Results tagged “Obedience” from Reformation21 Blog

A Historic Framework for Social Responsibility

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How shall the church think about social issues of race, justice and power? It is increasingly popular for these issues to be framed and discussed in the church using the categories of social justice and racial privilege as defined by the social sciences. In secular academic settings such categories find their genesis in and are tethered to Marxist systems of analysis. These systems emphasize the struggle between oppressed and oppressor. Marxist frameworks may have surface resonances with Biblical concerns for justice, equality and the poor. However, these frameworks emphasize the ongoing Hegelian struggle of thesis and antithesis without a clear pathway for resolution. Therefore, the insights gained from such analyses are not placed within a framework adequate to provide a healthy response to the social problems posed.

Rather than relying--almost exclusively in certain sectors of the church--on categories that find their genesis in systems hostile to orthodox Christianity, the church should rediscover the corrective guidance of its own tradition and draw upon its creedal and confessional resources. One such resource is the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), a document famous for its exposition of the moral law of God. The WLC offers a paradigm for social responsibility, a framework for robust ethical reasoning, and points toward the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A Paradigm for Social Responsibility

We don't need to rely on Marxist paradigms to teach us about social responsibility. The WLC's rules for interpreting the moral law make it clear that we are, in fact, our brother's keeper. WLC 99 states that "what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places to endeavor that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places." Similarly, rule eight sates "what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them; and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them."

The WLC does not envision a Christian unconcerned with the moral obligations of their neighbor. Loving your neighbor as yourself includes helping them obey God. In the WLC's exposition of the Ten Commandments, this concern extends to the physical welfare of our neighbors too (see WLC 141-142). Pietistic isolation is not an option. As human beings we are knit together in social relationships which incur moral obligation.

However, the WLC pushes past the simplistic collectivism of Marxist paradigms which posit blanket responsibility or victimization in collectives of race, class and gender. Accordingly, moral guilt or a claim to justice will accrue to these same collectives. The result is a powerful, yet vague and ultimately unhelpful, angst. By contrast the WLC goes further, providing a framework that has the capacity to yield particular pathways for repentance, obedience and advocacy. The WLC teaches that our moral obligations will also be informed by our places and our callings.

On the one hand this is freeing. The single mother working two low-wage earning jobs does share the same kind of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO for her neighbors, but she does not share the same degree of moral responsibility as the wealthy CEO. On the other hand, it is morally challenging. True righteousness is measured by deeds not by angst. Marxist paradigms that call for awareness, angst and protest allow us to rest content with awareness, angst and protest. The WLC pushes further, calling for actual righteous deeds to be done according to your place and calling. When we stand before God we shall not be judged for how we felt, but for what we have done. Therefore, we need theories of social responsibility that provide particular guidance for obedience.

A Framework for Robust Ethical Reasoning

Pastors and historians alike can tell you that evil deeds are often justified through painfully atomistic readings of Scripture. Our sinful hearts are prone to suppress obvious moral implications from Biblical texts. Jesus summarized the ten commandments with two great laws of love. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind soul and strength. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus reasons even as he appeals to the heart.

The WLC follows Jesus and embraces a well-reasoned use of the law of God. Good and necessary inferences are drawn from the commandments, always with a view to the whole counsel of Scripture: "where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded: so, where a promise is annexed, the contrary threatening is included; and, where a threatening is annexed, the contrary promise is included." The WLC encourages a robust moral reasoning intended to give expression to the spirit of the law, lest our sinful hearts rest content with the letter of the law. Both the WLC's exposition of the commandments and the type of moral reasoning it encourages offer resources to fashion a Biblical response to issues of race, justice and power.

The Hope of the Gospel

The WLC makes it clear that the moral law of God binds all people at all times (WLC 91-93). It is the ethical standard that defines what Christians labor for in the public square as much as in the home. For example, the WLC reminds us that we are not to exercise "undue silence in a just cause" (WLC 145). We should "endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others" (WLC 142). In these matters the moral law of God will be our guide.

And yet, the WLC reminds us that ethics and morality are not social goods with which we can rest content. For love of God and neighbor we pursue earthly righteousness. But we accept that "none is righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10). Therefore, there is no lasting hope without Christ. The law that guides our vision for justice will, if handled rightly, at the very same time convict us of our inability to keep it. For the regenerate this means that the law will "show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule to their obedience" (WLC 97). Here we see that the law moves us to worship and adore Christ when we realize that he kept it for us when we could not and bore its curse in our place. The WLC would have the law move our hearts to love Christ, and from that place of love to obey Christ.

For the unregenerate, the moral law is of use "to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ" (WLC 96). The law serves salvation by driving the unregenerate to Christ. We can never rest content with social transformation or the alleviation of earthly suffering. We will always be burdened to see spiritual transformation and the alleviation of eternal suffering. This is not to deny the God glorifying, neighbor loving value of alleviating temporal suffering. It is simply to remember that temporal suffering is temporal. Of course, to lean on the temporality of suffering as an excuse to ignore our neighbor's pain is wrong. But to forget that our neighbor faces eternal suffering is equally heartless, and with even greater consequences.

This understanding of the usefulness of the law for the unregenerate will inform how we exercise co-belligerence as Christians. Augustine famously coined the phrase City of Man to describe that realm of civil society where Christians labor with unbelievers for the common good. But, those with whom we labor in matters of social concern must take us as we are. We cannot make common cause with those who would demand we lay down the cross of Christ in order take up another cause. We cannot be silenced, for we must save both ourselves and our hearers.

Conclusion

In the spirit of avoiding what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery," just because the Westminster Larger Catechism is old (1648) does not mean it is old-fashioned. It remains relevant today. Nor should we presume that because it was not heeded in earlier days that it did not speak clearly enough to be heard. Hearing was not the problem, heeding was. Chad Van Dixhoorn has noted that in the late 18th century the American Presbyterian church removed the word "depopulations" from the WLC's exposition of the eighth commandment. This ban "was embarrassing given the ongoing European settlement of territory once belonging to native Americans." One might wonder whether 19th century Presbyterians were not similarly embarrassed by the prohibitions against manstealing, defrauding one's neighbor and enriching oneself unjustly.

The WLC is not our only Biblical resource to address concerns over race, justice and power, but it is an important one. Our forebears seemed to have heard the WLC without heading it in these areas. We may find that tomorrow's embarrassment is not that we deleted a word from the WLC because it made us uncomfortable, but that we never bothered to read it seriously in the first place.

   

1. The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

2. Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), xxii.

Cruciform Suffering

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The fact that the incarnate Son of God "learned obedience" (Heb. 5:8) is an essential aspect of Jesus' human nature and so is indispensable to sound Christology and soteriology. Apart from the cross itself, the clearest example we have of this "learning" is probably found in the Synoptic accounts of our Lord's prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). While Jesus' obedience is of unparalleled import for our justification, his example of submitting to his Father's will and so learning obedience through suffering is also a unique model for our sanctification, the goal of which is nothing less than Christ-conformity.

The Gospel accounts of this prayer show Jesus' desire to avoid the cup of the Father's wrath against sin, but only if that can be done in accord with his Father's will. While this raises some interesting theological questions, the Synoptics give more attention to the subjective or experiential facet of Jesus' prayer. Similarly, our personal appropriation of the text merits serious reflection, not least because submitting one's will to God's when that means accepting suffering involves nothing less than putting to death the remnants of the old man (Mark 8:34-35).

Although Jesus is the supreme example of learning obedience through suffering, the Gospel accounts do not provide a detailed analysis of how this learning took place. For that reason, and because the Old Testament figure of Job exhibits both similarities and differences with respect to Jesus' example, we turn first to the Book of Job before returning to the Gospels (and to the gospel) in order to reflect on how we might imitate Christ in the way that he learned obedience.

Job is clearly a dynamic character in the book that bears his name. At the beginning and end of his suffering, Job accepted the mysterious providence of his trial, trusting firmly in God's wisdom and justice. The narrator affirms twice that at the outset of his trials Job's responses to his suffering were without sin (1:21; 2:10), and at the end of the book Job not only repents of his flawed interpretation of his suffering (and of God), but even intercedes on behalf of his friends. In doing so he demonstrates restored and even strengthened confidence in God's justice, mercy, and goodness.

But what of the bulk of the book of Job, sandwiched between the opening and closing narratives? After an unspecified period of suffering in which he did not draw into question God's goodness and justice and on the contrary affirmed them, Job eventually changes and utters a lengthy curse in chapter three. Who can doubt that over time Job's suffering, compounded by the fear that God had become his enemy (3:23), tore relentlessly at his faith? Eventually his faith wavered, and the curse-lament of Job 3 demonstrates profound differences when compared to Job's beliefs and attitudes in chapter 2. In chapter 3, Job feels that it would have been better for him not to have existed, and he draws into question God's wisdom and goodness as well as the usefulness of such immense suffering in his life. Job expresses these sentiments at several later points in the book prior to God's theophanic arrival (16:7-14; 23:1-7; 30:20-23), and his discourse culminates in a bold challenge for God to answer his accusations (31:35-37).

The differences between Job's lament (which the book does not condone) and those we find in the psalms (e.g., Pss 10; 22) are significant. Hartley notes that Job voices no affirmation of trust nor any vow to praise God after his deliverance, and omits any review of God's faithful character and past intervention on his behalf ("From Lament to Oath," 89-91). As of chapter 31 Job "is not there yet," and God's two speeches in chapters 38-42 are necessary to convey the knowledge Job needs to understand and even profit from his extreme suffering. God's words to Job affirm divine justice over against Job's accusations and highlight Job's incomplete understanding of creation and providence. God draws Job's attention to the "counsel" that Job's words have darkened in 38:2 (referring to God's governance of the world), the tension between Job's desire to affirm his righteousness over against God's in 40:8, and the reality that divine justice (at least sometimes) is brought about gradually (38:12-15). In response to this wisdom instruction, Job "repents," which in this context means that he recognizes his epistemological limitations, rejects his earlier view of God's culpable involvement in his suffering, and accepts God's self-description as good, just, and beyond his comprehension. Amazingly, this takes place before his suffering has ended.

Let's come back now to the double significance of Jesus' obedient suffering, especially as seen through the lens of his prayer in Gethsemane. On the one hand, because of our Lord's perfect obedience, obeying to the point of death on a cross, our sins are atoned for and his perfect righteousness is ours. On the other, he calls us to suffer with him and to follow Him while bearing our cross. One could almost say that these two poles constitute Christianity's unique approach to suffering (which we can define as physical, emotional, and/or spiritual pain that is not demonstrably sent as discipline for our sin). Living on this side of the cross and the empty tomb, especially when seen against the immediate backdrop of Gethsemane, our understanding of why God sends suffering into the lives of His children is significantly greater than what Job enjoyed. We see the cross followed by the resurrection as the grounds of our justification, we have received the Holy Spirit who testifies to the certainty of our eschatological adoption (Rom 8:15-17), and we await with impatience the new heavens and the new earth, "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet 3:13). These redemptive-historical advances demonstrate God's righteousness and grace, and address with brilliant clarity the questions that plagued Job: Where is God's justice? How can the just suffer? Why must the just suffer? Yet the difficulty of Christian suffering remains. Although the goal is nothing less than Christ-conformity, this conformity is inherently cruciformity.

As we know from experience, doubts about God's goodness or the strong conviction that another set of circumstances would better promote our Christ-conformity (or both!) are only too quick to arise in our hearts when we are faced with suffering. Before the final stage of his suffering, Jesus sinlessly petitioned his Father to remove the cup from him if it were possible, always adding that the Father's will was, in the end, also his. Thus even before the response to his prayer was clear, Jesus was ready to accept the cup from his Father's hand. His obedience was neither a perfunctory acquiescence nor something born of compulsion, but rather a sincere (if trembling) embracing of the Father's will.

Depending on our state of heart and mind, the fact that God's fatherly providence is not arbitrary can be either a source of temptation to doubt his goodness (God forbid!) or the soil in which patience, humility, and even joyful optimism can grow. Not only is conformity to Christ's death inseparable from conformity to His resurrection (what Calvin called our "true destiny," on Matt. 2:23, CDCL 45), but offering ourselves to God entails "a real gladness which arises from the love we have for Him to whom our self-offering is made" (Calvin, on Deut 7:7-10, CDCL 34). A positive response to suffering requires that we understand that since God's power and wisdom are both perfect and without limit, our current circumstances are the best way for God to develop our conformity to the image of His Son. We must remind ourselves that of all possible paths, at this moment this trial is what our heavenly Father wills for us. Even in the most extreme suffering, victory in and over suffering is guaranteed by (and cannot be separated from the experience of) the love of Him who "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all" (Rom 8:39). Suffering believers can therefore know, with utmost certainty, that their heavenly Father is using their present, very unpleasant circumstances to conform them to the image of his Son and to teach them the profound power and glory of his love.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says; "learn obedience as I learned it." Why not another way, any other way? Scripture's answer is that only such a trial, one that cannot be understood here and now, creates a situation in which we can submit our wisdom and our will to God's ("if it be possible . . . yet not my will. . . "). In so doing we will learn that God can be trusted, loved, and honored through a trial which may never be understood this side of glory. Though God's ways are often beyond our understanding, in our suffering we can be certain that though this trial our heavenly Father is lovingly, justly, and wisely conforming us to the death and the resurrection of His Son. "Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).


Daniel Timmer is the Professor of Old Testament at the Faculté de théologie évangélique (Acadia) in Montreal.

"In a few words, but with great sublimity, Moses here commends the faith of Noah." Thus comments Calvin on Scripture's record that "Noah... did all that God commanded him" (Gen. 6.22). The terseness with which Scripture registers Noah's obedience is remarkable in light of the proportions of that obedience; what Noah "did" was devote "more than a hundred years" of his life to building a "triple story" boat of sufficient size to house and preserve his own family as well as select pairs of birds, mammals, creepers, and crawlers, from a flood of world-wide extent.

Interestingly, Calvin finds principally a commendation of Noah's faith, rather than his labors per se, in Scripture's record of Noah's accomplishments. Obedience of the kind exercised by Noah necessarily rests on a firm foundation of confidence that God will be true to his promise of both pending judgment and salvation. "Whatsoever... was worthy of praise in this holy man... sprung from this fountain." The nature of Noah's faith requires greater detail, but first it's worth noting the obstacles Noah would have encountered in his ark-building endeavors, and so to be impressed by how extraordinary Noah's faith and the obedience stemming from it actually were.

Calvin identifies five obstacles in particular. There was, first of all, the sheer enormity of the task itself. "The prodigious size of the [proposed] ark might have overwhelmed all his senses, so as to prevent him from raising a finger to begin the work." Noah, in other words, might have balked from the job entrusted to him upon considering "the multitude of trees to be felled, ...the great labor of conveying them, and the difficulty of joining them to together." The time scale for this building project was also rather intimidating: "the holy man was required to be engaged more than a hundred years in most troublesome labor."

There was, secondly, the snickers and insults of Noah's peers to deter him from his work. Noah's contemporaries can hardly have failed to have taken him to task for his "promising himself an exclusive deliverance" from the wrath to come. Calvin reckons that the "natural ferocity" of Noah's contemporaries may have been compounded by concerns on their part regarding the depletion of natural resources resulting from Noah's doings: "Noah, by felling trees on all sides, was making the earth bare, and defrauding them of various advantages." No doubt some evangelicals today would be pleased to think that Noah's iniquitous peers constituted the world's first tree-huggers, but Calvin appears to suppose that Noah's contemporaries wished to exploit earth's riches for their own (sinful) purposes, not to preserve them as such, and for that reason (rather than environmental concerns) took offense at Noah's apparent hoarding of the same.

There was, thirdly, the ironic truth that God commanded Noah to reserve "a two years' store" of food for both human and non-human ticket-holders for the ark after effectively calling him to trade in his farming career for that of a ship-builder. Noah was "disengaged from agriculture in order to build the ark," a fact which necessarily rendered difficult "the providing of food for [the] animals." Indeed, Noah might "have suspected that God was mocking him" on this score.

There was, fourthly, the difficulty involved in gathering all the wild animals together as such -- "as if, indeed, he had all the beasts of the forest at his command, or was able to tame them; so that, in his keeping, wolves might dwell with lambs, tigers with hares, lions with oxen." A background in zoo-keeping might have proved beneficial in this regard; there's little evidence to suggest Noah had one.

Fifthly, and most substantially, there was the rather dire reality of actually entering the ark once it was complete and thus voluntarily depriving himself "of air and vital spirit." Calvin likens Noah's entrance into the ark to a descent "into the grave." His abhorrence at the thought of what it was like to actually inhabit the ark is informed by attention to its relatively limited dimensions, its lack of translucent windows, the presence of animals, and the apparent lack of a latrine for either human or animal use. "The smell of dung alone, pent up as it was in a closely filled place, might, at the expiration of three days, have stifled all the living creatures in the ark." The repulsion thus expressed by Calvin at the thought of being in the ark may reveal more about his own psyche (perhaps betraying degrees of claustrophobia, scotophobia, and/or scatophobia?) than anything else.

Calvin discovers several practical exhortations for believers in the narrative of Noah's obedience, particularly so with reference to the obstacles that Noah actually faced in fulfilling God's instructions to him. So, for instance, we are reminded by Noah that we must set our sights firmly on our heavenly inheritance -- the eternal fellowship with the Triune God and other believers that awaits us in the world to come -- if we are to persevere in obedience in this world. Calvin feels quite certain that Noah kept heaven in his sights, rather than temporal life beyond the flood, as he built the ark, because -- quite frankly -- the temporal life he (re)inherited after the flood was hardly worth the bother of building the ark. "Better to die a hundred deaths, than to undertake a work so laborious, unless he had looked to something higher than the present life."

On this score, however, Calvin is keen to emphasize that Noah's heavenly inheritance in no way depended upon his obedience in that particular task assigned to him on earth. Noah, like Enoch before him in Gen. 5, was judged righteous on the basis of the coming Seed's right-doing before he embarked on any right-doing, or in this case ark-building, of his own, a point Calvin finds reflected in the first words said about Noah in Gen. 6.5: "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." Noah built an ark in keeping with God's instructions because he had already been accepted by God and given the extraordinary gift of a heavenly inheritance, not in order to secure that acceptance or heavenly inheritance.

Another lesson we learn from Noah is the importance of regularly hearing and clinging to God's promises; indeed, it was God's promises -- both those of pending judgment and those of salvation through the ark -- that fueled Noah's faith, which faith in turn fueled his extraordinary obedience. "Let us therefore know, that the promises of God alone are they which quicken us, and inspire each of our members with vigour to yield obedience to God; but that without these promises, we not only lie torpid in indolence, but are almost lifeless, so that neither hands nor feet can do their duty. And hence, as often as we become languid, or more remiss than we ought to be, in good works, let the promises of God recur to us, to correct our tardiness."

In sum, then, "a remarkable example... of obedience is here described to us." But a proper learning from Noah's example will not lead us immediately to ark-building or any other act of supposed obedience which God solicits from us. A proper learning from Noah's example will lead us to set our sights on that eternal fellowship with God secured for us by the Seed that crushed the Serpent's head, and to have regular recourse to God's promises, which should inspire faith within us, and so ultimately obedience to whatever ordinary or extraordinary (and potentially even smelly) task God requires of us.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"Let the praises of God's mercy"

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8 7. 8 7. D (Dim Ond Iesu)
Let the praises of God's mercy
My poor heart and tongue employ;
Let each thought of grace and justice
Fill this soul with boundless joy.
Let me think on Christ my Saviour,
Let me dwell on his great love;
Let me serve with all my being
Till I see his face above.

Having known such great forgiveness,
And deliverance from sin's sway,
May the Spirit always teach me
To each truthful word obey.
Oh forgive me for transgression;
Grant me grace to do your will;
Keep my soul and flesh from sinning,
Every part with goodness fill.

Fill my mind with truth unchanging,
And my heart with holy fire;
Give me strength to work with gladness,
And with praise my lips inspire.
Let the Saviour be my pattern,
God the Spirit be my light;
God the Father, my protector;
And God's service my delight.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

Of sounds and silence

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Like many, you may be appalled at how often the Lord Jesus issues a command to those whom he has healed to keep silent about what has taken place and the command is immediately not just ignored but thoroughly trampled upon.

"Horrors!" we cry, "Didn't they hear him? Weren't they listening when he told them not to say anything? If Jesus said that to me, I should be very certain to obey him."

Of course you would, friend, because it accords entirely with your current practice. You are very happy to say nothing about the Lord Christ. The problem is, of course, that the times have changed, and the Lord Jesus has given a command to you, not to keep silent, but to make public his person and his work, to declare the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

Jesus commanded the healed men and women to something that was, in a sense, unnatural. They had just received a blessing of overwhelming magnitude, the crying need of their lives had just been addressed. Without entering into our Lord's reasons for the command, we should at least be able to understand why they disobeyed, even if we accept that their disobedience was inexcusable.

Our command is to something that ought to be eminently natural. The problem is that it is not always palatable. We have received an incalculable blessing. We have passed from death to life, from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from deafness to hearing, from misery to joy, from condemnation to justification, and we are invited and instructed to spread abroad the wonders of God's grace in Christ.

Didn't we hear him? Weren't we listening when he told us to speak?

Which is the greater act of disobedience?