah 8:21-23. A pious man seeks to hear God’s word, to bring his family to church, and to invites his friends and relations to join him. 
  • He received the gospel (10:44-48, 11:17-18). Not only did he seek God's word, but he also received it - something which the pious should do throughout their lives. I believe Cornelius was already regenerate, believing in God's old covenant promises, but here he and his household received the gospel of Christ's finished work and were brought into new covenant blessings, being filled with the Spirit and baptized into the visible church of Christ. Likewise, a pious man repents of his sin, believes the gospel, and is baptized with his household. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Decrees of God

Q 7: What are the decrees of God? 
Answer: The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
The Bible not only makes known what God is and the persons in the Godhead, but also his decrees and their implementation in history. In fact, in the decrees and works of God, we see his divine attributes vividly displayed and demonstrated. We are called upon repeatedly in the Psalms to make known his deeds among the people because they reveal him and his glory.

This question particularly notes how his eternal decrees make known his sovereignty and wisdom. He has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass (exercising sovereignty) according to the counsel of his will, directing them to an end: his own glory (exercising wisdom). And these decrees are his eternal purpose - he is unchanging and unwavering in what he has always intended. These decrees were made in eternity, before time began. Ephesians 1:4 says that God the Father chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 1:11 that we were “predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will...” His predestination of us to salvation is described as one part of his eternal purpose. He works all things, not only matters of salvation, according to his plan. Later questions will describe how he works all things (i.e. his works of creation and providence). It is sufficient to point out here that God does not work every part of his decree in the same way - sometimes he acts directly, and other times through second causes (people, nature, etc.).

This truth is of benefit to us in at least two ways. First, it should exalt God in our eyes when we behold his sovereign power and the exercise of his unsearchable wisdom which has designed every thing which comes to pass from all eternity with purpose, fitting each part for his glory (and his people’s good). He is not trying to keep up with mankind, forming his plan in the moment in response to man, but is enthroned on high, bringing his will to pass. Second, it should comfort us to know that there is purpose and intention behind the events of this life, as chaotic and uncertain as they may seem to us. And not only is there purpose, but it is the purpose of our wise and good Father in heaven. Nothing takes him by surprise, for he has in fact foreordained it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Sensuality

ἀσέλγεια is a Greek word that occurs 10 times in the Bible and the ESV consistently translates it with “sensuality” or “sensual.” This is fairly accurate if you use Noah Webster’s 1828 definition of sensuality, “Devotedness to the gratification of the bodily appetites; free indulgence in carnal or sensual pleasures.” But if you look up the word online, you will see sensuality is commonly used today to simply refer to the enjoyment of physical pleasure. Thus, someone could get the mistaken idea that the Bible teaches that it is wrong to delight in physical pleasures. On the contrary, he gave us our senses and things like food and drink and sexual relations that we might enjoy them and be happy and grateful (Acts 14:17, Ps. 104:15, 1 Tim. 4:3, 6:17). The problem is when we desire or use these things unlawfully and inappropriately. We ought not to idolize them, covet them, abuse them (see here and here), or pursue them in an unrestrained manner or in a way where we loose control.

The word ἀσέλγεια properly refers to a “lack of self-restraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable … esp. of sexual excesses” (BDAG Greek-English Lexicon). The KJV usually translates it with “lasciviousness,” which more accurately translates the word, although it might sound old-fashioned. Other words that can be used to translate it would be licentiousness, wantonness, self-abandonment, or shamelessness.

It is an important concept to note today, as our culture tends to put very few restraints on indulging sensual desires. In fact, some people deem it immoral to hinder or discourage people from indulging any of these desires or to deem any particular indulgence as shameful (at least, as long as they are not harming another person without their consent). But Scripture notes that this lasciviousness is ungodly and something that Christians leave behind. Instead, they are to live in a manner that is self-controlled, dignified, and righteous, gratefully using their God-given senses as God intended, delighting appropriately in what is good and lovely.
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in [ἀσελγείαις], passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:1–5)
“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and [ἀσελγείαις], not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Romans 13:13)

The Doctrine of the Trinity

Q 6: How many persons are there in the Godhead?
Answer: There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
Since God is at the center of our faith and religion, it is vital that we believe the right things about him. If we are to have fellowship with God, we need to know who he is, even if the truth seems rather mysterious. We find in Scripture that God is a personal God and that in fact he is three persons, though he is only one God, one divine being. 

The word “substance,” used in the catechism, is traditionally used interchangeably with the word “essence” to refer the undivided divine nature (think of question 4, “what is God?”). All three persons share the full divine being, all that God is, so that they are equal in power and glory. Each person of the Trinity has all the attributes of God. 

These persons are distinct, not interchangeable. They are distinguished by their personal properties. As our larger catechism explains in its tenth question, these personal properties are that only the Father begets the Son, only the Son is begotten of the Father, and only the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and this has always been the case from eternity. Jesus is the only-begotten of the Father (John 1:14), and the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father (John 15:26) and of the Son (Gal. 4:6). From eternity, they have been with each other and loved each other (John 1:1, 17:5, 24). Furthermore, in history they play united but distinct roles in the work of salvation, as 1 Peter 1:1-2 describes, “To those who are elect exiles … according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood.”

Our Westminster standards take up and affirm the truths affirmed in the ancient creeds of the church, such as the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. We recite the Nicene Creed every week in worship, and the Athanasian Creed is worth reading as well. But here is a simple summery of the doctrine of the Trinity from J. Gresham Machen:
“The New Testament is just as much opposed as the Old Testament is to the thought that there are more Gods than one. Yet the New Testament with equal clearness teaches that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and that these three are not three aspects of the same person but three persons standing in a truly personal relationship to one another” (The Person of Jesus, 13-14).
It is into the name of this Triune God that we are baptized. We are called to serve and entrust ourselves to this Triune God. We are called to have fellowship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, with each one particularly and being drawn by each one to the other two and to their unity as one God. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

There Is Only One God

Q 5: Are there more Gods than one?
Answer: There is but one only, the living and true God.
There is only one God. The God revealed in Scripture is one God and he is God alone. This fundamental truth is asserted by the law (Deut. 6:4), the prophets (Is. 45:5-7), Christ (Mark 12:29), and the apostles (1 Cor. 8:4-6). "I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God..." (Isaiah 45:5). Both Jeremiah 10:10 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9 describe God as the living and true God, as opposed to idols which are dead and false. Unlike false gods, the one true God speaks, hears, and acts sovereignly, having created all things, doing whatever he pleases, working all things according to his purpose.

Deuteronomy 6:4 states that “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It goes on to remark on several consequences of this oneness in verses 5-9. 
"[5] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. [6] And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. [7] You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. [8] You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. [9] You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." 
First, as verse 5 teaches, God deserves wholehearted love, with nothing held back. Your devotion is not to be divided among several gods. You and I are to be singleminded, serving one God with everything we have.

Second, as verse 6 teaches, God’s word ought to be on your heart. One God means one law - one consistent and unchanging moral standard - and one gospel - one way of salvation. His word is supreme. 

Third, as verse 7 teaches, you should teach God's word to your children and speak of it and consider it throughout the whole day. It should be the foundation for your worldview, shaping your view of all of life. 

Fourth, as verses 8-9 teach, God has a sovereign claim over your personal life (hand and eyes), your family life (house), and your social and political life (the city gates). All of life is to be lived to the glory of God in accordance with his word.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

What Kind of Being Is God?

Q 4: What is God?
Answer: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
As the story goes, the Westminster Assembly came to this question as it was producing the Shorter Catechism and asked George Gillespie, a minister from Scotland, to draft an answer. Sensing his inadequacy to answer “what is God?” he suggested that they pray. In his prayer he said, “O God, thou art a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” This part of the prayer was quickly recorded by another member of the assembly and proposed as the answer to the question! While the story may or might not be true, we should approach the study of God with a similar attitude of reverence and worship. 

God has revealed himself to man, so that we are not in the dark about his existence or nature. Our knowledge of him, when based upon his revelation of himself, is limited but true. He has revealed himself in his creation (Rom. 1:19-20) and in his word, which we have in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. He reveals that he is a Spirit (John 4:24), which means he does not have a body. Indeed, he is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, and these attributes apply to his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. That is, his being is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. His wisdom is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. His power is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable. And so forth. Consider passages like Psalms 90:1-4, 135:5-6, 136, and 139:7-12.

God is not limited by time or space. Neither is God foolish, weak, common, unjust, miserly, or fickle. Now our experience can at times provoke us to feel that God is weak, unjust, miserly, etc. But we must hold fast to his word and believe that God is who he says he is in the midst of trials. One way that our faith is strengthened is when we recount the past deeds of the Lord and give thanks. Consider what he has done for you. Consider what you have received from him. Consider what he has done for his people in the past. Consider what he has done in your life - particularly in taking pity on you when you were under the condemnation of sin.
“It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
and rescued us from our foes,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.”
(Psalm 136:23–26)

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Faith and Life

Q 3: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
Answer: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man. 
This answer is like the table of contents for the rest of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Questions 4-38 will describe what man is to believe concerning God and questions 39-107 will describe what duty God requires of man. These two parts can be describes as faith and life, doctrine and duty, indicative and imperative. As Paul said to Timothy, the Bible is given both for teaching and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Both are essential to a proper understanding of Christianity and to the purposes of God in giving us the Bible. And central to both doctrine and duty is God - through God’s word we learn to know God and God’s will for us.

The Bible is God’s revelation of his nature, purposes, works, and will. He reveals who he is, what he has done, what he will do, and what he would have us do. Why? So that we can know him and be his people. As we saw in last week’s question, the Bible is given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy God forever. The Bible is the “book of the covenant” (Exodus 24:7), according to which God reveals and commits himself to his people as their God and Savior and we entrust and commit ourselves to him as his people.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

What is the Bible?

Continuing in our study of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we come to doctrine of Scripture. 

Q 2: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? 
Answer: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him. 
Not only has God purposefully created and designed us for the end of glorifying and enjoying him, but he has also told us how to do so. God has not left us to guess what glorifies him. He has not left us to stumble around in the dark. Rather, he has revealed his will for us, a rule to direct us unto his glory and our delight. 

This rule is the word of God. This word came to his people in various ways, both written and spoken. But since revelation culminated with Christ and his apostles (Heb. 1:1-2), God’s word is now is found only and wholly in the written word of God, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. This is why the answer says the word of God is “contained in the Scriptures.” This does not mean that only some of Scripture is God’s word.  It is contained in Scripture, not in the way that an egg contains a yoke, but in the way that the weekly update I send out to my church is contained in an email (the email is my weekly update, and all my weekly update is in that email). The Larger Catechism makes this clear by saying, “The holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.”

We find this truth clearly taught in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. Holy Scripture is God’s word, and because of this it has supreme authority. Because it is now the only form of special revelation given to us, it is necessary for knowledge of salvation. Because the whole counsel of God concerning doctrine and duty is given in Scripture, it is a sufficient rule of faith and life. Because God gave it to direct us, those things in it which are necessary for salvation are clear enough that even “the simple” may understand them (Ps. 119:130).

Thursday, January 21, 2021

What Were You Designed to Do?

Today I am beginning a series of posts based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This catechism is one of the doctrinal standards of our church and has been used for centuries by Presbyterians, Puritans, and others to give instruction in the Christian faith. I will still post other things as well, but you can count on a regular post from me on the Shorter Catechism for a while (there are 107 questions). Here is the first, and most famous, question of the Shorter Catechism: 
Q 1: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
First we need to appreciate that man has an end (that is, a purpose or goal). In a consistent evolutionary worldview, man has no intended end and has no design except that he is accidentally fitted for mere survival. We have no purpose in this worldview so we are left to determine our own identity and purpose out of nothing by mere choice.

But through a good reading of nature and especially through the word of God, we find that we were made by God with purpose and design. We were designed to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Everything else we were designed to do serves this chief end. 

First, "to glorify God," as his image, filling the earth with his glory as we reflect and represent him. We glorify him in worship (Mal. 1:6-8, 11) and by serving him in all of life. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31). 

Second, "to enjoy him," gratefully receiving his gifts and favor, communing with him, delighting in him, his blessings, and his image in one another. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden not only to serve God, but also to enjoy his fellowship and favor. Psalm 16 meditates on this reality and culminates by saying to God, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

And this verse also mentions the third point in our catechism answer: "for ever." We were not created as cheaply made toys, to be discarded after a time. We were designed to fulfill this end forever. And through Jesus Christ, God has restored us to our original end and given us an eternal life of fellowship with God unto the praise of his glorious grace.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Call of Jeremiah and the Mission of the Church

"And the LORD said to me,
'Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.'" 
(Jeremiah 1:9–10)

Two Sundays ago I began preaching through the book of Jeremiah. My first sermon in the series was on Jeremiah 1. You can read the chapter here. It tells of how God called Jeremiah to prophetic ministry. You and I are not Jeremiah, so how should we apply what God says in this chapter? Here are two applications. 

1. God sent the prophets to speak and write his word, so we should receive Jeremiah's words as God's.

The first point of this passage is that Jeremiah’s message did not come from Jeremiah. God put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth (1:9). What he wrote was the word of the Lord (1:4). This is why Hebrews 10, in quoting Jeremiah, says that the Holy Spirit said these words. Therefore it did not matter that Jeremiah was youthful and inexperienced (1:6). He would not be speaking from mere experience. His words, like the rest of Scripture, would be God’s message to his people. 

This is relevant because Jeremiah’s ministry continues today. We still have his words. And the authority behind these words remains divine authority. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2). It continues to be taught by them through their written words. Just as God set Jeremiah over the nations to pluck up and break down, to build and to plant, so the words Jeremiah wrote continue to have this authority and effectiveness. Scripture remains powerful and profitable for tearing down and building up. 

God’s word shall not fail. God watches over his word and his enemies shall not prevail against it. God's word is like "a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls" (1:18). God’s word is powerful to tear down strongholds and to build up his kingdom. He shall fulfill his promises and threats. 

We learn from the call of Jeremiah that God is long-suffering with his people, giving them many opportunities to repent and be saved, giving them access to his word. Though they had walked in wickedness under Manasseh and Amon, yet God gave them a good reforming king (Josiah), a good high priest who found the law (Hilkiah), and good prophets like Jeremiah who would urge them to repentance and faithfulness. Yet many of the Jews of that day did not make use of these privileges and gifts. May we not neglect God’s provisions! Like infants who long for milk, thirst for the word of God. 

As God's word, we should receive the word of the prophets with reverence and faith. As the vision of the almond tree showed Jeremiah, God is watching over his threats and promises to perform them (the almond tree was named in Hebrew for being “watchful” since it bloomed earlier than the other trees). Therefore act upon them, turning at the threats and embracing the promises of salvation with confidence. God’s threats are not idle threats. As the vision of the boiling pot communicates, if his people forsake him, he will let loose disaster upon them.

Be willing to be corrected and reformed by Scripture. God's word is designed to destroy and build. It will correct your sins and build you up in comfort and holiness. This is God’s guidance for your good, to be believed and obeyed. Submit to his chastisement, and you will grow and be established. Resist his correction, and you will be broken.

2. God sends his church to stand upon and proclaim this word, so we should do so with confidence. 

Jeremiah 1 has much in common in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. What is said about Jeremiah is true of the church to the extent that the church faithfully proclaims the message of Scripture. God gives the church a mission to pluck up and to plant, and to do this he gives it his word and presence.

1. The Lord equips the church with his word. 

He calls ministers of the word to preach and teach it (Eph. 4). Though preachers are not infallible like the prophets, yet to the extent that they faithfully proclaim Scripture, they should preach with equal confidence and power and authority. Likewise, God desires that his word would dwell in the hearts and mouths of his people, that they might teach one another and witness to the world (Col. 3:16, 4:6). God does not make all of us prophets, but to the extent that we study and communicate the message of scripture, to that extent we have God’s words in our mouths. 

The word of God is the sword of the spirit (Eph. 6), a spiritual weapon (2 Cor. 10:4-6), by which we wage war against the domain of darkness. Like Jeremiah, the church is called to use Scripture to break down and build up the church and the nations. It does not do so by carnal weapons - not by rioting and revolutions - but by the ministry of the word. Scripture is effective to restrain and destroy the dominion of sin and to plant and build up the kingdom of God. It deconstructs and reconstructs. 

John Calvin said of the task of preachers of God’s word: 

“That is, by the word of God, whose stewards they have become, let them boldly dare to do all and to compel all this world’s glory, grandeur and power to obey and submit to the divine majesty. Through this same word let them have command over everyone. Let them build up Christ’s house and subvert Satan’s kingdom. Let them feed the sheep and kill the wolves, guide by their instruction and exhortation those who are teachable, and constrain and punish the rebellious and the obdurate. Let them bind and loose, thunder and cast their bolts - but all by the word of God.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 727)

2. The Lord equips the church with his presence. 

The church becomes "a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls" (1:18) when it is faithful to Scripture. It looses its strength and power when it ceases to faithfully proclaim Scripture. God told Jeremiah, "Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them" (1:17). If Jeremiah was dismayed and shrunk back from his duty, God would give him reason to be dismayed. Likewise, if the church shrinks back from professing and proclaiming God's word, God will give it reason to fear. Do not back away from maintaining God’s truth. God’s word is the church’s glory and weapon. Like Jeremiah, the church is not impressive on its own. But with the words of God in its mouth, it can be confident. 

The church, like Jeremiah, will suffer persecution. “They will fight against you” (1:19). Jesus reminded his disciples that they would be persecuted just like the prophets who were before them (Matt. 5:11-12). Jesus calls people to repentance, and this message, even when lovingly and affectionately communicated (as Jeremiah and Jesus communicated it), is still taken as a dangerous threat by unbelievers. 

Yet, as he was with Jeremiah, God will be with his people. He will deliver you as you stand by his word. “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you” (1:19). This is just as Jesus said at the end of Matthew, that he will be with us to the end of the age, enabling us to fulfill the mission he gave us. 

Therefore, do not be dismayed by those who show hostility. Do not back away from the message Scripture has given us. Do not add to or take away from God’s word. What he has given us is solid, so do not dilute it. The church is commissioned to proclaim and teach God's word, not its own ideas. You can personally give advice that goes beyond what Scripture says, but don’t say “God says” or “the Bible says” unless God has taught it in Scripture, explicitly or implicitly. 

Encourage and pray for preachers and evangelists to boldly and publicly proclaim God's word. And do your part in promoting this message of Scripture in the world. Let the word of God dwell among you richly, talking about it, encouraging one another with it, singing hymns and psalms. Build up the church as a faithful witness to the word by filling the church with the word. Do not merely retreat to a faithful hold out, but be an active participant in maintaining the faithfulness of the visible church of Christ.

Even as you apply Scripture to yourself to destroy and build up, so apply Scripture to the nations as well. The people of God teach, model, and apply God's word to the nations, each person doing so according to their calling and place in life. Together, we are engaged in a work of reconstruction, with the word of God as our tool.

Conclusion 

You may find reason to be discouraged as you behold dangers confronting our country and the church in our country. Judgment is well deserved. God’s word is not idle. It may be that his hand of chastisement and judgment will even more evident in 2021 than in 2020. But what should we do? Should we hide? Should we lay around idle or paralyzed? No, we should remember Jeremiah 1:17. After God proclaims coming judgement he says to Jeremiah, “But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.” Let us not be afraid but let us get to work, faithfully communicating God’s word and faithfully receiving and practicing it ourselves.