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.